Friday, May 10, 2013

Baudrillard - J'accuse!

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.


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.


Michael Connor said...

We don't actually study galaxies, though, right? We study the energy/particles/super-cool-stuff-I-don't-even-know-about that emanate from those galaxies. And when studying that STUFF, we inevitable alter and destroy it.

(I could try to write my comment in incomprehensible post-modern gobbledegook, but I'm not bi-lingual.)

Stephen Law said...

Oh gosh, you're right what a fool I've been!

Stephen Law said...

Excuse sarcasm but really. To excuse Baudrillard you'll have to push that logic to the conclusion that we don't study the sun, we just study its light, we don't study rocks, we just study the light hitting the backs of our retinas, and so on. That's pretty obviously false.

I suppose you might want to play a general scepticism about the external world card here, but that was done long ago and much more clearly. Baudrillard still comes out as a poseur with nothing new to say.

Steve Cooke said...

The aim of this kind of awful, obfuscatory bullshit is to leave us with the feeling that we've read something profound. At the same time Baudrillard must hope that he's done enough to distract us from the fact that the feeling of profundity is unaccompanied by any profound meaning or truth.

Michael Connor said...

I wasn't trying to "excuse Baudrillard", and I generally agree with your take on po-mo.

Strange to get sarcasm for taking your post seriously, SL, and adding to it.

Peace, mac

Paul P. Mealing said...

I’ve come across some truly sceptical philosophers in my time (actual academics, not dilettantes like me) who have argued that the entire epistemological edifice we call science is a chimera, because it keeps changing – the knowledge is never frozen. I thought maybe that was the point that Baudrillard was making: if one takes quantum mechanics and string theory as the frontiers of science, it gets further and further away from what we perceive as reality.

I don’t agree with this of course, but I think a lot of non-academics, as well as some academics, would be seduced by that argument.

Regards, Paul.

Tom Ruffles said...

Baudrillard talks bollocks - hold the front page.

Simon said...

There is a sense in which measurement destroys a certain amount of information. So perhaps a concrete example of a knowledge-gaining pursuit destroying it's object. You could say a lot about that topic, albeit B wouldn't.

Anyway, I'd conjecture that the reason science sometimes seems remote is because it is - the study of galactic structure is very far from everyday concerns. B, for all his po-mo bollocks, apparently has the everyday level as his object, only he obscures it with his 'language'. That's one major difference between po-mo language and areas of science remote from the everyday scale: one is willfully difficult whilst remaining within the structures of the known; the other attempts to reach beyond this horizon and is difficult because the enterprise is difficult.

Ophelia Benson said...

It's funny how much more interesting the brief, clear point about the Tasaday is than the decorative bafflegab of Baudrillard.

Anonymous said...

It was an interesting debate - Paul Taylor came to a strange point about the value of ambiguity; as if word games were alien to the English language. Perhaps the point is that in Britain word games are a staple of comedy; but not of philosophy. Philosophy is actually serious about getting a job done.

Peter Hardy said...

Where does this quote come from? (I was a bit confused because I began by thinking you were referring to the text in the image.)

I think you are probably right that this particular point is false, but then this sort of writing is often full of hyperbole. It needs to be seen in context.

I know no-one has made the generalisation that all of Baudrillard or other poststructuralist social critics is of this quality, but just in case anyone were tempted to think that I contend that he made several important contributions to philosophy, indeed just the sort of contributions that analytic philosophers seem incapable of providing.

Iain Walker said...

I caught most of the broadcast, and I just wanted to say congratulations on refusing to rise to Taylor's rather pathetic attempt at well-poisoning. As far as I could tell his entire argument consisted of: Willful ambiguity is playful and clever and anyone who actually values clarity over obscurity is a reactionary xenophobe on a par with UKIP. In your position, I'd probably have returned the favour and pointed out the essentially elitist and anti-democratic nature of postmodern discourse ...

Stephen Law said...

Thanks Iain,

Josh said...

Hi Stephen,

Not a Baudrillard scholar or anything but this quote is somewhat out of context. You have to understand where Baudrillard is coming from philosophically - he is making a broadly poststructuralist point about how signifying systems (such as language) do not simply represent objects in the world but in a certain sense actually replace them. Because meaning doesn't mystically inhere within objects or words but is only constituted by the structure and relations of the language itself, we have no 'direct access' to meaning; it can never be pinned down. (Quine and Davidson also shared this view but didn't sufficiently explore the consequences.) This is straightforwardly true of anthropology as Baudrillard says but it is also generally true of any field of study. We cannot help but reify the symbols that are put in place, since in order to for any sensory phenomena in the world to be meaningful at all, they must be subsumed within a mental framework. As a result, it is impossible to extract the 'truth' of the matter from the framework which creates that truth.
Thus, the more symbolically and theoretically detailed our sciences become, the more indirect the abstractions we draw upon to 'understand' them, and thus the greater distance we put between ourselves and our direct experience. This is what Baudrillard and many of his generation where saying re: "Science... is doomed by the evanescence of its object etc"

Hope that's clear,