Think Happy Thoughts

Just finished Simulacra and Simulation by Baudrillard. It took me a bit longer than I had hopped because I had to intersperse my reading with preparation for the class I’m teaching next semester, Literature in the Wired World. Even so, I’m quite glad to be through it. Baudrillard is a challenging read generally, but one of the particular issues with Simulacra and Simulation is that the latter essays are all variations on the themes articulated earlier in the book, and quite deliberately so. The model of Baudrillard’s work, the ever duplicating replica sans original, structures and defines the rhetoric of Simulacra and Simulation. By the third or fourth essay, I was quite sure that Baudrillard had nothing left to tell me that he hadn’t already said, and if I was to contest him at all, the only sure way of doing so would be to simply put down his book and walk away. In fact, that strikes me as the point of the latter half of the book: Baudrillard knowingly reserves the final few essays of the book for those who would “study” his work, i.e. academics. There at the end, a place he feels that only the scholarly will arrive at, he takes the academic study of his own work to task by inveighing against the cultural morbidity of the university system, which he calls “The Spiraling Cadaver.” A final, “you think that your ‘critical thinking’ offers a way out of the implosion of the hyperreal? Well it doesn’t, and my proof is that you’re still here looking for one.”

I’ve often said that the most cogent and accessible definition of postmodernism can be found in Umberto Eco’s postscript to The Name of the Rose titled “Postmodernism, Irony, The Enjoyable.” As the title might suggest, Eco’s take on postmodernism is thoughtful but not particularly bleak. Not so with the final essay in Simulacra and Simulation, “On Nihilism,” which likewise telegraphs its mood. Here’s a delightful sample:

I am a nihilist…
I observe, I accept, I assume, I analyze the second revolution, that of the twentieth century, that of postmodernity, which is the immense process of the destruction of meaning, equal to the earlier destruction of appearances. He who strikes with meaning is killed by meaning.

The masses themselves are caught up in a gigantic process of inertia through acceleration. They are this excrescent, devouring, process that annihilates all growth and all surplus meaning. They are this circuit short-circuited by a monstrous finality.

There is no longer a stage, not even the minimal illusion that makes events capable of adopting the force of reality–no more stage either of mental or political solidarity: what do Chile, Biafra, the boat people, Bologna, or Poland matter? All of that comes to be annihilated on the television screen. We are in the era of events without consequences.

I can only compare the pathos of reading “On Nihilism” to the feeling, or affect, of watching Brazil for the first time; the harrowing of the soul by the anti-cathartic ending leaves the viewer/reader simultaneously nauseous yet desperately wanting food, water, anything to fill the void carved out by the experience. (Don’t get me wrong, I love the film, but if you don’t come away from your first viewing fully gobsmacked, then you weren’t paying attention.) If, then, I recommend Eco to anyone wanting to understand what postmodernism is, then I recommend “On Nihilism” to anyone wanting to know why we would be well rid of it as the dominant philosophy. (Some would argue that we already are, but that is a different discussion.)

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2 thoughts on “Think Happy Thoughts

  1. My old roommate, a sculptor art student, had a copy of Simulacra that he was always leaving on the kitchen table. I meant to read it then, but didn’t.

    Then Neo stored his cash in a hollowed out copy in The Matrix, and I said to myself, “I really should take a look at that.” But didn’t.

    Now, reading your review, I feel good about neglecting it.

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