Volume 7, Number 1 (January, 2010)
The Difference between Winning and Losing: Baudrillardian reversibility and chance versus the world as stake
For Baudrillard, the fascination of chance generates a certain magical indifference to loss and gain that undermines the blackmail of production, its laborious obsession with individual advancement. Baudrillard sees the world of production as a kind of slavery; a pretentious, coercive system which rewards the productive and punishes the unproductive. Chance, on the other hand, produces winners and losers in an arbitrary way, regardless of merit; effortlessly, showing itself to be a higher, more seductive power.
Against Baudrillard, I argue that far from being a seductive phenomenon opposed to production, this oddly stoical aesthetic of chance helps to pave the way for the disillusioned passivity demanded by an all-out system of production and control. The gambler locked into the impersonal ritual of the game, who does not mind if he wins or loses, reflects the detachment of the worker and the pure consumer, locked into a system of production and spectacle that wins in his stead. Baudrillard’s openness to loss or gain does not so much attack production as mirror the detached ambiance of the spectacles that the controllers of production use to deter the masses from engaging in the world and grabbing at real stakes.
Traditionally there is a preference for winning over losing. Without such a difference between winning and losing, and without a preference for one over the other to make this difference, there can be no game. Only by accepting the radical difference between winning and losing can the world become a seductive prize. Baudrillard’s fascination with the easy reversibility of fortune seen within chance mirrors the intoxication of the masses with pure spectacle; a detached, cold fixation which ironically leads contemporary culture to the postmodern indifference which Baudrillard so abhors.1 I propose that we re-engage with the world as it is, one made up of – and completely shot through with – the difference between winning and losing.
An indifference to the world is inevitable once the difference between winning and losing is obliterated. This indifference is politically slavish; a life-debilitating form of nihilism. One could perhaps see indifference as a kind of power, as Baudrillard does in his 1978 work In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, a power akin to the sovereign nature of objects and which is superior to the precarious and pretentious desires of subjects. However, in my view, no such claims can be made for the kind of indifference that emanates from a disinterested standpoint pitched midway between winning and losing. The kind of indifference that I believe is the result of our contemporary incestuous confusion between winning and losing cannot be characterised as possessing any potential for empowerment. Such an indifference has no strategic virtue (not even as a paradoxical strategy of no strategy) since it does not know itself as such and cannot therefore be activated. An indifference which regards winning and losing as interchangeable is the kind of indifference that Baudrillard unambiguously condemns elsewhere, the absolute indifference of the tele-addict.
I agree up to a point that an indifferent people could be described as possessing a certain potency and occupying a strategic position, since they cannot be induced to dedicate themselves to grand rationalist projects, therefore avoiding the trap of power. But their very apathy means that they are unable to resist being physically co-opted into those projects of capital which do come from on high. Such projects are no less grandiose, coercive and irksome for being overtly motivated by pure material greed rather than by cumbersome idealistic principles.
Fascinated by the supposed secret power of indifference, Baudrillard nevertheless attacks today’s postmodern society for promoting an indifference towards values, a world in which the market rules and in which nothing is worth more than anything else beyond its material price, a world in which, by implication, there is no true winning or losing. It is highly ironic that one important area of Baudrillard’s thought – his theories on chance – can be radically taken apart using Baudrillard’s own critiques of postmodern culture.
II. The Great Game: Caught Between Nietzsche and Bataille
In Baudrillard’s vision, ours is a planet that has a tendency to go to extremes, through the delirium of seduction, challenge and the constant raising of stakes. The world of production and reason is disrupted by this volatile nature of the world. Baudrillard often calls this counter-rational economy ‘the great game’.2
In his attempt to celebrate the world as a delirious game rather than a perfectible rational project, Baudrillard is torn between two important influences: the Nietzschean will to power and Bataille’s equation of loss and ecstasy. Simplifying somewhat, we can say that he is torn between the glory of winning and the glory of losing.
It would seem that Baudrillard wants to embrace the pyrotechnics of both doctrines, that of Nietzsche and Bataille, in order to maximise his vision of the anti-rational delirium of the world. Yet with this risky fusion of the two doctrines he ends up defusing both in favour of a strange fascination with both trajectories, an investment in both winning and losing that ends in a nihilistic Zen-state.
