Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)
Author: Dr. Gerry Coulter
If you put something out you are in the hands of others – that’s perfectly normal. It’s also normal that there is a certain type of aggression against someone who writes. So you send it out, and something has to come back. It could be agreement, but it could also be an attack, like you see in some conferences. A sort of challenge. It’s not a malicious attack, it’s a bit symbolic. …This relation has to be there – play, challenge, reversion. I believe it’s an essential relation, and it’s exactly what is missing in the current climate.1
…we all remain incredibly naive: we always look for a good usage of the image, that is to say a moral, meaningful, pedagogic or informational usage, without seeing that in a sense the image revolts against this usage, that it is the conductor neither of meaning nor good intentions, but on the contrary of an implosion, a denegation of meaning…2
The evil demon of the image, reversibility, and challenge emerge frequently from the eight articles and nine book reviews in this issue of IJBS. At several junctures Baudrillard’s thought is challenged which is an important aspect of the work of this journal. We do not want Baudrillard left only to challenge himself!3 For his part, Baudrillard continues his own form of challenge in his two contributions.
Baudrillard’s “War Porn” is certain to be one of his short articles that remains with us for some time because of the reversal it records and powerfully performs. In it he looks to the damage the Americans have inflicted on themselves in the photographs of the torture of the inmates of Abu Ghraib prison. Here, especially in the image of the prisoner threatened with electrocution by his American tormenters, America electrocutes itself in what Baudrillard calls “an immanent justice of the image”. The country that so relies upon images to deliver virtual democratization, watches as its promise of bringing democracy to the world is belied and perishes in the return of these images. The image that warms, ultimately burns as a growing acatastasis seeps from the screens of the great telecracy.
In his article “Baudrillard, Globalization and Terrorism…”, Douglas Kellner notes that “Baudrillard has long reflected on the evil genius of images”, the “obscene”, and “the ecstasy of communication”. The tone of Kellner’s piece reminds me of something Paul Hegarty says in his new book: “Baudrillard writes on, and sometimes the world catches up”.4 Kellner, pointing to “the saliency of Baudrillard’s categories for engaging contemporary culture”,5 shows that he has begun to catch up to the post 9-11 Baudrillard, whom he prefers over the pre 9-11 Baudrillard. Kellner does however, maintain a significant tension with Baudrillard on the best approach to human rights, democracy, and justice, continuing his spirited challenge to Baudrillard in these areas.
Baudrillard’s second article: “From Radical Incertitude, or Thought as Imposter” presents a snap-shot of much of his thought at the close of the millennium as it appeared in The Perfect Crime, Impossible Exchange, and The Vital Illusion.6 Here, in one of his distinctive reversals, Baudrillard questions the chain of causality that undergrids so much of western thought. In its place he finds an incertitude which is total. The world may indeed be catching up to Baudrillard but he continues to find ways of disappearing over the next horizon.
The photographic image returns as the subject of papers by Rex Butler and Nicholas Ruiz. For Butler, Baudrillard’s photography is in the mode of seduction: an invocation “to the Other, to the object – to emerge from the disappearance [of the subject]”. This is not a narcissistic identification with the Other, nor is it in Butler’s view, a symbolic relationship, but rather, an impossible exchange. Butler points to Baudrillard’s photography (his enigmatic “light writing”), as similar to the enigma of Baudrillard’s thought in general. For Ruiz, selected examples of Baudrillard’s photography serve to confirm his literary extermination of reality. In Baudrillard’s photographs Ruiz finds: “the antithesis of the cultural artefacts that bombard us daily in the form of manufactured images”. Both Butler and Ruiz tread a dangerous path when they look for something similar in Baudrillard’s photography and his writing. Both know well Baudrillard’s understanding that his writing and photography are not connected. As he told Nicholas Zurbrugg:
I know a little about photography … but not very much. I came to it as a diversion or a hobby … and yet at the same time, it was also something serious, in the sense that it offered an alternative to writing – it was a completely different activity which came from elsewhere and had no connection with writing.7
Yet, Butler and Ruiz each embrace the opportunity to both engage the joy of Baudrillard’s photography, and to present the challenge to him to see relationships between his writing and his photography in ways he did not foresee when he spoke with Zurbrugg on the matter.
