40 On Thinking II (Baudrillard V)
Concerning the Absurd in Thinking and Argumentation
The following is concerned with the question, whether Baudrillard’s speaking, thinking, and philosophizing is an “elegant nonsense” (the Sokal Affair), or indeed might mean yet something else.
You will perhaps have thought, in reading these passages from and about Baudrillard: what nonsense! I don’t understand a single thing anymore. What the devil is all this? For what? For whom did Baudrillard write that? And what a great amount of trouble the Blog-writer is going to in writing it, in vain! Thank you for the inquiries.
I’m writing this for you who are presently reading this.
Even when you don’t understand it and haven’t read my Baudrillard texts in the blog to the end.
Even when you don’t want to understand it.
Perhaps the provocation through Baudrillard’s language and text has fallen on just as fertile a ground for you as it did once for me, as I was still a believer in the enlightening optimism of Brecht: to change something, to make something “conscious,” in that I had entrusted myself to the rational thinking of rational people, and the philosophical realism of the neo-positivist school (as it was then called).
Yet how disappointed I was? As if one could still erect some edifice out of the language of logic, mathematics, and reason in our postmodern age of globalization and world-spanning networks: something absolute, i.e. to proclaim a non-relative truth, to make society and people better, to exert influence over a person in his comportment, his sexuality (pardon: that will have to come again; you’ve already accused me of linguistic sexism).
Yet let us proceed step by step. Let us begin, once more, with antiquity, this time with Aristotle. He was first to introduce something approaching scientific thinking. Measurement, calculation, categorizing; logic in thinking, exact word definitions, physics, astronomy, etc. Nevertheless, he had accepted, on the opposite side (he was, after all, a student of Plato for many years): metaphysics, æsthetics, politics, history, mythology, etc.
As I see it, Plato does not belong among scientists. Although he held mathematics especially in high esteem, as the binding link between the ideas in the heavens and their earthly representations here on the ground: the abstract terms. His philosophical ideas—in his dialogues approaching a form of theater—he nevertheless kept almost concealed, and are plurivalent and must (or only can) be ambiguously interpreted. In his works we discover little that is unambiguous. And that is also good, in my opinion. For we find ourselves “kindled” by ambiguities, toward discussing, interpreting, speaking, encountering, and disputing. Thus living, encountering, and discussing comes into play: we meet one another as human beings, not as machines.
This world is that of the arts, also sensuousness, feelings, creation, interpretation, and not that of dogmatic determination of meanings. Thus, a world of understanding and being-understood concerning understanding.
The arts and studies with are concerned with meaning, understanding meaning, and being understood, are called hermeneutics. They ought to be, as a science of fundamentals, a primary course of study in every school and university in the world (just as much, the subject of creativity should not remain constrained to literature, music, or image/art/film). But as soon as one has found the path to truth or its meaning, one immediately grasps for dogmatic fixation like a Pope, permits only the acceptable priests to enter the court of the hallowed sanctuaries, even threatens unbelievers with sanction. They are become heretics, anarchists, rebels: one harbors critical suspicions toward them.
What do I now mean with “dogmatic fixing of meaning”? Quite simple: it is the belief in the right(eous)ness of terms that one uses, in order to reach a goal.
Yet what goal does one have, if (as in our case) one employs written language? With spoken language it’s yet another thing.
Natural scientists always seek further to perfect and safeguard their knowledge to dominate. Safeguard means to immunize against critique and challenge. Knowledge to dominate nature, people, their society. Mostly this amounts to technical solutions to the problem, that is through reification (more recently, frequently a 0/1 digitization). I have nothing against knowledge to dominate, if its use remains transparent and benefits humankind. Which is not always possible: see the repercussions of splitting the atom.
Conversely, scientists of the humanities concern themselves with knowledge to understand, knowledge for practical life skills. Also knowledge of the meaning and use of knowledge to dominate. I always refer to this metaphorically as tracing the path (of life), or somewhat more literary, tracing a track in the desert of multiplicity (the pluriverse). Pluriverse is not negative for me, rather positive, even if sometime chaos, obscurity, and disorder are part of it.
We ourselves are, at the present moment, equipped to acquaint ourselves with knowledge to understand: wherefore do we need knowledge, what kind of knowledge, to whom is this knowledge useful? This sociology of knowledge (this also exists) examines these questions.
Social scientists ultimately concern themselves with both: knowledge to dominance for control of a society, for example through economic prognoses and calculations; but also knowledge of understanding is a part of this, for example in the case of psychologists or social workers, in order that we get along better with our fellow human beings. This knowledge is concerned with emancipation and mixes the two above-named forms with another—sometimes more, sometimes less—also in the sense of complementarity.
The epistemological division I have here presented derives from the Frankfurt School, especially in the present case from Jürgen Habermas.
Concerning the onesidedness of Anglo-American analytical philosophy, which accepts only the thinking of the natural sciences, thence pursues knowledge to dominance (logical empiricism was the gamete of this thinking), over time to the point of a behaviorism of the vulgar—one which must continually use data and statistics to chase new hogs into town, so that the tills ring—I have already written.
