Our House of Cards


“I speak of this incontestable truth: the social world is certainly the work of men; and it follows that one can and should find its principles in the modifications of the human intelligence itself . . . Governments must be conformable to the nature of the governed; government are even a result of that nature.”

— Vico, Scienza Nuova, trans. Jules Michelet

In the Netflix original drama, House of Card’s Francis Underwood has in five seasons turned into something worse than Richard III, certainly worst than Macbeth while Claire, his wife, has become his equally evil twin. The cynicism regarding politics and politicians expressed in this TV series is supposed to match the cynicism of the American public, who, pace Aristotle, see politics as a dirty business.

Wanting someone other than a politician as president seems to be a common preference, that preference leaning toward the rich and famous, super luminaries in the house of Big Business whose light shines on lesser lives who are themselves former members of the middle class whose fortunes are shrinking like the unfortunate in the great sci-fi flick, The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957.  He is also the forgotten man, thrice removed like William Powell in another great flick, My Man Godfrey, 1936, which begins with a “Find a Forgotten Man” game played by the super wealthy.

Turning to the reality of a popular TV political drama to find reflections of situations in the real world discloses, I believe, what remains unsettled and haunting in our culture at a particular time. The power of attraction here is in touching whatever happens to be at that time the third rail of the American mass psyche. The conflict we are led into is a conflict instilled in us by our surround, by our social world, which in turn is our work, our production.

There is another dimension here, unsettling inn itself, and it has to do with the fact that we no longer have to go to the movies or to Netflix or any other platform to find an imaginative transformation of our social world.

We now exist in a social world that is at one with the fabrications of “human intelligence.” We are fast losing that distance between fabrication and reality. The processing of reality that we humans make is already overwhelmed by the processing itself so that reality no longer stands distinct and apart.

The fact is that “fact” is lost already in fiction; we are overwhelmed by the narratives that construct the social world and it is overwhelmed by our narrating. Ceaseless. Without unity, coherence or continuity. Check Twitter for verification.

Or, attend to the way President Trump enters that Twitter world of disassociations ostensibly associated by a hashtag, fragments and bits of the undigested potatoes of minds organized by a hashtag order of things. World Without Mind is the apt title Franklin Foer has given to his forthcoming book.

Whether it is this Twitter world that leads President Trump to get his “presidential briefings” via TV claptrap or whether it is the other way around, clearly the human intelligence of the new president of the United States circulates in a social world boggled in unvetted narratives of the real. His is a social world so tailored to personal fictionalizing that there is nothing social or societal about it. It appears to all but those hoping to benefit from his presidency that his mind is already lost in this vicious self-absorbing, self-constructing madness.

Consider: madness spins a fable of millions of dead people voting for Hillary and then by executive order forms a commission to establish this madness as reality.

Of course, there is a strategy here, one that Orson Welles made famous in Citizen Kane, 1941:

“There is no war in Cuba, signed Wheeler.” Any answer?

Charles Foster Kane: Yes. “Dear Wheeler: you provide the prose poems. I’ll provide the war.”

Kane will print the war into existence in his newspaper, the kind of “fake” news Trump accuses the legacy press of as they pursue their “witch hunt” of his collusion with the Russians in the presidential election. The virus of a hyperreal/reality confusion is not confined to the president but extends into the social world.

A confounding aspect of such madness is a societal consensus that this virus is actually something new and millennial, a happy dispersal of human intelligence on multi-platforms that moves both society and human intelligence to the spectacular.

However, there is no sign, either in our president’s entangling of spectacle with reality, his embodiment of the results of that, that our post-truth modifications of the world are more than destructive of both mind and world.

Those viscerally upset not only by Donald J. Trump as President of the United States but also by his very existence have nonetheless been part of a cultural milieu out of which he has risen.

His success is based on a conforming to the nature of the governed that exceeded Hillary’s capacity to do this. She did indeed win the popular vote but it was Trump who reached, however marginally, the key states he needed to win. In effect, his image conformed to an image being sought.

