Volume 4, Number 2 (July, 2007).
Book Review: Grasping The Lessons Of Failure.
William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity, 2005.
Reviewed by Dr. Dean Lockwood
(Department of Media Production, University of Lincoln, England, UK).
As a lecturer in media theory who has struggled with presenting difficult notions of simulation, simulacrum and hyperreality to students, sometimes additionally frustrated by the scepticism of colleagues, I seized eagerly upon William Merrin’s book, which precisely foregrounds Jean Baudrillard’s potential for a radicalisation and revitalization of media studies and sets out to show this in as lucid and accessible a way as possible. Such a volume is surely long overdue, and let me say straight away I am not disappointed. Baudrillard’s specific relevance to anyone serious and reflexive about media theory is well and truly established here.
What a number of recent commentaries on Baudrillard do is show how far off the ball many of his critics have been. The best have risen to his challenging innovations in reading and writing, form and methodology. ‘The challenge’, as Mike Gane noted, “is to follow through the logic of Baudrillard’s position wherever it may lead, in the belief that this logic itself contains its own principle”.1 Gane sets out the protocol for thorough reading. First, one must defer suspicion, allow oneself to be seduced by the work and “read as if the author were in possession of a secret omniscience”.2 Next, the reading must unleash critical thought and read rather as if the author were a cynical puppet-master. Finally, there must be a balanced drawing together of seduction and hostility. However, for Gane, none of this addresses “the question of how the reading is accomplished in relation to the specific text”.3 How to read Baudrillard’s work is implicit in the work itself. Baudrillard’s work spirals to both match/mirror and goad or outpaces the phenomena it addresses. The logic of this strategy forbids both depth reading (in which the work is treated as symptomatic of repressed, unconscious material) and hermeneutic reading (in which the author is assumed to be master of meaning).
Rex Butler also emphasizes “the miracle of writing” in Baudrillard. Baudrillard’s work, once again, doubles and destines the world rather than reflects and describes it.4 Reading him on his own terms means going further than Gane, who still fails to fully realize that the logic of this work forbids unproblematic comparison and contrast to other thinkers. This is once more, Butler insists, to occlude the internal logic of the work’s doubling of reality. What is called for is a stringent “internal reading” that generates and mounts its critique from within the world so doubled. Baudrillard proceeds by an internal reading and writing of object-systems and the logic by which they double and destine reality. His critical force cleaves to the inevitability of system-failure, consists of an alliance with the reversive, symbolic forces that will no doubt manifest themselves. In common with Derrida and other post-structuralists, Baudrillard is ever pushing to locate the deconstructive moment, the break-point or internal limit which is always already there, cleaving to it, defending and abetting it, taking on its force in his own writing.
As Merrin is aware, to mount a critique of Baudrillard himself, one must therefore locate the auto-deconstructive moment in his work. Like Bob Dylan’s love, Baudrillard knows there’s no success like failure. The reflexive twist in his work consists in its acknowledgement that the temptation to capture the real comes closest to realizing its goal only in finding its hands close around nothing: “it is only through the attempt to be systematic that we can show what cannot be systematized”.5 We cannot recognize or master Baudrillard except in grasping the lesson of his failure.
This lesson has long been comprehensively occluded in mainstream media and communication studies. Merrin usefully clears the decks for future sallies in Baudrillardian media theory. Baudrillard and the Media is a book of three parts. It begins by drawing out the theoretical co-ordinates of the work as necessary underpinning to the discussion which follows on the media non-event as spiralling together of the symbolic and the semiotic. The final part of the book explores Baudrillard’s views on specific media, notably cinema, new media/ virtual reality and photography.
One of Merrin’s greatest services is to show how Baudrillard picks up some dropped stitches in the Western critical tradition. In addition to lauding Baudrillard for his reinstatement of a discussion of the image as simulacrum, the book lays the stress on the radical Durkheimian thread running throughout his career. This is the crucial lineage, the key without which his notion of critique cannot be easily unlocked and approached. As Merrin notes, even Butler’s astute exploration, in placing the doubling strategy centre stage, downplays the crucial role the symbolic plays in Baudrillard’s work. At the heart of this tradition is Durkheim’s notion of “creative effervescence”, the symbolic communion with the sacred that has been evacuated from contemporary societies. Mauss still kept faith with Durkheim that this, in the form of the radical principle of the gift, might return, and, following this lead, Bataille, Caillois and the College of Sociology looked for vestigial traces of paroxysm. As Baudrillard says in interview with Paul Hegarty, this thought, principally via Bataille, informs his work in its very weft and warp: “it’s better than a reference, as it’s hidden away, part of the fabric, in the threads”.6
The key site of the symbolic’s repression is our fundamentally incommunicative electronic media. Merrin elucidates how McLuhan and Boorstin figure in Baudrillard’s thought here. His notion of the media “non-event” radicalises Boorstin’s “pseudo-event”. It is not just that the event is elevated and made special, or even replaced, by the media but more radically that all events pass into the media. Pace McLuhan, we don’t all share and participate in the global media event; isolated before our screens we share nothing except fascination with the “corpse of reality”.7 However, Baudrillard’s work remains McLuhanist in his insistence on thought’s experimentalism, its predictive, non-empirical potential. From McLuhan, he takes the method of the escalatory, speculative “probe”, but where McLuhan wanted to probe in order ultimately to map and understand media, Baudrillard’s extremity lies in his defiance of the map so probed.8
