ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 12, Number 2 (July 2015)

John Malkovich Does Not Exist

Russell Manning
(Doctoral Candidate, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia)

I. More Hume than Hume
In the eighteenth century David Hume concluded that the self was an illusion and nothing but a ‘bundle of perceptions’. In the philosophical search for certainty and truth Hume’s skepticism could have been considered alarming.  His consideration was resisted for many reasons. Most of them were Platonically inspired (there is an energizing soul which gives unity to selfhood) with the added impetus of a Cartesian cogito (which gives us indubitable knowledge) In simple terms, it is counter intuitive to believe there is no self and that Hume’s conclusion is counter intuitive to truth.  Many could simply not accept that there was no self, no central locale for the thinking thing and Hume's acute analysis was quickly bracketed out of much philosophical exploration.

The purpose of this paper is twofold. Firstly to position Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's 1999 ' (cult masterpiece) Being John Malkovich in support of Humean conclusions about self’s identity. The film read as an exploration of the existential position of self-hood becomes a critique of this autonomous self. Secondly (and more playfully) to engage with Jean Baudrillard’s thought as a means of supporting  Hume, Jonze and Kaufman. In what follows I tread warily when using terms such as ‘engaging’ Baudrillard. To read Baudrillard as anything stronger than a poet of the zeitgeist runs the risk of a theoretical noose being tied around his work and choking it of its poetic integrity. However, Baudrillard has laid down the rules for reading his work and they encourage rendering all ideas open to attack or ‘repurposing’ (see Teh, 2006). Here I want to force the ideas of self-hood and personal identity into the open to be subject to a repurposing to make them more complex and thus be respectful to Baudrillard’s rules of the game. As an aside in what follows below I will refer to the film as Kaufman's 'work' for ease of reference as well as deference to his initial creative relation of the films core ideas. 

One way of reinvigorating the Humean enquiry is to watch how a creative thinker portrays the fundamental questions about self. If there is just a bundle of perceptions how may this play out in the cinema? Charlie Kaufman's 'archaeology' of self is clearly evident in his script for Spike Jonze’s 1999 Being John Malkovich. Kaufman digs deep into the philosophical problems of consciousness, not to solve them but to make the self even more problematic. He plays his own cinematic game and in the process provides a basis for critique of much other more conventional cinematic fare. Hence the nexus between Baudrillard and Kaufman from the point of view of questioning selfhood becomes clear. Baudrillard (to me) asks the impish provocative question: Why is there nothing instead of something? This question is, in rational terms, absurd but exemplifies the thinking process that I argue Kaufman can also be seen to be tracing. Baudrillard does not say there is physically nothing; he challenges the world to respond to his demand through the creative evocation of something. In other words for Baudrillard there is an excess of objects( ideas, information, code, theory, communication) that is so dominant it is, in a poetic sense, like there is nothing we can claim as our own. We are becoming bereft of singular ideas because we let ideas be made for us. In a heavily commodified and mediatized world this is the nothing that I think Baudrillard refers to. Intellectual, theoretical and personal dominion over objects in the contemporary world is becoming tenuous. Right wing politics threatens to shape a world in its own fascistic image. Postmodern theory threatens to disassemble all it encounters and the self is subscribing more and more to the whims of the machinery of global capital. Amongst this the capacity for  radical, singular thinking is diminishing. And yet here is Kaufman urging us to use cinema to think singularly, theoretically and politically about personal identity. For Kaufman the world is not binary and Baudrillard is the master (after Nietzsche) of collapsing the binary between something/nothing  (See Grace, 2000 for a feminist application of this idea.

It is a collapse of the bar erected between something/nothing or life/death.  William Pawlett’s work on a binary such as the binary of something/nothing assert that Baudrillard and before him Bataille figure that the binary assumes an exhaustive and complete unity. (Pawlett 2014) For Baudrillard this is not the case. Pawlett suggests:

Conceptual oppositions then do not capture the richness of the world; they are inherently reductive and work to control and order the world, breaking it up into hierarchical and complementary oppositions such as thinker and thought, method and truth, right and wrong, truth and error (Pawlett: 2014).

