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Baudrillard The Outsider

Recently received an excellent new book on Jean Baudrillard, confirming his status (ten years after his death) as an ‘outsider’ in French (and international) culture. The book is Jean Baudrillard: The Disappearance of Culture: Uncollected Interviews, edited by Richard G. Smith and David B. Clarke. It is published in paperback by Edinburgh University Press. Here is my review.

Whatever happened to Jean Baudrillard? The ‘real’ Jean Baudrillard died from cancer in March 2007. Yet always with Baudrillard there is ‘hyperreality’, as he so accurately termed it. Born in 1929, a year of catastrophe for capitalism as he reminds us in this compelling book of interviews and conversations, Baudrillard became a legendary global celebrity intellectual superstar during his lifetime. In other words, he became part of what he refers to as the hyperreal. His memory and legacy live on in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. He disappeared for a time from the world’s gaze in 2007 but in 2017 he is more important to the social sciences and humanities than ever before even though he remains, forever, an ‘outsider’.

This European summer there was a festival in Paris called Jean Baudrillard: Street One which culturally marks ten years since his passing and which was attended by his widow Marine Baudrillard along with many international Baudrillard scholars. I was asked to speak but could not get there from Australia in time for the scheduled event. Baudrillard remains vital in our intellectual culture though. Posthumously the Baudrillard estate has published several groundbreaking books, all of which are crucial to our understanding of the full maturity of Baudrillard’s thought which spans the 1950s (when he wrote a little book on Pataphysics) to today. Then there are the new publications about him which still, thankfully, keep on coming. The book under review is a new edited collection of Jean Baudrillard interviews and discussions and ranges in content from the 1960s to the 2010s. The book is all about ‘disappearance’, especially of ‘culture’ and ‘politics’, but also of Baudrillard himself. His great friend Paul Virilio developed an ‘aesthetics of disappearance’ in his own oeuvre, but Baudrillard’s radical notions differ significantly from the Virilian perspective as these uncollected interviews reveal so well. As the editors of the book note in a wonderful introduction called Baudrillard Unplugged, in many ways Baudrillard set up his own disappearance several times in his life and even after his death. As the book’s first interview shows Baudrillard was lecturing at the University of Nanterre in 1968 when the May 68 events broke out. The long discussion with others about May and June 1968, printed here in this volume, is simply riveting and highlights Baudrillard’s personal concerns of the late 1960s, soon to be jettisoned. He stayed at Nanterre for twenty years, eventually leaving French academia in the mid-1980s. In the mid-1970s he had written Forget Foucault which when published had landed him (eventually) in trouble with Michel Foucault himself. Moreover, it certainly cut him off from much of the intellectual class in France as he started to write and produce theory differently from anyone else on the planet, much of which he reflexively discusses in this book of interviews. The mid-1970s were a watershed but there were more disappearances. After leaving university life in 1986 he used his 1980s ‘disappearance’ to publish myriad works of theoretical brilliance until his death in 2007, all in the name of a radical outsider not a university intellectual. Even death did not sting Baudrillard, and the posthumously published work is a riveting body of writing and talking worth investigating on its own terms, and, read alongside these interviews, particularly illuminating for its cultural links to our mad, mad, mad, mad world of Trumpland.

Richard G. Smith and David B. Clarke, colleagues in Human Geography at Swansea University, researched and edited this excellent book which has conversations first conducted in 1968 to the last interview published in 2014. Entitled Jean Baudrillard: The Disappearance of Culture: Uncollected Interviews, it is part of Edinburgh University Press’ ‘Uncollected Baudrillard’ books project, all involving its pioneer Richard G. Smith. The very idea of ‘Uncollected Baudrillard’ is fascinating and the outcome of this innovative publishing venture is a global expansion of material for Baudrillard Studies and a new way to interpret a theorist who was once upon a time dismissed by all and sundry and sacrificed on the pyre of postmodernism. The teaching of Jean Baudrillard across many different disciplines all over the globe, from Cultural Politics to International Politics, will be enhanced by this superb book.

Richard Smith and David Clarke have excavated some real gems in these interviews. Throughout the book Baudrillard is revealed for what he was – a singular man and singular theorist. There are many memorable throwaway lines on other theorists who were part of the culture of French theory in Baudrillard’s lifetime, such as Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jacques Derrida both of whom Baudrillard knew well. We also learn here, perhaps surprisingly, that Baudrillard was a staunch fan of the work of fellow theorists like Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Zizek, in Zizek’s case picking out Welcome to the Desert of the Real! as a favourite book. Baudrillard talks in these interviews about his own changes of direction, especially after he left university life. He speaks about the controversial Cool Memories volumes and America, explaining their importance in terms of Baudrillard’s trajectory from the late 1980s until his death and maintaining that these new directions and new ways of writing theory were deliberate and conscious moves away from what he saw as restrictive discourses which he worked within until he composed the ground breaking book Symbolic Exchange and Death in 1976. As a Baudrillard scholar I have not seen many of these uncollected interviews before and as an obsessive completist I am left waiting with baited breath for the next ‘Uncollected Baudrillard’. Baudrillard’s own disappearance from many of today’s most important theoretical debates is partly because of the decline of discussions about the postmodern condition for which he inadvertently became a symbolic figure. As this book of interviews demonstrates, which includes his robust denial of postmodernism, Baudrillard, far from being wedded to postmodernism, foresaw the long-term crisis of neoliberalism, the global financial recession of 2007/8, the international decline of the left and the inexorable rise of the right better than most contemporary theorists. His work remains as necessary as ever.