Baudrillard: From the Self-Driving Car to the Ex-timacy of Communication?

Isabel Millar discusses the parallels between Baudrillard’s theories of technology and subjectivity and contemporary Lacanian psychoanalysis.

When in 1987, Baudrillard wrote the somewhat hyperbolic text that would be translated as The Ecstasy of Communication, there were no smart phones nor even the internet, but he had already started to think about the replacement of the ‘scene and the mirror’ (the psychoanalytic dimension of the imaginary) with the ‘screen and the network’ (Ibid., p. 20). Whilst some of his ideas had to rely on wild speculation about the imminent forms of technology and the production of ever more ingenious “lathouses” as Lacan (in his renowned Seminar XVII) would famously coin these strange objects designed to siphon off enjoyment, he nevertheless had a unique capacity for envisaging the psychoanalytic dimensions of these changes. Even though he would not have called them psychoanalytic at the time. For example, TV was for him the focus of much of his critique, which to the contemporary ear sounds almost quaint. However, his insights about how we interact with the screen, now a digital as opposed to analogue one, were extremely prescient and are more pertinent than ever. And lest we forget, he predicts the self-driving car which would:

‘inform you “spontaneously” of its general state and yours (eventually refusing to function if you are not functioning well) …the communication with the car becoming the fundamental stake, a perpetual test of the presence of the subject vis-a vis his objects — an uninterrupted interface’ (p. 20).

Again, perhaps a slightly hyperbolic confluence of the human subject and technology, which was so characteristic of the theory of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but nevertheless it predicted a logic which is slowly and stealthily coming into view, as anyone paying attention to developments in AI and biotechnology will I’m sure agree.

The Ecstasy of Communication’s original title was L’autre par lui meme. The other by

The Ecstasy of Communication (1987)

himself, or perhaps we could say – to use the language of the contemporary clinic of Lacanian psychoanalysis – the one all alone. The text foregrounds Baudrillard’s notion of the obscene, in a world where communication is incessant, and alienation replaced by over-proximity. The ecstasy of communication for Baudrillard entails the replacement of sex with pornography, hysteria by schizophrenia and subject by object. It is not difficult to see the parallels with the work of the contemporary Lacanian clinic of ordinary psychosis, and indeed not surprising that a leading thinker and philosopher, who at the time was considered outrageous and even slightly ridiculous, would have in fact hit the nail on the head for the direction civilization was going before anyone else realized it.

Interestingly Baudrillard hints at a sort of version of the alethosphere, that realm of individualized and formalized truth-making that Lacan had coined in Seminar XVII almost two decades earlier, also with reference to astronauts. This is what Baudrillard called ‘private telematics’, where;

‘each individual sees himself promoted to the controls of a hypothetical machine, isolated in a position of perfect sovereignty, at an infinite distance from his original universe. That is to say in the same position as the astronaut in his bubble’ (p. 22).

He remarks furthermore that the elevation of the domestic universe to the celestial metaphor that is evident in the two room/kitchen/bathroom unit in the last lunar model marks the end of metaphysics and the beginning of hyperreality. ‘The satellization of the real itself’ (Ibid., p. 22). Perhaps the very same ontological transgression that psychoanalyst (and Lacan’s son-in-law) Jacques-Alain Miller (2013) would later label the “the real in disorder”.

In terms of the position of the object, it is perhaps most interesting to see how Baudrillard describes what he sees as the replacement of hysteria with schizophrenia to understand how he was arguably describing the same phenomena that Miller would first circumscribe in the ‘80s in this research hypothesis of ordinary psychosis. Baudrillard put this down to the fact that we will all:

‘suffer from a forced extraversion of all interiority, from this forced introjection of all exteriority which is implied by the categorical imperative of communication’ (p. 30).

He muses that if hysteria was the pathology of the:

‘exacerbated staging of the subject—of the theatrical and operational conversion of the body—and if paranoia was the pathology of organization of the structuring of a rigid and jealous world then today we have entered in to a new form of schizophrenia’ (p. 30).

He adds that this entails a state of terror in which the over-proximity of all things which ‘beleaguer and penetrate’ the subject meet with no resistance. Not even his body protects him. ‘He is the obscene victim of the world’s obscenity’. And here he makes the type of inversion most characteristic of his thought, and at the same time so analogous to the concept of ordinary psychosis:

‘The schizophrenic is not as is generally claimed, characterized with his loss of touch with reality, but by the absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things, this overexposure to the transparency of the world’ (p. 30).

Baudrillard puts this down to the fact that the schizophrenic can no longer produce himself as a mirror – or in Lacanian terms no longer pertains to the imaginarization of desire –  scene having been replaced by screen. He is now himself a pure screen embedded itself in a ‘influent’ network.

It is interesting to note that around the same time Baudrillard was writing this, Miller would publish his Extimité essay which articulates the logic of the Lacanian unconscious and indeed the Lacanian organon in general as precisely this extroverted interiority. Lacan of course morphed the Freudian notion of unconscious depth into a question of  topological structure,  the traditional inside/outside dichotomy replaced by the form of the moebius strip. What Baudrillard seems to be getting at similarly is the way in which limits of the body are disintegrated by the over-proximity and incursion of the object, which as the clinic of psychoanalysis knows only too well is not limited to futuristic visions of cyborg civilization.

