an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 5, November-December 2008, ISSN 1552-5112
Fetal Strategies: Baudrillard’s Child and the Discourse of the Masses
Interpretation reveals its complexity when we realize that a new force can only appear and appropriate an object by first of all putting on the mask of the forces which are already in possession of the object.
It is a long time before the child reveals anything like a herd instinct or mass sentiment.
In the long history of mass discourse stretching from Plato, to Descartes, to LeBon, and even to Heidegger and Canetti, the masses have been called virtually every disparaging name in the book: they are gullible, labile, credulous, naïve, stupid and irrational; they are cruel, brutal, destructive, and savage. But perhaps, above all, the masses are little children. So automatic and intuitive is the association that any explanation seems somehow superfluous. And although Baudrillard claims to dismiss out of hand any theory of the masses that presupposes their naivety and stupidity, he does not hesitate to compare the masses to little children himself. In one of his more overtly political passages, toward the end of “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media,” Baudrillard argues that the relation of the masses to the so-called manipulative messages of the media is structurally similar to that of the relation of the child to the demands of the adult world. Oddly, this metaphor seems ideal for lending explanatory force to precisely those presuppositions that Baudrillard claims to be rejecting with his own thesis.
Baudrillard deploys this arch metaphor, however, in order to challenge these now commonplace beliefs about the masses. For him, too, the masses are a bunch of children; it is just that he means something entirely different here in his use of the term “children.” In the deployment of the metaphor, the tenor has slipped under the wheels of its vehicle, altering the very nature of the comparison itself. This formal gesture, of borrowing in order to overturn, is characteristic of Baudrillard’s style generally and it allows us to theorize an analogy between the relation of the masses to power, on the one hand, and the relation of Baudrillard’s own theory to the traditional discourse about the masses, on the other. Such an analogy is, in fact, crucial to our understanding of Baudrillard’s propositions regarding the child-like masses, for his theory about them rests on the insight that the question of the masses is, first and foremost, a question of discourse.
In the tradition of mass discourse which Baudrillard opposes, the masses-are-children-metaphor crystallizes an entire catalogue of popular delusions and functions to reaffirm the ancient disparity between the reason of the individual and the madness of the crowd. In his classic study of the crowd, Gustave LeBon takes up with great gusto the tradition of the white, male, imperialist by comparing the masses to savages, women, and children:
It will be remarked that among the special characteristics of crowds there are several—such as impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment and of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of the sentiments, and others besides—which are almost always observed in beings belonging to inferior forms of evolution—in women, savages, and children, for instance (10-11).
All three of these comparisons—women, savages, and children—are selected because of their one common characteristic: their evolutionary inferiority. Thus, the comparison of the masses to children partakes of an old metaphoric association that originally involved women and savages as well. The difference that is stressed throughout LeBon’s detailed nosology (impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, lack of judgment) is that between intellect and affect, reason and emotion, conscious and unconscious. Such thinking is virtually endemic to the discourse of mass psychology, but it is worth noting that, while today this kind of bigotry and sexism appears ludicrous when it comes to the question of “savages” and women, children are generally still viewed as little more than mentally dwarfed adults. Though the other two terms of this ternary metaphor have been more or less endowed with their proper share of reason, the child (and, with him, the great mass of people) has continued to remain mired in ignorance. Baudrillard thus takes over the metaphoric comparison at its most stable point, re-appropriating and interrogating the one association that has survived the effects of a general discursive emancipation.
In order to overturn this master’s discourse, one has recourse to several options of increasing complexity: one can simply oppose the metaphor, by arguing that the masses are not children; one can oppose it and supply a new metaphor, by saying that the masses are not children, but wizened cynics, for example; or, one can adopt a more fetal strategy, by reaffirming the metaphor and at the same time questioning the belief in the representability of the metaphoric operation itself, by saying, as Baudrillard does, that the masses are children and that the masses do not exist (Shadow 48).
