THE MURDEROUS CAPACITY OF IMAGES
“At stake has always been the murderous capacity of images: murderers of the real; murderers of their own model as the Byzantine icons could murder the divine identity. To this murderous capacity is opposed the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the real. 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 meaning 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 uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.”
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981
Jean Baudrillard was fascinated by simulation. His most famous work, Simulacra and Simulation (1981), concerns the point at which representation loses connection with reality, and ultimately displaces it, trapping humanity in a synthetic world of copies of copies, images without originals, references without referents: a closed circuit of artificiality, where that word loses all meaning since it’s all there is. He defines the stages through which simulation must pass, to arrive our present moment, and projects a world which is neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal.
Images can be sacraments to reality; they can pervert and mask it – or they can obscure the fact of its actual absence: the ‘death of the real’. When an image threatens to displace its original, such second-order images are of the order of malefice. When the religious icon itself becomes the object of worship, then God, the only guarantor of truth, dies.
What becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra? Does it remain the supreme authority, simply incarnated in images as a visible theology? Or is it volatilized into simulacra which alone deploy their pomp and power of fascination – the visible machinery of icons being substituted for the pure and intelligible Idea of God? This is precisely what was feared by the Iconoclasts, whose millennial quarrel is still with us today. Their rage to destroy images rose precisely because they sensed this omnipotence of simulacra, this facility they have of erasing God from the consciousnesses of people, and the overwhelming, destructive truth which they suggest: that ultimately there has never been any God; that only simulacra exist; indeed that God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum. Had they been able to believe that images only occulted or masked the Platonic idea of God, there would have been no reason to destroy them. One can live with the idea of a distorted truth. But their metaphysical despair came from the idea that the images concealed nothing at all, and that in fact they were not images, such as the original model would have made them, but actually perfect simulacra forever radiant with their own fascination. But this death of the divine referential has to be exorcised at all cost.
Thus Jean Baudrillard speaks of the murderous capacity of images. In his third order of simulation, the original has become merely a theoretical construct; images are of the order of sorcery. In the fourth order, reality no longer exists; representation no longer belongs to the order of appearances at all, and the simulacrum is true.
In Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard was announcing, not predicting, the ‘death of the real’. Indeed he hardly refers to the real, hardly gives any concrete as opposed to hypothetical examples. He ironically reveres Disneyland, which he says ‘is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and 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, and thus of saving the reality principle’.
Then, perhaps interested in the grim poetic counterpoint it provides, he turns to the subject of European terrorism, a topic much on everyone’s mind in 1981.
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. Simulation is characterized by a precession of the model, of all models around the merest fact – the models come first, and their orbital (like the bomb) circulation constitutes the genuine magnetic field of events. 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, no more negative electricity or implosion of poles) is what each time allows 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.
Baudrillard was not an investigative journalist or documentarian, but he was clearly conscious of the wilderness of mirrors that is modern terrorism. It is true that in the aftermath of high profile terrorist attacks in Italy, from the Piazza Fontana (Milan) attacks of 1969 to the kidnapping and murder of the former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978 and the Bologna railway station bombing of 1980, confusion and disinformation reigned. No one was ever jailed for the Milan attacks – apart from the 1979 convictions of two secret service agents for suppression of evidence. After the Bologna massacre, the neo-fascist NAR (Nuclei Armati Revoluzionari) claimed responsibility – but the call would later be traced to the Florence office of SISMI, the Italian military secret service, and the director of that office charged with obstruction of justice. Investigations and judicial procedures were mired in layers of dissimulation and obstruction for decades, including the destruction of evidence and the death in custody of two key suspects, and it became increasingly clear to prosecutors that the entire apparatus of state was involved. There were arrests, trials, appeals, retrials, re-appeals and acquittals in an apparently endless cycle – all coming to nothing when prosecutors in 2005, a quarter of a century after the bombing, opened a new case against persons unknown.
In the years following the publication of Simulacra, the Disneyland of European terrorism only got weirder. In a series of slaughters in the Brabant region of Belgium, assailants in face paint and carnival masks gratuitously executed bystanders and hostages, including children, seemingly immune from police bullets and discernible motivation alike. Descriptions of the principle gang-members make them sound like villains in a Batman movie: the Giant, apparently the leader; the Killer, a sadistic executioner whose style and weapons-handling suggested military, perhaps special-forces, training; and the ‘Old Man’, the getaway specialist with apparently superhuman, Zen-like driving abilities. These three, together with assorted accomplices, attacked civilian targets — car showrooms, weapons dealers, factories, shops and supermarkets — in an escalating cycle of gratuitous violence and bizarre behaviour seemingly calculated to instill raw panic.
A Belgian parliamentary report concluded in 1990 that the perpetrators were most likely members or former-members of the security forces, operating under high-level protection.
Baudrillard’s announcement of the surcease of reality was premature. It was the Italian investigating magistrate Felice Casson who managed to gain access to military-intelligence archives and uncover the true context of the spiraling terrorist violence in military black operations serving a continental ‘strategy of tension’ project to ‘destabilize the public order to stabilize the political order’ in the words of Vincenzo Vinciguerra, imprisoned Ordine Nuovo terrorist. At the end of the second world war, ‘stay-behind’ units had been been embedded in fifteen countries to organize resistance networks in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion. In peacetime, with the electoral success of the Italian communist party and the rise of nuclear disarmament movements, their mission had escalated to encompass false-flag terrorism, using extremist front-groups, to terrify the public, influence the political process, and engineer consent for an ever-growing police state apparatus: in short, a destabilization campaign to stabilize the institutions of power.
On 24th October 1990, Christian Democrat Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti officially acknowledged the existence of the operation known in Italy as GLADIO. Subsequent disclosures revealed that the common thread linking the Italian horrors was the secret P2 (Propaganda Due) masonic lodge, and Italian military intelligence working with CIA, MI6, and NATO. Attacks in Germany and Belgium arose out of the same context, with Britain’s celebrated SAS (Special Air Services) forces playing a prominent role in training terrorists, surveilling civilian targets, and even carrying out attacks.
These revelations have been meticulously documented by Daniel Ganser, a Swiss historian, in his book NATO’s Secret Armies (2004) – also a 2009 documentary film of the same title, easier to absorb than Allan Frankovitch’s more exhaustive Operation Gladio (1992).
Baudrillard was writing before any of this became public. Nevertheless, his introduction of the specific topic of terrorism into an essay on the subversion of the reality-principle is interesting in retrospect. He is confident that the reality behind it can never be decoded; he is able to assert that it is ‘impossible to isolate the process of simulation’ or to ‘prove the real’, and that it is therefore ‘a false desire to even want’ to do so. Ultimately his hyperbolic prose enacts a milennarian panic which abandons the reality principle altogether. An assassin pulls on a clown mask and the philosopher runs from the room, crying: Truth is dead! They have murdered reality!
The absurdity of this reminds us that we should read Baudrillard as a poet, not a philosopher. We can acknowledge that his theory of the precession of simulacra is, somehow, at once escapist and realist. His beautiful and obfuscatory prose is the froth on a very real wave – the tsunami of third-order simulacra that would come crashing down over our heads at the beginning of the twenty-first century.