ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 15, Number 1 (November 2018)
Author: Keith Moser
Review of: Coulter, Gerry. Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert, or the Poetics of Radicality. New York: Intertheory, 2012.

Gerry Coulter’s recent monograph Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert, or the Poetics of Radicality is one of the most accessible and intellectually rigorous works of criticism ever dedicated to the provocative, maverick thinker Jean Baudrillard. Given that Coulter demonstrates exceptional mastery of Baudrillard’s entire repertoire, this book is indeed an essential tool for understanding the diverse, prolific writings of one of the most important thinkers of the postmodern, poststructuralist age. Specifically, Coulter convincingly asserts that Baudrillard’s profound originality lies in the fact that the philosopher dared to push the intellectual boundaries further than many people ever thought possible. Coulter identifies Baudrillard as a philosopher that offers a “more radical alternative” to traditional literary theory (5). The author also urges the American intellectual community to “engage with Baudrillard” and to transcend the limitations of the mainstream intellectual climate in the United States (109).

In fourteen concise chapters, Coulter cogently outlines the ‘poetics of radicality’ that is emblematic of Baudrillard’s complex, interdisciplinary thought. In addition to his well-founded assertion that the key to comprehending Baudrillard’s entire philosophical project is the theory of reversibility, Coulter explains that the philosopher will continue to have much to offer the modern world because of the very radicality that he embodies. Although many influential American intellectuals such as Susan Sontag have dismissed Baudrillard’s theories as being too extreme or exaggerated, Coulter contends that we should ask ourselves what this “fresh perspective” has to offer (134). Moreover, Coulter compels the reader to take another look at Baudrillard’s impressive body of work by carefully examining the rigor and consistency that span the author’s entire œuvre.

Throughout this well-written monograph, Coulter provides concrete examples which underscore Baudrillard’s plethora of contributions to literature, philosophy, and critical theory. Fully aware of his epistemological limitations, Coulter notes that Baudrillard was distrustful of all-encompassing thought systems that claim to possess definitive answers to complex questions which defy such simplistic appropriation. Instead of creating reductionist paradigms that purport to represent a given truth, Baudrillard “preferred a poetic view of the world” (1). Coulter affirms that one of the greatest lessons that we can learn from Baudrillard is to embrace ambivalence and emptiness in an indifferent universe that has no key for unlocking its enigmatic secrets.

In addition to encouraging the reader to accept the bittersweet fact that precise meaning is nowhere to be found for any sentient being that inhabits this planet, Coulter also illustrates that Baudrillard has made a lasting impact on several different fields because of his ability to go beyond Marxist and semiotic schools of thought. In this vein, the author underscores the significance of Baudrillard’s “break from Marx(ism)” (83). As Coulter explains, “Baudrillard thus radically departs with Marx in developing his own understanding of the importance of symbolic exchange” (86). As Coulter highlights, Baudrillard’s affirmation that global civilization now lives in a post-Marxist world where the incessant reproduction of images, simulacra, and signs has replaced production itself, has serious implications for the future of humanity.

Furthermore, Baudrillard does not provide any facile optimism that we will be able to liberate ourselves from the empire of signs anytime soon. However, the philosopher reminds us that “all systems create the conditions of their own demise” (1). For this reason, Western, neoliberal globalization is “simply the current power” (132). Moreover, Coulter also correctly identifies Baudrillard as a “post-semiotic” philosopher that explores the “radical implications of semiology” (16). In particular, Coulter posits that Baudrillard is a ground-breaking post-semiotic philosopher because he theorizes about the ramifications of living in a consumer republic in which the signs that used to stand in for reality now appear to have no referents whatsoever. By taking the reader on a stimulating journey through Baudrillard’s philosophy, Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert, or the Poetics of Radicality beckons us to ponder if the apocalyptic scenario of the utter destruction of meaning has come to fruition.

In summary, Coulter’s latest monograph is an essential companion for those that wish to examine the nuances of Baudrillard’s complex philosophy. Additionally, Coulter compellingly suggests that recent events such as the Gulf War’s dissemination in ‘real-time’ will cement Baudrillard’s legacy for many generations to come.

About the Author:
Keith Moser (Mississippi State University, USA)
Originally published in: Dalhousie French Studies (101) Spring 2014, pp. 132–133