How could this happen? Like millions of other people I woke up the day after Trump was elected president, and asked myself how could this happen? (Well, I didn’t really sleep, but you get the point.) Over the years, I’ve learned many of the answers to that question and have come to realize that if I were really paying attention I should have seen it coming. But beyond the long history of white supremacy in this country and the radicalizing of the Republican Party, the contemporary rise of white supremacist fascism in America has deeper, more difficult questions, about how we create and get our news, how we create and share facts, and even how we communicate with each other in general. It’s this deeper problem of communication that Patrick Nathan explores in Image Control: Art, Fascism, and the Right to Resist. (Which is 20% off in September)
Does our use of images in communication make us more susceptible to the rise of fascism? Whether you end up agreeing with Nathan’s fundamental argument, his insightful and provocative book asks important questions about information, images, art, and the responsibilities of content creators and moderators to create and moderate towards the world they want to see.
PATRICK NATHAN is the author of Some Hell, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. His short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Republic, American Short Fiction, Gulf Coast, The Baffler, and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis.
Your first book was a novel. How did you come to write a work of antifascist media critique?
I started Some Hell in 2008, though it admittedly looked very different, in my head, way back then. I started Image Control in 2015, and didn’t quite figure out what it was about, what it was really circling, until most of the way through Trump’s presidency, maybe 2019. Between those two books, I grew up. I don’t mean that fiction is immature, or even that my first novel is immature; I mean I simply wasn’t seasoned enough to write a nonfiction book about fascism, about photography, about language, whatever. I’d had aspirations for a long, long time to write “serious” essays – which in 2008 or so meant David Foster Wallace fan-nonfic – but I didn’t really become capable of this until recently. I don't think I had the temperament. Maybe being put through the psychological wood chipper of 2016 and onward will do that to a person.
More broadly, I think Image Control is a crisis book: it comes from a place of great desperation. And yes, novels do too – I mean, they’re so difficult to write that there’s certainly a desperation at the core of that desire. But this one felt like a different desperation. Really, a hysteria: “Is no one seeing this? Is no one aware of what’s really happening?” It was the only way I could express that panic, to pull everything together and try to articulate for other people what is going on, or at least what I believe is going on.
Haha, absolute agony – not gonna lie.
Of all of the reasons why we got here, why were photographs and images that grabbed your focus?
I’d actually begun to write about photographs and social media just prior to the whole Trump mess. Like many writers, I’m way too online, and have long grown enamored with the way people express themselves online – the speech, the memes, and most of all the gifs. I still have an affinity for expressing myself in gifs. But I started to reflect on that, on what gifs were doing and how people were using them, and how they were like metaphors and therefore like language itself. By the time I’d begun to articulate some of these ideas, it was increasingly clear that Trump would be the Republican nominee, and then – to my naïve shock – the unhinged president of a nuclear superpower. And I noticed that a lot of the same impulses that led people to communicate in gifs or in memes had propelled Trump from a seemingly laughable harmlessness into the most dangerous position on the planet: this desire to show rather than tell, or more specifically to show without context. From there, the book acquired a much greater political – and existential – dimension.
To me writing (reading, being) in a time of rapid traumas feels like racing a deadline that is both ill-defined and desperately imminent. How does writing in this era feel to you? What did it feel like, especially knowing the slow pace of publishing, to essentially be writing against the fascism that’s happening now?
Haha, absolute agony – not gonna lie. And I still feel it every time some journalist tweets about free speech or some elected Democrat repeats a meaningless, harmful platitude: this desire to just howl in panic. Even a couple weeks ago, when people started quoting images from Afghanistan rhetorically, imperially – this is what this panic at the airport means, or this is what it means for US imperialism moving forward – I had this desire to pitch a magazine and throw something together. But that’s not how I work. There are writers who can respond to events with immediacy. Some of them are very good at it, and most are not (it doesn’t seem to matter to the op-ed sections which is which). I need time, which is unfortunately what the industry is least interested in providing.
However, it really does help to remind myself that this immediacy is false. Of course it’s urgent, but that’s not the same as immediate or current. There’s a great deal of pressure to “hook” an argument on something that’s just happened – and to hook it before some other writer, acting in a similar desperation, does it first. But the real arguments are still there, and they last. I’m pretty confident that this book will be relevant in ten years, even if there are events it references that happened only a few months ago. Because the events, the hooks, are just catalysts or examples; the issues are systemic and ongoing. I wish there were more of a market for the ideas behind the hooks, or for arguments that actually take time to think through and put together, but ideas don’t really make headlines.
