By Janet Kraynak, author of Contemporary Art and the Digitization of Everyday Life (coming November 2020)
The image of a darkened White House from several weeks ago, while screams of protest clamored outside the gates, is an all too fitting and tragic encapsulation of the moral and political failure of Donald J. Trump and his incompetent administration. Later reports that the President had been swept away into the interior bunker, typically used during threats of terrorism, only added to this salient image. Alone save for the few aids and protectors who were allowed in, he of course was not “alone.” Rather he was “connecting”: taking to Twitter to unleash a series of threatening rants intended to further destabilize an already fraught and dangerous situation. Throwing fuel on the proverbial fire, he invoked the ugly racist words (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”) of a Miami police chief (and later repeated by segregationist George Wallace) in 1967: three years following ‘the long hot summer,’ when racial discontent erupted across America in response to police brutality, and one year prior to uprisings in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King.
When Trump tweeted those words––with their audible pairing of looting and shooting––two other historical images immediately came to mind. The first are the infamous photographs, published in Life magazine, of police officers siccing German Shepherd dogs upon peaceful civil rights protesters in Birmingham in 1963, which artist Andy Warhol would appropriate in a series of haunting silkscreen paintings (and whose appropriation and modification by Kelley Walker decades later would prompt much controversy when exhibited in St. Louis, only miles from Ferguson, the site of Michael Brown’s murder by the police: testimony to the instability of meaning, depending upon history and context). Trump’s subsequent declaration that he never felt unsafe whilst hiding out in the bunker, boasting that he would to sic “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” on intruders, sentiments he would also tweet, further conjured these historical images and their ongoing legacies. The second picture that came to mind is the photograph of a line of National Guard troops pointing rifles at the silent procession of Black men, sporting sandwich boards that declare “I Am a Man,” during the Memphis sanitation strike of 1968: an event that directly preceded the assassination of Martin Luther King––and which artist Glenn Ligon would give homage to in a 1988 text painting and several later prints.
Not to be undone by history, Trump made his own contribution to this image bank just two days after his bunker retreat in a now notorious action. Under the directive of “his” Attorney General William Barr, military police tear gassed and otherwise harassed protesters practicing the most American of rights (and the journalists covering them). And what was the aim of this violent clearing? So that he could stage a procession for the cameras of him strolling from the White House through Lafayette Square (in a sign of “strength”) for a photograph to be taken in front of the boarded -up façade of St. Johns Episcopal Church. Holding (someone’s, who’s?) bible aloft awkwardly in his fist, he had no intent to say or doing anything: not to honor the memory of George Floyd, so brutally murdered by the police, not to offer words of healing or unity, but to antagonize: hence his somewhat bemused if menacing expression. All that mattered was a picture that his campaign could quickly circulate on social media, which they did.
These images, and many others, comprise a repository of layered oppression. For scholar Ash Amin, there is “racial debris,” which occasionally is sedimented, but never disappears, rearing its head especially, as he writes, when “the forces of repetition are strong.” While these recurrences are a continuous feature of American history, digital platforms are particularly well-equipped to recirculate this debris. For Trump, Twitter is the weapon (and I use that term advisedly) of choice, and he has expertly perfected its structural design principles, which, like all of social media platforms, thrive on response, which takes the form most commonly of calculated outrage and incendiary statements. For all the lofty platitudes to “connect” and thus (by implication) unify people, empowering individuals and decentralizing authority, social media exploits fragmentation and division. When it comes to issues such as racial (in)justice, social media certainly did not create these conditions, but it exacerbates them. There is no reason that a piece of information needs to be liked, shared, retweeted; these are design principles that, in turn, make the user seek out those forms of affirmation and attention. It is hard to have productive, thoughtful exchange through decontextualized fragments of information that unfold in linear succession of a Twitter stream. But true political discourse––and productive dissent––is beside the point.
Those supporters who bemoan that the President should “get off Twitter” miss the point. He does not need to be “on” the platform. His is a politics of trolling, in which the divide between on and off-line worlds is irrelevant. The country is not polarized as a matter of course, and constant invocations of this sentiment render polarization as a state of nature rather than a human construct. Trump “fishes for flames” or an “incensed response,” as scholar Whitney Phillips describes the origins of trolling. Trump is a troll par excellence, sowing distrust and hatred as a means of “governing” (or more accurately, un-governing). It is his bread and butter. To seek any alternative is beyond his capacity or desire. And in so doing, he has tapped into something that few will still acknowledge.
Ours is world in which we don’t have to “use” or “be on” social media to be inhabited by it. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and so on, are not online entities, sequestered in cyberspace apart from our lives, but tangible forces that animate our lives, shape our politics––and most significantly, increasingly configure the nature of the political public sphere. It is a condition that I describe in my book, Contemporary Art and the Digitization of Everyday Life, in which digitization represents not a technology or tool but a mindset and worldview in which the rhetoric of techno-utopianism is continuously invoked in order to conceal its coercive power and toxic downsides. At the same time, the pleasures and conveniences afforded to us lead to what I describe as a form of voluntary servitude, in which the belief in free participation, leads to an abandonment of our bodies, minds and psyches to the whims of a “mass manipulation business mode,” to cite technologist (and avowed techno-skeptic) Jaron Lanier.
