ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 15, Number 1 (November 2018)
Author: Brian Gogan

In 1989, Suzanne Moore and Stephen Johnstone interviewed Jean Baudrillard for an issue of Marxism Today. The published interview appeared under the title “Politics of Seduction,” and, under that title, appeared a standfirst that declared: “The high priest of postmodernism, Jean Baudrillard, has become the trendiest philosopher in town” (Moore and Johnstone 1989: 54). Following the publication of the Marxism Today interview and its standfirst, the “high priest” title was swiftly taken up by scholars who were invested in the study of postmodernism and Baudrillard. Among these scholars were Steven Best and Douglas Kellner. In 1991, Best and Kellner’s Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations recognizes that Baudrillard “was crowned as a high priest of the new epoch” (111). Though the “high priest” title circulated widely, Baudrillard spurned it. In a 1991 interview with Mike Gane, Baudrillard states that “This reference to priesthood is out of place, I think” (Baudrillard 1993: 21). The title, in fact, compelled Baudrillard to concede that once people “put that label on you” the label “sticks” (ibid. 22; cf. Jourde and Laroche 2015: 8). Despite Baudrillard’s protests, the “high priest of postmodernism” title constitutes an often-repeated refrain that has, time and time again, influenced and challenged receptions of Baudrillard and his writing (cf. Clarke, Doel, Merrin, and Smith 2009: 4-5). In fact, the title has endured and stuck with Baudrillard nearly thirty years after its printing.

The title of “high priest” has been applied to other domains beside postmodernism and other individuals beside Baudrillard. For one, the scholarship on the theory and practice of indexing bestows the title of “high priest” on those individuals who compose indexes—those individuals called indexers. Appearing in a 2011 issue of The Indexer, the peer-reviewed journal of the Society of Indexers, the comparison between a high priest and an indexer is advanced by James Harbeck, who unflappably states that “an indexer is of course like a high priest” (160, emphasis added). For Harbeck, the comparison between the indexer and the high priest is based upon a shared position and purpose, wherein both the high priest and the indexer find themselves “mediating between the human and the divine, or rather the author and reader” (ibid.). Similarly positioned as mediators who are wedged in between two parties, both the high priest and the indexer share the purpose of helping one party relate to the other party. Moreover, the high priest and the indexer accomplish their shared purpose by producing texts that facilitate relationships between, respectively, the human and the divine and the author and the reader. By producing texts, both figures engage in acts of mediation that assist parties in building relationships with one another. Thus, the high priest and the indexer are, at root, communicators, and their shared positionality reflects the shared purpose of their communications—namely, relation through mediation.

Following Harbeck, then, this article focuses on Gerry Coulter’s position as a high priest. Coulter was of course like a high priest, for Coulter was a mediator who produced texts that helped Baudrillard’s readers relate to Baudrillard’s writing. The texts that Coulter produced with the purpose of helping readers relate to Baudrillard were many and wide-ranging. Coulter mediated Baudrillard’s writing by publishing dozens of articles and three monographs all acutely focused on Baudrillard (Coulter 2016). And, Coulter’s launch and careful management of the open-access peer-reviewed journal the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies proves an act of mediation that has probably gone the furthest in establishing the study of Baudrillard as a global and transdisciplinary field of study (cf. Coulter 2010). These accomplishments notwithstanding, the text that most specifically positions Coulter as a high priest is the same text that most specifically positions Coulter as an indexer, Coulter’s 2007 “Never Travel on an Aeroplane with God”: The Baudrillard Index—An Obscene Project. In keeping with Harbeck’s comparison, the publication of this 475-page index on the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies website ordained Coulter-the-indexer as one of the high priests of Baudrillard studies.

With ample reference both to Baudrillard’s writings and to indexing scholarship, the remainder of this article pays tribute to Coulter by considering how The Baudrillard Index functions with respect to communicative paradigms and priorities, as well as with respect to processes of production and consumption. This article holds that, given Coulter’s self-stated purpose for writing the index, the global accessibility of the index, and Baudrillard’s writing style, The Baudrillard Index points the field of Baudrillard studies forward, providing scholars across the globe, myself included, with extraordinarily effective direction as we attempt to navigate Baudrillard’s work.

