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Scientism Unbound: Baudrillard and the Critique of Technology (Part II)

Scientism Unbound: Baudrillard And The Critique Of Technology (Part II)

These other types of repercussion are less tangible forms of blowback, such as disease or environmental disaster, but are equally worrisome. They are perceptual in nature and concern how our view of reality is reshaped when our connections to it are technologically mediated, through simulations, images, and the like.

Previously it was argued that technology is commonly misperceived as denoting only hardware or technological gadgetry. This common misperception of technology was corrected by indicating that technology is also a particular orientation toward reality and its meaning. But there is another important way in which technology is commonly misunderstood. It occurs whenever the claim is made that technology is a neutral tool capable of being used for good or ill, depending on the intent of its user.1

The underlying premise of this “instrumentalist” understanding of technology is that we humans use technology to fulfill our purposes, goals, or objectives. The guiding assumption here is that we impute value to technology, which, in itself, is valueless. There is a strict dichotomy in this relationship between a purposive humanity, on the one hand, and our blind and pedestrian tools, on the other. The instrumentalist understanding of technology denies that technology might have the power to exert control or influence over its creators, that technology makes (or remakes) us as much as we make it.

Baudrillard dismisses the instrumentalist view, and he is not alone.2 Nicholas Carr, for instance, argues persuasively that a technology such as the Internet has a direct bearing on the workings of the mind. Calling the Internet an “interruption system,”3 he shows how the form of information processing required to navigate through cyberspace is detrimental to deep reading, and how this mode of processing results in a rewiring of the human brain.

Carr’s thesis rests on a fairly simple premise. The human brain is not a self-subsisting organ: it is actively attuned and responsive to the world around it, including the realm of artifice.5 The brain’s neuroplasticity allows it to respond to external stimuli by reconfiguring, within certain limits, its own cellular structure in keeping with its changing environment.

Confusion Over What Is Real

Like Carr, Baudrillard is a proponent of the view that technology has the power not only to make things but to make minds. Baudrillard, we have seen, believes the technological worldview rests on a misguided perception of the nature of reality. Technology, in the commonplace sense of the term, is a manifestation of technology as a mode of perception. Yet because the relationship between technology and its creators is reciprocal, the real world” of technology in turn exerts a force on its creators.

For Baudrillard, this force amplifies the confusion that attends our understanding of the real. The further technological civilization advances, he suggests, the less likely we are to see reality for what it is and the more we become unwitting adjuncts to the technological system. More explicitly than Voegelin, Baudrillard shows why the damage done by scientism tends to be self-reinforcing.

Our puzzlement over the meaning of the real stems largely from the destabilization of existing perceptions regarding what is and what is not real. How can anyone tell for sure anymore?

Not too long ago, for example, the Franklin Mint advertised one of its sale items by saying it was offering “the only exact reproduction of Jacqueline Kennedy’s famous faux pearls.”6 We are so inured to this kind of rhetoric today that it goes largely unnoticed. But what exactly is being said here? That the Mint is offering consumers a real or true reproduction of fake pearls? Phony pearls exactly reproduced? Fake pearls that are “unique” because they are the only pearls that perfectly fake the fake pearls Kennedy once owned?

Or consider a recent Quirit cartoon where an airline flight attendant asks her passengers, in response to the jet’s mechanical failure: “Anybody here know how to play Microsoft’s Flight Simulator?”7 While it ostensibly pokes fun at the notion that flying a real jet and a virtual one are almost interchangeable experiences, the joke is on us because in truth they are.

Simulators at flight training schools are sophisticated pieces of machinery that faithfully replicate the experience of flying real aircraft. Trainees have been known to suffer heart attacks as a result of trying to handle a virtual flameout. And what is it like flying a real plane these days? Simply put, flying modern aircraft boils down to the business of monitoring the monitors, or overseeing the telemetry of the automated control systems that do the actual flying.

Images without Originals

In this strange world of ours, simulations of flight are virtually interchangeable with the real thing, and the real thing is largely identical to a simulation. To put it more abstractly, the image or representation and the thing imaged or represented have effectively merged: the “gap” between the real and the virtually real has disappeared.

Take as another example the modern practice of “molecular modeling,”8 where computational techniques encoded in computer software programs allow chemists, biologists, and material science experts to replicate the behaviour of molecules. The benefit of working with virtual versus real molecules is obvious and in keeping with the primary value of technology: efficiency. Real (versus computational) scientific experimentation is expensive in terms of cost and time. It is much more efficient, and hence more productive, to model the real prior to performing those laboratory experiments that have been predetermined as potentially promising.

So what is the significance of this kind of modeling, according to Baudrillard? It tells us that by having the virtual modeling of chemical reactions precede the actual reactions, the “real” reaction is a product of artifice.This is the reverse of our everyday sense of things, where we assume reality precedes images or reproductions of the real. Every time, for instance, we witness an event in our lives and memorialize it by reproducing the event in image form we reinforce the notion that images are necessarily images of reality. But what if, as in the case above, reality’s very existence is dependent on a prior image of the real? There occurs a fundamental shift in perception regarding what is real when, as Baudrillard says: “The territory [the real] no longer precedes the map [the virtual model], nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory… that engenders the territory.”9

For if the “real” is a replication of an image without an original, can we say anymore that the real exists, at least as reality traditionally has been understood?

Yet another example of the conflation of the real and its virtual doppelgänger occurs when market research firms are hired by political parties to test-market policies, just as businesses do in the private sector. Both the ideas contained in these policies and their framing in language are manipulated in numerous ways and tested on average folk to determine what “works” and what does not. Policy advisers may then incorporate this information in the crafting and dissemination of actual policy. Again, we have to ask ourselves, if the ‘actual’ policy is constructed on information gathered from prior virtual testing, then is not the so-called ‘real’ policy just a simulation of a pre-tested virtual policy?

