Francisco Goya’s magnificent image, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1797-99), is emblematic of the Enlightenment’s faith in rationality–and its fear of what occurs when Reason falters through negligence or ignorance. Goya had good evidence on which to fear those lapses, as documented in his powerful depictions of the Disasters of War. Monstrosity comes in many forms, but in the 18th century it was understood as an aberration of nature, including human nature.
Now we see that the deliberate corruption of reason produces something more monstrous yet. The flying fiends surrounding the slumbering figure in Goya’s print feel romantic by contrast to the pernicious forces of radical destruction currently taking apart what has been the quintessential Enlightenment project—American Democracy. Reason was idealized for its power to produce and value such ideas as “Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” “Common Sense,” or the “Social Contract”– the simple and powerful concept that a government is by, for, and of the people. Such values were held to be “self-evident”—a justification from within the ideology of Reason. But nothing is self-evident, and the values and force of Reason are as historically circumscribed as those of any other belief system.
Goya’s Disasters of War
For one thing, we know that that Contract had major blind-spots. Our political system was founded on colonialist and oppressive foundations, ignoring the economic conditions that made it flourish for certain segments of the population at the costs of others. The political aspirations of 18th-century democracy were built on ignoring those oppressive realities. Still, prejudice, bias, structural racism, rampant sexism, homophobia and institutionalized slavery in the industrial-justice system not withstanding, we are better off with democracy than without it. Let’s be clear—these conditions are not justified by democracy, nor should their continuation be the price of its sustained existence. But a democratic system working properly might begin to address these issues and their structural causes while any alternative—especially fascism–will simply exert strict repression without any redress. In so many ways we are experiencing the colonial expansion of Western Europe finally meeting its crashing demise. The system of human and natural resource exploitation on which it was based is breaking down. But the pain will be displaced onto the most vulnerable, as the benefits were extracted at their expense. The hideous off-gassing of affluence, affluvia, still intoxicates so many of the first-world nations that they have not reckoned with the cost of privilege—or the fragility of the systems that support it.
But the blindness of Reason turns out to be even more profound: to its own impotence and its inadequacy in the face of current conditions. The appeal to concepts of justice, equality, human and civil rights (none ever fully achieved) cannot compete with the affective forces that rage around us in these days. Reason had to be invented as a concept, as surely as evolution, quantum theory, the speed of light, or the idea of an immune system. Its historicity is a liability as it becomes anachronistic, out of synch with conditions in which it is supposed to act or be invoked.
CRISPRs are small pieces of genetic code. They are designed to target particular parts of the DNA sequence and replace them with an alternate agenda…Sleeper cells and CRISPR outcomes could take a terrifying form whether acting in the labs that produce Dolly’s many great-great offspring or in the workings of democratic institutions.
Reason prevailed when individuals, socialized to its terms, accepted its principles as universal truths. Not only do the assumptions of Reason no longer work, the very ground on which such an assumption functioned has dissolved. The dynamics of social systems can’t be managed by reasonable means any more than atmospheric systems. We are in social space of destructive chaos whose non-linear complexity cannot be explained through a framework of rules or values invoked as “common” or shared.
Highly volatile, charged, and unstable, the phantasmatic, which is our current condition, cannot be apprehended or intervened with rational means any more than a virus can be controlled with an anti-biotic. Meme fevers in political campaigns have their way differently than old-style persuasion, ground games, or organized activism. While we cannot afford to abandon our commitment to reasonable action, or to give up on the idea of individual and collective accountability to it, we have to begin to come to terms with the ways forces of social action work affectively in a climate that has no relation to reason at all. The phantasmatic is that realm—of affective identification and alignments, where agency inheres in social forces at a scale that outside of institutional policies or individual actions, even as the charismatic (a pejorative term) individuals who magnetize the social realms are able to galvanize enormous portions of the population to their perverse will. We have seen facism before, but the scale of phantasmatic fascination and its effects is and will continue to be unprecedented.
The effects of media are very real, even if they are not deterministic (twitter does not have causal power in itself, only in its place in a larger social system. But the aggregation of communications, the sum of media effects, creates agency in the current political system in an unprecedented manner. From considering the “social” effects of media, we might need to consider the ways the social itself, the full sum of communicative exchanges, works as a medium through which forces flow. The scale of influence moving through the “medium of the social” is enormous, and these forces so not operate in a reasonable manner.
The daily spectacle propagated in media provides a feast of provocation designed for the precise effect it is having—to cause immediate outrage that fills air time and focuses attention: consumption of the symptoms, reactive response, not analysis of systemic causes. Non-linear politics is the process of actions without goals. Analyze that? This requires completely different models of critical apprehension. Partisan politics is the motion of pennants in a savage wind. Interfering in their movements does not touch the causes of disturbance.
