Baudrillard’s nonrepresentational theory: burn the signs and journey without maps – Richard G. Smith


Nonrepresentational theory, as developed by human geographer Nigel Thrift, is aimed at mobile practices and notions of performance as a means to understanind human geography. It is a theory formulated as a critique of representation. Richard G. Smith is somewhat hesitant in complying with the notion of Thrift as interested in nonrep theory suggesting rather that Thrift provides more of a general antirepresentational theory. Within Thrift’s work he has, Smith points out, ommited the work of poststructuralists like Baudrillard (which he claims is consistent with the aims of the work) which could enable to help us think about nonrepresentational theories rather than nonrepresentational theory. In order to accomplish this Smith pushes and explores Baudrillard’s thinking from representational (the space of signs) to nonrepresentational theory.

At the crux of Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra/hypperreality is his combination of the Saussarian sign and Marx’s account of the commodity-form as to state that a commodity does not simply have a use value, or exchange vaule, but also a sign value.

Signifier exchange value
——— = ——————-
Signified use value

As we see above: the exchange value is to signifier as use value is to signified. To Baudrillard the signified an use value are just “illusory effects” and in his work he “exposes the absense of the signified and use value, which are the guarantees of reality of structuralism and Marxism, respectively” (Smith 78). What happens, furthermore, is that the exchange value is fused with the use value.

To understand this reasoning an analogy to cartography is employed (maps are herein equated to the likes of theory). Through examples it is demonstrated how there is a tension between the map (theory – summarizing the knowledge of a territory) and the territory (the real).What Baudrillard posits is how the current fase of capitalism is closed, beyond representation. Within the new phase the signified and use value are absent. In reference to McLuhan it is stated that we are now unable to distinguish between message and medium because the world cannot be represented because the signs of the real are being substituted for the real itself. There is thus an absence of a basic reality the fusion of the map and territory is the hyperreal – the image is the real. [sidebar: the irony of mad cartographers trying to make maps co-extensive with the territory and coming to realize that the closer the map (theory) comes to the territory (real) the more useless it becomes].

Baudrillard upholds four precessions of simulacra, the orders of the simulacra. The third fase concerns the implosion of binaries, and that representational theory, bound to the system in which it functions, is no longer useful. In order to challenge simulacra, which comes into play in stage 4 – the fase of pure simulation, Baudrillard must become nonrepresentational. This is a theory that explains the third and fouth order condition. Representational theories aborb simulation through an interpretation of false representation and are thereby only suitable in exploring the first and second stage. In the changing relationship between thought and reality we must “burn signs” which means undoing structures: to do away with contrasts and oppositions.

Smith, however, points out that Baudrillard is against Baudrillard! This is namely because he finds that the thoughts of Baudrillard are doubly nonrepresentational This double spiral consists of a spiral of the semiotic (the critique of rep theories and establishment of nonrep simulacrum) and the spiral of the symbolic (the development of nonrep theories).

In conclusion (I cite it at length because it is provocative):
“In journeying nothing adds up, there are no equations, and no summation. Hindsight, pretending to step outside of language and the simulacrum, creates the retrospective illusion of things coming together into ordered systems, but there are no unities or stable identities. Knowable structures do not underlie empirical events; reality is a play of forces in differential flux with no order, logic, or meaning. All is contigent, nothing has any meaning, all thinking is groundless, all we can do is throw ourselves into the play of the world and dance with it” (Smith 82, my emphasis).


I believe I get the greater project of this article (and it was less of a headache than I had anticipated whilst going through it earlier). I formulated two questions, but I will start off with a comment.

During one of the sessions we were discussing Baudrillard and, do recall my somewhat hesitance here trying to go back to Marxist theory- (but was again at a loss of finding precision in my idea), it was suggested that Baudrillard correlates simulation and simulacra with information technology and computers. We should read the 3rd footnote of the article, it makes a lot more sense than our semi-consensus!

1. How does Thrift’s nonrep theory differ from the one Smith has established for Baudrillard? In extension of this – why is Thrift seen as antirepresentational and Baudrillard extended into the realm of nonrepresentational theories?
2. What are the pro’s and con’s of nonrep theory in our enterprise as researchers? I.e. how theories change the reality, the need for structures (representation/maps) in research?*

* a friend of mine (who actually suggested this text to me a while back) coined the aphorism: “I don’t believe in dualisms, I believe in duality.” It seems to me his compromise between representational and nonrepresentational theory :D

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~ by karinvanes on March 21, 2009.

