1. Silent Majorities Turned Stealth
On the eve of the 2016 US presidential election, everyone—in America and abroad—expected a landslide victory for Hillary Clinton. Poll after poll tipped Clinton, the Democratic nominee, as the victor over Republican contender Donald Trump. Even GOP strategists had consigned their fate to Trump’s sinking poll numbers. And rightly so: Trump’s platform ran on misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-black racism, anti-LGBTQ, ableism, and every other discriminatory rhetoric out there. Supremacist diatribes became populist fodder for a seemingly beleaguered “silent majority” in white working-class America who vote without having real representation in public policy decisions. For years, the silent voices of America were subordinated to the moneyed minorities close to politicians and lobbyists. But with a mandate to “drain the swamp,” we find ourselves with Trump as the 45th President of the United States. That Trump has been hailed the “People’s President” in right-wing, conservative quarters prompts the question of how his unscrupulous decision-making and offensive manner roused among his supporters a different kind of silence—a silence not of non-representation, but of stealth, and one that becomes increasingly present.
With the backing of this silent majority turned stealth, Trump’s ascendancy becomes an even more baffling affair, not least due to speculation that this subset of his voting bloc engaged in a game of deception. Their ruse begins with having stymied the polling system with intentional misreporting, supposedly introducing prediction errors. From the New York Times to ABC News/Washington Post polls, and even Trump’s beloved Fox News, the forecasts—a blend of online or live-interview and automated phone polls—earmarked Clinton as the winner. Contrary to popular belief, the purely online USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Presidential Election “Daybreak” Poll was the only poll to peg Trump as the winner. This discrepancy is telling, as it gestures towards the online sphere of polling functioning as a hideout: well-educated and higher-income Trump voters were more willing to voice their support for Trump on online polling portals than with a live interviewer. The degree of subterfuge was even more noticeable among exit polls: four swing states—Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all slated to go for Clinton—actually swung for Trump when it came to actual vote counts.
How did we get here? Explanations for the unforeseen Trump presidency have spanned voter suppression to the “red shift” phenomenon. The notion of a silent, stealth majority could be generative for uncovering another rationale: the emergence of the “shy Trump” voter. The prospect arises from German political scientist Elizabeth Noelle-Neuman’s spiral of silence hypothesis: “under the pressure of a hostile opinion climate (national, local, or group level) individuals are reluctant to voice their opinions on morally loaded issues.” While Trump drew enormous hostility for his divisive rhetoric, he also drew secret admirers—a fact we are only beginning to grapple with.
Despite the exit polls, the existence of such a “shy Trump” voter remains uncertain. They have also been dubbed a “mirage”—an inconsequential voting bloc who did nothing to sway the election. The 104-page report from American Association for Public Opinion Research does indicate a semblance of the “shy Trump” effect, however. In three of the four swing states listed above, polling data revealed that between eleven-fifteen percent of voters who told pollsters they were undecided or considering a third-party candidate ultimately voted for Trump. In the final week of the campaign, their swing towards Trump caused Clinton to lose by nearly thirty points in Wisconsin, by seventeen points in Pennsylvania and Florida, and by eleven in Michigan. Consider Wisconsin: Of the fourteen percent of voters who made their decision in the final week, fifty-nine percent voted for Trump and thirty percent voted for Clinton. What do we make of these findings? By not announcing their choice in pre-election polls, these last-minute Trump voters effectively skewed polling data, leading many to identify them as Independents and prematurely name Clinton as the victor. However, the slim margin Clinton lost these states by throws into question just how inconsequential “shy Trump” voters were. These coy Trump supporters were anything but a mirage. Instead, there is a real possibility that a segment of Trump supporters employed a brand of chicanery that didn’t necessarily announce polling data as dead, but as a useful tool—being hardly a sure science—for deception when rejigged to serve one’s own ends.
A number of think pieces focused on the feigned timidness of “shy Trump” voters. Take Aradhna Krishna, a sensory marketing theorist who leveled that “the numbers the pollsters obtained for some undecided voters and some committed Clinton voters appears to have been false data—accepted as correct, but in actually [sic] not.” From this, Krishna advances that “shy Trump” voters didn’t withdraw from reporting to polls—they blatantly “lie[d] in the polls and distorted the data.” Such claims suggest “shy Trump” voters to be a stealth majority indeed. But their stealth is not a classic case of cognitive dissonance or internal conflict—Trump was always their man despite the misgivings they expressed. Hence, what Krishna intimates above feels less dissonant than dissident—a brand of deceit.
