The last thing I expected was a reply. After all, he was dead.
I emailed Jean Baudrillard one intoxicated evening, when the world was feeling too much for me. The idea came to me as a dark whim; somewhere between a compulsion and a negative epiphany. We had exchanged a couple of email messages a few years earlier, some weeks after his public appearance at the New School; one of his last in the US, before he died after “a long illness” in 2007, at the age of 77. And, belatedly, it struck me as potentially cathartic to reassure the notorious French philosopher that the world was just as demonic and perverse as when he departed it. (In fact, it had somehow become even more so.) At the time I figured this strange impulse would be like whispering an intimate secret into a digital wall, like the final scene in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love: a gesture as futile as it was romantic. A one-way transmission to Hades, or a reverse séance.
And yet, a couple of weeks later – after I had forgotten this moment of gin-soaked folly – I received a response. It read:
Of course we all miss him but not sure he does!
Thanks for your rejoicing e-mail!
Jean didn’t care about electronic messages…and used to let me manage that “kind of thing”.
So, I did.
If you’re passing by, Dominic, let me know and we can have coffee together.
Attached was a photo of Baudrillard himself, looking as relaxed as one would imagine him, enjoying breakfast in the afterlife.
I was suddenly flooded with the same exhilarating feeling I had when I received his first message, several years earlier. (“Like receiving a letter from God,” joked one of my hyperbolic colleagues.) Baudrillard had read my first book, After the Orgy, whose title and motivation were completely taken from his work; a sweaty copy of which I had managed to smuggle him during the post-lecture dinner. He had not only generously taken the time to at least skim this extended piece of juvenilia, but to let me know – in the most delicate and diplomatic way possible – that while he found my treatment of the politics of exhaustion “quite remarkable,” I had completely misunderstood his famous refrain. Living “after the orgy,” he explained, was not so much a dystopian suspension of historical possibility, but a fresh opportunity to spark further seduction. When one participant whispers into the ear of another, “what are you doing after the orgy?” this isn’t a question posed on the cusp between the allegorical and the rhetorical, as I originally assumed, but a practical attempt to arrange a subsequent rendezvous. It is thus an invitation to further intrigue; even action. This was a revelation to me, since it suggested a pragmatic aspect to his system hitherto hidden to most readers, buried beneath the somewhat cynical poetics and pataphysics.
And yet, as this follow-up missive explained, I had not really received an email from “Jean Baudrillard,” even on the first occasion, but from his wife, Marine. As a result, I cannot be sure whether he dictated the original response to my book, or if he outsourced even the reading and criticism to his spouse. (An appropriate unknowability, given his penchant for simulation and simulacrum.) After all, a friend once reported that Baudrillard had become so bored during a Q&A session in Australia, back in the 1980s, that he left the room for over twenty minutes to have a cigarette, leaving his translator – who knew the drill from countless similar occasions – to give lengthy and detailed answers without him.
The one and only time I met Baudrillard in person was during his visit to the New School, which felt, at the time, like an especially messianic rock concert. The line to get into the auditorium trailed all the way down Sixth Avenue for several blocks. After all, this was a final opportunity to see one of the last remaining French Theorists in action; a legendary dinosaur in the flesh. While the heady poststructuralist days of the 1980s and 90s had passed, there was still a morbid curiosity to see the person responsible for such a ubiquitous and influential concept as “hyperreality”: the notion that modern media have created new, simulated maps of reality that supersede reality itself (Several years earlier, in response to an interviewer’s claim that “some here feel that the study of the humanities at our universities has been damaged by the incursion of deconstruction and other French theories,” Baudrillard had answered, “That was the gift of the French. They gave Americans a language they did not need. It was like the Statue of Liberty. Nobody needs French theory.”)
I had only recently been employed at the New School, and – on account of my enduring interest in his work – had been asked to be one of the four official respondents to Baudrillard’s paper (which was later published by Seagull Books, under the title, Carnival and Cannibal, Or The Play of Global Antagonism). My one stipulation upon accepting this honor was on no account was I to be the first respondent. I knew enough about Baudrillard’s style to avoid being the unofficial sacrifice for the evening. Sure enough, the first respondent – a colleague from Parsons School of Design – asked a sincere question about how people – especially artists – might make an effective critical intervention in today’s world. “Well,” he said, pausing in that typical Gallic way, forever oscillating between the higher and lower registers of a world-weary shrug. “First of all, I am not a therapist.” The auditorium exploded with laughter, before he attempted to steer the question to something he was willing to work with. My colleague then sat down again flustered (and no doubt justifiably annoyed), and I breathed a sigh of selfish relief. The sacrifice had been made. And I could proceed with more confidence.
* * *
Sacrifice plays an important role in Baudrillard’s thought, though I sometimes wonder whether this incident was somehow structurally gendered, rather than incidentally so. I’m reasonably sure, however – especially given my initial instincts about the risky formality of the evening – that I would have been just as readily dispensed with, and in just such a ritualistic fashion, had I been the first to take the microphone. Public figures, like people in general, can be complicated and less compassionate than we might like. In today’s terms, this situation would likely have come across as arrogant bullying; whereas at the time it felt, to me at least, more like a predictable cultural tic or affectation, given the French intellectual disdain for bourgeoise “American” concerns around ethics, or “being a good person.” Philosophy (or “outlaw sociology,” as the New School promotional copy described it), was, to this generation, a way of facing the more unpleasant, pagan, fatalistic forces of the world without flinching. An ethos which similarly seems to be going the way of the dinosaur – for better or ill – in 2018.
Indeed, to take Baudrillard’s work seriously today is to expose oneself to ridicule, contempt – even ostracism. But for this very reason, his name also has a subtle talismanic quality for a certain cross-section of those who came of age in the postmodern phantasmagoria of the late twentieth century. In his native France, Baudrillard himself was forever excluded from the inner circle of academic luminaries; shunned by the other members of the pantheon (especially after publishing his provocative pamphlet, Forget Foucault). More than in the university, his ideas were taken up in the art world, which Baudrillard seemed to welcome. (He was an accomplished photographer, and was also known to give spoken-word poetry performances with a live band, in unexpected places, like Las Vegas.) His book, America, was one part Hunter S. Thompson, one part Jonathan Swift, and one part J.G. Ballard. His fatally misunderstood concept of the hyperreal – which to him described a spectacle more real than the real, and not at all illusory; a map completely obscuring the territory – was the basis for the wildly popular film, The Matrix. (Though he would eventually point out the obvious fact that The Matrix was the kind of film that the Matrix would make about the Matrix. That is to say, a doubling down on hyperreal spectacle, rather than a true critique or subversion of it.) The common line on Baudrillard’s career is that while he made some early prescient observations on the “sign pollution” of postwar consumer culture, anchored in a weariness with Marxist orthodoxies, he soon devolved into a “philosopher clown” or even a high-brow troll. (This last accusation referring, no doubt, to his rather scandalous claim, at least on first blush, that “the Gulf War did not take place”: less a clumsy piece of fake news or conspiracy theorizing, than a logical extension of the hyper-mediated nature of contemporary warfare, beyond logic itself.)
For me, during my days as a PhD student in the mid-1990s, there was no-one I would rather read; no better guide to the post-apocalyptic mediascape that I found myself obliged to inhabit. Even as I found some of his ideas “problematic,” and some of his phrases maddeningly repetitive, there was a poetry and clarity to his vision of the world – nay, the cosmos! – that I found incredibly seductive. (His book on Seduction, as it happens, is one of his best.) Baudrillard was something like an ironic soothsayer, pointing out truths both historical and eternal, without shrinking from them, as most others seemed to do. Like a pre-millennial Nietzsche, he was less concerned with morals than a clear-eyed diagnosis, though he was unburdened by individual heroism or transcendence. I detected an impish humor there as well: a wry delight in the mischief he sprinkled along with his words; as if taking Oscar Wilde’s maxim at its word: “Life is too serious to take seriously.” Moreover, he seemed to have as little patience for the resentful left as for the craven right. Given the amount of time I spent with the challenging, alluring traces of his brain, it was quite surreal to actually find myself in his presence; no matter how fleeting. Perhaps there was such a thing as an “original” after all, complete with aura, and not just an infinite series of copies.
* * *
Last summer, a couple of years after receiving the unexpected email from “beyond the grave,” I found myself in Paris, and so contacted Baudrillard’s wife, Marine, to take her up on her generous offer to meet for a coffee. She wrote with the instruction to meet her at Select Café, which had apparently been “Jean’s favorite.” I sent her a photo of myself, so that she would recognize me, and she responded with a photo of herself holding a paper mask of a koala in front of her face. (Perhaps she somehow knew I am Australian?) Clearly Madame Baudrillard was a character, with an impish sense of humor of her own.