What lies between something and nothing then is what we bring forth and create, as if we were playing by the rules of our own game. The ‘richness of the world’ is the ability to generate a poetic otherness to power and control that either implicitly or explicitly reduces otherness to banality. What lies other to death is not life until it is created, not refracted through a hegemonic or dominant system or ‘forcibly realized’ as Pawlett astutely asserts. (ibid) Of course this is a way of resolving the world with a poetic eye rather than scientific analysis or sociological theory. These are the rules of Baudrillard’s challenge and as astute readers of Baudrillard know to play by them you have to look at the world with this enigmatic poetic eye. The world has to be seduced and seduce you at the same time. My argument is that Kaufman’s film subscribes eloquently to this game.

The response to this claim of the poetic exhortation about nothing can vary from ‘Baudrillard speaks nonsense’ to that he is a ‘master explorer of the contemporary mediatic milieu’. The important thing is to respond. If there is nothing how have we got here? And how and what does ‘here’ look like? And most importantly what does it look like from the first person point of view? On the other hand if there is something how do we account for it? I propose that Kaufman presents a version of this answer. In Being John Malkovich Kaufman may possibly ask the question: Why is the self ‘nothing’ instead of something? The self is, in this mode, under serious question because the films central character subscribes to a culturally coded form of fame to establish his identity. The film then can be seen an antidote to seeing the thing of self as a culturally coded utility rather than a personal self-authenticated creation. Here utility should be  singular, contingent and nihilistic and is thus able to be self-regulated and authenticated much more freely than one that is mired in convention and culturally dominated significations. In other words the self is there to be fashioned rather than culturally inscribed from a shopping list of commercialized desires. This protagonist Craig Schwartz (John Cusak) exemplifies the contemporary dilemma of chasing the fairy-tale of celebrity culture as signifier rather than pursue a more authentic , self-configured art form. In this the most diminutive or original thought might trump the banal significations of external assertions through self-instrumentation and creation. But Schwartz is hell bent on becoming an identity based on all other identities. When he claims to suffer for his art, he really means he suffers for the banality of his art.

Here Baudrillard is instructive. Self-identity can become a tool for responding to the world, not representing or standing in for ‘something’. It can become the beginnings of an agonistic declaration of alterity rather than conformity. In other words the nothingness of selfhood sets into train the opportunity for self-authentication. In Being John Malkovich Schwartz conforms to a heavily signified template. Baudrillard argues ‘we can live without a model of identity (Baudrillard 2005:58) because the nothingness of the self is liberatory. Consequently, in a Nietzschean manner the viewer can craft an identity from the inside out rather than the outside in. Response to the film is not to pity Schwartz because he cannot find fame but to admonish him for pursuing it in the first place. For Baudrillard this even included the ‘dissolution of the will’ and the rejection of the strong voice of the ego.  To dissolve the will can be envisioned as the 'disappearance' of a heavily mediated milieu; to see the matrix of contingent external inputs as frustrations rather than markers of subjectivity. My thesis is that this is Kaufman’s warning. A common theme that runs through his screenplays are the failed desires of the artist1 and thus his message can be read not as a thesis on the nature of desire but on the coded strictures structuring the desire of contemporary art itself. 

II. Self-identity as sign
Kaufman’s protagonist perceives himself as missing something that may unify his self. The rest of the narrative arc of the film is, in these terms, his failed quest. We could say that he sees a value in being treated as a master puppeteer like his nemesis Derek Mantini (Ned Bellamy) is treated. But this quest to be famous (and then autonomous and self-directed) poisons his ability to see that his selfhood as ‘illusory’. He yearns to be the same as Derek Mantini which, in effect, ruins him. Craig is enamored with a form of fame that has no explicit meaning other than a repulsion to the way he is received by the general public as if it his fault. He measures his life in the equivalent terms of a social acceptance of this art rather than the more deeply charged form of creative alterity in the art that he is presenting. Hence, seen this way there is nothing ‘wrong’ with Craig except his subscription to his ego fuelled repulsion of his own externally dominated self-identity. Schwartz, and people like him, need to take a lesson from Hume and Baudrillard. He misreads the signs of selfhood as being dependent on autonomy, unity and control.  But these signs are merely social prescription stressed for ideological purposes. Kaufman’s script deliberately plays with these yearnings. Kaufman problematizes self-hood in a very Humean manner.

