Baudrillard - J’accuse! (again)

February 26, 2015

The Radio 3 The Verb programme, in which I discuss pseudo-profundity (with some analytic vs continental philosophy discussion), is repeated tomorrow night at 10pm GMT on BBC Radio 3. It will be available for a week on bbc radio iplayer. Below is my old post concerning that programme. Link to programme website here.

Here is a quote from Baudrillard that Prof Paul Taylor chose for the Radio 3 programme we recorded to be broadcast tonite at 10pm (I am talking about pseudo-profundity and bullshit and pointing a finger at some post-modern thinkers - listen here for a week [I am on from about 14mins30]):

For ethnology to live, its object must die. But the latter revenges itself by dying for having been "discovered", and defies by its death the science that wants to take hold of it. Doesn't every science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it? Like Orpheus it always turns around too soon, and its object, like Eurydice, falls back into Hades ... the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form.

Paul thought this quote encapsulated some deep insight about science (which he illustrated with an example of an actual remote tribe, the Tasaday indians, who had to retreat further into the forest in order to remain an uncontacted tribe [PS correction, I am muddling two tribes here - Tasaday are Phillipino; the tribe that had to retreat were Brazillian], whom people nevertheless then tried to photograph from a plane [Paul has a paper on this here]).

My view is: this quotation appears as it stands to be a combination of a banal observation and a ludicrous falsehood, puffed up into an impressive linguistic souffle and pretentiously topped off with a reference to Greek mythology.

Why?

Well, it is true that ethnology, the study of cultures, can sometimes end up destroying (or at the very least changing) the cultures it studies, if e.g. the culture of a remote rainforest tribe.

But this simple point that science sometimes destroys what it studies, by studying it, is not new. William Wordsworth, back in 1798, said:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect

Yes, we do sometimes murder to dissect. I might kill an individual insect in order to study its anatomy.

That we sometimes destroy what we study (in the process of studying it) is true, but it's a rather banal, humdrum point that, as I say, Wordsworth made well over a hundred years before Baudrillard. It's an uncontroversial observation with which we can and no doubt will all agree.

But of course this is not to say that to investigate something scientifically always involves destroying what's being investigated. That's obviously false. Indeed it's a ludicrous suggestion. Someone who studies galaxies does not thereby destroy them. Nor, by dissecting an insect, do I destroy the species knowledge of which I acquire by my dissection.

Yet Baudrillard goes on to suggests every science does ultimately do precisely that - it cuts itself off from and destroys its own subject matter.

However, such is the high falutin, flowery way in which Baudrillard makes the slide from banal observation to ludicrous falsehood that many of us will fail to spot his sleight of hand - that a banality has indeed been replaced by a falsehood. We'll be too distracted by the seductive analogy drawn with Orpheus and Eurypides to spot the conjurer's switcheroo.

By the time we reach the end of the Baudrillard quotation, he's combining words so cryptically it's hard to know what he is talking about. Science's "autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form" Eh? Try translating that back into plain English.

But by this stage it doesn't matter that Baudrillard is drifting into gibberish. In fact it's very much to his advantage. For, once Baudrillard has got you to come as far as accepting the obviously false but nevertheless terrifically exciting skeptical conclusion: "Oh Wow! Yes science does always destroy, cuts itself off from, what it seeks to know, doesn't it?" you are likely to think there must be some still deeper insight contained within his parting gibberish (only it's really, really deep and that's why Baudrillard needs to resort to such convoluted and baffling prose to try to articulate it).

At this point, it's job done for Baudrillard. He can sit back, adopt a sage like expression, and let you start doing the intellectual labour for him.

Of course there may be great insight contained elsewhere in the work of Baudrillard. But I cannot detect anything terribly impressive in the brief quote presented above.

P.S. Notice that the above quotation, unpacked, turns out to be very close to what Daniel Dennett calls a deepity: a deepity has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be "earth-shattering" if true.

Comments:

#1 Samuel P Douglas on Thursday February 26, 2015 at 4:52pm

Thanks for the entertaining article Stephen.
This is the kind of thing I would like to hear more often - not simply because it is critical of Baudrillard, but because so many analytic philosophers never have anything (good or bad) to say about anything ‘continental’.

This generalization aside, I think the criticism of Baudrillard, in isolation at least, is pretty fair. He certainly could state his arguments with grater clarity. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand Simulacra and Simulation - I don’t suppose you feel like translating it into ‘analytic’ for me?

#2 Philip Rand (Guest) on Friday February 27, 2015 at 12:59am

“Science’s “autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form” Eh? Try translating that back into plain English.”

Easy…

Though science attempts to achieve a perspicuous view of reality this is an illusion because reason can go beyond whatever reason can formalise. 

The autonomy science wishes to achieve is an illusion because the project assumes from the outset that there is a single system which contains all the objects that anyone could refer to.

#3 Philip Rand (Guest) on Tuesday March 03, 2015 at 2:24am

The point about using a computer programme to generate a “continental” type of analysis to make your point concerning pseudo-profundity was either an example of self-deception or disingenuous.

Because, if you consider this report from the Associated Press:

“CUPERTINO, Calif. (AP) Apple Inc. (AAPL) on Tuesday reported fiscal first-quarter net income of $18.02 billion.

The Cupertino, California-based company said it had profit of $3.06 per share.

The results surpassed Wall Street expectations … The maker of iPhones, iPads and other products posted revenue of $74.6 billion in the period, also exceeding Street forecasts. Analysts expected $67.38 billion.

For the current quarter ending in March, Apple said it expects revenue in the range of $52 billion to $55 billion. Analysts surveyed by Zacks had expected revenue of $53.65 billion.

Apple shares have declined 1 per cent since the beginning of the year, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 index has declined slightly more than 1 per cent. In the final minutes of trading on Tuesday, shares hit $109.14, an increase of 39 per cent in the last 12 months.”

THIS WHOLE REPORT WAS GENERATED BY A COMPUTER PROGRAME no human wrote it!!!

So, in Baudrillard terms…is science destroying the object it is examining, i.e. in this case humans.

Essentially, Baudrillard’s philosophy is a dynamic one…it is a negative feedback loop of analytical philosophy…this is why it is difficult for you to make sense of it, i.e. it isn’t static in the treatment of objects, like the technique you of the use of leprechaun’s in your examples.

His Simularca and Simulation has some very good points…the above example a case in point.

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