On the question of the body one of the most acute insights of this text, is Baudrillard’s explanation of the transition of sexuality to pornography and how this prefigures an ontological question for the subject. The growing proliferation of sexual obscenity and banalization of pornographic material, Baudrillard understands as significant beyond simple reactionary condemnation of the decline of good taste or social mores, or even paternalistic or feminist discourses for that matter. To quote him ‘[t]he uncertainty of existing and consequently the obsession with proving our existence prevail over desire which is strictly sexual’ (p. 31) What does he mean by this? He alludes to the need to speak becoming more urgent when one has nothing to say. In Lacanian terms the jouissance of the signifier prevails over the constant metonymic slippage of meaning and becomes the mode of survival for the subject. One speaks to prove one is still here. This is the same for the sexual act and the very logic of the “explicit”. To make something explicit after all is to leave one in no doubt.

He puts it ‘perhaps our true sexual act consists in this: in verifying to the point of giddiness the useless objectivity of things’ (p. 33). Sexuality according to Baudrillard is a ‘ritual of transparency. Where once it had to be hidden, sexuality hides what little remains of reality’ (p. 33).

Curiously it is the discourse of science that is held responsible for this urgency to declaim one’s objectivity. Far from inspiring hubris in the contemporary subject, Baudrillard believes it demotes him to a mere functionary of the book of life; that is to say, the discourse of genetics that was emerging into the general consciousness. He writes:

‘The religious, metaphysical or philosophical definition of being had given way to an operational definition in terms of the genetic code (DNA) and cerebral organization (the informational code and billions of neurons)’ (p. 47).

The reduction of being to code, cells and neurons naturally forced us out of any humanistic conceptions of the subject and as we know came to prefigure the critical move towards post-humanism that would come to dominate strands of French theory in his wake. But what Baudrillard put his finger on was precisely the real that was at stake in the overwriting of the existential with neurobiological and computational discourse. Which is in Lacanian terms of course, the non-existent sexual relation. Not surprising then that he concludes that we must replace a theory of production (or what could be called an ontology) with a theory of seduction. Seduction is not the opposite of production he warns however, but rather seduces production. As does absence seduce presence, evil seduces good and the feminine seduces the masculine.

It is notable however that here Baudrillard accuses psychoanalysis of failing to see the seductive nature of neurosis. It is, he says, because seduction is not of the order of phantasy, repression or desire. He goes on to criticize Freud’s famous reading of Jensen’s Gravida and his reduction of Hanold’s phantasies of the mysterious woman in Pompeii to the order of repressed childhood formations of the unconscious. What he calls a fine example of ‘the disenchantment with interpretation’ (p. 54). It is perhaps a shame that Baudrillard did not consider the Lacanian post-Oedipal paradigm when he blanketly condemned psychoanalysis in its Freudian form. But again, here the parallels are evident between Baudrillard’s visionary ideas about the seduction of the sign and the contemporary Lacanian clinic’s eschewing of interpretation of symptoms in favour of equivocation of signifiers.

In the society of the spectacle it is the secret then that is the only thing left as object cause of desire. In a passage which could have come straight from Lacan (albeit slightly less obscurely put) he writes:

‘In an amorous seduction, the other is the locus of your secret – the other unknowingly holds that which you will never have the chance to know. The other is not (as in love) the locus of your similarity, nor the ideal type of what you are, nor the hidden idea of what you lack. It is the locus of that which eludes you, and whereby you elude yourself and your own truth’ (p. 57).

For Baudrillard, seduction is the last defense against the oncoming age of simulation,

Just part of IAC’s Match group – what would Baudrillard think?

artifice, surveillance, computation, and ever more sophisticated methods of biological and molecular control. He asks ‘how does one disguise oneself? How does one dissimulate oneself? How does one parry in disguise in silence in the game of signs, indifference in a strategy of appearance’ (p. 63)? He affirms, it not the desire of the subject anymore but the destiny of the object which we must be attentive to.

For Baudrillard in the age of hyperreality, where simulation becomes more real than the real, we are in permanent ecstasy; the ecstasy of the social (the masses) we could update as social networks and media, the ecstasy of the body (obesity) we could refine to body modification, the ecstasy of sex (obscenity), of violence (permanent terror) and of  information (AI and simulation). Hence things themselves have transgressed their own limit.

Baudrillard urges us to be stoic. If the world is fatal, let us be more fatal. If it is indifferent, let us be indifferent. ‘We must conquer the world and seduce it through an indifference that is at least equal to the world’s’ (p. 82). Baudrillard implores us to withdraw from the scene in order the make it more difficult for the world to swallow us up. In a sense, we must play hard to get. If the transparency of things is a constant obscene display of objectivity, we must not be one of these things. What is there left to do but disappear?

Baudrillard, they may have laughed at  you then, but in the words of an obscene simulation who shall remain unnamed: they’re not laughing now are they?

Isabel Millar is a PhD candidate at Kingston University, School of Art in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Theory. Her research is on Jacques Lacan, Sex and Technology.

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Baudrillard, J. (2012) The Ecstasy of Communication. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Lacan, J. (2007) The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XVII. London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Miller, J-A. (1988) Extimité. Prose Studies11: pp. 121-131.

Miller, J-A. (2013) The Real In the 21stCentury.Hurly-Burly 9.




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