In a world of information warfare hypermediated by twenty-four hour news cycles, has media-narrative risen to the level of shaping geopolitical reality? The Circus, what Showtime originally hailed as “Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth,” is back. For its third season, we look “Inside the Wildest Story on Earth,” opening with an episode titled “The Looking Glass War.” A doff of the hat to espionage novelist and retired UK intelligence officer John le Carré’s 1965 novel. It’s been more or less a year since the show’s season two finale. Far too-long an hiatus fans would argue, during which time disturbing allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of co-host Mark Halperin surfaced.
At its opening, the season premiere blasts us with recent news broadcasts. “The US intelligence community said that it is confident that Russia intended to interfere with the US election process.” This is the ride we’re in for now, after the floorshow of the 2016 primaries and the general election in its first season, after the first hundred days of the Trump Administration in its second, The Circus enters the fraught world of geopolitical adventurism. Or as co-host, political strategist Mark McKinnon puts it while standing on Red Square, “I need some Rubles.” Or to frame it against one of Guy Debord’s theses in his seminal work, Society of the Spectacle, “The Spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” Or, if you prefer the soundbite, “In an ultra topsy-turvy world, the true is a moment of the false.” Or is it the case that we’ve secretly, without even noticing, transcended Debord?
It feels like something worth having, this new season of The Circus, and especially poignant is the le Carré title. Just by virtue of the issues surrounded Halperin, and the nature of the subject matter covered, the Trump administration taking the world stage, there’s a kind of looking glass war between this third season of the show and the events of 2017. There’s the Trump administration, some would say unleashed, others perhaps, unbounded, the #MeToo moment, foreign actors influence peddling in an American election, and lurking in the wings is the great internal upheaval we’re going to have to go through when the national conversation turns towards the social media that allowed for this influence peddling to occur.
With Halperin no longer cohosting, The Circus taps longtime contributor and oft-time guest-host, CBS News anchor Alex Wagner. At the breakfast briefing, one of the show’s fixed points where the cohosts discuss their schedules for the upcoming week, and frame the episode’s agendas, Wagner seems forceful but not dominating. This breakfast is in Russia, in Moscow, at the Saxon + Parole eatery, and Wagner is the first to say “Na zdorovye.” Then, “Moscow and Russia exist in myth.” John Heilemann follows her lead, cuing us in. “There’s the idea of Russia and the reality of Russia. Between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow.” “Or the circus,” Wagner offers. “Yeah, or the circus,” Heilemann echoes with a smile.
The play between cohosts summons up a memory of forty year old movie. Call it the Last Stand of Akira Kurosawa. The 1980 jidaigeki epic, Kagemusha. Set in the Sengoku period, the story follows the havoc that plays out when the leader of one of three warring factions dies and is replaced by a lookalike, who more and more assumes the role until no distinguishable difference remains. You won’t see it in Ran, Kurosawa’s last grand epic released five years later. Ran retraces Throne of Blood, Shakespeare recast as a Japanese samurai movie—King Lear for Ran, the Scottish Play for Throne of Blood. What you will see in Kagemusha is Kurosawa standing in for himself, appropriating Shakespearean storytelling techniques, pantomime and drama, without recasting a Shakespearean story. Something he’s been building to his entire career, and finally achieves in regal splendor with Kagemusha. The movie’s title literally translates as “shadow warrior,” but no one you love and respect would call it that. Instead, they’d opt for the correct inflection—“the political decoy.” Shadows, political decoys, looking glass wars, and the circus of it all. I can’t watch the season three premiere without returning to Kurosawa’s movie at least once every scene.
“The Looking Glass War” feels bigger and deeper and more detailed than its half hour format gives it any right to be. Rather than splitting time between New Hampshire, Virginia, and Iowa just ahead of the primaries, the cohosts split their time between Washington, London, and Russia. It’s The Circus gone global, but the timetable’s still the same, one week in politics, or for this season, one week in geopolitics. In the breadth of one episode we seem to get it all — Is There A New Cold War With Russia?, bombing Syria after a redline chemical weapons attack, a simmering feud as Russia ejects US diplomats in retaliation for the US and Britain ejecting Russian diplomats in the wake of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal on UK soil, and the offices of President Trump’s personal lawyer getting raided by the FBI. But more than anything, there’s the long reflection cast in the looking glass, with Wagner replacing Halperin, The Circus is dealing with almost every facet of 2017, the unexpected ascendancy of the Donald J. Trump, as well as #MeToo.
