Volume 1, Number 1 (January 2004)
Author: Dr. Gerry Coulter
And is there really any possibility of discovering something in cyberspace? The Internet merely simulates a free mental space… it merely offers a multiple, but conventional, space, in which the operator interacts with known elements, pre-existent sites, established codes. Nothing exists beyond these search parameters. Every question has its anticipated response. You are the automatic questioner and, at the same time, the automatic answering device of the machine. Both coder and decoder — in fact your own terminal, your own correspondent. That is the ecstasy of communication. There is no “Other” out there and no final destination. And so the system goes on, without end and without purpose.1
Baudrillard began his challenge with The System of Objects in 1968 and for the past thirty-six years it has been sustained by a constant flow of books containing radical insights and provocations. He arrived at the centre of contemporary theory about two decades ago as Sylvere Lotringer has recently noted:
The ’80s began in 1983, with the publication of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations, which propelled a kind of weightless nebula into culture just before a charge of Orwellian paranoia took over. At the time, there was this lingering anxiety: Would 1984 keep its appointment? The answer was no. The society of the spectacle had already become a society of spectators, and Foucault’s panopticon a Möbius strip. Everyone was waiting for George Orwell, but Baudrillard arrived instead.2
He has remained at the nexus of current events and contemporary theory ever since as in his explanation of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001. Those who hate the West do not attack it because of what we have taken from them as is commonly understood in the dominant literature on colonialism. For Baudrillard, they attack us because we humiliate them in the globalization of our own culture without allowing other cultures to give back on equal terms. The curse and “symbolic” weakness of our culture is that the counter gift is impossible. Terrorism may be absurd and ultimately useless, but it is the “judgment and penalty” of a society which has forgotten symbolic exchange.3 It is this kind of challenge to taken for granted assumptions that makes Baudrillard’s thought so interesting.
Dialectics are no longer possible in Baudrillard’s view, having been swept away by the deployment of third order simulacra. In response Baudrillard advanced a catastrophic strategy, ceaselessly pushing things beyond their limits, to the point of collapse.4 Dialectics have been replaced by ecstacy and he finds pornography as the ecstatic form of sex, terrorism as the ecstatic form of violence, and the state as the ecstatic form of society.5 It is neither a doctrine nor a program, but a strategy of challenge, provocation, reversal: “raising things to their Nth power.”6 Baudrillard refuses to participate in the game of producing positive solutions,7 and theory becomes a fatal strategy which understands the object as more cunning than the subject.8 He believes that Andy Warhol understood something of this strategy when he held up a mirror to a banal utopia, pushing the system to absurdity.9 Baudrillard is not on the side of production but of a “higher necessity” which brings things to their disappearance. A form of thought “not caught up in the history of ideas or in a philosophical itinerary, but in the current situation as final term,”10 and in which seduction and deception are more powerful than production, reality, or science.11 Seduction is what works to unsettle identity and meaning and posits the possibility of radical otherness. At a time when focus is almost exclusively turned to production, Baudrillard argues that there is always seduction, reversibility, and challenge. Both proponents and opponents of globalization would do well to pay heed to this insight.
Baudrillard is a creature of the transpolitical universe that his transdisciplinary discourse probes. He does not set out to clarify the world, or to render it knowable in a clear and uniform theory, but rather to make it more enigmatic and unknowable. We have always been in a distant relationship with a real that is ultimately unknowable for Baudrillard. Why then write over thirty books on theory and contemporary society? Because to think, to write, in such a way as to challenge the reality industry, including the university, is the only purpose of thinking and writing. Taking writing and thinking to extremes is not a pessimistic strategy but a happy one for Baudrillard. It is a vital strategy equipped for the vital illusion.12
His writing is intense but as Victoria Grace has pointed out, it makes for an enjoyable reading experience even if it is vexing at times:
Few writers of our own or any time have written on such a multiplicity of subjects with Baudrillard’s intensity and passion. No writer of our time, in my mind, provides his readers such sheer enjoyment in the act of reading as well as the delicious (sometimes harrowing) experience of subjecting one’s thought to Baudrillard’s refusal to rest his case.13
As it turns out, Baudrillard’s strategy has stood up very well in the face of extreme productivism and the globalization of the performance principle.14 Baudrillard stands against the absolute realization of the human being as a programme, what he calls “a strategy for wretches” and a form of self exploitation to which “one would never submit if imposed by someone else.”15 Perfection is our attempted crime for Baudrillard and an important part of his challenge in recent years is aimed at efforts which bury human relations in images, codes, and simulated reality.16
The proximity of Baudrillard’s writing to current events is one factor which undoubtedly leads to misunderstandings.17 One such misinterpretation in recent years views the movie The Matrix as Baudrillardean, a misreading that the film’s creators the Wachowski brothers, seem dedicated to perpetuating. In June 2003 however, Baudrillard told a Paris weekly that the Matrix was the sort of film that the matrix would make about itself.18 I couldn’t help but think of that remark while watching the final scene of the third part of the trilogy: Matrix Revolutions. What do those shining corporate towers restore more than the much desired “real world” of Warner Brothers? One is often left to wonder if Baudrillard is merely a product of our mutating transpolitical, transeconomic, and transhistorical world, or is this world but part of his effect on it? Alan Cholodenko’s recent take on Baudrillard picks up on this notion: “Baudrillard issues a singular challenge to the world, to thought, to be more, in that very seduction provoking radical uncertainty as to whether he lies in their wake, or they in his.”19 Perhaps at the present time, Baudrillard’s transsociological challenge equips us with an important way of navigating the increasingly uncertain transhuman and posthumanist world. The unavoidable fact is that the world of 2003 is a lot like the one Baudrillard, like no one else, was writing about in the 1970s and 1980s. To his credit, he did try to convince us to abolish the 1990s before they took place!
