ISSN: 1705-6411
                                   
Volume 8, Number 2 (July 2011)

Nihilism and Cultural Cohesion: (Re)considerations of Jean Baudrillard

Dr. B. Garrick Harden

(Department of Sociology, Social Work and Criminal Justice, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, USA)

I. Introduction

Jean Baudrillard wrote what can be considered requiems for modernism and authenticity in culture.  Baudrillard illustrates postmodern culture through both the form and content of his writings.  The evolution of his writings from Marxist and Structuralist critiques of consumer society ([1970] 1998) up to his uneasy acceptance of the death of the enlightenment in his later works demonstrates a mourning for the loss of meaning in social interaction, language, technology and, more generally, the creation of cultural “forms” (Baudrillard [1970] 1998; [1977] 2007; [1981] 1994; [1986] 1988; [1990] 1993; [1995] 1996; 2003).  It is important to distinguish between postmodernism as critique and analysis and postmodernism as our current historical and cultural epoch. 

Breaking with other theorists and cultural critics, Baudrillard paints a nihilistic portrait of post-industrial culture but to describe his thought as nihilistic is overly simplistic.  The concept of a nihilistic culture seems oxymoronic at first glance; after all, culture implies patterns and structures and nihilism would connote the absence of such things.  The loss of meaning would seem to imply the “death of society;” the implosion of boundaries that once provided organization and structure, however, instead of causing the dissolution of social and cultural forms it provides the “glue” to postmodern culture.  In other words, the very aspects of nihilism in postmodern culture – anomie, ennui, alienation – denotes a loss of meaning that ironically provides a kind of anti-structure (in the same sense of anti-aesthetics in art (Foster, 1998). 

This article does three main things: 1) It is a review and interpretation of several of main concepts that Baudrillard explores in much of his later works. 2) While doing so it resituates Baudrillard in relation to other social theorists (both classical and contemporary) in order to illustrate the continuity of Western thought in Baudrillard’s work. 3) It is also an exercise in “sense making” of the paradoxical relationship or even obsession Western culture has with its own death in the form of nihilism.

II. The Implosion of Meaning

Sociological theory exists under the shadow of Marx and Baudrillard’s oeuvre is no exception.  Much like Nietzsche’s (1974) pronouncement of the death of God, Baudrillard proclaims the death of Marx but reminds us that his shadow remains.  Unlike Nietzsche, however, Baudrillard does not seem so concerned with killing this shadow because it has become irrelevant.  What is meant here is that while Baudrillard engages Marxist discourse (particularly in his earlier work), he does so as a detournement:  the means of production becomes consumption, use-value becomes purely exchange-value, class-consciousness becomes “the code,” commodity fetishism becomes consumer fetishism and historical materialism becomes empty semiotics.  The implosion of meaning is intimately tied with Baudrillard’s disappointed relationship with Marx (Baudrillard [1977] 2007; 2003b; see also Coulter, 2009). Baudrillard was a proponent of radical politics until the failure of the revolution of May 1968 at which point he made a radical break with Marx and the materialism of radical politics (Baudrillard [1977] 2007).  The events of the 1960s became “the orgy” in Baudrillard’s language and ultimately brought about the implosion of meaning:

If I were asked to characterize the present state of affairs, I would describe it as ‘after the orgy’.  The orgy in question was the moment when modernity exploded upon us, the moment of liberation in every sphere.  Political liberation, sexual liberation, liberation of the forces of production, liberation of the forces of destruction, women’s liberation, children’s liberation, liberation of unconscious drives, liberation of art.  The assumption of all models of representation, as of all models of anti-representation.  This was a total orgy – an orgy of the real, the rational, the sexual, of criticisms as of anti-criticism, of development as of the crisis of development.  We have pursued every avenue in the production and effective overproduction of objects, signs, messages, ideologies and satisfactions.  Now everything has been liberated, the chips are down, and we find ourselves faced collectively with the big question:  WHAT DO WE DO NOW THE ORGY IS OVER? [emphasis in the original] (Baudrillard [1990] 1993:3).

