With Jean Baudrillard in Paris

With Jean Baudrillard in Paris

by Nina Zivancevic

Jean Baudrillard is in John Lechte’s book of “50 contemporary key-thinkers”. His analyses of the processes of seduction, consumerism in society and potential downfall of our civilization caused by the disappearance of humanism have become legendary. Baudrillard has recently devoted his time to photography and has been successful at it as well. We find him after the opening of his show at La Maison de la Photographie in Paris.

Nina Zivancevic: Let us start from the present moment – what are you working on right now, at the present moment?

Jean Baudrillard: Well, there are still residues of the writing I started some time ago, “Cool Memories”, there is also a book I am working on with an architect Jean Nouvelle, then I am working on a script for a film “Password”, but these are not real books. “The Impossible changes” was the last book I really worked on and then, I’ve been trying to reconstruct certain material after that book but it is not easy to go back, that is to reconstruct material from the past and especially from the seminar that I conducted with my students. I am also interested now in the subject of photography.

Nina Zivancevic: When does it start – your love for the photography?

Jean Baudrillard: Well, it is a belated interest in my life, it has started perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, but I did not have precise projects with it – well, there was an Object, not a project, and when there’s an object it always attracts my attention. I have always been fascinated by the images…a Japanese person had offered me a camera and I started playing with it, than I was caught by that game, but I am far from being a professional. Then, once you exhibited something, that creates the whole new situation, the whole notion of spontaneity and pleasure disappears, as there is this “big show” that you have to prepare for, then you are obliged to sell something, and oops! The institution is already there! So the question arises is can I count on the production of something that was initially just a pleasure to me. At any rate, as far as photography is concerned it is not something marginal for me any longer, it turned into something else. I started doing it in order to take a break from writing, but little by little I started speaking about it, even writing about it, so now these are two activities given to me. I’ve undergone some sort of metamorphosis, I employ some sort of theory in creating images themselves – these two processes have nothing to do with each other – taking photos and writing about them but they come together in the end.

Nina Zivancevic: Has this process had anything to do with your trips to the U.S. and the primarily visual culture of that country?

Jean Baudrillard: Yes, it’s had, a lot. Some time ago I had published a book called “America” with a friend, which was meant to have images as well, but finally I decided to keep only text in it. But it is true that my photography is connected to my trips, above all, to my trips to the U.S. And then, there are my “notebooks” (Cool Memories) which are also related to the same period as the photos – to the 1980s and 1990s. I feel I exhausted these memories now, I exhausted my interest to keep going in that direction, as I also travel more to Latin America now and less to the U.S. I am still writing my notebooks but I don’t get the same inspiration like I did before, there isn’t the same breath of freshness. So, the notebooks have changes but at the same time my photos changed as well – in the beginning those were exclusively the photos from the journeys, and if you take a look at my current show you will notice that the subject changed. It is not so much that these new photos are all that intimate, but they belong to the universe which is closer to me – there are portraits, etc.

Nina Zivancevic: How did it come that you started putting fragments together that will be known later as “Cool Memories”?

Jean Baudrillard: Oh, all this really started happening when I was visiting the desert for the first time in the 1980s. I started the trip from New Orleans and I visited all the great deserts of Texas, and I wrote there 15 pages or something like that, then I continued with this completely new mode of writing. First of all, there was this idea of the mirage in the desert, simulacra, desert became a metaphor in itself, metaphor for landscapes, events, situations…I enlarged this idea of geography, so New York City became the desert as well, some sort of empty background for the events, for a certain radicality which is neither culture nor nature. At any rate, there was no certain project with these fragments and I gave myself a date, which is the year 2000 when I wanted to stop with the “Memories”. I continued to write down the notes but these are notes which will serve me for more theoretical projects.

Nina Zivancevic: I liked in particular your “Fatal Strategies” as I find your writing there theoretical but at the same time quite lyrical.

Jean Baudrillard: Yes, I agree, the book has certain qualities which were not, unfortunately recognized in France but rather elsewhere.

Nina Zivancevic: Yes, it is a strange phenomenon that your work has first gained a certain resonance abroad: an American has written preface for your French edition of “The Consumer’s Society”. Then, on the other hand, one of your favorite subjects has been the difference between European and American societies; you yourself, somewhat like Foucault and Derrida have often lectured in the U.S. Why have all of you gone outside of France to gain certain visibility?

