Baudrillard, Hyperreality, and Marxism

Through his concept of hyperreality, Baudrillard throws a wrench into productivist theories of capital. And his throwing of the wrench is simultaneous with his throwing in of the towel, while Steven Best and Douglas Kellner spend chapter three of their book trying to resuscitate the corpse of Marxism.[1] True, they concede, a limited productivist metaphor may not be totally applicable to late capitalist phenomena, but this deficiency does not immediately discredit Marxism. They say that hyperreality is the extremity of Baudrillard’s otherwise balanced insight into simulacrum. Its fault is that it is incompatible with residual forms of domination, which are still active. To contrast with Baudrillard’s fatalism, Best and Kellner offer the figure of Guy Debord. Debord is a prime example of a theoretician who saw the same cultural phenomenon as Baudrillard (compare The Society of the Spectacle to The Ecstasy of Communication) and was dismayed yet not (initially) overcome by the morass. The inspirational insight that Debord shared with Best and Kellner is that moments of resistance are possible and desirable, something that Baudrillard denies by establishing a hyperreal world.

However, Baudrillard establishes a strong case: he claims that we have (hyperreal) freedom that in effect keeps us in a state of bondage. Because of the self-referentiality of the system of signifiers (Saussure), late capitalist consumption is never sated on use-value, but rather, it is oriented on signs themselves. Specifically, “what Marx considered as the non-essential part of capital, such as advertising, media, information, and communication networks, has become the ‘essential’ sphere.”[2] We live in a world where there is more information, where this information is more accessible, and where our lives are consequently more heavily structured by this information. However, there is less meaning in all of this information and in this world. Before the total eminence of the simulation, there was an essence that one could know; now this is impossible. It is now impossible to confront, let alone resolve, the tension between illusion and reality. The tension is now inseparable from every social interaction and it is unsolvable. This is hyperreality.

True, new media may be alienating at times, but the flow of information is not necessarily one-way (unilateral is Debord’s term). The web is not totally dominated by advertisements, yet. Moreover, what would un-mediated communication look like? It seems as if we have always dealt with the world through mediation. If, in the most likely case that media is “unilateral,” why not at least experiment with alternative medias? In the present circumstances, postmodern pessimism is understandable, but hasty capitulation really betrays an optimism: a hope in nothingness. This is the point that Best and Kellner want to make about Baudrillard’s “quietism.” To them, “…political economy and semiology should be synthesized rather than opposed.”[3] Debord, again, is the paragon of this spirit.

However, Baudrillard is resistant to this appeal; “capital no longer corresponds to the order of political economy; it uses political economy as a simulation model.”[4] Also, “it is always a false problem to want to restore the truth beneath the simulacrum.”[5] The concept of hyperreality and and political economy are antithetical and neither Baudrillard nor Best and Kellner will budge. But what if Baudrillard’s project has some redeeming qualities to Best and Kellner? InSymbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard claims, “the only strategy in opposition to a hyperrealist system is… a science fiction about the system returning to destroy itself, at the extreme limit of simulation, a reversible simulation in a hyperlogic of destruction and death.”[6] Here Baudrillard still plays with contingencies that would undermine the code of hyperreality; he is not foreclosing all options yet. Furthermore, he always refers to an “us” when he writes about the resistance to the present system. Presumably he finds companions in Lyotard, Deleuze and the Situationists, although because of the resiliency of hyperreality, he generally finds the theories put forth by these writers to be lacking in liberatory potential. Perhaps hyperreality is an intentional fiction…

In his brief section on Baudrillard, Madan Sarup concludes that “Baudrillard’s position leads to moral and political nihilism.”[7] We may ask then, what is the point of Baudrillard’s nihilism? Why write books that persuade others that there is no meaning anymore? One possible explanation could be that Baudrillard had always been a Situationist, as he disclosed as late as 1991 in an interview.[8] Although the quote is without context in the reading, it might mean that Baudrillard’s hyperbole is aimed at some subversion of the postmodern order. And if this is the case, it is arguable that he does indeed believe in a spectacle to subvert. This, ironically, will save the real because the spectacle is an illusion, behind which is the truth, presumably. Hyperreality is an uneasy concept, even for Baudrillard.

But this explanation is incomplete. Even within the same chapter in Best and Kellner’s book we find contradictory statements from Baudrillard. There seems to be no way of rescuing Baudrillard from his nihilism if he is also decidedly “viral and metaleptic at sixty.”[9] Best and Kellner must still grapple with the problems conjured up by Baudrillard. When he says, “the hyperreal represents a much more advanced stage insofar as it manages to efface even this contradiction between the real and imaginary. Unreality no longer resides in the dream or fantasy, or in the beyond, but in the real’s hallucinatory resemblance to itself.”[10] Best and Kellner argue that there is still a reality that capital obscures through the media; not everything is revealed as is evidenced by he Rodney King fracas. Once certain evidence was made available, an unstructured and spontaneous event of resistance occurred. One can only assume that there are more evidences hidden away from public view, despite and probably enabled by the proliferation of transparency in the banal spheres of social life. Arguably, it is through the commodification of celebrities, sports, and lifestyles that certain, more pressing, issues are obfuscated. Likewise, it is because the Gulf War was constructed by the media that the military industrial complex could perpetuate its oppression of ordinary civilians. In reply to Baudrillard’s “illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible,”[11] Best and Kellner say that “self-referentiality does not entail hyperreality.”[12] This means that even if it is difficult to get past the play of signs, it is impulsive to therefore declare that illusion is impossible. Rather, illusion is prevalent and we should not precludes all strategies that allow one to resist illusion.

[1]   Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (New York: The Guilford Press, 1997).

[2]   Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, 2nd ed. (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 1993), 164.

[3]   Best and Kellner, 105.

[4]   Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster, 2nd ed. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 124.

[5]   Ibid, 185.

[6]   Ibid, 126.

[7]   Sarup, 168.

[8]   Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death (London: Sage, 1993), 181. Found in Best and Kellner, 104.

[9]   Best and Kellner, 96.

[10] Baudrillard (2001), 148.

[11] Ibid, 180.

[12] Best and Kellner, 112.

One response to “Baudrillard, Hyperreality, and Marxism

  • Baudrillard, Hyperreality, and Marxism « Rekolektiv:

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