Sunday, February 05, 2006

Is Carl Rove a genius on par with Marcel Duchamp PART II

Please read part I

It’s not just what happens, it’s how what happens is interpreted that matters.

Seen through a lens of traditional warfare, the attacks on the US on September 11 were completely ineffectual. Although, obviously the effect on the individuals and the families of those killed was devastating, in purely big-picture strategic terms to knock down a few buildings, crash 4 planes and kill a few thousand people out of 275 million, is nothing, its just a scratch. The same could be said for all terrorism. It is a tactic of last resort, used by (in my opinion, morally reprehensible) people who are hopelessly out matched in traditional military terms.

Like all terrorism, (hence the name) the purpose is its psychological effect.

For the families of the people that died this was wholly a specific, tangible loss of specific people they loved. For a great many other people it was mostly (regrettably) as a symbolic event that has been interpreted differently by different people, for example, during the election of 2004, 64% of Republicans still thought IRAQ was behind sept 11th.

It’s the event’s meaning as symbol that has caused the over-all effect of those attacks on world history as we’re seeing it played out before our eyes, it was huge. The invasion of Iraq was a neo-con pipe dream before 9-11. There is no way that Bush II could have rallied enough political support to invade Iraq without that attack having taken place. Because certain members of the Bush administration was able to see this event, not as what it was, but as what it could be spun into, they were able to jump on it and use it as a pretext to do something they’d wanted to do for years. The invasion of Iraq is a huge strategic event that will have repercussions on millions of people’s lives for decades to come.

In 1917 Macel Duchamp created the first of his famous “ready-mades”. It was called “fountain” and it was a urinal entered in an open art exhibition. The urinal looked like a perfectly ordinary mass-produced urinal that anyone could buy at a plumbing supply store. To the largest percentage of people at the time it was an absurd hoax (because Duchamp had done no ‘work’ to create it and it was ‘just’ a urinal) but a few saw it for what it was- the first case of an artwork where the real work involved was in the thinking that went into it- and the value that it had was in the questions that it generated. (For general intro to why this mattered, and what it was about click here) In recent years, some evidence has come to light that, seems to suggest that the “ready-mades” were actually hand-crafted replicas (made with tremendous care) of mass-produced objects that were slightly different from any actual mass-produced models available at the time. More on this here This amounts to a little time-bomb in-joke for between us, the people who discovered what Duchamp had really done, and Duchamp on the other artists of 1917. It means that even in 1917, Duchamp understood the full implication of what it meant for art to move into the conceptual realm. By doing this he is letting us know that he knew this a full 40 years before Andy Warhol, and the rest of the art world would get it. He understood, even back then, that what was important about a work of art was what it meant, and that what it meant was more dependant on what it was thought to be than what it was.

How things get spun and interpreted and re-interpreted at different levels of our culture is key to understanding another recent bit of history:


To re-cap: Dan Rather on CBS’s 60 minutes II, broadcast a story about President Bush’s service or lack there of, in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war. This happened right after the RNC, with Bush up in the polls,. This story and another in the Boston Globe threaten to break through into the consciousness of America with the idea that Bush had received special treatment during Vietnam and had subsequently lied about it. The Broadcast included memos that were supposedly written by A Col. Killian, Bush’s superior officer, and saying among other things that Bush hadn’t followed orders but that he (kalian) had been pressured by his superiors to give Bush a pass.

Almost immediately after the memos appeared on CBS blogers on the left and the right kicked into high gear. A posting on the right-leaning “free republic” website questioned the authenticity of the memos, asking if the font, and certain other features of the memos could have been created by an early-70’s typewriter. With literally thousands of political junkies as researchers, the “blogosphere” amassed a staggering amount of information almost literally overnight. By the next day it was beginning to be clear that the documents were forgeries, with major media outlets reporting on, and struggling to keep up with, developments on the blogs. CBS interviewed Killian’s secretary who said she remembered having typed memos containing the same information, but that these memos didn’t look like the memos she’d typed.

But if these documents were forgeries, where did they come from, and why would they contain correct information? If someone were going to go to the trouble to forge documents, why wouldn’t they do a better job? 1970’s typewriters are available on eBay after all. At first CBS, kept their source confidential, but later they revealed that they had come from Bill Burkett, a well-known bush critic, with a spotty reputation and a history of mental illness. Burkett claims they were handed to him at a livestock show, by a stranger, in a meeting arranged by a different stranger in a phone call. Its pure speculation, but it would explain several things (and it’s a damn interesting story) if the memos were the work of Bush’s chief political advisor, Carl Rove. Rove is sometimes called “bush’s brain” and is believed by many to be a political (evil) genius of the first order. Consider this: You’ve got a candidate who, years ago did some things that don’t reflect well on his character, and that he’s since lied about. You know that there is still enough evidence out there (there always is) that someone will put the pieces of the puzzle together eventually. So, you take true information damning to you candidate, (the real memos) you re-type them in a form that can be proven to be forgeries (easily)—you give them to someone you know will A) desperately want to use them to hurt bush B) is not likely to realize they are fake and C) will be easily discredited – Rove need not have anticipated that they would end up on CBS, that could have just been gravy, but he knew they would come out somehow, and once they did—one phone call to a conservative blogger with the suggestion they might be forgeries and everything falls into place.

The real genius of this plan is knowing how the various audiences will interpret it. Political junkies on left and right will know all the details and will see it all through their own biases lenses, and therefore won’t be persuaded one way or the other, the major media will see it as a story and will chase the ratings to the juiciest part of the story. 30 year old documents are juicy, but FORGED documents are even juicer, The content of the documents gets completely forgotten in the rush to decide if they are forgeries or not and Burkett is a much more interesting character (tends to shoot his mouth off, looks a little nuts, that makes for great TV) than either Killian (dead) or Bush (already known). And lastly, swing voters, many of whom aren’t paying too much attention anyway, just get the general sense that there was something in the news about Bush and the Texas Air national guard, but that it was all fake in the end so who cares? Lastly, after this any reference to this issue can be dismissed by Bush spin-doctors as discredited and worse, old news. The plan is sol convoluted that anyone (like me) trying to describe it can easily be dismissed as some nut-job, but if its true, then Rove has completely neutralized an issue that might otherwise have made a serious dent in the president’s popularity. Bush’s supporters are for him because they believe he is an honest man and a good man, not a liar whose family got him special treatment when his country needed him most. Read this for another example (maybe) of Rove using the same technique.

So think of the Killian Memos themselves as artifacts/ artworks if this theory is correct. They are marvelous objects. They are forgeries of real documents who’s purpose was to be known as forgeries so as to cast doubt on the real information they contain. Like the readymades they were made to be understood by a series of different audiences in different ways. Unlike the readymades they were understood in all those different ways immediately because we’re living in a time when every conceivable sub-culture has instant access to every other sub-cultures dialogues.

To my mind it opens up the possibility of new kind of artwork. One which is meant to play simultaneously upon all the interlinked stages of all of our hyperlinked world.- It would mean different things to different audiences with the real craft being in the way those meanings relate to and inform each other.


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