Directed by Gabriel Range, Death of a President is a 2006 British mockumentary, ostensibly about the assassination of George W. Bush. It convincingly draws viewers into what they assume is a piece of factual journalism by deploying all of the formal conventions and stylistic techniques of television news and documentary, including interviews with ‘experts’ (played by actors) and archival footage (taken from unrelated events and then woven together into a seemingly cohesive tapestry). So thoroughly convincing is the simulation that even the most confident viewer begins to doubt his own independent knowledge of historical events. It is not until over halfway through the film, when George Bush’s “assassination” unfolds on screen that the viewer’s own background knowledge jars with what is being presented. He only begins to question the veracity of the ‘facts’ offered in Death of a President because of his (near) certainty that George Bush was not actually assassinated. The film successfully achieves this deceptive mimesis merely by mimicking the formal conventions of factual reporting.
Death of a President serves as an ideal illustration of what French post-modernist philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007) called simulation. Baudrillard uses this term in a dazzling variety of contexts, but he seems to mean by it the multiple ways in which contemporary life is characterised by, and inseparable from, representations, images, symbols and reproductions. As such, we can only experience the world through a kind of filter of pre-fabricated expectations and concepts produced in advance by our media-saturated regime. Consider trying to visit New York City without that experience being impacted by some preconceived ideas taken from movies and television. Or try going on a date or making love without your experience being coloured in some way by ideas of romance or ‘the perfect date’ borrowed from pop culture, reality tv, movies or porn. Try looking in the mirror and assessing your own body without reference to a magazine, advertisement, film or television character. If you’re male, trying looking at women independently of any pornographic subtext. Most media nowadays takes for granted that we live in a media engulfed world, such that inter-textual references are commonplace and we ‘get’ most of the references. As such, the need to reference anything outside of media culture becomes almost obsolete.
This is the perfect ferment in which to nurture a post-truth culture. Truth can be defined either by correspondence between a proposition P and some state of affairs in the real world. On this account, P refers to empirically observable states of affairs. Or truth can be thought of as a proposition P that is coherent (meaningful) within a network of mutually supporting statements, which together ‘work’ for a community of language users until such time as there is a general consensus that they no longer provide a helpful paradigm or schema (i.e. ‘worldview’). The main thing to note about the coherence theory of truth is that it can float freely from any connection to a world independent of language users and their purposes. The test of whether a proposition is ‘truthful’ is whether it ‘fits’– not whether it accurately describes some feature of the world or of human nature.
Baudrillard regarded simulation as a ubiquitous social condition rather than as certain types of ‘events’ that take place within the otherwise real world. Simulation is no longer restricted to television or some other electronic medium. Rather, a principle of simulation now fundamentally orders all of social life. You do not have to wire your head to a video game 24/7 to be immersed in simulation. In a paper given at the University of Sydney in 1987 called The Evil Demon of Images, Baudrillard claimed that, while we think of images as principally referring to a real world, “none of this is true . . . images precede the real to the extent that they invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction.” (more on this below)
A basic idea we can take from Baudrillard’s collection of work is that, as a result of our culture’s total immersion in representations and images, we can now only ever experience reality at a distance. While the common understanding of a simulation is that it is somehow a fake or inauthentic version of something else that is comparatively real, Baudrillard has suggested that the simulation can no longer be clearly distinguished from truth. For Baudrillard, the opposition between simulation and reality has broken down irrevocably – such that we can no longer view them as opposites. Simulation can no longer be understood as a copy of an original. In a generalised realm of culture obsessed by images and consumed by frantic self-referentiality, there is no essential, pure reality left. There is no backdrop of truth against which we can measure the authenticity of a representation.
