Commentaries, Contemplation

On Jean Baudrillard: Seduction, Hyperreality, and the Murder of the Real

“Philosophy leads to death, sociology leads to suicide” —Jean Baudrillard

Today, we shall enter the desert of the real and examine Jean Baudrillard’s ideas on simulation, hyperreality and their relationships with his concept of seduction. It will address various topics such as nuclear deterrence, gender roles, feminism, sexual liberation, photography, and the death of universities. Many people have trouble reading Baudrillard due to his prose and borderline insane ideas. His works are written with a very distinctive style that happens to be declarative, hyperbolic, provocative, and obscure. Personally, I think Baudrillard is an incredible critical thinker in his own right—even if he does not have his own school of thought. This might be due to how he sort of just quits academia at one point and stops associating himself with any academic disciplines. It may also have something to do with how he grew up in a peasant rural family and was, at first, never considered as part of the 20th century French intellectual elites. 

Baudrillard was one of the first philosophers that I read closely back in my undergraduate days when I studied photography. His books left a lasting impact on the way I think. In many ways, Baudrillard’s ideas on simulation and hyperreality is a reinterpretation of the Platonic cave. Some of his ideas gained so much fame that his work was featured in the film, The Matrix. One of the biggest mistakes people make when they read Baudrillard is to think he is a postmodernist because he isn’t. Baudrillard is a big critic of postmodernism. He is also a sharp critic of Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, and many other thinkers of his time. Some contemporary scholars believe Baudrillard is Manichean—someone who breaks everything down into dualisms such as good and evil. While others believed he leaned towards being a pataphysician who was heavily influenced by Marcel Mauss.

Baudrillard became well known when he wrote a book called Forget Foucault (1977). At the time of publish, he even sent a copy to Foucault—who was one of the world’s most renown philosophers at the time—and asked him to read it (Foucault never responded). While Forget Foucault remains an important book to read, the best books to understand Baudrillardian thought is Seduction (1979) and Simulacra and Simulation (1981) [he has other important works such as Symbolic Exchange and Death, Fatal Strategies and Cool Memories]. These two texts provides two important dimensions of Baudrillardian thought that I will talk about today.

As already cited by many past scholars, Baudrillard was one of the few philosophers who tried to reconcile the incompatible differences between reality and illusion. He sometimes subtly points out how the disappearance of one yields to the destiny of the other. In short, Baudrillard’s method can be summarized with a single line from Friedrich Nietzsche: “We do not believe the truth remains true once the veil has been lifted”. Today, we will place extra emphasis on the word “veil”, which is associated with seduction: the disguise and play of appearance and meanings.

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The first main aspect of his thought lies in how Baudrillard thinks we are living in a world where we no longer know what is real and what isn’t. Simulacra and Simulation provides one of the best examples. The book begins with an apparent quote from Ecclesiastes, a quote that does not exist in the famous Hebrew bible: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” Many people who read this book for the first time often believes the quote as true, even when it isn’t. What is important about this example is not only that the same phenomena happens in contemporary world of simulations, it also occurs from the reader interpreting Baudrillard’s book (this was how I got into Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction). The experience of reading Simulacra and Simulation emphasizes on this constant state of confusion.

One can see something similar in the use of “nuclear deterrence” and how its fundamental goal is to make nuclear weapons so to not use them. You sometimes read news about X country producing nuclear weapons without the intentions for nuclear war, but to protect themselves from other nuclear armed countries. In nuclear deterrence, instead of producing a real nuclear conflict via making nuclear weapons, it produces a simulated mode of conflict between countries. If I remember correctly, Baudrillard used the cold war as an example. This is one of the reasons why, in Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard talks about how people dream of nuclear explosions which result in simulating them in televisions and movies instead of making them a reality.

Baudrillard also brings to point on the emergence of photography and how it was invented at a time where reality was beginning to disappear as it gets usurped by hyperrealities. He sometimes talks about how realist photography does not actually focus on capturing what is real in the situation. If you look at Baudrillard’s own photographic art exhibitions, one might recognize such techniques in his images (often referred as the “vanishing technique”). Regardless, Baudrillard foresaw how the world would eventually be replaced by infinite simulated hyperrealities where people will no longer know what is real.

Baudrillard uses the Borges fable as an example of hyperreality. The story talks about how cartographers mapped their empire that covers the entire land with precision. Yet over time, the empire falls into ruins and new empires establishes new borders. Reality changes, but the map remains intact and exists as the remainder. The territory no longer precedes the map, it is the map that precedes the territory—just like that of media, books, scholarships, and television, for example. In the same way, Baudrillard believes that reality no longer precedes simulation. Instead, simulations precedes reality, where the latter has become more real than real and more false than false.

