Thursday, December 22, 2005

Bumming out with Baudrillard

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth--it is the truth which conceals that there is none.

The simulacrum is true.


To dissimulate is to feign not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one hasn't. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But the matter is more complicated, since to simulate is not simply to feign: "Someone who feigns an illness can simply go to bed and pretend he is ill. Someone who simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms" (Littre). Thus, feigning or dissimulating leaves the reality principle intact: the difference is always clear, it is only masked; whereas simulation threatens the difference between "true" and "false", between "real" and "imaginary". Since the simulator produces "true" symptoms, is he or she ill or not?


Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself. Jean Baudrillard: Simulacra and Simulation

To me, reading a new author is like trying on new shoes. The initial impression of seeing the shoe leads me to try it on in the shop and perhaps purchase it but it is only after walking in the shoes for a period of time that I can make a final judgement. I found the recent experience of "trying on" Baudrillard a bit like wearing shoes that didn't fit right at all after being broken in but looked appealing in the shop. It reminded me of my time first reading Nietzsche. While I found the observations quite penetrating, the theme of incoherence promoted by both authors expressed itself in dense prose. Of the two authors, Baudrillard's prose is far more advanced in its embrace of incoherence. To express the difference in art terms, Nietzsche's prose reminds me of Dali's surrealism while Baudrillard's prose recalls Jackson Pollack's abstract expressionism. The point of Baudrillard's prose, it sems to me, is that there is no point.

The angst of both authors stems, in part, from a similar cause, a loss of faith in divinity. In Nietzsche's case that of God as seen through the eyes of Luther and in Baudrillard's case, that of God as seen through the eyes of Marx, i.e. the cause which will bring the inevitable revolution of the common man. A cursory glance at Nietzsche's biography hints that his loss of faith in God might be related to the loss of his father, the last in a line of Lutheran Ministers, at the age of 4. In Baudrillard's case, the failure of the tumultous 60s and 70s to produce the forecast revolutionary overthrow of the aristocracy may well have led him into the endless swamp of radical idealism.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the term, idealism in philosophy, crudely stated, is the view that the essence of the universe is, in a sense, thoughts in the mind. This is contrasted with empiricism which asserts that the essence of the universe is material. Early in Baudrillard's writing career, as noted, he had a more materialist and determinist view. Like billard balls on a pool table, the cue ball, according to Marx, had already been struck and all that was needed was to wait for the balls to fall in their pockets. When the ball didn't fall, i.e. when capitalism didn't implode, Baudrillard looked for a cause, came across the work of McLuhan and went, a ha, (really, just like that, a ha) it's the media lying to the people, forever cutting them off from the truth. The later Baudrillard, with this theme ever more firmly entrenched in his mind, became, I believe, a worshiper of the power of incoherence. This might explain his dissatisfaction with The Matrix, a film based on his Simulacra and Simulation. In Baudrillard's vision there is no real world, the simulations of what we suspect is real hides its absence. It is, I believe, a mental frame from which there is no logical escape.

While I disagree with his world view, simply stated because I believe 1) that there is a material universe 2) that our sense of this material universe is mediated and not directly perceived 3) that one can come to a coherent view thereof, a position which used to be called believing in God, I find some of his observations and metaphors quite insightful. Consider this view of America's exploding debt, nothing like a disappointed ex-communist to point out the absurdities of the fiat money system:

An electronic billboard in Times Square displays the American public debt, an astronomic figure of some thousands of billions of dollars which increases at a rate of $20,000 a second. Another electronic billboard at the Beaubourg Center in Paris displays the thousands of seconds until the year 2000. The latter figure is that of time, which gradually diminishes. The former figure is that of money, which increases at a sky-rocketing speed. The latter is a countdown to second zero. The former, on the contrary, extends to infinity. Yet, at least in the imaginary, both of them evoke a catastrophe: the vanishing of time at Beaubourg; the passing of the debt into an exponential mode and the possibility of a financial crash in Times Square. In fact, the debt will never be paid. No debt will ever be paid. The final counts will never take place. If time is counted [si le temps nous est compte], the missing money is beyond counting [au-dela de toute comptabilite]. The United States is already virtually unable to pay, but this will have no consequence whatsoever. There will be no judgment day for this virtual bankruptcy. It is simple enough to enter an exponential or virtual mode to become free of any responsibility, since there is no reference anymore, no referential world to serve as a measuring norm.

