Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Benjamin Noys
All dissent must be of a higher logical type than that to which it is opposed.1
The death of Jean Baudrillard could be taken as sign that we can finally put his work behind us and close the book on his singular theoretical path. We no longer, so the story would run, have to deal with his provocations, his dire prognostications, and the nagging anxiety of deciding whether we are dealing with a “genuine” thinker (one of his merits was to put that last category into crisis). The seduction of Baudrillard’s writings, which owed a great deal to a tone (a Stimmung) that mixed together ecstasy with “coolness”, was always reversing into repulsion. To have done with Baudrillard, to inflict on him a second (symbolic) death, indicates a resistance to something that marks the entirety of Baudrillard’s oeuvre: the constant attempt to inscribe a form of dissent that would be of a higher logical type. It is this attempt that gives a sense of pathos to his work. Each new form of dissent Baudrillard identified at once, as he so lucidly recognised, became available to potential simulation. It is the singular repetitiveness, and yet also movement, in his texts that was the trace of his evasive flight from this fate. On the one hand, Baudrillard could always be taken as having succumbed to pessimism in the face of the mutational capacities of the “system” – which, more and more for him, took the form of the obscene proliferation of life itself. On the other hand, Baudrillard practiced a resistance to this vitalism through the very limit-forms of life: death, the viral, the fatal, and the catastrophic.
Against the injunction to “Forget Baudrillard” I want to suggest that he was a writer of the tendencies of the present, and often in advance of them. He always wrote in the closest proximity to the worst of those tendencies, to pursue a catastrophic or fatal strategy. Baudrillard’s cold scepticism is the obverse of the kind of optimism we find in Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, who put their faith in the tendencies to achieve a rather anachronistic liberation of life and desire.2 Welding production to life itself they leave us everywhere caught-up in an Empire that will, supposedly, provide the means for its own self-transcendence. Although Baudrillard made his name as one of the most vehement critics of Marxism I think we find in him a more acute awareness of the Marxist alternative of “socialism or barbarism” – which is not some future choice but a choice always taking place. Without socialism there is only barbarism. It might well be that he welcomed such barbarism, or appeared to do so. This is what, for me, gave his work a real sense of disgust for existence such as it is. He posed his work not on the side of life, as productive and excessive force of liberation, but against life as production. Baudrillard foresaw the very inscription of power at the level of the code of life itself.
He left us with little hope that we could fight DNA. Certainly he had no hope in the class struggle as a solution, although for many Marxist critics this was the symptom of the defeat of revolutionary hopes excited by May 1968. It was a strange kind of defeatism that never gave up trying to find another form of dissent. The mutations of capital that parasitized revolution left Baudrillard trying to find another operator that could exceed capital: Symbolic exchange, seduction, fatal strategies, banality, the Object, and so on. The difficulty was that these seem to become increasingly detached from any real-world reference, to protect them from the invasive mutational forces of life. Worse these operators somehow seemed to rely on an unspecified reversal encoded within the tendencies Baudrillard was tracking (“But where danger is, grows the saving power also” Hölderlin).3 This left him in an ironic proximity to those very forms of Marxism, such as Hardt and Negri’s, which posit a traversal through the “liberation” of capital toward the “full” liberation of communism. The danger that grows here is of forever remaining in a quiescent acceptance of capital in the ever receding presence of the revolution; even if, as for Baudrillard, this will no longer take place under the sign of “revolution” but as some absolutely new and catastrophic reversal.
Despite this danger, Baudrillard’s trans-politics registered a sense of crisis in the political and the rise (as false “solution”), of what the French call ‘Pensée unique’ – the market fundamentalism which tries to dictate that there is, in Margaret Thatcher’s words: “no alternative”. What I think Baudrillard’s writing gave to this situation was a sense of its farcical misery – certainly for those of us who came to political maturity within its ambit. What other, perhaps more sober readers, found excessively melodramatic or even laughable in Baudrillard seemed, to me, a discourse perfectly suited to the ambient dread of the 1980s. When broadcasters kindly simulated the effects of nuclear attack in forensic detail, the right-wing press railed against peace protesters and trade unionists, and popular culture celebrated glossy images of consumption, to come across Baudrillard in the Semiotext(e) little black books during the late 1980s was to feel a sense of bewilderment and relief. Still now those books seem strange to me, with their references to the Baader-Meinhof, Mogadishu, and the nihilistic inertia of the “masses” in hyper-conformity. Encrypted in their pages is all the horror that has since unfolded itself.
Baudrillard said he wrote theory-fiction. This new genre has often, and justifiably, been correlated with science-fiction. I want to make another suggestion, that Baudrillard is one of the few true writers of horror theory-fiction. It is striking that such horror is fairly unusual in the history of thought. When we find horror in philosophy it is often only a moment to be surpassed, as in Plato’s allegory of the cave or Hegel’s writing on the Terror. With Baudrillard we dwell in horror, and like all great horror writers this dwelling is not without its humour. What became increasingly clear was that this was a horror at life, a new kind of cool and sardonic nihilism – unlike the resignation of Nietzsche’s passive nihilism or the heroism that haunted Nietzsche’s assumption of active nihilism. I like to imagine some future library, or other form of information storage, in which Baudrillard’s books are filed alongside the fiction of Thomas Bernhard and Thomas Ligotti, the early films of David Cronenberg and John Carpenter, the graphic works of Savoy, and the music of Merzbow, Whitehouse, Throbbing Gristle, and a selection of Black Metal. The file will read: “Horror, prophetic – late 20th century”.
About the Author
Benjamin Noys is from the University of Chichester, United Kingdom
1 – Anthony Wilden quoted in Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (c 1976) Translated by Ian H. Grant with an Introduction by Mike Gane. London: Sage, 1993:4.
2 -Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Empire. Boston and London: Harvard University Press, 2000. Available at: http://www.angelfire.com/cantina/negri/HAREMI_unprintable.pdf
3 – Cited in Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V: 2000-2004. London: Polity, 2006.