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PRINT September 2012

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David Rimanelli on Jean Baudrillard’s “What Are You Doing After the Orgy?”

Page from Artforum 22, no. 2 (October 1983). Jean Baudrillard, “What Are You Doing After the Orgy?”

The fascination of the pictures is the fascination of being seduced by a dead object, it is the magic of disappearance, and this particular magic can be found just as easily in pornographic images as in Modern art, where the prevailing obsession has been to literally not be viewable, to defy any and all possibilities of visual seduction.

—Jean Baudrillard, “What Are You Doing After the Orgy?”

IT WAS ANOTHER MOMENT, now impossible to reconstruct, a mix of naïveté and cynicism, philosophy and excess, that spawned Jean Baudrillard’s appearance in these pages during the 1980s. French poststructural theory arrived within this milieu as a reprieve from the tyranny of anti-intellectualism—an antidote to, and an extension of, the ideals of the ’60s. Critical discourse, which had previously appealed only to critics and historians, infiltrated gossipy conversations and prime-time TV shows. Thinking went along with going to nightclubs in New York City and to Comme des Garçons, where one could buy deathlessly chic clothes that fell apart and cost more because of it. Fax machines evinced ecstatic fascination: You put the paper in and it came out somewhere else—it was great! Baudrillard’s writing was the distillation of this ambience. His early observation that Marx’s opposition between use-value and exchange-value had been derailed by the ever-expanding regime of the commodity helped to create the critical space that engendered appropriation and critiques of originality in art; you could hardly go to an opening without discussing simulations and simulacra. Along with a generation of post-’60s writers—Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze, called the “incorruptibles” by Hélène Cixous for their predilection for “refinement, paradox, and aporia”—he provided the sound track for a period of cultural revelation that was deliriously self-critical.

By publishing in Artforum, and in his role as a contributing editor here, Baudrillard acknowledged the position he had come to occupy in the discourse of contemporary art. His two essays for the magazine—“What Are You Doing After the Orgy?” (October 1983) and “Astral America” (September 1984)—took him into a world he had imagined and show him writing on what he projected to be its own terms. In “Astral America,” this simulation of America is conjured via a description of television laugh tracks: “The laughs are inexorable,” he writes. “It’s the sarcastic exhilaration of a puritan culture. Elsewhere the task of laughter, and of pleasure, is left to the spectator. Here, one’s own laugh is carried over to the screen, where it is part of the spectacle, where it can’t be ambiguous; it’s the screen that laughs, the screen that is entertained. All that is left to you is consternation.”

Baudrillard, who was not himself ecstatic, wrote on a typewriter, just as Paul Virilio refuses to fly. And when I traveled to a conference in Seoul with Baudrillard, I discovered he spoke little English, and I was reduced to conversing in my poor schoolgirl French. But in “What Are You Doing After the Orgy?” he immerses himself in this visceral, and foreign, language of America. It starts out really well—“the prostitution of an illusion” sounds good. I’m all for it. But if I’ve ever become tired of a word, it’s information, and Baudrillard anticipated in decisive ways the explosion of information technologies that were at the time of his writing still for the common reader pure sci-fi; today, they are pure TMZ.com, Pornotopia.com, Ancestry.com, StealMyIdentityPlease.com. Here is where the intervening decades make it difficult to resurrect the visionary aspect of this writing. I can launch a missile from the GPS in my smartphone. Baudrillard never had a smartphone—he probably never had a cell phone. Reading the text now, there’s truth, but it feels like a thin truth—the words ecstatic and hyperreal seem like fake words, like lying. Technology is the only thing I can count on to improve. Baudrillard’s denunciations of archaic technology are quaint. Quaint, like Playboy pictures. Baudrillard asks: “Are you attracted to them?” Me? To Playboy? Really? They’re not exactly explicit. In a study somewhere, I read that people now relate more to pornography than they do to real sex acts. They prefer it. Because it looks better than what they get in life—and it probably is better because it’s done by professionals. In this context, Baudrillard’s “collective vertigo of neutralization, a forward escape into the obscenity of pure and empty form, unintelligible form, wherein the visible is both lessened and degraded,” sounds prophetic.

Over the course of the essay, Baudrillard addresses increasingly vivid levels of atrocity. First, a crashed plane—340 people killed, only a fraction of whom were visually identifiable. Rather than find obscenity in the disaster itself, he locates it in a then-new technology: the process of gathering the twelve thousand pieces into which the passengers were shredded and scanning them via a computer to establish the identity of the dead. Nowadays, it is more timely to find obscenity and atrocity not in the submission of physical body parts to information processing, but in the submission of human subjectivity to networked systems of capital. Next, the author discusses “sentimental cannibalism.” And the passage is . . . Well, actually, let’s not. Baudrillard’s description is disgusting. It’s real, it’s hyperreally real, real hyperreality—really creepy. “Issei stretches out Renée’s corpse, tries to bite her, but the skin is too resilient.” Call me bourgeois: I simply disapprove. As the essay moves on, there are some awkward moments: The descriptions of female audience members at a male strip club, “obscene because of the sexual spillage evident in their faces,” and of “Marvelous Idi Amin Dada” take Baudrillard to the edge of an abyss he has named America, but they have probably as much to do with his own trips as they do with l’esprit américain. In the end, he pulls back—“Happily we are only playing the comedy of obscenity”—but in the time that has passed the joke has faded. We now know the fascination of being seduced by a dead object. It’s banal. It’s everything you say, Jean Baudrillard, except more, you can’t fathom how much more.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.