American Politics · Philosophy · Politics · Postmodernism

The Postmodern Condition Part 2 – The American Simulacrum

This morning, I read a Business Insider article from February 2, 2017 that gives a teaser to a TIME magazine interview with Steve Bannon, in which, he will unabashedly assert that this current regime in the White House will usher in the “New World Order” through tactics which disrupt and destroy the rules and expectations of the current world order.  They want to burn it all to the ground.  And our society and culture are ripe for such an event.  We shouldn’t be surprised  by what is happening in the halls of power right now.  It has been predicted with dire warnings from philosophers, critical sociologists and even authors of “fiction” for at least the past century.  As someone who has been a student of such thinkers, not even I could have imagined that this is how it would all go down.  I suspect there are many old dead white guys rolling in their graves right now…

In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the “Postmodern Condition” as it was framed and conceptualized by the French philosopher, Jean Francois Lyotard.  Part 2 now, looks at another Frenchman named Jean… Jean de Baudrillard, author of Simulcra and Simulations.  This text was published in 1988, and can be read as a follow-up to some of Lyotard’s thoughts on how, exactly, this transformation of knowledge, and the crisis of narratives would affect culture and society. The Simulacrum is where Postmodernism arrives.  This is a very thick and confusing text… so I will do my best to deconstruct and make it relevant. 

Perhaps the best way to explain the Simulacra is through the old children’s game of telephone… you know, the one where a person starts with a message that gets whispered into the ear of one person, to the next, to the next… one after the other until it gets to the last receiver of the message, who says it aloud and everyone laughs because, through the process of simulation, bears absolutely no resemblance to the original message.

When we think of that original message in terms of the concepts of “freedom” and “democracy” and all the other narratives which have ruled the American hegemony since the founding fathers first iterated them, we can begin to understand how those concepts have been churned through the centuries by all the administrations since, and arriving at the final receiver (Trump’s administration) being stated and asserted as the original message, but bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the original messages they came from.

Baudrillard recognized that this game of telephone would have significant effects on the nature of reality:  “No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept; The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models – and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary, it is no longer real at all. It is hyperreal”!

Baudrillard conceptualized the Postmodern era as “the age of simulation” and said it “begins with a liquidation of all referentials – worse: by their artificial resurrection in systems of signs, which are a more ductile material than meaning”  That is, when the real becomes disassociated from the concept, symbols begin to transcend their meanings, and symbols are far more easily manipulated than their meaning.  He goes on: “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself; that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.”  Ok, I had to look up the word vicissitude… it essentially means change.

What Baudrillard is getting at here is the result of The Postmodern Condition (which Lyotard discussed a decade earlier as the transformation of knowledge into a symbolic commodity) no longer requires meaning for it to exist and be accepted as reality.  It has lost its “use-value” and, with the aid of computers, has reduced it to its “data double.”  I wrote about Data Doubles in 2008, and I will save an updated view the concept of data doubles for a future post which involves Foucault.  But Baudrillard introduces us to it first here in Simulacra and in discussion of “simulation” and “dissimulation”

The process of dissimulation is the process of lying or pretending, where as simulation is to actually take on the characteristics of what is being simulated.   “One implies a presence, the other an absence. But the matter is more complicated, since to simulate is not simply to feign (or act): “Someone who feigns an illness can simply go to bed and pretend he is ill. Someone who simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms” (Littre). Thus, feigning or dissimulating leaves the reality principle intact: the difference is always clear, it is only masked; whereas simulation threatens the difference between “true” and “false”, between “real” and “imaginary”. Since the simulator produces “true” symptoms, is he or she ill or not? The simulator cannot be treated objectively either as ill, or as not ill. Psychology and medicine (that is scientific knoedge) stop at this point, before a thereafter undiscoverable truth of the illness.”

As a relevant aside, this is exactly the point where my issues with the attempting to use medical interventions to “treat” mental illness comes in.  How do we know if symptoms of depression and anxiety are biologically driven or context based? How do we know they aren’t actually symptoms of poverty, disempowerment and oppression instead of symptoms of chemical imbalances, or flaws, in the individual’s brain.  I suppose I am going to have to make that one of the posts in this series as well… because I could go on and on about that.  Let’s follow Jean along this thinking a little further…

For if any symptom can be “produced,” and can no longer be accepted as a fact of nature, then every illness may be considered as simulatable and simulated, and medicine loses its meaning since it only knows how to treat “true” illnesses by their objective causes.”

That means that the system requires dissimulation, because simulation threatens the “truth”. And the goal of Scientific Knowledge is to save the truth narrative at all cost “and to escape the specter raised by simulation: reference and objective causes have ceased to exist. What can medicine do with something which floats on either side of illness, on either side of health, or with the reduplication of illness in a discourse that is no longer true or false?

