Baudrillard and pseudoprofundity

Here is a quote from Baudrillard that Prof Paul Taylor chose for the Radio 3 programme we recorded to be broadcast tonite at 10pm (I am talking about pseudo-profundity and bullshit and pointing a finger at some post-modern thinkers – listen here for a week [I am on from about 14mins30]):

For ethnology to live, its object must die. But the latter revenges itself by dying for having been “discovered”, and defies by its death the science that wants to take hold of it. Doesn’t every science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it? Like Orpheus it always turns around too soon, and its object, like Eurydice, falls back into Hades … the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form.

Paul thought this quote encapsulated some deep insight about science (which he illustrated with an example of an actual remote tribe, the Tasaday indians, who had to retreat further into the forest in order to remain an uncontacted tribe[PS correction, I am muddling two tribes here - Tasaday are Phillipino; the tribe that had to retreat were Brazillian], whom people nevertheless then tried to photograph from a plane [Paul has a paper on this here]).

My view is: this quotation appears as it stands to be a combination of a banal observation and a ludicrous falsehood, puffed up into an impressive linguistic souffle and pretentiously topped off with a reference to Greek mythology.


Well, it is true that ethnology, the study of cultures, can sometimes end up destroying (or at the very least changing) the cultures it studies, if e.g. the culture of a remote rainforest tribe.

But this simple point that science sometimes destroys what it studies, by studying it, is not new. William Wordsworth, back in 1798, said:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect

Yes, we do sometimes murder to dissect. I might kill an individual insect in order to study its anatomy.

That we sometimes destroy what we study (in the process of studying it) is true, but it’s a rather banal, humdrum point that, as I say, Wordsworth made well over a hundred years before Baudrillard. It’s an uncontroversial observation with which we can and no doubt will all agree.

But of course this is not to say that to investigate something scientifically always involves destroying what’s being investigated. That’s obviously false. Indeed it’s a ludicrous suggestion. Someone who studies galaxies does not thereby destroy them. Nor, by dissecting an insect, do I destroy the species knowledge of which I acquire by my dissection.

Yet Baudrillard goes on to suggests every science does ultimately do precisely that – it cuts itself off from and destroys its own subject matter.

However, such is the high falutin, flowery way in which Baudrillard makes the slide from banal observation to ludicrous falsehood that many of us will fail to spot his sleight of hand – that a banality has indeed been replaced by a falsehood. We’ll be too distracted by the seductive analogy drawn with Orpheus and Eurypides to spot the conjurer’s switcheroo.

By the time we reach the end of the Baudrillard quotation, he’s combining words so cryptically it’s hard to know what he is talking about. Science’s “autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form” Eh? Try translating that back into plain English.

But by this stage it doesn’t matter that Baudrillard is drifting into gibberish. In fact it’s very much to his advantage. For, once Baudrillard has got you to come as far as accepting the obviously false but nevertheless terrifically exciting skeptical conclusion: “Oh Wow! Yes science does always destroy, cuts itself off from, what it seeks to know, doesn’t it?” you are likely to think there must be some still deeper insight contained within his parting gibberish (only it’s really, really deep and that’s why Baudrillard needs to resort to such convoluted and baffling prose to try to articulate it).

At this point, it’s job done for Baudrillard. He can sit back, adopt a sage like expression, and let you start doing the intellectual labour for him.

Of course there may be great insight contained elsewhere in the work of Baudrillard. But I cannot detect anything terribly impressive in the brief quote presented above.

P.S. Notice that the above quotation, unpacked, turns out to be very close to what Daniel Dennett calls a deepity: a deepity has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be “earth-shattering” if true.

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  • Keith Parsons

    Prof. Taylor is aware that the lost “Tasaday” tribe was a notorious hoax, right? Really, for Pomo types, this would probably not matter since they would want to deconstruct any such bifurcation as hoax/real. As you note, Baudrillard is resorting to a standard ploy these guys always use: State a banal, trivially true observation and wildly extrapolate and exaggerate to generate something blatantly false. Robert Fogelin in Walking the Tightrope of Reason tells of hearing a French scientist who once said “But, of course, the sky was not blue until someone called it ‘blue.’” Rightly puzzled, Fogelin pressed him on the point and finally got him to admit that all he really meant was that the sky was not called blue until someone called it blue, which, as Fogelin dryly observes, is true enough. Once again, a banal truism transmogrifies into a grandiose falsehood.

    Everybody should by now be aware of the tricks of the Pomo guys and their fellow travelers. What is really astonishing is that some people with legitimate degrees from accredited institutions continue to take them seriously.

    BTW, for connoisseurs of sublime postmodernist gibberish and pompous ignorance parading as profundity, I strongly recommend The Last Dinosaur Book by W.J.T. Mitchell (University of Chicago Press, amazingly). This book demonstrates that Poe’s law does not just apply to religious fundamentalism. Mitchell’s howlers are so ludicrous that no parody could possibly surpass it.

  • Larkus

    You surely meant to write “Orpheus and Eurydice” instead of “Orpheus and Euripides”.