Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Baudrillard and Trump: Simulation and Object-Orientation, Not True and False by Alan N. Shapiro

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I feel very privileged that, in Volume Six, Number One (January 2009) of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (IJBS), my essay on Baudrillard’s amazing book America appears in tandem with Gerry Coulter’s essay on America. Yesterday I re-read Gerry’s essay, and surely this text is extremely helpful in thinking about the contemporary phenomenon of Donald John Trump, to see the “total social fact” (Marcel Mauss) emanation of Trump in the cultural context of what Gerry calls the vast fiction which is (the United/Divided States of) America. I began a Baudrillardian reading of President-elect Trump in an essay which I published in February 2016 called “Donald Trump Casino Owner: seduced to losing by the lure of winning.” I drew a parallel between the situation of the gambler in an Atlantic City casino in the 1980s and that of the supporters of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. “The gamblers are seduced into the casino by the promise and lure of winning easy money,” I wrote. “They are told that they have a good chance to become winners. In reality, the casino only cares about itself. Nearly 100% of the players end up as losers. They get fleeced and come away with less than nothing.”

Unfortunately –  mea culpa – I have wandered erroneously since last February away from the worthy project of understanding Mister Trump in Baudrillardian terms, allowing myself instead to fall too much under the influence of the Huffington Post-style view of Trump as a “fascist” (thanks to my friend Tom Moody for making me see this). Not to say that Trump does not have authoritarian ambitions, but I think that it is of much greater theoretical benefit to emphasize the aspects of simulacra, simulation, virtuality, hyper-reality, object-orientation, Reality TV (“telemorphosis” in Baudrillard’s vocabulary), the Twitter “jargon of authenticity” (T.W. Adorno) and instant forgetting, and the twists and turns of the artificial life intertwined reality-fiction reversible flows of America. We need analyses carried out from the vista of a Baudrillardian and software-based media theory.

I see an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Washington Post (January 2nd, 2017) by Greg Sargent. It is called “Yes, Donald Trump ‘lies.’ A lot. And news organizations should say so.” This article is typical of the entire approach of the “liberal establishment” towards Trump. During the election campaign, journalists and commentators kept pointing out that Trump is a liar, a snake oil salesman, etc. (see the brilliant 1964 Philip K. Dick novel Lies, Inc.) That may all be true, but it doesn’t make a dent in the number of his supporters. Baudrillard comments throughout his work on the difference between critical theory discourse (which liberal journalists like Sargent are stuck in with respect to Trump) and what he called “fatal theory.” Critical theory discourse is ineffective. Trump is the candidate of Reality TV, of the celebrity culture, of media hyper-reality entertainment, of everyone’s 15 minutes of fame (Warhol), of the “trans-political” (Baudrillard), and of object-orientation (OO).

OO: Trump will be the Presidency and not the President – end of the distance between human agent and office –Trump is misogyny itself and not a misogynist, he is racism itself and not a racist, Trump hates no one [“nobody loves Group X more than I do”], he simply associates himself rhetorically with the social-psychological “object” which is hatred). Beyond the epistemology of the human subject, Trump will identify with any iconic or mental-image “object” necessary as he performs “the art of the deal” and the practice of “winning” in larger and larger arenas. Trump identifies with the political-science-object that is the historically dormant China-Taiwan conflict itself (and its reawakened provocation). The “social actors” (Bruno Latour) of China and Taiwan are irrelevant.

In other words, Trump is the candidate of the era of simulation. Invoking “the truth” against him does not work as a strategy. Trump is already more advanced than the discourse of truth. We are in a hyper-reality where there is no more truth and no more falsehood. Carl “The Truth” Williams, a former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, passed away in April 2013.

Alan Cholodenko comments: If hyper-reality was born for Baudrillard during or just after the Second World War, then there have already been several simulation-Presidents: JFK the first televisual President, Reagan the Hollywood actor and first TV show host (of the General Electric Theatre)-President. Trump takes his place in this lineage. He is the second TV show host (of The Apprentice)-President, the first live show, reality TV show CEO host become live show, reality TV show CEO host-President of the live show, reality TV show America, Inc.)

