Baudrillard's Vision of the Postmodern Society and the Hope for Human Action
The Triumph of the Object
Linked to the consumer society is Baudrillard’s idea of the virtualization of the world. Despite Baudrillard’s proclamation of his postmodern break, a change of focus from Marxism to pataphysics, it seems that his earlier works are connected to his later works. Consumer society is characterized by man’s indulgence of objects, of commodities. In the consumer society, everything from basic needs to the desire—for identity, social differentiation, freedom, etc.—has been commodified. And in Baudrillard’s later works, he focuses on the virtualization of reality, which is, in a sense, a commodification of efficiency. However, Baudrillard refuses to dwell too much on the role of capitalism. Instead he emphasizes the consequences and repercussions of the progress of technology. Like the Frankfurt School critical theorists, Baudrillard branches out to other fields of study. He critiques social and cultural changes and their effect in man’s behavior, thoughts, and perception.
The society characterized by simulation and hyperreality will be called postmodern society. “Postmodern”14 society is still in a way part of the consumer society. The change in using the term will mark the difference between the earlier Baudrillard and the later Baudrillard, where there was also a shift from Marxist perspective to an almost nihilistic view of the world.
Now, the system of objects is becoming the normative of the society; blind consumption is the new order and consequently, objects dictate man’s way of living. The hum of the dryer is his heartbeat. The answering machine is his response. TiVo are his eyes watching the TV while he is gone. He worries over his Farmville plants. And every day, he feeds his virtual pets. The battery life of his latest smart phone is his life. And his death is as dependent to objects—virtual or otherwise—as his life, as man dies a million deaths in a computer game. Man’s reality is burdened by the baggage of fleeting fashionable commodities. His concrete reality15 is collapsing under the weight of the floating signs, of the virtual.
Just as the wolf-child became a wolf by living among wolves, so we too are slowly becoming functional. We live by object time: by this I mean that we live at the pace of objects, live to the rhythm of their ceaseless succession. Today, it is we who watch them as they are born, grow to maturity and die, whereas in all previous civilizations it was timeless objects, instruments or monuments which outlived the generations of human beings.16
Baudrillard’s discussion of the system of objects is also a diagnosis of the symptom of reification of signs. Baudrillard’s postmodern society seemed to be regressing towards the end of history, not only because commodities are now valued for the signs and meanings they carry, but most especially because these signs are becoming more and more independent from the commodities. Signs are starting to separate themselves from their referents, their function has been forgotten and they have started to become real.17 And this reification lies in the shift in the relation of the human to the object.
The reification of signs, the forgetting of referents, the severing of the subject-object relationship, are symptoms of the growing virtualization of the world. But this virtualization of reality is ushered by the scientific and technological progresses that also made a dent to the behavior and perception of man. This was an eventual shift of focus. The values that modern society used to uphold have become useless and meaningless. “Freedom has been obliterated, liquidated by liberation; truth has been supplanted by verification; the community has been liquidated and absorbed by communication; form gives way to information and performance.”18
For Baudrillard, history is crossing over to a different dimension; technology and scientific progress has offered a portal through which man can seamlessly pass from real to unreal without noticing the radical shift. Man thinks he is exercising his freedom, but this freedom has changed; it is preconditioned by technological and scientific progress. For example, freedom of expression has changed from one’s right to speak up to the requirement of speaking up. Today, on the pretext of the “freedom of expression,” man is deprived of his private life, of his secrets.19 Facebook keeps asking man what he thinks.
Also, man seems to be upholding the truth, but this truth is preconditioned, too. Truth could be truth only when it has passed under a series of scientific method. Man calculates his actions and computes the results. He mathematicizes beauty and goodness and he relates to other men using scientific frameworks and psychological manipulations.
The idea of communication has been reduced to the efficacy of the transfer of messages. Today, the reception of messages is equated to network signals, and is measured by “kbps.” It does not matter whether the receiver of the message understood the message perfectly. What matters is real-time, high definition reception.
This behavior, of course, is not limited to the postmodern man. Max Weber and some Frankfurt school critical theorists have critiqued “the iron cage of reason,” the oppressive dogmatic bent of some epistemologies. But Baudrillard’s musings do not end here.
