Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida: At the limits of Thought
Dr. Sally Hart
(University of Chichester, England, UK)
With the recent passing of French philosopher-theorist Jean Baudrillard we have surely lost one of the seminal “incorruptibles” of our postmodern age. The term incorruptible is deployed by Jacques Derrida to signify a metonymic, intransient, incorruptible approach (his own included) which, as he argued, neither public opinion, the media or an intimidating readership could: “frighten or force us into simplifying or repressing. Hence the strict taste for refinement, paradox and aporia”.1 Sharing this “common approach”, it is for this reason that both Derrida and Baudrillard are among a group of thinkers called “post-structuralist” or “quasi-philosophers of the limit”. Thinkers who, as Rex Butler argues, “were the first to think this, who first saw the advance of knowledge not simply as a matter of empirical argument and refutation, but bound up with the closure of thought, not so much the end of thought as what is excluded to allow it to reach this end and thus why it is always open to a certain future”.2
Writing after Baudrillard (and after Derrida3) my aim in this paper is two-fold. First, in a section entitled “Jean Baudrillard: Strategies of Resistance,” to provide a comprehensive – if not exhaustive – overview of Baudrillard’s “postist” thought, his legacy, with a view to rendering it both more accessible and to correct some prevalent mis-readings of his work(s) – not the least those labelling him a “nihilist”, a “reality-denying irrationalist”. What my reading (and it is just that, my reading) of Baudrillard aims to show is the breadth and depth of his radically political and politicising position, one which seeks to provide us with an understanding of the mechanics of our postmodern, post-industrial age and its dis-contents; in particular, how “we” might oppose the de-politicising “hell of the same” characteristic of our society of simulation. Secondly, and without denying the instructive and innovative nature of Baudrillard’s “liminal” thinking, I aim to provide a comparative analysis of Baudrillard’s theorizations with those of Jacques Derrida, with a view to arguing that despite many similarities between their respective corpuses, their capacity for envisaging a radically more democratising and emancipating future for our self-creations and human solidarities can and does, at times, differ markedly, and that for those – like myself – who remain optimistic for a fairer, freer, more peaceful world, Derrida’s practico-theoretical framework is a necessary supplement to Baudrillard’s radical thought.4
II. Jean Baudrillard: Strategies of Resistance
i) Baudrillard’s Evolution: Life, Death and the (Moral) Universe
In Chapter One of The Vital Illusion5 “The Final Solution”, Baudrillard charts, “hypothetically” as he puts it, the movement of our species from the earliest life of our cells towards what he anticipates to be an absolute death. So far, so apocalyptic it would seem. However, absolute death is understood by Baudrillard in a particular and peculiar way, as not the end of the individual human being but rather as “a regression toward a state of minimal differentiation among living beings, of a pure repetition of identical beings”.6 The meaning of this is by no means obvious but its unpacking is absolutely crucial because it provides both an accessible “way in” to some difficult Baudrillardian arguments concerning simulation, reversibility, reproductive technology, reality, virtuality, illusion, and so on, and it is an “opening” approach that, so far as I am aware, has hitherto not been undertaken in the literature – certainly not as a prelude to a comparison with Derrida.
Speaking of the beginning of the “human evolutionary process” Baudrillard states:
Contrary to everything that seems obvious and ‘natural’, nature’s first creatures were immortal. It was only by obtaining the power to die, by dint of constant struggle, that we became the living beings we are today. Blindly we dream of overcoming death through immortality, when all the time immortality is the most horrific of possible fates.7
Again, Baudrillard’s somewhat peculiar argument needs heavy glossing/reading. For his point is that the move to mortality in the evolution of the biosphere is marked by the move of immortal beings from the absolute continuity found in the subdivision of the same toward the possibility of birth and death. Let us follow Baudrillard again here as all becomes more clear:
[So] the egg becomes fertilised by a sperm and specialised sex cells make their appearance. The resulting entity is no longer a copy of either one of the pair that engendered it; rather, it is a new and singular combination. There is a shift from pure and simple reproduction to procreation: the first two will die for the first time, and the third for the first time will be born. We reach the stage of beings that are sexed, differentiated, and mortal. The earlier order of the virus – of immortal beings – is perpetuated, but henceforth this world of deathless beings is contained inside the world of mortals. In evolutionary terms, the victory goes to beings that are mortal and distinct from one another: the victory goes to us.8
The victory, however, turns out to be short lived. The game isn’t over. Reversion is always possible. Encoded in the earliest life of our cells, immortality reappears on the horizon, driving what he calls the “enormous enterprise” we as living beings appear to be undertaking today; namely,
…a project to reconstruct a homogenous and uniformly consistent
universe – an artificial continuum this time – that unfolds within a technological and mechanical medium, extending over our vast information network, where we are in the process of building a perfect clone, an identical copy of our world, a virtual artefact that opens up the prospect of endless reproduction… This is the revenge taken on mortal and sexed beings by immortal and undifferentiated life forms. This is what could be called the final solution.9
The result of this “pathological involution” of the evolutionary process is thus the “dis-information” of our species through the cancelling of differences; the result of which leads him to question the scientific myth of progress as a step forward.
