The Vital Illusion
by Jean Baudrillard. The Wellek Library Lectures. Pub: New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Pp. 102. Hbk. Price: US$18.
Book Review By Yusuf al-Khabbaz
By the turn of the Western millennium, it had become obligatory for scholars and commentators to proclaim a future that was unknown. Long anticipated, the millennium as it actually dawned was an utter disappointment. The world seemed farther away from the universal peace aspired to by optimistic millennarianists, and the much-vaunted Armageddon that drove pessimistic millennarianists into underground shelters never unfolded. There was no Y2K computer meltdown, and all of the projects and prospects were quietly rescheduled with more practical (though less romantic) dates. Soon no one was talking about the millennium at all: doubtless the best testimony to its mundane non-eventuality.
Perhaps the letdown lies in pinning hopes on an abstraction, in this case a number (2000 or 2001, depending on who’s counting). Such anticlimaxes are inevitable when products of the human mind govern all awareness of what is and what may never be. So now everyone wants to forget the affair and move on, flip the TV channel and reach for another snack. But beyond the bold anticipation for suddenness, and the subsequent letdown, such self-induced hypnosis may obscure new developments that are profounder and occurring more gradually. Postmodern, late modern, or hyper-modern, call it what one will; there may be another world emerging, though without any fanfare.
A ‘new world’ is identifiable by some partially correct, though not comprehensive, sound bites: cyberspace, globalization, genomics; all are creating new questions, situations and problems for humankind, and the world emerging from these convergences may indeed be a new world, though it may not be thought of in such terms. Perhaps we are too close to these features to see their potential impact; perhaps this world can only be understood by bold science-fiction writers.
Or bold social commentators. Jean Baudrillard has been called both: a social commentator and a writer of science fiction. A radical French thinker, whom some call the "prophet of postmodernism," he is both revered and disdained wherever his works are read. Whatever the verdict, his ideas never cease to amaze. For instance, at the height of the Persian Gulf crisis, Baudrillard had the audacity to write, "the Gulf War will not take place." Of course, something did happen, but he was the first to identify it as a non-war, as a media event whose reality was at the same time brutally destructive and yet hopelessly unheroic, contrary to the clean and over-hyped media image. Once the non-war began, he defended his position with two more Gulf War essays: "Is it really taking place?" and "The Gulf War did not take place." Many scoffed at his seemingly opportunistic inaccuracy yet, true to character, Baudrillard pushed current events to the limits of absurdity to make his point that the virtual world of the media is "more real than reality", that this "hyperreality" is far more engaging than material reality, and is therefore replacing it.
The Vital Illusion, Baudrillard’s most recent book, is no less bold and audacious, this time taking on events at the turn of the millennium: cloning, millennarianism and the nature of cyberspace. Originally given as a series of lectures at the Wellek Library for the Critical Theory Institute in University of California at Irvine in May 1999, they are edited and indexed for publication by Julia Witwer, with bibliographic notes added by Baudrillard.
In the first essay, Baudrillard tackles genetic cloning: "The question concerning cloning is the question of immortality. We all want immortality. It is our ultimate fantasy, a fantasy that is also at work in all of our modern sciences and technologies." He sees buried within the will to clone a simultaneous desire on the part of Western civilization to eliminate death and sex; ultimately, taken to their logical conclusions, clones will be immortal and asexual. Immortality and androgyny have deep roots in the West, at once pervasive in the Greek heritage and a foundational yearning of the Church; in both cases they are bound up with Western man’s will to be god-like and womb-less. But Baudrillard does not tread long on these fairly well-worn paths, looking instead for the deeper ironies of genetic cloning. The elimination of sex and death, he concludes, is not a step forward: on the contrary it is a form of devolution, back to the simplest asexual and immortal biological form, the virus. By eliminating sex and death, mankind may revert to being virus-like, endlessly proliferating and never dying. Once he enters such a world, Baudrillard then employs one of his trademark counterintuitive moves by suggesting that death and sex will become pastimes and leisure activities for the clone-dominated world, and that the "luxury of dying" may be only for the rich and famous, much as the luxury of living, via the latest most expensive medical treatment today, is the right only of the rich and famous.
