ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 1, Number 2 (July 2004) 

The Arrival of Jean Baudrillard in English Translation: Mark Poster and Telos Press (Part I)1

Dr. Gary Genosko
(Canada Research Chair in Technoculture Studies, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Canada)

I. Introduction

            The political theory journal Telos was founded in Buffalo at the State University of New York by Paul Piccone and a group of disgruntled graduate students (members of the Graduate Philosophy Association) in 1968. As an antidote to the tired analytic philosophy (retailed at bargain basement prices according to the editors), and stale positivism (preserved in the intellectual bogs of the 1950s), that were staples of philosophical and sociological academic training in the US and elsewhere at the time, the journal was born. Only two years later the first of many Telos conferences took place in Canada at Waterloo.2 What was at first a graduate student publication full of nose-thumbing bravado and anti-establishment positioning quickly became the venue for young scholars to communicate with like-minded colleagues and form what would become a remarkable community and trying ground for many of today’s key figures in Left social and political thought in the US and Canada. By the mid-1970s Telos also boasted organizational originality in the form of a productive editorial structure that included groups situated in cities around North America (first in Toronto and then St. Louis and beyond) with task specific programs of research (i.e., Toronto Telos members contributed "Short Journal Reviews" in each issue).

            Over the course of its long, sometimes troubled, and still unfolding history, Telos very early distinguished itself by making available in English translation, often for the first time in its pages and in book-length form courtesy of its book publishing wing, an astonishing selection of European philosophical, social and political theory. That the work of Baudrillard would be counted among the first spate of books published by Telos Press is perhaps not surprising (among studies of Marx, Hegel and the usual suspects). Yet the emerging post-Marxist, post-structuralist, and post-68 French thought was not Telos’s strongest point. Mark Poster, the translator of Baudrillard’s fourth book Le Miroir de la Production for Telos Press in 1975, two years after the original French volume appeared, would provide an opening to French thought that then beckoned Foucault and others. The early Telos was phenomenological and Lukácsian in orientation, with Critical Theory and Structuralism in its sights, and not without sensitivity to French political philosophy through Sartre, Lucien Goldmann and André Gorz, and the fallout of the French May of 1968, especially in reviews of work by Cohn-Bendit and Lefebvre.3

            Before Baudrillard became BAUDRILLARD – indeed, before Poster became POSTER and books by Baudrillard became obscure objects of desire –  there was a modest volume, with a slightly annoying yellow cover bearing a pencil sketch, courtesy of Suzanne Alt, of Marx tied to a great wheel of industry, suggestive of Chaplin in Modern Times, no doubt. There is an undeniable roughness, and a readiness to be sure, to this book which is reinforced with footnotes full of candid admissions:  "I have not been able to complete this [Kristeva] reference"; "I have not been able to locate the page references for any of the quotes from Godelier." And echoed on the very first page of the text with issues of continuity as the French "phantasme" is rendered first as "phantom" and then a few lines down as "phantasm." Readers of Baudrillard will not forget that he once had a short-lived penchant for psychoanalytic terminology, "phantasm" being a good example.

II. Negotiating Telos

            Despite a certain "vagueness" about the precise details of how he came into contact in the first instance with Telos, Mark Poster explains that he had met members of the Telos editorial board before 1973, and Piccone had even asked him to come aboard, but failed to promptly get his name on the masthead. Poster’s name appeared for the first time as an Editorial Associate in Telos 22 (Winter 1974-75). There may have been a delay in getting Poster’s name on the masthead, but his name would remain there until Telos 63 (Spring 1985). Indeed, the early Telos was a creature of delays – in meeting publishing deadlines, including the launch of The Mirror of Production which was originally due out before 1975.

            The year 1973 was a pivotal year for Poster and Telos. As he was preparing for a summer research trip to Paris, his colleague Jeremy Shapiro (whose translations of Habermas in the early 70s remain standard works), suggested that he look up a certain Jean Baudrillard. And, despite his admittedly awkward, "graduate school" French, Poster found Baudrillard’s apartment, and chatted with him for a while. Baudrillard gave Poster a copy of Le Miroir de la Production and several other books. Upon return to the US (to UCal-Irvine where he had been since 1969), Poster contacted Piccone and suggested that Telos translate something of Baudrillard’s. There was general agreement that the collective should be doing their own translations.  Poster justified his choice of Le Miroir pragmatically: “I picked the smallest book”.

