Racing round the ‘sphere at the moment is Richard Cooke’s “Notes on Some Artefacts“, a dispatch from the US for his Tired of Winning series in The Monthly. And a very good piece it is too. Cooke speaks of the notion of contemporary life throwing up what he calls “artefacts”, by which he seems to mean conjunctions of political, media and social phenomena — creating an event, a thing — which have no internal rational core whatsoever.
This, I think he is arguing, is a departure from the pseudo-event identified by Daniel Boorstin as arising from the 1960s — the happenings, etc, co-opted into mass media — or even the “simulacrum”, as named by Jean Baudrillard in the ’80s, for a representation that has no actual thing or event that it represents. Even a simulacrum — the 1990 Gulf War was one example, a 90-hour “war”, with no opposition — imitated earlier rational events.
But what is one to say about things like “Qanon”, the baroque omnibus conspiracy theory with the form of a clinical paranoid psychotic episode, and which may have originated as a prank somewhere in the 4chan zone? Cooke notes that we now live in a world where whole exchanges we are looped into may be bots “talking” to bots, guided by algorithms, and with the capacity to cross a frequency threshold, and effect real events.
The ultimate flourish is Cooke’s assertion that “the Trump Presidency is an ‘artefact'”. But this pretty much reveals why the article has become catnip for Monthly readers and a penumbra there around. For it takes us on a theoretical ride, only to deliver what a left-liberal readership wants: an assertion that the Trump presidency is crazy, without content, that its inexplicability — or more exactly the inexplicable fact that Hillary is not president — is actually explicable, as the pure product of inexplicable times.
The material version of this would be that societies in which social and class formation becomes dominated by media — especially networked “social” media — to an overwhelming degree, will lose the intersection of levels of life that makes truth-testing possible (i.e. if you’re a skilled factory worker, union member, etc, you’ll be better at detecting bullshit about jobs and unions, etc, than someone reading Breitbart while they work from home).
The liberal version is simply that madness has taken over, tch tch tch. Having sketched out a material theory of “artefacts”, Cooke then gives us the liberal myth about Trump, which mystifies things all over again.
There may well have been Russian and other infowar in the 2016 US election, as there have been in elections the US has interfered in for decades. But the fact of such infowarfare alone does not make a presidency irrational, or “artefactual”. Trump is either President because someone hacked voting machines — in which case, it’s straight-out electoral fraud — or a majority of voters responded to a pretty clear program. That program was a nationalist economic change of direction away from globalisation against an opponent who had identified herself with such until just before the campaign.
The presidency may now be bad, it may be wacky, but it was created by the rational choice made by a majority of voters — on varying degrees of information — for something other than what was ordained by elites of both left and right. The notion that it is wholly a pseudo-event/simulacrum/artefact, is itself, ironically, an artefact of knowledge-class beliefs: that rationality is by definition tied to their class and ideological interests, and anything that departs from it is krazzzeeeee, and a product of objective processes — bots! — not a choice by knowing subjects.
Descend back into that consoling hyper-reality, and you are going to be in for a few future shocks.