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Hodja’s financial situation was worsening. He began to cut down on everything, including the food he gave to his donkey. Since he noticed no change for the worse in the animal, every day he reduced the amount of food he gave him.

One day, the donkey died. Hodja was very sad. “What a shame! Just as he was getting used to hunger, he died.”

Tale by Nasreddin Hodja, 13th Century satirist of the region of present-day Turkey


What a shame! Just as people with health insurance were getting used to millions not having it, a pandemic hit and their lack of coverage threatened all.

What a shame! Just as health insurance companies had gotten used to mainly leveraging profits, they had to provide healthcare.

What a shame! Just as the stock market had gotten used to rising with no connection to everyday labor, labor stopped and it crashed.

What a shame! Just as outsourcing materials vital to curbing a pandemic was working, we ran out of those materials.

What a shame! Just as the wealthy had gotten used to not being bothered by the poor, the starving masses took to the streets (some with guns).

What a shame! Just as centrists had gotten used to accepting less and less from their politicians, they needed them to deliver immediately.

What a shame! Just as U.S. politicians had gotten used to gaming slim-margin reelections, they had to respond to dire human needs.

What a shame! Just as middle-class Americans were getting used to corporate news-as-entertainment, their lives depended on non-ideological facts.

What a shame! Just as those living in comfort had gotten used to ignoring those living paycheck-to-paycheck, the precarious started to make their needs known.

What a shame! Just as we had gotten used to hyper-individualism, we had to work together to survive.

What a Shame! Just as the wealthy had gotten used to low taxation, our consumer revenue plummeted and the middle-class couldn’t pay their tax bills, and…

What a shame! Just as the well-off had gotten used to taking essential blue-collar workers for granted, their lives depended on them.

What a shame! Just as the right and centrists had succeeded in demonizing democratic socialism, they needed that system in order to survive without imposing martial law.

What a shame! Just as we were getting used to taking global cooperation for granted, we needed it desperately.

What a shame! Just as Bernie Sanders was maneuvered out of his lead by corporate media, the DNC, and oligarchs… #WhereIsJoe?


April 10, 2020







Joe Biden speaking on March 2, 2020, the day before Super Tuesday primaries.

The Super Tuesday primary week in US politics saw a consolidating effort by the center-right power-brokers of the Democratic party establishment and its sugar-daddies, plus the corporate media, to create a renewed narrative casting Joe Biden as the inevitable democratic nominee for president at this dangerous moment in the country’s history.

And if there’s one thing that this election (as well as the last one) has shown us, it’s that such narratives are almost everything in assuring mass support in an era of an “electability” discourse with pretenses to objectivity and factuality. Polls can, for example, show Bernie beating Trump by wider margins than Biden, but the electability narrative peddled by the corporate media will ignore such details in their narrative about Biden’s electibility.

It is no small irony that these largely fictional narratives determine success in a country that has been massively anti-humanities for decades. It might turn out to be the case that the college degree derided as most useless in the last few decades (an english or literature major, second only to the ridiculed art history degree) is the most useful one to have in shaping political outcomes in this country. For example, the current narrative is that Elizabeth Warren “effectively drove former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, a centrist bilionaire, out of the race” through her warranted attacks on him during the debates. But aside from the fact that this narrative overlooks the power of the viral video produced just before the debate by podcaster Benjamin Dixon, which had a big effect by publicly exposing Bloomberg’s rabid racism and forcing cable media to address it, this Warren narrative – repeated by centrist and center-right newspapers and cable media – completely obscures the fact that Bloomberg’s subsequent loss of traction and withdrawal from the race set in motion the re-direction of his mega-wealth, through a super-pac, to Biden. This means, in effect, that Bloomberg may be able to buy himself a presidency by proxy, one that will protect his own interests and those of his fellow 540 US billionnaires by further entrenching the corporate control of American politics and producing Biden as a candidate (if that occurs) deeply indebted to corporate power. That is a profoundly important narrative that needs to be told, and it’s a narrative that corporate media (cable and print) cannot begin to wrap its mind around.

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Some progressive everyday folks are, though, beginning to question who will be pulling the strings behind a second potential president in cognitive decline.

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Fortunately, in spite of the constant smearing he’s received on cable shows and newspapers, there’s no need to rule out a possible Bernie Sanders delegate win just yet, especially if Warren’s withdrawal results in a progressive endorsement. But what is most astonishing in all of this is not the tossing around of electability and inevitablility narratives in a country where people have been actively schooled that structural change is impossible and that efforts toward it will destroy the country. What is most astonishing is that this time the narrative is being accorded to someone who is clearly in a state of serious cognitive decline.  American centrists seem to be just fine with electing someone showing signs of dementia that have been worsening at a steady clip throughout the campaign. The comparison to videos of Biden in 2016 show a stunning and tragic decline.

As Ryan Grim pointed out on twitter on March 4th, Biden’s supporters seem to be fully aware of Biden’s cognitive problems, and are still willing to support him.

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In fact, the attraction to centrists of Biden’s nostalgia narrative of a so-called return to normalcy and decency seems to engender their willingness to normalize signs of dementia in a presidential candidate. The narrative is so powerful to them that they are willing to risk the loss of the election to Trump by someone who is not only in mental decline, but so far mainly supported in the very conservative states that Trump won the last time he ran against a centrist and will likely win again come November, regardless of who runs against him.

It was, in fact, that very “normalcy” that was the arc that led to Trump’s election – globalized thug capitalism, the outrageous consolidation of wealth at the top, stagnant salaries since the 1960s, etc. – all unaddressed by either party. One can understand the nostalgia of the top 5% of the Democratic party for those good old days. But just why is it that huge swaths of Democratic centrists in the 95% are willing to elect a mentally incompetent president, particularly after railing for years about Trump’s evident loss of cognitive ability?


March 5, 2020

The answer may be that Democratic centrists in the 95% have long accepted, whether consciously or not, the paternalistic determination of their lives by party machinery – by politicians long bought by lobbyists, corporations, and oligarchs, and by the Democratic National Committee that enables this commerce.

Centrists in the 95% seem to now project onto that political conglomeration their desires for a return to “normalcy.” This seems to be why they are not fazed by Biden’s precipitious mental decline. They’re willing to trade one figurehead for another, because self-consciously, or not, they know that the strings have been pulled from behind for a very long time, and with a candidate like Biden it will continue with the system in place. All that they seem to require is a switch of parties.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, there is a kind of mass comfort in acquiescing to corrupt power at the top:

In a recent Tony Kushner translation of Brecht’s “Mother Courage,” there is an eye-opening line in which Courage says something like “The people like it when the leaders of a war engage in profiteering; they know their investment means there’s a good chance of victory.” So a mass identification with exploitative greed at the top contains a kernel of pleasure in it, and the left would do well to understand that articulating truths often does no more than reinforce these identifications.

