Wednesday, April 20, 2005

JEAN BAUDRILLARD ile MATRIX-turkish

AUDE LANCELIN / PARIS - Postmodernliğin teorisyenine göre Wachowski kardeşlerin filmi eğitici semptomlar taşıyor ve her ne kadar reddediyor görünse de teknoloji evreninin bir fetişi haline gelmiş durumda. Reddediyor görünse de kitle kültürünün bir parçası olan film, birçok düşünürün hararetli tartışmalara girişmesi için yeterince muammalı.


2003 yılındayız, etraf loş. Sinema kompleksinin rahat koltuklarında patlamış mısırlarımıza gömülü vaziyetteyken Schopenhauer ve Platon'un modern müritlerinin 'Matrix'in kodunu kırmasını izliyoruz. Acaba Neo, insanlığı Wachowski'lerin içine düşürdüğü esaret zincirinden kurtarabilecek mi?
Serinin üçüncü filminin dünya çapında dağıtımı beklenirken internetteki forum köşeleri önde gelen filozoflarla siber-sofistlerin lazerli düşünce savaşlarına sahne alıyor. Kimisi Descartes ve Berkeley'nin 'Matrix'in düşünce babası olduğu, kimisi de Adorno ve Horkheimer'in güzel Trinity'nin uçan tekmelerini öngördügünü ileri sürüyor...



'Ontolojik Matrix terörü'


'Matrix' tartışmaları Fransa'da had safhaya varmış durumda; Fransız düşünürler Paris'te geçen haziranda 'Gerçegin Çölü' başlığı altında yuvarlak masa toplantıları düzenleyip Matrix'i tartıştı; düşünür Slovaj Zizek, 'Matrix veya Çifte Sapkınlık' başlıklı bir eser yayımladı. Jean-Pierre Zarader, Fransız TF1 televizyonunun internet sitesi için film hakkında 'Saf Aklın Eleştirisi' başlıklı bir makale kaleme aldı ve 'Matrix'in Kantçı yanı'nın altını çizdi; filmin Frankfurt ekolünü takip ettigi sıkça dile getirildi. Yani şimdilerde Fransız düşün âleminde 'Matrix' serisinin yol açtığı bir 'ontolojik terör' konuşuluyor...


Serinin üçüncü filmi gösterime girerken tartışmaya en son Wachowski kardeşlerin açıkça referans aldığı 'postmodernitenin düşünsel mimarı' sosyolog Jean Baudrillard'da da katıldı ve tabir yerindeyse Matrix'in şifresini kırdı!



[A.L] Gerçek ve sanal üzerine görüşleriniz 'Matrix'in yaratıcılarının önde gelen referansları oldu. Serinin ilk filminde sizin görüşlerinize açık göndermeler vardı ve hatta 1981 tarihinde yayımladığınız 'Simulakrlar ve Simülasyon' kitabınızın kapağı bir sahnede görünüyordu. Bu sizi şaşırttı mı?


[J.B.] Bir yanlış anlaşılmanın olduğu kesin, zaten bu yüzden Matrix tartışmalarına katılmaktan çekindim. Wachowski'nin adamları ilk filmden sonra benim de ikinci filmde görünmem için aradılar ama bunun münasip bir fikir olmadiğını kendilerine söyledim! (Gülüyor.)
Aslında 1980'li yıllarda New York'lu simülasyoncuların yaptıkları hatayı tekrarlıyorlar. Bu sanatçılar sanal olanı bir olgu olarak alıp görünür bir fanteziye çeviriyorlardı. Ancak bir sanal kâinat yaratıyorsan bunu tekrar kategorilere ayırıp üzerinde konuşamazsın. Ancak bu filmle örneğin 'Kusursuz Cinayet'te geliştirdiginiz görüşleriniz arasında çarpıcı baglantılar mevcut. 'Gerçegin Çölü'ne yapılan gönderme, tamamen sanal olarak yaratılan bütün o insanlar, insanların yapay bir zekânın ürünü olması...


[A.L.] Evet ama gerçekle sanal arasındaki farkın giderek daha fazla belirsizleşmesi hakkında başka filmler de çevrildi: Peter Weir'in 'Truman Show', Spielberg'in 'Azınlık Raporu', hatta David Lynch'in başyapıtı 'Mulholland Çıkmazı' gibi.


[J.B.] 'Matrix'i bunların son kertede bir sentezi olarak kabul etmek gerekir. Ama buradaki düzen o kadar üstünkörü, kaba saba ki gerçekte fazla bir sorun yaratmıyor. Ya kişilikler bizzat Matrix'in içinde, yani dijital nesneler haline gelmiş ya da sistemin dışında yani direniş ülkesi Zion'da radikalleşmiş. Oysa iki dünya arasındaki geçişte neler olup bittiğini göstermek ilginç olabilirdi. Ama bu filmin asıl rahatsız edici yanı, Platon'un çok daha önceden ortaya koyduğu, simülasyon ile ilüzyonun birbirine karıştırılmasının yarattığı klasik sorundur.


Burada gerçekten bir yanlış anlama var. Görünür dünyanın kökten bir ilüzyondan ibaret olması...
Bütün gelişmiş kültürler bu soruyu ele almış sanat ve sembolleştirmeyle çözümler üretmiştir. Bizim çektiğimiz ıstıraba katlanmak için kendimizin icat ettigi şey sanal bir gerçek, tehlikeli ya da olumsuz öğelerin süpürüldüğü hayali bir evrendir. Ve bu evren artık gerçeğin yerine geçmeye ve tek çözüm olmaya başladı. Oysa 'Matrix' tamamıyla bu sürece katkıda bulunuyor!
Hayal edilen, ütopyası kurulan, fantezisi üretilen şeyler görüntüye çevriliyor, 'gerçekleştiriliyor'. Her şey tam bir saydamlık içinde. 'Matrix' hayali bir düzen üzerine, o düzeni bizzat yaratacak bir film.
Bu ayrıca teknolojik yabancılaşmayı reddettiği anlaşılan ama aynı zamanda dijital evrene ve sentez görüntülere abanan bir film 'Matrix'...


'Matrix 2'nin çarpıcı yanı seyirciyi o devasa özel efektlerin etkisinden çekip çıkaracak, verilmek istenen mesajı algılamasını sağlayacak ironiden bir nebze nasiplenmemiş olmasıdır. Seyirciye bir imaj, bir hayalle karşı karşıya bulunduğunu hatırlatacak tek bir sekans, Barthes'in deyişiyle bir 'punctum' yok. Filmden arta sadece eğitici semptomlar ve gerçekle hayal arasındaki farkın belirsizleştigi bir teknoloji evreninin fetişi kalıyor.
Bu açıdan 'Matrix' hem saf ve temiz yürekli hem de sapkın olabilen dengesiz bir nesne niteliğinde. Filmin sonundaki Freud bozması karakter dogru söylüyor: "Bir an Matrix'i yeniden programlayıp denklemdeki sapmaları temizlemek gerekti. Ve siz muhalifler buna yardim ettiniz." Neo buna karşılık 'Dışarıdayız' diyor. İşte bu cevaba ben teorik olarak karşı çıkıyorum!


'Matrix' halihazırdakı durumun tüm gücü elde tutan tekelci gücün imajını yansıtıyor ve bu nedenle kendi kendine parçalanmasına katkıda bulunuyor. Aslına bakarsanız filmin tüm dünyaya dağıtılıyor olması da filmin bir parçası. Mc Luhan'in dediği gibi 'Araç mesajdır'. 'Matrix'in mesajı kendi kontrolsüz biçimde adeta bulaşıcı bir hastalık gibi yayılmasıdır.


'Matrix' ya da pop ikonu Madonna'nın son albümünde olduğu gibi Amerikan pazarlama çarkının, sisteme eleştiri getiren ürünleri destekleyerek başarıyı elde etmesini görmek de oldukça çarpıcı olsa gerek.
Yaşadığımız dönemi nefes alınamaz hale getiren de bunun ta kendisi. Sistem yanıltıcı bir olumsuzluk üretiyor ve bunlar gösteri ürünleri ile entegre vaziyette. Sistem böylece tüm gerçek alternatiflerin üzerine sürgü çekiyor. Artık bu dünyayı düşünmek için sistem dışı bir nokta, muhalif bir işlev yok, sadece sisteme büyülenmiş biçimde katılım var. Ancak unutmayın ki, mükemmeliyete yaklaştıkça, onu tamamen yok edecek bir kazaya da yaklaşmış olur. Bu asla gerçekleşmemiş bir tür olumlu ironi.


Kuşkusuz 11 Eylül buna katkıda bulunuyor. Terörizm asla bir alternatif güç değildir. Terörizm Batı'nın gücünün kendi üzerine neredeyse intihar biçimde geri dönmesi metaforundan ibarettir. Zamanında bunu söylemiştim ve kabul görmemişti. Ama buna karşı ne nihilist ne de karamsar olmaya gerek yok. Sistem, sanal, hayali, Matrix... Tüm bunlar belki de tarihin çöplüğüne gömülecekler.
Geri dönüşlülük, meydan okuma ve cazibe ise yok edilemez...


Nouvel Observateur'den çeviren: Mustafa Alkan

http://www.radikal.com.tr/haber.php?haberno=94734&tarih=08/11/2003

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Islamic Simulacrum

West Africa Review (2000)
ISSN: 1525-4488
in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Into Africa

Thomas E. R. Maguire


Into Africa, the BBC/PBS six-part series hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., displays the rich heritage of African society at every corner of the continent. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, Gates failed to enhance popular culture with a revised and radical view of Africa. Instead, he reinforced many of the negative stereotypes of Africa and its diverse culture. This paper deals with the way that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. portrays Islam negatively in a manner similar to the traditional and modern manifestations of Orientalism. Using the concept of simulacrum, as introduced by Jean Baudrillard, I will identify the existence of an “Islamic simulacrum” that functions to vilify the Islamic world through Western media. By “Western media” I refer to the English language media in the United States and the United Kingdom where Into Africa was broadcast. In addition, I will examine the deeply intertwined “postmodern simulacrum” that maintains Orientalism and Western domination through rhetoric of pluralism and tolerance. Due to the obscure and endlessly shifting meaning of “postmodern,” it is necessary to specify that I use the concept as Ahmed S. Akbar defined it in Postmodernism and Islam. I will show the ways that the postmodern simulacrum appropriates marginal discourses within Western society to replace traditional figures of domination in the ongoing process of Orientalism. The body of the paper will systematically identify the ways in which Into Africa functions in the postmodern simulacrum as Afrocentric Orientalism. In a separate critique of Into Africa, Ali Mazrui accused Gates of “Black Orientalism”. I prefer the paradoxical term, “Afrocentric Orientalism”, because it specifically refers to the appropriation of Afrocentricism as a marginal discourse. On that note, the use of this term should not be mistaken as an indictment of that discourse, or viewed as a suggestion that Into Africa is an Afrocentric text. Molefi Kete Asante, a pioneer of Afrocentrism, actually referred to the film series as “a Eurocentric enterprise”. In conclusion, I will briefly address the broader issues regarding the relationship between Islamic and African civilisations that Henry Louis Gates avoids through his negative portrayals of Islam. However, this paper is primarily about Into Africa’s complicity with the representation of Islam in Western media, and not the diverse history of Islamic expansion into Africa.

The Islamic Simulacrum
Jean Baudrillard identified an epistemological crisis in contemporary media- drenched society with the concept of the simulacrum, the accelerated circulation of images without referents, a hyperreality operating independently of truth value. In spite of the disputed and ill-measured depth to which the simulacrum immerses members of society, its deceptive tides fail to breech the shores of representation--it deals primarily with the circulation of images and not other epistemological sources. As the majority of Western people wade through its currents, some are apprehensive, heeding the warning, and some are careless, occasionally being swept away. Perhaps Baudrillard is a Noah without an ark, proclaiming an invisible flood without a means for salvation, or an academic charlatan, swimming through the air, pitying the drowned. Despite the occasionally messianic tone of Baudrillard’s philosophy, and his disputable claims that simulacrum envelops society, the concept of simulacrum does identify a concrete process through which the media can deceive by projecting signs and images which distort the reality to which any given representation corresponds. In cases of radical alterity, where individuals acquire knowledge of a given subject primarily, or entirely, through the media, simulacrum becomes the sole epistemological force.

Media representations of the Islamic world provide a convincing example of this phenomenon. In Covering Islam, Edward Said explores the American news coverage of Islam in the late seventies and early eighties. Within a matrix of military dictatorships and fundamentalist coups, Said examines the underlying geopolitical strategies at work in the representations of the Islamic world. The portrayal of Islam as a monolithic mass of “barbarism.medieval theocracy.[and] distasteful exoticism” weaves itself neatly into a social panic regarding the Middle Eastern control of the United States’ oil supplies (Said, 1981: xv) Though the increasing “coverage” of Islam in 1970s marked a new wave of representational attacks, the history of ethnocentric and xenophobic Western attitudes toward Islam can be traced deep into the roots of modernity. In his landmark work, Orientalism, Said traces the history of Western approaches to studying, describing, and engaging the Muslim world. For hundreds of years, the principal dichotomy established between West and East was the true religion of Christianity versus the false religion of Islam. Europe viewed Islam as a religion with an identical structure to Christianity except Christ had been replaced by the impostor, Mohammed. The very term which designated the religion of Islam in Western discourse bursts with misunderstanding. Islam was externally titled, “Mohammedanism,” a misnomer that would stay in common use well into the twentieth century. Two very basic and ubiquitous teachings throughout the Muslim world are the prohibition against the worship of any man, including the prophet Mohammed, and the reverence of Jesus as one of the greatest prophets of God. Such self-representations of Islam were either ignored or consciously considered irrelevant by Orientalists in the West. Though the religious character of Orientalism has subsided with the secularisation of Christendom, its orientation toward Islam as a monolithic object for study has remained. Regarding the opposed abstractions of “Aryan” and “Semitic” that appeared in late nineteenth-century Orientalist scholarship, Said notes,

“.what has not been sufficiently stressed in histories of modern anti-Semitism has been the legitimation of such atavistic designations by Orientalism, and.the way this academic and intellectual legitimation has persisted right through the modern age in discussions of Islam, the Arabs, or the Near Orient. For whereas it is no longer possible to write learned (or even popular) disquisitions on either “the Negro mind” or “the Jewish personality,” it is perfectly possible to engage in such research as “the Islamic mind,” or “the Arab character”.” (1978; 262)
As the underlying racism and ethnocentrism of Orientalism has come to inform the media representations of Islam through the late twentieth century, new oppositions have developed to replace the religious dichotomy of past centuries. The secular, rational, democratic, and modern self-image of the West sees its opposite in Islam, the great and dangerous impostor of a benevolent global civilization.

