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Incredulity towards Postmodernism: Baudrillard, Pessoa, and the Simulacra of Precession

Dror Poleg
Dror Poleg
12 min read
Incredulity towards Postmodernism: Baudrillard, Pessoa, and the Simulacra of Precession
Photo by Philipp Berndt / Unsplash
"Let's act like sphinxes, however falsely, until we reach the point of no longer knowing who we are; for we are, in fact, false sphinxes, with no idea of what we are in reality. The only way to be in agreement with life is to disagree with ourselves. Absurdity is divine. Let's develop theories, patiently and honestly thinking them out, in order to promptly act against them- acting and justifying our actions with new theories that condemn them. Let's cut a path in life and then go immediately against that path. Let's adopt all the poses and gestures of something we aren't and don't wish to be, and don't even wish to be taken for being.

Let's buy books so as not to read them; let's go to concerts without caring to hear the music or to see who's there; let's take long walks because we're sick of walking; and let's spend whole days in the country, just because it bores us."

— Bernardo Soares, The Book of Disquiet

1.0: A Short Introduction

Few, if any, passages are able to capture the essence of what scholars today call postmodernism better than this excerpt from Bernardo Soares' Book of Disquiet.

Soares' personal circumstances intensify, if not completely enable, the author's - note that I am using a noun and not a pronoun -ability to define the 'fictionality' of the human experience.

'The amorphous and politically volatile nature of postmodernism makes the phenomenon itself remarkably elusive and the definition of its boundaries exceedingly difficult, if not per se impossible.'(Huyssen 1998:58)

In this essay I will try to review, in short, some of the main features of postmodernism- initially as a general term, and more specifically in regards to writing, and indeed reading.

Furthermore, I will examine the capacity of a text to comply with these theoretical definitions, and how this capacity works to question the postmodernity, or more accurately the non-modernity, of postmodern theory itself. To do so, I will contrast The Book of Disquiet , a literary piece hailed as 'one of the defining texts of the modern world' (Lezard 2001), and the work of Jean Baudrillard, widely acknowledged as one of the pinnacles of postmodern theory.

2.0: Postmodernism in a nutshell

Let us identify the prey. Postmodernism, in the context of literary studies, is that 'in which premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by senses of the end of this or that' (Jameson 1991:Ch.1). It is that which heralds the 'waning or extinction of the modern movement or its ideological or aesthetic repudiation'. (Ibid.)

The postmodern aesthetic is the art of no longer reflecting anything 'not because it seeks to change the world'(Eagleton 1985:60), but because there is nothing there to be reflected-'no reality which is in itself not already an image, spectacle, simulacrum' (Ibid.)

So, succinctly, postmodernism's main feature is what Jean-Francois Lyotard describes as 'Incredulity towards meta-narrative' (Lyotard 1986: xxiv). In other words- it is the loss of faith in any great theory that offers a total solution to, or description of, the human condition.

The postmodern approach to literature is chiefly influenced by the works of French (as opposed to Czech) structuralists and post-structuralists.

2.2: Jacques (1)

'The Ego, according to Lacan, arises as a crystallization or sedimentation of ideal images, tantamount to a fixed, reified object with which a child learns to identify; (it is) the representation we have of ourselves in ourselves.' (Fink 1996:36) In other words, the Ego is the constructed image we have of ourselves; a misrecognition and consolidation of the essential processes around us into an image that we call: "I".

The jury is still out on whether Jacques Lacan is a structuralist or a post-structuralist, but it is clear that his concept of the human Ego as a fictive creation is at the root of postmodern skepticism towards language's ability to provide immediate access to reality.

2.4: Jacques (2)

Another essential Frenchman in this essay is Jacques Derrida. Derrida is mainly renowned for his saying that 'there is nothing outside the text' (cited in Schirato & Yell 2000:10), and his Deconstruction theory.

Deconstruction , in the context of literary studies, looks at any work of art, or text, as a field of conflict between different types of meaning (Britannica 2004); a 'Deconstructed' (or 'Deconstructive') text is not examined as an autonomous objet d'art , but as a product of relations with other, both literary and non literary texts. (Ibid)

As Jonathan Culler explains, Derrida argues that the oppositions within Western Metaphysics are in themselves constructions with an inherent ideology; and it is this construction that Deconstruction aims to undermine. (Culler cited in Hawthorn 1992:48)

Deconstruction, thus, is fascinated with the way in which texts implicitly criticise themselves, and destabilize the theoretical 'categories that critics use to analyse them' (Ibid):

'Deconstruction is inventive or it is nothing at all; it does not settle for methodical procedures, it opens up a passageway, it marches ahead and marks a trail; its writing is not only performative, it produces rules - other conventions - for new performatives and never installs itself in the theoretical assurance of a simple opposition between performative and constative.' (Derrida 1991:337)

It is important to understand the terms Derrida uses. A performative is that which 'by virtue of utterance' (Merriam-Webster 2004) performs the act it describes, (Hawthorn 1992:234). For example, the unpopular sentence: 'I apologize'. The description of the action is the action itself- the apology is achieved by its mere description.

