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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 3 (October, 2007).


Special Issue: Remembering Baudrillard



Radical Sadness: Theory After Baudrillard?1

 

Geert Lovink

(Department of Interactive Media at the Hogeschool, Amsterdam and Associate Professor of New Media at the University of Amsterdam)

 

Mackenzie (Ken) Wark

(Professor of Cultural and Media Studies, The Lang College, The New School, New York, USA)

 

 

More than an obituary:  The following is the text of an E-mail exchange between Ken Wark and Geert Lovink held during the week after Jean Baudrillard passed away.

 

Ken Wark: You ask: what is radical sadness? That is an excellent question, and Jean poses it to us, so it's a good place to start. I have certainly felt a sadness since I heard Jean had died, but it is not yet a radical sadness. Maybe if I work on it I can radicalize it. With Jean dead, an era seems to end. I have lost, not exactly a “father” but a crazy adopted uncle. He showed me what to do when you were no longer a militant. That theory should be “radical” or not at all. How not to be a bureaucrat of thought.

            But radical sadness? That is another thing. Perhaps it begins with the claim that disappointment is not personal. It is the world that has let us down. And we have the right not to just give in and accept “reality”. Hurling oneself against that world in the name of another one may be futile, but one does not just accept one's sorry lot. There are other paths.

            The path Jean himself took is not necessarily the one to follow. It's a Nietzschean thing. "My followers are not my followers." But he opens up a whole family of tactics. But perhaps it begins and ends with affect. It is the real itself that failed us.

 

Geert Lovink: Maybe I am searching for an alternative style, to avoid the official obituaries that focus on his all-too-obvious career highlights and post-correct opinions such as The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. What happens when one of your teachers that most influences your thinking dies? In my life Baudrillard, is one of three sources of inspiration that I encountered simultaneously in 1983 and that have stayed with me ever since (the other two are Virilio and Theweleit).

In 1986-1987 our group ADILKNO intensely studied Fatal Strategies that had just come in out in a Dutch translation. We even gave weekly courses for interested members of autonomous movements and produced a small dictionary to explain the unique terminology of the book. I guess it is obvious that Baudrillard played a formative role for an entire generation of media theorists that grew up during the 1980s and early 1990s.

            The urgency of his work somehow faded, at least for me, in the second part of the 1990s, but then it bounced back with the latest Cool Memories and The Conspiracy of Art. It was always interesting to see, as you say, how one struggles with the process of identifying with an author who so clearly cannot be turned into an (academic) school, as happened with Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze.

            What is important here, at this moment, is to distinguish between the beauty of ideas and not to treat them as lifestyle guides. Ideas alienate, disrupt, cool down and should not be elevated into a belief system. Baudrillard's struggle against his illness is a story of warmth and humanness. To project some of notions onto one's life, his life for that matter, luckily does not work. What we see here is a sabotage of life against death, an element that we find throughout the work of Elias Canetti, who, as we know, strongly influenced Baudrillard.

            Radical sadness in this respect is an attempt to circumvent the conventions of the everyday. There is the revolt again death and an ironical play with it. Baudrillard did not want to surrender. If we want to talk the language of theory, it is not the task of subject to take over the role of the object and all its (passionate) indifference. Theory should not end up in the self-help section. Death can spread disillusion or reinstate illusion (to reformulate what he once said). How do we read his book Symbolic Exchange and Death and related remarks on the death revolt at the moment when their author himself passes on?

 

KW: For Baudrillard, our faith in the real is one of the elementary forms of religious life. While there are plenty of “realist” philosophers, particularly in America, but none bother to question the reality of the real itself. Baudrillard's thought was not an unmasking of the unreal but rather took place outside of the procedure of falsification. For him theory was closer to poetry, an operation that made nothingness out of the power of the sign. Everything he wrote was marked by a radical sadness and yet invariably expressed in the happiest of forms. After the foreclosure of so many seemingly “radical” projects, he pursued the last one left to him, a symbolic exchange outside of the endless proliferation of indeterminate signs. He returned the world to itself exactly as it was given, as an enigma. But always at least as a far more elegant and astonishing one.

