BOOK REVIEW: Simulacra & Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

Simulacra and SimulationSimulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 20-ish essays that share as a theme the idea that we live not so much in a world of events, information, and things, but in a world of simulacra in which those things represent or symbolize something (either the true version of that object or something else altogether.) After an opening that introduces the idea of simulacra and simulations, the chapters each look at an example of illusion and simulation in our world. The book’s strength is in suggesting outside-the-box, thought-provoking ideas. This is not to say that said ideas are all sound or unassailably true. A reasonable reader might conclude that much of the book consists of crackpot ideas. I tended to find that there was a kernel of truth in the points that Baudrillard was making, but that he often blew that kernel up into an absurdity.

To clarify, let’s discuss a couple examples of events that Baudrillard says that we don’t know, but instead we know a simulacrum of. These two examples are very different, and I believe one is a stronger argument for Baudrillard’s ideas than is the other. One is the Holocaust and the other is the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. In both cases, Baudrillard argues what we “know” is not the event itself, but a representation that has been created through fictionalized accounts and “common knowledge” with varying degrees of accuracy. In my view, his point was more clearly made regarding the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. What people think they know of the event is more representative of what happens in the movie “The China Syndrome” than what actually happened. Most people grossly overestimate the costs and consequences of the event because they have a fictional representation of it in place of a factual understanding.

Besides events, Baudrillard considers a number of other ways we might be considered to be living in a representational world. The hypermarket doesn’t perform the same function as markets historically did. It exists to provide some hyperreal experience that is as much entertainment as it is the acquisition of necessary goods and services. Baudrillard also talks about how the media and advertising provide a façade in place of the real because of disincentives to provide accurate information. Journalism benefits from sensationalizing. Advertising benefits from hyperbolizing.

Baudrillard also ventures into the realm of science fiction. One of the most intriguing discussions is about holographs and how one might know whether one was the item being projected or the projection itself. There’s one chapter on J.G. Ballard’s novel “Crash” as an example of one of the more bizarre ways in which modernity conflates disparate things. [For those unfamiliar, Ballard’s novel deals with characters who are sexually aroused by car crashes.] An essay on “Simulacra and Science Fiction” proposes that sci-fi maybe dead by virtue of the fact that science fiction builds simulated worlds and since we already are a simulated world, the genre is passé.

I mentioned that this book’s strength is swinging for the fences with bold ideas about how modern humanity has built itself into a simulated world. So, what is its weakness? That’s easy. Low readability. The author assumes the reader has knowledge that it’s not reasonable to assume even an educated reader will have. If you weren’t familiar with the aforementioned J.G. Ballard novel or with the Beaubourg building in Paris, you’d have no idea what Baudrillard was going on about. Also, while it’s true that some of the ideas presented in the book are complicated, the author (and, perhaps, the translator) often make even relatively straightforward ideas complicated. There is a love of rare words. Beyond those issues, there’s a stream of consciousness approach to writing that makes the author’s train of thought hard to follow.

If you are interested in philosophy, this book is worth reading if you don’t mind struggling with difficult writing (a form of masochism with which I’m afflicted.) There have probably been more readable distillations of these ideas that will offer a clearer view of what Baudrillard means by ideas such as hyperreality. (We know Baudrillard means “more real than real,” but one only has one’s own intuition to make sense of that in a way that transcends Justice Potter Stewart’s dissatisfying definition of pornography as “I know it when I see it.”) If you don’t enjoy struggling with abstruse writing (or if you don’t know the meaning of the word “abstruse” without looking it up) this book is probably not for you.

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POEM: Baudrillard’s World

What’s it take to turn a symbol into something which is something [rather than symbolic of something?]

Treasuries turn high-rag paper and indelible ink into slips for which people will give one a shirt or a bicycle.

-Paper and pot metal as symbol of value

Admen turn color and font into a dollar more per kilo of a chemically-identical product. [The dollar can be used for someone’s ill-advised gas station hot dog.]

