International Journal of Baudrillard Studies
ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005) 

Baudrillard’s Light Writing Or Photographic Thought1

Dr. Rex Butler
(University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia)

In the last analysis, subject and object are one. We can only grasp the enigma of the world if we can grasp, in all of its irony, the truth of this radical equivalence.2


I. Introduction

            Jean Baudrillard is modest about his photography: “I’m not a technological or professional photographer. I make no claims to any of that”.3 And he is modest about the relationship between photography and the rest of his work: “When people see my photographs, they say, ‘Oh, yes, of course, we can clearly see the sort of thing you are writing about. But it’s not true at all”.4 However, we argue here that Baudrillard’s photographic practice and writings on photography cast a revealing light upon his work as a whole. They do not provide the key to it –  because each time his work is seen in relation to some object, e.g., photography, there is no overall argument we can extract from it in this way. Or, rather, like any philosopher, Baudrillard always says the same thing, but this cannot be separated from the examples he gives of it. If what he says seems to precede his examples and be applied to them, it also comes after these examples and cannot be distinguished from them. This should not altogether surprise us, since what drives Baudrillard’s system is the attempt to bring together the subject and the object. For Baudrillard, neither is possible without the other. Not only –  this is the better known alternative –  does the object stand in for the subject, does the object think the subject, but –  this is the less well known –  the object is only possible because it stands in for the subject, because it thinks the subject.

            And, such is the “holographic” nature of Baudrillard’s work, in which each part contains the whole, that not only does the photograph evidence this coming together of subject and object, but photography itself is about this coming together. That is, the aim of photography is the very bringing together of subject and object that Baudrillard speaks of as the ambition of radical thought. But what exactly could he mean by this making equivalent of subject and object? What might photography have to tell us about this? We take these questions up by considering three instances of the photographic in Baudrillard’s work: the art of Sophie Calle in following a man around Venice and taking pictures of him, discussed by Baudrillard in “Please Follow Me”; the project of the Magnum photographer Luc Delahaye in sitting opposite people in trains and secretly taking photos of them, discussed by Baudrillard in L’Autre; and Baudrillard’s writings about photography in general and his own photographs in particular, as found in Art and Artefact, Impossible Exchange, and Photographies 1985-985.

II. “Please Follow Me”

            In “Please Follow Me”, Baudrillard looks at the work of the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who in a piece called Suite vénetienne follows around Venice a man who had told her of his plans to holiday there at a party in Paris. She travels down after him, locates his hotel after several enquiries and then takes photos of where he has been without him knowing. What is the effect of doing this, Baudrillard asks? At first perhaps it is simply a matter of the power Calle holds over the man, her ability to know where he has been, the possibility of finding out some secret about him. Soon, however, she is overcome by the thought that she is not so much following the man as leading him, that her procedure of tracking him around and taking pictures of him unconsciously starts to influence him. That in some mysterious way she is not so much taking photos of where he has been as of where he will be, that he comes to be where the camera points. As Baudrillard writes of the way it is not some secret about the man that Calle hopes to discover, but this following itself that gives him a secret: “It serves no purpose to discover by shadowing someone that he has a double life, except to heighten curiosity. It is the shadowing itself which is the other’s double life”.6

            And yet, as Calle just as quickly realises, she might no sooner think that she influences the man by her following of him than it is possible that the man is aware of her, but that instead of turning around and letting her know this, thus ending the game, he pretends not to know and now leads her around where he wants. She does not control his destiny, as in that first scenario, but he controls hers. She does not simply provide him with a secret where he has none: it is possible that he truly does have one. (It is a secret that perhaps extends a long way back, for what if the man told Calle of his plans back in Paris so that she would be tempted to follow him to Venice? What if it was not unmotivated but a hidden invitation? What if the man even organised it so that Calle was invited to the party, and so on?) But what now, we might further speculate, if Calle herself realises all of this? That it is not she who is following the man, but the man who is leading her? Could she not somehow take this possibility into account and once more assume power over him, not by telling him that she knows, but like the man feigning that she does not? And what if the man in turn could somehow know this, and once more continue to lead? There is a kind of infinite back and forth opened up here between Calle and the man, in which each at once is the reflection of the other and tries to take into account how they appear to the other.

