Wow. The government knew all along there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And they used that as an excuse to take us to war anyway. My generation, raised on the film Casablanca, would say “I’m shocked!—shocked!—George W., to discover lying going on in your administration.” A younger generation would say, “Well, duh!!!” I mean, what did anyone expect? A government that would tell us only the truth?
The truth, revealed so unexpectedly in the mainstream press, also reveals a profound dilemma for the left. We run around excitedly exclaiming, “We told you so!” Then we expect to see the Bush war machine at least crippled, if not brought down entirely. When the Bushies seem to sail along virtually unscathed, we don’t get it. We are outraged that they lied, and doubly outraged that so few Americans seem to care.
In our perplexed outrage, we are missing a crucial point. While we quite rightly try to digest mountains of facts that contain the truth, we also need to consider the peculiar fate of facts in this postmodern world. While we quite rightly drink in the words of a Noam Chomsky or a Howard Zinn (and we should be immensely thankful for them), we would do well to give equal time to a Fredric Jameson.
Jameson taught us, better than anyone else, that the American empire rests on three legs: global corporate capitalism, digital technology, and the triumph of image over factual reality. He taught us why the empire needs each of these legs to stay stable, and how each reinforces the others in a totalitarian web of seemingly benign postmodern imperium. Most of us already understand the power of, and links between, digitized high-tech and globalization.
The crucial piece many have missed is the third leg. In postmodern capitalism, commodities are reduced to digital images, and images are sold as commodities. The images take on a life of their own. They become the reality. Reality becomes an endless commercial. Advertising is no longer just a means to an end; it is the essential activity of our whole society.
That is a simple truth we all know, because most of us live it every day. I surely do. I think The Matrix and the new Honda ad and my new screensaver are pretty cool, too.
Intellectuals like Jameson help us take the next step, to understand what happens when images replace reality. Our society stops asking the questions that used to point the way to truth: “Does the image accurately represent the reality it claims to represent? Does it represent any reality at all?” When those questions are no longer asked, the issue of truth becomes irrelevant.
Then it is easy enough to declare the elected leader of a whole nation, or even the entire United Nations, “irrelevant,” because the words are just images anyway. All questions of truth and reality simply vanish in the airwaves filled with the digitized pictures and sounds that are now the be-all and end-all of our collective life.
So the Bush administration's warnings of Iraqi WMD were merely images, an ad campaign clever enough to sell us a war we did not need. But no one ever bought the reality, because there was no reality to buy. The public bought the commercials. In a postmodern society, that is all we ever buy, because images are all that is for sale.
Then, when the truth hits the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, it’s only another bunch of new images. For most Americans, there can be no jarring clash between image and reality, because they long ago stopped asking about the relation between image and reality. It’s not merely that they expect the government to falsify reality. They expect the government, like every other segment of our society, to ignore reality completely.
If it is all advertising anyway, then why get upset? Yesterday there were WMD in Iraq. Today there were never any. Tomorrow, there might have been tons of them. It’s a kaleidoscope of ever-changing imagery, like what we see surfing websites or flipping channels on the remote. You’d have to be way uncool to ask what truth lies beneath all these images. It’s so much easier to let the government and the multinational corporate system roll on undisturbed. And so much more fun.
When Fredric Jameson and other progressive scholars of postmodernism analyze the postmodern system, they want us to understand that this system does not force itself upon us. Every day, we make choices that shape our future. There is no end of history. They bring us these ideas because they think we can make better choices if we understand what is going on. If we want to cure the ills of our society, we must first diagnose those ills accurately.
Our outrage at the Bush administration's lies is an attack upon a symptom. Symptomatic relief is always welcome. But it doesn’t make sense to deal with symptoms and ignore the underlying disease. If you want to cure the disease, you first have to understand it. A place to start is through Jameson’s brilliant analysis. (You can read more about it at http://spot.colorado.edu/~chernus/NewspaperColumns/LongerEssays/JamesonPostmodernism.htm).
We must go on unmasking lies and presenting factual truth. It will make some difference. But it won’t make enough difference unless, at the same time, we try to rescue the very idea of truth itself, before it disappears forever into that kaleidoscope of digitized images.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He can be contacted at Chernus@colorado.edu.