Brexit, Baudrillard, Trump, Twitter: Trying To Make Sense In An Age Of Overwhelming
“I’m trying to grasp a world in all its silences and its brutality. Can you grasp a world when you’re no longer tied to it by some kind of ideological enthusiasm, or by traditional passions? Can things “tell” themselves through stories and fragments? These are some of the questions posed in a book which may seem melancholic. But then I think almost every diary is melancholic. Melancholy is in the very state of things.”
Jean Baudrillard, musing on his book, Cool Memories (1990).
It’s the 26 February 2017 and I discover, a little belatedly, the Twitter account, @trump_regrets. At the time of writing it is composed of 1,653 retweets from individual U.S. citizens expressing remorse to varying degrees about the vote they placed for the Republican candidate last November. It makes for a dizzying scroll — many posters boil their thoughts down into 140 characters of past, present and future frustrations that are both entangled in and flattened by the screen-stream of consciousness they exist in. “I regret voting for Trump. I officially pull my support from him. I still want him to succeed as president though,” goes a typical tweet. Past, present, future. Regret, action, hope. What could be a galvanising, rinse and repeat methodology for bottom-up resistance, of learning from one’s mistakes, becomes impotently frozen in the -what? comfort? shame? — of Twitter’s remove.
It’s my final year of university, 2011, and I head to the library immediately after my Thursday AM creative writing class, where in the entrance-way at that same time every couple of weeks an old-ish gentleman is setting up a stall that sells tomes ranging from comic-book compendiums to dense philosophical tracts. One week, I give him a couple of pounds for a copy of Screened Out, a collection of essays by Jean Baudrillard, originally published in the Paris newspaper Libération between 1987 and 1997. In one of the essays entitled, ’Of course Chirac is useless,’ Baudrillard quotes the French journalist Rivarol who wrote during the uprisings of the late 1700s that he believed the people never really wanted an actual revolution, only ‘the spectacle of a revolution.’
The first meme to go viral in the aftermath of the U.K.’s referendum on EU membership is probably the BBC interview with the guy who voted for Brexit. The interview takes place at 9.25AM on the morning of 24 June 2016, just hours after it was confirmed that the Leave campaign(s) had been victorious. “My vote, I didn’t think was going to matter too much,” he says in a tone that’s almost weirdly casual, given that he’s just provided a perfect slice of content for the sites that gleefully churn out clickbait with titles like ‘[X] shows exactly why democracy doesn’t work.’ Both the leave and remain campaigns are widely criticised in the aftermath of the referendum for creating narratives that were speculative at best and deceitfully false at worst, reducing the complexities of E.U. membership to bitesized removes from reality.
Baudrillard dies in March 2007, four months after Facebook launches globally and nine months after the first full version of Twitter is released into the public. He famously wrote of simulacra and simulation, of which social media omits extraordinary amounts. Unlike the signs of Saussure, simulacrum does not represent reality itself, it reflects and distorts and envelopes and smashes together sign upon sign until our sense of reality becomes instead hyper-reality. A reality that never really was/is. Social media becomes the perfect medium for such simulacrum to sustain itself and multiply; reproduce.
27 November 2016: As it becomes clear that Trump has lost the popular vote by almost 3 million, he tweets about widespread voter fraud as an explanation, a claim he repeats into the first weeks of his presidency despite no credible evidence to suggest this took place on any meaningful level. 6 February 2017: Trump’s approval/disapproval ratings have been setting record lows/highs, leading to his tweet proclaiming that “any negative polls are fake news.” 8 February 2017: Trump uses the office of the president in an attempt to directly forward his family’s commercial interests, tweeting that his daughter Ivanka’s fashion line was dropped by Nordstrom’s for political reasons, when in fact internal emails stretching back months show that it was a decision made purely based on sales figures. 24 January 2017: The Republican chairman of the House Science panel, Rep. Lamar Smith says from the floor, “better to get your news directly from the President. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.” 16 February 2017: In a sprawling press conference, Donald Trump asserts that he achieved the largest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan — later it is pointed out to him by a journalist from NBC that in fact almost all presidents since Reagan have received a larger share of the E.C. votes. “Why should Americans trust you?” asks the journalist. “I don’t know,” replies the president.
