Baudrillard and Theology by James Walters is a synthesis of the world of one of the most challenging and interesting thinkers of our time. And with the virtualization of the world, he has become more relevant.
Baudrillard thought that our culture has become increasingly synthetic and artificial, and out of contact with what we used to know as “real.” In this final stage (hyperreality), simulation can be understood as a form of alienation – a result of a dramatically accelerated capitalism.
Highlights From Baudrillard and Theology
Illusion of Choice
In this state, the logic of capital (sign exchange) has replaced all meaningful human relations have removed us from a sense of human identity and social life. As Marcuse said, we live at “the end of transcendence” and in a state that can be described as “one-dimensional.”
Democratic societies, according to Baudrillard, only have the illusion of freedom. It is not a coincidence, for example, that the advanced capitalist countries are those in which an intractable two-party political system has emerged with very little real choice for voters. Choice in the consumer economy is always about alternation between essentially meaningless oppositions (do I buy Pepsi or Cola? McDonalds or Burger king? are mini-skirts ‘in’ or ‘out’?
Inversion of Human Fear
At the same time, political parties have become simulacra of the ideologically based forms they used to be. In addition, there is minimal policy difference and change on the system.
Slavoj Žižek identifies this as the universal characteristic of the post-ideological universe that ‘we perform our symbolic mandates without assuming them and “taking them seriously”’. this is made possible by a constant flow of ironic, cynical and reflexive comments about our behavior. Within this ‘flattened’ universe, evacuated of transcendence, Žižek sees a paradoxical inversion of human fear: ‘we are afraid to discover not that we are mortal but, rather, that we are immortal’.
Do not Christians present to the world the embarrassing spectacle of a people who speak of hope, but do not actually hope for anything anymore?’ Perhaps it is even worse than this; perhaps our talk of hope masks the real fear that what we say we believe is actually true.
The End of Humans
We have come to accept that clothes are soon outdated and technology will quickly become redundant. But this exposes the reality that consumerism gives us many things we don’t really need and the problem of getting rid of waste will become more difficult.
Modern relations are constituted by social networks such as Facebook, virtual relationships where the dimensions of time and space necessary to human life and relationship have been eradicated in a virtual real time: ‘If there were a subject of history, a subject of knowledge, a subject of power, these have all disappeared in the obliteration by real time of distance, of the pathos of distance, in the integral realization of the world by information’. It is in this kind of virtual world that we can speak of the death of the human being.
Little by little, the dead cease to exist until the point where ‘today, it is not normal to be dead, and this is new to be dead is an unthinkable anomaly; nothing else is as offensive as this’. Primitive societies, he argues, had no biological concept of death. rather it was understood (like the body) as a social relation. Modern societies have de-socialized death by according it the immunity of science and giving it the autonomy of ‘individual fatality’.
For women, beauty has become an absolute, religious imperative. Being beautiful is no longer an effect of nature or a supplement to moral qualities. It is the basic, imperative quality of those who take the same care of their faces and figures as they do of their souls. It is a sign, at the level of the body, that one is a member of the elect, just as success is such a sign in business.
Dying of a drug overdose at just 27, Basquiat seemed to personify much of the media-fuelled superficiality of life in 1980s new York that Warhol is famous for depicting. this destructive side of the supposed sexual revolution is also the focus of Baudrillard’s writing about the body. He suggests that when the human body is caught up in the kind of consumer economy where all is available and nothing is denied, something fundamental is lost from the symbolic interactions of sex and the self that is formed through these rituals.
Sexuality and Seduction
In reading the implications of this kind of barring of the human body, Baudrillard takes up Lacan’s language of the ‘barred subject’ in which the symbolic ambivalence of the body has been reduced to functionalities in which the genital function takes a primary role.
All sexuality is fetishistic because it focuses on partial objects: lips, eyes, bottoms, boots, stockings. We never confront the other in its fullness and radical otherness. the barred body of a man has hunky shoulders, toned arms and pecs, a grin. the barred body of a woman has breasts, long legs and long hair, a come-hither stare. But the situation is not equivalent because men fetishise woman to a far greater extent than women fetishise men.
