Sunday, February 19, 2017

The case against 'exposing' fascists.

It is heart-breaking to live in the era of the Huffington Post "fact check" on Milo Yiannopoulos. I understand that the US media, having already elevated Trump to power (before vaingloriously styling itself as "the resistance"), has made it necessary to take this dim-witted sociopath seriously. At least until he achieves his goal of becoming the Caesar Flickerman to Trump's charity-shop Snow.

But, as with Trump, Bannon, Spicer, Conway, Miller, and the whole gruesome lot of them, a fact-check is increasingly beside the point. The point of their use of language is to exercise power. It is conative, not constative. To say, "trans people have a psychiatric disorder" is not a descriptive statement, a truth-claim, but a speech-act. It is an incendiary device thrown into the conversation to send fists flying, at trans people mostly. It may be necessary, as part of any retort, to clarify the 'facts', whatever they may be. But, much as the Daily Show 'destroying' Yiannopoulos would only arouse a piteous sigh, it is plainly inadequate. And it is worth thinking about what predicates could make it seem adequate.

The problem is, in part, that operating liberal political theories about 'speech' -- the theories that, whether we 'believe' them are not, tend to be the ones that predominantly guide people's actions and responses -- are centuries behind the state of knowledge about how language works. It is still assumed that language is basically a neutral conduit, transferring meaning from one to the other, rather than something which is done to you. Meaning itself is treated as something contained in the language, which we may decide to unpack and digest, rather than as a form of intending, something which acts on us, by means of the very materiality of language and what it activates in us. If language does things to us, if we find that disagreeing is somehow just not adequate as a response, if it makes us want to throw a punch, or a brick, it must be because we're triggered snowflakes who can't deal with the argument.

The advantage that fascists have on this terrain is that they do not behave as though they are having a conversation. They are aware that they are throwing verbal bricks, and that in good time, in circumstances of their choosing, they'll throw literal bricks or bullets. In the meantime, they are taking advantage of the protocols of mainstream media communication to amplify their voice without in any serious way engaging with their opponents. The Trump administration's apologists and spokespeople are not necessarily the best examples of this, because they are undisciplined and incompetent. There are fascists among them, but there is little fascist organisation. Marine Le Pen and her Front national are a better guide. They eschew print journalism, and their security agents beat up journalists, because the final edit is always controlled by someone else. But they take every advantage of broadcast media, especially live media. Then, rather than conversing with their interlocutors, proceed calmly bulldoze over every discursive object put in their path.

During the famous Remembrance Sunday interview, Le Pen manhandled her host, Andrew Marr, because she knew she wasn't having a conversation with him. Le Pen would regard Marr and his ilk as of the enemy camp, people to work around, not dialogue with. Her job was to use her voice, expression and physical bearing to embody her passion for what she was saying, to sidestep obvious traps, and to convey the points as memorably as possible. When Le Pen says "anglo-Saxons are waking up," this is not a descriptive statement with which one can have a debate, or fact-check. One may as well fact-check an advertisement. It is a performative statement, which identifies a friend/enemy distinction. Le Pen was there to interpellate her audience, to hail some, seduce waverers and symbolically crush the rest. That's what she did.

Now, I don't need to be reminded that Marr is about as heavyweight as a windsock. Maybe another interviewer would have known what he was talking about, or been more concerned with fascism than the potential threat to "Western security" or European institutions. And it's true that the format of such programmes is geared toward getting the candidates to speak about their views, so that you can't argue too much, or be too confrontational: if the fascist raises her voice and starts aggressively steamrolling over everything you say, you can't rejoin in kind. Another format might conceivably be more conducive to 'exposing' fascism. But the basic idea that 'exposing' fascists is bad for them, that 'exposure' is something that they want to avoid, depends on the totally erroneous idea that they are there to free associate about their ideas, to converse, to logically defend various truth claims. If they were worried about being 'exposed' in that way, they wouldn't come on your television show, or go out of their way to court publicity. The 'fact check', and the oh-so-witty 'annihilation', ultimately depends on the same logic.

Opposition, not exposition, is the priority. I am not advocating tactical narrowness. There may be circumstances in which it makes sense to 'debate' a fascist. There may be circumstances in which not debating them would be the worst option. But there is no conversation to be had here, and the taunt that slimy alt-right trolls offer, that their opponents will not debate them, is part of the troll.