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Until the End of the Illusion, We Will Baudrillard Forward_Reading Notes October 6th

Okay, so this is part two from last week’s reading notes on Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. This time, though, much of these notes will be focused on Baudrillard’s The Illusion of the End (such an uplifting title, no?), with the hopes that I will have enough time (and attention span) to return to talking about Simulacra and Simulation. Both of these texts are going to be part of my bigger Canonical Text Presentation, which is due next week (crap, that due date is coming up far too quickly).

Nothing starts a post off better than Benedict Cumberbatch as Kahn. Image hosted on Deviant Art.

Nothing starts a post off better than Benedict Cumberbatch as Kahn. Image hosted on Deviant Art.

Whew, Baudrillard isn’t the most accessible scholar (though he doesn’t quite rank with Foucault on whose work can be the most difficult to muddle through), but I definitely chuckled (probably shouldn’t have) through this book. The moment where I had to put the book down and just laugh for a few minutes was when I first started reading the section “The ascent of the vacuum towards the periphery” where Baudrillard introduces a group who had called themselves the “Stealth Agency,” which he said “could equally well be called: ANATHEMATIC ILLIMITED/TRANSFATAL EXPRESS/VIRAL INCORPORATED/INTERNATIONAL EPIDEMICS (14). I know the group was probably very serious about their work in which they “gather[ed] news of unreal events in order to disinform the public of them” while the group “remained…unreal” (14), but I couldn’t stop humming Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man.” (Hell yeah, James Bond!)

Must as well have a visual. Image hosted on the website Gaming-Asylum.

Must as well have a visual. Image hosted on the website Gaming-Asylum.

Okay, straight face and back to being a serious scholar. As I was settling into reading his first section (chapter?) titled “Pataphysics of the year 2000,” I was a little taken aback by just how affected Baudrillard’s work seems to be in regards to people’s reactions (and potentially his own) to the Y2K terror that internationally swept through countries dependent on computers and the Internet. There were moments in the text where I had to stop and think about the culture in which Baudrillard was writing about the year 2000: “All thoughts are going underground in cautious anticipation of the year 2000. They can already scent the terror of the year 2000. They are instinctively adopting the solution of those cryogenized individuals plunged into liquid nitrogen until the means can be found to enable them to survive” (9). Looking back from 2014 to 1999, it seems a little strange to think about what would have been so terrifying (I was eleven at the time, so I wasn’t aware of a whole lot beyond childhood worries). Were we really so sure that our world would be torn asunder because our computer programmers might not have taken into consideration that we would be using their software after 1999? (It is in this moment that I think of the 1995 film Strange Days and the 2014 film A Walk Among the Tombstones as one film anticipates the mania and one film looks back with a semi-sober eye).

A little Y2K mania, anyone? Image hosted on Time Magazine's website.

A little Y2K mania, anyone? Image hosted on Time Magazine’s website.

Having the capability of looking back retrospectively on the Y2K mania displayed above, I can see where Baudrillard is coming from when he hashes out his three hypotheses concerning the end of history. Yes, take a moment (I need to) and digest the idea that Baudrillard is telling us there is no more history. Okay, moment is up. Let’s rock our way through this.

First up, a definition of the word patapysics, which is defined as “the science of imaginary solutions and the laws governing exceptions” (Hugill). Now we see that the title for Baudrillard’s first section deals with the imaginary solutions for the year 2000, which would explain the three hypotheses that he offers. So what are our three options?

  • “one might suppose that the acceleration of modernity, of technology, events and media, of all exchanges– economic, political and sexual — has propelled us to ‘escape velocity,’ with the result that we have flown free of the referential sphere of the real and of history,” with history seen as “the kind of crystallization or significant crystallization of events” and reality as “the kind of coherent unfolding of causes and effects” (1). To flesh this out, Baudrillard draws on more physics concepts: “through the impulse for total dissemination and circulation, every event is granted its own liberation; every fact becomes atomic, nuclear, and pursues its trajectory into the void” with it having “to be fragmented like a particle” (2).
  • This hypothesis deals with a slowing down, rather than reaching an escape velocity, as it has to do with “the slowing down of history when it rubs up against the astral body of the ‘silent majorities’. Our societies are dominated by this mass process, not just in the demographic and sociological sense, but in the sense of a ‘critical mass’, of passing beyond a point of no-return” (3). — Absorption is a key mental image here, as “Events follow one upon another, cancelling each other out in a state of indifference” (3)
  • Baudrillard approaches the third hypothesis with an analogy about music and our cultural obsession with “high fidelity” to the point where the music is no longer music (think auto-tune, as it leaves the singer’s voice perfectly flawless, though no one’s voice has such a quality). For history, “by dint of the sophistication of events and information, history ceases to exist as such. Immediate high-powered broadcasting, special effects, secondary effects, fading and that famous feedback effect which is produced in acoustics by a source and a receiver being too close together and in history by an event and its dissemination being too close together and thus interfering disastrously — a short-circuit between cause and effect like that between the object and the experimenting subject in microphysics” (6).
So Baudrillard and Nietzsche walk into a bar, and Kahn is their brain child. Image hosted on Tumblr.

