ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 1, Number 2 (July 2004)

Review Essay: Putting Baudrillard To Use Down Under1.

Grace, Victoria, Heather Worth and Laurence Simmons. Baudrillard West of the Dateline, Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 2003.

Reviewed by David Teh
(College of Fine Arts, Paddington, New South Wales).
 

            Any book of essays on the work of this challenging and controversial thinker is going to raise the question of how to “use” him. It does not help, of course, that Baudrillard’s work has been abused more than most, nor that he has long been a savage critic of the very ideology of utility that inflects both conservative and leftist approaches to culture, economics and philosophy. Baudrillard West of the Dateline is no exception. Baudrillard scholars are always, it seems, writing at dual purposes – perhaps even at cross-purposes – alternating between interpretive questions (of how Baudrillard’s theories should be understood), and attempts to “apply” them to subjects in the “real world”.

            In courting what he calls “the transpolitical”,2 Baudrillard confronts a perennial problem of theory itself, namely, what can it possibly do?  A problem especially pertinent to much of the theory called “postmodern”, theory often accused of doing nothing.  I would suggest that the best approach is that adopted by Rex Butler, in what is easily the best of the many books about Baudrillard, of reading him “in his own terms”. According to Butler, Baudrillard aims:

…to devise a statement about a system that at once follows its internal logic to the end, adds nothing to it, and inverts it entirely, reveals that it is not possible without this ‘nothing’.  It is a statement that is at once a pure description of the system, speaking of it in terms of the real, and a pure prescription of the system, demonstrating that it excludes the real.  It is a statement that is at once totally specific to each system examined, … and absolutely universal, testifying to the fundamental reversibility at the origin of the world.3

 

Rather than trying to “apply” it in the sense native to the social sciences, it pays to treat Baudrillard’s thought as the suggestive, literary exercise it is – a sort of “thought experiment” – and confine oneself to only flirtations with the world beyond. This strategy of closure suits what Ross Gibson eloquently terms Baudrillard’s “technique of persuasive unaccountability”.4  All things considered, Baudrillard West of the Dateline does a reasonable job of this. It contains lessons in how to “apply” Baudrillard, and how not to; lessons in what to approach from his perspective, and in what approaches are probably not worth bothering with.

            The book arose out of a visit Baudrillard made to New Zealand in 2001, to attend a conference on his work at the University of Auckland. The attempts of its editors to thematize this compilation with an Antipodean flavour are spurious, a distraction from the successes of its strongest contributors in engaging truly global problems. Its Antipodean origins are legible in a far more material sense: the hotch-potch of disciplinary frameworks put into play here, which lends it a certain miscellaneous charm.

            The book is structured in two parts – six essays on “the global”; and four on “the virtual” – each introduced by a recent text of Baudrillard’s own, and separated by a fairly forgettable “Roundtable Discussion”. This partition provides a very broad thematic legend. Most of the contributions are situated on a background of the globalization of values, accompanying the trade in ideas as much as the trade in things, and the difficulties of relativist ways of thinking through the Western dominance of these trades. And most take up Baudrillard’s trademark account of the virtualization of these trades in late capitalism, especially via technologies of the image.

            Accordingly, Baudrillard’s own contributions are “The Global and the Universal”, and a short piece on “The Violence of the Image and the Violence done to the Image”, in which he tackles the mono-cultural future seemingly implied by globalization. He pursues here a familiar brand of postmodern criticism by which globalization “disunites” existing structures “all the better to assimilate them”. While it seems therefore to promote a universality (of “values, human rights, freedoms, culture and democracy”), Baudrillard argues that it instead results in the proliferation of irreducible singularities, and that therefore, globalization and universality may be posed as mutually exclusive terms.

            With so much universalist rhetoric still underpinning the prominent forms and institutions of globalization (the UN and human rights; free-trade and the WTO, IMF and World Bank, etc.) this provocation will warrant some deeper consideration by scholars who take Baudrillard seriously as a political thinker. Indeed, a consistent theme for the authors assembled here, in keeping with Baudrillard’s enduring attack on universalism, is the stripping away of the last remaining universals of modern political rhetoric. The resonance of all this in the political present is clear enough – as universalism reaches its limits and decomposes in response to what might be called a democratic fundamentalism, the “anything goes” of unilateral foreign affairs and the post-September 11 doctrine of pre-emption.