We should note first, however, that Baudrillard’s theory of the masses shares other affinities with the dominant discourse about them. Indeed, it is not at all uncommon to see a critic misinterpret one or another of Baudrillard’s archly oppositional theses as a mere repetition of the traditional view—as when, for instance, the concept of hyperreality is offered as proof of Baudrillard’s lingering nostalgia for lost meaning. This is precisely his gambit, however: to achieve a kind of suffocating and disfiguring proximity to tradition; to hyperbolize, and thus defamiliarize us with, our common beliefs.
But, at the level of the proposition, it is not always easy to see the difference between Baudrillard’s theory of the masses and the kind of disparaging litany sounded by the likes of a Howard N. Tuttle. The latter looks at the existential critique of mass society in the thought of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Ortega y Gasset, and condenses the general sentiment to one simple phrase: the crowd is untruth. Baudrillard, for his part, also speaks of the mass phenomenon as one which refuses and resists meaning, which dissolves every representation and absorbs every discourse of truth (Shadow 28-9). When Tuttle subsequently claims, however, that throughout history the masses have adopted the position of radical nihilists by stubbornly denying any objective or real ground for truth or moral values (xii), we sense at once the nearness and farness of Baudrillard. How vastly altered is the meaning of this laconic slogan—the crowd is untruth—when uttered by Baudrillard—Baudrillard, who like the very masses he describes, consistently resists the recourse to meaning or truth?
This begins to highlight the complexity of the fetal strategy, but to adopt the first strategy—that is, to oppose the-masses-are-children-metaphor at all—is already a way of instituting a new line within the genealogy of mass discourse. Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism of 1946 represents just such a challenge to the traditional metaphor. Here, Reich argues that “one is on the wrong scent when one attempts to explain Hitler’s success on the basis of the befogging of the masses” (35-6). By opposing the notion that ideology can be explained through the suggestibility or inferior intelligence of the masses, Reich effectively says that they are not children. What needs to be understood, according to Reich, is not the methods by which power was able to control and indoctrinate the masses, but “why the masses allowe[ed] themselves to be politically swindled” in the first place (36). Far more interesting than Reich’s precarious answer to this question, is the obsessiveness with which he asks it, for proposing the question alone repositions the problem of the masses in terms of their own subjective desires.
Through this methodological (almost Kantian) turn, a certain amount of agency has been shuttled across the Master/Slave couple; we no longer have a total determinacy of the masses by the State, Law, or Sovereign, but a dialectic of power and the desire of the people. This new orientation is neatly summarized by Reich’s oft-repeated riddle: why do the masses desire fascism? Reich falls short, however, when it comes to supplying a new metaphor, and it is this failure, I think, that eventually forces him to say something like (I am paraphrasing here of course), “The masses are children, after all, but there is no good reason why they should not be otherwise.”
In The Critique of Cynical Reason, which Peter Sloterdijk wrote shortly after Baudrillard’s In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, the metaphor “the masses are children” is not only directly opposed (the masses, in Sloterdijk’s formulation, are no longer children) but a new comparison is made, so that now they are clever cynics. Sloterdijk identifies the cynic as a “mass figure,” no longer the exception to the rule of ideology, but rather its all-too-knowing participant (4). Sloterdijk thus repeats the Reichian turn by arguing that the typical man on the streets is steeped in ideology, not because he does not know any better, but precisely because he knows all too well. This new orientation of the problem is made explicit by Sloterdijk when he claims that, to begin with the notion of cynicism as the rule, to accept the cynic as a mass figure, is to attempt to “enter the old building of ideology critique through a new door” (4).
This is a pivotal move in the language game of mass discourse, one which Baudrillard both anticipates and pushes to its logical limit. Baudrillard is in agreement with Reich and Sloterdijk when he writes that “power manipulates nothing,” and that “the masses are neither mislead nor mystified” (Shadow 14). To the contrary, he argues, the masses actively refuse to “participate in the recommended ideals” of power (14). When offered by Baudrillard, the-masses-are-children-metaphor of LeBon no longer entails the unidirectional nature of the power/masses relation; it implies, rather, a subjective agency on the part of the latter. Children are cunning cynics, who, according to a brilliant and nefarious strategy, willingly adopt the identity of innocents that is foisted upon them by Mom and Pop, the State. Even in their apparently passive indifference and their uncomprehending obedience, the masses erect a wall of resistance (Shadow 13).
