Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Hyperreal Terror

History teaches us not to be too surprised when dirt-poor, idle young men with not a lot of future start cutting off people’s heads.  Reihan Salam observes that post-Tiananmen Square China has grown Beijing and Shanghai at insane clips—empty towers be damned—in part to make sure young dudes there (and they’ve got a few) don’t foment similar ideas for how to pass the time.

It’s way more perplexing when relatively affluent young Westerners leave colleges, jobs, and actual prospects in cities like London and Minneapolis—places to which their own parents had only recently emigrated—to “go to jihad,” as if “going to” some new version of Cancun or Daytona Beach.

The American Republican presidential field is insisting ever more loudly there’s just one thing tugging these kids to Syria: Islam.  To suggest otherwise is, it seems, to hate America, or something.  (Christ, what a pitiable little figure Rudy Giuliani has become.)  But positing there’s something essentially sinister at the heart of Islam not found in the hearts of other major world faiths was intellectually lazy when Salman Rushdie did it in 1981, and it’s lazy when Republicans do it today.  “The Prophet’s Hair” has no clothes.

There are socio-economic-cultural-historical reasons, of course, why it’s Islam, and not Hinduism (or Christianity, or Buddhism, or Marxism), now serving as lightning rod for the particular human proclivity that is the sinister force at work here.  And we don’t need to pretend it’s not Islam serving that function.  (As Doyle McManus points out, the president really hasn’t been pretending.)

But let’s not observe the rod in action and conclude there’s lightning blasting from it.

Islam is the lightning rod—at least right now, at least in a certain part of the world.  But the lightning striking it—and taking off human heads—is the truly indefatigable human pursuit of epistemological foundations.

And the atmospheric conditions engendering the lightning storm (to extend the metaphor one important step farther) are in no small measure produced by image-laden consumer capitalism.

It has to be humanity’s immersion in signs, signifiers, representations—symbols of every kind—that makes so many of us crave ground to drop anchor on.  And we’ve never been more immersed in symbols than we are today, with better than one in seven humans on Facebook and even more of us clutching smartphones.

To be sure, some human minds delight in the “float” we feel when we’re sufficiently awash in symbols.  Andy Warhol was the very prototype of this kind of person; the relish with which he produced pictures of pictures of celebrities who were themselves only ever simulacra—copies without originals (“Marilyn Monroe”)—all but inaugurated this postmodernist mode of pleasure.

For lots of other people, though, the float is terrifying.  That Yahweh should be not the word but a word; that white should be not a privilege but a lack (of melanin); that straight should be not right but the analogue of right-handedness; that a penis should be not a universal signifier but a big clitoris: some people do not want to hear this stuff.

And when these ground-shaking, foundation-erasing, vexingly-difficult-to-refute ideas come at them via Calvin Klein ads and Modern Family episodes and Kanye West albums and Naomi Wolf books and Dalai Lama dharma talks streaming from the YouTubes, some subset of these unhappy individuals will be compelled to reassert the capital-T Truth—and remind everyone else just where the ground is. 

This is where terror can come in handy.

Because what are the Removers of Heads (with their crashingly conspicuous British and American accents) asserting if not their status as arbiters of Ultimate Reality?

The terror that haggard, bound man in the orange jumpsuit feels is real.  His death is absolute and final.  A severed head issues no blasphemy.  None.  And none, in this particular instance, means absolutely none.

A decapitation video is the assertion of Everything That Is Real to the exclusion of everything that is bullshit—everything foisted on the world, that is, by the great Satan Hollywood and its vast, attendant modernity.

We’ve entered here the precincts of what the late French postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls the hyperreal: places, things, people, and/or gestures so vivid, so intense, they serve (in theory) as insurers of Meaning and Reality in an image- and info-drunk world otherwise happy to drift into ersatz-ness and moral/social relativism. 

The hyperreal, though, has a comedic tendency to come at us in simulation’s clothing.  Disneyland, Baudrillard insists, is a big fat case in point: it presumes to distill the essence of America, the meaning of America; it’s America concentrated, America intensified.  It marks a “miniaturized and religious reveling in real America,” Baudrillard says; “all [America’s] values are exalted here, in miniature and comic-strip form.”

Hyperreal Disneyland purports to deliver capital-R Reality.  But it’s also and simultaneously “a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation”—a “play of illusions and phantasms: pirates, the frontier, future world, etc." 

Anything intense enough, vivid enough, extreme enough to remind us all what’s really real­—as Disneyland reminds us of the real ingenuity of America; as ISIS executions remind us of the real wrath of Allah—is worthy, needless to say, of the camera’s gaze.

Of uploading to YouTube.

Of a 24-hour spin cycle on CNN.

Of being totally ensconced, in other words, in bullshit.

How can we be sure something is capital-R Real unless it’s ensconced in bullshit?  Bullshit is, in fact, what makes capital-R Reality conceivable.  It renders capital-R Reality visible.  You simply can’t have one without the other—something ISIS seems to know when it makes terrify-America videos (“Coming soon: Flames of War”) that actually emulate movie previews.

All of this, anyway, gets at why asserting the capital-R Real via the hyperreal—via, say, decapitation videos—is the very definition of a fool’s errand.

But the fact there is, here on planet earth, an ever-growing mountain of what a great many humans will insist is evil, relativistic, anti-Real bullshit (and not just an opportunity for a good, fun float) means the era of hyperreal terror may just now be amping up.

We can better combat it when we see it for what it is. 

It’s not Islam. 

It is the reaction of a certain type of human mind to the decidedly relativistic messages broadcast loudly and incessantly by liberal-humanist consumer capitalism.

Hey: I tend to like those messages.

But there’s no denying a whole lot of other people don’t.

And the label that should adhere to those people is not Muslim.  It’s fundamentalist—and Timothy McVeigh was one, too. 

Anyone who wants to insist the former British rapper wielding that bloody hunting knife is the Prophet’s emissary might ask themselves which one's influence the disturbingly slick video he stars in really reflects: the Quran or the ultra-violent PlayStation and Xbox games (“Assassin’s Creed,” “Call of Duty,” “Mortal Kombat”) our hip-hopper stormed disgustedly away from back in BestBuyLand.