The Ghost in the Machine

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In 1991, Jean Baudrillard was joined by radical economist Marc Guillaume for series of seminars dedicated to the topic of “the Other.” Like many of their cohorts emerging from the continental tradition, particularly those associate with Italy’s Autonomia, they foresaw an unfolding stage where post-Fordism capitalism was eliminating any sensation of Otherness, an evaporation that only left faint whispers in the digital wind. And with alterity vanishing before our eyes, what are we left with? Stasis, a world where the sensation of experience and encounter is neutered, no longer an event but a happenstance – and without the occurrence of events, how can we properly articulate an idea of the social, let alone any breakaways from the dominant order? Guillaume likens the self and its daily travels in this non-space, generated by the mass distribution of information-communication technology, to taking on the characteristics of a ghostly figure:

The fragment or symptom under investigation here is the proliferation of new forms of expression and communication that are made possible by technological devices and their industrial production and, most importantly, by a change in social sensibilities. The change in social sensibilities reflects the end of traditional communities, the weakening of intermediate institutions of socialization, the risks of anomie and solitude caused by socio-technological potentialities that include the multiplication of urban connection networks and all of the “variable geometry” communication arrangements. In this sense, May ’68 seems to be the last gasp of a bygone regime of sociality. It did not start a revolution; it ended one. People going out into the streets, joining nascent groups: the idea of an ephemeral but festive community was easily disarmed later by the media. Today, we are truly in a world of multiple networks giving rise to a new form of sociality that has nothing to do with the unrest of groups in fusion. This sociality can no longer be represented by traditional media and therefore cannot be disarmed or denounced by it as some elements of the traditional community once were. It is a form of communication that causes us to break with the nostalgia of the community, with the traditional dialectic of the individual and the community. I call this new mode of being and exchanging spectral.1

When Guillaume speaks of becoming spectral, he looks to a scrambling of overcodes, something that makes identity – a social construct, especially under the eyes of technosurveillance and corporate modeling – either mutated or anonymous. The black blocs, with their uniform masks, or the alter-globalization activist with their abstract disguises, are manifestations of the spectral. Even more so is Anonymous, a dispersed digital war machine that knows no unification, only perpetual revolt. “Mask games and shadowy transgressions”; I’m reminded by these words of Mark Fisher’s updates on Derrida’s ‘hauntology’ as something that can be wielded against postmodern stagnation. I’m also reminded of a line from an article on Tricky, the early trip-hop musician from Bristol: “Technology (from psychoanalysis to surveillance) has made us all ghosts.”2

If technology could make us “ghosts,” then the physical forms that control must operate itself upon are capable of vanishing, an exodus conducted on the lines of micropolitics. Guillaume too sees this, going as far to contrast becoming-spectral with the work done on communication and control conducted by Gregory Bateson and the Palo Alto group:

Like a city, the networks of communication offers a multiplicity of connections, the possibility to plug in or unplug. In this space fr mediatized communication, spectral communication occurs when the agents of communication can, more or less partially and more or less provisionally, do without the procedures for control and identification required. They can escape, for example, from the identity defined or definable in traditional communication by names, prior recognition or physical presence. Ordinary communications are tightly controlled, channeled by their context and more generally by phenomena of metacommunication. All of these phenomena were catalogued and analyzed by the Palo Alto School with exemplary determination from Bateson to Watzlawik. They spent their time watching how hands moved, how legs crossed, how cigarettes were lit, how affects were circulated

In spectral communication, a portion of these meta-communicational phenomena are eliminated, set aside or suspended. Without any controlling authority or procedures for identification, this communication is private and disconnected from the cultural sedimentation of established conventions. As, the work of the Palo Alto School hardly seems pertinent to these spectral situations. It only applies to ordinary communication.3

1Jean Baudrillard and Marc Guillaume Radical Alterity Semiotext(e), 2008 pgs. 27-28

2“Tricky: Black Secret Tricknology” Wire October 11th, 2011

3Baudrillard, Guillaume Radical Alterity pgs. 30-31

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5 Responses to The Ghost in the Machine

  1. noir-realism says:

    Yea, I’ve always felt people give Baudrillard short shrift… I began reading him 30 years ago along with J.G. Ballard… the two seem at time to weave inexplicable bonds with each others thought, a sort of spectral infiltration. Baudrillard was trying to break free of the linguistic traps. In most ways he succeeded. His pessimism is not the negative type that deadens, but the positive type of nihilistic light that frees us from our ideological sleep. Too many have need of his insights, but have listened to paltry advice from lesser voices. Good to see you invoke his worlds and others like him…

    • edmundberger says:

      I agree, I’ve never quite figured out why there was so much dismissal and outright vitriol tossed at Baudrillard… he was certainly nihilistic, but as you say, it was a sort of positive nihilism. I always found bits of hope and even joy in his works, buried deep under the rubble (or is it a simulation of rubble? Impossible to tell anymore…). The way he twists concepts in ways that don’t make any sense, the relentless dualing deconstruction of logic and good taste, the sweeping generalizations and hyperboles; Baudrillard is first and foremost, I think, an affective and aesthetic experience – hence Sylvere Lotringer’s insistence that, for all their divergences, Baudrillard was one of the truest practitioners of Deleuzoguattarian nomadic thought. On a flip side, Bifo and others from the Autonomia spent much time trying to conjoin Baudrillard with Deleuze and Guattari and use the offspring from these encounters in concrete revolutionary practices.

      BTW, have you ever read Baudrillard’s essay on Ballard and Crash?

      • noir-realism says:

        Yea, good one! I read it a while back but nice to see it on the net. Reading your works is like vignettes or small microhistories of our era. great stuff…

  2. edmundberger says:

    “Microhistories” – I hadn’t thought about that term, but its exactly what I’m attempting to do… I’ve been interested in building a cartography of the intersections between the micropolitical and the macropolitical, particularly in relation to the production of subjectivity(s). My feelings is that we can discern certains lines of flight from this approach, by making collisions of critical history and critical thought that can spin in their own right but resonate strongly when placed into proximity of other conjunctions – a genealogy, but not one in the linear Foucauldian sense, but one that operates more akin to rhizomes… I’m glad you enjoy it!

  3. S.C. Hickman says:

    As I was rereading this one again, and after having spent some time rereading Baudrillard’s works I can see what is meant by “eliminating any sensation of Otherness, an evaporation that only left faint whispers in the digital wind”… Baudrillard’s move from mimeses, representational image, simulated image, to integral image (or the fusion of conscious/image with no distance between: the Parmedian mind/thing at-one-ness etc.). It was this last notion of the integral image that in his later work takes over from his middle-period works on simulation. He was seeing a form in art – and this is why his hatred of the arts in his moment… that art had finally merged with its representations to the point that it could not longer as in the Modernists parody objects by presenting them as they are in themselves. No. This had been done. And to do it again was not art, not even the parody of art. But rather the truth of life itself, that life itself had become parody rather than art. So that many who saw in his late works a sense of cynicism misread his work which was itself a further critique of life through its very implosion as an artifact, an artificial construct that could no longer be critiqued in the traditional way as we’ve come to know that since Kant.

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