Diagnosing American Politics

Jean Baudrillard was somewhat prescient in his analysis of the semiology of America. In his 1983 volume Simulations (which contains excerpts from Simulations and Sumulacra, made famous by its cameo in the Matrix) Baudrillard has this to say about the WTC:

Why are there two towers at New York’s World Trade Center? … The fact that there are two of them signifies the end of all competition, the end of all original reference. … For the sign to be pure, it has to duplicate itself: it is the duplication of the sign which destroys its meaning. This is what Andy Warhol demonstrates also: the multiple replicas of Marilyn’s face are there to show at the same time the death of the original and the end of representation. (135-6)

Here we see the major philosophical point that Baudrillard is making. Signs are representations that infinitely reduplicate an original. In Late Capitalism, or the stage of simulation, signs no longer refer to any original, but rather only to each other. For Baudrillard, this means that we no longer operate, at the level of meaning (and as we saw with the stock market crash, economic meaning is included), with the real. Rather, we are operating within a correlated system of simulations of meaning. Signs no longer refer to or represent anything real. Thus, he could title one of his works: The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. He continues:

[The two towers] and their twin altitude presents no longer any value of transcendence. (137) … power is absolute only if it is capable of diffraction into various equivalents, if it knows how to take off so as to put more on. (134) … You need two superpowers to keep the universe under control… and the equilibrium of terror alone can allow a regulated opposition to be established, for the strategy is structural, never atomic.(134)

His broader point about the Twin Towers is that they stand in for America. They themselves do not reference the other architectural skyscrapers of the NY skyline. They reference each other. But it fits into a symbolic logic that permeates America, and especially the Late Capitalism that America dominates. This logic in microcosm is that the towers refer only to each other. Because they are two, they are in a compatible arena of mutual signification that brings the rest of the NY skyline into the symbolic structure they represent. What Baudrillard is saying, and here I am interpreting creatively, is that the symbolic value of the World Trade Centers was that they no longer symbolized America winning a competition within capitalism with the rest of the world. What they symbolized was that America was the world. This is why they were such important targets. But, then, what does this mean that they are now fallen, only to be eventually replaced by a shopping mall commodifying their memory?

But if we take this logic further, it helps to explain the current political situation in America, the two most salient points being 1) that the two party system is much like the world trade center towers. The two parties have morphed into “regulated oppositions” of each other that help to sustain the symbolic logic of late capitalism. The second point 2) is that the political field where republican and democrat used to represent some original ideological position exists no longer in late capitalism. Rather, they reference only each other in a simulation of political discourse. The semiotic field changes month to month, with signs constantly changing and shifting meaning within a refracted field, but they have no basis in the Real.

The work of mobilizing political parties and motivating the populace is not done on the field of political discourse. It is now done on the field of identity politics. This is the crux of late capitalism: our identities are signified only by what we consume. As individuals we only related to ourselves (as cultural beings) through the signifiers that have value on the semiotic field. To be liberal is to have zen shampoo, kabbalah bedside books, Priuses–which are all signifiers of liberality no matter how much we are actually liberal. To be conservative is much the same, with the flags, and tea parties and so forth–regardless of how conservative we really are. In fact, to speak about how really conservative, liberal, progressive, or socialist one is an illusion. We are only what we consume: whether it is our food, our vehicles, clothes, books, news channels, or even our  sound bites, our acceptable ideological buzzwords, the posturing of values we espouse. NONE OF THIS IS REAL anymore, in the sense that we used to think of reality. The fiction of one’s True Self (TM) is just a product of Oprah and the consumption of the rhetoric of ‘spirituality’.

This is what can help explain all of the very strange things that Americans believe. I need not do a link-fest to provide evidence, it is ample and sustained if one follows any significant part of the blogosphere. It explains the tea party. It explains why people vote against their interests. It explains so many things. People are not stupid, they are ignorant. They are convinced that we are operating in the real world, while late capitalism has already hedged ‘short’ against the real world. They are convinced that their ideals are more than just commodities within a symbolic economy.

Baudrillard has famously also said that Disneyland exists to make LA seem real; and LA exists to make America seem real. But we are no longer operating in reality, we are operating in hyper-reality. Or for those who have a hate-on for the so-called postmodern buzzwords (which, incidentally, where does that hate operate? Is it the level of simulation? Yes. Because there is no such thing as post-modernity) I will rephrase: political identity and political arguments no longer have substance, regardless of one’s political beliefs. They only operate as symbols with no meaning or value in and of themselves, but rather only in relation to their opposite (see the second block quote above) or their strategic place within the symbolic field. This is what makes the system work the way it does, what maintains late capitalist structures, and collapses the economy.

Because make no mistake. This is a fatal condition. Its only cure is real revolution. But that does not exist anymore. Revolution too has now only transformed into the simulation of revolution. Just like punks, goths, hip-hop and other revolutionary cultural moments are co-opted, so too has terrorism been co-opted. Revolution is no longer possible at a collective level.

Perhaps, though, if by some miracle, there is a revolution at the individual level, that somehow brings simulated identity back to reality, or in some strange Hegelian future, synthesizes the real and the hyper-real, perhaps only then will people no longer feed into the all-consuming maw of late capitalism. But, in true eschatological fashion, global warming is going to get us first.

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2 Responses to “Diagnosing American Politics”

  1. Rwmanning Says:

    Well said, and thinking on and with Baudrillard that is not a simulation of Baudrillard. But where to next? Is theory the only refuge?

  2. fuzzytheory Says:

    Hi Rwmanning,
    “Where to next?” is a good question. But, before we ask it, I think, we have to set the terms and context of the question. Where to next implies an end to work towards. Which implies a theory. More importantly, it also implies the question _who_ is going where? Are we talking the American public here? The world? Oligarchs? The middle class? If we take just the American people here as the ‘we’ who need to go somewhere else, ‘we’ are in trouble. The American people is a heterogeneous mix of conflicting and competing views, attitudes and beliefs. Indeed, this heterogeneity might be well understood through metaphor: it is the collective identity of Americans that is the playing field of symbolic warfare that these simulations operate upon. How do we mobilize enough people to affect the kind of change desired? As I mentioned above, I think the mobilization only happens at the semiological level. “Hearts and minds”, if you will. Indeed, another aspect of late capitalism is that desires are not something the market meets. Rather, desires are constructed and disseminated by those who want to produce the commodity that meets that desire. So, to mobilize the populace within late capitalism is to become master marketers who create the desire for change within the largest set of the populace. We need to commodify revolution and market the need for it. And this has to happen by working on strategies that engage with the symbolic logic that motivates people at the level of identity.

    I’ve just been surfing around and came across this fellow: http://www.rall.com/rallblog/ who advocates revolution. One thing that I might agree with him about is that as more and more Americans feel the brunt of the economic crisis it might become easier to mobilize them. I would just add myself that the middle-class was constructed in the 19th century in order to have a domesticated class as the foundation of the capitalist state. I would argue that any revolution that would want to keep the prosperity of “the first world” necessitates mobilizing the middle-class.

    Hmmm… to be honest. I don’t really have any ideas. I don’t know if anything can be done at this point. I’m all ears to hear ideas though.

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