Simulation and Semiotics

The term “simulation” requires explication at this point. The infinitive form of the verb “simulate” means to model or represent something, as when a supercomputer, for example, models the conditions of the Big Bang.

To simulate, then, is to represent one thing by means of another. Baudrillard’s understanding of simulation adds to the description above. “To dissimulate,” he observes, “is to feign not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t.”10 So, for instance, to lie about being sick is merely to pretend not be healthy, but to simulate sickness involves feigning the symptoms of sickness. Dissimulation and simulation therefore remain two very different kinds of “reality.” On the one hand, you can dissimulate or fake an illness simply by lying about your physical condition and going to bed. Simulating an illness, on the other, requires faking an illness by producing its symptoms.

The difference between these two types of fakery is significant because straightforward lying keeps the “reality principle” intact in a way that simulating does not, Baudrillard tells us. It is very clear to a dissimulator who lies about being sick that he is not ill. The lying neither alters the fact that he is not ill nor his awareness of his lying. But what if a person were to simulate having high blood sugar levels by drinking a pint of maple syrup shortly before undergoing a medical examination? Her elevated blood sugar level would be real, and she would feel its effects. Yet this “reality” would not indicate the presence of a real, chronic medical condition. The reality principle – which upholds a clear distinction between reality and its representation – is compromised in this latter instance in a way it is not with the former.

To understand better Baudrillard’s reading of simulation, it is necessary to consider the academic discipline called semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their usage in communication.11

At its simplest, semiotics concerns the relationship between a signifier and a signified, the components of a sign. If the word “cat” is uttered, for example, speakers of English know what is being referred to is a specific species of animal. The word “cat” is the signifier and the concept “cat” is the signified. For this relationship to work, a gap” must exist between the signifier ”cat” and the signified cat.  The signifier, in other words, must point to something (the signified) that lies beyond it. But what if it does not? What if the signifier is identified with the signified? What if, in other words, the image becomes real?

When a representation of the real sheds its character as a representation, it becomes a simulacrum.

The Need for Alienation

It has been argued that Baudrillard thinks we need more, not less, alienation in contemporary society. Gaps are good, the closing of gaps, not so. This business of closing gaps, of shutting down spaces that separate and distinguish things goes beyond our fetish with the perfection of systems of control: it extends as well to the relationship between the real and our recreations of the real. Simulations or simulacra are everywhere, Baudrillard asserts. Theme parks and restaurants, museums and historical sites, reality TV – everywhere we look we see simulations of purportedly real places, spaces, and events.

Reality TV, to take one example,12 suggests programming that is unscripted and therefore more authentic than regularly produced fare, such as sitcoms or dramas. Reality TV purports to take viewers “behind the scene” and into the private lives of persons, to see the “real person” behind the public mask that makes “actors” out of them.

Of course, reality TV is as real or unreal as any other kind of programming. To the extent the “reality” on reality TV is a production, it is a simulation of reality. Yet the “reality” of a simulation is such that its artificial character tends to be either overlooked or treated with indifference. Either way, the result is a kind of stupefaction, an obliviousness regarding the distinction between reality and its representations.

Simulations are so pervasive, Baudrillard argues, our daily lives so densely packed with recreations and dramatizations of innumerable sorts, that they effectively substitute for what people take to be the real thing. Simulations, whether through ignorance or indifference, are increasingly treated as real, which is tantamount to saying simulations are real. The gap between the signifier and the signified has vanished: the signifier has become the signified. Or, equally, the signified has become the signifier.

The Image Swallows the Real

In this surreal world of ours, images are real and reality is an image of itself. It is a world where, as one commentator observes: “Natural things have become their own icons.”13 Paralleling Baudrillard, the argument here is that our sense of real or natural things has become so thoroughly mediated that we have lost the ability to apprehend them on their own terms, as existing outside the realm of signification. The image has effectively swallowed up everything we see that is ostensibly “real” or “natural.”

An illustration of the collapse of the distinction between the real and the simulated can be found in the field of contemporary music. One undeniable development within popular musical culture is that the “image” of music (as recorded on a CD or a downloaded file) takes precedence over its reality. Most listeners, it need hardly be noted, consume recorded music, not its live equivalent.

Should an individual have an opportunity to hear live music, the general expectation is that the live event sound like the recording. A “good” concert demands it does. But what does such an expectation reveal? What does it say about our understanding of the real when the standard of judgment for “real,” live music is its simulation? It suggests that recorded music is treated not as a sonic image “of” music but as the real itself, a simulacrum.

The artifice of recreated reality tends to hyper-realize itself. Stripped of its connection with the concrete and substantive, recreated reality takes on the character of an ideal form of the real. If simulations are realer than real, it is because they are models of reality purged of imperfection. In the realm of popular music, for example, the drive toward hyper-realization is manifested in the ongoing trend for music to disappear behind its own special effects. Both in its production and consumption, popular music has almost entirely has become its own ideal image. The development and use of technologies in sound reproduction and replay (i.e.,pitch-control devices, audio software programs, etc.) reveal clearly the conflation of the real and the artificial.

The Value of Commodities

The preceding analysis of simulation might be called an investigation into the “macrophysics of simulacra,” because here we are dealing with an analysis of how simulations destabilize our general perception of what constitutes reality.

Baudrillard, however, is interested as well in the “microphysics of simulacra,”14 which he identifies with the evolution of the internal relationship between signifier and signified. Simply put, Baudrillard contends that at the beginning of this historical process the value of commodities (i.e., signifiers) was linked to the use-value of the commodities they signified. Commodities were regarded principally as utilities related to a fixed system of human needs. Over time, however, the value of commodities became progressively detached from anything substantial like use-value, to a point where today they bear no relation whatsoever to any fixed referent.

