Few cinematic sequences signify the dawn of postmodernism and all its attendant schizoid unknowability beneath its constructed surface veneer better than the final scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. In that scene, the audio tapping specialist Harry, portrayed with quiet and contemplative everyman rage by the great Gene Hackman, rips his apartment up with impotent furor trying to locate the wiretap that he knows is there. Note my word choice here: “knows.” Harry isn’t being paranoid, and even if he was, well: “A paranoid is someone who knows a little of what is going on,” wrote William S. Burroughs. As a wiretapping expert, Harry has too deep an understanding to believe that he isn’t being surveilled. He knows he’s being watched, and seeing the film through Harry, we also know that he’s being watched, and we also know that we are being watched. But at the same time, we will never have any material proof that we are being watched.
The ending of The Conversation works as horror because it illustrates this postmodern void we inhabit: the conspiratorial tension between knowing something to be true, but never truly knowing what we know to be true is true. Because the very notion of truth itself is a modernist ideal that has been flattened by endless simulations of it in the Baudrillardian fourth stage simulacrum we inhabit (lots of information, no truth). In our culture, conspiracies hide in plain sight, but even the term “conspiracy” itself is a harbinger of a bygone era. Conspiracy denotes the possibility of unlocking an objective truth; it suggests we can pierce through the “symbolic order” and glean a piece of the Lacanian real. Conspiracy holds no weight anymore because even though we know it to be true, our knowledge can’t be verified.
This is where society resides: between an intuitive knowledge that things are not what they seem, but eternally incapable of grasping at any coherent real. Society has become denied of what Derrida called “the metaphysics of presence,” or the cultural tendency to desire immediate access to meaning. The role of deconstructionist has been forced onto the masses. We have no choice but to accept absence over presence because, even though we know we are being lied to, we still cannot attain truth. We are all Harry at the end of The Conversation: enraged that we know the world as it is being presented to us is a lie, but dismayed that the real truth will remain forever out of grasp.
I found out about the “suicide” of billionaire, friend of scumbag presidents Donald Trump and Bill Clinton and child rapist/pimp Jeffrey Epstein on that Saturday morning. I registered no shock, no surprise, and no belief at the facts as they were being presented to me, and I was not alone. In a surprising turn of cohesive zeitgeist opinion, Americans called “conspiracy” almost immediately as the news was delivered. That is resonant, and indicative of a culture that is a hopeless void shrouded under an endless network of information. The conspiracy was built into the news itself. The facts just read inherently as false, and the unknowable conspiracy becomes the closest we get to a version of the truth.
The trickle of facts that would emerge from the case––that Epstein was taken off suicide watch, that Attorney General Bill Barr visited him in his cell two days before his death, that the guards were “asleep,” that Epstein’s broken clavicle bones indicate a possible strangulation––only reinforced perceptions of foul play. Even now, just having received the alert that post-mortem analysis confirmed Epstein’s death as a suicide, I can’t accept it. It could be that one of the numerous conspiracy theories is true: that Epstein was murdered by a dark alliance between the neoliberal and conservative politicians eager to have his incriminating testimony die with him, that Epstein was “allowed” to kill himself by a similar network of power, or (my favorite and certainly the most compelling) that Epstein was an intelligence asset and had to die to protect Americans from the truth of our country’s treacherous foreign policy (as if anyone actually thinks American foreign policy trades in altruism).
But the mass outrage over the Epstein “suicide” is mostly a limp expression of anger over the fact that there is no conspiracy because there is no truth. This isn’t the first time that the media and the masses (or, mass-mediated masses) have engaged in “a hysterical search for the truth,” as Baudrillard described the phenomenon in his essay Our Theatre of Cruelty. In the essay, Baudrillard says that terrorism is the only event analogous to Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty in postmodernism, but also specifically focuses on the media’s role in driving hysteria and its inability to accurately convey coherent meaning: “The media are terrorists in their own fashion,” wrote Baudrillard, “working continually to produce good sense, but at the same time, violently defeating it everywhere a fascination without scruples, that is to say, a paralysis of meaning, which retracts to a single scenario.”
Certainly, media hysteria drove the madness of Russiagate and the Mueller report. After two years of outrageously derelict reporting by the mainstream media, and equally ridiculous denials by Trump’s minions and the right wing, Mueller delivered his report outlining several felonies committed by our president. But here’s the kicker: Mueller’s investigation was merely a simulation. He held to the dictum that a sitting president couldn’t be charged with a crime, most likely leaving the impeachment option open to Congress. So essentially, while the appearance of an investigation was projected by the media, there actually was no investigation. An investigation is supposed to lead to charges, which was never going to be the case here. But Congress was hoping that Mueller would save us, and that they’d be able to avoid political inconvenience. Their outrage over Trump too was simulated. The media vultures, eager for a Watergate 2.0, reported the news as if we were still in a second stage simulacrum. They instilled in the public the belief that underneath the cover-up, Mueller would reveal a cogent truth. But this is the fourth stage simulacrum: culture has no relationship to reality whatsoever. An investigation is not an investigation. The news isn’t the news. On the contrary, the news is a terror. And terror, according to Baudrillard, is a “strange mix of the symbolic and the spectacular.”
