From the Face-to-Face to the Interface: A Moment in Jean Baudrillard’s “America”

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In our socially networked world, we are over saturated with information and images. We are bombarded and, in the midst of this, we seem to cobble together something of our own virtual bubble with icon-slash-friends who we share images, information, and identifications on a daily basis.   But, before this all become normal; it was called hyperreal. To be sure, Jean Baudrillard is most well known for his notion of the “hyperreal” which was popularized by his book, Simulations. In that book, published in 1983, he writes:

Abstraction today is no longer that of a map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation of models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – PRECESSION OF SIMULCURA – it is the map that engenders the territory….The desert of the real itself. (2)

As a part of his explanation of what this means, in “reality,” Baudrillard describes Disneyland, the American hallmark, as the prime example of the hyperreal. It is an “infantilized” world:

Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: Pirates, the Frontier, Future World, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious reveling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks. (24)

Five years later, Baudrillard returns to his meditation on American as the center of the simulated world. He writes a book called America. In this book, Baudrillard goes deeper into the “desert of the real” than ever so as to provide his readers with a kind of journalistic account of his dissolution into a sea of relations. Everything, it seems, is caught up in virtual relations that are repeated in different series. Relations are altered and recycled.  Our lives are animated by them:

Sex, beach, and mountains. Sex and beach, beach and mountains. Mountains and sex. A few concepts. Sex and concepts. “Just a life.” Everything is destined to reappear as simulation. Landscapes as photography, women as the sexual scenario, thoughts as writing, terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television. Things seem to exist by virtue of this strange destiny.   You wonder whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world. (32)

Baudrillard dives into the experience of relation to argue that all relation, today, is nothing more than what he calls an “interface” or “interaction” which has “replaced face-to-face contact and action”:

This is a culture which sets up specialized institutes so that people’s bodies can come together and touch, and, at the same time, invents pans in which the water does not touch the bottom of the pan, which is made of a substance so homogenous, dry, and artificial that not a single drop sticks to it, just like those bodies intertwined in ‘feeling’ and therapeutic love, which do not touch – not even a moment. This is called interface or interaction. It has replaced face-to-face contact and action. (32)

Touching the other, in his view, is “interfacing with the other.” There is a kind of “communication” in which there isn’t any real “communication.” He calls this a “code of separation.” By way of this code, all everything has become information that “wormed its way into everything, like a phobic maniacal leitmotiv.”

One wonders how this anticipates facebook and twitter: mediums that “interface” different people who exchange information but never really touch.   And it does seem as if there is a code of separation which rules over all of our relations. Baudrillard laments this and mourns the death of the “face-to-face” contact and action.

The problem with this, of course, is that it suggests that all bodily relations are “interfaced.” This suggests that Levinas is wrong and that we cannot be “persecuted” or “traumatized” by the other. In this hyperreal world, we can interface with the other and keep our distance; we need not be obligated by them. The only thing that affects us is the information that passes through us and keeps us and all things separate.

The only reason we are concerned about our bodies is because “everyone is made to concentrate” on the body, “not as a source of pleasure,” but “as an object of frantic concern, in the obsessive fear of failure or substandard performance, a sing and an anticipation of death, that death which not one can any longer give a meaning, but which everyone knows has at all times to be prevented”(35).

Our main concern, therefore, is to preserve our bodies from death and to make them properly interface with other bodies. We are “into” things because we are a part of this or that circuit within which we function.   We are constantly maintaining a circuit. Do we fit in or are we “the odd one’s out?”

The comedy, it seems, for Baudrillard is not to be found save for the fact that we are caught up in too many surfaces and interfaces. We live for the ecstasy of the network. But we fear, too often, that we have missed our cue. As Paul Celan says in one poem, we are adrift in a sea of relations.   And these relations often blur into each other making our relations more confusing.

For Baudrillard this can only go in one direction: toward a kind of Apocolypse of all history and all meaning. This is the fatalist reading. And it all starts in Disneyland where we all become infantile and, for Baudrillard, where we lose all sense of an adulthood that once was. In his world, the Levinasian face-to-face is a thing of the past. In the hyperreal, we all become children who know only interfaces and not faces.

2 thoughts on “From the Face-to-Face to the Interface: A Moment in Jean Baudrillard’s “America”

  1. Pingback: The Collective Self. – Break my body…

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