Volume 6, Number 2 (July, 2009)
Incarcerated By A Discourse of Binaries: America’s Mediated Culture of Terror
(Graduate Student, Literatures and Modernity, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada).
In his collection of essays The Spirit of Terrorism, Baudrillard presents a radically alternative perspective on the September 11th terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City. He argued that globalization is the root cause of this terrorism, and that it uses violence as a means to disrupt the system of global power. According to this view 9/11 was a humiliation (of the US), in response to America’s humiliation of the Islamic and Arab worlds (2003:101). Baudrillard discusses media coverage of the event in relation to how Islam is framed as America’s enemy [something he has done for over a decade in his writings concerning both Europe and the former Yugoslavian states].
Media constructions of the antagonism between America and Islam provide the audience with a binary – the binary of the Other – that positions Islam in opposition to America. A binary is an oversimplified mechanism [and a very popular one] for interpreting the attacks of 9/11. For Baudrillard binaries deflect attention away from the symbolic power of the attacks – as on 9/11 it was global power which was symbolically defeated (Ibid.)
Baudrillard provides a radical platform upon which we can examine how the binary of the Other is perpetuated, while alternative theories of news coverage and media practice allow us to contextualize the media’s framing of the Other. In addition, I will discuss how the reinforcement of the binary of the Other in media produces a culture of internal terror within America, as well as how this reinforcement provides justification for America’s globalization practices and retaliation.
II. Complexity: The Cost of Abandoning Binaries
In his writings on simulacra, Baudrillard argues that reality no longer exists in
contemporary society, but has been replaced by a hyperreality, where the image has “all the signs of the real” but fails to sustain reality or even indicate that a shift in reality has occurred (1984:254). According to Baudrillard, media and popular culture are responsible for the overproduction of image and signs, which has led society to a state of hyperreality. Individuals have depended on media as a primary source of reality since the inception of media production; however, the events of 9/11 – and ensuing media coverage – crystallized Western citizens’ dependency on media.
Baudrillard’s interpretation of 9/11 has been criticized as immoral and dispassionate. Ironically, on the back cover of The Spirit of Terrorism we find a New York Times book reviewer’s comments: “It takes a rare, demonic genius to brush off the slaughter of thousands”. However, Baudrillard’s approach to the attacks is neither moral nor immoral, but amoral (“I am usually irresponsible and amoral”, 2005:82). The motive for this amoral technique is two-fold: Baudrillard is attempting to extricate the audience from a media-constructed perception of 9/11 and rejecting the moral / immoral binary as irrelevant and counterproductive to an understanding of 9/11. As he writes elsewhere, in our age of screens and hyper-mediation: “everything in the moral, political and philosophical spheres is heading towards the lowest common denominator or worthlessness” (1998:103).
Baudrillard argues that any valuable analysis of 9/11 must “look beyond Good and Evil” since the binary of Good and Evil, moral and immoral, is false; the concepts are inherently related to one another, not mutually exclusive (2003:13). Therefore, the media’s reinforcement of the binary between America [“Us”] (good”/ moral) in opposition to Islam [“them”] (evil/ Immoral) has inherently frustrated any effective interpretation of 9/11 since the binary creates a
division that is absent in reality. Baudrillard prefers dualities which do not posit the superiority over one pole over the other as Americans tend to do by assuming that “good” will triumph over “evil”. With Baudrillardian dualisms we never know how things will work out. Binaries allow us to hide behind our old myths and resist engagement with the complexities of contemporary time. This is why the concept of evil is so important for Baudrillard – evil is not a moral principle but rather a principle of instability, complexity and foreignness (1993:107). It is not then, simply “them” who are evil, but “Us” Westerners / Americans as well. Indeed, with reference to Mandeville Baudrillard points out that America, like any powerful and successful state, is highly dependent upon evil – the splendor of a society derives from its vices, its ills, its excesses and its shortcomings (Ibid.:102). Corruption is a vital part of America’s success – including the corruption of its most vital concept “democracy” which it does every day in its exercise of foreign policy and support for repressive governments when it is politically expedient to do so. By falling back on the “us” vs. “them” binaries the more complex analysis is never allowed to take place in the (world’s most free!) media. Baudrillard is a proponent of thought which engages with uncertainty and complexity even if it means that we do not end up with a clear picture of events (as his essay “Hypotheses on Terrorism”  illustrates).
While the binary of the Other is evident in both news and entertainment media, it is important to focus on news coverage to explain how this binary produces a culture of internal terror, as well as how it justifies globalization and America’s retaliation. Here Fleras and Anker can help ground and elaborate a Baudrillardian theoretical perspective. Western news coverage reinforces the binary between “us” and “them” by projecting an aura of impartiality and authority that legitimizes the construction of the Other. As in other modes of popular culture, news media strongly tend to address Muslims only as terrorists and religious fundamentalists (see Fleras, 2003:287). This vilifies “an entire people and civilization” based on the actions of only a small subset of the population and promotes harmful stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims (Ibid.: 287).
