Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Dr. William Pawlett
I am definitively other.1
It was a cold, blustery and inauspicious Friday the 13th in Leicester, UK in 1998. Baudrillard was giving a lecture at a weary, municipal Arts Centre. I was writing a Ph.D. thesis on Baudrillard. The theme of his lecture is “Nothing”. This troubled me because my thesis, as yet little more than a catalogue of his ideas, made no reference to this topic and so, even as a catalogue, it is about to be rendered obsolete.
I was also anxious because, although shy, I had convinced myself that I would have to introduce myself to Baudrillard and ask intelligent questions. I had heard Baudrillard lecture before. As a theorist passionate about the power of appearances, of illusions and of seduction, I had expected a seductive, rakish man, imagining Baudrillard to look something like Antoine de Caunes (the presenter of the television show Euro trash). Yet, as has been recorded elsewhere2 Baudrillard in the flesh was not this at all. He looked more like a retired trade union boss: dour and serious, tough-looking, almost pugilistic or soldierly. I remembered thinking that Baudrillard must never have been handsome or particularly striking.
Yet Baudrillard, in giving his paper, did exert a seduction. The event was well attended, and there was excitement in the air. He spoke quietly, without any trace of ostentation. He did not project the carefully-crafted image of a successful, celebrity intellectual; he was not, to use a term with which he is closely associated, a simulation. He did not attempt to dominate proceedings; even allowing mouthy and ill-informed post-graduates to rail against him with only a shrug of the shoulder or a muted “perhaps”.
After the lecture I cornered Baudrillard and blurted out a few questions on simulation and its relationship to evil. He said that I spoke too rapidly for him to understand properly, but nevertheless he answered and clarified an issue that had been troubling me. I began to relax but at that point he was whisked away by one of the event organisers. Later there was a book signing and an exhibition of Baudrillard’s photography entitled “Strange World”. Baudrillard was even invited by a female undergraduate to sign her bra-strap, but instead he signed the strap of her shoulder bag. The book signing went on for some time with Baudrillard signing not only copies of his new book but, it seemed, any book that students brought to him: dog-eared copies of his older works, library copies of his works in translation, including a copy of Horrocks’ Introducing Baudrillard (1996). I asked him if in this he was deliberately attacking the idea of authenticity and authorial status; he replied “perhaps”.
An obituary is expected to provide readers with information on the deceased’s ideas, to present a brief summary of their “key concepts”. But this task is highly problematic given the nature of Baudrillard’s writings. The problem is not one of complexity: Baudrillard’s central themes can be summarised relatively easily. It is rather that Baudrillard’s writings directly attack the very idea of the concept and its “truths”, and idea of information and its supposedly progressive, liberatory and irenic nature. Baudrillard challenged the culture of mass communications, of the information economy, of capitalism, of globalisation, of pluralism and “diversity”. These ideas and institutions are attacked not merely to provoke or offend, but because they dismantle, prevent or replace “symbolic exchange”, the central notion of Baudrillard’s writing. But symbolic exchange “is not a concept”3 and it cannot be reduced to information, or to a series or code of linguistic signs. Symbolic exchange “is an act and a social relation”,4 it is a space or relation established between people and is not separable or abstractable from that relation. Any abstraction from the dimension of reciprocal exchange is a “simulation”, a replacement of symbolic relations by coded, abstract signs. Symbolic exchange is communication, or better a communion, it cannot be expressed through “bits” of information.
I first encountered Baudrillard’s ideas as a student of sociology in the late 1980s. Inspired by Mike Gane’s rendering of his ideas, I rejected sociology almost immediately on contact with Baudrillard, seeking refuge in cultural studies. After reading Baudrillard, contemporary sociology seemed hopelessly slow and plodding, excruciatingly tame and stubbornly naïve in its empiricism. Accessing Baudrillard’s contribution to sociology is exceptionally problematic since his aim seems to have been to destroy it, or at least to observe its self-destruction.
