Baudrillard's Remainder

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Baudrillard’s Remainder

Jean Baudrillard
The Transparency Of Evil: Essays On Extreme Phenomena,
translated by James Benedict, Verso, London/New York, 1993
(originally published as La Transparence Du Mal: Essais Sur Les Phenomenes Extremes, Editions Galilee, Paris, 1990).

Mike Gane (ed)
Baudrillard Live: Selected interviews,
Routledge, London/New York, 1993.

Fatal theory, its proponent tells us, in highlighting extreme phenomena as the secret of human destiny past the dead point at which history has ceased to exist, constantly strives to outstrip events. With Baudrillard’s ascent from ‘minor heresiarch’ (Bourdieu’s 1988 preface to Homo Academicus) to megastar on the academic rock circuit, Anglophones intrigued by him can be thankful for one speed-up at least: that the time- gap between French publication and English translation of his works has now considerably closed. The Transparency Of Evil, a witty and finely crafted follow-up to America and Cool Memories, is his most recent substantial essay. The fascinating and revealing interviews collected by Mike Gane in Baudrillard Live range from 1982 to 1991 and culminate in one given specially for the collection earlier this year. One can imagine a time when the translations will precede the ‘original’, Baudrillard without Baudrillard, much like the dead riding their velocipedes in the image he takes from Jarry to characterise the manic curvature of contemporary time.

As I began writing this, against the background of normal horrors and banalities and in the space between the victory of the Jays and the Liberals (not unconnected) [note: The Toronto Blue Jays are a Canadian baseball team within the American League who won the World Series twice in the last two years; the Liberals are the winners of a recent Canadian National election — eds.] , two media reports caught my attention. The first, from a small town in Ohio, concerned Halloween. This year City Hall was advising parents to avoid traditional costumes like witches and gypsies for their children so as not to offend particular demographic groups. Better, they advised, that the little ones dress up as fruit, vegetables or animals. The irony that bowdlerising Halloween (already, in the past decade, made repressively safe from psychopaths and rioters) inverts its primal meaning, for kids above all, is no doubt lost on the humourless agents of a semiotic correctness (there is nothing political about it) that would turn every day into All Souls, and make the ever-vigilant exclusion of evil (today, simply all the isms that offend) a fundamental principle of public expression.

Be that as it may, the incident perfectly illustrates one of Transparency‘s principal themes. ‘We are under the sway’ writes Baudrillard ‘of a surgical compulsion that seeks to excise negative characteristics and remodel things synthetically into ideal forms’ (44). In a ‘lukemic’ order ‘we can no longer speak of Evil. All we can do is discourse on the rights of man — a discourse which is pious, weak, useless and hypocritical’ and ‘invariably deployed in a … reactive mode’ (85). But Evil has not, for all that, disappeared: ‘it has metamorphosed into all the viral and terroristic forms that obsess us’ (81). This metamorphosis is what Baudrillard intended by the title of the book, although (as interview 17 in the Gane collection tells us) the impossible word ‘transparition’ might have captured it better than ‘transparency’. What he had earlier called the ‘revenge of the crystal’, and earlier still the haunting of semiosis by symbolic exchange, is reformulated, in effect, as the ‘theorem of the accursed share’. Whatever purges the latter in itself ‘signs its own death warrant’ (106).

As Baudrillard conducts us, with this figure in mind, through the ‘objective ironies’ of the transsexuality, transeconomics, transaesthetics and transpolitics that comprise the contemporary (late 80s) mediascape, we are evidently still in the soft inferno of simulation which he has been delineating since he abandoned commodity logic and the critique of alienation all those books ago. There is, though, a crucial modification, made clear at the outset of the text. To grasp the enormity of what besets us we must recognise that mere simulation has been left behind: ‘after the natural, commodity and structural stages of value comes the fractal stage.’ Here, succeeding the orders of natural reference, commodified general equivalence, and the generation of models through codes, ‘there is no point of reference at all, and value radiates in all directions, occupying all interstices, without reference to anything whatever, by virtue of pure contiguity (5)’.

If the main metaphor, itself a simulation model, used to describe phase three was the genetic code, a key figure for this fourth stage, already sketched out in Fatal Strategies, is cancer. Cancer, indeed, at the second degree, for the metastases multiply in every direction, a chaos of too-muchness that makes any form of value or equivalence nugatory. ‘Just as each particle follows its own trajectory, each fragment shines for a moment in the heavens of simulatiom, then disappears into the void along a crooked path’ (6). But there is another bio-medical metaphor too, which brings me to a second media report that just floated in. To the consternation of medical authorities who thought such work had been banned, a Boston team announced that a human embryo had just been successfully cloned. A hospital-linked ethicist on the radio gave a balanced opinion. On the one hand, it would make in vitro fertilisation easier and less invasive for infertile women seeking to have a child. On the other hand it raised the spectre of genetic engineering. Leaving aside the paradox that the assertion of individal rights appears here as a force for technical developments that would make individuality obsolete, the horror, from a Baudrillardian perspective, is cloning itself, as the very emblem of reduplicative growth.

The twin themes of the fractal and the ‘transparition’ of Evil rejoin one another in the closing sections of the book which pursue the distinction between (mere) difference and alterity. The latter, radical and unassimilable otherness, is obliterated in all the inclusionary chatter about the former, doubling the promiscuous semiurgy of the hyper-real object-world itself. But the principle of irreconcilability — for Baudrillard, this is what Evil means — cannot be annihilated. Even if it has become unrepresentable ‘it is a power all the same’ (Gane:112). In being extruded and volatalised, it becomes viral. Worse, it becomes virulent; for the immunologically weakened body of a metastasised semio-capitalism becomes fatally vulnerable to its systemic attacks. So it is that AIDS has checked the unrestricted circulation of sex while computer viruses have done the same for that of information. At the (trans)political level it is Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie that provides the paradigm case. ‘By rejecting the universal consensus on all these Good Things [progress rationality, political ethics etc.], Khomeini became the recipient of the energy of Evil, the Satanic energy of the rejected, the glamour of the accursed share.’ Unsurprisingly, Khomeini gets the last laugh, inducing the ‘spineless’ West to force Rushdie to make a hostage of himself. ‘We cannot fail to recognise the superiority which [Khomeini’s] posture assures him over a West where the the possibility of evoking Evil does not exist and every last trace of negativity is smothered by the virtual consensus that prevails’ (82). Citing Mandeville (it could equally have been Kant or Hegel) Baudrillard’s post-history evidently advances on its bad side. It is in such perverse places, at any rate, that he detects signs of a radical otherness, immanent to the fractalising Object, that might undermine or even reverse the gathering ‘hell of the same’.

It is always difficult to know what to do with a Baudrillard text. Since ‘the secret of theory is that truth doesn’t exist’ the descriptions are not easily susceptible to charges of inaccuracy or exaggeration. (Baudrillard’s suggestion that in the age of compu-money capital has gone into orbit and stock crashes have no impact on the ‘real’ economy seems especially implausible four years after the Reagan bubble burst.) It is, rather, the very extremity of these descriptions which legitimates them as the kind of theory (‘fatal’, ‘seductive’, ‘terroristic’ etc.) they purport to be. By the same token, however, Baudrillard has long eschewed traditional critique, with its mix of sociological analysis and moral denunication, in favour of a simulative mode that aims to lure the Object, i.e. the regnant forms of the practico-inert, ever deeper into its own abyss. Regardless, then, of the practical pay-offs of such a strategy, which in its contestative animus maintains some filiation with the Situationist spirit in which it was initially launched, Baudrillard’s theoretical fictions derive energy precisely from their ‘truth’, i.e. from the uncanny way in which they frequently do seem to grasp accurately the objective irony of contemporary events. From a certain angle, as the little media tales told above attest, the world has indeed gone Baudrillardian.

It is a matter of principle, of course, that Baudrillard should efface himself within his text; for if theory is to be fatal, or seduce/challenge the real, it must become more object than object. The degree-zero effect this produces is amplified by a style which, even in its occasional rhapsodising, doggedly persists (one is reminded of Innis) in an indicative mode, devoid of open epistemological reflection, and scrupulously lacking the usual distractive apparatus of cross- references to evidential and intellectual sources. Yet the Baudrillardian text can no more be reduced to the proportions of a mirror than it can be dismissed as an irresponsible fabrication. Baudrillard’s simulative picture of the world — how could it be otherwise? — is a construct, and self-consciously so, a piece of thought, mediated by all the concepts and imaginings which give it shape. Not to broach the enigma (for it is only hintingly expressed) of Baudrillard’s perspective, or, perhaps more accurately, the remainder after its truth-content has been abstracted away, is to risk the kind of misunderstanding fallen into by the New York ‘simulationists’, in so far as they took themselves to be creating art in the same manner as Baudrillard creates theory. As Baudrillard explains to Nicolas Zurbrugg, ‘To assert that “we’re in a state of simulation” becomes meaningless, because at that point one enters a death-like trance. The moment that you believe that you’re in a state of simulation you’re no longer there. The misunderstanding here is the conversion of a theory like mine into a reference’ (Gane: 166). The point is not just the volatility of his concepts, which, in the speed with which they come and go, aim to obviate the ‘glaciation of interpretation’ and keep pace with the movement of what they try to grasp. It is also that the meta- framework which determines this volatility, and indeed the whole (fatal etc.) pragmatics of his thinking and writing is as mysterious in content as it is elusive in expression. ‘Everything I write’, reflects Baudrillard wistfully in a 1991 interview (Gane:189), ‘is deemed brilliant, intelligent, but not serious. There has never been any real discussion about it. I don’t claim to be tremendously serious, but there are nevertheless some philosophically serious things in my work!’

It is the singular merit of the interviews which Baudrillard has given, and which Gane has edited and presented, that, in their urge to make clearer the intended meanings of Baudrillard’s key works they provide the reader with a wealth of contextual supports to that end. Without obfuscation, it is all gathered together: his activism, academic marginality and (peasant- derived) ambivalence about ‘culture’; his indebtedness to Durkheim, Mauss and Bataille; his relation to McLuhan, Warhol, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lacan et al; the continuity and discontinuity in his trajectory from Sartre, Lefebvre and Debord to the anti- subjectivist embrace of destiny, witz, and the Object; his pataphysical play with biological and cybernetic metaphor; his refusal (as meaningless) of the term postmdernism, and his repudiation of ‘its’ aesthetics of collage. The interviews also highlight his persistent pre-occupation with Nietzschian themes, not just with regard to the values and vocabulary of surpassed ressentiment but also with regard to their metaphysics, a word which Baudrillard endorses to characterise the most serious level of what he is trying to do.

In fact, while some commentators have fled the door at the very mention of the word, to engage Baudrillard’s thinking in the kind of intellectual debate whose absence he notes would entail meeting him on just this metaphysical ground. More particularly, it would require a critical exploration of what he repeatedly names his Manicheanism — both in itself (with its cornerstone principles of the illusory character of ‘reality’, the absolute duality of Good and Evil, and soteriological partisanship for the irreconcilability that defines the latter), and in its concatenation with a (‘sociologically’) updated Nietzchian thematisation of modern nihilism and its overcoming. This complex, an intriguing swerve from the Christianity without God of the old left, has come increasingly to the fore in Baudrillard’s work. It informs every page of The Transparency Of Evil. With something like Baudrillard’s full oeuvre now available, those who like him no less than those who detest him have little excuse for not bringing it to the foreground of critical attention.

Thus we need to ponder such questions as: What is the status (existential, political, cosmological) of the transcendentals (Evil first and formeost, but also ‘the real’ and the ‘God or gods’) that haunt the Baudrillardian theatre, and which his ‘theory’ would challenge into making an appearance? What is the relation between Baudrillard’s ‘death of the social’ and Nietzche’s ‘death of God’ — bearing in mind that in France the sociologiocal tradition from which Baudrillard in part derives deified the social and made this afterlife of theism coextensive, for a while, with the modern project itself? And what, if we follow the Manichean analogy all the way, is the soteriological significance (collective, presumably?) of depicting the contemporary world in dualistic terms? If the answer is none, then the dualism disappears, there is no reversibility, and the impulse, or ‘strategy’, of accelerating the worst would only plunge us deeper into a nihilism from which there is no return or escape. If, on the other hand, there is a reality beyond the illusoriness which inextricably seizes the actual, are we to understand Baudrillard as cryptically advancing a form (political? natural?) of negative theology — the path in general which twentieth century religious thinking has pursued in response to ‘the uncanniest of guests’ ambivalently welcomed by Nietzsche?

That this would involve shifting discussion towards the register of what Harold Bloom (in The American Religion) has called the religious imaginary is evident, as is the ideological obstacle to any such move. Nevertheless, for those of us grappling with the same constellation of problems, or similarly suspended between disappointed utopianism (‘after the orgy’) and refused millenial dispair (why indeed not ‘abolish the 1990s in advance’?), it is hard to see how else, with or against Baudrillard, non- superficial thinking about such matters will be able to get very far.

October 1993

Andrew Wernick teaches cultural studies at Trent University and is director of an interdisciplinary graduate program. He is the author of Promotional Cultural (Sage).