Jean Baudrillard: Forget Foucault.
Trans. Nicole Dufresne.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2007.
US$14.99 (paper ISBN-13: 978-1-58435-041-5).
The 2007 Semiotext(e) edition of this work is divided into three sections. In the first section, Columbia university professor Sylvere Lotringer contextualizes Baudrillard's work from its Marxist roots to his implementation of the Foucauldian genealogical method, and finally to Baudrillard's maturation into his own system built around his concept of 'simulation'. The second section is the original essay itself in which Baudrillard composts Foucault's notions of power, production, and sexuality in order to supplant them with the concepts central to his own theory of simulation, such as challenge, seduction, and desire. The third section, an interview between Baudrillard and Lotringer entitled 'Forget Baudrillard', is an attempt by Lotringer to flesh out Baudrillard's methods as a meta-theorist and postmodern provocateur. Just as Baudrillard employs a Foucauldian discourse in order to turn it on its head, so Lotringer analyzes Baudrillard in his own terms thus returning the favor.
Lotringer situates Baudrillard in his historical context as one of many Marxists left disappointed and disillusioned in the wake of May 1968. Baudrillard's theoretical outlook, like those of many post-'68 French intellectuals, was shaped greatly as a response to this disillusionment. Baudrillard's response is to continue to fight or transgress all boundaries through 'the saturation of the semiotic code' or 'an absolute deterritorialization of theory itself' (11) in order to explode the hyperreality of the hegemonic capitalist ideology. Baudrillard begins by exploring the Foucauldian genealogical method in his own works, but ultimately finds this method unsatisfactory: just one more 'floating theory' among all the rest, interchangeable with Guattari and Deleuze's theory of desire (17-8). For Baudrillard, all that is left is total revolution, that is, theoretical violence. His weapon of choice: the unilateral gift of death. This gift cannot be returned or recompensed, and thus it explodes all exchange relations and tears asunder the existent semiotic code. Beyond desire, beyond power, beyond sexuality, Baudrillard seeks to do Foucauldian philosophy, namely genealogy justice by going beyond, or forgetting Foucault. 'This was a "gift" that he received from Foucault, and why he had to return it to him with a vengeance' (21).
Foucault's greatness lay in his ability to de-center the world of value; however, like Nietzsche's Zarathustra his message is distorted and in fact destroyed by the loyalty of his disciples. In reifying Foucault's methodology into a school of thought, 'power' becomes the new grand narrative and so Foucault becomes 'the last great dinosaur' (30) of the classical age. Foucault cannot take himself too seriously, and in fact, his greatness lies in his obsolescence; that we recognize the time for Foucault has passed is the legacy of Foucault. Part of Baudrillard's project is to overthrow the notion of power by showing how it seeks its own death in striving to become a principle of reality. '(E)ven if it has no finality and no last judgment, power returns to its own identity again as a final principle: it is the last term, the irreducible web, the last tale that can be told; it is what structures the indeterminate equation of the word' (50). After doing away with power, Baudrillard supplants it with seduction which is a 'leading away' of all things to be subsumed in simulation. With seduction as his song, Baudrillard is cast as a pataphysical pied piper leading power, sexuality, psychoanalysis, and socialism to drown in the river of simulation.
For Baudrillard, power does not encounter resistance; rather it contains its own resistance. By combining resistance and power, he offers a new view of power as a challenge. However, this is not the positive sense of challenging that Foucault offers as expanding the discourse; rather it is in alignment with the futile, ever increasing complexity of power as a facade. Baudrillard likens power to a shattered windshield wherein every attempt to repair itself actually causes it to crack more. The increasingly 'shattered' nature of power does not make it more fragile, though, but strengthens it. Baudrillard, though trying to go beyond this principle of reality, shows how the inversion of power actually operates via a similar method. Power as a system with a recursive nature attempts to make itself a structure that becomes stronger and more impenetrable the larger it becomes.
Baudrillard believes that through his structure of simulation he is doing Nietzsche's bidding, that is, just as one must push what is collapsing so Baudrillard is pushing power, namely, in the guise of the Foucauldian discourse. Foucault thought that he was carrying out such a Nietzschean project by perpetually restructuring reality, transgressing it and redefining it. What Baudrillard has done is to square the process: transgress the transgression by transgressing the transgressor (Foucault). Once the process become reflexive it reaches the point at which it must transgress and transcend itself.
In this book Baudrillard focuses on two key Foucauldian concepts: power and sexuality. For Baudrillard, it is the simulacra of power and sexuality that constructs our present notions of power and sexuality. In the end, we are left with a very elaborate web of definitions that cannot give power or sexuality the force they need to be meaningful. Our ever-expanding web of definitions is alluring. We are lured away from the principles of the structures of power and sexuality and towards a new home outside of them. Baudrillard sees our willing excommunication from this reality as liberatory. His peculiar form of nihilism offers us 'not a more reassuring world, but certainly (one) more thrilling' (74).
Baudrillard claims that he is at heart a metaphysician, but Lotringer does a superb job of exposing Baudrillard as a pataphysician. Baudrillard demolishes not only metaphysics, but the condition for the possibility of a system of knowledge and along with it any principle of reality. Baudrillard praises this pataphysical 'dizziness' with which we are left. However, the reader should heed Lotringer's advice and beware of gentle pataphysicians with a big hammer. Baudrillard's methods may resemble Foucauldian geneaology, but they are not a natural extension thereof. The Baudrillardian project of hyperreality is not designed to 'challenge' discourse in order to enhance it as the Foucauldian genealogical project does; rather it is parasitic on theory occupying the place of mere nay-sayer. Simulation may initially operate under the guise of an extension of genealogy; however it lapses into a parodic negation. Baudrillard leaves behind him a wasteland of theory in which liberation is supposed to be present.
Baudrillard maintains that metaphysical solutions have become impotent in their attempt to describe the physical, and metaphor has become impotent in enhancing the literal. The solution that Baudrillard offers is to abolish metaphysics and metaphor. He does so by showing how both result in distortions, that is, theoretical monstrosities. Instead of trying quietly to euthanize such 'meta' monstrosities as Foucauldian genealogy, power, sexuality, and desire, Baudrillard implements the hyperbolic strategy of outright philosophical confrontation. In spite of his postmodern prolixity, he does indeed find his niche in expanding the project of transgression. Although at times opaque, a flaw of most contemporary French philosophy that many wear as a badge of honor, due mostly to the continued relevance of Foucault's work this book is a welcome addition to the dialogue and remains as rich today as it was when it first appeared.
Nathan McCune and Jacob M. Held
University of Central Arkansas