Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)
Alexandre Dyakov (Kursk State University, Russia)
Interview with Gerry Coulter (Bishop's University, Canada)
This interview first appeared [in Russian translation] in Khora, 2009, Number 2
Alexandre Dyakov: How did IJBS begin, who was involved in its creation, and how has it managed, from inception, to be of such high quality?
Gerry Coulter: In 2002-2003 I was on sabbatical living in Strasbourg France. I had just spend three months reading Baudrillard’s entire oeuvre (most of it for the second or third time) as part of a larger project on French theory. During that time period I was often struck by how remarkably different it is to read Baudrillard versus a good deal of writing about his work in books and articles about him.
Two ideas had formed in my mind during this time: 1) As I read Baudrillard’s entire oeuvre (in the chronological order of its publication in French), I was repeatedly struck by the similarity of our thought patterns. While Baudrillard is a more poetic and elegant writer I arrived at the conclusion that there was no thinker I had ever read (and I have read many), who was so close to my own mind. 2) I was, while reading him in depth, repeatedly struck by how poorly understood his writing is – too often he is portrayed as the “guru” or “high priest” of the postmodern” or some such nonsense. All in all, his work is not taken seriously by my generation either inside or outside of France.
In America the disease of pragmatism works against Baudrillard as does the intellectual corruption that is American patriotism. In England and its virtual colonies (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) there are wonderful Baudrillard scholars (Taylor, Gane, Merrin, Genosko, Grace, Butler, Cholodenko, Smith, and so many more) but also a good many people who have not read Baudrillard in any depth who do not take him seriously. In the English tradition the barrier to taking Baudrillard seriously is the so called “analytic” tradition. Within that tradition it becomes necessary to either protect students from Baudrillard or set him up as a straw man. Within the “Continental tradition” (especially in France) the left and what remains of the left, do not take Baudrillard seriously because he challenges them as well as the right (a pleasant exception is Liberation, and a few writers like Canetti). In all of these locations you also have the incredible weight of humanism that most academics labour under. Baudrillard is a kind of litmus test for banal and immature academic cultures – the kind who like to seek the easy solutions – he forces the questions over into the inhuman which has occupied more of our history than has the human.
Late one December night in Strasbourg, while reading a paper from a journal called Durkheim Studies, I began to think about such a journal for Baudrillard. I suspected that Baudrillard was very popular among graduate students and a new generation of thinkers world wide (I was quite right about that as it turns out), and I thought to myself “wouldn’t it be useful to have a place where people writing about Baudrillard had a place to share their writings with each other?”. So I made some notes and slept on the idea. The next day I made a list of people who had written a book about Baudrillard and asked them if they would like to participate in a venture called IJBS as a member of the editorial board. Only one person declined.
By early January 2003 the editorial team was assembled – a call for papers was out and Volume 1-1 was scheduled to be out within 12 months. I made an appointment with Baudrillard, we discussed the idea, he liked me and he liked it “this project has my entire support” were his words.
I thought that the first issue should do two things: 1) Be of very high quality and 2) show how IJBS would not only be a very serious journal – but one that was more than that – one that welcomed creative ventures that would not normally make it into a strictly academic project. To address the quality aspect I was very lucky to have an outstanding pair of Canadians (Gary Genosko and Tilottama Rajan [both holders of prestigious “Canada Research Chairs”] and an amazing New Zealander (Victoria Grace of Canterbury University) work on the first issue. Rajan and Grace wrote highly intelligent, philosophically complex, and readable pieces. Readability is important at IJBS because we aim at an intelligent audience of scholars and Para-academics. Baudrillard generates a lot of interest among poets, writers, intellectual journalists, etc., I always wanted them to have a place in IJBS. I also wanted to publish something by Baudrillard that had not appeared in English before and Genosko organized a translation of the important interview Baudrillard had given to Der Spiegel in German. My contribution to the first issue was an editorial and also a playful piece – a virtual dialogue which mashed together quotes from the bin laden Tapes, the White House press releases of George Bush press conferences, and the writings of Baudrillard. That virtual dialogue has taken an enormous number of “hits” over the years and I am happy it served the purpose so well of being one example of the kind of non-traditional writing we would welcome. We also had three good book reviews in the first issue (two by one of the best writers on Baudrillard, Rex Butler of Australia). Every three months I check the counters for each article and review on the website – I am happy to see that the first issue is more popular than ever. The first issue and each issue since (we are preparing number 13 at present) have shared the idea I proposed to my original team of editors as expressed in the editorial in Volume 1-1: IJBS exists to take the thought of Jean Baudrillard seriously – this includes challenges to this work and applications of his work that he might have nor foreseen or agree with.
Individual articles and reviews were opened by readers 11,000 times in our first year. The total number of hits on articles and reviews was 40,000 in our second year, and it has been over 100,000 per years the past three years – and growing with each passing year. If 200 people read it I would still do it because numbers do not matter – we want a publication that is free of charge to anyone interested in participating in the discussion of ideas which intersect with Baudrillard’s writing.
