29 June 2010

Marc Estrin : The Genius of Jean Baudrillard


By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / June 29, 2010

[This is the first of three parts.]

My last week's posting on The Rag Blog, Tea for Two, led to several inquiries concerning the philosopher and social critic Jean Baudrillard, who died three years ago at the age of 77.

I was a latecomer to Baudrillard. Years after academic critics had been industriously putting him down, I discovered him by accident in a catalogue called AMOK, Fourth Dispatch: A Sourcebook of the Extremes of Information in Print. Exotica, Mayhem, Neuropolitics, Scratch 'n Sniff, Sensory Deprivation, Sleaze, Tactics -- and, under "Control," Baudrillard.

In a page of Baudrillard listings, they printed a selection from Simulations about Disneyland being "presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real." The proverbial light bulb snapped on over my head: Reality! This contemporary craziness is not basically about Democrats and Republicans, hawks and doves, rich and poor, blacks and whites, women and men -- it's about different understandings of Reality! And about the various strategies of manipulating Reality.

This was a new thought for me, one that seemed hugely pregnant. I ran out and bought a copy of Simulations, figuring that Baudrillard might have the missing key to my key questions. He would explain things that seemed so weirdly inexplicable -- like how and why we've fallen into our postmodern insanity, and what we need to do about it.

I'm a good reader. Six hundred page book? No problem. Simulations is 4x6 -- large print, big margins, 150 pages. Almost a pamphlet. I'll read it in an evening. It's now 13 years later, and I'm still nibbling away at it. Not that it's so difficult. But the thinking of this "intellectual terrorist," "the Darth Vader of postmodernism," is so audacious that I can't read any more than a page at a time -- if that.

The last movement of Schoenberg's Second Quartet sets a poem by Stefan George which begins with the line, "Ich fühle Luft von anderen Planeten" -- I feel the air of other planets. That's how I feel when reading Baudrillard. Adding Baudrillard to any academic debate on postmodernism is like a scene from a Marx Brothers movie where two people are arguing, and Harpo comes in with a scissors and snips off their ties.

Although he himself denies being "serious," I think it pays to try to think with him, and to take his unseriousness seriously for where it may lead.

I'm going to quote him a lot. There's no sense paraphrasing a writer who, in a section on the energy of postmodern collapse, can write

We ...dream of harnessing this energy, but this is sheer madness. We might as well harness the energy of automobile accidents, or of dogs that have been run over...

Late, early, and middle Baudrillard

You may know that there is "early," "middle," and "late" Beethoven -- Beethoven the enthusiastic, energetic young kid ready to kick the pants off any other classical composer; Beethoven the walking tragedy, Europe's greatest composer going DEAF! -- inventing romantic music to express the deepest passions of his mighty heart; and finally, "late" Beethoven -- the stone deaf old man, a decade out of touch with any worldly sound, inventing music that had never been heard before, and would never be heard again. Well, Baudrillard underwent a similar conversion to the weird.


For our purposes here, I am going to concentrate almost entirely on the language and concepts of middle Baudrillard. Late Baudrillard flies so high and crazy that it's difficult to connect with without a thorough grounding in what preceded it, and even then makes for a major challenge. His thought revolves around the notions of "seduction" and "fatal theory" in which objects take control of the universe, surpassing all attempts to conceptualize or control them.

This "obscene" (out of the scene, nothing hidden) "ecstasy of objects" creates a catastrophe for us, the exhausted subjects, and we arrive at apathy and stupefaction. Our only hope is to imitate the strategies and ruses of objects.

Baudrillard sees other social critics as proceeding by "banal strategies," thinking themselves more clever than objects, and heading for inevitable defeat from objects' greater cynicism and shrewdness.

That much said about late Baudrillard, I leave you to try to read his mysterious words, and to study the insidious plotting of your refrigerators and vases.


Early Baudrillard is more understandable, and extremely interesting. Although he was never fully accepted into the starry, hierarchical skies of European academia, Baudrillard began his intellectual career with some extremely significant extensions of Marxism to contemporary reality, taking into account the emergence of mass culture and the technologies of mass reproduction.

