#2 Notes on ‘the desertification of signs and men’
Banality is a theme Baudrillard returns to again and again in his writings and interviews. It is for him quite simply an inevitable product of modernity—everywhere modernity spreads, banality follows. “The desertifiation of signs and men” is a phrase that appears in one of Baudrillard’s most celebrated books, America; it pertains to this process of banalisation. The paragraph in question begins, “The natural deserts tell me what I need to know about the deserts of the sign.” If I recall the printed book correctly, the italicisation of ‘at’ is a scanning error.
The unceasing, viral-like spread of banality is intimately tied to ‘the end of transcendence’, another important Baudrillardian theme. Increasingly flattened out—metaphysically speaking—the world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries seemingly offers us no ladders up to other spiritual planes. No side doors either. Life now is, or at any rate appears to be, decidedly earth-bound, confined to the space-time of the quotidian.
However, it would be a mistake to assume Baudrillard views the entire modern era as one of only negative developments. In a later book he applauds the way modernity has “liberated us from the feudal and the religious”.
“Liberation from the religious” should, I think, be conceived as liberation from Christian piety and religious certainty—it is a freeing from that medieval conviction that life has a fixed and known meaning. But for Baudrillard modern science is equally mistaken in its certainty that there is no meaning to life or the universe, and that the spiritual dimension of existence is a delusion. Baudrillard’s vision is perhaps best understood as a mystic one. Yet this is a sceptical, Pyrrhonian mysticism, highly doubtful that the ultimate truth of the world can ever be known.
America, out of all his books, is the one with the most optimistic take on modernity, or at any rate the modernity to be found in the United States of the late twentieth century. As JB says, “America is the original version of modernity. We [ie Europe] are the dubbed or subtitled version.”
With the benefit of a certain vision, life in eighties America, in all its banality, can be seen to possess a peculiar poetry and mystery (a rich vein that vaporwave would mine over two decades later):
One of the odder things about America is that banalisation and entropy are not viewed, in this book, as exclusively or even mostly negative. Recall that that vision of ‘the desertification of signs and men’ is exalting.
It is as if Baudrillard has unexpectedly arrived at a serene acceptance, not only of the United States’ civilisational trajectory, but of the world’s. Here is a state of being not far from those we encounter in the writings of Eckhart and Lao Tzu, indeed in the works of many mystics throughout history. For Jean Baudrillard, though, it was not to last. For whatever reason, he returned to rage: “What you get to read in the papers today makes your blood boil” as he put it in one 2001 interview.
So what are we to make of this process of homogenisation and banalisation we are all still very much caught up in, a process which has clearly progressed much further since America hit book stores back in 1986? I think serene acceptance is beyond the capabilities of most of us, so we have to find other ways of surviving in an entropic culture that increasingly resembles a desert. Certainly it would help if we could arrive at a plausible theory of what is behind this remorseless spread of sameness and banality.
There are the usual suspects at which we can point the finger: liberalism, capitalism, science and technology. But these kinds of explanations are by now overfamiliar to the point of being, dare I say it, banal. There’s an idea Baudrillard puts forward in a later interview that strikes me as a lot more interesting: the notion of an uncertainty revolution having taken place in Western societies, an epistemological revolution which is now in the process of going global. This turn toward a generalised state of uncertainty in all fields was something that was lying in wait for us on the road of History.
The postmodern turn, which I date to the late 1950s and early 1960s, was not the beginning of this revolution, but rather the moment when its effects really began to make themselves felt across the whole culture. Deep epistemological uncertainty had been creeping up on us for some time—just consider the way Kant called into question the very possibility of objective knowledge.
But how is the uncertainty revolution tied to banalisation? I believe the link is found in the way all convictions, all deeply held beliefs, have been undermined, and a conviction is usually the spur, the motivator of a passion. The decline of the passions we have witnessed in the decades since the Second World War is, I presume, obvious to almost everyone—along with the homogenisation of life which has accompanied it.
In itself, then, the uncertainty revolution was and is neither good nor bad—it was simply inevitable. I would even say this revolution should have been a step forward for our civilisation, toward lucidity, toward an acceptance that certainty is forever unlikely in this world and that we should learn to live passionately even in uncertainty. But this has not happened—we don’t know how to cope with not knowing, and increasingly we instead neurotically insist on new certainties—I’m especially thinking of the dogmas of the current iteration of Left-wing ideology. But extreme neurosis shouldn’t be mistaken for passion, and there’s something deeply unconvincing about the ‘convictions’ of today’s Left. You get the sense it isn’t passion that drives these people, but desperation. Groupthink, conformism, safety in numbers—there’s nothing more banal, and little more abject, than unthinking herd behaviour like this. These ‘radical individualists’ believe what they believe because large numbers of others believe it, and because these beliefs are backed up by power—for these two reasons above all.
After America, Baudrillard often returns to this theme of banalisation. With his Stateside serenity having vanished, he frames the unstoppable advance of the desert of banality in increasingly bleak terms. He speaks often of loss—of the Westerner having ‘lost his alterity’, or sometimes ‘his shadow’ (a clear allusion to the Jungian concept of the Shadow). Without these spiritual aspects of his being, the Westerner falls into a state of being ‘identical to himself’. He becomes ‘the banalised individual’, or as we might dub him, the bugman.