The last of the great French postmodernists has gone. His ideas were often mocked, but many of them were less ridiculous than they seemby / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the play Travesties, Tom Stoppard’s character James Joyce asks: “What now of the Trojan war if it had been passed over by the artist’s touch? Dust. A forgotten expedition prompted by Greek merchants looking for new markets. A minor redistribution of broken pots.” Contrast what it is for us, mediated by Homer: an epic of gods and heroes, struggle, lust and glory. The point generalises. Thackeray remarked how a bald, stupid, heartless little man with a paunch became the majestic Louis XIV if put in the right shoes, robes and wig—and that then, having set up the fantasy, we had to worship the result. The mirage suits us better than the truth.
The late Jean Baudrillard pursued the same theme, with his theatrical declamation that “Le gulf war n’existe pas.” On the face of it, this is a crashing falsehood—which we must therefore read, charitably, as pointing to some other claim. That is the French style, and it is a close cousin to any use of metaphor. Those who called Mrs Thatcher the iron lady did not mean that she clanked when she walked.
Baudrillard was not concerned with the artist’s touch but with what happens when television and other media purport to take us to the field of action. The 1990 Gulf war was modelled by planners using simulations; it was won, if we call a massacre a victory, largely by pilots looking at computer screens; and it was relayed to the public by television. Most consumers of these images get no reality check; the image is all we have to go on. And the image does not come to us innocently. What happened in 1990 may, indeed, have been something more than a war: an episode in America’s cultural narcissism, a hallucinatory projection of its fears and fantasies, a Faustian pact between developed capitalism and virtual reality, a promotional video, or a simulacrum indistinguishable from Disneyland. So Baudrillard’s hyperbole had a serious point. He often provoked outrage by it, but when, for instance, he tactlessly suggested that the iconic place of Nazi atrocities as a symbol of evil makes it “logical” to ask whether they even existed, his point was not to ally himself with the David Irvings of this world, but to suggest that for many political and cultural purposes, the answer is irrelevant. As with God, it is our investment that matters, not whether it is invested in a fiction.
Baudrillard’s ideas about simulated reality seem to have touched on an old philosophical panic. Perhaps our senses are no better than our televisions. Perhaps nature has varnished and spun the pictures we receive. They too are commodities, bought in to provide sustenance. Perhaps, at the limit, we live in a virtual reality, unable to comprehend our real position, sentenced to a woeful life of dreams, myth, fiction and illusion. Baudrillard, the inspiration for the Matrix films, tried to distance himself from the trite opposition of one moment seeing through the glass darkly and then coming face to face with reality, yet he enjoyed playing with its ingredients. I do not think this was wise, since generalised scepticism implies that there is nothing especially wrong about America or late capitalism or consumer society—and would any self-respecting culture critic want to draw that conclusion?
In any event, it is not all simulacra. We are participants in a public world, not hermits trapped in our own private cinemas. The cure for the sceptical nightmare is action. Nobody stays sceptical while crossing the street, or choosing dinner. Nor while dodging bombs and shells, even if they are sent by people watching computer screens. In the hurly-burly of survival, there is a lot that is hors texte—although this is more true for the artisan driving nails or baking bread than for the politician (or academic) whose work is confined to the production of signs and messages.
French postmodernism may be passing, but it had a point. Even if engagement with the world is the cure, the respite it gives may be short-lived. No sooner has the real moment gone than the work of memory begins, once more selecting, massaging, suppressing and spinning. That moment is like a glimpse of the naked king, or the politician’s one-day dash into the war zone: it may be a glimpse of truth, but even if we are honest enough to see anything we do not want to see, that in turn may just reinvigorate the work of disguise. That can’t have been the real Louis XIV, or the real Iraq. And heaven forfend that people see them like that—otherwise it might really destroy our legacy, or at any rate the bit that counts: its representation in self-image, story and picture.