Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
Author: Dr. Jason Royce Lindsey
For the political scientist, Baudrillard’s work on simulation and the hyperreal is prescient. Politics in contemporary times seems very hollow when compared to the past. In democratic political systems debates on policy have given way to increasingly baroque ideological arguments. The “issues” that resonate the most with voters are generally symbolic or cultural disputes disconnected from economic management or social welfare. Scholarly evidence for this trend continues to accumulate. A good example is the work Lau and Heldman (2009) which builds on earlier research by Lau in (Sears, Lau, Tyler, and Allen (1980). From this perspective politics, at least in the most developed countries, increasingly resembles Baudrillard’s interaction of simulacra.
Before his death, Baudrillard frequently pointed out the ironies of contemporary politics. Consider his statement about the French vote on the EU’s Constitutional treaty in 2005: “The vote is fixed. If the ‘no’ side wins the day this time, they will make us vote again (as in Denmark and Ireland) until the ‘yes’ wins. We may as well vote yes right now” (Baudrillard, 2006). Here there is the sense that this is not what politics and a referendum are, but this is what they have come to be. In most of our political systems we see similar hints that something is not the way it was. What are the tangible differences between left and right wing administrations? Would a left or right government in France handle the EU differently? In the United States, Presidents as vastly different as Obama and Bush dealt with the 2008 economic crisis and its aftermath with a continuity of policies. So when we vote, what are we doing? What are the actual options we are choosing between?
Baudrillard’s perspective fits well with a growing commentary on the emptiness at the heart of contemporary politics. Zizek in his recent (2008) writing on violence points to the curious demands of young rioters in Paris’ banlieus in October 2005. That is, they did not seem to have any demands beyond the spasm of violence in which they engaged. A similar incoherence can be observed at anti globalization protests. People are angry and want to do something about it. However, they seem unable to coherently explain what it is that has them so angry. The spasms of violence that break out on the periphery of any large protest nowadays also points to a frustration with current politics. Most recently, we have seen the Occupy Wall Street protests successfully capture the attention of a very large audience. However, these protests failed to articulate a coherent political program. In his visit to the group camped out in New York, Zizek pointed out this shortcoming when he was invited to speak. As he put it, “We know what we do not want. But what do we want?” (Zizek, 2011).
If there are no substantive policy differences between parties anymore, then, as Baudrillard would expect, we have to invent some. Witness the entire pop culture industry in the United States devoted to the mythology of Conservatives and Liberals. This industry now embraces books, television, radio, and the Internet, as well as satirical greeting cards in either flavor. Here again is the sense that these examples are not real politics. Instead, we have cultural products that seem to be the very definition of Baudrillard’s simulacra. But how do we know this?
If all politics is just being played out within the hyperreal, that is, politics are just combinations of signs and simulacra, then why do we have a sense that this is not “real” politics? Why do referendums seem so empty to us? Why are we able to organize protests, but then have the sense that we failed to define a “real” concrete program? Furthermore are signs and simulacra powerful enough to inspire individuals to the point of political violence? Baudrillard would most likely argue that violence on the periphery of politics is not inspired by the interaction of simulacra. Instead, this violence represents a frustration and impatience with politics. For Baudrillard, the possibility of a contemporary, active politics is very slim. Thus, we should expect to see indifference or frustration. However, if that is the case, then how do we explain the motivation of some individuals for engaging in this empty politics to the point of extremism?
To explain this tension, we should examine evidence of a politics capable of referencing something outside of other simulacra. A good pressure point for such an analysis is contemporary use of the modern political tactic of detournement as described by Debord and the situationists. Despite evidence for Baudrillard’s analysis of politics as simulation, the modern political tactic of detournement is still effective. If this is the case, then how can this be explained within Baudrillard’s larger analysis of our contemporary situation?
II. Simulations and Detournement
Recently, a colleague expressed some frustration to me when trying to talk to his students about Che Guevera. Although the students recognized his image, they had no clear idea who Che was. As Baudrillard and others would expect, they knew the image of Che from our consumer culture, but could not articulate who he was. Yet, they still knew his image was associated with subversive activities and radical politics.
This sort of incident illustrates an important point about images; they are double edged. Since the image can be disconnected from its initial context, we have the possibility of DeBord and the Situationists’ detournement. We can recycle and re cut the image (like the “culture jamming” of the Ad Busters) to create new messages [culture-jamming] that are communicable through the cultural terrain (see www.adbusters.org). On the other hand, given Baudrillard’s description of our contemporary situation, how plausible is detournement since images are indeed detached? More concretely, how far removed can a given image be before it has lost both its “official” meaning and its reprogrammed “subversive” one? Does this problem indicate that we must consider the timing of detournement activities? Must we create the subversive use of the image while there is still a consciousness of the image’s original intent?
