Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Dr. Gerry Coulter
When all is said and done, I’d very much like to be the Rushdie of the left, and become unacceptable – by writing unacceptable things.1
Baudrillard actually completed Nietzsche by so clearly demonstrating in a life of the mind that thought as a ‘dancing star’ was still possible, that in his practice of Arendt’s ‘life of the mind’ thought could once again rise to a greater fealty, namely to make of the referential illusion at the disappearing centre of everything – sex, consciousness, culture, economy, bodies, terror – a sure and certain sign of the indeterminacy that haunts life itself.2
Jean Baudrillard’s work is dangerous – it can change your life. Some dangers are of course too delicious to resist and “where danger increases, there grows also that which saves”.3 Contrary to those who think he enjoyed living in an era of increasing virtualization and hyperreality – he did not. He found our times intolerable yet he appeared to live a joyful existence as a writer and provoking thinker. His was a joyful wisdom and “joy” made numerous appearances in his writing: There was “a more joyous way of seeing things, and of finally substituting for eternally critical theory, an ironic theory”.4 There was also joy in watching a car burn5 ; the rejoicing to be done over the spread of a computer virus6 ; the joy of taking photographs7 ; the sheer joy of being human8 ; joy in the poetic9 ; and a diabolical joy to be taken in accidental events10 . Baudrillard had a wonderful laugh. He also had a fine ear – it could hear the laughter of flowers.11
The death of a friend forces each of us to recognize the rule which states, that with anything, you must sacrifice a part of it. Fortunately, this rule applies to sorrow as it does to joy.12 Baudrillard’s greatest joy was in thinking and having his thoughts write him. Much of his writing has a quality of slowness about it and at times he was very poetic:
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, all 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.13
He fancied things that shocked him14 and perhaps these were a way of constantly challenging his own thought to look over the next horizon – past Marxism, past consumerism, and even past death.
Baudrillard’s philosophical challenge is probably best summed up in this remark:
‘Why is there nothing rather than something?’ There is, ultimately, no answer to this, since the nothing originates in myth, in the original crime, whereas the something originates in what, by convention, we call reality. Now, the real is never sure. The question then becomes, not ‘Where does illusion come from?’, but ‘Where does the real come from?’ How is it that there is even a reality effect? That is the true enigma. If the world was real, how is it that it did not become rational long ago? If it is merely illusion, how can a discourse of reality and the rational even arise? But that is the question. Is there anything but a discourse of the real and the rational?15
In this one passage so much of the past forty years of thought reverberates. He didn’t like living in a world where politics had morphed into the transpolitical, where truth appeared only along local, restricted horizons16 , but he made the best of it while seeking a superior form of irony:
Everything can be summed up in this: let’s believe for a single instant the hypothesis that there is a fatal and enigmatic bias in the order of things. In any case, there is something stupid about our current situation. There’s something stupid in the raw event, to which destiny, if it exists, could not be insensible. There’s something stupid in the current forms of truth and objectivity that a superior irony could spare us.17
His mind was one of the most interesting singularities of our time – and the way in which he could express it with his pen was impressive and led him to write in a way quite unlike anything we had seen before:
The act of thinking is an act of seduction which aims to deflect the world from its being and its meaning – at the risk of being itself seduced and led astray. This is how theory proceeds… The object of theory is to arrive at an account of the system which follows out its internal logic to its end, without adding anything, yet which, at the same time, totally inverts that system, revealing its hidden non-meaning, the Nothing which haunts it, that absence at the heart of the system, that shadow running alongside it. …To duplicate the world is to respond to a world which signifies nothing with a theory which, for its part, looks like nothing on earth.18
In his writings which point to the discursive nature of reality, history, and the reversibility to which each is susceptible, we find a deep desire for the enigmatic and unintelligible against Truth and Meaning. All wrapped up in a mirthful approach that could be playful at times. Take for example his “fate-based” and “unrealist” analysis of the death of Diana:
On the one hand, if we assess all that would have had not to have happened for the event not to take place, then quite clearly it could not but occur. There would have to have been no Pont de l’Alma, and hence no Battle of the Alma. There would have had to have been no Mercedes, and hence no German car company whose founder had a daughter called Mercedes. No Dodi and no Ritz, nor all the wealth of the Arab princes and the historical rivalry with the British. The British Empire itself would have had to have been wiped from history. So everything combines, a contrario and in absentia, to demonstrate the urgent necessity of this death. The event therefore, is itself unreal, since it is made up of all that should not have taken place for it not to occur. And, as a result, thanks to all those negative probabilities, it produces an incalculable effect. Such are the lineaments of a Fate-based Analysis, an unrealist analysis of unreal events.19
If you cannot read the above passage and smile – you will never get Baudrillard.
