Epigraph: The German philosopher, Hannah Arendt, once said that ‘factuality itself depends for its continued existence upon the existence of the non-totalitarian world” (Origins of Totalitarianism, p.388). What if instead of construing Trump as an instrument, cause, an agent of his own will and power, we consider him a symptom, an extrusion of a set of complex conditions manifesting itself in the opportunistic formation that identifies as this man. Configurations of power are always dependent upon the conditions of their emergence. Mechanistically speaking, we know some of the conditions—erosion of public education, the exaggerated income gap, increased inequity mapped onto race, class, and ethnicity, the destruction of the working class and its guarantees or even possibility of a secure lifestyle. The breakdown of a democratic system rotted by the diseases of capitalism is easily trackable. We can see all of the elements of our condition and how they combine to create anger. Add to this the various drugs: literal drugs, the opiates, and the psychic drugs, the fantasy products pumped into the social system in the form of entertainment, the unreality television, the nighttime series the daytime rants–all part of the frenzy of consumption.
Power is never as effective as when it is abusive. And abuse is never so effective as when it is arbitrary. Combine these insights with a few others and the shape of the current political climate emerges starkly: that the cathexis enacted to overcome negation, in classic psychoanalytic terms, increases the emotional bond, that social media in essence create a form of direct/parallel democracy that is volatile and unregulated by the processes of checks and balances the designers of the Constitution put in place, and that the power of the “phantasmatic” as an affective force in politics is intensified above and beyond mechanical means through the speed and volume of transactions.
The distraction tactics work. An inflammatory tweet draws attention away from the real scenes of action, the behind the scenes, almost secret, sometimes fully hidden processes of dismantling government.
Systematic Destruction: Scandal upon scandal piles up in the current administration. One after another the charges accrue: of wrong-doing and disregard for the letter and spirit of the law regarding emoluments, special interests, international politics, sanctity of the voting process, and the moral responsibility of the governing to the governed. The basic social contract is gone, swapped for a winner-take-all justification that equates wealth and entitlement. But while the spectacle plays on the screens, with predictably inflamed rhetoric aligned with increasingly polarized positions, the drama of systematic destruction happens out of sight. The real damage, the structural dismantling of regulations, safeguards, civil rights across every sector of the population, and destruction of those very features of our legal system that might guarantee a future for democracy and the conditions for human survival—this is happening offstage, quickly, while the spotlight of distraction keeps the media churning out its shock headlines. The canny skill of Trump’s capacity to produce distraction in the foreground is a practiced tactic for keeping attention from the cruel and self-destructive work of those ideological opportunists who have everything to gain (but still so much to lose) by their behaviors. As a man who does not want to govern, but happily assists in the dismantling of the administration, Trump is aptly suited to his position, expertly skilled at wreaking chaos, wanton and nihilistic destruction. The NY Times (6/23/2017) ran an article with an account of lies told by Trump on a daily basis since taking office. The lies are not fake news, not inaccurate accounts of actual events, but statements of sheer mendacity. Crafted from a combination of ignorance, bravado, disregard for consistency, they model a position of power that optimizes effect and optimizes itself through immediate effect. Next to this should have been a listing of the structural dismantling of rights, safeguards, and regulations being enacted at the same time. The distraction tactics work. An inflammatory tweet draws attention away from the real scenes of action, the behind the scenes, almost secret, sometimes fully hidden processes of dismantling government. The real goal of extreme conservatives is to dismantle the system entirely. They are succeeding, against the interests of the constituencies they supposedly represent.
The phantasmatic is the condition of voluntary complicity with and affective engagement to a mass delusion. It combines the absorptive power of spectacle, in the sense defined by Guy Debord, with an affective dimension of the Lacanian imaginary. We self-elect to be absorbed into this condition, allowing the hypnotizing narratives of an apparently consensual explanation of events to become the mental theater in which we imagine our relation to those events. Neither the events nor the explanations have capacity to be verified, they are constructs like any other configured representation of the phenomena of the physical or social world. The phantasmatic is not merely an illusion, not the world of Plato’s cave which we take for the real until removed from the situation and shown the shadow producing mechanisms to which we have been suspect.
In a world of illusion, we poke at the paper moon and pull aside the curtain of deception. In a world of delusion, the capacity for revelation only exposes more devices and mechanisms of deception—not the least of which is the voluntary willingness to absorb and submit to belief.
The phantasmatic has affective power, not mere mechanical power. It is produced as a result of the buy-in of individuals to a shared narrative. The potency of the phantasmatic exceeds that of spectacle by an exponential factor, because the producing machines of illusion have escalated to such a degree that the transactional intensity has multiplied the speed and force of delusion. Plato’s cave is the model of an illusion—an image whose substance can be demonstrated to have been produced as a surrogate, a stand-in, for the supposed real. A delusion is an imaginary explanation which we internalize to the degree that we cannot distinguished it in kind or quality from the real. The phenomena of the world exist, even in extreme versions of constructivist epistemology, but the real is inaccessible except through the constituting apparatus of representation and mediation. In a world of illusion, we poke at the paper moon and pull aside the curtain of deception. In a world of delusion, the capacity for revelation only exposes more devices and mechanisms of deception—not the least of which is the voluntary willingness to absorb and submit to belief.
