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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 2 (July, 2007).


Speculating to the Death: Machinic Integration and Transformation Within A Virtualized Reality1

 

William Merrin

(University of Swansea, Wales, UK)

 

We are no longer the actors of the real but the double agents of the virtual.2

 

 

I. Introduction

            Early in the Wachowski brother's 1999 cult film, The Matrix, Keanu Reeves' character "Neo" retrieves some computer discs hidden in a book. As we watch, the book's title is clearly visible. Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation is in The Matrix. The appearance isn't accidental. Not only was the choice of book specified in the script, the Wachowskis gave the lead actors their own copies to read as preparation and sections of dialogue are directly taken from it.3 Somehow, therefore, Baudrillard had become identified as the key reference point for a film whose theme –  the virtual reality computer simulation of our entire reality – placed it at the cutting edge of popular cultural explorations of new media. This paper aims to explain how Baudrillard came to occupy this position. We will begin with an introduction to his critical position and his theory of media, then explore his critique of new media and consider the tensions and problems of this critique, and conclude with a defense of Baudrillard's critical project and methodology.


II. The Symbolic Versus The Semiotic

            Jean Baudrillard was born in Reims in 1929. He taught language in provincial lycees before moving into sociology, completing a thesis with Henri Lefebvre at Nanterre University of Paris X in 1966 where he lectured in sociology and from where he retired in 1987 to concentrate upon his writing and public lecturing. His early publications on literary theory and in the journal Utopie were followed by a series of books – The System of Objects (1968), The Consumer Society (1970) and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972) – in which he developed an original critique of the sign system of post-war consumer and media society. In its rejection of Marxism and its contemporary relevance, his 1973 book, The Mirror of Production, developed his critical position and his analysis of the sign, paving the way in 1976 for his major work, Symbolic Exchange and Death. After 1976, in addition to foregrounding his critique of the media in his book, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (1978), he began to rework his critical project in texts such as Forget Foucault (1977) and Seduction (1979), escalating both his analysis and critique of western society in key books of the 1980s and early 1990s, such as Fatal Strategies (1983), The Transparency of Evil (1990) and The Illusion of the End (1992). From the early 1990s, Baudrillard's work has placed an increasing emphasis upon new media, developing an important critique of virtuality in books such as The Perfect Crime (1995), The Impossible Exchange (1999) and The Vital Illusion (2000).

Other publications by Baudrillard include five volumes of his Cool Memories journals, several books of interviews, a dialogue, reflections on his career and history, essay collections, books on cinema, his experience of America and photography, a collection of his own photographic work, and famous, controversial reflections on major political events, such as the 1991 Gulf War and 9/11. His more recent books, such as 2002's Power Inferno and 2004's The Intelligence of Evil, Or the Lucidity Pact, extend these ideas, analyzing the global trends and politics of the post-9/11 world. All this has cemented Baudrillard's recognition as one of the most important and challenging contemporary thinkers.

            Baudrillard first came to prominence in the English-speaking world in the early 1980s in Australia, Canada and America and, later, Britain; being identified as a leading thinker in the new movement of postmodernism. With his contemporary subject matter, original style and extreme theorization of phenomena, Baudrillard was quickly proclaimed "the high priest of postmodernism", despite his own rejection of the concept. Kroker's sympathetic Marxist-postmodernist reading of Baudrillard provoked a left backlash against the movement and against Baudrillard, especially by Kellner, Norris and Callinicos.4 For them, Baudrillard's work was reactionary, in its rejection of Marxism; nihilistic, in its rejection of truth and falsity; and charlatanistic, in its style and method. Though flawed, this reading proved popular, especially for critics predisposed to hostility and authors of textbooks looking for an easy take on a complex author.

            More positive readings attempted to counter-act this interpretation. The most important was Mike Gane's 1991 defense, which challenged Kellner's errors, refuted the simplistic association of Baudrillard with postmodernism, and offered a fuller contextualization – emphasizing in particular his debt to the Durkheimian tradition.5 As the postmodern controversy waned, the 1990s saw the emergence of a growing number of more serious and critically informed articles and books on Baudrillard.6 Over the same period, Baudrillard's ideas gradually penetrated and reshaped a range of disciplines, including sociology, cultural studies, visual culture, design studies, geography, photography, film studies, art theory and history, social and cultural history, philosophy and architecture, and cultural politics, as well as media and communication studies and cyberculture, such that, today, his work is intellectually unavoidable. His work is now globally disseminated and discussed and, from January 2004, the online International Journal of Baudrillard Studies was launched to reflect this interest.

            Despite this literature, Baudrillard remains a controversial figure; his provocative analyses, methodological strategies and remorseless critical position still attracting considerable academic hostility. For his critics, his popular cultural take-up and elevation to uber-cool icon has only reinforced their suspicions of his superficiality and postmodern spell. Much of the criticism significantly mistakes Baudrillard's project. Far from being the nihilistic reactionary celebrating the excesses of postmodernity, as his critics paint him, we actually find in his work a sustained, career-long, critical project, founded upon a defense of "symbolic" modes of life, experience and relations against the western "semiotic" order and world. It is this distinction of symbolic and semiotic that underpins his analysis of the media and thus it is here that we must begin if we are to understand his critique of new media forms.


