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Walking through Baudrillard's Paris

Paris 1986. I was there. Three years after the publication of Simulacra and Simulation. My husband’s youngest sister had just graduated high school and her graduation gift was a trip to Paris, a city she had wanted to go to for some time. At the last minute, my husband’s parents were unable to go with her and we were sent in their place as chaperones. We stayed in a small private hotel on Rue de L’ Odeon near the Luxembourg Gardens on the West Bank. While strolling through the streets of the West Bank, absorbed in the exquisite and robust scenes of Paris life, I found an advertisement lying outside on the ground which appeared abandoned. I picked it up and realized why. Someone had drawn a speech bubble on the image and written, ‘merde’. I took this – it presented something to me that was beyond the obvious.

Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation often refers to semiotics to express his ideas of the simulacra. We know semiotics, in its simplest form, as the signifier and the signified which make up the sign. Signification is the process that produces the sign. The sign is created in relation to the signification and does not stand alone without this relationship. This is where meaning is produced, in the relationship. But this relationship poses a problem, it appears to be arbitrary. And without this element of context, without context, there is no meaning. The sign itself appears arbitrary and allows for many inferences and possibilities. Without context, Baudrillard tells us there becomes, “no mediating power between one reality and another, between one state of the real and another.” As is the case when Marshall McLuhan tells us we are now living in a world where the medium is the message. The loss of contextual messaging which is the signification process is also lost. The signifier and the signified are no longer separated to create the space for signification.

This loss, this implosion of meaning is our dilemma, as Baudrillard explains. “The fact of this implosion of contents, of the absorption of meaning, or the evanescence of the medium itself, of the reabsorption of every dialectic of communication in a total circularity of the model, of the implosion of the social in the masses, may seem catastrophic and desperate. But this is only the case in light of the idealism that dominates our whole view of information. We all live by a passionate idealism of meaning and of communication, by an idealism of communication through meaning, and, from this perspective, it is truly the catastrophe of meaning that lies in wait for us.” It is the loss of the dialectic, the tension between the signifier and the signified, or as Baudrillard mentions, “The absorption of one pole into another, the short-circuiting between poles of every differential system of meaning, the erasure of distinct terms and oppositions, including that of the medium and of the real.” This is possible because of the arbitrary-ness of the signification process. Our cognitive complexity, our ability to express our meaning by use of signs is mocking us and nullifying the meaning we wish to express by imploding meaning in the social. It is the social construct that implodes taking our meaning with it, causing a circulation of sense making. Which as Baudrillard warns us, creates, “a single model, whose efficacy is immediate, simultaneously generates the message, the medium, and the real.” This is the simulacra, the simulation of substituting the real for the signs of the real, the circularity that creates itself continually because it no longer identifies the dialectic, between truth and falsity, between real and unreal.

Paris was my first trip abroad and I had no knowledge of French, but learned to say, ‘pardon me, I do not know French, and in addition, pardon me, where is the toilet’. I thought that was the least I could do. I found myself hearing more than I thought I would, as our US English uses many French based words. My husband and his sister had studied French but refused to engage, they felt their French was not good enough to speak with confidence. Being naïve, I would attempt to communicate, to do my best, often resorting to a type of charades until the French person would take pity and speak in English if they could. I had heard people in the states complain and express the expectation, that a country’s hospitality industry should speak English, which seemed absurd to me. While enjoying an evening out at a nearby restaurant on the West Bank, I experienced this expectation in all of its absurdity. We came across a group of American tourists who embarrassed and appalled me. So much so, that without the stern opposition from my husband, I would have gone over to them and said so. They were inebriated and loudly expressed their expectation that their money should provide them privileges. One of these privileges being, that the French they encountered and were spending their money to support, should speak English. Years later while waiting tables in a well-known seafood restaurant in Boston, I had a French woman start speaking to me in French as I attempted to take their orders. I was confused and found myself relying on my memorized line – ‘pardon me, I do not speak French’. She smiled as she said in English, ‘See how it is? You Americans come to France and expect us to speak English, so we decided we should expect you to speak French when we come to America.’ I laughed and agreed with her, remembering the rude Americans I had witnessed. I believe I apologized for all the Americans who disrespected their culture and their language. I had fallen in love with Paris and the French language sounded and is, music to my ears.

Words and language. We use these to convey meaning in the social realm. We use these to communicate to those around us, but we do so while absorbing multiple levels of context. It is quite an experience to be surrounded by people going about their day all the while being able to watch and hear but not to understand with automatic familiarity, what they are saying. This experience, albeit surreal, exposes how much is absorbed not just by words, but cues from the physical experience of watching the facial and body expressions, as well as the place and time of day, simultaneously contextualizing with any previous experience we identify as similar. While watching the goings on there is an awareness of a deeper meaning, the meaning of being human, the commonalities of our experience that exist beyond the words we use to express this with. Baudrillard gives us a hint of this in Simulacra and Simulation when he writes, “We are face to face with this system in a double situation and insoluble double bind – exactly like children faced with the demands of the adult world.” It is something to ponder, the fact that we begin communicating with words before anyone teaches us to do so. It is in our nature to absorb contextually our surroundings and by doing so we adopt a way to communicate. We want to participate in the world, so we naturally find a way to communicate with those around us. In a sense, we conform to our reality, driven, so to speak, to communicate. In this sense, we collectively conform and agree to the meaning of the words, contextually, with and by our understanding.

Baudrillard continues and offers us a strategy. He says, “Children are simultaneously required to constitute themselves as autonomous subjects, responsible, free and conscious, and to constitute themselves as submissive, inert, obedient, conforming objects.” He continues to use this analogy as replicating itself in the adult, social and political sphere. He presents the appearance of this sphere as being submissive, obedient, and conforming and questions why the opposite is not equally apparent as resistance to the objectification of meaning. He writes of this dilemma, “it is no longer the strategic terrain: the current argument of the system is to maximize speech, the maximum production of meaning. Thus, the strategic resistance is that of the refusal of meaning and of the spoken word – or of the hyperconformist simulation of the very mechanisms of the system, which is a form of refusal and of nonreception.” The implosion of meaning in the social world characterized acutely in the media becomes apparent. He writes, “It is the strategy of the masses: it is equivalent to returning to the system its own logic by doubling it, to reflecting meaning, like a mirror, without absorbing it. This strategy (if one can still speak of strategy) prevails today because it was ushered in by that phase of the system which prevails.” Within this circularity which overwhelms the opposing dialectic of the autonomous subject and the conforming object, the strategic response is to become defiant to both. No longer does meaning hold sway, it is subsumed in the wretched excess of information that devours meaning creation. In this sense, the medium and the message implode.

While in Paris, I visited twice the deemed, postmodern architectural Centre Pompidou. The line for the Pompidou was short, the cost was negligible, and there was a café on the top floor that served a plat du jour for a very reasonable price. I enjoyed the outside glass enclosed walkway and escalator that allowed the breathtaking skyline of Paris to slowly emerge as you rose to the top. The interior was cozy and open at the same time. The flow of visitors moved organically and there were windows letting in natural light and balconies with cafes in the open air. This building, the architecture, caused a great controversy amongst the French people. But, particularly for Baudrillard. For Baudrillard, this high tec postmodern architecture and what was housed inside, represented the simulacra in form and substance. I saw the architecture as a postmodern reaction to the simulacra, exposing the hidden inner skeleton so to speak on the outside, revealing the machine’s inner workings that are hidden from us. But I was oblivious to the cultural events of the sixties in France and did not understand the controversy this building brought to the French culture. Baudrillard in his chapter named “The Beaubourg Effect: Implosion and Deterrence” expounds on this and expresses his firm belief that this building represents the end of culture. He states, “Beaubourg is nothing but a huge effort to transmute this famous traditional culture of meaning into the aleatory order of signs, into an order of simulacra (the third) that is completely homogeneous with the flux and pipes of the facade. And it is in order to prepare the masses for this new semiurgic order that one brings them together here - with the opposite pretext of acculturating them to meaning and depth.” It is this building that expresses for Baudrillard the goal of mass culture to absorb all change towards creating meaning, through art, in culture. Baudrillard tells us, “One must thus start with this axiom: Beaubourg is a monument of cultural deterrence. Within a museal scenario that only serves to keep up the humanist fiction of culture, it is a veritable fashioning of the death of culture that takes place, and it is a veritable cultural mourning for which the masses are joyously gathered.”