Kagemusha couldn’t make for a better metaphor. At the movie’s opening, we begin with the three warring super-kingdoms in a state of deadlock. Takeda, Nobunaga and Tokugawa each vie for the right to unite Japan, but doing so is conditioned upon vanquishing the others. Whatever move Takeda makes is neutralized by Tokugawa. Nobunaga neutralizes Tokugawa’s ambition, but finds his own plans stymied by Takeda. It’s a visual labyrinth worthy of Escher, something needs to happen soon. In the highly stylized, ornately ritualized setting of a formal noble audience, Lord Shingen Takeda receives the lowborn thief who will eventually become the kagemusha. “Train him,” Lord Takeda says right before exiting the scene. And later, “Tonight, I would like to hear that flute player for myself,” a line with which he summons up hamartia, and his own tragically avoidable death. After which, Kagemusha’s entire first movement hinges on establish the truth from conflicting intelligence reports. With the kagemusha’s existence unbeknown to either Tokugawa and Nobunaga, Takeda’s rivals race to discover which reports can be trusted and which not. The sniper’s report says Takeda’s been killed, the fisherman’s says no, he’s alive. Takeda leads his troops, but falls from the steed only he can mount. Conflicting reports swirl. And just as suddenly as Takeda’s anonymous assassination, even this status quo gives way when the kagemusha’s resemblance of Takeda becomes so perfect, no one can tell the difference between the double and their lord.
This is what it’s felt like this last year without The Circus. A year in the trenches of a post truth, fake news world. A year when Sean Spicer had “alternate facts” at his disposal, when a nuclear slap fight with North Korea nearly broke out, when Hawaii’s early warning system was convinced that nuclear warfare had indeed broken out, when Nazi’s marched with tiki torches, when US diplomats in Cuba mysteriously succumbed to inexplicable illness, when a trade war with China arguably fractured relations with Europe. After all the corrections and retractions made by CNN, from the misreporting of the Trump/WikiLeaks story to the retraction of a report linking Anthony Scaramucci to sanctioned Russian bank Venesheconombank, it’s beginning to feel like that might be more credence to claims of the cable network pushing out “fake news.” But where’s this leave us? Probably here.
Can the postmodern kill us? In a fake news, post truth world where we can’t know which media to trust, can fictions become weaponized? And eventually become facts? Or to put a harder edge on it, can media frenzy around the possibility of a New Cold War, actually foment one? What The Circus’s season three premiere attempts to investigate finds a perfect metaphor in a forty year old movie telling a story set four hundred years before that.
But postmodernist paranoia only makes sense if you buy into Debord’s notions around the Spectacle. Essentially, Debord argues for the Spectacle as a constituting paradigm for a society in which image has become currency. In the society of the Spectacle, the image is the only true barometer of authenticity. And because of the conjunction of desire and value, and the conjunction of desire and capital, Spectacle itself becomes capital. In other words, it’s conquest by illusion, entertainment has conquered the world, and now even hard news and political discourse must bend towards the inherent logic of entertainment. It’s not hard to understand, just watch the season seventeen finale of South Park. In “The Hobbit,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone offer their most savage criticism of the culture many believe the Kardashians spawned, but in truth it’s a culture they only mastered. Without even having seen this episode, you know how it ends—with a young woman in tears, body-shamed, her self-loathing fuels her choices. All the while, the boys trade images of their girlfriends, photoshopped to an unrealistic degree, the girls themselves absent.
“The Spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute. All it says is, everything that appears is good, and whatever is good will appear.” Or, “The Spectacle is a permanent opium war waged to make it impossible to distinguish goods from commodities or true satisfaction from a survival that increases according to its own logic.” It’s hard to resist the siren song of Debord’s ideas, especially when you look at the 2016 election, especially when it looks like you can draw a straight line from 2016 through the Fire and the Fury of 2017, transitioning to enter the geopolitical stage. And the stakes never seem higher when Margarita Simonyan, RT’s Editor-In-Chief who’s mentioned more than twenty times in the CIA report on possible election tampering by Russia, says “And it’s just laughable to think that we at RT could in any way have affected the American elections. But what if we had? Would that have been any different from what American media had been doing in all of the countries of the world for decades now? American media here in Russia have been supporting oppositional candidates for years and nobody here in Russia has been accusing them of meddling in Russian elections.” Wagner launches herself like a UFC champion, “Does it concern you that some of the farms that generate fake news stories are located in Russia?”
