Baudrillards Challenge: A Feminist Reading
Baudrillard indeed has made a point of defining his position as hostile to the main strands of the second wave women's movement, and to the human rights movement more generally. More, he has sometimes gone out of his way to provoke a reaction from feminists, most notably his comment that in exchange for the beauty of the desert it would be good to sacrifice a woman referred to and discussed by Grace, p. Baudrillard's book, Seduction, contained a condemnation of a feminism which allied itself with the real unveiling of feminine sexuality, an unveiling which ended up, for this analyst, as an alliance with pornography and promotion.
If he has identified and praised that form of the feminine which found its force in seduction, Baudrillard concludes that women were never weak subjects of men, for this was an ideology, he suggested, which emerged out of the feminist movement itself. A strand of feminist thought has grown up which has a philosophy not that far removed from this idea most obviously represented by Camile Paglia's works , but what precisely is the feminist response to Baudrillard?
Victoria Grace, who is based in New Zealand, has accepted Baudrillard's challenge, and her work "is not a book about Baudrillard; it is an engagement with his work" 3.
Just as there was an Althusserian feminism, and a Foucauldian feminism, does Grace provide us with a Baudrillardian feminism? Chapter one looks at Baudrillard's early work, particularly the logic of economic value.
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This strategy has the very unfortunate effect of ignoring the earlier analysis of consumer society which constituted Baudrillard's first concern and which entailed locating gender differences within affluent capitalist patterns of advertising and objectification. The next chapter looks at Irigaray, Braidotti, and Butler on identity, subjectivity, power, and desire, in the light of Baudrillard's conception of the symbolic order and seduction, ideas developed in the s as he deepened his theory of the anthropological alternative to modernity.
Grace identifies and draws out Baudrillard's conception of how genders are situated within forms of symbolic exchange and reversibility in primitive cultures. When modern societies emerge the genders fall into place and become elements of the code of semiotic culture dominated by the phallic mark, the measure of sexual exchange Here Grace makes her way carefully through the minefield of feminist critiques of Baudrillard, throwing Baudrillard's principles back at theorists like Irigaray , Braidotti , Butler The final section of the chapter looks at Baudrillard's critiques of Foucault and Deleuze on power, returning to gender to show how, for Baudrillard, gender constructions of difference become a "simulation model" This discussion is developed without an attempt to define what is meant by the feminist movement or feminism, and Grace does not sketch out the main concerns of feminism since the s and its internal debates and divisions.
As with the avoidance of the analysis of consumerism, this avoidance of feminist history gives the discussion an abstract character. Baudrillard's own analyses coherently connect consumerism and a concern to show how modern feminism fell into the traps set for "the feminine" and for the "female body" by consumer culture dominated by new media. Grace remains, however, somewhat at a distance, never providing concrete examples of how a Baudrillardian feminism might respond. Chapter three looks at "difference" in the hyperreal world, the relation of "gender" to simulation, hyperreality, the silent masses, and the end of the social - well-known theses developed by Baudrillard in the s.
This is developed at first by reference to the theme of gender "difference" and "positive identity" as the false and impossible projects of contemporary semiotic culture.
Baudrillard makes the point that in a simulation culture overrun by the speed and proliferation of digital technology, our experience of being a subject is fundamentally altered. Postmodernism's fractured and dispersed subject in crisis no longer suffices as a model through which to articulate subjective experience.
Instead, for Baudrillard the subject is understood more appropriately in terms of catastrophe. Catastrophe is the excess, acceleration, and precipitation typified by contemporary society. Its potency resides in the unmaking of the subject and the triumph of the object. Figuring Manson as a catastrophic subject offers a mode of engaging with posthuman figurations beyond the limits of monster theory. Underpinning an engagement with posthuman, post-gender entities is a shift in relations between the real and representation within an economy of simulation.
