Digital image-coding and embodied power
A few decades ago, scholars such as Benedict Anderson argued that nations were imagined in the nineteenth century not through face-to-face communications, but via two channels of global mobility: print cultures (books, newspapers) and capitalism (international and national transactions). Fast-forward, in our digital age, we see at least a few similarities with this pattern of community-construction – although some may claim that, these days, ‘nations’ are primarily imagined as entrepreneurial machines happy to join the ‘right’ global networks so as to consolidate inter-state power and global domination. With the collapse of the Soviet Block in the 1990s and the subsequent rise of new Asian ‘super-power’ possibilities, alongside the re-organisation of titular state nationalisms in Europe and the emergence of a pro-capitalist New Russia, we are far from declaring the United States as the ultimate winner of post-Cold War geopolitics. Instead, we are left with an unstable global terrain, on which statist-backed global business disseminates and promotes various political projects. The projects are increasingly more attached to particular ‘charismatic leaders’. Such individuals are left to stand as signifiers, symbols of specific national and international policies. And once in this game, even business networks may lose control over those leaders’ decision-making.
The real power of these symbols rests in the way the process of mediation itself reduces any leader’s decision-making into a ‘style’. Although there are media networks keen to calibrate and encourage such individuals’ flamboyant attitude, several open new media sites, not necessarily attached to particular political projects of ultra-nationalist, racist or sexist content (all variants of nationalist mobilisation, as I proceed to explain), provide these charismatic personalities with opportunities to self-advertise the symbols that they come to stand for. Invariably drawing on image, these mediations provide a narrative of the ‘nation’ in global spaces of cultural, economic and political transaction. Trump’s much-debated twittering aggressiveness is one such case in point: on the one hand, it prompted deep psychological evaluations of the President, raising questions of planetary security. On the other, however, it tied individual political style to the power of this type of money-making machines that prioritise glamorization over conscience (Barber, Sevastopulo and Tett, 2 April 2017). So what, if Trump is a bit sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic and the likes? He is a good businessman with an iron fist – and it oils the press with his peppery, if inappropriate, shenanigans.
Putin no beaks on image-making
Putin is another frightening instance of globally networked glamorization that draws on the populist potential of open digital media sites. A quick view of his Instagram photographs can tell a story about concerted strategies of nationalist image-making. In online photographs of the leader, there is a pronounced split between two public personas: the first denotes a neat professional President in various civilised contexts of political negotiation; the second projects an athletic, semi-naked man mastering nature (through the performance of noble leisurely activities, such as fishing, hunting, horse-riding) (Reuters, 5 December 2011) – including the nature of his own athletic body (through body-building activities). The two personas obey to some conventions of masculine self-presentation, which are shared between Western and many non-Western and non-European cultures. Therefore, do not be fooled: these are not photographs of a man, but of an idea. The idea is the hegemonic image of a valorised Russia, ready to expunge any natural impurities we may associate with variations of symbolic, cognitive, physical and emotional diversity. From killing wild animals to taming a rare tiger (Instagram, 23 November 2010), to defeating a Japanese Judo expert (Instagram, 5 September 2000), Putin’s image-coding is dedicated to a relentless adverting of New Russia political empowerment as a Darwinian-like process of natural selection.
But then, this self-advertising strategy clashes with other reporting about the leader’s ‘sensitive’ side: Putin is caught on camera crying at the movies; surrounded by friendly dolphins in the water; or hugging dogs. Media set to subvert his carefully stylised image have produced explicit associations of his nakedness with queer sexuality, even alluding that the President is gay (see Buzzfeed, 24 July 2013). But such humorous discourse simply inverts political reality: it releases the negative of a violent representation, which will, surely, see the published world in all its vivid colours one day. All we have to do is remember the conviction and imprisonment of pro-LGBT and feminist Pussy Riots punk band (Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30) over anti-Putin protests in 2012. The sentence for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’, which was allegedly engineered by Putin himself, had, at the time, provoked widespread European and American political outcry (Elder, 17 August 2012; BBC News, 17 August 2012). So, lest we consider such events as isolated episodes, we should better place them in chrono-spatially mobile, global chains of violence: if Putin imprisoned the Pussies back in 2012, Trump would proudly declare in 2016 that, as a famous man, he can grab them any time he wants (Jacobs, Siddiqui and Bixby, 8 October 2016). Apparently, fame and a ruthless style of manly transaction in world politics can buy you anything – for yourself and those for whom you allegedly stand: the hoi polloi. It is ‘the people’ or ‘the nation’ such charisma leads that needs to be convinced this is the right form of conduct – and the ‘righter’ this gets, the better for the future of home-grown, and retrogressive populism.
