Volume 15, Number 1 (November 2018)
Author: Kip Kline
Playful. That was my first impression of Gerry Coulter. My initial intellectual encounter with his work as well as our personal correspondence were marked by his playfulness. I did not know Gerry personally at the time of my first article submission to the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies but in the email exchange surrounding that article, he took particular note of the name of the town where my university is located. His precise words were, “Romeoville … Really?” He went on to say, “Then again I’m from a place called ‘Godfrey’ so who am I to point fingers?!” Gerry’s personal playfulness was charming and engaging and was sometimes self-deprecating as in the exchange above. He was a joy to interact with. But beyond this, as an intellectual and a scholar, Gerry was committed to very serious play. He formed a devotion to the same kind of play he had identified in the work of Jean Baudrillard, that is, playing with meaning in writing, playing “very serious games with an indifferent, enigmatic, and unintelligible universe.”1 In an interview with Nicholas Ruiz III, Gerry said about the journal he founded, “The world is a game and IJBS is a great toy – I enjoy nothing more than play – very serious play.” 2
In order to get a sense of Baudrillard’s play, it is imperative to dodge the errors committed by some of his critics. Gerry Coulter did the world a great service through his work that defended Baudrillard against gross misreadings (that have never been in short supply). There are several scholars whose work I have certainly benefitted from in this way – Mike Gane, William Pawlett, Rex Butler, just to name a few. But no one was more poetic in his corrections of Baudrillardian misreadings than Gerry Coulter. In response to the popular charges that Baudrillard’s work was not systematic or that he was somehow not rigorous, that he was not a serious theorist3 , Gerry pointed out that Baudrillard’s “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).”4 To misunderstand Baudrillard as lacking seriousness as a theorist is to misunderstand his entire project. Theory and fiction come together, out of necessity for Baudrillard, in a world in which dialectical critique has become “intellectually anachronistic.”5 In this world, critical theory and critical thought are subsumed back into the capitalist code and repurposed as sets of signs to be consumed alongside the rest in the steady waltz of images without referents that is constitutive of our telemorphic trajectory. As William Pawlett has pointed out, this is precisely why Che Guevara T-shirts exist.6 Gerry understood all of this well. He authored the most precise and memorable sobriquet for Baudrillard’s Cool Memories series when he called them, “theory diaries.”7 And I am quite certain he meant it as a compliment. As the title of his review of Cool Memories V, Gerry used one of the more revealing quotes in the book, and one that gets directly into the heart of Baudrillard’s late work. “Theory is never so fine as when it takes the form of a fiction or a fable.”8 Both Jean Baudrillard and Gerry Coulter were committed to playing games but the games they played were very serious. And as Gerry said himself, IJBS is a great toy.
Gerry’s emphasis on Baudrillard’s playing with meaning and the serious play of theory/fiction/myth has perhaps never had more socio-political use than it does in our current landscape (and as Gerry taught us, “Writing was Baudrillard’s politics.”).9 In response to the political phenomena of Brexit, Trump, Le Pen and the concomitant ubiquity of concerns over “fake news” and “information wars” significant numbers on the Left have championed a commitment to “The Truth” and “Objectivity.” For instance, when Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway infamously characterized the President’s wildly fantastic assertions about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, “alternative facts,” the American Left jumped to defense of “The Facts.” Certainly there is much to resist with regard to the rise of new nationalist movements, even specifically their penchant for lying. And yet, do we really want to offer an indignant riposte to the affronts of the Trump administration that champions pure objectivity and immutable fact? Gerry’s work on Baudrillard helps us understand that to do so is to be “intellectually anachronistic” and that theory fiction/fable (playing with meaning) is the only way to avoid the trap of our critiques being subsumed into the code.
Gerry helped us all see clearly that Baudrillard’s writing and theory were, no doubt, serious. But even more important, he understood and articulated so poetically that Baudrillard’s writing and theory revealed his serious play. And this is what the world after dialectical critique, after critical theory, after the third (and perhaps fourth) order of simulacra calls for. Indeed, in a world in which “the dialectic is definitively over” theory must be put into conversation with fiction and myth (and diaries). Baudrillard said we must “Promote a clandestine trade in ideas, of all inadmissible ideas, of unassailable ideas, as the liquor trade had to be promoted in the 1930s. For we are already in a state of full-scale prohibition.”10 No doubt, Gerry Coulter promoted a clandestine trade in ideas, of all inadmissible ideas. This is precisely what IJBS is and what he meant when he called it a great toy.
