Charles Levin, Jean Baudrillard: A Study in Cultural Metaphysics. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1996. ISBN: 0134333683 (paperback). Price: £12.50Stuart Sim, Jean-François Lyotard. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1996. ISBN: 0134334345 (paperback). Price: £12.50
University of Toronto
Two books. Same publisher. Same series. Big differences. A sharp pithy volume on Lyotard prepared by Stuart Sim. Charles Levin's bulging bucket of dross on Baudrillard in 9 1/2 point—2 point sizes smaller than the Lyotard volume (albeit in a different font) and very very much longer. Obviously there is here a lack of equivalent editorial guidelines. All is not well in the house of Prentice Hall. Else, how could the Baudrillard volume's appearance in the Modern Cultural Theorist series be only signalled in the Library of Congress catalogue criteria thoughtfully supplied by the publisher? It contains no mention of the other volumes in the series and the other volumes do not mention it. It only appears to belong to the series. How tempting it is to spin a scenario casting Levin's lack lustre account of Baudrillard's reputedly sparkling speculation as a simulation. This is, of course, a key concept found often in Baudrillard's ruminations. It is speculation that finds some paratextual evidence since the series's moniker appears neither on cover nor spine (nor in the list provided in the Lyotard volume of the same year). In a kindly mood, one begins to suspect a very elaborate joke about the status of a book on a hyperrealist seer. That is the generous interpretation.
However the joke if it is indeed being perpetrated suffers from prolixity. Levin's book on Baudrillard could be cut in half and not suffer. Indeed, it would improve. A good copy editor would have improved the jumble of a bibliography. Its chronology is out of whack not only because most the references to translations lack reference to original publication dates but also because it is actually an abbreviated list of titles abbreviated in Levin's text. The value of a proper bibliography eludes both author and editor. A copy editor must have dozed off when ten pages on Levin takes up verbatim a remark on McLuhan (52; 62, n. 32). Such repetition in a tedious undergraduate essay would be considered padding. Here it is but pataphysical prattle. Much of this volume, especially the rather facile, sketchy and dubious hyping of Canada as the ideal postmodern state, reeks of the off-the-cuff ill-prepared seminar. After plodding through this collection of loose titbits and diligent digressions, one can sense a delicious irony in its dedication to Levin's students who no doubt suffered through their rendition in the flesh.
Taken in small doses it is barely bearable. A marathon reading session through the entire text reveals an unshapely mass of non sequiturs. It is no wonder the strength is in the glossary. It serves well as an introduction to key terms such as hyperreality, seduction, simulation. In lieu of an index accounting for the instances of citation from Baudrillard's texts, the glossary reveals where Levin is wont to place emphasis in the Baudrillardian corpus. He is lured by the seemingly untranslated late work. Levin fails to make note of Chris Turner's 1994 version of Baudrillard's 1992 L'illusion de la fin. The failure is not just a consequence of a lag between preparation and publication since other items, in French however, from 1994 appear to have grabbed Levin's attention. It is a matter of a lack of thoroughness. Or to be uncharitable, a matter of simulating a philological mastery, pretending to be ahead of the translators.
Monsieur Levin may perhaps give the impression of being à la page, however, there is a rather glaring linguistic blooper relating to Oublier Foucault (254 n.9). Levin claims "It should be pointed out [...] that contrary to the available English translation of Oublier Foucault, Baudrillard's propositions are in the infinitive —not the imperative mood." Anyone acquainted with the culinary arts knows it is quite common practice to use the infinitive as an imperative in French.
Lack of cookbook savoir faire aside, Levin is seduced by Baudrillard's illogic:
Moreover, the arguments themselves, for all their apparent illogic, achieve an elegance and consistency of intellectual vision which seems appropriate for the cultural moment. Baudrillard should never be taken literally as a prophet. He rejects realism and validity as criteria of his work. But his 'predictions' have a curious way of becoming a little truer every day. Like McLuhan, he has succeeded in reframing as literary commentary much that is marginal in social science, so that now its vital significance can be felt more keenly.
