Skip to content

Performing Democracy

A conversation with David Levi Strauss

In the desert of contemporary art criticism, the writings of David Levi Strauss stand out as an oasis of grace and discernment. Over the past three decades, as most other American critics have chased the tail of ahistorical fads like “relational aesthetics” or retreated into a pompous defense of Old Masters who need no defending, Strauss has kept his eyes open and his wits about him, writing with urgency about young artists (especially photographers) even as he returns again and again to the canon, examining it afresh in the light of the present. As befits the son of a mechanic, he is extraordinarily sensitive to the technical basis of all artmaking: the delicate layering of impasto, the dogged sandpapering of a pine tree bark. But he has also been interested in larger social and political issues, particularly as they are expressed in visual culture. In this, the modern critic he most resembles is John Berger, who wrote a generous introduction to Strauss’s 2003 collection, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics.

In recent years, Strauss has perceptively analyzed depictions of the Rwandan genocide, photojournalism during the U.S.-backed dirty wars in Latin America, and the future of the Kurdish state. Now he offers his most sustained examination of the domestic American political scene. Strauss’s new book Co-Illusion: Dispatches From the End of Communication is a kind of hybrid made up of seventy prose dispatches—some journalistic, others more imaginative—written over the course of the 2016 presidential election campaign. An art critic moonlighting as political sleuth, Strauss attends the Republican and Democratic conventions, drinking in the “exhilarating and terrifying” spectacle they afford, in a troubled attempt to make sense of how the instruments of mass-media have deformed the U.S. electoral process. Part reportage, part media theory, and part picaresque novel, it is a book that nicely catches the garish texture of American politics today.

I spoke to Strauss about his book over Zoom. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

—Ratik Asokan

Ratik Asokan: You are probably best known as an art critic. I’ve read dozens of your essays on sculptors, painters, photographers, and so forth. What made you decide to walk out of artist studios and into these ghastly political conventions?

David Levi Strauss: My friend, the artist Jon Winet, has been attending the national conventions every four years since 1984, taking photographs for his massive multi-media works on the nature of electoral politics. Soon after 2000, he invited me to collaborate on it. In 2004 and 2008, I accompanied him onto the convention floors, writing these dispatches that were combined with his photographs and posted online in real time. I missed the conventions in 2012. But once it became clear that Trump was going to be the Republican nominee in 2016, I knew I had to be there in Cleveland and Philadelphia, to see it for myself. Jon had always managed to score good press credentials that got us down on the floor and up front. There, it was like being at the center of this giant image-generation machine. It was pure spectacle.

RA: One argument you make in the book is that spectacle requires participation. Let me quote something from the preface: “The underlying collusion that fueled the rise of Trump resulted from the ‘secret agreement’ made by voters at the ballot boxes and consumers in front of TVs and the screens of our other devices, to set aside the social contract.” Can you say more about this?

DLS: At a fundamental level, I am concerned with how the recent changes in our communications environment have affected our politics. Today, Republicans and Democrats inhabit entirely different information worlds that have very different aesthetics. There is next to no crossover. It’s hard to even remember now, but when Trump first came on the scene, many liberals— watching CNN and MSNBC—thought that this was not a real campaign. But it was received and presented very differently on Fox News. It’s not just that there are two different political views; there are two different realities. This kind of bifurcation is testing the limits of democracy. There is no way of fulfilling the social contract when you don’t see eye-to-eye on the basic elements of reality.

This is not how it always was. I grew up in a working-class home in a small town in Kansas. My father was a car mechanic and my mother worked at the elementary school. Pretty much everyone I knew was a Republican. My father was an Eisenhower Republican that turned to Nixon and Reagan (and right-wing talk radio), and I was a Bobby Kennedy Democrat that campaigned for George McGovern when I was nineteen. So, my father and I fought all the time. But there were still channels of communication between us, running along other lines. There was a kind of common terrain that we could come to, to fight and not fight. That terrain has been lost. I expect that most of the people in our little town voted for Trump in 2016. If my father was alive today, I think he would have voted for Trump, and I doubt that we would have even been able to fight about it in words. This is part of what I’m referring to with the subtitle of my book: “Dispatches From the End of Communication.

RA: Polarization is part of the problem. It seems to me that your book is also equally concerned with the nature of modern news: its sheer volume and the acceleration of the news cycle. Both right-wing and liberal.

DLS: Yes. My thinking on this subject is deeply influenced by Paul Virilio. He was the first theorist to really analyze the relationship between speed and politics—to show us how speed has a politics of its own. This is perhaps why he was also one of the earliest voices to prophesize the breakdown in communications.