After the first issue I stood back to see what the publication would become in terms of quality. More and more Baudrillard scholars sent in articles and reviews and by the third issue (Volume 2-1) we had an editorial, Derrida’s obituary, eight articles and nine book reviews. Within 6 months more people has opened articles and reviews in this issue than had done so for the entire first year of IJBS – I knew we were going to be okay after that. Quality is an interesting thing for a publication like IJBS. You want “quality” to mean something different than it traditionally has where it is a synonym for policing and gate keeping. Papers that agreed with Baudrillard or challenged him, or challenged any of the editors or the journal itself had to be welcome. Our main concern in reviewing an article is involves how intelligent it is, does it communicate its ideas effectively, and is it interesting? We publish about half of what comes to us. Along the way some papers go through major rewriting and others almost none. What is special about IJBS in my experience is that our editors do not try to keep young scholars out of the journal – they often take a good deal of extra time to show them what they have to do with an article to elevate it to publishable quality in terms of more reading and research, better writing etc. Everyone involved with IJBS does it as a labour of love for Jean and now for his memory. Everyone he has affected to the point where they would be writing about him and working as editors does it with a certain degree of gratitude to him and his writings. Jean was, for anyone who knew him well, a lovely and kind person so this is not surprising. The quality of IJBS has also to do with the quality of people who think and write about him and the interesting things they are doing from traditional research to literary writing, poetry, science fiction etc. I am very pleased to have many pieces by Baudrillard in the issue as well as thinkers like Giorgio Agamben, Peter Singer, Slavoj Zizek, Julia Kristeva, and the host of people who have written books about Baudrillard. The publication has appealed to many fine minds because Baudrillard appealed to many fine minds. It is gratifying to receive papers from people who would be welcomed by any journal choose to publish with us. More than one have told me that they did so because of the quality of IJBS and the fact that we are free to the world.
I should add one other point. I originally wanted IJBS to be a place where people could publish publishable work about Baudrillard that was being refused elsewhere. I personally know of one major academic publication which had a paper concerning Baudrillard’s work approved for publication by three peer reviewers (one of whom was me), only to see a senior editor intervene at the last moment to prevent its publication. Why? Because publishing a paper about Baudrillard would be detrimental to the reputation of the publication! That was seven years ago and while IJBS has welcomed and encouraged exactly this kind of excellent paper by a young scholar I take no joy in noting that the publication in question is now dying. Why? Because it is failing to attract the next generation of readers who are turning to more interesting venues – only one of which is IJBS.
Dyakov: How involved was Baudrillard with IJBS?
Coulter: When I had the editorial team assembled and we had an idea of what me would like to do for the first issue I met Jean in Paris. We chatted for a couple of hours at Café Select near his home. I told him about my roots (we were two peasants in Paris), my reservations about academe, how I managed to thrive there and we discussed the reception of his work. He was remarkably gracious with some of his harshest critics such as Douglas Kellner and noted that Kellner had moved some distance towards Baudrillard away from his original position. Jean found Parisian academic culture disappointing and he enjoyed engaging with people who had read his work in a serious matter – he was especially appreciative of Kellner.
We also discussed many people who were closer to him in terms of their thought about his work and I then I told him about the IJBS idea. I ran through the list of names of the original editorial team and he quite intrigued. I said “so this is the idea, a journal which will engage with your thought in a serious manner, which will post traditional research as well as non traditional items, which will sometimes agree with you and show new applications of your thought and which will also vehemently disagree with you and challenge your work. He smiled and said that this “project has my entire support”. I asked him if he would like his same to appear on the “Editorial Board” and he agreed without hesitation. It was too ironic for him to resist!
Jean did not use the internet – even his e-mails were hand written and actually sent to me by his partner who helped with his communications. IJBS relishes the irony of being a virtual journal devoted to his work. It is always fun to find websites where authors who have not actually read IJBS criticizing us for being what we are. As I said earlier – Jean and anything involved with his writing is a litmus test for banality and immaturity.
Jean had his partner print each issue and he read the content. He was amused by the appearance of his old nemesis Kristeva and intrigued by how young people were responding to his work – including his photography and writing about it. Each year I would receive a kind word from him about the publication either in person or by e-mail as in these words which followed the publication of Volume 3-1 (July 2006): “D'abord laisse moi te feliciter pour le dernier numero des IJBS… tu as fait un superbe travail!”.
Jean’s role was that of an interested observer – IJBS was part of his virtual double life on the web. It was the best thing about him on the web and he was gratified to see so many people seriously engaging with him there. If Jean had had not been increasingly ill during his past three years he would have played a more active role. He did read three papers as an editor one of which was mine (without knowing the authors of course).
Dyakov: Baudrillard was a philosopher who provoked many people and often turned on those whose work to which he had become closest. What role does provocation play in his oeuvre?
Coulter: Provocation is at the core of Baudrillard’s way of seeing because for him thinking is a form of challenge. This included his won mind and writings he was fond of. For Baudrillard, in a century polluted with integralist thought (especially globalization), and fundamentalisms, it was more important to have things in which not to believe than things to believe. This was his poetic way of pushing at concepts to the point where they fracture and break. He could do this because he was not invested in any system – indeed, he was committed to overturning them all. “Theory is simply a challenge to the real” is how he put it in “Forget Baudrillard” an interview with Sylvere Lotringer. Challenge, provocation, and reversibility all work to undermine what is. Rather than to seek answers in “improving the system” Baudrillard sought to understand the fatality of the system and to seek poetic resolution rather than empirical understanding. The purpose of thought for him was to challenge a world that is given to us as enigmatic and unintelligible and to make even more enigmatic, more unintelligible. Those (sociologists and others) who seek to “improve the world” are merely working on behalf of the system.
