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This article was written on 07 Mar 2017, and is filled under Theory.

Reporting From the Smoking Ruins of an Argument

Men looking at smoking ruins after a fire. Photographer: Storrs, J. W. (John W.). This media file is in the public domain in the United States.

Men looking at smoking ruins after a fire. Photographer: Storrs, J. W. (John W.). This media file is in the public domain in the United States.

If Hegel was correct in asserting in the Philosophy of Right that “the owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk,” [1] my previous argument as to the manifest impossibility of Trump’s political ascendancy now betrays all of the hallmarks of having been conceived at high noon and with an accordingly squinting vision. I remain solidly committed to my description of the basic ontological coordinates and semiotic mechanics of the professional wrestling spectacle. However, the unambiguous failure of my prediction necessitates a return to the argument, and I have determined that its failure did not stem solely from my admitted inability to foresee the upset to long-entrenched political expectations and conventions that was Trump’s election. Indeed, I now believe that my conclusions would have been very different if I had spent more time examining what is effectively the linchpin of my argument, namely, audiences and the way they frame their interpretations.

My analysis in this piece will aim to correct some of the more evident flaws in my original argument. Since making that argument, Jon Cogburn and Neal Hebert have offered up a rigorous critique of my initial position, one which I plan to contest in due time. In my next response, I will address their contention that my account is susceptible to the obfuscating dangers of moral relativism, and that said susceptibility causes me to miss the central importance of morality to the character of the wrestling heel. I will then address their second critique regarding the status or absence of a concept of truth in my ontology of wrestling in a third post. This deferral of their critiques is in no way meant to disregard the seriousness of their accusations. To the contrary, following in the footsteps of Giambattista Vico, I believe that the path of education and correction must begin with an understanding of the self, and so I begin here by addressing problems in my argument which I had managed to recognize before enjoying the benefits of Cogburn and Hebert’s salutary intervention.

Let us imagine for a moment the famous case of the drunk and the lamppost: while walking home from work one evening a man encounters a drunk futilely searching the ground beneath a lamppost. The man inquires as to the drunk’s frantic activity, and the drunk declares that he is searching for his keys. The first man inquires: “Did you lose them under the lamppost?” The drunken man then responds: “I don’t know where I lost them, but this is where the light is!” It would seem, then, that at the time of writing I was more than a little drunk on the heady brew of hilarity, fear, and astonishment that accompanied Trump’s rise to power. And in spite of this, or whatever other justifications I might put forward, the truth remains that my search to understand Trump’s audience remained shortsighted and limited in scope. It turns out that I was looking for truth in all the wrong places. Had the American electorate reacted to Trump the same way that fans of the WWE had reacted to his in-ring appearances, I believe that my argument would have carried the day. In other words, I didn’t read the room wrong, I just read the wrong room.

The audience that I should have been paying attention to is a much more familiar and intimately proximate one, and one which, at the time, it was surely far more comfortable for me to ignore. And I would venture to guess, with holiday festivities and family gatherings now having come and gone, that many of those who oppose the Great Orange Hope on moral grounds know now that this audience can no longer be neglected or overlooked. I think that this is because the majority of people who voted for Trump do not fit neatly into what Hillary Clinton called the “basket of deplorables.” From what I can tell, most people who ostensibly voted for Trump, did so not for Donald Trump, but against Hillary Clinton, and this difference is precisely what I failed to take into account in my previous argument.

To remedy this situation, I will now return to the question of audiences and clarify my position by noting important ways in which they differ among themselves and vis-à-vis the system of rules and meaning that frames the wrestling spectacle. In doing so I can also make some gestures toward Cogburn and Hebert’s largely justifiable assertion in their first critique that the failure of my predictions regarding the election was partially due to my underestimation of the true breadth of the audience that Trump ended up reaching:

With respect to his prediction about Trump, RayAlexander’s commitment to a crowd reaction account of the face/heel distinction caused him to fail to grasp the extent to which white middle class voters saw Trump as a face. Once we realize that the job of the face is to restore the moral contract, we see that Trump voters saw themselves as voting for someone who would do just that. This involves, positively, a return to the pre-1980s broadly shared prosperity, and, negatively, a restoration of sexual and racial privileges of that same era. Once we understand that a face is the person perceived by the crowd as restoring the social contract, we see that professional wrestling teaches us that what is desperately needed for those of us opposed to Trumpism is an understanding of why Trump voters see him as restoring the social contract rather than, as the heel traditionally does, making a social contract impossible.

