Baudrillard: Theorist of Alienation
by Andrew McLaverty-Robinson
Baudrillard Now: How easy it was for you to look into/to understand the philosophy and sociology of Baudrillard? What kind of approach did you use for it?
Andy Robinson: I would say first of all that people will challenge me on whether I’ve understood Baudrillard right. I’ve been told that I exaggerate the Marxist-influenced aspects and neglect the Nietzschean aspects, and that I use him too easily with other theorists such as Deleuze or Wallerstein. And also, I didn’t understand Baudrillard right away.
Basically the way I understood Baudrillard was to build up my confidence with critical theory first. I first started reading difficult theory books in my BA and MA period. At first I was out of my depth with people like Baudrillard, Althusser, Sartre. But the more theory I studied, the better I got at understanding it. Because with Continental authors, they tend to all lean on each other a lot, but not put in definitions or citations like the English-speakers do. But they leave all these little markers which someone with theoretical literacy so to speak, can pick up and use to decipher them. So for example, Baudrillard uses this word “symbolic” a lot, and it’s not in an everyday sense and it’s not identical with words or images. If someone just picks up “Cool Memories” or the Gulf War book, with no experience of theory, they’ll be perplexed by this concept. But if one knows a bit of Freud, a bit of Lacan, a bit of semiotics, straight away it starts to make sense. Not because Baudrillard is using the word exactly the way Saussure or Freud or Lacan does, but he’s carrying over part of the conceptual range and then specifying his own concept relative to these others.
The second thing I did, was start with introductions – short books and chapters, things like the illustrated For Beginners/Introducing series (I wasn’t online back then, but today I’d use Stanford Encyclopedia and Wikipedia, and the lecture notes people put online). Often I found it better to cover a lot of introductions to different theories first, before diving into the original texts. Because that way, I have more of the reference-points.
Also, I’ve read a lot of stuff that’s similar to Baudrillard but in much simpler language. Situationist texts like Revolution in Everyday Life, the Spectacular Times series, The Revolutionary Pleasure of Thinking for Yourself, and works by or based on Wilhelm Reich, such as Maurice Brinton’s The Irrational in Politics. And I came to Baudrillard already primed to relate his work to these traditions, to see how he takes forward these approaches but also turns aside at key points. I’d also already encountered structuralism and Lacanian theory before attempting Baudrillard seriously. And I think Baudrillard is a lot easier to understand with these reference-points.
The fourth thing to remember here is, Baudrillard’s early work is a lot more straightforward than his later work. His later work is better known so a lot of people start there. I was lucky because I read some of the earlier works first, for topical reasons. And I use the early works as a Rosetta Stone for the later works. If you know Marxist theory then Consumer Society and Mirror of Production are not really difficult texts. And once one understands the idea of consumption as a compulsive puritanical regime offering status-rewards instead of pleasure, the later stuff on simulation and the code becomes easier. Similarly, Mirror of Production shows very clearly how simulation both is and isn’t alienation, how it’s a similar concept but subtly different. This helps one avoid certain pitfalls – for example, imagining simulation means something like The Matrix, or that Baudrillard is denying that anyone died in the war that “did not take place”, or appending Baudrillard to the usual Anglo-American view of what “postmodernists” think.
This way of approaching Baudrillard also has its limits. I don’t know how much I’m missing because I don’t have the reference-points, or whether I’d see something different if I re-read the same text today. For instance, I came to Nietzsche somewhat later and I still have not studied Bataille or Levi-Strauss in any detail. I only read Mauss long after the Baudrillard columns were written. And the tracing-back is endless, because Nietzsche or Reich or Saussure also formulated their ideas drawing on, or in implicit dialogue with, earlier theories or those of contemporaries.
Baudrillard Now: In your view, do you think it is possible to look at Baudrillard’s philosophy in terms of a certain model, to ensemble a certain system/model out of different blocks?
Andy Robinson: Well, it isn’t necessarily a single system, because Baudrillard’s views change over time to some extent – he becomes less Marxist, more nihilistic. But I’d basically specify four different blocks, which each hold together as a set of theories and to some extent a reader can accept each of them independently of the others.
The first module might be a view of “the code” or “simulation” or “consumer society” as a social system – a theory of political economy so to speak. Baudrillard’s code is quite like capitalism in Marx, but with subtle differences. Baudrillard basically picks up the Marxist model and tweaks it until it looks quite different. The system’s based on reproduction, not production. There’s stages of society, but they aren’t a teleological progression, actually they’re a worsening (from original abundance to imposed scarcity). It’s primarily a system of capture, of bringing what’s outside it inside and thereby neutralising it. It no longer provides use-values so much as sign-values, or signs of status. The really radical exclusion is the suppression of direct relationships and subsistence, not the exploitation of workers. “The social” – society or community – can’t be counterposed to the code because it’s been so thoroughly dismantled or turned into part of the code. A lot of social events are also read through the second module, the return of the repressed. Those are the big differences. Otherwise, Baudrillard’s “code” can just be picked up and substituted for capitalism or modernity in any of the various theories using these concepts.
