The Politics of Simulation

Just outside of Los Angeles is a movie set known as Paramount Ranch. The ranch is a well-used filming location; its buildings appear so often in western-themed movies and TV shows their familiarity can become an annoying distraction. 

When the set isn’t being used for filming, it’s open to the general public. You can roam the same streets traversed by The Dukes of Hazzard, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and the robots of Westworld.

As you wander through the set (it takes about four minutes, if you walk slowly) it becomes obvious that the “buildings” have no solidity; they are mere facades. As one-dimensional as some of the films shot there. (No offense to The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.)

Paramount Ranch is useful because its facades can be made to simulate any aspect of our shared imagery of the west. These images don’t necessarily represent any actual frontier town; it is their iconic familiarity that makes the  fictionalized appear authentically western to us. 

The general sense we have of the underlying simulative aspects of films and advertising can distract us from the pervasiveness of imagery in our own lives. A simulation is a sleight of hand; a misdirection into the realm of imagery and representation. It is a world in which nothing is as it seems.

Simulations hinder our ability to differentiate between truth and reality, allowing the powerful to engage in stagecraft which comforts us, but conceals intentions and objectives. Our current politics has become a realm of symbolism and metaphor with little substance.

Though the political has historically functioned as a territory of sorcery and enchantment, our current vortex of illusion emerged fairly recently. In the 1980 presidential election millions of Americans were convinced that “trickle-down” economics represented a spirit of “free enterprise” which would financially benefit all. 

However, the ocean of wealth that flowed to the few drizzled barely a drop down to the many. Those in power realized they could separate the metaphor of “free enterprise” from the actuality of its outcomes, and that even those most harmed would yield to a symbolic American freedom authenticated through economic inequality.  

‘Governing today means giving acceptable signs of credibility. It is like advertising and it is the same effect that is achieved – commitment to a scenario.’                                                                       Jean Baudrillard

The resultant division between the 1% and everyone else has been maintained not through overt repression but through simulations of openness and inclusion in the political process. The forces of hierarchy persist behind the pageantry of democracy. 

Every town hall meeting conducted by a reluctant politician relies on the symbolic. Familiar elements are deployed which, in some way, represent “open discussion” to those attending – a public forum, time for questions, and so forth.

The extent to which a member of Congress actually thinks about what is being said by their constituents is dubious at best. Politicians at these meetings often have the pained expression of someone who’s been given number 88 at the DMV and just heard the loudspeaker announce “3.” 

It doesn’t matter. Politicians and constituents aren’t engaged in deliberation; they’re performing a ritual. Everyone plays their role. Those in attendance dutifully ask specific questions and politicians flee along a circuitous route avoiding any meaningful responses. The process repeats: pointed question followed by rhetorical sidestep. This is the familiar script. Constituents leave the meetings believing they’ve engaged in deliberation, but they were really part of a theater-in-the-round production touring the country.

Town hall meetings are simulations; they are phantoms of an ideal of civic engagement that exists only in the symbolic. The meetings are artful veneers; the familiarity of their iconography provides the illusion of speaking to power. The ritual replaces the real.

Presidential debates are the pinnacle of contrivance. As in town hall meetings, the theatrical overwhelms the substantive.

Watching debates, we are seduced by the ceremonial. Candidates hover behind phallic lecterns of power; journalists sit passively at tables earnestly lobbing questions which inevitably disappear into labyrinths of pointless phrases and hollow rhetoric. Myriad rules on speaking time and the structure of responses fabricate a phantasm of substance. As we watch the debates, we are aware of the emptiness of the liturgy but remain captivated by its incantations. 

In the 2016 presidential debates we were absorbed into a clash of the unreal. One candidate was so formularized everything she did seemed like an ironic parody of how a simulated politician acts. She lost to the hate-child of George Wallace and Huey Long – a tiny-handed flimflam who brayed the familiar libretto of the demagogue. Our “democratic election” was a contest between wizards of Oz; two illusory floating heads distracting us from the void behind the curtain.

Donald Trump is the most virulent political creature to emerge from our Orwellian lagoon. He has embraced politics as art(ifice). Democracy becomes a musical where the plot and dialogue don’t matter as long as the songs are catchy.  

Trump is angered when people refuse to hum his incendiary tunes and instead focus on the actual lyrics. For the president, the meeting in Helsinki with Putin was a dazzling success; it may have been a political disaster but it had all the markings of a Tony award winning production.

