Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009).
Books on Baudrillard
Baudrillard, Gnosticism, and the Beginning of Simulation
Dr. Alexandr V. Dyakov
(Professor of Philosophy, Sociology and Cultural Studies, Kursk State University, Russia)
English Translation by the author
Baudrillard recognized himself as a Manichaean at several points as he does in his interview with Der Spiegel following 9/11:
Baudrillard: First there is evil, without question…
Spiegel: Could you explain it without reference to God?
Baudrillard: In the eighteenth century, Rousseau and others tried, but not very convincingly. The best and simplest hypothesis is, in effect, to postulate God. God is like democracy: the least corrupt and therefore the best of all possible solutions.
Spiegel: When one hears you, it is possible to conclude that you would have been a Cathar in the Middle Ages.
Baudrillard: Oh yes, I love the world of the Cathars because I am Manichaean.
Spiegel: … of the opinion that there is an eternal opposition between light and night, good and evil …
Baudrillard: … yes, the Cathars held the material world to be evil and bad, created by demons. At the same time, they put their faith in God, the holy and the possibility of perfection. This is a much more radical view than that which sees in evil only the gradually diminishing auxiliaries of the good (Baudrillard, 2004).
The concept of an order of things is replaced by Baudrillard with the concept of destiny – or order connected to evil. “To side with evil, while retaining the idea that all energy comes from there, is a Manichean, if not indeed a Cathar, vision. Evil is at the origin of the created world” (Baudrillard, 2004b:60; Бодрийяр Ж., 2006:131-32). Manichaeans, Baudrillard says in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993b:145), “interpret this world as an antagonistic duality, a here and a there, of the principles of good and evil; impiously, they bring heaven and hell down to earth.” For Baudrillard, the Manicheans sought a kind of dualism that appealed very much to him as well (Baudrillard 1993b:148-149 ; Бодрийяр Ж., 2000:261).
There is a very Manichean streak in Baudrillard especially in his recognition of the existence of evil as a creative principle of the world. But it is also possible to approach his Manicheanism in another way – via Pierre Klossowski’s allegorical Nietzscheanism. As Rajan (2004) puts it:
In the context of a fatal theory that (dis)simulates metaphysics, it is worth returning to the archaeology of the word, ‘simulacrum’. Baudrillard gets the term from Bataille’s contemporary, Pierre Klossowski, a heroic precursor of fatal theory and ‘Manichean’ seduction…His Nietzschean theory is a radical anti-capitalistic schizoanalysis that tries to get at the lost affects or ‘phantasms’ behind simulacra. However, especially in some of his fiction, this analysis is also allegorized through a Gnostic theology that links the simulacrum to the occultation of the pagan gods after Augustine.
With him we understand that, in the Church, since Augustine, Pagan gods appear only as demons. A situation has developed where people no longer have the opportunity to directly contact the gods but now “seduce” them through mediated essences – angels or demons. As J. P. Madou expresses it, Klossowski is engaged in “simulation not representation”, seducing hidden gods by means of models (Madou, 1987:88). Baudrillard, for his part, “seduces” the gods of a consumer society, saying their “names”. Baudrillard scholars are right to pick up on this very old line of thought which is important to his overall perspective – it is possible to track it not only to Gnostic doctrines, but also to the Egyptian “Book of the Dead”.
Jonathan Smith’s article “The Gnostic Baudrillard: A Philosophy of Terrorism Seeking Pure Appearance” (Smith, 2004) deftly delineates Baudrillard’s metaphysics as “post-Marxist Gnostic Nihilism”. Smith is not alone in seeking such an understanding. Santamaria also suggests that we should “situate Baudrillard’s work within the long tradition of Gnostic Manicheanism” (1979:192-93). Paul Foss, who addresses Baudrillard’s affinity to Pyrrho, is less convinced of Baudrillard’s Manicheanism (Foss, 1984:15). The majority of researchers touching on this theme - (Wernick (1998:357-58), Genosko (1994:31), Cholodenko (2000:155-56), Botting (1994:495-99) and Rajan (2004) – each mark a Manichean heritage in Baudrillard’s philosophy.
Smith, whose writing on this aspect of Baudrillard’s thought is the most highly developed in my view, suggests that Baudrillard has made a synthesis of nihilism and of radical skepticism with a postmodern view of terrorism. Speaking about events on September 11, 2001, Smith notes that this catastrophe was “precipitated by Bin Laden and anticipated by the Gnostic Baudrillard”. All of this fits well with the cosmogonic drama of Manicheanism which consists in a division of Good from Evil and Light from Darkness. According to Smith: “Baudrillard seeks pure appearance or ‘the ephemeral moment in which things take the time to appear before taking on meaning or value’” (Smith, 2004; Baudrillard, 1987b:88).