On the way to Café Select I visited Baudrillard’s grave in Montparnasse Cemetery. It took a long time to find. Indeed, he was not even listed on the laminated maps available near the front gate as one of the main graves of interest. I was obliged to ask the groundskeeper for Baudrillard’s eternal whereabouts, and the drowsy fellow drew a blank at the name. After thumbing slowly through an office copy of all the interned inhabitants, however, he finally gave me the coordinates. Even so, my wife, Merritt, and I walked past the plot itself several times before we found the modest headstone, and a few little souvenirs that other pilgrims had left. (Including some tiny plastic people, sitting among the site, as if enjoying a picnic.) Standing by Baudrillard’s terminal resting place, one of his most pithy quotes suddenly came to mind: “The cemetery no longer exists because modern cities have entirely taken over their function.” Death, he had observed elsewhere, was indeed the ultimate faux pas in our age of weaponized denial. It was thus in a pensive and subdued mood, weighed down by our shared mortality, that I waited in Café Select, nursing a glass of Suze, scrutinizing every middle-aged woman who entered for signs of prolonged proximity to genius.
Eventually, Marine arrived, bringing a new sense of vitality to the rather stiff establishment.
“No no,” she said immediately, “we must sit over here. This was Jean’s favorite table.”
The waiters began to treat us with a sudden sense of respect, as they helped us move our drinks. Marine had honey blonde curls, and astonishingly bright, glittering eyes. (I thought immediately of the title of one of Baudrillard’s books, Revenge of the Crystal.) She was wearing a bright red, looping necklace and long, dangling ear-rings in the shape of the scarecrow from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. I was immediately smitten.
Relying on a stuttering dialect of Franglais between us, I learned that “Jean” spent many hours at this table each day, “often with the young ladies.” (As she said this, Marine blinked her eyes theatrically, in an ageless impression of female groupies.) Marine herself, though only around ten years younger, had been one of his adoring students before becoming his secretary, editor, and perhaps, on occasion, even ghost-writer. She was the very embodiment of the “behind every great man” principle. I would have loved to know more about their working relationship, and to what extent Marine felt she was a co-conspirator, rather than – as some had depicted her – an unpaid personal assistant. But of course such a topic was out-of-the-question when meeting for the first time.
Marine confirmed, however, that she would print out any emails that she wanted Jean to read; and that he had a fax machine near the bed right up until the end. She also explained that my email to Jean’s ghost had not only been printed out, but framed, and now hung in the foyer of Chez Baudrillard, to welcome all visitors as they arrive. We talked quite a bit about Sylvere Lotringer, who had introduced Baudrillard to English speakers via his Semiotext(e) press, as well as Laurent de Sutter, one of the few Francophone public intellectuals still keeping Baudrillard’s flame alive today. We talked also about the festival that had just occurred in Paris, to mark the tenth anniversary of Baudrillard’s final fatal strategy. There had been music, readings, artistic interventions, and a fashion parade, with chic models wearing prints of his more famous texts. We parted feeling a wave of affection, but also a sense that our clumsiness in each other’s languages would, unfortunately, forever bar us from sharing any kind of nuanced sympathy.
* * *
Today, I can’t really read Baudrillard in any sustained way. It is too familiar, and reminds me too strongly of an epoch, and a version of myself, that I like to think I’ve left far behind. But if you took a sample of my blood, and put it under a microscope, you would find many of his most stimulating insights, floating around among the platelets and hemoglobin. (“Porn basically says: there is good sex somewhere, since I am its caricature” . . . “ Love exists, and that’s about it” . . . “Today we are all social workers. What is this social, that is no more than work?” . . . “We are no longer in the drama of alienation, we are in the ecstasy of communication” . . . “Seduction alone can put an end to the domination of one sex over the other.”)
In the age of Trump, however, dominated by the sinister and cynical media regime of what Adam Curtis calls Hypernormalization, we would do well to return to some of Baudrillard’s key insights. No doubt, were he still alive, I would read his new work, and find it grimly therapeutic. He would have made a charismatic ringmaster for what feels more like the End of Days than anything in the 1990s. (How quaint such “pre-millennial tension” seems today.) Surely his refusal to use the Internet helped him see more clearly its telegenic effect on all of us. (Along with his understanding that any medium is, in a certain sense, haunted; just as a “medium” was our conduit to the spirit world in Victorian times.)
In my first (naïve and dated) book – influenced by not only his ideas, but his style and spirit – I argued that Apollonian technologies, such as the computer, contained secret Dionysian traces, which I referred to as “the goat in the machine.” I like to think of Baudrillard as just such an old goat, still mocking us with a satyric swagger from beyond his own material demise; and still providing us with wise counsel, if we only had the courage to listen to it.
“Nothing is ever final,” Baudrillard once wrote. Nevertheless, “we must struggle against the possibility that we will not die.”
Dominic Pettman is Professor of Culture & Media at Eugene Lang College and the New School for Social Research.