Richard G Smith and David B Clarke
Jean Baudrillard: From Hyperreality to Disappearance: Uncollected Interviews
Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2015. 224pp., £19.99 pb
Reviewed by Jeff Heydon
Jeff Heydon is adjunct professor of media studies at the Communication Studies Department, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Department of Arts, Culture and Media and the Institute of Communication, Culture and Information Technology, University of Toronto. His primary research area is surveillance, policing and media theory (email@example.com).
From Hyperreality to Disappearance collects 23 interviews Baudrillard gave to a variety of sources between 1990 and 2011. Some conversations are with writers from popular magazines, some with investigative journalists and some are with other academics. The questions range from the naïve to the probing and the depth of the conversations varies wildly from one interview to the next. There are general musings on television and the Internet alongside more complex debates regarding his positions on simulation and reality. There are ruminations on the elevation of the extreme right in France at the end of the 1980s (38), and, at long last, an evaluation of the Matrix film series (179-180).
The work is often very reflective. In an interview with Judith Williamson, Baudrillard muses,
What I mean is that traditionally, critical thought, analytical thought, has always needed a system of reference, and I had some for a long time – Marx, Freud and so on, like many others, and I had older references like Nietzsche, Hölderlin – then after a while I thought that one had to jump, to pass over the other side of the line and lose a sense of reference in order for one’s thought to be more a projection, an anticipation. (29)
This ‘projection’ is already very much in play at the beginning of this text, and is the continuing thread throughout. Baudrillard repeatedly makes reference to his influences and his contemporaries as they come up in conversation, but the progression from his source material to his own fluid thinking is apparent from the outset. There is a theoretical thread to the text, but its overwhelming author is Baudrillard himself. His thinking follows from the the way in which each interviewer challenges him, and it is the primary source he uses in answering each question. References to supporting sources are normally made as he is working through how best to answer each new request for clarification.
There is an element of inaccessibility to the text. There are moments when, if you are familiar with Baudrillard’s work, a guilty pleasure sets in. Reading through the questions and his answers, an advanced knowledge of his work gives one the impression of understanding a sequence of inside jokes made at a dinner party. It is impossible not to be amused, but you find yourself looking nervously around the table to make sure that no one is left out of the subtext. In short, this book is not for the uninitiated. Even in refuting the interviewer’s interpretation of his work, Baudrillard assumes a familiarity with his writing, and this presumption would be enough to leave the unfamiliar out of their depth. The scope of Baudrillard’s theories covered and the segment of his life between the first interview and the last is, to be polite, vast. These two elements make this volume a must read for those already devoted to Baudrillard’s work.
It is crucial to emphasize the point that this would be exactly the wrong text to give to someone who is not familiar with Baudrillard’s theories. There are overtures to sections on simulacrum and simulation, hyperreality, the mediasphere, Jarry’s pataphysics and ‘the virtual’ here, but they do not provide an accurate assessment of Baudrillard’s thinking on these subjects. This is not a criticism of the text , as it would be impossible for interviews to cover the breadth of these topics. Moreover, one could forgive an uninitiated reader for thinking that Baudrillard mentions these subjects only in order to cross them off some sort of conversational ‘to do’ list. If the reader has a background in Baudrillard’s thinking, however, these smaller overtures do add colour to existing impressions of his thinking. Even his repeated rejections of the label ‘postmodern’ allow for a framing of his own mindset in terms of his research.
Where does Baudrillard think he fits in the history of philosophy? Does he see himself as an academic, as a writer, as an activist, or some combination of those or other labels? In an interview with Galleries Magazine, Baudrillard says, “I make no claim to the title of philosopher. The history of ideas doesn’t interest me; it’s had no determining influence on me. I may have written a few conventional analyses … But then it turned into something else.” (57).
This ambiguity is a recurring theme throughout. The degree to which Baudrillard accepts the title of philosopher changes from one conversation to another and it is interesting to see under which circumstances he will either decline or accept the label.
The interview format does produce a reflexive window into Baudrillard that is harder to find in his other writings. Parallel to the question of his professional title, the question of whether he is ever really taken seriously by other academics or the academy in general comes up a number of times and it is interesting to read his take on things (121). At intervals, he dismisses his own previous arguments as no longer relevant (95). His musings about American culture as compared to European culture are also instructive and, more often than not, the questions demanded of his earlier writings on these subjects from a variety of perspectives allow him to flesh-out some of the earlier ambiguities in his work.
It is interesting to read Baudrillard engage with his critics and work through their interpretation of his ideas. His conversations with Judith Williamson (29-37) and Ray Boyne and Scott Lash (61-75) are particularly compelling. They provide a window into the kind of thinker Baudrillard was and how he saw himself as fitting into the matrix of French philosophical work in the latter half of the twentieth century. He is given the ability to defend himself, to challenge the assumptions of the interviewers, and to work his thinking around the preconceptions of a variety of critics and contemporaries. A significant number of the questions are calls for clarity and this results in a great deal of personal analysis on Baudrillard’s part. His frustration with being labelled comes through (47), as does his awareness of a general rejection in academic communities and a concurrent embrace on the part of the artistic world.
The range of time covered is particularly compelling. The interviews stretch from 1990 to 2011. The reader is able to trace the progression of Baudrillard’s thought and the evolution of his interpretations in all of these conversations and it personalizes his thinking to a significant degree. It also helps paint the picture of a theorist who allowed his thinking to evolve over time. There is a flow to the reasoning and the arguing that seems to run from one interview to the next. One part of that flow is undoubtedly the editorial skill of Smith and Clarke, but it is also evidently the way Baudrillard worked.
Consequently, the value of this text really is in the mapping of Baudrillard’s thinking – both in the moment and over the course of his life. Interviewers bring up his existing theories and work through the finer points with him. Areas of focus in early chapters are dismissed as being unimportant in later chapters not because the pursuit of those questions was foolish in the beginning but because the subject has evolved. It is necessary to reassess the importance of different elements in these arguments and to attempt to address those old problems in a new light. This text is a window into the life of Baudrillard – of what it was like to work through the problems that he did and to (perhaps regularly) offend the sensibilities of more traditional thinkers.
Baudrillard has a complicated reputation in critical circles. One might describe him as a Marmite thinker; there are those who love his work and there are those who dismiss it entirely. He readily admits that he has never been fully accepted by the French academy and appears to both resent and relish his peripheral position in French intellectual culture (189). For media theorists like myself, he has been crucial to our understanding of the sociocultural importance and influence of duplication and simulation. Other than McLuhan, it is difficult to think of another philosopher who has had a more prescient understanding of what electronic media does and what it would mean to all of us moving forward. None of these things are fully explained in From Hyperreality to Disappearance, but it is difficult to come away from this text without a new appreciation for the forming of those theories and their demonstrated evolution over time.
This is an excellent companion for the initiated. There is an opportunity to read into the person who produced books like Simulacra and Simulation and The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Smith and Clarke have produced a text that was an absolute joy to read for a Baudrillard fan, while also improving my understanding of his work and my appreciation of his abilities.
6 July 2016