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April 2, 2007

Depth Takes a Holiday

The lighting is somehow worse in the YouTube broadcast than it was in the original recording. It also cut off the last couple of seconds. (After Althouse cackles, I said something like, "See, she agrees.")

While it is Lasch's book The Culture of Narcissism that serves as a prop in the video, I actually also had Baudrillard's Fatal Strategies in mind when deciding whether or not to do it. It more and more seems to me as if Baudrillard was, in a lot of respects, Lasch's evil twin.

Fatal Strategies, published in 1983, is arguably the last book in which Baudrillard's cultural theory is still engaged in an interesting dialogue with other work, in particular the Frankfurt School. Here's an extract from a good summary of FS by Douglas Kellner.

This text presented a bizarre metaphysical scenario concerning the triumph of objects over subjects within the "obscene" proliferation of an object world so completely out of control that it surpasses all attempts to understand, conceptualize and control it. His scenario concerns the proliferation and growing supremacy of objects over subjects and the eventual triumph of the object.... The process of growth presents a catastrophe for the subject, for not only does the acceleration and proliferation of the object world intensify the aleatory dimension of chance and non-determinacy, but the objects themselves come to dominate the exhausted subject, whose fascination with the play of objects turns to apathy, stupefaction, and inertia.

At the risk of simplifying things a bit too far, I think one can read the term "subject" here as meaning simply "consciousness," while "object" would in this context would mean "technology," more or less. Other connotations overlay each term. But insofar as Baudrillard is turning a "dual-ist" metaphysics into a "duel" between subject and object, he is doing so with the mass-media landscape in mind. (That's the OK Corral where said shootout is taking place.)

To continue:

....reflections on the media entered the forefront of his thought: the TV object was at the center of the home in Baudrillard's earlier thinking and the media, simulations, hyperreality, and implosion eventually came to obliterate distinctions between private and public, inside and outside, media and reality. Henceforth, everything was public, transparent, and hyperreal in the object world that was gaining in fascination and seductiveness as the years went by.

In Fatal Strategies and succeeding writings, the object dominates or "defeats" the subject. The "fatal strategies" suggest that individuals should simply submit to the strategies and ruses of objects. In "banal strategies," "the subject believes itself to always be more clever than the object, whereas in the other [fatal strategies] the object is always supposed to be more shrewd, more cynical, more brilliant than the subject." Previously, in banal strategies, the subject believed itself to be more masterful and sovereign than the object. A fatal strategy, by contrast, recognizes the supremacy of the object and therefore takes the side of the object and surrenders to its strategies, ruses and rules.

Which is, frankly, where I start to get worried. What Baudrillard calls "banal strategies" are things that seem to me incredibly valuable -- that is, forms of art, politics, thought etc. in which it is taken as a given that the media are "extensions" of the human, over which we as human beings have some final authority, both because we created them and because we can think. This is humane optimism.

But Baudrillard -- who was neither optimistic nor all that humane -- sees the relationship as a standoff in which each side grows more and more like the other, but in which the object has some hidden reserve of power that gives it an edge. For Lukacs, human relations become reified ("thing-ified") and emancipation comes from breaking through the crust of alienation to restore human subjectivity to its rightful place. For Baudrillard, that's just stupid. (Banal, he says.) The best option is to accept that the object-world is going to win.

How does this apply? Well, by making this video, I am arguably engaged in the fatal strategy of giving in to a medium that really bothers me. Trying to criticize it, yes. But also succumbing to it in the process.

It was fun to do, I have to say. Then again, maybe fun is how the crystal exacts it revenge.....

Posted by smclemee at April 2, 2007 3:19 PM


The combined effect of two iterations of YouTube completely disconnects Althouse's words from her movements, and there's something significant about that....

You could create a whole virtual community around celebrity commentary on pop culture -- call it the Puff Post -- at which point I think we'd have a cultural vacuity singularity...

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at April 2, 2007 5:42 PM

Scott, your hair is looking good. The puff comment.

Posted by: Anthony Paul Smith at April 2, 2007 5:59 PM

Thanks! My wife really likes my hair at this length, but once it gets a little warmer I'll go semi-skinhead.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at April 2, 2007 6:30 PM

Huzzah. I am, of course, struggling to set up -- in my comment here -- a video of me commenting on the video of you commenting on the video of Althouse commenting on "American Idol."

I think this is clearly what you hoped for, given your earlier post about Frank Wilson commenting on Bryan Appleyard's notion that in the "ontological transformation" of blogging, "interactivity extends the self and offers alternatives," to which I also commented and then you commented on my comment about Borges. In short, once other bloggers pick up the idea and record video commentary on my commentary on your commentary on Althouse, infinity (and your personal eternity) can be at least simulated through the digital equivalent of receding mirror images.

Ultimately, what should happen is for Althouse to record a new video comment on the last blogger, thus closing the loop or perhaps the Moebius strip or even the ouroboros. It would be a possible refutation of Zeno's paradox -- the infinite regression which, in this case, converges back at its starting point.

It's what we always suspected: "American Idol," the fons et origo of the universe.

Posted by: book/daddy at April 3, 2007 10:03 AM

In the pop quiz I'm giving today at Mostly Harmless, I was originally going to answer "e." Not as painful to watch as I imagined watching it would be. Take that, objects!

Posted by: The Constructivist at April 3, 2007 11:46 AM

More on objects, this time via Philip K. Dick. Your relation (intellectual, of course) to Dick?

Posted by: The Constructivist at April 3, 2007 2:33 PM

I've read quite a bit of PKD over the years -- starting in 1989 with, as good luck would have it, the autobiographical VALIS, which is still my favorite. But haven't written about him in any serious way. I probably will eventually.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at April 3, 2007 2:41 PM