Baudrillard is not a cyborg

By Alex Mazey

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In a review for ‘Jean Baudrillard. Maestro. The last prophet of Europe’, published at the International Academic Journal ‘Baudrillard Now’, Andrew McLaverty-Robinson writes on how the primary subject of Dr Oleg Maltsev’s book ‘tends to be read badly by English-speaking readers.’ He continues:

‘Something like Baudrillard’s theory of symbolic exchange, […] gets left-out, marginalised, and misread. It is as if they have separated out the elements in Baudrillard most compatible with their style of theory, and then cut him in half. The half they remove—the more radical, more original half—is then replaced by a simulation built up of remnants of other theorists. This is no surprise, since it’s how these authors treat all the French poststructuralists. Baudrillard becomes part of the synthesis only by being subjected to the very techniques he exposes: illusion, simulation, hyperreality. […] Most of the feuding around Baudrillard has actually occurred around the simulated Baudrillard, the cyborg half-Baudrillard half-spectre of the poststructuralist synthesis. All too often, in the minds of both supporters and critics, Baudrillard has mutated into an advocate of simulation, “cool” capitalism, and ironic distance as an existential stance.’

‘You’re here because of the system.’ Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) tells James Cole (Bruce Willis) in Terry Gilliam’s ‘Twelve Monkeys’ (1995).  ‘There’s the television. It’s all right there. All right there.’ The asylum inmate explains. ‘Look, listen, kneel, pray. The commercials! We’re not productive anymore.’ Goines twitches. ‘Don’t make things anymore. It’s all automated. What are we for then?’ He asks Cole. ‘We’re consumers, Jim.’ 

It would not be unfair to say that Douglas Lain would disagree with Jeffrey Goines, here. Within his Zer0 Books YouTube video, ‘The Conservative Hyper-Capitalist Realism of Baudrillard’, Lain’s analysis presents the “cool” Baudrillard, with the host prioritizing the masses as agents of production, rather than agents of mournful consumption, which in turn reveals (or should I say ‘makes transparent’) the foundationalist approach to Lain’s argument. Ever since Douglas Kellner’s valuable defence in ‘Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond’, the payload of criticism unloaded by Lain et alia onto Baudrillard was often directed from this similar – albeit poorly imitated – position. (Dare I say, in the phrasing of McLaverty-Robinson, simulated.)

For Jean Baudrillard, in the words of Dr. Oleg Maltsev, ‘Marxist proposals for change were insufficiently radical’, rather than too radical; there was nothing conservative in wanting to locate an outside to capitalist reality; a reality which Marxism remains within. ‘[Baudrillard] begins from the Marxist theory of alienation and something akin to a situationist theory of the spectacle, but later becomes critical of Marxism for keeping its horizons within the world of “production”.’ (‘Jean Baudrillard. Maestro. The last prophet of Europe’, Chapter One.) 

In addition, Maltsev reiterates contemporary interest in the works of Baudrillard, here: ‘…people began paying very careful attention when things he had written about became our reality…’  Zer0 Books’ own Mark Fisher would forward a similar sentiment in ‘Postcapitalist Desire’ when he would say, ‘Read a lot of [Baudrillard’s] passages from the Seventies and it reads astonishingly like he’s time-travelled into now and he’s talking about Twitter and the touchscreen interface.’ Ironically, the book referenced in Lain’s video, Fisher’s ‘Capitalist Realism’, would also adequately describe Baudrillard’s consumer society, the same consumer society Lain would attempt to criticise. On page twelve, Fisher claimed, ‘What we have here is a vision of control and communication much as Jean Baudrillard understood it, in which subjugation no longer takes the form of a subordination to an extrinsic spectacle, but rather invites us to interact and participate.’   

As Lain takes on the weariest ‘line of interpretation’, he embodies what Dr. Ashley Woodward characterised as one of ‘Baudrillard’s commentators […] working in the tradition of (post-)Marxism and Critical Theory’ (‘Nihilism in Postmodernity’, Page Eighty-Nine) assessing ‘Baudrillard on their own terms, rather than on his terms. That is, they employ what [Rex] Butler correctly identifies as a question-begging structure in their approach, assuming the validity of their own intellectual tradition, in relation to which they find Baudrillard lacking.’  

For Lain, Baudrillard’s early theorising in ‘The Consumer Society’ and ‘The Mirror of Production’ is reducible to a misreading of Marx, rather than Lain’s critique existing as a misreading of Baudrillard, which – let’s face it – develops as a more plausible explanation for what is essentially another Goinesian commercial. Twenty minutes of promotional content for Zer0 Books – a publishing house whose founders (including Fisher) long-ago abandoned. This is without adding the hard work (tedious, actually) of going over 1) Lain’s conflation of Marx’s product fetishism with Baudrillard’s sign-value which again seems disingenuous in regards to societies’ turn towards consumption alongside sign-value’s supersession (the movement of the sign to a position of dominant value) and 2) Lain’s conception of currency (capital) as the key productive force which also ignores Baudrillard’s analysis of debt/credit. 

