Thursday, April 14, 2005

Getting the Real On: Baudrillard, Berkeley and the Staging of Reality

ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 1, Number 2 (July 2004)


Dr. David Johnson
(London, England)


I. Introduction

Baudrillard’s work is often portrayed as an all-out attack on the reality principle.1 But this view is a caricature of Baudrillard, which would have him simply replacing the pretentious view that the world is built on completely solid foundations, with the equally pretentious view that life is just a dream. I wish to show how Baudrillard tries to dismantle the reality principle, but only in part, in order to introduce an order of reality in which only ecstatic or seductive phenomena are truly “real”. By affirming the substantial reality of seductive phenomena, rather than simply dismissing all existence as simply unreal, Baudrillard offers us a progressive rather than a nihilistic form of philosophy. And by stressing the manner in which some phenomena are more real than others, Baudrillard indeed forces us to reconsider how the reality principle is formed. I will make special reference to a certain Berkelean paradox which Baudrillard solves in a recent work.


II. Baudrillard and the Reality Principle

To begin with, it is certainly the case that Baudrillard is intent on destroying the reality principle in its current form. For Baudrillard, those who affirm “objective reality” are caught up in a power obsessed world, one which persistently tries to turn wayward existence into the controlled production of goods. Those who affirm the reality principle ignore the deeper reality of seduction; a rich immanent realm which has no need to produce or to prove itself to be “real”:

Production only accumulates, without deviating from its end. It replaces all illusions with just one, its own, which becomes the reality principle. Production, like revolution, puts an end to the epidemic of appearances. But seduction is inevitable.2

For Baudrillard, the reality principle must be attacked because of its alliance to the repressive world of production. However, for Baudrillard, those who merely attack the real wholesale, in an over-zealous manner, are simply naive. This is because the reality principle is a construct, and as such remains somewhat fragile. It is this fragile ideological construct which needs to be attacked rather than the world itself as a substantial phenomenon. One does not need to romantically close one’s eyes to existence to make the reality principle crumble; in fact, quite the opposite. As Baudrillard asserts: “the real represents itself as a whole”, it is an intellectually constructed perspective, and so “to eliminate it, destroy it, deny it, etc. isn’t a naive act”. In order to destroy the reality principle all one has to do is to grasp “the immediacy, the instantaneity of things and of their appearance;”3 one will then find phenomena which are ironically too real to be incorporated into that organised, rational, perfectible and productive whole which passes itself off as the real. Ironically, this holistic “real world” vision is extremely vague, since it needs to spread its focus over the entire world. To deconstruct this holistic vision Baudrillard applies his attention to more substantial, precise and indeed graspable realities. We will see this argument echoed later in a slightly different form, when Baudrillard deals with what I will call the Berkelean paradox arguing that only those singularities which lie directly before us can be described as having any kind of “reality”.

In my view, the naivety of a wholesale rejection of the reality principle in any form mirrors the repressive idealism of those who believe only in the “real world” of production. That is because such naive anti-realism, like the totalising reality principle of production, replaces “all illusions with just one, its own”, in this case the illusion that there is no objective reality whatsoever. Such a holistic world vision, albeit vague, puts a stop to the proliferation of substantial multiple realities and the metamorphosis-like appearances of seduction.

Throughout his career, Baudrillard has described and analysed the dismantling of the reality principle by late capitalism, in which a wild circulation of commodities melds with a chaotic blurring of those values and categories that had previously held the reality principle together.4 Even the world of production is threatened by this new capitalistic lawlessness, but the spirit of production, the work ethic and the reality principle have ironically become all the more aggressive the more they have become compromised, and they live on with a vengeance in forms of simulation. This world of confused and diminished values makes people feel directionless, generating a form of “inescapable indifference”5 in which “nobody is now the slightest bit interested in sexual liberation, political discussion, organic illnesses, or even in conventional warfare.”6 Baudrillard may warily rejoice at the current indifference to sexual liberation and political discussion, believing the calls for liberation and political engagement to be calls for production in disguise. However, there is also the unfortunate fact that in a world of general indifference, nobody is that interested in seduction either. This illegitimate passive indifference to seduction, based on the dismantling of the reality principle, is as damaging to the realm of seduction as the active repression of seductive phenomena by those who affirm the objective reality of the world. Baudrillard wishes to attack “the real” as a general principle, but by enlisting the deeper reality of seduction which is something “prior” to the “real world” and the world of accumulation. As Baudrillard writes: “…Nothing can be greater than seduction itself, not even the order that destroys it.”7

