Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007)
Jean Baudrillard and Our
Different Worlds: Thinking Beyond The Metaphysical and
(Professor of Fine Arts, Cinema and Television, University of Dokuz Eylul, Izmir, Turkey).
Translated by: Elvan Anmaç and Oğuz Adanir
There's so many different worlds,
So many different suns,
And we have just one world,
But we live in different ones.1
The Reality Principle is one of the most important concepts in the writing of Jean Baudrillard as it is the social product of centuries of modeling. Once erected, people began to submit to reality in the way they submit to moral or religious rules. In contemporary consumer societies, according to the theory of simulation2, “reality” is a kind of feeling on the part of individuals in their everyday life. Reality has metamorphosized in our times from its former meaning as the symbol of the “real”, into a “feeling”3 of reality, from the objective to the subjective. Ultimately we face the zero degree of feelings which corresponds to our hyperreality. By the 1960’s, Baudrillard notes, the reality principle of the past two centuries began to lose its metaphysical essence. It is then that contemporary societies begin to enter into Virtual Reality.
understood as a concept, or a general and abstract mental
representation of an object, was also something which a
collective consensus provided. It has lost its main
characteristic or particularity
by being reduced more or less to an individual or subjective
“feeling”. In the universe of simulation, it is identical
with Objective Reality without essence (an ecstatic state).
When a society passes from Reality to simulation, it also
passes from a collective stage of representation (illusion),
to a stage of individual feeling (hallucination).
Consequently it passes from a stage where the reality is
more or less under collective supervision to an individual
stage where the reality is disoriented. The rejection of
this collective representation seems to provoke depression
at the individual level. Besides the incessant struggles
between them, this may also have some effects at the
individuals’ level of consciousness such as, stress,
melancholy, or a narcotic effect in the long term. These are
the results that we can widely observe in Modern societies.
Here we can say that it is a question about the point of no
return about which Canetti enquires. But what is it like to
read Baudrillard outside of a modern context?
II. Different Worlds
Baudrillard’s understanding of the precession of the simulacra and of the Reality Principle pose problems for non-Western readers. For example:
Reality, which was invented during the last two centuries, became a principle, but it is now by way of disappearing. …The invention of Reality, which was created by modern western Reason, the turning point of the Universal, is still unknown in other cultures. It belongs to
an objective world, which has eliminated all its invisible worlds4.
When we are outside of settings in which modern Western Reason dominates, we can no longer talk about Reality in the same way – we must find a representation or feeling to replace it. This is the case because in non-Modern societies, the theory of simulation is generally considered only as a critical analysis, a merciless criticism of Modern societies. Modern and non-modern societies do not belong to the same world and so the scope of Baudrillard’s theory is limited. Most of the time, in other words, both the conditions of material or physical existence, and the historical process – we may also call it “objective destiny” – are not the same. Further, the mental structures seem to be quite different from one another. We may have just one world, but we live in different ones.
Apparently symbolic mentality or logic has almost disappeared since the second half of the nineteenth century. First, it was replaced by modern rational logic, then it underwent a metamorphosis and changed in to hyperrational logic. Some seem to get stuck between symbolic mentality or logic and modern rational logic. In fact things are more complicated than this, because, for an individual who belongs to a non-Modern society, it’s very difficult to apprehend the topical state “Modern”. The non-modern perceives of modern societies (or forces himself to see them by adopting their mythic frame of reference) as modern and rational, in that sense in which modernism has defined itself.
According to Baudrillard, these “modern societies” are not modern anymore – they are simulacral societies which have the availability of a simulated universe – the simulacra of modern societies. Conforming to a hyperrationalized logic, they create a world where obesity and obscenity dominate all fields of life. The perception of the state of things which is apprehended as modernity is also rejected by the same part of the non-Modern societies and here we find the paradox that informs our contemporary: modern societies are not modern enough, but non-Modern societies consider them as modern or reject this modernity, because they accuse them of being degenerate.
Until now the universal conjunct seems to have been determined by the powerful societies on the planet, but this power is diffusing (soft world order)5, and it leads to some secondary repercussions for non-Modern societies. When the models become anachronistic, the local conjunct again determines the mental life of non-Modern societies. Therefore, the universe of simulation in which Modern societies are absorbed, cannot be perceived or apprehended by non-Modern people in the same way as by those who live in modern societies6.
III. Thinking the World
It’s the book which reads me.
It’s the TV which watches you.
It’s the object which thinks us.
It’s the lens which focuses on us.
It’s the effect which causes us.
It’s language which speaks us.
It’s time which wastes us.
It’s money which earns us.
It’s death which lies in wait for us.7
How should we deal with this state of the things? The first question we need to answer is: How is daily life in non-Modern societies (those without the Reality Principle) organized? In order to answer this question we have to observe how non-Modern societies perceive, conceive of, and apprehend the world, their close and distant surroundings and other individuals, and how they represent them. Let us begin from the last of these. “The world thinks about us and we think about the world” says Baudrillard. In this case do people in non-Modern societies only perceive images which match their mental and emotional state? For example in Iran, where all day, public TV channels broadcast Koran readings and programs or films conforming to a certain conception of Islam, millions of Iranians have dish antennas at home (although they are forbidden), and can receive TV programs from all over the world. They also have access to the Internet. How do the Iranian audiences perceive the images of these foreign TV-networks? Do they see them as non-images? Or, on the other hand, do they reject the images of their “Reality” and conceive those as non-images, because they are looking at programs from somewhere else? Where is reality and its representation? Could a society which rejects or gives up the representation of its own reality for others be smart enough to wish to change its own conception of reality? Or are they not looking at various “Realities” existing in the world, but only looking at empty images which have no truth and which are merely entertaining them? What kind of a relationship is there between image and reality? Maybe the meaninglessness of daily “Reality” corresponds to the meaninglessness of images. Consequently, if they have no Reality Principle, the reality of the images cannot be discussed. The images in this case would be considered as non-images – images which are being watched but not perceived or apprehended – a perfect replica of a physical, material reality. All these depend on how the spectator establishes a mental and emotional relationship with the images. We can say that this world is not thinking about us the way that we think about it, at least in the present state of things.
When we watch Iranian films, or films from other non-Modern countries, we can observe that there is no Reality in the collective connotation of things (that is to say something like a Reality Principle). In these countries there are cities and villages, and there are people who are settled, but you cannot feel or perceive the existence of a Reality Principle according to the modern meaning of the term. Sometimes we can talk about traditions which have primitive origins such as shamanism covered with a thin transparent sheet of Islam. These traditions ordered daily life in the past and still order it, at least in part, today. Maybe we can talk about the presence of some pseudo-principle of reality?
The question of reality has been resolved for a long time in most non-modern societies. To understand this you just have to watch their own films (Indian, Egyptian, Turkish, Tunisian, Brazilian, etc) – and television serials, which are essentially melodramas. They have all produced thousands of them. But their conception of melodrama is different from that of Modern societies. In Turkish cinema, the melodrama is a story about an individual’s predestination. Destiny draws a line which cannot be changed – except by Destiny itself. In the mystical way of thinking, the present world is a world of misfortune. Life and happiness are ephemeral. They are condemned to be this way. You can only really be happy when you meet your creator, your ancestor in the world beyond. Real happiness is that one and not the one that belongs to a profane world. In Encyclopédie de l’Islam it is quite impossible to find the words: “Real” and “Reality”. You can only find them in the definition of the word: “Verity” but not vice versa. Despite the continuous tendencies of Modernization and Secularization, this mental approach still only dominates a minority of the population. This is a fact which it is impossible to ignore. These believers do not reject all the material welfare of the world to which they belong. They are more honest to their creator than to the creator’s children. It’s difficult to talk about their attachment to modern moral values, except when their interests coincide with them. The materialist “agnostic”, a kind of European feudal lord, states that: “God exists, but I believe only when I want to, that is to say, in case of urgency or obligation!” He harmonizes the rules of the play of modern capitalism without having the spirit or the essence of it. Only power, the glory and fortune are significant for him, and also the concept of predestination is still effective. He says to himself that this is chance which selected him: “I’m a lucky man”. The concept of Reality has no decisive effect on all this, because the Principle of Reality that Baudrillard talks about is fully connected to the modern concept of the system (social-political-economic-cultural). This concept is generally unknown in non-Modern societies. Consequently divine or ancestral powers still dominate.