Early on, Baudrillard was still a classical, highly imaginary, Marxist, assuming, with Marx, that economics was the major determining factor of human life and civilization. His insight, however, was that production was no longer as important a force as consumption, and that consumerism -- "a collective hysteria that takes the form of manic appropriation of an endless series of objects" -- made the behavior of consumers more important than the behavior of producers, the major actors on Marx's stage. The desire for objects had easily evolved into the desire for desire itself, and a positive feedback loop was well into driving a situation unimagined by the Marxian theory of mutually antagonistic forces.

But this extension of Marxism evolved into a devastating critique of Marx, and an attack on classical Marxism as a mirror of bourgeois society, a perpetuation of the idea of humanity as homo economicus, an excusing, legitimizing understanding of the current state of affairs.

In typical, flamboyant form, Baudrillard parodied the famous opening of the Communist Manifesto:
A spectre haunts the revolutionary imagination: the phantom of production. Everywhere it sustains an unbridled romanticism of productivity. The critical theory of the mode of production does not touch the principle of production.
Baudrillard accuses Marx of being in collusion with capitalism (!) in the Marxian analysis of the insidious power of its forms. He was looking for a more radical position, one which looks at the world through another lens -- the optic of "symbolic exchange." In symbolic exchange, Baudrillard posits an alternative organizing principle of modern society, harkening back to the practices of more "primitive" ones.

In escaping the logic of production and adopting the pervasive ambiance of advertising, this new condition creates a state of affairs in which the product is no longer as important as the set of meanings arbitrarily grafted on to it. The pervasive power of advanced capitalism has created an entirely new structure of meaning. The free play of signs and codes gives consumers an illusory sense of freedom and self-determination which entirely escapes their eyes and understanding.

In his books, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972/1981), The Mirror of Production (1975), and Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), Baudrillard attempts to work out all the contradictions between commodity exchange and symbolic exchange, and their implications for the future.

But his final break with Marxism came with his new understanding of the evolution of Reality in Western culture. Here we come to a main feeding station for digesting postmodernity -- the one I find most interesting, stimulating, and profitable: middle Baudrillard, and his notions of hyperreality and simulation.


In Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard posits a definitive rupture between modern societies oriented around production and consumption, and postmodern ones "in which codes, models, and signs are the organizing principles of a new social order where simulation rules." In Simulations, he develops these ideas.

I don't think Baudrillard would like my seizing and concentrating on this stage of his work: he has gone beyond it.
"I so wish I could cast off this yoke of simulacras and simulations which, incidentally, I have never treated as the last word of history, and with which I am truly fed up. I've heard these tunes too many times." "I stopped working on simulation. I felt I was going totally nuts."
And even his readers go totally nuts. Middle Baudrillard is not logical. He rarely defines his key terms, and when he does, he will offer widely ranging anecdotal descriptions rather than definitions. So you never really know what he's talking about. The good side of this is that he stimulates the creative imagination like no other writer -- you have to fill in your own blanks.

Jean Baudrillard at his home in Paris. Photo by Eric Feferberg / Guardian, U.K.


Let me review from last week a key section in Simulations which give a reader something to hang on to. Baudrillard, you may remember, characterizes four stages in the changing function of signs. It is worth repeating.
  1. The sign is "a reflection of a basic reality" -- as is common in scientific or referential language.
  2. The sign "masks and perverts a basic reality" -- as when ideology stems from false consciousness which prevents people from seeing their true alienation or exploitation. The Frankfurt School writers have plenty to say about this.
  3. The sign "masks the absence of a basic reality" -- as when iconoclasts fear of images of deity because they may lead people to suspect the absence of deity.
  4. The sign "bears no relation to any reality whatsoever": it is its own pure simulacrum.
Here Baudrillard is thinking of the incessant contemporary production of images with no attempt to ground them in reality. Do you drive a Lexus, an Acura, an Elanta, an XL300? What does that mean??? (p11)

The transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing, marks a decisive turning point. The era of simulation begins. (12)

We look around us today. How can we account for "the interchangeability of previously contradictory or dialectically opposed terms," the interchangeability
of the beautiful and the ugly in fashion; of the right and the left in politics; of the true and false in every media message; of the useful and the useless at the level of objects; and of nature and culture at every level of meaning?