Epstein, as a figure and especially as a billionaire, could only exist in the fourth stage of the simulacrum as outlined by Baudrillard. No one knows how he made his fortune. There are several wild theories about how he made his money, but no one can track the exact movement and accumulation of his capital. Epstein’s houses are his only signifiers of material wealth: “Today so little is known about Epstein’s current business or clients that the only thing that can be valued with any certainty are his properties,” wrote reporters Tom Metcalf, Caleb Melby and Sophie Alexander for Time Magazine. Has there ever been an example that greater elucidates the cruelties and schizophrenic injustices of postmodern late capitalism than the sex crime spree of Jeffrey Epstein? When the financier was initially tried for his crimes in 2007, the former Trump Labor Secretary and then Attorney General of Florida Alexander Acosta gave Epstein a sweetheart deal, clearly offering favorability to a man of so-called power and wealth. But Epstein’s wealth didn’t exist; it was a simulation of wealth built by the simulation of the movement of capital.
Deleuze once wrote, “The morality of customs, the spirit of the laws, produces the man emancipated from the law.” But Epstein’s 30 years as a fake billionaire and serial rapist prove that something vastly more horrific lies beyond Deleuze’s “spirit of the laws”: an eruption of law, belief, and society itself. When feminist theorist Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1913 that “there would be no limit to the accumulation of capital,” she would be proved correct of course, but she could also not foresee the absurdity of accumulating capital without producing any material goods or services. Epstein’s wealth can’t be explained in typical Marxist terms; his riches can only be rationalized by the non-rationale found in the schizoid theories presented by the likes of Deleuze-Guattari, Jameson, and Baudrillard. His only real wealth was in his connections to powerful figures–how he could live such an obscenely rich life solely on the good faith of politicians and billionaires will torture us with futile speculation.
This is why the “suicide” of Epstein has been met with such moral resignation–just when we thought there might be some kind of justice for Epstein’s victims and a disgusted society at large, he shows up dead under obviously suspicious circumstances. Maurice Blanchot once wrote that “…suicide retains the power of an exceptional affirmation,” and indeed, Epstein’s “suicide” is “affirmer of the present…” It affirms that we will never actually know whether or not Epstein died by his own hand. It affirms that we cannot have faith or find in truth in any information presented to us.
The bizarre painting of a gender subverting Bill Clinton in a blue dress that looks like it could be a Gerard Richter replica found in Epstein’s Manhattan mansion is akin to this world’s version of Rembrandt’s The Suicide of Lucretia (1666). But whereas that painting represents the suicide of a woman after being raped by a powerful man that would galvanize an uprising and lead to the eradication of the Roman monarchy, the image of Clinton found in Epstein’s home now represents an impossible to know “suicide” of a powerful rapist that won’t lead to anything other than more confusion, suspicion, and the mass exhaustion of a culture that has nothing to believe in. In that image of Clinton, we are reminded that men like he and Epstein exist in a culture that is incapable of adequately contextualizing them for the villains that they are.
That ridiculous painting of Bill Clinton becomes a perfect metaphor for the breakdown between appearances and reality. Clinton’s public image as an honorable “leftist” American leader has always been a media-projected facade with glaring cracks. His “pragmatic liberalism” has thinly veiled a deeply ideological and ethically bankrupt goon. The revelations of his connections to Epstein, the re-revelations of Epstein’s horrific crimes, and a painting of Bill Clinton in drag are confirmations of a certain archetype about the elite class held by the underclass. That beneath the veneer of dead modernist tropes such as “service,” “democratic values,” or “loyalty to country,” the true reality of our neoliberal leaders is an unholy alliance between amoral “pragmatic” politicians and wholly immoral monsters like Epstein.
Just try and imagine one of those parties on Epstein’s private plane attended by the likes of Clinton and goofy celebrities like Chris Tucker. I, for one, see a theater of excess and cruelty worthy of a Kenneth Anger book. I see the iconic scene in Eyes Wide Shut, but with much younger, infinitely less consenting women. I see Marty Hart, played by Woody Harrelson, horrified and sickened watching the VHS tape given to him by Rustin Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey. Was Jeffrey Epstein involved with the southern death cult that worshipped at the altar of the Yellow King? Did the Feds check his library? Were there any Lovecraft or Robert W. Chambers books in his study? Do you see where I’m going with this?
