“The point is that the very roots of the electoral system—the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest—had been destabilized.”
— Alexis Madrigal, “What Facebook Did To American Democracy“
“The point is that the very roots of the electoral system—the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest—had been destabilized.”
— Alexis Madrigal, “What Facebook Did To American Democracy“
Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Demagoguery and Democracy. NY: The Experiment LLC, 2017.
A small book about people with small minds and even smaller hands, but with a big question behind it: What is (and what isn’t) demagoguery? and how do we fight it? In straightforward, conversational prose—speaking more to the hoi polloi than scholars—Roberts-Miller contends, first of all, that our common understanding of demagogues is wrong, and often reproduces the structure of demagoguery. Rather than conceive demagoguery as “about passion, emotionalism, populism, and pandering to the crowds” (7), R-M argues that it at bottom “is about identity” (8), about reducing politics to who is with us versus they who are against us. Her definition is succinct: “Demagoguery is discourse that promises stability, certainty, and escape from the responsibilities of rhetoric by framing public policy in terms of the degree to which and the means by which (not whether) the out-group should be scapegoated for the current problems of the in-group” (33); more often than not, demagoguery functions fetishistically or totemically when “people give power to a leader because they believe he or she has almost supernatural powers (or supernatural powers have chosen this leader)” (57). That is to say, demagoguery comes first, and demagogues second; cultures can be demagogic, and can “create an environment of more and more demagoguery” (79), particularly “when a culture imagines all political argument…as exclusively compliance-gaining, expressive, or bargaining” (84)—a problem exacerbated by “thoroughly factionalized” media (91). So what to do? Here, R-M offers some suggestions—limit media consumption, don’t feed the trolls, raise rhetorical consciousness, and support democratic deliberation—though these ultimately seem more like general guidelines for public discourse than specifically tailored to the political mayhem we face today.
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.
Recently, I was invited to deliver a paper at the BH+DH Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The call for papers prompted presenters “to study how digital humanities grows out book history, how ‘bh’ and ‘dh’ continue to be mutually informative and generative, and how they also contradict each other.” Below is a copy of my presentation, which I hope to return to as an article:
First film, then print, and finally, the post.
After the horrific events of Charlottesville and a growing tolerance of racist rhetoric by our civic leaders, various pundits and politicos throughout the mainstream media have expressed, on the left, shock, and further to the right, awe, at the reemergence of white nationalism from out the west wings of American political discourse. Of course, racist ideology is nothing new to our nation’s institutions, nor has it ever vanished from them entirely, such that if anything of late has been in fact surprising, it is not that white supremacists occupy every corner of the Oval Office, but rather that they do so, so flagrantly. Just about gone are the folksy dog whistles—why would they need them, when the Commander-in-Cheeto is the first president in over a century to not enjoy the companionship of any pet—and in their place we hear political rhetoric hounded by Dixie-whistling confederate apologists and shepherds of a Germanic carnage, who bear the tiki-torch of America’s shameful and ongoing legacy of racism. The fact of that matter is that while the White House has repeatedly housed white supremacists, the American public has not seen such brazen and blatant racism come from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since Woodrow Wilson screened D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). The first-ever film shown at the presidential residency, Wilson reportedly described it as “writing history with lightning,” and it was thanks to his enthusiastic approval and that of the Supreme Court—Chief Justice Edward White only agreed to watch the three-hour epic after hearing it made heroes of his beloved Klan—that the pictured secured wide release and enormous popular success.
For all its ahistorical sincerity, the irony underlying the historic impact of The Birth of a Nation is that, while the film utterly and willfully misrepresents white supremacist propaganda as an accurate record of Reconstruction and the rending of American unity, at the same time Griffith’s masterpiece engendered a new movie-going public across the country, as well as rekindled the KKK—the same iteration as likely included Fred Trump, by the way. In establishing for the first time a nonverbal cinematic language, a feature-length narrative structure, a full score combining original and adapted music, realism as film’s standard aesthetic mode, and (especially) Hollywood’s huge economic potential, The Birth of a Nation stands as a principle illustration of the relationship between a citizenry’s ideology and its media. Said otherwise: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation gave birth to our nation of movie-goers, with its artistic and technical innovations defining even up to today the basic rules and expectations we have for cinema—an origin inseparable from the film’s similar entwinement with the politics of its, which remains our, time. The point here is not simply that Griffith’s movie functioned explicitly as racist propaganda reimagining and revitalizing American white nationalism, but that by delineating the nascent medium’s grammar and potential, The Birth of a Nation hailed a cinematic citizenry, doing for the 20th Century what Benjamin Franklin’s printing press did for the 18th and what Silicon Valley has been doing for ours: That is, they effect newly mediated publics, or what Benedict Anderson has termed imagined communities.
According to the late Anderson, the birth of a nation—and here we are talking about the concept of a nation generally, no longer limited to Griffith’s film or to America specifically, but nationhood and nationalism at large—is entirely dependent upon an era’s dominant medium of communication, and in particular, the development and standardization of print technology. When combined with the mechanical reproduction and disseminative power of Capitalism, early print media “laid the bases for national consciousness” by both giving “a new fixity to language” as well as fixing “unified fields of exchange and communication” among a burgeoning public. For the first time, print media—and especially newspapers and pamphlets—permitted people who would otherwise be strangers separated across continental geographies and centennial temporalities to conceive of themselves as an interrelated population of fellow-readers, all sharing the same semi-official “print-language,” each reading the same printed material. “These fellow-readers, to whom they were connected through print,” writes Anderson, “formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally imagined community,” wherein every morning people would open their newspapers, well aware that countless like-minded neighbors were simultaneously replicating this banal ritual, absorbing the news in privacy and silence, as if in morning prayer. What is more, the synthesizing form of the medium itself allowed this emerging citizenry to imagine themselves as a quasi-cohesive community, sharing the space and the time of a single printed page: Persons in, say, Maryland could see juxtaposed on the same page a column covering the commercial news of their surrounding neighborhood and, barely a line apart, a paragraph on the social happenings in Virginia, thereby creating among these fellow-readers a sense that this disconnected assemblage of events, people, and things all belonged together, and in time, all belonged to the imagined community of a single, limited nation—imagined not because they are inauthentic, but because nations are speculatively established, founded upon a promise first made available by the “reproducibility and dissemination” of print media.
Despite immediate appearances, the literary character of nationalism is not lost in the transition from print to film as our dominant national medium, from the birth of a nation with cannons to The Birth of a Nation with cameras nearly a century and a half later. Had I the time here, I would more fully trace the relationship between exclusionary racism and print-culture nationalism through reference to the work of Peter Sloterdijk, and tying that together with the traditional humanities more generally, but for now I want to limit our scope to a discussion of how media structure ideologies, and thus how communication technologies inform our understandings of the human condition. That media function unconsciously to constitute our social and psychical experience is what Marshall McLuhan means with his famous dictum that the medium is the message: The ideological power of the periodicals written by the founding fathers stems not so much from the overt arguments they make for revolution or democracy, but from the material form in which those arguments are delivered. The topical juxtaposition of a newspaper page or the replicative distribution of a printed pamphlet thus can do more to unite and stabilize the idea of a national public in the minds of diverse, silent, yet monolingual fellow-readers than any explicit patriotic rhetoric.
For McLuhan—who agrees with Anderson that nationalism finds its origin in the regularity of print technologies, which is why modernity’s epoch of the nation-state is coterminous with what he calls the Gutenberg Galaxy—the cinematic medium merely continues the alphabetic, literary import of the printing press. Insofar as “the Gutenberg technology of movable types is quite indispensable to any industrial or film process,” from the contracts to the critics, then, writes McLuhan, “[f]ilm, both in its reel form and in its scenario or script form, is completely involved with [print] culture,” that is, with “a culture in an extreme reach of typographic conditioning,” of which “[f]ilm [is], as a form, [its] final fulfillment.” McLuhan’s claim here is not ancillary to my larger point about nationalism, print culture, and—here is where we are headed, in short order—the Internet’s transformation of traditional ideological structures; rather, McLuhan helps us to explain the excessive popularity of Griffith’s film by interpreting The Birth of a Nation not as a revolutionary break with communications media past, but stricto sensu as a continuation of print’s ideological form of mechanical reproduction and uniformity, imagistic juxtaposition, phantasmatic interiority, high-definition realism, and linear narrative structure. By this account, the unprecedented and perhaps still unparalleled triumph of The Birth of a Nation at bottom should be generally attributed to its patriotic and nationalist function, instead of its entertainment appeal, aesthetic merit, sheer novelty, or use as Klan propaganda (in this context, it is worth recalling that the film came out after the outbreak of World War I, but before the United States joined the Allied forces, a point when exceptionalist isolationism and protectionist nationalism were running high).
Were Griffith to release his film today, complete with CGI-enhanced battles and a score by Hans Zimmer that goes BWONG, I doubt it would be greeted with the same success, despite an audience already existing that has shown a renewed political commitment to white nationalism. Even a century after The Birth of a Nation, mainstream film studios, like our public discourse at large, have maintained a banal tolerance of racist ideologies, and audiences rarely balk at even the most egregious examples of minority exploitation or erasure; rather, it would be the film’s overriding and structural nationalist implications that would fail to connect with viewers today. Such a claim may seem counterintuitive in light of movements declaring they will #hashtag Make America Great Again and demanding we put America First—the latter slogan also being used by Woodrow Wilson in the 1916 presidential election—but my point here is, again, a structural one: If nationalism and nationhood as such arise with the ascendancy of print media, are conditioned by and contingent to Gutenberg technologies, then in an era marked by the decline and death of print, in the wake of print’s waning, nationalism and nationhood consequently must bear witness to this shift, characterized itself by the fluidity and specificity of the Internet, our new, now dominant medium.
This is all to say that if we have, over the past few years, seen the rise of neo-nationalisms and neo-fascisms abroad and at home, then these social trends and political movements necessarily must be of a different quality than their print-based predecessors. In place of print-nationalism’s mechanical uniformity, wherein a Texan and a Wisconsinite conceive themselves as always receiving the same news, sharing the same page, appearing under the same typographic conditions, the economic model of the Internet is constructed around targeted advertising and individually curated newsfeeds, what Eli Pariser describes as our algorithmically personalized filter bubbles, which prevent traditional communities from imagining themselves as interconnected across space and time. Whereas print technologies effectively stabilize and elevate some particular vernacular dialect into a standardized national tongue—or, in the related case of screen media, the way regional American accents generally have been reduced in deference to network newscaster English—the Internet once again returns us to a semi-oral kaleidoscope of nonstandard usages and in-group slang, often involving nonverbal signals like memes, emojis, and reaction gifs. This drift moves in other directions, as well, for if print media traditionally were limited in their dispersive capacity to physically and temporally “finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations,” as Anderson says, these borders fall away when faced with the instantaneous, widespread, indefatigable reach of the Internet.
The rapid-fire, far-ranging technological systems underlying contemporary modes of communication irrevocably alter our traditional social formations, thereby giving birth to new nationalisms ostensibly reproducing an imagined past, but in reality unrecognizable to those older institutions. The hypertextual fecundity and fluidity of modern digital media make print’s uniformity, isolation, and commonality unviable as principles for political organization, which is why neo-nationalisms (particularly of the white supremacist type) position themselves as a-nation-within-a-nation, representatives of a supposedly “true” or “real” political remnant that inherently disrupts any sense of functional national unity by pitting neighbor against neighbor, where a citizenry are defined not by a geographic or typographic relation, but by ideological and ethnic affiliation. Again, had I the time today, I would trace this transformation of nationalism from the so-called Gutenberg Galaxy of print media, through the Babbage Black Hole of digital technology, to what McLuhan labels our emerging Global Village—but whereas McLuhan sees this “simultaneous happening,” this “sudden implosion” of “all social and political functions” as a net positive of the Net, what we have seen of late is how the move from classical nationalism to the Global Village has resulted in a resurgence of tribalism and eugenic ideologies. To be clear, this is not to say that such racist and divisive tribalism is inevitable, nor do I mean to endorse a vision of strict technological determinism; yet changes in media will ineluctably have social and subjective effects, prostheses working to redefine what we can do, how far we can go with one another, and therefore, at bottom, who we are as a people. Had we been paying closer attention to this shift, the advent of the Global Village could have gone the way McLuhan believed it inevitably would, a world where political boundaries and personal bigotries fall away as we are thrust into a situation of radical cybernetic interconnectedness. The possibility has not been foreclosed, and we might still reorganize ourselves and our society towards that egalitarian promise should we chose to do so—and the moment for that choice simply will not wait in a world of digital haste—but a functioning democracy can no longer be achieved through the stratagems and structures of print-nationalism, for though the structural ideal of the republic might still remain, the nation as traditionally imagined is no more.