The globally mobile chain of violence secures the future of retrogressive political establishment in global contexts in alarming ways. In her first visit to Russia after about two years, Angela Merkel pressurised Vladimir Putin into investigating reports of the torture, persecution and subsequent deaths of gay men in Chechnya (Connolly, 2 May 2017). Putin’s anti-LGBT action had previously established Kemlin’s corroboration of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s denials of anti-gay purge. Like Kadyrov, who insisted that no ‘hard’ evidence of human rights violations were provided, Putin shunted aside the matter. Notably, such Chechen violent ‘activism’ is backed by Islamic organisations in the country, which see the presence of gay communities as an insult to the ‘centuries-old traditions of Chechen society [and] the dignity of Chechen men’ (Walker, 21 April 2017). In fact, it has been argued by others with great clarity that making LGBT identity visible in a society resting on hypermasculine codes is seen as an intolerable act of rebellion that calls for punishment (Estemirova, 22 April 2017). Unsurprisingly, only foreign satire of Putin’s sexuality can go unpunished.
Trumping on dignity and the sport of pussy-catching
Although the ethical epicentre of such state-sanctioned violence appears to be gender and sexuality, its core is, in fact, a broader plea for diversity and equality. The damage such populist strategies cause on a pretty frail matrix of international cooperation is serious – never mind the good laugh at Trump’s or Putin’s ‘antiques’. The normalisation of insult and the concerted purging of what global leadership considers as private ignominies (sexual, ethnic, racialized, gendered or physical/mental difference) is felt on a planetary scale. Unfortunately, this dehumanising action finds ample support within pro-hate media channels.
Note, for example, that one of Russia’s biggest newspapers, the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, felt free to comment in hateful ways about Manchester’s Gay Village, just after the international outcry against Kremlin’s gay persecution. It is such a pleasure ‘that there are no such gay streets in Moscow’, or ugly women ‘having rolls of fat “hanging from their bodies” and wearing leggings and miniskirts’, the reporter noted. ‘Let’s remain Russian…Start normal families. Have children in wedlock. And not confuse love with debauchery’, she concluded (Dearden, 5 May 2017). The legitimation of ethno-national purity through denigrations of Western everyday style and custom are standard populist press strategies directed to patriotic consumers. But where will the honourable Russian nation-family stand on crucial international negotiations, after the downright rejection of its significant global interlocutors’ banal cultures? And what does such resentful speech achieve in terms of peace-making and international cooperation?
Barber, L., Sevastopulo, D. and Tett, G. (2 April 2017). Donald Trump: Without Twitter, I would not be here — FT interview. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/943e322a-178a-11e7-9c35-0dd2cb31823a.
BBC News (17 August 2012). Pussy Riot members jailed for two years for hooliganism. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19297373.
BuzzFeed (24 July 2013). The 16 most homoerotic photos of Vladimir Putin.
Connolly, K. (2 May 2017). Merkel presses Putin over anti-gay purge in Chechnya. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/02/angela-merkel-vladimir-putin-russia-investigate-lgbt-torture-claims-chechnya.
Elder, M. (17 August 2012). Pussy Riot sentenced to two years in prison colony over anti-Putin protest. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/aug/17/pussy-riot-sentenced-prison-putin?newsfeed=true.
Estemirova, L. (22 April 2017). In macho Chechnya, being gay is an act of intolerable rebellion. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/22/chechnya-gay-intolerable-rebellion-repression.
Dearden, L. (5 May 2017). Russia's biggest newspaper attacks Manchester over “disgusting” gay couples and “many fat people”. The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russiakomsomolskaya-pravda-newspaper-manchester-attack-gay-couples-fat-people-alisa-titko-disgusting-a7719131.html.
Instagram (5 September 2000). Putin – A judo Black Belt. http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/russian-president-vladimir-putin-throws-a-japanese-judo-news-photo/803004#russian-president-vladimir-putin-throws-a-japanese-judo-expert-during-picture-id803004.
Instagram (23 November 2010). Wild Tigers would be extinct by 2022. http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/russian-prime-minister-vladimir-putin-tagging-a-siberian-news-photo/107086093#russian-prime-minister-vladimir-putin-tagging-a-siberian-tiger-whilst-picture-id107086093.
Jacobs, B. Siddiqui, S. and Bixby, S. (8 October 2016). “You can do anything”: Trump brags on tape about using fame to get women. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/07/donald-trump-leaked-recording-women.
Reuters (5 December 2011). Putin’s macho image. http://www.reuters.com/news/picture/putins-macho-image?articleId=USRTR2UVJN.
Walker, (21 April 2017). Chechnya leader rejects reports of anti-gay purge. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/21/chechnya-leader-rejects-reports-of-anti-gay-purge.