The second block would be the cluster of ideas around symbolic exchange and death. I guess we could call these Baudrillard’s theoretical psychology or his intersubjective sociology. Baudrillard thinks there’s a kind of natural or non-alienated condition which was characterised by cyclical relations – things being given or exchanged back and forth. Everything was reversible, and this sustained a certain kind of balance. It involves a periodic return to a state of fusion, a liminal state in Turner’s sense. I want to add that this is not a vision of Eden, aspects of it are very dark. But certain problems of modern society are absent in this condition. Endless accumulation, meaningless reproduction, separative thought, the blockage of pleasure. Modernity, or capitalism, breaks this cycle. It tries to block reversibility and to reproduce itself eternally. It suppresses symbolic exchange. In doing this, it cuts off the sources of life and meaning. Modern subjectivity comes from this process of separation, and the identification of people with signs. But what’s repressed keeps returning – in a typical Freudian way. So we can insert the concept of symbolic exchange where we’d usually put desire or the Lacanian Real. The system is a kind of one-way violence without consequences. If it’s reversed, it collapses.
Death is an important part of symbolic exchange, a form of reversibility. This is based on his interpretation of indigenous approaches – ideas of cyclical death and rebirth, the symbolising of death through rituals. Baudrillard was very critical of the way death is treated today – the hiding away of death, the segregation of the elderly, the desire to prolong life instead of having meaningful lives. It’s because symbolic exchange is repressed that death has to be feared, fled from, and denied. And the dead, who are socially present to indigenous people according to Baudrillard, are the first group to be excluded, the model for all the other exclusions such as imprisonment, racism and so on. I can guess how he’d respond to the current situation – and it would be much like Agamben, Vaneigem, and Sanguinetti have responded. Back in 2012 I wrote: “The more the system runs from death, the more it places everyone in solitude, facing their own death.” This was paraphrasing Baudrillard, and he’s talking about alienation, loss of meaning in general. I had no idea how literally that would turn out to be true. Baudrillard talks about a ‘lockup and control system’, a generalised social lockdown which tries to pre-empt any real event from happening outside its control, leaving nothing to chance. This is based on algorithmic models. He says this is like putting people in a coffin to prevent them from dying. It is a kind of living death. And he says that people are now exterminated, not out of malice, but because they are statistically indifferent. That’s what happens with all the deaths caused by the lockdown, which most people do not count as a case against it. At one point Baudrillard says that the disasters avoided at a systemic level instead happen ‘at ground level’, in everyday life, in the precarity of each individual life. That’s what’s happening now, in the impact in terms of suicides, the informal sector poor, homeless people, refugees, prisons and so on.
A third block would be the cluster around the concepts of code, simulation, and hyperreality, as theories of the functioning of micropolitics (which is slightly different from their use to designate an aggregate, a system). The code, or hyperreality, is Baudrillard’s name for cybernetic systems of power. The code works through information, feedback, nudges, signalling, and so on. It’s also very much binarising – it has to split everything into two values, a zero and a one, rather than dealing with processes and complexities. Hyperreality is reality generated from models, or simulated by models. It implies “too much reality” – everything’s on the surface, depths are absent or invisible. This is why nothing has symbolic force – there isn’t the gap or the unknown element to inspire it.
Baudrillard is actually ahead of his time in seeing this mode of power already in the 1970s-80s (though of course the theories underlying it have been around a lot longer). Of course, this has gone a lot further now – social media, social credit systems, information management and so on. But the whole field of management today is saturated with cybernetic thinking – the public health models we’re seeing at the moment for instance, which try to socially manipulate transmission vectors using signalling, not all of which is honest. They start out as algorithmic models which are then copied in reality. In this latest stage (roughly, neoliberalism or postmodernity), the system has stopped referring to anything outside itself. Reality becomes something pre-programmed. People are treated as if they are nodes in the system, computer terminals receiving code.
Simulation is a system of signs which only relate to other signs, or of objects which are generated from signs (such as Disneyland). There isn’t a central master controlling everything, but there isn’t dispersed power either. The matrix of the code is the site of power. People are encouraged to identify with their image. Real conflicts are pre-empted through false choices between equivalent adversaries. Messages stop being communication or information. They become circular – the system constantly referring back to itself. Reality is overridden by appearance. Instead of telling people to conform to a norm, the system treats people as if they are already identical with the norm. Simulations lack emotional intensity and immanent becoming. They feel meaningless and lifeless. The situation is implosive. The system loses its symbolic force and seems pointless or excessive. It starts to collapse in on itself, to implode. It collapses because its signs lose meaning. They need to refer to something outside them to have meaning, but the system increasingly captures, destroys or delinks from anything outside it.
Then finally, there’s Baudrillard’s theory of implosion and resistance – basically the applied politics of his approach. I think this is detachabe from the others – someone can go along with his view of the system and simulation and symbolic exchange, and not adopt this element, though of course it’s rooted in the triumph of simulation and reproduction, over production. This idea of implosion is Baudrillard’s alternative to revolution (“explosion”). The system is surviving mainly by devouring past meanings at an ever greater speed. It also tries to reinject a sense of reality and meaning, including by playing at crisis. And it blackmails people by making them dependent, or “programming” them to self-destruct if it implodes. Basically it threatens to take the whole world with it if it collapses. The system is trying to avoid implosion. To do this, it needs injections of meaning. Trying to fight the system, as much as trying to reform it, actually gives it meaning and helps it survive.
The system can be undermined through ‘symbolic disorder’ which reintroduces symbolic exchange. This can mean reintroducing death, which is higher than the code and can overthrow it. Every death which isn’t a programmed death – murders, suicides, random deaths – is now subversive. Things should be pushed to their limit to bring about their collapse. But mostly, we need to not be fascinated by the death-throes of the system. We should just leave it to die, and rebuild exchange in terms of direct communication without mediation by the code. This is why Baudrillard is almost enthusiastic about disasters and terror attacks (I guess the current [COVID-19] crisis would be a disaster) – they aren’t events with objectives and goals and solidarity, they shatter meaning and break the deterrence of reality, the capture of reality by the code – primarily through the way they spread in the media, their social effects. Disasters are a kind of subjectless subversion, an excess of reality that pushes the collapse of meaning through to its completion, because people are fascinated by its images in the media. So 9/11 was a suicide of the system. You know, we are hearing these terms now, people talking about lockdowns as economic suicide, the system killing itself in a state of panic. As I said in my column, I’m a bit sceptical of Baudrillard’s view of politics – he seems to confuse system collapse with progressive change. Though, his theory reminds me a bit of Sing Chew’s “dark ages” theory in world systems analysis which despite the name is really quite progressive.
Baudrillard theorises a kind of diffuse resistance by an objectified quasi-actor he calls the “masses”. The masses are a kind of residue, a homogeneous human and mental flux produced by the impact of the code on humans. They don’t resist in the usual sense, but they corrode the system because they deny it the meaning it wants. Their inertia, passivity, mirroring, silence, and black-hole qualities of the masses contribute to the implosion of the system.
People are also encouraged to re-form band-like societies within the ruins of society. We should reject the seductive power of the system, its claim to have value, and instead reconstruct our own everyday spaces as re-enchanted, “sacred” spaces. One of his examples of this, is the way urban youths recreate public spaces as spaces of meaning by tagging them with graffiti. Baudrillard also encourages what he calls seduction – the creation of signs which point nowhere. This seems to be a way of recreating the sense that something is there below the surface or behind the image, thus setting in motion a type of desire. It might be an illusion, there isn’t really anything there, but the act of seduction is important in generating a sense of meaning and a sense that things are connected, a link to the liminal zone where everything is one. Baudrillard has a view of sexuality which I find very strange. He values antagonism, duelling wills, a kind of manipulation as part of the process. There’s also an authoritarian element to Baudrillard’s theory – an idea of restoring definite rules which give a sense of destiny and meaning.
Baudrillard’s main criticism of the political left of his day is that they were still trying to fight on the terrain of production. Since the system is now reproduction, this means they are buying into the myths which sustain the system. They’re also trying to leverage the social against capital, but the social is now just an effect of the code. I think this is what’s going on with the Gulf War essays as well. It’s not so much that the Gulf War didn’t happen as that it’s not really a war. For Baudrillard, a real war is a conflict between real adversaries which recognise each other as such, passionately commit to the conflict, and fight out an unpredictable scenario. The Gulf War simulated war down to its deaths and destruction, but lacked these vital elements. It happened outside symbolic exchange. America fought impersonally, without passionate commitment, without recognising the enemy as an agent, and with as little risk as possible. Iraq tried to fight symbolically, but the two sides never met on the same symbolic terrain.
So, we have these four clusters – the theory of political economy, the micro-sociology and psychology, the micropolitics or theory of power, and the political strategies or theories of collapse. They interlink a lot – some more than others. For instance, the fourth cluster depends completely on the other three, it makes little sense without it, and the political economy and micropolitics are closely tied. But we often see parts of the theory being taken up without the others. For instance, we see a lot of the post-autonomists, people like Negri and Berardi, picking up a lot of Baudrillard’s political economy and sometimes some of his micropolitics, but ignoring the micro-sociology and the applied politics. Whereas people who are interested in using Baudrillard for cultural critique or in the arts will often use the micro-sociology and the micropolitics, but ignore the political economy and the applied politics.
Baudrillard Now: If you were to classify Baudrillard’s books into categories, what would they be? (for instance, JB looked into the problematics of an “individual”, “society” etc.)
Andy Robinson: In English there are about forty books, but some of these are collections of shorter pieces. I would say that we can divide his work into major theoretical works in two stages, sociological or applied works, and fragmentary or ‘pataphysical works.
The theoretical works can be divided into earlier and later. The early stuff appeared in French from 1968 to 1973, though some of these works were translated much later and appeared alongside or after the later works. The early stage consists of System of Objects, Consumer Society, Mirror of Production, and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. These works resonate closely with the spirit of 1968 and the libertarian neo-Marxisms of the period. There’s then no more theoretical monographs until the 1990s, when we start to see works like Symbolic Exchange and Death and Simulacra and Simulation. These are more concerned with the code and have moved further from a neo-Marxist position.
The third category of works are those I’d call sociological or applied works. They are either thematic treatments of particular topics or quasi-journalistic interventions on contemporary events. Texts like the Gulf War and 9/11 texts, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities and most of Fatal Strategies belong to this category. In Baudrillard’s work, the division between theory and sociology is very blurry, because by this time the theoretical works mixed up theoretical and occasional pieces – lots of the pieces in Simulacra and Simulation belong to the sociological category as well.
Finally, there’s works like the various Cool Memories volumes and America, which are deliberately fragmentary and don’t put forward clear arguments. I think these are interventions designed as a kind of performance art, similar to ‘pataphysics, dadaism, Situationism. He’s trying to perform what elsewhere he describes – for example, the disappearance of meaning.
Baudrillard Now: Do you think that Baudrillard’s photography could be a reflection of his philosophy, his thinking? If he has a certain pattern and regularity, what does it look like?
Andy Robinson: You know, I work more with politics than art, and my abilities in art criticism are somewhat limited. I didn’t even know Baudrillard had published photography until you asked this question. But looking through the images now, there’s clear thematic overlaps with his written work. Knowing his theory, I can interpret a lot of the images through it, though I doubt I’d arrive at these readings otherwise.
There’s several photographs of graffiti for example, which Baudrillard valued as a form of resistance, a return of symbolic exchange. Quai de Seine for example is an image of graffiti in a scenario of urban decay, but one which also has signs of life re-emerging – there’s weeds growing from the ground, and an old rusted lorry has been repurposed as a graffiti canvas. It’s a familiar aesthetic, very similar to anarchist spaces the world over.
Other photographs deal with disappearance or blurring, or images which are mirrored or doubled. Saint Clément for example, we have a submerged rusted car, though the viewer might think at first glance that it’s a reflection. We’re dealing here with death, disappearance, reversibility; perhaps also with implosion and involution, or even with the decay of Fordism. A few of the photographs also have a Surrealist vibe – reality disappearing into dreams or phantasy.
Another strange thing is how he titles so many of his works after cities. As if the one moment is meant to be a metonym for the entire city, and by extension, modern life. He’s conceiving an entire city in terms of its remainders – something he advocates as a “fatal” strategy, a strategy which destroys meaning.
It’s interesting that Baudrillard’s photography is quite concrete, realistic in some ways, emotive or expressionist in others. It’s very different from Simulationist art, which was inspired by a particular reading of Baudrillard in the 1980s, and from so-called postmodern art in general. Simulationism is more abstract, and more like pop art, there’s lots of abstract shapes and lots of obviously artificial imagery. I think Simulationism models what Baudrillard describes the code as doing – which is not at all what Baudrillard’s photographs are doing. And maybe this has to do with what goes missing in Anglophone readings of Baudrillard: often there’s a failure to see that Baudrillard is actually really, really critical of the code. He’s really hostile to it, like a Marxist is hostile to capitalism. Whereas he’s often read as just describing reality or even celebrating simulation as a way of breaking down essentialism.
I also find it interesting that he’s chosen photography, which is more dependent on an observed “reality” than (say) painting or sculpture or movies or game design. They mostly don’t seem to be staged photographs, though clearly a lot of work has gone into the angles and the framing and so on. He’s pushing at the limits of the genre, making images that sometimes at first sight don’t look realistic. I think he uses photography to show how reality is becoming art-like, fictive. He gives us real images which look surreal because of the colours or lighting or things being reflected. Alentejo for instance, I think the first reaction is that it’s something unreal. It’s a pair of tree trunks, but they’re catching light in a way which makes them not instantly recognisable. But also, he’s nearly always focusing on the hopeful, on the return of symbolic exchange. There’s almost a re-enchantment of everyday life going on in his photography – something quite hippy in a way.
Baudrillard Now: What did Baudrillard achieve during his lifetime, in your view?
Andy Robinson: I see each theorist as producing in effect a machine of thought, a body of concepts and a problem-field which is specifically their own. Each of these machines is like a lens, and reality looks different depending which lens we look through. (This is pretty much Deleuze’s view of the role of philosophy by the way). Baudrillard is one of the most important theorists because he provides a theoretical machine which is both genuinely original – it isn’t an outgrowth of everyday “common sense” or a re-tweaking of an established theory – and also joins the dots between a lot of things which otherwise don’t make much sense.
Like all the poststructuralists he was a child of 1968, he was working at first around that time and giving expression to the forces at work then. There is so much creativity in that period – not just in France – and I think it came from the opening to a new world, the beginnings of something else. Unfortunately it was never completed, the revolutionary wave was repressed or recuperated, and so in all the theories of that time, there is a lot of potential which has never been realised. There’s lots of new bodies of theory – Baudrillard’s is one of them – which lay out a different schema of how to think about the world, a schema which can be extended and applied as a research agenda and also as an experimental agenda for producing alternatives. So with Baudrillard, we have a research agenda on things like, the relationship between consumers and products, the way desire is channelled, whether consumerism should be seen as hedonistic or as puritanical conformity – things which really haven’t been followed-up. And we have an implicit politics of resistance, a political question basically of how to reactivate symbolic exchange and reversibility, how to strategically reverse the one-way processes emerging from the system.
Given that the new project was effectively cut-off midway through, the effects fall short of the potential. But still, Baudrillard has left us with works which give a glimmer of the life-force of that time, and – crucially – he also carried on interpreting later events from something like the ’68 point of view. He shows some reasons why cybernetic power doesn’t work very well, why it feels empty and meaningless and doesn’t give pleasure, and he shows us some of the dynamics as to why events like terror attacks cause such panic and disruption.
Baudrillard Now: What are the intricacies and difficulties in understanding the philosophical parts of Baudrillard’s works?
Andy Robinson: I think Baudrillard is quite typical of French theorists in that he uses a lot of technical terms which he doesn’t define. Some of these are lifted from other critical theorists and ideas which would have been common knowledge in France in 1971 or 1992 or whenever, but maybe are less widely known elsewhere, or today. He rarely says where he gets them from – that’s again quite typical – and he also draws concepts from his own earlier work without telling the reader he’s doing it. In his later work he also starts to “perform” his theory a lot more, to use a style which is deliberately a bit obscure for aesthetic or strategic reasons. Then there’s the problem that he’s a provocateur, a troll if you like. He says things in eye-catching or controversial ways to attract attention. So he got a lot of flak for example for the Gulf War essays, and for things he’s written about feminism, which is basically just people biting the bait he dangled. At the same time, this style can make it difficult to know which of his arguments to take seriously.
Another difficulty is that there is a context of common reference, things taken as common knowledge, which again is local to his time and place. People who read French theory in other languages, don’t always realise that philosophy is taught at high-school in France, it’s part of the school leaving exams, and theorists back then would often teach philosophy in schools at the start of their career. So dropping in references to Plato, Rousseau, Husserl, Hegel is not at all unusual. We might compare it to Americans mentioning the Constitution or US history, or British people mentioning Shakespeare. Psychoanalysis was the dominant approach to psychology in France, and I think more people were in therapy there than in Anglophone countries too. So again – there was a kind of Psychoanalysis 101 that people who read theory would already know – a bit the way people today understand pop-psychology terms like triggers, boundaries and so on. And Marxism also was very visible, partly because the French Communist Party was a big political player, they’d played a huge role in the wartime anti-Nazi resistance and were getting millions of votes. So we have these people coming up in the 60s who knew philosophy, psychoanalysis and Marxism almost as part of their common knowledge so to speak. And the problems this raises are, they are using this terminology and assuming the reader knows it, and they are using this terminology and it’s hard to tell whether they’re endorsing it or just using what’s familiar.
As a new reader, I’ve found that earlier readers’ receptions of thinkers like Baudrillard sometimes pose as much of a barrier as an aid. I’ve previously said how important introductions are. But at the same time, the particular selections and misreadings made by early scholars – especially if they’re reproduced across the field – can put up a screen in front of the original text. Not only does this make the introductions unreliable, it also affects what readers will get from the original texts. They will see what they’ve been primed to see. I’d single out in particular the tendency to read ideas forged in very radical conditions in France in the 1970s through the concerns of more established academics in more conservative places and times; the tendency to turn all poststructuralists into clones or Derrida or to read them through the frame of what poststructuralism has become as a doctrine in Anglophone universities; the tendency to quote-mine and name-drop, and then to associate theorists with whoever happens to have used them this way. People need to be aware that they’re often getting a particular line on poststructuralists from the Anglophone literature – it’s written by people who are well to the right of the scholars they’re writing about, who are much more interested in culture and much less in politics, and who are inclined to see in every theorist a repetition of their own pet peeves about “the subject” and “modernity”. Alternatively, it’s written by philosophical realists, Marxists and others who dismiss the theory out of hand and don’t bother to read it very carefully.
It’s impossible to encounter a text without bringing some previous baggage along – the meanings of words and so on. But it’s important to encounter Baudrillard on his own terms, in terms of how the problem-field, the conceptual machinery work within his texts. For example, just because he’s difficult doesn’t mean he’s talking nonsense. He doesn’t think that everything’s just signs or that reality is just imaginary. Just because he’s critical of established left practices, doesn’t mean he’s in line with later forms of “new” politics either. He’s against the whole logic of the code; he isn’t trying to strategically manoeuvre within it, which I’d take to be the normal stance in Anglophone poststructuralism. He has a critique of the sociometric individual, but he isn’t doing the kind of critique of “the subject” which is standard today.
Baudrillard Now: JB describes the symbolic system in his works (signs), if you drew it, to explain the relationship of a human and signs, what would that scheme look like?
Andy Robinson: Well, he’s starting with the structuralist model of signs, which there’s a lot of images for already. And it’s usually drawn in one of these ways:
which are all saying the same thing really, there’s a signified which is something represented by the sign (some people say it’s an object, others a thought or feeling or image), then there’s the signifier, the spoken or written word, and the two together make a sign. Except we could also draw it as more of a network diagram, where signifiers relate to each other both equivalentially and through exclusion. So we can draw it something like this:
if we take this as a subset of the associations of the word “dog”, with green being things which are usually associated, red being categories which are closely related but exclude each other, and yellow are things which can be properties. Now, one of the important things about structuralism is that these lines can be drawn differently, and they are absolutely different from the relations which might exist among the signifieds. But what I think Baudrillard sees happening in hyperreality is a separation of the two systems. It’s hard to represent because one has to represent it using signifiers, and of course a signified is not a signifier. But if we take the visual symbols as representing signifieds – affective meanings and so on – the modern experience of reality might look something like this:
where each of the signifiers has associations with particular meanings, signifieds, for example with emotional reactions, love or fear or hate, or with experiences or other phenomena outside the order of signs, or with this whole field of symbolic exchange where things are exchangeable. I’ve put love with the dog and fear with the wolf, that’s the more common link, but of course it can be the reverse, love wolves and fear dogs, or love or fear both, or apathetic to both. But what’s important is that there’s always these symbolic meanings and they connect everything back to the field of symbolic exchange. (Of course we need to remember that actually I’m just putting signifiers on top of signifiers here). Whereas in hyperreality these other connections aren’t there – instead we get increasingly abstract and equivalent signs arranged in relation to each other:
The point is that the relations among them are less intense, they’re just items in computer code. The audience are being asked to insert in the signified – to add on the love or fear or the relational combinations – but increasingly people don’t do it. The system is closed on itself and all its terms become equivalent. Instead of this intense “dog =/= cat” we get “dog OR cat OR wolf OR…”
With symbolic exchange, what we get is a kind of reversibility which is the opposite of this, all the elements in a sense fuse into one another in a continuum, so we might represent this as a mosaic of images.
Baudrillard Now: It is known that JB studied psychoanalysis and worked with texts of Lacan, Freud and others but he himself did not establish a school of psychology. If he would have, what do you think, what would be the subject of that school of psychology?
Andy Robinson: The first thing to say here, is that Baudrillard is actually rather critical of psychology as a discipline. Because psychology is about knowing, understanding, people who are different from the norm and bringing them inside the regime of knowledge, or even reconditioning them to be “normal”. And for Baudrillard this is part of the colonising operation of the code, the way it absorbs and neuters its “outside” and destroys meaning. Baudrillard is somewhat nihilistic, so he might not necessarily want to encourage “healthy” individuals at all.
He says that psychology and psychoanalysis are invented to paper over a crack in the system. The system requires that everyone be rational subjects. Psychology is invented because so-called mad people aren’t rational subjects. It thus has a dual role. On the one hand, it subverts the code because it has to recognise that one of its key axioms is untrue. But on the other, it offers representations of the “mad” and thus brings them back within the order of rational knowledge. The more successful it is, the more life which escapes the system is brought into the sphere of simulation, and contained.
He also has criticisms of therapies as packaged, simulated versions of real relations. Therapy is the functional isolation of the social. For example, touch therapy is an alienated version of people touching each other in everyday life. This capture – the rendering of something as a packaged commodity or a transferrable skill or a type of formalised knowledge – is by implication part of the problem. It extends the reach of the code. The implication here is, Baudrillard would rather we just mutually supported each other rather than rely on therapy. Go to a friend who will listen, instead of a counsellor. Go hug a friend, instead of going for a massage. Which sounds a bit like the ecological or post-developmental critique of therapy, the ideas of someone like Bruce Levine or Ivan Illich for example. Except I’m not sure Baudrillard would say these things, because it’s not clear whether he thinks we can rebuild what we’ve lost or put ourselves outside the code so to speak. If we read him as saying that we’re stuck in the code, that the only way to resist is to contribute to its implosion from inside, then he comes closer to the approach taken by materialist-Marxist psychologists like David Smail and Mark Fisher – a kind of paring-back of psychology based on a sense that most problems are social.
Baudrillard’s also very interested in how things work at the level of desire. For example, he’s critical of people who just attack the fashion industry as silly or meaningless. He’s interested in why people take part in the system. And he thinks there’s a particular fascination, a type of ecstasy involved – in the sense of an experience of excess. This kind of ecstasy or fascination or vertigo tends to replace passion and pleasure as the main motivation in life. He is ambivalent about this – on the one hand it’s part of the code, it expresses a lack of symbolic exchange, but on the other, it also carries some symbolic force, it’s disruptive in a way. In this sense he’s very much working in a psychoanalytic tradition, primarily Lacanian or post-Lacanian, but cross-read with Nietzsche, Mauss and Bataille as well. Like a lot of the post-Lacanians, he doesn’t like the ego, he wants to escape from “phallic” or “ego” power into a domain of the free play of desire. This places him midway between the true Lacanians and the Freudo-Marxists (Castoriadis, Marcuse, Reich, Fromm, Vaneigem, etc.).
And actually, the way early Baudrillard talks about fashion is rather typical of how the later Baudrillard treats individual psychology. Early Baudrillard was expecting an imminent revolution or system collapse. He takes an almost ultra-left position – the system is about to collapse, the various band-aids are exhausted, the masses see through them, so why bother? And it’s almost as if he tries to keep this up, even when the revolution never comes. Later Baudrillard generally avoids criticising “the masses” – the passive, mediatised people living in hyperreality. Quite often, he looks for ways in which apparently conformist actions actually disrupt the code or provide a kind of vanishing point – as if the masses were unconsciously trying to destroy it. So the people who are watching sports when they “should be” protesting about repression for example – they’re actually the real radicals because they’ve seen that politics doesn’t matter any more (obviously he’s also trolling the left by saying things like this). He has a lot of contempt for people trying to intervene using “the social”, such as psychologists. He sees them as part of what’s wrong with the left. Actually the masses themselves are more subversive, they already see through the illusions which the left falls for. I find this one of the less convincing aspects of his theory; it seems like he wants to keep up his early optimism even in the face of the defeats of the 1980s. So he carries on inventing stories as to how the masses are still undermining the system. And if the masses are undermining the system, if they’re more authentically radical than the left and the therapists, why would we want to change them? Actually any attempt to raise their consciousness, make them less depressed or panicky or sheeplike might be a ruse of the system to keep faking meaning, to capture what escapes it. There’s an element of this to Baudrillard’s thought I think.
But let’s say we’re interested in psychology, and we’re convinced psychology is useful, and we want to use Baudrillard to develop psychology – that raises different questions. First we need to decide where Baudrillard would fit into the range of psychological theories. Psychology is divided between approaches which are mostly quantitative and based on control – behaviourism, cognitivism, cybernetics, neuropsychology, biomedical psychiatry – and those which are qualitative and focused on the mind and meanings – various schools arising from psychoanalysis, phenomenology and existentialism (there’s also various traditional and alternative therapies, some of which imitate medical science, others are qualitative). In my mind there’s no doubt, the qualitative approaches are the radical approaches and the best fit with any kind of radical or progressive politics; at least any kind of broadly libertarian progressive politics. But today a lot of radical and left-wing people have been trained in the control-based methods (usually through being in therapy or through self-help) and have thus internalised a basically conservative, authoritarian view of the mind – ideas like “conditioning”, positive thinking, “behaviour change” induced through cybernetic nudging, the idea that thoughts cause emotions and that people should try to stop unpleasant emotions by suppressing the corresponding thoughts, or people should avoid recognising catastrophe because looking reality in the face will make them less functional. An entire arsenal of thought-control most often enacted by each person upon their own thoughts and feelings, to the system’s benefit, but also to their own benefit in a purely pecuniary sense, in the sense of keeping functioning, being exploitable, and not falling foul of the system. And the radical approaches are doing the opposite, they’re saying let’s look at the repressed stuff, at why people feel certain things and how things become meaningful in a subjective way. Psychoanalysis is very weak in Britain. But it’s still a major tendency in countries like France, and it was pretty much hegemonic in western Europe in the 1960s. So a French radical writing in the 1960s-70s would automatically default to psychoanalysis as the go-to approach to psychology.
As I’ve mentioned already, the 1960s-70s were a period of great theoretical creativity, and psychology is no exception. The explosion of new perspectives was concentrated in the psychoanalytic and existentialist clusters. In France, there was a revolution going on within psychoanalysis, the Lacanians with their structuralist-influenced reading of Freud challenging the older, rather encrusted psychoanalysis based on stages of development and ego-psychology. Lacan had a high-profile public seminar series and Baudrillard probably attended those; they became a gathering-point for the radical intellectuals of the time. I think he was also getting ideas from the Situationists, who were Freudo-Marxists of a sort. Although Baudrillard didn’t formulate a psychology of his own, there were a lot of new approaches that emerged from the same milieu. To take a few examples, there’s schizoanalysis, which was formulated mainly by Guattari, and is a desire-focused development of psychoanalysis; anti-psychiatry, developed in Britain by Laing and his colleagues; the SPK in Germany, who treated psychological symptoms as a revolutionary force; Somatherapy, a radical body therapy developed in Brazil based on the Reichean branch of psychoanalysis; bioenergetics, another post-Reichean approach which combines psychoanalysis with bodywork; ecotherapy, which focuses on disalienation through connection to nature; and Gestalt therapy, developed by the existentialist-anarchist Paul Goodman. Then there’s liberation psychology, which started with Fanon, and other approaches with a psychological background, like Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, Hakim Bey’s immediatism, Italian militant inquiry, Situationist methods like psychogeography.
Any of these would arguably be a good fit with Baudrillard’s theories. One might for example frame Somatherapy or bioenergetics as a rediscovery of the embodied forces suppressed by the code, or the SPK or anti-psychiatry as an instance of implosion based on the collapse of meaning. Lowen – the founder of bioenergetics – talks about people being alienated in their image and the struggle for power and status in a way which reminds me of Baudrillard. Baudrillard’s piece analysing Zhuangzi’s butcher – basically encouraging a Daoist view – resonates a lot with ecotherapy and rewilding. There’s some overlap with Jungian therapies as well, because of the idea of re-enchantment. So basically, any innovative therapy from the 60s and 70s, coming from a left or anarchic position, will have some overlaps with Baudrillard.
There isn’t really an ideal of the subject in Baudrillard – but there’s something like a theory of human nature or a social ontology, in that people should live in societies with symbolic exchange and we’re alienated and immiserated if we don’t. So we can think about therapies which try to excavate or recreate the kind of personality which lives in such a society. He’s opposed to the sociometric individual – to people living as if they’re nodes in the cybernetic machine, constantly responding to the nudges and demands of other nodes. The difficulty in deriving a psychology from this is that Baudrillard locates the problem sociologically: people become sociometric individuals through the stage of capitalism we’ve reached.
Baudrillard seeks a return of symbolic exchange, reversibility, reciprocity, gift economy, etc. In principle a Baudrillardian therapist might experiment with techniques to restore or excavate a capacity for these kinds of relations. People might for example try to find meaning in their lives through forming relationships which aren’t mediated by the code. Or they might work on fear of death by visualising it as cyclical. There might be a focus on weakening ego-control and separation from the body, encouraging disinhibition and spontaneity. Maybe there are methods to recreate the distance and concealment which Baudrillard thinks are needed for the imaginary to work. People could work on being more “seductive”, on holding something back from display, keeping parts of their lives unseen.
It would be interesting to see what such techniques would look like. Though, I don’t see them taking off as a mainstream therapy at all. For one thing, it may be that the problems caused by a society of simulation cannot be solved through therapy, because the blockage is systemic, social. The opportunities just aren’t there to rebuild symbolic exchange. For another, a person who “healed” through a Baudrillardian path would be ill-suited to live in the world of the code. They’d probably be so resistant as to be unable to function inside the code. Such techniques would only work within a wider context of reconfiguring life – in a commune for example, or as part of an autonomous social movement where people are also using alternative economics and so on, or in a revolutionary situation.
Baudrillard Now: Thank you very much, Andy Robinson!