The Hyperreal Joe Biden

Speaking to some reporters outside the White House this week, President Biden raised concerns about the nature of his corporeal integrity when his image appeared to violate certain material norms. Walking to a helicopter on the South Lawn, Biden paused briefly to entertain questions. While gesturing, his arms appeared to pass through microphones in the foreground, leading many to speculate or joke that the whole event was confected in a studio in front of a green screen. 

Debunkers and fact-checkers leapt into action. Some pointed out that green screen technology typically places the subject in front of objects, not behind them, while others observed that video from a different angle captured the scene normally. Alex Kaplan, a Media Matters senior researcher and soi-disant expert on “social media misinformation and disinformation and online extremism,” confounded doubters by repeatedly calling the episode a “false conspiracy theory,” similar to others propounded by “QAnon supporters.” 

Commenters reacted with outrage at the suggestion that the scene was dummied-up. “Who actually believes this 'faked moon landing' type nonsense,” asked reporter Steve Herman, who says he was holding the microphone, “and more importantly who is spreading it?”  

One supposes that Biden really was on the South Lawn of the White House that day, and that the odd footage is a trick of the light or a depth-of-field issue or an optical illusion of some sort. Digital video, after all, is a cheap and flexible technology and one should be skeptical about images. 

But what’s interesting about the event was how readily the image of a flickering, barely-there Joe Biden matched the reality of the Biden administration, and how unsurprising people would find it if it turned out that the whole thing is a CGI production anyway. This is a president, after all, whose appearances are vanishingly rare, who has not yet given a press conference, and who seems to have skipped the State of the Union address. When Biden speaks without the benefit of a teleprompter, he loses the thread of his sentences, blanks on the names of major Cabinet appointees, and resorts to the type of filler language that anyone who has spent time around the senile understands as compensatory.  

The weird nictating effect of Biden’s arm as it leaps in front of the microphones in the video speaks to the oddly spectral quality of his election, which still doesn’t make an enormous amount of sense—how exactly did he win so many more millions of votes than Barack Obama, yet win so many fewer counties?—or to the hyperreal nature of his presidency. It’s not cruel to suggest that he isn’t all there. Even Biden’s most fervent supporters will tacitly acknowledge that he’s not steering the ship, though as to who’s actually in charge… well, maybe it’s a group thing—people who have our best interests at heart. 

Forget about the image and listen to the words he said in the 30 seconds he spent with the reporters. He was asked if he planned to go to the southern border, where tens of thousands of his invited guests are bum-rushing the gates and making a mockery of any principle of national sovereignty. “Not at the moment,” he said. He was asked if he had any plans to talk to other leaders, and which ones would be first. “I’ll let you know shortly.” Brevity may be the soul of wit, but organizationally it’s also the sign of someone who hasn’t received his orders yet.