Shock Event: The Consolidation of Power

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Star Wars is an American epic space opera franchise, centered on a film series created by George Lucas. Star Wars depicts the adventures of various characters “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”  but there are obvious comparisons to our own world, both past and present. Image: the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star

In the original film Star Wars- A New Hope, the Galactic Empire is nearing completion of the Death Star, a space station with the power to destroy entire planets. Emperor Palpatine intends to use this deadly weapon to enforce his control over the galaxy and crush the Rebel Alliance, an organized resistance movement. In the Phantom Menace we learn the seeds for the eventual rise of the evil Empire are sown in a seemingly routine place: a trade dispute between the Republic and the Trade Federation.  In Attack Of The Clones, Anakin is older now, but just as bad an actor. The weird trade dispute has grown to a full-scale revolt against the Republic.

Star Wars depicts the adventures of various characters “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”  but there are obvious comparisons with the fall of the Old Republic in the Star Wars series with many events past and present. Julius Caesar was born in Rome, on either the 12 or 13 of July in 100 B.C. Through a combination of political savvy, charisma and backhanded dealings, he quickly rose to power, becoming dictator of Rome in 49 B.C. after emerging victorious from a civil war. As dictator he instituted a number of reforms, from expanding who could be considered a Roman citizen to changing the Roman calendar, but his brief reign came to a bloody end when he was stabbed by a group of Roman senators in Pompey’s Theater on March 15, 44 B.C.

Obviously we can’t pretend to know the intentions of the new President of The United States. But when we read about the incredibly active first week of the Trump administration, certain questions spring to mind. Do you think Trump, a billionaire, really cares about immigration? Or do you think he cares more about power and consolidating  as much as possible? The global confusion that has since erupted is the story of a White House that rushed to enact, with little regard for basic governing, a core campaign promise that Mr. Trump made to his most fervent supporters. In his first week in office, Mr. Trump signed other executive actions with little or no legal review, but his order barring refugees has had the most explosive implications. Passengers were barred from flights to the United States, customs and border control officials got instructions at 3 a.m. Saturday and some arrived at their posts later that morning still not knowing how to carry out the president’s orders.

Stephen K. Bannon, the chief White House strategist, oversaw the writing of the order, believes in highly restrictive immigration policies and saw barring refugees as vital to shoring up Mr. Trump’s political base, was determined to make it happen. He and a small group made up of the president’s closest advisers began working on the order during the transition so that Mr. Trump could sign it soon after taking office. A senior administration official said that the order was drafted in cooperation with some immigration experts on Capitol Hill and members of the “beachhead teams” — small groups of political appointees sent by the new White House to be liaisons and begin work at the agencies. James Jay Carafano, a vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, said that little of that work was shared with career officials at the Homeland Security Department, the State Department or other agencies.

“The details of it were not thought through,” said Stephen Heifetz, who served in the Justice and Homeland Security Departments, as well as the C.I.A., under the previous three presidents. “It is not surprising there was mass confusion, and I expect the confusion and chaos will continue for some time.”

In a recent article Jake Fuentes suggests two possible competing narratives about what’s really going on. The first story is simple: the administration is just doing what it said it would do, literally keeping its campaign promises. Lots of people won’t agree, but it’s playing to its base. They are not experienced yet, so the implementation is shaky. The second is more sinister: the administration is deliberately testing the limits of governmental checks and balances to set up a self-serving, dangerous consolidation of power.

Jim Mattis, the new secretary of defense, did not see a final version of the order until Friday morning, only hours before Mr. Trump arrived to sign it at the Pentagon. Mr. Mattis, according to administration officials familiar with the deliberations, was not consulted by the White House during the preparation of the order and was not given an opportunity to provide input while the order was being drafted. Last summer, Mr. Mattis sharply criticized Mr. Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration as a move that was “causing us great damage right now, and it’s sending shock waves through the international system.”

A recent article by the New York Times states that Customs and Border Protection officers were also caught unaware. They contacted several airlines late Friday that were likely to be carrying passengers from the seven countries and “instructed the airlines to offload any passport holders from those countries,” said a state government official who has been briefed on the agency’s actions. It was not until 3 a.m. on Saturday that customs and border officials received limited written instructions about what to do at airports and border crossings. They also struggled with how to exercise the waiver authority that was included in the executive order, which allowed the homeland security secretary to let some individuals under the ban enter the country case by case. One customs officer, who declined to be quoted by name, said he was given a limited briefing about what to do as he went to his post on Saturday morning, but even managers seemed unclear. People at the agency were blindsided, he said, and are still trying to figure things out, even as people are being stopped from coming into the United States.

leiavadertarkin

Princess Leia Organa,  a member of  The Galactic Senate, Rebel Alliance, and The Alderaan Royal Family held captive by Darth Vader. Princess Leia, played by actor Carrie Fisher was one of the Rebel Alliance’s greatest leaders, fearless on the battlefield and dedicated to ending the tyranny of the Empire and restoring the Republic.

“If the secretary doesn’t know anything, how could we possibly know anything at this level?” the officer said, referring to Mr. Kelly. At the Citizenship and Immigration Service, staff members were told that the agency should stop work on any application filed by a person from any of the countries listed in the ban. Employees were told that applicants should be interviewed, but that their cases for citizenship, green cards or other immigration documents should be put on pause, pending further guidance. The timing of the executive order and the lack of advance warning had homeland security officials “flying by the seat of their pants,” to try to put policies in place, one official said. By Saturday, as the order stranded travelers around the world and its full impact became clear, Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, became increasingly upset about how the program had been rolled out and communicated to the public.

By Sunday morning, Mr. Priebus had to defend the immigration ban on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he insisted that the executive order was rolled out smoothly. He also backpedaled on the policy and said that the executive order’s restrictions on entry to the United States would not apply to legal permanent residents “going forward.” As White House officials also insisted on Sunday that the order had gone through the usual process of scrutiny and approval by the Office of Legal Counsel, the continuing confusion forced Mr. Kelly to clarify the waiver situation. He issued a statement making clear that lawful permanent residents — those who hold valid green cards — would be granted a waiver to enter the United States unless information suggested that they were a security threat.

TomEstes_WestonParkMuseum

Blitz, by artist Tom Estes, a large scale digital projection on the front of the magnificent neo-classical facade of The Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. The projection took place on June 16th 2016 for the opening night of the Yorkshire Festival. In Blitz, an individual is depicted being thrown through the air by a lightning bolt, superimposed on to a Victorian Bible open to the story of Noah and the flood. Estes describes his intentions in the work- “The slapstick comedy of the image is a deliberate mitigation of surrealist shock but with the mad attention urges of a Play Station gamer”.

Senior White House officials insisted on Sunday night that the executive order would remain in force despite the change, and that they were proud of taking actions that they said would help protect Americans against threats from potential terrorists. That assertion is likely to do little to calm the public furor, which showed no signs of waning at the beginning of Mr. Trump’s second full week in the Oval Office. Mr. Carafano said he believed that the substance of Mr. Trump’s executive order was neither radical nor unreasonable. But he said that Mr. Trump’s team could have delayed signing the order until they had better prepared the bureaucracy to carry it out. He also said the president and his team had not done a good job of communicating to the public the purpose of the executive order.

“If there is a criticism of the administration, and I think there is, I think they have done a rotten job of telling their story,” he said. “It is not like they did not know they were going to do this. To not have a cadre of people out there defending the administration — I mean, really guys, they should have done this.”

A legitimate argument can be made for a relatively extreme and inexperienced administration that was just put in place, and they haven’t yet figured out the nuances of government. But a few of the events in the past 72 hours —the intentional inclusion of green card holders in the immigration order, the DHS defiance of a federal judge, and the timing of Trump’s shakeup of the National Security Council — have pointed to a larger story. Even worse, if that larger story is true, if the source of this week’s actions is a play to consolidate power, it’s going really well so far. And that’s because mostly everyone — including those in protests shutting down airports over the weekend— are playing right into the administration’s hand. The most vocal politicians could be seen at rallies, close to the headlines. The protests themselves did exactly what they were intended to: dominate the news cycle and channel opposition anger towards a relatively insignificant piece of the puzzle. Green card holders shouldn’t be stuck in airports — far from it. But there might be a much larger picture here, and the immigration ban is a distraction.

karl_theodor_von_piloty_murder_of_caesar_1865

Gaius Julius Caesar, known as Julius Caesar, was a Roman politician, general, and notable author of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the events that led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Image: The Murder of Caesar by Karl von Piloty, 1865, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, (The Lower Saxony State Museum) Hanover, Germany.

