Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Dr. Gerry Coulter
NOTE: A more recent version of this paper appears as Chapter 6 of: Gerry Coulter. Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert or the Poetics of Radicality. Intertheory Press, 2012. To obtain the book please see: http://intertheory.org/gerrycoulter.htm
“Existence is not everything. In fact it is a very small thing.”
– Jean Baudrillard, final writings, March 2007.
The goal of this paper is to arouse memories of Baudrillard’s writing about writing.
On the evening of March 6th 2007 the virtual news of Baudrillard’s passing reached me in over a dozen E-mails. It was not unexpected. Jean and I had said our final good byes and I had plenty of time to prepare for the end – and what might come after the end. For me the loss of Jean first of all meant the loss of a friend. I also lost the one person whose writing spoke to me most directly – the writer whose writings made the most sense to me. As Baudrillard’s said of Barthes writing I can say of his: “Barthes is someone to whom I felt very close, such a similarity of position that a number of things he did I might have done myself, well, without wishing to compare my writing to his”.1
II. Baudrillard on Writing
As someone who came close to living beyond his time, Baudrillard wrote of the “increasingly incomprehensible editorial system” he faced as a writer.2 As an editor I acknowledge that it is difficult not to be distracted by the abyss of meaning.3 Writing, like photography, was for Baudrillard a kind of abreaction – an acting out – “you push your life out … into your writing … some never manage to do it and that is their misfortune”.4 This is, of course, one of the reasons that reactions to Baudrillard can become so personalized – he made writing personal by writing discourse through his life – rather than hiding behind it.5
While Baudrillard wrote of everyday events – he did so in a way that reached an escape velocity from traditional academic and social scientific discourse. His writing is one of the delightful examples of the way in which theory and literature begin to communicate with such affection in the late 20th century (when theory finally accepted itself as fiction). As Baudrillard said of this turn: “Theory is never so fine as when it takes the form of a fiction or a fable”.6 Baudrillard’s writing often succeeded in his aim of “a poetic resolution”.7 Two examples of this come to mind from the work of this writer who dealt so well in metaphysical understandings and a deep concern that we have “cancelled our metaphysical contract and made another more perilous and collective one with things”.8
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 fluorescence 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.9
And this transoceanic thought on a return from America:
At 30,000 feet and 600 miles per hour, I have beneath me the ice-flows of Greenland, the Indes Galantes in my earphones, Catherine Deneuve on the screen, and an old man asleep on my lap. ‘Yes, I feel all the violence of love…’ sings the sublime voice, from one time zone to the next. The people in the plane are asleep. Speed knows nothing of the violence of love. Between one night and the next, the one we came from and the one we shall land in, there will have been only four hours of daylight. But the sublime voice, the voice of insomnia travels even more quickly. It moves through the freezing, trans-oceanic atmosphere, runs along the long lashes of the actress, along the horizon, violet where the sun is rising, as we fly along in our warm coffin of a jet, and finally fades away somewhere off the coast of Iceland.10
When Baudrillard produced meaning it was “to play with it, to play meaning against the system itself”.11 Meaning for Baudrillard was an “ambiguous and inconsequential accident”.12 Faced with an indifferent universe and a world given to us as unintelligible and enigmatic, why should writing attempt to clarify or simplify? For Baudrillard one could face the indifference of the universe with an equal or greater indifference,13 and one could write (theorize) the world in a way that made it even more enigmatic, even more unintelligible.14
Here… lies the task of philosophical thought: to go to the limit of hypotheses and processes, even if they are catastrophic. The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes. Here, beyond the discourse of truth, resides the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking. For, facing a world that is unintelligible and enigmatic, our task is clear: we must make that world even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic.15
By working and reworking mysterious paradoxes into the lyrical complexity of writing, Baudrillard took his revenge on the universe. And what a revenge on notions such as the “Real”, “Truth” and “Meaning” that Baudrillard and those like him take when they recognize that theory precedes the world – and writing brings it into existence. The passing of Baudrillard is the passing of one of the signs of our times. His death is an event that changes our world and it will not be the same.