III. The Cold Monster Of Extermination

            Baudrillard's early work must be understood in the context of the socio-economic and technological, post-war modernization of France and the emergence there of a modern consumer society. Of the many different philosophical and social analyses of this new world, Baudrillard was simultaneously drawn to the existentialist and humanist Marxist critique of everyday life and consumption in the work of Sartre and of Lefebvre, Marcuse and Debord, the opposing structuralist analysis of the formation of the individual and society in the work of Barthes, Levi-Strauss, Althusser and Lacan, as well as Ellul's critique of technology, Simondon's analysis of technique and the discussion of electronic media in the North American media theory of McLuhan and Boorstin. These influences are most clearly seen in his first two books.


IV. The System of Objects and The Consumer Society

            The System of Objects remains a classic of structuralist, interpretative semiology, drawing heavily on Barthes' Saussurean (1916) analysis of this new consumer sign-world introduced in Mythologies (1957) and systematically theorised in his Elements of Semiology (1964) and The Fashion System (1967), but developing from this analysis a wider social theory of consumption.7 For Baudrillard, consumption is a contemporary phenomenon; its modernity arising not from its volume but from its systematic organisation into a system of "signs" governed by a code of signification. Thus he sees consumption not as the physical use of a physical object to satisfy physical needs but, instead, as an idealistic process, unilaterally appropriating the idea and meaning – the "signified" – of an object or message conceived and produced as a sign. Against this, Baudrillard contrasts "traditional symbolic objects", which remain "living objects" in being bound to human activity and in retaining the "clear imprint" of that relationship. The defining characteristic of western civilisation for Baudrillard is the historical process of the reduction of this lived, reciprocal, symbolic mode of life, experience, relations and meaning, and its transformation into simple semiotic elements – combined into signs in an organised system and consumed in their difference for their signification. This constitutes an entire process of semioticisation, affecting the entire mode of human experience as all meaning and relations become relations of consumption – relations with (and ultimately between) signs.

            From the first, then, we find in Baudrillard a clear distinction between symbolic and semiotic, the characterisation of our society as defined by the transformation of the former into the latter, and a strong critical sympathy with the symbolic as a higher mode of existence. He extends this analysis in The Consumer Society, exploring especially how this system of signs functions simultaneously as (following Barthes) a mode of communication, (following Veblen) a system of competitive distinction and (following Marcuse) as a system of social integration and control. Thus Baudrillard combines the western Marxist critique of consumption as representing, not a sphere of personal freedom and fulfilment but, rather, the penetration of alienation and control throughout everyday life, with a structuralist, semiological analysis of the operation of this totalitarian code and its subsequent production and "personalisation" of the "individual".

            If Baudrillard's description of the contemporary era draws upon Saussure and Barthes' semiology and western Marxism, his critique of this order draws instead upon a different source. His concept of the symbolic is derived from the French radical Durkheimian social anthropological and philosophical tradition. Developing from the Anee Sociologique's study of "primitive" societies and the work of Mauss on sacrifice and magic, this tradition received its classic statement in Durkheim's study of tribal religion, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). Mauss's popularisation of Durkheim and his own study, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Primitive Societies (1924), were also influential, especially upon the short-lived College of Sociology. Between 1937 and 1939, the College's members radically developed this philosophical anthropology, most notably in Roger Caillois' Man and the Sacred (1939) and Georges Bataille's early essays and later books, such as The Accursed Share (1949), Eroticism (1957) and Theory of Religion (1973)8. What Baudrillard takes from this tradition is an emphasis upon a mode of life and meaning discovered in the collective ritual and festive experience of "the sacred" and in the immediately actualised, bilateral relationship of ritual forms such as the gift exchange, together with the belief that this mode – which he calls "symbolic exchange" – represents a higher and more human experience.

            Baudrillard also adopts the radical Durkheimian claim of the historical loss of this sacred mode in the west, which was attributed to the rise of Judeo-Christianity, the Protestant Reformation, industrial capitalism and the rational-scientific world-view. All these reduced, eliminated and simulated in safe, controlled forms the sacred's transformative energies to preserve an impoverished, profane order devoted to individualistic production, profit and need. For Baudrillard, this becomes a genealogy of the loss of the symbolic, extended and now updated to take into account the transformation of industrial capitalism itself into a "general political economy" in which sign-value dominates above the traditional logics of use and exchange value. Thus he also extends the radical Durkheimian critique of political economy in a wider critique of the system of "value", including here an attack upon the contemporary production of "reality" – on the semiotic simulation of symbolic experience and its grounding by a "referent" that is itself merely another semiotic category. Hence, from The System of Object's discussion of the semiotic simulation of symbolic meaning, through to his poststructuralist critique of the semiotic system's production of the real in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard develops a critique of the "simulacrum" – of the semiotic production of our experience and conceptualisation of reality: an idea most famously developed in his analysis of the historical "orders of simulacra" that mark the west in Symbolic Exchange and Death. Against this semiotic and its force of "reality", Baudrillard consistently defends the surviving, resistant, external force of the symbolic which, he says, "haunts" contemporary societies with the threat of their reversal.

            These ideas are obviously complex. The Durkheimian tradition is not well known in the English speaking world, making Baudrillard's absolute distinction of symbolic and semiotic difficult to follow, whilst his early theoretical manoeuvres as he establishes their relationship, difference and the grounds of his critique are among the most demanding in his oeuvre. At their core is a simple idea: that our society is defined by the reduction, abolition, replacement and simulation of a mode of experience, meaning and relationships – the symbolic – and its transformation into the semiotic; into signs that, combined, take on the simulacral force of the real, enclosing us and programming our experience and behaviour. This critique of consumption and its own mode of simulated communication becomes the basis for Baudrillard's broader critique of the media.

