DOUBLETHINK AS AN ART FORM
“Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it.” Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981
Jean Baudrillard was a French sociologist who became known as a prophet of artificial reality. 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 at our present moment, and projects a world which is neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal.
A first order simulacrum — ‘the order of sacraments’ — takes any of the traditional forms of representation: a map, a diagram, a work of art. It is aware of its own artificiality, referring and deferring to a reality which is irreproducible, acknowledging the ineffable uniqueness of the original. The map is not the territory. And therein lies the value of the map: in its simultaneous difference from and similarity to the original. A map which achieved perfect accuracy and detail would be identical to the territory in every way, including extent – as in J G Borges’ one paragraph story (which pretends to be a literary forgery), On Exactitude in Science – in which an ancient Empire’s cartographers have created a map so faithful that it is contiguous with entire Empire; but as soon as this consummation has been achieved, it ceases to have any use or value. In the end the map rots away, scavenged by beggars for clothing and animals for their nests. Shreds and rags of the map litter the desert, stirred by the wind.
Baudrillard, however, thinks that Borges neglected a more interesting possibility. Rather than the map, in his vision it is the territory which fades away; the map replaces the territory; the simulacrum usurps the reality. This is ‘the precession of simulacra’. In a world saturated with maps, models, images, effigies, representations and simulations of every kind, primary experience dies, and we can no longer access the real. Reality no longer forms the basis of our experience. We live in the map.
Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.
In Baudrillard’s historical theory, it is the industrial revolution which gave birth to this new order of simulation. Mass-produced objects are copies, but they no longer refer to a real original, as a portrait does to a real face or a map to a real place. So what are they copies of? In the industrial age, a tide of mass-production overwhelms authentic making, and eventually destroys even the concept of originality. A mass-produced product is a second order simulacrum: indistinguishable from its ‘original’, the image now threatens to displace reality. Such second-order images are described by Baudrillard as being of the order of malefice. This dramatic word-choice resonates with the strange anxiety reified in literature of that period as doppelgänger stories such as Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson (1839), or Dostoevsky’s The Double (1846).
Lena Mikulinskaya, “Double”
Such would be the successive phases of the image: it is the reflection of a profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum. In the first case, the image is a good appearance – representation is of the sacramental order. In the second, it is an evil appearance – it is of the order of maleficence. In the third, it plays at being an appearance – it is of the order of sorcery. In the fourth, it is no longer of the order of appearances, but of simulation.
Images can be sacraments to reality, or they can pervert and mask it; or they can obscure the fact of its absence, covering up the ‘death of the real’. The journey has now almost reached its destination, the state Baudrillard calls hyperreality. Culture has traveled through reality and out the other side, into a world of copies without originals, where the concept of authenticity has no meaning.
Once God is gone, religious iconography becomes a closed circuit of reference without referent. The proliferation of images organises itself into an infinite regress, an image of an image of an image, as in twinned mirrors, or a Dali painting. Pseudo-religions such as Marxism must be defined in the same hyperreal terms.
“It is through the death of the social that socialism will emerge – as it is through the death of God that religions emerge.”
The shadows on the wall in Plato’s parable of The Cave do not mimic reality, rather they mask its absence; a wall of shadows screens the desert of the real. Your experience in the simulation simulates nothing, when the simulation is all there is. It is now both completely inauthentic and the only reality; that is hyperreality. The original, now, has not only disappeared — it never existed at all.
Baudrillard’s theme crystallises the emergent zeitgeist. In 1981 only the merest hints could be discerned of the virtual realities that would offer sanctuary from twenty-first century reality. It was not until 2003 that Linden Labs released its virtual society, Second Life. In 1981, Nintendo had not yet released its first Mario Brothers game. The metaverse was rising, but all you could see of it was a faint glow of artificial light peeping over the horizon. Reality was still realer than any rival, still appeared, at least, to have a monopoly on itself.
But what Baudrillard wants us to understand is that all of us, not just these early-adopting virtual ‘residents’, are disappearing into a world of simulacra: that in terms of Western culture, the reality principle (realitätsprinzip) is in irreversible retreat, the territory rotting away to rags and shreds clinging to various points of the map.
