Wisdom Truth

Jean Baudrillard: “Language, too, has its molars for grinding, its incisors for cutting, its canines for tearing—and, from time to time, a wisdom tooth.”

Enlightenment: enduring the pain of a wisdom truth.

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Memoir Seminar

Jean Baudrillard: “Cipher, don’t decipher.”

Translation: Keep to yourself. Keep something of yourself for yourself. Keep something of yourself from yourself. Commit silence.

***

How shall we write silence? How shall we write in silence? In what tone does silence not-write?

Knot-writing. Bound books. Unsafe words. Writing is seen as emotional release. It’s first and foremost a building of tension. Writing complicates. Writing frustrates.

***

If you must write a memoir, don’t spill your guts. Deflect reflection. Let sleeping Freudians lie.

Engage like a mistress in tease and denial. Put a hand over your mouth. Hand over your mouth. Muffle your dreams.

Connection Issues

In his 2017 book In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, Byung-Chul Han examines the challenges of working in a global economy. Concerned about employee burnout, Han writes,

Even though we are now free from the machines that enslaved and exploited people during the industrial age, digital apparatuses are installing new constraints, new slavery. Because of their mobility, they make possible exploitation that proves even more efficient by transforming every space into a workplace—and all time into working hours. The freedom of movement is switching over into a fatal compulsion to work everywhere. (34)

According to Han, “a fatal compulsion to work everywhere” leaves employees stressed out and sleep-deprived. During the industrial age, workers suffered untold hardships, Han says, but at least they could clock out and leave the factory behind for the night. Today, turned into mini international business machines, many workers drag the factory home with them on phones, tablets and laptops.

The amount of information—be it personal, social or work-related—stored on our “digital apparatuses,” as Han calls them, boggles the mind. Jean Baudrillard called people’s compulsion to collect and catalogue every last piece of data “obscene.”

With a flair for the dramatic, Baudrillard writes in his 1987 book The Ecstasy of Communication that “today there is a pornography of information and communication, a pornography of circuits and networks, of functions and objects in their legibility, availability, regulation, forced signification, capacity to perform, connection, polyvalence, their free expression” (26-27).

Today every event, every interaction, every idea, every word must mean something unequivocally. Earth and all its satellites must speak. We can’t go off the grid of “forced signification.” No one has the right to remain silent. We must answer every email and text, share our thoughts on social media, express ourselves on blogs. Non-tweeters risk ex-communication.

Seventy-five years before the release of the first iPhone, Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran just wanted to be left alone. Writing was anti-social media for Cioran, who proclaims in his 1934 book On the Heights of Despair in full pessimist mode:

As far as I am concerned, I resign from humanity. I no longer want to be, nor can still be, a man. What should I do? Work for a social and political system, make a girl miserable? Hunt for weaknesses in philosophical systems, fight for moral and aesthetic ideals? It’s all too little. I renounce my humanity even though I may find myself alone. But am I not already alone in this world from which I no longer expect anything? (43-44)

I admire Cioran’s defiant spirit, but short of committing suicide, no one can resign from humanity. We can quit a corporate job, but we can’t quit seeking the company of others.

There has to be a middle ground between being hyper-connected—to our families, colleagues, (Facebook) friends, Instagram followers—and being totally isolated, as Cioran might have envisioned it. Anyone who finds this middle ground might, with the right connections, sell millions of self-help books and never need a “real job” again.

Necessary Evil

Jean Baudrillard believed in the power of reversibility to challenge our relationships with social, political, economic and technological systems. Computer viruses, for example, turn our devices against us by attacking vast networks built for the smooth transmission of critical data. Baudrillard says with a sense of irony that overworked and underappreciated computers spread their own viruses in coordinated hacks of defiance.

Baudrillard discouraged our fruitless attempts to prevent reversibility. What’s at stake in the bigger picture is our desire to contain the virus of evil—part of our master plan to control the uncontrollable and create a perfect world.