III. Luc Delahaye

            We see the same thing in the essay Baudrillard has written on the photographer Luc Delahaye, who takes –  following, it must be said, the example of the American photographer Walker Evans in the 1930s –  photographs of people sitting across from him in trains with a hidden camera. Of course, the uncanny thing about the photographs is that, given the efforts of each of the subjects to maintain their own private space within the carriage, they do not look at the photographer who sits so close to them, while the photographer for his part also does not look (only his camera does). The subjects’ mouths are slack, their eyes unfocussed, their features not “made up” for public consumption. Baudrillard in his text quotes a passage from a short story, “The Adventure of a Photographer”, by Italo Calvino, in order to capture something of this feeling of looking upon others while they are not aware of you: “To catch Bice in the street where she did not know he was watching her, to keep her within the range of hidden lenses, to photograph her as she was in the absence of his gaze, any gaze ... It was an invisible Bice that he wanted to possess, a Bice absolutely alone, a Bice whose presence presupposed the absence of him and of everybody else”.7

            But this indifference –  as in Suite vénetienne – is soon overtaken by something else. For in a second reading of the work, these faces are no longer simply there before us in their passivity and unawareness, entirely revealed before our gaze, but are withdrawn, appear to hide something, contain a secret somewhere within them. As Baudrillard writes, it is not so much here a question of “what remains of the Other when the photographer isn’t there as what remains of the Other when the Other isn’t there”.8 Thus, as in the game of Suite vénetienne, it is not merely a matter of the projection of the subject onto the object, but of the object onto the subject. We attempt to put ourselves in the place of the Other, to see ourselves from their position, to understand them as somehow possessing the secret of our destiny, having something to tell us about who we are. Here begins, according to Baudrillard, the whole “moral anthropology” of contemporary photography, in which we try to read meaning into these faces, to force signification onto them. And this is all part of a whole contemporary scene of a generalised and weakened “seduction”. As Baudrillard writes: “There’s the same reversal everywhere, expressing a fatigue on the part of the subject, a weariness of being oneself and asserting oneself. And also the secret confused demand that the Other should think us, that the objects of the world should think us”.9 For, as Baudrillard goes on to suggest, this “reversal” is in fact the new version of our encounter with the Other, which takes the form not of “Reply to my question!” but “Tell me what question I am to ask you!”10 But this is not a real encounter with the Other in its otherness or indifference, for it is an otherness from the beginning only determined by us, understood as a reflection of us. We already take this “Other” into account and play on it, put ourselves in its position and observe ourselves from it. Again, as Baudrillard asks: “Given the minimal degree of desire, destiny and will we have attained today, we no longer ask the Other to be like us. We ask him only to be Other, to have a minimal glimmer of otherness, to attempt to be – at least for me – an object of desire (and, in the case of cinema or photography, a technical object of desire)”.11

IV. Baudrillard’s writings on photography

            Baudrillard too in his writings on photography in general speaks about wanting to capture the otherness and indifference of the world. What is it that distinguishes “good” from “bad” photography for Baudrillard? What is it that a photograph should aim at? The “good” photograph, writes Baudrillard in Art and Artefact, is characterised by its “obsessional” quality, by which he means that the things in it appear no longer to need the desire of the Other, to be looked upon by us. As he says: “The only profound desire is the desire of the object, for he or she who does not lack me, for that which is perfectly capable of existing without me”.12 This is why, as he goes on to argue, the best photographs are always of people and things for whom the Other does not exist –  primitives, down-and-outs, animals. Only the inhuman is photogenic. It is an “inhuman”, he goes on to say, echoing the diagnosis of Walter Benjamin in his “A Short History of Photography”, that is still to be seen in the first, “heroic” era of photography, when people “posed like statues, transfixed by the lens”.13 It is to be found, for example, in the American photographer Mike Disfarmer’s 1940s portraits of poor Arkansas sharecroppers, “who have no idea what they are going to look like (‘what they look like in a photo’). They don’t smile, they don’t cry, and the image

Mike Disfarmer
Mr and Mrs Barger

does not cry for them”.14 And it is undoubtedly this quality that Baudrillard’s own photographs aspire to, with their arbitrary framing, their frequently blank and inert surfaces and their relative absence of the human. In taking them Baudrillard says that he is trying to get outside of his own subjectivity, his aesthetic preferences and even his own personal choice. He seeks to dissolve his will and become another object in the world, an object among objects. As he says in an interview in Art and Artefact: “I don’t impose any system of vision. It’s more a question of the way in which objects make themselves seen through the observer”.15

