” The Gift of Death: An Imaginary Dialogue with Jean Baudrillard during COVID 19 times” by Muzaffar Karim
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Series’s Editor’s Note:
As we are gradually entering into the phase of unlockdowns, it seems that the effect of COVID 19 has come to stay. Although we are going back to our usual routines but now it is full of cautions and social-distancing. It is being argued that soon the pre-pandemic world will become the part of nostalgia and we could refer to the earlier experiences of social life only in terms of nostalgic memories. Hence the enriching personal encounters with others will come to us only as the fade, bygone memories. The greatest danger therefore is of forgetfulness and becoming used to the ‘new normal.’ Hence it is extremely important in this time to rely on the faculty of imagination which dissolves the constraints of space and time and creates the possibility of what Heidegger calls as ‘being-with.’
With the starting of the first lockdown in India, we have tried to foster the relationship of ‘being-with’ with the poets, philosophers and thinkers through the imaginary conversations. Ever since the commencement of the series, our colleagues in NIAS-CSP have been regularly contributing their thoughtful pieces every week. It is heartening to note that many of our peers outside NIAS have been appreciating this endeavour and also shown interest in contributing to this series. In this series we are now inviting some of our peers from the academic community to write for this column. Today I present the conversation imagined and written by Dr Muzaffar Karim on the famous French Philosopher, Jean Baudrillard
– Dr. Saurabh Todariya
It is the second Covid-19 lockdown to maintain the social distancing and everyone is confined to the limits of his/her room or home including Sameer. But, Sameer is not bored and he thanks the limitless technology, internet and social media that never really makes you feel confined to your room. Sameer gets news updates, official government announcements, entertainment right on his TV as well as mobile screen. He’s actually enjoying the time where he can remain updated and also be a responsible citizen by staying home. Right now Sameer is engrossed in a live TV debate where the panellists are discussing the communitarian issues arising because of the ongoing pandemic. It is a heated debate and open to a live voting where audience can vote through a social media hashtag. Sameer’s emotions are high and as the debate reaches a crescendo Sameer hushes everyone in the family to remain silent. The debate ends with a bang of special effect that lit up the screen on fire. Sameer is feeling euphoric because the panellists that he was favouring won the argument. He goes back to his room, gazes out of the window that overlooks a small green hill which is usually crowded with people but is silent because of the ongoing lockdown. He has a strong urge to walk up that hill and look down the valley from the vantage point. His phone beeps with a notification from a social networking site. He browses that cyberspace and forgets the hill. He twists and turns in his bed while gazing upon the black screen of the phone. He is trying to write his opinion about today’s news debate but to his wonder he has no clarity about the issue. He feels that he should watch other news debates pertaining to the issue to gain some clarity. He browses on and on getting seeped into the online discussions and forums, social media arguments till his TV announces next day’s debate: Coronavirus and the Rising Death Rate. Sameer suddenly remembers the dying video that was self-recorded by a Covid-19 patient sending chills down his spine. He switches off the TV and closes his phone.
The question is, will Sameer be able to get the clarity that he is seeking? Will this limitless and infinite ocean of information and data be of any help to him? Why he was afraid? Was he afraid of the death or the dead? The best person to ask these question is Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard is the (in)famous French philosopher considered notorious for a series of essays entitled The Gulf War Didn’t Take Place during the events of Gulf war. At the same time he was celebrated in Wachowskis famous 1999 sci-fi movie The Matrix wherein the cover of his renowned book Simulacra and Simulation is displayed in an important scene. Baudrillard attained his notorious title once again after the 9/11 attacks due to his unconventional ideas on terrorism. Apart from all this hype, Baudrillard is an important philosopher for whom the problems of the millennium are as serious as the problems of the industry were for Karl Marx.
Baudrillard welcomes with a smile inside his room decorated here and there with photographs captured by him. He offers me a chair and sits beside his table that is decorated with an old electric typewriter. For a thinker who has dealt with the ideas of reality, television, internet, reality tv, codes, genetics, internet – the room seems empty to me. He lights a cigarette as I prepare myself to start a conversation.
Me: The world is continually changing and although we are confined to our rooms like Sameer the digital life goes on. Why are the questions concerning the millennium and the millennials very important?
Baudrillard: Today transforming the world is not enough. It will happen no matter what. What we urgently need today is to interpret this transformation – so that the world does not do it without us, and ends up being a world without us.
Me: That’s an important observation keeping Marx in mind. So, how do you see Sameer’s situation.
Baudrillard: Well, he as well as most of us belong to the world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning. It’s a world devoid of meaning.
Me: The digital world is ‘information world’ and if anything it adds to our perspectives. How can you justify the loss of meaning?
Baudrillard (puts out his cigarette): Let me explain. See, the access to information via TV, let’s not even talk about mobile phone, in Sameer’s life is different from the way it was accessed by his father.
Me: How do you mean. His father watched the news back then as his son is doing today.
Baudrillard: Yes, but something important has happened. In the old days of his father, the normal TV viewing maintained a distance between the viewer and the view, the beholder and the scene while as far as Sameer is concerned he is watching a reality TV show than a news broadcast.
Me: Okay, do you mean how the news is live rather than a recorded broadcast?
Baudrillard: Not only that, he is also engaging in the live voting which gets reflected on the screen while the moderator takes cue from that voting and in turn shapes his debate.
Me: So, Sameer is actually watching himself in a cryptic way.
