On January 17th 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 what has today become known as 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.
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.
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.
Lies are a universal phenomenon. We see them appear everywhere, from highest ranks of the state to most banal tabloids. In politics, as much as in the arts, the lie has become an art in itself, one that is maintained and refined as time goes by.
In the podcast series Histoire du mensonge, Xavier Mauduit discusses the (hi)story of lies in politics, art and daily life.
It was a welcome and interesting change. During the first weeks of the corona crisis, all of the sudden scientists were once again a beacon of authority doubted by almost no-one, and tv news was followed much more faithfully than it had been for a long time. But it was also a short-lived change, since the start of the debate about exit strategies also meant the end of this renewed trust. And thus we not only succumbed to old economic and consumer habits, but our understanding of truth also swung back and forth between the old and the new normal.
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.
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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