Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Dr. Joseph J. Tanke
Memorial Colloquium: Jean Baudrillard – Commemorating the Conspiracies of his Art. An invited panel at the International Association for Philosophy and Literature, Annual Meetings 2007. The IAPL sessions were held at the Hilton Hotel, Nicosia, Cyprus in June, 2007. The colloquium panel was organized and chaired by Dr. Joseph Tanke.
…[D]espite all the things modern pathology has taught us about the physical body, we pay no attention to it for the social body.1
As a longtime and, I must admit, never completely systematic reader of Baudrillard, I have always been fascinated by, and critical of, the seemingly contradictory impulses of his thought. Isn’t there something inherently problematic with a discourse that, at times, adopts the posture of a realist epistemology, to confirm that the real is no longer? How, one might ask, is it possible to diagnose the real processes at work in the extermination of the real? Could one not put to Baudrillard a piece of New York City street graffiti that he himself quoted? The full exchange reads: “‘Certitude does not exist….’ Beneath which has been written, ‘Are you sure?’”2 Behind these apparent contradictions, the giddiness of his provocations / pronouncements, and his warnings to the contrary, I have always detected the presence of a wink, a gesture indicating that together we could recognize the hyperreal for what it is (or is not?) and thereby escape its pull. Even if we cannot always locate it textually, isn’t there something of an ethics in Baudrillard? I submit that it is the presence of this ethical element that his detractors found so infuriating: his seductions have all the force of a “moral voice,” one that denounces the more pernicious aspects of the hyperreal, even as it confirms the end of traditional moral and political categories. Put another way, his analyses managed to generate within themselves, and stimulate within readers, the effects of moral outrage about what is taking place in the real, even as they ruled out the possibility of knowing it for certain, and warned us about being taken in by the simulacrum of the ethical-critical positions that we might nostalgically hope for.
Carlin Romano’s attack, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education shortly after Baudrillard’s passing, is exemplary in this regard. Romano delights in the contradictions of the recently deceased, marshalling the usual smears raised against anyone not content to ape the sacred cows of Marx and Freud, complaining about the difficulty of Baudrillard’s prose, the opacity of his language and the obscurity of his ideas. Romano thinks himself clever when he exposes Baudrillard’s hypocrisy as, on the one hand, an anti-American thinker and, on the other, a recipient of “free trips, honoraria, lecture invitations, visiting appointments, and publishing contracts,” while managing to completely misunderstand Baudrillard’s amorous relationship with the United States.3 Baudrillard: “I shall never forgive anyone who passes a condescending or contemptuous judgment on America”.4
What is perhaps most contemptible about Romano’s piece is that there is not one instance in which he engages with Baudrillard’s positions, be they the hyperbolic pronouncements to which Baudrillard was prone, or the serious moral claims with which he captivated our attention. Carping at the more salacious formulations from L’esprit du terrorisme, phrases that have lost all force of shock through having been exhausted already, Romano misses the broader moral stakes of the analysis: “Terrorism is immoral, and it responds to a globalization that is itself immoral.” It is much easier to count Baudrillard’s frequent flyer miles than to engage him on the topics of asymmetrical globalization and Western xenophobia, of which he was an indefatigable critic.
What I will call Baudrillard’s “indirect ethics” are best witnessed in the short, yet trenchant, dispatches that he published in the pages of Libération. These texts are best read as interventions, therapeutic doses administered to save us, quite literally, from ourselves, that is, from the effects of our fascination with the Same, our expurgation of alterity, and the resulting immunodeficiency. While it is fashionable in some circles to disparage his work in favor of the so-called more rigorous varieties of post-structuralism, let us not forget that it was Baudrillard who taught us how to think, to despise, and – perhaps – how to combat the viral power of the media and our own immunodeficiency. With the invocations of virality and virulence that populate Baudrillard’s later texts, it is not difficult to see him as a practitioner who attempted to facilitate the recovery of the social body by injecting it with the dosages of alterity, that is, thinking, necessary to social health. His legacy in part resides in having bequeathed new forms of theoretical intervention, in insisting that writing could, with the proper care, constitute itself as a force. In this sense, we should think of him as having followed a similar trajectory as Foucault and Deleuze, thinkers who, for various historical-epistemological reasons, found it necessary to reject traditional conceptions of intellectual work, including the theory/practice divide. For Baudrillard, this meant re-thinking the theoretical enterprise in light of the advances made by consumer capitalism in the second half of the twentieth century. His was the effort to make certain that theory was not dead on arrival, that is, that it did not simply gather itself upon the leavings of the simulacrum. What he sought was a form of intervention, one that would be capable of constituting itself outside of reality as it had been arranged, in order to be a critique worthy of the name. His account of the historical precession of the simulacra is well known, so I will not repeat it here; however, it is necessary to develop briefly his discussions of simulation, the principles of hyperreality, and then his break with the theory of the third order simulacrum in favor of his viral conception of reality. This is designed to enable us to grasp the theoretical-practical import of framing the contemporary confrontation in viral terms.
