The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena

 

In D’Alembert’s Dream, Diderot has Dr. Bordeu, pressured by Mademoiselle de l’Epinasse to spell out his model of memory and consciousness, admit to being short on details but good on generalities such as habit – a force that “can get the better of people, such as the old man who still runs after women, or Voltaire still turning out tragedies”. Or Jean Baudrillard still turning out his lugubrious evocations of contemporary collapse, implosion and the passing of all that was. Those still able to achieve a cathartic charge from Baudrillard’s catalogue of the simulation-filled emptiness of our time, his lyric of no more this, no more that no more…,his frenzied, sardonic and at times gleeful mourning of all that once gave our lives meaning, affect, purpose and a sense of struggle – history, the social, progress, passion, hope, the future, reality – won’t be disappointed by his latest book. The Transparency of Evil offers the familiar melodies of loss and delusion, but with new notes and a new bleak terminus, sung in a voice more isolated and haunted by itself than any to be found in his celebrated – and, by comparison, upbeat – journeyings into obscenity, seduction, fatality and ecstasy.

Though history is finished and the future is mere repetition, Baudrillard is pretty sure things once did happen and have consequences: 1968, for example. “If I were asked”, he writes, “to characterize the present state of affairs, I would describe it as ‘after the orgy’. The orgy in question was the moment of liberation in every sphere. Political liberation, sexual liberation…women’s liberation, children’s liberation…liberation of art”. In a world, then, where everything has been liberated, we find ourselves facing the Big Question: “What do we do now the orgy is over?”

Of course, Baudrillard explains, things haven’t been liberated in the way we thought they would be. Instead, they’ve been freed in order to enter into a state of pure circulation, “incessant commutation”. Nothing – from bondage to Nietzsche’s God – it seems, ever disappears by ending or dying. Things disappear through proliferation, contamination, extenuation or simulation. Succumbing to what he recognizes as an “obscure need to classify”, Baudrillard rings the changes on his famous four stages of the image. We now have four stages of value. The first three are what you’d expect from his history of the image. First, use-value: value has a natural referent; second, exchange-value: value has a commodity aspect; third, sign-value: value develops via a code. The fourth is new. He calls it the “fractal (or viral, or radiant)” stage of value, and it serves here as the key which unlocks all the comings (or rather goings) of our permanently and irrevocably stalled post-orgy existence. According to this fourth stage, there really is no more “law” of value. Instead, virulence: an epidemic or general metastasis of value, a haphazard and senseless proliferation of stimulations, in which what was once aesthetic, economic, sexual, scientific or any other kind of value disappears in a melancholy, empty, perpetual imitation of itself.

The Transparency of Evil works out its mourning and melancholia in two parts, through a series of short takes, written for the most part in standard Baudrillardese: apocalyptic declaration of “how it really is” out there in a techno-scientific vocabulary that scornfully disclaims science, a rhetoric that denies its own status, and a repeated emphasis that “it” is an illusion, the appearance of a non-existent reality. In Part One, the pieces range from “Transeconomics”, through “Xerox and Infinity” (in which we become “Telecomputer Man”), to “Necrospective” and “The Theorem of the Accursed Share”, where Evil, stripped of theology and made into a universal principle of instability, antagonism and vertigo, stalks the world as unpurgeable excess (Bataille is unmentioned here).

In Part Two, the focus changes from here to there, Us to Otherness, from the treadmill of “The Hell of the Same” to a desperate hunger for all that’s truly alien, unapproachable and unappropriable, terminally and radically exotic. A hunger not for de-alienating change (“The Melodrama of Difference”) or for an idealized likeness (all those post-Christian delusions of love) but for what is “more other than the Other”, “radical otherness”. This is a difficult, heartless, not to say incoherent project. At one point, it entails a “generalized derogation” according to which, though we may no longer experience anything at first hand or be capable of belief or love, we may love the lover, believe in those who believe, and accept an always pre-seen, mediated perception as the world. In this curiously skewed form of Girardian mimesis, the loss of self is all there is and all, Baudrillard insists, there ought to be. What to do after the orgy? Recognize that emancipation, by requiring the complete internalization of control, is merely a new imprisonment parading as freedom. Lose the autonomous self with its pathos of personal responsibility and follow everybody else: “Better to be oppressed, exploited, persecuted and manipulated by someone other than oneself.”

Ultimately, Baudrillard assures us, all that remains of otherness is the Object. The tragedy. The tragedy draws to an end, the curtain is ready to come down. Everybody on stage has been killed except for the protagonist/writer. He stands alone, surrounded by the stunning clarity and otherness of objects – a gesture, a face, a desert, a woman – which circumscribe him with the never-to-be-revealed secret of his own singular existence, declaiming his final line, “The Other is what allows me not to repeat myself for ever.” Leaving aside the immortality here, can this be right? Is the tragedy before us new or not? If only Diderot were here to help. But would he still want to invoke Voltaire? If I didn’t know better, I’d say the strongest feeling to be got from The Transparency of Evil is that Jean Baudrillard has at last found God.

 

TLS January 28, 1994

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