The September 11th attack on Manhattan was the pseudo-event to usher in a new era. An epoch-making Baudrillardian simulation indeed, combining real slaughter and simulation, and where was the great philosopher of the simulacrum at the moment of precession?
Glued to his television screen, like everyone else; held by the images and believing every word, as if he had never written his 1981 masterpiece.
But what else should he do, having announced that the simulacrum is real, and we must respect the illusion? In the eighties and nineties he had decreed that we must give up the quest for truth, because illusion has sucked all vitality from the real and truth itself become an illusion. The precession of simulacra cannot be resisted; the desert of the real will not bloom again. Reality is dead, and it is a false desire to want to prove otherwise. Instead, we must enter into this strangely seductive, unblinking, double-thinking state of hyperreality.
“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.”
The tragedy of Baudrillard was that his vision was too quickly realised on the world stage, and that he lived long enough to see it. 9/11 is the gateway event which invokes exactly the precession of simulacra envisioned in 1981. Of course Baudrillard would say I am misreading his work, and perhaps I am, by taking it literally, whereas in fact it is essentially rhetorical. For myself, I merely want to apply twentieth-century Baudrillard’s sinister tetrad — sacrament, malefice, sorcery, hyperreality — to the events of a new millennium the old man somehow managed to sleep through from the beginning.
Baudrillard’s Gulf War essays are about mediation: they are predicated on the comparison of reference to referent. This aspect is completely missing from his reflections on 9/11. No ‘The September 11th Attacks Did Not Take Place’, nothing like that. Instead, he mythologizes the terrorists, aggrandises the ‘War on Terror’, and bows down before the ‘incandescent images’ of that day. The Spirit of Terrorism, quite simply, is neocon propaganda. At the exact moment that his vision was vindicated, the Baudrillard I knew had vanished and been replaced by a replica. From that moment on, as his theory dictated, he was a shadow of himself, a simulacrum among simulacra.
In his heyday, he wrote about the murderousness of the image. In his dotage, Baudrillard ends up paying homage to the murderousness of terrorists. At times, he seems nostalgic for his theory of the eighties and nineties and strokes it a little just to hear it purr. But nowhere is there any awareness of mediation, any question, not any more, of what is real or what is simulated. At first it seems like an extraordinary abdication – and it is – but he had prepared an alibi.
In fact by 2001, twentieth-century Baudrillard had cunningly disappeared inside his theory, like a hermit crab inserting its tender ass into a carefully chosen shell. Two publications on the theme of Simulacra finalised his escape plan – The Perfect Crime (1996) about the ‘murder of reality’, and ‘The Vital Illusion’ (2000), his lionisation of the murderer. In these publications he confirmed that reality had already disappeared, thus justifying his desertion before the battle – the battle of paradigms that has raged now for 18 years, and the struggle to dethrone the propaganda narratives that have mesmerised Western audiences, securing their consent for a state of permanent atrocity and ultimately the destruction of their own civilisation.
Thus Baudrillard nullifies, epistemologically speaking, anything he might write after this point. Nothing after The Vital Illusion can address reality, by his own argument. And yet he continued to write as if it could. Every word of The Spirit of Terrorism, however infused with Baudrillardian poetry, is epistemologically worthless, since in his mind the distinction between fact and fiction has disappeared. The sophistry of his rational for abandoning any critical attention to his premises masks a reversion to artful naiveté – the second childhood of the master.
In Baudrillard’s hyperreal trance, the territory clings only in rotting shreds to the map, but this does not matter, according to him. The simulacrum is now true – and always was, therefore. The result is a superstitious primitivism masquerading as critique of late capitalism: “When the two towers collapsed,” he writes, “it was as if they met the suicide-planes with their own suicide.” A fanciful idea, but it’s not as if he could approve any other explanation that actually makes sense.
He mythologizes the terrorists as geniuses who ‘have taken over all the weapons of the dominant power’ – meaning cellphones, aeroplanes and, er, boxcutters I suppose – granting them powers which the dominant power itself, possessed of the same and infinitely greater weapons, is helpless to resist. Archetypically, whether in mythology or propaganda, the monster must appear superhuman, and Baudrillard dutifully contributes to its aura, arguing throughout the essay that the tactic of terrorism, though immoral, reveals an instinct so infallible that in its face, the superpower spontaneously commits suicide, just like the towers hurling themselves to the ground.
What we’re seeing in action in such events is of course the monstrous superhuman power not of the enemies of the state but of the state itself. Vincenzo Vinciguerra, one of the Ordine Nouvo fascists accused of involvement with NATO terrorism in Italy, understood the principle: ‘Destabilise the public order to stabilise the political order, and strengthen the institutions of power’.
Of course the relevant weapons in this case were all wielded by ‘the dominant power’, and the ‘terrorists’ were among those weapons. Mohammed Atta and company were allowed into the United States on CIA orders, watched by FBI handlers, trained at military bases. None of them was remotely capable of pulling off this operation, but that didn’t matter – their job was over once they’d made exhibitions of themselves in various bars and strip clubs the night before. They weren’t required on planes which didn’t fly into buildings or crash in fields, and so they didn’t board any planes on 9/11, as shown by the flight manifests. Atta’s son says he received a phone call from his father the following day, and that is an entirely reasonable claim.
But Baudrillard continues to dress his mythical terrorists with spine-chilling cinematic qualities:
As their most cunning trick, the terrorists even used the banality of American everyday life as a mask and a doubleplay: sleeping in suburbs, reading and studying in a family environment, before going off one day like a time bomb. The faultless mastery of this clandestine style of operation is almost as terroristic as the spectacular act of September 11, since it casts suspicion on any and every individual. Might not any inoffensive person be a potential terrorist?
Yes indeed, but the naivety here – the artful naivety – is staggering. The police state will arise as a response to terrorism, he implies, without considering that the terrorism might be engineered precisely to justify the rise of the police state. Baudrillard would know, if he had studied GLADIO, that the response of ‘the system’ is not, never was, and never will be, to collapse in the face of such puny, ‘symbolic’ attacks, but to become more centralised, intrusive and authoritarian. What collapses or comes under threat is not ‘the system’ but the spirit of the West – free speech, critical thinking, scientific truth, individual liberty and innate rights. Baudrillard could only make his statement in front of an audience completely unaware of the role of deception in the terrorist model, an audience which has forgotten the revelations concerning the state-sponsored GLADIO terror networks.
In 1981, Baudrillard wrote about the murderous capacity of images. In 2001, he watched a disaster movie on television, and was dazzled by its ‘incandescent imagery’ into suspending disbelief, completely and forever. Thus Baudrillard in 2002 fulfils his own prophecy: in The Spirit of Terrorism, nothing is of the order of appearances at all; there is no sorcery in the ‘flash of unforgettable images’. Reality is short-circuited, as the simulacrum of a philosopher serenades the simulation as “the absolute event, the mother of all events, the pure event”.
What he should have done is stop publishing altogether, and made The Vital Illusion (2000) his last word. When asked why, he should have said, because events have outstripped my theory, and refused to say anything further. His silence would have been honoured as the ultimate essay on hyperreality. But his death came too late to prevent the self-murder of his reputation through publications such as The Spirit of Terrorism.
The philosopher who warned us of the death of reality was dissembling all along – it was never a warning but an escapist wish fulfillment, the desire to wander in wonderland, lost in a lotos-eating dream. Never a battle-cry but a suicide note, Baudrillard’s work embodies the intellectual stand-down of the West.