Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Jean Baudrillard and Albert Camus on the Simulacrum of Taking a Stance on War, by Alan N. Shapiro

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“Jean Baudrillard and Albert Camus

on the Simulacrum of Taking a Stance on War”

by Alan N. Shapiro

(full text is at the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies)

Unlike other thinkers such as Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges (whose positions are highly valuable in their own right), Jean Baudrillard is not ‘against war’. Baudrillard’s position is rather that of being ‘neither for nor against’ contemporary hyper-real mediatized wars, and seeing the imperative of choosing whether one is ‘for’ or ‘against’ war as being something of a forced and imposed simulacrum. To say that one is ‘against’ a specific war, or even all wars, would be to implicitly acknowledge the ‘reality’ of war(s), which have, to the contrary, drifted increasingly into the fakeness of virtuality, simulation, and an indeterminate hyperspace. Baudrillard, in his orientation of being ‘neither for nor against’ war, finds a strong predecessor in another great writer and thinker who wrote in French: Albert Camus. In his political theory and activist engagements, Camus was an independent hybrid anarchist-liberal (the very notion of hybrid, with which one can retrospectively illuminate Camus’ politics, has only emerged as a well-known concept in recent times, in the wake of, for example, Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory). Camus was a serious thinker who – like Plato, Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Philip K. Dick – had deep insights into the genealogy of image-making simulacra in and of Western culture. As a major figure of twentieth century French intellectual history, Albert Camus appears now in retrospect to have been way ahead of his time in his positions on ethics, aesthetics, virtuality, and political philosophy. The intention of this essay is not to claim that Baudrillard and Camus had ‘the same position’ on war or on simulacra. It is, rather, to make an initial attempt to outline important affinities between the two thinkers, hinting at a sort of ‘alliance’ between these two intellectual figures which has not been previously articulated in the academic literature in Baudrillard or Camus studies. The essay indicates certain key starting points for substantiating the affinity/alliance, but it should also be read in the spirit of suggesting fruitful directions for future research.

Photos: Stockholm, 2012

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Jean Baudrillard expands our sense of what is history because he does not operate with a strict separation between what are ‘the facts’ and what are the engaging stories that we as a culture have written and enacted about important ‘historical’ events. Much of what we know about the Holocaust, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War comes from Hollywood films about the Holocaust, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War that we have seen. In his essay on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 blockbuster Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now, Baudrillard writes that Coppola’s masterpiece is the continuation of the Vietnam War by other means. “Nothing else in the world smells like that,” says Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore – played by Robert Duvall – in the 2 hour and 33 minute film. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning… It smells like victory.”

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The high-budget extravaganza was produced exactly the same way that America fought in Vietnam, says Jean Baudrillard of the film made by director Francis Ford Coppola.1 “War becomes film,” Baudrillard writes of Coppola’s spectacularly successful cinematic creation. “Film becomes war, the two united by their shared overflowing of technology.” There is implosion or mutual contamination between ‘film becoming Virtual Reality’ and War. Think also of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998): total immersion in the Virtual Reality of combat – an aesthetics of VR different from ‘critical distance’ – as a new kind of ‘testimonial position’ with respect to war and atrocities. In Vietnam-slash-Apocalypse Now, War is a Drug Trip and a God Trip, a psychedelic and pornographic carnival3, a savage cannibalism practiced by the Christians, a film before the shooting and a shoot before the filming, a vast machine of excessive special effects, a ‘show of power’, a territorial lab for testing new weapons on human guinea pigs, and the sacrificial jouissance of throwing away billions of dollars – all these aspects alluded to or mentioned by Baudrillard. Coppola’s film, according to Baudrillard, is the carrying on of an undeclared, unfinished and unending War. An interminable Heart of Darkness.

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Regarding the Algerian War between France and the independence movement in Algeria that took place (or perhaps ‘took place’) between 1954 and 1962 (sort of France’s version or equivalent of America’s Vietnam War, and an important ‘decolonization’ war), we read in various canonical accounts of Baudrillard’s life, for example, in Mike Gane’s “Introduction” to Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews (1993), that “Baudrillard was politically radicalized under the influence of Sartre and the opposition to the Algerian War at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s.”22 But if we read what Baudrillard writes about the Algerian War near the end of “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” then we might start to reconsider if, in retrospect, Baudrillard’s mature position about war, and about the Algerian War, might not correspond more (rather than corresponding to the position of Jean-Paul Sartre) to the controversial refusal to take sides in the Algerian War back in the mid-to-late 1950s of the novelist, essayist and playwright Albert Camus:

“This was how it happened in the Vietnam war: the day when China was neutralised, when the ‘wild’ Vietnam with its forces of liberation and revolt was replaced by a truly bureaucratic and military organization capable of ensuring the continuation of Order, the Vietnam war stopped immediately – but ten years were necessary for the political domestication to take place (whether it took place under communism or democracy is of no importance). Same thing with the Algerian war: its end, which was believed to be impossible, took place of its own accord, not by virtue of De Gaulle’s sagacity, but from the moment the maquis with their revolutionary potential were finally liquidated and an Algerian army and a bureaucracy, which had been set up in Tunisia without ever engaging in combat, were in a position to ensure the continuation of power and the exercise of order.” (Jean Baudrillard, “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”)

In 1957, Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. On December 11, 1957, the day after receiving and accepting the prize, Camus met with students at Stockholm University. Among the group was an Algerian student who confronted Camus with a set of tough critical questions about Algeria. After responding that he had always worked for “a just Algeria, where the two peoples should live in peace and equality,” Camus continued with this comment:

I have always condemned terror. I must also condemn a terrorism that is carried out blindly, in the streets of Algiers for example, and may one day strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.

By saying that he would choose his mother over justice, Camus was saying, in effect, and contra Sartre, that one can choose to not to be forced to choose between apparently mutually exclusive alternatives. Sartrean ethics seems to imply that one must choose either A or B. Camus’ position seems to be closer to that of a ‘deconstructionist psychoanalysis’. “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” Sometimes ‘I’ choose justice. Sometimes ‘I’ choose my mother. ‘I’ creatively navigate back and forth between the two. It depends upon the circumstances of the moment and ‘I’ seek a balance. Through the exercise of creativity – the human capacity that will make us most human, according to Camus – one ‘takes matters into one’s own hands’ and reclaims a genuine decision coming from oneself, saying simultaneously ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to both sides of what appears to be the enforced choice imposed on ‘me’ by ‘fate’ itself.

 

 

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