According to Katherine Hayles, the posthuman can be understood as unfolding along an axis of multiple cultural and technical locations, emerging from complex, highly specialized discourses such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and biotechnology, as well as popular culture sites including science fiction literature and popular film This confusion of categories through which the posthuman emerges reflects the postmodern breakdown of the divide between high and low cultural forms, signaling the intermixing of biotechnological narratives with science fiction fantasy.
This, of course, is the order of the hyperreal - a Baudrillardian concept understood as the point where fact and fantasy are no longer distinguishable Simulacra and Simulation As the distinctions between autonomous spheres no longer hold, the production of meaning within particular categories and genres is made impossible. Meaning instead resides in multiple locations, beyond the fixity of signifying practice. The collapse in the distinction between scientific fact and science fiction fantasy thus forces another mode of engagement with images of the monstrous, for when highly specific fields of knowledge and specialized discursive practices, such as biotechnology, converge and intermix with popular cultural sites, representations demand to be negotiated differently.
Approaching the image in terms of simulation ruptures finite distinctions between what is real and what is illusion. By contesting a value system predicated upon binary difference, simulation encourages fluid, contradictory, and partial engagements with images, complicating a model of the self as either entirely resisting or complying with particular aspects of culture. As a product of simulation culture, the posthuman figuration has no Other, no referent from which to constitute the self.
Manson's image on the CD is not a representation of Manson in "real life. There is no "original" Manson to be located outside of the image. While the monstrous inhuman of ancient myth retains the Otherness of alienation, remaining locked in a dialectical relationship with the self, the posthuman figuration cannot be contained in such terms.
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Otherness disappears in a culture of simulation, Baudrillard argues, "when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication" "The Ecstasy of Communication" Where Baudrillard speaks of the transparency of the subject, he refers to the moment when electronic media and communication proliferate and accelerate to the point where the subject is no longer visible in the relay of information.
Not only does the subject disappear in a hyperreal cacophony of visual signs and information overload, the social system is said to exceed its limit point, to approach an ecstatic state through the endless proliferation of information and signs. Baudrillard observes that:. Things have found a way of avoiding a dialectics of meaning that was beginning to bore them: by proliferating indefinitely, increasing their potential, outbidding themselves in an ascension to the limit, an obscenity that henceforth becomes their immanent finality and senseless reason.
Fatal Strategies 7. By exploring what resides beyond the extremities of the social, Baudrillard is attempting to pass from a dialectical system of interpretation into a space where referential values are impossible. It is at this point of saturation by the precession of simulacra that the social is pushed beyond its limits to "the point where it inverts its finalities and reaches its point of inertia and extermination" Fatal Strategies This form of inertia is, however, not an empty void that is drained of all meaning, but a fatal site of excessive over-multiplication that results in a reversion or implosion of dichotomous value systems.
Baudrillard refers to the accelerated growth of the world pushed beyond saturation point as hypertelic. Like a cancer, hypertely functions as a strategy to refute origins in a process of endless proliferation. Finality is denied by hypertelic process, whereby all value is exterminated in an overdetermination of forms Fatal Strategies This overdetermination is of the order of the hyperreal, where reality is no longer opposed to falsity, but accumulates to become that which is more real than real.
Accordingly, Baudrillard maintains that:. To the truer than true we will oppose the falser than false.
We will not oppose the beautiful to the ugly, but will look for the uglier than ugly: the monstrous. We will not oppose the visible to the hidden, but will look for the more hidden than hidden: the secret. This excess of positivity is radically different to the struggle of dialectics that sees the beautiful oppose the ugly and the true oppose the false. Meaning is no longer a question of opposites, but of excesses that obliterate stable oppositions by collapsing inward.
Manson enacts this proliferation and disappearance by exceeding the limits of the natural body. The centre spread of the Mechanical Animals CD sleeve notes shows Manson languidly outstretched out on a sofa.
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Its tubular shape and long frame appears distorted and artificial, much like Manson's own plastic form. The surface of his skin and the surface of the sofa display the characteristics of artifice and technological construction. These forms appear to merge into one other, demanding that the viewer consider where the inanimate object ends and Manson begins. The plasticity of the two forms implies process, a stretching beyond the boundaries of the subject's body and the sofa object upon which Manson reclines.
