ISSN: 1705-6411
                                   
Volume 6, Number 2 (July, 2009)

Radical Memory? Baudrillard Viewed From the Walls of Québec City

Simon Labrecque
(Graduate Student in Political Science, Laval University, Quebec City, Canada)

My bias in these matters is preferential, so to speak, not referential. I reject the scenarios of academic research. I never really considered the – ultimately, rather complex – question of the status of references, as those who use them – sometimes very brilliantly – must have. …Doubtless it’s impossible to do without references. But they must return to secrecy. The center of gravity lies in what we do; that must be the well spring, and that’s all there is to it. And we may also possibly – why not? – reinvent quite simple things we may have found elsewhere (Baudrillard, 2001a [2004:11-12]).

I. Introduction: Memory Work

When we assess the core features of Jean Baudrillard’s legacy many questions arise. Among them: “what constitutes a legacy?”; “What qualifies among its most important elements?”; and “on what grounds?” “What counts as Jean Baudrillard’s specific legacy?” It seems clear that there are no definitive answers to these questions. The grounds on which one answers them will be determined by one’s context and intentions. One way of beginning to answer them is to begin from our own individual and very situated point of view. In my case, my restricted, local, and partial horizon (Baudrillard, 1981 [1994:108]) is that of a Master’s Student in Political Science at Université Laval, in Québec City, Canada. It is from this place that I identify the most fruitful elements of Baudrillard’s thought for the field of political philosophy. I will do so by showing how some of his ideas can be used to think the specific context of the year 2008, in Québec City [The city’s 400th Anniversary].

The question of memory is thus a crucial one in this reflection. In The Intelligence of Evil or the lucidity Pact, Baudrillard wrote that we should pass through the “non-event of information” to detect what resists it. To do so, we shall proceed to a literal analysis of the Event, against other forms of commentary or mise en scène that can only neutralize it (Baudrillard, 2004a [2005:113]). Literal analysis is part of what Baudrillard called “Radical Thought”, a form of thinking that goes beyond critique and that might be able to maintain the Event as a [in its] Singularity. This approach may be the most interesting legacy of Baudrillard to the field of political philosophy, in particular when, embedded in the context of Integral reality, we face what is presented as proper events of remembrance.

I gave myself the task of experimenting with the approach of literal analysis. This implies that I tried to refrain from interpreting and commenting on Baudrillard’s ideas, even if we seem to “always already” be commenting and/or interpreting. I  analyzed two events that took [or did not take…] place in the month of January, 2008, in Québec City. First, I will describe the New Year’s Countdown, which marked the beginning of the year-long celebrations of the city’s 400th anniversary. Second, I will describe the complete retrospective of Guy Debord’s films that took place in a museum, on January 16, 23, and 30. To help readers understand the peculiar context of these analyses, it seems necessary to first examine the place Jean Baudrillard occupies in Québec City. This presentation will set the stage for my two analyses, so it paradoxically amounts to a form of mise en scène.

II. Baudrillard’s Thought In Québec City

The Province of Québec occupies a unique situation in North America: it is the only political space whose sole official language is French. For those studying and/or working with what came to be known as French Theory, this positioning at the cross-roads of the French and English speaking worlds might suggest that the works of Baudrillard, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze et al. would occupy a peculiarly important place in the scholarly work done in Québec. After all, we have the advantage of reading these works in French and in their original format. The fact that the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies is based at a university situated in the Province of Québec (Bishop’s University) might also strengthen this idea. However, Jean Baudrillard is far from being widely read and discussed in the French-speaking academic circles of Québec. Even Foucault and Derrida are still considered by many scholars as marginal thinkers: they are practically absent as references in the field of social sciences, at least in comparison to their seeming omnipresence in the English-speaking academia.
In the non-academic world of Québec City, the concepts of “consumer society” and “information society” are widely used as descriptive catch-phrases, but specific reference to the thought of Baudrillard is virtually absent. This is not really surprising, given the general lack of presence of intellectuals, social scientists and philosophers alike, in the mainstream media.

More interesting is the absence of Baudrillard from the theoretical work done in the (rather small) art world of Québec City. His concepts of “simulation” and “simulacra” are (or have been) known and discussed, but it is symptomatic that the main art journal of the city (Inter, art actuel)has not yet published the article promised to remember Baudrillard. This might be explained by the fact that, in those circles, Baudrillard is usually viewed as merely extending the analysis of “the society of the spectacle”. His name is often associated with that of Guy Debord in this regard and he is seldom considered on his own.
 
In the main university of Québec City (Université Laval), Baudrillard’s presence is also spectral. While Baudrillard visited the university more than once in the 1980s, he is not studied in detail anywhere here in 2008 (be it in the departments of Communication, Sociology or Philosophy). In the Department of Political Science, he is mainly cited as one amongst many who announced, in an over-generalizing and apocalyptic fashion, the end of the social and of the political (See Hudon and Poirier, 2005:8). Moreover, many works strive to show that the political has not come to an end, even if it undergoes important transformations; this is what students are told from the beginning of their first year in the Bachelors program. Thus, Baudrillard’s thought is generally viewed as a nihilistic counter-example that students and teachers must carefully not follow – he has become someone the young must be protected from. Even in critical works on political communication done in the Department, Baudrillard does not appear as a reference (see Gingras, 2006). In fact, the vast majority of “postmodern thought” (and it is of course an open question concerning Baudrillard’s postmodernity) is absent from the syllabuses of our Department: if it is presented, it will usually only be in the one or two last weeks of a semester, or in some graduate seminars. This type of work is almost seen as an anti-example of what to do in scholarly work, postmodernist theories being judged inapplicable in political science. These theories are seen as not operational in or suitable for empiric inquiry (Foucault’s work sometimes counts as an exception here – one he would no doubt have found very amusing).

As an example, consider that after presenting this very paper to a teacher for comments, I was told that, in spite of being an interesting read, it should nevertheless be considered as an example of what not to publish, Baudrillard being a minor thinker, and his ideas being too speculative, marginal, and eccentric. It seems that in some quarters of Quebec City the British (analytic) tradition of thought remains very strong. Furthermore, the analyses I propose hereafter also take for objects two minor, marginal, and eccentric events. Therefore, this paper should not be considered as a useful entry on a publication résumé for an eventual career in academe.

On a very basic level, we should note that Baudrillard’s “speculative hypotheses” (as he himself called his concepts of “Integral Reality” and of “Duality” in an interview on French radio), were not made to fit in any standard “scientific” frame. He openly acknowledged that there are no means to test such hypotheses, even though current events seem to confirm them more and more (Baudrillard, 2004b:20). This explains and justifies his absence from mainstream political science, which still remains a profoundly positivist discipline. It is however surprising to observe that Baudrillard is almost as absent from the field of political philosophy, in Québec, a field at the intersection of social sciences and humanities. I think that engaging his work might be stimulating for this specific field.

It is my hypothesis that Baudrillard’s work on the “event” and on “radical thought”  present a fruitful way to think about our own practices as political philosophers. More precisely, in his late work, Baudrillard developed both a technique (literal analysis), and a conceptual tool (the “golden rule” of duality), that invite us both to think differently about what counts as an event, and to act differently with it. At the same time, he insisted on the impossibility of attaining “critical distance” in the context of “integral reality”. Thus, Baudrillard’s conception of radical thought questions the very possibility and the relevance of (still) conceiving of “political philosophy as a critical activity” (see Tully, 2002:533-55). To specify this questioning, I will now proceed to two literal analyses, in order to show how this technique might be applied, and how the principle of Duality functioned in the month of January 2008, in Québec City.

 

III. 400 Years and 2 Minutes

In 1608 Champlain founded Québec City – the first permanent French settlement in North America. Throughout 2008 many celebrations took place in the city, culminating on the 3rd of July, the official date of the foundation. The first event organized to celebrate “The 400th” was the New Year’s  Countdown on December 31st, 2007 – the first of its kind in Quebec City. It was conceived and promoted as the coup d’envoi, the starting point of this historical year that “the world will remember” (a slogan of the organizing committee: http://monquebec2008.sympatico.msn.ca/MonQuebec2008/). The event had to be exemplary of the festivities to follow and to both celebrate and create memory. In a pragmatic sense the grandeur and the perfection of this first event had to justify the millions of dollars invested by different institutions and governments in it.

The New Year Countdown took place at Place d’Youville, a major public square in the center of the “Old City”. A large stage was installed next to the Old City’s Walls where a 45 minute show was presented (23:15 to midnight) [The space inside the Old City walls is mainly occupied by the tourism industry which means that it is difficult for Quebec city residents to not see their home through the tourist’s gaze (see Drainville, 2003:245)]. The show was to present a review of the city’s history through contemporary popular music. It was meant to show and remember the diversity and the historicity of the city’s culture, which comes from series of encounters between different legacies (American-Indian, French, British, Canadian, American, etc.). All around the stage were large screens on which the show was broadcasted in “real time”. Four-hundred meters from Place d’Youville another gathering site was staged in front of the Provincial Parliament. More than 50,000 attended the event live despite snow and cold weather. The show was also broadcasted live on television with a countdown of the last 10 seconds to midnight marking the passage from the normal year of 2007 to the “historical” year of 2008.

