Friday, April 23, 2010

When Culture Inverts on its own History: Some Thoughts on Baudrillard, Foucault, and My Struggles with Representing Myself

So, about a week ago I finished Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. Two things have popped out at me. First, what Baudrillard is saying is very similar to what Foucault was saying in The Order of Things, mainly in terms of how many societies' have 'imploded,' 'inverted,' or 'turned in' on themselves. Foucault talks about the age of History and how society has began to turn inward on itself: allowing representation to represent itself as nothing but representation of representation. That is basically what simulation and simulacra are. A representation of something that does (not) exist. Simulation is second degree of representing reality: it is the simulation of an existing object. Simulacra is a third degree of representing: it is a representation of something that doesn't exist at all. It exists within a purely representative universe. So I will explore Baudrillard and Foucault and how those ideas might be related.

Second, I think that these ideas of simulacra/simulation gives me some new terms to talk about my own sense of identity, and how I relate to the culture that I have been living in for this whole life. Namely how I resent the fact that I have to wear clothes and like things and do things that have a history, and that I often feel as though I am engaging in a simulation of something else, or that what I want to be is just a simulacra.

So those are the priorities for this post: 1. Comparing Baudrillard and Foucault, and 2. thinking about my sense of identity in relation to society's simulacra and simulation.

Now, when I read Baudrillard I took a self-consciously relaxed approach to it. When I really get into non-fiction/theory/philosophy stuff I spend a lot of time understanding the table of contents, the structure, the flow of the entire book and argument. But I didn't do that with Baudrillard. I looked at the table of contents a little bit, but for the most part I just read at whatever pace I wanted.

So, bear in mind that as I am writing about Baudrillard I am actively trying to make sense of the book as a whole. In other words, know that my understanding of it is far from perfect.

I just spent about 20-30 minutes skimming through the whole thing and I have some ideas. But it definitely confirms that I don't know how to paraphrase the whole of this book. Perhaps it defies paraphrasing a little. That is more of a lame hope than anything else. I want to have the ability to paraphrase entire books like a pro. So, I am just going to go straight at this without thinking too much, so don't think I'm too confident about this analysis, just know that I am just going at it.

I'll start with what I heard prior to reading. So the main things I have heard about this book prior to reading: it addresses the hyperreal, the 'postmodern,' the coming of a new age. It definitely does seemed to be concerned with the contemporary. He was writing for 1981, it seemed. Very little actual historical references. Maybe some. But the book does seem like it is concerned primarily with history. With the moment in history that he was in right then. Perhaps it still applies to the moment I am in now. But I am not sure.

In some ways I am inclined to look at Baudrillard as a shorter, less broad, less historical, more literary version of The Order of Things. Not to oversimplify. But it definitely has its similarities.

In The Order of Things Foucault is looking at how understandings/discourses/cultures have changed from the 15th century to the present. His major concern is how language developed as a system of representation that allowed certain forms of thought to come into existence. Key term: episteme. The episteme is the space of possible knowledge that a culture is operating with. An example, prior to the 16th century things were represented in terms of similitudes. Similarities. Everything was seen as an endless chain or relationship to everything else. The stars were connected to human faces as faces were connected to lakes and to birds and to so on. Not until the 17-18th did language develop to the point that things began to be classified into specific categories. Finally, in the 18th and 19th centuries he claims the 'age of History' began. Basically, people started to experience the historicity of their discourses. Philosophers become aware of the historical development of philosophy, and it turns inward on its own development. People realize language has a history and philology becomes a field. People realize that living beings have a history and we get evolutionary theory. I suppose this has to do with the discovery of deep time (geological time), as well as the history of the discourses.

So, basic point: the episteme is the space of possible knowledge, and Foucault believes that the episteme transforms mainly based on how language is used to represent things, and how language transforms. He describes it as a historical inversion.

Baudrillard also talks about the inversion of modern culture a lot. An implosion, he calls it. Modern society has accumulated so many peoples and ideas that we are saturated in representation. We live in a world that is merely a simulation of prior events that have already happened. Which I guess means that those original events were organic, or natural. But now that we all talk so much, we communicate so much, everything is talking so much, every object and every sign and every corner seems to be overflowing with implicit words. So Foucault and Baudrillard seem to be in line here: culture, and most importantly the language that is used to represent things within culture, has reached a critical density that it now only reproduces itself within itself. Creating simulations and simulacra. We don't meet much reality these days, it appears. Mostly representations representing themselves and representations. Simulation and simulacra. Yup.

I'm also pretty fascinated with something Baudrillard said about animals and their inability to use language, and how that is unsettling to humans. Pg 137 he says: "In a world bent on doing nothing but making one speak, in a world assembled under the hegemony of signs and discourse, their silence weighs more and more heavily on our organization of meaning." Interesting to think of animals as a threat to what we have. I'm not sure I really understand this.

Baudrillard also closes the book with a section called 'On Nihilism.' He proposes that nihilism has lost its dark face. That he admires the 19th century for waging their assault on meaning and their turn to interpretation and history in the face of crumbling realities. Interesting stuff. He says there is no hope for meaning, which is good, because meaning is mortal. It is fleeting.

I am very interested in the abandonment of meaning, leaving understanding behind. It is great and all very nice and important and stuff. But there is something else to find without it. Mindfulness. Something like that.

So lastly, a few words on how I relate to how I present myself in relation to these ideas. I have always had a little bit of a hard time wearing the clothes I wear, and wearing the glasses I wear. My glasses are dark rimmed. And I remember when I got them when I was 16 sorta thinking about what I was choosing and what I was saying. I'm pretty sure someone remarked that it was making a statement in some sense. And it undoubtedly is. People wear different rimmed glasses to associate with a certain groups or certain ideas or certain somethings.

When I think about my glasses I feel like I am wearing a simulation/simulacrum/million times warped representation of the first person that wore thick rimmed glasses as a fashion statement.

Buddy Holly comes to mind. Maybe my history of fashion is way off or I don't know something, but to me Buddy Holly just seems like someone who was wearing thick rimmed glasses as a statement. Wikipedia seems to think so.

So, I feel like a by product of all these years of hyper post WWII culture where representation has been endlessly proliferating. It is just going and going. We represent and represent and represent. We love image image image. And here I am feeling like I am wearing things that have been represented and re-represented to death. It is a strange feeling.

But then I just wear things. I just put clothes on and that is fine. Perhaps recognizing that I am engaging in some sort of representative orgy helps me transcend it somehow.

This is a big theme for me: transcending the confines of the historical moment through a historically informed understanding of my position within that historical moment. Helping me feel better about the present because I can understand the present through history.

Blah blah blah.

But anyways, Foucault and Baudrillard are onto something pretty interesting. It does seem as though the historical weight of society's representation is pretty great. It is definitely reproducing itself in a representative frenzy. And these ideas help me think a little more clearly about why I feel self conscious about how I represent myself. Maybe most people are self conscious about that. But I guess I'm just saying I find it comforting to be historically informed about why I am presenting myself in the ways that I do.


  1. I acknowledge my part of a representative orgy, and yet I continue... Name brands and blah blah.

  2. Yeah you can't do anything but continue. For the most part it is extremely hard to avoid buying products produced by some name brand. But I suppose I am interested in making myself feel better about it. When I say transcend I guess that is what I mean. Transcend it conceptually. Not in practice, not in reality. I dunno if I can do that right now. But by thinking about it differently.