Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Frank Rich, Defender of Representation?

October 25, 2009

Frank Rich is certainly my favorite of the NYTimes columnists. His columns often revolve around the notion that the media, in a functioning democracy, should serve the public interest by informing the electorate and hence providing some structural oversight to curb the excesses of the rich and powerful. For Rich, this doesn’t occur in America because media organizations are dominated by private capital and hence dwell upon spectacle for the sake of profit, a la the film Network. I’m pretty sympathetic to this idea, which was elucidated once again in Rich’s column this morning.

But as much as Rich expressed his standard Left-y stance on media in today’s column, as befits the genre of muckraking, he also incorporated glimmers of Baudrillard’s hyperreality.

Check this out:

“Richard Heene [fame-seeking father of the “balloon boy”] is the inevitable product of this reigning culture, where “news,” “reality” television and reality itself are hopelessly scrambled and the warp-speed imperatives of cable-Internet competition allow no time for fact checking…”

And this:

“He knew how easy it would be to float “balloon boy” when the demarcation between truth and fiction has been obliterated.”


“If Heene’s balloon was empty, so were the toxic financial instruments, inflated by the thin air of unsupported debt, that cratered the economy he inhabits.”

Rather than simply making fun of Fox News, I think the subject of Rich’s polemic is more fundamental. Rich is assuming a kind of existential stance that’s only tangentially related to this bubble boy thing — he’s taking the position that representations of “reality” should trump simulations of false reality. Just as nobody attempts to prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, nobody would take this obvious position unless it was somehow being called into question, i.e. unless the boundaries between truth and fiction were being blurred in some way. Now, Baudrillard gives me and everybody else a headache, but I couldn’t help thinking about him this time.

If you like, you could substitute “Truth” or even “Democracy” for “God” in this excerpt from “Simulacra and Simulations”:

“All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange: God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.

So it is with simulation, insofar as it is opposed to representation. Representation starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent (even if this equivalence is Utopian, it is a fundamental ax~om). Conversely, simulation starts from the Utopia of this principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference. Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum.”

I don’t really know anything about Baudrillard, but he seems to dwell in this location within media studies where the set of meanings that constitute “reality” is irrelevant because (thanks to world-creating crazy new media) meaning becomes impossible — the signifier never quite resolves itself to the signified. This uncomfortable place is starting to look familiar for Frank Rich, or so it would seem.

Fight Climate Change with Epistemology

September 22, 2009

I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty!

– random sample from that 90’s-tastic Trent Reznor/David Bowie album

President Obama spoke to the UN Climate change summit in NYC today (text available here). He said:

“We know what needs to be done. We know that our planet’s future depends on a global commitment to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution. We know that if we put the right rules and incentives in place, we will unleash the creative power of our best scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to build a better world.”

Wow, we know everything! It is pretty uncanny that “We” happen to have all this ultimate knowledge sitting around…though I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising since “We” (God/the State/the patriarchy) always seem to come up with all the neat and correct answers right when you need them.

Unfortunately, climate change is an extremely complicated non-linear animal — for example, the possible carbon feedback loops (like melting tundra releasing previously trapped carbon into the atmosphere) are pretty much unpredictable at this point. David W. Orr from Yale writes: “Given the roughly 30-year lag between what comes out of our tail pipes and smokestacks, the climate change-driven weather effects we now see are being caused by emissions that occurred in the late 1970s. What is in store 30 years ahead when the forcing effects of our present 387 parts per million of CO2 are manifest? Or further out when, say, the warming and acidifying effects of 450 parts per million of CO2 — or higher — on the oceans have significantly diminished their capacities to absorb carbon? No one knows for certain, but trends in predictive climate science suggest that they will be much worse than once thought.”

So there’s a real element of uncertainty here. (Usually when people say stuff like this, they are trying to suggest that anthropogenic climate change doesn’t exist — I’m going to defer to many years of empirical evidence and broad scientific consensus on the matter and suggest that it does.) In calling attention to this uncertainty, I’m trying to play the old post-modernist game of subverting modernist narratives of progress. I admit I’m a little rusty at it.

When “we” claim to know everything and thus claim the ability to dictate the solution to climate change (hey, just like those one-shot solutions to poverty, famine, water shortage, etc. How are those working out?) you can be sure that said solution is going to be lucrative for all the right people and pretty securely fastened to already problematic patterns of “development.”

Should we cease to care about climate change? No. But we could learn something from Adam D. Sacks who decries “our failure to understand that greenhouse gases are not a cause but a symptom, and addressing the symptom will do little but leave us with a devil’s sack full of many other symptoms, possibly somewhat less rapidly lethal but lethal nonetheless.” Which is to say, building new technology and making grandiose pronouncements about cutting greenhouse emissions is not good enough — we have to address the whys and wherefores of how our civilization got into this mess in the first place.

Sacks goes on: “Living sustainably means, in Derrick Jensen’s elegantly simple definition, that whatever we do, we can do it indefinitely. We cannot use up anything more or faster than nature provides, we don’t poison the air, water, or soil, and we respect the web of life of which we are an intricate part. We are not separate from nature, or above it, or in any way qualified to supervise it. The evidence is ample and overwhelming; all we have to do is be brave enough to look.”

But why bother looking when we already know everything?