A pickpocket, one day having lost his thieving knife, went to a cutler to have a new one made. The cutler, hearing what he found to be a very puzzling request, enquired of the knife’s purpose, to which his cunning customer gave no reply. When the time came to pay for the knife, however, finding the instrument to his liking, he decided to divulge his secret to its maker: ‘in faith my friend,’ said the pickpocket, leaning in, ‘tis to cut a purse.’ As the pickpocket spoke, the cutler chuckled at what he took to be wry humour, and failed to notice the thief had cut his very own purse from beneath his cloak, stealing away with the money he had just paid.
Pamphleteer and playwright Robert Greene penned this tale, along with many others of its kind, in a series of 1592 pamphlets exposing the ‘conny-catchers’ (confidence tricksters) of the age, through the fictional persona of a former criminal. Perhaps best known today for a short posthumous text, Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit (1592), which supposedly contains a personal attack on his rival William Shakespeare, Greene was remarkably popular in his own right. The pamphlets earned Greene both a substantial living and public renown, and mark what we might now look back on as the birth of journalism. Just as modern journalists not only transmit current affairs, but investigate and uncover hidden avenues, Greene’s pioneering works made his sixteenth century readers spectators of necessarily covert operations – cunning thefts and invisible tricks. It was a genre that would prove remarkably popular.
What makes this particular spectacle so engaging? For a start, Greene’s tales ‘expose’ on two levels. Firstly, the readers gain insight into the invisible mechanisms of petty theft, and secondly, they come to identify with the victims of this trickery, who provide a vicarious image of their own vulnerability. There is a peculiar pleasure in learning of everyday deceptions, even if they are directed against you personally. This is perhaps why Robert Greene was keen to portray himself as a victim, and used his journalism as an instrument to do so.
In the note to the reader prefacing his second book of conny-catching (1592), Greene responds to a criticism of the first book – that he used ‘no eloquent phrases, nor fine figurative conveyance.’ His style is at best unembellished and at worst lacking in literary merit. The content also whiffs of unreliability (indeed, the pickpocket tale is repeated twice with inconsistent details). To these opinions, however, he only sneers, belittling their relevance with an elaborate account of how the publication of this ‘sloppy’ work has endangered his life. What does it matter if the writing is poor? The conny-catchers, he claims, ‘these vultures, these fatal harpies, that putrefy with their infections this flourishing estate of England, as if they had their consciences sealed with a hot iron,’ have sworn to ‘make a massacre’ of his bones, and to ‘cut off [his] right hand for penning down their abominable practises.’ The two volumes were actually published simultaneously, which puts into question the feasibility of Greene ‘responding’ to the readers of the first book in the preface to the second. As such, critics have naturally doubted the truth of Greene’s persecution inbetween the volumes, which led to the increasing suspicion that Greene too ‘forged’ the knife of his own victimhood, crafted to sustain his compelling fiction. He participates in a cycle of virtual masochistic writing and reading – both the writer and reader seeing themselves as would- be prey. Whether the author actually faced real danger is beside the point. Such a vivid and terrifying picture, painted in response to criticism of his style, is placed to partially detract from the little stories that follow.
Since the tales are so intriguing in themselves, what purpose could this overarching distraction from the smaller narratives have, besides dispelling criticism? To start with, it situates the tales in a larger narrative of real-world danger, vivifying and foregrounding his images. Just as crucially, it dramatizes his own reception – his own relationship to the reader as their trusty and brave informant. It is a ready-made rapport, contingent not on engagement with his writing itself, but on a single image of adversity. A sceptical reader might see that this ‘bigger picture’ is a reflective one, mirroring Greene’s motives of self-promotion, and deliberately crafting two opposing camps – Greene on one side, violent criminals on the other. To criticise Greene’s work is therefore to declare allegiance to the latter, with even the most minor aversion to his style amounting to treachery. ‘This is dangerous and important work!’ he cries, ‘So if you are against the conny-catchers, you are with me’. Adjust or perhaps discard your expectations of literary and journalistic merit accordingly.
