Pornotopia: From ISIL to Donald Trump

ISIL and Donald Trump are united in their vulgar showmanship of power.

A Donald Trump supporter stands on a chair to get a better view as the Republican presidential candidate speaks at the National Federation of Republican Assemblies [AP]
ISIL and Trump are emblematic of a pornographic politics of vulgar exhibitionism, writes Dabashi [AP]

Throughout the long and lazy month of August, two sites of daily news in particular were competing for the headlines: The ISIL atrocities in Syria and Iraq, and Donald Trump in the United States. They looked like two testosterone-infested obnoxious teenagers waking up in the morning and wondering which one could one-up the other in their vulgar exhibitionism of violence and power.  

As ISIL was busy murdering a renowned Syrian archaeologist, Khaled al-Asaad, while destroying the 2,000-year-old temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra – chief among many other atrocities, Donald Trump was equally busy breaking his own record of blunt racism, sexism, misogyny, boasting of his great wealth and making inappropriate remarks about his own daughter, while taking a break from ridiculing working mothers or throwing journalists out of his press conferences because they were of Mexican descent. 

Republican strategist: Trump a ‘distraction’ in debate

Every day when you thought neither ISIL nor Trump could do worse, they would prove you wrong: They would do worse. 

ISIL v Donald Trump

What united ISIL and Trump is their vulgar showmanship of power, their violent exhibitionism: one as an outlaw gang of rapists and murderers against two sovereign nation-states, and the other as a perfectly legal staging of a presidential campaign to claim the highest elected office of a functioning democracy. 

ISIL and Trump, however, are not oddities. They are extremities that mark a territory that includes a whole slew of similar landmarks. Consider Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coming to the US Congress and with astonishing rudeness abrogating the authority of the highest elected office of this country and working against the expressed policy of the US president. Consider AIPAC openly functioning as the Fifth Column of the Israeli settler colony in the United States, buying and selling its elected officials to wage one war after another on behalf of Israel.

ISIL and Trump are not anomalies: they are emblematic of a pornographic politics of vulgar exhibitionism that marks the death of any meaningful political culture East or West with a remote claim to decency…


Consider Professor William C Bradford of the US Military Academy at West Point proposing “to threaten Islamic holy sites as part of a war against undifferentiated Islamic radicalism. That war ought to be prosecuted vigorously … even if it means great destruction, innumerable enemy casualties, and civilian collateral damage”.

The professor even recommends “that legal scholars critical of the war on terrorism represent a treasonous fifth column that should be attacked as enemy combatants … [targeting] law school facilities, scholars’ home offices and media outlets where they give interviews”.

What is the difference between this “professor” and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, except that he teaches the highest echelon officers of the most powerful military on planet earth? 

On the other side of the spectrum, listen to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speeches after the Iran nuclear deal and see with what delusional fantasies he is trying to sell the soundest and most humiliating defeat of his bombastic revolutionary gibberish as a resounding victory – resorting to such claptrap phrases as “narmesh-e qahremananeh/heroic flexibility” to try to explain the disgraceful compromise of a nation’s sovereignty! 

When you put all these varied vulgarities together something else emerges. 

Pornography as politics

In a magnificent new study, “Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics”, Beatriz Preciado offers an uncanny examination of the constellation of pornographic spaces as sites of modern architectural production, and therefore a crucial citation of “Western modernity”. Predicated on a close reading of Playboy magazine and its subsequent spatial contingencies of sex and sexuality, Preciado demonstrates how sexuality is manufactured as a biopolitical set of techniques for governing sexual reproduction of gender in North American architectural modernity.

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump [Reuters]
Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump [Reuters]

What Preciado’s study of pornography enables, even beyond its own immediate concerns, is the extension of that biopolitical spacing of modernity into the theatricalities of modern politics in a manner that pornographic exhibitionism extends far and wide into the farthest corners of global politics: from Trump’s gaudy antics in US presidential elections to ISIL’s vicious exhibitionism in Iraq and Syria, and a whole slew of similarly rude scenes in between.

All these symptoms point to a psychopathological condition characterised by the compulsion to display one’s genitals in public to mark contested territories and claim virulent domination.      

These similarities on the global scene point to a common denominator that shrinks the presumed distance between a militant Islamist gang of rapists and murderers and the perfectly straight face with which North American politics is viewed and analysed. None of these is an anomaly and they are all the logical conclusion of a political modernity of which pornography is the best emblematic representation.


Comparing ISIL’s atrocities and Trump’s vulgarities, as they compete in their blunt exhibitionism of violence and power, we see them both as manifestations of “Pornotopia” writ large – the spatial formation of biopolitics in modernity, a dreadful exhibitionism transcending the false binaries we usually make between democracy and terrorism, between modern and medieval, between normative and barbaric.    

ISIL and Trump are not anomalies: they are emblematic of a pornographic politics of vulgar exhibitionism that marks the death of any meaningful political culture East or West with a remote claim to decency, legitimacy, or civic responsibility.

The only measure of our humanity that remains is how steadfastly we oppose and end the banal voyeurism they systematically demand and exact.    

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.