The relationship between form and content that Simmel (1971) elucidated in terms of the ultimate importance of content loses all relevance as Lyotardesque (2002) language games delegitimates any truth claim through denying the content of any given statement legitimacy – in other words, form becomes all important.  Though Lyotard views language games as freeing and an opening up of voices (or a reversal of Grand Narratives), this is a contention in terms of values not analysis as both Lyotard and Baudrillard are describing the implosion of meaning.

Roland Barthes ([1957] 1972), another of Baudrillard’s influences, provides the semiotic model for postmodern culture.  The sign is the highest semiotic order, which breaks into signifier and signified.  The sign is both object and subject but consumer society, according to Baudrillard (and Barthes heads in this direction as well), breaks down the object.  For instance, advertising companies turn commodities into status symbols associated with the image of the item being consumed such as Nike shoes becoming a symbol of athleticism under the meaningless saying “just do it.”  Meaning is imploded not due to a lack of meaning but due to an overabundance of meaning (Baudrillard [1995] 1996; [1970] 1998).  Take for example the term “Weapons of Mass Destruction” or WMDs; when the Bush administration turned WMDs into an empty sign that can and is applied to almost anything – WMDs came to refer to chemical, nuclear, biological and technological (in the sense of computer viruses) weapons.  Now the concept has been used in popular culture in a myriad of ways including consuming clothes that denote a “lack of fashion sense.”  This is implosion in an even deeper sense as the implosion of materiality through the object.  In a Marxian sense, social relationships were defined through the relations of production.  In the labor-based theory of value, a commodity’s use-value comes from human labor and the value can only be accessed through the destruction of the object.  In consumer society, use value is destroyed in social logic as exchange-value becomes all.  In other words, consumers will through away a cell phone that is still working (still has use value) in order to get a new phone with more bells and whistles for the exchange in status (Baudrillard [1970] 1998). 

The body, which for Nietzsche (1995) is both object and subject: “Body am I, and soul’ – thus speaks the child.  And why should one not speak like children?  But the awakened and knowing say:  body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body” (I: 4) becomes an empty sign through informatics.  The body becomes a billboard for consumer advertisements.  Consumers are not only transformed into signs but they pay corporations for the right to advertise for them.  As Baudrillard writes: “Thus the body, landscape, time all progressively disappear as scenes.  And the same for public space:  the theater of the social and theater of politics are both reduced more and more to a large soft body with many heads” (Foster, 1998:149).  With the rise and popularity of social network websites this is brought to a whole new level as lives are lived in public and are reduced to the communicative logic of consumption.  This has more implications than just the subject/object dualism when emotions and the media are taken into consideration.  As Baudrillard ([1981] 1994) wrote, “…information is directly destructive of meaning and signification, or that it neutralizes them.  The loss of meaning is directly linked to the dissolving, dissuasive action of information, the media, and the mass media” (79).  That the implosion of meaning is not simply a disappearance of meaning so much as the loss of meaning through an over abundance of meaning cannot be overly stressed.  This is part of Marshall McLuhan’s (1994) argument that the “medium is the message.”  When looking at the organization of American living rooms, chairs and couches are not oriented around one another to make others the focal point of the social organization but around the television.  The content of the television program being viewed is not the message in this sense but the social relationships that are meditated through this very organization. 

The message is a proliferation of consumption; whether we are watching a sitcom or the news we are consuming entertainment.  Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze’s debate about whether pleasure exists in the liminal space of the subject or inhabiting the subject (respectively) becomes irrelevant as the subject dissolves in the medium (Baudrillard [1977] 2007:20).  Stjepan Mestrovic (1997) discusses this in terms of the implosion of emotions.  Media are inundating us with shallow emotions.  There are so many emotions being portrayed through media that we can only have a shallow relationship with them.  Again, this is a lack in terms of an over abundance.  A strong example of this is the news:  the talking heads can go from sadness at a tragedy to laughing at a water skiing squirrel without segue. 

