THE STUNNING RISE OF NATIONALISM, populism, and fundamentalism has roiled the world. It is tempting to imagine that we are witnessing just another rotation of political modernity’s cycle of progress and backlash. But we can situate the undoing of the demos in democracy’s longue durée while rejecting the false comfort of the idea that what’s happening is not new, that we’ve seen it all before. How did we get here? How did we create the conditions for Trump, for Brexit, for Mosul, for a daily sequence of devastating events, whether shootings or strikes? Is shock, that quintessentially modernist avant-garde strategy of instigating mass perceptual—and therefore political—change, somehow more prevalent than ever, albeit in radically transformed ways? Does shock, in fact, go hand in hand with apathy and desensitization?
Art must confront these shifts in experience and form. And so Artforum asked curator HELEN MOLESWORTH, activist TARIQ ALI, and political theorist WENDY BROWN to reflect on the year in shock: on the sudden reaction, the surprise turn, the violent wake.
IN THE RUN-UP to the Brexit referendum in the UK, the Remain campaign looked certain to prevail. I personally thought that that would be the outcome. They had the bulk of the liberal media on their side, the BBC. And then seventeen million people voted to quit. I was astonished by that. But it happened. And of course, as it turned out, that was mere prelude to a far bigger, even cataclysmic, shock.
Trump demonstrated his capacity to surprise early on. For him to oppose NAFTA was astonishing. Neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama would repudiate the treaty, and Hillary Clinton surely wouldn’t have either, because it’s very beneficial to the rich and to big corporations. Trump comes out and says he’s opposed to it, and then he denounces the Iraq War quite savagely (though he supported it in the past) and says to Jeb Bush, “Your family is part and parcel of this war,” and Bush is
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