Is this analogy more than mere metaphor? Is the targeted deployment (military term used deliberately) of re-engineering modules and slow-release isotopes of structural change being positioned to bring on collapse of the bureaucratic state, as Bannon asserts, his sickened flesh clear evidence of the effect of degeneracy eroding the organism from the inside.
But the concept of the spectacle, so accurate for a late phase of modern culture, no longer explains our condition. We are not in an age of mere illusion, nor even, in the simulacral, that state of engaging with a symbolic that has no referent. Now that the phantasmatic prevails, the delusion condition of fear and affective absorption follows the rhetorical forces of daily lies as if magnetized. Particles of thought align, emotionally charged. The disconnect between political language and reality increases, and meanwhile, the real, that once-banished and much abused domain, threatens to collapse and re-insert itself into the symbolic.
Within this condition of phantasmatic, non-linear, political activity, imagine the instruments of CRISPR democracy. These create deliberately destructive designs unleashed on the real targets—the institutions of our system of government. The checks and balances of the 18th-century architecture of democracy’s original design may still prove robust enough to withstand attack and full dismantling. But the concept of re-design at the granular level of the CRISPR policies, now let loose into the world like other monsters unleashed from the Pandora’s box of the Breitbart mafia and their clandestine gang of wanton libertarian neo-fascists, will be hard to keep under control. For control, like so many outmoded notions, was premised on an idea that ultimately, somehow, somewhere, Reason, like Common Sense, would be triumphant merely by virtue of being somehow self-evidently fair and therefore more persuasive than the affective forces of perverse destruction. Wrong.
Genetic editing—the term is as sinister as it sounds. CRISPRs are small pieces of genetic code. They are designed to target particular parts of the DNA sequence and replace them with an alternate agenda. Because genetic information operates over time and in relation to complex circumstances and opportunities, the effect of these transformations is not fully felt immediately. The capacity to craft an animal that is part mutton and part moth is part of current technology, not future fantasy, as is the ability to revive extinct species from scraps of bio-material. Sort-of. Remember that the time sequencing of genetic unfolding is as important as the initial code—fingers, minds, kidneys all develop, they don’t simply appear, and the order of occurrences is a result of many interlocking tightly calibrated dependencies. Sleeper cells and CRISPR outcomes could take a terrifying form whether acting in the labs that produce Dolly’s many great-great offspring or in the workings of democratic institutions.
Behind the scenes the malicious surgeons of destruction pick their targets. Look at the language: Deep state, dark diplomacy, black blocks, non-linear politics, and other terms that indicate the aberrant condition of current democratic process.
Is this analogy more than mere metaphor? Is the targeted deployment (military term used deliberately) of re-engineering modules and slow-release isotopes of structural change being positioned to bring on collapse of the bureaucratic state, as Bannon asserts, his sickened flesh clear evidence of the effect of degeneracy eroding the organism from the inside. The short window rapid effects are shocking, but over the long-term time frames they will corrupt the entire body politic. Substitute fear for diplomacy, get the State Department to react, then propose to cut their budget to reduce their existence. Butcher-level brutal, but dramatic re-design. Discredit and defund, the two instruments of state genetic engineering, with targets clearly signaled by easy markers: scientists who attended climate science meetings, tagged; educators who support trans-gender rights, tagged; the list could proliferate endlessly. The data search-and-identify techniques of massive media surveillance makes all of this a minor matter, with social media providing the easy arena in which to locate those bits of information—since they are freely given and uploaded by the marks themselves. Technologies are not value free, but the instruments of integration and alignment serve totalitarianism more readily than dissent and have a powerful capacity to draw adherents through the reassuring quality of apparent agreement. The palliative care of an ailing state seems benevolent only because the realities already induced are so cruelly painful.
Behind the scenes the malicious surgeons of destruction pick their targets. Look at the language: Deep state, dark diplomacy, black blocks, non-linear politics, and other terms that indicate the aberrant condition of current democratic process. At present the creation of phantasmatic fear combines with techniques of distraction, expertly and cynically designed to produce confusion. The ether (the fifth element of the classical system, in which ether was the stuff that filled the voids of space) of the social, that complex transactional space, sustains these affective charges, force fields of irrational belief. Meanwhile, behind the rapidly shifting spectacle in which the barrage of fake information and lies, false accusations and hyperbole batter the individual and collective psyches of the body politic, the knives of the demolition crew sharpen in preparation for the dismantling of the living being of democracy with visceral cruelty. The systemic alteration of democratic process is unravelling the very structure of its operations, not merely shifting its thematic focus, or weighting some values more than others. Just as the DNA sequences in the CRISPR machines can replace targeted sections of a gene, so the malicious actions of the anti-democratic forces take precision aim. The concept of mutagenesis prevails. Replace and morph, mutate and destroy, with no responsible relation to the past or accountability for the future. This is not about fixing democratic processes, but about their complete dismantling. Rational response is no match for irrational behavior at this scale.
