File spoon-archives/baudrillard.archive/baudrillard_2001/baudrillard.0109, message 11


Date: Sun, 16 Sep 2001 18:53:22 -0700
Subject: WELCOME TO THE DESERT OF THE REAL! Slavoj Zizek



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WELCOME TO THE DESERT OF THE REAL! Slavoj Zizek

The ultimate American paranoiac fantasy is that of an individual living in 
a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly 
starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged 
to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all people around him 
are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show. The most recent 
example of this is Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998), with Jim Carrey 
playing the small town clerk who gradually discovers the truth that he is 
the hero of a 24-hours permanent TV show: his hometown is constructed on a 
gigantic studio set, with cameras following him permanently. Among its 
predecessors, it is worth mentioning Philip Dick's Time Out of Joint 
(1959), in which a hero living a modest daily life in a small idyllic 
Californian city of the late 50s, gradually discovers that the whole town 
is a fake staged to keep him satisfied... The underlying experience of Time 
Out of Joint and of The Truman Show is that the late capitalist consumerist 
Californian paradise is, in its very hyper-reality, in a way IRREAL, 
substanceless, deprived of the material inertia.

So it is not only that Hollywood stages a semblance of real life deprived 
of the weight and inertia of materiality - in the late capitalist 
consumerist society, "real social life" itself somehow acquires the 
features of a staged fake, with our neighbors behaving in "real" life 
as  stage actors and extras... Again, the ultimate truth of the capitalist 
utilitarian de-spiritualized universe is the de-materialization of the 
"real life" itself, its reversal into a spectral show. Among others, 
Christopher Isherwood gave expression to this unreality of the American 
daily life, exemplified in the motel room: "American motels are unreal! 
/.../ they are deliberately designed to be unreal. /.../ The Europeans hate 
us because we've retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits 
going into caves to contemplate." Peter Sloterdijk's notion of the "sphere" 
is here literally realized, as the gigantic metal sphere that envelopes and 
isolates the entire city. Years ago, a series of science-fiction films like 
Zardoz or Logan's Run forecasted today's postmodern predicament by 
extending this fantasy to the community itself: the isolated group living 
an aseptic life in a secluded area longs for the experience of the real 
world of material decay.

The Wachowski brothers' hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic to its climax: 
the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, 
generated and coordinated by a gigantic mega-computer to which we are all 
attached; when the hero (played by Keanu Reeves) awakens into the "real 
reality," he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins - what 
remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus 
utters the ironic greeting: "Welcome to the desert of the real." Was it not 
something of the similar order that took  place in New York on September 
11? Its citizens were introduced to the "desert of the real" - to us, 
corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the 
collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes 
in the catastrophe big productions.

When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the 
unimaginable Impossible happened, one should recall the other defining 
catastrophe from the beginning of the XXth century, that of Titanic: it was 
also a shock, but the space for it was already prepared in ideological 
fantasizing, since Titanic was the symbol of the might of the XIXth century 
industrial civilization. Does the same not hold also for these bombings? 
Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with the talk about the 
terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested - 
just recall the series of movies from Escape From New York to Independence 
Day. The unthinkable which happened was thus the object of fantasy: in a 
way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise.

It is precisely now, when we are dealing with the raw Real of a 
catastrophe, that we should bear in mind the ideological and fantasmatic

coordinates which determine its perception. If there is any symbolism in 
the collapse of the WTC towers, it is not so much the old-fashioned notion 
of the "center of financial capitalism," but, rather, the notion that the 
two WTC towers stood for the center of the VIRTUAL capitalism, of financial 
speculations disconnected from the sphere of material production. The 
shattering impact of the bombings can only be accounted for only against 
the background of the borderline which today separates the digitalized 
First World from the Third World "desert of the Real." It is
  the awareness that we live in an insulated artificial universe which 
generates the notion that some ominous agent is threatening us all the time 
with total destruction.

Is, consequently, Osama Bin Laden, the suspected mastermind behind the 
bombings, not the rel-life counterpart of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the 
master-criminal in most of the James Bond films, involved in the acts of 
global destruction. What one should recall here is that the only place in 
Hollywood films where we see the production process in all its intensity is 
when James Bond penetrates the master-criminal's secret domain and locates 
there the site of intense labor (distilling and packaging the drugs, 
constructing a rocket that will destroy New York...).
When the master-criminal, after capturing Bond, usually takes him on a tour 
of his illegal factory, is this not the closest Hollywood comes to the 
socialist-realist proud presentation of the production in a factory? And 
the function of Bond's intervention, of course, is to explode in firecraks 
this site of production, allowing us to return to the daily semblance of 
our existence in a world with the "disappearing working class." Is it not 
that, in the exploding WTC towers, this violence directed at the 
threatening Outside turned back at us?


