The clanging of the tocsin, which is particularly loud in Jean Baudrillard’s work published after 1976, sounds ominous to many readers. Despite the fact that this clamour is familiar enough to philosophers by now – thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger and a large number of French philosophers anticipated him in this respect – the apparently satanic pleasure with which Baudrillard enjoys connecting extreme events with one another, while denying their very happening – the first Gulf War and the year 2000 – and the paralysing cul-de-sac which results, also gets their goat. Despite his adoption of what are often absurd positions, it is hard to resist the impression that he brings to light alarming aspects of (post)modern life.
The critics are mainly concerned with the aporetic character of Baudrillard’s work and the absence of a new critical socio-theoretical perspective. See: Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard. From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. (Oxford: Polity Press, 1989), p. 155/215. Henceforth cited as MPB. His oeuvre is considered the absolute bottom line of critical theorising. Baudrillard’s hypercritical attitude has become ‘hypocritical’, he undermines both his own and his opponents position: Even worse, in adopting a devious and pointless transpolitical position he seems to destroy any political position.
Thus at the end of Fatal Strategies he asks “these fatal strategies, do they exist?” And when he concludes that “there is perhaps but one fatal strategy and only one: theory” (FS 181) Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies. Trans. Philip Beitchman & W.G.J. Nieslochowski (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990). Henceforth cited as FS. and goes on to claim that “the hypothesis of a fatal strategy must itself be fatal, too” (FS 190), he inevitably raises the question of whether philosophical life is still possible after this book. It looks suspiciously as though Baudrillard’s aporetical nihilism only reproduces the meaninglessness of our Western culture in the rhetorical movements of his texts.
I shall read Baudrillard’s work against the background of a philosophical discussion of the status of the metaphor and its function within post-metaphysical thought in order to gain some insight into the theoretical terrorism of his ‘fatal theory’. His comment that “it’s what tears beings away from the reign of metaphor to return them to that of metamorphoses” (FS 142) can only be understood, in my opinion, in terms of a dual problematic. The first strand, primarily concerned with the de(con)struction of metaphysics, begins with Nietzsche and passes via Heidegger to Derrida. The second originates in the semiologic theory of De Saussure and is transferred to the Lacanian transformation of the psychoanalytic tradition, in which metaphor and metonymy play an important role. In connecting Baudrillard’s thesis that metaphysics is dead and metaphor no longer has any persuasive force to these traditions, I hope to show that he in fact presupposes the effectivity of the metaphor rather than denying it. I shall begin by following his train of thought as far as possible, before offering a possible interpretation of his concept of metaphor and connecting his thesis to the two traditions mentioned above. This results in a critique of his notion of the transition from metaphor to metamorphosis. The main target of this critique is the use of a rhetorical figure: irony. Baudrillard does not assign this linguistic strategy to subjects, but to so-called pure objects. Baudrillard is not using the concept ‘object’ here in a conventional sense. He does not see it as an objectified thing inextricably linked to the subject, but as an elusive entity, which disconnects subject from objects. There are no indications as to whether he is here referring to the Kantian Ding-an-sich or to Heidegger’s Ding. It bears a closer resemblance to Lacan’s ‘chose’. This curious anthropomorphisation may provide readers with a first impression of the ambiguous production of signs to which they are exposed and by which they are moved.
1. Hyperreality: the end of reality
What does the world according to Baudrillard look like? Superficial, deprived of any deeper significance, at least within visual culture it gives the impression of a collage-like video clip in which images are thrown together in unusual combinations which incite individuals to act: “Things have found a way of avoiding a dialectics of meaning that was beginning to bore them: by proliferating indefinitely, increasing their potential, outbidding themselves in an ascension to the limit, an obscenity that henceforth becomes their immanent finality and their senseless reason” (FS 7). Images and objects lead a life of their own in our multimedia visual culture. But to Baudrillard the world of science, characterised by an immense accumulation of theories that sometimes contradict one another, has also been deserted by truth. For him theoretical hyperactivity is evidence of intellectual despair rather than a steady accumulation of truths. At best, theories produce illusions or simulacra that only suggest that there is an ‘underlying’ reality.
The need for the accumulation of truth is part and parcel of the Enlightenment project, which envisaged the emancipation of the modern subject – the citizen, the worker, and by now practically all marginalized groups from homosexuals to migrants – by means of a insistent demythologisation. In opposition to the idea that in realising the True and the Good, the subject demythologises and objectifies in order to transform destiny into hi(s)tory, Baudrillard announces that the subject’s dialectically motivated strategies of attributing meaning are no longer adequately met by the objects. The myth of the autonomous subject has been overtaken by the irony of fate that, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, has proven the subject to be a new myth.
“However, this is not because no meaning is intended” (FS 41). Baudrillard acknowledges that there is nothing wrong with this will for truth. This craving, however, is the result of a yearning for spectacle rather than for subjectivity. Things innocently lead us astray. The subject falls prey to their fatal strategies. It is exposed to their deadly irony: “But nothing prevents us from assuming that we could obtain the same effects in reverse. (…) The world is not dialectical – it is sworn to extremes, not to equilibrium, sworn to radical antagonism, not to reconciliation or synthesis. That is also the principle of Evil, as expressed in the ‘evil genie’ of the object, in the ecstatic form of the pure object and in its strategy, victorious over that of the subject” (FS 6).
