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This review appeared in Volume 6 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.
Mike Gane (ed.). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London and New York: Routledge. 1993. 221 pages. ISBN 0-415-07038-4 (pbk) 0-415-07037-6 (hbk).
Jean Baudrillard is an undisciplined thinker. By his own admission, he is neither a sociologist nor a philosopher, although his work often carries these labels. He does not mix well with these groups which for their part have done very little to bring him into their ranks. His work is often ignored in overviews of contemporary French thought. He is, quite simply, an outsider, even in France. He will, if provoked, call himself a writer. Currently, he calls himself a photographer.
An unpaired thinker such as Baudrillard must eventually succumb to his theoretical loneliness and ask, in spite of the risk of giving the game away and falling into banality: Please follow me. In general, followership is banal. The follower is always there when the person being followed turns around. There is nothing of the fatal charm which 'shadowing' someone has for Baudrillard in this open doubling, direct seduction or even deception. He writes: "one must never come into contact, one must follow, one must never love, one must be closer to the other than his shadow. And one must vanish into the background before the other turns around" (Baudrillard 1988: 85). This strange pairing resolves itself in a reciprocal absence. One must never know one's followers, vet sense that they are there. Shadow, but do not follow, and do not let yourself be followed; shadowed, yes, but followed, no.
By now it is fairly evident that this strategy hasn't worked.
Baudrillard's work has travelled well in spite, or perhaps, in light of the fact that in translation in English it confounded the expectations of the disciplines which received it most enthusiastically by a lack of references an (ab)use of paradox, and preference for the poetic over the empirical. It offered a delightful reprieve from discipline, even if one's interest in it often condemned one in the eyes of certain disciplines If sociologists wrote poetry, it would read like Baudrillard. Alternatively, if political science was a branch of metaphysics, Baudrillard would be a political metaphysician. Untill, Baudrillard's body of work has not been successfully disciplined by university departments in the English-speaking countries that have embraced his work. His brand of writing remains in the margins. It belongs as much to the trend in the performance of theory that hit social and political theory in the 1980s (the Krokers', the Parasite Cafe, the Postmodern Commotion, etc.) s neo-Marxian polemics and off-centre art projects. Baudrillard has also experienced a few backlashes of his own. Writing in Artscribe, John Miller (1987: 49) describes an installation entitled Resistance (Anti-Baudrillard) which "disputed the primacy within the art world of the theory of Jean Baudrillard, citing 'disarming the idea of culture as site of contestation/resistance' as its chief ault." Group Material took its concerns directly to Baudrillard, as Miller explains: "(During the Dematerialization of Art' symposium at NYU, Baudrillard was in fact presented with a Group material announcement. He was, understandably, surprised and perplexed. Imagine seeing 'Anti(your same here)' in print.)" When Baudrillard was asked to comment on this event, he read this hyper- reaction as a sign of the contagiousness of his brand of nihilism, and thus, ironically, a victory of sorts.
Baudrillard's theorizing is flecked with what appears to be autobiographical detail, but not in the sense that one's writing is always a kind of intellectual autobiography. Only an unpaired thinker could demand that "one must never love." In Les stratégies fatales, Baudrillard describes two disappearances which occurred ten years apart: in the first instance, he disappeared; in the second, he was abandoned "without the shadow of a reason" (1983: 177). The persons (women, presumably) in both cases had the same first name. This was the fatal link between the events. While Baudrillard pairs what had been unpaired, he still remained alone. This aloneness became the subject of a hyperreal story told by Sylvère Lotringer (1992) on the occasion of Baudrillard's participation in a conference devoted to his work in Missoula, Montana in 1989 As the story goes, Baudrillard, who lives alone in a cabin in the Adirondacks, is visited by a certain Marshall Blonsky. Much to his surprise and dismay, Blonsky is far out of his element. His expectations are shattered by a series of pets, herbal tea, the absence of electronic equipment and empty book shelves. Baudrillard speaks about his broken marriage, photographs of his parents, his favourite chair. He admits that he would like to meet a woman just like himself, and laughs at the thought. In the end, Baudrillard confesses: "I'm a rebel."
The heady days when reading Baudrillard went hand-in-glove with watching Miami Vice -- 'I dress like Vice, I talk like Baudrillard," to note a bit of this giddiness -- are thankfully over (Grossberg 1987). Nonetheless, in the Baudrillard boom years of the mid-eighties, the reception party gave rise to a variety of critical malpractices which favoured looking over reading, displaying over analyzing, and parroting as opposed to uncovering. How many times was Baudrillard performed in conferences across North America? Wasn't this the kind of simulational activity that confirmed his worst theoretical fears? To quote Baudrillard in passing, or for no reason at all, other than to display one's contact with a contemporary intellectual phenomenon, satisfied a critical mentioning regime which sometimes mistook postmodern style for scholarship. One did not "dance with Baudrillard" (Gablik 1988) in order to go unnoticed. Such momentary pairings often resulted in interviews.
