Volume 13, Number 2 (July 2016)
Author: Alan N. Shapiro
Jean Baudrillard is well known for his theory of simulation (simulacra, virtuality, hyper-reality, models and codes precede ‘the real’) – expressed most iconically in his book Simulacra and Simulation (1981) – a breakthrough fundamental apprehension about the situation of ‘postmodern’ culture. (Baudrillard 1983) However, the theory of simulation is essentially a ‘critique’. With regard to ethics (an important branch of philosophy), the great insight about simulation tells us a lot about what is wrong with contemporary ‘social’ and technological existence. But it is not a positive affirmation, not the basis for a program of change. It is not that which Nietzsche recommended in The Genealogy of Morals (1887): the proactive sovereign creation of new values (Nietzsche 1996).
For the Nietzschean invention and assertion of new moral values, one could perhaps turn to Baudrillard’s theory of the symbolic, notably articulated in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) (Baudrillard 1993a). There is a great inspirational and scholarly worth in this synthesis and deployment of early twentieth century anthropological studies of the rules of circulation of ‘gift economies’ in non-Western societies, mobilizing the work of Marcel Mauss and Georges Bataille for a general theorization of the relationship of the symbolic (Baudrillard 1993a, Baudrillard 1996). Not only do Mauss and Bataille provide ethnographic knowledge about gift and counter-gift exchange systems as a basis for thinking about alternatives to market exchanges founded on supply and demand and money values – their work also gets us thinking generally about ‘the symbolic’ as an insightful way to understand human societies.
Much mainstream writing about technologies of the virtual screen, representation in media, or science and science fiction operates with the assumption of a binary opposition between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’, ‘original’ and ‘copy’, or ‘physical’ and ‘virtual’. According to popular belief, for example, science fiction is about the representation of science in an imaginary space or story. Once that assumption is made, it becomes reasonable to talk about a science fictional ‘representation’ and ask the question regarding its ‘accuracy’. It becomes possible and desirable to write books with subtitles like A Trek From Science Fiction to Science Fact, focusing on the alleged journey from ‘representation’ to ‘reality’ in the techno-scientific realization of imagined futuristic technologies (Shatner 2002). But in ‘hypermodernism’, there is no representation any more. The media institutes its own reality, which is our only reality.
We can understand our techno-culture, beyond the supposed dichotomy of ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’, through the lens of the symbolic. “The symbolic is not a concept, an instance, a category, or a structure,” writes Baudrillard famously in Symbolic Exchange and Death. “It is an act of exchange and a social relationship that puts an end to the real. It resolves the real, and in the same stroke the opposition between the real and the imaginary” (Baudrillard 1976: 204). That ‘real’ which we hold so dear, and which is so central to our worldview in the culture of simulation, is nothing other than a reality-effect or reality-principle. “It is only the structural effect of the disjunction between two terms” (Baudrillard 1976: 204).
According to the philosophical ‘deconstruction’ shared by Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida, each term in a metaphysical binary opposition excludes its counterpart, and is defined only negatively by its ‘not being’ the other term (Derrida 1982). One term in the opposition is always already the chimera of the other term. The female, for example, is excluded by the male, and is the male’s ‘imaginary’. In an endless loop or vicious circle, the male is an effect of its effect. The recognition of the reality-principle functioning in simulation or consumer culture (Baudrillard) entails seeing that ‘the real’, in its dichotomous relation to the ‘fanciful’, is nothing other than a reality-effect, the imaginary of the imaginary.
Through developing intellectual sensitivity to the symbolic relation or the symbolic act of exchange, one can become more perceptive of ‘the new coming into the world’. One contemporary example of this might be glimpsing the emergence of an ‘Internet of Creators’ where bitcoin-blockchain-based technologies enable the building of software applications and websites which convert artistic and creative symbolic value to money value, and where new forms of money appear which are worth less than real-world currencies yet more than nothing (Shapiro 2015a, Shapiro 2015b). In more abstract ‘Baudrillardian’ philosophical terms, I look for deeds and relationships of symbolic exchange in ambivalence, reversibility, the counter-gift, the play of appearances, seduction, the radical illusion, the duel relationship, challenge, metamorphosis, and duality within uncertainty.
The theory of the symbolic can be either the imagining of a fully-formed anthropological alternative to be opposed en bloc to the semiotic simulation systems of the media culture, or it can be elaborated further and more subtly within the micro-capillary context of how the ‘new real’ emanates at the interstices of existing relations, behaviors, and cultural artefacts. In a significant sense, Baudrillard’s 1970s viewpoint of symbolic exchange is susceptible to the reproach of being the wholesale dream of a society of “good hippies” that was, in fact, directed at him by Jean-François Lyotard in his 1974 book Libidinal Economy (Lyotard’s references were to passages on symbolic exchange in Baudrillard’s earlier books For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign  and The Mirror of Production ) (Lyotard 1993, Baudrillard 1975, Baudrillard 1981). For Lyotard, there exist no human societies free of production, self-interested greed, and libidinal intensities. Yet, as cultural theorist Gary Genosko points out, the early Lyotard, with his universal concept of desire, is justifiably open to the same charge of cultivating an abstract anti-economic nostalgia that the former member of the ex-Trotskyist group Socialisme ou barbarie levels at Baudrillard (Genosko 1994: 88-90).