Our brains are resources. Our inner lives are resources. Why waste them? Why participate in someone else’s profit generating scheme, which at the same time further dismantles democracy, society, kindness, the environment, and even our personalities?
Is there such a thing as an “innocent image,” which I guess I would define as an image that only carries direct visual information? Another way to put this, does “just a silly meme” actually exist?
It would depend on how fundamentalist you want to be, haha. Obviously images of dogs having a good time or cats being grouchy or whatever aren’t hurting anyone and are pretty innocent, pretty silly. I think about this when I see people share “respectful memes.” The only thing I’d get all paranoid about in that capacity is relating it to television or other forms of neutralizing entertainment: what purpose is it serving, in terms of enriching corporations at the expense of our agency. What does it do for those in power if we’re medicating ourselves with respectful memes, and so forth. It’s hard sometimes not to get trapped in that paranoid sensibility, which tends to lead to the ultimate reactionary cop-out: “There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.” Which people might as well silk-screen onto an H&M t-shirt while ordering books from Amazon as a way to make themselves feel absolved. But what would I, in my fantasy, prefer? Well, at the very least, for people to understand what they’re doing with these images, with these technologies. Even language is a technology, and if you don’t understand what you're doing with it you can do terrible things to yourself and to others.
Images, as a form of mass communication aren’t going anywhere. What do you think those of us who create and disseminate images, especially journalists, need to do with those images to prevent, as much as possible, another Trump or Trump-like administration?
This is exactly what I have in mind when I imagine, in the book, an “ecology of consciousness.” Our brains are resources. Our inner lives are resources. Why waste them? Why participate in someone else’s profit generating scheme, which at the same time further dismantles democracy, society, kindness, the environment, and even our personalities? It’s so easy to get seduced, to quote-tweet the character of the day with a witty joke, for example, in exchange for attention, for social capital. To share the latest nonsense Trump has said, even though it surprises no one and adds nothing to our understanding of who the man is and what he hopes to do. I suppose the intervention is pretty simple: to realize that social media is not conversation, it is not like in-person social interaction or a phone call or even a Zoom seminar. Its permanence is what sets it apart, meaning its straddling of the past, present, and future simultaneously. What we say has the potential to remain. What we say is immediately taken outside of time, which is outside of context. And with that understanding, to ask ourselves before posting or sharing if what we’re about to say is actually for anyone but ourselves; and, if it could potentially be for another person, or even a group of persons, is this really the platform to communicate with them? Obviously sharing a tweet from the National Suicide Prevention hotline isn’t going to hurt anyone, and it will absolutely help someone you might not have known was in need of it. But dunking on someone, sharing some horrific photograph, tweeting your despair over climate change – who is this for? In short: with social media, we need to realize what we are, which is no longer “persons,” per se, but media entities. We are fabricating the information-artifacts that comprise “history.” With broadcasting news and opinions comes a certain responsibility (even if actual media corporations are increasingly absolving themselves of those responsibilities), and it’s crucial, I think, that we realize that responsibility before acting.
The problem with photographs in general and photographs of tragedy in particular, is that we believe they transfer the experience they depict to those who were not there, or at least enough of it that people who see the photograph will do something. But you and others, including Susan Sontag, argue that doesn’t happen. Most people who see a photograph of a tragedy act as though the seeing is enough. If images can’t do it, what could meaningfully transfer the experience of trauma, if we even can? Is there another way to bridge the gap between seeing and doing?
I think Sontag answered this question pretty succinctly when she said that narratives carry so much more power than images: “Only that which narrates can make us understand.” In the same way, this is precisely what context provides when associated with an image: context narrates the image. Rather than seeing bodies in a desert, context helps us understand that a United States drone strike killed civilians who were celebrating a wedding. It can also help us understand that this is not an anomaly, this is not unique to Republican presidents, and this is absolutely related to reactionary extremism.
Another thing that’s certainly helpful is to prick up one’s ears anytime someone, particular someone who’s been elected or otherwise occupies a position of power, says the word “tragedy.” A great example that I discuss in the book is 9/11. Yes, it was horrific, but it certainly wasn't a tragedy. A tragedy implies some kind of inevitability, or that no one was to blame. An earthquake is a tragedy; a deeply political terrorist attack, on the other hand, with a complicated history entwined with US imperialism and unconstitutional warfare, is not a tragedy. It shouldn’t even be a surprise. And to really do something or change something, it’s imperative to understand the context behind those “tragedies.” If dumping trillions of dollars and two million lives into a two-decade war that accomplishes absolutely nothing but recruiting more extremists is this country’s response to a “tragedy,” we do ourselves and the world great harm to avoid narrating the reality of it, the complexity of it, as closely as we can.