Jean Baudrillard: Well, it was not a strategy – neither “fatal” nor banal, I was interested in going elsewhere to gain certain experiences. I don’t even see myself as a teacher, I avoid Universities for that matter – I certainly did not go there to “enlighten” people so to speak, for me it was a great period of traveling, but I found myself at the universities – which have been the places of experiment to me, places where I could test some of my theories which I had been developing. They are more like a mirror to me, a certain laboratory where one can experiment with given ideas. It is true though that at the French universities, after the 60s and the 70s, the situation became somewhat stagnant – there is not exactly an intellectual field to operate within. It has been devoured by technical activities and computer science, and finally by certain ideology. Or, if you like, by certain anti-ideology; there is not even the field of personal rivalries but rather a consensus of critiques that try to destroy radically what has been done before, so we talk about things like “death of a subject”, etc., but it is important to notice that there was SOMETHING, a certain body of things to be destroyed. Nowadays, there is even nothing to destroy, there isn’t even a certain negativity to destroy as everything was eaten up by the work of media, by the newspapers and things do not even have time to exist, they are immediately performed, acted out, or they disappear as soon as they appear. There is a sort of revisionism, settling the accounts of historical facts, yes, we are in fact in the era of revisionism, certain devitalisation or lobotomization, which upsets me a lot. In fact, I have always felt lonely here, I have worked alone, except for the glorious years of the 60s and the 70s when there were many reviews and magazines where one was able to publish his ideas. Today the situation is quite different – one is either institutionalized, or finds one’s little hole, or joins mediatization to promote his own career. But great singular events we don’t have any longer. Whether we’ll be able to change things or not, I don’t know, because everything goes through the process of “acting out things” or computerization.

Nina Zivancevic: Well, one does not even have to be Heidegger to understand that is very difficult to penetrate the communication wall imposed on us by certain machines.

Jean Baudrillard: Yes, in fact, what we have now is a sort of mental machinery which produces a sort of “black out” of the negative thought and critique and we could even claim the presence of a certain retrospective of devalorisation and disqualification of thinking. This is not something only intellectual, it is also very political, this attempt at revising the events and rehabilitating them. We hear every so often people complaining about revisionism and fundamentalism in different societies, but WE ARE living in such society, in a very conformist society of the one-dimensional thinking, and I see clearly now, that there are things I cannot even discuss, it is not even possible to find words to describe the deficiencies. There is a prevailing way of thinking which is not even intellectual, it is political and you cannot do anything against it, so all of a sudden, I fell into a category of an impostor, a reactionary, a sexist if you like…I was condemned, well, not officially, but I noticed the negative attitude of people from the “Liberation” newspaper, for instance…

Nina Zivancevic: Well, I detected a certain negative sentiment towards the people of the left, they condemned Sartre as well…

Jean Baudrillard: Yes, they are trying now to settle the accounts. There is an intellectual climate more pleasant and of a better nature in Brazil, Japan, in Italy and even in England – than here in France. I believe that France is a country that exhausted its intellectual ‘capital’, although people collectively live here with a certain reputation that has been here for centuries so we believe that our thought is the best but that’s not true at all, and we even know it. So, I am living a funny reality – on one hand I live here and I don’t participate in an interesting reality and then I go abroad and live reality of people who admire French thought but the one which is definitively over. So we find a certain intellectual difference between the countries which comes perhaps from the difference imposed by the different time-tables between the continents.

Nina Zivancevic: To get back to new mythologies: you have written that a washing machine is a sign of commodity, but what is the case with the computer – and the whole notion of Internet – do you see it as a commodity as well, or as an object which has changed qualitatively our society?

Jean Baudrillard: I personally have no interest in it as I am not using its memory, files, etc. But I would agree that there is something in it that escapes our simple notion of an object and commodity with the computer. Even when I was using the notion of “washing machine” I was not simply concerned with its function, I treated it at the level of signs which changes the notion of a machine as a banal, technical object. With the computer though and virtual reality that goes with it, I think there is a real mutation, the universe of the virtual is another dimension, I don’t know whether it is the fourth dimension, but it is a dimension which erases other dimensions – dimensions of the real, of its representation and the one of its discourse. I have abandoned in this case the discourse which is critical and ironic, and negative – it is not even worth asking a question: what is it? It is there, it exists and it means that we will have an ever growing computerisation.

Nina Zivancevic: How is it going to change human relationships? Are we aware of such influence?