A constative is that which describes a 'completed action' and 'can be judged as true or false.' (Merriam-Webster 2004) For example, the even less popular sentence: 'I am French'.

We are not all French, nor do we become French by saying we are. So, uttered by an American the sentence could be judged as false, but articulated by Roland Barthes it is certainly true.

Another important verity from Barthes is that 'to give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing.'(Barthes 1977:147)

3.1: Plastic (1)

An example of what Derrida may have meant, and of how it could be applied, is found in a literary piece of lesser magnitude, and greater popularity- the following poem released in 1997 by the Danish ensemble 'Aqua':

"I'm a Barbie girl,
in a Barbie world
Life in plastic,
it's fantastic!
You can brush my hair;
undress me everywhere
Imagination, life is your creation"

—  'Barbie Girl', Aquarium LP , MCA 1997

This fine piece of decadence offers a critique of reality as a construction of the imagination.

The author laments or, more accurately, celebrates while dancing in a bikini, the 'fictionality' of the world. At first glance, this may seem subversive, or anti-modern, but is it really so?

The poem is an utterance that describes the world as fictional- a constative. But the author places itself outside of this fictive reality- he is commenting on its objective condition that is beyond him. The author, thus, is a self-proclaimed static subject in the centre of the meaning-making field. The author's position here is crucial as it, in fact, renders the meaning of the text.

The poem may 'constatively' argue that there are no absolute truths, but by maintaining that the author is in a position to make such an argument the poem is, more than anything, a performative of the thinking subject's ability to be constant and independent of this 'fictionality'.

3.2: Plastic (2)

'Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.'
'It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself;'
'We are the fetish objects of a thought that is no longer ours, or that is its uncontrollable outgrowth.'
'Identity is a dream pathetic in its absurdity. You dream of being yourself when you've nothing better to do.'

— Jean Baudrillard, 1998

Baudrillard, by far the most popular philosopher alive, is fascinated with the effect of mediation technologies on the human experience of reality. Baudrillard, in fact, argues that reality itself is effaced by this same technology, but his arguments alone are of a lesser significance to this essay.

Baudrillard is obsessed with mass (mostly American) culture and the idols it generates, but it seems that he himself is the Mickey Mouse (or Barbie Doll ) version of a Modern Theorist. The occasional beard, the glasses, and the ever so frequent interviews in a French accent; it seems that for Baudrillard, more than it is an object of study, celebrity status is an object of desire. It may seem inappropriate to make such personal observations in a quasi-academic essay but I find it imperative since the persona (or 'Pessoa' as Soares would say in Portuguese), or more accurately the Ego (in line with Lacan) of the author is of paramount significance to the definition of any postmodern text; in particular when assessing the work of a theorist who aims to undermine, or at least outline the dialectic oppression inherent in modern discourses.

3.3: Soares

'The entire life of a human soul is mere motions in the shadows. We live in a twilight of consciousness, never in accord with whom we are or think we are. Everyone Harbours some kind of vanity, and there's an error whose degree we can't determine.'
'The only way to be in agreement with life is to disagree with ourselves'
'I don't reread (what I write). I can't reread. What good would it do me to reread? The person in the writing is someone else. I no longer understand a thing'
'To go from the phantoms of faith to the ghosts of reason is merely to change cells. Art, if it frees us from the abstract idols of old, should also free us from magnanimous ideas and social concerns, which are likewise idols. To find our personality by losing it- faith itself endorses this destiny.'
'(We must) organize our life in such a way that it becomes a mystery to others, that those who are closest to us will only be closer to not knowing us. That is how I've shaped my life, almost without thinking about it, but I did it with so much instinctive art that even to myself I've become a not entirely clear and definite individual.'
'(In our society) it's legitimate to break ordinary moral laws in obedience to a higher moral law. Hunger is no excuse for stealing a loaf of bread, but an artist can be excused for stealing ten thousand escudos to guarantee his sustenance and tranquility for two years, provided his work seeks to advance human civilization; if it's merely an aesthetic work the argument doesn't hold'
'God created me to be a child and willed that I remain a child.'
'The outer world exists like an actor on stage; it's there but it's something else.'

