Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)
Author: Rex Butler
Note: The following paper was written for the Traverses Baudrillard Colloquium at Musee Quai Branly (September 17-18, 2010) which Rex was unable to attend. He is author of Jean Baudrillard. The Defence of the Real. London: Sage, 1999 and editor of Slavoj Žižek, Interrogating the Real (with Scott Stephens). London: Continuum Press, 2005. He has been a member of the IJBS Editorial Board since 2004.
I really only met Baudrillard once properly. I was staying in Paris in 2003, and a mutual friend had given me his phone number. I rang, and he invited me over for lunch, which turned into a long drink. I remember chatting to him in my bad French, passing mediocre opinions about contemporary photography – I said I liked Gursky, he said he didn’t – when suddenly I stopped and spoke to him about what was really on my mind. We had both discovered we liked the work of Slavoj Zizek, and I said to him: “Yes, but Zizek is going to be the last of the ‘big’ thinkers who is a radical Leftist working out of the Continental tradition. Even if I don’t personally agree with it, the next ‘big’ thinker everybody will have to take seriously is going to be a liberal or even conservative working out of the English tradition. And if such a thinker does not exist, they will have to be invented. Logically they will have to come next, as it is the only possibility that has not yet been done to death”. At this remark Baudrillard finally paid some attention, looked me in the eye and said simply: “You should become that philosopher”.
Of course, I never did; but as time goes by I increasingly come to wonder whether I was speaking to him, whether it was not Baudrillard himself who was already that great conservative philosopher I was conjuring up in my head. Baudrillard as a great conservative? The very idea is heretical. Baudrillard is an ex-Marxist, who worked at Nanterre University during May ’68, who maintained his distance as far as possible from the State, and who largely shunned academic awards and recognition. But, in some way, from the beginning, his work has been a search for the “authentic”, for something that is not only repressed within our culture but also lies in its past. Throughout his work, there is the thought that culture is haunted by some other “primitive” organisation of society, that something essential has been lost. In The Society of Consumption, he speaks of the “loss of spontaneous, reciprocal, symbolic human relations” (SC, 161). In For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, he speaks of our “contemporary erotic system, which precipitates a ‘fetishistic’ perversion that is restricted, stale and encompassed by models” (PE, 96). And in Impossible Exchange, he even defends the “good old alienated condition [of the wage-earner], protected by his alienation from over-exposure to the law of flows and networks” (IE, 53). And throughout his work, too, Baudrillard strikes attitudes that, if anything, are identified more with the Right than the Left of politics. He is critical of multiculturalism. He is critical of human rights. He is critical of over-socialisation. He is critical of consumerism. He is critical of contemporary art and its museums. He is critical of a major figure of the Left like Foucault. In a book like The Divine Left, he is even critical of the Left itself.
In his recent book The New Orientalists, literary theorist Ian Almond unflatteringly traces the terms Baudrillard uses to characterise Islam: “athletic superiority”, the “relinquishment of will”, “unironic docility”. And it is truly not too much to say that these terms are part of a certain cultural imaginary that is stereotypical, perhaps even racist. “The paucity of Baudrillard’s knowledge of the Middle East”, writes Almond, “is revealed in the eagerness with which he embraces the Orient, whether it is the ‘Oriental logic’ of Saddam Hussein or the use of 1001 Nights to justify extempore observations on the Iraqi leader’s concept of time” (159). Even Baudrillard’s arguments against the banning of the burka in France – so much in the news recently with Sarkozy’s measures – are specifically not to follow the feminist line of combatting women’s oppression, but nor obviously are they part of the liberal, “politically correct” line that would argue against its banning. Against that “false respect” granted to the other in multiculturalism, in which all differences are finally reconciled, Baudrillard argues against the banning of the burka in terms of a true respect for the other in their difference from and even antagonism towards him – a classic conservative, not liberal, response. (And in this regard Baudrillard is not so far from another great conservative, Alain Badiou, who likewise argued against the banning of the burka on the grounds that would only be to subject women to the universal prostitution of visual appearances in the West).
Now, of course, in saying this, I am aware of the howls of protest it will provoke at its apparent misreading and simplification of Baudrillard. Baudrillard’s work is precisely not a defence of or return to traditional values, but an opening up of the world to an always repressed symbolic exchange. If Baudrillard defends something like art, it is not in terms of its preservation of eternal human values but because of its radical “nullity” or “insignificance”. Baudrillard does not defend anything like the liberal Western values of free speech and democracy in his theorisation of Islam, nor does he conceive of the relationship between the West and Islam in terms anything like the famous “clash of civilisations” thesis. In summary, Baudrillard’s notion of symbolic exchange – which he defines in Symbolic Exchange and Death as an “act of exchange and a social relation which puts an end to the real” (SE, 133) – is not part of any recognisable liberal or conservative political thinking. And Baudrillard, for his part, makes the point time and again that it is not some actual real or reality that he is speaking of as lost and that we should return to. In any number of interviews, he contests any such understanding of his work as nostalgic or politically regressive: “Let me repeat that I’m not interested in realism. I am not speaking of the real extermination of things, of the physical, biological disappearance of living beings. My books are scenarios. I play out the end of things” (Interviews, 132-3).
And yet again it is interesting that virtually every example Baudrillard chooses to embody the symbolic it appears conservative. In Impossible Exchange, he writes: “The belief in freedom is merely the illusion of being the cause of one’s own acts” (IE, 47). In The Perfect Crime, he writes that we “must espouse the accidental declension of the world, must be merely an unexpected continuation which perpetuates the event of the world” (11). And in Fatal Strategies, he writes: “Not only do people surely not want to be told what they want, but they don’t even want to know it, and it’s not even certain that they want to want. Faced with such a solicitation, it is their evil genie that whispers in their ear to leave it to advertising or information systems to “persuade” them, to make a choice for them (or to leave to politicians the job of making things happen)” (FS, 97-8). None of these examples appears avant-garde, liberatory, forward-looking. They are not exactly that “creation of new values” that Nietzsche (one of Baudrillard’s heroes) spoke of. The tone is as far away as possible from anything like Derrida’s messianic and unnameable future or even Badiou’s and Zizek’s subjectively engaged revolutionary act. In ways we are only beginning to see, Baudrillard breaks with the utopian imaginary underpinning much 20th-century political theorisation and instead is part of the long melancholy tradition of post- or anti-Marxism that began with Benjamin and includes such figures as Cioran, Canetti, Adorno, and even such novelists as W.G. Sebald.
And, in fact, Baudrillard was often effectively accused of nostalgia. In an essay typical of the English-language reception of Baudrillard, ‘A Note on Nostalgia’, Australian sociologist Bryan S. Turner, in the course of a longer account of the meaning and function of nostalgia throughout Western civilisation, suggests that “both the quest for the real and the cynicism of Jean Baudrillard are nostalgic reflections on the loss of authenticity under the tyranny of the sign” (153). On a higher philosophical register, Jean-Francois Lyotard in his Libidinal Economy speaks of a more subtle trap that Baudrillard falls into: “But as holy and beautiful as it is, [Baudrillard’s] anger aims ultimately at the true again. It reproaches political economy, even and especially if this is Marxist, of forgetting something, or rather foreclosing, in a sort of perversion, which Baudrillard previously qualified as fetishist, a relation between persons which would not be subordinated to the consideration of the product, but would be entirely governed by symbolic exchange… This trap consists quite simply in responding to the demand of the vanquished theory, and this demand is: put something in my place” (104-5). And we, indeed, see an example of what Lyotard is talking about in the essay ‘Fetishism and Ideology: The Semiological Reduction’ in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. In that essay, after criticising Marxism for its notion of commodity “fetishism”, with its implication of some real substance or consciousness that is alienated, Baudrillard merely replaces it with a “fetishism of the signifier” (92), with its assumption of some real or natural desire that is “perverted” by the code (92).
One of the other things Baudrillard and I spoke abut that morning in his flat was a little book I once wrote about him entitled A Defence of the Real. The title had always puzzled him, he confessed. Didn’t I know that he had never argued for the return of any straightforward form of reality? That is true, I replied. I was arguing for the real not in this sense, but more in the sense – as I hinted in one of the footnotes – of the Lacanian Real: something not outside of simulation (or, in Lacan’s terms, the symbolic order) but arising only within it. Something not given in advance of simulation – or existing before it – but coming about only after it, as an effect of it. More precisely, I wanted to think this Real in terms of a certain paradox of representation, going back all the way to Plato’s Cratylus: the fact that, if an original and its copy resembled each other too closely, they no longer resembled each other at all; or, to put this the other way round, that two things resemble each other only by being different form each other.
In all of this I absolutely agreed with Baudrillard that his work was not nostalgic, did not refer to or require any pre-existing real. It is not an external but an internal limit to simulation – our cotemporary systems of politics, economics and society – that Baudrillard seeks to exploit. And following this, I argued, it would also be necessary to set out a certain protocol of reading Baudrillard not in external terms, against any objective standards of truth or the correctness of the interpretation of his intellectual sources, but only in his own terms. Baudrillard can only be judged according to the logic of his own system, according to the standards that he himself sets. Thus in an important sense Baudrillard does not describe a pre-existing world – therefore this world cannot be held against him – but rather prescribes it. His work does not directly correspond with the world but only indirectly seduces it: it is only by imitating nothing that Baudrillard might hope to capture a world that likewise has lost any contact with reality and can be thought only in its own terms.
All of this is as rigorously as possible to exempt Baudrillard from the charge of nostalgia, and I would argue it is only in this way that he might be exempted. And yet, if we are truly to keep alive the challenge of Baudrillard’s work today, if we are to think the “duel” or the “duality” in it – put simply, if we are to continue to ask questions of it – it seems to me important to keep alive this tension in it: between this unpresentable real and the actual embodiments Baudrillard finds for it; between the fact that Baudrillard knows that the space of this real cannot be filled, at the risk of falling into the trap of the system, and the fact that in order to make even this point, the place of this real must be filled. We might say, between the fact that his work refers to nothing and can be judged only in its own terms and the particular contexts, influences and political preferences we find expressed in it. In a way, these two sides of Baudrillard are irreconcilable: against any attempt to contextualise his work or to limit it to its political preferences, we would emphasise its pure and unrepresentable logic; against any attempt to see Baudrillard’s work as uncontaminated by reality, we would have to think not only what are the politics of this unrepresentabilty but also how this seductive emptiness always takes determinate forms, how Baudrillard always has to choose specific contexts in which to argue and adopt identifiable political positions. It is not a matter of balancing one against the other or taking each into account. The two sides are irreconcilable, and perhaps – to borrow a phrase from a thinker we both like – they form a kind of parallax view, with the problem coming about only in the shift between perspectives. In every regard, this duality is the very “real” in Baudrillard’s work.
About the Author
Rex Butler is from the department of Art History, University of Queensland, Australia.