Criticism 35.2 (1993): 295-298.
Baudrillard: Critical and Fatal Theory, by Mike Gane. London and New York: Routledge, 1991. Pp. 243. $49.95, cloth; $16.95, paper.
[Reprinted with the editorial permission of Criticism]
If ever the work of a theorist has undergone, and suffered
from, the effects of extensive critical hype, it is that of Jean
Baudrillard. Mike Gane's study is therefore a welcome effort to
reduce such hype by bringing the details and development of this
author's project into clear perspective. Gane's title suggests
this development, i.e. the movement in Baudrillard's writing from
one paradigm to another. From critical theory based on Marx, semiology
and sociology (e.g. works of the 1968-72 period such as For
a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign among others),
Baudrillard moved through the "crucial juncture" of
rejecting much of Marxist theory in favor of the subsequent development
of "fatal theory." This new perspective is based, says
Gane, on the "Durkeimian paradigm" in which Baudrillard
places himself "as a
primitive, as a pre- or anti-rationalist, [in order] to evolve a poetic theoretical analysis of the effects of the most advanced technical transformations in our culture" (5). Gane's own analytical approach consists, first, of situating this project's development within its socio-cultural and critical contexts (two of Part I's three chapters), then of tracing the phases of Baudrillard's development toward "fatal theory" (seven chapters in Parts II and III), and finally (chapter 11) of providing a synthetic and critical overview of Baudrillard's strategies.
Gane clearly states his overall goal: to provide a practice of reading and writing that can encompass Baudrillard's own such practices, i.e. his "double project" or "doubling up of the repertoires of criticism: one based on a radical alterity to the modern system, the other based on radical difference within the system" (12). For Gane seeks a path other than a "productivist" style of reading, one that can show that "to read Baudrillard is to begin to question the effectiveness of a purely political reading, or the reading of the symptomatic type, or indeed of the reading which assumes the homogeneous subject and the homogeneous text as if the project was under the control of a single thought or unified process of decision making" (13). Yet, Gane does find "a coherent and stable framework" in Baudrillard's "adherence to the superiority of the symbolic cultures and the inevitable frailty and vulnerability of the orders of simulation found in the west" (14). It is on the series of contrasts between these two irreconcilable orders that Gane focuses by examining how, in Baudrillard's work, this "basic contradiction is reproduced" and by situating "an analysis of the first phases of simulation with the attempt to criticise it poetically," in other words, the movement "from critical to fatal theory" (14).
Upon careful perusal of this book, one can locate three major
concerns to which Gane devotes his efforts. The first is the rather
laborious task of following Baudrillard's development from the
early, semiotic-Marxist "critical" period, through the
transitional phase of critique and into the more recent manifestations
of "fatal theory." This concern occupies the bulk of
Gane's study, i.e. sections II and III that provide an extremely
important, but nonetheless dense review of Baudrillard's work.
What renders Gane's study so valuable is his careful attention,
on one hand, to Baudrillard's situation within the shifting socio-cultural
context of French (Parisian) intelligentsia and, on the other
hand, to Baudrillard's complete works, including those
not (or partially) translated as well as interviews. Thus, Gane
helps the reader follow Baudrillard's reflections on and growing
resistance to Marxist and Saussurean positions (chapters 4 &
5), and then in "Baudrillard: theoretical critic" (chapter
6), Gane examines Baudrillard's mid-1970s critique of structural
Marxism (notably in the 1973 -The Mirror of Production- [1975
translation]), psychoanalysis (-L'Echange symbolique et la mort-
), and Foucault (the 1977 -Oublier
Foucault- [1987 translation]). In each case, Baudrillard turns toward a new position, respectively, utopianism (versus Marxism's "alienation," 114-115), the poetic and the symbolic order (versus
psychoanalysis and Saussurean linguistics, 116-119) and simulacrum and the "death of the social" (versus Foucault's conception of power, 120-125).
