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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more


Baudrillard's Simulations

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I remember in primary school being tasked to write a description of our house. Believing myself at that early age to possess a creative imagination (I no longer have such presumptions – I am a critic, after all), I started my piece: “A small, red brick house. A narrow path. A blue door. A kitchen, in which I am surrounded by wonderful smells.” I can recall the passage so well because of the response of my teacher when marking this, which was to cross out the first three phrases and to write at the bottom: “Verbs!” In retrospect, my teacher had probably been marking them late at night after a couple of whiskeys, and so was not in the best frame of mind to judge fairly what I thought to be a piece of literary innovation. The phrase circulating photographic circles is that all ordinary photographers know the rules, but the great photographers know when to break them, something I was naively doing with prose in these early years (and something I manage to do only occasionally with my photos).

Perhaps in what follows, then, I am missing the point much as my English teacher did back then (though I have a mug of tea in hand to my teacher’s whisky), but reading Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations I am sorely tempted to break my personal rule never to write in the margins of books. For it seems that once one attains the status of a French theorist, the rules of grammar go out the window and, unlike in my childhood story, there seems to be little aesthetic reason for it.

Master of the aphorism, his sentences regularly lack verbs, as if dispensing advice from a French Sinai: "The hatred by an entire civilisation for its own foundation." "The vertigo of a flawless world." It's all very lulling, and I could cope with such conclusions if they were used sparingly, but as it is, sprinkled like pepper across the pages, I sniff with the suspicion that these rhythms of decisiveness are being used to close down a paragraph, in the hopes that the reader will forget that there has been little by way of logical argument to substantiate that conclusion. Statements are thrown in without any empirical (in the loosest sense of that word) justification. For example, summing up a thousand years in a single sentence, Baudrillard tells us that in the medieval period “There is no such thing as fashion in a society of caste and rank, since one is assigned a place irrevocably, and so class mobility is non-existent.” Try telling that to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who, though a mere cloth cutter, has married so cunningly that she is able to display her dress in gaudy show of her new social status:

Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;
I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound
That on a sonday weren upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.

Should Baudrillard have told her that she was not subject to fashion, nor socially mobile, I know who would have won the war of words (just look at what happened to the pardoner).

Then, in the manner of a scientific paper, metaphor is cut from a language which instead seeks to create logical and contingent links between a hypothesis and its outcome. So we are told that “concrete is a mental substance; it allows, just like a concept, phenomena to be organised and divided up at will.” No, Jean, concrete is not a mental substance. Would you buy a house made from Builder’s Qualia? Is my brain pebbledashed and my psychology sand and stone? The analogy, if one were explicitly made as analogy, might be valid, even interesting. Concrete might for the postmodern architect be the building material which finally allows him to develop the abstract designs that act as physical correlates for the intellectual activity of the people who inhabit them. However, this insight is one I can decipher only by overcoming that comic hurdle, in which Baudrillard appears to claim, in a magician’s illusion of a radical, provocative analysis, that concrete is mind, rather than is like mind.

But whereas this connection may be incidental (the sort of thing contemporary novelists such as David Lodge and A.S. Byatt have manipulated in their parodies of such academic writing), other connections – or, rather, elisions of connection – are more morally suspect. For example, we are told that Watergate is not a scandal, but a "scandal effect concealing that there is no difference between the facts and their denunciation (identical methods are employed by the CIA and the Washington Post journalists)." In one sense, that placed in parentheses, he is right, and the recognition that the methods of investigation and dissimulation were essentially the same is a potent one. However, there is a moral difference which is blurred here, and in this case it is the moral dimension which is the most important: the journalists were performing the role they were expected to play in society, a role they had worked hard to fulfil, whilst Nixon abused the role society expected of him, the role to which society elected him. It is too easy to read postmodern cultural analysis like this, and to jump to the conclusion that since everything is relative then there can be no ultimate value systems or scales.

But since everything is relative according to the poststructuralist, then by their own logic they should make clear what things are relative to what, something Baudrillard does not do. The methods of Nixon and the journalists are relative to each other, but the morality of method employed by Nixon is relative to his position as President, and has not the same moral status as that of the work of Woodward and Bernstein. It is this sort of category mistake which leads people into the belief that science is only one narrative – a story about climate change or the development of species – relative (and relation of) others, such as the creation myth or that of a left wing conspiracy to undermine capitalism. They suggest that because Einstein overturned Newtonian mechanics that this shows all science is relative, and therefore just as inconclusive as more metaphysical ways of interpreting the world. But Einstein supplied a suite of theories that applied in very special circumstances relative to Newton's; his theory does not open out in a way which shows all science to be relative to everything else (though naturally science works under conditions of probability rather than absolute certainty). It is this misconception, one which arises from postmodern theory such as that practiced by Baudrillard, which lies at the heart of many of the misrepresentations of science that I have commented on before:

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Posted by Alistair at 11:26 am

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