I think that Cogburn and Hebert are largely correct in their assessment of the nature of my error: I failed to account for certain audiences with very different perceptions of Trump than those I had considered, and in doing so, as evidenced by my conclusions, I made a fatal miscalculation. However, I remain unconvinced as to precisely what part of the picture I missed. To the contrary, I believe that understanding the vote for Trump as largely being a vote against Hillary Clinton provides a better explanation for our current situation than the notion of a “restoration of the social contract” forwarded by Cogburn and Hebert. And, I would add, it also goes further toward explaining that large percentage of voters who turned out for Trump after previously voting for Barack Obama. After all, Obama’s platform bore little resemblance to the 1950’s idyll which, as Cogburn and Hebert argue, has shaped the verbally bombastic Trump administration up to this point. But I think that what really matters here is not my having missed a particularly important interpretation. What matters more is the insufficient consideration given by me to my own concept of framing, which should itself remind us that the semiotic possibilities of a spectacle like wrestling or representative democracy are not exhausted by the internal mechanisms meant to create meaning within the frame of the spectacle itself. In fact, I think that this is precisely where my original line of argumentation came up short: my focus on the ontological structures that make meaning possible within the internal frames (spectators, ring/stage, etc.) of the wrestling spectacle caused me to neglect the way in which the meaning produced from within the spectacle might be interpreted from a position situated outside of those frames. Unfortunately, having good reason to doubt the authenticity or legitimacy of the political discourse spewed from party hacks on both sides of the aisle, much of the 2016 electorate seems to have found itself situated in a similarly external position of interpretation.

The subterranean bunkers of dogmatic political adhesion often lack the critical light necessary to perceive one’s own flaws and liabilities. But what was the view from outside like on election day? Then, as today, the politic landscape abounded with seemingly incommensurable views of the presidential race. [The current state of this disparity of opinion can be provisionally measured as the gap between two points: 1) Kellyanne Conway’s recent assertion that political animus against Trump runs so deep on the Left that it tanked Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. See The Politico article “Kellyanne Conway under fire for promoting Ivanka’s brand.) Surely many people enthusiastically voted for Hillary Clinton, while others, like myself, tossed their ballot in the box with one hand while holding their nose with the other. And there is no denying that many reprehensible groups, including racist hate groups like the KKK and the NSM, both vocally supported and voted for Trump. Furthermore, as I am attempting to argue here, there were also many people who voted for Donald Trump as a vote against Hillary Clinton. There might even have been some people who voted for Trump, not because of that for which he claimed to stand, but because of the way that they perceived the attacks on Trump. As Slavoj Žižek recently noted, it is quite likely that many of the attacks from elite quarters of the population on Trump’s brutish arrogance, intellectual mediocrity, and tellingly ostentatious virility were interpreted by many of his potential supporters as attacks on the supporters themselves.

…I think the democratic strategists totally misread why and in what way people identify with Trump. Most of us who were observing the electoral process remember how often Left-Liberal media claimed, ‘now we’ve got Donald Trump with his pants down, in open embarrassment,’ when he said something improper or made a mistake. And they thought now this is his end, he committed suicide. No, not only he didn’t, this even helped him. Because ordinary people didn’t identify with an ideal Trump. They perceived him as one of us precisely through his vulgarities, mistakes, and so on and so on. That’s how political identification works. That’s a big lesson.

If this is correct, it should serve as stark reminder of the distortions immanent in the process of imaginary identification. But it also serves to underline the point that I would like to make here: a subject’s interpretation is always enclosed within a series of frames, and those frames, whatever their constitutive characteristics and conventions, are largely determinative of the meanings that can be produced through interpretation.

