Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Dr. Paul A. Taylor
I adore certain symbols no less than you do. But it would be absurd to sacrifice to the symbol the reality that it symbolizes. Cathedrals are to be adored until the day when, to preserve them, it would be necessary to deny the truths which they teach.1
A death inevitably leads to a period of introspection for those still shuffling about on this mortal coil. Apologies are requested in advance if my ruminations fall between a scholarly appreciation of Baudrillard’s work and a personal consideration of some of the reasons why he was such a provocatively engaging theorist for his admirers (and merely a provocateur for his detractors). The above quotation from the narrator of Proust’s Á La Recherche du Temps Perdu seems a particularly relevant summary of the ultimate import of Baudrillard’s overall project and his status as the foremost interrogator of the contemporary society of the simulacrum. It can be interpreted as a succinct and suitably Gallic corrective to the frequent misrepresentation of him as a nihilistic celebrator of the postmodern semiotic realm. In fact, rather than being only as much of an adorer of symbols as anyone else, Baudrillard’s writing is suffused with a deep appreciation of the cultural depth of the symbol and a keen appreciation of the social loss entailed by its increasing replacement in contemporary culture by its etiolated substitute – the sign. Since, in life, Baudrillard’s work was fundamentally about the power of the symbolic, it is fitting that, in death, the various papers in this obituary issue of IJBS testify to his global standing as a symbol of challenging thought.
In the current intellectual climate of UK universities, thought that challenges the status quo faces a fate akin to that of a child in a crèche in Herod’s Kingdom. It is threatened by an unholy alliance of government pressures to produce skills-orientated training rather than education and scholars-turned-apparatchiks so keen to please their paymasters that bad faith now festers throughout the university system. Intellectuals seem to have lost the ability to make the philosophical distinction between what is true and merely correct. The university zeitgeist promotes the meretricious whispering of sweet nothings into the ears of powerful people from the “real world” rather than creating the conditions for the posing of the questions non-scholars busy sucking at the teat of Mammon do not have the time to think about – nor the intellectual independence to ask.
In this context, Baudrillard’s work shines like the proverbial diamond in the midden. His death throws into sharp relief the poverty of much current intellectual discourse disproportionately consisting as it does of timid thinkers and accommodationist modes of thought. His traditionally Durkheimian affinity to the symbolic meant that he did not deny the truth which symbols teach. One of the major qualities that set Baudrillard apart was this almost anachronistic and doggedly Proustian refusal to compromise his intellectual commitment to highlighting symbolism’s fatal enervation in a pathologically mediated society. Not only did he give us inimitable insights into the severity of this condition, but he did so with an idiosyncratically evocative and poetic mode of expression.
His stubborn refusal “to sacrifice to the symbol the reality that it symbolizes” and the inimitable manner in which he expressed this refusal, has not prevented, and indeed may be said to have caused, some scholars’ willful and disingenuous misinterpretation of his message as somehow condoning what he so forcefully condemned. The intellectual honesty of his unashamedly speculative thought will thus continue to be misrepresented by those superficially more firmly grounded in hard-nosed reality, but actually acting as the true nihilists for their refusal to engage properly with the processes of pervasive simulation occurring right under those same empiricist noses. Their denial of Baudrillard’s radical truth and imaginative mode of analysis stems from the uncritically-informed need to preserve safe disciplinary boundaries and their corollary – a dull theoretical conservatism. The following quotation from Siegfried Kracauer vividly illustrates this process. Adapting it from its original context as a prescient analysis of pre-Fascist Germany’s incipient trends, it now all too resonantly expresses the manner in which those currently charged with safeguarding the conditions for disinterested intellectual enquiry have instead pimped it out for self-interested gain:
…the group that has gained power certainly does not abandon the idea, even though it has in fact deserted the idea and is now just floating along in reality (one thinks, for example, of the church during the Renaissance). An infallible instinct teaches it that the idea is an excellent ally on whom it can always rely, if ever its right to exist were put in question. It therefore negotiates a daring tightrope of a dialectic in order to deduce all its undertakings in reality from the idea, so that naive sensibilities can believe that the group is acting as its executor. But its relations to the contents of should-being that once constituted it are in truth now only of a superficial sort, the idea having become pure decoration, an ostentatious facade for a partly rotten interior which represents, together with this facade, a unity that is nothing short of a mockery of spirit.2
It is thus no accident that Baudrillard did not aspire to, nor achieve, conventional academic success.
