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I am reading the work of Jean Baudrillard. Some of his ideas "feels" right: they make sense to me in a weird way, but I can't get deeper because I can't understand most of what I read. Take for example this extract of "The perfect crime":

Now, the image can no longer imagine the real, because it is the real. It can no longer dream it, since it is its virtual reality. It is as though things had swallowed their own mirrors and had become transparent to themselves, entirely present to themselves in a ruthless transcription, full in the light and in real time. Instead of being absent from themselves in illusion, they are forced to register on thousands of screens, off whose horizons not only the real has disappeared, but the image too. The reality has been driven out of reality. Only technology perhaps still binds together the scattered fragments of the real. But what has become of the constellation of meaning in all this?

This fragment makes sense in a way, I get something out of it, but also is almost nonsense to me. And this has happened to me often before while reading phylosophy. I'ts not something specific to Baudrillard.

I am a physicist and I understand that for some, a physics book can be "nonsense" but in reality, the reader simply needs more background knowledge. I assume the same is happening to me and that Baudrillard's (and others) writtings also have their own structure and are logical in their own way but I just can't get how. Are this texts intended to be read as methaphors or do they convey some literal meaning? Do I need to be familiar with some new and abstract way of thinking? Do I have to go all the way back to Aristotle and work my way up?

How to make sense of text when it's so "weird"?

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    The analogy is right, but in a more subtle way. It is not that Baudrillard's texts have the logical structure of a science text that reveals itself once you have the background, but they do belong to a tradition (going from Marx through Lukacs and Marcuse), and one needs background to get allusions, metaphors and lines of thought involved. It is more like understanding a complex novel, like Joice's Ulysses, than a science text. You may benefit from reading commentary on Baudrillard, this SEP article gives some useful background on his work. – Conifold Jun 29 at 21:36
  • Baudrillard is a sociologist & cultural theorist, at least as much as philosopher. Some understanding of the methods and purposes of these as he practiced them is crucial I think. Semiotics too, the study of signs and their functions. – CriglCragl Jun 30 at 12:19
  • i guess making sense of pomo philosophy isn't just reading comprehension, but itself philosophy... and you can't be completely secure in your interpretation – user46524 Jun 30 at 21:27
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    I in no way claim familiarity with the works of Baudrillard, but be careful of not falling for the bias of escalating engagement or the proverbial emperor's new clothes: sometimes when it does not seems to make sense, and especially when the people claiming to make sense of it don't agree with each other, it is simply because it does not make sense from starters. Lacan was infamous for making totally random statements that his disciples, who could not afford to admit it was bullsh*t, struggled to make sense of. While calling an idiot anybody who saw it for what it was. – armand Jul 1 at 4:33
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As a physics enthusiast and recovering ex-engineer, I share exactly your puzzlement and frustration over the works of Baudrillard, Latour, Lacan, and others in the French School of postmodernism/deconstructivist thought. Here are some perspectives.

Unlike the situation in physics where terms like "Lagrangian density", "nonrelativistic wavefunction" or "weak field approximation" have well-understood and agreed-upon meanings in the literature, a writer in the philosophy field can invent, define, and use terms at will- which makes their prose impenetrable to anyone unfamiliar with their individual stylistic tics.

It is easy to confuse impenetrability with profundity in this context, and the PoMo/deconstructivist field is filled with writings that have for example completely baffled people like the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Stephen Weinberg.

I recommend that you read the books Fashionable Nonsense by Sokal and Bricmont and Sokal's book on the so-called Sokal Hoax for useful perspectives on this.

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    You are just repeating the tired canard, that because those in the analytic tradition and English speaking world so rarely can be bothered to understand the Continental tradition, it must not be worth understanding. It's a bit like saying Dostoevsky's novels are a lot of work to read so they must be bad literature. Weinberg does something worse in 'Against Philosophy', he writes off all philosophy. Ignoring it's how science began. The Continental tradition recognises an ironically Wittgensteinian view, that philosophy can be not just logic but therapy – CriglCragl Jun 30 at 10:20
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    guilty as charged. post your own answer. – niels nielsen Jun 30 at 15:37
  • @criglcragl, note that in performing their work, physicists do not need to take into consideration any aspects of the continental tradition at all in order to obtain useful data and derive from it a useful understanding of the physical world. This is to say that in the world of physics, the continental tradition does not even rise to the level of irrelevance, and that is why it is ignored. If you have examples of how for example the continental tradition informs physicists how to measure the spin of a quark, please furnish them. – niels nielsen Jun 30 at 19:33
  • The Continental tradition is largely focused on texts, and social critique. You might as easily criticise, and I do, the analytic tradition's lack of engagement with social & cultural issues. You could analyse whether Superstring Theory is science in terms of simulacra & simulation. Or look at paradigm shifts in terms of power relations. Or geographically or discipline specific cultures in terms of Durkheim's sociology. Like Weinberg you are confusing what is for what. – CriglCragl Jun 30 at 22:14
  • guilty as charged. post your own answer. – niels nielsen Jun 30 at 22:23
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Whenever we are talking about the acquisition of understanding — which is essentially different from knowledge, mind you, and is an essential part of every field of study — we end up talking about the acquisition (or even the creation) of language. As a physicist, you know this well enough just by looking at Quantum Mechanics: e.g., 'quarks' and 'leptons', which come in 'flavors' of 'up', 'down', 'top', 'bottom', 'strange', and 'charm', etc. With all due deference to James Joyce, these are merely arbitrarily assigned words meant to represent certain abstract understandings that grow out of theoretical discussions. Is talking about a 'charm quark' any more or less nonsensical than talking about an 'image of the real'?