            Baudrillard's first discussion of media – a 1967 review of McLuhan's Understanding Media – forms the basis for his extended critique in The Consumer Society. His starting point is McLuhan's emphasis upon form and the claim that the medium itself and its impact, rather than its content, is its real "message". He immediately reframes this in terms of his own Durkheimian project to argue that the electronic media's primary effect is to replace the symbolic with the semiotic, transforming "the lived, eventual character of that which it transmits" into "a sign which is juxtaposed among others in the abstract dimension of TV coverage". Thus electronic media are one of the main sources of the sign's production and replacement of the symbolic, leading him to reverse McLuhan's conclusion that they lead to a direct, extended, real participation in the world.9 Instead, he argues, they offer a "filtered, fragmented world", "industrially processed" by the media "into sign material". "So we live", Baudrillard says, "sheltered by signs, in the denial of the real", safe in our absence from the world, whilst enjoying the alibi of participation provided by its semiotic simulacrum.

            The media, therefore, simultaneously actualise and spectacularly dramatise the real and de-actualise it, distancing us from it in the perfection of its simulation and its consumption in a safe, semiotic form. Television gives us "the truer than true" – the experience of really being there without being there – an excessive reality lacking all the defining dangers, personal investment and relationships of actual presence. Thus, all we consume is the "cold", processed, "television event", without any of the "hot" symbolic affect of real experience.

            In addition to McLuhan, here Baudrillard draws upon Daniel J. Boorstin's 1961 book, The Image, taking up its idea of media-produced "pseudo-events" eclipsing and becoming our reality, and radicalising it again to describe "a world of events, history, culture and ideas not produced from shifting, contradictory, real experience, but produced as artefacts from elements of the code and the technical manipulation of the medium".10 Baudrillard sees a "vast process of simulation" taking place "over the whole span of daily life". In this, events and experience are now modelled semiotic products, their simulations assuming the "force of reality" abolishing the latter "in favour of this neo-reality of the model which is given material force by the medium itself". As Baudrillard argues in his 1971 essay, "Requiem For the Media", "mass mediatization" today comprises "a closed system of models of signification from which no event escapes". The mass media, therefore, operate through the sign form, its articulation into models and its administration by the code, abolishing real, bilateral, symbolic relationships and replacing them with a semiotic simulation, consumed alone and unilaterally. Hence, Baudrillard's counter-intuitive but powerful conclusion that our contemporary media are defined by their "non-communication".

Baudrillard's short essay, "Holocaust", provides an excellent example of how this critique operates in practice. Discussing NBC's 1978, four-part dramatisation of the Nazi genocide, Baudrillard rejects its maker's claims that it could provide a greater public awareness of these crimes, arguing that its attempt to resurrect a lost, cold event for cold masses through a cold medium has the opposite effect. That "cold monster of extermination", television, functions as an extension of the gas chambers, he argues, in eclipsing, replacing and thus effectively exterminating, the lived memories and singularity of the historical event. The dramatised simulacrum produces "the same process of forgetting, of liquidation, of extermination", the "same annihilation of memories and of history", the same "implosive radiation" and "absorption without echo", and the "same black hole as Auschwitz".

            Baudrillard's uncompromising verdict is that these films are ultimately complicit and complete the extermination, providing "a tactile thrill and posthumous emotion" for an audience that now thinks it knows the truth and can "spill into forgetting" with a good conscience. His Durkheimian conclusions again take up, rework and reverse McLuhan's analyses. For him "cold" comes to stand not, as it does for McLuhan, for an increased engagement but, instead, the entropic heat-death of all symbolic relations through electronic media. Again contrary to McLuhan and to the media's own promises, these ultimately extend not life, but death.

            The same process is seen again in Baudrillard's co-option of McLuhan's concept of "implosion". Whereas McLuhan sees this as the temporal, spatial and, above all, the affective contraction of the globe under the speed of electronic technologies, Baudrillard reworks the concept as a semiotic process, placing it at the heart of the sign's operation in imploding the bilateral symbolic relationship and absorbing its own referent to produce the real from the play of signifiers. Baudrillard sees the media's operation as a "macroscopic" extension of these processes: they do not dissolve away to give us a direct experience of the real but, rather, their simulacra implode with the real "in a sort of nebulous hyperreality" – a mutual dissolution in which "even the definition and distinct action of the medium are no longer distinguishable". Baudrillard's In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities traces a variety of implosions and their consequences. In particular, he describes the implosion of meaning in the media through an excessive production of information in which all sense and use-value collapse; the implosion of "the social" as the media devour the mode of sociality, and even the communication the media itself, produces, simulates and stages, and the implosion of all messages against the black hole of "the masses" – that "opaque, blind stratum", "bombarded with stimuli, messages and tests", existing only through their representation and echo, whose silence absorbs and neutralises all messages. "Implosion" becomes, therefore, a key trope of the age of simulation, used to describe again the process of the semiotic reduction and absorption of all symbolic meaning and relations.

            Baudrillard retains the terms symbolic and semiotic throughout his career, although the forces they name are continually reworked and reconceptualized as he tries to keep up with the accelerating forms of contemporary western society and discover and describe opposing phenomena. Hence, in 1977's Forget Foucault his rethinking of the symbolic and semiotic as "seduction" and "production". If the former is a mastery of appearances, creating an "enchanted" symbolic relationship by a withdrawal "from the visible order", the latter defines western cultures, which remain societies of "pro-duction in the literal sense" – being dominated by the desire "to render visible, to cause to appear and to be made to appear: producere". Communicational technologies thus assume a greater significance as the primary site of this drive for the real, their forced materialization of the world, representing a rage "to summon everything before the jurisdiction of signs" – to make everything real, visible, legible, accounted for and available. His example is pornography whose "forcing of signs" and "instant, exacerbated representation "does not take us closer to the truth of sexuality but "burns and consumes its object". The significance of its "devastation of the real" can only be understood once one recognises that this drive for the real's technological hyperrealisation defines the contemporary west. As Baudrillard says, "ours is a pornographic culture par excellence".


V. This Virtual Perfection...

            Although Baudrillard's interest in electronic media increases through the 1970s, provoking new analyses of their simulation, their implosive speed and of information overload, his focus is still on television. From Fatal Strategies in 1983, however, he begins to foreground "the acceleration of networks and circuits" and the new instantaneity produced by this ongoing transformation. He is especially interested in the exponential growth of our communicational systems and their "metastatic" development, like cancer cells, beyond their own limits, form and finality to the point of their own useless, excrescent superfluity. The "obesity" of this system and the "obscenity" of its processes, in pursuing "the visibility of all things to the point of ecstasy", has important implications, he argues, for contemporary subjectivity.

            The dominance of the screen and network – "the immanent surface of operations unfolding, the smooth and functional surface of communication" – impacts again, Baudrillard argues, upon the symbolic, with the loss of the "scene" and "mirror" of the subject and social relations. We come increasingly to inhabit a "closed-off cell", cut off in a "telematic" world as commanders and controllers of connected prostheses, interacting with – and ultimately becoming assimilated into – our technological environment. As Baudrillard says, "we no longer exist as playwrights or actors but as terminals of multiple networks". This new condition is marked by the implosion of public and private spheres: by "the forced extraversion of all interiority" and "forced introjection of all exteriority". So, the public realm becomes a space of mediatic circulation, of advertising, screens and messages, whilst the private realm burst open, allowing "the most intimate operations of your life" to become the "grazing ground" of the media, the "entire universe" unfolding upon our screens in a "microscopic pornography".

            For Baudrillard, this "emergence of an immanent promiscuity and the perpetual interconnection of all information and communication networks" produces "a new form of schizophrenia": the experience of "the over-proximity of all things" which "penetrate" the subject without resistance. Thus the schizophrenic is marked "by the absolute proximity to and instantaneousness with things", "an overexposure to the transparency of the world". Unable to separate themselves from the arriving world and to stage their own self, the subject is lost, becoming "a pure screen, a pure absorption and resorption surface of the influent networks". In an electronic fulfilment of Caillois' schizophrenic assimilation to space, the subject is absorbed into the immaterial space of connectivity as a "fractal subject".11 We find an echo here, too, of McLuhan's claims of electronic disincarnation, though Baudrillard highlights the reversal of this process as our technologies return to, and implode with and into, the human body, transforming us into their extension.12

            Thus, long before the diffusion of new media technologies, the key elements of Baudrillard's analysis of new media – the symbolic versus semiotic, the critique of communication, simulation and hyperreality, the exploration of implosion and its impact upon meaning and experience, the pornography of the network and the transformation of subjectivity – are all already in place in his work. The central critical concepts he employs to understand new media – "virtuality" and "real-time" – develop out of his analysis of the television coverage and technical operation of the 1991 Gulf War, before being extended to other new developments in media and explored in his key texts from the mid 1990s, The Perfect Crime, Paroxysm, The Vital Illusion, Impossible Exchange, and essays of the period.

            In these later works, Baudrillard posits a prior state of the "radical illusion" of the world, describing his belief that this symbolic mode was dispelled with the erection of the "reality principle" and the drive for the materialization of the real, a process whose volatisation gave rise to a hyperreal that now threatens the real. This hyperreality is rethought as "virtuality"; a concept he separates from "virtual reality" with its connotations of an inferior, artificial reality, explaining it as a reversal of Aristotelian logic. Where once the virtual was that which would become the "actual", now it is that which deters it, preventing its occurrence. The "virtual" is that which "takes the place of the real" and thus is its "final solution" in so far as "it both accomplishes the world in its definitive reality and marks its dissolution".

            The virtual, therefore, is the deterrent product of electronic technology and "our saturation by absolute reality". The revolution in "real-time" is central to this. This is not the lived time of human existence but a live, technologically realized, "high definition" temporality that implodes with and dissuades the real in its own "technical perfection". In its instant, absolute realization of the real, real-time short circuits real-life, Baudrillard argues, thereby annulling the world's events as "there's no longer any time for history itself. In a sense it doesn't have time to take place". In trying to pack in the "total information" of an event, real-time misses the delay and distance necessary for thought, speech and all symbolic exchange. As the gift makes clear, "the rule is that what is given should never be returned immediately". Thus, "immediate interaction" constitutes "a serious mortal insult". Again, therefore, electronic media abolish communication, replacing the event with an actualised, real-time double in a combination of "artificial insemination and premature ejaculation": instant and spectacular but ultimately empty, unsatisfying, offensive and forgettable.