The disappearance of the referential universe is a brand new phenomenon. When one looks at the billboard on Broadway, with its flying figures, one has the impression that the debt takes off to reach the stratosphere. This is simply the figure in light years of a galaxy that vanishes in the cosmos. The speed of liberation of the debt is just like one of earth's satellites. That's exactly what it is: the debt circulates on its own orbit, with its own trajectory made up of capital, which, from now on, is free of any economic contingency and moves about in a parallel universe (the acceleration of capital has exonerated money of its involvements with the everyday universe of production, value and utility). It is not even an orbital universe: it is rather ex-orbital, ex-centered, ex-centric, with only a very faint probability that, one day, it might rejoin ours.

That's why no debt will ever be paid. At most, it can be bought over at a bargain price to later be placed back on a debt market (public debt, national debt, global debt) where it will have become a currency of exchange. Since there is no likely settlement date, the debt has an incalculable [inestimable] value. As long as it hangs like that over our heads with no reference whatsoever, it also serves as our only guarantee against time. Unlike the countdown which signifies the end of time, an indefinitely deferred debt is the guarantee that even time is inexhaustible... And we really need a virtual time insurance since our future is about to dissipate in real time.
Global Debt and Parallel Universe

One phrase of his in particular sticks out when I consider the current economic situation, the precession of simulacra, i.e. the assumption that the model is more true than that which is modeled. The effect of this assumption in the mind is to disregard real world phenomenon that diverges from the model. Some readers might be familiar with Schopenhauer's view on truth: All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. I would add a few steps from Baudrillard. Once a truth is seen as self-evident the decay begins.

These would be the successive phases of the image:
1. It is the reflection of a basic reality.

2. It masks and perverts a basic reality.
3. It masks the absence of a basic reality.

4. It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

As William James argued, truth happens to an idea in the mind. During the Schopenhauerian phase, if you will, of increasing acceptance of certain ideas as true, cultural awareness is expanding. In the Baudrillardian phase, what I call the false prophet phase, the sense of these truths become exaggerated and eventually so absurd that there is no meaning left, but like Pavlov's dogs, some still ascribe to them truth. Then reality bites and the cycle begins anew.

Consider the decay of the US monetary system or so I see it, in Baudrillard's 4 phases of the image metapor. 1) Money, it is thought, should be a reflection of a basic reality, thus some convertibility standard for all who use the money. 2) The stability of money having been conditioned in the mind of the people, their ability to convert their paper for Gold is removed, although some vestigal conversion is possible on the nation state level, thus the Gold exchange standard. 3) even the vestigal conversion is now removed because there simply isn't enough Gold to pay off the debts, thus Nixon's closing of the Gold window. 4) You have a guy like Greenspan who embraces the same obscurantism as Baudrillard answering questions to Congress like this:

But as I have testified here before to a similar question, central bankers began to realize in the late 1970s how deleterious a factor the inflation was, and indeed since the late 1970s central bankers generally have behaved as though we were on the gold standard. And indeed the extent of liquidity contraction that has occurred as a consequence of the various different efforts on the part of monetary authorities is a clear indication that we recognize that excessive creation of liquidity creates inflation, which in turn undermines economic growth. So that the question is: Would there be any advantage, at this particular stage, in going back to the gold standard? And the answer is: I do not think so, because we are acting as though we were there.