While the Epstein cases confirm that our suspicions are worth having, that there is a sick and twisted underbelly of degenerate capitalist cruelty and excess, it doesn’t prove anything substantial. WIth the media focusing on the more tawdry elements of Epstein’s background, the mysteries of his wealth and his interest in the postmodern eugenics known as “transhumanism,” we see that conspiracies have dominated discourse in a way that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. But conspiracy, even when true, is hollow. Our anxieties are affirmed, but never eased. Elaborating on Freud’s concept of “Unheimliche” or “the uncanny,” that strange anxiety in the familiar, Lacan wrote that the uncanny exists “in the field we do not to distinguish bad and good, pleasure from displeasure,” reducing one to a state of anxiety. The immediate conspiracy theories that emanated from Epstein’s “suicide” report gesture to all of post-postmodern digital culture as an uncanny space: a space where we know something is off, but we will never know exactly what.
In his 2002 essay The Perfect Crime, Baudrillard wrote that in a perfect crime, there are no leads, no suspects, no motives that can be detected. The perfect crime, Baudrillard argues, is “the murder of reality itself.” But, “the fact is that the crime is never perfect, for the world betrays itself by appearances,” argued Baudrillard, “which are the clues to its non-existence, the traces of the continuity of the nothing. For nothingness itself–the continuity of the nothing–leaves traces.” Epstein’s “suicide” has left notable traces. The motives to a potential murder of Epstein are so obvious and the cover-up so sloppy that it has allowed the public to pierce the simulacrum, the endless network of media systems, and see straight into the Real. Something is not right here. The “suicide of Epstein” attempted to murder reality, but instead it wounded the appearance of reality and gave us a glimpse of reality itself.
This is the only aspect of this controversy that I can perceive as a positive. The wider public isn’t accepting the facts as they are presented. We are trapped in a void, between knowing something to be untrue but also unable to grasp at the objective truth, but the unwillingness of the populace to accept the facts of this case could indicate that human brains are transcending the simulacrum in some small measure. Nevertheless, without a cohesive symbolic order to interpret as reality, how can this despair and anxiety mobilize collective radical engagement? It can’t. So we just do our best to accept and compartmentalize the collective trauma and anxiety.
Do I actually believe the Epstein conspiracies? I don’t know. I don’t care. And that’s the point: it doesn’t matter. We can’t believe the media. How could we? This is an institution that presents itself as a neutral arbiter of rationale and then its leading brand (The New York Times) hires a corporate shill (Sydney Embers) to cover the most prominent socialist presidential candidate in the country (yes, I’m a Bernie bro). You know that the contemporary world has lost all semblance of moral clarity when none other than reactionary goon and former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani uttered the most cohesive statement summating it: “Truth isn’t truth.” Exactly. The media acted oh-so-offended when that ornery goblin of a man let the phrase slip, but they are the very reason the statement rings so true. Proving Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent thesis to be accurate some 30 years after the book’s publication, the media tries to control the narrative and protect the power of both state and especially private equity. But the death of Jefrrey Epstein and the conspiratorial backlash to it shows us that that narrative is spinning out of control.
It isn’t theory’s job to untangle or even entertain conspiracy theories. Douglas Lain, publisher of the popular critical theory and socialist books imprint Zero Books, recently posted a video to Youtube and made a similar claim. Instead, Lain suggests, theory and criticism’s only job in regards to conspiracy is to grasp the societal truth that the conspiracy conceals. In the case of Jeffrey Epstein and his suicide, that truth pointed is corruption of democratic political power by private equity (whether that be by elusive, shadowy criminal figures like Epstein, or buttoned-up, square, out-in-the-open oligarchs like Soros and the Koch Brothers). Did Bill Clinton and Epstein actually get together for occultist rituals of double penetration (and so on)? Who knows. What we do know is that Epstein’s wealth (his fake wealth) got him close to these figures, and that wealth, capital, has been the most corrosive force in American democracy for decades. That careful politicians would even get close to someone like Epstein proves that there is a deep rot in our discourse and society. One of the more compelling theories pertaining to Epstein’s mystery wealth is his alleged collection of blackmail on powerful figures. That’s it: we live in a culture where truth is at best a commodity traded for power. Epstein’s “suicide” and the utter lack of clarity around it is the perfect scandal for a culture without truth. It represents the void–the uncanny space between suspicion and knowledge–that we have no choice but to live in.
Adam Lehrer is an artist, photographer and writer. Lehrer’s work consists of manipulated photography, collages made of mostly Internet sourced appropriated images, and video loops. He has had solo shows at Spring Break Art Show, Governor’s Island Art Fair, and has been featured in group shows. Lehrer is also a culture writer, and his art, film and music criticism has been featured in Autre Magazine, The Quietus, Forbes, VICE, Bedford & Bowery, Bullett Media, i-D, SSENSE, and more.