Silvia Kolbowski in Between Artists, A conversation Between Silvia Kolbowski and Walid Raad

The dangers of a Biden nomination are legion: dementia – primarily, but also a history of calling for entitlement cuts, support of disastrous trade deals that sacrificed jobs for consolidated wealth, lack of political acumen in regards to his son’s opportunistic financial dealings, corporate cronyism, a history of plagiarism and lying, etc. It will be impossible for Biden to counter Trump’s dirty dealings during debates. Cognitive decline? Check. Lying? Check. Cronyism? Check. Nepotism? Check. Threats to entitlements? Check.  But given the logic behind Biden’s support by centrists of the 95% (those at the top need no argument at all), it is hard to convince them of the dangers of a Biden nomination by relying on an argument about Biden’s countless weakness. Because what may appear as illogic to those of us who seek to point out these dire weaknesses through factual discourse, may actually have a powerfully logical appeal to the psyche that we cannot hope to change with reason alone. The psychical centrist logic is: The Democratic president’s dementia won’t matter because our party is powerful and will take care of things somehow; we know that strings are being pulled, and will be pulled behind the puppet when he wins, but the party’s connection to corporate power and oligarchs reassures us because we know that those in power will keep the system from failing completely. 

Combine the cynical calculations made by the DNC machine to support the candidate of the status quo with centrist logic, and you have the perfect storm. This is particularly so since electoral politics rarely take the psyche into account, unless it is done intuitively by a politician. For example, a politician like Trump.


Progressives need to understand the role of the psyche in politics and become more savvy about breaking that identification. And it will begin with language.

In April 2019, I screened my new film-loop project, entitled That Monster: An Allegory, at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London . The event was coordinated by art historian Mignon Nixon, freelance curator and writer Kari Rittenbach, and Steven Cairn, ICA curator of film. After the screening, Mignon, Kari, and I had a discussion about the work, which was then opened up to questions from the audience.

Edwin Coomasaru, who is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Courtauld Institute of Art, researching the gender politics of Brexit’s visual culture, attended the event and later voiced an interest in writing about the work. I suggested that we instead have a conversation about the work and related issues. Below is that conversation, held via email between the middle of May and the middle of June, 2019.

That Monster: An Allegory is an 18-minute film loop remixed from the 1935 film Frankenstein’s Bride (1935, James Whale) with a script drawn from the movie, Mary Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein, and original writing. Music: Metamorphosis 1 and Metamorphosis 2 by Philip Glass. © 1988 Dunvagen Music Publishers Inc. Used by Permission. Pianist: Dustin O’Halloran. The film plays twice, once with music and once without.

For various reasons, I normally keep my videos on private password, showing only an excerpt of the work on my website. Following the posting of this conversation, the work will be open to viewing on vimeo without a password for two weeks. All b+w screenshots are from That Monster.

EC: At heart, That Monster: An Allegory dramatizes and destabilizes the sorting of identity into “us” and “them” – friend and foe. It stages the two positions by giving us monstrous figures that we project our imagined enemies onto, and yet the slipperiness of the “I” and “you” pronouns in the onscreen narrative text also profoundly disorients our sense of who really is the “us” and the “them”. This effect both exposes and radically undermines the whole conceptual architecture of militarism that underpins such an imaginative binary of identity. In the context of the election of President Donald Trump in the US, or Brexit in the UK, why does this matter? Why might psychoanalytic-pacifism be urgent and vital for our contemporary moment?

SK: My last three projects look at why some kinds of political violence are accepted by centrist or right-wing adherents, and other kinds of political violence are not. But my motivation in That Monster was to situate Trump as a symptom of decades of economic injustice, and look through an allegorical lens at one effect of those decades —the millions of voters who became psychically enthralled to a demagogic power that doesn’t serve their interests, at the same time as those who defy that demagogic power then turn against the supporters, without either group understanding the psychical dimensions of how they got there. Members of this latter group are likely to be some of the spectators of my project.

Let’s state from the outset that Trump is a mentally ill person, whatever pop psychology or serious psychoanalytic term one uses to explain his behavior. But that doesn’t make him a political aberration, as centrists feel more comfortable labeling him. (If he’s an aberration, then we don’t have to look at what he represents as a symptom.) The key question for me is why 30-40 million Americans (his so-called die-hard base, not the wealthy who saw an opportunity for deregulation and tax cuts) fell in thrall to such a sick person? What psychosocial dynamics arose from and sustain our current economic and political situation? I am referring to the U.S., but there are also echoes regarding Brexit in the U.K. and in other countries in crisis. In a short interview with some students in 2010 I pointed out that humans are the only species that will follow an unstable leader. They are also the only species with an unconscious. Centrists and left-liberals in the U.S. point to the chaos that Trump continuously creates, and they see it as indicative of ineffectuality. But that chaos is extremely effective at a psychical level. Trump’s followers enjoy that chaos because it channels their rage at feeling marginalized. Some of his followers understand that their marginalization has been economic and social – capitalism has for the last couple of decades decreed them expendable. But many feel an inchoate, uneducated rage that takes vicarious pleasure in identifying with Trump’s self-victimization and his lashing out against all his perceived enemies. (In the 2016 election, Trump triumphed in the 50 least-educated, and often vote-crucial, counties in the U.S.)

“…an imaginative binary of identity” points to how psychical mechanisms fuel the kinds of polarizations and disruptions (constitutional, parliamentarian, militaristic) that demagogues require in order to build control. Trump seems to be willing to exploit whatever it takes to stay in power, and that might include starting new wars or exacerbating already endless ones. By putting warmongers like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton in his cabinet, accompanied by his impulsivity, anything can happen. But most importantly, it is those in thrall to him, backed by self-serving Republican politicians and the rich, who will allow it to happen.

Tell me more about what you mean by psychoanalytic-pacifism.

EC: Militarism has a very specific set of recurring features that operate on both a societal and psychic level. At its foundations, a conceptual binary of identity is projected onto a group of people – dividing into “us” and “them” or ”friend” and “foe”. Such a binary can be restaged time and time again on different scales – from handfuls of people to groups of nations. But such imaginative frameworks work to create the impression of order in a situation that can never be completely ordered, borders and boundaries that can never fully account for the messy ways we find ourselves entangled with each other. Nevertheless, the binary puts emphasis on difference, with either side increasingly seen as opposites – and good/bad values projected onto each. “Them” is narrated as a threat—aggressive, out of control, monstrous, disease-like, bestial, and not really human. This process not only works to legitimize violence directed towards “them,” it claims such violence is merely a pre-emptive defense: “we” must kill or contain the “threat.” The trouble is – such a threat can never be eliminated in full, because the possibility of harm or vulnerability can never be banished. As much as we may desire the eradication of those we see as enemies, what makes us who we are is in part constituted by another – and when we do lash out, traumatic repercussions will come back to haunt. To wound another is to wound oneself – because the neat conceptual binary we think social groups through does not work so neatly in actuality. “Us” and “them” are actually indelibly interconnected and interdependent, because they are not neatly sealed off from each other, but cohabit a space.

