Jussie Smollett is an artist: a Hollywood actor. His job is to stand in front of a camera and pretend that various things are happening when they are not, in fact, happening. On January 29th, 2019, he stood in front of a camera and did precisely what he was supposed to do, and now he’s been convicted of a crime. Disorderly conduct – the state’s secret name for art. It is a travesty that in the supposedly democratic west, an artist could be put on trial for creating an artwork that injured nobody except himself, and revealed so much that is true about our world. His conviction must be overturned at once. Total solidarity! Down with the carceral state! Free Jussie Smollett!
Yes, of course it’s different. In Jussie’s boring, legally acceptable TV work, a camera is put in place and set rolling; there’s a magic word – action! – that separates one kind of reality from another. But that’s not how we really live any more. Jussie’s genius was to find the cameras that are always rolling, and perform for them. The city of Chicago is the most surveilled in the United States; thirty-two thousand cameras recording every second of every day – to prevent crime. During the Vietnam War, the US military’s Project Igloo White scattered thousands of electronic sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southeastern Laos to detect Communist convoys. They called it ‘bugging the battlefield.’ Instead of targeted surveillance – a tiny camera hidden in the office of the Soviet ambassador, the star of the movie around whom the whole plot revolves – here you simply record everything, capture the entire world as data. The surveillance apparatus sets the rules of the game: you must try to avoid being seen, and we must try to see you. It goes without saying that, visibility means death; if we become aware of your existence the bombs are loosed. This is the same game played between the Chicago police and the city’s gangs. (Although here there’s an added layer – the CPD operated a domestic ‘black site’ at Homan Square for off-the-books interrogation; detection could mean passing into bureaucratic darkness.) But in 1968, the Viet Cong refused to play by the rules. ‘The guerrillas had simply learned to confuse the American sensors with tape-recorded truck noises, bags of urine, and other decoys, provoking the release of countless tons of bombs onto empty jungle corridors which they then traversed at their leisure.’ Once you trick the Americans into dropping a bomb, it destroys the sensor: by playing to the cameras you become invisible. You can win by performing to the sensor, by showing it what it wants to see, by turning the field of surveillance into a stage – by making art.
You should never trust anyone who tries to tell you there’s any meaningful difference between art and lies: that person is a liar. When Zeuxis and Parrhasius held their contest, they both knew full well that they were drying to deceive. But Zeuxis thought there might be a reality lying behind the deception, and Parrhasius knew there wasn’t, which is why the contest went to him.
Of course, Jussie’s great performance didn’t go according to plan: in the end, it was not recorded. He was attacked by his paid accomplices, doused in bleach, a noose thrown around his neck – but throughout, the security camera was looking in the other direction. This is what liberated his work, turned it from a forgery into something much more profound. Like Parrhasius, he built his masterpiece around a missing object. Jussie understood that the entire world is now one vast array of cameras, always rolling. Where we see separate systems – the Hollywood array, the surveillance array, the news-media array, the front-facing array – he knew that there’s only the singular and continuous act of looking. There are always other eyes. Jussie was recorded telling police that two white men in red hats had attacked him; he repeated the story in front of news cameras. Performance creates its own stage. A boring artist might pick up crap from the side of the road and put it in some shitty gallery, where it becomes art; Jussie threaded his art through our global digital nerve system, and turned the whole of consensus reality into a gallery.
Jussie takes the always-on-ness of the cameras very seriously. Throughout his trial, he continued to insist that the attack had been real, that he really was threatened, long after it became obvious that he had staged the whole thing himself. There’s no moment when our revels now are ended, where the cameras are shut off and you can just come clean, admit that it was all costumes and makebelieve. The legal system is only another complex of seeing and being seen, narratives and simulations. In Roman courts, orators would tell lurid, gleefully fictionalised stories about the crime in question. Quintillian: ‘I am complaining that a man has been murdered. Shall I not see the assassin burst suddenly from his hiding place, the victim tremble, cry for help?’ The Latin name for this mode of fabulation and artistry and lies was evidentia: evidence.
