Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)
A review of Jean Baudrillard. Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? Translated by Chris Turner with images by Alain Willaume. London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2009, and Jean Baudrillard. Carnival and Cannibal. Translated by Chris Turner. London, New York and Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010.
Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Canada)
Why Hasn’t Everything… begins with the assertion that human beings, already outdated, are seeking to disappear into the technological systems we make. According to this view thought is disappearing into the digital flow and the human is fast becoming the mental diaspora of the networks. From a world that will soon no longer need us we are choosing to virtually disappear. The desire to be here, says Baudrillard, is losing out to the desire to see the world in our absence (21). The systems of computerization, networks, and cloning are spaces in which the human can only survive artificially (25). The great event of poststructuralist thought – the disappearance of the subject by way of its multiplication – mirrors for Baudrillard the disappearance of the real (which of course only exists in representation in any event). Disappearance is everywhere today but without a telos.
The destiny of the subject, like that of the image, is to disappear into a world that can only expel the human. The violence done to the diversity of human subjectivities by the network’s reduction of them to flow equals the violence done to the photograph by computer generated images (cgi’s). In the advanced techno culture of cgi’s, which no longer need the camera (or the real), we find a world without representation (46) – a world of instructions and programming. Like images which enter into the flow of the digital and no longer retain the character of photographs, human thought, concepts, language, and representation, circulate the networks in a form we no longer recognize as human (39). Our destiny, like that of the photograph (zero degree of the image in digitalization), approaches the zero degree of the subject when inserted into network models. Everything is being reduced to a single program which is very much globalization’s understanding of the world.
The worst thing that could have happened to us is taking place – a world captured, filmed, and imaged before it is seen. It is a world that can go on without the human as we have long fantasized in science fictions. The move to the digital is anything but a liberation or an advance for the image according to Baudrillard. Similarly human intelligence is becoming ‘liberated’ where it can only to operate with an integral individuality – free from all history and subjective constraints (62). And so we become immortal by way of inscription into a digital order and it arrives at the price of the disappearance of the human. Baudrillard never lost his taste for irony.
Toward the end of the book he wonders about the possibility of some form of reversibility – some way that the system’s functioning might work to undermine it in the long term. The computer virus has long been one of his favorite examples of reversibility – something that destroys the network by its proliferation along the very networks that make the computer function in the first place. Throughout his previous writing he maintained a faith in reversion to undo all systems. But in this book Baudrillard, unlike the Baudrillard we have known in all of his other books, has a surprise for us. What we meet for the first time is a Baudrillard who has lost faith in reversibility.
It is important to fill in one crucial detail for those who have not followed Baudrillard closely through the years. The scenario Baudrillard outlines in this book is one in which the system of digitalization and computerization wins out over the human. In this scenario (which would also include the avoidance of ecological disaster by way of technology), we will succeed in building interconnected systems of technology – a world of total security where computer generated models will point the way to life’s solutions. All negative events, disease, and uncertainty will be removed for the post human inhabitants of computer generated existence. We are well on the way to the erection of such a system today. Can we imagine, really, a world more full of refined and measured death for a creative and thoughtful species than a predictable, networked, techno-future? Baudrillard has long staked his faith in a second scenario – a kind of total system failure that would place the human back at the centre of events. His faith in catastrophe, the faith in reversibility which goes unspoken in this book, was his only hope that the human might survive its encounter with advanced computer networks – even at the price of devastating ecological degradations.
Carnival and Cannibal is comprised of two essays: “Carnival and Cannibal or the Play of Global Antagonism” and “Ventriloquous Evil”. In the first essay Baudrillard argues that the world today is characterized by dual forms. Carnivalization refers to modernity (an authentic invention of the West), which he says is being farcically repeated on a global scale. This side of globalization has received a good deal of attention but what is less discussed, according to Baudrillard, is how this process is accompanied by an extraordinary reversion “in which power is slowly undermined, devoured or ‘cannibalized’ by the very people it carnivalizes. But, says Baudrillard, the Europeans have already cannibalized themselves long before exporting their culture to the world. Picasso conquered the Renaissance and then annexed the ‘primitive’ long before African artists copied him (see also Jantjes, 1999). Everywhere the people of the world deck themselves out, says Baudrillard, in European whiteness. As Benjamin understood it, “humanity is succeeding in turning its worst alienation into an aesthetic, spectacular delight” (7).