It’s the 26 February 2017 — a couple of days after Labour lose the Copeland by-election and about the same since Sean Spicer makes the decision to specifically bar certain liberal-leaning news outlets from a gaggle. There is an opinion piece on the Guardian website by the columnist Hadley Freeman in anticipation of the outrage that will be both omitted from and directed at the podium of the Oscars ceremony this evening. The byline reads: “There is something pretty hilarious about people saying celebrities shouldn’t talk about politics, when a celebrity is currently the president of the United States.”
I take the Baudrillard book from my shelf for the first time since graduating — literally dusting it down — and turn to an essay, ‘Helots and Elites,’ that was published some 22 years earlier, on the 18 September 1995. “In the end, the ‘blind’ masses seem to see things more subtly than the ‘enlightened intellectuals: they see that the seats of power are empty, corrupt places of despair, and hence logically one should put characters of precisely this type in them: empty individuals, buffoons, ham actors and charlatans…”
It’s still 26 February 2017 and Trump announces (via Twitter, naturally) that he will not be attending the White House Correspondents Dinner this year.
A particularly memorable, earlier iteration of the White House Correspondents Dinner takes place on April 29 2006, and sees Stephen Colbert in the guise of his eponymous Republican caricature roasting a thoroughly unamused George H. W. Bush. It’s striking how much of Colbert’s lampooning applies even more searingly to the current administration: Colbert The Character, like Trump The President, is no fan of books or ‘elitist intellectuals’, and proud of it. “I don’t trust them, they’re all fact no heart,” says Colbert The Character in the direction of Bush Jr.’s rigid face. “I mean they’re elitist, telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama canal was built in 1914? If I want to say it was built in 1941 then that’s my right as an American! I’m with the President, let history decide what did or did not happen.” In the very next instance of this faux-euologising of Bush however, Colbert ‘celebrates’ Bush’s steadfast convictions. “The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday — no matter what happened on Tuesday.” The same, it must be said, can most definitely not be said for Trump.
On the 21 January 2006 during his opening monologue to the first SNL to be broadcast after Trump’s inauguration, host Aziz Ansari talks (tongue at least partially in cheek) of how he can’t quite believe that he now pines for the days of the Dubya administration.
On the 25 February 2017 I order a pizza using a two-click process on an app and am nudged into watching Oliver Stone’s JFK by an iTunes algorithm. I have never seen it before, and like Spielberg’s Lincoln I am initially surprised that the definitive, all-encompassing titles of each film do not in fact signal a straight biopic — the journey from childhood to death — of each respective titular character. Lincoln focuses on just a few days in the life of the 16th; Kennedy exists in JFK only in the context of his death and how that was processed by the cast of characters(/America). Yet both films somehow manage to distil the entire defining essence of each president into very specific passages of times. I wonder idly, as Kevin Costner delivers his lengthy final monologue, how on earth the filmmakers of the future will choose to pluck digestible meaning from the leaderships of Cameron; of Corbyn; of Trump. The screen fades to black, and the following words linger on the screen before the credits roll: ‘What is past is prologue. Dedicated to the young in whose spirit the search for truth marches on.’
The football section of the Guardian website has become my go-to respite from the news. After almost every Premier League game, the highly media trained players and managers trot out the same relentlessly forward-looking message. On the 13 April 2014 Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard is caught on camera telling his teammates that, “this [game] is gone, we go again.” It becomes the mantra of teams both in the ascendancy and trying to bounce back from a defeat. I find there’s something reassuring, helpful even, in the methodical, mechanical focus on the near-future, one that is embodied wholly — mentally and physically — by the players. I read the match previews, the suspected line-ups; I tinker with my fantasy football team.
It’s still 26 February 2017 and the top story that morning when I check the football news is focused on a press conference given by the Manchester United manager, Jose Mourinho. He is speaking about the recent sacking of Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri, who was fired last week despite beating odds of 5000–1 to lift the Premiership title last season. “No one can delete history,” says Mourinho. “You can’t go to a laptop and press delete.”
Whilst I by no means think it’s the best film I’ve ever seen, if someone to ask me what my favourite film was or the film that has had the biggest impact on my life, I would likely say Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 tale of post-modern narrative collisions taking place over the course of one day in Los Angeles. The first time I see it is during the summer of 2003 or 2004 at about fifteen years of age, on a tiny screen in the back of my stepdad Ahmad’s shop that I’m looking after for him while he visits his cousins in Sweden. Though I don’t possess at that age the tools to really deconstruct and analyse what I’m watching, I am mesmerised; moved. It is a film composed entirely of memorable sequences, crescendoing with the deafening magical-realism of an amphibious thunderstorm and the breakneck zoom to the words on a painting that read defiantly, “but it did happen.”
26 June 2016: The British politician and one of the most prominent leaders of the Leave campaign, Iain Duncan Smith, categorically states days after Britain votes for Brexit that he never said £350million supposedly sent from the U.K to the EU every week would instead go to funding the NHS. This is despite his campaign clearly emblazoning the following words across its buses throughout the run-up to the vote: We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.” 20 January 2017: Donald Trump says that it didn’t rain during his inauguration speech, that “it just never came.” But it did happen.
Another memorable line repeated a number of times throughout Magnolia is “And the book says, we might be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us.” It’s not entirely clear what book the line is referring to — if any actual book at all — though it bears a similar sentiment to that famous line from William Faulkner’s Requiem For A Nun: “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.” Pre-presidency Barack Obama in fact quotes that same line in a speech given during the race for the Democratic nomination on March 18 2008. Obama uses it to illustrate that the ramification’s of the states’ racial history are so present all around us that they can never really be relegated to merely ‘the past.’ Interestingly however, it is a phrase also alluded to by Robin Toner of The New York Times on May 9 2004, in a column about the recurring rigidity of presidential campaigns over the years (specifically relating to the Republican campaigns against Michael Dukakis and John Kerry in 1988 and 2004 respectively). As we’re all aware, this changes significantly with the rise to nomination and then presidency of Donald Trump.
It’s still 26 February 2017 but closer now to the following day. The night draws in and the residual winds from Storm Doris (I presume) press against the window of my empty flat with reassuring tangibility. Tomorrow my girlfriend returns from a business trip to Canada and I begin four days of intensive copywriting for a Fortune 500 company in the process of ‘re-inventing’ itself. I won’t have the space that I had today to try and somehow organise thoughts, memories, moments. Life will keep skipping along the surface of every new and hastily fired-off tweet. Every snatch of memory and clipped video moment shared to Facebook. On this day… Trying to chart every moment, zooming out in an attempt to see the bigger picture feels impossible, no matter how admirably certain much-maligned members of the press attempt to keep a steady handle on cumulative events. No matter how far you zoom out, the bigger picture looks less like an annotated timeline and more like a great mass of overwhelming moments, both suffocated and suffocating. Simultaneously fragmented yet void of spaces in-between. Space to breathe. I flick again through Screened Out before returning it to its resting place on my Instagram-able bookshelf in my Pinterest home. I see for the first time that on the first page of Screened Out that where there should be a dedication it says simply, “History reproducing itself becomes farce. Farce reproducing itself becomes history.” It’s taken from one of the essays in the book, ‘When The West Takes The Dead Man’s Place.’ Just above those words on the final page of the essay is another phrase: “such a macabre parody and the sinister confusion of a history coming apart…” I take a picture with my phone. Someone who follows me on Instagram sends me a message saying, “check out his book Cool Memories.” Someone else on my Instagram feed shares a picture taken the previous night of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage dining together in a Florida hotel. The shit-eating grin on Farage’s face; the dim squint of a President in the process of ordering, it is reasonable to assume, a well-done steak with ketchup. Like so much of the past eighteen months or so of political turmoil it feels beyond the realms of satire; terrifying in its absurdity and absurd in just how terrifying it is. Perhaps, I think, this will be the moment those future filmmakers hone in on. Moments that are simultaneously preserved and throwaway with the ability to upend the world. Silent and brutal. Entirely lacking in any semblance of ideological enthusiasm and traditional passions. Sad! History becoming farce. Farce becoming history. A macabre parody and the sinister confusion of a history coming apart.
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