Gerry also successfully and poetically corrected the charge that Baudrillard was a nihilist. Baudrillard’s descriptive arguments about the world in the late 20th Century (and the early 21st) are sobering but his work is, in his own words, “… never depressive. On this point there is a total misunderstanding.”11 Working over the illusion, making enigmatic what is all too clear – that is, Baudrillard’s fatal theory and radical thought – yield a kind of postmodern hope for a critique that avoids neutralization in the late capitalist code.12 Gerry knew this well. He said, “In the end, Baudrillard is not melancholic – but he works melancholy like no one I’ve ever known.”13 Gerry understood that Baudrillard’s playing with the universe through his writing was not at all nihilistic. He argued that there was a kind of joy operating in Baudrillard’s work/play. He said, “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.”14 He also told us that Baudrillard’s play involved both “the joy of thinking and writing and reading” and “the joy of poetic existence.”15 Of course, Gerry embodied this kind of joy as well. He noted that playing with meaning, illusion, and the enigmatic world “will not allow you to escape melancholy, but it just may keep you from becoming depressive.”16
Play is also central to Gerry’s writing on film – and Baudrillard figures significantly here. My own writing on Baudrillard has thus far included much discussion of film and, in fact, nothing taught me more about Baudrillard’s relationship to film and cinema than reading Gerry’s work. For Baudrillard, the last century of film has been a steady dilution of the image that has resulted in a shift from the fantastic/mythical to the realistic and hyperrealistic.17 Ideas about cinema reach a point of peak significance in his work when he describes the film/reality relationship as a “lethal transfusion.”18 As Gerry put it, “Baudrillard understands some cinema to be ‘abolishing itself’ with ‘hyperreal’ technology.”19 As the tools of cinematic technology expand and refine, the magic and illusion of film disappear in an alluvion of perfect simulacra. This results in what Baudrillard has called both an “empty perfection” and “pornography of the image.”20 In this milieu, both cinema and reality lose their specificity when technology allows films to get closer and closer to a kind of technical perfection. All of this allows for films themselves to be played with as toys.
In addition to this idea, Gerry’s writing brilliantly brought together Baudrillard and film for the purpose of understanding the concept of history. He established that there are specific implications of Baudrillard’s commentary on cinema for the relationship between film and history. “Whatever relationship the image and reality may have been said to share in historical time is now stretched beyond credulity in the age of real time media.”21 In Baudrillard’s fourth order of simulacra, media “acts out” in a way that “opens on to a generalized virtuality which puts an end to the real by its promotion of every single instant.”22 This real time media has now encroached upon film as the space between events and their filmic expressions is disappearing. That is, film has become another mechanism contributing to the phenomenon of history no longer having time to take place. The confluence of the phenomenon of real time and cinematic technical perfection (hyperreal film) and its relationship to history results in what I have called real time cinema.23 In this type of cinema, the stories of contemporary events are depicted in film almost immediately after their occurrence.
My notion of real time cinema owes much to Gerry’s writing on Baudrillard, film, and history. In fact, Gerry articulated the relationship between film and history in a very closely related idea. He said that contemporary films had the capacity to “play with history like a great toy.”24 In a discussion of, The Lives of Others, a film that attempted to humanize the story of the Stasi police force in East Germany, he noted, “fiction now trumps history and plays with it at will.”25 He added that in our current landscape of image saturation, “the reach of the filmmaker far extends that of the best historians.”26 This allows filmmakers to abuse history in the sense that their use of the image in its technically perfected state ends up standing in for historical meaning (as is the case in real time cinema). Both Baudrillard and Gerry Coulter argued this about film and history, each in his own way. But, Gerry concluded, “There is not much point getting angry about this film [The Lives of Others] for doing what films do, playing with reality and history.”27 This is what we must expect from film and from filmmakers in the fourth stage of the image – “to use history like a great toy.”28
But Gerry also knew that films playing with history like a toy was not always abusive to history. Though it certainly played with history, he admired the film version of The English Patient for the ways in which it helps us to understand reversibility (one of Gerry’s favorite Baudrillardian concepts) and the other. “We shall never find our way back to history prior to cinema,” Gerry said, “and The English Patient is evidence that this is not a bad thing.”29
The world is a game, Gerry reminded us. And although some iterations of playing with toys might abuse history (The Lives of Others and countless other examples) or worse, we must counter these instances by playing our own very serious games. No one did this better than Gerry Coulter and no more serious toy has been developed than the International Journal for Baudrillard Studies.