But, for Baudrillard, the cynical thesis of Sloterdijk does not go far enough for the simple reason that it rests on an empirical claim about the masses. Baudrillard understands that, if one presupposes cynicism as the zero-degree of consciousness, one can no longer assert the copula through which the masses are anything at all. This is what will lead Baudrillard to declare that “the masses do not exist” (Shadow 48).
In order to see why this is so, it will be helpful to refer ourselves to a classic theory of the stock market. If we are to believe Amazon.com, such a transition between discourses is not altogether unjustified. Because I purchased some classic works of mass psychology online, Amazon now recommends to me The Psychology of Finance, The Psychology of Speculation, The Art of Speculation, and The Psychology of the Stock Market. Taking Amazon at its word, we read this about the political economist David Ricardo, whose success on the stock market was “based upon the observation that people in general [my italics] exaggerated the importance of events”:
If, therefore, dealing as [Ricardo] dealt in stocks, there was a reason for a small advance, he bought, because he was certain the unreasonable advance would enable him to realize; so when stocks were falling, he sold in the conviction that alarm and panic would produce a decline not warranted by circumstances. (qtd. in Heilbroner 87)
Ricardo echoes the founding gesture of virtually every theory of the masses: what Baudrillard, as we have already seen, identifies as the belief in the naivety and stupidity of the masses (“Implosion” 81). In perfectly LeBonian fashion, Ricardo imagines a mass that is credulous, suggestible, and ultimately irrational. It does not require an immense amount of reflection to see that the “people in general” are serving a purely fictional function in Ricardo’s speculations, as they are described here. Ricardo assumes what “they” will assume when confronted with either a small advance or a slight decline in the stock market. It is worth noting that, from an instrumental perspective, the-masses-are-children-thesis is perfectly sufficient for Ricardo’s purposes; he makes a killing by reasoning in this way.
In order to uncover the potential flaw in Ricardo’s cynical reasoning, however, one has only to imagine how this same situation would play out if “everyone else” were a Ricardo—if everyone else were, in Sloterdijk’s terms, equally cynical regarding the intelligence and reasoning of the masses. The answer, of course, is exactly the same. Each individual, cynically endorsing the belief in the naivety of the masses, would nonetheless help perpetuate the very mass phenomenon which he or she claims only to observe. Knowing that everyone else is an idiot and will sell when stocks dip and buy when they rise, the cynic reasons, I should do precisely that: sell when they dip and buy when they show signs of rising. In this example, the “people in general” do not exist. Or, at the very least, they need not exist in order to have the properly mass phenomenon of a stock market crash, since a mass of cynical Ricardos would produce just as much “alarm and panic” as a mass of typical fools.
With this little mental experiment we are able to reveal the poverty of the philosophy advanced in Humphrey Bancroft Neill’s The Art of Contrary Thinking, which argues that since mass opinion is so often wrong, the opposite opinion is bound to be right. Freud already went well beyond such sophistry when he pointed out that the “spirit of the community” is founded, not upon common beliefs or characteristics, but upon negation. Democratic, egalitarian harmony is nothing other than the formal institution of a fundamental, discordant jealousy (Freud 75). Freud’s somewhat comical example here is of the “groupie,” who decides that she can live without a lock of her favorite rock star’s hair so long as she is assured that none of the other groupies will be allowed to possess it either (74). What holds the mass together is thus a purely differential element, the desirable object which none of its members possess. I would argue that Freud goes to such great lengths to stress the importance of the leader in understanding mass phenomenon, because, in a purely structuralist fashion, the leader represents the element that is outside of, and thus constitutive of, the set of common and equal group members. The leader’s “unary trait,” as Lacan calls it, with which each member of the group identifies, is quite literally the sign of singularity. Mass-identification with the leader thus consists of identification with what is individual, with what is absolutely singular and uncommon to the group. According to Freud, the mass is not, as is typically thought, a homogeneous unity composed of a set of simple, un-reflexive, and un-mediated beliefs. Despite what Neill thinks, the mass phenomenon is sustained by contrary thinking, for each individual member is, by his or her own account, “not like them.”
