Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Remembering Jean Baudrillard

I just read the wire service report of the death of Jean Baudrillard at Al Jazeera English. I hope that it will not be long before I see more extended obituaries; but I may as well set down my own thoughts on the basis of the "raw data." Basically, my reaction was not that different to how I received the news of the death of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: I went into my files to see what sorts of notes I had taken of what I had read.

I was first drawn to Baudrillard in the summer of 1989, when the English translation of America sent Robert Hughes into a apoplectic frenzy. I had always felt that Hughes was one of those blowhards whose opinion of himself was vastly overrated (and therefore should have been right at home at Time magazine); so I figured that anyone who annoyed him that much had to be worth reading. However, unless I am mistaken, I did not actually knuckle down at buy any Baudrillard until over five years later, when I found French editions of both Amérique and Le Système des Objets in a bookstore in Basle. Then, I have to confess, it took more than another five years before I finally took the time to give him a serious read, concentrating on Le Système des Objets.

The Al Jazeera report describes Baudrillard as "the French sociologist and philosopher and critic of globalisation and consumerism;" and Le Système des Objets is definitely a good place to get his take on consumerism. However, it seemed to me at the time that he was not so much going after the obsessive need to buy and the role of the media, particularly advertising, in cultivating that obsession as he was trying to get at why so much of life had become an (obsessive?) matter of collecting things (i.e. objects). Here is a bullet list of points I made after reading his chapter about collection in Le Système des Objets:

  • Collecting is ultimately discourse with one’s self.
  • As such it is fundamentally infantile.
  • This distinguishes it from science (the collection of facts) and memory (the collection of knowledge).
  • Anyone obsessed with collection is impoverished and inhuman.

Writing as one who collects music (CDs, sheet music, and orchestral scores for study) and books, I found this pretty stern stuff. On the other hand it may also have gotten under my skin enough to be useful. If nothing else, it probably eased the trauma of my having to get rid of all my vinyl recordings when I had to adjust to a radical reduction of space in moving from a house in Palo Alto to a condominium in San Francisco. Ironically, given how much critical ink Baudrillard spilled over our obsessions with the virtual, that trauma was also eased by a belief that any object I gave up would eventually be at my disposal through the resources of some digital library. In any event I reproduce that summary here because I feel it is as valid today as it was when Le Système des Objets first appeared in1968.

In my Schlesinger post I made it a point to honor the man with his own words. I would like to do that with another passage from Le Système des Objets. Since I never bothered to look into whether the book was translated into English, this passage is my own translation; so I have to apologize in advance if my effort comes off as too amateurish. However, I wanted to reproduce the content here, because the topic is automation:

Therefore, to render a machine automatic, it is indeed necessary to sacrifice possibilities of operation. To render a practical object automatic, it is necessary to stereotype its functionality and weaken it. Far from having its own technical signification, automation always carries a risk of technological arrest: to the extent that an object is not automated, it is susceptible to reconfiguration, to advancement as a larger functional set. If it becomes automated, its function is achieved, but is also finished: it becomes exclusive. Automation is thus like a closure, a functional redundancy, expelling man into the irresponsibility of a spectator. It is the dream of a subjugated world, of a technology formally accomplished in the service of an inert and dreaming humanity.

I suppose that it was writing like this that ultimately drove me to start writing my first blog on the theme of "Reflections Beyond Technology." The extent to which technocentric thinking is still "expelling man into the irresponsibility of a spectator" continues to haunt me, whether it has to do with the ways in which "CRM thinking" have eroded our humanity or with the consequences of that erosion on our response to natural disasters such as Katrina.

In his later years Baudrillard shifted his attacks from consumerism to globalization; but, at the end of the day, he was still writing about a world that was a product of excessive technocentrism. As far as I am concerned, one cannot write too much about this topic. Given the current state of that world, he should be missed, even if those most in need of his insights are least aware of him.

1 comment:

Katy said...

Collecting is infantile...shame shame. Hmmm. Intellectuals are afraid of being infantile, because their occupation is to consciously analyze, define, solve. Infants cannot consciously analyze, however, so to behave in an infantile manner threatens one's reputation and skill as an intellectual. Wait a minute. On the evolutionary time line, the human being's ability to consciously analyze is in its infancy. We are infants in a sense, and infants need their comforts: comfort food, comfort of surroundings, comfort of familiarity. It nourishes them. So collected your vinyl, your first editions, your salt and pepper shakers, even, and feel good about it. Collecting what we value, for whatever reason we value it--or for no reason at all--nourishes our humanity. Comments like Baudrillard's are insidious, and even go against his own quest to reassign value to the individual.