an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 5, July-August 2008, ISSN 1552-5112
Meaninglessness in the Desert of the Real, or
the Form of Meaning and Unpretentious Objects
There seem to be many disparate ways of hoping to both find and to figure out ‘Baudrillard’. It would be a fairly meaningless statement, perhaps, to say that what one finds is much more than one hopes for, and that this figure ‘Baudrillard’, lurks behind the pages and words. Veiled, in a way, but never missing. I am hoping for fragments of understanding of ‘Baudrillard’, writing this small narrative about meaninglessness. The conference session that this paper initially was written for was entitled “Meaning within the Vacuum”. This imagery and figuration of a vacuum made me a bit hesitant, and my mind still quietly wonders whether anything within a nothing is possible. This is a much larger issue to narrate than what I will try to recount by putting focus on the implications of the term ‘meaninglessness’ as used by Baudrillard. I do this by circling around two central matters that I find deeply intertwined with the notion of meaninglessness, namely the question concerning what constitutes art and form, and how it is possible to indulge in (its) content.
In the following then, I will make some arguments based on these matters and try to work around, and with the concept of meaninglessness. This could quite ruthlessly be translated into very basic questions concerning “What is the matter?”, “Who is the bystander/observer?”, and “Who is the judge of all this meaning?” To me, these three questions seem pivotal for any kind of confrontation with how objects in general are categorized and classified, and how some of them become (re)constructed as objects of art. It is a way of putting forward the understanding of how specific contexts and situated practices legitimize that which becomes art, both as immaterial sign value and as materialized matter. And for the sake of appearances, I have quite ruthlessly again reinserted these questions into the following subtitles, “The Face of Indifference”, “The Meaning of Keeping Face”, and lastly a sort of summary called “Facing Meaning, or Strategic Meaninglessness”. In the end, these questions might touch upon the possibility for another meaning and meaningfulness, beyond what seems to be the presumed vacuum of things.
I. The Face of Indifference
Meaninglessness is an arbitrary word. It willingly deprives something of worthy content, and in doing so makes a somewhat hazy recommendation as to what is truly and rightfully meaningful. This is perhaps nothing new, as it appears a word most tainted. A rather blunt insult to the person, act or object that finds themselves appropriated and encapsulated by the term. But who can make such an assertion with certainty? An image (image I) might be useful in this respect, adding some uncertainty in relation to the labeling of persons, acts and objects as distinctively meaningless or meaningful.
Being as it may a rather poor digital image of a reproduction print that I have in my home, the image depicts a nun gazing out of a window. Perhaps it is the window of her cell, and what she is looking at indeed escapes the eye of the spectator. What seems rather apparent is that it looks as though she is in deep longing for something. She is in a sense, elsewhere. I will come back to her, below, when touching upon how constructions of form and content could be seen as deeply situated practices. In this then, what is regarded as meaningless(ness) could turn out to be a rather ambiguous play with words.
Baudrillard uses the notion of meaninglessness in order to try to turn its signification around. In Impossible Exchange Baudrillard states that: “If we could accept this meaninglessness of the world, then we could play with forms, appearances and our impulses, without worrying about their ultimate destination.” This could very well be the epitome quote, and it will work as one precondition for all that follows in this narration. If meaninglessness becomes a state where an implicitly more blissful order or disorder of things would be possible, what would constitute its reconstituting other? That is, what has meaning to do with all of this? How would it be possible to grapple with a meaninglessness initiated and facilitated by forms and appearances? What kinds of forms would be used, and seen as significant in signifying meaninglessness? Assigning and appropriating this value for people, acts or objects in order to enable or to make it easy for meaninglessness to take place, makes the question of ‘dead ends’ value laden. What I am asking is: by what means, is a meaningless state of being made possible? If the purpose of insisting on meaninglessness is to make plausible another way of being and knowing in the world, this might lead me to believe that the ontological and epistemological implications are of central significance. Thus, as a precondition for the questions posed above there is a need for engaging in a consideration of ‘meaninglessness’ and its Other’. And as I interpret Baudrillard, meaninglessness would envelop our present state of being—signified and described as “the desert of the real”.