            Baudrillard’s critique of Marxism, which Poster outlined in his review the following year,4 received a "mixed reception" in Telos circles, but as a translation project "Piccone had no problem with it" and Marty Jay, Poster underlined, "thought it compelling”. With the publication of The Mirror of Production, Baudrillard was introduced into the eclectic mix of European theory that was working its way through select universities in the US during the early 1970s. Poster recalled mentioning to both Habermas and Baudrillard [on separate occasions] the similarities he saw between their approaches, which he would later elaborate upon in print, "but was surprised to hear that neither one had read the other”. Poster continued: "the only place this sort of comparative work was going on was in the US”.5

            If Poster’s translation marked another swerve in the path of Telos’s theoretical adventures and gained both it and him bragging rights as the first book of Baudrillard’s to be translated into English, it was also the beginning of the end of Poster’s relationship with the journal. The first grievance that arose was that Piccone "never paid for the translation”. The second was that Piccone at some point simply "stopped paying royalties" on the book (presumably, the translator’s cut).  Still, this was not the reason he cited for eventually leaving the collective. It was, however, par for the course, a good example of how Piccone could be "very high-handed in his politics”.

            An issue related to the arrival of Baudrillard is the question of the status of Michel Foucault, a figure whose exposure by the journal was slow in developing but nonetheless found a place by the late 1970s. Poster recalled that Piccone had commissioned a translation of an interview and failed to publish, but at least two interviews with Foucault did appear, although they were not translated by Poster  (Telos 32/Summer 1977 and Telos 55/Spring 1983); see also Mark Seem’s review of Surveiller et punir in Telos 29/Fall 1976 and Robert D’Amico’s review of multiple volumes by Foucault and Baudrillard’s Oublier Foucault in Telos 36/Summer 1978 and Poster’s review of Lemert and Gillan’s book on Foucault and transgression in Telos 56 (Summer 1983). Foucault was certainly not ignored in the pages of the journal during the 1980s. Poster clarified this issue in the following way: "the point about the Foucault translation was that Piccone sent it out to more than one person and published the first one to come back in. I went to the trouble of translating the Gérard Raulet interview with Foucault [Telos 55] only to have someone else’s translation [Jeremy Harding] of it appear”.

            Poster himself came in for some unkind criticism in the Telos review of the USC Foucault conference of October 1981 by a certain William R. Hackman (Telos  51 Spring 1982) who casts doubt about what would be the future thrust of Poster’s research, establishing a link between power and post-industrial production (mode of information). However, Hackman’s criticism of what he saw as Poster’s tendency to generalize from the "view of California" was proved wrong by the rise of Silicon Valley and the World Wide Web. 

III. The Long Goodbye

            "I left Telos because of the feminist issue," Poster declared. Piccone would send around pieces on French feminism to Poster for review, and he would read them, and recommend publication. Piccone would agree to publish, but they would never appear. "I would recommend them and he wouldn’t publish them." This is not to suggest that French feminism never appeared in the pages of the journal. For instance, a positive review of Luce Irigaray’s Speculum de l’autre femme appeared in the mid-70s.6

            At or near the beginning, Poster reflected, the "socialist collective" consisted mostly of graduate students. We were "all poor, all in our late 20s and early 30s, it wasn’t like working for a professional journal." This was also "before the Internet," which made communication, in retrospect, onerous and slow. Further, "the people Piccone felt closest to were physically far afield." Piccone enjoyed steadfast support from Russell Jacoby, for instance, as well as the enthusiasm of the Californian cadre that included Poster and Jay, but they were not engaged in a continuous discussion. In fact, by the late 1970s "no more editorial meetings were held”.

            This brief account of Poster’s experience with Telos and the conditions surrounding his translation of Baudrillard may be read as a footnote to his early book Existential Marxism in Postwar France.7  Some of the features of Poster’s work at that time are mentioned in his "Preface," notably the occasion of his trip to Paris on a University of California fellowship, his discussions with many French intellectuals, including Baudrillard and, for my purposes, an acknowledgements list that reads like a who’s who of Telos editorial board members – the aforementioned Jay, Paul Breines, Dick Howard. Poster saw Baudrillard’s books of the late 1960s and early 1970s as variations on the combination of existential Marxism and structuralism that he had arrived at through his study of Lefebvre, but without explicit consideration of Baudrillard’s own writing on and around Lefebvre during this period.