It can be said that hyperrealities are produced through interpretation and forcing our ideals onto reality—hence the “murder of the real”. Later in Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard introduces hyperrealities as the remainder of society and universities. Unlike gender or reality, the remainder lacks a binary opposition (Masculine/Feminine, Reality/Illusion, Remainder/          ???). The other side of remainder is empty—it is a reflection from a mirror which is the remainder itself. The entire society becomes residual and reality is murdered, but so are universities which produces endless knowledge without finality. For Baudrillard, the real university, just like that of reality, has been long dead. What remains are endless simulation of realities. Even a strike would have the opposite effect, for it can only bring back the ideal of what is possible of a real university, a fiction that is no longer possible within a system of hyperrealities. This is one of the reasons why “sociology leads to suicide”. Sociology, just like that of feminism and sexual liberation (will get to later), seeks to uncover and strip the world naked by producing meaning and simulacrum by declaring what is most real about society. As a result, it produces new realities of the world that often exists independent of our immediate reality and the seductive beliefs people have (then there is also the problem of statistics and induction which plagues the social sciences; Baudrillard often referred statistics as a form of wishful thinking). In other words, sociology is suicidal in the sense that it produces hyperreal discourses that may lead to something like a delusion. Just like that of contemporary media, sociological findings can produce the Borges map that people immediately accept as reality without question. For Baudrillard, we are living in a world where meaning murders other meanings without consequences. Simulacrum versus other simulacra which becomes endless play of simulacra—to the point that everyone within the system becomes simulacrum.

Near the end of Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard points out how he is a nihilist. Since our world is flooded with meanings, discourses, and hyperrealities, the real has been lost in translation. Reality is dead and what remains is an infinite amount of meanings and hyperrealities that replaced reality—sort of like Starbucks which used to make pumpkin spice lattes without pumpkins in it. In the final passage of the book, Baudrillard emphasized on the irony of the situation. He ends the book by addressing how it is within this space of simulation where seduction begins.

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The second aspect of Baudrillard’s thought is more complex and it is best highlighted in his book Seduction. In it, there is a chapter called “Death in Samarkand” which tells a story of a soldier who tries to escape death while inevitably running into it. The point of this story is to show how the more people try to deviate from their fate, the more likely they will encounter it. The story leads Baudrillard into talking about the theme of chance which exceeds beyond causality and probability. Chance serves as a fundamental aspect to seduction (many French philosophers at the time spoke of chance in a similar way). Nevertheless, the “Death in Samarkand” story could resemble something like North Korea trying to build nuclear weapons so to avoid war, but ends up being threatened by other countries of going to war. Hence, what we see is a contradiction that Baudrillard highlights: between producing nukes to prevent real conflict, while inevitably running towards their own fate of going into another “real” (hyperreal) / simulated conflict. As Baudrillard writes, one always runs towards their own fate while trying to escape it.

Just like nuclear deterrence which ends up producing the opposite effects of preventing conflict, Baudrillard takes on the position that people’s emancipations are doing something similar. This can be seen in feminism and the sexual liberation. In the first chapter of Seduction, Baudrillard provocatively asserts to the Freudian view that the stability and production of reality and meaning is only possible due to the dimensions of the masculine, whereas the play of appearance, meanings and signs are only possible due to the feminine—the latter which he refer as “seduction”. Despite appearing on taking the Freudian psychoanalytic position, Baudrillard makes a reverse argument and points out how it isn’t the masculine dimension which produces and defines feminine reality as such (patriarchy), it is the feminine which challenges and produces the masculine certainty by exception via seduction. Baudrillard even points out that, the great theorist of split subjectivity Jacques Lacan, along with the entire field of psychoanalysis, also falls into the realm of seduction.

The irony that Baudrillard saw within the theme song of feminism (as he puts it) and their desire to break down gender roles is that they secretly had the upper hand in our patriarchal society by strategically manipulating it via seduction through a certain mode of challenge and the play of appearance, signs, and meanings. The feminine had always been the secret force of society which undermined all modes of masculine certainty and power. Yet, Baudrillard points out how feminists are depriving of their own strengths as they get caught up in the world of simulations which led them astray (because a lot of them dread seduction). As feminism sought to deviate from such seductive truth, they ended up producing more gender roles. As a result, it created an even more confusing world of simulations and simulacra. This is where Baudrillard criticizes the sexual liberation, which broke down gender roles. For Baudrillard, while the sexual liberation broke down gender roles via the production of new simulated realities (i.e. new realities of gender, etc.), he saw that people are still deeply seduced by / believed in gender roles—including those who sought to break them down.