Baudrillard’s work is coolly psychedelic, giving us the same sense of dizzying replication that we love in doppelgänger stories and much science fiction. He was not the only prophet of our deracinated Age of Artificiality, of course. His theory of simulation carries a sly post-modernist echo, to my ears, of Leo Strauss, with his prescription of a system of delusion designed to reverse the ‘disaster’ of the enlightenment and re-occult the human faculty of reason. As a theorist of media and mediation he has a lot in common with his more famous contemporary and sometime collaborator Marshal McLuhan, the great media savant of the 1960s, who was himself a creation of the media.
McLuhan had already made a name for himself in academia, and been funded by the Ford Foundation to instigate seminars in Communications and Culture at Toronto University. At that point he became the beneficiary of an extraordinary intervention which transformed him into one of the new breed of ‘public intellectual’ – boosting his career into the stratosphere of public, corporate and academic adulation. According to the story, the Californian advertising executives Gerald Feigen and Howard Gossage were ‘genius-scouting’, and in McLuhan they found a mind that could articulate advertising to the advertisers, media to the mediators. They embarked on a blitzkrieg of publicity, taking him to New York to meet the editors of the big magazines and newspapers (he was offered the use of an office at Newsweek and Time magazines any time he liked), and then organising a ‘McLuhan Festival’ at Gossage’s agency in San Francisco, where he strutted his stuff to the editors of Ramparts Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, and met Tom Wolfe. Newsweek did a cover story on him; Life Magazine, Harper’s Fortune, Esquire and even Playboy all ran stories and interviews. And he was worth it – a dazzling intellect, indeed. But no renegade; rather, a darling of the establishment, who flattered his sponsors with outrageous proclamations about advertising being the great art-form of the twentieth century.
McLuhan’s influence extended far beyond the academic world. From Terence McKenna to Andy Warhol to David Cronenberg, artists and con-artists alike took leads from him. His influence is not irrelevant to the psychedelic movement, the state-sponsored campaign to steer a generation away from political activism and into drug-fuelled hedonism; meeting with Dr Timothy Leary, McLuhan immediately started improvising advertising slogans for LSD which sound like nothing more than soma-jingles from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. ‘Psychedelics hit the spot/ 500 micrograms, that’s a lot’ (McLuhan). ‘Was and will will make me ill/ I take a gramme and only am’ (Huxley). One of McLuhan’s jingles really did hit the spot, becoming in Leary’s mouth the pied-piper tune of the sixties: ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out.’
McLuhan, although he emerged from the academic world, eschewed the academic method, casting himself as a provocateur and describing his work as ‘probe, not package’. He had an extraordinary ability to engage others while floating clear of objections and counter-arguments; his method was to keep hitting his audience with generative, counter-intuitive ideas rather than getting bogged down in argument. Like Baudrillard his great talent was coinage and redefinition, using language in unfamiliar ways, retuning words to create a cool, intriguing jargon fitted to the new and fluid circumstances he sought to explore. If a genius is a practitioner who doesn’t just master his field but re-imagines and permanently re-defines it, McLuhan was arguably a genius.
As a celebrity intellectual, McLuhan’s role was to prime the public with a sense of imminent and unfathomable change. He is often credited with predicting the internet, thirty years before it was rolled out. He certainly projected to its logical conclusions the trend towards electronic connectedness through satellite television and telephone relays, arguing that such technologies turn the planet into what he called, initially, a ‘global village’. He didn’t intend to draw upon the cosy, communal connotations of that word, however – what he meant was a whispering gallery, a global echo chamber, with everybody sticking their faces into everybody else’s business. A global village would be, as anyone who has lived in a village knows, a global surveillance state. Soon, however, he evolved his metaphor, and began to speak instead of the new media turning spectators into performers. (Warhol, too, got his most famous sound-bite – ‘in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes’ – from McLuhan.) In this future all interactions become public, all identities performative. The new term he coined for this must have interested his younger contemporary Jean Baudrillard, whose ears, like mine, must have pricked up at the phrase ‘global theatre’.
Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library, the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as in an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. […] Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time.
And so the internet age will be characterised by surveillance and terror.
