Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Deleuze, Plato and the simulucrum

Hey, hey! It's Christmas holidays so actually have time to update this blog, hooray! I thought I would share a couple of pieces of my work up here.

 This one is a talk/presentation type thing I gave on Deleuze, Plato and the simulucrum at Oxford. Fun fact! I actually hate Deleuze ( and any other model of impenetrable theory that is totally dislocated from reality) and totally did not volunteer to give a 20 minute talk on this dude but hey! I got to talk about Kanye so it's all good. [Also re: Django Unchained, the final paragraph refers solely to Samuel L Jackson's performance rather than Quentin Tarantino's, ahem, 'vision' of black culture as a whole].

But yeah here it is! And I hope you are all well and happy :)

tw: racism, anti-blackness

When reading Plato and the Simulacrum I was struck, as I so often am when studying Deleuze, by the sheer inaccessibility of the text. I could attribute this to the fact that is a translation, a copy of the original, though so often I see that argument as a guilt trip for the less educated among us (i.e. me). I suppose I harbor a grumpy student conspiracy theory that with each step from the original text, a piece of critical theory becomes more dense, like being lost in the black forest in Germany, its neat equations of methodological pseudo-logic ironically quickly become totally illogical and collapse in on themselves. And then soon enough an hour has passed and I have been reading the same sentence over and over and over and over and find myself wanting to use bad old cliché copies like “stuck like a broken record” and making sort of stupid sort of smart, definitely pretentious points about how staring at sentences without reading them is the ultimate simulacrum or whatever. And it also occurs to me as I read this that I don’t know how to pronounce simulacrum. So that’s awkward.

I think of the physicist’s Lev Landau’s ranking scheme, where the further away from zero a person is the further away from original thought they are, here the initial ideas of others become more conflated, more complicated, until once reaching 5 they cease to make sense altogether.

This is the idea of the simulacrum, which Nietzche put forward, where life is traded in for language to create a totally wonky reality. Because, when viewed objectively, the writing on the simulacra is in so many cases a distorted copy of reality itself, so far removed from life, so lost in academic and philosophical jargon, it really does not make for coherent reading material

This brings me to the idea of the Neoplatonic triad that Deleuze speaks of: the unshareable, the shared, the sharer. This is the idea that “to share is, at best, to have secondhand.” Rendering the retelling as a copy of the original because, “the shared is what the unshareable possesses firsthand.”

To hide this inauthenticity the sharer must create a new model of authenticity achieved through justifying their credibility in one form or the other, for instance in education, in background and so on. This is Deleuze’s idea that “the claimants must be judged and their claim measured” in order to prove the authenticity of their idea. Because it's easy to forget when reading someone like Baudrillard, or Plato, that text as much as image is a copy of a lived experience and that writing is as much a flickering shadow on the wall as a painting or sculpture (plato 215). For authors, as much as artists, are parasites feeding off the real world to make their little reproductions.

I believe that in writing, these tensions between fiction and reality, copy and original, culminate in the fabricated misery memoir, and particularly fabricated texts that center themselves around a 'literary minstrel show', by that I mean cases of white people assuming the identities of people of color, and in the gulf between assumed author and actual author creating an incredibly distorted portrait of the community they claim to represent. This is the idea of simulacra as a false messenger that perverts reality, turning its back to the original to create something else entirely. 

Here I think it is appropriate to provide two real life case studies, because so often when critical theory isn’t directly anchored to the so-called 'real world' it can cease to mean anything outside of a hyper academic context.

-Firstly consider Love and Consequences, a lurid memoir about a Native American girl living in foster care. The narrator was originally taken from her birth family at five because she was being sexually abused and is cared for by a Gone with the Wind-esque, The Help-esque, black 'Mammy' character called Big Mom. It goes into explicit detail of the brutalities of gang life under the Bloods in South Central LA, speaking of murder, drug trafficking and even gang rape. Before reaching it’s 'inspiring' conclusion of leaving the so called ghetto to go to college and gain a degree in, and this part I find particularly amusing, ‘Ethnic Studies’.

So this was written by Margaret Seltzer (who wrote under the pseudonym Margaret Jones). It’s worth noting that while promoting the book on radio shows she emulated a stereotypical African American Verancular, referring to her so called gang members as her “homies” and “home girls”.   It received a great review from the New York Times praising it on how “humane” the writing was, comparing its intimate details of urban poverty to that of an anthropologist documenting their environment.

However, shortly after the book reached ‘critically acclaimed status’ the author was tragically revealed to be a white woman who was educated at private school and grew up in Sherman Oaks, an area so perfectly suburban Desperate Housewives chose to film their show there.  Here we are remind of Michael Camille’s point that the simulcra has no contact whatsoever with the original (5) which by extension evokes Plato’s argument in art and illusion that “the imitator has no knowledge worth mentioning of what he imitates” (316)

Love and Consequence’s publishers, Riverhead books, who are a branch of Penguin USA, were so shocked by the revelation that not only did they cancel her book tour, they recalled all of the books and even went as far as offering refunds to anyone who had been ‘tricked’ into purchasing it.  This brings us back to Camille’s point that the Simulacra is an active threat to representation that, as Deleuze says, must be stopped from bobbing up to the surface and freaking everyone out like the shark in jaws (mc-35, d-5)

A similar sense of feeling betrayed by the inauthentic world of the simulacrum can be seen when Amina Araf, creator of A Gay Girl in Damascus, a blog detailing the civil uprising stage of the Syrian civil war, turned out to be this guy:

A white middle aged American history student named Tom McMaster who originally created the character as he felt it would give himself more ‘credibility’ when discussing the politics of the Middle East on online forums. The hoax was only revealed following McMaster claims that Amina had been kidnapped, a claim that triggered a great amount of close media attention to the blog.  Journalists eventually began to suspect if Amina was a hoax, a suspicion eventually confirmed when a Croatian woman came forward saying that the images of Amina were actually of herself. You see McMaster has found her photos online and saw them as the perfect avatar for his Syrian blogger.

