A signed statement on the failure of language

I’ve stayed away from commenting publicly on the new US administration. There’s so much fodder, so much grist, that it could easily overwhelm. It does overwhelm. Daily news feeds are prefaced and filled with coverage of Trump, his family, his appointments, his interests. My instinct is to stay completely away from it, for at least three reasons:

  • First, there is paranoia: we have yet to fully understand and appreciate the consequences of speaking ill or in any way that might be construed negatively. Trump is self-admittedly and famously vindictive, so paranoia in this case is more  a matter of healthy circumspection.
  • Second, there is the usual historian’s caution about offering premature commentary: let’s wait and witness the full unfolding of events, and allow the time needed for all the primary source materials about them to be made available, before crafting an account of events that might help make sense of it all.
  • Third, there are other things going on in the world, which is one of the larger points of the current D.C. diorama – in which it should be apparent to anyone with their peripherals fully engaged and calibrated: every spectacularly dissonant media event  obscures or distracts from an equally disturbing series of events elsewhere in the world.

But today’s meme, which focuses on Donald Trump’s handshake, is full of  the sort of communicative content that will delight symbolic interactionists, frame theorists, specialists in broadcast and rhetorical dominance, and anyone else who thinks about such things. Trump’s physical presence and its role in his political theatre has come up before. One prominent example arose during his campaign debates with Hilary Clinton. There have been others, including Trump’s 19 second long handshake with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his awkward handholding with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

It is precisely Trump’s violent handshake style that has caught the media eye over the last 24 hours, after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, apparely very well prepared  for the event, visibly countered Trump’s grasp. The ensuing commentary has been full of snapshot hilarity. One of the more literary pieces I’ve seen is Vice’s semi-satirical analysis  of the meaning of Trump’s handshake:

This is a handshake buried under the weight of its own meaninglessness, a black hole of metacommentary in a world where sense sloshes chaotically across a flat surface of signifiers unmoored from any attachment to truth or reason or even an orderly presentation of images. Donald Trump’s handshake is a signed statement on the failure of language here at the end of the world.

The Vice piece is worth reading in full.

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