I had a good laugh in the train today while reading Fashionable Nonsense, a critique on postmodernist intellectuals and their abuse of science. Here’s an excerpt of a chapter about Baudrillard. The chapter starts like this:
“Jean Baudrillard’s sociological work challenges and provokes all current theories. With derision, but also with extreme precision, he unknots the constituted social descriptions with quiet confidence and a sense of humor.” Le Monde (1984b, p.95)
The sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard is well-known for his reflections on the problems of reality, appearance, and illusion. In this chapter we want to draw attention to a less-noted aspect of Baudrillard’s work, namely his frequent use of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology.
In some cases, Baudrillard’s invocation of scientific concepts is clearly metaphorical. For example, he wrote about the Gulf War as follows:
What is most extraordinary is that the two hypotheses, the apocalypse of real time and pure war along with the triumph of the virtual over the real, are realised at the same time, in the same space-time, each in implacable pursuit of the other. It is a sign that the space of the event has become a hyperspace with multiple refractivity, and that the space of war has become definitely non-Euclidean. (Baudrillard 1995, p. 50).
There seems to be a tradition of using technical mathematical notions out of context. With Lacan, it was tori and imaginary numbers; with Kristeva, infinite sets; and here we have non-Euclidean spaces. But what could this metaphor mean? Indeed, what would a Euclidean space of war look like? Let us note in passing that the concept of “hyperspace with multiple refractivity” [hyperespace à réfraction multiple] does not exist in either mathematics nor physics; it is a Baudrillardian invention.
Here’s another excerpt I took. It starts with a quote on Baudrillard’s work:
Our complex, metastatic, viral systems, condemned to the exponential dimension alone (be it that of exponential stability or instability), to eccentricity and indefinite fractal scissiparity, can no longer come to an end. Condemned to an intense metabolism, to an intense internal metastasis, they become exhausted within themselves and no longer have any destination, any end, any otherness, any fatality. They are condemned, precisely, to the epidemic, to the endless excrescences of the fractal and not to the reversibility and perfect resolution of the fateful. We know only the signs of catastrophe now; we no longer know the signs of destiny. (And besides, has any concern been shown in Chaos Theory for the equally extraordinary, contrary phenomenon of hyposensitivity to initial conditions, of the inverse exponentiality of effects in relation to causes - the potential hurricanes which end in the beating of a butterfly’s wings?) (Baudrillard 1994, pp. 111-114).
The last paragraph is Baudrillardian par excellence. One would be hard pressed not to notice the high density of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology - inserted in sentences that are, as far as we can make out, devoid of meaning.
These texts are, however, atypical of Baudrillard’s oeuvre, because they allude (albeit in a confused fashion) to more-or-less well-defined scientific ideas. More often one comes across sentences like these:
There is no better model of the way in which the computer screen and the mental screen of our brain are interwoven than Moebius’s topology, with its peculiar contiguity of near and far, inside and outside, object and subject within the same spiral. It is in accordance with this same model that information and communication are constantly turning round upon themselves in an incestuous circumvolution, a superficial conflation of subject and object, within and without, question and answer, event and image, and so on. The form is inevitably that of a twisted ring reminiscent of the mathematical symbol for infinity. (Baudrillard 1993, p. 56).
As Gross and Levitt remark, “this is as pompous as it is meaningless.”
Taken from Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.