The phenomenon of the spectacle as defined by philosopher Guy Debord in his The Society of the Spectacle (1967) predicted the development of society in which ‘modern conditions of production prevail’ into a place where ‘all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles.’ ‘Everything that was directly lived’ he writes, ‘has moved away into representation.’ Whilst most often cited as a premonition of social media interaction, even the primitive printed production of Greene’s textual images – his villainous spectacles – to some extent move away from the lived experience of the ‘original crimes’, into a dramatized reception that cultivates a false social relationship between himself and the readers, and simulates a victim/saviour experience. Correspondingly, for Debord, ‘the spectacle is not a collection of images, rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.’ If Greene produces a Debordian image, detracting from, or lowering the expectation of clarity and transparency, it seems that the ‘dystopian future’ he foresees has some roots in the distant past. Greene’s work causes us to ask to what extent representation has ever been more important than perceived social relationships in journalism.
Such a question might put the brakes on the dystopian fears that have been ushered in with the Trump presidency. An opinion piece by Robert Zaretsky in e New York Times, written just weeks after the Trump inauguration, claims that, in 2017, ‘the Debordian analysis of modern life resonates more deeply and darkly than perhaps even its creator thought possible, anticipating, in so many ways, the frantic and fantastical, nihilistic and numbing nature of our newly installed government.’ For Zaretsky, Trump is king of the Society of the Spectacle, and, as he points out, it isn’t difficult to see the striking resonances of Debord’s warnings in the so-called ‘Post-Truth’ era:
e spectacle proves its arguments … simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed
But while Trump is certainly master of this technique, it seems that his opponents in the form of centre-left media are capable of similar practices – of constantly reaffirming the same arguments, without fresh examination. In August, a New York Times opinion piece ‘Truth, Lies and Numbness’, was captioned ‘This is how autocrats cement their power. They distract you.’ The columnist Roger Cohen certainly gestures towards a kind of dystopia, dramatically describing his reaction to the latest Trump lie – a dreaded ‘shrug’:
e shrug was terrifying. is is how autocrats — or would-be autocrats — cement their power. ey wear you down with their lies. ey distract you. ey want you to believe that 2 + 2 = 5. ey want you to forget that freedom withers when the distinction between truth and falsehood dies. In a dictatorship there is a single font of “truth”: the voice of the dictator.
Cohen issues a valuable warning: the emergence of ‘alternative facts’ is as alarming as it is ridiculous, and vigilance is necessary in the face of brazen deception. However, Cohen’s reference to an ominous ‘they’, which accelerates us towards the overhasty word ‘dictator’ seems both excessive and reductive. The style of the language is clearly designed to rouse fear and defiance in the reader. Trump, by remaining unnamed, is afforded a kind of obscured omnipresence. He is not only dishonest here, he is silencing you personally with his dishonesty: it infects your mind and diminishes your voice. ‘Autocrats — or would-be autocrats’ – Cohen’s modification here is telling. In reality, Trump is not an autocrat, and shows few signs of becoming one. Executive orders can only get you so far – a failed health-care bill and little sign of a wall on the Mexican border are testament to that. His stunning ability to offend foreign leaders may threaten world peace, but it has so far kept within the realms of the US constitution. Perhaps the most unsettling fact is that democratic, not autocratic mechanisms, gave rise to his presidency. Few are predicting a revolution with Trump made grand emperor, yet this does not seem to deter some media outlets from tossing the word ‘dictator’ into the mix whenever it suits the mood.
That Cohen goes too far does not detract from the crimes he describes, but it does contribute to a cycle of journalistic output that projects image over experience – that relies too heavily on an assumed social relationship with his readers as comrades in a two-sided war. The misplaced word ‘dictator’ is important. It implies that something – freedom – has been taken from your grasp. It alludes to a twenty-first century conny-catch: US democracy stolen away under the guise of an election.
He stole the election, they say; it was handed to him by Comey, or by Putin, or by an electoral college whose numbers have no right to cancel the votes of a majority of three million people. e trick, Democrats feel, is somehow to delegitimate Trump and the government he leads (it isn’t a real government) and then move in to take his place, but with a government that has somehow been relegitimated.