We can grasp what Baudrillard is getting at here by examining changes to the international monetary system over the past few decades.15 Until the early 1970s, the world’s major economies had been associated with various systems of a monetary policy that linked their currencies to a real commodity, namely, gold. The last version of this policy had most of the world’s major economies fix their exchange rates relative to the American dollar and the set price of an ounce of gold.

In 1971, U.S. President Richard Nixon ended the practice of determining the worth of the American dollar (and therefore all other currencies) relative to existing gold reserves. Gone were the days when the standard of valuation for currencies was real and stable insofar as it was tied to gold as fixed-price commodity. What has changed since the abandonment of a fixed exchange rates system? How is the worth of a currency determined now, for instance? As we know, its value “floats” relative to the value of other currencies. No currency can be said to possess intrinsic value any longer. Rather, a currency’s value depends on where, at any given time, investors are shifting their money in response to the perceived strengths and weakness of the world’s leading economies.

Baudrillard asserts that what has happened within the international monetary system is occurring within the micro-realm of the sign. Because images have become detached from their referents, from their equivalent of substantive standards, they are free to commingle with each other indiscriminately: they have entered the “fractal stage.”16 The result is a collapsing of the spaces or gaps that used to separate significations, spaces that prevented a signifier from meaning anything and everything.

Purchasing Lifestyles

The evolution of modern advertising illustrates well the trajectory of sign development within the micro-realm. Once, for example, in order to promote a motor vehicle, advertisers were largely restricted to disseminating vehicle-related imagery and information. The talk then was of smooth rides, horsepower, and great handling.

While advertising has not entirely dropped concerns of this sort, the images that sell vehicles today do not tend to address the thing to which they refer – the vehicles themselves. Rather, what sells is the image of a way of life a particular vehicle is meant to convey. Increasingly, it is lifestyle images that consumers buy into when they make their purchases.

What a vehicle is crafted to signify, in other words, is more meaningful for producers and consumers than the actual product. In general terms, this means consumers purchase items less to satisfy tangible needs than to reflect the kind of person they think they are, and the values they assume they represent. The act of consumption involves matching self-image with product image, or brand. Importantly, in linking brand with self-image, lifestyle advertisingmakes it possible for almost any image to be attached to any product or referent.17 No one would think it inappropriate, for instance, if cockatiels or balloons were the visual focus of an advertisement campaign for jeans. To the contrary, juxtapositions of this sort likely would be praised as creative.

The bottom line is that virtually no image is potentially exempt from being associated with the values that a pair of jeans might be thought to represent. The long term effect of this indiscriminate commingling of signs, says Baudrillard, is that the boundaries that once distinguished domains such as politics, aesthetics, economics, and sexuality have almost entirely dissolved. And when these boundaries disappear everything comes to be seen as equally political, aesthetic, sexual, and so on. This is a problem, Baudrillard contends, because when everything is political, nothing is political; when everything is sexual, nothing is sexual; when art is everywhere, nothing has aesthetic power anymore.18 

In saying this, Baudrillard is not arguing that in the past there were sharp and rigid delineations between these significatory realms. Signs always have had the capacity to cross boundaries, to some extent. However in the old regime, the reality principle acted as a brake to the unfettered circulation of signs. This principle was the force that kept signs tethered to the real world of things and their usage, and today it has all but disappeared. For Baudrillard, the realm of signifiers (the sign universe, or semiosphere) now constitutes its own domain, its own reality. It has overtaken the things that signifiers were intended to represent and we, as consumers, have become consumers of signs.

Anything Can Mean Anything 

Baudrillard’s analysis of the microphysics of value may seem arcane at first glance, but it addresses a commonplace development to which everyone can relate. It helps explain, for example, why reality shows such as Police Women of Memphis and Miami Ink can be found on The Learning Channel (TLC) and no one bats an eye.

The signifier “learning” can be linked with entertainment shows of this order when the meaning of the signifier has been stripped of all former associations linking it with a classical education and is expanded to mean something like “the acquiring of information,” an end these shows and others like it nominally satisfy. It follows from this re-description of the meaning of signifier “learning” that anything can be associated with learning, to which the program line-up on TLC attests. And, as already argued in different contexts, if the meaning of learning is so diluted as to apply to any content, then learning means nothing. That, of course, is precisely the way signifiers and meaning function these days.

Signifiers have lost specific associations with the signified, enabling their “haphazard proliferation,”19 as Baudrillard puts it. So if technology is at war with otherness, if it fights against the forces that separate and distinguish, then the spirit of technology is alive and well in a world where anything can mean anything, where any sign can be used to stand in for any product.

The radical liberation of signifiers has another significant consequence. The free commingling of signifiers allows for an increase in the rate of both their production and circulation, resulting in an “epidemic of value” and meaning.20 For Baudrillard, it is as if the regulatory mechanism that once governed the sign universe has collapsed, resulting in the sign world’s uncontrolled growth. The semiosphere, unlike the natural order, has no checks on its exponential growth, no barrier that might contain the continued eruption of the hyper-real, which is reality’s proxy – the world of signs and simulations. Like a cancer, signs metastasize and swirl about at light speed. The hyper-real sign world is by definition a viral realm. It is spinning and spewing out of control, like uncapped oil well. This excess, Baudrillard is convinced, leads to the system cracking up.21

A Million Deaths is a Statistic

The system implodes through processes of reversal. If overly positive systems of control are vulnerable to evil or blowback, so too is excessive signification susceptible to its own form of reversal. Just as traveling at a high rate of speed can yield the uncanny sensation of stillness, so, Baudrillard says: “Nothing [is] more unreal than the accumulation of facts.”22 This statement is neither outrageous nor unprecedented.