To be challenged, as he was by say Douglas Kellner, was a compliment for Baudrillard. He did not agree with his critics but he knew, as any thinker should, that it is from debate with our critics that we improve our arguments. The first time I spoke with Baudrillard I was struck by how he embraced Kellner’s earnest criticisms while not accepting any of them. In fact, he smiled and noted that since Kellner’s first book in the late 1980’s he had moved closer to Baudrillard’s way of thinking. Baudrillard liked engagement and he liked to provoke but sometimes his critics were discourteous and sometimes just plain nasty. Of these people he speculated that his negativity seems to have passed on to them. He understood that if you provoke some people will return only weak criticism or anger. Recall, for example, at the time of his death the many obituaries coming out of America which could never understand his take on their country or the attacks of 9/11. These critics were excellent examples of the kind of thinking Baudrillard sought to avoid in himself.
Dyakov: There were numerous labels attached to Baudrillard over the years. He was called the “guru of French post-modernism”; “the lone ranger of the post-Marxist left”; and the “high-priest of the post-modern”? Should we attempt to distance him from these labels or is there some truth to them?
Coulter: Well, let’s take these in their turn. A “guru” is a Hindu teacher and often the head of a religious sect. Beyond this it has a usage in the common parlance which means teacher, mentor, pundit. I suppose he was a guru in terms of being a pundit but the term is simply overused. If all you have to say about someone is that they are a “guru” of this, or that, all you are saying is that you really have not read enough of their work to say something meaningful. Guru is a journalistic term. The “lone ranger of the post-Marxist left” which I believe comes from some of his book jackets by Verso is somewhat useful. Of course the lone ranger worked with an aboriginal side-kick called “Tonto” and I am not sure who Baudrilard’s Tonto might be. But he was among the first, after 1968, to break with the left and to offer a devastating criticism of Marxism. It isn’t far off of my remark earlier concerning those who wish to change the world and how they are really working for the system. This is precisely Baudrillard’s criticism of Marx. For Baudrillard Marx lacked radicality because he was ultimately seeking only a new kind of productivism – a utopian socialist model of production. Marx holds on to key concepts which depend on the metaphysics of the market economy. I address the specificity of this argument in a paper in this issue “Baudrillard’s Marx”.
Calling Baudrillard the “high priest” of the postmodern, like the term guru, is beneath serious engagement and can be left for journalists and book promoters. These are terms better left to advertising copy.
Dyakov: So, what precisely, was Baudrillard’s relationship with postmodernism / postmodernity?
Coulter: This is an excellent question. The first use of the term postmodern, that I am aware of, was by a writer named Hudnut in a monograph called Architecture and the Spirit of Man (1949) and to this day the term really only has a useful meaning in architecture. Frank Gehry and any number of architects today are making something truly postmodern. What is so amazing about Gehry is the way he uses computer design to make something that is not merely virtual. In the arts the term has some limited use for paintings in the 1980’s. As for Baudrillard, if we wish to use these terms, one could say he was born into modernity (1929) and lived into whatever came after it – a period which is subsequent to the modern. Baudrillard was finely attenuated to uncertainty, the end of progress, and from an early age (having escaped the Nazi’s as a child), was suspicious of any notion of universal truth or meaning. Personally, I like the way Robert Hughes characterizes historical periods. He says that they do not break off like glass rods but stretch and fray like rope with some strands never breaking. Hughes takes the example of the renaissance and say that there is no precise year in which it ended and some aspects of it are still with us today – those few strands that never broke. He says the modern is the same except that we are so closed to it and it was such a massive ideological entity. Postmodernity is simply a concept with which some theorists have tried to recognize that modernity, in its full bloom, is over but certainly it will be a long time before we can speak of its end.
Baudrillard first used the term “postmodernity” in Simulacra and Simulation (1981) where he recognizes the ability of postmodernism to undermine secure meaning. Mele and Titmarsh (1984, see Mike Gane’s Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, 1993), devote a significant portion of their interview with Baudrillard to the postmodern question. Baudrillard says he is unsure about what “postmodern” means and offers no judgement of it. He adds that his irony is not the same as that of self acknowledged postmoderns. So, from the very beginning, Baudrillard recognizes the effort of the concept of postmodernity to capture contemporary changes but, at the same time, distances himself from the term. Acknowledging that the present is empty he wonders if postmodernism is not just an empty term people are using to describe our empty times – a kind of theoretical playing with the pieces. Toward the end of the interview he acknowledges that the idea of progress is dead and wonders if postmodernity is not a desperate attempt to live with the remnants of prior understanding of universals. Baudrillard wondered how anyone could see that modernity was and endless progress after the Third Reich, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima. Yet, conservative academics clung to traditional and empirical approaches.
Baudrillard had the (mis)fortune to be seized upon by a number of thinkers who were more concerned with attempting to outdo Baudrillard (Arthur Kroker, George Ritzer) and unsympathetic readers (Alex Callinicos and the younger Douglas Kellner), than in going where he demanded as theorists. It is this group (and a few others) who labelled him a postmodern thinker. Kroker is an example of an intelligent and quite sympathetic reader of Baudrillard but his writing always succumbs to politics. He is the best example I know of an intellectual desperately trying to recover lost political passion (Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art, 2005:149) and it is devastating to his otherwise brilliant potential. To go the distance with Baudrillard requires a divestment of politics and any desire to change the world. Baudrillard was the best friend that a cool irony ever had. To think with Baudrillard means that we must embrace enigmaticalness and unintelligibility – and a form of writing that destroys concepts and systems rather than supporting them, building them up, or trying to “improve” them. With the best of intentions (and with a certain conceptual accuracy these thinkers did Baudrillard the academic disservice of making him a figurehead of postmodern thinking despite his distancing of himself from the term. The closest he ever went to identifying with postmodernity was to flirt with the term – it was part of his seduction of it. Kroker and Ritzer are among those who were drawn in by the seductive force of Baudrillard early one and they deserve a lot of credit for being among the first to take him seriously. However, as early as 1992 Baudrillard drew his line in the sand with postmodernity. In The Illusion of the End the term begins to appear in quotation marks – the seduction is over.
