Baudrillard and Nihilism

Laura Lee

Baudrillard has interesting views on the nature of postmodern nihilism. In Simulacra and Simulation, he begins his discussion on the precession of simulacra by describing what he calls the "simulacra of divinity." He points out that "divinity that animates nature can never be represented" (p. 4). The idea of God embodied within religious icons and iconography is a complex system of human belief, in which the visible is supposed to evoke the religious all-being, the divine-referential. Yet when God's omnipotence and presence can only be felt through these icons, it is becomes probable that the existence of God is questioned, if the simulacra of divinity becomes the only visible image of God's presence.

Baudrillard points to the notion that when icons become the substitute for "the pure and intelligible Idea of God" (p. 4), the simulacra becomes omnipotent in the conscience of humankind. The omnipotence of the simulacra creates a nihilistic stance on religion, in which the conscience toys the with notion that "deep down God never existed, that only the simulacra existed, even that God himself was never anything but his own simulacrum" (p. 4). The weightlessness of the system, the very lack of an objective truth or universal ground for knowledge, then points to nihilism, which Baudrillard describes in detail in regards to postmodern theory of nihilism, in the final chapter of Simulacra and Simulation.

In the chapter titled "On Nihilism," Baudrillard takes a major stance in his regards to God's existence, and the existence of any authentic meaning in life. I totally disagree with him, and think he is viewing life from a highly elevated, and inhuman stance. It's interesting, however to look at his argument as he defines the postmodern nihilism in terms of the abundance of simulacra in modern times.

Baudrillard discusses nihilism in terms of "transparency" or "irresolution of the system." By this he means that God is non-existent, that the simulacra that preceded today's nihilism was a reflection of the absence of any true God, at the same time as reflecting the omnipresence of the simulacra of God. This new nihilism, which he describes as existing not through destruction, but through simulation, lacks the aesthetic and political dimensions of the previous forms of nihilistic thought, namely that of Romanticism and Surrealism. It "no longer borrows from either the extermination of appearances, nor from extinguishing the embers of meaning, nor from the last nuances of an apocalypse" (p. 160). Baudrillard's emphasis on political and aesthetic neutrality in the new nihilism emphasizes the absence of God, the absence of meaning, and therefore the immobility or "inertia" (as he terms it) of humankind's desire to believe in God. The overwheming presence of simulacra, of constantly appearing and disappearing media images, supersaturate the conscience with sensual meaning, which by its mere physicality, is empty of any divine spirituality. Baudrillard points to this "destruction of meaning through simulation, hypersimulation, hypertelie," (p.161) and is quick to decide that he himself is a new nihilist, who, pulled into inertia by image-overdose, can only know the absence of the God behind the images.

In the world of constantly manufactured images, I can understand how this nihilism places such immense emphasis on the disappearance, the evanescent nature of our visual world. Cyberspace culture, which is a medium of image and virtuality, embraces simulacra, and borders as well, on nihilistic views. God may not exist behind the simulacra, and therefore, if you don't feel it, perhaps God is absent, a creation of the human desire to feel less isolated from the world. Then comes the self-projected indifference, and perhaps loneliness of the nihilist, which if embraced, can be empowering. Separate from any divine entity, the individual can form his or her own reality, independent of God or the laws of God, a self-created fantasy in which the participant becomes his or her own God, and creator.

But let us go back to his introductory chapter, "The Precession of Simulacra." In this chapter, on page 6, he points out four possibilities of what truly lies behind the divine icon:

it is the reflection of profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; (the stance Baudrillard himself takes) it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

In the passage above, Baudrillard states that there are alternatives to his belief in nihilism. Where he takes the stance that divine simulacra makes the absence of a profound reality, and in his final chapter, states: "There is no more hope for meaning. And without a doubt this is a good thing: meaning is mortal" (p. 164), we see where his motivations lie in regards to why he chooses this system of belief. Baudrillard's desire for immortality, and therefore, the absence of hope or meaning ("meaning is mortal"), points out how the author himself buys into the sickness of the world, the world of constantly disappearing and fragmented truths. But in the quote above, symbols can still reflect profound realities, it all is a matter of choice.

Maybe I am just primitive, but I still believe that our lives are strongly connected to those of other human beings, that there is such a thing called spirituality, no matter how random, or seldom, this feeling is translated in our daily existence. If anything, Baudrillard is more human than he thinks, in that we all strive and desire immortality, unable to face the idea that someday we won't exist forever, thus buying into his whole "new nihilism" and its propensity for immortality. The desire to be immortal, god-like, to be the ultimate creators and controllers of our own fate, is so imbedded into our thought going back to the times of ancient Greece, that I can't but help think Baudrillard's stance on simulacra is simply the modern day expression of this ancient human desire. If we lose our spirituality, we will surely die, and become machines. But seriously, why ever would we be compelled to do so, so long as we are who we are?

Theory Cyberspace OV Website Overview