For me, my thinking about psychoanalytic-pacifism came out of studying the Northern Irish peace process – the legacy of a civil war between Republican/Nationalists and Loyalist/Unionists. While I was undertaking this research, the Brexit referendum happened in the UK in 2016 – and where before there had been no binary of identity, one was brought into being, and quickly became a feedback loop: each side talking of their desire to harm or kill the other, condemning “traitors” and “betrayal.” This is not a war (not yet at any rate), but it seems to have many of the psychic and social processes of militarism at play. When I heard you speak recently at the ICA in London, I was really struck by how you described the situation in America as needing to be analyzed from the perspective of the group – but the group wasn’t just Trump supporters, but also those who also saw themselves as his opponents. For me this was really profound, because it widened the frame to think “us” and “them” in relationship to each other. Like you say: Trump is not an exception or an aberration, he is deeply implicated in an entire system – a product of the same neoliberalism that many centrists defend by trying to make Trump look like an accident or a mistake. But they are implicated, we are all implicated – it is very tempting to try and contain him under the idea he is a monster, but he is absolutely interconnected with the society that created him.

SK: Yes, maddeningly interconnected. It is more comforting to project outward when we think about who created this monster. It’s much more threatening to think that we may have been implicated in creating him, even unknowingly. Now, few culturally progressive or socially empathic people want to own that monstrosity, which is understandable. But in developing the script for That Monster I reached a point where I realized that I had to focus on using only first and second person pronouns – I and you – and I removed the voice of the scientist. I did this so as to (as Kari Rittenbach pointed out during the discussion at the ICA) implicate the spectator of the film in the instability of the pronouns used in the titles and intertitles. And while editing the film, I had followed the id space of Twitter, so I witnessed both sides – pro- and anti-Trump – caught up in a rageful dynamic that only in rare instances seemed to include a critique of an unjust economic system. But it was Mignon Nixon, the day before she participated in our discussion at the ICA screening, who articulated the reading that the film didn’t just create a spectator reacting one way or another to its rage-filled characters, but rather that the film situates us all – spectators, monsters – as part of the same group. That is a more radical notion than it might appear to be.

EC: I think you can understand for me the urgency of such an artwork as That Monster, which both exposes and works to dismantle the entire social and psychic system I outlined above. It is precisely now when it is so difficult to have this kind of conversation, that it is most needed – when people increasingly understand their political opponents through the frame of moral panic or an invasion to be crushed. That Monster stages – and reveals – the steps it takes to create a monster, in a way that does not reproduce that process but unsettles it. Remixing footage from Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein’s monster peers into a body of water. “Is that really me in that reflection?!” he asks. “If I am that monster, then I am filled with shame! I am a wretched outcast in the world forever!.” “All hate the wretched,” the onscreen titles declare, the musical score cut through with a deep sense of tragedy. We hear of how “you” refuses to look at the monster, or make sense of the words the monster speaks.

The intertitles express intense anger in response – “a fatal prejudice clouds your eyes. You detest and spurn me. You call me ignorant! You call me stupid! You steal my dignity. Where you ought to see a vulnerable person, you only see a burden.” The male monster topples a statue, the female monster opens her mouth in a silent, violent scream. “Shame has made me a fiend!” – the musical score picks up pace, an angry rage propelling the momentum – “I feel rage! I want revenge! I haunt you. I stalk you with bitterness and anger. You judge me and push me away. You think your contempt will control me.” The male monster wields his arms amidst a building on fire. ‘I declare war! … With pleasure I destroy you and your home. “Even if I destroy myself,” the female monster stares us in the eye. “You listen to my murderous resentments. But you hear only what you want. You want me to disappear! I want to trample you to dust!.” The male monster runs through a graveyard uprooting trees and toppling statues, before the video cuts to a monster still in bandages, immediately after creation, with the acknowledgement: “Remember – I am your creature.”

Not only does That Monster tell a story of how militarism works at the level of the psyche, it also destabilizes it by putting pressure on the fantasies at its foundations. “Us” and “them” – despite the aggression, the unwillingness to apprehend each other as a life – are indelibly tied to each other, haunted by each other. It is impossible to eliminate the “enemy” completely, it is impossible to restore a feeling of total control over those seen as threatening. And yet, what is also profound about That Monster, is the slipperiness of “you” and “I” – the monsters and their creator. Whoever watches the work may have their own monster in mind – Trump, I’m sure for many, and Hilary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” also comes to mind, yet the video sets up such neat categorization as deeply unstable. Because of the way it articulates the creation of a “monster,” it is hard not to be left wondering whether you could be someone else’s. As I watched the film, I imagined many kinds of monsters: Leavers and Remainers in the UK (Frankenstein images are a staple of current newspaper cartoons), Trump supporters and opponents in the US, etc.

The anger behind the Brexit and Trump votes may or may not have been in part a result of the 2007-08 financial crisis, an economic order in the midst of collapse, even while inequality spirals and the wealth of the top 1% intensifies, and an electorate caught in the contradictions of a system they thought would pay out for them, and the bitter abandonment many now feel. Obviously, the electorates who voted for Trump and Brexit are complex – they include a coalition of voters, some are from that 1% – many working class, hoping their 2016 vote would fund the welfare state in the UK or traditional industries in the US. Yet we are also living through a moment with a lot of socialist activism in the UK and US – Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party promising to transform society (although the “us/them” of Brexit is a major problem for thinking collectively outside of Leave or Remain). How does That Monster register and work through some of the tensions in this historical moment? Marx’s Das Kapital (1867) has been called a “gothic novel” – what might Frankenstein’s monster tell us about the current crisis of neoliberalism?

SK: It’s clear to anyone not looking through rose-colored glasses of psychical resistance that decades of radical income mal-distribution (i.e. the obscenely uneven effects of globalized neoliberalism) have helped produce mass precarity in a context of mediatized wealth and consumption. Also, a prime component of neo-liberalism has been psychosocial—to blame and to shame the victim; the poor and precarious don’t deserve attention or mediation, are not entitled to the basic necessities of daily life. The naturalization of that component, as much as wealth mal-distribution and greed at the top, is responsible for the perfect storm that gathered after the 2008 crash in the U.S.- with virtually all factions in the U.S. government looking the other way.

Different parts of the population deal with precarity differently at the electoral level. For obvious reasons, a little more than half the voting public– largely from the two coasts -did not fall for Trump. The U.S. has been divided down the middle during every presidential election of the past few decades. Politicians and the public both tacitly accepted that as long as you had 1% or 2% of the votes to pull you over the finishing line, you won fair and square. In fact, that was an ominous symptom of a democracy in deep dysfunction.

