Tag Archives: #baudrillard

Adventures in integral reality: Amusement parks for angry citizens

31. VIII 2019

There is no longer anything on which there is nothing to say. (Jean Baudrillard)

Back in the day, long before flat screens, in the times of cathode tubes, watching news was a compulsory ritual, like a shower or shave, which took place once every day at 6:30 pm. The news was a basic reflection of reality — people watched them to get informed. From 6:30 to 7:00, a solemn cloud would descend on the households – during that time, activities would slow down and the kids had to get quiet while adults (mostly fathers) would tune in to hear what really happened on that day. The news were dry, boring, and unremarkable, delivered without embellishment; they had to be endured. Those 30 minutes felt different than any other 30 minutes of the day. As if the clocks slowed down, the flow of time changed, becaming thicker and slower. It felt like there was nothing that couldn’t fit inside that half hour.

The arrival of the 24/7 news cycle changed everything. By occupying the entire program, the news became both news and entertainment. Suddenly, there was always something going on somewhere, or so it seemed, something one was supposed to be afraid to miss. The news became less news and more opinions, and they provoked counter opinions and set the stage for the contest between different opinions. And the public started taking sides. There were winners and losers and everyone liked the winners, so the newscasters and political commentators became new inadvertent media stars. By then, people were watching news all the time, in the morning, during the day, before dinner, during dinner, and after dinner, between shows and during commercial breaks, before going to bed or if they couldn’t sleep at night. In order to fill the time, news channels had to expand beyond basic reflections of reality; they became a production of reality and the source of its excess. There was hardly anything left for us to imagine anymore. It spelled a slow death of the Real by suffocation of the imaginary.

Consider the following example of 1970s Italy from the perspective of modern media and 24/7 news. Those were the times when bombs were going off regularly in its cities as a result of the activity of the Brigade Rose and their likes.

Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists; or of extreme right-wing provocation; or staged by centrists to bring every terrorist extreme into disrepute and to shore up its own failing power; or again, is it a police-inspired scenario in order to appeal to calls for public security? All this is equally true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts, does not check this vertigo of interpretation. We are in a logic of simulation which no longer has anything to do with a logic of facts and an order of reason. Simulation is characterized by a precession of the model, of all models based on the merest fact — the models come first, and their orbital circulation constitutes the genuine “magnetic field” of events. The facts no longer have any trajectory of their own, they arise at the intersection of the models; a single fact may even be engendered by all the models at once. This anticipation, this precession, this short-circuit, this confusion of the fact with its model (no more divergence of meaning, no more dialectical polarity) is what allows each time for all the possible interpretations, even the most contradictory – all are true, in the sense that their truth is exchangeable, in the image of the models from which they proceed, in a generalized cycle[1].

The politics of Simulacra

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true. (Ecclesiastes)

These developments opened the door for alternative modes of reproduction of reality to enter the mainstream. According to Baudrillard, besides basic reflection of reality employed in traditional news casting, there are three additional stages of reproduction[2]: perversion of reality (e.g. William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report); pretense of reality (Larry Kudlow’s statemet: “President doesn’t make things up”); and simulacrum, which bears no relation to any reality whatsoever (e.g. Fox News).

Simulacrum is the map without a territory, a copy without an original, the avenue by which accepted ideals or privileged position could be challenged and overturned. Pinocchio is an example of simulacrum, and so is Frankenstein’s monster, and TV evangelists, hipsters, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Pygmalion, painting of a photograph, or Disney World.

Simulacrum contains a certain aspect of creation ex-nihilo. The intrinsic circularity between the real and imaginary is essential for its sustainability. For example, Disney World exists, it is permanent, undeniable; it constantly serves as a benchmark against which the Real is compared and measured. In contrast, Pretense and Perversion of reality are transient; they cannot take root and must be followed by another pretense or perversion in order to have any consequence.

However, the most important practical dimension of simulacrum, one which defines its appeal and longevity, is its intrusion into the value system. As Umberto Eco pointed out, when visiting Disney parks, we not only enjoy the perfect imitation, but the conviction that imitation has reached its apex, in comparison to which reality will always be inferior. This is the same motif found in Frankenstein (intention to produce a superior human from superior parts, Pygmalion, or Pinocchio. All these examples capture the desire to achieve perfection by design, improve reality by creating its copy, elevating it to the level of the real, and using it as a surrogate[3].

