On the Prospect of Black Baudrillard: Notes on the Precession of Simulacra

(Paper Presented at Wake Forest University, Tuesday, July 21st 2020)

In Baudrillard, you find a post-modern announcement of the death of the Real. And while incredulity towards the possibilities of determining the Real – especially within the confines of the operative solidity of Modern narratives of Enlightenment – was gestured to and by many of his post-structuralist and post-modernist contemporaries, none were so willing to take their critiques of Knowledge, Language, and the Social so far as that of Baudrillard. For Baudrillard writes philosophy with an attention to the mundane detail. It is for this reason I find it always important to raise the reminder to the fact that rather than being a philosopher as traditionally understood, Baudrillard should be thought of as a sociologist in the tradition of Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, and Pierre Bourdieu of whom he was a student. In many respects, the connections between Baudrillard and Barthes is well-known and articulated insofar as Baudrillard’s work is systematically-linked to the legacy of the structuralist semiotic theory that made Barthes one of the most prolific essayist, philosophers and cultural critics in the 20th Century. Nevertheless, while it would be too much to get into the work of Henri Lefebvre and Pierre Bourdieu right now, and while there is still much work I have to do myself in unpacking their work, I would suffice it to say that one misreads Baudrillard in not considering him a sociologist of the everyday life of a fractured Western subject in a racial capitalist technoculture. For what does Baudrillard attempt to discover in the TV as a philosopher other than the mundane expression of the social reality of entangled yet inseparable relations of simulation and reality? No longer entranced by the Dadaism or the Surrealism that once enamored Lefebvre, but now entranced by the Neo-Nietzschean critiques of Truth of his intellectual contemporaries and the hyper-realism of a society engulfed in an indeterminable web of images and representations.

In Baudrillard, the images and representations of the real have become indistinguishable from the real itself such that a simulation may stand in for reality without any semblance of reality being lost. The simulation is the reality. The reality would cease to be a scene of the Real without the simulation. Thus, in Baudrillard’s account of “How We Mistook the Map for the Territory”[1] the map has not so much as receded access to the territory itself, but has instead become so enmeshed in the territory that there is a hazard in being able to determine the difference. Thus, he begins Simulation and Simulacra with what he calls, “The Precession of Simulacra.”

A precession is defined as, “the slow movement of an axis of a spinning body around another axis due to a torque (such as gravitational influence) acting to change the direction of the first axis.” With the use of this term, we can infer that at the start of Baudrillard’s magnum opus what he is attempting to describe in his philosophical sociology of his increasingly post-modern Euro-Western society is a transition in the spinning of its axis. This transition is a transition of which “due to a torque (such as gravitational influence)” has acted to change the direction of the first axis. This transition, according to Baudrillard, can be read in and through the axiomatics of Western relations to the technology and techniques of the sign. Baudrillard states:

All Western faith and good faith became engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could be exchanged for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange – God of course…

Representation stems from the principle of the equivalence of the sign and of the real (even if this equivalence is Utopian, it is a fundamental axiom). Simulation, on the contrary, stems from the Utopia of the principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as the reversion and death sentence of every reference. Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulacrum. [2]

Thus, what is brought about is the transition from the Modern axis of Representation to the Post-Modern regime of Simulation. The former presupposes a direct link between the word and its object, the linguistics of the category and the materiality of the thing being categorized, suggesting that what is spoken speaks to what is true. The Post-Modern axis of Simulation is an oscillation that negates the value of the word, the sign, and the category – moving from one pole of terminology to the other suggesting that what was once the opposite of the signified can also be found internally within its signification. For example, Television under a regime of Representation is an articulation of a re-presentation of the Real, but under Baudrillard’s description Television becomes a simulation of the Real – a reality TV, no longer separate and unequal, but integrated and enveloped. Is the President a real President or a President acting as President on TV? Baudrillard would say he is both, which is to say that he is a neither, which is to say there is no President. Thus, this transition in axiological relations to the real is a transition that he states, “is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.”[3]

