Volume 15, Number 1 (November 2018)
Author: Jonathan Fardy
A Different World
One death changes the world. Jacques Derrida’s memorable claim in The Work of Mourning poignantly captures the sense of loss – loss that is final – without the salve of that hopeful and healing dialectic.1 A death entails the death of a world whose totality once included the one who is now gone. The loss of that one person entails the loss of that specific world. Death makes the world different in a final and irrevocable way. The world is different and decidedly so with the passing of Gerry Coulter. Through that life and that world lived another life and another world: Jean Baudrillard to whose work and memory the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies serves now as a dual memorial marking Jean and Gerry’s contributions to life and the honor of thinking.
I didn’t know Gerry personally. I knew him only as someone who I respected from afar and who took a chance on a not-yet-newly-minted PhD when he published a brief essay of mine on Baudrillard and Sloterdijk. My last encounter with Gerry was via email. He wrote to tell me that another article of mine – this one on Baudrillard and Cady Noland – had been accepted. I followed a few days later with a new essay for submission. I was sheepish. I thought it may be pushy to follow so closely with another submission. Gerry put me at ease, “we place no limits on good writing”, he wrote. The next I knew Gerry was gone. And now I’m writing these words and I feel already I’ve said too much about myself and not enough about Gerry. Already then in the course of writing on the death of another, I am risking a narcissistic re-appropriation of that loss. But we know that the economy of writing is a “general economy” in Georges Bataille’s sense. It is an economy that never guarantees the recuperative work of meaning, the solace of remembrance, or the surety that the letter of the text will find its way to the addressee who in any event remains unknown and quite possibly multiple. Such are the risks and labors of writing and remembering.
It’s been a difficult year. In politics the right is on the march. A simulacrum of a businessman – whose money came from selling facades of wealth and a reality-show fantasy – has moved into the White House, and the world of “post-truth” televisual politics. Debord’s “society of the spectacle” seems almost quaint compared to what we face now. For we are beyond spectacle, beyond the place where the line between spectacle and substance means anything in mainstream political discourse. We need Baudrillard’s blend of cynicism and criticism. We need to answer the enigma of Trump with the more-enigmatic-than-the-enigmatic. Gerry seemed to look for that in writing. He went looking for something more than what academe – so smugly, self-satisfied with its disavowed neo-liberal greed – all too easily calls “professionalism”. Gerry opted for the open-access platform. He wanted ideas to find their way in the world. Baudrillard Studies remained independent of both the neo-liberal university and those privatized discourse conglomerates that like to call themselves the “big journals”. In an age of increasingly privatized knowledge production and consumption, Baudrillard Studies kept things open and open-ended.
I don’t know what motivated Gerry to devote so much of his life to thinking through the meaning and consequences of Baudrillard’s work. Perhaps he did not know either. Richard Rorty claims that our attraction to philosophers is rarely something that can be fully rationalized. We like philosophers for reasons that are overdetermined. Their work speaks to us. But the prosopopeia of philosophy’s call escapes a fully philosophical justification. There is the matter of rhetoric – the materiality of prosopopeia for one – whose voices are overdetermined. A philosopher’s words (or even the sound of them), their style, the times in which they lived, the text of their life – all these may play a non-trivial role in why one reads one philosopher rather than another. Rorty tells us that every good philosopher develops a “final vocabulary” which is idiosyncratic and resistant to facile combination with the final vocabularies of other philosophers.2 These final vocabularies frequently attract us for reasons that are not easy to rationalize or philosophically justify.
There is an attraction or a seduction at work in final vocabularies. I for one found myself taken with the seductive slickness of hyperreality, simulacra, reversibility, crystal, black hole, and seduction long before I understood their significance or much less their meaning. Theory like Baudrillard’s is powerful in the way that only fiction can be. Theory-fictions – this is what Baudrillard called his later work. (Today we hear François Laruelle using the term as well.) The will to fictionalize theory is a will to break out of the trap of critique that Adorno and Horkheimer called the “doubling of the world” in theory.3 After the war, Adorno and Horkheimer attempted what might have been a new communist manifesto if it had been finished, but it never was. They warned that critical theory always runs the risk of (negatively) redoubling the world, which is to say critique risks reinforcing the idea of the world as something that must be critiqued but cannot be changed. It risks failing the test of Marx’s eleventh thesis. This is of course the argument that Baudrillard mounts in his critique of Michel Foucault.
