Irony and Sadness–After Jean Baudrillard

Email exchange between Ken Wark and Geert Lovink

Held during the week after Jean Baudrillard passed away.

KW: You ask: what is radical sadness? That’s 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 isn’t
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 Nietzschian 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 failed us.

GL: 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 a la “The Gulf War didn’t happen”. What
happens when one of your teachers that most influences
your thinking dies? In my 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 The
Fatal Strategies that had just came 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 that comes with this 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 1990s.

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 doesn’t 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 read his book The Symbolic Exchange and Death
and related remarks on the death revolt at the moment
when the 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, 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 as well.

KW: When Baudrillard’s writing started showing up in
Australia in the 80s, a lot of 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, 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 didn’t have to. It is fun to study the Laws
of Manu, 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 exégesis. We
cannot use the term freedom here, as he didn’t 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 – same thing
– 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 wasn’t beneficial in
his academic career, but he wasn’t 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, 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 haven’t 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 90s 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’re 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 top 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.