THE CIVILISING PROCESS

 

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In his book, Symbolic Exchange and Death, Jean Baudrillard examines the psychological consequences of the civilising process and concludes that while civilisation has pulled us from the primitive condition that revolved around the ideas of GIVING-RETURNING-EXCHANGING, it has sunk us into a much grimmer reality of KILLING-POSSESSING-DEVOURING.[i]

The irony that this observation reveals is that our so-called progression into the civilised beings we are, now must be seen as a bestialising process for humanity. Which means that civilisation is actually the exact opposite of what it pretends to be.

Once Baudrillard’s analysis is accepted civilisation is stripped of its pretentions to be what it says it is. The horrific consequences of civilisation have been seen over and over again throughout history, without diminishing civilisation’s own blind faith in its own existence: from the tremendous brutality of Rome with its perverse emperors; to the slave trading and war hungry empires of the modern era; to the epitome of civilised barbarity in the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, of Mao and Pol Pot. In fact, humanity has paid an enormous price for the so-called comforts and pleasures that civilisation has brought us.

Perhaps it’s wrong to put all the blame on the civilisation process (and Baudrillard only implies the repression of civilisations without naming them), but the evolution from giving into taking (even by killing); returning into keeping and possessing; and exchanging into devouring, seems to flow with the same gravitational force that constructed the first great cities and their monuments.

In looking at the system’s death-drive instinct, Baudrillard says: “Freud installs the process of repetition at the core of objective determinations, at the very moment when the general system of production passes into pure and simple reproduction.”[ii]  For Baudrillard the radical nature of the death-drive is “simply the radical nature of the system itself.”[iii]

[i] Jean Baudrillard, SYMBOLIC EXCHANGE AND DEATH, SAGE, 1993, p. 139)

[ii] Ibid, p. 148

[iii] Ibid

The End of Purpose and the Crisis of Creativity

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In his 1981 thesis, ‘Simulacra and Simulation’, Jean Baudrillard lamented the ruination of the university: “non-functional … lacking cultural substance or an end purpose of knowledge.”[i]

Perhaps we should not victimise the universities, the same can be said of our entire nihilistic culture, nevertheless, the idea that a university lacks a reason for learning is a tremendously sad one.

The crippling result of the lack of purposiveness allows societies to throw in their own self-interested crutches: the university becomes a simple place to prepare people for the work-force, or, on a more hopeful level, an environment that will stimulate creativity. But if there is no purpose or reason, why be creative? In fact, how can one be creative when nothing matters? Or the opposite is true: it’s very easy to be creative when nothing matters – too easy.

Either way, the result will always be a crisis of creativity.

“Today’s nihilism is one of transparency, and it is in some sense more radical, more crucial than its prior and historical forms, because this transparency, this irresolution is indissolubly that of the system, and that of all the theory that still pretends to analyse it.”[ii]

Baudrillard regarded Romanticism as the first great manifestation of nihilism; the destroyer of the order of appearances. The second great manifestation came through Dada, Surrealism, the Absurd, and political nihilism – corresponding to the destruction of the order of meaning.

But, destruction is inevitable when appearances and meanings themselves are devoid of substance; when they are castles made of sand. It wasn’t the Romantics or Dada that destroyed meaning; they were merely realisations that meaninglessness had evolved around them. The real destroyers were those in the institutions themselves, trying to maintain a system which made no sense.

Such a condition can only be perpetuated by dissimulation, and only whilst society swallows the performance in the staging of an ersatz purpose that the system offers them. Once the society grows tired of the theatrics played out before them they will start to yawn, or grimace if they are injured by it, and through that yawn or grimace they will see through the stage-craft to the emptiness behind it. When this happens on a massive scale, real revolution or a brutal reaction can take place.

This awareness is happening today, it has been bubbling for some years, but the train is turning toward the Dystopia rather than any purposive Utopia.

Buadrillard observed a similar scenario in the student revolts of Paris, 1968. Why didn’t a revolution happen then? Why is a purposive revolution unlikely to happen now?

According to Baudrillard, the staging carried out by the media is no longer a staging. He calls the media: “a strip, a track, a perforated map of which we are no longer mere spectators”. All that remains, he says: “is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms for the very operation of the system that annihilates us.” [iii]

In other words, we are enchanted and enamoured by the same media that is strangling us and numbing our brains. We love to see the violence and perversion that the society produces so much that we would probably fall into a kind of spiritual crisis if the brutality of the system was taken away from us.

[i] J. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, Michigan, 1994, digital version p. 98

[ii] Ibid, p.104

[iii] Ibid