Reversing Communicative Paradigms, Priorities, and Processes

To successfully fulfill the overarching purpose of mediation through relation, high priests—Baudrillard and Coulter, included—produce texts. The mediating texts produced by priestly thinkers and indexers, alike, confront and, in many ways, challenge communicative paradigms, priorities, and processes.

For example, when Baudrillard discusses the process of simulation, he frequently invokes the relationship between a question and an answer to illustrate the way that simulation fundamentally challenges communicative paradigms. Whereas a more conventional communicative paradigm understands questions preceding answers and answers responding to questions, the communicative paradigm associated with simulation merges questions and answers into a “new operational configuration” (Baudrillard [1976] 1993: 57), or what Baudrillard describes as “a gigantic operational game of question and answer” ([1973] 1975:126–27). Rather than encouraging a linear response with a question coming before an answer, simulation encourages a “circular response” with the distinction between a question and an answer all but erased (Baudrillard [1981] 1994: 75). A question and an answer become a “question/answer” (Baudrillard [1976] 1993: 57). And, once configured as a question/answer, the question can be imposed as answer and the answer can be imposed as question. Thus, an answer becomes capable of preceding a question and, consequently, reversing the conventional communicative paradigm.

Like the process of simulation, an index also reverses the conventional communicative paradigm. As a communicative act, the composition of an index is, as David Crystal has observed, “a truly strange behavior” (1995: 153). Crystal, who once served as the president of the Society of Indexers, explains that indexes try “to anticipate every query about content which future readers of a publication might have” (ibid.). As such, Crystal considers the work of the indexer as “an interesting reversal of communicative priorities,” in which the indexer attempts “to provide answers to a host of unasked questions” (ibid.). From Crystal’s perspective then, an index can be understood as a text that reverses convention and provides answers before questions. But, perhaps a more accurate—and more Baudrillardian—account of an index’s communicative function is given by Elaine Ménard, who suggests that the relationship between the questions and answers enshrouding an index is a relationship that approximates the chicken-and-egg relationship (2011: 150). Similar to Baudrillard ([1983] 2008: 112), Ménard invokes the chicken-and-egg relationship to challenge assumptions as to whether questions precede answers or whether answers precede questions. Ménard, in fact, advances a finer rhetorical point about an index, asking whether the indexer’s act of composing the index (i.e., “indexing”) precedes the reader’s act of using the index to retrieve information (i.e., “retrieval”), or whether retrieval precedes indexing (2011: 150). The implication is that precedence does not matter with respect to the communicative function of an index, for an index continually reverses questions and answers as well as indexing and retrieval in such a way that it erases distinctions based upon precedence.

Coulter’s index operates similarly, in that its 475 pages perpetually erase distinctions based upon precedence and reverse the conventional communicative relationships between questions and answers as well as between indexing and retrieval. However, Coulter’s index further enacts a kind of reversal that is neither mentioned by Crystal nor Ménard—namely, a reversal involving the reader and the writer, or the textual consumer and the textual producer. In the literature on indexing, the widespread assumption is that the audience for an index is a reader. The literature assumes that indexes are composed to help readers read—that indexes are produced by writers for consumption by readers; that the productive processes of writing an index lead to the consumptive processes of reading an index and, in turn, an author’s work. Coulter’s index challenges this assumption by reversing the roles of readers and writers, consumption and production. Coulter signals this reversal most explicitly in the introduction to his index, where he explains that the document was made available “to assist those writing about Baudrillard” (2007: 1, emphasis added). Coulter, in no uncertain terms, envisions his index to be read by writers, who would, in turn, produce more writing involving Baudrillard. To be sure, the relationship that Coulter reverses—i.e., the relationship between readers and writers—is yet another rhetorical manifestation of the kind of chicken-and-egg relationship that has been contemplated and complicated by Baudrillard, Ménard, and others (cf. Kaufer and Waller 1985) for decades. By targeting readers and writers, and well as writers-as-readers and readers-as-writers, Coulter’s index all but erases the distinction between writers and readers, production and consumption. Coulter’s index operates in such a way that it unconventionally allows writers to take the place of readers and production to impose as consumption. Like Baudrillard’s notion of simulation, then, the productive processes that undergird Coulter’s index challenge conventional communicative paradigms, priorities, and processes.

