Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Recuperating Reality: a (relatively) brief addendum

Topics Covered:
criticizing the critic,
a personal denial of cultural imperialism,
spring break (wooo!)

In a recent correspondence with official Bro o' the Blog and Future Shipwreck WEBMASTER, Graham, he raised some very shrewd points about my latest post which I feel need to be addressed in order to give a more balanced view of the subject matter. I mean, that should be pretty easy, right? I'm just talkin' 'bout reality!

First of all, I think I might have come off as a bit too uncritical of Baudrillard's theories. Looking back over the piece, I think the only explicit skepticism I voiced was in reference to the false sense of nostalgia embedded in his "successive phases of the image". However, as with any highly abstract theory making dramatic claims about the nature of existence, there is obviously a lot more with which one might take issue. Though I think in general he makes some really good points I too have some significant concerns.

Glitter Graphics

Portrait by K. Winfrey
Blingees: Possibly the ultimate manifestation of
"late capitalist" excess.
Certainly the most sparkle-y.

1. To a certain extent the arguments in "The Precession of Simulacra" are elitist. Not just in the sense that they are often unnecessarily convoluted and couched in esoteric terminology which excludes the casual reader, but they also assume a degree of economic/social over-development. A prevalent amount of excess and leisure is required for a society to produce things which are purely representational rather than purely functional. The same is true on an individual/consumer level. Try to talk to a homeless man on the street about the symbolic significance of the McDonald's cheeseburger he is eating (their current "urban-hip" image they are promoting, their status as an international standard of corporate America and fast food production in general, etc) and he would probably tell you to fuck off. To a person who requires cheap nourishment and doesn't possess the resources to prepare that food themselves the "reality" of that cheeseburger is not in question. I am hungry, the hamburger will temporarily alleviate this hunger. Baudrillard seems to forget that a lot of the time people act simply out of necessity, not to make a statement which in a Kantian sense means they are not actually exercising free will and therefore not fully "participating" in the discourse of representation. Furthermore, even if conflicting arrays of meaning exist as a result of an individual action that doesn't necessarily mean they will be personally relevant.

Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings - always darker, emptier and simpler.

2. How urgent is this crisis of reality, really? There is a famous line in Apollinaire's poem "Merlin and the Old Woman" which states: "J'ai fait des gestes blancs parmi les solitudes." (Loose translation: "I made blank gestures among the solitudes.") In spite of the nihilistic implications of this sentiment, Susan Sontag observes in her excellent essay "The Aesthetics of Silence" that he is still making gestures. Even if an action is ineffectual in its aim to create/enforce a desired meaning something is undeniably happening. What is its significance purely as a gesture? Baudrillard never bothers to address that.

It's one thing to have critics and academics saying, "There is no reality any more!", but at the same time it's not as if the world is on the verge of immediate collapse. You couldn't perform the activities necessary for daily existence if you didn't believe in at least a fundamental, empirically observable reality. Obviously the majority of people, even those who accept the aforementioned critics' arguments, have found ways to cope (though not always with positive results) and if you're not going to offer a more inspired method then what's the benefit of worrying about what's already happened? Though the process might not be entirely conscious, I think we all have a sort of a Nietzschean moment in our life when where we're faced with the overwhelming subjectivity of existence and we're like, "Ok, maybe there's no objective basis for this, but I've considered the available information, I've satisfied my intellectual conscience, and like my way of seeing things the best so I'm just going to act according to that." There's something noble in that kind of egotism. If Baudrillard's theory has a practical value it lies in the formation of perspective (i.e. don't be fooled into making false judgments based on relative hierarchies of real/unreal), but it's pretty useless in terms of actual, personal application.

Brings new meaning to the phrase "gender performance".

3. Can we find a middle ground between iconoclast and iconolater? I believe the answer to this question is a resounding, "Yes!" and yet Baudrillard never explicitly investigates this possibility. Instead of completely accepting or rejecting a system of imagery one can alter or subvert it from within. You know, that whole SLC Punk, "taking down the system from the inside" ethos. On a level of personal representation, Queer theorist José Muñoz refers to it as "disidentification": neither fully identifying with an image (which involves artificially ridding oneself of personal traits which don't fit the desired identity and adding ones that do) nor counter-identifying (which merely sets one up as the opposite of the existent image, effectively allowing the rejected system to set the criteria of "what you are not"), but rather actively performing an identity in such a deliberate way where one is legible as such even without fitting the assumed prerequisites.

On a broader level of "social" realities, Slavoj Žižek refers to the Lacanian notion of "traversing the phantasy" in which we fully accept our constructed reality in order to come in more intimate contact with the truth it contains: "The lesson of psychoanalysis here is [...]: we should not mistake reality for fiction - we should be able to discern, in what we experience as fiction, the hard kernel of the Real which we are able to sustain only if we fictionalize it." This has the additional benefit of recuperating some of the value of simulated realities which in Baudrillard are merely alienating. Žižek contends that the "real" events in our lives (pain, tragedies, etc.) often take the form of the spectacular and thus they are not necessarily of any more value as an apparatus to "ground" oneself in a fixed sense of reality. Both the real and the simulation contain elements of each other and that overlap is perhaps the most fecund mental space to inhabit.

4. This ain't no Neojaponisme. I'd just like to make it clear that the examples I used in my post are in no way meant as an attempt to make my arguments seem more interesting by instilling them with the sense of "exoticism" and "wackiness" typically associated with Japan in our culture. They simply happened to be the most conducive examples to making the points I wanted to make. That's all I really have to say about that.

Well, I'm heading off to LA for the latter part of my Spring Break. Until next time, celebrate your subjectivity with these jams:


Brandon Stetter said...

Had no idea this thing was up yet my boy. Have fun in LA and we'd love to see you in Lex town soon.

Brandon Stetter

Graham K said...

Thanks for the tip about Jose Munoz... sounds like fascinating stuff! I want to check that out.

P.S. I was referring to not