Indeed, as early as 1989, in an interview with John Johnson, Baudrillard said: “...The postmodern is itself actually postmodern: it is itself only a model of superficial simulation, and designates nothing else but itself. These days, that assures it a long posterity”. That is not exactly high praise is it? During the five years since the interview with Mele and Titmarsh Baudrillard has had time to ponder what postmodernity could mean and he sees his own theoretical concepts of fatal strategies and seduction as running counter to “postmodern lines of flight”.
So by 1990 postmodernism is in his gun sights as a concept to be broken and he demolishes it in his second Cool Memories (1990): “The postmodern is the first truly universal conceptual conduit, like jeans or Coca-Cola. It has the same virtues in Vancouver or Zanzibar, Chicago or Budapest. It is a world-wide verbal fornication (Cool Memories II, 1996:70).
Now the implications of this are rather amazing: With Forget Foucault he has alienated 98% of French intellectuals (the rejection of Marxism had already covered some distance in this regard), and of course he had rejected scientism in thought and with it all of traditional disciplined knowledges, now he breaks from the postmoderns. If you set out to exercise a radical and independent mode of thought by the middle of the 1990s – you could do worse!
What I find quite wonderful is that it is precisely at this time he is labelled the “guru” and “high priest” of the postmodern”. If you were writing that after 1992 you were simply proclaiming to the world, “I haven’t read Baudrillard”. Is it not wonderfully ironic that people trying to sell his books in English translation used these terms? Jean, like many of us, without maliciousness, appreciated people who made intellectual asses out of themselves. Everyone needs a laugh from time to time and our critics work very hard for us on our behalf in this regard every so often. So, to those who want to use these terms I say do not forget the old maxim: “if you cannot take a joke, don’t be one!”
What the postmoderns detested, in the main, was the implication of Baudrillard’s work which was saying, as he did about the Gulf War, postmodernity did not take place! As for those calling him a postmodernist he replied in an interview with Gane in 1993: “...Postmodernism seems to me to do with being resigned, or even largely to do with regression. This possibility of tinkering about with these forms, through a kind of juxtaposition in complete promiscuity of everything in sight. I don’t recognize myself in all this. So there you are. I won’t change anything but I shall have said it (1993:22-23). The fact that we are still talking about this today proves the correctness of the last sentence.
Baudrillard was, however, very appreciative of the challenges he received from reading postmodern literature. He was very fond of Lyotard – search his work for a criticism to Lyotard – you won’t find it. I asked him about this during a conversation in May 2006 and he said “Lyotard played a very important role in gathering up a new body of ideas and contributing to them in a provocative manner – he was important and one of the few writers of his era who was truly fascinating”.
Dyakov: Many opponents of postmodernism in Russian academic circles (and elsewhere), disassociate themselves from postmodernism in a way that allows them to cling to established academic norms – this was not Baudrillard’s reason for distancing himself from it?
Coulter: No, of course not. Most traditional academics are highly disciplined creatures. They are afraid to step outside of empiricism – it is, after all, the principle tool used to domesticate them as young scholars. Baudrillard was not seeking any sort of retreat into a traditional academic mindset in his engagement with postmodernism. He challenged it and he satisfied his own mind that he had dealt with it.
As for established academic norms – he could not stand them. His work was never, properly, academic. He did not mind identifying himself as a theorist so long as we understand theory as challenge and distinguish it from the academic practice of philosophy and from all that has been written with an eye to the history of ideas (Cool Memories I, 1990:215). He completely disassociated himself from intellectuals or the idea that intellectuals had the right ot speak on anyone’s behalf (aside from themselves).
Being an academic is an amazing opportunity to think beyond what has gone before. We take up new positions in conversations that have been taking place for a long time and bring new concepts to bear in creative new ways. But the loyalty to disciplines, the need to belong to traditional circles leads to so much wasted potential. Embracing poetics, art, photography, film, etc., opens up new vistas for social thought far beyond what statistics can ever tell us. Traditional academic norms are also deeply tied to the belief that we can know the real. This is nonsense – as Baudrillard told us so well – all we can ever know is the appearances behind which the real hides. Today we have as much to learn from the British painter Francis Bacon or Joseph Beuys or many other artists than we do from traditional academics.
This does not mean we need to believe that we are in postmodernity. Indeed, perhaps we should ask the deeply challenging question: Has modernity taken place? Are we not merely the progeny of our savage ancestors adorned with techo-gadgetry? Soon all of it will be unified in the wearable computer. Wearable computers will be more common in fifteen years than cell phones are today. Everyone will be “on-line” all the time – network man as Baudrillard termed it. We occupy an interesting “trans”ient time as Baudrillard understood it – a time between the human and posthuman. Baudrillard’s response to traditional and postmodern norms was deeply radical – he was interested in this emerging post human landscape. He felt we had two possible futures. In the first, the one he hoped for, we would experience some cataclysmic system failure. This would be terrible but he felt it better than a world (our other possibility), where the present system succeeds and we would live out our computer modeled and programmed lives. Does any of this sound like it has much to do with traditional academic norms? I do not think so – those norms are building that nightmare future. Academe has many wonderful thinkers but it is also heavily populated with petty cowards – some of those are traditionalists and some are postmoderns. Around the world there has been a sustained effort to reign in academics over the past thirty years – to tie us to more corporate models concerning innovation and productivity goals of business. How loud is the outcry from academics? We have nurtured a generation of academics who work for the state, and often indirectly for the corporate order – we call this system “research grants”. Baudrillard had something to say which is relevant to this in a conversation with Gane: “young intellectuals today partake of the insignificance of the situation in which they find themselves” (Baudrillard Live, 1993:204).
