Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
Baudrillard and Videocracy: The Virtual Absence of the Political
Dr. Ole Jacob Madsen
(Center for the Study of the Sciences and the Humanities, University of Bergen, Norway)
We are far beyond ideology and politics now (Baudrillard, 2003: 9).
In his now infamous essay about 9-11 ‘The Spirit of Terrorism’ Baudrillard claims that immoral fascination with the spectacle of terrorism leaves the political order helpless (2003). The two planes flight into the Twin Towers represents the spectacle in its purest form as a sacrificial and symbolic defiance of the historical and political order (ibid.:30). Important historical events like 9-11, and previously the first Gulf War, seem for Baudrillard to always transcend the level of the political in all their spectacular bravado in media society. This suggest a more profound level of symbolisation taking place out of reach of the political agenda. Despite Baudrillard signature willingness to present shocking interpretations of contemporary phenomena that are characterized as immoral or nihilistic from a “responsible”, rational political point of view, I will in this paper pursue the notion that Baudrillard’s contemporary diagnosis of the transpolitical is an indispensable exposition in order to understand some of the resentments in current television democracy.
A word of caution is nonetheless needed. Baudrillard’s (1993) continuous captivation with symbolic exchange as the organising principle of society, and simultaneously modern society’s tragic departure from symbolic exchange as the fundamental backbone of Western culture, means that nothing is left to base revolutionary dialectical politics on. If one is therefore on the lookout for a commanding philosophical basis for current revolutionary politics e.g. to rival late capitalism, one is therefore better advised to seek out other contemporary theorists like Agamben or Žižek. Recalling Mouffe’s distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ (2005: 8-9), where the former refers to the ‘ontic’ level of the manifold practices of conventional politics and the latter refers to the ‘ontological’ concerns of how society is instituted, Baudrillard clearly must be put among the latter. Yet, even this inclusion is not unquestionable as Baudrillard’s notion of the transpolitical seems to presuppose that the existence of politics is permanently abolished without anyone really taking notice. Nevertheless, in Baudrillard’s philosophical and literary writing on contemporary phenomena the political is never far away – even if Baudrillard provides unusual or inflated interpretations of significant historical events in world politics. Correspondingly, his persistent examination of simulation and the virtual is inspired by the situationists movement and Guy Debord’s 1967-manifesto The Society of the Spectacle (“The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image”(1995: 24)) which few if any would hesitate calling political. So, unless one upholds that the political somehow should abstain from relating to the spectacle, then Baudrillard seems more than relevant in order to comprehend the fundamental logic and antagonisms in contemporary media society.
II. Transaesthetics, transsexuality and transeconomics
A fitting place to start out is where Baudrillard’s analysis departs from politics, yet is itself conceived in the aftermath of momentous world events. Baudrillard (1990) gives in his seminal essay ‘After the Orgy’ an account of the Western postmodern condition after the political revolution and other liberation movements has successfully come to an end. Historically, the essay can be read as Baudrillard’s parallel attempt to distil the Western collective mindset in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War echoing Fukuyama’s controversial essay “The End of History?” (1989). Fukuyama (1992) later expanded the essay in a book where he famously maintained that the advent of liberal Western democracy may perfectly well represent the end point of humanity’s social evolution and final form of government.
