John Armitage on Tue, 14 Mar 2000 21:48:02 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Jean Baudrillard in London

-----Original Message-----
From: John Armitage <>
To: <>
Date: 14 March 2000 20:21
Subject: Jean Baudrillard: Meet the David Bowie of philosophy 

Meet the David Bowie of philosophy 
Jean Baudrillard is a consummate self-inventor, radical thinker - and
a fine photograph, too. He talks to Steven Poole 

Tuesday March 14, 2000
The Guardian 

Jean Baudrillard's lecture in London last Friday did not take place. But
don't be alarmed: the aim of thought, after all, is not truth or
Thinking is the art of making things disappear. Let's try, then, to make
this impish, septuagenarian matre ` penser disappear too. 

Picture, if you will, Baudrillard in the chemistry lecture theatre of
University College, London. Gazing down from a side wall is a vast chart
the periodic table, whose elements huddle together for comfort, anxious
the appearance in their midst of this unpredictable catalyst.
looks wonderfully like a hyperreal cafe Frenchman: short, rotund, in a
crumpled suit, with tufts of golden-grey hair poking out from his
But that appearance is a mask. 

To an audience of alternately amused and blankly bamboozled architecture
students, Baudrillard delivers an hour of sizzlingly dense, rococo
argumentation in his warm but near-impenetrable Gallic tones. He
his love of taking photographs, and mercilessly dissects the poverty of
modern art. He laments the loss of magic, the fact that in an age of
technical explanation, the universe has now "fallen" into a banal
The universe is given to us ready-made, like Duchamp's urinal. And art
no answer to this; it can only rehearse the disaster. "To turn an object
into art," Baudrillard smiles, "you just have to make it useless." But
idea of uselessness is itself useless. Today, we merely enjoy the idea
art, not art itself. 

Why? Baudrillard calls it "image-feedback". The image masks itself with
idea of itself. It constantly transforms itself into a message, and thus
prevents us from seeing. Meaning, the omnipresent, choking smog of the
post-industrial era gets in the way. This is true of all visual media.
is the TV that looks at us," he insists, "from a blind spot, from
Our gaze is turned back from this dead zone and blinds us. 

And yet there is hope. Perhaps a certain sort of image could "break the
screen". And perhaps photography is the weapon for this violent
Because photography, if it avoids being assimilated to a message, can be
unintelligible: the opposite of thinking. The potential for "something
is neither true nor real, but is beautiful". That is Baudrillard's plea,

Across the road after the lecture we congregate in the bar, drinking
while Baudrillard's own photos are projected in triptych on the walls.
images are inscrutable. An empty red armchair faces out at the viewer,
enacting the disappearance of a human body, whose shape remains, in
Baudrillard's own beautiful phrase, "like a smile". Close-ups of brick
or alleys radiating in ecstasies of brown and blue; a lone bicycle
out over a golden river; a philosopher's still-life of book, pens,
and coffee bowl; keys on a cafe table; splotches of red and black paint
on a
wall, almost humanoid. These stories of charged absence continue to glow
the walls as the bar empties and the chatter fades. 

The next morning I meet Baudrillard at his hotel in South Kensington.
the grand homme himself!" chirps the receptionist, after I repeat the
code of his name. Downstairs in the bar, Baudrillard drinks black coffee
smokes a cigarette he has rolled in advance; he delivers a rolling
in an English-French hybrid. It's early, but the twinkle in his eyes
bespeaks pure joy in thought. "Ouf, it's a game!" he says, as if
that anyone could think otherwise of thinking. 

But sometimes even champions need a break. That's why Baudrillard took
photography, as a way of escaping writing and thinking. "I began to
photograph without any ambitions," he says, "not to be exhibited. It was
just surprise encounters with objects, with situations, with lights." He
tried to take portraits of people, but "it's a disease of mine before
beings," he confesses. "I cannot take them as subjects. With objects
it's an
elective affinity, as far as they are traces of the living human world."

