From “Casualties,” the print-magazine title for a review by Peter Schjeldahl in the 12/02/19 New Yorker of a PS1 art exhibition called “Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars, 1991–2011”:
When will we stop obsessing about our gimmickry of communication and just communicate as best we can? Inexplicably, to me, the show’s catalogue features a reprint of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s flashy, repellently foolish essay of 1991, “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” which sashays past the actuality of blasted lives for fancies of postmodernist exposition. According to Baudrillard, “simulacra” have come to displace realities in human understanding. No, they haven’t. But the callousness of his essay may symptomize the condition, shared by all, of feeling overwhelmed by today’s volume and speed of information.
I agree with Schjeldahl and like the directness of his rejoinder to Baudrillard. However, there may have been a portion of Baudrillard in the often-heard, or at least often-cited, response from people who watched replays of airplanes flying into the World Trade Center, that it was like watching a movie. Notably, I’ve seen no such remarks about the coronavirus pandemic. I have seen commentaries, which I haven’t taken the time to read, about the odd allure of photographs showing our oddly depopulated streets and plazas. Maybe the commentaries include comparisons like that. It certainly seems possible for someone to think of The Omega Man (1971), which featured Charlton Heston, or I Am Legend (2007), with Will Smith—both were based on the same 1954 book about a pandemic—or, no doubt, a number of other visual entertainments when we look at such images. On the other hand, maybe people have gotten more sensible or callous or knowing, or maybe we’re in a period where reality keeps biting us harder than our entertainments can. I think it’s more likely, though, that the effects of the current pandemic have crept up on us instead of bursting upon us out of the blue, and that we’re accommodating to it bit by bit: however much things have changed, and however quickly, nothing out there in the world beyond our windows has yet caught us entirely off guard and left us grasping for comparisons. Instead, though this is little better, we keep telling ourselves how unprecedented it all is.