RADICAL THOUGHT AND THE RESIDUE OF AMBIVALENCE:
AN INTERVIEW WITH GERRY COULTER İzinsiz Gösteri
Gerry Coulter (2008)
"Meaning is found solely by him who seeks it. Into one another flow dream and waking, truth and falsehood. Certainty is nowhere. We know naught of others nor of ourselves. We are forever at play - he who knows that is the wiser" (Arthur Schnitzler, Paracelsus, 1898).
We live at a time when uncertainty reigns. Thinkers who are at home with ambiguity flourish alongside new modes of communication. Gerry Coulter is one of a generation of remarkable young thinkers now reaching mid-life. He has played an important part in resisting the "pay-per" academic journal industry (and its increasing corporate control) with his ironic, innovative and influential open-access pioneering publication the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (founded in 2004). Coulter is among those who are intensely aware of the most dramatic change in academic culture today - the coming together of the arts, poetry and literature with social thought. In his words: "social theory today takes more from poetry, literature, performance and painting than it does from either traditional social scientific thought or from quantitative tools". Rather than empirical conclusions Coulter seeks a poetic resolution to the world more in keeping with its enigmaticalness. In the following interview he shares many profound insights concerning today's academic culture, publishing, writing, teaching and learning - and possible future developments.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: We would like to begin by at least partially deconstructing the interview process itself.
GERRY COULTER: Certainly.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: As we prepared for this interview we read a number of your recent publications. We realized that the questions were falling into order in a way that would lead you to answer them to prove or disprove a thesis we were forming about you.
GERRY COULTER: Yes this is often a serious problem with interviews. One is either turned into a relic or made to appear a shallow echo of the interviewer's designs. What thesis were you forming about me?
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: That you are a radically independent thinker who is emerging onto the world stage with a series of ideas which intersect with French Theory since the 1970s generally, and Baudrillard particularly. In particular, you are not, as some website I saw not long ago put it "Jean Baudrillard's virtual double" but rather, as Baudrillard said of people who meant a lot to him. Baudrillard is "anagrammatized" into what you do. You have a fresh perspective on the arts and its impact on traditional academe and you are one of a number of younger academics who seek to transform academic publishing and teaching.
GERRY COULTER: That isn't bad. I like the way you put it "anagrammatized" it is from Baudrillard's book length interview with Francois L'Yvonnet Fragments from a few years ago. And yes I am interested in radical thought - but not in the sense of "critical theory".
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Please define what you mean by "radical thought".
GERRY COULTER: Radical thought is challenge - a challenge to the universe which we are, each of us, at odds with. Radical thought is best set free from teleological thinking or determinist thinking or any kind of desire to speak for others or promote a politics. Radical though must be willing to destroy its most cherished concepts and dearest influences and references. It is a kind of thought that isn't out to improve the world or prove anything. It isn't interested in Truth. Radical thought begins with the recognition that thought precedes the world - everything we know is the result of our ability to think. Radical thought challenges everything including any conclusions it reaches. So rather than verifying anything radical thought remains a stranger to efforts to empirically demonstrate any aspect of the world. Radical thought understands that what we take for the "Real" is actually merely the appearances behind which the real hides. It is interested in seeking a kind of poetic resolution of the world - one that cherishes enigmaticalness and uncertainty. Radical thought disavows itself of dialectics in favour of the undecidable - it is at home in the presence of contradictory ideas. It is a kind of thought that values irony. It is dedicated to giving back more than you were given. Since the world appears to us as a series of interwoven and incomplete poetic puzzles, the best use of thought is to enhance this enigmaticalness and unknowability.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Good, we can dispense with the effort to lead you to support or deny that thesis. Perhaps you would speak to us about those who have shaped who you are as a thinker, including Baudrillard, . is this possible?
Jean Baudrillard (1929-2006)
GERRY COULTER: It is not possible to answer such a question fully but as a beginning I would say that I think everyone we read at any depth has an influence on us (and it is not always a good one). In my case, the first really influential thinker I read in depth was Nietzsche. Barthes and Foucault followed but who in our generation was not profoundly touched at some point by these three? I came later to Deleuze, Guattari, Virilio. the list is long. I like Agamben, Cixous, Irigaray, often Zizek. There are several others - Marcel Duchamp, Louis I. Kahn, any number of artists, novelists, poets, such as Joseph Beuys, Francis Bacon (the British painter), Frank Gehry.
In terms of writing the most important one for me is Baudrillard because he validated in me three impulses I had operated with for at least twenty years before I first read him: 1) The idea that the position of knowing peasant is superior to that of the lawmaker, judge or philosopher - a deep suspicion of "culture" especially promotional cultures - and today that is most of what culture is; 2) the idea that politics destroys writing and teaching (a dreadful lesson I learned the hard way); and, 3) that thought and writing are more important than conclusions - thought owes nothing to the world, theory precedes the world - the universe is an array of the multi-vocal discourses we make of it.
The most precise language we will ever form only hints at meaning - language merely stands in for meaning which is eternally absent (at a universal level). Secondly, given this problem - the best we can do is achieve a kind of poetic resolution of the world. I am not seeking Meaning or Truth - but a way of living, writing and thinking through poetic resolution. Beyond discourses of truth we each find our own way to make the world more unintelligible.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Some might say that embracing enigma is a recipe for nonsense.
GERRY COULTER: Yes, the clarity junkies and those who are addicted to politics find this upsetting. But of course it is not a recipe for nonsense - it is a prescription for radical thinking which owes nothing to politics or community or anyone or any thing - a formula for the most thorough challenge to everything. In our time of fundamentalists (George Bush, Osama bin Laden, or the politically correct), it is important to have things in which not to believe. I would prefer to exhaust all the possibilities I can think of on my own than to be fooled by anyone. I hate to see theory led into the room, chained and tethered to politics - be it Hitler's politics or Noam Chomsky's. Theory precedes the world, politics, everything. it plays the main role of the disappearance of things and ideas.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: But it is impossible to live without some politics.
GERRY COULTER: Ten years ago I would have agreed. I would have replied with something I learned from feminists: "the personal is political". But since then I have come to realize that such sentiments are little different in their effect, however well intended, than when from bin Laden or Bush exclaim "you are either for us or against us". If a radical distrust of everything is a kind of politics then that is my politics. If writing - the act itself - as challenge - if that is politics then there also is my politics. But when we write on behalf of causes or allow causes to dominate our classrooms we fail to challenge at the highest level. We should not, as writers, or as theorists speak on behalf of others. It is always condescending.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: How do you put this kind of thought into practice in the classroom - in the contemporary theory course which you teach?
GERRY COULTER: There may be many ways of doing this. What I do is encourage the students to read the literature of a field against the idea of a field. To arrive at the end of a course without an accumulated knowledge. This means that I encourage them to replace what they are reading with their own interpretation of it. At the end of a course on theory, if it is successful, nothing is left but an effect. As in reading Virilio's writing, you have the experience of a sustained intelligent discourse but it is difficult to put your finger on any one thing you have learned. You have a sense of reversion, of seduction, of challenge. A hundred concepts lay groaning and broken on the ground among the ruins of an entire field. A few new ones are emerging from the blood-stained ground. In a course like contemporary theory this may mean that images replace words, a story or a parable might stand in for theory. The successful course in contemporary theory does two things: 1) it asks the student to read and think and to form ideas for him or herself about what is being read and discussed while, 2) contributing to the world's tendency to be enigmatic. Arch concepts like capital "T" Truth, capital "M" Meaning, or capital "R" Real dissolve and reappear across the classroom along local and restricted horizons - as partial objects. Every single student, and myself, can emerge from the course with a different and deeply personal experience of what theory is, sensitive to the views of others, and able to challenge and engage with them while respecting their inalienability. The successful course in contemporary theory simply makes each student aware that s/he is a theorist and one who is much more able than s/he surmised at the beginning of the course.
First the student encounters the horizon of appearances and when they are past this they can see the horizon of disappearance. If you can help them to see it you will have achieved more than anyone who preaches politics at them for 12 weeks and expects it to be returned in the form of an agreeing term paper or final exam or both. The most important lessons of contemporary theory today are that truth, meaning, and the real exist (in lower case) as multiples. For a course in contemporary theory these lessons had better be learned at the beginning. The very first lesson is that the mind is the theorist's most important tool - and we need to be ever suspicious of all of our tools.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Your CV notes many honors and awards for teaching - what is it that university teachers do - is the most important thing to imbue confidence?
GERRY COULTER: High school teachers are very sensitive about the criticism that they do not prepare students well enough for university. They often reply "that is not our job". I agree. Indeed, the experience of school up to the time of university is the greatest impediment any of us face a thinkers. School exists to keep the crime rate low and to pass along minimal skills to the workforce in an environment of constant socialization and surveillance. With the dumbing down of everything in our culture there is added pressure on us to dumb down the university. I look upon university as an opportunity to challenge everything. I begin introductory classes with the statement: "Everyone you have ever known has been lying to you all of your life - and with the best of intentions. Your parents, your family, your teachers, your spiritual leaders, all of them have lied to you. What does this mean in this class?" After a few minutes of conjecture concerning how they must be open to new ideas, to challenge the reading etc., someone will note that it means that they cannot trust me. This is the A+ answer of course and we move on from there. In those first classes it is important to undermine the notion of professorial authority and to place the burden for thought in the mind of the student. I also tell them I plan to learn as much from them as I can (which is true) and this helps to reverse the age-old expectation that their glasses are empty and I am to fill them with knowledge. Whenever numbers allow we then sit in a circle which takes away the "front" of the room. I realize that my approach is not an easy one for many younger academics. My first teaching job was in a small college with a Roman Catholic history. There was much concern about the lack of moral leadership in my position on teaching from the President's office downward. I do not think that an academic should try to be a role model. That isn't the kind of message parochial schools are interested in.
I try to make students aware that university can be a very special place and time in their lives inasmuch as we can remove it from the flow of the education system they have been immersed in for 13 years. This begins with a deep challenge to the education system - including the institution in which that education is presently taking place. If what I do runs against both fundamentalisms and the efforts to dumb-down the university - good.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: How do students respond to this?
GERRY COULTER: Some of the laziest people you will ever meet begin to work and to think for themselves. In fact, some of the ones with the poorest grades in the past have those grades because they cannot stand the system where grades come from telling the professor what s/he has told them in the past several weeks - the exam as re-make of the lectures.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Is there an overarching idea that guides your approach to students - something you want to leave with them that will last?
GERRY COULTER: Yes - the notion that each of them, if s/he so desires, can view their lives as fundamentally at odds with the universe. For those who are up to it - that is a precious gift. It is one way out of a boring life.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: How does Baudrillard find his way into your teaching?
GERRY COULTER: Often as a text book. America (1986) is a wonderful text to begin a course in Political Sociology with - especially alongside something like Virilio's Politics of the Very Worst. They are useful tools in the process of a course which reduces both politics and sociology to embers and that is a very important experience for majors in any "discipline". In my art course they read The Conspiracy of Art (2005) but I never lecture about it. They write about it in relation to their own thoughts on contemporary art which occur alongside other readings in the course and what I talk about (which is present as merely one more text). The Perfect Crime (1996) is useful in Contemporary Theory. He is essential for me in Visual Sociology especially now as we tumble into the screens of the post-photographic.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: So Baudrillard served as a kind of dam breaker for you - as a professor and as a thinker - he opened up possibilities for you that were present but in mainly frustrating forms?
GERRY COULTER: Yes, precisely - a dam breaker - an ice breaker - laxative for the constipated mind. There is no question that Baudrillard had a profound impact upon me. I was deeply stuck during the 1990s - I read everyone and everything but no one made sense to me. I kept looking for a politics and found that I didn't believe in any of them - and a couple of times I really tried. Then, after ignoring him for fifteen years I picked up Baudrillard again. It was Paroxysm - his book length series of interviews with Philippe Petit (1998). It was early September, I was in my apartment in Strasbourg. at the end of the first interview "The Destiny of Value" I wrote in my copy: "this is the best thing I have read in years". That was the first moment of my becoming unstuck. I read forty of his books in succession over the next few weeks. Again and again the thought returned - "finally, someone [since Nietzsche whom I had read and liked as an undergraduate], who writes many of the things I have said to myself (much less eloquently), for years. And someone who takes some of the thoughts I have had and stretches them out in all directions beyond anything I have imagined". So in the same way that Barthes, Rauschenberg, Warhol, Guattari, Foucault, Kieslowski, Kundera, Louis Kahn, Rem Koolhaas, etc. became anagrammatized into my thought and writing, Baudrillard did likewise. The difference with Baudrillard is that the similarities between my thoughts and his, as well as the way we think, came to dominate my thinking about the others for a while. Before long I found myself able to organize my thoughts into effective writing - writing which is always first and foremost for me. Writing is an important part of how I fell my way through the world.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: You are a very joyous person - how is it that you are so happy in academe?
GERRY COULTER: Wherever I go and whatever I do I bring also my childhood self. A happy-go-lucky four year old rural kid with a suspicion of groups and organizations. I like the scholarly life - where else can I be paid well to read and write and spend time with bright young people? I enjoy the relative freedom of academe, the way I approach it is to do only what I want to do - and I do many conference papers which I enjoy, as I do the constant reading and writing for many different publications around the world. I thoroughly enjoy my time in the classroom - especially in seminars where we sit in a circle and discuss the readings. It is impossible for me to imagine a better way of life. I work about 46 weeks per year, six days a week.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Do students read anymore?
GERRY COULTER: Some do, some of the time - most do not believe in it anymore - they try but cannot find the motivation. There are two ways to deal with this: 1) You try to present them with materials so interesting that they want to read them, and 2) When that fails, and it will fail, sometimes often, you go into class with a few specific passages from the readings in mind. When I find myself in a class which hinges on good discussion - on a day when maybe ¼ of the students have done any of the readings - I pull out a passage for discussion. Almost always I can achieve a lively, interesting and relevant discussion through this approach which was the approach of many of my own professors. I do not think students today are any worse than we were. You simply have to find ways of motivating them to think for themselves - they do appreciate that. And they appreciate not having to buy into any party line - sociological or otherwise. Some students are really tired of being preached at.
We also should keep in mind that the current generation of students is an experiment - we never before have had such a visually and textually enchanted group. Clearly television has not numbed their minds but they live amidst a proliferation of signs and expectations we have never known before. All future generations, so long as we remain encased in techno-gadgetry, are to be experimental. I had a SONY walkman - it played cassette tapes. My students have Blackberries, laptops, wireless internet everywhere, face book etc and within the decade all of these devices will be connected in a wearable computer. No one in 2020 will come to class without a wearable computer. One wonders if we will need the classroom then - when we are all outfitted with wear-comps - I could do a lecture from my home to each of them in their homes. Maybe this is what parents who expect their children to play indoors now are preparing them for later. As for the university - I think it is time for those who lecture to think about other work - the future of the university is the seminar. People will still gather to think and discuss over coffee.
The sun has set on the university as a lecture theatre. In the twilight we can already see that the future of undergraduate education is small seminar classes. Do not be surprised if smaller universities thrive in the next two decades as the reason d être of the larger ones - huge lecture halls - fails to attract. Governments are failing to recognize this and many small private institutions are opening or in the works. Schools hoping to survive even to mid-century would be wise to look at re-tooling towards seminar and small group learning.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Didn't Baudrillard say that the university will become a large cybercafé?
GERRY COULTER: Yes he did and the process is already well underway. It is something we have to deal with as teachers and learn to how to function within. In thirty years all of our present university libraries will either be like advanced cyber-cafes or they will suffer the fate which archives do today (dis-use).
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: So it appears that you have a thoughtful strategy for dealing with a generation of students who do not read and you have other strategies for dealing with academe such as writing?
GERRY COULTER: Precisely. I am a fortunate person - I am well paid and my job enables me to travel quite a lot. I enjoy teaching and nothing stimulates me more than watching a young person develop confidence in his or her own mind and ability to read and think and write. Aside from the travel and the teaching I am fortunate to have found a place that simply allows me to write and to have so many publications interested in what I have to say. I see myself as a writer who happens to teach university. The constant writing entails a constant reading and that has a lovely spill over effect on my classes - they are never the same from year to year even when I use the same books. My ideas are constantly being fed by new authors and this in turn comes back into my writing. I seldom read anything that does not find its way into both my teaching and writing. I enjoy the life of an academic immensely but it has to be very much on my terms. I am the happiest person I know and that hasn't changed since I was a child.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Allow us to throw several names at you - perhaps you would reply with some word associations around those names - first: Roland Barthes?
GERRY COULTER: The importance of self awareness in discourse, in writing, reading. also, punctum - a devastatingly good concept for analyzing photographs.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Emile Cioran?
GERRY COULTER: Making us take seriously the notion that we should cry at the birth of a child - not the death of a person. "Being born is the worst thing that will ever happen to you". It is such a pleasant thought when you settle into it for a while.
Emile Cioran (c1995)
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Robert Rauchenberg?
GERRY COULTER: The love of process. The joy of doing something you love because you love it and deciding how you feel about it afterwards.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Andy Warhol?
GERRY COULTER: Devastate what you love with your pleasure in empting it - share with it the jouissance of the nothing - and leave it to speak only the residue of ambivalence.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Krzysztof Kieslowski?
GERRY COULTER: After everything is gone. God, friends, family, we find joy in ourselves. At the most important times in our life we are ultimately alone.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Felix Guattari?
GERRY COULTER: Lovingly shipwrecked on the shoals of vanished desire.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Gayatri Spivak?
GERRY COULTER: Courage.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Milan Kundera?
GERRY COULTER: Keeping the philosophical novel alive - a loyal knight of the order of complexity.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Louis I. Kahn.
GERRY COULTER: How the past inhabits the present . the importance of light management to life . pure genius, unfailing self confidence, loyalty to good ideas which everyone else dismisses. Theory is a way of doing.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Rem Koolhaus?
GERRY COULTER: Success depends on intelligence and a refusal to accept known limits.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Frank Gehry?
GERRY COULTER: Twist things, stretch them, turn them over, make them scream. Use new technologies to do radically new things - to make us aware of our limitations. Gehry's greatest buildings will not be built - they are not yet technologically possible, he will leave them as ideas - potential - a gift for the future.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Edward Hopper?
GERRY COULTER: Nothing is as it appears, the real at its most apparent is actually quite surreal. I like to say "we never know the real, merely the appearances behind which it hides". For me Hopper is one artist who painted how that feels.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Francis Bacon?
GERRY COULTER: We never really know anyone. including ourselves. He often makes a swirl or leaves an abstract gesture in the face of his portraits to denote this.
Francis Bacon. Portrait of Lucien Freud (1973)
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Marcel Duchamp?
GERRY COULTER: The greatest artist of all time . underestimated for his ability to present the self as a work of art. The murderer of Venus.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Odd Nerdrum?
GERRY COULTER: Paint the monstrosity of the social - past and future.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Joseph Beuys?
GERRY COULTER: Arranging objects and ideas in ways that allow people to feel and think differently than they believe they can.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Olafur Eliasson?
GERRY COULTER: Art begins just after what is impossible becomes apparent.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Jean Baudrillard:
GERRY COULTER: Joyful. eloquent. challenging.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Can you share with us one of those "wow - this is exactly how I feel" moments you first encountered in Baudrillard?
GERRY COULTER: There were many - I recall one very clearly - and it is central to who Baudrillard is, and who I am. Near the end of Simulations he is discussing how people are told that everything is getting better and better and yet, at the same time, they feel everything is getting worse and worse. Here we have the presence of two absolutely true and absolutely contradictory hypotheses. I think it is this moment when I came very close to him - I recall saying "exactly". And I thank Baudrillard immensely for getting me (many of us) past dialectics. Dialectics isn't there to save us as we once believed. And all of this fits well with Baudrillard's tragic optimism, his hope, which has been mine for many years, that somehow our system would collapse - if it continues it will lock us all into modeled, preprogrammed, computer corrected lives. Is this what so called radical groups begging before the state for the Law (some feminists, environmentalists etc.) are dreaming of. a kind of total regulation?
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: We have entered into a strange time when fear is a powerful negative form of inspiration, a time when security has a more powerful impact than risk, a time when everything is being forced into a flowchart model of social and economic development. A time when some feminists act as barriers to free speech. How do you feel about this?
GERRY COULTER: Yes, we have two futures. One possibility, the one I am hoping for, will see our system crumble in a kind of collapse which is already well under way. It will be terrible, billions will perish, a few million (perhaps) will survive - I fear for the other species. The clock will reset in a sense and things will start over again, in a much more primitive setting after perhaps a few hundred years. I think of those people in Odd Nerdrum's paintings as our descendants after "the integral accident" as Virilio calls it has taken place. This is bleak and I hope I am long gone before this comes to pass - but when we look at the other very likely scenario - it is worse.
Odd Nerdrum. The Water Protectors (1985)
In the other scenario - the truly frightening one - the current system succeeds. In this scenario humanity will succeed in building a genuinely brave new world glittering with advanced technologies. We would then live out our lives in total security. If we can somehow reverse the ecological catastrophe which is already well under way we might just enter into this utopian world of protection and security even greater than that inhabited by those rich Americans who live in "gated" communities. Computers will generate the models of lives which will become as predictable as the weather - a world in which evil, all negative events, disease, and uncertainty are removed. But this too will be a world of [distilled and slow] death for an adaptive and thoughtful species. This second scenario is the one everyone is after but we must hope that the cost of approaching it will be the first scenario.
