On Protesting in an Era of Modern American Fascism

Throughout the nation and across the globe, for a truly remarkable moment, chants of protest rang out loudly and fiercely yesterday. Signs waved but demonstrators did not waver. Women stood up en masse as never before, in a way which we should never forget.

Yet to stay true to yesterday, to remain faithful to such an event (as Badiou might claim), means not pointing to the past of what we have already done, but seeing yesterday as an opening toward tomorrow, to continued (and continual) change. We need remember that an objection is just a beginning and a protest is as much a test of our resolve as it is of the other side. We have demonstrated our outrage, but now must demonstrate another sort of courage. We must transform our demand for recognition into a desire for revolution, not allowing our rallying to become (as Zizek has warned so often) little more than a release of political energy, a release from political obligation. Such caution and hope is, of course, nothing new—but that’s precisely because we have failed so often in the past to transform an Event into something in fact new.

What I worry and wonder about, however, and what I think we might forget in the excitement and communion of our rallies, is what else is new in the context of these marches; that is to say, what it is that we march against. For while fascism and patriarchy and exploitation and bigotry are as primordial as our truth, they are not nearly as adamant—and that means both that the oppressor is breakable, but likewise that he is flexible. Hence what I am afraid of is that traditional forms of protestation will have little effect on late capitalism and Trumpism, especially as the latter divorces itself more and more from whatever durability reality and truth have left.

There is something new to be found in modern fascism as much as reinstates something ancient and long-thought dead. Trump is not Hitler—he has the hair but lacks the grandeur; Trump is not Mussolini—if his business are any indicator, the trains won’t run on time; Trump is not Stalin or Mao or Fidel—born of wealth, he will only serve the wealthy; Trump is not even Berlusconi—both are clowns, but only one might really be John Wayne Gacy. And so what I fear is that our protests do not acknowledge and do not meet these differences, that public demonstration of outrage does not take into account the particularity of Trump’s repulsiveness.

What we can say with certainty about the character of modern American fascism is this: It is brutally narcissistic and incredibly media savvy. Both those things—the ego’s imperviousness to criticism and technology’s digital mirror—feed off each other in a cruel short-circuit; but what is more, they are modern instruments of alchemy, transforming reality into fascist fantasy and righteous protest into riotous puling. Already, within hours of the first feet striking the ground and signs scrapping the sky, this machinery was at work, as Trump’s team spun the fact to fit their alternative account. You know the story: The dishonest media lies while Real Americans™ know the truth—his crowd was bigger than yours and his hands are not so tiny. For a Trump voter, oppressed but misrecognizing their oppressor, caught up in the Imaginary register of the screen and of representation and identity politics, convinced of a world with well-defined (or wall-defined) colors, as for Trump himself (and I think we often ignore that Trump has always been his first and most vocal supporter), there are no civil dissidents, only unpatriotic enemies, there are no protestors, only rabble. Hence opposition becomes confirmation of their reality: If we weren’t right, the streets would be empty and their voices silent (as they have been for us for so long).

Not, of course, that Trump truly speaks for his voters; he is simply commander-in-chief among the deplorables. Fascism is always a false populism—”behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution,” said Benjamin—wherein the leader does not represent the interests of the masses, but the masses represent the interests of their leader, willing servants of the state apparatus. Divorced from consensus reality, Trump supporters are likewise severed from their own leadership, lacking any ability or desire to influence those in power, while nonetheless backing it blindly: Trump’s vision of America, his (in)version of the facts, will be theirs, regardless of what their own eyes tell them.

The trick here, however, is in recognizing that this fascist power structure is not unique to Trump—though he realizes it in unholy new ways—but cuts through the core of modern American politics. Only by stretching the truth, combing it over a la Trump, can we call such structural inequality democracy. The American polity, both those in the streets yesterday and those lining the streets of the inauguration the day before, has next to no say in actual American politics. Our representatives do not represent our interests—and it is beholden to us to not represent theirs—but those of large corporations, of late capitalism, of limitless consumerism. American politics are structured like and by the coin: On one side, Trump and his nationalist jingoism, while on the other, the 1% and their economic domination.

Ay, there’s the rub: If our protests fall both on the blind eyes of Trump’s followers as well as the deaf ears of Democratic leadership, then our voices might as well be mute. Thus we must reimagine how we resist in our cowardly new world of anti-democratic spectacle. It does not take much, moreover, to realize what needs be done: If the wealthy have the power, than we must strike where it hurts them most—and strike we must. Yesterday marked the largest political demonstration in US history, but yesterday was a Saturday. Imagine if we had taken to the streets the day before, rather than take to our desks, watching the inauguration on our screens. Imagine if, en masse, we refused to listen to the narcissist harangue or the capitalist hustle, if we refused to comply with the ideological injunction of reproduce and multiply, whether that be the stooge’s image or the stockholder’s profit. Just for a day, but not on the weekend—for that will only ever mark a a weak start for a true and necessary revolution.




Annotated Bookshelf: Addressing Postmodernity

Biesecker, Barbara A. Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997.

In her brief yet comprehensive monograph, Biesecker employs a deconstructive reading of Burke’s principle trilogy—his singular Grammar and his two Rhetorics; or better yet, his two Motives and his singular Religion—in order to show how, “by insisting on the constitutive role of rhetoric in the formation of individual and collective subjects, Burke’s work productively supplements contemporary understandings of the relations of structure and subject” (9). Tracing the development of human agency and sociality across these texts, Biesecker argues that A Grammar of Motives offers a theory of human individuation and dialectical subjectivity that opens up to or develops into a theory of identification and collectivity in A Rhetoric of Motives—a transformation that The Rhetoric of Religion interrogates at the level of becoming via the negative. According to Biesecker, the Burkean subject is constituted by a split between purposive action and unconscious (and inhuman) motion; hence, this structural division acts for the earlier Burke as “an irreconcilable relation between the passive and the active in the human being that is the condition of possibility for being human,” so that “[i]t is precisely this relation between action and motion, itself structured in and by an irreducible distance, that constitutes the economy of the subject” (28f.). In the more expansive account of A Rhetoric of Motives, however, “motion is redefined as the principle of individuation and action is redefined as the principle of sociality” (47)—which is to say that human individuation and subjectivity become the condition of possibility for the social whatsoever. Put otherwise, “[t]he social, which is to say the ‘we,’ is what might be called in contemporary parlance a textual chain, a ‘reality’ woven of discontinuities and constitutive differences” (49), and ultimately, “it is in language and rhetoric that the social takes place: language and rhetoric are the way of being of the social; language and rhetoric are the very mode of existence of the social” (50), that aspect of the human being beyond its biological individuality. For Biesecker, and for Burke, “our very being-with is predicated upon our always already being other: a vital sensus communis is sustained by resolute difference and division or, to put it a bit differently, a vivacious ‘we’ exists only insofar as its actualization is a to-come. Finally, then, Burke’s work…invites us to question the wisdom of positioning or fashioning ‘consensus’ as an ideal” (100).

a few final quotes:

“Burke’s work puts us on the track of an alternative theorization of the relations of structure and subject that, in taking rhetoric seriously into account, can admit the role of human agency in the making and unmaking of social structures and history without resurrecting the sovereign subject of Enlightenment philosophy.” (9)

“Burke’s thought is constantly on the move, perpetually on the make, chronically undoing itself.” (15)

“the [action/movement] difference that obtains between the human and the nonhuman, and that indeed structures their relation, also obtains within the human being itself.…human acts are composites whose congealed form is the outcome of the finessing of or subtle negotiation with both an irreducible action or ‘purpose’ component and an irreducible motion component.” (27)

“motive proper is for Burke a principle of structuration rather than a positive presence; an irreconcilable relation between the passive and the active in the human being that is the condition of possibility for being human” (28f.)

