Scandal and power: Pornographication of politics and social life

23. V 2018

There is a species of man who is always one step ahead of his own excrement (René Char)

Scandal is emerging as possibly the most significant technological innovation of the new century so far. It makes social barriers porous, it uncovers human flaws behind the sheltered Public, humanizes the dehumanized, and contaminates the sterilized Symbolic. Current political reality reveals itself through scandal. Scandal gives an illusion of political engagement – it is political activism in consumer mode.

Perfection is sterile – we are attracted to people’s weaknesses and imperfections and not to their strengths. If personal flaws and idiosyncrasies harmonize with repressed collective traumas, desires and nostalgia for the ancestral terrain, they can have a great mobilizing power capable of defining new identity politics and shaping entire political movements. A leader who is able to strike the ancestral chord of his people will make those people dance to his grooves and fall in love with him. For several decades now, the new breed of post-Reagan politicians has been doubling down on their flaws in a bid for deeper access to wider political audiences and a chance to reinvest considerable rage capital that has accumulated over time. Their idiosyncrasies make them human, and the more they err, the more human and appealing they become. They diffuse one scandal with another (always) bigger one — spectacle is addictive, it has to grow to satiate the boundless appetite of the publics. Since Reagan days, scandal has morphed from a free form to a precise game theoretical strategy.

The main problem with scandal as a public communication tool is its integration into political life. After all, scandal in public life has always been synonymous with professional suicide, the end of political career (Nixon was the last tragic victim of that equation). It took almost two decades after Reagan to figure out how to bypass this obstacle. The breakthrough came with a realization that the troubling equation, Scandal = Suicide, is intimately linked with the second one, Suicide = Power.

It wasn’t very long after 9/11 that the West managed to grasp the idea that suicide is a statement of power. A man on a suicide mission is not to be messed with: Irrespective of how much stronger you are, he will manage to hurt you, or at best, his guts will splatter all over you leaving the stains (physical and mental) you will never be able to remove. The impactfullness of suicide as the ultimate symbolic gesture can only be understood and argued after reconciling it with the symbolism of afterlife. The duality of suicide — physical and symbolic (the collateral and the reward) – defines the first layer of its rationalization within the existing cultural paradigm.

Suicide is the most private act. Its intent and execution are done without the consent of anyone but the self. The suicide through martyrdom is an externalization of that personal pact; it is a radical privatization of the public space – a violent erasure of the gap between private and public.

Physical suicide as subordination to a higher goal that transcends the value of human life represents a symbolic act that has no counterpart in the Western culture. For Westerners, this is potentially the most frightening confrontation. But, the West has emancipated itself from this nonsense of higher goals a long time ago: We no longer give our lives for higher goals; we take risks in exchange for adequate compensation.

With real (fundamentalist) martyrs loss of life is real and afterlife is symbolic. For pragmatic Westerners rationalization of suicide consists in transposing its coordinates: suicide becomes symbolic and afterlife real. This is the key step.

Over the last two decades, the public spectacle of symbolic suicide has become a ticket to a lucrative material “afterlife” for numerous public figures. Through scandal, current populist politics, (the concluding chapter of neoliberalism) has been transformed into a perpetual ritual of watered down acts of reversible self-annihilation — political suicide followed by subsequent symbolic resurrection. The ongoing parody of self-destruction comes with an embedded option on resurrection (political and/or commercial) or an implicit promise of a lucrative “afterlife” with “70 virgins” in the form of book deals, high-commission speech opportunities, TV appearances, Fox News correspondent, or consultant positions.

These rituals are repeated over and over again as an essential part of an ever-growing public spectacle. The high-stakes game, the ultimate gamble, where one puts his life on the line for his beliefs (what if my belief is wrong and my life was lost for nothing?) is transposed into its parody, a tactical low-stakes gambit consisting of making minor short-term concessions in return for a potentially large future upside. There is an emancipatory ring to this parody: While “traditional” martyrdom has been strictly a male thing, symbolic suicide has been very much a gender-neutral thing, which has only helped its acceptance and integration.

As potential upside grew, the spectacle of symbolic self-annihilation became more competitive and more elaborate. At the top of this theatre of cruelty sits Donald Trump, always (and without a single exception) on the wrong side of every argument, political, social, ethical, ecological or rational, with consistency that can only be deliberate or programmatic, definitely not accidental. And this is just an appetizer; his distaste for truth, deep in the territory of pathological, is an amuse-bouche (it comes free of charge) before the main course, his passion for scandal of any kind, political, sexual, financial, or legal, none too small or too trivial not to be embraced, defines his habitat. He insults war heroes, war heroes’ widows and parents, handicapped, women, homosexuals, transgender, minorities, judges, FBI, CIA, media, religions, domestic and foreign dignitaries, chiefs of states, anyone that exists on this planet and beyond. And when it looks like he has sunk as low as one can sink, he manages to define new lows. His ability to survive the consequences defies laws of probability, gravity and logic; it can be only compared to surviving a plane crash (something his buddy Nigel Farage actually experienced).

Trump’s administration appointees and surrogates are all symbolic martyrs, selected volunteers on a suicide mission, trying to keep up with their boss. This commitment has become all but an explicit prerequisite for any political office appointment — we continue to be reminded of Comey’s (or Tillerson’s) ritualized dismissal as a consequence of their reluctance to commit to the parody of martyrdom.

The list of Trump’s symbolic suicide volunteers has been growing at an exploding rate. Various transient surrogates and talking heads are too insignificant and numerous to mention. But, who can forget the tragicomic figure of Sean Spicer, a bona fide moron, who went too far too soon and, in that process, blew his chances for afterlife; or premature ejaculator Scaramucci who kamikazeed on runway before his “plane” could take off; the undead duo, Conway & HakaSan; Jeffrey Lord who just couldn’t take the pressure anymore and (for no good reason and out of the blue) blasted a Sieg Heil on twitter, and subsequently lost his CNN (and any other) gig; Garry Cohn, a rational man who did and said irrational things and ruined his reputation in a futile mission, but as a government employee, managed to cash in his vested Goldman Sachs stocks without paying capital gains tax; the list goes on and on.

But, when it comes to the spectacle of public self-annihilation, no one comes close to Sean Hannity, the whirling dervish, performance artist, and Swiss army knife of populist tricks. People of all persuasions and political leanings tune in every night to watch the greatest show on TV, where this postmodern-day Lazarus of the far right sets himself on fire and incinerates his symbolic body every business day of the week at precisely 9 p.m. and within the subsequent 60 minutes violates every professional, journalistic, legal, ethical, and esthetical boundary there is to violate, only to magically resurrect the next day and repeat the same ritual during the exact same time slot.

However, away from the spectacle, one faces sobering reality: Porous boundaries, atonal politics, and populist plan for its rescue reveal the troubling truth about the human condition of the depressive-narcissistic neoliberal subject. It is at the edge of depression where neoliberalism meets its fundamentalist twin. The inability to arrive at a decision or finish anything constitutes a symptom of depression[1]  — our spirit has become so compromised that even suicide cannot be accepted as a conclusive act, but just another chapter – what can be more narcissistic than that? This is the social Möbius strip where the real becomes symbolic and the symbolic turns into real. In this process of social pornografication, the paradigm of the reality show converts martyrdom into a precisely structured symbolic ritual, mythology of afterlife into business opportunities, and transforms America, and the West in general, into a culture of second acts. Everything is explicit and nothing is believable.

[1] B. C. Han

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