Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)
Author: Valerio Baćak
Review of: Paul Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.
There are many ways in which one can write about Baudrillard, but there are not many ways in which his scholarship can be presented as a whole. Basically, the choice is between a chronological portrayal and a depiction through a discussion of main terms and concepts. This endeavor necessarily includes breaking an already fragmentary Baudrillard into even smaller pieces and then putting it all back together. Nevertheless, Paul Hegarty has succeeded in giving us a comprehensive picture, both chronological and conceptual, demonstrating his willingness, more than anything, to argue for Baudrillard.
In this comprehensive work, Hegarty offers a wide array of notes about the main notions of Baudrillard’s work. He traces his whole theoretical trajectory by examining the main elements of his opus while pointing to the two key ideas: symbolic exchange and simulation. Ranging from its early sociological efforts as presented in The System of Objects and The Consumer Society, all the way to the contemporary moment when Baudrillard’s texts “have become increasingly aphoristic, speculative and often free of argument as such”.1 He discusses here the concepts of functionality of objects in a consumer society, and freedom of choice in a world of objects, going on to say in a slightly critical tone how “in the early works we are left without a sense of causality, even though it would be useful to the project Baudrillard undertakes”.2
An important theoretical issue is the moment when the Marxist logic was dismantled in Baudrillard’s work that took place with the problematization of production as a category. “For Baudrillard, there is a fundamental lack of analysis, whether in Marx, or by Marxists, of production per se”.3 And this is most vivid in the Mirror of Production where a firm critique of Marx is made when Baudrillard concludes that Marxism, just like “bourgeois economics” keeps capitalism going. It is at this moment of his theoretical development that Baudrillard “creatively forgets” Marxism moving on to Bataillean general economy. “In fact, even before Marx is more or less discarded, Bataille has taken up residence in Baudrillard’s text”.4 Hegarty portrays Bataillean influence as highly significant, one Baudrillard himself didn’t acknowledge appropriately. An excellent confirmation of this point is in Baudrillard’s “fundamental acceptance of Bataillean anti-economics”.
A major figure, along with Bataille, is Marcel Mauss whose idea of the gift provides another point of reference for the notions of exchange in the midst of an anti-economic theorizing. After the initial critical recapitulation of Baudrillard’s early works, and the most influential intellectual predecessors upon whom Baudrillard has built his work, Hegarty discusses, almost in a form of a glossary, the main terms and concepts, passwords to be more precise. The selection is commendable, as he gives a thorough and concise overview of the constitutive elements of Baudrillardian scholarship. These include the real, seduction, the fatal, Evil, illusion, impossible exchange, the transpolitical, terrorism, war, the event, the virtual, the body, nature, digital media and photography. A reader familiar with Baudrillard’s texts is certainly familiar with these terms, and their meanings, but anyone starting to match the Baudrillardian puzzle will profit significantly from this “glossary”.
Hegarty argues that “any reading would have to concede that Baudrillard’s first four books feature Marxist ideas heavily, even if his is a cultural, less than dogmatic Marxism”.5 And he goes on to say that the early period was also structuralist, and strongly influenced by psychoanalysis, both of which are later replaced by “symbolic exchange” and the problem of “the status of the real”. Furthermore, in one of the last chapters in the book, he reminds that “Baudrillard wears his influences lightly,6 going on to name them. First of all, he mentions the student revolt of 1968, while inferring that “Baudrillard still maintains the hope of 1968, in its capacity to disrupt, if nothing else”.7 Then, he emphasizes a few authors whom he sees as Baudrillard’s fellow travelers through the years. These are, as one could have expected, George Bataille, Friedrich Nietzsche, Marshall McLuhan, Michel Foucault, Paul Virilio, J. G. Ballard, Elias Canetti and Arthur Kroker, the last being an author whose work is “a natural, excessive extension of Baudrillard”8 in the form of ultra modernism. And, finally, he discusses the relation between Baudrillard and contemporary art.
One of the eight chapters in the book is an interview Hegarty conducted with Baudrillard in 2003. Here we find a discussion of the war in Iraq, the way artists have always misunderstood his writings, about television, South America, Michel Houellebecq, The Matrix, Bataille, photography, and the contemporary writers Baudrillard reads (he speaks approvingly about Žižek and Agamben). Inclusion of the interview in the book serves both as a refreshment and a dynamic addition to the more static exploration of theory in preceding chapters. Here many of the terms discussed in the previous chapters come to “life”. It is a great way to wrap up the explanatory effort to make Baudrillard more intelligible to his readers.
In sum, Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory is a significant contribution not only to the body of work aiming at introducing Baudrillard to new readership, but it also contributes to the work that deals with Baudrillard as someone we are able to work with. The fact is, as Hegarty argues in the first pages of the book, “Baudrillard’s views, whether the reader believes them to be right or wrong, are very difficult to put to use, or to apply directly”.9 Nevertheless, the prospect of using Baudrillard will become more likely and plausible if there continues to be a continuous flow of such fine comprehensive and critical scholarship discussing his oeuvre.
About the Author:
Valerio Baćak is from the Sociology Department, Faculty of Philosophy, University of Zagreb, Croatia.
1 – Paul Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. London and New York: Continuum, 2004:1.
2 – Ibid.:17.
3 – Ibid.:28.
4 – Ibid.:34.
5 – Ibid.:13.
6 – Ibid.:150.
7 – Ibid.:152.
8 – Ibid.:158.
9 – Ibid.:2.