Much of Virilio’s thinking is informed by modern warfare and military research. He had contacts inside the French military; as he drew on their research, he realized that the speed at which weapons and attack systems, and especially optical-visual and surveillance systems (enabling you to see the whole battlefield), were developing in sophisticated ways was like nothing we had seen before. More importantly, he came to feel that this speed was not a neutral force. Speed has a politics.

Trump understands that our sped-up media environment is about maximizing attention and minimizing scrutiny.

Applying this to the context of news, it becomes clear that when the rate of delivery of information is increased, it diminishes the ability to evaluate and respond to it. One just goes with the flow. And images have become flow, now, rather than discrete entities. Disabling response mechanisms (and feedback) makes it possible to control masses of people, often with their enthusiastic consent. In this country, the U.S. military built the internet, and then gave it to the private, profit-driven system to continue the collection of private data. In this environment, speed enhances conformity. Let me quote something from the book here:

Over the past twenty years, we have built a communications environment in which the loudest, most intransigent and ignorant voices dominate public speech, because they have a structural, tactical advantage. The personal entity that gets the most hits fastest wins. Speed has a politics.

It’s not hard to see how Trump benefits from this. Trump tweets at a rate that overwhelms traditional reporting. He’s mastered the vertiginous rhythm of modern American politics. Basically, what he’s realized is that if he keeps generating enough news-worthy content at a rapid rate—through his crazy statements, his endless tweets, his banal attacks—he can effectively disable journalism. One effect is that it turns newspapers and news networks into anti-Trump organs.

RA: But ineffective anti-Trump organs.

DLS: Exactly. Because he’s disrupted the mechanism. As I say somewhere in the book, Trump understands that our sped-up media environment is about maximizing attention and minimizing scrutiny. And he’s very adept at drawing all the attention, all the time. He loves being the center of the news, and he’s very, very good at making that happen. Actually, he’s better than anyone I can think of. Hitler had Goebbels and others to guide him, but Trump is pretty much doing it himself, from his bed in front of the TVs, with his smart phone. Yes, he has an entire right-wing media empire behind him, repeating and amplifying everything, and in many cases initiating it. But he’s the center of it.

On this, I differ from some of my friends on the left, who say, “You’re putting too much emphasis on Trump. Trump is a symptom. He’s not the cause of this. Once you remove Trump from office, nothing will change.” I think that people on the left underestimate the unique threat that Trump poses, especially in his handling of the media. The thing about Trump is that he’ll remain newsworthy even after he’s out of office. And the media will still be manipulable. And the people who’ve supported him in all this and have benefited from it will not go away so easily.

You have to remember Trump’s history. He grew up around journalists; he knows how they think and what they want and need. He knows that they want access and they need stories, and he’s happy to give them stories—juicy, irresistible stories. He knows how public relations actually works, instinctively.

Democratic National Convention, 2016. Photo by Susan Meiselas, Magnum Photos.

RA: Can you say something about the form of your book? In the first half, you write what are more-or-less straightforward “dispatches” reflecting on the conventions. But in the second part of the book a new voice—or rather, a chorus of new voices—emerges.

DLS: The first part of the book consists of thirty-five dispatches from the conventions and the campaigns, preceded by an analytical preface, on “Complicity, Illusion, and Survival.” And then, there are thirty-five pieces written after the election, followed by an analytical coda. What I attempt in the second half of the book is a kind of group ventriloquism. I wrote from the perspective of people who were attracted to, supported, and enabled Trump.

RA: What was the process like? Was it difficult to inhabit that political sensibility?

DLS: As I said, I grew up in Kansas. I spent the first third of my life working as a construction laborer and as a farmhand. Farmers work harder than anyone I’ve ever known—sixteen hours a day, six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year of constant, backbreaking physical labor. The currency with them is work, so if you work hard, they’ll talk to you and listen to anything you have to say. I know them and I know their world. I know the kind of anger and resentment people there feel towards previous administrations that made all kinds of promises and continually broke them. Some of them are understandably very angry about this.

I saw this in my own family. I had members of my own family that became members of a right-wing militia. I don’t want to get into details here, but I knew about the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 before it happened, and Timothy McVeigh made that bomb a few miles away from where I grew up. He rented the Ryder truck in the town where I was born. Anyway, to get back to your question, it wasn’t too hard for me to get into this headspace, no. On the contrary—this will probably be taken the wrong way by some of your readers—there was a kind of solace in it. It was harder to get out of it, to get out of the voices. That was a bit worrisome at times. But that tension was probably worth the trouble. Otherwise you would not have this book.

RA: One of the dispatches is called “Trump Talks,” and it’s written, I gather, from the perspective of a Trump voter confronting a liberal. Let me quote it in entirety here:

You all talk a lot about the way Trump talks. You all have a big problem with the way he talks. You think the way he talks is unbecoming to a president. But for us, the way he talks sounds just right. He’s not talking down to us, but straight at us.