Baudrillard’s critique homes in on the rhetoric of Foucault – his writerly style. “Foucault’s writing is perfect,” writes Baudrillard.4 Foucault’s writing opens new spaces to see and analyze the workings of power. These new and other spaces – Foucault’s heterotopia – are however filled by the seductive and fluid power of Foucault’s writing. Baudrillard claims that Foucault’s writing “flows, it invests and saturates, the entire space it opens. The smallest qualifiers find their way into the slightest interstices”.5 Nothing is left hiding. No corner is left unexplored. Everything is illuminated. Foucault’s rhetoric is a rhetoric of panopticism. “In short, Foucault’s discourse is a mirror of the power it describes. It is there that its strength and seduction lie, and not at all in its “truth index,” which is only its leitmotiv: for Foucault’s discourse is no truer than any other”.6 Foucault’s analyses of the microphysics of power, Baudrillard argues, is mirrored in the encompassing sweep and rhetorical power with which Foucault writes. Baudrillard’s analysis is rhetorical without being a “rhetorical reading” in the spirit of de Manian deconstruction.
Baudrillard’s critique of Foucault’s as writer-of-power (not only on power) speaks to something that I myself first found compelling about Baudrillard’s work. It was not the ideas, I must confess, that drew me in at first. I couldn’t really understand what he was up to when I first read him years ago. It was the style that kept me reading. Aphoristic, fragmentary, imaginative: a resolute will to leave something unresolved. That pleasure of reading Baudrillard without understanding is the enjoyment of the texture of the text.
The materiality of signification imparted to me (and still does) a pleasure that is not the pleasure of meaning. Here Barthes is speaking through me. As I write this, I have Barthes’s Pleasure of the Text open beside me on the couch. I skim, I peruse, I “cruise” Barthes’s text.7 I had forgotten that I read it in its entirety. When? I can’t remember. Strangely, however, I remember buying it at one of my favorite used bookshops in Cambridge. Strange (or not) that I remember the book in its materiality; I remember its slim body. I recall thinking it would be a book I could easily travel with. Such trifles can begin a lifelong relationship with a text. Barthes argues that the “pleasure” or “bliss” of the text takes the reader beyond the utilitarian function of reading. Is it pleasure or bliss? Barthes does not know. For “he” does not know how to answer what his body wants. The problem is glossed in a parenthetical aside.
(Pleasure/Bliss: terminologically, there is always a vacillation – I stumble, I err. In any case, there will always be a margin of indecision; the distinction will not be the source of absolute classifications, the paradigm will falter, the meaning will be precarious, revocable, reversible, the discourse incomplete).8
Reading as “pleasure” or “bliss” does not bow to the procreative imperative to reproduce meaning. Blissful or pleasurable acts of reading revels in the body of the text. The very idea, and Barthes knows it, is scandalous to suggest in 1973 at the height of the linguistic turn (which he himself had forged in no small way). In place of the sobriety of semiology, Barthes directs us to the “warmer parts” of reading.9 In the face of rhetorical reading or figural deconstruction in the work of the “Yale School”, we find Barthes refusing to disfigure the figural in favor of the seduction of the ravishing body of rhetoric. “Does the text have human form”, asks Barthes, “is it a figure, an anagram of the body? Yes, but of our erotic body”.10 Barthes concludes without concluding: “The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas – for my body does not have the same ideas I do”.11
The body does not loom large in Baudrillard. Baudrillard and Barthes are both attracted to the idea of attraction over and against critique, analysis, or systematic theory. Baudrillard prizes seduction if not bliss. But strangely it is seduction that is the entry into meaningfulness and not, as for Barthes, its ecstatic exit. “For something to meaningful”, writes Baudrillard, “there has to be a scene, and for there to be a scene, there has to be an illusion, of imaginary movement, of defiance to the real, which carries you off, seduces or revolts you”.12 Seduction or revulsion, beauty or the abject: the point is that the entry into meaningfulness is through the aesthetic. “Without this properly aesthetic dimension” theory loses to truth. What is needed, Baudrillard suggests, is a theory-fiction