Very early on, the 24/7 news concept inevitably began to deviate from basic reflection of reality, although in varying degree, depending on the network. However, no one has gone further in that journey than the Fox News. Their accelerated departure from the rest of the news media coincides with the arrival of Roger Ailes who was the first to realize the endless financial potential of manufactured reality, long before anyone else, and adopted it as the network’s business model — We deceive, you believe — to create a simulacrum as a perfect surrogate, more appealing and in many ways superior and more desirable than actual reality itself.

Once reality gets passed through the cognitive sausage making processing plant of Fox News, it emerges transformed and utterly unrecognizable, immunized against facts. In that process, Fox has created a fictional world of arbitrariness that has no reality corrective, but one that resonates with a growing segment of the American society.

The real and the imaginary: From fusion to confusion

Integral reality has no imaginary. Everything becomes real, everything has a meaning, whereas it is in the nature of meaning that not everything has it. (Jean Baudrillard)

As much as the sociopolitical developments catalyzed the evolution of the media, changes in political climate and a general shift in sentiment were largely shaped by the media, so much so that in the last decade it has become impossible to see the beginning and the end of their causal connection.

At the core of this all reside the deep social changes of the post-industrial West. Technology, globalization, tighter environmental regulations, and decline in manufacturing have resulted in accelerated deplition in demand for unskilled white labor, a similar social configuration experienced by the black sub proletariat in the early postindustrial decades.

Such developments, whenever they take place, produce insecure, fear-driven masses that can be coopted by ethno-nationalist forces. While for a shrinking minority, money can buy security and act as a replacement for identity, for a growing majority without money, there is nothing left – neither identity nor security. They are forced into the imaginary. Fear for oneself unconsciously fosters a longing for the enemy. They invent an enemy for themselves. The enemy, even in imaginary form, is a fast supplier of identity[4].

For a significant (and rapidly growing) segment of the American population, reality has become a nightmare without an escape path. The surrogate offering of Fox presented itself as a far more attractive alternative than the one that governed their lives – a copy had becomes superior to the original. The underlying rage of the white underclass was abundant, it presented itself as the new political capital ready to be deployed and invested. Its emergence as a portal to power and influence defined the political inflection point, and was seized by Roger Ailes when he joined the Fox. His version of right wing populism became ventriloquism of the excluded, a well-tried and bankrupt political maneuver of the right, a regressive anti-globalist surrogate for the general identity loss.

This was a novel, ingenious shot at the old and probably the most acute problem faced by the developed world: the problem of excess population. The number of people that fall through the cracks and are unable to get reintegrated into the normal functioning of society has been growing unstoppably, their size exceeding the managerial capability of the planet. Their discontent has reached toxic levels and their presence inside the enclosure of prosperity has been making the “normal” segment of the population uncomfortable and nervous. So far, attempts at draining of the excess population have been centered on either their incarceration or outright physical elimination via opioids. The newest proposal, championed by the right-wing populist outlets, is to open amusement parks for angry citizens and keep the excess population sequestered inside those parks, not merely as spectators, but as interactive extras; create attractions and make them angrier so they never want to leave.

For the excess population, the reality created by Fox is the only thing to cling to. Rage is their political currency, an asset and investment, which Fox and the right-wing media promise to reinvest and manage. It is the source of dividends, their 401K, and bitcoin at the same time; their present and their future, and the last chance of reclaiming their social identity.

The arrival of Trump was an extension of Fox’s vision beyond media. His election was perceived as a rebellion against the Real. However, Trump was not a novelty here. The script had already been written well before he was even in the picture. Fox News is the theme park; Trump is just a character in it, the Fox’s Pinocchio, there merely to entertain the visitors.

And with the strange twist of fate, as one political idea gets recycled after a century of hibernation, and ideology undergoes a face lift from National Socialism to National Capitalism, the Nazi wet dream of harnessing the power of media for political gains comes to life again, only this time as a perversion of itself: It is not the media that are in the service of politics, but politics in the service of media.

Semiotic insolvency and the great flood of arbitrariness

Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth[5]. And as lies continue and become bigger, our deficit to the truth grows. And this debt will have to be paid one day – that day will inevitably come. By inventing new lies in order to diffuse the old ones, we finance the old (semiotic) debt by issuing a new one – we borrow more in order to pay old debts. This is a semiotic pyramid scheme.

Being allowed to lie without consequences is like having an unlimited credit line; it feels like free money. And when free money is readily available, we don’t need a rationale, we take it, although we know all too well how it will end. And despite all that wisdom of hindsight, we fall repeatedly into the trap of pyramid schemes because we always see ourselves not as victims but as perpetrators.

In the culture where money is elevated to a supreme metrics and profit to the highest principle, it is no wonder that non-financial liabilities, like deficit to the truth, have been perceived as secondary and allowed to grow without a bound as long as they continue to bring profits.

What we are facing, in the not so distant future, is the bursting of the semiotic subprime bubble, ignited and carried out by Fox News and accelerated and brought to unsustainable levels by the current administration. The conditionally insolvent are allowed to borrow until they become unconditionally illiquid: People with no credibility or qualifications are appointed to positions of high responsibility and are allowed to cover up the consequences of their incompetence with further lies and distractions until their lies are no longer transactable — when no one believes in them any longer. This is when the system will clear. However, when the criminal incompetence of the current administration can no longer be covered up, its toxic debris will have already affected a significant part of the planet. It will be the political equivalent of the 2008 crash, a global Chernobyl, a chain reaction of defaults with huge casualties and unforeseeable long-term effects. This will be a generalized meltdown of credibility of trust, a default of the magnitude never seen in human history, an analogue of the 2008 financial crisis extended beyond financial markets, a meltdown of all frames of reference. There won’t be a firm spot to put a foot on. This is the great flood of arbitrariness.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184

[2] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press; 14th Printing edition (1994)

[3] Simulacrum comes to life in three stages. In the initial stage, a faithful copy of the original emerges as an object is replicated, but the image is recognized as a counterfeit of the original. In the second stage, the distinction between the original and its replica begin to break down as a mass production of copies emerge. In the final stage, the replica precedes the original; there is no longer distinction between the reality and representation. Simulacrum anesthetizes the imagination numbing it against reality. It is ultimately a replacement of substance with symbols.

[4] B. C. Han, Die Austreibung des Anderen, S. FISCHER; Auflage: 4. (2016)

[5] Valery Legasov in Chernobyl

Fourth World War and the rise of political infantilism (carousing with Baudrillard pt. 2)

30. VI 2019

WWI ended the supremacy of Europe and colonial era. WWII put an end to Nazism. Third world war took place in the form of cold war; it put an end to Communism. With each succeeding war, we have moved further towards a single world order. Today, that order, which has virtually reached its culmination, finds itself grappling with the antagonistic forces scattered throughout the very heartlands of the global. A fractal war of all cells, all singularities, revolting in the form of antibodies. A confrontation so impossible to pin down that the idea of war has to be rescued from time to time by spectacular pieces, such as Gulf War or the War in Afghanistan. But the Fourth World War is elsewhere. It is what haunts every world order all hegemonic dominations. It is the world, the globe itself, which resists globalization. (Jean Baudrillard)

It is a unique cultural experience to observe celebration of the Fourth of July in the heartland of the Bible belt. There are fireworks, shooting from combat weapons of all calibers — semiautomatic, automatic, bazookas, and even light cannons. To an outsider, or anyone who had experienced war personally, this fascination with weapons and general eroticization of war, must appear unmotivated and over the top, or just outright bizarre. However, one has to wonder how these cheerleaders of the 2nd amendment would react if it came to actual war. Most of them (like all other normal people) probably wouldn’t be that much into it. War is the most brutal realization of a survival game, where only the fittest make it. These war-loving bible-wielding self-proclaimed “patriots”, representatives of excess population, couldn’t find their way even in favorable and nurturing conditions. Despite all positive externalities that come with peace and prosperity, which could have worked in their favor, they fell through the cracks and stayed behind. How likely is it that they would fare better in conditions of extreme adversity? In all likelihood, war for them would be a defeating experience (as it is for most everyone else), with long lasting post-traumatic consequences, severe psychological conditions, and prolonged substance abuse. For most of them, war would be an extreme version of their current predicament.

Eros and Civilization, many years later

The concept of Eros, which in its original meaning represents the sum of all instincts for self-preservation and desire, underwent a significant transformation in the early works of Freud, who deliberately downplayed the importance of the rigid boundaries between Eros and sexuality. In his usage Eros signifies an aggrandizement of sexuality. This removal of the boundaries is one of the most important insights of the early psychoanalysis.

Fetishization of war in contemporary America is an illustration of this Freudian connection. It is a result of several factors. Above all, it is an astonishingly precise summary of the true male psychology – as Robin Williams put it: If you can’t fuck it, kill it. The portal opened by Freud frames the romantic attachment to war and weapons as an expression of social ineptitude, an infantile reaction of political voyeurs who know war only by observing it somewhere else without being able to grasp even its approximate meaning. War play is an emotional outlet of socially marginalized and politically impotent males expressed as a displaced sexualized fantasy.

