While far from being my favourite theorist, Baudrillard’s time may have come. While he was alive the popular uptake of his work lumped it in with the work of Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault and Lyotard — all misunderstood, all held up as examples of a bad philosophical object called ‘postmodernism’ which no-one in Britain save for a few literature and media students knew what to do with. It was French, talkative, current, but supposedly impenetrably gnomic, dense, full of obscure wordplay and oblique, cryptic references. Maybe it has taken twenty years to process what it was saying, or maybe it was just ahead of its time, but when today we have to grapple with political commentators speaking of ‘alternative facts’ and a ‘post-truth’ society, it is difficult not to imagine what Baudrillard would have made of this. Indeed, it is something of an irony that those today who seem best acclimatised to a ‘postmodernism gone mad’, while perhaps unconscious of the fact, and no doubt still occasionally using the term to disparage study of the humanities or history, and the left in general, are actually those on the far right. Perhaps there is nothing quite as simulative, as citational, as temporally off-kilter and irreal as the spectacle of white nationalists marching in 2018, the pseudo-ironic racist banter of the alt-right, the misogyny of gamergaters, or the endless youtube videos of a US president gesturally mocking disability and boasting of sexual assault. While postmodern architecture of recent decades ‘quoted’ and ‘pastiched’ elements of former styles in order to borrow and recode their aesthetic values for emerging international markets (being the origin of the term, and thus entirely implicating it in the crisis of financialised housing and all the economic problems of globalised real estate and property development), so today the behaviour — the so-called ‘neoreactionary backlash’, the acting-out — of the digitally native alt-right draws deep from a stock of primitivist, folkish, right-wing localisms and historical junctures in order to cite them in a wholly new context. However, the simulative phenomenon in architecture nonetheless established its own reality — its own ‘style’ as it were — by which those ‘eclectic’ and ‘citational’ built cultures of the 1990s can now be pointed to and seen as hopelessly dated. There is in this a significant analogy, by means of which I hope we can soon begin to point to the ‘neoreactionary backlash’ as something whose time has passed. The Trump blimp, organised to coincide with the US president’s visit to the UK (widely protested), as well as the currency of the term ‘gammon’, looks to me a favourable sign in this direction.
Trump concretely expresses an unsavoury side of what we used to call postmodernism; everything about him, from his hall of fame status in WWE to his famously simulative hairstyle, reeks of the irreal and the duplicitous. It’s as if someone had made a mash-up video collecting and cataloguing all the ‘most embarrassing moments’ of their totally unreconstructedly racist grandparents and the most unselfconsciously vulgarian of people and then breathed life into this luminous orange golem. However, we should not let the transparency, the apparent naivety or ignorance of the vulgarity, fool us. For the children and their families detained at borders and caged on American land there is nothing irreal about the bars of those cages. Just as Baudrillard proposed, the third-order simulation — the hyperreal — is deadly precisely because of its obscure modality. A lot of people experience cognitive dissonance believing that such things are actually taking place. It doesn’t square with their view of the world as a rational arena ordered by a certain minimal guarantee of civility. In some respects, the images we see of caged children are much like moon landing images, pure artefacts of the technology used to produce them, since we can’t be there ourselves to see it happening with our own eyes — and similarly there will always be those who will use this to argue that nothing is happening, no new precedent has been set, move along please as it’s business as usual. The problem with the concept of the hyperreal when it was misunderstood theoretically as meaning something illusory or dissimulative was always that it allowed the flat-earther in through the back door. So it is with the ‘post truth’ gang: they talk in terms of a binary relation between facts and dissimulation. Baudrillard, properly understood, prevents this because he provides a tertiary paradigm in which simulation (being neither an illusion nor the breaking of an illusion) is seen to have its own material reality and its own material consequences. Trump is the simulation of a US president: this means that the fallout we’ve seen (kids in cages, tweets about hitting the button) is both ‘what would happen if we let people like him rule’ and what is happening, really, right now. He is the pretence of a pretence: someone you’re not supposed to take seriously, but who should for all that be taken deadly seriously. He is what happens when Baudrillard’s basic thesis (that Disneyland exists to protect us from seeing all of America as Disneyland) is properly unpacked.
Conversely, the far right’s theatrics appear to a critically informed left not as the arrival of long-repressed attitudes onto a neutral market of ideas but, on the contrary, as a failure of the left to take its own pursuit of social justice seriously enough — to institute critical pedagogy from the bottom. Neoliberalism has aided and abetted this failure in many ways, especially in its ceaseless marketisation and streamlining of public spheres, its perpetual union-busting, its assault on education as a site of cultural production, and in its hegemony over media. It’s a hoary truth that fascism fills the holes evacuated by the left, that every fascist victory takes place in the space of a failed leftist revolution. The neoliberal project was, from its inception in inter-war bubbles of anti-communist think tanks no-one would have imagined one day ruling the roost, deeply committed to sabotaging the left’s cultural progress. Much of the argument cited today by the alt-right is, ironically, out-and-out neoliberal economic ideology — drawn from the same source that these alleged ‘anti-globalists’ and ‘anti-elitists’ fail to realise is also at the root of the globalised, crisis-ridden, economy. Today, there is an unconscious solidarity between the alt-right and the libertarian right in so far as they assume the left to be wielders of a sustained and programmatic cultural power, paranoically dubbed ‘cultural marxism’. Such bogeymen as ‘political correctness gone mad’, ‘reverse racism’, and ‘misandry’ are the phantoms conjured as evidence of this power, fuelling the ridiculous and history-blind arguments of the right wing manosphere, the MRAs, the Islamophobes and the new alt-right ethnostate advocates. The small white businessman who thinks he somehow represents a working class is full of sound and fury, confused to the core of his being: on the one hand overbrimming with ressentiment and bitterness towards the perceived intrusion on his ‘constitutional’ liberties, yet at the same time pathologically jealous and wildly libidinally desirous of this mythical left wing programmatic power. And so he uses whatever he can find, he scrapes the bottom of the barrel, marshalling ridiculously anachronistic arguments that would look out of place in any contemporary setting. There is a very strong element of the camp and the kitsch in the way he straight-facedly borrows from history absurdly outdated Chaucerian language such as ‘cucks’ (cuckolds) to describe his political rivals; at least when the porn industry uses such language it does so with tongue in cheek. The best he can find as a mascot is the intentionally badly drawn rendering of the cartoon frog Pepe. He draws ‘information’ and evidence from Breitbart, because there’s no such thing as a measure of the quality of information anymore, there are only alternative facts. He surfs the anonymous chans where he can ply his red-baiting trollery and resentment, hoping against hope he is never doxed after sending so many co-ordinated death-threat e-mails to prominent feminist academics. He spends an inordinate amount of time and effort astroturfing the comment sections of the online ‘liberal’ MSM, switching identities fast and furiously so he can upvote his own comments and give rise to ‘manufactured consent’ for his views. What is this space he occupies? Are not the alt-right the very exemplifications of all the worst aspects of postmodernism they used to rail against, when the word was still used?
Like most of the French theorists mentioned above, Baudrillard seemed to be at his best when he skirted the border between Marxism and what has been dubbed his ‘post-Marxism’. That is to say, when he was still talking in terms of production and reproduction but at the same time extending Marx’s analysis to the post-industrial, service-oriented and financialised society. Here he was prescient and penetrating in what he managed to describe with his concepts of third-order simulations and the hyperreal.