Donald Trump as Terrifying Postmodern Fever-Dream

When I started writing this blog post, I thought, “Do I really need to add another note in the strident cacophony of commentary surrounding Donald Trum?” (Yes, I really do think things like these in my private hours. Sue me). But, after discussing the most recent debate with my students in the context of postmodernism (and the postmodern condition more generally), I decided that yes, indeed, I do have to say something.

If you’ve read your Baudrillard or your Lyotard, you know that we are living in a world of seemingly endless meaning(lessness), where objective truth(s) matter less than the “truthiness” of any particular claim. While one would be excused for thinking that we had reached the apex (or perhaps the nadir) of the postmodern condition of endlessly contingent meaning with the myths and misdirections surrounding both 9/11 and the Iraq War–to say nothing of just the whole Bush Presidency–such a thought seems positively naive in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascendancy.

There have been oceans of real and digital ink spilled about the fact that many Trump supporters don’t really care about Trump’s seeming passing acquaintance with the truth. In many cases, they either a.) don’t care that he routinely lies and misrepresents information, since he is so good at saying what he thinks, so that his lack of veracity is always secondary or b.) the followers themselves don’t actually know the truth or the facts. I’m still not entirely sure which of these aspects I find most distressing.

Actually, for me they are both equally damaging to the ongoing health and well-being of our democracy and the body politic. When it comes to the point that none of the metanarratives and sources of knowledge upon which we have come to rely–whether that be the democratic process, the free press, or the intelligentsia more broadly–are able to command the loyalty of the people, we are in the midst of a crisis. And believe me, I do not use that word lightly (it gets bandied about a lot in academic circles). It truly does terrify me that no one seems to have faith in the sources of knowledge that we have so far relied on to make sense of our world.

Somehow, then, we’ve come to a crisis point, the seeming telos of the postmodern crisis in knowledge, a crisis that strikes so deeply into the heart of our citizenry that it’s hard to see how we can manage to climb our way out of it. Does it matter that Trump rarely (if ever) has any solid policy proposals? Clearly not, since his supporters continue to follow him even though respected economists, military strategists, intelligence officials, and other policy thinkers have thoroughly debunked almost every single policy or proposal that he has so far made in this campaign.

Just as disturbing, however, is the fact that the real Trump (if such a thing can be said to exist) has begun to blur terrifyingly into the caricature. One need look no further than the third debate to see this, when his frequent interjections of “wrong” caused me to pause and ask, “Am I watching Alec Baldwin on SNL or am I watching the actual Donald Trump?” As Baudrillard would say, it doesn’t really matter, because the simulacrum has replaced the actual lived reality to a degree that Baldwin is Trump and Trump is Baldwin.

Now, of course, the question always occur to me:  so what? What do we do with the idea that Trump represents some sort of telos of the crisis of knowledge and metanarratives that have allowed us to make sense of the political and social landscape at least since the end of World War II? What can one possibly do to turn back this terrible tide that seems to have swept away any and all certainty about the way that we make sense of the terrors of the contemporary world?

It may not, in fact, be possible to do so, but we have a collective duty, both as knowledge producers and knowledge consumers to hold both ourselves and our sources of information accountable. We must get out our knowledge comfort zones and actually start critically thinking about our own ideas and those of others. While we may still end up disagreeing with those on the other side of the political spectrum, this type of meaningful dialogue and engagement, not just the retreat into affect and overblown emotion, may just allow us as a society to move forward.

It may be too late to stop the rise of Trump, but I’m hopeful–and, dare I say it, downright optimistic–that together we can make sure that he, or someone like him, does not rise again. Furthermore, we can, if we give in to the better angels of our natures (pardon the cliché), perhaps build a better world for everyone.


The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Nice and Easy” (S1, Ep. 17)

It’s become something of a recurring theme in these posts that I discuss the importance of family to so many of the storylines in The Golden Girls, and today’s post is no different. In today’s episode, we get to meet Blanche’s (rather obnoxious) niece Lucy, who quickly shows that she has taken her aunt’s example to hear and has begun her own rather unruly exploration of her burgeoning sexuality. She soon reveals, however, that her attempts to mimic her aunt come from a profound sense of insecurity.

