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Program—Modern Times
Think — Essays | December 2014

Modern Times
By Theodor Ringborg

Those besotted with the television series Borgen might understand how confoundedly boring and at the same time bewilderingly exciting it is that only three months after the Swedish general election the parliament dissolved and the prime minister announced a new popular vote to be held on 22 March 2015.1Borgen is a Danish television series illustrative of Scandinavian politics. At the heart of the matter are the nationalistic Swedish Democrats and their balance of power position in parliament, lodged, as they have become, between the Social Democrats and the Greens on the one side, and the liberal party coalition on the other. With broad strokes, the Social Democratic-Green minority parliament had their proposed budget blocked by the Swedish Democrats, who stipulated that they would only allow it to pass if immigration to Sweden was restricted. As the liberal coalition did nothing to alleviate the stalemated circumstances, the Social Democratic prime minister, rather than even discuss immigration policy with the Swedish Democrats, announced that everyone would vote again.2What the liberal coalition did or did not do depends a lot on if you are part or not part of it.

Sweden was the last Scandinavian country where a far-right party made it into parliament. The Swedish Democrats, spawned from motley neo-Nazi, anti-immigrant, and nationalistic groups, polled 5.7 percent in the 2010 elections, effectively clearing the 4 percent election threshold and securing twenty parliamentary seats. It marked the region’s shift to a climate permeated by a fascist-leaning chorus ringing loud. Neighboring Norway had already seen the rise of the equivalent Fremskrittspartiet in 2005. Denmark, in 2007, when Danske Folkeparti got 13.8 percent of the votes. The Finns Party had parliamentary seats already in 2003. In the elections a few months ago, the Swedish Democrats became Sweden’s third largest party with a sum total of 12.9 percent; hence the elevated influence that provoked the new ballot.

Ours is a moment that in part belongs to the likes of UKIP and Front National and there are many conversations to be had on this topic, but the psephology that regards the Swedish Democrats’ hypertrophy has brought about a new and particular point regarding visibility, though I am sure this is relevant also to other parties in other places. What the conversation does is link the Swedish Democrats’ election results to how much they were seen. The explanation of their surge in popularity is, for many, that they got the lion’s share of media coverage, and that the considerable amount of extra ink and TV minutes was due to a steady stream of scandals surrounding party members, both expected and bizarre, from business-as-usual racist remarks, fights, and drug abuse to things more outré like threatening a comedian with iron rods, lying about having been an aid worker in Mozambique, or cleaning up after a party wearing a swastika armband. It is difficult to tally the exact number of incidents. But it seems that for the past four years, the Swedish Democrats have been associated with a prominently broadcasted impropriety on average every third month. It is a considerable amount of unseemliness.

Working toward a more nuanced relationship to the powers of visibility, Peggy Phelan remarked, “if representational visibility equals power, then almost-naked young white women should be running Western culture.”3Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge,1993), 10. To be seen a lot is not a guarantee of ascendency, the same way that not being seen is not obviously debilitating. In other words, the Swedish Democrats’ pervasive visibility would not necessarily lend them votes and significant influence, as if they would be totally impotent if no one paid them any heed.

Stockholm, 2013: Swedish Democrats party leader Jimmie Åkesson

That said, there is indeed something noteworthy going on with the image of the Swedish Democrats, some sort of procedure at work. If it could be said that Phelan’s almost-naked young white women are undressed to become images of images, then the image of the Swedish Democrats can be said to come into being as they are undressing. What I mean is that the series of conspicuous scandals that relate to the party’s nefarious facets might have been strategically self-orchestrated so as to spuriously cleanse their tainted image to make an additional one and gain political ground. In other words, it seems perfectly possible that the Swedish Democrats, one step ahead of the spin doctors, willfully had representatives cause various transgressions that unmask their highly questionable derivation in order to create attention from the media and public, who asperses them, which in turn sets the stage for the party leader Jimmie Åkesson to step in and publicly ‘clean up’ so as to make up an improved counter-image to the one made known by the scandals. Carried out frequently enough, this process renders two images in a kind of movement, a movement to which a seemingly large amount of people can attach themselves.

