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Film-Philosophy 14.

2 2010

White Magic: Baudrillard and Cinema

Jon Baldwin
London Metropolitan University

The greatest magician would be the one who would cast over himself
a spell so complete that he would take his own phantasmagorias as
autonomous appearances. Would not this be our case?
-Jorge Luis Borges, 'Avatars of the Tortoise'

Curiously perhaps, for an influential thinker whose work was so concerned

with issues of the image, illusion, the sign, spectacle, and representation, this
is the first collection of essays on Jean Baudrillard and cinema. When
discussions have been made of Baudrillard and film the orientation has
predominantly been around notions of simulation and postmodernity.
Necessary corrections and additions now begin to outnumber the early and
popular conception of Baudrillard. Whilst there certainly is something to be
said regarding simulation and film, this can result in an imbalance. What is
often missing is the flip side of the core duality in Baudrillard's thought and
consideration of that which antagonises simulation: namely symbolic
exchange, seduction, and radical alterity. Seduction is diversion from one's
path, a taking aside: Doel speaks of the ‘almost absolute proximity of the
“play” of seduction in Baudrillard and the “play” of différance and
dissemination in Derrida’ (Doel 2010, 187). The virtue of investigating this
dimension of Baudrillard’s philosophy is evident in, for instance, Hunter
Vaughan's contribution. Here he claims that the ‘unique and unexplored

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insight’ offered by the notion of seduction can be core to ‘the central

arguments of film-philosophy for what cinematic form may provide for
renewing our conceptualization of the world and our experience of it.’ The
ambition of the collection can be summarised in the words of David B.
Clarke: ‘a more sophisticated appreciation of Baudrillard’s thought on
simulation and its relation to seduction carries significant, untapped potential
for film theory.’ These essays share this concern despite their disparate
subject matter (such as Das Leben der Anderen (2006), The Student of
Prague (1926), Zelig (1983), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Vertigo
(1958), Home of the Brave (2006), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Bram Stoker’s
Dracula (1992) ) and other theorists employed (Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan,
Levinas, Rancière, Žižek).
Gerry Coulter produces a refined appreciation of simulation and
focuses on technology, realism, and history. In so doing he provides a vast
overview of Baudrillard’s fascination with cinema. Mediated technologies of
virtualization and the ‘obscene’ pursuit of realism are problematic to the
quality of the cinematic image. Baudrillard mourns the loss of cinema’s
mythic qualities, the loss of its ‘magic appeal’ (Baudrillard 1993, 33), and the
movement from ‘the most fantastic or mythical to the realistic and
hyperrealistic’ (Baudrillard 1987, 33). The mocking of Nietzsche's
Zarathustra is appropriate here: ‘For thus you speak: ‘We are complete
realists, and without belief or superstition’: thus you thump your chests –
alas, even without having chests!’ (Nietzsche 1969, 143) Coulter makes
apparent Baudrillard’s suspicion of technology and through a discussion of
the ‘good’ Stasi officer from Das Leben der Anderen explores the role that
film is playing in the collective understanding of history.
David B. Clarke considers the relative scarcity of comprehensive
Baudrillardian studies of cinema and explores his mobilisation as a
representative of postmodernism in readings of films such as Blade Runner
and The Matrix. There are certain limitations to such literature and Clarke
provides a fuller account of Baudrillard’s conception of cinema by moving
from simulation to seduction. Consideration is given to Baudrillard's use of