My enthusiasm for Baudrillard’s ideas was not dampened during the late 1990s when, needing a job, I discovered that university departments did not want Baudrillard specialists. They wanted people interested in the sociological topics du jour (at that time Identity Politics and Globalisation) who might attract government research funding. Baudrillard’s theory had, it was argued, gone “badly wrong”.5 Stuart Hall, with a shocking lack of precision, conflated Baudrillard’s arguments on simulation with Francis Fukuyama’s neo-conservative “end of history” thesis.6 Baudrillard was, in any case, thought to be something to do with the 1980s and Postmodernism.7
Everything changed on September 11, 2001 – everything, including Baudrillard’s reputation. It was recalled that Baudrillard had written a great deal about terrorism and its relationship to the media. That he had, in the mid-1970s, described the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre as a symbol of Western capitalism’s arrogance, its exclusions, and its fictions of invulnerability.8 Indeed, Baudrillard, chillingly, describes the Twin Towers as a spectacle of such self-satisfied hubris that the “immanence of the catastrophe” haunts it and (quoting Walter Benjamin), suggests that such destruction might be received as an “aesthetic pleasure”.9 Baudrillard had warned, repeatedly, of the extreme vulnerability of Western societies and ideas to attack from Islamist fundamentalism from the late 1980s.10 He had long opposed the drive of globalisation, warning of the increasing likelihood of violent rejections of and attacks against this fragile system of integration.11
The world, it seemed, was growing more and more Baudrillardian by the day. When, in the late 1970s Baudrillard argued that party politics had become a meaningless exercise in images and promotion, and that wider political campaigning was assimilated into party politics without bringing about significant change, he was met with derision from the Left and labelled an irresponsible charlatan. Today, with a pro-Gay, pro-Green Conservative Party in the UK, few would disagree that party politics functions as a promotional game of signs that has left “reality” far behind. And now, after years of cursory rejection, Marxist theorists are lauding Baudrillard’s work as “an important contribution” to the critique of the capitalist system.12
When Baudrillard argued that the Women’s Liberation Movement risked worsening the social position of women if it “liberated” them according to existing models of sexuality, he was denounced by uncomprehending feminists as a sexist creep who wanted to confine women to traditional roles. Yet in the age of size zero and models dying of anorexia, of omnipresent lap-dancing clubs, of pre-pubescent girls wearing “Porn star” and “Playboy” T-shirts, and intelligent young women aspiring to work in the porn industry – Baudrillard’s arguments have been re-appraised. Indeed, Victoria Grace’s book Baudrillard’s Challenge dismisses early feminist readings of Baudrillard as puerile and makes the case that his work is an important, though eccentric, contribution to feminist thought, an outcome Baudrillard himself seemed to have hoped for.13
After 9/11 US and Allied forces launched further virtual media wars against “enemies” that had not attacked it. Conventional military engagement did not take place, but death and mutilation on a vast scale did, and Baudrillard’s controversial The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (c 1991/1995) was, at last, more fully understood. As Merrin notes journalists such as Michael Ignatieff (2000) now publish their own “sub-Baudrillardian ruminations” on the Gulf wars.14 The world’s largest military and media machine has failed to win the war against an enemy it struggled to define or locate, and this time, has lost the propaganda war too, succeeding only in making the world an far more dangerous and uncertain place. This sounds like something from Baudrillard’s fourth order of simulacra – and it is!
… the whole trick is to know how to disappear before dying and instead of dying.15
Death orders matters well, since the very fact of your absence makes the world distinctly less worthy of being lived in.16
I find myself standing over Baudrillard’s coffin. It is a beautiful spring morning in Paris. Having decided to attend his funeral only at the last minute, and struggling to find the correct entrance to the Cimetière Montparnasse, I expected to take my place at the back of a long funeral procession. But in fact there are few mourners, so few that I even thought I had arrived on the wrong day, or in the wrong place. There are no TV cameras, no media; this is not a hyperreal non-event, it is a symbolic ritual for family, friends and admirers.
