Why overcoming our apathy about conflicts abroad is impossible
By Shaun Poust
In 1991, French thinker Jean Baudrillard published a collection of essays on the first Gulf War entitled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Baudrillard argues that what was called “the Gulf War” was not “war” according to any of the usual definitions of the word because 1) The conflict was one-sided. Only 148 U.S. troops died in combat, less than one percent of the estimated 56,000 Iraqi troops that died in combat (not to mention the many more civilian casualties) and 2) The United States’ experience of the war was almost entirely electronic, with citizens updated by the minute on CNN and soldiers themselves controlling attack drones far away from the battlefield. For Baudrillard, the Gulf War was the simulation of war on one hand, the crudest imperialist brutality on the other.
We could say that Baudrillard’s thesis has to do only with words, in which case he would merely be emphasizing the ideological function of the use of the word “war.” Understood this way, we could apply Baudrillard’s logic to the War on Terror, the War on Drugs and the War in Iraq—but it is nothing new to point out that these are understood better as policing endeavors and “the crudest imperialist brutality” than wars. The novelty of Baudrillard’s thesis is apparent only from an existential perspective. For us in the United States, existentially, the Gulf War may not have taken place. Furthermore, existentially, the War on Terror, the War on Drugs and the War in Iraq may not be taking place either.
By “from an existential perspective,” I mean from the perspective of our everyday lives. And insofar as the various “wars” going on are, for us, only information—photographs in the newspaper, sound-bites on television, Youtube videos and history books (for context, of course)—they are no more real than fictional events. For us, they “are” no more than fictional events “are.”
What does it mean when something that is undoubtedly real is as real to us as something fictional? It means that we do not understand precisely how we are part of the world—which means, at the same time, that we understand neither ourselves nor the world.
If many real events are no more real for us than fictional events, then what is the function of reading groups, film screenings or rallies related to these real events? Are they substantially different from reading groups, film screenings or rallies related to Twilight? Are we sure that they are not substantially the same, even though they feel different? Could the true function of both be the release of libidinal energy—and nothing more?
We cannot meaningfully connect the United States’ military operations in Afghanistan, for instance, to what is going on in our everyday lives. Rationally, we know that they are in fact connected, but we lack what literary theorist Frederic Jameson calls the “cognitive mapping” necessary to place them in relation to one another, for we cannot locate ourselves within the global geo-political space. Even if we had sufficient cognitive mapping to rationally connect what is going on in Afghanistan to our own actions—what we buy, who we vote for, etc.—there would remain a disjunction between our sense of those actions and the role they play on a global stage. Buying certain things, voting for certain people—these actions feel different from the atrocities we understand they contribute to on an abstract level. I want to suggest that this disjunction may be irreducible.
The impossibility of reconciling the significance our actions have from our perspective(s) with the significance they have objectively, from the perspective of the whole system of socio-political relations of which they are a part, seems to me characteristic of more than just the “wars” going on today. What about ecological crises? Financial crises? It is as if we engage the micro and the macro with different senses. Perhaps we see the macro—probably on a screen—but feel the micro.
Cognitive mapping—that is, locating ourselves within the global geo-political space—remains the first task. But the first step toward cognitive mapping is the recognition of the disjunction between our sense of our actions and the role they play on a global stage. In other words, the first step toward cognitive mapping is the recognition of its impossibility.
To put it succinctly: We are in a bubble. We are so lost that we do not even know we are lost. We may be able to get out of the bubble. We may be able to be found. Perhaps. But have we admitted that we are in a bubble, that we are lost? Do we know these things? Do we feel them?
Shaun Poust is a junior journalism major who is rolling a rock up a hill. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.