Belonging to this, our ‘desert’ is the immense willingness and capacity to make subjects, acts and objects visible and transparent in the intensive lights of information. When targeting and (re)making this visibility, science becomes immensely helpful. Not the least through the usage of its own construction: the scientific fact. In a way, science becomes a legitimizing body of visibility. According to Baudrillard this is partly due to the help of a technological hand. Information and its increasing need for storage are made possible through technological proliferation. In this respect, technological solutions and information becomes each other’s wheel of fortune. In the midst of this all, the notion of meaning resides. It lay as a sort of generating factor, or as a prerequisite of the urge for deciphering matter, an aid in the extraction of the real’s presumed content. Meaning-making enlists faith in a reality out there ready to be brought in and formulated. Yet, meaning has no ‘finality’ as Baudrillard puts it, because there exists no actual outer absolute reference, neither to confirm, nor condemn the (re)construction of meaning. The lack of reference, the void of verifiable meaning, is what secretly lurks behind the attempt to make sense of the world by forcing it to mean and matter through the advocacy of meaning.
However, this is also where the notion of meaninglessness comes in, in its attempts to dismantle and counteract the figuration that everything is more or less directly perceivable and knowledgeable to us. According to Baudrillard, the gained excess of knowledge and information also creates what it most of all despises, its polar opposite which could be thought of as the grand ‘vacuum’. The outcome of this excess is ‘the disappearance of information in information’. Still, if this is the case, that the urge for information creates its destruction, why be interested in quickening the process by advocacy of meaninglessness? Why not just let disappearance have its own way?
The present ‘hyperreal’ state of being, where meaning in all kinds of fabrics of life is created and endorsed by means of science and knowledge, is of a double-edged character. As I interpret Baudrillard, the ‘hyperreal’ is the state most unwanted, yet it also harbors the (un)fortunate quality of being the very prerequisite for the occurrence of an oppositional space. This potentially different space could be seen as both, part and result, of “radical thought”, “symbolic exchange” and the notion of meaninglessness. As such, hyperreality enables the radical, something that could be seen as, and I quote Baudrillard, “the final accomplishment of reality”. The rather inevitable question of whether the hyperreal can be thought of as a continuum, genuinely lacking potential for anything ‘radical’, is to some extent lessened in strength. A possible way to answer could be to say that when everything has spiraled out of control, the time to indulge in acts of meaninglessness has come.
How can the understanding of the notion of meaninglessness subsequently be transfigured so as to concern an indulgence in much smaller matters of materiality? Is it possible to bring it to a level of concreteness where it becomes a way of doing? But before going into these matters, perhaps it is time for the nun. Does she portray the face of indifference, in a state where meaning or meaningfulness in a sense is missing? Or is it rather an account of unattended indifference, which very much belongs to its spatial situation and context, and implies that an act of meaninglessness in a way is already set in motion? This act presumably engaged in by the nun might just be an (un)directed form of opposition, a “radical singularity” in meaninglessness. Such an argument might also hold some relevance to the notion of the supposed general indifference of the ‘masses’, a notion neither new nor strikingly controversial, yet apparently persistent in thought. And I believe some of its persistence in thought lies in relation to the question of art and its intention and allocation. What I am referring to here is to what extent the narrative of art always seems to entail a more or less implicit fear of what might happen to art and aesthetics if it was ‘properly understood’ by many more than many less. For instance, indifference seems to be an implicit part of Theodor Adorno’s configuration of “the masses”, in their presumed relation to aesthetics in general. Walter Benjamin raises this question somewhat differently, although to me the question of the dawning (mass) proliferation of images touches upon the image as becoming “the mass”. Instead of disbelieving indifference, counteracting it signification, Baudrillard writes that “indifference is an atonal form of challenge”.
Perhaps all is well in a world of meaninglessness. But why is it that a presumed concretization of the notion of meaninglessness seems to be without all the messy contexts of its making? Does it not also have forces around itself, which try to narrate and forge it into something that it is, or perhaps should not be or become? Two attempts to contextualize what meaninglessness could constitute in relation to form will be the focus of the following section. We will examine the form of one object more conventionally perceived as art, and another, I believe, can be regarded as a ‘non-art’ object.