Baudrillard (1990) upholds that a crucial pattern, in light of recent historical and political events, is the emergence of the trans-. This is a new metonymic phase in contemporary Western culture due to the impossibility of one distinct field having a metaphorical relationship to another. The metonymy is visible in the fields of aesthetics, sexuality and economics. Art has disappeared as a symbolic act capable of rivalling reality itself through negation and setting up an ‘other scene’, instead everything is subject to aestheticization (ibid.). Sexuality is lost in theatrical excesses of ambiguity making us all symbolically speaking transvestites, according to Baudrillard. The outcome of the sexual revolution is that everyone is looking for their generic and sexual identity with little answers available. Whereas the Wall Street crash in 1987 is really a virtual catastrophe in comparison with the real economic crisis back in 1929. It seems Baudrillard (1990) could just as well have described the latest global financial crisis 2008-2012, when he claims that the 1987 crash implies that speculative capital has achieved such a level of autonomy that even its cataclysms leaves little trace behind. Baudrillard’s contemporary threefold diagnosis two decades onwards seems most accurately predictive within the realm of economy, as finance capital since then clearly has taken speculation into an even higher degree of virtuality. Yet, the situation remains as dubious as Baudrillard found it: The Icelanders lose their bank savings, the Greeks their jobs and the underprivileged Americans their housing, yet it is as if nothing really happened in the Western mindset of the privileged.
Finally, trans- is visible in the political sphere, in particular since 1968, as everything, everyday life, madness, language, the media and desire, becomes politicized. The result of this viral explosion is irrelevance: “When everything is political nothing is political any more, the word itself is meaningless” (ibid.:9). The celebrated march of modernity did not lead to the transformation of all values, but rather to the dispersal of values resulting in a confusing state of affairs without a determining principle. Baudrillard explains that revolutionary theory has led to a failure of transcendence that plays itself out as endless repetitions and simulations of politics (the unavoidable faith of unsuccessful transcendence). Therefore we are in living in the midst of the transpolitical circular sphere, or in Baudrillard’s’ words: “So politics will never finish disappearing – nor will it allow anything else to emerge in its place. A kind of hysteresis of the political reigns” (ibid.:11). Baudrillard characteristic application of a metaphor from physics is disturbing as hysteresis is the after effect caused by a physical manipulation; for instance when an external magnetic field is applied to iron. If the field is removed the alignment will still be retained: the material has become magnetized is will stay so indefinitely. Hence, at first reading Baudrillard gives very little room for optimism on behalf of ‘the political’, as it continues to haunt us as pure stagnation that both leaves the spectators frustratingly without true politics, but also strips them of any sense of crisis from the disappearance of politics.
Now, Baudrillard’s works – especially his later aphoristic phase (1990-2007) not only has an impressionistic literary style and feel to it, but also appear at times to take on the very quality of the intangible he maintains as the current world state. His insights looms over the reader as repeated aphorisms in constant orbit, seemingly detached from reality, which just as often frustrates as it inspires. No wonder then that Baudrillard often divides readers. Therefore, in order to properly relate Baudrillard to a more earthbound notion like ‘the political’ which etymologically actually means “affairs of the city” or “belonging to the state” I find it necessary to restrict Baudrillard’s elusive analysis for a real historical political context.
III. The Italian Society of the Spectacle
The present democracy in the world that arguably come the closest to match Baudrillard’s theory of the transpolitical is perhaps the Republic of Italy under the Presidency of Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi’s three periods in Office (1994-1995; 2001-2006; and 2008-2011) makes him the longest serving post-war Prime Minister of Italy. Simultaneously, Berlusconi has had an extensive record of criminal allegations directed at him, involving mafia collusion, false accounting, tax fraud, corruption and bribery of police officers and judges. In spite of being tried in Italian courts in several cases, Berlusconi has not been found guilty, except that of providing a false testimony in 1990. In addition, the many controversies and scandals home and abroad surrounding his presidency have left many foreign political commentators flabbergasted over his seemingly continuous popularity among the Italian voters. Berlusconi is often referred to as an ‘enigma’ or ‘phenomenon’ (cf. Hewitt, 2010). Hence, traditional representative democracy theory seems to struggle to explain the success of an archetypal demagogue like Berlusconi among enlightened and educated voters. Furthermore, Baudrillard’s possibly preferential choice of medium – the television screen – continues to have a unique standing in Italian society. 80 percentage of Italians use it as their main medium of information (Gandini, 2009), and Italy has been relatively slow in updating to Internet based communication. For instance they lag behind the European average in offering its inhabitants Broadband Internet access, partly because of an outdated Italian phone network. There is also a shared understanding that Italy for centuries has been a society of the spectacle (Perniola, 1995), in which imagery has had an unusual penetrative power over the Italian public. For instance, Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi (2000) analysis of Mussolini and the National Fascist Party’s rise to power demonstrates how an aesthetical approach to politics was the vital key behind fascism’s influence.
