The Art of Disappearance
In his work, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? Baudrillard makes it clear that the ‘disappearing’ of which he speaks is not the disappearing of things in nature, such as the depletion of natural resources or the extinction of species, which are natural phenomena, but rather an ‘invention’ of human beings – it is disappearance as a type of ‘art’.
The disappearance of things has to do with the creation of the ‘real world’, which is seen as beginning in the ‘modern age’ with the development of the scientific method and the “implementation of technology.” (p. 10) Baudrillard mentions Hannah Arendt’s statement about the invention of the telescope and conception of an “Archimedean point outside the world” (p. 10) It is from this perspective, the theoretical ‘outside’, that the world can become an object of analysis. ‘Analysis’, which he reminds us means ‘to dissolve’, sees the beginning of ‘the real world’ and also its end: “the real world begins, paradoxically, to disappear at the very same time as it begins to exist.” (p.11)
The beginning/end of the real world has to do with its analysis, with its dissolution. It is the nature of the human being to break down, analyse and name things. By representing things, by naming them as they are, we give them meaning, we bring them into existence. At the same time, this naming and conceptualising of things is their ‘end’, their disappearance. Baudrillard speaks as Zizek sometimes does, of ‘brute reality’. Naming and conceptualising is to remove something from its brute reality.
The problem of things beginning/ending is a problem of language. We cannot speak of that which is outside language. We have no other choice than to name that which we imagine comes before the naming. We bring things into existence but make of them, in virtue of their being through language, something other than what they are.
Baudrillard gives the example of class struggle: this phenomenon begins when Marx names it, but it also ends as far as class struggle exists in ‘its intensity’ only before being named. Things ‘lose energy’ in this movement into language, which is also its ‘force in reality’. This ‘loss of energy’ has to do with the way that language overlooks particulars in favour of the general: ‘class struggle’, as a concept, finds what is common among different but related phenomena. Prior to its formal expression, these phenomena, i.e. hegemonic relations between the different strata of society and the friction between them, have energy insofar as they remain a part of ‘brute reality’ – the being of the struggle to transcend one’s social stratum, the daily experience of living in and through these hegemonic relations. By bringing it into existence, ‘class struggle’ becomes visible as a generality, but disappears as a lived experience, even for those involved in it insofar as they begin to identify it in terms of the generality. The term bestows upon the phenomenon its ‘force of reality’, but it cannot do so without taking something away from the particular experience given by it, in other words, without ‘reducing’ it.
The brute reality of things disappears into the concept, but the opposite can also be true. The concept can become its referent: “concepts and ideas (but also phantasies, utopias, dreams and desires) vanish into their fulfilment.” (p. 12) This second possibility, the movement of concepts to their fulfilment, can lead to an excess of reality. At first, it is difficult to see why, but the point comes into focus when we see it in light of technology’s role in the fulfilment of concepts: technology and science analyse and transform the world, and also transform the human being itself. Science and technology have lead to a proliferation of things and of reality itself.
Baudrillard sees technology as a force that expands the possibilities of the human being, but at the same time, threatens them with their own disappearance – “what is proper to human beings is not to realise all their possibilities.” (p. 15), the inference being that it is human to be ‘limited’, that we are necessarily biological or that we are embodied. Technology promises to take us beyond these limitations. In another paradox, it would seem that the human being can fulfil all its potential through technology, but insofar as it is not human to do so, this transcendence through technology effectively means that we cease to be human.
Through this transcendence of human possibilities, the difference between the human being and what he calls the “technical object” becomes indistinct. What is Baudrillard really talking about here? One answer has to do with human beings taking themselves up as their own object, that through technology we have began to transform ourselves, both in terms of the knowledge of science but also through physical changes. For example, we now live longer than ever before due to medical innovation. These physical changes are nothing compared to the changes occurring in terms of the possibility for experiencing reality, and experiencing ourselves.
This representing is ‘dissolving’ us, creating an operational world, one in which our own agency gives way to artificial intelligence and an objective world in which there is no possibility of representation. It is possible that Baudrillard uses the term ‘operational’ here where elsewhere he would speak of ‘simulation’. The world that we are creating – reality, the real world – is constructed through such representations, through technology that alters it in tangible ways – a world that has less and less need of us to represent it. As this process reaches its end point it becomes simulation. Already we have passed beyond representing things to simulating them, and we are getting close to simulating ourselves as well – there are those that believe that the brain can be simulated, that thought can be reduced to algorithms.
The desire to simulate things has led to the desire to simulate ourselves in order to look at ourselves from the outside. Baudrillard seems to envision a world where consciousness is a simulation. This world has no need of representation because there is no subject, no subjectivity, just a pure objective world experienced by a pure operational consciousness.
We could witness here the fascination of popular culture with worlds in which human beings have become slaves to artificially intelligent machines. The Matrix movies tell the story of intelligent robots that reduce human beings to biological batteries. They are kept placated by a simulated reality – while the humans believe that they are getting on with their lives, they are actually lying in baths of fluid, powering the apocalyptic ‘real world’ of the machines. The horror that we feel upon discovering this ‘truth’ is all the more palpable due to the fact that it has its similarities to our world. Morpheus and his cohort open their eyes in the ‘real world’ and face the horrific truth of man’s place in reality.
This movement is not without its complexities: there is an extent to which we resist it while at the same time willing it on. Baudrillard does not see the desire to disappear as entirely negative, “Quite the contrary disappearance may be the desire to see what the world looks like in our absence…” (p. 21) He argues that the human being wishes to see a world beyond representation, to see if there remains “an unprogrammed appearance of things” (p. 21) Of course, this would seemingly give rise to yet another paradox: how are we to ‘see’ at all without representing? Is the appearance of things not caught up in the process of representation? Baudrillard could be referring here either to the world as it is experienced by an operational objective consciousness or by no consciousness at all…
This desire to ‘see’ the world as free of representation is a paradox – we cannot see without representing – the world in which we live is based on representation: this is why the real world both begins and ends with it. Baudrillard argues that we wish to see the world as it is, as free from representation, and yet this world is not a return to the natural world: it would seem that ‘seeing’ the ‘natural world’ is simply not possible – we can only live in ‘reality’.
We could argue that technology is nothing new to the human being, that we are fundamentally technological in nature. Since we have existence, we have been changing the world and our experience of it, through technology. The tools that we have created are part of us, even if they are not appendages. The analytic process did not come into existence in the modern age, it has always been as long as humans have been. Acquiring tools requires a process of dissolution by which we take ‘nature’ apart and reconstruct it in ways that suite our purposes. Man looks at nature and sees forms and patterns that can be taken up and put to use: we see the bow in the branch, the figure in the block of marble.
Baudrillard is without doubt aware of this. His focus on the ‘modern age’ is understandable as far as it involved an explosion of innovation, and it is this explosion that now threatens us. At the same time, there is a suggestion that technology is separate from us, or was previously, which seems an untenable position to hold: it is slightly strange to point to some specific time in history when the process that he speaks of has been going on forever. We have never really lived in the natural world: the only world we can hope to know is the one that we have brought to life.
Jean Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, Seagull Books, London, 2009