Ulrich Beck (2007) adds another dimension to the discussion of imploding meaning in terms of intertextuality.  In his version of postmodern culture, which he calls “reflexive modernity” (though he is resistant to using the term “postmodern” his analysis of reflexive modernity can be situated with the body of work known as postmodern through his attributing reflexivity to a breakdown of social and cultural boundaries), methodology are turned against the very bodies of knowledges that they have been used to create.  Science, in this sense, becomes imploded in that the accumulation of scientific knowledges are ultimately contradictory and makes discussion of “reality” untenable at best.  This is much like the Holocaust deniers who use science to argue, for example, that the concentrations camps were not equipped to kill as many people of which they are accused.  We can argue that we “know” that the holocaust happened and rightly so but the tragedy here is that once these knowledges are subjected to the social logic of language games what “really” happened becomes lost and allows for arguments that would otherwise be labeled “crazy” to receive an audience based on the legitimation of the language game know as science (Beck, 2007; Lyotard, 2002).  In Baudrillard’s terms, this is the vicious circulation of fictions (just as holocaust deniers have scientific evidence, there is scientific evidence that contradicts them) where the concept of “reality” becomes meaningless by the very virtue of the proliferation of information as fictions or images for the sake of consumption.  Thus historical and political discourse is parsed out through our entertainment outlets and the once solid discursive boundaries between entertainment and life dissolve.  Another way of putting this is the holocaust happened because Steven Spielberg said it did…

Another salient cultural issue Baudrillard analyzes is cultural recycling.  Baudrillard is not the only scholar to analyze this social phenomenon; Fredric Jameson (1991) discusses how nostalgia is written into popular culture for older generations.  Jameson’s example is the space opera Star Wars as a recycling of Buck Rogers.  While this may cause a kind of nostalgia for older generations, younger ones who do not know who Buck Rogers is will see Star Wars as an original, creative project.  This recycling of culture can be seen in terms of the breakdown of the dialectic or the end of history.  Consumer society stands as the synthesis of homo oeconomicus and Affluent Society (Baudrillard [1970] 1998:69).  As George Ritzer (1999) called Baudrillard’s concept of postmodern culture “the black hole of consumption” (181), the implosion of meaning in postmodern culture acts as a black hole in the totalizing sense; it is a thesis without an antithesis – a tautology without a possible response:  “The dialectic stage, the critical stage is empty.  There is no more stage.  There is no therapy of meaning or therapy through meaning:  therapy itself is part of the generalized process of indifferentiation” (Baudrillard [1981] 1994:161).

III. Simulacra

One of the major aspects of postmodern culture intimately linked with the implosion of meaning that Baudrillard describes is simulacra or the copy of a copy without an original (Baudrillard, passim).  It is the situation when the real no longer exists and the sign stands in its stead.  The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished.  Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation.  The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself.  The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living [emphasis in the original] (Debord, 1983:2).

Guy Debord, as demonstrated in the above text, has his own concept of simulacra that is almost identical to Baudrillard’s.  The image stands separated from any sense of material “reality” in the sense of non-living.  It is important that Debord writes “non-living” instead of dead because for him, as well as for Baudrillard, death constitutes something.  As long as death exists (and we are quickly eroding that as well) there is something that cannot be exchanged.  But also in this sense, the dead are more alive than the simulacra.  A simple example of how this works would be to think of shoes, when someone his dressing and putting on their shoes they are just as likely to say “let me get my shoes” as they are to say, “let me get my Nikes” in this simple exchange we see how the image, “Nikes” stands in for the object “shoes” and thus makes the material existence of the shoe suspect.

Simulacra have many detrimental effects on meaning in postmodern culture; a predominant effect being the loss of awe.  I will explain this through example—think of the many representations you have seen of the Grand Canyon.  You have probably seen many astounding aerial shots of the canyon as well as scenes from movies of it set to music (and possibly as the back drop of some excitement); say that someone saw all of these images without ever having been to the Grand Canyon him/herself, when they finally get the opportunity to visit the canyon their reactions will probably something akin to, “what, is that all?  It’s just a big ditch!”  Because the many mechanically reproduced images of the Grand Canyon are so spectacular, they come to stand in for the object itself; therefore, the Grand Canyon no longer exists, it has become simulacra:

What we ourselves have fallen victim to – and by no means allegorically – is a virus destructive of otherness.  And we may predict that… no science will be able to protect us from this viral pathology which, by dint of antibodies and immune strategies, aims the extinction, pure and simple, of the other.  Though, for the moment, this virus does not affect the biological reproduction of the species, it affects an even more fundamental function, that of the symbolic reproduction of the other, favoring, rather, a cloned, asexual reproduction of the species-less individual.  For to be deprived of the other is to be deprived of sex, and to be deprived of sex is to be deprived of symbolic belonging to any species whatsoever (Baudrillard [1995] 1996:111-12).

Nihilism as culture is monolithic and totalizing – in this sense, all things become simulacra and the simulacra have only superficial meaning if any at all.  Along these lines, Walter Benjamin (2007) wrote about the changing value of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.  He argued that when art come to be (re)produced using machines, the aura surrounding the original work is lost and thus the judgment of value in terms of aesthetics is lost (the death of beauty).

Even parody becomes a simulacrum in postmodern culture.  Baudrillard’s analysis of postmodern culture is an exercise in pataphysics or a parody of metaphysics.  This is meant ironically, unfortunately, because, as Fredric Jameson (1991) points out, parody has been replaced by pastiche.  Parody requires an intimate understanding of the subject being imitated or lampooned; pastiche merely requires a copy of the subject to be pasted together with other copies to create a whole that has nothing to do with the copies let alone the once existent originals.  We can see this occurring in living situations of urban dwellers.  Due to overcrowding and dissolving communal boundaries, people who end up living in close proximity to one another do not necessarily have anything in common with each other beyond a relatively similar economic class.  Thus, in New York you could have, living on one floor of an apartment building, a machinist, restaurant owner and mob hit man living as neighbors but their lives are radically different from one another and this illustrates the weakening of communal bonds precipitated by pastiche living (Jameson, 1991).

IV. Hyperreality

Hyperreality is defined as that real which is more real than the real and represents the loss of myth and metaphor as we create a reality where everything we desire to be true becomes true, “The era of hyperreality now begins.  What I mean is this:  what was projected psychologically and mentally, what used to be lived out on earth as metaphor, as mental or metaphorical scene, is henceforth projected into reality, without any metaphor at all, into an absolute space which is also that of simulation” (Foster, 1998:147-8).  The simplest examples of hyperreality are mediatized experiences such as surfing the web or playing a video game; Baudrillard, however, does not limit the term to just these and offers the example of the space station as hyperreality.  We have from our distant pasts myths and legends and metaphors dealing with the stars and who lives among the stars.  A metaphor for death is going to live among the stars.  The question that Baudrillard poses is what happens when humans actually go and live among the stars?  The myths and metaphors lose their effect.  The space station makes those metaphors a reality, something for which they were never meant.

Though Baudrillard was among the first to use the term hyperreality, he was not the first to describe the concept.  Horkheimer and Adorno argued in Dialectics of the Enlightenment that we cannot tell the difference between movies and reality:
The whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry.  The old experience of the movie-goer, who sees the world outside as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent upon reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer’s guideline.  The more intensely and flawlessly his techniques duplicate empirical objects, the easier it is today for the illusion to prevail that the outside world is the straightforward continuation of that presented on the screen.  This purpose has been furthered by mechanical reproduction since the lightning takeover by the sound film.  Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies (Horkheimer and Adorno, 2002:126).

Notice the order: “real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies” not the other way around.  When the movie on September 11, 2001 came out, I was listening to an NPR talk host discuss a response group on the movie in which a teenage girl made the comment (I paraphrase), “I remember when 9/11 happened, it was like a movie but after watching the movie, it made the tragedy real for me.”:
We labour under the illusion that it is the real we lack the most, but actually, reality is at its height.  By our technical exploits, we have reached such a degree of reality and objectivity that we might even speak of an excess of reality, which leaves us far more anxious and disconcerted than the lack of it.  That we could at least make up for with utopianism and imagination, whereas there is neither compensation for – nor any alternative to – the excess of reality.  No longer any possible negation or surpassing, since we are already beyond.  No longer any negative energy arising between the imbalance between the ideal and the real, of the total positivity of the real.  However, even though we have gone beyond the real, into virtual accomplishment, we still have the unpleasant impression of having missed the end.  The whole of modernity had as its aim the coming of this real world, the liberation of men and of real energies, bent upon an objective transformation of the world, beyond all the illusions with which critical analysis has kept philosophy and practice fed.  Today, the world has become real beyond our wildest expectations.  The real and the rational have been overturned by their very realization (Baudrillard [1995] 1996:64).