The mistake of the multitudes of journalists and editorialists like the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent is to not understand that the system of “truth and lies” is not some eternal, ahistorical or “scientifically objective” reality. It is an historically constructed cultural discourse or arrangement tied to an epoch which is finite in time. As Foucault might say, the concern with “true” and “false” is an epistème – an epistemological a priori, an expression of a specific power-knowledge constellation within an era – whose time has come and gone. The insistent belief in “truth and lies” is also embedded in the Plato-initiated “metaphysics” of the “human subject,” the subject-centered worldview, the sovereign (democratic or scientific) subject who “knows” and can therefore judge and determine when “knowledge” or a “fact” has been betrayed.

In the new epistemological system beyond “truth and lies” to which Trump is finely attuned, of which he is the master, and which liberals do not get, the object itself is the hot thing. The spotlight is on objects (conceptual not physical), and they are a relationship, an association which knows nothing of whether they are real or fake. They transcend and straddle true and false. “Things have found a way of avoiding a dialectics of meaning that was beginning to bore them: by proliferating indefinitely, increasing their potential, outbidding themselves in an ascension to the limit, an obscenity that henceforth becomes their immanent finality and senseless reason.” (Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies; p.7) When Trump says something, it becomes true because Trump says it, and there is nothing that the New York Times and the Washington Post can do about it. Trump will change what he says on any given topic from day to day, or on any given Sunday. The liberal media will “prove him wrong” with evidence, but this demonstration will have an effect exactly the opposite than that intended upon and for the “silent majority” of half of Americans for whom they are the liars. The institutional bases for consensus or legitimation of “the truth” have disappeared beneath the sheer load of mountainous piles of information, and the virtualization, delocalization, de-physicalization, and disembodiment of discourse. When did this happen (when was the “Canetti point”)? Impossible to say. To know the point of origin of that would be to overstate the claims of knowledge, to violate the methodological recursivity of our awareness of being lost within the culture of simulation (as Baudrillard has taught us in his fascinating lengthy discussions of the “Canetti point,” and as Gerry Coulter has taught us, for example, in his essay on America).

When Trump said that thousands of Muslims were celebrating on rooftops in Jersey City, New Jersey on 9/11, he was right. 100% right, as he later tweeted. Within the epistemology (theory of knowledge) of the humanist-democratic subject and of truth, the alleged rooftop event of course “did not take place.” Yet in the hyper-modernist epistemology, the rhetorical and emotional power of the words invoked and the mental images evoked by Trump (the advent of hyper-imagination) carry the weight and dynamic force of the image-immersed beyond-chimerical “object” of those evil Muslim celebrators. Probably Trump saw on TV in September 2001 some cynical celebrations in the Palestinian territories. The clandestine wormhole connection between physically remote points in space is plausibly extant. In the culture of virtual images, it is perfectly OK to transpose the bin Laden-sympathetic revelers from one geographical location to another, the hyper-space of Trump’s creative memory mingled with the hyper-dimensional expanding televisual space on the interior of the flatscreen.

Fantasy is possible in a world that is still real. A fantasy could be said to be not true, some sort of illusion (in the non-Baudrillardian meaning of this word) or deception. But when images are everywhere, and they are universally exchangeable with each other, the made-up mental images become hyper-real. Which now (literally) means (hyper-means) more real than real. Meaning becomes hyper-meaning.

Would not the ubiquity of video documentation and recording devices of every kind increase the availability of truth? Whipping the cam around, looking amazing from every angle? No, the effect is just the opposite. When documentation and recording are everywhere, then they are nowhere. They cease to exist in any meaningful sense. They serve no purpose whatsoever anymore. They are pure technology fetish in the bad sense, decoupled through their excess from what they were supposed to enhance or invent. As a hybrid radical-leftist-and-mainstreamer, I do believe that there is a good side to surveillance, a deterrence of crime. But if surveillance is everywhere, then this good side no longer functions. This is the same paradoxical logic that is operative for all virtual and digital media technologies. Yes, all of these wonderful new things are available to us, but we omitted the step of thinking carefully about the appropriate measure of their application. We forgot to humanly judge this. Hybrid posthumanist and humanist. We never took seriously the great thought of Albert Camus, that in almost every area, we need to have a sense of limits (as Dominick LaCapra pointed out). Academic referentiality – which Baudrillard was opposed to – is like this too. If you overdo it, become obsessed with footnotes, then you enter into the twilight zone of hyper-referentiality and then the whole business does not function anymore. You do it because you have to do it and the original purpose is lost.