The reset will have to be radical, but not staged in the terms of current debate about how to resist a corrupt regime. Instead, how to re-make the world in terms that genuinely serve its populations, its flora and fauna, and living systems.
Dilemmas of the real and the symbolic
Now we are backed into difficulties—how to imagine effective action without falling into either militant instrumentalism or affective fascism. How to move beyond the wish-dream of resistant and alternative rhetoric? How to intervene in the forces that change the structural workings of the system outside the mechanics of actual democracy? The very notion of “checks and balances” is premised on a Newtonian model social physics. But when opinion forms in quantum space, through simultaneous and strange actions at a distance, such models do not hold. We who were all so keen to demonstrate the limits of reason and the abuses of rationalism now see how starkly their corruption leads to chaos into which will come something much worse. The ecological and political stresses we are facing are the outgrowth of the same rational ideology whose “progress” mythologies and “growth” economics still have their grip on the popular and political mind.
The reset will have to be radical, but not staged in the terms of current debate about how to resist a corrupt regime. Instead, how to re-make the world in terms that genuinely serve its populations, its flora and fauna, and living systems. A global ecology, not an economy, will have to be based on production not consumption, sustainability not consuming expansion fueled by material aspirations. But such a reimaging has to be formulated with an understanding of the dynamics of the social atmosphere and power of affective forces.
Current defunding strategies are aimed at destroying the professional class, eroding the institutions that served to promote it into a lifestyle of affluence and privilege. If Thatcher-Reagan-Bush got rid of unions because labor was a surplus that no longer had political power (and by their actions, made that even more true), then the Bannon-Trump-Ryan-Vos attack on science, education, law, and the arts is a way to bring these social infrastructures crashing down. The liberalism of the professional class is no match for their deliberately malicious vengeance. The dark forces of libertarianism fueled the rage they now both own and co-opt—by shifting the balance of wealth and power, eroding public schools and safety nets, not funding infrastructure projects and domestic initiatives. Now in the name of a fake populism, they are dismantling the next level of protections. The violence that results will be used to justify repression.
Legacy of the avant-garde and non-linear politics
Jacques Vaché’s assertion that the most avant-garde work of art would consist of drawing a gun in a crowd and shooting randomly was discredited among artists and intellectuals well before the end of the 20th century, as such actions became commonplace tragedies in our daily experience. Vaché (who died at 24 from an opium overdose) was an inspiration for André Breton, as he was formulating the precepts of Surrealism out of the remains of Dada just after the First World War. We inherit the terms of the avant-garde. We accept, even take up, Dada’s impatient fury at rational justification of slaughter, or the modern poets’ attack on the normative order, and the Surrealists engagement with dreamlife, desire, and the forces of the unconscious as tools of our own aesthetic-political action. The history of modern art is permeated with these commitments to subversion.
As a painting, Guernica changed only one crucial thing—the focus of attention. The agency of attention is only beginning to be mapped.
The link between the history of aesthetics and the trajectory of politics resides in part in the imagining of paradigms of effective change. Marx’s philosophy differed from that of his predecessors by insisting on transformation as the next step after analysis. The point is ‘to change it’—by which any number of things might be meant. But what this has meant within the history of art from the 19th century onward is that aesthetic agendas have been aligned with and put in the service of visions of transformation. Critique, that complex and ambiguous concept (part complicity, part moral superiority, part earnest engagement and analysis) serves—but only within the terms by which it is circumscribed. That may also require a recognition of the careerist opportunism that drives so much of the academic left, and also the “political” artworld, and force a move from posturing to thinking and working, though of course, it is not popular to say so. When will we change our “heroic” attitudes towards the role of art? The career of Vladislav Surkov gives me pause, and the characterization of Donald Trump as the most “avant-garde” artist of all in a recent piece by the ever-opportunistic Vanessa Place, convince me that we need to tread with trepidation.
The way out of our current conundrums may require a major rework of prior assumptions. This requires a framework to understand non-linear, affective, and phantasmatic politics—in a formulation that combines theories of aesthetics, media, and complexity.
