We are surrounded by a maelstrom of signs, images, information. One makes sense of them all by connecting them to larger stories in our heads, so that they fit into a hierarchy, an idea of history. But what happens when those larger stories through which we make sense of the signs collapse? Are we just left in a chaos of meaningless messages? What sort of politics flourishes in this world?
Take for example the image of statues of dictators being pulled down. This was one of the iconic images of the collapse of the USSR, all those Stalins hoisted in mid-air before being dumped in the rubbish tip of history. When that same image was repeated during the invasion of Iraq, with crowds cheering as statues of Saddam Hussein were pulled down, it seemed to signify that a similar historical process was playing out. When Iraq became a disaster, the meaning of the image was undermined too.
Or take entry into NATO. That used to symbolize joining the American postwar order. But NATO’s newest member, Montenegro, has found itself pilloried by the U.S. President for the dangers its supposed hot-headedness could potentially pose to U.S. troops, who would automatically be called on to defend the provocations of an unreliable and demanding ally. This is even confusing for America’s traditional enemies, let alone its allies: After decades of defining themselves through opposition to the American world order, what does one attack when America stands opposed to itself?
Many reasons for the collapse of the belief in ideals of progress and history have been put forward—growing inequality, the financial crisis, the Iraq war. You can find any number of these analyses in any one of the many smart books about the demise of liberal democracy. The remarkable thing, however, is that this loss of meaning and direction is also visible in countries that have either avoided or have sidestepped the above-listed problems.
Donald Trump is both the cause and the product of this phenomenon. That Americans could elect someone with so little regard for making sense, whose many contradictory messages never add up to any very stable meaning, was possible because enough voters felt they weren’t invested in any larger narrative any more. Indeed his very incoherence could have been part of the pleasure: your “historical meaning” has let us down, let’s have nonsense instead!
But Trump is an extreme version of the conversation around him. When Russia’s covert digital influence campaign in the United States is equated with a new Pearl Harbor, or in turn when criticism of Trump is labelled “McCarthyism,” these historical references have become completely shorn of context. One imagines the wreckage from a plane crash in a desert, with commentators wandering around beating jet engines with spanners to make a spectacular sound—a sound that nevertheless has almost no relation to the thing they are beating.
New media exacerbates the process. For better or worse, the connections between signs and stories were sealed in the vessels of old media. The nature of social media, however, destroys such stable relationships. Now terrorism sits next to kittens, sexual abuse next to fart jokes; facts become indivisible from lies, and anything can be associated with anything. Social media flattens past and present, so things appear out of the perspective you need to have a sense of development. Memes, social media’s favorite genre, where internet users deface or add new texts in order to transform the meaning of an image, bring out how endlessly unstable signs have become, ceaselessly transformable to marry up with a new meaning in moments.
That our weird era has become associated with sock-puppet social media campaigns is also apposite. When ones hears so many stories of fake accounts that seemed to be supporting freedoms and civil rights, but which in fact turn out to be fronts of illiberal governments like Russia or more recently Iran, one starts doing a double-take at everything one encounters online. Is that civil rights poster over there actually being run out of St. Petersburg? Does it mean what it says?
The breaking up of the old links to grand narratives makes possible the formation of hitherto impossible coalitions. Being a Republican used to mean being anti-Kremlin, for example. Now it could quite as easily mean the opposite. Perhaps this is the way politics will now play out: Instead of a competition between big, coherent ideas about historical progress, we will see sporadic fusions from the debris.
This needn’t be all bad.
One of the less helpful associations bequeathed to us by the Cold War, for example, is how some leftist movements continue to support the Kremlin, in some hangover where being pro-Moscow meant being opposed to fascist Germany or the nastier sides of U.S. foreign policy. Today, there is a bubbling of new ideas on the Left, about everything from public ownership to decentralization, which deserve a hearing. What makes less sense is why new leftist movements would support a Kremlin where LGBT rights are quashed, where you can be jailed for liking an article on Facebook criticizing Russia’s imperial military adventures, where institutionalized kleptocracy is laundered through offshore tax havens in the Caribbean.
Indeed, digital rights and clamping down on offshore money laundering are just the sort of issues which bring together their own unexpected coalitions. The battle against money laundering tax havens, for example, involves Cold Warriors looking for the Kremlin’s vulnerabilities; social equality and “tax justice” activists; and some more idealistic pro-market thinkers horrified at the profusion of crony capitalism across the West.
But as the old connections fall away, and new ones are forged, it’s also hard not to worry.
The linkages between signs and narratives also held important taboos in place. The Holocaust held a privileged place in this system, the little knot which tied together certain images and language with a notion of the unacceptable. Anything that somehow reminded of concentration camps, or of the sort of dehumanizing propaganda which enabled them, was deemed beyond the pale.
This appears to be shifting.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s government peddles propaganda images that resonate with 1930s Nazi motifs: “Don’t Let Soros Have the Last Laugh” said one recent poster, with the face of the Jewish financier and liberal NGO backer, who the government claims is working to destroy Hungary, plastered all over the country.
Israeli MPs asked their Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, to cancel a visit to Hungary in protest. He didn’t: Orban and Netanyahu see each other as allies in another new configuration. Official Israeli government statements were left playing twister: They disapproved of the Hungarian propaganda’s style, but agreed that Soros was a bad element.
Underneath one can hear the tender connections between the images that evoke the Holocaust and their significance starting to strain. Netanyahu would no doubt argue Israel is defending itself from the possibility of another Holocaust. But what I’m talking about here is not something specific to Israel (or Hungary). The agreement that certain images and signs which evoked the Holocaust were taboo tried to define a universal notion of evil. If that symbolic order is undermined, does evil become more possible?
That’s the thing about the waning of the old order of relations between signs and narratives, images and values. Some are there for a reason.