By Walden, George
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 139, No. 5007
A reason that Anglo-American acolytes of Jean Baudrillard inspired mockery is that they never quite saw the playful side of the brilliantly mischievous French theorist. His forte was the simulacrum, or imperfect imitation of reality, and its gradual dissolution into a nihilistic state, towards which he was convinced society as a whole was heading. If that is the case--and we are currently not short of pointers--there seems no reason to exclude prime ministers from the general flight from reality.
And sure enough, watching David Cameron in the leaders' TV debates, Cameron posing in front of No 10, Cameron impersonating a commoner in Whitehall, a spectre among the masses, who has not experienced a hallucinatory feeling, a sense of insubstantiality?
"An awakened dream of communication", Baudrillard called such manufactured personages and events, leading to "an implosion of meaning". It comes about, he suggested, when media and reality are short-circuited, rather than acting as poles between which mediation takes place. The result is "a single nebulous state whose truth is undecipherable". Fans of the simulacrum or not, we see the truth of that all right, and its implication for our politics. Which leads naturally to the question: in the copper-bottomed sense of the word, does David Cameron exist?
It would have been fun to read the master on the subject, in one of his satirical newspaper columns. In his absence (he died three years ago, aged 77), we must look for an answer to his writings, approached, of course, in an earth-creeping Anglo-Saxon frame of mind. For us, the immediate reason to question our Prime Minister's reality is Cameron the cutaneous curiosity: press a thumb to his uncannily glaucous skin, you feel, and an indentation might be left, as on a wax fruit or a Madame Tussauds effigy.
If the surface of the man is suspect, we are entitled to probe deeper. What better analytical tool (as we must say) than Baudrillard's four stages by which reality morphs into a simulacrum, before vanishing altogether?
It begins with the image as a true reflection of reality, and already Cameron scores poorly. To see just how poorly, think of Winston Churchill, a man better born than our Prime Minister but who never pretended to be other than he was. Cameron, on the other hand, spends his life affecting not to be the aristocrat he in any case isn't, quite.
Comparisons with Churchill are unfair, but it is reasonable to cite him (or Clement Attlee, come to that) as a touchstone of solidity against less substantial moderns. It was Tony Blair's 1997 victory, I would suggest, accompanied by the swarm of image-mongers that infested No 10, that marked the onset of our abstraction from reality and entry into a virtual political world.
Again, appearances are the clue. Think of the Blair-Cameron grin, then of their puckered-browed sincerity, and you have it. Try pasting those, expressions on to other postwar politicians, and they don't fit. That is because, after 13 years, we are well into the mimetic era.
Give or take his siren suits, Churchill, image-wise, was a non-manufactured product: he didn't ponce about on bikes, and he smoked plutocratic cigars not for effect, but because he liked them. He was a genuine man of action, who fought in wars as well as running one. He took graver decisions in a day than Cameron will take in a lifetime, yet no one ever saw him doing the lip-biting thing Cameron the made-up man has adopted from Bill Clinton, to tell us how tough it is at the top.
The second stage of the Dante-esque descent through mime into nullity, Baudrillard tells us, is the image as perversion of reality. For this, Cameron is a natural, a man whose phoniness is positively dandiacal, bordering on the exquisite. A nebulous state of unreality shrouds everything he does. His bottomless dressing-down wardrobe, the apparently nanny-less home of working parents, the obscurities of his pre-parliamentary career--with him, nothing is as it seems. …