II. The Theory of Objects
As a way forward for pursuing genuine philosophy, I find Baudrillard’s theory of objects (as well as his sense of the world as being an enigmatic “radical illusion”) to be the most promising dimension of his system of thought. After being an Alfred Jarry-esque “pataphysician” “at twenty” and then being close to the Situationists “at thirty” and then being close to “the utopians” “at forty” (as he remarks in his memoirs Cool Memories II), after experiencing the student movement of the 1960s and the near-revolution of May-June 1968 in France, Baudrillard then became disillusioned with the realistic prospects for practical radicalism (Baudrillard 1996b: 83, Baudrillard 2003a). He made it the focus of his work to go deeply into theoretical radicalism and search for answers there.
Like some critical theorists (the Theodor W. Adorno of Minima Moralia comes to mind), one can legitimately believe that there are historical circumstances where only theoretical radicalism is possible (in order to protect the integrity of philosophy against what Roland Barthes loosely called ‘the fascism of language’), where even being intentionally abstruse in one’s writing style is considered a virtue (Adorno 2006, Barthes 2007). Yet like Karl Marx, I believe that philosophy should strive towards the unity of theory and practice. “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways,” wrote Marx in the “Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach.” “The point, however, is to change it” (Marx 1998). Is Jean Baudrillard’s theory of objects so fecund and so consequential that it can lead us – and in complete renunciation of and opposition to every form of violence – to a crossroad back to practical radicalism?
What exactly is Baudrillard’s theory of singular objects? The theory is difficult to explain pedagogically – for example, to students. There is the design-oriented semiotic analysis of Baudrillard’s first book (his doctoral dissertation) The System of Objects (1968), (Baudrillard 1996a). There is the in-depth book-length discussion with prominent architect Jean Nouvel about The Singular Objects of Architecture (2000). (Baudrillard and Nouvel 2002) There are explanations of the theory of objects in Baudrillard’s books Impossible Exchange (1999) and Passwords (2000) (Baudrillard 2001, Baudrillard 2003c). There is a certain affinity between the theory of ‘wily objects’ and the uncertainty and complementarity principles of quantum physics. There is a certain resemblance between the idea of “impossible exchange” in Baudrillard and the emphasis in Zen Buddhism on uncertainty, paradox and the absurdity of ‘exchanging the world’ against any truth or ‘reality’ (Schmidt 2009). There is a certain kinship between the Baudrillardian perspective of ‘taking the side of objects’ and the phenomenon of ‘software objects’ in object-oriented software design and computer programming (an association which I explore in my book The Software of the Future ) (Shapiro 2014). Yet all of these approaches to describing the theory of objects tend to be difficult to grasp: they are presented in a rather abstract philosophical, scientific or technical language. Is another kind of clarification possible?
III. Subjects Without Others
How does the theory of objects chez Baudrillard connect to the theory of simulation? I believe that ‘taking the side of objects’ is the crucial way out of the culture of simulation. Simulation is about the rule of models and codes, the way that models and codes precede, determine, instantiate and hold sway over our everyday life existence. Simulation is a sort of reversal of the Sartrean existentialist formula “existence precedes essence.” In the society of simulation: ‘essence precedes existence’. Additionally, Baudrillard often talks about the ‘subjective’ side of simulation – the fact that we are living in a narcissistic culture of ‘subjects without others’ – leading to the disappearance or parodying of the human subject. This solipsistic self-referencing system of ‘otherless’ subjects obsessed with technologically and semiotically manufacturing their own clones is what in effect enables simulation. Baudrillard’s diagnosis of the society of ‘subjects without others’ corresponds, in the domain of the analysis of human subjectivity, to the scrutiny of simulation, simulacra and hyper-reality in the domain of cultural analysis.
In his 1990 book The Transparency of Evil, there is a set of essays in the second part of the book called “Radical Otherness.” “The subject, too, is gone,” writes Baudrillard in the essay “The Hell of the Same,” “because identical duplication ends the division that constitutes him. The mirror stage is abolished by the cloning process – or perhaps more accurately is monstrously parodied therein” (Baudrillard 1993b: 115). The simulation-consumer society “is entirely dedicated to neutralizing otherness” (Baudrillard 1993b: 121). The collective dream of cloning is the project of the hyper-real materialization of the double – who was always an important figure in the Western literary imagination. But this over-literal bringing to realization of the double amounts to “the abolition of all otherness and of the entire imaginary sphere” (Baudrillard 1993b: 116).
The double in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novella The Double or in Henrik Galeen’s 1926 expressionist silent film The Student of Prague (discussed at the end of Baudrillard’s 1970 book The Consumer Society) preserves and heightens the sense of individuation of the human subject in Western literature through the holding up of a metaphorical mirroring other in the form of shadow or double or significant variation of myself who is ‘the same as yet different from me’ (Dostoyevsky 1997, Baudrillard 1998). One interesting aspect of the optics of the mirror is that it enacts a reverse-image and not an exact duplicate. Baudrillard interprets The Student of Prague as a parable of the loss of the self in the simulation-consumer society. The film tells the story of a poor but ambitious student impatient for a more prosperous life. The student sells his mirror-image to the devil in exchange for worldly success. When he loses his shadow in the satan’s pact, the protagonist loses his very existence.
What remains in the cultural system of cloning is the reiteration or the reign of the same, “a copulation between One and the Same unmediated by the Other,” as Baudrillard writes in “The Hell of the Same” (Baudrillard 1993b: 121). The other-less ‘postmodern’ individual is left standing face-to-face with only himself.
IV. Enter Jean-Paul Sartre
The title of the essay “The Hell of the Same” is a direct reference to the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. “Hell is other people” is a famous quotation of Sartre’s which comes from his 1944 play No Exit. (Sartre 1989) In the afterlife, three characters are locked up together in a room for all of eternity. They have to tolerate each other’s company forever. Joseph Garcin, one of the characters, concludes at the end of the theatre piece that the damnations of hell turn out to not be inflicted through systematic torture or physical punishment: “Hell is other people.” According to Sartre’s philosophy, man or woman is condemned to the permanent ontological strife of being an object in and for another person’s consciousness. At the end of the first essay of the second part of The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard writes: “No longer the hell of other people, but the hell of the Same” (Baudrillard 1993b: 122).
In Baudrillard’s 1995 book The Perfect Crime (investigating the crime of “the murder of reality”), there is a set of essays in the second part of the book called “The Other Side of the Crime” (Baudrillard 1996c). In the essays “The World Without Women” and “The Surgical Removal of Otherness,” Baudrillard writes again about the loss of the double or the shadow in ‘postmodern’ culture. “This paradigm of the subject without object,” he writes, “of the subject without other, can be seen in all that has lost its shadow and become transparent to itself” (Baudrillard 1996c: 113). We now inhabit a world “given over entirely to the selfsame [le Même] (Baudrillard 1996c: 112). In the past ‘previous’ modernist worldview of something like ‘existential Marxism’, Baudrillard seems to be saying, the goal of political philosophy and activism would have been the reappropriation by the human subject of its own autonomy, struggling against domination and the alienation from oneself imposed by powerful others and institutions. Yet today – in ‘postmodernism’ – “we can see that alienation protected us from something worse: from the definitive loss of the other, from the expropriation of the other by the same” (Baudrillard 1996c: 112).
In my view, the codes of ‘postmodern’ and ‘hypermodern’ society could be dramatically different if they were object-oriented rather than subject-oriented. Then they would not have to ‘precede existence’. Object-orientation and beyond – taking the side of the object – provides the way out from the simulation-effect of the dominant codes. This new ‘radical objects’ paradigm sees the undermining or transformation of code emanating from those objects within the code which provoke or bring about the reversibility of the codes. Simulation, simulacra, hyper-reality: the rule by models and codes. Yet must the code be the code of simulation? Not necessarily. Must existentialism or ‘existential Marxism’ be a theory of the subject? Not necessarily.
Far from ‘existentialism’ being a theory of the human subject, I will show that it is, at its best, intimately related to Baudrillard’s philosophy as a perspective taking the side of the object. I will specifically bring Baudrillard’s thought into alliance with a single text of each of the three existentialist authors Jean-Paul Sartre (Nausea), Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus), and Simone de Beauvoir (The Ethics of Ambiguity). My intention is to flesh out Baudrillard’s theory of the object. I strengthen this theory by bringing in the reinforcements of Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir. What am I trying to achieve with this? Basically I want to achieve philosophical, political and artistic clarity on what we can do against simulation.
Instead of calling this ‘French existentialism’, I have written two important letters and received special written permission from Albert Camus’ widow and from the Woody Allen foundation to call it ‘Alan Shapiro existentialism’. Some existentialism – perhaps a religious existentialism like Martin Buber’s I and Thou – could be seen as being a subject-oriented philosophy. But it is the ‘atheistic’ or ‘agnostic’ existentialism of Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir to which Baudrillard is most connected.
V. From the Subject to the Object in Sartre’s La Nausée
In his retrospective work Passwords (2000), in the first chapter entitled “The Object,” Baudrillard says (my paraphrase): from the commencement of my work, from my very first book The System of Objects (1968), I took the side of the object against the subject. Yet it was Sartre’s novel Nausea that was on my mind (Baudrillard 2003c).
The position on the object of the late Baudrillard is not the same as the position on the object of the early Baudrillard. It is a much evolved position. It is no longer a ‘Roland Barthean’ semiotic analysis of consumer culture. It is a perception about the absurdity, undecidability and ‘radical illusion’ of the world. It is something like a quantum physics sociology and philosophy and thinking, an awareness that we are now living in a ‘quantum culture’ (Shapiro 2015c). The quantum culture paradigm is basically about paradoxes. Such conundrums are exemplified by Schrödinger’s Cat and by quantum entanglement. The cat exists in two realities at one time. There are at least two possible paths of a single event, the cat both alive and dead. Twin particles in a state of quantum entanglement no longer have anything to do with the classical Newtonian reality of physical spatial separation.