capable of “radicalizing secret qualities” that “look for the more hidden than the hidden: the secret”.13 “To the truer than the true”, continues Baudrillard, “we will oppose the falser than the false”.14 Baudrillard’s calls for a theory-fiction that refuses to reify truth parallels Barthes’s project to construct a theory of reading for pleasure over reading for meaning. Baudrillard and Barthes propose a theory of theory that prioritizes seduction, bliss, and pleasure over and against the cold, juridical analytic that typify theory’s typical style. As Gerry Coulter reminds us, “Barthes was a very good friend to Baudrillard and one of his inspirations”.15 In an interview Baudrillard noted: “Barthes is someone to whom I felt very close, such similarity of position that a number of things he did I might have done myself, well, without wishing to compare my writing to his”.16 Baudrillard’s admiration is finally also an admiration for Barthes’s style. No doubt it is in no small way the evocativeness, the seductiveness, of Barthes’s writing that caught Baudrillard’s eye. Coulter writes that “Baudrillard admired Barthes’s refusal of what was too obvious”.17
Baudrillard was dismayed with the increasingly academic straight-jacketing of theory in the form of “user-friendly” courses, readers, introductions, and summaries. The becoming-digestible of theory spelled the end of theory for Baudrillard. Theory as a pedagogy of method, for Baudrillard, destroys the enigma of theory in favor of a theory of theory as the practice of interpretation and the reification of truth. Baudrillard writes in Cool Memories IV:
A large part of contemporary writing, both novels and theory, has become user-friendly. It works as an all-inclusive package, references and allusions supplied, the whole thing ready-to-go, with its message thrown in for bonus. It has given up its pact with the reader, given up that ‘exotic’ complicity which depends on an acute sense of distance”.18
It was of course Walter Benjamin who famously defined “aura” as the “apparition of a distance no matter how near it may be”.19 The concept of aura grasps the imagistic quality of aura: aura is the “apparition” or appearance or illusion of a distance. The concept is self-defeating for the very concept by its nature also distances what it grasps such that any theory of aura is a mimesis of the very appearance of distance that is the sine non qua of aura itself. One might say with Baudrillard: “The concept [of the aura] is unpresentable, but the image is inexplicable [without the concept]. Between them there is an insuperable distance”.20 Perhaps that aura is necessary for seduction. No seduction without at least the “minimal illusion” of a distance.
The image I’ve had of Gerry Coulter is mediated as all images are. It is mediated by the web. Coulter’s strategic choice to locate the journal on the web in virtual location beyond the academic-publishing complex gave Baudrillard Studies a true, if precarious, freedom. My image of Gerry Coulter, then, is also a case of personification of the theoretical dissemination of theory. For to publish online is not merely to adopt a mode of circulation. It is also a mode of thought that chooses to think beyond the norms of privatized knowledge production that typifies academic knowledge. Baudrillard Studies is thus in its form a theory of theory whose master-formula may be: think otherwise and outside the structures that govern professional academe. I am not ignorant of the fact that this personification or this act of prosopopeia – the act of giving a face to theory – is also, as Paul de Man taught us, a defacement for it disfigures.21 To give a face is to mask the real face. Marc Redfield has recently argued that the personification of theory is an aporia created in part by the conditions of academe under late capital. The star system and the systems (or anti-systems) of concepts that are called “theory” are given faces by institutions like universities and university presses. Like the cover of François Cusset’s French Theory, theory has been given face in the form of a series of auratic portraits of thought: Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard Lacan, Althusser, and, of course, Baudrillard.22 No doubt some of these portraits are stylish, if many are no longer scandalous. But whereas many of the portraits of postmodern theory have assumed a certain academic respectability, Baudrillard has been largely put aside or passed over in polite silence. Even when I studied theory as a doctoral student, I recall being asked on occasion why I kept on working with Baudrillard’s texts.