Pointing Toward the Production of a Transdisciplinary Field

By challenging conventional communicative paradigms, reversing typical communicative priorities, and all but erasing the distinction between productive and consumptive processes, Coulter’s index subtly but significantly moves the transdisciplinary study of Baudrillard forward and serves a testament to Coulter’s position as a high priest in the field of Baudrillard Studies.

The index—that is, the “alphabetical list” of names and subjects that give an “indication of the places in which” these names and subjects appear in a particular work or across a body of work (“Index” 2007: entry 5)—is a text that functions to point. Etymologically, the words indication and indicate find their origin in the Latin word index, which initially connoted both a forefinger and an informer (“Index” 2007: etymology). In more contemporary usage, the word index can be used to refer to a “piece of wood, metal, or the like, which serves as a pointer;” a principle that “serves to direct or point to a particular fact or conclusion;” or, a “sign, token, or indication of something” (“Index” 2007: entries 2 and 4, emphasis original). In some cultures, index fingers are those fingers typically used to point or to direct (cf. “Index” 2007: entry 1). And, as Harbeck reminds, the word index, when it is used to refer to a typographical figure, quite literally refers to an image of a pointing hand: EGHF (2011: 157). As the etymology of the word index makes clear, the 475-page list composed by Coulter provides scholars who study Baudrillard with valuable direction as they read and write. Coulter, by way of his index, is quite decidedly pointing scholars toward Baudrillard, identifying places across his oeuvre that connect to a wide variety of scholarly projects, interests, and identities.

Indeed, Coulter’s index proves extremely effective on account of its accessibility to scholars across the globe and its ability to complement Baudrillard’s approach to writing. The index, as Coulter describes the text, “is the only cumulative index of Baudrillard’s books (most of which were not indexed)” and is a text that has been visited by over “16,000 researchers” (2016). Thus, Coulter’s index stands as a lone, but extraordinarily effective, guide. The index offers explicit direction to a worldwide audience of readers and writers, who are attempting to navigate Baudrillard’s work. In some instances, no other such direction to Baudrillard’s work exists. Thus, the index points thousands of otherwise lost individuals to specific places in Baudrillard’s oeuvre. At these specific places, The Baudrillard Index shines. Scholars familiar with Baudrillard’s writing regularly note that Baudrillard’s writing is difficult to navigate. Chris Rojek and Bryan S. Turner, for instance, characterize Baudrillard’s writings as both “whimsical” and “unstructured” (1993: xv). Additionally, Martin Slattery contends that Baudrillard’s method of argumentation “relies upon ‘persuasive’ examples” and that Baudrillard’s “style of writing is itself difficult to decipher” (2003: 263). Ryan Bishop further observes that Baudrillard’s “writings and books have deviated rather widely from the conventions of sociological or philosophical genres and academic writing by reaching into the humanistic essay tradition (long since abandoned) and combining it with the most current of pressing issues” (2009: 67-68). And, Mike Gane repeatedly addresses Baudrillard’s embrace of the aphorism or fragment (1991; 2008). Regardless of the reason why readers and writers experience difficulty navigating Baudrillard’s writing, Baudrillard’s approach to writing—its loose, sometimes fragmentary, structure and its brief invocations and often glancing discussions of particular subjects and names—makes a cumulative index of Baudrillard’s work all the more important to researchers. With reference to the index and direction from Coulter, readers and writers prove capable of efficiently retrieving information from Baudrillard’s writing and using that information to advance the consumption and production of Baudrillard as a subject of scholarly study.