Alan Cholodenko’s paper: ‘OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR’ The Virtual Reality of Jurassic Park and Jean Baudrillard” from a decade ago, appears here at a time when many are looking for relationships between Baudrillard’s thought and the movies, especially the Matrix trilogy. Cholodenko has many interesting things to say to those who look for relationships between Baudrillard’s thought and cinema. His paper is, in its own way, also a challenge to Baudrillard’s thought on the matter in a general sense, if not one specific to either Jurassic Park (or the Matrix).8 Baudrillard may lament the loss of the cinema of his youth,9 but it appears that another kind of (virtual) cinema has found his work and in its own way offers a challenge to Baudrillard.10
Richard Smith’s paper “Lights, Camera, Action” points to similarities between the non-representational ideas of Baudrillard and the recent writing among non-representational theorists (especially in the area of interest to political geographers), concerning performativity and the effects of representations. Against writers like David Harvey who make preposterous claims about Baudrillard’s “Reagan admiring”, Smith maintains that Baudrillard favours a radical mindset that surpasses the common intellectual habit of analyzing images to create meaning. For Smith, Baudrillard is the non-representational thinker par excellence. Smith’s paper also represents an invitation and challenge to non-representational theorists to respond.
Among the things IJBS is pleased to do is to contribute to the pedagogic environment in some quarters of the university where students are no longer protected from Baudrillard’s writing. Jason De Boer’s article is an excellent piece for introductory classes on Baudrillard. It opens passages to many aspects of Baudrillard’s writing on theory which students are eager to discuss. De Boer is a talented writer whose prose infuriates at one moment, then elicits a smile the next. It comes highly recommended for seminar classes in contemporary theory where students are sharing both the joys and frustrations of reading Baudrillard for the first time.
Finally, my short piece on Derrida is written out of respect for a philosopher whose life, work, and death have not been taken seriously by the mainstream media in recent weeks. If my hypothesis is correct – the life, work, and death of Derrida has presented the mainstream media with a challenge they can only finally repay by their own death (several down payments having already been made).
Volume 2, Number 1 of IJBS also presents nine book reviews which touch upon our enigmatic English construct: French theory. William Bogard writes a review of Manuel De Landa’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. De Landa is a prolific transdisciplinarian whose books emanate from that space of confronting the world (and Baudrillard) that is the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.11 Like Mike Gane who deeply problematizes efforts to construct Baudrillard as postmodern,12 De Landa reminds us, as Bogard points out, that “Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy cannot be dismissed as postmodern metaphor”.
Stuart Elden has contributed a review of two books: Mike Gane’s French Social Theory and François Cusset’s French Theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis. Elden finds both books comprehensive and illuminating: Gane the more precise, Cusset more broad. Barry Edginton also contributes a review of Gane’s book which he finds to be “extraordinarily accomplished” and one that will be of use to teachers of social theory. Eugene O’Brien functions as a foreign agent in his review of Lotringer and Cohen’s French Theory in America, playing against Stanley Kurtz’s warning to the United States Congress that French theory may be Anti-American13 . O’Brien does little to assuage Kurtz by trading Bush’s simplistic certainty for Baudrillard’s radical uncertainty.
Brett Conway’s review of Slavoj Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real, takes us on a popular culture adventure which includes a Neil Young concert and his film Greendale. Conway takes very seriously Zizek’s challenge to cultural studies practitioners to risk taking the step of radicalizing their critical stance. Conway says he saw one such effort in Greendale, which in its own way “undermines the mainstream framework for defining terror”.
Leonard Steverson’s review of Cormack’s Sociology and Mass Culture, focuses on the roles of totems, tropes and manifestos. Steverson emerges from the reading with a sense of a lineage from Durkheim to Mills to Baudrillard, or as Cormack will have it – a repetition. My challenge to both Cormack and Steverson is to weigh very carefully the strengths and weaknesses of such an approach to these thinkers (as Gane has done better than Cormack in my view).
The work of Paul Virilio (Crepuscular Dawn and Ground Zero) is taken up in a review by Anne-Marie Obajtek-Kirkwood while Crepuscular Dawn alone is the subject of a review by Pramod Nayar. Obajtek-Kirkwood and Nayar similarly find a power and urgency in the work of Virilio. For Obajtek-Kirkwood Virilio does not enjoy the cataclysmic prospects of his thinking, but at present, the power of discourse is the only power left. For Nayar, Virilio’s important work misses an opportunity to address “one of the most important transformations in the urban space of Western cities”: the re-creation of the contemporary European city as the “city of refuge” for the world’s poor. This too constitutes an important challenge to Virilio.
Finally, Masud Taj’s review of Francesco Proto’s Mass Identity Architecture offers an important challenge to Baudrillard. Taj, an architect, does not like what Baudrillard has to say about the masses but Taj is not simply writing an apology for Beaubourg (Centre Pompidou). Taj’s challenge to Baudrillard must be taken seriously even if one is left to wonder if it is Baudrillard’s theory that fulfils itself or is it the case that the Beaubourg isn’t up to the confrontation? I for one have tried to like the Centre Pompidou but in the end it is akin to trying to make oneself like television. Beaubourg is quite like a huge TV, absolute banality – a deterrence machine.14 Beaubourg as a museum is a vast simulation. It is a huge box containing hundreds of items but only a few of them are interesting and this not surprising since art is not the reason for its existence. To get a sense of this, one need only approach the Centre Pompidou’s architecture from a few meters away. The dominant and repetitive architectural feature of Beaubourg’s huge entry facade is the “X”, an architecture that utters one word loudly, over and over: “NO” (figure one)15 .
