The regular Media, Communications and Culture reading group at Keele met today so we could agonise over a short extract from Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. On the nature of the piece we were all as one; it was difficult, repetitious, and wilfully obscure. But beneath the layers of obfuscation, what is the thesis fighting to get heard?
Basically, Baudrillard is marking the passing of an age, an age where one could meaningfully make the distinction between the real and the unreal, what is fact and what is fiction, and the ability to separate essence from appearance. We have now moved into the age of the hyperreal, of simulation and simulacra. As he puts it:
The real is produced from miniaturised units, from matrices, memory banks and command models - and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary, it is no longer real at all. It is a hyperreal: the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.
What does this mean in plain english? We can no longer speak of the real in terms of authenticity, originals, or truth because our reality is completely simulated. To give an example, 'nature' in Britain is a simulacrum: it exists because it is completely artificial. Both in the sense of a 'reality' shaped over many thousands of years by the activities of our species, and as an empty signifier whose referent is constituted by its relationship to other free-floating signs. There is no 'original' nature, that has long since been erased. All there are are self-referential discourses/signs of nature, which attempt to universalise their scope by projecting themselves back in time and constituting a prehistoric nature that is as thoroughly simulated as the one we inhabit today. Baudrillard would argue this constructed and thoroughly mediated artifice nevertheless constitutes our experience of nature, and that experience is no less "authentic" in and of itself, because what is true and what is false doesn't matter, for we inhabit the world of hyperreality.
An example we explored from the text were Baudrillard's bank robbers, to illustrate the inseparability of the simulated and the real. His provocative suggestion is that the authorities would find a self-consciously simulated (i.e. not real) bank robbery more dangerous than the "real" thing. The latter merely transgresses the law of property, which in turn reaffirms the ediface of the criminal justice system. The simulated robbery, however, makes visible the law of simulation; it exposes the absence of a basic reality and the constructed nature of the hyperreal. Baudrillard goes on to note that such an attempt to isolate a simulation, to reveal our contemporary reality principle, is ultimately doomed to fail because they're fully bound up with the inertia of the real. In this example, the authorities will respond as they would to a 'real' bank robbery. The same is true if someone simulated fascism, anti-social behaviour, a profession, and so on: the baggage of the real ensures their generalised acknowledgement as 'real'.
Where does the play of hyperreality leave politics? Once again, everything is unhinged by the simulation. There are no objective political facts that impose themselves upon the interpretation of events. All that is the case are a precession of models (or rather, self-referential systems) whose circulation around a certain topic generate a magnetic field of events. The facts do not constitute the explanation, rather the explanation constitutes the facts. If new facts emerge, they do not assume an independent trajectory but arise within and between different models, they either become absorbed into the stuff that makes up the model through its acceptance or suppression, or, become a point of contestation between different models. What prevents the complete collapse into relativism are the arbitrary injunctions imposed upon facts themselves by the models. It is not possible to fix the truth from outside the model, only within it. As each of us inhabit these models so, from our individual perspectives, the true and the false appears possible for these are the functions of the systems, it nevertheless remains an effect of a simulated world.
The obvious contradiction in all this is if we're bounded by self-referential systems, how is it he has provided an account set outside our simulated universe? Well, as far as he was concerned, he hasn't. Rex Butler in his book, Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real, notes how 'the real' has a dual meaning in Baudrillard: there is the real 'real' (or, 'real' real) that exists beyond the limits of our simulations, and immediately becomes simulated as soon as they come into contact with the hyperreal world; and the circular realities produced by models/self-referential systems. What Baudrillard has done is to provide an account of these circularities by exploring, critiquing, and showing them up to be fictional understandings of the real. Work such as The System of Objects, The Mirror of Production, Symbolic Exchange and Death, Seduction, Forget Foucault, In the Shadow of Silent Majorities, and America all inhabit particular self-referential systems - the ensemble of commodity-signs, Marxism, feminism, sociology, etc. - and attempt to push their logics to show up their limits as simulations. For example, in my previous post on Baudrillard, his discussion of Marxism in The Mirror of Production had him arguing that once Marxism encountered its limits - history before the emergence of capitalism - it effectively becomes an apologia, a radical accomplice of capital by projecting back its naturalist claims into the past, thereby buttressing its contemporary dominance. In other words, for Baudrillard, Marxism ends up depicting capital and capitalism not as historical, but eternal. Upon encountering its limits, Marxism disassembles into something approaching ideology, in so far as ideology is still possible. In the earlier post this understanding was critiqued with reference to subsequent developments within Marxism. The problem is, Baudrillard and his supporters would argue, this makes no difference at all. By asserting an accurate exposition on the historicity of Marxist categories, all I ended up doing was asserting the reality claims of one self-referential system, and therefore had been seduced by the logics of simulation and hyperreality. From this standpoint, the possibility of effectively critiquing Baudrillard lies not in Marxism, feminism, or sociology; but from within the terms he operates, of turning the logic of his thought against himself and the claims he makes.
While on the one hand, you can make the case that his critiques of the limits of self-regulating systems and exposure of the simulated nature of things can act as a radical scepticism toward any kind of belief system that claims to explain everything, on the other there is no escaping the fact his deconstructive project make a series of truth claims about hyperreality, simulacra and simulations, the absence of the real, and so on. His approach constitutes a sort meta-system, where the components of its self-referentiality aren't concepts in the same way labour power, surplus value, commodity fetishism, etc. are for Marxism; rather their place is occupied by the models and systems Baudrillard's critique is parasitic upon. Feminism, psychoanalysis, etc. are both supports of and act as foils. Baudrillard seemed to be aware of this, and realising the difficulty of his position resigned himself to acting out this fatal logic throughout the remainder of his writings, perhaps in the hope that by attacking Baudrillard, critics will come to understand the operation, the ruse of the hyperreal.
Its not difficult to see why Baudrillard has evoked much hostility. His internal critiques of self-referential systems are often deliberately provocative, and what he seems to offer is nothing more than a nihilist void. Small wonder his work is taken as an exemplar of the purest postmodernism, though of course for Baudrillard this is as much a system as any other.
But where does this leave Marxism? As a system constituting its own simulated reality, is a considered response to Baudrillard possible? I would say yes. The starting point should not be how he uses Marxism in the early phases of his project (The System of Objects, The Consumer Society, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, and The Mirror of Production), but the operation sketched out above: a critique of Baudrillard according to his own terms. Proceeding from this the notion of agency, suppressed/ignored as an epiphenomenon of self-referential logics but nevertheless the ultimate foundation of the whole hyperreal ensemble can be brought into play. From here how agents are the site of contestation between self-referential systems and logics, but also the producers and disseminators of these tensions, contradictions, and antagonisms that ripple through the social fabric, conditioning and developing systems, which in turn condition and develop agents, and so on. Once we have unearthed agency, notions around interest and materiality can be reintroduced, questions can be asked about whether the logic of simulation is politically neutral, or (as Baudrillard did note) follows a similar logic as capitalism's reduction of the diverse range of commodity use values to the universal equivalent, exchange value. Which means having to dig our copies of Capital out again to chase away the nihilistic shadow Baudrillard has cast over contemporary social thought.