But what if Debord’s theories are only the easiest way of looking at the issue? What if the whole of the story is something more complex than image-as-currency-in-a-time-when-society-leaves-us-alienated-and-numb? Applying Debord’s theories for example would necessitate upon the notion of organic development, something like Smith’s invisible hand, fostering growth of the media landscape. But that sets aside the idea that American media like American politics has always been a deliberate open experiment of sorts. Think of the tradition of Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism, infusing staid journalism with writing practices from the world of fiction. Or Michael Lewis’s embedded narrative nonfiction. Or Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo. Or go as far back as Walt Whitman’s cultural cartographies of an emergent America. Precluding intentional innovation from the American media landscape marginalizes risks demoralizing its grandest attribute; its openness to the aberrant, the novel, its edifice as the experimental and the emergent.
As Kerry Roeder writes in “The Comic Strip Wakes Up,” appearing in the Greil Marcus, Werner Sollors edited A New Literary History of America, “New York City at the turn of the twentieth century was a metropolis teeming with novel and spectacular visual experiences. City Dwellers navigated a new social landscape: advances in the speed of public transportation, combined with overcrowded streets, transformed notions of both time and space. The stresses of modern life led people to seek comfort in new forms of leisure, from the amusement parks to department stores and nickelodeons. Among the most popular diversions were the daily newspapers, whose eye-catching headlines, graphic illustrations, and rectilinear columns mirrored both the chaos and the order of New York’s urban fabric. The weekly comics in the newspapers’ Sunday supplements supplied both light entertainment and an opportunity for readers to grapple with the new experiences of modernity.”
Roeder points to the inherent “infotainment” of American media. Infotainment, but not in an ironic or derisive way, rather American media as a kind of praxis, distinct from the European ideal of segregating the serious business from news and politics from the foppish world of entertainment. What Roeder suggests instead is that even the earliest American newspapers exist almost as a kind of postmodern object; simultaneously catering to the psyche caught in a moment of transition, awash in “both the chaos and the order” of the new world of technology, and to the intellect as it grapples with the hard choices arising from mastery of the day’s serious political and financial events.
It’s a notion that probably won’t be framed better than Kurosawa’s final scene of Kagemusha, where the kagemusha, disgraced by having been outed as the decoy he is, returns in an attempt to stir Lord Takeda’s army to a victory over Nobunaga’s forces. But that will not happen, the kagemusha is not Lord Takeda, and in his final moments, he dies on the battlefield like the warrior he never was. Or for that matter, by a counterintuitive leap of creativity into criticism, being subject to Alex Wagner’s unspoken and perhaps unintended allusions and constructing an artificial connection between a hard edged political commentary TV show, and sprawling samurai epic from forty years ago.
In the final analysis, Showtime’s The Circus is something more important than profound: it’s necessary. Despite the looking glass shadows it carries, embodying the struggles of a fraught and perilous 2017, the show has already been repacked as narrative—season one, the crazy train of the 2016 election, season two President Trump takes the American stage, and now season three, America on the world stage. The topics it tackles are sober and the work of serious minds, journalists in every way adequate to “the stormy present,” as President Lincoln would have had it. A new Cold War, even the possibility of one, is no grand political game like the balancing of power Mycroft Holmes attempted in Arthur Conan Doyle’s popular stories.
And yet, in facing the challenges of an arguably weaponized Russian media, in facing an age where the Monroe Doctrine might actually lead to firm counter-assertive measures, what can be more needed than the wholesale embracing of the existential challenges faced by the intrepid Circus cohosts by large swaths of society? The sober-mindedness of staring down the ostensible crazy of society and the simple realization that American media, like American society, was built different from the ground up. The idea that a postmodern simultaneity to cater to both psychic and intellectual needs, without segregating thesis as two distinct orders, isn’t necessarily a moral failure, but could in the long run be a virtue. It doesn’t come preassembled, you need to make the leap yourself, but for me, in the chaos and the order of the times we’re facing, you could do worse than embrace bildungsroman trajectory of a filmmaker who throughout his career struggled with Shakespeare, only to find himself freed from adaptations and simulacra, right at the very end.