Baudrillard appears sympathetic to Nietzsche’s will to power in his celebration of challenge, seduction and the constant upping of stakes. And yet Baudrillard’s overwhelming desire to attack the world of production makes him more broadly sympathetic to Bataille’s economy of ecstatic ruination.
Baudrillard has to remain partly sympathetic to winning, for strategic reasons, since both winning and losing within chance undermines that realm of accumulation and production which he wishes to attack. Baudrillard appears to have left space within games of chance for the glory and sovereignty of winning; one must, as it were, risk winning. But by equalizing the effects of winning and losing, Baudrillard encourages a form of detachment that is almost as destructive, in the illegitimate, nihilistic sense, as Bataillean ruination. Detached from questions of loss and gain, one loses the world, a world inherently made up of the distinction between loss and gain, and with the loss of this world one loses all its seductions. If the world is to be seductive and have stakes, one must feel in a visceral way the difference between winning and losing, and there must be preference for this distinction to bite. Usually the gambler wants to win.
Baudrillard’s allegiance to Bataille over Nietzsche is the result of a certain alignment in Baudrillard’s and Bataille’s overt priorities: the attack on production. And yet the delirious power-grabbing dramatised by the doctrine of the will to power is as far removed from production, in its own way, as Bataillean ruination, in that things are taken rather than produced. Baudrillard seems to assume that Nietzsche’s will to power is at some level a humanist invention, one that promotes a cult of individualism and accumulation at the very least, and to that degree is in alignment with the world of production. In other words, the myth of the will to power helps to generate the ‘real world’ of goal orientated production, however irrational and anti-teleological Nietzsche’s rhetoric. Against this view, I insist that the will power and the desire to win are forms of exuberance that cannot be reduced to the world of production and accumulation.
By super-charging both losing and winning, Baudrillard maximises the scope for fascination, but in the process he ends up kicking over the gaming table. Baudrillard, in effect, ends up with a celebration of losing and loss alone, but one more nihilistic than Bataille’s; one loses the game itself, just as one loses the world and its seductions.
III. The Trajectory of Baudrillard’s Theory of Chance
In his 1979 book Seduction, Baudrillard largely follows Roger Caillois’s theory of chance as outlined in Man, Play and Games (1961). In Baudrillard’s reading, the authentic gambler wishes to win to a certain extent, and tries to turn chance into destiny, but he does not want to win at the cost of the game itself, since duel relations within games fuel authentic life, which is always communal. It is inauthentic to cheat – unlike in business – and all winnings are ploughed back into the game rather than invested – unlike within the world of capital. At this stage in his thought, Baudrillard tries to invest games of chance with a certain engaged duelling quality, but already, with the refined distaste for winning at all costs, his gambler has significantly detached himself from the will to power.
From the 1983 work Fatal Strategies onwards, we can no longer be sure that the gambler wants to win at all. Baudrillard suggests, provocatively, that a snowballing of bad luck is as fascinating as a snowballing of good luck; since both shatter the laboured economy of cause and effect: ‘chance, we know, is only chance if it snowballs , just like catastrophe’ (Baudrillard, 1990:153).
Baudrillard goes as far as to suggest that not only is catastrophic chance superior to the intoxication with winning but that it is the supreme pleasure:
The only real pleasure in the world is to watch things “turn” into catastrophe, to emerge finally from determinacy and indeterminacy, from chance and necessity, and enter the real of vertiginous connections, for better or worse, where things reach their end without passing through their means, where events attain their effects without passing through causes (Ibid.:156).
Baudrillard, drawing on Caillois, insists that winning is a mere epiphenomenon of the game, since without the game itself there is no winning or losing. It is crucial then to conserve the game; not to rig it, and to keep the desire to win in proportion.
This is perhaps true, but equally, without winning and losing, and the difference between them, no game can be conceived. The game (as artifice) is parasitic upon this primordial difference between winning and losing, with winning as the ideal that ‘makes all the difference’. In short, winning and losing is the game.
