Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)
Author: Dr. Jan L. Harris and Dr. Paul Taylor
Note: “Baudrillard Bytes” and “Phantom Objectivity” appear here as extended and significantly amended excerpts from Digital Matters: Theory and Culture of the Matrix. Forthcoming: Routledge, November 2005. See also “Phantom Objectivity” in this issue.
Baudrillard Bytes represents a series of related but individually distinct themes (pursued in much fuller depth in Digital Matters) that we present as an illustration of the range of Baudrillard’s relevance to our consideration of the social matrix.
No doubt it is partly what Orwell called nostalgie de la boue. But it is a nostalgia prompted by the sense that the entire world is now a space traversed by signals, everything virtual, and nothing solid; our employments increasingly having to do with abstract operations, every operation stroked one way or another into the digital network economy. To go “home” was to return for a time to a time where, at the risk of sounding like the bleary-eyed saloon-bar crooner, and to quote the historian Robert Colls, nobody talked of “community” and everybody belonged to one.1
Our continued interest in Baudrillard’s work is founded upon the sophisticated manner with which he puts intellectual substance into otherwise largely inchoate perceptions of the pathologically enervated nature of contemporary life. Such perceptions are a result of the cultural dominance of surfaces over symbolic content as vividly described in Gordon Burn’s above lament for the growing loss of something so essential to our human identity as community. In developing our analysis of digital matters, we supplement Baudrillard’s insights with a consideration of other theorists who can help us add further to his account of the systemic, matrix-driven nature of contemporary culture. We combine theorists normally associated with the information society with those who are not, but who we claim are nevertheless crucial for a fuller understanding of the non-technological aspects of the digital. In the book proper, we focus in particular upon the work of Jacques Ellul, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Kittler and Niklas Luhmann, whilst in these amended extracts we concentrate (for obvious reasons) upon our use of Baudrillard and prefigurements of his thought in the earlier works of Georg Lukács and Georg Simmel. Our summaries of various thinkers serve to outline the processes by which an informatic capitalism has come into existence. Nevertheless, by typically adopting a neutral tone and perspective, some of these accounts remain curiously “bloodless”. It is because our concern is not only the theory of the matrix but also the cultural and experiential consequences of its institution that we continually return to the work of Baudrillard. Perhaps more than any other theorist, Baudrillard has attempted to articulate the cultural consequences of the fusion of commodity, subject and environment within a generalized space of informatic flows.
This blurring is the phenomenon that inspires the plot of the Matrix films, and Morpheus (the character that delivers Neo from his enslavement to simulation), when revealing the world that exists outside of the computer-generated simulation in which humanity is enslaved, declares, in homage to Baudrillard, “welcome to the desert of the real”. Another significant allusion to Baudrillard occurs in the same film, when one of Baudrillard’s key theoretical accounts of hyperreality, the book Simulations (1983), appears as a literally hollowed out container in which the protagonist’s computer disks are stored. We suggest that the pun is deeper than it may appear. Baudrillard’s insights are inevitably hollowed out themselves as a result of Hollywood’s movie treatment of the simulation phenomenon of which it is a more than a willing accomplice. Yet at the same time, these allusions also demonstrate the currency that Baudrillard’s account of the modern scene possesses outside the academy, wherein he has often been castigated for the extremity, and the seemingly arbitrary logic, of his claims.
Whatever is presently understood by the phrase “the matrix”, it is safe to assume that for most people it has connotations relating to digital phenomena. We argue that, to match its simultaneously abstract and material nature, the matrix can be conceived of in both much more philosophical and grounded ways than attention to mere digitality on its own affords. The title of our book, Digital Matters, is deliberately chosen for its ambivalent meaning. It is intended to signify the perhaps most obvious meaning of “issues relating to the subject of digital technology,” but we also want to draw attention to a central tension of digital technology: the paradoxically immaterial materiality of its virtual qualities – the im/material. A central element of our argument is that digital technology is significant, less for its most recent technological manifestations of software and plastic mouldings, than the way in which it represents the culmination of ultimately much more significant complex historical processes.
We seek to look behind the superficial Hollywood-driven popular culture notion of the Matrix. In a manner reminiscent of Heidegger’s assertion in his seminal essay The Question Concerning Technology that the essence of technology is not actually technological, we suggest that the essence of the digital does not reside in bytes. Against the Matrix we present a sustained focus upon the “matrix”: a society-wide complex imbrication of socio-technical enframement where human agency is limited by an integrated circuit made up of simultaneously technological and commodity values. For us, the essence of the digital is the enframing manner with which it circumscribes our whole mentality to life – and that is why it matters.
II. The Im/materiality Of The Matrix
Communication is envisaged less as an exchange of meanings, of ideas…and more as performance propelled into movement by variously materialized signifiers. It is enframed into hardwares, guided by rules and styles and ‘crowned’ by signified effects that, once sufficiently routinized, can appear as realms of their own. To hold, as Derrida did in Grammatology, that signifier and signified cannot be isolated against each other, would constitute the minimal claim of the program. The deconstructionist project uncovered implications of the minimal claim, pursuing the infinite play of meanings as traces without ultimate origin and control. The present enterprise takes another direction. It is concerned with potentials and pressures of stylization residing in techniques, technologies, materials, procedures, and ‘media’.2
Like Gumbrecht and Pfeiffer and their above argument for the increased need to attend to the materiality of communication, we have centred our project upon tracing the origins of agendas of control and demonstrating how techniques and procedures come together in digital matters. Indeed, their statement could almost be taken as a manifesto for various theorists who seek to compensate for the relative over-concentration in recent times upon the signified to the exclusion of the signifier. We argue against the creation of an opposition between a neutral and incorporeal conception of information and communication and the material channels that transmit this information. Instead, communication and information must be understood as an im/material performance in which none of the factors involved can be privileged over the other: medium and message must be approached as a single im/material complex. We consistently emphasize that digital modes of communication are not neutral. Although premised upon the rapid flow of information in the seemingly immaterial and neutral form of binary 1s and 0s, this mode of propulsion has historical antecedents in both earlier forms of media and the substance of city environments. We examine in detail the notion of enframement and how, whilst the virtual realities of digital matters may appear as radical new realms of their own, there is nonetheless precedence for them in an extended history of socio-technological enframement, and more specifically in the evolution of media technologies as a part of this history.