The image of Western society as the bastion of democracy, tolerance, and secular pluralism can be easily challenged with any number of incidents demonstrating the enduring racism and viciousness of neo-imperialism. However, in the media, the images of Western benevolence dominate, constituting what might be termed the postmodern simulacrum, with the Islamic simulacrum in contemporary media currently standing as its major opposition.. In Postmodernism and Islam, Akbar S. Ahmed identifies the qualities of postmodernism that compose this simulacrum. Included in his definition of postmodernism are the following criteria:

“.a questioning of, a loss of faith in, the project of modernity; a spirit of pluralism; a heightened scepticism of traditional orthodoxies.a rejection of a view of the world as a universal totality.in many profound ways the media are the central dynamic, the Zeitgeist, the defining feature, of postmodernism.[it] allows, indeed encourages, the juxtaposition of discourses, and exuberant eclecticism, the mixing of diverse images.” (Ahmed, 1992; 10-11, 25)
Ahmed also asserts an explicit connection between postmodernism and “ethno- religious revivalism--or fundamentalism” (1992; 13). The development of fundamentalist assertions of identity deeply intertwine with the transnational unification of postmodernism. Though the fundamentalist phenomenon has occurred worldwide irrespective of religion, economy, or political system, the media focus on fundamentalism has unfairly centred on religious movements within the Islamic world. Indeed, fundamentalism has become a code word for Islam that can be broadly applied to any one of the world’s one billion Muslims. Thus, within the rhetoric of pluralism and tolerance of postmodernity, there is a major exception in the representations of Islam.

The Islamic simulacrum marks a modern extension of an ongoing strategy of Western cultural domination. Neither Said nor Ahmed attempt a blanket defence of the charges put forth against Islam in the mass media. Instead, they demonstrate the inaccuracy of the monolithic structure imposed over Islam by the various organs of Western power. When the practices and effects of traditional Orientalism are juxtaposed with those of the Islamic simulacrum, there is very little difference besides the ability for postmodernism to shift from icons of eurocentrism to those of pluralism and humanism in its tactics of vilification. For instance, instead of Islam being attacked as an impostor religion of Christianity, Islam may now be frequently attacked for its “negative treatment of women”. The Muslim woman’s hijab, or veil, has become a symbol of oppression in the West. However, the diversity of opinions and practices within Islam regarding the veil receive little attention, nor does the hijab’s relatively marginal position within the faith. Islam has also been charged with the elimination of indigenous ethnic identities in various regions. Even though such criticisms have appeared within the postmodern simulacrum, it would be highly disputable to assert that postmodern Western society has done anything significant for the liberation of women or the protection of indigenous cultures from the negative effects of global civilization. The ideals of Islam can make as many claims to the protection of women and ethnic identities as can Western humanism. When marginal voices speak after centuries of imposed silence, they can easily be regarded as indicators of an absolute change. However, within the postmodern simulacrum, they can simply transplant a progressive face onto an ongoing process of domination. Many aggressive criticisms of Islam in the media derive their social impact from such a process.

Though the Islamic simulacrum functions in a unique way in the propagation of ethnocentrism, it exists as one of the many heads of a polycephalous monster. The enduring racism against peoples of the African diaspora continues through different simulacra. In the United States, the demonisation of black people operates much as it always has in Western culture, but only in distinct realms of transgression which can be officially sanctioned by rhetoric of legal equanimity; overt racism is unacceptable. The paranoia inspired by the O.J. Simpson trial contained every possible invocation of savagery, but only within a rational logic of crime and punishment. Outside these realms of transgression, a simulacrum of equality exists which asserts the passing of racism and the full integration of African Americans into American prosperity. Despite unemployment and poverty rates in the black community that often equal or surpass those of the entire nation during the Great Depression, a belief in the disappearance of racism continues to grow in the U.S. Though the latter simulacrum represents a distinctly postmodern phenomenon, the prior originates in the centuries-old practice of dehumanisation that rationalised and justified the slave trade. In Into Africa, the six-part series produced for BBC in the United Kingdom, and PBS in the United States, Henry Louis Gates travels through various parts of Africa in an attempt to shatter the depictions of the continent as a land void of civilization and culture. He explains that, “it’s important to debunk the myths of Africa being this benighted continent civilised only when white people arrived. Africans have been creators of culture for thousands of years.”(BBC online, 2000) During his journey, however, Henry Louis Gates travels to many parts of Africa which have interacted with both European and Islamic civilization. In his attempt to extract a history of “Black Africa” from these diverse cultures, he reinforces many of the elements of the Islamic simulacrum, thereby adding Into Africa to the arsenal of postmodern strategies to discredit Islam.

Into Africa
Into Africa is divided into six one-hour episodes with the following titles and content 1) The Swahili Coast: exploring the East African Swahili trading civilization 2) The Road to Timbuktu: travelling along the Niger River toward the fabled Islamic university at Timbuktu 3) The Black Kingdoms of the Nile: venture down the Nile River into the lands of ancient Nubia 4) The Slave Kingdoms: examining West African roles in the slave trade 5) The Holy Land: a pilgrimage through the great sites of Ethiopian Christianity 6) The Lost Cities of the South: reassessing the ancient history of South Africa and Zimbabwe. The first three episodes deal with Islamic Africa.

The Swahili Coast begins with Henry Louis Gates arriving in Lamu, a Swahili coastal town, quoting one of the first European mariners to arrive in East Africa, commenting on the wealth and sophistication of the Swahili, most likely a great contrast to his expectations of a land populated with savages. Gates declares his intention to determine the “roots of the Swahili people”, who still have a “distinctive Muslim culture.” The camera films several veiled women walking down the street as Gates mentions that, “for 2,000 years Arab merchants have settled on this coast. You can see their influence everywhere. There seems to be a mosque on every street corner.” This generalisation of Islam, which will continue throughout this episode, utterly ignores that Islam arose in Arabia just over 1400 years ago. Soon after, he goes to meet with Sheikh Bedawi, “one of Lamu’s most venerable Islamic scholars.” During the conversation, Sheikh Bedawi, somewhat light-skinned but clearly African, claims that he is of pure Arab descent, tracing his ancestry to the prophet Mohammed. He also explains that he tries not to look badly upon those with African blood. His translator adds that Arab men used to take African women as concubines, which led to African people being considered inferior. Leaving Lamu by boat, Gates says, “whatever Sheikh Bedowi says, that supposedly pure Arabic blood has long been mixed with the blood of Black Africans.” In this first encounter with Islamic Africa, the image of Islam progresses from veiled women, mosques, and a Qu’ranic school to bigotry, concubines, and confused identity, neatly reaffirming the Islamic simulacrum.

Gates continues his journey along the Swahili coast by visiting a town that specialises in the construction of dhals. Gates visits a local architect, Ahmed Sigoff, who also traces his ancestry to the prophet Mohammed. He describes the way that Arab men frequently married African women, with the reverse, African men marrying Arab women, only occurring occasionally. He affirms the higher social standing accorded to those members of the community with Arabian descent. In conclusion to this conversation, Gates states that the situation in Lamu “reminds me how black Americans used to claim descent from some distant Cherokee or Sioux ancestor, anything but pure Negro.” With this statement, Gates draws a parallel between Swahili and African-American cultures. The justification for such a parallel is dubious within the evidence provided in the episode. Beyond the possibility for highly divergent interpretations of what “pure Negro” might mean in each culture, Gates oversimplifies the complexity of ethnic friction in the United States and Kenya under a common banner of “blackness”. Gates makes a legitimate claim that the Swahili culture should not be entirely credited to Arabs. However, he inappropriately uses “Islam” and “Arab” as interchangeable signifiers. When Gates next travels to Shanga, the remains of the oldest city in coastal East Africa, his guide explains that the lowest strata of the town resembles archaeological remains of inland settlements, proving that the first inhabitants of the city were black Africans. One of his guides, Mohammed Badi, explains that, 2,000 years ago, the Arabs arrived and gained power gradually through intermarriage. However, Gates never addresses the fact that the arrival of Islam in Arabia arises six hundred years after the initial contact. The significant ways in which Islam transformed Arab culture, including a strong emphasis on equality irrespective of ethnicity, never enter his discussion of Swahili culture. The elision of these conflicts within the Muslim world itself allows the monolithic model of Islam to stand unchallenged. Later, when he’s leaving the island of Lamu, he notes that “the Arabs weren’t the only ones who came to exploit the coast. The British were here from the late nineteenth century up to 1960. They gave special privileges to those who claimed Arab descent, deepening racial divisions.” The extent to which colonialism may have contributed to the ethnic tension previously described at Lamu receives no critical attention.

While the issues of ethnic identity directly relate to the project of Into Africa, Gates makes a clear effort to include images that reinforce the Islamic simulacrum in other ways. After returning from the archaeological remains at Shanga, Gates plays a board game with his other guide, Abus Shakoona. After discussing Abus’ perspective on his ethnic identity as a mix of Arab and African, the conversation turns to the subject of Abus’ marriage to two women. Abus explains that Islam allows a man to marry up to four wives. Gates explains, “I would rather [my daughters] have two husbands than them to be one wife to a husband with two wives.I’d rather them be in control.” So far, Islamic gender relations have been described as a combination of polygamy and concubinage, and Gates clearly asserts his opinion that Islam disempowers women with the statement about his daughters. The next stop for Gates is Mombassa, a large port city and a major destination for European tourists. Walking along the beach, Gates comments on the disturbing racial polarity between the white tourists and the African servants. A moment later, he states, “it’s no accident that the people from Oman and the Saudi-Arabians would move here.leaving all that desert and heat, but this is spectacular.this is so beautiful.” Not only does this statement make an untenable connection between Arab traders and European tourists, it reeks of the malicious depiction of a foreign land that Into Africa attempts to destroy. When Gates travels to the archaeological remains of the Swahili city of Getti, he reinvokes the notion of female oppression in Islam. Standing in an arched inlet of the remains of Getti’s fifteenth- century mosque, Abdullah Alailsi, the curator, recites the fatiha, the first verse of the Qu’ran and an oft-repeated element of salaat, Muslim prayer. After finishing, they continue a conversation as follows:

Abdullah: So with the help of the echo, as you realized, the message will be conveyed and received very simultaneously. And for that, those women at that time had no complaints at all. Right, they could hear him very vividly.

Gates: They couldn’t see him as well.

Abdullah: They couldn’t see him but they could hear him. The front part of it was entirely meant for men and the hind part was specifically kept for the ladies.

When Gates veers from his stated mission of reconstituting a stolen African past and swerves into unrelated representations of Muslim culture, he continually reinforces the Islamic simulacrum. After Abdullah’s statement that men and women are separated in Muslim prayer services, there is no treatment of this issue beyond Gates’ insinuated disapproval. After his tour of Getti, Gates comments that “unlike the British archaeologists, Abdullah says Getti was an African city built by Africans. This grand city was built by the Swahili. And here, on the mainland of Kenya, the Swahili are seen as Africans.” This glides over the fact that the Swahili in Mombassa, and those who built Getti, are Muslims. Gates is only interested in the colour of the builders, and not a revised picture of the African/Arab cooperation that Getti might demonstrate.

The final destination in The Swahili Coast is the island of Zanzibar, which grew rich during the eighteenth and nineteenth century by trading spices and slaves. The conflicts of ethnic identity are at their ugliest in Zanzibar. The island has witnessed great civil unrest in recent decades as the phantoms of its history have risen violently. Gates returns to many of the ethnic identity issues previously addressed, only this time linking them to the slave trade. Gates travels to the village of Kizimkazi where he talks to two black men who consider themselves Persian. Unlike the residents of Lamu, they possess no family trees and offer a rather poor verification of their Persian identity. However, a twelfth- century mosque with Khoufic inscriptions remains in the village that testifies to an ancient Persian presence on the island. Gates once again parallels the experience of Swahili Muslims to African Americans by stating,

“so it’s true that the Persians really did settle in Zanzibar -- just as the Arabs, and later the Indians did. But why do so many people here claim to be the descendants of a handful of medieval Persian mariners? It’s a bit like me claiming to be white because my great-great- grandfather was an Irishman named Brady.I think the answer lies in the shadow of Zanzibar’s history, as the centre of the East African slave trade.”
Despite the historical links and similarities between Zanzibar and the black Atlantic, the conflation of the two histories in such a matter again oversimplifies the ethnic identity issues at work in East Africa. In passing, as evidence of the island’s prosperity in the nineteenth century, Gates explains that the sultan of Oman moved to Zanzibar in 1940 with his court and his 99 concubines—another icon of the Islamic simulacrum, the harem, coming into play. He concludes by talking to a descendent of Tiputip, a famed Swahili slave trader, about the island’s sad history. Her unconvincing defence of the Arab role in slavery only emphasises the Arab participation in the institution, though Gates attempts no sweeping indictment of Muslims as slavers. In conclusion to The Swahilil Coast, Gates says, “it’s taken my people 50 years to move from ‘Negro,’ to ‘Black,’ to ‘African-American.’ I wonder how long it will take the Swahili to call themselves ‘African.’” With this statement, the Swahili no longer have the right to identify themselves as Muslims. According to Gates, they must purify themselves from Arab influence and redefine themselves within the domain of “Africa.” In the end, Gates comes very close to affirming one of the great Orientalist maxims, the oft-quoted position of Karl Marx that, “they cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”(Said, 1978; xiii)

The Swahili Coast presents a version of East African history that could be classified as Afrocentric Orientalism. In The Road to Timbuktu, and The Black Kingdoms of the Nile, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. affirms the Islamic simulacrum in more subtle ways than the obvious misrepresentations of Swahili culture. He begins his sojourn to Timbuktu by explaining the reverence felt by African-Americans for the fabled city. The very existence of Timubuktu as a major centre of learning in West Africa disproves the myths of savagery imposed on black people throughout the period of European expansion. Recounting the old tales of Timbuktu he heard back in his neighbourhood barber shop, he quoted some men as saying, “there’s shit in these books that the white man don’t want us to know about.” The quest for that knowledge drives Gates on his trip to Timbuktu. Though the great Mali empire which Gates describes, and its university at Timbuktu, were Muslim, he pays minimal attention to the Islamic identity of either. Unlike The Swahili Coast, there are few representations of Islam or ethnic difference as he travels along the River Niger. Even when he encounters modern slavery by Tuareg nomads, who are very likely Muslim, he makes no mention of religion. The first explicit Islamic reference comes in his description of the fourteenth century king Monsamoosa’s hajj , or pilgrimage to Mecca, with 500 slaves, each carrying a staff of pure gold. He makes no criticism of Monsamoosa or his practice of slavery. Gates visits the twelfth century mosque at Djenne, a giant and impressive building made entirely of mud. The Imam of Djenne agrees to speak with Gates in front of the mosque. When Gates asks permission to enter the grand building, he is told that the only way he may enter is by becoming Muslim. His responds, “if I become Muslim, I want four wives.” Though this is clearly meant as a joke, and taken as such by his company, Gates again invokes polygamy as a symbol of Islam. Gates acknowledges the development of literacy in Mali with the arrival of Arabs and Islam, but also displays evidence of much older civilisations. There is validity in his goal of disproving a European claim that civilization only came with the Arabs, but again he focuses on negating Western racism by appropriating “Africa” in toto. When he finally reaches Timbuktu, he finds, as expected, a city centuries in decline from its peak. His guide, Ali Seedie, a Muslim scholar, shows him several of the centuries-old books from his family’s personal collection that remain as a legacy to the great university. Gates concludes the episode, saying, “the mind of the black world locked into the pages of these priceless books. Evidence of a grand civilization, untranslated and unknown.” The final remark again resonates with Orientalist tones. These books certainly testify to the greatness of the old Mali empire, but also to Muslim civilization, which endures to this day, despite the implication that the books are “unknown” because they have not been translated from Arabic. It is important to note however, that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. obtained a grant from the Mellon Foundation to catalogue and translate the books from Timbuktu. In a response to Ali Mazrui’s criticism of Into Africa, Gates argues that “the film series would have been justified, in my opinion, if this accomplishment had been the sole benefit that generated.”(West Africa Review, 2000) Though this claim has validity in regard to this significant benefit, it is still important to assess the harms of the film series. Even though The Road to Timbuktu lacks explicitly malicious representations of Islam, Gates assumes the posture of traditional Western academic scholars in dealing with the “otherness” of Muslim society.

In The Black Kingdoms of the Nile, Gates again encounters the Islamic world, continuing many of the Afrocentric Orientalist themes from the previous episodes. Gates delves into the history of Nile civilisations in an attempt to show the major role that Black pharaohs played in ancient Egypt. This episode presents convincing evidence for the major role of black Africans in ancient civilization and the racism that has prevented Western archaeologists from acknowledging it. However, the ethnographic elements of the travelogue address Islam in predictable ways. Gates explains that the Egyptian construction of the Aswan damn buried much of ancient Nubia under water. He notes that many African- Americans objected to the damn at the time of its construction because they considered it racist. His guide, Esra Dahab, a Nubian, expresses her anger at the loss of the geographic source of Nubian civilization, but she fails to confirm or deny the charge of racism. She takes Gates to a village that was specifically built for the flood refugees, where he notes that “Islamic terrorists” had killed 68 tourists several weeks beforehand. Esra introduces him to a woman who experienced the move when she was a child. Initially, she explains that the benefits of the damn outweigh the costs, and that she has no pain from moving. However, she expresses some nervousness because an Egyptian police officer is standing nearby. After he leaves, she affirms that people were sad when they left the land and that she misses it. Gates suggests that she has been “programmed.” Later, when Gates is in the Sudan, where a proposed damn could wash away more ancient Nubian lands, he makes similar inquiries to Sheikh Ashi, who, with his brother, runs a Qu’ranic school that would face devastation if the damn is built. The man expresses some regret, but again suggests that the damn would bring many benefits to the area. Gates asserts that Sheikh Ashi is also afraid to speak his mind, a questionable psychological assessment considering the actual line of questioning. When Gates enters the Sudan for the first time, he says, “all we ever hear about the Sudan is that it’s in a state of civil war, it has a fundamentalist Islamic government and it hates Americans. So I’m kind of nervous.” In one breath, Gates affirms the existence of the Islamic simulacrum; with the next, he justifies it. Toward the end of the episode, explaining the position of a Nubian politician, he says, “she believes that because the Nubian people are so fiercely independent, they’re a threat to the fundamentalist government.” His portrayal of the Islamic societies of the Nile region as racist and oppressive is consistent with the images of fundamentalism in the Islamic simulacrum.

Afrocentric Orientalism
The concept of Afrocentric Orientalism could only arise amidst the shifting cultural icons of postmodernity. Besides the continual reinforcement of the Islamic simulacrum, Gates’ sympathy towards Christianity throughout the series offers a stunning contrast to his depiction of Muslims and the West African cultures he explores in The Slave Kingdoms. In the United States, where the series aired under a different title, Wonders of the African World, Gates has been attacked repeatedly for his uneven leveling of blame on Africans for the slave trade, with very little attention given to European involvement. While in Zanzibar, Gates expresses disillusionment with the Anglican attempts at atonement for slavery. In his discussions with Canon Garda, a Christian leader in Zanzibar, he only speaks of his inability to forgive the slavers. He refuses to address any of the ethnic identity conflicts embedded in Christianity. In The Holy Land, Gates almost performs a total elision of the Muslim presence in Ethiopia. He states, “after surviving nearly 2,000 years the Christian kingdom was overthrown in the 1974 Marxist revolution. Today, Ethiopia is secular and is a democracy, with almost as many Muslims as Christians.” Though the Muslim presence in Ethiopia dates back fourteen centuries to the time of the prophet Mohammed, when a Christian Ethopian king offered sanctuary to the early Muslims who were persecuted in Mecca, this statement suggests that the arrival of Muslims to the country is relatively recent and insignificant. He also refers to “Muslim invaders” and to Ethiopia being “protected from Islamic neighbours by formidable mountain ranges.” While travelling through the Sudan, Gates comments that “the Nubians were Christians for 1200 years before they became Muslims in the sixteenth century. Some even took part in the Crusades.” The transcription of this statement does not capture Gates’ deepened voice at the grave pronunciation of “Muslims”, or the celebratory way in which he refers to the Crusades. Edward Said exposes the deepest roots of Orientalism as a paranoia stemming from the conflict between European Christianity and Islam. Henry Louis Gates upholds these fundamental elements of Orientalism within an Afrocentric framework.

The paradoxical nature of Gates’ Afrocentric Orientalism stems from the very mission of Into Africa, the reclaiming of African history from the racist framework imposed by European colonialism. Though the series succeeds in reinventing the image of Africa without some of its traditional stereotypes, Gates succumbs to the same illness that afflicted other Africanist movements of the twentieth century. Biodin Jeyifo suggests that Into Africa engages in the “reconfiguration of Senghorian negritude”, explaining,

“.every single claim or assertion that can be made about Africa is premised on the obsessive need to refute the doubts already established by the Western world about those claims and assertions.this was the animating spirit, the motive force of Senghorian Negritude: whatever Africa is, or is not, can be established only with reference to the doubts and phobias about Africa established in the minds of Africans themselves and the rest of the world by Western racism and ethnocentrism.The point of the objections to negritude of course was that in becoming locked into that dialectic of discourse and counter-discourse with Western racism and ethnocentrism, negritude gave too much ground to the West, it allowed Western frames of ideas and discourse to dictate the terms of discussions of the African past and present, and worst of all, sometimes negritude even became no more than an inversion or caricature of Western ideas of what it is to be human or ’civilized.’“ (West Africa Review, 2000)
V.Y. Mudimbe tracks the rupture in discourses of colonialism and domination that attempted to define Africa on its own terms. (Mudimbe, 1988) African scholars who attempted the counter-discourse with the West often found themselves in an uncomfortable intermediate position between Western academic systems and their respective African cultures. The use of Western thought and languages by African scholars still remains a difficult issue for the self-representation of Africa within global contexts. Gates comes from a very traditional Western academic background (Yale, Cambridge, Harvard) and he maintains its general structures with the exception of its generally demeaning depiction of Africa. Gates continually makes comparisons between Africa and Europe through the six episodes of Into Africa, as if the two regions are distinct poles of a radical dichotomy which he intends to equalise. In Getti, he shows that the Swahili possessed toilets which rival those he has seen in Europe. When arriving at the mosque of Djenne, he says, “it looks like something from outer space, but for me, it’s as sublime as the cathedral at Notre- Dame.” The latter statement confirms not only the positioning of Africa and Europe as dichotomous opposites, but also the cultural distance from which Henry Louis Gates views Muslim West Africa. Gates appropriates every culture, person, and artefact that he encounters for his reconstituted vision of Africa within a Eurocentric definition of civilization.

Conclusion
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. allows the anti-Islamic structures of Orientalist academia and postmodern media to rest unchallenged in his documentary of Africa. During his voyage, he often resembles the very European travelling scholars whose legacy he wishes to dispel. He presents Islamic Africa as a monolithic mass with a confused self-identity. He ignores the deep variations and practices of African Muslims and their relationship to a global Islamic civilization. Though Into Africa may help resuscitate the self-image and historical pride of people scattered throughout the African diaspora, it also suggests that Islam stands as a threat to any healthy reconstituted image of Africa or an African future. However, from E.W. Blyden, to Franz Fanon, to Kwame Nkrumah, Islam has always been considered a necessary partner in the development of pan-African unity and liberation. In addition, Islam has played a major role in African-American history, from the Muslim slaves who made up an estimated ten percent of all those who were brutally imported to America, to the steady rise of converts among black Americans in the twentieth century. (Gardell, 1996, p. 32, 214-215) These elisions reduce the potency of Into Africa as a treatise against the Eurocentric positions. Instead, the series adds another marginal discourse to the vilification of Islam, enhancing the power of the postmodern simulacrum to retrofit Western imperialism.


Bibliography
Abdullahi Osman El-Tom, “Drinking the Koran: The Meaning of Koranic Verses in Berti Erasure,” in Peel, J.D.Y. and Stewart, C.C. (eds.), Popular Islam South of the Sahara, Manchester University Press, 1985

Ahmed, Akbar S., Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise, Routledge, London, 1992

Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1994

Gardell, Mattias, In the Name of Elijah Muhammad: Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, Duke University Press, Durham, 1996

Harrow, Kenneth W. (eds.) Faces of Islam in African Literature, James Currey Ltd., London, 1991

Lewis, Bernard, “The Crows of the Arabs,” in Gates Jr., Henry Louis (ed.), “Race,” Writing, and Difference, University of Chicago Press, London, 1986

Mudimbe, V.Y., The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, James Currey, London, 1988

Said, Edward W., Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient, Penguin Books, London, 1978.

_________ Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981

Trimingham, J. Spencer, The Influence of Islam Upon Africa, Longmans, Green, and Co Ltd, London 1968

Filmography
Into Africa with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., BBC, 1999

Webography
Official BBC Into Africa website, including transcripts of the six episodes. www.bbc.co.uk/education/history/africa/africa.shtml

Official PBS Wonders of the African World website. www.pbs.org/wonders

West Africa Review, 1:2, January, 2000 Special Issue Dedicated to Wonders of the African World. www.westafricareview.com/war/vol1.2/1.2war.htm



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© Copyright 2000 Africa Resource Center

Citation Format

Maguire, Thomas E.R. (2000). The Islamic Simulacrum in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Into Africa. West Africa Review: 1 , 2. [iuicode: http://www.icaap.org/iuicode?101.1.2.25]


** Table of Contents


0.1. The Islamic Simulacrum
0.2. Into Africa
0.3. Afrocentric Orientalism
0.4. Conclusion
1. Bibliography
1.1. Filmography
1.2. Webography

Photography--Jean Baudrillard

Translated by Francois Debrix

The miracle of photography, of its so-called objective image, is that it reveals a radically non-objective world. It is a paradox that the lack of objectivity of the world is disclosed by the photographic lens (objectif).2 Analysis and reproduction (ressemblance) are of no help in solving this problem. The technique of photography takes us beyond the replica into the domain of the trompe l'oeil. Through its unrealistic play of visual techniques, its slicing of reality, its immobility, its silence, and its phenomenological reduction of movements, photography affirms itself as both the purest and the most artificial exposition of the image.

At the same time, photography transforms the very notion of technique. Technique becomes an opportunity for a double play: it amplifies the concept of illusion and the visual forms. A complicity between the technical device and the world is established. The power of objects and of "objective" techniques converge. The photographic act consists of entering this space of intimate complicity, not to master it, but to play along with it and to demonstrate that nothing has been decided yet (rendre evidente l'idee que les jeux ne sont pas faits). "What cannot be said must be kept silent." But what cannot be said can also be kept silent through a display of images.

The idea is to resist noise, speech, rumors by mobilizing photography's silence; to resist movements, flows, and speed by using its immobility; to resist the explosion of communication and information by brandishing its secrecy; and to resist the moral imperative of meaning by deploying its absence of signification. What above all must be challenged is the automatic overflow of images, their endless succession, which obliterates not only the mark of photography (le trait), the poignant detail of the object (its punctum), but also the very moment of the photo, immediately passed, irreversible, hence always nostalgic. The instantaneity of photography is not to be confused with the simultaneity of real time. The flow of pictures produced and erased in real time is indifferent to the third dimension of the photographic moment. Visual flows only know change. The image is no longer given the time to become an image. To be an image, there has to be a moment of becoming which can only happen when the rowdy proceedings of the world are suspended and dismissed for good. The idea, then, is to replace the triumphant epiphany of meaning with a silent apophany of objects and their appearances.

Against meaning and its aesthetic, the subversive function of the image is to discover literality in the object (the photographic image, itself an expression of literality, becomes the magical operator of reality's disappearance). In a sense, the photographic image materially translates the absence of reality which "is so obvious and so easily accepted because we already have the feeling that nothing is real" (Borges). Such a phenomenology of reality's absence is usually impossible to achieve. Classically, the subject outshines the object. The subject is an excessively blinding source of light. Thus, the literal function of the image has to be ignored to the benefit of ideology, aesthetics, politics, and of the need to make connections with other images. Most images speak, tell stories; their noise cannot be turned down. They obliterate the silent signification of their objects. We must get rid of everything that interferes with and covers up the manifestation of silent evidence. Photography helps us filter the impact of the subject. It facilitates the deployment of the objects's own magic (black or otherwise).

Photography also enables a technical perfection of the gaze (through the lens) which can protect the object from aesthetic transfiguration. The photographic gaze has a sort of nonchalance which nonintrusively captures the apparition of objects. It does not seek to probe or analyze reality. Instead, the photographic gaze is "literally" applied on the surface of things to illustrate their apparition as fragments. It is a very brief revelation, immediately followed by the disappearance of the objects.