It was Joseph Stalin who once said: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”23 What Stalin meant by this statement is precisely what Baudrillard means by the remark just cited. The perceived reality of a situation is diminished, not amplified, if too much reality is evidenced. Stated more generally, this principle holds that too much of anything undoes that thing, reverses its effect. So an excess of information results in the “undecidability of facts and confusion of minds,”24 an excess of death in moral indifference, an excess of security in immune system failure. Baudrillard sums things up nicely when he says: “Nothing escapes the law of sudden, violent deflation through excess, through overproduction….”25

Consider in this context the Thomas de Zengotita’s description of New York’s Times Square, where the net effect of being bombarded by an avalanche of imagery is strangely unaffecting. As he says:

“Everything is firing message modules, straight for your gonads, your taste buds, your vanities, your fears. These modules seek to penetrate, but in a passing way. A second of your attention is all they ask. Nothing is firing that rends or cuts.”26

Precisely. Image saturation leads to a kind of psychic numbness where inputs stimulate and excite but rarely grab hold or cut deep. Information saturation likewise leads to a kind of intellectual numbness where managing masses of data calls for the development of skills that militate against the capacity for deep reading, once seen as a mark of erudition.

“Doesn’t information kill education?,” Baudrillard asks rhetorically.27 Absolutely. He would emphatically agree with Nicholas Carr that Google is making us stupid.28 The information space we ply is saturated with signs to such an extent that it forces upon us an adaptive posture of indifference, where scanning is a virtue and focused reading a liability. These adaptive strategies may be effective given the media environment we inhabit today, but they work against thinking in the reflective sense of the term. Which helps explains why it is increasingly difficult to get students in universities to appreciate, let alone engage in, the kind of critical thinking educators are so eager to promote.

Technology Motivation

It is time to address the question 0f technology’s motivation.

What does it say about Western culture that we have developed this cult of perfection, where we try to maximize the performance of our technical operations and improve on reality by simulating it? What accounts for this pathological desire for perfection?

The answer lies in the realization, largely implicit, that the ends of life have been actualized. We are committed to the technological pursuit of perfection because we believe the fundamentals of the good life already have been secured. These fundamentals boil down to a single truth – freedom.

The realization of freedom, or at least the means to freedom, is taken to be humanity’s ultimate purpose. For thousands of years, this end remained unrealized because it was thought unrealizable. It was relegated to the status of an ideal; something wished for and perhaps even to be actualized but only after one’s departure from this earth.

The rise of the technological worldview led to the immanentization of this ideal. Freedom was reconceived as a realizable end. Technology (qua hardware) is an offspring of this modern sensibility. So is liberalism. Both are founded on the promise of “real” freedom, one grounded in freedom from the constraints placed upon us by non-human nature, the other in freedom from various strains of human domination. It took centuries to secure both these means of liberation, and now we inhabit a world on the other side of this pursuit. The age of liberation is no mere dream, but a reality.

Having realized the principle of freedom and agreed upon its sanctity, all that remains to be done is to complete the project already begun, to perfect it. The infinitive form of the verb “to perfect” means to bring something to completion, to full actualization. Accordingly, the pursuit of perfection entails finishing the job of “making real” the principle already in place.

In a socio-political context, this means we have entered the era of “more-of-the-same,” where activists work to extend freedom by advancing the cause of liberation along all conceivable fronts. Women, children, prisoners, animals, the earth itself – all have become objects of liberation. The “more-of-the-same” ethic in the technological sphere results in the liberation of the forces of production within the economic domain (in the form of free trade and globalization) and within the cultural sphere (through the radical liberation of the signifier from the signified, resulting in the sign world’s hyperinflation).

What To Do After the Orgy?

Baudrillard ponders the impact of our entry into this new post-liberation era. What do we do now that all there is left to do is work to perfect what already is in place? Baudrillard phrases this concern in provocative sexual terms: What do we do “after the orgy,”? he asks.29 What happens now given that the orgy of liberation is behind us? By having made the ideal a reality, will we not suffer from a kind of interminable cultural malaise?

The Hegelian scholar Alexandre Kojeve pondered a similar question a generation earlier, and came to his own conclusions as to was life would be like at “the end of history.”30 Baudrillard’s take is that relief from the post-orgy doldrums comes in the form of hyper-realizing, through simulation, the reality of our dreams and ideals. When the “end” of life remained an unattained ideal, something to be realized, there was work to do regarding its actualization. But now, given its realization, the only “work” that remains is the re-realization of the orgy of liberation.

Life is relived with a finger permanently placed on the replay button. We relive narratives of liberation in cultural productions, as conveyed in literature, film, and other media forms. We relive the thrill of expanding our powers of control over nature, by relentlessly pushing back the limits of technological mastery. Yet because the goals of liberation are behind us, for Baudrillard this ceaseless acceleration of our recreative powers amounts to acceleration within a void.31 To accelerate within a void is to go nowhere fast, to spin one’s wheels. The imagery suggests that the work of history is over, and that our collective energies have become unemployed, as it were. This, indeed, is Baudrillard’s claim.

There was a time when the “is” was thought distinct from the “ought,” when the real world was perceived as “other” than the hoped for world. In that context, actions were taken to achieve goals external to them, to approach ends that transcend the activity itself. These extrinsic ideals served as means of orienting action, of supplying meaning and direction to one’s actional existence. So it was that the ideal of wisdom, for example, helped frame a life devoted to its pursuit. But, to repeat, what if the ends of life are assumed to have been realized? What happens if the world is as it ought to be?

Life goes on, that is what happens, but in a different mode. With the ends of life realized in principle and increasingly in fact, actions are taken to further realize these ends in practice and to manage those systems that sustain the realization of these ends.

Content becomes redundant because everyone takes for granted, as self-evident, what life’s content is, namely, a life of security, freedom, and material comfort. In politics, the redundancy of content is patently evident. The division between the political left and right amounts to a family quarrel over how to best realize the agreed upon liberal ideal.