7 Responses to “Baudrillard’s nonrepresentational theory: burn the signs and journey without maps – Richard G. Smith”

  1. The critique of representation, it seems to me, can be linked back to Lyotard’s critique of structuralist conceptions of meaning. Here a passage from the entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Lyotard (, this is about his book “Discours, figure”.

    “Lyotard’s second book of philosophy is long and difficult. It covers a wide variety of topics, including phenomenology, psychoanalysis, structuralism, poetry and art, Hegelian dialectics, semiotics, and philosophy of language. The main thrust of this work, however, is a critique of structuralism, particularly as it manifests itself in Lacan’s psychoanalysis. The book is divided into two parts: the first uses Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to undermine structuralism, and the second uses Freudian psychoanalysis to undermine both Lacanian psychoanalysis and certain aspects of phenomenology. Lyotard begins with an opposition between discourse, related to structuralism and written text, and figure (a visual image), related to phenomenology and seeing. He suggests that structured, abstract conceptual thought has dominated philosophy since Plato, denigrating sensual experience. The written text and the experience of reading are associated with the former, and figures, images and the experience of seeing with the latter. Part of Lyotard’s aim is to defend the importance of the figural and sensual experience such as seeing. He proceeds to deconstruct this opposition, however, and attempts to show that discourse and figure are mutually implicated. Discourse contains elements of the figural (poetry and illuminated texts are good examples), and visual space can be structured like discourse (when it is broken up into ordered elements in order for the world to be recognisable and navigable by the seeing subject). He develops an idea of the figural as a disruptive force which works to interrupt established structures in the realms of both reading and seeing. Ultimately, the point is not to privilege the figural over the discursive, but to show how these elements must negotiate with each other. The mistake of structuralism is to interpret the figural in entirely discursive terms, ignoring the different ways in which these elements operate. In the second part of Discours, figure, structure and transgression are related to Freudian libidinal forces, paving the way for the libidinal philosophy developed in Libidinal Economy.”

    I get the impression that the non-representative here is something like a radicalized version of the ‘figural’ (Rodowick, by the way, has written a book on the figural, sketching a “Philosophy after New Media”), at least as far as the philosophical uneasiness with regard to the all-powerful claims of structuring activites is concerned.

    As for the closing sentence: What would be the consequence of this? Stop theorising? That is an option, but it seems to me that this is a rather unsatisfactory one. Observing that theory (or thinking) never can say anything about an always evasive reality is a metaphysical stance on can take. But that means also to conceive theory as a project that pretends to grasp reality as such, that does want, in the last instance, to draw a 1:1 map. But of course only mad cartographers can have such a vision. Of course you can journey for journeying’s sake, but in order to get somewhere, you need a map that you can handle. Theory, per definition, is partial, selective, and depends on a viewpoint. So what? I guess, in such a debate I rather stay a happy pragmatist. Relinquishing totalising claims is no big deal, really.

  2. Ofcourse. But I find such attacks on theory necessary, simply as a reminder that theory is partial, seletive and that it depends on a viewpoint.

    And whilst nonrepresentational theory by Baudrillard somewhat “rejects” theory, the nonrepresentational theory by Thrift (with the focus on practices) may, particulary in this era of convergence and remediation, be at the very least, an interesting proposition. It seems “against” theory in favor of method [granted, it is somewhat silly to pull these apart but again, provocation itself is effective]

  3. 1. I think Smith tries to point out that Thrift’s nonrepresentational theory does not go as far as Baudrillard’s. It is criticising how we produce theories too (also leading to the conclusion that we should “perform” or “dance”), but it is still stuck in Baudrillard’s first forms of simulacrum. Thrift focusses on the problem of theory that it can be a biased interpretation of reality, or that it can influence reality, but also that we need to know how reality was interpreted to understand the theories (p 86). This looks as if Thrift thinks that there is a difference between reality and its representation, they are two different things. Thus, when he argues that we should focus on practices, this is an antirepresentational idea. He wants to study reality not at its representations.
    Baudrillard on the other hand is focussing on the last step of simulacrum, when sign and reality have become the same thing. Realising that when theorising is nonrepresentational, because it focusses on the norepresentational value of signs for reality.