The first thing I notice is a particularly large wreath from the French Ministry of Culture and Communication: an ironic object given Baudrillard’s long-standing hatred of culture (“I spit on it”)17 and his oft-repeated argument that communication has been replaced by information. About two hundred mourners have gathered now and we follow the hearse, Baudrillard’s second wife, Marine, and his two children along the avenue to the eighth division of the cemetery. A number of leading French intellectuals, including Marc Guillaume, Sylvere Lotringer, Jacques Donzelot and Michel Maffesoli gave speeches in tribute to Baudrillard and his work, emphasising the original and challenging nature of his ideas. There are also notable absences: no Virilio or Kristeva and, surprisingly, none of Baudrillard’s admirers and interlocutors from the English-speaking world. During the tributes one notable anecdote emerged, from Guillaume, concerning the first time Baudrillard met Marine. Being familiar with his work she asked Baudrillard if he would, at least, call himself a democrat? Baudrillard’s only reply was “You must not ask me such things”.
Finally, a symbolic exchange: after the coffin was lowered into the ground each of the mourners sprinkling earth over it. Baudrillard’s family leave quickly and the mourners disperse. As I make my way to the exit I pass a number of immaculately dressed women in their 40s and 50s and also notice a small group of young people, gathered by a bench, discussing Baudrillard’s ideas in earnest tones. A low-key but fitting tribute: thoughtful students and tearful mistresses?
Disappearance may be the desire to see what the world looks like in our absence (photography) or to see, beyond the end, beyond the subject, beyond all meaning, beyond the horizon of disappearance, if there is still an occurrence of the world, an unprogrammed appearance of things. A domain of pure appearance, of the world (and not of the real world, which is only ever the world of representation), which can emerge only from the disappearance of all the added values.18
Never believed in reality: I respect it too much to believe in it.
Never had any imagining of death: it should remain a surprise.19
Which of Baudrillard’s ideas will live on? Which will disappear with him? Ironically Baudrillard will be remembered as the theorist of simulation, a term he hardly used in the last twenty-five years of his life. His most important idea, symbolic exchange, is hardly known outside of specialist Baudrillard scholarship and will probably remain obscure. Yet Baudrillard will be remembered for his many provocations, for his symbolic exchanges with other thinkers and ideas, and with his readers. He will be remembered for his wit in attacking the commonplace and unexamined, for challenging the accepted and taken-for-granted, for defying received wisdom. Some of his ideas became (hyper)realities, some of his predictions came to pass, still others remain dissonant and unsettling, they lie in wait, traps for an unsuspecting “reality” to fall into.
Baudrillard himself claimed not to be an important figure in sociology and to have never, fundamentally, been a sociologist: “[i]f anything, I’m a metaphysician, perhaps a moralist, but certainly not a sociologist. The only ‘sociological’ work I can claim is my effort to put an end to the social, to the concept of the social”.20 Baudrillard was rather being rather disingenuous here; his early work from The System of Objects through to Symbolic Exchange and Death was clearly recognisable as sociological in places, though it was far more daring and inventive than mainstream academic sociology.21 This raises the question as to what, in the early 21st century, is sociology? Fewer students choose to take sociology degrees and university departments of sociology are contracting or in some cases, closing down. Many departments are characterised by what Weber termed “methodolatry”, by the pursuit of even more “sophisticated” techniques of data collection and manipulation at the expense of ideas, of relevance, of influence, of imagination. Sociology is disappearing into social statistics – into information.
Practitioners frequently bemoan their lack of social and political influence but as Baudrillard remarked academic thought is increasingly empty, too often “demoralizingly platitudinous”22 what influence can it expect to have? Baudrillard’s work contains nothing whatsoever of interest for sociology and sociologists of this kind. But for anyone who wishes to think, and think again, Baudrillard’s work is invaluable.
The more daily life is eroded, routinized and interactivized, the more we must counter this trend with complex, initiatory sets of rules.23
Things live only on the basis of their disappearance, and if one wishes to interpret things with entire lucidity, one must do so as a function of their disappearance.24
Radical thinking is a ceremonial form, for Baudrillard, it is a symbolic exchange ritual performed “to remake emptiness, to re-distinguish what has been confused”.25 Banal thinking, the dominant form, produces more and more and more which means less and less and less: thought is reduced to information, and it circulates in the virtual sphere of the “information economy”.
