THEORY BEYOND THE CODES
Being -- Thinking -- Writing Jean Baudrillard
Rachel K. Ward and Jeremy Fernando
The following essays are a dual response to Jean Baudrillard's text "Radical Thought," ("La Pensee Radicale." Sens & Tonka, eds., Collection Morsure, Paris, 1994) first published in English for CTheory in 1995.
Rachel K. Ward
The most powerful instinct of man is to be in conflict with truth, and with the real.
--Jean Baudrillard, "Radical Thought," 1995
The following text addresses some apparent contradictions of the work of Jean Baudrillard. He consistently confronted the dialectic of reality and illusion, negating their incompatibility. He reconciled the two through concepts of disappearance and destiny, with the disappearance of one, the other yields to destiny. His value set -- paradoxical truth, inevitable destiny -- was incompatible with the highly subjective, postmodern establishment of his era. It was only through veiling his intentions with provocative contemporary topics that the elite appluaded him. In Seduction (1979), Baudrillard reveals his method when citing Nietzsche, "We do not believe the truth remains true once the veil has been lifted." Bauldrillard was one of the last to work behind the curtain. His radical assertion of truth was intentionally obscured which led to considerable misunderstanding and criticism of his larger oeuvre.
What more can the king's successor do than what has already been done?
-- Ecclesiastes 2:12
In a frequently cited portion of Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Baudrillard refers to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: "The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth--it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true." Neither the word "simulacrum" in any variation, or the word "truth," appears in Ecclesiastes. The book is considered a book of wisdom similar to Proverbs, to which Baudrillard simply adds. But it is in this gesture that we find the key to understanding Baudrillard. The phrase is ambiguous, that truth conceals that there is no truth, or by another reading, that there is no copy. This duplicity of truth and its image is the paradoxical unity of reality and illusion. The two are for Baudrillard insuperable and together are the basis of "Radical Thought," his 1995 text for CTheory.
1) of, relating to, or proceeding from a root
2) very different from the usual, extremist
The 13th century Latin word "radical" originally meant "from a root," and now also means "extremist," through either a fundamental adherence to "a root," or a severe expression of it. "Radical love" for example, can be the word in its original sense by an absolute commitment to unconditional affection toward others. It can also be a call for fundamental or revolutionary changes to contemporary adaptations of love's meaning. The apparent double sense is resolved by seeing that both are equally radical, or of equal force, because neither form compromises love's meaning. "Radical" then could be said to be an absolute stance on integrity of meaning. Baudrillard makes this extreme word choice at a historical moment when absolutes were dismissed.
Since the publication of Baudrillard's "Radical Thought," the amount of communication has increased but the state of intellectual thinking is relatively the same. "Today, it is difficult," explains Baudrillard, "to be more apathetic and more indifferent than the facts themselves. The world in which we operate today is apathetic, indifferent to its own life, without passion, and deadly boring." Our indifference has perhaps only increased with our digital abundance. With this climate, the noblesse oblige is radical thought, or as I expand it here -- activated thought via being. But Baudrillard writes "our point is not to defend radical thought. Any idea that can be defended is presumed guilty. Any idea that does not sustain its own defense deserves to perish. But we have to fight against charges of unreality, lack of responsibility, nihilism, and despair." We fight against false assumptions about reality, breaking the false dialectic of reality and illusion. If as Baudrillard proposes, "language and writing are a matter of illusion," then the best thought aims for reality, not about reality but in becoming. This means that the significance for thought is not in its reception or even its legacy, but in its capacity for transfiguration.
No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.
-- John 15:4
There is almost no greater security than genuine connectedness to physical and symbolic roots. Perhaps also nothing better explains your singularity than the very roots by which you have grown. Your roots are your essence, displayed in all your expressions. We live together, however, in a moment when cutting roots is common and creating a new identity is increasingly the norm. Through deconstruction we cut down the shared historical and ideological roots. Baurdillard states, "Only fracture, distance and alienation safeguard the singularity of this thought." It is that fracture, the cutting away of the extensions of the Enlightenment, that re-exposes the root. While some have treated this fracture with eschatology, mourning the loss of meaning, others see it as the return to truth.
Baudrillard explains, "Writing aims at a total resolution, a poetic resolution as Saussure would have it, a resolution marked by a rigorous dispersion in the name of God." This phrase is followed by, "If the thought enunciates an object as a truth, it is only as a challenge to this object's own self-fulfillment." This is no accidental reference for Baudrillard. Writing --in the name of God-- challenges self-fulfillment. In the play of this text, the notion of intentionality and destiny are not only evoked here but essential to truth as meaning.
Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed.
-- Martin Luther, The 95 Theses, Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, 1517
Radical thought in "the name of God" is the basis of radical theology. In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses to the Castle Church in Wittenburg Germany, opposing the Roman Catholic Church practice of allowing members to purchase pardons for sins. In democratic capitalism we purchase treasures on earth and seek pardons from taxes. Baudrillard stated that we are "in the shadow of the Enlightenment and of modernity, in the heroic ages of critical thought. But that thought, which operated against a form of illusion -- superstitious, religious, or ideological -- is substantially over." It is over not because what we have cut away, superstition, religion and ideology, cease to exist but rather because we no longer care enough to oppose them.
The prevailing thought du jour is an always already state of exemption from faith or any other metaphysical accountability. Agnosticism is fashionable and with it, indifference. With radical thought however we return to the assertion of absolute meaning and thus the cultural theory forbidden -- absolute truth. Baudrillard writes, "here the very definition of radical thought: an intelligence without hope, but a fortunate and happy form." Radical thought is willing acceptance of truth, with joy, something also antithetical to contemporary thought.
We have elsewhere observed, that however subtle the evasions devised by philosophers, they cannot do away with the charge of rebellion, in that all of them have corrupted the truth of God.
-- John Calvin, Institutes on the Christian Religion 1, Part 9, 1536
Baudrillard began "Radical Thought," with Stevenson's quote, "the novel is a work of art not so much because of its inevitable resemblance with life but because of the insuperable differences that distinguish it from life." Baudrillard implies that philosophy is a work of art, not so much in its resemblance to truth but because of the insuperable differences that distinguish it from truth. Philosophy is a language game, and ideology and theory are its contemporary matches. During his lifetime, Baudrillard was never accepted as an author of philosophy and cultural theory, in some cases due to his dogmatic undertones, at times due to his denial of human agency. These same attributes describe radical Protestant John Calvin. Calvin, like Baudrillard, produced a prolific amount of writing. In Part 5 of Calvin's evangelical "Institutes of the Religion" he expresses: "In the present day not a few are found who deny the being of a God, yet, whether they will or not, they occasionally feel the truth which they are desirous not to know." Calvin's assertion of truth was based on the root of scripture, "Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their colour, sweet and bitter of their taste." Yet the word is not alone, he explains "Our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgments, or reasons; namely, the secret testimony of the Spirit."
Baudrillard said little more than "God exists," and that "language is illusion." But importantly to Calvin, scripture is not language, thus not illusion. Scripture and Spirit are truth, not by transcendence but by co-presence in the same way Baudrillard saw the unity of reality and illusion. Baudrillard writes "radical thought comes neither from a philosophical doubt nor from a utopian transference (which always supposes an ideal transformation of the real). Nor does it stem from an ideal transcendence...it is a non-critical, non-dialectical thought. So, this thought appears to be coming from somewhere else." The non-dialectical truth, that breaks the assumptions of reality and illusion, originates "somewhere else."
The truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in a way that it catches you.
-- Søren Kierkegaard
If we are able to learn from Baudrillard we can take radical thought into radical being. Radical being is Abraham's will to sacrifice Isaac. His behavior makes no sense to reason amidst values of fatherhood, family, honor and justice. His thought is as Baudrillard stated -- not in hope, but happy in form, as truth as action. The root of faith then is truth that precedes action and follows it, so to reconcile non-sense with the sense that follows. Baudrillard explains, "radical thought is at the violent crossing point of sense and non-sense, of truth and non-truth, of the continuation of the world and the continuation of nothingness."
Though "radical thought bets on the illusion of the world," suggests Baudrillard, it "bets" that there is more to the illusion. Radical thought relies on truth in absolute form and thus both real and intangible to our conditional world. Truth cannot be fully understood; thus we connect to one another by recognizing the absence of tangible truth, or the sense of nothingness. Baudrillard writes, "The absolute rule of thought is to return the world as we received it: unintelligible. And if it is possible, to return it a little bit more unintelligible. A little bit more enigmatic." Breaking the false dialectic of reality and illusion is not by defending reality. This was the failed strategy of the Enlightenment. Rather by betting on illusion, and its ultimate disappearance, the truth presents itself. Gravity for example, does not reveal itself through thought or descriptions. Only by releasing our human grasp on some thing and entering into the space of unknowing can an object fall and gravity be revealed.
