Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)
Author: Jason De Boer
This essay previously appeared in Absinthe: A Literary Review in Spring 2000. http://www.absinthe-literary-review.com
For we grant meaning only to what is irreversible: accumulation, progress, growth, and production. Value, energy, and desire imply irreversible processes – that is the very meaning of their liberation. (Inject the smallest dose of reversibility into our economic, political, sexual, or institutional mechanisms and everything collapses).1
This statement from Seduction by Jean Baudrillard serves as an excellent summary of his overall project as a critical (or “fatal”) theorist and a cultural commentator. These are the chimeras with which he does battle: production, value, desire, etc. His strategies range from the overtly conventional to the extremely radical to the profoundly ridiculous, but they all remain consistent in their overall aim toward the disruption, dissolution, and reversibility of the ordering structures of modern civilization. Baudrillard’s injections of reversibility into these structures often appear contradictory or repetitive, but this is perhaps inevitable and even necessary to the illustration of his theories. An unholy union of psychoanalytic, post-Marxist, and Nietzschean thought, Baudrillard’s methodology can be haphazard or quite precise, depending on the paragraph in question. He is prone to sweeping generalization and overstatement, but these propensities (simultaneously endearing and irritating) are the vehicles for his own brand of “theoretical violence.” Baudrillard never wavers from his position that “the radicalization of hypotheses is the only possible method.” I shall briefly examine Baudrillard’s attempts to transform modern notions of the social, economical, political, and, perhaps most importantly, the theoretical.
In his first truly important work following his break from his earlier Marxism, Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard begins to arrange the list of Western concepts with which he continues to grapple: representation, value, production, etc. His approach is dependent upon a rejection of the correspondence theory of truth, certainly not a new strategy. However, Baudrillard is unique in that he is not particularly interested in justifying this abandonment, but rather he is curious about the consequences when it is assumed that language and objects are forever irreconcilable. Baudrillard’s approach is ironic and he is most intrigued by tracking theoretical possibilities (and even impossibilities) into the unknown.
Beginning from the supposition that signs are never exchangeable with any real referent but only with one another, Baudrillard attempts to reverse the movement of representation and value and bring them to a standstill. Without the possibility that signs can exchange themselves with a non-linguistic reality, signs can never cross into the objective world and represent anything within it. Without a standard or reference to mediate an exchange-value between the “symbolic” and the “real,” value itself cannot properly exist in either. If all signs are equivalent, then no sign is more valuable than another. While this creates a radical disjunction between the symbolic and the real, even this difference itself cannot hold without a reference with which to distinguish the two. The two realms blur into a totality incapable of exchange or representation, which Baudrillard terms “hyperreality.” Any relation between the symbolic and the real can only appear at the level of appearance or superficial contact. This is Baudrillard’s state of simulation: a state where objects cannot have meaning and signs cannot have concrete objectivity.
For Baudrillard, our society’s current state of simulation has fatal implications for traditional notions of production. Production can no longer be a means to an end, but can only be an infinite repetition (of itself, for itself) without justification. Material production can have no claims to meaning, just as symbolic production can make no claims to the physical world. He writes: “Production itself has no meaning: its social finality is lost in the series. Simulacra prevail over history.”2
The symbolic reproduces itself in an orgy of simulation, without purpose or destination. Exchange and production proliferate within the symbolic, but these never lead to production of or exchange with the real. From Seduction: “Production only accumulates, without deviating from its end. It replaces all illusions with just one, its own, which becomes the reality principle.”3 Material production, then, also continues in its meaningless reproduction, under the simulation of a referential principle. Baudrillard poses destruction as the often-desirable reversal of production, but this raises the difficult question of how one incorporates destruction into the form of production known as theory? What room has Baudrillard left for transgression or liberation (whether political, social, or theoretical) in a simulated world without correspondence or exchange between signs and objective events?
For Baudrillard, the political cannot be a real activity, but must remain a simulation. He writes (In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities): “there is no liberation . . . a system is abolished only by pushing it into hyperlogic, by forcing it into an excessive practice which is equivalent to a brutal amortization.”4 Baudrillard claims that politics in its traditional form is no longer viable; it is replaced by the practice of manipulation: of appearances, signs, and empty forms. If this were true, this trading of meaning for appearances would result in the destruction of any concept of the social, and perhaps the destruction of certain forms of conceptuality. Yet Baudrillard maintains that this is the direction that postmodern society is heading. Our need for fascination has usurped our need for meaning, for “fascination is not dependent on meaning, it is proportional to the disaffection of meaning.”
This trend toward fascination may be a defense against the excess of signs and simulation. As production spins out of control, meaning is produced everywhere (albeit a meaning that is doomed to remain symbolic, never real). Baudrillard maintains that meaning is so pervasive and suffocating that the demand for meaning must itself be produced. As society shields itself from the onslaught of meaning by rejecting it, production picks up the slack by producing meaning and the demand for it. Since politics can only aid production in its project and cannot reverse it, Baudrillard rejects politics as a strategy. He must either then reject the political implications of his own work or leave his work to the same fate as politics. Consequently, Baudrillard’s own theoretical project must be sacrificed to fascination. From Seduction:
All descriptions of disenchanted systems, all hypotheses about the disenchantment of systems – the flood of simulation and dissuasion, the abolition of symbolic processes, the death of referentials – are perhaps false. The neutral is never neutral; it becomes an object of fascination.5
Baudrillard then finds himself needing to position his theory within the concepts he set out to reverse. Theory, as a series of signs of equal value, is rendered impotent to affect or interact with the real. It is always productive and never destructive, although what it is capable of producing is merely more signs. Baudrillard realizes this, and this futility, once realized, he cannot ignore. Theory must return to the critical, productive enterprise, where it resumes its reproduction, or it must take its own futility as its object and become “fatal”. By abandoning meaning and becoming fascinated with itself, fatal theory must ultimately cease to be theory as such, eventually turning to more literary or fictive strategies. Baudrillard must attempt to make every line a sacrifice of production. A theory self-aware of its own impossibility to transcend signs must forget the real and try to disappear into its own empty form.
In The Ecstasy of Communication, he writes: “The impossibility of reconciling theory with the real is a consequence of the impossibility of reconciling the subject with its own ends. All attempts at reconciliation are illusory and doomed to failure.” Baudrillard expresses the reversal or arresting of progress in another passage:
Our all-too-beautiful strategies of history, knowledge, and power are erasing themselves. It is not because they have failed (they have, perhaps, succeeded too well) but because in their progression they reached a dead point where their energy was inverted and they devoured themselves, giving way to a pure and empty, or crazed and ecstatic form.6
Theory must abandon production for seduction and revel in the ecstatic supersaturation of its own linguistic nature. Baudrillard does not have to theorize with the intention of affecting a “reality,” but can let his theory stand as fiction or literature that persistently draws attention to its own lack of grounding. This is also Baudrillard’s defense against critics who would condemn his method or his sometimes contradictory conclusions.
Theory-fiction must lose the possibility of producing results or predicting a future, which traditional theory always assumes as its goal. But the irony of a fictional theory creates new possibilities as pure seductive potential. Conjecture has no limit once it is emancipated from an original reference. Theory-fiction becomes analogous to Baudrillard’s notion of contemporary art (in Fatal Strategies), which “no longer creates anything but its own disappearance.”7 Only in this way can theory exemplify or “reflect” simulation. “Perfect is the event or language which assumes its own mode of disappearance, knows how to stage it, and thus reaches the maximal energy of appearances.”8
Baudrillard has unveiled the groundlessness of theory, like Nietzsche and Bataille before him, but he has managed to fashion a space for a different sort of “theory,” one that is fatal, ironic, even absurd in its abandonment of the timeworn project toward truth or production. His is a “theory” obsessed only with reiterating the impossibility of theory. Thus, to read and study the theory-fiction of Jean Baudrillard is in fact “to proceed without believing in it, to sanction a direct fascination with conventional signs and groundless rules.”
About the Author:
Jason De Boer works as an editor in Madison, Wisconsin. His fiction and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, Other Voices, Quarterly West, Rosebud, Stand, The Wisconsin Review, The Clackamas Literary Review, American Atheist, and the Barcelona Review.
2 – Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (c1976). London: Sage, 1993:56.
3 – Jean Baudrillard. Seduction. Montreal: New World Perspectives Culture Texts Series, 1990:83.
4 – Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. New York: Semiotext(e):46.
5 – Jean Baudrillard. Seduction. Montreal: New World Perspectives Culture Texts Series, 1990:44
6 – Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstacy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983:86.
7 – See also Jean Baudrillard “The Art Conspiracy” in Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:183 which is the English translation of the original which appeared in Liberation, May 20, 1996.
8 – Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:17.