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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)

Editorial: What is Baudrillard “Doing”?

Dr. Victoria Grace
(Senior Research Fellow in Social Sciences, University or Canterbury, New Zealand).
 

…writing has always given me pleasure. It’s essential, it’s not at all despairing, just the reverse. One recourse seems to me to have been open: never to abandon language but to guide it in the direction where it can still utter without having to signify, without letting go what’s at stake, bringing illusion into play.1


            In some senses it seems that Baudrillard is taking a course of action, of thinking, of writing, that runs counter to every convention of intellectual inquiry, past or present, inside or outside the academy. He incites us to choose a deviant path, or non-path, which does everything possible to create confusion, enigma, illusion and unintelligibility. Instead of reading the event he asks that we render the event itself unreadable. Act (write and think) on the side of the clandestine, the inadmissible; create chaos in the neural networks in the hope that the cool, streamlined linkages into a tired and vacuous “real” will overheat long enough for the illusory world to make an appearance, inducing a sort of toxic shock from confronting – well – nothing. This strategy of “radical thought”2 could appear trivialising, insincere, pointless, irresponsible, or just plain absurd, even mad. What is Baudrillard doing, why he is doing it, and how do the articles in this issue of this rapidly developing forum of Baudrillard Studies relate to it?

            At the heart of my question is, to be honest, a firmly held view that Baudrillard’s challenge (to us, the real, the world) is something we need to confront with deadly seriousness. If the point of departure from which Baudrillard’s intent to create this unintelligibility is (ironically) unintelligible, or not deeply understood, then it could seem that his work may be little more than poetic but superfluous rambling, and his incitement some relativist “game” (mostly played and enjoyed by boys). However, when Baudrillard’s point of departure can be made clear (possibly spoiling the game, but raising the stakes) – the seriousness of Baudrillard’s challenge is very obvious. Baudrillard, of course, constantly points out this stake and what it is made of, and yet when the imagination of the potential witness is fascinated by the real (hyper, simulated or integral), as fascinus3, it seems that many find themselves unable to avert their eyes and see what he is actually pointing out. This fascination with the very reality that Baudrillard is undoing creates an irony and danger in Baudrillardian scholarship.

            Rather than Baudrillard inciting an intervention that appears on the surface to be indefensible, is it not rather the case that his strategy is precisely and ingeniously more and more finely attuned to the trivial, pointless, irresponsible, absurd and mad reality in which we live, in which we are thought, and virtually constituted? Baudrillard hasn’t always insisted that we risk so much – after all, forty years ago a “structural critique” may have made sense in order to reveal in more conventional ways the functioning of the hyperreal. As simulation, fractal replication, and now integral reality (see Baudrillard’s article “Violence of the Virtual and Integral Reality” in this issue) have been spiralling further and further into a full-blown case, another approach became necessary. It is no longer possible or sensible (if it ever was) to “critique” that which is posited, because integral reality isn’t posited. When Baudrillard wrote in terms of a structural critique, there was, to use his words “some leaning toward transcendence”, but now reality is complete in its total facticity. You are your DNA. The only way such a world of unrelieved, integral identity can be bearable, according to Baudrillard, is to flatly deny it – hence his assertion “this is not a world”, or, after Magritte, “this is not a pipe”; in my example all one can say is “this is not my DNA” as a “surrealist denial of evidence”.4 How else is such a world bearable?

            An accelerated hyper-techno-virtual consumerist reality demands a more direct and aggressive approach, as Baudrillard once said in an interview with Judith Williamson.5 Whether a matter of a “structural critique” in the 1960s,6 or now a matter of “spreading a terrorist confusion” to confound the false transparency of the world, the point of departure for Baudrillard, I hazard, is the same. No reality, whether the “real” as earnestly posited in scientific discourse, a sober reality of things, forces, and linear cause-effect relationships, or the consumerist “real” that has hijacked itself so successfully that it can’t distinguish itself from itself, is “real”. Far from being an idealist postulate, this point of departure is “for illusion”7 – in other words, being human in the world is to encounter the inevitability of illusion, seduction, reversion, challenge, duality. When Rex Butler writes of Baudrillard’s “defence of the real”,8 he is precisely pointing to the irreducible, indestructible reality of the world as illusion. Baudrillard has a standpoint, a paradoxical, never locatable standpoint for sure, but still a standpoint. Foregrounding what matters, as he consistently does, makes it clear that a strategy of “ruptures, backfires and reversals”9 is specifically targeted to the seamlessness of an integral reality. When confronted with this reality, how could any other strategy emerge from this standpoint? Critique is too cerebral for a reality that is, rather than is posited. When the real is embedded, leaving no gap for doubt, reflection or politics to defer the meaning of its terms, it is no longer a matter of unravelling spurious propositions when nothing is proposed. Integral reality: I’m reminded of a recent newspaper article in which a technologist talked excitedly about “chips so small that they can be planted under the skin could even be able to have built in cell-phones and connect to the network, or be used as a videophone and download videos or receive emails”.10 When it is no longer the human that thinks the world but the inhuman that thinks us,11 human thinking becomes itself an “eternal imposture”.12

