In the wake of the attemp­ted QAn­on putsch, and in the run-up to the inaug­ur­a­tion of Joe Biden, when Trump’s sup­port­ers are expec­ted to take to the streets again, Aleks McHugh con­siders QAn­on hys­teria and social media gen­er­ally as incarn­a­tions of Meyrink’s Golem, as por­trayed in the 1920 film by Paul Wegener.

I recently re-watched The Golem, Paul Wegener’s 1920 black-and-white ver­sion wherein, faced with the expul­sion of his vil­lage, a rabbi in 16th cen­tury Prague uses an old spell and some clay to con­jure a pro­tect­or. The pan­dem­ic has vastly expan­ded the occa­sion for isol­ated view­ing exper­i­ences, and Net­flix is wear­ing thin. It is as much a cop­ing mech­an­ism as film appre­ci­ation. As is true of many Wei­mar era films, Fritz Lang’s M and Dr. Mab­use being oth­ers, the movie is steeped in the fore­bod­ing of pre-Nazi rule (along with the weight of cen­tur­ies of Jew­ish per­se­cu­tion, recent Rus­si­an pogroms). It is prescient. 

And a cen­tury later, the only instal­ment of the director’s Golem tri­logy to sur­vive intact, it’s also timely. The resur­gence of a mil­it­ar­ized White nation­al­ism, under the MAGA slo­gan and QAn­on, Jew­ish con­spir­acies, great swaths of the pop­u­la­tion addled as if under a malig­nant spell as a dumb creature lays waste its environs. Its themes and prob­lems are recurring.

Also in the line of Prague Golem stor­ies, Meyrink’s 1915 nov­el, some­times cred­ited with inspir­ing the film, draws more on Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and folk­lore. No longer a straight­for­ward Franken­stein creature (albeit one enlivened by sum­mon­ing the evil spir­it Astaroth), Meyrink’s Golem is an elu­sive shift­ing pres­ence occupy­ing many pos­i­tions at once. At times appear­ing with the face of an antique deal­er who lived 30 years earli­er and who inhab­its the nar­rat­or dop­pel­gang­er-style, it also sym­bol­izes the city of Prague itself and the spir­it of the Jew­ish ghetto.

As the spir­it of the dis­en­fran­chised and its mani­fest­a­tion in a lar­ger-than-life protector—in fact, the dia­lectic between these—the Golem’s power can be chan­nelled in any dir­ec­tion, and per­ver­ted. And so it is. As every iter­a­tion of the myth teaches, the Golem is the thing that turns—the inven­tion that over­takes the invent­or, no mat­ter the ori­gin­al inten­tion. The old couple in the story of The Ginger­bread Boy only wanted a child to keep them com­pany. Who could have pre­dicted he would devour everything, includ­ing them? Well, cen­tur­ies of folk­lore actually.

True to its ori­gins in the Talmud and Psalms where ‘golem’ simply means ‘amorph­ous,’ and where Adam, pos­sibly its first embod­i­ment is “kneaded [from mud] into a shape­less husk,” the Golem has proved a “highly mut­able meta­phor with seem­ingly lim­it­less sym­bol­ism. It can be a vic­tim or vil­lain, Jew or non-Jew, man or woman—or some­times both.”[2]  The mys­tery, if there is one, is what causes its turn. Is it the con­sequence of mess­ing with evil spir­its, or that the act of giv­ing life always amounts to play­ing God? Or is it simply the nature of power that it has unin­ten­ded effects? Yes to all, but also by some pre­cise mechanism.

In the first (par­tially lost) movie of Wegener’s tri­logy, Rabbi Lowe’s clay statue is found in the rubble of an old syn­agogue in the 20th cen­tury by an antique deal­er. Using a spell, the deal­er revives the Golem and puts him to work as a meni­al ser­vant in his shop. It seems a good plan, cheap labour and all that, until the poor lunk falls in love with the shopkeeper’s daugh­ter who is, of course, unat­tain­able. He isn’t the most appeal­ing of suit­ors, with his grey pal­lor and meaty fists. And it’s pos­sible his sub-grade looks make the rejec­tion all the more pain­ful, although one might spec­u­late his eco­nom­ic exploit­a­tion is a con­trib­ut­ing factor. In any case, con­fused and furi­ous, he goes on a mur­der­ous ram­page and des­troys the town. He becomes a mon­ster, a lat­ter day Incel. 

Embit­ter­ment syn­drome, which thanks to the Inter­net, has solid­i­fied in the double bind of every vir­tu­al thing avail­able (envi­able) at your fin­ger­tips but utterly unat­tain­able in real life. Or in the realm of the mar­ket prop­er—pos­sibly attain­able with this product.

Incel­dom is only the most stark example. There are also botox parties for 20-somethings—not an exag­ger­a­tion, but ‘a thing.’ Also, rates of self-harm and sui­cide, depres­sion and anxi­ety, eat­ing dis­orders amongst youth are all cor­rel­ated with the advent of the Inter­net and social media use. Com­pare and despair.

It is no stretch to cast Trump in the Golem role. He does bear a strik­ing phys­ic­al resemb­lance and his appet­ite for destruc­tion is impress­ive

And in polit­ic­al realm, Robert Guffey points out that: “Just as the mili­tia move­ment of the 1990s served the needs of aver­age work­ing people ali­en­ated from the elit­ist cor­ridors of aca­demia and effete lib­er­al­ism, QAn­on came along dur­ing a moment of crisis and provided what all cults offer their beaten-down fol­low­ers: an explan­a­tion of why they’re liv­ing in such extreme poverty while every­one else around them—half-real phantoms seen haunt­ing Face­book, Ins­tagram, television—seem to prosper and flour­ish. Is it because someone’s keep­ing them down? If so, who is it? Who?”