Those on the left assert more government participation is needed to deliver peace and prosperity for all, while their right wing counterparts think this same end is best achieved through efforts undertaken within the private sphere. This partisan squabbling is over the most effective means of attaining a settled end, not over competing visions of what constitutes the good life, which has led some critics to identity modern politics with the “politics of exhaustion.”32

The Hell of the Same

One may ask how Baudrillard rightfully can say we live after the orgy, when it is apparent that not everyone partakes in the feast of liberation. In his defense, we must keep in mind his contention that not only the developed Western world, but also increasingly the entire world, identifies the good life with the technological life. This means, to repeat, that the good life is tied to a commitment to improve the technological means necessary to extend the powers of human mastery. A good life is a life devoted to whitewashing, to working toward eliminating the negatives that account for such “evils” as human mortality, poverty, injustice, and warfare. Its actualization notwithstanding, this vision of the good life constitutes the common end toward which we moderns strive.

For those who are averse to systematization, globalization represents the ultimate threat, for it seeks to render the entire planet an object of technological management. It is precisely the growing appeal – the planetary allure – of this singular model of life that exasperates Baudrillard, as it did Voegelin. That the Taylorist model of perfect functionality is not yet perfected, or universally realized, is its saving grace.

For Baudrillard, the ultimate nightmare scenario is not one where inequalities or warfare or waste persist, but one where all the peoples of the world work together to find technological solutions to the world’s problems. The worst of all possible worlds would be realized should technology ever save the day by securing technical solutions to social, economic, and environmental problems.

It would be hellish, not utopian, to live a life where everyone would be one with themselves, with others, with their creations, and with nature. It would be an unmitigated disaster, not a utopian dream realized, to identify with yourself, with others, and with the natural and technological environments. It is not by accident that Baudrillard equates hell with “the hell of the same.”33

But all this talk about perfection is moot anyway, because despite our efforts it is not going to happen.

Globalization modeled after the Western way of life will not prevail, or so Baudrillard suggests. In a Der Spiegel interview entitled, “This is the Fourth World War,” Baudrillard makes it clear that good and evil are “irresolvably bound up with one another,”34 and that this connection constitutes our destiny as a species.

When asked why we Westerners especially have a difficult time reconciling ourselves to our fate, Baudrillard responded by saying what we already know – that the notion of evil (as he understands it) is antithetical to technology’s pursuit of positive or perfectly functional systems. As beings informed by the spirit of technology, we cannot countenance the idea that there exist limits to our powers of mastery.

This incapacity explains why, in his view, we have transformed the idea of evil into the notion of misfortune. For if disease, for example, is thought a consequence of misfortune, of biological or behavioural bad luck, then disease can be remedied. In contrast, disease conceived as a manifestation of evil cannot be so easily exorcized. As Baudrillard puts it: “Evil is the world as it is and as it has been. Misfortune is the world as it never should have been.”35 So evil is aligned with reality and misfortune with a technological reading of the real, a reading that misreads reality. The “real world” of technology is an outgrowth of this misperception, whose social power has captured the planet.

Ethics Versus Advertising

Baudrillard calls globalization an “operational system of total trade and exchange.”36 It is foremost an economic and financial phenomenon, facilitated by advances in transport and communication technologies. However, globalization is not exhausted by this description. It is linked as well with the dissemination of the goods that underpin liberalism, such as freedom and individual rights.37

Baudrillard agrees, but takes issue with whether this is a salutary development. In the process of being globalized, he argues, these values have been transformed into something very different from what they originally represented. Talk of human rights, for instance, Baudrillard dismisses as “advertising” because it promises what it does not deliver. Espousing to liberate people, it only deregulates them.

In saying this Baudrillard is not impugning standards of ethical behaviour. He is a staunch proponent of what he calls universal values. By universal values Baudrillard means “transcendental ideals,” values that reside within the realm of the ideal. Ethics, then, remains for him a matter of self-transcendence. Not a commodity in one’s possession, ethical action is a “permanent task” whose end eludes full realization.

From Baudrillard’s perspective, the work required of ethical action is undervalued today, precisely because the end of such work cannot be readily secured, as can rights. Unlike moral excellences such as generosity or self-sacrifice, rights can be instituted with the stroke of a pen. As Baudrillard acerbically notes, these excellences are treated today as “out-dated and aristocratic values” that “no longer count for anything.”

For Baudrillard, ethical action implies the existence of a categorical distinction between the “idea” of a moral virtue and its realization. The error in human rights discourse is that it presupposes the ideal can be made real – another instance of de-differentiation or de-alienation.

This orientation affects the entire moral tone of our social order. In contradistinction to the humility that accompanies ethical striving, people in self-conscious possession of rights tend to be morally smug or indignant. They assume they fulfill their moral duty by guarding the rights already in their possession, and by contacting engaging the legal-political system when they feel these inviolable rights have been transgressed.

Human rights discourse for Baudrillard is ethics technologized. Charters, constitutions, rights lawyers, human rights courts, and international tribunals constitute components of a complex and interlocking system designed to secure and deliver a product – in this case, justice. It is laid out like a code or a program. Nothing in our understanding of justice as moderns transcends this code. There is no “other” of justice, nothing outside the human rights delivery system by which one could judge the system, marking its progress or decline. It is a wholly immanent or self-referential process, no different in kind from jogging or any other performative function.

Globalization is Technology Perfected

If Baudrillard objects to the totalizing nature of technology because it closes down anything that might transcend the system, then globalization – or technology as a planetary fate – is technology perfected.

However, like any system that strives for perfect functionality, globalization is highly susceptible to breakdown. Indeed, Baudrillard says, “it is completely inconceivable that there would be no violent counter-reaction” to the “mania of globalization.”38 The totalizing spirit of globalization, the sense one must conform to the technological imperative, or else, inevitably provokes the appearance of evil, or the forces of destabilization.

