Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 45, November 2002



Daniel Herwitz


The Defence of Extreme Realities



Rex Butler

_Jean Baudrillard: The Defense of the Real_

London and New Delhi: Sage Publications and Thousand Oaks, 1999

ISBN 0-7619-5833-9

vii + 181 pp.


As Rex Butler says in this knowledgeable, clever, scholarly, stimulating, and somewhat opaque book, Jean Baudrillard is an extreme thinker about extreme times -- and times have been never more extreme than now. America is a society in which the old De Toqueville ideal of individual citizens concerned enough to form small groups and, from the ground up, make their opinions known and represented in public office, has given way to a country whose opinions are doubled by the media itself, which, at the end of a Presidential Debate, immediately pronounces one candidate the winner in the name of 'the American people' without asking them. The media, meant to inform the public (which indeed it does), also doubles it in a way that causes it to drop out, as if all voting eventually were to take place over the _Larry King Live Show_.


Such doubling (which simultaneously mirrors and replaces an object by its double) is also a well known condition of television and film. In _Big Brother_ life is doubled so that a group of selected individuals live 'totally ordinary' and totally controlled lives in a contained, television environment, with the television audience voting them out of their 'house' one by one until, finally, a single winner (the last survivor) rakes in the cash. _The Truman Show_ is entirely about resistance to such perfect, architectural, simulated worlds whose forms of containment give rise to inchoate anxiety on the part of Truman, who knows no other reality but is sufficiently disturbed by his sense of an unreal limit shrouding his daily, happy banalities that he spends all of his time planning trips to 'faraway places', and who, after being touched by a woman who steps out of her controlled part, plots and eventuates his 'escape'.


Increasingly reality erupts only in the form of incipient birth memories (which are, as Decker says cynically in _Blade Runner_, 'implants') and terror. Even if every one of us knows and cannot help but know the realities of work, leisure, circulation, language, food, kisses, and even cinema with the security of the obvious -- even if the thought that the real has 'dropped out' is incoherent, since the things that are (ontology) are a function of language games which are mostly 'business as usual' for most of us, most of the time -- our immense detachment from things is made clear when they blast us in the face and we find ourselves with no language to give representation to the trauma except from the media. 'It's like a movie', so many said upon watching the pictures of the World Trade Towers collapse. There are no more potent symbols of modernity imploding on itself than an airplane rushing headlong into a skyscraper. Victim and terrorist alike inhabit the same world of images and symbols, movies and spectacles. When it happens, this system of signs (as Baudrillard would call it) generates an internal language for its interpretation, and without that language of 'it's like a movie', the 'airborne toxic event' of September 11th (I adopt a phrase from Don DeLillo) has no language for its description.


These points are ample reason to revisit Baudrillard, extreme thinker of extreme times now, even if now he is more infuriating than ever. The source of this infuriation is not only Baudrillard's willed myopia for normality -- and by 'normality' I mean the daily contact absolutely everybody has with 'the real' at all times, when working, eating, at leisure, communicating in language, even watching television, they know things, understand things, speak things, communicate things -- it is also the way his concepts are datable to poststructuralist intellectual regimes which are brilliant but also, facile. I refer to attempts to read representations as forming systems of signs, to read those systems of signs as economies characterized by forms of circulation, and furthermore to understand those forms of circulation as characterized by structures of reversal, whereby signs cannot achieve their goals, set forth their opposites, and then commute into them, as if uncertain whether they are particle or wave. For all of his zany brilliance in reading the details of late modern life, Baudrillard is an abstract thinker, and Butler takes him seriously at the right level of abstraction. If there is a move which Butler never points out, and which is central to the brilliance, and problematic character of Baudrillard, it is the presumption that concrete details prove astonishing abstractions at the level of systems which are, it is always assumed, somewhere in place. Baudrillard writes so well as an apocalyptic journalist of social detail (about America, for example, as if it were an artifact of another planet which turns out to be the future of Paris), that it is easy to think of him that way, which is to say, to avoid, the constant move from detail to abstraction.


Butler organizes his book, which is a monograph study of Baudrillard's thought, to bring out Baudrillard's three most central concepts: simulation, seduction, and doubling. (Baudrillard the thinker on film and media is given somewhat short shrift. It is Baudrillard the philosophical economist who is central in this book, which is not a bad thing, considering how much Baudrillard the thinker about media has been discussed in the literature). Each of these concepts is presented in a synoptic and scholarly way. Butler has immense knowledge of Baudrillard's work and shows the generation of his central concepts from the early writings to the later ones, noting changes and inflections. Butler also illustrates these highly abstract discussions (sometimes one feels one had better already understand Baudrillard's abstractions to understand Butler's) by reciting Baudrillard's examples (of simulation, seduction, and doubling). Some of these recitations are very helpful, and overall one learns a lot from the book.


The chapter on simulation is about the double relationship simulation has to reality. The simulacrum replaces reality, but also creates it and defers to it. Thus sociology (like presidential debates) loses sight of real people by creating an artificial concept called 'the masses' or 'the American public'. On the other hand, this concept is continually pressured by genuinely real persons and groups, and it is this pressure of 'the real' which generates and continually informs the concepts. The real functions as a 'limit' to the system of concepts, which can never reach that limit because the concepts are the creation of the system and expand in terms of it (there is no 'outside' to the system). On the other hand, this limit is constantly providing conceptual content for sociology, or indeed for CNN news and Hollywood movies (how could it not!). So stated, Baudrillard's theory of simulations is less radical than one might have thought, and far richer conceptually.


Seduction is about seduction by representation. A mode of representation (a seducer's voice, an analyst's regard and speech, a country's mythology) mirrors its object (a person, a group, another system of representations) in such a way that the object comes to achieve a capacity for self-reflection and representation only in its light. Seduction implies dependency, for the seduced knows itself and sees itself and desires only through this structure of mirroring. (In this respect, it would have been useful for Butler to compare Baudrillard's concept to Lacan's.)


Doubling is about the way events double representations, or vice versa. September 11th and its relationship to films of planes crashing into towers is an example Butler would no doubt have used, had his book not been published in 1999. Doubling interrupts simulation since it injects reality (the genuine act of terror); or conversely, it rejects reality by doubling it in the form of television programs (_Big Brother_).


These concepts, Butler shows in some depth, have the tendency to turn into each other. It is worth reading his book simply for the excellence of that aspect of it. If there are three defects with this book they are these: first and foremost it remains too close to Baudrillard's own highly abstract language to allow itself the space to make clear what that language means. This is a common interpretive defect, and one found it in the first generation of Heidegger interpreters, Derrida interpreters, and Wittgenstein interpreters. You have to simplify, criticize, move away from a thinker's concepts to understand them, or rather, to communicate what you understand. Second, the book fails to adequately place Baudrillard in schemes of French thought, which would have been one way to clarify his thought. Third, the book registers but fails to explore or even motivate the crucial question about Baudrillard: to what extent is the world like his apocalyptic enjoyment of it? And how should such a question even be properly formulated, either within or outside his system of concepts?


Finally, the following question ought to be asked by someone, sometime, somewhere. Why is Baudrillard so seductive? What resides behind the seduction of the arts and humanities by certain kinds of theory, such as his? What kind of need for enchantment is evidenced in this seduction by representation? The question about Baudrillard's place in contemporary culture needs to be asked within the space of his own concepts, and outside that space.


University of Michigan, USA



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


Daniel Herwitz, 'The Defence of Extreme Realities', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 45, November 2002 <>.


Read Butler's Response:

Rex Butler, 'It is Never a Decision to Choose Between This and That: A Response to Herwitz', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 46, November 2002 <>.


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