Monday, July 25, 2016

Notes on Trump

1. To start very generally: Trump is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Trump, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.
2. To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content.
3. Not only is there a Trump vision, a Trump way of looking at things. Trump involves as well a quality discoverable in objects and the behavior of persons. The Trump eye has the power to transform experience. But not everything can be seen as Trump. It's not all in the eye of the beholder.
5. Trump taste has an affinity for certain arts rather than others. Clothes, furniture, all the elements of visual décor, for instance, make up a large part of Trump. For Trump art is often decorative art, emphasizing, texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.
6. There is a sense in which it is correct to say: “It’s too good to be Trump.” Or “too important,” not marginal enough.
7. All Trump objects, and persons, contain a large element of artifice.
8. Trump is a vision of the world in terms of style—but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not.
9. As a taste in persons, Trump responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated. Allied to the Trump taste is a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms.
10. Trump sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp"; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Trump in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.
13. Today’s Trump taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright. And the relation of Trump taste to the past is extremely sentimental.
16. The Trump sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken. But this is not the familiar split-level construction of a literal meaning, on the one hand, and a symbolic meaning, on the other. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.
17. This comes out clearly in the vulgar use of the word Trump as a verb, “to trump,” something that people do. To trump is a mode of seduction—one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a doubt interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “a trump,” a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.
18. One must always distinguish between naïve and deliberate Trump. Pure Trump is always naïve. Trump which knows itself to be Trump (“trumping”) is usually less satisfying.
19. The pure examples of Trump are unintentional; they are dead serious.
20. Probably, intending to be trumpy is always harmful.
21. So, again, Trump rests on innocence. That means Trump discloses innocence, but also, when it can, corrupts it. Objects, being objects, don’t change when they are singled out by the Trump vision. Persons, however, respond.
22. Considered a little less strictly, Trump is either completely naïve or else wholly conscious.
23. In naïve, or pure, Trump, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Trump. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.
25. The hallmark of Trump is the spirit of extravagance. Trump is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.
26. Trump is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much.”
27. A work can come close to Trump, but not make it, because it succeeds. What is extravagant in an inconsistent or an unpassionate way is not Trump. Neither can anything be Trump that does not seem to spring from an irrepressible, a virtually uncontrolled sensibility. Without passion, one gets pseudo-Trump—what is merely decorative, safe.
28. Again, Trump is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous.
30. Of course, the canon of Trump can change. Time has a great deal to do with it. Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it, because it resembles too closely our own everyday fantasies, the fantastic nature of which we don’t perceive. We are better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own.
31. This is why so many of the objects prized by Trump taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date. It’s not a love of the old as such. It’s simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment—or arouses the necessary sympathy. When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Trump sensibility.  .  .  . Another effect: time contracts the sphere of banality. (Banality is, strictly speaking, always a category of the contemporary.) What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic. Thus, things are trumpy, not when they become old—but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of being frustrated by, the failure of the attempt.
32. Trump is the glorification of “character.” What the Trump eye appreciates is the unity, the force of the person.
33. What Trump taste responds to is “instant character” and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence—a person being one very intense thing. This attitude toward character is a key element of theatricalization of experience embodied in the Trump sensibility. Wherever there is development of character, Trump is reduced.
34. Trump taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Trump doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different—a supplementary—set of standards.
35. Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves. We value it because it succeeds—in being what it is and, presumably, in fulfilling the intention that lies behind it.
36. Trump: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Trump refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.
38. Trump is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.
39. Trump and tragedy are antitheses. The excruciating is also one of the tonalities of Trump.
40. Style is everything.
41. The whole point of Trump is to dethrone the serious. Trump is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Trump involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious.” One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.
42. One is drawn to Trump when one realizes that “sincerity” is not enough.
43. Trump introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality.
44. Trump proposes a comic vision of the world. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.
45. Detachment is the prerogative of an elite. Trump is the modern dandyism. Trump is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.
46. Trump has found more ingenious pleasures. Not in Latin poetry and rare wines and velvet jackets, but in the coarsest, commonest pleasures. Trump makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Trump taste transcends the nausea of the replica.
48. The new-style dandy, the lover of Trump, appreciates vulgarity. Trump sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves.
49. It is a feat, of course. A feat goaded on, in the last analysis, by the threat of boredom. The relation between boredom and Trump taste cannot be overestimated. Trump taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.
50. The history of Trump taste is the history of snob taste.
51. The peculiar relation between Trump taste and homosexuality has to be explained.
52. Trump taste, which definitely has something propagandistic about it. Trump is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation.
54. Trump asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating.
58. The ultimate Trump statement: it's good because it's awful.