So, Baudrillard’s hypothesis is that the human race, unable to face its own diversity (its mortality), its own complexity, its own radical difference, its own alterity, is involved in a kind of revisionism. But maybe, he muses, this revisionism can be seen as an adventure or “heroic test” in order to see what part of so called “human nature” survives the artificialization of living beings taken to its limits.10 The question for Baudrillard thus becomes that of whether by taking such an artificial course our species is, in fact, hastening its own decline according to some collective, suicidal impulse/death drive. For once humanity has rid itself of all its vicissitudes, its negative traits – our desires, neuroses, dreams, handicaps, viruses, frenzies, our unconscious (even sexuality is cited by Baudrillard) – then what makes us unique as living beings is usurped in the perfection of the model? And for all of those who may still have faith in culture to preserve us from what is an anathema to Baudrillard, and which informs his “political” position – the thus stated “hell of the Same” – Baudrillard has some bad news:
It is culture that clones us, mental cloning anticipates any biological cloning. It is the matrix of acquired traits that, today, clones us culturally under the sign of monothought – and it is all the innate differences that are annulled, inexorably by ideas, by ways of life, by the cultural context. Through school systems, media, culture, and mass information, singular beings become identical copies of one another. It is a kind of cloning – social cloning, the industrial reproduction of things and people – that makes possible the biological conception of the genome and of genetic cloning, which only further sanctions the cloning of human conduct and human cognition.11
Thus it is that Baudrillard will argue that mass destruction is endemic in Western culture. For we must understand that before Europe and America perpetuated the holocaust on cultures around the world qua globalization, they achieved the same effect on themselves.
Yet, it is not all doom and gloom for Baudrillard, for he goes on to argue that this phenomenon offers us the chance to call into question the basic elements of millenarian morality. And while he recognises that such self-analysis may take some time given our moralists and biologists are not yet at the point where they can recognise the fundamental role played by the death drive in both the human individual and in the human race as a whole, when it is completed Baudrillard expects that this fatal enterprise will reveal something that radical philosophers already know; namely, that
…there is no morality to oppose to this immoral desire, this technological desire for immortality. There are no laws of nature and no moral law that would be their manifestation. The notion of such a law springs from an idealised vision of the world, one that is perpetuated…by science itself. There are no natural rights of the individual, or of the species, from the point of view of an ideal definition. Thus there is no interdiction that could be founded on a division between good and evil.12
Although at first glance this might seem like rather less than good news, for Baudrillard this insight brings into relief a “moral universe” dissimulated by the hegemony of the good qua the mono-thought of the human. In what he describes as “this traditional universe”, there was still a balance of Good and Evil according to a “dialectical relation that more or less insured tension and equilibrium in the moral universe”.13 On this telling there is no supremacy of Good over Evil or vice versa, and indeed it is when this symmetrical relationship is broken that the homogenising force of the Same is unleashed in its accumulative frenzy:
This symmetry is broken as soon as there is a total extrapolation of the Good (an hegemony of the positive) over any form of negativity, an exclusion of death, of any potential adversarial force; the absolute triumph of the Good. From there, the equilibrium is broken, and it as if Evil regained an invisible autonomy. Developing then in exponential
As Baudrillard will argue in his 2001 essay, “The Spirit of Terrorism”, it is exactly this breakdown which has happened in the political order with the failure/erasure of communism and the global triumph of liberal capitalism, whereby “a fantastical enemy appeared, diffused over the whole planet, infiltrating everywhere as a virus, surging from every interstice of power – Islam”.15 It is in this context that Baudrillard argues that Islam can be read as the ironic (reversible) embodiment of that greatly more powerful force that resides everywhere and in each of us; that is, a fundamental impulse to deny any system if such a system is (apparently) close to perfection or absolute supremacy. The more the system is globally concentrated to constitute one network the more it becomes vulnerable at a single point to a challenge to its generalised system of exchange by an irreducible alterity that must always resist. It is thus (hopefully) ironic that there now exists a situation where the Western hegemony of the Good and the positive accomplishments of Western economic expansion and technological advancement have been met by equally negative reactions as evil develops exponentially: the West has engendered its own destruction at the limits of its own perfection.
For Baudrillard, then, the result of the “terrorist act” – exemplified par excellence in the attack on the Twin towers on September Eleventh 2001 – is consequently to introduce an irreducible singularity into the homogenising exchange circuit. Terror against terror. It is as if, he muses, again – musing being very much a favoured tone of Baudrillard’s works – every “domination seeking” phenomenon was the creator of its own antibody, becoming the architect of their own disappearance – impotent against the automatic (silent) reversal of its power. And for Baudrillard this situation is nothing less than a Fourth World War,16 a war irreducible to the phenomenon of the opposition of America and Islam for example, whose very oppositionality only serves to promote the illusion of a visible conflict and an attainable solution (through force). For Baudrillard this “fundamental antagonism” is nothing less than a triumphant globalization fighting with itself, “for it is the world itself which resists domination”.17
This last remark must be underlined for it captures the very “essence” of Baudrillard’s thinking which is always – and this needs to be stressed again given its lack of visibility in many studies – thought against the dictatorship of the same, of the identical, the cloned, the perfect one, the monolith(ic). And here the world is on his side, breaking and resisting the domination of the one and only. The world dies of sameness, it lives through different deaths. As always, the value of thought lies not in its convergences with “truth” but in the immeasurable divergences which separate it from “truth”; indeed our very consciousness (as consciousness of) results from a challenging of reality. Accordingly, Baudrillard desires an oppositional heterogeneous life – a life of (greatly more) radical illusion/alterity, a radicality that is unalienable, interminable. And, ironically, “natural”: despite the thrust of our culture of and for the same, for closure against all differences, all excesses, life wants to be, and just is, disobedience to conformity. Life is, Real life is, excessive of all constraints.