A major focus of mine as I developed That Monster was the psychoanalytic dimension of shame. There’s been a lot of talk lately about how Trump’s being a ridiculously bad businessman (recently revealed documents show that over a ten-year period he lost a trillion dollars) would allow his base to see the light and reject him because he actually isn’t the business mastermind who promised to enrich them (i.e. the neoliberal phantasm). But this is a form of thinking that denies the logic of unconscious identification. One thing that makes Trump so resilient is that there is so much for his base to identify with. He’s a shamefully bad businessman? Well, he’s one of us. He traffics in conspiracy theories? Well, there’s something out there that’s rendering me unstable, even if I can’t pinpoint it.

It is certainly encouraging that there is a surge of socialist and democratic-socialist sentiment and activism in the U.S. For the first time in my lifetime, the word socialism is publicly utterable (even if both centrist Democrats and Republicans routinely smear those who align themselves with this surge). But even groups of the left are clueless or resistant when it comes to the role that the psyche plays in mass politics or the ways in which the electorate can engage in psychical delusions that are not dispelled through truths and facts.

EC: I couldn’t agree more – to think politics without psychoanalysis (or vice versa) simply fails to account for the drives, desire, contradictions, and complications that mark a fundamentally unstable subject – us. Even just on the level of political rhetoric – it is psychoanalysis that can allow us to excavate the messy terrain between what is said at face value and what is meant: the projections, anxieties, and defenses that structure political discourse (Leavers and Remainers, for example, practice a profound amount of magical thinking – declaring the world as they wish it to be). Earlier you spoke about Twitter’s “id” – I’d love to hear more about your research online in preparation for That Monster. 

I am also interested in the relationships among psychoanalysis, sexuality, and technology – and their bearings on the work. The gothic emerges in literature from 1764; during this time many new communication technologies are invented (photography, telegrams, telephones) – as part of huge societal changes during the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914), a period also marked by considerable working-class and feminist activism.

That Monster obviously traces together the historical and conceptual connections between psychoanalysis and the gothic – but I want to ask about the role of technology. Perhaps not unlike the earlier historical period I mentioned, we are experiencing a moment of rapid technological change (especially communication technologies). These technologies, and the surveillance capitalism that underpins them, have profound implications for our future. Technology has also become the site of a moral panic as well, in ways that perhaps also draw historical parallels (in the1860-80s, people thought the invention of trains would cause mass madness). I have lost count of the number of newspaper articles declaring social media and smart phones as the prime cause of mental illness, narcissism, anxiety – with a particular concern about children and the stakes of heterosexual reproduction (long the focal point of any moral panic). Which is not to say social media doesn’t manipulate its users, but that “addiction” and “ill health” are also the very metaphors invoked during every moral panic (homophobia has long cast same-sex desire as a contagion that will harm or destroy the possibility of children, for example). Mental health certainly has become a real concern at the moment, and it is connected to rapid technological change – but to treat it as the prime cause is often done by media organizations unwilling to see the aftermath of the Financial Crisis as having a huge effect on society.

Technological anxieties are really important for That Monster: from the film scenes depicting the electric machines that create the monster, to the very medium of the artwork itself which remixes film from the 1930s and introduces glitches and loops that resonate with internet aesthetics. The monster is also a subject brought into being outside of heterosexual procreation, and the original Bride of Frankenstein film also performs his own failure to find a bride in that she rejects him. Queerness disrupts linear ideas of time based on procreation; trauma also disrupts linear ideas of time, as it repeats and reoccurs. How does the work reference and recycle past technological cultures in order to make sense of our present? And to what extent could we consider your monster a “queer” figure?

SK: I strongly believe that all of the issues you interconnect, and more, cannot be thought separately. Technological consequences, homophobia, queerness, neoliberalism, surveillance, xenophobia, moral panic, militarism, racism, misogyny, the mal-distribution of wealth, psychical enthrallment to autocratic phantasms – to which we can add the direness of the climate crisis. Have we ever lived through a moment where holistic thinking was more necessary, and less common? There’s no question that surveillance capitalism has profound implications. I never see an instance in which the algorithm doesn’t cut in at least two opposing– and lopsided-ways. And we have to consider that the advent of the algorithm is actually radically different from the advent of other technologies in the past. I have been feeling for at least a decade that the simple combination of capitalism, the algorithm, and the psyche results in a ridiculously ominous brew. Take the example of platforms of media distribution that allow one to “curate” the consumption of journalism, documentary, commentary, and even raw political output (for example, excerpts of a press conference on-demand). Although I vehemently disagree with the common liberal sentiment here that it was better when we had only about four TV stations as purveyors of news that the whole country could use as a reference point —  those news programs were neoliberal trash — a swing toward customized news has been deadly if you take the example of Fox News in a country in which only about 30% of the population is able to afford an undergraduate degree that might inculcate critical thinking. The submerged question of where knowledge resides is one that is rife with transferential implications that are rarely discussed on the left, although the right instinctively manipulates them with glee.

Twitter as a site for research—I think it’s important for artists to be aware of popular sites of distribution, exchange, and technological representation. I used GIF movements in the film as markers of the algorithmic present, while remixing an anachronistic silent film genre to allow the silence and titles to create a transferential space for the spectator. It’s clear that Twitter is a site where many allow themselves to attack and vent. It’s not just the right; the spleen vented by liberals can take the breath away. Spend a day following a Trump twitter response thread if you want to see a space that is completely devoid of politics, but filled with displaced rage. Interestingly, the far left on Twitter is more reasonable. There was a survey in the U.S. recently that claimed that only radical political extremes inhabit Twitter – i.e. Bernie Sanders supporters and Trump supporters. Firstly, it’s diabolical to equate the left and right in this way, and awfully convenient for those who jumped on it as an explanation of why right-of-center Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden is trolled and dismissed by the left on Twitter. Secondly, Twitter is most definitely awash in centrist liberals. There are 69 million Twitter users in the U.S. (13 million in the U.K.) and something like 138 million Americans voted in the 2016 election. Not all 69 million Twitter users are engaging in political exchanges or comments, but these are not numbers that can be ignored, especially with the phenomenon of charismatic media stars who can generate a lot of focus on a political topic with one tweet.

I found my way to the Frankenstein story at the start of the project through researching narcissism –because of the mass identification with Trump’s narcissism. I wanted to understand that, because if there’s anything that post-structuralism has taught us, it’s that belief is not rigid or inherent. A chance web search led me to literary analyses of narcissism in the Frankenstein story. I was then drawn to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, because of its prescience. It is the prescient figure who intrigues me, because prescience indicates an uncannily clear vision when others need more temporal distance for clarity. And the expression of prescience is always accompanied by a social courage that pulls the veil off the normative. In the 1818 novel, Shelly refers to a “spark” that brings the monster to life; in the 1935 movie, it is lightning that appears to be harnessed through some electrical-looking equipment. Apparently Shelley was advanced in engaging what a recent book on the topic, Frankenstein Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of all Kinds, refers to as a relatively new idea at the time – the use of electrical current to activate muscles. This book also points out that she anticipated by two centuries the ethical questions that robotics would raise. Interestingly, one annotator connects these ethical questions – i.e. should the scientist be considered a murderer if he destroys his own robotic creation? –  to a topic that arose during periods of slavery. That is, could a slave owner be prosecuted for killing a slave, since that slave was considered their property; yet if it were considered legal for the slave owner to be prosecuted, then the whole premise of slavery, and its reduction of humans to property, would be called into question. I didn’t read this book until after I made the film, but for me the Frankenstein story held remarkable potential for an allegorical extrapolation.

