Police-Staged Reality and its Implications for Politics (Part I)* by Michael Rectenwald, Ph.D., www.legitgov.org 14 May 2013
Michel Foucault got at least one major facet of contemporary society right: the economic system accounts for only a part of what oppresses us. Exploitation, enforced need, a contrived struggle for existence premised on the commodification of body, mind, and spirit, the alienation of the individual from the greater part of his or her activity, from his or her self, and from others -- these are but the starting points for a complete analysis and comprehension of social existence under what can only be called a closed system of capitalist-state domination consisting of surveillance, disinformation, both contrived and "legitimate" crises, and the construction of continuous catastrophe as a rationalization for advancing a total Police State.
Watertown, Mass., in aftermath of Boston bombings, April 2013
We labor under capitalism, but the system is held intact by far more than its intrinsic rewards and punishments. Technology, which has always held out the promise of the freedom from necessity, nevertheless has become its contrary, a plethora of tools for the penetration of social relations, the visualization (and removal) of the body, the mediation of the most intimate activities of what might be called the "mind," which includes the entire infosphere -- the Internet and other digital spheres of knowledge production, exchange and containment.
While we are sufficiently amused, an overarching police bubble encapsulates us. Our motion is constrained and our self-determination is pre-programmed to allow expression only along particular, sanctioned channels, and within a limited range. The surveillance and assassination state is always less than total, is always incomplete and therefore is always increasing its range, precision, and depth of penetration. Another attack and its extension and license for more policing are guaranteed. As of yet, we are allowed to peer into the sky and contemplate the clouds. But soon, bomber-and-surveillance drones will be spotted within them. Soon after that, we will be habituated to drones. And soon after that, drones will represent ancient technologies of surveillance and potential assassination. Far more elaborate and sophisticated tools are doubtless already in the making.
The state apparatuses, meanwhile, represent only a fraction of the technologies of surveillance and domination. The Internet, once hailed for its democratic prospects, continually reveals its underbelly, its ability to both produce and constrain thought, to induce self-surveillance, to undermine collective activity by divorcing bodies from avatars -- not quite in the way of The Matrix, but rather, given the remaining possibilities of motion, in more disconcerting, insidious ways -- and to immobilize while promising the ability to roam freely. Bodies are not strictly immobilized batteries for the production of the simulacrum, but rather must labor to reproduce themselves and thus their own subordination, engaging in the production of the entire simulation known as reality, but more aptly understood as a virtual reality, a mass hallucination powered largely by unwitting witnesses who can rarely, if ever, become participants (except in faux events as paid actors, or unpaid videographers). Entertainment is the dominant activity, and crises are top-selling infotainment. A new category of entertainment is on sale now -- the "disinfotainment" produced by the state in collaboration with the culture industries.
Meanwhile, it is not as if we have The Matrix's Neo on the one hand, and the unwary denizens of the matrix on the other. Rather, everyone knows that something is awry. An abiding sense subsists that the many horrid events are staged for repeated consumption. When they are not staged from the outset by the state in connection with contract mercenaries and hired or duped would-be terrorists, they are at least staged in their continuous mediation. Either way, the producers and co-producers of a virtual reality effectively stage them. The end is not merely, as some claim, the induction of continual fear, although that does result. Rather, the end game is an abiding state of trauma and suspense, an expectation for further trauma, a fascination with mesmerizing spectacle, and a non-cathartic repetition, in the Freudian sense, of an only-slightly deviated crisis that forever haunts the subject and places limits on the horizon of his or her activity. The possibilities for repeated trauma abolish the future, and anathematize all alternative narrative dimensions. The abolition of utopian prospects is necessary for the unhampered reproduction of disaster, which is necessary for the abolition of utopian prospects.
Within a Police-Staged Reality (PSR), counter activities of all kinds are perpetrated by the state itself. In particular, FBI agents contrive terrorist events, produce the perpetrators, and then proceed to ensnare them. Under such circumstances, "political" activity cannot be understood in anything like a conventional sense. What becomes of political activity, for example, when the state can and does produce its own enemies only to later silence and/or kill them with nary a shred of justification? What becomes of "real" opposition when the state arms its supposed terrorist opponents (as in Libya and Syria), while disarming its own citizenry? Political activity is a "blend" of simulation and "real," a mixed bag of committed, sincere actors, along with paid and state-induced actors, all performing on a stage, the limits of which are provided by the apparatuses of surveillance and an all-abiding potential for annihilation.
Sniper on rooftop, working Boston bombings event
The significance of such a simulated reality is not at all limited to the problem of agent provocateurs among us, or to a dissembling state that we cannot trust. Rather, the significance of the PSR is that it represents the ability, and moreover a confidence in the ability, to produce, contain and dismantle any and all opposition on the fly -- to create the political landscape itself, to people it, and to direct the actions of the actors therein. Within the PSR, politics amounts to a series of controlled demolitions. The scope and power of the PSR means that politics is nullified by preemptive strikes. It is the PSR of The Minority Report, with the important exception that the criminals preemptively apprehended have either been menaced into activity by a state regime of "targeted" assassination, entrapped into criminality by the authorities, or are actually the authorities themselves undertaking a criminality that is never actually apprehended, but only repeated for effect.
Far from either the "left" or "right" achieving consequential ends under such conditions, the PSR can and does produce difference and its ultimate containment, its final conversion into simulacra for the maintenance of a theater of political activity. This is not to say that real political actors do not exist. They do. But the left and the right find themselves facing a common problem, a commonly perceived (although differently conceived of) simulation. They both become the dupes of state-and-corporate stage effects, and they find themselves, occasionally, confronting each other in areas where their opposition has been produced in response to the same preposterous simulations. This is not to say, patently, that they have a common enemy and have merely been divided by varying ideologies. In the PSR, the virtual replaces the ideological, such that what was once ideological becomes "real," real simulation. The containment of the theatre is the key, as well as the preexisting ability to defuse opposition at any moment.
