Scott McLemee
Jean Sees Dead People
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Feed, 4 January 2001

No one ages less gracefully than a hipster past his prime -- unless it's a prophet of technological revolution, once his vision reaches the sell-by date. Roll them into one, and it's a miserable spectacle all around. The books Jean Baudrillard started publishing in France about thirty years ago ran selected concepts from Marx and Freud on an operating system cobbled together from Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler. The result: a dense yet scintillating philosophical prose-poetry, evoking a cosmos of endless mass-media feedback loops, where all human interaction had been perfectly digitized, and reality itself was a by-product of cybernetic simulation. Heady stuff, daring and improbable. And rendered all the more alluring by such literary efforts as America, which projected an image of the theorist as hard-eyed psychic outlaw, adrift in a post-apocalyptic landscape (a.k.a. Southern California). Baudrillard's latest book in English, The Vital Illusion, has the quiet desperation of a comeback tour. But it also presents a new line for Baudrillard. The smirking futurist of yesteryear now assumes the posture of sage for the new millennium.

Thanks to his status as exemplary postmodernist intellectual -- his ideas explored in numerous monographs, plus a couple of comic books -- there is a sort of Baudrillard-for-dummies familiar even to people who have never read him. In short, he's the thinker for whom "reality TV" is a redundant expression. Baudrillard himself does little to discourage this kind of oversimplification. (As the title of his book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place inadvertently suggests, being talked about is a high priority in itself.) Yet there is more to Baudrillardisme than the notion that reality has imploded, destroyed by information technologies that have taken over the universe. The flipside of his metaphysics is, if anything, far creepier.

It's a vision of the contemporary world as a place saturated with dead images and constantly proliferating, contradictory messages. Data swarms around us like a crowd of hungry zombies. Events are reported as they unfold, in real time, and you can't escape awareness of them. Tensions mount. Yet there is never any real resolution. Things just grind to a halt. Or spin on forever, without conclusion. Or both, somehow: the conflicts unresolved, the event itself finally meaningless. (Think of Monicagate, or the election crisis; or, for that matter, the Gulf War.) "We enter a paradoxical state," Baudrillard writes in his new book, "the state of too much reality, too much positivity, too much information."

Behind all the "countdown to 2000" hoopla, Baudrillard finds a desperate, half-conscious wish that this clutter might somehow be cleared away. It's the same fantasy as the electromagnetic pulse-bomb in Dark Angel, wiping out the records of digitized society. (The Vital Illusion was originally a series of lectures delivered at the University of California, Irvine in 1999; perhaps James Cameron was in the audience.) No chance, though: the twentieth century will never really end, and we are doomed to see all of it replayed forever, on the screen and in the streets. The end of history means the launch of reality's syndication as endless reruns.

The gloomiest pages in The Vital Illusion discuss cloning as a biotech incarnation of this inescapable drive for endless repetition. With any given configuration of genetic material perfectly recycled, the lines between life and death, between past and future, start to blur beyond recognition. The vision is uncanny (which is to say, both threatening and uneasily familiar). Picture a thousand clones of Narcissus staring into the mirror of consumer society, their sense of personal identity fostered by the instantaneous purchase of interesting new gadgets advertised during a virtual-reality production of Saving Private Ryan.

In interviews over the past decade or so, Baudrillard has declined to be called a sociologist. And he would protest even more loudly at being labeled a futurist. After all, there is no more future, trapped as we are now between what Baudrillard calls "the impossibility of anything's being over and...the impossibility of seeing beyond the present." He counsels us to accept this -- which means forgoing the dubious moral gratifications of thinking in terms of "progress" or "decadence." But in doing so, he inevitably calls into question the very purpose of his project. There's not much use for a philosopher once you decide illusion and reality are indistinguishable, or for a prophet in a world where there is no future.

So why keep writing books? Why even think? Isn't Baudrillard just cloning his own ideas, endlessly? His knack has always been for converting very mid-1950s ideas about "mass society" into philosophical concepts with a pronounced sci-fi edge. The theoretical system has rigorously disproved the possibility of change, yet Baudrillard continues to speculate. The future, it seems, is a phantom limb, still itching long after the amputation.