Furthermore, if there is an element of timing necessary for detournement, then we must consider the following sort of analysis. Why are some images more deeply ingrained with their initial intent? In turn, such deeper images may retain a possible subversive or detournement meaning for a longer period as well. If some images can be used for a longer period, then does this challenge Baudrillard’s assertions that there is no meaning left beyond simulation? If there is no meaning behind the image, then why are some still useable in both “official” and “subversive” modes for a much longer period than others?
Does the possibility of detournement mean that there is some truth to our sense of contemporary politics being a simulation of “real politics”? The ability of detournement to expose the real meaning behind advertising and other public statements suggests that we still possess an ability to understand the authentic when we see it. How else can one explain detournement’s continuing effectiveness?
Baudrillard indicates in his work Simulations that this is the wrong question to ask. According to Baudrillard: “We are witnessing the end of perspective and panoptic space (which remains a moral hypothesis bound up with every classical analysis of the ‘objective’ essence of power), and hence the very abolition of the spectacular” (Baudrillard, 1983:54). Thus, Baudrillard thought that we had already entered (in the 1980’s) a period later than the society of the spectacle that Debord describes in the 1960’s. The idea of any remaining ground or foundation from which one could engage in Debord’s neo Marxist analysis has already disappeared according to Baudrillard.
From this perspective, there is no relationship or channel of manipulation to unmask. The relationship between media and us (the audience) has collapsed to the point that Baudrillard sees no space between the two. In, Simulations, Baudrillard speaks explicitly about television (Ibid.:55-58). Already in 1983 he is concerned that reality television meant that there was no longer a subject with perspective. So, to Baudrillard, Debord’s analysis is already obsolete because we are no longer an audience to a spectacle but instead we are a part of simulation. Thus for Baudrillard, the real has been replaced by the hyperreal.
However, if Baudrillard is correct, then shouldn’t detournement become ineffective? If the distance needed for a relationship like Debord’s spectacle has collapsed, then how could the dialectic of recuperation and detournement still be possible? For Baudrillard the answer would appear to be that Debord’s concept is impossible. Anything that appears to us now as detournement is most likely a simulation of that process. Recuperation and detournement are collapsed categories just like every other possible anchor in the hyperreal. Indeed, Baudrillard seems borne out to some extent when we consider the efforts of companies and products to establish “street cred”. These efforts range from advertising that engages in self-parody to the planting of grass roots reviews on websites. Thus, the idea of detournement, or perhaps we should say authentic, non-simulated detournement seems obsolete.
Debord himself indicates that detournement relies on some sort of ground or context. Hence, his second law of detournement, “The distortions introduced in the detourned elements must be as simplified as possible, since the main impact of detournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements” (Debord and Wolman  2006). If Baudrillard is correct in his description of the hyperreal, then it is hard to see how this original context can survive.
Yet, despite Baudrillard’s criticism, there is evidence of Debord’s dialectic functioning in contemporary culture. Writing in the late 1950’s, Debord and Wolman argued that a growth in detournement would become visible in the arts through, “an increasingly extensive transformation of phrases or plastic works that happen to be in fashion” (Ibid.:3). This observation triggers several associations with contemporary culture such as the pervasive sampling that makes up current music, books that stitch together different cultural worlds, (such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) or television sitcoms such as The Office, which styles itself like a reality program. Furthermore, some images and pieces of culture retain enough meaning that they can easily be turned into a “subversive” mode. How is this possible unless there remains enough relationship and connection to areas outside of simulation?
Perhaps Baudrillard could argue that these acts of resistance are simply wheels within wheels. The evidence we see of Debord’s dialectic is simply the dramatic narrative of the simulation we know. With this interpretation, the hyperreal can retain the dramatic elements and themes of an earlier time, even though this is now unhinged from meaning. However, this solipsistic position ignores much evidence from contemporary culture.
For example, we can see the dynamic of Debord’s detournement and recuperation at work in several areas of contemporary, popular culture. Consider these recent manifestations of cultural recuperation: Motorcycles and motorcycle gang style- now co-opted into brand named superstores; punk rock and punk rock music- co-opted in the 1990’s through grunge and alternative labels; or Goth subculture- co-opted both in popular television and movies and mainstream cosmetics that now feature Goth style colors in lipstick etc. Thus Debord’s dynamic of detournement and recuperation seems to still be going strong.