Anker also explores the co-option of the genre of “melodrama” in news media to promote the binary of the Other by presenting overt depictions of victimization of America and villainy of Islam (2005:23). Michiko Kakutani (a journalist with the New York Times) refers to the witnesses of 9/11 as “spectators” which ironically illustrates Baudrillard’s notion that: “The spectacle of terrorism forces the terrorism of spectacle upon us” (Fleras, 2003:30). Baudrillard is referring to Western fascination with media constructions of 9/11, which reveal the horror of individuals’ dependence, and infatuation with media. In the Western system the average audience member is dependent upon the media’s interpretation of reality. In the case of 9/11 we have a striking example of not only the production of the binary of the Other but its consumption. Since media outlets work to propagate this binary, the close relationship between the majority of American citizens and their media allow the political motivations of the binary to be appropriated into the belief-systems of the audience members. News coverage of 9/11 adopted certain mechanisms to articulate the binary of the Other, which claims to confirm the existence of an enemy Other under a guise of political neutrality and journalistic integrity. The effect however is to also create an internal (domestic) state of terror. This too is part of the corruption of the American system which is integral to its Mandevillian modus-operandi.
Understood: terrorism is still a lesser evil than a police state capable of ending it. It is possible that we secretly acquiesce in this fantastic proposition. There’s no need of “political consciousness” for this; it’s a secret balance of terror that makes us guess that a spasmodic eruption of violence is preferable to its rational exercise within the framework of the State, or to total prevention at the price of a total programmatic domination (Baudrillard, 1990:47).
III. The Binary and the Production of Internal Terror
America’s state of terror is manifested in various ways, including higher security measures at airports and borders, as well as less privacy and more censorship of communication and media. America has become the new prime example of Baudrillard’s idea that “the spectre of terrorism is forcing the West to terrorize itself” (2003:81). America’s state of internal terror can also be said to stems from the loss of reality in the media’s overproduction of the image. Since media presents a hyperreality as opposed to reality, audience members are unable to interpret their environment or events such as 9/11. Baudrillard argues: “When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning… and there is a panic-stricken production of the real” (1984:257).
This “production of the real” is manifested in the media’s construction of the Other as a ‘real’ threat to the state of society. This media-construction of the Other is a means to subjugate the American people. If a nation can be immobilized – in a constant state of fear – it is less likely to question the decisions of the State which it looks to for protection. Anker argues that post-9/11 media “took power away from citizens by encouraging them to assume that State power was an unquestionable moral imperative in fighting the eternal battle between good and evil” (2003:36). The invention of the ‘evil’ Other provides (under the guise of ‘homeland security’ and protection) justification for the subjugation of American citizens into a state of constant terror. The mechanisms of security “are merely extensions of terror… [terrorism has] plunged the whole of the West into the obsession with security” (Baudrillard, 2003:81). Maintaining an environment of fear encourages individuals to conform to any limitations imposed by the State, out of fear and the desire for protection. The media has facilitated the cultivation of this environment by reinforcing the depiction of the Other as a palpable threat to the Western way of life. Thus, individuals are willing to relinquish basic rights and freedoms in exchange for a sense of safety, even though this safety is not real, only constructed. However, in a hyperreal state the simulated and media-constructed safety is enough to satisfy the need. Because of this terrorized state, Baudrillard argues, American citizens have assumed the role of the “slave” in an reversed master-slave relationship of post-9/11 America: “We, the powerful, sheltered now from death and overprotected on all sides, occupy exactly the position of the slave” (2003:70).
American citizens thus become incarcerated by a discourse of fear that is perpetuated by the media. A strange kind of Cold War logic has been restored, and the West has entered “the war of armed security, of the perpetual deterrence of an invisible enemy (Baudrillard, 2003:82). The overproduction of the real destroys reality and war claims to restore reality; however, this restoration is only a media simulation. The internal culture of terror is used as a mechanism to suppress citizens and prevent challenges to the State’s authority.
The binary of the Other is created with political motivations and promoted by the
mainstream media. The binary is perpetuated in news media to create an American enemy, but is also used to justify globalization and legitimize America’s victimization. These two concepts of the Other binary occur simultaneously – both are perpetuated by mainstream media – and serve the political aspirations of the Bush Administration. The first perception of the Other relates to the West’s goals of globalization and the promotion of a Western world order.
Baudrillard defines globalization as an irreversible process which involves the “globalization of technologies, the market, tourism and information” (1983:87-88). In other words, the expansion of Western culture, value-systems, economics, and infrastructures into other yielding cultures. For America, globalization is a contemporary manifestation of a colonialist ideology. America wants to “colonize and tame all the wild spaces” (Baudrillard, 2003:98). According to Baudrillard, a “wild space” represents all ideologies or discourses that contradict Western values. The media presents the Islamic Other as infantile, unable to operate politically, socially, or economically. Baudrillard argues that the ideology of globalization ignores cultural “singularity”: the cultural differences of
value- and belief-systems that are at risk due to globalization measures (Ibid.:91). The belief system of American foreign policy questions, “How can the Other… want to be different, irremediably different, without even a desire to sign up to our universal gospel?” (Ibid.:63). Baudrillard is referring to a certain American arrogance that is unable to comprehend other cultures’ desire to be different from American culture. This Western perspective diminishes the value of singularity of cultures and perpetuates the dominant world order of America (Spirit 89).