But no matter which photographic technique is used, there is always one thing, and one thing only, that remains: the light. Photo-graphy: The writing of light. The light of photography remains proper to the image. Photographic light is not "realistic" or "natural." It is not artificial either. Rather, this light is the very imagination of the image, its own thought. It does not emanate from one single source, but from two different, dual ones: the object and the gaze. "The image stands at the junction of a light which comes from the object and another which comes from the gaze" (Plato).

This is exactly the kind of light we find in Edward Hopper's work. His light is raw, white, ocean-like, reminiscent of sea shores. Yet, at the same time, it is unreal, emptied out, without atmosphere, as if it came from another shore (venue d'un autre littoral). It is an irradiating light which preserves the power of black and white contrasts, even when colors are used. The characters, their faces, the landscapes are projected into a light that is not theirs. They are violently illuminated from outside, like strange objects, and by a light which announces the imminence of an unexpected event. They are isolated in an aura which is both extremely fluid and distinctly cruel. It is an absolute light, literally photographic, which demands that one does not look at it but, instead, that one closes one's eyes on the internal night it contains. There is in Hopper's work a luminous intuition similar to that found in Vermeer's painting. But the secret of Vermeer's light is its intimacy whereas, in Hopper, the light reveals a ruthless exteriority, a brilliant materiality of objects and of their immediate fulfillment, a revelation through emptiness.

This raw phenomenology of the photographic image is a bit like negative theology. It is "apophatic," as we used to call the practice of proving God's existence by focusing on what he wasn't rather than on what he was. The same thing happens with our knowledge of the world and its objects. The idea is to reveal such a knowledge in its emptiness, by default (en creux) rather than in an open confrontation (in any case impossible). In photography, it is the writing of light which serves as the medium for this elision of meaning and this quasi-experimental revelation (in theoretical works, it is language which functions as the thought's symbolic filter).

In addition to such an apophatic approach to things (through their emptiness), photography is also a drama, a dramatic move to action (passage a l'acte), which is a way of seizing the world by "acting it out."3 Photography exorcizes the world through the instantaneous fiction of its representation (not by its representation directly; representation is always a play with reality). The photographic image is not a representation; it is a fiction. Through photography, it is perhaps the world itself that starts to act (qui passe a l'acte) and imposes its fiction. Photography brings the world into action (acts out the world, is the world's act) and the world steps into the photographic act (acts out photography, is photography's act).4 This creates a material complicity between us and the world since the world is never anything more than a continuous move to action (a continuous acting out).

In photography, we see nothing. Only the lens "sees" things. But the lens is hidden. It is not the Other 5 which catches the photographer's eye, but rather what's left of the Other when the photographer is absent (quand lui n'est pas la). We are never in the real presence of the object. Between reality and its image, there is an impossible exchange. At best, one finds a figurative correlation between reality and the image. "Pure" reality -- if there can be such a thing -- is a question without an answer. Photography also questions "pure reality." It asks questions to the Other. But it does not expect an answer. Thus, in his short-story "The Adventure of a Photographer,"6 Italo Calvino writes: "To catch Bice in the street when she didn't not know he was watching her, to keep her in the range of hidden lenses, to photograph her not only without letting himself be seen but without seeing her, to surprise her as if she was in the absence of his gaze, of any gaze...It was an invisible Bice that he wanted to possess, a Bice absolutely alone, a Bice whose presence presupposed the absence of him and everyone else."7 Later, Calvino's photographer only takes pictures of the studio walls by which she once stood. But Bice has completely disappeared. And the photographer too has disappeared. We always speak in terms of the disappearance of the object in photography. It once was; it no longer is. There is indeed a symbolic murder that is part of the photographic act. But it is not simply the murder of the object. On the other side of the lens, the subject too is made to disappear. Each snapshot simultaneously ends the real presence of the object and the presence of the subject. In this act of reciprocal disappearance, we also find a transfusion between object and subject. It is not always a successful transfusion. To succeed, one condition must be met. The Other -- the object -- must survive this disappearance to create a "poetic situation of transfer" or a "transfer of poetic situation." In such a fatal reciprocity, one perhaps finds the beginning of a solution to the problem of society's so-called "lack of communicability." We may find an answer to the fact that people and things tend to no longer mean anything to each other. This is an anxious situation that we generally try to conjure away by forcing more signification.

But there are only a few images that can escape this desire of forced signification. There are only a few images that are not forced to provide meaning, or have to go through the filter of a specific idea, whatever that idea might be (but, in particular, the ideas of information and testimony are salient). A moral anthropology has already intervened. The idea of man has already interfered. This is why contemporary photography (and not only photo-journalism) is used to take pictures of "real victims," "real dead people," and "real destitutes" who are thus abandoned to documentary evidence and imaginary compassion.8 Most contemporary photos only reflect the "objective" misery of the human condition. One can no longer find a primitive tribe without the necessary presence of some anthropologist. Similarly, one can no longer find a homeless individual surrounded by garbage without the necessary presence of some photographer who will have to "immortalize" this scene on film. In fact, misery and violence affect us far less when they are readily signified and openly made visible. This is the principle of imaginary experience (la loi de l'imaginaire). The image must touch us directly, impose on us its peculiar illusion, speak to us with its original language in order for us to be affected by its content. To operate a transfer of affect into reality, there has to be a definite (resolu) counter-transfer of the image.

We deplore the disappearance of the real under the weight of too many images. But let's not forget that the image disappears too because of reality. In fact, the real is far less often sacrificed than the image. The image is robbed of its originality and given away to shameful acts of complicity. Instead of lamenting the relinquishing of the real to superficial images, one would do well to challenge the surrender of the image to the real. The power of the image can only be restored by liberating the image from reality. By giving back to the image its specificity (its "stupidity" according to Rosset),9 the real itself can rediscover its true image.

So-called "realist" photography does not capture the "what is." Instead, it is preoccupied with what should not be, like the reality of suffering for example. It prefers to take pictures not of what is but of what should not be from a moral or humanitarian perspective. Meanwhile, it still makes good aesthetic, commercial and clearly immoral use of everyday misery. These photos are not the witness of reality. They are the witness of the total denial of the image from now on designed to represent what refuses to be seen. The image is turned into the accomplice of those who choose to rape the real (viol du reel). The desperate search for the image often gives rise to an unfortunate result. Instead of freeing the real from its reality principle, it locks up the real inside this principle. What we are left with is a constant infusion of "realist" images to which only "retro-images" respond. Every time we are being photographed, we spontaneously take a mental position on the photographer's lens just as his lens takes a position on us. Even the most savage of tribesmen has learned how to spontaneously strike a pose. Everybody knows how to strike a pose within a vast field of imaginary reconciliation.

But the photographic event resides in the confrontation between the object and the lens (l'objectif), and in the violence that this confrontation provokes. The photographic act is a duel. It is a dare launched at the object and a dare of the object in return. Everything that ignores this confrontation is left to find refuge in the creation of new photographic techniques or in photography's aesthetics. These are easier solutions.

One may dream of a heroic age of photography when it still was a black box (a camera obscura) and not the transparent and interactive space that it has become. Remember those 1940s farmers from Arkansas whom Mike Disfarmer shot. They were all humble, conscientiously and ceremonially standing in front of the camera. The camera did not try to understand them or even catch them by surprise. There was no desire to capture what's "natural" about them or "what they look like as photographed."10 They are what they are. They do not smile. They do not complain. The image does not complain. They are, so to speak, caught in their simplest attire (dans leur plus simple appareil), for a fleeting moment, that of photography. They are absent from their lives and their miseries. They are elevated from their miseries to the tragic, impersonal figuration of their destiny. The image is revealed for what it is: it exalts what it sees as pure evidence, without interference, consensus, and adornment. It reveals what is neither moral nor "objective," but instead remains unintelligible about us. It exposes what is not up to reality but is, rather, reality's evil share (malin genie) (whether it is a fortunate one or not). It displays what is inhuman in us and does not signify.

In any case, the object is never anything more than an imaginary line. The world is an object that is both imminent and ungraspable. How far is the world? How does one obtain a clearer focus point? Is photography a mirror which briefly captures this imaginary line of the world? Or is it man who, blinded by the enlarged reflection of his own consciousness, falsifies visual perspectives and blurs the accuracy of the world? Is it like the rearview mirrors of American cars which distort visual perspectives but give you a nice warning
- -"objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear"? 11 But, in fact, aren't these objects farther than they appear? Does the photographic image bring us closer to a so-called "real world" which is in fact infinitely distant? Or does this image keep the world at a distance by creating an artificial depth perception which protects us from the imminent presence of the objects and from their virtual danger?

What is at stake (at play, en jeu) is the place of reality, the question of its degree. It is perhaps not a surprise that photography developed as a technological medium in the industrial age, when reality started to disappear. It is even perhaps the disappearance of reality that triggered this technical form. Reality found a way to mutate into an image. This puts into question our simplistic explanations about the birth of technology and the advent of the modern world. It is perhaps not technologies and media which have caused our now famous disappearance of reality. On the contrary, it is probable that all our technologies (fatal offsprings that they are) arise from the gradual extinction of reality.



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Notes
1. A Translation of Jean Baudrillard, "La Photographie ou l'Ecriture de la Lumiere: Litteralite de l'Image," in L'Echange Impossible (The Impossible Exchange). Paris: Galilee, 1999: pp. 175-184.
2. There is here a play on the French word "objectif." "Objectif" means objective (adj.) and visual lens (subs.) at the same time.
3. This term is in English in the original French version.
4. An unsatisfactory translation of "la photo 'passe a l'acte du monde' et le monde 'passe a l'acte photographique'."
5. Capitalized by Baudrillard in the French text.
6. "L'Aventure d'un photographe," in Italo Calvino, Aventures [Adventures]. Paris: Le Seuil, 1990. Calvino's Adventures (I Racconti in Italian) have been published in several different books in English. For example, "The Adventure of a Photographer" was published as part of Calvino's novel Difficult Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1984), pp. 220-235.
7. Translation borrowed from Italo Calvino, Difficult Loves, trans. W. Weaver, p. 233.
8. I use the term "real" (in quotation marks) in front of victims, dead people and destitute to render Baudrillard's term "en tant que tels" (which literally means "as such").
9. Possibly Clement Rosset, author of La Realite et Son Double (Reality and Its Double), Paris: Gallimard, 1996; and of Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
10. In English in the French text.
11. In English in the French text.



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Francois Debrix is a professor in International Relations at Florida International University, Miami, Florida. This article was translated in Miami, March 31, 2000.

Pop Playground J. Lo

According to theorist Jean Baudrillard, all culture is based upon communication. This communication is based on the exchange of signs and symbols, and traditionally the symbolic world and the real world have been kept separate. In a mass communication culture, this is no longer the case. Electronic media has destroyed the distinctions between the symbolic and the real, creating what Baudrillard calls “hyperreality.” In hyperreality, signs become detached from their referents – representations no longer have any relationship to what they purport to represent. Signs only signify other signs, and meaning (as we traditionally think of it) is lost.


I like to think that in between postmodern dissections of American global policy decisions, Baudrillard follows the career of one of America’s most successful celebrities (and thus, a master of the hyperreality generator), Jennifer Lopez. Ms. Lopez (the only safe title due to intermittent marriages) has managed to fuse all parts of her celebrity into one brand: J. Lo. All signs – J. Lo the actress, J. Lo the singer, J. Lo the model – serve one purpose: to enhance the status of J. Lo. So that J. Lo star in more films, make more albums, and make the cover of more magazines. There is no deeper goal than increased visibility, which is a value that sets postmodern social reality apart from social realities of the past. Visibility is worth, and worth is visibility: how important can you be if you aren’t on TV? Cause and effect break down. Hyperreality personified. J. Lo.


I’ll admit I got a bit abstract fairly quickly. Don’t hold it against me (you should see the material I’m working from). If we go step by step in examining the wonders of J. Lo, things should get a little more concrete.


First, where did this fame come from? Jennifer’s first starring role was in Selena, the slain Tejano singer. Selena’s posthumously released album reached the top of the charts (we’ll suspend morbid social commentary on this for now). The movie appeals to a demographic rarely catered to by media bigwigs. Success! Jennifer becomes famous by adopting the persona of someone already famous. A famous singer. Cut to music career.


Jennifer can’t sing. She’s not terrible, but she isn’t much better than above average. However, she’s moderately famous, especially in key niche demographics in the Hispanic community, people that became fans through Selena. Jennifer can dance. And she is very, shall we say, presentable. This is more than enough for a successful pop album. Computers can wrench every passable note out of Jennifer’s throat through a myriad of compressions, filters, edits, and now and then a healthy slathering of vocoder. Everything works! Instant platinum success! Jennifer is big now. The Latin angle was hot that year. Now Jennifer is J. Lo, a name given to her by fans.


A film career based only on fame and a music career based on a film role. But the layers of hyperreality have only just begun. Soon, Jennifer herself becomes fodder for the advancement of J. Lo. High-profile relationship with Puff Daddy. Scandalous Grammy dress. High profile breakup with Puff Daddy. More headlines, more fame. More movies, of continually less edgy nature. The Cell, Angel Eyes, the current Maid in Manhattan -- all star vehicles in the traditional sense of the word, movies that ride a celebrity’s fame and thereby enhance it (The Cell melded this with state-of-the-art special effects for an awkward attempt at wider appeal). These movies are inconceivable without J. Lo; paradoxically, J. Lo’s characters are such blank templates that any actor could fill the role. J. Lo’s emotions rarely veer far from winningly sensitive and obsequiously nurturing. Of course, the roles have no real relationship to the films (which are barely films at all). The only relationship they have is as PR to J. Lo. J. Lo, the public presence. Not a real person. A hyperreal person.


Jennifer seems to have sensed something, and maybe her fans do too. In her subsequent albums, she maintains one thing again and again: she’s real. The title of her most successful song: “I’m Real” (the remix, natch). What does it mean for J. Lo to be real?


You like the way I dress
The way I wear my hair
Show me off to all your friends
Baby, I don't care
Just as long as you tell them who I am
Tell them I'm the one that made you give a damn
Don't ask where I've been
Or what I'm gonna do
Just know that I'm here with you
Don't try to understand
Baby, there's no mystery
‘Cause you know how I am

I’m real.


