Volume 7, Number 2 (July, 2010)
Now You See It, Now You Don’t
A review of Jean Baudrillard (2009). Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? London, New York, and Calcutta: Seagull Books.
Dr. John Armitage
(Department of Media, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK)
Why hasn’t Jean Baudrillard already disappeared? A French philosopher, Baudrillard (1929-2007) was a leading thinker whose writings blend media studies, questions of subjectivity, and an unconventional social theory of everyday objects and considerations of important contemporary events. Associated with key theoretical works on simulation, human values, technology, and meaning, Baudrillard’s Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is one of the last books he wrote before his death. Superbly translated by Chris Turner, Baudrillard’s short text is juxtaposed with Alain Willaume’s disconcerting photographs of strange human figures and cityscapes that exemplify Baudrillard’s case and is introduced by the French philosopher François L’Yvonnet.
Baudrillard, L’Yvonnet informs us, drives the examination of disappearance to its utmost because today it inundates all social spaces despite our attempts to eradicate it through our totalitarian attraction to unity, to lessening dualities, to abolishing evil, to, put differently, freeing ourselves from the uncertainties of humanity. Discovering how to embrace disappearance is, then, our ultimate challenge. For disappearance is as fundamental to existence as appearance, notwithstanding all our dreams of opposing or conquering it. Certainly, to refuse disappearance is to surrender to the delusion that there must be ‘something’, ‘somewhere’, which will inhibit the seemingly never-ending disappearance of meaning.
‘Behind every image’, Baudrillard contends, ‘something has disappeared’ that is also the basis of our absorption within virtual reality, information and telecommunications technologies, and the Internet. No longer enthralled by reality, we are presently fascinated by its disappearance and by the problem of whether this condition is the cause of our discontents, as Baudrillard’s hypercritical account of it has it, or a seductive delight into which we can cheerfully withdraw until eternity.
Baudrillard intertwines various complex topics from the possible disappearance of humanity due to the completion of its objective of global domination to its potential disappearance as the result of an interior logic of accelerated disintegration. For Baudrillard, for example, humanity’s seduction by and accomplishment of a nearly complete knowledge merely hastens its disappearance sooner than the other animals owing to the speed of humanity’s now entirely inanimate or technology-driven ‘evolution’.
Baudrillard also contemplates the issue of existential subjectivity, whose ‘great disappearance’ is, in his belief, not just that of the virtual metamorphosis of objective reality, but that of the ceaseless annihilation of subjectivity, of a ‘serial pulverization of consciousness into all the interstices of reality’. Whereas human consciousness, willpower, and the impulse to liberty are universal, for Baudrillard, they increasingly combine with the trajectory of objects and thus become unnecessary.
Adamant that, with disappearance functioning as their strange attractor, numerous objects usually deemed beneficial - think of al-Qaeda crashing airliners into the Twin Towers on September 11 - reappear as devastation, Baudrillard nevertheless maintains that disappearance has affirmative features (the eradication of terror, aggression, disease, etc.).
Like appearance, therefore, disappearance is neither good nor evil. However, Baudrillard’s recurrent disparaging remarks, especially concerning contemporary art and photography, represent not just the space between humanity and nature but also that between his basically modern social theory and our fundamentally postmodern digital society. Yet, despite all our dreams of disappearance, of wanting numerous objects to disappear forever, Baudrillard’s readers will understand the appearance of Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? as an important occasion that will have a powerful impact on contemporary social theory. We should appreciate it not as a farewell essay but as a practically spiritual text on the appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of everyday objects. Consequently, if we seek to read Baudrillard’s work accurately, we have to do so in view of its disappearance. There is no better explanation as to why Jean Baudrillard hasn’t already disappeared.
John Armitage is Head of Department of Media, Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne. His latest published work is “Pursuit in Paris” in Baudrillard Now: Current Perspectives in Baudrillard Studies (2009), edited by Ryan Bishop.
This article originally appeared in the Times Higher Education Supplement (January 7, 2010): http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=409885