There is, I would suggest, something still a little outrageous, even offensive about Baudrillard. His insouciance, cynicism, and his style remain for some (if not many) problematic. While Redfield’s recent book on the history of the reception of “deconstruction-as-theory” understandably does not engage the work and reception of Baudrillard, what he judges to be the scandal of theory in its heyday is apropos. Theory-as-Baudrillard, we might say through Redfield, “was charged in particular with an aesthetic offense: overblown writing that, as its critics saw it, aspired to literary status”.23 The aesthetic offense of theory according to Redfield is that it refuses to confine itself to the expected aesthetic of analysis by making forays into modes of writing that seem more literary than critical. (Recall Baudrillard’s observation on writing in the novel and theory, which, being mentioned almost in the same breath, indicates Baudrillard’s literary interests in theoretical writing, while his frequent quotations from Elias Canetti and others indicate his commitment to sifting out the theoretical from the literary.) Such genre border-crossings were seen by some at the height of the culture wars as an illegitimate cross-trafficking of literary and theoretical writing.
As I write this I am working on new work on François Laruelle, particularly his “non-standard philosophy” of photography. My reading confirms another seduction. I had cruised Laruelle as a student. The body of his texts was alluring and off-putting at the same time. It was too wooly, unclear, metaphysical, mystical. Nothing there, I thought, no point in reading it. Others were reading it. I wrote them off. I would pick up a text here and there. Go online and read something about Laruelle or non-standard philosophy. I was “just checking” I told myself. I said to others that my interest in Laruelle was merely “sociological”. I wanted to know why these ideas were “hot” now. I had an image of non-standard philosophy set by an auto-portrait of Laruelle modelled on hearsay and intuition. I now know, or can now admit, that the repulsion to his work was the negative index of a repressed desire to lose myself in non-understanding. The etymology of seduction leads one back to abandonment. What is the abandonment granted by theory? It is the joy of abandoning the imperative to understand. Theory as seduction short-circuits understanding and sends you back to the primal scene of Socratic thought. You know you do not understand. Laruelle’s work on photography drew me to him.
Why this turn here in the essay to Laruelle? Because I want to honor the spirit of Gerry Coulter’s work. Doing that means not simply writing on Baudrillard but going on to make sense of other theories with the same commitment to rigor and experimentation that are the hallmarks of Coulter’s work. So let me conclude with a theory that has seduced me.
I look at the photographs of Gerry Coulter online. I did not know him personally. But I knew him through his work and through the work of Baudrillard Studies. Now when I see photographs of him, I can see better what Laruelle might mean by what he calls “vision-force” in his theory of photography. It is not the force of the camera on the world that Laruelle speaks of. It is rather a phenomenological re-description of the relation between photographic vision and the real. What precedes the camera and the operator is the force of vision itself. It is not simply that photography captures the visible world. Rather it is the case for Laruelle that photographic activity is itself an attempt to frame the very force of vision that is the condition for the possibility of photography itself. The radical immanence of vision itself is the paradigmatic point of departure for Laruelle’s non-standard philosophy of photography.
Laruelle’s work is in the best tradition of “theory-fiction” inaugurated by Baudrillard. Laruelle seeks a passage point beyond the work/critique dichotomy. His theory takes its stand on the shifting borders between the two. He wrests from the field of practices, objects, and ideas that is photography a metadiscourse on vision. Among the issues recast though this procedure is reproducibility, an issue that has haunted photographic theory for a long time. Laruelle, however, folds back the question of reproducibility into the theoretical enterprise itself, and produces in its wake a mimesis of photographic thinking by capturing the capture of the force of vision within the philo/photo-apparatus of his non-standard philosophy of photography. Laruelle thus crafts a uniquely photographic philosophy, or a philosophy of photography, or, more strangely still, a photography of philosophy. Here photography is no longer an object of critique alone; Laruelle recasts it as a mode of thinking that makes it possible to see and think in ways that philosophy does not. Laruelle writes,
we maintain the following thesis: photography is the equivalent of an ideography, of a Begriffsschrift… a symbolic representation of the concept, but a representation of an image rather than a concept – writing and representation, in techno-perceptual symbols, rather than in writing or signs derived from writing. Photography broadens considerably the idea of the symbolic and of symbolic practices beyond their scriptural, language-bound or linguistic form.24
Rejecting the semiotic turn that marked photography theory in the 1970s through the 1980s (at least), Laruelle reminds us that if there is a philosophy of photography, it is one in which the very concepts of writing and representation, of image and text, are no longer bound by a set of dependable or even abyssal contraries. Rather these concepts are superimposed like particles in a “superposition” of states.25 Laruelle, as is typical, wants to draw attention to what he calls the “amphibology” of photo-theory. The term designates a word or a statement that can be interpreted in at least more than one way. Theories of photography construct (and deconstruct) a set of relations between the world, image, text, technologies, and vision that are irreducibly complex, or amphibological in nature.