So Baudrillard and Nietzsche walk into a bar, and Kahn is their resulting brain child. Image hosted on Tumblr.

Each of these three hypotheses (from what I could pull out of the mire, anyway) makes sense in terms of our current culture and international relationships. I would be curious to see what Baudrillard would have to say if he had come into contact with the changes that Cloud computing is offering to us in terms of archiving. Anyways, onwards through the escape velocity needed to pass from the real and history, the vanishing point of history within absorption and indifference, and the high fidelity/idealization of history. It took me quite a while to break down and process what Baudrillard was saying about history. As someone who loves to read books, watch documentaries, and listen to lectures on historical events, I struggled to understand how history could have ended, vanished beyond the horizon point. What was this man talking about?

And then I started to think through his example with CNN (in the “Immortality” section) and how “History in real time is CNN, instant news, which is the exact opposite of history” (90). I remember not too long ago watching the constant newsfeed surrounding the mysterious disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The broadcasters droned on and on for days (weeks?) about this flight being lost and searchers continuing to scour the ocean to find out what had happened. They were presenting the news as history in the making, creating this “historical moment” in the real time that Baudrillard was talking about, rather than looking back at the disappearance retrospectively. As Baudrillard declares, “nothing takes place in real time. Not even history” (90). To think of this another way to help me out, I think about how World War I is presented versus the Vietnam War. In the midst of World War I, the “bigger picture” of the war was not readily available. The soldiers, the politicians, and the civilians did not know they were in what would become known as a world war, and even the reasons for the war emerged after the war had ended. No one was sitting in the middle of a battlefield thinking, Ooooh, so this is what global conflict is like. They were going through the motions of what they had considered a traditional war (men fighting and dying with honor) until they came face-to-face with how advancements in weapons technology would require a rethinking of tactics. How the  Vietnam War was presented was very different as it was the first televised war. Here, people back home could see the harrowing situations soldiers on both sides were facing, as well as those civilians who were caught in the crossfires. When talking about the Vietnam War, my mom (who was a little girl at the time while my grandfather was in the military and overseas) said that being able to see what was going on during the war from the family’s living room was like watching history in the making. While something is happening, though, is not history so much as it is being. History (for me, anyway) is what is created when we look back and see a pattern of events emerge from the actions we have taken (individually as well as collectively).

One of the most fascinating points that Baudrillard makes within his third hypothesis about the vanishing point of history was how we are always looking to an end point of history, which is tied to his idea that “history itself has always, deep down, been an immsense simulation model. Not in the sense that it could be said only to have existed in the narrative made of it or the interpretation given to it, but with regard to the time in which it unfolds — that linear time which is at once the time of an ending and of the unlimited suspending of the end” (7). The questions that Baudrillard follows up with in regards to the end point we are obsessed with as a society were thought-provoking: “Where does this suspense come from? Where do we get the idea that what must be accomplished (Last Judgement, salvation or catastrophe) must come at the end of time and match up with some incalculable appointed term or other?” (7) and “The same denial is found in apparently opposite behavior [from immediate enjoyment of the event]– recording, filing and memorizing everything of our own past and the past of all cultures. Its this not a symptom of a collective presentiment of the end, a sign that events and the living time of history have had their day and that we have to arm ourselves with the whole battery of artificial memory, all the signs of the past, to face up to the absence of a future and the glacial times which await us?” (9).

