Volume 7, Number 2 (July, 2010)
Baudrillard’s Ontology: Empirical Research and the Denial of the Real
Dr. Steven J. Cole
(Instructor, Department of Sociology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada)
Since Baudrillard seeks to destroy the “reality principle”, it may seem inappropriate to use his work as the basis for empirical research. For how can one use a theory which denies “the real and reality” to conduct empirical research? Is this attempt not inherently contradictory and bound to fail? Such questions, however, stem from an incorrect understanding of Baudrillard’s critique of “reality.” Baudrillard defines reality in the following way:
[R]eality is but a concept, or a principle, and by reality I mean the whole system of values connected with this principle. The Real as such implies an origin, an end, a past and a future, a chain of causes and effects, continuity and rationality. No real without these elements, without an objective configuration of discourse. And its disappearing is the dislocation of this whole constellation (2000:63).
From this quote, one of the rare places where Baudrillard actually spells out what he means by reality, it is clear that Baudrillard’s “murder of the real” involves the death of a conceptual system rather than the denial of material world itself. Baudrillard never doubts the empirical world’s existence nor does he suggest empirical studies are unnecessary or useless. To the contrary, many of Baudrillard’s theoretical insights stem from an empirical analysis of contemporary consumption practices and the proliferation of signs. Furthermore, his studies of media and advertising are central to his theoretical and “meta-theoretical” development. The absence of empirical research in the secondary Baudrillardian literature, therefore, belies his oeuvre. However, Baudrillard does problematize empirical research’s tendency to simulate and reproduce the very social conditions it seeks to “uncover.
As early as For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard was aware of how empirical research theoretically simulates reality. For example, many sociological studies examine consumption as a sign of social status, yet Baudrillard believes this approach hides a “vicious circle [for] in the objects, one identifies a social category which has, in the final analysis, already been described on the basis of these objects . . . The recurring induction hides a circular deduction” (1981:33). In other words, certain objects act as signs/referents for theoretical classifications (social categories) yet these social categories are themselves determined by the consumption of these same objects. Thus signs (objects) do not signify a real social category (the signified); both the signifier and the signified are signs that theoretically simulate reality. Yet such problems do not make empirical research unnecessary. Throughout his entire career, Baudrillard argues that that research that remains unaware of simulation cannot challenge or understand “reality.” Phrased in this way, Baudrillard’s insights are hardly new or ground breaking for Marx also rallied against the problem of theoretical/bourgeois “reification” and empirical research’s tendency to reproduce theoretical presuppositions.
Baudrillard’s writing from the late 1980s onwards sought to capture the “other side” of reality: the object’s, rather than the subject’s, perspective. Thus although he rallies against “objective reality” and the external referent in The Mirror of Production and Political Economy of the Sign, he later uses the external object to challenge critical theory’s epistemological claims. This later position, however, participates in (rather than contradicts) the earlier critique’s problematization of the object; the object eludes our systematic attempts to pin it down by “allowing” us to unwittingly simulate its “nature” or reality. Social research, therefore, ultimately simulates rather than “uncovers” the truth lurking behind phenomena’s appearance. Lacking this true referential knowledge, we cannot position objects within dialectical relations of opposition and therefore must now oppose things in their “hyperreal” forms:
To the truer than true we will oppose the falser than false. We will not oppose the beautiful to the ugly, but will look for the uglier than ugly: the monstrous. We will not oppose the visible to the hidden, but will look for the more hidden than hidden: the secret (1990:7).
But what is this “secret” and how/why is it “more hidden than the hidden”? Baudrillard believes dialectics hide a deeper truth: there is no “truth” for the world is only appearance. Therefore, when Baudrillard argues that we must look for the “more hidden than hidden” he is not looking for an underlying truth, but the “hidden” truth of appearance and illusion. But how can truth be an illusion?