            Readers familiar with the Marxian oriented literature on Baudrillard will note that it was 10-15 years before the Telos translation had a widespread impact. By the mid-1980s it was taken up in earnest as part of the Baudrillard Scene and featured as a kind of staple critique of Marx, sometimes linked with Marshall Sahlins, other times as an exploration of new varieties of reification (perhaps advancing Lukács;  yet neo-Marcusean for some; wholly repulsive from a critical theory perspective for others), and even as a patapolitics of the symbolic.  Whatever the variation, The Mirror of Production was, as Giradin rightly observed in translation in the pages of Telos, "a political act."  

In a future issue of IJBS – "Part II: Here He Comes Again: For a Critique and Montreal Telos"

Gary Genosko is Canada Research Chair in Technoculture Studies and Associate Professor of Sociology, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.  His recent work concerns Baudrillard, surveillance, and the prospects of symbolic exchange for anti-surveillance struggles. He is an editor of IJBS.


1 The bulk of the material relating to the "arrival" is based on a telephone conversation with Mark Poster, October 11, 2001 and subsequent clarifications sent by E-mail (Poster-Genosko E-mail 24 April 2002). The research for this paper was funded through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Standard Research Grant.

2 On the significance of Telos for Canadian interdisciplinarity and the destiny of critical and postmodern theory, see my article co-written with Samir Gandesha and Kristina Marcellus, "A Crucible of Critical Interdisciplinarity: The Toronto Telos Group," TOPIA  8, 2002:1-18. And on the events at University of Waterloo, see also idem, "Waterloo: The Cradle of Canadian Telos," in Canadian Spaces/Cultural Spaces, Eds. I. Szeman and R. Cavell, Toronto: University of Toronto Press. In press.

3 See Telosians Anna Maria Sioli, "Review of Le Gauchisme" and Alex Delfini, "Review of "The Explosion," Telos, Spring 1969:138-43.

4 Mark Poster, "Review of Jean Baudrillard, Le Miroir de la production," Telos 18, Winter 1973-74:171-78. The final paragraph is forward-looking: "All in all, Baudrillard’s hypothesis of a critique of the political economy of the sign offers a promising direction for radical theory. It combines semiology with a notion of everyday life that increasingly appear to offer the best options for theoretical development." In our conversation Poster noted the fact that his edited collection of Baudrillard’s writings, Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Translated by Jacques Mourrain, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988, revised and augmented edition, 2001, is a bestseller with the press.  He also remarked that the Baudrillard industry was not always so hot since his petitions to recently deposed senior editor Helen Tartar at Stanford to translate Baudrillard’s Amérique apparently fell on deaf ears, but resulted in the Selected Writings. It is worth noting that Baudrillard was not unrepresented in the Telos stable in the wake of Poster since a lively and insightful explication of Baudrillard’s homology of commodity and sign forms by Jean-Claude Giradin, "Toward a Politics of Signs: Reading Baudrillard," Translated by David Pugh, appeared in Telos 20, 1974:127-37.

5 Poster’s approach to the rethinking of Marxism by Habermas and Baudrillard was through language – for the former communication generally and particularly the ideal speaking situation; for the latter the sign-form in a critically renewed semiology against the radical principle of symbolic exchange; see "Technology and Culture in Habermas and Baudrillard," Contemporary Literature 22/4, 1981:456-76.

6 Suzanne Gearhart, "Review of Irigaray, Speculum de l’autre femme," Telos 26, Winter 1975-6: 230-35. A year earlier Poster published a "Review of Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism," Telos 21 (Fall 1974), a book that had previously been reviewed in the journal; see Elizabeth Long, "Review of Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism," Telos 20, Summer 1974:183-89. Both reviews are critical of Mitchell’s Freudianism. The real vitriol was saved for those such as Susan Brownmiller, see Jean Bethke Elshtain, "Review of Brownmiller, Against Our Will," Telos 30,  Winter 1976-77:237-42. On the question of which feminism was as issue, Poster explained: "The point about feminism was not about French feminism but about American feminist theorists. These he did not publish. Also, I was the one who asked Suzanne Gearhart to do the Irigaray review. Suzanne’s a friend of mine. If I hadn’t initiated it, I doubt Piccone would have gone to the trouble."

7 Mark Poster. Existential Marxism in Postwar France: From Sartre to Althusser. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2004)

[Main Page]   [Contents]   [Editorial Board]   [Submissions]