As for what you say about feminists - do not forget that there are many different feminisms and each has a different purpose. Some versions are hard headed, others are censorial, many have a long history of begging before the fatherly state for permissions. Feminism can be the most obedient daughter. But other kinds are beautifully challenging, romantic, poetic, embracing. Feminisms are like anything else - about 95 percent of it is tiresome - but the other 5 percent - pure poetry. Several feminisms today face a huge problem concerning what to do about the other and they find themselves in a strange role akin to the colonizer. Some feminists are learning to work quietly with less concern for what "feminism" receives credit for and more concern for what is actually accomplished in improving the status of women. This means very different things in different contexts.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: How do students take to your hope for system failure as opposed to the "second" scenario you mention above?
GERRY COULTER: It seems to go down pretty well. This is an incredibly apocalyptic generation - they really believe the world is heading for hell in a hand basket and see some kind of massive collapse as imminent (or no longer than two generations away). It has the effect of making them quite cynical and pessimistic. I try to make them feel joy in reading complex interpretations of the world, joy in thinking for themselves, joy in writing, joy in the moment despite everything. I actually like to engage and challenge all the pessimism [with the caveat that neither optimism nor pessimism is to be favoured over the other], and point out that the second scenario may well be a very optimistic one (in the very long run). Ten years ago students tended to complain that their classes were not supplying them with enough solutions - things they could do to repair the world after they graduated. Today, the majority of them seem to have given up on such hopes. I think it makes them like the approach of seeking poetic resolution. If there ever was/is such a thing as postmodernity - this is its first generation. I like to place their cynicism into the long duree. Fernand Braudel - there is another influence.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: What about Braudel?
GERRY COULTER: The importance of thinking outside of one's time despite having to live in it. The ability to see oneself alive 10,000 years ago, or in the year 725, or to think about living in the year 2050, 2300 etc. Braudel has inspired in me the idea that humanity is a catastrophe in slow motion and will remain such. In this view the position of the academic isn't far from Walter Benjamin's angel of history - watching helplessly while the wreckage piles up. Such a shame that so many remain hitched to the idea of progress which is the storm fueling the catastrophe.
III. "Voyageurs on a Cold North Sea"
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: It is very interesting that you would list Joseph Beuys among those who's work has played a very important role in the evolution of your own thought. Can you elaborate more on his role?
GERRY COULTER: Yes, twenty years after his death the works of Joseph Beuys challenge us in a particular way. Beuys was a very political artist but now his works survive on into a time when the politics of their maker are no longer possible. Beuys wanted art to redeem. After the end of dialectics and the idea of transcendence his works still function, but in ways he could not have foreseen or intended. They make the world more poetic, enigmatic, primitive and enjoyable. What can we ask of the artist but joy - joy in uncertainty, instability, fragments of a partial view? I read Beuys work through something of a Duchampian lens. as found primal objects wrenched from the politics of their time. Think of his work Tur (Door, 1954-56 ) - if one work could stand in for the entire century I cannot think of a better one. Doors represent opportunity and Beuys work is - a burnt prospect - the entire history of a century in one work - not his century - our century! And hanging on the door we find the skull of a bird [a heron] and the ears of a hare. I think this work is as prophetic of what is to come as any we will find.
Joseph Beuys. Door (1954-56)
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: So, as an example of how your mind works, both Jean Baudrillard and Joseph Beuys, two agents we could easily see as contradicting one another, serve as inspirations for you.
GERRY COULTER: Yes. Baudrillard demands challenge and Beuys provides arrangements of ideas that are meant to melt ways of thinking which have become ossified. And yet Baudrillard and Beuys are contradictory elements. There is no dialectics to save us from such stark contradictions in our mind. What we have now is an awareness of not only the presence of contradictory hypotheses concerning the world but also a vague understanding that the contradictions will not be resolved in a necessarily positive manner. So along my local and restricted horizon I see Baudrillard and Beuys as two of my inspirations. One affects my heart and the other my mind and where these two meet I can appreciate the fragmented mosaic of thought which results in various fractal abstractions. All ideas are best kept in flux - in a quantum state of process. The fixed and formulated idea is only dead. Who will master symbols? Who will develop a conceptually rigid system of codes for today? Not I.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Your words remove Beuys from his context.
GERRY COULTER: No, they do not - his context has disappeared - I had nothing to do with that. What I have to decide, as do you, is what to do with his works which survive the context of their making. Beuys's work, devoid of its political context, can be viewed as setting up "another scene" from the real. His simulated fragments point to aspects of the enigmaticalness of the world with works that hinge on fragments, silence, and enshrouding. Beuys's art can be read today, from the vantage point of radical thought, as contributing to the enigmatic and unintelligible character of the world. Like the best of contemporary thought, these works heighten our awareness that it is appearances we know, never the real which hides behind them. And it is here where Beuys's works continue their assault on the epistemological break although not at all in ways he foresaw.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: What do you mean by "epistemological break".
GERRY COULTER: In social thought, especially in the social sciences, there is an epistemological break following the development of quantitative tools - all other forms of knowledge are relegated to some pre-history of knowledge that no longer makes sense. The irony of course is that this is done in the name of science but if social "scientists" paid any attention at all to 20th century science (not 19th) they would know that the great gift of science is not fact but uncertainty. Theory is an art form and can never settle for being made into a means for counting. Thought, understood as an art, is a way of proceeding. In our time this is perhaps as close to a legitimate feeling of freedom that any of us may approach.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: You have a doctorate in Sociology and have passed through all the stages of promotion to what is, in Canada, the highest academic rank (Full Professor), and you have been a chairperson of a university department. You do not sound like many academics at 50 - you do not sound like most sociologists of your age and experience. What is it like for you being an academic?
GERRY COULTER: I live on a kind of (p)reserve where I also work - it is called a university. In this place one is forced to live in this house or that house - the house I chose to live in long ago is called Sociology. It is a house full of well intentioned and very thoughtful people who write a lot but do not care very much, it seems to me, about writing (this applies to all disciplines in the academy today). So many spend their lives thinking but do not care much for thought. What most sociologists would like to be is a revolutionary politician. However, the revolution has long ago taken place. The life of a university professor, it seems to me, is a sad and pitiable existence unless you really do care about thought and writing. When you do new possibilities open up - writing becomes your politics - thought (free of politics) becomes freer. The brightest students we work with are of two kinds. The first kind become the audience of the converted and want someone to preach to them. University is understood as paying for the knowledge which your professors share with you based on their research. This is a sound and banal approach to academic life. The second group tire quickly of this role and if they are too radical to jump through those hoops, they will embrace theory as challenge. They do not expect to learn from you but to be challenged by you to think for themselves. Even if they are not interested in a life in academe they understand that the ability ot think for themselves will be useful throughout their lives. They simply need practice doing it in the presence of their peers.
So many sociology departments, like other departments, operate as panoptic surveillance machines reigning in young faculty and students. I worked in one once and managed to dodge every overture but this also means that you have to leave. Most sociologists that I meet at conferences are dreaming of some kind of coherent vision and they seek some kind of political determination. Yet the world mocks them - it is simultaneously everything they say it is and yet it remains enigmatic and unknowable. I do not go to many conferences which are held under the auspices of "official sociology" - it is simply too sad to be around those people. Wasn't it Goddard who said: "by being realistic one discovers the theatre"? Sociologists suffer a cruel revenge at the hands of the world. The department I am in is small and we do a laudable job of staying out of each other's way. I wonder if I could find another department where, while we are not an especially close-knit group, scholarly freedom is as highly respected. Most senior academics, in my experience at other university departments, boast about academic freedom but allow very little of it to younger colleagues. And where the individual department allows it the discipline itself - through the official "party" journals, which themselves are deeply indebted to free speech, exist to police the range of thinkable thought and allowable discourse. I suppose the desire to shape the discipline and one's department might come from sociology's roots in trying to (re)shape society as discourse and institutionally. The only message that departments and journals should send out to the next generation is "challenge us".
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: And yet sociology claims to act on behalf of "the people"?
GERRY COULTER: An unfortunate coincidence between politicians and sociologists. Despite the possibilities which sociology presents it seems such a shame that the pre-existing identities of the researcher are so often projected onto the search for a mirror. The mass is unknowable and yet everywhere politicians (who rarely if ever have even half of the popular vote), and sociologists (who have little if any public support at all), tell us they know what "the people" want.
Advertisements for automobiles and laundry detergent etc., also claim to know what the people want but at least they do not presume that our minds are already made up. Among the more interesting cases in academe in recent years has been feminist scholarship. Everywhere feminists (of all stripes) find feminist women but women in society generally do not self-identify as feminists. The academic feminists are perplexed by this - it reminds me of the frustrations felt by Marxists thirty years ago - everywhere a working class and so few Marxists among them. Today there are women everywhere in public life but so few feminists among them. No matter how ideologically motivated they are, most thinkers project a certain reality onto the public - the same public which ultimately resists categorization. In this way most sociological narratives concerning the public are fictions. Most research on the public has more to do with what the researcher would like the public to be than what the public is.
Now it may be possible that out of the current moment sociology will suddenly grow up and stop projecting itself onto a society which is never there. But I fear that most sociologists are reality junkies always on the make for a fix. Is there anything sadder than the pusher addicted to his or her own poison? It is perhaps a harsh but fitting way of understanding which fits well alongside the university viewed as a crack house for Truth junkies.
That said, there is some decentering of the apparatuses of cultural production - I do not myself see much of it coming out of areas where thinkers tend to operate with the notion of fixed political identities. The really interesting writers - and the journals which publish them at the moment (such as CNTL + P, Baudrillard Studies, Zizek Studies, Nebula and so on), understand that institution bound codings still dominate but clearly (and the existence of so many new non-traditional journals bears this out), we are seeing the development of important unconventional alternative networks and spaces.
Now what remains to be seen is how well the new avenues avoid the old pitfalls. The university and the publications it has spawned all too often forget that a state of perpetual inquiry and debate demands of all academics that they occupy the status of the challenging outsider perpetually. I have been very aware of this since the inception of IJBS. Let me put it this way: The greatest challenge any of us ever face in our lives - to our individuality - comes from any community that we belong to. This demands of me that while I occupy an important nexus point (IJBS) in the global discussion about Baudrillard, I never become an insider in that community. The same goes for the department in which I teach or the university or my fields. This is very difficult for young academics - it isn't easy remaining outside of groups which have many ways of pulling you in. It is the secret to how I manage all of my affairs including IJBS.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Where does humanism fit into your view?
GERRY COULTER: To be honest I try to avoid it as much as possible - it is an enormous burden on those who labour under its yoke. I try to keep my focus on that aspect of humanity which is far greater in our history - and no doubt, our future - the inhuman. It helps me to avoid time wasted investing in heroes and causes.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: So what you do is not sociology?
GERRY COULTER: I do not "do" sociology, but I can imagine a sociology that does not begin with an assumption or an assertion that is "Truth" or "Reality" based. The purpose even of a device such as a questionnaire, for example, could be to deconstruct the reason for the survey and the role of the researcher. The result would be less clarity, less false resolution - the outcome would be something more enigmatic and less knowable. Why are no sociologists doing research which attempts to show that the mass is unknowable? Try to get such a thing funded! Sociology is not so far from market research - but it is further than it was fifty years ago when it was difficult to determine any significant distance from it at all. What changed is that critical theories have come to supplant functionalism which has given rise to a new critical functionalism. If sociology were interested in such research we would probably find that the "voice of the people" is multi-vocal. We would find that most women are not feminists, most workers are not Marxists, most consumers do not like consumption, the majority of people do not like politicians. We would quite possibly discover that everyone knows that something is wrong but no one knows how to fix it. This would not mean that we could ever discover what "the mass" is, or what "the mass" wants. When someone purports to know the "mass" they are either lying or have become intoxicated by the smell of their own ideology. If you believe you can know the vox populi you will probably fool yourself first. What I do is at once academic and non-academic (as academe is constructed). I am a character who visits a subject just long enough to do it harm as I gather seek an escape velocity to elsewhere. I hope I contribute to the destabilization of any topic (or "discipline") that I spend time working on.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Foucault certainly seems to be in your thinking.
GERRY COULTER: Yes, he taught me that we are creatures of discourse the way fish are creatures of water. From him I learned that the most sophisticated machines are made of language. Discourse is not simply a meeting place of words and things. It is all of the practices by which we "systematically form", as Foucault put it in his Archaeology of Knowledge, the objects of which they speak.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Despite Forget Foucault, is there not an irrepressible impact of Foucault on Baudrillard along these same lines.
GERRY COULTER: Yes. Baudrillard broke with Foucault on power - but on discourse he takes from Foucault (and elsewhere) the value of destabilizing. Genealogy for Foucault disturbs notions of immobility fragmenting that which is understood as integrated.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: What can a sociology of the future take from this?
GERRY COULTER: Well, if it were to somehow find itself, like those art objects/ideas of Beuys, without the political commitments of its formation, I suppose it could show academe and the advertising industry (which sociology loathes but is, ultimately, part of at the present moment), that we cannot represent the mass, that the mass is contingent. We should, in my view, be aware of two things: 1) With Foucault comes the end of the viability of the separation of academic faculties into distinct branches of knowledge, and 2) interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity does not necessarily remove the academic police - they are merely replaced by INTERPOL like outfits.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: So the university is a very modernist institution still?
GERRY COULTER: In the main, yes. But everywhere all modernisms are confronted with heterogenous forces - a heterogeneity of activities that cannot simply be theorized as coherent or unified. Watch the new theorists - the ones who seek to lend to the present moment any sense of coherence or unity - there you will find the desire for a new police (Europe and America are rife with them today). And it extends beyond new academics to the well established. The most pitiful thing I ever witnessed was in late 2001 and into 2002 when several American scholars, considered to be leaders in their fields, rushed to sign onto the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act is the single most vile piece of legislation, from the viewpoint of scholarly freedom, in existence in America. It stands at the other end of the spectrum from thought as challenge or radical thought (such as Baudrillard's take on 9/11). And then there were leading law school professors entering into discussions where the goal was to find ways to make torture legal in America. In an ironic sense this is an appropriate approach for an Administration which was interested, for several years, only in what it wanted to hear. Torture tells you only that.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Then . "the world as it is" is to be avoided?
