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Jean Baudrillard

Baudrillard

Author: Richard J Lane

The dominance of Hegel in postwar
France led initially to the prevalence of Marxism and existentialism.
Hyppolite, who translated Hegel, was also the teacher of some of the new
thinkers, such as Derrida and Foucault. They were interested in different
ways of intersecting reactions to Hegel with structuralism. A key figure
for the new thinkers was Bataille, whose theories of “unproductive expenditure”
and excessive behaviour were aimed at countering the Hegelian
dialectic. Baudrillard regarded the political unrest of May 1968, with
student and worker uprisings, as something that tested the opposing
theories of Marxism and structuralism. He suggested that the two theories
needed to be brought together, in the process identifying new areas
of intellectual analysis in modern France.

Baudrillard’s notions of speed,
“fuzzy” logic and automatism, and then goes on to examine the “gizmo”
and the “gadget”, thinking about the ways in which the technological
object becomes designed according to human fantasy and desire.
Technology is then related to some early versions of Baudrillard’s
notion of “the symbolic”, and the argument concludes with a mapping
out of the new technological space of the “hypermarket”.
TECHNOLOGY
One of the key components that structures the postmodern world (or
psyche) is technology. From the earliest science fiction novel, technology
has stood in for the future, the radically new or different, and
the obsession of all ultramodern societies.We define our societies by
the technologies used, be that definition “stone age” or “computer age”,
and generally fit such descriptions into linear, progressive models of
technological advancement. But we are also aware that narratives of
progression rarely examine the fuzzy edges of technology – the built-in
redundancy of consumer objects, the ways in which outmoded medicines
and military technologies are offloaded to the developing world, the ways in which ideological battles are supported (or generated) by
technology races, from the Cold War to Star Wars (SDI), and so on.
While there is a disjunction in the West between those who embrace
new technologies (e.g. the current expansion of genetic engineering in
crops) and those who reject them (e.g. the rise in the eco-protester),
such a massive either/or binary fracturing rarely goes beyond the
grand narratives of technology as redemptive (saving the world) or
apocalyptic (destroying the world). Some theorists have argued that
postmodernity itself splits into those who support “soft” and “hard”
technologies; the former may involve a return to premodern agricultural
practices synthesized with the best in contemporary knowledge
of crop production, the latter may involve a vision of a cybernetic
future, where the merging of organic and artificial worlds is achieved
through new computer technologies. All of these options and concepts
of technology have fascinated Baudrillard, especially the ways in which
the subject experiences technology as part of everyday life in the
present. It goes without saying that Baudrillard critiques the grand
narratives of technological progression and apocalypse, preferring
instead to map out in minute detail the impact of technological
objects. In Chapter 4, we will discuss the shift in Baudrillard’s work
from notions of production to those of consumption and the way in
which this leads to a critique of Marxism. In this chapter we will
examine the role technological objects have played in Baudrillard’s
work, especially in relation to the transition from modern to postmodern
society.

MODERNISM
An artistic movement that began at the turn of the twentieth century, and
was heavily influenced by the events and experiences of World War I
(1914–1918). In the art world there were many modernist movements,
including Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, Surrealism and Primitivism. All of
these movements reflected the new ways that human beings existed in,
and experienced, an industrialized, technological world. For example,
Cubism fractures or shatters the human form, while Futurism celebrates
the speed of the factory production line and the automobile. In literature,
modernists were intensely interested in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis,
EMERGENCE OF A CONSUMER SOCIETY
One of Baudrillard’s most sustained analyses of technological objects
occurs in The System of Objects. But it would be a mistake to read this
analysis in terms of comments on postmodernism. In The System of
Objects Baudrillard is looking at the emergence of consumer society in
the newly modernized or “modern” France. America is a model for
France at this stage, but it is still a fairly distant one, without the immediacy
of the later texts. Further, Baudrillard is still deeply concerned
with other models – those of production – and he has yet to work out
a more coherent theory of consumption. In many respects it is as if he
is mapping out the consumer world in advance of the critique of
Marxism, and it is in the process of “mapping” that the tools for that
critique will be found.
Using a fairly traditional notion of the shift towards automatism,
Baudrillard starts to theorize the modern, mechanistic object. In
looking at the craze for antiques, Baudrillard notes how whatever is
lacking in the human subject is invested in the object (1997: 82). For
example, someone who desires social status might buy a stately home,
or, on a smaller scale, the art objects that would be found in a stately
home, such as “ancestral” portraits, which the new owner passes off as
belonging to his or her own family. There is a further complication,
though: the form of the object is not necessarily related to its utilitarian
function. In the example of the huge American cars of the
1950s, with massive “tail fins”, the fins themselves represent speed, but
in actuality are counterproductive in terms of drag and the real
velocity attainable – the fins are thus representative of a fantasy of
aerodynamics (e.g. based upon the shape of aeroplanes):
Tail fins were a sign not of real speed but of a sublime, measureless speed.
They suggested a miraculous automatism, a sort of grace. It was the presence and explored the interior subjectivity with new techniques such as interior
monologue and stream of consciousness. Key authors include T.S. Eliot
(The Waste Land), James Joyce (Ulysses) and Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway
and To the Lighthouse).
of these fins that in our imagination propelled the car, which, thanks to them,
seemed to fly along of its own accord …
(1997: 59)
The speed generated by these fins is thus “absolute”; that is, speed
which can never degenerate into the real because it belongs to the
abstracted hyperreal.
An example of “absolute” speed is the contemporary public-road
“sports car”, which actually goes slower than, or at the same speed as, a
turbo-charged family saloon; the family saloon looks like the slower of
the two and would never be owned by someone who wants to be identified
as “living in the fast lane”. The latter person has bought into the
“absolute” speed represented by the form of his or her vehicle, not the
actual performance on the motorway or when stuck in heavy traffic in
the city.The wider point that Baudrillard is making is that the “miraculous
automatism” represented by the functionally useless tail fins is
seriously counterproductive, yet becomes a necessity for the consumer
via the manufacturer’s promise that here is something progressively
“better” to own (these tail fins are bigger so this car is closer to
fulfilling your dreams). Automatism is presented to the consumer as
technological progression, whereas Baudrillard immediately critiques
it, with reference to what now seems like an incredibly archaic
example: the shift from the automobile starting handle to battery-
HYPERREAL
Baudrillard argues that there are three levels of simulation, where the first
level is an obvious copy of reality and the second level is a copy so good
that it blurs the boundaries between reality and representation. The third
level is one which produces a reality of its own without being based upon
any particular bit of the real world. The best example is probably “virtual
reality”, which is a world generated by computer languages or code.
Virtual reality is thus a world generated by mathematical models which
are abstract entities. It is this third level of simulation, where the model
comes before the constructed world, that Baudrillard calls the hyperreal.
operated ignition. Baudrillard argues that this shift unnecessarily
complicates the automobile as machine, making it dependent upon a
battery which is “external” to the mechanical system, making it more
prone to failure – e.g. a dead battery means that the car cannot be
easily started – and simply more complicated. However, in terms of
the grand narrative of technological progression, cars with starting
handles now seem hilariously outmoded and outdated, belonging to
distant memories of Keystone Cops movies and museum pieces,
whereas electronic ignition is a marker of the modern. The grand
narrative, which touts automatism as the vector of progression, subordinates
“real” functionality to the stereotype of functionality. What
Baudrillard means by this is that the ideal of abstracted automatism –
e.g. perfected distant ease of use and ideal speed – dictates how the
machine will be built, even if it means sacrificing some other improvement
or radical design difference. As an example of this we can think
about the way in which manufacturers resisted the introduction of
unleaded petrol in Britain, which belonged to another forthcoming
grand narrative, that of environmental and ecological protection.