The covetous subject takes commodities to extremes, the knowing subject takes truths to extremes, and the ethical subject takes values to extremes. The subject can no longer appear except within this unfettered consumption of products, theories and values, commodified as lifestyles. According to Baudrillard, the Enlightenment desire to make everything visible resulted in a transparent, obscene world with a pornographic quality – “the obscenity of what is entirely soluble in communication” (FS 68) – in which every substantial criterion for distinguishing reality from appearance has disappeared. Transparency is the end of transcendence. Baudrillard presents us an image of a world focused on proliferation. The final image is a network of events branching out chaotically without any origin or purpose. These events have no purpose because they can be employed for every imaginable purpose. What is at hand and what probably disturbs the reader so much is this ‘unbearable lightness of being’.
Baudrillard’s thesis on the disappearance of the real in chains of simulacra is heavily dependent on a number of historical assumptions. In Symbolic Exchange and Death Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London/Thousand Oaks/New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1993) Henceforth cited as SED. he diagnoses the loss of the subject – “the mental equivalent of the gold-standard” (SED 23) – from a political-economic perspective, argumenting that gift and sacrifice have become impossible, because these are immediately fed back to the circulation of signs and simulacra. Here Baudrillard proposes the following periodisation in relation to our dealings with obejcts: first a period of imitation (before the French Revolution), followed by a period of serial production in the industrial era as a result of which originality gradually dissolves, and finally a period of simulation in a post-industrial phase, in which reality disappears in and through an immanent logic of the circulation of commodities. The mode of production is ruled by the code of production: “once it (capital, HO) became its own myth, or rather an indeterminate, aleatory machine, something like a social genetic code – capital no longer left the slightest opportunity for a determinate reversal” (SED 60).
Unlike Slavoj Zizek Baudrillard rejects the concept of revolution. See: Henk Oosterling, “Radical Mediocrity as Revolutionary act. On ‘Authentic Fundamentalism’ of Inter-esse” in: Silverman, Hugh & Erik Vogt (eds.), Über Zizek, (Vienna: Kant + Turia, 2004). See: https://www.henkoosterling.nl/texts-ho.html At most we are seduced by this simulacrum. Postmodern man, mesmerised by simulacra and signs, has ended up in a non-alienated hyperreality: “Even the historical illusion which maintained the hope of the convergence in the infinite of the real and the rational, and thereby a metaphysical tension, is dissipated: the real has become the rational. The conjunction has been realised under the sign of hyperreal, ecstatic form of the real” (FS 71). With this implicit reference to what Hegel envisaged as the final stage of history, Baudrillard indicates that we left this end behind us. Our current transpolitical existence implies that the end of time is already behind us: “We are already beyond the end. All that was metaphor has already been materialised, collapsed into reality” (FS 70).
2. Transpolitics: excess and the end of politics
In The Transparency of Evil. Essays on Extreme Phenomena Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil. Essays on Extreme Phenomena. Trans. James Benedict (London/New York: Verso, 1993. Henceforth cited as TE Baudrillard returns to the historical presuppositions of his ‘microphysics of simulacra’(TE 5) and adds a fourth: “the fractal (or viral, or radiant) stage of value”(TE 5) as a result of which “the possibility of metaphor is disappearing in every sphere”(TE 7). The microphysics of power has changed the very notion of politics. Within this constellation the silent majorities function as incomprehensible and elusive, i.e. pure or fatal objects. They are flooded by signs in order to ‘check’ them out. Objectified by the media as an ‘audience of spectators’ politicians try to transform them into voters, being unaware of the fact that they just give in to the seduction of the masses that lack the modern social bonds. Authorities can only consolidate their power by giving in to the temptation of these fatal objects and simulate a ‘final’ object that they try to manipulate as the real thing: “If only for the sake of change, it would be interesting to conceive of the masses, the object-masses, as possesing a delusive, illusive, allusive strategy, corresponding to an unconscious that is finally ironic, joyous and seductive.” (FS 99)
All this has lead to a transpolitical situation: “This paradoxical state of affairs, which is simultaneously the complete actualisation of an idea, the perfect realisation of the whole tendency of modernity, and the negation of that idea and that tendency, their annihilation by virtue of their very success, by virtue of their extension beyond their own bounds – this state of affairs is epitomised by a single figure: the transpolitical…” (TE 9/10). The excess of the political is revealed as and in terrorism, kidnapping and suicide bombing, mediatized to a degree that no longer allows a genuine change, being already overdetermined by the circulation of signs.
Total politicisation turns into indifference, and complete socialisation in the welfare state inevitably implies an excess that will end the social too. ‘One-dimensional man’ has transcended his alienation: not in surpassing it but by total surrender to the simulacra. This is Baudrillard’s farewell to the (neo-)Marxist dialectical heritage of alienation and emancipation, oppression and liberation, suppression and revolution. Critical theory has had its day. ‘Theoretical’ contact with the hyperreal is only possible if “finally for eternally critical theory an ironic theory is substituted” (FS 92).
Our behaviour, according to Baudrillard, is not governed by our needs and desires, but by the seduction of objects. The work of art is an exemplary case. Sociological and aesthetical variations of this theory of seduction had already been put forward by others, but in Baudrillard’s work it gets a quasi-metaphysical tonality. In radicalising Baudelaire’s aestheticism the dialectical imperative becomes ecstatic: “potentiate what is new, original, unexpected, in the commodity – for example, its formal indifference to utility and value, the pre-eminence given to circulation” (FS 117).
