PRINT April 2009



The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 1999–, stills from a TV show on Comedy Central, March 4, 2009.

IT IS AMONG the most remarkable exercises in deconstruction to appear on mainstream television in recent memory: an eight-minute segment of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, aired last month, in which predictions and proclamations made by the punditry of the cable business channel CNBC during the past two years are juxtaposed with short texts describing events as they actually unfolded to create today’s global financial crisis. “The market just won’t quit, no matter how poorly actual companies are doing,” quips Mad Money host Jim Cramer in February 2008, unaware that the Dow will fall to half its level within a year; “Will Merrill [Lynch] need to raise capital? No,” declares commentator David Faber, echoing the company line, only five months before the investment bank ran out of capital; “The worst of this subprime business is over,” pronounces moderator Larry Kudlow earnestly, if with stiff rhetorical style, last April (around the moment Cramer, in another clip, is telling his viewers, “It’s time to buy, buy, buy!”); and then, on the heels of the American presidential election this past November, talking heads on Fast Money venture that “people are starting to get their confidence back.” With brisk, Montaigne-like wit and incisiveness, the point-counterpoint design of the Daily Show’s visual essay handily undermines any claim to veracity (let alone insight) these various “authorities” might otherwise have had.

And yet as one has become increasingly aware of a yawning divide residing between perception and reality—or between speculation and fact—in the realm of finance, watching this segment makes one acutely aware as well of their subtle commingling on-screen. Indeed, seeing passages from CNBC’s broadcasts embedded within the framework of Stewart’s, one gets the impression of parallel but inverted logics being inadvertently underscored. After all, the news programming (with its blustery headlines and personality-driven discussion) cynically appropriates the tropes of entertainment, while the entertainment programming (delving into the archives for its display of comparative analysis) brazenly hijacks the tropes of news. The line between reportage and theater becomes all the finer when one considers how these different programs might be speaking to their respective audiences, putting forward just those visions that are anticipated or desired—and that will draw those audiences in, telling them, in effect, what they want to hear (even while the pundits are saying what they themselves want to believe). The two types of programming, brought together in one deft montage, suddenly seem merely two caverns in the larger, honeycombed echo chamber of today’s fragmented mediasphere.

“I think reality is very much there,” says Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez in this issue, “but it’s co-constructed: Fictions are made into reality and back and forth.” He is discussing his latest film, Double Take, 2009, against the backdrop of the second war in Iraq—where, he observes, fictions about weapons of mass destruction gave shape to events in the real world—but his words translate with ease into the present context. (In fact, while the film is ostensibly a work of art, Double Take’s sampling and interweaving of imagery from entertainment, commerce, and journalism create an ambiguous atmosphere not dissimilar to that of mainstream media described above.) And, of course, the artist’s remark befits any number of critical episodes throughout modern times. As Grimonprez’s film makes readily apparent, the rapid circulation of images, given their capacity to shape perception, repeatedly impacts the basic course of history. The power of the image to inform even the stuff of geopolitics is strikingly underlined by footage of Richard Nixon during the so-called Kitchen Debate with Nikita Khrushchev: “There are some instances where you may be ahead of us—for example, in the development of the thrust of your rockets for the investigation of outer space,” Nixon lectures the Soviet premier. “There may be some instances—for example, color television—where we’re ahead of you.” Pictures, it seems in light of his comparison, can also tear things away from their ordinary orbits.

This point is less prescient than pertinent today, when the world seems to be seeking its true reflection in the media’s mirror—at precisely the moment, unfortunately, when the mass media has fallen radically out of touch not only with contemporary events but also with the experience of the general public. One could argue that this disconnect—and the consternation it has caused—has registered in this publication to an unusual degree (if one judges the book by its cover), as most issues here during the past season have featured solitary figures beneath our banner, from dancer Michael Clark and architect R. Buckminster Fuller to artist Martin Kippenberger and, for the current issue, Barkley L. Hendricks’s Steve, the eponymous subject of a portrait from 1976. It is tempting to imagine, if one believes that art holds a special mirror up to the world, that this emerging pattern suggests a kind of waning of abstraction in contemporary life—or, better, a reintroduction of scale and human dimension to things after the past decade’s explosion of commerce and media. But perhaps the opposite is true, in fact, and the figures reflect a kind of low-key anxiety, the likes of which is historically betrayed by what scholar Huey Copeland, describing Hendricks’s portraiture, calls “the individuated appearance of the mass subject” who seeks to model “a range of imaginary relations to dominant culture.” When the dominant culture itself seems insecure, unsure of the image it should project, the imagination is left to cut its own figure—a figure that could be one of Grimonprez’s uncanny doubles . . . or something else altogether.