The “proof” (ha ha!) is now upon us that Baudrillard was right all along. We are now fully in the era of simulation and telemorphosis, of the New Truth of the omnipresent image (both picture-image and word-image – the multi-media of the screen having transformed written words from texts into images). The New Truth is not a lie – that would be too easy and the claim is retrograde. The New Truth institutes its own hyper-reality, which is at present our only reality. The only way to contest simulation and the New Truth would be a strategy or perspective of “taking the side of objects” (see, for example, my most recent IJBS essay, for an elaboration of this). We would have to get to know the codes which underlie and instantiate simulation and reverse them. Reversibility of the code comes from “objects” within the code which want more objecthood. Until we can start to do that, to paraphrase David Cronenberg’s Videodrome: LONG LIVE THE NEW TRUTH!

Bernie Tuchman writes: “Your piece on Trump has great power because his election has defeated deniability. Something is Happening and You Don’t Know What It is Mr. Jones. The media continues to ‘analyze’ what it cannot understand. It is like a world which has entered into dementia — where the dream life is more real than the ‘awake’ life, and where no one can say which is which. It is the nervous breakdown of hierarchical order.”

Alexis Clancy comments: “I would ask you for the purposes of clarity to distinguish the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘fact’. In my own schooling around the ‘truth’ – to quote Popper – truth can only be disproved… I would not say that Trump was not bound by the truth – but more so I would say that he was not bound by facts.  Sure you can prove anything with facts… ”

Alexis: “Trump’s actual election is to Baudrillard what the detection of gravity waves is to Einstein. In 2016. In that both have  been proven to be correct. This means more for Baudrillard than it does for Einstein. In that most of us, I wager, more than suspected that Einstein was correct in his theories. For Baudrillard, well, infant – terrible ou non, he can now properly be described as a scientist…”

8 Responses

Alan,
In your essay, “Baudrillard and Existentialism: Taking the Side of Objects”, you claim that though he had previously been dissatisfied with it, Baudrillard’s work may take us “to a crossroad back to practical radicalism?” In the context of Trump and the New Truth, how can one participate in “taking the side of objects” practically?

  • That’s a great question, and it is, of course the $64,000 question, and it is indeed difficult to answer.

    Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globe awards last night moved me to tears. But it made me think: hey, wait a minute, this is one branch of the entertainment industry fighting against another branch of the entertainment industry.

    Meryl made fun of football and “mixed martial arts.” But not all of the films which Meryl has made are high works of art. Some of them are also schlock entertainment. just like Trump.

    Trump is a game show host, the master of Reality TV, the Presidency of The Apprentice and the National Enquirer. Meryl is involved with a different entertainment product.

    So this is a “subject-oriented” debate. Meryl wants stories with a strong and traditional narrative. She wants to convey empathy, and for viewers to learn what empathy is. Especially attacked is Trump’s “opposite of empathy”: his making fun of a disabled reporter. Neither Streep nor Trump has knowledge about media theory, neither is ready to analyze the forms and formats of the media. Streep found especially noteworthy her claim that Trump’s mocking of the disabled reporter is tragically “real life” and not “just a movie.”

    So that branch of the entertainment industry which advocates and practices empathy battles agains that branch of the entertainment industry which advocates and practices meanness.

    Both are strictly “subjective” perspectives.

    As Baudrillard writes in the first chapter of “Fatal Strategies”:

    “We will find subtle forms of radicalizing secret qualities; we will fight obscentiy with its own weapons. To the truer than true we will oppose the falser than false. We will not oppose the beautiful to the ugly, but will look for the uglier than ugly: the monstrous. We will not oppose the visible to the hidden, but will look for the more hidden than hidden: the secret.”

    “We will not distinguish the true from the false, but will look for the falser than false: illusion and appearance.”

    In film, design, art, performance, political and social activism: we need to be open to the development of a new aesthetic, the “making of an lllusion,” the “radical illusion beyond art.” We must be willing to place into question existing aesthetics and expressive forms, and to move beyond them.

    This can also be the practice of “social choreography.” What the predominant “body movement paradigm” in our society relegates to the status of autistic or nonfunctional behavior attains a space of legitimacy on the stage in the incredible suppleness that Forsythe’s special inspirational remaking of the dancer’s body allows her to express. But the ambition of social choreography is to extend this paradigm shift from the dancer’s body to a new radical flexibility of the social body. Steve Valk and his associates brought together dancers, cultural theorists and new media artists to discuss and enact the potentialities of choreography as a socially active force.

    We must learn the “code” of politics at the micro level. We must learn how to code, how to write software, to be at home with the software code which is now the basis of all art and film and media expression. Then radicalization of the code comes from objects within the code which want more objecthood.