Gerry asked us all to consider, on the occasion of Baudrillard’s death, “What would your life be like if you had never read Baudrillard?”30 At the time of this writing, I am thinking about a related question. What would Gerry Coulter’s death have been like if he had never read Baudrillard? I think Gerry would say that he learned to play very seriously by reading Baudrillard. And I think he would say he learned to avoid being melancholic even as he played with melancholy from Baudrillard. He might even say he learned the joy of poetic existence. These are indeed, the things I have learned from Gerry Coulter’s life/death.
About the Author:
Kip Kline is Professor of Philosophy of Education at Lewis University in Romeoville, IL. He is the author of Baudrillard, youth, and American film: fatal theory and education. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016.
1 – Coulter, Gerry. “Jean Baudrillard’s Writing About Writing.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 4, no. 3 (October 2007).
2 – “An Interview with Gerry Coulter.” Kritikos: an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image 2 (September 2005).
3 -Botz-Bornstein, Thorsten. “Book Review: Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert, or the Poetics of Radicality by Gerry Coulter.” The London School of Economics and Political Science Review of Books, April 10, 2013.
4 – Coulter, Gerry. “Jean Baudrillard’s Writing About Writing.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 4, no. 3 (October 2007).
5 – Baudrillard, Jean. The perfect crime. New York: Verso, 1996, 66.
6 – Pawlett, William. Jean Baudrillard: against banality. London: Routledge, 2007, 40.
7 – Coulter, Gerry. “Book Review: “Theory is never so fine as when it takes the form of a fiction or a fable.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 4, no. 2 (2007).
8 – Baudrillard, Jean, and Chris Turner. Cool memories V: 2000-2004. Cambridge: Polity, 2006, 11.
9 – Coulter, Gerry. “Jean Baudrillard’s Writing About Writing.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 4, no. 3 (October 2007).
10 – Baudrillard, Jean. The perfect crime. New York: Verso, 1996, 105.
11 – Ibid, 104.
12 – Kline, Kip. Baudrillard, youth, and American film: fatal theory and education. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016.
13 – “An Interview with Gerry Coulter.” Kritikos: an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image 2 (September 2005).
14 – Coulter, Gerry. “Jean Baudrillard’s Writing About Writing.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 4, no. 3 (October 2007).
15 – Coulter, Gerry. “Book Review: “Theory is never so fine as when it takes the form of a fiction or a fable.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 4, no. 2 (2007).
16 – Coulter, Gerry. “Jean Baudrillard’s Writing About Writing.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 4, no. 3 (October 2007).
17 – Baudrillard, Jean. The evil demon of images: dedicated to the memory of Mari Kuttna, 1934-1983. Sydney: The Power Institute of Fine Arts, 1988, 33.
18 – Clarke, David. “‘Dreams Rise in the Darkness: The White Magic of Cinema,’” Film-Philosophy 14, (2010), 15.
19 – Coulter, Gerry. “Jean Baudrillard and Cinema. The Problems of Technology, Realism and History,” Film Philosophy 14 (2010), 9.
20 – Zurbrugg, Nicholas. Jean Baudrillard, Art and Artefact, vol. 14 (London: Sage Publications (CA), 1997).
21 – Coulter, Gerry. “Jean Baudrillard and Cinema. The Problems of Technology, Realism and History,” Film Philosophy 14 (2010), 12.
22 – Baudrillard, Jean. The perfect crime. New York: Verso, 1996, 31.
23 – Kline, Kip. “Reading ‘The Bling Ring’ with Baudrillard: Real Time Cinema and the Simulacrum of the Teenager,” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 13, no. 1 (2016).
24 – Coulter, Gerry. “Visual story telling and history as a great toy — the lives of others.” Wide Screen 1, no. 2 (June 2010).
25 – Ibid.
26 – Ibid.
27 – Ibid.
28 – Ibid.
29 – Coulter, Gerry. “Inter-disciplinarity and the Cinema: A Historical-Geogrphical-Literary-Philosophical-Sociological-Political View of the film The English Patient,” European Scientific Journal. Special Issue (June 2013). Proceedings of the 1st International Inter-disciplinary Conference.
30 – Coulter, Gerry. “Editorial: Until We No Longer Speak His Name.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 4, no. 3 (October 2007).