-Brand as symbol of value

Countries are defended by the potential to use weapons — not by their actual use.

-WMD as symbol of defense

Social media presents a lot of talking and the illusion of listening.

-Screaming into a dark forest as symbol of communication

Stories and verse get turned into potent chemical reactions in the body.

-Vicarious living as symbol of living

The letters of this post are symbolic of philosophy, which — in turn — is symbolic of something meaningful, which — in turn –… which — in turn –… which — in turn–…

BOOK REVIEW: Baudrillard: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks

Introducing Baudrillard: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Baudrillard: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Jean Baudrillard was a French Postmodernist philosopher who passed away in 2007. To those who aren’t navel-gazers of the philosophical variety, he is best known – if he is known at all – for having influenced the conception of the game-changing sci-fi movie, “The Matrix.” While I haven’t yet read “Simulacra and Simulation” – the book said to have inspired the Wachowskis, it seems that the influence of Baudrillard on the film’s world is that he provided abstract ideas that the film takes in a more literal sense. If this book represents his ideas well, Baudrillard didn’t claim that we are in a computer simulation run by an AI [or by anyone / anything else, e.g. an alien overlord] (that would be more in line with ideas presented by Swedish Philosopher, Nick Bostrom.) Baudrillard’s claim is that we are increasingly building and gathering around us a world of things that are — at their most fundamental level – signs and symbols. However, it’s also true that there are some quotes and concepts that make there way into “The Matrix,” probably most famously, “the desert of the real.”

A film [and its source novel] that might be said to more directly reflect Baudrillard’s ideas is “Fight Club.” Which isn’t to say that Baudrillard deals with issues of lost masculinity [he is, to many in academia, infuriatingly contrarian on gender related issues — proposing seduction as the source of feminine power to balance the masculine.] Instead, the ideas that play into “Fight Club” are that human beings have become – first and foremost – consumers, and second that people are striving for hyperreality — an existence that is more real than real. These core ideas: 1.) human as consumer, more so than producer; 2.) the world as a simulation; and 3.) the pursuit of hyperreality are book’s bedrock.

Built on that bedrock is a flow of topics. There are considerations of what Baudrillard’s ideas mean for art and entertainment. What is art? Is high art and low art a meaningful distinction? Baudrillard’s ideas are contrasted with various schools of thought that were active at the same time such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. Of course, as a postmodernist, Baudrillard takes aim at the arrogance and absurdities of modernity, e.g. criticizing the prevailing notions about “primitivism.”

As the subtitle suggests, this book uses graphics. In the case of this book, they are mostly cartoon drawings, along with a few diagrams. Some of the cartoons repeat key text and definitions [like a text-box, but including whimsical cartoon images] and other depict debates between Baudrillard and his contemporaries.

I found this book was an informative outline of Baudrillard’s thinking. Baudrillard’s ideas are complicated, and thus conveying them clearly is a challenge, still I think that there were points at which the author could have favored clarity over scholarly precision in his discussions. If this were a philosophy text, that wouldn’t be valid criticism, but as this book is meant to be a basic introduction, I think it’s fair to say.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta

Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the WorldSand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book does a good job of showing that there are fundamental differences in philosophy, worldview, and perspective between indigenous / aboriginal peoples and the rest of the world. It’s fair to say that differences exist between any two different cultures, but the argument is that these are deeper and more profound. Said differences run from how one visualizes abstractions to how one views and interacts with nature to one’s go-to pronouns.