Baudrillard insists that the value and the valorization of reality, truth, time, the social, and everything else, have accelerated towards obscenity, towards a kind of ecstatic proliferation. Everything has ballooned to its breaking point. Everything has sped up to the end. The history man lives in now is not the history of progress but a history of exhaustion, a countdown history.20
Here, the growing pessimism of Baudrillard’s tone has become evident. He seems to be announcing the Apocalypse, and the beyond of the Apocalypse. He mulls over the possibility that perhaps, the end has happened. He announces the murder of the real. The real has been exterminated and has disappeared. But man was not able to notice because the virtual has stood in its place. It was almost a perfect crime. The replacement, the simulation, is a dead ringer to the real. It is even more real than the real. It conceals the crime.
Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland… Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real…21
Amusement parks, malls, RPG computer games, and simulated environments all add up to the illusion that reality is still what it was, that it could still be easily differentiated from the unreal. But Baudrillard maintains that in the postmodern society, there are no longer clear distinctions between spheres of life. The media, the political, the social, the sexual, the economical—all of these have collided into each other, tangled and bungled up into a dizzying network of cable wires. The difference between the concept and the object could no longer be put into question because every “idea, dream, fantasy, utopia will be eradicated, because it will immediately be realized, operationalized. Nothing will survive as an idea or a concept. You will not even have time enough to imagine.”22 Everything happens in an instant.
Everything has been infested by technology, controlled by signs, bedazzled by the media. It is not just the loss of meaning. It is total alienation. Everything is strategically planned, simulated, reduced to a spectacle. Everything has been foreseen by the virtual.
Even in death, the virtual intervenes. The age-old desire for immortality has moved out of actions and speech and legacy to physical immortality. In the postmodern society, physical immortality seemed possible. Baudrillard writes: “It’s common to speak of the struggle of life against death, but there is an inverse peril. And we must struggle against the possibility that we will not die.”23 Here, he is speaking of cloning, of preserving bodies without heads, of cryonic suspension, of cryogenics, and other bio-technological experiments. The postmodern man, via technological advances, is working on the de-differentiation of the world,
a project to reconstruct a homogeneous and uniformly consistent universe—an artificial continuum this time—that unfolds within a technological and mechanical medium, extending over our vast information network, where we are in the process of building a perfect clone, an identical copy of our world, a virtual artifact that opens up to the prospect of endless production.24
The world that Baudrillard is trying to paint is not just a panic attack of a technophobic old man. This is not only the virtualization of reality but also of the seeming robotization of man. Man becomes the answering machine, the beep of a phone, the avatar in a social network site. He becomes obsessed with high quality sound, enhanced through auto-tunes; he prefers the high definition of images that enables him to zoom in to the minutest detail. Man has become an object.
Man’s critical impulse has been made dull by the bulk of consumption and virtualization of the world. In a consumer society, he is compelled to buy. But this consumer society is also giving way to a new society characterized by technological fetishism, hence, in this new society, man’s critical impulse could not tell the difference between the real and the simulation. In fact, the blurring of distinctions between the real and the unreal contributes to the dulling of man’s critical impulse. Man has started to accept the reign of technology.
Despite the numbing of man’s critical impulse, most critics offer hope and/or alternatives. Walter Benjamin25 and Theodor Adorno26 take shelter in the capacity of art to broaden man’s cognitive field and to hope that through this, man might take a critical stance against the new society. Also, Herbert Marcuse27 and Gilles Deleuze28 find something redeeming in the society. Even with the fascist tendencies of technological developments and capitalism, Marcuse and Deleuze believe that there is a revolutionary potential to go against this. Deleuze emphasizes the becoming-revolutionary, highlighting the possibility of deterritorialization in a rigid society. For a while, Marcuse talked about the “great refusal” of everything capitalist. Later, though, Marcuse agreed with Adorno that art has this revolutionary potential. Although most critical theorists, who diagnose the pathos of the postmodern society resist giving prescriptions—as defining utopia may turn into another kind of oppression—most of them hint resistance. They want man to recognize oppression, and to resist this however man can.
Baudrillard, on the other hand, seems to have been reduced to resignation. The tone of his writings is that of someone who has given up. The end is near!