“FUZZY” LOGIC
The next shift in the technological object that Baudrillard discusses is
that of “indeterminacy”, or the fuzzy logic which allows a machine to
respond to random outside information (1997: 111). Instead of the
closed systems that automatism generates in the example of the
abstracted teleology of the automobile, indeterminate machines are
open-ended systems. An example of such an open-ended system might
be an environmentally friendly temperature control system in an office
building that responds automatically to changes in the weather rather
than needing internal, human control. However, such a system is still
dominated by the abstract ideal of automatism (the building works by
itself), however open to change it might be, and it is this aspect of the
technological object that Baudrillard argues gives the subject the most
pleasure: “For the user, automatism means a wondrous absence of
activity, and the enjoyment this procures is comparable to that derived,
on another plane, from seeing without being seen: an esoteric satisfaction
experienced at the most everyday level” (1997: 111). The
automated machine working away by itself and able to make basic decisions
of its own is inevitably seen to be analogous to the subject, which becomes “a new anthropomorphism” (like a human being). Where
earlier modern technologies were concerned with the utilitarian
reproduction of more efficient tools and enclosing technologies, such
as the office and home environment, the new anthropomorphic technologies
are concerned with autonomous consciousness, abstracted
power and identity. But, again, this may appear to be a radical step
forwards in the grand narrative of progression, whereas in reality, for
Baudrillard, this is another moment of standing still. Automatism now
has the human subject as the ideal to be striving towards, and the
human subject becomes the next barrier to the development of the
technological object, because of the “oversignification” of the human
subject:
Man, for his part, by automating his objects and rendering them multi-functional
instead of striving to structure his practices in a fluid and open-ended
manner, reveals in a way what part he himself plays in a technical society: that
of the most beautiful all-purpose object, that of an instrumental object.
(1997: 112)
In other words, the subject not only blocks the development of the
technological object but is revealed to be an object himself or herself
within contemporary society.
FUNCTIONALITY
In the modern age, how functional are the technological objects that
surround us? Have they penetrated our everyday practices to make a
substantive difference to the way we lead our lives, or is this difference
one of surface effect, ornamentation? Baudrillard announces in The
System of Objects that in many respects it is the baroque that is the truly
inaugurating moment of the modern age. In other words, there is no
true development of the technological object, just a kind of abstraction
(objects become mere lifestyle accessories), which Baudrillard equates
with the architectural style of ornamentation that prevailed in Europe
from the late sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries. In the contemporary
world, the object is now taken over by the imaginary. Thus
automatism “… opens the door to a whole world of functional delusion,
to the entire range of manufactured objects in which a role is
played by irrational complexity, obsessive detail, eccentric technicity
or gratuitous formalism” (1997: 113). To say that technological objects
exist as ornamentation at whatever level is not to say that they don’t
have a function; in fact, the opposite is the case. In the baroque world
of technology, an object fulfils all the criteria for its usefulness simply
by functioning in the abstract sense. For example, a more powerful
computer may be used for the same simple word processing that was
performed on an older machine that cost a lot less money. The
machine’s “power” is abstract in that it is not really tested out or used
in any meaningful way. So we no longer have the question “What does
it do?” but instead the question “Does it work?” This latter is what can
be called a “hyperfunctionality”, because other questions follow, such as
“Does it work faster than the last model?”, even if speed of operation
has nothing to do with any real performance output or gain. In hyperfunctionality,
the technological object is not practical, but obsessional;
not utilitarian, but functional (always in an abstract sense): the object
or gadget no longer serves the world, performing some useful task – it
serves us: our dreams and desires of what objects can and should do
(1997: 114). Baudrillard’s word for this “empty functionalism” is the
French word machin, meaning “thingumajig”, “thingumabob”, “whatsit”
or, as the translator of The System of Objects more satisfactorily puts it,
“gizmo” (1997: 114). The gizmo is an object that is not of any real or
genuine use to anyone and it also lacks a specifying name.Any number
of different objects can be “gizmos” (such as the plastic strips attached
to the back of cars popular in the 1980s to “remove” static electricity),
with no real scientific basis that they actually worked. This lack on
behalf of language (or lag behind the trend continually to produce new
gizmos) is perhaps representative of a conceptual lack, where the functioning
of the gizmo becomes mysterious.The gizmo is a myth-making
device because it operates not through clear logical reason, but
according to the fragmented personal mythologies of the individual
user – for example, the person who believes that an aeroplane only
really stays in the sky during a flight due to their own intense concentration.