What the book does not do, not by any means, is honor its sub-titular promise to show how changing to aboriginal modes of thinking would save the world. It doesn’t even strongly demonstrate that the world needs saving. Instead, it relies heavily on the looming sentiment among many in the modern world (myself included) that the world is FUBAR [if needed, please look it up.] That sentiment is what draws people to the book in the first place. (And to others, e.g. Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” books, that argue for overturning modernity in favor indigenous ways.) While I, too, feel the imminent fall of modernity on a visceral level, I also recognize that this inevitable collapse is a combination of fact and fiction, and that its bases are as well. So, in some sense, Yunkaporta’s book is an exercise in preaching to the choir. Because of this, it only tweaks and clarifies the reader’s philosophy and mode of thinking (sometimes in clever and fascinating ways,) but it doesn’t vastly overturn a reader’s thinking. But even if it did completely change modes of thought and philosophies, those things don’t automatically change behavior. And saving the world (if the world needs saving) requires changes in behavior. Ultimately, one needs to know whether, how, and to what degree incentives change. (FYI – the importance of incentives is not lost on Yunkaporta, as he discusses them himself in another context.)

That said, there were many ideas that resonated with me, and in which I found deep truths. I’ll go straight to what may be the most controversial idea in the book and that is that modernity’s discomfort with – and desire to do away with — every form of [non-state sanctioned] violence has not been without cost. Yunkaporta is not justifying domestic violence (although the perception – justified or not – that such acts are out-of-control in aboriginal populations is likely an impetus for bringing up the subject.) What he seems to be arguing is that what seems like a disproportionate problem of violence in aboriginal populations derives from looking at what is happening in tribal communities through the lens of modernity, and the resultant tinge blows things out of proportion while missing part of the truth of the matter.

I’ll elaborate how I came to have a similar view through the study of martial arts. For example, when I’ve traveled to Thailand, I’ve always had mixed feelings about child Thai-boxing. On the one hand, I recognize a reason for concern about concussions in a brain that’s not fully developed. On the other hand, those children display a combination of emotional control, politeness, and self-confidence that seems in decay in much of the world. On a related note, I think that the lack of coming-of-age ritual might be failing the kids in the modern world because they skip a step that puts a bedrock of self-confidence under their feet. As a result, it’s not that they all end up milquetoast, some end up murderous because they can’t process challenging emotions effectively, they have a feeling of powerlessness gnawing at them, and they have no grasp of how to moderate their response under challenging conditions.

As far as ancillary matter is concerned, it’s mostly line-drawn diagrams that are used to show how aboriginal people depict various concepts under discussion.

I enjoyed the book and found many new ideas to consider. I’d recommend it for individuals interested in approaches to thinking and problem solving – and for those who want to learn more about indigenous populations. Just don’t think you’ll have a map to fix the world at the end.

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POEM: I Surrender

i’m free —

because i know not of what i need to be freed.

Is it a god?

Is it a program?

Is it meaninglessness?

Is it a make-believe conception of self?

Order?

Chaos?

Alien overlords?

 

i don’t know what game i’m playing,

and thus feel no compunction to play it well.

So, i surrender to the god of my own ignorance,

making mystery my higher power.

 

i searched the earth for a source of perfect truth, and found none.

No perfect scripture.

No perfect science.

No perfection in personal experience.

No perfect teacher.

 

But i’ve known bliss in the act of floundering through this dance of darkness,

and so,

i’ve got no complaints.

BOOK REVIEW: Conversations, Volume 3 Jorge Luis Borges [Int: Osvaldo Ferrari]

Conversations, Volume 3Conversations, Volume 3 by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book of interviews with Jorge Luis Borges has me jonesing to read a collection of his short fiction. I must admit that, despite Borges’ great stature as an author, I’ve only ever read one of his stories, and that was lost amid a huge anthology (also perhaps a poem or so under the same constraints.) However, I was intrigued by the possibility of gaining some insight into the Argentinian author credited as one of the founders of the magic realism genre in Latin America. I not only gained said insight, but I also developed an affinity for Borges as a thinker. These interviews not only discuss literature, but also philosophy, politics, language, and other topics as they interact with the literary world. The chapters, of which there are almost thirty, are topically organized and a few pages each.