Baudrillard’s writing style and language do not help his reputation either. His philosophy is seen as that which “tends to degenerate into sloganeering and rhetoric without any systematic or comprehensive theoretical position.”29 Baudrillard’s broad pronouncements, wild arguments, outrageous ideas, and offensive language “[collide] with most of the assumptions and conventions used to manage normality in everyday life.”30 Some critics dismiss Baudrillard as just plain lost.31
But, while the idea of leaving the consumer society is impossible, considering that everything from food to fad is commodified, the very act of being able to analyze and critique consumer society, and the virtualization of reality, is itself a political stance: hope. Perhaps, Baudrillard’s works are not descriptions of reality. Perhaps, the whole of Baudrillardian philosophy is both a premonition of what might come, and at the same time, a performative contradiction that challenges man to act.
And with this, Baudrillard calls for man’s indifference, a fatal strategy. This is not to say, however, that Baudrillard easily discards the idea of human agency, especially political action. Chris Rojek argues that, contrary to common reading, Baudrillard’s attitude towards politics does not even resemble Marcuse’s happy consciousness, a consciousness that “believes that the system is fundamentally good and that history is a long march of progress.”32 Baudrillard’s delight in the postmodern society is peppered with irony and sarcasm.
Baudrillard’s projection of indifference is, first, a performative gesture. Baudrillard actively calls for man’s indifference. He wants man to approach the fatality of the world with more fatality, the world’s indifference with more indifference. Hence, this kind of indifference is an act, a deliberate and conscious statement. He writes: “It would be better by far to treat our disappearance as an art form—to exercise it, to perform it, to create an art of disappearance…”33
Second, Baudrillard believes that because of the proliferation of images, because of the multiplicity of meaningless signs, and because of media’s intrusion of our consciousness, even the idea of political action does not call for real political action. The death of politics is the death of ‘the space for collective political action.’ Indifference, therefore, prevents man from saying ‘ah’ to the spoon-feeding media. Indifference is a statement that man will not succumb to media’s dictates.
Also, the style and language of Baudrillard’s writings is an important part of his philosophy. Baudrillard is aware of his language. Rojek notes how even when speaking and calling for indifference, Baudrillard “uses a highly impassioned style of address.”34 Some of his seemingly contradictory and irrational statements, his poetic language, and the science fiction air of his writings are deliberate. Baudrillard’s style of writing does not conform to the academic style. His idea on implosion manifests itself through his writing style, a discussion that interconnects with different disciplines, accompanied by examples from pop culture, media, technology, etc. His tone was that of the prophet of the apocalypse, emphasizing technophobic sentiments that give the reader a sense of panic.
Perhaps, it is not so much as Baudrillard really believes that the end is near. He is merely warning man, shocking man of what might happen if man continues to doze off when it is time for political action. Perhaps, Baudrillard’s philosophy is a science fiction with a purpose that does not merely entertain, but orients. In fact, Baudrillard admits that what he was doing was not sociology; he was not trying to state the facts. In an interview, he says, “My point of view is completely metaphysical. If anything, I’m a metaphysician, perhaps a moralist, but certainly not a sociologist.”35 Douglas Kellner maintains that this is a metaphysical imaginary, “a transcendental refuge for those who are dissatisfied with reality as it is and impatient with designs for social transformation.”36
This Baudrillardian version of metaphysics, however, is not one that posits a reality outside the reality conditioned by material forces and historical events. This kind of metaphysics does not dream of a transcendence that could easily be grasped by a finite mind. It does not aim for eternity. It is imaginary, but informed, nonetheless, of social experiences and historical events. Baudrillard cites Dolly and Disneyland, the emergence of mall and simulated biospheres, the artificial purification and isolation of the Tasadays, the Gulf War experience in real time—he cites these as proofs of his exaggerated and hyperbolized version of the world’s present state. Perhaps Baudrillard’s philosophy is imaginary, a science fiction. But it is a science fiction that warns truthfully, because it is informed, to a certain extent, by material conditions. “In my opinion,” Baudrillard says, “theory is simply a challenge to the real. A challenge to the world to exist…Theory is ahead of the state of things, that it moves too fast and thus is in a position of destiny with respect to what could happen…Theory is simulation.”37
In literature, psychic distance—that is, the ability earned through time to recall a painful memory without being affected—enables the writer to make sense of reality. But man lives in a very fast-paced world; and the traditional views on reality were proven to be untenable. How will man see the future? How will he live in a world where the “future” becomes the “past” faster than he can experience it? Perhaps it is the function of the “What if?” Perhaps it is why Baudrillard’s musings shock the readers. Baudrillard was talking about the hyperbolized future, future sped up to the end. He was the apocalyptic preacher. “It is the end of the world! This is the end of the world,” Baudrillard announces. In order for man to move, to panic in a certain way, Baudrillard has to push man to the edge of the cliff.
