Rhythm of the Clicks

One consequence of Trump is the dismal media rhythm his presence generates. And by dismal, I mean sad in the way Spinoza describes a debilitating encounter, one that wipes out your energy, anything left of your capacity to affect and be affected. The numbness we feel from our brutal encounter with Trump in the media has nothing to do with propaganda, or ideology, or what it all means. It’s about a sad rhythm, an anti-rhythm actually, that emanates from a void whose name is Donald Trump. Only afterward does the problem of its meaning arise.

Despite his nullity, Trump knows how to generate a steady stream of clicks. He is the maestro of clicks, a tap lesson in digital publicity. How does a nullity become seductive? Why is everything onscreen about Trump despite the fact that there is nothing to him? Is it trompe (trump?)-l’oeil? In trompe-l’oeil, Baudrillard writes, “objects are not objects. They do not describe a familiar reality, as does a still life. They describe a void, an absence… These are not mere extras displaced from the main scene, but ghosts that haunt the emptiness of the stage. Theirs is not the aesthetic appeal of painting and resemblance, but the acute, metaphysical appeal of the real’s abolition… Trompe-l’oeil does not seek to confuse itself with the real. Consciously produced by means of play and artifice, it presents itself as a simulacrum. By mimicking the third dimension, it questions the reality of this dimension, and by mimicking and exceeding the effects of the real, it radically questions the reality principle.”[1]

Trump the clickable, though, has none of the seductiveness of trompe-l’oeil, none of its play or questioning. The absence he evokes is haptic, not visual. What vanishes is not the depth of the real, its third dimension, but its temporality. Trump approaches the zero degree of rhythm. In fact, what passion he generates is for the end of rhythm, and the controlled end of time generally. Trump creates no intensive differences of his own, no immanent flux of time. With Trump, there are only series of clicks, each series like the last and the next.

A rhythm is a distribution of singular and ordinary points that vary in intensity. Rhythms have differences in accents, different pressures. They contract and release. There are spasms, they have a pulse (Trump likes to mock spasms). In the Haka of the Maoris, the collective rise and fall of pounding feet embodies the exhilaration and ecstasy of lines of flight. It sways and dips between highs and lows. Trump rhythms have none of these seductions. Do they even rise to the level of a beat, let alone a rhythm? They surface on the black hole of our screens and invest every encounter, every touch, with a noisy noise. The Trump effect is one of numbing loudness, noise trying to break through noise. It lacks even the suggestion of a groove. It hasn’t the barest rhythm’s improvisational energy, just the cold, calculated oversupply of clicks. Tap tap Trump, click Donald, tap swipe Trump click… There he is again! Click, tap. That’s what we’ve become these last two years. Caught up in the sad botlike beat of a line you can’t even dance to. The encounter with Trump in the media is soulless, boring work, like data harvesting, like having to click your way through spam. Each mindless click drags us further into the void, into the scam, but click we do anyway, drawn by a fascination with the onscreen destruction of time.

With Trump, the negation of the negation produces no synthesis, nothing new. It is all overkill, over-production. He surfaces here, there, he is everywhere. He knows nothing of the art of disappearance. He says this or that, whatever he says, he says, retracts, says again. He tweets. We click. He tweets some more. Although it is so stupifyingly ordinary, it has the weird semblance of a rhythm, and perhaps because of this, it also has the semblance of an affect, equally strange. We connect to digital screens haptically; they are like the old drum machine pads people used to tap to create new digital beats. Each tap crossed rhythmic lines that, until they intersected, were only virtual. And those machine taps generated an actual rhythm. Like all rhythmic encounters, our encounters with surfaces and screens have the potential to be happy or joyless. We create rhythms from what we are given in the encounter. If what we are given feeds our experience and sense of intensive time, the effect can be seductive and beautiful. Today we are given Trump, simulator of rhythm, master of the empty beat, destroyer of time. Clicking on that is something even beyond sad.


[1] Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, trans. Brian Singer (Montreal: New World Perspectives, 2001 [1979]), 60, 63.


William Bogard is Deburgh Chair of Social Science at Whitman College. He is a contributing editor at CTheory and writes on control societies, surveillance, and digital culture. His current research focuses on problems of passive temporal genesis, rhythm, and gestural interfaces in digital media. When he is not theorizing about time and rhythm, he is also an avid jazz musician, performer, and composer.