In the opening to his book Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard articulates his understanding of the central phenomena of modernity: replication and replacement. He conceives of the emergence of a “real without origin in reality.” Baudrillard remarks, “Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory,” referring to a Borges short story.
We ought not relegate Baudrillard’s self-described intellectual terrorism to the annals of post-structuralist philosophy. On the contrary, Baudrillard presents a set of analytic tools well suited to the cause of self-examination, particularly in the aftermath of what will surely be considered a near-cataclysm in American democracy. Before applying his framework however, we would do well to issue a proper diagnosis of the American condition.
The country is becoming a caricature of itself—or a crude portrait at any rate. In the lead-up to the 2014 midterm election, the Pew Research Center released a report detailing partisan polarization: over a quarter of Democrats considered Republicans a threat to the national well-being, matched by 36 percent of GOP supporters who thought the same of their Democratic peers. The report also found that more than nine-tenths of each party’s supporters considered themselves firmly entrenched in the ideology of their party.
These political assemblages are now widely regarded as cancerous to healthy democratic life, though this is a somewhat boorish diagnosis. In fact, the forces at work are much more those of political abstraction than of happenstance. Understanding alignment and realignment, though often treated as tea-leaf reading, requires a sounder theoretical approach.
Baudrillard offers us precisely that. His observed stages of simulacra could well outline the historical process of substitution through which America-the-real has gradually approached substrate-status beneath the fashioned America—a project of utter, confounding abstraction.
The country has reduced political ideology to a state of replica: easily redoubled in quantity by the news media for mass-distribution. The trouble, of course, is that this replica politics has come to replace the complexity of the original political marketplace. In other words, parties have become the sole issue upon which many Americans base their electoral decisions. Thus, we have achieved single-issue voting of the worst variety.
The reader, of course, would like to know the cause of this great replacement. Again, Baudrillard offers a crucial insight: “simulation threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false.’” As Americans’ qualms regarding globalization, liberalized social norms, and the gradual darkening of America come to a head, it has been the opinion of some that the inevitable result of these is national decline. Thus, the emerging Right—a disproportioned caricature of Reagan’s party—has induced a psychosomatic reaction in its constituency. Absent as the disease might be, its character is manifest. “[If] the simulator produces ‘true’ symptoms,” asks Baudrillard, “is he or she not ill?”
The work of the good citizen becomes that of unmasking, though unfortunately, this is where Baudrillard’s psychology metaphor loses touch with the general state of affairs. Sociology has yet to propose a method for national psychoanalysis, which becomes complicated on two accounts. Historically speaking, it has almost never been the case that a nation was able to recognize its own unconscious: in the American case, this would mean differentiating between “the ‘produced’ symptom and the authentic symptom” of democratic life. Consider, for example, the issue of immigration. To many Americans, the discomfort posed by immigrant arrivals parallels the pain that propels the immigrant from his homeland. Thus, in their perception, the immigrant brings the wars and hungers of his country on his back. The symptoms of societal alienation thus follow him to the new country. Although initially only a “produced” symptom, nativism quickly espouses a pantheon of authentic symptoms: cultural disorder, discourses of anger, and so on. Though perhaps induced by the citizen against the immigrant, the citizen takes these authentic symptoms as confirmation that the produced symptoms were, in fact, real.
The second problem is that of radicalism-en-réaction. While it is certainly of more pressing importance to address the newly empowered Right—whose new symbol will likely render any concept of the “Reagan” Right obsolete—the Left too seems to suffer at its fringes from a degree of “caricaturing.” Senator Bernie Sanders remains one of the most popular politicians in the country, in part for his rebuke of the compromise strategies pushed under Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and—or so many thought—Hillary Clinton. Thus, while the Right has fashioned itself in the anti-globalist image, dispensing with its moderates, so too has the Left has come to encounter its share of revolutionaries and redistributionists. This politics-en-réaction serves to authenticate the produced symptoms of the Right. Again we might ask, “Is he or she not ill?”
Simulation, as Baudrillard notes, held no greater importance than to the iconoclasts of ancient eastern orthodoxy. Writing on divinity, he cites the famous iconoclast phrase, “I forbade any simulacrum in the temples because the divinity that breathes life into nature cannot be represented.” The same might be said of democracy: that it cannot function through caricature.
The parties have become, as the Pew Center described them, silos of ideology. This metaphor is doubly telling: our politics function as both monolith and container. To dismantle these, it falls to the good citizen to foment discord within ranks and amity between them. This might seem like a strange suggestion, but it is well reasoned. After all, who can name a greater danger than a mob of angry men in communion of purpose?
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