Baudrillard has recently portrayed this war of objective facts as taking place within a finite economy, which can be portrayed as a small stage where only a certain amount of phenomena can be baptised as real at any given moment. What makes it impossible for all phenomena to become objective fact is the fact of death, the limits of the human mind and the indifference of human beings to certain prosaic phenomena, caught up as they are within a world on fire with seduction. What is offered intellectually here is a certain joyful science, which replaces a mere negative anti-realism with an ecstatic affirmation of the reality of seduction. At stake in existential terms is a certain letting go of the dead weight of facts, the weight of the world. We must insist that we are indifferent to certain facts, because of our ecstatic affirmation of other more seductive facts, and that therefore the very nature of existence must be radically re-evaluated.


III. The Berkelean Paradox

In Cool Memories IV Baudrillard suggests that objective truths may indeed exist. This would appear to be a shocking statement, made as it is by someone who appears to have spent most of his life waging war on the principle of the real in all its forms. The twist, however, is that for Baudrillard things must wait their turn to be made objective, must wait for the space to become available so that they can be scrutinised, through the clearing away of other equally objective facts, so that they can enter the stage upon which they can be witnessed and baptised as real. In this fragment, a worker at the “Ministry of Self-Evidence and Reality” makes a discovery:

… Objective facts, objective truths, had always been there …but …were present on a kind of waiting list, and appeared one by one only as space became available, as empty spaces were left by the disappearance of other objective truths…8

The picture that Baudrillard paints, of phenomena jostling with each other to get upon the stage of the real, and of realists struggling to decide what deserves a place in reality, has a comic aspect, one that is recognisably Baudrillardean.

In a sense, Baudrillard is simply providing us with another absurd scenario with which to mock the reality mongers. However, this description of the process by which phenomena are “realised” also solves at a stroke a certain element within the Berkelean debate about the reality or non-reality of non-perceived phenomena. In a crucial dramatisation of the problem in dialogue form, George Berkeley has an anti-Berkelean figure named Hylas ask the question “What more easy than to conceive a tree or house existing by itself, independent of, and unperceived by any mind whatsoever?” The pro-Berkeley caricature Philonous replies to this question with another question in a rhetorical vein: “How say you Hylas, can you see a thing which is at the same time unseen?”9 This philosophical problem is often dramatised through the question of whether an unperceived and unheard tree-fall makes a sound, and we will concentrate on this more poetic rendering, although it does not appear as such within Berkeley’s written oeuvre.

It is not necessary to delve into Berkeley’s use of this question of the reality of unperceived phenomena or his solution to it, or indeed to delve deeply into Berkelean scholarship. The question regarding the reality status of unobserved phenomena remains intact as a contemporary philosophical problem, and Baudrillard clearly answers it in a productive fashion. Baudrillard enables us to see that the event of the tree falling without being perceived does not exist as an objective fact, but neither does it not exist. Just as the phenomena in the “Ministry of Self Evidence and Reality” wait to take the place of other phenomena in order to become objective, the tree’s fall waits its turn to be verified as having really happened, waits to get on the stage of the real, a wait that, it need not be pointed out, could last forever. It is absurd to suggest that a tree’s unobserved fall in the forest does not happen, because it is infinitely vulnerable to being observed. But likewise, it is absurd to insist that an unobserved tree-fall has any full reality, if it is in fact not observed.

