Last week, we got the show of our dreams. A kind of insurrection, though far from a coup, it defied every given descriptor. Whatever you call it, the spectacle seen by millions was one where, for a moment, contradictions resolved into singular chaos.
Of all the images that have so far been generated by the event, however, the most interesting are not those of violence as such, but of raiders in the Holy of Holies. This was the setting for a certain kind of comedy: the juxtaposition of “real” and ideal, some notional America and the tourists who love it. My favourite is a photo of Nancy Pelosi’s computer, taken by a right-wing reporter-cum-LARPer from the seat of her desk, which quickly reappeared as a meme. In most iterations, the House Speaker’s monitor shows something less stupid than our own. In any case, it produces a mise en abyme of spectatorship. The ghouls on the Hill are watching the same shit as everyone else, including the morons who chased them away. The man in the White House is too.
That humour abides here despite a growing death toll should not be ignored. Indeed, what has largely distinguished astute observers of this breathtaking episode is a good sensitivity to its comic dimension. In a piece published the day after the melee, Mike Davis named comedy in his very first sentence, aptly describing “a big biker gang dressed as circus performers and war-surplus barbarians.” This comes in stark contrast to the “terrorists” compulsively invoked by liberals who, whether wittingly or not, are destined to midwife an expanded security-state in the tumult ahead.
Such viewers cannot process the actuality of the riot without putting in danger some cherished ideals. The mob, they are sure, is no laughing matter. It is a serious insurrectionary force by virtue of desecrating a temple of democracy, the occupants of which are its fragile stewards—never mind the corporations whose post-riot moves against Trump were decisive, particularly in the case of Big Tech.
In so many words, the liberal outlook upholds the key premises of its schizophrenic other. Its symbolic universe shares much of its structure with that of the red-hatted cultists who believe in America on their own terms, which by no means exclude a certain mystical reverence for its Capitol. The iconoclast believes in the icon, after all; to profane is to worship, a rude affirmation of the fetish’s power.
As for children in the basement, adrenochrome in the veins, and demons all around—there’s no sense denying at least one of these is true. There at the nexus, though, no evidence could be found. What rioters might dimly have learned in the sanctum—that the “deep state” of their fantasies has no ethnic features, no faces at all—was too far a reach for their liquified brains. At that point, the choice becomes stark. On one side, adhere to the velvet-roped law. On the other, Valhalla: that loneliest plunge into martyrdom’s abyss.
The shooting by police of Ashli Babbit, for its part, was the grimmest turn taken that Wednesday. A mere 35 years of age, the Air Force veteran and former Obama-voter was guided by convictions the likes of which nobody reading this feels. Utterly misplaced as it was, her anger goes unregistered by the media’s insistence that what motivated rioters can be summed up just fine with the words “white supremacy.”
For it goes without saying: a spirit of race-hate runs deep in the ranks of the outgoing president’s supporters. Among cops at the “protest”—many as revellers—those who are Black told of racist abuse from the crowd. Confederate flags and other wretched symbols were in no short supply, to say nothing of what have always been the xenophobic implications of a long-forgotten wall and the oh-so Great Again, that mythic time of purity. But there were also non-white people in among the horde, and many flew to Washington for reasons quite distant from the matter of race—however connected in the final analysis. Without these “exceptions,” the event could not even have been what it was: a baffling tableau of vast incongruities.
In this respect too, then, the humourless tenor of liberal commentary helps account for its failure. It is as if the pundits’ reluctance to acknowledge the sheer, laughable incoherence of the rioters’ “cause” were a self-protective reflex long in the making. Its purpose, in the end, is to safeguard a threat to established power, whose menacing closeness excuses ever more of the same.
As comedy, the spectacle is neither more nor less real—it is just that its realness is part of the image, not somewhere behind or above. The scene consists not of “American democracy” under attack, but “American democracy” as it actually exists: an asymmetric struggle between the neoliberal state, with its various conservative and progressive elements, and a lumpen rabble of reactionary zealots. Hungry for a “storm” that would right all wrongs, the latter place their hopes in baroque prophecies found online and the messianic figure of Trump. For all involved, some exogenous force—Russian hackers or lizardmen—is always the problem; the solution is to root something out.
This has nothing to do with the passing of Reason or with “fake news” per se. As Richard Seymour puts it in his recent book, talk of the latter is itself reminiscent of conspiracy theory to the extent that it posits a “huge epistemological gap between the knowledgeable elect and a mass of deluded ‘sheeple.’” It also presupposes a bygone era of factual consensus, which must have come before our would-be arbiters spread lies that encouraged the invasion of Iraq, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. Facts, now as ever, are contested objects. The real question is why such psychotic beliefs as those of the Q-pilled have become so appealing in the first place. If these are the symptoms, then what’s the disease? A whole continent of alienation remains to be explored.
To see things comedically is not unserious. If both the new far right and the liberal centre crave symbols untouched by history—like “real Americans” and “presidential Presidents”—then an eye for the absurd is crucial in moments such as this, when lofty abstractions assume earthly form. Faced with a vision of America invading itself, the time is ripe to consider without piety the breakdown of an empire which has thwarted popular struggles for decades. Only genuine alternatives to this state of decrepitude can ward off even crueller self-parodies. Until then, unfortunately, the farce will go on.
Carson Hammond is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Toronto and a steward for CUPE local 3902.