Saturday, July 31, 2010


This week the Secretary of the Air Force selected the Vermont National Air Guard as one of the top two contenders for  housing "a national treasure",  the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Our liberal congressional delegation is jumping with joy, with Sen. Leahy enjoying the "cream rising to the top", Sen. Sanders basking in the "great national respect and admiration", and Rep. Welch crowing about "400 full-time and 700 part-time employees, military and civilian, [who] receive about $53 million annually in pay and contribute about $2 million each year in fire and rescue services from their airport base.

Wowie zowie -- sounds pretty good.

There have, of course, been some grumblers, the most cited being those airport neighbors complaining about a drop in property values and lives made noisome by unbearable decibels. While the militarized world at large understands and sympathizes with their issues and hopes to "work with them", their concerns shrink, and are dismissed in the face of the larger issues of jobs and "national security". They are labeled NIMBYs -- Not In My Backyarders. "What you're doing in OK -- just go do it elsewhere."

But what is it it the F-35s are doing, beyond being national treasures and making a hell of a noise? What is it that is OK, as long as it's elsewhere? There are those of us mean enough to point to its main task -- mass murder. That's why we don't want F-35s based in Burlington -- or anywhere else.

Burlington, Vermont -- bobo paradise, the People's Republic of, -- does love its sleek, if noisy aircraft. For several years, we enthusiastically hosted an airshow put on by the Navy's Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels.

Although very few of us support mass murder, I had an interesting conversation with an intelligent woman, highly critical of war, who was all excited about the air show.

“I know I shouldn’t really love it — but it’s so exciting. Those planes are so beautiful, the pilots’ skill is so impressive. It triggers off some visceral reaction...”
“Would you be excited to see someone beheaded, or perhaps burned at the stake?” I asked. “No!” she averred, “But nobody gets killed at the air show.”

What was amazing to me was the screeching to a halt of thought. No, short of a crash, these planes would not kill anyone at the air show. But they are the meanest and most vicious of killing machines, designed to bring fiery death to any persons or structures in their cross-hairs. They are “smart”, these machines, and their pilots are smart, well-trained, and their bombs are “smart”, and we never intentionally kill innocent civilians.  Yet somehow, there is always “collateral damage”. No one gets killed at the air show. Only everywhere else such machines perform.

At the time of the show, and in the face of F-35-like protests, a local columnist wrote a piece in the Burlington Free Press entitled “Cause It’

s Cool, Let Airshow Roar” : “C’mon guys,“ he wrote. “all you ‘waterfront zealots, anti-war movers and shakers, environmental sorts. Can’t you just get off your high horses for a day, stop being so stuffy, and, like, just have some fun watching the boys play with their toys?  ‘Cause it’s cool, man.  Don’t get your undies in a knot. Hey, even the Make-A-Wish Foundation loves it.  [The foundation will receive a charitable donation from the proceeds.] Are you against dying kids? Meanies.“

He advised the peace-freaks to just “close their eyes and imagine that the jets torching along at 500 mph are on a peace mission promoting sustainable global tranquility.”

But these jets, and worse, the F-35, will not be promoting global tranquility. They are promoting defense profits, over-the-top military macho, and by implication approving the world-wide death and suffering it creates. They are promoting killing kids who have no Make-A-Wish foundation, and whose only wish is that the wars around them would end. And not least, they are enticing our own children to graduate from violent video games to doing the real thing when they grow up.

I know — all those Burlingtonians who are thinking such thoughts are just elitist prigs with twisted undies. Why can’t we just be cool, instead of raining on the party? Besides, think of the jobs.

Friday, July 23, 2010


As I write, we are one week past the 65th anniversary of what may be the most important date in the history of the planet. The Planet of the Human Apes.

On July 16th, 1945, Fat Man, aka "the Gadget", did its early morning, Trinity Test thing, lighting up the sky over Alamogordo, New Mexico.

The US military put out this statement to calm any worried neighbors:

Several inquiries have been received concerning a heavy explosion which occurred on the Alamogordo Air Base reservation this morning.  A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded. There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosives magazine itself was negligible. Weather conditions affecting the content of gas shells exploded by the blast may make it desirable for the army to evacuate temporarily a few civilians from their homes.

But the sky was not lit up by any considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics. What made the light and blast was the first explosion of a nuclear weapon in planetary history.

And more important than that: what had come to pass was a human callup of forces beyond control, forces greater than could be imagined, even by the glyph of E = mc2.

They were not only unparalleled physical forces previously sequestered in the infinitesimal. They were forces of human chutzpah, of political and philosophical confusion, of a rape relationship to nature that has never been, can never be, repaired. We have lived since then, and will ever live, in the miasma of that ravishing.

There was one incident at Trinity that seems particularly revealing of the pathology of the perpetrator:

Chief Meteorologist Jack Hubbard, in consultation with every group leader, had early on drawn up a list of the best and worst conditions for the test:

Best conditions for the operation.
A. Visibility greater than 45 miles.
B. Humidity below 85% at all altitudes.
C. Clear skies.
D. Temperature lapse rate aloft slightly stable to prevent dropping of the cloud.
E.  Little or no inversion between 5,000 and 25,000 feet to allow cloud to reach maximum altitude.
F. A thick surface inversion or none at all to prevent internal reflections and mirage effects.
G. Winds aloft fairly light, preferred direction from between 6 degrees south of west and 25 degrees south of west.  Steady movement desirable to anticipate track of cloud.  Horizontal and vertical wind shears desirable for maximum dissipation of the cloud, although such a condition increased the tracking problem.
H. Low-level winds light and preferred drift away from Base Camp and shelters.
I. No precipitation in the area within twelve hours of the operation.
J. Predawn operation desired by the photographic group, although 0930 operation considered best for thermals dissipating the lower levels of the cloud.

Conditions least favorable to the operation.
A. Haze, dust, mirage effects, precipitation, restrictions of visibility below 45 miles.
B.  Humidity greater than 85% at the surface or aloft, which might result in condensation by the shock wave.
C.  Thunderstorms within 35 miles at the time of operation or for 12 hours following.
D. Rain at the location within 12 hours of the operation.
E. Surface winds greater than 15 mph during and after the operation.
F. Winds aloft blowing toward Base Camp or any population center within 90 miles of the site.

Human rationality -- even if in service of the irrational.

But instead of tailoring the operation around desired weather, Hubbard was faced with a fait accompli -- Truman was in Potsdam, and weather be damned.  July 16th was it.  “Right in the middle of a period of thunderstorms,” he wrote, “What son-of-a-bitch could have done this?”  Everything unwanted was present: rain, high humidity, inversion layer, and unstable wind.  None of the optimum requirements had been met.  Rain could scrub the clouds and bring down high levels of radioactivity in a small area.  Unstable conditions and high humidity increased the chances that the blast could induce a thunderstorm.   Still, Truman was in Potsdam, and the order was given to proceed with the test.  The president needed an ace up his sleeve in his card game with Stalin. Such is the pecking order of politics, war and science.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me...

July 16th, 1945 at Alamogordo was the moment when the human species blew it forever, and our world will never be the same.

After the blast, the "successful" test, Oppenheimer summed it up: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." He was speaking for all of us.

I tell the story of the Manhattan Project and its Trinity Test in great detail in my novel, Insect Dreams: the Half Life of Gregor Samsa. Without blushing, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Before we leave him, let us follow Baudrillard's thought a bit further here for the hints it may give us about our contemporary situation.  In a provocative 1987 article entitled "The Year 2000 Has Already Happened", he takes us astride some fascinating metaphors. While some of the physics may be less than strict, it is worth suspending disbelief, and being open to the poetic truth of his images.

Why has the real disappeared?  Baudrillard evokes the "speed of liberation" necessary for a body to escape the gravitational force of a star or planet.

According to this image, we may suppose that the acceleration of modernity, technical, factual, mediatory, the acceleration of all economic, political and sexual exchanges -- all that we denote fundamentally under the term "liberation" -- has carried us at a speed of liberation, such that we have one day...escaped from the referential sphere of the real and of history. (35)

But since all actions have their equal and opposite reactions, at the same time, Baudrillard invokes an "inverse" hypothesis dealing with the slowing down of processes.  By relativity theory, great mass slows down time. 

Here then is the most important event of our modern societies, the most subtle and most profound trick of their history: the advent, in the very course of their socialization, of their mobilization, of their productive and revolutionary intensification,...the advent of a force of inertia, of an immense indifference, and of the silent power of indifference.  What we call the masses.  This mass, this inert material of the social, does not arise from a lack of exchange, information, and communication, but on the contrary from the multiplication and saturation of exchange, information, etc.  It is born of the hyper-density of the city, of merchandise, of messages, of circuits.  It is the cold star of the social and, surrounding this mass, history chills, slows down, events succeed one another and are annihilated in indifference.  Neutralized, immunized by information, the masses in turn neutralize history and play(act) as a screen of absorption.

Gridlock.  In this view (wave, not photon), progress, history, reason, desire can no longer find their "speed of liberation".

We are already at the point where political and social events do not have sufficient autonomous energy to move us, and thus they unfold as in a silent film for which we are, not individually, but collectively, irresponsible. History ends there, and you may see how: not because of lack of character, nor of violence...nor of events, but of a slowing down, indifference, and stupefaction....[History's] effects accelerate, but its sense slackens, ineluctably. (38)

Baudrillard thinks through -- in microcosm -- the cosmological question of infinite expansion vs. cycles of expansion and contraction.  Will the breakaway or the inertia prevail?

Are we, like the galaxies, caught in a definitive movement that distances us one from another at a prodigious speed, or is this dispersion to infinity destined to end, and the human molecules to approach one another according to an inverse movement of gravitation? (38)

It could be that the very energy of the liberation of the species (the demographic, technological acceleration, the acceleration of exchanges in the course of centuries) creates an excess of mass and of resistance which goes faster than the initial energy, and which would thus drag us in an unrelenting movement of contraction and inertia.

Baudrillard offers a third hypotheses about the "vanishing point", the point of disappearance beyond which all ceases to be real, by evoking the technical perfection of stereo. In his listening experience, there is no more music, but rather an impression of something "viscerally secreted in the interior".

The problem of the disappearance of music is that same as that of history: it will not disappear for want of music, it will disappear in the perfection of its materiality.

It is also thus with history, there too we have gone beyond that limit where, as a result of informational sophistication, history as such has ceased to exist.  [There has been a] short-circuit between cause and effect,...a radical uncertainty about the truth, about the very reality of the event.

By definition, this 'vanishing point', the point on this side of which there was history, there was music, there was a meaning to the event, to the social, to sexuality,...this point is irrecoverable.  Where must we stop information?...We will never know what history was before becoming exasperated in the technical perfection of information, or before vanishing in the multiplicity of codes -- we will never know what all things were before vanishing in the realization of their model.

Unlike the (sophisticated) complainers of the Frankfurt School, Baudrillard seems pleased -- or at least not unhappy -- with all this.

That we leave history in order to enter into not at all a despairing hypothesis, unless one speaks of simulation as a higher form of alienation.  Which I will certainly not do.  History is precisely the place of alienation, and if we leave history, we also leave alienation (not without nostalgia, one must say, for that good old dramaturgy of subject and object.)

But we can offer the hypothesis that history itself is or was only an immense model of simulation....I speak of the time in which it unfolds, of this linear time where events supposedly succeed one another from cause to effect, even if the complexity is great.

Baudrillard sees no liberating local language games, but

massive comportments of retreat, of the suspension of the historic will, including the apparent inverse obsession of historicising everything, of achieving everything, of memorizing everything of our past and that of other cultures. (43)

Wandering through underground shopping malls, he senses

societies which entomb themselves behind their prospective technologies, their stocks of information and in the immense alveolate networks of communication where time is finally annihilated by pure circulation -- these generations will never perhaps awake, but they don't know it. (43)

Nevertheless, he does not complain.  His positive evaluation of America stands alone amidst the howling and jeering of other cultured Europeans:

The US is a beautiful example of this immoral energy of transformation [directed] toward and against all systems of value. Despite [Americans'] morality, their puritanism, their obsession with virtue, their pragmatic idealism, everything there changes irresistibly according to an impulse which is not at all that of progress, linear by definition -- no, the real motor is the abjection of free circulation.  Asocial and still untamed today, resistant to every coherent project of society: everything is tested there, everything is paid for there, everything is made to have value there, everything fails there.  Western music, various therapies, sexual "perversions", buildings in the east, the leaders, the gadgets, the artistic movements, all pass by in succession without stopping.  And our [European] cultural unconscious, profoundly nourished by culture and meaning, can howl before this spectacle. Nevertheless, it is there, in the immoral promiscuity of all the forms, of all the races, in the violent spectacle of change, that resides the success of a society and the sign of its vitality.

What do we do with all this oddball stuff?, or Baudrillard's Conception of the Role of Theory

It's not a question of ideas -- there are already too many ideas!

Baudrillard calls for nothing -- and no action.

And indeed it would be hard to call for anything else since, in Baudrillard, "critical theory faces the formidable task of unveiling structures of domination when no one is dominating, nothing is being dominated and no ground exists for a principle of liberation from domination."  Baudrillard's writing seems to be for him

simply an act of defiance, a game.  But it seems to me to be the only enthralling game.  At the same time, it's often an act of provocation.  Perhaps the only thing one can do is to destabilize and provoke the world around us. 

Is he modest, or what?

We shouldn't presume to produce positive solutions.  In my opinion this isn't the intellectual's or the thinker's task.  It's not our responsibility.  It might occur, but it will only come about by reaction.  I've the impression that if energy still exists, it is reactive, reactionary, repulsive.  It needs to be provoked into action.  One should not attempt to inaugurate positive solutions because they will immediately be condemned -- so they're virtually a waste of energy. In other words, one needs to make a kind of detour through the strategy of the worst scenario, through the paths of subversion.   It's a slightly perverse calculation, perhaps. But in my opinion it's the only effective option -- it's the only way that a philosopher or thinker can, as it were, become a terrorist.

The secret of theory is that truth doesn't exist. You can't confront it in any way.  The only thing you can do is play with some kind of provocative logic.  Truth constitutes a space that can no longer be occupied.  The whole strategy is, indeed, not to occupy it, but to work around it so that others come to occupy it.  It means creating a void so that others will fall into it.

Much of Baudrillard's "perverse calculation" is a corollary of an amazing insight:

The false is resplendent with all the power of the true, that is art;...inversely the true resplendent with all the power of the false, that is obscenity.

Art, the antithesis of obscenity.  There's an idea for the Evangelical Right!

When one says it is the false which is resplendent with the power of the true, it means that the true, by having this kind of aura placed on it, can never be found simply by looking for it.  The only strategy is the reverse one!  You only reach the true, the beautiful -- supposing that that is what is wanted -- by passing directly to the inverse....Indeed, there is a radical contradiction in pretending to find the truth where one is looking for it...which is our morality.  Happily, art does not partake of that self-contradiction.  It knows very well that illusion is the sole route to get somewhere if something is to be found...It is very fundamental.

Herein lies the ultimate demise of socialism or any other grand theory that, however well-intended, seeks to achieve a particular goal, be it liberation or enslavement.

There is a terrible self-contradiction in the social as we envisage it -- or in socialism which proposes indeed the frontal realization of the social, and I would not say without perversion but without any intelligence -- that never do things promote themselves like that -- in a straight line which would lead from their origin to their end.  Happily, things are more subtle than that.

We have already heard "That people want to be told what they want is certainly not true; it is not clear either that they really want to know what they want, or that they desire to want at all."  Baudrillard continues: 

The whole edifice of socialism is based on that assumption.  They start from the fact that this is what people ought to want, that they are social in the sense that they are supposed to know themselves, know what they want.  I think we have pressed beyond that point, beyond truth, beyond reality.

So no more Mr. Fixit. Social theory, at least

maintains absolutely no relation with anything at all; it becomes an event in and of itself.  We can no longer fix the way things are going...Strictly speaking, nothing remains but a sense of dizziness, with which you can't do anything.

And thus we can understand Baudrillard's evolution from academic, Marxist sociologist to postmodern artist, playing with falsehood "resplendent with all the power of the true."  Though I worry about Baudrillard being nothing but a jester, I read him with a strong sense of lurking enlightenment.  The stakes are profound.

Appraising the unappraisable Baudrillard

Everything I write is deemed brilliant, intelligent, but not serious.  There has never been any real discussion about it.  I don't claim to be tremendously serious, but there are nevertheless some philosophically serious things in my work!

His critics are merciless, seeing his "speculative spontaneity" as "grossly undertheorized".

It is inconceivable that any collectivistic political programme can emerge from this practice.

[Baudrillard's] rhetorical 'play' and 'caprice' may well disrupt restricting intellectual ethics or conventions, but seldom suffice to inaugurate radically new alternatives to dominant practices. 

Certainly, his aestheticist view of the world can be problematical.  Who could have watched the Challenger explosion, and then say

It was extraordinary: a sort of symbolic victory that only the Americans could afford!  That fantastic burial in the sky!  They've revived our appetite for space.  Offering themselves the luxury of such disasters.  What a way to go!  Simple endings are without interest; they're flat and linear.  The really exciting thing is to discover orbital space where these other forces play. 

Are we to take such a man seriously?  We can grant him his "voluntary stance as a marginal oppositional figure".  And we can still be inspired by his enthusiasms:

Even if things are not really at their end, well! Let's act as if they were.  It's a game, a provocation.  Not in order to put a full stop to everything, but, on the contrary, to make everything begin again.  So you see, I'm far from being a pessimist.

But most of all, I think we have to value the extraordianry originality of his angle on the contemporary world.  How remarkable his attack on what Foucault terms the "abundance of things to know: essential or terrible, marvelous or droll."  As Foucault concludes, there are still "too few means to think about all that is happening." 

Baudrillard adds immeasurably to those means.  I would certainly agree with Nickolas Zurbrugg, a most critical critic, in saying

There is frequently something profoundly engaging and inspiring in Baudrillard's idiosyncratic attempts to grapple with those issues which he finds most challenging and most at stake.  Compared with the unadventurous ways in which other cartographers of postmodern culture carefully sift elementary shifts within the familiar shallows of twentieth-century discourse, Baudrillard's finest "virtual' descents into uncharted contemporary depths offer models of passionate engagement with the most crucial developments within the postmodern condition.      

As to whether hyperreality is truly the new mode of postmodernism, I can only quote my wife, Donna, who the other day called an airline, and pressed 1 to speak to a representative.

"The human I talked to this morning," Donna reported, "asked 'What did it say on the automated system?'"

Saturday, July 10, 2010


I thought you might like to take a little pee break from this high-concept movie, go get some popcorn slathered in Olestra, and fire up the news on your iPhone. On which you might find that you have a new general to lead your Central Command (or CENTCOM), overseeing your operations in 20 countries from Egypt, across the Middle East and into South and Central Asia. This, btw, courtesy of your Defense Department. There is a lot of ours out there that may need defending.

So anyway, your new leader, appointed by your other new leader's Pentagon, one Gen. James Mattis, seems to be quite a guy. Looks nice enough to have a beer with, no? Does his own laundry. Wears intellectual-type glasses. The kind of leader we need to win hearts & minds.

"I like brawling," he is quoted. Hey, one of the guys. "You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn't wear a veil, you know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them." A feminist, no less.

Well, ok -- for this statement, he was reprimanded. Perhaps it was for the feminism part, but reprimanded he was, your Secretary of Defense assures us, dismissing any possible concerns from hearts-and-mindists or maleists. He was reprimanded and asked to choose his words more carefully in the future.

And now, five years post, SECDEF guarantees that "the lesson was learnt."  A Brig-Gen in the know tells us that the old brawler has "since proven himself a statesman, including by working with 27 nations in a NATO command position, and SECDEF agreed, saying, "Obviously in the wake of the Rolling Stone interview, we discussed this kind of thing, and I have every confidence that General Mattis will respond to questions and speak publicly about the matters for which he is responsible in an entirely appropriate way."

Without, hopefully, indulging in pedagogical overkill, let us survey the more obvious simulacra in this story:

Most obviously, there is the simulacrum of appropriateness. Now in control of his brawling essence, or at least of its mouth, Gen. Mattis has learned to say the right things and not the wrong things. This should assure us that the hearts and mind simulacrum can remain intact.

Second, consider the simulacrum of "learning", as in "the lesson was learnt" -- in the passive case. The simulacrum of metrics testifies to that via Mattis's being able to "work" with 27 (count 'em) nations, as NATO's "supreme allied commander for transformation" which "focuses on supporting current operations while shaping US forces for the future."  This, no doubt, was a gruelling test of Mattis's maturation among the boys.

We proceed to the simulacrum of assurance. Of what does SECDEF assure us? His "confidence" (sharing faith with us) is that the good General will "respond to questions and speak an entirely appropriate way. " Good doggie. How he still feels and acts, and what behavior he encourages among his troops is another thing. But we can be confident that his performance at the simulacra of briefings will no longer raise eyebrows.

Baudrillard is chortling in his grave. 

OK, intermission over. Next week back to the feature film.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Happy Flag-Waving Day.

"The Balance of Terror is the Terror of Balance." (60)

So what of democracy, the great Enlightenment goal?  Is there now only a democratic simulacrum?  What is the demos, the "fantastic silent majority characteristic of our times" thinking and doing in its silent postmodernity?

The Masses in "Advanced" Democracy

In Dostoevsky's brilliant chapter, "The Grand Inquisitor", Jesus comes back to earth during the Inquisition, and is arrested and interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor, "a man of almost ninety, tall and erect".  Jesus says nothing throughout the moving and remarkable monologue of his adversary.  The supposed Savior is condemned for lack of compassion:

[GRAND INQUISITOR:] Instead of seizing men's freedom, You gave them even more of it!  Have You forgotten that peace, and even death, is more attractive to man than the freedom of choice that derives from the knowledge of good and evil....Instead of ridding men of their freedom, You increased their freedom, and You imposed everlasting torment on man's soul....Had you respected him less, You would have demanded less of him and that would have been more like love, for the burden You placed on him would not have been so heavy.  Man is weak and despicable....We [the Church] have corrected your work.
Baudrillard meditates on the same material.

Choice is a strange imperative.  Any philosophy which assigns man to the exercise of his will can only plunge him in despair.  For if nothing is more flattering to consciousness than to know what it wants, on the contrary nothing is more seductive to the other consciousness (the unconscious?) than not to know what it wants, to be relieved of choice and diverted from its own objective will.  It is much better to rely on some insignificant or powerful instance than to be dependent on one's own will or the necessity of choice. Beau Brummel had a servant for that purpose.  Before a splendid landscape dotted with beautiful lakes, he turns toward his valet to ask him: "Which lake do I prefer?"

In the sixties, and even now, the (New) Left called for "empowering people to make the decisions that affect their lives."  But that assumes people know what they want, or at least want to find out.  Baudrillard demurs:

Not only do people certainly not want to be told what they wish, but they certainly do not want to know it, and it is not even sure that they want to wish at all.

But while most commentators -- Chomsky, the Frankfurt School -- would see this as the surrender of the masses to the designs of Power (Dostoevsky: "Man is weak and despicable."), Baudrillard challenges us to see things another way.

Whom does this trap close on?  The mass knows that it knows nothing, and it does not want to know.  The mass knows that it can do nothing, and it does not want to achieve anything.  It is violently reproached with this mark of stupidity and passivity.  But not at all:  the mass is very snobbish; it acts as Brummel did and delegates in a sovereign manner the faculty of choice to someone else by a sort of game of irresponsibility, or ironic challenge, of sovereign lack of will, of secret ruse.

The ruse of silence: the mass's way of resisting manipulation.

About the media you can sustain two opposing hypotheses: they are the strategy of power, which finds in them the means of mystifying the masses and of imposing its own truth.  Or else they are the strategic territory of the ruse of the masses, who exercise in them their concrete power of the refusal of truth, of the denial of reality.

Understanding Media... crucial, for it is the media which cooks up reality stew and invites the masses to dinner.

We must think of the media as if they were...a sort of genetic code which controls the mutation of the real into the hyperreal. (55)

But the question of whether the masses eat or are eaten remains unsettled.

There is an over-circulation of ideas, of the most contradictory ideas, all in the same flux of ideas.  What happens is that their specific impact is wiped out.  I mean their negativity is wiped out.  Mass media, and all that, are not vehicles for negativity.  They carry a kind of neutralizing positivity.
Which means that even the negative is positive.  It's true.  Iran-Contra created the stardom of Ollie North. It was fascinating, and everyone was excused. Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas and we are all the better now for understanding sexual harassment, and the pundits taunted us "They can't both be telling the truth," and Clarence Thomas sits on the Supreme Court.  And then, OJ flees from the police in what becomes the most watched chase scene in TV history.  Isn't actuality wonderful?  Remember those fascinating L.A. riots?  No matter how negative the event, just reporting it shows us that "The system works!"

What kind of person does this self-affirming recursiveness create? Democracy depends upon an informed public, but

Is information really information?  Or on the contrary, will it produce a world of inertia?  Will it produce, by its very proliferation, the inverse of what it wants to?  Doesn't it lead to a world, a universe in reverse, of resistance, inertia, circulation, silence and such like....It is by information that one is supposed to bring consciousness to the world, to inform and to awaken the world, but it is this very information through its very media which produces the reverse effect.

It would seem that in this simulated postmodernity, the conditions of democracy are far from being met, and all of us are largely consigned to inconsequential states of obeying and resisting a bland hyperreality. 

Our relationship to this system is an insoluble "double bind" -- exactly that of children in their relationship to the demands of the adult world.  They are at the same time told to constitute themselves as autonomous subjects, responsible, free, and conscious, and to constitute themselves as submissive objects, inert, obedient, and conformist. The child resists on all levels, and to these contradictory demands he or she replies by a double strategy.  When we ask the child to be object, he or she opposes all the practices of disobedience, of revolt, of emancipation; in short, the strategy of a subject.  When we ask the child to be subject, he or she opposes just as obstinately and successfully a resistance as object; that is to say, exactly the opposite: infantilism, hyperconformity, total dependence, passivity, idiocy. 

Does this seem an apt description of the electorate?

I don't know what people are looking for.  They have been taught to look for things like happiness, but deep down that doesn't interest them, any more than producing or being produced.  

The masses are playing dead...They are no longer involved in a process of subversion or revolution, but in some gigantic devolution from an unwanted liberty...

The drive to spectacle is a more powerful instinct than self-preservation.

And this suggests an explanation for a phenomenon perplexing now, and perplexing too, to an interviewer in 1989, who comments

President Reagan and his whole administration, his wife included, seem like an immense simulation: before he was a Hollywood B-grade actor, now he looks like a living cadaver.  The astonishing thing is that no one really cares when he lies to the press or makes incredible gaffes.  Even more, he's been involved in many suspicious or illegal activities, like the Iran-Contra scandal.  But basically no one in the US seems really upset; in fact, it's as if the exposé itself, as a genre of critical or investigative reporting, had suddenly become dépassé in the eighties.  Everyone knows or suspects the worst but finally remains indifferent.  One might even say that the very visibility of Reagan and his suspect activities makes him invulnerable to criticism.  Do you see here any confirmation of your own theories?

To which, Baudrillard replies,

Indeed.  Reagan is a sort of fantastic specimen of the obscene transparence of power and politics, and of its insignificance at the same time.  It's as if everyone has become aware of the indifference of power to its own decisions, which is nothing but the indifference of the people themselves to their own representation, and thus to the whole representative system.  This is accompanied by a demand all the greater for the spectacle of politics, with its scandals, morality trials, mass-media and show-biz effects.  There is no longer anything but the energy of spectacle and of the simulacrum....

Reagan provided one kind of spectacle, Obama provides another.  There is in President Hope and Change a kind of "anti-Teflon effect", in which no matter what he does, he is seen by many as blameworthy.  Why this curious transformation of public opinion from all-forgiving to merciless?

The conflicts have all the depth of a grade-B Hollywood movie: 
Reagan -- old and pitiful; The Public -- magnanimous and tolerant. 
Obama -- young and treacherous; The Public: fierce and righteous.
Always enough white hats to go round.  Self-preservation -- and reality -- be damned!

True, there's a lot of theorizing there, in the disguise of "intellectual terrorism".  But notions such as Baudrillard's are postmodern products, deep from the molten core.

Naturally, he denies it all:

I have nothing to do with postmodernism.

One should ask whether postmodernism, the postmodern, has a meaning.  It doesn't as far as I am concerned.  It's an expression, a word which people use but which explains nothing.  It's not even a concept.  It's nothing at all.  It's because it's impossible to define what's going on now, grand theories are over and done with...  That is, there is a sort of void, a vacuum.  It's because there is nothing really to express this that an empty term has been chosen to designate what is really empty.  So in a sense there is no such thing as postmodernism.

And yet Baudrillard, of all the commentators, gives the most arresting expression to this "non-existent" state.  He describes a contemporary world which has burst the previous limits of Western society, a world in which all previous boundaries -- male/female, art/non-art, economics/politics, etc. -- have broken down, where religion becomes fashion, and revolution becomes style and colored shirts.  What does a simulated hyperreality signify if not the "postmodern rupture"? 

In fact, in Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard talks about the

second revolution of postmodernity, which is the immense process of the destruction of meaning, equal to the earlier destruction of appearances [in modernity's search for the hidden authentic.]  Whoever lives by meaning dies by meaning.

A second revolution, equal to that of modernity?  This is hardly nothing.

"Who lives by meaning dies by meaning."  Thus Baudrillard dismisses the entire debate over the Enlightenment Project.

This intellectual, mental, metaphysical situation has through inertia managed to survive beyond its point of relevance. And it is probably from this that we get the stagnation and collapse of thought that we see today....We are dragging behind us a whole bundle of ill-digested rationalities, radicalities, that have no support, no enemies, and in which there is nothing at stake.

The old theories are irrelevant.

It is a question here of a completely new species of uncertainty, which results not from the lack of information but from information itself and even from an excess of information.  It is information itself which produces uncertainty, and so this uncertainty, unlike the traditional uncertainty which could always be resolved, is irreparable.

I have the impression with postmodernism that there is an attempt to rediscover a certain pleasure in the irony of things, in the game of things.  Right now one can tumble into total hopelessness -- all the definitions, everything, it's all been done.  What can one do?  What can one become?  And postmodernity is the attempt --  perhaps it's desperate, I don't know -- to reach a point where one can live with what is left.  It is more a survival among the remnants than anything else.)

The End of History

The seriousness of the postmodern rupture is attested to by Baudrillard's musings on "the end of history".  In 1989,  Francis Fukayama created an intellectual storm when he published an article with that title.  His thesis was that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the worldwide triumph of liberal democracy -- at least in theory -- history, as we know it -- the struggle between opposing forces -- was over.  I mention this teapot tempest in order to contrast it with Baudrillard's deeper, more mysterious probe. 

Unlike Fukayama's triumphal announcement, Baudrillard's reasoning rings with affirmatory hopelessness.

A painful idea: that beyond a certain precise point in time, history was no longer real.  Without being aware of it, the totality of the human race would have suddenly quit reality.  all that would have happened since then would not have been at all real, but we would not be able to know it.  Our task and our duty would now be to discover this point and, to the extent that we shall not stop there, we must persevere in the actual destruction.

History has been irreversibly destroyed by the virus of simulation.  Although there is much "interest" in history today -- there is even a History Book of the Month Club -- a genuine return to an authentic relationship with history has become impossible.

And that is also part of the postmodern: restoration of a past culture, to bring back all past cultures, to bring back everything that one has destroyed, all that one has destroyed in joy and which one is reconstructing in sadness in order to try to live, to survive.

It's true that everywhere today (and not just in the US) there is a resurgence of history, or rather of the demand for historicity, linked no doubt to the weak registration rate of factual history (there are more and more events, and less and less history).  We are caught in a sort of gigantic, historical backwards accounting, and endless retrospective bookkeeping.  This historicity is speculative and maniacal, and linked to the indefinite stocking of information.  We are setting up artificial memories which can take the place of natural intelligence.

But all this frenetic activity, all the research and data entry and hypertextual referencing do us little good in our attempt to connect.

We tend to forget that our reality, including the tragic events of the past, has been swallowed up by the media. That means that it is too late to verify events and to understand them historically, for what characterizes our era and our fin de siècle is precisely the disappearance of the instruments of this intelligibility. It was necessary to understand history while there was still history....Now it's too late, we're in another world.  It's evident in the television production of "Holocaust" or even in "Shoah".  Those things will no longer be understood because notions as fundamental as responsibility, objective cause, the meaning (or non-sense) of history have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing.  Effects of moral conscience or collective conscience are now entirely the effects of the media.  We are now witnessing the therapeutic of obstinacy with which some try to resuscitate this conscience, and the little breath it still has left.

History has disappeared in the ecstasy of information, the ecstasy of messages.  We have disappeared in a sort of ecstasy of the media, of information circulating with acceleration across everything.  And one is no longer able to put a stop to this process.

This, not Fukayama's superficial assessment, is the deeper meaning of "The End of History".

(Final installment next week.)