An Exceptional Situation
January 6 and the New State of Suspension
|Justin E. H. Smith||Jan 11|
0. A fresh new batch of binaries
Often it seems a shame that those in opposing camps do not take time to stop and appreciate what they have in common: their certainty.
This shame has been particularly evident since January 6, in the work of all the hermeneuticists newly dedicated to interpreting that day’s events and what they portend for our republic. Was it a gruesome death-throe of Trumpism, or was it just the beginning of our own anni di piombo? Was it a proper fascist insurgency, or mostly just larping? Now that it has happened —whatever it was— should Trump be impeached for a second time, and Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley punished and ostracized, or should the Democrats focus, as Biden seems to want to do, on other pressing matters and let bygones be bygones for the sake of national unity? Are Trump’s suspension from social media and Parler’s disappearance from big-tech platforms justified, or is it an unacceptable state of affairs in which private media companies make largely arbitrary and inconsistent decisions as to who can be heard, rendering themselves in effect more powerful than democratically chosen leaders?
I generally reassure myself that the considerations I have to offer in this space will not be received as “takes”, both because these latter are much more succinct than the preamble alone of even my most rapid-fire thoughts, but also because I lack the certainty that generally characterizes this new genre. For instance I have no idea how satisfactorily to answer any of the questions I’ve just posed. But I do have some observations that may help to point in the direction of the sought-after answers.
1. Choosing our words
Again, to begin, what was it? A coup? An autogolpe? A junta? An insurrection? A riot? A protest? (I’m willing to dismiss at the outset the possibility that it was a glorious uprising; it might be a second 1861, but it’s definitely not a second 1776, as Rep. Lauren Boebert suggested.)
The term that has come most naturally to me for the events of January 6, and the state of the United States since then, is чрезвычайное положение. This Russian phrase was seared into my neurons thirty years ago as I waited in Warsaw for a plane to Leningrad. All flights had been grounded, since the Soviet Union was in the middle of what was being called an “exceptional situation”. There are in truth not many real resonances between that moment and the one we are currently witnessing in the US, beyond the fact that both are exceptional situations. In 1991, it was the hardline Communist generals, a formerly powerful elite, who were seeking to restore the fading power of their party under Gorbachev; in 2021 it is the lumpen followers of a lame-duck failed leader who are seeking to preserve his doomed reign.
I arrived in Leningrad a week or so late, once flights had been restored, only to learn that my friend whom I was on my way to visit, Vitaly Dergachev, had fallen to his death from the roof of his highrise apartment building a few days earlier. Vitaly was a “hippie”, and had been in and out of Soviet jails in the 1980s for circulating bootleg Beatles tapes and other such subversive acts. He was probably just drunk the night he fell, attempting to balance on the safety rail, but police or security forces may also have been involved (I heard conflicting accounts from those who had been present). Whatever happened, I have for the past decades thought of “exceptional situations” as crises in which an entire populace goes a bit crazy, and in which the question of the continuity of the political order hangs in suspension over all the craziness. At Vitaly’s funeral we smoked Marlboros with the hunchbacked gravediggers, and kissed him on his cold and makeup-caked forehead just before they lowered him into the ground. That, to me, will always be the moment the USSR collapsed (the official date comes four months later). The personal is political, as they say, to which this scholium might be added, that often world-historical events are fortuitously epitomized or metonymized by vivid and singular scenes of human experience.
It was the hardline generals who called it an “exceptional situation”; their short-lived regime hastily set up something they called the “State Committee for the Exceptional Situation” (Государственный комитет по чрезвычайному положению). The opposition by contrast, which would quickly thrust Boris Yeltsin into power, called it a “putsch”.
This latter term has a special and perhaps onomatopoeic connotation that the others we have considered lack: unlike “coup”, it seems at least strongly to imply failure. Or at least failure this time around. And here is where I discern the strongest rhyme between 1991 and 2021 — the “exceptional situation” is not like the Schmittian “state of exception” (Ausnahmezustand), not some bold move on the part of an undisputed sovereign successfully transcending the rule of law in the name of the public good. It is more a proper suspension between two epochs, when you think you’re getting an inkling of what’s to come, but can’t be sure. The dead bodies you see (this time, for me, thank God, only in photos) might have belonged to people who were “the last to die for a mistake”, namely Trumpism, but who might also be among the first to die in the American Years of Lead that Trump, simply being who he is, could not fail to froth into being on his way out of legitimate public office.
In a world in which, at times such as this, adherence to the news cycle were anything less than compulsory, I would have written this week about one of my favorite topics of reflection and research: human-wildlife conflict. But in fact I think I can wedge at least some of the considerations from that other possible world’s weekly ‘stack into the actual one.
Among the many disappointing but not surprising misdescriptions of January 6 in the media, we heard repeatedly that Jacob Anthony Chansley, aka Jake Angeli, aka Q Shaman, was dressed as a “Viking” when he stormed during the storming of the Capitol. In fact, one need not be an expert in costumery or taxonomy in order to notice, if one wishes, that the shaman’s furs and horns come principally from New World species, and the look he is going for is not Scandinavian, but Native American. (He does admittedly have Norse-derived tattoos, but ink is not a costume you can put on and take off with changing circumstances.) There is a significant history behind this choice. Long before the punks arrived on the scene, highwaymen in England and pre-revolutionary France would cut their hair in the style of the “Mohicans” in order more effectively to terrify travelers by stagecoach. There would be much to say about the historical forces bringing it about that for many Europeans and Euro-Americans since the eighteenth century, “going native” is synonymous with “going apeshit”. But for now it is enough to point out that our shaman is not so much a product of some new meme culture gone haywire, but in fact is joining up with a very long and in some sense distinguished legacy.
Ironically, Viking accoutrements would have done just as well for his purpose — the Vikings, like many Native American groups heading into war, also used animal skins and horns in order to bring about, in themselves and their comrades, the subjective experience of transformation into a wild animal. This is the meaning of going “berserk”: it is when you put on the “bear sark” and leave behind your human moral compunctions about violence. So while a Viking hat would have done just as well, the Q Shaman and his comrades dressed up in animal furs and horns with the intention of going berserk in a fashion that is distinctly à l’américaine, according to a template already set by James Fenimore Cooper.
This is something human groups around the world have always done, in their own variations, in moments of topsy-turvy upheaval, in moments when ordinary rules are suspended. In case the costumes weren’t enough to drive the point home, at least one of the January 6 insurrectionists found it fitting to take a shit, which he then smeared on the walls of the Capitol. This is rebellion in its rawest form — rebellion much more ancient than democracy.
Yet another of the dull binaries that have emerged over the past few days is the one opposing the view that “these guys were well-trained paramilitaries going in there to cause real harm” to the view that “these guys were just carnival rowdies out to whoop up a storm”. But there is no real antinomy here; the cultivation of a carnival spirit can often serve a sound insurrectionist strategy.
These considerations about our modern-day berserker are relevant to the already common reflection, on the part of those seeking to minimize the day’s events, that “all those dudes were just larping”. This is a term derived from the world of gamers, which stands for “live-action role playing”. The idea is that Trump’s rabble cannot really be said to be staging an insurrection, but are only transferring the sort of fantasies that animate their imaginations in the online world into a sort of costumed, flesh-and-blood continuation, but with no more lasting political consequences than we may expect to come from their endless online venting and shitposting.
The problem with this is that (with a gentle shout-out to René Girard) in an important sense all culture is larping — our species is Homo larpens at least as much as it is Homo narrans or ludens. The Viking who put on a bear sark was larping too. I larp every day I get up and pretend to be a competent professor of philosophy who understands anything at all about how the world works. This is all of course well-trodden ground for twentieth-century philosophy. Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of the waiter who was trying too hard to be a waiter —dressing up as a waiter each day and studiously imitating the bodily motions he associated with waiterdom— put to rest, if only incidentally, Heidegger’s expectation that there might be some deeper way of conducting ourselves that we can deem “authentic”. It’s just fake waiters all the way down, and fake philosophy professors, and mirror neurons spreading cultural patterns from one individual to the next. Another word for all that fakeness is, precisely, “culture”. And this is the danger of talk of larping: it reasserts willy-nilly the opposing, and dangerous, notion of authenticity.
The apparent meaningfulness of the distinction between the larper and the real deal has much to do with our present technological moment, in which we think something significant happens at the moment memes jump the containment wall of the virtual and begin to appear in “reality”. Trump himself, on one attractive analysis, is simply the most enduring viral sensation of the 2015 summer shitposting season — Pepe the Frog, after all, has already been appropriated from the alt-right for the expression of some kind of new next-level ironism online, while Trump still means, to many of us, exactly the same thing he did way back then (my own judgment of who he is has not budged a micrometer since I first saw him on Entertainment Tonight in 1987).
It is jarring to see the leap across the containment wall happening in real time, as when insurrectionists at the Capitol were spotted waving that obscene flag hybridizing the head of their president with the sculpted body of Sly Stallone’s Rambo shooting off an assault weapon. But that’s just culture working its magic; that’s the sort of phantasm that gets a mob into the mood. And in the coming years we’re going to have to learn to stop struggling to bracket as “mere internet stuff” all the new memes made flesh.
QAnon in particular has often been identified as one big larp, as using video-game-style incentives to draw participants into a multiplayer scenario that no one really believes, even if the world-building is deeply engrossing. This may be true to some extent, but anyone who has studied the history of conversion will be inspired to ask whether incentives for developing strategies that bring rewards is really such a novelty of the internet age. After all, what is Pascal’s wager but a recommendation to larp? Go through the motions, wear the decorations, and you will get points — that’s the history of religion in a nutshell.