            What we understand as "virtual reality" is only part of a wider complex of electronic technologies operating throughout and upon everyday life. These do not create a separate unreality, "having long since left their media space to invest 'real' life from the inside" they implode with real experience. The result, Baudrillard says, is the "deep-seated virtualisation of human beings", the diffusion of the virtual "in homeopathic doses" throughout everyday life, and "the transformation of life, of everyday life into virtual reality". As Baudrillard warns, these electronic technologies and processes are "only the epiphenomenon of the virtualisation of human beings in their core". Today, we have "swallowed our microphones and headsets". "The virtual camera is in our heads", investing everyday life from the inside, with each of us becoming participants in a generalised "reality-show", of which Reality-TV represents only "a spectacular version". Here we leave behind the Debordian "spectator" and all hopes of an external, critical position, becoming "actors in the performance", in a virtualised reality.13 Thus what threatens us today, Baudrillard concludes, is this excess of reality. "We are defenseless", he says, "before the extreme reality of this world, before this virtual perfection" and its "new form of terror".

            Even cinema – a symbolic, collective medium – is succumbing to this process, in passing "from the most fantastic or mythical to the realistic and hyperrealistic", each step contributing towards the loss of "the cinematographic illusion" and "the secret of cinema". Digital effects transform the medium into "a spectacular demonstration" of its technical capabilities and the viewer into "an impotent voyeur" of this "prostitution of images" to effects. Baudrillard offers a similar analysis of digital photography and the contemporary real-time flow of images, both of which are intent on the world's hyperrealisation, although he finds in its more traditional analogue form, the possibility of a path to the symbolic, in the stillness, singularity, silence and suspense of the photographic "event".

            Baudrillard's 1992 lecture, "The Vanishing Point of Communication", emphasises the effect of this virtualisation upon social relations, describing how the "act" of speech and the dramaturgical scene of exchange has been transformed into the "operation" of communication: into an operationality without contradiction, tension, intensity, contact or disruption. "We have invented structures of relationship where humans can communicate without crossing each other", he argues, replacing "the singularity of the self and of the other" with an aseptic, formal connectedness and circulation. Perhaps the best example of this – and the dystopian realisation of that world of non-communication described in 1971 – is mobile phone users, head-down, thumbing their abbreviated messages and relationships back and forth. This man in the street "talking away to no-one" is a "new urban figure", Baudrillard says, imposing on everyone "the virtual presence of the network" and constituting, in their a-sociality, "a living insult to passers-by". Contemporary interactive technologies, Baudrillard says, lead to an increasing "biological confusion" between man and his prostheses, as our prostheses reverse into and implode with ourselves and end our relations. Thus the mobile phone – "that incrustation of the network in your head" – produces a state of living death, the half-life of "public zombies", like that engaged figure he reports "looking at someone he is not speaking to ...talking to someone he cannot see". Rather than an increase in freedom and communication, this represents only a retreat from the world into "the mobile confinement of the network", and "a further phase in the electronic colonization of the senses" and our psychasthenic absorption.

            The seeds of these ideas are already present in The System of Objects, in Baudrillard's description of "modern man, the cybernetician" – that active engineer busy manipulating and controlling their environment – and in The Consumer Society, in his analysis of "the gadget" and its "systematic logic". In our unilateral consumption of their form and functions, our relationship to these gadgets, he argues, is marked not by symbolic "passion" or investment, but by "a play with combinations": a "ludic" interest in the "play of elements" and the "technical variants or potentialities of the object"; a claim instantly recognisable to us in the age of navigable menus and interactive features. Baudrillard's more recent work explicitly returns to this critique of interactivity. His 2000 essay, "Screened Out", emphasises the McLuhanist implosion of the computer user's "immersion", the abolition of distance and the creation of a "tactile interaction" with the medium, all of which, again, reverses into a loss of distinction between man and machine, with humanity reduced to "the virtual reality of the machine".

            Everything produced by this machine is itself a machine, Baudrillard says, as the product of its capabilities and the operator's enthrallment to these, existing only as a demonstration of "the automatism of the programming". For Baudrillard, therefore, we are immersed, "virtual agents, whose only act is the act of programming": controlling the form from within – "from its matrix" – and playing with its code to produce its ideal performance. Thus we now move beyond Debordian "spectator" and even the Baudrillardian reality-show "actor", to being the active "operators" of virtuality. Against The Matrix's vision of a humanity enslaved by machines in a virtual reality policed by agents, Baudrillard presents a more radical and terrifying vision of our own machinic integration and transformation within a virtualized reality, with ourselves as "double agents", willingly pursuing the machine's own ends and ensuring their continuation. We are, he says, "joyfully collaborating" in "our disappearance into the virtual". We no longer use technology to extend ourselves, but rather to expel ourselves – to abrogate all human functions and faculties.

            This critique of new media is extended in Baudrillard's recent theorization of "integral reality". For him, this constitutes "an unlimited operational project" to render the world real – a Nietzchean passage beyond truth and appearances to a world of "total positivity": an efficacious and materialised reality that, lacking "natural predators", now "grows like a desert". Thus the overproduction of the real again generates that "viral and self-destructing agent", the virtual whose aim is the perfection, completion and thus also the replacement of the real. The key processes of the virtual, "immersion, immanence and immediacy", he says, are central to new media forms such as the internet. With the dominance of these forms, Baudrillard argues, "we are threatened on all side with interactivity" – by an implosive process abolishing distance, integrating us with our machines and, in "a feedback effect", accelerating us into a hyperreal confusion and state of uncertainty. The user is again reduced here to the status of a machine, as the fascinated operator of its possibilities, experiencing both the "dizziness of interactivity" and "the anxious dizziness" of its unlimited performativity. Once more, the end result is a loss of relations and meaning: the tactile user is only "an ectoplasm of the screen" surfing an internet that represents not a new, unlimited space of mental freedom but, in its programmed content and anticipated responses, only its simulation. Ultimately the users enjoy, and dissolve into, the "phantom conviviality" of a medium that conjures away all real singularity and contact.