At this point, it is easy to mistake Baudrillard as some anti-feminist, even when Baudrillard also did not believe in gender roles. But because he saw how people are seduced by it (they believe in it)—an old idea that is incompatible with our increasingly hyperreal world today, Baudrillard thinks gender roles still holds a lot of power in our society. One of the main problems Baudrillard had with the sexual liberation and the production of simulations is how its environment also produced people who can no longer make sense of their world and their roles in society due to the abundance of hyperrealities—a true existential crisis and mass depression of sorts, where people no longer know what is real and what isn’t. The result of this uncertain world would lead people to try and uncover what gender truly is, for example—like what you see in feminist thinker Luce Irigaray (i.e. her idea that “anatomy is destiny”; Irigaray was heavily criticized by Baudrillard in Seduction). Yet, for Baudrillard, it was never about producing or uncovering the truth of sex or gender. Rather, it had been about seduction which reversed and dissolved all gendered power relations via the play of appearances and meanings.

Baudrillard always saw how there was a seductive allure to the feminine “sex object” (via play of appearances) who is able to reverse and dissolve all modes of masculine power. In some of his other books, Baudrillard sometimes referred to this way of thinking as the “triumph of the object” which involves the subject who believes they are in power, even when it is the object who holds the power of the subject. The object holds the subject as hostage. It is for example, not the subject in power who watches the television (object), but the television (i.e. media) who watches the subject to the point that it manipulates and changes the subject—reversing all power relationships and creating a simulacrum subjectivity. This reverse relationship is what Baudrillard categorized as being part of seduction. The object is presented to the subject of power as a form of challenge, seduction, play of appearance and signs.

The confusion lies in the relationship between simulation, which comes from the production of new realities and meanings; and seduction which involves the play of these new simulated appearance of meanings and becoming seduced by them. The two terms lives in an eternal paradox, where the production of different realities will also lead to the inevitable play of seduction. In several places from both books, Baudrillard noted that simulation and seduction shares a similar dimension in the sense that the former seeks to become reality (more real than real, and more false than false), whereas the latter is the play of reality and appearances. For Baudrillard, nothing can triumph over seduction and the play of signs, not even the masculine production of simulation. In Seduction, Baudrillard writes:

“Now surprisingly, this proposition, that in the feminine the very distinction between authenticity and artifice is without foundation, also defines the space of simulation. Here too one cannot distinguish between reality and its models, there being no other reality than that secreted by the simulative models, just as there is no other femininity than that of appearances. Simulation too is insoluble.

This strange coincidence points to the ambiguity of the feminine: it simultaneously provides radical evidence of simulation, and the only possibility of its overcoming – in seduction, precisely.” (11)

Ultimately, Baudrillard’s thoughts provides us with the compatible incompatibilities between reality and illusion (simulation). With the disappearance of reality lies the destiny of simulation—the latter which can be overcome by the force of seduction. For Baudrillard, seduction allows people to accept simulative and hyperreal spaces via disguises and the play of appearances, signs, and meanings. Yet on the other hand, with the disappearance or revelation of simulations (i.e. gender roles) also lies the destiny of reality. While one can simulate some hyperreal truth via production of what is real (i.e. the truth of sex, gender, society, etc.), the desert of the real is recognized once such veil gets removed. For Baudrillard, revealing the truth will only show us that there are no truths because there was never really anything “real” to begin with; since humans had long began imposing their own modes of thoughts, realities, and Borges maps onto reality. This is what Baudrillard refer as “the perfect crime”.

Due to how Baudrillard thinks we are living in a world of simulations he sometimes points out how he is a believer of seduction. This is because, for him, seduction is the solution to our world of simulation and the loss of what is real, which leads to people losing their purpose on this world. The recognition of “truth” via the realization of simulations would lead people to try and recover what is most real which results in producing more simulations like those found in feminist movements, sociology, literature, and other texts. Yet at the same time, the production of simulation would also lead to the eternal destiny of feminine seduction which seduces the subject into believing these simulations as truth. This is the paradox that lives at the core of Baudrillardian thought.

To simplify the second aspect of Baudrillard’s ideas while retaining the paradoxes, we can put it as such: while Baudrillard believes gender roles are false, he thinks that because people are still seduced by such idea, we should adopt them and take advantage of it as modes of illusions which would blend or erase their differences. Instead of trying to assert or reveal the “truth” of gender and sex like that of sexual liberation and feminism (which produces more simulations), or completely deny it by claiming that gender is not real like postmodernists, Baudrillard thinks we should adopt gender roles as seductive disguises that is more real than real and more false than false.

Reading Baudrillard is like encountering how these paradoxes and contradictions collides and reconcile with each other, between simulation and seduction, reality and illusion, good and evil, man and woman, masculine and feminine. I often admired the ending of Seduction because I always thought it was very thought provoking. In fact, I cited it several times in some of my older posts. It serves as a good summary to Baudrillard’s thoughts:

“The world is naked, the king is naked, and things are clear. All of production, and truth itself are directed towards disclosure, the unbearable ‘truth’ of sex being the most recent consequence. Luckily, at bottom, there is nothing to it. And seduction still holds, in the face of truth, a most sibylline response, which is that ‘perhaps we wish to uncover the truth because it is so difficult to imagine it naked'”.

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