II. The Meaning of Keeping Face
If we go back to the initial quote by Baudrillard, what constitutes form seems pivotal both for the initiation and the facilitation of meaninglessness. Baudrillard states in numerous writings that art and language could act as examples of these forms. Art and language have the potential to collude in illusion, these forms being “the illusion of the world and the possibility to invent this other scene”. Specifically, on language, Baudrillard writes: “…language, while belonging to the domain of illusion, allows us to play with that illusion”. Even with such possibility at hand, art is a form which has become increasingly pretentious for Baudrillard, and he writes of this in Conspiracy of Art. Contemporary art attempts to encapsulate and devour all of reality, as it aspires to be reality. This type of argument, positng the loss of art as such, however, seems to me to be somewhat loosely problematized. It fails to present the difference between what art did or was supposed to do in the past, and how this is different to what works of art try to do today. The way I understand Baudrillard’s take on this is rather through a perspective of function, i.e. the way contemporary art in a way is indebted to function. Having functionality implies a functioning towards something else, something real in a reality. Functionality in this sense goes hand in hand with the idea of representation as a mirroring of the world. One way of having function is by presuming to say ‘radical’ things about the present time. Although what startles me is that having such a function of radicality, with respect to the contemporary period and use of art, might not be that different from what some art did one, two or three hundred years ago. This is, to my knowledge, something that is not discussed at length. However, I believe that what Baudrillard intends to argue is that truly subversive art does not engage in proclaiming the world as it is, rather it invents another one, an “other scene”. And as such, being of this ‘otherness’, it might not be immediately distinguishable and readable to us. Perhaps it is only barely perceptible to us, and because of that reason we could be inclined to disregard it as meaningless.
In this scenario of contemporary art, images, still
being a vast part of ‘the art world’, increasingly have lost their potential
for any form of radicality. It might seem paradoxical considering the
potentially ‘given’ radicality enabled by the proliferation of images through
the use of a number of ‘new’ mediums. Instead, the escalating number of
circulating images seems to tell less and less. Even so, image (II) might serve as a reminder of the
rather apparent urge for imagery, and of the feeling we have, perhaps, of ‘not
getting enough’ of images. The photograph is taken at the very crowded entrance
hall of the Louvre in
First at hand lay an object which I earlier, and quite ruthlessly, assigned to the sphere of art. It is its relation or potential to radicality and meaninglessness, in its context of digital visual production that will be my focus here. Keeping in mind Baudrillard’s words on media as “technical objects” that impose “new modes of relation and perception,” the question of the possibility to exert radical modes of relations in respect to the digitally-made visual object seems important. If we have not already completely deserted these types of digitally-produced images, then they too should hold a potential for radical thought and for the invention of an “other scene.”
As for my thought, an object of art may be
exemplified by the work of Finnish artist Ilkka Halso. The image (III)
displayed is a piece taken from Halso’s pamphlet
But does Halso’s piece go under the epithet ‘meaningless’ and/or constitute an “other scene”? Who gets to assert its radical potential? Consequently, the question that I find troubling is that of who qualifies as a knowing subject in all of this. I don’t think there is any need for an affirmatively positive approach like “iconoclashing”, put on display by Bruno Latour. Neither distinguishing between mediums, nor the frequency of forms, makes art easier to understand. Rather, this type of argument of ‘images clashing’ seem to be a quite postmodern way of distorting or disregarding the context and the “situated knowledge” in which an object of art is being created. An approach like this also seems to put a relativistic veil over the presumed observing and knowing subject. Although leaving it all up to the search for the presumed contextual space of the creator, might initiate a talent or weakness for finding the true objective visual reference or original.  On the other hand, referring the potential for radicality in a work of art, primarily to the statements made by its creator, could seem overly easy and predictable. It also tends to leave the observer completely blank, since whatever the observer’s gaze may find in it will be taken as a subordinated act of looking. 
And in terms of unthreading the mystery of an image and its potential for meaninglessness, who is able to assert what constitutes a “breakdown” and a “breakthrough” is not merely a question of who or how many. It is also a question of how. As I understand Baudrillard’s terminology, what might be problematic is if a “breakdown” or “breakthrough” aspires to deconstruct meaning. What if these matters were futile, in terms of being (pre)code-incorporated? Another action might be to partake or remain in the position where one simply “decodes the message”. Decoding seems awfully much like a one-coded story. Since its foundation rests on the premise of the world as it is (as one), representation then merely acts as an in- and output apparatus. Is it possible instead to talk of a contextualized understanding, and of a type of desert- deciphering when trying to make objects, acts or people a bit more meaningless? The act of deciphering should not then imply or result in a one-way decoding, where the question of the preferential right of interpretation is not also taken into consideration.
One way of revising the ‘who’ and ‘how’ might be to stray, for a moment, from ‘the pretentiousness of art,’ when signifying some acts as breakdown and breakthrough. Maybe we do not always need specifically (pre)categorized and (pre)constructed objects, such as ‘objects of art,’ to enable for or create an “other scene” of illusion and play of the mind? I wonder if it might not be possible to also, or instead, turn to somewhat more unpretentious objects. This next image (IV) might work in this respect, as it exemplifies an object that I believe is very much so perceived as being a non-art object.
