Baudrillard as the Skin of the Future

by Dr. Arthur Kroker and Dr. Oleg Maltsev

Oleg Maltsev: You have known Jean Baudrillard for 15 years. How would you describe Baudrillard as a person and scholar?

Arthur Kroker: Jean Baudrillard was an immensely gracious, very warm and intellectually curious person.  As a scholar, he was somebody who thinks about the world in social, cultural, political terms. He was acutely insightful, perceptive and deeply knowledgeable.  Jean Baudrillard was a prophetic historian of the future. I always think that Baudrillard is a Nietzsche of our times in many ways.

OM: Why Nietzsche?

AK: For two reasons. Nietzsche said once that his thought would only be understood posthumously, that it will be only understood by future generations who would live in the reality he had prophesied. I think it’s really the same with Baudrillard.  The reality that he was describing has appeared now and will really represent the structure of the 21st century.

OM: If Nietzsche’s works were understood only posthumously, what was the case with Baudrillard’s works during his lifetime? How did people perceive his works?

AK: During his lifetime he was immensely influential on a very broad level, in the arts community, in the popular press in North America, and certainly in the disciplines of sociology, politics, philosophy, cultural studies and information studies. Particularly in the artistic community, Baudrillard’s works were immensely and massively influential.

OM: Could we say that Jean Baudrillard is the brightest figure when it comes to the philosophy of postmodernism?

AK: The brightest figure? Sounds good, I think that’s very accurate.

OM: What kind of an approach should people take to studying his works?

AK: There are many different approaches which are appropriate. Jean Baudrillard intellectually influenced many different people in many different ways. Baudrillard was a ‘pataphysician in the tradition of Alfred Jarry, and Alfred Jarry invented the science of imaginary solutions. I always thought that all of Baudrillard’s writings were very much a ‘pataphysics of the contemporary era. I think that we are living today in a world which is like the scheme formulated by Jean Baudrillard in some ways.

Let me be explicit about this in detail.  Baudrillard’s thought provided a deeply prophetic survey of the present politics and culture but also of the future and the past. He identified four major tendencies in the future of our postmodern society. One of them appears at the level of political economy. He was definitely the first and best in describing the contemporary movement towards digital capitalism. His books, “The Mirror of Production” and  “For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign” represented a significant break with Marxism in describing how we move beyond the binary exchanges between use-value and exchange value to the new era of symbolic exchange. The process of symbolic exchange with its diffusion of sign-values are a way of describing the appearance of the contemporary culture of simulation and, with that, the inauguration in the economic sphere of  digital capitalism.

The second principle, I think is the essence of Baudrillard’s thought: the entire existence of the mass society that we live in is driven by fatal death drives. Not a life principle but the death drives as the primal instinct motivating technological society.  This is expressed in the accelerated hyper glittering, hyper seductive  language of digital reality  itself, For Baudrillard, the ‘perfect crime’ committed by digital technology is its murder of the reality-principle—the triumph of a technological society which in its hygienic logic, its technological perfectibility, replaces the ambiguity and uncertainties of material reality with the circulating illusions of the hyper-real. Here, the ecstasy of catastrophe drives society forward it represented the movement to a world, which has more than an illusion, it is perfectly accelerated, perfectly hygienic, technologically perfect. At the same time, it is continuously on the verge of imminent collapse and it does periodically collapse. That’s what Nietzsche described as a death drive, and what Freud described as a death instinct, and Baudrillard does the same.

OM: Do I understand correctly that when we speak about the first prophecy of Baudrillard it is his insight that the economics and society totally depend on sign, that the language of sign-values becomes the overriding power?

AK: Yes, definitely.

OM: And could we paraphrase the second principle as “death drive is …”

AK: the essence of  the language of contemporary technology.

OM: Do these two premises constitute the foundation of Jean Baudrillard’s thought?

AK:  I would add two more to these. The third principle I think is essential (especially reading the original contribution of JB) — his theory of simulation, the theory that reality has imploded into the era of the hyperreal, where things are more real than real. I think that’s a really profound insight and accurately describes the world in which we live in every dimension. Fourth, the principle of cultural seduction. Seduction is very important because for JB seduction means that everything has a moment of hidden reversibility within it. Imminent and hidden reversibility. Things can change to their opposite states immediately. And that accounts for their fascination, and their scandal, and their imaginary possibilities.

OM: Hidden reversibility – such as fatalism?

AK:  Yes. Here is an example. The United States achieves the apogee of unconstrained capitalism with the Trump presidency. But, at the same time, what makes the United States the defining expression of postmodernity is the instant reversibility of the structural logic of society as a whole. Thus, confronted with the end of the Obama era with its conflicted loyalties to social justice and the high security state, two very different, but decisive, political choices were present. Right-wing populism with its basis in reactive white anger and unfettered capitalism or left-wing populism, as represented by Bernie Sanders, with its commitment to social justice and a moderate version of social democracy. The establishment of the democratic party squashed the populist insurgency that was the Sanders’ candidacy in favor of neo-liberalism of Hillary Clinton. In the absence of a left wing populist candidate, the American electorate moved to right-wing populism. For myself, the lesson learned is a Baudrillardian one, namely that the real seduction of the United States is its imminent reversibility, that its politics can sign-switch in an instant between the white rage of right-wing populism and the demands for social justice of left-wing populism. Each form of populism energizes the system as a whole. Each social movement brings a system which, as Baudrillard notes, is always dying of its lack of energy back to life.


OM:
And this instant reverse was seen during Obama and then Trump’s administration? There are many arguments when it comes to simulation and the levels of it. What is the accurate understanding of them?

AK: Yes, it’s true. Well, for Baudrillard, historical change represents the different stages in the maturity of the logic of sign-value. When the sign appears in society, it is a direct representation of value. It is descriptive of things which are actually happening—a direct correlation between that which is to be symbolized and its representational value. That, of course, immediately leads to the second order of simulation, namely that point in the logic of symbolic exchange where the sign becomes alienated from the object, a broken mirror which refusing to be a perfect representation finds freedom by transgressing the language of value, often presenting itself as the very opposite of the object represented. Thus begins the age of alienation and with that the perversion of reality—the tangible scent that the sign is covering up the hidden presence of an “obscure realty.” For Baudrillard, the transgression of the sign, that is, the intangible presence of an obscure reality to which the sign points but which it is incapable of fully expressing, leads, almost inevitably, to an age of sorcery, to a proliferation of signs which mask the disappearance of reality itself. It is, then, only a short symbolic step from signs disguising the disappearance of reality from the contemporary era of hyperreality where reality itself disappears into a proliferation of signs, the circulation of sign-value at the speed of escape velocity that what is now known as media culture. With this, simulation becomes a reality of its very own, blasting off from its material fetters, becoming purely symbolic, purely informational, always reversible, fluctuating, filled with endless spin and indefinite velocity.

Consider the historical progression of capitalism from its origins in use-value (work or starve) to its transformation, first  into the language of exchange-value and now into the language of symbolic exchange. This is powerfully represented by the language of advertising which excels in the logic of simulation, sometimes presenting objects in the always seductive logic of transgression, sometimes by hyping commodities in the language of appearance (that fashion industry with its many variations of the beauty myth), and, now in the age of social media, advertising objects as seductive because they are realities in their own right. That, in fact, is the real seduction of contemporary social media, that they have achieved the fourth stage of simulation, that social media are reality generators, enclosed cybernetic universes, which spiking quickly beyond use-value and exchange-value exist  in the order of pure symbolic exchange.

OM: Could we say that simulation is related to myths?

AK: Oh yes, that’s a nice way of saying things. Simulation is still held down, because it is trying to approximate material realities.

The fourth stage of capitalism which Baudrillard talked about at the end of his life was virtual capitalism. At this stage, there is no necessary relationship between sign-value and material reality. The intense transversal flow of high finance around the world instantly and  insistently and all this moving at the speed of light is the emblematic sign of the transition of capitalism itself into the age of virtuality.

OM: Speaking of the third stage, could we say that the simulation of capitalism is a certain accumulation of myths (intertwined in a certain manner) that substitute for the meaning and understanding of the capitalism?

AK: That’s an interesting way of describing it.

OM: If we take the example of business, the same thing would apply to it as well?

AK: Yes, and today, I think business already represents the past stage of society. Today we truly live under the sign of virtual reality—a stage driven by technology. It is what I call quantum culture, that point where the language of science, technology and art permeate reality as a whole, making everything subject to the uncertainty principle—indeterminate, in flux, instantly reversible.

I think of Baudrillard as an artist, and as a ‘pataphysician understood that this would unleash a society which has an element of absurdity and that no moral judgement can be made on this (moral judgements are outside of Baudrillard’s province). He was interested in describing the delirious results of this. That is why Baudrillard’s thought has a fascination about it, because he as a thinker genuinely understood that the society we are driving towards has delirium at is center. Extremes, dominate. The logic of instant reversals of meaning are everywhere.  The system as a whole simultaneously pushes towards the illusion of a ‘connected world” while delivering the actual reality of bitterly contested disconnections in religion, politics, race and class with all this covered up by the rise and fall of the language of appearance—spurious scandals, ersatz controversies, the spin of ‘breaking news.” In other words, we are already living in the age of fully accomplished nihilism.

OM: Could we say that this fourth stage is about a series of myths which were transformed into something (let’s say business), and that myths became embodied and became our reality, and that we did not really notice how it all happened?

AK: Definitely, we become quickly adapted to hyperreality when the concept of reality breaks up, when the real becomes more than real. Hypperreal, technologically intensified reality. When realities can be invented by the language of technology, technologies of power, capitalism or fashion – that reality is purely delirious in its character. It can reverse, there is an element of extremism about it and it manages to change its state instantly. An illusion of an imaginary reality.

OM: Hypperreality is an aggregation of the majority’s illusions, which became a reality for people without their awareness. Is illusion a foundation of an imaginary reality and then as a simulation of imaginary reality?

AK: And simulation of meaning.

OM: Could you please elaborate?

AK: There is a loss of the referential quality of many signifiers, whether those of consciousness, sexuality, gender, politics. The sense of a fixed reality begins to weaken and the meaning of any of these signifiers simply begins to float. Language becomes perfectly surrealistic, capable of operating in its imaginary, increasingly under the sign of illusion – it’s surrealistic in character.

Gender is a perfect example. North America has witnessed a strong current in which gender has been liberated from its material reference – the biological division between male and female.  Another example is the illusion of liberation through imperial power, of national greatness, in the teeth of factual weakness. Trump’s slogan “Make America great again”, which is clung to a real missionary fervor by 63 million Americans, is popular when in reality the actual facts on the ground are different (the US is being displaced by rise of  China). The United States  has a strong desire to build walls (Mexican-American border) which really operates at the level of phantasms  of making America strong, illusions of outsiders being a terrorist threat to society—political phantasmagorias  linked to people’s feeling anxiety and fear which are projected in the form building a bunkered walled state as a means of achieving security of person and  identity. Just as Baudrillard predicted, ours is an age of purely imaginary politics with its phantasmatic logic, strong psychoanalytical drives, exploding anger, primal instincts, fear and violence. Neither a society of use-value or exchange-value, but now symbolic exchange is everywhere with the hyper-simulated realities of the media floating away from hard facts on the ground.

OM: If you were to teach a course on Baudrillard, what would be five books that you’d give to your students?

AK: “Forget Foucault”, because this is where Baudrillard breaks with what has later become the poststructuralist view of power, the view which is prevalent today.

“Seduction”, because this focuses on the language of reversibility in the disappearing essence of things.

“Symbolic Exchange and Death”, which is very important in analyzing the role of the death drives in contemporary society.

“The Spirit of Terrorism”, which is written more recently and captures the post-9/11 reality.

And finally, “The Perfect Crime”, which is exemplary of his last works and, I think, a perfect tombstone written in advance for the 21st century.

OM: Arthur Kroker, thank you.

 

Arthur Kroker and Oleg Maltsev from an interview in the series of “The Legacy of Jean Baudrillard”, Expedition Journal, February, 2020

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