J. Lo seems to comment on her own hyperreal career right in the lyrics. She doesn’t care how she’s shown, as long as she’s sufficiently branded. Then she feints, exhorting the listener (fan, consumer, J. Lo buyer) to focus, not on the past or the future, but on the present. Does she ever say what it means to be real? Of course not. It’s a foregone conclusion. You know how she is. Real. In a really real way. There’s no mystery. Her newest single even states that to her “it’s like breathing.” Staying real. She does it naturally, all the time.


Clearly, “I’m real” means quite the opposite of what it is supposed to mean. It should affirm that J. Lo has a firm basis in Jennifer Lopez. But we know this is not the case. Not just because Baudrillard told us there is no real. It’s because J. Lo is the only thing that matters now. Not Jennifer. Not Jenny From the Block. When she says, “I’m real” we have no choice to conclude the opposite. Here we are again. Signs without reference. Cause and effect breaking down.


What should we conclude from this strange, paradoxical tone in J. Lo’s music? An identity crisis perhaps (which may explain this rash of marriages)? Whatever the reason, it strikes an odd note in a pop landscape that openly flaunts its lack of traditional notions of authenticity (O-Town’s career would make for another interesting examination in pop hyperreality). Perhaps Baudrillard can take a minute out of his busy day to write some lyrics that would fit J. Lo a little better. “I’m Hyperreal” anybody?




By: Gavin Mueller
2002-12-16

The Hyppereal Spectacle-Professor Ron Burnett

English 378D ()


Some thirty years after Marshall McLuhan's prophetic announcement of the coming global village, that notion, which once seemed the exclusive domain of future generations, is now reality. Technology, even within the past decade, has advanced by seemingly exponential rates, and what was once deemed incredible is now the mundane and commonplace. Now, mass society across the world is irrevocably linked. One can only imagine the sense of awe and excitement expressed by those who witnessed the unveiling of television at the World's Fair in 1932. Whereas news of wars in distant foreign lands once could only be read about second-hand in the newspaper, they are now broadcast across the world so that anyone watching the screen can be instantly transported to the front lines as the action unfolds. Essentially, it is a vicarious experience, for the viewer is nowhere near the real action but rather in the comfort of home. To this writer, it seems as if the whole point of virtual reality is to enable users to experience activities in which they do not ordinarily participate. That is to say that these experiences, which are nothing more than simulations, are to the virtual reality user as enjoyable and satisfying as the real thing. VR users accept the simulated for the real. Where can the line between the real and the simulated be drawn, then, if it can be drawn at all? Are the images the media projects to us, a society of spectators as Debord would say, nothing more than simulations of the real that we consciously accept? In the mass desire to conform to the status quo, is it possible that society accepts the simulation for the real because the status quo dictates it? It is my intention to investigate, utilising the theories of Guy Debord and his contemporary Jean Baudrillard, the possibility that society has become nothing less than a spectacle based society, and that these spectacles, far from being true pictures of reality, are nothing more than the melding together of the real and the simulated into a new vision of reality, the hyperreal. In essence, the masses have become a society of spectators, totally dependent on the images projected to them as referents of the world in which they live. Not unlike the ancient Roman bread and circuses, society today depends on the spectacle for a variety of reasons. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord states: The whole life of these societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation (p.12). Take, as an example, the recent media circus surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial. The millions who tuned in every day did so for a variety of reasons, but the inescapable fact is that they all intently watched nothing more than a spectacle, knowing full well that it was exactly that. The images of the trial, projected world-wide, depicted the real life trial of an accused murderer. But by virtue of the fact that someone in New York could watch the precedings as they were happening live means that the trial could be nothing but a spectacle, with the viewers forming an integral part in the spectacle itself. Debord states that the spectacle appears at once to be society itself, a part of society, and as a means of unifying society (p.12). Americans, from Maine to Hawaii, all see the same images, courtesy of national broadcasting, and that image serves to unite them. All of society's attentions, the collective consciousness, is centered within the spectacle itself. Because all of society is concentrated on the spectacle, society is itself related to both the spectacle and all other spectators, for they are projected the same images. It follows, by deduction, that the spectacle is not limited to just the images projected, but rather the whole effect, the social relationship between spectators which the images involved mediate. The true spectacle of the Simpson trial was not the trial itself, but rather the total effect it had on the masses, the spectators involved; specifically, the polarization of Caucasians and African Americans over the trial was the essential property of the spectacle. It follows that the spectacle, although it unites in its scope, can also prompt division; in this case along racial lines. Thus described, the spectacle is nothing but the relationship that spectators have to any given image. The spectacle serves a role in society; Debord states: Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world- not a decorative element, so to speak. On the contrary, it is the very heart of society's real unreality. In all its specific manifestations- news or propa- ganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment- the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing model of social life. It is the omnipresent celebration of a choice already made choice. In form as in content the spectacle serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system. It further ensures the permanent presence of that justification, for it governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself. (Debord, p.13) The spectacle, being the heart of the society that at the same time produces it and consumes it, serves to represent what is nothing else save the status quo. The spectators look to the spectacle itself as a reference point for their own social practices. Social practice, which the spectacle's autonomy challenges, is also the real totality to which the spectacle is subordinate. So deep is the rift in this totality, however, that the spectacle is able to emerge as its apparent goal (Debord, p.13). So it seems, then, that by virtue of the fact that the masses are exposed to the spectacle and depend on it for their own determinations of the status quo, the spectacle does not serve in this respect to project to the masses the aims of some higher power (government or media), but rather the spectacle itself becomes the goal of the masses. Thus said, it is the spectacle and nothing else which the masses depend on. However, if the what the spectacle presents is not reality, but rather the reality as propagated by the interactive spectacle, then the masses will believe that the prevailing mode of life as presented by this false spectacle is what they should believe. For example, people buy Mercedes cars because of the spectacle surrounding the name Mercedes. They believe that it is to their advantage to own a car that bears the name of the marque; they do so because of the images projected to them that the car is luxurious, it is safe, etc. The real reason people buy Mercedes cars is that they themselves desire to become part of the spectacle when they drive off the dealer's lot. If the spectacle surrounding Mercedes cars suddenly turned to one of ill repute, then nobody would buy a Mercedes. According to Debord, it is impossible to place the spectacle in abstract opposition to the real, that is to say concrete social activity, because the difference between the two, reality and image, is unapparent . The spectacle, although it turns reality on its head, as Debord states, is a real product of real social activity (Debord, p.14). In the same way, lived reality is affected by the spectacle's 'mechanisms of contemplation'; it absorbs the spectacle's form and in turn, supports it, lending the spectacle credence in the eyes of the spectator. It follows that each side, the spectacle and the real, has its own share of objective reality (Debord, p.14). Concepts that may begin in the real meld into the spectacle and vice versa. As a result, reality 'erupts' within the spectacle, and subsequently, the spectacle is accepted as the real. The sum total of this process, Debord posits, is the reciprocal alienation that is the base element of society as it currently exists (Debord, p.14). In such a world, truth becomes the embodiment of falsehood. So it seems then, following Debord's reasoning, that the spectacle serves to bring together the spectrum of phenomena; the contrasts and diversities of these phenomena are the appearances of the spectacle. Understood in its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance (Debord, p.14). However, a critique examining the spectacle's essential character must expose the spectacle for what it is - a visible negation of life by virtue of the fact that the spectacle has, as Debord states, "invented a visual form for itself" (Debord, p.14). To try to describe the spectacle would require using the methodology of it; in short, the methodology of the society that both gives life to the spectacle and feeds from it. Debord asserts that in one sense, the spectacle expresses the aims of one particular economic and social formation; i.e., the formation's agenda is transmitted by the spectacle (Debord, p.15). This in turn, it can be argued, develops into first the goals of the society, and secondly, that society's status quo. The spectacle is, in a sense, on a pedestal, out of reach where it cannot be harmed or disputed by the masses. Its message is “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear” (Debord, p.15). If something bad happens, it will be corrected, and then everything will be all right; sort of a soothing voice of placation. Debord contends that the attitude the spectacle demands of society is the same passive acceptance that established it in the first place, by virtue of its apparent indisputability . This effect can only be the result of the spectacle's monopoly over “the realm of appearances” (Debord, p.15). The spectacle's means and its ends are the same; it is self-perpetuating by design. Modern industrial society, Debord states, has the seemingly spectacular character that it does because of the fundamental relationship it has with the spectacle that first came with it and then came to define it. If the spectacle is the perfect vehicle for the projection of images to the masses, then there can be no end, for it is self development and perpetuation on which the spectacle is dependent. The spectacle, simply put, cannot end. The only product of this process is the continued propagation of the spectacle. The spectacle, in a way, is the shiny box in which reality comes wrapped, but society never actually unwraps the box, preferring to look at the box with the spectacular wrapping instead of removing the wrapping and coming to terms with the reality inside. They do so because they have grown accustomed to the notion that the box is better than what is inside. The status quo, it can be construed, dictates this acceptance. Touching on Baudrillard's notion of the simulation, which I will delve into later in this discussion, Debord states: "For one to whom the real world becomes real images, mere images are transformed into real beings - tangible figments which are the efficient motor of trancelike behaviour;" (Debord, p.17). Since it is part and parcel of the spectacle to create a world that is not directly perceptible, it is only inevitable that the spectacle elevates the sense of sight to the state of importance once occupied by touch, when the real experience was the true aim. Sight is at one time both the most abstract of the senses and also the most easily deceived. In a world of projections, sight is the method by which the masses perceive the apparent reality. However, it is impossible to recognize the spectacle for what it essentially is, if Debord's logic is to be accepted, for he defines the spectacle as being immune from human activity; hence, it cannot be reviewed or examined, for all activity is encompassed by and absorbed into the spectacle. "Wherever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule;" (Debord, p.17). At this point in his argument, Debord asserts the claim that the spectacle has inherited all of the weaknesses of Western Philosophy, which he reduces to an attempt to understand human activity by means of categories of vision. Due to these inherited weaknesses, the spectacle relies on the same technical rationality as philosophy, but instead of realizing philosophical problems, the all absorbing spectacle twists reality on its head and instead philosophises reality, turning the material life of everyone into a 'universe of speculation'(Debord, p.17). It would also follow that notions of a subjective vision of truth, from Keirkegaard and other Existentialists, stems from this claim. It stands to reason that if the whole of the masses were caught up in the spectacle from the inside, all judging their surroundings subjectively, the result, as Debord concludes, is nothing but speculative world. Taking into account each person's subjective opinions of the spectacle, it follows that the end result of this process would be alienation from what was reality to the point were there is only the spectacle. "Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle,"(Debord p.20). Within the spectacle, however, there emerges a new reality, a concept that lies in direct comparison with Baudrillard's notion of the hyperreal. Within the spectacle, Debord states, is the specialization of power. All shifts in the balance of power occur within the spectacle, for all events occur within the scope of the spectacle: If the spectacle-understood in the limited sense of those mass media that are its most stultifying superficial mani- festation - seems at times to be invading society in the shape of a mere apparatus, it should be remembered that this apparatus has nothing neutral about it, and it answers precisely to the needs of the spectacle's inner dynamics. (Debord, p.19) Because the spectacle, understood in Debord's description, is the perfect representation of the real, all the spectators, though separated from each other and alienated from reality, are united in the way that they each have a one-way relationship to the spectacle, that very entity which perpetuates their isolation. "The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites only in its separateness," (Debord,p.22). Those in the spectacle perceive each other through the spectacle, that is to say, they depend on the spectacle for everything because everything is contained within the spectacle. The spectacle is the locus of all activity, all that once might have been outside the spectacle is destined to become part of the spectacle. Woody Allen's film Zelig is a treatment of the spectacle. Zelig, a man who adopts the identity of the company he keeps because he has no identity of his own, is suddenly caught up in a spectacle, the spectacle of his own existence. The entire nation is enthralled by his unique 'condition'; songs are written about him, dance crazes are launched, and any action taken by Zelig is scrutinized by the spectator. Zelig cannot escape the public eye for he is part of the spectacle, although he does not wish to be part of it. He has no choice. It is not the individual's actions that perpetuate their place within the spectacle, but rather how those actions are perceived by the masses. Zelig is at first a scientific curiosity, a source of amazement for the masses, and then the same society which previously hung on his every move renders him an outcast. The individual, it seems, has no control over the spectacle. In a sense, Zelig is caught up in the gears of the public machine, unable to free himself; only society can decide when to move on to the next attraction. Zelig, in the course of the movie, is at first a freak, then an outcast, and then, the very society which condemned him labels him a hero. Returning to the earlier example of the Simpson trial, it must be remembered that at one time O.J. was a national football hero, the children of the very same nation that would later label him a murderer once emulated him. Every kid tossing a football around the yard wanted to be like O.J.. Just like Zelig, Simpson rose to glory and then fell in the eyes of the spectator. Whether Simpson will ultimately be emancipated from the nation's contempt remains to be seen; the undeniable fact is that the society of the spectacle decides when to move on to the next attraction. Debord's argument, in which nothing short of a new notion of reality is advanced, treads the same territory as Jean Baudrillard's concept of the hyperreal, a place where the real and the simulated merge into what some would call the future. In Simulacra and Simulations, Jean Baudrillard states: "In this passage to a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor of truth, the age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all referentials," (p.167). Whereas the media might once have been a mirror in which society caught brief glimpses of itself, it is now, as Baudriallrd posits, not so much a reflection of the masses but rather a projection that the masses interpret as a reflection. He states: No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept; no more imaginary coextensivity: rather, genetic minaturization is the dimension of simulation. The real is produced from miniaturized units-and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imagi- nary. it is no longer real at all. It is a hyperreal: the product of an irradiating synthesis of combin- atory models in hyperspace without an atmosphere. (Baudrillard, p.167) It seems then, that what once were two distinct entities, the real and the simulated, have, as Baudrillard contends, fused into a new entity, the hyperreal. This idea seems similar to Debord's notion that the real has fused into the spectacle. Baudrillard's main intention is that the real has fused with the simulated, producing, what I feel can only be termed a spectacle. To completely grasp how the simulated can be taken for the real, one might look to the material world. One might say that a real diamond and a simulated diamond, that is to say an artificial man made one, are not the same thing. Resisting the temptation to say that the former is a diamond and the latter is not, the logical conclusion is that they are both diamonds. Although one was dug up from the ground and the other manufactured in a laboratory, the fact is that both are carbon based, have the same chemical structure,etc. The two are one and the same, for the simulation, in essence, has all the properties of the real. Even a diamond expert would not be able to tell which is which. In support, Baudrillard offers this comment: It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself. Never again will the real have to be produced. (Baudrillard, p.167) In order to simulate it is necessary for the simulation to have all the essential properties of the real. Someone who is pretending to be ill can lie in bed all day long and feign sickness. By virtue of the fact that the simulator displays symptoms of illness, a doctor would conclude that the patient was really sick. In the same way, a simulation of an event is real in the sense that it has all the properties of the the real event, just like the simulated diamond discussed previously. Take for example, the Persian Gulf War. While there were actual offensives against the Iraqi army, and real, live forces were fighting, everyone in the world, including President Bush, was watching the events unfold on CNN. In effect, people were not watching the real war, but rather something that did in fact have all the essential properties of the real action; hence, everyone was watching a simulation of the war. According to Baudrillard, the mass media can merely do nothing but simulate, for it is logically impossible for someone sitting in their living room in Los Angeles to be really experiencing a military offensive in Kuwait. Yet, everyone watching CNN during the days of the conflict will tell you that they really saw the war on TV. It follows that what they saw was not the real war, but a simulation of it that they all took as the real. The same goes for the Simpson trial. Of the millions across the world who eagerly watched the proceedings (again, on CNN), only those who were physically in the courtroom really experienced what went on. Everyone else was watching a simulation. The fact that cameras were allowed in the courtroom meant that the trial could be experienced in a vicarious manner. Why be someplace in physical reality when you can see exactly the same thing on your widescreen? Obviously, every media depiction of past events can be nothing but simulation, for the events are in the past, in a place where they can not be considered real. It is precisely a simulation of these past events which the masses see, all the time inferring from the simulation that 'this is what really happened'. The media, in almost all facets, if Baudrillard's concept is to be accepted, does not serve to represent the real. It can only simulate; by reducing the real to its elemental signs, it can reproduce. Baudrillard states: So it is with simulation, insofar as it is opposed to representation. Representation starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent. Conversely, simulation starts from the Utopia of principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death of every reference. Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelopes the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum. (Baudrillard, p.170) It follows, from this statement, that Baudrillard envision the simulation as being totally self contained. There is no need to utilize referents from the real world because these referents are incorporated into the simulation. This concept of self containment and self perpetuation runs parallel to Debord's self contained spectacle. Baudrillard states that there are four successive phases of the simulated image; these phases, in turn, can be applied to establishment of the hyperreal society. The first phase is that a simulation is the reflection of a basic reality, but secondly, the simulation masks and perverts the basic reality. Thirdly, not only can the simulation mask a reality, it can also mask the absence of a basic reality. Finally, the simulation bears no relation to any reality that may exist; the simulation is its own pure simulacrum, that is to say that the simulation exists within its own defined space. Not only is the simulation separate from reality, it appears to be its own reality (Baudrillard, p.170). Imagine if you will, a sofa that has a few cigarette burns on one side of it. Now take a sheet and cover the sofa. This cover is the simulation, for the sofa with the sheet on it is still a sofa, but it is impossible to determine where the cigarette burns are. This is how the simulation works on reality. It covers up the absences and imperfections of the basic reality and makes things look as they should. Society, as Baudrillard argues, is content to look at the sofa with the cover on it and accept the masked sofa as the real sofa. Baudrillard cites Disneyland as the perfect model of this blurring of the lines between real and simulation. Disneyland is itself a hyperreal, a real place in which people immerse themselves in the simulated and the imaginary. There are no distinctions in Disneyland, as soon as you walk in the front gates you are surrounded by images of talking animals endowed with human characteristics. In the Disney world, so to speak, the total effect attained is the blending together of the real and the simulated to the point where everything in the park is taken as the real, although the place is nothing but a hyperreal. The masses, however, walk around the park with their families believing that they are experiencing real sensations, stimuli, etc. These real sensations are triggered by simulated entities. The public domain has, as Baudrillard states, evolved into the hyperreal: A self perpetuating zone in which reality is lost, for the simulation presents a better projection of reality than reality itself could. Understood in this manner, the result is a Mobius strip. Reality is on one side, simulation on the other, but where one ends and the other begins is impossible to determine. The whole Mobius strip taken together is the new reality in which society exists, the hyperreality. All events, no matter which place they may have originated from, are automatically integrated into the hyperreal, which, as he argues, is what society looks at anyway. It follows that society then exists within this hyperreality, and the hyperreality is taken as the apparent reality, that is to say the state of affairs in which society exists. Relevant to the discussion of what could possible be termed the spectacular hyperreality, is the release of the world's first completely digitally rendered motion picture, The Toy Story. All of the work in making this movie was done on computer. It could be said that it is also the first simulated movie, for there is nothing real about the film. The computer generated characters exist within a computer generated world, hence the whole movie is a simulation. The simulation becomes hyperreality when real, live people enter the theater and watch the projected images. The transformation into the hyperreal is completed when they leave the theater and later recount to their friends what happened in the movie, believing that what they saw on the screen really happened. Although the viewer might be aware that the movie was, in essence, a simulation, by virtue of the fact that they physically saw it on the big screen makes them the key ingredient to the dominance of the hyperreal. In conclusion, it might be said that both Debord and Baudrillard are concerned with the transformation of society into a new entity. While Debord argues that we continually exist in a society dominated by the spectacle, incorporating Baudrillard's notion of the hyperreal it could be said that the spectacles society both gives life to and gains life from, have evolved into hyperreal spectacles, by virtue of the fact that the real has been displaced and lost irretrievably in the past. Works Cited Allen, Woody. Zelig. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books. 1995 Baudrillard,Jean. Simulacra and Simulations: The Selected Writings of Jean Baudrillard. Ed. Mark Poster. New York: Polity Press, 1988. 166-85.

