Monday 6 June 2016

Picture Post No. 13 The Worshippers

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Agency image from the 2016 US Presidential Primaries campaign. These fans can’t quite believe they're standing near THE Donald Trump
There’s a cartoonish air to this image, amusing and entertaining underlying something grotesque, fake and appalling, thus appealing? The (Italian) cartone, a sheet of paper, offers us a blank space to start to represent a scene. America is the land of the comic book, and of Disney.

Take the central woman who seems almost a caricature of an excited fan. Her face expresses the meeting with the unexpected. The facial expression of the boy on the left is equally intense, almost orgiastic. The woman on the right seems to unfold her ladylikeness by touching her hair and the woman behind her seems embraced by unexpected joy. Similarly ingredients for cartoon characters are mixed on paper. Perhaps this is why the picture is funny at first sight; we are recognising our own emotions in caricatures. Laughter disguises pain.

Looking up to people, (admiration) is a very human, very old phenomenom. So it touches belief, right? The belief not so much in people but in a better and in a worse universe. An age-old human trait that seems as strong as ever, and yet a bit strange in the 21st century…And so, yes, first there is this zany, ‘funny cartoon’ impression but behind the facial masks, what is hidden?

Images should make us think, like rain is the memory of plants. The scene of the enthusiastic crowd, the 'admiring throng', is an old visual stand-by. But the belief is not so much in individual people as in the existence of a better universe, populated by imaginary characters.


Chengde Chen said...

From the unifying roar of the Third Reich saluting its Führer
to the wave of the ‘red ocean’ rolling towards the Red Sun
from rock stars’ pretended madness surging into real madness
to Manchester United’s football directing the eyes of the world
the crowd is so simple and easy to manipulate
Whether it is past or present, east or west
whether it’s about religion, war, rock stars or football stars
different kinds of fanaticism are not different!

Keith said...

I’d like to narrow this evocative scene to something both specific and concrete, Donald Trump’s rise . . .

My take on the photo is that more is going on than just stargazing by citizens enthralled by being in the ‘aura’ of Donald Trump. Sure, as a business mogul, no-nonsense host of a reality TV show, and outspoken candidate for America’s presidency, he matters to people. In that context, the scene captures a resonance between Trump and admirers-cum-voters smitten in the moment.

The image evokes those ancient Greek philosophers who cautioned against the blandishments of soaring rhetoric, affecting the populace, unflatteringly described as prone more to passion than to rational thought. A couple of millennia later, some of America’s founding fathers expressed similar cautions as they debated the republic’s system of government.

However, one doesn’t have to be a Trump supporter to grant that the Trump phenomenon is more entangled than just charisma. Some political pundits have concluded that the widening throng of Trump supporters is energized by his message because of feelings of disenfranchisement. Some of these supporters may well have voted before, but felt let down, even betrayed, by their choice of candidates. Others may have felt marginalized, with no one speaking on behalf of their (working-class) interests, and thus never took part in the political process.

Either way, Trump has tapped into a vein of alienation—looking in from the outside and not liking what one sees. A sense that special interest groups—minorities, corporations, politicians, deep pockets, elites—have hijacked America’s levers of power. Whether the details of Trump’s policies are clear, or even known, beyond the slogans might be a nonissue for his supporters. As might the political polarization: ‘creative destruction’, to borrow a paradox from business.

There’s a symbiosis with Trump reaching beyond ideology. Viscerally, it drills down to values, hope, vision, instincts, and ‘it’s our turn now’. Captured by Trump’s unvarnished messaging, stripped of ‘political correctness’, and couched in simple (often incendiary) language that hammers on recurring, easy-to-grasp themes. Trump has broken the communication mold, leaving opponents discomfited.

Resort to invective isn’t unique to today’s American electioneering, however. America’s founders were not shy to spar, in language coarsened by pyrotechnics and bruising personal attacks. Case in point: Thomas Paine painting George Washington as “treacherous in private friendship . . . and a hypocrite in public life . . . [as well as] an apostate or an imposter.” Or John Adams on Alexander Hamilton: “That bastard brat of a Scottish peddler!”

Trump’s speaking style is much more than just ‘performance’ or ‘shtick’—pejoratives. He may be unscripted, yet he drives the narrative among competitors and news media. Trump advances political points he considers non-negotiable—endearing him to supporters. Those points attract people who believe he’s ‘enfranchising’ them—giving them a voice. Whether Trump, as the contest segues to the general election, can broaden this support to his party’s establishment is to be answered. Currently, signs point to Republicans coalescing, as Trump picks up endorsements.

One doesn’t have to be a Trump supporter to acknowledge that the ‘common wisdom’ among the talking heads was humbly wrong about Trump’s prospects for nomination. The current ‘common wisdom’, that Trump will get trounced in the general election, might prove just as wrong—or not. Regardless, and more to the point, there’s a nuance to the Trump supporters’ enthrallment than the ‘fandom’ photo here suggests. The photo, after all, is a frozen moment in time—with possible fault lines of its own.

Keith said...


“Looking up to people (admiration) is a very human, very old phenomenon” . . .

Have we been clear, through history, when ‘admiration’ has become ‘adulation’? And have we been clear, through history, when ‘adulation’ has become a ‘cult of personality’?

Perhaps those demarcations haven’t always mattered. After all, a cult of personality, though often malign, is sometimes benign. Though often manipulative, is sometimes discreet. Though often authoritarian, is sometimes democratic. Though often controlling, is sometimes yielding. Though often deceptive, is sometimes guileless.

To be sure, images have been used, along with other illustrative symbols, to advance any and all of these intentions.

docmartincohen said...

Yes, but what people skate over with Plato, is tht he was quite clearly against democracy. He despised the idea that the masses should have the final say. We have to grant him that the concept is rather ridiculous - but end up with the famous dictum about it being the 'least bad' system.

I wouldn't put a dollar note between Hilly and Drumpf for corruption and megalomania. The American system does seems to have generated two monsters of the kind that (as you say) Plato warned about.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear Keith,

In your first comment (quote): "The photo, after all, is a frozen moment in time—with possible fault lines of its own" is an interesting phrase. Not the picture itself can somehow ever be defective but the way we interpret the image. Maybe every image is deceiving our own visions and shows how limited we are?

The trouble with images is that we always drag them out of 'their world,' and make them enter the representation of our own worlds; we tend to ascribe a reason, a purpose to images that will somehow always be completely misleading, to serve ourselves one way or the other.

The difference between an image serving us or we serve the image is an important reflection, but maybe, or especially today, the latter description appears rather impossible in a world full of intentions. Serving the image means making an effort to achieve a huge swift in your perception and in a world where the obvious rules, to grant yourself this perception, seems useless, for of-course once you manage to do this with the image, you will do that with everything around you. Ideologically that would give space to another type of humanity, and maybe thats just what people do not want?

Keith said...

As you note, Tessa: “The trouble with images is that we always drag them out of 'their world,' and make them enter the representation of our own worlds; we tend to ascribe a reason, a purpose to images ‘that will somehow always be completely misleading’ [my emphasis], to serve ourselves one way or the other.” I agree . . . and precisely what I was getting at by the photo possibly having “fault lines of its own.” Photos whose subject is fraught with political implications, as is this one, are all the more prone to feeding the beast—the ideological predispositions—rampaging within us. All those unsettled biases animate, as you say, “the way we interpret the image.”

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Having a career in people, it would seem to me that adulation or condemnation may be completely beyond the objective qualities of the persons towards whom these are directed.

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