Thursday, March 08, 2007

RIP Jean Baudrillard

Back in the mid-1980s, when I was a pretentious (which in its Xer day meant portentious) Melbourne Uni arts student – as well as, rather more grudgingly, a law student – I got the good oil on Jean Baudrillard. Meaning I went to a public lecture he gave at Melbourne, as well as bought the book; an exquisitely expensive ($6.95) for its thinness tome called Seduced and abandoned – the Baudrillard scene.

Ah, the “XYZ scene” – those were the days. But I digress.

Oddly for the genre of famous-and-had-a-good-innings obituaries – which are generally written well in advance and it shows – Baudrillard’s obit actually contained some fairly startling, for me, information: that in the mid-1970s, he had urged France’s intelligentsia, at least, to Forget Foucault.

The shame is, of course, that somehow the mid-1970s did not happen (there’s an in-joke there, folks), resulting in Foucault soon being elevated to centre-stage, in the complete opposite of being forgotten. The late 1970s, as well as cementing Foucault, “made” one of his pet subjects, the Ayatollah and Islamic fundamentalism (and wannnabe-Ayatollah fundamentalists Reagan, Thatcher and Hawke) as well as, of course, boomer punk rock’s troubling legacy.

It was thus only a short step, albeit over 22-odd years, from Foucault to 9/11, and a few years later, in “9/11 the confusingly subsequent prequel”, to Saddam’s snuff video being YouTubed by the snotty offspring of ageing boomer Once Were Punks.

In homage to the old boomer-youth catchcry about never trusting anyone over 30, I’d like to impose, having now learned of Baudrillard’s valiant, if flawed effort in the mid-1970s, to impose a retrospective fatwa on Foucault: Never Trust a Leather Queen on Fashion – like any fundamentalist, they’re all bite and no bark.

Yeah, yeah, but is it really one of the most important facts about Michel Foucault that he was a bit more keen on the Iranian Revolution than he really ought to have been? Let's face it, some of the greatest thinkers have defended pretty wretched politics in their time. Locke defended slavery; Rousseau thought that the practice of rape-within-marriage would help to make the republic strong; Hegel thought that men should go out to work while women stayed at home because women “partook more of a vegetable nature”, or something like that; Alexis de Tocqueville championed the French colonisation of Algeria etc etc.

Surely better to have a go at Foucault for his scholarship. When I was an Arts student in the 1980s inevitable encounters with Baudrillard (who was seen as very Sydney) were offset with the History of Sexuality Volume One being near compulsory reading. I recall Bob Connell did a very good critique of that book's scholarship in Arena sometime in the late 1980s.
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I was not trying to take a cheap, nor localised shot at Foucault, per the Iranian revolution of 1979. Rather, I was suggesting that he was willfully oblivious to the other fundamentalist revolution of 1979 – this time the one taking place in his own backyard and Western enlightenment* bailiwick

For the record, I think that Foucault is an important legal scholar – which is to say his is a conservative and ahistorical world view, that traces the ups and down without ever pondering its own amplitude or valency. Conversely, his scholarship on revolutions, by act or omission, is woeful AFAICT. Derrida, OTOH is a notably good legal scholar on revolutions.

In saying the above, I’m assuming the following:

- the Western fundamentalist revolution of 1979 caused a profound social, and even accounting** rupture (albeit not a strong legal one)

- this revolution has been poorly understood to this day (i.e. I’m hardly singling out Foucault)

- the two hundred year epoch of Western enlightenment definitively ended in or about 1979

- the West’s social revolution of the mid-1960s to early-1970s was objectively trifling in comparison to the 1979 one

- the 1979 revolution must be understood as an explicit reversal, and more, of the mid-1960s to early-1970s one***. This is because the core constituency (c.f. the figureheads) of both revolutions was an identical narrow cohort: people born between 1946 and 1961.

* At least up until 1979

** Such accounting rupture largely fits within the headings of “user pays” and “privatisation”. Examples are the tacit phasing out of the old age pension in Australia from about 2027, and the (poorly understood) reason for the high cost of land on the metropolitan fringe. The latter is primarily because of government paralysis in the provision of infrastructure, such as roads, rail and schools. Up until about 1990 (but the seeds were of course sown in 1979), the infrastructure needed to ensure new fringe suburbs were within a 60-90 minute (road/public transport) commute from the CBD was automatically provided by governments on what is now called an “unfunded” basis. Since about 1990, pure public sector infrastructure provision has been almost non-existent. Thus, the accounting tail has wagged the dog here, with funded infrastructure now simply synonymous with the private sector provision of it.

*** As well as the 1789 one, aka the Enlightenment. It can also be argued that the mid-1960s to early-1970s social revolution was anti-Enlightenment at its core. *Any* revolution that explicitly panders to 18-25 year-olds is a joke, to put it kindly. To put it cynically, a youth-centred revolution is a great way of ensuring that the next cohort of 18-25 year-olds are completely f*d over, when the revolution is put into inevitable reverse thrust by ex-revolutionary-youth, now 30-somethings in positions of power.
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