Volume 7, Number 2 (July 2010)
Disappearance and Destiny
A review of Jean Baudrillard (2009). Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books. (Translated by Chris Turner; Images by Alain Willaume).
Dr. Gary Genosko
(Canada Research Chair in Technoculture, Lakehead University, North Bay, Canada)
After nature, there is disappearance. It is non-natural, Baudrillard tells us, not a ‘law’ at all but more like an art. And what remains of the natural in human beings is so alienated through our analyses and inquiries that in lending our world the weight of reality we simultaneously bring about its disappearance. In brackets, Baudrillard reminds us: “(‘to analyse’ means literally ‘to dissolve’)” (11). The force of invocation is the force of dissolution. Naming and representation erase with the same intensity as scientific method. Analysis also arrives late. It is a bit like establishing a discipline like cultural or globalization studies: by the time the grant applications and ampersand departmental designations, programs, and journals are in place, the impetus for the effort has already passed. The air is stale; the effort having drained the energy from its object. One can only hope for a swift dissipation.
Disappearance is a two-fold process. The real vanishes into concepts; and concepts vanish into the fulfillment of their potentialities. Baudrillard is for the most part concerned with technological perfection as an engine of such fulfillment and what it visits upon humankind. He provides the following definition: “it is of the essence of the technical object to exhaust its possibilities and even to go quite some way beyond them” (15). This “sooner or later” throws human beings from the world of artifacts they created, technical perfection turning on its masters, with no longer any need for oppositional structuration or dialectical impetus. The logic is “internal,” Baudrillard insists, yet hidden from ourselves. It is a bit like Google: a Promethean project of knowledge that brings about its own disappearance. Google co-founder Sergey Brin once remarked that his plans, as well as those of colleague Larry Page, for the creation of artificial intelligence through search engine research would not turn out badly, like other rogue computing projects: “[He] explained that the ‘ultimate search engine’ would resemble the talking supercomputer HAL in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. ‘Now, hopefully … it would never have a bug like HAL did where he killed the occupants of the spaceship’” (Carr, 2008:213). If we listen to Baudrillard, this looks like our end under Google. Such a bug would not be a natural creature, not an animal species, but an artifactual species engaged in an artificial evolution “that no longer has anything natural about it” (19). Does nature sneak back in? Baudrillard writes:
Doing so not out of some death drive or some involutive, regressive disposition toward undifferentiated forms, but from an impulse to go as far as possible in the expression of all its power, all its faculties – to the point
even of dreaming of abolishing death (19).
While admitting something like Eros, Baudrillard reverts to the conceptual language of “programming” (ie. “apoptosis, that process by which a cell is programmed to die,” 19). The disappearance of human beings is figured as though it were pre-programmed. But this is too linear, too causal, for Baudrillard. Baudrillard needs to hold onto Eros for the language of evolution fails him; it is too confining. After this false lead, he turns to another strategy: desire and photography.
The desire to see our own absence is not negative, Baudrillard qualifies: “disappearance may be the desire to see what the world looks like in our absence (photography) or to see, beyond the end, beyond the subject, beyond all meaning, beyond the horizon of disappearance, if there still is an occurrence of the world, an unprogrammed appearance of things” (21). No more “added values”: a world stripped bare. A remarkable art of striptease; or maybe a “martial art” (22). There is, however, something else at play here. Isn’t this desire to see the world in our absence the staple of cinema’s representation of the first way-station of the afterlife? Isn’t this the task undertaken by guardian angels like Clarence Oddbody in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1942)? This would also make film, not to mention television, and photography, technologies of the afterlife of humankind. There is in Baudrillard no populist moral tone about this, but, rather, recourse to the question of how art, and which art, best triggers a knowing self-erasure. Self-abolition without knowledge suspends art in a “vegetative state” (22) in-between life and death: art as neomort “surviv[ing] its own disappearance” (Ibid.) in the Intensive Care Unit of the gallery system.
Disappearance leaves traces. Moreover, that which has disappeared returns, as well, and “exert[s] an occult influence” (26). The subject leaves its ghost behind: an “ectoplasm” (27) for a subjectless subjectivity “pulverized” and like quicksilver everywhere rolling into the cracks. This motion makes art “superfluous” because it cannot be differentiated from life.
How, then, does disappearance play the role of Baudrillard’s final “analytical grid” (31) with which to read the condition of the world? He urges his readers to “reinvest it not as a final but as an immanent dimension of existence” (31). And it is impossible to decide whether the fascination that disappearance exerts is a blessing (petit mort) or a curse (petit mal).