Dyakov: Baudrillard says that the discourse of the Real, gambles on the fact of there being something rather than nothing. Radical thought “wagers on the illusion of the world, it aspires to the status of illusion, going in pursuit of that nothing which runs beneath the apparent continuity of meaning” (The Perfect Crime, 1996:98). Is it possible to be happy and to believe such a thing?
Coulter: This could be Baudrillard’s core idea – so much of his other thought orbits this understanding. It is something that draws me to him as a seeker of poetic resolution. Personally, I do not understand how anyone can believe they know the Real and remain happy. Perhaps this is why so many arch defenders of the Real so unhappy.
“Why is there something rather than nothing” is the question of s/he who refuses to believe. It is not the kind of question that will not appears to a fundamentalist. In the fundamentalist times in which we live, where both Bush and bin Laden tell us you are “either for us or against us”, it is far more important to have things in which not to believe than things to believe in.
We do not know the real, merely the appearances behind which it hides. We do not know the atomic structure of our world rather, we touch smooth solid surfaces – we still see the light of the star which is already a black hole. So much of human knowledge and philosophy is dead set against appearances – we cannot bear that we live in a world of appearances and have therefore wasted 2500 years of philosophy trying to feel secure in reality. This is perhaps our greatest unrecognized tragedy. And who rules the New World Order? American pragmatists! And look what happens to them when they get into battles with people who understand that the world is appearances. Have contempt for appearances at your peril is the lesson of modernity – and we continue to hold them in contempt. Why is it so difficult for us to accept the vital illusion of the world? Is his recognition of this the reason for the scorn and contempt heaped upon Baudrillard? The whole thrust of modernity is against illusion and what does it get for this – it tumbles into simulation – hyper real – the more real than real. This is our system’s just desert – a certain reversion – very poetic from my ironic point of view. The great philosophical problem of our time is the lack of things in which not to believe. Belief is running rampant – it has overtaken the university and turned so many into system thinkers. What strikes fear into the heart of an academic any more than the thought that the system might collapse? It is why so many are dead set on improving things.
Belief however, is an option – we can choose to look upon belief as a form of voluntary servitude. The belief that empiricism is making our world better – such beliefs are contradicted at every turn by the evidence of a mounting catastrophe in slow motion. To say nothing about what more poetic versions of physics (quantum theory and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) pointed to in the 20th century.
When you do not believe it is possible to break out of this servitude and get away from politics. You can move towards a more poetic (non empirical) resolution of the world. Goethe knew that there is only one standard of truth – the self. Between he and us stands two centuries of science and social science. We can, ala Goethe, reject (capital “M”) Meaning (universals) or we will perish by Meaning. For all we know, of course, reality might exist, but like God, who also might exist, it is better for thought if we remain agnostic about it. Our actions are better based in challenge than in belief. We all should ask ourselves “what is more important – belief or thought?”. You know Baudrillard’s answer.
I think that, for Baudrillard, as for me, the notion that there is nothing rather than something is the root of a joyful wisdom. Truth, said Nietzsche, is merely illusion that we do not yet understand to be illusion. He was a practitioner of his own kind of joyful wisdom. Thinking about this raises an interesting point for me. I do not think that philosophers are stupid and I think that, deep down inside, most great thinkers have lacked faith in the Real. Nietzsche and Baudrillard had the courage to write it whereas most do not. What philosopher worth his/her weight in paper could believe in the Real? The best spirit of science understands that the wisest position is that of the unbeliever. Baudrillard said this spirit was a “radical empiricism” which underwrote a lot of thought concerning the Real. The Real is the great imposter of philosophical history. But when we look at the great thinkers, isn’t one who truly believes in the real as rare as a Pope who believes in God?
Baudrillard found most of the joy he knew in thought, from such insights, as do I. It is a key element of the glue which will always bind he and I. Let others believe – the superior position is always one of disbelief.
Dyakov: What is Baudrillard’s position on metaphysics? Can we say he is an anti-metaphysical thinker?
Coulter: There are two things we should keep in mind as we approach this complex question. 1) Baudrillard is the ultimate agnostic in thought – it is more important he says, to have things in which not to believe, than to have things in which we believe and, 2) He is a seeker of poetic resolution – a lover of the reversibility which runs through the history of human society.
While he is no determinist, indeed reversibility is something which makes determinism impossible, Baudrillard is ever aware of the power of the computer virus to bring the entire system to a halt (using the same system functions to do it as the computer requires to function. We have known since Herodotus that all great empires eventually fall and reversion awaits all social constructions. So for Baudrillard, reversibility is akin to a kind of obsolescence built into things by their own operation and growth. The more antibiotics we devise, the more susceptible we become to viruses which figure out how to become stronger (and hence demand even more powerful drugs in the next round of battle). Reversibility is a fact of life and of history. It is difficult to speak of something like reversibility without sounding metaphysical. This does not make it a metaphysical concept.