VI. Speculation to the death

            Baudrillard's ideas constitute one of the most extreme analyses and systematic critiques of contemporary electronic media and, as such, have attracted much criticism. As we have seen, the left especially have accused Baudrillard of promoting nihilism in his celebration of postmodernity, of advocating an idealistic loss of reality and of refusing to offer an positive alternative or hope of transformation.14 Clearly such claims are misguided. Baudrillard identifies the excess not the loss of the real as our problem, a simulacral process he opposes from the position of the symbolic. Indeed, his entire career is animated by the dual project of describing the semiotic production of our life and the new forms of social control it produces, and searching for and discovering surviving forces which oppose and reverse this perfected, realized system. In particular, he identifies three sources of resistance: the irruption of the symbolic demand within semiotic societies; the symbolic force of "reversibility" operating through semiotic processes and causing their internal reversal at their limit; and the external survival of the symbolic in other cultures whose vitality and beliefs pose a threat to the west. Just as he constantly escalates his description of the west, so he also reworks his description and analysis of the opposing symbolic forces, through concepts such as "seduction", "fatality", "evil", "radical otherness", "radical illusion" and "singularity". Each reformulation constitutes a strategic move to keep up with, match and outpace the exponential developments within the semiotic system to retain his own critical advantage.15

            This position is not without its problems. In particular, Baudrillard's adoption of the concept of the simulacrum impacts methodologically upon his ability to identify its process and upon his own hoped-for site of opposition, the symbolic. The latter implicitly serves as an external "reality" and more human mode of being, meaning and relations that is difficult to defend and philosophically anachronistic.16 Baudrillard's critique of new media is also open to objections from within media and communication studies. His media theory is largely based upon an analysis of older media forms, especially TV, and he offers few detailed discussions of new media, demonstrating little practical experience or knowledge of their forms and operation. Moreover his Durkheimian commitment to symbolic exchange leads him to unequivocally reject any interpretation of electronic media as producing real relations, meaning or community, and to refuse any engagement with the potentially positive effects and uses of electronic technology. Thus. his conclusions remain starkly opposed to those that dominate cyberculture and new media studies. If McLuhan stands as the foremost exponent of the common belief in virtual communities, then Baudrillard is his antithesis, implicitly opposing all forms of techno-optimism, all valorisation of audience participation and all cyborg and post-human theory, positioning himself as the remorseless defender of a symbolic mode of existence and relations whose conceptual and practical conservativism is obvious.

            More generally, we can see that Baudrillard's discussion of media is at odds with the broader discipline. He says little about the media industries and their economic, political and organizational structure; their forms of power and national and trans-national operation; their internal processes of media production or the institutional practices within each branch. He is uninterested in questions of media content, rejects ideological readings of media output, offers few detailed semiological readings of texts, ignores most of the traditional debates, issues and subject matter of the field, and shows a limited interest in other media theories and media history in favour of his own critical position. His overt hostility towards the media also precludes any significant contribution to media practice and production. Even within media studies, his theoretical influences and project are marginal and his discussion of certain phenomena – the passive masses, the unilaterality of the media – are opposed by contemporary paradigms and developments. In addition, his complex ideas and writing, assumed postmodernism, anti-empiricist philosophy and perverse and intentionally provocative claims have soured his reputation in the field.

            But Baudrillard's work cannot be dismissed. For all the problems of the formulation and grounding of the symbolic and its valorization of a specific mode of life and relations, he work nevertheless performs an important critical function, allowing us to radically question electronic media and its processes. Allied to a McLuhanism foregrounding the question of technological form, Baudrillard emphasises the epistemological and relational effects of our media, highlighting, at precisely a time of exponentially increasing communication, their widespread reversal into "non-communication". His work successfully problematises the technological reduction, processing and transformation of human expression, experience and meaning; the value and significance of our "communication" and the relations to others and to the world that this communication produces. Ultimately Baudrillard makes clear how we embrace technology for its easier modes of communication – not only for its ability to simplify the process, content, time and physical obstacles to communication, but also, and crucially, to simplify the materiality and singularity of the other, reducing them to a more easily consumable and acceptable form.

            Baudrillard's critique of interactivity's implosive effects is also important. In explaining how interactive processes refine rather than challenge media unilaterality, representing a further mode of integration into both the social order and technology itself, Baudrillard develops an original theory of media power. This theory also highlights the limitations of audience studies approaches and their valorization of all individual behaviour and media use, demonstrating how free responses actually constitute pre-processed, coded and produced modes of behaviour in a process of "personalization" that function as a mode of social incorporation and control. The diffraction and imposition of such media models plays, Baudrillard says, a key "regulative role" today.