In line with these remarks as to the homogenising, programmatic nature of postmodern simulation society (hyper-reality), Baudrillard will subsequently argue that the “common sense” idea of communication that most of us work with is a massively misleading, paradoxical one. For it is his contention that in our techno-mediascape, where communication appears to have developed exponentially through the development and proliferation of our semiotic, our mass media and our cybernetic paradigms, there is actually less and less communication taking place. This is because, on Baudrillard’s account, what such communicative paradigms efface is the violence of the initial communicative opening that is the condition of possibility (and impossibility) of all forms of communication. That is to say, that when communication is reduced to the production and circulation of meaning, something essential to communication is lost; is disavowed. Accordingly, for Baudrillard, the fact that linguistic communication can and does occur but that it always needs supplementing, clarifying, elaborating and repeating in its “uncertainty”, is proof of this violent, arbitrary communicative opening and its co-extensive symbolic exchange as (de) constructive of all meaningful thought.
It is just this “deconstructive movement” – cast in his work in terms of the symbolic-semiotic spiral – that Baudrillard therefore seeks to articulate with his idea of reversibility, a movement perhaps best illustrated with reference to his use of Marcel Mauss’s elaboration of gift exchange in The Gift. For what Baudrillard finds in Mauss’s gift exchange theory is an exchange which operates outside of the code of rationality and its attendant transcendental subject, and whose challenge results in an endless cyclical process of exchange/reversal. For the reciprocal obligation identified by Mauss in symbolic cultures and maintained by sacrifice and ritual (in certain American tribes for example) has nothing to do with the re-paying of a debt (the “normal” economic relation), but rather with assuring the continuation of exchange per se. For this reason the object exchanged has no value independent of the ceaseless movement of reversal, a movement which consequently operates not only without reference to meaning but, more radically, without reference to fixed difference as such (the symbolic being no-thing ontic but a form of exchange). The challenge of “the gift and counter-gift” thus manifests itself in the way in which the experience of the other gives rise to an interminable cycle of exchange irreducible to the logic of identity (the hell of “the same”) yet without which identity and concomitantly communication itself (as reply to) would never get under way. Now Baudrillard’s point here – as throughout his work – is not (as certain Baudrillard commentators and critics have wrongly argued and assumed) to privilege primitive cultures as such, nor to advocate one type of communication (the symbolic) at the expense of another (the semiotic) – as critics such as Jean Francois Lyotard18 and William Merrin19 are prone to do – but rather, as his idea of the symbolic-semiotic spiral suggests, to give expression to the typically obscured or unknown but, nevertheless, irreducible movement of “delimitation and excess” which is nothing less than the irreducibility of time and alterity to figuration (i.e. the always failing to capture in any figure the totality: things always escape our artificial exchange economies). And in Baudrillard’s view the attempted effacement of this irreducibility of radical singularity is nothing less than a “perfect crime” against communication itself. In a key passage Baudrillard clarifies all of this as follows:
Our common language tries, by discursive means, to inscribe reality in a meaning, in a form of reciprocal exchange. But today language is confronted by the hegemonic fantasy of a global and perpetual communication – the New Order, the new cyberspace of language – where the ultra simplification of digital languages prevails over the figural complexity of natural languages. With binary coding and decoding the symbolic dimension of language is lost; the materiality, the multiplicity, and the magic of language are erased. At the extreme limit of computation and the coding and cloning of human thought (artificial intelligence), language as a medium of symbolic exchange becomes a definitively useless function.20
The hope for radical critique, which relies, in a sense, on acknowledging the protean possibility of symbolic exchange as forever unrecuperable, thus comes, as always for Baudrillard, from the imperfection of the (perfect) crime (here) against language, whose evidence comes from unsettling language itself: there can be no definitive (metaphysical) closure that exhausts in our communications (in the semiotic) the always in excess symbolic exchange that, in the end, tirelessly and inexhaustively unsettles everything, reopens every attempted closure: the symbolic as the saviour of interminable openness. Accordingly, for Baudrillard the strongest resistance – the “counter-destructive” moment – to the destructive virtualization of language comes from the “singularity, the irreducibility, the vernacularism of all languages”21 which are still “alive and kicking” and which remain, in all their stubborn, radical singularity and un-cooptability, the best guarantee against the global extermination of meaning, of meanings – of the guarantee against monolithic closure – of differences.
The whole question of how such “resistance” is played out socially, politically and economically, however, is complicated in Baudrillard’s theories by his argument as to the disappearance of the space for, and hence possibility of, collective “political” action, thereby questioning, it would seem, the possibility of overthrowing the “new world order” as he construes it with all its manifest injustices, its inequalities and its drive towards that criminal state of monolithic and homogenous same which negates alternatives, negates radical otherness/alterity, and to which he is so opposed. As Chris Rojek points out in this context in his essay “Baudrillard and Politics”22 it is not now a question of the masses being prone to fascist manipulation or communism somehow raising the consciousness of the masses into resistance. No, this is too old a story. For as constituted as terminals/multiple networks, the private sphere ceases to be the stage where the drama of the subject at odds with his/her object and with his/her image is played out, and, where most of what passes for post-war politics has been concerned to show the gap between the personal and the political and to promote a realignment between the two for the purpose of moral advancement/social improvement, Baudrillard sees only the play of the signifier as the point of resistance: of potential “reverse”. Citing as an example the events in Paris in May 1968, Rojek points to the poverty of the well-meaning politics of the Left which, dedicated to liberating the masses, found itself incapable of escaping the vortex of simulation in which the sign continuously promised more that it could deliver – May ’68 perhaps – against its express intentions, thereby coming to signal (perhaps) the end of collectivism as such.