While we’ve been having this exchange, the political situation here has worsened dramatically. An abortion ban was passed in Alabama that was even more radical than those recently passed in six other states. And in regards to your comment about the monster being “a subject brought into being outside of heterosexual procreation,” a 1952 US citizenship restriction not actively pursued previously has now been latched onto by the Trump administration. It challenges the citizenship of a child of same-sex parents if the body that gave birth to the child did not have US citizenship at the time; i.e. due to non-citizen surrogacy in the case of one challenged male gay couple, and due to the fact that one birth mother in a lesbian marriage was not American when the child was born, while the other was. It’s an obvious attempt on the part of this rabidly xenophobic and homophobic administration to harass select groups (although Trump recently claimed he’s all for gay marriage). This is an instance in which children born outside of heterosexual procreation are cast as monstrous, as unnatural. At the moment, our court system seems to be resisting this move, but liberals in the US have for years mistakenly relied on the judicial system to save them from the collapse of democracy.

Do you think the monster in my film is a “queer” figure?

EC: I think That Monster draws attention to the ways in which hetero-normativity and militarism are closely interrelated (as with patriarchy too); there are direct parallels between the way homophobia and a pro-war mentality work to create enemies by casting others as aggressive, monstrous threats supposedly in need of containment. The slipperiness of the monster in That Monster is profoundly generative: throwing up all sorts of potential associations, even associations in conflict and tension with each other – a testament to how complex it is as an artwork. The female monster also asks important questions about gender; the gothic seems to have long been a particularly powerful site for feminist thinking – from Shelley’s novel, to Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytic text Powers of Horror (1980), and many contemporary art practices. How does That Monster think through femininity and ideas of the monstrous?

I am particularly interested in the stakes of Trump’s masculinity in the context of the film: centrist journalists have spent a lot of time claiming “excessive” masculinity is the prime reason he is a bad president. This analysis rests on very conservative gender norms: the idea that masculinity is a spectrum – you can have too much (thuggish) or too little (effeminate) – but the figure in the middle, military masculinity, is the only subject able to exert “self-control;” and therefore has a natural right to exert that control and “order” over all those who supposedly cannot (women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color, nonhumans). In criticizing Trump on the basis of being “excessively” masculine and therefore a bad custodian, such attacks perpetuate the idea that a “real man” is needed to exert discipline.

If That Monster picks up some of these undercurrents (intentionally or otherwise), it is also destabilizing of the assumptions that underpin them, in the way it exposes and undermines group fantasies about “leadership.” You also see some of these patterns of identification and anxiety when it comes to climate change – the desire and demand that a “savior” will fix the problem without changing the structural system (capitalism) that has brought it about. Obviously, there are very long historical relationships between masculinity and custodianship of the land – ideas of ecological control often drawn on and profoundly subverted by the gothic.

Could all of these threads connect somehow: from the cultures of managerialism in neoliberal governance, the demand that “shepherds” subject nature to order and fruitfulness, the appeal for a Christ-like savior at moments of crisis, or even the fantasy of military masculinity exerting custodianship over women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people? At the base of all these things is the concept of control: a “natural” figure in charge, keeping the imaginative “monsters” at bay. But maybe That Monster puts pressure on that very desire, precisely by insisting on the constructed and slippery nature of monstrosity itself? Rather than presenting an image of a stable world or social order, the film is adamant that wherever there is power there will be resistance – and that regimes of power can never be total or absolute.

SK: The other day I came across some notes I made a few years ago on Mark Cousin’s 1994 text “The Ugly.” Cousins defines the ugly as that which is there and should not be there, or that which is not there and should be. The ugly frustrates desire, and in that sense, it haunts. It is not a negligible task for art to set for itself – to haunt the spectator with the unsettling of the easy categorizations of the other, which you pointed to at the beginning of our discussion. It is those easy categorizations that have made possible the intensification of a defensive split in the U.S., and I suspect in the UK as well. This is what neoliberalism exploits. As for how That Monster thinks through femininity and ideas of the monstrous, again, it may have to do with something being in the wrong place. The bride is barely a character in the novel or Hollywood film, but in That Monster—thanks to filmic editing she gets equal billing. She too has the capacity to be monstrous – ugly– to haunt, to represent psychical resistance. Cousins talks about beauty as a defense against human precarity – “beauty and symmetry induce the illusion of coherence and ideality into a subject who is in fact always close to the edge.” Let’s see if curators are willing to bring these monsters to spectators …

It’s infuriating to have witnessed the dramatic growth of presidential power (and personality) in the U.S. over the past few decades. Cheney masterminded this for George W. Bush; Obama contributed through his kill lists, his dramatic increase of executive orders, and his unilateral militarism; Trump has his radical enabler in his personal Attorney General William Barr. But none of this could have been accomplished without mass compliance. That compliance is connected to the desire for a savior from the chaos and confusion that neoliberalism has created for the many. One hears repeatedly how his base likes the fact that Trump is a “fighter.” And now we have millions falling for Biden as savior. Yet he is almost as megalomaniacal and domineering as Trump. Aside from his retrograde politics, Biden’s m.o. is that of the bully.

But I think that the characteristics of a savior today are complex because of the role played by mass projected rage. Trump-the-symptom lauds the reactionary tenets of masculinity – men should be very tall, have big hands that allude to a big penis, be generals (he likes them tall, in uniform, and not bald), be dominant and not listen to the opinions of others (including generals), ignore women when not insulting them (particularly women of color). But at the same time, he betrays enormous anxiety about his masculinity and behaves in ways that aren’t conventionally masculine. He’s not exactly the strong, silent type. He publicly exaggerates his sexual prowess, belittles the masculinity of men he can’t control, pretends he has a full head of hair, hesitates to engage in military aggression, etc. He performs anxiety. Centrists and those who have economic plenitude accompanied by other privileges have comforted themselves for a few years by holding onto the useless idea of “the grownup in the room” as savior, who more often than not is either a military man or a corporate man.

Recently I’ve had the sense that Trump is losing some support. The many who granted him a winning margin because he was the new “change you [could] believe in” are looking for their next change, something to stop the pain of an unidentified neoliberalism. The tragedy is that if some of his voters turn against him, it won’t be because they understand what drew them to him or what kind of change would actually alleviate that pain. Into that American vacuum are stepping a few truly progressive politicians who try to clarify the raw deal experienced by the 95%, but at the level of mass psychology, art remains one of the few potential players.

