[Marxism] Baudrillard

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 21 07:40:19 MDT 2004

Feed, 4 January 2001
Jean Sees Dead People
by Scott McLemee


No one ages less gracefully than a hipster past his prime -- unless it's 
a prophet of technological revolution, once his vision reaches the 
sell-by date. Roll them into one, and it's a miserable spectacle all 
around. The books Jean Baudrillard started publishing in France about 
thirty years ago ran selected concepts from Marx and Freud on an 
operating system cobbled together from Marshall McLuhan and Alvin 
Toffler. The result: a dense yet scintillating philosophical 
prose-poetry, evoking a cosmos of endless mass-media feedback loops, 
where all human interaction had been perfectly digitized, and reality 
itself was a by-product of cybernetic simulation. Heady stuff, daring 
and improbable. And rendered all the more alluring by such literary 
efforts as America, which projected an image of the theorist as 
hard-eyed psychic outlaw, adrift in a post-apocalyptic landscape (a.k.a. 
Southern California). Baudrillard's latest book in English, The Vital 
Illusion, has the quiet desperation of a comeback tour. But it also 
presents a new line for Baudrillard. The smirking futurist of yesteryear 
now assumes the posture of sage for the new millennium.

Thanks to his status as exemplary postmodernist intellectual -- his 
ideas explored in numerous monographs, plus a couple of comic books -- 
there is a sort of Baudrillard-for-dummies familiar even to people who 
have never read him. In short, he's the thinker for whom "reality TV" is 
a redundant expression. Baudrillard himself does little to discourage 
this kind of oversimplification. (As the title of his book The Gulf War 
Did Not Take Place inadvertently suggests, being talked about is a high 
priority in itself.) Yet there is more to Baudrillardisme than the 
notion that reality has imploded, destroyed by information technologies 
that have taken over the universe. The flipside of his metaphysics is, 
if anything, far creepier.

It's a vision of the contemporary world as a place saturated with dead 
images and constantly proliferating, contradictory messages. Data swarms 
around us like a crowd of hungry zombies. Events are reported as they 
unfold, in real time, and you can't escape awareness of them. Tensions 
mount. Yet there is never any real resolution. Things just grind to a 
halt. Or spin on forever, without conclusion. Or both, somehow: the 
conflicts unresolved, the event itself finally meaningless. (Think of 
Monicagate, or the election crisis; or, for that matter, the Gulf War.) 
"We enter a paradoxical state," Baudrillard writes in his new book, "the 
state of too much reality, too much positivity, too much information."

Behind all the "countdown to 2000" hoopla, Baudrillard finds a 
desperate, half-conscious wish that this clutter might somehow be 
cleared away. It's the same fantasy as the electromagnetic pulse-bomb in 
Dark Angel, wiping out the records of digitized society. (The Vital 
Illusion was originally a series of lectures delivered at the University 
of California, Irvine in 1999; perhaps James Cameron was in the 
audience.) No chance, though: the twentieth century will never really 
end, and we are doomed to see all of it replayed forever, on the screen 
and in the streets. The end of history means the launch of reality's 
syndication as endless reruns.

The gloomiest pages in The Vital Illusion discuss cloning as a biotech 
incarnation of this inescapable drive for endless repetition. With any 
given configuration of genetic material perfectly recycled, the lines 
between life and death, between past and future, start to blur beyond 
recognition. The vision is uncanny (which is to say, both threatening 
and uneasily familiar). Picture a thousand clones of Narcissus staring 
into the mirror of consumer society, their sense of personal identity 
fostered by the instantaneous purchase of interesting new gadgets 
advertised during a virtual-reality production of Saving Private Ryan.

In interviews over the past decade or so, Baudrillard has declined to be 
called a sociologist. And he would protest even more loudly at being 
labeled a futurist. After all, there is no more future, trapped as we 
are now between what Baudrillard calls "the impossibility of anything's 
being over and...the impossibility of seeing beyond the present." He 
counsels us to accept this -- which means forgoing the dubious moral 
gratifications of thinking in terms of "progress" or "decadence." But in 
doing so, he inevitably calls into question the very purpose of his 
project. There's not much use for a philosopher once you decide illusion 
and reality are indistinguishable, or for a prophet in a world where 
there is no future.

So why keep writing books? Why even think? Isn't Baudrillard just 
cloning his own ideas, endlessly? His knack has always been for 
converting very mid-1950s ideas about "mass society" into philosophical 
concepts with a pronounced sci-fi edge. The theoretical system has 
rigorously disproved the possibility of change, yet Baudrillard 
continues to speculate. The future, it seems, is a phantom limb, still 
itching long after the amputation.


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