Twitter is a perfect example. It facilitates Trump’s politics of division because it is designed to do so. It parses and fragments us into micro-communities that in turn are subjected to its predicative algorithms that shape behavior. As countless studies have shown, social media platforms are designed to “engage”: a term that sounds benign, but that most frequently entails the amplification of negative emotions. The Republican shibboleth that social media “censors” or sidelines conservative voices is preposterous on its face: as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the rest do the exact opposite. They have fundamentally facilitated the growth and reach of the outrage politics of the right that began decades ago (long before Trump) with Nixon’s and Reagan’s dog whistles and Patrick Buchanan’s race baiting, to name a few. (Recall that Reagan’s launched his first campaign for President in 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the brutal killing of three Civil Rights workers in 1964, with a speech about “states’ rights,” the call of the Dixie democrats who opposed any civil rights protections and who would move into the Republican fold in part due to the hand Reagan extended to their racism). Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg hide behind the shield of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that has allowed their platforms to grow entirely unregulated, while fostering a propaganda campaign that conceals their power and promotes the fallacy that they are simply defenders of “free speech.” (And recent reporting on Zuckerberg’s November 2019 dinner with Trump and conservative backer Peter Thiel only further reveal the extent Facebook’s founder is willing to go to accommodate––and potentially help re-elect––the President if it serves his corporate interests). Dorsey and Zuckerberg are making fortunes off the back of our democracy, turning us into digital subjects rather than autonomous agents. They are co-opting our identities.
The United States has long maintained an almost religious faith in information; just set it free and egalitarianism will take root. But as one Black mother during a recent Kansas City protest laments, “I am tired of my people being just a hashtag. I’m tired of them showing our lynchings on social media.” Her comments prompt the question that resonates within these repetitive images: by watching these horrific recordings, do we truly see them?
As of this writing, it is still unclear how many of those responsible for violence and destruction during the days of righteous Black Lives Matter protests are not infiltrators opportunistically taking advantage to wreak havoc: Like Trump, there are trolls, ones who lurk not only in electronic streams or digital chat rooms such as 4Chan or 8Chan, but who roam the streets pretending to be antifa warriors or other leftwing agitators, intending to discredit the protests. While the scope of their participation is only a matter of speculation, recent history suggests their presence is all but assured. Not only did Russian trolls and bots impersonate activists to divide the country and suppress the vote during the 2016 election, but the most organized, global network of terrorists are white supremacists who deploy social media to connect across the globe and enact violence. Why does this matter? Because it demands serious consideration of the total consequences of the digital public sphere in which we live: especially given that there is still widespread belief in its positive virtues. As Dr. Melanie Price wrote in a recent op-ed “Please Stop Showing the Video of George Floyd’s Death“, however, the constant broadcasting of video recordings of Black death at the hands of police and vigilantes not only has troubling resonances with the past, but has done little to quell the spate of violence and racism. In contrast, she contends, these constant re-showings also contribute to Black trauma and pain, as one becomes inadvertently benumbed to any singular instance of brutality when so many constantly enter into social media feeds that are casually consumed through personal devices. Such a consequence was at the heart of Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2012 Touching Reality, a video work made in the wake of the “war on terror,” in which we see a well-manicured finger casually scrolling through a feed of horrific images of war and carnage. The streams of visual information, decontextualized of place or time, quickly succumb to the fleeting temporality of the screen, adding up to what exactly? We are left unsure. There is ambivalence. Or just spectacle.
The philosopher and social theorist Guy Debord in the 1960s spoke of the way that daily life was being ”colonized” by the image: a condition he described as “spectacle,” by which he meant that social relations, under advanced capitalism, are increasingly being mediated by representation, in a manner that displaces reality and erodes true politics. My updated neologism (the digitization of everyday life) extends this reading, underscoring how the utopic idealism of the Internet or electronic networks more generally, have turned into powerful, if covert, forms of control, infiltrating our lives to such a degree that we become complicit with our own subjugation. We invoke such happy talk of “connecting” and “networking,” “sharing” and “collaborating”––principles fostered by digital computing––all the while failing to see that the results might be entirely other than we anticipate or desire. Trump has exposed the downsides and dangers of such connecting in the most chilling fashion.
The photograph of Trump in front of St. Johns’ church intended to be a compensatory image, with the aim of offsetting the picture of a darkened White House and, as such, his cowardice. Its true purpose, however, follows the mandates of the troll: to set fires, exacerbate problems, sow division, not to offer any resolution. And it is a tactic that he continues to enact: from his (postponed) Juneteenth rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of one of the most violent episodes of White racism one hundred years ago, his campaign’s Facebook ads featuring the inverted red triangle, the symbol marking political prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, his retweeting of a video depicting a white supporter screeching “White power!” from his golf cart that is festooned with Trump regalia, to his July 3 speech in the face of Mount Rushmore. The list (tragically) goes on. The material impact of such images, as art history has taught us, and the danger of their re-circulations are laid bare. To stir up debris. In turn, it harms us all and threatens to thwart the incomplete project of democracy. To be led by the troll in outrage is to succumb to his control. In this sense, to disconnect is to resist.