Monday, July 9, 2012

Brooding over Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard
This morning's task is to get my head around Jean Baudrillard's The Illusion of the End, my second reading for the summer.  This book is very different from Technologies of Wonder, as Baudrillard is a sociologist and philosopher looking at culture and society versus Delagrange, an academic looking at digital technology specifically.  So, this blog post will have two parts.  First, I am going to lay out my understanding of Baudrillard's philosophy of history, as history is the foundation of The Illusion of the End.  Then, my ultimate goal is to determine how Baudrillard applies to digital media work.

Part I
Some Background ...
I found this discussion of Baudrillard's ideas helpful for testing my own understandings.  Dr. How discusses all of Baudrillard's main conceptsIf you want to watch the part about his ideas on history, start at 6:30.


What is history to Baudrillard?
Baudrillard begins his book laying out what he means by history

"A degree of slowness (that is, a certain speed, but not too much), a degree of distance, but not too much, and a degree of liberation (an energy for rupture and change), but not too much, are needed to bring about the kind of condensation or significant crystallization of events we call history, the kind of coherent unfolding of causes and effects we call reality [le reel]" (1).

The key aspect for understanding Baudrillard's definition of history is its foundation in ability to see cause and effect, and this requires controlled time and space. It is this control that he sees as breaking down in modern society due to technology.

"Once beyond this gravitational effect, which keeps bodies in orbit, all atoms of meaning get lost in space ... This is precisely what we are seeing in our present-day societies, intent as they are on accelerating all bodies, messages, and processes in all directions and which, with modern media, have created for every event, story and image a simulation of an infinite trajectory" (2).

The instantaneous and global news cycle has eliminated time and space, thus has ended history.

"History in real time is CNN, instant news, which is the exact opposite of history. But this is precisely our fantasy of passing beyond the end, of emancipating ourselves from time" (90).

Let's look further into how technology fits into Baudrillard's ideas ...
Baudrillard focuses on one aspect of technology: its immediacy.  First, he explains that immediate news coverage of an event makes events become meaningless.  Linear time is an illusion (7), and the resulting anxiety about the end of time approaching creates an archiving frenzy that has resulted in the dilution of meaning of any one event.

"Events follow one upon another, canceling each other out in a state of indifference" (3).

To Baudrillard, the news is inextricably linked to technology:

"There are two forms of forgetting: on the one hand, the slow or violent extermination of memory, on the other, the spectacular promotion of a phenomenon, shifting it from historical space into the sphere of advertising, the media becoming the site of a temporal strategy of prestige ..." (23).

"Nothing is news if it does not pass through that horizon of the virtual, that hysteria of the virtual ..." (55).

The problem with this takes us back to Baudrillard's definition of history -- when the event becomes virtual, it loses its reality.

"Is an image which refers only to itself still an image? However this may be, that image raises the problem of its indifference to the world, and thus our indifference to it ... When television becomes the strategic space of the event, it sets itself up as a deadly self-reference, it becomes a bachelor machine. The real object is wiped out by news -- not merely alienated, but abolished. All that remains of it are traces on a monitoring screen" (56).

Baudrillard's definition of history + his views on technology = ...
I found the structure of Baudrillard's book intriguing because it read very much like an introduction of ideas followed by a series of essays applying the ideas ... until I got to the final chapters.  Here Baudrillard returned to his ideas, offering concise definitions again (such as my quote from page 90 above), leading up to a very clear summation of the problem with this equation of history and technology.

"Now, it is the events themselves which, by their artificial production, their programmed occurrence or the anticipation of their effects -- not to mention their transfiguration in the media -- are suppressing the cause-effect relation and hence all historical continuity" (110).

Only at the end did the arc of Baudrillard's book become clear to me.  As a naturally careful reader, I found this striking because I felt adrift in the middle section but while adrift did not feel like Baudrillard as the author cared whether I was adrift or not.  When he ended with such clarity though, I saw that he did care.  He left me to work through the middle parts to try out what I thought I understood, and he came back to the core of his ideas so I could confirm my understanding.

Part II 

So what does Baudrillard mean to digital media work today?
Baudrillard has me thinking about three things.

"Nothing disappears, nothing must disappear: that is the watchword of this new therapeutic overzealousness, the overzealousness of memory and archaeology. A hypertelic memory which stores all data in a constant state of instant retrievability ... we live in a world which is both without memory and without forgetting" (72-73).

Here, Baudrillard is connecting to the work I have done on the concept of archiving in the digital world.  I had not considered the flip side of everything being fully accessible as being a lack of memory versus a lack of forgetting.  We talk about how we now can always look something up, so why do we need to memorize facts?  But what do we lose when we do not have memory?  Baudrillard has me thinking about how we lose our own connections, as each new event is simply itself because it is not fitting into a system of connectivity in our memory.

"There is no will to communicate in all this. The only irresistible drive is to occupy this non-site, this empty space of representation which is the screen" (56).

This idea of merely occupying digital space resonates deeply with me. Take the Facebook update.  When you post an update, you are ensuring space on the screens of all of your Facebook friends.  You are not however really looking to communicate with them.  An update might engender comments, but these too are often more occupation of screens than communication.  The "Like" feature is certainly screen occupation.  Sherry Turkle in Alone Together had me thinking about this with her views on performance and interactivity -- see my musings here.  This lack of true interaction in so many of our digital connections is something that personally concerns me, and I am impressed with how Baudrillard sensed this even before the advent of social media.

"The problem with Frankenstein, for example, is that he has no Other and craves otherness ... But our computers also crave otherness. They are autistic, bachelor machines: the source of their suffering and the cause of their vengeance is the fiercely tautological nature of their own language" (109).

First, I teach Frankenstein, and the way Baudrillard captures what the creation wants in so few words made me stop reading and say, "Wow."  I will be using this quote with my class.  But more than that, Baudrillard is once again proving to be an early foundation of Turkle's fears.  Turkle discusses at length how robots and computers do seem to want us, but really they have nothing to give backThe risks of developing social skills through these emotionally one-sided (truly one-sided as the other side does not exist emotionally) "connections" scare me.  What does it mean when we have not learned to adapt to what others' want and to handle life face to face?

This afternoon, I am returning to my production phase of this independent study, and I know Baudrillard's concerns will be floating in my brain.  I am trying to create a digital space that is first and foremost a place where my students interact and communicate with each other and me.  Is this an impossibility?  Is the interaction I am seeking to promote empty?

Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End. Trans. Turner, Chris. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994. Print.

Image of Jean Baudrillard

Mitra, Barbara. "Baudrillard - Ideas and Concepts." YouTube. YouTube, 04 June 2009. Web. 09 July 2012.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Kindle Ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011.

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