Volume 10, Number 1 (January 2013)
Author: Dr. Gerry Coulter
This is the first chapter (Introduction) of Gerry Coulter, Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert – The Poetics of Radicality (Intertheory Press, USA). The book is available for purchase at: http://intertheory.org/gerrycoulter.htm
Chapter One: Introduction
What remains after Baudrillard has essayed a topic is the residue of his ambivalence towards systems of all kinds. Against systems, networks, and technicity he preserved the enigmatic and unintelligible aspects of the world – which we know only through a series of appearances. What makes Baudrillard’s thought poetic is his highly attenuated sense for reversibility – the fact that all systems create the conditions of their own demise. What makes his thought radical is the way in which it surpasses neo-Marxian and other forms of modern and contemporary “critical” thought. When Baudrillard was finished with his assessment of critical thought it was exposed as little more than an extension of the system of production. Chapters Two through Six survey Baudrillard’s singular approach to thought and writing.
In Chapter Two I discuss Baudrillard’s distaste for thought which believed that it is philosophy’s job to resolve the world into rational and intelligible meaning. His radical approach saw rationalist based analyses as only entrapping us more deeply in the techno-rational models and systems which are used to offer precise meanings to the world. Baudrillard’s reply to Michel’s “iron law”, Weber’s “iron cage”, and the Frankfurt School’s concern for instrumental rationality, was to refuse to see the world as predestined for knowledge. Baudrillard preferred a poetic view of the world (against a scientific one) which allowed the world to maintain its fundamental irrationality and unintelligible appearances. He acknowledged that all theory is fiction (and is never so fine as when the theorist is aware of this), and treated poetic and literary interpretations as important as empirical and scientific ones. A vital part of Baudrillard’s radicality involves his positioning of himself as philosophy’s other precisely at a time when thought was moving further away from poetic and literary understandings and towards empirical modeling (especially in the social sciences).
Chapter Three looks at Baudrillard’s approach alongside of the contemporary thinker to whom he is most closely positioned – Roland Barthes. It was not so much the case that Barthes influenced Baudrillard (he was one of Baudrillard’s graduate school mentors), but that the two shared a series of insights which Barthes aimed at his semiotic and literary analysis and Baudrillard aimed more at his efforts to understand contemporary technocratic society. Baudrillard inherited a series of insights from Barthes (and early poststructural thought more generally) which he deployed as part of his philosophical embrace of a kind of emptiness. Baudrillard pressed the poetic and literary aspects of poststructuralism to make his case that the world is not predestined for empirical readings. What he did was to deepen and extend key concepts and insights first explored by Barthes and as such played a key role in the development of the more radical and uncertain implications of semiology. The result is a radical subversion of concepts such as the “real” through a poetic eclipse of rational systems and a poets determination to not consent to the real. Baudrillard was the lone contemporary theorist to report having heard the laughter of flowers (2002:1). Along with Barthes and the likes of Derrida Baudrillard made a contribution to poststructuralism from which it may never recover. After them the world can never be more than discourse – and no discourse can claim to know the real. It is probable that Baudrillard marks the permanent onset of a poststructural condition of knowledge.
Chapter Four (on poetic resolution) and Chapter Five (on reversibility) afford a view of some of the complex ground to be covered before we can come to any sort of tentative assessment of what writing meant to Baudrillard (Chapter Six). Indeed, the role of Chapters Two through Five is to position the reader to more readily understand what I have to say in Chapter Six. Given the terrain advanced in Chapters Two through Five I discuss Baudrillard’s writing on writing. As Chapter Six draws Part One of the book to a close it establishes that Baudrillard deployed reversion to poetically transfigure the world in his thought and writing. This move rests at the core of his singularity as a thinker.
Part Two assesses Baudrillard’s contribution to thought concerning a number of concepts and issues of contemporary import. Chapter Seven appraises Baudrillard’s analysis of Marx as a way of understanding why Marx has been decentered in recent contemporary theory. This includes some striking challenges such as the death of the Left and the fact that what remains of it are the last vestiges of Marx. Baudrillard believed that all the Left are capable of anymore is the erection of models of pacified socialization. He established that Marx was no radical (he was perhaps the best friend productivist capitalism ever had) and is increasingly irrelevant to contemporary thought. I end this chapter by examining some of the implications of our post-Marxist condition.
Chapter Eight engages with the question of intellectual responsibility today by way of an examination of Baudrillard’s criticism of Susan Sontag’s trip to Sarajevo during the Balkans wars. This leads to an assessment of the radical difference between Baudrillard and American intellectuals more generally. This chapter leads to conclusions concerning the intellectual climate in America today which are, at best, disquieting.
