A Quixotic Age
Don Quixote is the perennial myth of our time. We find ourselves in the twilight of the Modern age, as Quixote was in the twilight of the feudal. The Don was inspired by the romantic stories that inspired his ancestors, but instead of becoming the heroic knight he played the fool. The Spirit that animated the past set his forebearers upon a reality that they saw as their domain, but the Don came centuries too late, and the world was unrecognizable to him. His encounter with the world was an elaborate retreat into his fantastic ideal, putting his spirit and the reality in which he lived at odds with each other. His world was eclipsed by a world that had no place for him; reality could not live up to his imagination. His failed attempts to reshape it into something equal to his spirit are the source of much humor in the novel, but as this condition plays itself out in our world today, the comedy has mutated into something darker, with much higher stakes.
Don Quixote starts out with the Don cinching his belt around his ever-diminishing waste-line, his unattended and crumbling estate going fallow, his implements of war rusting and ill-fitting, his horse emaciated and palsied. Does this not call to mind the modern equivalents? Strung-out waifs of the opioid epidemic stumbling through the streets of both urban centers and rural hill-towns, crumbling and rusted factories blighting the landscape from Upstate New York all the way through the Midwest and up into Michigan? Empty West Virginian mine shafts and the lopsided and collapsing barns dotting the scenery on any country drive? Like the Don, we find ourselves inside this ramshackle estate surrounded by the media into which we escape, and which eventually supplants reality for many of us. For him it was his books, but for us it is our televisual and internet media. To complete the analogy, we might mention the similarity between todays conservatives, who want to limit the content of media, and the priests who come to Quixote’s estate and destroy his books. These folks are woefully mistaken about the source of their worlds discontent.
The plight at the heart of Modernity, the infected wound in our politics and in the heart of Don Quixote, is the incommensurability of our ideology with our world. For Quixote, the void between his ideal and the external world was filled with the available media – books – because the world threatened to negate his ideology. It was easier for him to fall into his escapist fantasies than to synthesize the world with his ideal. This threatened erasure makes the Don, as well as the modern subject, concerned for the erasure of their entire identity. This was a real threat for the Don, for he was born into a predetermined role, that of the nobleman, and that erasure plunged him into an existential crisis, which birthed his elaborate fantasy. This pulling apart of the subject from their world by an unrecognizable reality creates a metaphysical tear in the totality of their existence, and this rend hemorrhages the imaginary into the real, and the imaginary distorts a drab reality with a shimmering veneer of illusion.
In past ages, the imaginary was incorporated into the hierarchy of existence as the superstructure that house the individual and the world, playing a mediating role between the subject and reality. God willed the crusaders to the Holy Land, fey folk and pagan Gods fattened the harvest, the tide of the Trojan war is directed by fickle moods of the Gods. These worlds are closed totalities, and in such worlds the imaginary is shared by all and its mediating effects give purpose to whole peoples and directs their actions towards a common outcome. The congruity of the imaginary and the real is immediately appreciable by the real-world effects: the Crusaders take the Holy Land, the Achaeans defeat Troy. In such worlds, myths are sacred roadmaps and not mere entertainment. In closed totalities, the imaginary remains fixed in a relegated position relative to the subject and his world, but once this metaphysical wound is inflicted, the monsters of the imaginary run amok, and we end up with a man in full battle gear attacking a windmill.
Don Quixote’s inability to differentiate his fantasies from reality has permeated mainstream cultural discourse in America. Don Quixote is the archetypical modern person, finding false inspiration from escapist fantasies, proliferating media, and expired ideals. The closed totality of the past has been torn open and the ideals of America no longer equal the ideals of individuals, who are fighting to remake the world into an image recognizable to their imagination. Modern monsters of “racists,” “misogynists,” “white supremacists,” and “fascists” are seen assaulting America, and people are charging at them literally in Black Lives Matter riots and figuratively through Me Too, title IX, and other fronts in the “cancel culture” war.