In a study release, CU Boulder psychology professor Leaf Van Boven wrote:
‘We demonstrated that people act on what is immediately emotionally arousing to them. In other words, they respond to what makes them upset in the here and now.’
 Heather Richardson a professor at Boston College describes Trump’s actions as a ‘Shock Event’. The following quote was originally published by the author as a post on her Facebook account and has been shared widely. Heather Richardson confirmed that she is the author and granted permission to republish.

“I don’t like to talk about politics on Facebook — political history is my job, after all, and you are my friends — but there is an important non-partisan point to make today.

What Steve Bannon is doing, most dramatically with the ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries — is creating what is known as a “shock event.”

Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order.

When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies. As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event. There is no longer concerted opposition to the real goal; opposition divides along the partisan lines established by the shock event.

Donald Trump’s executive order has all the hallmarks of a shock event. It was not reviewed by any governmental agencies or lawyers before it was released, and counterterrorism experts insist they did not ask for it. People charged with enforcing it got no instructions about how to do so. Courts immediately have declared parts of it unconstitutional, but border police in some airports are refusing to stop enforcing it.

Predictably, chaos has followed and tempers are hot.

My point today is this: unless you are the person setting it up, it is in no one’s interest to play the shock event game. It is designed explicitly to divide people who might otherwise come together so they cannot stand against something its authors think they won’t like.

I don’t know what Bannon is up to (although I have some guesses) but because I know Bannon’s ideas well, I am positive that there is not a single person whom I consider a friend on either side of the aisle — and my friends range pretty widely — who will benefit from whatever it is.”

 

From broad concern felt among Americans from both the September 11 attacks and the 2001 anthrax attacks, Congress rushed to pass legislation to strengthen security controls.

This is not the first time that a Shock Event has been used to unify support in recent years. The USA PATRIOT Act has generated a great deal of controversy since its enactment. From broad concern felt among Americans from both the September 11 attacks and the 2001 anthrax attacks, Congress rushed to pass legislation to strengthen security controls. The bill, which removed most of the changes from the Senate version, passed Congress on March 2, 2006, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on March 9 and 10, 2006.

Opponents of the Act have been quite vocal in asserting that it was passed opportunistically after the September 11 attacks, believing that there would have been little debate. They view the Act as one that was hurried through the Senate with little change before it was passed. (Senators Patrick Leahy and Russell Feingold proposed amendments to modify the final revision.)

Opponents of the law have criticized its authorization of indefinite detentions of immigrants; the permission given law enforcement officers to search a home or business without the owner’s or the occupant’s consent or knowledge; the expanded use of National Security Letters, which allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to search telephone, e-mail, and financial records without a court order; and the expanded access of law enforcement agencies to business records, including library and financial records. Since its passage, several legal challenges have been brought against the act, and federal courts have ruled that a number of provisions are unconstitutional.

Many provisions of the act were to sunset beginning December 31, 2005, approximately four years after its passage. In the months preceding the sunset date, supporters of the act pushed to make its sun-setting provisions permanent, while critics sought to revise various sections to enhance civil liberty protections. In July 2005, the U.S. Senate passed a reauthorization bill with substantial changes to several sections of the act, while the House reauthorization bill kept most of the act’s original language. The two bills were then reconciled in a conference committee that was criticized by Senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties for ignoring civil liberty concerns.

The sheer magnitude of the Act itself was noted by Michael Moore in his controversial film Fahrenheit 9/11. In one of the scenes of the movie, he records Congressman Jim McDermott alleging that no Senator had read the bill and John Conyers, Jr. as saying, “We don’t read most of the bills. Do you really know what that would entail if we read every bill that we passed?” Congressman Conyers then answers his own rhetorical question, asserting that if they did it would “slow down the legislative process”. As a dramatic device, Moore then hired an ice-cream van and drove around Washington, D.C. with a loud speaker, reading out the Act to puzzled passers-by, which included a few Senators.

However, Moore was not the only commentator to notice that not many people had read the Act. When Dahlia Lithwick and Julia Turne for Slate asked, “How bad is PATRIOT, anyway?”, they decided that it was “hard to tell” and stated:

The ACLU, in a new fact sheet challenging the DOJ Web site, wants you to believe that the act threatens our most basic civil liberties. Ashcroft and his roadies call the changes in law “modest and incremental.” Since almost nobody has read the legislation, much of what we think we know about it comes third-hand and spun. Both advocates and opponents are guilty of fear-mongering and distortion in some instances.

