Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006)
Author: Steven Cole
Review of: Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet is the latest in a growing series of collected interviews with Baudrillard. Like the previous collection Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews1 , Fragments covers a broad range of topics. Yet this collection isn’t hampered by a myriad of interviewers pulling Baudrillard in different directions. As Gane notes, interviewers can “bully” Baudrillard into positions he doesn’t actually accept thereby leading him to contradictory statements and conclusions.2 In Fragments, as in Paroxysm3 , the reader enjoys a sustained interview with only one interviewer. L’Yvonnet guides Baudrillard through a variety of topics whose natural flow and cadence structure the book as a whole. Ironically, though in fitting Baudrillardian fashion, Fragments is much less “fragmented” than other collections. What really sets Fragments apart, however, is Baudrillard’s clarity. Like many other contemporary theorists, Baudrillard can be much more straightforward in interview than in his theoretical or “performative” writings. The interviews here seem clearer and less “self-conscious” than other collections yet, refreshingly, Baudrillard seems willing to “theorize” and develop logical arguments rather than simply play with ideas. For example, Baudrillard outlines his relationship to (modern) German Theory (e.g. Kant, Marx, Frankfurt School), his current work’s relation to his earlier ideas,4 and shows that political resistance is not the futile exercise many critics claim he believes. In sum, Fragments’ greatest strength is its ability to “place” Baudrillard in relation to previous theorists and traditions. The first chapter, “Untimely Fragments”, explores Baudrillard’s use of aphoristic writing and his general relation to Nietzsche. The topic of aphorisms reemerges in chapter 3 within an extremely important distinction between the “fractal” and the “fragment” that complicates any quick amalgamations of Baudrillard and Deleuze.5 Yet it is chapters 4, 6, 7, 8, that hold some of Baudrillard’s most clearly expressed thoughts on theory, reality, and the critical tradition.
Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, books such as The Perfect Crime, Impossible Exchange, and The Vital Illusion outlined Baudrillard’s ontological and epistemological positions. In Fragments, Baudrillard succinctly outlines his key ontological claim: we are in a world of “integral reality” where everything (all negativity, subversion etc) has been “absorbed” into an integral whole.6 As a truly integral whole, we cannot set values against one another nor separate one position from another. Reality lacks “depth” and therefore our ability to distinguish or position the real and the imaginary has disintegrated.7 Although this “valueless” singularity seems to suggest a bleak future in which any type of protest is, a priori, useless, Baudrillard sees “singularity” as the key to new forms of resistance. If objects are truly singular, the “real world” is not exchangeable with its representational forms (words, concepts etc.) and therefore a depthless world “escapes” dominant codes of signification and systems of exchange:
Identity implies difference. In the order of differences, and hence in the order of signification, of meaning etc., there is a table of comparison and exchanges. Singularity, by contrast, is incomparable. This is essential point. It isn’t the order of difference. There’s no general equivalent of singularity. It isn’t governed by the abstraction of value and hence to exchange it is impossible.8
In Chapter 6, Baudrillard’s discussion of photography clarifies his conception of singularity. The “two dimensional9 ” photograph is unproblematic in and of itself: its lack of depth and status as image is unproblematic. Yet if we view the photograph representationally, the photograph becomes “three dimensional” and subsequently becomes “murdered” by the logic of the real. Here Baudrillard does not use the third dimension as a physical attribute of depth (3-D) but invokes it as a “depth hermeneutic”: meaning now lies behind the image’s surface rather than within its immanence. Thus the third dimension transforms images to mere representations by introducing a difference between the image and “the real.” The third dimension, therefore, brings the image into Western philosophy’s general problem of representation, reality, and judgment.
As a representational system, theory forces us to validate exchanges between the subject’s thought (ideas) and the object’s real properties (reality). This problematic act of exchange was the central issue in Baudrillard’s early critique of Marx (The Mirror of Production) and linguistics (For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign) in which any system of (theoretical) representation ultimately conflates its own system with the real10 : epistemology becomes ontology and vice versa. Thus, while there are certainly key changes in Baudrillard’s position from the early 1970s, Fragments also shows there is an underlying unity in Baudrillard’s thought that many have quickly diminished in favour of constructing an “early” and “late” Baudrillard11 . This unifying thread also debunks the common (mis)conception that Baudrillard moves from a critical position to an apolitical (though begrudging) postmodern acceptance of the given. Baudrillard does not abandon critique12 , but argues that in an integral world resistance must escape the realm of exchange and signification that simply recodes it within dominant simulation systems. Thus, effective resistance requires radical changes in theoretical and political practice that ultimately necessitate a fundamentally different conception of the subject’s relation to the object. Thankfully, Fragments guides the reader through such reconceptualizations.
Modern acts of resistance presuppose a relation between the subject and object that fosters critical reflection. Through such crisis, be it ideal or material, the subject transcends the immanent world and sees reality for what it is. This transcendent relationship relies upon a “reality principle” that Baudrillard finds problematic. Rather than a subject confronting an external world, Baudrillard’s subject is inseparable from the object: the subject-object relationship is “viral”.13 This is not simply a rehashing of Marx’s insight into the subjective nature of reality14 for although Marx argues that thought is nature15 , he also posits the material as the foundational relation to thought. For Baudrillard, the world’s singularity suggests that the subject-object “relation” is best conceived as a form of “osmosis”16 rather than an act of reflective transcendence;17 the object is the subject and vice versa, and therefore the problem of representation becomes moot since there is in fact no “external” thing to be re-presented (there is only a singularity). This is not, as some Marxist’s would like to argue, a simple rehashing of idealism. In fact, one may read Baudrillard as inherently Marxist (or radically Marxist) in that the concept of representation has itself become an “empty abstraction” with no relation to “reality.”18 For example, by simply replacing “the social” with “representation”, the following quote arrives at a position shockingly similar to Marx’s own critique of abstraction in the Grundrisse:
The concept of ‘the social’ has gone awry . . . When the idea of ‘the social’ first appeared, it represented a break with all religions, all transcendent orders; it had a certain radicalism, in so far as it was linked to society in action and the conflicts that emerged from history. And then ‘the social’ became an absolutist concept – even an imperialist one. It was then extended retrospectively to all societies and, prospectively, to all possible societies. At that point, it lost all definition. If everything is social from one end of history to the other, then nothing is. This is a disastrous consequence of all totalizing conceptualization.19
This passage seems eerily familiar to Marx’s critique of the Political Economist’s inability to recognize their own theoretical system’s reifications despite their ability to break through previous systems’ explanations of wealth. In reading representation itself as a previously progressive historical force that has become a totalizing conceptualization, an immanent understanding of reality avoids age old philosophical problems of representation. In a sense, Baudrillard transcends the very concept of transcendence thereby “unveiling” reality’s integral nature. But does this mean we should abandon the search for underlying causes? Should we simply accept reality “as is”?
As Baudrillard argues earlier in the book, it is dangerous “to go back to a mythic vision of things, but the principle of historical and mental evolution is just as dangerous.20 Baudrillard is not advocating mere acceptance of the world, but warns that most attempts to unearth underlying causes fail to recognize their own simulation of reality. Baudrillard often illustrates this point through reference to quantum physics. Nonlocal causality and wave-particle duality challenge traditional conceptions of an “objective reality” while the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle problematizes the split between subject and object.21 This use of quantum physics is sure to illicit a variety of responses from the reader. Some may see it as an appeal to the authority of natural science, some may see it as ill-informed, while others may ask why Baudrillard seeks to “ground” his ontology at all. Yet I believe Baudrillard’s real purpose is to counter those critics who believe his theoretical writings are simply irrelevant to social research. By referencing quantum physics, Baudrillard shows that his ontological and epistemological positions do not, prima facie, reject empirical studies of the “real” world.
In its entirety, Fragments proves an invaluable read that brings many of Baudrillard’s divergent interests and influences into a more cohesive and comprehensible whole. A second edition of the book would greatly benefit by referencing, or referring the reader to, Baudrillard’s other works; such information would greatly aid newcomers to Baudrillard’s oeuvre and “flesh out” some of his claims. The book would also benefit by questioning Baudrillard on a specific political or social issue; although Baudrillard often suggests his work does not necessitate an apolitical apathy, he fails to give the reader “real world” examples of his position in action. While some may see the wording of these last few sentences as entirely problematic, Fragments shows that the critical tradition is alive in Baudrillard’s work, albeit in sometimes unrecognized (immanent) form.
About the Author:
Steven Cole is a Doctoral Candidate and Lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.
1 – Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. Edited by Mike Gane. New York: Routledge: 1993.
2 – Ibid.:12
3 – Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Phillipe Petit. New York: Verso, 1997.
4 – As Baudrillard’s recent book Passwords shows, there is a linearity to his theoretical development that need not suggest any great schism, but rather a reformulation and rearticulation, between an “early” and “later” Baudrillard. See: Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York: Verso, 2003.
5 – For Baudrillard, DNA is an example of the fractal: a part which potentializes the whole and therefore exists as a virtual totality. Conversely, the fragment is a singularity that destroys the (developmental) totality. Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge, 2004:26-28.
6 – Ibid.:71.
7 – Ibid.
8 – Ibid.:84.
9 – Two dimensional since the photograph lacks the third dimension of depth.
10 – Or more precisely, theory simulates reality.
11 – Usually based around a Marxist and Non-Marxist Baudrillard.
12 – Editor’s note: For an earlier discussion of the role of “critique” see the interview with Alan Cholodenko Edward Colless and David Kelly (1984) which appears in Jean Baudrillard. The Evil Demon of Images. Sydney, Australia: Power Institute, 1987:37-54.
13 – Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge, 2004:72
14 – Thought is part and parcel of a given historical reality/totality.
15 – Thought is both human nature and reliant upon the material substrate of the brain. Levi-Strauss later develops this line of thought to materially “ground” his structuralism in the physical brain.
16 – Marx’s very late writings on natural science and soil studies, however, hint at a similar conception of the subject-object relationship.
17 – Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge, 2004:75.
18 – Hence Baudrillard’s references to Manichaeism in which reality is a radical duality of opposing forces that cannot be separated. Since one force cannot be separated from the other, one force cannot represent the other. The reference to Manichaeism is particularly relevant since it shows that negativity (negation) is inseparably part and parcel of the given. Thus via Manichaeism, and “materially” via Big-Bang theory, Baudrillard constructs a type of non-representational Marxism.
19 – Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge, 2004:49.
21 – The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle shows that any measurement of a physical system necessarily changes the system itself. Thus, the subject is inherently part of any system being studied and therefore the object of study cannot be conceived as truly external.