Volume 10, Number 2 (July 2013)
Author: Russell Manning
Book Review of Kim Toffoletti (2011). Baudrillard Reframed. New York: I.B. Tauris.
We have a problem framing a response to the image in that our present commonsensical vocabulary leaves us often stuck traversing the binary of right/wrong good/ evil tec. For a multiplicity of reasons it has become problematic to clearly delineate the distance between the bar / and as Gary Genosko tells us Baudrillard played bar games. In simple terms the bar between real and virtual is constantly being collapsed and it becomes problematic for those witness to this collapse to recognize it let alone respond with any moral agency to it. Hence the speed and intensity of this collapse is either neglected or left to theory. Baudrillard’s work attempted to bear witness to this collapse by, on the one hand attempting to stand outside the system (Pataphysics) or on the other hand trying to destroy it from within (Reversibility).
Trying to make theory stand outside the system, if we follow Rex Butler, is an ‘impossible’ task. But Pataphysics and Reversibility are Baudrillard’s legacies as he attempted a singularity of thought that confronted and challenged the systemization and homogeneity of thinking. Hence the attempt to traverse this ‘failure’ and capture the collapse of the system using the very same language of the system invites an exploration of the bar, the energizing intensity of the difference between, in Kim Toffoletti’s case in Baudrillard Reframed the virtual and the real of oversaturated image culture we are confronted with. Toffoletti’s book is a preliminary place to stand and observe with concrete examples as extensions of what challenges Baudrillard was providing with thought. She carefully and clearly details how the image culture collapses under the weight of its own intent. With her observation the television show CSI becomes the precession of simulacra, Sex and the City is pure sign. By exploring this ‘confused cultural space’ with concrete accessible examples Toffoletti succeeds in tracing the degeneration of the image through the orders of simulacra and wets the appetite to return to (or begin a dalliance with)Baudrillard.
The hallmarks of this image culture effect can be what Paul Taylor calls an ‘enforced cretinism’ whereby the spectator cannot discern that the images they are confronted with but are consumed as epistemic certainty. Fashion and television ratings depend on this. Toffoletti takes a more moderate approach and deploys Baudrillard to open up the exploration of the visual cultures responsibility for this collapse. She suggests that the ‘privileged position of art is diminished’ by the saturation of images that have led to what I have termed following Genosko to the collapse of the bar. Toffeletti documents this collapse from the point of view of what are Baudrillard’s signature themes, and she incorporates the entire range of Baudrillard’s texts, because to the attentive reader Baudrillard has always explored the intensity of the genealogy of the sign. The visual arts therefore are a primary target for theory today because of the seismic shift in intensity from the third order to the fourth order of simulacra. There is a postmodern vocabulary developed to account for this shift, predominately derived from Lyotard, but this vocabulary about the death of the metanarrative (or the shift from the third order of simulacura) to the fourth order is the fascination of media theory and the real value in her small book. Working systematically through the four levels of simulacra with appropriate and useful example Toffoletti establishes a tone of respect to Baudrillard’s project without simplification.
Toffoletti’s strategy is to problematize this vocabulary with infusions of Baudrillard gleaned from the broad corpus of his work. The result is double pronged; a wetting of the appetite for a more detailed and careful reading of Baudrillard and more weaponry in the fight against the banal analysis of today’s visual culture. A common thematic for Toffoletti is a Baudrillardian investigation of the notion of distance. She carefully and methodically investigates the collapsing between the visual world and human agency. Over a multiplicity of target examples (reality television, contemporary art, architecture , cinema she investigates the collapsing of distance between image and agent and documents plainly the effacing of distance between the contemporary subject and the contemporary visual scene.
Toffoletti watchfully argues the relationships between Baudrillard’s observations and modern artistic phenomena, and using Baudrillardian attitudes establishes what Baudrillard was most attuned to; the collapse of reality into virtuality by the express machinations of the ever expanding consumerist driven sign culture. The expressed objective of the book is to provoke an exploratory attitude towards the visual culture that is nuanced with Baudrillard’s provocations as a starting trajectory. So when Toffoletti explores the ‘thorough integration’ of entertainment and advertising through an idea generated from Simulacra and Simulation Toffoletti concludes that this collapse of the distinction between the virtual screen and reality is (almost) complete.
In the end Toffoletti’s strategic examples inform the novitiate reader of Baudrillard to leave them more admiring of Baudrillards writing and fittingly more confused about the site of contemporary visual culture. Toffeletti makes Baudrillard ‘appear’ and in its most poetic paradoxical manner this is the strength and the weakness of the book. She meticulously and judiciously provides examples from popular visual culture and refracts them through the attitudinal impishness of Baudrillard’s lens and in doing so subverts the dominant paradigms of accepted interpretive strategies of visual culture. This of course makes Baudrillard appear too close and pins him down to being conceived as the contemporary aphorist of the sign dominated visual culture. Baudrillard is much more, but after Baudrillard Reframed we are left to pursue that.
About the Author
Russell Manning is from Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.
Rex Butler (1999) In Defence of the Real. London: Sage Publications.
Gary Genosko (1994). Baudrillard and Signs. London: Routledge Books.
Kim Toffoletti (2011). Baudrillard Reframed. New York: JB Tauris Books.