Reflecting on this quiet dissidence warrants a meditation on the figure of Bartleby from Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” whose logic not only suffuses “shy Trump” voters, but also delineates their strategic engagement with the institution of polling. Between extremes of refusal and acceptance, we could dismiss “shy Trump” voters as liars per Krishna. But I intuit that there is more to it than simply lying. Michel Foucault notes that “resistors under a military occupation” are not liars. What if we were to instead “substitute for the word ‘lie’ such words as… indirection”? What if we were to situate the lie along a course of errant movement, to open the lie to a spatial possibility? It comes as no surprise, then, that Gilles Deleuze adopts a referent evoking space—the “zone of indiscernibility”—when writing on the formulaic utterances of Bartleby. For Deleuze, Bartleby’s familiar slogan I would prefer not to could be read as a (political) stratagem within this indeterminate zone. Following the narrative arc of Melville’s short story, one gathers that reasoning with Bartleby never quite reveals a logic in his stance. At best, Bartleby’s dogged reticence and failure to reveal his preference (or lack thereof) developed into a radical politics of silence and stealth. In point, by offering up, over and over again, this seemingly trite response, Bartleby’s words—and inaction—do not refuse, accept, or lie vis-à-vis any particular end; rather, I prefer not to holds out the possibility of an otherwise act, a concatenation of the three options into something askew, slanted. Such an act, for “shy Trump” voters, is what comes out of that errant movement from silent to stealth or, more precisely, a shuttling back-and-forth between the two. Circling back to the polls, we see this movement in the shift from undecided voter to full-fledged Trump supporter a week before the election. On this account, the silence and stealth emerge as bedfellows of a politics that, on the surface, inures the “shy Trump” voter to protracted periods of inactivity.
This quiet storming of the White House prompts us to rethink the possibility of movement within the inactive. To this end, what if we consider “shy Trump” voters operating as sleeper cells—idle but ready operatives, awaiting a signal? Angling in this slanted way, the sleeper cell creates this capacious space of subterfuge, one where refusal, acceptance, and lying can appear and disappear at will, on command. Hence, from silence to stealth and somewhere in between, the sleeper cell affords a logic that deciphers not just Bartleby’s zone of indiscernibility, but the machinations of “shy Trump” voters over the course of the presidential race. The dormant posturing in these late-deciding Trump voters was awakened when it mattered. Interestingly, we attend to their dissidence differently under this guise—the sleeper cell—recognizing that the inconspicuous can be equally inimical when pushed.
Glimpses of this sleeper cell theory emerge in the ideas of political scientists Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov, and Elizabeth Connors. They had this to say on the radical politics of “shy Trump” voters:
The challenge here is that people refuse to answer survey questions in a variety of ways. Hiding your views need not mean lying. It could mean saying that you’re undecided or simply not taking the poll at all. Right now, the data don’t tell us definitively what happened.
Notwithstanding the data, “shy Trump” voters’ actions were less double-dealing than preferring not to engage in politics as usual. Again, their sly gestures aren’t exactly flagrant lies or, alternately, refusals to concede to political affiliation. Echoing Deleuze, “shy Trump” voters scheme within a supposed sphere of indecision—they’ll get to polling and voting, just not according to your liking or within the prescribed time. Navigating this zone of indiscernibility as a sleeper cell results in likely Trump voters going undercover, hiding as undecided voters or would-be Independents in order to shy away from partisan politics. Read this way, what we have on our hands is a new type of turncoat, one that hides in plain sight as they deflect—as opposed to desert—party lines, only to return back to the fold when it counts. This mode of political angling is not new for Republicans: following the 2008 presidential election, political analyst Sasha Issenberg scoured election data to reveal a niche of voters who communicate to pollsters their support for Obama “but ended up backing McCain” when it came to voting.
A large part of this surreptitious behavior has been aided by American elections migrating to cyberspace—a terrain where computers count votes and cloud servers transmit, store, and share data of registered voters. Polling has also embraced network technology, with the Internet giving voters the opportunity for a Bartleby-like posture towards polling, refusing to politically engage until beckoned. And even when responding to pollsters, akin to Bartleby, “shy Trump” supporters still communicated in unclear terms. This revelation finds support in the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. Although this online forecast saw Trump coming out on top, the data uncovered a recalcitrance among “shy Trump” voters coupled with private embarrassment. A response of this nature doesn’t necessarily trouble the Bartleby logic, but it introduces an affective agenda to Bartleby’s feigned indeterminacy. Consistent with this, from this online poll, David Lauter noted “Trump voters were notably less comfortable about telling a telephone pollster about their vote.” This affective artifice mirrors how Bartleby, under every utterance, had consigned his fate without explicitly revealing it—wading, instead, in a lexical ambivalence. On par with late-deciding Trump voters, the Internet has afforded the context to be “shy” or to forego the discomfort of white lies for what Krishna calls “a feeling of anonymity.”
