June 7, 2012

The End of Holographic Politics as We Know It - Masahide T. Kato

                             “Don’t support the phony; support the real.”
                                                           – Tupac Amaru Shakur       


On April 15th, 2012, Tupac Shakur resurrected himself at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival, and performed two songs with Snoop Dogg.  Or did he?  As it turns out, it was Dr. Dre who “genetically” engineered the return of Shakur as a hologram,working closely with the Hollywood digital media companies. Dre’s association with Tupac goes back to the time when he was a cofounder of Death Row Records that bailed Tupac out of jail for 1.4 million dollars in 1995.  Though Dre pulled himself out of Death Records shortly before the untimely death of Shakur, this holographic reunion of Snoop, Dre, and Pac was a reminiscence of the “gangsta rap” culture that Dre has projected as his public image since his days with N.W.A.  The holographic representation of their reunion, therefore, is a perfect tribute not so much to Tupac Shakur as to Dr. Dre’s image commodity or his “intellectual property rights,” which lacks real life experience of being a “gangsta” or “thug.” 
Upon viewing the holographic Tupac, I was reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s concept of “simulacra.”  In his book entitled Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard analyzes the social construction of “reality” in the age of global capitalism where “reality” as such is taken over by the power of simulation.  What I gleaned from Baudrillard’s work is that the relationship between our existence or being and our perception is increasingly destabilized by the corporate mediation of reality through manufactured imagery.  Consequently, our experience of the reality becomes less autonomous or less “sovereign” in the sense that it is largely structured by the consumption of simulacra as a commodity.

During the first war on Iraq in 1991, Baudrillard stirred up a controversy by publishing three part short essays entitled the “The Gulf War will not take place,” “The Gulf War is not taking place,” and “The Gulf War did not take place” in Libération, a daily French newspaper.  In the age of globalization, war as such gets detached from the realm of our experience as an “event” or “truth.”  War has become an act of mindless observation.  This was so both for those who observed the war at home through the mass media’s representation of war as a “surgical operation” and those who actually participated in the war as a soldier.  The latter’s perspective was captured in the film called Jarhead (2006) directed by ex-marine Sam Mendez.  In this testimonial film of the Gulf War, there is no combat in a classic sense of the term.  The combat is replaced by the massive aerial bombardment that incinerates all matters, organic or otherwise.  The only trace of combat is the film (within a film), Apocalypse Now, which marines watch festively at the base immediately preceding their deployment to Kuwait.  

            The dominance of simulacra in the age of globalization emanates from the heart of its engine, the global economy.  The impetus that drove the global financial market in the early 2000s and landed on a catastrophic global meltdown in 2008 was “sub prime mortgages.”  The banks and mortgage companies aggressively marketed loans to those who couldn’t normally afford homes.  The massive debts with limited prospects of redemption were then bundled together as “securities” to be traded on the Wall Street and global financial markets.  The “toxic” products have eventually induced a global financial haemorrhage in 2008.  Just recently, one of the largest global banks , J. P. Morgan declared that it lost $2 billion in the first quarter forinvesting in its “synthetic credit portfolio,” a complex financial product based on the bond investment and default insurance.  

Both “sub prime mortgages” and “synthetic credit portfolio” are essentially marketing “debt.”  Similar to carbon trading, global financial institutions have been marketing hazards.  Whereas carbon trading still has pollution as its substance, marketing debt doesn’t have a substance until there is redemption: It is a pure simulacrum or theoretical existence, and hence, ontologically deficient.  Even though the privatized central bank could pump up the currency to reconstitute an appearance of substance, the trillions dollars in bail out and the quantitative easing (i.e., debt monetization) have completely wiped out the last vestige of ontology and sovereignty from the global currency; the global currency has thus become holographic.

While global financial institutions have been engaged in trading phantoms, millions have lost their jobs and homes and the manufacturing of actual goods and substances have moved to sweat shops and prisons.  The factory-prison system in turn has decimated the basis of nature and sustenance economies.  In the light of this catastrophe created by the global holographic economy, the rise of popular sovereignty in Europe, Middle East, Asia and the US is not simply about the economic disparity but also about the demise of the “real.”  “How do you live in a hologram?”  “How can you eat simulacra?”

Repulsed by the holographic Tupac, I was compelled to revisit his real life history as a second generation descendant of the Black Panther Party.  In the process, I bumped into a manifesto entitled “Code’s [sic] of the Thug Life,” which Tupac wrote with Mutulu Shakur in 1992.  It cautions how the thug life that can be the basis of autonomous economy and politics has turned into the very tool of auto-genocide:
The thug life is a tool of the enemy as it exists today, it must change.  Outside forces and methods whose interests are being served by the hustlers, the crews have no dignity, they have no honor – and this must be corrected.  A counsel must be called put a code to the thug life.
We accept that the game will go on until our liberation.  What we won’t accept is that the game will destroy us from within before we get another chance and rebuild.  We will not allow ourselves to be played by the covert operations, cointelpro, and law intensity warfare waged by the United States government.[1]
Particularly towards the end of his life after his release from the prison, Shakur has taken on a more politically strategic path as his alias Makaveli (he named himself after Niccolo Machiavelli during his imprisonment) might suggest.  In the above manifesto, Shakur is giving a new meaning to the “thug life” as an alternative to the polis.  In lieu of the modern polis as a gated community for the 1%, the “thug life” posits a communal alternative for the ghetto masses.  
Tupac’s Black Panther genealogy, real life experiences of poverty, street, and thug, and his artistic talent were all about to coalesce into a political platform to organize the downtrodden youth in the ghetto.  Fred Hampton organized the gangs in Chicago into a revolutionary force until his assassination.  Hip Hop transformed the gang rivalry in the Bronx into a sustainable force of creativity, artistic innovation, and conviviality.  Accordingly, Tupac was about to launch an organizing effort to turn the ghetto existential condition into a positive force for social change with global outreach potential.  Perhaps the time wasn't ripe yet for the politicization of “thug life” in the middle of 1990s when a big wave of globalization started to engulf the world with the power of simulation.  But now the global masses are getting mobilized for the real, for the global “thug life.”  In that sense, the apparition of holographic Tupac in 2012 may be a sign that the simulated reality that has colonized our perception since the advent of post-industrialism is coming to its logical end.
Tupac Shakur at the '94 House of Blues Show (later recreated for Coachella)

- Masahide T. Kato is a Lecturer and Researcher at the University of Hawai'i Manoa and author of Kung Fu to Hip Hop: Globalization, Revolution, and Popular Culture (State Univ. of New York Press, 2007)

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Glaser (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994). 

---, “Les cibles de Baudrillard dans Libération,” Libération, March 7th, 2007.
[1] Tupac Shakur, Tupac: Resurrection, 1971 – 1996, eds. Jacob Hoye and Karolyn Ali (New York: Arita Books, 2003), pp. 16 – 17.