There are some really funny bits in this episode, including the revelation that Rose is a huge fan of Miami Vice. I’ve always been partial to those moments in the series when we get references to other shows running at the same time (there are at least two references from Sophia referring to Designing Women). To me, these references reveal the extent to which The Golden Girls was a very self-conscious show, perfectly aware of its own place in the television landscape of its own time. Indeed, it won’t be the last time that the show will make reference to Miami Vice. (By the way, how funny is it that Rose of all of them is the one obsessed with the show?)

The most compelling moment of the episode, however, is when Blanche takes Lucy to task for her behavior and her bouncing from one relationship to another in the space of a few days. Lucy, and I’m sure most of those watching the episode, rightly takes note of the fact that this criticism rings a bit hypocritical coming from Blanche of all people, who is hardly known for her circumspection in matters of the boudoir. Just as importantly, however, Lucy also reveals how uncertain she is about her own sense of self. While her fate remains somewhat uncertain by the end of the episode, we get the feeling that she will grow up to be as self-aware of her own sexuality and its powerful possibilities as her aunt.

What I find most extraordinary about this episode, however, is the way in which Blanche neatly turns Lucy’s criticism on its head. Rather than acting ashamed of her own sexual proclivities, she proudly tells her niece that her decision to bestow her favors on her gentleman callers is a decision that she undertakes of her own volition, not because she needs them to make her feel validated. This is one of the earliest of Blanche’s forthright reclamations of her sexuality from the jaws of patriarchal prudery, and I always cheer a little when I heard her say this. (Stay tuned for my entry on the episode on Valentine’s Day, when Blanche makes an even more empowered speech).

In our next installment, we move on to a moment of vulnerability for Dorothy, as well as some of the finest dancing the show ever produced. We also get to meet one of the ’80s most iconic sitcom guest stars (I’ll save her name until the post itself).

See you then!

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Exploring Space: A Walk among the Gravestones


I suppose it speaks to my interest in the virtual that I wrote a whole post about spatiality last week without moving an inch. On the surface, that doesn’t seem quite in line with the so-called “spatial turn” I mentioned in my last post: the trend in humanities scholarship towards the importance of place and space to ideas and power. Then again, many of the concepts we associate with the spatial – the panoptic nature of surveillance, the power of the wanderer versus a top-down view of the world, the distinction between geographic space and humanized place, that sort of thing – were probably for the most part mulled over in armchairs, in the mindscape of the scholar. I wonder how much all things are born from the virtual…

I was probably thinking something along those lines as my phone announced it was beginning to die. Yanked out of my…

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Viewing History: “The Greeks” at the National Geographic Museum

I recently had the pleasure of attending the exhibit entitled “The Greeks:  From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” at the National Geographic Museum. As a lifelong devotee of the classics and an avid museum-goer, it was quite compelling to see the world of the ancient Greeks brought to life, with a number of exquisite artifacts from various museums throughout Greece on magnificent display.

I have to say, I really enjoyed the exhibit, both in the vast scope of what it included as well as the information displayed. While most people usually think of classical Athens as the epitome of Greek culture, there was a great deal both before and after, and the National Geographic Museum did a fine job displaying objects from throughout the history of ancient Greece, including objects from Minoan Crete, Mycenae, classical Athens, and Macedon.

I was particularly excited to see both the objects from Mycenae and from the kingdom of Macedonia. In terms of Mycenae, it was really quite thrilling to see one of the masks that the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann believed belonged to the infamous King Agamemnon from The Iliad. There is always something particularly unsettling about these death-masks, and that is certainly true in this case. These are objects that convey an admittedly dim impression of the actual face of the deceased, but one cannot shake the feeling that one is standing in the presence of the ghosts of the past, a ghostly and ethereal reminder of lives past. While only one of the masks was actually from the tomb (the other, more famous, was shown in a replica), it was still a phenomenal experience to see these icons of the ancient world in actual space.