The events of 9/11 are the most dramatic recent expression of this reversal. Baudrillard does not glorify this counterattack: he calls it an act of “madness.”39 Yet for him this act of madness was not ultimately irrational. When viewed at low altitude, from the perspective of its perpetrators and victims, 9/11 was a senseless event. On the other hand, when interpreted from above, from the perspective of “the rules of the game,” 9/11 constitutes an internally generated corrective to a system run amok.

There is something almost inhuman about 9/11 and what it symbolizes that Baudrillard believes reinforces his interpretation of it. The unfathomable aspect of the event remains its motivation. It does not appear, for instance, that the assassins were driven by religious aims, despite what many officials in the U.S. State Department would have us believe. In fact, their actions seem to have no discernible explanation. That the 9/11 terrorists made no demands seems to corroborate the perceived uncanniness of their actions. This apparently reasonless crime has led some observers to conclude that the acts were a manifestation of pure evil. And in a way they were. As Baudrillard asserts, they constituted a simple yet horrific act of rejection, of refusal, a saying “no” to the existing system. Such is the essence of evil.

Thinking Beyond Technology

It was stated at the beginning of this study that Jean Baudrillard’s reading of what Voegelin called “the scientization of society” would help illustrate, among other things, what it means to think about technology. Thinking about technology, we said, means thinking beyond technology, beyond the mode of perception that defines us as moderns. This is a monumental challenge, given not simply the “prestige” of modern science, but that its social power is anchored in a vision of the nature of reality, a perception that has been fully absorbed into the contemporary zeitgeist. We are more deeply embedded in the technological ethos than we think. Technology constitutes a hegemonic power, and is its own advertisement.

Thinking about technology requires opening a space between it and in order to make technology an “object” of thought. If the mantra that alienation is a good thing is taken to heart, then it must be applied to our relationship with technology itself. We need to gain distance on this force in our lives that exists to close distances. However, alienating ourselves from technology is no easy task. It requires that we become apostates of the techno-scientific creed, as Voegelin might say.40 Thinking about technology is a subversive activity. That is why there little of it around these days, in contrast to the ceaseless hype attending technological progress.

In this context, Baudrillard can be seen as a latter-day Socratic gadfly who questions the pieties of his age. He questions the orthodoxy touted by the expertocracy, by business, political, and educational elites, that says what society needs to remain vital is more knowledge, more information, more communication, more proactive and novel approaches to problem-solving, and the like.

Of course, what we are not told in this catechistic refrain is that the thing we need more of is what technology alone defines as worth needing, more instrumental knowledge and the like. Because technology makes minds, it produces a mindset conducive to desiring the kinds of things technology produces. Technology consequently creates within us a blind spot for what it deems useless or unproductive.

To live in the age of technology is to not see or consider what technology excludes from its world picture. Whole realities are excised from the technological vision. This power of exclusion, specifically the power to purge reality of the “other,” is for Baudrillard the form of violence associated with a world founded on the “supremacy of technical efficiency and positivity, total organization, integral circulation, and the equivalence of all exchanges.”41

Putting God Back in His Heaven

Baudrillard’s purpose in writing about technology and its effects is to articulate an alternative worldview to the technological. This alternative world picture situates at its center what technology dismisses and excludes – alienation and otherness. “First there is evil, without question,”42 Baudrillard asserts, by which he acknowledges the crack in the cosmic egg. Mending the crack is risky business, especially for a civilization that has devoted all its energies to creating an Integral Reality. The desire for wholeness, perfection, and completion is destined to be undermined if we act on this desire by reconstructing reality in the image of our ideal.

In line with his indictment of human rights discourse, Baudrillard has no difficulty accepting perfection should it remain within the realm of the imaginary, as an ideal toward which we strive. Perfection per se is not the problem for Baudrillard. In fact, the ideal of perfection, the promise of unity, which he identifies with the good, he calls “the real miracle” of existence, which he identifies further with “God” as a concept.43

The problem lies with the fantastical notion that perfection is realizable. The important point to remember here is that Baudrillard is a self-declared Manichean, an ontological dualist for whom reality consists of two fundamentally opposed principles.44 It accounts for his claim that the pursuit of perfection – the overcoming of otherness – constitutes a “lethal illusion.”45

Accepting, as Baudrillard does, our fate as beings who reside in a world of both good and evil, does not lead to an ethic of resignation. Humanity need not be helpless before the world were this alternative vision to prevail. Only the character of our actions would change. Our actions would be informed by a sensibility that recognizes the ultimate futility of the utopian temptation to “make real” a perfect world. It would abandon the shallow optimism of the technological perspective that accounts for our naïve faith in limitless progress.

In many ways, Baudrillard’s alternative to the technological worldview is reminiscent of the outlook of the ancient Greek tragedians. They, too, respected the idea of limits, especially the limits of human reason. We moderns, in contrast, mistakenly assume reason reigns supreme, and that through the application of a scientific understanding of reality we will become its master.

Albert Camus expressed the same sentiment when he observed that we moderns have exiled beauty from the world.46 We have abandoned balance and moderation in favour of an all out war against everything that resists the technological will to power. The illusion that drives the technological project forward is the myth that reality can be made whole.

Technology, to reiterate, upholds the aesthetic ideal of kitsch. It seeks to make a clean machine out of reality by erasing the gap between our ideals and our capacity to realize them. The result is the death of transcendence. Ours is now a society of “imagineers,” where every idea is transformed into reality and everything “real” the actualization of an idea. In such a society, nothing, no idea, transcends the real. The distance separating our hopes and aspirations and their realization has been closed. Everything we do is taken to the limit of possibility.

