But When, Now?

Bernardo Alexander Attias
Professor of Communication Studies, California State University Northridge

 

Baudrillard Now: But when, now? The title and timing of this charter issue in the Summer of 2020 calls out for comment. Not because the question lacks answers—if anything, there are today too many potential responses. In fact my phrasing of this question is inspired by the question asked by another continental philosopher and social theorist at a likewise deeply cathected global moment.[1] During Spring (and especially May) 1968, significant events in disparate locations around the world—most obviously Paris, but also Saigon, Chicago, Prague, Rome, Baltimore, Belgrade, Beijing, Biafra, and Port-au-Prince—confronted intellectuals and activists with the sudden realization that the social theory they had inherited was largely inadequate to the worlds they found themselves suddenly thrust into. The moment was both fraught with danger and portent with possibility; for some, revolution seemed closer and more realistic than ever before; for others, established power dropped its mask to reveal the naked face of a menacing brutality. That, of course, was the milieu from which Jean Baudrillard emerged at Nanterre, among a handful of scholars who arguably set out to rebuild and reimagine social theory to better engage the world they found themselves in.

I believe that we find ourselves at a similarly torrid historical juncture. Around the world we face uprisings, violences, social upheavals, human and natural cataclysms that we barely begin to understand before the next crisis emerges. While the underlying conditions giving rise to these crises are hardly new—racism, climate change, terrorism, neoliberalism, viral pandemic, and the failure of democratic institutions worldwide—they have emerged in manners uniquely peculiar to the current moment. The role of new media formations in the materialization of these crises, the conditions of “global immanence” within which we experience them,[2] and the sense of doom that hangs in the air around them like droplets of breath in a bar conversation, invisible but always already potentially deadly, suggests to scholars that we may be running out of time to once again develop theoretical tools to make sense of it all.

Simultaneously, and paradoxically, there is an almost paralyzing sense of banality inhabiting this moment, captured beautifully in a cartoon—frequently shared on social media—that features a dog sitting at a table nonchalantly enjoying a cup of coffee while the house burns around him. Text on the photo typically reads “This is fine.” In many ways this is a spectacularly Baudrillardian moment: dark and surreal, catastrophic and banal, deadly and ridiculous. Of course, Baudrillard is not here to guide us through these times, but we have seen his thinking return not only in recent scholarship but perhaps more poignantly in popular culture.

It seems eminently appropriate that this first issue is pointedly situated in this historical moment. The topic is Baudrillard now, yet these pieces span 20 years: it is telling that besides the new essays that appear here for the first time, the others date back to precisely two dates: 2007, when Baudrillard passed away, and 2000, a year that Baudrillard 15 years earlier, with characteristic finality, famously announced would not take place at all.[3]

Truls Lie introduces his 2000 interview with Baudrillard with a summary of Baudrillard’s meditations on mediation and war: we “allow the TV screen to envelop us in a closed circuit. In this hyper-reality we stop experiencing with our bodies and essentially become symbol processors for these media machines.” The interview takes us directly into the way Baudrillard conceives his own work not just philosophically but rhetorically. I have always found Baudrillard’s interviews useful correctives against those who would willfully misinterpret Baudrillard as some kind of solipsist or sophist, and indeed he warns careless readers that his writing is filled with purposeful hyperbole as a kind of “thought experiment.” What goes deeper here is the acknowledgement and explanation of his writing as rhetorically engaged in a way that performs rather than explains in any linear fashion a specific set of ideas about the world. Baudrillard’s engagement with death in the interview (which took place in 2000 but was published in 2007 to mark the occasion of his death) is particularly significant as he reveals his understanding even of death itself as performative, a disappearance from the world whose timing and form can themselves be read as artistic choices.

Douglas Kellner’s essay in this collection introduces readers to some of Baudrillard’s thinking on the role of art in society, with a focus on his latest work. Reading Kellner can be quite maddening for Baudrillard fans not simply because he is often antagonistic to Baudrillard’s arguments but because he is also one of the few such critics who takes the time to get those arguments right. In fact, I often direct students to his 1989 textbook less for Kellner’s own position and more for what Jacques Derrida would have called his “doubling commentary”—the patient expository restatement of an author’s main points that must precede any rigorous critical work on the author.[4] In particular Kellner is quite aware of the role of what I above called purposeful hyperbole.

In Kellner’s essay here, first presented at a conference in 2007, Kellner calls attention to this hyperbole specifically in Baudrillard’s commentaries on the role of art in the modern world. Kellner argues that Baudrillard vacillates between a kind of “deeply reactionary” art-is-dead approach at one extreme and a “highly radical” critique of contemporary art. Kellner counterposes Herbert Marcuse’s aesthetic theory to Baudrillard’s, concluding that “if Baudrillard is right, then there is no aesthetic dimension today in Marcuse’s sense and no radical and emancipatory potential in art.” Kellner offers an imagined interlocution between Baudrillard and Marcuse finding paradoxically that they would likely agree about most modern artistic production itself while disagreeing fundamentally on how to approach its theoretical role. Kellner acknowledges that the distance between them might be more stylistic than substantive, and finds neither “adequate” as an approach to modern art and popular culture.

Peter Weibel’s essay, first published twenty years ago, introduces us to Baudrillard the photographer in the context of Baudrillard the theoretician. As Weibel notes, Baudrillard explicitly photographed objects he chose not to write about, but he nevertheless made a point of photographing objects, and his career was devoted in so many ways to a theory of the object. His dissertation project was, indeed, a system of objects, and his analysis of that system was infused with the expansive radicality of the moment (1968), a radicality perhaps tamed only by the intellectual apparatus from whence his writing emerged (an apparatus framed most generally by the convergence in France of phenomenology and anthropology as well as psychoanalysis and Marxism, but far more specifically in Baudrillard’s case with a committee that was already pointedly steeped in systemic thinking about consumer objects: Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, and Pierre Bourdieu).

Weibel considers Baudrillard’s photographs of objects through his philosophical thinking about objects in order to interpret both as part of a common project. As in his published philosophical work, Baudrillard’s photography inverts the hierarchy of subject and object on which the framework of western metaphysics depends. When considering photography as apparatus, we see not only the subject (photographer) choosing, framing, and presenting their object, but also the ways in which “the object succeeds in putting its stamp on the subject.” As we revisit Baudrillard’s work today, Weibel’s essay helps ground our understanding of this work in a larger context. The camera, like the pencil or keyboard, is a tool through which the artist and writer expresses themselves. But like all technologies, these tools are not innocent: critics going back to Socrates have warned of the danger that even as humans use technologies, those technologies also use us. Weibel’s exploration of Baudrillard’s work behind the camera may help us reconsider Baudrillard’s published writing in terms yet to be unpacked.

Readers of this collection will likely take particular interest in Brett Nicholls’ resurrection of “Baudrillard’s corpse” through his foray into “zombie theory.” Nicholls uses the 2014 zombie film Wyrmwood to pursue Baudrillard’s ideas about ecology and general economy in Transparency of Evil (1993). The figure of the zombie (on a bicycle of all things) appears in Baudrillard’s essay on energy as an illustration of the unproductive expenditure that characterizes Georges Bataille’s “general economy.” While most zombie films are characterized by post-apocalyptic conditions of scarcity, particularly of energy, Wyrmwood seems to build on the insights of early 20th century anthropologists who unearthed a political economy that operated not on principles of scarcity but on conditions of abundance. Under such conditions the “total social fact” is not the money commodity (per Marx) but instead the gift, within which can be found the entire social relation.[5]

What is important from this perspective is less the manner in which a society distributes scarce resources but more the ways in which it disposes of its excess. Marcel Mauss famously found two categories of prestation, or gift-giving: the kula, in which the society recuperates such waste productively through exchange, and the potlatch, in which it instead destroys this waste unproductively, bringing the notion of productive political economy itself to crisis.[6] For Nicholls the zombie film illustrates the ways in which productive societies recuperate this waste, but also how the waste may return “in the form of revenge.”

Nicholls also cites Baudrillard’s example of New York City, which draws “abnormal energy” from its own reputation for excess, and the city’s waste becomes “essential for the system to function.” I’m reminded of the story of the city’s “poop train,” a literal manifestation of this recuperation of waste in economic terms: the train carried human waste from New York’s waste treatment plants to farms in the southern and midwestern states so that it could be useful to the agriculture industry.[7] This return of waste as revenge was miasmically made manifest when a town in Alabama refused a trainload of waste. The train itself, which had almost reached its destination, sat waiting on the tracks for months while legal proceedings ensued, enveloping the town with an “unbearable stench.”[8]

For Nicholls, the zombie characterizes Baudrillard’s view of systemic catastrophe when the accursed share escapes its recuperation into productivity. As with the poop train, catastrophe may be brief, but for a moment it brings the system to crisis: this was the moment of Bataille’s notorious laughter.[9] But beyond the deadly creatures who act with murderous collective agency in this genre of film, there is a more mundane manifestation of the “zombie” trope in the colloquialism that characterizes the consumer of mass media as figuratively catatonic. Indeed, when zombies are specifically named in Baudrillard’s work, they appear as “lobotomized” rather than as active carriers of catastrophe and implosion.[10] In the networked society, where everyone is a content creator as well as consumer, Baudrillard’s zombies represent less the appearance of an undead species of subhuman brain-eaters, and more the disappearance of the human entirely into a node in the network. He wrote in 2001, for example, of a couple who “continuously projects its conjugal life in real time over the Internet…. Soon there will only be auto-communicating zombies that only have the umbilical connection of image-feedback—electronic avatars of defunct shadows that wander beyond Styx and death, each for itself and spending its time perpetually telling its story.”[11]

From death and disappearance we move to terror and pandemic. Andrew McLaverty-Robinson’s exploration of counterinsurgency as suicide finds in contemporary international events a nuanced illustration of Baudrillard’s theories of terrorism as catastrophic reversal. Following Baudrillard, McLaverty-Robinson suggests a general theory of terrorism that reaches beyond left/right and Islamist/Eurosupremacist narratives to understand terrorism and related activities as emerging out of “a formation of desire generated by the context of cybernetic meaninglessness”—the very context Baudrillard attempted to capture in the figure of the “auto-communicating zombie.”

While the psychoanalytic grounding for this claim in the work of Klaus Theweleit might be controversial in recent counterterrorism studies, it’s actually quite consistent with more sociological scholarship over the past several decades that has approached religious and political violence from a comparative perspective.[12] But even there the approach remains at the margins, while dominant scholarly narratives tend to follow the counterinsurgency model unpacked by McLaverty-Robinson, treating violence as mere consequence of faulty information processing at specific network nodes that must be disrupted or devivified. Underlying this faulty approach is a denial that this processing “take[s] place at the level of symbolic exchange.”

For Baudrillard, symbolic exchange value plays the role in the modern political economy of the sign that use-value played in Marx’s political economy. Under conditions of symbolic exchange, the exchange of the object mediates and facilitates a relationship between people. Baudrillard criticizes modern society for having usurped symbolic exchange for sign exchange, wherein relations among people appear as relations among signs. Baudrillard’s social theory places the “sign” in the place that Marx put the “commodity,” that Mauss put the “gift,” and that Debord put the “spectacle”—a total social fact that contains within it the entire social relation that is constitutive of the system itself. Just as in Marx’s notorious table-dancing passage the commodity moves from object to subject (and “evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas”),[13] Baudrillard’s sign becomes the agent while human symbolic interaction becomes secondary to the interaction between signs, whose relations determine social hierarchies.

McLaverty-Robinson shows that the founding error of counterinsurgency scholarship is its refusal to acknowledge the central role of symbolic exchange in the rise of terroristic violence; terrorism is an attempt to intensify “the logic of devivification … to the point of implosion.” The piece is a remarkable demonstration of the way in which Baudrillard’s theoretical constructs may help illuminate human attempts to grapple with real world problems, but I think it also illustrates how theory is inadequate when it fails to emerge from or at least respond directly to those attempts. Readers may struggle, as I did, with several of the specific claims, such as his conclusions regarding “ecstatic media events,” particularly when his comments seem out of touch both with the events themselves as well as with Baudrillard’s own discussion of them. The idea that audience paralysis while “glued to their screens” undermines the reproduction of the system of signs will certainly have the reader revisiting, for example, the role of “silent majorities” and the “end of the social.”[14] And the claim “those who distrust the mainstream media” are immune to the power of such events will seem downright naïve, as if “distrust” of the media had not itself been manufactured and deployed in such openly manipulative contexts. Attacks on “fake news” in the United States, for example, have themselves become a performative ritual, but one with potentially devastating consequences ranging from calls for censorship to deadly terror attacks.[15] But McLaverty-Robinson nevertheless offers a productive opening for understanding the function of contemporary global crises at the level of symbolic exchange. This opening should be taken seriously by scholars and analysts who otherwise continue to perpetuate a discourse—even when responding to a natural crisis such as COVID-19—that ultimately calls not for the restoration of symbolic exchange but for an expansion of an ultimately suicidal securitization and militarization of these crises.

Disparate though they are, what unites the pieces in this collection is a sense of engagement, vital particularly in the current crises. This may seem quizzical to those who—and we know there are many—insist upon interpreting Baudrillard as an oblivious intellectual in an ivory tower, engaged in academic word play as a playful but politically detached form of art pour l’art. Yet as even Kellner, one of his fiercer critics, demonstrates in this volume, Baudrillard’s seeming vacillation on such questions as the meaning of modern art may be inadequate and even maddening, but it remains provocative in ways that force readers to grapple with that meaning. The error lies with those who would seek in Baudrillard a sort of critical theory cookie cutter to apply to popular cultural texts.

Baudrillard, ultimately, is much more than a “media theorist,” but to the extent that such categories are meaningful, what we discover in this collection is a Baudrillard who remains one of the few scholars who took seriously Marshall McLuhan’s critique of the “rear-view mirror” approach to mass media.[16] McLuhan, we will recall, famously argued that the problem with media theory is that the theorist was always looking backwards, engaging new media on the terms and through the epistemologies laid out by those of the previous era rather than experiencing and evaluating them on their own terms. We criticized television for not living up to the standards of reason that had emerged from a culture of print. Even today we still tend to experience networked technologies as if they were new categories of television. Baudrillard always resisted this rear-view mirror tendency; if anything, he tried to reinterpret past events through a lens of emerging technologies—recall, for example, his interpretation of New York’s World Trade Center as the effigy of American capitalism, some decades before those towers would become the target of terror’s fatal strategy.[17] It is thus apt that Baudrillard’s book of postcards from America began with the quotation from actual rear-view mirrors that Peter Weibel’s essay concludes with: “Caution: Objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear!”[18]

 

[1] “But who, we?” asked Jacques Derrida at a philosophical conference in May 1968. His comments were published in “The Ends of Man,” trans. Edouard Morot-Sir, et al., Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 30:1 (September 1969): 31-57.

[2] Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left (London: Verso, 2003): 34.

[3] Jean Baudrillard, “L’an 2000 ne passera pas” Traverses, 33/34, 1985, pp. 8-16. Translated as “The Year 2000 Has Already Happened” by Nai-Fei Ding and Kuan-Hsing Chen in Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, eds., Body Invaders: Panic Sex In America  (NY: St. Martin’s, 1987) 35-44. The “year 2000,” of course, had circulated for years in popular culture as a sign not only of anxiety about the future but of the end of the world.

[4] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967, 1976): 159. Derrida was, of course, outlining deconstructive reading specifically rather than critical work generally, but the concept is the same.

[5] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (1925; London: Cohen & West, 1966). An outstanding account of Mauss’ influence on Baudrillard through Bataille is Julian Pefanis’ Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard, and Lyotard  (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1991), from which some of these insights are drawn.

[6] In Pefanis’ explanation, the structuralist reading of the gift economy privileges the kula, and can be found in such examples as Lévi-Strauss’ traffic in women, which articulates the productive activity of the incest taboo, while a poststructuralist reading that privileges the potlatch, a completely unproductive expenditure that by its very nature cannot be returned in kind. It is this latter reading that emerges in Bataille.

[7] See Michael Specter, “Ultimate Alchemy: Sludge to Gold; Big New York Export May Make Desert, and Budget, Bloom,” New York Times (25 January 1993): B1; and Radiolab, “Poop Train” WNYC (24 September 2013): https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/poop-train.

[8] Jeff Martin, “ ‘Poop train’ finally empty; sludge gone: Alabama mayor,” Associated Press (19 April 2018).

[9] See Georges Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” trans. Allan Stoekl with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr., Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1985): 116-129; see also Georges Bataille, “Un-Knowing: Laughter and Tears,” trans. Annette Michelson, October 36 (Spring 1986): 89-102.

[10] See Baudrillard, “The Violence of Images, Violence against the Image,” trans. Paul Foss, ArtUS 23 (Summer 2008): 39. See also Cool Memories II: 1987-1990, trans. Chris Turner (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1996): 66.

[11] Baudrillard, “Telemorphosis,” (2001) trans. Ames Hodges, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., The Conspiracy of Art (New York and Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2005): 191.

[12] A key text would be Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Fourth Edition (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2017). Of course, as McLaverty-Robinson notes, questioning the role of the unconscious in such factors tends to be a recent development that follows a pattern Freud might have recognized as denegation.

[13] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: The Modern Library, 1906): 81-2.

[14] Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of Silent Majorities or, The End of the Social and Other Essays  trans. Paul Foss, John Johnston, and Paul Patton (NY: Semiotext(e), 1978, 1983).

[15] For just two examples, see Jack Tate, “Mail bomber Cesar Sayoc obsessed with Trump, Fox News, chilling new court filings show,” ABC News (22 July 2019): https://abcnews.go.com/US/mail-bomber-cesar-sayoc-obsessed-trump-fox-news/story?id=64500598 and Tom Jones, “Attacks on media covering the protests are simply following the president’s rhetoric,” Poynter (1 June 2020): https://www.poynter.org/newsletters/2020/attacks-on-media-covering-the-protests-are-simply-following-the-presidents-rhetoric.

[16] Marshall McLuhan, “The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan,” Playboy (March 1969): 56.

[17] Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London, Thousand Oaks, California, and New Delhi: SAGE, 1976, 1993): 69-70.

[18] Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London and New York: Verso, 1989): 1.

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