The ritual expression of such a search is a kind of intellectual terrorism - part of a most radical form of the destruction of signs. According to this view, Gnostics can claim to be the first “symbolic” terrorists engaged in the denying of “Reality”. The symbolic terrorism of medieval Manicheans (Cathars) subsequently became the subject of the terrorism of the Church at Albi and surrounding areas in the Southwest of France (early 13th century).
In his 1996 ctheory.com interview with Bayard and Knight, Baudrillard spoke about his affinity with the Albigiensis which he felt he had inherited from his peasant background. It may be ironic to find him labeled by some as the “high priest of postmodernism” (Baudrillard 1993:21). Smith believes that such title (taken in a new way) suits Baudrillard rather well in his synthesis of Gnosticism and nihilism. Smith says that it is possible to see in Baudrillard’s works a transition from Marxism to Gnosticism (meaning Manicheanism). Baudrillard’s post-Marxism, he says, is not dialectical but is of a dualistic character. In it, Good and Evil are not dialectical contrasts capable of synthesis, but eternal antagonists. Smith says that we find earlier forms of this logic in Baudrillard’s writings of the 1970s. Santamaria also finds Manicheanism present in The System of Objects (1968) (Santamaria, 1979:192-95). In a youthful poem “The Stucco Angel” Baudrillard himself writes about Mani executed in Persia (Baudrillard in Genosko, 2001:78).
I would like to add some of my own thoughts to these discussions of Baudrillard’s work. First, I am not comfortable with the manner in which Manicheanism and Gnosticism have become blurred in writing about Baudrillard. Manicheanism is founded on a metaphysical dualism whereas Gnosticism, in my understanding, combines metaphysical monism and ethical dualism. Therefore, for me, it is necessary to distinguish these similar, but ultimately different, doctrines. As a result of my thinking (which is somewhat similar to Smith’s) Baudrillard is actually more Gnostic.
The key point I wish to make is that Baudrillard’s Gnosticism is ultimately different from Manicheanism – he would have been more correct in my view to identify himself as a Gnostic, not a Manichean. Baudrillard too was a victim of the eliding of the difference between Gnosticism and Manicheanism. In fact, in ‘Fragments of Light’ from Fragments (2004), the gospel of Baudrillard reads like the classical Gnostic thought of Valentinus (100-160 C.E.):
In the cosmos there are two great mutations: the one in which it divides in such a way that light appears and the world becomes visible to itself, which it wasn’t previously. Thought is the other great mutation, by which the species and the world become, if not intelligible, at least self-reflexive…There isn’t exactly a source, but light proceeds, nonetheless, from a fracture in the cosmic order. In the beginning it wasn’t there. This fracture created something like matter and anti-matter. The anti-matter exiled into cosmic space by the distinguishing-out of matter doesn’t for all that cease to exist. It’s this kind of dark continent that doubtless also radiates out (Baudrillard 2004b:100-102; Бодрийяр Ж., 2006:184).
How can we understand this “cosmogony”? It is apparently informed by the Valentinian idea of Proarche (i.e. original, monistic depth of being), as outlined by Irenaeus (180 C.E.) in Against Heresies, Book One, 1.1: “They maintain” -- Ireneus writes [meaning Valentinians] – that:
In the invisible and unnamable heights there was a perfect Aeon, prior to all. This Aeon is called Pre-Beginning [Proarche] and Pre-Father and Abyss. Since he was incomprehensible and invisible, eternal and unbegotten, Proarche was in silence and in rest for unlimited ages. With him was Thought, also called Grace and Silence. When this Abyss wanted to emit a Beginning of all, he set it like a seed in the womb of his companion Silence. When she received this seed she became pregnant and generated Mind, similar and equal to the one who emitted him, alone comprehending the greatness of the Father (Grant, 1996:59).
This affinity between Valentinus and Baudrillard can be partially explained by the discovery, in 1945, of ancient Gnostic scrolls, in Coptic, at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. The scrolls, translated for publication in French, German and English between 1956 and 1978, made long-lost Gnostic gospels (including the Valentinian Gospel of Philip) available to modern readers; underlining the significance of Proarche and other key concepts. (Robinson, 1981:23-25, 131).
