Monday, February 28, 2011

Introduction to an Essay on Derrida, Baudrillard, and New Media

Derrida speaks of the archive being similar to Freud’s death drive, a drive towards a radical finality, the desire to destroy the subject (or, subjectivity) through what could be termed excessive narrativity. This is the desire for consensus, for commonality, for shared experience, or for the finality of nothingness, the utopia of silence where language destroys itself.

This drive could be called a very human desire, and it is present everywhere. The issue at hand is not whether or not this drive is positive or negative. That is the impossible choice. That is not to say that the question should not be asked, and that both viewpoints should not be explored. They should be explored. But in order to look at Derrida and Baudrillard’s views on new media, on facebook specifically, in light of events which happened after both of these men’s deaths (and we engage in the impossible mourning of these men), we must take into account their extreme caution with regards to, on one hand, the archiving archive, and on the other the death of the other and the construction of a virtual world in light of the fact that they may actually have transcended that question.

This is impossible, and truly, interminably so - to transcend opinion. So I will address this question at the beginning. Both are cynical French men, and both seem to have an extreme kind of aversion to new media. On the surface, this is true, regardless of the content and strength of their respective arguments. But who is to say that the positive cannot be gleamed from the negative, and vice versa? Derrida’s deconstruction is a scary thing, a scary prospect, and at times infinitely sad. But this in some ways is the nature of his project, to unleash the repressed (that which is repressed always holds negative connotations), and to make the natural unnatural. So, should we not expect a certain amount of trepidation, and an apparent and almost infinite kind of negativity when speaking about new media? After all, it is a new technology with unknown possibilities which is changing our world in ways we can only guess (and we can always only guess at the ways in which the world will change). My point is is that Derrida’s extreme caution, almost a warning (contained within Archive Fever, itself contained within what has been deemed Derrida’s ethical turn, a turning point in the archive of Jacques Derrida) is in some ways in keeping with the nature of the rate of change that new media is affecting our world, coupled with the fact that deconstruction is always a warning, always examining demons we didn’t know were there. (Did they exist before the point of deconstruction? This is where the warning comes in, the warning of deconstruction, about the unspoken possibilities inherent within a sign or a system, always a warning, always a hope.)

The other cynical French man who I speak of is Jean Baudrillard, who has termed his work a radical fiction. What does he mean by this? I think he is referring to the hyperbole that runs through all his work. It is a hyperbole which insists that the world is going to end tomorrow, in the next second. It suggests an ending, an infinite ending, brought about by the inconsistencies contained within the system. He is in the tradition of Marx, and perhaps even more radical and pushy in his insistence of the dangers of the flaws within the system. The radical fiction which he speaks of is the assumption that the flaws within the system will destroy it at any moment, and as such they are so enormous as to take precedence over all other things that can be said or written about said system.

But is there not a value in this type of criticism? Baudrillard himself seems to think so. It’s as if this type of extreme criticism can go to certain dark corners which a more sober approach (or what we deem to be a more sober approach) would not or could not go to. And besides, he may be describing and defining the system more than would be possible otherwise. Think about Marx’s critique of capitalism. Was there a capitalism before Marx? Or, rather, was there a capitalism as defined by Marx before Marx? Of course not. But, then, the way in which we understand capitalism today, liberal or conservative, rests on some basic assumptions first articulated, perhaps even created by Marx. That is not to say that they didn’t exist before Marx, simply that they were not spoken of, that they were to a certain degree repressed and, as such, deemed natural and immutable. Marx created the language with which to speak about capitalism, deeming it speakable (not repressed) and thus unnatural.

In a way, Derrida and Baudrillard are students of Marx (Baudrillard blatantly so). All of them seek to make the natural unnatural, to draw out the repressed, through various strategic methods. We should not be afraid of uttering the names Baudrillard and Derrida in the same sentence, despite notable differences between the two and the different ways in which they’ve respectively been received amongst the intelligentsia and in academia. The prophet and the fool, both occupy these categories, and perhaps these are natural enough positions which both their legacies find themselves in. Both are treated like fools; both are treated with the reverence of the prophet.

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