Yet it is not the case (as Baudrillard commentators such as Christopher Norris assume) that in denying the old space of politics in today’s world Baudrillard has no “political interest”23 (just as it is not true that Baudrillard has no “ethical interest”). For I think it is clear that Baudrillard is politically and ethically engaged throughout. So why the common misunderstanding by otherwise sophisticated commentators and critics? Well, such a denial of Baudrillard’s political interest arises, I think, in misunderstanding the nature of his self-declared nihilism which is taken over-simply to mean that he denies all meaning whatsoever and therefore must lack any substantive ethical/political position. For this not only does not follow but is absolutely not the case: Baudrillard’s work is one which seeks to come to grips with the pathological over-production of meaning in “Western” societies in which “we” are both literally and metaphorically killing ourselves, co-extensively seeking to examine the way in which our traditional political concepts and categories have emptied themselves out and thus pushed us beyond contemporary understandings of the state and politics – and thus resistance as it is conventionally understood. And this ever present engagement can be further seen if we examine the now well worn but still useful example of the events surrounding “9/11” (indeed “9/11” as Event). For here we can effectively grasp Baudrillard’s current arguments (i.e. most recently rearticulated long-term position) surrounding what he terms the trans-political and the possibility of resistance to the dominant system such that we can open up the way for a discussion of such issues as the “hell of power”, the aestheticization of culture, and Baudrillard’s identification of America as the privileged site of resistance to the homogenising forces of contemporary hyper-reality.
ii) Baudrillard and the Politics of Terror
Baudrillard sees the value – not it must be emphasised the justification – of the September 11 attack(s), as being an “irreducible, singular and irrevocable
challenge”,24 a challenge all the more significant in that it affects “the system” from the inside, adapting to the logic of sign exchange and sign value. Using the banality of American everyday life as a “mask and a double game”, Baudrillard argues that the terrorists used Western planes, computer networks and the media (combined with their own demise) to produce a spectacle of terror designed to push the system into overdrive and hence (potentially) bring about its own extermination: a hyperreal act confronts a hyperreal system. In other words, cast in terms of the symbolic-semiotic spiral repeated across Baudrillard’s oeuvre, the terrorist act operates through semiotic process(es), escalating them, creating reversive forces within the system; causing it to collapse at the point of perfection: the invulnerable American land mass. Ironically – and irony is at the core of his thought – it is the semiotic (qua the productivist economy of meaning), striving as it does to produce a world of non-events, that itself produces a desire for precisely an event of maximum consequence, a fateful event symbolically rebalancing the scales of destiny as Evil reappears to haunt the conscience of the (self-declared) Good.
In terms of its “event-ness”, September 11 thus becomes both a non-event – it is quickly assimilated into and recuperated within the codes/models used to represent/control it – and what Baudrillard describes as an absolute event qua a reversive symbolic event after which the system can never quite function in the same way again. The problem for the West here in responding to this incident is that it cannot directly exchange anything with the terrorists, not only because it cannot reciprocate with its own death, but because acknowledging the challenge as such would admit an irreducible singularity into the homogenising logic of the global capitalist machine. The American led coalition is therefore forced into a simulation of war and security as a strategy of deterrence and a “face saving” exercise designed to reassert control and reinstate the illusion of power, winning back the public imagination which remains fascinated by the terrorist spectacle, replaying incessantly the humiliating moments of the twin tower collapse when the seat of virtual (and actual) capitalism took a direct hit. The terrorists wager is that this strategy will prove fatal. As Baudrillard puts all this in “The Spirit of Terrorism”, the performative genius of the terrorist spectacle is to provide a condensed image of the West’s social and political processes wherein the very derision of the situation (the terrorist act), as well as the piled up violence of power, flips over against it, magnifying simultaneously both the system’s violence and the symbolic violence it can never access or control.
