Volume 4, Number 2 (July, 2007).
Seaside Rendezvous: Engaging Swansea
Dr. Gary Genosko
(Canada Research Chair in Technoculture Studies and Associate Professor of Sociology, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada).
The latest conference on the work of Jean Baudrillard took place over the course of three days at Swansea University in Wales (September 4-6, 2006). There were over fifty papers and three keynote addresses, a final plenary discussion of Baudrillard’s contribution, a short paper “On Disappearance” (read by Mike Gane) and a short animated film on Ubu Roi by Geoff Dunbar.
The parallel sessions format used by organizers Richard G. Smith David B. Clarke, Marcus A. Doel, and William Merrin was largely the result of an economy of scale and the institutional logic of institutional services, rather than an intellectual decision. Since as many as five sessions were running at the same time, it was impossible to get a thorough overview – the same feeling, incidentally, that describes the view of the sea from Swansea.
The participants spanned the scholarly generations: the usual suspects were there (Doug Kellner, Mark Poster, Mike Gane, Rex Butler, Andy Wernick, and Alan Cholodenko was a virtual presence)1; the new group of scholars (Paul Hegarty, William Merrin, William Pawlett, Richard Smith), and a wide range of emerging scholars, along with a smattering of independents. Only two of us had been present at the Missoula, Montana conference in 1989 – myself and Diane Rubenstein. It is fair to say that the largely unknown emerging scholars had the greatest range of topics to deal with and on the whole simply linked parts of Baudrillard’s writings (sometimes as little as a single quote) to what interested them – from music recording, literature, US politics, architecture, visuality, feminism, etc. Few if any of these young scholars presented detailed meditations on Baudrillard’s texts. Yet they are the most important group as far as the future of something called “Baudrillard studies” is concerned. Unfortunately, at this point in their careers they are the least interesting to listen to (with a few exceptions like Australian David Teh because, after all, the idea of “emerging” covers everyone from graduate students to post-doctoral students)! But they are the largest group – there is strength in numbers.
The new scholars like Merrin and Hegarty, all of whom have written at least one book or several articles on Baudrillard, were there to try out new ideas and material and their performances were very well received. They are the scholars keeping the flame burning brightly because they are active here and now and are being read and reviewed, often by one another, or by other significant clusters of readers. They are masters of Baudrillard studies in the present tense. They are the conference organizers, the editors (Gerry Coulter), and the translators (Chris Turner) to whom everyone looks for the latest piece of the critical puzzle. There are some interesting crossovers into this group by notable scholars like John Armitage, Paul Taylor and others whose main contributions have not been on Baudrillard but whose sympathies are evident.
The usual suspects displayed all of the warts and bristles of aging academics with reputations to defend and points to make. Doug Kellner dabbled in aesthetics and art criticism providing a detailed overview of Baudrillard’s thoughts on art (in three phases: depthless pop; post redemptive; transaesthetic) for the age of bumbling magnates who poke holes in their masterpieces. Kellner also produced a puzzle: art may be a form on the fringes of history the content of which can only be singular events like 9/11, yet it also poses its own end for how can there be art after such events? Mark Poster presented a very polished Foucauldian paper on medical makeover television shows from the US within the broad purview of care of the self in the hyperreal. Poster opened for us with surgical precision Baudrillard’s meditations on reality television and the implications of telemorphosis, without binding us in the Maussian mysteries of the dictum: “reality TV is our total social fact”.2 Gane shared a discovery about the origin of the Baudrillard’s use of the “knife without a blade and handle”3 from the Utopie days and again in Fatal Strategies: the Lichtenberg non-knife as a key to understanding Baudrillard’s sense of humour. But there was more to it than that for in this figure one could find the key to the entire conference.