It is true that the theater involves "real" drama for those who believe that they have political efficacy and who take dramatic action on the basis of such beliefs. The consequences become "serious" for said actors, who, while posing only ersatz threats to the state, are nevertheless treated to apprehension and punished on the basis of their supposedly menacing capability. Thus we see the treatment of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, whose revelations have been smothered by the very publicity surrounding the actors themselves, proving that the real potential for scandalizing the state never existed in the first place. Similarly, the ricin mailer posed no real threat but was treated as such. For every such "menace" must be mined for its value as spectacle in order to bolster the security apparatuses and thus fortify the simulacrum. If such "threats" did not exist, the state would create them, and, as we know, it has. But the issue of state "conspiracies" is not so much that the state may have staged various terrorist events, but rather that no real threat to the established order could have existed in the first place. The entirety -- including the "threat" and its apprehension -- is comprehended and subsumed within the overall simulation.
Massive manhunt - stay indoors.
Meanwhile, as activity is more and more divorced from bodies, "real" political activity either ceases to exist or exists more and more as simulation. "Knowledge workers," a growing body of the economic strata, work to produce the matrix. At the same time, politics becomes binary code taking the shape of language, images and other mediated "events."
Craft International mercenaries, working the Boston bombings event
The possibility must be considered, however, that the PSR merely represents a new means for the production and containment of the polis. After all, the political sphere has always been contained. The agora always had its limits, the edges of which marked the interstices of "actual" and "virtual," or vice versa. Politics is this sense was always performance, the virtual as it impacted the "real." Yet the PSR seems to represent a virtual reality without edges, a space out from which nothing can burst, a container without limits, a virtual that has no interface with the "real." Rather, the virtual supplants and substitutes for the "real," for whatever the latter is worth. The Internet becomes the agora within which political theater is conducted, but the limits of this space cannot be located or marked off. Instead, it permeates and/or becomes everything.
If this conception runs counter to how we generally view politics, the situation may be looked at in reverse. That is, politics can be seen as the potential for the real to burst into the virtual (the unrealized) and to make the virtual real. Change happens, that is, when the totality of the real, as it is, can be located as a contradiction to the virtual or unrealized (or vice versa), and converted into the latter.
However, with the transmission of political activity into the virtual, it is the virtual that must be converted into the real. The virtual activity of the Internet must find its limits outside of itself, in what is commonly thought of as the "real world." The problem with this configuration is that when the digital virtual seeks to become real, the real thereby becomes the virtual. Unlike in the ancient agora, the digital virtual supplants the real because the former has no limits. It expands like the Singularity to cover the entirety of social reality.
Militarized police presence in Watertown, Mass. - aftermath of Boston bombings
The case of "Anonymous," the notorious group of hackers, provides a perfect illustration. Under the terms of anonymity itself, the "real" basis for identity of Anonymous must be taken as an article of faith. Only the virtual identity is "known." But does it matter in terms of political efficacy? What is said about Anonymous seems to matter. The state seems interested in connecting Anonymous with a nefarious group of "real" actors acting against its "real" interests and those of the commercial establishment. But by definition of its exclusively virtual identity, we have no knowledge of the "real" basis of Anonymous. Likewise, Anonymous could be part of a broader political simulation carried out by the state itself. Whether or not Anonymous is part of a state simulation, the case of Anonymous makes clear that when politics becomes the exclusively virtual, the "real" disappears into the virtual.
But it can be demonstrated that unlike Anonymous, most actors are "blended" characters, a combination of virtual and "anchored" identities locatable in the "real." Moreover, the consequences of Anonymous may be "real." But the point here is not so much that the actors within the political sphere or the consequences of their actions are unreal. Rather, the problem is that the entire political sphere itself -- the theater if you will -- is a simulation within which real blended characters and mere pretenders are alike forced to act. The problem is that, unable to locate the edges of the produced political sphere, that is, unable to locate the barriers of the simulacrum due to the limitlessness of the virtual, we are incapable of bursting the bubble of the matrix itself. We don't know the extent to which, for example, Anonymous actually might affect the "real," because the real can be converted back into simulation at any time. The "real" monetary consequences of Anonymous' digital hacking can be reconverted to digital data. But in order for the PSR to remain effective, it is not necessary that everything become the virtual, only that the virtual expand sufficiently to include the real within it.
Finally, this is not an argument for a new "realism," a kind of neo-Luddite reversion away from the virtual. Cries of "realism," as shown in the film Existenz, merely bring the real into a subsuming virtual reality that cannot be overcome by the former. On the other hand, the virtual might become the real, but an expanding and limitless virtuality can and will encompass it. Nor can counter simulations conducted by oppositional elements avail, as the case of Anonymous makes clear. At issue is the totality itself, a concept that has been all but abandoned in theoretical circles, but ruthlessly pursued by the producers of the virtual, and in particular, of the PSR. The totality and what can become of it will be the subject of Part II of this report.
*Lori Price, Editor-in-Chief at www.legitgov.org, assisted with research on this paper.
Michael Rectenwald, Ph.D., is the founder and chair of Citizens for Legitimate Government. His writings for CLG can be found here and here. He teaches in the Global Liberal Studies Program at New York University and is the author of numerous essays, and three books. Among the most recent of his books is The Thief and Other Stories, a collection of short stories, published in 2013.
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