Volume 1, Number 2 (July 2004)
Author: Dr. Rex Butler
Everyday experience falls like snow. Immaterial, crystalline and microscopic, it enshrouds all the features of the landscape. It absorbs sounds, the resonance of thoughts and events; the wind sweeps across it sometimes with unexpected violence and it gives off an inner light, a malign florescence which bathes all forms in crepuscular indistinctness. Watching time snow down, ideas snow down, watching the silence of some aurora borealis light up, giving in to the vertigo of enshrouding and whiteness.1
Volume One, Number Two of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies contains seven essays, one review essay and four book reviews. They, along with the three books I know of to have recently been published on Baudrillard – Paul Hegarty’s Jean Baudrillard, Tilottama Rajan’s Deconstruction and the Remainders of Phenomenology and Alan Shapiro’s Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance – testify to the flourishing state of Baudrillard scholarship today. 2 Four “events” have perhaps contributed to this revival of Baudrillard’s reputation, which fell into a decline in the early 1990s with the publication of Douglas Kellner’s Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond and Christopher Norris’ What’s Wrong with Postmodernism: the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001; the movie series The Matrix; the second Gulf War (which proved Baudrillard’s thesis that the first did not “take place”); and the simple fact that Baudrillard has outlived many of his fellow maitres penseurs of the French 1960s.3
Would it be possible to argue that with the appearance of a journal like this, Baudrillard has finally joined the mainstream, with his work now subject to the usual academic procedures of the search for influences, the tracing of the history of reception and the refinement of interpretation? There would undoubtedly be something ironic about this, for Baudrillard has repeatedly insisted on the “singularity” of any powerful system of thought. And it is true – Baudrillard is not just speaking of himself here – the thought of any significant thinker is not to be explained by its influences, the events it responds to, the history of its interpretation. All great thought – it is precisely this that defines it – challenges any such genealogical assumptions, retrospectively changes the very conditions that brought it about, meaning that we can only ever explain the world in terms of it and not it in terms of the world.
All this implies that the kinds of responses offered here – and let us not exempt ourselves, also in the first volume of this journal and elsewhere – are both necessary, inevitable and failed, always falling short of what it is that makes this thought worthy of study in the first place. And yet it is also true – this is what many of the essays here demonstrate so well – that even the most “singular” system of thought does not just come out of nowhere, is also a response to something, whether it be events in the world or the work of another thinker. So that running beneath each of the essays here – what they at once speak of and enact – is the mystery of how most properly to respond to another, how to be truly equivalent to them, not to reduce them but in Baudrillard’s words “leave them more enigmatic than before”, while also communicating something of them (for this enigma is not mere confusion and obscurity but also the most rigorous and sober).
In introducing a series of writings, which come from different authors, none of whom knows of the others, the temptation is to argue that there is some hidden design animating them, some secret series of connections joining them. We will follow this temptation here – it is, after all, this contingency, this gift from the other, that “allows me not to repeat myself forever”. It is perhaps out of the very externality of these essays, collected but not written by any one, that something new might emerge. Jonathan Smith’s essay, “The Gnostic Baudrillard: A Philosophy of Terrorism Seeking Pure Appearance”, is a detailed tracing of the presence of Gnosticism in Baudrillard’s work. Gnosticism, particularly in its Manichean version, is the idea that Good and Evil are inextricably linked in a world directed by an alien intelligence; and it is this that leads in Smith’s words to Baudrillard’s thought as the “first fully-realised metaphysics of scepticism” in Western philosophy. This is a theme that is also taken up in Gerry Coulter’s essay, “Reversibility: Baudrillard’s ‘One Great Thought’”, which similarly argues that no one thing can stand by itself but must always be exchanged or reverted for its opposite. As well, this idea of scepticism is taken up – in a highly original context for Baudrillard scholarship – in terms of Berkeleyean Idealism in David Johnson’s “Getting the Real On: Baudrillard, Berkeley and the Staging of Reality”.
However, to their credit, none of these papers falls into the simple trap of a total scepticism or the outright denial of truth, which is of course self-contradictory – in Johnson’s words, such “naive anti-realism, like the totalising reality principle of production it opposes, replaces all illusions with just one, its own, the illusion that there is no objective reality whatsoever” (although this is the position that is often attributed to Baudrillard, for example, by Norris in his two books, Uncritical Theory and What’s Wrong with Postmodernism).4 Rather, as Johnson points out, what Baudrillard speaks of is a certain limit to the process of “realising” the world: only so many things can be realised, they have to wait their turn, because they can only become real insofar as they are remarked from another, empty place. This idea of a certain prosthetic “supplement” or addition – a term borrowed from Derrida – necessary for reality is also taken up in Joshua Nichols’ “Esotechnical Hyperstasis: An Excursus on the Technique of Total Iteration”. It is also the argument made by Alan Cholodenko in his “’Borders of our Lives’: Frederick Wiseman, Jean Baudrillard and the Question of Documentary”, which likewise looks at the limit, the “borders”, of documentary in capturing the real – a limit that arises not because of any excess of reality or subjective bias, as is suggested in almost all documentary theory, but because of a certain “internal” limit to the form of documentary itself. As Cholodenko writes of the documentary film-maker Frederick Wiseman: “As it proceeds, Wiseman’s work becomes not only increasingly like what is ‘happening outside’ and what is ‘outside’, but increasingly like what is ‘happening inside’ and what is ‘inside’ itself, more and more obviously simulacral” – a blind spot indicated in Wiseman’s film Model by the presence of Andy Warhol.
There are five reviews in this issue of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Two of them take up a book edited by the New Zealand scholars Victoria Grace, Laurence Simmons and Heather Worth, Baudrillard: West of the Dateline: William Keenan’s “Baudrillardean Scholarship in the Antipodean Context” and David Teh’s “Putting Baudrillard to Use Down Under”. The two reviews can “usefully” be read as a study in contrasts. Keenan, for his part, argues that Baudrillard: West of the Dateline is a “unique” collection that shows that a certain “view down under” can be gained “from any distance with profit”. Teh, for his part, argues that Baudrillard scholars are “always, it seems, writing at dual purposes”, alternating between “interpretive questions (of how Baudrillard’s theories should be understood)” and attempting to “apply” them to subjects in the “‘real’ world” – but that many of the contributors to the book forget this double necessity in simply seeking to “apply” them (although, in another sense, even the most “internal” reading of Baudrillard is also a certain “application” of him).
Gary Genosko’s essay, “The Arrival of Jean Baudrillard in English Translation: Mark Poster and Telos Press”, also addresses this question of Baudrillard’s reception within a specific context, this time organised around the Marxist-based journal Telos, coming out of Montreal and St Louis in the 1970s. As well, there is a review of Julia Kristeva’s Revolt, She Said – an allusion, we are sure, to Marguerite Duras’ film Destroy, She Said – by Victoria Grace, the eminent New Zealand feminist interpreter of Baudrillard. And we would like to think that the title of John Baldwin’s review of Baudrillard’s recent Passwords, “He Took Off His Sandal, Put It On His Head, and Walked Away…”, is also an allusion to us Antipodeans, we who literally walk on our heads!
Finally, there is Gerry Coulter’s review of the fourth instalment of Baudrillard’s memoirs, Cool Memories, “Still Busy with Life and Totally Unreal”. I leave this to last in order to pay tribute to Professor Coulter for establishing the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies as a way of bringing together Baudrillard scholars and those interested in Baudrillard from around world through the “virtual reality” of the internet. If we have exhibited a certain parochialism here and a claim for the priority of the Antipodes, it is also true that in this virtual realm we are all “Antipodean”, all “west of the dateline”. The journal in its second appearance is “still bursting with life and totally unreal”. And if in this regard it is like the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix, the subject of the interview with Baudrillard reprinted here, it hopefully does not make the same mistake of “employing categories of the real to describe the characteristics of the virtual”. Instead, as all the contributors attest in their different ways, what we might be doing is employing certain characteristics of the virtual in order to describe our reality.
About the Author:
Rex Butler is a Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. He is the author of Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real, SAGE, 1999. His latest book, Slovoj Zizek has just been released by Continuum International Press (May 2004).
1 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories. Editions Galilee, Paris 1987. Translation by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1990:59.
2 – See Paul Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. Continuum International Press, 2004; Tilottama Rajan’s Deconstruction and the Remainders of Phenomenology. Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 2002; and Alan Shapiro’s Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Berlin: Avenus Verlag, 2004.
3 – Douglas Kellner’s Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1989; and Christopher Norris What’s Wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.
4 – See Christopher Norris. Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals, and the Gulf War. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.