Desire is not the cause but rather the effect of the consumption of commodities, values and truths. Individuals gain social esteem and prestige in and through the consumption of sign values. Consumption socialises, individualises and finally constitutes individuals as desiring subjects: consumption of truths transforms them into knowing subjects and consumption of values into ethical subjects. The ironical theory is no longer aimed at use or exchange value, but at the sign value of objects or at sign objects. In an aporetic twist it includes itself in this total circulation. Theory and practice are no longer exchangeable, because they are both swallowed by the circulation of sign values.
3. Simulacra: the end of meaning
The exclusive emphasis on the sign value is an indication of Baudrillard’s radical semiotic view. He understands the world as a network of appearances, but he defines these as “signs that do not let meanings filter through” (FS 60). Saussurian semiology still conceived a sign as a split entity, as a result of which it could convey meaning. Given the equivalence between an external form – the acoustic, visual signifier – and a concept – the ‘mental’ signified F. de Saussure, Course in general linguistics. Trans. Roy Harris (London: Duckworth, 1983), p 24. – meaning resulted of the minimal differences between signifiers and signifieds. Lacan radicalises this principle of difference in applying these semiological principles to Freudian psychoanalysis. In Lacan’s psychoanalytical writings the claim is substantiated that constitutive meaning (in the last instance: the Unconscious) evaporates in the dynamic circulation of the signifiers. Where Freud still considers the Unconscious to be represented through processes of condensation and displacement, for Lacan the link between signifiers (dreams, quirks, symptoms or slips of the tongue) and the signified (the Unconscious) is dissolved. (E 260) Jacques Lacan, Écrits I. (Paris: Editions du Seuil Points, 1966). Henceforth cited as E. (my translation )
We can only gain access to the Unconscious through language. It has become a linguistic effect. In an imaginary fixation of signifier and signified the Ego nevertheless still thinks that it can grasp its inner truth. In denying the ongoing process of signification this fixation can become pathological. These traumatic effects are resolved in the therapeutic treatment by making the patient aware of the effects of the Unconscious as the Other in the Ego, that is always manifested in language, or better: in the symbolic order. Fixation of an imaginary unity and displacement in the symbolic order correspond to two effects of the dream work: respectively condensation and displacement. Given the fact that ‘the Unconscious is structured like a language’ Lacan detects these effects in two rhetorical figures: metaphor and metonymy. (E 263) The therapeutic impact of the work of psychoanalysis consists in the liquidation of the metaphorical fixation in and through language, and in the reactivation of metonymy.
Baudrillard’s frequent use of Lacan’s work however does not stop him from criticising Lacan’s concept of desire as an activity centred on the Ego. Moreover, the implied metaphorical fixation still presupposes the alleged reality of desire. Baudrillard’s view of the world as a flux of appearances as signs cannot but favour metonymy over metaphor.
4. Pataphysics: end of metaphysics, end of metaphor
In settling accounts with the notion of ‘desire’ and ‘truth’ Fatal Strategies lines up within a Nietzschean tradition that is out on destroying, i.e. de(con)structing metaphysics. For Nietzsche truth, previously seen as the epistemological correspondence between judgement and things, is nothing but “a moving army of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphism, in short a sum of human relations that poetically and rhetorically has been sublimated, transposed and beautified…” Friedrich Nietzsche, “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im aussermoralischen Sinne”, in: Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe. Band 1, Colli/Montinari (Hrsg.). (München: De Gruyter, 1980), p.880. (my translation . Heidegger and Derrida, however, have pointed out that his emphasis on the metaphor still implicitly presuppose a criterion for the distinction between reality and appearance, and therefore remains within the realm of metaphysics. In order to overcome the distinction between ‘metaphorics’ and metaphysics Heidegger rethinks truth in the light of its initial meaning of unconcealment: aletheia. (BW 127/132/140) Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings. Trans. David Farrell Krell (London/Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978). Henceforth cited as BW. Truth is now conceived of as a differential ‘Ereignis’ or event.(BW 350)
In elaborating the Heideggerian project, Derrida criticises Heidegger’s notion of presence that still haunts ‘aletheia’ as a result of which Heidegger implicitly refers to the metaphysical discourse. According to Derrida Heidegger’s concept of Being still presupposes presence and reality, though no longer situated in the subject, but in Being. Only the retrospective labour of a deconstruction of a textual ‘corpus’ gives a voice to the Other that was expelled to the philosophical limbo, i.e. the margins of philosophical discourse. Derrida skirts this problem by locating the tension between appearance and being in the effects of différance. This ‘quasi-concept’ is constituting presence and reality rather than presupposing these. Despite the differences between Heidegger and Derrida, both acknowledge that their recourse to a constantly receding ‘archè’ still constitutes a quasi-metaphysical tension – a split, be it an ontological difference or one that is “older than Being itself” (D 26)Jacques Derrida, “Différance“, in: Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass (London etc: The Harvester press Limited, 1982). Henceforth cited as D. that enables signification.
