Aristotle, meet Baudrillard

Virtual reality is on our horizon, and already video games are competing with face to face interaction as the dominant social venue for youth culture. Why are pictures of people more compelling than people in this market? The idea that our world is increasingly dominated by empty signs and simulations has been explored extensively in postmodern philosophy, particularly in the work of Baudrillard. Baudrillard is notoriously difficult to read, but someone at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy decided we ought to know something about the gist of his later work, and boiled one book down to this passage: “the society of production was passing over to simulation and seduction; the panoptic and repressive power theorized by Foucault was turning into a cynical and seductive power of the media and information society; … and revolution and emancipation had turned into their opposites, trapping individuals in an order of simulation and virtuality. .. within the transformations of organized and hi-tech capitalism, modes of Enlightenment become domination, culture becomes culture industry, democracy becomes a form of mass manipulation, and science and technology form a crucial part of an apparatus of social domination.”

Late capitalism is consumerism, the economics of compulsive spending and frivolous production for impulse buying and conspicuous spending. Consumerism posits money buys happiness, and if this is the thinking, spending displays are as significant as conspicuous consumption, because the idea is that money spent produces happiness, even though money is intended to have only token exchange value and does not magically add up to market conditions for acquiring happiness. The sign becomes the object, in the sense that the paper itself is believed to have the power to bestow happiness on its possessor, and acquiring money is as exciting as any Pavlovian precondition for a reward. This inspires industriousness in the pursuit of more money that far exceeds a successful individual’s appetite for discernibly more valuable goods. Hence the art in the vault, represented by a knockoff on the wall that can be replaced if stolen.

Is this really strange? You have to look back to find solid empiricism taken for granted. For empiricism free of caveat or equivocation, you need Aristotle:

“The most distinctive mark of substance appears to be that, while remaining numerically one and the same, it is capable of admitting contrary qualities.” From a postmodernist, this would be a preamble to showing that a word’s empirical referent can be two things at once. For Aristotle, it can only be one thing at a time. “The same statement, it is agreed, can be both true and false. For the statement ‘he is sitting’ is true, yet, when the person in question has risen, the same statement will be false.” For Aristotle, only the writing of the law is proactive, for this is how power is dispensed among the governed, and the truth about power changes with the letter of the law. Its interpretation he would expect to have empirical clarity that in our society is not the rule at all.

“Those things are called relative, which, being either said to be of something else or related to something else, are explained by reference to that other thing.” Aristotle gives examples of comparative words that denote relationships among the things described such as ‘superior’ or ‘double.’ But then he stakes his position deep in empiricism by giving examples of incomplete generalizations, such as ‘ruddered’ for a boat (a boat is not necessarily ruddered) or ‘winged’ for a bird (a winged animal is not necessarily a bird). These descriptions are not correct relationships for Aristotle. A word’s usage is only correct in relation to its empirical referent if it is exact. “All relatives, then, if properly defined, have a correlative. I add this condition because, if that to which they are related is stated as haphazard and not accurately, the two are not found to be interdependent.”

There you are Baudrillard. A world in which a sign that has taken on a life of its own is an aberration, and its endorsement is considered naïve. The reasoning is still available to us, if we allow that in this language there is no word for A, but in another language there are many particulars for A; should speakers of the two languages ever enter into conversation on A, the one would readily convince the other that a referent for A existed to be described, with the limitation that where conventional descriptions of A have novelty value their validity will be a subject for skepticism pending further enquiry.

Has experience of the real per se changed? Among video gamers, I assume investment in virtual reality on an emotional level erodes the importance of differences between pictures of people and people. But the availability of rewards in virtual reality exceeds their availability in the rest of the world, and reward seeking behavior is harnessed with empirical neuroscience in the marketing of products with an addictive potential.

I credit the simpler philosophy with the more enduring truth. Baudrillard understands contemporary culture, but Aristotle understood underlying reality, even if he never made the connection between tadpoles and frogs. The referent Aristotle had in mind is still there. Our level of self-assurance when we go about describing it is all that changed. And of the modest lady, it is often said she doth protest too much.

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Filed under Economics, False controversies, Postmodernism, Virtuosity

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