I Don't Want it unless I Can't Have it!

Jonathan Wang '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University, Fall 2006

Cyberspace & Critical Theory

Baudrillard's assertion, from his essay Simulations and Simulacra, that the imaginary reinforces the real represents the confusing aspect of human psychology where we only notice, appreciate or desire some concept when it is missing. We only want what we can't have, and we only notice absence. Many resources in life become so habitual, taken for granted and assumed to be true without any analysis, that people only think about them when they are not there. For example, somebody rarely considers food until he or she is hungry. In our minds, the proof of something's existence comes in its perceived nonexistence. The power of simulation, as Baudrillard then proposes, is the power to instill a sense of absence or antithesis without actually sacrificing the concept in question. Using digital data and careful cultural control, today's media can convince the masses of all sorts of ideas that previously received no attention. People are convinced of America's lack of health by movies such as Supersize Me, even if plenty of young people are still in good shape, and as such nutritional mania takes over. Very few people considered the effects of the ozone layer until it deteriorated, and global warming's continuous cycle was not popularly perceived until the frightening animations of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth simulated the unprecedented marine submersion of countless couple in many of the world's great cities. Ice caps were hardly considered until they began melting. Postulations and articulations of what may change or has disappeared are what instill people with a sense of appreciation or desire, and these modern marvels are subject to the master's focus so as to affect the effect of people's desire.

It would take too long to run through the whole range of operational negativity, of all those scenarios of deterrence which, like Watergate, try to revive a moribund principle by simulated scandal, phantasm, murder — a sort of hormonal treatment by negativity and crisis. It is always a question of proving the real by the imaginary; proving truth by scandal; proving the law by transgression; proving work by the strike; proving the system by crisis and capital by revolution; and for that matter proving ethnology by the dispossession of its object (the Tasaday). Without counting: proving theater by anti-theater; proving art by anti-art; proving pedagogy by anti-pedagogy; proving psychiatry by anti-psychiatry, etc., etc.

Everything is metamorphosed into its inverse in order to be perpetuated in its purged form. Every form of power, every situation speaks of itself by denial, in order to attempt to escape, by simulation of death, its real agony. Power can stage its own murder to rediscover a glimmer of existence and legitimacy.

Discussion Questions

Baudrillard uses the word "proving" extensively in his description of operational negativity. Does he mean proving the existence of something, or, rather, the existence of the human need?

How effective is Baudrillard's use of antithetical pairing (his "operational negativity") to illustrate the effect of absence on the human psyche? Can something be proven by showing what it is not?

There is a saying in technical theatrical production and structural engineering that goes, "people only notice when something goes wrong" (or, alternatively, "the best comment is no comment at all"). How does this sense of invisible, assumed functionality affect the way people perceive their world, and what are some examples where something's presence was only found in its failure? Are there instances where somebody failed intentionally, even if it meant harm or criticism, in order to prove a point?

The most extreme example of simulated catastrophe for is the 9/11 terrorist attacks five years ago; conspiracy theorists claim that there was more to the fall of the towers than we are led to believe, pointing to the engineering impossibility of collapsing skyscrapers or possibilities that it was permitted, or even orchestrated, by the American government. What sort of perception through absence effects could be intended by this event, if the allegations are true? What might the purposes be?

For more details, visit 9/11 Conspiracy Theories

How does the revelation of a simulation's truly false nature affect the perception of the object of interest? Does cynicism build up, and the burst forth?

Website Overview Theory Jean Baudrillard

Last modified 12 October 2006