All of this to say that Trump knows his audience, and nothing demonstrates this better than his explicit manipulation of framing. To see this, we might look to Trump’s constant insistence in press conferences that he is speaking for “forgotten Americans.” This message’s meaning becomes clear when it is noted that its enunciation generally serves as a response to the assembled journalists’ frigid (or at least insufficiently adulatory) reaction to Trump. By pointing outside of the anticipated frame and acting outside of political convention, Trump signaled that his audience had nothing to do with the assembled representatives of the media. In doing so, he allowed his intended audience to uncritically accept his message, and at the same time managed to overtly demonize the very media whose constant focus on him had initially made way for Trump’s rise to power. Trump also demonstrates his mastery of frame manipulation through his constant presence on Twitter, a move which itself manages to efficiently convey his spin on reality while disallowing the possibility of meaningful response through unique frame restrictions. When Trump tweets, the Press is caught up in a cat and mouse game, where the first obstacle to truth is often a manifest inability or refusal of the president’s representatives to explain or even acknowledge the president’s own words. Moreover, it seems that Trump’s preference for non-traditional and fringe media, and the dependence of many of his supporters upon the same, have also made a strong contribution to the progressive disempowerment and delegitimization of traditional information sources.

But even in his attempts to “shake up the system,” Trump is still dependent on the projection of a worldview that frames and lends meaning to his actions. That frame was made readily visible in his recent comments to David Muir during his first interview in the White House: “David, I mean, I know you’re a sophisticated guy. The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets.” The worldview that Trump is signaling here is also the one envisioned by another category of voters, an exaggerated version of the audience that voted, not for Trump, but against Hillary, those who voted in hopes of blowing up the system, and the consequences be damned.

And here we arrive at the kernel of error that plagued my previous argument as to Trump’s necessary failure. The problem with my argument stemmed from my unjustifiable and unqualified importation of a phenomenon specific to wrestling into the political realm. Rendered with the elegance of the language native to wrestling, I got worked, plain and simple. I believed that Trump’s utilization of heel tactics during his political ascendancy would eventually come back to bite him. And, I again hasten to add, had the binary moral logic of wrestling continued to function as it once had within the wrestling spectacle, I would have been right (see Trump’s failed reception as a babyface in my previous post). But here is where the wrestling parallel breaks down, and it is also the reason why I think that the comparison with the problematization of the heel role during wrestling’s Attitude Era is no longer an apt one: while heels can succeed in temporarily, or perhaps even permanently, inverting the moral binary at the center of wrestling’s production of meaning, Trump seems to have accomplished a dissolution of the moral binary that conventionally governs interpretation of our nation’s political theater.

Cogburn and Hebert define the heel’s role as that of creating a disruption or obstacle to the “restoration of the social contract,” but even if we accept this notion, we should still be careful to distinguish the frame within which that story of possible restoration might be told. Even if heels incarnate the difficulties preventing social reconciliation, the disruption they produce is primarily manifest on the level of narrative, not of performance. After all, the wrestling performance requires both faces and heels to cooperate in order for the spectacle to be maximally effective. This means that even if heels provoke disruption, that disruption is already accounted for within the larger frame of meaning: a heel’s role, then, can also be read as accomplishing the perpetuation of the logic of the system through the apparent disruption of that same logic. Here we catch glimpses of a vulgar reading of Hegel: the heel as obstacle only exists in order to make way for its subsequent reconciliation.

Wrestling’s narrative reappropriation of disruption is only one of the ways in which its peculiar regime of truth is managed. Said reappropriation allows for the particular moral vision presented by a wrestling spectacle to be simultaneously challenged and reaffirmed. And this is only one of the techniques of meaning creation and preservation incorporated by wrestling over the course of time. For example, even if a particular night’s audience fails to see the story the way the bookers had intended, with the advent of television, announcer commentary meant that at least the audience watching at home would be given constant reminders of the preferred way to interpret the action in the ring. Along the same lines but to a more extreme degree, should questionable or scandalous events come to light which threaten to jeopardize the entire enterprise, companies like the WWE can now achieve narrative reconciliation through the digital modification of historical documents and footage, as they did in the aftermath of the double-murder and suicide of international star Chris Benoit.

