Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)
Of Lethal Tanks and Uncertain Ends
A Review of Bishop’s Baudrillard Now Current Perspectives in Baudrillard Studies. Cambridge: Polity Press.
(Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore)
At the peak of our technological performance, the irresistible impression remains that something eludes us … that, in effect, it is not we who are winning out over the world, but the world which is winning out over us.” (Baudrillard in Bishop:73).
Whenever I open one of my honours seminars on the philosophy and ethics of new technology with the above quote by Baudrillard, a soft yet noticeable gasp goes through the lecture room. There is an extent to which many young people today, or in any case my students in Singapore, find themselves immediately addressed yet simultaneously baffled by some of Baudrillard’s utterances and aphorisms, and especially by this one. They seem to recognize in Baudrillard’s remarks like these that aspect of contemporary culture that remains somehow strange and incomprehensible, despite all the overt display in the media – their academic books, the Internet, the television news – that mankind has attained a stage where it almost completely controls, manipulates and understands everything; that absolute comprehension is just around the corner. And yet, my students find themselves oddly attracted to the suggestion that perhaps, much more likely, mankind has understood absolutely nothing at all. It is this ostensible tension between my students’ feelings of total control and utter powerlessness in the age of the Internet and predictive social sciences, this contradiction that Baudrillard partly uncovers as a paradoxical effect of technology, that encourages the more sensitive of my students to think beyond the seemingly self-evident (because self-referential) display of images and models.
Academic critique and activist politics find themselves more and more in a similar ostensible tension at the beginning of the 21st century, and Ryan Bishop’s Baudrillard Now does a great job of incessantly pointing towards the urgency to think through these tensions and their relation to various forms of violence. Increasingly after all, as the volume argues, it turns out that attacking the neoliberal system of disenfranchisement means strengthening that very system; that older ways of social mobilization and resistance – whether by means of big public protests or online petitions – are more and more ineffective or even self-defeating. Examples sadly abound: the protests against the Iraq wars for instance, as Bishop mentions in “Baudrillard, Death, and Cold War Theory,” had no subversive outcome whatsoever in regards to stopping the American offensive, and the numerous left-wing websites against neoliberal globalisation simply accelerate the global and networked flows of information and electronic currency. More pressingly even, the whole economic and scientific techno-machinery meant to unshackle us from violence and death appears to do exactly the opposite: it foremost causes death and violence. It is this intimate link between the desire for eternal life and the destruction it must harbour that emerges most convincingly from Bishop’s “Baudrillard, Death, and Cold War Theory” as well as Bishop and John Phillips’ “What is a Tank?” in the volume. Frantic despair results into more of the same products that were or are the cause of despair in the first place, and politics and lazy thought slowly but steadily degenerate into a kind of shadow boxing. The ‘evil’ of terrorism, as Bishop and Phillips aptly show in “Baudrillard and the Evil Genius,” is hence simply a duplicate of the ‘good’ new world order, just as suicide and silence are today perhaps strategies of a survival that wishes to be more than mere surviving. In light of all this, the question indeed is: how to re-conceptualize academic-intellectual critique and activist politics? But perhaps then even more importantly: what about our academic and activist eagerness to foster democracy, engender freedom, and advocate the subject-agent of social change? Is there perhaps a problematic at work within these very ideals themselves?
In order to take such a question seriously without falling into the kinds of mortification that has accompanied too much post-Enlightenment ‘white man’s burden’ type of thought, it seems that what is required is a sort of conceptual and practical tai chi, or as Baudrillard would have it in The Ecstasy of Communication: “if the world is fatal, let us be more fatal than it” (101) – a line that the volume manifestly re-invokes. Baudrillard’s work is undeniably foremost a marvellous form of intellectual tai chi, putting even the most well-intended of academics and activists off-balance with regards to their staunchly held convictions; and the more ‘outrageous’ pieces in Bishop’s volume vitally manage to extend this provocative style. This challenging style in both senses of the word, which has rubbed many in- and outside academia the wrong way, is important because clearly in Baudrillard’s and Bishop’s eyes, refusing to play by the current rules of the by now boring game of academic and intellectual understanding remains the only route open to some semblance of ‘resistance’ (if one still wants to call it that, for this concept has been spoiled by and provided one of the motors of a neoliberal logic of production by means of the relative difference between ‘liberated’ signs.) In refusing the game, Baudrillard – despite his less careful critics portraying him as a nihilist or purely negative theorist who argues, as a sort of mirror-image of TINA rhetoric, that there is no way out – in fact quite on the contrary displays the most extraordinary hope. That is, the neoliberal-metaphysical system of total control and surveillance has an aim – an end, if you will – that is thankfully impossible due to (its) reversibility; a sort of auto-immune reaction inherent in any structure that has nothing as its base, like a kaleidoscope suddenly presenting the exact same pieces in an entirely different constellation.
