36 Jean Baudrillard (1)
The Sovereignty of Things
“Things have found a way to elude the dialectic of meaning, a dialectic which bored them: they did this by infinite proliferation, by potentializing themselves, by outmatching their essence, by going to extremes, and by obscenity which henceforth has become their immanent purpose and insane justification.”1
What a wonderful sentence, right at the beginning of a thoroughly strange book2 that is, time and again, much more than art, more than philosophy, science, entertainment, or poetry! It was written by a French professor of sociology and reads in parts like a sort of science-fiction text, over the bizarre outcomes and provocative, overreaching premises or claims of which one is given, over and over, to laugh. It is less concerned with reality and “hard facts” (such a term!) than with impulsion and provocation, in order to find, or consider, or to trace, its own way forward.
I shall dissect and decipher this sentence (and further citations subsequently) in the manner of a Latin sentence construction, and attempt to translate it, in order that its sense, its mystery might be made clear and comprehensible. For it is hiding itself behind unusual artistic tricks and finesses (“Kunstgriffe”3 was the Russian Formalists’ term for it), such as those presently applied with great enthusiasm by the French authors and philosophers (among whom I count myself).
There is the strange fact that things, i.e. soulless objects, suddenly possess natural, indeed human, qualities. Things find a means of escape, in that they—paradoxically, quasi in the manner of a cancerous tumor—grow, “proliferate,” ad infinitum.
Why, or from what, do they flee? They flee from the fact, which has become “boring” to them, namely from a central theme, upon which whole philosophical systems from Plato to Hegel have been constructed. They flee from the “dialectic between sense and reference.”
Our actions always possess sense and reference (or rather, significance), whether we want them to or not, whether we know it or not. Our actions are sensible for reasons and due to causes. And they have significance, a purpose, directed towards a goal, towards some ultimate purpose, which we as subject and thinking humans are able to define, or are at least capable of doing so.
Now, however, it becomes less straightforward. For all of this underlies a dialectic, a Platonic term, which Hegel developed further as a milestone in his philosophy. Everything arises—according to Heracles—from opposition. Opposites rub up against one another and ultimately find the new Third, the synthesis, consensus. Sense unveils itself only in the confrontation with not-sense (I don’t say nonsense, as this term is already to strictly determined, “connotated”). Reference/significance unveils its reference/significance first in the confrontation with referencelessness/non-significance/etc. Thesis generates an antithesis, and the two together are found elevated into systhesis, according to Hegel. Isosthenias were not, up to this point, considered.
Now Baudrillard claims that this development-structure of things, immanent in thought, has become boring. They no longer wish to underlie dialectical development as humans do, to be dependent on it. Quite the opposite: unilaterally, they metastasize and proliferate, become larger, more powerful ad infinitum, without consideration of antitheses, let alone syntheses or isosthenias. Like two straight lines, which ostensibly intersect first at infinity, they eschew the dialectical confrontation or encounter with the Other and concern themselves only solipsistically with themselves. They desire to grow further, even malignantly to proliferate, they expotentiate themselves thereby, become larger and more powerful; and they surpass, in this development, even themselves: and they can ultimately transcend their own “essence” to the point of extremity, what Baudrillard calls obscenity.
Thus is this development not any sort of good or positive one, but rather a dangerous, negative “immanent purpose;” later on it is even called “insane.”
This insane development driven to an excessive, obscene extremity of unreason is an ironic obeisance by the Nanterre master before Hegel. Hegel proclaims, as ultimate purpose and goal of every form of development, in fact not unreason, but reason. In the dialectical development process of the intellect, society, and world history, ultimately and despite all conflations and plights, good and reason triumph. We are not even any longer all that distant from this, as according to Hegel’s famously infamous phrase is “all that is being is reasonable, and (only) that which is reasonable, is being.”
What now heralds the entry into his book on “Fatal Strategies” like a tympano strike, with this statement from Baudrillard quoted above—that presents the unsettling, the incomprehensible, perhaps even the surreal—is the fact, that the described development to the extreme, leading most threateningly towards excrescence in an obscenity of unreason, does not emanate from intellect and will (as informed by Hegel), but from the things themselves. Things are that which, just as with people, proliferate, which transcend themselves into an obscene extremity, and ultimately rule—and this should already be anticipated; the thought should occur to you as neither new or strange—over human beings, their intellects, their society, and their world. Thus to rule with a cancerous proliferation and extremity, against which we simple human beings cannot make any inroads.
