In light of this week’s spectacle of a first presidential debate for the 2020 election, Degree Critical revisits a 2016 dispatch by David Levi Strauss, Chair of the MFA Art Writing Department, where he bore witness to that year’s political conventions and campaign trail. Now the entire series of dispatches is compiled in his latest book Co-Illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (MIT Press, 2020), in which Strauss elucidates the “iconopolitics” unfolding still today, where images and words have lost their connection to reality. Dispatch #33, originally published November 6, 2016, foreshadows our present moment as the nation grapples with the realities of what Strauss referred to at the time as democracy’s “digital doppelgänger.”
—Lune Ames, Managing Editor
November 6, 2016
In a brief but substantive interview with Bill Maher broadcast on Real Time Friday night, President Obama reflected on the principal problem in our public life and discourse that has made it possible for Donald Trump to get this close to the American Presidency. “People have difficulty,” he said, “just sorting out what’s true and what’s not. And if you don’t have some common baseline of facts . . . it’s very hard to figure out how we move democracy forward.” The “Balkanization of the media,” he said, where you have 800 channels and millions of discrete online sources, has led to a situation where everyone has their own version of the truth, and their own facts, and there is very little critical conversation across these boundaries. What we have is a vast collection of discrete sources with no real possibility of feedback, creating a nation of isolated monads, belligerent and lonely.
Of the American electorate, Obama asked, “How do we get enough information in front of them to be able to make good decisions? The problem is we have all these filters. Look, if I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me either; because you’ve got this screen, this fun-house mirror through which people are receiving information. How to break through that is a big challenge.”
Later that night, Bill Maher called what was happening now in the run-up to the election “a slow-moving right-wing coup,” and predicted that, “Once fascists get power, they don’t give up. You’ve got President Trump for life.” And Republican speechwriter David Frum (who’s voting for Hillary) said that a small town in Macedonia was the source of over 100 pro-Trump websites, run for profit, and their Facebook posts get more traffic than any mainstream news source.
Trump has said that if he is elected, he will rule by Internet polling, where the loudest and least informed among us would prevail. In this dark vision, democracy would be replaced by a shadow of itself, a digital doppelgänger.
Democracy is about access and choice, but only when these are social, not measured individually, and not dispensed and controlled by huge corporations. The only cure for what ails democracy is more democracy.
On Tuesday, it is estimated that 50 million people will vote for an unqualified, narcissistic bigot, who, if elected, will drive the U.S. economy off a cliff and cause a global panic. If he is not elected, we are going to have to figure out how to reimagine and repair our communications environment to make critical engagement possible again, because the one thing the Trump campaign has made abundantly clear is that representative democracy cannot function without it.
Writer and critic David Levi Strauss is the Chair of the MFA Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He is the author of Co-illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication (MIT Press, 2020), Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics (Aperture, 2003 & 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art & Politics (Autonomedia, 1999 & 2010).
Co-Illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication by David Levi Strauss is available from MIT Press. 184 pp. $39.95.
Listen to his conversation with faculty and alumnus Emmanuel Iduma (Class of 2015) from April 24, 2020 for The Brooklyn Rail’s Social Environment #29.