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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 3 (October, 2007).


Special Issue: Remembering Baudrillard



The Baudrillardian Strategy – Looking Into The Killer’s Eyes

 

Timothy Ruggiero

(Scottsdale, Arizona)

 

            When the world has grown idle and apathetic, when images, montages, and cyber fantasies have become the stuff of the real, what remains of reflective thought? How does it speak to a world that has inoculated itself against all seriousness and critique – a world that no longer asks anything of itself, that is operationally nihilistic?

            Almost any social system, no matter how flawed or corrupt, is bearable so long as there is still a capacity to hear the murmurings of dissent, so long as there is a possibility for implosion or rupture. It is when the system absolves itself of all accountability, becomes fully integrated, and inches toward omnipotence that both thinkers and thought face a mortal threat. And it is at this point that a redress is desperately needed, either in the way of a catastrophic event or in a form of thinking that is subversive and feral.

            We long for a voice that is not intimidated by the world, that puts everything magically into perspective, at once illuminating and vivifying. A voice sounded from  afar, indifferent to the din of worldlings, mindful only of its own purposes. This is the voice we encounter in the work of Jean Baudrillard.

            The life our forbears knew, Baudrillard tells us, the life in which events preceded all accountings of them, in which the territory of the real preceded the map of representation, no longer exists. Today simulacra abound in an asphyxiating mediatized milieu, to such an extent that it is no longer possible to distinguish the real from the unreal, the true from the false.

            What has emerged is a kind of smiling Ken and Barbie world, shorn of almost every trace of idiosyncrasy and negativity; a perky but indifferent surface-world which on the one hand seems perfectly innocent, even amiable, but which in fact is pursuing a course of radical self-completion. If the alpha point was the triumph of appearances over meaning, of simulation over reality (and also the disappearance of illusion into integral reality), then the path to an omega point will encompass the elimination of all human functions or processes, be they sex, thought, death, or even consciousness. There will quite possibly be a Final Solution, in which humanity itself disappears, morphing into who knows what ontology.1

            Confronted with such a dire situation, the theorist or philosopher has only one course of action left, Baudrillard says, and that is to refuse to back the world in its bid for perfection. Thought must set “criminal objectives” for itself. It must seduce the world with an indifference that is at least equal to the world’s. It must be unintelligible, erotic, elusive, surreal.

            Get enough thinkers to follow this radical course, to see it as a Kantian categorical imperative, and there lies the possibility that the social order may somehow skid off the tracks, suffer a fatal accident. Those who think any such event is impossible should remember that after a long decade of self-congratulation and triumphal celebration, when certain pundits in the West proudly proclaimed the end of history, a band of terrorist hijackers destroyed the towering symbols of the global order and threw a monkey wrench into the smooth functioning of things. Who can underestimate the cunning of history?

            And yet it must be conceded that the chances for victory are slim to nil. This techno-simulated-consumerist world of ours, this pas de deux of capital and media, will more than likely prevail in the end. Thought, no matter how pernicious or radical, cannot contest the system at the level of events (or for that matter, of non-events), nor will it if the machinery of media continues on in its current spiral. What becomes of Baudrillard’s strategy then? If nothing corrosive or catastrophic results from it, and the system marches inexorably toward an even more precarious or nihilistic destination, what are we left with, other than a philosophical consolation?

            If we define victory as the collapse or implosion of the system, then admittedly we are left with little. But if by victory we mean preventing a Final Solution, stalling the system as it seeks to complete itself, keeping things fluid and in flux, then the Baudrillardian strategy is not only viable but necessary. There is also an important symbolic dimension that cannot be overlooked. We normally think of victory and defeat as polar opposites, as an either/or proposition: one either wins or loses. The idea that defeat can deliver victory, that defeat itself may even be the necessary condition for the most glorious victory, eludes us. Pascal entertains this paradox in his Pensées:

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.2

 

For hard-headed realists, there is no meaning to be discerned beyond nature’s crushing blow; for them the victor is always the last one standing. But Pascal thinks victory lies in knowingness rather than in power. Nature may be omnipotent, but it is naked before the eye of our judgment. It can destroy us, but we can discover its most intimate secrets. It can wave us off the stage in an instant, but even in that instant we can learn something that maybe clarifies, illumines or even consummates the whole of our existence.3

            The situation may be likened to a man plunging a dagger into the heart of his victim. Just before the fatal thrust, the two men peer into one another’s eyes, and in that precise moment, that split second, there is an unmistakable transfer of power. What the victim says with his eyes is, “I know who and what you are: you have been found out”. And in that instant it is the victim who becomes the murderer: he kills his assailant with a blast of consciousness. (In the logic of symbolic exchange, the victim gives his attacker something that can never be repaid.) In the moment of plunging the dagger the assailant is seen; he becomes the object of another man’s witness, the object of his knowingness. He crosses that most dreadful existential line and becomes a murderer, and this fact, which cannot be cancelled, is paraded before him by the reflection in his victim’s eyes. The seed the victim plants in his assailant’s psyche cannot be dislodged: it can only sprout recriminations, guilt, regret.

            And so it is with the system and the thinker. All the thinker has left to do is to gaze into the eyes of his killer and intensify consciousness, to cause enough of a disturbance that a world bent on perfection will see it as an obstacle to be cleared. The thinker hopes to revive a relation between the system and thought – a relation of positive and negative energies marked by a high degree of unpredictability. He hopes the world will conclude that taking that last step toward a Final Solution will carry too heavy a price, and that in a moment of indecision or confusion it will recoil. Then thought can live and fight another day.

            The thinker, like the stabbed man, is destined to perish, but he is duty-bound to give a gift that can never be returned. The only such gift, apart from an increase in consciousness, is a long trail of evidence that both memorializes his struggle and haunts his conqueror. Instead of vanishing quietly into the night we should leave specks of blood on our killer’s shoes, scatter bits of our DNA across the landscape, deposit a coded message into cyberspace that maybe someone, someday, will decode.

            In Pascalian terms, thought must be keenly aware of the ways and motives of its murderer if it is to be vindicated in the end: defeat arises not from death but from failing to see things as they are, failing to attain (as Baudrillard would put it) a lucid consciousness.

            It would appear at first blush that achieving such clarity is not what Baudrillard aspired to. After all, he tells us that we should engage in “theoretical violence”,4 “make enigmatic what is clear, render unintelligible what is only too intelligible…”5 We should “create illusion to create an event,” “promote a clandestine trade in ideas,” “spirit away the reality file to wipe out all its conclusions”.6 This does not sound like the advice Socrates would have dispensed to a young Glaucon or Thrasymachus.

            But this strategy of elusiveness and enigmatic “irresponsibility” is a means rather than an end: it is a reply to what the world has become; a reply to Disneyland, to television, to the computer screen, to endless simulation, to the real-time of media, to the seductiveness of the image. Rational, objective, “responsible” thought is too slow and plodding in this milieu; it is forever looking over its shoulder; it is arid and often negative and cannot possibly lure eyeballs and attention spans away from the media machine – a machine, we should remember, that expresses itself not in Attic Greek or in Latin, nor even in the vulgate, but in streaming video, in colorful pictures, in advertisements and rebuses.

            If there were no Information Age, no electronic media at all; indeed, if this were the eighteenth century, Baudrillard would still be Baudrillard, writing and thinking in his sui generis way, playing with metaphors, challenging all received wisdom. But it is also true that his brand of theorizing was developed to combat the annihilating and homogenizing effects of our culture, to sustain a role for serious thinking and a space in which the artistic impulse could survive – all at a time when everything seems already to have been said and acted out, and humanity appears headed for the exit, with cloning, advanced genetic engineering, and the further computerization of selves on the horizon.

What the Baudrillardian strategy aimed to do, above all else, was to remind us in an incredible manner that this is what the world has become, that these are what the stakes are, and that the greatest crime of all is to collude with the forces that would destroy us.

 

Timothy Ruggiero is a freelance writer and an editor at Excelsior Publications in Philadelphia. He studied politics and philosophy at St. Joseph’s University (BA) in Philadelphia and took an MA from Johns Hopkins University.

 

© Timothy Ruggiero

 


Endnotes


1See Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:11-12.


2 Blaise Pascal. Pensées – The Provincial Letters. New York: The Modern Library, 1941:116.

 

3 Bertrand Russell expresses a similar idea in his essay “A Free Man’s Worship.” Russell writes,


How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished? A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of Death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticize, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life.


The essay can be found in Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957:107.

 

4 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:163.

 

5 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:104.


6 Ibid.:104-105.

 




© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)

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