Bowling for Baudrillard
“Doing something solely because you can’t not do something has never constituted a principle of action or freedom.” Jean Baudrillard
January 1991, the eve of the Gulf war and Jean Baudrillard sat down, rolled himself a cigarette – he uses one of those little machines – and wrote an essay destined for the French newspaper Liberation entitled ‘The Gulf War will not Take Place.’ For those unfamiliar with his thinking, a none too bright assumption and for those familiar enough, an arrogant, even immoral post-modern stance in the face of genuine human suffering. After the conclusion of the hostilities, Baudrillard followed it up with, ‘The Gulf War did not take Place’ and all hell broke loose – intellectually speaking.
Things have calmed down now. There’s a level of acceptance of his ideas, a nod and a wink in the direction of irony. Advanced technology has indeed changed the face of warfare. The Gulf War, the War on Terrorism and in particular the most recent conflicts are so absurdly indicative of their time and so strangely dissimilar to previous wars that we need to forge a new way of understanding in order to think about them, to debate them. The battlefields of modern warfare are CNN, ABC, BBC and Sky News. At every point of mediation, the reality of War becomes more distant and more distorted. It’s a fantasy conjured up by the TV networks, a dramatisation, good versus evil. Us versus them. In the meantime we stalk around on computer games with sniper rifles and depose of terrorists on a daily basis from the comfort of our living rooms. Entertainment and reality have switched places. For Baudrillard, reality is composed of self replicating, free-floating signs – peel back one layer of falsehood and you’ll simply find another. The Gulf War was an illusion.
Baudrillard was being a smart ass; polite round of applause please. Monsieur, your work here is done. But ideas are like the tides, they wash up repeatedly to be re-engaged with. And when the tide goes out it never leaves the land exactly as it found it.
In the aftermath of 9/11 I can’t have been the only one re-examining Baudrillard’s thoughts on the Gulf War. I wrote an article for a local magazine about the War on Terrorism being a fiction, a war played out, not on the battlefield but via the TV Networks. It was wordlessly rejected. The tide went out, Baudrillard’s ideas faded from my mind. They were too inaccessible, too cocky, too complex to simplify.
Months later, when fresh conflict broke out in the Gulf, I was blind. I had contracted acute infections in both eyes, the television was so bright it burned. I tut-tutted along to the soft crack of gunfire on the radio. I fumed and boiled in my bed, angry, excited. A month of blindness brought on by stress, by this modern way of life – or so the doctors told me. And in my bed, unable to see a newspaper or watch a television, I knew I had been wrong, Baudrillard had been wrong. He hadn’t had enough faith in us.
He presumed that the virtual and the real had become interchangeable – but what if we have become more sensitive to their differences than ever before?
The ‘war’ over, we still refuse to believe in its motives. Our refusal to believe is born from this interchangeable reality and simulation. If realisation were thrust upon us, if the whole world became more knowing of its armchair spectatorship – the only reality left to rely on would lie beyond all representation. It would be that which we didn’t see; not what is shown on television or what we read in the newspapers – but that which we know and feel.
The journalist Patrick West once said, ‘If a bomb falls in the desert, and there is no camera to bear witness to it, does it still make a sound?’
Of course, it does. We don’t need to see devastation to know it occurs. For many of those who offered up resistance to the conflict, and those who are still arguing about it now, the falsehoods of media represented reality are irrelevant. We know we will not find reality through television or read it in the newspapers – the only truth is the hurt and devastation we don’t see.
When I’d recovered enough, regained my sight, the tide faded again. I had almost forgotten Baudrillard; television and sunlight were more important. Then, at some point, I saw what – through my illness – I had missed; that on the 21st March 2003 a fat American took to the stage at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre to collect an Academy award for his documentary making and set the world to rights with the following words: “We live in fictitious times. We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious President. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons Shame on you, Mr Bush, shame on you.”
God bless you, Michael Moore.
© 2004 Paul Cunliffe