EC: Yes – culture and the humanities are as important as ever in making sense of the violent divisions, upheavals, and social struggles around us. That Monster not only does vital and urgent work in unpicking, unraveling and making sense of our current psychic-political landscape, it also leaves us with a powerful and profound message: no one can exert absolute control over themselves or others.

[To view That Monster, click here.]



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Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, 1993; “Don’t drive angry.”

Pundits and journalists and podcasters are flush with midterm election dissection, endlessly discussing the good and the bad in regards to challenging the radical damage being done by Trump & Co. But for the most part, in the American media it’s always Groundhog Day, and when a country finds itself divided down the middle in the ugliest of ways, it must be due to something that happened yesterday, or, better yet, today. Ah, if only dissecting the past was sexy, addictive, or gif-able.

With a mad king in the White House and the GOP gleefully stacking the courts and hacking away at whatever was left of the separation of powers, who potentially deals with what gets shunted to the side – history and its psychical consequences?

Historians, theoreticians, artists, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers…

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Angelus Novus, Paul Klee, 1920

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940

This storm is what we call progress. Having recently finished an artwork that addresses the psychical underpinnings of the present moment, I have been thinking about the question of time in regards to the psyche and politics; about how art has the potential to create an experience similar to that of the psychoanalytic therapy session. Illumination can occur retrospectively after talk therapy, without conscious effort or application, and the potential to illuminate retrospectively, without conscious effort, also belongs to the realm of culture.

Nachträglichkeit [afterwardsness]… implies a movement from past to future: something is deposited in the individual, which is only activated later on…Laplanche compares this to a delayed-action bomb.

Time and the après-coup, Dana Birksted-Breen, 2003

The predictable, but still shocking, re-revelation that the U.S. voting population is basically divided down the middle – politically and geographically – was made that much more evident in the midterm elections. Rural areas were solidly behind Trumpian candidates and they voted with the vengeance that his inflammatory rhetoric fanned. But I have yet to hear a journalist – even the liberal ones – discuss the historical and psychical underpinnings of that phenomenon. Beyond the easy labels, why is that population so susceptible to Trump’s rhetoric? Once we label them racist, xenophobic, and mysoginist – do we not want to understand how they got there and why they are so untouched by progressive discourses? Why them and why there? There are some maps around today that when overlapped show frightening indications of how the legacies of economic precarity and under-education can predict a susceptibility to an identification, with Trump’s discourse of resentment, at least when not overridden by the racial or ethnic or religious threats that may motivate a voter to see through it. The other day, a liberal, black MSNBC host referred with gleeful contempt to how even in a small city you can find pockets of “techies” who vote democratic, while rural areas don’t have techies at all, and therefore can be ignored in soliciting democratic votes.

The U.S. is a country particularly devoted to the idea of the here and now. It is the not-surprising ethos of a country born out of the trauma of repressed genocide and mass immigration that define its foundation. But as psychoanalytic theory has pointed out, the here and now is also suffused with history. The present is multi-directional – the past can be known from the present, and the present can be known from the past. Yet we persist in sustaining the fantasy that, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the American population is reborn every day, without having been impacted by even the recent past. At least Murray figures out that history seeps through each freshly repeated day.

Allegory and analogy –  as with Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theater, these have long been fruitful methods for cultural works, because artists sometimes realize that the psyche is resistant to direct – and painful – explication. The contradictions of the present can be better conveyed through a different historical framework. The impact of such cultural works may not be immediate, but they have the potential to resonate over time in a spectator, in the same way that the analysand’s life can resonate indefinitely with the effects of a recounting told during a single session of analysis.

There is aggressive pleasure in projecting evil otherness onto a part of the culture that seems impossibly daunting to alter. The effects of culture will not take the place of (free) higher education or of the eradication of polarized wealth, but they have a role to play.

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Flyer found, in the rain, on Broadway and Prince Street, NYC. A text written by a self-proclaimed MAGA man mocks Dr. Ford’s veracity. In the second text, a feminist challenges his lack of compassion.

We live in revolutionary times. I cannot imagine now what it would have been like to be thinking about Rosa Luxemburg if the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had not taken place. I do not know whether it would have been easier or more difficult. But one thing revolutionary moments do is force us to revise our sense of time, stretching us between past and future, as we comb backwards for the first signs of upheaval, and look forward to see what is to come. For many observers, but mainly those in power, the uncertainty is a way of stalling the movement of revolution, curbing its spirit by calling it to account in advance for a future that it can’t predict or foretell. These are the fear-mongers, who point to a range of monstrous outcomes – say, anarchy or Islamic control – as a way of discrediting what is happening this moment, now; who manipulate the dread of a terrible future (and the future may always be terrible) to dull the sounds of freedom.

It is of course the whole point of a revolution that you cannot know what, if anything, can or should survive. 

“What more could we want of ourselves!,” Jacqueline Rose, 2011, London Review of Books

The recent events surrounding the Kavannaugh nomination – the senate confirmation hearings involving some strong moves on the part of DEM senators, the subsequent multiple credible accusations against Kavanaugh of sexual assault and attempted rape, and the imminent senate hearing on the Dr. Christine Ford accusation – have the radical and spontaneous qualities of revolution. And, as with all revolutionary moments, the details surrounding this moment will never satisfy those (currently on the right) who will insist that change arrive (although hopefully not at all)  in neat packages, tied up in textbook legal ribbons. Even the recent complaints by centrists and those to the left of center about Michael Avenatti’s self-inscription into the challenge also have that quality – but when the repressed returns, do we really expect to have orderly choices about who leads the discourse at what moment?

Sexual assaults on women overwhelmingly take place without witnesses (although in this instance, there seems to be an actual witness whom the GOP is determined to keep from answering questions under oath). Because of the contexts of such assaults – and the fact that false accusations are rare – attention to the accuser’s story must categorically be given weight and taken seriously, must be believed. But it is a catch-22 for the victim that even as reporting sexual assaults and rapes creates a hellish legal and social process for the victim, she is still expected to report an attack immediately, without succumbing to trauma and the fear of additional consequences. Having been traumatized and facing the incredibly flawed investigative and judicial systems stacked against her – not to mention misogynistic social structures — the rape or sexual assault victim suffers many times over when bringing the accusation forward after a sometimes-long temporal delay that to various degrees erodes memory. It is not just the victim’s memory that may suffer in regards to the sort of details that the law demands; it may also be that of the primary and secondary witnesses, for whom the assault was not central.

But as Ford herself wrote in her statement, some details regarding the assault may have faded or disappeared, but certain details remain indelible:

I truly wish I could provide detailed answers to all of the questions that have been and will be asked about how I got to the party, where it took place, and so forth. I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t remember as much as I would like to. But the details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult. (Dr. Ford in her statement to the Senate, September 26, 2018)

Still, regardless of whatever happens during and after the Thursday hearing, even if we have in the past week made some progress in regards to a mass popular belief that women who bring forward accusations after forensic evidence has long disappeared are virtually always telling the truth, rape and sexual assault victims will continue to have their credibility questioned because of the perfect storm of incentives to not report, and the inevitable erosion of memory of some details. So – setting aside the ruthless agenda of the GOP- it is particularly tragic that we live in a culture (maybe more so in the U.S. than in some other countries) where the denial of the psyche is so absolute. How is the general public supposed to understand – without any understanding of psychical processes, let alone surrounded by an anti-intellectual social contempt for such processes – why some traumatic details may not be fully recalled, and others from the same event can be recalled with crystal clarity?