the term of “representation” itself begins to become
enigmatic. The images of fiction films, in which all the
segments follow one another to produce dramatic or esthetic
effects, are not organized in order to obtain an esthetic
ensemble. The melodrama is rather conceived and perceived
like immobile photographic pictures (the images of players
whose glances explain more than the dialogues) which succeed
through a cinematographic technique. The projection seems to
be a projection of diapositives rather than film images. The
determining element is the charm or the aura. This
aspect has nothing to do with all the rest. What is
important is to assure a sentimental continuity instead of a
dramatic or a realistic one. In this culture an image,
figurative or not, does not correspond to any Objective
Reality or realistic truth. Conceptually speaking, the
reality which reflects the images and the “Objective
Reality” are two different things. For that matter, the
spectators of these films say that they went to see them
(films or TV serials) to cry and to relax. The young
generation of television audiences says that they do not
establish any connection or contact between the reality and
the images. (It sounds strange to them when we talk about
images and Reality) and they watch just for fun.
Consequently it’s impossible to talk about simulation to
individuals who seem to be incapable of establishing a
logical relation between the system (reality) and the
representing images. The profusion of images doesn’t mean an
increase in the simulation universe, but it means a loss of
prestige of the cinematographic images (or the dramatic TV
images) – that is all. We also observe that in recent years,
channels which screen documentary films on Nature and on
Human History, have substantially gained audiences.
IV. Caught Between Primitive and Modern
However in these non-modern societies we can detect or feel the existence of predestination. It can be determined either by God or by other powers (supernatural, ancestral, etc). By far the great majority of individuals believe in destiny and predestination. These individuals co-exist, in the same location and mental climate, but in an individualistic fate rather than a collective one. The way they conceive the physical contiguous reality seems to serve as a background for the individuals that are trapped by destiny. Primitive society’s main characteristic is collective behavior, but they can lose this feature over time and become a society which seems to accumulate the individuals who are only concerned with their arch-individual interests, so that sometimes it turns into a kind of Mafia.
These non-Modern societies which are not primitive anymore, cannot accomplish modern development with success either. Now, it is too late for them to make a step back and become primitive again. The reason is that, in the past, their geography and environment may have provided for the needs of some millions of individuals who were dispersed in clans and tribes, over a vast territory. However, at present, they can no longer provide for the needs of these “same” societies which have now reached the great populations of the industrial societies, but without having their material facilities, mentality and way of life. This is a real “double bind”!
The revolutionary transitions of some exceptional countries to become modern societies, in the real sense of the term, have not been really accomplished. For instance, the universal conjunct has not existed in a country like Turkey since the 1940’s. Following this, the mental metamorphosis which necessitates an enormous enterprise in social-political-economic-cultural areas of life was being misunderstood or was not apprehended by politicians. An increase of population at vertiginous speed has been one of the most important elements in the present situation.
But, for a moment, let’s imagine that what was anticipated at the beginning of this Republic was all accomplished. When we pursue the itinerary of a Republic like Turkey, we notice that this society – at least at the beginning – believed in formal modernization. Unfortunately, it neglected the essence (the mentality) which had determined its society until then. That is to say a mentality which is more or less symbolic, where all forms are charged with essence automatically, a form (a substance) that possesses its own essence in itself: a manner of thought which cannot function dichotomously in the modern sense of the term. As a consequence of this, people expected non-Modern societies to become Modern when they adopted the forms that belong to modern societies. That’s all – the process is simple because the form is the essence of it. Some of the exceptional intellectuals of this period tried to keep attention on this state of the things, but in vain. It has taken nearly a century of effort for this society to discover that it will never be modern.