Two intertwining poles of agency explain this dynamic’s motive force. The first pole (or it could be the second) of this dynamo are strategic, market calculations (recuperation revives failing street cred and hence sales). The second pole (though we might prefer that it be the first), are artistic imperatives (detournement carves out a space for creativity and, hence, originality). Yet, where is such agency to be found in Baudrillard’s view?
In Baudrillard’s broader work the simulacra he describes appear to feed off of each other. Yet this view seems sorely lacking in human agency. In a classic, broad reflection on perception and memory Bergson states, “The function of the body is not to store up recollections, but simply to choose, in order to bring back to consciousness, by the real efficacy thus conferred on it, the useful memory, that which may complete and illuminate the present situation with a view to ultimate action” (Bergson, 1991:179). Indeed, if the goal of an actor within Debord’s dialectic is action, then she chooses some images and symbols with purpose. This dimension of strategy and tactics is missing from Baudrillard’s analysis because it is, again to him, the wrong perspective. In contrast, detournement is at its core for Debord, a tool or tactic of class struggle and for defeating the remains of modernism in the arts. Such a program or cause is obsolete to Baudrillard given his view of our contemporary situation.
Another way to pose this difference between the two thinkers is to compare Debord’s idea of the “spectacle” to Baudrillard’s idea of “the system of objects”. The chapter on advertising in Baudrillard’s The System of Objects, brings out an important distinction between Baudrillard and Debord (Baudrillard,  1996:164-196). The discussion develops into an exploration of the mass psychology of advertising. Baudrillard argues that the rational claims made in advertising are not really believed by any of us. Instead, they provide a rationalization for purchases that we desire due to non-rational motivations. Baudrillard sees advertising as a surface phenomenon of the system of objects that we live within. The key difference between Baudrillard’s description of this vast economic, political, and ideological system of consumption from Debord turns upon agency.
Debord still sees the spectacle as a force that can be countered with tactics such as detournement. In contrast, Baudrillard sees the system of objects as a more pervasive whole into which we are psychologically integrated. The idea of individual agency leading to some sort of resistance begins to look in Baudrillard’s conception like the rebelliousness of a child, rather than the acts of Debord’s class conflict.
So, where has this discussion taken us in thinking about politics and the simulation of politics? Debord and Wolman argue under the second law of detournement that it indeed requires a context but that this is, “only a particular case of a general law that governs not only detournement but also any other form of action in the world. The idea of pure absolute expression is dead” (Debord and Wolman  2006). Thus, for Debord this context can be as mythical, metaphysical, or ideological as its audience is capable of comprehending.
Signs and simulacra in such a context suggest the stage of “sorcery” within Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra. Could this be a good way of thinking about contemporary politics as a closed system of obscurantist meanings? From this perspective, detournement could still be alive in pockets of the hyperreal where individuals still participate within a bounded envelope of ideology. Within this context signs can profoundly refer to other signs for the initiated.
On the other hand, how believable is the idea that contemporary politics is an obscurantist system for the initiated, since politics involves mass behavior? Can such a view explain the agency and motivation we still encounter among political entrepreneurs that emerge from the grassroots? How can we explain the efforts at detournement we still see in society from below, as well as successful examples of recuperation?
III. Baudrillard, Debord, and Nostalgia
A possible path of reconciliation between these two positions is to consider Baudrillard’s discussion of nostalgia. Baudrillard discusses in several of his later writings the prevalence for nostalgia in contemporary culture. Furthermore, our recent visions of the future seem to be ones where individuals are looking back upon us. The most obvious versions of this nostalgia for Baudrillard are books and films where, in a post apocalyptic setting; the survivors walk around the debris of our contemporary world.
In this sense there is a context in Baudrillard when he examines contemporary ideas of the future. The odd nostalgia he describes comes from us, human agents, trying to imagine the outcome of our contemporary actions. From this perspective, our unease is not due to the style or practice of contemporary politics, but to an underlying intuition about the failure of politics. Contemporary humanity faces the possibility of catastrophic risk. The shadow of ecological disaster is especially present in the minds of most of us.
Nostalgia then is something we feel for what politics was. Perhaps detournement continues to work because many of us long for modern (as opposed to contemporary) politics with its clarity of class conflict and ideologies that revolved around the role of the free market. Thus, we still respond to detournement actions that reference this earlier context. Furthermore, many of us prefer to still practice and participate in politics bounded by this context.