If we are fascinated by the media, Baudrillard feels it is not because it provides us with meaning, but because it provides us with the site of the disappearance of meaning, sites of the denigration of the real,20 far from judgements of reality:
The masses, as Baudrillard once quipped, prefer media to messages — national psychodramas tailored for the big and little screens. The writings of Baudrillard represent, then, a vector for the transmission of McLuhan’s ideas, often in distorted forms, to be sure.21
Baudrillard refuses to overestimate the power of the media, a game that serves the media and in which the left participates. Media moguls are merely masters of transparency to whom Baudrillard will not bend a knee,22 or court, as did McLuhan. McLuhan and Debord are strong influences on the young Baudrillard but he moves beyond both in the 1970s:
We are no longer in the society of the spectacle, of which the situationists spoke, nor in the specific kinds of alienation and repression that it implied. The medium itself is no longer identifiable as such, and the confusion of the medium and the message (McLuhan) is the first great formula of this new era. There is no longer a medium in the literal sense: it is now intangible, diffused and diffracted, in the real, and one can no longer even say that the medium is altered by it.23
He shares with McLuhan the effort to understand the movement of society into the age of cybernetics, but not in McLuhan’s “exalted mode.”24
In Volume 1, Number 1, we are delighted to offer the first English translation of the interview Baudrillard gave to Der Spiegel following the events of September 11, 2001. In this interview Baudrillard addresses contemporary issues in a way that clarifies some aspects of his thought that are frequently misunderstood. The interview is introduced by a lively and thought provoking piece by Gary Genosko (Have You Seen The War?), which is itself part of the Baudrillard effect. Victoria Grace probes Baudrillard’s work on the ambivalent status of meaning. Language for Baudrillard is not a reflection of meaning but is something that is there in place of meaning, which like truth, or the real, appears only locally as a partial object.25 Baudrillard agrees that the absence of meaning is intolerable, but adds: “it would be just as intolerable to see the world assume a definitive meaning.”26 My article inserts Baudrillard’s writings into competing public discourses on terrorism in an effort to reexamine his thought alongside statements by President George W. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and the world’s most wanted man: Osama bin Laden. It becomes clear that Baudrillard is no proponent of terrorism as some in the United States and elsewhere have mistakenly understood.27 It should also be noted that Baudrillard has stated that he finds anti-Americanism stupid: “As if Americanism did not run through every society, every nation, and every individual today, like modernity itself.”28 Tilottama Rajan’s selection on Baudrillard and Deconstruction rounds out our articles for this first issue. Rajan places Baudrillard on the philosophical side of the chasm that separates the social sciences and philosophy but she does not understand him to be a conventional philosopher. For Rajan, Baudrillard was engaged in “an affirmative deconstruction” in his early work that “created a space for a philosophically grounded anti-sociology.”29 Baudrillard’s deconstruction is ecstatic and performative (not critical or discursive), “a provocation of critical theory as its own destruction” says Rajan.
We had not planned to offer book reviews until our second issue. A last minute opportunity to reprint two review essays by Rex Butler from Australian publications provides the occasion for a wider audience to reflect on some of Baudrillard’s work over the past decade from a thought provoking perspective. My review of Zizek, Virilio, and Baudrillard’s books published on the first anniversary of 9-11, echoes and extends a thought that emerges in the virtual dialogue on terrorism I have assembled: Baudrillard’s reminder that “terrorism is a lesser evil than the police state capable of ending it.”30 It is very important at this time to have things in which not to believe.31
In a cool memory Baudrillard remarks that we are “no longer actors of the real but double agents of the virtual.”32 Founding an electronic journal devoted to things Baudrillardean has proven an interesting and enjoyable task and one undertaken with both Baudrillard’s skepticism of the internet and an idea expressed by Rex Butler in mind:
We would be most Baudrillardean in sociology not in merely following him but in discovering or inventing a certain “Baudrillard effect” within it, something that repeats the internal logic of his work, but within the internal logic of sociology (which shows that neither logic is simply internal, but external in a different way). This is in the end how great or powerful thinkers live on, not so much because of some predetermined body of doctrine they set out but because they offer rules for their own transformation, understand themselves as only an effect of their own reading, translation, seduction, doubling.33
If IJBS is to contribute to making the world more unintelligible and enigmatic,34 we will need to be true to the Baudrillard effect by sacrificing system for strategy, and keeping theory as a challenge to the real to expose itself as illusion. Here in my viral corner of cyberspace, adhering to this “sticky screen,”35 on behalf of the editorial board, I launch The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies as a place for those who wish to take the “angel of extermination”36 seriously:
There is a permanent misunderstanding… Everything I write is deemed brilliant, intelligent, but not serious. …I don’t claim to be tremendously serious, but there are nevertheless some philosophically serious things in my work!37
Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada
1 January, 2004.
Volume 1-1 of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies is dedicated to the memory of Nicholas Zurbrugg.