Trump’s own nature, deliriously entangled within fictions of what is, could express to those equally entangled in a communicable language. It didn’t matter that most of what he said was sub-demotic, hyperbolic at best, or twisted in the sound and the fury of the dark imaginaries of the worst devils of our human nature, because he was drawing from the same wellsprings as so many, so very many.

When language is in the hands of Humpty Dumpty and what it means is only what he says it means, the syntax of idiocy and illiteracy do the job as well as the syntax of coherent meaning.

That world of the governed was already there before Trump arrived. He arrived because it was already there. The only wonder is that it took so long for our post-truth world to birth a President Trump, whose confusing of fact and fiction, spectacle and society seem sui generis, a kind of pathological narcissism setting him apart from the shaping influence of a society arriving at this stage on its own.

A cultural narcissism proceeds from a fixation on a personal autonomy unchecked by an outside world and therefore spinning reality and truth from its own navel. What results is a clashing confusion of what we personally believe is true and real and what the world shows us is the case. Our own fictionalizing precedes any outside indifference, any obstructions to our own mythmaking, which makes, for instance, global warming science an obstruction to personal fictionalizing as to what we personally feel is “really going on.”

The nature of the governed is actually a bi-furcated nature, not only red and blue and gentrified and ungentrified but pre-post-truth, if this phrase can stand, and post-truth.

Analog and digital is another way of describing the divide, not in a tech sense because everyone is on board with this advance, rather like horse and cart to train, plane and automobile. We are all deep into cyberspace now, anxiously awaiting living in virtual realities, packaged in a Wi-Fi circuitry of AI, surrounded by robots that pick the crops, nanny the babies, work the Amazon hubs.

We are all techies now but the vestiges of another, former way of being in the world, another way of knowing, a kind of second order of observation that provides a contrasting frame, an alternative perspective, shadows our spectacular and sudden advance into something other than human intelligence, something other than a social world.

Regardless of how deeply and widely one’s life may be situated in cybertech and cyberspace, what matters is whether or not one holds on to a way of being in the world within which the “Now” is framed, contrasted, and understood.

This is a place where fact remains different and other than fiction, facts do not give way to personal values, where cases are argued, and stories narrated, where language struggles toward public understanding, not private “friending,” where “so” returns to its consequential meaning as a conjunctive adverb and not a summary dismissal of words not your own.

The real resistance then is to the hyperreal where “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” and where the possibility that “man is at last compelled to face with sober sense, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” is no longer possible. The real resistance is to the creation of a time and place when human intelligence can no longer conform to these conditions and these relations.

The resistance to this resistance is powerful, not only because the cybertech present seems so clearly to have buried an ancient, “back in the day”  world without Smartphones, Uber, Airbnb and social media but also because as the Borg of Star Trek were fond of saying: “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”

It would be difficult to argue that we are not already partially or fully assimilated into the simulacra of our own fictions, lost, once again, in a barrage of twittering narratives we cannot silence or hope to synthesize.

The hyperreal seems to be reaching out to us but the truth here is that it is already in us; we are imbricated, intertwined. We have stepped through the fourth wall, from both the audience-reality side and the actors-play side.

I began with my binge watching of House of Cards because it not only reveals this state of affairs I am describing but contributes to a dark conforming of the present pulling us into a vicious circle we no longer have the means to escape.

Frank Underwood looks at the camera, at you, and lets you in on his Machiavellian ways, his Iago caliber deceit, because he knows you expect it when it comes to politics and politicians. He is, indeed, only this way because we already live in his world and appreciate it as true and real. We expect Frank and Clair Underwood to be the villainous, murderous way they are and that expectation is itself a product of deep immersion in the past four seasons of House of Cards, which, in turn we appreciate because we diet now in our social world only on the politics of dark skepticism.

Everything can be prosecuted as false and fabricated or nothing can. It’s the condition of narration, both true and false collapsed into a confused realm of real and hyperreal.  Whether it’s a Sean Hannity or New York Times explanation of the news of the day, or a story of Hillary’s lies or Trump’s lies, or an investigation or a witch hunt, the viewing perspective is already shaped by the streaming of the hyperreal, of other and earlier such narrative clashes, into the real.

