[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Jean Baudrillard in the Mountains, or Modern Communication and the Disappearance of Art and Politics

(a conference at the University of Montana, 11-13 May 1989)

Michel Valentin
Foreign Language & Literature
University of Montana

Hypercirculation kills the bird in the same way as too much hyperventilation kills the mind.

Nevertheless, in the Last Best Place (this anti-thesis of Disney World) as in any small town of the West, things get constantly re-hashed. Missoula is no Twin Peaks, but for a few days, it was billed by the local press as "an intellectual Woodstock" which attracted an audience from hundreds of miles around. One Great Falls teacher even left his high school classes, some came from Eastern [Montana College] in Billings, others from the State University in Bozeman. Cowboy poets, Earth Firsters, organic farmers, students, new-age yippies, retirees from the Sun Belt, neo-liberals, New York intellectuals, and Canadian professors shared the good air of Missoula and what's left of the '60s atmosphere (elevation 4000 feet, population 40,000); if it were not for the winter temperature inversion typical of mountainous valleys, Missoula could qualify as station climatique. And all this while the waters of the great spring thaw were rushing down the Clarks Fork River at Hellgate Canyon by the old, besieged battle-ship of the University, task force of the State of Montana, with its service-worn, older crew anchored and sheltered at the foot of Mount Sentinel, under its protective M. A good and merry time was had by all and never was so little money ($8000) so wisely spent. (Even the jocks in the fieldhouse lodged a complaint with the President.)

But even in the most sheltered situations, such as the one offered by academia and Missoula, if one agrees with the tenets of the proponents of the Last-Best-Place hypothesis, one cannot avoid the changes introduced by the most radical discontinuities which are presently taking place in the history of consciousness, especially since the edge of sociocultural change is no longer the province of modernity. One cannot also use the production of writing (as nature or as politically aware or even progressive writing) as an alibi to ignore the disturbing turn of events. What in other times could provide, up to a certain point, a critique of capitalism and the Institution, has now become fully integral with the production of commodity and signs as, for instance, esthetic production.

The great Occidental systems of thought (which theoretically and practically ground Occidental societies) are not considered to be pure, universal, and uncontaminated by cultural bias any longer, since they proved inadequate in formulating any type of viable solution to the agonizing challenges and excruciating changes brought about by otherness and difference, industry and technology. As Montaigne would say, a grand, general, theoretical limping exists. Partly as an "exploratory answer" to the immense questions posed by difference and otherness, identity and change, a new discursive, textual practice has emerged.

Based on the "nihilistic" philosophy of Nietzsche, structural linguistics, Marxism, Lacanian-Freudian theories, poststructuralist thinking and semiology, this new set of discourses and theoretical practices radically operates in such a way that language turns upon itself. Because it is believed that the key to contemporary problems is contained in this way, the Occidental (classical and even "modern") traditional use of language has forcefully established a very constraining and reductionist relationship between objectivity and subjectivity.

Jean Baudrillard, a sociologist, a political thinker, a tourist-as-theorist, and at times a terrorist, is currently the French philosopher most widely read by American artists. An editor of Verso Press (England) said that America was one of their best successes ever in the U.S., which contrasts sharply with the reactions of many critics, who have poorly understood what Baudrillard had to say./1/

It is true that in the tennis game of lopsided, back-handed strikes played (and still being played) over the Channel between the English language and the French language and over the "Atlantean" abyss separating the continental culture from the culture of the New World, between the modernity of Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and French-Latin lyrical complexity, fair play has often the tendency to take French leave.

Since de Tocqueville, French thinkers have been fascinated with America. The Baudrillard phenomenon and effect is the last avatar of this fascination. Theory was done in Europe and praxis was enacted in America; each a bit on its own, ignorant of each other. But praxis in this case existed before theory which only came a posteriori.

As a consequence, praxis used to come slowly to Europe which then sent theory to America in order to stay informed of its relevancy, which often gives European thinkers the aspect of "verifiers" or "know betters," often irritating U.S. sensitivities. Europe always tried to stick to its role of the "Master signifier": from Freud to the Frankfurt School (in fact didn't its members, fleeing Nazism, bring philosophy to the U.S.?), from the structuralists to the so-called invasion of American academe by French post-structuralists appropriated by U.S. deconstructionists, received a counter-bent, for safety reasons perhaps./2/

If the French official cultural scene seems to be repulsed by the U.S.'s octopus-like sprawling of "imperialist television horrors" such as the soap-opera Dallas, it nevertheless sponsored an international symposium on the phenomenon complete and replete with U.S. show business and intellectual celebrities jetted in on Concorde to Paris, at the expense of the French taxpayer. One may wonder why. One possible answer is provided by the work of Jean Baudrillard.

The artist scene in New York or San Francisco, especially the one dubbed postmodern or simulationist, is very much aware of the seminal importance of Jean Baudrillard's work, which gives critical acumen to the multi-faceted aspect of post-modern arts.