Disappearance in intimately bound together with the destiny of the image. Returning to the technical object, Baudrillard finds “a perfectly objective universe” (34) in which the image seeks it technical perfection beyond representation in digitality. Digital photography is, for Baudrillard, the privileged means for decoding the world. He laments it; feels nostalgic for the darkroom. “The ultimate violence done to the image is the violence of the CGI (Computer Generated Image) – which emerges ex nihilo from numerical calculation and the computer” (45). Baudrillard describes in a most beautiful passage how the shutter “abolishes the world and the gaze for a moment, a syncope, a petit mort…” (46), an epileptiform perception that ends with the digital. This is Baudrillard’s homage to Paul Virilio. Virilio built his theory of disappearance as an implosive dimension of everyday life in the age of the hegemony of speed on epilepsy, to be precise, on picnolepsy, or frequent, slight epileptoid episodes. His book The Aesthetics of Disappearance begins on the subject of loss, lapse, absence, ‘missing time’ and meditates on the active memory that the young picnoleptic brings to patching over, inventing what cannot be remembered from the course of existence (Virilio, 1991:9-10). Inverting the paradoxical sleep of rapid eye movement with the paradoxical waking of the picnoleptic in a state of ‘rapid waking’, Virilio probes the aesthetic and technological (for film and photography in the 19th century) implications of this experience for how reality is constructed through formally similar ‘stop tricks’ that render visible the hitherto invisible. These implications are profound for Virilio because ontologically the lost moment of the non-seen is captured, illumined, by early inventions like Etienne Marey’s chronophotographic rifle, and this speaks of the fascination of absences and the struggle to master them as key to understanding contemporary speedscapes dominated by technologies of visibility and mobility.
Baudrillard despairs of the digital and CGI in particular because “nothing dies or disappears there” (49). One cannot tarry there with nothingness. The charm of the analogue must be saved for the sake of its blessing and curse, with meaning removed, but not airbrushed, like a wart. Baudrillard has a “dream of an image that would be the Ècriture automatique of the world’s singularity” (50). Images without the interference of human hands (ie. the “veil of the Holy Face,” 51) meet this requirement and one can imagine how exceedingly rare they are. Photography, poetry, theory: Baudrillard imagines them all without human will. Consequently, his thinking takes on a techno-animistic power. Photography in the age of 0/1 serially reproduces shots in a self-multiplication that both realizes technical potential and annuls the image in the process: “shots may be said … to be part of the murder of the image” (55). Images are disconnected from time (“the live shot, taken at an irrevocable moment, is past and gone,” 57). It is time that Baudrillard wants to regain: “this is what the digital lacks: the time of emergence” (61). Retrotech aficionado: Polaroid (61), shutter (46), transfer-printing (St Veronica’s veil, 51).
What is it about the world that makes it susceptible to the disappearance brought upon it by a progressive global technical perfection – in the World Wide Web, in AI? And what is it about this human-machine that makes it, too, vulnerable to minor perturbations and “rogue events”? (64) In meditating on these questions, the text begins to breakdown. It becomes even more rambling, choppy, repetitive, and Baudrillard’s statements take on cryptic tones. He recycles some of his favourite ideas about duality, Evil, radicality passing into things, along with irony which becomes objective. Finally the end, too, has disappeared (70).
The reader is left with a few images by photographer Willaume. Perhaps the event of this anti-testament has passed into these images whose presence is otherwise at best puzzling and at worst distracting; the prospect that they ‘illustrate’ Baudrillard’s argument is not very comforting. In what respect might these photographs educate us about the nothingness, gap, or seizure at the heart of the image? Baudrillard mentions this Warholian notion quite often when discussing images of all types, including photojournalism (Baudrillard, 2003). Further, is there a sense here in this book of the return of the disappeared, that is, of photography’s sophistication and essence before their digital destruction? Willaume’s images range widely from augmented facial portraits in numerous styles, but there is suspense in his use of unnatural greens in an agitated crowned devil’s head emerging from blackness, and an equally lurid interior airplane shot of a man apparently asleep under eye shades. Indeed, Willaume’s ghost faces, blurry, wavy, light and soft punctuated by in-focus fingers, or skeletal faces emerging from scratchy film stock, do evoke the lingering ghosts of subjectivity. Although no technical details are provided about the photographs, some of the images are obviously digitally manipulated. Are these generic illustrations of Baudrillard’s thesis regarding the digital’s murder of the image? Perhaps, but why are certain ones selected? To paraphrase: why are there some photos rather than none at all?
Nicholas Carr (2008). The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google.
New York: W.W. Norton.
Paul Virilio (1991). The Aesthetics of Disappearance. New York: Semiotexte.
Jean Baudrillard (2003). “Le photoreportage en son Miroir ‡ VISA pour l’image,” Le Monde August 30. (Interview given at the International Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan, France).