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.

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