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Wreath Lectures

Wreath Lectures 2016: This Was The Year That Did Not Happen
Robert Barry , December 1st, 2016 10:19

Robert Barry kicks off the 2016 Wreath Lectures by casting his mind back over the past 11 months and asking if, given how utterly rancid and appalling everything has been, the year actually happened at all

One Friday afternoon in the middle of November 2016, everybody died. "Someone just notified me that my Facebook page has decided to announce my death," a friend posted at around 3pm on the 11th. He was not alone. At that moment, millions of profiles around the world found themselves suddenly appended with a little blue flower and a message of condolence. "We hope people who love Mark will find comfort in the things others share to remember and celebrate his life," the banner read atop Zuckerberg himself's own personal page.

And then, in less then an hour, they were all alive once more. Every memorial badge was removed from every page, raising each profile from the digital grave, and confirming once and for all Facebook's ultimate power over life and death. A million virtual Lazaruses rolled away the stone, their allotted four days truncated to scarcely forty minutes. One more gap in the matrix, tidily corrected.

But think for a moment of all the people you really did see die this year: singers, actors, cinematographers, composers, refugees on faraway beaches, civilians in war-torn cities, maybe people who know, or at least people known by people you know, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends. Think of how you first learnt of their deaths. In most cases, I'll wager, via Facebook. With a memorial badge or some typed phrase in a status box. Or on some platform very much like Facebook. Or on some major news source increasingly parasitic on Facebook and platforms very much like Facebook. Almost indistinguishable in form and content from the millions who died and were resurrected that November afternoon. Every one of them whispering urgently, in unison, from their tombs: 2016 did not take place.

In 1991's febrile first quarter, the French theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote a series of columns for the newspaper Libération, syndicated in Britain by The Guardian. The first was headed 'The Gulf War will not take place', its title a satirical nod to Jean Giraudoux's play The Trojan war will not take place. It was followed, once hostilities in Kuwait had commenced, by 'The Gulf War is not really taking place' and, later, 'The Gulf War did not take place'.

Baudrillard's essays guide the reader through the interminable deferral of an unreal build-up, through a war that was never declared, that never officially began and so could never really end, into an impossible conflict, a war so thoroughly mediatised that nobody could really believe it was happening. In the newspapers, on the radio and TV, the Gulf War was so ubiquitous that it became a kind of wallpaper and disappeared. It came to us as a marketing campaign, a speculative venture, for a product that never quite came into view.

The Gulf War, Baudrillard claimed, was fought by decoys, boasting, and hypocrisy. The whole thing was practically its own hoax. At the same time, it was a war stripped bare only to be "reclothed with all the artifices of electronics" until, finally, "electronic coverage of the war devoured time and space".

"We are no longer dealing with historical events," Baudrillard wrote fifteen years ago, "but with places of collapse." Baudrillard himself has been dead nine years now. But what could he possibly see in the events of the past twelve months but just such a place of collapse. The collapse of democracy, of public trust, of the media themselves, of the very idea of the people, and of truth. He would look upon all of this and ruefully shake his head, muttering, 2016 did not take place.

"The Trojan War will not take place," Andromache declares at the start of Jean Giraudoux's eponymous play. "I shall take that bet," Cassandra replies. And like the newspapers and spokespeople who sneered of "Project Fear" before the June referendum, Andromache sighs, "doesn't it ever tire you to see and prophesy only disaster?"

Giraudoux's Trojans know full well that the war will be a catastrophe, that the Greeks will slaughter their youths and sack their cities. Until the very last scene, Trojan statesmen insist, the war will not happen. It cannot. But, egged on by the silk-tongued Demokos, they plunge finally into war over a symbol – of beauty and purity and courage, a pellucid spectre of self-determination – and over a lie.

We seem to have lived through two Trojan Wars this year and the corpses are still piling up. Two great tumults that every respected source insisted wouldn't happen, shouldn't happen, and mustn't happen, but then went along and happened anyway.

