Two forms of sacrifice
We are all familiar with how sacrifice (or immolation, which I will use superfluously for the sheer sonic joy of it) works: someone or something is relinquished in exchange for another thing which is usually not beneficial to the immolated thing but of great value to those who turn it into something immolated. Pressure is exerted and the thing spirals into a closed system which it is unable to escape. Slavery, of a sort. Loss.
An asymmetrical power structure is usually involved. You must have something to sacrifice for it to work. That which is sacrificed usually has little of worth with which to bargain its release from the outcome of immolation (I will interchange freely with immolate and sacrifice in order to cover the multilateral reach of sacrifice ranging from labour to religion and everything in between and external to this spectrum.)
Religious immolation, in contrast to economic immolation, is the exception to this rule. An example is the child Nachiketas who sacrifices himself in order that his father, whose only sacrifice otherwise is a herd of sick cows, might find favour with the gods. For this, Nachiketas is granted, by Yama the Lord of Death, anything he desires. His wish: to understand the meaning of death, which he is dissuaded from with riches & women, which he po-facedly turns his nose up at.
In metaphysical landscapes subscribed to the potential of heavenly favour, immolation has an entirely different value. I don’t think, despite my short detour, that this is relevant to a realistically informed world-view.
Objects of immolation are not inert and seldom as willing to be sacrificed as the good son Nachiketas. We sacrifice time, energy, resources, pride, health and so on. All of these, according to a radically object-oriented perspective, are in fact objects. Objects in this context are merely things which have been assigned a value of interest to another object.
In order to live we sacrifice objects with exchangeable value in order to secure a form of existence under the code of a generally accepted system. Ours happens to be capitalism. We sacrifice the object of our labour and all this entails. We are saturated in a society which accepts sacrifice wholesale. Without it we might even struggle to conceive a society in the normalised form we have become habituated to. But this is to accept the grand narrative, an ideology which is beginning to show cracks in its seams.
This act of immolating perforates certain formal structures in particular types of film, representing allegorically the sacrifice made by the majority of people in order to buoy an economic idea. One such example can be found in the 90s action film The Demolition Man starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes.
In an early scene the bad guy Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes)—who must, we are assured by the trope of his skin colour and exotic clothing, be the bad guy—is attempting to access the only effective firepower in the effete future mankind has carved for itself, at least in San Angeles, the fictional synthesis of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego.
A museum attendant, robed in monk-like grey-brown clothing, marble white and hyperbolically kind approaches Phoenix and says, ‘Mellow greetings, sir. What seems to be your boggle?’ The attendant’s pseudo-elocutionary tone establishes its mockability. He does not slur and renders his syllables perfectly. Phoenix parrots the attendant’s attempted pleasantry, inflecting ‘my boggle!’ in order to indicate the vulnerabilities of this future world to his nefarious character. He asks the man’s weight. Before the attendant can respond Phoenix has ocularly assessed that the attendant’s weight is probably sufficient to smash the display case containing the weaponry Phoenix needs to begin the destruction of the future he is anachronistic of. Phoenix picks him up and launches him through the glass.
Something most action films do is release tension by subverting the expected outcome of our sensibilities. In this instance, we are manipulated to side with Phoenix. This is because the future world established is one in which there is no conflict. This jars unconsciously with our world of constant conflict at various levels of intensity. We may live in relative safety, but we know the world is a violent place: we have the media and a rotary of action movies to explain this to us.
We are being manipulated to enjoy evil here. As a society we accept that the attendant is merely an immolate-object, an object which as part of the Hollywood system of objects must be immolated in order to produce the effect of subverting expectation. The attendant is reduced to a mockable phrase, nudging us toward siding with the nefarious character Simon Phoenix. The bad guy as comedian.
Demolishing how we read
If we read the scene as a ‘system of objects’ (to borrow Baudrillard’s term) we can better understand how the objects (actor, item, behaviour etc) collude to produce the effect we are imported into.
First of all, we must clarify how ‘reading’ elicits the taking-serious required to think about a 90s action film-scene in this way. In The System of Objects Baudrillard explains:
A whole psychodrama is quickly enacted when an image is read [my italics]. In principle, this enables the reader to assume his passive role and be transformed into a consumer. In actuality, the sheer profusion of images works at the same time to counter any shift in the direction of reality, subtly to fuel feelings of guilt by means of continual frustration, and to arrest consciousness at the level of a phantasy of satisfaction. In the end the image and the reading of the image are by no means the shortest way to the object, merely the shortest way to another image. (192-98)
Let’s pick apart this quote. First off, reading is done either consciously or unconsciously. If reading is done consciously it promotes perceptiveness outside the given demarcations of the creator’s intentioned meaning. In contrast, unconscious reading is allowing the given meaning to remain within its demarcations and thus to affect us in the way the creator intends the affect to work.
In the example of this scene, the effect only happens if we are not consciously reading, that is, not looking to alter the way in which the objects are being orchestrated in order to manipulate the creator’s desired effect on us. We become the passive consumer when we opt not to read consciously. However, reading consciously produces a secondary and perhaps deeper insight into social cohesion and the usage of objects in a system. Conscious reading is indicative of the withdrawn potentials of a done deal.
