Friday, June 3, 2011

Jean Baudrillard is Kind of a Douche

Jean Baudrillard is an armchair philosopher. He lives in a fantasy world of his own linguistic creation. And that world seldom contains anything of value to the rest of us. I just finished reading Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation," and I'm exhausted. I’ve decided that it's not philosophy, but literary masturbation.

I don’t know how much of the opaque and pretentious language in this slim book stems from Baudrillard’s construction and how much is due to the translator. I imagine it’s a combination of both. That said, almost every sentence in this book is structured to be deliberately convoluted. Baudrillard is incredibly intelligent, but he is simply incapable of being precise or clear-spoken. Most of his ideas are shrouded beneath walls of torturous prose. There are points to be made and concepts to be understood, but Baudrillard purposefully makes them nearly impossible to discern. If prose is a trail and words trailmarkers, Baudrillard takes his readers on the furthest possible trail over the mountain and then ditches them in the woods before they get there. His ideas are fascinating, but the process of reading his ramblings in order to arrive at those ideas is long and arduous. The rewards (ideas you can take with you, new ways of thinking about things, images, phrases you'll remember) are there, but this book is so packed with diversions and nonsense that it reaches the point of not being worth reading at all.

Much of this work is barely more than linguistic shuffling. He doesn't “theorize the postmodern,” he just playfully inverts language to create something that seems profound. But it’s actually quite meaningless. By taking two polar opposites ideas and throwing them together, Baudrillard may seem to be making a point. But it’s just a nonsensical game of language. And since he doesn’t bother with using the building blocks of language to create an idea, every third word is italicized for emphasis. There's no reason to write a fucking sentence that is a page long with eighteen commas, three dashes, two semicolons and two sets of parentheses. This book is a punctuation nightmare, and it's irritating. Baudrillard plays with his readers, but then doesn't come through for them in the end. And this all can't be blamed on the translator. French and English are similar in a lot of ways, and even in the French this must suck ass to read.

He is able to get his act together and make a few “points,” if they can be called that. One of the most interesting being: every power structure and ideology is reinforced by, and actually defined by, the backlash against it. “It is always a process of proving the real through the imaginary, proving truth through scandal, proving the law through transgression…” For example, neoconservative social policy is solidified by its counter-ideology: liberalism, civil rights, human rights. He states: “Power can stage its own murder to rediscover a glimmer of existence and legitimacy.” This was proven in post-September 11 America. Go-it-alone, gangster foreign policy got a real shot in the arm. Indeed, it gained in legitimacy because it now had an enemy, a symbol, a stark, unforgettable counterforce. The best example of ideology crystallizing in the face of countervailing forces is one that Baudrillard mentions, but not nearly enough: religion. Christianity, Islam and other religions survive through martyr complexes. Religion is nothing if it is not in danger from some other person, group or intangible force. It is nothing unless it is contrasted against a counter-ideology. It is kept alive only by the presence of its opposite.

But just when he makes a point, he attempts to shock his readers into agreement. It doesn't work for me. He throws linguistic jabs all over the place with the skill of a right-wing extremist. He makes countless assertions that are flatly ridiculous.

Baudrillard then spends an entire chapter blasting cinema and television as essentially worthless media. Films have “no value as conscious awareness, but only as nostalgia for a lost referential.” He criticizes films for not portraying history according to his liking. But film is art, and Baudrillard seems unable to grasp the concept of audio-visual entertainment as an art form. He comes across as a cranky old man bemoaning media he doesn’t understand. The entire chapter is a compilation of highfalutin nonsense.

Baudrillard seems unable to criticize a specific work of cinema, literature, philosophy or even a historical event. Examples, facts, studies or any other basic objective criteria don’t enter into his analyses. Instead he falls back on tired and vague rhetoric of “capital,” “power” and “the hyperreal,” words garbled together so frequently as to become meaningless.

Statements frequently start with phrases like the following: “One would have us believe that…” “What no one wants to understand is…” Who constitutes this amorphous opposition? Everyone except Baudrillard?

When he does quit his nonsensical beat-off sessions and attempts to make a coherent “argument,” he fails miserably. For example, he maintains that nuclear proliferation, "does not increase the risk of either an atomic clash or an accident," because, "all those who have acquired it since will be deterred from using it by the very fact of possessing it." There's an assumption here that leads to an erroneous conclusion. That assumption is that all individuals and groups act in their own self-interest. Radical religious nuts don't act in their own self-interest, but in accordance with a bizarre set of irrational mandates written down in ancient texts. What happens when extremists who don't care whether they live or die get a nuclear weapon? There's also the assumption that political elites will somehow act rationally and consider the well-being of others before taking nuclear action. The Cuban Missile Crisis (just two decades before the original publication of this work) was not a joke. We almost saw nuclear war. And it could, and probably will, happen in the future.

Baudrillard's dead, but I wish when he was alive he smoked a few more joints. Because he seems like a kind of guy you could talk to if he just mellowed out and got over himself.

1 comment:

  1. Like the term literary masturbation: like do me with your stylus. Anyway loved the term.