I met Beny in the wildness of Poland. Once during our trip, we were out playing, throwing shit around, walking and running in circles. Also talking. I listened to a conversation Beny was having with someone. They were asserting the importance of being humbled, reclaiming the verb—to humble—for a positive use. There was something dissonant about the moment—heavy, heady language conveying an alluring meaning. It remained it my memory. Perhaps it also did enchant how I saw him since, as someone who embodies a contradiction—of being verbose and humble. Beny does it beautifully, with a slightly rough kind of grace.
I write this from Marseille on the second day of the 2016 Euro Cup.
Several days ago I read an article in the New York Times, describing France’s counter-terrorism preparations. Security forces are completely overstretched as they perform various drills to practice for the likely event of a terrorist attack. The biggest fear is that terrorists will attack the big outdoor fan zones. Marseille has one of the largest fan zones in France, expecting some 80,000 people.
““We must say the truth to the French people: 0 percent precautions means 100 percent risk, but 100 percent precautions does not mean 0 percent risk,” Bernard Cazeneuve, the interior minister, said in late May.” (NYTimes).
Aside from military and police, countless undercover security agents in plain clothes mix with the crowds. I haven’t read the specific numbers related to these Euro Cup events but a few years ago I remember reading a report about security at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. The report estimated that one in five people in the crowd were undercover security agents. I remember thinking: what is actually being performed in this mediated spectacle when one fifth of the crowd is only there in spectator drag? I imagined being in the crowd, myself performing spectatorship, with the knowledge that every fifth person I brushed shoulders with was an authority masked as spectator. At what point does the ratio of masked security to spectator tip over? Can we imagine a future where there is one undercover agent for every spectator? Would that still pass as celebration?
On the second day of the Euro Cup, England plays Russia at the Marseille stadium. I am almost completely oblivious to this event happening minutes from where I live. It is Saturday and I go for a jog on my normal path, around the old port. I leave the apartment and already feel a certain charge in the air and in the people I pass. I reach the old port to find it full of enormous luxury yachts. They all have giant flags hanging from their rails; half of them Russian, the other half English. My French roommate David told me that during the last World Cup, the authorities passed a law making it illegal to show any flags in public two days before the biggest Algerian match.
It is absurd for me to try to get through the crowds, but I am already out and a certain stubbornness kicks in. I approach a scene that unfolds in front of me and makes me sorry I don’t have my camera with me. An Englishman somewhere between his mid-40s and 50s is on his knees and elbows on the ground, assuming a prayer position that looks not unlike the position of Muslim men at prayer. I had already seen many men sprawled comatose on the ground, drunk and sunstruck, and at first glance, this seems like a similar situation. But then I notice the phone in one of his hands and see how his other hand is busy positioning an empty bottle of Heineken in front of a giant English flag he has hung as a backdrop for this self-motivated, self-sponsored advertising. His body has assumed this position to stage the snapshot.
“Two things are at stake: France’s image and security,” said Pascal Boniface, the director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris…” (NYTimes)
The rest of what I see is probably too obvious to describe. It is as terrifying as it is known, as predictable as it is awe inspiring. Packs of repressed men stumbling through landscapes that will only ever exist as their toilets, performing a nationalism that allows the violent repression of their waking lives to take a justifiable, if explosive, form.
Against this backdrop (but I struggle to determine what elements constitute the background and foreground) I identify three different types of French authorities. There are large numbers of soldiers armed with automatic machine guns. I’ve become used to seeing these jarring characters everywhere from the train station to the harbor. They, both during the Euro Cup and every day, are presumably looking for terrorists – their eyes trained in the implicit racial profiling procedures. Then I see bigger amounts of riot police wearing body armor, helmets, shields. They carry batons instead of machine guns. They are presumably looking for hooligans. Their eyes don’t need specific training because the football uniforms have already arranged themselves as targets. Then I see regular police officers. It is unclear to me what their specific function is at this event other than maintaining the general image of order. I am describing what is visible to me. At the same time, it seems to me that the visible has a significant disadvantage in describing these events and their implications.
“But the French authorities have organised a major security operation. The security at the game is believed to be the tightest of any match on the continent with surface-to-air missiles placed on rooftops and on prominent hills in the city. Dozens of police snipers were said to be in strategic positions; and fast patrol boats were understood to be operating in the Mediterranean. “It is a bit shocking for us Brits when you see police with guns, but it is reassuring,” said Gareth Davies, 46, an engineer, from Hertford.” (The Guardian)
In 2016, this type of international event means that for about a week, both the city’s apartments being rented out on Airbnb as well as apps like tinder are full of Russian and English nationals. Directly after the riots this Saturday, I saw many posts on social media by French people venting their anger at “disgusting British tourists who England should be ashamed of”. Reporting on the event, the media was also quick to draw national lines. But when one of those tourists showed up at an Airbnb, rented out by a French person in a legal grey zone, I can easily summon an image of the interaction in which the British person was asked to introduce themselves as the renter’s cousin or friend in the event that the landlord shows up. This ‘cousin’, armed with an array of social apps, explicitly designed to transcend pre-existing boundaries, might at some point have sex with a French national they meet on tinder. The lines that allow the perverse symbolic clarity of uniforms and flags are swapped, penetrated and performed in ways that defy any logical identity separations.
As my legs stutter along the path I am determined to get through I begin to feel like I am hallucinating. I can’t separate between the different types of authoritarian powers, their embodiments both futuristic and primitive, their uniforms spanning centuries of authoritarian drag. I feel both trapped in the political darkness of the present and completely outside of time. I feel engulfed both in the invisible power of technologically advanced military operations and the sweaty smell of a visible medieval mob.
“Around 20,000 English fans had travelled to Marseille despite serious warnings from British ministers of a terrorist attack. Those suggestions were based on the discovery of a computer belonging to Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving member of last November’s Paris attacks. Abdeslam is on remand in a high-security prison in Paris from where he has confirmed that Islamic State wants to launch another attack.” (The Guardian)
At some point, it occurs to me that all the people I’m passing most likely have college degrees. I think about this historical moment and how until recently (half a century or so) the same men would have either been employed in the military or as factory workers. I feel that my hallucinations are not my own but those of a capitalism that has simply placed them in the wrong uniforms. They are, after all, desperate to be in uniform! On my way back I pass expensive waterfront restaurants where groups of English and Russian uniform clad football fans sit wasted, eating expensive food. It dawns on me that these people earn significantly higher wages than I do. They are truly middle class. I, an educated cultural laborer, perform middle class, where in reality, I have never been more than a hair above the poverty line. They can afford things I can’t. They have real jobs. I don’t. I imagine they have probably never heard the word anthropocene.
It has almost become impossible for me to imagine that wars were once fought in relation to specific plots of land. On this plot of land Russian yachts are parked next to English yachts. They eat oysters and drink champagne on either side respectively. I imagine them waving to each other across the gap between their yachts then turning back around to their own countrymen to make snide remarks. The men on the luxury yachts wear the same uniforms and hold the same flags as the hooligans on the streets. But they are worlds apart. The split between the men on the yachts and the men on the street summons various images I have in my mind of how battles might have once been fought. I imagine the split in military rank, where generals kept their hands clean, met enemy generals with cigars, whiskey and gentleman’s handshakes, while the rank and file impaled each other, taught to understand those wearing the wrong uniform not only as an enemy to kill but as the embodiment of a cause worth dying for. It seems, again, that capitalism has successfully replaced this ranking order by turning nations into brands. Everyone has the freedom to wear the uniform but those without real capital are naive enough to believe that this drag is their skin.
There is an incredible scene in Jean Renoir’s 1937 The Grand Illusion, the entire film a foundational reference point for thoughts around identity and nationalism. French soldiers are being held in a camp as prisoners of war. In this scene, they stage a vaudeville performance for their own entertainment. With no women around, the female roles are performed by male soldiers dressed in drag. The comedic performance feels strangely suspended from the realities of their camp environment. The performance is suddenly interrupted by a soldier carrying the news that French troops have recaptured a strategic position from the Germans. The crowd of French spectators / prisoners of war immediately stand up and erupts into singing the Marseillaise. The camera cuts to a close-up of a performer on stage, a man dressed in drag, his posture suddenly snapped into the upright form of national gravity, proudly singing the national anthem he has been trained to understand as the representation of his freedom.
