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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Baudrillard is not so much concerned with the first kiss

Ken said...Well, I'm not sure these count as suggestions, maybe more like "supplements."
1. Regarding 9-11: In the early 90s, Baudrillard writes a series of books that touch on the issue of history, and the related issue of historicity - the qualities that make something historic - and concludes that in the countdown to the year 2000 that the whole situation was almost like going through time backwards, with an intense retrospection rather than a bold looking to the future. I was a tad older than you in the 90s (grin), and I think in most ways he's pretty right about that, though it's actually not important either way. What is important is that as part of this commentary he also notes what he calls an "event strike," a sort of conspiracy of the world to keep the world free of events, where "events" are understood to be some sort of experience not already simulated, anticipated, planned for, and so on.
He cites a lot of examples: the first Gulf War, the actions in Kosovo and Bosnia, alterations in certain financial markets, and so on - and in all of these there was some strange unreality to them, as if we already knew what was going to happen before it happened, and thus the world was no longer able to surprise us. 9-11 was an event in this sense, and the proof would be that it took CNN nearly 4.5 hours to come up with theme music and a graphic. At the same time, though, Baudrillard points out that there has long been the fantasy of terrorist success requiring retribution - just think of films like True Lies, all the Tom Clancy video games, the warplanning, etc. Despite protestations by the government (mostly by Condi Rice) that 9-11 was simply unforseeable, we also know now that a variety of agencies, from FEMA to the FBI and the NSA had actually predicted, theorized, or announced that some sort of terrorist action would hit New York, and might even involve our own planes. So on the one hand, it is certainly an event, and its irruption was certainly a shock to our system of everyday simulation, or "integral reality" as he calls it, but at the same time, we were able to situate it back into that narrative thanks to the long-standing fantasy of morally-deserved vengeance that had been part of our popular culture/mythology for so long. Anyway, his analysis of the whole thing is actually quite nuanced, and I'm hardly doing it justice here, but it's worth noting that 9-11 reality's quotient was not nearly as profound as we might like to think.
I can mention one other bit of proof on this, and that is Mark Heath's video of that day (you can watch it here). Heath was a doctor who rushed in to help people after the tower fell, and yet he felt a simultaneous compulsion to record the whole thing on video (there's a whole paper just waiting to be written about this odd event). Why, we might ask, does his very experience of crisis have to be accompanied by mediation? We should understand that mediation here is not just technological but also temporal, it is a recording of an experience for future generations - but in so doing it is also a necessary remove from experience. Think about family pictures you pose for, where the family gets together for some sort of "action" shot or you stretch the smile on your face for the camera, which is to say, for those who might watch in the future. That a man literally at the foot of the buildings acts in the same manner tells us something about just how pervasive hyper-reality has become.
Before I move on, let me just say that the charge that's implicit in your post, that Baudrillard's somewhat flippant disavowel of the real, hurts people who are really suffering or who have really suffered, has been made against him repeatedly. In the 1991 book about the Gulf War, he argued that fundamentally nothing actually happened, and then in 1994 he had a rather large disagreement with the highly revered Susan Sontag, who had gone over to Sarajevo to produce a version of "Waiting for Godot," which she thought a fitting antibody to all the suffering of the Sarajevans. Baudrillard's complaint against her, which he repeats in different forms in other contexts, is that far too often the suffering of others is touted in its reality because we want it to be real, because we derive some benefit from it. He thinks it serves as a sort of last-ditch and desperate effort to restore our own diminished reality quotient - we find the sufferings of others, announce we must act (!!!) and respond, and then complain about those that question the reality of the suffering we find.
Think about the whole issue of Afghani women under the Taliban, which was touted by the Bush administration as one of the reasons we needed to install a new government there and oust the Taliban, along with the whole terrorist safe haven argument. Well it probably won't surprise you that these women a) had been in the same situation for quite a long time, even before the Taliban, and b) are now in the same situation again, according to most reports. The point is that there suffering was only "real" when it seemed helpful (and here I am guilty of the same - I can use the "real" realness of their suffering to show what a sham the Bush administration is - ah ha!). It gets a bit circular, regressive, and depressing, but it doesn't mean Baudrillard is wrong.
2. The copy without an original. The idea of the simulacrum actually dates back to Plato, though Baudrillard's version varies in some important ways. Nevertheless, in a trilogy of dialogues (Theatetus, The Sophist, The Statesman), though mostly in The Sophist, Plato complains about a simulacral truth, which sophists use to convince others that they know the real truth, which of course they don't, because only philosophers really love knowledge enough to find truth. The truth that sophists offer claims to be a version of the truth, but they never knew the original, so they are not merely simulating what they do not know - they are producing the object they claim to know about and then offering an explanation as evidence or example of it.
If we want to take a more contemporary example, we can think of a clone, of you, let's say. Imagine a second you wandering around, taking pictures about the woes of theory and whatever else. Your initial temptation is to think the clone a copy of you, but this isn't actually the case. The clone replicates your genetic code, which is also the thing that produced you in the first place. The clone could look like you but it wouldn't have your experiences, your memories, the things that you think make you distinct, which is to say that make you, well, you. So the clone copies a model, rather than some original object. The same sort of principle is at work in Epcot, where the various regional areas copy mythic and caricatured versions of France and Japan that they themselves produce in order to be a "copy" of them.
3. Experiencing the Real. Well, this is a tough one. You assert the validity of your experiences and say, "now what?", which of course leaves me at a distinct disadvantage. How can I argue with the authenticity of your own experience? So maybe, as just a thought experiment, we can reverse the burden, and you can attempt to demonstrate that your experiences were real, authentic, and your own. Now let me qualify this a bit. You think in words, in phrases, in concepts that you did not invent, but that were given to you. And despite all the entry-level composition classes telling you there's a difference between denotation and connotation, you've learned by now that the difference really doesn't hold up under questioning.
So when you say you've experienced something - let's say it's your first kiss, which may or may not have happened, who knows - did it take on special meaning because of the singularity of the experience, or because of the antecedent status assigned to the first kiss, which then constitutes the special meaning and singularity of the moment for you. After all, the very fact that we collectively have a name for that sort of thing - the first kiss! - seems to demonstrate that the kiss is never merely our own, since the concepts through which we process our sensations are always already indebted to other people.
Now look, Baudrillard is not so much concerned with the first kiss, and contrary to some readings, he's not just dissing the whole question of reality. If anything, he's trying to figure out a way we can experience the real again (though he's a bit doubtful here). But what does concern him is that a lot of our major cultural moments are already mediated with some future or intermediary expectation that serves to take our experiences and transform them into something else, even if we don't have a good name for it. At some point we run into a problem that Gorgias recognized about 2 and a half thousand years ago, when he declared "being doesn't exist, if it did exist we wouldn't know it, and if we knew it we couldn't communicate it."
4. Keanu. Mock him if you want, but make sure you watch the movie Thumbsucker first. Seriously, his character is minor, but he nails it. October 30, 2007 9:21 PM Kenneth Rufo Transcendental Schmitt Baudrillard - its mind bottling

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