In the light of the American led reaction to the 9/11 suicide attacks, argues Baudrillard, it would seem that the terrorist wager is working, events seem to have unfolded very much according to the terrorist script. The most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – wars effectively won in advance – have failed in their mission to “shock and awe”. The inability to find weapons of mass destruction, the humiliation of Saddam Hussein, the failure to quell local and national resistance and the lack of a coherent plan for post-war Iraq in particular has meant that what was designed to be a public relations victory has turned into a show of bad conscience for the West. And for Baudrillard, nowhere was and is this bad conscience more in evidence than in the images beamed across the world of various prisoner abuse scandals. As he argues in his essay “War Porn”
These images are as murderous for America as those of the World Trade Centre flames. Nevertheless, America in itself is not on trial, and it is useless to charge the Americans: the infernal machine exploded in literally suicidal acts. In fact, the Americans have been overtaken by their own power. They do not have the means to control it. And now we are part of this power. The bad conscience of the entire West is crystallised in the burst of sadistic laughter of the American soldiers, as it is behind the construction of the Israeli wall. This is where the truth of these images lies; this is what they are full of: the excessiveness of a power designating itself as abject and pornographic.25
But while Baudrillard speaks of the “truth of these images”, he is keen to point out that “truth” is not veracity. Whether these pictures of prisoner abuse are true or false remains somewhat uncertain. But the point he is making is that it is their import which counts; the manner in which they are definitively integrated into the war. Thus they don’t represent the war anymore – they involve neither distance, perception nor judgment – rather, precisely because of this their specific violence adds to the specific violence of the war. And so the typical Baudrillardian trope of reversibility gets articulated again, here is that reversing irony; the irony of our aestheticized culture: that the same techno-media apparatus that enabled the Western military to control, produce and direct coverage of the war, ultimately proves self-defeating. As Baudrillard telling states: “There exists in all of this…an immanent justice of the image: those who live by the spectacle will die by the spectacle. Do you want to acquire power through the image? Then you will perish by the return of the image”.26 And so no matter how many soldiers are tried and convicted of the abuse of the Iraqi prisoners in their care, the damage has been done: America has electrocuted itself.
Contra Norris et. al.27 all this is very, very clearly political, and to develop this position further I now want to consider his political theorizations on the “global and universal”. For as Baudrillard makes clear all of what has just been examined is evidence of the ignominy of a loss universal whose light is extinguished under the hegemonic movement of globalization in our trans-political universe, and what he has to say here further elucidates the possibility (if any) he leaves open for some kind of organised resistance to the homogenising forces of Western integrism (the transpolitical being the condition engendered by the global, logistical attempt to eliminate the time and space to resist).
iii) The Global and the Universal
As Baudrillard explains in his essay “The Global and the Universal”,28 globalization and universality are not equivalent terms – the former pertains to techniques, the market, tourism and information, the latter to values: to human rights, freedoms and democratization. And whereas globalization (led by the USA “everywhere”) currently seems irreversible, the universal (universal “human” aspirations) now appear to be almost an endangered species. He puts it this way: “The globalization of [relative] exchange puts an end to the universalization of [absolute] values. It is the triumph of monothought over universal thought”.29 In Baudrillard’s view, democracy and human rights now circulate like any other global product – oil or capital – and their expansion corresponds to their weakest definition. As Paul Corey perceptively remarks in this context, “what actually expands is the spectacle of universal democracy, human rights, and freedom, but not reality. Liberty is reduced to the free exchange of wealth and information”.30
For Baudrillard it is the American way of life – which “we Europeans” think of as naïve and/or culturally worthless – which provides us with a graphic representation of the end of our values – only prophesised in “our” countries – on “the grand scale that the geographical and mental dimensions of utopia can give to it”.31 No charm, no seduction here – just the absolute fascination of the disappearance of all aesthetic and critical forms of life in the “irradiation of an objectless neutrality…insane circulation without desire”.32 Without a hint of European nostalgia – or nostalgia for Europe – Baudrillard’s America is described as a “stunning fusion of a radical lack of culture and natural beauty, of the wonder of nature and the absolute simulacrum”33 (by passing the in-between stage of universal mediating values). The monumentality of the landscape reminds humanity that it is just one in a series of signifying systems, while the apocalyptic state of speed, noise and over-consumption of American cities attests to the empty experience of contemporary hyper-reality. America here is the name of that strange destiny wherein everything is fated to appear as simulation. Baudrillard brilliantly and concisely captures this:
Landscapes as photography, women as sexual scenario, thoughts as writing, terrorism as fashion and media, events as television…You wonder whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world. When the only physical beauty is created by plastic surgery, the only urban beauty by landscape surgery, the only opinion by opinion poll surgery…and now, with genetic engineering, along comes plastic surgery for the whole human species.34
All this is evidence, for Baudrillard, of the tragedy of a utopian dream made reality: “In the heartland of wealth and liberation, you always hear the same question: What are you doing after the orgy? What do you do when everything is available – sex, flowers, the stereotypes of life and death? This is America’s problem, and, through America, it has become the whole world’s problem”.35 When everything becomes art (art is liberated) then art disappears (think Duchamp’s urinal). When everything becomes sexual (sex is liberated) then sexual potency loses its force (think pornography). Taking the social as a case in point, the problem is no longer cast in terms of representation, objective needs or desires, truth, and so on. It is no longer a problem of alienation – which assumes a now implausible human nature and eternal essence. The problem is simply the excess of information; it is this which Baudrillard sees leading “us” to the condition of “saturation and entropy”. He goes on: “when knowledge, through its models, anticipates the event, in other words, when the event (or opinion) is preceded by its degraded form (or its simulated form) its energy is entirely absorbed into the void”.36 Overwhelmed by statistical exhibitionism (the continual voyeurism of the group spying on itself), in a sort of hyperchondrical mania, over-informed, over-fed the social becomes obese with itself; the irony being that this socialization process, this obsession with the manifest visibility of the social, actually works to disguise the fact that government policy is desocializing, disenfranchising and (de)ejecting. At this level of obesity the social is contracting to include only economic exchange, technology, the sophisticated and the innovative. For Baudrillard the only remaining question is this: what situation will result from this progressive disenfranchisement? His answer seems to include both a certain violence which (as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan) proves ultimately self-defeating, and a kind of menopause resulting from a lack of new frontiers.
