Baudrillard not Poststructural!


Don Cupitt, in his theological work which arguably most uses the world of signs (1992), says in his endnotes that: Baudrillard's books are very unsound indeed, but he does open up the territory. (Cupitt, 1992, 187)
Why should the postmodern poststructural Cupitt come to such a conclusion? Cupitt accepts that the system makes people desire and they genuinely get what they desire (Cupitt, 1992, 79). There is no standard outside by which they can assess what they really want or need. There is no natural alternative. Even criticism of this situation must be given from within it. And Cupitt adds: Jean Baudrillard, whose very pessimistic criticisms of late capitalism have been so influential during the past decade or two, seems not to notice this reflective difficulty within his own argument (Cupitt, 1992, 80).
What is Cupitt getting at? Is it that Cupitt is optimistic about the freedom within this flux of signs, particularly for a religious reconstruction, whereas Baudrillard is pessimistic? Applying this to religion and society (rather too easily together), Cupitt states: Maybe the loss of many of the old rituals, manners and conventions brings its own problems, but that is a separate argument. The present claim is merely that despite what is said by pessimists such as Foucault and Baudrillard, there are many obvious respects in which social controls are a bit less strict than they were and we have a little more freedom to make up our own lives. (Cupitt, 1992, 80-81).
Don Cupitt (back in 1994)
Cupitt does not say wherein the paradox lies. Perhaps it is just in the freedom that he sees where Baudrillard sees no escape from this collapse into the sheer inability to overturn the sweet oppression of the world of signs.
However, perhaps the criticism is along the lines of the more than a few traces of idealism left in Baudrillard, a faultline often in much of post-Marxist thought because of the idealism of the younger Marx. Jean Baudrillard - who died in 2007
Idealism is a kind of pure measure of a category, something by which to judge everything else in its less perfect state. It is a this-worldly platonism, perhaps. When Marx first discussed alienation, he did it through the polemics of the diminishing of the true human nature of the human being by the factory system and its exploitation. Marx abandoned this approach when in later life he became more system orientated, when the collapse of capitalism was considered a systemic process.
The same type of argument has been made of Lyotard and rationality. In Baudrillard's case, it is in the purity still attainable in primitive societies. Outside of late capitalism, one does not see another form of sign system and simulacra in quite the same intensive way. Rather, one sees the possibility of escape.
There is also the possibility too of a trace of realism in the fatal strategy, where a kind of purity is reached at the point of death. There is an idealism there too.
There is also the important ability to deconstruct between the lines of his wiriting. So for example he is maintaining revolution as a concept because of strongly proposing the opposite of no ability for revolution. In keeping a concept in the background that is being denied, this concept in a sense is an idealist benchmark, and we can see that this is wanted but not available. These non-possibiltities are casting a shadow and are ripe for exposure within the system, as a kind of latent desire.
Like Lyotard there is this ability to analyse the whole seemingly rationally. If it is rational, it destroys the irrational world it has created because the poststructural ball of late capitalism sits within a still operating rational universe. Is Baudrillard's own description part of the simulacra or is it part of the rational ability to escape the simulacra? On the face of it, the writing is from within. He states playfully that the "absolute rule" of thought is to give unintelligible thought back into the world as it gives to us (quoted in Noble, 2000, 234). Noble says "yet" Baudrillard keeps on writing (234). Baudrillard regards the existence of binary opposites of signs (eg "intelligible/ unintelligible"as a communicative device, but they are not themselves structural opposites. Thus he comes to describe the meltdown or implosion of hyperreality, where these convenient signs for language use come and go, and so he too must be part of this (and Cupitt realising this always strongly affirmed the language boundedness of his own postmodern/ poststructural Christian-Buddhist-Humanist schemes). Yet when Baudrillard does describe those possibilities of being outside beyond late capitalism, then his own argument changes shape. The signs are not shifting but fixed pointers to what they symbolise - a purer world of stability and self-knowledge.
Because, in the end Baudrillard, is making an objective cultural criticism of specifically late capitalism. He is speaking of it from the outside, because he can perceive of the outside, where the rules are different. His description is no less interesting for the effect of living within late capitalism, but in the end it is not postmodern.
Or perhaps the reader of Baudrillard is being very postmodern. Because his argument is exposed by the exposure that within his imploded system are echoes of the opposite he denies - objectivity. Derrida's analysis has deconstructed Baudrillard, and shown him not to have left his social science roots at all, but to have produced a nice piece of late post-Marxist capitalist analysis.
Adrian Worsfold
Cupitt, D. (1992), The Time Being, London: SCM Press.
Noble, T. (2000), Social theory and Social Change, London: Macmillan.