Science Fiction Studies

#55 = Volume 18, Part 3 = November 1991

In Response To Jean Baudrillard

N. Katherine Hayles. The Borders of Madness

When Baudrillard writes that we live in an age of simulacra, he is not wrong. The phenomena he describes can be observed in corner video stores, supermarket aisles, and neighborhood gas stations as well as in SF. But he is not entirely right, either. The implosion metaphor that he uses to describe the plunge into simulation suggests a sudden, violent, and irreversible change, as when glassware shatters inward or shock waves from high-energy explosives drive fissionable materials together. During the microseconds an implosion is in process, one cannot stop to distinguish between one imploding area and another. Within contemporary culture, by contrast, simulacra are unevenly dispersed, dominant in some places and scarcely visible at others. The Iowa farmer who has spent the day inspecting his seed corn, feeding his hogs, and spreading manure on his garden will not be easily persuaded that he lives in a world where it is no longer possible to distinguish between simulation and reality.

Every existing simulation has boundaries that distinguish it from the surrounding environment. Disneyland sports a fence, dense hedges, and acres of parking lots. Virtual reality environments are limited by the length of the cables attaching the body apparatus to the computer. Only when these boundaries do not exist, or cease to signify that one has left the simulation and entered reality, does the dreamscape that Baudrillard evokes shimmer into existence. Other writers besides Baudrillard have made these boundaries seem to disappear. In Lem's Cyberiad, Zipperupus is trapped in a dream machine when he enters a fantasy that simulates the antechamber where he stands as he plugs in; the simulation is deadly because it simulates the quotidian. Philip K. Dick's novels, from Ubik to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, speak of nothing but the collapse of boundaries separating reality from simulation.

These writers differ from Baudrillard in openly acknowledging that their texts are fictional. In fiction it is possible to elide the materiality of the world and thus to erase the gap between simulation and reality. Baudrillard's stance, by contrast, is that the gap has also been erased for us here now, and erased everywhere. Resisting this claim is the continuing materiality of the world, which for convenience I will call reality. In reality, borders count. Consider Southern California, which comes as close to hyperreality as anything in the US. The bumper-to-bumper traffic that surrounds Disneyland has a material intractibility and a stubborn resistance to manipulation that make it quite different from the simulations within the park. Even within the boundaries of simulations, material intractability often breaks in. In a virtual reality simulation, when one moves one's head too fast for the computer program to keep up, the display breaks down. The trip through Disneyland's Space Mountain, with its vertiginous rocketing through simulated galaxies, is customarily preceded by several hours of standing in a barely-moving line under the hot California sun. Of course it would be possible to simulate these conditions, too. No one is likely to do so, however, for the point of simulations is precisely to overcome the limitations of physical existence. When Ballard in his introduction to Crash (Vintage ed., 1985) identifies the defining characteristic of the 20th century as "the concept of unlimited possibility" he articulates very well why we are fascinated with simulations.

The borders separating simulations from reality are important because they remind us of the limits that make dreams of technological transcendence dangerous fantasies. Hyperreality does not erase these limits, for they exist whether we recognize them or not; it only erases them from our consciousness. Insofar as Baudrillard's claims about hyperreality diminish our awareness of these limits, it borders on a madness whose likely end is apocalypse. As Pynchon vividly demonstrated in Gravity's Rainbow, an obsessional desire to avoid death itself becomes the death it seeks to elide.

Baudrillard would no doubt object that hyperrealism is not about transcendence but precisely its opposite—an immanent world that is only surface. In this I think he is wrong. His brilliant reading of Crash is a case in point. He rightly sees that Crash articulates a new kind of sexuality emerging from the technological transformation of the body into an eroticized surface capable of merging at any point with other artifacts. The point of contention comes when he asserts that there "is no affectivity behind all this: no psychology, no ambivalence or desire, no libido or death drive." In a sense this is correct, for the narrator's desire for such transformations is preceded and accompanied by a lack of affect, particularly boredom with conventional forms of sex. Together with Gabrielle, a young woman crippled in an automobile crash, the narrator finds that the "nominal junction points of the sexual act—breast and penis, anus and vulva, nipple and clitoris—failed to provide any excitement for us." By contrast, the "silver controls of the car seemed a tour de force of technology and kinesthetic systems" (§19:178). Desire returns when he and Gabrielle circulate within a sexual economy based on an exchange of signifiers with the technology. Contrary to Baudrillard's assertion, desire is not absent. Rather it is reconfigured and intensified.

