Breakaway and inertia
By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / July 20, 2010
[This is the last of a three part series on the philosopher and social critic Jean Baudrillard, who died three years ago at the age of 77. Go here for Parts 1 and 2.]
Before we leave him, let us follow Baudrillard’s thought a bit further here for the hints it may give us about our contemporary situation. In a provocative 1987 article entitled “The Year 2000 Has Already Happened,” he takes us astride some fascinating metaphors. While some of the physics may be less than strict, it is worth suspending disbelief, and being open to the poetic truth of his images.
Why has the real disappeared? Baudrillard evokes the “speed of liberation” necessary for a body to escape the gravitational force of a star or planet.
According to this image, we may suppose that the acceleration of modernity, technical, factual, mediatory, the acceleration of all economic, political and sexual exchanges — all that we denote fundamentally under the term “liberation” — has carried us at a speed of liberation, such that we have one day…escaped from the referential sphere of the real and of history. (35)
But since all actions have their equal and opposite reactions, at the same time, Baudrillard invokes an “inverse” hypothesis dealing with the slowing down of processes. By relativity theory, great mass slows down time.
Here then is the most important event of our modern societies, the most subtle and most profound trick of their history: the advent, in the very course of their socialization, of their mobilization, of their productive and revolutionary intensification,…the advent of a force of inertia, of an immense indifference, and of the silent power of indifference. What we call the masses. This mass, this inert material of the social, does not arise from a lack of exchange, information, and communication, but on the contrary from the multiplication and saturation of exchange, information, etc. It is born of the hyper-density of the city, of merchandise, of messages, of circuits. It is the cold star of the social and, surrounding this mass, history chills, slows down, events succeed one another and are annihilated in indifference. Neutralized, immunized by information, the masses in turn neutralize history and play(act) as a screen of absorption.(37)
Gridlock. In this view (wave, not photon), progress, history, reason, desire can no longer find their “speed of liberation.”
We are already at the point where political and social events do not have sufficient autonomous energy to move us, and thus they unfold as in a silent film for which we are, not individually, but collectively, irresponsible. History ends there, and you may see how: not because of lack of character, nor of violence…nor of events, but of a slowing down, indifference, and stupefaction….[History’s] effects accelerate, but its sense slackens, ineluctably. (38)
Baudrillard thinks through — in microcosm — the cosmological question of infinite expansion vs. cycles of expansion and contraction. Will the breakaway or the inertia prevail?
Are we, like the galaxies, caught in a definitive movement that distances us one from another at a prodigious speed, or is this dispersion to infinity destined to end, and the human molecules to approach one another according to an inverse movement of gravitation? (38)
It could be that the very energy of the liberation of the species (the demographic, technological acceleration, the acceleration of exchanges in the course of centuries) creates an excess of mass and of resistance which goes faster than the initial energy, and which would thus drag us in an unrelenting movement of contraction and inertia. (39)
Baudrillard offers a third hypotheses about the “vanishing point,” the point of disappearance beyond which all ceases to be real, by evoking the technical perfection of stereo. In his listening experience, there is no more music, but rather an impression of something “viscerally secreted in the interior.”
The problem of the disappearance of music is the same as that of history: it will not disappear for want of music, it will disappear in the perfection of its materiality.
It is also thus with history, there too we have gone beyond that limit where, as a result of informational sophistication, history as such has ceased to exist. [There has been a] short-circuit between cause and effect,…a radical uncertainty about the truth, about the very reality of the event.
By definition, this ‘vanishing point’, the point on this side of which there was history, there was music, there was a meaning to the event, to the social, to sexuality,…this point is irrecoverable. Where must we stop information?…We will never know what history was before becoming exasperated in the technical perfection of information, or before vanishing in the multiplicity of codes — we will never know what all things were before vanishing in the realization of their model.(39)
Unlike the (sophisticated) complainers of the Frankfurt School, Baudrillard seems pleased — or at least not unhappy — with all this.
That we leave history in order to enter into simulation…is not at all a despairing hypothesis, unless one speaks of simulation as a higher form of alienation. Which I will certainly not do. History is precisely the place of alienation, and if we leave history, we also leave alienation (not without nostalgia, one must say, for that good old dramaturgy of subject and object.)
But we can offer the hypothesis that history itself is or was only an immense model of simulation….I speak of the time in which it unfolds, of this linear time where events supposedly succeed one another from cause to effect, even if the complexity is great. (41)
Baudrillard sees no liberating local language games, but
massive comportments of retreat, of the suspension of the historic will, including the apparent inverse obsession of historicising everything, of achieving everything, of memorizing everything of our past and that of other cultures. (43)
Wandering through underground shopping malls, he senses
societies which entomb themselves behind their prospective technologies, their stocks of information and in the immense alveolate networks of communication where time is finally annihilated by pure circulation — these generations will never perhaps awake, but they don’t know it. (43)
Nevertheless, he does not complain. His positive evaluation of America stands alone amidst the howling and jeering of other cultured Europeans:
The US is a beautiful example of this immoral energy of transformation [directed] toward and against all systems of value. Despite [Americans’] morality, their puritanism, their obsession with virtue, their pragmatic idealism, everything there changes irresistibly according to an impulse which is not at all that of progress, linear by definition — no, the real motor is the abjection of free circulation. Asocial and still untamed today, resistant to every coherent project of society: everything is tested there, everything is paid for there, everything is made to have value there, everything fails there. Western music, various therapies, sexual “perversions”, buildings in the east, the leaders, the gadgets, the artistic movements, all pass by in succession without stopping. And our [European] cultural unconscious, profoundly nourished by culture and meaning, can howl before this spectacle. Nevertheless, it is there, in the immoral promiscuity of all the forms, of all the races, in the violent spectacle of change, that resides the success of a society and the sign of its vitality.
What do we do with all this oddball stuff?, or Baudrillard’s Conception of the Role of Theory
It’s not a question of ideas — there are already too many ideas!
Baudrillard calls for nothing — and no action.
And indeed it would be hard to call for anything else since, in Baudrillard, “critical theory faces the formidable task of unveiling structures of domination when no one is dominating, nothing is being dominated and no ground exists for a principle of liberation from domination.” Baudrillard’s writing seems to be for him
simply an act of defiance, a game. But it seems to me to be the only enthralling game. At the same time, it’s often an act of provocation. Perhaps the only thing one can do is to destabilize and provoke the world around us.
Is he modest, or what?
We shouldn’t presume to produce positive solutions. In my opinion this isn’t the intellectual’s or the thinker’s task. It’s not our responsibility. It might occur, but it will only come about by reaction. I’ve the impression that if energy still exists, it is reactive, reactionary, repulsive. It needs to be provoked into action. One should not attempt to inaugurate positive solutions because they will immediately be condemned — so they’re virtually a waste of energy. In other words, one needs to make a kind of detour through the strategy of the worst scenario, through the paths of subversion. It’s a slightly perverse calculation, perhaps. But in my opinion it’s the only effective option — it’s the only way that a philosopher or thinker can, as it were, become a terrorist.
The secret of theory is that truth doesn’t exist. You can’t confront it in any way. The only thing you can do is play with some kind of provocative logic. Truth constitutes a space that can no longer be occupied. The whole strategy is, indeed, not to occupy it, but to work around it so that others come to occupy it. It means creating a void so that others will fall into it.
Much of Baudrillard’s “perverse calculation” is a corollary of an amazing insight:
The false is resplendent with all the power of the true, that is art;…inversely the true …is resplendent with all the power of the false, that is obscenity.
Art, the antithesis of obscenity. There’s an idea for the Evangelical Right!
When one says it is the false which is resplendent with the power of the true, it means that the true, by having this kind of aura placed on it, can never be found simply by looking for it. The only strategy is the reverse one! You only reach the true, the beautiful — supposing that that is what is wanted — by passing directly to the inverse….Indeed, there is a radical contradiction in pretending to find the truth where one is looking for it…which is our morality. Happily, art does not partake of that self-contradiction. It knows very well that illusion is the sole route to get somewhere if something is to be found…It is very fundamental.
Herein lies the ultimate demise of socialism or any other grand theory that, however well-intended, seeks to achieve a particular goal, be it liberation or enslavement.
There is a terrible self-contradiction in the social as we envisage it — or in socialism which proposes indeed the frontal realization of the social, and I would not say without perversion but without any intelligence — that never do things promote themselves like that — in a straight line which would lead from their origin to their end. Happily, things are more subtle than that.
We have already heard “That people want to be told what they want is certainly not true; it is not clear either that they really want to know what they want, or that they desire to want at all.” Baudrillard continues:
The whole edifice of socialism is based on that assumption. They start from the fact that this is what people ought to want, that they are social in the sense that they are supposed to know themselves, know what they want. I think we have pressed beyond that point, beyond truth, beyond reality.
So no more Mr. Fixit. Social theory, at least
maintains absolutely no relation with anything at all; it becomes an event in and of itself. We can no longer fix the way things are going…Strictly speaking, nothing remains but a sense of dizziness, with which you can’t do anything.
And thus we can understand Baudrillard’s evolution from academic, Marxist sociologist to postmodern artist, playing with falsehood “resplendent with all the power of the true.” Though I worry about Baudrillard being nothing but a jester, I read him with a strong sense of lurking enlightenment. The stakes are profound.
Appraising the unappraisable Baudrillard
Everything I write is deemed brilliant, intelligent, but not serious. There has never been any real discussion about it. I don’t claim to be tremendously serious, but there are nevertheless some philosophically serious things in my work!
His critics are merciless, seeing his “speculative spontaneity” as “grossly undertheorized.”
It is inconceivable that any collectivistic political programme can emerge from this practice.
[Baudrillard’s] rhetorical ‘play’ and ‘caprice’ may well disrupt restricting intellectual ethics or conventions, but seldom suffice to inaugurate radically new alternatives to dominant practices.
Certainly, his aestheticist view of the world can be problematical. Who could have watched the Challenger explosion, and then say
It was extraordinary: a sort of symbolic victory that only the Americans could afford! That fantastic burial in the sky! They’ve revived our appetite for space. Offering themselves the luxury of such disasters. What a way to go! Simple endings are without interest; they’re flat and linear. The really exciting thing is to discover orbital space where these other forces play.
Are we to take such a man seriously? We can grant him his “voluntary stance as a marginal oppositional figure.” And we can still be inspired by his enthusiasms:
Even if things are not really at their end, well! Let’s act as if they were. It’s a game, a provocation. Not in order to put a full stop to everything, but, on the contrary, to make everything begin again. So you see, I’m far from being a pessimist.
But most of all, I think we have to value the extraordinary originality of his angle on the contemporary world. How remarkable his attack on what Foucault terms the “abundance of things to know: essential or terrible, marvelous or droll.” As Foucault concludes, there are still “too few means to think about all that is happening.”
Baudrillard adds immeasurably to those means. I would certainly agree with Nickolas Zurbrugg, a most critical critic, in saying
There is frequently something profoundly engaging and inspiring in Baudrillard’s idiosyncratic attempts to grapple with those issues which he finds most challenging and most at stake. Compared with the unadventurous ways in which other cartographers of postmodern culture carefully sift elementary shifts within the familiar shallows of twentieth-century discourse, Baudrillard’s finest “virtual’ descents into uncharted contemporary depths offer models of passionate engagement with the most crucial developments within the postmodern condition.
As to whether hyperreality is truly the new mode of postmodernism, I can only quote my wife, Donna, who the other day called an airline, and pressed 1 to speak to a representative.
“The human I talked to this morning,” Donna reported, “asked ‘What did it say on the automated system?'”
[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.]
- “Marc Estrin: The Genius of Jean Baudrillard” by Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / June 29, 2010
- “Baudrillard 2 : Postmodern Democracy and the End of History” by Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / July 5, 2010