II. From Marx to Hyperreality
In the journey from sociologist of consumer culture to homeopathic pata-physician, the break with Marxism was essential. In The Mirror of Production, Baudrillard embarked upon the defining feature of his contributions to social theory: demonstrating how a discourse that appears to be critical is in fact sketched in advance by a higher system of values. That is, of showing how the illusion of critique is built into the optimal functioning of the system itself. The analysis is well known: the categories that Marx forged to contest political economy – use value, labor power, and the essentializing tendencies in his conception of man – are simulations produced by the code of political economy itself. Invoking already the language of virality, Baudrillard explains: “These prodigious metaphors of the system that dominates us are a fable of political economy retold to generations of revolutionaries infected even in their political radicalism by the conceptual viruses of this same political economy”.5 The fortunes of Marxism are, on Baudrillard’s telling, one of the great ironies of history in that it is a revolution that, rather than confirming its historical truth, contaminates it from within.
This revolution is, of course, the structural revolution of value, the process whereby the referential value of the sign is nullified, giving free reign to structural play of value. The end of reference that accompanies the structural revolution of value is covered over by a simulation of the real, through which the experience of meaning is generated in the exchange of signs. This means that signs are henceforth exchanged one for the other without any grounding in a referent, and that it is no longer possible to speak of production, labor, desire, and history except as byproducts simulated through the pure exchange of signs. The result is the hyperreal, the situation in which the real is abolished by the signs formerly used to signal it. Accordingly, the hyperreal operates according to a logic of an anterior finality, meaning, that the “real” is generated by means of models that reverse the orders of production and reproduction. For Baudrillard, the subordination of serial production to the computer’s memory banks, along with the capacity to henceforth pull the “real” out of the virtual, is an essential step in this process, one that results in a “real” that is without reality or locatable origin. For him, “all forms change from the moment that they are no longer mechanically reproduced, but conceived instead in the light of their reproducibility, as a diffraction from a generating nucleus called a model”.6 One might say, then, that the real, for Baudrillard, is that which, although unreal, is generated through the exchange of signs, in order to be taken as real. “We are in a world where the essential function of the sign is to make reality disappear and at the same time to mask that disappearance”.7 The real is the reality-effect of the sign, “that which is always already reproduced: the hyperreal”.8
Hyperreality is an all-pervasive social situation that has as its goal the avoidance of radical critique. The hyperreal is capital’s strategy of deterrence, that is, its means for avoiding anything that would disrupt the re-production of the status quo. “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of duplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself; that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes”.9 This results in obvious problems for political critique, and it is this vertigo that Baudrillard struggled against in defining a theoretical-strategic approach.10 Upon what basis does one undertake the critique of everyday life, when desire is itself produced in the deployment of signs, images and sentiments? How can one constitute a form of political critique when the contradictions of the system are neutralized in the hyperreal? How can art be the bearer of new values, when reality becomes an aesthetic hallucination? Baudrillard’s work might be summed up thus: what resources do we have left when Freud, Marx, and the avant-garde lose their traction in the hyperreal?