The power of the phantasmatic is amplified through transactional intensity, the mediation and remediation of exchange. This is what produces the medium of the social, a psychic ether, through which the volatile charges flow. Affective alignments have far more power than reasoned ones, and the bonds forged through the systematic production of communication streams work through them—and us—whether we are aware of them or not. We are positioned in those streams as surely as we are positioned in any other system of power relations. The extent to which cultural phenomena are a result, an expression, a manifestation of these relations—rather than their cause—has to be acknowledged. To reiterate, Trump is a manifestation, an extrusion, as well as an instrument within the polarized environment through which his effectiveness works.
Parallel democracy refers to the production of a new form of governance in which social media become a means of pseudo-democratic processes. The concept of a direct democracy, which works like opinion polls and whims of a population without experience in government, knowledge of the law, or respect for due process—a kind of vigilante governance—was explicitly rejected in the formation of the system of checks and balances designed into the three-part American structure of courts, legislation, and executive branch. But the power of social media is so strong at present, and serves to consolidate a base and an electorate to so immediate and powerful a degree, that it is working like a parallel government system. The threats of not being re-elected, of being shunned, of being humiliated and rendered powerless—all of these are instrumentalized through social media. The impact overwhelms the processes of legal governance. People of reputation can be shamed, shut down, shut out of the public discourse, hamstrung and hampered from performing the public service of their appointed or elected positions. The majority party lives in constant anxiety of alienating their base—not just through the consequences of their legislative actions, but through the public opinion mills of twitter feeds and retweet reactions as they move through the echo chambers of media venues.
The culture is a pre-symbolic infant sucking from a vast tit of fake comfort, absorbing the drugs of fantasy, entertainment, processed thought and processed culture in a non-stop cycle of addiction. Buy a 7-dollar t-shirt, buy three, buy five, buy one in every color—why not? The cost of cheapness is well known: it is bought by violence to other human beings, at a price to the environment, and our own survival.
The frenzy of consumption is evident everywhere, from the narcissistic identification with the circumstances of swiping, texting, reading on the screen that produces an illusion of self as a central node in the network of exchanges, through the constant reinforcement of the feedback mechanisms in the devices, to the amplified scale of houses, cars, material stuff. When no upper limit exists to wealth, everyone imagines themselves as poor. The cathexis of identification has an affective force so much greater than logic. Judgement is suspended in the thrall of spectacle. The protection of the right to consume is at the heart of the delusion of democracy where the rhetoric of Americanism is produced as a smokescreen. The screen covers the id-driven indulgence in food, clothes, processed goods and manufactured experience that are in grotesque disproportion to the acknowledgment of their costs (human, ecological, and political). Consumption is a drug and is of the many drugs—the fantasy of television now streamed in every version, configuration, to the always tuned in viewer. This is familiar territory for media studies scholars, but the supply chain analysis and lifecycle costs are rarely brought into conversations about the addictive power of devices or the amusing-ourselves-to-death phenomena. Go into any chain drug store or supermarket or box store. Defamiliarize it. Look at it for the first time, as if from the point of view of a human being who has lived in a village or rural environment outside of first-world culture (or as much outside as is possible in these times). Look at the packaging, just the packaging—the plastic, the printing, the colors, the cardboard and paper and commercial branding, the eye-catching alluring hand-pleasing look and feel. Think about the amount of petroleum, gas, energy, pollution, waste, and human cost in the production. Now realize you are looking at one tiny point of distribution and display in a vast vast network of the so much too much-ness of American consumerism. Now imagine taking it away, imagine the cries, screams, tantrums. The culture is a pre-symbolic infant sucking from a vast tit of fake comfort, absorbing the drugs of fantasy, entertainment, processed thought and processed culture in a non-stop cycle of addiction. Buy a 7-dollar t-shirt, buy three, buy five, buy one in every color—why not? The cost of cheapness is well known: it is bought by violence to other human beings, at a price to the environment, and our own survival.
Negation and abuse work intimately together. Negation is the force required to overcome repulsion. Every emotional action that requires negation reinforces bonds of commitment because the bond is strengthened in direct proportion to the energy used to overcome the repulsion. The psychic system works just like a physical one—the force of action and reaction are matched. The amount of negation at work in the current climate is enormous, since the daily scandal producing machine of the White House makes monstrous conditions that have to be denied in order for the base of its supporter to continue their commitment. That commitment strengthens through every abuse that requires negation. The country is an abusive relationship with its leaders, not just Trump, but the senate leadership trying to undo all safety nets, protective regulations, guarantees of rights, and support systems. How do they remain in power? The process of negation overcomes the abuse and the commitment of the base grows in precise proportion to the repulsion it has to conquer.