            Baudrillard's identification of western societies as characterized by a technological drive for the real – by the need to get closer to and materialize reality in excessive detail or in real-time –  identifies a phenomena that new media such as cable and satellite TV, the internet, web-cams and mobile phones instantiate more than ever. His claim that these technologies take us further from the real in the very act of seeming to deliver us straight into it is of primary importance today. Thus, despite the knee-jerk criticism his discussion of the 1991 Gulf War received and the controversy surrounding his analysis of 9/11, Baudrillard's critique of global, media "non-events" represents a major contribution to our understanding of new media processes.17 His analysis of the implosive effects of real-time coverage, of the hyperreal access and imagery, of the virtualization of the real and of that state of excited uncertainty it produces that hold us "captive" before the screen, is easily recognisable. Similarly, his contradictory claim that the experience of the hyperreal reverses into an "indifference" and "disaffection" and a "neutralisation" and "dissuasion" of symbolic reality is borne out in a culture that can consume the breathless spectacle of live war with so little regard for the experience of those on the ground. Thus Baudrillard's critique of new media exposes its impact upon our experience, knowledge and conceptualisation of world events, problematising, questioning and finally reversing their very "eventness" and thus their occurrence for their western audience.

            Baudrillard's critique of "non-events" has to be understood as inseparable from his critical strategy and his methodology. Whilst Baudrillard's critical position may be conservative, in its reliance on a specific conception of human relations and meaning, this is coupled with one of the most radical interpretations of new media and their processes, implications and effects. His analysis combines a McLuhanist focus on technological form with a Boorstinian critique of its effects on the real, a Barthesian critique of the semiotic and a western Marxist sensitivity to the penetration and operation of media throughout everyday life as a means of social control, discovering in the social anthropology, sociology and philosophy of the radical Durkheimian tradition the critical ground to oppose this escalating world. When Baudrillard says that we face a "virtual reality" – that is, "the horizon of a programmed reality" – the debt to Lefebvre, Marcuse and Debord is clear, but his work also extends their own in tracing the role of new media in this programming.18 Hence Baudrillard's critique of his use in The Matrix, arguing that the film's message of opposition to the virtual was contradicted by its own contribution to the virtualization of everyday life. His critique was confirmed by the launch in 2005 of The Matrix Online, a massively multi-player on-line role-playing game whose users voluntarily plug into cyberspace (into Gibson's "matrix") to participate in a post-film story arc requiring them to protect "the matrix". Its promo film tag-line – "the future of the matrix is in your hands" – fulfils (both in the game world and our own) Baudrillard's claim that today we are the "double agents" of the virtual.

            Baudrillard's radical interpretation of contemporary media processes is the product of his radical methodology and, as in McLuhan, this may be his most important contribution to the field. Like McLuhan, his work problematises empirical methodology, developing in its place an alternative theoretical strategy in which the complex spiral of symbolic and semiotic elements in his analysis and critique reappears again in the form of his work. For Baudrillard, theory is "both simulation and challenge". Like simulation, it is not untrue, but rather a doubling, producing a representation that pushes the logic of the system it describes to the point of its possible reversal. Thus theory is a process of invention and inversion, a "conceptual weapon" against the real. Its aim is not to be true, as that would only reduce it to a passive reflection whose validity and value is only derived a-posteriori. Instead, Baudrillard advocates a "radical thought", an efficacious modelling to capture the real in its orbit, though this runs the risk of our "unscrupulous reality" escalating in response to prove the theory right and disarm it. Theory is also, therefore, a Maussian, symbolic challenge – an escalatory gift in which both itself and the world are the stake.

            The affinities here with McLuhan's method are obvious, albeit radicalised again through Mauss, Jarry's "pataphysics" and the avant-garde tradition leading through to Situationism and Boorstin's critical assault on media culture. Ultimately, Baudrillard says, echoing McLuhan, he has no doctrines to defend: "I have one strategy, that's all". This is his method of "theoretical violence" – of a "speculation to the death, whose only method is the radicalization of hypotheses". Like McLuhan, he believes "we have lost the lead which ideas had over the world". Thus we need an exceptional, anticipatory, marginal thought to outpace the real, a thought whose "poetic singularity" – whose event – might crystallize into a single strike that paralyses the system. As he says, "I have dreamt of a force-five conceptual storm blowing over the devastated real".


VII. Conclusion

            Baudrillard's methodological contribution is to free us to push our ideas and interpretations. Like McLuhan, his work calls on us to pursue its project, to probe the world and escalate our conceptual tools to keep pace with its accelerating forms. Baudrillard's analysis of new media remains one of the best precisely because it embodies this method, attempting to think through our original situation and these new forms in all their radicality. An extreme world calls for an extreme response, Baudrillard argues, for "to think extreme phenomena, thought must itself become an extreme phenomenon". It must also be remembered that Baudrillard's aim is primarily critical. He invites us to respond to the remarkable gift of our technological culture with our own critical counter-gift, to unleash that "force-five conceptual storm" to blow across the deserts of simulacra, to short-circuit the networks of perfect communication and to whip up the fragments of our devastated real.


William Merrin is a lecturer in media studies at the University of Wales, Swansea. He is the author of Baudrillard and the Media (Polity, 2005) and New Media: Key Thinkers (Polity, forthcoming) as well as a range of articles on media theory, new media and media history. He is a member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies and a co-organiser of "Engaging Baudrillard", an international, multi-disciplinary conference on Baudrillard's work held at the University of Wales in September 2006.

 


Endnotes


1 Editor’s note: This material was originally posted on the website of the Evatt Foundation on August 19, 2006 (see: http://www.evatt.org.au/news/408.html). The Evatt Foundation is committed to furthering the ideals of social justice, equality, participation and human rights in Australia.

 

2 Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Cool Memories III. New York: Versom 1997:125.

