7 March 2007

Baudrillard: The David Bowie of Philosophy

Filed under: Language — ktismatics @ 10:02 am

What I am going to write will have less and less chance of being understood. That’s my problem.

– Jean Baudrillard

Baudrillard is dead at 77: here’s an obituary. The temptation is to Baudrillardize his death, to say it’s a simulation, or that he’s always already been dead so this is a second-order death, or his death provides the rest of us with the illusion that we’re alive. That we can play these games, and that these games can actually mean something, is itself a tribute to Baudrillard. I’ve been thinking about Baudrillard a lot lately: he figured prominently in yesterday’s post, and a new flurry of comments has reactivated this riff about Simulacra and Simulation, its citation of Borges and its citation in The Matrix.

If the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing, wrote Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont about postmodern theorists. Here’s a sentence they cite from Baudrillard:

Perhaps history itself has to be regarded as a chaotic formation, in which acceleration puts an end to linearity and the turbulence created by acceleration deflects history definitively from its end, just as such turbulence distances effects from their causes.

This text, say Sokal and Bricmont, continues in a gradual crescendo of nonsense. They call attention to the high density of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology — inserted in sentences that are, as far as we can make out, devoid of meaning.

In summary, one finds in Baudrillard’s works a profusion of scientific terms, used with total disregard for their meaning and, above all, in a context where they are manifestly irrelevant. Whether or not one interprets them as metaphors, it is hard to see what role they could play, except to give an appearance of profundity to trite observations about sociology or history. Moreover, the scientific terminology is mixed up with a non-scientific vocabulary that is employed with equal sloppiness. When all is said and done, one wonders what would be left of Baudrillard’s thought if the verbal veneer covering it were stripped away.

Richard Dawkins wonders about the astruse, nearly-hallucinatory style adopted by so many postmodernists, including Baudrillard:

But don’t the postmodernists claim only to be ‘playing games’? Isn’t the whole point of their philosophy that anything goes, there is no absolute truth, anything written has the same status as anything else, and no point of view is privileged? Given their own standards of relative truth, isn’t it rather unfair to take them to task for fooling around with word games, and playing little jokes on readers? Perhaps, but one is then left wondering why their writings are so stupefyingly boring. Shouldn’t games at least be entertaining, not po-faced, solemn and pretentious? More tellingly, if they are only joking, why do they react with such shrieks of dismay when somebody plays a joke at their expense?

The joke Dawkins alludes to here is the notorious one played by Richard Sokal on a prestigious literary journal in 1996. Sokal, a physicist, wrote an incomprehensible discourse riddled with pomo “metatwaddle.” The essay was accepted by the editorial board and published before Sokal revealed the hoax. Journalist Gary Kamiya wrote a commentary for Salon about the inevitability of a pomo parody like Sokal’s, filled with the pious, obscurantist, jargon-filled cant that now passes for ‘advanced’ thought, is nevertheless complete, unadulterated bullshit. Sokal himself wrote a commentary on his pomo adventure, which must eventually have led to his book deal.

And what did Baudrillard himself have to say about the pomo humbug? In a way it was a compliment, he told Steven Poole in an interview that would make a fine elegy to the man Poole called the David Bowie of philosophy. Lecturing a roomful of puzzled London architecture students Baudrillard said, probably with a smile on his face:

Gone is the innocence of nonsense. It is the task of radical thought, since the world is given to us in unintelligibility, to make it more unintelligible, more enigmatic, more fabulous.



  1. Indeed. Postmodern theorists seem to move between the intelligible and unintelligible without making the distinction. They often live in the spaces between two poles without feeling the need to explain where they are at the given moment. Or, in the most pure postmodern move, they attempt to occupy both poles at the same time and in doing so demonstrate that contradictory and oppossing ideas necessitate each other. In some ways it seems to be a new, 21st century take on Yin-Yang theory.

    What will become of Baudrillard and others will have to do with whether or not history can canonize any of their “serious” ideas. Otherwise, I think they will go down as reactionaries and correctives to western philosophy, which I’m not sure they would object to. As for me, I find it fascinating to live in this time period and be at the center of the controversy!


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 7 March 2007 @ 4:23 pm

  2. …the spaces between… I think this is right on target: occupying the void, oscillating between poles. I think Baudrillard is a corrective. Maybe, by cutting loose the signifiers from the signifieds and the copies from the originals, some kind of indeterminacy can emerge in the spaces between origin and destiny.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 March 2007 @ 5:51 pm

  3. So, in this regard, maybe postmodern theorists and philosophers have been overblown by missappropriation. This is not to downplay their significance, but consider…Most conservatives perceive these theorists as a threat to some of their core values of truth, objectivity, capitalism, etc. Liberals tend to see the same thing and seize on the perceived opportunity to discredit traditional institutions….But on my reading (which is still very much a work in process) the main thing I see is that it is difficult if not impossible to fix “the right answer.” That there is, perhaps, space. And yet this is not to say that we do not continually fix things. The pragmatic nature of life demands that we fix things like economic/political theory, absolute truth, doctrines, etc. And so it is good for us to “fix.” But as soon as we fix things it opens up the possibility of “play,” and there will always be someone who comes along to find the openness in the systems and institutions that we have closed….It reminds me of Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis type of movement…..


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 7 March 2007 @ 6:52 pm

  4. Richard Rorty talks about “edifying” philosophers who aren’t revealing truth or establishing comprehensive new systems but finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways fo speaking. He characterizes edifying philosophy as the inverse of hermeneutics: the attempt to reinterpret our familiar surroundings in the unfamiliar terms of our new inventions… edifying discourse is supposed to be abnormal, to take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings. Rorty cites Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as examples of edifying philosophers. Surely Baudrillard can be counted among their number.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 March 2007 @ 7:58 pm

  5. Indeed. Good quote. I think this gets us closer to a way to approach these guys. For example, even though Kierkegaard has a great deal of good thinking on truth it would be misguided to say there was a Kierkegaardean Theory of Truth. There are theorists like Aristotle, St. Thomas, Calvin, Kant, etc. who develop systems, methods, and closed theories…..and then there are commentators, satirists, hyperbole writers, and those who take the role of the pesky little brother who always seems how to get on the nerves of his older sister….I don’t mean to trivialize them b/c they play a critical role in the development of thought…


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 7 March 2007 @ 8:13 pm

  6. Architecture students looking for techical formulas usually are puzzled by fabulous nonsense. That’s a funny image to me, lol. The space between Baudrillard’s probable smile and the audience’s probably empuzzlement itself makes me laugh.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 7 March 2007 @ 10:19 pm

  7. Ah, to have the gift of “real” metatwaddle. That would be something.

    But to work on “the task of radical thought,” to make [the world] more unintelligible, more enigmatic, more fabulous,” that would be something indeed.

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by bluevicar — 7 March 2007 @ 11:24 pm

  8. Yes, but is it real or simulated metatwaddle? Does metatwaddle just give the rest of us the illusion that we’re not talking metatwaddle?

    A lot of “normal” philosophy, science, theology, etc. is trying to make sense of the unintelligible. Baudrillard says not only that there are vast tracts of virgin unintelligibility left in the world, but even big chunks of the known float on a cloud of artificial and ephemeral meaning. This kind of play keeps the universe open.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 March 2007 @ 5:43 am

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