His willingness to highlight the ostentatious nature of power’s facade effectively ruled him out from influence within the group that has gained power, but this only makes him all the more powerful as a witness to the critical power of the idea itself. In addition to valuing the inspiring nature of Baudrillard’s exploration of the death of the symbolic in contemporary society, we should strive to do full justice to his memory as a symbolic personification of an on-going critical project. A Buddhist proverb says: “When a finger points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger”. In a world of cuticle-gazers Baudrillard stood out like a sore thumb.
Baudrillard’s Sociological Imagination
Many practitioners of social science … seem … curiously reluctant to take up the challenge that now confronts them. Many in fact abdicate the intellectual and the political tasks of social analysis; others no doubt are simply not up to the role for which they are nevertheless being cast. At times they seem almost deliberately to have brought forth old ruses and developed more timidities.3
The idea, for the purposes of this paper, is the notion that intellectuals should aspire to more than what Lazarsfeld enthusiastically envisaged as administrative research or what C. Wright Mills more pejoratively described as the cultivation of method for its own sake – abstracted empiricism. Conceptual timidity amongst intellectuals results from the deadening impact of the legitimations common to any social structure. “‘Common values’ [arise] when a great proportion of the members of an institutional order have taken over that order’s legitimations, when such legitimations are the terms in which obedience is successfully claimed, or at least complacency secured”.4 Baudrillard stood out for the manner in which he disobediently challenged theoretical complacency and, free from disciplinary conservatism, asked the truly meaningful questions that are frequently either deliberately avoided by social science or not amenable to their fetishized methodologies. As C. Wright Mills points out, an attempt to arrive at an understanding of the social meaning of the mass media’s cultural effects that relies exclusively upon empirical methods is ultimately not feasible, no matter how precise the methods chosen, if your only object of study is a mass of people already saturated with the object of your enquiry – “The thinness of the results is matched only by the elaboration of the methods and the care employed”.5
A true appreciation of Baudrillard’s importance is thus always likely to be inaccessible to those suffering from this form of crass insensitivity to the subtleties of the phenomenological methods really needed to understand our pervasively mediated culture. In the social sciences, an over-concentration upon methodologies for their own sake, offers the patina of repeatable rigour sought after in the field’s self-description. This only happens, however, at the cost of creating the abstracted empiricism that inevitably betrays its own purported methodological aspirations. Baudrillard himself neatly combines this theoretical point with the aforementioned literary panache when, in Simulacra and Simulation, he describes how anthropologists who sought to study scientifically the Tasaday Indians were forced to put them back into the jungle without further study – their methods of examination were killing off the focus of their study so that:
For ethnology to live, its object must die. But the latter revenges itself by dying for having been “discovered”, and defies by its death the science that wants to take hold of it. Doesn’t every science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it? Like Orpheus it always turns around too soon, and its object, like Eurydice, falls back into Hades … the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form6 .
Death, paradoxical slope, revenge, pitiless reversal, fantastical autonomy, Orpheus and Eurydice – here we have terms and images seamlessly blended to produce an acuity of expression apparently wasted upon academe’s less imaginative denizens.
Amidst the sadness of those familiar with Baudrillard’s writings at news of his death, it was not too difficult to detect an element of sneering from the uncritical group-mind – including “jokes” about whether his passing had actually taken place. Ironically, his work has been largely unacknowledged and unappreciated within those disciplines (communications and media studies) most in need of his theory. The reason for this rests in his radical insistence upon the need to distinguish between the properties of a sign and a symbol, a distinction that less radical approaches are ill-equipped to make – or perhaps, more disingenuously, ideologically non-disposed to recognize. The result is that just as Baudrillard claims that communications technologies are designed to “fabricate non-communication”7 , so the very disciplines designed to illuminate media technologies, actively serve to prevent any meaningful interrogation of their real cultural impact by consistently failing to recognize the symbol/sign distinction.
In contrast, Baudrillard’s various McLuhanite “probes” and “mosaic” style are geared to questioning, at the most fundamental level, the communicational assumptions of the contemporary mediascape. His innovative approach allowed him to grapple with the implications of Heidegger’s famous paradoxical assertion from The Question Concerning Technology that “the essence of technology is nothing technological”. It is ironic that Baudrillard, the postmodern, nihilist bête-noir of empirical social “sciences” was in fact much more concerned with examining the actual felt phenomenological experience of the mediated life than his empiricist detractors trapped as they are by the insufficiently acknowledged levels of abstraction required by their more “acceptable” methodologies.