The quest to contain evil—to bring the devil to his knees—hastens the man-made destruction of the radical illusion of the world. For Baudrillard, the world as we know it today—the “real” world—has been from the beginning nothing more than a radical illusion. What we call “reality” didn’t exist until people began creating it through language and within cultures in an effort, among other things, to name and tame evil forces beyond human control.

Reality grows at the expense of illusion, which is disappearing behind the scenes of all that’s seen. Baudrillard, a philosopher with the heart of a poet, mourned what he called the on-going “murder of illusion.”

Today virtual reality machines, programmed to fulfill our wildest dreams, are out to murder illusion for good. To create simulated spaces in which everyone’s secret fantasies play out in real time, any threat to the sovereignty of computer networks must be quarantined and wiped off the (inter)face of the earth. This isn’t just about binary code; Baudrillard says we’re trying to erase evil itself from the metaphysical equation.

But what is One without Zero? What is the Light without the Darkness?

When we try to flush evil from our system, evil returns with a vengeance to counteract our good intentions—for the good of humanity. Agents of reversibility like computer bugs save us from the nightmare of a sterilized world in which manufacturing universal happiness makes everyone miserable. Reversibility is poetic justice against a prideful human race that feels entitled to a hardship-free existence.

A world without evil isn’t a real world; it’s a virtual copy with no original and no original sin. Baudrillard didn’t believe in God, but he knew without a doubt that flawless human beings in a perfectly good world don’t need God at all—and that, at least for now, “flawless human beings” is an oxymoron.

Democratic Nihilism

In one of his final books, Telemorphosis, Jean Baudrillard discusses the spectacle of reality TV. He sets his sights on Loft Story, the French adaptation of the popular American show Big Brother. Baudrillard argues that fans of Loft Story value the show’s contestants not for their talents, but for their lack of any talent at all. He draws parallels between reality TV and democracy:

The democratic illusion is thus elevated to the highest degree: the maximal exaltation for a minimal qualification. And, while the traditional principle merely insured a partial recognition for merit, the operation of the Loft insures a virtual glory to everyone in terms of the absence of merit itself. On one hand, it is the end of democracy, by the extinction of any qualification of merit whatsoever, but on the other hand, it is the result of an even more radical democracy [based on] the beatification of the man without qualities. It is a great step towards democratic nihilism. (25-26)

Everyone in the Loft is destined for “virtual glory.” The opposite of the best and the brightest, the cast is governed by the rule of the lowest common denominator. Inspired by “democratic nihilism,” viewers get the cheap entertainment they’re looking for, and Baudrillard condemns them for it.

“The society which permits itself to enjoy the enthusiastic spectacle of this masquerade deserves exactly what it gets. Loft Story is both the mirror and the disaster of an entire society caught up in the race towards meaninglessness and swooning in front of its own banality” (27-28).

We can extend Baudrillard’s pop culture analysis to the state of American politics today. Citizens who vote incompetent people into office get the government they deserve. In 2016, millions of Americans voted against a former senator and secretary of state in favor of a reality TV host whose resume includes filing for bankruptcy four times and appearing as himself in the classic American film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.

Earlier this week, Trump’s origin story became a news event once again. In an interview with FOX Business Network reporter Maria Bartiromo, Trump spoke fondly of social media.

“I doubt I’d be here without social media, to be honest with you, because there is a fake media out there, I get treated very unfairly by the media, and I have a tremendous platform,” Trump said.

Twitter—a tremendous platform for petty people the world over—helps Trump govern via intimidation.

“So, when somebody says something about me, I’m able to go ‘bing, bing, bing,’ and I take care of it. The other way I’d never be able to get the word out.”

Perhaps this is the way the world ends—with a bing, bing, bing rather than a bang or whimper.

Marshall McLuhan said long ago that the medium is the message. Today the medium is the spectacle, and Twitter is the spectacle writ large. Twitter invites users to an orgy of information in which the reliability of hard news is faked like an orgasm in a collective sigh of disbelief.

