Radical Alterity by Jean Baudrillard

by Erik Hinton

23 July 2008


It is often difficult to distinguish much of the corpus of modern (or, rather, “post-modern”) philosophy from ostentatious displays of hand wringing. Ever convinced that airplanes, televisions, and computers have fractured and shaken the architecture of being itself, philosophy in the past half a century or so has often foregone its search for truth in favor of trumpeting this tectonic ontological crisis. “Hark! The Internet, reality TV, Disney World, America! The sky is falling!”

Enter Jean Baudrillard. Perhaps best known for his seminal text (and object of reverence for enlightened fans of The Matrix) Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard introduced the world to the virtual qualities of (post)modern life: images without meaning, token economies of rote interpersonal exchange, crumbling reality. Fusing a lineage of semiotic thought with growing concerns about the inauthenticity of ‘80s culture, Simulacra and Simulation is largely credited with bringing the perils of technology and globalization to popular light in an academic forum.

cover art

Radical Alerity

Jean Baudrillard, Marc Guillaume


Furthermore, Baudrillard’s “opus”—The Revenge of the Crystal, a selection of Baudrillard’s essays, is a far more profound work—has proven a devilishly efficient engine for churning out Sophomore liberal arts students who respond to all their teachers’ harangued attempts at pedagogy with: “But what really is _______ ? Maybe ________ is just an illusion.” A curse on all your houses.

However, outside of its audience Simulacra is a fine text. In fact, compared to Radical Alterity, Simulacra is a shining, level-headed masterclass. Radical Alterity, on the other hand, is a confused, benighted mess of a post-modern alarmism. Composed as a sort of a transcription of seminars between Baudrillard, Marc Guillaume, and some audience, the book stumbles through the question of whether or not we have lost the Other in our hegemonic driving of technology to incorporate and assimilate all being into that which we can know and will eventually succeed in knowing.

With the tendrils of intellectual colonization, our rabid multiculturalism recasts all foreign peoples as ourselves in different clothing and tongues. As the paths of communication multiply ad infinitum there is nothing left unsaid, nowhere left to go, and in this collapse into an epistemological singularity/totality we can no longer know at all.

Of course, the majority of these “revelations” are absolutely overblown and reason is all but left at the door and traded for a banner of blustery eschatology. In addition, though, to all this Chicken-Littling, the major flaw in this work and much of Baudrillard complementary philosophy on the subject of alterity is his ideal of radical alterity. Frequently, Baudrillard and Guillaume are found slapping the label of absolute otherness on machines because, so they claim, they are indifferent to subjects, to man. While such a thesis fits nicely into the hysterical model of the tech-apocalypse, it neglects that such alterity is still bound up in being. To the extent that objects, inanimate or otherwise, are they cannot be radically other than us. As humans also are, the two genera (machines and man) may be incorporated or thematized under the label of Being and eo ipso are the same.

To find radical alterity we must look towards Derrida and Levinas who right posit radical alterity in the realm of otherwise-than-being. Although I have neither the space nor the ability to writes x’s over words such as “is” to fully explicate this thought, I encourage interested readers to reference Derrida’s Of Grammatology or Levinas’ Otherwise than Being. Baudrillard and Guillaume would be much privileged to look at God, Infinity, and absence in search of radical alterity.

Not all of the faults of this book can be pinned on Baudrillard and, in fact, many of the serious objections to this volume fall perfectly outside of the purview of his authorial agency. Seventy-eight of the 165 pages of Radical Alterity are penned exclusively by Guillaume, whose thought is blatantly eclipsed by that of Baudrillard. Alas, most readers will want to, and probably should, stop reading after lines such as, “We escape artificialness by increasing artificialness and affectation” or “... there is no longer exactly believing, wanting, being able, or knowing ...” At the last, there is too much fallen sky in this work to leave room for productive thought or readership.

Radical Alerity


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