Freedom

Chris Turner is a writer and translator. He has translated numerous books by Jean Baudrillard, the latest of which include The Intelligence of Evil (Berg Publishers, 2005) and Cool Memories V (Polity, 2006).

Baudrillard sculpture by Karen Caldicott.

Jean Baudrillard: striking against banality

France Culture announced Jean Baudrillard's death in its morning programme of 7 March, while broadcasting live from the Collège de France. When a group of assembled academics were asked to comment, the political scientist Pierre Rosanvallon mentioned The Consumer Society as the work that had first brought Baudrillard to public attention, a book he immediately coupled with George Perec's Les Choses. I don't know whether Rosanvallon had planned to make this particular connection or whether it emerged spontaneously when a microphone was pushed under his nose, but the coupling of Perec's sociologically-inspired fiction with the most "sociological" of Baudrillard's works is both strange and emblematic. It is strange because The Consumer Society is the least Baudrillardian of his productions (he was puzzled when Sage asked me ten years ago to translate it, dismissing it privately as a work "written for a commission"); it is, at the same time, emblematic of a relationship to the historical avant-garde and literary modernism that goes a long way to explaining Baudrillard's personal trajectory, and also his reception.

Few destinies – and Baudrillard certainly had a destiny – can have been lived out so thoroughly under the sign of paradox. He was for a considerable time a practising sociologist who freely admitted to never having interpreted reality in terms of "social logics" and, indeed, he presents at least four arguments in A l'ombre des majorités silencieuses for the non-existence of "the social". He has been regarded by many as the great thinker of postmodernity, but rarely if ever did he use the term and his work is incomprehensible without an understanding of its commitments to an uncompromising aesthetic modernism. He was hailed as the guru of the New York art world for a theory that he never actually propounded. He became a philosopher of considerable rigour, though ensnaring the fluidity of the real in concepts was always problematical for him (we may perhaps concede with Robert Maggiori that he was "a thinker of missions impossible", setting his own thought pataphysically to self-destruct whenever it verged on the systematic). He was largely judged, by friend and foe alike, on his analysis of contemporary social phenomena, yet his primary stated commitment was increasingly to writerly values and the seductive logic of language.

While his political perspective apparently consigned such manifestations to the dustbin of history, he could feel (and transmit down a telephone line) genuine glee at a transport strike that brought a few hours of conviviality to the streets of Paris. Amid a reality he regarded as emaciated almost to the point of disappearance, he retained, despite – or perhaps because of – his sense of the "melancholy poetry of things", a sunny disposition, at least until his last illness descended (nothing, he implied, had ever been quite so cruel as the cancer drugs that prevented him from thinking clearly; and at the end he was irritated that his most recent work, Les Exilés du dialogue, had not been reviewed in France: "they have already factored in my disappearance"). Most remarkably of all, few who knew him could get over the striking disparity between the sheer innocent charm of the man and his self-appointed mission to shatter the complacent banalities of our "realism" (my copy of Power Inferno, the follow-up to L'esprit du terrorisme, is inscribed, "A toi, Chris, la suite de l'"Esprit", pour quelques frissons de plus!")

He occasionally spoke of his life as describing an arc from the Wall Street Crash to the attack on the World Trade Center. His work described an arc that began with a critique of consumerism and Marxian productivism, then passed through an immense anthropological critique of Western civilization (L'�change symbolique et la mort), which freed him to engage in a cycle of dithyrambic theory-fictions that runs from Les strat�gies fatales in 1983 to The Intelligence of Evil of 2005. Under apparently cataclysmic pressures (the "murder" of reality by virtualization), social analysis here went over into Nietzschean pyrotechnics: "hypotheses aren't made to be verified," he wrote; "they are made to be pushed to their limits as hypotheses". While wrestling with what he conceded at times to be the difficulties of the essay form, he gravitated towards the fragment and the aphorism, modes of writing which he would describe as "not referential, but preferential". It is at least possible that what he sometimes called the "enigmatic empiricism" of the Cool Memories series, which runs alongside these theory-fictions (and alongside a convergent passion for photography, developed late in life and almost accidentally), will one day gain recognition as substantial literary works.

Which perhaps brings us back to Perec and the Collège de France. I was once chatting on the phone with Jean when the question of his university status came up (publishers ask translators to put such impertinent questions). It had always seemed to me that this rankled a little – he had often been passed over for advancement – and, to lighten the tone, I mentioned the title Richard Rorty had once coined for himself: Transitory Professor of Trendy Studies. After some to-ing and fro-ing and much laughter, Jean agreed that a Chair of Trendy Studies at the Coll�ège de France would be a fitting culmination to his unclassifiable academic career as "lowly" French academic and international intellectual superstar.

It was one year to the day after my mother died of the same cancer that Jean informed me of his illness. And on 6 March 2007, just before I learned of his death, my partner came in from work and said, "You'll never believe this, but I'm sure I've just seen Baudrillard taking photos in New Street." These are banal coincidences: they are of the order of arithmetic and mistaken identity. The genuinely "enigmatic" is something else: to achieve it was one of the highest aims of a certain artistic avant-garde, the literary modernism of the first decades of the twentieth century. Then it was part of a project to revitalize civilization, to reshape life through art and politics. It was also about enlightenment (though not, of course, in thrall to the Enlightenment). We have perhaps a more pessimistic diagnosis of our plight today and more modest hopes of extricating ourselves from it. Baudrillard wrote that "the world was given to us as something enigmatic and unintelligible, and the task of thought is to make it, if possible, even more enigmatic and unintelligible." This is not an easy programme and those who wish to pursue it have a hard act to follow.

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