Co-Illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication by David Levi Strauss Reviewed by Will Fenstermaker

Examining the war of images in the current political landscape.

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While persuading one person to love you might be hard, uniting larger populations is easier. This counterintuitive wisdom comes from the sixteenth-century philosopher Giordano Bruno. The key bonding agents in Bruno’s De vinculis in genere (A General Account of Bonding) are images and belief: if you can make the general population believe in your image, then you can bind them more strongly.

In David Levi Strauss’s latest book, Co-Illusion: Dispatches from the End of Communication, he reports how Donald Trump dominated electoral politics by manipulating the images of mass media, giving Bruno’s observation new relevance. In his introduction, Strauss calls himself “a student of … how images are used to affect public opinion and sentiment.” As an art critic, Strauss is particularly attuned to the complicated relationship between rhetoric and images and the ways in which they gain their power from each other. Strauss has spent decades writing about belief and how its changing nature leaves society open and vulnerable to new forms of media-savvy tyranny.

Co-Illusion’s central insight is that the 2016 campaign was a civil war of images which took place after a larger crisis wherein representations of reality lost their verisimilitude. By 2016, Strauss argues, social media had nullified the social contract, leaving our collective imagination open to being hijacked. Strauss calls the campaign to capture the imagination “iconopolitics.” “The epic change we’re going through, from written and spoken language to the image, and from policy to perception, is making a quantum leap,” he writes. “In the New World … all that matters are the images projected on the walls of your own particular Reality Tunnel.” 

In Strauss’s telling, the 2016 election was a referendum on belief. “For Trump and his followers, words and images do not have a necessary relation to the Real,” he writes. “For them, words and images are endlessly malleable and therefore fundamentally untrustworthy.”

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Co-Illusion is a polarized book: it’s literally divided in two. The first section contains a series of dispatches Strauss wrote during the 2016 campaign, leading up to the November election. He attended both parties’ national conventions as an art critic armed with a press pass. Strauss describes himself as a “culture spy” who infiltrated the spectacular political machines to report how they produce images.

Strauss’s observations reveal the methods, tricks, and techniques that each competing campaign used to craft images of the United States, and how they garnered belief. He’s particularly astute at capturing moments when rhetoric slips into images—when the power of a speaker’s words is transmuted by a photograph or TV camera into an image that can be circulated on mass or social media where tenets of the old social contract fall apart. He describes a speech by Donald Trump Jr. transforming into a Kennedy-esque vision. Meanwhile, the following night, Trump’s second son gave a speech, and Strauss writes that, “the contradictions between what he was saying and what his face and body were telling us seemed to cause an actual breakdown in the image. The images on the video wall behind him began to black out, square by square, sputtering maniacally to the cadences of his speech.”

In November 2016, Strauss’s writing shifted into the voices of the regime, including Trump, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and Mark Zuckerberg. He writes the quiet parts out loud. “You must have noticed as the images began to separate from their referents. You told yourselves it was a temporary spectral shift, or a minor glitch in the iconosphere, but you must have seen it,” says an anonymous collective of Trump’s electorate. Channeling Bruno: “When everything and everyone became connected, everything and everyone became controllable.” 

Belief, like images, has become removed from its referent.

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Images by Magnum photographers Susan Meiselas and Peter van Agtmael accompany Strauss’s book. The pairings suggest additional critique and a new space for discourse. Many, if not most, of Meiselas’s and van Agtmael’s photographs contain screens: people broadcasting, watching, posing, and making smaller, more portable pictures of the images presented before them. The political machines make images that are easy to reproduce. Here, one realizes Strauss’s title also points to the collusion-illusion that implicates observers and turns spectators into agents of the image. Belief itself is a conspiracy; when you believe in an image, you become responsible for making it real.

The Democratic Party will never turn those members of Trump’s base who are aware of the cracks in his image but love him anyway. “You have your images (and words), and we have ours,” Strauss writes. In 2016, less than two-thirds of the electorate cast a vote, and Strauss reminds us that Trump lost the popular vote. But this year signs may be different. The Movement for Black Lives, the coronavirus pandemic, and a new generation of media-savvy elected officials on the left won’t themselves be enough to mobilize the full electorate. But together, they’ve formed a coherent image of the United States in the twenty-first century. They give us a new image in which to believe.

Will Fenstermaker is an art critic based in New York.

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