2. Sousveillance as Care
“Shy Trump” voters’ deft recovery highlights a need to reassess the institution of polling as a means of surveillance. As the monitoring of citizens by an (appointed) authority figure, polling is typically seen as a form of surveillance. Antithetical to authoritarian forms of monitoring from above is where we find sousveillance—the sous denoting a gaze from “below,” or, in relation to surveillance, a watching “up” of authority (or even fellow citizens, although in the context of social media networks, peer-to-peer watching has been termed co-veillance). Such acts of monitoring from below approximate the polling charades of “shy Trump” voters insofar as they modulated their behavior in anticipation of the backlash that comes with outward allegiance to Trump. Achieving this behavior shift through sousveillance saw “shy Trump” voters enact a wily form of resistance by appearing to oblige the surveillance apparatus—embracing tactics of monitoring, watching—all the while providing input that critiques, misleads or dismantles apparatuses of control. Indeed, for “shy Trump” voters, toppling surveillance structures became a matter of using dissident input that flatters in order to misdirect.
Inherent in this act of flattery is a stasis constituted in and through polling. If we understand stasis as a type of turmoil plagued by inactivity, then, generally speaking, polling sets out to steer the volatility of politics (and the polis) by mining for predictable outcomes. However, “shy Trump” voters rendered the predictable as improbable by leaving pollsters beholden to a false sense of stability. In Bartleby’s each and every perfunctory remark—I prefer not to—he extended a false sense of possibility, such that his proprietor held out hope, questioning and engaging the tight-lipped clerk even after every rebuff. Sousveillance dangles a similar carrot in submitting to (or watching) authority, inverting the panopticon to surveil the surveiller. Again, these endeavors of undersight have grown thanks to cyberspace and the transition of polling to online platforms. Reckoning with this exodus and concurrent inversion means we must also grapple with the fact that practitioners of sousveillance appropriate technological tools—high-speed wireless networks, wearable-computing devices, and social media apps—in order to not just gaze from below, but to introduce a stasis in the machinations of the gaze from above.
In the optics of “shy Trump” voters an upward gaze from the low place of silence colluded with the low lying place of stealth, doubly undermining the “high” status of polling in society. While these gestures of sousveillance present a retort to Foucault’s disciplinary societies and Deleuze’s subsequent societies of control, I prefer to regard and read “shy Trump” voters as invoking a curatorial care for self, a mode of governance and sociality that reconfigures the discipline-control matrix on personal terms.
Articulated by Foucault in his lectures at the Collège de France in 1982, the “care of oneself” was a way of self-writing that was not entirely in the service of knowing others and the world but of knowing oneself. Hence, pollsters, politicians, and partisan lines were secondary to developing self-knowledge. Instead, the care required to know oneself is grounded in the meditative “exercise of personal writing,” which aims to shape a new self by collating what one has heard or read. Self-writing concatenates the many “voices” we access into one voice—the self. This chorus of voices parallels with the immeasurable and unquantifiable scale of cyberspace: How does one enact self-care amid such a deluge of data culled through the watchful eye of institutions peering from above? While “shy Trump” voters subversively participated in polls—submitting themselves as false data—let us not forget that sousveillance does not only entail watching authority from below or from a place of efficacy, nor does it always result in the toppling of the surveillance apparatus. It may, however, garble the surveillance apparatus. In fact, if we take the extrajudicial killing of American citizens at the hand of the police, we can see just how futile turning the camera on authorities in hopes of wresting justice can be. If self-care is our goal here, then, following Foucault, it may not be in our best interests to move in concert with “shy Trump” voters, whose way of self-writing was about knowing oneself, let alone in a manner truly inattentive to others.
