Via @elonmusk

The world’s richest man continues to rile people with his childish humor and memes (remember he walked into Twitter headquarters carrying a sink, which supposedly meant “let that sink in”). His latest troll appeared today as he broadcast an image of his “bedside table.”

Among those items featured in the scene is a wooden box that displays what appears to be a historical flintlock pistol (though as @realmanofgenius points out, it might just be a cheesy gift set), while inside the box’s lid is an image of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851). Also included on the night table is what appears to be a bottle of fancy water (though the label is hard read), a vajra dorje, which is one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most symbolic objects, a 3D-printed replica of the Diamondback revolver from the 2011 video game “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” four diet, caffeine-free Coke cans, and their associated residue rings, and, in the background, a box set of what appears to be Books of American Wisdom, though I only see George Washington’s Rules of Chivalry and The Constitution of the United States of America, along with a white volume that doesn’t seem to be part of the original set.

This strange scene was clearly choreographed for the public. The cokes may be a reference to the habit of Donald Trump, who once admitted that he consumes 12 cans a day. The wink at Buddhism appears to be in the same vein of so much Silicon Valley pseudo-spirituality, which is often accompanied by microdosing, and the references to video games, guns, George Washington, and the constitution project an image of “alpha manhood” popular among the populist Right.

I know people like to use these to point out Musk’s move to the right – let’s not forget that he encouraged people to vote for Republican candidates during the Midterm elections – but I think it’s part of a larger strategy to attract the Right back to Twitter, regardless of their problematic political views. Musk appears to be interested in attracting the Right away from Gab, Truth Social, and the other platforms. The Left didn’t have an equivalent migration off-platform, and no, I don’t think Mastodon — which is viral immune, it seems — will replace Twitter. Musk seems to know that he has a lot to do to attract back the “disenfranchised” members and it looks like it’s working.

Within this larger dynamic, some journalists and writers may be surprised at how little the public will miss our centrality to the platform (just think of Instagram or TikTok). Yet it also raises a question as to what Musk is trying to say with this still life.

First of all, I still think this is a troll. I don’t believe this is what his “bedside table” typically resembles (full disclosure: a box of tissues and my glasses are typically on mine). His placement of Washington, not once but twice, on the table fires up the “free speech” talking point he’s been revving up since he took over Twitter. His inclusion of Rules of Chivalry is rather odd, though, considering that Washington didn’t so much write the book as mostly copy it from the 16th-century Jesuit source book. Could we say, using modern parlance, that Washington retweeted this? (Not to mention that the original reason he apparently copied it was to practice his penmanship.)

Like so much stuff online, this is a grab bag of signifiers, images and things that represent so much more than themselves. In art history, we’d call this a still life, though we may add the term “memento mori” to such a scene, due to the inclusion of guns, and the dark undertones of the image. Is this a man sitting awake late at night contemplating his humanity? The inference is there, even though it all feels contrived.

In the past, the super wealthy relied on the mediation of staff to ensure that they never looked foolish in public. Musk seems uninterested in that traditional arrangement. He’s learning that he can manufacture his own image (though I’m guessing he’s not doing this alone), without the traditional media channels. Although a mirror appears, there is no reflection of him. This just reinforces what still life painting is about, and its oppositionality to history painting and portraiture – namely, that we see no human figure at all, just the traces of our presence. 

The tabletop of an incel in training, which is how I initially read this image, doesn’t exactly reinforce confidence in a platform that has long had a difficult time with threats and hate. Then again, I’m not the target audience. If Musk can help Twitter become profitable (remember that it never has been) and grow its audience that would be an amazing feat. I think he knows that in order to do so he’ll have to attract a larger part of the public discourse in all corners of the political spectrum. All this makes me think of the vajra dorje, which symbolizes, “enlightenment as they embody the union of all dualities.” The five prongs of most vajras symbolize the wisdoms that are attained when we transcend those things (kleshas) that stand in our way.

But then there’s the video game gun. At the end of the day, Musk, who may be the richest man to ever walk the earth, is still an immature brat. Though others, particularly on this marvelously titled “Elon has gone full mall ninja!” post on Reddit, have pointed out the storyline of Deux Ex is “a game ironically about billionaires trying to control the masses.”

Some days, I try not to overthink the internet, but on days like today it’s hard.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.

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