Chapter Nine examines Baudrillard’s radical ambivalence through a discussion of his thought on gaming. For Baudrillard “the world is a game” (1993a:46) and in his thought the “gamer’ is subject to neither praise nor criticism but remains an object of fascination for what s/he can tell us about our present forays into virtuality. The gamer’s role, as Baudrillard has it, is to play the role of guinea pig in a time of increasing virtualization and to point to the deep obsession of our time – the lack of distinction between the real and the virtual. Among the more radical insights to be discussed in this chapter is that humanity may be evolving into what Baudrillard refers to as “homo fractalis”.
Chapter Ten scrutinizes Baudrillard’s thought concerning alterity (otherness) including his radical condemnation of “difference”. It does so while simultaneously looking at Islamic-Western relations and the place of aboriginals in world’s conquered by Europe. Difference has been deployed by self-proclaimed egalitarians and anti-racists (among others) in recent years as a tool with which to value diversity and multiplicity. Baudrillard’s radical perspective argues that difference is itself a very subtle form of racism to which he prefers a hard radical acknowledgement of otherness.
Part Three considers various aspects of contemporary import concerning Baudrillard’s thought on images. Chapter Eleven draws from his many writings a radical conclusion which Baudrillard only realized later in his work – that photography itself can stand as a kind of theory. Like words, images may be deployed in ways which value the inherent unintelligibility of the world. Baudrillard’s photographs, like certain of his texts, constitute a catastrophe of meaning. As such, both provide the “reader’ with a kind of theory fiction which values the enigmatic.
Chapter Twelve examines the place of images in W. G. Sebald’s novel The Emigrants from a Baudrillard inspired understanding of images and their role in “knowing” history today. Baudrillard’s thought increases our awareness that fictions (television shows, film, novels etc.) are vital to how the vast majority of people come to know and understand the past today. Ours is a time when history too has entered into simulation – including major events such as the Holocaust. I make the case that Sebald was working with a Baudrillard-like understanding of this problem and worked to make his own simulations of history which raised the kinds of serious questions we would have looked to historians to raise in an earlier time.
Chapter Thirteen elaborates further on the problem of history by looking at Baudrillard’s thought on cinema. On one level Baudrillard points to the problem that digitality and virtualization are largely killing cinema as they take it further from the possibility of creating illusion in its more radical sense. Here Baudrillard is concerned with the use of technology to assault filmmaking via special effects and other unimaginative means. At a higher level he is concerned that cinema (like the novel in Sebald’s case) is all important to how we know historical events. Despite the absurd position of Holocaust deniers Baudrillard points out how they serve to illustrate a vital problem of our time – that we are occupants of “real time” mass mediated worlds and no longer in “historical time”. Those who control real time networks (CNN, FOX, etc.) play a more important role in generating popular understandings of significant historical events than do the most learned scholarly historians. Reality is disappearing under the alibi of images and today history (as in the film The Lives of Others) may be played with like a toy by the maker of a film.
Finally, Chapter Fourteen considers Baudrillard in the desert – the scene of the world’s ultimate reversion. It is in the deserts of postmodernity where Baudrillard both found and left us. It is in these deserts that we become aware, as did Baudrillard and other poststructuralist thinkers, that theory precedes the world (there is nothing that can be said of the world that is not already framed by our approach to it).
Each of the remaining chapters in this book may stand alone or be read in the succession in which they are presented. These Fourteen Chapters are intended to share my understanding that what Baudrillard bequeathed to us as thinkers might be termed “the poetics of radicality”. By this term I mean that he provided us with a highly challenging form of thought and writing which favoured enigmatic over empirical means of resolving the world. It was a kind of thought which succeeded in overthrowing neo-Marxism and all so called “critical theory” with a more radical alternative.
Such a perspective surpasses all known intellectual methods as it hovered over the unnumbered precincts of postmodernity. Here it lingers to consider vast areas only sketchily mapped by poststructural theorists. Among them Baudrillard occupies a vital if uncertain and ambiguous position. It is likely that his thought will remain relevant until theory finds a way out of its poststructural moment. Baudrillard would have no doubt looked fondly upon the seemingly unimaginable catastrophe that might move beyond this moment. As it is his thought is a significant part of that which seems to have locked us into a poststructuralist view of the world. Fortunately for us, it also contributes to a kind of an embrace of emptiness so necessary to thriving in poststructural times.