“Burke’s concept of motion as it applies to the human being signifies all those things, biological or otherwise, that constrain or place limits on the free play of the action differential. Hence, subsumed under the motion differential are ‘instincts,’ ‘drives,’ and ‘natural forces.’ Also subsumed under the motion differential (and this is the critical point) is the context within which the human being operates” (31)

“motion is a term that signifies a chronic condition of the human being, its nonidentity with and its estrangement from all other members of the species. Motion is Burke’s name for a certain alterity, an alterity that definitely prohibits a perfect conjuncture between man and man…contrary to Marx and to Freud, Burke claims the human being is always and already estranged.” (46)

“Taken together, the action and motion loci of motives constitute the zero ground of the social…in the predication of the human being per se is the possibility of the social.” (47)

“the symbolic (and its concomitant logic) is itself the form in which the social, indeed history itself, approaches sense. Put differently, it is in language and rhetoric that the social takes place: language and rhetoric are the way of being of the social; language and rhetoric are the very mode of existence of the social.” (50)

“today, in ‘our’ day, a day in which the anxiety of influence seems to have given way to the psychoneuroses of insularity.” (75)

“the ‘Idea of No’ puts us on the track of the radical critique of [Habermasian] universal pragmatics by inverting its resident hierarchy, by repositioning the hortatory gesture or perlocutionary speech act as that which is temporally prior and, hence, holds the superior position. If, as Burke suggests, the very essence of language is to be derived from the principle of the negative or the ‘Idea of No’…there there is no communicative praxis that is not always and already rhetorical praxis or a derivation thereof.” (93)

“While it is certainly true that rhetorical or suasory speech taken in the narrow sense often hits its mark and moves and audience to a particular action or incites in them a particular attitude, the rhetorical or suasory in the general sense is neither engendered nor sustained by a restricted and pragmatic economy of means-end or need-satisfaction but, to the contrary, is animated by a desire that in principle is insatiable.” (97)

“It is precisely this definition of rhetoric—rhetoric understood as a mode of discourse whose continued ‘existence’ is predicated upon its own perpetual failure or its irreducible inability to achieve its end—that Burke claims underwrites all communicative exchange, all symbolic action.” (99)

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: The Mass Psychology of Fascism

Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.

Once again, we left-leaning people, left lying facedown in the worst political dirt, must ask ourselves: How did it come to this? Or, more specifically: Why has the worker’s revolution not come to pass, even not come up at all, despite how ripe the economic and technologic conditions have become? Why has the working electorate once more voted against their own material self-interest? Or, as Reich succinctly puts it (14): “what prevents the economic situation from coinciding with the psychic structure of the masses?” Long before Žižek first sniffed, writing as the Third Reich rode onto the scene, this Reich already proposed that ours was a question not for Marxist sociology but psychoanalysis, for “psychic structure…is forced to develop a contradiction corresponding to the contradiction between the influence exercised by [mankind’s] material position and the influence exercised by the ideological structure of society” (18). Said otherwise, the ideologically and materially subjugated masses vote against their interests not because they are fooled, but because their interests are repressed, silenced by a fascist super-ego. “Thus, the authoritarian state gains an enormous interest in the authoritarian family: It becomes the factory in which the state’s structure and ideology are molded,” Reich forwards in a key passage, naming the family as “the authoritarian state in miniature;” and as such, it is through the patriarchal family that “[m]an’s authoritarian structure…is basically produced by the embedding of sexual inhibitions and fear in the living substance of sexual impulses” (30), leading ultimately, in a return of the repressed, to the bigotry and brutality of the fascist masses. That is to say, because “[s]exual desires naturally urge a person to enter into all kinds of relations with the world, to enter into close contact with it in a variety of forms” (56), the repression of those desires leads to a xenophobic narrowing of the world, and ultimately, through identification with a singular führer-figure, a “childish need for protection” by the state and a defense of “national narcissism” that loudly proclaims the “greatness of the nation” (63). Sound familiar? Without going too deeply into Reich’s final solution for fascism—it has to do with what he calls “work-democracy,” the “natural process of love, work, and knowledge” that is immanent to rational social relations (311)—above all else, Reich asserts that to achieve freedom over fascism, the masses must become “burdened” by social and self responsibility, accepting of their biological and unconscious desires (334).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

A Sort of Shadow Internet

“What this map shows is the distribution network and you can see that it’s surrounding and actually choking the mainstream news ecosystem.”

Via Carole Cadwalladr in The Guardian on “Google, democracy, and the truth about internet search”:

The general public are completely in the dark about very fundamental issues regarding online search and influence. We are talking about the most powerful mind-control machine ever invented in the history of the human race. And people don’t even notice it.