Baudrillard answers the above question using a favourite example. The subject’s perception of light does not guarantee a star’s existence since the great distance between the subject and object allows us to perceive stars that have long ceased to exist. Baudrillard extends this relationship, “relatively speaking”, to any physical object: “The fact of this irremediable distance and this impossible simultaneity . . . is the ultimate foundation, the material definition, so to speak, of illusion” (2002:52, my italics). Given the dispersal and relative speed of light, all objects exist only in a “recorded version” so that things are never truly “present” or “true” for one another (2002, 51-52). Yet without this “distance” and “delay,” subjects could not perceive anything because everything would be “crowded together” (2002:52). Objectivity, therefore, stems from the illusion that things “coexist in real time.” Yet Baudrillard deems this illusion “vital” since we could not hold knowledge without it. Objectivity and illusion, therefore, cannot be placed in opposition for illusion is an inherent part of reality.
While some have deemed the above aspects of Baudrillard “metaphysical nonsense,” his insights stem from an examination of physics. Like quantum physics, Baudrillard does not “deny reality” but appreciates the instability of the object of study. Yet while contemporary physicists are rarely accused of denying the material world’s existence, Baudrillard is repeatedly accused of making such assertions. Why Baudrillard is accused of holding this absurd position has rarely been discussed. However, I believe these misunderstandings occur for at least three reasons:
i) The irregular English publication of Baudrillard’s work which presented a disjointed and vulgarized understanding of Baudrillard’s denial of the real.
ii) An institutional shift in 1980s academia fostered by the rise of Cultural Studies and “postmodernism”.
iii) The failure to properly understand Baudrillard’s analysis of contemporary science.
The English translation of Baudrillard’s work has been problematic for several reasons. As Genosko (2004) notes, although Telos Press introduced many of Baudrillard’s early works to English audiences, books like The Mirror of Production read quite roughly and include several “unprofessional” footnotes indicating "I have not been able to complete this [Kristeva] reference" or "I have not been able to locate the page references for any of the quotes from Godelier." The translation also contains problems. For example, on the first page as the French term "phantasme" is first translated as "phantom" and then translated a few lines later as "phantasm" (Genosko, 2004). In addition to such language problems, Baudrillard’s work was published out of order and with significant delays. Scott Lash (1995) believes that the eighteen-year gap between the French and English Publications of Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976 and 1993 respectively) was detrimental to Baudrillard’s status as a theorist. While those in the fine arts, cultural studies, and the sociology of culture and media have made use of Baudrillard’s insights, “theorists have consistently rejected taking Baudrillard seriously . . . declined to engage with his work . . . [and] have seen it as superficial, even ornamental. They have dismissed it as ‘airhead semiotics’ and ‘airhead sociology’” (Lash, 1995:71). Yet those theorists who have engaged Baudrillard have been plagued by the publication delays, translation problems, and chronological disjunction discussed above. For example, Best argues that Baudrillard’s “rejection of needs in toto is an idealist move which denies the physical body” (1995:59). Yet in one of his earliest books, Baudrillard clearly limits “consumption” to the consumption of “difference” via substitutable objects. Since food cannot be substituted with anything else, hunger is not properly an act of consumption; we do, however, obviously have a “functional need” to eat (1981:69, footnote). Yet misunderstandings and hostile receptions cannot be explained by publication difficulties alone.
Baudrillard’s status as a “quasi-intellectual” who “denies reality” stems from the polemical battles surrounding “postmodernism” in the 1980s and early 1990s. The grounds of this battle are now well known. While Postmodernists questioned all forms of epistemological and ontological certainty, declared the end of metanarrative, and pronounced the death of the social, others viewed postmodernism as an apolitical, ideologically complicit form of thought. As newly created Cultural Studies departments vied for limited university funds during the budget cuts of the 1980s, established disciplines and departments became torn along “postmodern” lines. Subsequently, the very term “postmodern” was used as either a signifier of leading edge theory or as a pejorative assigned to a trivial and “undisciplined” form of thought. Within this heated climate, Baudrillard assumed the label of the “high priest of Postmodernism.” Yet this is indicative of the misunderstandings and politics surrounding Baudrillard, for he himself claims “this reference to priesthood is out of place . . . before one can talk about anyone being a high priest, one should ask whether postmodernism, the postmodern, has a meaning. It doesn’t as far as I am concerned” (Baudrillard, 1993:21). Yet despite rejecting the “priesthood”, Baudrillard became “postmodernism’s pope” and has therefore elicited a critical wrath unlike any other theorist. For example, in an infamous polemic Christopher Norris asks:
How far wrong can a thinker go and still lay claim to serious attention? One useful test-case is Jean Baudrillard, a cult figure on the current ‘postmodernist’ scene, and purveyor of some of the silliest ideas yet to gain a hearing among disciples of French intellectual fashion (Norris, 1992:11).
