Discourse Fatigue And The Unanswerable Gesture
Are you tired of hearing about ledes? Are you sick of kickers? Are you burned out on hot takes? Does the thought of one more think piece make you want to pull off your own head and roll it into the primeval forest like a bowling ball? Would you rather spoon a politician than read another column about one? Do you want to torch the content farm and salt the earth? Does the word longform — just the existence of the word — sort of buzz around your ears like a fly you can't get rid of, and you can't even swat the fly because you'd splatter 10,083 words about the lonely spirituality of mountaineering on your shirt?
Do you still check Peach?
Have you noticed that discourse never stops happening? Do you have feelings about that? Does the sheer volume of conversation about anything, everything, all things — race, comic books, a bridge collapse, a market crash, Justin Bieber, the fate of the world — leave you feeling both overwhelmed, because you can't possibly keep up with it all, and jaded, because you've seen it all before? Do you have discourse fatigue? If this presidential election drags on for one more hour, do you think you'll lose your mind?
Are you sure you haven't already lost it?
If the election feels like a living nightmare, it's only partly because Donald Trump and his cantaloupe flesh-marinade and kitten-pelt hair seem yeastily risen from one. It's also because the syntax of the day-to-day coverage has so frequently turned surreal. You know those dreams where you're in a forest and then you're in a building and then you're in your high school? This election has been all: A bird landed on Bernie Sanders's podium! Now Chris Christie has been kidnapped by Donald Trump! Now Ted Cruz is the Zodiac killer!
The story of the 2016 presidential race has been told in memes, GIFs, and screencaps. Its few flawless victories haven't been won through argument, or even sloganeering, but through rhetorical gestures so unanswerable that they defy any attempt to discuss them.
You can lay waste to Trump's immigration pandering with every logic torpedo in your arsenal and no one will remember what you say. But talk about the size of his hands and suddenly you own the moment — not because anyone thinks Trump's portly little digits matter but precisely because they don't, precisely because the line of attack makes no sense and has no relevance and so functions as both an expression of the prevailing phantasmagoria and an idea that's impossible to refute. It's a non sequitur that's also a phallic symbol that's also a point of weird psychic vulnerability for the person in the center of the spotlight. Sound like any form of altered consciousness you sometimes experience while asleep?
Politics, at least since the invention of the cathode ray tube, has always been in thrall to the clean own and the simple catchphrase. This is true not just at the electoral level, but also on the plane of world conflict: I am a jelly doughnut, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. The difference is that these self-contained narrative flex points used to mimic the form of substance. Now they conspicuously reject it. "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" had power because it felt like it meant something. "Ted Cruz is a serial murderer who travels through time" has power because it so clearly doesn't. I guess you could argue that it's a joke-poetic fantasy illustration of something in Cruz's character, and that it sticks because it encapsulates the horror people sense behind Cruz's candle-wax smile. But it gets you there entirely by being ridiculous. It's persuasive because it's insane.
And that, I think, is a function of discourse fatigue. The mechanics of the conventional political narrative are so familiar at this point, and so shopworn, that they grate; in the era of rad snaps, it's no longer possible for their distortions to be smoothed over by distance. The audience is too close. When I watch the news now, I don't feel like I'm looking at a window onto the world. I feel like I'm looking at something that has auto-completed its way into some airy alternate reality, the way your phone thinks you want to spell "ducking" when you've actually typed "fu."
Everyone seems to agree that something is different during this election cycle, that some anger or instability is manifesting in a new way in national politics. (Even if the anger and instability are not exactly new themselves.) Yet the forms through which we're having this explained to us are the same old forms, and the cracks are showing, and it sometimes seems like the cracks are all that's left. So we're in a moment when an emoji feels like relief, because an emoji hasn't been around long enough to be totally hollowed out by overmanipulation. Defiant nonsense feels like a better representation of the moment than carefully thought-out sense, because this is 2016; sense is suspect. If I show you one headline that reads "Theory: Bernie Sanders Is Actually JonBenét Ramsey" and another headline that reads "Madame Secretary, Release the Transcripts," which one looks like a better fit for reality as you experience it? Which one makes you feel like you're about to be told a lie?
The real problem with a politics of dream gestures, of course, is that it's ultimately nihilistic. The world still exists with all of its crises, and retreating from a broken conversation to a playground of semiotic collapse can't help or fix anything. You can't Crying Jordan income inequality. And then, the speed with which language conventions build up and break down online means that what feels like a relief now will be an irritant by tomorrow. Want some David Caruso sunglasses for your lolcats?
But this is where we are, and it's a fascinating moment, largely because some of the most interesting parts of it are also some of the most resistant to analysis. I mean, I've just written a medium-form column about the unreliability of medium-form columns, so where do we go from there? Would it be a total cliché if I ended this with a