What a man desires is unfailing
To Baudrillard, the ultimate prize is "when an idea disappears as an idea to become a thing among other things. That's where it finds its completion. Having become con-substantial with the surrounding world, the idea no longer has to appear as an idea ...A vanishing of the idea through a silent dissemination." The objective of radical thought then is to decompose into the soil but survive in being. The ultimate prize is when understanding is lived. If the "instinct of man is to be in conflict with truth, and with the real," then the destiny of man is to live at rest with truth.
Baudrillard does not ask for a production of radical thought but that we allow radical truth as being. This implies that thought is not the end. We are already free of an outdated dialectic of reality and illusion and can live enigmatically with a truth that overdetermines both. This is not the end-game of illusion, which will always be interwoven with reality, but rather a possible end game of postmodenrity.
Elliptical thought ...
on laughter, smiles, and such things.
When I asked why he was smiling, he replied, 'what else can I do ...'
(as told to Wolfgang Schirmacher by Marine Dupius)
The smile of one who knows. Not only the joke, but that all there is to the joke -- a joke -- is the laugh. And what causes the biggest laugh is when the joke is on himself, his self; what causes the biggest outcry is when in the laughter comes the realisation that the joke is on him who is laughing.
At this point, one is almost instinctively drawn to the question of "what exactly is so funny?" -- the drive to get to the root of the matter. Here, one cannot forget the echoes of origins that can be heard in radical, even as it also constantly disturbs, ruptures, alters the fundamental, with its call for change, upheaval. And we ask this in spite of the warning that the urge to analyze is a siren's call; where reality is attempting to seduce us with its empty promise of meaning, knowing, metaphysical comfort.
One should never forget that laughter is both disciplining, and also the rupture of control (Bergson). Each time there is laughter a certain symbolic order is being strengthened, and weakened, at exactly the same moment. And in a world that is jaded, more indifferent than we could ever be, this out-break is the only thing we have. Outbreak: beyond control -- and terribly infectious. This is not the laughter of the cynic, the one who stands outside of all things and looks in, but the all-consuming laughter that draws one into the very situation that is being laughed at. Where the laugh and the person are the same -- this is the belly laugh of Ubu Roi. And all that can be known of the laughter is that one is laughing. Laughing not because one knows more, but because one realises that all one knows is merde.
This is the tension that he teaches us -- this is the tension he leaves us with.
In the early morning of 7 March 2007, as I'm lying in bed in Singapore, a text message from Tombie Rautenbach arrives. It reads: "Baudrillard is dead ..." How does one respond to that call ... how does one respond to the smile that he left with us?
A return to his thought. Perhaps in an instance like this, one has no recourse but to return the call, to redial the number that one took for granted would always be there. However, ever since one first tuned into the call of his thinking -- any thought -- one has already opened oneself to the eventual absence of the thinker, the death of the thinker, his death. As Jacques Derrida reminds us: "to have a friend, to look at him, to follow him with your eyes, to admire him in friendship, is to know in a more intense way, already injured, always insistent, and more and more unforgettable, that one of the two of you will inevitably see the other die." (The Work of Mourning, 107)
How to still smile -- how to smile any longer?
Here though, it may be helpful to recall the reminder that "radical thought is never depressing ... A moralizing and ideological critique, obsessed by meaning and content, obsessed by a political finality of discourse, never takes into account writing, the act of writing, the poetic, ironic, and allusive form of language, the play with meaning."
In smiling, is meaning precisely what we are playing with, playing at even?
In a way Abraham's answer to Isaac's question of "where is the lamb for the holocaust?" with "my son, God himself will provide the lamb ..." (Genesis 22: 7-8) must have come with a smile, through the form of a smile. What else could he have said? "You are the lamb" would have been unnecessarily honest, harsh, cruel; "I don't know" would have been worse. And in spite of himself, Abraham turned out to be correct. Perhaps in that moment, he demonstrated a true understanding of communication -- that responding is more important that the actual content of the response. That meaning is, at best, a by-product -- an emergent property -- of language, and nothing more. This might just be why Babel is a gift from God and not a curse: without the ambiguity, unknowability, of communication -- of language itself -- we would never have to say more than one thing to another: the only reason we can have a conversation -- continually communicate -- is due to the fact that we are never quite sure what the other is saying. As Jacques Lacan teaches us, "the very foundation of interhuman discourse is misunderstanding." (Seminar III, 184)
I would like to think Abraham offered Isaac a reassuring smile, a small chuckle even, as he responded to him. For, that would have been the perfect response to his name (Yitzhak: laughter).