Trump believes that, in politics, the spectacle is sufficient. He may be right. 

Simulations maintain inequality by mollifying the public. We willingly acquiesce to a democracy in which inequality is fueled by a symbolic freedom and perpetuated through the pageantry of participation. But we are not merely spectators, we are also the actors. We have the potential to end these simulations by refusing to participate in them.  

The powerful maintain their position by turning all the world into a stage. We can no longer be merely players.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political TheorY; California State University;  thegoldinrule@gmail.com

An Apthorp Story

When your childhood home becomes an object of desire for the wealthy

Ozier Muhammad/New York Times

Years ago, my family fled the hinterlands of New Jersey and rediscovered civilization on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We lived in the Apthorp, an architecturally grand building which, at that time, had suffered from years of neglect – most visible in its soot-streaked façade and the accumulated layers of paint which cloaked its interior wood surfaces. But rents were very reasonable and my mother, who worked as a legal secretary, was able to afford an apartment.

The Upper West Side B.R. (Before Reagan) was a welcome escape from the unrelenting homogeneity of the suburbs. The neighborhood was a mixture of economic classes, all sharing the same public spaces and shopping at the same local stores. Weekday mornings I rode the 79th street crosstown bus to school; a route through the affluent apartment buildings of Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, past the Woolworth’s and its second-story pool hall on Broadway, the run-down brownstones of Amsterdam and Columbus, and into wealth once again and the pre-war apartments of Central Park West.

Due to its affordability, the Apthorp was home to a variety of tenants. My mother often told me of conversations she’d had on the elevator with the author Joseph Heller as he was taking his dog out for a walk. My mother was always surprised and delighted by these encounters; for me this crossing of paths came to represent the essence of a “city.”

Decades after moving away from New York City, I was recently again on the crosstown bus, retracing the familiar route to the Apthorp. The dilapidated facades of Columbus and Amsterdam were gone, as were the poorer people who had lived behind them. The pool hall had vanished along with the Woolworth’s. Each street flowed undifferentiated into the next. Neighborhood stores had been replaced by those peddling corporatized symbols of wealth.

The Apthorp had been converted to condominiums in 2008; formerly affordable rental apartments were now multi-million dollar investments. In my memory, the building’s courtyard had always been a place of serenity during weekday afternoons. Parents were still at work; kids not yet back from school. But now, as I stood outside the gate, the courtyard buzzed with a frenetic movement of aides, assistants and various hangers-on.

Severed from its history as an affordable home, the Apthorp had been “born again” as a timeless object of desire for the wealthy. The millions of dollars necessary to live there are on constant display; gleaming marble, walls of wood, and an overall aesthetic of opulence typical of a Las Vegas hotel shopping mall.

The transformation of the Apthorp is an effect of the wealthy deciding where to live based on which neighborhoods best function as signifiers of a lofty economic status. The Upper West Side had once been anathema to the moneyed canyons of the Upper East Side. Back then, the desirability of the Apthorp – its pre-war details, large rooms and high ceilings – was negated by its lack of an appropriate affluence-indicating location. But once the West Side was deemed acceptable by the wealthy, a wave of money flowed across Central Park. The Apthorp was suddenly re-discovered and could assume its current role as an object of admiration and longing.

The Apthorp is now a shiny bauble. You no longer buy a home there; you purchase the envy of others. This is one of the little-discussed effects of gentrification. Great wealth transforms objects which are of utility for many into highly-desirable representations of privilege for the few. The Apthorp is just such a representation; the functionality of living there has mutated from the usefulness of a home, to an ostentatious, and highly restrictive, sign of financial supremacy.

‘An object’s functionality is the very thing that enables it to transcend its main ‘function’…to become…an adjustable item within a universe of signs.’
Jean Baudrillard

As I stood at the gated entrance, peering into the central courtyard, I realized that if I shifted my weight to my left leg, dropped my shoulder and tilted my head, I could partially see the windows of what had been our apartment. How many others, I wondered, had stood here, like ghosts, contorting themselves for a glimpse of something which no longer exists?

The Apthorp – the New York City – I remember, has disappeared. But it endures in the shared stories of what was and what has been lost. In mine, the Apthorp is a bit dirty and dingy. Across the street, people are shopping at the Woolworth’s and playing pool late into the night; and my mother is having an engaging conversation with Joseph Heller while his dog waits patiently for the elevator doors to open.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political Theory; California State University;  thegoldinrule@gmail.com