And then, at the very climax of the spectacle, something fascinating happened. As midnight was approaching, many people in the crowd were calling friends and family on cell phones. In the part of the crowd where I was standing, people started to notice that the public clock just behind us indicated exactly midnight. However, the singer on stage was still singing! With apparent disbelief, many looked at their own cellular phone and brandished it in the air, claiming that it was already 2 minutes past midnight. Hearing and seeing that, people nearby started to wish a Happy New Year to those around them. The “official” countdown, the one on the stage, accompanied by fireworks, only took place between 4 and 5 minutes after midnight.

A fatal flaw indicating that real time and historical time were four minutes out of sync. It is this “micro-event” that gave me the basic idea for this paper. We shall also note that it went totally unreported in the media. I was later asked to take a position on when the countdown “really” took place. My claim would be that it took place two minutes late (not five), because this is how it was experienced by the people in the crowd nearest to me. This most important event of remembrance took on a certain instability as a result of hand held technology.

I should probably stop this analysis of the countdown at this very point, when the urge to comment or to mettre en scène makes itself more and more pressing. Given the fact that I want to engage directly the question of the legacy of Jean Baudrillard, I am however pushed by “scholarly conventions” to pursue this reflection, to “deepen” it in order to make my analysis significant, and to make the event analyzed itself signify. I am compelled to make explicit the links between the event I chose to analyse and the work of Jean Baudrillard, as it is in reference to his work that I found this event worth analyzing. This would be the proper thing to do in political philosophy, which in turn seems to indicate that the exigencies of political philosophy as an academic form of life make it hard to “stop” at the level of literal analysis.

IV. The Event of Radical Thought

Having read Baudrillard, I already had in mind, on my way to Place d’Youville, that the New Year’s countdown in Québec City was a good example of a “non-event of information” – a clear manifestation of “integral reality”. Everything was there: giant digital screens, networks of cameras, continuous information in “real time”, passive masses, a celebration of neutralized historicity… Everything was in place for me to claim, in a Baudrillardian fashion, something like “the countdown did not take place”, or even “the 400th (as a whole) will not take place” because it had already been programmed to happen not unlike the first Gulf War. Nevertheless, something quite singular happened there; something strange that nobody could possibly see coming, but that now seems, at the same time, familiar and inevitable; something that resembles a proper event (Baudrillard, 2004a [2005:110]).

Remembering Baudrillard, taking up his legacy implies more than simply claiming that “things don’t take place” because they are “always already” integrated in networks of information and communication. This we already know. What Baudrillard draws attention to, in his later work, is the even more fascinating persistence of a “will to event”, of a desire for proper Events to happen, in spite of  this inevitable integration and the lasting impression that nothing happens (Ibid.:114). This is the reason why, according to Baudrillard, we “secretly” rejoice when we face an Event digne de ce nom (such as 9/11). Our relation to Events is paradoxical and dual.

In the last pages of a small text written in January, 2007, titled Pourquoi tout n’a-t-il pas déjà disparu? (literally: Why everything has not yet disappeared?), Baudrillard qualified the principle of duality as the inviolable “golden rule” that is present everywhere (2007:42). Duality (and reversibility) implies that in every “dispositive”, something works against its very principles, as a challenge, as a dare from within. What the literal analysis of the New Year’s countdown in Québec City makes visible is one specific form that this principle of duality has actually taken. In the present case, we can see that it is “real time” itself that worked against the celebration of historicity in “real time”. Baudrillard equated real time with televisual time saying that real time is CNN – the exact opposite of history (1992 ]1994:90]). The context of “Integral Reality” was itself a condition of possibility of this Event: the fatal flaw I described could only take place because so many people had cell phones to prove what time it really was (who today would question the time given by cell phones – given that they are synchronized orbitally via satellite?

Indeed, whole sets of pragmatic explanations could be given for this small, apparently insignificant two-minute delay. The public clock was not right; the cell phones were not synchronized; etc. Nevertheless, the fascination remains; that momentary flaw resists explanation. Paradoxically, Baudrillard also insists that proper events can only take the form of a singularity, which necessarily comes from outside the dispositive. In fact, it comes from both inside and outside, as can exemplify once again the Event of 9/11. In the dispositive of the New Year’s countdown, the crowd was both inside and outside, as its presence seemed both necessary and superficial.