Baudrillard: Yes, you can say that or we can infer from it that Sameer or the whole audience becomes an integral part of this Reality TV. In fact, you no longer watch TV, it is TV that watches you.
Me: This is amazing way of seeing things. But, it doesn’t actually answer the question of loss of meaning.
Baudrillard: It does in a way but if you are not bored we can take the argument further.
Baudrillard: The loss here is not because of an absence but because of an excess of it like the excess of sex in pornography or the music in quadrophonic sound system where you hear Bach or Mozart in hyper dimensions. The music in quadrophonic is like sex in pornography – too much visible, too much real, and this excess is its termination, its end.
Baudrillard: Sameer and all of us are in a pornography of information and communication. As soon as an event happens it is immediately televised, given and realised. We are bombarded with live feeds, live tickers, social media commentaries, opinions, views so much so that the event disappears in the midst of all this and we lose the critical distance.
Me: So, that’s why Sameer had no clarity and most probably will never attain it unless and until that critical distance is achieved. Isn’t this somehow related to what you call hyperreal, simulacra and simulation?
Baudrillard: Yes! Although, people often miss the point I was trying to make. For examples, just like now, I definitely refer to television or mediated images but it doesn’t stop there only.
Baudrillard: Meaning, if Sameer has switched off his television and thrown away the phone, has the simulation stopped.
Baudrillard: No! It’s a part of our reality, in fact it’s everywhere, and it’s our integral reality now.
Me: What do you mean, the water that is contained inside this bottle of mine, is nothing but a simulation?
Baudrillard: Yes and no! No, because if I pour it over my head I will definitely be soaked in water. Yes, because the water is ‘processed’ with added and subtracted materials which means the structural logic of the production of this water is based on a ‘health model’ that was produced prior to the production of this water. That is where simulation, hyperreality comes.
Me: Oh! That’s why you define it as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.”
Baudrillard (smiles): Yes.
Me: By that logic the processed food or genetically modified food and crops all come under it.
Baudrillard: You should sometimes search how fruits and vegetables looked like 60-70 years ago. That might surprise you.
Baudrillard: Yes! . . . Now that you are beginning to get it, let me tell you, Sameer and our problem is the problem of the ‘order of production’, the economic logic we are in now.
Me: What do you mean by that?
Baudrillard: Remember what our friend immediately wanted to do right after watching the news?
Me: Yes, he wanted to post his ideas on his social media account.
Baudrillard: The question is why. Why Sameer wanted to post is because under the ‘logic of production’ everything is to be produced, everything is to be legible, everything is to become real, visible, accountable; everything is to be transcribed in relations of force, systems of concepts or measurable energy ; everything is to be said, accumulated, indexed and recorded . This is sex as it exists in pornography, but more generally, this is the enterprise of our entire culture, whose natural condition is obscene: a culture of monstration, of demonstration, of productive monstrosity.
Me: Even the death was recorded and produced by that person and there were also consumers of it.
Me: Okay! But death scares us all. That should not be a problem and it was the only thing that temporarily made Sameer switch off . . .
Baudrillard: We’re all afraid of death more so because of the rationality of our modern society – a rationality based on the exclusion and division of death from life.
Me: Are they not?
Baudrillard: In ancient societies, death was a social relation and was considered as an exchange between the ancestors and the living. The dead had a role to play within the society that is why they were buried within the vicinities of houses and villages. The religious places had graveyards adjacent to them.
Baudrillard: With the advent of the modern societies, the dead were thrown out of the group’s circulation – suddenly they’re no longer beings with a full role to play, they are not worthy partners in exchange. So, the dead were thrown away from the living, away from the cities – towards the peripheries.
Me: Yes. In fact, our metropolis has no plan for them.
Baudrillard: It is not about the management of space only. The division of life and death is very useful to the present economy, politics and religion.
Baudrillard: Immortality is the keyword here. Immortality has always been used as an emblem of power from Egyptian pharaohs with their affluent burials to the organized religion with its priests granting and labelling people, and securing their afterlife or by the companies selling you insurance or anti-aging creams. The power over your mortal body is ensured through a division of life and death.
Me: Do you mean to say that we should not fear death when so many people are dying?
Baudrillard: You should take necessary precautions but death should not be seen as absolute termination. It is what makes us human and you have to bring it back, like our ancestors, into symbolic exchange.
Me: Symbolic exchange as in the Gift exchange?
Baudrillard: Yes, because a gift is always meant to be returned. It’s an exchange that is based on reversibility and doesn’t produce any surplus. Gifts are obligatory and are a form of empowerment through debt. The counter-gift cancels any power, any accumulation.
Me: Is symbolic exchange then an answer to modern economic exchange. If yes, how can we bring it in our life?
Baudrillard lit up a cigarette and smiled. I smiled back and he left without saying a word, probably for a walk. I sat their alone thinking about the smiles we exchanged and remembered my family, my friends – and all their smiles.
(Dr Muzzfar Karim is from Kashmir and did his PhD from JNU. A Poet and fiction- writer, he is currently working as a faculty in the University of Kashmir, South Campus. He could be reached at http://muzaffar-askesis.blogspot.com/ )
(Dr Saurabh Todariya is PhD in Philosophy from JNU and is currently exploring the intersections between Phenomenology and Kashmiri Shaivism in NIAS-CSP)
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Disclaimer: The opinions endorsed by the speaker is solely the author’s and not in any way endorsed by the Institute/Programme.