- When the Puppets Get Together: Looking Like a Subject in The Archers’ The Tales of Hoffmann
We are currently faced with what could be called a puppet problem in presidential politics. Puppets imitate subjects without becoming them, and thus serve a dual function: they lay bare the mechanisms that make subjecthood intelligible while simultaneously calling attention to the fact that to look like a subject is no guarantee that you are one.1 The puppet’s association with failed subjecthood—in other words, the puppet’s failure to become a “real boy”—is directly linked to its popularity as a metaphor for political disempowerment. 2 For instance, let us take Donald Trump’s now infamous “No puppet. You’re the puppet,” response to Hillary Clinton’s accusation that he was Russia’s pawn during the third 2016 presidential debate. Trump’s “No puppet” remark, which widely circulated online as a meme, has gained enough cultural currency to earn its own Urban Dictionary page. The entry reads: “No Puppet: The ultimate expression for shutting bitches down during an argument; a metaphorical wall of words that repels cucks, cunts, liars and Rosie O’Donnell.”3 Trump’s performative tactic of “shutting bitches down” with indecipherable nonsense that prohibits conversation, however, is a very puppet-like thing to do. Puppetry entails animate bodies that produce affects without being susceptible to their reciprocal effects. It is in this way that Trump’s performance of aggressive non-responsivity—insisting he can send an affective surge into the world while taking nothing back in—suggests that he is as invested in being a puppet as much as proclaiming that he is not one. In amplifying an authoritarian, sovereign performance of impenetrable masculinity, Trump inadvertently reproduces the very aspects of non-sovereignty that he repudiates.
While Trump amplifies the paradox of the president-as-puppet/president-as-no-puppet, he in no way marks the beginning of this puppet problem in American politics, or even in the Western political imaginary. One could begin with Plato, who used the puppet as a correlative for the relationship between the citizen and divine law, or, more immediately relevant for our discussion of Trump, the presidency of Ronald Reagan.4 Michael Rogin argues that Reagan, by borrowing a model of political sovereignty from Hollywood movies, mechanized the hyper-willfulness and [End Page 276] spontaneity of the masculine hero-qua-political-leader. Reagan’s presidential performances demonstrated that borrowed models of sovereignty always draw from an obscured mythical source that exceeds the individual’s control or capacity.5 Brian Massumi similarly writes that Reagan’s often incoherent politics were correctively supplemented “by technologies of image transmission, and then relayed by apparatuses, such as the family, the church, the school and the chamber of commerce, which, in conjunction with the media, acted as part of the nervous system of a new and frighteningly reactive body politic.”6 In other words, Reagan’s coherence as a political figure was supplemented by a political body that well exceeded his own. For Massumi, Reagan was a “transmitter” of vitality, which allowed people not to ignore his fragmented and incomplete delivery of speech—Reagan was consistently mocked for the absurdity and vacuity of his statements—but rather to overlook it or look beyond it toward a perceived confidence that enabled such transparency in the first place. In other words, Reagan’s performance of non-sovereignty was taken as further proof of his sovereignty. The same could be said of Trump, whose refusal to follow political decorum is not seen by his base as an indicator of his unpreparedness or ignorance, but his absolute honesty and refusal to kowtow to the niceties of his less efficient colleagues. Trump’s inconsistency serves to prove his more instinctual access to truth.7 In this sense, the puppet offers us a mode of diagramming the problem of presidential sovereignty: the political image both insidiously conceals and mystically accesses a force that transcends the president as a physical figure. The president gains as much power from his being a puppet as he does by refuting his puppetness.
If we take “puppethood” to entail certain performative conventions, as many have...