Adventures in Hyperreality: Live Suicide and Why It Doesn't Matter
So last night my Twitter account started pinging my phone with updates featuing the #chase hashtag. Apparently something was going on in Los Angeles involving a slow speed chase through north Hollywood. Curious to see what was going on, I signed in and started following the updates. A man in a white Bentley had been leading police around for 3 hours before stopping in front of a Toyota dealership. Local Fox and ABC affiliates had helicopters on the scene and Fox was streaming the actual unedited camera feed through it's website. Twitter en masse was enthralled with updates coming rapidly with the unfiltered immediate responses of the people watching. Eventually, the driver killed himself. The feeds went off. People went to bed. And now comes the analytical aftermath of what in my opinion amounts to a non event.
Fact #1) Something like 30,000 people commit suicide in the United States in a given year.
Suicide is a hard fact of human existence. The first person I knew who committed suicide was a kid named Chris. I was a senior in High School and he was a couple years behind me. We had gone to elementary school together and I had been in classes with his older sister. He'd gone home at lunch one day, called 911 told them he was going to kill himself, then shot himself in the head. I had been playing hooky that day, and got to school in time for my last period because I had an essay to turn in. When I got to school, kids were wandering around campus. Some were talking. Some were crying. My friend Renee came up to me and hugged me out of the blue and told me what happened. I turned in my essay and went to find my sister. We went to a record store and I bought us both CDs. There was a full page for him in the Year book that year. Some people took it really hard. Other people took it as an opportunity to demonstrate how compassionate they were. The whole thing meant nothing to me. A kid I knew was dead. A few days later, my band lost out in the talent show to a couple of girls singing "Closer to Fine" despite the fact that I rocked the fuck out of the guitar solo in Little Wing. That bothered me more, honestly.
Fact #2) The last public execution in the United States was in 1936.
It was in Owensburo, Kentucky and around 20,000 people watched as Rainey Bethea was hanged at sunrise. People have written books about this event, and it's likely that the huge amount of News coverage of the Bethea execution led to the ban on public executions in the United States. At that point in our history, we were on a bit of a progressive upswing in law and penal codes. Over the next 30 years all manner of changes took place in the criminal justice system regarding the treatment of suspects and criminals. Things like the Miranda decision and eventually the short term ban on capital punishment would make for a much more humane society. Lately though, we've been back sliding. Timothy McVeigh's execution was shown on closed circuit television so that all the victim's families could watch. The Patriot Act and warrantless wiretapping have reduced the legal standards for incarceration and made it easier for law enforcement to hold people on suspicion of crimes. And of course, there's the "Unlawful Combatants" in Guantanamo Bay who have been denied the basic right of Habeas Corpus for going on eight years now. The pendulum of attitudes towards the rights of others is clearly swinging back the other way.
Fact #3) CNN went on the air in 1980 as the first source of 24 hour televisual news in the world.
It has been almost 30 years since the news cycle became constant rather than deadline driven. Prior to 24 hour cable news, newspapers published a couple times a day, the broadcast networks had regular slots in the programming for news, and radio had been reduced to hourly news updates primarily dominated by traffic and weather with occasional shout outs to major events that were happening in the world. It was not apparent at first the effect that the 24 hour news cycle would do to our consumption of information about current events. By 1991 however, it was apparent that we had crossed over into a new world. With the first Persian Gulf War, people around the world turned to CNN in the millions to get constant updates on the progress of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The regular networks couldn't keep up with the constant stream of information coming from CNN's cameras as we watched a war unfold in realtime on the television. As a point of reference, the actual campaign once the invasion started lasted about 100 hours and during that time over 2000 Iraqi civilians died as we watched the bombs falling on TV. I'll let you do the math, but that's a lot of people watching a lot of other people die at a pretty rapid rate. At the end of the campaign, George H.W. Bush's approval ratings were through the roof. So all those dead people on Bush's hands didn't seem to matter much to many of us.
Fact #4) The older I get, the more I like Jean Baudrillard.
Baudrillard defines the hyperreal as the simulation of something that never existed. I generally prefer Umberto Eco's definition as Hyperreality being authentically fake. In my own life and thinking, I've often been dismissive of the concept. Generally more of an analytical philosopher than a postmodernist, the idea of reality being anything other than what you have around you, the world you are in, seems at root sort of ridiculous. However, as time goes by I have found that there are elements of the idea that appeal to me and moreover, the parade of empty signifiers only seems to increase over time until I am forced to admit that at least some people are spending all of their time living in a world that doesn't really exist. The examples are easy to find. Show me a guy in football jersey with an american flag in the rear window of his Ford F-150 and a McCain/Palin bumper sticker and I will show you a man who is delusional about the nature of the world. Less obvious though is the world of the blogosphere, which is increasingly nothing more than a giant open source database of simulacra. Occasionally, the blogosphere produces something of it's own. But for the most part it is a cascade of repeated information driven solely by vanity and the delusional beliefs of people like yours truly who genuinely think someone in the world gives a damn about our opinions. The blogosphere is as hyperreal as hyperreal gets, and all the weirdest tendencies of the blogosphere are concentrated in the microblogging environment of Twitter.
Fact #5) The White Bentley Chase Did Not Happen.
Baudrillard created quite a stir in 1991 with his statement that the Gulf War didn't happen. What he meant was is that people had this idea that there was a Gulf War as a series of events that created a narrative in their minds about an occurence. This was driven largely by the apparent authenticity of the experience created artificially through the signifiers of live video feeds on 24 hour cable news. The white bentley chase is the same. We were able to watch live unedited video footage streaming on the internet of a white car stopped on the street. A little while later the swat team approached the car. A little while later, paramedics removed the man on a stretcher, loaded him into an ambulance, and drove off. That is what happened. The hyperreal event, loaded with signifiers of authenticity that seemed novel due to the involvement of a Twitter discussion and live streaming video, that didn't take place. It didn't happen. Facile references to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle aside, a man killed himself and we watched. For the most part we didn't care. We just didn't want to miss anything. We wanted to see what would happen. As a curious species, this is not new behavior. As a species capable of all manner of psychological prestidigitation in order to avoid the psychic pain of empathy, the fact that we were almost completely unsympathetic to the man, being more interested in whether or not he was this or that celebrity than whether he would be ok, that we facetiously made jokes and mocked the camera people and expressed hopes that the SWAT team would just get on with it already, is unsurprising. And in the aftermath that we attempt to ascribe some significance to an experience that felt so very real to us as we participated in it is understandable. But it didn't happen. Hundreds of people commit suicide everyday. Some one is probably going through with the act or has just killed himself or is about to kill himself as you read these words. With the exception of 911 operators, police officers, and suicide hotline phone bank volunteers, most of us never think about these people over the course of a day. And why should we? People die. Babies are born. Homes are foreclosed on. Jobs are lost. Fires rage in Australia. Our sympathy or the lack of it changes nothing.
Last night a man killed himself live on the internet. It doesn't matter at all.