For example, the (Nag Hammadi) Berlin papyrus (The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene, 7. 3-4) notes: “All nature (φύσις), all formations (πλάσμα), all creatures (κτίσις) exist in and with one another…” (Ibid.: 471, Gospel of Mary).. Here, things gain value;only becoming things-signs, in their post-fracture correlation. Proarche, on the other hand, is the condition of things at which they have “a zero degree”, i.e. a self-sufficiency which has been not aggravated by exchange and commodification.
This is why the “Evangelium Aegyptorum” understands Proarche as: “Æon of Æons, native, self-given birth, giving rise, alien” (41, 5) – i.e. as containing in itself a potentiality of distinction, but in itself free from it. ‘The Apokryphon of John’ (3. 17-19), another Nag Hammadi text, emphasizes this too: “He is ineffable, since no one was able to comprehend him to speak about him” and, even more significantly: “He is unnamable, since there is no one prior to him to give him a name” (Ibid.:100, Apocryphon of John). Thus, Gnostic Proarche, or Depth, makes from itself a creative Idea. Ireneus even notes that, for Valentinians: the Idea (Έννοια) was “coherent” to Proarche; suggesting Good Fortune (Χάρις) and Silence (Σιγή). Apparently, the Valentinian doctrine should be understood in the sense that Proarche, being above any certain life, has in itself an absolute potential for all certain life, referred to here as Silence.
Furthermore, Proarche as in the system of Simon Magus, is the dual fire latent and obvious (the first disappears in the second, and the second arises from the first). It may also be understood via the Aristotelian concepts of potentiality and act. Thus, the first act of Proarche is the creation of universal idea or the Absolute as Mind-in-Silence (as noted Irenaeus). Here, that “fracture” which Baudrillard interprets is akin to the Beginning (in Proarche), as taught by the Valentinians. The advent of this “fracture”(albeit via monistic being) would appear to permit the “realization” of matter and anti-matter, wherein things find their value, i.e. their form, by way of difference (in Mind).
The history of the world of simulation can be said to begin with this moment. The primary, pre-distinctive, “original” world consists in pre-creative Proarche rather than in that which exists. The world we see – the world of appearances – seemingly arises due to a combination of the antagonistic forces of pleroma (existence) and kenoma (non-existence); matter and anti-matter; Good and Evil. Evil in Gnosticism is a nonexistence, and the opposition of existence/ nonexistence arises from the aforementioned cosmic “crack” or “fracture”.
Given Baudrillard’s affinity with this view, his position should be counted as Gnostic. Furthermore, given such metaphysical assumptions, it seems that simulacra can only be empty; representing pure visibilities which do not exchange with reality, but only against each other.
Nevertheless, “a principle of reality” (platonic doctrine) was developed; furnishing analibi for simulacra, wherein appearances were believed to exchange on ‘real’ essence. In Christianity, this principle appears as the doctrine of God making creation ex nihilo. On the other hand, Gnostics assert that from nothing there can be only nothing. There is an evident transformation of a myth here: the myth which the Church puts forward about the God-creator becomes, in our time, a capitalist myth about “nature” and commodity value. Even Marx could not avoid this myth and became its true preacher even while criticizing commodity fetishism and money relations. Gnostics undertook a kind of criticism of the economy of creation while Marxists undertook a criticism of the political economy of Capital, and Baudrillard undertook a criticism of the political economy of the sign.
All of this sits rather nicely alongside Baudrillard’s genealogy of simulation:
Transformations of a principle of a reality
Forms of criticism
Mythological criticism of creationism’s economy
Marxism: criticism of political economy
Baudrillard: criticism of political economy of sign
At the fourth stage of simulation, reference to “reality” disappears and it is not clear whether any form of criticism is possible here. Baudrillard himself does not provide a satisfactory answer to this problem. It seems that criticism, at the fourth stage, is not possible as it is initially included in the process of simulation.
Thus, the world, as conceived by the Gnostics, would appear to suggest that empty space (kenoma) is constituted only by simulacra. Yet, simulacra are understood as “luminescences” of pleroma particles, in interaction with kenoma. In this manner, existence in the world of appearances may be said to be supported by simulation.
It is not necessary to understand the Gnostics and Baudrillard as radical fighters against the world of simulation, like philosophers of the Frankfurt School. Appearances are multiplied by a Demiurge – a malicious demon of simulation about which Baudrillard wrote in Fatal Strategies (1983) and The Evil Demon of Images (1987). It is not necessary to identify this demon solely with Capital. Capital is only one of many appearances of this ancient demon and any personification of it is simply one more simulacrum.