The micro-event retains its power of fascination because it is destined to remain a detail. In this sense, it exemplifies “the magic of the detail” (Baudrillard 2004b:20). This is the kind of Event that the work of Jean Baudrillard drives us to analyze. It calls for a form of thought that goes beyond “the intelligence of causes” (Baudrillard, 2008:78); it calls for radical thought. This insight is important for political philosophy, as it implies to get our eyes off of books and think differently about what counts as an event – as a singularity. When I first started to write this paper, not long after the New Year’s countdown, I thought that I had found a space for “critical distance”, within the “non-event of information”. During those two fatal minutes, perhaps, I thought, critical distance became possible (again?); maybe “real time reality” was not believed in anymore. However, the passage of time itself reminded me that things are not that simple, and it is an event organized as a presentation of one historical form of radical thought that relativized my enthusiasm. The silence of the media about the fact that the great historical event of 2008 arrived late, and in real time, is telling about the media’s inability to discuss real time in which they are immersed and now constitutes their movement. One might as well ask a fish to describe water.

V. Debord’s Radicality

The second event I will briefly analyze is the complete retrospective of Guy Debord’s films, which took place on the nights of January 16, 23 and 30, 2008.  Debord is the founder of the Situationist International and the author of the book The Society of the Spectacle, among others. 2008 also marks the 40th anniversary of May 1968, an Event in which Situationists played important parts. Debord’s seven films were presented in the auditorium of the Musée de la Civilisation, one of the two major museums in Québec City. This Event was organized by Antitube, an artistic group dedicated to the diffusion of “images in motion”. This group sees the art of “moving images” in general, and Debord’s anti-cinema in particular, as a cultural and political catalyst (see http://www.antitube.org/).

The retrospective seemed to make a radical counterpoint to the New Year countdown. It might even be conceived as the first Event of “the Other 400th”, a parallel organization insisting on radicalizing the memory work done during the year. This organization is constituted by a vast coalition of activists that want to underline all those aspects of Québec City’s history that are silenced by the “official” 400th (including poverty, colonialism, repression, militarism, sexism, class struggle… (http://www.lautre400.org/). Those present at the screenings were mostly local artists and activists, some of them directly engaged in the “Other 400th”. About 100 people attended each night – a reasonable crowd for Quebec City.

This retrospective was made possible by the fact that Debord’s films are now available on DVD, since 2005 (five of which can be viewed at: http://www.ubu.com/film/debord.html).There is a definite paradox in the fact that these DVDs are distributed by Gaumont/ Columbia/ Tri-star Home Video, a major multinational syndicate. Considering Debord’s ideas on the necessity to dissolve art and his critiques of the society of the spectacle, it is also fascinating to see that the first complete retrospective of his films took place at the 2001 Venice Biennale, and that Quebec’s took place in a state-sponsored museum. The institution wanted to show its openness to more experimental cultural works, while Debord insisted on the political significance of his anti-cinema. Hence, from the start, duality seemed inherent to this retrospective.

At first, this Event seemed to stand in a kind of dialectical opposition to the New Year’s countdown. Instead of presenting popular entertainment glorifying Québec City in a time of organized leisure and celebration, it presented a radical critique of this very kind of spectacle. Instead of silencing political conflicts, it underlined the persistence of class struggle and alienation. However, in a paradoxical way, during both organized events, people simply watched, quite passively, a spectacle (a show) that seems to have made no difference whatsoever in the order of things. If the events induced some sense of play within the crowd, nothing transcendent happened. From a classical “critical” point of view, the New Year’s countdown could never have achieved such an impact, as it was always already neutralized. But from that same perspective, there could still be a hope that the Debord’s retrospective would change something, by “enlightening” consciousness. However, remembering May 1968 did not change 2008. The radicality of Debord’s films only made more visible the distance between the positions taken in the films and the very form of this homage. As Baudrillard would put it, I consider that this Event was objectively ironic. Maybe Baudrillard was right when he said: “there are no children of May” (Baudrillard, 2001b:124).

In the film Refutation of All Judgments, Pro or Con, Thus Far Rendered on the Film ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, Debord speaks about avant-garde consumers saying: “Those who claim to like my film have liked too many other things to be capable of liking it” ((Debord, 1975; 2006:1294). In In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, Debord claims: “I would find it just as repugnant to become an authority within the opposition to this society as to be one within this society itself”. Earlier in the same film, he says that “no real opposition can be carried out by individuals who become even slightly more socially elevated through manifesting such opposition than they would have been through refraining” (Debord, 1978; 2006:1785, 1769). As the people in the room were there mainly because they already liked Debord’s work, and as their social status is generally one of claimed opposition, those sentences were pointing directly at everyone in the room.