 

GL: What strikes me most, going through my German, Dutch and English collection of his writings is his amazing ability to integrate news events into his theories, and to see news events themselves as major theory. Still one would never think of him as a commentator, let alone a journalist. It's something we find in Zizek's writings as well.

 

KW: When Baudrillard's writing started showing up in Australia in the 1980s, many took them to be a kind of “journalism”. They were not theories so much as descriptions. It was a time when theory was the news.

            Part of it was the way he used an anecdote, from the news, or from literature or anthropology. Like Zizek he had a way of transforming the anecdote into theory. But where Zizek has a standard dialectical two-step he uses every time, with Baudrillard it was different. The anecdote would usually seem to show how some aspect of life has been falsified. But then he takes the anecdote to the next level, by showing how the means by which one could discern what has been falsified is itself what has been falsified. In short it's the enigma of the anecdote rather than its concreteness that he wants to draw out.

            It's interesting to me that it seems like the ADILKNO approach to Baudrillard has a bit in common with the Australian approach. We did not want to do “Baudrillard studies”. We wanted new ways of writing about what had happened to us. The response was more diffuse, perhaps. Journals like On the Beach, Art and Text, and Intervention all published him and opened space for writing in his wake. Meaghan Morris wrote the first good essay about him. Paul Patton and Paul Foss translated him. Adrian Martin, Catharine Lumby, Rex Butler, Ted Colless all wrote under his spell. The zine Frogger nurtured an Australo-Baudrillardian style. Artists like Peter Callas and Robyn Stacey absorbed him.

            Then there was the Canadian scene, around the Krokers, which began C-Theory. I imagine there were others. Sometimes there was too much imitation, and too much “anxiety of influence”. Then maybe we took “Forget Baudrillard' a bit too much to heart. So my question to you is: how do you work after him? What does this engagement with him allow us to do?

 

GL: If the Master refuses his pupils there can be two responses. We could read it as an arrogant gesture (which I would never do in the case of Baudrillard). And we see as a vote of confidence. Those who want to send their concepts on a far and uncertain journey, instead of stay close to the source, will find in Baudrillard an tremendous source of (positive) energy. The problem we face in theory production today is the balance between radical and original thinking and the recognition that we are many, that there are no “authentic” thoughts. Baudrillard has resolved this dilemma always in a magnificent way. He was in dialogue with authors that influenced them but never in an academic manner that was sanctioned by the institutions. It was enough to mention a book title, a name or include a short quote. The reader could do the rest but did not have to. It is fun to study the Laws of Mani, an essential source for the Baudrillard of Fatal Strategies, but not necessary. It is funny that you mention “Forget Baudrillard”. It could be a book title, of course, and reminds me of an Amsterdam graffiti text of the early 1980s: "Do Not Become Like Us" ("Word niet zoals wij"). This phrase always intrigued me because of its ambiguity. What theory can do is to open spaces of possibilities. Baudrillard did that to me, and he was fairly explicit about such a methodology. If you create other spheres of perception you also have to take into account that the reader will ether not follow you or indeed find alternative routes that you as an author had not even thought about. This way of mind traveling is different from the hermeneutic approach in which you dig deeper and deeper into texts and meanings. Baudrillard liberated generations of theorists from exegesis. We cannot use the term freedom here, as he did not use the overdetermined concept, but I do: Baudrillard regained the freedom to radical thinking in a time of an abundance of interpretation.

 

KW: Yes, theory is not literary criticism. For me theory generally has some relation to some key texts, it circles back and cites itself, but it is about inventing new relations to those texts. Or perhaps: reinventing its own archive in the present, as legible in the present. A Baudrillard example might be the way he reads Marcel Mauss against Karl Marx, and both together with anecdotes from the news, or anecdotes from Borges, Ballard or Philip K. Dick.

            I wonder if the dispersal of theory has to do with the collapse of Marxist dogma and its parties. The thing theory marked its distance from is not there any more as a common negative measure. One needs a different way of navigating between theories. The American practice is now a sort of “compare and contrast” thing. Zizek says A about X, Badiou says B about Z, but Agamben says C about X. At its height this style that of Jameson, who can juggle twenty proper names on a page. Now, I'm happy that this theory-scholarship exists, but I wonder if it is now the new negative model. How not to do theory. How can we teach a different practice? One that is more heterogeneous. Not the pure plane of equivalence where all theories are cut off from forming other kinds of relation and considered together. Rather one where theory is a way of thinking mixed series, flows of news, of tools, of gestures, of events, of moods.