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the 1926 German silent film, The Student of Prague: 'a remarkable
illustration of the processes of alienation'. The move to seduction and
illusion dissuades the dismissive assessment of film qua simulation. Clarke
concludes with discussion of Baudrillard’s notion of disappearance and the
distinctiveness of photography.
A fuller appreciation of seduction is also considered necessary by
Hunter Vaughan who claims that in most theoretical assessments of
Baudrillard’s work ‘there is little mention of Seduction’. Vaughan suggests
that this text offers an insight into the dichotomous and contradictory nature
of cinema ‘which as an instrument of popular culture acts according to the
modern logic of production, but as a form owes more to the transformative
and playful semiology of the pre-modern.’ Vaughan follows the lamentations
of theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Rancière in his focus on the
betrayal of cinema by its industrial and commercial preference for traditional
regimes of representation despite film's sensory capacity to move away from
these. Following a reading of Once Upon a Time in the West, and Vertigo,
Vaughan concludes that the subversive nature of seduction can be used not
just to critique visual culture, ‘but instead to encourage the diverse and
radical employment of its abilities.’
Baudrillard considered the two elements of mass fascination in the
twentieth century to be the white magic of cinema and the black magic of
terrorism (Baudrillard 2002, 29-30). These themes come together in the
paper by Kim Toffoletti and Victoria Grace. When cinema and terrorism are
emptied of their symbolic qualities the result is a certain indifference.
Toffoletti and Grace focus on recent big-budget films which respond to
terrorism and the ‘war’ in Iraq such as Home of the Brave (2006), In the
Valley of Elah (2007) and Stop-Loss (2008). The returned soldiers in Home
of the Brave come to realise that America values have become a ‘Starbucks
and SUV’ lifestyle. The reason for the commercial failure of these films is
explored considering the trauma and abjection depicted, and by utilising
Baudrillard’s notion of indifference. This is at the heart of western culture
and fundamentally implicated in the dynamics of the Iraq ‘war’. The films

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and their reception echo the futility of America’s military activity and reflect
the inability of the West to respond to the symbolic singularity and challenge
of the terrorist act.
The Wizard of Oz is read by William Pawlett and Meena Dhanda in
two-fold fashion. First is a discussion of simulation: the defining aspect of the
third order (simulation) and fourth order (virtualisation) is that 'they are
devoid of the imaginary' which thereby thwarts the eruption of symbolic
exchange. Baudrillard's notions of destiny and radical otherness are applied
through a journey into Oz. In so doing revision is made to the popular
caricature of Baudrillard as a relativist, postmodernist, and anti-feminist. The
last resort of power is dramatised with the wizard's demand: 'Pay no
attention to that man behind the curtain'. An alternative and singular reading
of the film is produced: Dorothy exists in a state of ambivalence and radical
otherness, not of ‘identity’. There is import here for the consideration of
relational ethicality, and confirmation of Baudrillard's challenge to the liberal
paradigms of identity politics and cultural populism.
Baudrillard's fate was to have a hollowed out, in more ways than one,
copy of his Simulacra and Simulation appear in The Matrix, whereas the title
page of Derrida's Of Grammatology appears in a montage sequence in Jean-
Luc Godard's Le Gai Savoir (1967). Perhaps this appearance is appropriate
for a thinker who had claimed ‘I would rather see a second-rate American
film than a French film’ (Baudrillard 1993: 33). Alan Cholodenko takes this
sentiment, and 'allergy to culture with a big C', as an acknowledgement that
Baudrillard's preference is for B movies. Cholodenko's paper speculates upon
the B movie, paracinema, the schlock/kitsch/hack films that are usually
deemed the most 'critically disreputable films in cinematic history'. Following
discussion of Maxim Gorky's 1896 paradigmatic review of a Lumiere Bros
program, and utilisation of Derrida, the B movie is, in a certain sense,
deemed originary. Cholodenko, with caution, probes the moral and aesthetic
judgement and re-evaluation made upon such cinema: might the effort to
‘redeem trash’ and preserve second-order reality be a nostalgic one? The B
movie morphs into the hyper-B movie, hyperreal film 'increasingly simulates

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film', and Baudrillard, contrary to those who would cite Bourdieu or Barthes,
is proposed as the 'extreme' French theorist of aesthetics, the 'singular
theorist of the hyper-'. In so doing Cholodenko reveals what I consider to be
the virtue of the collection as a whole: the taking of his ideas to places
Baudrillard might not have anticipated himself.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank the contributors, and all at Film-

Philosophy, especially the infallible David Sorfa.


Baudrillard, Jean (1987) The Evil Demon of Images. Trans. Paul Patton and
Paul Foss. Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts.

Baudrillard, Jean (1993) ‘I Like the Cinema’ in Baudrillard Live: Selected

Interviews. Ed. Mike Gane. London: Routledge.

Baudrillard Jean (2002) The Spirit of Terrorism. Trans. Chris Turner.

London and New York: Verso.

Doel, Marcus A. (2010) 'Seduction' in The Baudrillard Dictionary. Ed.

Richard G. Smith. Edinburgh University Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1969) Thus Spake Zarathustra. Harmondsworth:

Penguin Books.

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