BAUDRILLARD IN THE DESERT SEND SEPARATE J-PEGS

_ B. Gerry Coulter



I. Drifting

As soon as I had a free moment I went off to the desert, for me that
was the real scene (Baudrillard. Paroxysm: 80).

Given Baudrillard's love for the vast open spaces of the deserts of sand and rock it is not surprising that "desert" was a significant concept in his work. A recent book on the Sahara (which features the superb photographs of Philippe Bourseiller, 2004), has captivated my own love of desert spaces and carried them along with Baudrillard's thought to this writing. It is, in the end, to the impossible desert that I travel to continue the impossible mourning of Baudrillard for this publication (see also Victoria Alexander, 2007).

The desert is the scene of the world's ultimate reversibility - the return to dust. To mourn is also to celebrate the desert of death. Baudrillard believed that reversibility is our only source of enjoyment and so death too (as the reversal of life) must be enjoyed. This thought lies at the core of what we may call Baudrillard's "desert philosophy" - a radical surpassing of what is normally meant by "desert" in Western thought. Bourseiller's photographs and Baudrillard's concepts combine to reveal the poetic splendor of the desert. This is an enigmatic poetry no matter what our perspective as this satellite photograph shows:

By drawing a grid over the face of the earth we attempted to banish the desert. The desert is however, a place where all lines of demarcation are swiftly  wiped away.

The attempt to banish the desert is also an important part of the failed attempt to exile the inhuman. Humanists, who have held Western philosophy and the university hostage for centuries, fear the deserts of the earth and their primordial qualities. The desert is "respectful of the inhuman" - it is more like "other worlds and the constellations" than anything else on earth (see Baudrillard, Cool Memories I: 28).  An important aspect of achieving escape velocity from humanist philosophy's refusal of the inhuman (and the urban deserts in which even this ideology begins to deteriorate) involves a return to the desert.

II. An Ecstatic Form of Disappearance
We hear some refer to the harsh "realities" of the desert but the desert only takes us further from the illusion of the real. The desert is a chimerical place and it is there that our awareness of illusion crests. In the desert the surface of the earth and its colours change rapidly strengthening our sensation that we know not the real but the appearances behind which it hides. Here the tribulations of culture come to an end and we are aware of our passage beyond reality: "...everything there seems removed from the reality principle" (Baudrillard Live: 131).            

The desert is dazzling because of the radical way it denies society and exterminates meaning. For Baudrillard deserts are "...places of the subtle extermination of man and the ends of man" (Baudrillard Live: 162). The desert also provides an "ecstatic critique of culture, and ecstatic form of disappearance" (America: 5). The majority of Bourseiller's images participate in this extermination as he only infrequently includes a human figure in his landscapes.
           
The desert also allows us, ever so briefly, to imagine the world in our absence. In the desert we are enveloped by a kind of elation in the face such a powerful indifference to the human. Even when we are there the desert promises to remain a space without us. We have a fleeting sense of this upon first entering the desert before things have noticed we are there - before they have fallen into the order of analysis (see Baudrillard, Cool Memories IV: 52).

It is in the desert that we become most aware that theory precedes the world. Baudrillard's philosophy of challenge found a method in the desert - in the desert's powerful challenge to meaning and to reality, and its ability to seduce them and play with them. The character of the desert liquidates not only meaning but taxes even our desire for it. In the insufferable heat and exhausting sand we can misread this act of love for a kind of severity. The desert "assumes the status of a primal scene" (America: 28) and it is one so powerful it makes theory hesitate and meaning vanish. Only theory committed to challenge can thrive in desert spaces - including our deserts of postmodernity. Baudrillard's theory was made for the desert and he was the theorist of the desert as Bourseiller is its photographer. Baudrillard's words and Bourseiller's images long for one another.

Bourseiller is obsessed by the light of the desert and it is his respect for the Baroque properties of desert light. Many of his pictures are taken when the sun is at an oblique angle, not unlike much of Baudrillard's photography. This lighting accentuates the metaphysical properties of the desert and its ever changing colour and form. Bourseiller's images also show us that the desert portions of the earth are beautiful mainly because they look like nothing on earth as much as they do the surface of other planets.
           
Perhaps the greatest attraction to the desert is to a vast space which our identities cannot endure: "Identity is a dream pathetic in its absurdity" wrote Baudrillard (Paroxysm: 49) and it is "a dream that ends in indifference" (Lucidity Pact: 62). In the desert our identities evaporate.

Desert sand dunes operate like large abstract works of art - their only form is formlessness. Abstraction is always a form of removal towards emptiness. The abstraction of the desert dunes flaunts the emptiness which both characterizes them and provides their space of excess. Each grain of sand in a dune contains some part of the geological secret of the earth. Each is a small crystal of a granite rock that was once part of a volcanic mountain or perhaps a small crystal of sedimentary rock such as sandstone. The grains of sand are as different as snowflakes which also differ in size, colour, shape and surface texture. As mountains experience time in a rapturous slowness, the grains of desert sand can drift with great speed throwing up a vast abstract work today only to obliterate it tomorrow.

For a select few the desert is also a place of freedom and this was especially appealing to Baudrillard: "a thousand miles of empty space on every side, that is the only freedom there is" (Cool Memories I: 107). The freedom of the desert forces us to confront the illusion of freedom in human society. The idea of human freedom tends now towards liberation which is itself part of a vast machine of self imposed surveillance. In the desert freedom is equated with space and the lack of human ideals concerning its application. The freedom of the desert cannot be harnessed or attached to any ideology - it is a freedom that can only be experienced in its sublime indifference. It is only in the desert that we can enjoy the feeling of a kind of freedom that is a relief from concepts of liberation - the desert thus offers liberation from liberation. For Baudrillard the opposite of the longing for liberation or freedom in human society was the passion (which he said he "experienced intensely") for emptiness inspired by the desert (Cool Memories II: 8).