In this fragmented sense of mystery and mythology the gizmo
is “worse” than, say, a religious icon, which represents an ordered
system of belief structured around an object. But is the gizmo therefore
a degraded technological object, inferior to the machine? The
answer according to Baudrillard is that it is not, because it is an object
that operates in the imaginary rather than the real.We can see here a
division between the real and the hyperreal which has yet to be fully theorized (see Chapter 5 for more detail). The gizmo is constructed
according to the model of pure functioning, and a reality constructed
via models only is a postmodern “hyperreality”. Baudrillard suggests
that the gizmo represents the belief in the universality of technological
objects – this belief says that for every need there is a gizmo that will
provide assistance, and thus nature itself becomes automated. What
Baudrillard means by this can be thought through with the example he
gives of the “… electrical whatsit that extracts stones from fruit …”
that some people may have as a kitchen gadget.We have all bought
such gadgets, which purport to be incredibly useful but usually end up
crammed in a cupboard gathering dust or used once or twice a year
because we don’t have space for the gizmo and it takes more effort to
use the gizmo than remove fruit stones with a knife! However,
Baudrillard’s theoretical point is that the belief in the universal use of
gizmos means that nature (the fruit stone and beyond) becomes something
that gizmos can always work upon to improve. The belief that
technology will always improve nature implies that nature is itself
constructed like a technological device. In the process of automatism,
the human subject universalizes itself as a functional being that can
always find satisfaction through the gizmo, whereas the gizmo is bound
up by that dream of functionality and thus reduced to the “…irrationality
of human determinants” (1996: 116). There is a resistance to
the former development, where people reject the interpenetration of
subject and technology, but the latter, the imposition of the functional
dream upon the possibilities of the technological object or gizmo, is
rarely, if ever, theorized. The dream of a perfectly working functionality
of the world is transferred to the ideal perfectly working body.
While the Freudian strand of The System of Objects remains undeveloped,
an interesting parallel between Baudrillard’s notion here and the
rise in popularity of “functionality drugs” such as Prozac and Viagra in
the 1990s, would suggest a fairly prescient reading on his behalf.
The technological object, it becomes clear, does not according to
Baudrillard embody the grand narratives of progression – instead, the
technological object is restricted by its anthropomorphic fashioning, its
interpenetration with the world of human fantasy and desire. In this
sense, the object is dysfunctional, held back from “true” development,
limited in its application and slotted into preprogrammed ideas. But
this is not the only way in which Baudrillard theorizes the object as
dysfunctional.With the example of the science fiction robot, which is
placed in the “pure realm of the gizmo” (1997: 119), there is always a
supplementary marker of difference, which foregrounds the fact that
the robot is both the technological object perfected and a mechanical
slave.A robot that reached its ideal would be able to do everything the
human subject could, including reproduction of the species and,
further, it would naturally efface the fact that it was a robot in the first
place, because its mimetic capabilities would be that of second-order
simulation. In other words, it would not be possible to distinguish
between the original and the copy. Baudrillard notes that this attainment
would lead to intense anxiety; such anxiety would be of the sort
that Philip K. Dick so expertly manipulates in his novel Do Androids
Dream of Electric Sheep?, now known through its film adaptation Blade
Runner. However, the robot’s supplementary markers of difference – a
metallic skin, gestures which are “… discrete, jerky and unhuman”, the
ability to process data at an abnormal speed, and so on – all lead to the
reassurance that the robot is not the human subject’s double (1997:
120). The robot is a castrated slave, always seen as the attainment of
perfection in terms of the technological object, but always falling short
of the attainment of humanity and concrete subjectivity. In terms of its
evolution, the robot is thus a dead end, and this is where for
Baudrillard all objects in our consumer world now arrive.