For Caillois, the perpetual winner makes the game boring as spectacle. Baudrillard goes much further. From Baudrillard, we hear that the perpetual winner is the ruin of the game in all senses. Baudrillard writes in ‘Deep Blue or the Computer’s Melancholia’: ‘[…] No player can be bigger than the game itself. The player must not be unbeatable, or the game may die’ (Baudrillard, 2002:163).
This seems logical, but then again, one must always try to win or the game may die from a more profound lack of interest. An individual hero of chance or of sport keeps the game alive by encouraging empathy and aspiration, laying down challenges not entirely un-Baudrillardian. A perpetual winner may threaten current rules of the game, and may break the bank, but is less of a threat to the game than complete indifference to winning and losing, which destroys the very possibility of the game. The game is robust because it is rooted in the primordial nature of the will to power; it is therefore not seriously threatened by that same will to power.
Baudrillard often repeats the statement: ‘no player is bigger than the game itself’, words that come from the 1975 film Rollerball. In Rollerball, the central character commits the hubris of becoming a notable individual hero in the Rollerball arena, undermining the very reason for the game’s existence, which is meant to stress team spirit and the fascist hegemony of the community. Disconcertingly, Baudrillard appears to prefer the quasi-democratic voyeuristic spectacles of this imagined state to the individualism of the hero. One must assume that Baudrillard sees the film’s individualist hero-figure, who triumphs over all at the film’s end, as a phoney Hollywood construct created in line with the ongoing fictions of capitalist production.
In the 1999 work Impossible Exchange, there can be detected a certain disillusion with chance on the part of Baudrillard, a phenomenon now demoted to a viral form, a kind of chaos. Here we see how much he despises the postmodernist celebration of a certain atomistic kind of chance, which is too loose to be bound to the anti-productive festivities of gaming, remaining pure fodder for production’s statistical programming. For Baudrillard, this kind of chance is, as it were, too indifferent. I would argue, however, that there simply is no greater indifference than that of Baudrillard’s blissed-out gambler, whose indifference to his own fate chimes in all too well with the indifference and disillusionment of postmodern man, moronically open to the total free play of values.
IV. Real Gambling
If Baudrillard’s gambling economy were to exist in its pure form in the real world – equally open to winning and losing – no gambler could be lured to the table, winning could not even be hoped for and loss itself also becomes meaningless.
Baudrillard is sophisticated enough to state that the gambler risks winning as much as losing. But For Baudrillard, the world of chance is a sacred circle, divorced from the ordinary world of production, profit and loss, and so the winner is honour bound to plough his winnings back into the world of expenditure or even back into the game itself, with the implied risk of losing. In this way Baudrillard further disguises the awkward business of winning, by declaring the winnings strangely void. This economy is unknown to the gambler as we see him operating in the real world outside of theory, who is happy to plough his winnings into the world of chance that lies outside the bright casino and outside the game itself, into the greater world of love and glory. This is the charm of chance, and of theft.
To put it another way, if chance is forever shot through with seduction, is not seduction always a form of chance? Can we not see every sensual investment as ‘taking a chance’, as ‘trying one’s luck’? Indeed, by Impossible Exchange, Baudrillard has become dissatisfied with the way that the author of The Dice Man, Luke Rhinehart, limits the world of chance to the role of a dice: ‘chance is already present everywhere. There is no need to produce it through the simulacrum of an imposed rule’ (Baudrillard, 2001:61).
By making the fascination of chance embrace winning and losing equally, Baudrillard has effectively installed chance everywhere. And by installing chance everywhere, Baudrillard has placed it in constant proximity to seduction, and put it in perpetual danger of being bent to the whims of the will to power.
Baudrillard’s theory of games of chance does not reflect the real experience of the gambler and his will to power – but it is real in the sense that it accurately reflects today’s postmodern aesthetic of detachment.
