As I have argued previously, Peter Thiel’s 2004 essay “The Straussian Moment” provides a suggestive intellectual framework for thinking about the highly impactful projects he was involved in the 2000-2005 period: crucially, Facebook and Palantir Technologies. These two enterprises embody two dimensions of digital control: the integration of social relations into data systems, and the mining, parsing, and weaponization of data by a privatized security apparatus. “The Straussian Moment” allows us to connect the emergence of these techniques to the pivotal event of the turn of the 21st century: 9/11.
Thiel’s essay begins with the assertion that the events of 9/11 “called into question . . . the entire political and military framework of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and indeed of the modern age, with its emphasis on deterrent armies, rational nation-states, public debates, and international diplomacy.” The foundational assumption of modern politics, Thiel argues, is that both domestic and international politics can be modeled as an interaction between rationally self-interested agents. If political subjects can be induced to pursue their interests in mutually beneficial ways, or at least to recognize that conflict will hinder prosperity, then peace should prevail. According to Thiel, the fact that Osama bin Laden, the scion of a family that had grown spectacularly wealthy from Saudi Arabia’s symbiosis with the United States, became its most lethal enemy, offers an almost too perfect illustration of the blind spots of this set of assumptions.
Thiel’s takeaway from 9/11 is that the West has been forcibly returned to an older mode of politics banished by the liberal consensus that emerged after the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. This is the view that “[p]olitics is the field of battle in which that division takes place, in which humans are forced to choose between friends and enemies,” whose strongest modern advocate, Thiel says, is Carl Schmitt. By persuading itself that everyone can be friends, the West had blinded itself to the dangers represented by the large swathes of the world that had never accepted the liberal international order.
However, in a peculiar passage, Thiel entertains an alternative view, also considered by Schmitt: that the inexorable enmities of politics might be defanged through their displacement onto a virtual realm:
If one agrees with Schmitt’s starting assumptions . . . the persistence of the political spells the doom of the modern West; but for the sake of completeness, we must consider also the inverse possibility, indirectly hinted at in the margins of Schmitt’s own writings. For while it may well be that the political guarantees the seriousness of life and that, so long as the political exists, the world will remain divided, there is no guarantee that the political itself will survive. Let us grant that unilateral disarmament is impossible, at least for those who value survival, but is it not perhaps possible for everyone to disarm at once, and for everyone to reject politics at the same time? There can be no worldwide political entity, but there is a possibility of a worldwide abandonment of politics…
In such a unified world, “what remains is neither politics nor state, but culture, civilization, economics, morality, law, art, entertainment, etc.” The world of “entertainment” represents the culmination of the shift away from politics. A representation of reality might appear to replace reality: instead of violent wars, there could be violent video games; instead of heroic feats, there could be thrilling amusement park rides; instead of serious thought, there could be “intrigues of all sorts,” as in a soap opera. It is a world where people spend their lives amusing themselves to death.
In other words, the Schmittian friend/enemy distinction, which renders conflict inevitable, could be neutralized if it were transposed, to use terms favored by Thiel, from the world of “atoms” into the world of “bits.” That this passage was written by someone who, was connected to the construction of web 2.0, a “representation of reality” that often “appears to replace reality,” is suggestive. An obvious inference, after all, would be that the digital sphere could allow for a simulated “politics” that might contain its explosive dangers.
Thiel does not, however, endorse this stratagem:
The world where everything seems to administer itself is the world of science fiction, of Stephenson’s Snow Crash, or of The Matrix for those who choose not to take their red pills. But no representation of reality ever is the same as reality, and one must never lose sight of the larger framework within which the representation exists. The price of abandoning oneself to such an artificial representation is always too high, because the decisions that are avoided are always too important. By making people forget that they have souls, the Antichrist will succeed in swindling people out of them.
The simulacrum of politics, then, may seem to absorb conflicts, but in the “larger framework within which the representation exists,” there is another level of antagonism. Arguably, the most essential such conflict is between those who control the simulacrum and those controlled by it. This passage might be read as a veiled self-critique. The implication, after all, is that in “the larger framework within which the representation exists,” those who oversee its functioning – that is, Thiel and his tech associates – occupy the position of the Antichrist.
