As part of a contentious fight with his ex-wife over custody of their three children, talk radio host Alex Jones has declared—or his lawyers have declared for him—that he is a “performance artist,” that his on-air persona is an act, that “he’s playing a character.”
Jones came to national fame via his charismatic—often near-apoplectic—hosting of the radio show Infowars, one of the media sources President Trump does not consider to be either “fake” or “the enemy of the American people.”
Indeed, Trump has called Jones and his show “amazing.”
What Infowars does best is conspiracy theory: the Apollo moon landing footage was faked, FEMA is constructing internment camps, the mass killing of elementary students in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, was a “false flag” operation by the US government, and, more recently, the whole buffet of theories spread out under the hashtag of Pizzagate, an expanding and crowd-sourced narrative about Hillary Clinton’s connection to child sex slavery and cannibalism, a significant theme of which was that Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta had participated in satanic rituals hosted by performance artist Marina Abramovic.
To describe Jones and Abramovic with the same term is revealing—and calls to mind, of course, the claims (by Michael Moore, for instance) that Trump himself is “a performance artist, not a politician,” and those hopeful social media posts, circulating in the pre- and post-election haze, speculating that Trump might, at his inauguration or some other highly televised event, unmask himself as an Andy Kaufmanesque charade (or even as Andy Kaufman himself).
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The argument advanced by Jones’s lawyers, however, is a serious one, with high (legal) stakes, and while liberals are salivating over a chance to cry hypocrisy, there is no cognitive dissonance, ultimately, between the claim to be performing as a persona and the claim to be offering valid information or—and this is Infowar’s central product—a hermeneutic of radical suspicion. Jones insists that it’s the latter that is urgently needed: trust no one, investigate everything. Thus, Jones, in performing an act in which he pleads for his audience to be wary of people performing acts, is just closing the loop, offering evidence of that which he preaches. This isn’t hypocrisy: it’s instantiation.
Jones was always a prophetic voice decrying the contemporary epistemological crisis—a true crisis of knowing—as much as he was a manifestation of it. He urged his audience to do their own research, to discover the truth for themselves, while insisting that much of what we think we know, and most of what we’re told by the mainstream media, is a sham.
Jones—as persona or person, as character actor or journalist, as you will—speaks from a location of sincerity. His exaggerated emotionality loses no force if it is seen as a theatrical device. His claims—to challenge normative narratives of news, to expose conspiratorial plots, to pull back the curtain on choreographed events passed off by those in authority as authentic happenings—none of these depend on his own self-identification with his style of presentation. Nor do they stand or fall based on how the man behaves in his personal life, making any “revelations” from the family law court moot. The sincerity his audience takes away from his show is unconnected from “Alex Jones,” who serves merely as the mouthpiece and the face of what gets said.
This is so challenging for Jones’s critics on the left (who are also Trump’s critics) because they hold to a model of sincerity that insists upon both a private, interior life of the mind and a complete and committed identification of that hidden inner self with outward activity.
It is here where attention to religion can add to public understanding, for sincerity, as Faisal Devji reminds us in a recent essay for Aeon, “came into the English language with the rise of Protestantism, in order to name the internal agreement of statement and belief it required.” Devji, particularly interested in the use of media by militant Islamic groups—his 2009 The Terrorist in Search of Humanity offers a masterful reading of Al Qaeda discourse, verbal and visual—links the “careful curation of a media or virtual persona as a Muslim militant” to the similar curation of such a persona as a politician.
Might we not all be performance artists, to a degree, these days? Are we not living mediated, largely online lives, via corporate platforms that require us to pose and post and like and link, crafting new modes of subjectivity? Is a world of ubiquitous surveillance (by self, others, and state) necessarily also a world of ubiquitous performance?
Critics on the left cling to that original, Protestant concept of sincerity, believing in the power of belief. Their read on the world is predicated on a similarly Protestant model of private human depth, wherein there is an active intellectual inner life, debating and discerning, before one speaks or writes or acts in public.
But “in a world dominated by media and spectacle,” as Devji argues, such inner life is no longer required. In a world where one is always in public, one can, certainly, perform at all hours—witness, as a famous for instance, Trump’s tweets, and the timestamps thereof. Yet such tweets exemplify another—the right’s—understanding of sincerity, the “heroic risk” of declaring “a position, in an inherently unfixed world,” as Devji puts it:
Such decisions acquire an important sacrificial character. Sincere commitment to a position, after all, inevitably exposes one to scorn if not attack. Often, these attacks come from some ‘establishment’ or another. Having apparently been oppressed and silenced by such ridicule or assault, the sincere thus experience an exhilarating feeling of transgression. After all, they are voicing forbidden words and sentiments. During the long US presidential campaign year, these exhilarating transgressions especially included negative views about African Americans, Hispanics and Hispanic Americans, Muslims, and immigrants generally.
Devji adds, however, that “the sincerity of such moments of liberated speech are not tied to any strong attachment or deep belief in what is said.” This isn’t merely an issue of whether Trump should be taken literally or seriously, this is an issue of whether a statement can be seen as brave, admirable, functioning for the common good without needing to be believed. The Trump examples, on this, are nearly infinite: hyperbole characterized his campaign. But one insight of Devji’s work is to see such rhetoric as far more than hyperbole.
To return to Michael Moore’s quip about Trump, we see a confusion of categories, for an identity as “performance artist” is not exclusive of nor in opposition to an identity as “politician.” Trump’s electoral success was, in fact, dependent upon his performance art skills, his expertise at media, at being a media persona, a reality television star, a character whose act voiced sincerity—but not that outmoded Protestant sincerity where commitment to truth goes all the way down.
This is the sincerity of the stand-up comic, the sincerity of the rap mc, the sincerity of the screen idol, the sincerity of the performance artist.
The contemporary epistemological crisis is as much a product of the left’s insistent need to attribute an outmoded concept of sincerity to their news sources and heroes as it is a product of the right’s production and consumption of alt-news, alt-facts, and a relentless hermeneutic of suspicion. The left that believed—and believes—in Barack Obama is, epistemologically, a relic of a simpler time (Camelot, we could call it), while the right’s foil-hat obsession with plots and subterfuge is the logical reaction to more recent revelations about, well, plots and subterfuge. Watergate opened a whole lineage of scandals with the suffix “gate,” but it also, following on a country soured by the Vietnam War, torn apart by race, and jolted by multiple assassinations, represented a sea-change in thinking about authority—including, perhaps ironically, the authority of the “mainstream media” that broke the story.
The left that needs its news media to be devout investigators, as with Saints Woodward and Bernstein, cannot understand the appeal—the perceived function of speaking truth to power, of offering a revolutionarily liberating new hermeneutic—of Infowars.
Likewise, the left that needs their politicians to be reflective intellectuals who hesitate and debate before they speak or act cannot understand the appeal—the rebellious irruption of a similarly liberating anti-politically correct populism, even if it is merely a rhetorical populism—of Trump.