The following [essay is a] response to Jean Baudrillard’s text “Radical Thought,” (“La Pensee Radicale.” Sens & Tonka, eds., Collection Morsure, Paris, 1994) first published in English for CTheory in 1995.
Rachel K. Ward
The most powerful instinct of man is to be in conflict with truth, and with the real.–Jean Baudrillard, “Radical Thought,” 1995
The following text addresses some apparent contradictions of the work of Jean Baudrillard. He consistently confronted the dialectic of reality and illusion, negating their incompatibility. He reconciled the two through concepts of disappearance and destiny, with the disappearance of one, the other yields to destiny. His value set — paradoxical truth, inevitable destiny — was incompatible with the highly subjective, postmodern establishment of his era. It was only through veiling his intentions with provocative contemporary topics that the elite appluaded him. In Seduction (1979), Baudrillard reveals his method when citing Nietzsche, “We do not believe the truth remains true once the veil has been lifted.” Bauldrillard was one of the last to work behind the curtain. His radical assertion of truth was intentionally obscured which led to considerable misunderstanding and criticism of his larger oeuvre.
What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done?– Ecclesiastes 2:12
In a frequently cited portion of Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Baudrillard refers to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” Neither the word “simulacrum” in any variation, or the word “truth,” appears in Ecclesiastes. The book is considered a book of wisdom similar to Proverbs, to which Baudrillard simply adds. But it is in this gesture that we find the key to understanding Baudrillard. The phrase is ambiguous, that truth conceals that there is no truth, or by another reading, that there is no copy. This duplicity of truth and its image is the paradoxical unity of reality and illusion. The two are for Baudrillard insuperable and together are the basis of “Radical Thought,” his 1995 text for CTheory.
1) of, relating to, or proceeding from a root
2) very different from the usual, extremist
The 13th century Latin word “radical” originally meant “from a root,” and now also means “extremist,” through either a fundamental adherence to “a root,” or a severe expression of it. “Radical love” for example, can be the word in its original sense by an absolute commitment to unconditional affection toward others. It can also be a call for fundamental or revolutionary changes to contemporary adaptations of love’s meaning. The apparent double sense is resolved by seeing that both are equally radical, or of equal force, because neither form compromises love’s meaning. “Radical” then could be said to be an absolute stance on integrity of meaning. Baudrillard makes this extreme word choice at a historical moment when absolutes were dismissed.
Since the publication of Baudrillard’s “Radical Thought,” the amount of communication has increased but the state of intellectual thinking is relatively the same. “Today, it is difficult,” explains Baudrillard, “to be more apathetic and more indifferent than the facts themselves. The world in which we operate today is apathetic, indifferent to its own life, without passion, and deadly boring.” Our indifference has perhaps only increased with our digital abundance. With this climate, the noblesse oblige is radical thought, or as I expand it here — activated thought via being. But Baudrillard writes “our point is not to defend radical thought. Any idea that can be defended is presumed guilty. Any idea that does not sustain its own defense deserves to perish. But we have to fight against charges of unreality, lack of responsibility, nihilism, and despair.” We fight against false assumptions about reality, breaking the false dialectic of reality and illusion. If as Baudrillard proposes, “language and writing are a matter of illusion,” then the best thought aims for reality, not about reality but in becoming. This means that the significance for thought is not in its reception or even its legacy, but in its capacity for transfiguration.
No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.– John 15:4
There is almost no greater security than genuine connectedness to physical and symbolic roots. Perhaps also nothing better explains your singularity than the very roots by which you have grown. Your roots are your essence, displayed in all your expressions. We live together, however, in a moment when cutting roots is common and creating a new identity is increasingly the norm. Through deconstruction we cut down the shared historical and ideological roots. Baurdillard states, “Only fracture, distance and alienation safeguard the singularity of this thought.” It is that fracture, the cutting away of the extensions of the Enlightenment, that re-exposes the root. While some have treated this fracture with eschatology, mourning the loss of meaning, others see it as the return to truth.
Baudrillard explains, “Writing aims at a total resolution, a poetic resolution as Saussure would have it, a resolution marked by a rigorous dispersion in the name of God.” This phrase is followed by, “If the thought enunciates an object as a truth, it is only as a challenge to this object’s own self-fulfillment.” This is no accidental reference for Baudrillard. Writing –in the name of God– challenges self-fulfillment. In the play of this text, the notion of intentionality and destiny are not only evoked here but essential to truth as meaning.
Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed.– Martin Luther, The 95 Theses, Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, 1517
Radical thought in “the name of God” is the basis of radical theology. In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses to the Castle Church in Wittenburg Germany, opposing the Roman Catholic Church practice of allowing members to purchase pardons for sins. In democratic capitalism we purchase treasures on earth and seek pardons from taxes. Baudrillard stated that we are “in the shadow of the Enlightenment and of modernity, in the heroic ages of critical thought. But that thought, which operated against a form of illusion — superstitious, religious, or ideological — is substantially over.” It is over not because what we have cut away, superstition, religion and ideology, cease to exist but rather because we no longer care enough to oppose them.
The prevailing thought du jour is an always already state of exemption from faith or any other metaphysical accountability. Agnosticism is fashionable and with it, indifference. With radical thought however we return to the assertion of absolute meaning and thus the cultural theory forbidden — absolute truth. Baudrillard writes, “here the very definition of radical thought: an intelligence without hope, but a fortunate and happy form.” Radical thought is willing acceptance of truth, with joy, something also antithetical to contemporary thought.
We have elsewhere observed, that however subtle the evasions devised by philosophers, they cannot do away with the charge of rebellion, in that all of them have corrupted the truth of God.– John Calvin, Institutes on the Christian Religion 1, Part 9, 1536
Baudrillard began “Radical Thought,” with Stevenson’s quote, “the novel is a work of art not so much because of its inevitable resemblance with life but because of the insuperable differences that distinguish it from life.” Baudrillard implies that philosophy is a work of art, not so much in its resemblance to truth but because of the insuperable differences that distinguish it from truth. Philosophy is a language game, and ideology and theory are its contemporary matches. During his lifetime, Baudrillard was never accepted as an author of philosophy and cultural theory, in some cases due to his dogmatic undertones, at times due to his denial of human agency. These same attributes describe radical Protestant John Calvin. Calvin, like Baudrillard, produced a prolific amount of writing. In Part 5 of Calvin’s evangelical “Institutes of the Religion” he expresses: “In the present day not a few are found who deny the being of a God, yet, whether they will or not, they occasionally feel the truth which they are desirous not to know.” Calvin’s assertion of truth was based on the root of scripture, “Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their colour, sweet and bitter of their taste.” Yet the word is not alone, he explains “Our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgments, or reasons; namely, the secret testimony of the Spirit.”
Baudrillard said little more than “God exists,” and that “language is illusion.” But importantly to Calvin, scripture is not language, thus not illusion. Scripture and Spirit are truth, not by transcendence but by co-presence in the same way Baudrillard saw the unity of reality and illusion. Baudrillard writes “radical thought comes neither from a philosophical doubt nor from a utopian transference (which always supposes an ideal transformation of the real). Nor does it stem from an ideal transcendence…it is a non-critical, non-dialectical thought. So, this thought appears to be coming from somewhere else.” The non-dialectical truth, that breaks the assumptions of reality and illusion, originates “somewhere else.”
The truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in a way that it catches you.– Søren Kierkegaard
If we are able to learn from Baudrillard we can take radical thought into radical being. Radical being is Abraham’s will to sacrifice Isaac. His behavior makes no sense to reason amidst values of fatherhood, family, honor and justice. His thought is as Baudrillard stated — not in hope, but happy in form, as truth as action. The root of faith then is truth that precedes action and follows it, so to reconcile non-sense with the sense that follows. Baudrillard explains, “radical thought is at the violent crossing point of sense and non-sense, of truth and non-truth, of the continuation of the world and the continuation of nothingness.”
Though “radical thought bets on the illusion of the world,” suggests Baudrillard, it “bets” that there is more to the illusion. Radical thought relies on truth in absolute form and thus both real and intangible to our conditional world. Truth cannot be fully understood; thus we connect to one another by recognizing the absence of tangible truth, or the sense of nothingness. Baudrillard writes, “The absolute rule of thought is to return the world as we received it: unintelligible. And if it is possible, to return it a little bit more unintelligible. A little bit more enigmatic.” Breaking the false dialectic of reality and illusion is not by defending reality. This was the failed strategy of the Enlightenment. Rather by betting on illusion, and its ultimate disappearance, the truth presents itself. Gravity for example, does not reveal itself through thought or descriptions. Only by releasing our human grasp on some thing and entering into the space of unknowing can an object fall and gravity be revealed.
What a man desires is unfailing love truth.,
To Baudrillard, the ultimate prize is “when an idea disappears as an idea to become a thing among other things. That’s where it finds its completion. Having become con-substantial with the surrounding world, the idea no longer has to appear as an idea …A vanishing of the idea through a silent dissemination.” The objective of radical thought then is to decompose into the soil but survive in being. The ultimate prize is when understanding is lived. If the “instinct of man is to be in conflict with truth, and with the real,” then the destiny of man is to live at rest with truth.
Baudrillard does not ask for a production of radical thought but that we allow radical truth as being. This implies that thought is not the end. We are already free of an outdated dialectic of reality and illusion and can live enigmatically with a truth that overdetermines both. This is not the end-game of illusion, which will always be interwoven with reality, but rather a possible end game of postmodenrity.”
The name for what lies beyond this possible end game of postmodernity is Unism.
In its Very Essence, Unism is dedicated to pursuing radical truth in an age dominated by subjectivity, relativism, soullessness, and countless (often unwitting) sociopaths eager to defend, propagate, take part in, and expand the exploitation of others.