Forgetting the Formula for Stopping

The business of utilizing all the resources at our disposal to their fullest so that nothing lies beyond our powers of accomplishment is a particularly technological malady. We are unable to exercise the kind of restraint that would lend us the power not to make use of what can be utilized. To the contrary, everything that can be done must be done, and to the fullest. This runaway ethic sees to it that everything succumbs to the 2.0 fix, where products spawn successive versions of themselves, with each new iteration possessing “more” of what they possessed previously, as if more of anything were an inherent good. It is a blind form of development that Baudrillard attributes to our forgetting “the formula for stopping.”47

Baudrillard relates a vignette that, in his words, “says it all” regarding technology’s penchant for disregarding limits. It involves a man walking in the rain with an umbrella tucked under his arm, who, when asked why he chooses not to open it, replies: “I don’t like to feel I’ve called on all my resources.”48

What Baudrillard finds so instructive about this story is what it says about the relationship between potentiality and actuality, and its significance. Life, he suggests, can be typified by the tension between what an organism has the potential to become and the full realization of this potentiality. Death, conversely, can be understood as the overcoming of the tension between potentiality and actuality. There can be no “beyond” the point of total actualization. So to be alive necessarily means to exist within the horizon of death, to exist in a condition where all of an organism’s available biological resources have not yet been spent.

Applying this characterization to a broader context, a society may be seen as “alive” only to the extent its potential – its ideals and dreams – outstrips society’s powers of actualization. Our technological order flirts with death because it situates its potential within the horizon of the possible. The death Baudrillard speaks of here is not a literal death. He realizes full well, for instance, that technological advances may make it possible one day for humans, in some form or other, to live indefinitely. Rather, the death he believes haunts us is symbolic.

For Baudrillard, the irony of human existence is that being truly human requires being open to the mystery of the world around us, to its alien quality. Paradoxically, we are most ourselves when in the presence of the Other, in the presence of what lies beyond us.49 The problem with technology is that in giving the world a human face, it erases the beyond. The result is a diminishing of the very thing technology seeks to enhance. Rather than raise our stature as human beings, techno-science advances the forces of post-humanization.

Resisting Post-Humanization

Baudrillard stands alongside Voegelin as a guardian of the human. Both see in scientism and in the world it has spawned the seeds of our post-humanization.

The French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty captured the full import of this damage when he said that if, as a result of scientism, we become the “manipulandum” we think we are, then we “enter into a cultural regimen in which there is neither truth nor falsehood concerning humanity and history, into a sleep, or nightmare from which there is no awakening.”50 Baudrillard’s report from the other side of the power orgy offers us the broad outlines of what the post-human world looks like. This world, we have seen, is typified by its involution. Everything points to itself. Everything has the mark of the human upon it. Nothing exists on the other side of the human. It is one thing to live in a world where increasingly the realm of artifice substitutes for reality, but quite another to lose sight altogether of the distinction between the reality we have created for ourselves and the whole of reality.

If Baudrillard is right, as I think he is, we have already ventured far down the first path. But have we arrived at a point where the fantasy upon which “the technological” rests has effectively occluded the real? Are we poised to enter a sleep from which there is no awakening? Is the spell cast on us by the totalizing power of technology itself total? If we take seriously the concerns expressed by Baudrillard, ignoring such queries is a sure way to ensure that one day questions of this order will no longer be asked.

 

Notes

1. Included among some of the more prominent proponents of the instrumentalist understanding of technology are James Carey, Andrew Feenberg, Arthur M. Melzer, and David Sarnoff.

2. Martin Heidegger is the leading voice in the charge against technological instrumentalism, but there are others, including Hubert Dreyfus, Jacques Ellul, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Paul Virilio, and Langdon Winner.

3. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 131.

4. This general argument is detailed in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which is an elaboration of Carr’s article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The article first appeared in July/August 2008 edition of The Atlantic magazine.

5. Alva Noë argues forcefully against the well-entrenched notion that human consciousness lies strictly within the confines of the brain. In seeing the mind, through the body and bodily senses, as actively attuned to the world around it, Noë’s thesis dispels claims that would neatly separate consciousness (and its capacities) from its worldly environment – including its technological environment. See Noë’s Out Of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (New York: Hill and Wang), 2009.

6. This quotation is taken from Cullen Murphy’s August/1997 article, “The Real Thing.” It is archived on The Atlantic online website, and can be found at: http://www.theatlantic.com/past/ docs/issues/97aug/real.htm

7. The Quirit cartoon was retrieved from the website: http://images.paraorkut.com/img/funnypics/images/m/microsofts_flight_simulator-12068.jpg

8. Sometimes referred to as “molecular simulation,” molecular modeling is most commonly applied in the fields of chemistry, biochemistry, and biophysics. A good introductory text on the theme of molecular modeling is Tamar Schlick’s, Molecular Modeling and Simulation (New York: Springer), 2002.

9. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 1.

10. Ibid., 3.

11. One of the best and most accessible introductions to semiotics remains Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 1972.

12. In film, the thirst for realism is evidenced in the special effects push of recent years, of which performance capture and 3D are the most prominent examples. Interestingly, director Steven Spielberg, whose Jurassic Park broke new ground in film realism, is on record saying that the special effects phenomenon has gotten out of hand, and threatens the integrity of story-telling in film. As he said in a recent Empire magazine interview: “I frankly think that special effects are becoming too special. There are too many special effects in all these movies today. It means that the movie starts on a special effect, ends on a bigger special effect and the middle is the same special effect.” The August 1, 2010, interview is available online at: http://www.faqs.org/periodicals/201008/2094683601.html

13. This and all subsequent references to Thomas de Zengotita are extracted from “The Numbing of the American Mind: Culture as Anesthetic,” which first appeared in Harper’s Magazine, April, 2002. The article is available online at: http://www.csub.edu/~mault/Numbing%20of%20american%20mind.htm

14. Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. James Benedict (London: Verso, 1993), 5.