Few people enjoy the freedom of the desert as did Baudrillard. Nonetheless, these vast spaces have also inspired religions steeped in dread. The three great machines of social control: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are born of the desert. They stand as potent denials of the sovereignty of the desert which will remain long after the last religion has perished. The desert comes as close as anything we know to the perfect crime against religion and turns its back on human prayers. The desert is the earth's anti-prayer to the cosmos. To experience the desert without a prayer was at the core of Baudrillard's experience of the freedom of the desert.

IV. Hyperspaces of Indifference
The desert is a vast space of desire for it denies us everything. The desert also possesses "an extension of the inner silence of the body" (America: 68). Baudrillard found no equivalent anywhere else for the silence of the desert: "A silence which always retains a certain ... atmospheric vibration... the trace of a vanished noise" (Cool Memories III: 78).

Baudrillard's writing and Bourseiller's photographs combine to deliver us from meaning as each points to the brilliance, indifference, mobility and neutrality of the desert. For Baudrillard as for Bourseiller, the desert is a place of deliverance - the original "hyperspace with no reference points" (America: 124).

 

V. Pataphysical Delicacy
The desert opens our vista to a kind of infinite perspective equaled only by the vast expanses of the cosmos in which it participates. Outer space is the greatest of all the deserts and it is only by spending time in our earth bound deserts that we begin to comprehend the first stages of what it is to experience infinity. The desert challenges even science by its imaginary scale. If pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions then perhaps the desert is the closest we come to the experience of the imaginary science of excess (Perfect Crime: 70). The comfort of the desert then is a pataphysical one. It is in the desert more than any other place where we experience "the pataphysical delicacy of the world" (Transparency of Evil: 153).

VI. After The End
Baudrillard has entered into the desert space of death where at last he is identical with himself (Art and Artefact: 50) no longer a hostage of identity. There are many deserts. Beyond the deserts of sand and rock the ice of Antarctica is the earth's largest desert. Paris is one of the world's larger urban deserts of asphalt, stone, steel and glass. There we find the Cemetery Montparnasse - a sparse micro-desert where a few shrubs and itinerant blades of grass cling to life among the parched stones and gravel. In this little place we today find the grave of Jean Baudrillard. As ever, when the opportunity presented itself, he returned to the desert.

In Memoriam: Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007)

 

Gerry Coulter is full Professor of Sociology (Theory) at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Canada where he has recently won the Turner Prize for Teaching. He is founding editor if the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (Online): www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies. The author expresses his gratitude to Ms. Claire Ashton (Concordia University) and Dr. Mary Ellen Donnan (Bishop's University) for their insightful commentary during the writing of this article.

Jean Baudrillard was one of the most important thinkers of the past century. He disappeared at age 77 on March 6, 2007.

Phillipe Bourseiller is a five time winner of the World Press Prize for  photography. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic. More of is work may be seen at www.bourseiller.com. His photographs of the Sahara appear in Call of the Desert: the Sahara. New York: Abrams, 2004. ISBN: 081095589X See: http://www.hnabrams.com

 

References

Victoria Alexander. "Remembering Jean Baudrillard and His World". In Izinsiz Gösteri.net (Sayi 137 / Nisan 2007):
http://www.izinsizgosteri.net/asalsayi137/victoria.alexander_137.html

Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1988.

Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories I. New York: Verso, 1990.

Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: SAGE, 1993.

Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993.

Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories II. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996.

Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories III. New York: Verso, 1997.

Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso, 1996.

Jean Baudrillard. Art and Artefact. London: SAGE, 1997.

Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998.

Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV. New York: Verso, 2002.

Jean Baudrillard. The Lucidity Pact or the Intelligence of Evil. London: Berg, 2005

Philippe Bourseiller et. al. Call of the Desert: The Sahara. New York: Abrams, 2004

 

 

 

 


B. Gerry Coulter gcoulter@ubishops.ca
He is Full Professor of Theory, Art and Cinema in the Department of Sociology at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. He is the founding editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies ). His recent writings include: "Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming" appeared in the SAGE journal Games and Culture (Volume 2, Number 4, December, 2007:358-365) - also available on-line at:
http://www.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/2/4/358.

His recent Article: "A Place For The Non-Believer: Jean Baudrillard on the West and the Arab and Islamic Worlds", appears in Subaltern Studies: http://www.subalternstudies.com/?p=476; An essay "A Way of Proceeding: Joseph Beuys, the Epistemological Break, and Radical Thought Today" appears in Kritikos: A Journal of Postmodern Cultural Sound, Text, and Image (May - June, 2008): http://intertheory.org/gcoulter.htm; and his quarterly column for Euro Art (On-line) Magazine: "Kees van Dongen and the Power of Seduction" (Spring 2008) is available at: http://www.euroartmagazine.com/new/?issue=13=1&content=156. A recent paper: "Baudrillard and Hölderlin and the Poetic Resolution of the World" appeared in Volume 5, Number 4 of Nebula: A Journal of Multidisciplinary Scholarship in December, 2008:145-64: www.nobleworld.biz/Coulter.pdf

Another recent paper: "In The Shadow of Post-Democratic Capitalism - A Fascination for China" appeared in Avinus - European Magazine for Media, Culture and Politics (November 21, 2008): http://magazin.avinus.de/2008/11/20/coulter-gerry-in-the-shadow-of-post-democratic-capitalism-%e2%80%93-a-fascination-for-china-20112008/ . Dr. Coulter's teaching has been recognized on numerous occasions most recently by Bishop's University's highest award for teaching - the William and Nancy Turner Prize.