Magazine article Artforum International

The Shining

Magazine article Artforum International

The Shining

Article excerpt

THIS MONTH, the forty-fifth president of the United States will be sworn into office--but not on the Bible. Indeed, no sacred text or tome is required to administer the oath of the presidency, and this time, for this man, the only playbook is that of spectacle.

People who study politics have long used two basic models of explaining how the world works. The first is realpolitik, whereby a group or state acts in its own interest, that is, in the interest of amassing power. The second is ideology, according to which a group or state acts based on a belief or cultural more, whether a religion or an ethics or mere zeal. The difference with Donald J. Trump is that he seems motivated by neither model. He has no consistent ideology; he appears to contradict his every word almost immediately after uttering it. He does not evince any rational decision-making based on strategic goals. He is instead motivated by one thing: media.

The West's incoming leader is driven, in other words, by the image. His regime is built on visual and perceptual culture (complete with an old-school minister of propaganda, Stephen Bannon). This is by no means new, of course, on the stage of world politics. Since time immemorial, real conflict has arisen because of perception and the escalation of perception--one example is what political scientist Graham Allison has called "the Thucydides Trap": when an ascending power is seen as a threat to the dominant power, and that spiraling fear leads to war. (Thucydides wrote, "What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.") One watches this dynamic at work in Trump's cultivation of fear and trigger-happy--or Twitter-happy--responses, just as one saw it in the Iraq war itself, a fraudulent response to a perceived threat.

The power of the visual has ascended to ever-greater heights, even in a world of invisible networks of control, of flexible and tentacular streams of surveillance, biopower, and microregulation. But at the same time, the top-down dissemination of information via mass culture in the twentieth century has been hyperdiversified, splintered. Today, we confront the spectral atomization of disinformation throughout the dark reaches of the internet, the most esoteric voices flowing like microscopic particles into the lifeblood of the media apparatus. Technological networks can amplify these bits and flows--exponentially, monstrously, radically. And the most effective vehicle for these streams is the image: the appearance of truth, or of might.

Trump seems to believe that he projects an image of white male strength, but his visage is far stranger than that: No matter what words emanate from that mouth, the orange scowl is such an affront to the placid miens of the Romneys and Clintons of the world that it cannot but upset the order of things. This is no telegenic Reagan smile but the rictus grin of an anarchic troll. Trump's image produces a reality effect like no other before it.

The unprecedented proliferation of such images, and the rise of fundamentalisms and populisms over the past several years, has demonstrated that the unthinkable can happen: that the most extreme views--the fringe, the alt--can suddenly assume the seat of world power. …

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