In this scene, in order to produce a comedic outcome the ‘reality principle’ (The System of Objects, 193) must be subverted and we must be cushioned and confirmed by the fictional reality. If we were an onlooker we would be horrified by Phoenix’s actions. The distance from actuality is maintained through the fictionalised world and our trust in this. Nevertheless, this does not distract us from what is happening to us here: we are enjoying mindless violence.
Because of the fictional world we are able to enjoy violence virtually, to keep our distance, maintain our moral compass and passively evade any moral culpability because we are merely simulating an uncharacteristic, consumptive act.
As Baudrillard concludes in The System of Objects, ‘Consumption is irrepressible, in the last reckoning, because it is founded upon a lack’ (224). We do, and fortunately so, in general lack the capacity to make actual our violent impulses, or to test publicly laughing at someone’s misfortune. We may do it intrinsically but seldom extrinsically with confidence. It is the knowledge that we lack the opportunity to perform these acts that we are receptive to the virtuality of the film world. It becomes an opportunity to fill in the lack and continue consumption, which is the cornerstone of our civilisation.
As Baudrillard’s definition of consumption implies, what is organised in this scene is a ‘systematic manipulation of signs’ (The System of Objects, 218). By doing so the creators maintain that what we are doing by enjoying the film is consuming.
To add contrast, if we read the museum attendant as signifying the sacrificial labourer, an object used in order for the powerful to manipulate their environment, then the reading takes on sinister overtones. We might shrug this off as over-embellished reading. However, it just so happens this sort of behaviour is that of powerful individuals in capitalist society. If we accept how embedded sacrifice is in our consumerist, capital-driven society, it is easier to embellish our reading of the museum attendant’s immolation.
Aren’t a large majority of us just like this museum attendant? We like to project ourselves into the boots of more developed characters, after all, we spend so much time with ourselves. However, in all likeliness we are the abused, the weak and the helpless. Rendered fully only in the mirror image of ourselves we simulate in the imaginary of our own thought processes.
We live in a simulated freedom. But really, in the same way we are manipulated to laugh with Simon Phoenix, we are also manipulated to accept society the way it is. That it is normal to belittle the sacrificed. Our identities ignored, even as they are encouraged; all our efforts to do the right thing thwarted by an off-handed attitude of making light of serious situations.
Altering contexts through reading
Let’s imagine we were given an insight into the life of this museum attendant. We learn he is supporting his elderly mother, has health issues and is a talented pianist. How different our reaction to the mockery made of him. He would be a loss.
While the profusion of images has worked on us to produce a clear demarcation between fiction and reality, it is precisely this effort to make it just fictional—requiring no other method of reading—that we finally arrive at a point whereby any requirement of guilt is compressed into a murmur. We only develop a guilty conscience for laughing at the misfortune of the museum attendant if we opt to read the scene with more effort. So while any shift toward reality is blocked it doesn’t necessarily produce a sensation of guilt unless we read systems of objects in radically revised ways.
By reading in a radically different way, comfortable in its strong misprision, we arrive at a satisfactory justification for analysing a scene as ridiculous as our example.
While it would be inaccurate to attribute any blame to Marco Brambilla or his writers and film crew, we can deduce from the effect the scene has that we are in a position to be coerced in particular ways by systems of objects, which Hollywood tropes affectively. Bearing in mind that all produced affect requires articulation through inter-acting objects, each with their own agencies.
For this objectification to be as radical as to conceal the subjective properties of a human-object there must be a formal constraint attached. This formal mechanism diverts how we usually (at least we should) register the potentials of the human-object, otherwise immolated. In the instance analysed humour is the diversion. By making the immolated object say ‘what seems to be your boggle’, the saccharine nicety paired with a confrontation with a violent maniac, makes us ironically side with the maniac. We forget that this decent person may have a hobby, a family, and a useful, functional social role.
Without the word ‘boggle’ we would perhaps side with him. But this single word enables Phoenix to be the insightful character who exposes our culpability for discrediting overt displays of amiability. Moreover, it mocks the idea of an egalitarian society.
In short, to borrow Baudrillard’s phrasing again, a ‘reality principle’ is omitted in order to subvert how we would otherwise read a situation. We can accept the subversion of this reality principle because we are co-opted, through the fictional, into this subversive acceptance: it’s just a film…right?
It is then an act of censorship which enables a moral conflict. Because the identity of the museum attendant is censored, concealed behind the dull pastels of a future dress-code, and brought into confrontation with the vibrant traditionalism of Phoenix, the recipe for mockery is complete.
But what is even more confrontational is that the ‘correct’ reaction of mockery is sanctioned by the collective. Aberration from the collective, suggested, reading is to enter profoundly uncomfortable territory: nobody really wishes to align with evil.
Outcomes of reading ‘systems of objects’ object-orientedly.