My argument is to see much cinema as often offering ‘self’ as a sign value rather than a use value, that is not to ask what a film is worth but rather what a film does. Accordingly I claim that the viewer often cannot separate the two because of what, we may impudently call the ‘use value’ of the film is threatened by the dominance of the simulated sign value. The use value of the film could be to generate original thinking. However as is often the case this utility is managed by an imposed homogeneous ‘sign value’. The culture strongly asserts itself through the maintenance of this hierarchical ordered existence.  This means to embrace the films 'use' to explore the zeitgeist it emerges from and exists within.  If there is a Baudrillardian film philosophy this could be an appropriate place to begin. Rather than attempting see what a film does by searching for definitive transcendent meaning, but instead locating it at the margins of the restrictive and constrictive implications of exchange and sign value.

III. The Signs of Identity in Being John Malkovich. Can we think use value in cinema?

The depiction of the confusions of personal identity in conventional (or Mainstream cinema) is often hallmarked by a rule driven, goal oriented being whose narrative focus is often accentuated by a conflict that is solved on the way to a rational resolution. The self is a given. The self may be conflicted, traumatized or unstable yet the overall notion of identity is relatively coherent and explicable with a rationally accountable location, often as either good or evil.  This effect is prosecuted by strong cinematic signifiers which are ‘systematically manipulated’ (Baudrillard 1996: 200) to effect and sustain the narrative drive. The viewer can be absorbed by these signs and absorb them (Baudrillard 1981: 191) primarily keeping the predictable film genre’s financially viable and aesthetically acceptable. Therefore Being John Malkovich can act as antidote to the banality of these significations because it can be seen to refuse to be accommodated within mainstream signification when viewed this way. The import of Baudrillard here is to encourage a destabilization of this commonsensical idea of personal identity, not to inject a new conceptual persona from which to view the cinematic the notion  of self, but to explore the assumptions of this very idea of personal identity as a sign performing as simulation. From the mainstream point of view the autonomous independent self is 'simulated' to locate the self as a unit integrated into a specific social illusion. (Baudrillard 1996:152)This social illusion is dominated by signs. But the enchained signifier and signified are not ontologically natural nor universal or ahistorical. Signs five meaning because they establish identity through differentiation.

Of course the opposite often applies to independent/art-house cinema where the presentation and conception of the self-signification can be complicated by radical temporal shifts or heavily stylization, off-beat characterization , but often the ideological implications of such an abstraction of self-identity recede into the background from the standpoint of the viewer. Similar conclusions about an autonomous unified self, albeit one with an antic lifestyle or fragmented self-identity still manifest, occluding the ideological assertion of a goal oriented, and rationally seeking being in the first place. If the viewer brings this backgrounded problematic into relief some interesting questions arise that can account, in this light, for the mainstream/independent divide in an entirely novel manner. However to arrive at this conclusion a specifically Baudrillardian path can be traced. The relationship between sign and signifier is the impetus of Baudrillard‘s early sociological career. Here the specific relationship between signifiers and signified is never merely causal. This instability is not just epistemological but, for Baudrillard it is metaphysical whereby instability is coexist ant with a constant unstoppable reversibility. The ‘apparently unshakeable reality of the signified’ (Lechte in Smith 2012:194) is constantly undermined by Baudrillard and Kaufman.

Being John Malkovich (1999) is an exemplar of how the metaphysical impression of self is problematized and explored and reversed The accepted (Platonic , Cartesian, and Kantian ) wisdom is that  the self is an autonomous, unified objective material and spiritual entity. Films that explore the self usually adopt this logic and consolidate and ratify this version of self-hood in the main to assuage anxiety that Hume in asserting the self as an illusion could be right. It does this explicitly through the use of banal cinematic signifiers and implicitly through the coded delivery of the ideological signifiers of the day. In this case the protagonist, Craig Schwartz, is casually interpreted as yearning for celebrity, sexual fulfilment and career satisfaction.   However this does not make Kaufman's film other to the accepted wisdom on self-hood. The viewer can recognize the 'signs' that mainstream film makers use to designate self-hood and question, counter and challenge them by destabilizing them armed with Jonze’s and Kaufman's interrogation of these signs.

