the guardian Fri 14 August 2009
An extremely pleasant surprise: a new imprint from Verso called Radical Thinkers, and a pile of white-covered paperbacks by the likes of Theodor Adorno, Fredric Jameson, Guy Debord and Walter Benjamin. Not only do they have nifty cover designs, they are, for Verso, ridiculously cheap - a small part of me wonders whether £6.99 is in fact a misprint for £16.99, in which case it would be wise to snap them up before they realise their mistake.
I pick on the Baudrillard because, quite simply, it is the most fun. Originally appearing in French in 1990, it has been reprinted by Verso quite a few times, so while new to me, it is hardly new - but the nature of Baudrillard's thought is such that it will always have a fresh savour to it, as well as that period savour that comes off when he writes, as he does here, of La Cicciolina or Michael Jackson. This is Jackson before the child abuse allegations; but these accusations would have come as no surprise to Baudrillard, and are not in the slightest way inconsistent with what he has written in this book. And you suspect the subsequent mass public mawkishness regarding his death (cf Jade Goody) would have been observed by him with a rueful shrug and the words, "I told you so".
So while it is almost 20 years old, this is still a very useful handbook for understanding modernity, and skewering the ghastliness of contemporary western culture, the banal or vicious circulations of fame, fashion, drugs, terrorism, religious fanaticism or the pathetic denials of politically correct locution: "Do we now ever describe a mad person as 'mad'? As a matter of fact, we are so terrified of Evil, so greedy for euphemisms to denote the Other, misfortune, or other irreducibles, that we no longer even refer to a cripple as such." Offensive? Hm. Much of what he says falls into the category of uncomfortable truth, and if that raises your hackles, wait till you get to what he has to say about Holocaust denial, or our insistence on "rights". On the collapse of tyranny in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union: "The West has become a museum - or, more accurately, a dump - for freedom and the Rights of Man." Or this: "We are like the Armenians, who wear themselves out trying to prove that they were massacred in 1917."
It is inevitable, in his position qua French intellectual, that he is going to use a fair amount of language that the Johnsonian English reader is going to find impenetrable or meaningless - he does go on an awful lot about "the Other" in what I presume is a Lacanian sense, and not in the rather bawdier, Carry On English sense of "a bit of the other". (There is surely a paper to be written on this coincidence of terminology, n'est-ce pas?) At times - but only at times - you get the feeling he is playing a Gallic version of Mornington Crescent with us; and, incidentally, it is a pity that game was not in his frame of reference, as he would have loved it.
This is not a flaw, or a basis on which to discredit his thought. The Anglo-Saxon reader, unhampered by the strict necessity to read and try to make sense of everything he says even when you feel as if you're going to get a nosebleed in the attempt ("Machines work more quickly because they are unlinked to any otherness" - quoi?), can pick out the best bits and enjoy them at leisure. There is much to relish here. Baudrillard may use jargon, but he is not in the grip of it; he is original enough to be among the most accessible and useful of theorist-commentators. And how can you not love a philosopher who is brave and curmudgeonly enough to say: "Perhaps we ought to dispense with our present fin de siècle? I would suggest that the 1990s be abolished in advance, and that we go directly from 1990 to 2000. After all, the fin de siècle has already arrived, complete with its necro-cultural pathos, its endless commemorations and mummifications. Is there any good reason why we should have to languish for another decade in this hellish atmosphere?"