American Tribal

Artist Statement: “The concept is an ocean of homogeneous purple dividing two warring tidal waves (red/blue) and crashing back together to form purple in the middle.” Elena Cronin
He thought about the amassments, the material crush, days and nights of bumper to bumper, red light, green light, the fixedness of things, the obsolescences, going mostly unseen. — Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis

One of the great unlocks of psychoanalysis is that we — as a collective neurotic — enjoy our condition.

The argument has to be approached through jouissance. Translated directly from the French, jouissance is “enjoyment.” What’s lost in English, however, is the implication of “pleasure in displeasure.” There is pain. We recognize the pain clearly as pain, but remain unwilling to abdicate the act — the feeling, the object, the thought — generating the pain.

Rather, we enjoy our displeasure with increasing commitment.

Consider the current temperature of American public discourse and its violent bifurcation between the metonymies of blue and red. Here’s David Roberts on “Donald Trump and the Rise of Tribal Epistemology.”

The right hypes its base up with bullshit — it has for decades — until an already tribally inclined audience has now descended into near-total epistemic closure. It is contemptuous of outside fact-checking, no matter how assiduous, but endlessly gullible toward information shared on the inside.

How did this happen?

As the United States has become wealthier, cultural and financial capital has almost completely consolidated in urban centers — college towns notwithstanding. Coastal cities, allied to a few islands in the interior, appear diametrically opposed to the values and visages of rural America.

The chasm between an “us” and a “them” is exemplified and further exacerbated by our enjoyment of entrenched narrative structures. Here’s Robert Reich writing back in 2014:

Each has its own totems (social insurance versus smaller government) and taboos (cutting entitlements or raising taxes). Each, its own demons (the Tea Party and Ted Cruz; the Affordable Care Act and Barack Obama); its own version of truth (one believes in climate change and evolution; the other doesn’t); and its own media that confirm its beliefs.

By a harried confluence of Pynchonesque events — the ascension of Fox, war on the abstraction of terror, the financial crisis, the historic election of a black U.S. president, labor automation, wage stagnation, income inequality, industrial devastation, Silicon Valley disrupters, global warming, and so on — America has tribalized itself into two camps that love to call the other out as liars and fakes, all under a radically new presidency that is, by any institutional standard of measure, intellectually and morally bankrupt.

In February 2017, David Brooks teetered on the precipice of praise for Steve Bannon who at least “has a coherent worldview … a huge advantage when all is chaos.”

What if the tragedy of Trump is derived neither from bankruptcy nor chaos but out of the social fantasies constructed around privilege and fame — the enjoyment we ascribe to wealth and those strongly associated with it?

During the campaign, Trump was praised as relatively as he was critiqued for saying what his constituents were already thinking — elevating the subtext of an extreme discourse to the forefront, wherein the most violent elements of the American experience (the misogyny, the racism, the xenophobia) were celebrated for all their “greatness.”

Analogous to old-timey religious revivals, Trump’s stump speeches were ripe with apocalypse and catharsis. But the contrasts between preacher and flock could not be more stark.

How a South Floridian Manhattanite and 544th richest person in the world (a legacy Trump largely inherited and nearly squandered save the grace of his born privilege) became a populist avatar for the eviscerated labor classes of a “forgotten America” must be one of the most depressing ironies in American history. And yet the enjoyment he provides to both detractors and supporters is a case of jouissance par excellence.

Outside the Beltway, Trump’s supporters identify his privilege as conjured from the ashes of their own, a chimera that promises to resurrect the glories of an imagined past and re-establish the “lawful order” of the nation. Concurrently, liberals identify as thwart-makers in Trump’s path to hegemony — another operation of the imagination that echoes the leftist resistances of the 60s.

Here’s the rub.

Trump’s privilege is nothing like the memories of cultural dominance his identifiers recall. Instead it is cultivated from the denationalization of capital and wealth inequality (a phenomenon established out of the colonialism that has become today’s globalism), precisely the sort of stuff Trump purports to correct. At some level, his supporters already know this, but they’re happy to pretend otherwise — suspending disbelief so they can enjoy the spectacle. Like reality television, the narrative is contrived but the feeling is real. A feeling, seated firmly in the belly of the masses, driven by the specter of an individual whose station is positioned astronomically better than anyone in the “silent majority.” There is pleasure in this. There is pain.

The origins of Trump’s power, seated firmly in neoliberal capitalism, also mean that when the creative class (among whom I count myself) organize in action or rhetoric against this man and his symbols, we betray our displeasure with the history that has afforded much of what we enjoy today — from cheap technology to gentrification. It also belies how good it feels to have, after a generation and a half of “post-everything,” a dyed-in-the-wool villain to righteously excoriate.

Welcome to the Trumpian symptom.

Identification per se is enjoyable. Whether we’re standing “for” or “against,” identifying with something outside of ourselves gives consistency and structure to our subjectivity. But like the subject (or what one calls the “self”), identity is elusive and mercurial — never fixed for long (if ever) to anything except the human imagination.

Trump is an exceptional example of the “lack” at the center of identity. The man is nothing but himself: tyrannically whimsical and superfluous, impervious to contemplation, slave to an unhappy childhood, and desperate to please the dead father he’s spent a career projecting onto the mediascape: first as tycoon, then as TV star, and now as POTUS.

The inability to articulate an effective response to Trump (attack him, he grows stronger) vexes the left even as the Office of the President has devolved into a metaphor for the unforced error. And although Trump is substantially a media sensation, David Roberts nonetheless looks to the Fourth Estate as central to sustained resistance:

One way or another, the media has got to hang the rules on the wall, reify and reaffirm its commitment to shared norms of accuracy, independence, fairness, and decency. It has to draw lines, reward quality, and resist the epistemic chaos that America’s aspiring autocrat is pulling in his wake.

I don’t disagree. But the contradictions are inextricable from the logic so long as the media remains Trump’s medium to power.

Rarely achieved, the goal of psychoanalysis is for the analysand to properly traverse the fantasy of her condition, neutralizing the efficacy of pleasure in displeasure, and to begin the hard work of identifying with the only identity the subject is afforded: the antagonist.

the whole point is just that we come to experience how this negative, disruptive power, menacing our identity, is simultaneously a positive condition of it. — Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology

Undergirding the tribal framework is a single default: definition of the self can only be realized in resistance to the other. Positivity is achieved through negation, a game of zero sums.

Inversely, psychoanalysis instructs us to reexamine our fantasies of selfhood and the ruinous narratives propagated by a positive reinforcement of our subjectivity at the expense of the other. There is no such thing as a zero sum. There is only zero, complete eradication of all actors.

When one side of a binary rises, the other rises to meet it. In the Hegelian dialectic, these two binaries collide and synthesize into the next (as yet unforeseeable) historical chapter. What comes after Trump is anyone’s guess. But his moment is a part of us now — ineradicable.


Ian Miller is co-founder and creative director at Distillery Corps.

Cover image by Elena Cronin. Influenced by Scandinavian and Nordic design, Elena brings her fine art background to graphic design, branding, typography, and illustration. Get your 10" by 8" print for $20 (incl. shipping), with or without title. Write to elena@elenacronin.com for details.