Digital Unreason: Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Evil Jew’
This article privileges an analysis of the artwork Animation, masks (2011) by the Jewish-American contemporary artist Jordan Wolfson. This animated film is over 10 minutes long and features only one character, based on a collection of references Wolfson found under the Google search terms ‘evil Jew’ and ‘Shylock’. One of the key references for this ‘evil Jew’ stereotype, ‘Le Happy Merchant’, is a popular meme circulating on the 4chan media network and has become a mascot of the so called ‘alt-right’ – a loose network of racists and anti-Semites that became militant supporters of the 2016 Donald Trump presidential campaign and presidency. In Wolfson’s version of the meme, professional American animators were hired to give this stereotype the illusion of life. The result is a fascist stereotype restaged as an endearing Dreamworks character, unpredictable and incoherent, lurching between violent and placatory gestures. Rather than attempt a close analysis, this article argues that Wolfson’s social link to stereotype, conspiracy theory and fascist rebellion requires greater interrogation in light of the Donald Trump campaign, Brexit and the Le Pen candidacy. In all these campaigns, a vitalistic critique of metropolitan ‘elites’ or ‘globalists’ became the anti-establishment pretext for verbal assaults on immigrants, people of colour and Muslims. Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle in Cartographies of the Absolute (2015) connect a popular upsurge in conspiratorial thinking to an absented critique of capitalism. They claim that if the abstract and impersonal character of capitalism is never awarded popular interrogation, conspiracy theory is an easy substitute, leaving the door open to anti-Semitic and racist projections. In turn, they call for art and popular culture that creates a systematic link to the bewildering movements of late capitalism, rather than fall into conspiratorial thinking. In this article, the author suggests that Wolfson in Animation, masks is using animation and caricature to bear witness to the circulation of anti-Semitic conspiracy and the narcissistic social networks that have been emboldened by the rise of the international far Right. However, by ambivalently playing around with stereotype, Wolfson also risks falling into complicity with forces of unreason that are indifferent to ironic treatment. This article discusses the critical contributions and limitations of this artwork, leading to an evaluation of Wolfson’s conceptual performance as a whole.