V. The Need for Real Assets
Baudrillard sees the fascination of chance as deriving from its sovereign disregard for cause and effect and the laborious grind of production. Since bad luck snowballs just as fast and erratically as good luck, it can be just as intoxicating, or even more so. I argue that this economy is somewhat artificial, beyond the artificiality of gaming as such. In the real world, sovereignty requires the enjoyment of real assets and real winnings. In order to come to life, Baudrillard’s economy has to smuggle in a bit of dynamism and energy from the world of winning. Baudrillard must squeeze any pleasurable sense of vertigo from a surplus of physical exuberance. Surely a fall into misfortune, however spectacular, is only intoxicating if it frees up exuberance, in other words, strength. Losing must become a form of winning, however perverse, for it to be a form of sovereignty. At the risk of tautology, one has to really win in order to win, economically as well as physically. Moreover, losing in its purest sense, whether at the gaming table or within life in general, far from being some transcendental escape from slavish production, almost always means for the individual a humiliating return to slavery and enforced productivity. A disaster that enables you to disconnect from production, like a collapse of the national grid or a snowstorm, is clearly different to a disaster, or string of disasters, which force your nose to the grindstone.
This goes for mental as well as physical exuberance. Paradoxically, one needs hard assets, a bit of fuel, to fire up the brain, just to receive and appreciate Baudrillard’s pyrotechnics. One needs dull proteins to generate the crystalline mind that can receive the brilliance of Baudrillard’s reversals. Baudrillard’s own theory can only be appreciated within an economy than denies it.
There is, then, a need for hard assets in order to escape production, and a need to win.
VI. Sovereignty no Mystery
For games to ‘work’, there has to be a difference between winning and losing that is primordial and radical. To acknowledge the difference between winning and losing as a reality should be the action of mere common sense. And yet there is a Western cultural tradition which encourages the endless questioning of such natural distinctions in the name of sophistication. This tendency has been amplified by the spirit of postmodern theory, with its tendency to distrust natural distinctions as bourgeois, and by postmodern culture on a broader level, with its instance on spectacular value inversions and perverse reversals. To take one example, what is winning and losing in the contemporary art world when a pickled cow represents the gold standard (Damien Hirst being the world’s richest living artist)? In such an environment, it is extremely risky to assert the radical nature of the difference between winning and losing, their differing ‘reality’. In response to this predicament, I have tried to simplify the definitions of winning and losing in terms that are satisfying to myself, but which also chime somewhat with Baudrillard’s theories. Rather than try to map winning and losing onto, for example, vulgar common sense notions of pleasure and pain, I will try to defend the difference between winning and losing, ironically, through a defence of Baudrillard’s notion of sovereignty.
Postmodern thought has always complicated the business of winning and losing, and the difference between them. Pleasure is never just pleasure, and pain never just pain. For example, in Gilles Deleuze’s thought, sexual pleasure is complicated, reversed in a sense, by the authenticity of masochism (Deleuze, 1989). With Roland Barthes, the gold standard of pleasure is complicated by the supposed greater authenticity of a more edgy ‘jouissance’ (Barthes, 1975). With the work of Michel Foucault, the pleasures of sexual liberation are complicated and compromised by his theory of repressive de-sublimation, to the extent that we are asked to question whether sex is pleasurable at all (Foucault, 1979). Although Baudrillard is deeply coloured by this tendency of French thought, and may complicate the status of winning and losing , and indeed pleasure and pain, he still insists on the importance of the notion of sovereignty, which can be broken into the negative and the positive, like winning and losing. In other words, Baudrillard may not believe in winning and losing in any traditional sense, but he does believe in sovereignty and slavery. In a short fragment in Cool Memories (1987), Baudrillard refers to sovereignty as a paradox (Baudrillard, 2003:15). Paradoxical or not, sovereignty is perhaps the closest thing in Baudrillard’s pantheon to what winning looks like.
Even though for Baudrillard sovereignty is a mystery, sovereignty still runs counter to the business of being a slave to others. The whole of Baudrillard’s thought rails against servitude in any form that is not ‘ironic’; in other words, he attacks any form of servitude that is not a secret form of sovereignty, or potential sovereignty. We can see that for Baudrillard, ironic servitude is merely a ruse to avoid the greater slavery of being obsessed with power, and/or a strategy for the silent continuation – or even eventual triumph – of one’s’ own sovereignty. For Baudrillard, the avoidance of traps, and of dancing to the tune of others, is always key, however much sovereignty is deemed a mystery and servitude ironic.
One could narrow the whole debate down by asking if one’s hands are tied or not. The reality of slavery and lordship could be tested against whether one is, or is not, in a position to challenge, raise stakes or experience irrational exuberances, whether one has access to the whole plethora of Baudrillardian exuberances.