Adorno, Theodor. “On the Fetish Character of Music and Regression of Listening,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge, 1991. 29-60.
_________. “Society,” Aesthetic Theory. trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Londom: Continuum, 2004. pp. 295-338.
Baudrillard, Jean. Forget Baudrillard: An Interview with Sylvere Lotringer. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987.
________. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.
_________. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. Trans. Chris Turner. London: SAGE Publications, 1998. First original language publication 1970.
_________. The System of Objects. Trans. James Benedict. London: Verso, 1996. First original language publication 1968.
_________. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Intimations of Postmodernity. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations. ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1968.
Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. London: Macmillan, 1991.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible,” A Thousand Plateaus. trans. by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Grebowicz, Margret. “Democracy and Pornography: On Speech, Rights, Privacies, and Pleasures in Conflict,” in Hypatia. vol.26, no.1 (Winter 2011), pp.150-165.
Kellner, Douglas. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Cambridge and Palo Alto: Polity Press and Stanford University Press, 1989.
Kuipers, Dean and Doug Aitken. I Am A Bullet: Scenes from an Accelerating Culture. New York: Crown Publishing, 2000.
Marcuse, Herbert. “The Paralysis of Criticism: Society Without Opposition,” One-dimensional Man, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/marcuse/works/one-dimensional-man/intoduction.htm.
Norris, Christopher. “Lost in the Funhouse: Baudrillard and the Politics of Postmodernism,” Textual Practice, vol.3 no.3 (1989), pp.360-387.
Rojek, Chris and Bryan Turner. (eds.) Forget Baudrillard. London: Routledge, 1993.
Sarup, Madan. An Introductory Guide to Poststructuralism and Postmodernism. 2nd ed. London/New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993.
1.) This paper is part of a thesis in progress. Whereas the thesis deals with the whole of Baudrillardian philosophy and its political undertones as a response to the postmodern society, this paper is limited to the symptomatic numbing of man’s critical impulse (as perpetrated by the culture industry and the virtualization of reality) and Baudrillard’s unusual response to this pathology.
2.) Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, (London: Sage Publications, 1998) p. 25.
3.) Man is always informed by his material conditions, and while man may believe that his high regard for education is of pure desire to learn, it is also undeniable that the culture industry has commodified education, truth, culture, art, etc. The culture industry was able to produce powerful images (French scholars discussing existence in cafes) and was able to sell them. It is not so much as man must shun culture or education or TV, however. It is a matter of being critical, of not simply being swayed by the media, by culture industry, etc.
4.) Madan Sarup, “Baudrillard and some Cultural Practices” in An Introductory Guide to Poststructuralism and Postmodernism, 2nd edition, (London/New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), p.161.
5.) Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond, (California: Stanford, 1989,) p. 13.
6.) Theodor Adorno, one of the Frankfurt School critical theorists, also comments on the fetish character of music. According to him, because of the commodification of music, there has been a regression of listening. People stopped being listeners of music. They started becoming consumers of music. Music has been relegated to mere distraction. We do not listen to music anymore. We put our earphones on to block the noise. See Theodor Adorno, “On the Fetish Character of Music and Regression of Listening,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, (London: Routledge, 1991,) 29-60.
7.) Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, trans. James Benedict, (London: Verso, 1996) p.186.
8.) System of Objects, p. 187.
9.) The relation of production-consumption-desire is best illustrated in Dean Kuipers and Doug Aitken, “Speed as Fantasy: Bollywood Dreams 900 Films a Year,” in I Am A Bullet: Scenes From An Accelerating Culture, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2000), pp. 122-145. According to the article, film has been one of the strongest and most efficient forms of mass communication in India. Informed by the people’s desire for “light-heartedness and fun,” the Bollywood film industry follows a certain pattern: the movie must contain dance numbers and musical routines, actors are stereotyped and have prescribed roles, and the plot draws from India’s religion and culture. And because “film [has become] India’s national dialogue… films are made faster, cheaper, longer, more melodramatic, louder, in larger numbers and for a vastly larger audience than Hollywood’s wildest dreams.” (p. 128.)
10.) System of Objects, 167.
11.) Consumer Society, p. 29.
