A Denver Journal Review
Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
Jean Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? (New York: Segal Books, 2011). 77 pages. Hardback. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis
Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is a short and strange book. It is intermittently revealing about the human relationship to technology and, the rest of the time, opaque or polyvalent. Contemporary French philosophy, particularly the philosophy of culture, is not known for its bright lucidity and analytical exactitude. But this is what one comes to expect of the prolific media critic Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), who I have been reading for twenty years, sometimes with appreciation, sometimes with consternation, but always with interest. To use an old phrase, “the signal to noise ratio” (or clarity to opacity ratio) in his writings is not optimal—in fact, it is often abysmal.
Having been trained in analytic philosophy—wherein one must define terms, stipulate the argument form, and avoid fuzziness at all costs—perhaps I should not even be reading this kind of thing. Maybe I should issue a broadside, and then wash my hands of the whole thing and read no more. In fact, I thought I swore him off, inferring from my previous reading that he had nothing left to teach me. He can be cloying with all those neologisms and seemingly outrageous comments and book titles such as The Gulf War Did Not Happen. (By this he meant that the war did not happen the way it was presented in the various media. He is not a conspiracy theorist.)
While more clarity is desired, the work of social interpretation (or cultural hermeneutics) may not lend itself to the sort of precision desired by analytic philosophers. Those who search for the meaning of cultural artefacts (such as radio or television or Twitter) or social systems (such as the Internet or fashion) have a tough task before them. (However, Neil Postman was incessantly coherent and compelling in his writing on the philosophy of technology. To a lesser extent, so was Jacques Ellul.) In some cases epigrams or aphorisms are in order, rather than carefully constructed arguments. (In his later writings, Nietzsche often wrote in this way.) I think of Baudrillard’s comment in America, “In America, the laugh track is always running.” Indeed it is, since television sets the tone for so much of culture. That fact gives good reason to turn it off: not everything (and perhaps nothing) needs an artificial incitement to mirth (the laugh track). The man who has been called “the French McLuhan” gives brief observations on culture and humanity—sometimes even reminding me of those by another Frenchman, Blaise Pascal—that can be worth the price of wading through some rather thick sludge. (There is even a Baudrillard Dictionary to benefit the bewildered, and scholars will debate what he “really meant.”)
But Baudrillard can be beguiling. Social critic and autodidact Eric Hoffer (1902-1983) claimed that the short books of significant thinkers are often their best (and Hoffer only wrote short books). While this may not be one of Baudrillard’s best books, it illuminates the postmodern technological landscape in winning ways. (His book, The Transparency of Evil is the most insightful I have read.) This little book, whose text is punctuated by eerily appropriate images by Alain Willume, further explores Baudrillard’s contention that communication technologies have eclipsed the objective world such that it no longer exists—or at least no longer can be known. His previous writings exegete this condition of “simulation” and “hyper-reality.” It is strange, he avers, that the simulations (of people, buildings, events) have become more real than what they were intended to simulate. This creates the odd, but omnipresent, phenomena of hyper-realities: images that appear vivid and real, but which correspond to nothing in the non-technological world. A clear example of a hyper-reality in action is the characters in video games and computer-generated animations. While they may appear human or humanoid, they typically fail to refer to anything outside of themselves. This reaches the point of absurdity when men have crushed on female characters such as Laura Croft, whose image has become, I am told, increasingly sexualized over her immensely successful cyberspace career. She is famous, but without being anywhere. As Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “There is no there there.”
Baudrillard’s project can be summed up as giving a phenomenology of the disappearance of distinctly traditional and human forms of life under the conditions of contemporary postmodern society. To cite an obvious example, face-to-face community disappears in “the global village” (Marshall McLuhan). This is ironic—and sad—when it is seen, but it is often invisible to us. However, we may fail to note the disappearance, given the spell that technologies cast on us unawares. In a sense, Baudrillard wants to wake us up, although he never dons the robe of a prophet. He was far too postmodern for that. Nevertheless, he offers a counter perspective to the techno-optimists and techno-piles who breathlessly intone the praises of all things digital.
Baudrillard is insightful on the demise of film and the rise of digital video. Even though photographs and motion pictures are inevitably edited and slanted toward the desires of the human agent behind the camera, at least they left a physical record of their activity: rolls of film and negatives. With digitization, this fingerprint disappears, and with it any embodied record of the event in question. This, for Baudrillard, illustrates the end of “representation.” He says: “The world no longer has need of us, nor of our representation. And there is, indeed, no longer any possible representation of it” (34). There is no “singular moment of the photographic act since the image can now be erased or reconstructed” (35). Think of Photoshop and all its analogues. The digital image also means “the end of irrefutable testimony of the negative” (35). What he writes next cries out for full quotation:
Both the time-lag and the distance disappear at the same time, and with them that blank between object and image what was the negative. The traditional photograph is an image produced by the world, which, thanks to the medium of film, still involves a dimension of representation. The digital image is an image that comes straight out of the screen and become submerged in the mass of all the other images from the screen. It is of the order of the flow, and is a prisoner of the automatic operation of the camera.
Let me illustrate something of Baudrillard’s point. My brother-in-law is a gifted photographer, who is also his family’s photographic archivist. For the last several weeks, he has been sending my wife custom-made photographs from the family’s history, since she is losing her memory. One or more arrive every day in the mail. They are distinct images with narrative content hand-written on the back of each card. These photographs are mostly in black-and-white—given their age—and were originally taken with cameras that used film. Thus, representation was not lost—however partial representation is in any medium. These representations were then hand-picked and crafted into historically-rich cards, made especially for a family member. For my money, this is photography at its best. But Baudrillard is worried that it may be perishing: “When calculation and the digital win out over form, when software wins out over the eye, can we still speak of photography?” (37). Perhaps it is disappearing, along with so much else that we once took for granted.
Baudrillard further notes that digital images liquidates any time lapse between the click and the creation: “It is…the end of any suspense: the image is there the same time as the scene—a ridiculous promiscuity” (58). He then compares this promiscuity to the wonderful foreplay of the Polaroid camera, “with its slow, gradual rising to the surface of the image” (58). While moving recently, I found my old Polaroid and refused to throw it out, although film is very hard to find and quite expensive. My sainted mother, who never went on line, sent it to me about twenty years ago to encourage me to take and send her more photographs. Mom can no longer receive photographs, but contemporary interest in something like a Polaroid may indicate more than retro-mania. With the loss of earlier, less “advanced” media forms comes the loss of other things. And few people notice. That is why we need critics such as Jean Baudrillard.
Baudrillard’s thesis is forcefully stated near the end of this small but significant book. Our technologies are no longer ours. They have covertly assumed a power to subjugate us into their systems. The Real is gone, never to return at the hands of man. He concludes the book with an oracular utterance:
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD. It was only afterward that the Silence came.
The end itself has disappeared (70).
There is no hope offered here—or at least not directly. One may heed the insights as warnings and try to avoid the dehumanization. But those who believe that the Word is still living, that truth will win out in the end, and that there is an End, can take Baudrillard (opacities and all) as a tonic against social stupefaction, or what Christians call “worldliness” (see Romans 12:1-2). God’s common grace has given us no few truth-tellers who know not the ultimate source of their inspiration.
Now, can someone help me find some affordable Polaroid film? I have a few pictures to take. But I will not let them take me.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy