Volume 9, Number 2 (July 2012)
The Baudrillardean Object
Dr. Joel Weinbrot
Many summers ago I visited Walt Disney World with my family. Its newest attraction at the time was called, Animal Kingdom, a theme park within Disney’s sprawling complex of theme parks wherein we would be treated to a tour of a wildlife preserve, or, I should say, a simulation of a wildlife preserve whose actual counterpart operates somewhere in the wildernesses of Africa. All along the queue, televisions broadcast the image of what appeared to be an actual African preserve administrator who informed guests in a charming African accent of the growing threat poachers posed to endangered animals on that embattled continent, and then made what were for all the world sincere impassioned pleas for assistance: “The elephants are disappearing!” his identical images plaintively announced in unison. “Please help us!”
It wasn’t clear to me if by “us” he meant the preserve administration or the plurality of his clones. Signs posted here and there warned off poachers by enumerating the dire consequences of transgressions. My family, sweating, sipping cokes, observed all this dispassionately, registering it as we were intended to register it; namely, as a theatrical device to keep us distracted, docile, and mildly amused while we inched along, suffering in the Florida summer heat. As for me, I began to grow anxious, if vaguely so. I had recently read an excerpt of Jean Baudrillard’s “Precession of the Simulacra,” a provocative and disconcerting essay that featured the Californian version of the theme park we were, at this very minute, uncritically enjoying. The essay had made an impression on me and I couldn’t ignore the soulless clockwork of hyperreality all around us. Here was the wholesale liquidation of referentials, the testament to the reign of simulation. Here was Baudrillard’s bizarre dystopia arisen and operational.
Though I felt tempted to mention this to someone, anyone, I held my tongue for fear of being branded as a joyless egghead determined to contaminate all instances of good American fun with cynical intellect. And so I silently shouldered the weight of my observations silently and entertained Baudrillard’s vision of a cryopreserved Walt Disney, who, in my imagination, appeared as a disembodied head grown hoary with forty years of frost. I also imagined Frosty old Walt directing park operations from a subterranean command and control module via telepathic fiat.
When we finally reached the front of the queue, smiling attendants garbed in safari gear assisted us into motorized carriages and we were off. The tour, disappointingly, offered nothing eye-popping in the way of wildlife, nothing you haven’t seen before if you’ve ever been to a zoo worthy of the name. Our tour guide’s voice, amplified by tiny speakers mounted beneath the canopy, directed our attention to giraffes nibbling leaves, the occasional big cat asleep on the simulated savannah, bored-looking rhinos, et cetera. Then, suddenly, the guide’s voice spiked with alarm. He was receiving word from headquarters that poachers had been sighted in the area and to proceed with the utmost caution. In the interest of guest safety, the guide told us, he would take us on an alternate route through the preserve but advised us to remain alert – in other words, to play our part, which we did.
The simulated poacher attack commenced with gunfire and screaming, actors scrambling over the terrain, the tour guide’s panicked commands to remain calm, and after a few minutes culminated with the apprehension of the criminals. No one was shaken by this drama but me – or, I ought to say, I’m confident no one was shaken for the same reason. I could think only of Baudrillard’s claim that “all hold-ups , hijacks and the like are now as it were simulation hold-ups, in the sense that they are inscribed in advance in the decoding and orchestrating rituals of the media, anticipated in their mode of presentation and possible consequences” (Baudrillard, 1988:166 ff.).
By this point, I’d had enough. I was driven to voice my philosophical distress. “But don’t you see?” I said. “All hold-ups and the like are now as it were simulation hold-ups, in the sense that they are inscribed in advance in the decoding and orchestrating rituals of the media!” Perhaps I didn’t phrase my objection precisely like that. More likely any modicum of lucidity ended at “But don’t you see?” The truth was I wasn’t entirely certain that I saw or, for that matter, what it was I was seeing. My brother, likely thinking me delirious from heat or dehydration, offered me some of his coke, which I gratefully accepted.