It is therefore not surprising that Baudrillard is no stranger to late modern Italian political events. The Italian porn star and politician Anna Ilona Staller’s (aka La Cicciolina) period in the Italian Parliament (1987-1991) is interpreted by Baudrillard as an symbolic expression of the transsexual and transpolitical merging within the same ironic indifference (Baudrillard, 1990: 22). In his trademark style Baudrillard note that the “mutant” La Cicciolina’s successful election was a performance unthinkable just until a few years ago, but now a powerful testimony to a political culture currently under the banner of symbolic transvestism (the artificial fate of the body). The fact that Staller went on to marry American sculptor Jeff Koons famous for reproducing banal objects in 1991 seems to prove Baudrillard’s point that everything can signify anything else under the name of art, sex and politics. But then again, leaving Baudrillard highly speculative and distinctive reading of existent world personas for now, the scandalous development in Italian politics may actually contain some historical explanations on how the political is shaped and democratic politics outdone.
In the late 1970s Staller was an illustrious Italian television personality notable for numerous appearances on Italian TV-shows performing seductive ballads and disco songs. Allegedly, La Cicciolina exposed her breasts for the first time live on Italian television on the RAI show C’era due Volte in 1978. The subsequent year Staller launched her first campaign as candidate to the Italian Parliament for the Lista del Sole, Italy’s first green party, suggesting that rather than needing time of to redefine herself as a public persona Staller could not take advantage of her voluptuous fame soon enough. An excellent look into the strange Italian intersects of fame, sexuality and politics is provided by the Italian-Swedish director Erik Gandini in his recent documentary film Videocracy (released in worldwide cinemas in 2009). Gandini (2009) sets out to investigate how modern day Italy has been influenced by Berlusconi whose total of 10 years in Office is nothing compared to the TV-magnate Berlusconi who has controlled Italian commercial television for 30 years. Ironically, Berlusconi’s Mediaset channels and the public broadcaster RAI all refused to air the trailer for Videocracy. RAI stated in a public letter that the movie was too critical towards the Italian government to be let on air. I will now give an account of Gandini’s portraying of Italian media society.
IV. Telematics man
Telematics” (defined): The technology of sending, receiving and storing information via telecommunication devices in conjunction with affecting control on remote objects” (Wikipedia (2012).
“Telecomputer Man”, having no will of his own, knows nothing of serfdom. Alienation of man by man is a thing of the past: now man is plunged into homeostasis by machines” (Baudrillard, 1990: 59).
Gandini’s (2009) investigation into the spectacle governing Italy in the Berlusconi era cleverly leaves Berlusconi a withdrawn figure throughout the film and instead provides a unique look into the mindset of three Italian men living under Berlusconi’s spell, all of them deeply involved in television, fame and the image. The first portrayal in Videocracy is of the 26-year old mechanic Riccardo who lives at home with his mother in the rural Italian countryside. We are introduced to the pair of them in the middle of Riccardo’s karate demonstration in their front yard while his mother stands proud overlooking from the porch. Riccardo tells the interviewer that his greatest dream is to appear on television: “You will be remembered forever. If you are on TV you are 10 steps ahead of everybody else.” Riccardo tells the interviewer he offers a “unique” merger of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s muscular physique and material arts mixed with a Ricky Martin impression which reproduces his dance moves and sings back the refrain of Martin’s most famous hits (“Jaleo, jaleo, jaleo”). Unfortunately, Riccardo finds breaking onto the screen extremely difficult as the demand for good looking women is so much greater than men. Videocracy explains the Italian phenomena of the veline – two young women in their early twenties (one blonde, the other brunette) performing the stacchetti, a short dance break to keep viewers watching. They are not allowed to speak, but nonetheless achieve stardom. Berlusconi has in fact appointed a former veline, Mara Carfagna, his Minister of Equal Opportunities. Thousands of Italian young women audition to become a veline. However, the closest Riccardo gets to the camera is to regularly feature in the audience of his favourite TV-show La Sposa Perfatta (The Perfect Bride) – a reality show featuring five Italian mothers on the mission to find the perfect bride for their ‘mummy boy’s’. Riccardo seems destined to live on in a real life King of Comedy-esque existence without gaining the TV-fame he so desperately pursues.
