As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Itai Farhi looks at Anthony King’s “Baudrillard’s Nihilism and the End of Theory,” from Telos 112 (Summer 1998).
The discipline of critical theory, originating in the work of the Frankfurt School, attempts to move from pure description of society toward a critique of society with the goal of bringing about change. In recent years, this discipline has itself been criticized. One of the leaders of this anti-critical theory crusade was Jean Baudrillard, whose intellectual legacy in relation to the state of modern theory Anthony King evaluates in his article “Baudrillard’s Nihilism and the End of Theory.”
King views Baudrillard’s early and late work as separate intellectual moments. In his “early” phase, Baudrillard faulted Marxism for uncritically accepting the capitalist concepts of labor, production, and use-value. Baudrillard considered capitalist forms of exchange as merely another instance of symbolic exchange, contextualizing capitalism not as a universal form but rather as an instance of an anthropological category of the gift economy. King links this moment in Baudrillard’s thought to Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectics of Enlightenment, where they criticize
capitalist categories from the viewpoint of mythological cultures. Capitalism is only one form of symbolic exchange, but one whose categories deny this symbolism, insisting on an apolitical and materialist objectivism. The dismissal of capitalism’s claims to be different, through a consideration of other cultures, strips away capitalism’s aura of objectivity, undermining the explicitly political interests which are invested in the capitalist order but are disguised by appeals to universality and objectivity.
The affinity with classical critical theory in early Baudrillard soon gives way to nihilism and a theoretical strategy of symbolic terrorism. King analyzes this shift in Baudrillard’s thinking with reference to the term “hyperreality”: for Baudrillard, any kind of reality has been replaced by a “hyperreal” where simulation signifies nothing but itself. In reaction to this shift, the best that theory can do is “communicate hyperreality directly,” a suicide of theory where the only thing that theory conveys is its own failure.
King quickly moves from this exegesis of Baudrillard to a critique of his strategy, arguing that the conditions necessary for Baudrillard’s project are not met. In King’s analysis, in order for Baudrillard’s work to be valuable,
two conditions have to be met. First, Baudrillard’s terrorism—his attempt to communicate hyperreality to the reader immediately . . . must be theoretically coherent and possible. Second, his description of hyperreality as a unique transformation of culture, in which an external social reality is eclipsed in the vivid representations of the screen, must be an accurate account of recent developments.
King then convincingly dismantles both of these preconditions, showing first how Baudrillard’s work fails the dual standards of literary work (which would represent a change in itself) and academic work (which would analyze the transition in a complex way). The first failure is easy to show: Baudrillard’s work pales in comparison to actual hyperreal fiction. King here brilliantly juxtaposes Baudrillard to one of the writers Baudrillard cites, J. G. Ballard, showing how Baudrillard’s prose fails to achieve the same literary effects.
On the academic failure of Baudrillard’s work, King argues that this later phase of Baudrillard is both insufficiently complex on the societal changes he purports to describe and technologically deterministic. King criticizes Baudrillard for assuming uncritically the picture of hyperreal culture that it constructs, on the one hand, and for taking technological change as an objective change with certain predetermined effects, on the other. Ironically, if “late” Baudrillard had considered the kind of critical, anthropological contextualization he accomplished in his “early” stage, he would have not fallen into the same kind of nihilism and pessimism that he displays.
For King, then, Baudrillard’s legacy is primarily instructive as a reminder to future critical theorists to avoid cultural pessimism and to
engage with and learn from actual individuals and their social practices in order to make itself aware of wider social reality against hegemonic accounts of that reality. Being critical in the era of global capitalism requires, therefore, not taking the shibboleths of this new political-economic order seriously, but always deconstructing such assertive claims through revealing how they deliberately misrepresent social reality for explicitly political ends.
In this way, Baudrillard’s work becomes both the problem and its diagnosis: the problems of “late” Baudrillard can be fixed with the methodology of “early” Baudrillard.
As an evaluation of an intellectual legacy however, King neglects fully to historicize Baudrillard’s emphasis on the screen not as a signifier of that which is signified, but as a signifier in itself. A further analysis of the way in which this “ideology of the object” emerges in so-called “postmodern” discourse would be a possible historicization of Baudrillard. This analysis could consider, to give two vastly different examples, Susan Sontag’s polemic against interpretation and Jacques Lacan’s notion of desire that instead of yearning for any particular object, yearns for the perpetuation of desire. This analysis would be valuable in locating Baudrillard’s symbolic terrorism as part of a larger, ideological shift, related to the de-coupling of object and subject that runs from Nietzsche through to today in a multitude of different contexts. This analysis would complement King’s call to position practice in historical and social context, and would, again following King’s reminders against pessimism, locate ways in which this analysis has been theoretically productive in addition to its various setbacks.
Read the full version of Anthony King’s “Baudrillard’s Nihilism and the End of Theory,” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.