A few years back, a really good, strange magazine called Kasino A4 was published in English out of my native Finland. Cleaning house on my computer today, I found this text that I seem to have written in April 2007. I have no recollection of writing it, but the phrases, topics and cultural references are obviously straight from my head. Today, I find the attempts at a contemplative, literary style infuriatingly vague, and am baffled to see how theoretical (and off the mark) my end-of-the-world scenarios are. But I like the tone of complete alienation, and there is a bit about Ender’s Game, which lends this piece some topicality, so here goes.
I think the original title was This is the way the world ends. I’ve left the sub-headings as they were. I’ve quietly corrected my spelling of Baudrillard in two or three places.
It’s not the end of the world
At least once in your lifetime you will find yourself cocooned in heartbreak and completely numb. Shell-shocked from betrayal, fresh out of tears but brimming with sorrow – beyond, as the saying goes, caring. The distance to the every-day will seem insurmountable; other people, the non-grievers, insignificant and incomprehensible.
They turn to you and their mouths move with seemingly familiar words. You will struggle to string the meaning of these words together. “It’s not the end of the world”.
Temporarily released from social obligations you do not smile or nod or pretend to understand. You will consider. You will wonder whether this is new, or whether distinguishing lunacy from wisdom, trite advice from profound truth, has always been impossible.
Perhaps you never noticed that language is blunt and broken. Perhaps now that you feel that everything is meaningless, it is because the scales have fallen. Emptied of all significance, you now see the emptiness of all signifiers.
You used to have faith in time and space and language. Now your isolation belies distance, and time stretches around you without dimensions like a desert. It may not be the end of everything, but it is the end of the world.
The country that eats truth
The day after Jean Baudrillard died, I received an email from celebritydeathbeeper.com. The email informed me that Captain America, one of Marvel’s original superheroes, would be mortally struck by a sniper’s bullet while exiting a courthouse on the following Wednesday.
Meanwhile, short obituaries in newspaper culture sections struggled with Baudrillard’s intellectual legacy. Some of them bungled “hyperreality”, describing it only as systems of symbols pointing only to each other and not to any outside reality at all. That would be a decent definition of what old J.B. called “simulacra” (a copy without a model).
Hyperreality is the state of living in simulacra, the dream that we denizens of mediated, symbolic, virtual realities share about that which was original. Hyperreality dilutes our understanding of relative worth and causality and achievement.
Baudrillard had an intimate relationship with America, the continent that is based on a dream, produces fictions and eats truth. He wrote of theme parks like Disneyland that the function of obviously fictional worlds is to make the rest of the country seem relatively real. Thus, while I was surprised that Celebrity Deathbeeper overlooked the death of a leading intellectual, there was a pleasant symmetry to the mishap.
In my internalized map of the world, The Marvel Universe extends on top of ours. Spider-Man’s Manhattan. The Fantastic Four on the Hudson. Daredevil and Hell’s Kitchen. The West Coast Avengers in Los Angeles. Sunspot from Brazil. Alpha Flight in Canada, Excalibur in the UK, red super-heroes in communist China and in the Soviet Union –another fictional universe illustrating how all geography has been hyperreal for some time now.
Not having visited the US until recently, my sense of the relative fictionality of these overlapping Americas was based entirely on hearsay. But in a country the width of a continent, so must much of its own citizens’ be. Only the pace of the sun seems to indicate that the Midwest actually exists, but it could be a nuclear wasteland.
Arguably, Americans themselves have a deeper relationship to Captain America, who has been around since 1941, than to George W Bush, who is five years younger and did not spring directly into the public eye. It certainly makes sense for them to grieve the Cap more than some French academic, who most famously argued that the senior Bush’s Gulf War was a hyperreal fiction in its entirety. (It was, but not for its victims: the finality of our corporeal existence transcends the hyperreal).
I have never felt Celebrity Deathbeeper is morbid, nor felt shame for receiving email updates on the personal tragedies of others. Neither has its editor ever exhibited shame for his work as the bringer of bad news. But on the Thursday of the week that Baudrillard died, the service sent out an apology to all the comic book fans that were upset to have had a major plot point spoiled in advance of the relevant issue’s publication.