12.) Zygmunt Bauman, “The World According to Jean Baudrillard,” in Intimations of Postmodernity, (London: Routledge, 1992), pp.154-155.
13.) In Baudrillard’s rhetoric on the triumph of the object, man seemed to have become passive and without agency. To a certain extent, man—as he lives in a consumer/postmodern society—has been influenced by his material conditions to be a consumerist and give importance to fashion, a certain lifestyle, etc. In fact, even the choice to become a scholar is still, in a way, influenced by a society cultivated by the culture industry. But at the same time, Baudrillard’s rhetoric is also a challenge for man to act and be critical. In addition, Baudrillard is also coming from a sociological point of view, which is partly why the image of man seemed to be very passive in Baudrillard’s philosophy. As opposed to the psychological point of view that focuses on man’s effect on the society, Baudrillard’s sociological viewpoint focuses on the society’s effect and influence on man. It must be noted that man and society affects and informs each other.
14.) To a certain extent, the word “postmodern” is also a convenient term to distinguish its radical difference to the time of Industrial Revolution or modernity. Some philosophers and critical theorists, however, insist that modernity is not finished yet, that the age of technology is still part of modernity. They insist, not that “postmodern” is a new age, but rather that the concept of “postmodernity” serves as a reaction to “modernity.” For a time, Baudrillard used the term to emphasize his break from his Marxism. Later, however, Baudrillard denounced the term in order to differentiate his philosophy from postmodern theorists like Frederic Jameson, Jean Francois Lyotard, and the like.
15.) One may ask what reality is and what it comprises and whether the virtual reality or cyberspace is not part of the whole reality. Because of Baudrillard’s writing style, unfortunately, the concept of reality and its difference from the unreal, were not defined. However, the postmodern character of Baudrillard may suggest the thinker’s disbelief in having fixed definitions. His concept of reality, therefore, may have something to do with a nostalgic, romanticized view of reality.
16.) Consumer Society, p. 25.
17.) Nietzsche, too, in “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” discusses about man’s tendency to reify language, that is, to consider a word as having an exact correspondence to the external object it refers to. To reify is to forget of the provisional and practical character of language. To reify language is to believe that the meaning of a word is fixed and permanent. In Baudrillard, to reify the sign of prestige, for example, is to believe that that is the essence of Starbucks.
18.) Jean Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion, ed. by Julia Witwer, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), p.47.
19.) See Margret Grebowicz, “Democracy and Pornography: On Speech, Rights, Privacies, and Pleasures in Conflict,” in Hypatia, vol.26, no.1 (Winter 2011), pp.150-165. Grebowicz discusses the relation and mutual reinforcement of democracy and pornography. According to her, the democratic prodding of opening up to the public, especially at a time of technological progress, has denied citizens of their private lives. Consequently, she relates this to certain repercussions of women’s rights.
20.) Vital Illusion, pp. 42-48.
21.) Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983) p.25.
22.) Vital Illusion, p. 66.
23.) Vital Illusion, p. 5.
24.) Vital Illusion, p. 7.
25.) See Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, (New York: Schocken, 1968).
26.) See Theodor Adorno, “Society,” Aesthetic Theory, trans. by Robert Hullot-Kentor, (Londom: Continuum, 2004), pp. 295-338.
27.) See Herbert Marcuse, “The Paralysis of Criticism: Society Without Opposition,” One-dimensional Man, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/marcuse/works/one-dimensional-man/intoduction.htm.
28.) See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible,” A Thousand Plateaus, trans. by Brian Massumi, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
29.) Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, (London: Macmillan, 1991), p. 140.
30.) Chris Rojek and Bryan Turner (eds), “Introduction: Regret Baudrillard?” in Forget Baudrillard? (London: Routledge, 1993), xi.
31.) See Christopher Norris, “Lost in the Funhouse: Baudrillard and the Politics of Postmodernism,” Textual Practice, vol.3 no.3 (1989), pp.360-387.
32.) Chris Rojek, “Baudrillard and Politics,” Forget Baudrillard? ed. by Chris Rojek and Bryan Turner, (London: Routledge, 1993), p.109.
33.) Vital Illusion, p. 68.
34.) Rojek, p.110.
35.) Jean Baudrillard, Forget Baudrillard: An Interview with Sylvere Lotringer, (New York: Semiotext(e), 1987) p. 84.
36.) Kellner, p.153.
37.) Forget Baudrillard: an Interview, p. 124, 131-133.