There is something even more unsettling about the helmets that have been excavated from various tombs. Again, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the presence of the dead was everywhere in the room, suffusing the entire exhibit with an aura of faded, yet still potent, grandeur. These were the most powerful and skilled men in their world, now reduced to nothing more than empty helmets in a lavish room, a humbling reminder of the exquisite ephemerality of the human experiment.

The true highlight of the Macedonian section, however, was the crown belonging to Queen Meda, the seventh and final wife of Philip II and the only one permitted to be buried with him in his official tomb. Further, there was also a small medallion with a portrait of Olympias, which the caption claimed was the only verified likeness that we have of her. Needless to say, as a fan of the powerful women of the ancient world, it was quite thrilling to see bits and pieces of their lives, reminders that even in the most patriarchal societies there was still the possibility of revolt and subversion.

At the formal level, I actually appreciated that there has been a shift from live-action reenactments to heavily stylized cartoons. For better or worse, the old style of reenactment has become rather blase, and it is often difficult to take them seriously, even in the most serious environment. Fortunately, these new animations looked very similar to the Greek vase paintings, allowing them to remain aesthetically woven into the fabric of the exhibit as a whole.

I do, however, have one complaint to make about the exhibit, and that is the resolute straight-washing that permeates its entire ethos. Some of the incidents are minor, such as referring to Patroclus as Achilles’ friend, when even the ancient Greeks believed they were lovers. Others, however, are significant omissions that present a skewed vision of ancient Greek culture. There was no mention (or none that I saw) of the same-sex relationships that were key to practically every Greek city-state, whether it was the institutionalized pederasty of Athens and Sparta or the Sacred Band of Thebes. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but it is still distressing to see this historical blindspot in 2016, after generations of classicists and historians have worked so hard to not only bring the presence of same-sex desire into the open but also to show how historically contingent it is (and remains). This is a major shortcoming of the exhibit, in my view, a wasted opportunity to explore the Greeks’ contradictory thoughts about same-sex desire.

Overall, however, I would say that this is a successful exhibit and does a great deal to bring to light the strange and compelling nature of the world of the ancient Greeks. For all that they are looked to as one of the foundations of Western culture, civilization, and government, there was much about their way of being and looking at the world that is completely foreign to and different from our own. This exhibit, fortunately, makes a significant contribution in helping the modern subject to understand that strangeness.

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Imagining Space: America the Virtual


I went on a run today—something I mean to do more often than I actually do, it seems—and my feet took me down a familiar route to Oakwood Cemetery. On my way down the looping paths, I saw a crumpled piece of red and white fabric on the side of the trail. It was a tiny, tattered American flag, the type mourners like to put by the gravestones of loved ones who have served.

I stopped and picked it up, turning the torn, cheap fabric in my hands over and over again. The object struck a strange chord with me, and I ended up sitting on the steps of a mausoleum and just staring at it until my phone battery drained down to 10%. The entire time, I didn’t notice a single person walk by.

A lot was going through my head then, and still more is going through it…

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“Isn’t That All in the Past?”: History and the Privilege of Cultural Amnesia


As I’ve been stressing throughout this month’s series of posts, privilege works in a number of pernicious and insidious ways in our everyday lives. Much as we might collectively like to believe that it doesn’t exist, it is only by dragging it kicking and screaming into the piercing light of day and scholarly/critical inquiry that we can begin to undo the pernicious ways in which it renders itself invisible. Indeed, it is precisely through rendering it visible that we can both deconstruct privilege and the systematic inequalities that it renders possible.

This week, I want to talk about the ways in which history can also be a locus of different types of privilege. Though this might appear counterintuitive to some (how can history be a site of privilege?), I would argue that history is always saturated with various types of privilege and raises significant questions about the function that history…

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The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “The Truth Will Out” (S1, Ep. 16)

In today’s entry in “The Great Golden Girls Marathon,” we once again meet some members of the girls’ family, in this case Rose’s daughter Kirsten and granddaughter Charley. While Rose has spent the years since her husband’s death cultivating his legacy and encouraging her children to see him as a successful businessman, it gradually becomes clear that, in fact, he was a terrible salesman, and that he left her very little in his will.

