Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared?
John Armitage contemplates a meditation on our preoccupation with vanishings and reappearances
Why hasn't Jean Baudrillard already disappeared? During a career spanning more than four decades, his writings included key theoretical works on simulation, human values, technology and meaning, in an approach that blended media studies, questions of subjectivity and an unconventional social theory of everyday objects and considerations of important contemporary events.
Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? is one of the last books he wrote before his death in 2007. Superbly translated by Chris Turner, this short text is introduced by philosopher Francois L'Yvonnet and juxtaposed with Alain Willaume's disconcerting photographs of strange human figures and cityscapes that exemplify Baudrillard's argument.
Baudrillard, L'Yvonnet informs us, drives the examination of disappearance to its utmost because today it inundates all social spaces despite our attempts to eradicate it via our totalitarian attraction to unity, to lessening dualities, to abolishing evil - or, put differently, to freeing ourselves from the uncertainties of humanity. Discovering how to embrace disappearance is, then, our ultimate challenge. For disappearance is as fundamental to existence as appearance, notwithstanding all our dreams of opposing or conquering it. Certainly, to refuse disappearance is to surrender to the delusion that there must be "something", "somewhere", that will inhibit the seemingly never-ending disappearance of meaning.
"Behind every image," Baudrillard contends, "something has disappeared." That is also the basis of our absorption within virtual reality, information and telecommunications technologies, and the internet. No longer enthralled by reality, we are fascinated by its disappearance and by the problem of whether this condition is the cause of our discontents, as Baudrillard's hypercritical account of it would have it, or a seductive delight into which we can cheerfully withdraw until eternity.
Here, Baudrillard intertwines various complex topics, from the possible disappearance of humanity due to the completion of its objective of global domination, to its potential disappearance as the result of an internal logic of accelerated disintegration. In his view, humanity's seduction by and accomplishment of a nearly complete knowledge merely hastens its disappearance sooner than the other animals owing to the speed of humanity's now entirely inanimate or technology-driven "evolution".
He also contemplates the issue of existential subjectivity, whose "great disappearance" is, in his belief, not just that of the virtual metamorphosis of objective reality, but that of the ceaseless annihilation of subjectivity, of a "serial pulverisation of consciousness into all the interstices of reality". Whereas human consciousness, willpower and the impulse to liberty are universal, for Baudrillard, they increasingly combine with the trajectory of objects and thus become unnecessary.
Adamant that with disappearance functioning as their strange attractor, numerous objects usually deemed beneficial reappear as devastation (think of al-Qaeda crashing airliners into the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001), Baudrillard nevertheless maintains that disappearance has affirmative features (the eradication of terror, aggression, disease and so on).
Like appearance, therefore, disappearance is neither good nor evil. However, Baudrillard's recurrent disparaging remarks, especially concerning contemporary art and photography, represent not only the space between humanity and nature but also that between his basically modern social theory and our fundamentally postmodern digital society. Yet despite all our dreams of disappearance, and of wanting numerous objects to disappear for ever, Baudrillard's readers will understand the appearance of Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? as an important occasion that will have a powerful impact on contemporary social theory.
We should appreciate it not as a farewell essay, but as a practically spiritual text on the appearance, disappearance and reappearance of everyday objects. Consequently, if we seek to read his work accurately, we have to do so in view of its disappearance.
There is no better explanation as to why Jean Baudrillard's legacy hasn't already disappeared.
Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared?
By Jean Baudrillard
Seagull Books, 84pp, £11.50
Published 24 November 2009
John Armitage is head of the department of media, Northumbria University. His latest published work is "Pursuit in Paris" within Baudrillard Now: Current Perspectives in Baudrillard Studies (2009), edited by Ryan Bishop.