Jean Baudrillard and Digitality

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

[Pages 20-22 in print version. © the Johns Hopkins University Press 1992].

Jean Baudrillard, who presents himself as a follower of Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan, is someone who seems both fascinated and appalled by what he sees as the all-pervading effects of such digital encoding, though his examples suggest that he is often confused about which media actually employ it. The strengths and weaknesses of Baudrillard's approach appear in his remarks on the digitization of knowledge and information. Baudrillard correctly perceives that movement from the tactile to the digital is the primary fact about the contemporary world, but then he misconceives -- or rather only partially perceives -- the implications of his point. According to him, digitality involves binary opposition: "Digitality is with us. It is that which haunts all the messages, all the signs of our societies. The most concrete form you see it in is that of the test, of the question/answer, of the stimulus/response" (Simulations, 115). Baudrillard most clearly posits this equivalence, which he mistakenly takes to be axiomatic, in his statement that "the true generating formula, that which englobes all the others, and which is somehow the stabilized form of the code, is that of binarity, of digitality" (145). From this he concludes that the primary fact about digitality is its connection to "cybernetic control . . . the new operational configuration," since "digitalization is its metaphysical principle (the God of Leibnitz), and DNA its prophet" (103).

True, at the most basic level of machine code and at the far higher one of program languages, the digitization, which constitutes a fundamental of electronic computing, does involve binarity. But from this fact one cannot so naively extrapolate, as Baudrillard does, a complete thought-world or episteme . Baudrillard, of course, may well have it partially right: he might have perceived one key connection between the stimulus/response model and digitality. The fact of hypertext, however, demonstrates quite clearly that digitality does not necessarily lock one into either a linear world or one of binary oppositions.

Unlike Derrida, who emphasizes the role of the book, writing, and writing technology, Baudrillard never considers verbal text, whose absence glaringly runs through his argument and reconstitutes it in ways that he obviously did not expect. Part of Baudrillard's theoretical difficulty, I suggest, derives from the fact that he bypasses digitized verbal text and moves with too easy grace directly from the fact of digital encoding of information in two directions: (1) to his stimulus/response, either/or model, and (2) to other non-alphanumeric (or non-writing) media, such as photography, radio, and television. Interestingly enough, when Baudrillard correctly emphasizes the role of digitality in the postmodern world, he generally derives his examples of digitization from media that, particularly at the time he wrote, for the most part depended upon analogue rather than digital technology -- and the different qualities and implications of each are great. Whereas analogue recording of sound and visual information requires serial, linear processing, digital technology removes the need for sequence by permitting one to go directly to a particular bit of information. Thus if one wishes to find a particular passage in a Bach sonata on a tape cassette, one must scan through the cassette sequentially, though modern tape decks permit one to speed the process by skipping from space to space between sections of music. In contrast, if one wishes to locate a passage in digitally recorded music, one can instantly travel to that passage, note it for future reference, and manipulate it in ways impossible with analogue technologies -- for example, one can instantly replay passages without having to scroll back through them.

In concentrating on non-alphanumeric media, and in apparently confusing analogue and digital technology, Baudrillard misses the opportunity to encounter the fact that digitalization also has the potential to prevent, block, and bypass linearity and binarity, which it replaces with multiplicity, true reader activity and activation, and branching through networks. Baudrillard has described one major thread or constituent of contemporary reality that is potentially at war with the multilinear, hypertextual one.

In addition to hypertext, several aspects of humanities computing derive from virtuality of text. First of all, the ease of manipulating individual alphanumeric symbols produces simpler word-processing. Simple word-processing in turn makes vastly easier old-fashioned, traditional scholarly editing -- the creation of reliable, supposedly authoritative texts from manuscripts or published books -- at a time when the very notion of such single, unitary, univocal texts may be changing or disappearing.

Second, this same ease of cutting, copying, and otherwise manipulating texts permits different forms of scholarly composition, ones in which the researcher's notes and original data exist in experientially closer proximity to the scholarly text than ever before. According to Michael Heim, as electronic textuality frees writing from the constraints of paper-print technology, "vast amounts of information, including further texts, will be accessible immediately below the electronic surface of a piece of writing. . . . By connecting a small computer to a phone, a profession will be able to read `books' whose footnotes can be expanded into further `books' which in turn open out onto a vast sea of data bases systemizing all of human cognition" (10-11), The manipulability of the scholarly text, which derives from the ability of computers to search databases with enormous speed, also permits full-text searches, printed and dynamic concordances, and other kinds of processing that allow scholars in the humanities to ask new kinds of questions. Moreover, as one writes, "The text in progress becomes interconnected and linked with the entire world of information" (161).

Third, the electronic virtual text, whose appearance and form readers can customize as they see fit, also has the potential to add an entire new element -- the electronic or virtual link that reconfigures text as we who have grown up with books have experienced it. Electronic linking creates hypertext, a form of textuality composed of blocks and links that permits multilinear reading paths. As Heim has argued, electronic word processing inevitably produces linkages, and these linkages move text, readers, and writers into a new writing space:

The distinctive features of formulating thought in the psychic framework of word processing combine with the automation of information handling and produce an unprecedented linkage of text. By linkage I mean not some loose physical connection like discrete books sharing a common physical space in the library. Text derives originally from the Latin word for weaving and for interwoven material, and it has come to have extraordinary accuracy of meaning in the case of word processing. Linkage in the electronic element is interactive, that is, texts can be brought instantly into the same psychic framework. ( 160-161)


Next Section Contents Hypertext Overview Critical Theory Overview