Professor Steve Redhead suggests the continuing relevance of Jean Baudrillard's post-political spirit.
Why are we where we, are post-GFC, post-Brexit and (maybe) post-Trump? Banality rules but Theory beckons. We certainly live, interestingly, in theoretical times. Previously we lived, theoretically, in interesting times. Study on the left globally has attached itself to ‘theory’ and ‘theorists’ as never before. And ‘high theory’ at that. But there has also been a delve into ‘the popular’ of culture as never before, too – both high and low popular culture. The celebrity intellectual culture which has developed inexorably over the past few years has produced open access online journals devoted to theorists such as Jean Baudrillard
Jean Baudrillard is one of the key theorists focused on, alongside Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and Paul Virilio, in my forthcoming book entitled Theoretical Times partly being written through a website blog post, podcasts, vodcasts, tweets and various other social media. Baudrillard died in March 2007 from cancer but his work continues to be published a decade after his death. His posthumous publications have been very significant in shifting our long term view of Baudrillard - from a banal postmodern theorist to a global theorist with a mature system of thought which made sense of modern banality like no other. His most recent posthumous publication (in a new English translation) from the 1980s The Divine Left: A Chronicle of the Years 1977-1984 shines a light on the politics in France (and elsewhere) of the 1970s and early 1980s. Only French language versions existed in his lifetime. It fits in with his illuminating but misunderstood work of the time on what he called the silent majorities in books like In The Shadow of the Silent Majorities where he investigates the role of the masses in the ‘death of the social’.
The masses, he saw at an early stage of the proceedings which have evolved to the point where a Brexit could happen, banally just refused to play the game anymore. Anyone interested in why the Brexit vote occurred in June 2016 in the UK, or why Donald Trump defies electoral odds in the USA, or why Pauline Hanson’s right wing One Nation party can call for a Royal Commission into Islam in Australia would do well to go back to Baudrillard's texts from the early 1980s and explore notions of 'the divine left', ‘the death of the social’ and 'in the shadow of the silent majorities'. The chronicle of the years 1977-1984 in Baudrillard’s writings in The Divine Left show just how much things were changing in the years after punk culture took on the notion of modern power and how we have never really left the post-punk era.
But Baudrillard’s mature system of thought was already in train by the time the Sex Pistols, Clash, Slits and all emerged on the scene in 1976. By 1976 a key book in the Baudrillard oeuvre was written - namely Symbolic Exchange And Death. It was published in 1976 in French, but not really fully appreciated by English speaking readers until much later if at all. A 1993 English publication helped reorient somewhat but even today his work is thrown away into a dustbin labelled 'postmodernist'. Crucially, Symbolic Exchange And Death contained the theory of reversibility which would become so important to Baudrillard’s writing until his own death. As Sylvere Lotringer publisher of Semiotext(e) and long time friend of Baudrillard put it in the introduction to a posthumous Baudrillard book in 2010 called The Agony of Power 'reversibility is the form death takes in a symbolic exchange'. In 1976, the year zero of punk in global popular culture, punk cultural stirrings were embracing antecedents that Baudrillard shared – the pataphysics of Albert Jarry and Pere Ubu. In the mid-1970s a Cleveland punk band emerged with the name Pere Ubu to globally popularise the drama of writer Albert Jarry from the late nineteeth century which had so fascinated Baudrillard since the 1950s.
Baudrillard's first short book was on Jarry and Pataphysics. As popular music historian Clinton Heylin noted musician David Thomas in 1975 in Cleveland, Ohio named his band Pere Ubu after Albert Jarry’s caricature king because, to Thomas, it added a texture of absolute grotesqueness, a kind of darkness descending over everything which fitted the mid-1970s in America. When I was preparing my own book on the life and work of Baudrillard entitled The Jean Baudrillard Reader as Baudrillard lay dying in 2007, I never got the sense that he was aware of this pop culture connection. In his own lifetime, Baudrillard never declared any awareness of this popular music culture/Ubu connection, though he did once appear in a 'punk' costume of his own. He appeared in a gold lame jacket with mirrored lapels reading the text of his own self-penned 1980s poem 'Motel-Suicide', backed by a rock band at the Chance Event held at Whiskey Pete’s in Las Vegas in November 1996. The only surviving photo shows the short, balding, academic Baudrillard appearing as if he was auditioning for a place in a mid-late 1970s punk band and my publisher Edinburgh University Press duly used it as the cover shot for my book in 2008.