At what point did we succeed in swallowing the world and blotting out the sky?  It does not seem to matter anymore.  The hyperreal is one of the most salient descriptors of nihilism in postmodern culture.

V. Nihilism

Emile Durkheim (1997) teaches us that when the division of labor increases to a certain level of complexity, a pathological form can emerge:  the anomic society.  This form comes about when the division of labor is such that individual laborers lose sight of the larger picture of society; in other words we operate under a social logic of extreme individualism.  People are separated from one another and in postmodern culture anomie is particularly prevalent as people interact with technologically created hyperrealities instead of others.  Even when people do interact with one another it is often through the mediatization of hyperrealities:  people interact through online video games, cell phones, the internet or if they talk directly with one another it is about and oriented around hyperreal experiences.  It is problematic to talk about the nature of anything but it would not be controversial to say that humans, by nature, are social beings; this is an inherent part of our species; we create meaning through our social relationships and our sense of self and well being is dependent on relationships with others (Fromm, 2006).  Durkheim does not go so far as to call anomie nihilistic, just pathological; he saw anomie as being a social disease.  Though Baudrillard goes much further than past or even most contemporary theorists in laying out postmodern culture as nihilistic, there are others who at least point in this direction.

Baudrillard is the heir of Nietzsche and though Nietzsche is unfairly classified as a nihilist he did argue that our concepts of meaning and truth are illusions (1974).  Nietzsche deconstructed concepts of absolute or universal meaning for a meaning that is less sure of itself, playful and always in the act of becoming.  If Nietzsche were writing today he would have been labeled (to his annoyance) a social constructionist:

You call yourselves realists and hint that the world really is the way it appears to you.  As if reality stood unveiled before you only, and you yourselves were perhaps the best part of it… Your sobriety still contains a secret and inextinguishable drunkenness.  Your love of “reality,” for example – oh, that is a primeval “love.”  Every feeling and sensation contains a piece of this old love; and some fantasy, some prejudice, some unreason, some ignorance, some fear, and ever so much else has contributed to it and worked on it.  That mountain there!  That cloud there!  What is “real” in that?  Subtract the phantasm and every human contribution from it, my sober friends!  If you can!  If you can forget your descent, your past, your training – all of your humanity and animality [emphasis in the original] (Nietzsche, 1974:57).

The important question is: “what is nihilism?”  Baudrillard asks the same question at the end of Simulacra and Simulation.  To say our overarching structures and myths are social illusions?  No, that seems to me to be already presumed in theory.  Nihilism exists when the only real event possible is death; when in the logic of the potlatch (Baudrillard [1970] 1998) dominates culture and the only way to win a zero-sum game is to give a gift that cannot be answered.  This is the “real” tragedy Baudrillard see embodied in September 11, 2001.  Baudrillard comments that until 9/11 events were on strike (Baudrillard, 2003).  When a culture is ironically based on the implosion of meaning, when life becomes simulacra and existence only occurs in the hyperreal the culture is already dead and the only arena left for radical politics comes in the gift of (actual) death (Baudrillard [1970] 1998; [1995] 1996; 2003).

But even the seismic challenge is still only a flirtation with death; it still forms part of the natural beauty, as do history or revolutionary theory, whose hyperrealist echoes come here to die with the discreet charm of something from a previous existence.  All that remains of a violent and historical demand is this graffiti on the beach, facing out to sea, no longer calling upon the revolutionary masses, but speaking to the sky and the open space and the transparent deities of the Pacific:  PLEASE REVOLUTION! [emphasis in the original] (Baudrillard [1986] 1988:122).

This is psychoanalysis of the collective; just as Freud argued we all have the opposing forces of eros and thanatos bouncing about in our ids, Baudrillard is arguing that our civilization is spurred forward by the inertia of thanatos.

Pitirim Sorokin (2006) is a modernist who warned of the coming sensate culture.  This cultural form comes towards the end of a civilizations life-span and is marked by a focus on senses and pleasure and weak (anomic) social bonds.  Senses of meaning are lost in sensate culture and, Sorokin predicted, unless the culture changes drastically, the civilization would crumble.  So, if our present culture is operating from nihilism, anomie (arguably social nihilism), and has a driving force of thanatos, why does it not collapse?  How is a nihilistic culture even possible?  It is possible because of that self-same nihilism.