THE END OF THE SYMBOLIC
Technology, for Baudrillard, is the compensatory mode of being in a
world which has been deprived of the symbolic dimension. At times
hovering close to nostalgia, but aware of the problematic of this way of
thinking, Baudrillard argues that the relationship between the human
subject and processes of symbolic ritualized behaviour (including
work) has been divorced partly by the transference of gestural activity
to technological objects. Instead of the human subject being in the
world, it is now the object that is in the world, while the human
subject has become an idle spectator.Worse still, the complexity of the
world no longer occurs at the moment of symbolic exchange, such as
the potlatch, but resides instead in the everyday life of the technological
object (the object is more complex than the human subject and his
or her social existence/structures). But are technological objects, even
with their idealized functioning, completely divorced from the
symbolic? What about the fetishism of objects? Surely that has a
T H E T E C H N O L O G I CAL S YS T E M O F O B J E C T S 35
symbolic dimension? And, thinking of the ways in which Baudrillard
depends so essentially on absolute expenditure and waste from the
Eurocentric narratives of primitivism, surely one of the key markers of
contemporary Western society is precisely wasteful expenditure? How
can Baudrillard keep asserting the end of the symbolic in these
instances?
Contemporary fetishism is analysed by Baudrillard in a number of
places, although the most condensed account is found in For a Critique
of the Political Economy of the Sign, where the Marxist notion of
commodity fetishism comes in for some criticism (although, at this
stage, for not saying enough about production). Baudrillard’s thesis is
that the word “fetishism” has a life of its own: instead of describing a
process whereby an object is endowed with magical properties (e.g. the
“primitive” fetish), the people who use the term are exposed in turn
for using non-reflectively a “magical thinking” (1981: 90). Commodity
fetishism is one of the grand narratives that is being teased apart here,
whereby the shift from concrete production and exchange is replaced
by abstracted labour relations and subsequent alienation.
Fundamentally, however, the term “fetishism” is rejected because of the
moral baggage it has carried since the Enlightenment: “… the whole
repertoire of occidental Christian and humanist ideology, as orchestrated
by colonists, ethnologists and missionaries” (1981: 88).
PRIMITIVISM
An artistic movement that forms a part of modernism, but also an “attitude”
held towards other, non-Western cultures. Artists interested in
Primitivism used cultural artefacts from non-Western cultures, such as
Africa and the Native Americas, to feed into avant-garde aesthetics, such
as the use of Native masks in Cubism. Native peoples are seen via
Primitivism as somehow closer to nature, naïve, “savage”, and untouched
by the rules and regulations of Western society. So-called “primitive”
peoples were in reality often part of highly autonomous, complex societies,
with their own forms of religion, politics and aesthetics (e.g. the
First Nations of British Columbia, Canada).
In other words, the term “fetishism” has been used not simply to
describe “primitive” cultures and practices, but to condemn them,
especially for the notion of worshipping “false idols”.While Baudrillard
doesn’t mention that the rejection of fetishism is also an internal
policing matter for monotheistic religion (the worship of one god that
could potentially be disseminated and destroyed by an abundance of
concrete images worshipped in His place), he does pick up on the way
that fetishism has become a Metaphor for the analysis of “magical
thinking”, be it “primitive” or “contemporary” (1981: 88). In anthropological
analysis, there is a reversal that the analysts are themselves
unaware of: “primitive” fetishism involves notions of energy transfer,
capture and beneficial control by the tribal group.This process is called
here a “‘rationalization’ of the world” (1981: 89). The reversal comes
about by the suggestion that anthropologists are, in the process of their
pseudo-scientific work, doing much the same thing with their subjects,
containing the critical energy that is found in the so-called “primitive”
society. This criticism parallels that found in Wittgenstein’s “Remarks
on Fraser’s Golden Bough”, discussed briefly in Chapter 3. The reversal
can be applied, furthermore, to “modern industrial society”:
What else is intended by the concept of “commodity fetishism” if not the
T H E T E C H N O L O G I CAL S YS T E M O F O B J E C T S 37
THE ENLIGHTENMENT
Enlightenment thinking replaces mysticism with reason or the rational,
and a passive acceptance of the way the world is socially structured is
replaced with critical analysis and reappraisal. Beginning in the eighteenth
century, with the rise of scientific approaches to issues that had
previously belonged to religion, the Enlightenment became a movement
that sought to liberate humanity from class, religious and other forms of
oppression. In contemporary times, postmodernists have rejected
Enlightenment thinking as leading to an overdependence upon science
and technology, or the “grand narratives”, which argue that science and
technology will solve world problems such as famine. However, thinkers
such as Jurgen Habermas reject postmodernism as failing to provide
anything but a reinforcement of Capitalism and a detachment from problems
in the real world of social relations.