“The satellite medium,” McLuhan announces, “encloses the Earth in a man-made environment, which ends ‘Nature’ and turns the globe into a repertory theatre to be programmed.” (From Cliché to Archetype, 1970)
An equally important contemporary forerunner in articulating these themes was the novelist Philip K Dick, working through the genre of science fiction. The screenplay for Blade Runner, based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was in development at the precise time that Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation. The freelance killer Rick Deckard, hired to track down and terminate a group of rogue replicants, sees himself as one of the remnants of a human reality defending itself against rogue simulacra, which he views merely as malfunctioning equipment. The moment when he realises that he too is a Nexus 6 series replicant, implanted with memories which are not his own, is essentially hyperreal, and embodies in archetypal and dramatic form the ‘precession of simulacra’, the coming change in the human condition.
Dick’s slow-burning influence, more than Baudrillard’s, is probably behind the extraordinary proliferation of a particular story type over the past forty years, in which the main character is somehow awoken from an artificial reality: a specific variation on the archetype of awakening and rebirth from Plato’s Cave onwards. In The Matrix (1999) Baudrillard is name-checked onscreen, when Neo hides cash and computer files inside a copy of Simulacra and Simulation, and quoted by the character Morpheus, when he describes the world outside the Matrix as ‘the desert of the real’.
The philosopher distanced himself from the Wachowski brothers’ splendid metaphor, saying that the film-makers had misread his work. The moral of this: agree with a philosopher and he will disagree right back.
Perhaps Baudrillard has more in common with these producers of imaginative fiction than he knows. His work is more rhetorical than epistemological, and what he presents not so much an argument as a vision. Re-reading him, I find a poet masquerading as a philosopher – a description which might apply also to McLuhan in some respects. Like the Canadian, Baudrillard’s work should be taken as ‘probe, not package’; the writing is dense, hyperbolic and paradoxical, making a secure reading problematic. It’s as if he crafted his work to resist synopsis: perhaps paraphrase is to Baudrillard what photography is to certain tribespeople – he instinctively fears the simulacrum, as they do.
The Simulacra (1967) is a novel by Philip K Dick set half-way through the 21st century. The political setting in the novel projects ad absurdum the Straussian model of puppet politicians masking the actual source of power (Dick’s vision of humanity is fundamentally absurdist – a note which rarely survives into cinematic adaptations). In Dick’s story, US presidents are simulacra, while political power is vested in a permanent First Lady, Nicole Thibodeaux, who died forty years ago but has been played ever since by a series of actresses. In Dick as in Baudrillard, the true centre of power is impossible to locate, as fewer and fewer individuals or even phenomena can be identified as anything other than simulacra. The masking of its true power centres is of course the purpose of such a system.
I was getting flashbacks to Dick’s novel during the 2016 US presidential campaign, when it became apparent that Hillary Clinton was seriously ill, and that on a number of occasions her role had been played by doubles. I imagined her getting into office and being replaced by an actress, or a series of actresses; perhaps, like Thibodeaux, she would live forever.
It was that frightening thought that finally sent me back to reread Simulacra and Simulation (1981) and flesh out my scant knowledge of Baudrillard’s subsequent career. I revisited The Perfect Crime (1995), and The Vital Illusion (2000). Then, realising for the first time that Baudrillard had lived into the twenty-first century (he died in 2007), I turned to The Spirit of Terrorism (2002), wondering how he had responded to the world-changing pseudo-event that would utterly vindicate his vision.
‘Never resist a sentence you like,’ wrote Baudrillard in Cool Memories (1990), and his incandescent style overflows with beautiful sentences. If you interrogate them, however — which is perhaps to ‘misread’ Baudrillard — you find that his dazzling paradoxes mask assumptions and transitions which must be explicit in a valid argument.
Take, for example, the passage on religious iconography and the death of God, leading up to the stunning epigram: It is through the death of God that religions emerge. A beautiful sentence, acid with anticlerical hatred, and I’m sure that the first time I read it I applauded it to the echo.
The ‘death of God’ is, of course, a logical contradiction, since any definition of God must, a priori, include the property of immortality. To say that ‘God is dead’ assumes not that God doesn’t exist but that God has existed and no longer does. Death-of-God theology, therefore, is incompatible with atheism. And with theism, too, unless you worship a strange kind of God, one who is mortal. Death-of-God philosophers from William Blake to Hegel to Altizer to Paul Tillich and so on are not atheists, and for the most part they are not claiming that God has died. They mean that belief in God has died; that the connection with God has been lost, specifically in Western society.
But it is the contradiction that gives the phrase its glamour, its daring; the shock of the paradox. Friedrich Nietzsche, who did not originate the idea but gave it widespread currency, milks it — bleeds it, I should say — for melodramatic imagery. We are God’s blood-drenched murderers.
What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
— Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft
(‘The Joyful Wisdom’ or ‘The Gay Science’),
Section 125, tr Walter Kaufmann.
Baudrillard follows Nietzsche’s lead in important ways, firstly in requiring to be read as much as a creative artist as a theorist; as a rhetorician rather than a logician. Inspired by the German’s romantic archetype of the philosopher, post-war theorists like Baudrillard, Foucault and McLuhan developed what was essentially a hybrid form, part argument, part incantation. The device of the paradox, which short-circuits the faculty of reason, is paramount in this form.
Nietzsche appears to have believed that the Enlightenment released us from the necessity or even the possibility of believing in God, while challenging us to become gods ourselves to atone for the deicide. Transhumanism is implicit in Baudrillard’s simulation theory, in which reality itself becomes anthropogenic: this is the world the technological Übermensch creates, the limitless fields of simulacra he spreads before us.
Baudrillard takes the death-of-God formulation as axiomatic, but he is more nonchalant about it than his forerunner. For the post-modern theorist, the death of God is so automatic an assumption that it has lost the shock of paradox, and lives on as only as cliché that must be wrapped in further paradox to make it taste of anything. God must be killed by his own symbols, and without its ‘divine referential’,
…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 […] 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.
Then comes the kicker, the phrase that encapsulates Baudrillard’s project.
The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.
The idea of reference without referent, of ‘perfect’ simulacra ‘radiant with their own fascination’ is foundational to all of Baudrillard’s thinking about simulation. From this metaphor he develops his central theme of hyperreality, the fourth order of simulation which is ‘no longer of the order of appearances at all’. The word ‘never’ expands the discussion beyond the emptiness of religion to embrace all human culture; for him ‘the murderous capacity of images’ eventually puts at stake our access to reality itself, calling in question ‘the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the real’. The perfected map, rather than becoming redundant, destroys the territory; not because it is inaccurate, but precisely because of its accuracy. In the history of religion, there have been many waves of iconoclasm — literally, the breaking of statues. Baudrillard refers to ‘the iconoclasts’, not specifying whether he is thinking of Christian, Jewish or Moslem iconoclasm, but regardless of creed he ascribes a new motive for the fury against the image.
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 […] This death of the divine referential has to be exorcised at all cost.
Baudrillard’s iconoclasts understand that a God that can be reduced to symbols is already dead. Iconoclasts destroy religious icons not out of fidelity to an ineffable Godhead beyond time and space, but out of fear that the God they worship no longer exists. At first glance, a strange motive to impose on Sunni Moslems and Calvinist Christians over a thousand year span… but let’s grant the speculation that iconoclasm and fanaticism in general might conceal a fear gnawing at the faithful that the belief for which they kill or destroy is false. It’s a plausible suggestion: that religious (or political) violence is engaged in as an exorcism of doubt.
The priest class destroys itself by reducing God to signifiers. The divine identity is lost under a mountain of simulacra, and we no longer know what God is. So far so reasonable. Does that mean we no longer know what reality is? Baudrillard presents the death of truth as absolute truth; a new orthodoxy.
‘Henceforth’, he decrees, ‘it is the map that engenders the territory.’
There is a kind of shamanic glee to Baudrillard’s provocations. For him the most beautiful sentence is the articulation of a paradox. Whereas in philosophy, as in science, logical contradiction is a problem, not an adornment, for the post-modern social theorist paradox is the whole game. Baudrillard loves ringing that bell so much that it becomes predictable, like a rat in an experiment hitting the pleasure switch over and over again. It’s more or less a structural device: on whatever subject he is musing, he pursues the paradox, and when he has found it he moves on. Paradox is a vehicle of his liturgy, the cadence marking the end of each verse of the psalm.