‘Baudrillard would have us worry about the abundance of canned foods,’ Lain continues, ‘clothing, of food stuffs, and ready-made garments…’ the conspicuous reductivism here fails to consider Baudrillard’s basic semiotic underpinnings, Baudrillard’s interest not in the commodities themselves per se but the effects of their semiotic connectivity within the code, abundance in relation to everything, meaning diminished through saturation, metastasis, and so on. Lain concludes that ‘what [Baudrillard] misses is that this abundance relies on the continual growth of the commodity – money – and even as the world’s warehouses are filled up with grain, with Coca-Cola bottles, with the wonders of the world, the people in it can starve if the production of money and profit goes awry and according to Marx production of money always goes awry.’ 

It would not be unusual to find a correlation between wage stagnation and the obesity crisis since it is not in the best interests of neoliberal governance to allow people to starve. As Ted Kaczynski writes in ‘The Neat Trick of the System’ – ‘The System needs a population that is meek, nonviolent, domesticated, docile, and obedient. It needs to avoid any conflict or disruption that could interfere with the orderly functioning of the social machine.’ Even so, after abandoning the gold standard in the twentieth century, money finds abstract value only in what it has come to signify (sign-value). You don’t sell people the wonder of the world either, you sell them its anticipation. Likewise, money only works as a commodity if there is a desire for commodities – hence the supersession of sign-value, in addition. 

As if to emphasize the point regarding capital, Lain’s video provides footage of George W. Bush addressing the 2008 financial crisis which ironically became circumnavigated by the often spoken about system of obscene yet nonetheless utilisable ‘bail-outs’ when Bush declared the proposal ‘that the federal government reduce the risk posed by these troubled assets and supply urgently needed money so banks and other financial institutions can avoid collapse and resume lending.’ From Bush’s own words we know capitalism has successfully dealt with the problem of having no money by way of incorporating the credit system, which is precisely why they needed banks to resume lending. This would highlight something Baudrillard had addressed over twenty years earlier with the Wall Street crash of 1987 when he wrote on the ‘crystal clear […] discrepancy between the economy as we imagine it to be and the economy as it really is.’  On page 28 of ‘The Transparency of Evil’, Baudrillard continues:

‘Furthermore, this debt has itself already begun to go into orbit, circulating from one bank to another, or from one country to another, as it is bought and sold – indeed, this, no doubt, is how we will end up forgetting about it altogether, and sending it definitively into orbit along with nuclear waste and not a few other things. […] When a debt becomes too cumbersome, then, it is banished to a virtual space where it resembles a deep-frozen catastrophe in orbit. Debt becomes a satellite of Earth, just like war, and just like the millions of dollars’ worth of floating capital now conglomerated into a satellite tirelessly circling us. And surely this is for the best. Just so long as such satellites keep circulating – and even if they explode out in space (like the ‘lost’ billions of the 1987 crash) – the world is not affected by them, which is the best possible outcome. For the suggestion that the imaginary economy and the real one might one day be reconciled is a utopian one: those billions of floating dollars are untranslatable into real economic terms – and that is just as well, because if, per mirabile, they could be reinjected into productive economies, the result, for once, would be a true catastrophe. […] We may as well accustom ourselves to living in the shadow of such excrescences as the orbital bomb, financial speculation, worldwide debt and overpopulation (for which last no orbital solution has yet been found, though there is still hope).’

‘If it is nihilistic to be obsessed by the mode of disappearance, and no longer by the mode of production, then I am a nihilist.’ Baudrillard states in perhaps his most widely-read philosophical treatise, ‘Simulacra and Simulation’, with this phrasing later chosen as the epigraph to Woodward’s paper (‘Was Baudrillard a Nihilist?’) published at the ‘International Journal of Baudrillard Studies’ where the researcher would write how ‘…Baudrillard’s entire oeuvre may be read as a sustained critical engagement with the problem of nihilism…’ 

The closest conservatism came to an analysis of contemporary capitalism is when Roger Scruton began to describe himself as a ‘reluctant capitalist’. There is certainly a void in conservatism when it comes to a serious critique of capitalism only because conservatism in The West no longer exists since politics long ago became supplanted by its imitation. ‘The conservatives are fools…’ writes Kaczynski in ‘Technological Slavery’, ‘They whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can’t make rapid, drastic changes in the technology and the economy of a society without causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values.’ Baudrillard was not intellectually concerned with a cardinal ‘gluttony’ or conservative approaches to Capitalist (Hyper)Realism. Douglas Lain’s perspective reductively attempts to locate Baudrillard’s early criticism within the conservative moralising of finger wagging – ironic in terms of the contemporary liberal animus – whereas a holistic reading of Baudrillard actually develops as a philosophy which details disappearance within total metastasis. 

‘Okay, okay. Buy a lot of stuff, you’re a good citizen.’ The ecoterrorist of Gilliam’s ‘Twelve Monkeys’ dictates, rattling off a sequence of commodities, everything from ‘new cars’ to ‘electrically operated sexual devices, stereo systems with brain-implanted headphones, screwdrivers with miniature built-in radar devices’ and through Goines’ monologue we open ourselves up to the real question concerning consumption; how exactly did these fatal activities develop as a moral duty? And through the exploration of these ontological positionings are we not also exposed to hyperreality; asking, what emerges in disappearance if not the potential for something new?

Alex Mazey’s latest book, ‘Sad Boy Aesthetics’ is available at Broken Sleep Books.

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