Jean Baudrillard: To a great extent, I can imagine, however, to me, it is an easy way of solving the problem. We are able to create a universe which moves into all directions where we can recreate for ourselves multiple identities, a universe where we’d navigate with the derivative all the time..Well, for me, all that interests me is really gone, but I cannot make a cult of the “lost object” and live in a nostalgic past, but it is true that – the distance, the glance and seduction, everything that symbolizes human relationship, finally, relationship that we have towards ourselves, everything is relativized by this sort of “communication”. It is true, on one hand that we have certain immersion – the screen is not a mirror, that’s for sure, but with the screen we do not get a certain distance which is necessary for judgment. We get immersed in it and we have an impression that we can do what we want with it.

Nina Zivancevic: The problem with the computer – and here I’m referring first to the decision of the French national education to introduce it as an obligatory equipment soon to replace the teacher – the problem is that it does not provide nuances, only yes and no, black and white answers.

Jean Baudrillard: Oh, yes, as it is digitalized it is a binary product, with yes and no types of answers, it is a selective mode of thinking and the danger exists in such mode…but to me the difference between the artificial intelligence and a human thought is exclusive, so that amalgame which creates a situation in which a brain becomes a metaphor for the computer, that thing: “I think the way the computer thinks”, and in return, “the computer itself thinks instead of my brain” is really zero to me and the moment when we can even speak of a certain “plot” against … (laughter). No, but there is a real danger in all this, and we should ask a question: what is there behind all this? Anthropologically speaking, in terms of society which seeks an economic answer, that we can find an answer, but anthropologically, what do people want behind this phenomenon? At times, it is a certain mode of disappearance …

Nina Zivancevic: Is it a certain decadence of thinking?

Jean Baudrillard: Well not to be too philosophical about it, but we can still use the term – there is no transcendance in it, that’s clear, so the world becomes completely operational, where we can do everything we want. So, there is this loss of transcendence which is a colossal event, we are, in fact, in the real beginning of this process and we don’t know what will become of new generations because the old ones have always worked with this notion of transcendence in one way or the other, but the new ones…I see they are taking it as a sort of game, well, we can take it that way, for sure, but it is a game where we can select things, but the game is not only that – there are rules of the game, which is something else. Game is a sort of a duel, with rules, it is a ceremony which is very powerful, and computer is not a game in that sense of the term – there is not a rival, the other is not there, there is no alternity, so there is not a game at the highest level of that term – I am not sure what we have here…Is it a performance, perhaps? But the prospective with all this is that it will represent a total substitute for all mental mechanisms and for the natural world as it will clone it.

Nina Zivancevic: So, you don’t see in the computer a possibility for a game the way Huizinga or Roger Callois perceived of it?

Jean Baudrillard: Oh no, it’s surely not that type of game – even if we take the categories that Callois presented – first, representation – mimicry, then the agon – challenge, then vertigo, then alea – chance or a dice: if we take each of these categories and analyze them according to the virtual standards and we would see that the virtual does not have in itself any of those, so, it is a sort of parody of all these categories..But, we have already mentioned all this … and I don’t know what can we do with all this? What can we do?

Nina Zivancevic: Is there a possibility to train new generations to think, to develop their own modes of thinking independent from virtual categories?

Jean Baudrillard: I don’t think there is any hope at all. If you think about the education the way it was some time ago, it had some value system, and with virtual reality there is no value system, there is no problem of freedom any longer – that used to be an important problem – but now we do not have it at all, so we have rather the disappearance of the term of the problem as such. And this is the final solution, which has quite a big and mortal resonance. But, I always keep the idea of reversibility of things, that something can be changed and I spoke about it when I was discussing seduction and obscenity, but this all brings now a certain negative aspect to things… I would rather here remember Heidegger’s question which he asked: if we were to go to the boundary of technology, to the very end of technology, should we find there a constellation of secrets? So, let us hope to find this positive answer in there, as there is a possibility of a vision which is optimistic in all this. If there are computers, artificial intelligence next to us, if the machines are doing things for us, then it can also happen that we remain alone with thought as such, that is, if there is still a hope that some thinking remains with us, then this thinking will be radicalized and in that – and the notion of game as a form of chance enters here – I see a real chance for existence of thought as such, an extreme, radical thought. But, watch out – there is a fat chance that thinking does not remain with us altogether, and that is a problem, like it is with every form of cloning – there is a possibility that a man as species disappears.

Nina Zivancevic: Does this form of possible disappearance of thought have anything to do with the general decline of thought in the 20th century, as Gianni Vattimo has defined it, as a sort of “weakening of thought”, thus with the “weak thought” of our age?

