Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Precession of the Demolition: A Baudrillardian Thought Experiment

By Fenella Brandenburg

I was talking to Tina Richardson this week, my new colleague, about the office that we share and the building we are housed in at the University of Leeds. It’s now known as '28 University Road' and is temporarily being used by our school, The School of Design. There is a notice on it that says 'Formerly Geography East'. Tina says she knows it as a geography building as she taught there a few years ago and some of her geography friends had their offices there, too. Apparently the building is due for demolition, and even though it looks like a dodgy little white stucco temporary building, it has an interesting history, being at one time a maltings.

As you can see from the above image, there is a big old map in the background, just outside our office. There is also another old map in the corridor. The building is very warm, although I have not worked out where all the heat is coming from (maybe an underwater spring reminiscent of Journey to the Centre of the Earth), and the corridor has a strong whiff of some kind of sweet-smelling mould, which I actually really like. It is quite scruffy and you could say it is 'falling apart', but it definitely has a charm and we both really like it there. In fact we don’t want to move, which brings me to the purpose of this guest post, which, in a way, I am writing on behalf of both of us: if we staged a pretend sit-in on the day the demolition begins - the day when university officials appear in hi viz jackets with their clipboards, and men with hydraulic excavators and loaders enter the building – what would happen?

Bear in mind this is not a real sit-in. It is just a pretend (fake), one!

Well, as has been written before by Tina Richardson in a post about staging a pretend faint in a public place (A Hysterical Simulacra), all the apparatus that would be employed in a real situation would also be employed in a false one, since, from the outside, both look the same. This is Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacra. You will not be able to stage a fake sit-in, because, as Baudrillard says: “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements”. He goes on to explain that it is required that “everything is reduced to the real…to the established order itself” and the system operates in order to “devour any attempt at simulation”. In other words, the structure, as it appears in organisational form (what Louis Althusser describes as the ideological state apparatus), is unable to see beyond its own ideological appearance and incapable of seeing anything above its own order of simulation.

However, Baudrillard also goes on to say, and I think this is actually key in these types of thought experiments, it actually occurs even before “institutions and justice come into play”. Which is interesting as initially this sounds a bit like a contradiction. Nevertheless, what he says following this is: the simulation can never be punished as such, because it can only either be punished as a less serious offence (because of a lack of consequences), or as a crime against the judiciary when various state officials become involved (e.g. the police). He goes onto say that either way it is never punished for what it is, a simulation, “since it is precisely as such than no equivalence with the real is possible, and hence no repression either. The challenge of simulation is never admitted by power”.

So, what about staging a sit-in?

Picture this: myself, plus Dr Richardson, and the odd member of staff, a group of recruited students (maybe from The School of Performance and Cultural Industries) 'stage' our sit-in in the student common room, right near the entrance to 28 University Road. We all know that this is a performance. We are not there to make a protest or get in the way of the bulldozers. This is a simulation. The contractors open the door to see a whole load of protesters sitting in the common room, with their placards saying 'Save 28 University Road', 'Keep this wonderful heritage site!' and 'Don't demolish the famous maltings'. They go back to the site office to get the boss. He takes one look at the resistant academics and students and heads to the university administration building, returning with the man-from-estates who promptly calls the police for fear of any potential litigation somewhere down the line...

At what point did this simulation become real?

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