Despite Baudrillard's widespread influence, very few dissertations have been written on his work, and only a few book length studies have appeared to date. During the years of his greatest impact in the mid-eighties, Baudrillard's work seemed to be everywhere and simultaneously nowhere in particular, eking out an existence in spaces of interdisciplinarity, hanging in the air, flickering and folding, like a film projected on a wall of steam. Today, the postmodern reception party is but a fading memory, and the orgy is, as Baudrillard would have it, really over. There are still Baudrillard-inspired theoretical orgies, of course, but they are safer and circumspect. As translators and scholars reach back into his early works, the Baudrillard scene seems, well, staid, almost ordinary. The baseball caps emblazoned with 'Simulacrum' have all but disappeared.
It was Mike Gane who helped to pull the plug on the Baudrillard scene. In his first book on Baudrillard, Baudrillard: From Critical to Fatal Theory (1991), Gane convincingly argued that Baudrillard's work is irreducible to the postmodern posturing with which he was often charged. Baudrillard wasn't a postmodernist at all, and it was simply inaccurate to claim that he was; moreover, those who did advance such a claim, like Douglas Kellner (1989), whose position Gane has meticulously undone by revealing its contradictions, were guilty as charged. Kellner's recent response to Gane's arguments in his 'introduction' to Baudrillard: A Critical Reader (1994) includes the countercharges that Gane's efforts at separating Baudrillard from postmodernism were 'futile', that Gane put the words of his critique into Baudrillard's mouth in an interview, which he quotes incessantly as evidence, etc.
This brings me to the question of the interview. During my own research on Baudrillard, I, too, collected a thick folder of interviews with Baudrillard. Faced with this glut, l didn't have the heart to turn my own conversations with Baudrillard into interviews. In editing Baudrillard Live, Gane has had to weed through a good deal of material, all of it relevant in its own way. To be sure, some of his choices were forced upon him by the inevitable indignities an editor suffers. Still, the selection of interviews was in one way controlled, Gane specifies, by the inclusion of those "undertaken by interviewers with a close and detailed knowledge of Baudrillard's work in French" (9). What makes Baudrillard Live come alive is the fact that Baudrillard rarely rewrites and corrects his interviews. This makes them risky (for Baudrillard) and highlights, by default, just how important a modality writing is for Baudrillard, a matter Gane points out as well (16). This also makes a collection of such interviews a risky endeavour for the reader (given that Baudrillard thinks so little of them). in the selected interviews there are as many moments of brilliance as banality, as much avoidance as engagement, and off-the-cuff chatter as sustained reflection. Gane astutely poses the question of the interview to Baudrillard in his and partner Monique Arnaud's interview ('Baudrillard: The Interview') that closes the book:
MG: For a book of interviews it would be good to consider the question: what is an interview?
BAUDRILLARD: That's a question of confidence! It's an adventure - but a problematic one. There was a time when I was saturated with interviews and I couldn't even bear the thought of doing one. you had the impression that the people interviewing you either hadn't read your work, or just said anything, or they wanted to see you speak so as to stage-manage you. In fact stage-manage not the ideas but the person.
...Most of the time people want a facsimile: they want to worm information out of you. you feel like a hostage. you feel as if you've been taken hostage. (199)
There are only a few interviews, Baudrillard laments, in which sustained dialogue can reach the heights of "intellectual psycho-drama" and "real discussion" takes place. Gane includes in his collection the example cited by Baudrillard, his discussion with Lotringer entitled "Forget Baudrillard." On the whole, though, the interview forces one to become, as Baudrillard puts it, "an automatic dispensing machine" (200).
If Baudrillard believes, then, that he is held hostage to his own work by the media and academics, why not refuse to give any more interviews? Baudrillard clarifies this point as follows:
Well, strictly speaking, it's true that having made a critique of this form of communication which is vaguely humanist, vaguely dialogic, I should refuse to do that kind of thing. I should refuse every bit of it, naturally. But then, one cannot but enter the game. Even then, there is still something human in this to the extent that there is some kind of challenge in it an altercation, perhaps. You have to defend yourself. (201)
There is nothing worse, Baudrillard suggests, than being stuck in a parasitic communicative situation; this is the sort of pairing he wants to avoid. But to give up interviews altogether would result in a radically unpaired life, losing those rare moments when a momentary pairing in an interview situation becomes a duel; duel, that is, as opposed to dual. Baudrillard remains highly critical of communication as a restrictive form of "putting things that already exist in contact with each other" (57), and he privileges the duel and the challenge in "which livelier things come into existence." Despite these concerns, Baudrillard Live will be read with prurient interest. It is the closest thing to a biography that exists in the literature. The information "wormed out" of Baudrillard about his family, his teachers, etc.,is, however, meagre; it is more on the order of confirmation than illumination.