In short, despite all the mystery, winning and losing exist for Baudrillard as irreducible qualities, radically distinct from each other, in the guise of sovereignty and slavery. And winning and losing in the realm of sovereignty can be likened to winning and losing in a game, in which stakes are of prime importance and in which one tries to win at all costs.
VII. The Reversibility that is Chance
The concept of reversibility is central to Baudrillard’s thought, reversibility being a dynamic inherent in the volatile exuberance of the world, which threatens to undercut rational projects. It is the irony at the base of things, which turns rational plans upside down: ‘Reversibility is simultaneously the reversibility of life and death, of good and evil.’ [‘Some heresies are more paradoxical: sovereignty (Bataille), cruelty (Artaud), the simulacrum (Klossowski). Seduction (Baudrillard). Reversibility turns positives into negatives and negatives into positives. It directly mirrors, and even duplicates, Baudrillard’s theory of chance in its gleeful indifference to winning and losing.
For Baudrillard, chance is the purest, most intoxicating expression of this reversibility, since with chance the nature and trajectory of reversals cannot be predicted, let alone produced, freeing one from the slavishness of production. Within the phenomenon of chance, reversals of fortune (winning and losing) turn on a mere dice throw or turn of the roulette wheel.
Although fixated with the way that chance generates reversal, Baudrillard is certainly fascinated by the real-world and real-politic reversals that lie beyond the confines of chance. He celebrates the unpredictable insurrections caused by reversibility in the world at large. Indeed, Baudrillard develops his aesthetic of chance partly as a means to justify a fascination with real world reversals. However, I very much suspect that these real world reversals are just a little too close to the world of production for Baudrillard; these reversals, though partly automatic, are partly willed, and therefore tainted with the pathos of production, hence his heavy accent on chance and games of chance. The real-world reversals described by Baudrillard are, after all, somewhat hybrid phenomena; part automatic (for example, like the sudden collapse of those who ‘overreach’ themselves or run to the end of their too-perfect programming) and partly willed (reversals of fate which are the result of the challenge, or the strategies, of outside forces). Baudrillard tries to match up this mismatch of elements in his controversial essay The Spirit of Terrorism (2002) on the events of 9/11. Here Baudrillard describes a spirit of insurrection rising up as if automatically to the challenge of power which is programmed to fall: ‘Very logically – and inexorably – the increase in the power of power heightens the will to destroy it’ (Baudrillard, 2003b:6). But this ploy simply reduces everything to automatism; Baudrillard cannot exclude the will to power so easily. Too tainted by the will to power, these real politic ‘fool king’ style reversals are not machine-like enough, not inhuman enough for Baudrillard.
In The Spirit of Terrorism, Baudrillard describes the destruction of the twin towers in 9/11 as a kind of ecstatic reversal of power, the towers going down like a pack of cards, reflecting the snowballing of catastrophe that Baudrillard sees as generated by chance, ‘responding to the suicide of the suicide planes with their own suicides’ (Ibid.:7). Yet this spectacle of reversal that is the collapse of the twin towers nevertheless represents the challenge, the will to power of an interest group. In any case, one could see Baudrillard’s vision here of an instantaneous reversal of power played out in the tower’s destruction as parasitic on his theories of chance, which it labours to accommodate. At the very least one could see the fool-king style of reversal as being in opposition to the more elegant game-of-chance style of reversal to be found elsewhere within Baudrillard’s system. Real geo-political reversals may indeed be reversals, but they nevertheless fail to reach the essence of reversibility.
In the real world, reversals of fortune are more likely to be the result of deliberate action than the result of a whim of chance that rides roughshod over the laws of production. Reversals of fortune are likely to be the result of power struggles between interested parties well embedded in the world of production and the will. These are power struggles over real stakes. This should hardly be surprising. The charm of the hinge of fate, and of the variegated whims of chance are precluded from those actively locked into the narrow action of either rising or falling, winning or losing.
In a sense, those who gain through causing a reversal of fortune are producers of this new economy, and those losing through this reversal are the produced; slaves to freefall. Only the detached gambler or spectator is free of this production, taking no sides to the extent that he is fascinated, and is free to come back to his meditation at a later date and reverse the reversal. For those winning, reversal of fortune only has the meaning that victory has, and for those definitively falling, there is the realisation that some reversals cannot be themselves reversed.
