Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008).
The Simulacra of Global Conflict
Dr. Paula Murphy
(Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City University, Ireland)
On September 11, 2001, a series of events were set in motion that have since been played out in the global media. Media coverage of terrorist attacks in cities around the world (of which New York is the most iconic), and of the war on Iraq has been incessant. During the Gulf war, the current media frenzy was presaged by war reporters who became stars in their own right, and, as Gary Genosko points out, “top guns” and “scud studs” are now distinct categories of reporters.1 With the Iraq war, a new category has emerged: that of embedded reporters. These are individuals who report from amongst the coalition forces, their nearness to the “action” of the war ensuring that their reports are as exciting and as “authentic” as possible. However, these terms exhibit a central contradiction, because if the reporters are embedded, then their opinions must be too, providing an example of the contradictions surrounding the dissemination of information in a globalized, media-saturated world. That the media exerts an enormous influence on how recent global conflict has been interpreted and relayed is indisputable. Around the world, billions of people rely on television news programmes to inform them of events, and voluntarily submit to the editing, summarisation and headline condensation that such reporting necessitates.
This paper explores the relationship between the media, terrorism and the culmination of this intersection in the conflicts of recent years. This is not a political analysis, but rather an analysis of modes of knowledge, how they are articulated and understood, what impact this has on terrorism and war, and, conversely, the effect of such knowledge transmission in the postmodern world on conflict. The new relationship is not one of cause and effect but a cyclical relationship of action and reaction.
II. Simulacra and Simulation
The current global conflict, synecdochically represented in the war between America and Iraq, is fundamentally postmodern. Because of the pervasiveness of the postmodern media, particularly American news stations like CNN and Fox News (broadcast all over the world on satellite television), images of war have become more significant than the reality of war. This is an example of what Jean Baudrillard calls simulacra. Simulacra are not reflections of reality. The belief that painting, photography and writing mimetically represent reality reached its pinnacle in the nineteenth century, epitomised in the classic realist novel of that time, and such a division between the object and its representation no longer exists. Baudrillard employs the term simulacrum in order to emphasise the impossibility of differentiating an object from its representation. The example he uses to explain the concept is of one who pretends to have an illness, and one who simulates an illness. The pretender will not display any symptoms, but the simulator on the other hand, will show symptoms, although the illness itself may only be psychosomatic. In the latter case, it is impossible to distinguish whether the illness is feigned or not.2 So, the simulacrum does not simply pretend to be the real: it becomes so like the real that there ceases to be a meaningful division between the two. If the simulacrum cannot be identified with certainty, then as a consequence, neither can that from which it is differentiated: the real. Hence, the simulacrum not only reduces the distance between the real and its representation, it questions the reality of the real itself. As he states, “[w]hereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum”.3
The terrorism and war of recent years has been fed through the media more than any previous conflict: packaged neatly for the consumer in reports, images and headlines. If it is postmodern, then the path to an exploration of the core issues will inevitably begin with the simulacra themselves, as it is impossible to distinguish between them and the real, with the result that the actual war becomes as false as its representation. In light of the bearing the media has as an interpreter of events, and also as the embodiment of a particularly postmodern mode of reality transmission, it is appropriate that the inciting incident, the bombing of the twin towers in New York city, was witnessed by a global audience who watched explosions in slow motion as they were replayed over and over again on Sky News. The aura of foreboding, the feeling that a new era was dawning, was unmistakable, even as the commentators who had been hurriedly gathered together attempted to make sense of the event and speculate on the reasons behind it. The silence that accompanied the clip added to the shock and profundity of the moment. Jürgen Habermas’s comments on 9/11 are elucidative in understanding how the collapse of the towers was received. He states that it “could be called the first historic world event in the strictest sense: the impact, the explosion, the slow collapse – everything that was not Hollywood anymore but, rather, a gruesome reality, literally took place in front of the ‘universal eyewitness’ of a global public”.4
Habermas rightly points out the eerie similarity between the bombing of the twin towers and Hollywood film. Those landmarks of New York have become iconic not only for Americans, but for people all over the world who watch American movies. In fact, the film Spiderman, released in 2002, had originally included a scene in which the superhero spins a web between the twin towers in order to capture the Green Goblin, but accidentally snares an aeroplane instead. These scenes were eventually cut from the film for fear of eliciting a negative audience response, but the decision illustrates the importance of the twin towers in the iconography of film, constituting an image familiar to spectators all over the world. It is no wonder then, that the sight of the towers collapsing appeared surreal, because it was in Baudrillard’s terminology, over-determined and hyper-real. The fall of the towers constituted a simulacrum because the image was inextricable from its Hollywood representation. As Baudrillard states, “[t]he simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none”.5 The twin towers were also featured in one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1990s, Friends, where they appeared in a montage between scenes. Like Spiderman, these shots were cut from the programme after the collapse of the twin towers. If the global public were, as Habermas suggests, united in their scopophilia for the events of 9/11, then what united them was fundamentally not sympathy for their fellows in New York, but a shared code that transcends language and territory: the code of the mass media and its simulacra and simulations.