Baudrillard seems to have eliminated this tension: as a result of the convergence between the real and the rational that has taken place in hyperreality, fatal theory bites its own tail. Fatal theory is at best hypocritical, realising complicity with ‘the perfect crime’, i.e. the murder of reality: “The perfect crime is that of an unconditional realisation of the world by the actualisation of all data, the transformation of all our acts and all events into pure information”(PC 25). See: Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime. Trans. Chris Turner (London/New York: Verso 1996), Henceforth cited as PC. Criticism becomes a tactic of simulation, a tautological game with appearances. Once the metaphysical tension is solved, what is left is pataphysical ambiance, i.e. “the tautological and grotesque perfection of the truth processes” (FS 71). Pataphysics is a science of the hyper-simulation of an exact, true and objective world with universal laws, including the ravings of those who interpret it in accordance with these laws.
As an option it is a large mouthful to swallow, but what Baudrillard aims at is a ‘post-metaphysical’ science that no longer needs metaphorisation. Heidegger already claimed that “when one gains the insight into the limitations of metaphysics, ‘metaphor’ as a normative conception also becomes untenable”. And since “the metaphorical exists only within metaphysics” Martin Heidegger, The Principle of Reason. Trans. Reginald Lilly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1991), p. 48. the end of metaphysics inevitably entails the destruction of the metaphor. The metaphor no longer refers to an ‘original’ context or concept. When Derrida claims that every question concerning the ‘real’ meaning of the metaphor immediately generates new metaphors, this regression unfolds the quasi-metaphysical tension of différance. In deconstructing fossilised metaphors he opens a ‘supplementary’ margin that constitutes the dialectics between being and non-being. (D 215) See also: Jacques Derrida, “Le retrait de la métaphore”, in: Poésie 7, (1977/1978), p. 103-126.
Baudrillard is less cautious in formulating his assessment of the metaphor. Metaphors are simulacra, which simulate or dissimulate a Hinterwelt. For him the end of metaphysics cannot but imply the end of the metaphor.
5. From moral desire to immoral seduction
In Fatal Strategies the critique of the metaphor also bears on desire. Lacan is not the only butt. Thinkers of difference like Foucault, Irigaray, Deleuze/Guattari and Lyotard are also criticised. Notwithstanding their ‘unmasking’ of Freudian – and Marxist – metaphors with their ontological and socio-political implications, their deconstruction of the phallocentric, subject-oriented desire leads to a new ontology: ‘the body and its pleasures’, ‘femininity’, ‘schizo-desire’ and ‘corps-pensée’. Baudrillard claims that they have been led astray by their own dissimulation. In my opinion, Foucault’s ‘nominalist’ approach, his emphasis on the ‘strategic’ character of his new concept of power, and his introduction of the ‘truth game’ are open to an entirely different interpretation, which refutes Baudrillard’s criticisms. See: Henk Oosterling, De opstand van het lichaam. Over verzet en zelfervaring bij Foucault en Bataille. (Amsterdam: SUA, 1989), p. 124. See: https://www.henkoosterling.nl/opstand.html In his opinion, they still believe in the production of the ‘real’ and desire, even if it is masked as pleasure. In spite of their critique on the subject there is still a productive agency implied. To his opinion they are not sufficiently aware of their own ‘theory’ produced simulacra and as a result overlook the fact that the even their critique of the Freudian metaphors is still embedded in the metaphor of productive desire. According to him it is not the moral desire of the deconstructed subject – Foucault’s ‘ethos’ – but immoral indifference of the pure or fatal objects – Foucault’s ‘subversive body’ as a simulacrum – that determine collective behaviour. Baudrillard rejects sexual difference as an ontological garantee: “It’s a mystification, in effect, to think of sexual difference as original difference, the source of all differences, which would be only metaphors for this one” (FS 106).
In Seductions Jean Baudrillard, Seduction. Trans. Brian Singer (London : MacMillan, 1990). Henceforth cited as S. he arguments how the ‘truth’ of desire is simulated in and by pornography in order to save a moral option on sex. Ecstatic pornography in hyperreality is beyond obscenity because there is no longer a theatrical ‘scene’ behind the spectacular flow of simulacra. Nevertheless it leads the spectator to believe that “there must be good sex somewhere, for I am a caricature. In its grotesque obscenity, it attempts to save sex’s truth” (S 35). This obscenity has nothing to do with repressed desire or acting out, but with over-representation: “It is the transparency of the social itself”(FS 64). Because pornography overdetermines the whole discourse, we’d better call this condition ‘pornological’ instead of pornographic. The pornologic simulation of sex still suggests that there is normal sex which defines the ideal utility value of the body, a value which can be ‘liberated’ as the ultimate truth of our desire. However, turning everything into sex after the so-called sexual revolution has led to the absolute meaningless of this pornological, i.e. transsexual discourse. Inasmuch as Western desire is typically phallocentric, the male, “as subject, can play only the game of the metaphor”, while the women, “she, abjuring all metaphor, becomes the fatal object which drags the subject down to his annihilation” (FS 121). The ‘femme fatale’ is beyond the metaphor: she literally gives her lover the eye that, to his own saying, has seduced him.
