Is There a Subject in Hyperreality?



Temenuga Trifonova
University of California, San Diego

© 2003 Temenuga Trifonova.
All rights reserved.

  1. The discourse of materiality or objective reality today is, first of all, a discourse of ethics. Objective reality is either treated as a victim that has been wronged by subjectivity (the latter must, therefore, be brought to justice) or is regarded as "fearful," "fatal," or "revengeful" (as in Baudrillard's work). This new discourse of materiality aims at getting rid of subjectivity, which it naïvely stereotypes as a puppeteer grown too controlling and tyrannical, oversignifying the world instead of letting the world express itself. In an attempt to surmount what it regards as the inherent anthropocentrism of centuries of philosophy and aesthetics, contemporary philosophy has taken it upon itself to dissolve subjectivity into something vague, unstable, indeterminate, unidentifiable, fragmented, amorphic, and always impersonal. Hence the lively recent interest in Henri Bergson's philosophy of becoming. While the discourse of materiality claims to be an attack on metaphysics, Jean-François Lyotard insists that it is actually a revival of the very essence of metaphysics, "which [is] a thinking pertaining to [impersonal] forces much more than to the subject" (Inhuman 6, emphasis added). The question arises: How can the subject annihilate itself completely or, conversely, as Deleuze puts it in Cinema 2: The Time-Image 2, how can the object become a point of view in its own right?
  2. Jean Baudrillard has often been criticized for his bleak interpretation of postmodern culture. In place of Baudrillard's "'sour' post-structuralism," we are urged to accept "a 'sweet' post-structuralism...for example, Derridean post-structuralism, with its emphasis upon the delirious free play of the signifier" (Coulter-Smith 92). Supposedly, Baudrillard cannot be of any help to us in this technological age because he is too scornful of it, too nihilistic, incapable of overcoming his "romantic concern for the loss of the real, the natural and the human" (98), which makes his writing sound both melancholy and apocalyptic. Others feel we ought to be warned against Baudrillard's seductive but insubstantial ideas and style. It's been said that too much of the criticism on Baudrillard is written by his devoted fans and that his works can "be regarded as little more than strings of aphorisms, and thus not worthy of critical engagement" (Willis 138). There is a strange incongruity between these two critiques. According to the first, Baudrillard is not sufficiently postmodernist; according to the second, he is too postmodernist, as his fragmented, aphoristic style testifies. Rather than discrediting Baudrillard's work, these criticisms actually present it as worthy of critical attention, especially now that postmodernism is drawing close to the brink of self-exhaustion. It is far more interesting to ask "What is there beyond the sweet and delirious free play of the signifier?" than to keep juggling the clichés of postmodernism. This is why, as I seek to demonstrate below, it is important to consider Baudrillard's texts as articulating an ontology rather than an epistemology.
  3. In many respects Baudrillard's theory of images is a reformulation of Bergson's imagistic ontology developed in Matter and Memory. Although both Bergson and Baudrillard are interested in the ontological and epistemological significance of light as the prime guarantor of the real, their notions of the image differ significantly. Bergson does not distinguish an image from a thing: things do not have images, and neither do we produce their images. Things, insofar as they are made of light vibrations, are already images. Or, taken more metaphorically, a thing is an image (or a representation) of the totality of images from which perception isolates it like a picture. Baudrillard, however, conceives images as capable of detaching themselves from things and either preceding or following them. What he really means is that things have lost their solidity and have been dematerialized into images, reduced to their pre-given meanings. Images are neither exclusively visual nor exclusively mental; rather, Baudrillard emphasizes their "pre(over)determination," their extreme proximity to us, which makes them virtually invisible. In Baudrillard's work, the image becomes a metaphor, and a deliberate misnomer, for the end of visibility. When everything has been rendered visible, nothing is visible any more and we are left with images. The image is a sign of overexposure or oversignification. Whereas Bergson describes the "production" of images as a process of dissociation or diminution (in which the image is dissociated or isolated from something bigger), Baudrillard describes the reverse process: the image is produced through a process of intensification or saturation, which overexposes a thing into an image. Both resort to photography to illuminate the nature of the image: the Bergsonian image is produced by obscuring rather than by throwing more light on the object, whereas Baudrillard's image is produced by overexposing the object, throwing excessive light on it, making it more visible than visible.
  4. Although Bergson's critique of cinematographical perception, in Creative Evolution, appears illogical in light of the fact that the description of natural perception in Matter and Memory is precisely a description of cinematographical perception, it is also true that in the same work Bergson underscores the necessity of overcoming the limits of natural perception through the "education of the senses" (49). The "education of the senses" seeks "to harmonize my senses with each other, to restore between their data a continuity which has been broken by the discontinuity of the needs of my body, in short, to reconstruct...the whole of the material object" (49). The continuity of objects of perception is broken by the discontinuity of our needs, by the selectivity of conscious perception. The restoration of the continuity of the object of perception requires a sacrifice of the selectivity and discontinuity of perception. Conscious perception has to be "corrected." For Bergson, however, conscious perception is the difference that tears apart the original neutrality of matter. To reconstruct the continuity of the aggregate of images is to surrender the difference which, by breaking that continuity, has given birth to conscious perception. Bergson demands that we educate our perception so that it approximates that of a material object. We must reconstruct the totality of external images that our perception (and our consciousness which is born in the delay of perception) has torn apart in being born. We must annihilate the very discernment through which difference enters the material world. We must reconstitute the very continuity whose break we ourselves are. The multiplicity and discontinuity of our needs must be reduced back to the uniformity and continuity of matter. The radical meaning of Bergson's doctrine of the education of the senses is that the evolution of consciousness is measured precisely by the degree to which our perception approximates that of a material point. To educate our senses is to try to compensate for the limits of perception as a selection and organization of a small part of the actual, to attempt to enlarge our perception. However, given that our perception is a narrowing down of "universal consciousness" or matter (for Bergson they are the same thing), the enlarging of perception would require a descent to matter: "To perceive all the influences from all the points of all bodies would be to descend to the condition of a material object" (49). Precisely those states that are deprived in the greatest degree of the discernment of conscious perception best reconstruct the reality of an object. To carry this line of argument to its logical conclusion: the further away we move from consciousness--for example, in sleep or unconsciousness--the more sides of an image we perceive, until our perception reaches the extreme point where it barely manages not to collapse back into matter. Intermediary states, such as sleep and hallucination, approximate total perception.
  5. Baudrillard, however, does not concern himself with the question of reconstructing the real: the real, he believes, never takes place, since it is determined by, and varies with, the speed of light. The essential immateriality of the world is a result of the very nature of light, which makes things distant or absent from themselves:

The objective illusion is the physical fact that in this universe no things coexist in real time--not sexes, starts, this glass, this table, or myself and all that surrounds me. By the fact of dispersal and the relative speed of light, all things exist only on a recorded version, in an unutterable disorder of time-scales, at an inescapable distance from each other. And so they are never truly present to each other, nor are they, therefore, "real" for each other. The fact that when I perceive this star it has perhaps already disappeared--a relationship that can be extended, relatively speaking, to any physical object or living being--this is the ultimate foundation, the material definition...of illusion. (Perfect 52)

Paradoxically, both the objectivity and the illusion of the world are functions of light.[1] Bergson had suggested something similar when he observed that since perception is never pure but always pregnant with memory, there is always a delay between the world and our perception of it so that what we actually see is only the past. From the very beginning things are already absent from themselves (not contemporaneous with themselves) and absent from other things (distant from them). Both time (contemporaneity) and space (distance) are, originally, unreal.

  1. In addition to stressing the role of light in determining the scope of the real, both Bergson and Baudrillard attribute ontological significance to the virtual. However, their ideas of the virtual are strikingly different. From Bergson's point of view, Baudrillard's virtual would be a false concept as it relies on the erroneous though common identification of the virtual with the merely possible:

Once, the two terms were linked in the living movement of a history: the actual form emerged from the virtual, like the statue emerging from the block of marble. Today they are entwined in the notorious movement of the dead. For the dead man continues to move, and the corpse of the real never stops growing. The virtual is, in fact, merely the dilation of the dead body of reality--the proliferation of an achieved universe, for which there is nothing left but to go on endlessly hyperrealizing itself. (Baudrillard, Perfect 47, emphasis added)

For Bergson, the virtual is an aspect of the life of the real precisely because the real is never fully realized. The discussion of the difference between the possible and the real occurs in The Creative Mind where Bergson challenges the illusory belief that the possible is less than the real, that the possibility of things precedes their existence "in some real or virtual intelligence" (22). This illusion is almost unavoidable since "by the sole fact of being accomplished, reality casts its shadow behind it into the indefinitely distant past: it thus seems to have been pre-existent to its own realization, in the form of a possible" (23). Nevertheless, the possible cannot be represented before it becomes real since the possible is what will have been: "we find that there is more and not less in the possibility of each of the successive states than in their reality. For the possible is only the real with the addition of an act of mind which throws its image back into the past, once it has been enacted" (118).