In a phrase, I’d say that it’s an aesthetics that invites you to discover its context, rather than turn away from it. An antifascist aesthetics solicits curiosity in place of assumptions.
How would you describe antifascist aesthetics in images?
Toward the end of Image Control I mention the idea – call it a milieu – of cynicism, this notion of “turning away” or against. The context here is criticism, specifically literary criticism but really any sort of cultural response to a work of art or entertainment, or even a response to a cultural phenomenon. To work backward, I’d say that an antifascist aesthetics is one that provokes the opposite of cynicism: a turning toward. It’s work that engages, that asks, that wants. How does it do this? Usually by leaving something hidden or in the dark, something we can’t quite see. In prose these are gaps or silences; in paintings maybe blurs or absences; in films, something cut or unexplained, I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about because by its nature it’s something close to “ineffable.” In a phrase, I’d say that it’s an aesthetics that invites you to discover its context, rather than turn away from it. An antifascist aesthetics solicits curiosity in place of assumptions.
Ultimately Image Control argues that how we communicate with each other matters. Communicating face to face is so difficult in its own right that I wonder, is mass communication possible? Can we communicate with each other all over the world without being co-opted or exploited or creating the space for fascism?
I think so, absolutely. But it requires a major reimagining of media, particularly the decoupling of news from for-profit enterprise, which would mean decoupling news media from entertainment. My fantasy is to have a federal amendment to the constitution that establishes a massive endowment or trust for media that is not actually controlled or distributed by any elected or appointed personnel. There is, with that, no impetus to entertain in place of inform, no reason to prioritize clickbait over news. Obviously, media organizations would have to meet certain requirements to qualify for these funds – some sort of equivalent to “journalistic standards.” Right now that’s relatively easy to imagine, since there are corporations out there calling themselves news media yet whose entire purpose is to distribute lies and disinformation.
Generally, I think it’s important to understand how and by whose infrastructure we communicate. Is that infrastructure set up to inform? or is it set up to profit? Twitter is “democratic” in the sense that anyone can create an account and say whatever they want to say. But it’s also fascist in the sense that its algorithms are financially engineered to select against complexity, nuance, truth, and even safety, all to make the platform more attractive to advertisers. What is good for all of us is sacrificed so some asshole can offer investors a better quarterly report. I’d like to communicate with an infrastructure – and in general with a society – where that is not only unnecessary but also discouraged, even unacceptable. As it’s immoral to profit off sickness, it’s immoral to profit off disinformation – and both should be made impossible by whatever means are available to us.
Obviously, the relationship to images, communication, and fascism is what grabbed me about your book, but there’s a lot more in about how we make meaning and connections. What’s something you want readers to know about your book that you haven’t had much of a chance to talk about yet, either in this interview or more generally?
My favorite part of the book is also the part that I knew would get the least “traction” in terms of interviews and discussions, so I appreciate this question. A key part of the book, for me, was demystifying all this stuff about images, about photographs, but I also knew I would have to grapple with the opposite, with the impulse to mystify or occlude. It is after all what drives a person to make art, and, well, I make art (or believe myself to). So I included a chapter on the art-making impulse, as well as the more spiritual aspects of why we pursue art, why we engage with art, and what art has to do with the soul, or whatever you want the soul to be. To me, writing about the soul and its self-propagation via art, via mystery, via ecstasy, was not only invigorating but justifying – it gave me a little more of an excuse to exist, which is pretty rare in and of itself. When I think back to what I’ve accomplished with Image Control, the first thing that comes to my mind is this engagement with the capacity for art, the great and forgiving darkness art creates in the surveilled white light of our lives – the same impulse, it should be said, the same darkness, that leads us to be so easily seduced by the fascist imagination, and fascism itself.
What are you reading?
I’ve just finished Teju Cole’s latest book, Golden Apple of the Sun – a collection of photographs with a beautiful, unbroken paragraph of an essay that spans so many topics and explores so many ethical avenues that it’s dizzying. I’ve also just finished Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies – another achievement from a novelist I’m grateful to see getting so much attention. Right now, I’m reveling in a little William H. Gass, who’s sort of like candy in that too much will make you sick. Appropriately, I'm reading a few of his novellas, collected as Cartesian Sonata. And then I think I’m going to dig into David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, since it’s time to put together notes for a new book.