Monday, March 12, 2007

Goodbye Baudrillard: to one who really existed and now is really dead

I have been reading several obituaries for Jean Baudrillard who died last Tuesday. I am not sure what to think about many of them but thought that this may be something worth posting on here because 1. if you know who he is you may have some thoughts on his life and death and 2. if you don't know who he is you may find this an occasion to become associated with his thoughts.

I find a lot of the media coverage of his death to be ironic in a way, though how could it not be? The LA Times represents one of the main ways his death was covered. Their weekend obituary begins by pointing out the many tributes that focus on his sensational linguistic style. "Baudrillard's Death Did Not Happen," "Jean Baudrillard did not take place," "Baudrillard did not exist" and "Jean Baudrillard is survived by his simulacrum." Such a play on Baudrillard's style will probably leave more than a few rationalistic types in a dismissive state of mind, often the same response given to Baudrillard's work by the super rational. This type of coverage frustrates me because they tend to reflect the tendency of many postmodern types to embrace his style of sensationalism but avoid the depths of meaning behind it.

Their weekend obituary begins by pointing out the many tributes that focus on his sensational linguistic style. "Baudrillard's Death Did Not Happen," "Jean Baudrillard did not take place," "Baudrillard did not exist" and "Jean Baudrillard is survived by his simulacrum." Such a play on Baudrillard's style will probably leave more than a few rationalistic types in a dismissive state of mind, often the same response given to Baudrillard's work by the super rational. I am frustrated by this type of coverage because they tend to reflect the tendancy of many postmodern types to embrace his style of sensationalism but avoid the depths of meaning behind it.

Let me try and explain.

The NY Times obituary begins with an excellent, direct summary of his most basic philosophical idea, hyperreality.

"One of his better known theories postulates that we live in a world where simulated feelings and experiences have replaced the real thing. This seductive “hyperreality,” where shopping malls, amusement parks and mass-produced images from the news, television shows and films dominate, is drained of authenticity and meaning. Since illusion reigns, he counseled people to give up the search for reality."

Baudrillard's observations are keen and often insightful when first encountered. I remember coming to him by means of Don Delillo's White Noise and an article in Harper's from April 2002 by Thomas de Zengotita, "The Numbing of the American Mind: culture as anesthetic." While neither directly mention Baudrillard, I find Zengotita's breakdown of the level's of reality in our culture to be one of the best applications of Baudrillard's hyperreality, making plain the utter difficulty of differenciating between "real" and "un-real."

* Real real: You fall down the stairs. Stuff in your life that's so familiar you've forgotten the statement it makes.
* Observed real: You drive by a car wreck. Stuff in your life in which the image-statement is as salient as the function.
* Between real real and observed real: Stuff that oscillates between the first two categories. Like you're wearing something you usually take for granted but then you meet someone attractive.
* Edited real real: Shtick you have down so pat you don't know it's shtick anymore, but you definitely only use it in certain situations. Documentaries and videos in which people are unaware of the camera, though that's not easy to detect, actually. Candid photographs.
* Edited observed real: Other people's down-pat shtick. Shtick you are still working on. Documentaries in which people are accommodating the camera, which is actually a lot of the time, probably.
*Staged real: Formal events like weddings. Retail-clerk patter.
* Edited staged real: Pictures of the above. Homemade porn.
* Staged observed real unique: Al kisses Tipper. Survivor.
* Staged observed real repeated: Al kisses Tipper again and again. Anchor-desk and talk-show intros and segues. Weather Channel behavior.
(In the interests of time, we can skip the subtler middle range of distinctions and go to the other end of the spectrum:)
* Staged realistic: The English Patient and NYPD Blue.
* Staged hyperreal: Oliver Stone movies and Malcolm in the Middle.
* Overtly unreal realistic: S.U.V.'s climbing buildings. Digitized special effects in general, except when they are more or less undetectable.
* Covertly unreal realistic: Hair in shampoo ads. More or less undetectable digital effects, of which there are more every day.
* Between overtly and covertly unreal realistic: John Wayne in a beer ad (you have to know he's dead to know he isn't "really" in the ad).
* Real unreal: Robo-pets.
* Unreal real: Strawberries that won't freeze because they have fish genes in them.

Though his use of the actual word hyperreal in this delineation seems to be other than Baudrillard's own usage, I find his wrestling with world to be similar to Baudrillard as well as genuine and correct. Writing about post 9/11 American culture, he seems drawn toward an investigation into the different realities and unrealities that make up our world, perhaps implying a sort of moral obligation to do so. This is different than the Baudrillard quote above that calls for embracing the illusory and forgetting about "reality" because there is nothing more real than the illusions. Zengotita goes on:

"But the issue isn't can we do it [discern the levels and types of reality]; it's do we do it--and the answer is, of course not. Our minds are the product of total immersion in a daily experience saturated with fabrications to a degree unprecedented in human history. People have never had to cope with so much stuff, so many choices. In kind and number."

The endpoint here resonates with one of Baudrillard's examples of hyperreality. From the NY Times:

“All of our values are simulated,” he told The New York Times in 2005. “What is freedom? We have a choice between buying one car or buying another car? It’s a simulation of freedom.”

What is unstated, by Baudrillard at least, is the acknowledgement that what Baudrillard has done in observing the simulated false freedom in capitalistic processes and what Zengotita does in his delineation of types of reality and unreality is an embrace of a sort of reality beyond the illusions; a necessary possibility if one is to ever evaluate the morality of a particular unreality or created reality. Specifically, it implies the possibility of a really real, or at least a more real real, that can judge the reality (or goodness?) of synthetic realities based on their relation to that which is more real. I think this is a necessary starting point.

Baudrillard's own commentary of the post 9/11 world reveals the moral necessity for something similar to Zengotita's attempt to discern the different levels of reality. The NY Times summarizes his writings on 9/11 and the aftermath as follows:

"The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers” was published just a year after 9/11. In it, he argued that Islamic fundamentalists tried to create their own reality...The current American invasion of Iraq is an effort to “put the rest of the world into simulation, so all the world becomes total artifice and then we are all-powerful,” he told The Times. “It’s a game.”"

Though I have a hard time putting this into Zengotita's framework, Baudrillard seems to suggest a created real thrust upon others by political powers. In the case of Islamic fundamentalists it is a reality of Islamic rule where Allah alone is God, all idolatry is punished for the sin that is, and justice is swift and immediate. But to create this reality they have to overthrow the more powerful created real personified in the US empire. This is difficult not only because the US empire has more force behind it but also because it's a part of the larger hyperreality of the globalized world of commerce exchange, media images, and technological advancement. In fact, Baudrillard reads the entire "America vs. Islamic terror" situation as the outworking of this hyperreality of the globalized world. From The Spirit of Terrorism as quoted at Wikipedia:

"There is indeed a fundamental antagonism here, but one that points past the spectre of America (which is perhaps the epicentre, but in no sense the sole embodiment, of globalisation) and the spectre of Islam (which is not the embodiment of terrorism either) to triumphant globalisation battling against itself."

Hence, what appears as the war of two synthetic realities is actually the outworking of one greater reality. This employment of a "more real reality" does not diminish that Baudrillard sees this more real reality as a hyperreality made up of illusions but it does acknowledge the possibility of distinguishing the more real from the less real and the superiority of that which is "more real." Such a possibility leaves me again wondering if there is a way this can lead toward discussing morality and goodness.

It is easy for those of us in the US to look at what the Islamic fundamentalists did on 9/11 and point out that this is wrong because it is an attempt to thrust one's own desired reality upon someone who already has their own reality they're happy with. Further, it is fairly easy for lots of people, specifically liberal types, to look at the US activity in Iraq and notice the attempt to force a particular reality into a place where it fails to take hold because it is not naturally real (at least in that particular place). The current situation is a test of whether or not it is possible to make the unreal real if given the right enough force and effort. These easier discernments aside, it is harder to discern the synthetic reals from the natural reals or the forced reality from the selected reality in the broader globalized reality. Partly this is because Baudrillard is at least right to the degree that what is really real in our world today is the sort of hyperreality that would have been previously seen as false. To a degree, this hyperreality has developed from the "natural" technological expanses of the developed world and our experiences of it all.

That aside, the reality of an abused earth, oppressed peoples, and forced realities of every sort require one to find the moral space to notice when what is real is not good. In such situations we must ask the annoying and seemingly hopeless questions of "whose good?" and "what is real?" and still find a way, even if it is just our best guess, to alter these situations. Sometimes it requires the realization that our reality, which may in fact be very good for us, is in fact not at all good for others. In such circumstances Baudrillard's opinion that illusion reigns and his command to no longer seek reality serves as a quiet comfort to the already comfortable. To the suffering, however, it is much harder to sell reality as nothing more than illusions and numbness (though often enough they too craft an alternative reality meant to numb their suffering). It is the truly courageous, then, who question their own reality, asking if their comfort (in my case) can only come at the loss of others or if there is another reality less cruel than this one. To simply pursue the numbing illusions is to ignore the layers of reality that are before us.

Let me not sound too sure myself, as I am again drawn to Zengotita's article where he delves into the already unreality of that event which was supposed to be the most real thing of all, 9/11, just six months after. Even individually I seek the comfortable numbness of media images and various unrealities to avoid annoying reality (somewhat difficult relationships, minor work stresses, and paperwork) which, in a way, serves as a distraction from the deeper, darker questions of reality that lurk in my mind (life and death, god, truth, love). All of that said, in light of Baudrillard's death I feel drawn to focus in on these things which are more real.

My disagreement with those quoted in the LA Times is my starting point for such a focus. Baudrillard's death did happen. His unreality is now part of our reality. Likewise, lots of other people are dead or soon will be. I too will be dead. So will you. Regardless of what pictures we look at, digital animation we create that looks just like the deceased, or computer programs we create to upload our brain activity onto in pursuit of eternal simulation; death, itself unreality, is the great delineator of unrealities. It is the really unreal (or is it?). Can we not employ it's harshness to help us know what is most real, and what ought to be real, before we ourselves become intimately aquatinted with the reality of this unreality?

Even if Baudrillard is right and reality is a game we are playing, I hope we can begin to play it better, or under a better set of rules, where the goal is not ultimate power or destruction of all others but instead shared joy and celebration of life. I honor his work and those like him who, even if indirectly or accidentally, practice that most difficult type of philosophy that gazes upon our perceived reality and attempt to discern the depths of the real and the illusionary. May we follow in our own ways in this task.


At 3/14/2007 4:30 PM, Blogger Jeff BBz said...

I am still thinking about a reply to this. I did read it. Don't worry.

At 3/16/2007 2:42 PM, Blogger Dusty said...

I did read it as well...I found it very interesting. I am not sure what type of reply I could come up with.

But. thanks for the info and researching all this!


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