A growing interest in the work of Friedrich Kittler3 and volumes such as Gumbrecht and Pfeiffer’s Materialities of Communication4 suggest that there exists a small but stubborn body of theorists who: “…are looking for underlying constraints whose technological, material, procedural, and performative potentials have been all too easily swallowed up by interpretational habits”.5 This position would involve a break with notions of creative reception on the behalf of users/viewers/readers in favour of a concern with the tools they employ. Thus, the work of the so-called ‘hardware faction’ can be seen as the media equivalent of technological determinism. The often highly speculative theory of Baudrillard (at least as it is commonly understood) might seem to be part of the focus upon interpretational habits to the exclusion of technological hardware in so far as one definition of hyperreality is “the exaltation of signs based on the denial of the reality of things”.6 However, as we shall see, the exaltation of signs that Baudrillard believes characteristic of our epoch is not an escape from materiality or hardware but rather the enframed outcome of their working configurations7
III. Don’t Forget Baudrillard – In Defence Of Pessimism
Today the scene and the mirror have given way to a screen and a network. There is no longer any transcendence or depth, but only the immanent surface of operations unfolding, the smooth and functional surface of communication.<8
The technological plane is an abstraction: in ordinary life we are practically unconscious of the technological reality of objects. Yet this abstraction is profoundly real: it is what governs all radical transformations of our environment.9
Provocative titles such as The Evil Demon of Images, The Transparency of Evil and The Perfect Crime reflect Baudrillard’s consistent attention to the pathological explicitness of media technologies and his acknowledgement of the extirpation of symbolic cultural resources that results from their ubiquity. A key appeal of Baudrillard is this fidelity with which he pursues the logical conclusions of his analysis no matter how pessimistic they are. This is a quality he shares with such thinkers as Ellul and Heidegger and perhaps less often noted, McLuhan, who beneath the techno-boosterist surface interpretation (predictably favoured by media commentators) made such dark warnings about the harmful cultural effects of the media as:
…the power of the image to beget image, and of technology to reproduce itself via human intervention, is utterly in excess of our power to control the psychic and social consequences…It is the medium that is the message because the medium creates an environment that is as indelible as it is lethal.10
All these thinkers thus share a central concern – the notion that technology cannot be neutral since its material components always already testify to something beyond themselves. Allied to Ellul’s belief in technology’s essential autonomy from social control is Heidegger and Baudrillard’s conceptualisation of technology as a self-determining system that coerces its human components into roles they must play within this system. A ready outline of this system and its social consequences can be seen in the following vivid description by Michel de Certeau of how the roots of the matrix lie within the pre-digital:
We witness the advent of number. It comes with democracy, the large city, administrations, cybernetics. It is a flexible and continuous mass, woven tight like a fabric with neither rips nor darned patches, a multitude of quantified heroes who lose names and faces as they become the ciphered river of the streets, a mobile language of computations and rationalities that belong to no one.11
De Certeau adumbrates the complex admixture of factors involved in digital matters. His stress is on a generalised numericity, most fully realised in the calculation and processing of the digital, but one that that has its origins in a range of numerisations, in the installation of the rule of numbers. It is urban, democratic (the count as the index of democracy), and facilitates the administration of the polis. It abstracts and so produces an existential anonymity (“just a number”): the noble subjects of history become the “ciphered river of the streets.” Most important, however, is the inextricable relation between number as abstraction, enframement and circumspection and the fluidity it induces. This mixture of mobility and abstract codification is one that is encountered repeatedly in Baudrillard’s oeuvre and constitutes the context, the matrix no less, in which digital matters emerge and operate.
De Certeau highlights the processes through which inhabitants of the city become translated into elements of an urban flux. In Digital Matters we develop the conceptual ramifications of this transformation through an exploration of the continuities (cultural alignment) between urban and digital flows. Increases in the quantity of flows produce a qualitative change so that the process of translation, facilitated by digital technology, creates a complex combination of social environment, commodity and subjectivity that results in the seemingly autonomous realm known as cyberspace. To explore this complex admixture, we trace the early origins of commodity culture in the nascent urbanization of the industrial revolution that Ellul singled out as the Archimedean point in the changed relationship between human society and its technologies, drawing upon the work of various social theorists in order to further explore the notion of the city and metropolitan life as being fundamentally recast by informational flows. We show how the matrix, commonly conceived as an underlying network of computer systems, in fact has its roots in a culturally aligned matrix of commodity culture, and technological reproduction. It had its inception in the Industrial Revolution from which the Information Revolution can be seen to descend directly.
McLuhan12 asserted that once you have the assembly line it does not matter substantially whether you produce Cadillacs or cornflakes on it: in Ellul’s terms la téchnique is dominant whatever the output. This levelling out of content has an even more powerful effect when, in the realm of digital matters, material objects and immaterial media content are conflated to exacerbate the tension of the im/material. From this perspective, Baudrillard’s musings upon advanced communication systems and their immanent surface of operations is in keeping with a tradition of technologically deterministic thought that holds that, beyond a certain threshold, technology can no longer be seen in terms of a instrument deployed by a society, but must be approached as a substantive entity in its own right: technological enframement begins to determine the structure of society. This qualitative development is a shift that reflects the quantity/quality pole that is a dominant theoretical presence in the work of Benjamin, McLuhan et. al. What began with the mechanical reproduction of objects and media reaches a markedly new level in digital matters – the surface-level operations of computer code replace in-depth communication.