Desire for what? Baudrillard's elision of desire reinforces his larger claim that this new economy of sexuality is not driven by a desire for death. Crash is unlike sado-masochistic texts, he argues, because death is here an unavoidable byproduct rather than the goal. Hence he arrives at the "miracle of Crash"—its hyperrealism that also makes it "hypercritical," untouched by the "moral gaze." Hence also his claim that the drive toward transcendence has nothing to do with Crash, and implicitly with hyperrealism.

Dominated by signs of flight, the landscape of Crash indicates otherwise. Most of the action takes place on the concrete "flyovers" that surround the airport; planes roar overhead constantly; the narrator's wife takes flying lessons. The drive to transcend physical limitations, to cast them off as a plane seems to cast off the shackles of gravity when it lifts into the air, imprints its signature everywhere in the text. Indeed, the landscape is comprised of little else but this imprint. Vaughan dies when his car, after a brief moment of flight, crashes into the roof of an airport shuttle bus. It is difficult to miss the point that the erotic transformations are expressions precisely of a drive toward transcendence that does in fact culminate in flight, a flight to death. Only by ignoring this riot of signification could one argue that there is no moral point to Crash, no warning in the borders it draws around its characters. In a sentence from the Introduction to the French edition that Baudrillard quotes only to dismiss, Ballard explicitly states that "the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of technological landscape" (§0:6; cf p. 319, above).

In his way, Baudrillard is as skilled a fiction writer as Ballard, Dick, or Lem. More than describe the implosion into simulation, his works enact it by systematically eliding the borders that mark the differences between simulation and reality. The realm that Ballard sees beckoning to us from the margins, Baudrillard places at the center and inflates to consume the whole. The effect is exciting, stimulating, giddy—and also dangerous. One of my students described what it feels like to read Baudrillard for several hours straight. "No doubt about it," he remarked, "it gives you a rush, a high." For the insight these performative texts give into the meaning and dynamics of simulation, we are in their debt. But like any powerful drugs, they should be used with care. There is only one high that can last forever—the one that ends in death.


David Porush. The Architextuality of Transcendence

It's hard to resist Jean Baudrillard's hyperbolic torrent of brilliant connectionisms, but I do have a problem with a fundamental assertion in his essay "Simulacra and Science Fiction." Much of the critical energy of this essay and many of the fears it expresses stem from the assumption that because we are about to engage in a wholesale emigration to hyperreality (about which I have no doubt) that somehow our imaginations of reality and "the gift of transcendence" will be sterilized.

I couldn't disagree more. I think in fact that we will not only preserve these "gifts" of imagination and transcendence, but enhance them. Further, I think that Baudrillard has taken an unfortunately narrow and ahistorical view of the advent of virtual reality.

To cast the events in another light, let me quickly draw an analogy between our present circumstances and the events of more than 20 centuries ago in Jewish theological history. The Old Testament has a striking moment of contradiction. Exodus XX tells its readers that a simple altar made of unhewn stones piled by the side of a road is sufficient for worship. This virtual prohibition of elaborate architectures for worship, obviously composed at a very early moment in the development of Jewish theology (perhaps as early as the 18th century BCE) was meant to help guard against idolatry. But only five centuries later, Exodus XXV, obviously written much later, in the 10th century BCE, lays out an elaborate architectural blueprint for the Holy Temple, involving minute and exacting specifications for what at the time was the most complex construction project in the world, a fantastical projection of the architecture of transcendence. At the center of the temple, in sanctum sanctorum, lay the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies. In all, the plans call for 20 or more successive layers mediating between the populace and the holy scrolls, including curtains, doors, layers in the ark itself, veils, walls, tapestries, more walls, rooms, more doors, courtyards, further systems of walls, etc., etc. This becomes the Temple of Solomon (955 BCE).

When the Temple of Solomon was destroyed (586 BCE), a second Temple was re-built on the same site (519 BCE). But when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans (70 CE), ending a virtual millennium of its rule, the Jewish state was too disrupted (by the same political and theological events which led to the cult surrounding Jesus Christ) to urge the rebuilding of yet another Temple. The old system of hierarchical social and spiritual arrangements, with a rigid caste system of higher priests and lower priests, attendant functionaries, centralized consolidation of power, and superstitious sacrificial rituals, no longer worked for the Jews, who were about to begin their long diaspora.

What does this have to do with hyperreality?