To borrow a phrase form Baudrillard, Manson appears as "more mobile than mobile: metamorphosis" Fatal Strategies 7. During metamorphosis fixity and mobility are not opposed. Rather, the play of surfaces disturbs the distinction between subject and object. Manson's metamorphosis into a mechanical animal is made possible through the fatality of reversion, whereby his skin pushes beyond its limits, imploding in on itself to annihilate the difference between subject and object, and the structure of signification that differentiates the two. It is this process of implosion that ensures Manson's plastic body eludes rupture.
His taut, plastic mould indicates containment and flexibility.
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His elongated limbs and distended fingers further signal an elasticity that threatens to morph, mutate and shift into something else, yet never rupture. Absolute fragmentation of the subject is made impossible by fatality, which ensures the subject disappears at its limit point. The subject does not explode outward, but disappears; its form reverses inward in an act of metamorphosis that produces something else.
Manson's skin can therefore no longer function as a boundary site that differentiates self from Other, nature from technology, and the organic from the artificial. Instead, skin signals the point of transformation and liminality where self becomes Other, nature fuses with technology and the organic cannot be discerned from artifice. Judith Halberstam has written of skin as "at once the most fragile of boundaries and the most stable of signifiers; it is the site of entry for the vampire, the signifier of race for the nineteenth-century monster.
Skin is precisely what does not fit" In a discussion of Jonathan Demme's film The Silence of the Lambs , Halberstam argues that contemporary images of the monster locate horror at the level of the skin, thereby disrupting the established gothic model of horror as one of surface and depth. Referring to several scenes in the film, Halberstam illustrates how skin functions to confuse boundaries such as interior and exterior, consumption and being consumed, male and female.
What ensues, she argues, is a construction of a posthuman gender founded upon mis-identity that remakes gender and the humanistic assumptions upon which identity is forged Similarly, Manson's emphasis upon his plasticity of form suggests that he exists only as surface, as a simulation without any relation to the real.
Manson's grey and pasty form is a flesh that is made synthetic, digitally altered to produce the effect of a plasticine-moulded construct. The function of skin as a boundary between biological interiorities and the external invasions of technology is thus rendered obsolete. Instead, posthuman configurations contest the separation of the organic and machinic, the human and non-human in favour of a symbiotic and contaminated interaction whereby interiorities and exteriorities, self and Other, no longer exist. As Manson proliferates, both in terms of digital image reproduction, and the elasticity and endless possibilities of the body, he surpasses the finalities of binary oppositions to reside beyond the fixity of signifying practice.
Indeed, Manson is that which Halberstam says "does not fit"; that which goes beyond established categories of gendered identity. Manson's plastic skin also poses a challenge to binary hierarchies of race. Traditionally, skin was interpreted as "a reflection of the inside" or "mirror of the soul" Benthien ix , hence the site of identity and selfhood. Racial and ethnic identity, too, was located at the site of the skin, rendering non-white skin an anomaly, an Other to the dominant, white norm Gilman Yet there is nothing authentic or natural about Manson's pliable surface.
The plasticity of his skin emphasises the constructed nature of racial difference in terms of skin colour. His skin is too plastic and shiny to pass as normal. In parts it is whiter-than-white, with an unnatural glow that exposes whiteness not as a given but a construct. His contours are grey and metallic, evoking the artifice of the machine.
By suggesting that the body's surface is a product of technological intervention, Manson makes us aware of race as culturally and historically constructed, rather than a biological given. What we are being asked to consume is not necessarily a homogenised difference that erases racial specificity, but a posthuman imagining that speculates upon the role of information and biotechnologies in the constitution of identity and selfhood. Manson proves disturbing because he destabilizes a coherent identity that is structured in a binaristic system of meaning determining gender and race and the natural, originary, and human.
Manson exhibits a plasticity of form that emphasizes fluidity and malleability.