What Ricardo’s theory reveals, when read through the cynical thesis, is precisely this idea that “the masses” is always already a reflexive, discursive concept held by the individual. As Zizek writes:
The Social, the field of social practices and socially held beliefs, is not simply on a different level from individual experience, but something to which the individual himself has to relate, which the individual himself has to experience as a minimally “reified,” [or] externalized […] Take the proverbial egoist, who cynically dismisses the public system of moral norms: as a rule, such a subject can function only if this system is “out there,” publicly recognized—that is to say, in order to be a private cynic, he has to presuppose the existence of naïve other(s) who “really believe.” (Parallax 6)
Despite this insight, one should not, Zizek warns, succumb to the temptation of imagining that this reified, externalized order is merely a functional myth, as if there were some kind of “objective” social substance apart from individual conceptions about it. Rather, “this ‘objective’ order of the social Substance exists only insofar as individuals relate to it as such” (6) [italics in original]. Or, as Baudrillard writes, “The mass is without attribute, predicate, quality, reference. This is its definition, or its radical lack of definition. It has no sociological ‘reality.’ It has nothing to do with any real population, body or specific social aggregate” (Shadow 5).
Returning to the cynical theses of Sloterdijk and Reich, we see that they attempt to hystericize the discourse of the masses. What was previously apprehended only as an object, or referent, in the discourse of LeBon, for instance, is now treated, in a much more Hegelian fashion, as a subject (i.e as an equal self-consciousness). But, as our example from Ricardo demonstrates, this wager must ultimately lead to the conclusion that “the masses” do not exist. There can be no empiricism of the masses, for there is no social distinct from that to which individuals self-reflexively relate. Baudrillard is being quite literal, in this respect, when he writes of the fundamental and constitutive “silence” of the masses. “[L]iterally,” he writes, “no ‘sounding’ or survey will cause [the masses] to become evident, since their effect is to blanket it out (Shadow 29).
Thus, Baudrillard maintains no idealistic hope of finally giving the masses back their collective voice. They are, as he argues, unrepresentable. “No one can be said to represent the silent majorities, and that, is its revenge” (Shadow 22). But this is not, as Lyotard seems to think, because Baudrillard’s masses are, in reality, a complex multiplicity of unlocatable atoms (Lyotard 15). Rather, they are nothing other than the blind-spot of the discourse of the masses itself. “It is impossible to comprehend the masses as object,” Baudrillard writes, “once that infinitesimal point is reached where the subject of observations is himself annulled” (Shadow 31). The problem of traditional mass discourse is not so much that it counts the masses, which are in reality a complex multiplicity of singular individuals, as a One, but that it fails to count this One as inherently Two, as a subject always already split between an I and an Other/Social.
Baudrillard’s “child” is, therefore, not an empirical entity, nor is he a representation of the characteristics, attitudes, and desires of the masses. Baudrillard’s child is much more a bastard, one kidnapped from the traditional discourse and made unrecognizable to it. As a figure of “interpretation,” in the Nietzschean sense (Deleuze 5), the child finds himself here in the midst of an ugly custody battle in which he occupies the dual position of enunciated subject and subject of enunciation. This is why the fetal strategy that Baudrillard describes, of resisting through capitulation, of stubbornly defying through hyperconformity, is absolutely inseparable from the one that he himself performs within the genealogy of mass discourse. Baudrillard is this child whom he makes the subject of his discourse.