This signification is marked from the opening credits when an ornate blue curtain withdraws to reveal a sophisticated marionette accompanied by intense orchestral music. The multiplicities of interpretation rightly abound here but the overarching feeling could be said of one of ‘otherness’. The viewer is entering into a world, and the curtain signification is capricious. Are we entering a world of spatial fluidity (Romney 1999) or where the Lacanian symbolic order is challenged (Dragunoiu) or where we are confined (Ott) or witnessing a surreal genre fantasy story( Hill 2008:xx) The simple answer is yes.

Seckin and Weinstein suggest:

Blue velvet curtains part to reveal a life-size marionette. Distraught, the marionette seeks his image in the mirror. Confronted with his strings, he notices them as though for the first time, and then smashes his painful likeness in a destructive rage. Looking up, he sees the puppeteer who controls his every move. The camera pulls back and the scene expands to reveal a marionette theatre. As the audience realizes that the puppeteer is an exact duplicate of his marionette, the marionette begins an elaborate and beautiful dance, tumbling through space in moves that defy gravity. The puppeteer's hands move frantically; he is sweating as if he has himself performed the physical feats carried out by his creation. The puppet collapses in despair, raises its hands to its face and weeps. The puppeteer hangs the marionette from the theatre's ceiling; its legs dangle, impotent, in space. (Seckin and Weinstein 2008)

Schwartz is a clever and dexterous puppeteer who creates serious and probing puppetry performances. The marionette dances a sophisticated and emotional dance. It smashes a mirror and completes maneuvers that are actually impossible in puppeteering. But this signification fails because the marionette is a doll version of Craig himself replete with long hair and a destitute disposition. The performance which we later learn as ‘The Dance of Despair and Disillusionment’ is also the introduction to Kaufman’s challenge to films attempting to portray internal or subjective ennui. There is something wrong with Craig. Dragunoiu dissects this  from a psychoanalytic paradigm arguing:

The puppet's distress at the sight of its mirror image suggests a state of self-alienation, a psychic division that is reinforced by the puppet's physical resemblance to its maker. This psychic split recalls Jacques Lacan's formulation of the human subject as divided between a narcissistic total being (me) and a speaking subject (I), which fuels its attempt to validate its (fictional) unity of being by convincing the outside world to pronounce it authentic (Dragunoiu 2001:1)

Here the viewer can see the film working on two distinct planes. The first is to agree with Dragunoiu (and Seckin and Weinstein) and see alienation driving this emotional and conflicted scene as emblematic as the self’s drive for authenticity. The conclusion then is to see this scene as a sign of the individuals (Schwartz’s) ‘loss’ of self. And identity on that level is in agreement with commonplace cinematic signifiers on the loss of self? But on another plane the viewer can see this search is the quintessential ‘mistake’ of modernity and the marionette is not a materialization of this alienation, but that alienation itself is the manifestation of seeing self-identity as exchangeable ‘with something else’. In other words the problem cannot be corrected by fusing Craig’s alienation with a better version (John Malkovich?) but by him accepting alienation as an aleatoric existential destiny that is quintessentially the universal existential position. The question then becomes not "Who am I?" But more creatively "What can I become?"

Now the viewer can traverse these two planes exploring the film as it works towards negotiating these two levels. It is neither about alienation nor its absence but the space occupied when alienation is allowed to shift and move around the attempt for it to be signified. Hence when interpreters suggest that the film is ‘surreal’ they are drawing interpretation from an externally derived source that insists on delineating between surreal /ordinary. The film ‘works’ at inhabiting both these terms at once, bouncing back between its surreal genealogy as Hill argues but also documents the concrete everyday problems of consciousness and self-hood..  Therefore Romney’s ‘spatial fluidity’ , Dragunoiu’s ‘challenge to the Lacanian symbolic order’ and  Seckin and Weinstein’s ‘Perverse Cosmos’ are not merely cinematic markers but the true markers of selfhood.

