Tag Archives: Jean Baudrillard

Manifest Destiny

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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The Nine Billion Names Of God

In The Perfect Crime Jean Baudrillard references Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” to set up his critique of virtual reality and our desire to actualize the world in its totality.

Clarke’s story centers on a group of Tibetan monks who for centuries have been transcribing with great care the nine billion names of God. Logging the final name, we’re told, will trigger the end of the world.

It’s a tiresome task so the monks call in technicians from IBM. Computers finish the job in a few months.

On page 27 of The Perfect Crime Baudrillard describes man’s fate: “As they walk back down into the valley, the technicians, who did not really believe in the prophecy, are aghast to see the stars going out one by one.”

I believe the monks not only knew their project would end the world but actively wished for it.

The rise of IBM and its solution-focused IT professionals facilitated a quicker exit. Computers relieved the monks of their duties. Ethics and the Middle Way no match for algorithms and HTML.

Computers relieve us all from the burden of being human. Tools for the realization of every fantasy, computers fulfill our secret wish to disappear. Social media posts serving as our collective suicide note.

Smartphones, tablets and laptops communicate for us, but not necessarily on our behalf. “I’ll text you,” we say, as if the text creates you—a “you” we never meet. If the medium is the message, today the message is singular: “Show me your text and I’ll show you mine.”

In the valley of the shadow of tech we are all monks—all “IBMers”—exchanging the pleasure of face-to-face interaction for the stupor of screen-to-screen manipulation.

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You Have My Word

“But there is a professional obligation for teachers and writers never to abandon hope.” –Sean Cubitt, Simulation and Social Theory (2001) p. 152

A major criticism of Baudrillard concerns the pessimistic nature of his prose. Critics find his cynical perspective blind to the possibility of hope. Cubitt’s quote speaks to Baudrillard’s tendency to describe with a poetic flair the symptoms of our cultural sickness without offering a viable course of treatment beyond letting society implode.

I argue that teaching and writing, as creative activities, are grounded in hope. The subject discussed in the classroom or textbook—be it uplifting or deflating—matters less than the fact that someone is brave enough to float an argument. It’s not the content, but the form of teaching, the form of writing, that deserves our focus.

Baudrillard wrote over thirty books and countless articles. His prolific output indicates an immense faith in the power of writing and its potential to change minds, even as he chastised the masses for caring more about consuming than thinking.

When composing a blog I hope to secure not just readers, but people’s imaginations. In connecting ideas, I’m looking for human connection. When I write about Baudrillard’s notion that we’re beyond transcendence, I realize there isn’t much to cheer about. But in reaching for thoughts that wander off the beaten path, I challenge the world, renewing through its exposition the promise of the written word.

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Devil May Care

In The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (1970), Jean Baudrillard discusses the 1930s silent film Student of Prague. His analysis begins the book’s conclusion, entitled “On Contemporary Alienation or the End of the Pact with the Devil.”

Baudrillard writes that the film focuses on a “poor but ambitious student impatient for a more prosperous life” (187). The Devil sends a beautiful woman to entice him, but she is wealthy and thus beyond his grasp. One day the Devil appears, primed to make a deal: in exchange for the student’s image in the mirror, a pile of gold.

Success after success ensues. There’s no desire out of reach. But then, as happens after signing contracts with the Devil, problems arise. While walking through town the student is amazed to see his flesh-and-blood image, “his double put back into circulation by the Devil,” conducting his affairs without a care in the world. There’s a murder; the double is guilty, but the student can’t prove that he himself didn’t do it.

Back in his study the student fires at his image in the mirror. But he is bleeding now, having shot himself. The student realizes the horror of his pact, but with death approaching, in a moment of self-renewal, relief: “he can see himself again” (188).

Clever story, but according to Baudrillard, this is an outdated tale of alienation in the age of production. It follows the logic of a Marxist critique of early-twentieth-century capitalism. Today, however, in the age of consumption, “there is no longer any soul, no shadow, no double, and no image in the specular sense” (191).

No more relief at seeing our “true” image after we’ve sold our soul. No soul, actually. And no Devil. Contemporary society “has bartered all transcendence and finality for affluence, and is now haunted by an absence of ends” (192).

Baudrillard wrote The Consumer Society over forty years ago. How much deeper into the feverish quest for consumption have all of us sunk?

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Buy American

This week I received my copy of The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures by Jean Baudrillard via Amazon. It’s one of the firebrand postmodern cultural critic’s most important books, originally published in 1970. It comes from Baudrillard’s early period, before he abandoned his Marxist techniques.

I enjoy a good old-fashioned critique of materialism; it makes me feel superior to the herd, if only for a moment. But I like to accumulate STUFF too. If there’s a hole in my heart, why not fill it with STUFF?

Way back in my small-liberal-arts-college days, a history instructor asked us to describe American culture in one word. “Freedom,” many said. “Justice.” “Democracy.” “Equality,” someone whispered. I had to mix things up. Be a little less idealistic. “Consumerism,” I said with a smile.

It’s no secret that corporations entice us with STUFF to take our minds off of jobs that allow us to buy STUFF but make us miserable in the process. We’re kept endlessly entertained—distracted, really—so the system can chug along, chewing up our souls for fuel.

But I’m being too serious. I mean, who wouldn’t want an iPad Air for Christmas?

Baudrillard wrote somewhere that TV shows exist to enhance the commercials. I laugh and cry at such observations. I’m so frightened and amazed by consumerism that I bought a book about the dangers of buying STUFF on a site where people can’t stop buying STUFF.

There’s no escaping the almighty dollar. Besides, revolutions cost a fortune. And I’ve used up all my personal days.

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