Desire clings to genuine love in order to discover its ultimate truth in unveiling its secret. Seduction thrives on the disappearance of the truth in a secret that can no longer be revealed. The secret is “the rule of the game of appearance” (FS 65). Given the earlier periodisation, once there must have been an illusion that seduced us to discoveries, but in the current situation “this minimal illusion has disappeared for us”(FS 65) Over-represented by the media, appearances with their sign value have become pure objects that do no longer convey any meaning. “To disappear is to disseminate oneself in appearances”. These appearances slip into one another without mediation. They metamorphose. Or in terms of The Ecstasy of Communication: “The power of metamorphosis is at the root of all seduction. (…) This is the Law of appearances. The body of metamorphosis knows neither metaphor nor the operation of meaning”(EC 46). Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication. Trans. Bernard & Caroline Schutze. (New York: Semiotext(e), 1988) Henceforth cited as EC.
6. Metamorphosis: immediacy beyond metaphors
Seduction “tears beings away from the reign of metaphor to return them to that of metamorphosis. It is what tears beings and things from the reign of interpretation to return them to divination. It is an initiatory form, and it restores to signs their power” (FS 142). Metaphors are turned into simulacra and simulacra pile up in and as chains of signs. Baudrillard understands this as a process of ‘metamorphosis’. In Crowds and Power Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power. Trans. Carol Stuart, (Hamburg: The Viking Press, 1963) (CP) Although Baudrillard does not cite explicitly to this work, he regularly refers to Canetti with approval. Elias Canetti describes metamorphosis – in English translated as ‘transformation’ – as “the talent for transformation which has given man so much power over all other creatures …” (CP 337). He associates this talent with initiation rites in tribal communities. Within these communities symbolic exchange in the light of sacrifices and gifts is still possible. Metamorphosis is practised in these collective forms of dissipation: “Only those with a right to it can share in the metamorphosis which is handed down as an inheritance” (CP 379). Metamorphosis is thus not subject to the will of the individual.
As such, according to Canetti, metamorphosis is not triggered by identification or empathy: “Imitation relates to externals; there must be something before one’s eyes, which is copied. (…) Nothing is revealed about the inner state of the imitator” (CP 369/70). Instead, metamorphosis is a transgressive event: it takes place on the boundary between inner and outer, between being and appearance. It is in the disguise or mask that the movement of metamorphosis is temporally fixed on the boundary: “… the general significance of the mask is: it is a conclusion; into it flows all the ferment of the as yet unclear and uncompleted metamorphoses which the natural human face so miraculously expresses, and there it ends” (CP 375). In Baudrillard’s perspective the mask should not be understood as a metaphor, but as a simulacrum.
But what does this mean in our demythologised world? In the modern, secular world metamorphoses only occur in situations in which individuals lose their grip on things. That is why Canetti refers to psychopathological phenomena, such as major attacks of hysteria, which “are nothing but a series of violent transformations for flight. The sufferer feels seized by a superior power” (CP 345). Two of Canetti’s observations on delirium are relevant for understanding Baudrillard. The first is a reference to Kräpelin who states that “among the hallucinations of Delirium Tremens those of sight tend to predominate” (CP 359). The second states that, unlike primitive metamorphoses, “alcoholic hallucinations are always outside the patient; even when he experiences them as reality, they do not transform him” (CP 363). For modern individuals, metamorphosis happens to be a purely external visual process that absorbs all reflexivity.
Baudrillard discusses the phenomenon of metamorphosis in two other articles, both of which refer to primitive cultures. In “The Animals: Territory and Metamorphosis” he situates a metamorphosis that is triggered by animal sacrifice within a specific time sequence. This is not dialectical linear time, but cyclical time in which the process of metamorphosis is not overdetermined by the need of accumulation, progress and development. In bending back upon itself this cyclic time excludes the bifurcation of dichotomies: “… the cycle is symbolic: it abolishes the positions in a reversible enchainment” (SS 134). Baudrillard is claiming that metamorphosis disappears with the disappearance of a sacral order and the transformation of a cyclical experience of time into a dialectical and progressive one.
In view of the implied chronology, the fact that he nevertheless presents metamorphosis as the successor of metaphor in Fatal Strategies is surprising, to say the least. However, only when ‘ontological’ things are translated into pure signs, it immediately becomes clear that a series of metaphors understood as simulacra, once meaning is destroyed, must be understood as metamorphosis, the movement from one signifier to another in an unmediated, i.e. immediate sense.
If revolution is still an option than only as “revolution in things which lies no longer in their dialectical transcendence (Aufhebung) but rather in their potentialization (Steigerung) (….) in that ascension to extremes related to the absence of rules for the game” (FS 34). Just as in excessive conditions like cancer and obesity, this revolutionary metastasis is an ‘ecstatic form’ (FS 8) and a metamorphosis. In “Metamorphoses, Metaphors, Metastases” the earlier chronology is resumed and the differences between these three figurations explored. Metamorphosis is not at random but owes its coherence to a ‘tension of immanence’ (EC 55), i.e. seduction.
Baudrillard’s views on the metamorphosis effects of the media is deeply influenced by the media theory of Marshall McLuhan. (SED 65) However, McLuhan’s emphasis on the autonomy of the medium vis-à-vis the message – “the medium is the message”, i.e. the fact that it has become a desire in its own right within its own context – in the final instance is dialectical, even Hegelian in its historical consequences. It aims at restoring autonomous subjectivity. For Baudrillard this is out of the question. In talking about appearances and the cycle of metamorphoses, Baudrillard goes beyond instrumentality and teleology.
7. Symbolic exchange, impossible exchange
But doesn’t this emphasis on metamorphosis in a globalised world imply a revaluation of his views on symbolic exchange? Baudrillard has elaborated a quasi-nostalgic interest in primitive societies as early as the publication of Symbolic Exchange and Death in 1976. In criticising the impossibility of sacrifice in late capitalist society – and by implication of the ‘heterological’ options of Georges Bataille (SED 154/FS 78) – he analyses the unambiguous, symbolic link between a sign and collectively experienced reality in tribal communities. Every exchange derives its value from a sacrifice, an excessive gift, in which death is countered in an experienced reunion with the gods. It is this transgressive experience of death in premodern communities, this sacrifice as symbolic exchange, that triggers the process of metamorphosis. ‘Symbolic’, however, must not be understood in a Lacanian sense: “The symbolic is neither a concept, an agency, a category nor a ‘structure’, but an act of exchange and a social relation, which puts an end to the real, which resolves the real, and, at the same time, puts an end to the opposition between the real and the imaginary” (SED 133). Lacan’s distinction between the real, imaginary and symbolic order is resumed from a non-dialectical perspective. According to Baudrillard, the importance attached to actual death by later societies is precisely what creates the distinction between the real and the imaginary, between being and appearance. This dichotomising however was excluded precisely by the symbolic exchange act within a cyclic temporality. Baudrillard’s concept of ‘symbolic’ is thus a dismantling rather than a constituting of the Ego.
But can we understand Baudrillard’s metamorphosis in terms of the Lacanian metonymic displacement? The term is not used in Fatal Strategies, but it pops up in The Transparency of Evil: “Today metonymy (replacing the whole as well as the components, and occasioning a general commutability of terms) has built his house upon the dis-illusion of the metaphor”(TE 16). Baudrillard probably introduces metamorphosis, neglecting the notion of metonymic displacement, in order to avoid being trapped by the metaphor – and by implication by metaphysics.
In the elimination of subject-oriented desire and the radicalisation of sign circulation the cogency of dichotomies – content-form, signified-signifier, being-appearance, mind-body – dissolves. This can be illustrated in yet another way with a passage in Fatal Strategies, where Baudrillard refers to the Laws of Manu. These laws prescribe the Brahman’s behaviour minutely: “Desire and chance are stricken from the ceremony. It is no longer even a metaphor. There is no rhetoric, no allegory, no metaphysics in the texts of the Laws of Manu.”(FS 168). The signs demand absolute compliance, by which they gain their highest intensity. Form and content are dissolved in the meticulous performance in its highest intensity. It does not allow desire and in the final instance has no answer to questions like “Why are you doing this?”, “What are you aiming at?”. There is no progression, no destination, just repetitive and cyclical performance. The fascination with form – appearance, exteriority, simulacrum -, the strict observance without any wish or satisfaction, the total surrender to the metamorphosis implied in the linking of pure objects and signs, without meaning, is nothing less than the affirmation of appearance as appearance. See for a full exploration of the primacy of form in both Japanese and Western society against the background of French philosophy of differences: “ICTheology and local interesse. Desacralizing Derrida’s chora” in: Essays zu Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, Religion. Ludwig Nagl (Hrsg.). (Frankfurt a/M.: Peter Lang Verlag, 2001), pp. 109-130; “A Culture of the Inter. Japanese Notions of Ma and Basho” in: Sensus communis in Multi- and Intercultural perspective. On the Possibility of Common Judgements in Arts and Politics. Heinz Kimmerle & Henk Oosterling (eds.), (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 2000), pp. 61-84; Henk Oosterling, Waar geen wil is, is een weg. Doendenken tussen Europa en Japan. (Amsterdam, Boom 2016). See: https://www.henkoosterling.nl/publicaties.html
Baudrillard’s thesis on the disappearance of the metaphor in metamorphosis is instructive when applied to contemporary visual culture, ruled by the primacy of the spectacle and information. Baudrillard has analysed and commented on socio-cultural and politico-economic highlights – the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, the Gulf War, the year 2000. Nowadays in warfare and media politics Baudrillard’s point of view seems to be a self-evident matter. But in his commentary on the September 11 2001 event Baudrillard surprisingly reintroduces the possibility of the symbolic exchange that he criticised in his earlier texts. He even defines ‘event’ as “that which, in a system of generalised exchange, suddenly creates a zone of impossible exchange” Jean Baudrillard, The spirit of terrorism and other essays: new edition. Trans. Chris Turner (London/New York: Verso, 2003), p. 52.. In Impossible exchange, Jean Baudrillard, Impossible exchange. Trans. Chris Turner (London/New York: Verso, 2001) Henceforth cited as IE. published two years earlier, the issue of the metamorphosis is reintroduced in less enigmatic terms: “We are not speaking of the utopia of a historically defunct form of master and slave, but that of a linkage, a concatenation of forms, of a subjection to the cycle of becoming, to the rule of metamorphoses.”(IE 54) Baudrillard’s aporetical ‘enterprise’ of fatal theorising, i.e. radical deconstruction of meaning and desire, is highly ‘formal’: “The necessity of form is of this order: words are not ‘free’, and it is certainly not the task of writing to ‘liberate’ them. On the contrary, writing binds them together, links them in ‘chains’, but they are linked together with ‘chains of love’. The only thing they are to be liberated from is, possibly, their meaning – so that they may form a more secret concatenation”(IE 54). Again metastasis and metamorphosis are linked, the first however expressing exchange, the latter radical change: “In plurality, multiplicity, a being merely exchanges itself for itself or for one of its many avatars. It produces metastases; it does not metamorphose. (…) In terms of change, anything is possible – what is needed is a metamorphosis and a becoming” (IE 78).