That the other side, with its emancipation movement (of workers, of men, of women, of the third world, of nature, of pedagogy, etc.), which largely comes down to a liberation in the sense of socialist doctrines, has sunk its teeth just as deeply into a useless dogmatism was clear, at the latest, in 1989 with the total implosion of the Eastern-European Imperium.
This movement failed, but nevertheless left a large Weltanschauung lacuna in its wake, which was rapidly filled with a new economism: all is to be in service of the new divinity, money, videlicet, the dollar. A new imperialism, a new dogmatism arises, which does not recognize any Other, any alternative, or antithesis. Sacrifice to the new god: disunite, castigate, alienate yourselves in the name of the divinity! Be happy, “get lucky”! Erect altars with incense candles in Cupertino, Milan, and also (if need be) in Stuttgart.
Where, now, does Jean Baudrillard stand in this dissent, likewise Jacques Derrida, Paul Virilio the discoverer of the acceleration and deceleration theories, or François Lyotard, in whom the term “post-modern” originates (from which even Lyotard subsequently distanced himself; was it not his greatest discovery)?
As a sociologist who reflects on the state of a future society and presents no statistical exaltations or numbers, one must count Baudrillard as among the scientists of the humanities.
But here as well, he is making a last stand. He is not understood. The æsthetic artifices, in the sense of the Russian formalists, led him to become an artist who trod virgin country with his language and his thinking. He overburdens us with his new vision, new thoughts, his provocative irony that gladly brushes up to absurdity without deteriorating into the meaningless or the surreal (as often transpires in literature).
The reader never truly knows exactly whether Baudrillard is serious with his theses and prognoses, whether his sentences are meant to be true or not.
They couldn’t possibly be true! A sentence like:
We find ourselves truly in Paradise, in a Beyond. The fantasy is in power, likewise enlightenment and intelligence, and we now (or in the near future) experience the perfection of the social; all is attained, the Heaven of utopia is come to Earth, and what once loomed as a radiant perspective now represents itself henceforth as a catastrophe in slow motion. We already sense the fatal handsel of material Paradises.
this formulation is pure contradiction in itself (a paradise of catastrophe), an escalation into ironic excessiveness, a provocation of the healthy human mind. And nevertheless, despite all laughing or smirking over this bitter message: there already exists today, in our present age, a “fatal handsel of material Paradises.” About what, then, do I write differently than about this “fatal handsel” of our Paradises?
And when, in these Paradises, are our minds already healthy? Should it not always be open for the new, the other, the antithetical, also for new thinking?
Baudrillard, in any case, effects with his thinking and his artistic language (on the style-elements of which I have already responded in another blog entry) rather more insight, awareness, change sometimes than the exact scientific path in the manner of empirical social research. That is, thinking at the edge of the absurd, the argumentation close to contradiction and illogic can very likely be meaningful, if also less in the realm of science as in the realm of the arts.
The Baudrillard Readings remain acute in my memory for my path in life, i.e., also for my concrete practice of living: that I give, in fact, too much attention to the objects that surround me. That I don’t really need them. That in this present luxurious overabundance of things, foodstuffs, even the offers of sex and lust, the Buddhist or Franciscan path of simplicity and asceticism might often perhaps be more appropriate. And this, my purely personal decision for a path through life is, with scientific “truths,” less-often found. Unless a physician diagnoses, with his or her technical aides, a sickness leading out of it.
With my two blog entries on seduction and desire I have attempted to imitate a typical pseudo-rationality, pseudo-logic, pseudo-argumentation in Baudrillard’s style. The pinnacle of my irony was ultimately reached at the end of blog entry Number 43, “On Seduction,” as I set forth the (perhaps irrational) thesis, that I am perhaps not at all the one writing this blog. Who, then? Irrationalists might now perhaps have irrational answers at the ready, that might convince authors such as Jorge Luis Borges and others (perhaps me as well).
Yet my approach was a heuristic trick, an aide that—as seems important to me to make clear, though it may be only with sensationalism—a provocation. Sextus Empiricus himself defends the phenomenon, in his treatise on Skepticism (see in the blog, Number 34), that sometimes even weak arguments can be meaningful to the demonstration of a problem.
And do you not think, at the end of such a discourse, of seduction and desire?
You are not interested in case-studies and empirical investigations? But desire and seduction are familiar to you? Do we not live in an Age of Narcissus, in which beauty, outwardness, and masquerades seek to seduce us? In an age of lust, of pleasure, and dazzle?
How should one approach the topic of “seduction” in the manner of a natural scientist? In which we might page through the most miscellaneous experimental results in the pertinent specialist press? Acquaint oneself with (or challenge) the theory of the effects of perfumes on sexual behavior between men and women? And so on.
Then in this case, Baudrillard’s method—or, more extreme, Virilio’s—is much preferred. With few artifices, these authors identify a problem and impel us to a decision: yes (sic) or no (non).
The authors themselves remain strangely vague in their apparent “neutrality,” which belongs to the method of their approach. Or they laugh at us, which I find somewhat less humanitarian. Jacques Derrida ended his New Yorker lecture, “On Heidegger’s Right Hand,” predominantly smiling, with the following sentences: “The greatest power of occidental thinking is … silence.” It alludes thereby to the father and master-intellectual of analytical philosophy Wittgenstein’s famous sentence: “of that of which one cannot speak, one must remain silent.”