The positivism of some of the arguments against Ford and the other accusers – that if they had really suffered they would have reported immediately, or that if they are telling the truth they would have more precise details that could be corroborated – has to be read as a refusal of the unconscious. Because the unconscious has its own logic, which may well appear irrational to a court of law or, in this case, a court of public opinion, which right-wing politicians can then exploit in circumstances like these. And that refusal of the unconscious is not only present in our judicial system, our policing, and our political system. It is deeply embedded even in the institutional history of therapeutic training in the U.S., which has always privileged consciousness and the will and, in the last decades, pharmacology. The unconscious is nowhere to be found in that training, with the exception of a small community of psychoanalysts practicing in the U.S., often derided by the general public and other types of practitioners.

Even in the fields of art and art history, a psychoanalytic approach is not valued in the U.S. In art history it is thought to interfere with a focus on art, and in art practices…well, that would require another post.

I’ve thought for decades that feminism cannot be advanced without a psychoanalytic framework, for many reasons, one being the myriad of ways in which women are not taken seriously as narrators. But the events of the past week have made it clear that justice itself cannot take place without a psychoanalytic framework. And therefore, democracy…

Feminists will be engaged for a long time to come in what Juliet Mitchell has called “the longest revolution.” Hopefully, it’s breadth will be extensive enough to include a legitimation of the psyche.

*Postscript to come.


It seems that two academics have come out with a new study claiming to have discovered the answer to the political question that is baffling liberals- exactly why did the Americans who voted for Obama in six crucial states in the 2012 election end up voting for Trump? After what I’m sure was an exhaustive analysis, they came to the conclusion that it could not have had anything to do with a precarious economy because “all of the manufacturing jobs that were lost [i.e. the job security loss that masses in some states would have suffered, with resulting un- and under- and low-paid employment] were eliminated at least a decade ago, so people weren’t responding to that loss in the last election.” What was the conclusion of the study? It turns out that the real reason those voters got Trump elected is that white people felt their sense of themselves as a group being challenged. And if you believe that’s the main reason for their switch, I have a bridge for you. No, seriously, it’s a real bridge. It’s just that it’s a bridge to a land where things that happened ten years before have no effect on the present. And it goes without saying that things that happened even longer ago have no effect in that land either.

With regard to Trump voters in general, a new book by a writer who followed HRC on two campaigns has revealed that HRC had created a three-part taxonomy in 2016 for sure-fire Trump voters, which she relayed to much audience amusement during fundraisers with wealthy donors:

Screen Shot 2018-05-04 at 3.00.43 PMSo the above-mentioned post-election academic study would ignore Basket#2 and privilege Basket #3 as a way of trying to understand Trump voters. Way to go in understanding how precarity produces voters.

For the last year, centrists and liberals have also obsessed over the stubborn reliability of the “Trump base,” with endless assumptions about that reliability rage-flooding mass and social media. The consistent line is that Trump is on a constant quest to please his base with racist, mysoginist, and xenophobic comments and policy.  That is certainly what litters his discourse and some of his policy efforts. (Interestingly, on the same social media, the heavy deregulation and tax cuts gifted to his 1% supporters seem only to be the concerns of very left-of-center journalists and academics.) But confusion reigns for the #resistance legions and for center-to-liberal pundits about just why Trump never seems to disappoint his so-called base, even when he doesn’t deliver on, or when he deviates dramatically from his promises (tariffs, international interventionism, well-paying blue-collar jobs, the wall, “cleaning up the swamp.”). Regardless of his failings in various categories,and his own swamp-behavior, the take is that his so-called base persists in fetishizing him.


But what if the explanation for this adherence cannot be articulated through a discourse that insists on ignoring the mechanisms of the psyche? What if an unconscious projection were actively at play under, around, and outside of the overt discourse of Trump playing to his base. Of course Trump continuously addresses what he sees as his base with dog-whistles or overt insults in regards to race, ethnicity, women, and LGBT+ populations (not to mention anything else he thinks might please them – patriotism and 2nd amendment rhetoric, etc.). And at his rallies they can be seen to get riled up. This is the typical way of understanding how a despot would play to his audience. But given how often he ignores or defies his base’s supposed interests when others with more economic or political power are plying him, it is difficult to understand his base’s dogged devotion to him without imaginimg a phantasmatic dynamic that the domains of journalism or TV pundits or the twitterati, or even most of academia, will not consider.

What if Trump were actually himself a phantasm projected by his “base,” rather than his base being an inherently evil group to which he plays? What if he is an effect – a hologram – of their rage? Would we not want to understand that rage better as a construction, rather than as an unchangeable evil? We certainly had better want to understand it as changeable. Sounds reasonable, but you certainly wouldn’t know it from reading social media posts by the anti-Trump masses.  This is not to underestimate the concrete effects he is having on what are optimistically referred to as our democratic institutions. If we think of Trump as a projection of the inchoate (and outrageously under-educated) anger that his base feels with regard to the effects of decades of vertiginous precarity into which their noses have been rubbed, then it’s easy to understand why they would derive pleasure from projecting a leader who shits on the norms and institutions that have never in any case protected the precarious in this culture, although some precarious groups have and continue to hold out hope that the more “progressive” party – Democrats – will address their needs through humane promises. (Although the Democratic Party shuns true progressives.) But let others of those precarious groups attain a majority and watch for the rise of despots who don’t look like Trump.

Trump was there to fill the space of the projection. He was widely known through his TV show, and he was importantly seen as wealthy but crass, an unlikely man of the people, and an angry man to boot. I’ve mentioned in another context a compelling line from Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, in which Mother Courage (aka Canteen Anna) says something to the effect that the masses like it when the leaders of a war engage in profiteering, because they know the investment by the powerful means there’s a good chance of victory. Trump’s base is loyal not in spite of his vengeful and corrupt behavior, but because of it. They figure they might stand to profit from someone like that, or at least they feel he’s worth the gamble because nothing else has worked. His non-base voters (those swing voters who voted for Obama in ’08 or ’12) also make such calculations about Trump, while holding their noses. He will disappoint, but he is at least a figment of their imaginaries, and that is a somewhat less passive position to occupy than what they’ve been offered for decades.

So a mass identification with exploitative greed at the top contains a kernel of pleasure in it, and those who try to understand Trump’s base (when they’re not busy despising them) would do well to understand that dynamic. But that would require a bird’s eye view of capitalism today, and certainly journalism and punditry – now feeding off the endless spectacle that is Trumpworld – are not good at the bird’s-eye historical view. That is usually left to academics, but if you’re not educating the masses, what’s the mass role for academics?.