Norris goes on to summarize Baudrillard’s position as follows: there is no way to distinguish the real from the simulated, there is no factual or objective grounds to judge knowledge claims, and the desire for such evaluative grounds are simply nostalgic longings for the past (1992:11-13). While Baudrillard does make such claims, Norris’s presentation and summary quite simply vulgarizes Baudrillard’s position and creates an easily defeated straw man. For example, Norris notes that although Baudrillard first claimed we could never “truly know” if/when the first Gulf War could/would begin, he was forced to “concede” that people died, buildings were destroyed, and real blood spilt on the ground of Iraq (1992:92). Yet in deeming such facts “concessions”, Norris demonstrates his failure to understand the crux of Baudrillard’s argument: the war, as an objective discrete event, was preceded by so much analysis, modeling, and strategy, that its actual occurrence could not be distinguished from it’s a priori simulation. In other words, the “war model” preceded the real event, making it impossible to separate one as an objective event outside of its simulation. Similarly, Norris also fails to see the political strategy behind Baudrillard’s reluctance to deem the Gulf war a “real” war. Given the massive imbalance between Iraqi and American forces, Baudrillard argues that we can hardly call these hostilities a “war” in any traditional sense of the word. Thus, whereas Baudrillard makes this assertion as an indictment against the imperialist quest of US forces, Norris takes it (literally) as yet another ludicrous claim that the war “isn’t real” and doesn’t exist (Norris, 1992:192).
How far did the anti-Baudrillardian polemic go? For Norris, the suggestion that academics cannot distinguish the real from the unreal is not only complicit in dominant ideological forms of thought, it also sheds light on the decrepit state of academia:
A situation has thus arisen in which a thinker like Baudrillard – along with other figures on the postmodern scene – can reckon on gaining a large and receptive readership for arguments whose blatant illogicality would leap off the page were it not for this lamentable down-turn in the standards of informed intellectual exchange (Norris, 1992:20).
Yet given Norris’s blatant misreading of Baudrillard, one may make this same accusation against him. An extremely generous reading of Norris may concede that, writing in the early 1990s, many of Baudrillard’s writings had yet to be translated nor had Baudrillard the opportunity to respond to his critics and clarify misunderstandings. One important aspect of this clarification is Baudrillard’s use of physics to support many of his ontological and epistemological positions. Had these aspects of Baudrillard’s work been available or brought to the forefront, perhaps such polemical attacks could have been avoided. For although many critics have accused Baudrillard of denying reality, few have made the same (complete) charge against quantum physicists. I therefore turn to physics because Baudrillard’s writings on the empirical object’s “disappearance” and the “loss of the external referent” seem “restricted” to the semiotic or “philosophical” domain. Yet as we will see, quantum physics “grounds” Baudrillard’s claim that the objective referent seduces us and escapes our efforts to concretely locate and identify it. Thus, while I do not want to diminish the semiotic and literary dimension of Baudrillard’s work, it is also important to establish his theory’s relevance outside of a strictly textual analysis. By addressing both the empirical/scientific and the textual/literary side of Baudrillard’s work, we can see that the paradoxes and similarities that emerge from these supposed oppositions illuminate reality in the most interesting ways. These unexpected paradoxical insights, I argue, are the desired goal of Baudrillard’s work and are the basis of his critique of contemporary sociology and sociological methods.