This is where we encounter the obscure function of the first person plural in Baudrillard’s work: “We gladly take flight from appearances and watch over the depth of meaning” (Ecstasy 62) [my italics]. What is the status of this “we,” given what we know of Baudrillard’s praise of surface and celerity over depth and profundity? Again, we cannot take this as a simple attempt to hystericize mass discourse. Baudrillard does not presume to represent, or speak for, the masses. What he accomplishes in these moments, with this “I am everyone,” is a kind of short-circuiting of the enunciating/enunciated distinction, a doubling of the descriptive and the performative in discourse.
As an interpretive crux, this child is both the object of an old discourse and the sender of a new one. He is the enigmatic, double response to a demand that is itself doubled:
Children are simultaneously required to constitute themselves as autonomous subject, responsible, free and conscious, and to constitute themselves as submissive, inert, obedient, conforming object. The child resists on all levels, and to a contradictory demand he responds with a double strategy. To the demand of being an object, he opposes all the practices of disobedience, of revolt, of emancipation; in short, a total claim of subjecthood. To the demand of being a subject he opposes, just as obstinately and efficaciously, an object’s resistance, that is to say, exactly the opposite: childishness, hyperconformism, total dependence, passivity, idiocy. (“Implosion” 85)
Perhaps the most salient example of this double demand on the part of power was seen in the election year of 2004, when MTV issued the injunction to “Vote or Die.” I do not think there was any conscious irony behind the fact that the most sanguine expression of democratic ideals could not help sounding like a totalitarian threat. But, the disjunctive aspect of this demand is immediately apparent: vote—that is, constitute yourself as an active, conscious, and above all, adult participant—or die—become absolute object, inert mass, bare life.
Children, of course, do neither and both at once. How often have we seen the parental command to “Go to your room!” become the opportunity for the obedient child to interrogate the very notion of movement, by crawling, for example, or by dilating the duration of each footstep to an excruciating infinity? The child is thus the force of a discursive overturning which operates by literalizing and hyperbolizing the discourse of the adult. In response to the notion that he is a passive and obedient object, he becomes even more passive and object-like. In stubbornly retreating behind the implacable and unresponsive mask of the analyst, he performs the cunning reversal through which this object which he now is becomes the origin, cause, and ultimate riddle of adult desire itself (Ecrits 492).
By adopting this metaphor of an old disparaging discourse of the masses, and implementing it in a new context, Baudrillard gives us a coherent means of approaching this phantasmatic object of the Social. No longer simply the referent of a master’s discourse—an object of communicational exchange between individual egos—and no longer the “liberated” subject of a pathetic emancipatory appeal, Baudrillard’s bastard-child is the figure of an alternative discourse of the masses, one which takes seriously the power of discursive determinacy, while enacting a new move within that discourse. The fetal strategy that Baudrillard describes and performs is, at base, a perfect child’s game. It is at once a capitulation, which obediently accepts the-masses-are-children-metaphor from the master’s discourse, and a subversion, which disturbs—to the point of undoing its copula—the smooth functioning of that metaphoric operation itself.
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 5, November-December 2008, ISSN 1552-5112
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 See “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media,” in which Baudrillard refers to the presupposition of the “naivety and stupidity of the masses” as a “trap of critical thinking” (81).
 See also Plato’s Republic, which divides society into two groups: a small minority of elite, educated, subjects and an “inferior majority” composed of “children, women, [and] household slaves” (431 C).
 Baudrillard’s own pun on “fatal strategy.”
 See Brian Massumi’s “Realer than Real: The Simulacrum According to Deleuze and Guattari,” which argues that Baudrillard’s work is “one long lament.” http://www.brianmassumi.com/textes/REALER%20THAN%20REAL.pdf
 See Zizek’s similar analysis of a toilet paper shortage in The Sublime Object of Ideology (186).
 “What is subsequently found to operate in society as community spirit, esprit de corps, etc. undeniably springs from an original envy” (Freud 75).
 See Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XVII: The Other side of Psychoanalysis.