Trump’s dissolution of the moral binary that had long informed the contemporary conventions of political theater in the United States has been made felt through palpable symptoms in the time since his election. Perhaps the most obvious of these symptoms is best illustrated by a fact I have been discussing with friends as of late: during Barack Obama’s presidency, I didn’t feel compelled to check in with him every day. Concerns regarding President Trump, however, have definitively penetrated my daily agenda. At the heart of these concerns is an uncertainty that has become globally pervasive, and this is precisely because Trump has dissolved, not inverted, the moral binary that he once exploited through heel tactics. There are numerous safeguards in wrestling meant to safeguard against such a dissolution, but in the political realm it would seem that our last bastion of moral decency is now the Supreme Court. Let us hope that its reconciliatory power can manage to match that of the WWE writing staff.

I now believe that Donald Trump won because a sufficiently large portion of the electorate voted for Trump in an attempt to vote out the very frame by which the morality of political performance had previously been gauged. It makes sense that now his administration cannot help but reveal a candidate who is peculiarly out of joint at every turn: he seems to fit most uncomfortably in all of his roles, and said roles are in constant peril of overlap, as evidenced in recent allegations that Trump already mishandled classified information about North Korean missile tests in front of guests at his Mar-a-Lago resort.[2] To this lack of fit we might compare Hillary Clinton, who dubiously promised to protect the interests of everyone from Bernie Activists to Goldman Sachs. At the level of political performance, Trump and Hillary are mirror images of the same improbable illusion: Trump is the ultimate outsider who belongs nowhere and therefore feels comfortable arrogating everything to himself, while Hillary Clinton came to be portrayed as the one size fits all candidate, a tenuous agglomeration of special interests and political movements that seemed set to collapse under its own weight at any moment.

The space Trump is now occupying between roles and beyond convention fits well with the catastrophic American hellscape conjured up in his inaugural address. The picture he painted then is the frame that currently serves to justify his furious flurry of executive actions:

But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. (My Emphasis)

This “different reality” is the space of Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” a space wherein the path toward truth is obfuscated by a ceaseless whirl of silent manipulation and overt disavowal. Like all facts, “alternative facts” can be deceptively convincing only when they are lent meaning and persuasiveness through interpretation, and interpretation can only take place within a frame. For the time being, Trump’s “different reality” maintains its tentative narrative integrity because the only other alternative for many would seem to be the forthcoming destruction that Trump endlessly promises to magically obviate, or what might be worse, a return to the status quo of the system whose putative failure allowed for Trump’s election in the first place.

Trump’s current weaknesses in office are a mirror of the success of his candidacy: having availed himself of an inverted moral binary, he has now transcended and dissolved it, revealing a nihilistic vision of counter-destruction and counter-dominance that well fits his hyperbolically hollow slogan: “Make America Great Again.” Cogburn and Hebert worry that we must be attentive to truth now more than ever before. I agree, with a Lacanian proviso: Yes, but “truth has the structure of a fiction.” [3] What the Left needs now more than ever is to recognize that its mistakes and miscalculations were not inevitable, but that the failure of mass mobilization in the absence of a convincing and authentically emancipatory narrative of how the world might be changed seems a guarantee. To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek’s recent line of argumentation, the success of Rightist Populism is predicated on the failure of the Left to provide a sentimentally- engaging and emancipatory vision of the world. To get to a better truth, we need to start with a better story.

In the posts to follow I will continue this line of argumentation by responding directly to Cogburn and Hebert and addressing where and how we differ in our respective assessments of the role and importance of morality and truth in wrestling.

Notes

[1] Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Ed. Allen W. Wood. Trans. H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 2002, p. 23. Print.

[2] Roche, Lisa Riley. “Chaffetz calling for investigation of ‘mishandling’ of classified information in reporting on Trump.” DeseretNews.com. Deseret News, 15 Feb. 2017. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

[3] Egginton, William. How the world became a stage: presence, theatricality, and the question of modernity. Albany, NY: State U of New York Press, 2003, p. 162.

 

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