I contend that an anomic organic society can be said to have a strong, albeit “mutated,” conscious collective.  The basis for this assertion comes from an analysis not of the inherent structure of the division of labor but in the technological advance that come about because of it and the ways in which the collective consciousness can be strengthened through them.  Furthermore, the West’s shift from a production society to a service/consumer society, coupled with the technological advances of the division of labor and the cult of the individual, creates a situation where the collective consciousness of organic society is fundamentally different than, but just as strong as, that of mechanical societies without precluding the prominence of anomie.  This assertion seems counter-intuitive but, by it, I mean:  individuals’ consciousnesses create and reify the collective consciousness individually so that their social connection is directly with the collective but not other individuals.  Baudrillard’s ([1970] 1998) The Consumer Society is helpful in extending Durkheim’s analysis in this way.

VI. Conclusion

Firstly, I assert the cult of the individual has evolved to the point where it is no longer a reverence for the dignity of the individual so much as it is an ascetic attempt at self-destruction to reach unia mystica with a Wholly Other and thus an attempt by the individual to become Wholly Other him/herself.  This is perpetuated by such service industry companies as marketing firms which extol consumers to “be yourself” through personalizable products.  Items are advertised to make you yourself; they are claimed to give one a personality that is your own.  Advertisers tell us to “stand out,” “be noticed” and “be different” (Baudrillard [1970] 1998).  As Baudrillard pointed out however, to be different is to be unnamable because if there is a label to describe you, you are not so different after all.  To be unnamable, in other words, to defy language, is to destroy whatever you were before to become the Wholly Other. 

Secondly, as is implied by the above line of argument, anomie is not only present in advanced organic society, it is taken to new heights!  Anomie is not only extended in the above sense but also in Durkheim’s use of the word through technological advances.  Look at how many infomercials there are advertising “work at home with your computer!” or colleges and universities offering online degrees up to Ph.D.  People who work in a factory may be anomic in their lack of overall knowledge and connection with others but at least they see other people.  As pointed out above, there is television, iPod, blogging, blackberry and Bluetooth all of which make living in a personalizable world possible where you do not ever have to “see” another person.  Increasingly, when we do have contact with other people it is through machines such as cell phones, instant messaging and electronic mail so that our contact is one dimensional digitized voices or typed messages; I contend this is an entirely new form of anomie when there is contact but the medium mechanizes the contact.

Lastly, the collective consciousness maintains strength in three ways:  the cult of the Wholly Other, the individual experience of advertisements and cultural outlets of technology.  In other words, the collective consciousness becomes an outcropping of the forms of anomie in contemporary society.  The cult of the Wholly Other creates the collective consciousness in much the same way Durkheim hesitantly admitted the cult of the individual “kind of” bolstered it; the cult of the Wholly Other is a more or less hegemonic ascetic moral system that unites people in organic society in the common goal of self annihilation in pursuit one of 976 personalized hair dyes that will make you “you.”  Baudrillard summed up the individual experience of advertisement when he wrote of the “symbolic, silent exchange between the proffered object and the gaze” (Ibid., 166):

Shop-windows thus beat out the rhythm of the social process of value:  they are a continual adaptability test for everyone, a test of managed projection and integration.  The big stores are a kind of pinnacle of this urban process, a positive laboratory and social testing ground, where, as Durkheim writes in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, the collectivity reinforces its cohesion, as in feasts and spectacles (Ibid.).

Advertisement becomes a dialectic of reflexive power where the consumer gazes upon objects and values while advertisers gaze upon consumers in a perpetual show of consumption.  Thus the collective consciousness is emergent through the spectacle of consumption.  Finally the cultural outlets of technology provide a direct link to the collective consciousness through such things as television and the internet.  Culture producing industries such as Hollywood provide “popular” culture, which is something that 1) was once just called “culture,” 2) was once produced and shared in common and 3) is now consumable in individualized formats (what special features would you like on your movie today?) you can download off the internet.  Culture is beamed and wired and passed through the air into televisions where you can watch alone in your home.  Public opinion can be manufactured and then measured by internet polls without any human discussion.  The Occident is wired (or wireless at this point) individually; thus each person is individually plugged into the collective consciousness without any need for human contact.