notion of a false consciousness devoted to the worship of exchange value (or,
more recently, the fetishism of gadgets or objects, in which individuals are
supposed to worship artificial libidinal or prestige values incorporated in the
object)?
(Baudrillard, 1981: 89)
In other words, it is not a case of saying that exchange-value is
fetishistic and thus false, in turn revealing that use-value underlies such
alienation; rather, all fetishistic activity is based upon the fascination of
signs. Instead of perceiving the contemporary fetish for consumer
objects or the body as something with symbolic value, the whole
process is here perceived as emptied of value:
… the subject is trapped in the factitious, differential, encoded, systematized
aspect of the object. It is not the passion (whether of objects or subjects) for
substances that speaks in fetishism, it is the passion for the code, which by
governing both objects and subjects, and by subordinating them to itself,
delivers them up to abstract manipulation. This is the fundamental articulation
of the ideological process: not in the projection of alienated consciousness into
various superstructures, but in the generalization at all levels of a structural
code.
(1981: 92)
With the current obsession for ever more powerful technological
gizmos and gadgets, with their almost instantly built-in obsolescence
(such as personal computers that are not powerful enough to run the
“latest” software), a huge number of such objects are doomed not for
actual use but fairly rapid disposal: such objects are waste. Even as we
go out to buy our latest gizmo, or boast about its “configuration”, we
know that the gizmo is doomed: tomorrow brings the next upgraded model.
Our consumption is simultaneously destruction, however long we try to
put off the fateful moment. (We are also aware that a small, bizarre,
group of people are infinitely putting off buying their gizmo precisely
because the next model will be more powerful and less expensive; as
such these people step permanently outside of the circuit of consumption
as waste and waste as consumption, living in a strangely archaic
world.) It is not just at the personal level that objects are “wasted”: the
biggest waste of all in Western society comes via expenditure on the
latest military technology. Military objects have an analogous life span
of zero (they are inevitably outmoded the moment they come off the
production line), with the added advantage that they can be destroyed,
exhausted, worn out, and so on, on the battlefield, or sold to the
Developing World. The huge disparity between Western and non-
Western military technology does cause problems (war becomes too
easy, so to speak), and this leads to hyperreal wars as discussed in the
chapters on postmodernism (Chapters 5, 6 and 7). But does either this
personal or public expenditure have any symbolic value?
In The Consumer Society (1988b), Baudrillard asserts that not only
does the Western world need its objects to construct an identity but,
more fundamentally, it needs to destroy those objects.Thus the shift in
the media from interest in heroes of production to heroes of consumption,
or, as Baudrillard puts it, those “dinosaurs” whose excessively
wasteful lives dominate popular culture. But there is also a more
cautionary, moralistic message that says that excessive, wasteful
consumption is “bad”, damaging to the environment (but not the
economy).Waste in this latter sense is seen as the excessive, insane
action of subjects living for the present, damaging irreparably a finite
reserve of common resources. Clearly, in The Consumer Society, this
moralistic analysis of waste comes under suspicion and is reviewed
with a “sociological” analysis, suggesting that excessive consumption is
a universal. Referring to the potlatch and the wasteful expenditure of
the aristocratic classes, the suggestion is that contemporary utilitarianism

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