Oct 13, 2014

BAUDRILLARD: SIMULACRUM SOCIETY

According to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, the fate and condition of modern advanced societies is that any action tends to become degraded in itself and to become a spectacle or consumer item, regardless of whether it is true or false. The avalanche of information and interpretations sent and received are all mere simulacra of reality.
 
Modern advanced society is characterised by a twofold human concentration: physical concentration in large cities and enormous metropolitan areas, and at the same time, the telematic connection in large communication networks that potentially link the entire planet in a single “globalisation”. This extremely intense double human interaction in modern cities and in the global "telepolis" or "cosmopolis" of the Internet is essential to understanding the contemporary human condition, and creates significant phenomena.
 
First, the humanist ideal formulated by Terence in ancient Rome: "I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me," is now more apparent than ever, even if it is only because nothing human (or which affects other humans) is not really alien to us, i.e. it does not affect us or leave us indifferent. From the new pandemics, to the current international economic crisis, there is a risk (as pointed out by the sociologist Ulrich Beck) of all sorts of things - however far away they seem – affecting us, and furthermore, affecting very quickly and with unforeseeable consequences. Whether we like it or not, we are now more than ever “one humanity”, with no watertight compartments; we are a “global village” (McLuhan) both telematically and physically.
 
However, enormous human concentration in swarming metropoli and in a single network has not always facilitated understanding between humans, and to an even lesser extent, the intellection of what could be called "reality", and the empathetic link with a "truth" that can be drawn from it. Paradoxically, the globalisation based on telematics, economics, technology and tourism seems to take us violently farther away from the "world", "reality" and the "truth of things", rather than bringing us gradually towards them. This is perhaps the great paradox of an advanced society focused on communication technologies, the "knowledge society", of the "post-modern condition" ...

Using other terminology, that is what fascinated the French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard – the centenary of whose birth falls this year. Baudrillard was much more radical and consistent than most of his contemporaries, in emphasising the constant interference of any trace of "truth" as the main feature of advanced societies. The rapid circulation of information and the constant clash of the infinite number of interpretations (as well as deliberate manipulation) tends to make all of them "simulacra". The distinction between true and false is blurred; as it is Plato's cave: there are only images among images, opinions among other opinions, various sources of information, but not “the Truth”.
 
indeed, Baudrillard insists that in modern advanced societies, anything, "reality" or "truth" tends to be degraded into either a "spectacle" or "consumption" or - indistinguishably – both. That is why both cities and the Internet today are part of the realm of consumption and spectacle; even culture must be experienced as something "spectacular" and as a "consumer" process, with its fashions, its legends, its ephemeral honours, its short moments of glory - as Warhol pointed out  - which are cataleptically forgotten almost as soon as they are freely conferred.
 
According to Baudrillard's simulacrum theory, this is the fate and the condition of today's simulacrum society. It is dominated by the mere semblance of truth, which also conceals the fact that it is only an appearance, and thereby diverts attention from the only possible "reality" or "truth", which is in fact the simulacrum itself. Baudrillard says: "The simulacrum is never what hides the truth. It is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true." The simulacrum – when one knows what it is – does not lie; it is what it is (in its epiphany, to put it religious terms). The lie occurs when an attempt is made to pass off a simulacrum as truth; or in more radical terms; when we are told that there is truth, and not a simulacrum.
 
How did Jean Baudrillard comes to such radical and nihilistic conclusions? By theorising on the fact that advanced societies are increasingly prone to the experience of the simulacrum, in that they are simulacrum societies. However, he also drew the most extreme and nihilistic conclusions from the rich, subversive and highly philosophical generation to which he belonged. They were all born around eighty years ago, in the roaring but disreputable 1920s, which were affected by the Wall Street crash of 1929 and "the incubation of the snake's egg" of Nazism and the Stalinist gulag, which led tragically to the Spanish Civil War.
 
It was a very similar period to today: there was a "camouflaged" but relatively long-standing and chronic social crisis, which burst spectacularly into public consciousness with a sharp economic decline, and international events such as the attack on the Twin Towers; after that, a general panic seemed to be willing to sacrifice everything in exchange for "security", "economic recovery" ... or a believable simulacrum of them.
 
Masters of thought of radical youth
 
These experiences made a profound impression (despite their very varied attitudes) on the generation of Jean Baudrillard (1939-2007). Among those closest to him were the great analysts of the modern condition (who were slightly older): Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998), Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995), Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and the North American Andy Warhol (1928-1987), as well as those who were a little younger: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) and Guy Debond (1931-1994).
 
Significantly, they have all died relatively recently, but they also are still some of the most commonly cited analysts in criticism of advanced society, mass culture, the modern condition..., and they continue to be "masters of thought" among radical youth.
 
Two years after his death, Jean Baudrillard is apparently even more forgotten, despite the fact that after a very long and dark period, he embodied the most radical, iconoclastic and nihilistic criticism. Baudrillard had chosen the role – as difficult as it is appreciated and occupied in the French cultural world – of becoming the radical “critics' critic”. Baudrillard took note of the analyses of his generation, which were already highly radical, in order to draw even more radical conclusions from them. He insisted on creating a "suspicion" about the many suspects of his generation (which was indeed encouraged at the time) and based on them. This was by no means easy; if it was already difficult to assimilate the criticisms of thinkers such as Lyotard, Warhol, Debond and Foucault, and the hyperbolic radicalisations of Baudrillard seemed ridiculous.
 
Furthermore, Baudrillard came from a poor family, operated on the edges of the French intellectual world, and his education was apparently more eclectic than it was robust. He mixed up literary, semiotic, structuralist , and Marxist studies, communication theory, and even pataphysics and the theatre of the absurd (Alfred Jerry) and Antonin Artaud's theatre of cruelty. However, Baudrillard managed to embody the model of the outsider who carves a central niche in intellectual debate by means of daring and controversy.
 
He became well known by means of attacking the great names of his generation, denouncing them as fellow travellers who had not gone far enough, or as inconsequential critics who ended up trembling and backing down before the logic of their own thought. As an alter ego of Nietzsche, albeit more mundane and less solitary, Baudrillard's general criticism was very similar, nihilistic and radical. Above all, he adapted the Nietzschean criticism of the consumer society and the mass media, which he considered a “simulacrum society” (both because it is where “the simulacrum emerges” and because in itself it is nothing more than an immense simulacrum). Baudrillard confronts a radical “symbolic exchange” which aims to subvert the system by means of the systematic “radicalisation of all hypotheses” and the imposition of a "meticulous reversibility" on “models" or “simulacra” (Symbolic exchange and death, 1976).
 
In opposition to both the "conservatives" and the "progressives", Jean Baudrillard became a sociologist in Nanterre, against the omnipresent and at that time predominant Bourdieu. He took part in the Situationist International of May '68 with Debond, but went much further and created a much more comprehensive body of work. Despite being very close to it, he challenged Marxism by proclaiming that the new basis for social order is consumption rather than production (The consumer society, 1970, and For a critique of the political economy of the sign, 1972).
 
In a spectacular gesture that also foresaw the end of French structuralism (of which he was a part), he identified and sharply attacked the most radical, systematic and powerful thinker of the time: Michel Foucault. Baudrillard became well known as a result of his book Forget Foucault (1977). Once again, he attempted to outdo the critic (Foucault), by suggesting that the latter had falsified or abruptly cut short his criticism, and had done so due to the old idol of the “desire for truth”. Baudrillard condemned Foucault because the latter still believed - he said - in an absolute "Truth”, while identifying it with power relations and with the constructive power of power (no pun intended?).
 
Significantly, Foucault did not deny this, but instead criticised Baudrillard, accusing him of polemicising merely for the sake of fame, in a completely frivolous exercise. In some ways, Foucault is right; but Baudrillard felt that his thesis had been proven and his critical attack on the most radical critic who had also prostrated himself before the idol of “Truth” (reconstructed based on his own private ideology). In any event, the media confirmed Baudrillard's challenge to the great French intellectual monster of the time, who (like Derrida) was even recognised in the English-speaking world.
 
Now Baudrillard seemed to have enough freedom and security to broaden his analysis to the most varied and unusual aspects of contemporary culture and advanced societies; in other words: the modern simulacrum society. As a result, like a new Tocqueville, he faced the major challenge of analysing a leading power (the United States) and the great metropolis (New York), which are the culmination of modern society's contradictions and fascinations. In America (1986), Baudrillard theorised acutely on the world which Andy Warhol (who was only a year older) enjoyed living in and reflected cleverly and intuitively.
 
In the North American world, Baudrillard found the most obvious representation of the threat that is hidden behind more than cities, the physical metropolis and the "cosmopolis": shunning the simulacrum to end up in "hyperreality". He therefore suggests that the same fascination or fatal dialectic is behind the hurried search for bodily perfection and eternal youth, cool fashion and personal identity and even “knowledge” and “information”..., without worrying at all whether a simulacrum is only achieved if it is not recognised as such, a fiction, or even worse, something that has been degraded into mere consumption and "spectacle".
 
In a shift towards an increasingly mainstream and publicity-conscious analysis, Baudrillard insisted that advanced societies are the world of the simulacrum, by the simulacrum. Only this fact is interesting and worthy of theory, and the correct method is to acknowledge this. At the height of Baudrillard's popularity, it was even generally considered that his thought was an influence on the famous film Matrix (1999). In fact, Baudrillard denies it: his simulacrum society is not identifiable with the universal deception which humanity suffers from in the "real and true" Matrix, and the liberation considered therein is frankly ridiculous. 
 
From reality to the simulacrum
 
By now plagued by a banal interpretation of his simulacrum theory, in 1991 Baudrillard had published a series of commentaries on the most controversial issues of the day: the book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Based on a famous aphorism by Canetti, he considers the inevitable transformation into mere simulacrum of everything that is shown or disclosed by the mass media and new information technologies. He comments on the famous CNN “live broadcast” of the bombings of Baghdad which indeed ended up becoming a type of low-grade computer game (and even worse, on the old green phosphorescent screens). The aim was to show the historic event live, by spinning blurred lines of light in the sky, some far off fire from hypothetical missile strikes ... but without meaning or a "human event" in the true sense of the word. Death and the dead, blood and human suffering were totally concealed; life, and above all death had been reduced to a video game, covered up.
 
Baudrillard was strongly criticised for this book, which few people read or which few people looked at beyond the initial pages. He did not pull his punches in his high-profile analysis of advertising. Criticism of his ideas became sharper, partly due to his own fault, partly due to the public figure he had become, and to a large extent because the times were radically changing. It was a traumatic political era, new formulas of radical nihilism were emerging over the horizon and many people were tired of post-modern drifts. This all worked against Baudrillard, who tried - as was natural in him – to radicalise everything despite his simulacrum theory, which appeared – and in some ways was – the quintessence of contemporary post-modernism, nihilism, relativism and cynicism.
 
The incursion of evil
 
Significantly, when he analysed the attacks of 11 September (where bodies and suffering were also avoided, and the circulation of photos was not permitted, etc.) Baudrillard was forced to acknowledge the reality and the evil of international terrorism.
 
In an about-turn that surprised many of his followers, he described the attack as an “absolute event” (The spirit of terrorism, 2002, and Requiem for the twin towers, 2002). Baudrillard appeared to acknowledge that at least evil in its pure form – albeit only for a few moments – breaks with the “simulacrum society” and all the fatal strategies, with an act as momentous as Auschwitz. For a few moments, Jean Baudrillard returns to Theodor W. Adorno and Primo Levi.
 
Despite this, Baudrillard did not forget that advanced societies become "simulacrum societies", fatally captured by dynamics that they cannot avoid because they establish them (Fatal strategies, 1983). They are fascinated by the infinite power of seduction (Seduction, 1979) which enables “domination of the symbolic universe” in a thousand ways, so advanced societies cannot "fatally" escape, and their truth or reality lie only in the hope that crosses them and which becomes their great productive power (Simulacra and Simulation, 1981, and The Illusion of the End, 1992).
 
According to Baudrillard, in today's knowledge society this is the source of the major productive sector, but also of consumption; the centre of all supply and all demand. We know today – just two years after Baudrillard's death – that in the great headquarters for manufacturing dreams and stories (the real Matrix) embodied by Hollywood, that television has become the universal object of consumption at any time of day, and infinite new sources of simulacra are being created: practically any citizen can try it with YouTube or Twitter.
 
The young Danish artist Olafur Eliasson also declares his affinity to Baudrillard: "What we are witnessing is a shift in the traditional relationship between reality and representation. We no longer progress from model to reality, but from model to model while acknowledging that both models are, in fact, real. As a result of we may work in a very productive manner with reality experienced as a conglomeration models. Rather than seeing model and reality as polarised nodes, then our function on the same level. Models [simulacra] have become coproducers of reality”.
 
Despite Baudrillard's death, the impact of his simulacrum theory does not appear to have died with him. As Nietzsche said about nihilism: the most sinister of all the hosts is here to stay. Apparently, that did not appear to worry Baudrillard, because as he used to say: if there is a fatal attraction towards "producing oneself as an illusion", what does "dying as a reality" matter? We have also mentioned that some apparently “absolute events” appeared to end this indifference and – even – to create the possibility of awakening from the fatal sleep, from the seductive and deadly civilising and omnipresent “strategy” in modern society that was the basis for Baudrillard's theory: the simulacrum society.
 
 
However, if it is possible to wake up ... for how long? To what extent? Is it also possible to avoid relapsing into other equivalent fallacies - or something even worse?


("Baudrillard and the Simulacrum Society" by G. Mayos in Barcelona Metropolis. Revista de información y pensamientos urbanos, 2010).

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