Loading...
Menu

Reality: Simulations - the Analytical Audacity of Jean Baudrillard

p(((((((())))))))=.

Reality

Simulations: the Analytical Audacity of Jean Baudrillard

Marc Estrin

Contents

Chapter 1

Reality

***

This craziness of the 2016 election was not basically about Democrats and Republicans, hawks and doves, rich and poor, blacks and whites, women and men, experience and showmanship. What would Jean Baudrillard (“intellectual terrorist”, “the Darth Vader of postmodernism”, 1929-2007) say? – That it was about different understandings of Reality, and the various strategies of manipulating it.

***

His little book, Simulations, is 4”x6”, large print, big margins 150 pages. Almost a pamphlet. But the thinking within is explosively audacious.

***

[(Page numbers in parentheses will refer to _]Simulations[. Unidentified indented quotes are from other Baudrillard texts. References upon request from [email protected])_]

***

There are some key sections in Simulations, often quoted, which give a reader something to hang on to. One characterizes four stages in the changing function of signs. Read slowly and take this in:

***

1. The sign is “a reflection of a basic reality”, as is common in scientific or referential language.

2. The sign “masks and perverts a basic reality” – As when ideology stems from false consciousness^ ^which prevents people from seeing their true alienation or exploitation. The Frankfurt School writers have plenty to say about this.

3. The sign “masks the absence of a basic reality, as when iconoclasts fear of images of deity because they may lead people to suspect the absence of deity.

4. The sign “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.” (11)

***

Here Baudrillard is thinking of the incessant contemporary production of images with no attempt to ground them in reality. Do you drive a Lexus, an Acura, an XL300? What does that mean???

***

The transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing, marks a decisive turning point. (12) The era of simulation begins.

***

We look around us today. How can we account for “the interchangeability of previously contradictory or dialectically opposed terms”, the interchangeability

***

of the beautiful and the ugly in fashion; of the right and the left in politics; of the true and false in every media message; of the useful and the useless at the level of objects; and of nature and culture at every level of meaning”? (128)

***

It’s easy -- because

***

all the great humanist criteria of value, all the values of a civilization of moral, aesthetic, and practical judgment, vanish in our system of images and signs. Everything becomes undecidable.

***

The age of simulation ...begins with a liquidation of all referentials -- worse: by their artificial resurrection in systems of signs, a more ductile material than meaning, in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalence,... substituting signs of the real for the real itself....(4)

***

On the first page of Simulations, Baudrillard cites a tale by Borges in which “the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory.” (1) But these days, it is no longer a question of maps and territories. “Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference between them.” If there is any distinction at all, it is that it is “the territory whose shards are slowly rotting across the map”, and not vice versa.

***

So all we have now is the map, the sign, a most “ductile” environment. This is the age of simulation -- the generation by models of a “real” without origin or reality. Hyperreality.

***

The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth it is the map that precedes the territory. (2)

***

If you think it’s easy to tell real from fake, Baudrillard challenges you to try staging a fake holdup.

***

Be sure to check that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no life is in danger....Demand ransom, and arrange it so that the operation creates the greatest commotion possible -- in brief, stay close to the “truth”, so as to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulation. But you won’t succeed: the web of artificial signs will be inextricably mixed up with real elements (a police officer will really shoot on sight; a bank customer will faint and die of a heart attack; they will really turn the phony ransom over to you)...(39)

***

And here, Baudrillard elucidates the dynamic nature of the interaction of reality and simulation:

***

-- In brief, you will unwittingly find yourself immediately in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour every attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to some reality -- that’s exactly how the established order is... (39)

***

If reality is to seek in simulation the same order of reality, then the destiny of reality is inevitably to become simulation. This dynamic would explain the “collective hysteria” of production and overproduction, consumption and overconsumption in Western culture.

