The Body of the Despot by Dr Darren Jorgensen
In empires throughout history, the head of the despot typically moves contrary to its body. Take the former President of the United States Ronald Reagan, whose body language famously contradicted his words. So that while gesticulating with a smile on his face, Reagan would announce an invasion or close down a hospital. Whatever the head does, the body performs instead the mood of the body politic to which it is attached. In King’s Row (1942), Reagan the Hollywood actor anticipated this Cartesian split when he played an amputee war veteran whose first words upon waking were, ‘Where’s the rest of me?’, a phrase that would become the title of his 1965 biography. So it is that the first task of any revolution is to decapitate the ruler, to sever the body politic from the head to which it has become attached.
Trump is beginning to show signs of this acephalous state. Take the televised interview on @MorningsMaria, in which he praises the sweet dessert he was eating while giving the order to fire missiles at Syria. The viewer of @MorningsMaria does not see what Trump was eating, but does see footage of missiles fired from the USS Porter. As Trump praises ‘the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen’, he also praises ‘our so incredible technology, our equipment’. The cake is supplemented by missiles, the despot’s body becomes the body politic, the state military-industrial complex is interchangeable with the despot’s appetite.
While this was taking place, Trump was also dining with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with whom he felt ‘a good chemistry’, in a dinner that triangulates the despotic body with diplomacy. So that the despot’s simultaneity of bodies, the chemical, gourmet and military, make up an assemblage only unified by the head. Trump’s bodies are without a single image, what Kenneth Dean and Brian Massumi call a body without an image in their book First & Last Emperors (1992). Trump’s body is instead an operation of power in many distant parts of the world, extended into tentacles that perform on a word from the head that shifts and changes with the bifurcation of reason.
So, it is amidst twitter feeds and viral videos, between chocolate cake and missile strikes, the despot bifurcates, splitting itself over and over again. When in the @MorningsMaria interview Trump confuses Syria with Iraq, and then confesses that he decided to make the strike while watching TV, it is possible to track the discontinuities and newness of this twenty-first century head. For the new despot does not need an enemy, as Reagan had the Soviet bloc, or Bush had the ‘axis of evil’. There is instead a bifurcating enemy, one whose location is blurry, and yet which we all know is there. Here Trump differs from Reagan and Bush, who acted on secret information that only they could see, most notoriously in the weapons of mass destruction said to be held by Iraq. Saddam Hussein did not think that he was under threat because he did not have any such weapons, and thought Bush was talking about Korea rather than Iraq. Yet it is precisely this kind of misunderstanding, this bifurcation, by which the despot is able to create extensions of themselves, tentacles moving through cracks in the regime of information.
Trump has no secrets, but instead acts on what he sees on television news. In revealing the moment at which he ate his cake and sent missiles to Syria, Trump also discloses that he decided to act when he was watching Syrian children suffering on television. It was then that he decided to call General Mattis and ask “What can we do?” Faced by his own absence on screen, faced by his own image of himself looking at television, Trump faces Reagan’s own anxiety about a body that is not there. So that it was with Mattis, the chocolate cake, the missiles and ultimately @MorningsMaria the body came together after watching children suffering in Syria, scenes that would have made anybody push the launch button. Here Trump has short-circuited the older assumptions of the powerful, instead creating an erotics of television news.
It was not only the children that drove Trump to act. Three months before firing missiles at Syria, the US released footage of the USS Porter being buzzed by Russian fighter jets. The choice of this same destroyer to launch missiles on Syria is not a coincidence, but a means of completing the televised circuit. So too Trump reported, after meeting Xi, that North Korean coal carriers were turned back by the Chinese, as if his chemistry was extending through Xi’s mutable despotism. So it is that Trump’s tentacles have spread from the Black Sea to the Yellow Sea, his head floating atop a bifurcating, televisual regime.
While it is tempting to blame Trump on any number of electoral dissatisfactions or manipulations, it is ultimately Trump’s head that has pulled these extensions around it, bringing the despotic body into a whole. It is only the head that is vulnerable, since the body is bifurcating over and over again. In classical times, beheading was the most succinct way of deposing of the despot, leaving the body to dissemble without it. It makes no sense, then, to attack Trump’s actions on the so-called stage of the world, because these actions are always produced amidst the bifurcation of reason. To say, for example, that the attack on Syria was wrong makes as much sense as arguing that Trump’s chocolate cake was not beautiful. One cannot argue against what is there, whether this be suffering children or a sweet dessert. Instead, it is this point of contradiction, this parallax by within which the despot arranges his power, this biosocial, syndemic head that must be severed like an octopus from its tentacles.
Dr Darren Jorgensen lectures in art history at the University of Western Australia. His research centers on aboriginal art history and art theory.