Yet some cannot help but slip into an interpretive and evaluative  discursive construction of the film that resorts to homilies and platitudes attempting to posit the dominant, unified, autonomous self . In the case of Being John Malkovich  these platitudes come in the form of Craig being a ‘troubled self’’, or a ‘lost soul’ , or an ‘anxiety driven individual’. However what this conceals is that the essential self is not an individual who will find himself, or be at peace or assuage anxiety, but one whose essential state is anxiety, misdirection and distress. It is only a matter of degree. So these banal interpretations of the problems being raised by Kaufman's script are masks of the universal human existential state. In truth Craig Schwartz is regular . Hence the puppetry performance that opens the film does not necessarily signify the yearning to be artistically free (of the shackles of social manipulation or the weight of artistic integrity) but could also signal in an ironic reversal that the viewer is being manipulated as one of the prime targets of the film. Jonze and Kaufman are documenting a searing commentary on celebrity and consumerism, but also on viewership itself by never giving the banal viewer the narrative trajectory that cinematic signification often demands. Schwartz’s consummate puppetry in this opening scene has a definitive narrative trajectory. The puppet realizes that it is trapped, smashes the mirror and collapses destitute on the floor. When the viewer is introduced to Craig Schwartz the two lock eyes in a moment of pain and existential anguish accentuated by the intensification of the soundtrack. And yet a question can be asked on the necessity to read this scene as a prologue to the principle story. Seckin and Weinstein astutely suggest: ‘In this fantastical context, the filmmakers raise questions about intention, identity, authorship, and the wisdom of elevating narcissism over Eros.’(ibid)

I argue that by playfully rebuffing these significations and ask what the film is doing as well as meaning another path can be followed. In the intensity of this opening scene the viewer confronts a ‘troubled self’ who is projecting his own pain onto his marionette. He is searching for an identity, some authorial control and acceptance as Seckin and Weinstein conclude. Craig and the puppets relationship as conceived by Kaufman traces the search for identity as a thing or a value rather than seeing his own identity as a ‘reconstruction’(Baudrillard 2005:57) rather than a construction. Hence the viewer can see double here. The ‘use value’ of selfhood is the ahistorical, universal battle with alienation and that the film interrogates the futility of positing such as a teleological battle. But the battle is always lost. The self is illusory because it has to be, to generate and perpetuate the search for itself. One of the reasons we watch films of the search for identity is to look for the fleeting signs that we have one of our own. As Baudrillard instructs that this eventuates in a state of simulation that hides its tracks so well that the true battle, that of reality is already lost.

For Baudrillard identity was a trap and the play and role of alterity and chance is the ‘escape’ mechanism. Hence in Baudrillardian terms what occurs in this opening scene is Craig Schwartz simulating  despair as a slavish response to his own egoic foibles. Instead of him seeing the playful poetic absurdity in his existence Craig concedes to be ensnared by his own ego, attempting for the rest of the film to reconstruct it with abysmal consequences. 

Not only has Kaufman created a character who projects his inner turmoil into a material entity (his marionettes) but this exacerbates or highlights the attempt to consolidate meaning and value when considering notions of self.. Schwartz cannot assuage his turmoil and similarly the viewer cannot pin down meaning from Kaufman's esoteric script and Jonze’s energetic direction. Simply put we cannot understand ourselves fully let alone understand Craig’s existential ennui. If Craig Schwartz is searching for self-validation through his puppeteering then ‘The Dance of Despair and Disillusionment’ may mirror his (and our) failure to do so as well. Craig’s melancholic assessment of the ‘curse of consciousness’ is avoided by creating a challenge to consciousness. Hence rather than seeing Craig’s search as a melancholic desperate plea for validity we can take a hint from Baudrillard and think our way out of it. Validity is not a sign instituted by encoding systems but radicalized by decoding alternatives. In other words For Craig, fame is an object that seduces him, rendering his subjectivity to be framed by it. As Baudrillard concludes:

…the subject, the metaphysics of the subject, was beautiful only in its arrogant glory, in its caprice, in its inexhaustible will to power, in its transcendence as the subject of power, the subject of history, or in the dramaturgy of its alienation. Finished with all that, it is now only a miserable carcass in conflict with its own desire or its own image, incapable of managing a coherent representation of the world, pointlessly sacrificed….(Baudrillard 1990: 112)

Fame is the encoded object of contemporary times. What fame has done according to Baudrillardian polemic is seduced human desire until it has conceded all power to the object. Craig Schwartz refuses to assert his own will to power and chooses to defer to the power of contemporary fame and it destroys him.

