The Performance-Artist-in-Chief

David Trend

“What you have to understand about Trump, first of all, is that he’s a performance artist, not a politician,” explained filmmaker Michael Moore (one of the first public figures to predict Trump’s election).  In recent months, considerable attention has been given the President’s apparent distain of reality or what some nominally call “truth.” But maybe its time to look at Trump’s “creative” approach to factuality in a different way.  Say what you will about The Donald, his ability to get public attention is astonishing. And while some critics question the President’s grasp of “reality,” others see a calculated shrewdness in his behavior––an underlying strategy not unlike what Naomi Klein discussed in The Shock Doctrine.

Is this veteran huckster simply putting on an act?

After all, aren’t all politicians “performers” in some sense of the term? You would expect that in an age of media spectacle most Americans are accustomed to this idea. The problem is that many still yearn for authenticity in their leaders’ words and deeds. Hungering for a vision of a better world, voters will cast aside doubts about a candidate’s claims and promises––only to be disappointed when reality sets in. This partly explains why Americans have become cynical about democracy. One often hears laments for idealized past when “truth” prevailed, that it could be recognized it when it appeared, and that the concept informed America’s behavior in the world. In actuality, Americans (and their politicians) have always had a “creative” relationship with the truth. Might the President simply be taking this tradition to its logical end?

A discourse quietly has begun percolating in recent months, which places Trump’s antics in the realm of artistic expression. And if you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Before the recent election cycle, Trump’s most visible role had been that of a media showman in various incarnations of his well-known Apprentice TV shows. His books The Art of the Deal (1987), The Art of Survival (1991), and The Art of the Comeback (1997) are peppered with references to his “creative” financing and bookkeeping. A quintessential proponent of creative capitalism, Trump wrote that “Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I make deal’s, preferably big deals.”Art itself is a “con” to Trump, who once quipped that “successful painters are better salesmen and promoters than they are artists.”  The Trump family has made a fortune from the creative economy –– from Donald Trump’s own entertainment enterprises, to Melania Trump’s career as a fashion model, to Ivanka Trump’s clothing and accessory lines, to Donald Trump, Jr’s. real estate investments in New York’s artistic East Village. Recently, famed performance artist Karen Finley put the matter bluntly in stating that “Donald Trump owes all of his wealth to arts and culture.”

The Trump-as-performance-artist premise isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. Entrepreneurial success often hinges on creative traits like imagination, novelty-seeking, risk taking, and “thinking outside the box.” Also, the President’s iconoclastic slash-and-burn assault on liberal sensibilities fits within certain well-established aesthetic traditions. Dada and Surrealist artists of the early-20th century delighted in upsetting bourgeois sensibilities. Often linked to anarchist movements of the time, Dadaist “anti-art” upended conventional logic, aesthetics, and morality to shake up a complacent society and open the way toward a better world. André Breton’s Surrealist manifesto of 1924 advocated “the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” One outraged reviewer in American Art News called the movement “the most paralyzing and most destructive thing that has ever originated from the brain of man.” Continue reading “The Performance-Artist-in-Chief”

Elsewhere in America: The Crisis of Belonging in Contemporary Culture (Routledge, 2016)

It’s not always easy living up to one’s ideals, either personally or as a nation. Americans like to think of the United States as a welcoming place where everyone has equal chance. But historical baggage and anxious times can make such generosity difficult.0001Behind the America’s mythic open door, newcomers often find that civic belonging comes with strings attached––riddled with conditions, limitations, and in some instances, punitive rites of passage. And for those already here, new rationales emerge to challenge civic belonging on the basis of belief, behavior, or heritage. This book uses the term “elsewhere” in describing conditions that exile so many citizens to “some other place” through prejudice, competition, or discordant belief. Even as “diversity” has become the official norm in American society, the country continues to fragment along new lines that pit citizens against their government, each other, and even themselves.  Yet in another way, “elsewhere” evokes an undefined “not yet” ripe with potential. In the face of daunting challenges, elsewhere can point to optimism, hope, and common purpose.