 

3 A. Wachowski and L. Wachowski. The Matrix: The Shooting Script, New York: Newmarket Press, 2001:10; A. Wachowski and L. Wachowski. The Matrix Revisited, Warner Home Video (UK) Ltd, 2001. (DVD). See also William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity, 2005:119-20.

 

4 A. Kroker. “Baudrillard's Marx”, in Theory, Culture and Society, Volume 2, Number 3, 1985:69-83; A. Kroker. and D. Cook, D. (Editors). The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics, London: Macmillan, 1988; D. Kellner, “Baudrillard, Semiurgy and Death” in Theory, Culture and Society, Volume 4, 1987:125-46; D. Kellner. “Postmodernism as Social Theory” in Theory, Culture and Society, Volume 5, 1988:239-69; D. Kellner. Jean Baudrillard. From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond, Cambridge: Polity, 1989; D. Kellner, (Editor). Baudrillard. A Critical Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1994; S.Best and D. Kellner. Postmodern Theory, London: Macmillan Press, 1991; C. Norris. What's Wrong With Postmodernism, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990; C. Norris. Uncritical Theory. Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992; A. Callinicos. Against Postmodernism, A Marxist Critique, Cambridge: Polity, 1989.

 

5 M. Gane. Baudrillard's Bestiary: Baudrillard and Culture, London: Routledge, 1991; M. Gane. Baudrillard. Critical and Fatal Theory, London; Routledge, 1991; M. Gane. “Radical Theory: Baudrillard and Vulnerability” in Theory, Culture and Society, Volume 12, Number 4:109-23; M. Gane. Jean Baudrillard. In Radical Uncertainty, London: Pluto Press, 2000.

 

6 W. Stearns and W. Chaloupka (Editors.) Jean Baudrillard. The Disappearance of Art and Politics, London: Macmillan, 1992; C. Rojek. and B. S. Turner (Editors) Forget Baudrillard? London: Routledge, 2003; D. Kellner, (Editor) Baudrillard. A Critical Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1994; G. Genosko. Baudrillard and Signs: Signification Ablaze, London: Routledge, 1994; G. Genosko McLuhan and Baudrillard: The Masters of Implosion, London: Routledge, 1999; C. Levin. Jean Baudrillard: A Study in Cultural Metaphysics, London: Prentice Hall, 1996; N. Zurbrugg (Editor.) Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact, London: Sage, 1997; R. Butler. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real, London: Sage, 1999; V. Grace. Baudrillard's Challenge: A Feminist Reading, London: Routledge, 2000; M. Gane (Editor). Jean Baudrillard: Masters of Social Theory (4 volumes) London: Sage, 2000; P. Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory, London: Continuum, 2004; W. Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity, 2005.

 

7 F. de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics, Chicago: Open Court, 1986; R. Barthes. Mythologies, London: Paladin Books, 1973; R. Barthes. Elements of Semiology, New York: Hill and Wang, 1973, and R. Barthes. The Fashion System, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

 

8 H. Hubert. and M. Mauss. Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964; M. Mauss H. Hubert. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Primitive Societies, London: Cohen and West Ltd, 1966; M. Mauss and H. Hubert. A General Theory of Magic, London: Routledge, 1972; E. Durkheim (c 1915) The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, London: Allen and Unwin, 1915; D. Hollier (Editor). The College of Sociology, 1937-39, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988; R. Caillois. Man and the Sacred, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980; G. Bataille,  Eroticism, London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, 1962; G. Bataille. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939, New York: Zone Books, 1985; The Accursed Share, Volume One, New York: Zone Books, 1991; G. Bataille. Theory of Religion, New York: Zone Books, 1992.

 

9 See W. Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity, 2005 :45-62.

 

10 D. J. Boorstin. The Image, New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

 

11 R. Caillois. “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia” in October, 31, Winter, 1980:17-32.

 

12 M. McLuhan. “The Violence of the Media” in Canadian Forum, September, 1976:9-12.

 

13 G. Debord. Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black and Red, 1983; Jean Baudrillard. “Aesthetic Illusion and Virtual Reality”, in N. Zurbrugg, N. (Editor.) Jean Baudrillard Art and Artefact, London: Sage, 1997:19.

 

14 D. Kellner. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond, Cambridge: Polity, 1989:117-21, 214, 216; D. Kellner (Editor). Baudrillard: A Critical Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1994:11-12; S. Best. and D. Kellner. Postmodern Theory, London: Macmillan Press, 1991:126-8; S. Best and D. Kellner. Postmodern Theory, London: Macmillan Press, 1991:139; C. Norris. What's Wrong With Postmodernism, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990; C. Norris. Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992.

 

15 W. Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity, 2005:98-101; 133-9.

 

16 Ibid.:28-44.

 

17 See also C. Norris. Uncritical Theory. Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War, London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992; W. Merrin. “'Uncritical Criticism? Norris, Baudrillard and the Gulf War” in Economy and Society, Volume 23, Number 4, 1994, pp. 433-58; Merrin, W. Baudrillard and the Media: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity, 2005. See also Merrin, W. 'Total Screen: 9/11 and the Gulf War Reloaded', in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 2, Number 2, July 2005. http://www.ubishops.ca/BaudrillardStudies/vol2_2/merrin.htm

 

18 H. Lefebvre. Everyday Life in the Modern World, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1971; H. Marcuse. One Dimensional Man, London: Ark Paperbacks, 1986; G. Debord. Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black and Red, 1983.

 


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