I put these thoughts down as I try to navigate a hallucinatory hall of mirrors where everything is not only doubled but also in drag. This is a contemporary landscape in which I am unable to tell whether an Isis member or a nationalist football fan is more eager to crack my skull; where I don’t know which uniform represents the more crass authoritarian power; where a drunken hooligan might be a secret agent protecting me from terrorism; where those seen as active contributors to society are on their knees and elbows cropping images they will surely post on social media in which regressive nationalism is paired with accelerated advertising to function as social capital for their own accumulation and further contributions to this world order.
The Guardian references:
Last winter Samara and I went to Turkey on vacation. We spent a lot of time recording video footage and talking to different people we met. One of the first men we talked to was very friendly and accomodating. He let us film him in his store, told us to come back and said he would show us some bars and clubs. To his surprise, we came back a couple days later. He expected our exchange to be like those he had with most other tourists; we would all pretend to stay in touch but never see each other again. In retrospect, our return must have seemed full of ambiguity. We clearly didn’t want to buy anything from him and we already had the footage we needed. We didn’t exhibit signs of any other ulterior motives.
He welcomed us back and waited for the right moment to start talking about the German couples he claimed had come to him wanting to have threesomes, or one couple where the man wanted to watch while he fucked his wife. He talked about his penis implant in graphic detail. When we asked what that was, he used his jeans to demonstrate how his foreskin had been pulled up and incised to make room for the small pellet. Initially he had had a ceramic bead inserted but once when he was in the sauna it got so hot he thought his penis would burn off. So he had it replaced with plexiglas and now it was fine. He could make a girl orgasm in five minutes.
We thanked him, and this time did what most tourists would have done the first time. We said we’d be in touch and disappeared. For several weeks, long after we had left Turkey, he kept sending Samara Whatsapp messages.
A couple of months later we flew to Canada from Berlin. Arriving after the long flight, I was tired from not having slept at all. We had to separate in customs, Samara a Canadian national, myself a foreigner. The line for foreigners was much longer and it took ages for me to reach the officer. When I arrived, the officer started asking me routine questions: How long was I staying? What was the purpose of my visit? If my girlfriend was Canadian what was to prevent me from staying? How much money did I have with me? Did I really think that was enough for three weeks? Did I have access to more money when that small amount inevitably ran out? He then asked me what I did. I said I was an artist. He asked what kind of art. I said I made videos and wrote, the fog of the sleepless flight plunging me into an existential space not appropriate for this type of interaction. He asked what kind of videos. I said I didn’t exactly know how to explain. Like art videos. He said: What kind of genre? Pronouncing it: Jean. I couldn’t hold back a little laugh at the pronunciation and responded: It’s like art. He said sharply: Porn? I said no. This came as a complete surprise, but immediately I realized that he had been thinking this all along, that all his questions had been leading up to that presumption. All my hesitations and uncertainties had seemed to him like incriminating evidence. He let me go through.
These two interactions became deeply intertwined in my thoughts. They happened on different continents, in completely different conditions with two men who have radically different functions in different societies. The one man sells counterfeit clothes in a cheap bazaar in a tourist trap in Turkey. His entire demeanor seemed to say: I’m down for whatever. I know how to do things underneath the gaze of the law. I can show you how it’s done. Wink. The other was the official
law enforcing face of national security. He represents the law. His demeanor said: I will find out every secret you might be hiding. I will obey and enforce the most rigid of legal codes. Your winkwill be held against you as evidence. And yet both these figures, in separate but equally surprising twists in the course of interactions chose to understand me as covertly offering or harboring porn. It’s hard for me to understand the reason for this being something I embody, something that singles me out among countless others. I can only understand the leap in their projection and expression to be a result of my having shown ambiguity in the way I represented myself.
So in these cases, ambiguity any hesitation towards precisely classifying myself and my intentions meant porn. When I think about the framework for these projections it seems like this way of thinking is a product of the internet. Maybe it comes from a gradual development of preinternet media and information, but in these particular details it comes across as the unmistakable product of this saturated form of networked information. The beginning presumption on the part of both these men is that they know everything. Of course they are aware that they don’t know every single thing but they have the arrogant confidence of someone who, despite not having the world’s information stored in their minds, has access to any piece of information at any time. It is the abstract notion of that access that builds the confidence, or rather, projection of knowing, however flimsy.
The legibility of surfaces of strangers encountered at face value gradually mirrors a google search with the filters on. People present themselves as presentable, as morally upright, law abiding, not perverted. Those moral boundaries are often pushed playfully, and even with the filters on, we find little winks that allude to some borderline mischief personalities may be prone to given the right circumstances. Most of us recognize that wink. Many of us, like the Turkish man, take pride in our literacy of subtle codes, often overeager in presuming the person standing in front of us is fully legible. But that legibility, more often than not, is desire projecting itself on to the un/knowing other. Was the customs officer, bored in his little booth, day dreaming? Would assuming that I was a porn director spark his fantasies for that brief moment? Does he see his job as an impossible tedium, each minute a minute lost masturbating?
The average person recognizes filters and preempts their illusory surface. That person is well trained in detecting the human/search engine filters of etiquette and assumes to see past the social codes they believe must hide some form of perversion. Everyone has at some point heard some statistic about how much porn occupies the internet. But the issue is not so much the quantities of data. The issue is rather how this collected information, both filtered and unfiltered, realigns collective perception and reconstructs its ability to comprehend and map an environment together with the characters that perform within it. Here is an accumulated moral code without source or author, more absolute than Catholicism. Everyone is a sinner. Everyone lives a duplicitous life, hidden by a thin shell of penance. But here, the average person is both priest (the confessional is public and accessible to all) and sinner (recognizes the sodomy hanging thick in the wireless airwaves). Ambiguity is squeezed out of that consciousness as something code can’t handle. What’s left is a space of confusion somewhere between the
arrogance of presumptions and the misfired projections of stifled desires.
I was once interrogated by Israeli customs officers on my way to TelAviv via Zürich. It felt extreme that they were stationed in Zürich, but then it wasn’t that surprising. They pressed me with all kinds of very personal questions. Their manner and tone made it feel like they already knew everything there could possibly be to know about me. During the interrogation I kept reminding myself that there was no way they could ever know as much as they made it seem. But still, their theatrics were effective. I chose every word carefully. I exposed myself so as not to come across as suspicious. I felt like I had already broken laws I had never considered before. I turned possibilities into factual statements, creating halftruths to replace the truth of ambiguity.
The symbolic presence of the police is synced with the civilian recognition, developed at the same speed as consciousness, that articulation, whether verbal or in physical gesture must drop any sense of ambiguity. The forcefulness of that demand creates narratives in the mind that then become hard to distinguish from the truly fragmented plot, full of inconsistencies, that the new narrative replaces. A lie told over and over can convince its creator as much as the recipient. Subjecting oneself to that process of translation into factual halftruths gradually creates the demand that the same subjugation be enforced on the rest of the environment.
This type of mentality, formerly reserved for trained representatives of the law, seems to have lodged itself permanently into the collective code of conduct. Maybe as the internet and digital media have progressively deskilled the majority of labour practices, it has done the same with law enforcement. Whereas the police once represented the moral, psychological, and physical laws of a social system, they might increasingly only be there to enforce the actions of physical bodies in space. If most people, both those representing the law as well as those representing its evasion, gradually develop towards understanding ambiguity as perversion, the theoretical enforcement of the law becomes becomes the guiding principle of social interaction.
I remember the early stages of my interactions with social media, when I had just created my first email account and chatted with strangers and friends on icq and msn messenger. Even at that young age it was understood among the friends I communicated with, that this mode of interaction created difficulties in determining the tone someone was using. The ambiguities expressed in person, or even on the phone, the facial and tonal nuances that both add to and soothe the uncertainties of interaction were often lost in a line of text. Friction and misunderstanding arose much quicker because of not being able to determine whether certain messages had angry or sarcastic undertones. The ubiquity of this mode of communication, together with emoticons and hi res images used to add affect have gradually shifted the focus away from the conversation over that loss of ambiguity. It seems that most people accept that either the halftruth of factual statements broadcast at high volume correspond to reality, or are resigned to their voice, with all its nuances, remaining unheard.
The Spiral of Silence is a term coined in the 1970s by political scientist Elisabeth
NoelleNeumann. It is meant to describe the tendency in people to remain silent when they sense that their views in relation to a particular topic are not shared by the majority. The term has gained attention and significance regarding communication through social media. It has been used to describe an array of reactions to social issues ranging from racism to gay marriage rights, from war and climate change. An image emerges in which one of the greatest effects of the freedom of speech enabled by social media is an infinite and, outside of the broad use of a sociological term, undocumentable layer of silence lurking beneath the surface of the acceptable terms of communication. But I would argue that the term itself also adds to the issue it attempts to understand and perhaps reconcile. The application of this term suggests that opinions are solid and fully formed, whether articulated or not. It denies the uncertainties of forming an opinion regarding something as complex as climate change or the role of religion in political and social systems. In short, the term gains traction and relevance at a moment in which space for the acceptance and understanding of ambiguity has already been eradicated. Might it be possible that the silence spiral is not the deliberate hiding of an unpopular opinion, but simply the resistance towards translating uncertainty into factual halftruths?
Over the last weeks I have been captivated by the growing presence of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. My attention was probably activated the moment he selfauthored what, by most standards of communication existing on the surface, would have been a public relations deathblow when he referred to Mexicans as rapists and murderers. The momentum he has gained since, a seeming inversion of free speech values, has not been altogether surprising. Trump’s persona, almost consciously satirical, collapses the distinctions that divide social standing and political affiliations. He is an implosion of high and low, belonging to the 0.001% while using a rhetoric of ignorant dismissal by calling people stupid, deflecting incriminating charges as “nonsense”, and appealing to the nobullshit type of expression seemingly prefered by the average American in times of severe political alienation.
The perversity of the legal code allows him to play all sides. A recent CNN debate hosted a Cuban American woman who won the first season on his show “The Apprentice”. She denied suggestions that she might be on the losing side of his political motivations and implicit racism by making it clear that her parents, while Cuban, had immigrated legally.Trump can deny his racist inclinations by claiming that he does love Mexico and Mexicans and “their spirit”, because of their entrepreneurial cunning. He admires the fact that they can steal from America, which is simultaneously the precise problem he wants to solve for Americans. He enjoys selling them condos in the Trump Towers, which shows exactly what’s wrong politically Mexicans shouldn’t be rich enough to afford that kind of realestate. The same woman who had won “The Apprentice” defended him as a bastion of free speech. His delivery may be unpolished, but he says what’s on his mind. That his brand of free speech links so well to the minds of a large section of the American public shows exactly how much is omitted from a poorly applied notion of free, democratic expression.
To return to the loss of ambiguity, Trump is both the Turkish man in the bazaar, and the Canadian customs officer. Trump can use the winkas an invitation to use the law as cunning
deviation and simultaneously use it as incriminating evidence. He appeals to the person who knows better than to trust the surfaces of expression because he articulates both sides of the search engine, the glossy, morally upright, and the perverse, but more seductive and entertaining side everyone knows to be there at all times. Trump conjures up the silence spiral from its hiding place and embodies a caricature of the voices lost in the space between opinionated halftruths, keyboard and screen, for those who silently watch social media but do not feel their voices represented in it.
But Trump’s popularity (and equally its fierce opposition) is a testament to the collective absence of ambiguity in the formation of opinions and their reflection in the world. He implodes what seem to be contradictory binaries in his own person. He takes what appears to be hypocritical in the mediation of information and reconfigures it into a single whole. Rather than following one side of the law, he enacts the contradictions between racism and law enforcement, corruption and entrepreneurial spirit. His brand of free speech might not be as ludicrous as it may come across at first glance. In a system that denies the possibility for any individual to act according to her or his own conviction, in which every individual expression or gesture is absorbed as commodity, Trump is big enough to represent that system in his own self. He is one of a handful of individuals in a vast minority who can thrive under the current system. His mode of free speech exists in combining the hypocrisies of halftrue opinions into a solid mass.
Free speech cannot exist in a system in which modes of expression are reduced either to the surfaces of a thin, implausible morality or the sinkholes of hatred and violence. Free speech requires the freedom to describe the contours of ambiguities with a level of awe towards the unknown both within oneself and in the environment one inhabits and observes. Free speech would allow me to say I’m not quite sure what it is I do without that being understood as perversion, where a wink could be the invitation to enter the unknown.