Alan N. Shapiro, Autonomy in the Digital Society

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Baudrillard and Trump: The Fifth Order of Simulacra, by Alan N. Shapiro

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Should we be content with the media theory of Orwell or with the media theory of Baudrillard, or do we need a new media theory? Trump makes statements which are not true, but which he claims to be true. His inauguration crowd on January 20th, 2017 was huge, he says. Millions of people voted illegally in the presidential election, especially in California and New Hampshire, he declares. President Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, Trump states. Obama wanted to allow a quarter of a million Syrian refugees into America, says Trump. Thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated on the night of the September 11th, 2001 attack, so it goes. Trump believes what he believes. What he says carries much weight because he is Trump. The argument put forward by the White House press secretary Spicer to support “the truth” of what Trump believes is that tens of millions of people believe him. He believes in them and they believe in him. A populist-democratic God.

On the other side of the equation, Trump is hard at work to delegitimize the liberal news media (like CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post), to undermine their authority, to get them identified in the hearts and minds of his supporters as being the purveyors of “fake news.” This strategy is the equivalent of that practiced by the far right in Germany which refers to the liberal media as the “Lügenpresse” (“lying press”). Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and a fervent Trump supporter, recently advised his fellow citizens: “Better to get your news directly from the President, in fact it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.” There is no reason to search independently for verification of assertions anymore, for the signifieds of the signifiers which are words. You do not need to trouble yourself anymore with examination of the relationship between words and their meaning.

So this is Orwell’s 1984. Two plus two equals five. Why? Because the great leader, the dictator, the totalitarian government, says that it is. When all information and knowledge is controlled by a Power which seeks to unify and therefore negate all views of reality, the transmission and circulation of ideas becomes a social act par excellence, the effort of an individual to link herself to others through mutual recognition of freedom. The enemy of Winston Smith (the protagonist of 1984) is the synthetic manufacture of books and literature of all sorts carried out in the obscure offices of the Ministry of Truth. Winston’s intellectual obsession is the Party’s erasure of the past and rewriting of history. But the Party cannot determine everything. The recollection by one man of something different, something not accounted for in the official version of the facts, already signifies the recovery of coherence and the genesis of a political challenge.

The Ministry of Truth, disseminating information, instruction and entertainment, reaching into all domains of social and everyday life… the superintendence of work norms, evening recreations, the rationalization of activities through bureaucratic administration… Newspeak: the fabricated anti-language, an explicit design accomplished through the simple elimination of words. Not formal and legal restrictions on freedom of expression, but the restriction of the cultural and linguistic fields… “Heretical thought will be literally unthinkable, as least so far as thought is dependent on words.” (1984) Speech will be reduced to a sound best described by the Newspeak word “duckspeak”: an emission not so much of the brain but of the larynx, “a noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.”

From a Baudrillardian perspective, one could say that the media themselves (not only the news media, but the media considered in their widest scope) – having promoted a culture of simulation and simulacra where words and images stand on their own and have no reference – are responsible for Trump. The media culture in general paved the way for Trump. All of America is responsible for the disastrous situation in which we now find ourselves.

Orwell’s fiction describes the system which Trump would like to implement. Baudrillard’s theory offers an explanation of how we arrived at this stage. But are there not useful ideas beyond these two media theory paradigms? Is a new media theory possible and what would it say? We can glimpse the beginnings of this new theory in Baudrillard’s concept of “the fourth order of simulacra.”

What does Donald Trump mean “when he says words,” asked Zachary Wolf, CNN politics editor. What has the media culture as a whole done to the status of words?

Communication in the age of media virtuality has the property of viral metastasis. In the essay “After the Orgy” in the book The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard writes of the “epidemic of simulation,” a networked mode of fractal or viral dispersal. Updating his famous theses of “the three orders of simulacra” (in Symbolic Exchange and Death) and “the precession of simulacra” (in Simulacra and Simulation), Baudrillard seeks to introduce “a new particle into the microphysics of simulacra”:

The first of these stages had a natural referent, and value developed on the basis of a natural use of the world. The second was founded on a general equivalence, and value developed by reference to a logic of the commodity. The third is governed by a code, and value develops here by reference to a set of models. At the fourth, the fractal (or viral, or radiant) stage of value, there is no point of reference at all, and value radiates in all directions… (Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil)

This is the fractal or viral stage of fourth-order simulacra. In Baudrillard’s post-simulation epistème or “epidemic of simulation,” value – if that term is still appropriate – radiates in all directions in a cancerous metastasis. There is “no relationship between cause and effect, merely viral relationships between one effect and another.” All spheres of society pass into their free-floating, excessive, and ecstatic form.