Baudrillard writes at the beginning of Passwords:
For me, object will have been the ‘password’ par excellence. I chose that angle from the beginning, because I wanted to break with the problematic of the subject. The question of the object represented the alternative to that problematic, and it has remained the horizon of my thinking… What really interested me, however, was not so much the manufactured object in itself, but how objects spoke to each other – the system of signs and the syntax they developed… Behind this semiological formalism there was no doubt a memory of Sartre’s Nausea and that famous root which is an obsessive object, a poisonous substance… (Baudrillard 2003c: 3).
The narrative of Sartre’s Nausea is told through the monological voice of the first-person protagonist Antoine Roquentin:
I can’t say I feel relieved or satisfied; just the opposite, I am crushed. Only my goal is reached: I know what I wanted to know; I have understood all that has happened to me since January. The Nausea has not left me and I don’t believe it will leave me so soon; but I no longer have to bear it, it is no longer an illness or a passing fit: it is I (Sartre 1964: 126).
When the nausea or existential anxiety first came over Antoine Roquentin, it was something new to his being. He was frightened of and by it. The pain was doubled by trepidation about the pain. Roquentin had not known existence in this way before. Now the nausea is becoming a part of him, of his consciousness. He explores it like a scientist would. He accepts its familiarity and wherever it will take him. Contrary to the usual interpretation of Nausea that says that something bad has happened to Roquentin, it seems that in fact something good has happened to him. It is the new normality of who he is.
So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me (Sartre 1964: 126-127).
This is my existential encounter with the root of the chestnut tree. The world of objects is changing. Objects are ‘taking on a life of their own’. The bench on which I sit is manmade, yet the object-ness of the root seeps into my space, undermines the taken-for-granted utility of cultural and natural objects, their design for use by humans. The rhizome or underground part of the plant, buried in the soil, is the very stuff of a natural longevity that will outlive me. It invokes within me an extreme emotion, paradoxically of both fear and of the heart.
<em>Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence.” I was like the others, like the ones walking along the seashore, all dressed in their spring finery. I said, like them, “The ocean is green; that white speck up there is a seagull,” but I didn’t feel that it existed or that the seagull was an “existing seagull”; usually existence hides itself (Sartre 1964: 127).
Other people are content with a classification system called language which is useful for organizing and categorizing the world. They mistake language for ‘reality’, assuming the existence of a one-to-one relationship between word and thing (signifier and signified). They overstate the degree to which language is close to being an ‘objective’ codification system which ‘really’ describes how the world and everything in it is.
The chestnut tree pressed itself against my eyes (Sartre 1964: 127).
The red-haired homely protagonist Roquentin comes eye-to-eye with the brute existence of the root, of the chestnut tree.
I was In the way for eternity [j’étais de trop pour l’éternité]… (Sartre 1964: 129).
De trop, de trop … contingent, superfluous, unnecessary, useless, unwanted, blivit, fifth wheel, excess baggage, dead wood.
Yes, I had already scrutinized innumerable objects, with deep uneasiness. I had already tried—vainly—to think something about them: and I had already felt their cold, inert qualities elude me, slip through my fingers (Sartre 1964: 130).
I tried to understand objects, to relate to them, to become one with them, beyond the assimilation system of language, in their radical otherness, in their singularity. Yet it was all in vain. They eluded and took revenge upon my human subjectivity.
I was the root of the chestnut tree. Or rather I was entirely conscious of its existence. Still detached from it—since I was conscious of it—yet lost in it, nothing but it. An uneasy conscience which, notwithstanding, let itself fall with all its weight on this piece of dead wood (Sartre 1964: 131).
Can we move towards recognition of genuine otherness and irreducible alterity? What is truly ‘other’ is indifferent towards me. It is strange, unintelligible, even monstrous and evil. In the encounter with a radical other, I am transformed. I need otherness to discover my real self, to not repeat myself forever or irradiate in the void. By eradicating all negativity, ours remains a culture of subjects without others.
I was no longer in Bouville, I was nowhere, I was floating. I was not surprised, I knew it was the World, the naked World suddenly revealing itself, and I choked with rage at this gross, absurd being. You couldn’t even wonder where all that sprang from, or how it was that a world came into existence, rather than nothingness (Sartre 1964: 132).
VI. Why is There Nothing Rather Than Something?
Baudrillard writes in The Perfect Crime: “The great philosophical question used to be: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Today, the real question is: ‘Why is there nothing rather than something?’” Apparently the prominent theoretical physicist and cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss has not read Baudrillard. The subtitle of Krauss’ 2012 New York Times bestselling book A Universe From Nothing is “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?” The book is an attempt to lay out logical arguments against one major aspect of the Christian belief in God (how did physical matter appear from nothing at the birth of the universe?). Physicists and cosmologists are usually not transdisciplinary. They believe that it is their mission as scientists to ‘discover the true nature of reality’. The assumption of their long-established mono-discipline of physics is that there is an identifiable field of this alleged ‘reality’ which is ‘physical reality’, and it is their job to study that. But perhaps ‘a whole lot of nothingness’ is a more accurate description of the nature and order of things.
VII. Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
“Why hasn’t everything already disappeared?” asks Baudrillard in a small book of that title (Baudrillard 2009). In my view, disappearance has become a primary concept for philosophy, media theory and cultural theory. It is fundamental to human existence (recall that Baudrillard had earlier written: “Dying is nothing. You have to know how to disappear.”) (Baudrillard 1990b) and to contemporary ‘hypermodern’ technologies, media, design and architecture. In ‘hypermodern’ technologies, human subjectivity and perception disappear into the organ-substituting imaging apparatuses of television, cinema, virtual reality, and real-time telecommunications. “Behind every image,” writes Baudrillard, “something has disappeared” (Baudrillard 1990b: 32). Classical time and space disappear into the compression of audiovisual memory implants and designer spacetimes. Human indivisibility disappears into cloning and genetic sequencing systems. The modernist pledge of scientific objectivity and the physicist’s mission to discover ‘the true nature of reality’ disappear into the techno-scientific pursuit of the goals of techno-culture and the collective imagination of the science fictional culture.
VIII. Baudrillard and Camus in the Desert
The reference by Baudrillard in Passwords to Sartre’s La nausée opens the gates to consider the relation of Baudrillard’s system of thinking to that of two of Sartre’s most ‘significant others’: his life partner Simone de Beauvoir and his friend-turned-enemy Albert Camus.
In his book America (1986), Jean Baudrillard writes extensively about the desert (Baudrillard 1988). The desert becomes a symbol both of the ‘cultural desert’ of American hyper-reality and of its potential reversibility. The desert of semiological codes and signs. The desert is The Other America. It is a metaphor for everything that Baudrillard loves about America (too bad he didn’t understand baseball).
The theme of the desert is also of utmost importance in the oeuvre of Albert Camus. A major example of this is the short story “The Guest” from the book of short stories Exile and the Kingdom (Camus 2007). This narrative that takes place during the 1950s Algerian War was recently (2014) made into an amazing film called Far From Men, directed by David Oelhoffen and starring Viggo Mortensen. A schoolteacher living and running a school in the middle of nowhere in Algeria is forced by the French authorities to accompany through the desert a young Arab man who has been accused of killing his cousin, taking him to a town where the French justice system will surely convict him of his alleged crime and summarily execute him. The character Daru (played by Mortensen) wants to grant the existential choice to the character Mohamed (played by Reda Kateb) to not enter the town of Tinguit and instead walk away to freedom through the desert.
In the 1955 preface to his major essay on the meaning of life The Myth of Sisyphus, written for the occasion of the book’s publication in English translation, Camus describes his work in terms of the tension between wasteland and creation: “It [the book] sums itself up for me as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert.” (Camus 1955: v).
IX. The Myth of Sisyphus: Camus on the Side of Objects
In his book The Myth of Sisyphus, published in 1942 during the Second World War, Albert Camus wrote the following sentences at the very beginning of the book:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer” (Camus 1955: 3).
I think that this famous opening passage of the book has almost always been misread or misinterpreted. The Myth of Sisyphus is not a book of philosophy. Camus is not a philosopher. He does not speak anywhere in his entire oeuvre in any sustained way from within the perspective of philosophy. Camus was a great thinker who thought very deeply about the meaning of life. What is actually taking place in this passage at the start of The Myth of Sisyphus, and in the pages that follow, is that Camus is making a very brief foray into philosophy, in order to find out, through experiential and rational experimentation, what his position on one extremely important single question is: the question of the meaning of life. Camus undertakes this experiment, not in order to return again and again to the question, like on an endless Wheel of Samsara (Buddhism) or as a repetition compulsion (psychoanalysis), but in order to answer the question, in order to then leave philosophy, in order to move on. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus will ask and answer the question, draw the conclusions, and then live the consequences of his reflection. As a ‘transdisciplinary thinker’, Camus is even expressing a certain disrespect for philosophy as mono-discipline.
Camus answered the question about suicide, the question about the meaning of life, about the value of life. ASKED AND ANSWERED, as the trial lawyers say. In religious terms, Camus’ position is neither that of a believer nor an atheist nor an agnostic. He is beyond all of those labels.
Do you want to live? Camus answered in the affirmative. YES. The answer is that life indeed is worth living. The sense of the absurd that gave rise to the question, to the doubt, is not a static condition. The absurd is a dynamic, a relationship, a gap, a cleft — between my aspirations for a good life and the frustrations of the existing social-existential order of things. And this dynamic is the groundswell of the most important human quality of all: creativity.
Friedrich Nietzsche also wrote about this sacred Yes, this saying yes to life, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885), (Nietzsche 1975). The contemporary German philosopher Caroline Heinrich, whose important work is discussed by Baudrillard in the essay “Hypotheses on Terrorism” in the book The Spirit of Terrorism, writes about this Nietzschean moment of recognition in her essay “In Search of the Child’s Innocence” (Baudrillard 2003b: 70-75, Heinrich 2009). Nietzsche writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes” (Nietzsche 1975). Caroline Heinrich writes: “For the invention of radically new values to occur, it is first absolutely necessary to achieve the void of values. I want to investigate the question of why the creation of values – based as it is on the fundamental rule of saying yes to life – is to be found more than anywhere else on the playing field of the child” (Heinrich 2009). Creativity means going beyond the separation of play and work.
Camus implies that the entire program of philosophy can be boiled down to one serious problem, one fundamental question. If you can answer that, you are done with philosophy. The rest is relatively uninteresting. And do you want to know why? Because philosophy as usually written about and lectured on is so abstract, that’s why. Make it concrete, relate it to the ‘real world’, make it hybrid with practice, and then it will become interesting. But that might be the start of a new ‘Plato-style’ renaissance that is not philosophy anymore.
Camus says that suicide is the one truly serious philosophical problem, not the one truly serious problem of the thought and action and creation of a thinking man, of a man who takes life seriously. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus connects suicide and what he calls the sense of the absurd, or more simply, the absurd. “What, then,” writes Camus, “is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life?” … “In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights,” he continues, “man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity” (Camus 1955: 5). The alien. The stranger. Exile. Divorce. An actor out alone on the stage, performing.
One can connect Camus and Marxism in an interesting way. Camus connects his ‘existentialist Marxism’ directly to the difficult daily challenges of the proletarian experience:
It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything beings in that weariness tinged with amazement (Camus 1955: 10).
This is the beginning of consciousness or awareness. Another school of ‘unorthodox Marxism’ which I think is very important is the Hungarian school within so-called ‘Western Marxism’. It was started by the literary theorist György Lukács, who wrote History and Class Consciousness (Lukács 1971). How to raise class consciousness and why there is so little of it are the most important questions of Marxist theory.
In The Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir focuses on the ‘ideological mechanisms’ of consumer capitalism which operate to prevent class consciousness: “One can sleep in the dull comfort which capitalism grants it, as does the American proletariat” (de Beauvoir 1948: 20). Man or woman is condemned to be free, says Jean-Paul Sartre. Baudrillard says that we are now living a parody of this in the consumer society which forces me to choose between products. You must choose: Coke or Pepsi, McDonalds or Burger King, Cola Light or Cola Zero, gluten or gluten-free, plastic bag or the ecological paper bag. Capitalism offers to the worker myriad diversions to get him to forget his giving up of his freedom and autonomy to the mechanical job of the factory or office. De Beauvoir writes: “There you have the politics of the American employing class which catches the worker in the trap of sports, ‘gadgets’, autos and frigidaires” (de Beauvoir 1948: 87).
Camus was a critic of capitalism, and especially of the way that it forces us to live: “A man wants to earn money in order to be happy,” he writes in The Myth of Sisyphus. “His whole effort and the best of a life are devoted to the earning of that money. Happiness is forgotten; the means are taken for the end” (Camus 1955: 76). Camus concludes logically that suicide is not a solution to the absurd. The absurd does not dictate death. The absurd emerges from the confrontation between the human striving for reasonableness and “the unreasonable silence of the world” (Ibid.: 21) “This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said,” writes Camus. “But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together” (Ibid.: 16) From the moment that absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the seed of a seduction.
The absurd is born of the desert. Absurdity arises from a comparison or tension. Absurdity is a water source, an oasis in the middle of the desert. It appears at first to be a negative, but it is really a double-positive of consciousness and rebellion, which are Camus’ two basic principles. How to live in the state of the absurd?
Albert Camus takes a logical, scientific attitude while examining absurdity. “My reasoning wants to be faithful to the evidence that aroused it. That evidence is the absurd. It is that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints” (Camus 1955: 37). Sounding very much like Plato’s teacher Socrates, Camus writes: “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning” (Camus 1955: 38).
Camus arrives at his conclusion. The absurd is a dialectical tension between opposites: a tension between the good, the beautiful, and the true life which I long for, and those social and existential conditions which stand in its way. Neither term of the opposition can be negated without crossing the line into escapism and fakery.
The sense of the absurd develops into the historical situation of man in revolt – L’homme révolté – like Spartacus who led the rebellion of the slaves in ancient Rome, one of Camus’ primary examples, a story engraved into in our minds in images from Stanley Kubrick’s magisterial 1960 film Spartacus. Revolt or rebellion is the subject of Camus’ next major work, The Rebel, a great book of political philosophy which has been neglected because in 1951 Camus criticized the orthodox Marxism which was very popular among French leftist intellectuals at the height of the Cold War.
According to Camus, one must abide in the authentic and challenging existential and historical situation of the rebel, without giving in to the nihilistic temptations of either suicide or murder, which are the amoral equivalents of each other. Orthodox Marxist revolutionaries are always willing to commit murder, based on their assumption that ‘the ends justify the means’. Revolution ended in bureaucracy and state terror because consciousness and rebellion were betrayed. We must stay faithful to those two axioms. “Living is keeping the absurd alive,” continues Camus. “The absurd dies only when we turn away from it. One of the only coherent philosophical positions is thus revolt” (Camus 1955: 40). Consciousness and revolt, awareness and rebellion: that is, for Albert Camus, the meaning of life.
Sisyphus and his rock. The rock is the embodied metaphorical object par excellence. To abide with the rock is to take the side of the object. The rock links the consideration of the world from the perspective of objects with Camus’ iconic existentialism.“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor” (Camus 1955: 88).
At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain. It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness”(Camus 1955: 89).
The exemplary figure of Sisyphus, as described by Camus, represents neither acceptance of the proletarian condition as it is nor simplistic radical rejection of it. One must abide in the proletarian condition, as in the human condition, with awareness, in order to transform this condition into something better, into creativity and, later on, into a better society overall. The overall theory must emerge slowly and immanently from the experience, from deep familiarity with the condition, in a phenomenological and existentialist way. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Camus 1955: 91).
X. Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity
Like Baudrillard in Symbolic Exchange and Death, Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity defines that which is specific to humans as being their conscious relationship to death. The awareness of death that is uniquely human is the basis, for de Beauvoir, of developing a philosophy or ethics of ambiguity. For Baudrillard, this relationship has been betrayed in and by the ‘postmodern’ society which prefers to marginalize death, to institutionally push it to the vague edges of a non-awareness.
In the consumer culture system and in the mainstream (Alan Turing paradigm) informatics system of discrete identities and differences, there is much value and little sense. Authentic meaning – on the contrary, emerges through direct action, real social relations, conflict, confrontation, and challenges. In our culture, death itself has been emptied of challenge and stakes. It has been sanitized and confined to the margins in the dissociation of life and death. In the ceremonial duel encounter of non-Western cultures which have an ‘other’ relationship to death, intensified meaning or stakes are immanent to an obligatory system of rules that is ‘other’ than the contemporary arrangement of the coded model and its repeated instantiations.
Death is given and received according to convention and the socializing cycles of a culture. It is not annihilation, but rather something that is symbolically reversible within a generalized economy of generosity and sacramental obligation. The strict separation between choice and fatalism, or chance and necessity, is overturned. Death is not opposed to life. It is a more fundamental system of death/life which precedes life and makes it possible. Western culture divides life from death, and exiles the latter.
The Protestant Ethic displaced Catholic heavenly salvation into the divine election won through the achievements of the Spirit of Capitalism (Max Weber). (Weber 2001) Death is abolished through one-way economic accumulation, passively idealized as ‘natural inevitability’, or artificially deleted by the dream of techno-scientific immortality. Without a symbolic relationship to death and the nonliving, we are left with life’s genetic simulation.
Simone de Beauvoir is nearly in complete agreement with the existentialist philosophy of her life partner Jean-Paul Sartre, as articulated in works such as Nausea and Being and Nothingness (Sartre 1964, Sartre 1993). For de Beauvoir, the relationship of humans to death infuses a fundamental ambivalence into the human condition, due to our awareness of death which is allegedly lacking among animals and plants. Man or woman is both conscious of the world yet a part of it. He or she also experiences himself or herself as a thing potentially crushed by other things. He or she is an object for others. “As long as there have been men and they have lived,” writes de Beauvoir, “they have all felt this tragic ambiguity of their condition” (de Beauvoir 1948: 7). Non-existentialist philosophies and ideologies have tried to eliminate the visceral ambiguity. “Hegel, with more ingenuity, tried to reject none of the aspects of man’s condition and to reconcile them all” (de Beauvoir 1948: 8). But Hegelianism is an idealism of Geist (spirit) recuperating all the negative moments of history into an artificial paradise of progress. It is Kierkegaard’s rebellion against Hegel which stands as the starting point of existentialism in the history of philosophy. Kierkegaard opposed himself to Hegel’s totalizing system through the Danish existential philosopher’s insistence on ambiguity.
In his 1979 book Seduction, Baudrillard writes extensively on Kierkegaard and his Diary of the Seducer (which is part of the two-volume Either/Or) (Baudrillard 1990a, Kierkegaard 1999). Baudrillard channels Kierkegaard’s story of Johannes the seducer and Cordelia the seduced into a theory of seduction as a critique of (Hegelian) dialectics. Baudrillard writes: “Suppose that all the major, diacritical oppositions with which we order our world were traversed by seduction, instead of being based on contrasts and oppositions” (Baudrillard 1990a: 103). Relations of opposition, of Hegelian Aufhebung, fixed polarities, all dissolved and challenged by the playfulness of seduction. Relations of similarity, resemblance, resonance and attraction and not of distinction. “Beneath meaning lies the secret circulation of seductive analogies” (Baudrillard 1990a: 105). In the field of semiotics, this is reminiscent of the anagrams of Ferdinand de Saussure discussed by Baudrillard at the end of Symbolic Exchange and Death.
“Since we do not succeed in fleeing it,” writes Simone de Beauvoir in The Ethics of Ambiguity, “let us therefore try to look the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity” (de Beauvoir 1948: 9). Humans can seek solidarity with the object-ness of the world, to commune with the radical illusion of the world. “Man makes himself present to the world and makes the world present to him,” writes de Beauvoir. “I should like to be the landscape which I am contemplating. I should like this sky, this quiet water to think themselves within me, that it might be I whom they express in flesh and bone, and I remain at a distance. But it is also by this distance that the sky and the water exist before me” (de Beauvoir 1948: 12).
A crucial aspect of the shared philosophy of Sartre and de Beauvoir is their rejection of the Kantian positive will. “Unlike Kant,” writes de Beauvoir, “we do not see man as being essentially a positive will. On the contrary, he is first defined as a negativity. He is first at a distance from himself” (de Beauvoir 1948: 33). This ‘negativity’ provides again and again the conditions for existence. He or she never rejoins himself/herself. Man or woman becomes himself/herself never again in a totalistic reduplication of what he was. A certain estrangement is necessary for survival and life, a salutary ‘objectification’ that is not at the same level as alienation.
Baudrillard says something similar in his essay in Impossible Exchange on the 1971 novel The Dice Man by the American author Luke Rhinehart (pseudonym of George Cockcroft), (Baudrillard 2001, Rhinehard 1971). The psychotherapist protagonist of Rhinehart’s story decides to submit his life to an arbitrary set of rules. “Creating a micro-situation governed by fate,” writes Baudrillard, “so that the problem of the will no longer arises. One day the hero decides to gamble his life on the throw of a dice. From that point on, the dice alone will decide whether he is, for example, to seduce a particular woman, break with a friend, go off to India, do nothing and simply take a holiday, or commit suicide” (Baudrillard 2001: 58). An existential roll of the dice, a deconstruction of the Kantian will to morality or practical reason, the perspective of ‘the music of chance’ (Paul Auster) aligned with the radical illusion of the world itself (Auster 1990).
Embedded in the ambiguity of the human condition, human actions or freedoms are object-oriented. The hyper-modernization of the term ‘object-oriented’ updates the crucial notion of engagement or commitment in Sartrean existentialism. “Today must also exist before being confirmed in its existence,” writes de Beauvoir. “It exists only as an engagement and a commitment” (de Beauvoir: 77-78). Man or woman must first be situated in this world, living among the objects. I seek alliance with technological and design objects which are striving through defiance and wily moves to achieve their own objecthood. I must first disappear from myself, sojourn with singularities and recognize the ‘radical other’, to have some chance to ultimately reach an indirect ‘emancipatory’ or ‘liberatory’ opening onto subjecthood.
One important question still to be addressed is what is the relationship of the perspective outlined here of ‘taking the side of objects’ to that of so-called ‘object-oriented ontology’ or ‘ontological realism’, as represented by authors such as the American philosopher Graham Harman or Levi R. Bryant in his book The Democracy of Objects (Bryant 2011). In the opening chapter “Towards a Finally Subjectless Object,” Bryant explains that ‘ontological realism’:
“is not a thesis about our knowledge of objects, but about the being of objects themselves, whether or not we exist to represent them. It is the thesis that the world is composed of objects, that these objects are varied and include entities as diverse as mind, language, cultural and social entities, and objects independent of humans such as galaxies, stones, quarks, tardigrades, and so on. Above all, ontological realisms refuse to treat objects as constructions of humans” (Bryant 2011: 18).
Object-oriented ontology is an important movement in philosophy, and I will have more to say about it in future writings. I think that I am somewhat less academic and somewhat less ‘analytical’ than this group of thinkers, and I am transdisciplinary as opposed to operating within a strictly philosophical discourse.
The topic of ‘taking the side of objects’ will also become increasingly urgent as we move further into a world of the Internet of Things (IoT). As Samuel Greengard writes:
“The IoT can dive into the nooks, crannies, gaps, and wormholes that exist in an imperceptible and often invisible world that extends far beyond human eyes, ears, smell, and consciousness… This might translate into something as straightforward as knowing when a package of food has expired or a machine is about to fail or something as complex as managing smart cars in an automated grid that spans a city” (Greengard 2015: 21).
In this world of ubiquitous computing, every little thing – perhaps every fly and every tree – will have its own IP address or similar system-wide unique identifier. Objects will be made available to external processes of control and identification, but perhaps they will also be granted increased autonomy. It remains to be seen how the objects themselves will react to this open invitation to participate in the information and surveillance society.
About the Author
Alan N. Shapiro is visiting professor of Transdisciplinary Design at the Folkwang Art University in Essen, Germany. He is the author of the books “Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance” and “Software of the Future,” and the editor and translator of “The Technological Herbarium.” He considers Baudrillard to be the most important thinker of our time, and he is especially interested in “applied Baudrillard.” His research areas include the hybridity of physical and virtual realities in design and architecture; the intensification of object-orientation and poetic expressivity in emerging programming languages; science fiction films about computer games; the relation between pop art and technological art; and the future of “the Internet of Creators,” Creative Commons, and blockchain-based software applications that promote the monetization of symbolic wealth.
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