Hyperreality and the ACW

Received the oddest book in the mail, a review copy. It was an anthology of Civil War fiction written for magazines during and shortly after the ACW.

The book has been sitting around for a couple of weeks at least. Don't have the stomach to read it: can't understand people, in wartime, overwhelmed daily with real war reporting, knowing war participants, having easy access to battlefields and hospitals and veterans sitting themselves down to concoct war entertainment for the armchair brigade.

In trying to rationalize this monstrosity, I've come up with a few items: Perhaps people were not seeing their own interpretations of events represented in fact. Perhaps this was an expression of how remote and detached from the war the home front could be, psychologically and culturally. Perhaps a war setting simply advanced an entirely different story.

Or perhaps, as early as the 1860s, simulation began to displace reality as a personal preference. That's where I fall back on Baudrillard.

In our time, the business of the false displacing the real has been the meat and potatoes of French social commentator Jean Baudrillard. I want to borrow a passage from him that appears on this website and apply it to our case. Look at these "successive phases." I have inserted text for clarity [in brackets].

The image is a reflection of basic reality.
[In time] It masks and perverts the basic reality.
[After more time] It masks the absence of a basic reality.
[At last] It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

We can apply this to phenomena in the ACW and Lincoln field. Consider:

The image is a reflection of basic reality. In this stage, we enjoy contemporary photographs, battlefield sketches, reports, memoirs. We're collecting artifacts, shooting buck and ball with black powder, and arguing map accuracy and deployments.

It masks and perverts the basic reality. Now we are consuming polemical products that try to influence or view of events: hagiographies, Lost Cause analysis, heroic paintings and anything that "sets the record straight." We're preparing meals from a Civil War cookbook using modern ingredients; we're experiencing the Gettysburg Address delivered by an animatronic machine at the World's Fair; we're giving Pulitzers to storytellers who can do the best job of compressing five years and millions of lives into 300 pages.

It masks the absence of a basic reality. At this point, we are in the Lincoln Museum playing with "historic" toys in "Mrs. Lincoln's attic," assuming she ever had an attic or kept toys there; we are asking a Lincoln holograph in the museum questions and getting answers invented by scholars to sound authentic; we're visiting Lincoln's boyhood home at the museum, except that it is someone else's authentic home from the same period; we're reading a 20th Century Confederate history by Harry Turtledove; we're preserving land adjacent to battlefields as if it were hallowed ground.

It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. Now, we are on the streets of Springfield with a city map hunting down dozens of identical plastic Lincoln statues, each of which has been colorfully decorated by a local artist or merchant. We're staging mock battles with armies of our own devising on whatever land is convenient and calling the thing by the name of an historic battle held in an historic place. We're buying a conservation easement to preserve "viewshed" of a battlefield whose landscape now is nothing like what it was then.

The spiraling dynamic of unreality has this result, says Baudrillard: "When the world, or reality, finds its artificial equivalent in the virtual, it becomes useless."

Which means that many of the projects that justify themselves through history are destroying history.

More ACW hyperreality tomorrow.