When Jean Baudrillard published his classic text, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, in 1995, it still seemed like a relatively novel idea. Common-sense notions of war such as friend and enemy were still current and reportage was confined to large media corporations. But Baudrillard saw most particularly that the business of war was increasingly (and inevitably) becoming an issue of information management. “Just as wealth is no longer measured by the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital, so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract, electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves.” What Baudrillard is best-known for, charting the movement of post-industrial life into increasingly virtual environments, is a process that has now become an axiomatic fact of life, so banal that it is difficult to even notice it or to remember that there used to be a time in the past when everyone was not plugged in to a portable screen.
It is often noted (quite rightly) that this exponential proliferation of media and information interfaces makes it possible for citizens outside the media establishment to gain a purchase; citizen journalism, memes, and so on. But such interventions very rarely do anything to challenge the primacy of the image itself. They are usually concerned with the task of replacing one prior image with a new image more to their liking. Maybe Pepe is preferable to Shepard Fairey’s image of Obama, but wouldn’t it be nice to step outside of Warhol’s Factory just once more and experience something authentic?
Of course, this sort of reactionary longing is doomed to failure. Unlike Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six, we don’t need to be drugged and imprisoned in The Village; we do everything we can to gain admission to the virtual Village and would suffer withdrawal symptoms if we were expelled (even seeing someone return from a Facebook ban now has a similar, renegade feel to someone returning from doing time). And we all know about the various studies carried out with teenagers who exhibit signs of stress and other disorders if they are removed from their screens for even a short amount of time. The fact that everyone reading this will know that this is true for other people, but not for them, whilst reading it on a screen, is amusing but too commonplace to be instructive. We choose to disavow our investment in the virtual machine. What of it?
I was reminded of Baudrillard a few days ago when I thought I would check to see what sort of “false flag,” “crisis actor” theories were being shared on YouTube following the Westminster attack. Conspiracy theory is a very interesting subject, both in itself and as a sociological question. In fact, I first became interested in conspiracy theory when I studied the Kennedy assassination and became aware of the inadequacies of the Warren Commission and the machinations of what is nowadays referred to as the deep state. At that time (not that long ago), information could be found through libraries and bookstores. If you were lucky, a relevant program might be shown on TV. Perhaps it’s for that reason that there seemed to be so few conspiracy theorists around back then.
The first sign that conspiracy was primed to become a popular pastime was during the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana. It soon became bafflingly apparent that large numbers of people were convinced that Diana had been assassinated by the Royal Family (or, to be fair, by assassins employed by the Royals), and that the murder weapon was a white Fiat Uno that collided with the speeding car carrying the Princess. The obvious violation (practically a gang rape) of Occam’s Razor counted for nothing. The average man (and often woman) on the street was convinced beyond doubt that Diana had been removed at the behest of the Establishment. There were two things going on here: the first, that Diana had become a semi-mythical figure and people could only explain her death through some form of Byzantine intervention (assassination); the second, the ongoing breakdown of class-based deference, so that, for example, Mohamed Al-Fayed could vocally accuse the Duke of Edinburgh of murder.
Conspiracy hit a peak a few years later with 9/11. The same sorts of things that fuelled speculation around Diana’s death were also in play regarding the Twin Towers. There was a wish to believe that such an event somehow existed outside the natural order of reality so that it could only be explained by holographic aircraft, controlled demolitions, and so on. And there was again, with the emergence of the Internet and cheap film editing software, a powerful levelling effect so that more and more people could hear professionally-presented alternative theories. Conspiracy has never looked back since; if anything, it has grown more popular and self-assured.
Since Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombing, the term “crisis actor” has been frequently employed. This is where conspiracy reaches its full potential in inscribing itself into the virtual. Crisis actors are employed to act as relatives, victims, or witnesses of spree shootings or terrorist attacks. The shootings or bombings themselves did not really take place; they were merely staged events, scripted and acted out by paid employees of the government to further a program of control and subordination. The proof of these conspiracies often consists of the fact that the same actor is employed to play different characters in different false flag events. Apparently, the deep state has a very limited budget and cannot stretch to a larger pool of actors. (One wonders how much they must get paid per performance. Do crisis Oscars get held every year in secret?)
And so, when I searched for the latest videos debunking the Westminster attack, I was expecting to find more of the same. But I noticed something very interesting instead. Certainly, there are plenty of videos claiming to show that the Westminster attack did not happen, but they seem to share a curious apathy. There is not, for instance, the well-researched and argued opinions that one sees in a video such as Loose Change. Neither, to look at it from another extreme, is there a semi-psychotic sense of self-hypnosis that one sees in videos of famous figures slowed down in low-res murkiness purporting to demonstrate how they are shape-shifting reptilians. Instead, I found that the argument had already taken place and been won before it began. There was a remarkable absence of persuasion and argumentation. Everyone involved seemed to come to the event with a firm conclusion already unshakable in their minds. Remarkably, the notion that the Westminster attack did not take place is so humdrum, so damn obvious, that it requires no further elaboration beyond merely formal enunciations that this is the case.
Two examples should suffice. In one video, a witness is seen answering questions from a surrounding pack of journalists. One of the journalists writes his answers down in a notebook. This is proof, so it is claimed, that the whole thing was a staged event: because the journalist was using a paper and pen, there is such a discordant note struck that it becomes self-evident that this cannot really be happening. The very fact that someone would use pen and paper immediately invalidates the entire reality of the whole event, in the theorists’ minds, because it is impossible to conceptualize the idea that someone might write something down rather than filming it on their phone. This minor intrusion of antiquated technology into the spectacle becomes rather like a scene in a bad film where the microphone accidentally comes into shot. The effect is that the illusion falls away and the Real comes back into focus. Crucially, in this case, the disclosing of the Real corresponds to the belief that the scenario is faked. The semiotics of film have become so flawlessly integrated into our mode of perception that we have started to look for continuity errors in life; if something lacks the proficiency of film, then it must be fake. Conventional epistemological understanding is turned on its head.
The other example is that it has been claimed that a car that was used in the Westminster attack was filmed driving over Westminster Bridge by a CCTV camera, and that a woman can be seen jumping or falling from the bridge into the Thames. In one video I watched, the CCTV footage was played repeatedly whilst a voiceover insisted again and again that what the video depicted could not possibly be what it appeared to be. Admittedly, the footage is grainy and indistinct, but the voiceover is not trying to cast doubt on what we see; his is not a voice urging skepticism. Instead, the CCTV footage is the smoking gun in the false flag operation. It is precisely the fact that this body leaving the bridge has been caught on camera that is the clinching piece of evidence for it being fake. Whereas I see a blurry image of a person falling from a bridge, the voiceover sees a fake body falling from the bridge. And it’s the sense of utter incredulity he evinces, incredulity that anyone could be so dumb, so blind as to believe that this video shows anything other than a fake body being thrown into the Thames, that is the significant point. There is nothing put forward in the way of argument or evidence. It is enough that there is CCTV footage of something to prove that what it shows could not have happened.
In the original version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the scene was removed from later releases), people who have witnessed the UFOs assemble at a meeting and are told by an expert who has been studying the subject that there has never been any credible photographic or video evidence of a UFO. A newspaper reporter replies that his paper reports on road accidents every day, but that they have never had a photograph of one actually happening. So should we not believe that they really take place? What a quaint and old-fashioned world where some things happen without being recorded.
One might have expected that with the present ubiquity of smart phones and CCTV, with every single event being recorded and shared, that it would be possible to either prove or disprove very specific allegations of conspiracy theorists beyond doubt. Everything can be viewed at leisure, from multiple perspectives. A massive increase in electronic information should lead to a massive improvement in understanding. But the exact reverse is actually true.
The comments on crisis actor videos are extremely telling. They have already curtailed any possibility of alternative explanations, and anyone who tries to proffer a different perspective is dismissed as one of the sheeple. Skeptical inquiry is denigrated as proof of prima facie gullibility. On the other hand, the actual gullibility of these conspiracy believers is presented as proof of sophisticated wisdom, of the mystic who can see beyond the veil of Maya. One begins to sense that the real drama is taking place elsewhere, out of sight, as it is for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard’s play.
The complete inversion of the poles skeptical-gullible is indicative of the sort of reversals that can happen when everything takes place in a world of images. The whole concept of crisis actors is something that can only emerge into consciousness in a world where everyone is already acting a part for the ubiquitous cameras that we are always aware of, even if only subliminally. The truth is that the Westminster attack did not take place. The people who were interviewed about it were acting, as were the victims. The whole thing was staged. But that is only true because everything is already staged and everyone is acting all the time.
Imagine if you had witnessed part of this attack and then were suddenly confronted by TV cameras and questions. You would immediately fall into the role of playing someone who is a credible witness. You would know not to shriek hysterically, and you would know not to fixate on irrelevant details, because you want to play the role convincingly. You have seen witnesses questioned and cross-examined thousands of times before on TV and in movies, and you know how to appear sincere (how to fake sincerity, if you like). Everything is a film, and if you wanted to know how to behave like someone who existed in the pre-Internet age, you would Google it to find out.
And there really is no way out of this hall of mirrors. There is no point in trying to convince someone that they are seeing a false image whilst you are seeing a true image. You can both see what you can see, and no amount of arguing is going to gain any purchase. And this all points to one of the limitations of the fast-politics notion. Meme wars will not be the place where this whole business is won and lost, they will merely provoke small changes at the margins. Instead, the whole thing needs to be entirely reframed. In terms of slow-politics, we are in need of an entirely new ontology.
Such a task is best carried out by artists because they imagine what can be. The best artists are typically untroubled by the conventional thinking of the age in which they are living because they are already constructing something entirely different, so there are now likely to be several of them hovering around the fringes of the Alt Right. The task, then, is to provide platforms and spaces for artists to work within our field.
One of the less-noted shortcomings of multicultural Western societies is the way that artists increasingly adopt conventional gestures which act as a mask for their actual opposites. So, conceptual art typically consists of objects pulled from their usual place and exposed in the gallery as items of capitalist circulation, as commodities. But the critique of capitalism is undermined by the hard cash that these objects attract at auction. The critique of capitalism itself becomes the pursuit of capitalism. We need to be looking for artists who do not just attempt to critique the prevailing economic or social system, but who seek for a complete reframing of reality.
Such a process takes place way, way upriver from the meme wars and comment thread battles, but in the future, the combatants in such wars, whether they profess to be Right- or Left-wing, will be fighting within a framework brought into being by artists who are living today. We must ensure that such artists are brought within the fold. And things are much too urgent to be rushed.
1. Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 56.