Monday, May 29, 2017

Thomas Dumm — Grotesque Sovereignty and the Specter of Donald Trump

Thomas Dumm
Amherst College

Sometimes a side observation by a major thinker is worthy of further reflection and consideration under the light of current events. Here I am thinking of an observation made on January 8, 1975, in the first lecture Michel Foucault presented in that year’s series for the College de France (eventually published in English as Abnormal (NewYork: Picador, 2003)). There, he briefly introduced — and then set aside — a remarkable idea, the idea of grotesque sovereignty. 

For Foucault, grotesque sovereignty can be thought of as “. . . the maximization of the effects of power on the basis of the disqualification of the one who produces them.” He does not consider this phenomenon to be an exception to the usual exercise of power, but to be inherent within its mechanisms. “Political power,” he writes, “at least in some societies, and anyway in our society, can give itself, and has actually given itself, the possibility of conveying its effects and, even more, finding their source, in a place that is manifestly, explicitly, and readily discredited as odious, despicable, or ridiculous.”

Foucault goes on to suggest that “The grotesque is one of the essential processes of arbitrary sovereignty. But you know also that the grotesque is a process inherent to assiduous bureaucracy.”

Foucault understands grotesque sovereignty not to be a ritualistic exercise of power through the humiliation and abjection of the ruler, as in archaic societies. “Rather, it seems to me to be a way of giving striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited.” 

In a strange, almost uncanny observation concerning this grotesque sovereignty at work, he writes, “But once again, from Nero, perhaps the founding figure of the despicable sovereign, down to the little man with trembling hands crowned with forty million deaths who, from deep in his bunker, ask for two things, that everything else above him be destroyed and that he be given chocolate cakes until he bursts, you have the whole outrageous functioning of the despicable sovereign.”

Foucault immediately dropped the subject, though not without regret, saying, “I have neither the strength, not the courage, nor the time to devote this year’s course to such a theme.” Too bad! (One wonders whether the examples he had before him, of the then quite recent set of events that had led to the resignation of the American president Richard Nixon, and the more general passing through history of the decrepit Mao of China, the decrepit Brezhnev of the U.S.S.R., and the absurd clinging to power of the ancient fascist Franco in Spain, were his models for the grotesque at the time he wrote.) At any rate, he may have had more to contribute to our current understanding of the recrudescence of the grotesque in our time in the form of the presidency of Donald Trump, a man well acquainted with chocolate cake.

Foucault briefly mentions the buffoonery of Mussolini as being essential to this way of enforcing power. We can see a similar buffoonery in Trump. His grandiose expressions of the superlative character of everything he does, his extreme self-pity, his vulgarity, his sprayed-on suntan, his hair, his “why-does- everyone-laugh-at-my-mighty-sword” red tie, his exaggerated claims of accomplishments, his obvious lies, his denigration of his opponents as enemies of the people, his history of sexual assault and braggadocio about that history – any sentient adult human being in the United States who has failed to avoid the bombardment of Trumpisms and Trumpian moments over the first months of his administration can add to the list – all operate, in their very clumsiness, to advance the project of grotesque sovereignty.

Some claim that Trump is artful, clever, playing three-dimensional chess, fooling his opponents into thinking he is preparing some sort of trap for them. After all, the claim is, he did win the American presidency. But this claim is mistaken. The phenomenon of grotesque sovereignty does not depend upon the skills of the subject assuming power, but is inherent in the exercise of power under conditions of disqualification. That is, when the dysfunctionality of the system of power and administration reaches a certain point -- we might call it a point when its operation is no longer competent, as measured by a variety of factors -- the possibility, indeed, one might argue, the likelihood of grotesque sovereignty arises. This is when there is a disqualification of the system itself. This is a moment when a disqualified power continues to operate while the operator becomes an object of ridicule. 

Power operates. In the case of Trump and other buffoons in power there is a disjunction between power’s operation and the operator that advances that operation, because within the regime of grotesque sovereignty there is a continuous exposure of the gap between representations of power and its actual operation. (The experience of this gap is both hilarious and terrifying for those of us who find in Trump the apotheosis of the ridiculous: we feel a combination of affect that I think many others have felt during his early period of rule.) This exercise is quite different from what has been assumed by many, that the buffoonery and absurdity of Trump is at its core a tactic designed to distract the attention of the polity onto the representation of sovereign power, while power itself operates as we are distracted by the spectacle.

This is what cannot be emphasized enough: Trump, like other grotesque sovereigns of the modern age, whether they be fascists like Mussolini or Communists like Stalin, is dangerous because he is ridiculous. His ridiculousness exposes the wildness of power that is framed within the legal regime of the state. And the ridiculousness is quite likely to continue upon his departure from power by whoever replaces him, until this system is broken or transformed.