II. The Uncertainty of Quantum Physics
Baudrillard analyzes physics for several reasons. First, he believes changes in physics are indicative of broader cultural shifts in Western knowledge and representation. Second, he argues that the ontological problems raised by quantum physics show that his theoretical ideas are not simply “metaphysical” or restricted to idealist philosophy. Finally, contemporary physics fosters Baudrillard’s subversive analysis of “visual knowledge” since quantum physics’ challenge to classical mechanics entails the object’s visual observation: although one can directly observe the variables in classical physics, it is impossible to directly observe quantum mechanical systems. Thus, physicists can only observe and locate quantum objects by making them interact with an outside influence or instrument (Cushing, 1998:290). Yet such interactions also change the object’s momentum and trajectory making it impossible to simultaneously map its location and momentum. For this reason, the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle” states that observation in quantum physics is a disturbance in principle rather than merely a disturbance in practice. Yet as we will see, such observational uncertainty is surpassed by the object’s own ontological uncertainty.
Figure 1: Double Split Experiments and Wave Particle Activity
In “double slit experiments”, physicists project a light particle through two small openings and onto a screen (see figure 1). The resulting light pattern, however, exhibits behaviour that is typical of interacting and interfering waves. Thus the object exhibits the characteristics of both a particle, a “thing” and a wave (a disturbance in a field). This “wave-particle duality” informs Baudrillard’s claim that the object now “plays with its own objectivity” and “only appears in the form of ephemeral and aleatory traces on the screens of virtualization” (2000:75). Thus, while science once conceived knowledge as a mirror of external reality, Baudrillard argues that, like the physicist’s screen, computer and television screens project, rather than reflect, reality:
The light from a television . . . comes from within and reflects nothing. Everything happens entirely as if the screen itself were the cause and origin of the phenomena that appear there, so serious are the consequences of current sophistication of the systems of ‘objective’ capture that they have annihilated the very objectivity of their process (1990:85).
In the above quote we see that although “screens” literally include television and computer screens, the term also alludes to “all systems of recording and control” or “surfaces of inscription” (1990:85). It is at this point that Baudrillard’s distinction between representation and simulation becomes paramount, for any recording system, be it a scientific apparatus, a poll or survey, or a sound capturing device, is a “screen” that projects a simulated reality rather than reflects an a priori reality. Since screens “project” the objective referent, their elaboration makes it more difficult to see the true referent; thus the “object disappears on the horizons of science” (1990:85). As Baudrillard concludes:
Today the world itself engages in dissidence, disobeying, in its paradoxicality, even the laws of physics . . . This is not because our science and technologies are not advanced enough; on the contrary. The closer we come, through experimentation, to the object, the more it steals away from us . . . we cannot rely on the pretext of an insufficient development of the scientific, intellectual, mental apparatus. The apparatus has given all that it can give; it has even passed beyond its own definitions of rationality (2000:79-80).
Yet such problems, argues Baudrillard, are not limited to physics. The reality and meaning of a news event is similarly uncertain for we cannot understand the original referent (event) outside of its media coverage and technological dispersion. Like the particle, analysis and testing fosters more ontological uncertainty and therefore extends the real referent beyond our reach. Therefore, Baudrillard concludes that “uncertainty has filtered into all areas of life; it isn’t clear why it might be confined to science alone” (2002:55-56).
The difficulties associated with seeing external objects led scientists to base truth on the observation of the object’s measurements rather than the object itself (1990:81). Yet Baudrillard calls this instrumentalist shift a “limited revolution” for it fails to entertain the much more radical hypothesis that objects actively reject our analysis (1990:82). In the social sciences, he notes that our “objects” (people) may strategically evade the sociologist by giving false answers, uninformed answers, or refusing to answer at all. Thus although “the subject” has traditionally claimed to subordinate the object via calculations and manipulations, Baudrillard argues that the object is actually the active subordinator (1990:83). This position, Kellner argues, extends Baudrillard’s previous examination of how the world of objects controls the subject (1989:159). While he originally claimed that commodities fascinate individuals within consumer society, Baudrillard now argues that objects completely destabilize the subject and “end the philosophy of subjectivity that has controlled French thought since Descartes” (Kellner, 2006:20). But while it is easy to understand how the public may strategically elude sociologists during a survey, Baudrillard never fully explains how an object can have “a strategy.” For objects void of subjectivity, his conception of seduction seems more appropriate since the inability to stabilize and pin down the object seduces us into pursuing a vast range of practices and actions (Baudrillard, 1990:83).
