Tag Archives: Baudrillard

A Stone’s Throw

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 angry boy masquerading as my best friend bullied and abused me when nobody was looking. One example among many: 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 early on that it’s safer to stay inside—to curse the game, resent the players, refuse to win or lose. In high school a doctor found me clinically depressed. Twenty years later, on my worst days—overwhelmed and disconnected—I spend hours in bed, hiding in plain sight. I play dead for (negative) attention. The sick role suits me (un)well.

Self-sabotage helps me disappear before I’ve arrived. Cancelling plans at the last minute lets potential friends know 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.

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 I hope family, friends and digital strangers will find profound. I quote existentialists and wounded Romantics as prove of strife. As a philosopher, I always assume the fatal position.

Sacrificing freedom for safety can be deadly. The chaplain at my mental health center told me that we all need human connection, but trauma survivors whose trust has been broken need connection even more. Yet out of fear we hide from the world and, if we isolate too long, no amount of love or support from other people will save us. We must learn to love ourselves again and seek our own truths.

It’s a short distance from caution to hypervigilance. Chased in a nightmare, I find myself in a field of wolves. If I pray hard enough, I’ll turn to stone. But becoming an object means you’re still in the world. Even stones risk being thrown.

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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 on the basis of 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.

Baudrillard says that people either immerse themselves “within the void of the spectacle” and find it exciting or they “get off by feeling less idiotic than the spectacle—and thus never get tired of staring at it.” Many liberals, while reacting on social media about Trump’s antics, “get off” by feeling intellectually superior to him. But it’s hard to outsmart stupid. Political critique enhances rather than demystifies the allure of the Trump spectacle.

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 (with tiny hands). 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.

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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 angry boy masquerading as my best 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.

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Forgive Us Our Trespasses

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.

A Unique Burden

I live between extremes. One moment I’m hypervigilant—scanning my environment for threats, startled by the sound of my heartbeat. 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. I was, in a way, “gifted” a unique burden, one I continue to carry with me.

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. Despite attempts to erase him from my mind, I realize we’re forever linked.

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.

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The Reversible Straitjacket Of History

Alan W. Watts, in The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951), deconstructs our faith in the power of belief:

“Most of us believe in order to feel secure, in order to make our individual lives seem valuable and meaningful. Belief has thus become an attempt to hang on to life, to grasp and keep it for one’s own. But you cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket. If you try to capture running water in a bucket, it is clear that you do not understand it and that you will always be disappointed, for in the bucket the water does not run. To ‘have’ running water you must let go of it and let it run. The same is true of life and of God.” (24)

Watts exposes the profound absurdity of human existence: the pursuit of life gets us nowhere in the end. The wise know there is no security. This is the beginning and end of the proverbial human story.

The grand narrative of modernity centers on the indestructibility of Progress. Mankind is constantly getting smarter and moving faster, onward and upward to bigger and better things. The sky’s a limitation—for now.

Baudrillard challenged self-perpetuating systems of modernity, working hard to destroy them, theoretically, in his polemical prose. A disillusioned postmodern mystic, Baudrillard believed in the power of reversibility. Systems, he said, have the ability to undermine themselves. Computer viruses, for example, circulate in vast networks built for the smooth transmission of critical data. Superbugs continually infect residents of meticulously scrubbed hospital rooms, mocking the germaphobe morality we’ve waged against the natural dirt and stink of the human body.

Baudrillard tells us to celebrate reversibility; when we try to perfect systems, they fight back for our own good. We reclaim what makes us human in the face of out-of-control technically efficient machines. In a blessed moment of poetic resolution, the violence of perfection becomes the perfect violence against our increasingly sophisticated attempts to realize the world in its totality. Reversibility itself is subject to reversal.

History has the uncanny ability to jump over its own shadow. At their peak performance, oppressive economic, political and social systems engineer their own implosion. The most spectacular events of terror set the scene for the one-upmanship of further murderous replies. Clever machines compute themselves into exhaustion, activating the internal suicide switch of their planned obsolescence.

What’s “done” today is free to be undone tomorrow or next year or next century.

A recent example: Billy Bush conducts the “pussy grabbing” interview with Donald Trump in 2005. Hot mic audio of the exchange resurfaces in 2016; Bush’s career is finished within days of the leak. Trump, no matter his place in history, remains a tool.

A new year is upon us as the world rushes headlong into the past. Russia and the United States are engaged in full-blown Cold War mode again. In a dramatic reversal of fortune, if Congressional Republicans get their way, more than twenty million Americans currently covered under Obamacare will lose their benefits.

We’re forever bound in the straitjacket of history, but when we relax and let our minds run, things have a way of turning inside out. One day the poor man will be rich and the rich man poor. We make poetic resolutions every day, not just on New Year’s Eve.

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Electoral College Educated

It’s been two weeks since Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump to concede the election. Wonder if she used her rollover minutes.

Against the math, the polls, the demographics, Trump is now transitioning from troll to big kahuna. Some pundits argue that voters who identified for months as “undecided” knew they were voting for Trump all along but were afraid to admit it. Trump didn’t make their hearts go pitter-patter, but one look at Crooked Hillary turned them into stone.

Baudrillard had no faith in surveys, opinion polls or questionnaires. Pollsters don’t objectively gather information; they look for (and subconsciously elicit) answers that confirm their own ways of thinking. But the amorphous political collective–which includes you and me and everyone–known as the Masses has grown weary of all the poking and prodding. We resist the incessant demand to “rationally” decide and “truthfully” register a definitive Yes or No.

Trump supporters who refused to be counted weren’t conflicted but clever. They messed with the media, played the system. We all have to live with the results, and Trump’s executive decisions, now and into the un-foreseeable future.

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Manifest Destiny

vector-road-sign-arrow

America’s fate took a sharp right turn last week. Was electing Donald Trump our destiny? Or another random occurrence in an absurd universe? Or the logical result of intricate causal relationships that began with the Original Thought in the mind of the Unmoved Mover?

Baudrillard liked to write about destiny and seduction. It’s silly to speak of an individual’s destiny, he said. We have a collective destiny with every living being and every non-living object in the world.

But each life has a double life. “Each individual life unfolds on two levels, in two dimensions–history and destiny–which coincide only exceptionally” (Impossible Exchange, p. 79).

I have my biological life, the physiological stuff of my existence, which allows for the development and expression of myself as “subject” over time. But my fate lies beyond my individual choices, in the mysterious inner-workings of a destiny I can neither name nor change. Baudrillard calls this double life my “becoming-object” or my “becoming-other.”

Many folks see their lives in linear terms. They embark on paths they mistakenly believe are straight, their goals attainable if they stay focused and plow ahead. But paths diverge, lines intersect. GPS recalculates.

Seduction, in Baudrillard’s world, has little to do with amorous pursuits and more to do with our secret desire to be led astray. We seduce ourselves and each other. Objects seduce us. We long for a shove in unexpected directions.

Donald Trump seduced American voters. The election results seduced the pollsters. We don’t know where the county goes from here. History is a poor substitute for destiny, which is here before you know it.

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