---- by Andrew Wernick
  If 'the real' is one of Baudrillard's most elusive concepts this is in part because whatever 'the real' might refer to it has itself become elusive. The 'real', he insists, has disappeared, and that is the mystery. Why, he asks, turning philosophy's classic question upside down, is there nothing rather than something (PC, 2)?
  What Baudrillard meant by 'the real' and its 'disappearance' is easily misunderstood. When he said 'the Gulf War did not happen' (GW) he did not mean that it was only a studio production, like the conspiracy theory version of the Moon landing. Nor, if he drew attention to the stage-managed video game version seen on our screens, was he denying that outside the televisual frame 'real' people were dying horribly and in great numbers. He was claiming though that the virtual and the real had become inextricably mixed, that this was only the simulacrum of war (not the agon of battle but the coolness of a technical operation) and that the one-sidedness of the contest was perfectly mirrored in the dominance of the virtual over the actual, including in the war room itself.
  A subtler misunderstanding is built into The Matrix. In a climactic scene Morpheus shows Neo the ruined human world that underlies the virtual world (just like ours!) that the machines have wired into the humans they have turned into batteries. 'Welcome', he says, 'to the desert of the real'. The phrase had appeared in Simulacra and Simulation (1994a [1981]). However, Baudrillard's 'desert of the real' was not a bad reality as the truth underlying the illusion of a happy one; it was the evacuation of reality from what could no longer be called the real, the end of the real as something distinct from the apparent, or from its representational double. It is the ghastly immanence of a fully transparent world with no alterity and no outside.
  Baudrillard's initial formulation of the reality problem in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981 [1972]) takes off from Guy Debord's (1983, 1) proposition that 'everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation', and focuses on the merger of signs and commodities in an order of 'general exchange'. Expunged of ambivalence and stamped with the code of differential meaning (everything defined in terms of, and exchangeable with, everything else) the meanings attaching to signs float free of any external reference. Baudrillard's second and more definitive formulation, which he developed in the 1970s and 1980s (MP, SED, FS, SS) and explored in many works thereafter, concerns images and simulation. Here, taking off from Walter Benjamin on photography and film, de-realisation goes much further. As with Benjamin, the realness of the real is an aura that simulacra lack, but which they also compensate for by magically manufacturing reality as an effect. This hallucinated real - the hyper-real - is more real than real, with heightened reality effects that the merely existent cannot match.
  However, the simulacra which have come to proliferate are not just mediatised, but embodied in objects, the built environment, bodies, everything. Through design, modelling and typifications, the tangible real of the human-made world becomes increasingly a blemish-free clone of itself. Correspondingly, what are marked as simulacra become an alibi for the simulation that is everywhere. The framing of Disneyland's Main Street as fake obscures the Disneyland character of Main Street outside the theme park. In addition, the emptiness and artificial aura of a reality that has become simulacral creates a nostalgia for the original and the pristine, which itself feeds the demand for compensatory simulacra, as in the museumification of the past and Baudrillard's possibly apocryphal story about the Tasaday, a 'lost' Phillipine tribe able to reproduce at will its stone-age authenticity for the benefit of tourists and ethnographers at its government protected reserve (SS).
  That there is a metaphysical subtext in all this becomes increasingly evident in Baudrillard's later writings. His concern for reality is akin to Heidegger's concern with Being, and there are allusions to Descartes and Plato in Baudrillard's play with the Manichean figure of an evil demiurge. In effect, on the basis of his understanding of what advanced capitalism has brought about, Baudrillard has rewritten Nietzsche's (1987) fable about 'How the "Real World" at Last Became a Myth'. The 'real world' whose demise Nietzsche traces is that of Plato: a higher reality which is the repository of truth and of which the world of appearance is only a degraded copy. The imaginary power of this supersensory 'real' declines with the waning of religion, the rehabilitation of the senses and the rise of empirical science. Therewith comes a crisis in which the idea of a true reality behind the apparent collapses, together with its metaphysical and conceptualist residues. But with this step the apparent world has only taken the place of the real one, as objective, intelligible and its own foundation. So, to complete the process, the apparent world as itself now 'the real' is in turn abolished, and with it the grounding objectivity (reality itself!) with which it had been endowed.
  Baudrillard takes all this over. However, in his re-rewrite the outcome is an ironic return to Plato. The apparent-as-reality has abolished itself only in the sense that it has disappeared behind a copy of itself that the machination of the world - the becoming machine of capital - has itself engendered. Hence what he calls 'the perfect crime' (PC): the disappearance of reality without trace. It is Baudrillard's version of the death of god, except that it is a disappearance, not a death; nor by the same token is it murder, resulting not from human agency but from an objective and seemingly autonomous process, the 'destiny of the object'. There remains, one might say, the 'real' process through which the real has disappeared. But in one last Baudrillardian twist this process has delivered a result wherein the process itself has become inscrutable. In the age of simulation the 'perspectival space' within which there might be a logic for society and history has itself disappeared. What we used to call history and society have themselves become simulacra.
  That is why, for Baudrillard, the old projects of liberation and transformation, together with all critical efforts to unmask the real, have become meaningless. Needed rather are 'fatal strategies' (FS) which challenge the system to challenge itself. In the realm of thought, correspondingly, he sees no point in furthering the 'glaciation of meaning'. 'The world was given to us as something enigmatic and unintelligible, and the task of thought is to make it, if possible even more enigmatic and unintelligible' (IEx, 151).
   § disappearance
   § Gulf War
   § hyper-reality
   § Manichaeism
   § perfect crime
   § simulation
   § virtual

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.


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