ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 10, Number 2 (July 2013)
Author: Dr. William Pawlett

Review of David B. Clarke, Marcus A. Doel, William Merrin and Richard G. Smith (Editors, 2009). Jean Baudrillard: Fatal Theories. London: Routledge.

This impressive work gathers together key papers delivered at the Engaging Baudrillard conference held at Swansea University in 2006, along with two short pieces by Baudrillard ‘The Vanishing Point of Communication’ and ‘On Disappearance’, and a number of brief responses to the latter piece by the conference organisers and leading experts on Baudrillard’s ideas.

The work begins with a sure-footed and comprehensive introduction by the editors. The first piece by Baudrillard is a transcription of a paper delivered in English by the author at Loughborough University in 1992. It is a significant paper which succeeds in linking the themes explored in Baudrillard’s well-known interventions into media and communication theory in the 1970s – such as ‘Requiem for the Media’ – with less well-known later themes concerning the fourth order and integral reality. I was fortunate enough to have attended this lecture and, during questions following it, I recall an interesting exchange between Baudrillard and some rather obstreperous students in which Baudrillard did little to defend his position against crude attacks. Unfortunately, the questions, and Baudrillard’s polite and enigmatic replies are not recorded in this work.

Baudrillard’s resonant ‘On Disappearance’, delivered in Baudrillard’s absence (he was too ill to travel to Swansea) by Mike Gane, was the highlight of the conference. It is an impressive piece with fascinating references to the work of Hegel, Arendt and Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) on the implications for human experience of modern scientific and technological processes. The paper also demonstrates Baudrillard’s uncanny ability to offer new, challenging and disturbing assertions simply by re-considering the relations between his long-established main themes: the limits of critical theory, the exhaustion of the principle of ‘reality’, perverse ‘internal’ logics of revenge and blow-back, and disappearance as symbolic form. Readers with only a passing familiarity with Baudrillard’s work will find these new lines of argument surprising.

The responses to Baudrillard’s On Disappearance recorded in this volume are valuable but slightly odd in that some seem to preserve the relatively spontaneous verbal form of the day while others are highly polished pieces written or re-written some time after the event. Nevertheless, each of the contributors adds something of significant interest: David Clarke’s contribution, which examines Baudrillard’s assertion that the modern notion of ‘reality’ disappears into the concept, into the model and finally into the virtual, is particularly clear and incisive.

The selection of papers, originally given at the Swansea conference and published here, are particularly strong examples of recent writing on Baudrillard. While each is engaging and rewarding, a clear division emerges between the contributions which seek to clarify, extend or apply Baudrillard’s ideas (Butler, Genosko, Merrin, Hegarty, Rubenstein, Gane), and those which seek critical assessments of aspects of Baudrillard’s thought (Kellner, Hammond, Gilloch, Wernick). While the critical strategy is expected – critical appraisal is widely seen as the pre-requisite of academic writing – critical thought encounters two fundamental problems when confronted by Baudrillard’s ideas. Firstly, of course, Baudrillard’s writing specifically challenges the ground of critical thought: its dependence on the faltering claim to faithfully ‘represent’ an issue, to penetrate and remove illusions and distortions – assertions of power by ‘the one who critiques’; further, Baudrillard examines those reversive effects whereby critique often, inadvertently, lends a solidity or even ‘reality’ to that which it critiques, strengthening rather than weakening the object of critique. In recognition of these difficulties, the more recognisably ‘critical’ papers confine themselves to offering very brief hints or suggestions of where a possible ‘critique’ of Baudrillard might reside: for Kellner, Baudrillard’s fatal theory could be usefully combined with elements of Marxist critical theory; Hammond’s critique appears only in his final sentence – Baudrillard’s thinking “precludes the articulation of alternatives”; for Gilloch, Baudrillard’s reading of the 1926 film ‘The Student of Prague’ (in Consumer Society) diverts the reader away from a consideration of the concept of seduction; for Wernick, some aspects of Baudrillard’s thought remain sociological (or at least anti-psychological) despite his attempts to break free from the discipline. Each of these papers is erudite and rewarding, I particularly enjoyed Gilloch’s contribution, but they also show something of the difficulty in launching a critique of ideas which themselves reject the enshrining of critical thought as the raison d’être of academic enquiry. Baudrillard’s work marks out an alternative terrain with different rules, relations and alternatives; within this symbolic dimension systems of power and the powerful may suffer reversals more potent than can be achieved from within critical theory.

The first group of writers, particularly Merrin, Hegarty, Rubenstein and Gane, succeed in exploring this symbolic dimension and its effects on reality, simulation and virtuality. The strategy of extending or exemplify Baudrillard’s theorising is very effectively employed by Genosko in a now classic paper ‘Better than Butter’. Genosko’s contribution remains a most effective and accessible treatment of Baudrillard’s four orders of simulacra through the examples of the production and marketing of butter and margarine. The papers by Hammond on war and virtuality, Rubenstein on US politics and simulation and Merrin’s discussion of consumer hyperconformity show convincingly how Baudrillard’s provocative theories can become more challenging when placed in conjunction with the ‘empirical’. Merrin’s paper is highly distinctive in that it succeeds in engaging with the influence of pataphysics on Baudrillard’s thought, indeed the written paper recreates some of the riotous humour of Merrin’s verbal delivery in 2006. Gane’s paper is also outstanding in that it both explores a badly neglected aspect of Baudrillard’s work: his humour and its relationship to the symbolic dimension, and provides a succinct overview of Baudrillard’s oeuvre. Through a comparison of Baudrillard’s humour and irony with the work of Freud, Bataille and Barthes on wit, laughter and pleasure/jouissance respectively, Gane draws out that which is singular in Baudrillard’s humour.

In summary, this collection demonstrates the richness of Baudrillard’s thought as well as providing numerous examples of sophisticated engagements with Baudrillard, showing how Baudrillard scholarship has improved greatly since its modest and patchy beginnings in the 1980s. This study is highly recommended for readers of social and political theory, continental philosophy and media and communication studies.

About the Author
Dr. William Pawlett is from the department of Sociology and Cultural Studies, University of Wolverhampton, UK.