Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jean Baudrillard: Nihilist

"I am a nihilist. I observe, I accept, I assume the immense process of the destruction of appearances…" ~ J. Baudrillard
One vital term in Jean Baudrillard’s oeuvre is the notion of the simulacra, which can be understood as “image, semblance or appearance." As he writes in Simulacra and Simulation:
Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map.

This “generation by models of a real without origin” suggests a narcotized, unmoored state where “Dreams already are.” It points to a profound reversal of representation and reality, “a new media – ‘more real than real,’” generated by the repeated simulations of various different media. Like being inside a house of mirrors, image is swapped with substance and then image again until a level of intensity is reached that Baudrillard refers to as the “hyperreal.”

This can be a disorientating or traumatic experience arising from a situation in which, according to Roland Barthes, “all images are polysemous.” There is no ultimate referent and meaning is debased into a personal predilection rather than a universal concept. As Barthes notes, “traumatic images are bound up with an uncertainty (an anxiety) concerning the meaning of objects or attitudes. Hence in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs.”

This “fix” takes place on “the map that precedes the territory,” the domain of the simulation or hyperreal, according to Baurdrillard, where “a copy without an original” emanates. However, this copy with no original is vulnerable to losing its value the moment something dislodges it. In this way, the precariousness of life takes precedent in everyday routines rather than periods of tumultuous transitions. For Baudrillard, the apocalypse can occur at any moment.

Baudrillard’s pursuit of subversion leads him to conclude, “I am a nihilist. I observe, I accept, I assume the immense process of the destruction of appearances.” For Baudrillard, the world of the simulacra permeates the present:
Today’s nihilism is one of transparency, and it is in some sense more radical, more crucial than in its prior and historical forms, because this transparency, this irresolution is indissolubly that of the system, and that of all the theory that still pretends to analyze it….(God is not dead, he has become hyperreal).
Not only God, but war is “dead,” or obsolete. As he writes in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, “America, Saddam Hussein and the Gulf powers are fighting over the corpse of war.” Baudrillard exposes the propaganda that simulates the false conflict of a symmetrical “war” with two sides of relatively the same strength fighting:
It is as though the Iraqis were electrocuted, lobotomized, running towards the television journalists in order to surrender or immobilized beside their tanks, not even demoralized: de-cerebralised, stupefied rather than defeated – can this be called a war?

When the first article was published in Libération during the run-up to the first Gulf War in 1991, it stirred readers into taking a more critical stand against the imminent attack. Baudrillard was a provocateur and relished the opportunity to prod or poke conventional assumptions. In the French tradition, he welcomed a genuine scandal like a true enfant terrible.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Coachella: Day 1, Week 2

We arrived at Coachella in Indio, California just after sunset on Thursday night and pitched our tent. Despite the music not starting until the next day, the place was already humming.

We were car camping and our neighbours were cool folks from Boston on one side and Arizona on the other. We rolled out into the blazing sun on Friday morning, had a shower, breakfast and then entered the hallowed site at 11 am.

The first band we saw was Yuck at the outdoor stage and they rocked!

Jimmy Cliff put on a great show on the main stage with Rancid's Tim Armstrong. He played his vintage hits ("The Harder They Come," "Many Rivers To Cross") and an updated version of "Vietnam" as "Afghanistan."

My personal favourite was WU LYF on the Gobi Stage. They howled and growled their way through an intense set as the sun sank behind the Coachella ferris wheel.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On The Road: Coachella

I've just finished my term at the U of A and to celebrate we've hopped into our car and headed south. We're on a roadtrip, heading for the desert of Indio, California for the Coachella Festival. Our caravan is a 2007 Chrysler PT Cruiser and so far, it's holding up beautifully.

Within hours we crossed the border into Montana. Today we passed through Salt Lake City, Utah and stopped off for some chocolate cake at Kneaders Cafe on the way to Zion National Park.

In the middle of the city center, within sight of the Utah State Capitol, is the "Mormon Vatican"...the Temple of the Latter Day Saints. It's gothic-inspired slice of American schmaltz, an obvious attempt to recreate a bit of European gravitas in solid concrete. Instead, it resembles something from the Munsters or Hogwarts from the Harry Potter films.

(Temple of Latter Day Saints, Salt Lake City)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Talal Asad: Vanishing The Enemy

Talal Asad's stunning On Suicide Bombing should be mandatory reading for any syllabus related to religion or ethics. Asad accuses the West of projecting its own fears or horrors onto suicide bombers and the Islamic community as a whole. By uncovering this tendency, he vanishes any notion of an enemy as being an external “other” and suggests we look into the mirror and see, that in the words of Pogo, “the enemy is us.”

Asad attempts to demystify suicide bombing by equating it with horrific acts perpetrated by Western liberal democracies. By elevating the question of war’s morality and reducing the uniqueness of suicide bombing, Asad creates a parallel sense of outrage. He levels the playing field and forces so-called liberal democracies to confront their hypocrisy.