Resulting from this "period of critique" is the flowering of Baudrillard's new positions in the 1980s: his emphasis on "a black imagery of the mass as the centre of gravity of the society," insisting on society's movement toward "inward implosion" (129-130); a distinct change of style of writing, based on Baudrillard's contention that "the poetic . . . is the most radical threat to the current and conventional understanding of language and expression" (130); and a change of strategy, "to attack the present order not only from the past, and from the continuing theme of the symbolic order, but from within its mass logic" (131). These shifts result formally, says Gane, in "a nostalgic modernism [à la Mallarmé] rather than some kind of futuristic effervescent postmodernism" and in "the initiation of a style of (anti-) sociology as prose-poetry, fiction theory [that] became, immediately, avant-gardist, in a field increasingly dominated by technocratic modes of analysis" (131-132). Closely tracing the shifts in Baudrillard's writings, Gane renders a notable service not only in defining (to the extent possible) this "strategy of the mass" (a "symbolic force of ambivalence . . . [that] neutralises semiological positivity," while being "'neither subject nor object'" 140), but also of showing the strategy's slippages and inconsistencies that, in fact, seem necessary given Baudrillard's complex assertions. As Gane concludes chapter 7, "The inward implosion of meaning in the masses, therefore, is a popular negative fascism in a sense -- one drained of drive and energy, become melancholic. Cool fascism seems a contradictory concept, but we are not far from it" (142).
Gane pursues the same approach, close reading from within Baudrillard's
"fatal logic" linked to critical commentary, in three
successive chapters (8, 9, 10) devoted, respectively, to De
Séduction (1979; 1990 translation), Les Stratégies fatales (1983; Fatal Strategies, untranslated), and Baudrillard's discovery of "'the finished form of the future catastrophe'" described in the much commented Amérique (1986, 1988 translation). At this point, I need to address Gane's second and third concerns that, while not necessarily linked, nonetheless become so as his study progresses. The second concern is to provide precise, synthetic commentary on Baudrillard's positions, admirable examples of which occur early on in the contextual chapters (2 & 3) that follow the introduction. These provide the reader with valuable insight regarding, first, Baudrillard's debt to post-World War II thinkers and critical debates and, second, his stance vis-à-vis contemporary discussions of postmodernism, Marxism and feminism. In both areas, Gane argues that readers, and Anglophone readers in particular (i.e. those with access only to selected translations), have failed to comprehend fully Baudrillard's complex development, and these chapters are in themselves exceptional contributions for understanding this writer. Similarly, the final chapter, "The double spiral," draws on the detailed, chronological studies that precede it in order to provide a nuanced, critical and nonetheless appreciative commentary regarding the constitutive contradictions and difficulties in Baudrillard's project.
However, linked to this second, synthetic concern throughout the book is a third in which Gane assumes an authoritative stance as justicier, as self-appointed lawman staging, as it were, a shoot-out at the po-mo corral. On one hand, Gane is genuinely informative and convincing in his explanation of the definite critical misprision regarding Baudrillard's attitude toward postmodernism since, "far from embracing postmodernism, Baudrillard's whole effort is to combat it" (55). Thus, Gane can scrutinize critiques by various writers, notably Alex Callinicos, Arthur Kroker, Fredric Jameson and Douglas Kellner, in the light of Baudrillard's own positions and statements, however shifting and paradoxical these may be. On the other hand, Gane's unyielding dismissal of Kellner's critique of Baudrillard, indeed his excoriation in a beefy footnote (222-223) of one particular argument of Kellner's, left this reader rather uneasy. For, to devote so much space throughout this study to refuting the work of one critic --not only is "The Marxist Debate" (chapter 2) really the Kroker-Kellner-Gane -différend-, the opening section of chapter 10 treats "The Problem of Kellner's Reading of America-" -- tries the reader's patience and finally detracts from Gane's otherwise insightful analyses and commentaries.
Moreover, at one point in his introduction, Gane resorts to the imperative mode to insist on the propriety of reading Baudrillard, whose "project -must- be regarded as an assault on the 'disenchanted' world from the point of view of a militant of the symbolic (enchanted but cruel) cultures. . . . Baudrillard is a cruel, theoretical extremist, and -must- be read accordingly" (7, my emphasis). Given the many lapses in Baudrillard scholarship and commentary that Gane documents, one can sympathize with his efforts to orient forcefully future readings of Baudrillard, based on his own. But these are, indeed, Gane's own readings, and the reader must not necessarily read in his fashion (although he often provides strong arguments for doing so). Thus, although the density of the central chapters at time require unflagging commitment on the reader's part, Gane's approach is remarkably and consistently informed and, despite his momentary insistence on a "proper" reading, he does not hesitate to nuance appreciative commentary with trenchant criticism that provides important inflections and clarifications for a complex body of work.
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University