Is to read Baudrillard closely to misread Baudrillard? Perhaps. We can take his work, like McLuhan’s, as ‘probe, not package’, but we must be careful not to be seduced by his style into ignoring gaps in his reasoning. The thing is, having seen and named the phenomenon of hyperreality, Baudrillard makes it clear that he embraces it, wants to disappear into it. And that’s exactly what he does, over the course of his career. Paradox is his pass to this utopia, the magic word that opens The Cave where he will chain himself in place and gaze at the shadows on the wall in a willing suspension of disbelief. My question is this: at what point does the literary lover of paradox become the skilled practitioner of Doublethink?
‘The simulacrum is true’: in such epigrams you will find the most economical and aesthetically pleasing expression of that Orwellian concept to be found anywhere outside of 1984. And it’s brilliant. Doublethink as an art form.
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 decade or more, peaking in the bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980. 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’.
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 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 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 theoretically possible. This ‘strong’ agnosticism relates not to the unknown but the unknowable, and is often appropriate in regards to the deepest 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 an 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.
But in the case of these terrorist atrocities, 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, applying a theological mysticism to political reality, and implicitly declaring all historical inquiries — including, logically, judicial 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 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 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 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 and international terrorism.
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 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 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 simulated 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 read 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 very real wave, foreshadowing the tide of simulation that would overwhelm the reality principle at the onset of the twenty-first century.
Ten years after Simulacra and Simulation, as the USA assembled a coalition to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait and geared up for Operation DESERT STORM, Baudrillard published the first of a series of three essays: ‘The Gulf War Will Not Take Place’ (January 1991); followed by ‘The Gulf War is Not Taking Place’ (February 1991); and ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place’ (March 1991). In these essays he argued that the stylised, selective representation of events in the media bore little relation to reality, and that the ‘war’ featured in the televisual and photographic imagery was in that sense fictional. In reality, there had been no war, but ‘an atrocity masquerading as a war’.
In 1991, then, Baudrillard was still writing, despite his argument in Simulacra, from a perspective of reality. The first Gulf War was the first fully televisual war, propagating a sanitised pyrotechnic imagery of tracers and ‘smart’ bombs. It was presented as a new kind of war, an efficient, scientific war of precise, clinical strikes without collateral damage. The feel of a video game was heightened by the use of point-of-view video relayed by cameras in the bombers and even the bombs. After Vietnam, the Pentagon prioritised imagery-control in the theatre of operations. ‘Embedded’ reporters, supervised within military units, were prevented from witnessing the only significant ground assault, the bulldozer attack on a network of Iraqi trenches near the Saudi border, which used anti-mine ploughs mounted on tanks and combat earth-movers to bury the Iraqi soldiers alive in their trenches. No infantry were used in this attack, with all US combatants encased in armoured vehicles.
Imagery-control broke down hours before the cease-fire, after an Iraqi convoy of 1,400 vehicles withdrawing from Kuwait was completely (and wantonly) destroyed by aerial bombing and strafing north of Al Jahra. Scenes of the most gruesome carnage and devastation were stumbled upon by journalists traveling (with military liaison) towards Kuwait in anticipation of the cessation of hostilities. The most famous image was of an Iraqi soldier incinerated in the act of trying to escape from his vehicle. The photograph, by Ken Jarecke, was censored in the US but published in the UK Observer newspaper, and caused controversy due to its graphic horror. In response, Jarecke published a copy on his blog with a handwritten caption: “If I don’t photograph this, people like my mother will think that war is what they see in movies.”
And that’s Baudrillard’s point: that the West’s loss or suppression or fragmentation of the reality-principle in its citizens enables it to perpetrate its atrocities without public opposition. 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.
And yet reality in terrorist events – as we saw in Italy, Germany and Belgium – is precisely the issue. What Baudrillard chose not to articulate in The Spirit of Terrorism (2002) is that the same system that saturates the collective mind with simulacra to degrade the reality-principle can encompass terrorists and terrorism too.
Dissimulation has been at the heart of the terrorist tactic from the beginning. If you terrorise people, you will only solidify political resistance against your aims, making it impossible for elected officials to entertain your demands. Terrorism, therefore, is not an effective tool, and terrorists rarely realise their aims. It is only effective when deception is used to misattribute the event, passing it off as the actions of a designated enemy whom you wish to discredit or attack.
