Reasoning oneself into absurdity: Jean Baudrillard

I had occasion on the weekend to visit my parents at their home in western Sydney. While there, I began browsing through an old collection of books that had remained behind when I left home about 17 years ago now to begin working in Canberra.

There was a lot of rubbish in my collection. At around that time I used to wander down King St from the university to the second-hand bookshops in Newtown, or over to Glebe to the bookshops there. Being hungry for information and learning in those pre-internet days I used to snap up as many ‘bargains’ as I could, and so I ended up with a lot of non-fiction books from the sixties and seventies. After quickly going through them to see if they had any value (most of them didn’t), I told Mum that I would do her a favour and take them to the St. Vincent de Paul store in Glebe, which is walking distance from where I currently live in Sydney’s inner west.

Among the collection was a more recent book, Baudrillard for Beginners, by Chris Horrocks and Zoran Jevtic. I remember buying it around this time in 1997 – again, only a few months before I left home to begin work. At the time, I was coming to the end of my honours year study in economics – a truly remarkable year of intellectual exploration and discovery – and my interests were broad and broadening. I was intrigued by the first sentence of the blurb on the back cover – ‘Did the Gulf War take place?’

‘What might this philosopher have to offer?’, I thought. I was completely ignorant of Baudrillard, or of any of the modern European schools of philosophy. But the book didn’t cost much, and I’d enjoyed reading various ‘X for Beginners’ books before, so I dropped some money on it.

Well!  I couldn’t understand it. The text was perfectly comprehensible, as with all of these beginners’ books. But the subject matter was far too obscure for me to get a handle on. The distinction between ‘signifier’ and ‘signified’ didn’t seem warranted in the application, and given that was the starting point of Baudrillard’s thinking, I was lost from the start.

After going through it once, I lacked the time and the inclination to follow up Baudriallard’s work in more detail. So I put it aside, my life went it’s way, and 17 years later I discovered the book and, on a glorious Sunday afternoon in Sydney’s Spring, re-read it.

I should have gone outdoors instead. Usually, with greater maturity and experience, I can make sense of books and concepts that escaped me as a young man. However, Baudrillard’s philosophy is still as impenetrable as ever.

Here’s an example – a representative example, I think – of what I struggled with, from page 46:

Symbolic exchange loses out. Our sun is not symbolic of life and death, goodness and vengeance, as it was for the Aztecs or Ancient Egyptian cultures. It has no destructive power or ambivalence.

And so reality is in collusion with the sign. It is a reality-effect produced by the sign. The sign alludes to reality, but in actuality excludes it.

[Baudrillard character speaking via a text bubble: “The real sun does not exist! This is the semiological reduction.”]

For Baudrillard, this capitalist “control” of meaning and reality is terroristic.

Symbolic exchange – unique, ambivalent, reciprocated functions of objects or symbols – is flattened. All repressive and reductive strategies of power systems are already present in the internal logic of the sign, including political economy.

Now look, I may be daft, and I am certainly not au fait with modern European philosophy, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of that. If anyone can explain what Baudrillard is saying here – or indeed in any of his works – then I would be grateful for an explanation.

From a thinking and deciding point of view, what struck me is how Baudrillard was able to reason himself to an absurd conclusion. ‘The sun does not exist!’ appears to be a necessary outcome of the path in logic which he has followed.

For most people, reaching this conclusion would indicate that something, somewhere, has gone wrong with one’s reasoning, and that it need be reviewed in order to correct the mistake. But not for Baudrillard. He chose instead to follow his reasoning wherever it may lead, so that, in early 1991, he denied that the ‘Gulf War’ between Saddam Hussein’s forces and those of an international coalition had occurred, even writing a book called The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

The lessons I would like you to take from this essay are:

  • be careful in your reasoning; if you reach a seemingly absurd conclusion, it is likely that you have made a mistake somewhere; go back and check your reasoning, and talk to friends and/or colleagues about it, to gain their thoughts on the matter;
  • be careful when buying books about twentieth-century European philosophy – you may get less than you bargain for.

Should you wish to read the book, you can – as the Amazon website suggests – purchase a second-hand copy for a single British penny. Or you can have mine, for free. But be quick. I won’t be giving this to the SVdP shop, it wouldn’t be fair to play on other people the same trick that was played on me. I intend to destroy my copy, in keeping with its worthlessness.

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About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
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