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.