No matter how many times I read this section, I always return to our current societal fascination with zombies and post-apocalyptic survival. Even though zombie apocalypse stories (books/comics/movies/podcasts) are centered on the survivors (for the most part, since we do have narratives from the undead side, nodding to the film Warm Bodies), we see the zombie invasion/infestation as the end of human civilization, the end of our history. Survivors are shown to turn towards anarchic and nomadic living, cannibalism, might-makes-right, the-strong-survive, which appears brutal (and yet enthralling) to those of us who are living on this side of the end. Why would history and civilization end if there would be people who still remember what those two were to our society? Why must there be only one way to thrive? Is life after a zombie apocalypse what Baudrillard would consider existence after the end point of history? When looking at the place for zombie narratives in our culture, it seems as if we are projecting the Y2K fears that Baudrillard had been commenting on into a new (yet not new) form, but this is something we have been doing for centuries. Humans are drawn in and repulsed by something that will put an end to us all (angry gods from the pantheon, alien invasions, giant asteroid hitting the Earth, global contagions, or nuclear fallout). It’s a little weird to think about, but, then again, I do love my science-fiction films.

Side note before I end since I have the need to turn everything towards video games: While I was reading, one of the things that really caught my attention was a moment in Baudrillard’s section “Maleficent Ecology” in which he discusses how we as humans are turning ourselves into waste-products along with the entire planet: “What is worst is not that we are submerged by the waste-products of industrial and urban concentration, but that we ourselves are transformed into residues. Nature– the natural world –is becoming residual, insignificant, an encumbrance, and we do not know how to dispose of it. By producing highly centralized structures, highly developed urban, industrial and technical systems, by remorselessly condensing down programmes, functions and models, we are transforming all the rest into waste, residues, useless relics. By putting the higher functions into orbit, we are transforming the planet itself into a waste-product, a marginal territory, a peripheral space” (78). This is not a new idea, but Baudrillard’s comments reminded me of a scene from one of my favorite childhood video games, Final Fantasy VII, in which the planet and all life on that planet were threatened because of humankind’s desire for more and more energy. The clip below is from a scene in which a scientist/professor explains how life on the planet is part of an intricately connected lifestream and the man-made energy was disrupting that lifestream to a critical level. While the developers at Square-Enix tend to pack the games in the Final Fantasy series with messages that show the consequences of war, promote strong bonds (especially between different groups of people/races/species), and encourage going against the norm to save others, one of their main messages is to preserve a balance between nature and human activities (destructive tendencies?). In Final Fantasy VII, the main characters come to the realization (like Baudrillard) that the planet is being turned into a waste-product in order for humans to advance their civilizations.

All right, readers (imagined or otherwise), so ends my reading notes for this week. Next week: Canonical Text Project! (*hear the sounds of a slow brain meltdown*).

Only nearing the halfway point of the semester. So much left to do. Image hosted on Tumblr.

Only nearing the halfway point of the semester. So much left to do. Image hosted on Tumblr.

Citations

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

Hugill, Andrew. “Pataphysics: A Useless Guide.” The MIT Press Online. MIT, 2014. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.

Illusion On, Reader

Update on two peers’ posts.

The first person whose post I commented on was Sarah Carter on the second half of Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs and Women. Her break down of the text was very straightforward, but I am curious as to the broader implications of the concepts, especially in terms of Sarah’s own research interests and her interests in horror films. How can the lens of the post modern human and bio politics change our perspectives regarding characters in horror films? This question led me to wonder how this lens would also affect video game scholarship? Most games reinforce stereotypes of gender while also pushing against such boundaries (strong female heroes who eventually succumb and must be rescued by the male protagonists), but then there are exceptions are video games like the Mass Effect trilogy that subvert the gender norms they are attempting to reinforce. Haraway’s concepts are very promising and are something I may look into with future research.

The second person who post I commented on


Reading Notes: 2/27

Canonical Books Assignment:

Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1992. Print.

The Event Strike:

"What we seek now is not glory but identity, not an illusion but, on the contrary, an accumulation of proofs - anything that can serve as evidence of a historical existence" (21).
Baudrillard opens his chapter with this claim. Replacing the generationally repeated tales of epic glory that represented immortality, we turn to a frenzied gathering of personal history to assure ourselves that we exist and propel ourselves into immortal remembrance.

The source of the frenzy, this need to collect history, can be traced to our construct of time as linear. As Baudrillard explains, there can be no idea of something as history unless it exists as a point along linear time. Once that point has passed, the linear structure forces us to accept that the point can not be returned to; it has passed into a historical "event." And if all of our lives we hang between a past that has disappeared and the threat of an inevitable "end of the line" - the event strike itself, then we are never reassured of our existence or survival. Thus the frenzy.

It immediately reminded me of the new Facebook time line displayed in the screen shot below. The new feature is set up in a linear fashion, with the years someone has been a member listed on the side and with the ability to organize photos, interests, relationship statuses, and all the other various "proofs" of his or her existence.

