Volume 6, Number 2 (July, 2009)
Author: Dr. Marc Guillaume
*Translated by Ames Hodges
“The only deep desire is the desire of the object. Not desire for something I am missing, or even for something (or someone) that misses me but for something that does not miss me at all, that is perfectly able to exist without me… The Other is the one who does not miss me, and that is radical alterity” (Baudrillard, 2008:148) We could add: someone who not only does not miss me, but misses no one.
The object, in its silence and solitude without need or desire for others, brings a specific power of seduction into play. The object’s genius lies there. It gives the object its secret – and objective – relationship with the photographic lens [l’objectif] and, by extension, with the subject that photographs it. That is why objects are the easiest things to photograph. “For objects, primitives and animals, alterity is certain; the most insignificant objects are ‘other’, For subjects, it is much less certain”. It then becomes necessary to make “beings more enigmatic for themselves, more foreign for each other. Thus the key to the photographic act is not to take them as objects but to make them become objects, to make them become others, to take them for what they are.”
The apparent absence of human subjects in the work of Jean Baudrillard is therefore, in fact, the reflection of a presence. Yet it is a presence without aura, the presence of a being preserved in both his or her banality and alterity, maintained in the enigma that gives them their power of seduction.
There is no condescension in dealing with the social in terms of masses: each person retains his or her freedom, enigma and solitude. The world according to Baudrillard is a world of objects and masses. Direct confrontation with human subjects is always eluded; they only appear shrouded in an objectal dignity that preserves their radical alterity. Objects and masses are the place where beings disappear but also where the Other appears. They are therefore the place where beings are faithful to themselves and where we can be faithful to them. In the refuge of the masses, as Jean Baudrillard represents it for us, every life is respectable, because every life is the center of the world.
“Only the inhuman is photogenic. Reciprocal stupefaction only works at this price, through our complicity with the world and the world’s complicity with us.” These are fragments of Jean Baudrillard’s text. Fragments selected at random, or almost. Fragments that we will not comment on, explain, contextualize or, worse, systematize. They are fragments we can take, deform and set in relation to other fragments. Or we can extenuate them, take them to their limit: doing this is not easy because Baudrillard’s thought is never measured or nuanced – it is only ambivalent, which is very different. It is already pushed to the extreme.
If there is a correct way of using his texts, it is not to capture his thought but a regime of thought. A unique regime. Far from the genealogies and minute conceptual dissections of deconstruction, but not so far from the objectivizing practice of a certain type of photography. Something like thought-feedback, which is very different from image-feedback because this thought-feedback also involves turning and deviation. Reversed, revealed thought – present photographically in the passage from negative to positive with an effervescence that finds its uniqueness in the process that created it. Cool thinking.
“The world is beautiful like a cryptogram to decipher,” wrote Mallarmé. Baudrillard’s thought-feedback suggests that we make the world more beautiful by making it even more indecipherable. Shadowing the world. In praise of the shadow that doubles the world: “The world was given to us enigmatic and unintelligible, and the task of thought, if possible, is to make it even more enigmatic and even more unintelligible (2001:151). Jean Baudrillard could have put this statement of principle at the beginning of his book, but applying it to his own approach, he only unveils it at the end. We can imagine that many a naïve reader has entered the maze of one of his books – or all of his books – in an attempt to decipher the world, a world that seemed to belong to us in its very immediacy. Many readers get lost along the way; others misread him and only find apocalyptic or nihilist descriptions.
To avoid their mistakes, we must take his principle seriously. The world is given to us with no possible giving back and with no responsibility of any kind, especially not the responsibility to explain it. Calculating and logical thought only serves to exploit the world while separating us from it. Sovereign thought, thought equal to the world, is comparable to the relationship poetry and music have with the world. “Without music, the world might have been a mistake” (Nietzsche). Baudrillard’s works are composed like musical forms, with major themes, variations, refrains and silence.
II. The Uncertainty Principle of Thought
Sovereign thought, which cannot be exchanged for anything, loses its grip and is destined for unyielding uncertainty. “The uncertainty of thought is that it cannot be exchanged for either truth or reality” (Ibid.). In this ellipsis, Baudrillard implicitly points to a unique position in philosophy.
Philosophy has always recognized that thought should not choose in itself the things about which we must think. The choice must be absolutely independent of thought and come from completely outside it. Philosophical tradition resolves this initial problem by first proposing a transcendent authority that it calls truth. But this truth, which is still unknown, receives a form from philosophers when they assume that thought is predestined for this form, able to recognize it and predisposed to loving it. Truth in this case is not completely foreign to thought and the circle that philosophical thought wanted to avoid closes again. A second approach states that men and women, to the extent that they claim to have a mind, think naturally: there is a necessity of the mind, like the bodily necessities of human beings and animals, that pushes them to seek the truth. Deleuze wrote in this regard that “philosophers readily assume that the mind as mind and thinkers as thinkers want the truth, love and desire the truth, seek the truth naturally. They grant themselves the goodwill of thought in advance” (Proust and Signs).
The preconceived “image” of thought permeates every philosophy up to Nietzsche, even though it is already partially contested in particular philosophies (as by the cynics or Spinoza). This dominant form, which Deleuze calls dogmatic thought and Baudrillard calls critical thought, serves as a model for traditional philosophy that thinks that reality is rational and therefore “exchangeable” with thought. As Leon Chestov wrote: “‘Reality is rational’ is the essential axiom of any philosophy, at least of any philosophy that only seeks the possible.”
It is likely that Chestov had a direct influence on Georges Bataille in his insistence on accentuating the limits of philosophy and the need for thinking beyond, or at least beyond dogmatic philosophy. Like Bataille, Deleuze, and Derrida to some extent (for example when he defines deconstruction, in a lapidary statement, as “impossible”), Baudrillard joins a search for the impossible or for a philosophy of the event, of discontinuity ex-nihilo: “Against the thinking of origins and endings, of evolution and continuity, a thinking of discontinuity.” An event of the world, for which the Big Bang is the absolute model, but also event of life, of sexualized reproduction and death, of language “that long precedes us and turns around in us to think us” (Ibid.). (I would add to seduce us and invite us to play with it).
After Nietzsche, Bataille, Deleuze and a few others, Baudrillard invites us to shed critical thought, to forget “the ideas that change and multiply… (like) a history of ideas and their hypothetical finality.” Forget Foucault, in an even more radical way than before. [Leave the accumulation of knowledge to the historians, letting them autopsy the corpse of the past was Baudrillard’s that was developed into Forget Foucault (1987). Leave behind the authors who continue to produce more explanations and interpretations of the world and who must have read The Gay Science or The Accursed Share but continue to run around like chickens with their heads cut off.
III. A Cartographer? No, a Writer
For this reason, we should avoid direct commentary of Jean Baudrillard’s work or even using it as a pretext for a more personal analysis. And we should not separate his work into parts, by distinguishing for example a block of texts on objects and consumer society, another block on communication, another on seduction or the impossibility of exchange, etc. [It is possible, however, hypothetically speaking, to distinguish between a (chronological) first part of Baudrillard’s work that runs up to Symbolic Exchange and Death, which is at least in part marked by the application of critical thought to different themes: consumer society, the media, a critique of Marx (The Mirror of Production), These remarkable essays marked their time, and while they were already permeated with the regime of thought that would follow, they remained connected to critical thought that gave their author the image of a sociologist The same is not true of the texts that followed and reflected a radically different regime of thought]. There are, of course, different themes but his writing always returns to the same questions. They are more than a main theme; the same position, the same operation and the same obsession haunt all of these themes.
The density of a work is one criterion among others but it is the most consistent trait that distinguishes the accumulation of knowledge in a university or disciplinary position from writing that takes its necessity from a position of gay science or disquiet. It would be particularly unwise to try to cloak this writing in a gloss, which is hard work in general and in Baudrillard’s case completely inappropriate.
Jean Baudrillard is obviously not a sociologist in the University sense of the word. The little consideration shown for his work by academic authorities can only be seen as reasonable and mostly positive. We should not try to compensate for this fortunate oversight but be the guardians of the freedom that this work introduces into thought by saving it from restrictive reductions.
Should we go so far as to free the work from its author? A book is finished when you can think that you have carried it as far as possible, with the knowledge of an impassable limit that only the book can cross or that some readers will take it to its end and even beyond its end” (Baudrillard, 2002).
Why, how do we read Jean Baudrillard? What pleasure, what attraction, what impulse, what laughter do we find in his texts? (And sometimes, what profound shock: writing that does not disorient or contradict would not be a source of thought. There must be a flip side to jubilation, a flipside to laughter). Why do we visit the mental world he creates out of the world we share? What joyous disquiet do we gain from these visits?
Or instead: Why are we seduced by this shadow given to the world? It is not easy to speak of seduction with Jean Baudrillard… “Seduction is enigmatic.., it cannot be spoken or revealed.., it is unexplainable evidence”. This quotation is from a passage in Fatal Strategies where love and seduction are opposed. The passage is exceptionally instructive because the invention of the concept of seduction – and it is truly an invention – sheds light on our relationship with others. Radical alterity can only be respected in a relationship of seduction.
A re-enchantment of the world? I would not pick that word although it does sometimes apply. I would rather speak of freedom and lightness. Baudrillard frees us from the social world and the dogmatic representations with which it is often covered. [For example, in the early 1970s, he freed the social – and some of us by the same token – from the “mirror of production”]. His thought releases the world and those who live in it from the duty of knowing more, always more and from the guilt of not knowing or understanding enough about it. So that the world can remain beautiful like a cryptogram hidden under the flows of information accumulated each day. [Why read or listen to the media, asked Fellini, “why absorb this daily poison?”] Deleuze wrote concerning Foucault: “A writer? No, a cartographer”. We could say the opposite of Jean Baudrillard: A cartographer? No, a writer. And every true writer has his or her own language and unique topology.
To bring the seductive power of the cryptogram into play, the point of view, the play of – harsh – light and preserved shadows. Then we can show the limits, the singular points, the hidden layers while protecting the enigma without which the world would lose its beauty. The beauty of what is, without reason, in its absolute
IV. Strange Attractors
Which leads us to the more general hypothesis that I made about the uniqueness of a regime of thought and the most important point: the mode of thinking is more important than the thought itself.
While this thinking is not up for interpretation, it nonetheless appears to be marked by the figures and oppositions of terms that give it a rigorous form. Figures of becoming, destiny; fatality (and metamorphosis) opposed to the figures of change and exchange, the fractal and the spectral (and metastasis.)
There are multiple operations at the origin of these figures, classic rhetorical operations no doubt, but also operations in the mathematical sense, basic geometrical transformations and tools of anamorphosis: reversion and ambivalence, exponentiation, exceedance, fractalization, doubling, ellipsis, fading, and disappearance. [Baudrillard’s fascination with limit points, fault lines, singular objects or phenomena: the poles, the date line in the Pacific, black holes, the memory of water, phase changes, apoptosis as a juxtaposition of inverse processes. His way of applying the operations of the physical or biological world to the world of the masses is easy to explain but we must avoid oversimplification and preserve the seductive power of these metaphors. In the Cool Memories volumes, these operations (passing limits, reversion and self-reversion) produce amazing fragments most freely and directly]. In geometry, we once studied a strange operation, inversion, that turned a circle into a straight line with infinite points. We must try to transfer that operation to the regime of thought: transforming the circles of stereotypes and critical thought into something totally different but with a rigorous and secret relationship to the original discourse.
We can advance in this line of thinking by making the hypothesis that Baudrillard’s regime of thought is a search for strange attractors, the points of regions where the trajectories of complex, chaotic systems subject to variations in the initial conditions are forced to converge. [Like the image of a whirlpool in liquid drawn out through the hole in the bottom of a basin, or waters streaming down a valley into a single current. The first intuition of strange attractors can be found in Poincaré concerning the three body problem. The fractal nature and properties of strange attractors were discovered in 1971 by D. Ruelle and F. Takens]. In the chaotic flux of virtual data, opinions and representations, Baudrillard finds informational attractors and then builds his own from them. In the flux and endless stock of preconceived ideas, false proof and one-track thinking, it is easy to pick out symptomatic accumulations and repetitions, especially symptoms of denial. [As an example, the current repetition of the theme of sustainable development is the sign that it is no longer sustainable. And maybe the unmentionable wish to see the world destroyed with us or after us feeds our protests that we love our great-grandchildren]. Starting with these points, you then take them to the extreme, inverse and multiply… counterfeiting Baudrillard’s style brings you closer to it! Add all of the terms – the “passwords,” the ones that led to a book of interviews that make up Baudrillard’s conceptual topology (not cartography), that characterize his own attractors, his pass-concepts, and allow him to disorient the discourses we pronounce about the world.
These operations and attractors allow us to reorganize or disorganize everything related to identity, humanity, security, general good feelings and what Spinoza called the sad passions, but also the discourses on cloning, artificial intelligence, virtuality networks, and globalization.
It is important for these operations to be reversible, self-reversible, and for the passwords to be organized in couples so that everything can be perceived and thought of reversibly – or dually: Good and Evil; Saekina and Lilith (The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact). Knowing how to inverse the positions allows for a subtle play with points of view that frees us from a representation of the world subject to causality and subjectivity. Thus objects see us, an old Lacanian and even Sartrean story; masses do nor submit to power, but suffocate it ironically; adults become the potential victims of children; good health is threatened by the viruses that it creates… This reversibility or dual relationship is the condition for a distancing that sometimes allows secret hatred to appear, hatred that allows thought to discover what is in fact hidden under the thick layers of conventional thought and good intentions. [An ability to grasp politics—for example what made Jean Baudrillard the inventor of the Gauche divine [Divine Left – was made possible by this position of detestation].
These oppositions converge towards the central form of singularity (and also, again, the event) and therefore of impossible exchange. Singularity comes from a double detachment: separating from the general is not enough – it is the trap of individualism and idiosyncrasy that are only singular relative to the masses like a grain of sand on a beach. It is a first, fractal level of singularity. Absolute singularity is a unique sign with no relation to the general and no possible exchange. Between the absolute singularities, there remains the possibility of a play of metamorphoses on the basis of the inexistence of their own being (think of Pessòa and his “wanting to be nothing” and his metamorphoses; of Sade declaring that “bodies can only be exchanged in the secret of signs.”) Being in itself has a history woven from alienations and conquest; it has an illusory finality, the pretense to “become what it is.” Only singularity has a becoming, the possibility of freely metamorphosing.
For “in another dimension, the dimension of destiny and becoming (where thought “becomes”), there is only ever one idea: the sovereign hypothesis, equivalent to the sovereign passion of which Nietzsche spoke… [that] delivers us from all of the others, delivers us from plurality, from the frenzied exchange of modes of thought and modes of existence which is the caricature and simulacrum of becoming” (Passwords).
This sovereign and unique idea, which haunts all of Baudrillard’s writing after Symbolic Exchange and Death, is not to mention, or not entirely, no more than Nietzsche’s sovereign idea, the Eternal Return. It remains partially secret, keeping an enigma to escape exchange and maintain a radical alterity of thought. Some madness as well: “Since the world is evolving towards a mad state of things, one must take a mad point of view towards it.” Bataille adopted almost the same position at the end of The Accursed Share, while retaining the hypothesis of a reversal that would save the world [There is a heritage and a break between Bataille and Baudrillard. In The Accursed Share, Bataille wrote: “Human kind may have lost the world in leaving animality but became the consciousness of having lost it that we are”. Human beings are a separation that thinks and any attempt at objectification (rational thought), while giving us utilitarian mastery over the world, separates us even more from it by allotting us an indignity that Bataille reads into the representations of Lascaux where animals are magnified. Thought, because it is the product of an existence torn from the world, is negated in its objects and can only reach a radical, sovereign level by aiming beyond the object and the separation. Thought must tear away from itself if it wants to confront something which is not given in advance. This tearing, for Bataille, can only occur in proximity to modified states of consciousness (drunkenness, voluptuousness, the sacred, interior experience, etc.) like for Sade (“philosophy lights its torch with the passions”.) For Bataille, freedom is nothing if it is not the freedom to live at the limits where understanding erodes, (The Impossible). Baudrillard’s regime of thought does not call for these limit-states that mix effervescence and anxiety. He is distanced, detached (from cultural, historical and philosophical problems), more ambivalent and more cool].
V. Sovereign Thought
The essential remains to be said. For prudence’s sake, I will try to be brief and allusive, following the suggestion and example of Cool Memories: “You will be judged on the brevity of your intuitions and your speech.” A body of work unflinchingly opposed to the processes of research and knowledge based on the illusory erasure of subjectivity or the laborious accounting for the biases subjectivity introduces. Researchers are always guilty of inadequacy or subjectivity; subjected to truth, commanded to show proof and watched closely by their colleagues [A “small world” described by David Lodge, Javier Marias and many others]. Researchers are like sinners, and truth is their God. Writers axe only subject to themselves, their life, their visions, their violence and the rules they give themselves. This submission is, in the end, a greater cause of rigorousness than the objectivity that weighs on scientists. The submission to what provokes thought – but also artistic creation – this intellectual prematurity – controlled autism, revolt, revelation, tireless discipline to keep the mind free – presupposes spiritual asceticism. From asceticism emerges style and the author produces an identification for him or herself [Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote of Cezanne what one could write of any necessary work: “To be done, this work required this life”].
Every work is first the mastery of a technique, a material, in this case writing. But it is above all the projection into the mastered material of what an author has found to express the beauty of life in its cruelty. Baudrillard’s mode of thought is not only the invention of a singular topology in conjunction with masterful writing. Jean Baudrillard writes his own way of inhabiting the world, of diving “into the mental depths and metaphoric waters, into the murky universe of concepts” (Cool Memories IV). In the radical approbation of life, every creator plays a sovereign game. It is from this excess of individuation, not the experience of ordinary alterity (alteritas in the sense of diversity), but radical alterity as a provocation (outside reason), that seduction becomes possible.
The seductive alteration that a writer, poet or painter produces involves replacing reality submitted to laws with a game defined by rules. Not to share the game, but to exalt his or her solitude, offer us metamorphoses and make us more enigmatic to each other. In this way, the writer suggests an unmentionable community, a community based on something other than love – no one misses the others – but a community of seduction, of solitary people (those who do not have a community as Blanchot said). The expression of this interior experience, of this sovereignty creates the impassible boundary between programmed diversion, playfulness and festivities and the sovereign game. Without these forms of expression of radical acceptance “life would be an error,” to extend Nietzsche’s phrase on music.
*This chapter is the Introduction to Jean Baudrillard and Marc Guillaume, Radical Alterity. New York: Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, 2008 [ISBN:978-1-58435-049-1] http://mitpress.mit.edu/main/home/default.asp
About the Author
Dr. Marc Guillaume is a Professor from the University Paris-Dauphine and Director of Research at the Institute of Economic Information [CNRS], Paris, France.
Jean Baudrillard (1987 [c1977]). “Forget Foucault” in Forget Foucault – Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e).
Jean Baudrillard (2001 [c1999]). Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso. Translated by Chris Turner.
Jean Baudrillard (2002 [c2000]). Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000. New York: Verso. Translated by Chris Turner.
Jean Baudrillard (2008). “Because Illusion and Reality Are Not Opposed” in Radical Alterity. New York: Semiotext(e).