Volume 2, Number 2
Book Review: The Frosty Emptiness of A Cool Disappearance.
Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV. London and New York: Verso, 2003. Translated by Chris Turner.
Reviewed by William Pawlett
(Sociology and Cultural Studies, University of Wolverhampton, UK).
I have always found Baudrillard’s Cool Memories series difficult, elusive and, in general, far less rewarding than his major theoretical works such as Symbolic Exchange and Death and Simulacra and Simulations.1 Yet I am also aware that this is the position adopted by Baudrillard’s major detractors, a banal position which entirely misses the purpose of the Cool Memories series: to provoke, engage and defy, not to take up clear and unambiguous positions in systematic academic fashion. Moreover Baudrillard introduces the series as taking place after his “best” theoretical work had been produced, after the triumphs and conquests of youth, confronted by advancing age. Cool Memories (1980-1985) begins: “October 1980 – The first day of the rest of your life”.2
By his own admission this was the period when Baudrillard “stopped living”,3 stopped writing as the knowing subject, as the leading sociologist of simulation and adopted a new methodology. This involved assuming the position of the object: seductive, elusive, indifferent, yet part of the world rather than of the subject which claims to produce knowledge through clarity, order and commitment, while remaining separated from the world. However, even as symbolic challenge, as object of diversion and seduction, that is even in its own terms, I find this series less than wholly convincing.
Why then “Cool Memories”? Clearly a reference to McLuhan’s well-known distinction between hot and cold media; cold media (poetry, television) offer little information but, in so doing, extend or engage the senses more fully. Interpretative work is required. What McLuhan termed hot media (photography, cinema) offering more data, for Baudrillard create an excess of information. Rather than acting as “extensions” they are actually restrictive, engaging less of the human sensorium, “screening out” meaningful engagement, communication or sociality.
With the Cool Memories series Baudrillard himself cools down, he plays cool with theory showing coolness towards its claims, while playing with its forms and stakes. But this game is not inconsequential – it is not an abandonment of intellectual engagement as has been charged. It is quite clear that Baudrillard remains deeply opposed to the system (capitalism, liberal humanism, pseudo-democracy, critical reason). In a recent reflection on the Cool Memories series he writes, “Form alone attacks the system in its very logic…the fragmentary is the product of a resolve to destroy a totality and the will to confront emptiness and disappearance”.4
Memories too consist of fragments and are cool. After the “heat” of experience only memories remain; even the fondest memories wear thin in time and require increased imaginative work if they are to remain meaningful. Baudrillard’s writing strategies are never cooler than in Cool Memories. Indeed volume four seems even cooler than earlier works in this series. Volume one was divided into five sections of more or less equal length, each clearly dated and covering the five years of the study. No dates appeared in volume two, one date pops up oddly in volume three and there are none in volume four. No notes, references or bibliography are provided by the author while the generous margins surrounding the text seem to invite the reader to add their own thoughts as they read, functioning as symbolic spaces of communication. Less and less clear information or context is given to the fragments assembled on the page and the reader is left to make of them what they will. Volume four then makes great demands on the reader by confronting them with fragments, and with fragments of fragments, with fragments of theory and theory as fragment.
This of course makes the text very difficult to summarise. Generally it is not clear to what extent the events described are fictional or imaginary, or when they occurred, if they occurred at all. But of course this opposition is deliberately broken down as writing as form, as chosen mode of representation, creates its own world through the unpredictable (symbolic) exchange between words and readers. The text seems to include autobiographical reflections on intensely personal issues such as bereavement and romantic liaisons but even here the tone is cool, detached, even frosty.
Baudrillard immerses himself in a world where, he believes, art, politics and history have disappeared as convincing realities, and the disappearance motif remains strong throughout this volume. Clearly one of the main themes of the series is travel, and this too remains the case with volume four. As one begins reading there is an almost immediate sense of being lost, of wandering or drifting but there is just enough information to sustain and intrigue the traveller. Baudrillard himself however refuses to act as travel companion, remaining distant and elusive. Just as experience is never quite what we expect, Baudrillard’s writing is never quite what we expect it to be; there is enchantment as well as cynicism, beauty as well as indifference, even hope:
Unlike the theoretical and mental landscape, which is continually shrinking, the landscape of the world and appearances is constantly becoming more diverse. It is difficult to be surprised in the world of ideas, difficult not to be by the perpetual play of forms.5
Baudrillard’s travels in volume four return the reader to many favoured destinations: the USA, Italy and Portugal as well as many less touristic “third world” countries with Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Tierra Del Fuego (or “the end of the earth” and formerly home of the Alakaluf people) who receive particular attention. But Baudrillard is not interested in simple contrasts between the “over-developed” and “under-developed” parts of the world. He emphasises the uncanny, paradoxical, “inhuman” and beautiful in each of the chosen destinations. There is compassion in these reflections on the destruction of “other” peoples and cultures by the West, but not of the gushing liberal variety, and Baudrillard seems to regret that he has “no deep sense” of the “world of misfortune”.6
It is often claimed that Baudrillard’s work generally has little to say about subjectivity, identity or human relations, instead dwelling on structures and forms resulting in a reductive approach, figuring human beings as mere “terminals on networks”. Yet, in fact Baudrillard offers a number of rich and vivid speculations on the nature of identity and social interaction:
[C]haracter depends on this basic contrariness – the indecipherable constellation of two contradictory qualities forming a single characteristic, in the same way as two contradictory meanings are merged in a single witticism…character is destiny…the ideal relationship is one in which both parties collude in the internally contradictory play of their natural characters.7
There are also familiar, even well worn themes. Disneyworld is mentioned several times as a prime example of hyperreality, but these comments do nothing to advance the theoretical position spelt out in Simulacra and Simulation over twenty years ago. Scattered references to Alfred Jarry and Georges Bataille now seem over-familiar and even repetitive. On the other hand newer ideas, such as the principle of evil, are developed and linked in new ways to the concepts of intelligence and stupidity, with parallels to the latest theoretical work The Intelligence of Evil or The Lucidity Pact. In the latter case then Cool Memories IV may be seen to function as supplement and companion to major theoretical works but in stripped down form, with the “fat” removed in Baudrillard’s own terminology.8 However given that Baudrillard’s theoretical works of the last twenty-five years are already very lean, this supposed supplementary function, if it was ever intended, no longer provides a rationale for the Cool Memories series.
This makes me wonder where a readership for this work can be found. Neither this text nor any of the Cool Memories series offers an accessible entry-point into Baudrillard’s thought. The cost of a complete set of “Cool Memories”, with a fifth volume now in preparation for translation into English, may well deter many, particularly among Baudrillard’s main body of supporters in the English-speaking world.
As experiments in form or medium, rather than merely content or message, the Cool Memories series also seems unsatisfying. The Verso editions are attractive but lack the visual opulence of McLuhan’s Book of Probes or Klossowski’s works on the simulacrum, to give two examples that are clearly relevant to Baudrillard’s own approach. The photographs by Richard Misrach and artwork by David Hockney, used as cover images on the Verso translations, seem similar to Baudrillard’s own in respect of their sense of emptiness and disappearance. Why not illustrate the texts, or at least the covers, with Baudrillard’s own photography? This would enable greater emphasis and experimentation with forms and appearances. The English translation of Amerique benefited from illustrations and also made the Please Follow Me collaboration with Sophie Calle so seductive. Perhaps this would risk an increase in information and a thawing of these works. This would be welcome, as then the texts would warm slightly, becoming cool rather than frosty.
1 Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (c Paris: Gallimard, 1976). London: SAGE, 1993; Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c Paris: Editions Galilee, 1981). Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
2 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (c Paris: Editions Galilee, 1987). London and New York: Verso, 1990:1.
3 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault/Forget Baudrillard. (c 1977) New York: Semiotexte, 1987:81.
4 Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet (c 2001). Routledge: London, 2004:26, 28.
5 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000 (c 2000). London: Verso, 2003:75.
8 Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet (c 2001). Routledge: London, 2004:22.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)