About the Author
Dr. Gerry Coulter is the founder of IJBS.
1 – Jean Baudrillard. “Screened Out”. Liberation, May 6, 1996 in Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:179.
2 – Lotringer, Sylvere. “My ’80s: Better Than Life@, Artforum: April 2003. http://www.artforum.com/index.php?pn=back_issues&year=2002#7
4 – 4 Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (Gallimard, 1976). New York: Sage, 1993:5.
5 – Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies: Crystal Revenge (Editions Grasset, 1983). New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:41.
6 – Jean Baudrillard. “Interview with S. Mele and M. Titmarsh” (1984). In Baudrillard Live, Mike Gane (Ed.), New York: Routledge, 1993:82.
7 – Jean Baudrillard. “Interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg” (1990). Ibid.: 169-170.
8 – Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies: Crystal Revenge (Editions Grasset, 1983). New York: Semiotext(e), 1990: 181.
9 – Jean Baudrillard. “Conversation with Enrico Baj” (1991). In Gary Genosko. The Uncollected Baudrillard. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001:148.
10 – Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. (Grasset 1997). New York: Verso, 1998:46.
11 – Jean Baudrillard. Seduction. (Editions Galilee, 1979). Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1990:1-2.
12 – Jean Baudrillard. “Interview with A. Laurent” (1991). In Baudrillard Live, Mike Gane (Ed.), New York: Routledge, 1993:180.
13 – Grace, Victoria. Baudrillard’s Challenge: A Feminist Reading. New York: Routledge, 2000:1.
14 – Jean Baudrillard. Transparency of Evil: Essays On Extreme Phenomena. New York: Verso, 1993:104.
15 – Jean Baudrillard. Illusion of the End (Editions Galilee, 1992). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994:102-103.
16 – See Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996.
17 – When we first met in Paris to discuss the idea of a journal devoted to “Baudrillard studies” he remarked that “it would be nice to clarify a few things”. This also seems to be the principle task of his most recent book: Passwords (New York: Verso, 2003).
18 – Le Nouvelle Observateur, June 19-25, 2003 (translation mine). IJBS will run a full English translation of this interview in Volume 1-2 (July 2004).
19 – Alan Cholodenko. “Apocalyptic Animation: In The Wake of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Godzilla, and Baudrillard”. In Victoria Grace et. al., Baudrillard West of the Dateline. Palmerston, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 2003:241.
20 – Jean Baudrillard. Evil Demon of Images: The 1984 Maria Kuttna Lecture on Film. Sydney: Power Institute, 1987:29.
21 – Gary Genosko. McLuhan and Baudrillard: The Masters of Implosion. New York: Routledge, 1999:3.
22 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Powerlessness of the Virtual”. Liberation, June 6, 1995. In Screened Out, New York: Verso, 2002: 60-61.
23 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (Editions Galilee, 1981). Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1994: 30.
24 – Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972). St. Louis, Mo.: Telos, 1981:202.
25 – Jean Baudrillard. The Illusion Of The End. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994: 92; Jean Baudrillard. Simulation and Simulacra. (Editions Galilee, 1981). Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1994:108).
26 – Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange (Editions Galilee, 1999). London: Sage, 2001: 128.
27 – See especially Mark Goldblatt. “French Toast: America Wanted September 11”. National Review Online, December 13, 2001. http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-goldblatt121301.shtml
28 – Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1990-1995. New York: Verso, 1997: 71.
29 – Tilottama Rajan. Deconstruction and the Remainders of Phenomenology: Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002: 247-248.
30 – Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies: Crystal Revenge (Editions Grasset, 1983). New York: Semiotext(e), 1990: 47.
31 – Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000: 48-49.
32 – Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1990-1995. New York: Verso, 1997: 125.
33 – Rex, Butler. Jean Baudrillard. The Defence of the Real. London: Sage, 1999: 171.
34 – Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000: 83.
35 – See Gary Genosko’s Introduction to the Baudrillard interview with Der Spiegel in this issue (“Have You Seen The War?”).
36 – This term was coined by Nicholas Zurbrugg. See “Just What Is It That Makes Baudrillard’s Ideas So Different, So Appealing?” in Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.), Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage, 1997: 2.
37 – Jean Baudrillard. “Interview with A. Laurent” (1991). In Baudrillard Live, Mike Gane (Ed.), New York: Routledge, 1993: 189.