Alan N. Shapiro, Autonomy in the Digital Society

Blog and project archive about media theory, science fiction theory, and creative coding

Orwell, Baudrillard and Trump, 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.”

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.

I do not think that the classical Western narratives of Marxism and psychoanalysis will be of much help to us, 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.

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.

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

 

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: http://www2.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol-6_1/v6-1-shapiro.html. 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.