To insist on the objective fact of the tree’s fall without it being objectified is not objective, and to insist that it exists without being seen is not empirical. But to insist that the tree’s fall would not be real even if it were observed is to wistfully and naïvely hope that life is a dream, that objects can never be visited and will never be realised. Reality then becomes a simple matter of access, and of event. The falling of a tree, unseen, is a potentially real event that, however, may fail to take place as real. It is important to stress the sheer unreality of the unseen tree’s fall since to claim the substantial nature of unobserved objective facts would lead us to deny the greater intensity and urgency of seductive facts. But to overstress the unreality of the unobserved tree’s fall, to suggest it would not even become real if observed, would lead us to conclude that phenomena are essentially unreal, whether observed or not, and this would lead us to deny the sheer power of experience and foist upon us another kind of indifference to seductive phenomena.


IV. Libidinal and Prosaic Phenomena

There are two fundamental reasons why phenomena must wait their turn to be baptised as real. The first is that the human mind is finite and the world is large; the human mind simply cannot hold all objective truths together at the same time. The ultimate staging ground of reality, that of the mind, is forever limited to what is on show at any given time. As Baudrillard points out, information technology is seen to be the custodian of the objective truth of the world, pretending as it does to represent an exhaustive storage of objective truths that can be accessed together all at once in real time. But all that technologically stored information must pass through the finite human mind to be baptised as real, and this process leaves heroic gaps. A tree falling in a forest might be an ironic one-joke site that you never had time to surf.

The other reason that all the world’s phenomena cannot be realised at once is that the human mind is not just a machine for verifying things as real. The celebrants of information technology cannot understand that the real must ultimately be processed upon the stage of the flesh and blood of our minds, to be filtered through desire, forgetfulness, perversity and indifference. We can say that while it may be physically possible to record or review how many trees collapse in Siberia on a given winter’s day, one may not be interested in the slightest. Regarding the human mind’s disinterest in certain potentially real phenomena, I would wish to extend or even misuse Baudrillard’s terminology here and give the notion of indifference a certain metaphysical status beyond that of denoting a certain postmodern political and libidinal apathy. That is, I will insist that it really matters how much things don’t matter. For example, the reality status of a one-inch diameter of coral in the barrier reef would seem to be extremely fragile if we are radically indifferent to it, or involved in other seductions.

Things neither exist nor fail to exist – they are simply important or unimportant. This has crucial consequences for the status that we give to reality. Events gain reality in direct proportion to their existential necessity or their libidinal intensity. It clearly involves a certain split between those interested in baptising cold facts as real, and those who merely focus-in on what interests them, things they may declare as authentic or merely fun. Are you interested in whether a tree fell in the cold wastelands? Or would you rather consider the objective reality of that seductive being sitting in the corner of the bar?

Although seduction and desire can be seen to scramble the processes of establishing objective facts, seduction and desire are every bit as objective as trees that fall in forests or the building blocks of the genetic code. Furthermore, a phenomenon like intoxication may lead to illusions or even hallucinations, which can lead you to disbelieve objective facts, but intoxication itself is an objective fact.

Since it is the case that you can only realise a few elements of the world at any one time, the choice between realising scientific facts and realising libidinal facts becomes extremely sharp. When you are freezing in Siberia waiting for a tree to fall so that you can film it for your web site, you are not warm at home being gradually seduced by the objective warmth of coal fires and bodies. This being the case, it is tempting to take a strong existential line, and to insist that the greater intensity of libidinal objective realities is sufficient to make them more objective than scientific ones. But to leave the matter there is to fall into the trap of merely making a sentimental Lawrencean plea for “more life”, or to follow in a conventional way the call to libertinage and hedonism. It is not enough to talk of the deeper truth of desire or seduction over that of sober scientific facts; instead one must insist on the parity of these different truths, their identical objectivity. That way, one can inaugurate a structural catastrophe, and reveal a kind of objective double booking. It is certainly true that as objective facts, both the libidinal fact and the object fact have parity; only then should one add that the libidinal fact has existential weight behind it also (it is really and truly a more important fact!).


