Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 46, November 2002



Rex Butler


It is Never a Decision to Choose Between This and That

A Response to Herwitz



Daniel Herwitz

'The Defence of Extreme Realities'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 45, November 2002


First of all, I would like to thank Daniel Herwitz for his intelligent and insightful review of my book, _Jean Baudrillard: The Defense of the Real_, and the editor of _Film-Philosophy_ for inviting me to respond to it. There is undoubtedly an irony in initiating a conversation about a book that argues true thought does not proceed through dialogue but through a strange kind of 'doubling', but as Daniel reminds us we do not 'really' live the way Baudrillard's books describe. Or do we? That, I suppose, is the question.


Inevitably, no matter what I say here, I will be seen as disagreeing with Daniel. But this is not the case at all. In fact, I agree with everything he says. I even thought that I was trying to ask myself those same questions he puts to my book. In other words, I agree with Daniel when he emphasises the problem of Baudrillard's abstraction, his seeming disregard for 'lived experience' -- what Daniel calls, rather nicely, his 'willed myopia for normality'. I agree with Daniel that there is always a 'presumption [in Baudrillard] that concrete details prove astonishing abstractions at the level of systems which are, it is always assumed, somewhere in place' -- a presumption that must be rigorously challenged.


Indeed, I even had the opportunity to put such questions to Baudrillard himself once when he visited Brisbane. (The results are recorded as an interview in the book _Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact_.) I asked him: 'Is there not a risk you are undertaking when you exclude empirical attention to those systems you describe?' To which he replied: 'It's a risk I'm very conscious of'. I then asked: 'But how did you decide that this risk was the way to go?' To which he replied: 'I cannot say. It was never a decision to choose between this and that'. And later, prompted by another of his questioners, he went on to say that it was not a matter of choice in doing this; that the choice was already made for him; that he did not choose but was chosen. [1]


This, I think, gets us to the heart of the problem. How are we to assert that reality which we might oppose to Baudrillard's abstraction? How are we to attain some critical distance onto his work? In one sense, as soon as we ask these questions, it is too late: we are already within simulation. There is no way out except further in. There is no way to defeat abstraction except by more abstraction. This is Baudrillard's strategy -- and it is mine as well in my book. Of course, we can always try the other way and assert something outside of simulation -- 'working, eating, leisure, communicating, watching television' -- but we will always find in the end that it only leads back in. (This is the sad fate that awaits Truman in _The Truman Show_: the realisation that the world 'outside' of the show is already part of the show. And we would say that the show would not be possible without this 'outside': what keeps people watching is the possibility that Truman will discover that he is being filmed. This is what Baudrillard means by -- he refers to it in the context of the very similar _The Matrix_ -- the third and final order of simulation.)


Undeniably, I took a risk in attempting to turn Baudrillard's own 'method' against him, in seeking to 'double' him. But perhaps it was not even a risk, if we mean by that some subjective, existential choice. Perhaps, like Baudrillard himself, I did not so much choose as was chosen. The choice already seemed made for me as I followed Baudrillard's system to its end. But at this point I too was hoping to discover some 'Real' outside of Baudrillard's system; to return to those same 'facts' as what stand in for -- and therefore allow us to think -- what is excluded from this system to make it possible. In other words, I was wagering that those external 'facts' were not merely the effect of simulation but also held the place of the internal limit to Baudrillard's system. This is the 'undecidability' that runs throughout all of Baudrillard's work, and why he can say that it is not finally a choice 'between this and that' with regard to it.


So I would want to ask again those same questions Daniel puts to me. I absolutely acknowledge their urgency. What cannot Baudrillard's system account for? What does it leave out? How can we take some critical distance onto it? But I argue that these questions can only be answered, in their very urgency, through the detour of a patient, laborious reading of Baudrillard's own text; the limits they imply would arise first of all only as a kind of 'hole' or 'gap' within it.


However, I think I can answer one of Daniel's questions: why has work like Baudrillard's had such an impact within the humanities? Because it produces precisely that kind of forced choice I have been trying to describe here: either the world is as it is in its 'immanence', or it is only to be understood, in this very 'immanence', in terms of Baudrillard. That is, Baudrillard's work is not finally empirical but 'doubling' (in which the empirical arises only as an effect of it). It no longer operates through description and persuasion but prescription and seduction. But today all systems -- material, political, intellectual -- are like this. They all attempt to make the world over in their terms. And in a way it is just Baudrillard's work that attempts to break this fascination, including its own. Indeed, this is exactly what happened to me. Upon finishing my book, I found myself no longer constantly thinking of Baudrillard. I returned again to the things of this world. I seemed to have attained a certain distance upon Baudrillard. But was this because I had forgotten him or, as with Borges's Zahir, because I had become him? This I cannot answer. And perhaps in the end it does not even matter. Perhaps in the end it is not even a choice.


University of Queensland

St Lucia, Brisbane, Australia





1. See Nicholas Zurbrugg, ed., _Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact_ (London: Sage Publications, 1997), pp. 47-8.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002


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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