Chance is Baudrillard’s model for reversibility because the detached fascination of his ideal gambler, observing the reversibility of the dice throw, mirrors the detached gaze of the connoisseur watching reversibility on the geo-political stage. The radical differences between winning and losing can only seem as nothing from this stand point of consumption.
VIII. Baudrillardian Reversibility as Spectacle
Baudrillard affirms both winning and losing, but not as a voluptuous rise and fall of greatness, but as a more paradoxical intoxication with intensities going in both directions. There is a love of both the vertiginous dynamism of the fall and the challenge of the rise. However, without a difference between winning and losing, and without preference, the world of action is compromised. The more we contemplate Baudrillard’s vision of reversibility, and try to see how it actually works, the more whimsical and exotic it seems. At some point, does it not seem like a spectacle? Does not the flat-lining of winning and losing seem to conjure up a screen, and all the pointless rising and falling a pyrotechnics for the eye. Is not the slip stream of chance rather like the flow of a film reel or the easy conduit of a computer program?
If we accept that there is a radical difference between winning and losing, and if we accept that reversibility cannot function as Baudrillard says it does, then we must see Baudrillard as torn apart by the opposed forces of winning and losing, Bataillean ruin and the Nietzschean will to power. Do scholars fail to see this, because they see this economy as non-problematic, as ‘real’, but real like a movie..? And, indeed, why did Baudrillard himself not make transparent his audacious alchemical fusion of winning and losing? How is all this possible? Perhaps only through the spell of the spectacle, the jaded ambiance of genuine indifference.
Baudrillard is seen as a robust critic of the spectacle (integral or not), and yet his own aesthetic mirrors that of the spectacle that it tries to oust. It is only in the spectacle that the contradictory forces of winning and losing can seem as one. Only by disinvesting, by passing over into indifference, drawing back from a given conflict, can one see no antagonism. Conversely, to actively enter into a real game with real stakes is to immediately choose winning over losing.
IX. Beyond Games; Reversibility in the mass media spectacle
Reversibility in chance and in sport is clearly limited as a spectacle, but everyone is interested in the rise and fall of value as such, the rise and fall of the stock of people’s lives, even if this dynamism is represented only by a simulacrum, a soap opera. This spectacle of the reversal of values is not primarily a visual spectacle; it is not the feast for the easily fooled eye that Guy Debord wrote of in The Society of the Spectacle. What is clearly more dramatic and more effective than visual ‘spectaculars’ is the narrative trajectory of the rise and fall of values, of people and stakes.
Contemporary films and television shows trade on spectacles of perversions of value. For example, contemporary media rely on the myth of the authenticity of sado-masochism, which reverses the gold standard of pleasure, as a talking point and as the trigger for complex dramatic narratives and voyeuristic spectacles. The exploitation of the spectacle of the rise and fall of celebrities for the purposes of the titillation of the masses is often noted by media commentators, who mistakenly condemn this pantomime as a kind of ‘Carney’ device to fleece the prurient masses, rather than identifying this stratagem as part of a system of political theatre. For its part, the spectacle of fashion, involving far more than just the realm of the sartorial, is perhaps as close as one can get to the spectacle of reversibility in its pure form outside of games of chance, whether the pace and nature of change in this area is over determined or not. And ultimately, as Baudrillard himself notes, war itself can be a special effect, but one which is better described as a soap opera than a computer game, involving the show of reversibility, the turning upside down of situations being as crucial as the purely visual and sensory stimulation of ‘shock and awe’.
As I have argued, the ambiguity of the spectacle and the culture of postmodern indifference works to ‘deter’ the masses, wiping out any sense that they might otherwise have of authentic ambition; ambition based, as it must be, on a sense of the difference between winning and losing and the necessarily implied preference for winning over losing. As a further twist in the tale, we find that the masses are increasingly taxed in order to provide the very spectacles that drain their vitality – in effect giving up part of their winnings, their wages, to promote a culture which claims scepticism as to the authenticity of winning.