This text is, with cuts and elisions, Susan Sontag's 1964 essay Notes on "Camp," with one change which should be obvious from the title.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Michael Herr, hot damn.

“Vietnam, hot damn.“

That line is not Michael Herr’s. It’s the last line of Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, a prescient novel published a decade before Herr’s 1977 book Dispatches. Mailer’s book is not about Vietnam (other than the title, that last page is the only place Vietnam gets a mention in the text.) Rather, it’s an X-ray of the numb, dumb gung-ho mindset that got us involved there before we really knew what we were doing.

Writing ten years later, Herr, who died this week at 76, found himself inside a war driven by that same deluded and deranged mentality – but he got up-close and personal at the moment when that damaging approach had taken over and was fully operational.

“I went there behind the crude and serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything,” he wrote in his great book, “serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.”

The last line of Herr’s book supplants Mailer’s, adding sadness and burn-out and disdain and a touch of doubt: “Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.”

Dispatches is also the successor – and antidote – to Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American (last line: “how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”) In what remained unsaid in his text, Greene got deep inside the CIA’s cockeyed clandestine counterrevolutionary insurgency that escalated the war. By the time Herr wrote, the American presence was loud, and our presence has been loud all over almost ever since.

As a work of reportage, Dispatches was part of a lineage. By the time the book came out, ‘new journalism’ had existed for more than a decade. There was Armies of the Night (Mailer, from 1968) and St. George and the Godfather (Mailer again, from ‘72). There was the granddaddy: Homage to Catalonia (George Orwell, from 1938, though not published in the U.S. until 1952) There was Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels (1966) and the two Fear and Loathing books (’72 and ‘73) and Tom Woolf’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and Garry Wills’s Nixon Agonistes (1970.)

Those books were all amazing. Works of titans, literary giants, larger-than-life characters, personalities, people who mattered, people who knew things. Herr, by contrast, seemed an everyman, wandering wide in a world at war, allowing us to open our eyes even wider.

Here’s Herr describing an anonymous grunt unloading his automatic rifle on a line of 37 dead Vietcong: “I heard an M16 on full automatic, starting to go through clips, a second to fire, three to plug in a fresh clip, and I saw a man out there, doing it. Every round was like a tiny concentration of high-velocity wind, making the bodies wince and shiver.”

Here’s Herr on his welcome into the country:
    “If you get hit,” a medic told me, “we can chopper you back to base-camp hospital in like twenty minutes.”
   “If you get hit real bad,” a corpsman said, “they’ll get your case to Japan in twelve hours.” 
   “If you get killed,” a spec 4 from Graves promised, “we’ll have you home in a week.”
Dispatches made you realize that the stories that won’t let you go, the stories that make you sick, that slap you in the face, that thrill you and anger you and alarm you and leave you messed up and disconsolate and confused and argumentative, are the things you have to write.

Four decades ago, Herr could declare, with conviction, “Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.”

The continuing wars of the past decade and a half tell us that we need Herr’s work all over again. We need to read it and read it and read it again until we can all say we’ve been there.

Monday, May 09, 2016

ain’t no power like the power of the people

We chanted it at every rally I’ve participated in, every march I’ve marched in. Every community action I’ve organized. Every demonstration I’ve added my body to. Every sit-in I’ve sat in on. Every mass mobilization I’ve joined. In English and Spanish. It sounded great. (I’m sure it would sound great in any language.) It felt great. It always will.

The people
Will Never Be

El Pueblo
Jamás Será
Now, a new book has forced me to question the meaning of this always meaningful slogan. What is a People? offers six provocative philosophical turns (sandwiched between an introduction by Bruno Bosteels and a summation by Kevin Olson) on what it might mean for any group to be represented or to represent itself as a people.
It’s a highly debatable term. After all, as Alain Badiou notes in his opening foray, “The middle class is the ‘people’ of capitalist oligarchy.” For Badiou, the designation of being ‘a people’ is most often collaborationist. It’s a designation conferred from outside, like being inducted into an exclusive club. It’s a conservative expression of power and belonging. For this reason, Badiou finds a “dangerous inertia” at the heart of the word. For him, calling any group ‘the people’ “means only that the state can and must persist in its being.”

