June 24, 2014

Baudrillard on the futility of information

There’s a passage from the first part of Jean Baudrillard’s In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities that always resonated with my more pessimistic moments of doing library instruction. There is a faith involved in pursuing information literacy, a passionate belief in the empowerment of people, especially students, though teaching them to find, filter, and use information. For Baudrillard, there was a God behind that faith, and he is dead. I always read Baudrillard with a healthy dose of skepticism, because he took things to such extremes and wrote as if history had reached its endpoint. With all we are hearing now about rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and mass extinction, his words are seeming more relevant. For an idea about why the public largely ignores these issues, consider this passage:

The Abyss of Meaning

… Whatever its political, pedagogical, cultural content, the plan is always to get some meaning across, to keep the masses within reason; an imperative to produce meaning that takes the form of the constantly repeated imperative to moralise information: to better inform, to better socialise, to raise the cultural level of the masses, etc. Nonsense: the masses scandalously resist the imperative of rational communication. They are given meaning: they want spectacle. No effort has been able to convert them to the seriousness of the content, nor even to the seriousness of the code. Messages are given to them, they only want some sign, they idolise the play of signs and stereotypes, they idolise any content so long as it resolves itself into a spectacular sequence. What they reject is the “dialectic” of meaning. Nor is anything served by alleging that they are mystified. This is always a hypocritical hypothesis which protects the intellectual complaisance of the producers of meaning: the masses spontaneously aspire to the natural light of reason. This in order to evade the reverse hypothesis, namely that it is in complete “freedom” that the masses oppose their refusal of meaning and their will to spectacle to the ultimatum of meaning. They distrust, as with death, this transparency and this political will.They scent the simplifying terror which is behind the ideal hegemony of meaning, and they react in their own way, by reducing all articulate discourse to a single irrational and baseless dimension, where signs lose their meaning and peter out in fascination: the spectacular.

Baudrillard could have been talking about Facebook, but that was published in 1983, in a small book from Semiotext(e), In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, pp. 9-11. The book is a pessimistic response to the likes of Habermas – or at least it seems pessimistic to someone who believes in Habermas. I’m not sure Baudrillard would have called himself a pessimist; he rather would have said he had made an adjustment to a new state of affairs.

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3 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this Rory, this excerpt reminds me of Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. I sometimes despair about how bad things will truly have to get before people care enough to stand up. The anti vacccine people are an example of where individuals who are fairly well educated and who are passionate are simply not reasonable about their beliefs. Same with climate change deniers who seem to buy corporate/government arguments in the face of overwhelming evidence. It is hard not to become cynical about whether people will always choose the easy path.

    Comment by Laura Koltutsky — June 24, 2014 @ 11:53 am

  2. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure Baudrillard identifies as a pessimist. He admits as much in this Q & A from 2002.

    Comment by Eric Phetteplace — July 3, 2014 @ 1:08 am

  3. Thanks, interesting.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — July 3, 2014 @ 8:12 am

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