Baudrillard ([1981] 1994) writes, “I am a nihilist” (160); maybe he was not being ironic when he wrote this but whether Baudrillard himself was a nihilist, his theories pointed to possibilities outside of nihilism.  He goes on to write, “To tell the truth, it is no longer so much a question of nihilism:  in disappearance, in the desert like, aleatory, and indifferent form, there is no longer even pathos, the pathetic of nihilism – that mythic energy that is still the force of nihilism, of radicality, mythic denial, dramatic anticipation” (Ibid.:162).  In this sense, Baudrillard was both a nihilist and not a nihilist.  His use of concepts such as simulacra, hyperreality and the implosion of meaning point very clearly to a charge of nihilism against postmodern culture but at the same time, Baudrillard points out that this nihilism is socially constructive – the code of consumer society could not function without it.  He also does not completly forget his revolutionary roots and points to possibilities of rebellion against the rebellion of postmodern culture:

To sum up, we find ourselves faced with a dual project:  a bid to complete the world, to achieve an integral reality – and a bid to continue the Nothing (of which this book is a part).  Both are doomed to fail.  But, whereas the failure of an attempt at completion is, necessarily, negative [in the sense of negative dialectics], the failure of an attempt at annihilation is, necessarily, vital and positive.  It is for this reason that thought, which knows it will fail in any case, is duty-bound to set itself criminal objectives.  An undertaking directed towards positive objectives cannot allow itself to fail.  One which pursues criminal objectives is duty-bound to fail.  Such is the well-tempered application of the principle of evil.  If the system fails to be everything, nothing will remain of it.  If thought fails to be nothing, something will remain of it (Baudrillard [1995] 1996:151).

References

Roland Barthes ([1957] 1972).  Mythologies.  New York:  Hill and Wang.

Jean Baudrillard ([1970] 1998). The Consumer Society.  London:  Sage.

Jean Baudrillard ([1977] 2007).  Forget Foucault.  Los Angeles:  Semiotext(e).

Jean Baudrillard ([1981] 1994.  Simulacra and Simulation.  The University of Michigan:  The University of Michigan Press.

Jean Baudrillard ([1986] 1988). America. London: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard ([1995] 1996). The Perfect Crime. London: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard ([1990] 1993). The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena.  London:  Verso.

Jean Baudrillard ( 2003).  The Spirit of Terrorism.  London:  Verso.

Jean Baudrillard (2003b). Passwords. London: Verso.

Zygmunt Bauman ( 2003). Intimations of Postmodernity. New York: Routledge.

Ulrich Beck (2007). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London:  Sage.
Walter Benjamin (1969).  “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. In Illuminations:  Essays and Reflections. New York: Schocken.

Gerry Coulter (2009). “The Place of Marx in Contemporary Thought: The Case of Jean Baudrillard”. In Nebula, Volume 6, Number 4: 133-141, (December 2009). Also available at: http://www.nobleworld.biz/images/Coulter2.pdf.

Guy Debord (1983). Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red.

Emile Durkheim (1997). The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press.

Hal Foster (Editor, 1998). The Anti-Aesthetic:  Essays on Postmodern Culture.  New York:  The New Press.

Erich Fromm (2006). The Art of Loving. New York: Harper.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment:  Philosophical Fragments. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Frederic Jameson (1991). Postmodernism:  Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Jean-Francois Lyotard (2002). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Stjepen Mestrovic (1997). Postemotional Society. London: Sage.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1974). The Gay Science. New York: Random House.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1995). Thus Spoke Zarathustra. New York: Random House.

David Riesman (2001). The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Georg Simmel (1971). On Individuality and Social Forms. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Pitirim Sorokin (2006).  Social & Cultural Dynamics: A Study of Change in Major Systems of Art, Truth, Ethics, Law, and Social Relationships as well as Exercises in Arbitrary Exactitude in Subtitles. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.


© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2011)

[Main Page]   [Contents]   [Editorial Board]   [Submissions]