It wasn’t until a few years later upon discovering the work of the philosopher Stanley Cavell (perhaps Wittgenstein’s most eminent and ardent apologist) that I would find a context in which I might begin to make sense of my experience in Animal Kingdom. Cavell’s The Claim of Reason, published in 1978 (three or four years before the publication of “Precession”), comprises, among a host of related concerns, an attempt to make explicit the deep methodological rift between traditional epistemology (by which I mean an epistemology that takes Rene Descartes’ Meditations as its point of departure), and ordinary language philosophy, a relatively upstart discipline derived from the later thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein and championed by J. L Austin. Crudely expressed, Cavell’s interest in this rift was to show how traditional epistemology and ordinary language philosophy were arguing past each other, a demonstration he believed would reveal a fuller picture of the nature of skepticism and its relationship to our beworlded condition and human freedom. This epistemological war, some would claim, is past, but it’s my wish to artificially resurrect it and add Jean Baudrillard as a purely holographic combatant in a simulated battle scenario. What I want to suggest is this: if we take them seriously, the concepts Jean Baudrillard develops in his seminal essay “Precession of the Simulacra” by their very nature demand an assessment of their potential impact on the whole of epistemology, and that such an assessment might find force and utility if grounded in the context of the ordinary language philosophy debate Cavell wished to illuminate. To be sure, what follows is by no means exhaustive but more a preliminary sketch of how one line of investigation might proceed given my broader thesis.
That Baudrillard’s thought makes epistemological claims in “Precession” cannot, I think, be reasonably disputed. One of a number of examples from which I might choose to demonstrate include that: In preparing the ground for his argument concerning the social need for the preservation of the reality principle, he adduces the figure of the simulator, the being who presents physical symptoms of illness absent a causally related medical pathology. “Is he ill or not?” Baudrillard asks. “He cannot be treated objectively as ill, or as not ill” (Baudrillard, 1988). I might invoke more but we need only to turn to Baudrillard’s fundamental proposition – namely, that reality is quickly giving way to hyperreality – which implies a problematic of discernment. But “implies” seems too weak of a verb here. “Entails” is more suited to the job. In fact, one of Baudrillard’s persistent themes is our inability to distinguish the map from the territory, the real from its simulation, a crisis of knowledge that will survive as long as it makes sense to invoke such a distinction. Perhaps it no longer does. If the real was moribund at the time of the publication of “Precession,” might it not be the case that, by now its vestiges have entirely vanished from the human world and we now fully inhabit Borges’s inconceivable map unawares, our lives reduced to the function of coordinates? But do we believe this? And would such circumstances necessarily shield Baudrillard’s notion of the real from the general questions epistemology insists upon?
Since Descartes’ cogito, the question of the real has occupied a central position in epistemological discourse, and as we might expect, retains its centrality within Cavell’s study. In the war between traditional and ordinary language philosophy, the boundaries of the real demarcated the borders of a disputed territory, at stake, a kind of philosophical holy land. Here I do not allude to the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East glibly but to suggest the urgency immanent to any philosophical discussion of the real. In the case of the bloodless war we’re discussing, it was more than a question of ownership since dominion over a concept or an idea grants power over its grammatical possibilities and therefore its discursive limits in what Wittgenstein called forms of life. In short, the victors of the war would, theoretically, determine what in fact the real could be [At this point, it becomes necessary to do some cursory stage-setting for some remarks I’ll wish to make about “Precession of the Simulacra.” Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of doing unconscionable violence to the subtlety and rigor of Cavell’s thought and for that I apologize].
For the traditional philosopher, the question of the real turns on the question of existence. The thought that obsesses him is (roughly): How can we be certain of the existence of an exterior world or other minds? In order to talk about such a question, the philosopher might adduce an exemplary object, a piece of wax or an envelope (what Austin referred to as a “stalking horse”). For example, I say, “There is an envelope on the table.” The philosopher asks, “How do you know?” I respond: “Well, I see it there.” The philosopher asks (choose whichever you like): (a) “Do you see all of it?” or (b) “Are you certain you’re not dreaming?” or (c) “Couldn’t you be hallucinating?” I say (depending on the particular challenge): (a) “Well, no, I can’t see the underside” or (b) “I’m not certain I’m not dreaming” or (c) Yes, I could be hallucinating. The philosopher’s skeptical conclusion is: “Then you don’t know.”
