From Modern Mythology:
“In modern political performances,” writes Richard Sennett in The Culture of New Capitalism, “the marketing of personality further and frequently eschews a narrative of the politican’s history and record in office; it’s too boring. He or she embodies intentions, desires, values, beliefs, tastes — an emphasis which has again the effect of divorcing power from responsibility.”
We may find no better presentation of the crisis of the hollowness of appearance than Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation — the surface has subsumed the possibility of an essence. The anxiety here is that without some sort of Neo-Platonic ground to rest the world on, or at least an immoveable point to hang Foucault’s Pendulum from, the whole world will come undone. And people are right to feel anxious, though the fear is ultimately baseless. All being is ungrounded. Sartre’s assertion that existence precedes essence is not one that I’d like to challenge. Much of Baudrillard’s book seems to react directly with the headlines, of the collapse of ‘consensus reality’ (or the sense that there is one), into the event horizon. Consider the following:
The impossibility of rediscovering an absolute level of the real is of the same order as the impossibility of staging illusion. Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible. It is the whole political problem of parody, of hypersimulation or offensive simulation, that is posed here. For example: it would be interesting to see whether the repressive apparatus would not react more violently to a simulated holdup than to a real holdup. Because the latter does nothing but disturb the order of things, the right to property, whereas the former attacks the reality principle itself. Transgression and violence are less serious because they only contest the distribution of the real. Simulation is infinitely more dangerous because it always leaves open to supposition that, above and beyond its object, law and order themselves might be nothing but simulation. But the difficulty is proportional to the danger. How to feign a violation and put it to the test? Simulate a robbery in a large store: how to persuade security that it is a simulated robbery?
There is no “objective” difference: the gestures, the signs are the same as for a real robbery, the signs do not lean to one side or another. To the established order they are always of the order of the real. Organize a fake holdup. Verify that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no human life will be in danger (or one lapses into the criminal). Demand a ransom, and make it so that the operation creates as much commotion as possible — in short, remain close to the “truth,” in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulacrum. You won’t be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements (a policeman will really fire on sight; a client of the bank will faint and die of a heart attack; one will actually pay you the phony ransom), in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real — that is, to the established order itself, well before institutions and justice come into play.
This wry observation about politics as performance jibes all too well with what we’ve seen happen in the states over the past year, and echoes, in another way, Roger Stone’s Rules, “Politics isn’t theater. It’s performance art. Sometimes, for its own sake”, as well as Putin’s “Grey Cardinal’s” rhetoric and acts over the past decade,
In today’s Russia, …the idea of truth is irrelevant. On Russian ‘news’ broadcasts, the borders between fact and fiction have become utterly blurred. Russian current-affairs programs feature apparent actors posing as refugees from eastern Ukraine, crying for the cameras about invented threats from imagined fascist gangs. During one Russian news broadcast, a woman related how Ukrainian nationalists had crucified a child in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. When Alexei Volin, Russia’s deputy minister of communications, was confronted with the fact that the crucifixion story was a fabrication, he showed no embarrassment, instead suggesting that all that mattered were ratings. “The public likes how our main TV channels present material, the tone of our programs,” he said. “The share of viewers for news programs on Russian TV has doubled over the last two months.” The Kremlin tells its stories well, having mastered the mixture of authoritarianism and entertainment culture. The notion of ‘journalism,’ in the sense of reporting ‘facts’ or ‘truth,’ has been wiped out. In a lecture last year to journalism students at Moscow State University, Volin suggested that students forget about making the world a better place. “We should give students a clear understanding: They are going to work for The Man, and The Man will tell them what to write, what not to write, and how this or that thing should be written,” he said. “And The Man has the right to do it, because he pays them.”
The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted — to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counternarrative. It is the perfect genre for conspiracy theories, which are all over Russian TV. When the Kremlin and its affiliated media outlets spat out outlandish stories about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in July — reports that characterized the crash as everything from an assault by Ukrainian fighter jets following U.S. instructions, to an attempted NATO attack on Putin’s private jet — they were trying not so much to convince viewers of any one version of events, but rather to leave them confused, paranoid, and passive — living in a Kremlin-controlled virtual reality that can no longer be mediated or debated by any appeal to ‘truth.’
None of this observation is grounded purely in theory. Postmodernism has shown itself as a tool for art or annoyance in the hands of the Left. In the hands of the Right, these principles are a heavy rock, itching to be hurled at your head. Without any intent to contribute further to the new Red Scare that seems to have started in the US Press, we still need to open our eyes and ask what exactly is going on.
Just yesterday The Intercept ran a justifiably scathing piece of the Washington Post’s apparent citation of an anonymous group with opaque methods as a trusted source on Russian propaganda,
…the individuals behind this newly created group are publicly branding journalists and news outlets as tools of Russian propaganda — even calling on the FBI to investigate them for espionage — while cowardly hiding their own identities. The group promoted by the Post thus embodies the toxic essence of Joseph McCarthy, but without the courage to attach individual names to the blacklist. Echoing the Wisconsin senator, the group refers to its lengthy collection of sites spouting Russian propaganda as “The List.”
We are not merely in a post-factual world, we are in a period where narratives are being weaponized, and we’re free to pick our truth, like it’s a question of personal preference, vanilla or chocolate ice cream. For instance, might PropOrNot be forwarding a narrative from the Russian Government themselves, directly or indirectly? Maybe, maybe not. It hardly seems to matter. Us calling that into question shows just where we are, in terms of trust. Once we all trust no one, the mission has been accomplished — even if it turns out we did it to ourselves.
Adam Curtis said the following on the BBC in 2014,
Surkov is one of President Putin’s advisers, and has helped him maintain his power for 15 years, but he has done it in a very new way. He came originally from the avant-garde art world, and those who have studied his career, say that what Surkov has done, is to import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics.
His aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening. Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.
But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”
The sky is falling. Or maybe this is just more of the same, multiplied by states, corporations, and rich individuals starting to realize how technology and social media can be leveraged to wage a war in our heads. A war in the virtual needn’t be relegated to hacking attacks, or perhaps better stated, the ultimate target of hacks is the human behind the machine.