It is my Parisian globe which rests on my desk at
home, sometimes reminding me of Baudrillard and his work on simulacra and
simulation. I gaze at ‘the
III. Facing Meaning, or ‘Strategic Meaninglessness’
It is time I believe to sum up and possibly face meaning. It could certainly strike one as constituting a meaningful activity, this arguing for meaninglessness. Consequently and somewhat paradoxically, the prolongation of this could mean and lead to possible acts of ‘strategic meaninglessness’. By advocating or striving for meaninglessness through and by forms such as language or art, meaninglessness all of a sudden becomes another meaning, something in a sense more meaningful than meaning.
A sort of institutionalization of meaninglessness might not at all be the preferred way to go. If meaninglessness holds a sort of quiet ontological remedy, a way of counteracting the hyperreal expansion and expenditure, making it into a strategy I believe fails to grasp its oppositional character. Disregarding the possible mode of procedure for the notion of meaninglessness, the question of its maintenance still remains. With this I mean, what if the hyperreal allows for certain outbursts, could it not be that the singularities of radical thought or meaninglessness are included, in an all-inclusive system? Although, asking about the possibility of living in a perpetual, happier state of meaninglessness might be getting too close to the hazardous fields of theorizing a possible utopia. Even so, attempting ephemeral meaninglessness, can we endure its temporality? Not closer to an answer, I end this narrative with a final quote by Baudrillard: “I have no illusion, no belief, except in forms – reversibility, seduction or metamorphosis.”
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 5, July-August 2008, ISSN 1552-5112
IV. Reference Matter
Adorno, Theodor W. (2002, (1981)), The Culture
Asplund, Johan (2006), Munnens socialiet och andra essäer, Bokförlaget Korpen: Göteborg.
Benjamin, Walter (?), ”Konstverket i den tekniska reproduktionsåldern”, in Burrill, John (1987), Kritisk teori: en introduktion, Daidalos: Göteborg.
Barad, Karen (2003), “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28:2003:3.
Baudrillard, Jean (2005), Conspiracy of Art,
translated by Ames Hodges, Semiotext(e):
– (2001) Impossible Exchange, translated by Chris
– (1998, (1997)), Paroxysm. Interviews with Philippe
Petit, translated by Chris Turner, Verso:
– (1994, (1981)), Simulacra and Simulation,
translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, The University of Michigan Press:
Chadwick, Whitney (2002, 3 ed.), Women, Art and
Society, Thames & Hudson:
de Lauretis, Teresa (1987),
Technologies of Gender. Essays on
Theory, Film and Fiction, Macmillan Press: Houndmills,
Genosko, Gary (1999), McLuhan and Baudrillard, The
masters of implosion, Routledge:
Hall, Stuart, Hobson, Dorothy, Lowe, Andrew &
Willis, Paul (eds.) (1980), Culture, Media, Language, Routledge:
Haraway, Donna (2001, (1996)), ”Det
beskjedne vitnet: Feministiske diffraksjoner i vitenskapsstudier” in Asdal,
Kristin, Brenna, Brita & Moser, Ingunn (eds.) (2001), Teknovitenskapelige
Kulturer, Spartacus Förlag:
– (1997), Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™, Routledge: New York & London.
– (1991), Simians, Cyborgs and Women, The Reinvention
of Nature, Routledge:
Latour, Bruno (2002), “What Is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars?”, URL: www.bruno-latour.fr/articles/article/084.html. Fetched 2008-01-10.
Pawlett, William (2007), Jean Baudrillard, Against
Rajan, Tilottama (2002), Deconstruction and the
Remainders of Phenomenology,
Virilio, Paul (2003, (2000)), Art and Fear,
– (1996, (1989)), Försvinnandets estetik, Bokförlaget Korpen: Uddevalla.
relation to art history as a (scientific) field, diverse feminist approaches have
shown that its ‘objective’ narration (legitimized through the usage of a more
positivist epistemological framework) is filled with matter of a mostly
gender-biased nature. Whitney Chadwick’s writing could work as an example of
this. See Chadwick (2002, 3th ed.), Women,
Art and Society, Thames & Hudson:
 The term
‘situated knowledge’ belongs to Donna Haraway. It refers to the epistemological
effects of a shift in the way science is perceived and carried out. Instead of
practicing objectivity as an indisputable fact and referent to the world,
Haraway, as I interpret it, acknowledges the deep impact of and on the context
in which knowledge is being produced. See Haraway (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women, Routledge:
 See page 127-8 in Jean Baudrillard (2001) Impossible Exchange, Verso:
 The quote is made
from page 1 in Jean Baudrillard (1994, (1981)) Simulacra and Simulation, translated by
Sheila Glaser, The University of Michigan Press:
Haraway’s work to me is making tangible the (re)constitutive power between
dualities that make up the material and the immaterial, and how these dualities
are a deeply gendered practice. See for instance Haraway (1997), Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.