In the twentieth century the idiom, art for art’s sake began to resonate and art became a market commodity considered to hold value within the constraints of its investment potential. Baudrillard reminds us, the “inestimable worth… is what guarantees that accumulation has meaning. Our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view.” Here he again points us to the circularity. The meaning of the accumulation is dependent on the accumulation’s meaning. When the dialectic implodes, Baudrillard warns us, “One must envisage this critical but original situation at its very limit: it is the only one left us…because the medium and the real are now a single nebula whose truth is indecipherable.” But is truth meaningful? And is what is meaningful true? Baudrillard explores the arbitrary, the contextual with his discussion of the remainder. Truth and meaning are not binary. The lack of truth does not equal meaninglessness and the lack of meaning is not untruth. If you subtract truth from meaning what remains? And if you subtract meaning from truth, what remains? The remainder. The elusive contextual remainder. Baudrillard writes, “When everything is taken away, nothing is left. This is false.” Does it follow that when truth is taken away, meaning is lost, or when meaning is taken away, truth is lost? We can argue that meaning and truth are not two sides of the same coin as one could understand everything and nothing to be. But meaning and truth are intrinsically interconnected if not only because of our system of creating signs. But because the signs in themselves are not true, they act as a collective agreement of meaning, pointing to truth and the same can be said of meaning. If signs create meaning but in and of themselves are not true, does that erase meaning? Again, circularity abounds. A nightmarish carousel ride that one cannot get off comes to mind. Baudrillard explains, “And yet, what is on the other side of the remainder exists, it is even the marked term, the powerful moment, the privileged element in this strangely asymmetrical opposition, in this structure that is not one. But this marked term has no name. it is anonymous, it is unstable and without definition…. In a strict sense, it cannot be defined except as the remainder of the remainder.” This expression, the remainder, has no sign and yet appears to us as a mirror, the arbitrary sign of a sign, expressed in context to the asymmetrical concepts of everything and nothing, of meaning and truth.

The mirror Baudrillard presents to us is the gap between the sign as representation and the reality we are referencing. But Baudrillard with his urgency is telling us that it has gone further. The sign no longer references the real but references the sign. The hyper-reality is created by the repetition of the sign referencing another sign which may or may not have referenced the original sign that referenced reality. The layers of signs referencing signs no longer attached to the original reality create the remainder of the original. And yet this remainder “refers to much more than a clear division in two localized terms, to a turning and reversible structure…in which one never knows which is the remainder of the other….in this sense one can speak of the remainder as a mirror, or of the mirror of the remainder.” So, do we exist in a fun house of mirrors, reflecting and distorting reality? Or are we quietly repressing meaning in defiance, no longer allowing the absorption of what is determined to be meaning in the simulacra. But Baudrillard again warns us, “It is not when one has taken everything away that nothing is left, rather, nothing is left when things are unceasingly shifted and addition no longer has any meaning.”

The advertisement poster I found in Paris is humorous and when you see the speech bubble it makes you laugh. Baudrillard tells us, “Another aspect as surprising as the absence of an opposing term: the remainder makes you laugh.” It is the remainder left by the image of a man standing with paint on his hands, the assumed remainder that is caused by the reality of touching wet paint that brings a smile. But it is truly the human remark, the speech bubble that brings a deeper laugh. It expresses the absurdity of life and touches on the moment of a human, determined by a quick thoughtful action. “The remainder is obscene, because it is reversible and is exchanged for itself. It is obscene and makes one laugh, as only… the lack of distinction between life and death makes one laugh, deeply laugh.” I did laugh because of the speech bubble, but the meaning I found was directly connected to the fact that another human wrote this. I would not have brought this all the way back to the states if this remark was part of the original advertisement. No, it was the human handwriting that provided meaning for me. It is the absurdity of the finality of the human action and the acknowledgment of this absurdity, or obscenity that made me laugh.

Baudrillard does perhaps lead us to what perhaps is the only solution to finding our way out of this maze that envelopes us as meaning collapses. He tells us, “One must push at the insane consumption of energy in order to exterminate its concept. One must push at maximal repression in order to exterminate its concept. Once the last liter of energy has been consumed (by the last ecologist), once the last indigenous person has been analyzed (by the last ethnologist), once the ultimate commodity has been produced by the last "work force," then one will realize that this gigantic spiral of energy and production, of repression and the unconscious, thanks to which one has managed to enclose everything in an entropic and catastrophic equation, that all this is in effect nothing but a metaphysics of the remainder, and it will suddenly be resolved in all its effects.”


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