X. The Dissatisfying Nature of the Spectacle
For Caillois, the perpetual winner makes the game boring and undermines its communal nature. Baudrillard takes on this notion and paints perpetual winning as a kind of incest, as a misunderstanding of and murder of the game itself (No one is bigger than the game itself). I would suggest, alternatively, that the perpetual winner is far less bored by his victories than his spectator. The active winner sees the game purely as his means to his winning of it, whereas the spectator is more interested in seeing the rise and fall of the game’s participants. There is a profound link between an indifference regarding winning and losing and the detached nature of the spectator. Conversely, the more actively involved a person is in real life, the more real the difference between winning and losing (and real life has its own seductions). Without passivity, and those spectacles which are consumed in a state of passivity, a nihilistic equality between winning and losing could not be conceived.
We can say that Baudrillard is not completely wrong in defining the interest of chance as a fascination with the pure reversibility between winning and losing, but that this has more purchase with the spectacle than with the more primordial reality.
Only by being in an active relationship to the rise and fall of fortune in the world – a kind of active spectator as it were – can the spectacle of reversibility gain positive attributes. Only by viewing the process of reversibility politically, as a pure dynamism that shows the arbitrariness of power and the artificiality of losing within a given situation – and being in a position to use this ‘alchemy’ – can a meditation on reversibility be either enjoyable or useful. But then one could be likened to a ‘philosopher king’, and a kind of winner in any case.
Clearly, a fascination with reversals, and their message of social mobility and volatility can inspire one politically. But these reversals have to be decoded personally, and one has to act on them; in a sense, one has to own them. In other words, ‘Baudrillardian’ meditations are valid but, ironically, one has to apply a kind of Nietzschean intelligence to them, and weigh them against one’s own will to power.
If my assertions are correct, and real life games of winning and losing are far more intoxicating than the mere spectacle of winning and losing, I must explain why the masses seem so happy to consume mere spectacles that confuse and ultimately erase the difference between victory and defeat.
I will quickly note some of the standard attractions attributed to ‘the spectacle’. One of its attractions is that it can be enjoyed at a safe distance. And, by detaching from an over-identification with real winning via the spectacle one can enjoy the convivial atmosphere generated by being part of the herd. As Caillois notes, the equanimity of good sportsmanship, producing no sharply delineated winners or losers, allows for a certain social cohesion which may be gratifying. Also, and somewhat contrary to this, there is the schadenfreude element, a voyeuristic glee at the spectacle of the losers. There are, indeed, all kinds of ways in which one can explain the attraction of the spectacle and the lure of indifference, all having a certain plausibility.
Rather than focus on the functional and satisfactory nature of the spectacle, I would rather put an accent on its desperate nature, its artificiality, its laboured quality as political theatre. Its very charm – its detachment from real stakes – is what makes it vulnerable to terminal indifference. Fascinated detachment can easily turn into disillusioned indifference.
If there is no real difference in life between winning and losing, better to just watch others play, but then again, if there is no difference between winning and losing, what is the point of watching?
Without a difference between winning and losing, even the apathy of the tele-addict is at risk, since without a separation between winning and losing there cannot even be a proper reversal between them, and therefore any drama.
The ‘silent majorities’ are at least partially aware of the primordial primacy of real winning and losing, and are very aware of the artificiality of the spectacle, and this is borne out by the dissatisfying nature of the spectacle at a basic level.
How then does the spectacle persist? The answer must be, with great difficulty and great necessity. A tool for exploitation, the ambiance of reversibility is also in a sense the essence of the social. The alchemy of the loose doctrine of reversibility allows for all kinds of speculative re-evaluations, it offers almost limitless scope for meta-narrative and commentary, whereas the coincidence of winning and losing with themselves offers no scope for interpretation and exploitation, putting out of bounds an otherwise self-evident truth. Speaking this language of tautology is considered too loud, too obvious, too vulgar. It has an aberrant, anti-social tinge.
One reason the spectacle persists is that it is forced on the masses. The spectacle never lets up because the powers that be need it. Compromised by the very indifference that it promotes, the spectacle must be maintained at all costs and vested interests are willing to pay a high price.