Baudrillard’s fun doesn’t end there, as he takes all this one step further by suggesting some impending absurdities that may result from defining humanity in terms of genetics. He asks, after noting that humans share 98 percent of their genes with apes and mice, "what rights shall revert to the apes and mice?" Once a human is defined in genetic terms, then "the definition of the human itself begins to fade, along with that of humanism." Similarly, if 90 percent of human genes are defined as useless, "junk DNA" as some scientists call them, then we may "arrogate to ourselves the right to destroy them." What Baudrillard seems to be getting at here is a fear of difference and diversity in the Western world, a fear which can only be relieved by enforcing extreme forms of sameness. In the end, he sees a conflict between the "mortals" and the "immortals," because "the immortals are silently avenging themselves through the process of cloning, through interminable reduplication, through the obliteration of sex and death."
Science fiction and social commentary make an interesting and provocative mix. In the second essay, Baudrillard ventures into reflections on the meaning of the millennium itself, opening immediately with the assertion that Western man is trying to replay the events of the 20th century in order to "whitewash them, or to launder them," with "cleansing" being the primary concern of the millennial celebrations. Despite all the proclamations leading up to it, Baudrillard sees the millennium not as a start but as an end. And, "In the countdown, the time remaining is already past, and the maximal utopia of life gives way to the minimal utopia of survival." In such instances, where the media representation is greater than the actuality it is supposed to preview, Baudrillard finds a "simulacrum," a copy without an original, which replaces reality with virtuality before the fact. In this he sees "our lack of responsibility -- both individual and collective -- since we are already, by virtue of information, beyond the event, which has not taken place." The illusion continues so that people "become lost in the void of information," where events are "restaged transpolitically" in real or "perfectly virtual" time.
By now, most readers will either be enthralled, or wondering whether Baudrillard can be taken seriously at all; perhaps even whether or not he is sane. But, not to disappoint, he moves into yet another train of thought in the third essay, this time developing ideas from a previous book, The Perfect Crime. To Baudrillard, the perfect crime has no motive, no weapon, no evidence and no victim. He looks at the perfect crime in terms of the "Murder of the Real," for what has been murdered here is reality itself, exterminated by virtuality. The irony of the perfect crime is that Western civilization murdered its own reality, which was inspired by an inability or unwillingness to come to terms with reality. Western man created the sciences and the technologies in an attempt to understand reality in the minutiae of matter. But the closer science looked, the more unstable reality became. However, this realization was also unbearable, so Western man was left with a conundrum: reality is constructed by human perception and is therefore an illusion, which is too painful to think about for modernists and humanists; so man then turns explaining reality over to a new priesthood, scientists, and to their new religion, technology. Baudrillard is able to pull together these seemingly diffuse strains of thought only because he has figured out that Western man has for the most part abrogated his experiential understanding of the world to virtual technologies. The resulting "hyperreality" is marked by simulacra -- copies without originals --and therefore the material norms and narratives of Western modernity are no longer relevant.
Some readers have a great deal of trouble with Baudrillard, often dismissing his work as "romantic" and "irrational," or even "unintelligible." He angers the Marxists and feminists with his post-materialist and seemingly sexist provocations. Technophiles don’t care much for his dystopic reflections on technology brought to its logical (or illogical) conclusions. Liberals find his political "un-correctness" maddening, while most conservatives reel at his utter irreverence for the Western tradition. But one always gets the feeling that Baudrillard is a sort of trickster, toying with all their stodgy expectations. Still, several observers have noticed that his descriptions of consumer culture, which he wrote 25 years ago, are now the defining feature of Western modernity, while his reflections on the effects of hyperreality, superseding reality via cyberspace, seem more feasible now than when he wrote them a decade ago.
So what are reflective readers to do with Baudrillard? First, he should not be read as a guide to the future; Baudrillard himself disdains the title "prophet of postmodernity." But his work can be seen as a glimpse of the Western world in the throes of reconfiguration from modernity to something else, a transitional experiment whose results no one can really know. Maverick thinkers and bold social commentators like Baudrillard may help some readers to break the conceptual chains of modernity, and thereby enable them to construct new and culturally relevant futures of their own.