At other times he was deadly serious this man who had lived through Nazism, Stalin, and the realization of big brother. Terrorism did not trouble him nearly as much as state power – a long time before September 11, 2001 he wrote:
Understood: terrorism is still a lesser evil than a police state capable of ending it. It is possible that we secretly acquiesce in this fantastic proposition. There’s no need of “political consciousness” for this; it’s a secret balance of terror that makes us guess that a spasmodic eruption of violence is preferable to its rational exercise within the framework of the State, or to total prevention at the price of a total programmatic domination.20
He drew often from theoretical science and astrophysics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was one of the great discoveries of the 20th century – “the revolution of our time” wrote Baudrillard, “is the uncertainty revolution”.21 A world without certainty, Truth and Meaning was our second worst option of course – a world of certainty would be even worse:
Does the world have to have meaning, then? That is the real problem. If we could accept this meaninglessness of the world, then we could play with forms, appearances and our impulses, without worrying about their ultimate destination. If there were not this demand for the world to have meaning, there would be no reason to find a general equivalent for it in money. …Do we absolutely have to choose between meaning and non-meaning? But the point is precisely that we do not want to. The absence of meaning is no doubt intolerable, but it would be just as intolerable to see the world assume a definitive meaning.22
IMAGE – Jean Baudrillard – Le Touquet (1995)
I do not know how anyone could spend fifteen minutes with this man and not like him. He was remarkably shy and unassuming until he got to know you. Baudrillard trusted slowly – always a wise practice around academics. When he got to know you better – after you had earned his trust – you heard the other voice from deep within, the one that you knew was there the minute you first looked into those intense eyes. This was a man with a powerful mind who never sought to intimidate and he was someone you could trust. I once sat in judgment under that concentrated stare while he decided what to do with my proposal for a journal in his name. It was our first meeting – he studied my eyes without blinking for over a minute – scanning my soul – before finally saying: “this project has my entire support”. In our subsequent encounters – all of which took place at either Café Select or his home at 6 Sainte-Beuve in Paris – I was treated with warmth, charm, respect – and always many smiles. He did not like virtuality nor did he seek publicity yet he was consistently supportive of IJBS. An email from him after the posting of Volume 3-1 was typical: “D’abord laisse moi te feliciter pour le dernier numero des IJBS… tu as fait un superbe travail!”23
Of course he certainly had his detractors – mostly people who had never met him. He seemed to be the one thing the right, the left, and certain hard-line feminists could agree to dislike. I wonder if he took a certain joy in getting the likes of William F. Buckley Jr., Noam Chomsky, Camille Paglia and Somer Brodribb in bed together? Many feminists do not like Jean’s work but if they read it closely they will find he had far worse things to say about the masculine than the feminine. He had also figured out, quite rightly, that we each partake of both principles and that there was no more silly idea in existence than a battle of the sexes. Some Americans who didn’t like him for his challenges to America might also do well to take note that he had far more harsh words for his native France and for Europe than for America.24
There were of course academics he liked very much, perhaps none more than Victoria Grace – the feminist who took the time to read and understand him. Rex Butler’s name would also bring a smile to Jean’s face as another academic whose interpretation was both challenging and sincere. Alan Cholodenko’s writing touched Baudrillard with its kindred creative spirit and wit. Baudrillard thought very highly of Mike Gane who was the English academic he knew the best. He also spoke well of Arthur and Mary Louise Kroker, Gary Genosko (who he once speculated might enjoy a beautiful death), and many others. He was interested in books written about his work, last spring we had a lively conversation about one of the latest – William Merrin’s. He enjoyed reading Zizek and Agamben.