    Singular Objects is a concept that was invented during a book-length discussion about architecture and philosophy between the French architect Jean Nouvel and the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. Unlike architectural structures that get replicated as part of a formulaic series deriving from cookie-cutter models – such as shopping malls, airports, and standard high-rise apartment houses and office building – singular objects find their fascinating place in the urban environment as irreducible, alien, irreplaceable cultural artefacts which are singularities or “strange attractors” (a term used by Baudrillard which he takes from chaos theory in physics). Beyond architecture and urbanism, I also transfer the notion of Singular Objects to other cultural domains of art, design, media and software.

    I understand Poetic Codes as being privileged inscription locations of transformation design and of writing in the twenty-first century, acts of aesthetic and political resistance against the mainstream coded world of surveillance, automation and the bureaucratization of life. This is “the other side of the coin,” so to speak, of the situation of code in contemporary society that supports the expansion of automatic processes without possibility of human intervention. Rather than regarding software code only as the imposition of fixed and stifling structures and processes onto individuals and the collective, I see the writing and speaking of code, and through and within codes, as an expressive and creative act. Poetic Codes relate to what had previously and traditionally been called art and politics.

    I understand sustainability as being a transdisciplinary subject, consisting of social, cultural, economic, environmental, and even personal-individual areas of responsibility. In the ecological area, sustainable development endures in ecosystems which maintain diversity, continued survival, and even prosperity. Sustainable design and the sustainable city are also important topics. We need to consider architecture and urbanism, mobility and transport, and ethical consumerism in relation to environmental science. Sustainable design is the practice of designing physical objects and urban environments in accordance with sustainable ecological principles. On the level of individual biography, each person bears a certain moral responsibility for finding his or her “right work” (in the Buddhist sense) and staying within limits of fiscal solvency.

  • Alan,

    I fear that you lost yourself in your attempt to answer Kyle’s question. As you mention, it appears Trump has found the solution to navigating our world of information overload: rather than attempting to create ‘fact’ or ‘truth’ one should simply control the object (“the object itself is the hot thing”). I think this idea needs to be taken a step further, to the level of representation. Trump does not merely control the object but he demands and creates representation. Throughout his campaign, the more controversy he had, the better he did. Trump took the classic phrase “All press is good press” to the white house. Trump’s control over representation power is found in his ability to force reaction and controversy. Would, then, the strategy to subvert Trump be found in refusing to engage in the representations that Trump creates? How can one express that his ideas are unacceptable without giving Trump representation? What does it mean to create singular objects? What would be an example of one?

    Additionally, you speak of this distinction between calling out illusions and falsehoods. How does one draw that line? Would Trump’s claims about the inauguration crowd be an example of an illusion and his comparison of the travel to the Obama administrations policy be a falsehood?

  • Thanks for your comment. You might have an interesting idea, but your choice of the term “representation” to express what you are thinking seems like a poor choice. It already has a meaning in philosophy, aesthetics or media theory… and Baudrillard says that this “mimetic” function of the signifier has become obsolete through its transformation into simulation. I guess what you mean is that Trump wants recognition, attention, in German “Aufmerksamkeit”… Ignoring Trump might have been an effective strategy a year ago, but the liberal media missed its change to do that… they were hypocritical and made money from his show, and now they and we all are paying the price for that. But your question “How can one express that his ideas are unacceptable without giving Trump attention?”… I guess the strategies of humour and satire that Michael Moore is talking about and Alec Baldwin, for example, is practicing, are good examples. I actually meant illusion in a positive sense, as an artistic or political strategy. I do not use the term illusion in its “ordinary language” meaning.

  • Alan,
    In terms of composing strategies in a world “beyond” truth and lies, would you consider speaking evil a worthwhile object strategy? How do you think the intelligence of evil can be deployed effectively?