The interviews are published as dialogues between Osvaldo Ferrari and Borges. That is to say, they are in transcript form so that one can experience the question and response as if you were witnessing the conversation. I found this worked well, and one could sense a camaraderie between the two men.

Let me answer a few questions about which readers might be interested. First, I came in late to the game, and one might wonder if there was any problem reading this, the third volume, first. It caused me no problems. Once in a while Ferrari would reference something the two discussed at an earlier point, but I didn’t feel any confusion (it was never necessary to have heard what they said earlier to interpret a reply.)

Second, given that the conversation is between two Argentinians, readers from other parts of the world might wonder if there is any difficulty following the discussions if one doesn’t know much about the art and social worlds of Argentina. Again, I would say the answer is no – for the most part. There are brief forays into Argentinian literature and politics, but the bulk of the discussion is cosmopolitan. I’d say there was considerably more page space devoted to Irishmen (e.g. Joyce and Yeats) and Americans (e.g. Emerson and Whitman) than there was to Argentinians.

Finally, if you’re wondering whether the book is highly focused on Borges’ work, the answer to that, too, is no. Borges discusses his own work enough, for example, that I now feel I know where I should begin my reading of him. However, he generally seems reticent to discuss his own work and the interviewer was responsive to that preference and picked his questions carefully.

If you’re interested in literature, I’d highly recommend this book. I found Borges penchant for minimalism and simplicity appealing, and yet he had deep insights to offer into a wide range of topics.

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POEM: The Philosopher [Day 16 NaPoMo: Narrative]

Said a man, standing on a crate,
“Thought and comfort are species that cannot mate.”

This philosopher continued:
“An idea unchallenged can’t claim merit. Sacred stories are paper tigers.

“Anything sanctified may lead to murder. For one person’s sacred object will bump into that of another, and it’s only by brute force that such conflicts are resolved. ”

The mayor was captivated by the philosopher’s words, and thought:
The youth are lumps, existing free…
-of challenge
-of thought
-of dignity
-of power

So the mayor invited the philosopher to his town.

The townsfolk were not pleased.

The philosopher’s first act was the erection of a sign that read,

Your god is the wrong God!

One resident said, “How can you make such a statement?”

“I’m not here to offer instruction about how language works, but — rather — about how  a thoughtfully lived life can be achieved.”

The first man kicked the philosopher in his left shin, and stormed off.

The second shouted, “But what gives you the right?”

“The right to what? To write a statement? To expose it to public scrutiny?”

“To make claims about which god is the true God.”

“I make no such claims.”

“But your sign says so.”

“Do you claim the sign is wrong, or that I have no right to make the comment — regardless whether it is true or false?”

“Well, mostly, the first one. The sign is not right,”

“Perhaps the sign IS untrue, and if proven so, I would certainly have to remove it. So tell me, is your counter-claim that your god is truly God?”

“It most certainly is,”

“Then tell me, how can I know that your claim is the correct one?”

“It is written in the scriptures.”

“So anything that is written in a religion’s scripture is true?”

“No. Not just any religion’s scriptures, just ours.” said, the man, thinking he’d anticipated the philosopher’s argument about how mutually exclusive statements can be true.

“And why just yours?”

“Because ours were written by the hand of God,”

“And how could a person such as myself be convinced of the truth of such a statement?”

“Because it is written…”

“So the scriptures of other religions don’t say they are the truth from God?”

“They may say it, but it’s not true.”

“So do you have more of an argument than that you believe something written centuries before your birth must be true and statements contrary to it must be false? If not, I must maintain that the statement on the sign has as much validity as your counterclaim. Both statements may or may not be true and with unassignable probabilities.”

And so the second man punched the philosopher in his right eye, and walked off in a huff.

A third man, a missionary, said, “That man was wrong,”

“I agree,” said the philosopher holding his palm over his eye, “violence is not a winning argument,”

“No,” said the third man, “not about punching you. He was wrong that what matters is the scriptures. I know my god is the God because I feel it’s true.”