            Thirteen years after his death, it would seem that such a characterization, like the proclamations of the death of God by Baudrillard’s philosophical predecessor Friedrich Nietzsche, had been proclaimed all too soon. Yet, here we are, we children of the dawn of the 21st Century, and we cannot help but find ourselves in a web of virtualities, simulations, fake news (which in itself is a perfect phrasing of the imbalance of opposites in accordance to Baudrillard), and viral videos of violence that pose no threat nor circulate any meaning. In a way, Baudrillard was the most absurd of the post-structuralist/post-modernist thinkers. In this I admire him, for he was the most willing to verbalize the fracturing of a Worldview that had begun to unfurl in the aftermath of the revolutions of the 1960s. In addition to this, what makes Baudrillard’s account of this turn in relation to the sign is the location in which he places the evidence of the transformation in axioms from the realism of modernity to the hyper-realism of post-modernity. While readings of Baudrillard and the post-modern often suggest that it was solely the technological transformations from within an increasingly cybernetic and algorithmic technocapitalism that drove Baudrillard’s insistence until death that the simulation had made the Real territory impossible to grasp, it is Baudrillard’s problematic meditations on the “Savage” which drive home the truth of the hyper-real built as it is on the grounds of a violent hyper-chaos. Indeed, for what the Savage reveals to Baudrillard is none other than that which Denise Ferreira Da Silva states boldly namely that, “We had something to do with the crisis of science; we, the others of Man, were upsetting history: our words and deeds unleashed the predicament of the ‘modern order.’” [4]

Baudrillard, at the limits of his corporeal integrity, suggest a similar truth from the position of the fractured subject position of Man – elaborating the paradoxes of the capacities that bore him. He states, “Ethnology brushed up against its paradoxical death in 1971, the day when the Philippine government decided to return the few dozen Tasaday who had just been discovered in the depths of the jungle, where they had lived for eight centuries without any contact with the rest of the species, to their primitive state, out of the reach of colonizers, tourists, and ethnologists. This at the suggestion of the anthropologists themselves, who were seeing the indigenous people disintegrate immediately upon contact, like mummies in the open air.”[5] The genocidal encounter of ethnology with its object of investigation reveals the paradoxes of the Western real. In order for its real to live, its object must die. In order to prevent the death of the object, the strategies of procuring the real must die. In order to protect the real, the simulation of the real must rise. The Real is resurrected through a simulation. Thus, the Tasaday after being hoarded into ethnological description, categorical schemata and onto-ethico-epistemological accounts rooted in colonization which labelled the “newly found primitives” as exemplars of the primal vestiges of the Human species, will be returned to the jungles from whence they came to be a living museum to the past (which is also the present since the Tasaday are still with us) of Human evolution. In other words, the Tasaday/Savage reveals the simulation. In the Savage, the paradoxes of science, ethnology, and the Real are made to bear. Hence why Baudrillard states:

The Indian thus returned to the ghetto, in the glass coffin of the virgin forest, again becomes the model of simulation of all the possible Indians from before ethnology. This model thus grants itself the luxury to incarnate itself beyond itself in the ‘brute’ reality of these Indians it has entirely reinvented – Savages who are indebted to ethnology for still being Savages: what a turn of events, what a triumph for this science that seemed dedicated to their destruction![6]

Where Baudrillard takes his analysis both all too far and all too Human is in suggesting that the condition which has made the Savage, a Savage, is a condition which has not only become a universal condition by way of the universal expression of the simulation of signs, but a condition which belongs to the sign alone and not to the materiality of severed flesh, broken necks, and unreclaimable bodies. The absurdity of Baudrillard lies not so much in his claim that the Savage has been articulated in ethnology as an amalgam of simulations and simulacra but rather in his insistence that this relation of simulation and simulacra is the same for all Beings across the board (because post-modernity) including but not limited too Baudrillard’s own ontological capacity as a White Being and henceforth, the still long-enduring typological face of Humanity par excellence. In Baudrillard’s own words, “We are all Tasadays, Indians who have again become what they were – simulacral Indians who at last proclaim the universal truth of ethnology.”[7]

            It is at this point in Baudrillard’s work that “On the Prospect of Weaponized Death” begins not as a blackening of Baudrillard, but as a critique of its elaboration. For what one finds in Baudrillard’s theory of the Real is the limits of the sign to signify a universality for all positionalities thought to be interlocuting from within the social space of civil society. For in Baudrillard’s theory, there had once been a Real underneath the sign, and now the Real is the simulacrum. In this transition from the Real to the Hyper-Real, one can suggest that at one point there was a representation that adequately separated the Indian as Indian and Western Man as Western Man, just as one can suggest that now, with the triumph of the simulation, we have all become savages. Yet, such a theory has not read Hortense Spillers nor grasped the severity of her claims that “Sticks and stones might break our bones, but words will most certainly kill us.”[8] For what one gathers in this poetically poignant critique of the sign is the materiality of semiotics. A materiality that Baudrillard and most of the post-structuralist interest in the signifier occludes. To take account of the words that kill is to take account of the violence of the signifier and the materiality of the word. Put differently, Hortense Spiller’s “words will most certainly kill” is a reminder to remain conscientious about the materiality of the map – no matter its arrangement over and in-between the territory. Or better yet, Hortense Spiller’s “words will most certainly kill” is a reminder that language is haunted by a violence which is “the grammar and ghost of every gesture.”[9] That there can be a Being for which the sign – language nor image – is not enough to render coherent or legible its grammar of suffering is forgone as the attempt of procuring universal entrapment is announced in Baudrillard. Yet, the cataloguing of the World in accordance to hierarchical variations of difference – by way of axiological simulations of abstractions that begin to map the territory of the post-modern and hyper-modern landscape is neither equally distributed nor is it all a game of sign, signifiers and semiotics. In fact, the very conditions of possibility for such a cataloguing of personhood as well as its post-Sixties transformations begins with the bracketing off of Blackness as the nadir of ethnology.