Perhaps all I could have done when receiving that call was to smile a wry smile.
In writing about him, and more precisely about a memory of him, is there always already a betrayal? All we can ever do is inscribe -- all inscription is -- based on a memory. And since one has no control over forgetting -- it happens to one, is always from beyond one -- this means that every memory is always already haunted by the possibility of forgetting. Thus, each sentence that one -- I -- attempts, struggles to complete is written in futility; for, the spectre of forgetting always already flutters within ... within each line lies a potential ellipsis ... whether one sees it or not is perhaps irrelevant.
Dial tone: ...
Pulse phone ... dialling for a pulse ...
Perhaps it is only these searching pulses, these tones, which prevent us from leaping over, completely, into death. A sentence is often difficult, if not impossible, to repeal. And if graphien is on the side of death, what maintains the bios is perhaps the unknowability that continues to beep.
And here, we should not forget the pact made between Alexander Graham Bell and his brother Melville whilst working on an early prototype of the telephone: whoever died first was to try and make contact with the other. What the other had to do was to listen for the call of the other. And pick up the phone.
And even as we are attempting to bear witness -- for what else are we doing by attempting to speak of something we cannot know about, attempting to speak the impossible -- we are faced with the problem of either letting him speak for himself, or attempting to speak for him.
If we are content to speak for him, we risk effacing him, speaking over him, as if he never spoke; silencing him.
If we only allow him to speak for himself, citing him, quoting him, placing those vampire marks around his words (even in full fidelity to him), we are still enacting a violence onto him -- after all, every citation is always already out of context, a borrowing of the voice of the other. This might even be a worse violence to his voice: appropriating it as if it was his words, whilst divorcing ourselves from the responsibility that I am the one that is giving voice to his already silent voice.
Perhaps when faced with this Beckettian paradox where I cannot speak yet I must speak, I have no choice but to speak as if I can; I have no choice but to allow him to speak as if he can -- I have to vampirize him, and let him speak through me, as if that is even legitimate to begin with.
The beauty of writing lies -- perhaps writing only lies -- in the always un-written, the un-writeable; the always imagined, yet outside the realm of the imaginable. This is both the strength of writing and forever its weakness; trying to capture but always failing in representation. The scribbles on a page, the blobs of ink that appear, speak -- the phantom of the voice seems to constantly resurrect -- of something; an event, an occurrence. But the event it speaks of is always already dead; the word speaks not of it, but of a trans-substantiated event, the ghost of the event -- there is necromancy at play.
I started a joke, which started the whole world crying,
but I didn't see that the joke was on me, oh no.
I started to cry, which started the whole world laughing,
oh, if I'd only seen that the joke was on me.
I looked at the skies, running my hands over my eyes,
and I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that I'd said.
'Til I finally died, which started the whole world living,
oh, if I'd only seen that the joke was on me.
(The Bee Gees)
In a golden jacket with mirrors no less.
So, even as we write of him as "him" -- as "he" -- we can never be sure to whom we are referring; we can never be sure if "he," or "him," corresponds to anything; least of all to the author of "Radical Thought." And here, it might be helpful to recall the notion of the ellipsis, and to tune into Werner Hamacher and his teaching, that rather than being an aberration to writing, the ellipsis is "the rhetorical equivalent of writing: it depletes, or decompletes, the whole so as to make conceptual totalities possible. And yet every conceivable whole achieved on the basis of ellipsis is stamped with the mark of the original loss." (Premises, 74)
Perhaps this is the eternal joke that he has played on us: by compelling us, calling us, with his work to write about him, but always foregrounding the fact that it is impossible to write about him (by teaching us that all signs do is refer to themselves, simulate themselves, and seduce us into plunging ourselves into meaning).
But, once again, it is not as if it is he who is laughing at us. It is us realising that we are laughing at ourselves, realising that there is no way to write without first laughing at ourselves.
All we can do is to write about him as if we can.