            This volume will certainly interest scholars and followers of Baudrillard. But so broad are the essays’ disciplinary approaches and subject matters, that the general academic reader is bound to find several of interest. For more die-hard readers of contemporary theory, of particular interest is the consideration of links between Baudrillard’s work and that of Michel Foucault, especially in the offerings of Gary Genosko, Victoria Grace and Kevin Glynn.

            Genosko, for example, surveys the postmodern literature of surveillance, finding a kind of Baudrillardean ethos in its consistent incitements (the “refrain”) to “go beyond” in everything from Bentham to “post-panopticist” commentators on Foucault, from Orwell to the theorists of cyberculture. But this urge to “hypertheoretical extension” actually uncovers a temporal conundrum native to postmodern thinking generally, what Baudrillard calls a “speculative disorder” – emblematized by a fixation on the future anterior (and therefore especially germane to cyberpunk literature), or perhaps millennial retro-futurism in art and design. Genosko has recourse to Lyotard’s characterization of the postmodern as “nascent”, rather than terminal, modernity. By this logic, he suggests, our corporate surveillance society is still in a sense pre-panoptical.  Genosko’s account of this postmodern poetics is interesting in itself. It places Baudrillard beyond, which is to say before, panopticism. Though its relevance to Baudrillard’s contributions to this volume is difficult to discern, it does suggest a line of inquiry between Foucault’s panopticism and Baudrillard’s own paranoid structures – not so much simulation as it is typically understood, but his critique of obscenity and transparency that followed it.

            Somewhat less fruitful is the attempt, by Heather Worth and Karen Macmillan, to articulate the links between Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida, in their respective responses to September 11. It is not that such a comparison is in itself misguided – there are indeed some interesting parallels between these very different thinkers (though their respective readings of Freud is not one of them). But in trying to read their relationship via the figure of the dream, Worth and Macmillan do not arrive at any particularly compelling conclusion, beyond the theorists’ shared belief that today’s terrorism is a radicality generated by the capitalist world system itself. A closer focus on the matter of death (and the “symbolic exchange” of death) in the event would probably have yielded more interesting results, both for the comparison and in terms of this “global” setting, where suicide bombings occasion a collision of global and singular.

            More promising is the movement beyond the academic precincts – philosophy, literary and cultural studies – which have traditionally taken up Baudrillard’s ideas. Some of these approaches are informed by non-academic thinking, such as Louis Arnoux’s piece on entrepreneurship; others by left-field disciplinary areas. Curiously, this shift to the margins of academe is not in the direction of the post-September 11 broadbrush geo-politics which Baudrillard has recently addressed; and nor is it more of that fascination, in so much visual culture studies (or Matrix Studies), for hyperreality and simulation. Considerable energy is generated here in the “application” of his ideas to subjects like the environment, bio-technology, bio-ethics and medicine.  And yet Arnoux comes closer than most to articulating the links between Baudrillard’s earlier work (especially Symbolic Exchange and Death), and the critique of the global he has offered recently. Arnoux’s essay is an attempt – rather peculiar in the academic context, it must be said – to cast the entrepreneur as the figure best equipped to respond to a hyperreal world, “to play the hyperreal to its most extreme point, gain speed, and invent something else”. The entrepreneurial avatar can invent the world anew through their natural propensity for the challenge, for over-bidding. It’s an interesting proposition, and his argument gathers pace like any good “pitch”, as if performing its own verbal outpacing of the hyperreal. Indeed it is hard to imagine Baudrillard not sympathizing with this boldly speculative theory of speculation.

