Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Stephen H. Jones
One view of Jean Baudrillard as a condescending intellectual who saw “us” (the mere mortals) as no longer able to differentiate between actual events and media orchestrated illusions makes defending him a disheartening endeavour. In my experience, attempts to do so frequently face an accusation that is thought to render reading him unnecessary and unhelpful. Most commonly it takes the form of some variation upon the following: “Where does Baudrillard leave us?” “If we must, supposedly, be at all times cognizant of the absence of distinction between truth and falsity, how might we craft a moral position?” “If politics has been supplanted by mere representations of itself, how can we even begin to think about political change?”
In light of his recent passing the first of these questions seems to have acquired a new relevance and a different meaning: Where does Baudrillard leave us? With what message, what lesson, if any? How should one take into the future this writer who, unlike the generation of thinkers of which he was a part, seemed to closely tie his thoughts to the events (or “non-events”) of the day? Does the fact that he spoke of contemporary art, of Rushdie and Khomeini, of the Gulf War, of Sarajevo, mean that he cannot be taken beyond the times he wrote about?
For me these questions now have an immediacy and pertinence because, as simple as it often was to write off his assertions – being, as they were, so often made apparently in the face of direct evidence to the contrary1 – he nonetheless seemed, with remarkable frequency, to put a finger on what was, paradoxically, most elusive and most obvious at the same time. His writing attempted to speak of what was tacitly operative on a wide scale but was nonetheless unnameable. His opinion was, therefore, both invigorating and infuriating – impossible to ignore, yet intensely difficult to thread into any systematic analysis. His insights were, and remain, almost impossible to quantify. As such, the notion that his thought might not be able to inform any event upon which he has not explicitly commented – that there might not be a central effort to his writing – suggests, to me at least, that what needs to be spoken of might in the future remain silent.
Can we then define what this central effort was? Many of Baudrillard’s critics bemoaned his reservations about the Enlightenment goal of ever-increasing knowledge, and in consequence attributed to him scepticism of an open society, and even hatred of democracy. These kinds of inferences even lead to occasional efforts to try and draw connections between him and fascist authoritarianism.2 Thought, it frequently appeared to his opponents, was something Baudrillard held in contempt. His aim was thus, it was often claimed, little more than to express his own disaffection, normally directed toward whatever was at the time generally regarded to be worth fighting for: rights, happiness, peace.
But to anyone who has read Baudrillard carefully it is obvious that, whilst a deeply-held reservation about what he called the “totalization” of knowledge is very much present in his writing, that presence never once lead him to cease fighting against whatever he saw as a threat to openness and egalitarian principles. His only difference, perhaps, was that he only reluctantly limited himself to a particular national, and hence electoral, context. In fact, what appeared to impel Baudrillard’s writing was the recognition of a contradiction: the very technological mechanisms looked upon to open up society through increased understanding and communication seemed to be closing it. It was, he thought, the erasure of uncertainty that was, and today is, egalitarianism’s opponent. This led him to question the “purity” of media, but also, more generally, the self-evident beneficence of technological progress. He would, for this reason, surely have approved of John Gray’s words, which go some way to summarising his perspective:
Today, faith in political action is practically dead, and it is technology that expresses the dream of the transformed world. Few people any longer look forward to a world in which hunger and poverty are eradicated by a better distribution of the wealth that already exists. Instead, governments look to science to create ever more wealth. Intensive agriculture and genetically modified crops will feed the hungry; economic growth will reduce and eventually remove poverty. Though it is often politicians who espouse these policies most vociferously, the clear implication of such technical fixes is that we might as well forget about political change. Rather than struggling against arbitrary power, we should wait for the benign effects of growing prosperity.3
These words, however, although broadly consistent with Baudrillard’s position, do not adequately encompass it. His concern was not just that technology’s promise to inoculate all against misfortune, misery and poverty might be a “false dawn”, but that the active nurturing of this consensus, its protection and maintenance, could result in the most violent action right now in the present. According to Baudrillard, in fact, the potential for violence threatened to increase rather than decrease as the likelihood of realizing this utopia dwindled. We continue to protect the goal of a life lived without misfortune, he averred, not through brash self-confidence, but fearfully; each challenge, each voice differing from the consensus – even if it is only symbolic and without military muscle – becoming an insufferable threat to the dimly held hope that it might yet, even in the face of impossible odds, be possible to expunge life’s calamities. Better to do that than to face the present’s challenges; better to do that than to feel obliged to others, to feel the need to question oneself for the sake of others. In this scenario hope dwindles but fear persists – like a man who has ceased to believe in God but who still fastidiously observes every religious ritual for fear of being condemned to Hell.
It is when speaking of this sense of almost pathological fearfulness that Baudrillard managed to communicate what present-day political debate cannot easily countenance. He considered political life to have been worn down not (or not only) because of its being subsumed by the facile world of stage-driven media representation, but because where it once referred to change, antagonism and reconciliation, it now refers to protection, securitization, and maintenance – in short, little more than an administrative task divorced from ethics. And this shift was, for him, made all the more pronounced by most politicians seeming need to mobilize the vernacular of history, progress and change in the face of their own constraint. Every adjustment is given a veneer of historical significance in order to mask a profound inertia (the recent change in British Prime Minister, for instance, was inaugurated with the proclamation “let the work of change begin,” despite the outgoing individual and his replacement being almost identical in ideological terms); each event, every movement on the world stage, must, to use one Baudrillard’s turns of phrase, examine itself and ask: am I profound enough, spectacular enough, significant enough to make it historically?4 And in this situation history – and the history of political change in particular – is cheapened, like a currency that has been overproduced and thereby devalued to the point of ceasing to be money.
Yet for Baudrillard this wearing down of politics was sinister for more reasons than its ability to make parliamentary debate stagnant. His foremost concern was that it suggested a reversal of political norms. His problem was that “non-political” “security-based” manoeuvres might be able to proceed without being judged as wars are judged, as power is judged, because they cease to be wars based upon power: they are merely, to use Carl Schmitt’s term, “police operations.” A fearfully maintained utopia which is nonetheless viewed, consensually, as the only acceptable option opens a dangerous door: to the spilling of blood to save blood; to the creation of disorder and destruction in order to maintain order and avoid destruction. When the maintenance of order is the motive, and the aim is impossible, (non-)political strategy becomes merely a form of prophylaxis or deterrence that can be directed at anything. This is how one should, I think, read Baudrillard’s comments on the “war on terror”:
This strategy of deterrence is directed not only at the future, but also at past events – for example, at that of 11 September, where it attempts, by war in Afghanistan and Iraq, to erase the humiliation. This is why the war is at bottom a delusion, a virtual event, a ‘non-event’. Bereft of any objective or finality of its own it merely takes the form of an incantation, an exorcism. This is also why it is interminable, for there will never be any end to conjuring away such an event. It is said to be preventive, but it is in fact retrospective, its aim being to defuse the terrorist event of 11 September, the shadow of which hovers over the whole strategy of planetary control.5
One can certainly see from these words why Baudrillard amassed in his lifetime such a sizeable collection of vociferous enemies. His reluctance to temper, qualify or elaborate upon his position leaves it sounding sweepingly judgemental. Alone, without context, his fragmentary declarations can come across as little more than anti-American, anti-Western diatribes. But he was not against America per se, merely against any power setting out the terms against which morality and immorality are judged. His concern was the structural asymmetry that existed between non-violent “protective” violence and symbolic “destructive” violence. And in order to oppose this he tried to forcibly reinsert the element he saw as left out of the picture – in this case the symbolic echoes that refuse to be controlled. His point above is not that America is a deluded Moloch, but rather that a process of disavowal is at work. After all, can we truthfully say – even given all that could be written about the usefulness of the “interventions” in Iraq and (more justifiably) Afghanistan – that there is nothing in this military situation that relates to the media-driven need to be publicly “seen to be doing something”?
It is therefore a grave mistake conclude from Baudrillard’s work – as many of his critics have done – that his perspective, cunning as it may have been, was not concerned with morality, that he was unmoved by the dead of terrorist attacks or of “non-wars.” Quite the opposite, in fact: Baudrillard’s concern was that in the situation he described significant elements were left out of the moral equation. In a situation in which political processes proceed like administrative tasks, the dead become mere “collateral damage” – a discounted by-product that is no longer part of the “minimal utopia” to which the global world clings. He thus had some affinity with the following words of Schmitt:
Everyone belongs to humanity … “Humanity” thus becomes an asymmetrical counter-concept. If he discriminates within humanity and thereby denies the quality of being human to a disturber or destroyer, then the negatively valued person becomes an unperson, and his life is no longer of the highest value: it becomes worthless and must be destroyed.6
Pace the opinions of his critics, Baudrillard’s opinion was not uncaring, he merely refused to accept this closing off of ethics: he denied the possibility of total consensus in order to question any particular person’s ability to speak for all; he refused to remain satisfied by the morally self-gratifying idea that all could be catered for without having to consider how one’s way of living affects others; he rejected the moral confidence that comes with blind certitude – and consequently he did his best to disrupt that certitude. William Merrin’s words, written about Baudrillard’s essay The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, can be extended to cover much of his oeuvre: “Baudrillard’s essays, far from being nihilistic,” form “a genuine, impassioned and sustained polemic, infused with anger, indignation, scepticism and wit that suggest a more immediate and coherent moral position than that usually attributed to his work”.7
However, the gravest error to draw from Baudrillard’s life and work is that he held thought in contempt. This conclusion can only be reached by the baseless inference that because he denied his opponents’ claims to be offering “reasoned” arguments – and therefore rectitude of judgement – he was an idealist who did not need to bother connecting the thoughts he thought to the world he lived in. His arguments simply rebut the implication that proceeds: “I am rational therefore I am right.” I encountered Baudrillard’s work as a disaffected undergraduate, frustrated at university life’s apparent inability to provide any education that related to more serious and searching questions than how to organize the world more effectively and expediently. To this, Baudrillard’s writing seemed like a release: he seemed to me a man who placed thought, not away from life, but against the defectiveness of life; he seemed to write like a man who saw economics, politics and technology becoming incorporated into one unchallengeable integrated system, and who – for moral reasons – ceaselessly refused to let thought go the same way. His effort was, to use Rimbaud’s expression, to enact a “logical revolt” (the ambiguity of this expression perhaps aptly conveying the way in which Baudrillard, on the one hand, saw revolt as a logical part of “global” society, and, on the other, was himself revolting against that society’s logic). For me – far from being left out in the cold by Baudrillard – it was Baudrillard who seemed to be fighting against the prospect of being (either intellectually, materially or politically) left aside.
This is not to say he was without flaws. His flaws, in fact, are part of the reason why I do not read him as much as I once did (although, as I mentioned, I have never been able to dispense with him entirely). His hyperbole, his curt, declarative style, whilst invigorating and challenging, can leave him open to attack. If one is to try to utilize his arguments in order to win over intellectual opponents, it is sometimes necessary to try to adapt his thought into something more thoroughgoing. For instance, Baudrillard called both Gulf wars “non-events” because (in the first case) there was no desire to remove Saddam, and (in the second) there was. This can easily lead to the counter that the West is, from a Baudrillardian perspective, frozen into inaction, never able to do anything correctly. One needs, therefore, to emphasize the expediency that governed both wars, and make judgements accordingly. One needs to expand the point further than Baudrillard did, both in this case and typically.
But finally, upon the occasion of Baudrillard’s leaving us, we are left with, more than anything else, his passion as a writer, which continually reminds all who read him that the reason for engaging in intellectual activity is not just to suggest alterations and improve the functioning of society as it stands, but to challenge what it stands upon. He is, for me, a writer to begin with, to take into – as Pierre Bourdieu put it – the “combat sport” that is intellectual life. He is the initial spark, the provocation. Mischievous, ironic, cutting – the hallmarks of Baudrillard’s writing remind us that the role of reflective thought is never to be constrained by the laws and consensuses of the time; his lesson is that, ultimately, thought should and will always leave the grasp of what confines it.
About the Author
Stephen H. Jones is from Goldsmiths College, University of London, England.
1 – In one of his essays, he even admitted that this was the case: See Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Sydney: Power, 1995:28. The same has been said about many of his declarations. For example his suggestion that today “the child is no longer a child” is, for instance, contrary to many people’s sensibilities. See Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993:169-170:
Whereas adults make children believe that they, the adults, are adults, children for their part let adults believe that they, the children, are children. Of these two strategies the second is the subtler, for while adults believe that they are adults, children do not believe that they are children. They are children, but they do not believe it. …The feminine principle also partakes of this ‘lascivious’ irony, as when women let men believe that they are men, while they themselves, secretly, do not believe that they are women (any more than children believe that they are children). One who lets others believe is always superior to the one who believes, or makes others believe. The idea of the sexual and political liberation of women was a trap precisely in that it made women believe that they were women. Consequently, the idea of femininity triumphed: the rights of women, the status of women, the idea of women — all these carried the day, along with the belief in women’s own sexual nature. Once women were thus ‘liberated’, once they want to be women, the superior irony of the community of women is perforce lost. No one is immune from this kind of misadventure. Think how men, by taking themselves for men, have fallen into voluntary servitude.
2 – Richard Wolin. The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.
3 – John Gray. Heresies. London: Granta, 2004:50-51.
4 – Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Sydney: Power, 1995:31-32.
5 – Jean Baudrillard. The Intelligence of Evil or The Lucidity Pact. Oxford: Berg, 2005:118-119.
6 – Carl Schmitt. “The Legal World Revolution,” in Telos, 72, summer 1987. Cited in: Tracy B. Strong. “Foreword”, in Carl Schmitt. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996: ix-xxii.
7 – William Merrin. “Uncritical Criticism? Norris, Baudrillard and the Gulf War,” in Mike Gane (Editor), Jean Baudrillard. (Volume II). London: Sage, 2000:389.