In Pynchon’s view, modernity’s systems of liberation and enlightenment — railway and post, the Internet, etc. — perpetually collapse into capitalism’s Black Iron Prison of enclosure, monopoly and surveillance. The rolling frontier (or bleeding edge) of this collapse is where we persistently and helplessly live. His characters take sustenance on what scraps of freedom fall from the conveyor belt of this ruthless conversion machine, like the house cat at home in the butcher’s shop. In Joyce’s formulation, history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. For Pynchon, history is a nightmare within which we must become lucid dreamers.

Jonathan Lethem, reviewing Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013)

Annotated Bookshelf: The Transhuman Condition

Pruchnic, Jeff. Rhetoric and Ethics in the Cybernetic Age: The Transhuman Condition. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Although contemporary dystopic fictions—say, any given episode of Black Mirror—largely suggest a symbolic sociality captured by dehumanizing technology of calculation a la Heidegger, Pruchnic reminds us that the information superhighway is a two-way street, undergirded by a cybernetic logic that broadly mirrors human diversification in the constitutive flexibility of the digital realm. Said otherwise, “the most pervasive impact of the age of information technology beginning with cybernetics is not the increasing ubiquity of these material technologies themselves, but the ways in which politics, culture, and economics has increasingly found its operating principles in those processes that find only their most obvious manifestation in physical technology” (9). Contemporary culture, for all its heterogeneity and fracturing, is accordingly grounded by a singular techno-logic wherein media function to suture persuasive ontologies and various epistemologies (mind you, Pruchnic stops just short of such an aporia, but his analysis lends itself to a more homogenous conclusion). Rhetoric thus can be said to be a “particularly salient domain for analyzing contemporary culture because it, like the dominant processes of culture today, is less concerned with representation, epistemology, or ideology than it is with a spectrum of directly motivational or persuasive forces” (17). Such a transhuman condition, wherein technological and human networks bleed into one another at the bleeding edge, leaves little room for resistance as traditionally conceived in critical theory, says Pruchnic; rather, “the fundamental challenge of the present is not so much to discover some radical alternative to contemporary conditions…but to figure out how these same techniques already immensely immanent in contemporary capitalism can be made to produce different outcomes, to somehow ameliorate the immense inequalities or material damages that largely remain common to the system, despite its vast mutations in other areas” (38)—and such invention is what rhetoric can deliver, particularly in the field’s recent interest in the asignifying and nonrational import of affect in communication, “a matrix for the formation of psychic associations and dispositions” as well as a “mechanism through which they might be altered” (43).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

A Note on #Election2016

Like so many others, I am dumbfounded today. Fearful for the future and dismayed by our democratic institutions, I am unsure what we must do next to ensure a better tomorrow for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for our children—in no small part because tomorrow is itself so very uncertain at this point. My spirits are low today, my grievances high, and there will be many fingers to point over the coming weeks for what will no doubt be a very sorry State of Affairs.

Change is needed and change will come—it can because it must—though whether it will come too late remains to be seen. The obstacles and anxieties we face as a planet are devastatingly real, urgent, and growing. While I do not believe that our future president (cringe) offers any remotely viable solution to those problems, I have hope that vigilant critical opposition to the encroaching authoritarianism and demagoguery on the right will generate new emancipatory tactics from the left. What is imperative now is well past the scope of any sole politician, party, or even polity. We require, and have for some time, a social revolution of a wholly other order, well beyond the purview of a single election night.

So where do we go from here? Clearly, ideological purity tests and political purges (on social media or in statehouses) will not bring us to that better place. The digital echo chambers we have built up around ourselves are a large reason for both our shock and our fear, so we must double down on diversity, not media isolation. We must seek to better understand (though not merely excuse) the plight of those who would so readily vote against their own ethical code and self-interest, while simultaneously exposing them to alternative attitudes and value systems. We must not give into the despair, the fury, or the acrimony simmering across the nation today. In short, we must eschew the politics that won out last night, which can only lead to the whole world losing.

Have hope, comrades. Have mettle and fire. We are on the right side of history—albeit on the wrong side of the wall. Imagine the tomorrow you want to see and start putting that world into practice today.