The age of Simulacra
Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is known for his theory of signifier and signified. A “signifier” is a verbal reference to a given object, while “signified” is the actual object being referred too. For instance, the word “chair” is the signifier for the object on which individuals sit in an office or classroom. Notably, upon hearing the word “chair”, two different individuals would conjure a similar mental representation. Both would envision an object in which an individual can sit, even if each would imagine a different colored or shaped object. Moreover, both individuals could jointly identify all “chairs” located in a room. This means that the signified object has a tangible physical existence. This is also the case with the signifier “toothbrush” which most people associate with a long narrow object used to clean teeth.
However, there are times in which a signifier has no signified. Such is the case with the word cyberspace. When we hear this signifier, we each conjure a different mental representation. Some of us conjure images from the “Matrix” movie, others see a super-highway made of numbers while still others imagine huge computers. Moreover, none of us can go into a room or building and point to the physical manifestation of cyberspace. It is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Signifiers which have no signified, such as cyberspace, are known as Simulacra.
Life in the age of simulacra
The digital age is the age of simulacra, an age of meaningless words. For when we go “online” we go nowhere and everywhere at the same time. In addition, we all use the “web” which is ever present and not present simultaneously. We are also often told that we are part of local, regional and transnational networks. And while these networks can be visualized and imagined, they cannot be touched or physically approached.
The digital age is also the age in which words lose their original meaning, ultimately also becoming simulacra. “Friend” is a word that has taken on a new meaning since the rise of Facebook. I for one have many “Friends” which I consider as pests, at best, and enemies at worst. “Privacy settings” do not ensure our privacy but rather strip us of it, “stalking” is used to denote a positive show of interest in an online persona and “breaking the internet” is the successful use of media rather than the crashing of a system.
The age of simulacra is now also present on our television sets as “Reality” television is a genre that depicts anything but reality. Even the horrific, ever watchful eye of Big Brother has transformed into a loving caretaker. People are eager to be jailed in a house with 11 individuals while being monitored at all times. Jail is fun.
Diplomacy and Simulacra
Processes that shape the digital society often end up shaping society in general. Thus, it is not suprising that the age of “Friends” is also the age of a loving Big Brother. Yet by extension, processes that shape the digital society also shape diplomacy. This is due to the fact that diplomacy is a social institution practiced by social beings-diplomats. Indeed before diplomacy can be practiced it must first be imagined and conceptualized by diplomats.
The past two years have seen the rise of simulacra in diplomacy. This, I argue, is a part of digital diplomacy for this term also refers to the digital society’s influence on the practice of diplomacy. Given that the digital society is one of lost words, diplomacy too is losing words.
Consider for instance the War on Terror which is a simulacra. It is a war that has tangible and non-tangible battlefields, that is omnipresent and never present at the same time. A war in which there are soldiers and in which we are all soldiers as our data is used to distinguish between those who would and would not do harm. ISIS is another simulacra, a state and a non-state simultaneously. For ISIS has many of the attributes of states including territory, a government and symbols such as an anthem and a flag. And yet at the same time it is a non-state for others refuse to recognize its sovereignty.
Other words have lost meaning in diplomacy. Peace used to be defined as the absence of war. Many argue that we are now at peacetime, that the world has never enjoyed such peace. Yet there are at least five wars ranging on at the moment in different countries including Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and more. NATO used to be an alliance of democratic states. Yet Turkey is a NATO member and, as such, NATO too has lost meaning.
The most recent simulacra are Crimea and Brexit.
Brexit is the most substantive foreign policy initiative the UK has undertaken since WW2. Yet neither British officials nor world leaders nor the British people know what Brexit is, what it can be and what it will be. In a truly Orewllian fashion, the world is simply told that Brexit means Brexit.
Such is also the case with the Republic of Crimea. For where is the Republic of Crimea? If we open an atlas will we find it? If we search on Google maps, will we identify it? If we drive across Ukraine, will we arrive at its internationally recognized borders? No. And yet it still exists.
However, what separates the digital society from diplomacy is the ability to contend with ambiguity. The digital society may thrive on simulacra, but diplomacy cannot exist with an abundance of simulacra. If states exist and don’t exist, if republics exist and don’t exist, if peace is the absence of war and the existence of war simultaneously, then how can diplomacy function? How can the EU prepare for the UK’s departure if Brexit means Brexit, but not much more? Like any political discourse, diplomacy relies on words with shared definitions and shared meaning. Ambiguity may thus be the very crumbling of the foundations of diplomacy.
The age of the digital and the simulacra may thus also be the age of a fundamental crisis in diplomacy, one whose effects are already felt in nations and forums throughout the world. In this respect, digital and digitalization may not only complicate diplomacy, but also threaten its very ability to function.