The Demagogue Takes the Stage
by Reinhold Martin – March 30, 2017
We live today in an artwork that follows the principle of reality television, which is not that it depicts reality, but that it becomes reality. As if watching in slow motion, we see this happening as it happens. The artifice entailed, the conceit, the ruse — all are on full display. Forthright disclosure, intercut with meta-commentary by the participants, adds a mocking twist to the old avant-garde technique of breaching the “fourth wall” separating audience and actors. What results is not awakening but rather sociopathic dissociation. For if reality is what comes afterwards rather than before, then whatever remains of the distinction between art and everything else melts into air. In the all-encompassing artwork, all facts are “alternative facts” subject to the free play of imaginative association, and all truth is “fake” before its deadly blow is felt.
The production of the unequivocally real artwork is tied to the consecration of the national territory as sacred ground, which is an unspoken basis for the self-conscious nationalisms that now encircle the globe. Contrary to the assumption that nationalism is opposed to capitalist globalization, however, the two go hand-in-hand; they are kindred spirits feeding off and supplying the twin enchantments of property and homeland. In this light the border walls and the travel bans are acts of consecration — techniques for securing the nation symbolically both as property, like a fence around a yard or a “No Trespassing” sign, and as homeland, like a racially and religiously restricted family gathering.
What is more difficult to comprehend is that these are fundamentally artistic techniques; by which I mean that they establish the nation as an ambiguously meaningful entity, the semantic insecurity of which demands further acts of consecration. And these acts, which are forms of ritualized violence, themselves depend upon the sanctity of art rather than on its profanation. In the United States today, this sanctity is maintained not by high culture but by a substrate of governing instruments, or media, that shape a public sphere. For even in its most vulgar forms, the consecration of the nation as property and as homeland requires an a priori theater of power, where some and not others are positioned to perform the requisite act while reflexively showing how it’s done, like on television.