  • The Intelligence of Evil is the title of one of Baudrillard’s books, so of course that is a theoretical area which is very important to elaborate. The publishers of the English translation took the sub-title of the original French book and made it into the title. With his great prestige and fame, Baudrillard was able to write about “evil” without getting into too much trouble. That is not the case for me, so I prefer caution, it could be open to a lot of misunderstandings. In my essay, “Jean Baudrillard and Albert Camus on the Simulacrum of Taking a Stance on War” (IJBS, May 2014), I elaborated on what Baudrillard wrote about the wrong logic of the “war on terrorism,” the strict separation of good and evil. They are mixed in with each other. He makes a very nice critique of Bush’s “war on terror” on page 164 of the English edition of The Intelligence of Evil. It is a very big mistake to regard ourselves as purely “good” and radical Islam as purely “evil.” The right-wing like Steve Bannon or “Alternativ für Deutschland” wants to focus on “the evil” within basic Islamic doctrines. Even a liberal in the US like Bill Maher is focused on this. Of course, lots of things about Islam are horrible, but the question is how are we going to deal with it? With war or with peace? One could say that America’s attacking and invading of countries is the main stimulator of horrible Islamic terrorism. In spite of my obsession with continuing Baudrillard’s project and even “applying” it, I must say that I have my disagreements with him. I am all for defending liberal democracy now, and the critique of globalization of the left really needs some rethinking now that we are faced with fascism. And all the talk about globalization by the Trump supporters seems to me to be a distraction from the more accurately described event of digitalization. Companies are involved in complex supply chain logistics and to talk about where they are locating their factories is a fantasy discourse.

  • Thank you, Alan,
    I have a pretty good grasp on the critique of Manichaean morality, but I think Baudrillard goes a bit farther than that, which is what I refer to. By the “intelligence of evil,” I mean to refer to evil as a form, which Baudrillard calls, “the form itself that is intelligent.”
    It is pretty clear that Trump is very willing to use demonizing language to portray the press, for example, as the enemy of the American people. Trump’s administration is also making use of things like “alternative facts” to proliferate images of a faux reality. Given this, it seems the Trump administration seeks to manifest Integral Reality. If this were the case, and as you say, invoking the “truth” does not work against Trump, then Baudrillard seems to allude to speaking evil as a method of resisting that particular trend. In a digitized world, where do you think there is space for “taking the side of objects” in a way that addresses Trump’s fascism?

  • I think that the critique of Manichean morality (more precisely, a Manichean position with respect to good and evil) and “the intelligence of evil” are pretty much the same thing. There is, in effect, no Baudrillardian crossover from theory to practice in the sense that one could do something as an activist (which would be an activity of the subject). Baudrillard believes in the power of theory (or pataphysics). The abreaction of the world, of events, to the arrogant overstatings by the “subject of good” will shine through by itself, the reversibility will occur, only with some help from the theorist who puts his finger on the scale and renders it more lucid. Any crossover to a “Baudrillardian practice” would be to make a mistake similar to the mistake made by the “Simulationist artists” in New York in the early 1980s (Jeff Koons, Sherrie Levine, Peter Halley), or that made by the Wachowskis, believing they had made a “Baudrillardian film” with The Matrix, or Jean Nouvel, who claimed in The Singular Objects of Architecture to have been inspired to make “Baudrillardian architecture.” So I could tell you what I believe about “taking the side of objects,” but it would not be Baudrillardian anymore. The theorist can write around irony, for example. Trump’s election was an immense irony with respect to globalization, but what Trump will do as President is and will be an immense irony with respect to Trump’s election. As in The Evil Demon of Images, where Baudrillard pointed out that the media culture of images is the site of “the disappearance of meaning and representation,” Trump will preside over the mode of disappearance of much of what was achieved during the reign of the mode of production, the mode of signification, and the mode of information. Just as Disneyland distracted us from seeing that everywhere is Disney-fied, and cinema distracted us from seeing that daily life has become filmic, and Reality TV distracted us from seeing that virtual cameras are pointed at us every moment, so Trump’s recapitulation and unification of every previous form of entertainment, spectacle, bigotry, belligerence, etc. distracts us from seeing that it is no longer possible to discharge our “accursed share,” we are no longer able to bring our society back into balance by expunging or labeling that which was unacceptable. We do not have an accursed share; we have viruses, accidents, exclusions. As Baudrillard wrote about Le Pen (the father): he is “the visible transcription of such a viral condition; he is the spectacular projection of the virus.” American presidents always tended towards this symbolic function (see Diane Rubenstein’s book This is Not a President, she described it quite precisely before Trump). It is no longer a pathology which can be expelled, rather a virus that is physiologically merged with the organism, Integral Reality being a good description of this total self-encoding of the current real of the body. After this stage, what is left, in my view, is a reinvention of a design practice that I have called “taking the side of objects.” This has something to do with code, with hacking or radicalization or poeticization of code, and it is not Baudrillardian. I cannot say yet how it will relate to the political arena or specifically address the authoritarianism of Trump.

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