The second portrayal is of the more prosperous TV-agent Lele Mora, a stocky, middle aged man with an intense look, whom we learn is a personal friend of President Berlusconi. Mora is Italy’s most influential scout and developer of talented and beautiful men and women destined to become TV-stars. During filming, a dozen of them recede at his mansion at the Emerald Coast in Sardinia in which Mora walks around them approvingly resembling a Hollywood mogul from the past. From his all white domestic residency Mora tells us he is grateful towards Berlusconi for giving him the opportunity to recruit people to his TV-channels, and he adds that he thinks Berlusconi is a great man and a great leader; although not as great as Mussolini, as Berlusconi cannot compete with his ideology and methods. Mora proudly demonstrates his fondness for Il Duce by playing off a Mussolini hymn from his Nokia mobile phone installed as his personal ring tone.
The third portrayal in Videocracy is that of Fabrizio Corona, a photographer and former personal assistant of Mora, who now has gone solo and started working against the system by using the structure’s own media logic against itself. Corona is the head manager of an organization of paparazzi photographers that roams the Milano streets every night looking for celebrities in comprising situations. Interviewed in half-darkness from the backseat of his car overlooking the streets Corona admits that he once dreamed of becoming famous, but that he found all the well-known footballers and artists unsympathetic and stupid. By taking photographs of them, Corona offers to sell the pictures back to the celebrities in order not to publish their photos. However, Corona unorthodox methods also lead him into trouble with the law and he is sentenced to 80 days in prison for extortion. But thanks to the Italian celebrities involved, including Mora who is prosecuted for financial support (he is acquitted), Corona’s misdeeds gives him the nationwide publicity he has always sought. Corona maintains that he has succeeded becoming “a negative, cynical symbol, which is exactly what people like”. Enjoying his new prominence Corona makes exclusive one-hour appearances at night clubs for 10,000 Euro. He is asked by a woman in the audience if he now is going to try politics. Corona answers that the system is corrupt. The only benefit of being in politics is to enjoy immunity from the law. What is really important is to gain the power so that you can do what you want. Not surprisingly, Corona admires Berlusconi as a businessman, and also crosses his path when he takes a series of pictures of Berlusconi’s daughter out on the town. Berlusconi’s daughter does not like the way she looks in the photos, so Berlusconi agrees to buy them, but later surprises Corona by actually publishing one of them in his own celebrity magazine. A superior display of power from the master.
V. Talking points
Erik Gandini’s Videocracy is interesting from a Baudrillardian point of view for a number of reasons. The distinguishing feature of Gandini’s (2009) award winning documentary is that he refrains from old-style investigative journalism (e.g. into the juridical ownership of the TV-channels or the distribution of power in Italy which would only serve to play along with the illusion of Berlusconi as a despot in a state of emergency), and democracy still is somehow intact as the proper state of affairs when things go back to normal. Gandini (b. 1967), a native born Italian, brought up on the powerful imaginary of Italian television created by Berlusconi’s media empire, and he understands the superstructure of imagery too well to resort to such dated political commentary. Yet, Gandini sometimes in his willingness to put Berlusconi on trial interprets the media society and TV-apparatus mainly as a direct extension of Berlusconi’s flamboyant personality and taste for lightly dressed women. This would point the analysis into a more traditional territory of the cult of personality. However, it appears to be the other way around. It seems as if Berlusconi is merely a living personification of Debord’s spectacle: “The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute. All it says is: “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear” (1995:15). Berlusconi becomes a larger than life character as a manifestation of the spectacle itself. Like fascism in the past he brings himself into being. Gandini describes Berlusconi as an omnipresent sovereignty: “The president has created all this. People have the feeling he is everywhere even when he is not visually present. People love him and they love his television. Many want to be on his television” (2009).
