4 Nov 2019
Amidst resurgent fascisms and cut-throat neoliberal reforms across the globe, one would not be blamed for giving up on satire. ICE detention centres, spiralling homelessness, migrant slave labour: what use is laughter, parody and irony here? One can’t help but watch shows like Last Week Tonight, Have I Got News For You, or The Daily Show and feel they are completely toothless: an embarrassing and transparent charade of opposition which in actuality shore up the dominant powers1.
Chris Morris’ Channel 4 interview last month, promoting his new film The Day Shall Come, however, has breathed new life into this debate. In a widely shared clip, Morris poured scorn on “a kind of satire which essentially placates the court”, authoritatively advocating for a comedy with “a purpose” that actively tries to change something. With a refreshing moral seriousness and clarity of ambition, Morris affirmed that he did not feel outflanked by the perpetual outlandishness of world politics today and the likes of Trump, asserting that “yeah, you need to take notes pretty fast right now, but I don’t think [Trump’s] escaped ridicule … you’re always going to be able to ridicule someone like that”. Satire’s not dead, for Morris; it’s just being done wrong. A firm commitment to satire as a weapon undergirds Morris’ interview; he doesn’t care that Trump is outlandish, because he knows that reality has always been outlandish, and that comedy intervenes in that (rather than operating separately as the work of the individual author’s imagination). “It’s about the thrust, and it’s really about whether the people you’re lancing can get off your spike”, he declares. “And I’m saying the FBI really cannot get out of the tractor beam of this comedy.”
The question is: is Morris’ faith misplaced? Does The Day Shall Come embody a revived and weaponised satire for our current times? Or does the lance dissolve upon contact? Is the lancer always-already themselves lanced? Do those in power want to be lanced? Do resurgent fascisms, neoliberal exploitation and state authoritarianism demand other modes of politico-aesthetic resistance?
The Day Shall Come is based on, and meticulously satirises, a particularly pernicious – and postmodern – operation of power. The short of it is this: the FBI concocts “fake” terrorist plots using real, unwitting targets, providing money, weapons and other resources for them via undercover informants in order to nudge them into detonating a fake bomb. This then acts as their catalyst to arrest the unwitting target on grounds of intending to commit terrorist violence, resulting in kudos (and other more material resources) for the FBI and generating the impression that the authorities are “on top of” terrorism in the anxious climate under the War on Terror. These stings aren’t rare, either – while exact numbers are hard to get, there have at least been multiple hundreds of these kind of fake plots, with Morris estimating at least 300 in his Channel 4 interview.
But “fake” is the wrong word for these schemes, because as their victims will attest to, and as The Day Shall Come painstakingly portrays, their impact on those targeted is very, very real. Such stings have an almost 100% conviction rate according to Morris, with prison sentences of 25+ years which break apart innocent families. The FBI’s retort here would be that these people would have been terrorists anyway; these stings are just a form of pre-emptive policing that catch criminals before the crime. But from the moment the authorities “pre-emptively” engage with those they have identified as possible terrorists, and modulate their behaviour based on pre-existing plans for entrapment, any declaration that “they would have been terrorists anyway” becomes literally impossible to confirm or deny. The authorities never gain any grip on what these suspects are “really” like because as soon as they have been flagged as a target, and as soon as an undercover informant approaches them, the suspect has been coaxed into an elaborate simulation of reality. A non-simulated, or authentically “real”, response from the suspect can’t be attained; they’re always-already in the game of the simulation for the FBI, always-already being tested, nudged and probed, and any response can only be understood in relation to this. Here the distance and ontological hierarchisation between fiction and reality disappears as the racist and classist models of “radicalisation” and what a “terrorist” looks and/or acts like pass into, perforate and affect the Real, rather than simply “reflect” or “model” it from a distance. As cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard prophesised in 1976:
The old slogan ‘reality is stranger than fiction’ … has been outrun, since there is no longer any fiction that life can possibly confront, even as its conqueror. Reality has passed completely into the game of reality. Radical disaffection, the cool and cybernetic stage, replaces the hot, phantasmatic phase2.