3. Watching You Watching Me
On the other hand, Hasan Elahi’s project, Tracking Transience (2003), might be of help in articulating a self-care that navigates the watchful eye of both authorities and the streams of data circling and controlling our existence, and on Elahi’s own terms. Elahi does draw somewhat from “shy Trump” voters, willingly submitting to the surveillance apparatus, yet he goes about it in a way that is not wrought with subterfuge. In Tracking Transience, Elahi, a Bangladeshi-born interdisciplinary artist, stages an ongoing digital performance in which he creates an honest, round-the-clock document of his life. There are reasons for this: an FBI tip in 2002 wrongly identified Elahi as a terrorist stockpiling explosives in a storage unit in Tampa, Florida; that same year, after a flight from Amsterdam, Elahi, a naturalized American, was detained at the airport, placed under investigation for six months, and mandated to complete multiple hour-long interrogations and nine separate polygraphs. Elahi was eventually cleared of suspicion and removed from the terrorist watch list. Even so, Elahi became wary of future runs-in with the FBI and took precaution by divulging his every waking moment to the authorities. Initially, Elahi called the FBI to regularly alert them of his pending flights and itinerary; these calls turned into emails that gradually “got longer and longer and longer with pictures, with travel tips.” Then Elahi made a website—Tracking Transience. It’s not clear if Elahi was tired from penning elaborate emails, but the website—an amalgamation of images detailing the artist’s whereabouts—was engineered to save time and resources for the FBI.
Screenshots via Tracking Transience v2.2 website of Hasan Elahi’s location on Thursday, May 4, 2017 at 2:59PM (GMT -5). Satellite images from Google Maps show the artist’s location at various altitudes. Courtesy of the artist.
As of July, 2014, Elahi had curated roughly 70,000 photos into the most inane categories: toilet bowls (all shot in bird’s eye view); meals on flights; and green and white road signs, just to name a few. This catalogue of images may have now reached over 100,000. Thanks to developments in machine identification, much of the backend categorical sorting is handled by some code Elahi wrote—all he needs to do is point and shoot on his iPhone. Each image, however, is riddled with anonymity, with Elahi opting to document his existence as if it could be anyone else. With the aid of GPS tracking, Elahi feeds the Tracking Transience platform with Google Maps imagery of his location, which allows viewers to scale back the layers of anonymity. Further verification of all this sousveillance activity comes via an independent third-party: Elahi’s bank. Every purchase by Elahi find its way onto this digitized behemoth of media, with his comings and goings corroborated by his bank transactions.
These efforts of sousveillance became—and continue to be—source material for Tracking Transience, which reads as a Foucauldian form of (digital) self-writing playing out not just as a “care of the self” but, more importantly, a “care of the data.” The latter concept, fleshed out in media and cyberculture theorists Alexander Gallow and Eugene Thacker’s The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (2007), considers two realities: (i) the rise of cybernetics within biological and computer networks has seen the body read as data; and (ii) classical medicine has failed to care for and cure the body. Addressing this, Galloway and Thacker establish a through line in The Exploit from care (curare), to cure (cura), and then to curation: “one must curate that which eludes the cure.” The “that” eluding cure here is the fleshy body—now impervious to medicine—that, for all intents and purposes, moves as a datafied, technological entity. From the looks of Tracking Transcience, Elahi has latched onto this through line as he carefully curates his body into “informatic patterns [of data] on the screen” for the intelligence agencies to monitor at their discretion. The fact that the Department of Homeland Security, National Security Agency, and the CIA, among others, continue to frequent his Tracking Transcience website speaks to the incurability of his body—the supposed terroristic leanings he cannot rid himself of.
Hasan Elahi, Tracking Transience: Security & Comfort V4.0, 2012, detail. Photograph by: Larry Qualls. Courtesy of the artist and Larry Qualls Archive.
Elahi’s elaborate acts of self-watching or turning the camera on himself comes out of a long tradition of sousveillance-based art. But unlike Vito Acconci, Sophie Calle, Laurie Long, and Jill Magid, among others, who have dabbled in sousveillance, Elahi moves altogether differently in that he doesn’t identify with or play the detective. Long treated her dating life as a “spy mission” in The Dating Surveillance Project (1998); Acconci randomly selected and stalked passersby in Following Piece (1969); Calle followed a man throughout his travels in Venice in Suite Vénitienne (1980); and Majid used letters and video to flirt with the Merseyside Police and Liverpool City Council in Evidence Locker (2004). Of the many artists who dared to surveil, Magid is worth considering further, as Evidence Locker provides a generative foil to unpack Tracking Transcience and the stakes of care in sousveillance.