The working class is so clearly disposable, as shown by putting into place the combination of opioids, guns, and negligent genocide through lack of health care, clean water, hygienic conditions, access to affordable housing, decent food, education and every other service required for human sustenance.
Targeting the professional class is the obvious intention of an administration bent on defunding the universities, scientific research, the Institute for Museum and Library Studies, the National Endowments of the Arts and Humanities, the National Institutes of Health, and so on. The working class is so clearly disposable, as shown by putting into place the combination of opioids, guns, and negligent genocide through lack of health care, clean water, hygienic conditions, access to affordable housing, decent food, education and every other service required for human sustenance. The opioid epidemic reaps huge benefits for the pharmaceutical companies and treatment industries. The laws are set up to absolve them from accountability. The dismantling of other legal protections and services reinforces the practices of abandonment. These are matters well documented in the responsible press. But the professional class has been the site of resistance, the source for legal and intellectual opposition. Now they are the target. The machinations of power in the service of capital have a human face, but they are not driven by human beings. The question of the agency of capital itself as a driving force through a social and political system remains open. Capital can be regulated, but the myth of growth, like the myth of progress, has to loosen its hold. How to do that: sustainability, an economic system without profit, a fundamental rethinking of all of the systems of production and consumption, scale, need, desire, distribution of wealth and opportunity. We know this. Meanwhile, the means through which to imagine and realize these alternatives are being eroded, constrained, and hampered. Perhaps the alternatives can only rise from ashes.
Symbolic abuse and abuse of the symbolic go together. Symbolic abuse is violence enacted against strategic targets, setting examples by firing appointed officials, signing executive orders that may be meaningless but have a dramatic appeal—they are symbols of power as well as actions with impact. Abuse of the symbolic is violence against language and representation, such as verbal humiliation, blatant lies, changed statements, position shifts and a disregard for any accountability in discourse. The first tactic concentrates abuse in highly visible conspicuous, targets as blatant displays of power without regard for law or decorum. The second dismantles the foundations of practice, destabilizing the ground on which language and power operate. Together these are two conspicuous features of non-linear politics at work.
The violence of the enunciative state apparatus describes the way the workings of established political processes enact repression even in an attempt to operate in the public good. The constitutive force of enunciation works in every transaction of administered power and decision making. Whether the decisions are enacted in the courts, through a sentence or a ruling, in a legislative agenda or an executive order, they are all transactions in which the population is subject to the power of the discourse of the state. The state apparatus—institutions of the government—is the site and instrument of these enunciations. Intervening in the workings of these institutions is the role and responsibility of elected officials, judges, leaders—but only when the system works within reasonable parameters. And even then, the violence enacted by the working of the state is a conspicuous phenomenon, well studied in critical philosophy.
We are watching the unravelling of American Democracy in real time on television and across media platforms. Behind the screen, the machinations are enormous, massive, barely able to register in view because their scale is so disproportional to habit.
The mechanical transactions that flow through communication networks can be tracked. Those patterns are evident, even if suppressed. A heat map of pulses will show dynamic action in real time. Signals, electrical charges, any of the physical manifestations of wave/particle communication function traversing time, space, cables, wires, airwaves can be mapped. What can’t be mapped are the effects above and below those palpable frequencies—the weather map of the social atmosphere and the centers of power that form and disperse as fast as cyclones and fronts at all levels.
The phantasms are swarming. As the communicative social aether heats up, the rate of exchange, the volume, and the intensity all mount. We feel it. We are watching the unravelling of American Democracy in real time on television and across media platforms. Behind the screen, the machinations are enormous, massive, barely able to register in view because their scale is so disproportional to habit. We pay attention to the surface features of the daily discourse, but the expressions we apprehend are the least part of the deeper system and its workings. Momentum in a social system has its own force, in this case, centripetal. The entire structure will spin out and break up if this continues. Survivors will be left clinging to the shards and wreckage. The sheer velocity of destruction and the mass it has gathered are so unprecedented as to be staggering.
The language of crisis escalates. Every exchange generates more attention, the white blood cells of the cultural discourse rush to the scene of outrage: Comey fired, Russian diplomacy in the White House, selling visas to the Chinese, spending millions to uncover non-existent voter fraud, spending other millions to secure the luxury accommodations of an exclusive enclave, denying health care to the poor, infirm, elderly, and disadvantaged, imprisoning immigrants in work camps without adequate food and no health care, lying about the lies that are the cover-up of the other lies about investigations, income, profits, privateering and personal gain. How deep can it go? Very. The game is not over, and the depth of its activities are barely in view.
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. Her new theoretical text, The General Theory of Social Relativity, will be published shortly.