 

GL: And do not forget the collapse of the Freud dogma as well. We all know that it is not hard to trace back all of Baudrillard's concepts to earlier writers. That's just a matter of having enough time to research the sources. This kind of academism is the best way to kill thinking and end conversations. Theory is not religion, it is not helping us through the day. It is not academic either, it is pre- or post-scientific if you like, which is not to say that theory is irrational or a myth. What theory does is to confuse and question. It poses a mystery by creating a void in the existing meaning structures. Theory breaks through the routine and cannot be repeated. Theory remains a crystal even when a book worm fully dismantles its inner structure. Baudrillard was such a free thinker because he was never concerned with the question: where do I fit in? This attitude was not beneficial in his academic career, but he was not all that concerned about that –  at least not in his writings. As you indicate, it is exactly this aspect of his oeuvre that is so attractive to his readers, the literary style without having to revert to literature, which some academics envy. What I stress is outward-looking, the seductive aspect of this writings. When you read his works of 20 to 30 years ago it nonetheless strikes you how post-modern he was in that he was obsessed (too much?) with the end of phenomena. The end of politics, truth, reality and all that. I guess we all got numbed so much that this is no longer shocking. It is hard to re-instate the cool irony of those early 1980s. What still challenges are his remarks about the indifference of the objects. You can easily get used to hyperreality but remain puzzled about strategies that he set out.

 

KW: Yes, seduction is key, firstly the seduction of readers, but more generally, also, the seduction of the world. In a certain sense his writing is adequate to the world, adequate to its enigma. Here symbolic exchange becomes a practice of writing. Once his more obvious moves wear out, its tempting to consign him to the dustbin of history, but that would be to resist the siren call of some of his more elusive formulations.

            Yes, theory can pose a mystery by creating a void in the existing meaning structures. I think that's a good formulation. But I would also like to say: who knows what theory can do? We have not seen anything yet. It works on different tempos at once. It can be quick witted but it can also be very slow, but I think best when it works in several times at once. In the 1990s the instant-Baudrillard started to bore us, perhaps, but there's other tempos he was working on. Maybe some things there in the texts are waiting for us still. This is where I would want to think a bit differently to you perhaps. I think all of the theory-heroes are in the present, its just that different aspects of their multiple temporality are touching the times. There's a different side to Marx or Baudrillard or even Plato that comes to light at a given time.

            Which is also a way of thinking about the relation of different attempts to make theory after Baudrillard. Sometimes we are in time with each other and sometimes not. But there is always somebody to play along with.

 

GL: The issue is indeed where to start. I have great confidence in my contemporaries, but also see that we are not up to the job when it comes to High Theory. The output from the academic factories has to stay close to the 20th century canon. When we look into literature there is not all that much (except maybe from non-Western regions). Theory therefore has to grow out of the documentary genre, the non-fiction that is so close to the (virtual) everyday that it flips into the hyperreal. Fiction is not up to this task, maybe because our world is too weird, too many layers that one has to be at least a James Joyce clone in order to be credible. After Baudrillard theory will no longer present itself as such. If theory disconnects itself from the Future Project and dedicates itself to The Complex Now, it will first of all have to confront itself with the Speed Divide. Theory at the moment is too slow. Not even blogs help. During his lifetime Baudrillard accelerated himself. We are living at a high speed and this is a main challenge if you want to build a more or less coherent system of concepts (or memes) that will be capable to override society. This is where we enter Virilio's universe. Let's hope he will be with us for some time, as he is one of the Last of the Mohicans.


© Geert Lovink and Mackenzie Wark


Endnote


1 This conversation appeared on the Doubt 2.org  website on April 18, 2007:http://doubt2.org/wiki/index.php?title=Radical_sadness. Doubt2.org is an experimental online space for critical writing and creative research in the form of a wiki. (For a definition of “wiki” see: http://doubt2.org/wiki/index.php?title=Wiki). The above discussion also appears at: http://www.networkcultures.org/geert/irony-and-sadness-after-jean-baudrillard-2/; and http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0703/msg00022.html




© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)

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