But Simulation is a feature of the Postmodern Condition.  Therefore, what is true and what is false can never be known.  Not only is this causing problems for the institutions and power structures, but it is deeply impacting individuals in a variety of ways.

These days, individuals simulate their identities along a number of dimensions.  Gender identity is perhaps one of the easiest to relate to as it is one of the most important transformations of legitimized knowledge that has occurred in the past 20 years.  The narrative once associated with gender as a binary, used synonymy to mean biological sex, has been completed transformed.  As individuals we get to simulate the gender we feel we are inside, rather than the one assigned to us because of our genitals.  The system would much rather have us dissimulate (lie to ourselves and pretend to fit into the gender narrative) than to simulate which gender we are!

The gender narrative has been “liquidfied of referentials”… it has been “multiplied in simulacra”…  it is one of the reasons I am confident in asserting that we have arrived in the postmodern, or simulated age.  The other is because of the transformation of spirituality, or religion, and the simulation of divinity.  “what becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra? Does it remain the supreme authority, incarnated in images as a visible theology? Or… Deploy their pomp and power of fascination – the visible machinery of icons being substituted for the pure and intelligible Idea of God?”

“All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meamng and that something could guarantee this exchange. God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an interrupted circuit without reference or circumference.

Today we see how religion has been simulated in the radical wings of Christianity, Islam, and indeed Atheism!  Where the pure and intellible idea of God or Allah or the Divine itself, is transcended by how a radical simulates their love for the divine based on what they feel inside… whether that is love, or fear and anxiety which is the truth of their individual beliefs matters not.  Like medicine has no way of dealing with symptom simulation in the patient, Theology has no way of dealing with simulation of the divine, or God’s Love or Allah’s will in the believer.  

So it is with simulation, insofar as it is opposed to representation. Representation starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalentConversely, simulation starts from the Utopia of this principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as valueWhereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum.”

Head spinning yet?  I’m impressed that you have made it this far!

Let’s take some steps back from the implications to look at how something becomes simulacrum:

1 It is the reflection of a basic reality  – It has a good appearance and representation of the original

2 It masks and perverts a basic reality – It pretends to be representative

3 It masks the absence of a basic reality – It acts as if it is representative

4 It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. – It has completely lost touch with what it is supposed to represent.

“When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity. There is an escalation of the true, of the lived experience; a resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared. And there is a panic-stricken production of the real and the referential, above and parallel to the panic of material production. This is how simulation appears in the phase that concerns us: a strategy of the real, neo-real and hyperreal, whose universal double is a strategy of deterrence.”

At this point Baudrillad gets into American politics and culture, and as he uses Disneyland (the theme park) as “a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: pirates, the frontier, future world, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But, what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious reveling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks…. By an extraordinary coincidence (one that undoubtedly belongs to the peculiar enchantment of this universe), this deep-frozen infantile world happens to have been conceived and realized by a man who is himself now cryogenized; Walt Disney, who awaits his resurrection at minus 180 degrees centigrade.”

For Baudrillard, Disneyland became a representation of  “the objective profile of the United States… All its values are exalted here, in miniature and comic-strip form. Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland… [it] is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of… the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real.”

Yes folks, I am saying it… Disneyland is partially responsible for the rise of Donald Trump…

But Baudrillard doesn’t stop in the cotton candy world of Mickey Mouse… writing about the terrorism of his time, Jean asks:  “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 fact- does not check this vertigo of interpretation. We are in a logic of simulation which has nothing to do with a logic of facts and an order of reasons.”

In the Simulacrum, Baudrilllard states that “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… [and] is what each time allows for all the possible interpretations, even the most contradictory – to be true, in the sense that their truth is exchangeable, in the image of the models from which they proceed, in a generalized cycle.”

He uses a series of statements to demonstrate how a variety of conflicting statements can be true all at once when it comes to politics and terrorism.  I am going to replace his use of the word communists (which in Baudrillard’s time was the scary enemy threatening his world order) with fascists here, and Italy with the US… to update the relevance.

If we take the statement: “We mustn’t be frightened of seeing the fascists seize power in the US” this means simultaneously:

1 That there is nothing to fear, since the fascists, if they come to power, will change nothing in its fundamental capitalist mechanism.

2 That there isn’t any risk of their ever coming to power (for the reason that they don’t want to); and even if they do take it up, they will only ever wield it by proxy.

3 That in fact power, genuine power, no longer exists, and hence there is no risk of anybody seizing it or taking it over.