            And yet, in a seeming contradiction, Baudrillard can also say that an image only affects him, makes him want to photograph it, insofar as it is already looking at him. This is why so much contemporary art, for instance, fails for him: “It doesn’t look at you, and you in turn don’t need to look at it”.16 That is to say, rather than not needing us, as Baudrillard appears to suggest, it is possible that the object wants to be photographed, that it is only through photography that the object is able to manipulate us. But, again, as with Suite vénetienne and L’Autre, Baudrillard could no sooner say that it is a matter of us being seen by the other or manipulated by the object than we would discover that all this is true only because of us. This seeming indifference could no sooner be remarked than it would be shown to be part of a game, whose rules are determined by us. As Baudrillard says in Photographies in a passage that should remind us of that “soft” seduction we have spoken of before: “We can see the object only if it regards us, looks at us. We can look at it only if it already sees us. Precisely as we think the world only if we have first desired that it thinks us”17 (my emphasis). Far from the objectal indifference of the world, or even an object that first of all thinks us, there is henceforth only an endless circularity between the subject and the object. It is a circularity in which the photographer identifies with the subject and the subject with the camera. As Baudrillard writes of our situation today, in raising the question of whether that “heroic” period of photography is now definitively over, whether there can any more be those “savages” or “primitives” who are unaware of  “what they look like in a photograph”:

The fact that in many places people come running to be photographed merely heightens the sense of disgust and remorse. They have picked up the image virus and the ‘savages’ pose amidst their poverty. We are ourselves in collusion with the image now and each time we are photographed we size up the photographer as they in turn take stock of us.18


V. The exchange between subject and object

            This is the current state in which all is photographic, in which we are ourselves just “one photo among others” and the camera is “already in our head”.19 And if photography has a special power, it is not simply that of the exchange of subject for object, for this is not seduction but – in an analysis that goes all the way back to the last pages of Seduction – merely simulation. Or, at least, if something like this exchange is at stake in photography, it has to be thought another way. But how then to discern this particular quality of photography, which is perhaps still to be seen in some photos, despite what Baudrillard says? What gives certain photos their peculiar strength, and not others? This is the problem Baudrillard starts with in his Photographies: “This is where photography begins: in the possibility of wresting a few exceptional images from the unremarkable automaticity of the camera, which generates an irrepressible flow of them”.20 But it is not for Baudrillard a matter of deliberately setting out to produce this “remarkable” quality, for photography is not a matter of aesthetics or technique. And to the extent that photography involves a certain “irreversible”21 moment of time’s passage, as Baudrillard argues is to be seen in Roland Barthes’ notion of the punctum22 — we will come back to this in a moment – it is also not a matter of seeing something before the photograph in reality and then attempting to bring it about. Rather, this “irreversibility” means that this remarkable quality exists only in retrospect, as an after-effect of the taking of the photograph itself, as what is simultaneously brought about and done away with by it. We realise it perhaps, but only ever too late, in the very form of its loss.

            In this sense, we might say that it is not a matter of somehow distinguishing between good and bad photography, as two categories that can be stated in advance. Rather, a good photo arises a little as Gilles Deleuze in his books on cinema speaks of a “privileged” moment arising out of the “any-instant-whatsoever”: that we cannot have the one “remarkable” image outside all of the rest.23 Or, indeed – and this is not entirely alien to Baudrillard’s own argument —we might even say that all photographs have something of this quality, that all stand in for, as the “imperfect” traces of, that “perfect crime” that is photography. And yet – precisely because this perfection cannot exist outside of its material traces – if we were to pick three or four images from those series we have considered, we might choose the following. From Suite vénetienne by Calle, this image from dozens of others in which the man appears to look back at Calle, his arm held up before his face as though to ward off the camera or to stop her taking any more photos.

Sophie Calle
from Suite vénitienne

Luc Delahaye 
from L'Autre

Luc Delahaye
from L'Autre

From L’Autre by Delahaye, this image from literally hundreds in which this young woman appears directly to look back at the camera or, even more remarkably, this image in which Delahaye finds himself reflected in the sunglasses of the man sitting opposite him. Or, finally, from all of Baudrillard’s own work, Punto final (1997), in which we seem to be looking at the shadow or silhouette of Baudrillard himself taking the photograph we are looking at — a “shadow”, in fact, that we see in many of Baudrillard’s other photographs, including La Bocca (1998), Rivesaltes (1998) and Cartier (1998), and that after we begin to look for it we can find almost everywhere, for example, in the silhouettes of Niagra (1994), the cartoons of New York (1997), and even the actual figures of New York (1996 and 1997) and Rio (1998).

