Every modern war is fought on two fronts. First and foremost, there is the physical battlefield, which is the place of territorialization and material destruction. But there is also the spiritual battlefield where battles are fought through territorialization not of extended space, but of consciousness. Such is the task of propaganda: the dissemination of information and images among the troops and the people, with the intention of distorting the way they look at reality in order to attain a desired effect. When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, what was a war in the physical realm became through propaganda a ‘special military operation’ to ‘liberate Donbas’ and ‘de-nazify Ukraine’. Russian state media were immediately geared towards a flood of information and images that justified the invasion as an act of necessity and ceaselessly reported on its successes. Any event involving a violation of international law on part of Russia was ‘debunked’ by the Russian administration as disinformation and lies; if footage depicted dead Ukrainian civilians scattered on the streets as a result of indiscriminate Russian attacks, their corpses were denounced as ‘staged’. Putin’s troll farms, as described by Peter Pomerantsev in This is Not Propaganda, were engaged on social media to spread confusion and misinformation. Following the instructions of the Ministry of Enlightenment,  the curriculum of Russian schools was modified to incorporate patriotism and justification of Russian aggression. This aligned with a series of educational reforms which had begun before the invasion and aimed at an elimination of Ukrainian identity in occupied territories. All these manifestations of propaganda—inversion of accusation, discrediting information, education, and so on—are organized by a consistent narrative which establishes the ‘special military operation’ as an inevitable response to Ukrainian separatists ‘exterminating’ millions of Russian residents and stimulating the expansion of NATO towards Russian territory. As Putin put it in his speech, which he delivered on the day of the invasion, Ukrainian separatism is a product of a corrupted government that after eight years did not accept Russia’s ‘endless attempts’ to “settle the situation by peaceful political means”.

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Where belief in supernatural phenomena clashes with our understanding of the nature of things, we likely consider ourselves to be shielded by scientific education from what natural sciences reveal to be no more than figments of imagination and remnants of an ancient world. The author of an article about vampires in St. Charles Herald of September 6, 1884, thus speaks like a true naturalist when he discusses “a revival of the old superstitions of blood-drinking bats and men” and remarks that “certainly no more extraordinary or appalling belief ever troubled men’s wits. […] That the dead returned from their graves to prey on the flesh and blood of the living should have ever been believed by thousands of people sounds incredible.” Unlike those for whom it is not only conceivable but inviting to believe that the universe is permeated by forces that transcend natural laws—be they benign or demonic—the naturalist’s imaginary life only finds its gratification within the immanent sphere of the natural; his understanding regarding the origin, the span, and the terminus of reality is confined to the universe understood as a totality regulated by laws of physics and chemistry, which together produce material events governed by rules of causality wherever the necessary conditions for such events are met. Anything that is conceivable without contradiction with naturalist instincts and common sense ceases to be a ‘mere’ figment of imagination and attains a claim to possible existence, however minimal or hypothetical that claim to existence may be. Hence the conceivable possibility of time-travel, parallel universes, the simulation-hypothesis, and extra-terrestrial civilizations, as opposed to the non-existence of vampires, witches, ghosts, fairies, and angelic or demonic forces. From a naturalistic perspective, the first series of entities is said to be ‘hypothetical’, whereas the second is called ‘superstitious’.

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On January  17, 1991, when the U.S. president George H. W. Bush initiated Operation Desert Storm as a response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the U.S. found itself putting to the test the principle of a ‘Televised War’. As Jean Baudrillard famously observed, the entire Gulf War only took place as a televised simulation that was produced by the CNN and other major news networks, who reported from the battlefield as the conflict unfolded. Journalists were reduced to actors, action-oriented scripts guaranteed narrative when nothing was happening, cameras framed American war-machines flying above the desert as if they were about to save the world, and the mise-en-scène ensured exhibitionism of high-tech military gear. So extensive was the emphasis on machines and technology, one could have almost forgotten that this war was fought by and against human beings. Baudrillard’s claim that “the Gulf War never happened” aimed precisely at the fact that the public perception of the war in question was completely configured by a certain televised image of war, which the media constructed through a goal-oriented production-process, and which served as an Ersatz for the real physical event that remained in the dark.

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Taken in its primary sense, the notion of authenticity refers to a real, and duly established, link between the appearance of a person, a thing, an act or a behavior and its own nature, its identity or its singular history—with an emphasis, in general, on the point of origin of this history. This basic definition invites us to classify authenticity among the negative or oppositional concepts. Authentic is that which has not been falsified. The idea of deception constitutes, in a way, the semantic exoskeleton of a concept which can only be conceived in opposition to the hypothesis of falsity. One of the consequences of this negative constitution is that the attribution of a label of authenticity presupposes the carrying out of tests by which one tries to exclude the possibility of deception.

Continue reading “Negotiating Authenticity: The Case of “Jesse James’s” Revolver”

Panic! A recent study commissioned by the Belgian magazines Knack and Le Vif suggests that up to one in three Belgians believes in a conspiracy theory. It varies from familiar claims that the moon landing was faked to recent theories about how the coronavirus is a Chinese hoax.

Yet we should not be misled and think that these numbers constitute a major or new problem. It is necessary to situate these results in their broader social and historical context. Once we do so, it becomes apparent that while conspiracy theories are to be found throughout the whole of history, they are always connected to a number of social problems.

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The supposed fallaciousness of conspiracy theories is often taken to reside in their theories, which are claimed to be false. Think about theories on how the coronavirus is allegedly produced in a Chinese lab or is seen as a hoax. Similarly, in the documentary Behind the Curve, which deals with the conspiracy theory that NASA is hiding from us that the Earth is flat, flat earthers do their experiments and formulate arguments why they believe the Earth is not a globe. It is often easy to spot the mistakes in their experiments and notice how they ignore counterevidence. Conspiracy theories are thus false from a scientific point of view: they present themselves as skeptical and rational theories, but are in reality easily debunked and simply false.

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Chapter one of L.I.S. Lies – Imposture – Stupidity

My eyes fell recently on a new reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Last Judgment.” Above is Christ as judge surrounded by the Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist, and the apostles. Below, the punishment of the damned, painted in somber colors. These castigations are eagerly carried out by a rough crew of monsters crawling across the country like insects on a piece of rotten meat. We witness how the damned are burned, speared, impaled, hung on butcher’s hooks, forced to eat excrements or thrown into bizarre machines that look like gigantic meat mills, and more of that fun. But one specific scene caught my attention. In the midst of all this cheerful violence, there is discernible, at a crumbled brothel and in a place that probably should have housed a blacksmith, one of these crazy figures nailing a horseshoe to a woman’s heel. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I came across descriptions of this horrible ordeal in books talking about the torture that the Armenians had endured before and during the 1915 genocide. But these facts are also told by historians and by witnesses whose experiences were recorded. “Hence, it was all true.”

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The task of philosophy, Deleuze tells us, is not to provide ‘solutions’ to philosophical questions, but to create concepts in order to respond to problems that exert an undeniable demand to be addressed. Such responding consists in the mere fact of addressing the problem, that is to say in the ability to disclose a previously concealed conceptual domain, in order to articulate the problem in the first place. If disclosing of that sort ever takes place, it is because the world in which the philosophical thought is situated puts forward the task of articulating something that initially lacks the clearness and distinctiveness of Cartesian ideas, yet stubbornly resonates with our intuition. Propelled by such resonance, our intuition is driven to orient itself through what is traditionally called logos, with the aim of articulating in words something that until then remained ineffable, but by no means negligible. 

Continue reading “Lies – Imposture – Stupidity (Review Essay)”