Two other essays in the book turn Badiou’s sense of inertia in opposite directions. Judith Butler offers a deep dive into ‘we the people,’ the first three words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. The phrase, she argues, simply ratifies what already exists. “If we imagine that a group must first assemble in a particular place, a public square or some equivalent, in order to proclaim ‘we, the people,’ then we fail to recognize that the act of assembling and reassembling is already doing the work of the phrase; in other words, assembling is already a performative political enactment even if it is prior to, and apart from, any particular speech act.” We show up at the rally before chanting the chant. We make ourselves ‘the people’ before declaring that we are the people. And we remain ‘the people’ even if we don’t chant the chant. 

“To show up is both to be exposed and defiant,” Butler concludes, “meaning precisely that we are crafted precisely in that disjuncture, and that in crafting ourselves, we expose the bodies for which we make our demand. We do this for and with one another, without any necessary presumption of harmony or love. As a way of making a new body politic.”

Tunisian activist Sadri Khiari, who has lived in exile in France since 2003, nudges Badiou’s inertia in a divergent way. “To claim to be part of a people,” he claims, “is … to assert one’s privileged relationship to the state.” Khiari notes that, for the most part, white residents readily define themselves as part of ‘the French people,’ while North Africans don’t—no matter how long they have been in France, no matter how assimilated they are. His analysis resonates on this side of the Atlantic as well. Is there room in Donald Trump’s America for Mexican-Americans and Muslim-Americans.? With his call for a massive wall between the U.S. and Mexico and a proposal to temporarily block Muslims from entering the country, the answer seems to be no. Not for nothing Khiari titles one of his sections, “How to be French without being French.” His implicit question: can’t ‘the people’ be plural?

Which is also what Jacques Rancière gets at in his short contribution to the book. ‘The people,’ for Rancière, does not exist. “What exist are diverse or even antagonistic figures constructed by privileging certain modes of assembling, certain distinctive traits, certain capacities or incapacities.” In this view, what we talk about when we talk about ‘the French people’ or ‘the American people’ is the exact opposite of what we think we are talking about. We create separation, not togetherness.

Still, people all across the political spectrum continue to use the phrase. Georges Didi-Huberman tackles this in the essay that he calls “to render sensible.” He agrees with Rancière that the people “as a unity, identity, totality, or generality … quite simply does not exist.” And he confirms Khiari: “There is not a people; there are only coexistent peoples.”

The problem, in modern democracies, is one of representation. Politicians, we are continually told, represent the people. But what does this mean? And there’s a further question of how ‘the people’ are represented and represent themselves through history. Ultimately, Didi-Huberman calls for a new definition, one that lifts the lid on repression and separation – with ‘the people’ only intelligible as part of a process of becoming “sensitive to something new in the history of the peoples that we desire, consequently, to know, to understand, and to accompany.” In this schema, to be a people involves allowing ourselves to be moved in ways that will upend our sense of what it means to be a people. To be a people means being mobile, always changing, eternally in formation.

In a way, these essays all point to the imprecision of our language. We use the same word for ‘the American people’ as we do for the people who, when united, will never be defeated. Yet those are two different kinds of peoples. I am part of ‘the American People’ by historical accident. I am part of ‘the people who, if united, will never be defeated,’ by choice – a choice born out of quixotic social hope. Truly, our vocabulary has shortchanged us. This is part of what Pierre Bourdieu points out in his contribution to the book (Bourdieu died in 2002 and his essay dates from the 1980s), that language itself can be an act of “symbolic aggression.”
The essays in What is a People? move in many thoughtful directions. They sent me scurrying back to a work I first read when I was in my early 20s but am now revisiting: Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason.

I found Sartre’s existentialism compelling. Here was a truly progressive ontology of what you might cheekily call the self-made man: existence precedes essence; we make ourselves as individuals through our motivated actions in the world. The existence of others, Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, is discovered through the body, and, because my being-in-itself can never be your being in-itself, can only be mapped in a partial and provisional way. “If then we succeed in making explicit the structures of our most primitive relations with the Other-in-the-world, we shall have completed our task” – which he defines with a stripped-down three-part schematic: “a relation of the for-itself with the in-itself in the presence of the Other.”
The Critique, however, shows just how much this initial tri-partite analysis is lacking. We don’t just operate as selves “in the presence” of others. Our world is far more convoluted and entwined. Indeed, you might say that the self hardly exists in everyday life. What exists, rather, are the innumerable ways we interact and reciprocate and are variously enmeshed with others who are themselves selves. This is the same insight that fueled Emmanuel Levinas’s proposition that “me” simply means “here I am for the others” (with this, ontology dead ends and the subject of philosophy reverts to ethics) and Jean-Luc Nancy’s declaration that all being is actually “being-with-one-another” – social in essence.
What distinguishes the Critique, however, is how Sartre attempted to worm his way deep inside the myriad ways we relate and respond to the unavoidable pluralism of the world: ensembles, organizations, collectives, collaboratives, cooperatives, communities, groups, etc.

