March 20, 2007
Jean Baudrillard : Asymmetrical Philosopher1
It would be paradoxical to call Jean Baudrillard “a real original,” which he really was, since he denied that we live in a world where originality is still possible. Baudrillard broke the news in Simulations,2 which I first published in the U.S. in 1983, and remains by far his most influential essay. It made him instantly famous among the New York art world, far more so than he ever managed to be in France. Few American artists at the time realized that he was proclaiming in earnest the end of the principle of reality, consumed by the spiralling abstraction of capital. What they took for a smart conceit seductively packaged on the fictional mode, was in fact the end-point of a huge vision spanning the entire history of humanity, societies surging and tumbling down, the wisest imploding in slow-motion, others, like ours, rushing at full speed into oblivion. It was the beginning of a cordial misunderstanding that lasted until his death. He did little to dissipate it, except for occasional outbursts, like his brutal attack on The Conspiracy of Art,3 which didn’t shake the art world as much as it should have, actually vindicating his main argument. Baudrillard really meant business, and foresaw early on that the artworld would mean it too. His warnings now sound mild compared to the global explosion that finally engulfed it, polluting the world with “art”. Simulation itself, picked up by The Matrix, eventually became a blockbuster, further turning Baudrillard into an international superstar.
He didn’t quite fit the part, although once, near Las Vegas, he reluctantly accepted to wear a gold-lame jacket to address his fans, and actually enjoyed it. As a person, he was in fact spectacularly uncharismatic and unimpressive, everything but the dandy or the excentric personnality most people assumed he was just like William Burroughs, to whom he could be compared, he was “El Hombre Invisible”, and all the more visible for that. Actually Baudrillard didn’t mind the cool image that belied his appearance. He even tried to inhabit it himself, calling his diaries Cool Memories. And he certainly was cool and detached in his writing, using a healthy mix of caustic humor and cynicism to chronicle the last throws of a civilization carelessly shedding its most vital values, death included, and deserving its fate.
The most forceful theorist of the electronic media with urbanist Paul Virilio, Baudrillard never used a computer and hardly ever watched television, having once and for all broken its code. He kept instead moving silently behind the screen, like the masses he generously credited with his own stubborn resistance to the media (in In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities)4. Baudrillard always made sure, like the child in the bubble, that he wouldn’t be contaminated by a mediatized culture he despised with such a cold passion that he eventually became its most insightful analyst. In a world where differences were becoming an endangered species, he was always careful to preserve his own indifference, cultivating the void with the hope of seeing real events emerge from it. That was his way of thinking, and he was a powerful thinker, one of the most lucid political minds in our time, and the most contemptuous of what currently passes for politics. When events suddenly erupted – like May ’68, or the September 11 attacks – he proved to be the only one equipped to acknowledge them for what they were, having carved for them an empty space in his theory. His stunning “Requiem for the Twin Towers” managed to answer the event in kind, extending its power even further, while everyone else was busy piling up analyses or explanations to bury it. Instead he let the unprecedented attacks absorb all events past and future like a bomb. It certainly takes an assymerical philosopher to understand assymetical strategies of that kind.
Baudrillard was not an academic philosopher, but he was more of a philosopher than most, being an artist in thought, a prophet of the present, capable of anticipating with a hallucinating precision what shape our world would take in years or decades to come. Contrary to what most believed, he was by far the most realist thinker in our time.
1 This obituary will also appear in Exit Magazine, Madrid, Spain.
2 Jean Baudrillard, Simulations. Translated by P. Foss, P. Patton & P. Beitchman, New York, Semiotext(e), 1983.
3 Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art. Translated by Ames Hodges, New York, Semiotext(e)/The MIT Press, 2005
4 Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadows of the Silent Majorities, Translated by P. Foss, J. Johnston & P. Patton, New York, Semiotext(e), 1983.
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