            In this issue of IJBS, Christoph Wulf focuses on imagination, and what he suggests is Baudrillard’s understanding of a “radical imaginary”. His exploration of the radical imaginary leads him to move “from the subject of desire to the object of seduction”. This move conjures the world as challenger in a fatal strategy, where, citing Baudrillard, “everything that links together outside of the subject, that is on the side of disappearance, is fatal”. Wulf points out that when, in our increasingly simulated (or integral) environment we are moving “into the lowest degree of illusion”, our task of analysis or theorising can no longer be regarded within a framework of critical theory. The challenge to move beyond critical theory and the fascination of the real is dramatised further in Sylvère Lotringer’s article on the piracy of art. Here we see both the force of irony in Baudrillard’s strategy, and the banality of an artistic “creativity” that, it seems, falls prey to that all-pervading fascination with the hyperreal, consumerist, simulated, integrated circuit of performativity. Lotringer concludes his essay with the observation that “going nowhere, art came to nothing…” and yet it continues on in a kind of floating euphoria “sleep-walking in its sleep, not yet dead, hardly alive, but still thriving”. We could possibly read this as a cautionary note for any form of Baudrillardian scholarship that would claim to embody his insights (as did the art world to which Lotringer refers) and yet would produce work with no spirit of fatality, no defence of the real, and where thought features more as a voyeur than as an impostor.

            In his editorial for the last issue of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Gerry Coulter made the point that Baudrillard is not in the game of producing positive solutions. In the current issue, Coulter pursues this theme in his essay in memory of Susan Sontag, to bring to a head and lay to rest a dispute between Sontag and Baudrillard. This dispute arose over her “act”, in both the political and theatrical senses, of taking a performance of Becket’s Waiting for Godot to Sarajevo in 1993 – to take up a supposedly meaningful and genuine stance of protest at the Serbian genocide of Bosnian Muslims. When Baudrillard questioned the “point” of this gesture of “responsibility”, and made a case for it “playing into the hands of a system suffering from a downfall of its own values”, Sontag apparently called Baudrillard “ignorant”, “cynical” and a “moral idiot”. Coulter expands on the entire context and all it might reveal about being both “American” and an “intellectual” (Sontag, the last?). In a related vein, Trevor Norris shows, through a comparative discussion of the work of Baudrillard and Hannah Arendt, how the problem of “agency” isn’t the issue for Baudrillard, a consideration that echoes Wulf’s move from the subject of desire (or agency) to the object of seduction (not Arendt’s subject or object of contemplation).

            Coulter, introducing the work of Giorgio Agamben to IJBS readers, tracks the points of convergence and divergence between Agamben and Baudrillard. They share, on the one hand, a “deep and necessary distrust of the contemporary nation state”. In fact Coulter suggests that Agamben and Baudrillard anticipate the “escape velocity from the tired formulas and repressing structures of the present and its seeming slide into the inhuman”. On the other hand, where Baudrillard sides with the fatality of the political, Agamben, he suggests, has faith in people inventing political solutions; Coulter observes, “as in Arendt, thought always remains our hope for Agamben”. Turning to the notion of a lived life in a phenomenological, embodied sense, Agamben’s essay, “Form of Life”, links contemporary “political” form with the separation of a lived life from an objectified biological life, the latter, he claims, founding political power as we know it. The life of the bios (“naked life”) is not one that enacts its singularity, one for whom “happiness is always at stake in their living”. Instead it is a life that is acted upon through juridical process, an argument that possibly has some parallels with Canguilhem’s critique.13

            The transparency of evil in Las Vegas, a hyperreal Las Vegas vividly described by Nathan Radke, might take the form of an irreversible power black out, or gas (as in fuel/oil and thus everything else) depletion; just turning off the supply would mean instant, terminal seizure. The totalising logic of this hyper-simulated scene in the desert has an uncanny fragility to it. Radke’s different point is to show how the articulation between simulation and surveillance creates “simveillance”, and how this form of producing consumers of the Las Vegas experience renders the “subject immobile, sterile, predictable and inert”.

            A book on Baudrillard and the Media is timely, and William Merrin’s article in this issue is taken from his forthcoming book with exactly that title. Merrin’s article, and book, examining how Baudrillard’s “theory of communication” reworks ideas that are fundamentally Durkheimian, will no doubt provoke engagement and debate from within sociology as well as media studies. For example, I think one may want to question whether Baudrillard’s concept of the symbolic “explicitly draws upon the radical Durkheimianism” of subsequent authors whose work “valorises forms of behaviour, modes of relations and violence such as ritual sacrifice as a means of disturbing the profane and opening the sacred in the communion they produce”. The work of René Girard demonstrates, possibly, how the sacrificial logic of ritual and the constitution of the sacred would place Baudrillard’s symbolic in a very different tradition of thought (see my review of Chris Fleming’s book in this issue). In his article, Merrin gives an in-depth (un)reading of the September 11th strikes, discussing the significance of Baudrillard’s writing on terrorism and the symbolic. He concludes with another provocative point: a query that suggests that Baudrillard’s stance should logically lead to a defence of the terrorist attacks.

