Thursday, February 23, 2006

Baudrillard's 'The Pyres of Autumn'

Jean Baudrillard has a very interesting and very short essay in the current edition of New Left Review - 'The Pyres of Autumn'. Generally speaking, I think that Baudrillard is a bit of a wanker. He's an ultra-poststructuralist notorious for breath-takingly stupid hyperbole and deeply unconvincing claims about the nature of 'postmodernity'. However, I must say that I quite like this little essay of his - it's almost sensible. His focus is the recent rioting in the French banlieues.

The essay starts with what I think is a really fantastic little paragraph. I keep reading it again and again because it's so good. See what you think:

Fifteen hundred cars had to burn in a single night and then, on a descending scale, nine hundred, five hundred, two hundred, for the daily ‘norm’ to be reached again, and people to realize that ninety cars on average are torched every night in this gentle France of ours. A sort of eternal flame, like that under the Arc de Triomphe, burning in honour of the Unknown Immigrant. Known now, after a lacerating process of revision—but still in trompe l’oeil.

Unfortunately I think it rather goes downhill from there. Still he makes some interesting claims. Baudrillard appears to argue that the social explosion came as a violent reaction against (impossible) 'integration' into 'a banalized, technized, upholstered way of life'. It was, it appears, a certain manifestation of a much wider current of social resentment and reaction against a kind of unsatisfying, technocratic integration/social normalisation driven from above and outside the control of ordinary people. Baudrillard also refers to the 'No' result of the European referendum - suggesting that this is a different manifestation of the same disatisfaction.

He also claims that French and, more widely, European identity is necessarily defined against non-integrated 'others' - both external and internal. That is, the European/Western liberal identity requires excluded non-Westerners outside its borders ("Africans storming the barbed wire at Melilla") and non-integrated immigrants within its borders in order to have some sense of its own existence. These non-integrated, different others are necessary Baudrillard suggests for the West's 'own survival and superiority.' 'The superiority of Western culture' B says 'is sustained only by the desire of the rest of the world to join it'. There is some kind of radical nothingness or absence at the core of liberal society, he seems to suggest, and in the absence of some radical other (and radical others many of whom seem desperate to join the West) the West would simply disappear or cease to be. To be honest, I'm not quite sure what Baudrillard means here - what is this radical absence?

'When there is the least sign of refusal, the slightest ebbing of that desire, the West loses its seductive appeal in its own eyes', Baudrillard continues. The 'pyres of Autumn' were of course a 'sign of refusal' and so have set in motion, or exacerbated, a serious loss of self-confidence in France and the West more widely.

B argues that the 'disaffiliated' - the necessarily non-integrated moved onto the offensive in the banlieues :

it is a short step from disaffiliation to desafío—defiance. All the excluded, the disaffiliated, whether from the banlieues, immigrants or ‘native-born’, at one point or another turn their disaffiliation into defiance and go onto the offensive. It is their only way to stop being humiliated, discarded or taken in hand.

Well, those couple of lines I can agree with (even if I'm slightly unclear about this constitutive absence at the centre of French/European identity). But then Baudrillard goes onto say something with which I disagree quite strongly:

In the wake of the November fires, mainstream political sociology spoke of integration, employment, security. I am not so sure that the rioters want to be reintegrated on these lines. Perhaps they consider the French way of life with the same condescension or indifference with which it views theirs. Perhaps they prefer to see cars burning than to dream of one day driving them.

It seems to me that the implication of this is that the inhabitants of the banlieues really are 'other' - Baudrillard advances something similar to the 'survival and superiority' ideology that he previously claimed was necessary for French/European self-identity. That is, he suggests that the disaffected of the banlieues do not want employment, or security and so are, in some way, barbarians who share little or nothing in common with 'integrated' Europeans. This has quite an unpleasant ring about it I think. I think, actually, the 'mainstream political sociology' Baudrillard criticises got it right. Why shouldn't the excluded and the marginalised want security, employment and a better standard of living?

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