In the October 1 2012 edition of TIME magazine, James Poniewozik wrote an incisive piece of journalism on the imminent US presidential election – more precisely on Mitt Romney’s aspirations and the occasion of his gaffe about “the 47%” although Poniewozik concentrates on a different, to my mind, more telling aspect of the donor banquet where this happened.

As many people will know Romney’s comments were recorded, in secret, on a hidden video camera and his cynical remark that 47% of Americans pay no income tax and depend on government for their survival – a cardinal sin that smacks of socialism to any red-blooded Republican – was quickly disseminated through the media provoking suitable condemnation from some quarters and predictable approval from others.

Poniewozik, however, focuses on an entirely different aspect of the recording. In his words: “Me, I couldn’t stop looking at the waiters.” One might wonder why. Was the object of this recording not Mitt “super-wealthy” Romney and those who had bought a place at the banquet table at $50 000 a meal? That is what most people would have us believe and they would be “right” of course.

But what such a standard view would overlook and what Poniewozik highlights is that – like a dream analysed in terms of the principles of Freud’s famous “interpretation of dreams” – the video recording reveals much more than what questions the donors asked and what Mitt said. Poniewozik also cautions that criticising Romney for socialising with wealthy donors is not in itself a legitimate object of criticism – Democrats do it. But his perspicacious elaboration on the significance of the (probably unintended) juxtaposition of a slice of the Millionaires’ Row with ordinary, low-income, working-class Americans is very revealing. Let me quote Poniewozik here:

“The most fascinating thing about the Romney video is how it’s literally framed. We’re watching him from what looks like the polished surface of a serving table, the hidden camera surrounded by gleaming barware, a decanter of wine and a candle, tucked away behind the objects of service. We can hear him loud and clear, but we can see only the tiny blur of his head and the backs of his supping $50 000-a-plate guests. We see and hear everything, in other words, from the furtive vantage point of the help.”

As Poniewozik further points out – in view of the glaring contrast between what is happening at the dinner table and what may be discerned closer to the hidden camera, on the part of the waiters and bartenders, who quietly go about the thankless business of waiting upon the plutocrats – “the visual and class ironies couldn’t have been better laid out by the set designer for The Remains of the Day. As Romney and his benefactors talk about the likelihood that “the 47%” government spongers would vote for Barack Obama, the advisability of being more assertively proud about his own financial success and about gaining “wealth through hard work” – as if these members of the working class don’t work hard – one hears the clinking of glasses, popping of corks and muted exchanges between those present in serving capacity.

So what is the point, one may ask. Poniewozik draws attention to the irony of Romney’s remark that he could never convince the “entitled” 47% to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives” (when they are probably doing their utmost to avail themselves of every possible avenue of income, as well as tax exemption, to do precisely this) and he wonders about the earnings of a “cater-waiter in South Florida, maybe with kids” and whether these waiters and waitresses have health insurance. He muses too on whether the wealthy class did not even feel the least bit “awkward” discussing these topics in the manner they did in the presence of some who probably earn less in a year than the price paid by one guest for the privilege of being there.

In other words the way in which Romney and Co got “framed” by the secret video recording reveals the fault-lines of a society polarised between the super-wealthy and the not-so-wealthy working class. Poniewozik’s final sentence sums the situation up perfectly: “For one evening in Boca Raton, the people who fund the multimillion-dollar election machine well and truly got served.”

As remarked earlier one could phrase this, very revealingly, in the terms outlined by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams of 1900. It is well-known that in this pioneering work Freud described dreams as the “royal road to the unconscious” implying that dreams reveal, albeit in disguised fashion, the anxieties and desires that motivate our actions even when we are not consciously aware of them. It seems to me that there is an analogy between what dreams reveal about unconscious motives and fears, on the one hand, and what the secret video reveals about American society, in particular about the values underpinning Republican plutocracy.

What Freud described as the “dream-work” – the work of the dream, the manner in which a dream “works” – consists in several characteristic operations, including what he called “condensation” and “displacement”. Condensation refers to the difference between the “dream content” (or manifest content, comprising images and sounds) of the dream, on the one hand, and the “dream thoughts” (or latent content, hidden behind the images and sounds that make up the manifest content). The dream content turns out to be meagre compared to the often extensive dream thoughts that are assembled in the course of the dream-interpretation because this latent content has been condensed into a very “economical” dream.

“Displacement” – which is more pertinent here – denotes the dream-work mechanism that often relegates the most important dream thoughts (latent content) to a position of apparent unimportance or marginality at the level of manifest content. So for example if one dreams about the woman one loves as a huge spider with her face in a web obstructing one’s passage, one might wonder why she was metaphorised into a spider in one’s dream, unless you have read Freud. The hermeneutic principles he has given us help you realise that the operation of displacement has transformed the true object of one’s anxiety – marriage – into the web in which the spiderwoman sits. That is your fear of marriage as an institution of entrapment has been displaced onto a spider’s web, which does not occupy the central position in your dream, but is the true locus of your misgivings; not the woman as such.

Isn’t it striking that the hidden camera in the Romney-and-friends video rendered an image which uncannily resembles a dream where the frame – that which is NOT central to the video’s purpose or aim (the serving instruments and passing waiters’ faces and muted voices) – is more revealing than the focal point, namely Romney’s head and the donors’ backs, together with their voices. And what it reveals, like a dream interpretation along Freudian lines concerning the meaning of “displacement”, is that what has been displaced in this video footage – the taken-for-granted, cynically ignored, in Derridean terms “dangerous supplement” of the ordinary workers in America – uncovers the truth about Romney (and his ilk) as would-be president of the US, namely that he (together with his constituency) doesn’t care a hoot about ordinary people.

If elected Romney would represent mainly the interests of the super-rich and whatever government aid to the poor and dispossessed Obama may have negotiated during his term in office would probably soon be eradicated. The message of the video, in other words, lies in what has been displaced, “framing” Romney and his buddies in a way that discloses the truth about their cynicism unmistakably.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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