July 20, 2010

Experiments in Ontology: Baudrillard and Hyperreality

One of Baudrillard’s key insights is that upon radicalization, every theory (or system) is subject to the form of reversibility. He is speaking specifically about systems of signification, but following the sentiments of his own methodology – that we take ideas to their extremes – can we not extend his notion of reversibility to other kinds of systems?

The idea is that taken to the extreme, any theory or system will fold back on itself. An interesting way to read the concept ‘hyperreality’ is as a kind of reversal from simulation to reality. A simulation is a copy of some real. As simulation reaches totality, as it covers over the real completely, there is nothing left but simulation. Simulation no longer has a basis in some real. With no remaining reality to support the simulation, it is completely detached, orbital, or ‘sovereign’. As the only “stuff” left, simulation becomes the “stuff” of reality, or reality itself. The system of simulation thus reverses itself at the limit point: what was a simulation of some real is now the real itself, the new real. Can we read this phenomenon more radically than does Baudrillard himself?

Sociologists, tired of the infectivity of language games, are trying to extend the use of postmodern theory into the realm of empirical research. Mirchandani (Sociological Theory, 23:1, 2005) and Cole, for example, think that Baudrillard and his postmodern colleagues have insights to offer that can shape the way we study the world around us. Might thinkers like Baudrillard also help us to think about the nature of reality as such? Over the next little while I’ll be working on outlining the contours of Baudrillard’s postmodernist epistemological ideas in order to then see how we might be able to apply something gleaned to our thinking about ontology: perhaps a sort of postmodern ontology. I guess the speculation would be that maybe Being as such is itself subject to instability, change, and ultimately a kind of structural reversal of the sort intended by the concept “hyperreality”. (Yes, Heideggerians, I probably have made an entity out of Being.) More on this point is sure to follow.

While on the topic of hyperreality: In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard begins with a discussion of Borges’ fable of the map (“On Exactitude in Science”). The fable has it that a master cartographer creates a map of the land on a 1-to-1 scale, perfectly reproducing the land it maps. It is not exactly clear how we are to understand the fable in Baudrillard’s discussion of it. He says both that the map, as simulacrum, precedes the real land it maps; and, that the real does not survive its being covered over by the map. As usual, this is no matter of concern for us here. I think it is an interesting metaphor for the kind of ontology that might be suggested by the notion of hyperreality. The land covered over by the map will die and decay, and eventually become desert, so that the only real thing left is the map. Likewise, could it be that as simulation completes itself and covers over the real, the real doesn’t survive its total simulation and instead dies out, leaving only the simulation in its place?

If this has happened, if we live in hyperreality, could it be that to be is to be simulation? And if this is the case, post-reversal, would it matter? And would it any longer make sense to call our real a simulation?


  1. First, this is not Baudrillard's idea. It's simply a (severely flawed) application of the reductio ad absurdum that has been a standard tool of philosophy since Zeno.

    What's particularly weak about the Baudrillardian approach is it's own hyperbole, especially in the characteristically faith-based postructuralist abandonment of any, especially general, material component(s) to transcendent idealism. This allows for Baudrillard and other postructuralists to simple-mindedly and categorically abandon the specific materiality upon which his position about the simulated depends, finally resulting in a mere tautology (that the simulated is all simulated) by merely extending simulation, in the absence of any challenge or rebuttal necessary to any defensible philosophy, into infinity both backward and forward while claiming a misused metaphor of "looping back" to mean extension rather than tautological faith in an unproven premise. Baudrillard's idea is a mess.

    The greater problem is the adherence to mere allegiance that the poststructuralist culture has demanded of its followers. We must quote Baudrillard on a bad version of an idea not his own and pretend that it is both his own and pure. We must quote Derrida on trivialities that have been spoken by better thinkers for a long time. We must hate Freud and love Lacan, even though Freud saved us from caging the insane and Lacan has been used as a cage for the dissident in the academic humanities.

    Evidence: "Sociologists, tired of the infectivity of language games, are trying to extend the use of postmodern theory into the realm of empirical research."

    This statement is, first, untrue; the majority of sociology, especially at the academic level, is far more quantified and static (tenets diametrically opposed to postmodern theory)--indeed empirical--than it had been for a century. Second, the statement is ironic, in that "the inefectivity of language games" is a wonderful description of postructuralist discourse, which is governed by precisely those games in the name of jouissance or the "meaninglessness" that controls its loyalties to neo-Kantian idealism and Heideggerian absolution and control.

    Baudrillard is nothing more than clever. He's really fun to read, and takes old philosophical arguments into late 20th-century application, but that's pretty much it. "Hyperreality" is hyperbolically proposed, intellectual grandstanding, and our job as readers of it is to contextualize and critique it before we begin dispensing credit and signing up for it. Besides, Baudrillard did a fine job of giving lots of credit to himself--another trait of the poststructuralist quasi-philosophical continental subculture.

  2. You miss a great deal by dismissing JB so perfunctorily, Kip. But I'm inclined to think you deserve to be left there undisturbed. So there, you can "win" this argument, too. I'll stop now, so you can get the lst word in.