Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

My Friend Gerry Coulter, by Alan N. Shapiro

No Comments »

I did not know Gerry Coulter well personally. Yet I have considered him to be my friend. Our intellectual, political, and academic perspectives have been very close to each other. We have been comrades-in-arms, fighting for the same cause, so to speak. We have both been deeply engaged with Baudrillard’s system of thought. Gerry has helped me a lot, and in many different ways, and over a period of more than a decade. He has been greatly supportive of my work. I would not be where I am now, professionally or personally, without this help which I received as a gift from Gerry. I feel a very deep gratitude towards him.

When I met Jean Baudrillard at the conference on “Baudrillard and the Arts” convened for his 75th birthday by Peter Weibel and Peter Gente at the Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe, he said to me that an e-mail relationship (Baudrillard and I had written each other a few e-mails) is a virtual relationship. I don’t entirely agree with Baudrillard on this. An e-mail relationship can be very significant. To paraphrase McLuhan, every new media and new technology involves both a gain and a loss for humanity.

(Alan Cholodenko comments: You should not give the impression that Baudrillard meant that an e-mail relationship is insignificant because it is virtual. The virtual, for Baudrillard, is very significant. Or better, it is hyper-significant. It is a virtual increasingly more actual than the actual, even as the actual is increasingly more virtual than the virtual.)

I exchanged e-mails with Gerry Coulter for about ten years. He supervised the “peer reviews,” version revisions, and publication of five essays of mine in the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (IJBS). He either himself edited several of these essays, or gave me very valuable editing advice or instructions on what to change. Gerry also orchestrated the appearance of two book reviews in IJBS of my book Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance. Gerry had understood right away that my 350-page book on Star Trek was essentially a book about Baudrillard’s system of thought. What a book is about does not have to be matched in its title. Some people in academia don’t want to allow for such a writerly scheme or “fatal strategy” (to use the Baudrillardian term). A well-known American media and technology theorist, who is also a major Baudrillard scholar and translator, an intellectual historian whom in fact I have admired since the 1970s, turned down my offer to send him a copy of my book, offering the explanation that he had no interest in Star Trek.

Gerry Coulter also encouraged me to encourage young and promising Baudrillard scholars to contribute to the journal. I have had the privilege of meeting in these last years some awesome young Baudrillard and Baudrillard-influenced scholars like Michal Klosinski, René Capovin, Samuel Strehle, and Robin Parmar, and they have published in IJBS. I also translated two excellent essays on Baudrillard from German into American English, those by Caroline Heinrich (“In Search of the Child’s Innocence”) and Aurel Schmidt (“Only Impossible Exchange is Possible”), respectively, and Gerry published those essays. They were papers from the 2004 75th birthday Karlsruhe Baudrillard conference.

I met Gerry Coulter twice in person.

In Baudrillardian terms, my text on Gerry is both a “Cool memory” (via virtual e-mail communication) and a “Hot memory” (we met and had some heated discussions).

The first time I met Gerry was in Stockholm, in December 2013, at the conference on “Baudrillard and War” at the Swedish Defence University organized by Dan Oberg. Gerry was the keynote speaker at this conference. It was wonderful to listen to Gerry in person and to talk with him. Gerry expressed his disagreement with my project of connecting Baudrillard’s ideas with those of other thinkers, saying that he believes that Baudrillard is singular and cannot be compared to, or combined with, others.

Our most memorable time in person together came in April 2016 in Paris. Thanks to the generosity of Primavera de Filippi, I was able to organize a conference on “What is Hyper-modernism?” which took place at the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches de Sciences Administratives et Politiques (CERSA) in Rue Thénard. Several friends of mine – like Robin, Michal, Alexis Clancy, Cristina Miranda de Almeida, Stefano Mirti, and Regan O’Brien – participated in the hyper-modernism conference, either presenting papers or doing a creative choreographed performance (Regan). And Gerry Coulter was there too – introducing his theoretical analysis of Baudrillard and Zizek on terrorism. The entire group (and a few very nice French people) had intense discussions which lasted from 9 am to 9 pm. My conversations with Gerry were enlightening and enjoyable. He praised my presentation on the history and future of the concept of hyper-modernism. But he also questioned the appropriateness of using the term “hyper-modernism,” arguing that it had already been coopted by technophile transhumanists. It was a magical experience to listen to his wit and to interact with his playful and lucid personality. Gerry had to fly back to Canada that evening. The rest of us had a fantastic dinner in a Cantonese Chinese restaurant and then spent the next two days together going to bookstores, “drinking beers,” and hanging out in the Latin Quarter.