The object’s displacement of the subject fosters Baudrillard’s call for a radical new form of theory that ends the simulation of the object (1990:181). Baudrillard’s writing therefore becomes increasingly “poetic” and “performative” in order to break the code of Western signification and rationality. Yet this new form of theory, argues Baudrillard, is not easily accepted for those schooled in the rigors of scientific methodology:
We usually think that holding to the protocols of experimentation and verification is the most difficult thing. But in fact the most difficult thing is to renounce truth and the possibility of verification, to remain as long as possible on the enigmatic, ambivalent, and reversible side of thought (2000:68).
To end simulation, theory must move from the world of analytic causality to the “poetic world” of imagination and illusion (2002:57). Yet this “poetics of illusion” is not simply metaphysical for illusion, argues Baudrillard, is material (2000:72). According to the Big Bang theory, after an initial burst of energy unequal amounts of matter and antimatter formed while the universe cooled and expanded. For an unknown reason, a slightly higher percentage of matter developed leading to the formation of our entire material world. Yet for Baudrillard, anti-matter “forms a kind of invisible parallel world, an anti-universe” (2000:72-73). Therefore, antimatter is the dual/duel of matter in the same way death is the dual of life. Yet just as the West’s destruction of the symbolic exchange of death and life causes contemporary meaninglessness, Baudrillard believes the exclusion of antimatter “amputates” and limits reality; our perception of reality is, therefore, an illusion (2000:73). Thus although this restricted materiality follows physical laws, these laws are not “true” since they only result from an “ontological simplification”:
I find it at least on the symbolic level both enigmatic and ironic that our reality, born of a radical simplification of the cosmos, has no truth value anymore – divested of its counterpart, its dark half, our world is a definitive illusion . . . We are trying to recover the traces of the illusion, that is to say, the vestiges of the original crime against negativity that started with the elimination of antimatter (2000:73-74).
Whether in physical science or social theory, Baudrillard’s search for the “other” side of reality calls into question dominant and restrictive understandings of the real. Therefore theory must make reality meaningful and complete rather than restricted and (merely) rational.
By seeking the death of (restricted) reality and thwarting simulation, theory helps us understand the real. Thus Butler (1999) believes Baudrillard uses “the real” in two different ways: the (simulated) reality brought about by theoretical or socio-cultural systems, and the real that acts as a limit to such systems (that which is outside the system and in danger of being engulfed by simulation). Therefore, Butler concludes that Baudrillard’s work:
. . . is not simply to be understood as the celebration of simulation, the end of the real, as so many of his commentators would have it. Rather, his problem is how to think the real when all is simulation, how to use the real against the attempts by various systems of rationality to account for it. In a surprising twist, then, Baudrillard emerges as a defender of the real against all efforts to speak of it – including, of course, his own (1999:17).
Thus although theory can never “capture” reality, we can see glimpses of reality if our theoretical work momentarily thwarts simulation. Such glimpses, however, are best attained through a form of performative writing whose gaps and incongruencies expose the limits of the strict, rational, argumentation that dominates Western theory. Thus, much like the symbolic exchanges found in noncapitalist societies, theory is a form of exchange that defies the code of Western signification.
III. Is Quantum Physics Postmodern?
While Baudrillard believes issues in quantum physics show that his analysis is not merely metaphysical, Norris believes Baudrillard simply uses physics “to give ‘scientific’ credence” to postmodern skepticism (2000:2). Accordingly, Norris hopes to counter Baudrillard (and others) by tracing an ignored and marginalized counter tradition that initiates in the Einstein-Bohr debates, develops through the work of Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen, and culminates in the David Bohm’s “hidden variables” theory. All these physicists reject the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum phenomenon in favour of what Norris deems a “realist ontology.” Therefore, Norris believes the postmodern celebration of quantum theory is:
[P]reposterous in the strict sense of that term – an inversion of the rational order of priorities – . . . thinkers claim to draw far-reaching ontological or epistemological lessons from a field of thought . . . rife with paradox and lacking (as yet) any adequate grasp of its own operative concepts (2000:5, italics in original).