    2. Non-representational theory complicates our research, because we can no longer say that theory changes or abstracts reality because there is no difference between them. To be honest, I do not really understand what Smith means by writing “all we can do is throw ourselves into the play of the world and dance with it.”, because I do not think that it necessarily means that we can stop theorising altogether because it has no point to do that.

  4. A customary disagreement between Karin and prof. Kessler reminded me of the origin of the word ‘theory’ which I believe I stumbled upon while looking at Bruno Latour’s work, however due to my negligence to take notes I rediscovered it today in Richard Ned Lebow’s The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests and Orders (2003):

    Theōria, theōrein and theōros, are all post-Homeric words having to do with seeing and visiting. The noun (theōros) me ant ‘witness’ or ‘spectator’. A theōros was dispatched to Delphi by his polis to bring back a full account of the words of the oracle. He might also be sent to religious and athletic festivals, and it is here that the word picked up its connotation of spectator. Over time, the role of the theōros became more active; a theōros was expected not only to describe what he had seen but to explain its meaning.

    In the light of this theory looses its aura as a fixed entity with solid ground. Theory is clairvoyance – hence debatable by definition?

    I haven’t read the text yet, but in terms of preferring method to theory, Latour in fact introduces his ANT as a method rather than a theory – he refers to it as a ‘travel guide’ in ‘Reassembling the Social’. Perhaps this is what we as scholars should aim for – to produce travel guides in media studies? I find this idea somewhat inspirational…

  5. I actually do not think I there is a disagreement between Karin and myself here, and I do not disagree with the necessity of a critique of theory. I was rather trying to point out a tradition of thought that might help to frame Smith’s views in a broader context (with regrad to Lotte: the reference to ‘dance’ here is, I suppose, a direct reference to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, who only wants to believe in a God that knows how to dance, and he says: “Ye higher men, the worst thing in you is that ye have none of you learned to dance as ye ought to dance- to dance beyond yourselves!”).

    And indeed, there is method, that’s what I said: theory is by definition partial, selective and depends on a viewpoint, but that you can explore in a mehtodical way.
    As for Latour: he deals with questions of method here (funny, serious and confusing:

  6. My comment wasn’t a disagreement.

    I realize I tend to be disagreeable – it is, however, often simply provocation, take it with a grain of salt. I find it more fruitful to push the limits of theory, particularly with a walking library in the likes of prof. Kessler as I learn a lot more from being wrong than I do from being right!

    see also: Calvin&Hobbes

  7. I must admit that Smith is a well-read scholar and the article made me want to read more Jean Baudrillard and Nigel Thrift. However, the text is muddled at moments and contains too many way too diverse references. It reminded me a PhD student I know in UU who is a very smart person but struggles to convey numerous ideas in a cohesive way.

    However, I would like to react to prof. Kessler’s comment by saying I do not think that Smith (or is it just regurgitated Baudrillard?) proposes the relinquishment of theory as such. It is more of a plea for alternative theories (or maybe ways of thinking?). However, in this pursuit I would rather follow Deleuze and Deleuzians (Massumi included) than Smith as I am afraid to get lost with the latter…

    In my modest opinion, Baudrillard’s problem is generated by his chase for reality. Even though he proposes that we live in hyperreality, his parlance ultimately is immersed in semiotics, which is based on the reading of signs. In a recent lecture given in Technobodies class prof. Rosi Braidotti observed and interesting remark that in fact we are surrounded by codes rather than by signs standing for models.

    My problem is with the labelling of the theory Smith addresses. Notwithstanding the fact that it moves from representational towards nonrepresentational, representation either way remains crucial, thereby undermining the inversion. The discourse on signs is still there and I am afraid only that. Whereas if the construction of reality is addressed we come to realise that the burning of signs (maps?) will not advance our knowledge as we will only remain gaping at them ablaze.

    What is crucial is to rethink simulation as a potentiality. Merely classifying Baudrillard’s work (into representational/nonrepresentational or whichever goddamn binaries one might choose) does not advance as anywhere. Smith’s text is chasing a ghost. Even though I love the poetics of the notion of dance, the way he performs it is rather bungling. Besides, throughout the whole text Deleuzian language is being employed very explicitly yet without clear references. All in all – Smith should read Massumi.

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