An early instance of false-flag terrorism using weapons of mass destruction happened more than four hundred years ago at Westminster, the seat of the Houses of Parliament in London: the fabled Gunpowder Plot for which the patsy Guy Fawkes and others were tortured to death. Contemporary witnesses reported seeing the principle conspirators making late-night visits to the house of Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I’s Machiavellian secretary of state, whom Shakespeare lampooned in the morally and physically deformed character of his Richard III. The aim was to discredit the Catholics, forcing the King to distance himself from them, and it worked.
In the post-Second World War period, the deliberate creation and empowerment of terrorist groups was a tactic evolved by the British for asymmetrical warfare between a collapsing empire and the independence movements arising throughout its colonies. In 1947 the British faced a severe challenge in Kenya with the growth of the formidable and widespread Mau Mau insurgency. A colonial field operative, Lieutenant (later General) Frank Kitson, chose not to oppose the Mau Mau head-on, instead developing what he called ‘counter-gang’ and ‘pseudo-gang’ tactics.
The procedure begins with mass-arrests and interrogations, looking for those who could be ‘turned’ — these would be used as informers and infiltrators — but also for hard-core criminals and psychopaths who would be deployed to commit massacres and atrocities against the population under the Mau Mau name, destroying the rebels’ political base — a ‘pseudo-gang’, in Kitson’s nomenclature. His methods were successful, and he was re-deployed first to Malaya and then to Northern Ireland, where he empowered Unionist paramilitary counter-gangs to terrorise Catholic areas, and infiltrated the Irish Republican Army to such an extent that at one point a Belfast newspaper claimed to have seen secret documents revealing that nearly half of the leadership of the Provisional IRA consisted of British informers. Levels of violence did not diminish under these circumstances — in fact they peaked, culminating in some of the worst atrocities carried out in the name of the Republican movement. The violence, of course, brought Irish reunification not one inch closer.
Kitson described the genesis of his methods in a 1960 book, Gangs and Counter-gangs. Within two years, in the United States, domestic false flag terror-tactics were proposed at the highest level as a way of justifying an invasion of Cuba. In 1997, documents relating to a 1962 military plan code-named Operation NORTHWOODS were declassified in the United States. The Joint Chiefs of Staff under the chairmanship of General Lyman Lemnitzer had submitted a proposal to Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara for the deployment of false-flag terrorist attacks across the USA, to justify an invasion of Cuba.
The wave of attacks would begin with a simulation. The public would be shown televised scenes of idealistic young ‘students’, actually CIA recruits, boarding a flight to Cuba on an unprecedented cultural exchange. The plane would take off, but then land at a military base, to be replaced by a remote-controlled duplicate painted in the appropriate colours. This drone aircraft would broadcast pre-recorded emergency messages as it approached Cuba, before crashing into the sea, shot down by imaginary Cuban MiGs, with the loss of all lives. TV would show mournful scenes of wreckage and belongings floating on the sea. This pseudo-event would just be the curtain-raiser; ships would be sunk; the US military base at Guantanamo would be attacked; people would die in acts of terrorism across the USA. There would be a media circus of televised funerals, biographies of victims and interviews with grieving relatives. The country would be ready for war.
The most shocking aspect of this is the punch-in-the-guts revelation about military ethics, but there’s something even more important here too: what it tells us about the role of the media. Essential in the plan is the assumption that the media will be complicit in promoting a made-for-television enactment as reality. Members of the public might not believe that the press can act in this concerted fashion to promote a false reality; the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the other hand, do.
Terrorism achieves its aims only by disguising its source. Kitson’s ‘pseudo-gang/counter-gang’ strategy is about creating surrogate or replicant insurgent groups to destroy the political base of those threatening the dominant order; it replicates the threat in order to replace it: it uses simulation to effect political containment or change. Clearly, if the Cuban regime had really shot down a plane full of students and started terrorising the mainland of the United States with snipers and bombers, it would have faced immediate destruction. So the Cubans wouldn’t do it. But the United States would, in the guise of Cubans, to justify an invasion.