They were campaigns run on lies and fictive symbols. As we speak, a Special Crime Team at the Crown Prosecution Service is considering a complaint that the Leave EU campaign willingly misled voters with deliberately inflated claims of the European Union's financial toll on Britain, of Turkey's imminent accession, and the absence of control over national borders. Eager fact-checkers have found 37 known falsehoods in Donald Trump's speech at the final presidential debate in the US and 21 more in his acceptance speech after the election. His cheerleaders at the odious Breitbart news hail the dawning of a new "post-truth" era.

We should not be surprised if both polls were finally won by fabrication, since fiction was the terrain on which they fought. In June, Reuters reported that some 50% of web users now get their news via Facebook and for a growing demographic it is the primary source of daily news. But as analysis by Buzzfeed has since shown, Facebook's yen for "engagement" inadvertently values fake news over real. By giving preferential placement to those stories that gather the most likes, comments, reactions, and shares, Facebook provides a platform for hyper-partisan websites like Freedom Daily and Occupy Democrats which dribble a relentless stream of stories with little more than an odds-on chance of truth. We live in a cloud of manufactured outrage, in the endless deferral between a noisy hoax and its quiet debunking.

Meanwhile, major media outlets, under pressure from declining revenues, lay off fact-checkers and other editorial staff to opt for an army of precarious freelancers trolling Twitter for quick content that apes the form and style of substance-free clickbait. The BBC, on the other hand, under the guise of impartiality, presents truth and lies side by side, like equally palatable flavours of ice cream that might be chosen between at whim and without consequence. It is almost inevitable that, presented as equivalently valid options, the spurious would best the bona fide since it is not hampered in its race to sensationalism by any commitment to what is concrete and verifiable. Real events must go to the back of the queue. They are too boring. There is no room for them anymore. 2016 could not take place.

On the first of June, at a conference in California, Tesla cars and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to the stage and declared that we are "probably" living in a computer simulation. "Forty years ago we had Pong," he said from a swivelling red leatherette armchair. "Now, forty years later, we have photorealistic 3D simulations with millions of people playing simultaneously – and it's getting better every year. … If you assume any rate of improvement at all then the games will become indistinguishable from reality. It would seem to follow that the odds that we are in base reality would be one in billions."

Not only that, Musk went on to say "we should hope that that's true." And this was at the beginning of June – before Dave Swarbrick, Muhammad Ali, and Funkadelic keyboard player Bernie Worrell all passed on. By now I should imagine Musk is desperately scouring the shelves of his medicine cabinet for red pills, murmuring under his breath, over and over again, the same fervently wished-for phrase: 2016 did not take place.

To be sure, it has felt more than once over the course of the year as if the world has become the plaything of cruel and capricious forces. Haven't you wondered if the reality we're living through isn't at the whim of bored adolescents with impossibly sophisticated software, munching distractedly on high fructose corn snacks some time in the distant future? Certainly if we are living in a fictional world, it is not a very well written one. Huge plot twists keep taking place without any reasonable motivation. Major players drop out at random. We are living, perhaps, in a Jason Statham film or an under-rehearsed and hastily-composed daytime soap.

The tendency for soap opera producers to whip out some implausible catastrophe when ratings are lagging is well known. Due to the continuing stranglehold on our culture by the post-war boomer generation, the past twelve months have felt like a slow plane crash on Stella Street, or like the juvenile gamers who control our destiny have just peeked deep into this nth-degree-Sim-City they are half-engaged with and plucked out of our collective unconscious everybody's answers to that tired old question of the perfect guests to a fantasy dinner party and killed them all off, one by one.

The only consolation for this state of affairs is that if we are living in a computer simulation, the players are bound, soon, to realise that they've gone too far and spoilt their own game. Why bother sitting through the now-inevitable endgame of global war, environmental devastation, and slow degeneration into savagery and desperation? Already their sweaty fingers must be poised above the reset button. In a few days we'll all be looking about ourselves, wondering what happened. 2016 will not have taken place.