Radical Sadness: Theory After Baudrillard?1
(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
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
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
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
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