Towards the end of Videocracy we once again team up with Riccardo and his mother. It seems that Riccardo finally has caught his big break as he watches mesmerized and sings along to a video recording of himself performing his Van Damme combined Ricky Martin impression in front of a jury at a broadcasted Italian talent show. Corona is yet again causing controversy. His latest invention is to turn up on murder locations and seek out the relatives of the victims, offering them money to wear Corona branded T-shirts in their loved ones funeral. Even Mora who has defended his former protégé up until now looks horrified at the lengths Corona is willing to go. Still, his final conclusion: “Without television you cannot do anything” seems to summarize this particular mediated Law of value. If Corona finally finds a next of kin who agrees and is photographed or caught on television with his symbol then there can be no complaints.
Videocracy nearly perfectly showcases that ‘he who controls the image controls the universe’. We are indeed fast approaching something wholly other than traditional democracy based on laws, courts of justice, a free press and representative voting. For instance, Fabrizio Corona’s fame only increases when he is sentenced to 80 days in prison for extortion. Gandini’s manages to show how the penal logic of the old juridical democracy in television democracy simply becomes a window of opportunity for Corona to proliferate himself further. There are no secrets or true scandals in this universe, only levels of exposure: Corona is also shown in the documentary in a long sequence full frontal while soaping and oiling himself in the shower and in front of the mirror. The trick of nudity seems to echo both La Cicciolina’s performances in the past and Berlusconi’s more recent nude exposures in the press. Riccardo desperately also wants to become a part of the imagery, but except for his 15 seconds of fame he remains on the outside. Therefore his strongest sense of injustice is faithfully linked to his “personal tragedy” of obscurity: “It’s not fair! Why do I have to go through life as a mechanic?” Mora is one of Italy’s most powerful men because he has that indispensable power to decide who becomes a part of the imagery. While his wild offspring Corona sees himself as a modern day Robin Hood who disturbs power, but keeps the money he exploits from the rich and powerful to himself. The moral lesson is that there is no room for true heroes or even saboteurs in Videocracy. Berlusconi remains the king and the body of this whole media apparatus – in this sense many voters keep voting for him in order to ensure the scandals keep coming. That is the only logical thing to do in a cynical political system where nobody can be trusted anyway. At least Berlusconi does not pretend otherwise so many Italians therefore feel he is honest.