Dominant cultural icons have dissolved into a pixelated image of disconnected signifiers seemingly as numerous as there are signifieds. The “big three” tv channels and news sources have fragmented to form a mosaic first of cable channels and now internet channels that host potentially infinite narratives for individuals to pick and choose from. Our media is only one realm of imagination being served at the American buffet of identity. One may also choose from literally any religion that exists or ever has existed, while many more are made up along the way. Political ideology also seems tailor made for any disposition, and ideals that serve hyper-specific interests and life-styles are brought into the discourse with greater weight than ongoing crises that cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars (23 trans people were murdered in 2016, while 42,000 died of opioid related overdoses). In all this we see Americans, like Don Quixote, meeting the world with their own personal ideal, and not one determined by the reality in which they live.
Cervantes and Simulation
In many ways one may want to sympathize with Don Quixote and his modern heirs. In their condition, individuals begin to look away from the hollowed-out world around them to the vibrant and flourishing worlds of fantasy. Jean Baudrillard is the quintessential philosopher for this state of affairs. For him, the proliferation of media overwhelms reality and serves as its stand-in. The endless reproduction of images covers up the real and the subject runs the risk of mistaking the virtual for the real. Baudrillard calls the realm of electronic media “hyperreality,” a post-modern replacement for myth and the imaginary. In this condition, media no longer generates reality but overtakes it or, as Baudrillard puts it in his seminal “Simulacra and Simulation,” the real is imploded in the hyperreal. Hyperreality is the genetic code that shapes the real, makes its appearance recognizable to the inhabitants of a culture, as we saw with the role of myth in the closed totality of the past. With the exponential proliferation of electronic media, competing codes scramble the form of the culture into an ever-growing tumor, a Rorschach blot bleeding out across America for each person to interpret according to their own fantasy. In Cervantes, we have one man being directed by his own imagination: in modernity, we have millions.
Baudrillard also offers us insight into how a subject might act when they find themselves in a world that does not accommodate their idealistic impressions. In the essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” Baudrillard argues that the Gulf War of 1991 was a simulation of a war, that televisual images negated any chance for real war. The sheer number of images on cable TV overtook the real actions on the ground, to the extent that Baudrillard could argue that what we call “war” never actually happened. Terrorism and hostage taking are the body doubles for fronts and armies, reactions to the disappearance of war and the emergence of simulated war. This is precisely what we saw with the Iraqi insurgency, the Taliban, and ISIS. Except for a very brief period after the initial invasion of Iraq, the US never fought a real “army.” With drone warfare we see further disappearance of war, the subsuming of war into the virtual. Often the enemy is taken out by a drone when they are engaged in mundane activities and nowhere near a combat zone. They never see the drone, and the attackers carry out the entire operation from behind a video screen.
One prescient insight in Baudrillard’s essay is that the video execution of hostages by terrorists is their attempt to provoke the virtual into the real, their attempt to make the simulation a reality, to incite a reaction from the other side and initiate a real war. Recall the terrorists of ISIS, whose most sensational and brutal execution was of a journalist and not a soldier. Violence, rather than an act of attrition, is an act of provocation, to bring the enemy out of the virtual and into reality, the only place the subject has any chance of reshaping the world into their desired image.
This is in fact exactly what the violence is meant to initiate in Don Quixote. While the violence is the main source of humor, it is never-the-less real. It goes beyond slapstick, for it is not played as schlocky or overly-theatrical, rather the humor comes from the Dons inability to inflict much true damage on anyone other than Sancho Panza, who takes the brunt of many of the fights his master starts. Enhancing the humor is the way others regard his absurd battles, for his enemies look at him as a madman when he attacks them. Though he does elicit a response, it is never to any end, for they are more often trying to subdue him so they can go about with their lives. He’s become a nuisance, but we must acknowledge that his actions are an attempt to usher in the world that he hallucinates around him. This is the same motivation of political terrorists: the attempt to turn their imagined world into reality, recode the form of this reality into their imaginary glorious past or utopian future. Don Quixote is trying to provoke his ideal into the real, and thus transform his simulation of knightly heroism into true glory. We may be able to apply this same insight to political actors in America today.
In the name of anti-racism, Black Lives Matter and Antifa members loot stores, smash windows, set fires, and clash with police. They are the quintessential examplaries of Baudrillard’s insights, for their property destruction is nothing more than a bourgeois simulation of violence, a restrained acting-out to try and provoke the world around them to conform to their fantasy. Unfortunately, as with ISIS and even the Don, their attempts to reshape the world are failing, and this only perpetuates and escalates the violence. But as with Quixote, whose violence is a silly re-enactment of the Knights of the past, BLM and Antifa are doing a clumsy imitation, or a simulation, of extinct, earnest ancestors. The violence of communists in the late 19th and early 20th century was more coordinated, brutal, and effective. Bombs were placed on wall street and at mass gatherings, political assassinations were carried out and attempted, and after the Russian revolution, it spread across the world. After a certain amount of time, a threshold will be crossed, and the simulation will truly become the reality.