What then comes into relief are the cinematic signifiers blatantly applied to construct a sense of the yearning self and autonomous subjectivity. From this perspective they lead us, as they do Craig to ‘melancholic’ assumptions derived from the fame object. In other words Craig fails to see his yearning is yearning for fame rather than the existential yearning of his own will to power. When the film drips with melancholic signifiers such as Craig’s lust for Maxine, and his jealously of Derek Mantini he fails to see his life being reconstructed from a set of powerful yet contingent ‘fame object’ signifiers. This indeed mirrors the whole failure of the film for the banal viewer to live up to normalizing expectations because the banal reading is to allow him to succeed and get the job and the girl or to fail and hence morally instruct the audience. But Kaufman’s script won’t allow this. As Johnathan Romney asserts: “… the film constantly shifts too much for us to pin it down: it can't easily be tagged as screwball or surreal, as a paranoid fantasy or a media satire. It's forever slipping into sideshows and diversions, from a lunatic corporate video to a hallucinatory sequence inside a chimp's memory (Romney 1999).

Romney’s ‘sideshows and diversions’ can be the focus from a Baudrillardian perspective. Baudrillard argues that to respond to melancholy we should not stroll around in this ideology (Baudrillard 1993b:179) where melancholy is the enemy but rather to defeat melancholy we develop new illusions of it. This means a Baudrillardian film philosophy should refuse to embrace the cinematic signs as any more than signs and in response develop a language of interpretation that rebuffs or challenges these signs. Baudrillard argues melancholy is the ‘fundamental tonality of functional systems’ (Baudrillard 1994: 163) which I read as a highly nuanced strategy to warn against the conclusion that to avoid anxiety and melancholy we have to buy into the system. Baudrillard of course proposes the opposite.  Anxiety and melancholy are caused by the system (Baudrillard 1970:67) Melancholy and anxieties are human, all too human and we should embrace and grow out of and through it by questioning the genealogy of our thinking towards objects. To do so we cannot look for an escape trajectory mired in modernity’s penchant for a quick fix, which culturally designated. This may be Schwartz’s problem. Celebrity is not the panacea for his angst. Celebrity should never be conceived as an object the way Craig Schwartz designates it.

Moreover, in response it allows some creative thinking spaces to be opened about the reflexive nature of the ‘esoteric’ film not to just challenge mainstream conceptions of narration but challenge the structuring ideological effect of narration itself.  This is the use value of a film such as Being John Malkovich to not allow

Hence Being John Malkovich  is not only a film telling ‘the funny-peculiar story of people so desperate that they would pay to be anyone else.’ As Richard Corliss reviewed it in Time Magazine (Corliss: 1999:18) but also a new way of thinking about the problems of accounting self-identity. This can be achieved by casting peoples ‘desperation to be somebody else’ not as an opposite to autonomous self-fulfillment but as an empty dichotomy in itself. If there is no self, there can be no solid essential fulfilment, so the binary of partial/whole is a false one. From there melancholy becomes something we don’t solve from within the system but either from its margins or from outside of it.

IV. And Exchange Value? A Conclusion.
All the characters in the film yearn for a selfhood whose phenomenal content is textured by celebrity, immortality and sexual desire. However Kaufman’s script is a searing critique of celebrity, hinting at the Baudrillardian notion of a ‘machinic celebrity’; an entity devoid of effective signification which ‘shines forth with the full gleam of its artificial light’. (Baudrillard 1996: 76). However my criticism of machinic celebrity is not because of its shallow fawning adulation but because of the inclination that now manifests for celebrity ‘at any cost’ which Craig ultimately exemplifies. Many of the principle characters in Being John Malkovich yearn for a form of public acclaim. One way of interpreting this culture of celebrity is of course Lacanian where, as Dragunoiu perceptively argues:

Being John Malkovich suggests that appropriating the gaze of the screen hero fails to satisfy our deepest desires. As Lotte and Craig find out, seeing through the eyes of Malkovich is not enough, and they both try, with varying degrees of success, to control him. As a comment on our love affair with Hollywood cinema, the film seems to predict its own demise as a form of representation and entertainment, a demise fuelled by our persistent seeking to find new genres and technologies that will forge increasingly closer identifications between ourselves and the celebrities we admire.