These terrorist plots, then, aren’t “fake” or “false”; but they’re also not simplistically “real”, either. Instead, they’re simulations, a strange kind of “game” of reality3. The powers that be such as the FBI will always officially efface this, needing the firm ontological terrain of the Real in order to ground and legitimate themselves, but the fact is no such terrain exists.
If this all sounds like a stretch, or needlessly abstract and “postmodern”, I’d recommend watching The Day Shall Come, which brilliantly depicts the sheer absurdity, unreality and weightlessness stalking underneath these terror stings. The film follows Moses (Merchánt Davis), an impoverished leader of a small religious commune, the “Star of Six”, in Miami. Worshipping an eclectic mix of six deities (Allah, Melchizedek, Jesus, “Black Santa”, Mohammed and General Toussaint), Moses preaches a black revolution against the white man, but strictly without the use of firearms. “We trust only the weapons of tradition”, Moses declares in a sermon. “The sword, the sling… and the crossbow.”
Following the failure of a previous sting, the FBI seek out new suspects who can be the centre of their simulated terror plots. Moses, preaching to “overthrow the injustice of the white European” and declaring that “the cranes of the gentrificators shall fall”, seems just the fit for them, and soon enough informants are in contact with Moses, with one promising him money and firearms while posing as a sheikh affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
After this initial point of contact everything spirals out of control as each side tries to play and deceive the other in an escalating game of reality (sometimes without even realising it, in Moses’ case). The result is the fabulously absurd climax of the film, which starts when Moses agrees to purchase uranium from the FBI informant. Unkeen to actually use the nuclear weapons, however, the Star of Six fill the empty nuclear cannisters with piss and beans (the actual uranium being given to them the next week), in order to sell them for $100,000 to a neo-Nazi group and thus get some much needed cash for their farm. The neo-Nazis, however, are undercover Miami police officers, and having been promised supposedly real nuclear weapons, prompt the police department to declare a nuclear emergency. A team of police officers are on their way to arrest Moses and the Star of Six for supplying nuclear weapons that are in reality piss and beans inside cannisters supplied by the FBI. Having compromised their simulated nuclear terror plot and taken it as a real threat, the police and FBI soon butt heads, and the latter rush to diffuse the situation and regain control of “their” simulation. Hurriedly, they find the phone numbers for the “neo-Nazis” and get them to call off the arrest, letting Moses and the Star of Six go.
The FBI think they’ve solved the problem, but soon find out their efforts have been futile: word of the situation has reached the Oval Office, causing the Department of Homeland Security to declare a federal nuclear emergency on the fake piss-nukes. Dozens of police cars and armed police officers are now following Moses, unbeknownst to him, as he travels to his daughter’s birthday party. The fiction, once again, has outpaced reality. Faced with this farcical scenario, the FBI agents find themselves conforming to a twisted, backwards logic. They know the emergency is groundless, but it’s out there and believed, so in order to control it they have to act as if it were genuine. The bemused FBI agent Kendra (Anna Kendrick) summarises the quandary as follows: “So… to stop a nuclear emergency I have to declare a nuclear emergency?” “Yes”, her boss replies. “The logic only works if you say the sentence slowly. Keep the contradictory elements apart.”
As the cybernetic feedback loop(s) between Moses, the FBI and the police in The Day Shall Come accelerates, then, any firm ontological grounding or hierarchisation crumbles. What was simply designed as a fictitious threat to fool a supposed “would be” terrorist becomes taken as a real threat by a paranoid agency of social control that, operating under pre-emptive and anticipative models of terrorist behaviour, understands and respects no difference between signifier and signified and takes any sign of a real threat as a real threat in itself. The code, the programme, the model, the operation, is coldly literal; it seeks pure operativity and functionality, not symbolism and metaphors. The results here are dark and disturbing: the Star of Six are all sentenced to 25-35 years in prison, the same outcome as if they had actually committed a terrorist plot without any external intervention.