Baudrillard Live contains several important interviews published in Australia in the mid-late eighties: Salvatore Mele and Mark Titmarsh's "Game with Vestiges" (1984); T. Colless, D. Kelly, A. Cholodenko's "The Evil Demon of Images" (1984); one also notices Nicholas Zurbrugg's contributions as interviewer and translator to several slightly later pieces. We are left to wonder what happened in Australia in the mid-late eighties that produced such sustained engagements with Baudrillard. Unfortunately, Gane does not reflect on the contexts (local, national, academic, para- academic, etc.) from which the chosen interviews were taken, although he almost certainly faced this issue during his editorial work.
Recall, however, the flurry of activity and interest in Baudrillard which manifested itself at the University of Sydney in 1984 during his appearance at the conference FUTUR*FALL: Excursions into Post-Modernity (Grosz et al. 1986). This remains a peak of sorts. At the time of this conference, Andre Frankovits's edition of critical essays on Baudrillard, Seduced and Abandoned (1984), arrived on the scene alongside the translation of Baudrillard's address at the Power Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Sydney. The Evil Demon of Images (1984). Even Ross Gibson's (1984) review of the conference in the journal Art & Text (a journal that carried a number of translations of essays by Baudrillard) consists primarily of positive reflections on the two papers Baudrillard delivered at the conference. Gibson does make an effort to answer: Why Baudrillard? Why now? Why here?
It is not merely churlish to suggest that much of his popularity in Australia derives from his belonging to a path which would appear to lead out of theories of entertainment, mass media and fashion up to the portals of the philosophical academy. In a society which is blessed with a tradition of popular culture analysis (from the First Fleet annals to The Lucky Country and beyond), but which is only beginning to broaden its arena for more abstract philosophical debate, Baudrillard could be seen to be in the right place at the right time. (Gibson 1984; :8)
The importance of Baudrillard's work for what is called 'cultural studies' in Australia cannot be overestimated since it serves as a multiple switching point for paths which lead to and from a variety of academic departments, programs, publishing houses, and arts organizations. By contrast, Baudrillard's lectures at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the French Institute in London in 1988 prompted Dick Hebdige (1988: 32) to stand Baudrillard before the mirror which captures the vital banality, rather than the fatal banality, of popular culture: "Gloomy, decadent Baudrillard ends up facing optimistic, enabling cultural studies like an image reflected in a mirror. He is progressive British cultural studies back to front." The attempt to derive a positive lesson from Baudrillard's nihilism is indicative of his somewhat awkward place in the Birmingham school tradition. In Australia, the existing tradition did not have to bend like a image in a funhouse mirror to accommodate Baudrillard's arrival. Baudrillard in the eighties has given way to the recent conference 'Baudrillard in The Nineties' (April 1994), organized by Nicholas Zurbrugg on the occasion of Baudrillard's photgraphic exhibition at the Institute of Modern Art(Brisbane).
Baudrillard Live brings those who shadow, and perhaps even read him, up to date on his opinions about recent, perhaps not current, events. And while there are a few issues one would have liked to have seen broached - for instance, Baudrillard's practice, art criticism, and theory of photography - he is after all still alive and well, granting interviews, writing, and touring with his photographs. As he wrote in a letter to Gane that appears as an "Afterword": "Perhaps we will have the opportunity of picking this all up again." (209). This 'we' remains, however, a tentative phenomenon subject to the emergence of further significant duelisms.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. Les stratégies fatales. Paris: Grasset.
--- 1984. The Evil Demon of Images. Trans. P. Patton, and P. Foss. Sydney. Power Institute of Fine Arts.
--- 1988. Please Follow Me (with Sophie Calle, Suite Vénitienne). Trans. D. Barash and D. Hatfield. Seattle: Bay Press.
Frankovits, A. (eds.). 1984. Seduced and Abandoned: The Baudrillard Scene. Glebe, NSW: Stonemoss Services.
Gablik, Suzi. 1988. "Dancing with Baudrillard." Art in America 76/6(June) 27-9.
Gane. Mike. 1991. Baudrillard: From Critical to Fatal Theory. London: Routledge.
Gibson, Ross. 1984. "After FUTUR FALL." Art & Text 16: 82- 92.
Grossberg, Lawrence. 1987. 'The In-Difference of Television." Screen 2812: 28-45.
Grosz, E.A., Threadgold, T., Kelly, D., Cholodenko A., Colless. E. (eds.) 1986. FUTUR FALL: Excursions into Post-Modernity. Sydney: Power Institute of Fine Arts.
Hebdige. Dick. 1988. Hiding in the Light. London: Comedia.
Keilner Douglas. 1989. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Stanford: Stanford Universty Press
--- (eds.) 1994. Baudrillard: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Lotringer, Sylvère. 1992. "Hyperreal" in Jean Baudrillard; The Disappearance of Art and Politics. Stearns. W. W. and Chaloupka. W.(eds.). New York: St. Martin's Press.
Miller. John. 1987. "Baudrillard and His Discontents." Artscribe 63 (May): 48-51.