Austin, dissatisfied with the inevitability of this sequence combats it by suggesting hypothetical objects of his own: the goldfinch, for example. I say: “There is a goldfinch in the garden.” When asked “How do you know?” I say, “By its red head.” The challenge might be: “But woodpeckers have red heads.” The ordinary language philosopher draws the conclusion that the initial claim to knowledge here was infelicitous or hasty. Not enough of the bird’s features were taken into account. In other words, under other circumstance (e.g. better ornithological training, perhaps) the claim could’ve been entered with certitude.
The difference between these exchanges might be described as strategic in two senses: first, because the object selected influences the kinds of questions that can arise in discussing it, and, second, because the object presupposes a situational context in which questions can arise. Cavell, after some deliberation, settles on calling the traditional philosopher’s object a “generic” object to distinguish it from the Austinian object, which latter is chosen to make us aware how odd the situational context is in which the traditional philosopher’s question, “How do you know?” occurs. In effect, Austin makes the problem of knowledge the problem of identification, insisting that the traditional philosopher, by abstracting words from their ordinary context, fabricates a problem where none exists. Cavell will go on to criticize Austin for making the epistemologist’s concern appear trivial and ridiculous in this way, asking “why does [Austin] insinuate, that the philosopher would enter this objection in the context Austin imagines?” (Cavell, 1979:52). Furthermore, Cavell doesn’t find it clear or obvious that the traditional philosopher’s use of “know,” given the philosopher’s obsession, really does distort its function as Austin claims and it becomes his aim to show that the ordinary language critic is misguided in conceiving his task as a debunking of skepticism. To all acquainted with Cavell’s philosophy, this line of thought will recall his belief that Wittgenstein did not, as some philosophers are given to believe, wish to dismantle skepticism as a philosophical response but to account for its voicing and assay the cost in subscribing to it.
What I’d like to draw out about “Precession of the Simulacra” in light this philosophical battle is the nature and function of what I’ll call the Baudrillardean object and how it compares to the generic and Austinian objects. Before proceeding, I ought to acknowledge from the outset that important distinctions set Baudrillard’s project askance the battle proper in which I’m trying to include him as a combatant. The most significant of these is that the epistemological concerns raised by Baudrillard’s thought in “Precession” are not directly motivated by those concerns but, rather, are implicit in his diagnosis of an unfettered consumptive cultural process. To be sure, this is not to say that these concerns ought to be viewed as secondary to his project but only bound up with his commitment to the idea of hyperreality and its explication. The Baudrillardean object is not adduced explicitly to test or elicit what it means to know. This makes Baudrillard a special force in the war, even as a hologram, since he’s drawing fire on the flank of his thought and maybe unexpectedly to boot.
Having said this, I still feel it’s a war in which he’s obliged to participate. I feel as though I ought to be able to point to an object in a Baudrillardean tilt of mind and make some sort of epistemological decree or discrimination, or ask under what ordinary circumstances I would challenge such a statement with the question, “How do you know?” I feel as though invited to do so. But what sort of object do I imagine myself pointing to here? The first odd thing one notices about the modality of the Baudrillardean object in contradistinction to its counterparts is its curious difficulty to anticipate – unless you count this difficulty as reliably characteristic of it. The Baudrillardean object, depending on whether it’s identified as a simulacra or a simulation, can be a material thing (e.g., a religious artifact or totem), an event (e.g., a hold-up, a war, a political scandal), a science (e.g., ethnology), mummified royalty (e.g., the pharaoh Ramses II) or an entire living people (e.g., the Tasaday Indians). The range of objects that make itself available to the hypothesis of hyperreality belies the latter’s essential malleability (a property, interestingly, it shares with the stucco that Baudrillard suggests, in “The Orders of Simulcra”, is indicative of our cultural wish for a universal demiurgical substance capable of counterfeiting and concealing all the real (Baudrillard, 1988). One wonders to what extent Baudrillard’s own writing functions as simulation, a protean discourse poured like stucco over the world and its things, or a third-order simulation deployed to generate a difference between itself and the target of its commentary).