This historical moment sits on a bifurcation very similar to the one that's gotten Baudrillard so agitated. In the first century CE, the architecture of transcendence both literal and metaphorical (sociologically and spiritually) collapsed inward to produce an architextuality of transcendence. Instead of being immured within concentric and fetishistic layers of material constructs, the text of the holy scripture becomes the central object, the radioactive core, of a system of concentric commentaries, commentaries upon commentaries, significant marginalia, folkloristic elaborations, and footnotes —a system called "midrash": homiletic and interpretation—which evolves into the Talmud and, many might argue, is part of the same skeptical tradition which produced the Enlightenment and contemporary literary theorizing like structuralism and deconstruction. In short, power was delivered from the priests to the scholars, from the Guardians of the Temple to the Handlers of the Text. Interestingly, the structure of the Talmud preserved the form of the blueprint of the Temple, with the central revelation immured behind layers of interpretation. You will also notice that any page of the Talmud strives for a hypertextual arrangement of discourse now positively enabled by the computer. This is no coincidence.

Imagine, now, that you're a sort of post-postmodern radical opponent of the Temple hegemony living in the time of the destruction of the Temple, as a sort of marginalized literary scholar. Unless you're a priest, you are rooting for the revolution away from near-idolatrous sacrifice and hierarchy, from the architecture of transcendence, towards the more portable architextuality of transcendence. Hey man, there's this new system for getting at the Schechina, the Spirit, out there and it relies upon your imagination and interpretive skills. It's this whole other architecture and it's TEXTUAL man, you carry it in your head! Completely portable! Just jack in to the reading, dude, and you're in the hypertextual space of transcendence!

But if you're a high priest who is about to be dispossessed, you construct an angry jeremiad out of your nostalgia for the props of the old reality and the architecture that's been demolished. You're going to lose your grips on reality! you warn the populace from atop the ruins. You won't be able to distinguish the truth from sophistic lies! You might even adopt Baudrillard's rhetoric: "The conquest of [verbal] space, following [the demolition of the Holy Architecture] promotes the derealizing of human space, or the reversion of it into a simulated hyperreality," you might shout. "It is the end of metaphysics, the end of fantasy, the end of SF. From this point on something must change: the projection, the extrapolation, the sort of pantographic exhuberance which made up the charm of [The Temple] are now no longer possible."

Of course, we know in retrospect that with our emigration to the text as the locus of imagination and transcendence, away from the locus of the public space and legislated architecture, just the opposite happened. We found a whole new order of imagination and a new, more robust opportunity for transcendence in language itself. And now I can't wait to see what happens to SF and all our other media when they move into the space they helped create for themselves in hyperreality, that space beyond words.

Cyberspace, hyperreality, virtual space, threatens to unseat the dominion of the Logomatrix of mere words and grammars, projecting it into the frothing uncertainties and romance of direct cognitive access and neurology. Of course the high priests of words like Baudrillard are upset at the imminent demolition of their temple of the text. If you take a moment to reflect on the visions projected by Gibson (for instance), you will see that the possibilities for transcendence are definitely not sterilized; they are multiplied, and re-fertilized. Gibson tells us as much, I think, in Neuromancer (1984) when Case asks Wintermute/Neuromancer after the latter is apotheosized by Case's intervention: "So what are you now, God?"

Stop rattling the bars of your cage, Jean. You're weeping in the ruins.


Brooks Landon. Responding to the Killer B's

Yikes! It's the old dilemma: Should I celebrate the fact that someone as critically hot as Baudrillard cares about SF in general and Crash in particular, or should I chafe at the implicit assumption that SF still needs critical valorizing or that Crash can somehow be theorized into a more significant work, that we somehow need Baudrillard to fully appreciate Ballard? Maybe it's the other way around: Should I celebrate the fact that Ballard has consistently beaten PoMo's best nosebleed theorists to the cultural rabbit-punch, or should I censure him for not writing enough to make them totally unnecessary? Wouldn't it be even more fun to take almost any of the stories from Ballard's War Fever—say, "The Secret History of World War 3," "The Object of the Attack," and "The Largest Theme Park in the World"—and consider them as essays on Baudrillard?

Then it's the new dilemma: Should I celebrate the fact that someone as critically hot as Baudrillard cares about SF in general and Crash in particular, or should I sniffingly suggest that someone maybe even hotter—say, Virilio—has now usurped the old master theorist of usurpation himself, shooting past Baudrillard in the flavor-of-the-month brand-name critical Top 40? After all, when Virilio pursues his "speed is violence" thesis in Pure War and presents his view that the "riddle of technology" is also the "riddle of the accident," explaining how the accident of technology is "becoming necessary and substance relative and contingent"—thus inverting the classical relationship between substance and accident—doesn't he offer a new take on simulation, SF, and Crash that makes Baudrillard look as dated as the cover of an old Astounding?