— Bernardo Soares, sometime before 1935. The Book of Disquiet

And so we return to Bernardo Soares, and just in time to hear about the unique circumstances of his existence. The flesh and blood - and not necessarily real - author of The Book of Disquiet is one Fernando Pessoa. But Bernardo Soares is not a mere pseudonym for Pessoa, like the ones used by modernists like Pound, Rilke, or Valery (Academy of American Poets 2004)- Soares is one of more than seventy other identities that Pessoa called 'heteronyms'(Zenith 1998). These heteronyms not only published their own poetry and prose, but also interacted with each other in their theoretical work. They were not invented to mask the identity of the real author, but as the author's way of acknowledging his own fragmented existence (Lezard 2001). As Alvaro De Campos, another one of Pessoa's heteronyms, tells us: 'Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, does not exist.'

3.4 Theoretical Postures: The almighty 'We'

'Taking nothing seriously and recognizing our sensations as the only reality we have for certain, we take refuge there, exploring them like large unknown countries; The poetry we write- devoid of any desire to move anyone else's will or to mould anyone's understanding - is merely like when a reader reads out loud to fully objectify the subjective pleasure of reading.'

- Fernando Pessoa as Bernardo Soares , The Book of Disquiet , p.12

'That we have dreamed of this event (the Attack on the World Trade Centre in New York), that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree...this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it'.

-Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism , 2001

Finally, let us look at these two excerpts. The first, from Bernardo Soares' Book of Disquiet, a 'factless autobiography' published 50 years after the author's demise. The second, from Jean Baudrillard's Spirit of Terrorism, was published after the attack of the World Trade Centre in New York on the 11th of September 2001.

The juxtaposition illustrates the difference between the two authors. Yes, Baudrillard is exposed in his nakedness: he is violent, he is spiteful, he is provocative, and he rejoices in the calamity of others- of REAL others. But in this text, more than he is anything in particular, he just IS.

This is crystallized in the way both authors use the term 'We'. While Pessoa uses it to denote detachment, impartiality, and incredulity towards even his own ability to have a definite opinion, Baudrillard's 'We' is an act of consolidation; a consolidation not only of his own Ego but of the opinion of the masses. Baudrillard not only knows what he thinks — he also knows what we think.

4.0: Conclusion

Pessoa and Baudrillard have many theoretical similarities; both deal with representation as the only experience possible and question the human ability to grasp truth or reality, but it is on the personal level that they fundamentally differ. Baudrillard is willing to forego almost everything; he describes a world that is becoming hyperreal and simulated and has no relation to this or other objective truth. But when eliminating all constants Baudrillard forgot the most important one- himself. Baudrillard is guilty of what Frederic Jameson describes as the 'elitism and authoritarianism of the modern movement' (Jameson 1991); he makes the modern (and classic) mistake of seeing the world as a work in progress with ideas that advance towards a better or worse future, or even towards the end of this progress, which is progress nonetheless. More importantly, he sees himself as a thinking subject that is capable of pointing out these processes while being beyond them; He is willing to sell everything in order to save, or affirm, his own Ego.

Baudrillard's grim prophecies and Author-itarian presence make him, at best, an apocalyptic modernist. More than his work exemplifies what he calls the Precession of Simulacra; it is an example of the simulacra of precession.

Pessoa, on the other hand, achieves 'postmodernity' by eliminating himself. He is as transient as the world he portrays and as non-existent as the reality he shuns illustrating. Pessoa's work is the theory, the practice, and a critique of not only the same theory but of the ability to theorize at all.

To borrow from the pop diva edition of the clash between post and high modernism: it seems that while Baudrillard stumbles onto a dead reality and feels 'like a virgin'- Pessoa languidly sighs: 'Oops, I did it again.

Thus, for it to be 'genuinely' postmodern it is not enough for a text to deal with 'fictionality' - to insinuate the 'fictionality' of the world we live in - but the text has to be a performative of this same 'fictionality' and to challenge its own ability, as well as the ability of its critics, to tell apart reality and fiction. It is this reluctance to 'install itself in the theoretical assurance' (Derrida 1991:337) that distinguishes postmodernism from modernism (or Enlightenment for that matter); in order to be autonomously postmodern, a text has to be, at the same time, the reading, the writing, and, most importantly, the criticism. The postmodern state is valid only as long as it undermines the same methods that validate it. Therefore postmodernism, strictly speaking, does not exist.

'Life is the hesitation between exclamation and a question. Doubt is resolved by a period.'

— The Book of Disquiet, p.311

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