The type of “Gradgrind-ian” academics for whom Baudrillard’s insights are automatically an anathema, are likely to dismiss their literary quality as a mere stylistic irrelevance. Such a knee-jerk attitude, however, obtusely overlooks the powerful effects he created from his imbrication of form and content. It allowed him to do what other great French thinkers before him (Lacan, Derrida etc.) also did – something Žižek describes in terms of creating a parallax view and looking awry (both phrases used as book titles by Žižek) – namely, to produce a critical perspective in the midst of the dominant, uncritical celebration of the ’empowering’ possibilities created by the flux and flows of new media technologies. Less concerned with methodological and disciplinary purity, Baudrillard typified what I call the Heineken function of Gallic thinkers in the Anglo-Saxon world of theory – he reached the parts of culture that other thinkers simply cannot. Baudrillard’s poetic quality was a fundamental feature, rather than an optional by-product, of his writing. Heidegger addresses the crux of this issue with his distinction between the poeisis or bringing-forth with which a person confronts their environment in a liberated, humane existence and the alienation caused by the enframed, challenged-forth mode of relationships that stem from existence within a technologized environment over-determined by pre-encoded models and processes.
III. Baudrillard’s Poeisis – the demiurgic craftsman
The shudder of awe is humanity’s highest faculty, Even though this world is forever altering its values.8
Nil admirari prope res est uan …
Solaque quae possit facere et servare beatum.
(To stand in awe of nothing …
Is practically the only way to feel really good about yourself).9
Goethe’s shudder of awe encapsulates the experience of reading Baudrillard receptively. Those not willing to stand in awe of such a simultaneously impressive stylist and profound interpreter of the contemporary mediated condition, manifest the continued relevance of Horace’s ancient insight. It is how much more dispiritingly prosaic writers, whose own writing makes “Homer sound like balance-sheets, and balance-sheets sound like Homer”10 , continue to feel good about themselves. Baudrillard’s status as that rare breed of a truly inspirational writer stems from the manner in which he embodied Rorty’s concept of the strong poet (after Bloom) and C. Wright Mills’s desire that in relation to “men whose mentalities have swept only a series of limited orbits … Their capacity for astonishment is made lively again”.11
An open, and suitably empirical, challenge for Baudrillard’s critics is to open one of his books at random and try not to find an arresting phrase or memorably striking image. In particular, he frequently used oxymoronic pairings to devastating effect such as his scathing description of cell phone users suffering from “the mobile confinement of the network”12 and I witnessed at firsthand the apoplexy of a committed runner during a seminar discussion of Baudrillard’s Old Europe-infused distaste for the manic solipsism of American joggers who “carry on running by a sort of lymphatic flagellation till sacrificial exhaustion is reached”.13
His ability to illuminate by means of such suggestive pairings was often supplemented by explorations of the paradoxical. Thus, building upon his earlier exploration of the ob-scene as the myopia induced by the paradox of excessive transparency, he describes in his late essays Dust Breeding and Telemorphosis, how a depiction of true sociality becomes further, rather than closer, from our reaching the in the ever more explicit world of Reality14 TV. Genuine human relationships are replaced by a ‘mirror of platitudes‘ and social experience mediated by an endless chain of solipsistic screens creating an “umbilical limbo”.15
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Baudrillard’s reception by other theorists is the consistency with which his significance for critical theory is either underestimated or fundamentally misunderstood. His actual combination of style and political substance means that a more attentive and well-intentioned reading, makes him a surprisingly good illustration of the type of thinker admired by those who would otherwise not be seen as his natural fellow-travelers. Rorty, for example, refers to Baudrillard disparagingly when he claims that:
… books like Baudrillard’s and Jameson’s … are ‘philosophies of current events’. These books are metahypes, hyping the very process of media hyping, hoping to find the essence of what’s happening by examining the entrails of magazines. The readers of these books are the people who ask themselves whether the latest building, TV program, advertisement, rock group, or curriculum is properly postmodern, or whether it still betrays traces of mere modernism.16
In this instance, a thinker of otherwise exemplary perspicacity is reduced to the sophomoric mistake of confusing a theorist who critically engages with the lived experience of simulation as an apologist for that experience. Within Rorty’s own work, however, there is a much more fitting illustration of Baudrillard’s true significance particularly given Rorty’s use of the notion of the demiurge – a favoured Baudrillardian notion used to express the seductive power of images:17
When I attribute inspirational value to works of literature, I mean that these works make people think that there is more to this life than they every imagined … Inspirational value is typically not produced by the operations of a method, a science, a discipline. It is produced by the individual brush strokes of unprofessional prophets and demiurges … If it is to have inspirational value, a work must be allowed to recontextualize much of what you previously thought you knew; it cannot, at least at first, be itself recontextualized by what you already believe18 .