There is so much we could talk about in terms of this hoax. However, in relation to the simulacrum, I think two points stand out particularly. The appropriated image of the Croatian woman, and the press attention, and later outrage, in regards to the simulated kidnapping.

The photo example serves as a striking example of Camille’s idea of “an image without a model”, a model built on “false likeness” where resemblance is not an issue (MC 36). This embodies Plato’s idea of a shadow seeming realer than the original, that an American man’s opinions on what a Syrian girl should look like is more important than any actual Syrian girl (p-215).  Here we’re reminded of Camille’s argument that the simulacra is not a copy but an alternative (37). That if people of colour, particularly in the so called ‘third world’ are not ‘doing’ suffering poetically or photogenically enough they will be replaced by a simulacrum. 

Here we can move onto the second example, the faked kidnapping of McMaster’s Amina character. In this blurring of the fantasy event and the 'real world' response we are provided with a powerful example of Baudrillard’s argument in ‘precession of simulacra’ that people would “react more violently to a simulated hold up than a real hold up”. Robbed of their 'third world' fantasy and presented with its real life author we can see why the British and American press reacted so angrily. This passionate response to a completely fictional character illustrates Camille’s point that the simulacrum disturbs a person’s priorities, as we found when the British and American press reacted more enthusiastically to Amina’s voice, Amina’s plight, than to the real activists who are risking their lives in Syria.

Not only does this example serve as a wonderful case study for Peter Steiner’s New Yorker cartoon, ‘on the internet no one knows you’re a dog’ but it raises the question of whether the simulacrum, in its unwavering dedication to the inauthentic provides us, as Camille suggests with an  “encounter with a different order of reality entirely” (44-MC)

This argument can be seen in Monica Hesse, Washington Post article in June 2011, here she argues:
"If [MacMaster] had not been so emotionally resonant, so detailed, so seemingly 'real,' nobody would have cared so much when Amina disappeared, and nobody would have worked so hard to figure out what might have happened to her, and nobody would have learned that she was a pale man from Georgia. Which meant that, at least according to a chilling and narrow definition of what it means to be real on the Internet, Tom MacMaster was very good indeed at being Amina."[39]

Because I would say that in their own specific brand of reality both Amina and the Love and Consequences memoir are authentic-with the ‘idea’ of race and its subsequent product (the memoir, the blog) being perfectly aligned. After all race is a homogenized, flat pack construct, with America’s vague definition of blackness, being, arguably, a product of slavery . After all it was the colonizer not the colonized who created these borders, who created these labels, so it makes perfect sense that the voices and images that come from this idea are from this original group also.

So if our conventional understanding of race is a white construct, which can be identified in generic stereotypical ideas of blackness and Orientalist ideas of the so called ‘Middle East’, then it is the white imitation that is the original and the lived experience of people of color that is the distorted copy. After all to be a person of color is by definition to be a perversion of the original, whether that’s the light skinned high yellow model of blackness identified in the character of Maureen Peal in the Bluest Eye or say Enid Blyton’s Little Black Sambo whose dark skin washes off in the rain, we find that it is whiteness that is always at the core of these images.

To speak honestly or ‘authentically’ in this dimension, without a conscious sense of editing and filtering, is to set yourself up for failure, your words will be rejected and you will be branded as not just inauthentic but a raving lunatic. Kanye West serves as a powerful example of this, in a recent BBC Radio One interview with Zane Lowe he spoke openly about his struggles as a black creative, how difficult it was to be taken seriously as an individual when people couldn’t see beyond the construct of what a black man in America ‘should’ be. In response the American comedian Jimmy Kimmel parodied the interview in a comedy sketch, hiring a child to read out the original interview transcript, thus confirming Kanye West’s initial argument, by reducing the artist to the racist stereotype of the American black man as a screaming, hysterical child with little, to no, self control.

Of course, when the simulacrum is such a powerful one it will consume anything in its path, disregarding context or intention. Look at how this image still from the sitcom ‘Everybody Hates Chris’ is warped by a well meaning user of the image sharing site tumblr:

However, it’s important to remember that Deleuze, unlike Plato or Baudrillard , also spoke of the simulcrum’s positive power, particularly its potential for subversion. So, in finishing up this presentation I think it’s appropriate to end on a positive note, remembering how the simulacrum can be used to break down racist constructs on what an authentic person of color should be. After all, whilst we should be deeply critical of the Amina’s of the world, it is equally reductive to fetishise an unrealistic fantasy of the authentic narrative, which is itself arguably also a simulucrum.

In this sense instead of reacting against this model in an essentialist, binary manner, as seen in Nation of Islam leaders such as Louis Farrakahn. We should, instead, remember the advice of Maya Angelou that “anything that works against you can also work for you once you understand the Principle of Reverse.”

This can be seen in my final example, Samuel L Jackson’s subversive interpretation of the surbordinate house slave trope in Django Unchained. In this second hand simulacrum model all principles are inverted, and Jackson’s exaggerated performance of passivity becomes his power, allowing him to actively manipulate his so called master by applying the Uncle Tom trope to his advantage. This reminds us that in consciously acting the fool you can exploit and expose the ruling systems of oppression, and by extension the realms of the inauthentic, which keeps this belief system in its place.

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