However Baudrillard can also be perspicacious in offering an insight into celebrity culture by envisioning his explication of the shift from use value to exchange value. For Baudrillard, in the contemporary milieu exchange value creates use value by positing the ‘essential’ needs of man. (Baudrillard CR 206) In other words exchange value is at its most powerful when it makes the consumer ‘see’ the use value of the object. For Baudrillard the problem is to see selfhood as exchangeable with something which he claims it is not.(Baudrillard 2000b:28)It is to see selfhood as a singular form which is unique in all ways. If modernity is responsible for one catastrophe it is to see identity as a commodity to be aspired to and valued. As John Orr argues the ‘commodified self’ to be valued and marketed is the focus of much cinema. (Orr 1993:108). Orr argues this leads to self-deception or Sartrean ‘bad faith’ but Baudrillard  goes one step further and argues it leads to total indifference. The logic behind Orr’s assertion is one of a hidden authenticity that can be revealed in an act of existential will, but Baudrillard insists on there being no authenticity other than an energetic creative opportunity for self-invention. Instead at its most powerful it forms a: “…limitless rule of exchange value, it imposes a disconnection, a deterritorialization of all things, an excessive extension of value” (Baudrillard 2001b:94).

This then can be experienced in the cinema. As stated above the film reflects a series of characters determined to radically shift the circumstances of their lives by appropriating or reconstructing the life of somebody else. Craig wants to be Derek Mantini via Malkovich, Lottie yearns to be a lover of Maxine via Malkovich. Dr. Lester (Orson Bean) wants eternal life through Malkovich and Maxine wants a stable and satisfying relationship via Malkovich . The common thread that runs through all these characters is their capacity to judge their lives based on an externally set of derived criteria. They want to reproduce themselves by exchanging themselves with some significant other. Using Baudrillardian logic these characters don’t posit a use for their own lives until they accept the encoded signifiers of the heavily commodified lives of others to be readily and willingly exchanged. 

Baudrillard saw this pursuit of exchanging value as ultimately impossible because life was ‘precious’ because it had no exchangeable value. (Baudrillard 2000b:28) Yet much cinema will not see the world this way with the template of subjectivity strongly determined, teleological and essentialist.

This is important to the characters in Being John Malkovich  but more importantly to the banal viewer attempting to place a value on the motivations and actions of the characters within the film. Again the film ‘works’ by not representing the ennui of contemporary alienation, but by probing its re-construction. In other words, the viewer chastises Craig for not instituting the values of self-autonomy and self-transcendence in his life by resisting the urge to be anything other than himself but should reflect on the disastrous consequence of where this desire is drawn from. The desire for self-autonomy and self-transcendence that is validated and approved by a person becoming a subscribed member of another ideological frame is no self-configuration at all but merely a shift or an exchange from one alienation to another.     

It is unwise to talk of sign value and exchange value in cinema in this way. It is also outrageous to deploy Baudrillard as a means to an end in this way. But any category labelled Baudrillard Studies also ensures the sideshows and diversions are the gifts he left for us to receive and attempt to seduce each other with.

Russell Manning's Doctoral Dissertation is entitled: There is no Baudrillardian Film-Philosophy.



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Grace, Victoria. Baudrillard’s Challenge: A Feminist Reading. London: Routledge, 2000.

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Pawlett, William. "Baudrillard’s Duality: Manichaeism and the Principle of Evil." International Journal Of Baudrillard Studies 11.1 (2014)

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1. In Adaptation the artist is Author Charlie Kaufman(Nicholas Cage), in Synecdoche New York  the artist is stage director Caden Cotard(Phillip Seymour Hoffman), In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Joel Barrish (Jim Carrey) keeps a detailed visual journal. All artistic aspiration fails and the anxiety of failure is a thematic exploration of the narrative..