Sartre is clear: “a nation is not a group.” Why? Because there’s a difference between the togetherness that’s created when people wait on line together for a bus, and the community created when people storm the Bastille. The first is serial: I happen to be next to all these other people who are forced, by the system and infrastructure that exists, to do the same thing I’m doing at the same time I’m doing it. The other is fused: we are together in action and, in that decisive moment, I can choose whether to risk my life in that crazed charge or not. In the Critique, Sartre calls this praxis. In Being and Nothingness, he calls it a project.

The key division in life, as revealed in both texts, is between the unmotivated and the motivated.

And this is where we find the difference between the inorganic necessity which makes you one of ‘the American people’ and the liberating action involved in joining ‘the people who, if united, will never be defeated.’

You don’t choose to be part of the American people: it’s a serial relation based on where you happen to live and when you got there and a bunch of other inert features of your life. And national identity is permanent. This is not to say it doesn’t expand and contract (think of “the American people” before women had the right to vote). But it never goes away until a nation goes bust. In fact, your own participation as a member of ‘the people’ is irrelevant to the survival of the term.

By contrast, you create the group by choosing to become a demonstrator or to join or cross a picket line or storm the Bastille. In Butler’s terms, this choice leaves you exposed and defiant all at once – and this will define you and the others you are with. Actions of resistance are temporary and provisional. You go to this demonstration, but not that one. You oppose the war, but continue to pay taxes to the government that is pursuing the war. Resistance continually comes together and falls apart. Your choices are ever-present and have to be made over and over and over again.

Of course, this quality of being motivated does not guarantee that anyone’s project is liberating. Consider organizations like drug gangs and the Mafia and ISIS. Their lure goes beyond the bare seriality of the bus queue. Their members are motivated – even if we do not understand the roots of their motivation.

In an unsigned preface, What is a People? situates the concept of ‘the people’ as “solidly rooted on the side of emancipation.”

Yet the book doesn’t bear that out. For Khiari and Badiou and Ranciere, the concept, as currently employed, remains almost inalterably conservative and separating. And anyway, no matter how much we may want to believe that ‘the people, united, will never be defeated,’ events show again and again that ‘the people’ can be overwhelmed and outflanked and beaten back. In 2011, 'the Egyptian people’ took over Tahrir Square in Cairo and toppled the dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. And once the tide broke and the people receded back to their homes, they got the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi. And when that democratically elected (though clearly not liberating or progressive) regime proved too much for the people and the military, they got General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The empire struck back. Twice.

Just after World War II – a decade and a half before he published the CritiqueSartre honed in on the odd twinning of freedom and oppression:

Never were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces every day – and we had to hold our tongues. They deported us en masse – as workers, as Jews, as political prisoners. Everywhere, -- upon the walls, in the press, on the screen, -- we found filthy and insipid images of ourselves which the oppressor wished to present to us. And because of all this, we were free.

In this analysis – written in the flush of victory – oppression annealed peoples’ freedom through their praxis/project of resistance. Would Sartre argue the same way today, that the Egyptian people are becoming increasingly free even as their oppression may be stronger than ever? That verges on doublethink. And there’s a deeper question lurking here: can liberating praxis ever result in liberation? Sartre worried about this. He wrote the Critique, in part, to determine “if it really is possible to devise a theory of reciprocal multiplicities in organized groups, independently of all concrete historical ends and of any particular circumstances.” And if it is, he continued, “do we not immediately collapse in the face of an inert ossature of the organization? And do we not abandon the terrain of liberating praxis and the dialectic and revert to some kind of inorganic necessity?” His fear was that every definition of liberation automatically calcifies into a new form of oppression.

This leaves ‘the people’ with no choice but to push onward, event by event, with body and mind, in hope and despair, exposed as well as defiant. As the Chi-lites and John Lennon put it (both songs, weirdly, coming from the same year, 1971):

(For God’s sake) give more power to the people.
Power to the people. Right now. Right on.