V. The Data Bank and the Real

For Baudrillard, today’s society tries to store all facts and represent all events in the “artificial memory”10 of data banks, in order to control their flow. We can add that contemporary society also tries to “realise” all events within the circularity of data banks in order to exorcise the mysterious nature of unexperienced events and their essential unreality, to ensure the substantial nature of the world and the world of production. Data banks attempt to process, store and render accessible all the world’s phenomena. However, human life and the human mind is finite and caught up in a world of seduction, and so could never realise all the events and absorb all the facts contained within some perfect data bank. In any case, only those phenomena which are physically experienced are truly “real”. A tree-fall stored away and forgotten in the circuitry of a data bank is as unreal as one that never got recorded or stored.

Even if an exhaustive data bank could be produced which contained every event that took place within the universe, the information that it contained would need to be processed by the human mind to be truly valid. Now, it is clear that human beings cannot store and review all facts at once due to the sheer physical make up of the mind and of human appetites. This inability is compounded by the fact that all reviewing must take place sequentially through time because of the sheer scale of data. For example, while academics are studying the history of the Maya they are not studying the history of the Incas.

Data banks have an ambition to record events as they happen, and to at least potentially offer up all data simultaneously and instantly. They therefore claim to offer a world that can be realised “all at once”, that is, to offer “real time”. But the human necessity to process and experience events sequentially, “one at a time” as it were, makes a mockery of this “real time” as represented by data banks.

It is, ironically, only in the realm of scientific or academic fact that the choice of subject matter – what you make “real” – does not really matter. It does not really matter to me whether I study the Maya or the Incas today, or whether I study the North side or the South side of the barrier reef first. This indifference does not extend to libidinal phenomena, which do not seem to be so interchangeable. On a libidinal level, we can see that when we are making love to one person, we are not making love to another person, and this is crucial to the objective status of that lived moment. It is because of our basic indifference to scientific and academic facts that they can be indifferently grouped together in an arbitrary manner within a data bank and be made to represent the “real world” as a whole, a process that cannot be achieved with seductive facts, due to the antagonistic differences in their qualities. Similarly, it is because we are secretly indifferent to these prosaic facts that we can go on to consider them as existing independent of our experience of them. These objective phenomena are like boring relatives that we never visit and rarely think about but never doubt the existence of, even though in reality they might be long extinguished or have completely changed.

If life is a kind of dream, but one which has a form of objective reality, where does this leave those who are at the cutting edge of science or information technology? They know, just as we know, that anything can be recorded and stored and rendered as objective reality. But equally, they must know how impossible it is to transfer all this hard-drive to the software of the brain. Super-initiated into the secret power of scientific objectivity and information, they can see that such omniscience is also a form of impotence. For the more facts they can verify and make objective, the more they are spreading themselves thinly over the world and diluting their powers. Secretly, these scientists and computer technicians, these new agnostics, know that when they are in the throws of seduction, or in the arms of sleep, they have ceased recording and reviewing their data. They have reached the philosophical apotheosis of indifference.

A problem can now be seen. If we are to deny the substantial nature of unobserved scientific facts, should we not also deny the substantial nature of unknown pleasures? Perhaps, but this would make us indifferent to all pleasures except those which are close at hand, compounding the contemporary indifference to seduction. Clearly, part of the excitement of libidinal stakes is that they involve not only taking seriously what one can easily enjoy, but also the mysterious attraction of those things that we have not yet experienced, that do not as yet properly exist. But if we accept the substantial nature of unknown pleasures, what is to stop all those unexperienced libidinal stakes taking over from the scientists’ and academics’ archive of dead information to form just another kind of phantom world? This issue needs to be explored in depth, but it must suffice for the moment to note that libidinal economies abide by different rules to those that govern scientific and academic economies. As stated earlier, the reason that unexperienced scientific objective facts can be grouped together and be made to represent a whole “real world” is that they can be indifferently grouped together, a process that cannot be achieved with seductive facts, due to the antagonistic differences in their qualities. An always-already self-fulfilled world of the data bank cannot crystallise out of recalcitrant libidinal facts, facts which have to be actually engaged with, in a perhaps tortuous manner, in succession, to become truly real.