It seems that, in America, the majority of social critics and political thinkers have been unable (except for a few cases such as Marshall McLuhan, or Vance Packard, or even Wilson Bryan Key's restrictive studies of "Subliminal Manipulation") to come forth with a general grand theory and make the necessary connections, taking into account the tremendously important impact of the role and effect of the media or video and TV images on everything and especially on what political, social, and cultural analysts used to take for granted: that is to say, from the way key notions such as "reality," "nature," and "objectivity" are conceptualized, to the manner in which the notion of "masses" (important in politics, advertising, merchandising, etc.) is being implemented.

Jean Baudrillard is the theoretician-analyst of the disappearance of the real, of reality which has dissolved and still is dissolving itself, as in a filmic swipe or dissolve, into simulation and hyper-reality. Among other things, it is mainly the result, as production, of the transformative operations performed on representation (images) by cinema, TV, video, advertising, computer-aided (or -assisted) design, by the flood of mass-produced images experienced as commodity icons which merge with the implied reality of cash flow. The numerous articles on the subject in the Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory give a good illustration of what is at stake at all levels. The process is irreversible and will ultimately change all that we used to stand for, as well as what we used to be, more surely and more radically than the revolutions brought about by the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Among other things, politics will never be the same (and can it be the same, even if it wants to stay the same?), especially in a system in which desire is mobilized towards one temporary fetish image after another.

This can still be inscribed within a critical, Marxist analysis, but at a higher level of "resolutions and definition" as the recent accelerated events of Eastern Europe have indeed shown through a series of very "Baudrillardian moments." In order to escape the more and more pressing contradictions brought about by the weight of the problems of modern societies, the increasingly horrifying disparities between the First World and the Developing World and the acceleration of its technological changes, post-industrial, post-modern capitalism is mutating into a higher order of production. Here production is no longer production as such but the production of a simulation of production, where production becomes reproduction and presentation, representation. It is as if the grand narrative of capitalism (if one wanted to give it this name) had taken an inward turn, a self-reflexive move, accelerating the floating away of values, facts, and effects which traditionally anchored the social on first ground, or so it seemed. The means defines the goal, and the goal justifies the means. This "accelerated move" is both the project of capitalism as the answer to the challenges of socialism and, at the same time, the result of the ways technology works upon "reality," especially human actuality. For instance, Paul Virillio maps out the qualitative and quantitative changes brought about by the acceleration of speed and its spin-off in the domain of perception.

Baudrillard exemplifies the nature of their impact on human affairs by constantly adding the prefix "trans-" to the object of analysis (echoing the word "trance," but also underlining the actuality of the "passage beyond" and the qualitative change as in "transformation," hence the words trans-former, trans-lation, trans-vestite). Referents and signs are more and more separated, divorced from what they refer to. The gap between the thing and its name or image (representation) is not only widening, but in many cases has been severed, which, among other things, provokes acute reactions of panic (such as the fundamentalist religious movements). During the conference, questions arose, not about a reified conception of the revolution or what constitutes the new proletariat, but the nature of a new political (dis-) order in which the differences begin to resemble each other more than similarities.

That is to say, what was called reality, or "the being," or what was considered as such by the purveyors of the real, across the political and ideological gamut have been destroyed, or, at least, have disappeared, sublimated into vapor, simulation, images, holograms, which are increasingly losing their connections with what they are supposed to refer to or used to refer to, i.e., the product, as hidden ideological construct of the operations of a metaphysics of nature and essence based on a positivist, utilitarian and functional conception of language (born out of the modernist movements which started with the Enlightenment). It yields transformations, which have as correlatives effects working exactly against, or at least subverting things such as the intangibility of presence, authenticity, immediacy, as illustrated by countless examples from classical humanists to liberal politicians and traditional Marxists. And these effects affect everything (even to the point of transformation) from the perception (representation) of one's sexual identity to the nature of work, and the status of nature; this primary signifier, of importance in Montana, gives an especially over-determined aspect to the visit of Baudrillard to the University of Montana in Missoula, which is the home, at the same time, of people who may have a diverging understanding of the concept "nature," such as Earth First people and Forestry students who are going to work for timber companies.

The signs are found to be emptier and emptier (were they ever full, even partially?) or are floating away from their traditional points of anchoring, and they can no longer divert us from the facts that they were trying to hide, which is perhaps the true death (so much heralded by Nietzsche) of the Godhead as far as its representation goes.

The seat of power is (and was) not only vacant but void. The king had not been wearing clothes all that time. But we must admit that it took the conjugated deconstructionist work of Derrida and the de-appropriative efforts of Foucault to uncover the elusiveness of any cover-up and the fallacy of any essentializing moves.