4 But more: 1, am not frightened of seeing the fascists seize power in the US – which might appear evident, but not so evident, since:

5 It can also mean the contrary: I am frightened of seeing the fascists seize power (and with good reason, even for a fascist).

All the above is simultaneously true. This is the secret of a discourse that is no longer only ambiguous, as political discourses can be, but that conveys the impossibility of a determinate position of power, the impossibility of a determinate position of discourse. And this logic belongs to neither party. It traverses all discourses without their wanting it.

Indeed, I have heard (and said) all of these statements as “facts” of the limitations of Trump’s regime…  We shouldn’t be afraid, because there are checks and balances in place to keep a certain world order… and even if they want to try to disrupt that world order, they don’t have any real power to do so because real power in this way doesn’t exist… so I am not frightened of the fascists seizing power, but at the same time I am afraid… very, very afraid.

Baudrillard asks, “Who will unravel this imbroglio?” (imbroglio essentially means confused state) “The Gordian knot can at least be cut. As for the Moebius strip, if it is split in two, it results in an additional spiral without there being any possibility of resolving its surfaces. Hades of simulation, which is no longer one of torture, but of the subtle, maleficent, elusive twisting of meaning. Where is the truth in all that, when such collusions admirably knit together without their authors even knowing it?”

I think we all know who will unravel the confused state of order now… we are at the point where asserting the absolute level of “the real” has become an impossibility.  Because the real no longer is possible, illusions are no longer possible, “It is the whole political problem of the parody, of hypersimulation or offensive simulation, which is posed here.”

This issue becomes further complicated when it is being perpetuated by the highest office of power in the US.  Where that power once acted as protection against hypersimulation, now becomes the chief executive operator of it.  Where the only weapon against a state of the hyperreal, is the now very weapon which will make it come to pass: “The only weapon of power, its only strategy against defection, is to reinject realness and referentiality everywhere, in order to convince us of the reality of the social, of the gravity of the economy and the finalities of production… As long as it was historically threatened by the real, power risked deterrence and simulation, disintegrating every contradiction by means of the production of equivalent signs. When it is threatened today by simulation (the threat of vanishing in the play of signs), power risks the real, risks crisis, it gambles on remanufacturing artificial, social, economic, -political stakes. This is a question of life or death for it.”

This is the point where I wish Baudrillard was still alive to help us through this paradox… because the system and structure have been held together for so long by the power.  Proving how vulnerable it really is… all it takes is a handful of people to get into those power structures to bring it all crashing down through the very means that got them there in the first place…  “Power produces nothing but signs of its resemblance. And at the same time, another figure of power comes into play: that of a collective demand for signs of power – a holy union which forms around the disappearance of power. Everybody belongs to it more or less in fear of the collapse of the political. And in the end the game of power comes down to nothing more than the critical obsession with power: an obsession with its death; an obsession with its survival which becomes greater the more it disappears. When it has totally disappeared, logically we will be under the total spell of power – a haunting memory already foreshadowed everywhere, manifesting at one and the same time the satisfaction of having got rid of it (nobody wants it any more, everybody unloads it on others) and grieving its loss. Melancholy for societies without power: this has already given rise to fascism, that overdose of a powerful referential in a society which cannot terminate its mourning…. But we are still in the same boat: none of our societies know how to manage their mourning for the real, for power, for the social itself, which is implicated in this same breakdown. And it is by an artificial revitalization of all this, that we try to escape it.”

Jean believes that all of this will eventually end up in”… a twisted coming, a perverse event, an unintelligible reversion to the logic of reason. As is the fact that power is no longer present except to conceal that there is none. A simulation which can go on indefinitely, since -unlike “true” power which is, or w as, a structure, a strategy, a relation of force, a stake – this is nothing but the object of a social demand, and hence subject to the law of supply and demand, rather than to violence and death. Completely expunged from the political dimension, it is dependent, like any other commodity, on production and mass consumption. Its spark has disappeared; only the fiction of a political universe is saved.”

And so, we have arrived, in this place, foretold by old dead white guys, moving faster than a speeding bullet. With the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States it is clear that only multiple fictions remain where America once stood.  The authority and legitimization of knowledge, and what is real and true, has been transformed and is dissolving before our eyes, and what happens next is difficult for anyone to say.  It is unprecedented, with momentum, and therefore, unpredictable.  What does this post-modern, post-truth, post-reality, post-industrial, simulacrum have to offer?  Will the “power” that has held our society and culture together for these past few centuries, strike back against this simulation of the real, this parody of democracy and capitalism we are all flabbergasted by?  Will we we be able to reinject it with reality, or will freedom and democracy, as we have come to know them, be forever disconnected from all that they are supposed to represent?