Why Baudrillard, Why Now?

by Andrew McLaverty-Robinson

Like Baudrillard’s own work, this is an unusual, original and potentially controversial book. Readers expecting the usual kitsch-poststructuralist truisms cloaked in verbosity will be disappointed. So will those looking only for introductory exegesis. Rather, what the author, Oleg Maltsev, has provided is an almost esoteric reading of Baudrillard, which is focused on the parallels between the French theorist’s writings and his own findings on the history of ideas. He believes Baudrillard arrived at a definite philosophy, but deliberately publicized it only in fragments so as to avoid the misuse of its power. He himself provides this philosophy, presented as a more-or-less consistent system. This system serves to integrate Baudrillard’s findings into a straightforward framework which speaks directly to issues in the philosophy of science/science and technology studies, psychology/psychoanalysis, sociology and philosophy. It might make sense to think of this in terms of Baudrillard as a problem-field, as name-of-history in the Deleuzian sense. Maltsev reconstructs, not Baudrillard’s exact writings, but what he believes to be the operative conceptual frame behind them. The name “Baudrillard” then comes to refer to everything stemming from this conceptual frame—and thus, to a much wider sphere of contemporary relevance.

This is not how Baudrillard is usually used. In the English-speaking world, Baudrillard is usually classified as a postmodernist or poststructuralist. He attracted considerable interest in the 1980s-90s due to his apparent relevance to themes of globalisation and mass culture, and was widely read on courses dealing with these two topics. As time has progressed, interest in him has waned. Globalisation studies lost some of its iconic status after 9/11, with security studies usurping its place, and the financial crash of 2008; although Baudrillard also has plenty to say about “terrorism” and “security”, the entanglements of academia with political power in this area made such contributions more of an embarrassment than an aid to other scholars. Cultural studies has increasingly transmuted into preparatory training for the culture industry, with a heavy emphasis on identity politics. Here, Baudrillard is still studied, but mainly for his usefulness in interpreting particular films or fictional texts. This is a Baudrillard who is always inside the Matrix, never in the desert of the real.

In any case, Baudrillard tends to be read badly by English-speaking readers. The importation of poststructuralism in the 1980s (in conditions very different from those of its emergence in the revolutionary conditions of 1960s France) was carried out mainly by people looking for a radical-seeming alternative to academic Marxism, often people who would later be drawn towards the Third Way and its project of cybernetic/behaviorist control supplemented by educational expansion and the bizarre simultaneous endorsement of market absolutism and socialistic goals. In the early stage, many of them were ironic relativists, anxious to exorcise “naive” anger and unironic commitment, attracted to the Dada-like playfulness and incomprehensibility of 1960s/70s French theory, and prone to treat these texts like Rorschach tests, in which linguistic complexity or poetics gives them license to find there anything they like (and ignore what they don’t). It thus follows that what they found was a mirror of their own soul, and this increasingly came to define who Baudrillard (or Deleuze, or Lacan, or Foucault…) is in academic circles, who Baudrillard can be said to be without such claims being struck down in the courts of peer-review, citation ranking, and essay marking. The history of the poststructuralist synthesis, and the contradictory and authoritarian nature of the resultant dogmas, are discussed in more detail in my three-volume critique of Homi Bhabha.

The political castration inherent in the synthesis is nowhere clearer than in the COVID-19 crisis: Baudrillard, and most of the poststructuralists, would doubtless have reacted in much the same way as Giorgio Agamben and Raoul Vaneigem (some of the last theorists of Baudrillard’s generation), yet most of the followers of the orthodox synthesis were vehemently pro-lockdown and utterly uncritical of the powers of cybernetic nudging, media manipulation, modern reason, false universalism, and biopolitics which they might elsewhere denounce; they effectively repeated the actions of the various social-democratic parties which showed their true colours when called to fight in World War I.

The creation of “poststructuralism” as a unitary perspective was often accompanied by simplification and fusion of the various (often highly complex and terminologically vague or difficult) theorists grouped under this label. As a result, Baudrillard was most often read in terms of ideas common to this school: anti-essentialism, critique of “the subject” (the idea of a distinct individual), linguistic determinism, the complicity of knowledge with power, the critique of modern reason (including especially Marxism). He had projected onto him a range of concepts and concerns drawn from Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard or Foucault, or created by the Anglophone synthesisers themselves: for example, the centrality of positionality, the basically linguistic/discursive nature of reality, the total rejection of system-scale “grand narratives”, etc. Thus for example, Baudrillard’s claim that contemporary humans are reduced to the status of nodes, similar to computers in a network, each providing and receiving yes/no signals from the surrounding nodes, falls easily into the wider critique of modern and/or postmodern subjectivity and is taken up. Of course, it overlaps enormously with Virilio’s theory of logistics, Deleuze’s control society, Foucault’s governmentality and biopower and even with standpoint theory and cybernetics (never mind that Baudrillard’s main point was to oppose this reduction to nodes, whereas many of his readers support it as a means to disrupt the “modern subject” or a method of achieving greater “accountability” through behavioural nudging).

Something like Baudrillard’s theory of symbolic exchange, on the other hand, is subversive of the overall synthesis and gets left-out, marginalised, and misread. It is as if they have separated out the elements in Baudrillard most compatible with their style of theory, and then cut him in half. The half they remove—the more radical, more original half—is then replaced by a simulation built up of remnants of other theorists. This is no surprise, since it’s how these authors treat all the French poststructuralists. Baudrillard becomes part of the synthesis only by being subjected to the very techniques he exposes: illusion, simulation, hyperreality. Academia’s Baudrillard becomes one of the innumerable Agent Smith clones released into the Matrix to fight knowledge of the real, each carrying the same few dogmas and truisms and the same worldview, interchangeable with the Deleuze-clone, the Derrida-clone, the Wittgenstein-clone, the Benjamin-clone, today even the Gandhi-clone or the Buddha-clone, the Black Elk-clone or the Cusicanqui-clone. (I do not mention the clones of the academics themselves; in most cases, they do not have to be cloned, because they are already clones).

Most of the feuding around Baudrillard has actually occurred around the simulated Baudrillard, the cyborg half-Baudrillard half-spectre of the poststructuralist synthesis. All too often, in the minds of both supporters and critics, Baudrillard has mutated into an advocate of simulation, “cool” capitalism, and ironic distance as an existential stance. Such perceptions no doubt contributed to the yoking of his academic fortunes to the fate of globalisation and the New Economy. By the 2010s, poststructuralism has itself been submerged into a broader synthesis dominated by identity politics, with a focus on positionality and standpoint. Baudrillard then gets further marginalised on race and gender grounds: he’s one of the bad guys, the oppressors, who are trapped inside modern reason and cannot possibly see in other ways, and who must be pushed aside to make room for people from the approved identity-groups (never mind that most of the things they say are actually borrowed in mangled form from the French poststructuralists, with or without recognition of the debt). There is a thin sliver of truth in all this: the total submersion in cybernetic control which is the focus of Baudrillard’s work, probably only applies in the global North, as he suggests in his Gulf War essays (which is just another way of saying: local knowledges and passionate commitments continue to exist, outside Europe or on its margins). Mostly, though, this style of critique/absorption of Baudrillard is a handy way of disposing of his radical critique. If the 1990s “postmodernists” accepted neoliberal capitalism provided they could keep an ironic distance, the 2010s identitarians act as if the spectacle is all there is, and openly orient their theory towards competing for strategic advantage within it. “Seize the means of cultural production”, as Spivak puts it. But today, the means of cultural production are simply the means of production of simulacra. The order of coded elements often involves profiling and discrimination, but the ultimate problem is not the ordering of elements in the code; it is the subordination of life, humanity, nature, creativity and power-to to the system of coding itself.

Maltsev’s Baudrillard is not the academically acceptable Baudrillard, the cyborg half-spectre. It is an alternative Baudrillard, one who is more alive, closer in some ways to his texts, but also cross-fertilised with a different set of philosophical interests and commitments. Through the work of his institute’s Expeditionary Corps, Maltsev has developed an unusual theory regarding ancient and medieval European worldviews. He believes that older European thought-systems were closer to what is elsewhere called local or indigenous science. People believed in an underlying force, and power could be exercised through particular geometries inscribed in this force. This allowed people to do amazing things, which contemporary humans cannot replicate—and to do them, I would add, with a fraction of the energy consumption, ecological impact, and everyday social control (coercive and manipulative) which is needed for today’s “achievements”. The problem is, this was a qualitative science, an art or craft requiring mastery of technique and intuitive participation in a problem-field—meaning it is unthinkable once science starts being McDonaldized, deskilled and turned into transferable units.

Maltsev reconstructs in Baudrillard’s work a theory of geometries as sources of power. He believes that premodern European science and technology were based on some such geometry, and that Baudrillard somehow knew of or intuited this. The knowledge has been lost in academia and in everyday “common sense” because of the insidious corruption of both forms of knowledge by mechanisms familiar to readers of Baudrillard: circular academic knowledge-systems which beg their own questions, unreliable quantitative approaches, self-reinforcing citation clubs creating an illusion of expertise, the undermining of thought by the mass media and the endless “orgies” of consumer society, etc. This will doubtless send readers with sympathy for modern science into outbursts of “pseudoscience!” and “conspiracy theory!” Yet many of these critics would also accept very similar claims if they were made, not based on pre-modern European knowledges, but based on indigenous or non-western belief-systems. I don’t know enough of the history of knowledge to assess Maltsev’s claims, but his view of pre-modern science are consistent with major scholarship in the field of science and technology studies (e.g., the works of David Turnbull and Thomas Kuhn), and also with much of what survives today of ancient and medieval philosophies, particularly those of a mystical bent (such as Pythagoras and Spinoza). These geometries are also familiar to readers of critical theory under other names: the conceptual rhizome of Guattari, the topologies of desire of Lacan, or ideas such as mana which are imported from non-European ontologies.

Even more so than Baudrillard’s own work, Maltsev’s critique resonates with the currently prevalent critiques of “modern reason” and the search for “other ways of seeing” which are so prevalent in contemporary critical academia. However, Maltsev has the courage to go further than most of those mouthing such buzzwords, and actually propose the beginnings of a different philosophy. Also, his alternative to modern academia does not rely on standpoint epistemology or non-western traditions. Rather, he situates the problems in European thought more recently than others tend to, and recognises earlier phases of European scholarship as distinct. This should be interpreted very similarly to the appeal to non-European traditions. It is an appeal from a non-modern Europe, from a Europe which had not yet produced either modernity or colonialism/imperialism, which was still within the field of symbolic exchange and had not yet embarked on its now-fatal path.

From my point of view, it is more mysterious that Baudrillard, who had no expeditionary corps and no background in historical archives, could have discovered such a metaphysics at all. How might such ideas have found their way into the works of Baudrillard and his contemporaries? Part of the answer might be: because these ideas were still residually active even in the decadent sciences of the 1960s, and Baudrillard was particularly good at sorting the wheat from the chaff. My suspicion is that Maltsev has reconstructed the similarities to the European past based on isomorphic elements in Baudrillard’s work. Baudrillard may have arrived at a similar awareness by more circuitous routes. To begin with, certain aspects of these geometries are available from the study of the unconscious, and Baudrillard was immersed in post-Freudian theory (Lacan’s seminars, Situationism, etc.). Secondly, Marxism has at its roots an affinity with Jewish messianism, and it is possible that this potential, which was buried under decades of orthodoxy, began to re-emerge in the theoretical thaw of the 1960s. Thirdly, Baudrillard was influenced by anthropologists (such as Marcel Mauss’s theory of the gift), so he may thus have come across similar geometries in (say) Tlingit culture, and extrapolated from these to the European context. Importantly, the geometries in question are not those of a cybernetic control society, but involve something this society denies.

Perhaps the biggest differences between the standard academic’s Baudrillard and Maltsev’s Baudrillard are that Maltsev’s version is a realist and an ethical individualist. Maltsev’s Baudrillard believes knowledge can refer in some sense to a real world, even if this process is necessarily mediated by socially-distorted belief-systems, and even if the nature of this world is nothing like positivism suggests. This is very different from the usual view of Baudrillard as a strong constructivist who believes everything derives from language and all belief-systems are equally valid. Maltsev’s Baudrillard also has an almost existentialist commitment to individual responsibility, of a kind which would also make him quite welcome among American pioneers (though apparently not their descendants). This is a far cry from the “death of the subject” attributed to Baudrillard in the poststructuralist synthesis, in which the subject cannot have any direct causal responsibility for anything due to its constructed nature or nonexistence, and in which individual agency is pathologized as a narcissistic illusion. (Such theories nonetheless tend to end up with paradoxical theories of performative agency and ethical obligation, without really explaining how). Maltsev thus rejects two of the central dogmas of the poststructuralist synthesis: strong social constructivism and the death of the subject.

We have yet to see if this work produces the slanderous outrage that often accompanies deviation from the orthodox line (“naive!” “obviously hasn’t read the texts!” “essentialist!” “still trapped in modern reason”!). I am all too aware of these reactions, having been subject to them a great many times. They reflect the ultimate paradox: a perspective committed to multiple perspectives and forms of knowing, hostile to any form of objectivity or essentialism, which nonetheless functions like a rigid orthodoxy with fixed dogmas taken as absolutely true. I also have my own Baudrillard, which to my mind is a close reading of the texts as literally as possible, but which also doubtless involves my own selections, emphases and decontestations of ambiguous passages. Close readers will notice that my Baudrillard is subtly different from Maltsev’s, although both are in a sense mystical expressionists with a radical critique of postmodern civilisation.

Nonetheless, I feel this is a vitally important work. It is important whether or not the reader ultimately decides that Maltsev’s Baudrillard is closer to the texts and/or more useful than the standard version. Simply the act of going back and looking at the texts, or going out and testing the texts against the world, is a radical break from the usual uncritical acceptance of a series of homogenised cyborg-spectre-clones representing the final say on what Baudrillard “means”. If this work makes a number of Baudrillardian scholars read the texts more openly, without closing down their meaning in advance to the poststructuralist synthesis or to what they find appealing, and/or to look at some empirical field and apply both Baudrillards to see which one works best, then it will play an extremely important role, whether or not any of the sceptics actually come around to Maltsev’s Baudrillard. Right now, Baudrillard (and the rest of the poststructuralists) is like Lenin in his tomb, frozen forever in a set of lifeless dogmas so others can build power-structures in his name. Yet old Baudrillard is not dead yet, he still has some life to give if only he can be chipped out from under all the ice. In the 1960s, writers like Baudrillard (and the rest of the poststructuralists) had the task of excavating Marxism and psychoanalysis from beneath the encrusted orthodoxies which had evolved on top of them. Today, the same task is needed with the poststructuralists themselves. We need many Baudrillards, to free Baudrillard’s legacy from its monological association with the poststructuralist synthesis.

Today, writing a work such as this takes a lot of courage, original thought, and preparedness to stake one’s name on determinate truth-claims in a way that most critical academics will not. This spirit of experimentation, critique, healthy scepticism, iconoclasm, semantic openness, close engagement with texts or phenomena rather than hasty absorption, is Baudrillard’s spirit too. Above all, it is the spirit needed, and all too lacking, in academia today.

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