Would it have been a question, at least open, in 1981, as you put it? And the answer was: Yes. Remember, the gold price was $800 an ounce. We were dealing with extraordinary imbalances; [
note: as opposed to now Alan. Even the man you are about to cite, one of those Central Bankers who, according to you, learned, claims that circumstances are as intractable as he can remember, i.e. at least as bad as 1981] interest rates were up sharply; the system looked to be highly unstable; and we needed to do something. Now, we did something. In the United States, Paul Volcker, as you may recall, in 1979 came into office and put a very severe clamp on the expansion of credit, and that led to a long sequence of events here, which we are benefiting from up to this date. So central banking, I believe, has learned the dangers of fiat money, and I think as a consequence of that we have behaved as though there are indeed real reserves underneath the system. - Alan Greenspan July 20, 2005

How an objectivist can possibly believe that "central banking" can learn, as opposed to individual central bankers, is beyond me. Paul Volcker has learned, and Arthur Burns has learned, but they aren't calling the shots anymore, Greenspan is and Bernanke will be. I'd bet big money that Ayn Rand would shout "collectivism" at the top of her lungs on reading that one-central banking learning. I guess they have invented artificial intelligence after all.

More puzzling is this reference to liquidity contraction as a sign that monetary authorities recognize that excessive creation of liquidity creates inflation. What liquidity contraction, that which occurred under Volcker? So, by this logic, if my grandfather saved his money because he believed it was better to be a saver than a debtor then even though I don't save I know
it is better to be a saver than a debtor? I get as lost in Greenspan's tautologies to nowhere as I did reading Baudrillard until I realize they share the same post-modern view-there is no truth, never was. Thus Greenspan can assert with a straight face that even though there are no real reserves under the system, the purpose of which was in part to try to ensure that imblances could be liquidated using those reserves, central bankers are behaving as if there were, by letting those same imbalances rise unchecked well beyond any hope of liquidation at anything near current prices, and few cry foul. The simulacrum of a value holding medium of exchange, call it Marx's commodity fetishism on steroids, that is the US$ is true in its own right, or so Greenspan would have us believe....and many do, but not, I believe, for too much longer.

Getting back to the cyclicality of truth notion, consider an earlier version of Baudrillard's descent into skeptical madness, that of his countryman Descartes. In the heuristic that made him famous, Descartes opined:

SEVERAL years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation, if I desired to establish a firm and abiding superstructure in the sciences.

In other words, if you find that you have believed bullsh*t in the past, fear not, you can rebuild your sense of the world assuming you come to believe that you are in charge of your beliefs, not the media or anyone else, and that there is an external world which is understandable in some sense by man, even though you might from time to time get confused. In contrast to bumming out with Baudrillard, I call this drilling down with Descartes. It is a positive approach and one I would expect to find in the intellectual growth phase of a culture. So it is with Descartes, who published his Meditations in 1640, as knowledge of the external world among European inteelectuals was expanding rapidly.
All of which is to argue that you can interpret the phenomenon noted by Plato in his metaphor of the cave, that most people walk around in a general state of varying confusion, at least two ways. You can take the Cartesian view and go, oh well, at least I can improve my own sense of the world or you can take the Baudrillardian view, throw in the towel and declare there is no truth. Me I prefer to drill down with Descartes.

Cogito ergo sum

ps Why do I think that Blink was a such a good introduction to this discussion on Baudrillard? It is the blink, or cursory inspection where one looks only for a few signs of a thing, that confuses. Adherence to that first impression cements the view in mind. In theory, the GDP measure was an attempt to quantify progress or contraction as some basis por policy. In practice, over time, that the data were seen to rise became far more important than actually seeing what was going on in the economy, a view which won Friedman a Nobel Prize. Now, as Gorbachov famously said in reference ot Soviet economic data, paraphrased, the data is always good. Blink and you might miss it.


Dude said...


This post finally reveals my answer to your question, which is not to imply that you will find it so, although you may, what do you do when you discover that the system is corrupt?

Ruby said...

Dude! Check out this link.
Bob Dobbs, McLUhan's student, and archivist after he died, on Baudrillard's virtual economy.

He's pretty out there, but so is Baudrillard. Give it a chance!

And when he gets to the Bootians part, just take a deep breath.

Now, I don't agree with EVERYTHING Dobbs is saying, but he has given my understanding of media ecology an exponential leap. I am actually able to read Baudrillard now.