His photographs, he hopes, are without "meaning". For Baudrillard adores
unintelligibility. There is not enough of it around. "Gone is the
of nonsense," he said wistfully in his lecture. But he tries his best:
is the task of radical thought, since the world is given to us in
unintelligibility, to make it more unintelligible, more enigmatic, more

That is why we love Baudrillard: because he can do this. But that is not
say he is a mere conjurer of nonsense. Baudrillard foresaw the allure of
virtual reality long before William Gibson; he was in the vanguard of
Marxian critiques of modern consumerism; before it became fashionable,
wrote a scintillating analysis of man's sentimental exploitation of
Baudrillard got there first, many times. And now his self-imposed task
"this art of taking reality as fiction, taking fiction as a
To shock us into realising that thought and the world need not be as

That is why we love him; it is also why he enrages a certain stodgy,
anti-imaginative Anglo-American sensibility. Baudrillard is most
infamous in
non-philosophical circles for having said that the Gulf war did not take
place. The theory is that these days, the "model" precedes the event and
exhausts it totally in advance. The Gulf war was played out as
before any tanks began rolling, and then it was played out again as
simulation through videogame-style missile-runs on TV. Behind this
virtuality, the "real" event was nowhere to be seen. 

Baudrillard's pioneering analysis is now common - so thoroughly
as to figure in such books as Michael Ignatieff's recent Virtual War. A
years ago, Baudrillard also claimed that the year 2000 would not happen.
Did it? "No," Baudrillard insists gleefully. "Because we were already in
21st century long before we came to this dead point. We abused the
of the millennium long before it happened. Now, we stay in the 20th
We have not really passed over. We don't live in a rational time..." 

But what, pray, is a "rational time"? The most high-profile charge
against Baudrillard's game of thinking came a few years ago from Alan
Sokal's and Jean Bricmont's book, Intellectual Impostures, which named
Baudrillard among a phalanx of French "postmodernist" thinkers who
abuse scientific concepts. It caused a huge storm in France, and an
ejaculation of happy sneering over here, fortifying the complacent
impression of those who had never bothered to read any French philosophy
that it was all a load of rubbish. 

Up until now, Baudrillard has not dignified the attack with a public
I ask him about it, and he sighs simply: "It's a misunderstanding of
metaphor." It is further, in his view, based on an outmoded idea of the
scientific process. Nowadays, Baudrillard argues, we know that
are never verified - "they give way to other hypotheses. And thought has
always been like that... I was surprised that no scientist ever answered
Sokal himself as a scientist." And then he adds, with a devious grin:
"In a
way it was a compliment." 

To be accused of imposture, after all, is not necessarily a bad thing.
"There is a good use of imposture," he points out slyly. "It is the art
never to take a definite posture. The ability to metamorphose posture."
Indeed, Baudrillard's own career has been an exercise in balletic shifts
pose. In 1991 he summed up his intellectual journey: he had been a
pataphysician at 20 (the term is Dadaist: a scientist of imaginary
solutions), then "situationist at 30, utopian at 40, transversal at 50,
viral and metaleptic [having seizures about seizures] at 60. That's my

Now Baudrillard is 70: so what is it this time, monsieur? He laughs: "I
ought never to have said that. Well, let's see, at 70, I would say that
am... beyond the end. It was my fateful strategy to go beyond the
so as to see what happens beyond." 

So where next for the perpetually self-reinventing man, the David Bowie
philosophy? Becoming digital? Well, Baudrillard rather likes the idea of
internet voraciously sucking up the world, because that would "leave
alone in its radicality", although he doesn't use the net himself. "I
see a text, a modulation of thinking, on a screen - on a screen I can
see an image..." Yet nor does he prophesy cyber-doom. "I did this
of technology, but I would not do that any more. I am not nostalgic. I
not oppose liberty and human rights to this technical world." 

For now, Baudrillard has another book due out in France - the final
of his delightful journals, Cool Memories. And then? "After that, maybe
become an artist." I wish him luck. "Ouf, on verra! " he chuckles, and
that, Jean Baud-rillard puffs on his cigarette and wanders back
leaving only the traces in my notebook behind. 

"The military is the message."
John Armitage
Principal Lecturer in Politics & Media Studies
Division of Government & Politics
University of Northumbria at Newcastle
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tel: 0191 227 4971
Fax: 0191 227 4654
E-mail: (w)
E-mail: (h)
Read: Machinic Modulations:new cultural theory & technopolitics

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