This day spent together with Gerry in Paris is a very joyful and meaningful memory. I was looking forward to continuing and deepening our friendship. I was sure that it would happen. And I believe that it still will happen. I can go on reading Gerry’s many many texts forever, because surely a great and important text outlives its author.

To put into words what Gerry Coulter “truly” means to me is a most daunting task. From about age 18, I was drawn to social and cultural theory. It started with my studies of European Intellectual History of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with Dominick LaCapra at Cornell. I started to read Baudrillard intensively in the late 1970s. He was the only thinker who explained to me the world in which we were living. Baudrillard was not highly regarded or respected by my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. They were into Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Lacan, Barthes, Habermas, Lefebvre, Adorno, Benjamin, Gramsci. Not Baudrillard. Of course, they were wrong. More wrong than wrong. Hyper-wrong.

One time I gave a paper at a conference in Erfurt on postmodernism and poststructuralism. I started talking about Baudrillard. The keynote speaker, a rather famous Parisian film theorist, refused to hear Baudrillard’s name, dismissing him as a “terrible infant” (Stefano Mirti has pointed out that this phrase can be understood as being a compliment. Perhaps Raymond Bellour in fact just said “infant.”).

Even my mentor LaCapra never mentioned Baudrillard. To me, Baudrillard was the only one of those French and German thinkers who was directly confronting the social and cultural situation of today (Eco was Italian). The other thinkers of the canon were either politicizing philosophy – not bad, but still very abstract – or, in some cases (much of the Frankfurt School), they had written too many decades ago to be “truly” relevant.

I was a Baudrillard nut and was lost in the wilderness. There was no one with whom I could talk about Baudrillard. I worked on my book Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance, my magnum opus, so to speak, in complete seclusion and isolation from academia and universities. I spoke with no one about my writing. I was a critic of universities and stayed away from them. I was making my money as a software developer and professional sports gambler (this is a joke), and I worked on my books between IT projects. Then I noticed that Gerry Coulter had given birth to the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. This was thrilling for me and the opening of the horizon. I owe him an incomparable debt.

In spite of the tragedy of death coming at the very young age of 57, Gerry Coulter made a great achievement with his life. Few do. I think that his work in cultivating and nurturing his baby IJBS has completely changed the perceptions that we have of Baudrillard in the entire academic and cultural world. Since Baudrillard is one of the most important and prescient thinkers of our time, and he was so very much misunderstood by so many, this is “truly” a great achievement. Gerry’s own writings on Baudrillard are enormously important. His writings on contemporary art, an additional area of his research, are greatly illuminating. Ironically, the series of pieces which he wrote for IJBS called “Passings” are highly valuable for assessing the life and work of the thinkers whom he addresses. He wrote incisively about the lifetime achievements of Derrida (2004), Sontag (2005), Bookchin (2007), Baudrillard (2007), Rorty (2008), Pinter (2009), Ballard (2009), McNamara (2010), Lévi-Strauss (2010), Bourgeois (2011), Jeanne-Claude (2011), Salinger (2011), Lucien Freud (2011), and Frankenthaler (2012). Now we must write about Gerry’s lifetime achievements.

I shall miss Gerry greatly. I grieve. I mourn.

McCoy: You see, Flint, in leaving Earth with all of its complex fields within which he was formed, sacrificed immortality. He’ll live the remainder of a normal life span, then die.

Spock: On that day, I shall mourn.

(“Requiem for Methuselah”, Star Trek: The Original Series)

I shall be thinking about Gerry forever. And I believe that I have understood a little something about the relationship between mourning and memory. I am very grateful for the beautiful memories which I have of Gerry, both cool and hot.

“I think in a Baudrillardean fashion we should celebrate – as in the symbolic, the dead live among the living as death is a social relation.” – Michal Klosinski

Leave a Reply