This page maintained by Dr. Ron Burnett, (Eye-image by Maija Burnett) December 21, 1996)


Copyright © 1996, Ron Burnett, Maija Burnett. All rights reserved.

Welcome to the Desert of the Real-Slavoj Zizek



Alain Badiou identified as the key feature of the XXth century the "passion of the Real /la passion du reel/"1: in contrast to the XIXth century of the utopian or "scientific" projects and ideals, plans about the future, the XXth century aimed at delivering the thing itself, at directly realizing the longer-for New Order. The ultimate and defining experience of the XXth century was the direct experience of the Real as opposed to the everyday social reality - the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceiving layers of reality. Already in the trenches of the World War I, Carl Schmitt was celebrating the face to face combat as the authentic intersubjective encounter: authenticity resides in the act of violent transgression, from the Lacanian Real - the Thing Antigone confronts when he violates the order of the City - to the Bataillean excess.

As Badiou demonstrated apropos of the Stalinist show trials, this violent effort to distill the pure Real from the elusive reality necessarily ends up in its opposite, in the obsession with pure appearance: in the Stalinist universe, the passion of the Real (ruthless enforcement of the Socialist development) thus culminates in ritualistic stagings of a theatrical spectacle in the truth of which no one believes. The key to this reversal resides in the ultimate impossibility to draw a clear distinction between deceptive reality and some firm positive kernel of the Real: every positive bit of reality is a priori suspicious, since (as we know from Lacan) the Real Thing is ultimately another name for the Void. The pursuit of the Real thus equals total annihilation, a (self)destructive fury within which the only way to trace the distinction between the semblance and the Real is, precisely, to STAGE it in a fake spectacle. The fundamental illusion is here that, once the violent work of purification is done, the New Man will emerge ex nihilo, freed from the filth of the past corruption. Within this horizon, "really-existing men" are reduced to the stock of raw material which can be ruthlessly exploited for the construction of the new - the Stalinist revolutionary definition of man is a circular one: "man is what is to be crushed, stamped on, mercilessly worked over, in order to produce a new man." We have here the tension between the series of "ordinary" elements ("ordinary" men as the "material" of history) and the exceptional "empty" element (the socialist "New Man," which is at first nothing but an empty place to be filled up with positive content through the revolutionary turmoil). In a revolution, there is no a priori positive determination of this New Man: a revolution is not legitimized by the positive notion of what Man's essence, "alienated" in present conditions and to be realized through the revolutionary process, is - the only legitimization of a revolution is negative, a will to break with the Past. One should formulate here things in a very precise way: the reason why the Stalinist fury of purification is so destructive resides in the very fact that it is sustained by the belief that, after the destructive work of purification will be accomplished, SOMETHING WILL REMAIN, the sublime "indivisible remainder," the paragon of the New. It is in order to conceal the fact that there is nothing beyond that, in a strictly perverse way, the revolutionary has to cling to violence as the only index of his authenticity, and it is as this level that the critics of Stalinism as a rule misperceive the cause of the Communist's attachment to the Party. Say, when, in 1939-1941 pro-Soviet Communists twice had to change their Party line overnight (after the Soviet-German pact, it was imperialism, not, Fascism, which was elevated to the role of the main enemy; from June 22 1941, when Germany attacked Soviet Union, it was again the popular front against the Fascist beast), the brutality of the imposed changes of position was what attracted them. Along the same lines, the purges themselves exerted an uncanny fascination, especially on intellectuals: their "irrational" cruelty served as a kind of ontological proof, bearing witness to the fact that we are dealing with the Real, not just with empty plans - the Party is ruthlessly brutal, so it means business...

So, if the passion of the Real ends up with the pure semblance of the political theater, then, in an exact inversion, the "postmodern" passion of the semblance of the Last Men ends up in a kind of Real. Recall the phenomenon of "cutters" (mostly women who experience an irresistible urge to cut themselves with razors or otherwise hurt themselves), strictly correlative to the virtualization of our environs: it stands for a desperate strategy to return to the real of the body. As such, cutting is to be contrasted with the standard tattoo inscriptions on the body, which guarantee the subject's inclusion in the (virtual) symbolic order - with the cutters, the problem is the opposite one, namely the assertion of reality itself. Far from being suicidal, far from signalling a desire for self-annihilation, cutting is a radical attempt to (re)gain a stronghold in reality, or (another aspect of the same phenomenon) to firmly ground our ego in our bodily reality, against the unbearable anxiety of perceiving oneself as non-existing. The standard report of cutters is that, after seeing the red warm blood flowing out of the self-inflicted wound, the feel alive again, firmly rooted in reality. So, although, of course, cutting is a pathological phenomenon, it is nonetheless a pathological attempt at regaining some kind of normalcy, at avoiding a total psychotic breakdown. On today's market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol... Virtual Reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its substance: it provides reality itself deprived of its substance, of the resisting hard kernel of the Real - in the same way decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like the real coffee without being the real one, Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being one. However, at the end of this process of virtualization, the inevitable Benthamian conclusion awaits us: reality is its own best semblance.

And was the bombing of the WTC with regard to the Hollywood catastrophe movies not like the snuff pornography versus ordinary sado-maso porno movies? This is the element of truth in Karl-Heinz Stockhausen's provocative statement that the planes hitting the WTC towers was the ultimate work of art: one can effectively perceive the collapse of the WTC towers as the climactic conclusion of the XXth century art's "passion of the real" - the "terrorists" themselves did it not do it primarily to provoke real material damage, but FOR THE SPECTACULAR EFFECT OF IT. The authentic XXth century passion to penetrate the Real Thing (ultimately, the destructive Void) through the cobweb of semblances which constitute our reality thus culminates in the thrill of the Real as the ultimate "effect," sought after from digitalized special effects through reality TV and amateur pornography up to snuff movies. Snuff movies which deliver the "real thing" are perhaps the ultimate truth of virtual reality. There is an intimate connection between virtualization of reality and the emergence of an infinite and infinitized bodily pain, much stronger that the usual one: do biogenetics and Virtual Reality combined not open up new "enhanced" possibilities of TORTURE, new and unheard-of horizons of extending our ability to endure pain (through widening our sensory capacity to sustain pain, through inventing new forms of inflicting it)? Perhaps, the ultimate Sadean image on an "undead" victim of the torture who can sustain endless pain without having at his/her disposal the escape into death, also waits to become reality.

The ultimate American paranoiac fantasy is that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show. The most recent example of this is Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998), with Jim Carrey playing the small town clerk who gradually discovers the truth that he is the hero of a 24-hours permanent TV show: his hometown is constructed on a gigantic studio set, with cameras following him permanently. Among its predecessors, it is worth mentioning Philip Dick's Time Out of Joint (1959), in which a hero living a modest daily life in a small idyllic Californian city of the late 50s, gradually discovers that the whole town is a fake staged to keep him satisfied... The underlying experience of Time Out of Joint and of The Truman Show is that the late capitalist consumerist Californian paradise is, in its very hyper-reality, in a way IRREAL, substanceless, deprived of the material inertia. And the same "derealization" of the horror went on after the WTC bombings: while the number of 6000 victims is repeated all the time, it is surprising how little of the actual carnage we see - no dismembered bodies, no blood, no desperate faces of the dying people... in clear contrast to the reporting from the Third World catastrophies where the whole point was to produce a scoop of some gruesome detail: Somalis dying of hunger, raped Bosnian women, men with throats cut. These shots were always accompanied with the advance-warning that "some of the images you will see are extremely graphic and may hurt children" - a warning which we NEVER heard in the reports on the WTC collapse. Is this not yet another proof of how, even in this tragic moments, the distance which separates Us from Them, from their reality, is maintained: the real horror happens THERE, not HERE? /"2

So it is not only that Hollywood stages a semblance of real life deprived of the weight and inertia of materiality - in the late capitalist consumerist society, "real social life" itself somehow acquires the features of a staged fake, with our neighbors behaving in "real" life as stage actors and extras... Again, the ultimate truth of the capitalist utilitarian de-spiritualized universe is the de-materialization of the "real life" itself, its reversal into a spectral show. Among others, Christopher Isherwood gave expression to this unreality of the American daily life, exemplified in the motel room: "American motels are unreal! /.../ they are deliberately designed to be unreal. /.../ The Europeans hate us because we've retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate." Peter Sloterdijk's notion of the "sphere" is here literally realized, as the gigantic metal sphere that envelopes and isolates the entire city. Years ago, a series of science-fiction films like Zardoz or Logan's Run forecasted today's postmodern predicament by extending this fantasy to the community itself: the isolated group living an aseptic life in a secluded area longs for the experience of the real world of material decay. Is the endlessly repeated shot of the plane approaching and hitting the second WTC tower not the real-life version of the famous scene from Hitchcock's Birds, superbly analyzed by Raymond Bellour, in which Melanie approaches the Bodega Bay pier after crossing the bay on the small boat? When, while approaching the wharf, she waves to her (future) lover, a single bird (first perceived as an undistinguished dark blot) unexpectedly enters the frame from above right and hits her head.3 Was the plane which hit the WTC tower not literally the ultimate Hitchcockian blot, the anamorphic stain which denaturalized the idyllic well-known New York landscape?