Jean Baudrillard: I don’t know… I think that for Vattimo “weak thought” was just a different thought, a different way of thinking. Well, there is also Deleuze and his thinking – well, I do not know if that is more of a certain system of “delocalization” of thinking, or the branching of the same global system where we find ourselves in the fragmentation or fracture of thinking systems. Do we find the same order or disorder of a unified set of thoughts? I have an impression that we are undergoing a certain metamorphosis of the same global system…

Nina Zivancevic: You have mentioned in “Perfect Crime” that we have small illusions which confort us. Could we consider these as remedies, or a possible answer to the previous problem?

Jean Baudrillard: Yes, at any rate everyone in the world creates his own defense mechanism, so we can also make ourselves appear weak and say, ”it’s tactics”, or “it is a strategy” – it is perhaps fatal as well, but surely it exists…

Nina Zivancevic: Can you elaborate a bit on human greed – greed for money, then greed to dominate the economic market. We have big problems nowadays such as “mad cows”, that is, problem with food, ecological problems, etc. In order to improve our society at this moment, should one start considering the problem of “ethics” in its ancient term of the word, the way ancient Greeks had it, or something else?

Jean Baudrillard: I don’t think that ethics has a big chance, as far as biology or genetics committees are concerned – we are trying to find a certain norm on how to operate. Here we are “beyond good and evil” and not in Nietzschean terms, but rather “out of” good and evil, as we cannot even discriminate nowadays between human and inhuman and where is the demarcation line between the two which would allow us to form a system of values. No, I do not think that we can have it, despite all the efforts to get back to a certain internal system of values, there is no such system. There is not even an esthetic judgment, art has the same problem there…well, we have found ourselves in such situation where the system of the opposition has been erased, and the differentiation between the good and the bad, true and false, – all this has been erased, by the intellectual criticism which has gone far beyond this value system, and then the differentiation was also erased by technology, by technical operations which do not recognize this kind of thing altogether. There is a contradiction in all this though – the more a problem becomes inaccessible to ethics or a judgment, the more it will demand the interaction of ethics, as in case of violence for instance – the more violence we have, the more we would need an intervention of the theory of human rights. Human rights have become nowadays a product of commodity, a product of an international consumerism, if I could put it this way. All this escapes critical thinking now, in order for us to have ethics, first we have to have critical thinking. As to the “mad cow”, we have entered into a ‘viral’ phase, so we have entered the virus, which is logical to me, because the information itself is a virus! So, “mad cow” is just a symptom of a larger problem – perhaps what we have here is the revenge of the animal – at any rate, it takes the same form of virus as there is a chain-reaction to this phenomenon, etc… And in this case, what could we ‘oppose’ to this one? We cannot ‘fracture’ it or fragment it, we cannot oppose to it a certain thinking which would take us to transcendance, here we have a real virus, we are in a total immanence without any solution… Actually, perhaps not everything is lost even here, as there are things which always escape certain rules of the game and then invent their own rules for themselves, but these rules certainly do not have universal value. At any rate, it seems to me that at this point it is not the universal that would help us fight the world, it is the singular – if we find certain singular forms – might they be the events, or certain forms of writing, or certain forms of resistance which we find everywhere in the world of politics, in certain ethnic groups, linguistic communities etc., we can count on them. Everything that resists certain networks, and their absolute power – therefore, everything that resists being placed within the network and which creates its own rules of the game can possibly survive – presently we are living in that system of deregularization where there are no rules and no game. So, singularity is that other mode of existence and, in a certain way, it develops itself at the same time when the mondialization of network is taking place, and luckily, singularity starts developing resistance to this power, strong resistance which is sometimes completely irrational or violent, but is quite strong. One could call it even the “Strength of Evil”, but it is vital and it exists.

Nina Zivancevic: As you have mentioned “Evil”, in your “Fatal Strategies” you said something like “Stupidity is victorious in every sense – it is even the principle of Evil”. “Evil” here is capitalized. What is evil for you in scientific and philosophical term and could it be defined? It would be preposterous to call machines evil, wouldn’t it?

Jean Baudrillard: It is hard to define it – in any case it is something that resists the idea of good, the idea of goodness of human being etc. Before, it was placed as a moral problem to us, good vs. Evil, but today we have it in a new form – which is the idea of “total, radical good”. Nowadays everything has to be saved, everyone has to conform perfectly to everything, to act out goodness. We are forbidden to have a bad experience, an accident or death or negativity. And once we purged things from evil, we are likely to have catastrophes. I certainly do not glorify it but rather see it an autonomous power which is reducible.