The main attraction was Baudrillard’s paper, without Baudrillard. This proved to be a puzzle for many conference goers. The working assumption for many readers of Baudrillard is that a Baudrillard conference should feature the man himself. And up to Swansea this was the core practice, all the way from halcyon days of Missoula, to Auckland, and the rest. Swansea proved that a Baudrillard conference could successfully take place without Baudrillard. This will be its legacy. The conference without the man; the blade without the handle, the smile without the cat; the seaside without the sea. This is objective irony and the pure wit of things and events.
The usual suspects, Rex Butler, and I got together to discuss Baudrillard’s thoughts on disappearance before those who stuck it out to the end. A great deal of enthusiasm centered around the figure of “martial arts” (Baudrillard as kung fu fighter), as well as a quote from Cardinal Ratzinger (a reformed Baudrillard?). We poured over the few pages like hackers pouring over lines of code, each with our styles of thought and fully retractable strategies of critique.
“On disappearance” is beguiling for more reasons than its self-fulfilling prophetic dimension. Laden with nuances of Guy Debord’s attempt to evade the spectacle’s rapacious need for images, and Paul Virilio’s subtle posing of a variety of gaps – some political, some biophysical – Baudrillard presented in several waves human being’s self-erasure toward an art of disappearance: how to disappear before and rather than dying. Baudrillard acknowledged that the notion of the survival of a subject’s “narcissistic double,” not unlike the Cheshire cat’s hovering grin, without the cat or subject, is quite terrifying. Baudrillard’s ghost story has a hint of Roger Caillois’s subjective detumescence in it as well, as subjectivity is pulverized and scattered everywhere, becoming superfluous, oceanic fluff. Baudrillard sought to revitalize the thought of disappearance as a “pleasure into which we can retreat” rather than a loss to be lamented. The comfort of disappearance is itself discomforting.
The Swansea conference was a typical academic event – very safe and not very adventurous. No strong emotions were on display. The stultifying air of solicitude. At stake was a species of nothing. When pataphysics is the only rogue element, duly art historicized and meticulously sterilized, you know that you are inside a contemporary university. Perhaps, just perhaps, things are not so bleak. This is the point at which it needs to noted that a very young Baudrillard was once energized by pataphysical juvenilia, and later felt trapped by its bureaucratic games. The joy of Jarry is his insouciance, and the figure of Ubu is political incorrectness incarnate before the term even existed. Ubu is a figure of symbolic exchange far from reason and good sense, and he bears the spiral – not to mention the toilet brush, and his own green horn – as a mark against unidirectionality and irreversibility. The question is this: although Baudrillard sometimes thinks that symbolic forms have not been truly lost, and thus one should not feel nostalgia for them, there are very few examples of radical symbolic forms upon which to draw in our managed and surveilled societies. And once found, it is better not to draw attention to them for to do so is to place them at risk. Still, at the end of the day, Ubu shines in the void as an antidote to the meanness of our times in which “we live, then we die, and that is truly the end”.4 And this, I think, is the lesson of disappearance: it confounds this meanness, this reduction of a life to a brutish line, and simply will not accommodate itself to it.
Gary Genosko is Canada Research Chair in Technoculture at Lakehead University, Canada. At Swansea he gave a paper about simulation and dairy products: “Better than butter: margarine and simulation”. He is an editor of IJBS.
1 Alan Cholodenko’s paper “Still Photography?” (accompanied by a digital recording of the talk as he gave it at Swansea) will appear in Volume 5, Number 1 of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies in January 2008.
2 Baudrillard suggests this in his essay “Telemorphosis” but as parody. See Jean Baudrillard. “Telemorphosis” in The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews, Essays. Edited by Sylvere Lotringer and Translated by Ames Hodges. New York: Semiotext(e), 2005:188-200.
3 “Utopia is that by which, by the abolition of the blade and disappearance of the handle, gives the knife its force de frappe.” See Gary Genosko (Editor). The Uncollected Baudrillard. London: SAGE, 2001:59.
4 The final sentence of “Symbolic Exchange,” in Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York: Verso, 2003:18.
ŠInternational Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)