Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
The Agony of Power / The Power of Agony: Post-Baudrillard Theory and Post-Political Politics
Dr. Steve Redhead
(Department of Legal Studies, Humanities Faculty, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
Politics after that could never be the same (Lotringer in Baudrillard, 2010a:11).
Jean Baudrillard has been savagely vilified by his detractors, but the lasting influence of his work on twenty first century critical thought, cultural politics, war studies, media events, art theory and pop culture is impossible to deny. My comprehensive collection of extracts from Baudrillard’s texts, The Jean Baudrillard Reader,(now digitally avaiIable through Edinburgh Scholarship Online) published at the time of Baudrillard’s death from cancer in 2007 (Redhead, 2008), featured work from all periods of Baudrillard’s long writing career and stands as a remarkable testament to his life and work, an introduction for global readers to contribution to Baudrillard’s commitment to a critical poetics of the modern object and his complex theory of modernity. Jean Baudrillard consistently attempted to produce a radically uncertain picture of the modern world, and what could be called very late Baudrillard is no exception. However, Jean Baudrillard’s “post” writings, published after his death but written in the last two years of his life, what we might refer to as post-Baudrillard theory, provide us with theoretical clues to the numerous mysteries he set up in the other texts published in his lifetime. This post-Baudrillard body of work is certainly significant and is likely to have a lasting effect on the intellectual field of theory - theory after theory, as it might be characterised (see, for example Elliot and Attridge, 2011) - way into the future.
It is one of the posthumously published writings of Baudrillard, The Agony of Power (Baudrillard, 2010a) published in English in 2010 by his long time advocates, Sylvere Lotringer’s Semiotext(e), which I want to especially highlight. Work from this text bleeds into others. There are also, for example, elements of the theoretical and political position taken by Baudrillard in The Agony of Power repeated in another of his late texts, Carnival and Cannibal (Baudrillard, 2010b), published in English by Seagull Press, again in 2010. The Agony of Power is a collection of three original texts written in 2005 which were read or presented by Baudrillard at various conferences around the world, together with an interview with French cultural magazine Chronic’art from that same year. This package of very late Baudrillard texts is prefaced by a substantial contextual introduction by Sylvere Lotringer of the publisher Semiotext(e) entitled “Domination and Servitude”. Two years after these texts saw the light of day Jean Baudrillard died and Lotringer stresses that although Baudrillard had intended to “turn all the texts he was writing at the time into a new book…a few months later he was diagnosed with cancer and never regained enough strength to follow up on this project” (Baudrillard, 2010a: 7-8). The three texts and one interview which make up the Baudrillard part of The Agony of Power are: “From Domination To Hegemony”, “The White Terror of World Order”, “Where Good Grows” and “The Roots of Evil”. The book was published by Lotringer’s imprint Semiotext(e) as number 6 in its Intervention series, which also includes The Invisible Committee’s much discussed and much publicised manifesto “The Coming Insurrection”. A photograph by Jean Baudrillard adorns the inside of the front and back covers of The Agony of Power. Two other essays which Sylvere Lotringer was originally going to publish alongside the three papers in The Agony of Power appeared posthumously by Baudrillard’s publishers as another book altogether. Carnival and Cannibal was eventually published in 2010 comprising the essay “Carnival and Cannibal, or The Play of Global Antagonism”, effectively a talk from 2004, and the text of another address, “Ventriloquous Evil” from 2006. A third posthumously published Baudrillard book Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? (Baudrillard, 2009),written in 2007 just before his death illustrated with haunting images by Alain Willaume, was published by Seagull Press in 2009 [see Featherstone, 2011 for an excellent review of Baudrillard’s three posthumous books]. Taking all of this post-Baudrillard writing together, the legacy of very late Baudrillard thought may be seen as a singular “post-theory”, extreme thinking for an even more extreme world; or what I have situated elsewhere as a formation within “post-political politics” (Redhead, 2011).
In very late Baudrillard, there is no trace of the debate about postmodernisation, postmodernity and postmodernism which has pervaded much of Jean Baudrillard’s reception into various academic disciplines since the late 1960s – particularly sociology, art and architecture, literary theory, philosophy, cultural studies, sociology of law and jurisprudence. Baudrillard in his lifetime often endured a reading of his work which “became fixated on a handful of concepts – most notably ‘postmodernism’, ‘simulation’ and ‘hyperreality’” (Smith, Clarke, and Doel 2011: 326). As the burgeoning critical commentators, and re-interpreters of Baudrillard and his significance, have pointed out:
While it is perhaps understandable that this situation should have arisen, particularly given Baudrillard’s initial reception within the English-speaking world as the “high priest” of postmodernism, it is far from an accurate portrayal of the potential Baudrillard’s work offers, or indeed, of Baudrillard himself. It is telling that the waning of interest in the postmodern since the 1990s has not, in fact, led to a corresponding decline of interest in Baudrillard. On the contrary, now that his work is no longer interpreted in the one dimensional terms dictated by the modern/postmodern debate, a far, fuller, richer, and more diverse understanding and appreciation of Baudrillard’s import is beginning to emerge (Smith, Clarke and Doel, 2011: 326).
The conflict over Baudrillard’s legacy, especially in terms of postmodern debates, stems largely, in my view, from the fact that a comprehensive selection of his writings had, until recently, to be satisfactorily translated from the original French. Consumers of Baudrillard tended to read only ‘fragments’ of his often fragmentary, aphoristic, cryptic work, or quote his myriad interpreters who usually had an axe to grind on one or other of the debates.
In any case, the politics of postmodernism are evaded in the very late Baudrillard writings. Instead he urgently raises different, tantalising, questions of the “political” and “post-political”. As Sylvere Lotringer stresses in his critical introduction, where he rethinks the concepts of “domination and servitude” in terms of Baudrillard’s very late work: “Baudrillard was hailed as the inventor of ‘postmodernism’, a concept he rejected…it got him pigeonholed as the denier of reality, and he was adulated or hated for it” (Baudrillard, 2010a: 10). The statement extracted at the beginning of this review of post- Baudrillard, “politics after that could never be the same”, is from the wide ranging introduction to The Agony of Power by Sylvere Lotringer. Lotringer was here subtly commenting on Baudrillard’s mid-life epiphany in San Diego in the mid-1970s when, teaching with Fredric Jameson, Michel de Certeau, Jean-Francois Lyotard and others, Baudrillard came to the realisation that, in Sylvere Lotringer’s words, society was “losing all its moorings” (Baudrillard, 2010a: 11). As Lotringer, who was geographically present some of the time, recalls, the speed at which Baudrillard wrote his great work Symbolic Exchange and Death (Baudrillard  1993) is noteworthy. The rest is, in some sense, an event of history. Before leaving the USA in this period (circa, 1976), Lotringer tells us, this key book in the Baudrillard ouevre was written. It was published in 1976 in French, but not really fully appreciated by English speaking readers until much later. Crucially, this work contained the theory of reversibility which would become so important to Baudrillard’s writing until his own death. As Lotringer puts it, “reversibility is the form death takes in a symbolic exchange” (Baudrillard, 2010a: 14). In 1976, the year zero of punk in global popular culture, punk cultural stirrings were embracing antecedents that Baudrillard shared – the pataphysics of Albert Jarry and Pere Ubu. In the mid-1970s a Cleveland punk band emerged with the name Pere Ubu to globally popularise the drama of Albert Jarry from the late nineteeth century which had so fascinated Baudrillard since the 1950s. As popular music historian Clinton Heylin has noted (Heylin, 2007) musician David Thomas in 1975 in Cleveland, Ohio named his band Pere Ubu after Albert Jarry’s caricature king because, to Thomas, it added a texture of absolute grotesqueness, a kind of darkness descending over everything which fitted the mid-1970s in America. In his lifetime, Baudrillard never declared any awareness of this popular music culture/Ubu connection, though he did once appear in a “punk” costume of his own. He appeared in a gold lame jacket with mirrored lapels reading the text of his own self-penned 1980s poem, entitled “Motel-Suicide”, backed by a rock band at the Chance Event held at Whiskey Pete’s in Las Vegas in November 1996. The only surviving photo shows the short, balding, academic Baudrillard appearing as if he was auditioning for a place in a mid-late 1970s punk band (Redhead, 2008).
Baudrillard’s attitude to power, law, culture, sovereignty and politics, changed in this mid-1970s “punk” period. The agony of power was as much about the power of agony. In his own agonising introduction to The Agony of Power Lotringer claims powerfully, and in my view correctly, that Baudrillard’s two key ideas throughout his work were that, firstly, reality had disappeared and became replaced by simulacra and secondly that there was a potential symbolic challenge in this disappearance. This mid-1970s period is crucial for understanding Baudrillard’s work for the rest of his life, and especially its political implications for us here, desperately trying to jack into the claustropolitan trajectories of the catastrophic (Redhead, 2011), today. What can be labelled Jean Baudrillard’s “post-punk” work is revealed in all its glory in The Agony of Power, a book praised from within by Lotringer as nothing less than Baudrillard’s “intellectual testament”.