In the American conceptual artist’s Evidence Locker, Magid pens thirty-one love letters to the police in order to gain access to CCTV footage of her travels around Liverpool. The missives detail the day’s events in a decidedly oblique, non-linear fashion, with the recipient equally elusive (Magid addresses the police officer on duty in some instances, the camera in others). Letter #15, however, is telling: On February 12, 2004, Magid recounts to the Merseyside Police an incident where three young men accosted her—a failed purse snatch. To the artist’s dismay, the men were later apprehended. Be that as it may, Magid’s exchange while filing the police report highlights the shortcomings of loving the surveiller: the officer doctored Magid’s words even when the artist admitted she could not “recall” the entire event or “which arm the bag had been on.” It’s unclear what became of the three young men.
Film theorist Patricia Pister lauded Evidence Locker for its “affective dimensions to an otherwise impersonal mechanism” and for exploring the “disruptive advantage of surveillance systems by showing their non-compressibility on an affective level.” Granted, Magid kept on penning her billets-doux after that run-in with the police—a move that speaks to non-compressibility: her hokey letters, as Pister argues, did not “break” or “bend” the circuits of the surveillance apparatus. Rather, when the surveillance system did rear its hydra-like head, Magid’s affective charm was nihil ad rem. Evidence Locker finds Magid bending over backwards to gather its CCTV footage, as well as being bent out of shape and seemingly flustered by the unscrupulous police report (unless it was all a performance for the reader). Circuit breakers, for Deleuze, were entities that “create vacuoles of noncommunication…so we can elude control.” Along these lines, did Magid elude control or give into it? It seems like the latter. We can read her continued correspondence with her lovers—the camera, police officers—after that fifteenth letter as acquiescing to the surveillance apparatus. If that is the case, how do we then make sense of her acts of sousveillance within paradigms of subterfuge and self-care? Is she really trying to compromise the top-down, authoritarian glare of the security state? And is her “care of oneself” an honest parsing of many voices to know the self?
Sousveillance efforts that pander to the surveillance system have drawn the ire of the Surveillance Camera Players (SCP), a group of artists who unconditionally oppose installation and use of video surveillance in public places. Not surprisingly, the SCP roundly lambasted Magid for playing detective, fetishizing technology, and aiding and abetting “a [surveillance] system that routinely harasses, arrests and even murders immigrants, poor people and native-born Blacks.” For SCP, escapades like Evidence Locker “produce no critical response to [surveillance].” Instead, Magid seems to simplify the fraught relations between surveillance, criminalization, and justice: the thirty-one love letters and videos that comprise Evidence Locker insinuate that we might all benefit from pen-pal relations with Big Brother. However, surveillance never writes back, let alone in a complementary, effusive tone. Displays of affect are increasingly becoming a pernicious gesture before surveillance systems as machine-learning algorithms attached to Facebook work to not only identify suicidal users and link them to “commercial offers for mental health services, but [also] single them out in their perceived vulnerability for intrusive, deceptive, and/or manipulative marketing techniques.” Even beyond screen-mediated surveillance, the strategic use of affect failed black mental health therapist Charles Kinsey as he lay in the middle of the street soothing Arnaldo Rios, his client with autism. His pleadings to a police officer did not bend the system—he was shot. The reason: a pathetic “I don’t know.”
4. (Non)communicative Bodies
Contrary to Evidence Locker, Elahi’s initial emails—somewhat akin to Magid’s letters—were abandoned to create what, in form and function, register as the “noncommunicative vacuoles” that typify the circuit breaker. In point, rather than feed the surveillance apparatus with his every waking move, Elahi submits his own scrambled sousveillance data to a server that curates his online self into a truly rhizomatic complexity. Elahi is everywhere and nowhere at once. Moving in such a way finds Tracking Transience mirroring (without the guilt) an Abagnalian “catch me if you can.” Moreover, we never see Elahi himself in any of the images that populate his archive of sousveillance. Even the date of each image is omitted, with Elahi every so often revealing the day and month—never the year. Despite all this hacktivism on Elahi’s part, like Evidence Locker, it is worth considering whether the “creative noncommunication” of Tracking Transience “eludes control,” as Deleuze originally articulated. I believe it does. After all, Elahi’s embrace of digital technology, no doubt, comes with a politics of resisting control, but that politics is also an ur-technology of social media, undermining the possibility of fluid communication. From its backdoor workings to even its heterogeneous visual presentation, this makes Tracking Transience a technological riddle that few might have the patience to decipher.