. See for instance chapters “The Precession of Simulacra”, “History: A Retro Scenario” and “On Nihilism” in Baudrillard (1994, (1981)).
 I interpret Baudrillard’s usage of the notion of
meaninglessness as a way of reaching to and being in ‘symbolic exchange’. This
would mean that most parts of Baudrillard’s work on form and meaning(lessness)
include and allude to ‘symbolic exchange’. (Possibly, I would argue that all of
Baudrillard’s work is done in relation to the notion of ‘symbolic exchange’.)
See for example Baudrillard’s (2001) Impossible
Exchange, translated by Chris Turner, Verso:
 Jean Baudrillard’s and Paul Virilio’s thoughts meet here. See particularly Paul Virilio (1996 (1989)), Försvinnandets estetik, Bokförlaget Korpen: Uddevalla.
 Quote in Baudrillard (2001), page 121. See Pawlett’s
(2007) chapter “Symbolic Exchange and Death”. Pawlett preludes by quoting
Baudrillard: “(E)verything which is symbolically exchanged constitutes a mortal
danger for the dominant order”. From Baudrillard (1993, (1976)), Symbolic Exchange and Death, SAGE:
 Baudrillard’s “singularity” seems to me to be both a means and an end to “symbolic exchange”. It is a place/space/mind filled with things, acts and thoughts not clearly decipherable, which do not lend themselves to instant readability. Instead they are acts of curiousness. See Baudrillard (2001), see chapters “Beyond Artificial Intelligence: Radicality of Thought” and “Living Coin: Singularity of the Phantasm”.
 See Theodor W. Adorno (2002, (1981)), The Culture Industry, Routledge: London & New York, and Walter Benjamin (?), ”Konstverket i den tekniska reproduktionsåldern”, in Burrill, John (1987), Kritisk teori: en introduktion, Daidalos: Göteborg.
 For quote, see page 137 in Gary Coulter (2007), ‘Never Travel on an Aeroplane with God ’: the Baudrillard Index — an Obscene Project. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (on the internet), URL: www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies.
 My italics. Quote from an interview with Baudrillard,
in Baudrillard (2005) Conspiracy of Art,
 Page 144 in Baudrillard (1998 (1997)).
Virilio argues against what he terms the present pitiless art in, Virilio(
2003) (2000)), Art and Fear,
 See for instance Baudrillard (2005). This could also relate to what Paul Virilio is arguing, namely the disappearance of art in art. See the first chapter in Virilio (2003 (2000)).
 Gary Genosko page 93 for quote, in Genosko (1999).
 For Haraway’s term “situated knowledge”, see page 3, note 5 above.
 The Swedish sociologist Johan Asplund writes about the art historian’s misconstruing in respect to the interrelating and referencing of works of art. This in turn has deep implications on the comprehension of artistic work. Chapter ”Hur sjuk var Hill?”, pages 15-39 in Asplund (2006), Munnens socialiet och andra essäer, Bokförlaget Korpen: Göteborg.
 In part, Teresa de Lauretis argues for this type of approach which puts focus on the intentions of the creator in order to more fully understand and narrate any type of work of art. As I see it, this is primarily so to raise the central question on responsibility for images created. This type of awareness does not finally exclude other interpretations.
de Lauretis (1987), Technologies of Gender. Essays on Theory, Film and Fiction, The
Macmillan Press: Houndmills,
 The terms “breakthrough” and “breakdown” see Genosko (1999) page 90. For a discussion on the positioning of oneself as (n)either a deconstructivist (n)or a poststructuralist, see Tilottama Rajan (2002), Deconstruction and the Remainders of Phenomenology, Stanford University Press: Stanford.
 Encoding/decoding the message still seems to be
canonical business when it comes to the understanding of works of art. For
initiating work of this type, see Stuart Hall’s chapter “Encode/Decode” in
Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe & Paul Willis (eds.) (1980), Culture, Media, Language, Routledge:
 Baudrillard makes the statement of contemporary art becoming increasingly pretentious in Baudrillard (2005), page 53. Victoria Grace (2000), page 172f refers to the poetic as transference and a form of reversion-mode.
 See page 5 note 13 further up.
 See Baudrillard (2005), page 59.