“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).
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 at Toronto University, when 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 an original 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 clever, 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 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)
The events of the 11th September 2001 contain seductively Baudrillardian elements, and whatever conclusions one finally comes to about the genesis and execution of the attacks which inflicted such a ‘surplus of reality’ on the American people, it must be acknowledged simulacra and simulation were intimately involved in events. One might say that on that day Baudrillard’s theory of the precession of simulacra and the vitality of the illusion came to life 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 was the unprecedented number of war-games and exercises being conducted — twenty-two — 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 suspect that there was an extra fold in this story. It took me years to see it. First I had to gain some understanding of how information control works in the internet era — that is, through data flooding. Since it is impossible to guarantee that information will not leak out on the internet, instead truth is obscured by propagating scores of different versions, of varying degrees of accuracy, to introduce ambiguity, animosity and absurdity in contrast to the comforting certainty and professionalism of mainstream voices.
The September attacks of the first year of the second millennium, which coincides with the widespread public uptake of the internet, provides the model of how this dialectic works. The official story, quite obviously, is a lie; but at the same moment, an opposing narrative is propagated, which contradicts the first but is also a lie. The talk-radio host Alex Jones — now widely seen as controlled opposition, a surrogate for the murdered cult broadcaster William Cooper — launched his career by propagating this anti-story. But 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, layered with traps and calculated 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.
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 for myself; 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 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-rigged explosive charges, removing the resistance of the steel frames ahead of the collapse wave. 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. 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 this counter-story that didn’t fully make sense. Who exactly flew those planes so unerringly into their targets? Experienced pilots, some of them with military background, under threat from box-cutter blades? Or barely trained terrorists with no experience of flying huge airliners and with 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 (developed to deal with hijackings?)
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 seem to 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.
And the ultimate smoking gun: no wing vortices appeared in the flame and smoke erupting from the buildings.
There’s no way around this. The planes in the images are not real.
A citizen journalist with background in digital animation, Simon Schack, conducted a forensic examination the televised footage — that is, of the only direct evidence available to the public — and drew conclusions specifically about that evidence. His documentary, September Clues, proves that whether supposedly captured by network cameras or by amateurs with cellphones, the images 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 and imagery-control imposed on the South Manhattan theatre.
This doesn’t mean the explosions were not real, or that people didn’t die. But the planes we saw on TV 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 probably 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-fit hypothesis 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 stripped away with Ockham’s razor at this point.)
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.
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 pays 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 eighteen 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 rationale 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 might actually make 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 were seeing was, 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.
Meanwhile, 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 – la naïveté astucieuse – 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 more. 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 Utopian dream. Never a battle-cry but a suicide note, Baudrillard’s work embodies the intellectual stand-down of the West.
NEXT: BAUDRILLARD AT THE BATACLAN
There is the real. There is the simulation, appearing real.
And then there’s the ultimate tour de force: the
real event presented as simulation; the fake fake.
3 thoughts on “McLUHAN IN MANHATTAN”
re: previous essay; ” little me” eh, you’re the first I look for when I get to the web; beautiful writing IMO ; I’ve looked to the book since first started reading. Carry on steady as you go.
Well obviously my readers are extremely discerning people… thanks, very nice of you to say so.
As for a book, I’d love to find a hard-copy publisher, so that one day someone might stumble across it in the ruins.