Fernand Braudel treats Capitalism both like an ideology and a form. Today, these non-modern societies can realize the importance of the change in mental climate and even the necessity of a mental revolution. Are they going to succeed? In our opinion, they have to reorganize and reform, and promote, the essential institutions rather than look for new impacts, because of the choice which was made in the past, as in the case of Turkey. It is impossible to take a step back today. These societies are exposed to the highest pressure of mental contradictions as a daily double-bind. They possess a majority of the institutions, their infrastructures and, more or less, the material facilities that are necessary to be a modern society on the formal level. But the great majority still do not possess a mentality adapted to that situation. When we see the actual state in which (modern) societies of consumers are living, we understand the surprise or deception; the great confusion and the anguish which dominates the individuals of the non-modern societies. After many decades or nearly a hundred years of work – for some of them – these societies have not found the appropriate solutions to their actual problems. Durkheim, warns them against a danger from which it’s difficult to imagine positive effects on world peace:
You have to train individuals to pursue great collective aims to which they can adhere; you have to make them love a social ideal which they can work for the realization of, one day. Otherwise, if the other source of morality (discipline) does not temporarily compensate for the insufficiency of the first one, the nation will fall into a situation of moral asthenia, dangerous for even its material existence. If the society does not possess a unity which establishes, through the exact coordination of its segments, a correct discipline which ensures the harmonic union of the functions, or the willpower which attracts it to a common objective, then it’s like a mound of sand which is easy to shock, or a small breath will be enough to blow it away.8
Briefly, the absence of the Reality Principle does not create better solutions in comparison with the ones which possess it now, or possessed it before. The societies without the Reality Principle are not more human, more naive or less hypocritical than others.9 These societies are not still interested in the Reality Principle. The present debate may try to concentrate on a new conception of the Reality Principle which is valid for all but in actuality the topic does not interest non-modern societies because they prefer to live without the principle at all. Consequently these two conceptions of life (life without the Reality Principle and life which has lost its Principle) have many common points. Modern or not, this is a fact that we can observe among most politicians of the World at present. They all agree on many points except the ones which interest the public.
Every society, whether or not it possess a Reality Principle, has to have its own principles, moral values or rules. The universe of simulation which has its own conception of moral beyond Good and Evil must have its own moralists, too. Baudrillard, the genius of paradoxal and seducing thoughts, is also an exceptional moralist of this universe:
Thought has to play a catastrophic role …But at the same time it
must remain humanist, anxious for the human being, and for
that it must find out the reversibility of good and evil, human and inhuman.10
In my opinion, this radical thought is, in fact, a wish for a different world, a better one, if it is possible. Subsequently, if Baudrillard lives nowhere else, but in Paris, its because he wants to be a witness of his time and space – of his own social geography, which he came from. That’s because he knows it better then the others. Otherwise why does he have to consecrate (or waste) his life for theory? Radical thought must be meaningful, has to be read and make itself understood, and not only entertain people. This pataphysic has not been denuded from sense and meaning. His source of inspiration is the Reality Principle which lost its substance in the same society which provided it. The author conceives of reality in this manner or sense. Baudrillard knows that he cannot change anything in this world. As a remarkable theoretician, he accomplishes his duty towards others according to the rules of symbolic exchange. He gives back more than he receives from his society, and to others at the same time, on the intellectual or philosophic level. And this contribution is one of the most precious ones of our time.
In addition, the world may be immoral and Evil can rule everywhere. Can we qualify Baudrillard as an immoral author or a fervent defender of the Evil? No! As an individual, I perfectly understand that the thoughts of Baudrillard can demoralize modern societies, especially when he says that modernity is in no way a success, but a defeat or a failure. I also understand that he wishes – consciously or unconsciously, for a positive outcome: to force the intellectuals or individuals of his country and others to think in a different way than they have. I insist on the term “positive”, because when he denounces and demonstrates the mistakes that modernity has made, maybe in spite of himself, he also warns other societies not to commit the same mistakes.