The Black president was a master of your kind of talk. He wasn’t quite as bad as Al Gore or Hillary Clinton (don’t get us started about that), but he still talked like he was better than us—like he was trying to teach us something.

Trump might be rich, but he knows how to talk to people who aren’t rich. He’s got the common touch. His talk reaches out and touches us, and that’s what we’ve been waiting for, to have someone reach out like that.

This is not un-sympathetic, but it’s also laced with something sinister. Is that a fair description?

Yes. It’s very dangerous to convince large numbers of people that they are victims. But that is the feeling this president has encouraged and legitimated among a large part of the electorate. He has allowed them to feel continually aggrieved and resentful. “Who is responsible for putting me in this position, of working all the time and still not being able to survive?” they want to know.  And Trump has an answer. It’s the wrong answer, but it’s an answer.

One thing I realized from the beginning was that Trump was playing with some very dangerous elements, playing with fire. To be honest, I never thought that he would actually be able to hold onto power for four years. My worry was that these seething, acidic undercurrents he unleashed would rise to the surface in larger forms of violence. That’s happened, of course, but not nearly to the extent that I expected it to, yet.

RA: In addition to the Trump voters, you also do the voices of Trump handlers like Paul Manafort and Steve Bannon.

DLS: And Big Tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, of the Surveillance Empire that now controls our communications environment.

RA: Yes, Zuckerberg, how could I forget? You catch his unctuous nature very well. But these elites are just preparation for the real show, the great God Trump, whose voice you have some fun with.

People get a kick out of Trump. They know he upsets the Liberal Elites, and that delights them.

DLS: I call the book a “picaresque documentary,” and I’ve come to think of Trump as the perfect picaro. He’s the rogue or rascal from a lower class—people perceive him that way, even though it is not factually true—an outsider who lives by his wits. He’s “lower class” in taste and aesthetics and sensibility. And he’s managed to portray himself as an outsider, a man of the people, confronting a corrupt and hypocritical society, controlled by Liberal Elites. When you watch the rallies and observe the enthusiasm, this becomes very clear. When my liberal friends look at Trump, they see a pathological narcissist conman. But the appeal of the picaro is more subtle. And it has a comedic aspect. Narcissism, self-centeredness, and indecency are funny.

People get a kick out of Trump. They know he upsets the Liberal Elites, and that delights them. And he is funny, you have to admit. I mean, Hitler was pretty funny, too. Dictators and “strong men” are funny.

William Burroughs was a big fan of the picaresque. He once delivered a whole series of lectures on the picaresque form, at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, a few years before I taught there. Burroughs’s lectures began all the way back at Petronius’s Satyricon, and dealt with other early examples of the form, from Don Quixote to The Unfortunate Traveler, to Tristram Shandy, and came up to modern times with Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies and his own novels.

I’m told that Burroughs had collected a lot of newspaper articles about picaros, who were a fixture of journalism in nineteenth-century America. They often ended up getting themselves into positions where a lot of people died because of their cowardly and selfish actions. Burroughs focused on that. And that’s the situation that we’re in now, with Trump’s gross mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. The hi-jinx of the picaro cease to be so funny when the corpses begin to pile up.

Richard Spencer with selfie stick, 2016. Photo by Peter van Agtmael, Magnum Photos.

RA:  The book features photographs by Susan Meiselas and Peter van Agtmael. Can you speak a little about the collaboration, and also the role that images play in this book?

DLS: Susan and Peter are both magnificent photographers. I’ve known Susan for a long time, and we’ve worked together on other projects. And I had met Peter before and knew and loved his work. So being able to combine these photographs with my text was a great pleasure. I’ve been doing this kind of combination for a long time, in a never-ending work with found photographs called Odile & Odette.

Susan and Peter gave me a lot of their images from the 2016 campaigns. I tried to place them in the book so that the texts and the images would combine to make a third image, between the two. After all, this is the form that most of the political material we absorb comes to us in: words and images in proximity. The way they work together, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, has real effects.

We also did something in this book that you’re not supposed to do today—that hasn’t been done, really, for a long time—which is to take these color images and convert them to black and white. Everybody used to do that once upon a time, but you’re really not supposed to do it now. I always think of Vilem Flusser’s idea that black-and-white photographs are more conceptual than color photographs. He actually said, “Black-and-white photographs embody the magic of theoretical thought since they transform the linear discourse of theory onto surfaces.”