(A side note: the operation of grotesque sovereignty could be considered obscene, in one of the folk etymological senses of the word -- as being off scene, left-sided, inauspicious. That is to say, while it can be seen, the grotesque is indecent even as it is exposed, and is not supposed to be seen at all, even as its essential function concerns being seen.)

We might think about it this way: the inciting of violence against minorities, the ongoing ransacking of the public treasury, the blatant embracing of corporate power over democratic accountability, the flagrant undermining of the respectable institutions of constitutional government, the aggressive reversal of federal policies designed to ease the country out of the era of mass incarceration, the reversal of environmental regulations, the gutting of public education, to name but a few of the ongoing accomplishments of this administration so far, are not happening because the public is distracted away from these activities, but because the attention we are paying to these actions, of which we are all aware at one level or another, is contained within this larger system of power’s exercise.

All of these policy initiatives are followed and acted upon by agents within the system, even as the grotesque sovereign continuously demonstrates the disqualification of the system. It is as if it goes on by itself. Because it does, and will go on, at least for an indeterminate length of time.

I would suggest that the plea for a return to normal politics is intrinsic to the exercise of grotesque sovereignty. As if we somehow know what the normal is. Indeed, many of us – I admit having been seduced by this idea – initially pleaded that Trump not be normalized by our national media, especially by the electronic media (for me, especially by the denizens of MSNBC). But grotesque sovereignty does not depend upon the sovereign becoming normalized – in fact the normalization of the sovereign would be a sign of the decline of the grotesque. 

No, the grotesque sovereign represents a certain termination point of power, a radical disjunction, which in the late modern era has been synonymous with fascism, a politics well suited to the spectacular, which operates through those media of mass communication through which the grotesque finds its fullest expression. That the spectacular now is digital in character, and that the medium of choice for Trump is Twitter, only underlines this point. In fact, it is as a fascist that we can best understand Trump’s own politics.

Some American political scientists, such as Steven Skowronek and Corey Robin, have tried to put Trump within a more common frame of American political development. Skowronek has used his own justly famous theory of the evolution of presidential political power (first presented in The Politics Presidents Make (Harvard, 1997)) to suggest that Trump is what he would call a “disjunctive president.”  In that sense, he suggested, Trump is like Jimmy Carter, an outsider who performed a hostile takeover of the party he nominally represented, but who, as an outsider, could not control the levers of power and who also failed to have a coherent understanding of what needed or could be done to change the old order. 

In this cycle of presidential politics, Carter was replaced by Reagan, who indeed repudiated the decayed New Deal and reconstructed politics along the lines of neoliberalism. But now we can recognize that the neoliberal order itself is coming to a dissolution.

Skowonek, when he discusses the cyclical form of time -- he calls it “political time,” which is associated with presidential succession -- contrasts it with what he calls “secular time.” It is in secular time that we can see the increasing inviolability of presidential power as it operates within the frame of American sovereign government. In such moments, a systemic change in the framework of governance itself becomes possible. Perhaps the last such moment in the history of the United States was the crisis that gave rise to the New Deal (though we have had other possible moments since then, and there is nothing in the Skowronek thesis that give good account to the politics of the post- 9/11 American presidency).

We could also remember something else: it was also during the New Deal that we saw the rise of the American politician who most clearly resembles in his rhetoric and affect, and who at least rhymes with, Trump. That is Huey Long, often called a populist, but who called for and exercised dictatorial powers as governor of the state of Louisiana during the Great Depression, and who was posing the greatest challenge to FDR within the Democratic Party at the time of his death (by assassination).

In other words, it can happen here, and has, indeed, in its own fashion, happened. While many point to Trump’s incompetence as a sign that he couldn’t be what he is, we need only rebut this idea by pointing out that one need not succeed as a fascist to be a fascist. Even better, we could say that it is in failure that Trump, in his perverse way, succeeds.

Trump, at the moment of this writing, appears to be somewhat contained by what seems to be the increasingly rickety institutional frame of American constitutionalism. (Who knows how many twists and turns his tale will take?) But we may ask ourselves another question: what if Foucault is also prophetic about the grotesque power of what he referred to as the assiduous bureaucracy? The appointment of a special counsel by the assistant attorney general of the United States to investigate criminal charges could itself become a site of buffoonery and ridicule. (One need only think of the work of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr during the Clinton era.) 

And regardless of Trump’s individual fate, there seem to be plenty of potential replacements for him waiting in the wings. (Calling Mike Pence!) If Foucault is right, this is not a coincidence, but a sign of the systemic dysfunction of a political system, our system, as it works its way through the eventual dissolution of this form of sovereign power, and its overturning by something perhaps less obscene. We can always hope. But our hope should not be based on a fantasy that it is only Trump who is the crisis, and that he removal will end it. Grotesque sovereignty is not dispelled by a mere change in personnel, but only by a deeper change, a radical change, in the system of sovereign power.



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