GERRY COULTER: Yes, and I add that the world is never as it appears - everything hides behind appearances. If we accept the world as it appears we are done for. But if we accept that the world is not as it appears then the possibility of a poetic resolution opens up - not a coherent view, not a narrative of Truth - but a way of resolving the world poetically. Sociology and social thought can find poetic resolution if they can learn to love the ruin in the mist or if they acknowledge we have more to gain from a painting or a film than a survey instrument which merely confirms the biases built into it - including the bias that survey's should produce knowledge. Goethe understood that the self is the only standard of truth we will ever know. So much "disciplined" academic thought is committed to avoiding that little insight and yet we always return to it.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Why?
GERRY COULTER: Because the university is an integral part of bourgeois promotional culture as is the art gallery or the shopping mall or the halls of government or those of the advertising agency. Sociology tries to extricate itself from this as well as any "discipline" but political commitments undermine it and it ends up working on behalf of the system. Sociology is the closest area of study to Marxism and like Marxism it is committed to productivism. Perhaps some of the greener theories emerging today will do something with this problem but ultimately I think it is the most human of problems. Our collective death which has begun is perhaps the product of the destiny of productivism. We are voyageurs on a cold North Sea now with no land in sight.
IV. Baudrillard Studies
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies - where is it today, five years on, in relation to what you had hoped when you founded it?
GERRY COULTER: IJBS is doing very much as I had hoped it would along the lines of the hopes I expressed in the editorial in Volume 1-1. It is a place where a good deal of writing (poetry, art, photography, and literature) concerning Baudrillard is finding its way into circulation. The articles and reviews on the journal website take over 120,000 hits per year now in total and that is about three times what I had hoped for at this point. We have published many interesting and insightful articles which intersect with Baudrillard's thought. It is wonderful to receive interesting writings by younger writers as well as established academics such as Zizek, Agamben, Kristeva and Peter Singer. When I launched IJBS I had a suspicion that there were many people writing about Baudrillard who we were not getting into print because established journals were not interested in Baudrillard (or were threatened by his writing). I am so happy to see that his work is currently playing an important role among graduate students.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: What about you, personally - has IJBS changed your life?
GERRY COULTER: Enormously - now people want to interview me! (Along with you I have a Russian journal [Khora] asking for an interview for a special issue on Baudrillard they are preparing). And a few years ago Kritikos interviewed me about IJBS). In all seriousness though, IJBS has changed things for me in at least four ways: 1) I now read a good deal [80-90%] of what is written about Baudrillard, in essay length form, before anyone else sees it. My role at IJBS makes me extremely aware of developments in writing which intersects with that of Baudrillard and this is very useful to me as a teacher and writer; 2) IJBS has elevated my own profile not merely through my writing and editing activities for it, but in terms of bringing me into contact with people interested in Baudrillard work - well over three hundred I suppose since the journal started; 3) It has led to many new publishing opportunities - I am often invited to write a piece for a journal because people have learned of my thoughts in IJBS - and conference possibilities have opened up as well that were not possible before - I often talk about the experience of founding and sustaining the journal; and 4) Closely linked to the previous point, I am now widely considered to be one of the pioneers of the open access peer-review journal boom that is going on at present. IJBS has inspired Paul Taylor's Zizek Studies (IJZS) project and other international scholarly publications point to IJBS as a model for those wishing to start up an on-line open-access journal. In 2008 The Times Higher Education Supplement called me courageous and noted the role of IJBS in the "flattening and compression of expertise in the online environment". Since that article three younger academics have contacted me for advice on their own on-line projects. I have had almost unqualified support in doing this project and that began with Baudrillard himself.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Can you describe your relationship with Baudrillard and what his relationship was to IJBS?
GERRY COULTER: It was very warm and supportive. Our first meeting was at Café Select near his home. We laughed at the irony of IJBS but we both love contradictions so that would not stop us. I told him about my roots (we were two peasants in Paris), my reservations about academe, how I managed to thrive there and we discussed the reception of his work. He was remarkably gracious with some of his harshest critics such as Douglas Kellner and noted that Kellner had moved some distance towards Baudrillard away from his original position. Jean found Paris academic culture disappointing and he enjoyed engaging with people who had read his work in a serious matter - he was especially appreciative of Kellner. As for the local academic context - he was near the Sorbonne - it was the time of the US preparation to invade Iraq. I noted that there were fewer police in his part of town than others I had been in. He said "here the police have been replaced by the anti-war protestors". It was an extremely witty remark which said how he felt about all forms of social pressure to think one way or another.
We also discussed many people who were closer to him in terms of their thought about his work and I then I told him about the IJBS idea. I ran through the list of names of the original editorial board and he was intrigued. I said "so this is the idea, a journal which will engage with your thought in a serious manner, which will post traditional research as well as non traditional items, which will sometimes agree with you and show new applications of your thought and which will also vehemently disagree with you and challenge your work". He smiled and said that "this project has my entire support". I asked him if he would like his same to appear on the "Editorial Board" and he agreed without hesitation. It was too ironic for him to resist!
Jean did not use the Internet - even his e-mails began as hand written and were typed by his partner who helped with his communications. IJBS relishes the irony of being a virtual journal. It is always fun to find websites where authors who have not actually read IJBS beyond the opening page or the table of contents criticizing us for being what we are. As I said earlier - Jean and anything involved with his writing is a litmus test for banality and immaturity.
Jean's partner Marine printed each issue and he read the content. He was somewhat bemused by the appearance of his old nemesis Kristeva in the journal's pages. He mentioned this to me and I pointed out how some insights in her recent thought on "intimate revolt" were similar to some of his own thinking. He was also intrigued by how young people were responding to his work - including his photography and writing about it. Each year I would receive a kind word from him about the publication either in person or by e-mail as in these words which followed the publication of Volume 3-1 (July 2006): "D'abord laisse moi te feliciter pour le dernier numero des IJBS. tu as fait un superbe travail!".
Jean's role was that of an interested observer - IJBS was part of his virtual
double life on the web. It was the best thing about him on the web and he was gratified to see so many people seriously engaging with his thought.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: What advice do you pass on to the editors of new e-journals who come to you?
GERRY COULTER: I advise them to have a clear purpose, engage with experts in the field and get them on board, "do something that has never been done with a journal" and to make it a labour of love. When academic work becomes work - it dies. Show me a 9-5 academic and I will show you a person who does not love what they do. Life is all about love and joy - all else is distraction. I also suggest that they think outside of academe. There are a lot of very intelligent people out there looking for interesting things to stimulate their thought processes - why not serve and draw from them as well as from academe?
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Are you satisfied with IJBS?
GERRY COULTER: Yes - IJBS has been around long enough now, with an established record of excellence, that people trust us to handle their work with care and precision. We have become a very good journal. So, a good deal of what is getting published about Baudrillard (in non-book form) is appearing on our pages. This includes some of the more interesting thinkers in the world (Baudrillard himself, Zizek, Peter Singer), leading Baudrillardian Scholars (such as Rex Butler, Gary Genosko, Alan Cholodenko, Victoria Grace, Paul Taylor, etc.), and a very interesting number of writers, poets, young scholars. I am very pleased with the enormous amount of work our editors have put into this project and that so many have embraced it the way I have since the beginning - as a labour of love. As for the future that all depends on who is writing about Baudrillard - so far it has been a very nice flow of over about 40 papers per year - several of which make it into the pages of IJBS. That said, we will continue to grow and develop in ways which I cannot anticipate today.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Might this include a "flashier" look?