It's easy -- because

all the great humanist criteria of value, all the values of a civilization of moral, aesthetic, and practical judgment, vanish in our system of images and signs. Everything becomes undecidable.

The age of simulation ...begins with a liquidation of all referentials -- worse: by their artificial resurrection in systems of signs, a more ductile material than meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalence,... substituting signs of the real for the real itself....(4)
On the first page of Simulations, Baudrillard cites a tale by Borges in which "the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory." (1) But these days, it is no longer a question of maps and territories. Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference between them. If there is any distinction at all, it is that it is the territory whose shards are slowly rotting across the map, and not vice versa.

So all we have now is the map, the sign, a most "ductile" environment. This is the age of simulation -- the generation by models of a "real" without origin or reality. Hyperreality. "The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth it is the map that precedes the territory." (2)

If you think it's easy to tell real from fake, Baudrillard challenges you to try staging a fake holdup.
Be sure to check that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no life is in danger....Demand ransom, and arrange it so that the operation creates the greatest commotion possible -- in brief, stay close to the "truth," so as to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulation. But you won't succeed: the web of artificial signs will be inextricably mixed up with real elements (a police officer will really shoot on sight; a bank customer will faint and die of a heart attack; they will really turn the phony ransom over to you)...(39)
And here, Baudrillard elucidates the dynamic nature of the interaction of reality and simulation:
-- In brief, you will unwittingly find yourself immediately in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour every attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to some reality -- that's exactly how the established order is... (39)
If reality is to seek in simulation the same order of reality, then the destiny of reality is inevitably to become simulation. This dynamic would explain the "collective hysteria" of production and overproduction, consumption and overconsumption in Western culture.
What society seeks through production, and overproduction, is the restoration of the real which escapes it. That is why contemporary "material" production is itself hyperreal. (44)
It also explains the itch for fascism that we see demonstrated in the public desire for a president to "act presidential." It doesn't matter what he does: the mere assertion of power satisfies "a collective demand for signs of power -- a holy union which forms around the disappearance of power." (45)

It further explains the movement to "end welfare as we know it," and get single mothers working, even if they cannot afford to take care of their children, and even if government solutions (short of abandonment) are bound to cost more than welfare. "There is a demand for work exactly proportional to the loss of stake in the work process." (47)

How to cope with this unholy coupling of reality and sign? The answer seems to be to assume nothing about the reality of any reality. Everything is true. All realities are exchangeable and equivalent. Baudrillard gives the example of a hot topic at the time he was writing: urban bombings (presented as leftist) terrorizing Germany and Italy, but equally applicable to many "terrorist" and false-flag attacks today.
Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or of extreme right-wing provocation, or staged by centrists to bring every terrorist extreme into disrepute and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario in order to appeal to public security? All this is equally true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the fact does not check this vertigo of interpretation. We are in a logic of simulation which has nothing to do with the logic of facts... (31)
Baudrillard next treats us to some extended examples of living "in a logic of simulation."


I have already referred to the much-quoted section on Disneyland, (23-26), the "perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation." (23)
Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the "real" country, all of "real" America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is not a question of a false representation of reality, but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle. (25)
Baudrillard identifies Disneyland in this regard as a third-order simulation -- the kind which "masks the absence of a basic reality." He also opines that "the Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false; it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real." (25)

By denying the truth or falsity of Disneyland, he is underlining that it is not that Disneyland is a fake representation of America, but that there no longer is any real America. His prison reference would suffer the same logic: it is not that America is "really" a total prison from which we are distracted by literal prisons. In terms of meaning, there is no is here -- any more than there is one particular terrorist bomber -- no matter who actually did the bombing.

Can you grasp the radical, all-embracing nature of these assertions?

Baudrillard is often accused of being decadent and apolitical -- of being neutral and non-judgmental concerning these phenomena. But his section on Watergate shows that it is possible to combine these counter-intuitive views with a hard-headed understanding of power and a passionate denunciation of predatory capitalism.

Watergate is not a scandal

It is not important who did what. "Watergate above all succeeded in imposing the idea that Watergate was a scandal -- in this sense it was an extraordinary operation of intoxication." (27)
Before, the task was to dissimulate scandal; today, the task is to conceal the fact that there is none. Watergate is not a scandal: this is what must be said at all cost, for this is what everyone is concerned to conceal, this dissimulation masking a...moral panic as we approach the primal...scene of capital: its instantaneous cruelty, its incomprehensible ferocity, its fundamental immorality -- this is what is scandalous, unaccountable for in that system of moral and economic equivalence which remains the axiom of leftist thought, from Enlightenment theory to communism. Capital doesn't give a damn about the idea of the contract which is imputed to it -- it is a monstrous unprincipled undertaking, nothing more. Rather it is "enlightened" thought which seeks to control capital by imposing rules on it. And all that recrimination which replaced revolutionary thought today comes down to reproaching capital for not following the rules of the game. "Power is unjust, its justice is a class justice, capital exploits us, etc." -- as if capital were linked by a contract to the society it rules. (28-29)

Hence Watergate was only a trap set by the system to catch its adversaries, a simulation of scandal to regenerative ends. (30)
It was not a trap designed or set by anyone, but an inevitable consequence of unanchored reality desperately clinging to its unanchored self. Just as with the terrorist bombing, anyone can do the actual work. If the Left wants to expose Watergate as a scandal of the Right, all well and good.
The work of the Right is done very well, and spontaneously, by the Left on its own. Besides, it would be naive to see an embittered good conscience at work here [Deep Throat]. For the Right itself also spontaneously does the work of the Left.....Such collusions admirably knit together...The conjunction of the system and its extreme alternative like two ends of a curved mirror, the 'vicious' curvature of a political space henceforth magnetized, circularized, reversibilised from right to left, a torsion that is like the evil demon of commutation, the whole system, the infinity of capital folded back over its own surface.... (30, 34-5)

The Gulf War will not take place

Baudrillard became more infamous than ever when -- before the '91 war -- he made the above statement. After the war, when taunted with the incorrectness of his position, he simply commented, "The Gulf War did not take place." Rather than try to understand this paradoxical statement, most critics simply threw up their hands and cried, "He's a bigger asshole than I thought."

But isn't it clear that just as Disneyland is not fake, just as Watergate was not a scandal, the Gulf War was not a war, but a misdirecting sleight-of-hand to make us think that all isn't war? If this was an ideological war to oust Saddam, why was Saddam left still in power, though the west "won"? If this was a fierce contest against a hugely threatening army, why were there so few American casualties? Some on the left have refused to call it a war, but rather, "a massacre." Some have analyzed it as a taxpayer-supported demo -- PR for the benefit of U.S. arms merchants. In any case, there is a lot of truth in Baudrillard's seemingly outrageous statements. His analysis of simulated war, however, goes deeper:
Behind the armed violence, the murderous antagonism between adversaries -- which seems a matter of life and death, and which is played as such (otherwise you could never send out people to get smashed up in this kind of trouble), behind this simulacrum of a struggle to death and of ruthless global stakes, the two adversaries are fundamentally as one against that other, unnamed, never mentioned thing, whose objective outcome in war, with equal complicity between the two adversaries, is total liquidation. It is tribal, communal, pre-capitalist structures, every form of exchange, language and symbolic organization which must be abolished. Their murder is the object of war -- and in its immense spectacular contrivance of death, war is only the medium of this process of terrorist rationalization by the social -- the murder through which sociality can be founded, no matter what allegiance, communist or capitalist. The total complicity or division of labor between two adversaries...for the very purpose of remolding and domesticating social relations. (68-69)
No wonder there are no "victories" in war, at least not those of stated objectives. If the actual objective is to repress any other emerging reality, then it's good -- and understandable -- that Saddam was left in power, that the drug war is "unsuccessful," that Russia was (and is) being destroyed and humiliated in its recycled role as ally.

What no longer exists is the adversity of adversaries, the reality of antagonistic causes, the ideological seriousness of war. (70)

Instead, there is a secret alliance of all the components of the what-is. All is simulated, necessary and equal in the Political Economy of Signs. Such thinking explains a lot.

To be continued next week.

[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels,
Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

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