He avoided, to many people’s displeasure, ideological or moral critique because he felt these were forms of writing “obsessed with meaning and content” and with the “political finality of discourse”.16 For Baudrillard such forms do violence to the “act of writing, the poetic, ironic, allusive force of language… the juggling with meaning”17 that is so vital. Writing was Baudrillard’s politics.18
Writing was about the production of illusion for Baudrillard19 and when it accomplishes this, writing is truly a form of art. For Baudrillard, the job of art is to assist us in understanding the vital illusion behind everything – that the real hides behind appearances. If all art can do is become entangled in the real (such as writing that adds meaning to the world), it loses its way as art and becomes something else. The absolute conspiracy of art for Baudrillard is in its giving up on illusion and seeking the real.20 How quickly an art that does this attaches itself to waste and worthlessness.21 A provocative thought worth keeping in mind as we venture into the next Documenta. I say that respectfully because I love museums more than any of the other forms of institutional catastrophe.
For Baudrillard, writing is also “an inhuman and unintelligible activity, one must always do it with a certain distain, without illusions, and leave it to others to believe in one’s work”.22 As a writer we “cause things to exist… not by producing them in the material sense of the term, but by defying them, by confronting them”.23 Writing for Baudrillard was also a challenge to morality and to reality, seducing and playing with them.24 Baudrillard loved to write about things that were disappearing – indeed he said this “is the only compelling reason to write about some things”.25 Writing (theory) for Baudrillard was to observe a fatal strategy – to go to extremes, and that strategy is a happy one… often melancholic, but not depressive.26
He mainly wrote in fragments or short essays. As a writer he was his own ideal audience refusing to become “caught up in the coercive culture that compels a writer to write, and an intellectual to think”.27 “I write for myself” he wrote, “I no longer pretend to that privileged position of a person who has the right to know and write” for others.28 He loved to defy concepts:
I tried to defy the concept as an object, so that I would no longer be the subject of knowledge, and to remove myself from the position of the subject. …but discourse is something that always replaces you in the position of the subject. …With discourse, it is difficult to produce both meaning and appearances.29
As a person who enjoyed thinking and writing about simultaneously opposite yet true hypotheses, he did not allow the difficulty one experiences between meaning and appearances to deter him from the joy of writing. Indeed, playing with the complexity of such problems was part of the paradoxical joy of writing for Baudrillard. In a world where language merely stands in for meaning (in its eternal ephemerality), one should not be deprived of play. The world, including the world of the writer, is a game.30
Writing for Baudrillard was a precious “singularity”, “a resistance to real time”, “something that does not conform”, “an act of resistance”, the “invention of an antagonistic world” rather than a “defence of a world that might have existed”.31 Writing, he wrote: “is the living alternative to the worst of what it says”.32 For Baudrillard, the very shy person he was, and so averse to publicity – writing allowed him to express most radically what he thought.33 In his work is a lesson to each of us as writers – the enjoyment of sacrificing a whole chapter for a single sentence.34
To work against the system, to play a counter-game which destroys as it creates, freeing oneself from one’s own ideas and the “pleasure of shaking those branches to which the last readers are clinging”35 – all were part of the joy writing for Baudrillard. Writing about “the nothingness running beneath the surface, the illusion of meaning, the ironic dimension of language, correlative with that of the facts themselves”.36 Writing was for him a form of challenge – always a provocation.37
The best philosophies and literatures make us think about what it means to think and write. Take for example one of Baudrillard’s more playful (yet very serious) moments when he undertook a fate-based, 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 and incalculable effect. Such are the lineaments of a Fate-based Analysis, an unrealist analysis…38
Writing for Baudrillard held a seductive power,39 a kind of theory fiction where things in the end simply fall apart on their own into fragments separated only by the play of correspondence between them.40 Behind Baudrillard’s writing was not what we would call a form of hope but he was so optimistic in his own way. This came from a deep understanding of reversibility and the self-destructive logic of systems from the small scale to the global.41 The reason theory and writing are so closely related for Baudrillard is that for him writing is closer to thinking than to speaking.42 He wrote to the very end.