Scientists and academics have, in truth, only an oblique interest in prosaic objective facts. For example, if one has no real interest in coral, there is little to stop this empty, pseudo interest from seeping over into an “interest” in sea-anemones. There is little to be sacrificed, then, in moving from prosaic facts at hand to discovering unknown prosaic facts. But with libidinal facts, all unknown pleasures have to somehow give proof that they are really “out there”, and that they are of such value that it is worth putting aside the pleasures at one’s immediate disposal. In other words, libidinal stakes are real stakes, and each libidinal lure must prove itself to be somehow potentially valid. There is a certain urgency in libidinal stakes, a certain precision which balances the attraction of the unknown against the seductive nature of the already known, an economy which is altogether absent within the realm of science or academia in which the status of the unknown is equal to the known, or may even have greater status. Moreover, we do not really feel that all those libidinal pleasures that we have not yet experienced lie in wait as always-already achieved in real time, like the scientific facts contained within a data bank, despite the ambitions of pornographers. Libidinal pleasures flow within a certain natural duration, and flow naturally from the known to the unknown (which is then known), without being blackmailed or haunted by some always-already in place unilateral authority of the already real, which claims to operate in real-time. We must not be blackmailed by unexperienced libidinal phenomena any more than by unseen prosaic phenomena.


VI. Conclusion

Baudrillard has solved the Berkelean problem of the status of unobserved objects, although, one can safely presume, without any such ambition. But this is not really important. What is important is that he has revealed the vanity of assuming the essential reality of unobserved phenomena, and thereby relieved us, almost literally, of the weight of the world. We are relieved of one of the origins of a certain destructive will to power, a will that always dreams that the grass is greener elsewhere.

Baudrillard has delivered us from a certain political blackmail. He has rescued us from the authority of experts, who control the dead matter of the unexperienced and unobserved, who wield a supposed power that acts as a constant rebuke to our sovereignty. Freed from the myth that we need to hold the whole world in our heads, we can turn at will from prosaic objective facts to equally objective seductive facts. And we know that if we choose to baptise a prosaic fact as real, we are doing so in place of baptising a seductive fact as real. That is, we are at all times making an objective choice. And there really is no way out.


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David Johnson: Has a D. Phil. in English and Related Literature from York University and an M.A. (Distinction) in Continental Philosophy from Warwick University, England. He has published The Time of the Lords: An Attack on Bataille’s Slave Aesthetic of Transience. Leicester: Ephemera Books, 2001.


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Endnotes

1 Critics who have taken Baudrillard to task for his supposed wholesale denial of reality include Christopher Norris, who condemns what he sees as “Baudrillard’s stance of last-ditch cognitive scepticism”. Norris. Uncritical Theory. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1992:28.

2 Jean Baudrillard. Seduction (1979). Translated by Brain Singer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990:84.

3 Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with François L’Yvonnet (2001). Translated by Chris Turner. London: Routledge, 2004:64.

4 See Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (1990). Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1993:3-13.

5 Ibid.:4.

6 Ibid.:36.

7 Jean Baudrillard. Seduction (1979). Translated by Brain Singer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990:2.

8 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV (2000). Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2003:101.

9 George Berkeley. The Principles of Human Knowledge/Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1710/ 1713). Glasgow: Fontana Press, 1985:183-184.

10 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (1990). Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1993:57.


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