Of course, the prospect of politics transmuted into “entertainment” far pre-existed the modern internet. Thiel’s phrase “amusing ourselves to death” comes from media critic Neil Postman’s 1985 book of that title. Given this longer history of mediatized politics, in some respects Thiel’s critique also comes surprisingly close to the position of the 9/11 attackers themselves. From their perspective, the end-of-history moment of the 1990s pax americana, in which entertainment, consumerism, and material comfort supposedly rendered the strong version of politics moot, was Satanic, and needed to be destroyed.
Here, the discussion converges with the work of a thinker whose work Thiel has never mentioned (to my knowledge): Jean Baudrillard, whose ideas famously provided the inspiration for The Matrix, briefly cited by Thiel. Baudrillard found the film a woefully inadequate treatment of his account of simulation. This is partly because for him, post-industrial capitalism had in some ways gone much further than the vision of total digital “artificial representation” the film imagined.
Baudrillard’s symbol of the world of pure simulation was none other than the one targeted by the 9/11 terrorists: the twin towers of the World Trade Center. In Symbolic Exchange and Death (published in 1976, just three years after the completion of the towers), Baudrillard asks, “Why has the World Trade Center in New York got two towers?”:
The fact that there are two identical towers signifies . . . the end of every original reference . . . For the sign to remain pure it must become its own double: this doubling of the sign really put an end to what it designated. Every Andy Warhol does this: the multiple replicas of Marilyn Monroe’s face are of course at the same time the death of the original and the end of representation. The two towers of the WTC are the visible sign of the closure of a system in the vertigo of doubling. . .
In other words, all the elements in the self-contained system of representation (simulation) point not to external entities but only to other elements within the system. The vertigo of two identical towers that mirror each other ad infinitum reveals the instantiation of the logic of the self-contained “third-order simulacrum” in the physical world. The logic of the built environment and that of the virtual or representational now fully coincide. The simulation is not confined to what we consume through our screens: it pervades “meatspace” too. (This is where The Matrix misleads: the escape it offers is far too easy.)
For Baudrillard, too, the appearance of total simulation implies a postponement of “politics” of the Schmittian sort, and also of the Marxian, revolutionary sort. That’s because it produces a reality composed of interchangeable signs without referents. Oppositional ideas and movements become more signs circulating within the system, neutralized by its all-encompassing logic of equivalence. Andy Warhol’s renditions of Che and Mao offer an illustration of this neutralization and its pacifying effect: revolution becomes another sign with infinite copies, equivalent to any other sign generated by the reproduction machine and exchangeable with all others.
However, the system also generates its own antagonist. This appears in the form of terrorism, the only mode of resistance allowed by the simulation’s own logic. “Terrorism,” Baudrillard argues in his post-9/11 book The Spirit of Terrorism, “is the act that restores an irreducible singularity to the heart of a system of generalized exchange.” By restoring ritualized sacrificial immolation, the terrorist makes an offering that cannot be reduced to the simulation’s law of universal equivalence: “They have succeeded in turning their own deaths into an absolute weapon against a system that operates on the basis of the exclusion of death – a system whose ideal is zero deaths.” Ritualized sacred violence operates on the level of the symbolic, which in Baudrillard’s terms refers to the logic of archaic gift exchange in which the “gift,” unlike the commodity or its semiotic counterpart, the sign, is unique and irreplaceable. In this sense, terrorists “defy the system by a gift to which it cannot respond, except by its own death.”
Baudrillard is not claiming, however, that the terrorist exists wholly outside the totalizing simulacrum. Rather, the idea is that in terrorism, the simulation confronts its own self-generated limit. As he writes, “the increase in the power of power heightens the will to destroy it. And it was party to its own destruction.” 9/11, then, is “triumphant globalization battling itself.” Furthermore, far from simply breaking out of the simulacrum’s regime of exchangeable signs, 9/11 feeds its continued profusion by inserting a “frisson of the real” into it: “Whereas we were dealing before with an uninterrupted profusion of banal images and a seamless flow of sham events, the terrorist act in New York has resuscitated both images and events.” In this sense, the ultimate status of 9/11 is ambiguous: “it is at one and the same time . . . the purest form of spectacle and a sacrificial model mounting the purest symbolic form of defiance to the historical and political order.”
Baudrillard and Thiel agree that 9/11 signals the return of something older, but not in the banal sense of the “primitive” or regressive. For Thiel, it is the Schmittian “politics” of the friend/enemy distinction. For Baudrillard, it is the logic of ritual sacrifice and “symbolic exchange,” which contrasts with the simulated realm of multiplying signifiers. For both, the resurgence of these older logics reveals that they may have been repressed, but were never truly absent. The question is whether this repression can be restored: whether “entertainment” can absorb and subdue “politics,” or whether the simulation can restore itself by processing violence into spectacle.
Thiel argues that it cannot, but his involvement in expanding the realm of “entertainment” as well as introducing new modes of espionage that feed off of the data furnished by that expansion tells a more complex story. For his part, Baudrillard is ambiguous. One of his main claims about third-order simulacra is that they must conceal the fact of their destruction of the real. 9/11 challenges the simulation, but also feeds its sustaining fiction by injecting a dose of the real into it, which provides the alibi it needs to perpetuate itself.
These two perspectives on 9/11 anticipate recent debates about the relationship between the internet, radicalization, and terrorist violence. Has the digital colonization of social life controlled violence by virtualizing it, which is essentially the prospect that Thiel considers but dismisses? Or conversely, as the media has increasingly insisted in the last few years, has it become a driver of political violence? For reasons that may have relatively little to do with technological developments, relative overall rates of violence have been low in recent decades, but there has been a rise in spectacular violence that has fallen under the blurry categories of “mass shootings” and “terrorism.”
It’s become commonplace to claim that such acts are caused by “online radicalization,” but perhaps more interesting is the extent to which they exist for the purpose of circulating in a simulated form via images and videos. The logic of causality here is not that of the efficient cause but the final cause: the acts are the products of digital simulation insofar as they occur in order to become part of it. And if they feed off of the simulacrum, the simulacrum also feeds off of them: as Baudrillard said of 9/11, they sustain it by introducing a “frisson of the real” that allows it to preserve the necessary fiction of an outside.
But as such events proliferate, they eventually become part of the “seamless flow of sham events” they are supposed to shatter. A tacit acknowledgment of this increasing banality comes when people bemoan the conventional responses (“thoughts and prayers”) of public figures. It is still too scandalous to admit to the routinized, mechanical nature of the murderous act itself, so the complaint is displaced onto a peripheral element. A more extreme but parallel response is the now-standard “crisis actor” accusation. What this accusation effectively captures is the fact that the event itself is now a conventional sign that plays a standardized role in our politics. In this case, there is a different displacement: the fact that the violent act serves a semiotic function is displaced onto the claim that the violence itself is simulated – that is to say, that it is nothing but a cluster of signs, rather than a reality converted into a cluster of signs. The real “crisis actor,” in other words, is the event itself, which we imagine holds onto a “frisson of the real” because that lets it function as a more potent sign. But this potency, too, is a fiction: everyone knows that the efficacy of the event is perpetually delayed. The entire sequence is now scripted in advance (most of all the predictable attempts to pretend otherwise).
The question, then, should not be whether the expansion of the domain of the simulation in the form of the digitalization of social life causes more or less violence to occur, but what relation to violence it brings about. The answer, it would seem, is that it causes spectacle-oriented acts of “terrorism” to proliferate and at the same time neutralizes them through their integration into the semiotic regime of the third-order simulacrum. Schmittian friend/enemy politics can thrive, but they cause no rupture of the sort Thiel and Baudrillard both glimpsed in 9/11. This is because as it becomes conventionalized, terrorism increasingly supports the semiotic regime. At the same time, digitalized violence, whether it stays in the realm of bits or spills into that of atoms, generates data for the likes of Palantir to mine, ostensibly to ensure all disruptions remain at a manageable scale.