Baudrillard is thus a particularly suitable guide with whom to consider the tension of the im/material and the rise of the advent of number. As the above quotations show, he emphasizes the functional and operational nature of networks made for circulation. He is particularly aware of both the manner by which technology can involve a process of abstraction, an escape from the matter/matrix within which the human has been fashioned and reproduced, as well as the way in which its immaterial form is frequently felt within society at a material level, either by individuals using digital technologies or, more subtly, by the alterations it produces on the whole cultural environment – McLuhan’s psychic and social complex. His work is an invaluable guide to the paradox of this im/materiality and its numerous manifestations. The fetishization of commodities that Marx identifies in terms of their “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” is aptly complemented by Baudrillard’s vivid analysis of a society in which such metaphysical attributes are relayed in a self-enclosed network of screens devoted to the reproduction of self-referential images. In an example of the imbricated nature of the im/material, these circulating images in turn rest upon our prior enculturation with a complex circuit of physical commodities: Baudrillard’s system of objects.
IV. Baudrillard’s Bringing-forth Of Furniture
There was a time when it was not technology alone that bore the name techne. Once that revealing that brings forth truth into the splendour of radiant appearing was also called techne. Once there was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was also called techne. And the poiesis of the fine arts was also called techne.13
Despite Baudrillard’s trendy and somewhat misleading cachet as a theorist of the Matrix the lineage of his work can be traced to more substantive philosophical concerns underlying the historical enframing matrix of which digital matters are merely the latest manifestation. Baudrillard’s perspective on the symbolic loss that accompanies technological proliferation can be explored further by considering the radical pessimism and optimism of the writings of Heidegger14 and Benjamin15 respectively. Heidegger has been accused of a reactionary idealism for invoking a pre-lapsarian age before art and technology were sundered. He harks back to an Ancient Greece in which technology and art were a single, non-alienated entity. Much more optimistically, but ultimately reinforcing Heidegger’s conclusion that art and technology have become sundered, Benjamin suggests that the proliferation of images made possible by the photographic process of chemical – mechanical reproduction represents a point at which the quantitative increase of images leads to a qualitative change in their nature. This matches Ellul’s identification of the Industrial Revolution’s increase in output as marking a qualitative change in the human/technology relationship and is a central element of first McLuhan and then Baudrillard’s interpretation of the enervating cultural effects of the media. Benjamin uses it to argue that the advent of photography and its mechanical reproduction of images represent the death of the traditional conception of art:
To an ever-greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.16
Like Heidegger, Benjamin recognizes the tendency of technology’s ability to strip away authenticity but proceeds to make a positive political interpretation of this reduction. Art is now freed by photography’s impact from its hierarchical and ritualistic role to produce images that can empower rather than dominate the masses. In stark contrast, Heidegger believed that only art in its refusal of utility “may expressly foster the growth of the saving power” that protects humanity from the danger of withdrawal from Being (humankind’s alienation from authentic experience due to technology’s mediation of directly experienced reality).
For Heidegger, the “letting be” that constitutes a non-alienated approach to Being is always presented in terms of the artisanal, in the form of authentic craft. Consider in this light the following passage:
One can object that today every village cabinetmaker works with machines… [Such objections fall] flat, because [they have] heard only half of what the discussion has to say about handicraft. The cabinetmaker’s craft was chosen as an example, and it was presupposed thereby that it would not occur to anyone that through the choice of this example is the expectation announced that the condition of our planet could in the foreseeable future, or indeed ever, be changed back into a rustic idyll…However it was specifically noted that what maintains and sustains even this handicraft was not the mere manipulations of tools but the relatedness to wood. But where in the manipulations of the industrial worker is there any relatedness to such things as the shapes slumbering in the wood?17
Although Heidegger here clearly acknowledges the impossibility of returning the planet to the conditions that preceded the depredations of a technological society, he nonetheless believes that certain practices remain the site of possible recuperation. The “shapes slumbering in the wood” act as a trope for what is lost in the technological process, the previously cited Baudrillardian point that: “There is no longer any transcendence or depth, but only the immanent surface of operations unfolding, the smooth and functional surface of communication”.18
Heidegger could be accused of a certain fetishism of craft production in arguing that the relatedness to the wood of the modern cabinetmaker who uses machine tools is somehow superior to that of the manipulations of industry. The forms that the cabinetmaker reveals are said to slumber in the wood, yet it is unclear as to when a form slumbers and when it is pressed upon matter. The part of the process that Heidegger privileges is “the relatedness to the wood”. The hands-on approach to wood, even mediated by machinery, still confronts the aura of the wood directly. Mass-produced cabinets are not totally aura-free because they are made of originally auratic material (even mass-manufactured pieces of wood can retain some of the individual characteristics of their tree’s whorls and burls), but their authenticity is deeply submerged within the mass production matrix from which they are “challenged forth.” Heidegger’s example of cabinet making raises interesting questions regarding the position of an object with respect to the broader existential background from which it derives its individuality. It intimates the existence of a matrix underlying the social use of objects that prefigures its much more explicit development in the digital Matrix. Thus it is perhaps not as surprising as it otherwise might be that Baudrillard, the arch post-modern theorist knowingly referred to in the Matrix movie, should address, in one of his earliest works The System of Objects,19 the superficially prosaic, existential significance of furniture.
Baudrillard uses furniture, in a similar fashion to Heidegger, as an exemplum of a lost authenticity that is exacerbated within digital matters. He contrasts traditional and mass-produced furniture showing how furniture handed down from one generation to the next stands in a different relationship to concepts such as aura and authenticity than mass-produced furniture, designed as it is as part of a pre-ordained matrix that follows the commerce-inspired modish trends of the interior design industry:
Whereas the old-fashioned dining-room was heavily freighted with moral convention, ‘modern’ interiors, in their ingeniousness, often give the impression of being mere functional expedients…The modern set of furniture, serially produced, is thus apparently destructured yet not restructured, nothing having replaced the expressive power of the old symbolic order.20
The loss of symbolism Baudrillard highlights relates to the Being-denuded nature of Benjamin’s technologically rich life-world in which the aura of direct experience is pumped out “like water from a sinking ship”. This loss of aura is a direct consequence of mechanical reproduction and the serial nature of mass-produced objects that are set apart from the craft objects that Heidegger seeks to privilege. To position oneself effectively within a matrix of seriality requires the requisite amount of reverse adaptation:
First of all man must stop mixing himself up with things and investing them with his own image; he will then be able, beyond the utility they have for him, to project onto them his game plan, his calculations, his discourse, and invest these manoeuvres themselves with a sense of a message to others, and a message to oneself. By the time this point is reached the mode of existence of ‘ambient objects’ will have changed completely, and a sociology of furnishing will perforce have given way to a sociology of interior design.21
In a section entitled called “Man the Interior Designer”, Baudrillard proceeds to describe the effect upon the individual of such positioning as one in which: “instead of consuming objects, he dominates, controls and orders them. He discovers himself in the manipulation and tactical equilibration of a system”.22 Baudrillard argues that objects such as furniture have – over and above their practical functionality – “a primordial function as vessels, a function that belongs to the register of the imaginary”.23 He suggests that psychologically receptive objects reflect a natural form of Being: “They are the reflection of a whole view of the world according to which each being is a ‘vessel of inwardness’ and relations between beings are transcendent correlations of substances”.24 For Baudrillard:
…the project of a technological society implies putting the very question of genesis into question and omitting all the origins, received meanings and ‘essences’ of which our old pieces of furniture remained concrete symbols; it implies practical computation and conceptualisation on the basis of a total abstraction, the notion of a world no longer given but instead produced – mastered, manipulated, inventoried, controlled: a world in short, that has to be constructed.25
We suggest that this is a succinct summary of Heidegger’s distinction between the bringing-forth of Being in a fourfold interrelated network of causes26 and the challenging-forth it is replaced with by the rise of the networks of technology. We would highlight here Baudrillard’s use of the word computation to describe the positioning required from the human user. It demonstrates the link between the matrix of serially-produced objects and the cyberspatial Matrix of which it is a hypostatisation.
In the particular case of “Man the Interior Designer,”the reverse adaptation required from the subject to exist within the world of serial objects applies to the specific case of furniture. By extension, however, it becomes the standard mode of behaviour with which to approach all technological artefacts that now appear as serial parts of a totalising technological whole rather than individual aspects of Being (Baudrillard cites in support of his position Barthes’ similar analysis of the reverse adaptations required in the act of driving a car). The industrially produced furniture Baudrillard highlights is pre-designed to fit the pre-existing values of an interior design industry and is emblematic of the essential nature all commodities. The essence of these objects derives not from their individual manufacture or consumption as unique objects but from their relationship to a wider matrix of other commodities from which they derive their meaning. Baudrillard distinguishes between the closed structure of the bourgeois dining room and the freer functional environment of the fashion-driven industrially produced furniture and points out: “Somewhere between the two, in the gap between integrated psychological space and fragmented functional space, serial objects have their being, witnesses to both the one and the other – sometimes within a single interior”.27
Baudrillard’s example of modish furniture technologically produced to fit a pre-conceived consumer framework helps us to understand better Heidegger’s concept of the danger of technology – the rather abstract-sounding “withdrawal of withdrawal”. Heidegger’s danger relates to technology’s ability to encourage in its users a forgetfulness of the quality and extent of the mediated withdrawal from Being that technology represents (McLuhan’s narcissistic trance of the servo-mechanism). Technology encourages us to withdraw from recognising that technologies’ mediation represents a withdrawal from authentic Being: a withdrawal from withdrawal. In Baudrillard, “withdrawal from withdrawal” assumes a much more material form since symbolically loaded family heirlooms are transformed into objects of an industrial process that enframes and systematically removes symbolic elements from our life world introducing a gap of im/materiality between traditional Being and technologically-mediated existence. The Heideggerian conceptualisation of Being may appear excessively abstruse and philosophical, but it speaks directly to what is fundamentally different about technological Being and what lies at the crux of digital matters and their im/material tension. Discussing furniture in the context of digital matters may seem rather strange but it serves to highlight, by way of contrast, the social and cultural manifestations of withdrawal in terms of excessive identification with the fragmented functional space of the m/Matrix: Being is not so much let go of as jettisoned with enthusiasm and it is this embracement of the withdrawal from withdrawal to which we now turn.
V. “Welcome to the desert of the real”: Withdrawal From Withdrawal And The Ever-enframing Matrix
Malls have achieved their commercial success through a variety of strategies that all depend on ‘indirect commodification’, a process by which nonsaleable objects, activities, and images are purposely placed in the commodified world of the mall. The basic marketing principle is ‘adjacent attraction’, where the most dissimilar objects lend each other mutual support when they are placed next to each other…This logic of association allows noncommodified values to enhance commodities, but it also imposes the reverse process – previously noncommodified entities become part of the marketplace. Once this exchange of attributes is absorbed into the already open-ended and indeterminate exchange between commodities and needs, associations can resonate infinitely.28
The physical embodiment of bringing-forth represented by crafted furniture can be counterbalanced against the physical manifestation of the cultural embracement of “withdrawal from withdrawal” found in the form of the shopping mall. Its specific purpose is to provide a site for the accumulation of commodities for consumption, and this consumption is facilitated by the use of visual displays and imagery. The idiosyncratic bricolage of images thrown up by the reproducible image thus serves, in the shopping mall, a much more functional and culturally aligned purpose. The juxtaposition of disparate subject matter is refashioned into a commercially orientated but ever more inclusive logic of association that Crawford defines above in terms of “indirect commodification” or “open-ended and indeterminate exchange.” In other words, more and more aspects of the mall (and by extension the wider society) are either commodities themselves or, alternatively, in Heidegger’s terms a standing reserve milieu for the promotion of commodities. Thus there is a growing tendency for urban centres, and in particular malls, to adopt the trappings of theme parks. Theming becomes a means of creating exotic associations that, like the advertising they are a sub-set of, and like the essentially tautologous nature of media,29 are based upon emotional appeal rather than rational discourse.
Commercial appropriations of perception thus depend not just upon the decline in aura described by Benjamin but also on the parodic or simulacral recreation of aura in the form of the sign of authenticity. In place of aura’s dependency upon irreplaceable physical particularities, the intrinsic circulation of commodities means that aura become a much more arbitrary and ultimately manipulable phenomena. A non-space of abstract commodification is created where the particularity of a space is expunged.30 This paradoxical phrase captures the physical consequences of an exclusively commodified social environment. It encapsulates the im/material ambiguity that provides the basis to the social matrix of which we repeatedly emphasise digital matters are but an extreme and more explicit representation. In practical terms, this space is typically experienced at first hand in the mundane homogeneity of airports, chain hotels etc, a homogeneity vividly captured in Jem Cohen’s recent film Chain (2004) in which footage of the suburbs, malls and business parks of seven different nations are spliced together in a continuous whole to reveal a Ballardian interzone that covers continents. The concept of the city itself has become affected by this banalization of space to the extent that cities themselves risk becoming less particular locations but spectacles that compete with other cities as spectacles, thus: “their ‘imageability’ becomes the new selling point…in this marketing war, style-of-life and ‘liveability’, visualized and represented in spaces of conspicuous consumption, become important assets that cities proudly display”.31 In other words, cities have become, due to the marriage of images and the capitalist market, little more than the circulation of their own signs. This commercial re-appropriation of aura also explains why it is common in theme parks and shopping malls to effectively suspend reality by simulating anachronistic and geographically inappropriate mixes of different cultural, technological and fictional themes – the pastiche of styles and aesthetics that went by the name of postmodernism. The dominance of freely juxtaposed images over rationally linked context occurs across a range of social environments that all become subordinate to the subtle influence of “indirect commodification” which tends towards the conflation of various image-driven activities:
…shopping with an intense spectacle of accumulated images and themes that entertain and stimulate and in turn encourage more shopping. The themes of the spectacle owe much to Disneyland and television, the most familiar and effective commodifiers in American culture. Theme-park attractions are now commonplace in shopping malls; indeed the two forms converge – malls routinely entertain, while theme parks function as disguised marketplaces. Both offer controlled and carefully packaged public spaces and pedestrian experiences to auto-dependent suburban families already primed for passive consumption by television…<32
It is this fluid way in which commercial values circulate through various levels of society (Jameson’s “suffusion through ever greater zones of social life”) that lies behinds Baudrillard’s claim that Disneyland’s existence merely distracts us from the fact that the whole of America is essentially Disney. It also makes visiting shopping malls increasingly akin to the disparate effect achieved by “channel hopping”, both in terms of the nature of the visual experience and the content being viewed: “The system operates much like television programming, with each network presenting slightly different configurations of the same elements. Apparent diversity masks fundamental homogeneity”.33
To oppose the anonymity and abstractness of commodified non-space, in The Practices of Every Day Life (1984), Michel de Certeau calls, as did the Situationist Internationale, for the re-inscription of place as practised space. This is to be achieved through the use of playful and exploratory approaches to one’s environment. The self-augmentation of the matrix militates against such strategies. The shopping mall, for example, is designed for an apparent oxymoron – the distractedly purposive pedestrian consumer34 – who has replaced the urban wanderings of the flâneur, a mid-nineteenth-century quasi-fictional Parisian figure described by Baudelaire in his “Painter of Modern Life” (1859) and whose gaze was painted by the Impressionists in terms that can be conceived of as a short-lived personification/imaginative prefiguration of Baudrillard’s claim that “Today the scene and the mirror have given way to a screen and a network”.35 The flâneur was a man in the crowd but not of the crowd, he was a dandyish figure with enough time on his hands to observe the constant motion of the vibrant city that passed him by as an impartial spectator. This elegant bystander viewed the cityscape as a mysterious code to be deciphered. Baudelaire famously elaborated upon the historical epoch the flâneur was witnessing: “By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent”.36 The experience of the flâneur and his perambulations amidst the rapid social change of nineteenth-century Paris serve as a usefully illustrative precursor of the increasingly fragmented and culturally dislocated nature of the social environment within the m/Matrix. Vice and transient sensation becomes the economy of the flâneur’s experience:
The crowd is not only the newest asylum of outlaws; it is also the latest narcotic for those abandoned. The flâneur is someone abandoned in the crowd. In this he shares the situation of the commodity. He is not aware of this special situation, but this does not diminish its effect on him and it permeates him blissfully like a narcotic that can compensate him for many humiliations. The intoxication to which the flâneur surrenders is the intoxication of the commodity around which surges the stream of customers.37
We can see here traces of McLuhan’s description of the narcotic/Narcissus-like trance induced by communications media and Baudrillard’s later formulation of the ecstasy of communication. A positive quality of the flâneur in de Certeau’s terms was the way in which his apparent purposelessness served to resist the excessive instrumentality of commodity culture and its tendency to colonize social space into a standing reserve of potential consumption. In the consumerist sites that now dominate, privately run surveillance cameras replace the detached gaze of the flâneur, and further fuse the non-space of the commodity with the technologies of representation. The serendipitous dérive is negated by the “retail grammar” of market planners who design the sights to be seen, and even the likely pace of the “air conditioned nightmare” of the space of consumption. An isomorphic regimentation of experience occurs in suburbia where the eclectic mix of the bustling city is replaced by the elective affinities of homogenous demographic groups.
In so far as the flâneur was “in the crowd” but “not of the crowd” he arguably contained the early signs of the solipsistic nature of the subsequently commodified, atomised and discombobulatingly phantasmagorical way in which the contemporary city is increasingly experienced. Margaret Morse38 points out that for writers such as Canetti and Bakhtin, the city was a site where individuality was subordinated to the amorphous mass of the crowd. In contrast, the mall experience is based upon a similar state of distraction or dream-like solipsism to that of the consumption of movie images identified by Benjamin. Instead of losing individual identity in the crowd, in the mall the individual seeks the completion of their character by buying into the spectacle of consumer objects. The use-value of such objects is increasingly much less significant than the image they provide of a life-style in which the individual can seek self-expression (momentarily and conveniently ignoring the mass-produced nature of such commodities that would seem to contradict this aim). Baudrillard’s characterization of such phantasmagoria in terms of ecstasy and ontological confusion provides an invaluable update to the ephemeral and contingent aspects of our condition so vividly described by Baudelaire.
VI. The Inside/outside Ontological Confusion – Baudrillard’s Pataphysics
In the past we have always assumed that the external world around us has represented reality, however confusing or uncertain, and that the inner world of our minds, its dreams, hopes, ambitions, represented the realm of fantasy and the imagination. These roles it seems to me have been reversed…the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads.39
Baudrillard’s previously cited observation that Disneyland helps us to forget that the rest of America is essentially a theme park highlights the manner in which the flâneur has been supplanted by the privatised mobility of the consumer. Shopping malls, theme parks and themed urban destinations, are all premised upon their territorially-independent eclectic non-space which in turn is premised upon a hyperreal model independent of any original. The consumer now follows the path of the matrix to the point where the traditional boundary between reality and the imagination has become irretrievably blurred so that as. J. G. Ballard argues above, the ubiquity and pervasiveness of modern technology has reversed our usual ontological categories. Ballard’s comments lead us to another aspect of our argument, namely the value we place upon the realm of the imagination in seeking to understand the digital matters. Digital Matter thus unapologetically uses fiction as a conceptual resource. In doing so we follow McLuhan’s observation that:
The percussed victims of the new technology have invariably muttered clichés about the impracticability of artists and their fanciful preferences. But in the past century it has come to be generally acknowledged that, in the words of Wyndham Lewis, ‘The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present.’…The ability of the artist to sidestep the bully blow of new technology of any age, and to parry such violence with full awareness, is age-old…40
For McLuhan, artists are the group best suited to observing the changes to our sense ratios that occur due to the impact of various technologies, since aesthetic production has often involved sensitivity to these very ratios. Reminiscent of McLuhan’s observation, in The Logic of Sense, Gilles Deleuze (drawing on Nietzsche) offers his clinical definition of the work of art, observing that artists:
…are themselves astonishing diagnosticians or symptomatologists. There is always a great deal of art involved in the grouping of symptoms… Clinicians who are able to renew a symptomatological picture produce a work of art; conversely, artists are clinicians… they are clinicians of civilisation… and it seems moreover, [this] evaluation of symptoms might only be achieved through a novel.41
In this light, the novel as a form can be said to serve a diagnostic function; identifying the composition of forces, the relations of “labour, life and language” that characterize a given epoch and offering an aetiology of the “ills” that seize individuals and cultures alike. Contemporary fiction therefore illustrates some of the key cultural impacts of digital technology. Like McLuhan and Deleuze, Kittler has stressed the diagnostic role of literature, which in an era where the text is deposed from its former position at the centre of Western culture, might seen as an obsolete media, since
…pushed to their margins even obsolete media become sensitive enough to register the signs and clues of a situation. Then, as in the case of the sectional plane of two optical media, patterns and moirés emerge: myths, fictions of science, oracles…42
Our recourse to literature within Digital Matters is also in keeping with Baudrillard’s characterization of himself as a practitioner of (the playwright and aesthete Alfred Jarry’s) pataphysics (the science of imaginary solutions) and a comparative analysis of his theoretical interpretation of communication with Baudelaire’s observations of nascent modernity allow us a deeper insight into Ballard’s observation that increasingly in the contemporary condition: “…we will suffer from this forced extraversion of all interiority, from this forced introjection of all exteriority which is implied by the categorical imperative of communication”.43
The non-empirical imaginative excess of fiction and the cyberpunk genre in particular, is a potentially useful resource with which to better understand the underlying zeitgeist of the digital age. Its theoretical pertinence and methodological suitability to the here-and-now of real life are reflected in claims that cyberpunk can be viewed as social theory,44 whereas “Baudrillard’s futuristic post-modern social theory can be read in turn as science fiction”.45 Baudrillard has argued that, given the fact that that phantasmagoria of the real (or hyperreal) exceeds the imaginative projections of science fiction; the latter has become increasingly redundant so that its golden age of vision and prophecy has passed. In this respect, we depart from Baudrillard and argue that science fiction in the form of the sub-genre of cyberpunk still offers an intimation of our future as well as a perspicacious reflection of our present. In an essay on science fiction, Baudrillard46 equates traditional science fiction with the order of simulation introduced by the Industrial Revolution and machinery. Science fiction as it was known to most of the twenty-first century is dead. It has fallen foul of full-blown simulation, the fourth order referred to as “fractal”. From this position Baudrillard makes several claims – namely that science fiction is a spent force, that the real in the age of simulacra is itself fictional (making science fiction redundant) and, finally, that theory and analysis to the extent that it confronts this situation is itself the ‘new’ science fiction. To quote:
We can no longer imagine other universes; and the gift of transcendence has been taken from us as well. Classic SF [science fiction] was one of expanding universes: it found its calling in narratives of space exploration, coupled with more terrestrial forms of exploration and colonization indigenous to the 19th and 20th centuries. There is no cause-effect relationship to be seen here. Not simply because, today, terrestrial space has been virtually completely encoded, mapped, inventoried, saturated; has in some sense been shrunk by globalisation; has become a collective marketplace not only for products but also for values, signs, and models, thereby leaving no room any more for the imaginary. It is not exactly because of all this that the exploratory universe (technical, mental, cosmic) of SF has also stopped functioning. But the two phenomena are closely linked, and they are two aspects of the same general evolutionary process: a period of implosion, after centuries of explosion and expansion. When a system reaches its limits, its own saturation point, a reversal begins to takes place. And something happens also to the imagination.47
Phillip K. Dick is often credited with the role of the godfather of cyberpunk, despite the fact that Gibson has discounted Dick as a significant influence. Certainly, it is almost impossible to conceive of the emergence of such an ironic or dystopian brand of science fiction without the influence of Dick’s oeuvre. Dick broke with a vision of science fiction as a celebration of techno-science’s unlimited dominion, with its bloated heroics and one-dimensional heroes. Instead, he practiced science fiction as social critique, as a way of satirizing the emergent trends of post-war California. Like the cyberpunk fiction that he would perhaps inspire, Dick’s narratives are marked by a confusion of inside and outside: reality is no longer a certainty, identity is multiple and manipulated by corporate and military forces. It is worth noting that Baudrillard has from the 1970s onwards often referred to Dick, and the condition of hyperreality that Baudrillard’s theory convincingly establishes as our contemporary situation, is one found throughout Dick’s work. To cite just one famous example, consider the status of animals in his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep48 – which served as the basis for Riddley Scott’s equally seminal Blade Runner. Animals have become extinct due to the effects of some catastrophe, and their rarity has resulted in their transformation into ultimate status symbol, accruing to their owners much distinction but a considerable cost. The android hero of Dick’s story has a fake electronic sheep, and lives in mortal fear that his neighbours will learn of his deception. Here we can see the confusion between model and copy, the exaltation of the sign in direct opposition to its “reality” that marks the threshold of full blown simulation. Similarly, in A Scanner Darkly one of the characters observes that:
In Southern California it didn’t make any difference anyhow where you went; there was always the same McDonaldburger place over and over, like a circular strip that turned past you as you pretended to go somewhere. And when finally you got hungry and went to the McDonaldburger place and bought a McDonald’s hamburger, it was the one they sold you last time and the time before that and so forth, back to before you were born…Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed; it just spread out farther and farther in the form of neon ooze.49
For Baudrillard, Dick’s fiction is one of the first recognitions of the fractal order of simulation, noting that “Dick does not create an alternate cosmos nor a folklore or a cosmic exoticism, nor intergalactic heroic deeds; the reader is, from the outset, in a total simulation without origin, past, or future – in a kind of flux of all coordinates (mental, spatio-temporal, semiotic)”.50 Alongside Dick, Baudrillard also cites Ballard as the other author of imaginative fiction whose work registered the conditions of simulacra, and discusses his novel Crash (“the first great novel of the universe of simulation”) in these terms. While accepting much of Baudrillard’s thesis, we argue, firstly, that contra Baudrillard, the prophetic and diagnostic capacity of science fiction remains potent, and cyberpunk illustrates this function and, secondly, that in contrast to the work of Dick and Ballard, cyberpunk places the flow of information at the heart of the matrix, and in this sense offers a powerful structural analysis of digital matters.
The visual pun of the hollowed out copy of Baudrillard’s Simulations in the Matrix movie is just a glib representation of the more substantive evisceration of critical thought that customarily takes place in a media-saturated public sphere. McLuhan suffered a similar fate when posthumously he was made the patron saint of Wired magazine despite the unalloyed darkness of some of his assessments of the cultural harm wrought by electronic media. We have provided in this paper a range of perspectives from which Baudrillard’s work can be re-appropriated from its glib associations with the Matrix and instead we have shown how his oeuvre both informs and is informed by the conceptually richer notion of the matrix. In the following paper, Phantom Objectivity, we provide more of a theoretical context to the roots of the inside/outside confusion described so inimitably by Baudrillard in his accounts of our society of the hyperreal.
About the Author:
Jan L. Harris is interested in the intersection of continental philosophy, culture, and technology. Recent publications include (coauthored with Paul Taylor) Digital Matters. New York: Routledge, forthcoming 2005.
Paul A. Taylor is a senior lecturer in communications theory at the Institute of Communication Studies, University of Leeds. His research interests focus upon digital culture and critical theories of mass culture. His recent work includes (with Tim Jordan), Hacktivism & Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause? New York: Routledge, 2004.
1 – Gordon Burn. “Essay: Living Memories.” The Guardian Newspaper, June 11, 2005:4-6.
2 – H. U. Gumbrecht and K. L. Pfeiffer (Eds). Materialities of Communication, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994:6.
3 – See F. A. Kittler Discourse Networks 1800/1900, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990; Literature Media, Information Systems, Edited by J. Johnston, Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association, 1997; and Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. G. Winthrop-Young and M. Wutz, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
4 – H. U. Gumbrecht and K. L. Pfeiffer (Eds). Materialities of Communication, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.
5 – Ibid.:12.
6 – Jean Baudrillard. Revenge of the Crystal: selected writings on the modern object and its destiny, 1968-1983, London: Pluto Press, 1990:63.
7 – Our theoretical approach holds out the possibility of understanding the increasing prevalence of the trope of immateriality in cyber-discourse without subscribing to its simple-minded ontology. From Adam Smith’s invisible hand to the more recent expressions of E-commerce literature (for example, Living on Thin Air (Leadbetter, 2000), The Weightless World (Coyle, 1998), Being Digital (Negroponte, 1995) and The Empty Raincoat (Handy 1995), weightlessness and abstraction are taken seriously as aspects of the social and economic order. These works refer exclusively to new information technologies but we show how the im/material tension of digital matters has its roots much earlier in the history of technology.
8 – Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988:12. Translated by B. and C. Schutze.
9 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects. London: Verso, 1996:5. Translated by J. Benedict.
10 – Marshall McLuhan cited in M. Moos (Ed.) Media Research: technology, art, communication, Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association, 1997:90.
11 – M. de Certeau The Practices of Everyday Life, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988:v.
12 – M. McLuhan. Understanding Media (c 1964). London: Routledge, 1995
13 – Martin Heidegger. The Question Concerning Technology (c 1954), New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1977:3.
14 – Ibid.
15 – Walter Benjamin. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (c 1935), in H. Arendt (Ed.) Illuminations. Translated by H. Zohn, London: Fontana, 1973:219-45.
16 – Ibid.:236.
17 – Martin Heidegger in M. E. Zimmerman. Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: technology, politics, and art, Minneapolis, MN: Indiana University Press, 1990:162.
18 – Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988:12. Translated by B. and C. Schutze.
19 -Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects. London: Verso, 1996:17. Translated by J. Benedict.
20 – Ibid.
21 – Ibid.:25 (emphasis in original).
22 – Ibid.:27
23 – Ibid.
24 – Ibid.:28.
25 – Ibid.:28-29.
26 – In the Question Concerning Technology Heidegger argues that authentic objects not unduly mediated by technology are brought forth into Being as an imbricated mix of four essential causes. He uses the example of a silver religious chalice that may be seen as consisting of:
- Causa materialis – the matter out of which the chalice is formed;
- Causa formalis – the form imposed upon this matter;
- Causa finalis – the purpose for which this matter is formed (the ritual);
- Causa efficiens – that which effects the forming of this matter (the silversmith).
By way of contrast the contemporary relationship to Being is dominated by technology and its exclusive attention to the causa efficiens to the exclusion of the other essential causes.
27 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects. London: Verso, 1996:19. Translated by J. Benedict.
28 – M. Crawford, M. “The World in a Shopping Mall”. In M. Sorkin (Ed.) Variations on a Theme Park: the new American city and the end of public space, New York: Hill and Wang, 1996:14-15.
29 – See Susan Sontag (On Photography. London: Penguin, 1979) who argues that photographs show what photographs show, contemporary celebrities are well known for being well known etc.)
30 – See M. Augé. Non-Places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. London: Verso, 1995.
31 – C. M. Boyer. “Cities for sale: merchandising history at South Street Seaport”, in M. Sorkin (Ed.) Variations on a Theme Park: the new American City and the end of public space, New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1996:193
32 – M. Crawford, M. “The World in a Shopping Mall”. In M. Sorkin (Ed.) Variations on a Theme Park: the new American city and the end of public space, New York: Hill and Wang, 1996:16.
33 – Ibid.:9.
34 – Reminiscent of Adorno’s description of the culture industry as a reversal of art’s “purposiveness without purpose”.
35 – Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988:12. Translated by B. and C. Schutze.
A number of Impressionist paintings are based upon a male gaze either intimated as originating out of the painting’s frame or obliquely alluded to via reflections in mirrors as perhaps most famously represented in Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” 1882.
36 – Charles Baudelaire. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (c 1859), London: Phaidon Press, 200:12.
37 – Walter Benjamin. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (c 1935), in H. Arendt (Ed.) Illuminations. Translated by H. Zohn, London: Fontana, 1973:43.
38 – M. Morse. Virtualities: television, media art, and cyberculture, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.
39 – J. G. Ballard. Crash, London: Vintage, 1995:5.
40 -M. McLuhan. Understanding Media (c 1964). London: Routledge, 1995:65.
41 – Gilles Deleuze. The Logic of Sense. London: Athlone Press ,1990: 237 (emphasis in original). Translated by M. Lester and C. Stivale.
42 – F. A. Kittler. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999:xl.
43 – Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988:26. Translated by B. and C. Schutze.
44 – R. Burrows. “Cyberpunk as social theory”. In S. Westwood and J. Williams (Eds). Imagining Cities, London: Routledge, 1997:235-48.
45 – Douglas Kellner. Media Culture, London: Routledge, 1995:299.
46 – Jean Baudrillard. Two essays: “Simulacra and science fiction” and Ballard’s “Crash”. Science Fiction Studies, 18(3), See http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/55/baudrillard55art.htm.
47 – Ibid.
48 – Phillip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (c 1968) New York, NY: Ballantine, 1990.
49 – Phillip K. Dick . A Scanner Darkly (c 1977). New York: Vintage Books, 1991:24.
50 – Jean Baudrillard. Two essays: “Simulacra and science fiction” and Ballard’s “Crash”. Science Fiction Studies, 18(3), See http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/55/baudrillard55art.htm.