Spectacle and Simulation

A combination photo shows U.S. President Trump  trying twice to let go of a handshake with France's President Macron as Macron holds tight, before a working lunch ahead of a NATO Summit in Brussels

As Evan Puschack (a.k.a. The Nerdwriter) pointed out in his excellent video essay on cinematic violence, one of the most striking characteristics of action sequences in superhero movies is the seeming lack of consequences. The cityscapes in which the action is often situated exist as nothing more than ephemeral simulations, crumbling into rubble over and over again, only to re-emerge, unscathed, for the next sequence (or movie). Reality seems to be suspended, as punches fly and skyscrapers (usually conveniently evacuated) collapse, hordes of aliens are wiped out, and nothing happens. The choreography, for all its flashiness, is ultimately devoid of meaning. These fights seem more like ritualistic displays than battles for survival. Alright, now after I punch you in the chest, you’ll block my kick, and then I’ll tackle you into this building… Each blow is nothing more than an empty signifier, landing without any real impact. Of course, the point of these scenes is not to serve as a medium for the plot, moving it along to the next point. The “story” is an effect of the violence, a faint thread that links together the various pyrotechnic displays everyone expects to see in a superhero movie. The events of each film comprise a signifying chain, deferring meaning until the credits roll, and then, surprise surprise, there is no meaning. Don’t forget to stick around for the teaser scenes though! The violence in Tarantino films has been described as nihilistic, but Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner Bros are clearly the much bigger culprits when it comes to that. Why did that thing blow up? Because people like explosions, that’s why. To quote Puschack, “they write themselves up to the brink, and then let the stunt coordinators take it from there”. Superhero violence serves a purely aesthetic function, conforming to a narrative logic that rejects narrative.

This fetishization of the “symbolic” (can something really be symbolic if it doesn’t represent anything?), the fixation on the signifier rather than the signified, is not limited to the silver screen. If cultural products reflect larger social trends, then it seems fitting that the superhero flick has been such a staple of the cinematic economy for the past decade or so. With the rapid growth of the Internet and its prevalence in our daily lives, the spectacle of the political has become increasingly streamlined and compressed, reducable to sequences of signals on a representational level. A tweet, a video or sound clip, there are now a plethora of available micro-actions in the politician’s arsenal. The affective salience of an action takes precedence over underlying meaning or intention. Perception is everything. It’s not that people don’t care about policy anymore, it’s just that policy these days is simply a matter of public relations. Politics is no longer action (if it ever was), but gesture. 

Last month, Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump shook hands, and people lost their shit. Not because the new French president was engaging in an apparently cordial interaction with Trump; in fact all the fuss was for the exact opposite reason. The handshake was awkward, prolonged, uncomfortable. And for many, it was an act of resistance. Macron was lauded for his decision to shake Trump’s hands for a few extra seconds, praised as a potential “anti-Trump”. In the words of the man himself: “My handshake with him was not innocent. We need to show that we won’t make small concessions, even symbolic ones, while not overhyping things either.” He’s lying, of course. It’s all about hype. The art of politics is the art of turning the smallest non-event into a massive triumph, making history out of nothing. Politics is nothing but hype.

Macron does have a point, though. His handshake wasn’t innocent; nothing is. Everything’s political these days, as your annoyingly “civic minded” friends will tell you. That cup of coffee you had this morning is political, that t-shirt you bought at the mall is political, that text you just sent is political, your dog is political, everything’s fucking political. And how easy it this all is, when all it takes is one click! Click, you’ve signed an online petition, click, your Facebook banner bears the imagery of whatever cause is in vogue at the moment. If the world is at our fingertips, surely we can change it with those fingertips. Click, click, click. A million tiny gestures that amount to little more than a successions of virtual blips, disappearing into the cacaphony of a whole world of gesture.

Baudrillard’s comments on Watergate are applicable to the entirety of this regime of signification: “capital, immoral and without scruples, can only function behind a moral superstructure, and whoever revives this public morality (through indignation, denunciation, etc.) works spontaneously for the order of capital”. Politics is a parasite that leeches off our constant need to be outraged, draining that outrage of all its original affective meaning until it becomes something performed, rather than felt. Being angry is no longer a matter of being, but of doing. This doesn’t mean anger translates into action, rather, it only exists as an action. In its purely performative function, indignation does not have to be felt, it must simply be indicated. As Baudrillard points out, a simulated hold-up inevitably becomes a real hold-up. Simulated outrage becomes real outrage, because they can no longer be distinguished.

The most horrifying thing, however, is that we already know all of this. We know that a gesture is just that, a gesture. We know that access to capital’s communicative matrix does not amount to access to power. No one seriously believes that the flame wars they conduct in an article’s comment section are changing the world in even the smallest way.  The reason we can’t bring ourselves to disrupt this never-ending feed-back loop is that we see no way out. When serious, organized resistance to Trump fails to materialize, we are forced to content ourselves with uncomfortable handshakes. Gesture’s domination is not the result of the delusion that we can enact change in such a way. It is the result of despair, the belief that we can’t change anything. The spectacle triumphs in the absence of hope. The only way out is to believe there is a way out. Maybe some have begun to do so; only time will tell if the impossible dream of change will triumph over the bleak “realism” of political subjectivity.