This was a major shift in political theory. Actually and contrary to all appearances, it wasn’t unlike what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari advocated in Anti-Oedipus [Capitalism and Schizophrenia], or Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punishment, in the wake of May ’68.
Marxist rhetoric in politics had bottomed out. The student rebellion had proved at least one thing: the French Communist Party, trade-unions and the working class—the entire institutional left—had ceased to be revolutionary.
No wonder French post-’68 thinkers, Baudrillard included, looked somewhere else for revolutionary alternatives. Failing to enlist their allies, they resolved to sleep with the enemy.
All of the ‘children of May,’ revolutionaries bereft of a revolution, turned to capitalism, eager to extract its subversive energy they no longer found in traditional class struggles. Updating the theory of power and the fluctuations of subjectivity to the erratic shifts of the semiotic code, they assumed that they could redirect its flows and release in their wake new “deterritorialized” figures—psychotic creativity, desire, nomadism, becoming revolutionary—in spite of the abrupt “reterritorializations” that the system was bound to impose in order to insure its own survival. (Deterritorializations result from the absolute decodification of capital.)
Baudrillard didn’t disagree with them on the nature of the beast, only on the extent of the damage. Contrary to them, he maintained that their willful distinctions between various “regimes of madness,” or between thresholds and gradients of intensity (necessary to identify the direction and consistency of the flows) could not hold anymore. Libidinal distinctions would prove powerless to stem the flow. He saw them as doomed attempts to reintroduce a modicum of human agency in a process that had become both irreversible (linear, cumulative) and inhuman. Energetic and intense, capital was gradually gnawing away at every singularity. Simulating its fluidity, they had been engulfed by it. Revolution had come and gone; they arrived too late, one day after the orgy, like Kafka’s Messiah. Boldly going beyond Marx, they had simply lost their moorings. “Theoretical production, like material production, “ Baudrillard wrote, “loses its determinacy and begins to turn around itself, slipping en abyme toward a reality that cannot be found. This is where we are today: indeterminacy, the era of floating theories, as much as floating money…” (Symbolic Exchange, p.44). All the efforts to enlist capitalism on their side were bound to fail. The only way out of the morass was a radical leap of faith, a flight into the unknown. Only an absolute deterritorialization of theory itself could meet the absolute challenge of capital.
This is what Baudrillard meant by a total revolution: a strategy geared to escalate the system and push it to its breaking point. Then, giving up on every pretence of rationality, it would start revolving and achieve in the process a circularity of its own:” We know the potential of tautology when it reinforces the system’s claim to perfect sphericity (Ubu Roi’s belly)” (SE, p.4). Coming back full circle to his early pataphysical roots, Baudrillard was taunting capital to emulate Jarry’s absurdism—and share in Ubu’s grotesque fate. After all, wasn’t capitalism itself a pataphysical proposition? It was endlessly cutting the branch on which it sits, devastating the planet and endangering the human species while claiming to improve its lot. Capital didn’t care a fig for the fate of humanity. The real wasn’t its business. It had cancelled the principle of reality and substituted a codification of a higher order, a hyper-reality that made the real obsolete. Its dirge-like flows were self-referential, leaving everything else in a state of self-induced simulation. The flows of capital were posthumous, post-human. In their nihilistic energy, they carried the seeds of their own destruction. Only Ubu, Jarry’s truculent hero, the coward king cannibalizing his own entourage, and himself in the process, could account for such a bullish cynicism. The society of the spectacle was turning into a soft version of the theater of cruelty, a burlesque of death with the globe as its stage. Life was being exchanged for nothing, for a handful of glittering toys, work absorbed time like a sponge and left no traces. Baudrillard wasn’t the exterminator, but the system itself. Yet no one was paying attention.
In his Bastille days, De Sade challenged French regicides to draw revolution out of to its most extreme moral conclusions: “Fellow compatriots, a last-ditch effort is required if you really want to earn the name of Republican!” Already spinning himself silly with the system like an autistic child, Baudrillard was ready to make the extra mile. He would be the fool of capital and wave its Good News all around like a lantern: “Every system that approaches perfect operativity simultaneously approaches its downfall…it approaches absolute power and total absurdity; that is, immediate and probable subversion. A gentle push in the right place is enough to bring it crashing down.” (SE, p.4). Beware of gentle pataphysicians with a big hammer.
Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007
Introduction: Exterminating Angel by Sylvere Lotringer, Pgs 10-13