So that if we see this category of the damnés that is internal to (and interned within) the prison system of the United States as the analog form of a global archi-pelago, constituted by the Third- and Fourth-World peoples of the so-called “underdeveloped” areas of the world—most totally of all by the peoples of the continent of Africa (now stricken with AIDS, drought, and ongoing civil wars, and whose bottommost place as the most impoverished of all the earth’s continents is directly paralleled by the situation of its Black Diaspora peoples, with Haiti being produced and reproduced as the most impover- ished nation of the Americas)—a systemic pattern emerges. This pattern is linked to the fact that while in the post-sixties United States, as Herbert Gans noted recently, the Black population group, of all the multiple groups comprising the post-sixties social hierarchy, has once again come to be placed at the bottommost place of that hierarchy (Gans, 1999), with all incoming new nonwhite/non-Black groups, as Gans’s fellow sociologist Andrew Hacker (1992) earlier pointed out, coming to claim “normal” North American identity by the putting of visible distance between themselves and the Black population group (in effect, claiming “normal” human status by distancing themselves from the group that is still made to occupy the nadir, “nigger” rung of being human within the terms of our present ethnoclass Man’s overrepresentation of its “descriptive statement” [Bateson 1969] as if it were that of the human itself), then the struggle of our times, one that has hitherto had no name, is the struggle against this overrepresentation. [10]

When Baudrillard reduces the Savages condition to a condition of hyper-reality that “we all” must undergo he forgets the ways in which his own present ethnoclass of Man still retains the overdeterminate grounds for authorizing and signifying its own “descriptive statement” as if it was the only meta-narrative that mattered and for that matter possessed Real matter. He also leaves unthought or never begins to consider the ways in which Blackness gets locked out of narrative capacity itself by virtue of occupying this ‘nadir’ of Humanity. Thus, what is the “nigger rung of being Human” in Wynter, I found to be “Blackness as Slaveness” in Wilderson and the Afro-pessimists. And the violence done to the Slave conditions the possibilities for the axiological signs and concepts which will come to set the scales and terms of il/legibility which will come to situate Man1 as the Rational Man, Man2 as the Biocentric Man, and what I have increasingly identified as Man3 and the Storytelling Man. All of these variations of the Human exists and persist on “bizarre axiological ground.” [11] A ground which drips in the Real of Black blood and paints this suffering over in simulation and simulacra, leaving the Hyper-Chaos of Black reality in the Hyper-Reality of an anti-Black World. What appeared as an account that can only wash away the Real, was the Hyper-chaotic ground of the Real, that situates Black death and its disavowal at the limits of signification. Thus, as Wilderson claims: “We need a new language of abstraction to explain this horror,”[12] a language of abstraction which we can say will not be found in the work or under the name of Jean Baudrillard.

[1] Sylvia Wynter, “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Reimprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Desêtre: Black Studies toward the Human Project,” A Companion to African‐American Studies, 2006, 107–18.

[2] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (University of Michigan press, 1994), 6.

[3] Baudrillard, 3.

[4] Denise Ferreira Da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race, vol. 27 (U of Minnesota Press, 2007), xxi.

[5] Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 7.

[6] Baudrillard, 7.

[7] Baudrillard, 7.

[8] Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritic 17, no. 2 (1987): 68, https://doi.org/10.2307/464747.

[9] Frank B Wilderson, “Grammar & Ghosts: The Performative Limits of African Freedom,” Theatre Survey 50, no. 1 (2009): 119.

[10] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/ Power/ Truth/ Freedom,” CR: The New Centennial Review, 2003, 261, https://doi.org/10.1353/ncr.2004.0015.

[11] Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” 65.

[12] Frank B Wilderson III, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms (Duke University Press, 2010), 55.

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