Rorty fails to recognize the Baudrillard that perfectly fits his own definition of the inspirational thinker. Rorty’s accusation that Baudrillard was guilty of engaging in cultural haruspicy and wasteful definitional games is more accurately applied to those mainstream sociology, cultural studies, and media scholars, unable as they are to countenance his claim that: “All that remains for us is theoretical violence – speculation to the death, whose only method is the radicalization of hypotheses”.19
In fact, instead of concentrating upon “the entrails of magazines”, Baudrillard consistently sought to relate the micro-experience of human interaction with specific individual objects to their additional status as pre-ordained pieces in an overarching social matrix of a priori abstraction. His theoretical sophistication was such that he consistently found ways to engage head on with the abstracted empiricism that, pace C. Wright Mills, has evolved beyond a term for academic methodological weakness to become an apt description of the lived experience of the contemporary mediascape. Like Heidegger before him, Baudrillard chose the example of furniture to illustrate the nature of the cultural experience lost from the beginning of industrialized society, a loss and enervation that exponentially increased with the advent of the society of simulation to which his life’s work bore critical witness20 .
Countering the accusation that his criticism of technology implies an unrealistic desire to return to a “rustic idyll”, Heidegger presented the case of a machine-using village cabinetmaker to point out that: “what maintains and sustains even this handicraft was not the mere manipulations of tools but the relatedness to wood. But where in the manipulations of the industrial worker is there any relatedness to such things as the shapes slumbering in the wood?”21 Similarly, Baudrillard also used furniture as an exemplum of a lost authenticity, a symbol of grounded sociality to be opposed to a mass-produced furniture designed to be part of a pre-ordained matrix that systematically follows the commerce-inspired modish trends of the interior design industry:
Whereas the old-fashioned dining-room was heavily freighted with moral convention, ‘modern’ interiors, in their ingeniousness, often give the impression of being mere functional expedients…The modern set of furniture, serially produced, is thus apparently destructured yet not restructured, nothing having replaced the expressive power of the old symbolic order.22
Combining both the qualities of Sartre’s protagonist Roquentin in La Nausée, whose constant gaze at a chestnut tree produces a revelatory experience, and Heidegger’s conception of the carpenter craftsman, Baudrillard was a craftsman of speculation – acutely sensitive to the shapes slumbering in the metaphorical wood of the mediascape. Unlike his less inspiring detractors, he sought to understand the lived experience of a simulated society in all its felt surreality.
Baudrillard’s Politics – Facing the Plenitude of Zeros
What is presented in the hotel lobby is the formal similarity of the figures, an equivalence that signifies not fulfillment but evacuation …This invalidation of togetherness, itself already unreal, thus does not lead up toward reality but is more a sliding down into the doubly unreal mixture of the undifferentiated atoms from which the world of appearances is constructed.23
Baudrillard’s reputation in some quarters as a postmodern nihilist ignores the strongly normative tenor of his account of semiotic society’s inner emptiness and widespread anomie. More justifiably, the charge can in fact projected back on to his accusers for the alacrity with which they skate over the uncomfortable implications of his much more candid assessment of the mediated life-world. Thus, the notion that the contemporary mediascape fosters a ubiquitous and pervasive profanity is a political consideration consistently played out in Baudrillard’s contrast between the totalitarian semiotic order of signs and the agonistic, seductive properties of a traditional society in which symbols still matter. Moreover, as this section will demonstrate in relation to the writing of Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966), far from glorifying an amoral lack of commitment to substantive values, Baudrillard’s theoretical legacy takes its place as part of a proud scholarly tradition of critical European humanist thinkers.
Baudrillard’s distinction between sign and symbol and his resulting critique of the world of simulations and simulacra draws upon the same basic conceptual framework as Kracauer’s similar emblematic contrast between the form of social belonging experienced within a church congregation and the anonymous interactions of those temporarily loitering in a hotel lobby. Kracauer’s account of the spatially limited hotel lobby, becomes for Baudrillard a society-wide phenomenon. Kracauer’s exploration (above excerpt) of the ‘invalidation of togetherness’ and the ‘unreal’ prefigures Baudrillard’s much later examination of the postmodern hyperreal. In some of his final published work Baudrillard updated Kracauer’s invalidation of togetherness with the concept of telemorphosis. For both writers, formerly socialized people become reduced to undifferentiated atoms.
The essentially circumscribed nature of the hotel lobby reappears in the penchant Reality TV formats have for “any enclosed space where an experimental niche or zone of privilege is recreated – the equivalent of an initiatory space where the laws of open society are abolished”.24 Referring to the French Reality TV programme Loft Story, Baudrillard provides us with the (il)logical extension of Kracauer’s “formal similarity of the figures, an equivalence that signifies not fulfillment but evacuation”. Baudrillard describes how this evacuation affects our whole society: “Loft Story is both the mirror and the disaster of an entire society caught up in the rush for insignificance and swooning to its own banality”.25
The existential tension that Kracauer finds in the church congregation is evacuated in the hotel lobby just at it is in the Loft where: “this existential micro-situation serves as a universal metaphor of the modern being enclosed in a personal loft that is no longer his or her physical and mental universe but a tactile and digital universe … of digital humans caught in the labyrinth of networks, of people becoming their own (white) mice”.26 The hyperreal in Baudrillard’s definition of the term is marked by the absence of an original reference point in reality upon which the fake is based. This absence has its theoretical antecedent in Kracauer’s analysis of Ratio which is an excessively abstract, perverted form of true reason (vernunft). Kracauer suggests that: “The desolation of Ratio is complete only when it removes its mask and hurls itself into the void of random abstractions that no longer mimic higher determinations, and when it renounces seductive consonances and desires itself even as a concept”.27 The notion of renouncing “seductive consonances” can be seen as a direct forbearer of Baudrillard’s later notion of seduction.
In Kracauer, as with Baudrillard, previously seductive forms of traditional life are now eviscerated by a self-referential system that generates its own meanings. The socially transforming process of abstraction that Marx describes in relation to the move from use-value to exchange-value, Lukács describes in terms of reification, Marcuse talks of as one-dimensionality, and Jameson talks of as the cultural logic of late capitalism, are portrayed by Kracauer as an essentially empty construct in which:
The only immediacy it then retains is the now openly acknowledged nothing, in which grasping upward from below, it tries to ground the reality to which it no longer has access. Just as God becomes, for the person situated in the tension, the beginning and end of all creation, so too does the intellect that has become totally self-absorbed create the appearance of a plenitude of figures from zero.28
Like Baudrillard’s conception of contemporary life as one that is replete with models that lack originals, Kracauer explains how an early form of the culture industry creates a bogus reality: “It thinks it can wrench the world from this meaningless universal, which is situated closest to that zero and distinguishes itself from it only to the extent necessary in order to deduct a something”.29 It is this focus upon the essential vacuity of the mediascape’s kernel that puts his work at most direct odds with much more conventionally well-received analysis which seeks to emphasize the empowering aspects of new media technologies – active audience theory, digital governance literature etc. Baudrillard’s honesty is perhaps too scathing for such Panglossian theorists as he argues:
… it is far from true that, as Enzensberger affirms, ‘for the first time in history, the media make possible a mass participation in a productive social process”; nor that “the practical means of this participation are in the hands of the masses themselves’. As if owning a TV set or a camera inaugurated a new possibility of relationship and exchange. Strictly speaking, such cases are no more significant that the possession of a refrigerator or a toaster. There is no response to a functional object: its function is already there, an integrated speech to which it has already responded, leaving no room for play, or reciprocal putting in play (unless one destroys the object, or turns its function inside out).30
My own empirical work on social groups seeking to use technology for radical purposes has bourne out Baudrillard’s caustic assessment of its actual potential to create meaningful empowerment. For example, hackers soon became absorbed by their over-identification with the technological system they originally sought to subvert, whilst even more overtly politically motivated hacktivists are constantly vulnerable to being undermined by the “mortal dose of publicity”31 with which dissent tends to be recuperated.32
Bad Faith and Chocolate Laxatives
… our media operates today to simulate in a safe form that lost sociality and shared meaning functioning, along with consumption, as a means of social control. For the festivals and violence of tribal society it substitutes today permanent football, the national lottery game show, morning television and its best-friend presenters, premier-plus ‘event’ movies, rolling news coverage, voyeuristic makeover programmes, sensationalist, tabloid-hyped soaps and the public pain, humiliation and hate figures of reality TV. The whole serves to expurgate expressive energies and social forces that might otherwise demand another, more immediate release. The hatch, match and dispatch of celebrity culture and the spectacle of a good royal funeral and sports final become essential purgatives33 , providing a simulated collective meaning for a profanized, individualized society, all instantly available without even having to leave our homes or have any social contact (emphases added)34 .
Above, Merrin provides an admirably cogent summary of Baudrillard’s critique as it stands in direct opposition, not only to the inherently anomic quality of the mediascape, but also the theoretical timidity and political quietism of the majority of its analysts35 . Merrin makes a clear, defining distinction between those theorists like Baudrillard who do not shirk the intellectual responsibility to acknowledge the vacuity and those for whom an accommodationist relationship to power (and research funding opportunities) inherently precludes, or at least circumscribes, the nature of their inquiry. Such neo-Durkheimian theorists who uncritically treat mass media events as merely updated, technologically-facilitated versions of traditional mass gatherings represent theoretical practitioners of Žižek’s concept of the chocolate laxative.
For Žižek, the chocolate laxative acts as a trope for the contemporary cultural phenomenon of objects that involve the agents of their own containment – also manifested in such etiolated commodity forms as decaffeinated coffee, alcohol-free beer etc. In media-theory-as-chocolate-laxative, mass culture’s innately commodified content is tautologically, frequently not only defended, but used as a frame of reference with which to approach areas of cultural life previously protected under what Nichols terms a discourse of sobriety.36 Baudrillard’s detractors thus either ignore or disingenuously sidestep the essential banality of mediated interactions. Arguing for the neo-Durkheimian position, Couldry betrays its lack of an ethical anchor with his dismissive disparagement that Baudrillard offered a “negative ‘theology’ of the media … and it is not ‘theology’ we need”.37
Given the misattribution of Baudrillard as a trendy interpreter of the zeitgeist, there is a certain irony in the fact that a key reason for his relative marginality within the ivory tower was his unfashionably traditional Durkheimian insistence upon the prerequisite of symbolic depth for meaningful cultural interactions. He was unashamed to value lost sociality and shared meaning – the collective effervescence of social ritual that forms the cornerstone of Durkheim’s anthropological approach. Despite its decaffeinated appearance for more banal times, Merrin points out that the defense of mass mediated “events” necessarily involves, albeit unacknowledged, a new set of, faux-normative commitments to pre-encoded, ultimately empty social forms so that:
The depth of our involvement and its uncertain object and reality signals only the extent of our prior separation and distance from our proximate experiences and relationships, our empathetic response indicating only our simulacral ‘participation’ in the world and corresponding “indifference” towards any actual symbolic experience.38
The political import and inspirational status of Baudrillard’s work resides in his refusal to partake of this indifference. The resonant vividness of his writing is testament to his belief in expressive energies. Whereas contemporary theorists of new media technologies and the simulated environments they create are all too eager to document the truth of Marx’s claim “All that’s solid melts into air …”, like Couldry’s aversion to a purported theology of the media, they are slothful in recognizing the second, admonitory part of Marx’s statement and its unashamedly spiritual tone: “… All that is holy is profaned“.
Under the banner of empirical studies, legitimating eulogies are composed for the megaspectacle and its inherent values. Commentators uncritically accept its commonsense naturalness, failing to heed Barthes’s admonition on the dangers of mythological thinking and Debord’s warning that “when analysing the spectacle one speaks … the language of the spectacular itself”.39 According to Baudrillard: “The arbitrary sign begins when, instead of linking two persons in an unbreakable reciprocity, the signifier starts referring back to the disenchanted universe of the signified, common denominator of the real world toward which no one has any obligation”.40 Unbreakable reciprocity neatly sums up the innate, inextricably imbricated material/immaterial quality of the symbolic relationship. In the symbolic we experience the unpredictable and the ineffable, whereas despite the best efforts of Panglossian “active” audience theorists and their endorsements of mediated empowerment, the mediascape envelopes us in the banality of its eternal now – the Reality TV contestants change but the format based upon Kracauer’s plenitude of figures from zero stays the same.
Conclusion – a symbol in King Herod’s Crèche
Yet spirit does not tolerate being scoffed at, and the idea takes sublime revenge on the now powerful group that has slipped from its grasp. Even though the group has relegated it to one more means of self-preservation, to a submissive tool that one can manipulate as one sees fit, it has by no means forfeited its significance as a transcendent should-being. It has simply been engulfed, raped, and abused by reality instead of transforming that reality according to its terms. But in the final analysis, is it really the idea itself that is destroyed in this process? Once hurled into the world, it will never be lost to spirit, and when a group that wants to use it to permeate the extant goes the way of all flesh, it is only this one group, and not the idea itself, that fails in its journey through social reality. Immobile, it dwells on the horizon, and a human world that did not demonically aspire to it again and again would have to be a world forsaken by God; it would not be our world.41
This paper has been top-and-tailed by Kracauer’s insistence upon the power of the idea – a power that Baudrillard’s work will continue to have irrespective of its official standing. Judging by the fate of such theorists as Heidegger and the manner in which the critical import of his philosophy for mediated society has been processed for more bland consumption at the hands of nominally sympathetic interpreters, there is a certain blessing-in-disguise that Baudrillard’s idiosyncratic style made him unappealing to the more po-faced42 within mainstream communications and media studies. His intellectual legacy is perhaps safer distanced as it is from the theoretical evisceration likely to accompany acceptance at the conservative high-table of disciplinarity. Furthermore, his limited appeal outside the ivory tower offers the hope that we will not have to endure the fat-free spread of Baudrillard-lite, bringing to mind Hannah Arendt’s warning that: “there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say”.43 The appearance of a hollowed-out copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation serving as a container for computer disks in the movie The Matrix is an apposite visual reminder of the vulnerability of critical theory to death by uncritical popularity and co-optation.
Periodically, there are discussions in the media about the role of the public intellectual and the media’s role in the communication of serious thought. Invariably, such discussions obtusely overlook the ironic conditions of their own possibility – i.e. insular, incestuously-minded gatekeepers discuss their own gate-keeping duties – but as the Roman poet Juvenal put it: Quid custodiet ipsos custodes? As an under-acknowledged poiesis-driven critic of postmodernity, Baudrillard sought to answer Juvenal’s call by persistently questioning the innate complacency of the mainstream media’s movers and shakers. His work critically undermines their obsession with the surface level and uncovers the ideological legerdemain they conduct with ephemeral non-events whilst the world’s dispossessed continue to play the role of voiceless extras and eye-candy for their camera’s insatiable sweet-tooth. Rorty defined knowingness as “a state of soul which prevents shudders of awe. It makes one immune to romantic enthusiasm”.44 Unfortunately, his own knowingness prevented him from recognizing the shudders of awe and romantic enthusiasm that Baudrillard generated.
An attitude of knowingness is what typifies the disciplinary and methodological petty-mindedness that fails to appreciate Baudrillard’s significance. This paper has consistently argued that intellectual insecurity leads to an over-compensatory need for nominally more empirical rigour. The social sciences thus frequently adopt an inappropriately systematic and self-circumscribed approach to the social world and a jealous fetishization of the methods chosen for such a misguided enterprise. Baudrillard gave us more than this, he kept the idea safe from the dessicatory attentions and misappropriations of the institutionalized scholarly group-mind. His writings will continue to remind us that “spirit does not tolerate being scoffed at” and that the idea may still yet take “sublime revenge on the now powerful group that has slipped from its grasp” trapped as that group is in its self-enforced/policed intellectual plenitude of zeros. Baudrillard, the demiurgic craftsman, provided us with a glimpse of a world we would indeed be proud to call our own. The best possible memorial we can pay him is our continued demonic aspiration for what dwells on the horizon, for what, despite its vulnerability, still manages to vex and evade the King Herods of this world. Whilst mourning Baudrillard’s passing we should find solace in the thought that: “What we have loved/Others will love, and we will teach them how”.45
About the Author
Dr. Paul A. Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Communications Theory at the University of Leeds. He is the Founding Editor of the International Journal of Žižek Studies (http://www.zizekstudies.org/) and the co-author of the forthcoming book Critical Theories of Mass Media: Then and Now (http://www.mcgraw-hill.co.uk/html/0335218113.html).
1 – Marcel Proust. Time Regained (c 1927). Volume Six of In Search of Lost Time. New York: Modern Library, 1992.
2 – Siegfried Kracauer. The Mass Ornament: The Weimar Essays. (c 1922). Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 1995:167.
3 – C. Wright Mills. The Sociological Imagination (c 1959). Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2000:22.
4 – Ibid.: 38-39 (emphasis added).
5 – Ibid.: 52
6 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan press, 1994:13-15.
7 – Jean Baudrillard. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St Louis. Telos, 1981: 169.
8 – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust (Part II).
9 – Horace. Epistles, I. vi. 1-2 Cited in Richard Rorty. Achieving Our Country Harvard University Press, 1998:125.
10 – M. L. Davies. “University culture or intellectual culture?” in B. Brecher, O. Fleischmann and J. Halliday, (Editors). The University in a Liberal State. Aldershot: Avebury, 1996: 23.
11 – C. Wright Mills. The Sociological Imagination. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2000:7-8.
12 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories. (page 103) cited in William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. London: Polity Press, 2005:24 (emphasis added).
13 – Jean Baudrillard. America. London: Verso, 1988:39 (emphasis added).
14 – The phrase Reality TV is used here with a capitalized ‘R’ to emphasize its essentially constructed and unreal nature.
15 – Jean Baudrillard. Conspiracy of Art. New York. Semiotext(e), 2005:181, 191 (emphasis added).
16 – Richard Rorty. Achieving Our Country. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 1998:120.
17 – See Smith’s “The Gnostic Baudrillard: A Philosophy of Terrorism Seeking Pure Appearance”. In International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 1, Number 2, (July 2004).
18 – Richard Rorty. Achieving Our Country. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 1998:133.
19 – Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage, 1993:5.
20 – For a fuller discussion of this theme see Paul A. Taylor and Jan Ll. Harris. Digital Matters: Theory and Culture of the Matrix. London. Routledge, 2005:58-63.
21 – Martin Heidegger in M. E. Zimmerman. Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: technology, politics, and art, Minneapolis, MN: Indiana University Press, 1990:162 (emphasis added).
22 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). London: Verso, 1996:17. (emphasis added).
23 – Siegfried Kracauer. The Mass Ornament: The Weimar Essays (c 1922). Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 1995:179.
24 – Jean Baudrillard. Conspiracy of Art. New York. Semiotext(e), 2005:191.
25 – Ibid:190.
26 – Ibid:193.
27 – Siegfried Kracauer. The Mass Ornament: The Weimar Essays (c 1922). Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 1995:180.
28 – Ibid.:180 (emphasis added).
29 – Ibid.:180.
30 – Jean Baudrillard. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St Louis. Telos, 1981: 171.
31 – Ibid.:174.
32 – See Paul A. Taylor. Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime. London. Routledge, 1999; Tim Jordan and Paul A. Taylor. Hacktivists: Rebels With A Cause? 2004.
33 – Zizek takes this notion rather literally with his concept of the chocolate laxative.
34 – William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. London. Polity Press, 2005:26-27.
35 – See my previous appreciation of Merrin’s book – Baudrillard’s Radical Media Theory And William Merrin’s Baudrillard and the Media International Journal of Baudrillard Studies Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007).
36 – For a full discussion of this see Paul A. Taylor & Jan Ll. Harris. Critical Theories of Mass Media: Then and Now. Buckingham. Open University Press (in press, 2007)
37 – Nick Couldry. Media Rituals: A Critical Approach. London: Routledge, 2003:18.
38 – William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. London. Polity Press, 2005:59.
39 – Ibid.:75.
40 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:84-5 (emphasis added).
41 – Siegfried Kracauer. The Mass Ornament: The Weimar Essays (1922). Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 1995:167.
42 – Po-faced is a British phrase that refers to a humourless, disdainful facial expression. For more details on its derivation see: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-pof1.htm
43 – Hannah Arendt. “The Crisis in Culture” in Between Past and Future. New York: Viking, 1961.
44 – Richard Rorty. Achieving Our Country. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 1998: 126
45 – William Wordsworth, The Prelude.