April 20, 2010

Disappearance of the Social

Images that Alienate

Jean Baudrillard

Living in Abstract

French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) is associated with the study of post-modernism as the mode of consciousness of man after modernity. A major theme of Baudrillard’s thoughts on post-modernism is “the disappearance of the social”, that is, the disappearance of the social relations between people, and the meanings, significances, and values that they entail. In his thinking, we may have gone beyond the loss of the human self. The social relations between people have begun to disappear because humans have begun to disappear. Reality itselfi.e., what we have conventionally understood as realis in a process of disappearance. Post-modernism is a blurring of the boarder-line between humans and machines, a blurring of the line between reality and images. Post-modernism, in its fullest sense, is when machines, television sets, and computers unplug us, not the reverse. Baudrillard insists that we are witnessing the disappearance of the human, the social, and the real in the post-modern era. We are so enmeshed in this post-modern phenomenon that Baudrillard’s profound thoughts on this subject will not immediately penetrate the readers’ minds. In fact, some may even find his thoughts preposterous or just ordinary. Indeed, there is nothing extraordinary about this phenomenon anymore!

According to Baudrillard, in the post-modern world, the new reality is that which can be “simulated”. If reality cannot be simulated, then it is not real. This means that when an image is a copy, duplicate, reproduction, or simulation of what is real, then the image is construed more real than the reality it replicates. When what is real is captured in an image, then the image takes on a higher reality and a life of its own, independent from us. The image, which constitutes the new reality, simulates or imitates what we no longer deem as real. Baudrillard refers to this new reality as “hyper-reality” which has outrun reality. Is he telling us something about the pathological fascination with the “reality shows” on TV? Is there possibly a relation between this hyper-reality and the morbid American obsession with watching TV?

The aftermath of this paradigmatic hyper-reality is quite prolific. Blood is not real until we see it on a television screen or have it streamed to a computer monitor. Real, physical suffering is not real until we read about it in a magazine, hear about it on radio, see its images on a television screen or computer monitor. Actual suffering no longer evokes our pity or sympathy until it is editorialized, televised, or streamed. When we actually witness someone’s affliction out in a street, it often does not catch our attention as much as when we view it on the nightly news. For many people cybersex has already replaced actual sexual intercourse. The Facebook has replaced actual friendship with simulation of friendship on computer screens. Nowadays, political debates are simulated on television screens. Even shadowy images of presidential elections on television screens are more real than actual elections. Some even claim that George W. Bush did not actually win the second term presidential election in 2004, but that he merely won the simulated election on television screens, where images are more real and convincing. After all, such televised or streamed images are rendered more acceptable because these images reduce the complexity of our post-modern lives wherein one would be clueless as to what is really going on in the actual world if one does not watch television. The power of televised images is that they impose an order on the chaos of our everyday lives, making it more digestible and simpler to deal with. And, according to Baudrillard, that is where the danger lies. In one of his transcribed interviews, entitled “Baudrillard Live – Selected Interviews”, he stated:

“It is the disappearance of things that fascinates us. And for me the media are a place of disappearance. It is just as interesting as a place of production or a place of apparition. It is a place of disappearance; it is a place where meaning disappears, where significance, the message, the referent disappear. It is a way of making things circulate so quickly that they are made to disappear. And it fascinates us like a black hole. It is a place of disappearance. One is fascinated by the disappearance of things. And I think it’s much the same with politics, with the social, etc. Today I think it’s a society where we are haunted and fascinated by the disappearance of the social, by the disappearance of the political. But it’s a game, a big game. It can make a lot of things happen, but it’s no longer the Productions of things which interests us; production interests, but disappearance fascinates.”

Not surprisingly, nowadays children are socialized by and learn moral lessons from machines, computer games, and televised images rather than from their parents. Children are even more emotionally involved with their computer games than with their own parents. In fact, parents have delegated the task of raising their children to such simulated images seen on computer and television screens. Children do not seem willing or able to escape from computer games, movies, and television programs. Even adults are unable or unwilling to get away from television screens. These screens babysit our children when we are busy with other matters; they comfort us when we are in pain; they guide us when we are morally lost; they entertain us when we are bored; they sing to us soothing lullabies while we sleep at nights. If one misses one’s family, one can simply rent a family-oriented movie in order to simulate spending time with family, just the way we simulate friendship on the Facebook. These magical screens follow us wherever we go; these screens are on our cellular phones, iPods, inside our automobiles, on gas pumps at gasoline stations, at supermarkets, malls, airports, airplanes, day-care centers, schools, universities, hospitals, funeral homesthey are everywhere. I mean, everywhere! These screens will follow us from womb to tomb. They tell us what is worth living and dying for. In his “Dust Breeding”, Baudrillard stated:

“In this space, where everything is meant to be seen [on screens] . . . we realize that there is nothing left to see. It becomes a mirror of dullness, of nothingness, on which the disappearance of the other is blatantly reflected . . . . It also reveals the possibility that human beings are fundamentally not social. This space becomes the equivalent of a ‘ready-made’ just-as-is (telle quelle) transposition of an ‘everyday life’ that has already been trumped by all dominant models. It is a synthetic banality, fabricated in closed circuits and supervised by a monitoring screen.”

During the Gulf War of 1990, when the United States assaulted Iraq in order to have them withdraw from Kuwait, Baudrillard was asked to cover the war as a journalist on the ground in Iraq. Ironically, he decided to cover the war not where the war actually took place, but on CNNwhere the war was simulated and televised. During that war, even the Whitehouse was glued to CNN! The rationale underlying Baudrillard’s decision was that it was CNN that was ultimately going to tell us how the war was going to be carried out and who was going to win it.

During the Gulf War, there were reports of some U.S. soldiers saying that they received their best combat training as kids playing war games at arcades. A female soldier even related that she really did not get a feel for the war until she came back home and saw it on television. It is in this sense that Baudrillard points out that what is now considered real (i.e., the “hyper-reality”) is simply an image of what is real. Further, these images tend to go beyond and negate what is real. Hence, according to Baudrillard, in the Gulf War “the enemy disappeared” in the show business. He calls this the “ecstasy of communication” or of telecommunication, which is pure neural thrill, as in when children kill scary monsters in Xbox or Sony PlayStation games. Perhaps, such children are already being trained for more gruesome wars that are coming our way. Baudrillard wondered that in this highly simulated world where we are preoccupied with consumerism, video games, television programs, movies, and bigger-than-life imageswhat is left there to dream about other than playing another round of a game, watching another movie, another television show, and paying off our debts? Is there anything to live for when real life experiences no longer enchant us and have been replaced with cheap simulations of real life?

Nowadays, in the American society, if one is unable to simulate what is real, one will find living life quite difficult. For instance, if you are in retail business, you have to be able to simulate being polite to your customers. Heaven forbids if your true character bleeds through your simulation of being polite. The customers may get offended. However, as long as you fake politeness well, the customers will be pleased and you will get to keep your job and paychecks. In this nation, we value simulation (i.e., being fake) over being authentic; simulation is more real than real. Under the paradigm of this new simulated reality and the disappearance of social relations, we are no longer supposed to like each other, but to like “liking each other”! We are not to love a person, but to love “loving a person”. We no longer value being a good Christian, but we do value the “value of being a good Christian”. A simulated Christian does not love his enemy, but loves “loving his enemy”. It is all about behavioral simulations, virtualizing our behaviors. Virtual reality (sometimes dubbed “extreme reality”) has become more real than reality. In other words, we are preoccupied with abstract ideas which only imitate in thought the actions that these ideas represent. We live abstract lives, divorced from reality. It is all about simulating what used to be deemed real. This is a pathos of post-modernism, which has made us into poor imitations of human beings. As the Kierkegaardian proverb has it:

Once upon a time, there was a man so abstract from his own life that one morning he woke up and found himself dead!

Baudrillard insists that we have stopped being reasons of things, and things in form of images have taken on their own reasons. When capitalism promoted and reached a certain level of mass consumerism, consumer goods began to detach themselves from themselves and became living images as people detached themselves from their own concrete lives and became spectators of these abstract images. Hence, we show more emotion toward these images than toward people. Recently, I met a person who so diligently and paternally cared for his new iPhone that he purchased a leather jacket for his iPhone and a second jacket to protect the expensive leather jacket! So, his iPhone was protected by two covers. Upon further inquiry, I found out that he had no health insurance while his iPhone had one from AT&T! He treated his iPhone with more dignity than his own self. Such omnipresent images (Apple, BMW, Dior, Madonna, American Dream, and etc.) have powerfully alienated us from ourselves and others to the point of disappearance of the human, the social, and the real.

Baudrillard claims that our conventional conceptions of humanity, society, and reality have been in a process of disappearing. It may not be an overstatement that America leads the cultural trajectory of the world through the mass media, movie and music industries, commercial enterprises, and economic globalization that proliferate the germs of this phenomenon of disappearance around the globe. Perhaps, the ongoing global economic crisiswhich is said to have originated in the belly of greed here in the U.S.evinces this assertion. As it has been said, when the United States sneezes, the world catches a cold. The U.S. government, at least under President George W. Bush administration, had an allocated budget for the purpose of spreading “American values” around the globe via various channels of mass communication. Such values seem to be mercilessly spreading around the globe like a virus, devouring the line between real and unreal. The deficit of genuine life experiences that have not been sucked into the system of images on television screens is painfully real.


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