Volume 4, Number 2 (July, 2007).
Review: Grasping The Lessons Of Failure.
Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity, 2005.
by Dr. Dean Lockwood
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
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
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
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
Merrin concludes that he himself wants to fall. How should we push him? How to
Gane. Jean Baudrillard: Critical and Fatal Theory. London: Routledge,
4 Rex Butler.
Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. London: Sage, 1999:10.
Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. London: Continuum, 2004:149.
Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. Cambridge: Polity, 2005:58-9.
10 P. David
Marshall. New Media Cultures. London: Arnold, 2004:72.
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).
Derrida. Cited in Nicholas Royle.
Jacques Derrida. London:
13 Jean Baudrillard.
The Perfect Crime. London: Verso, 1996:53.
14 William Merrin. Baudrillard
and the Media. Cambridge: Polity, 2005:159.