Elsewhere in America uses the concept of “belonging” to frame a uniquely multidisciplinary exploration of division and marginalization in the U.S.––in a study encompassing material conditions, discursive contexts, and affective states. Through 12 detailed chapters, Elsewhere in America applies critical theory in the humanities and social sciences in examining recurring crises of social inclusion in the U.S.  After two centuries of struggle and incremental “progress” in securing human dignity, today the U.S. finds itself riven apart by new conflicts over reproductive rights, immigration, health care, religious extremism, sexual orientation, mental illness, and fears of terrorists. Why are U.S. ideals of civility and unity so easily hijacked and confused? Is there a way of explaining this recurring tendency of Americans to turn against each other? Elsewhere in America engages these questions in charting the ever-changing faces of difference (manifest in contested landscapes of sex and race to such areas as disability and mental health), their spectral and intersectional character (as seen in the new discourses on performativity, normativity, and queer theory), and the grounds on which categories are manifest in ideation and movement politics (seen in theories of metapolitics, cosmopolitanism, dismodernism).

Worlding: Identity, Media, and Imagination in a Digital Age (Paradigm, 2013)

Many of us think about a better world. But opinions may vary over how to get there, and especially about what “there” we want. The imagination and realization of worlds has become a driving force in “real” and ”virtual” environments, with both negative and positive consequences. Worlding: Identity, Media, and Imagination in a Digital Age explores the many realms of experience we inhabit as we move back-and-forth between reality and representation in our daily lives. But in doing so, Worlding concentrates on ways of improving our common existence. As discussed throughout this book, “worlding” can be selfless or selfish. It can reinforce what exists or point to something else. But it can never be neutral. Throughout this book, “worlding” will be examined as a word, an argument, and a possibility.41FGmSv4lxL._SY380_

Worlding is a word. You won’t find the term worlding in any dictionary, even though the term has been in use for nearly a century. Martin Heidegger popularized the neologism in his 1927 Being and Time to mean “being-in-the-world.”The idea was to use a verb signifying something ongoing and generative, which could not be reduced to either a philosophical state or a scientific materiality. Since then worlding has appeared dozens of times in philosophy, politics, cultural studies, and technology studies. The word has been appropriated, contested, but never quite pinned down––and so retains a remarkable flexibility. In “Ways of Worlding,” P.J. Rusnak catalogues many of the ways worlding has been treated in different disciplines and for varying purposes. Noting the term’s Heideggerian ontology, Rusnak cites worlding in discussions of colonialism and imperialism, secularism and faith, patriarchy and heteronormality, utopian and dystopian futurism, aesthetics and artistic expression, online networking and virtual community building, ecology and sustainability, proprioception and kinesthesia, pedagogy and situated learning. Linguists have taught us that terms like “worlding” work less as fixed essences than as mediators of differences among the utterances and concepts around them.   But this undetermined character hardly makes “worlding” innocent, deriving as it does from a noun referencing concepts of origins, boundaries, ethnicities, governance, and even consciousness itself.  It is to this broad vision of worlding that this book dedicates itself.

Continue reading “Worlding: Identity, Media, and Imagination in a Digital Age (Paradigm, 2013)”

The End of Reading: From Gutenberg to Grand Theft Auto (Peter Lang, 2010)

The End of Reading: From Gutenberg to Grand Theft Auto is titled provocatively to address current debates about American education, intelligence, and the rise of popular culture. By focusing on “reading” the book addresses the crisis in public literacy, but chooses not to blame the familiar scapegoats of non-English-speaking immigrants and popular culture. Instead, The End of Reading argues that in a democratic, multicultural, and technologically-sophisticated society, we need to embrace multiple definitions of what it means to be a literate person. These new definitions of literacy require a more intensely interdisciplinary approach to “reading” the world, which recognize differences in the origins, forms, contexts, and cognitive processes of expression and reception. Getting at these definitions requires us to look beyond established paradigms of “media literacy” and “cultural studies”––though these remain crucial––and examine the sources of language, the field of perception, and the history of visual expression. Put another way, this mean looking past fields of education and media studies to also consider recent scholarship in anthropology, art history, linguistics, and psychology, among other areas.

The End of Reading: From Gutenberg to Grand Theft Auto also seeks to expand discussions of literacy itself by situating its discussions in broader terms of language and vision. The End of Reading explores the historical origins of language as well as ways that people develop language abilities in childhood. The book similarly looks at humanity’s earliest non-linguistic picture and art-making inclinations and traces their parallel development with speaking and writing. In tracing these trajectories to the present day, the book doesn’t propose the “end of reading” so much as it advocates a more inclusive and stridently interdisciplinary view of literacy as we know it.  In doing so, the book offers a diverse approach to literacy compatible with evolving discourses in technology, multiculturalism, gender and disability studies. In personal terms, The End of Reading is informed by the struggles with reading of my nine-year old child. I continue to wonder how kids are going to do in a world that requires reading while increasingly making it seem irrelevant. Each chapter begins with an anecdote about early reading difficulties.

A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity (Paradigm, 2009)

Worries about a “divided” America are no secret. In the wake of several evenly divided election campaigns and polls showing vast public disagreement on vital social issues, fears are arising that the once “united” states are being riven apart by conflicting views on issues like gay marriage, immigration, and the war in Iraq. As a recent report from the Pew Center for the People and the Press put it, “The red states get redder and the blue states get bluer, and the political map of the United States takes on the coloration of the Civil War.”A lengthy debate on the subject has been taking place in American society for much of the past two decades, touched off by a handful of books published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The most influential of these were Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, and E.D Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know in 1987. Both books argued that America had been weakened by a declining cultural values, specifically by the abandonment by schools of the great books and traditions of Western Thought.

These debates were summarized in James Jefferson Hunter’s 1991 book Culture Wars. Hunter’s book, whose title gave the conflicts a name, asserted that a new and expansive discontent had taken over the country. “The contemporary culture war is not just an expression of different ‘opinions’ or ‘attitudes’ on this or that issue, like abortion,” Hunter wrote. “The culture war emerges over fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority, over different ideas and beliefs about truth, the good, obligation to one another, the nature of community, and so on.” Several years later, Hunter warned the controversies might even trigger violent conflict. With the dawn of the 2000s the culture wars moved from the margins of academic discourse to the center of mainstream debate and concern. Search the term “culture war” at the Harvard University library and you’ll come up with 1308 entries. The Library of Congress posts over 10,000 books with titles like Culture Wars, Culture War? Beyond the Culture Wars, Is There a Culture War?, Culture Warrior, etc.

A Culture Divided explores both the symptoms and causes of these contemporary divides in the United States, illustrating how differences of perspective and opinion have persisted throughout the nation’s history––from the earliest days of the revolution to the most recent events in international diplomacy. A Culture Divided takes the somewhat contradictory position that the divided character of the American nation is both a curse and a blessing, giving rise to some of the nation’s most vexing social and political problems, but at the same time imbuing the United States with a freshness and vitality that have kept its values relevant––or at least potentially so. Continue reading “A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity (Paradigm, 2009)”

Everyday Culture: Finding and Making Meaning in a Changing World (Paradigm, 2007)

EVERYDAY CULTURE draws its inspiration from a particular historical moment. In 1968 the meanings and potentials of ordinary life received attention in cultural and political circles throughout the western world as never before.  Radios were playing “Everyday People,” a song by the rock/funk band Sly and the Family Stone. Released in the months following the infamous Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the assassination of Martin Luther King, “Everyday People” captured the spirit of US culture as a plea for peace and equality. Remembered for it’s chorus, “I am everyday people,” the song resonates in a celebration of diversity, as lead singer Sly Stone Stewart proclaims “We are the same whatever we do” with the refrain, “We’ve got to live together.”  “Everyday People” holds the distinction as the first hit song in the U.S. by a multi-racial performing group.

As “Everyday People” was moving to the number one spot on the U.S. pop  chart, a more material manifestation of the everyday was taking hold in Europe. In May 1968 a general strike erupted in France within universities and high schools in a series of uprisings protesting poor wages and governmental wrongdoing. From riots outside the Sorbonne in Paris, the strike quickly was joined by workers, minorities, the French Communist party, and members of Situationist Internationale. Within a week France was crippled by a work stoppage of 10-million people––roughly two thirds of the nation’s labor force­­––making it the largest strike in recorded history.

Informed in part by these historical legacies,  Everyday Culture  is about the confluence of cultural and material possibility––the bringing together of thought and action in daily life. The book argues that an informed and invigorated citizenry can help reverse patterns  of dehumanization and social control. The impetus for  Everyday Culture   can be described in the observation by Raymond Williams that “culture is ordinary,” and that the fabric of meanings that inform and organize everyday life often go undervalued and unexamined.  Everyday Culture shares with thinkers like Williams the conviction that it is precisely the ordinariness of culture that makes it extraordinarily important. The ubiquity of everyday culture means that it affects all aspects of contemporary economic, social and political life.   Seen his light,   Everyday Culture  is about a hope for a better future.

 

The Myth of Media Violence (Blackwell, 2007)

The Myth of Violence seeks to extend the conversation about media violence beyond simple arguments of condemnation or support.  In questioning typical views of media violence, we’ll view the topic in a broader context––taking into account the social, economic, and political factors that encourage and thrive upon violent entertainment. Also addressed will be the uses that violent stories play in education, art, and historical accounts of violent occurrences in human history resulting from war, genocide, and natural catastrophe. In addition, the book examines the distinctly American style of much media violence. Historically the United States dominated global media production and was the source of most of the movies and television the world saw. The picture changed somewhat when multinational corporations began restructuring production and distribution in the 1980s and 1990s, but the influence of American-style TV and movie making has endured even in the face of burgeoning media industries in  India, China, Japan, and Europe.

Beginning with a look at history, this book chronicles concerns about violence media that have accompanied the development of new communication media from the printing press to the internet. The Myth of Media Violence then charts the ways that different stakeholders in the media violence debate––audiences, producers, and academics––often have viewed the topic in mutually exclusive, one-dimensional terms. This book discusses why, in the face of so many efforts to curb the proliferation of violent material, media violence continues to escalate in new and more potent forms. The Myth of Media Violence addresses the ways this ubiquitous culture of violence contributes to broader social anxieties over harm and catastrophe. The book then analyzes the forces that encourage these anxieties––exacerbated in the post-9/11 era––and how these forces mitigate against a progressive and democratic society. Finally, the book closes with a chapter about why media violence exists and how we can learn to deal with it.

The common-sense assumption that depictions of violence promote deviant behaviors predates the invention of film and television. Victorian-era street theater and penny-novels were thought to encourage misbehavior among the working poor, especially young men in urban areas. Indeed, some accounts of the media violence debate date to Aristotle. For this reason, any serious examination of media violence needs to begin by examining historical continuities in the public concern over violent expression, while also noting the unique ways that different media convey violence. Questions need to be asked about why, after decades of public debate, policy analysis, and academic scrutiny, the discourse on media violence remains riven with inconsistency. While certain groups of researchers (primarily in the social sciences) continue to assert that violence in media is bad, firm conclusions about why it is bad have failed to materialize. In part, this results from difficulties in consistently defining “media violence.”

Welcome to Cyberschool: Education at the Crossroads in the Information Age (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001)

In the United States education has a special place in the national imagination. Years ago, schooling was viewed as a critical tool of democracy, functioning as both a social equalizer and  a route to the American Dream. In more recent decades, education has enjoyed a less of exalted image, as the great social equalizer has been cast as the source of social, economic, and even moral decay in the United States. Schools have been characterized as bloated public bureaucracies populated by incompetent teachers allowing  standardized test score averages to drop below those of our international competitors. Competition and individual achievement are stressed over community values and the common good.

In the “tough love” climate of the times, school policies lost whatever liberal bent they had, as funding from Washington was systematically reduced. With less federal money, local school districts were obliged to depend increasingly more on local property tax revenues––which vary wildly from region to region. This exacerbated the differences between impoverished and wealthy schools,as gaps widened between white and non-white schools, and between those that  were technology rich and technology poor. Naming this condition one of “savage inequalities,” Jonathan Kozol asserted that progressive redistributive efforts had been “turned back a hundred years.”

Soon more profound changes occurred.  As offspring of the baby boom generation began to enter the classroom in the 1990s, debates over education shifted from assignments of blame to prescriptions for improvement. With government deficits turning into occasional surpluses, a renewed sense of urgency returned to educational policy discussions.  Suddenly everyone had ideas about how to fix schools by testing teachers, firing administrators, tinkering with admissions, offering vouchers, or promoting school choice. Joining the cacophony of voices were religious leaders, politicians, radio talk-show hosts, academics––in short, just about everyone except parents and students.  If the debates yielded anything, they demonstrated how multidimensional a problem effective educational reform turned out to be

Further complicating these discussions was an overriding belief that “technology” could help somehow. With the meteoric growth of high tech companies and their contribution to the nation’s economic recovery, technology became the solution to every problem. . Significantly, these early proponents of technologically-mediated education saw themselves as progressive reformers, not unlike the current promoters of computerized learning.

Reading Digital Culture (Blackwell, 2001)

To say that we inhabit a digital world is an understatement. In recent years information technology has transformed many fundamental parts of life: how we work and play, how we communicate and consume, how we create knowledge and learn, even how we understand politics and participate in public life. It is nearly impossible to make it though a day without encountering a computer, a digitally mediated image, or a news report about the current technological “revolution.” Most of us carry encoded magnetic strips of digits that tether us to our identity and enable us to function through digital means.  From the supermarket to the stock exchange, virtually all commerce is now mediated by computers. In al of these manifold ways, our reliance on digital data storage, computation, and telecommunication has made us profoundly dependent on digital technology whether we realize it or not. Indeed, ubiquity and invisibility have become defining characteristics of the  paradoxical information age.

This book addresses the way people think about this paradoxical age, the facts and fantasies of which have produced what might be termed a “digital culture.”  It tells the familiar story of a widely held popular viewpoint countered by various less-than-sanguine alternative perspectives. Celebrating the new computer era is a massive discourse in both mainstream media and academic literature in which the figure of

utopia looms large.  Evoking traditions of technological determinism and free-market boosterism, the denizens of information technology have promoted digital culture as the culmination of the Enlightenment project and the economic panacea of the post-industrial world. This overwhelming positive view of the information age is supported on one level by the very computer and software industries that have created the  largest,  wealthiest, and most powerful corporate infrastructure in human history, and on another level by the enormous “information economy” of content producers, merchandisers, communication provides, and other ancillary services of the digital industrial complex. All of this is equated with a narrative of humankind’s ever advancing march of progress, as information technology is touted as the ultimate vehicle of mastery and transcendence. Indeed, to some this technology is seen as the key to overcoming the limits of material existence––the means by which we become “posthuman.”

This utopian enthusiasm has been met by a less ubiquitous, but frequently vociferous,  measure of resistance from a myriad assortment of skeptics, neo-Luddites, and conspiracy theorists—ranging from pacifists and ecologists who despair the ruinous effects of war machines and greedy businesspeople, to the countless peoples and nations who stand on the wrong side of the “digital divide.” As Bill Gates and Steve Case proclaim the global ubiquity of the internet, it is important to remember that the majority of non-western nations and a whopping 97 percent of the world’s population remain unconnected to the net for lack of  knowledge, access, or money. [ii] In this regard its worth remembering the advice of Frederic Jameson, who warned two decades ago of dangers of equating “progress” with “utopia.” The desire for a future that is both different and better is often more a symptom of our dissatisfaction with the present than a genuine improvement in our lives. Enveloped as we are by the ideologies and social structures that surround us, the imagination of anything like a true utopia may well be impossible.

Cultural Democracy: Politics, Media, New Technology (SUNY Press, 1997)

We live in an era of democratic contradiction. As the Cold War recedes into history and the apparent triumph of liberal democracy spreads around the globe, the domestic state of democracy within the United States continues to erode. Rather than a nation where citizens feel empowered in their common governance, the US has become a land of where the vast majority of citizens hate their leaders yet never vote. Massive anti-incumbency sentiments and resentment toward representative government parallel the rise of grassroots militia movements and media demagogues. Clearly something has gone wrong with democracy in the US–or more precisely with the way democracy is understood and exercised.

Nowhere are these difficulties more pronounced than in battles over cultural issues. Debates about canonical values, revisionist curricula, artistic censorship, and freedom of expression have moved from the margins of public debate to its center. Increasingly, people across the political spectrum recognize the strategic role of the arts and humanities in shaping human identities and influencing politics. At a historical moment lacking in superpower conflicts, ideological debate has become internalized as it did in the 1950s.  Once again battles that were waged with guns and bullets are now fought with ideas and symbols. And once again access to the debate is a crucial issue, as attempts are made to exclude voices that would contest the status quo.

This book is premised on the regrettable fact that the US has nothing even approaching an egalitarian realm of public communication and civic ritual. Although identity politics and the so-called “culture wars” have done much to expand the national conversation about pluralism and values, these issues have also induced heightened levels of divisiveness and antagonism.  As television and computers have made more information available to people than ever before, the electorate finds itself increasingly uninformed and confused.  And while democracy is a word that politicians and media personalities bandy about with great alacrity, its usefulness has become all but exhausted by divergent interests it has come to serve.