The gate is always down
The middle classes pass on traditions and have special economic and social privileges just like all the others classes always have. Yet the bourgeois revolution was a revolution of the meritocracy.
The middle class identity is an identity of mobility and achievement and flux. Bourgeois traditions are not the binding foundations of all life. They are starting points, suggestions. The middle class subject is not burdened by history, but lives in a constant now: surrounded by time, not ruled by time. The subject, the me, is all there is. All that is certain. I think, therefore I am, and may choose for convenience to operate as if other people too have an independent existence.
To be able to advance in a system, the system must have dimensions, a geography. To move up in the world, there must be an “up” in the world. The grand project of middle class advancement requires both an aristocracy with absolutist beliefs and oppressed masses to define oneself against.
There were two hundred years between the storming of the Bastille and the fall of the Berlin wall. Capitalism won. Consumerism won. Individualism won. I won the revolution, I vanquished history, I reinvented myself daily and invited Disneyworld and the Internet into my designer handbag.
The modern project was the process of my liberation: when it was completed, I was freed entirely. Freed from God, responsibilities, politeness, semantic stability, a consensus reality. In the affluent west, the upper classes descend into the middle classes. The working classes ascend into the middle classes. Everyone has choice and me and now.
In Orson Scott Card’s 1985 science fiction classic Ender’s Game, the children play a strategy laser tag in a weightless room. Ender prevails because he can think in relative dimensions, and the others do not. To play this game, to win this game, the player must define his own, fictional “directions” on the weightless space. The gate, the object of the match, is always “down”.
In a modern society, the key to success was to understand that one was free to redefine one’s position between the absolutes. In a postmodern society, it is to redefine both the goals and oneself. The semantic fluidity of Ender’s mind – his flexible relationship to “meaning” – makes him a master of the war game.
But Ender’s moral naivety prevents him from seeing that the game is also real. At the end of a novel, Ender believes to be playing a video game, while actually commanding a war, his ruthless strategies destroying real lives.
The portrait of his commanders and of Earth’s political system is seemingly simplistic. Their selfish adherence to their own priorities, no matter the cost to others, makes them seem evil. This assumes that the reader, too, shares the individualist assumption that the rights of 6-year old boys take priority over the interests of humanity as a collective.
Herein lies Orson Scott Card’s brilliance: he know that most readers will share these assumptions, and thus Ender’s false sense of security in his society. That the reveal works as a fictional twist requires us both to do so, and to ultimately recognize the plausibility of the actions of his superiors.
This is the postmodern fallacy. My seemingly absolute power to negotiate my position in the world and the relative meaning of its elements obscures how much it is limited by the similarly absolute power of all other subjects, and by the mortality of my own body.
Cold sweat and a worldless whimper
The Western World, the island of tomorrow, is a soundproof simulacrum of signifiers that have stopped pointing at anything except each other. “Status”. “Individual”. “Celebrity”. “Communication”. “Safety”. “Career”. “Parliamentary democracy”. “Health”. “News”. “Gender”. “Beauty”. “Reality”. “Collateral damage”. “Money”. “Values”. “Distance”. “Presence”. “Disaster”. “Lifelike”.
Rationally, we understand that this is not the world, this is language, and that we live and change by manipulating this language. We dream that a step behind the hyperreal, the real walks along with us. But it is less real to us than angels and phantasms.
A mangled body returns from a war. If you see it in person, not on television, not in ink, you will glimpse the concept of being beyond language. There may be make-up and formaldehyde. But imagine there is only the opposite of life. Without the rituals of heartbreak there is space to consider meaning.
This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper. It ends for you, and you consider how lamplight distracts from the cover of darkness. You glimpse each disaster that could pierce this fiction and the thought becomes fictional as it crosses into language.
A hunger crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa drives 150 million refugees to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Sea levels rising only 12 meters in my lifetime leaves Manhattan a memory to fade into fiction. A nuclear warhead pierces the surface of hyperreality from the outside. An asteroid set to pass Earth on April 13th, 2029, disturbs our orbit around the sun.
There is a bang in this. You understand intellectually that this is a bang. Your body understands. Your skin crawls. Your stomach turns. But you are not ruled by your body. You dismiss fear that is larger than language.