So writes David Bromwich, in a July edition of the London Review of Books – an article entitled ‘The Age of Detesting Trump’. Notably, the language of trickery is attributed not to Trump, but to the Democrats, who are cast as plotting to snatch back the Republican ‘victory’. So ubiquitous is the discourse of deceit and underhandedness that it can be applied equally to the Republicans and their rivals. Bromwich is particularly critical of the American centre-left media, against whom he levies charges of sloppy standards and a brash style. Giddy with hatred, he argues, journalistic quality has been downgraded to lenient group-think, where ‘invective’ and personal attacks are presented as ‘analysis’. The lack of nuance is tolerated not least because the Trump presidency is so recognisably detestable, but also because, like Robert Greene, they are operating under a narrative of adversity. Their existence has been threatened, and the spectacle of this threat eclipses their professional practice. After BuzzFeed’s dubious publication of the 35-page ‘Trump dossier’, detailing salacious tales of the president’s scandalous ‘antics’ in Russia, acknowledged even by its publisher as ‘unverified and potentially unverifiable’, Trump tweeted – with characteristic aggression – ‘As far as BuzzFeed, which is a failing pile of garbage, writing it, I think they’re going to suffer the consequences.’ The article was clearly murky and irresponsible journalism, but Trump’s response posed an open threat to their entire organisation. For some, this threat legitimises the need to publish such information, no matter how questionable – and herein lies the problem. Trump’s words are not easily dismissed as rhetorical, since, if there is anyone who could endanger the Western free press, it’s the President of the United States. As long as there is a tangible danger of being silenced, the voices seem to become more shrill and desperate.
Is it prudent to expect journalists like Cohen to tone down their emotive responsive, or drop their rhetorical manoeuvrings? The spectacle of the autocrat that we see here is rooted, after all, in a felt emotion of defiance and injustice, allowed to engorge and mutate into an image whose only response can be equally as caricatured. Cause and effect blurs, but it is worth remembering the mirage and the spectacle that gave rise to it: Trump’s particular brand of right-wing populism is the ultimate purveyor of images. Building on the work of Debord, Paul Mihailidis and Samantha Viottie’s 2017 paper in the American Behavioural Scientist, observes the role of spectacle in an age of ‘spreadable’ media, that is, shared content on social media. ‘Memes’, perhaps the most manifestly empty form of representation, create a situation whereby images bolster and form insular networks. Both the alt-right and liberal groups are allowed to maintain their separate spheres through the appropriation of often identical images.
In October 2015, Trump retweeted a cartoon of himself – decked with a red tie and a blonde combover – as ‘Pepe the Frog’. The cartoon captioned ‘You Can’t Stump the Trump’. He is evidently happy to be appropriated for multiple uses by his supporters. His preferred platform of Twitter, founded upon the idea of ‘retweeting’, is testament to this, as is his initial placement of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon at the heart of his administration. That e New York Times can so effortlessly assert Trump’s illegitimacy comes as little surprise, since Trump himself, so preoccupied with the ‘spectacle’ of his own reception, might just as well be an autocrat as any generic, contemptible image.
Perhaps the most striking effect of the Trump presidency so far is the remarkable ability of both the press and the White House to shoot themselves in the foot. When BuzzFeed worked to unintentionally add fuel to claims about the depravity of ‘mainstream media’, and Trump, in a stunning self-destructive move, tweeted a threat to Comey that he ‘better hope’ their conversations were not taped (thereby accelerating the Russia investigation), we might be reminded of the poor cutler of Greene’s tale, both victim and unwilling collaborator of the pickpocket’s crime. He is the creative accomplice to his own victimhood, the maker of its instrument. It seems that journalism on both sides is complicit in crimes against itself, but that this is surely nothing new. If Greene’s amusing work highlights anything about the profession, it is that there might not be a history of factual accuracy to which we can ‘get back to’ – spectacle and mutually sustained victimhood are some of its founding principles, and not necessarily the result of an increasingly distorting, Debordian world.
It’s hard to see, with the internet, how the spiralling and uncontrolled trajectory of journalism could be curbed, but what is clear is that the movement into illusion and deceit has not gone unnoticed. Perhaps these spectacular features have some redemptive qualities, not least of all their tendency to be self-sabotaging – to ultimately draw attention to the mechanisms of representation and information that we rely on, making us more acutely aware of everyday deceptions and illusions. James Comey’s testimony against Trump appeared measured and honest, set against the scattered and confused excuses put out by the White House. It was a moment of intense contrast. There is a pattern of awareness and clarity in history after every sensational, divisive media storm. Trump’s presidency is one of the worst effects of the internet’s proclivity for factual blurring, but it might also be the wake-up call necessary for this new, chaotic medium. The best defence is careful observation, situating representational phenomenon within its historical precedents, rather than within a narrative of dystopian future.