            One piece which carries the book’s themes is Chris Prentice’s essay “Transcultures and the Right Use of Whales”. Prentice examines the public debates over the various “uses” of the Southern Ocean’s cetaceans, for commercial, scientific and indigenous cultural purposes, addressing the confused rhetoric that entangles rights to whales with the (putative) rights of whales. The green-leaning New Zealand government’s support for a Southern Ocean Sanctuary, to the dismay of all of the “stakeholders” in this resource, provides a telling case study. As she interrogates the often rather pious advocacy of animal rights, Prentice shows how the discourses of preservation, conservation and “humane” protection – and the application of a postcolonial valorization of “difference” – inscribe the beasts with economic value no less than the whalers’ arguments do, and at the same time push the universalization of Western juridical values to the limits of absurdity.   Prentice’s commentary seems almost to imply what might be called a Baudrillardean politics – anti-universalist, anti-political correctness and oriented towards social sustainability, which is a far cry from ecological sustainability though equally improbable. While her references to simulation and the hyperreal are rather pointless, she deftly adopts Baudrillard’s tone of ethical persuasion, subdued and “unaccountable”. Of a similar tone is Nick Perry’s acerbic essay “On Forging Identities”, in which he explores New Zealand’s makeover between the image of a filmic wonderland (by turns sleepy and adventure-filled), and that of the “knowledge economy” of third way ideology, and the delusions which accompany it. The significance of these last two essays to the understanding of Baudrillard’s oeuvre, and vice versa, is tenuous, but they are interesting asides in cultural politics.

            Especially encouraging is the attention given to Baudrillard’s theory of “seduction”, in some of the more philosophically challenging papers, by Cholodenko, Glynn, Butler and Grace. This theory, best elucidated in his eponymous text of 1979 and which provoked considerable backlash from Feminist quarters (inter alia), has also dwelt in the shadows of his more influential concept, simulation. But its natural partner is actually production, insofar as it is not really a force (of attraction, beguilement, etc) as the word normally denotes, so much as a mode. The mode proper, perhaps, to certain photographic production – to the photographic object and the object as photographed – “production”, then, “in both senses of the term: pro-ducers – they are fabricated, but they are also produced as a proof”.5 It is the seductive aspects of this phenomenological “labour”, of pro-ducing as a leading of evidence, that underlie Grace’s and Butler’s edifying contributions to this volume, on the ethical status of the simulated and photographic image, respectively.

            In describing a mode of interchange or “commerce”, a trans-action, between subject and object, seduction deserves further scholarly consideration than it has thus far received, as Glynn notes in his search for “The Seductions of Media Culture”. As Baudrillard puts it, “to seduce is to die as reality and reconstitute oneself as illusion”.6 In the era of webcams and Big Brother, it is ironic that it is to something called “Reality TV” (itself an oxymoron of Baudrillardean proportions!) that we turn for the spectacle of “real acting”. Even if its “contestants” are just acting normal, just naturally being themselves, there is a challenge, a fascinating illusion set in play by this confected “reality”. Glynn analyses some “tele-visions” of the paranormal, the supernatural (the “otherworldly”) – the post-colonial witchcraft of Charmed, the “out there” truth of The X-Files – to see whether the simulacrum can play host to bona fide political “contestations” over identity and history. In doing so he tackles a major question facing all “users” of Baudrillard’s media theory: namely, whether hyperreal TV might yet be “a site where the ultimately irrepressible force of seduction reasserts its destabilizing energies.”  Yet Glynn leaves aside the very question of the problematic relation between history as lived and history as mediated. Thus he writes of “natural laws” being bent on-screen “through the invocation of powerful magics”, without dealing with the fact that these bendings are achieved (visually) by techniques whose histories and futures belong to the converging techno-scientific and entertainment complexes which deploy a powerful magic of their own. It will require a more nuanced anthropology – in fairness, beyond Glynn’s scope here – to reconcile this interplay between the “black magic” of the Other, and the “white magic” of the media.

            Two other excellent contributions address problems of “otherness” as it arises in visual culture: Rex Butler reflects upon Baudrillard’s investments in the photographic image as resistant and indifferent to the gaze of the desiring subject; and Alan Cholodenko reads the postwar play of otherness between America and Japan (we might say their “duel/dual” relations) through the “extremes and subtleties” of apocalyptic anime in general, and Akira (1988) in particular. Exhilaratingly wordy, Cholodenko animates Baudrillard “in his own terms”, his own strategy of doubling, becoming almost more Baudrillard than Baudrillard.