A few thoughts in defense of antifa and the moral imperative to bash the fash: There are those on both the right and the left who, fond of blindly quoting Jefferson and Voltaire, will defend the right of Nazi scum, white supremacists, fascists, and Republicans—apologies for the poetic redundancy there—to spew the sort of despicable vitriol we all saw yesterday in Virginia under the banner of free speech. “There can be no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech,” as Cato wrote, a line repeated by Benjamin Franklin, and which has been inscribed in the U.S. House of Representatives—yet the very next sentence in Cato’s letter is too oft ignored: Free speech “is the right of every man [sic], as far as by it, he [sic] does not hurt or control the right of another.”
It is the latter part of the quotation that matters today. It is the second part that was tested yesterday in Charlottesville: Not the free speech of individuals who we (should and most do) disagree with, but the effort by them to curtail the liberty of the oppressed. There is no such thing as a free society without freedom of speech—for good reason, it is the first article protected in our Bill of Rights—yet without freedom among citizens, without that fundamental equality of people that supposedly is self-evident, there can be no free speech, either.
What is made plain as day by the relatively peaceful police response yesterday when compared to the horrible treatment of demonstrators at Ferguson, Baltimore, Standing Rock, and elsewhere, is how PoC still today, in 2017, lack the essential liberties, the basic rights of speech and assembly, that white folk enjoy and take for granted every day. Black Americans, Latinx Americans, Native Americans, Queer Americans: Our fellow Americans, burdened by the long history of oppression and disenfranchisement that characterizes our country’s history, as well as it’s current political cesspool, simply do not possess the same right to free speech as white (and male) Americans like myself. This is an structural inequality rooted deep within our country. To quote another of our illustrious founders, John Adams: “When people talk of the freedom of writing, speaking, or thinking, I cannot choose but laugh. No such thing ever existed. No such thing now exists; but I hope it will exist. But it must be hundreds of years after you and I shall write and speak no more.”
Well it has been a couple hundred years since Adams wrote those words to Jefferson, and we have certainly inched closer in many respects to the ideals of true democracy, liberty, and equality. Yet, as was on display yesterday, our country and our citizens still have great distances to go till we reach those dreams. That is why the hatred and ignorance in Virginia is not simply a matter of free speech. That is why the impotent rage of white supremacists to protect their social position are not even remotely comparable to the real struggle of minorities and the oppressed to gain their equal footing. That is why this is not a many-sided issue, as our idiotic and traitorous pumpkin-headed POTUS claims. The racist ideologues who have long been in power and who still today maintain control of our so-called democratic republic should never be allowed to denounce or deny or decry the rights of the powerless and vulnerable.
To use one’s own privilege to refuse the political and social equality of the disadvantaged is immoral in the extreme. That is not free speech; that is mere violence, and should be met with its equal and opposite reaction (to stick with the Newtonian episteme of our founders). Or, as Samuel Johnson put it, writing during the infant years of our nation: “Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it.”
Managerial liberalism is doing what any superego must under severe stress: continue, against all hope, to assert control. Yet, faced with an ascendant global right and a resurgent global left, its correcting and corralling impulses have gone haywire.
— Emmett Rensin, “The Blathering Superego at the End of History“
The man in the white house sits, naked and obscene, a pustule of ego, in the harsh light, a man whose grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence.
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.