But when he compares modern societies with primitive ones, in a sense he seems to favour the latter, although this is extraordinary, very human, but meaningless. This comparison between consumer societies (which are probably miserable on the human level, although able to resolve their elementary problems like hunger, health, education, on a technological and material level), and primitive or non-modern societies (which are unable to resolve the same kind of problems by themselves), is a one-way comparison. When primitive or non-modern societies get the opportunity, they consume and destroy the goods of this world (the members of the potlatch tribes, due to their world beyond, did it without any care or remorse) as well as the Modern consumers do, without having any wish to replace what they have destroyed, leaving this work to God or divine powers. Consequently, the societies which are also participating in ruining this world, are not paying any compensation that is appropriate for them according to symbolic exchange. Nor have they any desire to produce one. They are not less innocent than modern societies. In this case it seems difficult for me to plead for them. They force themselves extremely hard to invent suitable solutions for their elementary problems. They must be delivered from their ignorance and superstitious rambling in order to give back more to the world than they had or will have. If they can succeed, there will be an exchange between them and the world. The primitive society that Baudrillard “favours” over modern societies, does not exist anymore. That may be a kind of simulacrum or a fictive or theoretical society. Today we cannot find a society which is purely primitive. Even if it does still exist, we can not make a comparison between a society which is composed of some thousands of people at most and a Modern society which sometimes reaches hundreds of millions of people. We can only make a comparison between the degenerate or really deformed present forms of primitive societies, which sometimes also contain hundreds of millions of people.
It’s said that the
modern societies seduced primitive society, but we forget
that for the game of seduction (that is symbolic control of
the forms) you need to have two entities. And if these
societies have become distant from their original cultures,
that’s because they also wanted to be. On the other hand
it’s quite possible that the world of production can appear
as a world of seduction to others. These societies, which
have not come across, or did not pass through a period of
the Reality Principle, may have a desire to change from the
culture of “potlatch” to a culture of mass consumption (on
this topic we can say that they all claim to try their luck
and for this they are forcing all the possible issues). This
neo-liberalism, which is losing its place on the
philosophical or ideological level, turns mostly into an
appearance and looks alike to the primitive mentality every
passing day. Therefore, in a sense, neo-liberalism can
seduce non-Modern societies just with this appearance,
without modifying their metaphysical world as Baudrillard
says. The universe of simulation for someone can be
perceived as a universe of illusion for others. But the fact
of being seduced means nothing, if it has not been pursued
by a conscious and continuous action to conquer and realize
I think that, in this state of things, nobody and no power can affect the envy of non-Modern societies or their desire to transform into liberal modern societies. They interpret the system as a society of consumption. This is true, even if, one day, they notice that this is an impossible dream to realize, at least under present conditions, for all of them. They can not repulse this desire because we know that the ancestors or the gods have favoured the selected ones from time immemorial. That is, the human being, even today, cannot accept the idea of being abandoned by his ancestors, gods or even by his luck. The intellectual deception in these countries, who are more or less conscious about this fact now, can encourage some of these people to criticize the societies which they have unconsciously envied. Can that “dream” become true, without them inventing their own Reality Principle?
For non-modern societies, modern societies are the ones which overcame destiny and became the “masters” of their own predestination. This is one of the key points of all kinds of attacks against them. The deep despair which dominates non-modern societies, because of the radical transformations which have been realized on material and mental levels by modern societies, provokes suicide-attacks. But these attacks are perpetrated against God or supernatural forces that favour the societies of consumption. What I am trying to say is that these attacks are against God, a God that collaborates with Evil and not with his faithful believers. But it’s impossible to take revenge on God or the supernatural powers, so they take revenge on his/their favoured children.
Capitalism seems to have had a glorious triumph over communism which apparently has really never been realized, according to its enthusiastic surviving defenders. Actually the bet, which was contracted with this system, has been lost, and the victory leaves a bitter taste at present. It has also been disgraced in front of the world of public opinion, because it was trapped by an insatiable desire, almost a frenzy of non-modern societies to simulate it (in conformably with its symbolic mentality, the world has always imitated the most powerful ones, from time immemorial). It has no choice except to continue on this way, but without really knowing where it is going. Capitalism has lost all its chances – even Communism – to convince and ask the whole planet Earth not to become capitalist. After centuries of incessant struggle, how is it going to preach the contrary today? And even if it is going to do this, can it really fool anyone? Is it the duality which is responsible for this unimaginable trick? We are not sure about that, but, for it certainly appears to be a stroke of genius on the theoretical level.
