Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008)
Author: Ryland J. Johnson
Last night Chuang Chou dreamed he was a butterfly, spirits soaring he was a butterfly (is it that in showing what he was he suited his own fancy?), and did not know about Chou. When all the sudden he awoke, he was Chou with all his wits about him. He does not know whether he is Chou who dreams he is a butterfly or a butterfly who dreams he is Chou (Zhuangzi).
…aim for the point of no return. (Baudrillard, America).
I. Desert Forever
We read Baudrillard from the desert; for many of us, it is desert life from the beginning. Simulacra and Simulation, the work which is so often called Baudrillard’s entrance into theorizing the postmodern, and which, for the student of Baudrillard, is an obvious place to begin, appropriately, begins in the desert as well: Borges’ fable of the cartographers of the Empire, drawing a map so grand that it covers the real exactly and entirely – “the most beautiful allegory of simulation.”1 It is in the desert where, if we could somehow view the unfolding of this map and its slow decay across a wasteland of time, we witness the last vestiges of reversibility in decline: the erosion and fraying of the map’s edges as it lies exposed to a continuous elemental onslaught of wind and sand, to dead time, to constant, unflinching, desert time – here, a failed phoenix, an impossible resurrection, a nostalgia for that which has passed away, for the Manichean play of light and shade, of real and unreal, of sweet referential paradigms, sugar-coated candy dreams: this, the very quaintness of second-order simulacra. Now, pure simulation: all is exposed in the view of innumerable, disembodied eyes, in the omni-spectral gaze of a virtual contextuality, and it is the real which is fraying, eroding, dying out as its space, its corpus, is consumed by the simulacra. The simulacrum, Baudrillard has said, is the predator of the real. In its wake: the desert – infinite, irreversible remainder – a Zen garden of dry stone in the wet grass beneath bare feet.
Today, in being true to my home and to our home, we must contemplate the desert in the character of familiarity: for me, in the character of Georgia and Appalachia. I imagine Kennesaw Mountain in Spring, namesake of my University – whose name in Cherokee means “a place to have a good conversation” – site of an endless continuum of Civil War re-enactments and health-conscious joggers. It is this mountain that I see in my mind’s eye: it is midnight, moonless. There is a lush, cacophonous drone of cicada scratch, and humanity directs against the face of the mountain a yellow spotlight, which, as it moves, lucidly, reveals not our sentinel pines, heavy in their aromatic sap and their Spartan verticality, whose sex cover everything (this pollen that makes the world glow yellow); nor the pointillism of the lilacs coming into bloom, as they are this in time of year, whose effect in gesture, in their constellated purple-ness, always produces what strikes me as a distinctly shattered, but uniquely French provincial quality; nor the towering, mute, protestant uprightness of tulip poplar and live oak; but, rather, the illumination of this spotlight in my mind hollows out to the bones, to the earth and rocks the side of the mountain, so that all around the spot there is the volume of life, of groaning flora and cawing fauna, but within it, the immanence of the catastrophe to come: the desert of the real underlying the infinity of the wildlife preserve – Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, where ball playing, Frisbee throwing, and kite flying are prohibited, but playing “reality” is not.
II. War Forever
As day breaks on the mountain, the Civil War re-enacters are already there, arising out of the ether like the shimmer-vision of an oasis in the distance: a play at the notion that the war never ends, that it recurs eternally, that these soldiers will war perpetually forever in a space outside time, but without bloodshed, without death, without, even, hunger and thirst, without dukkha – suffering (they sip water from plastic, Deer Park water-bottles and cook steak and eggs on Coleman stoves, surreptitiously sequestered in the covered wagons they have painstakingly crafted to look just so, as if in response to Scarlett O’Hara’s, “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”). In this way the war is reclaimed, sterilized: the South’s loss, the ugliness of its cause is expunged, rendered by way of Xerox and reducto ad absurdum into a gleeful meaninglessness, into a continuous sacrificial rite. In this way, its ghosts are told to go home, for the re-enacters have taken up the labor of haunting.
Everywhere, there are all the components of a theatrical production, but there is no audience except those plugged in to the simulation: a closed circuit embodied, organic. Everywhere, there are all the signs of military encampment – bodily smells; the hum of conversation; the acrid taste of gunpowder dispersed in the air; the distant, cracking staccato of a line of fire – everything except bullets flying upon their trajectories, ripping flesh, killing: cause without effect, on one hand, while on the other, effect that has gone beyond cause, effect which no longer requires there be a causal referent, in either case, continuous, infinite, virtual.
III. Simulacra Forever
What has replaced the bullets? It is the unstoppable trajectory of the simulation itself. The re-enacter cannot be brought to bear witness to the absurdity of his actions. Nothing can be said to him that will stop his re-enactment, no rationalization gives him pause: he will continue in the face of any question, insulated from all possible inquiries by the hyper-prosthetic of his “authentic” accessories. His attire, the equivalent in our time of the “scramble suit” of Philip Dick’s paranoiac, dystopian near-futurism, does not re-create an identity – the re-enacter doesn’t play the part of a particular soldier – rather, it holds identity at bay, produces an escape from identity by projecting simultaneously the possibility of all identities within the field of the genre (here, Gone With The Wind), effectively rendering all possible account of this or that re-enacter equivocal and meaningless. The re-enacter cannot be identified; his anonymity is ensured by replication and excess. Again, the quintessence of this phenomenon is already intoned by Hollywood: in Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie Smooter (Reese Witherspoon) yells, “Daddy!” out across a field where, lying in the dirt, feigning death, a score of re-enacters lie in happy, stuck-pig-in-the-sunshine stillness (as if to suggest that if the citizens of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were to lay in the dirt, covered in slag and ash, to commemorate the dropping of the atomic bomb, there could be no better way to spend an afternoon) – each of the re-enacters rise and fall back to the Earth as one, each equally culpable to the cry of family (whose voice – accent and colloquialism have ensured this – is the same for each of them, as indistinguishable as they are in their collectivity), each of them equally eager to lie back down again and go on playing dead.
On Kennesaw Mountain, the perfect double of the Civil War re-enactment comes and goes, like worker ants on a mission, in the form or the jogger, billy-goating his way up and down the dirt trails, lost in himself, seeking the same annihilation the Civil War re-enacter seeks in collectivity and excess in independence, ascetic discipline, and self-denial. Where the re-enacter prides himself in the absolute necessity of his hyper-prosthetic accoutrement, in how much he requires to “re-enact,” the jogger prides himself on needing nothing to jog. Here, each species is in its natural habitat, mingling in and around each other, rarely directly interacting, but sharing the mountain. Presumably, and by appearances, the jogger and the re-enacter share nothing in common, but each is bound inextricably to the other beyond proximity in that they each are wholly invested in being virtual, in the process of simulation: each’s practice of being produces the same effects, follows the same strategies, and strives for the same goal – to slip out of one’s own being, like a butterfly wet from the chrysalis, into a substitute for itself in the virtual. They inherit the same sarcophagus: being in the desert garden. They are faced with the same demand: cultivate the nothingness of this place – desert gardening in desert time.
Nothing stops the jogger either. We can each imagine the jogger at the crosswalk, running in place, continuing to jog even when there can be no movement forward, when automobiles pass by in their own equivocal endless migration. There is a marathon in Nashville – another great example – where, every year, stages are set up all along the course of the race, and rock bands, country-western bands, rappers, electronic musicians – every sort of musician that can be brought to take up stage space – play “for the racers” all day without pause. Never do the racers stop running their marathon to “rock out” with the bands, even though they are placed all around the city for them (they might even, in spite of this, plug themselves into their iPods, just like always), but this, again, is not the goal; the goal is to create and be subsumed in a total simulation, in a community that is wholly virtual.
It is the same, yet more sublime on Kennesaw Mountain, where the jogger need not stop at all: a jogger might flow endlessly along the network of interconnected trails, criss-crossing over and back and around the mountain, projecting a perpetual wilderness that arises by way of being lost intentionally, by continuous doubling back and turning over one’s own way – the origami of annihilation. I have, myself, jogging on the mountain, come upon a congregation of re-enacters in full regalia and run straight through them, unperturbed, never slowing, only absently thinking, “I’ve run so slow I’ve gone back in time.”
In America, his chronicle in postcards of his automotive and aeronautical adventure across “astral” America, Baudrillard has much to comment on joggers: “the true Latter Day Saints and the protagonists of an easy-does-it Apocalypse”.2
Nothing evokes the end of the world more than a man running strait ahead on a beach, swathed in the sounds of his walkman, cocooned in the solitary sacrifice of his energy, indifferent even to catastrophes since he expects destruction to come only as the fruit of his own efforts, from exhausting the energy of a body that has in his own eyes become useless.3
The jogger becomes a synecdochic glyph for the whole of hypermodernity, a metaphor for the social gone beyond the end of history. Baudrillard continues, stating that “[t]his entire society, including its active, productive part – everyone – is running straight ahead, because they have lost the formula for stopping”.4 The embedded premise: the velocity of the growth of the human species, accumulating strength and speed exponentially over the last few hundred years, has reached a critical mass. The human species cannot anymore muster the energy to restrain its growth, and as a result, the expectation is that the social itself will implode, collapse, consume itself, destroy itself: humanity, inevitably, will suicide. If the eclipse of God signaled the ascendance of man into responsibility for his own fate, this is the eclipse of man, the eclipse of the social, which signals that man’s fate has passed beyond the grasp of humanity, beyond the grasp of the social into what amounts to the pure calculus of catastrophe: fate, it seems, has flown off the wheel, and now hovers above our heads in an uncertain, precarious orbit. The final solution to this crisis, as it is exhibited by the jogger, is the expenditure of all energy in useless, ineffectual banality: simulate a suicide to simulate a rescue operation.
IV. Irony Forever
I stress here, that Baudrillard is not speaking (at least not entirely) infinite gloom, irreconcilable doom. Rather, this is the point of entrance into the legendary black humor that Baudrillard is famous for. This is our point of entrance into the Baudrillard that I want to celebrate today: not the dissatisfied, cynic nihilist that so many are over-eager to depict him as being, but Baudrillard, in a gold lamé suit, reading poetry in Las Vegas, athletically engaged, entangled in being virtual in the world, in being the laughing skull of the pure simulacrum speaking the trembling and the uncertainty at the heart of the desert of the real, and of the humor that precedes this real’s own arrival, without place, without double, and without history. Baudrillard invokes the reader throughout his work to go forward to the point of no return, to go be beyond the end of history, but more so to go in the spirit of lucidity. I suggest that what becomes the “lucidity pact” in the late work of Baudrillard, at bottom, is the secret agreement the virtual person in the virtual community makes ahead of himself to go forth in the hyperreal with the greatest degree of virtue, and from which there emerges, alongside an understanding of being in the virtual context, an aesthetic of virtue, a humor, that precedes the arrival of the face of the virtual.
What drives this behavior (the suicide simulation; being the butterfly situation) is the absolute conviction, the anorexic impulse: “I must save myself from myself,” or the collective, “we must save ourselves from ourselves.” Meaning: “We must museumify everything. Everything must become the preserve. We must desertify existence, for in the desert there is nothing by which we can destroy ourselves”. The suicide simulation, the extermination, however, must always precede its counter-gift, which is always in the order of redemption, but similarly, is a simulated redemption.
The irony of this is that preservation, museumification, desertification – asceticism in the American idiom – is achieved by, through, and in there being excess, overflowing abundance in every sphere. It is the irony that Baudrillard observes in the apparent absolute opposition between the behaviors of the anorexic and the morbidly obese, which is nullified when one considers that the project of the anorexic and the morbidly obese is absolutely the same, and further, exactly the same as the project of the jogger: The anorexic prefigures this culture in a rather poetic fashion by trying to keep it at bay. He refuses lack. He says: I lack nothing, therefore I shall not eat. With the overweight person, it is the opposite: he refuses fullness, repletion. He says: I lack everything, so I will eat anything at all. The anorexic staves off lack by emptiness, the overweight person staves off fullness by excess. Both are homeopathic final solutions, solutions by extermination.
The jogger has yet another solution. In a sense, he spews himself out; he doesn’t merely expend his energy in his running, he vomits it. He has to attain the ecstasy of fatigue, the “high” of mechanical annihilation, just as the anorexic aims for the high of organic annihilation, the ecstasy of the empty body and the obese individual seeks the high of dimensional annihilation: the ecstasy of the full body.5
Desert Humor: There is nothing here; I must cultivate this nothingness. Yet, this point in the desert, equivocal with every other point on the planet by means of the network of global exchange, like a point in a hologram, enables me to bring anything I want to my doorstep. So, I build a rocket car, paint flames on the side, and break the sound barrier with it in my backyard.
This is the humor of the B.A.S.E. jumper6 , who has the world’s most incredible fashion, the most contemporary aesthetic, who sees the jagged, rock pillars and canyons of the desert the same as the glass and chrome cliff faces of urban, architectural verticality: he will, like a ninja that infiltrates a space to assassinate himself, fling himself over the edge of anything to achieve total rush, to become pure image. He wears a mask, a balaclava, the height of hypermodern fashion, so much like the anarchist, or the terrorist, ostensibly to protect himself from the law, which will immediately incarcerate him for his insanity, for his death-seeking behavior, his potential suicide. But, in B.A.S.E. jumping, the mask does not indicate there being a face behind it, it signals that the mask has become the whole of the body, out of which the B.A.S.E. jumper wills himself; at such a velocity, there is no distinguishing him anymore. Take his picture, and he will appear as a blur, or as an infinite sequence of emergent doubles along a line of flight.
The B.A.S.E. Jumper leaps out of his being. His flight out of the mask is irreversible; from such egress, there can only be staged a rescue, an opening of a parachute that reclaims the body from the infinite, from the exponential accumulation of velocity, of speed in space, from the unspoken imperative that states that anyone who fails to achieve such a velocity never truly leaves the womb.
Speed [Baudrillard writes] creates pure objects. It is itself a pure object, since it cancels out the ground and territorial reference points, since it runs ahead of time to annul time itself, since it moves more quickly than its own cause and obliterates that cause by outstripping it. Speed is the triumph of effect over cause, triumph of instantaneity over time as depth, the triumph of the surface and pure objectality over the profundity of desire. Speed creates a space of initiation, which may be lethal; its only rule is to leave no trace behind. Triumph of forgetting over memory, an uncultivated, amnesic intoxication. The superficiality and reversibility of a pure object in the pure geometry of the desert.7
V. Childishness Forever
The humor we a speak to here – Baudrillard’s humor – is, as we’ve indicated, an ironic humor, like that which arises in the Zhuangzi’s butterfly situation, where a fundamental uncertainty arises in reference between that which is lived and that which is dreamt: a quaint and innocent situational representation of exactly the same kind as Borges’ fable of the cartographers of the Empire, of the desert of the real. The kernel of wisdom to be derived from this is thus: hyperreality, as Baudrillard contends, never arises for the subject as illusion or as delusion, nor does it constitute fundamentally either such thing. Rather, hyperreality corresponds to the subject’s situational reflex to the destabilization of the subject’s own reality principle, to, in a more poetic language, the innocence of birth into the being of a butterfly. As hyperreality arises in being and practice, hyperreality arises as the strategy of innocence, of innocence set upon being as a result of man’s own eclipsing of himself, of his own liberation from the social and the historical, of his own birth into the infinite childishness of virtual living.
About the Author
Ryland Johnson studies Philosophy and the Arts at SUNY Stony Brook Manhattan
1 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994:1.
2 – Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1988:38.
3 – Ibid.
4 – Ibid.:39.
5 – Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1988:39-40.
6 – The ‘B.A.S.E.’ of B.A.S.E. jumping is an acronym that signifies “Building – Antenna – Span – Earth”. I note, with a dark humor that B.A.S.E also has come to signify “Bones – And – Shit – Everywhere”.
7 – Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1988:6-7.