  1. It should be emphasized that Baudrillard does not identify the hyperreal or the virtual with the imaginary or the unreal. The latter are forces of negation whereas the pathological involution of the real in the hyperreal puts an end to negation. For Baudrillard, the virtual or the hyperreal is the fulfilling of the dialectic. The imaginary is not produced but destroyed by the surpassing of the real. The virtual/hyperreal results from a reversal of causality, the introduction of the finality of things at their origin, the accomplishment of things even before their appearance. Things become excessive when they appear as already accomplished, when there is no gap between their appearance and their realization. However, Baudrillard describes the constitutive illusion of the world also in terms of a disturbance of causes and effects. The event is not determined: it appears as an effect without a cause. Just as the world is illusory insofar as it is uncaused, unintelligible, the hyperreal does not have a cause either: its end functions as its cause. Baudrillard clarifies the difference between illusion and hyperreality/virtuality thus: "The great philosophical question used to be 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' Today, the real question is: 'Why is there nothing rather than something?'" (2). Although in both cases the cause as such no longer exists, the results are different. The illusory is that which exists though it could have just as well not existed (the possibility of disappearance, of nothingness) whereas the virtual is that which has always already existed and cannot be destroyed (the impossibility of disappearance). In the first case, nothing is given that could not be taken away at any moment; in the second case everything has been given from the beginning and, therefore, nothing remains to be given. It is essential, however, that there always be something to be revealed because the real exists only as long as it reveals itself as illusion.
  2. The virtual/hyperreal threatens to destroy illusion precisely through its perfection:

Virtuality tends toward the perfect illusion. But it isn't the same creative illusion as that of the image. It is a "recreating" illusion (as well as a recreational one), revivalistic, realistic, mimetic, hologrammatic. It abolishes the game of illusion by the perfection of the reproduction, in the virtual rendition of the real. (Baudrillard, "Objects" 9)

The Bergsonian virtual, on the other hand, does not threaten to extinguish the real or to become confused with it. This virtual is also the double of the real but it does not drive the real toward an identification with itself that would attenuate it, collapse it into a perfect reproduction of itself. The virtual is the sign of difference that can always infiltrate the present moment or the real: not to question it but rather to enrich it. Bergson insists on a distinction between images and virtuality, arguing that images themselves are not virtual but are merely the actualization of virtuality and, thus, its degeneration. The virtual cannot be exhausted in an image: one can follow the self-actualization of the virtual in images but one can never reconstitute the virtual from images. For Baudrillard, however, the difference between virtuality and image has collapsed. There is no more virtuality: there are only virtual images, perfect copies of the real which have supplanted the real. The virtual is the annihilation of representation, illusion, distance, time, and memory. Baudrillard's virtual is the ultimate threat: absolute self-identity, absolute self-contemporaneity, absolute proximity. By contrast, the Bergsonian virtual expresses the fact that everything is larger than itself, that nothing coincides with itself because the past is preserved in everything without being actualized.