The enigmatic beginning of Fatal Strategies is reformulated. The dialectical relation between general and particular is broken by “the passage to singularity as though towards a particular that is, in a sense ‘absolute’ – henceforth unrelated to the horizon of the general”. Singularity as event has no equivalent and cannot therefore be exchanged: “it is a ‘unique sign’, as Klossowski says – and a sign without content” (IE 130). Or in an earlier formulation: a sign that does not let meaning filter through. (FS 60) On a formal level signs circulate as “a play of metamorphosis of the one into the other on the basis of their non-existence as self being [être-propre]”(IE 131). In its senseless transparency a singularity is nothing but Evil.
8. Radical thought: irony as hypocritical affirmation of fate
Singularity as an event is ab-solute, i.e. disconnected from any external reference. But what does this imply for fatal theory? Can one really conceive of metamorphosis beyond reflexivity, beyond a third mediating term, be it mythological, religious, aesthetic or discursive? How else can the ecstatic displacement of signs be communicated in Baudrillard’s radical thought? Does this explain his ‘regression’ to mythological metamorphosis and cyclical time as if he loops his historical philosophical presuppositions? In order to answer this question we have to focus on what Baudrillard systematically tries to hide from view: the production level of his texts. In spite of his critique on his French fellow philosophers he eagerly endorses the ‘death of the author’.
If “radical thought is at the violent intersection of meaning and non-meaning…”(PC 97) and if seduction is the post-metaphysical ‘fatal attraction’ that connects both, how does this work in Baudrillard’s own texts? Once readers, trying to understand his point of view, give in to this seduction they enter a language game that enforces its rules upon them. As the game proceeds the rules seems to disappear in their own aporia. As a result ‘unmasking’ becomes impossible, because behind every mask, situated on the intersection of being and appearance, a new mask, a new simulacrum, looms up time and again. Caught in the tautological universe of Baudrillard’s pataphysics the reader’s metaphorical residue – his last resort for his sense of reality – enables Baudrillard to communicate meaningful statements on the loss of meaning. This game of appearing and disappearing, this metamorphosis constitutes a discursive event: “It is this ironic transfiguration which constitutes the event of language”(PC 98). Being “eccentric to the real, a stranger to dialectics, a stranger even to critical thought”, radical thought becomes absolute and as such a singularity “by which it constitutes an event, just like the singularity of the world”(PC 96).
This event does not entail Heideggerian truth (aletheia as unconcealment), nor is it an ‘Ereignis’: given the above-mentioned critique on ‘être propre’, Baudrillard’s ‘event’ must be beyond ‘er-eignen’ and ‘ent-eignen’. His hypocritical affirmation of nihilism, his gaya scienza has a more Zen-like quality, judging by the frequent references to Tao, Zen and martial arts. (SED 119, FS 77) What lends this writing “its intensity is the void, the nothingness running beneath the surface, the illusion of meaning, the ironic dimension of language, correlative with that of the facts themselves, which are never anything but what they are”(PC 98). Although there is ‘nothing’ to think or write about, we feel the urge to think and write.
This urgency seduces both subject and world into reality, “for the real itself is without doubt only a challenge to theory. It is not an objective state of things, but a radical limit of analysis…”(EC 98). Once subject and world give in to this seduction, metamorphosis is fixed into metaphors. Theory and the real strive for coincidences, but “fate is always on the intersection of these two lines of force”(PC 97). In that very sense theory is fatal.
Although the subject is denied irony in Fatal Strategies, ‘ironic strategies’ being reserved exclusively for pure objects, on the production level of writing one cannot overlook the fact that Baudrillard’s oeuvre exudes the ‘ironic pathos’ he even claims to share with Gide and Sartre. (MPB 192) “It is not that I introduce negation into a logically constructed critique. It is more a question of irony. A process takes place in which you drive a system, a concept or an argument to its utmost limits and then push it over the edge, so that it trips over its own logic…” “Interview with Baudrillard” in: Trespassers W, nr. 3/4, 1985/6, p. 10. . This strategy is epistemologically as aporetical as it is academically suicidal. The following hypocritical move is “that you (‘you’ referring tot the reanimated ‘author’, HO) become an object, a sort of destiny” “De implosie van de betekenis in de media” (The implosion of meaning in the media), in: Skrien, nr. 132, 1983/4, p. 11.. The author Baudrillard literally ‘objectifies’ his irony as and in textual metamorphoses. Content, form and textual performance exponentially enhance each other. It is precisely in this Derridean ‘mouvance’ (D 9), be it in a hypocritical fatality, that Baudrillard’s discourse retains a charged meaningfulness. But its hypotheses can neither be verified nor falsified. They only “potentiate commodity’s formal indifference to utility and value”(FS 117). Nevertheless they still ‘produces’ sign effects: in spite of his critique on production Baudrillard’s textual ‘body’ still works.
