The power of Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump’s political extremism lies precisely their ability to erase extremism from their respective political actions.

It has become common to say that politics has gone to the extremes. Politicians play to publics ever more radically polarized through online information enclaves. Supposed centers disappear as each extreme aims to please its base. But how does such extremism work in the context of contemporary populism in the Americas? I would propose the following idea: the power of Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump’s political extremism lies precisely in their ability to erase extremism from their respective political actions. To say that they are able to erase it is not to say that extremism has disappeared. Rather, it is to say that the visibility of their extremism is invested in the production of a kind of extremism that partakes in its own withdrawal. Just what is at stake with this dynamic paradox occupies me here. The populist regimes as exemplified by these rulers—and others, globally—is best captured by the somewhat paradoxical formulation of an extreme middle. Understanding what “extreme middle” entails means thinking of sovereignty as the governance of extremes.  

Middle

Thinking of an extreme middle as characteristic of contemporary populist logics transforms what we commonly understand by middle. One way to grasp this idea is through the old affair between politics and theater. The association of middle to what is in “between” goes back to Aristotelian theatrical notion of an interval; a hiatus in a plot that in introducing a break also enables a linear continuum. Modernist theater as proposed by Bertolt Brecht challenged such conception of middle as “in-between.” This is because Brechtian theater is not structured according to teleological narrative where interruption affirms a temporary suspension. Rather, interruption itself is what takes stage. It is a constitutive element of the theater itself: of acting, of gesturing, of speaking and, above all, a mode of connecting to audiences.

The idea that to act is to interrupt, rather than what is interrupted, alters what we conventionally see as middle. Middle is no longer a space between poles—a break—but what gets to be performed. One could say that in Brecht’s theater all acting is an instance of enacted breaks. To act is to expose that condition of an ongoing middle, because in Brechtian theater acting does not have representation as its end. Rather, acting is to involve the ends-or extremes- in the mediality of gestures. A good example is Samuel Beckett’s piece “Come and Go” where each line and each gesture performed by the actors erupts from the plot as though to expose the mediality of its being. It relates to what Walter Benjamin in his description of Brecht’s “epic stretching” associates to a dancer whose role on stage is not to show anything meaningful but rather to expose the articulations—muscles and joints—through which showing itself is possible. Such theatrical structure marks what Benjamin defined as communicability: the exposure not of a narrative but of the ability to communicate as such. It is the exposure of such ability that poises all communication to be citable and reproducible.

However, in a reversal to what Brecht and Benjamin understood as subversive of the status quo, contemporary populist logics now render as aids to that very politics. Such becomes apparent in my work among Catholic Charismatics in Brazil to whom communicability is a key aspect of its religious practice. For Charismatics, to communicate is to render visible the principle—divine substance or pneuma—that makes communication possible. Theater plays an important role in the pneumatology of this movement of the Church, particularly in its attempt to adapt biblical passages of the New Testament—such as the Book of Acts—to the mission of evangelizing through mass media. Emphasizing the structure of the act of breathing as the stage upon which all other gestures evolve, Charismatics’ sense of middle can never be just a place. Rather, it is the very atmospheric [spiritual] element or substance out of which all acts qua gestures erupt. Best known as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, this form of religious revivalism imported to Brazil from the United States sprang into popularity in the 1990’s along with emerging neoliberal tendencies. The political philosophy of the “third way” promoted by the Brazilian state, in an attempt to bring higher levels of flexibility to the economy, inspired Charismatics to come up with their own spiritualized version of “third wayism.” Economic “third way” found its spiritual counterpart in the “third” person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Politically speaking, the “third way” was synonymous with the “middle,” but in that it also altered what we mean by middle. Far from a mid-zone where extremes (right and left) meet in the form of a compromise, the “third way” became ground for the play of irreconcilable opposites in Brazil’s politics. In parliament the aim would not be to bridge opposite extremes, but rather to turn the tensile motion of unalloyed oppositions into an operational principle. The ambition was not to conciliate views around a common core but to speak to opposite audiences at the same time in ways that would allow friend and foe to cross, like an ant on a mobius strip, into each other’s domains. In terms of Brechtian theater, third-way political space was not about suppressing what in the other interrupts self but rehearsing the ability to institute break at the heart of sovereignty itself. If this sounds strange it is only because in such oddity precisely lies the strategies about how sovereignty works today—notably, through self-erasure and nonrepresentational techniques.