The cross-contamination of societal spheres which Trump represents is that of the disappearance of the boundary between the discourses of the news media (or “politics”) and the operation of the first three orders of simulacra in the media culture in general. This phase was already partly attained by other presidents and prime ministers like Reagan and Berlusconi. With Trump we are experiencing a quantum leap.

As important as a radical left thinker like Noam Chomsky has been in the last decades in his studies of “the manufacturing of consent” in the news media, Chomsky does not even try to provide us with an understanding of the connection between the news media and the media in general (in the sense in which they are addressed by the tradition of media theorists like Baudrillard, Virilio, Flusser, Kittler and McLuhan).

I do not think that the classical Western narratives of Marxism and psychoanalysis will be of much help to us either, as a thinker like Slavoj Zizek would like. We need to creatively expand the horizons of our thinking. We need to help the next generation of media thinkers to emerge and to flourish, free from abstract wholesale rejections of capitalism, and free from grand psychological theories of “what truly motivates people.”

If we adopt for a moment the perspective of the German idealist philosophical tradition which goes all the way back to the 18th century – such as Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, his critiques of ontology and transcendental analytics; of psychology, cosmology and theology; then we might take the position that so-called ‘reality’ was always a metaphysical notion, a naïve assumption. Thus the early Jean Baudrillard’s concept of hyper-reality – since it, in a way, derives from the idea of reality – is perhaps also naïve. Yet I believe that, in his later writings, Baudrillard goes beyond any trace of metaphysics in his emphases on radical autonomous objects, “impossible exchange”, quantum physics sociology, photography as the writing of light, and the self-parody or carnivalesque mode of simulation.

Science cannot really be about discovering “the true nature of reality,” as some scientists like to describe as being their mission. “Discovering the true nature of reality” would be a tautological statement, since it is science, in the current and still largely prevailing modernist paradigm, which generates the concept of “reality.” Science would be investigating its own projection. We cannot allow science to be based on a tautological self-contradictory first principle.

Simulation in hyper-modernism is no longer based only on models and codes and semiotics that “precede the real” as it was in post-modernism. Simulation, especially in the area of politics, now functions in the modes of irony, parody and farce – of self-parody of the previous values and contents of modernism, such as freedom, culture, truth, and humanitarianism. Self-parody already made an early appearance in post-modernism: for example, in the imperatives to freedom and choice in consumerist advertising’s self-parody of democratic values.

In several small volumes (L’agonie de la puissanceCarnaval et cannibale, and Telemorphose) written shortly before his death in 2007, Jean Baudrillard upgraded his concepts of simulacra and simulation into a cogent diagnosis of the self-parodistic phase of Western society and its radical Islamic enemies. This is a political-sociological theory powerfully and interestingly marked and influenced by the knowledge field of literary theory which studies the tropes of irony, parody and Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. Baudrillard called this new hyper-modernist simulation theory: “Carnival and Cannibal.” Simulation or hyper-reality is no longer the artificial staging of so-called “reality” by the models and codes which precede it. Simulation is now a farce, an immense irony, a masquerade, a funhouse-mirror distortion of the values and ideals of modernism. We are currently experiencing, in  the masterful showmanship of Donald Trump and his followers, the full-scale replacement of politics by Reality TV, the tele-morphosis of substance into the fascination with the banal and fifteen minutes (Andy Warhol) of famous insults that is the hallmark of media-celebrity culture and its populist dissemination to all cyber-consumer citizens.

Donald Trump is a very successful empty signifier. Fake is not a betrayal of authenticity. On the contrary, fake is good. It is a positive value. Trump is one of the most talented fakes in the world. I love fake. Lies are exciting. They institute their own forceful narrative. A lot of journalists and commentators keep pointing out that Trump is a liar, and this may be true. But that doesn’t make a dent in the number of his supporters. Trump is already more “advanced” than the modernist discourse of truth. Invoking “the truth” against him does not work as a strategy. Trump is on the border between post-modernism and hyper-modernism. On the one side, he is a classical figure of the 1980s, which was a booming time for poMo. On the other side, Trump uses Twitter to exist in the endless present and that is hyper-modern. Claims made on Twitter disappear into the dustbin of history after a few weeks, and thus are removed from any context of their needing to be verified.

By the power invested in me as an independent Jean Baudrillard researcher, I hereby award to the honorable Donald John Trump, in recognition of his great achievement of having won election to the Presidency of the United States in November 2016 – and I do indeed recognize Mister Trump as the legitimate president and as MY PRESIDENT – the distinct award of his very own order of simulacra: the fifth order. The highest order in the land.

Don’t you sometimes wish you had swallowed the blue pill?

In English:

Jean Baudrillard, The Agony of Power (translated by Ames Hodges) (Semiotext(e), 2010).

Jean Baudrillard, Carnival and Cannibal (translated by Chris Turner) (London: Seagull Books, 2010).

Michal Klosinksi writes:

What you write about both the German far right and Trump’s engagement with the media is also apparent in Poland – or even much more apparent here as our main national media have been completely purged by the government and repopulated with the “correct political option.” What you say about Trump is – I dare say – a valid interpretation of the current state of political affairs in many countries. I feel you got it very nicely analyzed in your essay with comparisons to 1984 and Baudrillard.

The second part of your essay is what I would like to rethink – is Trump really on the border between post-modernism and hyper-modernism? I don’t think so. I think that he is a classical modernist figure, everything about him says that: idea of a self-made man, and capitalist thinking about the “deal.” His career as an entrepreneur is a classical identity model of modernism. Even his wife is a modernist Lolita colonially appropriated from a second world country for her visual value… Trump is also a gambler in a typically modernist sense – he is a classical figure of the false gentleman, or some would say a goliard – a seductive yet absurd authoritarian figure. He is not exactly an empty signifier either. He signifies what has been neglected by the right, left and center-oriented politics. He is the signifier standing for the myths and dreams underlying the phrase “Make America Great Again” – the most melancholic and myth-centric narrative Americans have been given. His happy-go-lucky way of organizing turkey shoots of Muslims, enemies of the state and rogues alike – He is what America was in its great gold-driven dream at the threshold of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. If he is a hyper-modern figure in your discourse, I’d say he is a complete return of the modernist mythos. Of course, I agree with your point about the truth-lie, facta-ficta problem of contemporary media, but Trump is a classical modernist figure in a post-modern / hyper-modern world. It is precisely because he is so out-of-this-world that he manipulates it so well. He turns lies and fakes into truth and original. He is a true, first American Messiah, and the God Bless America written on every dollar bill finally found a corpus through which it can work its miracles.

Alan N. Shapiro: This is very insightful, and you have some brilliant turns-of-phrases here. I think that your idea complements my thesis. It is not contradictory to what I have written. Perhaps he is modernist, post-modernist, and hyper-modernist all at one.

I do not think that Trump is literally modernist in the senses in which you have enumerated. He is rather the “museum of history” where all of these modernist artefacts are on nostalgic display, the Disneyland-style simulation-reenactment of these long-vanished longed-for episodes, the lost factory jobs, the traces of America’s past greatness. It is the recycling of the modern within the sign-marketplace of the hyper-modern. He is not a classical modernist figure, but rather the invocation of everything modernist which has disappeared. All of past history, modernist history, all the old patriotic signifiers, now reinvoked as commemoration and self-parody. The melding of Trump and Alec-Baldwin-Trump as TV-President.

Trump is not a self-made man. His grandfather made the family fortune operating boarding houses, brothels and restaurants in frontier and mining towns in the Pacific Northwest and during the Alaska gold rush.

Like his predecessor Ross Perot, who nearly won the Presidency in 1992 convincing supporters that he was an outsider to the establishment and a “successful businessman,” but who mainly benefited in his business career from lucrative government IT contracts, Donald Trump profited from his close lobbying relationship to politicians and legislators, and their framing of the tax code offering advantages to the New York City real estate business.

Everything has been preserved exactly as it was oh-so-many years ago. Until you realize that the omnipresence of hyper-reality in the USA makes it henceforth impossible to return to the real. The real can only be staged or reenacted as a Museum of Reality.

“A triumph for Walt Disney, that inspired precursor of a universe where all past or present forms meet in a playful promiscuity, where all cultures recur in a mosaic… Disneyworld opening up for us the bewildering perspective of passing through all the earlier stages, as in a film, with those stages hypostasized in a definitive juvenility, frozen like Disney himself in liquid nitrogen: Magic Country, Future World, Gothic, Hollywood itself reconstituted fifty years on in Florida, the whole of the past and the future revisited in living simulation.” Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End

One Response

Since I believe in free speech, I approved your comment. But I do think your comment is stupid. Mark Poster was a very strong supporter of Baudrillard, edited and translated many of Baudrillard’s writings. He has some intelligent disagreements with Baudrillard, as do I, so your citation is taken out of context. Dutton’s attitude is ridiculous. I responded to it already here: Cleary, contemporary developments of Reality TV taking over politics prove that Baudrillard was right, and was prescient. I doubt if you have read his essays on Reality TV. You are just too lazy to read and prefer to label. I suggest you lose the stereotyped Shakespeare phrase in the same breath that you call someone else a bad creative writer. And no, he is not a social theorist. He critiques the concept of “the social” and sociology.