From now on these two worlds, whose coexistence presents a kind of similarity to the Moebius strip, have no other choice than to have a bilateral perspective which changes on every level. If we’re traveling on the same train we have to respect and tolerate our fellow passengers and, if possible, establish sincere friendships.
The radical illusion of the world can only be conceived with a Reality, a Reality Principle, a sense and a meaning that belongs to the universe of simulation which extends everywhere. Without having a culture which is “sur” or hypersignificant, it seems difficult to think about this radical illusion of the world, because in most of non-modern societies life, or the world, is a source of misfortune and disappointment.
If Modern societies can break away from this pataphysical state and others from their metaphysical state, maybe we’ll find a way to come together on “para-physical” meeting place. In fact, in the middle of this pataphysical and metaphysical world, why do we not talk about the renaissances, and new Illuminations of one or several centuries? This world once had a very rich universal culture of symbolic exchange, long ago, before the development of capitalist / Occidental culture. In a higher gear of the evolutionary spiral, what is preventing us from talking about the creation or production of new global illusions, or utopias, on condition that we modify the meaning of these words?
The Other is Me, that means, the being through whom I can discover my existence; and Me is the being through whom the Other can be conscious of his existence on this planet. Without the Other, I do not exist. But there is only one world for all of us. What do we have to do for all to understand this? To renounce this game of the precession of the simulacra or the idea of predestination and the pseudo realities that the world has imagined? While we think about the world thinking us, we can thank that world for giving us Baudrillard, for it is in pointing us to a post metaphysical and non pataphysical meeting place, that his most lasting importance may lie.
is a writer, professor, and film maker who received his
doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1978. He has participated in
studies with Jean Mitry, Eric Rohmer, Jean Rouch, and Marc
Ferro. He has been head of the Department of Cinema and
Television at the University of Dokuz Eylul since 1985 and
Director of the Fine Arts Institute since its establishment
1 Dire Straits. Lyric from the song: “Brothers in Arms”.
2 We consider the universe of simulation as a socio-historical stage equivalent of a period of stagnation at the cultural/mental, social, politic level etc. but not always economic (see our studies between 1993-2004). See also Daryush Shayegan, La Lumière vient de l’Occident, 2001, s.209 “…cette apparente stagnation de l’histoire n’est-elle pas aussi une sorte d’ ”après l’orgie”? “…this apparent stagnation of History, isn’t it also a kind of “after-orgy”?”
3…la passion de la réalité (the passion of reality), …la foi naive en une réalité (naive faith in a reality), …est-ce un rêve que cette réalité (is this reality a dream?), …la pensée doit se garder à tout prix de la réalité (the thought has to keep out of the reality at any price), …il y a du flou dans le réel, (there is an uncertainty in the real)… Jean Baudrillard. Le Pacte de Lucidite ou le intelligence du Mal. Paris: Editions Galilée, 2004.
4 La réalité qui s’est inventée, au cours des siècles derniers et dont nous avons fait un principe, celle-là est en voie de disparition.(Ibid.:11). L’invention de la Réalité, inconnue des autres cultures, est l’oeuvre de la Raison moderne occidentale, le tournant de l’Universel. Celui d’un monde objectif, débarassé de tous les arrière-mondes (Ibid.:31).
5 Jean Baudrillard. America (c 1986). New York: Verso, 1988:107.
6 For example students, who haven’t lived in a “Modern” society at least for some period of time, cannot form an idea about the simulation concept, the way that Baudrillard presents it or a student from a modern society would.
7 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. London: SAGE, 2001:89.
8 Emile Durkheim. Education Morale, Lesson VII.
9 In countries like China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, etc, where corruption has reached outrageous dimensions, this phenomenon cannot be considered only as a result of the willpower of the politicians. That is the consequence of promiscuity between the object and the subject. On the other hand the dimensions of the corruption in these countries are incomparable with those which happen in Modern societies.
10 Jean Baudrillard. Mots de Passe. Paris: Éditions Fayard, 2002:107.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)