III. Visibility and Power
On the 8th of May, 2004, the American Nicholas Berg was beheaded by Islamic militants in the first of a series of similar killings. Berg was not an American soldier, but a businessman seeking work for his company. His killing attracted worldwide attention because it was filmed in order to make it known that it was an act of revenge against the American abuses of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, and because the footage of the beheading was released on the internet. Thus, this grotesque murder was available for millions around the world to download and view. His killers had a powerful tool with which to work and it was not the tool that physically beheaded him: it was the information superhighway. Without it the event could conceivably have been downplayed or reported with a view to bolstering one side or the other. With it, no interpretation is required: the video tells its own story, and unlike the Gulf War, there are no scud studs or top guns. Baudrillard addresses the nudity enforced on some Iraqi prisoners by GI soldiers, and argues that such images blur the line between representation and reality: fiction and fact: “for the images to become a source of true information, they would have to be different from the war. They have become today as virtual as the war itself” and moreover, “embrace the pornographic face of the war”.6 At the beginning of the 21st century, visibility is attaining a higher and higher premium, as evidenced in the ever-increasing number of reality television shows, and celebrity magazines that probe the most intimate details of the stars. It is in this sense of revealing all; of keeping nothing hidden, that Baudrillard refers to the war as pornographic, and not in the conventional sexual sense. This then, is another example of how the way in which knowledge is transmitted (through the media), results in a change in perception of knowledge itself when reality becomes a simulacrum.
The murder of Nicholas Berg confirms that it is not only Western powers that manipulate the media to their advantage. Dilip Hiro recounts in his political analysis of Iraq the statement made by Osama bin Laden on Al Jazeera, the popular Arabic satellite television station, announcing that what America was experiencing was only a copy of the suffering endured by his Islamic nation. The powerful symbolism of the act was not lost on bin Laden who stated: “Here is America, struck by God Almighty in one of its vital organs, so that its greatest buildings are destroyed”.7 It is not only those in the West who appropriate the power of the mass media, as is sometimes claimed. This view creates a false division, and conceals the fact that terrorist and governmental powers alike avail of the exposure offered to them by the global media of internet and satellite television. Ultimately, Baudrillard suggests that power itself becomes a simulacrum. The consequence of power being relayed through the media, as it has been in the war in Iraq, and the terrorist bombings of the last few years, is that there is a danger of power itself being shaped by its medium, so that it no longer matters who has power in reality, only who is seen to have power, so that the war “turns itself into a grotesque infantile reality show, in a desperate simulacrum of power”.8
If the media has become so powerful that it changes our modes of knowledge, then it is clearly the best weapon with which to defeat the enemy. If another example were needed of the effects of harnessing the power of the media, one could not find better than the debates raised, the buildings destroyed and most tragically, the people killed, in the wake of the publication of twelve cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in the autumn of 2005. The cartoons, originally published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, resulted in a boycott on Danish products by several countries with a large Moslem population. The losses sustained were not only economic however. Sixteen people were killed in protests riots in Northern Nigeria and five people were reported dead in Pakistan9. The publication of the cartoons was defended on the grounds of free speech, so highly valued in the Western world. Yet, this reasoning could be seen as a microcosm of the justifications for the war on Iraq, where invasion was rationalised by the American government not only in terms of protection of its people (a reason that was found invalid in any case as weapons of mass destruction were never found), but more emphatically by the promotion of democracy. It could hardly be more ironic that the war in Iraq was conducted without the majority support of people in either the USA or other countries.
IV. The Power and Paradox of Free Speech
The cartoons of Mohammed were hailed as a strike for freedom of speech, but like the war on Iraq, their publication contained a central irony. Ideally, democracy tolerates difference: those with greater numbers have the most power, but within the limits of the law, conflicting opinions and practices are tolerated. The problem with Western democracy, and particularly that of the American government, is that it proclaims that it wants the world to be democratic, but cannot imagine a democratic world. In other words, it is acceptable to force democracy on a country like Iraq, but if a democratic world really was the ultimate goal, then differing systems of government would be tolerated. The Mohammed cartoons, especially those published after the original Danish ones in Die Welt (Germany), France Soir (France), Magazinet (Norway) among others, were an assertion of Western dominance, and a denial of the difference that is vital to democracy. It was a statement to Moslems that the rules of the West will be enforced across the globe, and that Moslems too must bow to the right to free speech.