Here, we should keep in mind that, for Gnostics, this Demiurge is but one post-fracture Archon or ruling demon; arising from the crack to generate whole systems of suppression and the maintenance of illusions. For Baudrillard, this demiurgic possibility is apparent in mass media, especially television. Furthermore, if the demiurge (the founder and the organizer of the world of appearances) is in media, then the medium is the message. Against McLuhan, the Gnostic Baudrillard does not wish to be carried away by this demon-seducer. Indeed, in the apocryphal text “The Acts of Thomas”, we find a remarkable Gnostic hymn with relevance to the consumer society so astutely critiqued by Baudrillard. We read of a young man who went to Egypt to take a pearl away from a Serpent.
In Egypt he found new clothes, ate new foods, and fell asleep having forgotten the purpose of his journey until he receives a letter reminding him of it. This kind of message was for McLuhan a “hot” medium: “It flew and lighted down by me, and became all speech. And I, at the voice of it and the feeling of it, started up out of sleep”. Having a good understanding of the strategy of simulation, the young man tempts the Serpent : “And I began (or came) with charms against the terrible serpent, and I overcame him (put him to sleep) by naming the name of my Father upon him…”.
This young man apparently operates with the Lacanian “paternal signifier”, turning seduction against a consumer society. Taking the pearl home, he encounters the same “hot” means of communication: “And on the way I found my letter that had awakened me, and it, as if it had taken a voice and raised me when I slept, so also guided me with the light that came from it”. The hero of the hymn does not try to undertake revolutionary actions against the society which has lulled him. On the contrary, he breaks this society’s “silent consent” – thereby countering the society which has made him lose his way with its riches. So, by the principle of symbolic exchange (gift and counter-gift), the Serpent was put to sleep by the young man awakened by gnosis.
Thus, if Archons act as seductive bearers of “life” or “nature”, Gnostics say that, to overcome them, it is necessary to exceed their gift. Here, another of the Nag Hammadi scrolls suggests that exceeding the body, via spirit, can provide the basis for revolutionary action: “He who has recognized the world has found the body, but he who has found the body is superior to the world” (Robinson, 1981:127 (Gospel of Thomas, 80).
In more general terms, the destiny of the world in Gnosticism is thought to involve apocatasthasis – a “great restoration” of the primary condition of things. Yet, this restoration is possible only via the achievement of the “transparency” of the world of appearances about which Baudrillard often wrote.
Here, when all simulacra become transparent, the world of appearances will cease to exist and history as a sequence of events will disappear. About such a “strike of events” Baudrillard wrote in The Illusion of the End (1994): the beginning of history is removed in the infinity of the past, and its end is transferred to the infinite future (Baudrillard, 1994:5-6; 11-12; 16-17; 25-26. This is consistent with the Gospel of Thomas, verse 18: “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘Tell us, how our end will be.’ Jesus said, ‘Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end? For where the beginning is, there will the end be’ ” (Robinson, 1981:120 (Gospel of Thomas). Furthermore, when Gnostics conceive of the end of history, it is not only a stopping of events – it is alsothe mixture of all values and appearances. Thus, the Gospel of Thomas also notes:
Jesus said to them, ‘When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; when you fashion eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, and a likeness in place of a likeness, then you will enter [the Kingdom]’ Ibid.:121, (Gospel of Thomas 22).
This suggests we can get rid of the subject/object opposition – the most noxious effect of the reality principle. The reality principle postulates the existence of the world as object, somehow reflected in the subject. The Nag Hammadi scroll, the Gospel of Philip (61.4), is critical of this binary conception because, in it, the subject: “Sees the sun without being a sun; and he sees the heaven and the earth and all other things, but he is not these things” (Ibid.:137, (Gospel of Philip). With reference to ethnology we can see this subject/object distinction as a private project, not a universal one, and - as such - not very convincing. Thus, in The Raw and the Cooked, C. Levi-Strauss argues that:
Myths are designed on the basis of the logic of sensually perceived qualities which do not make sharp differentiation between subjective conditions and properties of space. We should not forget that such differentiations accompanied the development of scientific knowledge which is now also doomed to disappearance. In this respect mythological thought should not be understood as “pre-scientific” but rather, as anticipating the future condition of science and the direction of its movement (Леви-Строс К., 1999:228-29).