In Baudrillard’s 1979 work, Seduction, the central thesis that the feminist revolution has marked the loss of some-thing important in our society’s processes of symbolic exchange – an element he labels ‘seduction’ – has resulted in the accusation that this book is ‘an affront to feminism’.
The “traditional” woman’s sexuality was neither repressed nor forbidden. Within her role she was entirely herself; she was in no way defeated, nor passive, nor did she dream of her future “liberation”’. He contends that the female has always exerted her own strategy, ‘the unremitting, winning strategy of challenge’ and that ‘at each moment of the story the game was played with a full deck, with all the cards, including the trumps. and men did not win, not at all’.
They have themselves thought far too much in male terms, overlooking the aspects of femininity that are unique to women, such as childbirth, and the attributes that might spring from them. So his critique here is directed primarily at the loss of a kind of dynamic tension in male/female relations that was conducive to the games and rituals of the symbolic order.
What we look for today, where the body is concerned, is not so much health, which is a state of organic equilibrium, but fitness, which is an ephemeral, hygienic, promotional radiance of the body – much more a performance than an ideal state – which turns sickness into failure. In terms of fashion and appearance, we no longer pursue beauty or seductiveness, but the ‘look’.
Baudrillard’s entire corpus can be seen as a great elaboration of Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum ‘the medium is the message as Baudrillard writes, ‘the deconstructive work has been done, you have to come to terms with it’. Comparable to the cultural bricolage he describes, Baudrillard believes we live in an age where thought can only draw parasitically on its former great systems without embracing any of them in their totality.
This is the postmodern shift from the universal to the particular. Baudrillard therefore turns his back on this grand systematizing in favor of an attentiveness to detail and particularity, seeking glimpses of truth where ‘each moment, each phase is perfect in its incomparable singularity, the fruit is perfect, but no more perfect than the flower . . . [t]aken at the level of meaning, the world is pretty disappointing, but each detail of the world, taken in its singularity, is perfect’.
It is these small singularities of truth and clarity that Baudrillard seeks among them confusions and distortions of contemporary thought. In a sense, they deliver because they promise so little: ‘[these fragments] alone will survive the catastrophe, the destruction of meaning and language, like the flies in the plane crash which are the only survivors because they are ultra-light’.
So the destruction of the name of God is an act of iconoclasm, an unmasking of idolatry to make space for the ‘unnamed God’. Jean-Luc Marion explores this in his quest for an understanding of God which expresses the iconicity of love rather than the conceptual idolatry of metaphysical being, and so Marion crosses out the word ‘God’ to dissociate the God of revelation from the God of metaphysics and morality.
Second, the brutality of this ‘sacrifice’ brings to mind Christological themes, particularly in the Girardian sense that what is put to death on the cross is a distorted (and therefore idolatrous) understanding of a God who demands sacrifice. again, to quote Marion, ‘We are speaking of the God who is crossed by a cross because he reveals himself by his placement on a cross’.
The Self-Referential Rationality
We might say that for Baudrillard the opposite of poetry is pornography where everything is displayed and nothing is seductive.
Extending the sexual metaphor and the characterization of contemporary culture as pornographic, Baudrillard describes our present time as living ‘after the orgy’ of modernity. We might say that twentieth-century theology saw its own ‘orgy’ of exhaustive unmasking and systematizing. We have seen the long deconstructive process of historical criticism and the vast constructive systems of Barth, Rahner and Von Balthasar. On the one hand the scientific dissection of faith has left many wondering whether anything remains and on the other such great doctrinal systems have been constructed that they might themselves be described as self-referential hyperrealities, internally coherent but somehow cut adrift from the real they seek to describe.
It is for this reason that I think Baudrillard’s radical thought is in fact far more akin to prayer than to rational theorizing. His aspiration is to a way of inhabiting the world that does not possess or dominate, does not break down and analyze, but embraces its otherness and discerns meaning in relation to it. It is reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence’s poetic definition of thought as ‘not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges’, but ‘a man in his wholeness, wholly attending’.