However, on the way to that revelation, Rose finds that she has to lie to both her daughter and her friends, claiming that it was bad investments on her part that led to the lack of funds. Kirsten, unsurprisingly, condemns her mother’s alleged irresponsibility, proclaiming that she has never been so ashamed of her. Somehow, it becomes acceptable for her to show the utmost disregard for her mother’s feelings, to say nothing of the respect that she should theoretically at least an effort to demonstrate.

It should come as no surprise that Kirsten proves to be quite the ungrateful and indeed disrespectful to her mother when she believes that Rose has squandered the fortune that her father allegedly built. The fraught and often contentious relationship between children and their parents would prove to be an ongoing tension in many episodes of the series (not least between Dorothy and Sophia), but here it takes on an especially cutting edge, and we’re definitely not encouraged to sympathize with Kirsten.

Indeed, it’s only when Rose realizes that the myth she has propagated about Charlie has begun to distort the view that her grandchildren have of their grandfather that she feels that she must at last come clean about the reality of his legacy. It’s rather touching, I think, that Rose was willing to sacrifice her own good image in her daughter’s eyes rather than sully her husband’s conversation. It’s also rather nice that Rose, and Kirsten, finally realize that it is Charlie’s success as a good person that matters, more than the amount of money that he was able to leave his widow and family.

In a fun bit of casting trivia, this is the first of two times that daughter Kirsten appears in the show. She would return in the final season when Rose suffers cardiac arrest, though in the latter she is played by a different actress. If anything, her later incarnation is even more unpleasant, since she blames the other four women for her mother’s health scare. Truly, Kirsten is one of the most unpleasant of the many progeny that appear in the show, and one wonders how someone as sweet and kind as Rose could raise such an unpleasant daughter (I’ll have much more to say on this when we get to Kirsten’s second appearance).

In the next episode, we meet yet another member of the extended family (which happens a great deal in the series, particularly in the first season), when Blanche’s niece Lucy comes for a visit and reveals that she acts a little more like Blanche than is probably good for her.

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“Of Course You Know…”: Deconstructing the Privilege of Knowledge


Some time ago, a colleague of mine was leading discussion in class, and he offhandedly remarked that, of course, we all knew that Aristotle had spoken of the same issue we were discussing in his Nichomachean Ethics. The way in which he made the utterance made it clear that, if we did not, in fact, know this reference, we were somehow lacking, that we had clearly missed out on some key part of being a truly educated person and that, equally clearly, graduate students in an English department should certainly be conversant with these sorts of (seemingly offhand) references.

Now, as a Classics major in undergrad, I was passingly familiar with Aristotle’s works (though I will admit that I had not read Nichomachean Ethics in approximately 10 years, so obviously my recollection of it would have been rusty to say the least). However, even I felt that this was somehow…

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“Thank You, Officer:” The Everyday Privilege of Whiteness


A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me when I first became aware of my white privilege. Caught somewhat off-balance by the question, I answered that I would need to give it some thought in order to respond to this inquiry with the complexity and deliberation that it deserved. However, try as I might, I could not for the life of me think of a single, particular moment in which I became aware of my white privilege.

What I found most disconcerting about this exchange was the fact that I could not actually think of a singularincident that produced an enhanced awareness. For an academic who remains committed to political and social justice, this was a startling realization, and I spent many an hour scouring my memory for that elusive momentthat I could point to where this consciousness first became viscerally present to me.

Well, as it…

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“Are You Gay?”: Public Space, the Closet, and the Exercise of Privilege


For my month of posts for this blog, I want to talk about privilege and the way in which it operates in everyday interactions and spaces. We all hear people talk about privilege–and in particular about how it operates as part of and within systems of oppression–but rarely do we actually think about how it affects and manifests in our everyday lives. I intend these four posts to jumpstart a continuing dialogue about both identifying privilege and using that knowledge to help undo it.

During a recent outing to a local restaurant, a couple of friends and I were seated at our table finishing our drinks before heading home for the night. While we were sitting there, chatting amiably amongst ourselves, a highly intoxicated young woman sprawled across our table to procure the menu, then asked us to read said menu since she was too drunk to do so.

Now, there wasn’t…

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