There is no binary distinction between thinking subject and thought object, they are inseparable, complicitous, duelling. The subject is an object and is part of the world, and the world is thought by the subject. Both scientific and critical thought posit a necessary connection between thought and the “real” world, but, for Baudrillard, this is superstition and a banal illusion. Both thought and the world are singular, not naturally or truthfully connected but, nevertheless, fundamentally inseparable, constantly in play. Radical thought re-makes our domesticated, coded language: “[t]hrough writing, language, which is a domesticated species, becomes a wild one again”.26 Language is never a neutral medium of representation, but it can “tear living concepts to pieces”.27 And we all think, all of the time. We have more ideas than we will ever need or use.
For Baudrillard radical thought was a “decoy” not a truth, it advances behind a mask. Not an instrument of analysis but a ruse by which the world analyses itself, revealing not the “truth” or the “real” but the fundamental and singular illusion of the world. Thought must seduce the world, but thought is only seductive with the complicity of the world. Anyone who seeks to verify their hypotheses, to capture the “reality” of the world, will not be disappointed because the world will elude them by “proving them right”, by submitting to any hypothesis, no matter how banal. By submitting to all hypotheses, even Baudrillard’s provocations and speculations, the world generates a radical uncertainty and remains ultimately elusive. But if the radical illusion of the world is indestructible the world of culture, meaning and representation is all too fleeting and slips away, almost unnoticed.
The generations steeped in the virtual will never have known the real. But that is not so serious if we accept that the real is merely a referential illusion. More serious is the case of those who, steeped in sex and images of sex will never have known pleasure. But this is nothing in relation to the possibility, for future generations, of never knowing death.28
About the Author
Dr. William Pawlett is from the department of Sociology and Cultural Studies, University of Wolverhampton, UK
1 – Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c 1990). London: Verso, 1993:173.
2 – See Mike Gane. Jean Baudrillard – In Radical Uncertainty, London: Pluto Press, 2000: 1; S. Beard and J. McClellan. “Baudrillard”. The Face, January 1989:61-2; A. Callinicos. Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989.
3 – Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (c 1976). London: SAGE, 1993.115.
4 – Ibid.
5 – K. Ansell-Pearson, K. Viroid Life. London: Routledge, 1997: 34.
6 – Stuart Hall. “The Local and the Global; Globalization and Ethnicity”, In A. King (Editor), Culture, Globalization and the World System. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991: 33). For Baudrillard’s comprehensive rejection of Fukuyama’s position, which even seems to have involved a face-to-face spat, see Baudrillard’s tellingly entitled Illusion of the End (c1992) London: Polity, 1994; and his interview “The Violence of Indifference” in The Conspiracy of Art, New York: Semiotext(e), 2005:141-155.
7 – See A. Callinicos. Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989: 86-7, 144-8; Douglas Kellner. Jean Baudrillard – From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Cambridge: Polity Press 1989; and S. Price. Communication Studies. Harlow: Longman 1996: 448-51.
8 – Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (c 1976). London: SAGE, 1993:69-70, 82.
9 – Ibid.:186.
10 – Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993:81-88; and The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:147.
11 – Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1988:116-117; and Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998:12-18.
12 – A. Kilmister and G. Browning. Critical and Post-Critical Political Economy, London: Palgrave, 2006: 105.
13 – Jean Baudrillard. In Mike Gane (Editor). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:47.
14 – William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. London: Sage, 2005: 96.
15 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. London: Polity, 2006:4.
16 – Ibid.:10.
17 – Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault/Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:81
18 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. London: Polity, 2006:4.
19 – Ibid.:1.
20 – Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault/Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:84).
21 – Baudrillard’s early work, particularly The Consumer Society (c 1970), contains recognizably Durkheimian themes; his discussion of waste as socially functional (New York: Verso, 1998:42-47) recalls Durkheim’s famous discussion of crime (see Emile Durkheim. The Rules of Sociological Method (c 1895), Basingstoke: McMillan 1982: 85-107) and there are a number of references to anomie (1970/1998: 174-185). Baudrillard curses those, many, who would reduce sociology to realist programmes and informational ‘data’ at the expense of imagination, challenge and thought.
22 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996:101.
23 – Jean Baudrillard. The Intelligence of Evil or The Lucidity Pact. Oxford: Berg, 2005:215.
24 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. London: Polity, 2006:6.
25 – Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies (c 1983). New York: Semiotext(e), 1990: 178.
26 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. London: Polity, 2006:7.
27 – Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993:71 (translation mine).
28 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. London: Polity, 2006:55.