I mean, what exactly is a 'charm quark'? Yes, I know it's a fermion with a half spin, but that doesn't really clarify things much, does it? I'm not even certain whether it's legitimate to say 'half spin' or if I am obliged to say 'spin ½', and I don't think that anything is actually 'spinning' in the colloquial sense anyway...

Philosophers, or anyone working at the edge of understanding, are often put in the position of searching for language that will express unconventional thoughts; the edge of understanding implies unconventional thinking. This inevitably stretches the boundaries of language and forces us to reach past the 'literal' meaning of an utterance — the knowledge content of that utterance — and understand new relationships to and between words. This can create obnoxious side effects, like the growth of disciplinary jargon among professionals immersed in the developing language of their trade, or even that perverse linguistic litmus test in which people actively try to over-write material in order to demonstrate their proficiency (the curse of every PhD thesis I've ever seen). Sometimes things get out of hand. But in the case of professionals like Baudrillard it's more likely that we need to work into the unconventional language to understand the import of it, just as I'd need to work deeper into the unconventional language of Quantum Mechanics to really grasp what 'strange quark' is and means and implies.

I'll add, because it's relevant, that philosophy in general and European philosophy in particular has a cultural bias towards rhetoric and aesthetics. They tend to write artfully and passionately, which can be off-putting to someone trained in the flat, phelgmatic, plodding tones typical of empirical research. I'm trained in both, so I can appreciate the difference as mainly a matter of style, but not many of us have that particular advantage. Baudrillard is trying to write beautifully as much as he is trying to write clearly; we shouldn't let that throw us off.

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lógos: 1) rationality; 2) the conscious/rational self; 3) an explainable system of beliefs rooted in the notion of one objective reality that we all share and are a part of.

The lógos holds always, but humans, always time and again, prove unable to ever understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it.
   -- Heraclitus, circa 450 BC

In the beginning was the lógos, and the lógos was with God, and the lógos was God. All things happened through it, in it was life, and the life was the Light of all mankind... And the Light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not comprehend it.
   -- John 1:1-5

That is why the objective reality disappears. Maybe Jean Baudrillard's language was an attempt to reach through that invisible shield. Or maybe it is pure art, or both.

Instead of being absent from themselves in illusion, they are forced to register on thousands of screens, off whose horizons not only the real has disappeared, but the image too.

Here is what I think these "thousands of screens" refer to:
And although the lógos is common, most people live as if they had their own private understanding.
   -- Heraclitus, circa 450 BC

Our rational mind is designed to understand the objective reality and to share that understanding with others. It makes it inherently objective, selfless, and collaborative. It is also supposed to be our conscious Self and in charge.

As it happens, however, we -- our civilization since its dawn 10,000 years ago -- make it incredibly hard and painful for a child to keep him-Self at the controls. Before too long, their subconsciousness would have enough and take over. And it sees things differently.

Inherited from our animal ancestors as-is, our irrational, subconscious mind is a neural net supercomputer. And being a neural net, its own experience is all it ever knows. That makes it inherently selfish, competitive and 100% subjective, often unable to grasp the very concept of objective reality. And it is the subjectivity that makes neural nets convinced that they are living in their "own" realities -- the thousands of screens, seeing the same but never recognizing it as such.

How the objective reality gives us the truth, and how it makes us human.


"Listening not to me but to the lógos it is wise to agree that all things are one."
  -- Heraclitus, circa 450 BC

"The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work."
  -- John 14:10
... and for the record, "Though I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly about my Father."
  -- John 16:25

This truth is not my own.

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