In Simulacra and Simulation 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 the juxtaposition provides, Baudrillard turns from Disneyland to the circus of European terrorism, which had been setting up its tents over the previous couple of decades. This was a topic much on everyone’s mind in 1981, as it has been ever since; in Italy they called this time the ‘Years of Lead’.
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’s position here, if we can discern it through the word-salad, might be mistaken for a statement of scientific agnosticism. The term ‘agnostic’ was coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1861 to encapsulate his 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. This is now known as ‘weak’ agnosticism, since the term has been appropriated by theologians, natural philosophers and philosophers of science for use in a stronger sense to mean the limits beyond which knowledge is not theoretically possible. ‘Strong’ agnosticism, then, relates not merely to the unknown but to the unknowable, and is appropriate in regards to deep ontological questions. To state that it is not possible to know whether God exists, for instance; or the scientific position that the origin or extent of the universe can never be known; or the artist’s conviction that reality is irreproducible; or the electrical engineer’s statement that we don’t know what an electron is, and probably never will — all of these are appropriate statements of strong agnosticism.
In the case of these terrorist atrocities, Baudrillard is taking the same position with regard to human actions: he is saying not merely that we do not know who instigated specific events, but that it is not possible to know. He asserts with certainty that the reality behind such events can never be decoded; he is able to affirm 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. That’s a significant claim, applying a theological mysticism to political reality, and declaring all judicial and historical inquiries into certain categories of event to be spurious.
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 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 1981, more than a decade on from the Milan attacks, a position of agnosticism might have seemed reasonable. But to say that all these investigators and prosecutors were operating out of a ‘false desire’ to know? Baudrillard appears, momentarily at least, to be forgetting the legal basis of democracy, its judicial discipline and freedom of information. Repudiating even the desire to know takes us into the territory of a third type of unknowing — apathetic agnosticism; not knowing because not caring, the agnosticism of the selfish, junk-fed masses. But for an intellectual class that refuses to question the actions of its masters, must we not posit a fourth type, the wilful agnosticism of the authoritarian personality?
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, Zen-like 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.
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 must be factored into any discussion of domestic terrorism.
It was the Italian investigating magistrate Felice Casson who managed to gain access to military-intelligence archives and uncover the origin of the spiralling terrorist violence in military black operations serving a continental ‘strategy of tension’ project. The strategic aim was, in the words of Vincenzo Vinciguerra, Ordine Nuovo terrorist who was put on trial in 1984, to ‘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 therefore 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 stabilise 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 arose 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 ‘false’ desire to know had yielded results of far-reaching importance for our understanding of the political and military landscape. The map had revealed a new continent. 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).
This all comes too late for Baudrillard, whose 1981 Simulation and Simulacra enacts a millenarian panic which abandons the reality principle altogether. In simulated terrorist attacks, what Baudrillard calls 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 he runs from the room, crying: Truth is dead! They have murdered reality!
The absurdity of this reminds us that we should read Baudrillard as we read Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra: 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 very real wave, foreshadowing the tide of simulation that would overwhelm the reality principle at the onset of the twenty-first century.