Could the removal of the subject/object opposition relieve us of many cares connected to this artificial circuit? The author of the Gospel of Philip (61:25-35) thinks so:
You saw something of that place, and you became those things. You saw the Spirit, you became spirit. You saw Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father. So in this place you see everything and do not see yourself, but in that place you do see yourself - and what you see you shall become” (Robinson, 1981:137, Gospel of Philip).
It is at this point that Baudrillard’s “fracture in the cosmic order” (2004b:101) seemingly articulates the spirit of the world as one that accepts destiny – for both Good and Evil. If so, then the spirit of the world is essentially immoral. Nevertheless, the Gospel of Philip (53:14-19) reckons that: “Light and Darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers of one another. They are inseparable. Because of this neither are the good good, nor the evil evil, nor is life life, nor death death” (Ibid.:132).
The spirit’s ethics thus appear to consist in an acceptance of all the world, not merely its “good” part. Spirit embraces not only terrorism but accidents, and all “negative” and “positive” incidents. Here, spirit finds its force. And here, The Teachings of Silvanus illuminate the Gnostic view that: ‘true’ evil includes a refusal to accept all sides of the world – a form of ignorance. Thus, chapter 89 asks: “What else is evil darkness except familiarity with forgetfulness?” (Ibid.: 349 (Teachings of Silvanus).
It is little wonder, then, that Gnostics suffered reprisals from the Church: instead of seeing a unification of the world in terms of “good” they were engaged in a search of unknown areas of life. Moreover, they aspired to critique the idea of ‘Good and evil’ as a binary favouring Good.
Similarly, Baudrillard’s dualistic understanding of Good and Evil has resulted in him being accused of complicity with terrorism in his writings on Serbia (e.g. “No Pity for Sarajevo”) and the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. Those controversies actually return us to the question of whether Baudrillard should be regarded as more Gnostic than Manichean. The dualism of Manicheanism, more than the monism of Gnosticism, declares an eternal antagonism of Good and Evil. In the former, Evil (like Good) is admitted as having an independent beginning, existing from time immemorial. However, in eschatological terms, Manicheans cannot prefer Evil because they expect Good to be eventually redeemed from its mixture with Evil.
When Baudrillard speaks about Manichean acceptance of Good, and Evil, he is mostly addressing the medieval tradition of the Cathars. Here, though the body belongs to Evil, and the soul to Good, the soul is considered as carnal blood in medieval Catharism, as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie notes in his account of Montaillou – a Cathar village in 13th century France (Ladurie, 1979).
In short, opposition to forces of Evil, or Darkness, is a central focus in Manicheanism, as the ancient Kephalaia scrolls, written in Coptic and discovered at Medinet Madi in Egypt in 1930, indicate: “Light has mixed up with the Darkness, and a Life with Death” (Kephalaia, Introduction, 3, 4-7). This is a condition experienced painfully by Manicheans: “Light is captivated in the Darkness… and the Life is captivated in Death” (Kephalaia, 22, 29; Gardiner, 1995).
Even so, Baudrillard, ever the trickster, was artful in discussing his association with Manicheanism. He says: “I am Manichean” but then appears to be Gnostic. Jonathan Smith’s experience might help us here. “As the heir of persecuted heretics, Baudrillard can be wary of scholars who look into his Gnosticism” (Smith 2004). “When I asked him about his Manichean theme, he called it ‘very important’, but then quickly changed the subject” (March 20, 2001, George Fraser Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand).
“Later, when I mentioned my Gnostic Baudrillard research, he turned to Nicholas Zurbrugg and said: ‘This is a dangerous man!’ Then, after questioning the Gnostic/Manichean linkage, Baudrillard said to me, ‘you do it’, and declined to be interviewed on the matter” (March 22, 2001, Hyatt Hotel, Auckland; see Smith, 2004, at endnote 64).
Perhaps Baudrillard was ambivalent about more than academic commentators – perhaps he was ambivalent about the differences between Manicheanism and Gnosticism. Given what I have said above, I am inclined to count Baudrillard as a Gnostic with some Manichean tendencies, but not strictly, a Manichean.
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This paper is an edited version of a chapter from Alexandr Dyakov’s book: Jean Baudrillard: The Strategy of Radical Thought. Russia: St. Petersburg State University Press, 2008:266-277. The author is grateful to Dr. Gerry Coulter and Dr. Jonathan Smith for assistance with the translation of the chapter into English.
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