March 8, 2007
The Rushdie of the West: Remembering Jean Baudrillard1
It happened on March 6, 2007. Jean Baudrillard, perhaps the most defiant voice in French theory and an exceptionally precise analyst of the proclivities of West, succumbed to cancer. His death wasn’t unexpected – indeed, much like the Cheshire Cat which he was so fond of evoking, Baudrillard has been disappearing for years, until only the glimpse of his notoriously broad grin for a time remained. But the fated moment always arrives too soon, and his final disappearance leaves one inconsolable.
Like Freud or Marx before him, Baudrillard was entirely a product of these times. They demanded him, much like a prophet. Though a sociologist by trade, he was uninterested in people, and for the past decade boldly announced the emergence of “the world from which human beings have disappeared”. By this he meant that human beings have brought into existence a “system of objects” (the title of his first book) that are autonomous in their interactions and have broken free from any vulgar law of supply-and-demand. Consumption, as Baudrillard put it, refers to “neither the volume of goods nor the satisfaction of needs”, but to the self-determined totality of objects that have reduced human beings to mere spectators on a world that was formerly their’s, a world that no longer exists. (No wonder that Larry and Andy Wachowski took the inspiration for their Matrix trilogy from their – fatally flawed – reading of Baudrillard, even inviting him to appear in the second film. He, of course, declined.)
Baudrillard’s voice was singular, and his strident refusal to take sides or pledge his allegiance to anything other than the purity of theory itself left his language “blessedly free” (as Don Watson said of Keating) of any ideological orientation, unencumbered, and thus uniquely adaptive to the world of objects. This non-prescriptive quality of Baudrillard’s work – the fact that there is nothing to be done, that we are already “looking back at the end of the world” – persistently attracted the tag of nihilism. But, as if conceding the point, Baudrillard remained undeterred in his pursuit of the only thing that ever mattered: the dispassionate, “cool”, thinking of this new world.
But then, one cannot help but be overtaken by an uncomfortable thought: what if, amid the centripetal forces of our world which draw us ever further into what Baudrillard called a “banalized, technized, upholstered way of life, carefully shielded from self-questioning”, the form that ethics must first take in our time is nihilism? In other words, what if the first and most difficult duty of the present is to somehow reintroduce the element of danger, of gravity, of seriousness, of negativity into a world “from which everything dangerous and negative has been expelled”? In this aseptic, sterile cultural situation, the very terms “multiculturalism”, “liberalism”, “national values” and even “freedom” become mere ciphers for the West’s loss of any social reality, much less moral substance. And soon, Baudrillard said, the West “will be defined solely by the foreign bodies that haunt its periphery: those it has expelled”. In such a world, “to think” is elevated to an ethical imperative:
Thought must play a catastrophic role, must itself be an element of catastrophe, of provocation, in a world that wants absolutely to cleanse everything, to exterminate death and negativity.
And this, I supposed, is the form of ethics I have always imagined beneath the pages of Baudrillard’s books, an urgency that belies his resolutely dispassionate tone. Does his writing not constitute a harsh provocation to our banality, an attempt to rile our indignation, to shake us out of our cultural stupor?
You wonder whether it isn’t the function of writing today to show that anything, even the most inadmissible of things, can be accepted by this society, on account of its weakness. The article of the Ayatollah, for example, going out without encountering any opposition: clear proof of the political and intellectual poverty it describes. There’s no way of becoming the West’s Rushdie. The point is there’s no one to stand up to, no Ayatollah to stand up to. So there’s no possibility of speaking evil, of arousing aversion; for want of subversion, no live reaction. It’s a sign of the great contempt in which is culture holds itself. Has some secret manipulation already succeeded in wiping out all the genes of negativity, all reflexes of violence, all signs of pride?
But the impossibility of “becoming the West’s Rushdie” didn’t stop Baudrillard from trying. Perhaps the most fitting monument to his immense body of writing would be posthumously to rename it, The Satanic Memories.
Scott Stephens teaches theological ethics for the Brisbane College of Theology, Queensland. He is the co-editor (with Rex Butler) and translator of the two volumes of the selected writings of Slavoj Žižek, Interrogating the Real (now in its second edition) and The Universal Exception. His current project, entitled The Criticism of Heaven: Essays on Materialist Theology, explores the relationship between theology, politics and economics.
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