V. A Baudrillardian lesson?
In conclusion, we can now allow ourselves to decipher Baudrillard’s idiosyncratic observations in a more a familiar landscape of political philosophy and democratic theory. Central to many theoretical-political debates in the past decades is Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s publication Hegemony and Socialist Strategy in which they introduce the notion of antagonism as relations in the social that escape traditional accounts of democracy. Laclau and Mouffe (2001) initially set out to restore the centrality of ‘the political’, but unlike similar recent attempts like the Habermasians deliberative democracy, maintains that there always will be an outside to hegemonic articulation of dominant hegemonic interests. Without refraining to return to the old ‘real politics’ Laclau and Mouffe nonetheless remain hopeful that a radical and plural democracy is achievable through hegemonic struggle. However, they willingly admit that it is difficult as peoples’ disaffection with the democracy process and trust in the parliamentary system is rising, and exploited by right-wing populist demagogues like Jörg Haider and Berlusconi. Laclau and Mouffe (2001: 163) also acknowledges that mass media is vital in shaping new political subjects, but the outcome of this shake up of traditional identity is ambiguous. Laclau and Mouffe use the United States as their positive example in which consumer society’s promise of social progress and advance of democracy in certain aspects has been kept for various minorities (like the black movement of civil rights) throughout the last half of the 20th century. Thus, media-based cultures potentially contain powerful elementals for the subversion of inequalities. What then of contemporary Italy, the home to Laclau and Mouffe’s (2001: 67) inspirer Antonio Gramsci, who redefined ideology as “an organic and relation whole, embodied in institutions and apparatuses, which welds together a historical bloc around a number of basis articulatory principles”. Riccardo, Lele Mora and Fabrizio Corona certainly illustrates Gramsci’s notion of how subject positions can traverse class due to the importance of the cultural aspects and dispersed wills that are welded together through a common conception of the world. Yet it is difficult to foresee how the spectacular imagery they all reside in has any antagonistic outside. Part of the problem consists of the fact that a media society like Italy as documented in Videocracy is so forcefully based on conspicuousness on the television screen. This means that the public/private distinction, in which Laclau and Mouffe postulates as vital to break down in order to allow a plurality of both subjects and democracies, is sturdily reinforced as someone such as Riccardo is not really allowed a public status at all. On the other hand Lele Mora is the border guard and Fabrizio Corona the skilful manipulator of the distinction. For Berlusconi it almost appears as nothing ever can become too private: not even his daughter caught out on the town. To speak with Baudrillard: the production of desire keeps flowing in the imaginary system seemingly out of reach of the political. The dominant logic becomes tautological: Berlusconi is often on television so he must be trusted because he is famous, etc. In Videocracy politics is really everybody’s struggle to get on the screen while ‘the political’ is the domain of those who own, produce and ultimately decide who gets on TV. This is the perfect example of Baudrillard’s (1990) notion of the compulsion of the virtual to exist in potential on all screens.
In the strictest edifying sense Baudrillard’s philosophy of the transpolitical refuses such labels as ‘the political’ and is certainly not very compliant to political theorists or radical activists seeking to directly overrun global capitalism or big corporations controlling the media production. However, as the Italian society of spectacle has shown us, with electors capable of choosing a demagogue like Berlusconi again and again, this hardly leaves much trust in traditional deliberative democracy based on the rationality of voters and the consciousness to follow up on that trust from politicians. In that sense Baudrillard may have something to offer in a redefinition of ‘the political’ that cannot longer afford to overlook the continuous power of the spectacle. As the Italian society of spectacle is a unique cultural mix of traditional peasantry values and transpolitical virtual life it is hard to tell whether Gandini’s unique picture Videocracy echoes Baudrillard’s reporting on the forefront of contemporary extreme phenomena or simply showcases a quite scary cul-de-sac from the periphery. Nonetheless, Baudrillard’s analysis must always be approached with caution as both adherents and critics often forget he willingly presents hyperbole and reports on the Western condition that ideally might serve as building blocks to prevent future crisis. Events will keep happening in the real world. On the 12th of November 2011 Berlusconi’s nine lives where finally over as he was forced to resign when the Italian Parliament voted for a saving packing he previously opposed. Despite a wave of new legal cases and scandals it appeared to be the grave state of the Italian economy that in the end caught up with him. Contrary to Baudrillard’s (1990: 30) envisioning at least, the economy still has some command over reality after all.
Ole Jacob Madsen is a philosopher and clinical psychologist. His doctoral thesis [at The Centre for the Study of the Sciences and Humanities at the University of Bergen], dealt with the impact of psychology in contemporary Western society and the unfolding of the therapeutic culture in Scandinavia. Madsen has published on issues such as critique, ideology and subjectivity in late modernity in various journals including: Annual Review of Critical Psychology; Communication; Culture & Critique; and Cultural Studies and Critical Methodologies.
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