15. Baudrillard notes, in this regard, “just as the ‘dialectic’ no longer operates between the substance of signs and the signs themselves . . . [e]conomically, this process culminates in the virtual international autonomy of finance capital, in the uncontrollable play of floating capital.” See Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production, trans. Mark Poster (St. Louis, Missouri: Telos Press, 1975), 129, fn. 9. A good overview of recent historical developments within the international monetary system is outlined in Barry Eichengreen’s Globalizing Capital: A History of the International Monetary System, 2nd edition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 2008.

16. The Transparency of Evil, 5-6.

17. Naomi Klein has written one of the most popular polemics assailing our contemporary image culture. See her No Logo (Toronto: Knopf), 2000

18. The Transparency of Evil, 9-10. Baudrillard coins terms like “the transpolitical,” “the transsexual,” and “the transaesthetic” to denote that politics, sex, and art effectively disappear when they extend beyond their own proper bounds.

19. Ibid., 5.

20. Ibid. 5.

21. The full passage from which this sentiment is extracted, reads: “We are no longer in a system of growth, but of excrescence and saturation, which can be summed up in the fact that there is too much. There is too much everywhere, and the system cracks up from excess.” See Baudrillard’s The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, trans. Chris Turner (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 191.

22. Ibid., 192.

23. Evidence suggests this quotation was not originally Joseph Stalin’s. Nonetheless, in re-delivering the line, Stalin effectively made it his own.

24. The Intelligence of Evil, 193.

25. Ibid., 194.

26. Thomas de Zengotita, “The Numbing of the American Mind: Culture as Anesthetic.”

27. This quotation is taken “Baudrillard on the New Technologies: An Interview with Claude Thibault, March 6, 1996,” which is available at: http://www.uta.edu/english/apt/collab/texts/newtech.html

28. See footnote 4 above.

29. “After the Orgy” is a chapter title in The Transparency of Evil where Baudrillard addresses our post-historical condition in explicit response to this leading question. However, all of Baudrillard’s mature writings can be interpreted as explorations of life at the end of history, even though he is averse to using the expression.

30. The notion that liberation, the perceived goal of historical action, has been realized is what is meant by “the end of history,” an expression derived from Hegel’s analysis of history in The Phenomenology of Spirit and popularized by Hegel scholars such as Alexandre Kojève and Francis Fukuyama. If Baudrillard is critical of the ethos of liberation and its historical realization, then by definition he stands opposed to the notion that freedom constitutes the proper end of human existence.

31. Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil.

32. See Dominic Pettman’s After the Orgy: Towards a Politics of Exhaustion (Albany, NY: SUNY Press) 2002.

33. The expression “the hell of the same” is given full treatment in an eponymous chapter in The Transparency of Evil.

34. The “This is the Fourth World War” interview first appeared in Der Spiegel in 2002. It was reprinted, along with an introduction by Gary Genosko, in the “International Journal of Baudrillard Studies,” Vol. 1, No. 1 (January 2004). It is available online at: http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/spiegel.htm

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. The overview of Baudrillard’s understanding of ethics in a global context is gleaned from his discussion in “This is the Fourth World War.” See footnote n. 34.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid.

40. It is worth observing that in disenchanting the religious worldview from which it sprung, the new secular technological paradigm retains the former’s messianic or eschatological spirit. Implied in technology as a belief system is the notion that technology possesses a redemptive power. Its mythological power is drawn from the belief that technology can save humanity from its vices and from the fate of the real, as Voegelin brought to our attention in “The Origins of Scientism.” Arguably, all that changes with the advent of technology is the location of the promised paradise. With technology, the “end state” is brought down to earth, or made real. In the context of his critique of modernity, Voegelin speaks of the same phenomenon as the “immanentization of the Christian eschaton.” See his The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1952), 121. Baudrillard, clearly, is not a Voegelinian. However, there is a sense in which they share the same concerns over the future of humanity. For both, “the life of the spirit” appears jeopardized. Voegelin addresses this concern in more overtly spiritual terms, Baudrillard less so. Nonetheless, they both seem to agree that humanity is diminished to the extent the human drama is played out in wholly immanent terms.  Neither, in short, is a humanist. Humanism invariably leads to post-humanism, to totalitarian systems of control that subsume the individual to the needs of the encompassing order. The Other replaces God in Baudrillard’s scheme of things, but   serves the same function of keeping humanity attuned to what transcends it.

41. Integral Reality, we have seen, is the term Baudrillard uses to describe the endpoint of the technological movement to perfect reality through systematization. This integral reality is articulated in the cited quotation, which is drawn from Baudrillard’s “The Violence of the Global,” published in CTheory, May 20, 2003.

42. Jean Baudrillard, “This is the Fourth World War.”

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil, 132.

46. Albert Camus, “Helen’s Exile,” in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage, 1955), 134-138.

47. Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 102.

48. Ibid., 101.

49. For Baudrillard, it is precisely the alien quality of reality that supplies it with a seductive power. Its incompleteness draws us out and into the world. In contrast, the virtual world of the screen is ‘all there’ before our eyes, and its hyper-real gleam manages to only fascinate. Baudrillard sums up the distinction between reality and virtuality by saying: “We once lived in a world where the realm of the imaginary was governed by the mirror, by… otherness and alienation. Today that realm is the realm of the screen, of interfaces and duplication, of contiguity and networks.” See The Transparency of Evil, 54.

50. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 122.

 

This is the second of two parts, with part one available here.

Gil GermainGil Germain

Gil Germain

Gil Germain is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Prince Edward Island. He is author of Spirits in the Material World: The Challenge of Technology (Lexington Books, 2009).

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