  1. That the postmodern notion of the virtual is inconceivable within Bergsonism becomes clear in Bergson's critique of the concept of absence: "The idea of absence or of bound to that of suppression, real or eventual, and the idea of suppression is itself only an aspect of the idea of substitution" (Creative Mind 115). Absence--whether it is the absence of matter or the absence of consciousness--is an illusion for "the representation of the void is always a representation which is full and which resolves itself on analysis into two positive elements: the idea, distinct or confused, of a substitution, and the feeling, experienced or imagined, of a desire or a regret" (Creative Evolution 308). Baudrillard's virtual foregrounds the impossibility of determining whether an object still exists or has disappeared, leaving behind its virtual ghost. Yet Bergson would argue that even a virtual existence is still an existence insofar as it is thinkable: "Between thinking an object and thinking it existent, there is absolutely no difference" (Creative Evolution 310). The problem with declaring an object unreal or virtual is that we tend to focus on the exclusion of this object from the real when in fact we ought to focus on that which excludes--on the real.
  2. Baudrillard's description of virtuality stresses the poverty of the virtual, of which one can only say "it exists, I've met it" (Perfect 28). The world is virtual or poor because "referential substance is becoming increasingly rare" (29-30). One is reminded of Lyotard's description of the intrinsic poverty of the postmodern sublime. Like the poverty of the virtual, the poverty of the sublime lies in that it neither signifies nor is it the object of signification. Lyotard notes that the only response the sublime provokes is "Voila!" or "Here I am!" However, it is difficult to differentiate between poverty as excess (something is, and that is already more than what was expected) and sheer poverty (the only thing we can say of something is that it merely exists). It is as if at any given moment the sublime object--the image that does not signify--could slide into the hyperreal/virtual. There are no criteria for distinguishing between the sublime as non-signification and the virtual/hyperreal as non-signification, between "good" self-referentiality (an image drawing attention to itself, thus underscoring its autonomy) and "bad" self-referentiality (the hyperreal drawing attention to its own reality and thus surpassing it, making itself dubious) i.e., there is no way to distinguish between event and simulacrum. In the first case, it is a question of affirming the autonomous existence of something other than the mind by eliminating ourselves as a privileged point of view. In the second case, just the opposite is at stake, the affirmation of the connection between mind and reality. Reality is virtual or hyperreal when it operates independently of us, when we cannot determine whether it is real or not. Whatever exists independently of us has withdrawn absolutely and we can no longer affect it. It develops according to its own laws: it has become "obscene."[2]
  3. By "obscenity" Baudrillard means the annihilation of duration, of the slightest delay or lag in the existence of a thing, which makes it different from itself and thus impossible to decode or appropriate. What happens in virtual time is not an event, because it is instantly telegraphable, already containing its double. However, what is memory other than the instant replication or telegraphability of each moment? If, as Bergson argues in Matter and Memory, the photograph is already snapped in matter (perception is already "in" matter), couldn't we say that the photograph is always already snapped in conscious perception--that is, the memory-image is already inherent in the perception-image? Could the memory-image be simply the unreflective (latent) consciousness of the present moment, while the perception-image is the manifest, reflected consciousness of the moment? Could we conceive the relationship between image and memory-image, or between perception and memory, as that between reflective and unreflected consciousness? According to Bergson, all unreflected consciousnesses are preserved in duration and they are constantly enriching our mental life. However, for Baudrillard it is precisely the richness of memory that is dangerous, the fact that each moment already has its double--the (unreflected) memory-image that accompanies it rather than following it. This preservation of the past in the present threatens the present by making it instantly telegraphable. Unlike Bergson who credits memory as a sign of our transcendence, our difference from matter, Baudrillard holds memory responsible for the loss of transcendence. The difference in their views of memory accounts for their contrasting interpretations of the virtual. In Baudrillard's texts memory is associated with the de-realization of each instant, the collapse of distance, the turning of the present into a memory. As the memory-image supplants the present, the image becomes a repetition of itself and the past coincides with the present. What Baudrillard's works record is the obsolescence of time. Time is the indetermination of things, the possibility for a thing to appear and to vanish. The real exists only as a limit. Things are real only as long as they keep crossing the limit, constantly appearing and disappearing. Once disappearance--i.e., illusion--is no longer possible, the world is de-realized.
  4. Baudrillard's view of illusion remains ambivalent. On one hand, he considers it a resistance to total simulation. Illusion is the possibility of things to disappear, but also to appear: only that which is destructible or which has not appeared is capable of appearing at all. On the other hand, however, "illusion" signifies the possibility of passing beyond matter into the realm of the virtual. Perhaps Baudrillard's ambivalence toward illusion has something to do with his reconceptualization of the role of memory in perception. If Bergson is right that the duration of a given perception represents the work of habit-memory, and if that work is a variable, then it must be possible to influence or control it, thus controlling perception as well. Indeed, Bergson's belief that every perception is already a memory is intricately connected to Baudrillard's idea of the disappearance of the real as a result of the slowing down of the speed of light. Since the real depends on the speed of light, if the speed of light changes--if, for example, it drops very low--images will start reaching us with greater and greater delay that will be impossible to measure precisely because of the change in the speed of light, which was before the criterion for establishing the reality of a phenomenon. While Bergson considers memory a source of spirituality, Baudrillard is much more suspicious of the work of memory. For Bergson, habit-memory works to facilitate perception--that is, memory has a pragmatic significance; however, Baudrillard finds that the work of memory has gone beyond mere condensation: perceptions have become memories in the more dangerous sense of being predetermined (not spontaneously recollected). Perceptions have become neutralized, habitualized, but not in the harmless sense of habit as condensation for the purpose of action.
  5. If the virtual is the pathological involution of the real, the "fatal" is a resistance to the virtual. Toward the end of Fatal Strategies Baudrillard introduces the idea of the fatal object as a way of thinking beyond metaphysics. "Radical" or "fatal" thought assumes the point of view of pure objectivity or what Baudrillard calls "the principle of Evil" (Fatal 182). The object is Evil or inhuman because of its resistance to interpretation, its secrecy or seductiveness. The inhuman is beyond causality and accident, even beyond negativity. In line with the ethical appeal of Lyotard's idea of the inhuman as a resistance to the tyranny of subjectivity, Baudrillard defines the fatal or the inhuman as an expression of the enigma of the world, its resistance to metaphysics:

Metaphysics...wants to make the world into the mirror of the subject....Metaphysics wants a world of forms distinct from their bodies, their shadows, their images: this is the principle of Good. But the object is always the fetish, the false...the factitious, the lure, everything that incarnates the abominable confusion of the thing with its magical and artificial double; and that no religion of transparency and the mirror will ever be able to resolve: that is the principle of Evil. (Fatal 184)

The "fatality" of things lies in their excessiveness, which can never be represented. Existence is always already a surplus. Only through the threat of annihilation, through the return of the annihilated, and thus ultimately through repetition, does a thing appear at all:[3]

From a certain moment on, these second comings comprise the very design of existence, where consequently nothing happens by chance; it's the first coming--which is not meaningful in itself and loses itself in the banal obscurity of living--that happens by chance. Only by redoubling can it make of itself a true event, attaining the character of a fatal happening....Predestination eliminates from life all that is only destined--all that, having happened only once, is only accidental, while what happens a second time becomes fatal; but it also gives to life the intensity of these secondary events, which have, as it were, the depth of a previous existence. (Fatal 187)

For Baudrillard repetition is not an external addition to some original substantial reality; rather, the real is only insofar as it is repeated. What happens only once is merely an accident, but if repeated it is an event. The real is produced, dissociated, repeated, represented, predestined, but none of these terms have their usual negative connotations. For example, "predestination" does not signify unfreedom or overdetermination; on the contrary, it underscores the irreducible singularity of the predestined object or event. More generally, representation--a key metaphysical concept--is no longer a "bad word." Representation--the second coming of something--makes it significant in itself, absolute, singular. Representation is not an act performed by the subject on the objective world but a law presiding over all beings. Baudrillard challenges metaphysics by enlarging the concept of representation well beyond the realm of subjectivity and turning it into an ontological law: everything (both subjects and objects) is a representation. Refusing to think representation in terms of agency, he implicitly posits an impersonal force that indiscriminately represents everything. From this point of view, the image is not a threat to the real but its ground.

  1. Such a positive interpretation of the image, however, is the exception rather than the rule in Baudrillard's work, which generally treats the image as an epitome of the simulacral or the hyperreal. The critique of obscenity in The Perfect Crime is based on a notion of the simulacrum as transparency, excessive visibility, overexposure, supersaturation of the real with itself, which leads to the production of the hyperreal. In The Ecstasy of Communication Baudrillard notes that the "simulacra have passed from the second order to the third, from the dialectic of alienation to the giddiness of transparency" (79). The notion of the simulacrum as a threat to the material illusion of the world is based on a still-existing belief in a subject and its discourse, while the idea of a third-order simulacrum constituting the illusion of the world, its infinite reversibility, is already developed from a point of view beyond that of the subject and its discourse, from the point of view of the object itself:

The object itself takes the initiative of reversibility, taking the initiative to seduce and lead astray. Another succession is determinant. It is no longer that of a symbolic order...but the purely arbitrary one of a rule of the game. The game of the world is the game of reversibility. It is no longer the desire of the subject, but the destiny of the object, which is at the center of the world. (Ecstasy 80)

While transparency is the absolute proximity of the object to the subject, the object rendered more visible than visible, fatality is the absolute inaccessibility of the object, which is "always already a fait accompli...In a way, it is transfinite. The object is inaccessible to the subject's knowledge since there can be no knowledge of that which already has complete meaning, and more than its meaning, and of which there can be no utopia, for it has already been created" (Ecstasy 88-89, emphasis added). The illusion of the world is preserved even in a simulacral world, though with a slight twist: originally, illusion is the possibility of meaning (things are meaningful insofar as they are different from themselves), but in a world where things have become themselves, illusion exists only as the absolute meaninglessness of everything, as indifference and inertia. Even after the disappearance of the subject there still remains a world, the world of pure events (70), in which the subject appears and disappears, following the rules of the game just like any other object (Forget 76). At this stage, there are only effects, no causes; things metamorphose into other things "without passing through a system of meaning" (78). Baudrillard refers to this process as "panic," "ecstasy," or "speed."

  1. Although in Forget Foucault Baudrillard calls "ecstasy" the liberation of effects from causes, the originary meaninglessness (or the objective illusion) of the world, in The Ecstasy of Communication he uses the term "ecstasy" as a synonym for "simulation," placing it on the side of the virtual/hyperreal. From Baudrillard's point of view, the postmod
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