As much as proximity of war is sobering, its prolonged absence, one that allows its abstraction, is intoxicating. Politically, engaging in a war (on your own territory) is like getting laid. Long stretches without war drive men crazy; during those times they lose their sense of purpose.

Absence of sexual experience leads to infantilism (and possibly other psychological problems) in an adult age. Those deprived of sexual experience (of any kind) do not develop properly, at least not in conventional social settings. Escaping personality erosion due to sexual deprivation generally requires creation of a rigorously defined and highly structured alternative life context. The causal connection between religion, in itself an infantile conceptualization of reality, and vow of celibacy, together with the sidetracks such deprivation creates, is probably the best example of this mechanism at work. A nation that has not experienced a war for several generations or ever cannot properly mature, or at least matures differently, in a political sense.

To be clear, civil wars do not count. They are the political equivalent of incest. Civil wars only complicate things and rarely offer any potential resolution in the long run. Conventional wars with foreign adversaries have much better prospects for healing than civil wars. The two warring parties in a civil war are forced to live together even after the war is over encouraging them to make numerous compromises that undermine their emotional recovery and reinforce resistance to healing. In the absence of physical separation, which sometimes, but not always, takes place after civil war, the ferment of latent animosities ultimately morphs into cold civil wars with culture generally losing its original mission as a consensus builder and becoming an instrument of permanent divide.

As a consequence of prolonged abstinence from war, American men have fallen prey to the tyranny of abstraction of war. The confused testosterone and libidinal entropy of the gun-loving constituents, which accumulated over many years of abstinence, gave birth to political voyeurism. War for them occupies a virtual sphere while at the same time retaining the symbolism of the past when wars had a different dose of reality. When it comes to war and armed conflicts elsewhere, they are spectators and cheerleaders who pleasure themselves while observing it at a distance. Nowadays, waging a war (elsewhere) is how one runs political campaigns; it is a sign of determination and leadership. However, when war becomes less abstract, when it intrudes on their turf, Americans do not differ from the rest. An eloquent example from the recent past is the transformation of the psyche of New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11. It was an outpour of solidarity, empathy, togetherness, and understanding — the most basic human emotions, just like everyone else.

War as a metaphor

Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations: It jumbles together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with psychological, the like with the unlike. (James Geary)

War is an entirely male creation. Its birth predates the times of hunters and gatherers. The essence of war is condensed in the transfer of violence from animal hunt for the purpose of immediate subsistence to the hunt for man – it is the invention of an enemy beyond prey, a transformation from interspecies to intraspecies competition. As a confrontation with an enemy much more formidable than wild animals, war brings new qualities of risk and strategic thinking[1]. The obscenity of this competition transcends traditional reproductive alpha malehood and redirects the focus of Eros from women to men. As Paul Virilio put it, warfare with other men represents the ultimate narcissistic (male) homosexual act. Testosterone, its main fuel, is an extremely combustible substance. It makes large-scale male bonding manifestations intrinsically unstable, threatening to escalate at any given point into either a physical conflict or an orgy.

Shooting ranges and gun shows, paintball parks, recreation of historical battles, boy scouts, Catholic church, corporate boot camps — every place where men try to impress other men — or the annual festival of salami in Slovenian town of Sevnica, the birth place of Melania Knavs, which only men are allowed to attend, they all share this uncomfortable vibe of a fragile equilibrium. It is not difficult to imagine what goes on in all-male Taliban compounds during starry nights at high altitude and rarified oxygen levels of the Afghan mountain range, or the narrow gap between a Nazi rally and a (male) homosexual bacchanalia. Similar undercurrents permeate contemporary populist rallies. Despite token female presence, they are saturated with testosterone and latent male aggression with the same uncomfortable vibe of instability characteristic for manifestations of large-scale male bonding.

There is an amusing (probably not accidental) congruence between attitudes towards war and sex in a particular cultural context. National histories can be told through sexual stereotypes and sexual stereotypes described in military terms. Using sex as a metaphor often gives an eloquent summary of a given culture with amazing precision.

If war were sex, this is how different cultures could be described. French: always keen to get involved. Sex (and war) never stops occupying their minds. They surrender to love and engage in sex with passion, although occasionally it can be purely physical. Brits are somewhat like French, just with passion dialed down. They are obsessed with being caught in an embarrassing situation, and love and sex are embarrassing. They do not surrender, but approach the whole thing rationally and perform it as a duty. For Swiss, sex is too messy and unhygienic. They do not engage, but they are not averse to masturbation. They like to watch and sometime get paid to watch others. Italians: premature ejaculators, like to talk about it, but find it painful and messy.