Despite its diverse manifestations, however, like its sister objects, the Baudrillardean object owes its very appearance to philosophical strategy. I mean here that its seeming unpredictability serves the paranoiac power of “Precession,” the illusion that anything and everything is game. As far as I can tell, the Baudrillardean object resonates along at least two strategic axes, the first of which obscures, to some degree, the second. When the “image of divinity” is chosen as a focus, for example, at issue is the question of its (retrospective) status as a simulacrum, but, additionally, the legitimacy of Judeo-Christian theology as the hub of an intelligible world. If we accept the divine-image-qua-simulacrum argument then it seems that we tacitly surrender all of Western culture, or anyway we’re forced to concede its vulnerability. The world’s horizon joins the curvature of the hyperreal order. Baudrillard’s thought allies itself with skepticism but, weirdly, maps the traditional skeptical argument and its attendant despair on to the Austinian plane of human performance and activity. His object does not challenge epistemology synchronically (as does traditional philosophy with its pieces of wax and envelopes, objects with no special historical significance apposite to the philosopher’s aim) but diachronically. That is, the Baudrillardean object is specific (like the Austinian object) but, also, historical. If the “generic” object is chosen to attract questions concerning existence or reality, and if the Austinian object is chosen to trivialize such questions in favor of ones concerning (say) identity, the Baudrillardean object is chosen for something else entirely, since all questions concerning its epistemological status are foregone, moot. The question, “Is it real or not?” or “How do you know?” cannot be answered because the epistemological indeterminacy is explicitly built into the object.
Worse, the question is never inclined to arise – not in ordinary circumstances nor in a philosophical frame of mind. Or if it does, it’s not clear to me yet how it would. Baudrillard’s writing itself resists such questions (even as it necessarily invites them) by absorbing epistemological challenge into its argumentative force. It’s precisely this quality that makes the Baudrillardean object so radically different from both the generic and Austinian. Both the traditional and ordinary language philosopher stands at a comfortable distance from the object in question. There is a pencil on the mantle. There is a bittern in the well. The space encourages meditation. We’re not inclined to ask of the Baudrillardean object, “Is it real or not?” (or the challenge, “How do you know?”) because we frequently find ourselves within a Baudrillardean object or find ourselves components of a Baudrillardean object. Take the patrons of Walt Disney World on any given day. Better, take my family and I that summer. My philosophical distress in Animal Kingdom was excited not by the simulation’s power to quash epistemological challenge but its way of not encouraging them to ever arise (Can it be accidental that “Precession of the Simulacra” itself shares this neutralizing structural feature?) Any significance registered when we’re told of the elephant’s imminent danger, for example, becomes weightless because simulation annexes the process it models into its perpetual operation. Gravity loses purchase, or, more accurately, never gains it. We don’t act because simulation deters the conditions necessary for conviction to seed, for tragedy to take root.
In 2006, Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center appeared in theaters worldwide. The critical response was largely positive. Evidently it avoided the intrinsic criticism of such a project: namely, exploitation. But the possibility of cynicism is no more than a lightning rod here. The question is not whether or not World Trade Center exploited a past disaster, but how its very production channels both past and future ones into the steady televisual flicker that keeps us inching along even now, just past the tenth anniversary of 9-11, mildly entertained, sipping cokes in the heat as we wait for the show to begin yet again.
Joel Weinbrot received his Ph.D in English (with a creative writing dissertation) from Florida State University. His work has appeared in Golden Handcuffs Review, Portland Review, Caketrain, Barrelhouse, and American Book Review.
Jean Baudrillard (1988). Selected Writings (Edited by Mark Poster), Stanford University Press.
Stanley Cavell (1979). The Claim of Reason. New York: Oxford; Oxford University Press.