THE MURDEROUS CAPACITY OF IMAGES
In Simulacra and Simulation — 1981 — Baudrillard was announcing, not predicting, the ‘death of the real’. 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’.
At this point, interested perhaps in the grim poetic counterpoint, Baudrillard turns from Disneyland to the circus of European terrorism, which had been setting up its tents over the previous decade or more. This was a topic much on everyone’s mind in 1981, as it has been ever since; in Italy they called this period anni di piombo — the ‘Years of Lead’, peaking in the bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980.
“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 characterised 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 generalised cycle.
Baudrillard certainly anticipates the information culture that proliferates confusion in our own times. But there’s something strange here as well: he appears to be taking a position of strong agnosticism on the attribution of terrorist events.
The term ‘agnostic’ was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869 to encapsulate the principle that no scientist should make any knowledge claim or statement of belief where evidence does not exist to justify it. Simply put, scientists should admit what they do not know. It’s an ethical term, in fact; and an important coinage articulating an essential principle in science. That’s why I would say that ‘scientific agnosticism’ would be a better term for Huxley’s formulation than ‘weak’ agnosticism, as it is often called.
However the term was quickly appropriated by theologians, natural philosophers and philosophers of science for use in a stronger sense — to mean the limits beyond which knowledge is not possible. ‘Strong’ agnosticism relates not to the unknown but the unknowable, appropriate in deep ontological questions. To state that it is not possible to know whether God exists, for instance; or that the origin or extent of the universe can never be known; or the artist’s conviction that reality is irreproducible; or an electrical engineer’s statement that we don’t know what an electron is, and probably never will — all of these are statements of strong agnosticism.
In the case of the terrorist atrocities he refers to, Baudrillard is taking the same position with regard to historical questions: he is saying not just that we do not know the origin or purpose of specific events, but that it is not possible to know. He asserts with certainty that the reality behind such events can never be decoded; it is ‘impossible to isolate the process of simulation’ or to ‘prove the real’. Hence it becomes a false desire to even want to do so.
That’s a significant claim, with implications for all historical inquiries, declaring any enquiry into certain events to be philosophically spurious — including, logically, legal inquiries, investigations and trials.
It is true that in the aftermath of high profile terrorist attacks in Italy, from the Milan Piazza Fontana 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 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.
Meanwhile in the years immediately following the publication of Simulations, 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 driving abilities. These three, together with assorted accomplices, attacked civilian targets — factories, shops and supermarkets — in an escalating cycle of gratuitous hyper-violence seemingly calculated to instil raw panic.
Baudrillard was not naive; he understood how things work. He understood the attention-seeking, self-harming behaviour used by power structures to strengthen their institutions.
‘Everything is metamorphosed into its opposite to perpetuate itself in its expurgated form. All the powers, all the institutions speak of themselves through denial, in order to attempt, by simulating death, to escape their real death throes. Power can stage its own murder to rediscover a glimmer of existence and legitimacy. Such was the case with some American presidents: the Kennedys were murdered because they still had a political dimension. The others, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, only had the right to phantom attempts, to simulated murders. But this aura of an artificial menace was still necessary to conceal that they were no longer anything but the mannequins of power.’ (p15)
Baudrillard, then, has no illusions about the layered strategies used to disguise the true power centres in nominally democratic societies. However, his explicit recommendation is to forget about any possibility of locating the operative centres of power, or unravelling the complex provenance of any event. While acknowledging the naivety of taking anything at face-value in our situation, Baudrillard’s position is to adhere to a strong or metaphysical agnosticism. We little people cannot know; we cannot penetrate the layers of simulation and dissimulation, though we know they are there. So — know that you are being lied to, but do not question the lie. Wrap yourself in this doublethink: resist trying to answer the question in your mind. Do this for long enough, and eventually it will disappear.
Within a decade, Baudrillard’s agnosticism was revealed as premature. The process of simulation was traced — the false desire to know reached a partial consummation at least, and revealed certain political and military realities which can’t be ignored.
It was the Italian investigating magistrate Felice Casson who managed to gain access to military-intelligence archives and uncovered the origins of the spiralling terrorist violence in military black operations serving a continental ‘strategy of tension’ project. The strategy was neatly summarised in the words of Vincenzo Vinciguerra, the Ordine Nuovo terrorist who was put on trial in 1984:
“Destabilise the public order to stabilise the political order.”
On 24th October 1990, Christian Democrat Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti officially acknowledged the existence of the NATO operation known in Italy as GLADIO. At the end of the second world war, ‘stay-behind’ units had been been embedded in fifteen countries to organise resistance networks in the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion. As the Cold War stalemate endured, the electoral success of the Italian Communist Party and the rise of nuclear disarmament movements became greater threats to the political order than any external invasion. The mission evolved, retraining its sights on public opinion. Italian military intelligence, working with the CIA, MI6, NATO, and the P2 (Propaganda Due) Masonic Lodge, conducted false-flag terrorist attacks — using ‘extremist’ front-groups — to terrify the public, influence the political process, engineer consent for an ever-growing police-state apparatus, and strengthen the institutions of power.
Synchronously with the revelations in Italy, a Belgian parliamentary report concluded in 1990 that the perpetrators of the Brabant massacres were most likely members or former-members of the security forces, operating under high-level protection. The attacks in Belgium had arisen out of the same context as the ‘Years of Lead’ in Italy, with NATO special forces playing a prominent role in training terrorists, surveilling civilian targets, and even carrying out attacks.
So while the actual perpetrators never faced justice, the inquiries had yielded results of far-reaching importance for our understanding of the political and military landscape. The map had revealed a new continent.
This all comes too late for Baudrillard, whose 1981 publication enacts a millenarian panic which abandons the reality principle altogether. In state-sponsored terrorist attacks, the ‘murderous capacity of images’ becomes literal: the simulacra are carrying AK47s now. But the philosopher has already turned his back. An assassin pulls on a clown mask and Baudrillard runs from the room, crying Truth is dead! They have murdered reality!
The absurdity of this reminds us that we should Baudrillard as a poet rather than a philosopher. We can acknowledge that his theory of the precession of simulacra is fundamentally escapist. At the same time, his sparkling prose is the froth on a gathering wave, foreshadowing the tsunami of simulation that would break over our heads at the onset of the twenty-first century.
NEXT: 4 PYROTECHNICS
Once reality is dead for its own citizens, horrific surpluses of reality can be imposed on people of other regions. That in turn creates an opportunity for a terroristic counter-balancing of reality against its own citizens.