Similar strategies animate contemporary Christianity in Brazil. Despite the history of tensions between Catholics and evangelicals in the country, and elsewhere in Latin America, Catholic Charismatics (earlier called Catholic Pentecostals), embraced such conflicts and, what is more, distilled orthodoxy out of it. Instead of deciding for either Catholicism or Pentecostalism, for the Virgin Mary or the Holy Spirit, they recuperated Eastern Orthodox Byzantine theological repertoires. As the work by Marie-José Mondzain (2005) shows, the Byzantine icon was never just a synthesis between ideologies—iconophiles and iconoclasts—but the incorporation of that rift into the flesh of the icon itself. It was a theology of the compromise. The icon would not be either [for] this or [for] that but both this and that. Thus, when Charismatics say that speaking in tongues allows them to bypass decision as to whether they are Catholic or evangelicals they make an apology of a particular kind of middle, one animated by that Byzantinist aporetic structure. They are revitalizing that rift—or middle—in the flesh. It is this aspect that links Charismatics to the frame I am calling “extreme middle” in the political theater of sovereignty.

Gesture

Sovereignty, accordingly, is no longer defined by transformative decision but by rhythmic incision. The noted ability of Bolsonaro to change his mind from one moment to the next, to oscillate and whiplash between decisions, reveals the extent to which his acts are predicated on the ability to alternate between possibilities. Such relates not to an incapacity to decide. It draws its incisive powers precisely from the undecidable it explores as a political strategy. What is distinctive about this undecidable is the oscillatory power that animates the idea that a thing is always on the extreme limit of becoming its opposite. Niklas Luhmann writes in Speaking and Silence (1994: 26) that this oscillatory power performs paradox as: “a matter of communication that wants to use simultaneously what is incompatible. As the author emphasizes, “for the communication of paradoxes, the operative effect is decisive: it causes communication to oscillate, because each position makes it necessary to assert the opposite, for which the same holds in turn.”

Power through oscillation has entered the dramaturgy of gesture in Bolsonaro’s political theater. Bolsonaro’s characteristic use of hands and fingers, deployed in his gesture-turned-meme pro-guns campaign, inaugurated a new communicative register in Brazil’s political setting. The gesture of the gun-sign soon spread among Bolsonaro supporters across the country. It was seen at every pro-Bolsonaro street demonstration, incorporated into choreographed choruses among the youth as a “grand finale” of their collective dances. During Bolsonaro’s presidential inauguration, street merchants sold t-shirts with imprints of the new president waving his gun gesture. The examples are many but perhaps the most memorable of all moments—in how it combines sovereign vulnerability with hardline gesturing—was when Bolsonaro, in the hospital recovering from the injury from a stabbing he allegedly received while campaigning, performed the handgun signal to the TV cameras. What is gesture triggering, indexing? Is it mere theater, an act? Or, indeed, is gesture (already) the force pulling the trigger?

While the use of bodily extremities—of hand and fingers—has always been an important component in the choreography of sovereign decision (as in the use of the thumb by the sovereign in the either/or decision to give or take life), today we are witnessing the use of gesture as performing a particular kind of power. The head-of-state directs the power to decide on the extreme (what traditionally defines “the state of exception”) to the movement of the extremities themselves. How does the turn to gesture interact with the principle of decisive exception as classic political theology outlines it?

My suggestion is this: emphasis on gesture relates to present demands that the sovereign incarnate a certain suppleness of form, the kind that allows for the play of contraries: the ability to be at once this as well as that. Bolsonaro explores gesture as the exhibition of a certain motricity of the extremities, a supple rotation between one thing and the other. The same gesture that allows him to choreograph a shooting (by using his thumb and index) also allows him to flip and rotate and thereby, turn that same gesture into the letter L (for Lula). In so gesturing, the sovereign not only puts forward his gestural warfare but, with a slight rotation of the wrist, he stocks a mockery on Lula’s sovereignty by indexing on the size of his penis. As theater, Bolsonaro’s “acting” owes less to the powers of representation than to digitation—to the supple movement of hand and fingers. In one and the same gesture the sovereign can say this as well as that—and he does it incisively, hurtfully—cutting down his opponents. At stake here, I suspect, is something more than a simple replacement of the head for the extremities but the reappearing of a whole corpus dynamics of governance and stage—form that is having tremendous repercussions, not the least when it comes to containing the very fascination it unleashes.

Helicopter

The image of president Trump speaking to journalists beside Marine One, the helicopter, will be remembered as iconic of his mandate. The encircling of extremes I have identified in the logics of staged communicability by Bolsonaro assume in Trump the image of a helicopter’s helix in rotation. If we no longer see the blades it is because the turned-on rotor has become one with its movement. With its system of rotary blades, Trump’s Marine One, objectifies with top-gun theatricality, two features of contemporary sovereign populist communication: the ability to rotate and to incise.

“Chopper talk” is how journalists describe Trump’s habitual communications to the press as he is about to go on board of Marine One. “Chopper Talk” homologizes the relation between the helicopter’s blades and the president’s communicative style. We sometimes associate incisive to insightfulness but Trump’s incisiveness owes little to the idea of a cerebral forerunner. He is incisive in the sense that he aims to slice through; the sharper his tongue is, the better; much like the blades of the helicopter, his words enter the vortex of an ascending motion into midair. In its rotatory spinning, as if to squeeze out all lasting contents therein, the “chopper machine” leaves the ground encircling all extremes under its doppler effect. It is pure force, a propeller. Against the gravitational pull of questions journalists pose about the future of the country—of the world—the president has to go. He is on a mission. The blades of the flyer are on the side of a shared movement, in transition to an elsewhere. The glossolalic-like sound of the blades is less the expression of an indicative purpose than the performative of a shared communicative event. It absorbs the saying into the sonic manifestation of the helicopter’s rotational spectrum.

Trump insists on talking to the world when risks of mishearing, or not hearing at all, are high. “I didn’t hear that…!” he shouts blaming the rotor’s noise. And yet it is when shouting that the American president best identifies with the background noise that sculpts his chopper talking. The diffusion of message contents by the absorptive white noise of the flyer, the agitated air in the background, Trump’s trademark coiffure shooting out this to indeed be the case, the whole dramaturgy of an “action” in course, literally in flight, and the encircling of extremes into the vortex-like rhythm of the helicopter’s imminent take-off, with whom the actor forges complementarity unity, is sovereignty’s validating power. Where once defined in relation to a soil for which the extreme was decisive, sovereignty today assimilates the environment in which it operates, encircling the extreme in the very moment of its enacting.

One thought on “States of Extreme

  1. What an exceptional and unique analysis of how authoritarians communicate. A totally different way of conceptualizing extremism’s use by authoritarians. You are definitely onto something important in the understanding of the dynamics of authoritarian communication. The application of the theatrical and religious frames of communication to the political is genius. The key insights that I glean from your essay are:

    “communicability:
    the exposure not of a narrative but of the ability to communicate as such. It is the exposure of such ability that poises all communication to be citable and reproducible.” Accent on ‘all.’ The focusing on the full method of communicating including body language, gesture and staging – the political theater of sovereignty, the full psycho-linguistic presentation of power: Trump’s “Chopper Talk” –

    “It is pure force, a propeller. Against the gravitational pull of questions journalists pose about the future of the country—of the world—the president has to go. He is on a mission.”

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