His radical theorising unexpectedly gets a Foucauldian quality. Doesn’t he radicalise Foucault’s ‘aesthetics of existence’ – also inspired by Baudelaire’s dandyish aestheticism – when he states that “perhaps we are here introducing a collective and ironic form of existence which, in its extreme wisdom, no longer appeals to its own principles and only wants to lose itself in the spectacle of its disappearance?” (FS 144) Perhaps the summarising remark on the last page of Fatal Strategies gives us a final clue: “Everything can be summed up in this: let’s believe for a single instant the hypothesis that there is a fatal and enigmatic bias in the order of things” (FS 191). Is not Baudrillard finally asking us to reaffirm our faith in a ‘thinking’ (penser) that is passionately moved by appearances?
(first published in: Subjects and Simulations: Between Baudrillard and Lacoue-Labarthe, Anne O’Byrne & Hugh Silverman (eds.) Rowman & Littlefield, Series: Lexington Books, Lanham 2015, pp. 233-267)
|1.||See: Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard. From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. (Oxford: Polity Press, 1989), p. 155/215. Henceforth cited as MPB.|
|2.||Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies. Trans. Philip Beitchman & W.G.J. Nieslochowski (New York: Semiotext(e), 1990). Henceforth cited as FS.|
|3.||Baudrillard is not using the concept ‘object’ here in a conventional sense. He does not see it as an objectified thing inextricably linked to the subject, but as an elusive entity, which disconnects subject from objects. There are no indications as to whether he is here referring to the Kantian Ding-an-sich or to Heidegger’s Ding. It bears a closer resemblance to Lacan’s ‘chose’.|
|4.||Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London/Thousand Oaks/New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1993) Henceforth cited as SED.|
|5.||See: Henk Oosterling, “Radical Mediocrity as Revolutionary act. On ‘Authentic Fundamentalism’ of Inter-esse” in: Silverman, Hugh & Erik Vogt (eds.), Über Zizek, (Vienna: Kant + Turia, 2004). See: https://www.henkoosterling.nl/texts-ho.html|
|6.||Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil. Essays on Extreme Phenomena. Trans. James Benedict (London/New York: Verso, 1993. Henceforth cited as TE|
|7.||F. de Saussure, Course in general linguistics. Trans. Roy Harris (London: Duckworth, 1983), p 24.|
|8.||Jacques Lacan, Écrits I. (Paris: Editions du Seuil Points, 1966). Henceforth cited as E. (my translation|
|9.||Friedrich Nietzsche, “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im aussermoralischen Sinne”, in: Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe. Band 1, Colli/Montinari (Hrsg.). (München: De Gruyter, 1980), p.880. (my translation|
|10.||Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings. Trans. David Farrell Krell (London/Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978). Henceforth cited as BW.|
|11.||Jacques Derrida, “Différance“, in: Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass (London etc: The Harvester press Limited, 1982). Henceforth cited as D.|
|12.||See: Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime. Trans. Chris Turner (London/New York: Verso 1996), Henceforth cited as PC.|
|13.||Martin Heidegger, The Principle of Reason. Trans. Reginald Lilly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1991), p. 48.|
|14.||See also: Jacques Derrida, “Le retrait de la métaphore”, in: Poésie 7, (1977/1978), p. 103-126.|
|15.||In my opinion, Foucault’s ‘nominalist’ approach, his emphasis on the ‘strategic’ character of his new concept of power, and his introduction of the ‘truth game’ are open to an entirely different interpretation, which refutes Baudrillard’s criticisms. See: Henk Oosterling, De opstand van het lichaam. Over verzet en zelfervaring bij Foucault en Bataille. (Amsterdam: SUA, 1989), p. 124. See: https://www.henkoosterling.nl/opstand.html|
|16.||Jean Baudrillard, Seduction. Trans. Brian Singer (London : MacMillan, 1990). Henceforth cited as S.|
|17.||Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication. Trans. Bernard & Caroline Schutze. (New York: Semiotext(e), 1988) Henceforth cited as EC.|
|18.||Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power. Trans. Carol Stuart, (Hamburg: The Viking Press, 1963) (CP) Although Baudrillard does not cite explicitly to this work, he regularly refers to Canetti with approval.|
|19.||See for a full exploration of the primacy of form in both Japanese and Western society against the background of French philosophy of differences: “ICTheology and local interesse. Desacralizing Derrida’s chora” in: Essays zu Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, Religion. Ludwig Nagl (Hrsg.). (Frankfurt a/M.: Peter Lang Verlag, 2001), pp. 109-130; “A Culture of the Inter. Japanese Notions of Ma and Basho” in: Sensus communis in Multi- and Intercultural perspective. On the Possibility of Common Judgements in Arts and Politics. Heinz Kimmerle & Henk Oosterling (eds.), (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann 2000), pp. 61-84; Henk Oosterling, Waar geen wil is, is een weg. Doendenken tussen Europa en Japan. (Amsterdam, Boom 2016). See: https://www.henkoosterling.nl/publicaties.html|
|20.||Jean Baudrillard, The spirit of terrorism and other essays: new edition. Trans. Chris Turner (London/New York: Verso, 2003), p. 52.|
|21.||Jean Baudrillard, Impossible exchange. Trans. Chris Turner (London/New York: Verso, 2001) Henceforth cited as IE.|
|22.||“Interview with Baudrillard” in: Trespassers W, nr. 3/4, 1985/6, p. 10.|
|23.||“De implosie van de betekenis in de media” (The implosion of meaning in the media), in: Skrien, nr. 132, 1983/4, p. 11.|