The Wachowski brothers' hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic to its climax: the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic mega-computer to which we are all attached; when the hero (played by Keanu Reeves) awakens into the "real reality," he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins - what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: "Welcome to the desert of the real." Was it not something of the similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the "desert of the real" - to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions.

When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the unimaginable Impossible happened, one should recall the other defining catastrophe from the beginning of the XXth century, that of Titanic: it was also a shock, but the space for it was already prepared in ideological fantasizing, since Titanic was the symbol of the might of the XIXth century industrial civilization. Does the same not hold also for these bombings? Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with the talk about the terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested - just recall the series of movies from Escape From New York to Independence Day. Therein resides the rationale of the often-mentioned association of the attacks with the Hollywood disaster movies: the unthinkable which happened was the object of fantasy, so that, in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise.

One should therefore turn around the standard reading according to which, the WTC explosions were the intrusion of the Real which shattered our illusory Sphere: quite on the contrary, it is prior to the WTC collapse than we lived in our reality, perceiving the Third World horrors as something which is not effectively part of our social reality, as something which exists (for us) as a spectral apparition on the (TV) screen - and what happened on September 11 is that this screen fantasmatic apparition entered our reality. It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e., the symbolic coordinates which determine what we experience as reality). The fact that, after September 11, the opening of many "of the blockbuster" movies with scenes which bear a resemblance to the WTC collapse (large buildings on fire or under attack, terrorist actions...) was postponed (or the films were even shelved), is thus to be read as the "repression" of the fantasmatic background responsible for the impact of the WTC collapse. Of course, the point is not to play a pseudo-postmodern game of reducing the WTC collapse to just another media spectacle, reading it as a catastrophy version of the snuff porno movies; the question we should have asked ourselves when we stared at the TV screens on September 11 is simply: WHERE DID WE ALREADY SEE THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER AGAIN?

It is precisely now, when we are dealing with the raw Real of a catastrophe, that we should bear in mind the ideological and fantasmatic coordinates which determine its perception. If there is any symbolism in the collapse of the WTC towers, it is not so much the old-fashioned notion of the "center of financial capitalism," but, rather, the notion that the two WTC towers stood for the center of the VIRTUAL capitalism, of financial speculations disconnected from the sphere of material production. The shattering impact of the bombings can only be accounted for only against the background of the borderline which today separates the digitalized First World from the Third World "desert of the Real." It is the awareness that we live in an insulated artificial universe which generates the notion that some ominous agent is threatening us all the time with total destruction.

Is, consequently, Osama Bin Laden, the suspected mastermind behind the bombings, not the real-life counterpart of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the master-criminal in most of the James Bond films, involved in the acts of global destruction. What one should recall here is that the only place in Hollywood films where we see the production process in all its intensity is when James Bond penetrates the master-criminal's secret domain and locates there the site of intense labor (distilling and packaging the drugs, constructing a rocket that will destroy New York...). When the master-criminal, after capturing Bond, usually takes him on a tour of his illegal factory, is this not the closest Hollywood comes to the socialist-realist proud presentation of the production in a factory? And the function of Bond's intervention, of course, is to explode in firecraks this site of production, allowing us to return to the daily semblance of our existence in a world with the "disappearing working class." Is it not that, in the exploding WTC towers, this violence directed at the threatening Outside turned back at us?

The safe Sphere in which Americans live is experienced as under threat from the Outside of terrorist attackers who are ruthlessly self-sacrificing AND cowards, cunningly intelligent AND primitive barbarians. The letters of the deceased attackers are quoted as "chilling documents" - why? Are they not exactly what one would expect from dedicated fighters on a suicidal mission? If one takes away references to Koran, in what do they differ from, say, the CIA special manuals? Were the CIA manuals for the Nicaraguan contras with detailed descriptions on how to perturb the daily life, up to how to clog the water toilets, not of the same order - if anything, MORE cowardly? When, on September 25, 2001, the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar appealed to Americans to use their own judgement in responding to the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon rather than blindly following their government's policy to attack his country ("You accept everything your government says, whether it is true or false. /.../ Don't you have your own thinking? /.../ So it will be better for you to use your sense and understanding."), were these statements, taken in a literal-abstract, decontextualized, sense, not quite appropriate? Today, more than ever, one should bear in mind that the large majority of Arabs are not fanaticized dark crowds, but scared, uncertain, aware of their fragile status - witness the anxiety the bombings caused in Egypt.

Whenever we encounter such a purely evil Outside, we should gather the courage to endorse the Hegelian lesson: in this pure Outside, we should recognize the distilled version of our own essence. For the last five centuries, the (relative) prosperity and peace of the "civilized" West was bought by the export of ruthless violence and destruction into the "barbarian" Outside: the long story from the conquest of America to the slaughter in Congo. Cruel and indifferent as it may sound, we should also, now more than ever, bear in mind that the actual effect of these bombings is much more symbolic than real: in Africa, EVERY SINGLE DAY more people die of AIDS than all the victims of the WTC collapse, and their death could have been easily cut back with relatively small financial means. The US just got the taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from Sarajevo to Grozny, from Ruanda and Congo to Sierra Leone. If one adds to the situation in New York rapist gangs and a dozen or so snipers blindly targeting people who walk along the streets, one gets an idea about what Sarajevo was a decade ago.

When, days after September 11 2001, our gaze was transfixed by the images of the plane hitting one of the WTC towers, all of us were forced to experience what the "compulsion to repeat" ans jouissance beyond the pleasure principle are: we wanted to see it again and again, the same shots were repeated ad nauseam, and the uncanny satisfaction we got from it was jouissance at its purest. It is when we watched on TV screen the two WTC towers collapsing, that it became possible to experience the falsity of the "reality TV shows": even if these shows are "for real," people still act in them - they simply play themselves. The standard disclaimer in a novel ("characters in this text are a fiction, every resemblance with the real life characters is purely contingent") holds also for the participants of the reality soaps: what we see there are fictional characters, even if they play themselves for the real. Of course, the "return to the Real" can be given different twists: one already hears some conservatives claim that what made us so vulnerable is our very openness - with the inevitable conclusion lurking in the background that, if we are to protect our "way of life," we will have to sacrifice some of our freedoms which were "misused" by the enemies of freedom. This logic should be rejected tout court: is it not a fact that our First World "open" countries are the most controlled countries in the entire history of humanity? In the United Kingdom, all public spaces, from buses to shopping malls, are constantly videotaped, not to mention the almost total control of all forms of digital communication.

Along the same lines, Rightist commentators like George Will also immediately proclaimed the end of the American "holiday from history" - the impact of reality shattering the isolated tower of the liberal tolerant attitude and the Cultural Studies focus on textuality. Now, we are forced to strike back, to deal with real enemies in the real world... However, WHOM to strike? Whatever the response, it will never hit the RIGHT target, bringing us full satisfaction. The ridicule of America attacking Afghanistan cannot but strike the eye: if the greatest power in the world will destroy one of the poorest countries in which peasant barely survive on barren hills, will this not be the ultimate case of the impotent acting out? Afghanistan is otherwise an ideal target: a country ALREADY reduced to rubble, with no infrastructure, repeatedly destroyed by war for the last two decades... one cannot avoid the surmise that the choice of Afghanistan will be also determined by economic considerations: is it not the best procedure to act out one's anger at a country for which no one cares and where there is nothing to destroy? Unfortunately, the possible choice of Afghanistan recalls the anecdote about the madman who searches for the lost key beneath a street light; when asked why there when he lost the key in a dark corner backwards, he answers: "But it is easier to search under strong light!" Is not the ultimate irony that the whole of Kabul already looks like downtown Manhattan?

To succumb to the urge to act now and retaliate means precisely to avoid confronting the true dimensions of what occurred on September 11 - it means an act whose true aim is to lull us into the secure conviction that nothing has REALLY changed. The true long-term threat are further acts of mass terror in comparison to which the memory of the WTC collapse will pale - acts less spectacular, but much more horrifying. What about bacteriological warfare, what about the use of lethal gas, what about the prospect of the DNA terrorism (developing poisons which will affect only people who share a determinate genome)? In contrast to Marx who relied on the notion of fetish as a solid object whose stable presence obfuscates its social mediation, one should assert that fetishism reaches its acme precisely when the fetish itself is "dematerialized," turned into a fluid "immaterial" virtual entity; money fetishism will culminate with the passage to its electronic form, when the last traces of its materiality will disappear - it is only at this stage that it will assume the form of an indestructible spectral presence: I owe you 1000 $, and no matter how many material notes I burn, I still owe you 1000 $, the debt is inscribed somewhere in the virtual digital space... Does the same not hold also for warfare? Far from pointing towards the XXIth century warfare, the WTC twin towers explosion and collapse in September 2001 were rather the last spectacular cry of the XXth century warfare. What awaits us is something much more uncanny: the specter of an "immaterial" war where the attack is invisible - viruses, poisons which can be anywhere and nowhere. At the level of visible material reality, nothing happens, no big explosions, and yet the known universe starts to collapse, life disintegrates... We are entering a new era of paranoiac warfare in which the biggest task will be to identify the enemy and his weapons. Instead of a quick acting out, one should confront these difficult questions: what will "war" mean in the XXIst century? Who will be "them," if they are, clearly, neither states nor criminal gangs? One cannot resist the temptation to recall here the Freudian opposition of the public Law and its obscene superego double: are, along the same line, the "international terrorist organizations" not the obscene double of the big multinational corporations - the ultimate rhizomatic machine, all-present, although with no clear territorial base? Are they not the form in which nationalist and/or religious "fundamentalism" accommodated itself to global capitalism? Do they not embody the ultimate contrafiction, with their particular/exclusive content and their global dynamic functioning?

There is a partial truth in the notion of the "clash of civilizations" attested here - witness the surprise of the average American: "How is it possible that these people display and practice such a disregard for their own lives?" Is the obverse of this surprise not the rather sad fact that we, in the First World countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one's life? When, after the bombings, even the Taliban foreign minister said that he can "feel the pain" of the American children, did he not thereby confirm the hegemonic ideological role of this Bill Clinton's trademark phrase? It effectively appears as if the split between First World and Third World runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one's life to some transcendent Cause. Two philosophical references immediately impose themselves apropos this ideological antagonism between the Western consummerist way of life and the Muslim radicalism: Hegel and Nietzsche. Is this antagonism not the one between what Nietzsche called "passive" and "active" nihilism? We in the West are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the struggle up to their self-destruction. (One cannot but note the significant role of the stock exchange in the bombings: the ultimate proof of their traumatic impact was that the New York Stock Exchange was closed for four days, and its opening the following Monday was presented as the key sign of things returning to normal.) Furthermore, if one perceives this opposition through the lenses of the Hegelian struggle between Master and Servant, one cannot avoid noting the paradox: although we in the West are perceived as exploiting masters, it is us who occupy the position of the Servant who, since he clings to life and its pleasures, is unable to risk his life (recall Colin Powell's notion of a high-tech war with no human casualties), while the poor Muslim radicals are Masters ready to risk their life...

However, this notion of the "clash of civilizations" has to be thoroughly rejected: what we are witnessing today are rather clashes WITHIN each civilization. Furthermore, a brief look at the comparative history of Islam and Christianity tells us that the "human rights record" of Islam (to use this anachronistic term) is much better than that of Christianity: in the past centuries, Islam was significantly more tolerant towards other religions than Christianity. NOW it is also the time to remember that it was through the Arabs that, in the Middle Ages, we in the Western Europe regained access to our Ancient Greek legacy. While in no way excusing today's horror acts, these facts nonetheless clearly demonstrate that we are not dealing with a feature inscribed into Islam "as such," but with the outcome of modern socio-political conditions.

On a closer look, what IS this "clash of civilizations" effectively about? Are all real-life "clashes" not clearly related to global capitalism? The Muslim "fundamentalist" target is not only global capitalism's corroding impact on social life, but ALSO the corrupted "traditionalist" regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc. The most horrifying slaughters (those in Ruanda, Kongo, and Sierra Leone) not only took place - and are taking place - within the SAME "civilization," but are also clearly related to the interplay of global economic interests. Even in the few cases which would vaguely fit the definition of the "clash of civilisations" (Bosnia and Kosovo, south of Sudan, etc.), the shadow of other interests is easily discernible.

Every feature attributed to the Other is already present in the very heart of the US: murderous fanaticism? There are today in the US itself more than two millions of the Rightist populist "fundamentalists" who also practice the terror of their own, legitimized by (their understanding of) Christianity. Since America is in a way "harboring" them, should the US Army have punished the US themselves after the Oklashoma bombing? And what about the way Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson reacted to the bombings, perceiving them as a sign that God lifted up its protection of the US because of the sinful lives of the Americans, putting the blame on hedonist materialism, liberalism, and rampant sexuality, and claiming that America got what it deserved? The fact that very same condemnation of the "liberal" America as the one from the Muslim Other came from the very heart of the Amerique profonde should give as to think. America as a safe haven? When a New Yorker commented on how, after the bombings, one can no longer walk safely on the city's streets, the irony of it was that, well before the bombings, the streets of New York were well-known for the dangers of being attacked or, at least, mugged - if anything, the bombings gave rise to a new sense of solidarity, with the scenes of young African-Americans helping an old Jewish gentlemen to cross the street, scenes unimaginable a couple of days ago.

Now, in the days immediately following the bombings, it is as if we dwell in the unique time between a traumatic event and its symbolic impact, like in those brief moment after we are deeply cut, and before the full extent of the pain strikes us - it is open how the events will be symbolized, what their symbolic efficiency will be, what acts they will be evoked to justify. If nothing else, one can clearly experience yet again the limitation of our democracy: decisions are being made which will affect the fate of all of us, and all of us just wait, aware that we are utterly powerless. Even here, in these moments of utmost tension, this link is not automatic but contingent. There are already the first bad omens, like the sudden resurrection, in the public discourse, of the old Cold war term "free world": the struggle is now the one between the "free world" and the forces of darkness and terror. The question to be asked here is, of course: who then belongs to the UNFREE world? Are, say, China or Egypt part of this free world? The actual message is, of course, that the old division between the Western liberal-democratic countries and all the others is again enforced.