Bishop’s volume nicely attests to reversibility as well as hope: without that element of hope there would be no volume, as likewise without reflection or death there would be no hope. Within such a philosophy, reversibility is then not some kind of action one engenders through subjective political agency, but already always part of the ideology of the system, signifying the moment where it constantly falls or will fall apart. The task of theory becomes then to potentially spark reversibility by somehow pushing the system to its limits – or ends, if you will. This includes for Baudrillard naturally the very limits of political action and academic analysis, and it is this questioning of ends that the volume does best.
At this odd junction of aiming to push and denouncing the conventional tools (and aims) of pushing, a contradiction emerges between ideas of (human) action and non-action in the volume, signalling perhaps the reversibility inherent in Baudrillard’s analysis itself. This contradiction runs usefully throughout Bishop’s volume and can be put into play by virtue of its apparent incommensurability, though most likely not by any intention (or end) of the authors themselves. Only John Phillips’ superb “The End of Humanity” explicitly thematizes this tension between action and non-action aptly by complicating the terms of the philosophical dichotomy between dunamis (becoming, life, future) and ousia (being, truth, death). Phillips’ piece can hence be read as a commentary on the title of the volume (Baudrillard Now) by teasing out how the ‘now’ of Baudrillard, as much as it or he is the volume’s object of analysis – signalling perhaps a hubris or tautology, as Bishop wilfully admits in the introduction – remains always open to so-called ‘lines of flight’ or some indeterminable future. Becoming and being, life and death, are in the final analysis inextricable, just as are ends and accidents (there are clear echoes here of Paul Virilio’s work.) The constant desire of academic analysis to discern and hence bring about ‘positive’ ends (good social change, life, democracy, freedom) vis-à-vis ‘negative’ accidents (bad social change, death, disenfranchisement) therefore results in a combination of texts that do not always gel well, but this is not necessarily a demerit. For instance, while Bishop and Phillips seem to follow the line that the fallacy of the human at the centre of change got us in this mess in the first place, Douglas Kellner and Mark Poster nonetheless seem to hang on to the ideal of individual agency or audience mobilization for democratic social change. It would be tempting to split up these interpretations and critiques of Baudrillard as representing a European and an American position respectively, if it were not for the fact that – as John Beck lucidly points out in “Et in Arizona Ego” – ‘America’ itself is but a political and social mirage dissimulating an increasingly violent global state of affairs, as is Europe a nostalgic fiction constructing the birth of America as a departure from some ‘origin’ of democracy.
The more one re-reads Bishop’s intriguing volume, the more one gets drawn into these pressing issues of contemporary techno-culture; the book is simultaneous innocuous yet profound, charming yet lethal (as the ‘rustic’ black-and-white photographs of tanks and graves also demonstrate.) And the more the reader tries to grasp the essence of Baudrillard by delving deeper into its interpreters, the more also his thought seems to dissipate beyond the horizon of the straightforwardly visible, actionable, and graspable. Indeed, Kellner’s brief musing on the import of Baudrillard’s “On Disappearance” is spot-on with regards to its analysis as well as its location almost at the end (that word again) of the volume. In that sense, Bishop’s volume is also very much a work of mourning – mourning, of course, the actual death of the thinker Baudrillard, but also mourning how the openings that his texts provide have been too easily closed down by critics as well as by integral reality itself. John Armitage’s “Pursuit in Paris” for instance mourns by invoking the ambiguity of the insignia on Baudrillard’s grave, and showing the confusion it engenders between subject and object of pursuit. Those who criticize Baudrillard and will criticize the volume’s authors for ‘not leaving any space for resistance’ mistakenly think that theory by itself – or for that matter, integral reality – can really finalize the closing off of alternatives. But the idea of reversibility as intrinsic to any system or theoretical construct precisely attests to the fact that this dream (or nightmare) of total control, of total prediction, or of total comprehension, is always already an illusion. So if the extent to which the technological apparatus controls us appears infinite, then this is only an effect of those very same technologies’ aesthetics. It is here, where the linear narrative of technological progress emerges as quintessentially cyclical – just like the orders of simulation – that the remarkable play on ‘the end’ in Bishop’s volume has the apparently disparate concerns and pieces constitute a coherent work. And all this takes place, of course, under the sign of Baudrillard – or does it? Either way, in all its own simulated yet stimulating uncertainty, the volume contains excellent stuff for anyone passionate about Baudrillard, about contemporary media culture, and especially about that which should have us think more: the brutal state of the world now.