Vision Culture

Vision Culture

Weiner’s erotic mediation: Bill Clinton’s sex vs Anthony Weiner’s sexting

Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin. Weiner (2016). Edgeline Films.

Weiner (2016) was one of the more popular documentaries that screened at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. I managed to catch it last week.

Directed by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman, the film documents the New York City mayoral campaign of disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner. We follow, in a “fly on the wall” style, the once up and coming star Democrat as he tries to rehabilitate his political career following the sexting scandal that saw him resign from Congress. We observe him assemble a campaign team, raise funds, and spruik himself at NYC marches, all the while assisted and supported by his wife, well-regarded political adviser (and celebrity in her own right) Huma Abedin.

Everything appears to be going well for Weiner, who is depicted by the filmmakers as a wildly charismatic (if slightly sociopathic) character, when he once again becomes embroiled in a social media sex scandal involving explicit images and text messages. His popularity takes a massive hit and his campaign never recovers.

He becomes increasingly irritated. He appears unnecessarily aggressive in TV interviews, and at one point has an extended stoush in a bakery with a member of the public. The end result: less than 5% of New York City vote for him in the election.

In a computational age in which social media is achieving increasing significance, and the instant transmission of information is now at the fingertips of most people in the Western world, the “looseness” of Weiner’s behaviour stands out.

Surely a contemporary politician, for whom public image and reputation are so critical, would be more careful about what images he or she uploads to the Internet and to whom he or she sends them? Given the serial nature of Weiner’s “transgressions,” it would be easy for the filmmakers to call on pop psychological notions regarding self-destructive and addictive behaviour; thankfully, they never do so.

The film in itself is good if unspectacular. It fits comfortably into the rich twentieth century American tradition of “rise and fall” narratives: Sister Carrie (1900), The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), The Great Gatsby (1925).

It is, however, much more provocative as a study of the effects of media technologies on a human being-in-the-world. It consciously frames itself as a film about media from its beginning, opening with a quote from Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan from Understanding Media (1964) that seems particularly apt: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.”

At one point in the film, a comparison with the Clinton-Lewinski sex scandal is made.

How do the two cases compare?

Both involve sensational scandals exploited by the mass media. Both involve well known, charismatic, “happily-married” Democrat politicians becoming involved in “morally dubious” situations – especially given the puritanical traditions and social conservatism of many in the US.

Obviously there is a difference in terms of the scale as well as the professional position. Clinton was President, Weiner just a Congressman and mayoral candidate. Clinton was in his second (and thus final) term of the Presidency, Weiner had barely got going on his promising career.

And yet there was a major difference in the way both men were viewed by the public that, I would suggest, relates to broader considerations regarding the way we continue to think about the mediation of experience in general, and that taps into age old phobias regarding mediating technologies.

In the case of Clinton, there was never any indication that people regarded his affair as fundamentally wrong. People were more concerned with the fact he lied about it than with the content of the affair itself, and, apart from the expected moral outrage of his political opponents, there was a general sense amongst the public that Clinton was, after all, a man, and that, to quote John Wayne, the voice of America, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

The popular reaction to Weiner’s sexting was much more vehement than the reaction to Clinton’s sex. Weiner, as we see in the film, was frequently labelled “abnormal,” a “pervert,” and an “addict” in the popular media. Clinton’s direct sexual encounter was perceived as being somehow more manly or noble – more “natural” – whereas Weiner’s mediated erotic acts were regarded as essentially perverse.

This is in part due to the exhibitionistic nature of Weiner’s acts, but this is as much a product of the possibilities embedded in (and generated by) new media as it is any indication of the essential perversity of Weiner himself.

Given that Clinton engaged in an actual erotic act, and that Weiner’s transgressions were only virtual, this response of disgusted outrage at Weiner but a kind of blokey nudge-nudge accompanied by a scolding finger in the case of Clinton seems to reveal something more fundamental about the way we continue to be disturbed by the deferral of life, information, and pleasure enabled by media technologies.

Media (plural of “medium”), as McLuhan pointed out, allow us to defer the immediacy of experience away from the here and now, to the elsewhere and later – creating an information archive in the process that can come back and haunt us, as Weiner well knows – and mediating technologies, from writing to computers, have, therefore, always contained a spectral dimension. Eugene Thacker describes this as “dark media” in his eponymous essay – media have always also (and first) been the tools of the sorcerer.

It is thus no surprise that humans have always mistrusted mediating technologies (even as we use these technologies on a daily basis). Plato expressed this distrust as far back as the fourth century BCE, when, in the [Phaedrus](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaedrus_(dialogue), Socrates considered writing’s deferral of the here and now as evidence of its insidious deceptiveness.

At the same time, media, in allowing us to transcend time and space, and, in this way, to eschew death – I can appear in these words in a thousand years – reminds us of the inevitability of death. Like all prostheses, media technologies point back towards the fact of death through their very transcendence of death. Every media artefact is, thus, a kind of veiled momento mori.

This anxiety regarding the spectral ability of media makes sense of the public’s reaction to Weiner’s sexting compared with Clinton’s sex, even if this anxiety is often coupled with its inverse ecstasy, as in the case of the Steve Jobs cult.

The shift from the Clinton to the Weiner scandal marks the shift from the age of televisual media dominance to the age of computational media. The lightning speed of computation, the appearance of control it offers each user, and its now wireless operations serve to increase our anxiety.

This ambiguous status is epitomised by philosopher Martin Heidegger’s suggestion that we don’t speak language, language speaks us. Are we users of media? Or, as evident in the reshaping of our moral and ethical proclivities discussed above, are we being used by media?