Beautiful Untrue Things
When language enters the battlefield.
Liliana Porter, Dialogue (with Pinocchio), 1995. Silver gelatin print 26 ¾ X 43” diptych. Courtesy of the artist.
During my years in college, one of the pieces of writing I was assigned to read was Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying”. Wilde’s famous essay, written in a playful Socratic dialogue format with his inimitable wit and irony, is a sendoff of sorts of Realism and art’s insistence in imitating reality —which includes the statement that art does not imitate life but the other way around. Shortly after that, the first Gulf War started, and I avidly read Jean Baudrillard’s 1991 “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”, a series of critical essays about the favorable way in which American media was portraying the role of the US forces. So, during those student years I spent time absorbing the ideas of Wilde’s proto-modernist manifesto while also living the end of post-modernism and reading a work of a so-called high priest of that period, without knowing how to compare and contrast both.
These days I have been thinking about these totally unrelated texts, almost as bookends of thoughts generated by current events—mainly as they relate to the subject of imitations, tergiversations, and perversions of language.
A few days ago, a friend in Mexico forwarded me a link to a Facebook group named Desobediencia Civil, which had posted a statement obtusely in favor of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, implying that it is morally justified.
The post included a whole range of misleading claims and false accusations, referring to Ukraine as “a country that violated the agreements that would have allowed a peaceful solution to this conflict.” The statement adds that supporting Ukraine “would be mocking the will of the populations of Lugansk and Donetsk, constantly besieged and murdered by the Ukrainian neo-Nazi army in the face of the silence of a government imposed through a coup.”
It is interesting that these talking points not only have made its way into a group that seems to be unwittingly parroting Russian propaganda, but which also doesn’t see the contradiction between its own nationalism and its support of the nostalgic imperial ambitions of the Russian leadership, partially premised on the argument that Ukraine has never really existed as a country— which would be akin to saying that Mexico has never really existed as a country and should simply be part of Spain.
I asked Russian author Mikhail Iossel, who is based in Canada has been actively posting informed analyses about the war, about what to make of statements like these and propaganda in general. His reply:
“I would rather not respond to paid Russian propagandists -- it's a thankless task. You can't convince those who livelihood depends on not being convinced. Ukraine is democracy and wants to be a part of the Western world, Putin is afraid of the expansion of democracy on Russia's borders. The 141-35-05 vote at the UN General assembly, condemning Russia as a brazen aggressor, speaks for itself. The statement that you quoted is remarkably ignorant, and I wouldn't know where to begin unpacking it.”
These inserted narratives in social media and propaganda outlets show, as we know, how the Russian aggression against Ukraine is being played not only on the ground but also as a media campaign that has expanded to a wide variety of fronts, including the Spanish language version of Russia Today, which seems to be feeding the talking points of Desobediencia Civil and to a lot of people in Mexico—even including a few family members who sadly have accused me of “gringo mentality” for supporting the right of Ukraine to exist ( speaking of which: in the meantime, in the United States we are seeing the ultimate irony that a certain ex-president who will mainly be remembered for spreading what is known as The Big Lie has recently launched a social media app called “Truth Social”).
The concerning issue with statements like the one I referred to above, which are all circulating and proliferating through the web, is not just that they are based in completely fictional information and false accusations, but that in its rhetoric they employ an Orwellian psychology (up is down, night is day, black is white), inventing an enemy out of whole cloth. But there is something much darker going on as well. Historian Timothy Snyder, in a recent discussion about the war in Ukraine, referred to the “de-Nazification” reference as a “Perversion of the language of the Holocaust”:
“When Mr. Putin says that he wants to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, he’s pushed a lot of buttons that he didn’t want to push. [ …] There is something fundamentally wrong with a war that aims to kill a Jewish president and undo a democracy, [all of] which is supposedly being made in the name of de-Nazification. I think what people have understood in the last few days is that what Russia is doing is not just making war against an innocent nation here: […] the Russian leadership is deliberately undoing the linguistic and the moral structures that we drew from the Second World War. The words “genocide” and the words “Nazi” are very important to the whole moral structure which undergirds how many countries, European, North American, and also others, have set up a better version of life after the Second World War. In perverting all of that, in debasing all of that, Mr. Putin is not only going after a country, which is bad enough; he is going after a whole moral structure. And I think people have come to understand that, and that has something to do with the solidarity and the certainty that there is something deeply wrong with this invasion.”
This perversion of language, as Snyder aptly calls it, seems to be part and parcel of the strategies (i.e., accusations of “fake news”) utilized by recent authoritarian populists of the last few years. By mudding the waters of truth and seeding doubt on reality, we are thrown into a confusing world where facts can no longer be discerned from fiction and all views are relative— which is the end goal for those who want the liberal order of truth and democracy to fail.
We know that wars start from the control of the semantics of a conflict. In his essays on the Gulf War, Baudrillard condemned the American media representation of it, arguing that the war had been portrayed by the West though a series of cherry-picked images that acted as simulacra and as a supportive narrative to the U.S. ( and it should be added that the later incursion into the Middle East by the W Bush administration, even while protested by many of us in the U.S., also produced visual and media narratives that minimized the terrible toll on the Iraqi population and promoted an unrealistic, if not altogether Pollyana-esque, vision of the conflict, as epitomized by the “Mission Accomplished” banner during Bush’s speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln Aircraft Carrier in 2003). Something similar, albeit on steroids and with the deliberate effort of total control of public opinion and suppression of dissent, is happening in Russia right now where the sole mention of the word “war” in referring to the invasion in Ukraine can land someone 15 years in jail.
It was that very censorship of the word “war” in Russia that made me reflect on Baudrillard’s text on the Gulf War, where he also critiques the avoidance of the term “war” by the US government and argues that semantic distinctions become in fact a political strategy of deterrence. He further adds— tying it to yet another one of his favorite topics, exchange— that this deterrence is produced by a hostage-taking strategy (the hostage being, specifically, the Ukrainian people and the language of the Holocaust):
“Non-war is characterized by that degenerate form of war which includes hostage manipulation and negotiation. Hostages and blackmail are the purest products of deterrence. The hostage has taken the place of the warrior. He has become the principal actor, the simulacral protagonist, or rather, in his pure inaction, the protagonizer of non-war. The warriors bury themselves in the desert leaving only hostages to occupy the stage, including all of us as information hostages on the world media stage. The hostage is the phantom actor, the extra who occupies the powerless stage of war. Today, it is the hostage at the strategic site, tomorrow the hostage as Christmas present, as exchange value and liquidity. Fantastic degradation of that which was the very figure of impossible exchange.”
We are a long way from those post-modernist days— a period nurtured by the ideas that irony and the use of fiction as a performative strategy is acceptable if the goal is to mount a critique of political, economic, or social systems in art. It is a spirit that lies at the root of a great deal of institutional critique artists from Broodthaers to Andrea Fraser. All of which brings me back to that Oscar Wilde essay.
The notion that misrepresentation, irony and manipulation of truth is a fruitful artistic strategy felt already more than defunct to many of us after 9/11, thus the artistic push toward a form of authenticity of experience and dialogue that socially engaged art, as an emergent art practice, in my view tried to accomplish. This effort, it should be said, often felt— and still feels, even more so today— like an uphill battle: working towards building new things while someone behind you is determined to destroy whatever you build and call it a counter-argument.
Wilde’s character Vivian says at the end of the essay: “the final revelation is that lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” The question is what the role of art should be making amid this apotheosis of the debasement of truth amid the resurgence of authoritarianism worldwide. When propaganda becomes an art, and it tells us beautiful, untrue things, what and how should artists respond?