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And let’s see, just what might be educating the masses…hmmm…there’s a lot to choose from,  but how about The Crown, the Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II’s period of  British monarchy? Thoroughly entertaining as a mix of docudrama and soap opera, it sutures viewers in with its obsessive visual verisimilitude, and while you’re thoroughly distracted, it skews the history of power, money, and world politics in diabolical ways. Because, really, don’t deprive us of monarchy-world.

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Shoot me now. Let’s just get it over with. Just when you thought all you had to deal with was a dangerously megalomaniacal narcissistic president, installed by a combination of cynical 1%ers and a mass electorate that shoved Trump’s reality TV promises into that terrified empty space that’s constantly washed by waves of globalization’s precarity-caused anxiety…

Now we have to deal with the possibility of a talk-show-empire host’s presidential run. And all it took was an award show speech. Setting aside the fact that Oprah has no political experience (the attractiveness of which is a continuing sign of the breakdown of democracy), the worst of it is that Americans have never faced what the Oprah brand stands for. Possibly that’s because Oprah doesn’t seem to understand her own politics, her pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-and-blame-those-who-haven’t-had-the-strength-and-gumption-to-succeed-as-she-has politics. Because through the Oprah-lens, the problem with those who are poor isn’t connected to the fact that the .01% owns the globalized flow of capital; the problem is just that they haven’t repeated their affirmations often enough. I haven’t watched too many Oprah shows, but I will never forget one that I did watch, during which she berated a celebrity who was talking about her experience of life-threatening post-partum depression and how treatment for it had helped her. In Oprah’s view, clinical depression was something to overcome on one’s own, without help from therapy or drugs. Yeah, shoot me now, because if you think we’re living through a bizarre political spectacle now…

It seems relevant here to re-quote that theorist, the one who most other theorists seem to love to hate, but who has more insights per book than most do in a lifetime, Slavoj Zizek. I first published this quote in 2013, in a post I wrote about populism. Because, hey, Trumpism wasn’t born yesterday. And without understanding populism fully, we (we highly educated folk, at the very least) will be fated to make the same wildly dangerous mistakes over and over.

Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!” Such impatient outbursts betray a refusal to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, and give rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required. Therein, in this refusal to know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism. That is to say, although at a purely formal level fetishism involves a gesture of transference (onto the object-fetish), it functions as an exact inversion of the standard formula of transference (with the “subject supposed to know”): what fetishism gives body to is precisely my disavowal of knowledge, my refusal to subjectively assume what I know. This is why, to put it in Nietzschean terms which are here highly appropriate, the ultimate difference between a truly radical emancipatory politics and a populist politics is that the former is active, it imposes and enforces its vision, while populism is fundamentally re-active, the result of a reaction to a disturbing intruder. In other words, populism remains a version of the politics of fear: it mobilizes the crowd by stoking up fear of the corrupt external agent.                                                                                            

Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009

First we stand by while an idiocracy is created (i.e. testing, and Obama’s “Race to the Top”) We starve schools of money, undermine the public system, and wonder why kids who are at risk (food-insecure; poverty-induced violence) just don’t learn. Liberals rant about how stupid Trump’s base is. But the refusal to understand what causes our precarity, or to engage with complexity, is not something that liberals should distance themselves from by attributing that sort of behavior only to Trump’s low-income and lower-middle class white base. All the countless liberals and Democrats who have been waxing poetic on social media about Oprah running to save the day need to get a grip on complexity.

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Let’s turn to television. With rare exceptions of critique, television has mostly been an expression of cultural symptom. In the category of symptom, a couple of months ago I watched the French TV series, Spin. The French title is Les Hommes de L’Ombre, but since the characters themselves use the term “spin” (i.e. spinning the news), we can’t attribute the pithy English title solely to a dumbing down for Americans and Brits. It’s an apt enough translation for those who just don’t have the patience for homophones in a title.

The online blurb for the show describes it as a French House of Cards: “This multi award-winning, hit political thriller explores the intense rivalry between two spin doctors, the seasoned master and his protégé.” At the start, Spin presents a political battle that pits three parties with distinct – albeit barely described – political views against each other – left, right, and center. But by the time one is a handful of episodes into the show, something rather eerie becomes apparent. After a couple of brief narrative exchanges in the first episode, about outrage of politicians forsaking their party ideologies in order to form coalitions and back-room deals with parties that stand for diametrically opposed politics, that aspect of the storyline is disappeared. Completely. In fact, the right-wing political aide who gripes the longest about their boss forming an unthinkable political coalition with the left- survives only a couple of episodes. All the other characters – those without political leanings that one can discern other than party titles – survive for one to three seasons. And the entirety of the show is then about the jockeying for power by all the characters in the show, and the lengths to which they are willing to go (led by one or the other of the two spin doctors) to remain in power, or move up in power. It’s quite compelling, albeit terrifying in what it represents. One candidate’s slogan –Ensemble– says it all. Even her speeches are composed of nothing. Change you can believe in.


Maybe this is not unique as a cultural symptom, given that the American House of Cards, or the American satire, Veep—both shows ostensibly about American politics — are narratives concerned only with power, and virtually not at all with politics. But that’s because America. Really, the power plays in both of those American shows could take place in any other work setting – the corporate world, Hollywood, even academia (where the kleiner politik can get particularly ugly) . In Spin, the architecture plays a big role in reminding the viewer constantly of the representative power of the state. But it’s disconcerting that 18 episodes of a French show fully focused on politicians should have nothing  in its narrative to do with politics. France – one of the origins of modern democracy. I suppose one could say that the cultural symptom is late to the game, given that France had been heading toward Macron for a long time- to wit, its waning adherence to a social democracy when faced with the pressures of globalized capitalism.

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 5.05.06 PMYesterday I clicked on the link to the article mentioned above. In “The Hollow Parties,” political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld inscribe their argument about the hollowing out of American political parties into what appears to be a long-standing academic debate around the changes in the American party system and its voters. I am not a fan of political science as a discipline, for the very reasons that this text makes apparent, which is that the argument never goes deep enough into the broad structural aspects of political changes, let alone into what motivates human beings to respond one way or another to political shifts. But I think their point about the parties being hollowed out is important, and the following statement is chillingly apt:

… parties motivated by hatred for their opponents lose the capacity to enforce what Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum term “the discipline of regulated rivalry.” They become vehicles for partisans’ own venom and spleen, and their partial democratic visions descend into cabal and conspiracy.

Nothing better describes what we are now experiencing, as witnessed in millions of venomous twitter comments, from both pro-Trumpers and Trump-resisters, who are often at each others throats. Take a look at the comments section of Trump’s twitter feed and try to stay sane.

There’s no question that #Oprahisoursymptom. Because when politics has been hollowed out, the vacuum that is created gets filled with nightmarish possibilities and an unquenchable desire for non-politicians to come to our rescue.

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