Norris raises important issues about the nature of interdisciplinary work, for all too often academics adopt concepts and issues without fully understanding their intricacies or historical development. Subsequently, the “counter-tradition” in physics does tend to get buried when other specialists borrow from quantum theory. Yet as we will see, other critics suggest that Norris gets physics wrong, makes sweeping generalizations, and constructs an all too simple “realist/antirealist” dichotomy.
Norris uses David Bohm’s work to dispel the anti-realist leanings of the Copenhagen interpretation. Bohm rejects Bohr’s assertion that we can only observe an object’s measurements rather than the object itself. Furthermore, Bohm questions wave-particle duality, arguing that the electron is a particle (object) and that the wave:
like the particle, [is] an independent actuality that exist[s] on its own, rather than being merely a function from which the statistical properties of phenomena could be derived: ... the intensity of [the] wave is proportional to the probability that a particle actually is in the corresponding region of space (and is not merely the probability of observing the phenomenon involved in finding a particle there) (Bohm 1987:36, italics in original).
Thus Bohm argues that micro entities do follow specific trajectories in space-time if we conceive of the object as a particle and an accompanying wave that “guides” it (Cushing, 1998:331-333). In this way, Bohm restores a level of ontological certainty to the object and, to this extent, challenges Baudrillard’s assertion that the material referent has “disappeared”, became uncertain, and evaded our attempts to locate it. Yet although Norris uses Bohm’s theory serve as a “realist rebuttal” of postmodern theory, he never clearly explains why (or ‘if’) Bohm’s theory is best conceived of in terms of a realist ontology and causality (Chakravartty, 2001:485). This portrayal, however, seems highly problematic for Bohm’s theory, unlike classical deterministic physics, holds a nonlocal theory of causation; measurements taken of object x may be effected by the properties of object y even if they are spatially distant. Therefore Chakravartty concludes:
Norris criticises the orthodox interpretation of [quantum mechanics] for requiring us to give up our ‘classical’ concept of causality and revise our understanding of physical reality, but the important challenge for the realist is to face head on the extent to which Bohm’s theory does the same (2001:486, my italics).
In fact, Bohm himself argues that nonlocality fundamentally distinguishes his work from classical physics and believes his own position is a “radical and striking” move away from classical physics and concepts (Bohm,1987:37).
Nonlocality is not the only factor that problematizes the construction of a dichotomy between Bohm/realism and the Copenhagen/anti-realist interpretation. Although Norris argues, via Bohm, that a particle possess definite physical values at all times, Bohm actually states that only the particle’s position is definite whereas other values, such as spin-value, “are not intrinsic properties of particles” and only emerge within the experimental set-up (Myrvold 2001:118). Thus once again, despite Norris’s attempts to place Bohm as the realist successor to classical physics, Bohm’s work rejects such a portrayal:
The context dependence of measurements is a further indication of how our interpretation does not imply a simple return to the basic principles of classical physics. It also embodies, in a certain sense, Bohr’s notion of the indivisibility of the combined system of observing apparatus and observed object. Indeed it may be said that our approach provides a kind of intuitive understanding of what Bohr was saying. (Bohm and Hiley, as cited by Myrovold, 2001:118).
The point here is not to enter a full-fledged theoretical debate in physics. But given Norris’s overly simplified “critique” of Baudrillard’s position on the gulf war, we should approach his assessment of Baudrillard’s physics with caution. Thus, although Myrvold (2001) does not support postmodern skepticism’s use of quantum physics, he nonetheless concludes that Norris creates an overly simplistic realist/anti-realist dichotomy that overlooks subtleties in anti-realist positions. To this end, although Norris characterizes Baudrillard’s work as a wholesale ontological denial, Baudrillard actually argues the following:
It is true that, thanks to the progress of analysis and technique, we actually discover the world in all its complexity – its atoms, particles, molecules, and viruses (2000:76).