CC Screen Shot of Facebook Timeline from Suzanne Sink

However, Baudrillard argues that instead of these accumulations working to create a linear (the word time line itself suggesting such a linearity) history, they merely "fall into the order of the recyclable" (27). He does not see time in this linear fashion; therefore, he concludes that the historical events are not gone. They merely await resurrection, so as friends view time lines and interact with the past in this way, the ideas and events will inevitably be recycled again and again.

He might argue we need not expend energy gathering tidbits of remembrances, which is rather a liberating argument to make in this age of hyper-documented living.


The Thawing of the East:

This short chapter outlines Baudrillard's belief that the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe will allow for a cultural exchange and expanded communication between the West and the East. However, he warns of the danger of such rapid expansion that is generally followed by rapid collapse. He sees in the new openness a disruption of balance that could bring freedom to the East but eventual economic instability to the West.

Another potential problem is in our revisionist impulses, which he covers further in later chapters. This communal (re)creation of the past "whitewashes" our history, allowing us to retract the violence of war and revolution and return to an "initial state" from which we can begin again, clean and fresh (32-33).

If we forget our past, will it liberate us to forget all the slights and grievances, start new and on equal footing? Or does it mean will be doomed to recreate it, having unlearned its lessons?

I am prone to believe these are not mutually exclusive results. Can we ever really wipe the slate clean? Should we? I for one would like to know what had been on the slate. What knowledge had we acquired and attempted to share before it was made clean? The emptiness does promise possibilities, but those possibilities include the repetition of previous mistakes. Perhaps we should do what I do in my own classroom. Start writing on the board along the side of the room, leaving the other notes in tact.

Chalkboard
CC Image Posted on Flickr by nokozin

The Strategy of Dissolution:

Michael Jackson replaces Stalin
CC Image Posted on Filckr by Jonathan Marks

Michael Jackson replaces Stalin
"There used to be a statue of Stalin in the communist period. It beamed across the river into the old town from a park on hill just North of the old town. The statue was removed and replaced with a sort of metronome. I climbed the 254 stairs to the top to find a skateboard park and a sort of shrine to the late Michael Jackson." - Jonathan Marks, July 2, 2009

I think the photo above proves exactly the kind of cultural exchange that Baudrillard claimed would develop between the East and the West after the fall of communism.  However, this exchange does not come without Baudrillard's repeating conclusion that these communication advances have a diminishing effect (see the discussion about the void from The Ascent of the Vacuum Towards the Periphery) on the value of the information and culture overall. He argued that "if democratic values spread so easily, by a capillary or communicating vessels effect, then they must have liquefied, they must now be worthless" (44). The values that had once been "held dear and dearly bought" are now so easily bought and sold that their worth is cheapened. Without struggle there can be no appreciation. Something given and taken so freely and easily can have no value.

It is clear that Baudrillard was rather prophetic in many aspects:
  • He sees how the overwhelming amount of information that is so easily bounced over the globe and into the void so instantaneously has brought an emptiness to our culture. We long to find meaning, but so often anything of worth is lost in the crushing information wave that inundates us at every waking moment. "Language seems to wish to go beyond its intentional operation and get caught up in its own dizzy whirl" (37).
  • Baudrillard sees the spread as infectious and causing dis-ease.  
  • He posits that the "model of viral collapse" initiated by the fall of communism will be passed on to other countries desirous of "a virulence of destructive power" (38). In this new era of free-flowing information and exchange, his prediction is borne out by the collapse of power during the Arab Spring of 2011, quite a virulent spread with technology given much credit for making information widely-known and organization possible.
In the end, I am more optimistic than Baudrillard. While I see many of the same cultural losses as he, I also see the many more benefits that technology and the new media have brought about. Perhaps this is where the text becomes dated. Had Baudrillard written this today, would he be less pessimistic about the cultural ruin he so often alludes to? I do feel there is a saturation point that makes it difficult to process the information, a lack of depth to make room for breadth, and a devaluation of information that is so quickly and readily exchanged without consideration. However, for technology and media, the same rule applies that applies to all other things in life: moderation is the key.

Perhaps the take away message is that we all need to remember to step away from the keyboards and screens from time to time. Stop and move at the non-technologically-enhanced pace of humanness. I do not want to lose the value of experiences in my rush to document them and follow the documents of others.

Perhaps it is best to leave this post in the hands of another great thinker/poet/theorist/philosopher....





I think Baudrillard would approve.


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