And so Baudrillard wrote in a world of illusion we all inhabit – one in which truth, meaning, and the real, exist only along local and restricted horizons, as partial objects.43 He wasn’t happy with the death of politics or the proliferation of simulation and virtuality – but he did show us one very good way to thrive in these bleak conditions while continuing to think and write:
We no longer have any standards of truth or objectivity, but a scale of probability. …The space between the true and the false is no longer a relational space, but a space of random distribution. …The uncertainty principle does not belong to physics alone; it is at the heart of all our actions, at the heart of ‘reality’.44
III. After The End
Later in the night of March 6th, after reading those sad E-mails, I dreamed I was walking across a desert not unlike the Great Salt Flats of Utah. In my dream a big American car was coming toward me very fast. As it roared by the driver tossed an empty (but still cool) beer can out of the window.45 I picked it up to find printed on it the words “Death resists us, but it gives in in the end”.46 I turned to follow but all that remained was a plume of dust. Baudrillard was gone. I awakened with a smile.
The joy he found driving in the desert was matched for Baudrillard, only by the joy of thinking and writing. May each of us as writers at the end of our days look back and share the feeling Baudrillard did when he wrote:
Writing has always given me pleasure, one recourse seems to me to have been open: never to abandon language but to guide it in the direction where it can still utter without having to signify, without letting go what’s at stake, bringing illusion into play.47
Sharing this feeling will not allow you to escape melancholy, but it just may keep you from becoming depressive. It is a poetic way of thinking that worked very well for Jean Baudrillard while he played very serious games with an indifferent, enigmatic, and unintelligible universe.
It is now my sincere hope the memories I have stimulated with this paper will force you to a question: What would your life be like, if you had never read Jean Baudrillard?
About the Author
Gerry Coulter is Full Professor of Sociology at Bishop’s University and the founding editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (On the Internet). His most recent publication is “Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming” In Games and Culture, SAGE, November 2007.
1 – Jean Baudrillard. “I Don’t Belong To the Club, To the Seraglio” (1993) an Interview with Mike Gane and Monique Arnaud in Mike Gane (Editor) Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, London: Routledge, 1993:204.
2 – Jean Baudrillard. In Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel, the Singular Objects of Architecture. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2002:60.
3 – Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (c 1978). New York: Semiotext(e), 1983:9-15
4 – Jean Baudrillard. “It Is The Object Which Thinks Us” in Jean Baudrillard: Photographies, 1985-1998. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje-Cantz, 1999:146-147. See also Edward Scheer “’The Most Delicate of Operations’: Baudrillard’s Photographic Abreactions”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 3, Number 1 (January, 2006).
5 – I think here of two writers who lined up to urinate on Baudrillard’s grave but only managed to pee on their own shoes. See Robert Fulford’s Obituary in Canada’s National Post newspaper: “A French Intellectual – In the Worst Sense of The Term” http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1798654/posts and Carlin Romano’s “Death of a Clown” in the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 14, 2007). Fulford and Romano are examples of writers into whom Baudrillard’s negativity has passed, but not his sense of humour (see also Jean Baudrillard, “An Interview with S. Moore and S. Johnstone”, (Marxism Today, January 1989:54). For numerous other obituaries on Baudrillard see the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Fulford’s obituary is characterized by indolent research and an arrogance uncommon among Canadian obituarists. Among Romano’s main problems with Baudrillard is that he may be more widely studied today than Henri Troyat. Romano speculates that no one will read Baudrillard in fifty years – a fate I sincerely hope has not already befallen Troyat.
6 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. London: Polity, 2006.
7 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:100.