Nina Zivancevic: Wouldn’t you say that people nowadays perform even some sort of coquetry with evil – when they display tragic and negative images in advertising, etc?

Jean Baudrillard: Yes, there is a certain strategy in it, but the problem is that evil became converted into something else – it is in fact a power which should not have been converted into misfortune (“mal” vs. “malheur”) and that shouldn’t have happened. We have a culture of misfortune nowadays where people are supposed to deal with their proper misfortune, but they are forbidden to encounter evil, as evil is supposed to disappear – according to them. And this I find to be a certain degradation, even in moral terms, this convergion of evil into misfortune. I see it degrading also in terms of economy it becomes scary – you are unfortunate, thus you are a victim and someone has to give you money. It is a bit like the Jews and Shoah – today I’ve read that they are going to condemn slavery as crime against humanity: so, we should have certain rehabilitation of the black people who can ask for money – for the damages caused to them for all these centuries of slavery. It appears delirious to me. Absolute good is also unbearable, this salvation of absolute good. Because evil exists here as well, and if we don’t acknowledge it, that is if we ‘liberate’ good and prevent existence of evil, we will end up detesting ourselves and finally we will produce a sort of violent ab-reaction to the ideal condition that we produced ourselves. I’ll be a Manichean here: there is a power of evil which exists and is real, but which does not dependant on the power of good, or at least we should restore both powers, of both of them. At any rate we should not exterminate evil, this action is as negative as the physical extermination, it is something extremely dangerous. But today we hear that “everything should be saved”, everything should be whitened off, and even treated in retrospective – all the crimes annulled and cleared out. I see danger in this process. At any rate one has to react to an excess of every information, be it good or bad, it is vital to react. In the end we end up in a culture which sometimes believes in reality and effectiveness of things and in its essence is a radical negation to life. So this situation will grow in the following manner – the society will grow “better and better” and on the other hand it will grow worse because of it. So, how can one believe in ethics with all this?

Nina Zivancevic: You mentioned once that “art does not produce anything today but the magic of its own disappearance”. If so – where do our needs to create it and, still appreciate it – come from?

Jean Baudrillard: Well, I am hesitant to answer this question as I’ve participated myself, quite paradoxically, in the plott called contemporary art. However, I believe that there is a certain complicity between the contemporary art and contemporary situation as we have it today ; the situation itself gets realized, lived out easily, without apparent problems, and so does art, that is, it does not invent some other scene (and perhaps it cannot do it any longer), at any rate, it does not create illusion in the highest sense of that term, so it becomes some sort of a “ready-made”, an object transposed by itself, it is a sort of complacent redoubling in itself, so it lacks a certain distance necessary not only for criticism but for its own existence – it cannot find any other sense but the one of its own reality. So, it lives in the debris, in the residue of culture which is not great to begin with. But what remains there is still that impuls to make it, and that is vital, to have that illusion that one should make it, and there is still that idea of art which we consume, the idea of that “ready made” object which we consume, and then, there is, as usual, that political scene which tries to conserve a fictional idea that art exists at the will of politics, which is not true of course, but it exists. Then also, generally speaking art serves as an alibi – and here I don’t imply the existence of the individuals who create it – but its own general structure, it is something which only renews the hyperreality of things, it is something hyperreal on its own, and then, as such, it enters the market and follows an affluent cycle, not the one of the economic market though, but the flow of esthetic values. I do not know what could there be, perhaps beyond these esthetic values? Art knows that it is an illusion anyways, and it is conscious of having this illusion of the world so if we view it like this, it could be treated as a singularity, as an independent singular form in the world, not only a system of values but a form. What I see in contemporary art is a certain disappearance of the state of deception, but it is not a problem, something nominal, and we don’t have even means for discussing it. As soon as we start discussing this problem the artists become angry, they cannot accept it, their reaction is very strong. We live perhaps in the world burdened with political, moral and esthetic demands so we don’t have means to put this discussion in its place and if we enter such situation of discussing things that are impossible to discuss we enter the realm of perpetual neurosis. It is the moral neurosis although we got rid of moral in the first place.

March, 2001

Originally published: Zivancevic, N. (2001). With Jean Baudrillard in Paris. NY ARTS Magazine.
Published in the given issue by kind permission of Nina Zivancevic

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