“I had vertigo once. It felt like the room was spinning and like I would fall over, but neither was true. So, I can’t say that I put much faith in what I feel as arbiter of truth, but I definitely don’t have any feeling about the existence of your god — one way or the other. Are you saying he might be god to you — who feel this presence — and not to me, and to all those others, who don’t have such a feeling?”

“I’m not saying that…”

“Oh, good, because I was going to ask why you make so much effort to convert people to a subjective god?”

The third man kicked the philosopher in the right shin, shook his head, and walked off.

A fourth man approached and said, “Your sign is wrong because I have no god. I don’t believe in such hokum.”

The philosopher took out a marker and made some editorial changes. He wedged a large “V” in between the word “Your” and the word “god” and wrote “lack of” above it. He then crossed out the words “the” and “God.” The edited sign read:

Your lack of god is wrong!

“Surely, you aren’t going to attempt a proof for the existence of god after what you told your previous conversant?”

“I am not. You watched the previous discussions and should realize that I claim no more than that my statement holds as much validity as yours. Unless, that is, you are more successful at proving the non-existence of a god than the previous individuals did at proving its existence.”

“I cite Occam’s razor,” the fourth man said smugly, adding, “are you familiar with it?”

The philosopher said, “Indeed I am. But I wonder, why is it not called ‘Occam’s Law?’ Is it always the case that the simplest explanation is invariably true? Could we not find in the natural world instances in which the explanation for an observed phenomena was more complicated than an explanation we could theoretically imagine?”

“Not invariably, but a good rule…”

“So you base an absolute conclusion on a ‘good rule of thumb?’ Isn’t there potential for…”

The fourth man socked the philosopher in his left eye.

The philosopher, blinded with two swollen eyes and with a knob under each knee, sat by his sign, awaiting more takers.

The mayor came by and said, “I’m afraid this hasn’t worked out as I’d hoped. I’ve gotten so many complaints. Perhaps, it would be best if you move along.”

So, the philosopher grabbed his meager possessions, and limped one painful step at a time out of town.

***

Two weeks later, a colonizing army invaded.

The officers told the residents that they must convert.

The townsfolk all said that they would never convert.

The generalissimo said, “Convert or die. Those are your options.”

“That’s unfair,” said one man.

“What gives you the right?” said a woman.

The generalissimo then said, “OK. OK. If any of you can give me a sound reason why your religion cannot be supplanted by our own, I will reconsider…”

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Losing Control by Jules Evans

The Art of Losing Control: A Guide to Ecstatic ExperienceThe Art of Losing Control: A Guide to Ecstatic Experience by Jules Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a philosopher’s account of sampling from the various wells of ecstatic experience. It’s one of many works these days on what the ancient Greeks called ekstasis. There’s been major interest in investigating the topic in recent years. Historically, religion was the means by which people pursued ecstasy, but – increasingly — people who don’t care for the dogma and tribalism of religion are starting to crave its more blissful and ego-shedding aspects.

As a work of immersion journalism, the book is a mixed bag. Evans does seek some firsthand experience of most of the topics covered, but the extent of his immersion and his discussion of it varies greatly. For example, he goes into great detail in pursuing and discussing mystic Christianity, but isn’t so comprehensive in discussing neo-Tantrism (i.e. Western, or sex-centric, Tantra) and his discussion of psychedelics draws heavily upon decisions / experiences made as a teenager (which, it could be argued, is a little like commenting on the Eucharist based on that time you got drunk on Boone’s Farm and scarfed down a bag of Doritos. Though, to be fair, the author is clear and cognizant that his youthful dalliances weren’t necessarily equivalent to a conscientious pursuit of heightened consciousness, but are more a warning to heed Leary’s advice on “set and setting.”) At any rate, if you are expecting immersion journalism on the level of Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” you’ll find this book isn’t consistently on par (though it does have its moments.) That said, Evans does a fantastic job of researching the topic and presenting interesting perspectives on the subject, and he does so with humor and inquisitiveness. (I will say that in the latter chapters I sometimes found myself very intrigued by the discussion, but it would occur to me that I couldn’t see a direct link being made to the pursuit of ecstatic experience. Maybe it was just me, but if he strayed, he strayed interestingly – which is better than the alternative.)