Merrin locates Baudrillard against prevailing currents in media and cultural studies which one and all implicitly accept and “consecrate” the media event or spectacle. However, he is never slow to acknowledge that this radicalism is constantly coupled with a reactionary stance. For example, in Chapter Seven on digital media and virtualization (digitality as epiphenomenon of the virtualization of human beings in their core”9), he points out the limitations of this account. Baudrillard’s commitment to symbolic exchange leads him to gloss digitality, dismissing any claim for its radical potential out of hand. In this, his notion of the machine engulfing and enthralling the operator gets close to the hoary cybernetic critique of new media. As example of the latter, in the case of videogames, P.D. Marshall suggests that “the subjectivity of the gamer is structured into a cybernetic loop so that the gamer becomes an extension of the player’s directives”.10 But does not the symbolic also haunt even the virtual worlds of video and computer games? Even here absorption is far from total. There is, I would argue, a certain presence-play in the digital game.11 Digital games are either, as in Baudrillard, routinely vilified for their immersive, amnesic properties, or vaunted as active-reflexive spaces. It could be argued that what is at stake in the medium is neither the oblivious self nor the playful self, but precisely the self in play. What the medium has to offer is the disorder and undecidability of identity, the lesson that, in Derrida's words, “we are (always) (still) to be invented”.12 Perhaps we need to take our Baudrillard with a shot of Derrida if we are to abide by his own insistence that there is always an irreducible alterity in language and the subject which prevents a total giving way to “absolute reality”.13 It’s a shame that Baudrillard’s commitments and his too-glib apocalypticism forbid him from locating this in better-considered explorations of specific new media. Merrin does not shy away from such criticisms.
Merrin’s internal reading shows how the force of the simulacrum is loosed in Baudrillard’s work itself, how the semiotic and the symbolic cannot be definitively prised apart. In trying to do this, Baudrillard merely commits the same error as those iconoclasts before him: he tries to hold the demon simulacrum at bay. In his rethink after Symbolic Exchange and Death, he recognizes the inevitability of entering into a pact to recruit and mobilize the evil of semiosis itself insofar as it betrays the irruptive and reversive force of the symbolic inside itself. Merrin characterizes this as a shift from a strategy of opposition to one of reversibility and exacerbation. Baudrillard counterposes the green-housing of the real by the cold, prophylactic obscenity of disenchanted simulation with enchanted simulation’s leaky, warm “black magic”. Merrin is good on how a binary opposition is by this satanic manoeuvre too often merely redrawn. In redrawing the lines, isn’t Baudrillard painting himself into a corner? Just as the symbolic reverses, enchants and punctures the big bubble of semiosis, there is no barrier to the irruption of the simulacrum within the symbolic, effectively collapsing this cherished critical category.
For Merrin, the greatest danger, however, is that Baudrillard’s theory simply becomes true, that he is himself engulfed by the banal truth of simulation’s victory. This kind of failure is no success at all, having all the appeal of a videogame one has finally mastered. Interestingly, this is what seems to have happened with the fiction of one of Baudrillard’s favoured novelists, J. G .Ballard. In Ballard’s work over the last few years, one also senses a deceleration and waning of its violent power. Hitherto always at least five minutes ahead, Ballard, in his new novel, Kingdom Come (2006), with its critique of the fascistic core of suburban consumerism, fails to outpace the present and is dogged, finally overtaken by an awful sense of topicality. Such are the snares and pitfalls of the strategy of speculative theoretical violence. Reality escalates to subsume the thought and theory’s critical play with evil stalls.
At this point, as before, Baudrillard’s hand is forced and he escalates his strategy of theoretical violence. He starts a new game, but, as in any shoot-‘em-up videogame, we can expect the enemy to respawn itself simultaneously. Where Merrin leaves off, and where all media theorists who follow must take up the challenge, is with the question of how to follow. Surpassing the demon Baudrillard means surpassing media theory. In this, we ought not to merely strive to recognize Baudrillard, but to give back more.14 Merrin concludes that he himself wants to fall. How should we push him? How to fail successfully?
1 Mike Gane. Jean Baudrillard: Critical and Fatal Theory. London: Routledge, 1991:8.
3 Ibid.: 11.
4 Rex Butler. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. London: Sage, 1999:10.
5 Ibid.: 20-1.
6 Paul Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. London: Continuum, 2004:149.
7 William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. Cambridge: Polity, 2005:58-9.
10 P. David Marshall. New Media Cultures. London: Arnold, 2004:72.
11 Dean Lockwood and Tony Richards. “Presence-Play: The Hauntology of the Videogame”. In Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and Ralf Stockmann (Editors). Games Without Frontiers, War Without Tears: Videogames as Socio-Cultural Phenomenon. London: Palgrave, (forthcoming in 2007).
12 Jacques Derrida. Cited in Nicholas Royle. Jacques Derrida. London: Routledge, 2003:59.
13 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. London: Verso, 1996:53.
14 William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. Cambridge: Polity, 2005:159.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)