We do not require the security signs (and there are many) to make us wary of a close encounter with this object, for it is all very much like being too close to something menacing (figure two). One thing I will say for Beaubourg is that nowhere else do surveillance cameras look more at home (figure three) and this reminds us of Beaubourg’s real place – not in the world of art, but in the surveillant assemblage of global tourism. Beaubourg may be a vast simulation, but it is an honest one – it doesn’t want your thoughts, your singularity, it doesn’t like you and it looks you square in the eye and tells you so. The masses do play an important role at Beaubourg – they feed the machine that in turn feeds (but cannot nourish) them.
These are some of the thoughts provoked by Taj’s salient review which has served to remind me (as do, to some extent, each article and review in this issue) that the real is always a challenge to theory, and that theory is best used as a challenge to the real.16
About the Author:
Gerry Coulter is the founder and Editor of IJBS.
1 – See Jean Baudrillard in Chapter Six (“Interview with Jean Baudrillard”) of Paul Hegarty’s Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2004:135.
2 – Jean Baudrillard. The Evil Demon of Images: The 1984 Maria Kuttna Lecture on Film. Sydney, Australia: Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1987:23. Translated by Paul Patton and Paul Foss.
3 – See Jean Baudrillard in: “Interview with Jean Baudrillard” in Paul Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard Live Theory. New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2004:135.
4 – Paul Hegarty in Ibid.:1. Among the book’s eight chapters are included: “System and Exchange: From Marxism to the Symbolic”, “Simulation and the Decay of the Real”, “Geopolitics of the Real”, “Before and After Baudrillard”.
5 – Douglas Kellner. “Baudrillard, Globalization and Terrorism: Some Comments on Recent Adventures of the Image and Spectacle on the Occasion of Baudrillard’s 75th Birthday”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005).
6 – See Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. Paris: Editions Galilee, 1995. English translation by Chris Turner, New York: Verso, 1996; Impossible Exchange. Paris: Editions Galilee, 1999. English translation by Chris Turner. London: Sage, 2001; and The Vital Illusion. Edited by Julia Witwer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. (Wellek Lectures in Critical Theory, May 1999, University of California, Irvine).
7 – Jean Baudrillard in Nicholas Zurbrugg. “The Ecstacy of Photography: Interview with Jean Baudrillard” in Art and Artefact. London: Sage, 1997.
< 8 – For Baudrillard’s thought on the matter see: “The Matrix Decoded: Les Nouvel Observateur Interview With Jean Baudrillard”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 1, Number 2 (July 2004).
9 – Jean Baudrillard. Interview with Gane and Arnaud in Baudrillard Live, 1993:23
10 – See endnote 8.
11 – See Sylvere Lotringer. “Doing Theory” in Lotringer and Sande Cohen’s French Theory In America. New York: Routledge, 2001:152. Lotringer writes that Deleuze and Guattari “despised Baudrillard’s ideas for ‘demobilizing’ people, turning them away from political action”.
12 – See Mike Gane. Jean Baudrillard in Radical Uncertainty. London: Pluto, 2000.
13 – Kurtz’s expression of fear brings two passages to my mind: First, Baudrillard’s remark: “I shall never forgive anyone who passes a condescending or contemptuous judgment on America (Cool Memories I, c1987, 1990:209), and secondly Kristeva’s statement to Americans: “I love your country… its immensity, this landscape that seems to open toward an unknown promise, the naïve and sometimes brutal freshness of its inhabitants… the speed and the simplicity of your streets and of your academia”. Julia Kristeva. “Europhilia, Europhobia” in Sylvere Lotringer and Sande Cohen. French Theory in America. New York: Routledge, 2001:33.
14 – For another take on Beaubourg see Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c1981). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:61-70.
We could of course add that the Tour Montparnasse is an even worse monster, were it not for the secret purpose of this building. To understand the secret of Tour Montparnasse one must stand amidst the grave markers of the Cimetière de Montparnasse looking Northwest. There, rising out of the stones and crosses, we find the monolithic Tour an extension of the cemetery – a grave marker for modernity itself. This in the city which is said to be the “capital of modernity” (David Harvey, Routledge, 2003). A city that treated modernist architecture (exiling it to the far end of the city) with an even greater indifference than modernist architecture could itself offer.
15 – I took these photographs of the Centre Pompidou in April 2003. Until reading Taj’s book review I did not fully understand why.
16 – See Jean Baudrillard, Interview with Sylvere Lotringer in Forget Foucault: Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:124. Translated by Nicole Dufresne.