For the Baudrillard of the middle period, the permutations of hyperreal were orchestrated by “the code.” Perhaps best understood negatively as that system of signs that renders obsolete the era of industrial production and the theories forged to critique it, the code is capable of infecting and thereby disarming even the most ostensibly revolutionary of analyses from within. Its chief characteristic is the reversal of finality, that is, the code is a social and historical program that, like DNA, dictates the values of production, consumption, and critique in advance. It is that system of lateral sign relations that manages antagonisms by inscribing them within the parameters of preordained functions. With the code, capital avoids critique from the outside by administering differences according to categories that it generates. Baudrillard never ceased warning about the folly inherent in combating capital with the illusory critiques that it supplies, or the dangers in nostalgia for outmoded forms of thought. As he explained, “The current revolutions index themselves on the immediately prior phase of the system. They arm themselves with a nostalgic resurrection of the real in all its forms…”11 The code, therefore, performs two primary functions: it neutralizes content by rendering indeterminate the distinction between the sign and its signified; and, it inserts these empty values into a binary model that limits their exchange to prearranged positions. At the social level, the stimulus/response model is paradigmatic and “dwells everywhere that supply engulfs demand, or the question devours the answer….”12 Baudrillard’s overarching concern, therefore, is the perennial problem of recuperation, that is, a form of co-optation complicated by a system that has advanced well beyond positions of possible resistance while appearing to leave them intact.
III. The Middle Period in Baudrillard’s Thought
With this analysis, it is not difficult to understand why, for Baudrillard, any theory with critical aspirations needs to be of a “higher order.” It must escape from the illusions supplied by the system itself, even if this means that in doing so theory generates its own illusions. The proof of its worthiness, therefore, will not be its truth-value, but its ability to escape from the code and return to tell the tale. While it is true that the code remains under-defined in Baudrillard’s work, what those who critique him on this point fail to recognize is that it must remain so of necessity. To define the code in heavy epistemological terms would be to arbitrarily inject the real into the general indeterminacy operative within the contemporary exchange of values. Let us not forget what Baudrillard said about the theoretical enterprise and its relationship with the code:
Theoretical production, like material production, is also losing its determinations and is beginning to spin on its own, disconnectedly, en abîme, towards an unknown reality. Today we are already at that point: in the realm of undecidability, in the era of floating theories…. The system has removed from theoretical labor power all referential guarantees…. What I mean to say is that the very undecidability of theory is an effect of the code.13
The intersection of theory and the code is therefore that place within Baudrillard’s thought where conflicts are waged. Given that it is the code that anticipates theory, as was the case with Marx’s formulation of use value, any approaches to this conflict must be of a higher order: more virtual and disconnected than the code itself. If the functioning of the code, which operates through randomness, is to be unmasked, it will not be by the objectivity of fact, but by means of a strategy that renders the logic of the code apparent in pushing it to its breaking point.
The code thereby forms the horizon of Baudrillard’s thought throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. It is that which he advances toward in the attempt to demystify the source of mystification, but which cannot be analyzed as real by a theory that has already been rendered indeterminate. What is needed is a strategy capable of turning the code upon itself, carrying it to its limits, thereby forcing it to expose itself. This is the critical import of Bataille’s thought on Baudrillard’s own: transgression is at once an ethical and epistemological category in that it is by crossing a boundary – be it theoretical, ethical, or political – that it becomes knowable. Given the indeterminacy of the code, Baudrillard’s analyses attempt to combat the code with theoretical gestures that force it to assert itself in all its structural violence and thereby disclose its logic. Baudrillard used many names to describe this approach – fatal strategies, symbolic exchange, and theoretical violence – and one always has the sense that anything positive that he was able to affirm about the code was the result, not of the traditional sociologist’s labors, but of having laid snares along the path of the hyperreal.
What this analysis of Baudrillard’s middle period demonstrates is that his thought has always functioned on an interventionist’s plane. Not content to revel in the illusory theoretical freedom offered by the structural revolution of value, there is the desire, as he once put it, to “catch up with the hyperreal and strike it dead”.14 There is even, for Baudrillard, an “obligation of reversibility,” an imperative that springs from the system as it approaches perfect identity with itself, thereby calling for its own destruction.15 If there is hope within the closed systems of the hyperreal, it is because identity deprived of its other is untenable. The closure effected by the DNA of the code inevitably leads to a situation in which otherness returns in a virulent form. This means, as we will see, that extreme phenomenon, viruses, are the necessary byproduct of a system in which everything is intimately connected. The denial of difference, carried out through the adoption of common models of organization and thought, allows the slightest breach in the code to be transmitted rapidly from one end of culture to the other. While this is undeniably pernicious when it comes to viral phenomena such as violence, it does present a strategic advantage for a thinker whose own project can be characterized as “theoretical violence”.16 For the slightest well-placed provocation suffices to call the entire order of signs into question. For Baudrillard, theory takes up its “symbolic obligation” as a non-interpretive therapeutics designed to prompt the code into response. As with contemporary medicine, it is the response to administered doses that allows for diagnosis.
IV. Viral Mode
As the strategic model of the code receded from Baudrillard’s work, it was replaced by the thought of the viral. This corresponds to what he diagnosed as a further stage of confusion within culture, one that smashed apart the foundationalist aspirations lurking behind his formulation of the code, as well as the recognition that the struggle between theory and the hyperreal had moved to a higher level of irreality. There is a darkening of Baudrillard’s thought as he charted this fourth stage in value, one that put an end to the possibility of identifying the general rules according to which signs are exchanged. In the viral stage of value there is “no point of reference at all,” meaning that there is now no law according to which signs are exchanged. It is more precise to speak of an “epidemic of value,” in which signs proliferate wildly in all directions.17 In fact, once signs become viral, they can scarcely be called signs, for the differences upon which their exchange was predicated have been effaced. This is the twilight of values: experience is no longer constituted by the exchange of signs, but by their endless self-reproduction, self-reference, and dispersion in networks. What Baudrillard diagnoses as a “viral loss of determinacy” is the process by which “things, signs or actions are freed from their respective ideas, concepts, essences, values, points of reference, origins and aims… [and] embark upon an endless process of self-reproduction”.18 This is the semiological account of for the analyses of virulence that populate Baudrillard’s writings: incest, cloning, autism, cannibalism, as well as AIDS, terrorism, racism, and computer viruses. These pathogens increase in virulence as systems tend toward tautology, that is, perfect identity with themselves. The genetic lesson is important here. As systems erase differences to facilitate operationality, and as they tend to assimilate towards one another by adopting common models, they are increasingly open to the virulence that these phenomena represent. In more ethical terms, Western culture’s obsession with the Same has resulted in immunodeficiency, and infections now spread easily from system to system.
If exchange was once dominated by the structural revolution of value, today we are ruled by the “law of the confusion of categories.” This is the process by which the domains of aesthetics, politics, sexuality, et cetera, merge with one another, resulting in a loss of their identities. One only needs to think of the viral profusion of conceptual models from one domain to another, to see what Baudrillard is describing. Business is governed by a corporate-speak that owes much to sporting metaphors, while everyday life is increasingly colonized by the language of business. There is no hint of irony when Americans judge an athlete, a company, a communication network, or a lover according to the standards of “performance.” This is part of what is meant by virality: once disparate domains connect up with others by contracting common conceptual forms. Virulence results when a pathogen infects one sector and, as a result of the loss of immunity, quickly infects others.
If one were to construct a historical narrative around the emergence of the viral stage, something that Baudrillard is reluctant to do, one would say that it emerged from the systematic closure of thought, critique and imagination that was brought about by the code. “These new pathologies are the illnesses of a codified, modeled body; they are sicknesses of the code and the model”.19 The code is paradoxically what puts an end to the code inasmuch as the identity that it imposes is untenable and susceptible to viral infection. By attempting to reduce Otherness to purely functional forms, the code comes under assault by ever more extreme forms of Otherness. Through the West’s efforts to produce a sterile, hyperreal world, one in which all traces of alterity have been reduced to functional differences, it created an environment in which pathogens can run rampant. On Baudrillard’s account, it is not the viruses themselves that make society sick, but their becoming virulent in tandem with culture’s twilight of values. As we know, viruses thrive in completely sterilized environments, with little to obstruct their replication. Likewise, unaccustomed to fending off infection, immune systems do one of three things: they fall into abeyance and fail to respond to foreign agents (immunodeficiency); they set upon themselves, unable to distinguish between the body and its pathogens (autoimmune disorder); or, they respond too vigorously and damage the host organism (hypersensitivity). These three failures are present in the chaos that periodically threatens to overwhelm our highly elaborate and allegedly rational systems. Consider, for example, Baudrillard’s analysis of mad cow disease. This was a viral epidemic that contaminated many sectors, revealing unprecedented inter-connections between the biological, our information networks, and the political.
In the first place, cows acquire bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) as a result of hyperreal interventions in agriculture. The offending prion enters the food supply when livestock is forced to cannibalize recycled meat from its own or a closely related species. Moreover, experts argue that genetic manipulations, inbreeding and the use of antibiotics have damaged the immune functions of these animals. What would otherwise have been fended off, a protein that lacks nucleic acid and is thus dependent upon folding into the DNA of a host, now has the power to mutate the tissues composing the nervous system. This is therefore an infectious condition that results from the elimination of genetic diversity, that is, as we will see with other viral infections, from too much of the same. Baudrillard explains:
Cows have never come to terms with being turned into simulacra…. For everything about them is programmed by now: by hormones, transplants, the genetic redistribution of parts of the body, by way of the animal as meat. The cow is not what it once was. It is an artefact, a kind of disembodied meat, which takes its suicidal revenge by infecting its predator.20
With the otherness of the body replaced by the operational hyperreal, pathogens quickly overwhelm it, and pass rapidly from organism to organism. Transmission, however, is not consigned to the biological, and mad cow is a truly viral phenomenon inasmuch as it contaminates all aspects of the hyperreal. For Baudrillard, the “mental virus [is] far more harmful than the biological one,” in that the hypersensitivity we witness in popular consciousness represents a softening of the human brain. The response is a virtual symptom, the same condition that would accompany that actual disease, induced by the mass media in the absence of actual species-to-species transmission. Given our declining powers of judgment, and the virtual links within communication networks, the disease spreads from the biological to the discursive sphere, thereby further reducing the capacity for thought. As Baudrillard describes: “The communication networks are a huge viral system and instant transmission is, in itself, a lethal danger. In this perpetual critical-mass situation, the slightest spark is sufficient to prick the abscess of collective responsibility, just as the tiniest body projected into a diffuse solution brings about lightning-quick crystallization”.21 As we know, the actual threat is always inflated as it ricochets around the virtual world. It creates a charge of collective responsibility that, because collective, is diffuse and floating, and, therefore the effacement of responsibility. “There is no point in imputing all this to anyone in particular: collective madness is a pyramidal synthesis of convergent effects, a phenomena in resonance”.22 The contagion quickly infects the political class. Import/export bans are imposed, contracts are broken, global summits are held, and cattle populations are exterminated.
What this allegory reveals is the fatal resemblances that link all facets of our virtual world. “From the protein to the cow’s brain, from that brain to our information systems, from those systems and networks to the automatic mental decoder of opinion and on into the spongiform encephalon of the political class, the structure is the same….”23 Homogeneity is the conditio sine qua non of immunodeficiency, transmission, and virulence. As systems approximate one another, they are increasingly susceptible to the same types of outbreak and to mutual contamination. “Contagion is not merely active within each system; it operates between systems”.24 This means that virality does not just encapsulate the ability of signs to spread like contagions, but the fact that organizational schemes infect one another. Consider the other viruses that Baudrillard provocatively equates with mad cow disease:
AIDS, terrorism, the stock market crash, computer viruses, natural catastrophes: all these phenomena are correlated and conform to the same protocol of virulence. They are wholly consistent with each other, and with the banality of the system. For example, a single terrorist act forces us to review the whole political scene in the light of terrorism…. So, the appearance of mad cows is the equivalent of a terrorist act.25
This gesture of equation is not intended to efface the moral distinctions between these phenomena, but to highlight their ability to provoke large-scale, system-wide responses by preying upon the interconnection of closed systems. Terrorism and mad cow promulgate themselves far beyond the point of their initial impact by insinuating themselves into the virality of contemporary culture, a culture absorbed by the same models of transmission, transparency, and performativity. Lest one think that the analogy is strained, one only has to consider the imagistic metonymy between these domains: the same inflated media response, intimidating visual effects, solemn pronouncements to be vigilant, and paradoxically, the exhortations to “go about your business.” Upon the discovery of mad cow in the United States, we were assured by a spokesperson that there was nothing to fear, President Bush continued to eat beef; just as we have been encouraged with every fluctuation in the Homeland Security Advisory System to take our families on vacation. And, yes, there has even been a war on mad cows, a linguistic sleight of hand that elevates the bovine to the level of combatant, just as terrorists themselves experienced a promotion from criminal to soldier through the declaration of a war on terror.
The responses to an outbreak are almost always disproportionate to the actual threat, and push hyper-rational systems – agriculture and security – to the verge of collapse. This tendency toward chaos, however, is only apparent, for what these viruses in fact do is allow these systems to renew themselves. Security and agriculture are themselves already viral. They are infected by a business model, which, with its organizational networks, bizarre mixture of secrecy and publicity, and corporate raids, is not terribly different from the models and methods of international terrorism. We are no longer in a position to say which domain functions as cause and which as effect inasmuch as culture’s becoming viral means the total effacement of the distinction between territory and map. “[W]e could just as well see terrorism on the model of AIDS, computer viruses or hostile takeover bids: none of these phenomena takes precedence over the others; there is no process of cause and effect here; it is a single constellation of collusive, contemporary phenomena”.26 These viruses self-replicate by giving up on their identities and injecting themselves into the viral mode more generally. Baudrillard:
If AIDS, terrorism, economic collapse and electronic viruses are concerns not just for the police, medicine, science and the experts, but for the entire collective imagination, this is because there is more to them than mere episodic events in an irrational world. They embody the entire logic of our system, and are merely, so to speak, the points at which that logic crystallizes spectacularly. Their power is a power of irradiation and their effect, through the media, within the imagination, is itself a viral one.27
But perhaps there are limits to these attempts to assimilate all of reality to a common viral model. Recall that after consternation spread amongst the chattering classes, the Pentagon cancelled a plan to set up an online trading market for the prediction of terrorist attacks. The Policy Analysis Market (PAM) was designed to exploit the expertise of financial markets in predicting events by having investors place bets on future terrorist attacks, assassinations, and conflicts and paying off when the events occurred. At the time, the Defense Department explained, “Research indicates that markets are extremely efficient, effective and timely aggregators of dispersed and even hidden information”.28 The program was cancelled, after a thousand invitations to investors had been sent out, upon recognition that the program would in essence provide incentive to commit violent acts. The contagion that spread from the media, to the public and into the political class refused, in this instance, the total equation of national defense with capitalistic speculation. It was as if the viral proved itself capable of generating resistance to the hyperreal.
To conclude, allow me to highlight what I take to be the conceptual advantages of Baudrillard’s viral formulations and indicate why I think that the medical language is not simple allegory, but Baudrillard’s best strategy for engaging the social. In the first instance, it allows him to conceptualize the relationships between the increasingly cannibalistic news outlets, organizations that feed off each other from the outset and end up reporting upon themselves. As such, minor stories are produced and proliferate according to a pattern that can only be described as viral. Moreover, because media-capital has structured a world in which circulations and flows are optimized, events – media or otherwise – quickly spread beyond the point of their initial impact. Within the economy of the viral, this can be exploited to virtually any end, but it almost always leads to a combination of discursive overreaction and induced apathy. In some of the worst cases, virality precipitates extreme and grotesque forms of mediatized violence. We recognize the truth of Baudrillard’s somewhat provocative claim that “it is advisable not to be in a public space where television is operating, considering the high probability that its very presence will precipitate a violent event,” if we reflect seriously upon the torture at Abu Ghraib and the murders at Virginia Tech.29 These events took the specific form they did because of the viral potentiality of contemporary violence. It is difficult to imagine undressing and stacking prisoners with underwear on their heads unless one is also going to disseminate their photographs. And, it might even be speculated that a college student, who by all accounts was completely uncommunicative, committed these horrendous acts precisely so that NBC, in an unprecedented pornography of violence, would air his video rants. This is one of the things that the viral gives us to think: the ways in which mutations in contemporary culture are of a particularly virulent strain, and how the presence of the screen precipitates the urge to fill it with brutality. Baudrillard’s provocations aside, we are still a long way from understanding the relationship between the screen and violence. Are people aware that one of the more popular categories on video-sharing websites such as YouTube, features cell phone video recordings of high school students committing violent assaults? One quickly understands that the violence in these “viral videos” is engendered by the presence of cameras, and the onlookers who goad the participants in order to post the results as a response to other such videos.
In addition to the phenomena of contagion and precipitation, the viral also challenges us to think the unrepresentable. Here, unrepresentable refers to that ability of contagions to spread, without their origins, their mechanisms of transmission, or their ends being completely clear. The viral poses a challenge for thought precisely because economic, political, theoretical and aesthetic processes have already surpassed the boundaries of meaning and unfold according to a logic of infection. A prime example for Baudrillard is the life cycle of fashion, the “despair of sociology and aesthetics,” precisely because it remains inexplicable to traditional forms of thought. “Fashion is an irreducible phenomenon because it partakes of a crazy, viral, mediationless form of communication which operates so fast for the sole reason that it never passes via the mediation of meaning”.30 Signs are circulated, but they are undecipherable since they do not participate in anything like an exchange, completely devouring context, time, and the subjective intentions behind them. Indeed, fashion is so volatile that its comings and goings need to be thought less as something that follows predictable laws and more as a “viral onslaught”.31 Unfortunately, the unrepresentable is not limited to the interchange between economics and aesthetics that is fashion, but pertains to other “plagues” that haunt the social, soliciting charges of anxiety and inaction. One can name all sorts of meaningless phenomena that flash across the media landscape, impacting consciousness, before returning to a period of dormancy. Unemployment, terror, predators – all these viruses are called up by the news cycle, launched into virulence, enter the political cycle and then enter a period of latency. Even though these phenomena are unrepresentable and, in their spectacular presentation, unreal, that does not mean they are without consequences. But how to chart the paths cut by these viruses?
To advance upon the unrepresentable, in theoretical terms, is always, for Baudrillard, to combat it. Hence, the object of theory, even as reality launches into virality, is to “arrive at an account of the system which follows out its internal logic to its end…[and], at the same time, totally inverts that system revealing its hidden non-meaning….”32 This means, as we have seen, that the virologist does not simply diagnose the ills afflicting contemporary culture, but intervenes with an act of writing that complicates the identities transmitted by a virus’s replication. This generation of antibodies is what is called thinking. When it is pursued in an anti-systematic fashion, it is called theory. For Baudrillard: “An account which is both a pure description of the system in terms of reality and a radical prescription of that same system – demonstrating that it excludes the real and, in the end, means nothing”.33 Fashion becomes unfashionable the more it is rendered fathomable, that is, returned to nothingness, by an even more fashionable theorist.
The commitment to forging an analysis that is at once description and prescription brings us to the final strategic advantage that I want to locate in Baudrillard’s deployment of viral formulations. As we have seen, for Baudrillard, thought could, under precise conditions, constitute a point of reversal. Provided that it was of an even more outrageous nature than the system itself, an intervention at the level of the letter could choke the smooth functioning of the hyperreal. This in itself is a type of ethics, understood in the strictest etymological sense of that term, one which, as we have seen, carries with it the “obligation of reversal.” While the invocation of medical terminology is no doubt an effort to avoid the pitfalls of a normative ethical position, it inevitably calls forth the ancient image of the philosopher as the physician of the soul, one whose questioning is a provocation addressed to the social organism. The viral allows Baudrillard to carry this imperative of thought to an even higher level in tandem with the further mutations of culture. The very model of virality is indicative of a strategic choice. It allows him to inject a grid of analysis through which it becomes possible to diagnose cultural pathologies, and it is indicative of a thought that conceives of itself as a type of therapeutics. Baudrillard’s medical conceptualizations are already a type of turning, a shift in the way that issues are understood. This is one level of the “indirect ethics” that can be located across Baudrillard’s work: the shaping of the question itself constitutes a choice, a rupture with the preordained models of hyperreality.
In this viral inflection of questions, however, there is also the s(t)imulation of the ethical imagination, even if this most often manifests itself in a rage directed at Baudrillard himself. There is complex mechanism at work in his writings, one which pushes past the readymade postures of traditional intellectual engagement and the outmoded forms of analysis into a sphere that implicates the reader’s participation in everyday virality. Take the example of what at first appears to be his reprehensible suggestion that the AIDS virus is something desired by the human species to insulate itself from the worse fate of total sexual promiscuity. “We are acquainted with that spontaneous self-regulation of systems whereby they themselves produce accidents or slowdowns in order to survive…. And everything suggests that the species itself, via the threat of AIDS, is generating an antidote to its principle of sexual liberation….”34 This is one of those moments that effectively draws his critics ire; however, in doing so, Baudrillard calls attention to the ethical stakes in the very discussion of HIV-AIDS. By suggesting that on some level, we must desire our viral plagues – terrorism, cancer, crack cocaine epidemics – Baudrillard’s analyses generate the outrage that these phenomena deserve but which is continually deflected in their political-spectacular presentation. That is, his question, do we not, on some level, desire these viruses? is in fact the attempt to force Western societies into recognizing their own contributions to the virulence as well as their apathy in dealing with contagion. To suggest, as he often does, that the system requires these maladies in order to optimize its functioning, is to condemn a society that writes off millions as its bio-political accursed share.
This is by no means to turn Baudrillard into a moralist. It was he, after all, who warned us about the trap of critiquing hyper-rational systems in the name of morality. “All that capital asks of us is to receive it as rational or to combat it in the name of rationality, to receive it as moral or to combat it in the name of morality”.35 Rather, it is to suggest that even after reality has embarked upon its viral phase, it is still possible to inject it with antibodies that condemn/combat its most virulent forms. What is Baudrillard’s work if not the affirmation that, despite much evidence to the contrary, it is still possible to think? What are his analyses if not the effort to complicate our ethical and political understanding? At a time when so-called critical thought is drifting toward an absolutist model that is itself virally contaminated by the discourses of discipline, authority and obedience propounded by the right, I fear that we will miss these prescriptions.
About the Author
Dr. Joseph J. Tanke is Chalsty Professor of Aesthetics and Philosophy, Department of Critical Studies, California College of the Arts, San Francisco, USA.
1 – Jean Baudrillard. “A Conjuration of Imbeciles,” in The Conspiracy of Art. Sylvère Lotringer (Editor). New York: Semiotext(e), 2005:34.
2 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Double Extermination,” in Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:111.
3 – Carlin Romano. “The Death of Jean Baudrillard Did Happen”. The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 23, 2007:B9.
4 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:209.
5 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Mirror of Production,” in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Mark Poster (Editor). Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1988:99.
6 – Jean Baudrillard. “Symbolic Exchange and Death” in Ibid.:139.
7 – Jean Baudrillard, “‘Lost from View’ and Truly Disappeared” in Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:115.
8 – Jean Baudrillard. “Symbolic Exchange and Death in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Mark Poster (Editor). Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1988:146.
9 – Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations,” in Ibid.:167.
10 – Jean Baudrillard. “Symbolic Exchange and Death” in Ibid.:128. “All the great humanist criteria of value, all the values of a civilization of moral, aesthetic, and practical judgment, vanish in our system of images and signs”.
11 – Ibid.:121.
12 – Ibid.:142.
13 – Ibid.:147-148.
14 – Ibid.:121.
15 – Ibid.:124.
16 – Ibid.
17 – Jean Baudrillard. “After the Orgy,” in The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. New York: Verso, 1993:5.
18 – Ibid.:6.
19 – Jean Baudrillard. “Aids: Virulence or Prophylaxis?” in Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:1.
20 – Jean Baudrillard. “Ruminations for Spongiform Encephala” In Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:172.
21 – Ibid.:171.
22 – Ibid.:173.
23 – Ibid. (italics added).
24 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Viral Economy” In Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:26 (italics in original).
25 – Jean Baudrillard. “Ruminations for Spongiform Encephala” In Ibid.:173.
26 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Viral Economy” In Ibid:28.
27 – Jean Baudrillard. “Aids: Virulence or Prophylaxis?” In Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:6.
28 – Quoted in Carl Hulse. “Threats and Responses: Plans and Criticisms – Pentagon Prepares a Futures Market On Terror Attacks”. New York Times, July 29, 2003.
29 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Mirror of Terrorism,” in The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. New York: Verso, 1993:75. “Today’s violence, the violence produced by our hypermodernity, is terror. A simulacrum of violence, emerging less from passion than from the screen: a violence in the nature of the image. Violence exists potentially in the emptiness of the screen, in the hole the screen opens in the mental universe. So true is this that it is advisable not to be in a public place where television is operating, considering the high probability that its very presence will precipitate a violent event.” See also, Jean Baudrillard, “Disembodied Violence: Hate,” in Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:91-95.
30 – Jean Baudrillard. “Prophylaxis And Virulence” In The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. New York: Verso, 2002:70.
31 – Ibid.
32 – Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:149.
33 – Ibid.
34 – Jean Baudrillard. “Prophylaxis And Virulence” In The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. New York: Verso, 2002:66.
35 – Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations”. Ann Arbor, MI.: University of Michigan Press, 1994:173.