Because of this, and because of American’s lack of suspicion in reality, they have built and support a media which offers them this superior form of protection (including ignorance) at times of immense historical crises. So, ala Baudrillard, we need to keep in mind that Americans are “victims” of the system they have rushed to create and maintain. Barnum and Hitler also both knew that the key is not learning how to deceive the public – but in realizing that the public wants to be fooled (2001:72). The Americans are double victims of 9/11.
The media’s direction of the audience away from more complex political issues toward a state of victim-hood played a key role in confirming the presence of a “real” enemy and established the idea that retaliation against Islam was necessary. Here the media did not so much shape opinion as steer it in a direction it was already leaning – after all – on the morning of 9/11 did not most of us expect the US to respond militarily even sooner than they did? The media legitimization of this feeling did however play a significant role no doubt in the invasion of Iraq as part of the “War on Terror”. The invasion of Iraq had little if anything to do with a war on terror – such a war would have been better focused on Iran or some other country. The media’s construction of the binary other certainly helped Bush to sell this second Gulf War. The invasion of Iraq, which was not well thought out in terms of its likely duration or the actual form of successful engagement (counter insurgency), was made all the easier to sell because of the existence of the binary of us and Islamic other. A public which had an immediate appetite for military retaliation for 9/11 went along rather easily into Iraq. This might not have been possible if the media had undertaken a more complex analysis. An important part of America’s second victimization – by its own history and ideologies – depends on a patriotic media.
The Islamic Other has been positioned within the media in opposition to Western values as a means to justify the political and military responses to 9/11, including America’s state of terror, globalization aspirations, and military retaliation. However, Baudrillard notes that these justifications are not a result of 9/11, but rather have existed within America’s political and social ideology for some time. The terrorism of 9/11 has “crystallized” the established state of the nation:
Terrorism invents nothing, inaugurates nothing. It simply carries things to the extreme, to the point of paroxysm. It exacerbates a certain state of things, a certain logic of violence and uncertainty. The system itself… causes a general principle of uncertainty to prevail, which terrorism simply translates into total insecurity (2003:58-59).
An act of terrorism such as 9/11 intensifies Western ideologies and illuminates the terrorism that America inflicts upon itself: an internal system of control that oppresses citizens and grants the State power to carry out its political aspirations and military strategies. This internal state of terror is a mechanism used by the American government, but is also enthusiastically transmitted by mainstream American media: an extremely effective method of dissemination when citizens negotiate reality predominantly through media. The media’s framing of the Other perpetuates an image that is evil, threatening, and hostile. With an enemy such as this, the State’s retaliation is immediately warranted in the name of protection and patriotism; any challenge to the State’s reaction is deemed immoral and treasonous. This prevents any lucid or thoughtful deconstruction of the event and responds solely to instincts of aggression. The various media constructions of the Other share a rationale akin to mafia principles: if the citizens sacrifice rights and freedoms, the State will offer its protection. Therefore the perpetration of the state of fear through media outlets provides the state with the smokescreen of protection it requires while it conceals its actual political and military agenda. The question “why does the media do this” is a question for further research. In the case of the Iraq war it has been the media’s preference for binaries which made it easier for Bush to sell the wrong war, and a misguided one, to a frightened public looking for a fight after 9/11. They even provided the press with a full colour barometer of terror:
U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Terror Alert System
Sacha Staples is a graduate of the Arts and Contemporary Studies Program at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She has recently been awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Canada (SSHRC) Graduate Scholarship. She is currently pursuing her Masters degree in the Literatures of Modernity program at Ryerson (focusing on Contemporary Literature and Critical Theory, with a particular interest in trauma narratives and life writing).
Elizabeth Anker (2005). “Villains, Victims and Heroes: Melodrama, Media, and September 11.” Journal of Communication, Volume 55, Number 1;22-36.
Jean Baudrillard (1984). “The Precession of Simulacra.” Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Edited by Brian Wallis. New York: Museum of Contemporary Art.
Jean Baudrillard (1990). Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e).
Jean Baudrillard (1993). The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (1998). Paroxysm: Interviews With Philippe Petit. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2001). Edited by Gary Genosko. The Uncollected Baudrillard. London: SAGE.
Jean Baudrillard (2003). The Spirit of Terrorism. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2005). The Conspiracy of Art. (Edited by Sylvere Lotringer). New York: Semiotext(e) / MIT Press.
Augie Fleras (2003). “Media, Minorities, and Multiculturalism” in Mass Media Communication in Canada. Toronto: Thompson Nelson.