Paradoxically, it revealed that the freedom of speech can be exercised, but the freedom not to exercise the freedom of speech cannot. Drawing on the work of Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek describes this dilemma as the forced choice, and argues that it originates in the subject’s accession to society: “[t]he choice of community, the ‘social contract’, is a paradoxical choice where I maintain the freedom of choice only if I ‘make the right choice’: if I choose the ‘other’ of the community, I stand to lose the very freedom, the very possibility of choice”.10 The forced choice of accepting or not accepting the freedom of speech, was evident in the debates on the Mohammed cartoons. Here again, the logic of mass media and the wealth of information that can be accessed by any individual who reads newspapers and magazines, or has a television or internet connection, embodies the ambiguities that surround knowledge in the contemporary world. This information, and the freedom to publish it, is the epitome of Western democratic politics, but the mass media is so omnipresent and all-encompassing, that the differences, conflicts and debates within the information that it processes become subservient to the ultimate power of the media system itself, eventually erasing difference in its unqualified right to permeate everywhere and everybody.
The controversy surrounding the Mohammed cartoons also illustrates the obliteration of difference between the Islamic world and the Western newspapers which published the cartoons. Most of the debate on the cartoons centered on the freedom of speech, but the most notable aspect of the episode was the means of representation: the genre of cartoon itself. Cartoons are self-consciously misleading and are not intended to produce a realistic portrayal of their subject: they are a comic distortion of the real thing. The Mohammed cartoons include the Prophet wearing a turban that looks like a bomb, and imploring suicide bombers in the afterlife to stop, because there are no virgins left. The humour is lacking in subtlety, and is deliberately provocative, but the fact that cartoons are considered with such brevity and seriousness is yet another display of the disappearing gap between the representation and that which is represented in the postmodern world. Of course, what was offensive about the cartoons from a Moslem point of view was that the Prophet was depicted at all. This stance eschews any portrayal because it cannot match the reality. Paradoxically, the objection was to a form of art that is quite obviously unrealistic, meaning that both sides of the dispute are arguing over a simulacrum, which both treat as though it were realistic. Hence, the common ground between those in favour of the cartoons and those against resides in a shared acceptance of postmodern modes of representation, belying the ostensible divide between the two groups.
V. Viral Terrorism
What the furore over the Mohammed cartoons makes clear, is that conflict between opposing religious and cultural ideologies is now happening on a worldwide scale. It is not a clash between geographically demarcated countries as in the past, but a conflict that happens within, as much as between, states. However, one of the catchphrases about American security post 9/11 seemed to contradict this situation. Again and again on television screens and in media headlines, people around the world were informed about the most recent security issues in “fortress America”. One method for targeting possible terrorist activities in the U.S. was Operation TIPS (terrorist information and prevention system), with which citizens can report suspicions persons by dialling a free-phone number or going online. There is an inherent tension between the goal of the process (to allow American citizens to live free from terrorist threats), and the consequences of the process (restrictions on individual freedom under a country-wide army of surveillance workers). Discussing Operation TIPS, Žižek asks, “from a radical emancipatory perspective, is ‘freedom’ actually the highest and most untouchable point of reference? On the contrary, is the notion of freedom not so deeply enmeshed in structurally necessary ambiguities that it should always be viewed with elementary suspicion?”.11 Žižek rightly asserts that freedom is always a compromise rather than an unbending principle, but the way in which the media has influenced American security since 9/11 gives the old philosophical debate on freedom some contemporary characteristics. The security measures employed are synecdochal of the surveillance society of the Western world, where the activities of individual citizens are monitored with Orwellian zeal through closed circuit television, national identity cards, and information databases. The security measures were publicised through the media with the phrase “fortress America”, suggesting that the threat was external rather than internal, and that it could be kept at bay by rigorous border security, even though the need for Operation TIPS disputes this understanding. The phrase stirs up patriotic fervour, uniting American citizens in a common effort to shut out the enemy, when the enemy is quite obviously internal as well as external.
Media headlines like this mask the fact that the enemy is not in outside territory and cannot be locked out. Baudrillard states “terrorism is everywhere, like a virus”.12 The current global conflict is different from any that has gone before, because for the first time, “there is no longer a front, no demarcation line, the enemy sits at the heart of the culture that fights it….no longer between people, states, systems and ideologies, but, rather, of the human species against itself”.13 Not only is the enemy indistinguishable by geographical location or race, it is not even distinctive by an ideology in conflict with the primary world ideology of today: capitalism. Media representations of terrorism and the Iraq war suggest that the enemy’s ideology is Islam, but even if this were the case, there was nothing to be gained by the attack on the twin towers, and no victory of one ideology over another to be won. As Baudrillard states, “it is not religiosity that drives them to terrorism…The assassins of September 11th made no demands”.14 This conflict is fundamentally different because there are no territorial lines of conflict, and because the most important weapon is the media and communications technology that the structure of the conflict mimics. Guns and bombs kill people, but as the violence that ensued over the Mohammed cartoons showed, the media provides the forum for incitements to violence.