As Poe had already shown us, more or less cryptically, the old letter was only inside out. Another French letter tell-tale. It was just a question of knowing how to read the palimpsest of the symbolic covering the "human nature" in order to recover what is already covered up, i.e., undecipherable and unnamable. Even the old classical Greek metaphor is no longer possible and no longer works or more exactly is becoming increasingly irrelevant. The proliferation of signs, their empire, the extension of the referential dimension of language to any nooks and crannies of "reality" have pre-empted any possible "encounter," except at the level of a hyper-dimensionality, a hyper-real, a tangle of increasingly seducing mediations and an endless process of the unlimited differentiation of the habitable (and inhabitable) world, exacerbating alienation and solitude to a quasi-unbearable level, but also opening up to possibilities and potentialities yet to be imagined. This madness of sign-system differentiation and over-inscription which qualifies modern and post-modern culture happens to be more revolutionary than the most revolutionary consciousness so far devised in addition to seemingly "relegating" the "Revolution" (in its now classical Marxist, traditionally political meaning) to a mere emblematic place and stage of the whole process of evolution towards modernity itself. And this is where Baudrillard meets his critics, especially fro the traditional left. "The times are a-changing," Bob Dylan used to sing. And the walls cannot keep up with what they were supposed to keep out or separate. Their "closing up function" does not operate any longer as it used to./3/

Too often, in the U.S. as well as in Europe, Baudrillard's critique of traditional ideologues, who were often shown to be very much off-course by events, especially when dealing with the complex "realities" that lie at the intersections of the pluralities of the modes and effects of post-modern societies, has been misunderstood as an apology of the ideology of consumerist, post-industrial, post-modern capitalism.

Bringing Baudrillard to the West, and its Last Best Place--the spine of the North American continent, epitomized by the home town of the University of Montana and the Northern Rockies Institute (as well as to deliciously left-over relics of the sixties Zeitgeist) started as a challenge. This challenge turned into an academic show worthy of the intellectual power-houses of the East or West coast. Never before, perhaps, had the Ivy League of the Rockies more deserved its name, with the exception of the tenure of Leslie Fiedler.

Thirty participants from Canada and the U.S. gathered around Baudrillard, Sylvere Lotringer of Semio(text) from Columbia University, Arthur and MariLouise Kroker from The Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory (Montreal) and Ron Silliman from the magazine Socialist Review (San Francisco). The participants delivered papers around topics dealing, directly or indirectly, with the work of Jean Baudrillard from the perspective of Culture and Mediascape, Geo-Graphy, Critical Theory and Space, Media Technology and Postmodern Communication, Detachment and Desire, America, Women/Woman, Play, Pataphysics or Hyper-reality and Panic U.S.A.

Baudrillard delivered the University of Montana Presidential Lecture Series address within a conference format entitled, "Transpolitics, Transsexuality, Transaesthetics" and Ron Silliman delivered the response. Arthur and MariLouise Korker presented "Panic U.S.A.," a multi-format event with video and texts and Sylvere Lotringer responded. The performative dimension of this conference on post-modernism was given by video and film presentation and discussion by Carel Rowe from East Carolina University and a dance performance by Joe Goode Dance Company of San Francisco. Eugene Chad-Bourne was the performing musical artist. The Conference concluded with a Faculty Development Seminar conducted by Sylvere Lotringer speaking on "Media and Terrorism," with the participation of Jean Baudrillard. As a post-conference celebration, Michel Maffesoli, of the renowned international magazine Societe, read a paper before the Missoula Chapter of the Alliance Francaise, entitled "The Imaginary and Daily Life." A book with a selection of the conference proceedings will be published by St. Martin's Press in Spring 1991. Jean Baudrillard back to Missoula and Montana before the next fiscal year? Why not?

"Since the world drives to a delirious state of things, we must drive to a delirious point of view."/4/


  1. See for instance Robert Hughes's article, "The Patron Saint of Neo-Pop" (The New York Review, 1 June 1989), and John Welchman's "Here, there, and otherwise" (Art-forum, October 1988), James Markham's "Is America Perfect?" (The New York Times, 12 December 1988), or even the more astute reading of J. Hoberman in The Voice Literary Supplement (March 1989), "Lost in America," which nevertheless makes of Baudrillard "the poet laureate of Reagan's reign."[Back]

  2. A Newsweek article sketching the work of Jacques Derrida and deconstructionism labels Paul De Man's work as being "a decidedly nihilistic theory of life."[Back]

  3. The postmodern "loss" of subjectivity as the end of the political space and the politics of visual space as the very same demise of self-undoing of the subject recognize a fundamental loss of innocence, or of reference, in relation to the linguistic sign, whether this is experienced as cause for celebration or lament. Jacqueline Rose, "Sexuality and Vision: Some Gesture," in Vision and Visuality, edited by Hal Foster (Seattle: Dia Art Foundation Bay Press, 1988).[Back]

  4. J. Baudrillard, The Transparence of Evil.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 1.1, Winter 1991 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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