It would be more apt to consider Elahi’s “creative noncommunication” along the lines of what Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson call the “surveillant assemblage,” which is a body of a “distinctly hybrid composition.” The human body as this “surveillant assemblage” is first “broken down by being abstracted from its territorial setting” and “then reassembled in different settings through a series of data flows. The result is a decorporealized body. A ‘data double’ of pure virtuality.” Tracking Transience reconfigures the body-as-data by engaging in a digital discrimination (of care) that circumscribes Elahi into categories—tacos, for example—that are hardly pejorative. Instead, this data doubling mitigates Elahi’s surveilled and criminalized body in ways that parody and scrutinize the authoritarian gaze. Key here is that much of this mitigation is achieved in the way Elahi consciously curates his online life in ways that are indirect, opting instead to capture “images… that are of empty, desolate, and at times outright depressing surroundings.” By evacuating pictures of his fleshy body while leaving its datafied trace, Elahi evinces a “care of the data” that is cognizant of how online, networked media and culture, in its hunger for content, will not hesitate in cannibalizing his offline, corporeal self, reducing him to the rank of criminal. Again, Elahi shot these images “really anonymously to the point where it could be anyone.” Such a horizontal move situates Tracking Transience as those constituent parts that welcome a “fractured rhizomatic crisscrossing of the gaze such that no major population groups stand irrefutably above or outside of the surveillant assemblage.”
These latter points are crucial since Elahi was once a suspected terrorist. Cleared of his charges, it’s worth asking: Why venture into sousveillance, further fracturing a body already burdened with hierarchies of surveillance? The longevity of Tracking Transience distinguishes itself in several ways from Magid’s continued letter-writing after the apparent fallout with authorities. For one, Elahi isn’t willingly playing coquettish detective; government agencies still stalk Elahi’s site, checking in, from time to time, on the globetrotting artist. On these grounds, Elahi is still conceivably on the run, one erroneous tip away from being hauled back in for more questioning. As such, Tracking Transience finds Elahi flipping the script: He wants us—if we choose to navigate his unfriendly, almost impenetrable interface—to loosely play “detective,” to piece together these images emptied of all but his extreme approach to (digital) self-care. Though this act of curation (or care) exists as a somewhat convoluted aggregate of data, it is telling that Elahi has not been detained at an airport since the fated day of June 19, 2002, when he was grilled by the FBI. To decriminalize himself, Elahi overloaded the surveillance system, an idea that draws from media theorist Matthew Fuller’s strategies of resistance in technoculture. Elahi’s resistance is one of self-writing in excess that produces not just a flourishing online self, but a paradoxical nourishing of his offline body. Data caring for self—and vice-versa.
5. An Enduring Phenomenon
The mode of surveillance shown by “shy Trump” voters deserves study not least in the way disobedience leveraged some type of equity in a Trump presidency. Now in the White House, it is doubtful that Trump will bring these sleeper-cell voters into the fold. Indeed, little more than a year into his presidency, white evangelical women who voted for Trump still opt to exist in anonymity. Though these women continue to back Trump despite his marital infidelity, they report not only feeling “embarrassed” but also are reduced to meeting “in secret” or online in private Facebook groups for fear of “reprisal in the workplace.” All this points to the enduring nature of the “shy Trump” phenomenon.
Like Bartleby, “shy Trump” voters remain mute, marginal, and nonplussed towards political wrangling. Unlike Bartleby, though, “shy Trump” voters act in ways that reveal somewhat incipient socio-cultural modes of political engagement. From the cadre of “shy Trump” voters, we see how Bartleby’s “zone of indiscernibility” fostered a radical form of self-care whereby individuals attended to the self as an indiscriminate body of data within a larger polling dataset. This shift in caring for the self is what allows “shy Trump” voters and Elahi—the true proto-caretaker in this digital paradox—to hide in plain sight, reappearing and disappearing at will, all the while unveiling how surveillance apparatuses can be subverted by performing a digital self-care that allows “a feeling of anonymity.” Care in this way shows how curatorial practices might contend with these contemporary modes of being that exist via “social media and cell phone usage, or by way of digital information databases and data aggregators.”