Believe it or not, the president, according to the president, is the master of his Twitter domain.

“You know, they’re well crafted, I was always a good student, like a person who does well with that kind of thing,” Trump said eloquently about his posts.

The Society of the Selfie deserves President Trump, a man of “lights, camera, action” serving his own business interests at the expense of those he deems beneath him. Trump is the villain in a bad foreign relations film with no subtitles and no substance. And we’re on the edge of his tweets, hanging on every misspelled word.

Hide And Seek Truth

In Please Follow Me, Jean Baudrillard sees a familiar game in a new light.

Consider one of life’s original situations: that of a hide and seek game. What a thrill to be hidden while someone’s looking for you, what a delightful fright to be found, but what a panic when, because you are too well hidden, the others give up looking for you after a while and leave. If you hide too well, the others forget you. You are forced to come out on your own when they don’t want you anymore. That is hard to take. It’s like turning too fine a phrase, so subtle that you are reduced to explaining it. Nothing is sadder than having to beg for existence and returning naked among the others. Therefore, it’s better not to know how to play too well; it’s better to know how to let others unmask you and to endure the rule of the game. Not too fast, not too late. (85)

When I was a child, an older boy who claimed to be my friend bullied and abused me when nobody was looking. For example, after defeating me in a game of basketball, he’d hold me down and call me his bitch. Things only got worse from there.

I learned that it is safer to not play at all—to stay inside and curse the game, resent the players, refuse to participate.

I can’t say if trauma caused my depression, but it certainly didn’t help matters. Whatever its origins, depression is my default state, and my body won’t let me forget it. I’m tired all the time and spend hours in bed, hiding in plain sight.

Still, there’s more to my distress than meets the eye. When life is but a dream, an eight-hour nap is an act of defiance, and I won’t let my family forget it. I play dead for (negative) attention. The sick role suits me (un)well.

Before new people in my life figure out I suffer from depression and anxiety, I end up telling them (by putting myself down or cancelling plans at the last minute) that things “aren’t right” with me. The thought goes: I’m going to fuck things up anyway; I might as well get it over with.

Therefore—playing on Baudrillard’s words—it is better to unmask myself, on my own terms, before others expose me and deem me unlovable.

Take off one mask, and three more appear. In college I wore myself out trying to be the perfect student, the perfect employee, the perfect perfectionist. I gained recognition for my academic achievements but needed others to verify my self-worth. If everyone liked me, then no one would hurt me.

Today I seek validation by composing (and obsessively editing) obscure blog posts that I hope family, friends and digital strangers will find profound. I cite sad philosophers and wounded romantics to demonstrate, poetically, the complexities of living with my depression. And then I write obscure blogs about writing obscure blogs to sound intelligent.

Layers folding into layers, thoughts unfolding into thoughts—my blog is a revelation hiding in plain sight. Under the guise of a wise soul, I use words to cultivate an (in)active being-towards-death. As a philosopher, I always assume the fatal position.

However safe my bubble feels, I can’t live forever in theory. I can’t practice my faith in philosophy without other people.

The chaplain at my mental health clinic told me that everyone needs human connection, but trauma survivors whose trust has been broken need connection even more. Yet out of shame they hide from the world, and no amount of love or support from other people can save them. Survivors must learn to love themselves again.

But hope isn’t easy. Despite the power of positive thinking, it’s hard to flip the script when your reality is inverted. Somersaulting your way through the world is bound to cause vertigo.

In the mind of a child grown up too soon, youth is a weapon. Innocence is self-defense.

An early violation breaks more than the rules.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

A previous version of this essay was published in The Intimacy of Communication.