Thinking in terms of objects—and radically so—as we have just done, enables us to think the extensive embedded-ness of other immolations: environments, cultures, people, animals.
At this point, it cannot be stressed enough that objects cannot exist or function in isolation but as part of an inter-acting aggregation. Phoenix must break the glass in order to retrieve the weapons. Enter museum attendant. Hollywood manipulates this system, itself part of it in order to produce entertainment. The museum attendant is part of the system of object because he is the tool for not only breaking the display case but moreover for subverting expected morals and indicating why this future world is up for immolation. Without a system of designated objects Hollywood has no algorithmic, ideological power of manipulation.
We are currently witnessing another example of immolation: Afghans discarded by an abusive US empire. The Taliban removing people’s rights: women not being allowed to play sports, which is a sacrifice on their part in exchange for their physical freedom, even the right to life. A people who generally sacrificed their belonging to a culture/nation who now face the prospect of a violent backlash as suspects of betrayal to their cultural precepts, which was done in order to help another, for which they may be murdered. How could the Afghans who aided the US do anything other than live the simulation of Western freedoms? Their taste of freedom, as the Taliban interprets it, must be immolated in order for Afghanistan to fulfil its obligation to Allah.
We see the same immolation when Korean postal workers are manipulated by trusted power structures to work 90 hour weeks to deliver consumer goods.
We see it and do it and live it every day when we sacrifice obscene amounts of precious life to the benefit of wealth generation. We sacrifice the air we breath every time we turn the ignition in our car or get on an airplane or cruise ship just to say we’ve visited somewhere. We are sacrificial beings hell bent on sacrificing anything for a bit of comfort—or to be entertained. It’s no wonder we laugh at this immolated attendant. Our doing so is an indirect appraisal of the efficacy of those who manipulate the sacrificed to their benefit.
And I am not free from guilt: I laughed. Do I still laugh? Yes, but because the illusion is such a perfect one and works so efficiently. I laugh that we still fall for it. It is a well used and reliable trope.
Sacrifice is possible only if you treat the sacrificed in the same way we generally regard objects. Without the development of a meaningful, inclusive and well-oiled system of ecologically oriented objects the sacrificed become the means to render the buoyancy of that stabilised system. The few willing to sacrifice them will always triumph if enough of us continue to laugh. The land we designate for landfills is no different to these sacrifices because eventually it ends in our own moral culpability coming to the fore through the act of conscious reading.
It only takes one person to do this form of reading to uncover the moral stagnation necessary to produce the systemic immolation of choice picked objects. Realising the objective immolation of a thing is not a continuation of the generally accepted method of immolation, but is rather a countervailing measure as it aligns everything under a non-hierarchical system of intensities and use-value, which are calculated not to prejudice but to elicit the best possible outcome. This isn’t utilitarian thinking but merely a jab at dismantling hierarchies of value. Nothing has the option to transcend other things, because there is a radical equivalence of values. In the same way that we know nothing about the positive values of the museum attendant, we also do not understand the positive values of objects that, should they not end up immolated, may become valuable in a way that was previously unnoticed.
A few final words on ‘systems of objects’
Despite this essay’s brevity, I think it has given us sufficient cause to align Baudrillard’s analysis of how systems of objects work to the example of Hollywood, which manipulates objects order to manipulate desired responses. These responses aren’t conjured from nothing. They are clever insights into what trigger us. A discovery which perpetuates an algorithmic trope. This is possible because we are seduced by the fictionalisation of a world in the same way we are persuaded (to varying extents) by the fictionalised promises of the advertiser.
Having been bombarded by adverts and films our whole lives we are desensitised but nonetheless expectant of a narrow spectrum of reactions to the images bombarding us. This is because we are not always interpreting images in a conscious fashion. Were we to do so it isn’t implausible to suggest that we may draw radically different conclusions, taking sturdier precautions against the practices determined to manipulate our affective responses.
Imagine a generation who experienced their formative years without film or advertising. At the threshold of their adolescence they are bombarded with the sorts of imagery we have become accustomed to. It isn’t implausible to make the assumption that their responses would be, at the very least, different. Just look at the cultural affinities of different generations of the same country. What this response might be is of course speculative or at best deducible from exceptions to the rule.
Of course, I suppose it must be said in the wake of these speculations that despite the contracted offer to read consciously or unconsciously, the moral imperative will doubtless land on acceding that it is up to us, individually, to decide whether we want to bother spending time analysing systems which can produce revelatory insights into how it is we can be manipulated to side with the bad guys .
Make no mistake, our laughter is caused by something real. It may be a virtual experience of violence, but the virtuality has affective properties: it explains us as a milieu generator, acutely. We are living a simulated reality. We are the simulator, simulated and simulation. We have been shaped by an imaginary. Who do you think you are if you are not shaped like something which is something else? Do you suppose anyone of us is unique? To not be simulated by the milieu we exist under is to be unidentified, to live a void-persona. We are imbibed by influential factors cooked up by the medium as message social structures that structure how we can live.
Hollywood merely knows we are the simulated—the mortar of the simulacra.