When we were in times which were more guided by metaphysics mythological principles such as reversibility were taken more seriously – almost like a kind of spirit running through events (sometimes spurned on by hubris). Baudrillard points out that in modernity we loose sight of such mythologies and fail to see the beautiful thing that a computer virus is – and, like the news media, we fail to see the humour in it. So it is very close to a metaphysical position he has on reversibility – he wonders if there is not some kind of fatal strategy at work behind reversibility and its ability to undermine our order of irreversibility. The fatal is not accidental – it pushes things to their fall. Banality, he says, is the fatality of the modern world. Fate, for Baudrillard, serves as a dividing line between chance and necessity. Reversibility is part of the fatal. This all sounds rather like metaphysics doesn’t it? The end must be anticipated in the beginning.
But show me a great thinker who isn’t interested in metaphysics in a way that points to his / her epistemology. For Baudrillard the non-believer, the fatal, the reversible, the end which is built into all beginnings, leaves open enigma – and his poetic approach to resolving the world which accepts its enigma and attempts to contribute to it. When we think about our relationship with technoscience, in light of fatality, as he does, then one of two futures becomes apparent. In one, the system collapses. In the other, the truly nightmarish scenario – the present system succeeds and we live in an Orwellian world or one Huxley might have written. This odd way of thinking [which is not metaphysical – but in our post-metaphysical times sounds like it] allows Baudrillard to postulate that globalization is not guaranteed to win out. And while he doesn’t defend senseless murders – he understands that virulent terrorism is a completely expectable expression of reversion in response to the humiliations suffered by those who have received the gift of globalization. A thinker who takes this approach, which is so rare we might call it a Baudrillardian approach, never takes the side of a system (or the Real) because he is ever aware of its coming reversion. It makes him better able to explain evil when it appears. And, as he believes our system, if it succeeds, will create only a nightmarish scenario for thought, he understands that the theorist can push against the system, hastening its collapse. While this collapse will be catastrophic, it is better than the catastrophe of living inside a system which is based on computer models and techno-science.
In terms of theory, you take the side of evil (against a kind of thinking that believes it can ever be eliminated), you take the side of reversibility and the fatal. You become, in relation to the system of theory, a kind of theoretical terrorist, in that you keep alive concepts and ways of seeing that most are challenging. You keep alive, in the best traditions of learning, the approach of challenge. Is it not ironic that Baudrillard, who detested academic and scholarly culture is, when you get right down to it, a much stronger advocate of the spirit of endless and free inquiry that academe is supposed to be premised upon? Baudrillard is not an apocalyptic thinker – he simply understands something we have understood for millennia but tended to ignore in modernity – the necessity of ebb and flow, rise and fall. It is Baudrillard’s fatal optimism – his only hope for a systemic collapse before our system succeeds in enslaving us all (no matter how many desire this voluntary servitude). When everything else has been lost, no matter how bleak the horizon for it, theory (as challenge) will always be able to turn and see Baudrillard at its back.
Now, all that said, specific to metaphysics, Baudrillard emerges from a moralist and metaphysical tradition of the first order. This is a tradition that is very suspicious of culture, that is very averse to separations of nature and culture, or good and evil (The Conspiracy of Art, 2005:98). Baudrillard was deeply fond of Artaud for example, the great challenger to the world who dares it to exist. For Baudrillard himself, he sees the problem of modernity as traceable to the death of God – which his the death of transcendence. He says we “cancelled our metaphysical contract and made another more perilous and collective one with things” (Genosko, The Uncollected Baudrillard, 2001:36). Instead of seeking perfection in the next world we began to seek perfection in this one – to build the perfect techno-scientific world (or, “crime” against thought in Baudrillard’s terms).
Metaphysics is an important and frequently occurring term in Baudrillard’s writing. He calls the Baroque the metaphysics of the counterfeit (Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1993:51) and his take on Biosphere II is that it is a kind of prophylactic utopia which we have erected to replace our old metaphysical utopias (Illusion of the End, 1994:88). He speaks of the “metaphysic of the code” (Simulations, 1983:103-152), the “metaphysics of consumption” (The Consumer Society, 1970:193), and calls digitality the “metaphysical principle of cybernetic control” (Simulations, 1983:103). He claims that the spiraling effect of modernity always brings him back to metaphysics. America, he says, found it essential to escape from Europe metaphysically, to get as far as possible from nostalgic versions of history (Paroxysm, 1998:84). He also writes about the metaphysics of events, of evil (which is today faceless and imageless), and part of his leveling of Marx involves the criticism that Marx retains key concepts (production) which depend on the metaphysics of market economy” (Mirror of Production, 1975:59).
So modernity marks the end of the era of metaphysics proper and as we pass through it the era of hyperreality begins. So, while Baudrillard can be read as sounding rather metaphysical, certainly more than he does sociological, this is because of how we see in modernity. Anyone who makes reference to evil in a positive manner, or speaks of reversion as he does, is seen as a kind of metaphysical thinker nowadays.
But something else is going on here. From Nietzsche Baudrillard has taken on a kind of anti-metaphysical position. I know this because I went through the same process in my younger days as well when I, as did Baudrillard, took Nietzsche very seriously. What was once understood as metaphysics has been replaced in modernity by a need to analyze the world in order to control it (and this is why the social sciences, be they right wing or Marxist, are never radical). In our “post-metaphysical world, the subject is replaced by the object. As for objectivity he says that “behind it rests the metaphysical and moral argument of truth” (For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, 1981:196).
So while he can sound like a man of metaphysics Baudrillard understands that we now live in a time when neither physics nor metaphysics are going to help us – rather we are now dealing with “the pataphysics of objects and merchandise, a pataphysics of signs and operations (Art and Artefact, 1997:14). He acknowledges that he sounds metaphysical but in his pataphysical understanding (pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions), he also wonders if technology isn’t the site of an inversion of the relationship between the subject and the object. He says he is “beginning to wonder if, almost ironically or paradoxically, technology may not prove to be the site where the world of the object plays with the subject, this is not to suggest that one is taking the side of the object, but rather to say that at the limits of the subject and the object, the metaphysical opposition between the subject and the object has perhaps been destabilized in some way by technology” (Art and Artefact, 1997:38).
