Felix Stalder, Toronto

Baudrillard: Shooting in the Sandbox

"Two situations, both critical and insoluble. One is the total
worthlessness of contemporary art. The other is the impotence of the
political class in front of [the popular French neo-fascist politician] Le
Pen. The two situations are exchangeable, and their solutions are
transferable. Indeed, the inability to offer any political alternative to
Le Pen is displaced to the cultural terrain, to the domain where a Holy
Cultural Alliance prevails. Conversely, the problematization of
contemporary art can only come from a reactionary, irrational, or even
fascist mode of thinking." -Jean Baudrillard [1]

Consternation spread through the international cultural community roughly
one year ago when the French theorist and demigod, Jean Baudrillard,
proclaimed contemporary art to be utterly worthless. For many artists and
theorists, the denunciation came as a walloping slap in the face. Having
written countless prefaces for exhibition catalogues, essays, books and
even exhibited his own photographic work, Baudrillard's condemnation
appeared to be full of unexpected contradictions. Was this a rude awakening
or simply rude?

Primarily, his declaration was a radical delegitimatization of his own
position as a cultural critic. If Baudrillard has really accepted this
consequence, one possible motive for his new stand might be that it will
realign him with what he considers a credible position, this time within
the French political scene where he claims the only effective player to be
Le Pen.

Is he still being taken seriously? It's notable that Catherine David
excluded him from her 830-page Documenta catalogue while including almost
every other influential theorist since 1945. Was this in recognition of the
fact that there is no substance to his discourse anymore? Was it his
exclusion from French intellectual circles that moved him to such a hefty
reaction? His essay "The Precession of the Simulacra" still remains
impressively stellar, if somewhat exaggerated (did it really take him that
long to discover the remote control?).

It's a hard one to call. Over the years Baudrillard has developed the
emphaticness of his thoughts layer by layer, and we sadly suspect that he
may have fallen victim to his own theories and is no longer able to
differentiate between discourse and artistic creativity, as he claims one
can no longer differentiate between the illusion and the real. The concept
of complete simulation is, after all, such a seductive one. Having
exhausted his "excessive theory" he has arrived at a point where even the
most stubborn modernist will begin to understand his point that theory, or,
as the less radical would say, at least his theory, has become 'just'

But what irony, the imagined pure play is not that easy and sitting in the
sandbox is no fun at all. Suddenly Baudrillard finds himself in the
distasteful position of becoming an artist. Even worse, an artist still
spear-heading the glorious progress (or fatal demise) of culture; an avant
gardist denouncing the avant garde (which is, in itself, passÈ).

Poor Jean sits in his own handcrafted dead-end where any further rhetoric
will only make things worse. Here, at last, his claim can be taken
seriously. Having become an artist and a poet, he has come to realize that
his own doings of burning his baroque verbal pyrotechniques will not save
him. No, they are utterly worthless as a way out of his dilemma. What
options does he have? Cry for help! As a true avant gardist he cannot have
the faintest faith in his peers since he, leading the way, was formerly
where they still are. Despising his peers because they remind him of his
former sins, he turns full circle: 'Please, you sturdy fascists,' he begs,
'show me some reality!' Still the old megalo-man, he demonstrates that what
is good for him will be even better for France: the political system has to
be saved just as he himself must be. We can happily take it as a sign of
this very megalomania that the rest of the world, seen from Parisian
heights, is so utterly backward that the restof the world don't even deems
mention.  When he claims that the problematization of contemporary art can
only come from the "reactionary ... even fascist mode of thinking" there
can be little doubt as to what he meant with the "melancholy for societies
without power that gave rise to fascism," that overdose of a powerful
referential in a society which cannot terminate its mourning [2].

Could that be a self-description? Not of course the mourning, himself being
a cool thinker, but the image of the melancholy of a powerless theory that
gives rise to the yearning for power seems particularly fitting. When all
books do is turn in circles, a solid boot-in-the-face will strike through
all the epistemological vagaries and clean out the ontological despair. As
a true hero of the simulacrum he has realized this consequence. He wants
out of what he has referred to as "the ecstasy of communication a place of
'the cold universe: ecstasy, obscenity, fascination, communication ...
hazard, chance and vertigo.'" [3]

It is here that 'passion disappears,' which would explain the remote place
that Baudrillard now finds himself. We must assume a heavily burdened
conscience, cracking under the dragging weight of miles and miles of opaque
theory, to appreciate such a ridiculous claim that the situation of
contemporary art (see Baudrillard's poetry) can only be renewed by Le Pen.

We can almost hear the tenured professor begging: "Passion! One last time
in my life, I want passion!" But discourse has a nasty tendency to develop
its own dynamics and spiral around its own arguments, to become separated
from the reality of production or creation which it claims as its subject.
Instead of worrying about the defection of a great cultural theorist we
should dispense with him quietly and wave goodbye. There is life beyond the
TV screen, and to understand this life, art is still one of the best ways
to go.

Corinna Ghaznavi and Felix Stalder

1. Baudrillard, "A Conjuration of Imbeciles," CTheory
(http://wwww.ctheory.com) [originally "La conjuration des imbeciles,"
Liberation (May 7, 1997)].

2. Baudrillard, "The Precession of Simulacra," Wallis (ed). Art After
Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New York, Boston, The New Museum of
Contemporary Art and David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. (1995, 1984): 269.

3. Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication," Foster (ed), The
Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Seattle, Washington, Bay
Press (1993, 1983): 132.