Try and start on any firm division between reality and fiction here, and you’ll end up precisely where everyone in The Day Shall Come ends up: in a strange blend of reality and fiction – in other words, a play of simulations; Baudrillard’s hyperreality. Dig for any firm reality principle and you’ll come up short, inevitably finding the absurd circuitry behind the screen, as the FBI agents in the film find themselves enmeshed in. It’s all like that Baudrillard passage from Simulacra and Simulation:
Organize a fake holdup. Verify that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no human life will be in danger […] You won’t be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements (a policeman will really fire on sight; a client of the bank will faint and die of a heart attack […]), in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real - that is, to the established order itself…4
But we don’t really “find ourselves back in the real” after these encounters, as the Star of Six at the end of The Day Shall Come would attest to. The absurd circuitry, the weightlessness, the simulation, has been exposed, and things aren’t quite the same afterwards. As the film ends and the credits roll, it haunts us. This shouldn’t have happened, but it did, and it does. We never find the “truth” in The Day Shall Come, we never return to any stable ontological ground, what “actually” happened never gets its comeuppance. The simulation just keeps on going as (if) real; we never get back to the “real” side of the mirror, and to be honest we were never there to begin with. Instead, we encounter what Mark Fisher in his PhD thesis Flatline Constructs, borrowing from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, terms the “black mirror”:
But what then does the black mirror show us, if not out own reflections? In part, the black mirror is another image of cyberspace black out – the catatonic “neuro-electronic void” or cut-out of conscious signal we have already discussed […] The black mirror, then, is the image of the noumenal event horizon beyond which we cannot go: what we “always” are “in the other world” we are “already” in.5
The black mirror haunts the arrest and severe sentencing of Moses and the Star of Six at the end of The Day Shall Come; it’s right there, in that uncomfortable feeling in our stomachs. The image was never a mirror(ing); it was always a simulation, the workings of a code… sure, this is probably something to embrace ultimately rather than deny – more on this in part 2 – but who can deny the unease one gets when one looks in the mirror and just sees black, when one thinks they can trust what they see before them, only to end up with 35 years in prison on cooked-up terrorism charges for it…
The Day Shall Come is a good satire of this weightless yet pernicious form of power – interesting, funny, morally serious. And yet, considering how deeply director Chris Morris understands this operation of power (spending years researching the film, interviewing FBI agents and victims), one wonders why he opted for satire as a politico-aesthetic mode to combat it. For doesn’t satire fall prey to the simulation, just as Moses does in The Day Shall Come? Ultimately, isn’t a satire on “fake” FBI terror strings just a simulation of them that will all too quickly be absorbed into the real, absorbed into the FBI (and other state agencies’) very functioning? If so, what does resistance look like? I’ll be discussing this more in part 2, which should be up at least within a few weeks or so.
Mark Fisher’s “The strange death of British satire” is an excellent and succinct documentary of this trend. Available at: https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/4919/the-strange-death-of-british-satire ↩
Jean Baudrillard,Symbolic Exchange and Death, p.75, emphasis added. (SAGE, 1993) ↩
It’s important to underscore that this doesn’t mean the racist and classist violence inflicted in these simulations is fake or “not real”, and thus unimportant. It’s not that reality is now fake, but that reality is increasingly fictional and fiction is increasingly real. The status of both “reality” and “fiction” have changed, blurring into one another. Reality is no longer what we think it is; same with fiction. But that doesn’t mean the real has disappeared and that everything is fake – this would be a crucial misreading of Baudrillard’s arguments. ↩
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (no page numbers as I have a shitty pdf version) (emphasis added) ↩
Mark Fisher, Flatline Constructs, p.142. (Exmilitary Press edition) ↩