The day after the bombing, I got a message from a journal which was just about to publish a longer text of mine on Lenin, telling me that they decided to postpone its publication - they considered inopportune to publish a text on Lenin immediately after the bombing. Does this not points towards the ominous ideological rearticulations which will follow, with a new Berufsverbot (prohibition to employ radicals) much stronger and more widespread than the one in the Germany of the 70s? These days, one often hears the phrase that the struggle is now the one for democracy - true, but not quite in the way this phrase is usually meant. Already, some Leftist friends of mine wrote me that, in these difficult moments, it is better to keep one's head down and not push forward with our agenda. Against this temptation to duck out the crisis, one should insist that NOW the Left should provide a better analysis - otherwise, it concedes in advance its political AND ethical defeat in the face of the acts of quite genuine ordinary people heroism (like the passengers who, in a model of rational ethical act, overtook the kidnappers and provokes the early crush of the plane: if one is condemned to die soon, one should gather the strength and die in such a way as to prevent other people dying).

When, in the aftermath of September 11, the Americans en masse rediscovered their American pride, displaying flags and singing together in the public, one should emphasize more than ever that there is nothing "innocent" in this rediscovery of the American innocence, in getting rid of the sense of historical guilt or irony which prevented many of them to fully assume being American. What this gesture amounted to was to "objectively" assume the burden of all that being "American" stood for in the past - an exemplary case of ideological interpellation, of fully assuming one's symbolic mandate, which enters the stage after the perplexity caused by some historical trauma. In the traumatic aftermath of September 11, when the old security seemed momentarily shattered, what more "natural" gesture than to take refuge in the innocence of the firm ideological identification? 4 However, it is precisely such moments of transparent innocence, of "return to basics," when the gesture of identification seems "natural," that are, from the standpoint of the critique of ideology, the most obscure one's, even, in a certain way, obscurity itself. Let us recall another such innocently-transparent moment, the endlessly reproduced video-shot from Beijing's Avenue of Eternal Piece at the height of the "troubles" in 1989, of a tiny young man with a can who, alone, stands in front of an advancing gigantic tank, and courageously tries to prevent its advance, so that, when the tank tries to bypass him by turning right or left, them man also moves aside, again standing in its way:

"The representation is so powerful that it demolishes all other understandings. This streetscene, this time and this event, have come to constitute the compass point for virtually all Western journeys into the interior of the contemporary political and cultural life of China."5
And, again, this very moment of transparent clarity (things are rendered at their utmost naked: a single man against the raw force of the State) is, for our Western gaze, sustained by a cobweb of ideological implications, embodying a series of oppositions: individual versus state, peaceful resistance versus state violence, man versus machine, the inner force of a tiny individual versus the impotence of the powerful machine... These implications, against the background of which the shot exerts its full direct impact, these "mediations" which sustain the shot's immediate impact, are NOT present for a Chinese observer, since the above-mentioned series of oppositions is inherent to the European ideological legacy. And the same ideological background also overdetermines, say, our perception of the horrifying images of tiny individuals jumping from the burning WTC tower into certain death.

So what about the phrase which reverberates everywhere, "Nothing will be the same after September 11"? Significantly, this phrase is never further elaborated - it just an empty gesture of saying something "deep" without really knowing what we want to say. So our first reaction to it should be: Really? Is it, rather, not that the only thing that effectively changed was that America was forced to realize the kind of world it was part of? On the other hand, such changes in perception are never without consequences, since the way we perceive our situation determines the way we act in it. Recall the processes of collapse of a political regime, say, the collapse of the Communist regimes in the Eastern Europe in 1990: at a certain moment, people all of a sudden became aware that the game is over, that the Communists are lost. The break was purely symbolic, nothing changed "in reality" - and, nonetheless, from this moment on, the final collapse of the regime was just a question of days... What if something of the same order DID occur on September 11?

We don't yet know what consequences in economy, ideology, politics, war, this event will have, but one thing is sure: the US, which, till now, perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, witnessing this kind of things only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. So the alternative is: will Americans decide to fortify further their "sphere," or to risk stepping out of it? Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the deeply immoral attitude of "Why should this happen to us? Things like this don't happen HERE!", leading to more aggressivity towards the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out. Or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdued move from "A thing like this should not happen HERE!" to "A thing like this should not happen ANYWHERE!". Therein resides the true lesson of the bombings: the only way to ensure that it will not happen HERE again is to prevent it going on ANYWHERE ELSE. In short, America should learn to humbly accept its own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the punishment of those responsible as a sad duty, not as an exhilarating retaliation.

The WTC bombings again confront us with the necessity to resist the temptation of a double blackmail. If one simply, only and unconditionally condemns it, one cannot but appear to endorse the blatantly ideological position of the American innocence under attack by the Third World Evil; if one draws attention to the deeper socio-political causes of the Arab extremism, one cannot but appear to blame the victim which ultimately got what it deserved... The only consequent solution is here to reject this very opposition and to adopt both positions simultaneously, which can only be done if one resorts to the dialectical category of totality: there is no choice between these two positions, each one is one-sided and false. Far from offering a case apropos of which one can adopt a clear ethical stance, we encounter here the limit of moral reasoning: from the moral standpoint, the victims are innocent, the act was an abominable crime; however, this very innocence is not innocent - to adopt such an "innocent" position in today's global capitalist universe is in itself a false abstraction. The same goes for the more ideological clash of interpretations: one can claim that the attack on the WTC was an attack on what is worth fighting for in democratic freedoms - the decadent Western way of life condemned by Muslim and other fundamentalists is the universe of women's rights and multiculturalist tolerance; however, one can also claim that it was an attack on the very center and symbol of global financial capitalism. This, of course, in no way entails the compromise notion of shared guilt (terrorists are to blame, but, partially, also Americans are also to blame...) - the point is, rather, that the two sides are not really opposed, that they belong to the same field. The fact that global capitalism is a totality means that it is the dialectical unity of itself and of its other, of the forces which resist it on "fundamentalist" ideological grounds.

Consequently, of the two main stories which emerged after September 11, both are worse, as Stalin would have put it. The American patriotic narrative - the innocence under siege, the surge of patriotic pride - is, of course, vain; however, is the Leftist narrative (with its Schadenfreude: the US got what they deserved, what they were for decades doing to others) really any better? The predominant reaction of European, but also American, Leftists was nothing less than scandalous: all imaginable stupidities were said and written, up to the "feminist" point that the WTC towers were two phallic symbols, waiting to be destroyed ("castrated"). Was there not something petty and miserable in the mathematics reminding one of the holocaust revisionism (what are the 6000 dead against millions in Ruanda, Kongo, etc.)? And what about the fact that CIA (co)created Taliban and Bin Laden, financing and helping them to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan? Why was this fact quoted as an argument AGAINST attacking them? Would it not be much more logical to claim that it is precisely their duty to get us rid of the monster they created? The moment one thinks in the terms of "yes, the WTC collapse was a tragedy, but one should not fully solidarize with the victims, since this would mean supporting US imperialism," the ethical catastrophy is already here: the only appropriate stance is the unconditional solidarity will ALL victims. The ethical stance proper is here replaced with the moralizing mathematics of guilt and horror which misses the key point: the terrifying death of each individual is absolute and incomparable. In short, let us make a simple mental experiment: if you detect in yourself any restraint to fully empathize with the victims of the WTC collapse, if you feel the urge to qualify your empathy with "yes, but what about the millions who suffer in Africa...", you are not demonstrating your Third World sympathize, but merely the mauvaise foi which bears witness to your implicit patronizing racist attitude towards the Third World victims. (More precisely, the problem with such comparative statements is that they are necessary and inadmissible: one HAS to make them, one HAS to make the point that much worse horrors are taken place around the world on a daily basis - but one has to do it without getting involved in the obscene mathematics of guilt.)

It must be said that, within the scope of these two extremes (the violent retaliatory act versus the new reflection about the global situation and America's role in it), the reaction of the Western powers till now was surprisingly considerate (no wonder it caused the violent anti-American outburst of Ariel Sharon!). Perhaps the greatest irony of the situation is that the main "collateral damage" of the Western reaction is the focus on the plight of the Afghani refugees, and, more generally, on the catastrophic food and health situation in Afghanistan, so that, sometimes, military action against Taliban is almost presented as a means to guarantee the safe delivery of the humanitarian aid - as Tony Blair said, perhaps, we will have to bomb Taliban in order to secure the food transportation and distribution. Although, of course, such large-scale publicized humanitarian actions are in themselves ideologically charged, involving the debilitating degradation of the Afghani people to helpless victims, and reducing the Taliban to a parasite terrorizing them, it is significant to acknowledge that the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan presents a much larger catastrophy than the WTC bombings.

Another way in which the Left miserably failed is that, in the weeks after the bombing, it reverted to the old mantra "Give peace a chance! War does not stop violence!" - a true case of hysterical precipitation, reacting to something which will not even happen in the expected form. Instead of the concrete analysis of the new complex situation after the bombings, of the chances it gives to the Left to propose its own interpretation of the events, we got the blind ritualistic chant "No war!", which fails to address even the elementary fact, de facto acknowledged by the US government itself (through its postponing of the retaliatory action), that this is not a war like others, that the bombing of Afghanistan is not a solution. A sad situation, in which George Bush showed more power of reflection than most of the Left!

No wonder that anti-Americanism was most discernible in "big" European nations, especially France and Germany: it is part of their resistance to globalization. One often hears the complaint that the recent trend of globalization threatens the sovereignty of the Nation-States; here, however, one should qualify this statement: WHICH states are most exposed to this threat? It is not the small states, but the second-rang (ex-)world powers, countries like United Kingdom, Germany and France: what they fear is that, once fully immersed in the newly emerging global Empire, they will be reduced at the same level as, say, Austria, Belgium or even Luxembourg. The refusal of "Americanization" in France, shared by many Leftists and Rightist nationalists, is thus ultimately the refusal to accept the fact that France itself is losing its hegemonic role in Europe. The results of this refusal are often comical - at a recent philosophical colloquium, a French Leftist philosopher complained how, apart from him, there are now practically no French philosophers in France: Derrida is sold to American deconstructionism, the academia is overwhelmed by Anglo-Saxon cognitivism... A simple mental experiment is indicative here: let us imagine someone from Serbia claiming that he is the only remaining truly Serb philosopher - he would have been immediately denounced and ridiculed as a nationalist. The levelling of weight between larger and smaller Nation-States should thus be counted among the beneficial effects of globalization: beneath the contemptuous deriding of the new Eastern European post-Communist states, it is easy to discern the contours of the wounded Narcissism of the European "great nations." Here, a good dose of Lenin's sensitivity for the small nations (recall his insistence that, in the relationship between large and small nations, one should always allow for a greater degree of the "small" nationalism) would be helpful. Interestingly, the same matrix was reproduced within ex-Yugoslavia: not only for the Serbs, but even for the majority of the Western powers, Serbia was self-evidently perceived as the only ethnic group with enough substance to form its own state. Throughout the 90s, even the radical democratic critics of Milosevic who rejected Serb nationalism, acted on the presupposition that, among the ex-Yugoslav republics, it is only Serbia which has democratic potential: after overthrowing Milosevic, Serbia alone can turn into a thriving democratic state, while other ex-Yugoslav nations are too "provincial" to sustain their own democratic State... is this not the echo of Friedrich Engels' well-known scathing remarks about how the small Balkan nations are politically reactionary since their very existence is a reaction, a survival of the past?

America's "holiday from history" was a fake: America's peace was bought by the catastrophes going on elsewhere. These days, the predominant point of view is that of an innocent gaze confronting unspeakable Evil which stroke from the Outside - and, again, apropos this gaze, one should gather the strength and apply to it also Hegel's well-known dictum that the Evil resides (also) in the innocent gaze itself which perceives Evil all around itself. There is thus an element of truth even in the most constricted Moral Majority vision of the depraved America dedicated to mindless pleasures, in the conservative horror at this netherworld of sexploitation and pathological violence: what they don't get is merely the Hegelian speculative identity between this netherworld and their own position of fake purity - the fact that so many fundamentalist preachers turned out to be secret sexual perverts is more than a contingent empirical fact. When the infamous Jimmy Swaggart claimed that the fact that he visited prostitutes only gave additional strength to his preaching (he knew from intimate struggle what he was preaching against), although undoubtedly hypocritical at the immediate subjective level, is nonetheless objectively true.

Can one imagine a greater irony than the fact that the first codename for the US operation against terrorists was "Infinite Justice" (later changed in response to the reproach of the American Islam clerics that only God can exert infinite justice)? Taken seriously, this name is profoundly ambiguous: either it means that the Americans have the right to ruthlessly destroy not only all terrorists but also all who gave then material, moral, ideological etc. support (and this process will be by definition endless in the precise sense of the Hegelian "bad infinity" - the work will never be really accomplished, there will always remain some other terrorist threat...); or it means that the justice exerted must be truly infinite in the strict Hegelian sense, i.e., that, in relating to others, it has to relate to itself - in short, that it has to ask the question of how we ourselves who exert justice are involved in what we are fighting against. When, on September 22 2001, Derrida received the Theodor Adorno award, he referred in his speech to the WTC bombings: "My unconditional compassion, addressed at the victims of the September 11, does not prevent me to say it loudly: with regard to this crime, I do not believe that anyone is politically guiltless." This self-relating, this inclusion of oneself into the picture, is the only true "infinite justice."

In the electoral campaign, President Bush named as the most important person in his life Jesus Christ. Now he has a unique chance to prove that he meant it seriously: for him, as for all Americans today, "Love thy neighbor!" means "Love the Muslims!" OR IT MEANS NOTHING AT ALL.

1. See Alain Badiou, Le siecle, forthcoming from Editions du Seuil, Paris.

2. Another case of ideological censorship: when fireworkers' widows were interviewed on CNN, most of them gave the expected performance: tears, prayers... all except one of them who, without a tear, said that she does not pray for her deceived husband, because she knows that prayer will not get him back. When asked if she dreams of revenge, she calmly said that that would be the true betrayal of her husband: if he were to survive, he would insist that the worst thing to do is to succumb to the urge to retaliate... useless to add that this fragment was shown only once and then disappeared from the repetitions of the same block.

3. See Chapter III in Raymond Bellour, The Analysis of Film, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2000.

4. I rely here on my critical elaboration of Althusser's notion of interpellation in chapter 3 of Metastases of Enjoyment, London: Verso Books 1995.

5. Michael Dutton, Streetlife China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998, p. 17.

*10/7/01 - Reflections on WTC - an earlier version of the book, Welcome to the Desert of the Real.