Quite apart from the elision of the agent of feeling or sensation, such a sustained celebration of the irrational as a provocative force serves, some one hundred pages later, an apocalyptic narrative:
Baudrillard confronts the contemporary intellectual with a kind of 'all or nothing' choice. Baudrillardian perspectives do not lend themselves to faith in organized political movements, to ideas for social programmes, to policies designed to reform human nature, or to plans for making the world a better place. They can be interpreted in essentially two ways, both of which are quite relevant to the end of the second millennium: either as inviting a total refusal of modern civilization, a call to terrorist arms; or as inviting a liberating abreaction of frustration over what cannot be easily changed.
The intellectual according to Levin can become a fundamentalist or a liberal. This tired tirade favouring the status quo stems from some dubious dichotomies that bolster Baudrillard's massive simplistic periodization (very well explicated by Levin in the Simulacra, Simulation entry of the glossary). From the outset Levin is quite clear on the stakes that ride on the dichotomous gambit:
Most traditional cultural forms of social control were organized around conventionalized images of the body in the world, usually dimorphic in conception.
He is however disingenuous in simply overlooking the heterogeneity of all social formations and a second set of far from fixed polarities: organizer/organized.
Equally egregious are Baudrillard's sexism and Levin's paltry defense of anti-feminist attitudes and postures. Levin would do well to read a work like Kaja Silverman's "Histoire d'O: The Construction of a Female Subject" in Pleasure and Danger (1982 rpt. 1992) and many other such texts so that he might avoid the twisted argument placing a distal culture of writing in juxtaposition to a proximal culture of the senses and the use of such positioning to vindicate the absurd proposition that cognition and perception are "rigorously counterposed" (183). All temporal dimension is lost. All experience is lost. All writing on and through bodies interacting with each other is lost. It is so odd to read the negation of such a fundamental human activity in the prose of a practicising psychoanalyst. But then not all analysts are free of the Father.
If Levin is genuinely concerned with "generating a cultural being from a model" (191), he might want to set aside his mound of metaphoric enumerations (a stylistic abuse of the copula) and argue more or simply ask questions. At one point he draws on the work of biologist Jacques Monod:
The creative force, evolution, the origin of multiplicity, the progenitor of absolute novelty, is not a living being. It is not an agent, not a subject, not even and unconscious desire, not even the sex drive; it is quite 'dead', an inanimate event; it is simply chance—accident, noise, interference: the unpredictable breakdown of continuity.
And he continues
Chance, multiplicity, discontinuity: as Monod remarks, these ideas are profoundly 'destructive of anthropocentrism'.
But, it seems, that Levin cannot perceive or think that "anthropocentrism" is not equivalent to "humanity". Nor does he seem capable of thinking that the generation of a cultural being from a model can wilfully induce the work and play of randomness. To be human is to engage in games of chance and such games include the stitching of chains of plausible causation.
Levin's reading snaps the delicate tension between verisimilitude and actuality; simulation is real. However the distance between an adjective and a noun remains. A lucid and careful reading of Baudrillard would make the explicator hesitate before equating simulation with the, or a, Real. Where Baudrillard in fine Aristotlean form invites readers to consider a causality of forms different from one of substances and forces (The Illusion of the End, 111), Levin caught up in a rhetoric of novelty traces a narrative of displacement and substitution. The classic map/territory distinction unravels almost as in a Borges story. Levin's narrativisation of Baudrillard's discourse has the trappings of running on the spot: first, one claims to commit the category mistake of equating map with territory and then one discovers the infinite divide of hysteresis: the non-coincidence of representation and the represented.
From the outset, Levin reads Baudrillard's texts through the filter of "cultural metaphysics". It is not impossible from such a perspective to develop an understanding that substances and forces maintain forms and forms are images or patterns of the flow of forces. It is not impossible if Levin were to stick to his own "Rules of the Game":
The responsibility of a cultural metaphysician is comparable to the commitment of the artist or thinker who adopts an expressive stance in order to make expression itself the issue, or who represents something in order to explore the problem of representation.
Levin's responsibility seems to be to the development of a reputation for inconsistency. Influenced by James Gleick's journalistic accounts (Chaos Theory 1987), Levin, in his glossary and throughout the book, comes quite close to abandoning the field of representation by reifying terms such as fractals, chaos and strange attractors. These no longer serve as representations of behaviours in phase space but are marshalled as entities in themselves.
