What Are We Really Doing?

K. Adam White '08, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University, Spring 2005

Cyberspace & Critical Theory

Jean Baudrillard presents a pessimistic view of modern science, hypothesizing that the only effect of modern scientific study is the destruction of the subject under observation. Ethnology, Baudrillard writes, destroys the culture under scrutiny through the very act of the observation itself. Only through the isolation of the Tasaday people of the Philippines, locked away from the prying eyes of anthropologists, was the group able to survive at all. By protecting that which it is charged to study the anthropologists undermined their own ability to do their job.

Doesn’t all science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in its very apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal that the dead object exerts on it? . . . the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself increasingly from its object, until it dispenses with it entirely; its autonomy is only rendered even more fantastic—it obtains its pure form.

In distancing itself, science thinks to return its subject to its natural state, its reality. Having already affected its material, however, science simply installs them as part of a complicated simulation. As the world is catalogued, ethnology creates nothing more than an empty simulation of visible order, bringing the effects far closer to home than any third world country or tribal society.

We have all become living specimens in the spectral light of ethnology . . . [ethnology is] here, everywhere, in the metropolises, in the White community, in a world completely catalogued and analyzed, then artificially resurrected under the auspices of the real, in a world of simulation . . . the murder of every symbolic form and of its hysterical, historical retrospection. [Emphasis in Original]

Beyond ethnology, beyond decrying the nature of society, Baudrillard condemns humanity’s hoarding, grasping tendency to pile up the relics of the past to serve as visible proof of mankind’s origins. Museums of natural and anthropological history meant to awe at the wonder of the ancient, museums of science and technology to justify the current state of the race; by displaying something, its reality is subverted. Our dedication to these relics is incomplete, self-serving and false.

Our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view. To this end the pharaohs must be brought out of their tomb and the mummies out of their silence...they are prey to both science and worms...We only know how to place our science in service of repairing the mummy, that is to say restoring a visible order, whereas embalming was a mythical effort that strove to immortalize a hidden dimension. ["Simulacra and Simulation," emphasis in original]

Everything touched by science, up to human cultures themselves, become "purged of their death, and better than when they were alive; more cheerful, more authentic, in the light of their model, like the faces in funeral homes."

Discussion Questions

1. Does science really alienate its focus from reality? Baudrillard cites ethnology and archeology as sciences that undermine their field by relegating their subjects to mere simulacra, removing any relation to reality. What sciences might avoid this fate?

2. Humanity "stockpiles" collected knowledge to create its own foundation, its justification. Now that information can be digitalized and mass-stored better than ever before, is it the corpus itself that has meaning rather than the individual worth of any piece?

3. Digital recreations of archeological material via Cave-like virtual reality technology become even more removed from the real. What sciences might be expected to bring about their own demise through modernisation or natural evolution, as in the paradoxical fate of the archeologists?

4. Baudrillard describes "museumification" and its converse, the attempt to replace the material in a real context ("demuseumification") as "nothing but another spiral in artificiality." Is his stance overly pessimistic? Do museums have a real purpose as well, perhaps hinted more by the ubiquitous wide-eyed children who patronize museums than the scientists who run them?

Website Overview Theory Jean Baudrillard

Last modified 7 March 2005