The book consists of an introduction and ten chapters. The chapters cover such approaches to ecstasy as: religion (primarily Christianity is discussed, obviously focusing on sects and subsects that pursue [rather than shun] ecstatic experience), the arts, rock-n-roll (with an intriguing focus on its surprising resemblance to religion), psychedelic substances, meditation, neo-Tantrism, war and violence, communing with nature, and transhumanist efforts.

With the exception of Evans’ investigation into meditation, for which his experience involved Vipassana — a nominally Theravadin Buddhist system, Evans’ book focuses heavily on Western approaches. I actually enjoyed this because it seems like there is much more discussion of Eastern approaches and those rooted in them.

The book is annotated and has a section of photos in the back as well as a few other graphics where needed.

I enjoyed this book and learned lot from it. As immersion journalism it displayed a wide variance of depth and openness, but it was well-researched and the information was delivered in a light and readable manner.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a great little guide for a person considering the Stoic life. Stoicism was one of more well-known philosophies to come out of the ancient world, though it suffered a setback with changing philosophical trends and the rise of the great monotheistic religions. For those who know the term “stoic” as a small-s adjective, it’s worth noting that its definition (emotionless / impassive) is not the distinguishing trait of this school of philosophy. (Something similar can be said for Cynic v. cynic and Epicurean v. epicurean.) Still, there is a thin connection in that Stoics believed in not being controlled by emotion to one’s detriment, and not becoming emotional over things about which one has no control.

This book offers some historical background, showing how Stoicism evolved as it moved from Greece to Rome (and later how it might continue to evolve to appeal to — and work for — a modern following.) It also gives one some idea of the subtle differences of perspective among the Stoics. Usually when one bones up on Stoicism, one does so through the writings of a particular philosopher, be it Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca, and so it’s interesting to see how these men with varied backgrounds lived and taught Stoicism.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part discusses what a life philosophy is, it gives Stoicism a context within other ancient philosophies, and it compares and contrasts Greek and Roman Stoicism. The second part describes the techniques that Stoics used to achieve their worldview and approach to living. These techniques include negative visualization (mentally rehearsing worst-case scenarios in a way that one becomes desensitized to them), classifying events by whether one can do anything about them or not and adopting a fatalistic acceptance of what one cannot influence, self-denial (i.e. avoiding excessive pursuit of comfort or pleasure), and meditation (being aware of one’s behavior so one can learn to implement Stoic approaches to living.)

Part three describes the advice of Stoics on a range of issues that are confronted in life. These include: duty, social relationships, insults, grief, anger, desire for fame, desire for luxury, exile, old age, dying, and becoming a Stoic. You may note, most of these are as valid today as they were in the day of the great Stoics, if not more so, and even “exile” has modern day analogies.

Part four discusses Stoicism for modern living. Among the issues covered include how a secular humanist might justify the practice of Stoicism. (The historical justifications were couched in theistic assumptions about the world.) It also delves into nuts and bolts considerations for the would-be Stoic. (Specifically, Irvine suggests practicing something he calls “stealth Stoicism,” which involves living in accord with the tenets of the philosophy while avoiding drawing attention to it from friends and family who might think you’ve become a lunatic who will soon be showing up to the 4th of July BBQ in a toga.)

Besides annotations and a works cited section, the back matter also includes a Stoic reading program as an Appendix.

I found this book to be interesting and informative. I’ve read works by Stoics, but it was nice to learn about Stoicism through a broader, overhead lens. If you’re interested in a philosophy of life, in general, or Stoicism in particular, this is a good book to read.

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