Even as we are attempting to mourn, the question that continues to haunt us is whether there is a subject, or even object, that one mourns -- whether one is mourning, can only mourn, the very impossibility of mourning itself. Since all mourning is based on a memory, a remembrance, a particular recollection, the spectre of forgetting is never far from it. Hence, one can never be sure of what, who, it is that one is attempting to mourn. Faced with this position where one must but one cannot, the only thing that one can do is mourn as if one can. The question that can never be exorcised is whether one is mourning the person as such, or only a particular version of the person, a reading of the person. And in reading another, even if one is attempting to respond to the other, one can never know if one is reading accurately, correctly; in fact, one may always already be re-writing the person. However, it is not as if there is any difference between the name of the one whom we are reading, and the name we are potentially rewriting. And it is this indistinguishability between names that permeates the abode of mourning. And here, we should momentarily retune our frequencies to Jacques Derrida and his attempt to mourn Roland Barthes. He laments: "Roland Barthes is the name of someone who can no longer hear or bear it. And he will hear nothing of what I say here of him, for him, to him, beyond the name but still within it, as I pronounce his name that is no longer his ... But if his name is no longer his, was it ever? I mean simply, uniquely?" (The Work of Mourning, 45). In uttering the name "Roland Barthes," one can never be certain -- Derrida himself can never be certain -- if he is responding to a name, or re-writing that name even as he is attempting to respond to it. And it is these dual names -- the constant duel between the names -- that continually haunts the possibility of mourning itself. For, one has no choice but to choose between these names, but even in choosing, it is not as if one even knows which name one is choosing.
Writing as mourning; naming "him" as if we could even begin to mourn him; in my attempt to mourn.
Quite possibly, our only hope lies in tapping into the echo of Abraham's response to a call from the unknown: by tuning in to a name. After all, it is quite possible that the smile was not of one who had given up, but rather of one who realised that he was chosen (y'hohanan: Jehovah has favoured): where "what else can I do" is not a statement of futility, but a recognition of destiny. Perhaps the only appropriate response would be to graciously chuckle along.
Perhaps what is radical -- if one is momentarily allowed to echo that term -- is the mourning of the life itself. For, this is precisely what philosophy rejects, disavows. As Martin Heidegger famously said of Aristotle, "He was born. He thought. He died." A thinker's life is mere anecdote. A mere fragment.
But as he teaches us, "there is no finer parallel universe than the detail or the fragment. Freed from the whole and its transcendent ventriloquism, the detail inevitably becomes mysterious. Every particle wrested from the natural world is in itself an immediate subversion of the real and its wholeness. Like the fragment, it only has to be elliptical. It only has to be an exception. Every singular image can be reckoned exceptional." (The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, 103)
In remembering the life of the person -- "him" -- even, and especially, as fragmentary as our memory, recounting, writing, we might potentially catch a glimpse at the very root of radical thought.
Life ... pulses ... *ring ring* ...
Even as it might always remain veiled, a secret, from us; elliptical ...
His smile: the perfect joke. Where all we can do is laugh -- never forgetting that laughter both ceases, stops, whilst it punctures, ruptures, opens. And more importantly, infects everyone.
For, what is at stake is the event.
What can be more fragmentary, elliptical, outside of reason, than laughter? Laughter as the question that remains a question; that opens a question that retains its radicality as question. In this way, laughter "retain[s] for the event its radical definition and its impact in the imagination. It is characterized entirely, in a paradoxical way, by its uncanniness, its troubling strangeness -- it is the irruption of something improbably and impossible -- and by its troubling familiarity: from the outset it seems totally self-explanatory, as through predestined, as though it could not but take place." (Intelligence of Evil, 123-30) One either recognises -- responds -- to a joke or not; a joke can never be explained; the moment it is brought back under reason, the joke is over.
And in this world where reality sutures every possible event into itself, into its own integral reality, all we can do is laugh -- not at, with, but just laugh. And that is its own event.
The smile of the Cheshire cat; where all there is, is the smile ...
... and that is all we can attempt to remember.
Authors Rachel K. Ward & Jeremy Fernando were students at The European Graduate School where Baudrillard last taught. Ward addresses "Radical," and Fernando "Thought," to reach larger conclusions about Baudrillard's work and legacy.
Rachel K. Ward is a writer based in Paris. She focuses on the visual culture as meta-language. She is the author of All for Nothing (2010) and has written for The New York Times, Art Review, V Magazine.com and others.
Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School. He works in the intersection of literature, philosophy, and the media; is the author of Reflections on (T)error, Reading Blindly, and The Suicide Bomber; and her gift of death. Exploring other media has led him to film, art, and music. His work has been exhibited in Seoul, Vienna, Hong Kong, and Singapore. He is also the editor of the thematic magazine One Imperative.
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