President Kennedy apparently didn’t like the idea of slaughtering innocent Americans in order to justify slaughtering innocent Cubans, and not only vetoed the plan but made sure that Lemnitzer was denied a further term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But instead the general was reassigned to the European theatre of operations as Supreme Commander of NATO (1963-69).
At which point, as it happens, the very real terrorism of NATO’s own ‘pseudo-gangs’ was unleashed in Europe from 1969, as the Euro-Disneyland of terror opened its gates for the first time in the Piazza Fontana in Milan.
The question is, have they ever closed?
The events of the 11th September 2001 contain seductively Baudrillardian elements. Whatever conclusions one comes to about the genesis and execution of the attacks which inflicted ‘a surplus of reality’ on the American people and the West in general, it must be acknowledged that simulacra and simulation infuse the event in such ways as to paralyse both defensive responses to the attacks and public understanding of what occurred. One might say that Baudrillard’s theory of the precession of simulacra, the vitality of the illusion, came to life that day in ways it never had before.
Take, for example, the response on the operations floor at NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) as revealed in verbatim transcripts.
BOSTON CENTER: Hi. Boston Center T.M.U. [Traffic Management Unit], we have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.
POWELL [Jeremy Powell, technical sergeant]: Is this real-world or exercise?
BOSTON CENTER: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
Powell’s question is heard nearly verbatim over and over on the tapes as troops funnel onto the ops floor and are briefed about the hijacking. Powell, like almost everyone in the room, first assumes the phone call is from the simulations team on hand to send “inputs” —simulated scenarios — into play for the day’s training exercise.” (Vanity Fair, 9/11 Live: The NORAD tapes, 17 October 2006).
A crucial aspect of the complex situation on 9/11 was the unprecedented number of war-games and exercises being conducted on that day, some of the scenarios involving hijacked planes flying into buildings. Radar ‘inserts’ confused and paralysed the response of air traffic controllers and air defence capabilities. A number of the traces visible on the radar screens – as many as eleven at one time – were fictitious: they were simulacra.
That was the drama, and for a long time it held me: the exercise suddenly going live, ATCs yelling Is this real?, the horror of a real event crawling out from under a simulation.
I now know that there was an extra fold in this story. It took me years to see it. The controversial blogger Miles Mathis, always a refreshing read, cautions readers to beware the dialectic. The official story, quite obviously, is a lie; but at the same moment, an anti-story is propagated, which contradicts the first but is also a lie. The talk-radio host Alex Jones, who by this time must be widely recognised for what he is — controlled opposition, a surrogate for the murdered cult broadcaster William Cooper — launched his career by propagating this anti-story. No matter how much truth the second story contains, it still exists to conceal the essential reality, to protect someone, or something. There is a third story beneath it, surrounded by traps and layered dissimulations. In the case of 9/11, that third story is – well, ask Baudrillard. Or McLuhan. They give us, if not the truth, the language to express the truth.
The procession of simulacra.
I too watched those images on television and failed at first to question them. I was marching in the sucker brigades for a while. It was only six months later that I stumbled on something that tripped my stride and put me out of step.
Then for a period of years I was just trying to think independently; others were doing the tortuous research that official bodies such as NIST and the 9/11 Commission were only pretending to do. It became clear to me fairly early on that the alleged collapses of World Trade Centre buildings 1, 2 and 7 were too symmetrical and too fast — approaching and achieving free fall speed at times — to be explained by anything but demolition by pre-placed explosives charges. Regardless even of the pools of molten metal under the ruins, and the intense heat persisting for more than a month, the iron-rich micro-spheres found in the dust by the City of New York investigation proved in themselves that steel had not just melted but been vaporised under temperatures at least a thousand degrees higher than could be created by ignited jet fuel. So the official story was a lie. Those buildings were blown up. Once you know that, the rest of the second story follows logically — and evidentially, as the details have steadily fallen into place. And it’s earth-shaking, paradigm-shattering enough as it is.