When it comes to war, Russians are archetypal masochists. For them, it has to hurt. Always. It is performed as a heavy S&M play, a cathartic ritual to which they willingly submit, aware of subsequent long-term injuries which take years and decades to heal. For Germans, sex is a vigorous physical exercise that requires discipline, precision, and commitment. They have had a complicated history of struggle with it. Deep down, they are masochists like Russians, but had been duped into playing the top in the S&M orgy of the 20th century. A control loving culture, they failed to grasp the idea that in an S&M game, the masochist is always one who calls the shot and is in control. It was a betrayal of their character. It turned out bad for them and almost everyone else.

For Americans, war exists in virtual space, they engage only through action at a distance, prefer the virtual masturbatory routine to the real thing. Their imagination is captured by their numerous sexual toys – the larger, the better – and they indulge in their size and the fear it inspires.

To paraphrase Paul Virilio[2], copulation, which used to be a vital function, has now become optional, turning into the practice of remote-control masturbation. In the same way chemical psychotropic suppressants have been used to dampen down momentary madness, ideological anti-suppressants, with the help of technology, are whipping the madness up, driving it to a frenzy. And this frenzy is contagious and viral. With the technology shrinking the distances and compressing the time scale, war is everywhere and can be transmitted instantaneously, dialed in or out like a video game, and satiating infantile populist cravings for instant gratification. This is the dawning of the age of global teledildonics.

Happy 4th. Enjoy the fireworks.

 

[1] Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon, Continuum (2005)

[2] Paul Virilio, Open Sky, Verso (2008)

Perfect crimes & misdemeanors: The politics of inflated balloons

21. III 2018

If I throw a ball to someone at the other end of the room, that person will be able to catch it by anticipating its approximate path. The key aspect of the underlying heuristics is that a small error in the catchers’ judgment will have a small impact on the point at which the ball lands, to which they will be able to adjust as the ball approaches.

This would be impossible if I were to replace the ball with a balloon, blow it up, hold it out, and release it. As the balloon sputters and darts around the room in a chaotic path, its trajectory will be impossible to anticipate. Although both objects, the ball and the balloon, follow Newton’s laws of motion, their behaviors are quite different.

In chaotic systems (inflated balloons), as time goes forward, everything is moving away from everything else. This ever-widening divide means that if you are trying to predict the future behavior of a chaotic system, errors in initial measurements become overwhelming as time progresses — if there is any error at all in our initial measurements, our long-term predictions will be absurdly wrong.

When one puts an inflated balloon in a presidential seat, and his political strategy boils down to using chaos as a catalyst to push the existing political and ideological systems to their breaking point, consequences of that misguided approach cannot be foreseen and, as such, cannot amount to a socially positive outcome.

This seemingly strange idea of forcing a change by destruction is neither new nor original. It was first outlined in the works of the 19th century French thinkers — Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi offers a good example — and developed further by the post-modernists and finally crystallized by Jean Baudrillard: Total revolution is a strategy geared to escalate the system and push it to its breaking point. Then, giving up on every pretense of rationality, it starts revolving and achieves in the process a circularity of its own. The society of the spectacle is turning into a soft version of the theater of cruelty, a burlesque of death with the globe as its stage. Life is being exchanged for nothing, for a handful of glittering toys, work absorbs time like a sponge and leaves no traces. The system itself becomes the exterminator.

Chaos is destruction of the future — only what is simultaneous counts. Political chaos cannibalizes itself — it reflects a disregard for the long-term effects of the present actions — last week’s developments become irrelevant and inconsequential in light of yesterday’s headlines. Society loses sight of its future and, without a clear vision of the future, the present cannot take off.

The future is based on responsibility and responsibility presupposes obligation. As such, it reflects an act of making a promise or showing trust. Such acts hold and stabilize the future. In contrast, chaos promotes non-bindingness, arbitrariness and the short term[1]. The absolute precedence and priority of the present is the hallmark of the current political landscape. It is scattering time into mere sequence of disposable presents. The future is degrading into an optimized present.

Chaos is simultaneity and irresponsibility at the same time. It is the perfect crime perpetuated on time[2].

 

[1] B. C. Han, Im Schwarm: Ansichten des Digitalen, Matthes & Seitz Berlin (2013)

[2] Paul Virilio