I know this is old news for many, but ran into this and thought it would be of interest to folks on the list - rg
The Gulf War Did Not Take Place/McKenzie Wark
28 July 1995
This is a true story. Only the names have been changed -- to protect the guilty. I'm in a bar in Fremantle talking to a couple of humanities academics. I caually mention that I'm reading Paul Patton's translation of Jean Baudrillard's The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. One of my colleagues launches into a tirade about how immoral it is for Baudrillard to claim the war did not 'take place' when so many people got killed there. The other attacks Baudrillard for talking about 'simularca', as if war had disappeared into a virtual realm when clearly war is proof positive that real things still happen in the real world.
But when I ask these earnest defenders of the moral and real whether they had read the original French or in Paul Patton's excellent English translation, the answer was -- neither. They were talking about a simulacrum of Baudrillard's book, not the 'real thing'. Neither had read it -- but they seemed as sure of what 'takes place' in its pages as they were of the reality of the beer they quaffed or the war they watched -- on television. It is precisely this mystery, of how signs float free from things and lose their anchorings in the certainty of reference, that is Baudrillard's obsession.
Baudrillard is a much misunderstood writer. He is not a social theorist. He has nothing to do with postmodernism. He has to be understood as an inheritor of the stoical thought of someone like Seneca, and of a long line of essayists and aphorists such as Montaigne, Gracian, Lictenberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Cioran, and above all Canetti. He may use Freud or critical theory or anthropology as he pleases, but that is not where his heart is.
Baudrillard's three Gulf War essays originally appeared in the French newspaper Liberation. They are as usual elegantly written and rhetorically skillful. But they also have the usual limitations. Baudrillard like to think that he can put an end to the practice of 'critical negation.' This is the idea that criticism holds a dominant discourse to the light by revealing its hidden other side -- the desires or powers or interests hidden behind its attractive surfaces. Like Gracian or Nietzsche, Baudrillard thinks that when you peel the mask from the language of power, what you see is not the truth revealed -- but another mask.
This is not an 'apolitical' line of thought, as is often charged. Nor does it make it impossible to make distinctions and valuations. But it means all distinctions and valuations play the game of masks and ruses -- the game of signs. Appeals to a 'reality' beyond are for Baudrillard just a form of mystification. Just because we would like to have a firm grounding in reality doesn't mean we can or do. When we write we make signs, and those signs have to stand on their own two feet, without the crutch of the writer's claim to ground them in the real, or in God or in the hidden mechanisms of history or desire, or any other place that the shadow of God may be hiding in contemporary writing.
For Baudrillard thinks that language has broken free from its moorings and now proliferates out of control. The best one can do is show how every proposition can be shown to be no more true than its opposite. The 'evidence' of the Gulf War taking place can also 'prove' the opposite. That what took place was not a war at all, but something else -- the spectacle of a massacre. Or that the 'place' that the war 'took' for those of us who watched it on TV was an imaginary place, an orientalist fantasy of mad Arabs and imperial splendour. The war took the space of our televisual imaginations.
Baudrillard calls his writing a fatal, rather than a critical strategy. He does not want to criticise the signs thrown up by the media by arguing that they are not true to a reality outside of themselves. Rather, he wants to show how signs supplant reality altogether, even to the point of becoming the model for it. Both the Iraqis and the Pentagon ran computer simulation models of their respective strategies before implementing them -- which is a perfectly Baudrillardian thing to do. Rather than represent, after the fact, something that happens in the real world, what happens here is that the simulacra calls actual events into being according to its models.
This raises some further issues. What is the form and genesis of such simulacra, in and of themselves? Can we say anything about their relation to the events that triggers them in the first place? What reciprocal relations hold between events and simulacra of events? What vectors of communication make them happen in the first place? It was precisely because Baudrillard's falls short of this kind of subtle critique of what takes place *within* the simularcrum that I wrote Virtual Geography -- to go beyond saying there is an order of simulacra at work in the world to examining how the matrix of relations that produces simulacra works.
Baudrillard's contemporary Paul Virilio's writings on the gulf war always struck me as more interesting precisely because he understands the kind of communication power the military have and have always had. Military force extends over the space it wishes to take only to the extent that the military throw a network of communication over that space. Thesedays, this means both the communications space of the battlefield, and the battlefield of the global media itself.
For Baudrillard the simulacrum still appears as the negation *of something* -- of the real that it supplants. He's still trapped in critical theory, nostalgia, melancholia. Far from being 'postmodern' he mourns the loss of references for signs. But it is no longer enough to point out that signs float free from their referents, that signs can indeed become models according to which the real is created. Thinking about simulacrum freed from this critical negativity that it is not something else -- that's what this moment demands.
Simulacra now need to be considered in all their positivity: as products of a matrix of relations, as a powerful act of creating a fantasy world, where 'world' is deployed in a literal sense rather than metaphorically. 'World' not as representation but as a sphere of action where world is willed and will in turn makes world. Baudrillard is still busy pointing out that signs are not what they appear. Now we need to move on from what they are not, to what they actually are. They 'actually' are a whole terrain of relations of power, traversing the globe, passing into every pore of everyday life. As Baudrillard once said, signs get into everything, from sex to kitchen implements. But Baudrillard is a man limited by his time, but a nostalgia for a moment before the acceleration and proliferation of flows of communication became so global and total.
We need to go beyond a mourning for the loss of a neatly staged world where signs represent things and can be verified. We no longer have roots we have aerials. We need to be able to analyse the power signs have even when they represent nothing, or even more frightening, when signs representing nothing call something into being -- like the appearance of a Gulf War, that did not take place. What did take place? That's an important question, but not the only one. How was something that did not take place still able to mobilise whole peoples, armies, resources? That's another order of question, and one that media studies has only begun to ask. Baudrillard's book is a useful, provocative foil, but that is all. Its a critical negation of certain assumptions about how media work in the world. But it is not yet an analysis of the frightening and fascinating new forms of power that the proliferation of vectors, the instability of meaning and the shaping of the real by simulacra have let loose upon the world.
Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Power Publications, Sydney, 87pages, distributed by Manic Exposeur.
McKenzie Wark is the author of Virtual Geography: Living With Global Media Events, Indiana University Press, 1994.