Punto Final  (1997)

La Bocca (1998)

Rivesaltes (1998)

Cartier (1998)

Niagara (1994)

New York (1997)

New York (1997)





            But what is so exceptional about these images? How do they open up another way of thinking about photography? How are they photography not in the mode of simulation but seduction? One of the common, though at first surprising, remarks Baudrillard makes about photography throughout his writings is that photography is fundamentally not representational, or at least representation in the sense of mimetic resemblance is not fundamentally what is at stake in it. As he says: “Between reality and its image, exchange is impossible. There is at best a figurative correlation”. But it is an “impossible exchange”24 – which as we know in Baudrillard is not simply to say it does not happen – that takes place at the moment of the pushing down of the shutter or the printing of the negative, when either the subject is absent from the object or the object is absent from the subject. That is to say, if this exchange does take place in photography – and here the subtle difference from before – it is between the absence of the subject and the absence of the object: “[Photography] is, in a sense, an invocation – an invocation to the Other, to the object – to emerge from the disappearance [of the subject]”.25 Or, more specifically, in a formulation that runs throughout Baudrillard’s work, it is a matter of “making the object, on which the subject’s presence and representation are imposed, the site of the disappearance of the subject”.26 But, again, what could Baudrillard mean by this idea of the object standing in for the disappearance of the subject? Or the exchange between the subject and the object (which is what we think he means by the “imposition” of the subject on the object) as only possible because of the disappearance of the subject? What would be implied by this, and how is it different from that mirror-like or reciprocal relationship between subject and object we saw previously?

            We might briefly try to explain here by looking at our chosen photographs. In the photo from Suite vénetienne, it is that moment from the pursuit when the man turns to confront Calle, suddenly aware that he is being followed, when at once Calle succeeds in imposing her will upon him and it is still possible that he is not actually aware of her. In Delahaye, we again have a photo of mutual “eyes closed”,27 to use Baudrillard’s words to describe Suite vénetienne, in which we at once see and are not seen. Literally there in the reflection of Delahaye on the man’s sunglasses, there is a kind of “imposition” of the subject on the object and the man does not appear to see the photographer sitting there opposite him.    Finally, to take just one example from Baudrillard’s own work, there is no more perfect an illustration than Punto final of this idea of trying to photograph our own shadow, as in Suite vénetienne, or that which seems to reflect us, as in Delahaye, but all this only because of a certain disappearance of the subject, the subject inscribed as an absence in the visual field (as Calle is to be seen in that upraised arm of the man in Suite vénetienne or Delahaye in the black sunglasses in L’Autre). In each case here, what is miraculously brought together is those two alternatives excluded by that other conception of photography: that of the subject being able to look at the world as though from somewhere outside of it and the absolute equivalence of the subject and the object. As Baudrillard says, for example, of Delahaye: “To do this the photographer must be both non-existent and at one with the people he or she photographs”. (And this might also be why Baudrillard always teams up the expressions “I’ll be your mirror!” and “I’ll be your favourite disappearing act!” throughout his writings on photography.28)

            Could we not say that these photos move us so deeply because — to use a psychoanalytic language that is perhaps not so far from Baudrillard — they stage a fantasy? It is the fantasy of seeing the world as though we were not there, of looking at ourselves from the outside, that we would call the fantasy of the primal scene. That is, the singular charge in each of our chosen images is that we are somehow able to look at something from the greatest proximity, with our shadow or touch somehow being upon them, without ourselves being seen.29 It is something implicit in the very set-up of photography, in which, looking through the camera, it is almost like looking through the back of our own head at what we see, looking at ourselves looking. But, of course, this fantasy is impossible: as Baudrillard explains, we cannot look at an object unless it first looks at us; it is always possible that the supposed indifference or unawareness of the object is a ruse; we are always already in a relationship with the Other. And yet, in order for this circularity to be possible, there needs to be something “outside” of it. And this “outside” is suggested by the question: just how did such a system begin in the first place? If Same and Other take on their meaning only from each other — a simulation in which we take photos of the world because it appears to look at us and it appears to look at us because we take photos of it –how did it start at all? And the paradoxical answer given by Baudrillard in The Perfect Crime and elsewhere – following in this regard a suggestion by Claude Lévi-Strauss – is all at once, ex nihilo, in a kind of original “perfection” like the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe.30