            The ongoing discussions on the relationship between Baudrillard’s work and the film trilogy, The Matrix, are extended in articles by James Rovira, and Jan Harris and Paul Taylor. Rovira interrogates the film’s optimism and the significance of its religious imagery, while Harris and Taylor consider, against The Matrix, the “conceptually richer” notion of the matrix as “a society-wide complex of socio-technical enframement where human agency is limited by an integrated circuit made up of simultaneously technological and commodity values”. Harris and Taylor are specifically interested in the role of the im/material digital (its paradoxical immaterial materiality) in this enframing. Departing from Baudrillard, they claim that science fiction in the form of the sub-genre cyberpunk “still offers an intimation of our future as well as a perspicacious reflection of our present”.

            What about Baudrillard and science fiction then? Harris and Taylor refer to Baudrillard’s claim that science fiction is a spent force, that in an era of simulation reality is itself fictional, science fiction is thus redundant, and further that “theory and analysis to the extent that it confronts this situation is itself the ‘new’ science fiction”. Alan Shapiro’s article, a glimpse into a much larger volume of work, Star Trek – Technologies of Disappearance, confounds this categorisation even further. Reading Star Trek against Star Trek through mapping Baudrillard’s “system of thought” onto Star Trek, Shapiro enacts a compelling “experiment” which he describes as a “mutual anagrammatizing that finally renders Baudrillard and Star Trek indistinguishable”. He bases his attempt on strategies outlined in Baudrillard’s “Radical Thought” – an active performing of “illusion, joy, poetics, irony and disappearance” – to the extent that one can no longer say what is or is not science fiction, what is or is not Baudrillard or Star Trek, or at the limit what is or is not, what could be or could not be. Maybe as Baudrillard said in an interview with Philippe Petit, “so, in all technologies and images, and also in appearances, we don’t know whether the object or the world is just toying with us. Just as, with thought, we don’t know if we’re thinking the world or the world is thinking us”.14

            My question about Baudrillard’s act, the question of what he does through writing, and what we do with his writing, traverses my readings of contributions to this issue of IJBS. Instead of writing about the problematic of binary oppositions and methods of deconstruction, one thing Baudrillard does is to write non-duality into a form of textual challenge. He doesn’t explain this, he does it. As Lotringer says in his article, “he performs his philosophy, he doesn’t just preach it.  He is a practising artist of his own concepts”. In “L’intelligence du Mal”, however, Baudrillard elaborates and elucidates more than usual on how it is that “Evil”, and his use of this notion, defies any conflation with the notion of an objective existence of evil (as a Manichaean moralism regarding, for example, “violent acts”). It is rather better understood as a form of evil (Agamben’s “Form of Life”?) that reverses and detours des choses de leur objective existence (things from their objective existence), and, in the Nietzschean sense, is beyond good and evil.

            Philippe Petit asked Baudrillard in an interview: “Couldn’t it be said that you’re a weaver of illusions?” to which Baudrillard replied, “yes, if illusion is understood, not as simulacrum or unreality, but as something which drives a breach into a world that is too known…”.15


Endnotes

1 Jean Baudrillard. Interview with Le Journal des Psychologues (c 1991). In Mike Gane. Baudrillard Live. New York: Routledge, 1993:179.

2 See Baudrillard’s “Radical Thought” in The Perfect Crime (c1995). Translated by Chris Turner, London: Verso, 1996:94-105.

3 See the work of Pascal Quignard: Le Sexe et L’effroi, Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1994. He explains how the etymology of “fascination” originates from the fascinus, the word the Romans used for phallus. Fascination was the ambivalent stare at the erect penis, an ambivalence reflecting both the fear and anxiety it evoked in the Roman psyche, but also an inability to not look at it.

4 See Jean Baudrillard. “Violence of the Virtual and Integral Reality”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, July 2005. http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol2_2/baudrillard.htm.

5 Judith Williamson. “An interview with Jean Baudrillard”. Translated by Brand Thumim. Block, 15, 1989:16-19.

6 Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production (c 1973). Translated and introduced by Mark Poster, St Louis, Telos Press, 1975:121.

7 Victoria Grace, Heather Worth and Laurence Simmons (Eds). Baudrillard West of the Dateline, (Roundtable discussion with Jean Baudrillard), Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmore Press, 2003:183.

8 Rex Butler. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. London: Sage, 1999.

9 See Gerry Coulter. “Introduction” to Giorgio Agamben’s essay: “Form of Life”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, July 2005. http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol2_2/agamben.htm.

10 The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, May 28th, 2005. In the same article this technology developer in the United Kingdom is also reported as saying “we can already use DNA to make electronic circuits, so it’s possible to think of a smart yoghurt some time after 2020 or 2025 where the yoghurt has a stack of electronics in every bacterium. You could have a conversation with your strawberry yoghurt before you ate it”. And presumably you could continue the conversation after you’ve eaten it.

11 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm.  Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1998:115.

12 Ibid.:116.

13 Georges Canguilhem. The Normal and the Pathological (c 1966) New York: Zone Books, 1989.

14 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm. Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1998:71.

15 Ibid.

 


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)

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