Yet there is, however, in the Baudrillardian schema – as his remarks on reversibility attest – actually room for optimism, room for resistance, some joy to be found in all of this – albeit not of a conventional type. Irony again. For as William Bogard has also commented, despite the obvious injustices of simulation society (that is, despite the attempt, by various interested parties, to figure time and alterity absolutely) at the same time anything does still remain possible, nothing is foreclosed, the world “can be enchanted even in its banal simulation”.37 And, crucially, Baudrillard’s America is where we are to find this seduction re-introduced (albeit a cool seduction) if we are going to find it anywhere. He argues:
I think that each of us can resist. I don’t get the impression there could be any organised political resistance as such. It would always be an exception, and whatever you do will always be ‘exceptional’ in that sense. A work of art is a singularity, and all these singularities can create holes, interstices, voids et cetera, in the metastatic fullness of culture. But I don’t see them coalescing, combining into a kind of anti-power that could invest the other.38
The injunction is this then: “You have to look either to the achievement, by saturation and concentration – by the system’s excess of positivity – of a critical mass, and then it’s no longer the negative but the more positive-than-positive that produces the upheaval; or to singularities, perfectly anomalous objects or events, which are neither inside nor outside [the system].39 To briefly give some examples of the former here Baudrillard will speak of the “reversing irony” of AIDS, cancer and computer viruses (terrorism already being spoken of here) which increase proportionally to the exponential growth in the obesity, transparency and homogeneity of the system (bodily, immune, informational etc) and attack the system from within. In the same context of the “obesity of the system” Baudrillard also talks of the scandalous resistance of “the masses” as a nameless, faceless no-thing-ness which increases exponentially at the same time as the social and information, these masses “refusing to be spoken of as well as to speak”, forcing the system into overdrive, as “power” is revealed as nothing but an “empty simulacrum”. In terms of the latter, in terms of singularities, Baudrillard will point to singular buildings say which float as if in a vacuum, anticipating future developments, challenging the surrounding architecture. Or, alternatively, reading familiar texts or narratives backwards or sideways, paratactically, resisting the assimilationist logic of the system. It is a question of challenging the productivist ontology with the unpredictable, the irrecuperable, the radical other which shines in all its glorious alterity – even if only for a moment.
This, I would argue, is Baudrillard’s overtly radical, overtly political position from which basis I now move on to examine what I consider to be the manifest similarities and differences between Baudrillard’s general position and that of fellow philosopher-theorist Jacques Derrida. The aim of this (relatively brief but hopefully informative) comparison – an aim established at the outset – is to demonstrate that despite the merits of Baudrillard’s strategy/position for helping navigate our postmodern condition, for those – like myself – who envisage a radically more democratising and emancipating future for our self-creations and human solidarities – who therefore remain optimistic for a fairer, freer, more peaceful world – it is the addition of Derrida’s work which (together) provides the “best” practico-theoretical framework for navigating our post-historical, post-industrial, post-modern world (for as I have argued it is not a case of simply choosing between the two).
III. Derrida and Baudrillard
i) Common Ground
In terms of their projects – and to try and put this as simply as I can – Baudrillard and Derrida both undertake “deconstructive” readings of the Western metaphysical tradition (a tradition which has sought to constrain the meaning of being to objective and/or subjective presence) which show the impossibility of fixing meaning in any determinate figure, once and for all. For what both men “uncover” – Baudrillard articulating it in terms of the symbolic/semiotic spiral and Derrida in terms of the quasi-logic of differ-a-nce – is an originary experience of language, time and the other which makes im-possible our made-meaningful world. The consequence of this groundless ground of thought and being, being that (as Baudrillard would put it) in even our finest grained analyses, our tightest discursive closures, our most refined definitions, the world (the thing itself) always escapes closure. Everything remains to be thought.
In this vein – and tellingly – both Baudrillard and Derrida have recourse to the “aporia of the law” in order to identify that which exceeds all determination. For Derrida this movement of delimitation and excess is cast (in a juridical problematic) in terms of the “promise” of the law – wherein judgments are only ever tokens of the law and never the law itself (Justice) which unfailingly and interminably exceeds the sum of all and every one of its empirical instantiations. For Baudrillard too (though in a non-juridical register this time) the law (/) serves to institute a discontinuous form of exchange which opens up the space of meaning, depth and truth by establishing a universal limit. Formalised as signifier/signified, exchange-value/use-value, this legislative gesture creates the illusion of objective reality, knower and known, yet (as with judgments for Derrida) is forever haunted by what it must disavow in order to appear as such – a disavowed which returns (always potentially, always too infrequently in actuality!) to undermine its authority. It is thus that Baudrillard has recourse to the logic of the rule qua a circular seductive gaming space kept going by the challenge and so dominated by a relation of two or more reversible elements in order to point to this movement of delimitation and excess. And as with Derrida while the election of the rule does not put an end to the law, the necessary co-implication of rule and law marks the perpetual differance of the legislative gesture.For both Baudrillard and Derrida the “aporia of the law” subsequently becomes a healthy respect for “the secret” – phrased in Derrida in terms of the “unpresentable” and the “sacred” and in Baudrillard in terms of the hypothesis of a secret pre-destination of the world. For both it is important to “know” that while we cannot escape the law we inescapably pass through that secret passage which shakes up our received wisdom(s) and calls us toward a certain “experience of the impossible” (which, as Derrida remarks, is perhaps the best definition of deconstruction).