The “vision-force” of envisioning or thinking beyond the boundaries of continuity or aporia enables a non-standard approach to theorizing that is reminiscent of the de-totalizing and immanent force of writing found in Baudrillard. And it was precisely this form of adventurous thinking that Gerry Coulter devoted his life to, and for which Baudrillard Studies stands as a lasting testament. The image of thought, or the photography of philosophy, that Coulter brought to life in his writings and in work as editor of Baudrillard Studies kept open an amphibological space for thinking beyond the bounds of thought that frames and freezes standard, academic thinking. What Gerry Coulter did for me, and so many others, was to picture another image of thought, the thought of the possible, which lies on the far edge of what is easy to picture, to frame, to capture. He remained committed to a “general economy” of theory over and against a “restricted economy” in Bataille’s sense. He steadfastly refused to accept the fantasy that meaning is always recoverable. As Arkady Plotnitsky puts it: “General economy…makes apparent that…unrecuperable losses in representation take place, and it must relate its theoretical knowledge to such losses”.26 That is, general economy presupposes that a given system of exchange (money, ideas, images, affects, et cetera) can (and often does) default on its promise of equal exchange. General economic frameworks thus take note of those instances of “impossible exchange” (to use one of Baudrillard’s terms) that destabilize the fantasy of economic equilibrium. Some things cannot be exchanged for easily or equitably. At such moments, loss is made manifest as is a representational deficit within the economy that will not allow for the loss to be accounted for as loss. The covering over of the loss as loss by a displaced representational non-equivalence marks, however, the missing term of loss itself. And it is both this loss, and the representational deficit to mark it as such with the system, which must be accounted for in any general economy of theory worthy of the name.
And so I conclude without a conclusion. I end with a note on general economy since it is clear that nothing can replace the loss to theory (and to so much else) that attends the passing of Gerry Coulter. Nothing can replace him. It is a loss that must be marked and mourned but never exchanged away. Death it would seem is also an instance of impossible exchange.
About the Author:
Jonathan Fardy is Professor of Art History at Savannah College of Art and Design, Hong Kong. He has published on Baudrillard, photography theory, Benjamin, Azoulay, and others.
1 – See Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning, ed. Pascale-Anne Brault, Michael Nass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
2 – See Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
3 – See Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).
4 – Jean Baudrillard, Forget Foucault (New York: Semiotext(e), 1987), 9.
5 – Baudrillard, Forget Foucault, 9.
6 – Baudrillard, Forget Foucault, 10.
7 – Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text tans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 4.
8 – Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 4.
9 – Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 17.
10 – Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 17.
11 – Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, 17.
12 – Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, trans. Philippe Beitchman, W.G.J. Niesluchowski (Cambridge: Semiotext(e), 2008), 90.
13 – Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, 25.
14 – Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, 25.
15 – Gerry Coulter, Excerpt from Coulter, Achilles to Zarathustra: Jean Baudrillard on Theorists, Artists, Intellectuals, and Others, Kritikos: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal of Postmodern Cultural Sound, Text, and Image Vol. 13, June-October 201. Accessed February 19, 2017.
16 – Quoted in Coulter, Excerpt.
17 – Coulter, Excerpt.
18 – Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000, trans. Chris Turner (New York: Verso 2003), 17-18.
19 – Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”, in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, trans. Michael Jennings, Brigid Doherty, Others (Cambridge; London: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2008), 23.
20 – Baudrillard, Cool Memories IV, 2.
21 – See Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-facement”, MLN, Vol. 94, No. 5 Comparative Literature (Dec., 1979): 919-930.
22 – François Cusset, French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, trans. Jeff Fort (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
23 – Marc Redfield,
24 – François Laruelle, The Concept of Non-Photography, trans. Robin Mackay (Falmouth: Urbanomic/Sequence, 2012), 37.
25 – Laruelle frequently invokes this quantum term in his elaboration of non-standard philosophy.
26 – Arkady Plotnitsky, Complementarity: Anti-Epistemology After Bohr and Derrida (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 22.