VI. Mass Mediated Globalization’s “Other”
The headline displayed most frequently in the last few years on television screen is probably “War on Terror”, a phrase that is revealing of the make-up of the recent global conflict. The most striking aspect of the phrase is that the war waged is not directed at a group of people but rather at an abstract feeling. Why is the headline not “War on Terrorism” or “War on terrorists”? These descriptions would appear to be more accurate. The difference between “War on terror” and these other alternatives, is that what is being fought against originates in the subject rather than outside the subject. Hence, the war on terror mirrors the psychological implications of fortress America, where the threat is presumed to be an entity that can be locked out, but in fact resides in the state itself. Likewise, terror is an emotion that has outside stimulants, but originates in, and can only be controlled by, the subject. The war on terror cannot be fought because terror originates in the subject and not the other. The effect of the media, as both an arm of Western governments and by virtue of the nature of its own mass-consumer discourse, has been to create an “other” to fight against in order to be rid of terror. This “other” has taken the form of Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Al Qaeda, and the entire Muslim community, at different stages. This is not to suggest that individual perpetrators of terrorist acts should be excused. Rather, it is to caution against the danger of over-simplification, and to suggest the possibility that the terror so often spoken of in recent years, originates in the Western world, and stems from the globalisation that is propelled by media, and information and communications technology. Just as terror originates in the self, the same self-originating threat is evident on a broader scale. Baudrillard argues that, “globalisation creates the conditions for its own destruction”.15 He claims that the view that globalisation is the end of Enlightenment is false, because globalisation has nothing to do with that spirit of knowledge and discovery. Instead, he defines globalisation as “an operational system of total trade and exchange”.16 In short, globalization is capitalism in a totalitarian form. The real reason behind the war on Iraq was in fact an economic one: it was carried out for the acquisition of oil, or at least for the control of oil resources. Whereas the stated reason for the war was the spread of democracy and the protection of global citizens from weapons of mass destruction, this was merely a flimsy disguise that enabled the concealment of the ideology of capitalism under the ideology of democracy, a process aided, abetted and structurally mirrored by the ever-advancing territorial demands of the media, reaching into the homes and lives of billions of people around the globe.
Theorists of the contemporary, in particular Baudrillard, have shown that the end of reality is simulacra. In this regard, reality television is representative of the ironic postmodern relationship between reality and representation. In the original reality show, Big Brother, individuals live in a house for a number of weeks, their every movement followed by cameras that transmit the action (or lack of action) to viewers outside who decide who will be voted out the house next. This is an example of how the media is not just imitating reality anymore, but actually abandoning the normal television devices of characters, script and programme duration (the action is filmed unbroken day and night) to become reality, or more precisely, a simulacrum, which cannot be distinguished from the real. Like the footage of Nicholas Berg’s beheading, there is no intermediary.
However, it seems impossible to behave in an unself-conscious manner with the knowledge of a camera presence and an audience. But is this really very different to the reality outside the panoptical reality TV house? The proliferation of CCTV cameras, picture phones and web-cams mean that individuals are under observation more than ever before. And so, the line between the real and its representation grows ever more imperceptible. This model of knowledge transmission applies to higher structural levels of contemporary society too, where one element in a binary becomes its apparent opposite. If the end of reality is simulacra, then the end of democracy is the erasure of democratic differences. More worryingly, the end of globalization and Western totalitarian capitalism, as is apparent from violence and anger unleashed in its advocacy and opposition, is an indiscriminate difference between it and its enemies.
2 Jean Baudrillard. “Simulacra and Simulations” in Mark Poster. Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, Stanford University Press, 1988:171.
4 See Giovanni Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. University of Chicago, 2006:3.
5 Jean Baudrillard. “Simulacra and Simulations” in Mark Poster. Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, Stanford University Press, 1988:169.
7 See Dilip Hiro. Iraq: A Report from the Inside. London: Granta, 2003:175.
9 These statistics are from the Sunday Independent, February 19th, 2006 and Nicholas Christian’s article “Protests Against Cartoon Spark More Violence” in the Scotsman.
10 Slavoj Žižek. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (Revised Edition), New York: Routledge, 2001:75.
11 Slavoj Žižek. Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle. London: Verso, 2004:57.
12 Jean Baudrillard. The Spirit of Terrorism. 2nd Edition, New York: Verso, 2003:10.