ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 7, Number 1 (January, 2010)
Author: Xiaochang Tong
A review of: Jean Baudrillard and Marc Guillaume. Radical Alterity. Semiotext(e) / MIT. (2008).
*Translated by the author.

Baudrillard’s writing departs not only from the established critical schools (Frankfurt and others) but also from more recent approaches often termed “postmodern” (after Lyotard). Baudrillard’s writing draws a good deal of attention (and misunderstanding) as it is simultaneously a radical challenge to established theoretical positions and the society they have themselves criticized.

For Baudrillard modern simulation society possesses an immanent fatality. This contentious and fascinating aspect of Baudrillard’s thought takes us far from both the mainstream and established academic thought. His is a view which originates in semiotics. His ideas concerning theory fiction and simulation make his writing all the more complicated and open to contempt. Appreciating Baudrillard’s particular viewpoint is essential to understand the value of his key concepts, including: reversibility, fatality, destiny, double, seduction and even simulation and code.

According to Baudrillard, modern society is not part of a Hegelian history no more than it a new phase of the postmodern. What we lack, he says, is the kind of break that would mark a postmodern “beginning”. What we have instead is only an immanent movement at the structural level. History is neither continual nor isolated for Baudrillard but rather, a cycle – from the disappearing past there remains a residue or a remainder for recycling. Baudrillard’s understanding of history implies it is subject to the logic of code.

For Baudrillard and Guillaume the subject has today lost its power and priority within the entire metaphysical system. The latter has already been deconstructed by modernity itself. In the conversations between Guillaume and Baudrillard in this book we learn more about Baudrillard’s theoretical intention, and from Radical Alterity we could also rethink some concepts such as Subject, as well as the theoretical context around them.

Guillaume begins the discussion of “the Other” from “stranger” as developed by Simmel – here the Other is understood as “an impartial observer, taking the distance needed to observe conflicts or situations that do not concern him or her in any lasting way. This distance gives strangers intimacy and places them in the position of mediators or even confessors” (26). The role of stranger gives a potential energy for people escaping from identity. Guillaume accounted the games of simulation, including spectral behaviors, anonymous letters and graffiti, attributing them to “marginalized, condemned, forbidden activities or ritualized practices that serve as exorcisms against their potential generalization” (28).  From this point he argues that mass consumption “allowed a disconnection between social reality and social roles. It produced a space in which we learned to appear as we were not” (29). Following from this notion we would expect it to be the same with mass communication. The separating of senders and receivers has made them both into spectral forms. Therefore, “Anonymity is a symbolic operator that allows one to create and inaugurate an empty space. Anonymity purges institutional excess and then, if the conditions are right, if the alchemy succeeds, it can bring about a new collective agent” (35). For Guillaume, “spectrality is not the destruction or disappearance of the subject. Spectrality is the dispersion of the subject… this dispersion opens one to the experience of the diversity of others, of the dust of often insignificant differences” (39). Baudrillard disagrees that freedom depends on the traversal of identity – he is more concerned with seduction – for him the problem of identity is not worth raising (41).

The second way that The Other is approached in the book is via “geographic exoticism”. Guillaume presents Japan as an example – its rebuilding after the atomic catastrophe, its surprising and its “secular path on a different and more or less cryptic level” (58), all above made it as an Other that is hard to understand, which was the vital character of other as Baudrillard suggested. According to him, a real Other means totally mysterious and far away from the principle of reality: There is no origin, no authenticity, no profound reality of things. Everything is formalized, seduced in the sense of being removed from its reality, its substance and its rules” (67). Japan had adopted the technique and made it into more elaborated than most of Western countries. This is a limit to reversibility: the Japanese “can absorb anything because they are already on the other side. They can absorb the organless body of capitalism and the west without breaking their own secret codes, rules and rituals” (68.) Here seduction appears: “the possibility of playing with signs, not in the universal sense but sign as signs” (Ibid). As a radical alterity, Japan has survived from technology, on the contrary, for Westerners: “the more communication grows, the more we exchange with others, the more contacts and connections there are, the more we implode in ourselves”(78).

The third part of the book is made into a series of floating fragments by Baudrillard. One reviewer criticized this book as “a confused, benighted mess of a post-modern alarmism. Composed as a sort of a transcription of seminars between Baudrillard, Marc Guillaume, and some audience” (Eric Hinton). Personally speaking, this “alarmist” style is more attractive and valuable than the works of traditional logic and writing. The world Baudrillard attempts to describe – our world – cannot, in his view, be embodied in logical discourse. This is akin to Guillaume’s criticism of the social sciences: “whose epistemological status leaves no room for the subject as subject” (111). Modern technology of artificial intelligence is another homograft of social science, which put the real alterity in danger. As Baudrillard suggested in his early works, the symbolic rule was related to a kind of arbitrariness, the understanding function of machines is not the same as that of humans, which means “access to the signified, which implies something different: a mental image, a sum of concrete, corporal experiences, and more” (106). According to him, “with inhuman alterity, we have entered the era of constructed exoticism and artificial alterity” (111). Using his invariable logic of reversibility, Baudrillard agrees with Guillaume’s conclusion, “All of the accidents, breakdowns, slips, skids, madness – in the end, all of this  systematicity – is our alterity… we have functionalized ourselves” (116).

Radical Alterity is not as systematic as some of Baudrillard’s early texts. Most reviewers in the mainstream have not liked the book. Yet this conversation between Guillaume and Baudrillard is an inspired and inspiring one well worth reading.

About the Author
Reviewed by Xiaochang Tong is from Sichuan University, Chengdu, China