This is the social reality conformable to our human intelligence. This is the human intelligence conformable to our social reality.

We “Like” either on Facebook or Twitter comments identical to the ones that have already shaped our “Like” disposition. Our critical faculty, our “human intelligence,” conforms to a world which itself has already conformed to our critical faculty.

That “world” is, of course, a selected world, a phenomenal world that may be far removed from the real conditions of life and the real relations with our kind. In a post-truth, hyperreal world the possibility whereby “man is at last compelled to face with sober sense” these realities can no longer be a moment free of the fictionalizing power of the phenomenal.

You can perhaps break free of the narrative world of Breitbart’s take on things if you read CounterPunch and perhaps break free of that narrative world if you read the Wall St. Journal and, most dramatically, break free of the mutual “Like” world of your Facebook page if you replace it with that of someone “unfriended.” You could program your mind’s GPS to take you to where your mind is not mapped to take you.

None of this is liable to happen, even though you bequeath to yourself a freedom to choose and an objective, critical intelligence. None of this is liable to happen because a narrating accountable to nothing more than other narrating, none of which steps outside the narrative frame you are already in, has invaded human intelligence, rather like the sudden invasion of aliens in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, 1996.

House of Cards, like a sly salesman who has found a place in your mind to pitch his pitch, doubles down on the dark view of American politics and politicians, by which I mean that politics here takes that dark view you came in with and etches it in more deeply. In its estimation as to how closely Frank and Claire are to us, the audience, House of Cards would shock us but it does not because the political world can never be cast as too dark for us. We cannot have it any other way.

For instance, American culture is already saturated with a view that power is what human intelligence seeks, a power, as Underwood expresses it,  “paved with hypocrisy and casualties, but never regret.” But in a culture shadowed by its Christian roots, more vocal of this affinity — I will not say hypocritically — in the face of a Muslim threat, any rejection of the Underwood Declaration of Power seems immediately to be a fiction the naïve swallow, a blindness that the savvy users of power, like Underwood, welcome in order to win even more power.

What shines in a glowing brightness of equal magnitude to the vile pitch of politics are the glories of the free market operating at the behest of Americans enjoying a personal freedom unequaled in the world. There is no phenomenal world of dark skepticism regarding these freedoms, almost no fabricated realities attaching us positively to a socialist critique of such. We reserve our disdain, our savvy recognition for the dark arts of politics, especially a politics that presumes to question the glories of the free market.

Without doubt, Claire Underwood would tell a pregnant woman that she is “willing to let your child wither and die inside you, if that’s what’s required.” We expect that there would be only one rule for “those climbing to the top of the food chain… hunt or be hunted” because that is the story of politics we live in, that is the story we recognize. Our recognitions are always true because we presumptuously believe that we know what’s what, and that is the story we project onto our fictions, the only stories we are now shaped to know.

In the penultimate episode of season 5, Underwood welcomes us to “death of the age of reason.” ““There is no right or wrong, not anymore. There’s only being in and then being out.” But of course, he’s talking to us and we already know, compliments of President Trump, that reason is out, or more precisely, it’s inside our own heads, along with 6,000 tweets of truth per second.

And Trump knows reason is out because he has observed its absence in his own campaign. He also knows that truth is no longer to be found, mainly because we, the audience, already know that it cannot be found except in our own minds. He has seen its absence in his Trump supporters who now acknowledge its absence as reported by Trump.

This is a mind spinning in a vicious circle like a flywheel set at an uncontrollable speed. And that mind finds the world spinning at the same rate, incapable of experiencing it in any other way, incapable of conforming to a social world that we, in a concert of human intelligence, live within.

This is our own house of cards.

“I speak of this incontestable truth: the social world is certainly the work of men; and it follows that one can and should find its principles in the modifications of the human intelligence itself . . . Governments must be conformable to the nature of the governed; government are even a result of that nature.”

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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