‘Never resist a sentence you like,’ wrote Baudrillard in Cool Memories (1990), and his incandescent style overflows with irresistible sentences. If you interrogate them, however — which is perhaps to ‘misread’ Baudrillard — you find that his beautiful paradoxes mask assumptions and transitions which must be explicit in a valid argument.
Take, for example, the passage on religious iconography and the death of God, leading up to the stunning epigram: It is through the death of God that religions emerge. A beautiful sentence, dazzling in its anticlerical hatred, and I’m sure that the first time I read it I applauded it to the echo.
The ‘death of God’ is, however, a logical contradiction, since any definition of God must, a priori, include the property of immortality. To say that ‘God is dead’ assumes not that God doesn’t exist but that God has existed and no longer does. Death-of-God theology, therefore, is incompatible with atheism. And with theism, too, unless you worship a strange kind of God — one who is mortal. Death-of-God philosophers from William Blake to Hegel to Altizer to Paul Tillich and so on are not atheists, and for the most part they are not actually claiming that God has died. They mean that belief in God has died; that the connection with God has been lost, specifically in Western society.
But it is the contradiction that gives the phrase its glamour, its daring; the shock of the paradox. Friedrich Nietzsche, who did not originate the idea but gave it widespread currency, milks it — bleeds it, I should say — for melodramatic imagery. We are God’s blood-drenched murderers.
What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? — Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (‘The Joyful Wisdom’ or ‘The Gay Science’), Section 125, tr Walter Kaufmann.
We should note that Nietzsche puts these words into the mouth of his ‘Madman’ character, ranting at people in a crowded marketplace. It’s a literary technique, and Baudrillard follows Nietzsche’s lead in requiring to be read more as a creative artist than a logician. Inspired by the German’s romantic archetype of the philosopher, post-war theorists like Baudrillard and McLuhan developed what was essentially a hybrid form, part argument, part incantation. The device of the paradox, which short-circuits the faculty of reason, is paramount in this form.
Nietzsche appears to have believed that the Enlightenment released us from the necessity or even the possibility of believing in God, while challenging humanity to become gods themselves to atone for the deicide. Transhumanism is implicit, too, in Baudrillard’s simulation theory, in which reality itself becomes anthropogenic: this is the world the technological Übermensch creates, the limitless fields of simulacra he spreads before us.
Baudrillard takes the Death-of-God formulation as axiomatic, but he is more nonchalant about it than his master. For the post-modern theorist, the death of God is so automatic an assumption that it has lost the shock of paradox, and lives on as only as cliché that must be wrapped in further paradox to make it taste of anything. God is killed by his own symbols, and without its ‘divine referential’…
…the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference […] in fact they were not images, such as the original model would have made them, but actually perfect simulacra forever radiant with their own fascination.
Then comes the kicker, the phrase that encapsulates Baudrillard’s project.
The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.
The idea of reference without referent, of ‘perfect’ simulacra ‘radiant with their own fascination’ is foundational to all of Baudrillard’s thinking about simulation. From this metaphor he develops his central theme of hyperreality, the fourth order of simulation which is ‘no longer of the order of appearances at all’. The word ‘never’ expands the discussion beyond the emptiness of religion to embrace all human culture; for him ‘the murderous capacity of images’ eventually puts at stake our access to reality itself, calling in question ‘the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the real’. The perfected map, rather than becoming redundant, destroys the territory; not because it is inaccurate, but precisely because of its accuracy.
In the history of religion, there have been many waves of iconoclasm — the literal breaking of statues. Baudrillard refers to ‘the iconoclasts’, not specifying whether he is thinking of Christian, Jewish or Moslem iconoclasm, but regardless of creed he ascribes a new motive for the fury against the image.
Had they been able to believe that images only occulted or masked the Platonic idea of God, there would have been no reason to destroy them. One can live with the idea of a distorted truth. But their metaphysical despair came from the idea that the images concealed nothing at all […] This death of the divine referential has to be exorcised at all cost.
Baudrillard’s iconoclasts understand that a God that can be reduced to symbols is already dead. Iconoclasts destroy religious icons not out of fidelity to an ineffable Godhead beyond time and space, but out of fear that the God they worship no longer exists. At first glance, a strange motive to impose on Sunni Moslems and Calvinist Christians over a thousand year span… but let’s grant as plausible the speculation that iconoclasm and fanaticism in general might conceal a gnawing fear that the belief for which the fanatic kills or destroys is false, that religious (or political) violence is engaged in as an exorcism of doubt.
The priest class destroys itself by reducing God to signifiers. The divine identity is lost under a mountain of simulacra, and we no longer know what God is. So far so reasonable. Does that mean we no longer know what reality is? Baudrillard presents the death of truth as an absolute truth; a new orthodoxy.
‘Henceforth’, he decrees, ‘it is the map that engenders the territory.’
There is a kind of shamanic glee to Baudrillard’s provocations. For him the most beautiful sentence is the articulation of a paradox. Whereas in philosophy, as in science, logical contradiction is a problem and not an adornment, for the post-modern social theorist paradox is the whole game. In fact Baudrillard loves ringing that bell so much that it becomes predictable, like a rat in an experiment hitting the pleasure switch over and over again. It’s more or less a structural device: on whatever subject he is musing, he pursues the paradox, and when he has found it he moves on. Paradox is the cadence of his liturgy, marking the end of each verse of the psalm.
Is to read Baudrillard closely to misread Baudrillard? Perhaps. We can take his work, like McLuhan’s, as ‘probe, not package’, but we must be careful not to be seduced by his style into ignoring his sleights of hand. The thing is, having seen and named the phenomenon of hyperreality, Baudrillard makes it clear that he embraces it, wants to disappear into it. And that’s exactly what he does, over the course of his career. Paradox is his pass to utopia, the magic word that opens The Cave where he will chain himself in place and gaze at the shadows on the wall in a willing suspension of disbelief.
So my question is this: at what point does the literary lover of paradox become the skilled practitioner of Doublethink? ‘The simulacrum is true’: in Baudrillard’s four-word epigram we find the most economical and aesthetically pleasing expression of that Orwellian concept to be found anywhere outside of 1984.
And it’s brilliant.
Doublethink as an art form.
NEXT: 3 BAUDRILLARD IN BANGKOK
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