But there were still things in the ‘anti-story’, the ‘conspiracy theory’ that didn’t fully make sense. Who exactly flew those planes so unerringly into their targets? Experienced pilots, at least one of them with military background, under threat from box-cutter blades? Or barely trained terrorists with almost no chance of pulling off these manoeuvres with pinpoint accuracy? Neither alternative is convincing. Had the planes been switched for remote-controlled drones, as in the original Northwoods plan? Or had the planes’ computers been remotely hijacked by flight termination systems?
In video captures which surfaced over the next weeks and months, we saw those planes hit the buildings. Only they didn’t seem to hit anything; instead we saw them melt through the steel and glass facades, like ghosts walking through walls, or shoppers strolling through automatic doors into a mall.
Just like the building collapses, the plane impacts defied fundamental physics. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for any action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Punch a wall, you hurt your hand. What we saw: a plane in collision with a building, or building in collision with a plane, the same thing in terms of physics. We see the impacts on the buildings, the planes cutting cartoon-style outlines of themselves in the facade, right down to the wing-tips. However, no impact can be detected upon the planes – no crumpling of nose or fuselage; nothing breaking off or falling outside the building; the tail maintaining its velocity as the plane enters the building. If this isn’t enough, the ultimate smoking gun is that no wing vortices appeared in the flame and smoke erupting from the buildings. There’s no way around it. The planes in the images are not real.
A citizen journalist with background in digital animation, Simon Schack, conducted a forensic examination of the only direct evidence available to the public — that is, the televised footage — and drew conclusions specifically about that evidence. His documentary, September Clues, proves that the images of aircraft striking buildings, whether purportedly captured by the network cameras or by amateurs with cellphones, are composites. By comparing the distribution of live images on the day, Schack concludes that they were disseminated to the five major networks from a central feed, while local stations were taken off air and all cell-phone networks were down; imagery-control was imposed on the South Manhattan theatre.
This doesn’t mean the explosions were not real, or that people didn’t die in the buildings. But the planes were two-dimensional animations: simulacra, not real planes. In reality, a Boeing traveling at this speed at sea-level would be far exceeding its capabilities and would in all likelihood break up in mid-air. Based on the broadcast footage, the velocity of the second plane has been calculated at around 580 mph, an impossible speed for this plane at sea-level air density. This does, however, correspond to the ground velocity of the AGM-158 JASSM cruise missile, in outline not unlike a Boeing, with wings and a vertical tail, but much smaller of course. Early eyewitnesses reported seeing a small plane or a missile, or nothing at all – it was only a small minority who reported seeing a large commercial plane. The best explanation is that cruise missiles were fired into the buildings, ‘airliners’ were digitally superimposed, and planted ‘eye-witnesses’ deployed to anchor the narrative around large commercial jets. Theories about holographic cloaking can be discarded at this point, and in fact be seen as attempts protect the third story.
What we saw on our screens is simply not possible in the physical world. Once this is understood it is easy to decode the basic methodology: the towers rigged with explosives, air-to-surface cruise missiles fired into the buildings, planted ‘eyewitnesses’ ready for interview, a central feed supplying images to the TV networks, and ‘the wire’ (Reuters and the Reuters-owned Associated Press) providing the narrative.
The Northwoods blueprint had finally came to fruition forty years on; the pseudo-gang strategy had found its direst enemy-image to date in the form of Osama Bin Laden and ‘Al Qaeda’. Drills and war-games were cover for a real event, and that event masked by simulation. And that is the third story, the one that must at all costs be protected: that the media system can be used in concert to present a simulation as reality. The answer, then, to the repeated question on the operations floor – Is this real world or exercise? – is neither; both. What crawled out from under the simulation – the terrorist atrocity – was neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal.
“The tactic of the terrorist model is to provoke a surplus of reality and to make the whole system collapse under it.” Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism (2002).
And so I turned to The Spirit of Terrorism, fascinated to find out what Baudrillard had made of all this. An epoch-making Baudrillardian pseudo-event indeed, combining real slaughter and simulation, and where was the great philosopher of the simulacrum at the moment of precession?
Watching TV, like everyone else; mesmerised by the ‘incandescent images’ on the screen, gripped by the drama 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 true’, and exhorting us 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 tragedy of Baudrillard was that his vision was too quickly realised on the world stage, and that he lived long enough to see it, and published his verdict before crucial information had emerged. 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. 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 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. 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 fulfilment, 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.