***

What society seeks through production, and overproduction, is the restoration of the real which escapes it. That is why contemporary “material” production is itself hyperreal. (44)

***

It also explains the itch for fascism that we see demonstrated in the public desire for a president to “act presidential”. It doesn’t matter what he does: the mere assertion of power satisfies

***

a collective demand for signs of power -- a holy union which forms around the disappearance of power. (45)

***

Baudrillard next treats us to some extended examples of living “in a logic of simulation”.

***

Disneyland

***

His much-quoted section on Disneyland, (23-26) depicts the “perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation.” (23)

***

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is not a question of a false representation of reality, but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle. (25)

***

Baudrillard identified Disneyland in this regard as a third-order simulation -- the kind which “masks the absence of a basic reality”. He also opined that

***

the Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false; it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real. (25)

***

By denying the truth or falsity of Disneyland, he is underlining that it is not that Disneyland is a fake representation of America, but that there no longer is any real America.

***

Can you grasp the radical, all-embracing nature of these assertions?

***

Baudrillard is often accused of being decadent and apolitical -- of being neutral and non-judgmental concerning these phenomena. But his section on Watergate shows that it is possible to combine these counter-intuitive views with a hard-headed understanding of power and a passionate denunciation of predatory capitalism. Many more current political crimes come easily to mind. But when he was writing, “Watergate” was it.

***

Watergate is not a Scandal

***

It was not important who did what.

***

Watergate above all succeeded in imposing the idea that Watergate was a scandal -- in this sense it was an extraordinary operation of intoxication. (27)

***

Before, the task was to dissimulate scandal; today, the task is to conceal the fact that there is none. Watergate is not a scandal: this is what must be said at all cost, for this is what everyone is concerned to conceal, this dissimulation masking a...moral panic as we approach the primal...scene of capital: its instantaneous cruelty, its incomprehensible ferocity, its fundamental immorality -- this is what is scandalous, unaccountable for in that system of moral and economic equivalence which remains the axiom of leftist thought, from Enlightenment theory to communism. Capital doesn’t give a damn about the idea of the contract which is imputed to it -- it is a monstrous unprincipled undertaking, nothing more. Rather it is “enlightened” thought which seeks to control capital by imposing rules on it. And all that recrimination which replaced revolutionary thought today comes down to reproaching capital for not following the rules of the game. “Power is unjust, its justice is a class justice, capital exploits us, etc.” -- as if capital were linked by a contract to the society it rules. (28-29)

***

Hence Watergate was only a trap set by the system to catch its adversaries, a simulation of scandal to regenerative ends. (30)

***

It was not a trap designed or set by anyone, but an inevitable consequence of unanchored reality desperately clinging to its unanchored self.

***

“The Gulf War Will Not Take Place”

***

Baudrillard became more infamous than ever when he made the above statement. After the war, when taunted with the incorrectness of his position, he simply commented, “The Gulf War did not take place.” Rather than try to understand this paradoxical statement, most critics simply threw up their hands and cried, “He’s a bigger asshole than I thought.”

***

But isn’t it clear that just as Disneyland is not fake, just as Watergate was not a scandal, the Gulf War was not a war, but a misdirecting sleight-of-hand to make us think that all isn’t war? If this was a fierce contest against a hugely threatening army, why were there so few American casualties? Some on the left have refused to call it a war, but rather, “a massacre”. Some have analyzed it as a taxpayer-supported demo -- PR for the benefit of U.S. arms merchants. In any case, there is a lot of truth in Baudrillard’s seemingly outrageous statements. His analysis of simulated war, however, goes deeper:

***

Behind the armed violence, the murderous antagonism between adversaries -- which seems a matter of life and death, and which is played as such (otherwise you could never send out people to get smashed up in this kind of trouble), behind this simulacrum of a struggle to death and of ruthless global stakes, the two adversaries are fundamentally as one against that other, unnamed, never mentioned thing, whose objective outcome in war, with equal complicity between the two adversaries, is total liquidation. It is tribal, communal, pre-capitalist structures, every form of exchange, language and symbolic organization which must be abolished. Their murder is the object of war -- and in its immense spectacular contrivance of death, war is only the medium of this process of terrorist rationalization by the social -- the murder through which sociality can be founded, no matter what allegiance, communist or capitalist. The total complicity or division of labor between two adversaries...for the very purpose of remolding and domesticating social relations. (68-69)

***

No wonder there are no “victories” in war, at least not those of stated objectives.

***

What no longer exists is the adversity of adversaries, the reality of antagonistic causes, the ideological seriousness of war. (70)

***

Instead, there is a secret alliance of all the components of the what-is. All is simulated, necessary and equal in the Political Economy of Signs. It explains a lot.

***

Democracy

***

“The Balance of Terror is the Terror of Balance.” (60)

***

So what of democracy, the great Enlightenment goal? Is there now only a democratic simulacrum? What is the demos, the “fantastic silent majority characteristic of our times” thinking and doing in its silent postmodernity?

***

The Two Towers

***

As might be expected, Baudrillard takes a unique approach to these questions. Democracy, finally, is a system of choice-making: an informed electorate chooses its representatives from among a menu of ideological options. Most critics focus on the dumbing down of the electorate, the false consciousness purveyed by the media, etc., however, focuses intently on the menu. He asks a strange and pregnant question [this, of course, before 9/11]: “Why are there two towers at New York’s World Trade Center?”

***

All of Manhattan’s great buildings were always happy enough to affront each other in a competitive verticality, the result of which is an architectural panorama in the image of the capitalist system: a pyramidal jungle, all the buildings attacking each other….This image has completely changed in the last few years. The effigy of the capitalist system has passed from the pyramid to the perforated card. Buildings are no longer obelisks, but lean one upon the other, no longer suspicious one of the other….This new architecture incarnates a system that is no longer competitive, but compatible, where competition has disappeared for the benefits of the correlations….The fact that there are two of them [WTCs] signifies the end of all competition, the end of all original reference. Paradoxically, if there were only one, the monopoly would not be incarnated, because we have seen how it stabilizes on a dual form. For the sign to be pure, it has to duplicate itself…. (135-6)

***

No more competition. Can this be true? Is this Capitalism as we know it? How can democracy function without choices?

***

But a naked monopoly of power will never do. Wrong symbol. Not palatable to the masses. Instead, the state is run by a system which gives an illusion of choice.

***

The “advanced democratic” systems are stabilized on the formula of bipartite alternation. The monopoly in fact remains that of a homogenous political class, from left to right, but it must not be exercised as such. The one party totalitarian regime is an unstable form….Democracy realizes the law of equivalence in the political order. This law is accomplished in the back-and-forth movement of the two terms which reactivates their equivalence, but allows, by the minute differences, a public consensus to be formed and the cycle of representation to be closed…..The “free choice” of individuals, which is the credo of democracy, leads in fact precisely to the opposite:…the vote becomes functionally aleatory: When democracy attains an advanced formal stage, …the vote comes to resemble a Brownian movement of particles or the calculation of probabilities. It is as if everyone voted by chance, or monkeys voted. (132)

***

There will be “polls”, alternation of power “at the top”, the simulation of opposition between two parties, with equivalence of their objectives, and reversibility of their language.

***

Marx predicted that open competition would lead to the large devouring the small, until the end result: monopoly. Baudrillard countered that it is not monopoly which is the end stage, but duopoly, the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the “tactical doubling of monopoly.”

***

In all domains duopoly is the final stage of monopoly….Power is absolute only if it is capable of diffraction into various equivalents, if it knows how to take off so as to put more on. (133-4)

***

Much the same money finances the Democrats as the Republicans. It’s easy. Why take the chance on losing? Baudrillard’s assertions here appear to be indisputable. And a related comment seems both hopeful and ominous:

***

You need two superpowers to keep the universe under control: a single empire would crumble of itself. (134)

***

Clear in 1983, what does this statement portend today? Can we really look forward to the crumbling of Power?

***

The Masses in “Advanced” Democracy

***

In Dostoevsky’s brilliant work, “The Grand Inquisitor”, Jesus comes back to earth during the Inquisition, and is arrested and interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor, “a man of almost ninety, tall and erect”. Jesus says nothing throughout the moving and remarkable monologue of his adversary. He is condemned for lack of compassion:

***

[GRAND INQUISITOR:] Instead of seizing men’s freedom, You gave them even more of it! Have You forgotten that peace, and even death, is more attractive to man than the freedom of choice that derives from the knowledge of good and evil….Instead of ridding men of their freedom, You increased their freedom, and You imposed everlasting torment on man’s soul….Had you respected him less, You would have demanded less of him and that would have been more like love, for the burden You placed on him would not have been so heavy. Man is weak and despicable….We [the Church] have corrected your work.

***

Baudrillard meditates on the same material:

***

Choice is a strange imperative. Any philosophy which assigns man to the exercise of his will can only plunge him in despair. For if nothing is more flattering to consciousness than to know what it wants, on the contrary nothing is more seductive to the other consciousness (the unconscious?) than not to know what it wants, to be relieved of choice and diverted from its own objective will. It is much better to rely on some insignificant or powerful instance than to be dependent on one’s own will or the necessity of choice. Beau Brummel had a servant for that purpose. Before a splendid landscape dotted with beautiful lakes, he turns toward his valet to ask him: “Which lake do I prefer?”

***

In the sixties, the New Left used to call for “empowering people to make the decisions that affect their lives.” But that assumes people know what they want, or at least want to find out. Baudrillard demurs:

***

Not only do people certainly not want to be told what they wish, but they certainly do not want to know it, and it is not even sure that they want to wish at all.

***

B ut while most commentators -- Chomsky , the Frankfurt School -- would see this as the surrender of the masses to the designs of Power (Dostoevsky: “Man is weak and despicable.”), Baudrillard challenges us to see things another way.

***

Whom does this trap close on? The mass knows that it knows nothing, and it does not want to know. The mass knows that it can do nothing, and it does not want to achieve anything. It is violently reproached with this mark of stupidity and passivity. But not at all: the mass is very snobbish; it acts as Brummel did and delegates in a sovereign manner the faculty of choice to someone else by a sort of game of irresponsibility, or ironic challenge, of sovereign lack of will, of secret ruse.

***

The ruse of silence: the mass’s way of resisting manipulation.

***

About the media you can sustain two opposing hypotheses: they are the strategy of power, which finds in them the means of mystifying the masses and of imposing its own truth. Or else they are the strategic territory of the ruse of the masses, who exercise in them their concrete power of the refusal of truth, of the denial of reality.

***

Understanding Media

***

…is crucial, for it is the media which cooks up reality stew and invites the masses to dinner. But the question of whether the masses eat or are eaten remains unsettled.

***

There is an over-circulation of ideas, of the most contradictory ideas, all in the same flux of ideas. What happens is that their specific impact is wiped out. I mean their negativity is wiped out. Mass media, and all that, are not vehicles for negativity. They carry a kind of neutralizing positivity.

***

Which means that even the negative is positive. It’s true. No matter how negative the event, just reporting it shows us that “The system works!”

***

What kind of person does this self-affirming recursiveness create? For one, since the mass media are actually anti-mediatory -- they allow no response, communication or exchange --

***

People are no longer speaking to each other,…they are definitively isolated in the face of a speech without response.

***

Democracy depends upon an informed public, but

***

Is information really information? Or on the contrary, will it produce a world of inertia? Will it produce, by its very proliferation, the inverse of what it wants to? Doesn’t it lead to a world, a universe in reverse, of resistance, inertia, circulation, silence and such like….It is by information that one is supposed to bring consciousness to the world, to inform and to awaken the world, but it is this very information through its very media which produces the reverse effect.

***

It would seem that in this simulated postmodernity, the conditions of democracy are far from being met, and all of us are largely consigned to inconsequential states of obeying and resisting a bland hyperreality.

***

Our relationship to this system is an insoluble “double bind” -- exactly that of children in their relationship to the demands of the adult world. They are at the same time told to constitute themselves as autonomous subjects, responsible, free, and conscious, and to constitute themselves as submissive objects, inert, obedient, and conformist. The child resists on all levels, and to these contradictory demands he or she replies by a double strategy. When we ask the child to be object, he or she opposes all the practices of disobedience, of revolt, of emancipation; in short, the strategy of a subject. When we ask the child to be subject, he or she opposes just as obstinately and successfully a resistance as object; that is to say, exactly the opposite: infantilism, hyperconformity, total dependence, passivity, idiocy.

***

Does this seem an apt description of the current electorate?

***

And this suggests an explanation for a phenomenon perplexing now with Trump, and perplexing too, to an interviewer in 1989, who commented

***

President Reagan and his whole administration, his wife included, seem like an immense simulation. The astonishing thing is that no one really cares when he lies to the press or makes incredible gaffes. Even more, he’s been involved in many suspicious or illegal activities, like the Iran-Contra scandal. But basically no one in the US seems really upset; in fact, it’s as if the exposé itself, as a genre of critical or investigative reporting, had suddenly become dépassé in the eighties. Everyone knows or suspects the worst but finally remains indifferent. One might even say that the very ‘visibility of Reagan and his suspect activities makes him invulnerable to criticism. Do you see here any confirmation of your own theories?

***

To which, Baudrillard replied,

***

Indeed. Reagan [think Trump] is a sort of fantastic specimen of the obscene transparence of power and politics, and of its insignificance at the same time. It’s as if everyone has become aware of the indifference of power to its own decisions, which is nothing but the indifference of the people themselves to their own representation, and thus to the whole representative system. This is accompanied by a demand all the greater for the spectacle of politics, with its scandals, morality trials, mass-media and show-biz effects. There is no longer anything but the energy of spectacle and of the simulacrum….

***

The End of History

***

The seriousness of the postmodern rupture is attested to by Baudrillard’s musings on “the end of history”. A few years ago, Francis Fukayama created an intellectual storm when he published an article with that title. His thesis was that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the worldwide triumph of liberal democracy -- at least in theory -- history, as we know it -- the struggle between opposing forces -- was over. I mention this teapot tempest in order to contrast it with Baudrillard’s deeper, more mysterious probe.

***

Unlike Fukayama’s triumphal announcement, Baudrillard’s reasoning rings with affirmatory hopelessness. He begins with Canetti’s proposition, in The Human Province.

***

”A painful idea: that beyond a certain precise point in time, history was no longer real. Without being aware of it, the totality of the human race would have suddenly quit reality. all that would have happened since then would not have been at all real, but we would not be able to know it. Our task and our duty would now be to discover this point and, to the extent that we shall not stop there, we must persevere in the actual destruction.”

***

History has been irreversibly destroyed by the virus of simulation. Although there is much “interest” in history today -- a genuine return to an authentic relationship with history has become impossible.

***

Baudrillard:

And that is also part of the postmodern: restoration of a past culture, to bring back all past cultures, to bring back everything that one has destroyed, all that one has destroyed in joy and which one is reconstructing in sadness in order to try to live, to survive.

***

It’s true that everywhere today (and not just in the US) there is a resurgence of history, or rather of the demand for historicity, linked no doubt to the weak registration rate of factual history (there are more and more events, and less and less history). We are caught in a sort of gigantic, historical backwards accounting, and endless retrospective bookkeeping. This historicity is speculative and maniacal, and linked to the indefinite stocking of information. We are setting up artificial memories which can take the place of natural intelligence.

***

But all this frenetic activity, all the research and data entry and hypertextual referencing do us little good in our attempt to connect.

***

We tend to forget that our reality, including the tragic events of the past, has been swallowed up by the media. That means that it is too late to verify events and to understand them historically, for what characterizes our era and our fin de siècle is precisely the disappearance of the instruments of this intelligibility. It was necessary to understand history while there was still history….Now it’s too late, we’re in another world. It’s evident in the television production of Holocaust or even in Shoah. Those things will no longer be understood because notions as fundamental as responsibility, objective cause, the meaning (or non-sense) of history have disappeared or are in the process of disappearing. Effects of moral conscience or collective conscience are now entirely the effects of the media. We are now witnessing the therapeutic obstinacy with which some try to resuscitate this conscience, and the little breath it still has left.

***

History has disappeared

in the ecstasy of information, the ecstasy of messages. We have disappeared in a sort of ecstasy of the media, of information circulating with acceleration across everything. And one is no longer able to put a stop to this process.

***

This, not Fukayama’s superficial assessment, is the deeper meaning of “The End of History”. Our role, Baudrillard notwithstanding, but nevertheless as guide, is to try to distinguish levels of Reality, and to act appropriately, effectively, within each one.

***

Appraising the unappraisable Baudrillard

***

Baudrillard:

***

Everything I write is deemed brilliant, intelligent, but not serious. There has never been any real discussion about it. I don’t claim to be tremendously serious, but there are nevertheless some philosophically serious things in my work!

***

His critics are merciless, seeing his “speculative spontaneity” as “grossly undertheorized”. Certainly, his aestheticist view of the world can sometimes be problematical. Who could watch the Challenger explosion, and then say

***

It was extraordinary: a sort of symbolic victory that only the Americans could afford! That fantastic burial in the sky! They’ve revived our appetite for space. Offering themselves the luxury of such disasters. What a way to go! Simple endings are without interest; they’re flat and linear. The really exciting thing is to discover orbital space where these other forces play.

***

Are we to take such a man seriously? We can grant him his “voluntary stance as a marginal oppositional figure”. And we can still be inspired by his enthusiasms:

***

Even if things are not really at their end, well! Let’s act as if they were. It’s a game, a provocation. Not in order to put a full stop to everything, but, on the contrary, to make everything begin again. So you see, I’m far from being a pessimist.

***

But most of all, I think we have to value the extraordianry originality of his angle on the contemporary world. How remarkable his attack on what Foucault terms the “abundance of things to know: essential or terrible, marvelous or droll.” As Foucault concludes, there are still “too few means to think about all that is happening.”

***

Baudrillard adds immeasurably to those means. I would certainly agree with Nickolas Zurbrugg, a most critical critic, in saying

***

”There is frequently something profoundly engaging and inspiring in Baudrillard’s idiosyncratic attempts to grapple with those issues which he finds most challenging and most at stake. Compared with the unadventurous ways in which other cartographers of postmodern culture carefully sift elementary shifts within the familiar shallows of twentieth-century discourse, Baudrillard’s finest “virtual’ descents into uncharted contemporary depths offer models of passionate engagement with the most crucial developments within the postmodern condition.”

***

As to whether hyperreality is truly the new mode of postmodernism, I can only quote my partner, Donna, who the other day called an airline, and pressed 1 to speak to a representative.

***

“The human I talked to this morning said, ‘What did it say on the automated system?’”

***

Marc Estrin is a novelist, cellist, and political activist in Burlington, VT.


Reality: Simulations - the Analytical Audacity of Jean Baudrillard

  • Author: Fomite
  • Published: 2017-01-24 02:20:23
  • Words: 4808
Reality: Simulations - the Analytical Audacity  of Jean Baudrillard Reality: Simulations - the Analytical Audacity  of Jean Baudrillard