On the other hand, when antique Baudrillard suggested even before we had MTV that the Accident had moved from the margins to the heart, become an "irreversible and fundamental trope," didn't he, in fact, steal a march on hypercurrent Virilio? When Baudrillard claimed that the Accident "is no longer the exception to a triumphant rationality; it has become the Rule, it has devoured the Rule," didn't he offer Virilio and the rest of us a useful early lesson or two about speed? But who cares who got to First first? The point is that all these guys are fast. Virilio has mentioned an SF film festival where they give an award for "the best science fiction minute." Posit a parallel award for prose and Crash becomes an instant contender, minute after minute after minute. Stretch the definition of prose to include critical theory and both Baudrillard and Virilio are contenders. Point number two is that in an age that asks—along with Dennis the Menace—"Mommy, why can't we fast forward the microwave?," Ballard, Baudrillard, Virilio, and a good chunk of SF, though they may not have the answer, can at least understand the question.

And then finally it's a personal dilemma: how can I write about Baudrillard's writing about Crash without losing sight of what really matters—that first and foremost Ballard teaches us not about our culture, not about technology, not about sexuality, but about the act of reading. Reading Crash makes my knees hurt, my teeth ache, my skin crawl, my stomach churn, my balls shrivel because—God help me—the book is so perfectly, so threatingly right, even (gulp) normal. Baudrillard knows that, and knows why, and the genius of his writing is that he tries to take us on a similarly hyperfunctional, hypercritical ride. And when he claims in "Simulacra and Science Fiction" that Crash represents a kind of SF that "is no longer an elsewhere, it is an everywhere" (echoing Ballard's own 1971 claim that "Everything is becoming science fiction"), he confronts me with a second personal dilemma: Should I continue to pretend that my view of the relation between SF and contemporary culture is somehow original, or should I simply acknowledge that Baudrillard's "elsewhere to everywhere" phrase anticipates and encapsulates everything I believe about the condition of "late SF"?

Someone—probably Gertrude Stein—once observed that you cannot "deny a face." What Baudrillard, our first master of digital criticism, and Ballard, who along with Burroughs is our first master of digital narrative, both achieve is finally not an argument, nor a critique, nor an analysis, nor an insight, but a face. It's the face we see in good SF, and in the mirror.


Vivian Sobchack. Baudrillard's Obscenity

There's nothing like a little pain to bring us (back) to our senses—and to reveal Baudrillard's apocalyptic descriptions of the postmodern techno-body as dangerously partial and naively celebratory. Baudrillard's techno-body is a body that is thought always as an object, and never lived as a subject. Thus it can bear all sorts of symbolic abuse with indiscriminate and undifferentiated pleasure. This techno-body is a porno-graphic fiction, objectified and written beyond belief and beyond the real—which is to say, it is always something "other" than Baudrillard's own body which he lives (even as he refuses to believe it) as "real" and "mine." One's own body resists the kind of affectless objectification that Baudrillard has in mind; rather, it responds affectively to such mortification as he imagines with confusion, horror, anguish, and pain. Even its defensive or offensive "numbness" is physically and affectively lived—and felt.

Indeed, Baudrillard is so into thinking the techno-body as without organs and full of orifices, so erotically seduced by the (very male?) confusions of sex and death that look to apparent resolution by "riddling" the imagined body with technologically-conduced holes, that he reads Ballard's Crash obscenely—that is, off to the side. Getting all the description right, he gets the tone all wrong and thus, where Ballard is cautionary and his prose (as Baudrillard recognizes) technical, Baudrillard is celebratory and his own prose impassioned. Rejecting Ballard's unflinching—if fascinated—disgust and contempt for the world he ironically anatomizes in Crash (articulated both in Ballard's introduction to the French edition and in the rigorously reductive, anti-erotic technology of the novel's style), Baudrillard belies Ballard as he stands in for (and as proof of) all that's wrong with Vaughan.

Thus where Ballard is ironic and chillingly reductive in limning the postmodern desire to "come" into the machine, to convert the male body's "software" into "hardware," Baudrillard is celebratory and chillingly expansive. His is a faux critical stance. His pose lovingly (not ironically, nor with Ballard's "moral gaze") luxuriates in "each gash mark, every bruise, every scar." Like Vaughan, Baudrillard jacks off (or in) contemplating "artificial invaginations." Alienated from his own body and its existence as the material premise for a very real, rather than merely literal, pain, he's into the transcendent sexiness of "wounds," "artificial orifices," "all the symbolic and sacrificial practices that a body can open itself up to—not via nature, but via artifice, simulation, and accident." A male child (not a critic) of his own time, there's no satisfying him. Like Vaughan, only death will finally "do" Baudrillard. Sex, as he says, "is only the inscription of a privileged signifier and of a few secondary marks—nothing in comparison to all the marks and wounds that a body is capable of." Hence the confusion of orifices, of sex and death, of "black holes."