Some have taken to calling QAnon a variety of “conspirituality”, again on the presumption that it is a novelty of our age. For me the term shares too much in the morphology of older words like “consubstantiality”, and so comes across as if it were supposed to mean “having two spirits in a single body”. Nonetheless, if you don’t know Latin, or theology, or much of anything, it does appear to be a pretty compelling portmanteau of “conspiracy” and “spirituality“ and that is indeed exactly what we are seeing with the rise of QAnon. Apparently, the movement has had at least some defectors as Trump’s electoral loss has slowly begun to sink in, leaving some completely unable to continue in the conceit that Trump, for all his apparent idiocy, is in fact playing some sort of “11-dimensional chess”. But to the extent that QAnon is a variety of spirituality —I would classify it as New Age, as evidenced for example by its production of neo-shamans—, it is powered by the unfalsifiable mystery at its core: infinitely interpretable and revisable, always indisputably true.
There were many contingents at the Capitol that day, for many different reasons —I saw one sad young man who declared that he was there because the government “thinks we’re a joke”, invoking the fact that it refused to send even a $2000 check for pandemic relief—, but QAnon seems to have been an important force, and it, or whatever it morphs into next, seems likely to be with us for a while.
3. The Will to Punish
What about the next generator of opposing certainties that I mentioned at the beginning: the matter of whether a punitive approach should be taken right now against Trump and his enablers, or whether some sort of diplomatic and nation-unifying spirit should reign?
Again, I can only repeat that I don’t know. It does not seem like a wise precedent to prosecute your political enemies. It does not seem like a wise precedent to leave the criminal behavior of your political enemies unprosecuted. Here we have a proper antinomy, then.
And here also, perhaps, one sees the limits of consequentialist reasoning, and the appeal of deontology. I don’t know what the best strategy is, and I don’t know what the long-term consequences of getting what I wish for would be, but I acknowledge I would like to see Trump impeached again, cut off from the normal post-presidential perks, ostracized, prosecuted wherever he can be; I would like to see his Republican enablers expelled and ostracized, and prosecuted wherever they can be.
It does not matter what I would like, and perhaps that’s for the better.
4. Big Tech
One domain in which I am significantly more certain about the potential for blow-back, and even more uneasy about getting what I admittedly in some sense want, is in big tech’s recent suppression of numerous Trumpist social-media accounts and right-wing platforms such as Parler (not to mention the suppression of some voices that I myself value, if only as release-valves of stupid jouissance, which are not right-wing at all, but are simply in defiance of reigning liberal norms and etiquette, such as, notably, the Red Scare podcast).
The surest way we may know, for now, that the January 6 insurrection is a lost cause, is to see that capital is circling its wagons and consolidating a new post-Trump order. One would have liked peace to be made on other terms than this: cutting the deplorables off from their social-media, from their air miles, from their Olive Garden unlimited pasta passes. There is no real justice here; it is only capitalism’s enantiamorphic alternative to China’s state social-credit system. It is arbitrary, discriminatory, and undemocratic. Olive Garden can of course do what it wants, but when society is nothing but an aggregate of Olive Gardens, including the massively hypertrophied Olive Gardens that run the internet, when citizenship has disintegrated into a vast constellation of customer-loyalty rewards and there is no neutral space in which citizens can adjudicate their disputes with the managers, we’ve got a problem.
Should Parler be suppressed? Dead-ender parlyaree is going to find an outlet somewhere, and a strong argument holds that it is best at least to be able to keep track of where that is, rather than forcing it further underground. On the other hand stochastic terrorism is a real thing, when so much indulgence of violent phantasms online spills over the containing wall and triggers someone to act on it, and no amount of casuistry will ever be able to determine where the true line between free expression and criminal incitement to violence really lies. This will always be a matter of competing forces with competing interests, and for now the forces are ascendant that see violent right-wing fantasies as criminal. It will probably diminish the harm that the dead-enders can cause to push their speech further out beyond the bounds of what is permissible by the corporations that control the circulation of speech. And it will also diminish the harm they cause to conflate the violation of these corporations’ terms of service with the limits of the Constitutional right to free speech. But this also brings us much closer to a world with no room for Red Scare, but plenty of room for Bridgerton, in which social-media users become ever more unfamiliar with the very notion of critical dissent or of what until sometime in the early part of this century we could still call “the counterculture”, and ever more accustomed to a life of vapid consensus-reinforcing “content”-absorption. I don’t know what the answer is.
I do know, at least, that Twitter was right to remove Donald Trump (I also agree with the widespread sentiment on Twitter that he was “the greatest poster of all time”, “a real one”, etc.). I also think this should be only the beginning. No elected official anywhere in the world should have a private social-media account. I recall vividly the day, immediately after his inauguration, when George W. Bush had his Blackberry confiscated from him. He shrugged, and said something to the effect that one must make sacrifices in a position of such responsibility. However else he failed in that responsibility (more than Trump, etc., whatever), he was at least right about that. This was not so long ago, and it would not be so hard —through undemocratic, unilateral decisions on the part of big tech— to restore it as a global norm.
Whether or not this suggestion is taken up, what is clear is that, unlike the dead-enders’ putsch at the Capitol on January 6, big tech’s putsch will be successful. All of big tech’s putsches for the foreseeable future will be successful. It is only some small comfort that, this time around, the side for which big tech has come down in favor is the “good” one.
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