Nevertheless, Baudrillard’s attitude to power, law, culture, sovereignty and politics changed in this mid-1970s 'punk' period. The agony of power was as much about the power of agony. In his own agonising introduction to The Agony of Power Sylvere Lotringer claims powerfully, and in my view correctly, that Baudrillard’s two key ideas throughout his work were that, firstly, reality had disappeared and became replaced by simulacra and secondly that there was a potential symbolic challenge in this disappearance. This mid-1970s period is crucial for understanding Baudrillard’s work for the rest of his life, and especially its political implications for us today post-GFC and post-Brexit as we enter what Slavoj Zizek has hailed as a ‘new dark ages’ and ‘trouble in paradise’. What can be seen in hindsight as Jean Baudrillard’s 'post-punk' work is revealed in all its glory in The Agony of Power, a book praised from within by Sylvere Lotringer as nothing less than Baudrillard’s last'intellectual testament'.
Baudrillard’s posthumous The Agony of Power offers a different view of sovereignty and power from the classical legal conception of power often reproduced in major works of legal philosophy and sociology of law. Baudrillard’s perspective is a form of the 'patasociology' (echoing Albert Jarry's pataphysics) hailed by French theorist of 'the social' Jacques Donzelot who worked with Baudrillard at the University of Nanterre in France. Whilst there are many interesting books in the excellent Nomikoi Critical Legal Thinkers series produced by Routledge, the orthodoxy of the 'critical legal thinkers' chosen on law, politics and power contrasts strongly with Baudrillard’s radical late work on these issues underscored by his idea of integral reality and reversibility. There are books, so far, in the series on Law and Jacques Ranciere, Slavoj Zizek, Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Louis Althusser, Niklas Luhmann, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, amongst many others, but none yet on Jean Baudrillard.
In all this posthumous work, especially in The Agony of Power, Baudrillard offers up a unique theory of power incorporating what he calls 'a double refusal' by which he means the sovereign’s refusal to dominate as well as the subject’s refusal to be dominated. As he points out in another posthumous book Carnival and Cannibal in a passage repeated word for word from The Agony of Power (and partially extracted by Semiotext(e) as the quote on the back cover of The Agony of Power) the radicality of his thinking is in the argument that power itself has to be abolished. For Baudrillard 'it is power itself that has to be abolished – and not just in the refusal to be dominated, which is the essence of all traditional struggles, but equally and as violently in the refusal to dominate. For domination implies both these things, and if there were the same violence or energy in the refusal to dominate, we would long ago have stopped dreaming of revolution. And this tells us why intelligence cannot - and never will be able to – be in power: because it consists precisely in this twofold refusal'.
The refusal to dominate, or to exercise sovereign power, according to Sylvere Lotringer, seeking to illustrate Baudrillard’s theory at its most banal, can be seen in the agonies of those involved in the revolts of May 1968 or the activities of the self-proclaimed 'post-political' Italian Autonomists in the 1970s or the failure of the Communist Party and other parts of the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s in France. They were, in Baudrillard’s theory, according to Lotringer’s interpretation, less than confident in wanting to dominate – they agonised about power, in both their resistance to sovereignty and their unwillingness to become involved in its exercise. Indeed, as Baudrillard has written emphatically, 'power itself is an embarrassment and there is no one to assume it truly'. Although Baudrillard is no longer with us his post-political spirit lives on. There are lesson here for the politics of our own Theoretical Times.
Steve Redhead is Professor of Cultural Studies in the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Law at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia.