by Alan N. Shapiro
Epistemology of True and False
The kind of media theory or media analysis which has been prevalent on the American political left for the past several decades operates essentially with an epistemology of true and false. Noam Chomsky has always been subtle and nuanced in describing the moral complicity of the intellectual class (and his own personal struggle to overcome that complicity) with abhorrent U.S. government policies such as the destruction of Vietnam in the 1960s or of Iraq in 1991. Yet Chomsky’s commentaries on what the corporate liberal media reports on politics, current events, and world affairs are largely about exposing the lies that the news media tells and recounting the contextual and factual realities on the ground which they conceal. Chomsky only analyzes the entity called the news media. He does not analyze the media as a whole – for example, entertainment TV shows, advertising, celebrity culture, or blockbuster movies. He assumes that an understanding of the news media or of the domain called politics or the public sphere can be accomplished without connecting the news media to the media in general in the overall situation of advanced capitalism. In classic works such as Manufacturing Consent (co-authored with Edward S. Herman and published in 1992) and Media Control (2002), Chomsky argues that the mass communications news media carries out the propaganda function of lying.1 Powerful business interests which have a profit motive manipulate the media, which in turn manipulates and controls the citizenry. The truth that American foreign policy has the essential function of establishing governments around the world which are politically controlled by us and are friendly to big companies is concealed by the dissemination of falsehoods. The role of the leftist activist or journalist is to tell the truth about any given political conjuncture. Chomsky’s work is extremely valuable, yet what is Chomsky’s perspective missing?
In their war against Trump, the liberal political media – CNN and the New York Times, for example – take the same tack as Noam Chomsky in epistemologically framing their struggle with the fake billionaire as a battle between true and false, between facts and lies. Trump is constantly telling lies and the Washington Post is unmasking them every day, keeping a list of them, setting the record straight. As of July 2020, Trump had told twenty thousand lies. It is no surprise that Chomsky and the liberal media share this same epistemology – they both believe in the philosophy and the historical project of the modernist Enlightenment: facts, science, truth, communication, rationality – these are allegedly the great achievements of the democratic West. Never mind that it was this same liberal media that helped Trump win the Republican nomination for President in the first place against sixteen other candidates in 2016. Trump merged the sphere of politics with shock jock Reality TV World Wrestling Federation media entertainment. He provided those liberal TV stations, newspapers, and websites with a new sensationalistic headline every day for many months. Since making money is their highest priority – and astonishment, titillation, and breakdown are the commodities they sell – the media loved it and made Trump their absolute focus of attention.
Society of the Spectacle and Hyperreality
An alternative to the epistemology of true and false as a media theory – which is derivative of the assumption that Enlightenment rationality and the civilized discussion advocated by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty are going to save us – was offered by the French Situationist Guy Debord in his 1967 book Society of the Spectacle.2 Let me state that my position is that we should seek a balance between the modernist commitment to truth and the post-modernist placing into question of that assumption. I do not want to reject rationality and truth, but I believe that new strategies are urgently required as well. Guy Debord was a neo-Marxist thinker attempting to comprehend how control over the lives of workers by capitalists expanded from the sphere of production to consumerism, everyday life, and the media culture of images and rhetoric in the historical progression to advanced capitalism. With his concept of the spectacle, Debord understood that the omnipresence of visual images institutes a world of both abstraction and passivity, a diminishing of what is “directly lived” and an increase in the autonomy and power of the images themselves.3 Something becomes true – or more true than true – by virtue of having been said, or said charismatically, in the media. In the spectacle, “the liar has lied to himself.” “In a world which is topsy-turvy,” writes Debord, “the true is a moment of the false.”4 Social life goes beyond the shift from being to having to appearing and the reign of appearances.
The media theorist and semiotician Jean Baudrillard developed Guy Debord’s notion of the society of the spectacle even further into his theory of simulation, simulacra, and hyper-reality.5 Baudrillard’s most celebrated book is his 1981 volume Simulacra and Simulation, where he famously wrote about the map preceding the territory, and about Disneyland existing to conceal the fact that all of America is Disneyland.6 Simulacra are copies without originals. Semiotics (linguistics applied to culture) teaches us about the signifier and the signified, which together constitute the linguistic-cultural sign. In post-modernism, the signifiers (images and discourses) come to replace the signifieds (facts and references) of which the visuals and words are supposed to be the reliable and verifiable representations. Representation is surpassed by simulation. Words and images stand on their own and have no reference.7
The spectacle itself has become the main thing that the contemporary society and economy produce. Consumer objects, architectural ambiences, and media artefacts all primarily have an abstract semiotic function. In the system of objects (Baudrillard’s first book of 1968 was The System of Objects), the physicality and definite location of objects gets subordinated to their participation in the “perfect circulation of messages.”8 The intercommunication and relationality of sign-objects to each other takes precedence over the specificity of each. All objects and media content enter into an equivalence through their common belonging to the universal self-congratulatory communication system. Each product ad refers not only to the individual product that it is informing us about – it also refers to itself as ad, endorsing the wonder of advertising per se. Through the spectacular celebration or radical visibility of a single object or brand, it is the totality of objects and a universe made complete by brands that is promoted. In speaking of one single consumer object, advertising virtually glorifies all spectacle objects and media images. Consumer society (Baudrillard’s second book of 1970 was The Consumer Society) does not satisfy needs but is rather a manipulation of signs.9 To become a consumer object or media message, the entity must first enter into the universal sign-system.
Baudrillard’s third book of 1972 was For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign.10 Karl Marx’s political-economic theory of the commodity-form of exchange value in production capitalism gets merged – and in a critical way – with a radicalization of Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistic semiotics in an original fusion critique of the sign-form in consumer capitalism.11 Baudrillard articulates the homology between Saussure’s linguistic sign and Marx’s commodity form. This unified political economy of the sign or analysis of the commodity-slash-sign form equals the code. The real, the lived, the myth of an objective reality – they all become alibis for the simulation models. The signifier of the greatness of America’s prosperity is standing in for concrete singularities of objects. The code of signifiers substitutes for references in the immense process of simulation. We live in the formal democracy of standards of living and signs of affluence – the republic of the automobile, the cheeseburger, and the home entertainment system. Affluence is the accumulation of signs of happiness.
The media in general have cut us off from real access to historical events. Everything that I know about the Holocaust, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War comes from Hollywood films about those events which I have seen. Baudrillard cites many times an aphorism by Jewish German-language philosopher Elias Canetti from 1945, speaking about a certain point in history, when exactly this point was is unknowable, when history itself disappeared. Canetti writes: “As of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality, everything happening since then was not true; but we didn’t notice.”12 In his essay on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 blockbuster Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now, Baudrillard writes that Coppola’s masterpiece is the continuation of the Vietnam War by other means. “Nothing else in the world smells like that,” says Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall). “I love the smell of napalm in the morning… It smells like victory.”13 The high-budget extravaganza was produced the same way that America fought in Vietnam. “War became film,” writes Baudrillard. “Film becomes war, the two are joined by their common hermorrhage into technology.”14 There is implosion or mutual contamination between film becoming Virtual Reality and War.
Donald Trump the Empty Signifier
Donald Trump is a product of this culture of postmodern anything goes images and rhetoric. The mythology of Trump was born during the New York City gilded 1980s, the era of Ivan Boesky and Gordon Gecko greed and Wall Street insider trading. Donald Trump plastered the name Donald Trump everywhere he could. He of the golden toilet, he the playboy ladies’ man, the casino owner, the entrepreneur of the opulence of the billion-dollar Atlantic City Taj Majal gambling and entertainment paradise-complex. He was a failed businessman and a gangster, but on Reality TV he played the ultimate glamorous billionaire whom many Americans admired and dreamed of themselves becoming. President Trump lies and his supporters believe it. For them, his charismatic speech has become more powerful than the democratic and scientific systems of true and false.
In two of his final texts – Carnival and Cannibal and The Agony of Power – written shortly before his death in 2007, Jean Baudrillard describes a newer “order of simulacra” which is the phase of irony, parody and the carnivalesque.15 Baudrillard upgrades his concepts of simulacra, simulation, and hyper-reality into a cogent diagnosis of the self-parodistic stage of Western society. Simulation or hyper-reality is no longer the artificial staging of a 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 previous values and ideals of modernism: freedom, culture, truth, humanitarianism. “Every signification is eliminated in its own sign,” writes Baudrillard in The Agony of Power, “and the profusion of signs parodies a by now unobtainable reality… Power is only the parody of the signs of power – the cannibalization of reality by signs.”16 The values of the West and of America degenerate into a caricature of themselves and devour themselves. This is Donald Trump.
We have experienced these past four years – in the masterful showmanship of Donald Trump and his fanatic deplorable followers, in the full-scale replacement of politics by Reality TV, in the tele-morphosis of the merger between Reality TV and everyday life – the disappearance of political substance into the fascination with the banality of insults (see Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil) that is now the hallmark of the media-celebrity-gossip culture of obscenity which dominates American life and the online monopoly social media platforms.17 Donald Trump is a successful empty signifier. “The bigger he got as a name, the smaller he got as a person,” said recently the former Trump Organization executive Barbara A. Res.18 Trump is the ultimate simulacrum, the living demonstration of the rule of the signifiers over the signifieds. Fake is not a betrayal of authenticity. Trump is the most talented fake in the world. Lies are exciting. They set in motion their own forceful narrative. When Trump says something, it becomes true because Trump says it, and there is little that the New York Times or the Washington Post can do about it. The institutional bases for consensus and legitimation of the truth have disappeared beneath the mountains of information and the virtualization of discourse. 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.
From Simulation to the Grotesque and the Self-Parody
A not so well-known aspect of Baudrillard’s theory of simulation and hyper-reality is the way that he links the postmodern culture of media images to the motif of the grotesque in art, literature and performance, as a cultural expression moves from parody to self-parody, as something becoming a parody or caricature of itself. We are living the historical phase of the self-parody of the revered values of Western civilization. Simulation takes a major step forward from merely “the hyper-real replacing the real” to the grotesque. We are on the fast track to what Baudrillard calls carnivalization and cannibalization. Carnivals were historically very political – they were parodies made of the powerful by the oppressed. At festivals, the black African colonized dressed up monkeys in admiral suits and hats to parody the white colonizers.19 In Cologne and in the Rhineland region of Germany, parody and mockery of the French and Prussian occupiers were at the center of the carnival tradition that began in the nineteenth century. But self-parody is something different. It occurs without conscious intention. It is like what Karl Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, writing about the French coup d’état of 1851, when Marx famously said: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”20 To avoid having to give up the Presidency, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte staged a self-coup to stay in power. He carried out Operation Rubicon on the anniversary of his uncle Napoleon’s triumph at Austerlitz in 1805.
Self-parody sinks its unaware performer into debasement or abjection. America sank into abjection with the 2004 Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal (Baudrillard wrote about Abu Ghraib in his 2004 essay “War Porn”).21 U.S. Army and Central Intelligence Agency personnel sent selfies to their friends and relatives from Saddam Hussein’s infamous prison, now taken over by the occupying American power, smiling and saying cheese while standing next to prisoners whom they had just sodomized and tortured. Disneyland and the Americana culture of universal total simulation seem like harmless fun. Radical simulation is how America came to achieve hegemony over the world. America had no peers in its fabrication of fantasies and spectacles. Yet at what point does that become seriously perverse? Donald Trump is the embodied metaphor of that turning point. You want to be the world’s only superpower through the image? Then you will bring yourself down by the endlessly looping video image and the image-playback.22 After the tragic event of September 11, 2001, the video footage of the implosion of the World Trade Center twin towers was played back thousands of times over and over again on TV in an endless loop, the eyes of the tele-spectators fixed to the screen in perverse fascination. Baudrillard detected a symbolism in the way that the two tallest buildings of the Manhattan skyline collapsed or imploded in a visually suicidal motion, seemingly responding in turn as a counter-gesture to the murder-suicides of the 19 terrorists.23 The carnival of the image is also the self-cannibalization by the image.24
An important precursor of Trump playing the President on television and on Twitter was the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California in 2003. The elevation to a powerful political post of the Mr. Olympia bodybuilder and star of the Terminator series of science fiction films was a not-so-surprising caricature of democracy. Reagan the Hollywood actor and TV host of General Electric Theater had already been governor and President. Politics has been fully banalized into a game of idols and fans, the triumph of the celebrity culture.25 Schwarzenegger would have certainly become President if not for the bad luck of an antiquated clause in the Constitution which disqualified him a priori on xenophobic grounds. As we are now witnessing the probable end of the Trump presidency – and thinking with Baudrillard – I contemplate the contempt for the rest of the world which the Trump supporters feel and express through their allegiance to him. Those who identify the most with the simulacrum of America take revenge symbolically for the envy and scorn which the rest of the world feels for the American simulacrum. America exercises its power in the world through its mastery of images. Yet a certain desperation seems to have now set in. The Trump phenomenon is the marriage of that showman grifter narcissist and the desperation of the MAGA throngs worried about losing their standing.
Springtime for Hitler
For a long time, some Jewish theologians thought that showing images of the Holocaust should be taboo, since the event was the ultimate unrepresentable evil. Humanities theorists of photography have sometimes argued generally that historical truth cannot be depicted through visual images. Similarly, it was thought that Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s were so morally reprehensible that parody or comedy or jokes about them should be taboo. In the 1967 film The Producers made by Mel Brooks, bankrupt Broadway producer Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel, needs to stage a musical that is guaranteed to be a flop in order to carry out a complex scam to save himself from financial ruin. Bialystock hits upon the apparently ingenious idea of producing a musical comedy about Hitler and the Nazis. It will be in such bad taste that the show is guaranteed to be panned by the public and the theatre critics and to close in disgrace on opening night. Yet to Bialystock’s astonishment, the show is a smashing success. The Broadway public finds Springtime for Hitler to be the funniest thing in the world. Adolf Hitler is unintentionally brilliantly parodied by deranged ex-Nazi Franz Liebkind. Due to the unexpected triumph, Bialystock now paradoxically faces financial ruin and even prison.26
Is Trump a fascist or is he the parody of fascism? Here is my answer: he is the parody of fascism. Yet he is also the self-parody of America and, at one step removed, of the celebrated values of the West. Trump is the self-parody of the most hyper-mediatized culture in the world: the culture of consumerism and shopping mall no-place ambient spaces; television and advertising; the media- and image-saturated society of the spectacle; and the hyper-real fantasy aesthetics of Disneyland. As both the parody of fascism and the self-parody of the post-World War II so-called American way of life, as the synthesis of both (self-)parodies, Donald Trump has brought us to the precipice, to the edge of the cliff, to the spot from where we are now standing and staring down into the abyss.
Classical fascism works according to the Führer principle and a strong and stable set of beliefs. There are territorial claims, hard nationalism, and theories of race. For Trump, these aspects become variable and anything goes. He changes his mind every day and has no goals or agenda other than greatness and freedom. The energetic force of fascism persists, but without the fixed ideological reference points. This parodies fascism since absolute truth is transferred to the double-system of the empty self-referential signifiers and the arbitrary signifieds.27
1 – Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 2002); Noam Chomsky, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002).
2 – John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and the Subjection of Women (London: Penguin, 2007); Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (no translator indicated, originally published in French in 1967) (Detroit: Black & Red, 1970).
3 – Debord, op.cit.; thesis 1.
4 – Ibid.; theses 2, 9.
5 – See Alan N. Shapiro, “Baudrillard and the Situationists,” NoemaLab.eu, September 2018.
6 – Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, originally published in French in 1981) (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).
7 – The best study of Baudrillard and semiotics remains Gary Genosko, Baudrillard and Signs: Signification Ablaze (London: Routledge, 1994).
8 – Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (translated by James Benedict, originally published in French in 1968) (London: Verso, 1996).
9 – Jean Baudrillard, La Société de consommation: ses mythes, ses structures (Paris: Denoël, 1970).
10 – Jean Baudrillard, Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).
11 – Karl Marx, Das Kapital: A Critique of Political Economy (translated by Samuel Moore) (CreateSpace, 2007); Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (translated by Roy Harris) (Open Court, 1998).
12 – Elias Canetti, The Human Province (translated by Joachim Neugroschel) (New York: The Seabury Press, 1998); p.69.
13 – Jean Baudrillard, “Apocalypse Now” in Simulacra and Simulation; pp. 59-60.
14 – Ibid.
15 – Jean Baudrillard, Carnaval et cannibale (Paris: L’Herne, 2008); Jean Baudrillard, The Agony of Power (translated by Ames Hodges) (New York: Semiotext(e), 2010).
16 – Jean Baudrillard, The Agony of Power; p.35.
17 – Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (London: Penguin, 2006).
18 – Barbara A. Res, Tower of Lies: What My Eighteen Years of Working with Donald Trump Reveals About Him (Graymalkin Media, 2020).
19 – Jean Baudrillard, Carnaval et cannibale; p.9.
20 – Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (New York: International Publishers, 1963).
21 – Jean Baudrillard, “War Porn,” in The Conspiracy of Art (translated by Ames Hodges) (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005).
22 – Jean Baudrillard, Carnaval et cannibale; p.24.
23 – Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (translated by Chris Turner) (London: Verso, 2002).
24 – Ibid.
25 – Ibid.
26 – The Producers had further incarnations as a real Broadway musical which ran from 2001 to 2007, and a 2005 film version starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.
27 – Thank you to Denise Werth for thinking through these ideas with me.