Don Quixote was endlessly trapped in his delusions because he had the perfect answer to those who tried to get him to see through them. For The Don, everyone but him was being tricked by an evil wizard and, therefore, he was the only one impervious to the black magic deluding the world around him, making them unable to recognize the monsters in their midst. This should call to mind John Carpenters film They Live, a prefiguration of The Matrix and firmly within the genealogy initiated by Cervantes. This “evil trick” works many ways in modernity. The conspiracy theorists can claim this thanks to the now passé “we’re living in a simulation” trap, where everything is a false-flag operation or a psyop. All conspiracy theories can be lumped in with this “evil wizard” explanation if you replace the “evil wizard” with the nefarious actors in vogue with specific factions, be it the Illuminati, Zionists, Russian bots, and lately, white nationalist provocateurs at BLM protests. Perhaps the greatest example to date of the evil wizard trick is the Russiagate scandal, in which our democracy is derided because the results do not conform to the mass delusion of the left.
The proliferation of media and ubiquity of phones add another layer of deception to the fabric of reality, and the “evil wizardry” of the internet brings the reality of events into question simply by the multiplicity of angles and preponderance of viewers. The events appear *to you* to transpire one way, and the presence of such divergence of interpretation cannot be the result of reality itself but the way events are understood or interpreted. The current unrest, for example, can be reduced simply to an inability of the masses to rectify their beliefs about the world and the way certain events played out, such as the killings of the “Holy Trinity” of BLM – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake – or the shootings done by Kyle Rittenhouse. These events are interpreted completely by the animating ideas of the viewers and not by the events as they appear on the screen. These impressions have led to violence due to a delusion akin to Don Quixote’s, for the leftists and BLM folks see these actions through the rage-colored vision of their fantasies, which cause them to reject the sequence of events depicted in the videos. We see a man throw something at and then lunge for Rittenhouse, just like Don Quixote sees shepherds, inn-keepers, and windmills, yet he attacks them none-the-less, not because of what’s in front of him but because of what he *believes.* We who do not see Rittenhouse as a racist mass-shooter, or the windmill as a giant, are being tricked by the Evil Wizard.
Seemingly everywhere liberals and radical leftists are doing battle with the Evil Wizard, who spreads his black-magic mind control of racism, misogyny, homo and trans phobia among the masses. These valorous Quixote’s take it upon themselves to fight the possessed monsters, for they are the only ones who can see the evil trick for what it is. What do these protestors and antifa members see themselves as if not brave knights defending the meek against the racist, “phobic” monsters and evil knights? Anyone who denies that racism isn’t at the heart of Americas problems, or refutes the claim that cancel culture doesn’t exist, is just unable to see the magic trick for what it is. For this we don’t simply have knights, we have White Wizards like Robin DiAngelo whose work is like an ancient spell-book to root out the black magic in our minds, their newspeak enchanting the shining Paladins armor for all the woke Quixote’s engaged in this righteous battle.
“Quixotic” takes on a new, more pathetic meaning in this context. Rather than being driven by a whimsical idealism to achieve illusory goals, as the term is popularly understood, it instead means to be animated by a dead way of life, to be bereft of imparted meaning from the world you inhabit and to bumble through it driven by Zombie Ideas. These dead ideas – Chivalry, systemic racism, socialism, even democracy – infect the host and animate their bodies to go shambling through a world that has no place to bury them. Nietzsche warned nihilism was knocking at the door. Our materialism let it in, and it brought the radical left with it. The left and all its manifestations, its ideals and those who crafted their ideas, are the holdovers from a dying era. The Rasputin who overstayed his welcome in the palace and turned the house of Romanov in a brothel, the Quixote who ran out of villains to fight and attacks his neighbors. We’ve devolved into an army of Quixote’s, battling it out amongst ourselves while the real monster, the Dragon of Globalization, sits content on its ever-growing mountain of gold and bones.