Thus attentive to the excessive nature of time and alterity that always exceeds our timing (and taming), both Derrida and Baudrillard are naturally concerned with the manner in which our experience of time and alterity is ordered/domesticated post-modernity. However it is at this point – namely their respective discussions of the shaping powers of the tele-techno-media in our arti-factual, actu-virtual world40 – that crucial differences begin to emerge (in particular ethico-political differences) which do mark a sharp divergence in their respective democratic and emancipatory hopes and desires for the future, this divergence – their dis-similarity – finding expression in their contrasting views on what Baudrillard calls – to recall – the “global” and the “universal”.41 The upshot being that two very different ways of being-in-the-world, two very different “modes of resistance” to the homogenising logic of the same will emerge.
ii) The Tele-Techno-Media Age: The Beginning Or the End of Freedom and Equality?
In the opening gambit of Echographies of the Television Derrida writes:
…Today, more than ever before, to think one’s time, especially when one takes the risk of speaking publicly about it, is to register, in order to bring it into play, the fact that the time of this very speaking is artificially produced. It is an artefact. In its very happening, the time of this public gesture is calculated, constrained, “formatted”, “initialised” by a media apparatus…This would deserve almost infinite analysis. Who today would think his time and who, above all, would speak about it, I’d like to know, without first paying some attention to a public space and therefore to a political present which is constantly transformed, in its structure and its content, by the teletechnology of what is so confusingly called information or communication.42
And indeed it is just this concern with the artificial (re-) production of our time(s) that leads Baudrillard to speak of our living in a universe of integral reality: our inter-active, virtual simulation world. But whereas Derrida’s Echographies is a book written with the aim of encouraging a positive, critical engagement with our tele-technologies, one cannot help but be left with a far bleaker picture of our arti-factual and actu-virtual condition in Baudrillard’s work – as titles such as The Evil Demon of Images and The Transparency of Evil tellingly suggest. Take this remark on the tele-techno-media age from the “Evil Demon” work as a typical example:
The immense majority of present day photographs, cinematic and television images are thought to bear witness to the world with naïve resemblance and a touch stone fidelity. We have spontaneous confidence in our realism. We are wrong. They only seem to resemble things, to resemble reality, events, faces. Or rather, they really do conform, but conformity is diabolical… we all remain incredibly naïve: we always look for a good use of the image, that is to say a moral, meaningful, pedagogic or informational usage, without seeing that the image in a sense revolts against good usage, that it is the conductor neither of meaning nor good intentions…43
And this is why, as a radical European theorist “abroad” – and for all the manifest injustice and inequalities he finds in his America – “hyperreal America” remains for Baudrillard more “true to the state of things today” than any nostalgic “European mind-set”. In America, from the outset, you are in a transpolitical sphere which exempts you – for better or for worse – from any social realism. By way of contrast, in our “traditional world” (our European world history and linear temporality, high culture and intellectualism) “we” retain the “sentimental cult of the message” whose time has no passed. And so while America may serve as an alibi for the European mind as it seeks to comfort itself that this high culture shelters us from the banality, the superficiality and the brashness of a zero-sum signification society, in fact America is the “truth” of a generalised loss of values in the West raised to the Nth power. This is not to say that Baudrillard sees Europe turning into America but that (hyper) modern America, having been born out of a rupture with Europe, now appears on Europe’s horizons to haunt its bluff good conscience as, by media injection, it spreads to all latitudes and countries qua the disappearance of the referent and the triumph of globalization – of techniques, the market, tourism and information – over a now defunct universalization – human rights, freedoms and democratization.
While at this point it is hard to argue with much of what Baudrillard has to say about Europe I cannot (will not!) accept that, after Derrida, we are unable to re-think the European spirit of the universal in a re-worked ethico-political space (albeit one transformed in our techno-media age) which might enable us to utilize the potential benefits of globalization while minimising its potentially harmful effects – indeed Derrida argues democracy and human rights stand a better chance of being realised where globalization occurs.44 For while Derrida recognises that a certain (European) Western capitalist, imperialist spirit (one reaching obesity in the American model it helped spawn) has indeed been destructive – leading to (World) wars, imperialism, colonization, genocides and the like – he cannot foreclose on another messianic (and most importantly) European spirit which promises not the elimination of all otherness but a new world order infinitely open to otherness; a world where universal human rights, international law, freedom and equality are opened anew in the aporia of the demos (i.e. in a condition which respects the “aporia of the law”, that movement of delimitation and excess spoken of a few moments ago). For while for Baudrillard the possibility of accommodating all differences – or better singularities – is symptomatic of the fallacy of an impotent universal in the face of an immoral globalization process (arguing that the other can only ever be a source of confrontation and non-assimilation), for Derrida this very impossibility is the im-possible source of ethics and responsibility; an ethico-political opening which has the opportunity to form the axioms of new and more radical (radically emancipating and democratising) systems of law, politics, economics and values (on a local national and international level) whereby these “institutions” remain forever to be made and remade in the name of a never satiated Justice.
Motivated by the recent passing of Jean Baudrillard my aim has been both to provide a brief but informative overview of his position which does some justice to its breadth and depth and most importantly its idiomatic – without of course being quite idiomatic – nature, and to suggest that the work of Jacques Derrida must (from my perspective) be “supplemented” to Baudrillard’s in order to offer the chance to re-think our post-historical, post-industrial, post-modern self-creations and human solidarities in more exciting democratising and emancipating ways. For this paper is above all a testament to two “Incorruptibles” who – and there can be no greater accolade – have literally enabled us to change the way we think and act in revolutionary ways; who have given us the conceptual tools and the courage to resist the “hell of the Same” and rejoice in the always excessive nature of thinking and being – of life/lives without ends.
Sally Hart has recently completed a Ph.D. in History at the University of Chichester. Her thesis is entitled Derrida and Postmodernity: At the End(s) of History (2007). Her recent writing includes: “Derrida and the Politics of Mourning” in Rethinking History: A (Routledge) Journal of Theory and Practice, Volume 11, Number 2, (June 2007): http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/13642529.asp Her review of Sean Gaston’s The Impossible Mourning of Jacques Derrida appears in Philosophy in Review: http://www.uvic.ca/philosophy/pir/index.html
Jacques Derrida. “I am at War with myself” in Le Monde
(Wednesday 18 August, 2004). Translated by Pascale Fusshoeller, Leslie Thatcher and Steve Weissman for “Truthout.org”: http://www.truthout.org
. I am indebted to Dr. David Clark for his assistance in locating this English translation.
2 Rex Butler. Jean Baudrillard: The Illusion of the Real. London:SAGE, 1999.
3 By “after Derrida” here I mean (in a sense coined by Nicholas Royle) both after Derrida chronologically and after Derrida in spirit. See Royle’s After Derrida. Manchester University Press, 1995.
4 That is, “the best” from a postmodern/post-structuralist, left-wing, generally more optimistic point of view: Derrida’s viewpoint, my viewpoint.
5 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
13 Jean Baudrillard. “The Spirit of Terrorism”. Published in Le Monde (November 2nd 2001) see also Jean Baudrillard. The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers. New York: Verso, 2002, 2003.
16 Following the First and Second World War and the Cold War.
17 Jean Baudrillard. The Spirit of Terrorism. New York: Verso, 2002.
18 As Philip Jenkins argues in Jean Baudrillard: Deconstruction and Alterity (unpublished PhD, University of Bristol, 2001), for Baudrillard, Lyotard is symptomatic of those critics who have been “too ready to reduce symbolic exchange to the description of an exchange between pre-existing, separate and finite terms (subjects)…[thus failing]…to grasp how the symbolic is operative of an analogy whose purpose is to articulate a circulation and opening, that deconstructs precisely the discontinuity of the subject/object binary that structures his own comments” (72).
19 I quote from Jenkins succinct remarks once more to gain more clarity on this issue. He states of Merrin’s arguable mis-reading of Baudrillard on this point: “in his attempt to locate Baudrillard’s theory of communication (and his work as a whole) within the Durkheimian tradition…Merrin tends to set up the very binary logic that the symbolic in fact deconstructs. Instead of operating as a general condition of im-possibility, the symbolic is presented simply as a “more personal, human and social” form of exchange that is superseded by the mass media, “ a poor substitute for human contact”…[It] is only when the symbolic is understood as general condition of im-possibility (articulated metaphorically in terms of gift exchange) that these shortcomings can be resolved”. (Ibid.:68).
20 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:69 (Italics are mine).
22 Chris Rojek. “Baudrillard and Politics”. In Forget Baudrillard? London: Routledge, 1993.
23 This tends to result from the view exemplified by Christopher Norris and supported by the likes of Alan Sokal that Baudrillard is a “reality-denying irrationalist”. Drawing his own political implications of such views Alan Callinicos will speak of Baudrillard’s work as likely to “license a kind of intellectual dandyism” which abandons the kind of critical inquiry needed to critique late capitalism in favour of a banal media theory. For Callinicos therefore, Baudrillard’s work thus does little more than underwrite the intellectual and political dominance of the new western middle class(es) and add to the “political disillusionment of societies most articulate members”. Callum G. Brown, Postmodernism for Historians. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2005:166.
24 Jean Baudrillard. “The Spirit of Terrorism”. New York: Verso, 2002, 2003.
31 Jean Baudrillard. America. Verso, London and New York: 1999:98.
36 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. Translated by Philip Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski. New York: Semiotext(e) / Pluto, 1990:91.
Douglas Kellner (Editor). Baudrillard: A Critical Reader
. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995:326
Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime
. New York: Verso, 1996:2.
39 Jean Baudrillard. Jean, Paroxysm : Interviews with Philippe Petit. Verso, London and New York : 1998:63.
40 The “arti-factual” and the “actu-virtual” are terms coined by Derrida to signify (respectively) the fact that actuality is made (not found) by a range of “hierarchizing” and “selective” procedures wherein the “reality” of “actuality” only reaches us through fictional devices, and the fact that never (value) neutral virtual images, spaces and events help construct our “actuality” today.
41 Jean Baudrillard. “The global and the Universal” In Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002.
42 Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler. Echographies of the Television. Cambridge: Polity, 2005:3.
43 Jean Baudrillard. The Evil Demon of Images. Left Bank Books:1987. This quote taken from a section reproduced in The Continental Aesthetics Reader. Edited by Clive Cazeaux. Routledge, London and New York: 2000:444-448
44 He claims here that the movement toward democratization in Eastern Europe owes almost everything “to television, to the communication of models, norms, images, informational products, and so on”.