Yet, we suspect that this is simulation, not because it is “unreal” but because politics in this sense does not address the most urgent issues that should be political. Instead, with our politics locked into this modern context, the urgent issues of climate change, pollution, technological risk, and mass scale terrorism become topics for culture. Thus, we see the nostalgia for the “society that was”, our current one, in literature and film with post apocalyptic themes.
Nostalgia is also a defense or a coping mechanism. What agency do any of us possess within our contemporary context? Because we sense the futility of politics, as we know it within this contemporary setting, we retreat to behaving as if the old context, with its familiar categories and practices, still exists. Because we behave this way, it does continue to exist but at a cost. We soldier on within a modern politics that is increasingly detached from the constraints (ecological, economic, and biological) of our existence. This closed system of modern politics goes on in a ritualistic fashion, despite our growing frustration, and awareness, of its inability to address our common problems.
Recent commentary that criticizes the whole idea of detournement and Baudrillard’s analysis reflects this desire for politics as it was. In their book, Nation of Rebels, Heath and Potter argue that Baudrillard and Debord have created a closed ideology (Heath and Potter, 2004). From this critical perspective, they argue that there is no system performing recuperation. Instead, by collapsing the categories of the political and the cultural, many on the left have fallen into a bottomless trap. They continue to try and create a counterculture that simply sells more lifestyle product, while failing to attend to “real” politics. Real politics being the incremental policy changes that create results as in the past.
Is this a devastating critique? Or is this nostalgia for the politics that was? The examples Heath and Potter give of positive change, the American Civil Rights Movement, the construction of the welfare state, seem like a museum to us now. Is the context for such political activity still with us? Do we live in an era capable of producing such outcomes?
Instead, politics in this sort of analysis begins to resemble religion in that we appeal to it and diligently perform our duties waiting for an intervention that does not come. Have we not performed our roles earnestly enough? Are we neglecting the rites of our fathers? Do we need to switch to another denomination? Should we blame the clergy? And of course some of us begin to have our doubts that any of it matters.
From this perspective, the post apocalyptic nostalgia so prevalent in contemporary culture voices our lurking fears. In these movies and books, our lurking suspicion that contemporary politics fails to address the “real problem” is realized. This is also a reconciliation of Baudrillard and Debord. Detournement still works because we can access this past context. Indeed, we continue to blindly insist that this past social context is still our contemporary home. When our contemporary attempts at politics founder, because they must confront a very different world today, we try to evaluate their efficacy with this rubric from the past. Why are our governments unable to address the looming ecological crisis? Why don’t our political parties provide us with a range of public policies to choose from?
What do these observations mean for thinking about politics? If Baudrillard and Debord are both accurate in their descriptions, then we seem to be in a moment of political stagnation. The tactics of Debord’s detournement remain relevant because we continue to look backward to what politics were. These tactics are successful on one larger point, they temporarily expose our contemporary politics as a simulation of the modern form of politics that was. In this sense, practicing Debord’s detournement is a useful activity, but only a first step leading to our contemporary time’s pervasive nostalgia. The next step, taking Baudrillard’s diagnosis seriously, and developing new forms of politics for our contemporary situation, is a greater challenge (see also Lindsey 2007).
About the Author
Jason R. Lindsey received his PhD from Columbia University and is currently Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. His specialization is contemporary political theory though he also studies the politics of Eastern Europe and travels there extensively.
Jean Baudrillard (2006). “Divine Europe” In International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 3, Number 1 (January)
Jean Baudrillard (1983). Simulations. New York: Semiotexte.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1996). The System of Objects. New York: Verso.
Henri Bergson (1991). Matter and Memory. New York: Zone Books.
Guy Debord and Gil Wolman ( 2006). “A User’s Guide to Detournement”. Translated by Ken Knabb from the Situationist International Anthology, 2006. This translation is available online at: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/detourn.htm
Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter (2004). Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture. New York: Harper Collins.
Jason R. Lindsey (2007). “Rethinking the Political: Taking Baudrillard’s ‘Silent Majorities’ Seriously,” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 4, Number 2 (July).
Richard R. Lau and Caroline Heldman (2009). “Self-Interest, Symbolic Attitudes, and Support for Public Policy: A Multilevel Analysis” in Political Psychology, (August) Volume 30, Number 4: 513-537.
Sears, Lau, Tyler, and Allen (1980). “Self-Interest vs. Symbolic Politics in Policy Attitudes and Presidential Voting” in American Political Science Review, Volume 74: 670-684.
Slavoj Zizek (2008). Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador.
Slavoj Zizek (2011). Zizek’s address to Occupy Wall Street: http://occupywallst.org/forum/today-liberty-plaza-had-visit-slavoj-zizek/