As we become aware of the fact that nothing is outside of the totally encompassing flow of images and simulations, we panic. In an anxious attempt to reclaim something real, we make a fetish of the supposedly authentic. But these attempts to recreate the feel of reality are themselves simulations, as the sardonic narrator (Ed Norton) in Fight Club explains, “Even the glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections: proof they were crafted by the honest, simple, hard-working peoples of … wherever.” Returning to the example of looking at oneself in a mirror, even the little voice in your head that says “embrace the extra pounds” probably came from a FaceBook meme, pop song or self-help book that entreated you to embrace yourself, be yourself, or ‘unlock the real you’. These are examples of what Baudrillard calls the hyperreal – authenticity commodified and turned into yet another simulation of reality. For Baudrillard, the very notion of originality has been engulfed in the flow of images and rendered obsolete.
While all of these simulations now float free from any necessary reference to some natural, ‘pure’ or unmediated realm of existence, the irony is that Baudrillard also regards them as nevertheless a part of our actual lives in that they have very real effects. Far from being totally separate or relegated to an artificial nether realm, they have a deep connection with our behaviour and our existence. This turns the conventional thinking about the relationship between the real and the image upside down. Instead of representations being derivatives of reality, now they precede it and even produce it. In other words, reality is an effect of representation. In The Evil Demonof Images Baudrillard calls this an implosion of image into reality. A striking example is plastic surgery. The images of beauty presented by the media have already created a world in which people imitate the image, and as more and more of them have done this, what was perceived as a ‘real’ person, or a beautiful person, has become ever more insidiously defined by the surgeon’s knife or the Photoshop artist. As images intersect with many real world experiences, it becomes more and more doubtful whether there is any conceivable reality that is not always already simulated. Think, for example, about how pornography supposedly hard-wires or re-wires the male brain, making (so-called) real sex less appealing and sometimes even impossible for porn-addicted individuals. Isn’t it the case that ‘real sex’ just is whatever kind of porn-affected sex people are actually having in our pornographic age, regardless of whether it resembles some other (now merely abstract) idea about what healthy sex shouldbe?
Baudrillard sees the world in which we live as one in which representations have been cut loose from, and operate independently of, history, facts or reality. He seems to draw in part from Umberto Eco, who remarked upon the total self-absorption of the media in his short 1984 essay A Guide to the Neo-Television of the 1980’s. Eco observed that in the era of Neo-TV, it matters very little whether what is on TV actually refers to anything beyond the fact of televisual appearance itself. Just being on TV becomes what is remarkable or newsworthy; it defines what counts as ‘news’ or ‘current affairs’. The medium literally is the message as well as the messenger. Media has the power to make history, in part by selecting what counts as an ‘event’ and talking about it in certain ways that become standardised through wide circulation. In this context, it matters not whether words are used accurately or whether they conform to a dictionary definition. As an example, the word ‘feminism’ has acquired a whole range of negative and blatantly false connotations, such as the idea that feminists are anti-male or that men cannot be feminists. But this matters little since people only hear or see the connotations, because the literal meaning of feminism has simply lost all currency. Likewise, try using the word ‘terrorism’ to refer to the way the United States has used covert CIA ops to force its neoliberal policies on South America, Central America, South East Asia, or anywhere else. It is not possible for ‘terrorism’ to be used with this type of referent or in this context. The regime of images and representations has its own language that operates independently of etymology or dictionary definitions, and usurps the literal definitions, reshaping them to new agendas.