GERRY COULTER: No - one thing that is really pleasing about IJBS is its simple look. The photograph on the opening page is wonderful and everything is right there for a reader to click. The lack of flash etc. simply makes us more accessible to more people without unnecessary delays in loading time. This is an important consideration - the vast majority of people on earth do not have high speed internet - the more flash and dazzle - the slower the opening time. Besides, I find the flashier journals to be making some kind of techno-effort to hide the fact that their content isn't very substantial.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Have you been surprised by the success of IJBS and its influence? Did you expect it?
GERRY COULTER: I seriously expected back in 2002-03 when I founded the journal (our first issue was January 2004), that we might post four articles and three or four book reviews per issue. We have been going at about three times as many articles as that on average. I did not expect us to be so influential on other scholarly electronic initiatives. But then, IJBS was simply a really good and doable idea. Others have looked at us and said "we can do something like that for an entirely different constituency".
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: How much does IJBS cost to run?
GERRY COULTER: In terms of money - nothing. Bishop's University provides server access (which is something they have for the whole university), I now do the html (which is very easy with the new programs available) and now the only investment is time and love.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Where do you see IJBS going in the future?
GERRY COULTER: It may be around as long as I am - who can say what the destiny of such a thing as a website may be? I see it going where those who submit articles, poems, reviews, etc., wish to take it. I try to stay out of its way and the life of the journal depends very much on those who wish to participate in it.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: If you were to tire of IJBS and no one else were willing to take it over, would you consider selling it to one of those large journal distribution companies?
GERRY COULTER: No, I have already turned down an offer from a major corporate distributor of journals. I am happy doing it so long as good writers wish to continue to use it to share their ideas. In ten or fifteen years maybe someone else will run it. I have a hunch that it will, one day, disappear - seduced and abandoned in hyperspace.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: It is sad to consider that it may simply disappear - it is an important outlet and its very existence has inspired others, as you say, to undertake similar ventures.
GERRY COULTER: It is the destiny of everything to disappear but disappearance is not easy.
V. The Next Horizon
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: You do not like to be compared to Baudrillard but there is, in your writing, a comfort with his ideas that is rare. You seem willing to go places with him that many others are not. With some Baudrillard scholars of the first rank (Mike Gane comes to mind) it seems to us there is always a slight pulling back, a reserve, a failure to go all the way with Baudrillard's thought. How is it that you are so comfortable with Baudrillard's most radical ideas?
GERRY COULTER: I agree with your assessment and am often somewhat frustrated by papers appearing in IJBS because, at the paroxystic moment in the writing of the article, there is this "pulling back" as you say. Perhaps in my thought and writing it has to do with the fact that I do not find Baudrillard to be very radical. He simply makes so much sense to me. What I think it is, is this: the "pulling back" is related to each person's system commitments. Many who wish to travel some distance with him are not eager to rock their own boat. But then, some of his greatest challengers also hold certain system commitments. Rex Butler has it figured out - take Baudrillard on his own terms and challenge yourself while doing it. It is very interesting to me how Baudrillard's thought exposes the heart of everyone who approaches it.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Yet your ideas and Baudrillard's are very different in important ways aren't they.
GERRY COULTER: It is interesting how people who share a view manage to differ so much. Put it down to different levels of tolerance for certain things, different personalities and, in the case of Jean and I, different stages of life. He loved having interesting conversations. But he found so few people that he liked to talk with in Paris - with each passing year the cemeteries took them. Derrida tumbled so far into his deconstructionism that no one could really talk with him at the end. Derrida was brilliant but Baudrillard was among those who found him more than a little tedious to deal with in person. It was following a colloquium where he and Derrida appeared that Baudrillard noted how constructive and productive deconstruction is!
Luc Delahaye. Kosovo Hospital (1993).
Many younger people (including undergraduates) who wrote to him were surprised that he replied but in truth he simply liked to engage with anyone discussing ideas he found interesting. I am thinking of the young German philosopher Caroline Heinrich for example with whom, I understand, he frequently spoke. His interest in the unusual took him into the orbit of people one might not expect such as the brilliant Paris based writer Sophie Calle and the journalist Luc Delahaye. He certainly enjoyed his book length conversation Exiles From Dialogue with Enrique Valiente Noailles and he really liked Francois L'Yvonnet and Marc Guillaume. There were others as well but I do not recall the names just now. For me, I am too much the loner and I am careful not to end my days with Nietzsche's regret - not enough time spent with others - not enough relationships - I have worked on that the past few years and with very pleasant results. Maybe I learned that from Jean - everyone who knew him well will tell you what an incredible understated personal charm he had. I do not possess his charm. I only knew him personally in his 70s, perhaps near the end we give more time to people - it is part of letting go. As for me it is certainly not a bad thing to be deeply loved and admired by only a few people whom you also love and admire greatly. I find the answer I have given to your question to be interesting - it is teaching me something as I give it.
Sophie Calle. (Paris, 2005).
One difference then is that I think Jean needed people more than me and maybe he didn't have as many as he would have liked. He was very warm and interesting but what interested him was of no interest to a younger generation of Paris-based academics. As for academics he couldn't take them in large groups and I have no doubt that he retired early from teaching for this reason. I think I may have an extra plate of armour than he did - an ability to draw energy from the contempt of certain academics whereas it came to bore Jean. The secret to surviving the academy as a radical thinker is to be able to convert contempt into energy - this is the new alchemy - you can make a fine armour of its metal.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: It seems that one of the places where your thought and that of Baudrillard intersects most closely has to do with photography.
GERRY COULTER: Yes, this is true - there aren't many of us out there who are concerned with the death of photography in the way Jean was and I am. For me, I find it interesting that art isn't merely perpetrating a hostile takeover of photography but is trying to enslave it. Ironically, the artists doing this (such as Jeff Wall) rely on precisely the kind of technologies that also frighten the arts. But photography will persist - the writing of light will not fade away. There will be less of it and more image art masquerading as photography. I think you have photography and you have image art. Today image art is dependent on the sickly light of the screen and some of it is wonderful art - but it isn't photography. This is a time of great confusion and the confusion of image art and photography is appropriate to this time period. I am grateful to feel differently about it than most do although my thought on photography and image art is considered dated already. I am fine with that as my thought on photography is for the future in any event. In an important way, the digital was over before it began - a victim of its own predictability. Have you noticed how historical digitality has recently become?
Joseph Beuys. Democracy is Merry.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Do you have a favourite photograph?
GERRY COULTER: Yes, Joseph Beuys leaving his office at the university (he has been forced out by the administration) - he is smiling and surrounded by police - across the photograph - which he turned into a work of art he has written (in German) "Democracy is Merry".
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: Do you take many photographs?
GERRY COULTER: A few and I am learning to be a better photographer. I find it an enormous amount of work. I do not go looking for photographs very often, I let the light find me. One of my favourites came to me one day when I was looking out the window at the bright winter sun visible through the leaves of a plant. I held my camera about a foot from one of the leaves and the result is a photograph I really like - I called it Illusion. It is a case of using a camera to make enigmatic that which is apparently clear. Of rendering unintelligible that which is too intelligible - to see a plant in a way that makes it unreadable - to accentuate the false transparency of the world. And what better way than by using light - 95% of the light in the world falls outside of the range visible to our eyes. So one thing a good photograph does in my view is to participate in this radical disillusioning of the world.
