[iDC] Jean Baudrillard

mark bartlett mark at globalpostmark.net
Wed Mar 14 13:57:17 EDT 2007

Charles, William, Jeffrey, Keith, and all,

(Apologies for the length of this. I'm on vacation....)

The LA Times obituary for Baudrillard included this quotation:

“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.”

There is something particularly ironic in the simulated recirculation  
of this Baudrillard quote between the two major consumer news brands  
of the "Times," spatially "unifying" the country under this thought  
as though it were his dying words, while being completely incapable  
of acting on them. Is this example perhaps a demonstration of the  
"truth" of his views?

Keith and Grimshaw stressed that aspect of Baudrillard's work which  
stemmed from the isolation of his Cartesian subjectivity, his  
witnessing of American culture from the distancing interiority of the  
automobile as it moved through America's deserts. We should compare  
this to Roland Barthes' _Empire of Signs_ written about "Japan" from  
the viewpoint of Tokyo's airport, Warhol's favorite interior design  
we should note. Warhol, Barthes and Baudrillard have a great deal in  
common, acceptance of the 'real' as 'spectacle' in Debord's sense,  
and a political belief in the limits of interpretation, and  
existence, determined by this spectacle. Warhol excepted his status  
as human simulacrum, as did Baudrillard. Keith and Grimshaw attribute  
this to his elitism and the irrelevance of his writings to the  
'actual' social conditions of 'America.' They prefer James' long term  
mixing with 'real America and real Americans.' What goes uncritically  
forward in this discourse is the 'outsider' romanticism of some  
critics from abroad - including Keith and Grimshaw themselves. And,  
at least in terms of the excerpt Keith posted, there is too little  
attention to the shifting constructions of US social, public  
identities, to make adequate comparisons between the three  
'Americanist' scholars. Their criticism of Baudrillard is reduced to  
an assumption that his arrogance was defined by his supposed  
dismissal of the  American "people" as stupid, an elitist  
misconception that James was not trapped by. I agree with William  
that this is not true of Baudrillard.

On the other hand, as a  born and bred, working class US-American, I  
can confirm that the national popular imaginary is indeed deeply  
problematic, quite often stupid, and stands in need of strenuous  
critique, at every class level, including, the largely, and  
increasing homogenized bourgeois academy. [I'm not bashing academia  
as a whole here, only  its neoliberalization as market.] The  
"people," whoever they are, are not entitled to some criticism-free  
status. Ideologies and the political unconscious run deep.  We are  
all very aware of the complexity of sociopolitical imaginary at every  
level - the ability of intelligence and astuteness to easily cohabit  
with their opposite. It may even be the case that the sociopolitical  
imaginary in the US is the epitome of such non-identical, psychic,  
split personality. How else explain, to cite but one obvious case,  
the continuation of lesser-of-evil voting on a mass scale by those  
who know better? who might best understand that voting  lesser of the  
evil is still complicity enabling evil? What is this, but the crude  
cynicism Baudrillard describes,  fully formed in the inability to  
organize on a "popular' level in numbers large enough to move in the  
exact opposite direction of MoveOn.org? toward the creation of a  
radically other political movement in the US? I'd assert that the  
lesser of evil voter mentality is more responsible for the political  
debacle in the US than the  highly skilled maneuvering of the right,  
because there is virtually no resistance to it from a viable left.  
This problem coalesced around the polarizing impact of the Nader/ 
Camejo campaign in 2004. Nader's quip summed it up when challenged by  
the deeply anti-democratic opposition of the ABB strategy: "What part  
of "I'm running," don't you understand?" Only the Latino-driven labor  
movement seems to understand this and is capable of moving against  
the (in)grain(ed). Baudrillard position is "useful," to address  
Charles' comments, precisely because it exposes the fantasy  
construction of a belief in "reform" politics. The neocon's  
understood this very well, and went for broke, and have succeeded in  
nothing less than revolutionary terms - they have succeeded in  
subverting the constitution and the separation of powers. Michael  
Moore's melodramatic  getting down on his knees on national TV to beg  
Nader to withdraw from the race, is the epitome of such nihilistic  
reform fantasies.

Against the assumption of a politically astute 'national popular' in  
Gramsci's terms, and against the view that Baudrillard was an  
isolated Cartesian cogito, I'd claim that his position was ironic, as  
was Warhol's, and self-ironic in particular. This self-irony is  
immanently generous and social, self-inclusive, as demonstrated by  
their self-descriptions as spectacle automata. Cindy Sherman's work  
exemplifies this in her decades of photographic investigations of  
spectacle constructions of subjectivity. What is at fault, and is  
itself a form of nationalist arrogance and self-ignorance, is the  
assumption by "Americans" of some essentialized condition of  
'Americanization,' free in particular of being a condition and  
product of spectacle forces. Only a subject-position performed  
through irony is capable of articulating the schizophrenic national  
popular in the US - once one stands outside of the libertarian  
individualist fantasies of non-ironic, non-complicit, political  

I'm not sure where Jeffrey stand's in the end. "That indeed,  
spectacle trains "all of us" to "embrace nothing right?"  I can't  
imagine that is what he means. While I agree that Baudrillard was on  
some level, "right" about some aspects of national popular imaginary,  
I don't agree that there are no lessons for transformation to be  
found in his work. I'm thinking of his recognition of the  
significance of the "warning" found on "rear view" mirrors on US  
cars: "Objects are closer than they seem." That is a startling,  
critically productive detournement when properly subjectivized. And  
it does, doesn't it, allude to Benjamin's angel of history, condemned  
to move into the future while only facing the past? I also agree that  
there is at times a moralistic strain in his writings,  similar to,  
but not as bad as those to be found in Virilio. And while Jeffrey's  
examples are indeed exemplary of "social"l movements that have been  
concurrent with Baudrillard's "cynical irony," the fact is that many  
of these movements were self-destructively naive and self-deceptive  
with regard to the real-politics  of mass-movement sociopolitical  
change. I do not mean in anyway to discredit the political sincerity  
of such movements, and recognize the lasting positive impacts they  
did, despite themselves, have; I only mean, in Baudrillardian  
fashion, to unmask the limitations that led so rapidly to their  
failure. Adorno's condemnation of  Marcuse's condoning of the 60's  
social movements was prescient, and in retrospect, correct. So now what?

I've been thinking of late that political critique has fetishized two  
terms of political discourse - effectiveness and relevance - while  
completely neglecting a third, more important one - that of  
complicity. It is here that Baudrillard still has transformative  
significance. I no longer think that social change can be brought  
about in the US national popular imaginary, as a form of mass  
political consciousness, through rational argument - through thought  
- because the spectacle has so deeply colonized the political  
imagination and dumbed it down to the level of mere fantasy.  I no  
longer think that you can change, at any social level, in the US,  
very many people's minds by attempting to change what they think,  
but, only, first, through changing what they feel. What is needed is  
an Affective Politics. And I think Baudrillard can be read anew along  
the axis of affectivity, through the mode of irony, one that flips  
the hierarchy of thought-feeling to become, feeling-thought. The  
converse of the subjective law: objects are closer than they seem;  
is: subjects are more distant than they seem; in other words, it is a  
very sharply focused statement of alienation. It is through  
examination of the patterns of complicity that the affective can make  
the political relevant and effective, and, without submitting to  
utopian or distopian fantasies, begin turning the angel of history  
toward imagining alternative futures. For it is in our peripheral  
visions, to allude to Lacan, that our complicities will have been  
found, should we survive the coming deluge.

mark bartlett

On Mar 13, 2007, at 1:20 PM, Merrin W. wrote:

> I’m still stunned by some of this discussion. I honestly thought  
> that with the general availability of Baudrillard’s work in  
> translation these days that a better understanding of his work  
> might exist. Again and again the same comments keep appearing – 
> Baudrillard offered no hope, he had no programme for change, he saw  
> no possibility of change, he ignored power/politics/the poor etc.  
> so what do you expect? All we can do is smile at him and shrug …
> In fact Baudrillard’s career is best understood as an attempt to  
> develop both an escalating analysis of the operation of the western  
> semiotic system and the forms of social control that produce and  
> govern us today and a similarly escalating analysis of those  
> symbolic forms that he argues shadow the system, irrupt within it  
> or through it or arise from external sources – his names for these  
> changed but included the symbolic, symbolic exchange, seduction,  
> reversal, the fatal, evil, the singularity etc. Baudrillard never  
> gives up hope (in fact that might be a better critique of his work  
> – his tendency always to find that glimmer…), and he pursued his  
> hope of something fighting the semiotic in the form of his work (in  
> his own theoretical methodology – in his writing and its different  
> strategies), in the content of his work (in his analysis of forms  
> such as the masses, processes such as terrorism, and events such as  
> the Gulf War or western globalisation etc.) as well as in practices  
> he favoured (such as photography). He wasn’t a Marxist and his  
> rejection of the ‘gold standard’, referential real of the  
> proletariat and their revolution means that a lot of critics didn’t  
> see what he was doing but he looked for and continually found modes  
> and processes of reversal. A lot of the reason why many people miss  
> this in him is because they don’t realise it’s there because  
> they’re too busy focusing upon the first part of his analysis – of  
> simulation. Too few people have paid attention to the symbolic, its  
> meaning in his work, its critical function and its practical  
> efficacy. Just focusing on simulation means you mistake him for an  
> apolitical, nihilistic celebrant. Marx described capitalism but it  
> didn't make him a capitalist. Baudrillard may describe simulation ...
> I also saw the earlier post which involved a critique of  
> Baudrillard’s book 'America'. It’s not that important a book in his  
> oeuvre but I do wonder if we’ve been reading the same book. All  
> that stuff about  ‘Baudrillard in reality gives vent to the deep  
> hostility he feels towards the common people. They simply do not  
> exist in his book’ etc. is hornswoggle. The entire critique  
> advanced in the post is a typical product of its time – a petty and  
> prett smug assault on what Baudrillard represents to the writer and  
> their own feelings about his claimed postmodernism and European and  
> intellectual status etc. rather than what he wrote in that book.The  
> book itself bears little relation to what's being said about it.  
> Just go to the chapter ‘The End of US Power?’ and you’ll find a  
> major discussion (see especially p. 112-13 of the verso  
> translation) of the disenfranchisement of the poor with the turn to  
> new right political and economic policies in the early 1980s. His  
> critique of this systematic withdrawal of interest from entire  
> sections of society is superb (‘entire swathes of the population  
> are falling into oblivion, being totally abandoned…’) and his  
> description of the process as an ‘ex-communication’ is spot on –  
> reworking a religious concept in the light of what it means in a  
> communications-based society to develop a powerful Durkheimian  
> critique of the desocialisation of the poor and the withdrawal of  
> even that simulation of participation he saw consumerism as  
> offering when he wrote about it in ‘The Mirror of Production’.  
> Baudrillard didn’t see the common people…? Nah, people don’t see  
> Baudrillard.
> On the day of his funeral, I'll defend him against all-comers.
> William Merrin
> Dept of Media and Communication Stuides
> University of Wales, Swansea
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