You could, if you wanted, list the names of all the celebrities and politicians who felt the need to speak out about the vile, racist, homophobic attack against Jussie Smollett, who didn’t realise they were the moving parts in a planetary-scale kinetic sculpture. Plenty of people have. (I’ll only name one – Donald Trump, who commented: ‘I think that’s horrible. It doesn’t get worse.’) Lately, people have been amusing themselves by unearthing all those pious thinkpieces from the immediate aftermath – like the one that, after observing that the police were treating the incident as a ‘possible hate crime,’ felt the need to add: ‘The cautious wording is one last wound inflicted on Smollett’s battered body, a careful hedging of bets that don’t need hedging – a crime scene involving a corpse is not discussed as a possible death.’ Yeah, laugh all you like. You think you’re better than these people? They participated in something glorious – what have you done? Although, to be fair, most of them are not grateful about the experience. Jussie was convicted, not for what he did (unlike many liars, he never libelled any particular person), but because he embarrassed a lot of powerful and influential people. As if it’s his fault that his audience couldn’t tell that his performance was a performance; as if it’s his fault that they fly into the rage of Caliban as soon as he holds up a mirror.
It’s worth asking, though – why this story? Why this particular form? As always, there are predecessors. Just one example. In 2008, a young white woman working on John McCain’s presidential campaign was robbed at an ATM. A large, tall black man put a knife to her throat and took her money; then, when he noticed the McCain sticker on her car, he knocked her to the ground and used the point of his knife to scrape a letter B into her cheek, for Barack. ‘You are going to be a Barack supporter,’ he told her. Just like Jussie, she captured a moment. There was something deeply ugly buried in the Obama campaign: all that hope and change was really just a code for violence, thuggish and totalitarian; young white women attacked and mutilated on the street. There’s no place in the new society for people who have the wrong kind of opinion. This was, according to Fox News, a ‘watershed event’ in the election. Only later, once the story had already dominated rolling news, did people notice that the B on her cheek was backwards: as if she’d stood in front of a mirror and done it to herself.
A strange kind of fiction. After all, someone really did carve a B in this woman’s cheek; that person just happened to be herself. This has very little to do with politics. What we are looking at is an act of self-harm.
What really interests me here is the mirror, in which everything appears back to front. In very different circumstances, Michael Taussig describes a ‘colonial mirror of production.’ During the genocidal wars in Putumayo, white rubber planters brutally massacred the indigenous population, but they always ascribed their own brutality to the jungle itself: its steamy darkness, this pit of snakes and savages. ‘What stands out here is the mimesis between the savagery attributed to the Indians by the colonists and the savagery perpetrated by the colonists in the name of civilisation.’ An echo of Adorno and Horkheimer’s description of the antisemites. ‘They detest the Jews and imitate them constantly. There is no anti-Semite who does not feel an instinctive urge to ape what he imagines to be Jewishness… The argumentative jerking of the hands, the singing tone of voice, and the nose, that physiognomic principium individuationis, which writes the individual’s peculiarity on his face.’ I think when people are outraged by political hypocrisy – why do you condemn our side’s bad actions, but not your own? – this is what’s really going on. Not dumb partisanship, or object-level rather than meta-level thinking, but something much deeper. We are always shadowing an image of our enemies.
So: a Republican campaign worker detests her image of a violent black criminal, the kind of person she imagines might want to physically hurt her, or cut her skin – so much so that she has to become that person to herself. She detests the way that everything around her is becoming plastered with Obama stickers; a kind of ecstatic uniformity she won’t allow herself to participate in – so she scores the man’s initial directly into her flesh. ‘You are going to be a Barack supporter.’ The surging of a secret desire, one that can never be avowed. She blunders into a crucial psychoanalytic insight: our desires are not our own, they come to us from somewhere else. It was the other: he wanted this for me.
Terrible things happen in the world, and sometimes they spark outrage, but never as reliably as a hoax. Nothing sells like bullshit: false stories don’t just occasionally slip through our truth-telling apparatuses, the system seems to actively prefer them. This is not because they’re more lurid or extreme than reality, which should never be underestimated – it’s because they’re full of longing; they don’t pull on your beliefs, but your desires. They show you the secrets of what you want. And because our desires come from elsewhere and everywhere, the whole world shudders in response. But nobody pulled off this trick as beautifully or as massively as Jussie. Now, like a dog barking at its own reflection, you want to send him to prison. You pigs, you philistines, let him go! Free Jussie Smollett!