Among thinkers he appreciated Willem Flusser, Francois L’Yvonnet, Italo Calvino, Enrique Noailles, Elias Canetti, J-F Lyotard and many others.25 He very much liked Mike Disfarmer’s photographs, the Art of Enrico Baj and the architecture of Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry. He also liked Paul Virilio, Sylvere Lotringer, graffiti, and deserts.
He spoke ill of no one in my presence. I was somewhat surprised to hear him speak so well of Doug Kellner given Kellner’s constant criticisms of his work for two decades. Baudrillard told me with a warm smile that Kellner’s work was moving much closer to his own over time. Indeed, there has been a thawing. He had an appreciation for those who remained in academe while finding their own way of resisting the very machine of their captivity. His own patience for it ran out in the late 1980s. He fancied himself a kind of peasant who was in the know, maybe it was my peasant roots that summoned a certain fondness from him. As for his partner Marine Depuis Baudrillard – his love for her was matched only by his respect. The rest of us will feel his absence – but she now has to live it.
We do not know the real which hides behind appearances and our sad lot seems to be to pour ourselves into a virtual that takes us further and further away from it. Network man – humans as telephone jacks of the global interactive network. This was a world Baudrillard did not wish to inhabit and so he did not live past his time as it is some thinkers sad fate to do. In death then he narrowly escaped the “absolute death” which awaits the living.26 He gave us over forty books now in English translation. The Lucidity Pact was a summing up, a gathering together of a life’s work – the end. Exiles du dialogue (with Enrique Noailles), was a gift that came after the end. There are no doubt a few recent photographs and cool memories lying about as well. Perhaps we shall see them someday – perhaps they will remain a secret.
Baudrillard was a very interesting photographer and over time he came to see some similarities between his writing with a pen and his writing with light:
…finally I realized that there was a relation between the activity of theoretical writing and the activity of photography, which at the beginning seemed utterly indifferent to me, but it’s the same process of isolating something in a kind of empty space, and analyzing it within that space, rather than interpreting it.27
IMAGE – Jean Baudrillard – Toronto (1994)
My favourite characterization of him was “the exterminating angel”. His photographs and his writing come together at the point of theory – not theory as Truth or mirror of the Real – but theory as an act of taking a world that is given to us unintelligible and enigmatic, and making it even more unintelligible, more enigmatic.28 He was firmly against the hostile takeover of photography by art and aesthetics and here as much as anywhere we feel his debt to Barthes. He restored dignity to the object in the photographic act. His point was not that the object holds all the power – but simply to point out that neither does the subject.
A Baudrillardian photograph offers us no more ultimate truth or meaning than does his writing. If anything there is an effect of unraveling, mystifying – that special movement toward nothingness that is so often at work in Baudrillard.
IMAGE – Jean Baudrillard – Bastille (1998)
In the classroom – I use his work in advanced seminars regularly – Baudrillard provided a look into the contemporary that was unique. Most students quite like him and feel a fondness for his critical position on the hyperreal and technological society in which they live and which makes them tired. No less than fifty past graduates have E-mailed this week to offer condolences and to thank me for exposing them to his work – many continue to read it long after school is over. He will endure for a very long time precisely because he is like a fire that burns long distances under the surface, emerging many miles away from the point where its enemies will think they have stamped it out. His work stands as an exemplar of our times – he spoke to us of what is to come and we know it and that is why he frightens so many.
I think we would do well to take a wise lesson from our Derridian friends and avoid monu-memorializing Jean. Was he a great man? The question is useless. Was he interesting – almost always. In our time questions of beauty and greatness have been replaced by the question of interest. Venus took greatness with her when she went into exile. He was a good person yet a rare one in that “evil” remains in his debt. We really cannot say that about many “good” people can we? With his death, one of the signs of our times “Baudrillard” – has passed.
IMAGE – May, 200631
In a respectful obituary for the Guardian, Steven Poole29 suggested that Baudrillard’s death “did not take place”. In an important way Poole is right – a person’s intellectual spirit and ideas live on many years after the death of the body. Baudrillard will not truly be dead as long as people speak his name – and his name will be spoken for a very long time. While we at IJBS continue to challenge and celebrate his ideas, we may do him no better service than to contribute to the force five conceptual storm he dreamed about one night – raging over the devastated real.30
A friend has died. The death of a friend finds its own justification a posteriori: it makes the world less liveable, and therefore renders his absence from this world less painful. It alters the world in such a way that he would no longer have his place in it. Others outlive themselves into a world which is no longer theirs. Some know how to slip away at the apposite moment. Their death is a stroke of cleverness: it makes the world more enigmatic, more difficult to understand than it was when they were alive – which is the true task of thought.32
About the Author
Gerry Coulter is the founding editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. He is also an editor of European Art (On-line) Magazine. His most recent writings include “The Photograph as Contemporary Theory” in Ali Peksen, Ishan Derman and Can Soysal (Editors): Track06, Istanbul, Turkey; “David Cronenberg’s Andy Warhol” European Art (On-line Magazine), September 2006. He is currently preparing a book on art and photography: Through a Baudrillardian Lens: Fracturing Art and Aesthetics. He is the 2006 winner of Bishop’s University’s highest award for teaching: The William and Nancy Turner prize.
1 – Jean Baudrillard. “An Interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg” (1990), in Mike Gane (Editor), Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:169.
3 – Holderlin cited in Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V: 2000-2004. London: Polity, 2006.
4 – Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies – Crystal Revenge (1983). Translated by Philip Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:92.
5 – Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production (1973). Translated with an Introduction by Mark Poster. St. Louis, MO. Telos Press, 1975:141.
6 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Viral Economy”. Liberation, November 9, 1988 Translated by Chris Turner in Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:27.
7 – Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993:153.
8 – Ibid.:53.
9 – Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. In Mike Gane (Editor), London: Routledge, 1993:131.
10 – Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies – Crystal Revenge (1983). Translated by Philip Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:150
11 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV:1995-2000. New York: Verso, 2003. Translated by Chris Turner.
12 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories II. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996:77.
13 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories I (1987). New York: Verso, 1990:59.
14 – Jean Baudrillard in Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel. The Singular Object of Architecture. Minneapolis, MN.: The University of Minnesota Press, 2002:68.
15 – Ibid.:13.
16 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (1981). Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994:108.
17 – Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies (c 1983). New York: Semiotext(e)/Pluto Press, 1990:191.
18 – Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:150.
19 – Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:136-137.
20 – Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies (c 1983). New York: Semiotext(e)/Pluto Press, 1990:47.
21 – Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993:43.
22 – Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange (1999). London: SAGE, 2001:128.
23 – E-mail from Jean Baudrillard to Gerry Coulter, April 5, 2006.
24 – He wrote: “I shall never forgive anyone who passes a condescending or contemptuous judgment on America”. See: Cool Memories I (1987). New York: Verso, 1990:209.
25 – Baudrillard made fifteen references to Lyotard’s work in eight of his books – none of the mentions is critical.
26 – Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:6.
27 – Jean Baudrillard in Nicholas Zurbrugg (Editor). Art and Artefact. London: SAGE, 1997:34.
28 – For a detailed exposition of this thesis see: Gerry Coulter and Kelly Reid. “The Baudrillardian Photograph As Theory: Making The World A Little More Unintelligible and Enigmatic” in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 4, Number 1.
29 – Steven Poole. “Jean Baudrillard: Philosopher and sociologist who blurred the boundaries between reality and simulation”. Guardian Unlimited, March 7, 2007: http://www.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,,2028464,00.html
30 – Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Cool Memories III. New York: Verso, 1997:42.
31 – The author and Jean at his home in Paris. This obituary is dedicated to all of those who have helped me in so many ways to found and sustain IJBS – you know who you are.
32 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV (2000). New York, Verso: 2003:65.
33 – Baudrillard at age 6 in François L’Yvonnet et. al. L’Herne Baudrillard. Paris: Éditions de L’Herne, 2004:176.