This quote supports Butler’s (1999) assertion that although Baudrillard questions theory’s ability to “capture” and “represent” the referent, he never truly questions the referents’ existence and staunchly defends the real. Similarly, Poster argues that despite Baudrillard’s skepticism he does not dispute logical/verifiable truths such as assuming a Newtonian universe to get from point A to B (Poster, 2001:7). Instead, Baudrillard questions any system’s ability to enable “a historically informed grasp of the present in general” (Poster, 2001:7). Yet as we will see, Norris’s unrefined understanding of Baudrillard’s scientific and cultural writings is not, unfortunately, unique.
Sokal and Bricmont claim that Baudrillard “abuses” scientific knowledge yet they make no attempt to frame his “scientific writings” within his general argument (Gane, 2000:47). Knowing almost nothing about Baudrillard’s work, they simply read Baudrillard’s scientific passages as if he were a theoretical physicist (Gane, 2000:47). At this level, it is hardly surprising that Baudrillard’s work seems problematic. But as Gane argues, it is incredulous to think Baudrillard is seriously attempting to contribute to the field of theoretical physics for he clearly is: “. . . interested in the cultural logic of [physics] . . . the revolution in the sciences is part of and can even be taken as emblematic of a total socio-cultural transition in Western societies, one affecting all levels and all processes” (Gane, 2000:49).
Yet since Sokal and Bricmont make no attempt to reconstruct Baudrillard’s larger argument, they complete fail to understand why he is even writing about physics. Thus although they dismiss Baudrillard as postmodern nonsense, as Gane argues, Baudrillard sees his own theory as “radically modern” rather than postmodern (Gane, 2000:54). Gane’s assertion hinges upon Baudrillard’s crucial distinction between destiny and chance. While chance implies chaos and randomness, Baudrillard believes destiny implies a sense of determination, necessity, and fate (Gane, 2000:55). Fatal theory, therefore, not only gives the system a gift that is fatal but it plays on the French connotation of “fatal”, “fate”, as an established predestined order. Fatal theory, in the form of a symbolic gift, seeks to restore order and meaning in our meaningless contemporary world: two very “non-postmodern” themes (Gane, 2000:55).
From his early writings on consumer society to his later writings on quantum physics, Baudrillard is interested in how objects come to seduce, control, and evade the subject. Yet nowhere within his corpus does Baudrillard seriously “deny material reality.” While his writings on quantum physics are not intended to make a contribution to quantum theory itself, they show that Baudrillard is indeed interested in examining and understanding empirical objects/phenomena through empirical research. Thus, my reading of Baudrillard supports Mirchandani’s claim that although postmodern theory starts as an epistemological critique, “epistemological postmodernists do recognize the empirically observable social changes that prompt discourse about a new era” (2005:88, my italics). Mirchandani believes that as sociology uses postmodern epistemological insights to study new forms of post-modern social phenomenon we witness a shift from postmodern epistemology to postmodern empirical research. My own current research (unpublished) on contemporary music producers-consumers, for example, uses Baudrillard’s understanding of simulation to ground empirical research into music production and technology. Therefore my own and others’ empirical research shows that Baudrillard’s position, while hardly flawless, can serve as a valuable theoretical framework to guide empirical research and therefore does not warrant the dismissive characterization of “metaphysical nonsense.”
Steven J. Cole is an instructor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta. His current research pursues an imminent critique of Baudrillard via a critical realist reading of Bourdieu’s ontology. He has three articles currently under review: an (Baudrillardian) empirical study of sound simulation and production, a reformulation of Bourdieu’s cultural (re)production viz a vie an empirical analysis of the blending of contemporary production and consumption, and an empirically based critique of commodity fetishism (Marx/Marcuse) and the commodity “sign-object” (Baudrillard). He is also working on a book based on his PhD Dissertation.
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