            Perhaps the most significant essay in the collection for the fields of critical and cultural theory is Victoria Grace’s study of medical imaging technology, the postmodern gaze, and the posthuman body, that it implies. She argues that contemporary authors concerned with bio-informatics, when employing Baudrillard’s account of the virtual, have not taken it far enough. They read simulation according to a dichotomy between the virtual and the material, reverting to a defence of the body’s materiality. But it is this very dichotomy that Baudrillard’s thought experiments supercede – it is precisely that “material embodiment has become virtual”. Medical imaging, pathology and discourse are therefore only the epiphenomena of “the virtualization of human beings in their core”.7 This informatic “core” is of course actualized in DNA, which has been an enduring metaphor in Baudrillard’s work since long before the human genome was “mapped”. The “code” links biological reproduction with post-industrial models of de-materialized production (including simulation).

            In criticizing those who do not take the principle of simulation far enough, Grace hits upon a key to understanding Baudrillard’s work. Whereas the “use” of his ideas often tends towards the descriptive, to be fruitfully employed, they demand to be read in a spirit of what Butler has called “maximalism”8 – the spirit of the “more x than x”, an over-bidding which would see the screenic body become not a de-realisation of the flesh, but more real than the real. Thus, Grace defends Baudrillard against the abuse of his ideas by such luminaries as Katherine Hayles. No one is saying the body is no longer there; the point is that the “body-in-medicine”, the body as imaged and imagined by medicine, no longer has any necessary referential relation to the flesh. This virtualization has considerable consequences for medical epistemology as well as the ethics of medicine generally, and medical imaging in particular. The evidentiary status of the medical image, long taken for granted as (analog) photographic truth, may now have its veracity threatened along with all the other confections of a digital sign-world.

            Drawing heavily upon Foucault, Grace offers a periodization of medical visualization, from older “classificatory” medicine, through a modern “anatomo-clinical” mode, to the postmodern, “bioinformatic” regime. This last is an era in which biology and pathology are considered informatic before they are organic, in which “[d]isease is a matter of faulty codes, misinformation, signal-failure.” Such a rethinking of this ancient profession (and now lucrative industry) sheds light upon the many ethical and legal difficulties confronting it today. As the meltdown of Australia’s medical indemnity regime shows, the doctor’s role and ethical situation is increasingly defined by their handling, interpretation and processing of information. Gone are the days when all we demanded was their care and best professional opinion. On a recent visit to the dentist, not only was I shown instant x-rays of the cavities requiring action, but I was a party to digital filmic surveillance of the offending pegs, in real-time, in full-colour as he drilled, picked, stuffed and polished them. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be able to go to the video referee for a second opinion.

            Overall, this collection sustains the more or less uninterrogated conflation of “hyperreality” with “the postmodern” that is characteristic of so much of the literature on Baudrillard. But the authors show much more sensitivity to some of Baudrillard’s earlier texts (especially those of the 1970s), and to the ways they inform and inflect how we might understand his latest offerings.  Could it be that the pace and tenor of his recent publications show a writer settling into his final positions on things, no longer shifting and moving beyond as he ceaselessly used to do? Or is it just that we are finally putting Baudrillard behind us, seeing him in that rear-view-mirror which, as he is wont to remind us, makes things look more distant than they are?
 


David Teh is a Ph. D. candidate at the University of Sydney. His research focus is critical and cultural theory, especially the work of Jean Baudrillard. He is also a co-founder and facilitator of the fibreculture mailing list for internet criticism and theory.  www.fibreculture.org
 


Endnotes

1  This review will also appear in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, Volume 4, Number 2 (2003)  and Volume 5, Number 1 (2004):219-226.

2 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. Translated by Philip Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990.

3 Rex Butler. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real,. London, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1999:120.

4 Ross Gibson. “Customs and Excise” in André Frankovits (Ed.), Seduced and Abandoned. Glebe, New South Wales: Stonemoss and Semiotext(e), 1984:45-47.

5 Jean Baudrillard. For a critique of the political economy of the sign. Trans. Charles Levin. St Louis: Telos, 1981:33.

6 Jean Baudrillard. Seduction. Trans. B Singer. Houndmills, UK: Macmillan, 1990,  quoted by Glynn:211.

7 Jean Baudrillard. “Aesthetic Illusion and Virtual Reality”, in Nick Zurbrugg (Ed.), Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artifact. London: Sage Publications, 1997; cited by Grace:201.

8 Rex Butler. “Baudrillard: towards a principle of Maximalism” in Hermes, Vol.12, Sydney: University of Sydney, 1996:65-73.

 


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