Or if not in ‘extreme poverty,’ they felt they had lost their right­ful seat of power and wanted someone to blame. They wanted a defend­er whose hideous soul mirrored their own, who wasn’t going to apo­lo­gize for it, and who would oppose—no holds barred—those who made them feel ‘small,’ or worse ‘deplor­able.’

It is no stretch to cast Trump in the Golem role. He does bear a strik­ing phys­ic­al resemb­lance and his appet­ite for destruc­tion is impress­ive. What is harder to accept is that this appar­ent idi­ot savant—whose sen­sa­tion­al­ist tweets worked by chal­len­ging one’s capa­city to think—and his repos­it­ory of lulzy trolls are the bring­ers of Dada and Chaos Magic.

The Trump Golem

Yes, so any tech­no­logy can turn into its opposite—that tru­ism of Mar­shall McLuhan. In a sense, that’s what the Golem is—an early machine. The invent­or-cre­at­or is human.

Des­pite Meyrink’s interest in the occult and eso­ter­ic works, the Golem belongs to the psyche, and to some extent reflects the narrator’s inner state. Hav­ing suffered some sort of break­down, his san­ity in ques­tion, so too is the integ­rity of memory and iden­tity. Con­trib­ut­ing to this, is an atmo­sphere of secret mach­in­a­tions, of being watched, of events dir­ec­ted by powers bey­ond our per­cep­tion, for a syn­ergy of psych­ic and phys­ic­al conditions.

“Just as on sul­try days the stat­ic elec­tri­city builds up to unbear­able ten­sion until it dis­charges itself in light­ning, could it not be that the steady buildup of those nev­er chan­ging thoughts that pois­on the air in the Ghetto lead to a sud­den spas­mod­ic discharge.”

It should not be sur­pris­ing then that the tech­no­lo­gic­al rejig­ging of soci­ety as a whole which prom­ised to advance human­ity, con­nect us in one great Gai­an mind and demo­crat­ize media has also spawned Cam­bridge Ana­lyt­ica, QAn­on and the multi-pilled Mano­sphere. Not to men­tion, it has atten­ded the rise in dis­cord, extrem­ism and tri­bal­ism and the frac­tur­ing of shared real­ity. The demo­crat­iz­a­tion of speech has become the demo­crat­iz­a­tion of lies. And it is not as demo­crat­ic as it appears. As Rushkin, a former Inter­net cheer­lead­er, says: social media is used to ali­en­ate and isol­ate and atom­ize us from one anoth­er because “that’s the way it can serve the growth man­date of the stock exchange, which is an arti­fi­cial sys­tem, rather than the col­lab­or­at­ive man­date of human­ity which is a liv­ing system.”

In the myth asso­ci­ated with rabbi Loew, the Golem reappears every 33 years. If only.

The all-devour­ing inven­tion that out­paces its mas­ter is an obvi­ous meta­phor for a cap­it­al­ism premised on con­tinu­ous growth. It is already in the self-destruct­ive bend of the Death Drive. It is less evid­ent how the most recent tech­no­lo­gic­al muta­tion accel­er­ates it. Sur­veil­lance cap­it­al­ism. The atten­tion eco­nomy. Those are part of it. It also has some­thing to do with reach—that the modes of sur­veil­lance, pro­pa­ganda, mar­ket­ing are per­vas­ive and invas­ive at once, via such banal tech­niques as data min­ing and user modelling. 

Its magic is to com­bine tech­no­logy with polit­ics as a form of mass psyops—psyops in the sense that it works largely on the uncon­scious, on emo­tions which pur­pose is to com­pel the user’s beha­vi­or in a cer­tain dir­ec­tion without twig­ging aware­ness, to appear to anti­cip­ate our authen­t­ic desires and interests. The algorithm is an alchemy of the will.

For those who wield power at this nex­us of data, money and polit­ics, head­space can be accessed fairly cheaply. It is pos­sible to incite gen­o­cide in Myan­mar, affect voter sup­pres­sion in Niger­ia, and boost the Brexit vote in rur­al Wales with a few well-placed art­icles on Face­book. Cor­rec­tion: a few entirely fab­ric­ated art­icles coupled with the innoc­u­ous-sound­ing per­son­al­ized news­feed. Each unto their own rab­bit hole. 

This isn’t the Franken­stein myth. Trump’s troll army (which is to some extent an actu­al army of para­mil­it­ar­ies that includes mem­bers of law enforce­ment and intel­li­gence) is as much a part of the story—a sort of Golem repository—as is the gas­lit atmo­sphere of behind-the-scenes tinker­ing, the men­tal fra­gil­ity of its tar­gets along with real con­di­tions of disenfranchisement.

Appar­ently post-ram­page, we are left with a trashed inform­a­tion space (post-truth and pre-fas­cist accord­ing to his­tor­i­an Tim Snyder) and a sug­gest­ible cit­izenry afflic­ted with some­thing akin to hys­teria, ripe for fur­ther manip­u­la­tion. In the myth asso­ci­ated with rabbi Loew, the Golem reappears every 33 years. If only.