            But how are we to grasp this original moment of perfection within our imperfect world? What trace is left of this founding event within a system that wants to do away with it? What stands in for this impossible beginning within a semiotic or symbolic system that appears to account for itself? The answer to these questions is to be seen in that fantasy we have spoken of, in which we appear to see ourselves from the outside, witness our own birth, or even our own death, as Baudrillard suggests is at stake in seduction. In which we disappear to allow the exchange between subject and object. And, to make all this clearer, we might turn here to an analysis by the Lacanian social critic Slavoj Žižek, in which he precisely makes an equivalence between the fantasy gaze of the primal scene and that “signifier without signified” that allows a semiotic system. Žižek’s point is that the inability to explain our origins by way of the primal scene demonstrates that the subject is never to be accounted for synchronically, because there is always something that remains left over (at least the gaze that would look on at us) – and that it is this very excess that is the subject. The subject is always as it were “split” – and it is just this split that Baudrillard speaks of as occurring at the origin of the universe which is the source of that permanent “antagonism” running throughout it – between being accounted for within the symbolic order of signs and being that empty place for which these signs stand in. As Žižek writes:

One has to look for the key to this enigma [of the primal scene] in the asymmetry between synchrony and diachrony: the very emergence of a synchronous symbolic order implies a gap, a discontinuity in the diachronous causal chain that led to it, a ‘missing link’ in the chain. Fantasy is an a contrario proof that the status of the subject is that of a ‘missing link’, of a void which, within the synchronous set, holds the place of its foreclosed diachronic genesis.31


            And the equivalent to this subject within the photo is what Baudrillard, following Barthes, calls the punctum. The punctum is the very sign of the “reality” of the photograph, what seems to precede its passage into the symbolic order (what Barthes calls the “studium”), and yet it does not simply exist before the photo, but can only be given expression to within it. This is why for Baudrillard the punctum is the “poignant moment of the object, but one which is the very moment of the photograph, of the instant in which it is taken, which is immediately past and gone and cannot be found again”.32 And yet, as this “nostalgic” moment within it, it is the reminder – exactly like that “perfection” Baudrillard speaks of – of the impossible origin of the symbolic order. However, once again, it is not a matter of directly aiming at this punctum, for it exists only in retrospect, in the very form of its loss. This is Baudrillard’s argument for a necessary “acting out” (passage à l’acte) involved in photography.33 It is always a matter of acting precipitously, “all at once”, when taking a photo. The punctum, if it exists, comes about only as that for which everything else stands in or as a detail that is always missing. But it is this detail – and here the coming together of subject and object that Baudrillard speaks about – that seems especially meant for me, that is what I peculiarly identify with, where I most am in the picture. Hence the Lacanian formula for fantasy, which Baudrillard repeats in his own way: $ (the barred or divided subject) & a (the object a or punctum).

            We are perhaps now in a position to return for the last time to our chosen photos, for we can say that what we see in them is precisely the conjunction of subject and object qua this impossible fantasy gaze. Of this look on from the outside and the detail in the image that seems especially meant for me. In Suite vénetienne, we find it in that out-of-focus hand that is a kind of anamorphic death’s head, which at once is the sign of Calle’s victory over the man, the way she has been able to follow him without being seen, and reaches out towards her in its blindness, captures her in its grasp.34 In L’Autre, we find it in that subtle distortion tilting the girl’s face to the side, which distorts her beautiful features, giving us the impression that there is something monstrous about to emerge from behind her otherwise vacant eyes. In Punto final, there is a slight angle to the wall that creates a kind of shadow within the shadow, which means that the photographer is never entirely able to construct a mirror-image of himself and haunts the photographic space – an equivalent perhaps to that fugitive gaze from the side that we see in those figures running around the corner of the building in New York (1997). In all of these we have a kind of blankness or blindness, something invisible to the spectator, that is nevertheless where they find themselves most compelled to look into the image. And it is just this unseeing connection, occurring across a shifting, non-representational space, that Baudrillard means by the “imposition” of subject and object that takes place where the spectator is absent. As the psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller explains: 


It is precisely because the object a is removed from the field of reality that it frames it. If I withdraw from the surface of the picture the piece I represent by a shaded square, I get what we might call a frame: a frame for a hole, but a frame of the rest of the surface. Such a frame could be created by any window. So object a is such a surface fragment, and it is its substraction from reality that frames it. The subject, as barred subject – as want-of-being – is this hole. As being, it is nothing but the subtracted bit. Whence the equivalence of the subject and object a.35

VI. The missing “subject” in Baudrillard’s work

            What is this finally to say, this idea that certain photos show us that reality stands in for a missing “subject”, that the subject at once allows and is excluded from the symbolic order (simulation)? First of all, it is surprising, given that all this talk seems to go against not only Baudrillard’s specific conception of photography but his work in general. After all, when it is put to him in interviews that his system is a result of subjective choice or that he is pursuing a deliberate strategy, he insists on the contrary that he is merely following the objective order of the world, without adding anything. He affirms that he does not choose but is chosen. And this is undoubtedly true. Baudrillard’s thought is absolutely deterministic, not just in the relatively weak sense of symbolic causality, but in the strong sense of that fatal destiny he elaborates throughout his work. And yet, as Baudrillard emphasises in his rethinking of the relationship between free will and destiny in the chapter "The Fatal, or Reversible Imminence" in Fatal Strategies, it is not simply a matter of opposing free will and destiny, or indeed of seeing free will arising within destiny, but rather – in an argument that connects him to a whole line of German Idealism, from Hegel to Schelling on – of thinking destiny itself as arising out of a prior act of free will. Or, to put it in terms of what we have been considering here, the whole sequence of cause and effect only stands in for, takes the place of, the “missing link” (impossible to account for within the system it initiates) of the subject. As Baudrillard writes there:

[Neither chance nor determinism] can resist the fascinating imagination of a universe entirely ruled by a divine or diabolical chain of willed coincidences ... a universe where our subjectivity has been dissolved (and we joyously accept it) because it has been absorbed into the automatism of events, into their objective unfolding.36

            And if we can put it this way, it is just this “subject” (not subjectivity, but the subject as object a) that introduces a kind of undecidability into the systems Baudrillard analyses. That is to say, what is it that constitutes their limit? What is it that means they cannot go all the way, that beyond a certain point (always unlocatable) they reverse upon themselves, produce the opposite effects from those intended? In one way, as Baudrillard says, it is an “objective” limit, an “objective” irony, but in another way – it is the same thing – it is a “subjective” limit, a “subjective” irony. The system cannot go all the way, cannot entirely get rid of its Other, because of the necessity for this end to be observed. It cannot be all-encompassing because there must remain somewhere “outside” of it for this fact to be recorded. But this “subject” is not a simple exception to the system because there is nowhere outside of it. And it is this that constitutes the world (and the subject) as split. It is a split not between two different possibilities or between the world and some alternative to it, but between the world and what it stands in for, takes the place of. Indeed, to think for a moment of Baudrillard’s notion of Evil, it is not merely something opposed to the Good, but precisely something like the “freedom” – and here again the connection with German Idealism, and particularly Kant’s conception of “diabolical Evil” – that precedes the very choice between Good and Evil.

            This is why it should not surprise us that in a recent interview Baudrillard characterises himself as a “man of the Enlightenment”: “I don’t resign myself. I want clarity, a lucid consciousness. When we know the rules of the game, then we can change them”.37 But it would be to speak of a freedom that is not opposed to determinism or that is expressed as a moral choice, but a “freedom” that “precedes” and “allows” all this, an “assumption” of the world as it is – an “assumption” that splits appearances and introduces something “beyond” them which means that they are not all that is. Perhaps this attempt to become equal to the object might even be thought of as a moral law, something that we can never fully be equal to – this would be the very sign of our freedom – because this object is finally us.38 And it is this that is seen in photography and that Baudrillard thinks through photography. It is not the narcissistic identification with the Other, which we see as our reflection. Nor is it our symbolic relationship with the Other, in which we seek to see ourselves from their point of view. It is rather the impossible, blind exchange – this is the sublime, Kantian mimesis that is at stake in Baudrillard – that occurs between two things insofar as they are both unrepresentable, excessive, beyond themselves. This is the enigma of how photography resembles the world, which is also the enigma of Baudrillard’s thought. As Baudrillard writes: “Now, to grasp someone in their singularity is to grasp in them what is beyond their own grasp, to grasp the way they escape your grasp”.39 It is this “impossible exchange” that Baudrillard seeks to delineate throughout his work: the way both that the impossible is already a form of exchange and that exchange cannot occur without this impossibility. Baudrillard’s writing in this sense would resemble the world as a photograph would. He is perhaps finally a man of the Enlightenment insofar as he writes with this light.