Emblematic of this self-referential and mediated world we now inhabit was the US neocons’ peddling (with the help of a public relations company The Rendon Group) of fraudulent and thoroughly discredited claims in order to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The fact that Iraq had no WMD’s ceased to matter. In a January 2003 State of the Union address President Bush declared, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Joseph Wilson, former Deputy Chief of Mission to Iraq had already shown this to be false, and when he later exposed the mendacity of the Bush administration, top officials simply retaliated by illegally disclosing that Wilson’s wife was a covert CIA operative. Meanwhile, Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby made frequent visits to Langley to pressure CIA analysts to accept as “evidence” material provided by hawkish Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith. Feith’s pseudo-evidence was intended to link Iraq to Al-Qaeda, despite it having been thoroughly refuted point-by-point by CIA analysts. Then Secretary of State Colin Powell, chosen for his popular ‘credibility’, gave a spectacular seventy-five minute performance at the United Nations, which he later described as a low point in his career. Supported by an array of props, including a small vial of anthrax-like powder to illustrate how little would be required to cause a massive loss of life, he assured the delegates, “These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence . . .”. Many of his claims had already been rejected both by the intelligence community and UN inspectors. But it didn’t matter. Despite anger amongst members of the intelligence community at Pentagon neocons having hijacked and distorted or fabricated intelligence, and despite the fact that WMDs never materialized, the Washington Post described Powell’s evidence as “irrefutable”. When a brave British intelligence officer, Katherine Gun, at great personal risk, exposed an illegal NSA operation to spy on and pressure UN delegates to support the war measure, the U.S. media ignored the revelation. Gun’s exposé simply didn’t fit with the foregone conclusion that military invasion was necessary, so wasn’t news. The decision to invade on March 10th had already been made, and not having the necessary backing of nine UN Security Council members, Bush proposed several ways to provoke a confrontation, including painting a U.S. surveillance plane in UN colors to draw Iraqi fire, producing a defector to publicly disclose Iraq’s WMD, and assassinating Saddam. The U.S. media abandoned any attempt at objectivity and celebrated the militarists while silencing the critics. MSNBC, which was owned by General Electric (a huge war profiteer), cancelled the Phil Donohue show three weeks before the invasion because Donohue presented too many guests who were anti-war. CNN, Fox and NBC all fell into step, presenting a succession of retired generals as analysts who could be counted on to convey administration ‘themes and messages’, especially as all had been given Pentagon talking points. Internal Pentagon documents referred to them as “message force multipliers” who would inject the public with the Pentagon’s pre-fabricated ideas and present them to Americans “in the form of their own opinions.” The point is that the media’s definition of events was enclosed and separate from anything that was happening in any supposed ‘world’ that might be thought of as existing apart from its images and representations. It was by reference to other media images that each image was generated. All of the references were inter-textual and designated nothing outside of the media-enclosed system of images. The very notion of a ‘reality’ — something more authentic than this, having some kind of deep or pre-mediated existence — is seen as naïve and quaint.
Death of a President sets out to demonstrate, both in its form and in its content, this blurring of the line between images and reality. It does so first by using the tv documentary format already mentioned, thereby revealing that content no longer matters, since now only form determines the ‘truth’ of the material presented. So accustomed are we to accepting at face value the ‘facts’ presented through this format, that we respond more to our own expectations of the genre than to anything deeper or distinct from it.
Second, as the story about the manhunt for the President’s assassin unfolds, and we watch how it descends into prejudice, with the American authorities fingering a an innocent Syrian man for the crime and then railroading him to a seemingly inevitable conviction, we realise that Death of a President is also about the very real human consequences of this post-reality world in which the rush to judgement is implicit in the premise, not a conclusion to be sought out through further questioning and analysis. In the 2006 mocumentary, FBI agents blatantly contradict themselves, and later ignore rock solid evidence that the actual perpetrator was a U.S. Army veteran, but none of this matters. Vice President Dick Cheney has political reasons for wanting the perpetrator to be Syrian, and so he shall be. Syrian ‘experts’ are brought in as analysts on news-styled chat shows, and it doesn’t matter that they’ve been discredited or have personal agendas and conflicts of interest. Their message prevails merely because it is louderand it is on TV.
The film ends with the presumably innocent Abu Jamal Zikri in jail ten months after the President’s death, despite overwhelming evidence that the real perpetrator, was Al Claybon (a disaffected U.S. veteran of the 1991 Gulf War). The film’s ambition is to make viewers understand the very real implications of their unquestioning acceptance of our thoroughly mediated world. The final closing titles of the film inform the viewer that Dick Cheney’s (fictional) ‘USA Patriot Act III’ was signed into law in the United States, granting investigators unprecedented powers of detention and surveillance, and further expanding the powers of the executive branch. While the ‘III’ is fictional, the USA Patriot Act of 2001 had in fact already granted strikingly similar powers and taken away many civil liberties and protections that Americans had taken for granted. The film simply mimics the means by which this was accomplished, reminding the viewer that it could easily happen again.