To be sure, my own experience writing about Baudrillard attests to the effectiveness of Coulter’s index. Fittingly, as I compose this piece on Coulter’s impact as an indexer on our field, I am also composing the index to my book: Jean Baudrillard: The Rhetoric of Symbolic Exchange. Late in the review process of this book, an editor requested that I illustrate my claims about Baudrillard with reference to an extended illustration. The question that this editor asked was: How can you illustrate Baudrillard’s rhetorical theory? Searching for answers to this question, I eventually turned to Coulter’s index, hoping that The Baudrillard Index might assist me in finding what I gauged to be the perfect illustration of Baudrillard’s rhetorical theory—an illustration that was contemporary, accessible, and not overly discussed in the scholarship on Baudrillard. I was, in other words, reading the index to write more about Baudrillard. All the while, I was trusting Coulter to point me in the right direction. I put my faith in Coulter-the-indexer as a kind of high priest, and I was guided to one particular entry among hundreds of others catalogued in Coulter’s index. The entry reads: “Lacks, Henrietta, tumor cells continue to proliferate in the lab and in space, IX:27; V:5” (Coulter 2007: 204, emphasis original). This entry referenced Baudrillard’s 1999 short discussions of Henrietta Lacks (Baudrillard [1999] 2000; [1999] 2001), and I was drawn to the idea of using these discussions to illustrate Baudrillard’s rhetorical theory. As illustration, these two discussions were fresh, accessible, and contemporary. With the possible exception of Arne De Boever’s treatment of Baudrillard’s The Vital Illusion (2012), scant analysis of these discussions exists; yet, the story of Lacks is one that has grown in popularity in the time since Baudrillard’s comments—first, with the 2010 publication of Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and, second, with the 2017 release of George C. Wolfe’s television movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which stars Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne. Thus, with the index’s assistance, I located a prime illustration of Baudrillard’s rhetorical theory in the treatments of Lacks that were published by both Baudrillard and Skloot. Through one index entry, Coulter pointed me to two particular places in Baudrillard’s work and enabled me to establish a relationship between the Baudrillard’s reading of and writing about Lacks and my own.

In its impact on me and my writing, Coulter’s index proves a remarkably effective text. Well before my editor or I posed questions about an illustrative example, Coulter and The Baudrillard Index supplied answers. Well before I attempted to retrieve any information about Baudrillard’s discussions of Lacks, Coulter comprehensively compiled and organized that information into the text of the index. Well before I composed my analysis of these discussions, Coulter and his index encouraged me to write, urging me to further produce Baudrillard and his comments about Lacks as a subject of study.

Producing Priests, Challenging Convention

As noted in this piece’s opening paragraph, Baudrillard viewed references to his own priesthood with disapproval. He was even more disapproving of unchecked and unchallenged processes of production (cf. [1973] 1975; [1976] 1993; [1981] 1994). Quite possibly, then, Baudrillard would have been uneasy with, if not outright disapproving of, this piece’s purpose—that is, its attempt at producing yet another high priest. Nonetheless, this article has underscored the importance of Coulter’s work as an indexer to our field and the importance of his index to researchers around the globe. The Baudrillard Index points readers and writers toward Baudrillard and assists scholars in developing a more nuanced relationship with Baudrillard’s work. While this kind of assistance is fundamentally productive, its larger effect is that of challenge and transformation.

Baudrillard, I would argue, challenged conventional thought, discourse, and perception (cf. Gogan 2018). And, by engaging with Baudrillard’s work, scholars necessarily engage with this challenge. Baudrillard studies scholars mobilize Baudrillard’s work and writing in order to continue his challenge of convention. We channel Baudrillard as we perceive alterity, invent seductive discourse, and think ambivalent thoughts. In doing so, we transform our thoughts, statements, and perceptions; we transform constructions of time, truth, and reality; and, we engage in symbolic exchange. When we begin to relate to Baudrillard and engage in the radical exchange of thought, discourse, and perception, we begin to challenge and transform ourselves—as scholars and as people. Of course, we have Baudrillard to thank for this challenge, this transformation, this metamorphosis. But, we are also forever grateful to Gerry Coulter for providing us with the guidance necessary to do so.


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