Gerry Coulter. Illusion (2008)
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: In an article about photography you recently wrote "the catastrophe of the digital is its lack of vital energy and the substitution for energy with the banal enervations of the screen and the program. This is the disaster in slow motion (without end) which we now face as we achieve escape velocity from the margins of postmodernity out into the boundless hell of the digital networks". Would you elaborate on this?
GERRY COULTER: Yes I was wondering just why it is that we prefer the sickly colours and advanced artificiality of the digital screen to the kind of photography which is dependent upon natural light. It seems to me that photography is being sapped of its energy by digitalization and computer manipulation. When energy in photography (and in art) disappears, enervating forms dominate and servitude becomes the meaning of the expression "our digital destiny". Do we want to be exiles of the virtual - do we really prefer this to the catastrophe of the real? Why are we so eager to volunteer for this particular form of technological servitude? In the programs and networks of the digital the artistic and photographic energy we knew not so long ago is being reduced to a kind of digital lassitude.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: We understand that you have taken up painting?
GERRY COULTER: Yes. Painting is interesting to me now - it always has been but I never could bring myself to do it - so I just waited to see if someday painting would overtake me. I like the process of handing paint - of resisting but eventually embracing the inevitability of form. Painting is telling me that our problem with the real may well be based in the way our eyes and minds look for forms and patterns. This tells me that the purpose of radical thought is our mind trying to overcome its lazier tendencies - the Real is, after all, an easy solution to a much more complex and problematic series of questions.
I am fascinated by colour and surface texture. I really like Hundertwasser's paintings and maybe I will be pulled, eventually, to make art that looks more like his but less about human habitation (he was an architect who painted because he was seldom allowed to build). I enjoy working with horizons and rectangles and reds and blues and yellows. We will see where it goes. My great fear of painting was that it would take away from my writing - the reverse is the case. I have painted a lot this past year but never before has writing been so free and easy. Painting as process is very relaxing, freeing, it seems to rest my mind and make my writing flow easier. My writing has, for some time, owed a debt to art but never so directly as in the past year.
Hundertwasser. Frederick the Great Way
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: What is appearing on your horizon?
GERRY COULTER: I am thinking a good deal about architecture these days - Frank Gehry is coming into view - especially his method - his way of drawing of working with paper and cardboard models before moving to the screen. I am currently fascinated by the ways in which architectural modernism has persisted in the private home and small public building. I have recently written about Lisa Yuskavage and plan to do more with the contemporary artists whom I find to be joyful - Pipilotti Rist for example - completely serious and simultaneously joyous. I also think it is time I devoted more attention to one of the most interesting artists of our time Olafur Eliasson.
Pipilotti Rist - Still from Selfless in the bath of lava (1994)
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: China has also entered into your activities this past year?
GERRY COULTER: I have, through a series of fortunate encounters, come to find Chinese culture interesting. The Chinese government is another story. It stands for everything I detest - statism, nationalism, collectivism - the term "politically correct" certainly takes on new meanings in China. Yet, there is resistance among artists - very skilful and sly resistance. I am fond of contemporary art in China especially cynical realism. What is especially interesting about China, at the present moment when so many are focused on its artists, is that the political and economic leadership of the country is preparing China to dominate the new, New World Order. China is poised to force older so called "democratic countries" to play global capitalism without the messiness and expense of democracy. China is the first fully post-democratic capitalist country and it will push the older established "democratic" countries to be more like them. But if fully post-democratic capitalism is to be our future then the lesson of China is that cynical realism has a bright future - everywhere!
There are already voluntary moves on the part of the West to treat publics more as China does. Since 9/11 in the West everyone is treated as a terrorist suspect and when asked the middle classes (the playground of the pollsters), report that they prefer security to privacy. When we look at the efforts to reduce civil rights in Western democracies we see that the West has moved closer to China in the past decade than it has moved toward the West. The myth is the Westernization of China but what is happening, in fact, is that the China-ization of the West.
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: You certainly do have a knack for conjuring ambivalence.
GERRY COULTER: Isn't this what you have left after you have read anything truly worthwhile? Baudrillard, Foucault, Guattari, Kundera, Barthes, Nietzsche.? - the residue of ambivalence? If my work contributes to this in any way - then I say "wonderful!"
IZINSIZ GOSTERI: A final question - can you recall your feelings at learning of the passing of Baudrillard? You are such a joyful person and thinker .has his loss affected you or your thoughts about joy and death in any way?
GERRY COULTER : If you want to hang me from the same tree as Baudrillard this is the limb you should choose - joy. He and I shared a sensibility that we can only be termed joyful. When he died what I felt was the loss of a kindred spirit more than anything. It was 20 minutes before a class. During the talk I shared with the students that evening I eventually came to a reference to Baudrillard. As I quoted him I said: "Jean Baudrillard, who died today in Paris, once said '.' ". At the word "Paris" a heartwarming sound emerged from the class. I might as well have said "my wife died today". The sound was one that I can only describe as deeply sympathetic shock". They had lost him too but the sympathetic part of the sound was for me - the shocked part was for them. It was so consoling to me. I have ended more than one course in which the students stand and applaud my efforts and their experience of the course. This is supposed to be the professors dream - but long after I have forgotten those classes the sound that those young people made at learning of Jean's death will remain with me. They felt my loss more than their own - they felt pain for me. I guess they understood that I had lost more than another author or friend, but a kindred spirit. During our first conversation Jean and I recognized this joyful quality in the other and it was what made it possible for us to trust each other immediately.
As a child I made my play into a kind of work. As an adult I am so fortunate to be able to make my work into play. For someone who works 8-12 hours a day - that is important - it always feels like play. When work feels like work I shift topics and come back to a project when it feels more like play.
People who have known me for some time say that I am enigmatic. They tell me that they mean this as a compliment - it is certainly a long way from being called a fundamentalist isn't it? I am, at present, in a very important way, living out a dream I had as an undergraduate of what my life at 50 would be like: I am recognized by most of my students as a good and caring teacher; I have interesting discussions at conferences around the world and I travel where I want; IJBS keeps me on the cutting edge of literature concerning theory and Baudrillard; I love the areas I work, teach and read in; I have many hours which I devote to wonderful books; my "work" is enveloped by the arts and I do enjoy all of it immensely. I have been told that I am living a charmed life - perhaps I am. It is my own way of responding to the challenge of the indifferent universe which says to us each morning: "you exist - deal with it". I feel that I have been dealing with it quite well the past several years. I say this without any hubris - nemeses always lurks in the shadows and I am very aware of the inevitability of reversion. The art of course is to disappear at what might have otherwise been the paroxystic moment of one's best days - the moment just before reversion.
Death rides a fast horse. The greatest trick in the world would be to surprise Death a moment before he expects you and to see him, startled, flung from his horse. How pleasant to lend a hand to Death back to his feet before riding with him out past the horizon of appearance where the horizon of disappearance comes into view. The light must be so incredible there. I wonder if we will recognize it as the light we saw just before the moment of our birth?
Gerry Coulter 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" will appear in Volume 6, Number 1 of Nebula: A Journal of Multidisciplinary Scholarship in February 2009: http://www.nobleworld.biz/nebulaarchive.html . 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.