Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Althusser
Of the three philosophers selected for this post, only one, Jean-François Lyotard writes specifically about art. Whereas the other two, Jean Baudrillard and Louis Althusser deal with complimentary issues that easily segue into aesthetics. With the question of how these French 20th century philosopher’s concepts relate to aesthetic issues, it will be worthwhile to briefly outline what each philosopher theorized, then in turn, how these ideas are relatable to aesthetics. Also, as much as their ideas can be put into an aesthetic context, each of these three thinker’s wide reaching ideas adapt to the political, the social, and the economic situation/s of our contemporary (post-modern) world without distortion.
Not only do all three philosophers share the same language and nationality, they also share in the legacy of Marxist thought. The most stridently Marxist was Althusser. One might be inclined to dub him a Marxist apologist. Because Althusser was so entrenched in Marxist doctrine, he arduously refined and reexamined how Marx was read. There is not just one way to read Marx, and Althusser had to find ways to read him that countered the political trends of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Althusser broke new ground in his description and theorizing concerning the inner workings of ideology, which Marx also identified as a problem, just not in the same degree that Althusser did. Ideology couldn’t be discarded, yet for Althusser, theory would take center stage. It was within theory that Althusser identified his concept of hailing. Hailing basically encapsulates interpellation. “All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.”
In the most general sense, interpellation means that all (yes all) ideology actively assumes everyone should take part in its ideological prescriptions. For capitalism this means that everyone is interpellated at the workplace: ‘there is no I in team.’ For society this means that everyone is interpellated in the public sphere: ‘shake hands with people you meet.’ For economics this means that everyone is interpellated in an economic sphere: ‘save your money for retirement.’ It all makes ‘common sense’ and none of these slogans are typically regarded of as ideological, since ideology works best when it doesn’t identify itself as such.
But what about art?—how does art interpellate the audience? A viewer mistakenly presupposes that everyone knows the ‘rules’ of the game, if such rules can be said to be real to begin with. Such presupposed rules could be an ideal that all art must somehow be beautiful, or that art must incessantly aspire to beauty. This simultaneously suggests that art cannot be ugly and that if art looks unappealing (to us) in some way, we judge to be wrong. Interpellation easily works both ways, art presents ideological subjects, as with social realism (Stalin adores the rosy cheeked proletariat). And as noted, an audience can bring its ideology to the act of viewing art, ‘my child can do that’ is code for: I cannot see the value in this painting, beyond the efforts of a child, because my narrow idealism demands nothing less than the allure of old-fashioned academicism.
Lyotard presents another way that Marxist theory affected philosophy and the arts, albeit his Marxist influence is much less militant than Althusser’s. Probably one of the first to put postmodernism into name, Lyotard wrote convincingly of a new kind of relativism, a.k.a. the metanarrative. “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” This meant that the so-called ‘grand narratives’ of the past were no longer the only narratives that mattered, or that they were no longer the ones that carried the utmost power. These metanarratives are seen as stemming mostly from the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment, such as: the authority of science, the dominance of Christian doctrine, and of course, the supremacy of rationalism itself. This idea has multiple readings, and most of it has a thin (and strong) Marxist thread throughout, that obviously seeks to delimit the powers that be. Decentralizing power means that a special kind of relativist paradigm must prevail, and this is a problem with Lyotard’s death of the metanarrative that cannot be addressed here, yet relativism should be recognized as a dominate symptom of postmodernity.
For society at large, Lyotard critiques, and calls into question, the ascendance of scientific supremacy. With his ideas, one is better equipped to seriously question if science does indeed have all the answers, and, if the scientific pursuit of getting to know the secrets of the universe is really all that helpful for mankind. Rationality too thinks it has all the answers, but it easily forgets the value of intuition, randomness and the uncompleted. Amidst these things, (postmodern) art has special place, since it tries to represent the unrepresentable, at least in Lyotard’s brilliant way of refining Kant’s aesthetic notion of the sublime. To represent the unrepresentable sounds like nonsense if one is only interpreting the idea with a rational lens. That which cannot be named, must be that which is mysterious and enigmatic. Paradoxically, if art chooses to negate the unrepresentable, it would look something like advertising, we’d all ‘get it’ and its value would fade, duly its essential and sublime mystery would be automatically lost.
Of the three theorists, Baudrillard stands as the most identifiable to a general audience, due to his (dubious and loose) connection to The Matrix. One easily forgets that Baudrillard wrote compelling philosophy, if the polished cinematic science-fiction—that’s supposed to emulate his ideas—doesn’t take half as much time to read as one of his finely crafted, labyrinthine essays. His idea of simulacrum replaces the real not by mere imitation, but by nothing at all. The simulacra are mostly the empty signs of capitalist excess and power relations. The referent is empty. Hyperreality defines this familiar pseudo-reality because we can no longer tell the difference between the real and the simulacra. “By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials…” Political scandal epitomizes what Baudrillard describes because we are simply unable to detect what real political power actually is, amidst the intrigue, gossip and scandal of Washington insiders. We are led to believe that politics has more to do with what makes the news, rather than the ‘boring’ work of actually getting things done on a daily basis. For the art world, Baudrillard’s concepts hit with surprising force during a time in the 80s and 90s when questions of the copy, appropriation, sampling, authenticity, etc., were becoming critical aspects of a postmodern reevaluation of the puritanical dogma/s of modernism. Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacra is necessarily empty, and not a mere copy of reality, still, his foreboding pessimism glares with cynicism, since he exposes where we as a society are lacking. He presented a dystopian vision, yet the provocation haunts us all the same.
Where would we be if we were not critical of the transparent powers that impregnate authority? Marxism seems to have failed in the political arena, however, it continues to demonstrate its capacity to undermine established ways of thinking. Its power is dialectical. It moves critical thinking ahead by the strife of intellectual exposure and disclosure. It’s easy to be smug and narrow. These things don’t require alternative modes of analysis. All three of the philosophers presented here have demonstrated alternate routes from the mainstream. But, when will we listen?
Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation.” In On Ideology, Translated by Ben Brewster, 1-60. New York: Verso, 2008.
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” In Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, 1-42. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, eds. Art in Theory: 1900-2000, An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
Lyotard, Jean-François. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” and “What is Postmodernism?” in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, 1-82. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
 Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and State Apparatuses,” 47.
 Althusser names this phenomena: denegation.
 Jean-François Lyotard, intro to “The Postmodern Condition,” xxiv.
 …never-mind what this means for an interpretation of Pop Art or Warhol’s claim that there’s ‘nothing behind it.’
 Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” 2.