But would not a responsible cultural metaphysician have fun with a more Taoist, Alice-in-Wonderland spiced, account of dissipative structures such as that of Briggs and Peat (Turbulent Mirror, 1989) and learn through them to recursivley situate maps as parts of territories and open the regressions of mise en abyme to a different type of infinity? Indeed, it is modern mathematics that teaches us about types of infinity. The various types of infinity provide representations of alternative routes to the sublime and help us understand that if maps are part of territories there is more than simple hysteresis to represent the relation between representation and the represented. There is the whole set of mathematical formations called catastrophes.
Levin falls prey to the novelty rhetoric in which James Gleick's marketing marvel Chaos Theory: Making a New Science is suffused. It is less clear why Sim (41) conflates chaos theory and catastrophe theory in his reading of Lyotard's Postmodern Condition (Katherine Hayles makes a similar move in Chaos Bound). Lyotard makes no reference to chaos theory. Sim refers the reader wishing to learn more about chaos theory to Gleick's book (146 n. 5). There is no reference for those interested in learning more about catastrophe theory.
This chaos-catastrophe distinction can challenge an implicit nostalgia in Sim's account of Lyotard. Sim, although perhaps less directly than Levin on Baudrillard, offers the implied reader a choice, in metaphysical terms, between belief in a planned and purposeful universe and adherence to the random and haphazard nature of the world. The dichotomy is temporalised through a tragic vision that can imagine no return to the assurances of dogmatic explanatory systems. Sim eschews a chronological treatment of the Lyotard corpus and yet produces a highly syntagmatic reading of the texts that thematizes the disenchantment with Marxism as a move from systems to individual (8), from modernity to postmodernity (34), from the grand to the little narrative (34). Catastrophe theory will not broach such a dichotomous view. In its language game determinism is imbricated most intimately with modes of indeterminancy.
Given the order vs chaos framing of his telling, it is no wonder that Sim allows metaphors of pathology to creep into the discourse: Sim paints the story of French intellectuals "infected by Marxism" (xvii) and later influenced by an "outbreak of Nihilism" (xxi) Lyotard's career becomes an emblematic struggle. Another way of reading that carreer is to read all ruptures as more than mere Oedipual either/or plots.
Indifference, as a conceptual category escapes Sim. Cultivating indifference is useful for avoiding the Father-son rebellion topos and its essentialist Manichianism that taints with pessimism so many accounts of the relations between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic discourses. Sim is not immune to the germs of discursive contamination. A Levin-like reificative appropriation of mathematical and scientific terms appears in Sim's treatment of Lyotard. However, unlike Levin's which can be ratified by the Baudrillardian text of his object of study, Sim actually misrepresents the gist of Lyotard's text. Lyotard is not a tragic thinker.
Let us examine one instance. Sim suggests that "our assumption of stability is little better than a fiction" (42). The example he gives is the flight or fight reaction of a dog as patterned by catastrophe theory. Sim is restating with some abbreviation the same example that Lyotard gives. Sim seems to overlook in this example the opening reference to the René Thom who according to Lyotard "constructs a mathematical language allowing a formal description of the discontinuities that can occur in determined phenomena [...]" (Post-Modern Condition 58). The point may seem moot but when Sim cites Lyotard
'All that exist', Lyotard dramatically pronounces, 'are "islands of determinism." Catastrophic antagonism is literally the rule' [Sim 42]
yet fails to cite the continuation of Lyotard's sentence which in full reads:
Catastrophic antagonism is literally the rule: there are rules for general agonistics of series, determined by the number of variables in play.
One is tempted to reply to Sim's assertion about stability that fiction has rules and to emphasize that Lyotard regards catastrophe theory as a language.
It is a pity that Sim seems to have relied on Gleick's handbook and the variables at work in his universe did not allow him to take the time to learn the language of catastrophe theory. The rules of fiction, like the schema of catastrophe theory, can negotiate conditions where credibility as in the case of Levin-Baudrillard depends on credulity or requires constant scepticism as in that of Sim-Lyotard. The tales that Sim, Levin, Baudrillard, Lyotard tell are worth re-reading as much for their declarations as the quality of their interrogative mood and especially for the distinctions such readings invite us to produce and use.
|Auteur :||François Lachance|
|Ouvrages recensés :||Charles Levin, Jean Baudrillard: A Study in Cultural Metaphysics. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1996. ISBN: 0134333683 (paperback). Price: £12.50|
|Stuart Sim, Jean-François Lyotard. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1996. ISBN: 0134334345 (paperback). Price: £12.50|
|Revue :||Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 7, août 1997|
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