We are even, in many respects, according to Baudrillard’s view slaves of things, mostly without our knowing or noticing it. Indeed, we are already living—and more on this later—in a truly negative Paradise.
In this first sentence, two of the author’s important stylistic features become clear: 1) he personifies things that might move and behave themselves in the manner of people, and 2) transposes terms from different semantic fields. This last is relatively unusual, new, and perplexing in its language. It means that he takes words out of their recognized context (“obscenity” belongs to the semantic field of sexuality) and sets them, irritatingly enough, into another. He brings them thereby into a new (sense-)relationship, as when we would suddenly use a technical term from medicine to describe a phenomenon in piano-playing.
The abstract term “thing,” denoted in philosophy most commonly as “object,” he combines, in our case, with the field of sexual relations, as if things could become “obscene.” They are equally incongruous when described as growing, fleeing, cancerously proliferating, and the like. How is a vase supposed to grow or proliferate?
It acts, through this provocative “displacement,” to effectuate surprise. Reading, we stop short, astonished, bewildered; we don’t understand, we read once more, and are gradually impelled to a more meticulous, halting traversal of the text, which we know to be more conducive to an understanding and a can-be-understood.
Indeed, Baudrillard remains mostly within the realm of technical vocabulary particular to sociology, or even, nevertheless more hidden, in that of philosophy, only then suddenly to break out of its well-known connotations (semantic fields) and to astonish and confound us.
In his vocabulary, he remains loyal to the philosophical tradition of one such as Hegel and his “philosophy of history” (with Hegel, the world-spirit self-evidently “proliferates” dialectically towards greater happiness and reason); however, he mixes these terms again and again in bizarre combinations, oriented toward the present and here, in turn, with a vocabulary out of a wholly other, indeed almost quotidian realm. (By which I do not wish to insinuate that obscenity would or should rule over our everyday lives).
Where do things now stand regarding things? Are we to be thus ruled?
Is money not also a thing, which might compel us (to borrow a popular phrase) to bend the knee? Money is without a soul, is neither human nor animal, and yet appears all-powerful.
Or does google’s Kraken grow endlessly more all-encompassing, indeed seek to connect the entire world in order to secure world domination by means of pervasive Americanism and digitalization? Can this Kraken yet be stopped, or even subdued?4
Or where do we stand regarding the little things: toothbrushes, cars, washing machines, pills? How we long for our things! New shoes, cheap gas, special offers at the supermarket? Have not all these things of our daily consumption already become the secret rulers of our lives? What would we be without them?
Do they not perhaps already lead their own lives; indeed, do they not already ascend, without our knowing, to an almost omnipotent totality, one we can only suffer as stunned and powerless, silent observers?
Exploding nuclear power-plants, drone wars in the air and in space, electronic eavesdropping in the bathroom and at the Prime Minister’s coffee table, immeasurable vitamin consumption, befouled air, contaminated water, poison foodstuffs? To say nothing of my present activity, typing words into a machine and … (you are already familiar with my position and I need not constantly repeat myself).
A step further.What will happen when computers to begin to connect themselves to one another, when they might, due to some switching error, suddenly give intemperate and dangerous operational instructions, when the governing process is ineffective, switched off, and instead the robots roam free? When Siri cheerily provides us, in our despair, friendly counsel on life, love, and death from our smartphones? And when, simultaneously and in the same manner, such lovely pop music (“Get Lucky”) plays steadily from our earbuds, the news announcers inform us with the friendliest smile the most awful messages of death and destruction?
1Jean Baudrillard, “Les Strategies fatales” (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1983), pp. 9-33, 259-73. Translated by Jacques Mourrain in “Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings,” Mark Poster, Ed., Stanford University Press, 1988, 186–206.
2The German translation is Jean Baudrillard, „Die fatalen Strategien“(München: Matthes & Seitz 1985).
4In a particular irony, likely unknown to the author, the US National Reconnaissance Office (part of the American intelligence-gathering apparatus) recently launched a series of miniature satellites adorned with a logo featuring a globe-devouring octopus and the motto “Nothing Is Beyond Our Reach”. See https://io9.gizmodo.com/us-spy-agency-launched-this-earth-conquering-octopus-lo-1479029015.Translated by N. Andrew Walsh