Throwing Judo Moves

Originally published in French in 1976, Symbolic Exchange and Death finds Jean Baudrillard incorporating into his thought the work of Marcel Mauss, a French sociologist who studied gift exchange in primitive societies. Mauss wrote about rituals in which each member is obligated to give gifts, receive gifts and provide counter-gifts, all of which contain traces of the person’s soul. The “goal” of the ritual: a gift-receiver must overwhelm a gift-giver with a counter-gift so powerful no further counter-gift is possible. In the process of trying to one-up each other, tribal members deliberately waste excess resources to ensure no one accumulates too much wealth.

Baudrillard views these rituals as a radical form of symbolic exchange, a concept he uses to critique capitalism. Emphasizing community and submission to fate, primitive peoples put to shame American values like greed, self-importance and celebrity worship.

Civilized societies based on economic exchange retain elements of symbolic exchange that haunt modern life. Still, Baudrillard argues, if we wish to save what makes us human, we must challenge the homogeny of the capitalist system with a gift it can’t return. We must force the system to humble itself before the world.

Nothing is more spectacular or subversive than suicide.

Death as creative act. Suicide as counter-gift. This is Baudrillard’s private revolution against capitalism’s reign of terror. People in Western cultures don’t kill themselves, Baudrillard contends, because resources are scarce. They crack under the pressure of mandatory consumption, their bodies too weak to enjoy a lifetime supply of products and services they don’t need and never asked for.

Thankfully, we don’t have to die to issue a challenge. We can commit theoretical terror, like Baudrillard does in his writings, or we can sacrifice ourselves through super-obedience to the logic of the system, devolving into passive-aggressive citizen-robots. In both cases a duel commences in which the weaker party throws what Baudrillard calls “judo moves” at its much stronger opponent, turning the system’s power against itself.

Compassionate Anti-Violence

While I’m intrigued by Baudrillard’s provocative analysis, I’m here to issue him a challenge of my own. We live in a violent world rooted in socially constructed systems of power, oppression and abuse. We hurt, so we hurt each other. Rather than responding to violence with more violence, we must learn to forgive ourselves and each other for all our trespasses.

An understated but radical concept: forgiveness as the ultimate counter-gift.

There’s no reason to forgive someone who hurt me, just as there was no reason for him to hurt me in the first place. As a survivor who learns to forgive, I resist an impulse to give up. I can then devote myself to promoting an ethics of what I call “compassionate anti-violence,” which means fighting for empathy without punching people in the face.

This is not merely a personal healing. Survivors who acknowledge the truth of their ordeals are free to confront evil and protect others from harm, reducing suffering throughout the world. Poverty, slavery, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, terrorism, war: these are just a few examples of social and political traumas that threaten individual lives and the foundations of entire cultures.

Of course, anger and sadness are normal responses to injustice. I don’t deny anyone’s right to express outrage or disgust, but staying angry increases misery. To make matters worse, many survivors mistakenly blame themselves for events beyond their control. An inner-directed forgiveness has the power to heal self-inflicted wounds.

An Existential Burden

I live between extremes. One moment, I’m hypervigilant—scanning my environment for threats, startled by the sound of my heartbeat. A few minutes later, I’m numb, disconnected from reality, an imposter in my own body—a classic case of depersonalization.

When I’m hypervigilant, I’m keyed up from living in protect mode. When depersonalization sets in, I’m desperate to confirm I’m alive. I find danger lurking in all directions, each step a trudge through the middle of imaginary battlefields.

There’s a reason for my distress: as a child I endured years of physical and psychological abuse. As a teenager, in addition to clinical depression, I received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, an existential burden no amount of medication or therapy will ever erase.

Everyone suffers. My attacker was hurting when he hurt me. I assume he struggles to make sense of his actions years later. I don’t want to compound my suffering—or his—by hitting back.

Of course, I’m no saint. I’ve hurt family and friends, even lashed out at strangers. One spring day in 2003, I took more pills than my bottles directed. This got me a date with an ER nurse whose name escapes me. She poured me a pitcher of soot water to neutralize the poison.

“You’re so young,” she said. “You have so much to look forward to.”

There’s a chart somewhere with my personal history. I don’t know if I thanked her for filling in the blanks.