(Jonathan Hobin, "The Twins")
One way he attempts this is by dismissing Western critiques of suicide bombing based on motivation, martyrdom and sacrifice. Motivation is ascribed, not expressed because the bomber has died. Sacrifice and martyrdom are only ways of marginalizing Islam as a death-cult when, in fact, it condemns the active pursuit of self-sacrifice as martyrdom.

Asad suggests the real answer for suicide bombing resides in the West’s own pursuit of its ceaseless wars, particularly the war on terror. Because suicide bombing is a form of self-defense and is thus the same as a preventive strike, we in the West have no cause to separate ourselves from the suicide bomber and his/her motives. Moreover, a suicide bomber, according to Asad, can actually be understood as a more courageous and moral actor because he takes his own life, rather than seeking to kill others while preserving it.

(Francis Bacon, "Fragment of a Crucifixion," 1950)
Asad also suggests horror provides the core revulsion of suicide bombing and attempts to explain its connection to the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion represents a paradox – a loving gift and an unjust suffering. According to Asad, “in Christian civilization, the gift of life for humanity is possible only through suicidal death; redemption is dependent on cruelty or the sin of disregarding human life."

That the West believes in punishment, the loss of this “ritual” in the act of the bombing erodes our sense of collective identity. It’s this undermining of identity, the specter of formlessness, that gives horror its power. Suicide bombing is the manifestation of these “horrors” in the Western psyche.

(“100 Cuts” from George Bataille's Les Larmes d'Éros)
The example of the Chinese “100 Cuts” photo that George Bataille famously celebrated, reveals an almost evangelical infatuation with pain that can lead to an abnormal privileging of suffering for religious or transfigurative reasons. Asad suggests that Christianity creates a perverse relationship with suffering that ultimately leads to a romantic justification of it, which then permits evil to be performed for morally justified outcomes.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Countdown: Coachella Bound

12 days and counting. It's been a very busy and long, cold winter (today was -2)...but now we're setting our sights on southern California for the Coachella Festival! Our wristbands and camping passes arrived a few weeks ago and we've planned our itinerary for the long haul from Edmonton to Indio and then back again. We'll be camping most of the time - Idaho, Utah, Nevada - then after the festival we'll head out to L.A. then up to San Fran, Newport, Seattle. After spending the last decade watching the festival from afar it's a great feeling to be able to finally participate now that I'm back on the same continent. I haven't seen much of the States and this will be my first time through Utah, Zion National Park and Las Vegas.

The lineup this year is excellent and features tons of artists that I've been wanting to see - Jeff Magnum, Explosions in the Sky, At the Drive-In, fIREHOSE, WU LYF...I just missed Radiohead when they toured Japan in 1998 (Matsumoto) cuz of snow, can't wait to see Jarvis Crocker and Pulp, Wild Flag, as well as Dr. Dre onstage with Snoop Dogg. Come to think of it, the lineup consists of some of the best artists of the last 20 years. The best gigs I saw in Hong Kong included David Byrne, Elvis Costello, Franz Ferdinand, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Flaming Lips, but in most cases the venue or crowd was sorely lacking. Coachella is known for its outdoor setting and lucky us - we'll be camping onsite for 4 nights under the glorious desert moon.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Veena Das: The Region Of Rumour

Veena Das is a Professor of Anthropology at John Hopkins University and her 2007 book, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary, is a profound meditation on the question of why humans subject one another to senseless atrocities. In the chapter titled "In the Region of Rumour," Das attempts to make sense of the Sikh Massacre that followed the assassination of India’s Prime Minster Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984. As Das writes, “Unlike objects around which we can draw boundaries, it is not easy to say when an event begins and when it ends, or for that matter how events in one space-time configuration mime events in another.” This leads her to think of "the social in terms of unfinished stories.”

Das suggests that “panic rumours” perverted "the experience of violence here and now" into a reversal where the aggressors became the victims. Images torn from the anchors of the everyday seeped into the understandings of people, forming an unconscious grammar that produced the grievous events. According to Das, these horrific occurrences could only have grown out of the soil of ordinary life.

(Sikhs @ Camp Shahdara, Delhi, 1984)
These "panic rumours" are conceived to spread. Rather than a medium of communication, language becomes infectious, causing things to happen as if in nature. Rumours combined to create the sense of Hindus as vulnerable and they vacated the Sikh of human subjectivity, replacing it with a demonic madness not worthy of a face. In the memorable phrase of Jacques Lacan, the "other" was transformed into a "fantasmagoria of shadows, of fleeting, improvised men."

(Rosangela Renno, Experiencing Cinema, 2004)
Das's conclusions include:

- an event grows out of everyday life, but the world as everyday is obliterated;
- fear of the other is transformed into the other as fearsome;
- unfinished past events mold the present in new, unexpected ways;
- the perlocutionary force of rumour shows how fragile our social worlds are;
- the virtual is always more encompassing than the actual.