Paradoxically this requires a certain kind of indifference to the world: ‘the power of indifference, which is the quality of the mind, as opposed to the play of differences, which is the characteristic of the world’. Indifference is not the same as apathy. But prayer is an antidote to the disposition that always approaches the world with domineering, objectifying intentions.
The Individual and The Group
This is not a narrow discussion of anthropological and theological terms. the question is essentially whether the whole business of human exchange and sociality is somehow bound up with otherness and transcendence. this fault line has emerged in various areas of religious thought over recent years with a ‘liberal’ theology on the one hand emphasizing the cultural experience of faith and a ‘post-liberal’ theology on the other prioritizing divine revelation.
It is through this dichotomy of the ‘top-down’ versus ‘bottom-up’ that many theological questions are framed today: Is the focus of religious life one of personal redemption or the building up of ‘redeemed sociality’?
Should our focus be on this world or the world to come? Should religious communities prioritize a corporate unity or a doctrinal uniformity? these questions cut across the religious divides and relate in different ways to this issue of human relationality versus divine otherness. the two poles, communion and otherness, must clearly be held in some kind of tension, as many have argued. But the tendency to overemphasize one or the other characterizes much theology today.
Baudrillard may seem like an unlikely contributor to these questions. It remains a matter of debate as to whether any transcendent otherness is truly detectable in his ‘radical alterity’. Yet what we can say is that his concept of otherness does at least seem irreducible, reflecting a concept of grace, even in the givenness of life itself: ‘I am not obliged to submit to something that does not depend on me – including my own existence. I am free of my birth – and in the same sense I can be free of my death’.
In his long journey from classical Marxism, this has become Baudrillard’s strategy for overcoming alienation, not now ‘the reappropriation of oneself – a tiresome process, without much prospect of success these days’, but almost the embracing of a yet deeper sense of alienation from self: ‘this alternative path leads to an exponential defined elsewhere, virtually, in terms of total excentricity.
It goes beyond alienation but in the same direction – to what is more other than the Other, to radical otherness’.
The Self and God
As we have noted earlier, this combination of the denial of self and an abandonment both to dependence on others and to the ‘strange attractor’ (the essence of Baudrillard’s entire approach) has profound mystical resonances. the mystical path is a journey into the utter transmutation of the self in God. Underhill describes this as ‘the stripping off of the I, the Me, the Mine, utter renouncement, or “self-naughting”’ as an imperative to the unitive life. ‘there is a final swallowing up of that wilful I-hood, that surface individuality which we ordinarily recognise as ourselves’.
Similarly, in his survey of the apophatic mystics Denys turner sees something akin to Baudrillard’s ‘total excentricity’ in the mystical dispossession that ‘at once “decentres” us, for it disintegrates the experiential structures of selfhood on which, in experience, we centre ourselves, and at the same time draws into the divine love where we are “recentred” upon a ground beyond any possibility of experience’. It is no longer us thinking God, but God thinking us.
While Baudrillard would not speak of any kind of ‘recentring’, he talks about this kind of reversal in ‘object thought’; ‘thought become inhuman, is the form of thinking which actually comes to terms with impossible exchange. It no longer attempts to interpret the world, nor to exchange it for ideas . . . It becomes the world thinking us’. It may be argued that Baudrillard’s is a weak form of mysticism, more rooted in his strange metaphysics of the object than in a return to God. His own identification with mysticism may be seen as ironic or glib. Yet perhaps we can see Baudrillard’s identification of radical alterity in the immanent world as reawakening the possibilities for transcendence within a hyperreality that has seemingly become lost in nihilism and egotism.
God’s raison d’être was ‘to guarantee, to bless certain causal connections, allowing him to make a last judgment on the world, piercing through, at certain places, the fog that obscures his luminous gaze upon chaos’. Such understandings of God have been strong in European thought, particularly since the eighteenth century when archdeacon Paley saw the marks of design in the universe as evidence for a designer, just as a mechanical watch gives evidence of a watchmaker. But Baudrillard insists that this rationalistic order has passed away and an irrational hyperreality has replaced modernity’s stable causal system. In this less certain age, Baudrillard suggests, ‘It’s no surprise that God has died, leaving behind a perfectly free and random world, and leaving the task of organizing things to a blind divinity named Chance’.