8 – Jean Baudrillard. “Review of Uwe Johnson’s book: The Border” (c 1962). in Gary Genosko. The Uncollected Baudrillard. London: SAGE, 2001:36.
9 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:59.
10 – Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1986:24.
11 – Jean Baudrillard. The Evil Demon of Images. Sydney: Power Institute, 1987:40-41.
12 – Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (c 1978). New York: Semiotext(e), 1983:11.
13 – Jean Baudrillard. “An Interview With Judith Williamson, Block 15, 1989:18.
14 – Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:151.
15 – Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:83. Elsewhere Baudrillard writes: “The absolute rule is to give back more than you were given. Never less, always more. The absolute rule of thought is to give back the world as it was given to us – unintelligible. And if possible, to render it a little more unintelligible” (The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:105); and “The world was given to us as something enigmatic and unintelligible, and the task of thought is to make it, if possible, even more enigmatic and unintelligible”. (Impossible Exchange. London: SAGE, 2001:151).
16 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:103.
17 – Ibid.:103.
18 – Jean Baudrillard. “This Beer Isn’t A Beer: An Interview with Anne Laurent” (1991). In Mike Gane (Editor). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:181.
19 – Ibid.:103.
20 – Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. New York: Verso, 1998:45.
21 – Jean Baudrillard. The Lucidity pact or the Intelligence of Evil. London: Berg, 2005:105.
22 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:68.
23 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Power of Reversibility That Exists In The Fatal: An Interview With D. Guillemot and D. Soutif” (1983). In Mike Gane (Editor). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:44.
24 – Jean Baudrillard. The Evil Demon of Images. Sydney: Power Institute, 1987:39.
25 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories II (1985-1990). Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996:17.
26 – Jean Baudrillard. “This Beer Isn’t A Beer: An Interview with Anne Laurent” (1991). In Mike Gane (Editor). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:180.
27 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Power of Reversibility That Exists In The Fatal: An Interview With D. Guillemot and D. Soutif” (1983). In Mike Gane (Editor). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:44.
28 – Jean Baudrillard. “This Beer Isn’t A Beer: An Interview with Anne Laurent” (1991). In Mike Gane (Editor). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:182.
29 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Ecstasy of Photography: Jean Baudrillard Interviewed by Nicholas Zurbrugg”. In Nicholas Zurbrugg (Editor). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: SAGE, 1997:33.
30 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Power of Reversibility That Exists In The Fatal: An Interview With D. Guillemot and D. Soutif” (1983). In Mike Gane (Editor). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:45.
31 – Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: An Interview with Philippe Petit. New York: Verso, 1997:32 ff.
32 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. London: Polity, 2006:43.
33 – Jean Baudrillard. “I Don’t Belong To the Club, To the Seraglio” (1993) an Interview with Mike Gane and Monique Arnaud in Mike Gane (Editor) Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, London: Routledge, 1993:209.
34 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:29.
35 – Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Cool Memories III. New York: Verso, 1997:68.
36 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:98.
37 – Jean Baudrillard. The Evil Demon of Images. Sydney: Power Institute, 1987:40.
38 – Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001:136-137.
39 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:87.
40 – Jean Baudrillard. “I Don’t Belong To the Club, To the Seraglio” (1993) an Interview with Mike Gane and Monique Arnaud in Mike Gane (Editor) Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, London: Routledge, 1993:202.
41 – Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: An Interview with Philippe Petit. New York: Verso, 1997:24.
42 – Joseph Joubert in Alan Fletcher. The art of Looking Sideways. London: Phaidon, 2001.
43 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:108.
44 – Jean Baudrillard “Information at the Meteorological Stage” in Liberation, September 18, 1995 and in Screened Out, 2002:85-86.
45 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories II (1985-1990). Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996:40.
46 – Stanislaw Lec cited in Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with François L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge, 2001.
47 – Jean Baudrillard. “Writing Has Always Given Me Pleasure: Interview with Le Journal Psychologues” (1991) in Mike Gane (Editor) Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, London: Routledge, 1993:179.