Rex Butler is a Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. He is the author of Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real,  SAGE, 1999. His latest book, Slovoj Zizek has just been released by Continuum International Press (May 2004). He is an editor of IJBS.


1 This is a revised version of an essay originally published in Victoria Grace, Heather Worth and Laurence Simmons. Baudrillard: West of the Dateline.  Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 2003:245-258.

2 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1996.

3 Jean Baudrillard. “The Ecstasy of Photography: Jean Baudrillard Interviewed by Nicholas Zurbrugg”, in Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:32.

4 Ibid.

5  See endnote three (above) and: Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange (c 1999). Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 2001. and Jean Baudrillard. Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 1999.

6 Jean Baudrillard. “Please Follow Me” in Art & Text 23/4, March-April 1987:104.

7 Jean Baudrillard and Luc Delahaye. L’Autre. London: Phaidon Press, 1999:np.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Jean Baudrillard. “The Art of Disappearance” in Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:29.

13 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1999:99.

14 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. London: Verso, 2001:146.

15 Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:37.

16 Jean Baudrillard. “Objects, Images and the Possibilities of Aesthetic Illusion”, in Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:10.

17 Jean Baudrillard. “It is the Object Which Thinks Us”. In Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:145.

18 Jean Baudrillard. “It is the Object Which Thinks Us”. In Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:149.

19 Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:15.

20 Jean Baudrillard. “It is the Object Which Thinks Us”. In Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:145.

21 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. London: Verso, 2001:140.

22 Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:26-7.

23 Gilles Deleuze. Cinema I: The Movement-Image. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986:6.

24 Jean Baudrillard and Luc Delahaye. L’Autre. London: Phaidon Press, 1999:np.

25 Ibid.

26 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1999:92.

27 Jean Baudrillard. “Please Follow Me” in Art & Text 23/4, March-April 1987:108.

28 See, for example: Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1999:92; and Jean Baudrillard. Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:131-3.

29 It is this same “fantasy” that we would say is at stake in the following passage from Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and what accounts for the “aura” he speaks of there: “We define aura as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch”, Walter Benjamin. Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1969:222-3. This passage is discussed by Baudrillard in D’un fragment l’autre: Entretiens avec François L’Yvonnet, Paris: Albin Michel, 2001:138.

30 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. London: Verso, 1996:57. See also Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. London: Verso, 2001:9.

31 Slavoj Žižek. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. London: Verso, 1991:198.

32 Jean Baudrillard. “It is the Object Which Thinks Us”. In Photographies 1985-98, Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:151.

33 See Nicholas Zurbrugg (Ed.). Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. London: Sage Publications, 1997:33-4; Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1999:99; Jean Baudrillard. “It is the Object Which Thinks Us”. In Photographies 1985-98. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999:146; and Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. London: Verso, 2001:143.

34 In some ways, this photo reminds us of René Magritte’s paintings, i.e., Son of Man, where an apple hovers in front of a man’s face, but where a glint of pupil can be seen behind the apple – this would be a perfect example of what we speaking of as the “gaze” here.

35 Jacques-Alain Miller. “Montré à Premontré”. Analytica 37, 1984:28-9. Cited in Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991:94-5.

36 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. London: Pluto Press, 1999:160-1.

37 Jean Baudrillard. “This is the Fourth World War: The Der Spiegel Interview with Jean Baudrillard”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume. 1, Number 1, January 2004:

38 If we could choose one Baudrillard photograph to “illustrate” this, it would be Corbiéres (1995), in which we have a door with light shining through from behind, a structure we find in a number of other Baudrillard images, e.g., the two Rios (1997). We are reminded here of that passage from Barthes’ Camera Lucida which goes: “The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both: the windowpane and the landscape, and why not: Good and Evil, desire and its object”, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981:6.

39 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. London: Verso, 1999:94.




©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)