In linking these domains I am suggesting the political arena is performance space, but one with profound consequences in the real, that domain of lived physicality and sociality where the visceral impact of disenfranchisement and disadvantage are experienced as actuality. But more, the performative dimensions on the national level have to be addressed for what they are—a smoke-screen of illusion projected through the mediating systems of spectacle to distract from the real work of dismantling democracy.
The Left, when it became the New Left, abandoned the unions, the labor movements, and the struggles of working people in the conviction that the realm of the symbolic was more compelling and powerful than that of the economic base. The long-term effects of that shift in orientation have had their consequences, and the disconnect of academic critical thought from arenas of agency is one result. The pipe-dream of art-world effectiveness is childish, as if any work of political art—thematic, topical, subversive as it may be in its own realm—has any purchase at all on the mechanics of power. Would that it might. Don’t cite Guernica again. It was a news report. We wrung our hands. The bombs had already dropped and that was just a harbinger of other bombs to come. As a painting, Guernica changed only one crucial thing—the focus of attention. The agency of attention is only beginning to be mapped.
Non-linear politics takes it cue from the improbable but actual sphere of avant-garde and experimental performance art. Here we see the commitment to anarchistic perversity, so crucial to Dada and its legacy, to the critique of rationalism through irrational work, the embrace of non-sense, the subversion of normative orders, and the anti-aesthetics of generation after generation of us who believed that disturbing the conventions of linguistic, musical, and visual syntax would bring about a re-imagining of the world. We believed. Some still do, that the shock effect, slap in the face, affront to the bourgeoisie is the most effective means of political-social action. Intervention through resistance, subversion through difficulty.
As to immediate futures, the threat is nuclear confrontation abroad and violent civil repression at home, turning groups against each other who should otherwise unite in a common struggle.
The appearance of chaos is a calculated performance, designed to destroy and distract simultaneously. This is the taking apart of the system itself, the destruction of is workings in every way.
The politics of political art are too complex to go into here—ranging from thematics to structure, topical engagement to performative action. But the strategies of non-goal-oriented obfuscation and confusion, of randomization of attention and purpose, adopted as a way to fog the screens of media and clog the channels of communication with distractions, is, alas, one of the unintended consequences of the long history of this engagement. No causal connection can be made. Avant-garde performance is no more to blame for the existence of Trump than Futurism was for the rise of fascism. That alignments occurred among artists of the Italian avant-garde with the figure and agenda of Mussolini is a fact counter-balanced by the numbers of early 20th century artists who decried such actions and aligned themselves quite differently. No inevitability attaches to an aesthetic practice, not in teleological terms, but that the concepts of anti-rational action developed to such a high degree that a figure like Surtov can emerge from the ranks of the theater to practice in Putin’s political arena is at once fascinating and terrifying. To our horror, we realize that the rhetorical moves and devices we considered tactics of the avant-garde or radical politics can be used to any range of ends. Media are agnostic in their values, effective in their means and methods. The responsibility we have is not to preclude, exclude, or refuse use of any strategy, but instead, to carefully and constantly adjudicate its application. Values are neither immanent nor self-sustaining, but live in the networked tissue of a living culture, constantly calibrated, revisited, and reinforced. Compassion, not reason, must guide future vision.
As to immediate futures, the threat is nuclear confrontation abroad and violent civil repression at home, turning groups against each other who should otherwise unite in a common struggle. We have to hope that military advisors are committed to pragmatism, realism, and survival since the ideologues are clearly not. As for artists, intellectuals, writers, persons of ethical conviction who know that social justice only prevails if it is for all people, and that a level playing field is essential to that undertaking, our job is, as it has been, to keep networks of dialogue and exchange alive in order to promote values we would like to have prevail. And, more importantly, to take our intuitions into analysis.
The horrors of the now have latent within them much greater terrors ahead. CRISPR metaphors and non-linear outcomes are fraught with potential for destruction. But when reason no longer prevails, as now, and when anti-rationality participates in an equally destructive project, then how are we to reformulate a foundation for meaningful action? The force of affective politics has to be countered with appeal to the real, to putting the dangers first and foremost, in vivid, concrete, examples of direct consequences and long-term threats to people, the planet, and democratic processes. But the reset requires much more than palliative care or small revisions. Rethinking democracy without capital as its dark force, imagining sustainability without growth, structuring patterns of work without exploitative labor, life as experientially-focused rather than consumer-driven—these are not pipe-dream ideals but necessary correctives to the trajectory of Western gain at the expense of far too many and too much. The current crumbling is only one symptom among others. Read your Gibbon and take note.
Johanna Drucker is an artist, writer, and critic known for her creative work in experimental writing, typography, and artist’s books; she is equally revered for her scholarly work on aesthetics, digital humanities, and the visual forms of knowledge production. Ms. Drucker is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA.