Qui est l'ecran?
In 2007, at the age of 77, Jean Baudrillard's simulacrum decelerated beyond departure. In commemoration, it seems appropriate to revisit The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, a distillation of some of his last work. Astutely translated by Chris Turner, this amalgam of gnomic diagnoses not only offer controversial takes on fourth order simulacra but also a refreshing exposé of our fixation with good and evil.
To (dis)orientate ourselves, let us begin with Borges's story of an imperial map, a representation produced to such detail that it ended up coming into one-to-one correspondence with the actual territory. Eventually, the map covered up the very things its design represented and everything that had once been directly lived. To take the story further, as the empire declines, the map fades into the landscape and there is neither the representation nor the real remaining, merely the hyperreal. The prevailing logic of this "integral reality" is to hermetically envelope the world and its image. A totalizing technical saturation of life transposes the incomprehensibleness of the world by forcing the whole of the real into the transparency of visual resemblance. In perfecting itself by consuming all opposition, this pattern of "total positivity" spreads like a viral desert, relentlessly concentrating all the forces of 'good' in order to eliminate 'evil' from the world.
This tale reframes Marshall McLuhan's cogito "the medium is the message" into a trenchant critique of media-driven consumer society. If we are the product of our technology then the primary effect of the latter is to abolish "elsewhere" by viewing all systems, except itself, as relative. Yet, contra Mcluhan's technooptimism of virtual communities, Baudrillard realises that any particularity trying to totalise itself is bad news. He exposes how this process shifts the mode of reciprocal human experience from a symbolically connected social existence to one based on sign exchange value. The semiotic form's power to stand for or to simulate disconnects the essential play of the symbolic form's meaning and relations. It replaces them with the perfecting fractal logic of filtered and fragmented sign materials. An offer of complete disclosure tricks human consciousness into detaching from any real emotional engagement in exchange for artificial s(t)imulation, endless reproductions of fundamentally empty appearance. As a result, meaning and relations become relations of consumption, relations with (and ultimately between) signs. The fractal dimensions of which replicate in dynamic continuum at smaller and larger scales. That is to say, whatever the scale of the map the shape is about the same, a repeating space-time manifold. By analogy, one can view modern mediatised geopolitics and economic networks as fractal.
As Baudrillard argues, under an avalanche of information, we experience an encounter with hyperreality, not through too little reality but rather through a surfeit. Yet, it lacks all the defining features of actual presence and sedates us through a diet of glut, repetition and endless consumption. Habit snares us in a chimerical web of parasocial interaction as we abrogate our responsibility to ask questions about our own modes of thought. In the meantime, reality begins to de-actualise in the geography of a hyperreal selfscape as we forget the symbolic side to social existence. Apathy slowly descends on our own human faculties to explore an authentic plurality of life-worlds and congeals us within an increasingly semiotic simulacrum. The entropic heat-death of all symbolic relations (as the borders of the real) yield to an "ecstasy of communication."
But does the absorption of images make us victims of images? Are we a media overwritten by those who speak for it? According to Baudrillard, we happily collaborate in obtaining everything we desire but remain insatiate. Disturbingly, knowing and receiving everything we want comes at the expense of any sort of symbolic cycle. Artifice may always occupy the very heart of reality but without a symbolic relationship of reciprocity, reversibility and interconnectedness there is a profligate loss of context and perspective. What we think is real ends up being a simulation of reality capable of thinking us rather than vice-versa. We become accomplices in the transformation of ourselves into images, "double agents of the virtual" so to speak. As such, the violence done to the image including the image of humanity appears to be the experiment humanity is willing to conduct on itself. On a more upbeat note, Baudrillard envisages integral reality's "unlimited operational project" as an unsuspecting propagator of its own reaction. Despite all its seduction, reversibility always haunts this projection into the desire of others, an immanent paroxysm awaiting arrival as an image feedback.
Whether Baudillard's work has meaning or not is not really for me to answer and somehow misses the point. Yet, to encounter it is still extreme sport: exhilarating, dangerous and liable to produce vertigo. He was, after all, a radicaliser of hypotheses and unwavering agent provocateur to the last. Baudrillard's ça ira hits your cerebrum like a "force-five conceptual storm." His epistemological project freed us to go beyond our ill-equipped thought about the world in order to keep pace with its accelerating forms. And whilst his critique is ambiguous and contradictory, it remains nonetheless telling. The impact is considerably unnerving but seemingly necessary and affirming: sympathy for the devil indeed.
Jean Baudrillard, philosopher and sociologist, born July 29 1929; died March 6 2007
Dr. Paul J. Carnegie teaches political thought in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. He is currently completing a manuscript entitled Democratization and Ambiguity: Lessons from Indonesia. He can be reached at email@example.com