Baudrillard’s The Agony of Power offers a different view of sovereignty and power from the classical legal conception of power, often reproduced in major works of legal philosophy and sociology of law. Baudrillard’s perspective is a form of the “patasociology” hailed by Jacques Donzelot, who worked with Baudrillard at the University of Nanterre. Whilst there are many interesting books in the excellent Nomikoi: Critical Legal Thinkers series produced by Routledge, the orthodoxy of the “critical legal thinkers” chosen on law, politics and power contrasts with Baudrillard’s “late style” work on these issues. There are books, so far, on Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Louis Althusser, Niklas Luhmann, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, amongst many others, but none on Baudrillard.
In all this posthumous work, especially in The Agony of Power, Baudrillard offers up a unique theory of power incorporating what he calls “a double refusal” – the sovereign’s refusal to dominate as well as the subject’s refusal to be dominated. As he points out in Carnival and Cannibal in a passage repeated word for word from The Agony of Power (and partially extracted by Semiotext(e) as the quote on the back cover of The Agony of Power) the radicality of his thinking is in the argument that power itself has to be abolished. Baudrillard claims:
It is power itself that has to be abolished – and not just in the refusal to be dominated, which is the essence of all traditional struggles, but equally and as violently in the refusal to dominate. For domination implies both these things, and if there were the same violence or energy in the refusal to dominate, we would long ago have stopped dreaming of revolution. And this tells us why intelligence cannot - and never will be able to – be in power: because it consists precisely in this twofold refusal (Baudrillard, 2010b: 17-18).
The refusal to dominate, or to exercise sovereign power, according to Sylvere Lotringer, seeking to illustrate Baudrillard’s theory at its most banal, can be seen in the agonies of those involved in the revolts of May ‘68 or the activities of the “post-political” Italian Autonomists in the 1970s. They were, in Baudrillard’s theory, according to Lotringer’s interepretation, less than confident in wanting to dominate – they agonised about power, in both their resistance to sovereignty and their unwillingness to become involved in its exercise. Indeed, as Baudrillard says emphatically, “power itself is an embarrassment and there is no one to assume it truly” (Baudrillard 2010a: 82).
To place Jean Baudrillard in any theoretical or political pigeon hole has always been difficult. It remains as perplexing now, especially after his death and taking into account the publication of post-Baudrillard texts. Although Baudrillard was influenced by Marxists like Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse and Henri Lefebvre his work has always born a tangential relationship to any brand of Marxism, neo-, post- or otherwise. Philosophical antecedents of Baudrillard’s work are complex - Marx and Engels are present but so too is Mani, the Persian Gnostic prophet who wrote one thousand eight hundred years ago. From the posthumously published post-Baudrillard work, and especially The Agony of Power which I have featured here, it is an updated “post-political” sphere, first inspired by the libertarianism of the Italian Autonomists in the mid-late 1970s, into which very late Baudrillard best fits.
Steve Redhead is the author or editor of fifteen books including We Have Never Been Postmodern: Theory at the Speed of Light (2011), The Jean Baudrillard Reader (2008) and The Paul Virilio Reader (2004), all published by Edinburgh University Press. The Jean Baudrillard Reader is soon to appear in the Edinburgh Scholarship Online series.
J. Baudrillard ( 1993). Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage.
J. Baudrillard (2010a). The Agony of Power. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
J. Baudrillard (2010b). Carnival and Cannibal. Calcutta: Seagull Press.
J. Baudrillard (2009). Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? Calcutta: Seagull Press.
J. Donzelot (2011). ‘Patasociology at the University of Nanterre.’ Cultural Politics 7 (3): 359-369.
J. Elliott and D. Attridge (Editors, 2011). Theory After ‘Theory’. London: Routledge.
M. Featherstone (2011). ‘Against the Fake Empire: Utopia, Dystopia, Apocalypticism in Baudrillard’s Late Works.’ Cultural Politics 7 (3): 465-476.
C. Heylin (2007). Babylon’s Burning: From Punk to Grunge. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
S. Redhead (2011). We Have Never Been Postmodern: Theory at the Speed of Light. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
S. Redhead (Editor, 2008). The Jean Baudrillard Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press/New York: Columbia University Press.
R. Smith, D. Clarke, and M. Doel (2011). ‘Baudrillard Redux: Antidotes to Integral Reality.’ Cultural Politics 7 (3): 325-337.