All this points to a contemporary moment where the self is increasingly governed by data. This datafication of sociality promises a complicated sousveillance that is itself under the watchful eye of ideological and repressive state apparatuses. As these communication technologies and networked cultures continue to proliferate, Elahi and “shy Trump” voters offer up deft data-driven ways for “post-Panoptical subjects [to] reliably watch over themselves.” Cognizant of data politics, “shy Trump” voters and Elahi employ tools of realpolitik, revealing that “data represent thinking, feeling, active subjects within digital systems” that are arresting the ontological tug-of-war in datafication. Not that it isn’t cathartic, but lamenting with the these systems of surveillance comes up short. If we are to take a page from their respective books, the Bartleby-like personas of Elahi and timid Trump adherents typify the power and politics of the unannounced, surreptitiously nestling themselves within veillance and data culture in ways we are only beginning to understand.
Ikechukwu Casmir Onyewuenyi is a Nigerian-Australian curator and writer based in Los Angeles, with research interests that dovetail across performance and performativity in new (digital) media, epistemology of the photographic image, and African aesthetics in the diaspora. He is a curatorial assistant at Hammer Museum, UCLA. Recent highlights include co-organizing M. Lamar’s The Demon Rising (2016) at The Kitchen, Aya Rodriguez-Izumi’s On Air (2016) at AC Institute, and the one-night performance exhibition Sexual Fragments Absent (2017) at famed sex club Paddles. Onyewuenyi has prior curatorial experience at Performa, The Kitchen, BRIC, and African Artists’ Foundation, Lagos, among others. He maintains an ongoing writing practice, having profiled the likes of Maurizio Cattelan, Awol Erizku, Simone Forti, Dana Michels, Jo Ratcliffe, and Francis Upritchard for publications such as Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Media Culture, ARTS.BLACK, BLOUIN ARTINFO, Carla, and Performa Magazine, among others. He has an MA in Curatorial Practice from the School of Visual Arts, New York, and an MS in Clinical/Biological Health Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh.
1 John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs About How Government Should Work. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, p. 154.
2 Tony Elliot. 2017. “Donald Trump: The People’s President.” Eagle Rising. 26.1.2017. eaglerising.com/40426/donald-trump-the-peoples-president.
3 Steven Shepard. “Poll: ‘Shy Trump’ voters are a mirage,” POLITICO, November 3, 2016, www.politico.com/story/2016/11/poll-shy-voters-trump-230667.
4 Jonathan Vankin. 2016. “2016 Exit Polls vs. Actual Results: Here’s What May Have Happened.” Heavy. Accessed 16.11.2016. heavy.com/news/2016/11/2016-exit-polls-did-hillaty-clinton-win-presidential-election-voter-fraud-donald-trump-lose-rigged.
5 The “red shift” is a growing pattern in polling data, including pre-election and exit polls, where official vote counts tend to favor Republican candidates or those that are to the right of their opponent. In CODE RED: Computerized Election Theft and the New American Century (2014), political survey analyst Jonathan Simon disinters 15 years’ worth of polling data to trace the emergence of this “red shift,” a phenomenon that emerged once the 2002 Help America Vote Act passed and computerized voting took effect in the United States. Simon coined this phrase after George W. Bush’s re-election over John Kerry, when an overwhelming majority of voter counts came out far more favorable for Bush. It isn’t limited to Democrat-Republic contest though; Simon argues that the same directional shift emerged in 2016 primaries for Hillary, a candidate more right of her opponent, Bernie Sanders. That is, voter counts were more favorable for Clinton than exit polls, which had tipped Sanders for the win in several primaries.
6 Tamás Bodor, “The issue of timing and opinion congruity in spiral of silence research: Why does research suggest limited empirical support for the theory?” International Journal of Public Opinion Research 24, no. 3, 2012, p. 269.
7 Courtney Kennedy et al. “An Evaluation of 2016 Election Polls in the U.S.” American Association for Public Opinion Research. Accessed 4.4.2017. www.aapor.org/Education-Resources/Reports/An-Evaluation-of-2016-Election-Polls-in-the-U-S.aspx.
8 See Elizabeth Connors, Samara Klar, and Yanna Krupnikov. “There may have been shy Trump supporters after all.” Washington Post. Accessed 12.11.2016. www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/11/12/there-may-have-been-shy-trump-supporters-after-all; Aradhna Krishna, “Voter embarrassment about trump support may have messed up poll predictions.” Scientific American. Accessed 11.11.2016. www.scientificamerican.com/article/voter-embarrassment-about-trump-support-may-have-messed-up-poll-predictions.; Cameron Easley, “Yes, there are shy trump voters. No, they won’t swing the election.” Morning Consult. Accessed 3.11.2016. morningconsult.com/2016/11/03/yes-shy-trump-voters-no-wont-swing-election.
9 Krishna, “Voter embarrassment.”
11 Michel Foucault, “Sexual Choice, Sexual Act,” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, The New Press, New York, 1997, p. 146.
13 Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, The Formula,” in Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco, Verso, London, 1998, p. 71.
14 Connors, Klar, and Krupnikov, “shy Trump supporters.”
15 See Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov, Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2016.
16 Sasha Issenberg, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, Crown Publishing Group, New York, 2012, p. 296.
17 See Jonathan D. Simon, CODE RED: Computerized Election Theft and the New American Century, 5th ed., CreateSpace, 2016.
18 David Lauter. “The USC/L.A. Times poll saw what other surveys missed: A wave of Trump support,” Los Angeles Times. Accessed 8.11.2016. www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-usc-latimes-poll-20161108-story.html.
19 Krishna, “Voter Embarrassment.”
20 The history of polling in the US throws into question why we even value the institution of polling itself. Take The Literary Digest, a weekly magazine that specialized in delivering fairly reliable presidential straw polls from 1916 to 1932. Its 1936 prediction that Governor Alfred Landon would win the presidential election was wildly off, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt re-elected by a landslide. The key difference in 1936 was the magazine’s move to poll beyond their readership—a voting bloc that could afford a subscription to a weekly. By polling outside their readership, their data of financially secure readers collided with the rampant poverty of the Great Depression. Rookie error or not, this early snafu serves as a premonition of sorts for the limitations of polling.
21 See Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–82, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2005, pp. 1-24.
22 In his March 1982 lectures, Foucault references the hupomnēmata, a Grecian notebook or journal that also doubles as a practice where one jots down ideas, heard or read, to aid later recall. Foucault indicates that these “memory exercises” are chiefly of “use to oneself” but it “may be of use to others.” This emphasis on the teleological end point links the hupomnēmata—or this practice of note taking—to epimeleia heautou or the “care of oneself.” To this point, Foucault states: “you see here a practice in which reading, writing, taking notes for oneself, correspondence, sending treatises, etcetera, together make up a very important activity in the care of oneself and the care of others.” Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 11, 360, 362; Michel Foucault, “Self Writing,” Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, The New Press, New York, 1997, p. 213.
23 Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 8; Foucault, “Self Writing,” p. 214.
24 Hasan Elahi, “FBI, here I am!” (lecture presented at TEDGlobal 2011, Edinburgh, Scotland, July 11-15, 2011).
26 Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit, U of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007, p. 107.
29 Surveillance Camera Players. “Why we refuse to ‘play detective’.” NotBored.org. Accessed 12.11.2002. www.notbored.org/playing-detective.html.
30 Patricia Pister, “Art as Circuit Breaker: Surveillance Screens and Powers of Affect,” in Carnal Aesthetics: Transgressive Imagery and Feminist Politics, eds. Marta Zarzycka and Bettina Papenburg, I.B. Tauris, New York, 2013, pp. 208-209.
33 Gilles Deleuze, “Control and Becoming,” in Negotiations, 1972-1990, trans. Martin Joughin, Columbia University Press, New York, 1995, p. 175.
34 Surveillance Camera Players. “Nuovo lets Jill Magid slip inside.” NotBored.org. October 9, 2007, www.notbored.org/nuovo-review.html.
36 Jenny L. Davis. “Here to Help.” Real Life. Accessed 4.5.2017. reallifemag.com/here-to-help.
37 Kevin D. Haggerty and Richard V. Ericson, “The surveillant assemblage,” British Journal of Sociology 51, 2000, p. 611.
39 Hasan Elahi. “I share everything. Or do I?.” Ideas.Ted.Com. Accessed 1.7.2014. ideas.ted.com/i-share-everything-or-do-i.
41 Haggerty and Ericson, “The surveillant assemblage,” 618.
42 See Matthew Fuller, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005.
43 See Corinne Weisgerber and Shannan H. Butler, “Curating the Soul: Foucault's concept of hupomnemata and the digital technology of self-care,” Information, Communication & Society 19, 2016, pp. 1340-1355.
44 Michael Tackett, “White evangelical women, core supporters of trump, begin tiptoeing away.” New York Times. Accessed 11.03.2018. www.nytimes.com/2018/03/11/us/politics/white-evangelical-women-trump.html.
45 Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2015, p. 39.
46 Roy Boyne, “Post-Panopticism,” Economy and Society 29, 2000, p. 299.