XI. Real Winner and Losers
The culture of ambiguity and indifference – a culture that confuses winning and losing – is insidious, but it is not all pervasive. Those who are unambiguously winning are too happily active in that world, too clear-eyed, to be drawn into the spectacle of indifference. They are nevertheless in a position – both materially and existentially – to exploit those masses sequestered in the lukewarm level just below, who are caught up in the spectacle and myth of reversibility. The theatre of indifference is a good area to exploit, made up of passive consumers who watch the spectacle of reversibility from the sidelines. Those at the bottom also know the difference between winning and losing. Like the winners, they are too alive to their reality to be fooled by any notions of the imminent reversibility of fortune, notions which require the operation of the spectacle. But those at the bottom of the pile cannot exploit the clarity of vision afforded by seeing a clear difference between winning and losing, not being in charge of the spectacle and having no room for manoeuvre.
It is widely assumed that today’s Western world accentuates the difference between winning and losing, glorifying winning alone. But the modern world is only partly equalitarian, and therefore only partly competitive. Winners and losers are largely decided for all time. Moreover, the acquisition of material wealth is the only area allowed for competition, the only game in town, and this game is largely staked. By defining winning in purely functional, performative and financial terms, today’s culture has reduced the outlets for ambition, and drained victory of symbolic resonance. Unable to apply passion or will to the business of winning, people become indifferent, yet fascinated by the spectacle of their own indifference.
Chance becomes the thing; one must simply luck out! Then again, ‘gamblers’ no longer truly expect to win, but gain a kind of success at a lower gear, simply for playing the game; one finds, as it were, one’s mutual support group.
The powers that be, in order to give an impression of a democratic process, have found it necessary to blur the difference between winning and losing via a culture of ambiguity, of paradox and perversity; utilising the aesthetic of chance, but also humility, heroic self-sacrifice, a cult of ruination, and of arduous performance carried out for its own sake. True egalitarian free-for-all competition has never truly been implemented within any society, and so one cannot say for certain whether such heated rivalry would be the death of seduction or the beginning.
A world in which winning and losing are radically alien to each other would be a seductive world; a world of ice and fire. Not an inherently vicious world. On the contrary, the very clarity of the difference between winning and losing would mean aid for the losers in an economy in which, for example, pain is pain. At the moment there are no losers, any more than there are winners; such is the current state of democracy. And between winning and losing would fall the likeness of a guillotine.
David Johnson: Has a D.Phil in English and Related Literature from York University and an MA (Distinction) in Continental Philosophy from Warwick University, England. He has published The Time of the Lords: An Attack on Bataille‘s Slave Aesthetic of Transience. Leicester: Ephemera Books, 2001, and The Myth of Transience. Leicester: Ephemera Books, 2005.
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1. Baudrillard himself points to postmodern indifference as resulting from a flattening out of violent opposing values: ‘[...]the logical non-differentiation between opposing value terms being reflected in our indifference’ (Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1998: 74). Baudrillard often criticises the collapse of boundaries between disciplines as creating a kind of ambiance which leads to a collapse of authentic symbolic values. Surely the conflation of the difference between winning and losing is the ultimate example of this contamination of clarity, and one which affects all other boundaries, all hierarchies. In a sense, the promiscuity of values means an end to the pathos of difference, and the birth of indifference. In the same way as the diminishing of the theatrical distance between stage and audience in the integral spectacle has erased a sense of the dramatic and of event, we have lost the dramatic resonance of winning and losing.
2. Baudrillard uses the term the great game throughout his career, at those times when he wants to describe an economy that runs counter to economics as normally understood. So we see that in Simulacra and Simulation (1981) ‘the great game’ refers to the playing with reality via simulation. In Impossible Exchange (1999) he describes the inexchangeable as that which is the paradoxical basis of the great game of exchange, and so on. Baudrillard clearly needs a term that will enable him to describe in one fell swoop a delirious world made up of equally volatile yet supremely antagonistic elements. That is, he wants a term that describes a conflagration involving both the seductiveness of strength (challenge) and the seductiveness of weakness (potlatch, vertigo etc...). He needs a term that will allow him to play fast and loose, play on many levels, but by doing so he lays himself open to the charge that he is ‘playing all sides of the pitch’, to the point of no longer playing the game at all.