The safe Sphere in which Americans live is experienced as under threat from 
the Outside of terrorist attackers who are ruthlessly self-sacrificing AND 
cowards, cunningly intelligent AND primitive barbarians. Whenever we 
encounter such a purely evil Outside, we should gather the courage to 
endorse the Hegelian lesson: in this pure Outside, we should recognize the 
distilled version of our own essence. For the last five centuries, the 
(relative) prosperity and peace of the "civilized" West was bought by the 
export of ruthless violence and destruction into the "barbarian" Outside: 
the long story from the conquest of America to the slaughter in Congo. 
Cruel and indifferent as it may sound, we should also, now more than ever, 
bear in mind that the actual effect of these bombings is much more symbolic 
than real. The US just got the taste of what goes on around the world on a 
daily basis, from Sarajevo to Grozny, from Rwanda and Congo to Sierra 
Leone. If one adds to the situation in New York snipers and gang rapes, one 
gets an idea about what Sarajevo was a decade ago.

It is when we watched on TV screen the two WTC towers collapsing, that it 
became possible to experience the falsity of the "reality TV shows": even 
if this shows are "for real," people still act in them - they simply play 
themselves. The standard disclaimer in a novel ("characters in this text 
are a fiction, every resemblance with the real life characters is purely 
contingent") holds also for the participants of the reality soaps: what we 
see there are fictional characters, even if they play themselves for the 
real. Of course, the "return to the Real" can be

given different twists: Rightist commentators like George Will also 
immediately proclaimed the end of the American "holiday from history" - the 
impact of reality shattering the isolated tower of the liberal tolerant 
attitude and the Cultural Studies focus on textuality. Now, we are forced 
to strike back, to deal with real enemies in the real world... However, 
WHOM to strike? Whatever the response, it will never hit the RIGHT target, 
bringing us full satisfaction. The ridicule of America attacking 
Afghanistan cannot but strike the eye: if the greatest power in the world 
will destroy one of the poorest countries in which peasant barely survive 
on barren hills, will this not be the ultimate case of the impotent acting out?

There is a partial truth in the notion of the "clash of civilizations" 
attested here - witness the surprise of the average American: "How is 
it  possible that these people have such a disregard for their own lives?" 
Is not the obverse of this surprise the rather sad fact that we, in the 
First World countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a 
public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one's 
life? When, after the bombings, even the Taliban foreign minister said that 
he can "feel the pain" of the American children, did he not thereby confirm 
the hegemonic ideological role of this Bill Clinton's trademark phrase? 
Furthermore, the notion of America as a safe haven, of course, also is a 
fantasy: when a New Yorker commented on how, after the bombings, one can no 
longer walk safely on the city's streets, the irony of it was that, well 
before the bombings, the streets of New York were well-known for the 
dangers of being attacked or, at least, mugged - if anything, the bombings 
gave rise to a new sense of solidarity, with the scenes of young 
African-Americans helping an old Jewish gentlemen to cross the street, 
scenes unimaginable a couple of days ago.

Now, in the days immediately following the bombings, it is as if we dwell 
in the unique time between a traumatic event and its symbolic impact, like 
in those brief moment after we are deeply cut, and before the full extent 
of the pain strikes us - it is open how the events will be symbolized, what 
their symbolic efficiency will be, what acts they will be evoked to 
justify. Even here, in these moments of utmost tension, this link is not 
automatic but contingent. There are already the first bad omens; the day 
after the bombing, I got a message from a journal which was just about to 
publish a longer text of mine on Lenin, telling me that they decided to 
postpone its publication - they considered inopportune to publish a text on 
Lenin immediately after the bombing. Does this not point towards the 
ominous ideological rearticulations which will follow?

We don't yet know what consequences in economy, ideology, politics, war, 
this event will have, but one thing is sure: the US, which, till now, 
perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, 
witnessing this kind of things only from the safe distance of the TV 
screen, is now directly involved. So the alternative is: will Americans 
decide to fortify further their "sphere," or to risk stepping out of it? 
Either  America will persist in, strengthen even, the attitude of "Why 
should this happen to us? Things like this don't happen HERE!", leading to more

aggressivity towards the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac 
acting out. Or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic 
screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the 
Real world, making the long-overdued move from "A thing like this should 
not happen HERE!" to "A thing like this should not happen ANYWHERE!". 
America's "holiday from history" was a fake: America's peace was bought by 
the catastrophes going on elsewhere. Therein resides the true lesson of the 
bombings: the only way to ensure that it will not happen HERE again is to 
prevent it going on ANYWHERE ELSE.

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