These paradoxes show one more instance where the hypothesis of the golden rule of duality seems to be confirmed. People went to the retrospective looking for radicalism, and it is this very attitude – the consumption of critical thought as a product – as a status-enhancing reference – that Debord ceaselessly attacked. It is now evident that Debord became an authority within the opposition (at least an intellectual authority). No matter how radical his thought might be, it is used as a commodity, be it in art or in political theory. In Debord’s perspective, he was the only individual who could claim to stand outside the society he critiqued. Since his death, it is as if society took its revenge by introducing him in history schoolbooks (Baudrillard, 2004a:32).
 
We might say that Baudrillard too became an authority in the “opposition” to society, even long before his death (as the organization of so many symposiums, and the very ironic existence of this very journal might imply). But we shall insist that in his perspective, frontal opposition from a “critical distance” is no more an option in the context of Integral Reality. To Debord’s radical subjectivism, Baudrillard’s tries to oppose a form of thought that goes beyond subject and object. Contrary to Debord, Baudrillard never claimed to have maintained a fundamental integrity, a purity that would come from a confinement at the margin. Baudrillard wrote in mainstream newspapers while showing the nullity of the media; he participated in art Events while he considered that the art world lived on its own death; he worked in universities while questioning both traditional and critical theory. On this point, I think that Baudrillard’s position is more interesting and fruitful than the radical marginality invoked by Debord. Baudrillard’s paradoxical position allows his work to disseminate in multiple spheres, while Debord’s intransigence facilitates the quick muséification of his own thought, once he is no more there to defend his marginality. This paradoxically gives a place to Debord inside museums, while Baudrillard stays neither in- nor outside.

Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord exemplify two distinct forms of life. Yet, these forms are related by their mutual commitment to the work of thought itself. By commenting on those thoughts and by staging this dichotomy between Baudrillard and Debord, I once more deviated from the trajectory of a strictly literal analysis. This apparent impossibility of limiting oneself to Baudrillard’s “method” raises important questions for political philosophy, understood as a form of life. While Baudrillard tells us to leave events as singularities, to stop trying to find something hidden in them, the exigencies of scholarly work demand to bring our analyses to an end. This end comes when there is nothing more to say on what we analyze; and yet, it never comes because we can always add something, always say more. Baudrillard wrote that the work of thought should return the world as it was given to us, unintelligible, and if possible even a bit more unintelligible, more enigmatic (2004a [2005:177]). Even if this seems to be the anti-model of what to do in scholarly work, it still is a fascinating invitation, a proper dare – an invitation to push concepts and events to their breaking point.

VI. Conclusion

If the New Year’s countdown and Guy Debord’s retrospective allowed me to see the principle of duality at work, the very process of analyzing them raised insoluble yet familiar questions. By trying to apply radical ideas in an “operational” way, do we not neutralize them? By trying to make a “method” out of what Baudrillard wrote of literal analysis, do I not construct a commentary or a mise en scène?  In a Baudrillardian way, we can ask: in using duality as an observable concept, does not the principle itself begin to disappear?

It seems to me that these questions are self-sufficient, in the sense that they open a space of reflection in all directions, a space that does not have to be closed. These questions and the events they concern are fragments, in a Baudrillardian sense. It is precisely this insistence on fascinating fragments, on singularities and on “rogue Events” that constitutes, for me, the main legacy of Baudrillard for political philosophy. For some students (in political philosophy or in other fields of inquiry), radicality is a fascinating thing in itself, as it seems to make it possible to think and act differently in the world. What we can learn from Baudrillard is that if radical thought might take place from within contexts that seem foreclosed, taking previous radical thought as references never guarantees the force of our own thought.

Simon Labrecque earned his M.A. in Political Science at Université Laval, Québec. His Master’s thesis analyzed the uses of the concepts of micro-politics and performativity in the understanding of performance art practices as political practices, in Québec City. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the interdisciplinary conference The Succession of Simulacra: The Legacy of Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), held at the University of California in Santa Barbara on April 18-19, 2008. The author thanks Diane Lamoureux and Anne-Marie Gingras, and Eve Lamoureux, for their comments and suggestions. He is also grateful to the Department of Political Science and the Graduate Students Association of Université Laval (AÉLIÉS) for their financial support, which allowed him to attend the conference.

References

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