So, for me, Baudrillard will never escape the charge of metaphysics despite the fact that he is very wary of it. His agnosticism pushes at metaphysics but when you hold the view of reversibility, as he does, you are not that far from the old idea of Yin and Yang – which are, he says, “two metaphysical poles between which exist the tensions that organize the world” (Fatal Strategies, 1983:106).
For me, Baudrillard takes more from modern physics – the uncertainty revolution that is quantum theory – than he does from metaphysics. Yet, to posit that there are things like reversibility or that uncertainty is a kind of principle – to speak about the rule (to give back more than you were given) does, I acknowledge, sound metaphysical. In the end let us say that Baudrillard is a seeker of poetic resolution – one who wants to take a world that is given to him as enigmatic and unintelligible and leave it even more enigmatic and more unintelligible. All other forms of knowledge serve the system of techno-science. Baudrillard never wants us to live in a world where we can open the page of any book and find Truth or believe in any one God or faith for certainty. For him this is not our nature and it is why pataphysics interested him more. The science of imaginary solutions in the service only of poetic resolution.
Dyakov. And what about his thought on simulation in relation to metaphysics?
Coulter: I should note that these are especially good questions – people tend to keep their distance from Baudrillard on metaphysics. In a general sense, simulation has to do with who we are as a species – more than it has anything to do with metaphysics. The outcome of Foucault and Baudrillard and contemporary thought is that we now recognize that theory precedes the world. This means that we think the world into existence in as much as we give it names and arrange words to describe it and try to understand its many enigmas. We live in discourse and nothing human exists outside of it. This means that all efforts to describe the world – speech, writing, painting, photographing it, sculpting it, etc., are simulations. We never know the real merely the appearances behind which it hides. And the tools we have to describe and understand these appearances (writing, art etc.,) are dependent upon the languages we make. We never know the Meaning (universal) of anything in the world – but a multiplicity of meanings proliferate. Is this metaphysics? I think not.
Now, Baudrillard makes us deeply aware of simulation and some of the changes that have taken place in both simulation and how we understand it. He is wary of the power of simulation to fool people as he is the foolishness of pouring our lives and the world into computer models. He sees this kind of simulation as a threat in that it is part of the computer modeled world he hopes we avoid in the future. He looks at the United States as one example of what we should fear – not merely Disney-ification – but the fact that American students are so unaware of the simulated nature of their lives in the heartland of consumerism. He said they lacked a sense of it and a language to describe simulation and wondered if this was not because they lived in a simulation of the most developed state. I think he found asking American students to discuss simulation rather like one would find fish unable to describe water.
He understood that there is such a thing as “authentic simulation” such as Warhol’s soup cans of the 1960’s – versus the inauthentic simulation of his redoing of them in the 1980s. He worried about the kind of simulation that was based on the precession of the model. He said it was the ecstasy of the real, of information, of the truer than true (The Vital Illusion, 2000:46; Fatal Strategies, 1983:9). When simulation (writing or art for example) were used to challenge the world, to expose its monstrosity – Baudrillard was of course supportive. But if all simulation purported to do (like art which isn’t art), is to mirror the “real” then Baudrillard said it is merely banal. He treasured illusion and computer modeling values only the operational – the functional – the statistical. Think of the beauty of all the world’s languages and then imagine them all reduced to binary code. What other goal underwrites globalism?
When simulation is creative, when it is artistic, when it seeks poetic resolution as does Baudrillard’s writing, then simulation is not a problem. But most simulation today has other goals – the putting to death of the illusion of the (vital) world. Simulators attempt, he said “to make the real coincide with their models of simulation” (Simulacra and Simulation, 1994;2). Simulation as it is more commonly practiced today wants to leave signs of the real (which we can never know in any case) in place of the real. Or, to put it better – simulation wants to replace the illusion of the world with the more real than the real – the hyperreal. And what today is the highest function of the sign if not to make “reality” disappear while covering up the fact of its disappearance?
So, isn’t it interesting that simulation, as it is mostly discussed today, operates according to what we could call a metaphysics of the real? But if we understand that all writing and thought is already a simulation of appearances (which the real hides behind), then we are highly impenetrable to the more base uses of computer simulation today. Call me a postmodern peasant if you want but I would much rather be where I am than those students Baudrillard met in California. I do not believe in globalization. I, like Baudrillard I suppose, understand it to be a kind of simulation – the simulation of Western universalism and integrism.
So, on Baudrillard and metaphysics I think we can say that whenever we begin to think in very large terms and complex terms like reversibility or simulation, or to think about where our system is headed if it succeeds, it is logical that notions like metaphysics come to mind. But we do not live in a world where logic is a the most powerful tool. We are over that 2500 year old delusion I hope. We no longer live in a world where dialectics can save us. We now inhabit a space where two absolutely true, and also absolutley contradictory, hypotheses can co-exist. With that I will say that there is something of the metaphysician and a good deal of the anti-metaphysician in him (as there is in me). Things do not get much more “Baudrillardian” than this!
Dyakov: Some are very troubled by Baudrillard’s non-scientific (or even anti-scientific approach). They worry that his style is that of the essayist and not a philosopher. I take it you believe his style is no accident. Considering Baudrillard’s approach to metaphysics, and his thought more generally, how much of his approach can be explained in terms of a style of writing?
Coulter: Yes his style is no accident – he did not begin writing (the Baudrillard we know after 1968) until he was almost 40. He was a master of language who read deeply and understood English well and German with the precision of a translator (which he was in his younger days when he taught in the Lycée).
As for science – you have hit the exact nerve that makes Baudrillard so valuable to the current moment. I think it is the reason why he is of such interest to a great number of graduate students and young scholars at present. Let me put it this way: Baudrillard is among a number of thinkers and writers to realize that the value of “science” to thought is in science at its most poetic level – the level of quantum theory or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Let’s call that capital “S” Science. Another scientific approach, the one more common to the social sciences (lower case “s” to denote its greater popularity and lesser importance), is against poetics. It exists against the fable, the story, the parable, the beautiful moments of poetic reversal. It seeks empirically generated answers in response to empirical methods and instruments (experiments, questionnaires, quantifiable results, Pearson’s “R” correlations etc.) This (social) scientific approach dreams of a time when everything is predictable, and can be flow charted on computer models. People who follow this kind of approach call it scientific but it is an uninteresting kind of science. The best of Science tells reminds us of the unknowability of the universe. It is artful and poetic. Social science is of course a kind of empirical record but of the corruption of art by science. I also think there is a kind of technocracy which has established itself in the halls of the natural sciences as well – genetics is the greatest enemy diversity ever had. Then there are those who would turn all languages into the binary language of the computer. Human languages, in all their multivocality and ultimate irreconcilability are poetic whereas computer languages are merely the language of techno-science in ecstasy. It is techno-science, ironically, that may well lead to the failure of the current system and if it does it will surely do so in the language of the computer.
At its best Science realizes that it has no contact with the Real – indeed it shows us we have no control over it either. We pay an enormous price for our vulnerability to merely scientific thinking. The notion of scientific objectivity in the social sciences misses the point of Science as poetics and further, it is a system of imposed ignorance – of staying within the “rules”. Human thought however demands an open horizon. Social science produces a meta-language whereas the best of Science, the non-technocratic variety presents us with a truly unreal world. Science for Baudrillard is not about certainty or knowledge, but rather, the poetic, enigmatic and unknowable. “S”cience is about the volatility and ultimate unknowability of things whereas “s”cience [scientism] is about models and flowcharts and empirical (less-interesting) questions. The revolution of our time is the uncertainty revolution as Baudrillard pointed out. This is why he is so important at the present moment. Most traditional thinkers labour under one or two terrible burdens – a commitment to humanism and (or) a commitment to empiricism. Baudrillard’s lesson is that both are impediments to radical thought and writing.
So Baudrillard understands that thought can be inspired by a photograph, a work of art, a film, a poem, a fiction or a fable. At its best theory (not committed to certainty but rather enigmaticalness) can even be a fable. In any event, every theory, no matter what it is based on, is a fiction. Just as all “Truth” is only Truth until it is proven not to be so, it is the same for theory – all theories are proven to be fictions. The two sources of this thinking in Baudrillard are Nietzsche and Science. Everything we know is a story in a greater and older discourse. The task of theory is to devise the most interesting story possible. The empirical story is usually not very interesting.
As for those who deny Baudrillard is a philosopher – they are simply acting like the “police” of philosophy. All great thinkers understand that there can be no thought police. Further, if being “scientific” is a criterion for being considered a philosopher – then many people known as philosophers will have to be expelled from its great city!
Baudrillard set out to provoke exactly the petty kind of thinker who dislikes his style – he expected it. It was a source of great pleasure for him to see these critics infected by his negativity. You will recall Sokal’s diatribe of a few years back. Baudrillard had a knack of flushing his ilk out into the light of day and it is beautiful to see them run there carrying the banner of science at its most banal. The so-called analytic school (British) is another joke upon itself in terms of its self-righteous assertions that it is more “clear” and “objective” than other traditions. Its very commitments to clarity and objectivity are enormous biases from a Baudrillardian (poetic) point of view.
Baudrillard’s style then is certainly influenced by essayists, and playwrights, novelists and poets. Like the best spirit of Science he was not interested in empirical resolution – the pouring of the world into charts, diagrams, models and survey instruments – he was interested in poetic resolution. This puts him at the forefront of thought today exactly at a time when people like myself have discovered that social thought has gained more from art in recent years than from empiricism.
Dyakov: Does Baudrillard’s approach have a value to ontology?
Coulter: Ontology is abstract in its dealing with essence. It is involved in assessing being in the abstract. Baudrillard rubs up against ontology when he distinguishes between banal abstractness (attempting to make everything calculable), and radical abstraction (the more poetic and deconstructive kind). Baudrillard then could be said to be of interest to ontology but it would have to be along the lines of a differentiation of the two kinds of science I posited in answering your previous question.
As ontology is interested in “Being” it is important to note that Baudrillard is far more interested in “Becoming” – Heraclitean becoming (where antagonism is key but not in a dialectical manner). The ontologizing of existence didn’t interest an agnostic like Baudrillard very much. The human race owes its becoming, he once said, to the fact that it has no end in itself (The Lucidity Pact, Or the Intelligence of Evil, 2005:212). Being is everywhere – things that “become” are rare (The Singular Objects of Architecture: 2002:45). Baudrillard seems to have felt an insoluble ambiguity between being and existence. Existence for him was, in any event, no great matter. That too is in keeping with the most poetic of Science.
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Note: References cited above refer to the date of the appearance of Baudrillard’s texts in English translation – not the date of their publication in French.