Shock tactics, shock tactic or shock attack is the name of an offensive maneuver which attempts to place the enemy under psychological pressure by a rapid and fully committed advance with the aim of causing their combatants to retreat. The acceptance of a higher degree of risk in order to attain a decisive result is intrinsic to shock actions. In history Shock Tactics were usually performed by heavy cavalry, but were sometimes achieved by heavy infantry. The most famous shock tactic is the medieval cavalry charge. This shock attack was conducted by heavily armoured cavalry armed with  lances, usually couched, galloping at full speed against enemy formation.

It is hard to argue with a tactic when it has the desired effect. Charities have been criticized for using Shock Tactics increasing donations or support for a cause, or a change in the law or company behaviour. But how far is too far? In an age when some of the most gruesome pictures circulating are on TV news channels, one can understand why charities may be trying harder to compete amid concerns that society has become desensitised to suffering. But shock tactics can have limited impact. To be used effectively they need to be properly and sensitively integrated into an overall campaign. Despite calls from audience members for charities to continue to expose the harsh realities of life in places such as the Horn of Africa, panel members urged charities to respect the dignity of those being represented. The panel discussion was informed by a three-year research project being led by LSE and Birkbeck College into the public’s perceptions of and response to comms by aid and development agencies. Daynes summarised the findings: ‘What members of the public are saying to us is they’re just so sedated with suffering. They say we are charming them or disarming them into acts of compassion. They are also saying we’re abusing their emotions.

Shock art incorporates disturbing imagery, sound or scents to create a shocking experience. While the art form’s proponents have argued that it is “imbedded with social commentary” and critics dismiss it as “cultural pollution”, it is an increasingly marketable art, described by art critic R. Rawdon Wilson in The hydra’s tale: imagining disgust as “the safest kind of art that an artist can go into the business of making today”. But while shock art may attract curators and make headlines, Reason magazine’s 2007 review of The Art Newspaper suggested that traditional art shows continue to have more popular appeal. While the movement has become increasingly mainstream, the roots of shock art run deep into art history; Royal Academy curator Norman Rosenthal noted in the catalog for the “shock art” exhibit Sensation in 1997 that artists have always been in the business of conquering “territory that hitherto has been taboo”. In China, which experienced an active “shock art” movement following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989  encroachment on the taboo has led the Ministry of Culture to attempt a crackdown on the artform, banning the use of corpses or body parts in art. In 1998, John Windsor in The Independent said that the work of the Young British Artists seemed tame compared with that of the “shock art” of the 1970s, including “kinky outrages” at the Nicholas Treadwell Gallery, amongst which were a “hanging, anatomically detailed leather straitjacket, complete with genitals”, titled Pink Crucifixion, by Mandy Havers.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

Fountain (1917), by Marcel Duchamp, a “shock art” pioneer. Image: replica 1964

But what aims does the Shock Art of today serve? Contemporary Capitalism incarnates dynamics at an unprecedented and unsurpassable level of intensity, turning mundane economic ‘speculation’ into an effective world-historical force. Unlike forty years ago, institutions today are more opaque, more exclusive, and they share objectives intrinsically linked to corporate, neoliberal agendas to the point that those agendas have become invisible. Cultural institutions are the administrative organs of the dominant order, and cultural producers actively contribute to the transmission of free market ideology across all aspects of our lives. Within representation’s ruin, what used to be “outside” of capitalism—like marginality, queerness, or race—has been symbolically incorporated and deprived of its capacity to disrupt and contest. Figures of otherness have disappeared and been subsumed into “lifestyle” options. The underclass is a blurry horizon disconnected from the flows of global capitalism; far from being a political figure, the underclass is sometimes subject to site-specific intervention, pacification, betterment, development, and community-building projects. Art in the 1960s and ’70s, may have translated politicization into an aesthetic practice of international vanguardism, contestation, criticality, counterhegemony, and postcolonial memorialization and assertion, within the framework of a politics of representation. But for todays artists emancipatory horizons now lay in entrepreneurship. We are going through massive political, social and technological upheavals and the Art markets seem not overly concerned- it has just dissolved into fluffy glitter investments; A completely deregulated system of value arising from gossip-cum-spin and insider information. Contemporary art is just a hash for all that’s opaque, unintelligible, and unfair, for top-down class war and all-out inequality. So it is a pretty sad state of affairs.

 

 

 

 

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About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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