RA: For me, the photographs had an almost Richter-like quality. T.J. Clark says somewhere that in Richter’s Baader-Meinhof paintings, politics, as captured in the expression of the sitters, emerges as a disreputable passion, a kind of “foul turbulence.” That’s a phrase that returned to me as I looked at the expressions in these images, both from the Democratic and the Republican conventions. The way politics lit up these attendees was so palpable. Can you speak to that?

DLS: Well, that was part of the spectacle of the conventions. Everyone was there to be photographed, filmed, interviewed. And they were all lit up by the attention. They were performing American democracy.

RA: I’d like to return to your work as an art critic. One thing that comes across powerfully in your essays—I’m thinking here, in particular, of your 2010 essay collection From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual—is that artmaking is a form of learning. We learn as much through the exercise of vision and touch as we do through, say, reading and thinking. I bring this up because the kind of intimate touch-and-vision-based experience of learning through art is such a stark contrast to the cold, disorienting, one-way information stream that is cable television and the internet. Can you speak a little about the phenomenology of the screen world we inhabit?

DLS: Recently, someone on CNN interviewed a woman whose husband had died from the coronavirus. Because she could not go to the hospital, she watched him die on FaceTime. This experience was so strange and yet so presently familiar that it made sense for this woman to recount this ultimate private moment with millions of viewers on TV. Death on FaceTime translates to death on TV very differently than death in person does. This woman was looking at an image of her husband as her husband died, so it was not such a stretch for us to be looking at an image of her recounting this.

They used the White House as a set, as if they owned it, and used a group of immigrants as props in a campaign ad.

When my mother died in Kansas, I was holding her face in my hands and looking into her eyes. I was trying to see what she was seeing. And I crossed over with her. She was there, and then, in an instant, she was gone, and all that was left was her body, an empty husk. That’s a completely different experience from watching somebody die on a small screen, on a smartphone. The reduction of that is going to have long-lasting effects. This screenal alienation is reaching epidemic proportions now, with the pandemic and the resultant “social distancing,” and “remote learning.”

Someone also recently wrote an op-ed in the Times about how too much Zoom is bad for you. This writer interviewed neuroscientists and psychologists who discussed how constantly looking at other people’s faces via Zoom affects you neurologically. This is happening right now, as we speak. I’m looking at you as if you’re in front of me, even though you are not. And I can’t quite look in your eyes. That’s the kind of confusion that does not go down well neurologically. Our social relations are being distorted and reduced. That’s going to have significant effects, including on politics.

RA: What has been your experience of watching the Democratic convention on television this time around? 

DLS:  I expected to hate it, but I liked it quite a bit, actually. The Democrats really used the form that we’re all reduced to now, the Zoom form, where everyone is depicted in public in their domestic spaces, and nothing works very well. The transitions are all ragged. It’s like the spectacle in a bottle. And the pathos of the situation comes through. Barack Obama’s speech on August 20 was the peak of this pathos. He was lamenting the end of the democratic experiment, and it was heartbreaking. The Democrats are trying desperately to reach under-thirty-five-year-old voters. If they vote this time (for the first time in history, really—we didn’t do it in 1968 or 1972), the experiment will continue. If they don’t, it’s over.

Q: And the Republican convention?

A: The Republicans didn’t really try to carry their convention over into the virtual. They just held their regular convention on Monday in Charlotte and then projected a kind of pageant about a convention that first night on prime-time television. One of the producers from The Apprentice called in to save the production also served as a judge on the Miss Universe pageant when Trump owned it. All of the speakers the first night appeared in the huge empty neo-classical Mellon Auditorium in Washington, at a massive lectern before a bank of American flags—and delivered their pre-recorded speeches into the void.

These speeches were delivered in the old convention style, as if to a massive crowd of true believers mashed together in a bustling stadium. But the Republicans under Trump have never been very good at modulation, so it didn’t really come off. Trump’s message needs a rally crowd, unmasked and undistanced. Pandemic? What pandemic? The picaro never changes.

The second night was much better produced and presented. For someone with my political views, it was offensive that they used the White House as a set, as if they owned it, and that they used a group of immigrants as props in a campaign ad. The whole thing was a piece of propaganda for an authoritarian family regime, from Eric Trump speaking in the shadow of a subpoena from the New York Attorney General about how “my father will fight for you,” to Tiffany Trump railing against mis-information systems (!), right down to Melania Trump wearing the uniform of a wife of a dictator while reflecting on the difficulty of teaching Barron about “the downside of technology” and the meanness of social media.

But setting all that aside, I think the producers did an extraordinary job of normalizing and naturalizing Trump’s ruinous regime that second night, for a broad TV audience. These are The Apprentice producers, who, with Mark Burnett, gave us Trump as a national figure through Reality-TV, and now they may have helped make it possible for him to remain in power and be re-elected. May God have mercy on their souls.