Baudrillard’s target in this essay is the trompe-l’oeil décor of modern multicultural civilization. There is no triumph to be had for the West any more than there is for the indigenous cultures which are worn threadbare by globalization. The effort to consume (cannibalize) Western carnivalization leads only to a masquerade in a global theatre of decomposition. America has only raised the stakes of simulation of late by pointing out, though its elected politicians, that stupidity is integral to power. The election of Arnold Schwarzenegger (following Bush) points only to America’s unrivaled supremacy in setting the pace of political farce. The Nobel Committee rushing its Peace Prize to Obama is merely the next stage in the globalization of the farce. America’s challenge to the world is “that of a desperate simulation – of a masquerade it imposes on the rest of the world” (23) – this is the carnivalization of power. While the world stands spellbound by Bush and Schwarzenegger – and by the derisory democracy they represent – America in turn feeds the world’s cultures into its Disnified models. Like Europe before it America is its own first victim in this process.
Today the West is characterized by its lack of values and by its indifference to itself and to others says Baudrillard. The whole stake of global confrontation today consists, he argues, in a frenzied exchange of all difference. The challenge of the West to the world today is to be decultured, to debase all values, and to subscribe to the most disenchanted values. The West now asks the people of the rest of the world to undergo the process of modernity already experienced here – to sacrifice themselves on the altar of obscenity, transparency, pornography, and global simulation (24). Global power today is the power of the simulacrum – of a universal carnivalization.
Against this nihilistic power stands the nihilism of the terrorists who sacrifice their own lives as quickly as the West sacrifices its values. Calling terrorism ‘evil’ only reaffirms the West’s incapacity to respond symbolically to its challenge of death says Baudrillard. Baudrillard’s West is a global power based in self debasement seeking universal debasement confronted by the terrorists and the power of death. Again, in this book, Baudrillard does not point to some sort of reversibility. Indeed, contra Baudrillard, Baudrillard wonders if reversibility may not have encountered something irreversible and that a truly worst case scenario is the ultimate prospect we now face.
Baudrillard argues in “Ventriloquous Evil”, that capital, which now enjoys hegemony without the burdens of representation, depends on increasing abstraction. Entire disciplines are at the service of making rational its nonsensical nature. Economics and the news media are not the only participants in securing the system’s continuance versus its tendency to nonsense. Baudrillard finds it interesting how much of sociology is invested in the hegemony of capital (including neo-Marxist scholarship) through its desperate attempt to sustain the myth of the social – perhaps the central myth capital requires to continue.
By the end it appears Baudrillard’s hope (in reversibility) faded. I sensed this specific loss in conversations with him in May 2006 (before the publication of these books in French). Reading the final two books has only served to confirm my feelings from that time: Baudrillard without reversibility is no longer Baudrillard (see Coulter, 2004).
What these final two books mark however, is something entirely stunning. As he had long dreamt he would do, he managed to disappear before he died – before he wrote his final two books. “Dying is nothing” he once said, “you have to know how to disappear” (1990:14). Baudrillard’s final two books point to Baudrillard after Baudrillard and as such they mark a spectacular symbolic elaboration.
Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories. New York: Verso, 1990.
Gerry Coulter. “Reversibility: Jean Baudrillard’s ‘One Great Thought’”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 1, Number 2 (July, 2004): http://www.ubishops.ca/BaudrillardStudies/vol1_2/coulter.htm
Gavin Jantjes. “Mapping Difference” in Catherine King (Ed.), Views on Difference, different views on Art. Yale University Press, 1999:25-39.