As I started out by saying, there's nothing like a little pain to bring us (back) to our senses, nothing like a real (not imagined) mark or wound or artificial orifice to counter Baudrillard's postmodern romanticism. I'm writing this intervention recuperating from major cancer surgery on my left distal thigh—a 12-inch scar marking the "new" place of an "artificial invagination" where, for five hours, "chrome and mucous membranes" converged. Indeed, my thigh is marked by several experiences of the "brutal surgery" that technology "continually performs in creating incisions, excisions, scar tissue, gaping body holes"; it is a thigh "dominated by gash marks, cut-outs, and technical scars." But it is definitely not a thigh "without organs," nor do I contemplate it now, as it hurts me, "under the gleaming sign of a sexuality that is without referentiality and without limits." When I was well between operations, it is true I was able to joke that my doctor "had gone where no man had gone before," or to draw parallels between being anesthetized and "entered" by a surgeon and all those English novels like Clarissa in which virginal heroines were drugged and sexually violated —deprived of bodily sensation, but also deprived of responsibility. Such thoughts, however, occurred long after the actual pain had passed—when I was only thinking about the new orifice and its erotic possibilities. But sitting here living that orifice, I can attest to the scandal of metaphor. The "semiurgy of contusions, scars, mutilations, and wounds" on my thigh are nothing like "new sexual organs opened in the body." Even at its most objectified and technologically caressed, I live this thigh—not abstractly on "the" body, but concretely as "my" body. Thus sharp pain, dull aches, and tingling numbness, the cold touch of technology on my flesh, are distractions from my erotic possibilities, and not, as Baudrillard would have it, erotically distracting.

Crash is rigorously about the human body abstracted, objectified, and literalized as techno-body—and Ballard's vision sees this techno-body as driving us, quite literally, to a dead end. Baudrillard, however, refuses Ballard's condemnation, preferring his own immersed, supposedly value-free and objective "fascination" with scars, orifices, desireless and violent sexuality. He tells us that the "moral gaze—the critical judgmentalism that is still a part of the old world's functionality" has no relevance to the world of Crash, or to the postmodern, science-fictional world we live daily in all its "unpolished splendor of ordinariness and violence." The man is really dangerous. Indeed, as I sit here with a throbbing, vivid "inscription" on my left distal thigh, I might wish Baudrillard a car crash or two. He needs a little pain (maybe a lot) to bring him to his senses, to remind him that he has a body, his body, and that the "moral gaze" begins there—with the lived sense and imagined feeling of the human body not merely as a material object among others, but as a material subject that bleeds and suffers and hurts for others because it can bleed and suffer and hurt for oneself. If we don't keep this subjective kind of bodily sense in mind as we negotiate our technoculture, then we, like Vaughan, like Baudrillard, will objectify ourselves to death.


J.G. Ballard. A Response to the Invitation to Respond

I thought the whole problem SF faced was that its consciousness, critically speaking, had been raised to wholly inappropriate heights—the apotheosis of the hamburger. An exhilarating and challenging entertainment fiction which Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain would have relished has become a "discipline"—God help us—beloved of those like the Delany who will no doubt pour scorn on my novel of the early '70s. The "theory and criticism of s-f"!! Vast theories and pseudo-theories are elaborated by people with not an idea in their bones. Needless to say, I totally exclude Baudrillard (whose essay on Crash I have not really wanted to understand)—I read it for the first time some years ago. Of course, his Amerique is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing, probably the most sharply clever piece of writing since Swift— brilliancies and jewels of insight in every paragraph—an intellectual Alladin's cave. But your whole "postmodernism" view of SF strikes me as doubly sinister. SF was ALWAYS modern, but now it is "postmodern"—bourgeoisification in the form of an over-professionalized academia with nowhere to take its girlfriend for a bottle of wine and a dance is now rolling its jaws over an innocent and naive fiction that desperately needs to be left alone. You are killing us! Stay your hand! Leave us be! Turn your "intelligence" to the iconography of filling stations, cash machines, or whatever nonsense your entertainment culture deems to be the flavor of the day. We have enough intellectuals in Europe as it is; let the great USA devote itself to the spirit of the Wrights—bicycle mechanics and the sons of a bishop. The latter's modesty and exquisitely plain prose style would be an example to you— especially his restrained but heartfelt reflections on the death of one of his sons, a model of the spirit animating SF at its best. But I fear you are trapped inside your dismal jargon.

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