The most commonly offered demurral of this suspicion is that the Swedish Democrats are not clever enough for such subterfuge and that I, as someone who spends day in and day out studying secrecy, am a conspiracist. Sure, each scandal might not be in every way deliberate and tactical. There are certainly idiots within the Swedish Democrats that do idiotic stuff without an elaborate strategy, like the guy who dressed up as Hitler but, when photos were leaked, professed that he was in fact dressed up as Charlie Chaplin dressed up as Hitler. On the other hand, perhaps one should not be too quick to underestimate how smart idiocy can sometimes be. Regardless, it is evident that the Swedish Democrats relentlessly show the world their front side and back side, one being an ostensibly cleaned-up guise that aspires to look like any other party and the other a denuded neo-Nazi, neo-fascist, anti-immigrant image. And the two come to work in tandem, representing each other. It is a masking/unmasking, a continuous covering and uncovering, but done quickly, like one of those little two-picture illusions that makes images merge so as to become one in movement—an official-looking high-res press photo and an infiltrating low-grade cell-phone pic that together make up a silly little GIF oscillating between pants-up and pants-down, though, of course, with far worse imagery and much greater consequences.

The synthesis generates its own internal formula that like any stereoscopic process gives the illusion of surface and depth. And rather than only excessive visibility, we more significantly find ourselves looking ad nauseam at a whole new animal, an Orthrus of Swedish politics, two-faced in more ways than one and nearly impossible to unmask since it is always eager to partially unmask itself.

I am somehow inclined to return to the Swedish Democrats representative dressed as Charlie Chaplin dressed as Hitler. In Duck Soup (1933), going from one comedic figure to another, Groucho Marx delivered the famous line “[he] maybe talks like an idiot and looks like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you, he really is an idiot.” Moreover, Slavoj Žižek actually quotes this quip with reference to another politician in disguise, the former Argentinian minister of economy Domingo Cavallo, who eluded an angry mob that had besieged his house by wearing a mask of himself, the same mask the demonstrators gathered there wore as a form of mockery. Žižek writes, “When, instead of a hidden terrifying secret, we encounter behind the veil the same thing as in front of it, this very lack of difference between the two elements confronts us with the ‘pure’ difference that separates an element from itself.”4Slavoj Žižek, “The Christian-Hegelian Comedy,” Cabinet Magazine: Laughter, issue 17 (Spring 2005). See here. Indeed, perhaps a thing is its own best mask. But for us, the idiot may talk like a Swedish Democrats representative and look like Hitler, but don’t let that fool you, he really is Charlie Chaplin. That is to say, the imagined non-visible interlocutory mask of Chaplin is the secret to the secret of the outfit that, rather than enshrouding, comes to powerfully affect the appearance of his appearance, which is not something to reveal as much as it is something to somehow countermand. Because it would not be enough to uncover the representative and his Hitler costume, to visually discern the discrepancy between what it appears to be and what it is, regardless of being the same or different. Rather, we would have to rid him of the methodology afforded by his Chaplin camouflage.

In a chapter on the face in Means Without End, Giorgio Agamben writes, “We may call tragicomedy of appearance the fact that the face uncovers only and precisely inasmuch as it hides, and hides to the extent to which it uncovers.”5Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End: Notes on Politics (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 92. Not long ago, Mos Maiorum, an operation instigated by the European Union and sanctioned by the Swedish government, was put into practice in Sweden. In Stockholm it meant that in subways, mostly, undercover police pursued people who live clandestinely because they, as it is said, do not hold legal status. The two protagonists, one unmarked and masked to live in secrecy, the other marked and secretively masked in order to find and unmask the other, struggled, in secrecy, to see each other. When one mask met the other mask both were unmasked, coming face to face. Visually superior technology modeled on the concept of the undercover agent as being seeing and unseen—drones, for example—has in many respects put an end to face-to-face confrontational warfare inasmuch as it is ‘unblinking’, which is to say ‘unhuman’. And to lose ‘the front’ is to lose sight of war, it is a disappearance of what allowed one to identify the enemy, to identify with the enemy, as Derrida remarked in The Gift of Death, noting that after WWII “one loses the face of the enemy, one loses the war, and perhaps, from then on, the very possibility of the political.”6Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 19..

Though it would seem that the upcoming election is a plebiscite regarding immigration policy, at the heart of it all are questions of appearance, of doxa. And while people revisit the ballot boxes, they will pass the new front where camouflaged combatants, one perhaps masked with papers and the other maybe masked without, in a sequence of secrecy, in a play of appearances, try to out-secret each other.

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