Coulter, Gerry: Tadeo Ando, One World Trade Centre and “The Ground Zero Project”, 25.06.2014

I. Introduction

The recently opened One World Trade Centre (One WTC or “The Freedom Tower” as some insist on calling it) in New York City is a curious edifice. The building is the center piece of an ongoing effort to respond to the events of September 11, 2001. It is a remarkably unexceptional modern tower of glass and steel (104 stories) reaching a symbolic 1776 symbolic feet (541m) at the top of its 408 foot (104m) high tower. I am among those who did not think that anything would make us miss the architecture of the twin towers as much as this building does. America felt it had to respond to 9/11 with a big building and that is what it has done. Now that we have One WTC I wonder if anyone wonders what we might have had in place of this monstrous ode to architectural mediocrity and petty local politics.

In this essay I will examine One WTC in contrast with the project proposed for the site by the Pritzker Prize Laureate Tadeo Ando. Ando wanted to use the space to help Americans reflect upon their place in the world. In an odd way, One WTC also accomplishes this goal but not in the way Ando intended.

II. ‘One World’ Trade Centre

“We came back and we rebuilt it and we should feel good about it” (One WTC architect David Childs cited in Rabb, 2013).

The original Twin Towers were not especially interesting works of architecture in comparison to what they represented – they were a symbol. In a world which was entering into increasing levels of hyper-realism, the original towers stood as a fictional center of digitalized integrated globalizing capitalism – architecture serving as the fiction of how society was being taught to imagine itself by its financial elites. As clones of each other the Twin Towers also represented a kind of lapse of architectural reason (See Baudrillard and Nouvel, 2000: 4 ff). Today the symbolism is more brutal: “One World” Trade Centre is more than an address – it is a commentary on Western globalization from one of its principal nodes. “One World” is the only way capitalism can now view the future – one world united under Westernization. Many Americans, and some others, can only understand globalization as “Americanization”, and One WTC is a monument to this ideology. As such it makes an adequate symbolic replacement for the Twin Towers expressed in New York City’s prevailing language of verticality.

On September 11, 2001 America experienced not only a symbolic defeat – there were real economic consequences. While an invasion of Afghanistan was probable no one could have foreseen the invasion of Iraq and the devastating toll this war has taken on an already bankrupt (several times over by 2001) American economy. According to my own computation from various U. S. Congressional and White House reports, it appears the cost of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are approaching one trillion dollars since 2003 or about $8.7 M (€5.8 M) per day.

Similarly One WTC has delivered a hard economic blow to New York City whose commuters have experienced skyrocketing tolls to use the commuter systems to and from the island of Manhattan for several years. Cost estimates for the tower (the world’s most expensive building) were originally set at $2 billion (€ 1.33 B) and by the time of completion will reach at least $3.8 B (€ 2.53B). Its 3 million square feet of office space (replacing the 10 million square feet of the twin towers) will need to rent at 100 per cent occupancy at a rate of $125 (€ 83) per square foot for the building to break even. Over the past three years the average rent for office space in lower Manhattan is $62.50 (€ 41.6) per square foot as One WTC opens into a glutted market. When the building finally began in 2006 rents were falling in New York and a good deal of the “trimming” done to Daniel Libeskind’s original plans by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill’s David Childs was a direct effort to cut costs. Still, in 2014 the anchor tenant Conde Naste is paying less than $60 (€ 45) per square foot. According to the Wall Street Journal today only 55 per cent of the building is leased and no new tenant has signed on in three years. The rent for non-anchor tenants has been dropped from $75 per square foot to $69 (€50 to €46). (

Further, cost overruns to its yet to be completed train station are currently in excess of $1B (€6.66 M). The Durst Corporation which manages One WTC values the $3.8 B tower at only $2B (€ 1.33 B). Through their constantly increasing commuter tolls workers in One WTC are subsidizing the rent of their employers.

One WTC is an incredible example of an edifice which makes no commercial sense and very little architectural sense. At the tenth anniversary memorial for 9/11 former New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo was overheard speaking with former New Jersey Governor George Pataki: “This is the biggest waste of money anybody’s ever seen. Who would have ever spent this money. If we knew what this was going to be like, nobody would have ever done this” (cited in Rabb, 2013).

Even among its architectural neighbors One WTC lacks architectural interest. It is a building in which many find neither grace nor charm. One of its harsher critics (the London-based graffiti artist Banksy), said that the building shows that New York “has lost its nerve” and the building represents that “New York’s glory days are over”.

III. One of the Potential Alternatives

“…nature is being destroyed by humans. There should be a harmony between the artificial world, the natural environment, and human beings” (Ando, 2009).

For a global economic and military power to be so successfully attacked as America was on September 11, 2001, by a relatively powerless group of individuals, is a humiliation. One World Trade Centre is a response to this act of humiliation. There was widespread demand for the Twin Towers to be rebuilt or be surpassed by another very large edifice – it had to be big. Very few called for anything but another architectural monster to reply to the monstrous attack. What we have in the end is another unexciting architectural monster in Manhattan to replace the Twin monstrosities which towered over their skyline like alien objects from an unmade Kubrick film.

One architect did offer the Americans an opportunity to avoid the creation of yet another architectural monstrosity for this site – Tadeo Ando (b. Japan, 1941). In Ando’s architecture Western Modernist architecture meets Eastern thought concerning balance, the human need for contemplation and edifices which deeply respect their environment. As he has said: “You cannot simply put something new into a place. You have to absorb what you see around you, what exists on the land, and then use that knowledge along with contemporary thinking to interpret what you see” (Ando, 2002b).

Ando, a self-taught architect, has worked within this philosophy for five decades and has won world architecture’s highest award: The Pritzker Prize (the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for architecture). Anyone unfamiliar with his work can, even after a few minutes of looking at several of his works on the internet, understand Ando’s gift (see especially his: Museum of Wood, (Hyogo, Japan [1994]; Chikatsu-Asuka Historical Museum (Osaka, Japan [1994]); Nariwa Museum (Okayama [1994], Oyamazaki Villa Museum (Kyoto [1995]; Awaji-Yumebutai Complex and Gardens (Hyogo [1999]); Studio Karl Lagerfeld (Biarritz [2001]; 4 x 4 House (2003); Row House, Azuma (1976); and Koshino House (1986)] . Ando has long been acutely aware of the need of humanity for buildings which compliment nature and the human need for peaceful contemplation. Often light [Church of the Light (1989); Atelier in Oyodo (1991)] and water [Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art (2002); Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum (1992) and his Hompuku-ji Water Temple, Hyogo (1991)] are used to compliment his overall philosophy of architecture.

Like many architects around the world Ando was profoundly affected by the events of September 11, 2001 – especially the fall of the twin towers and the deaths of nearly 3000 people on that day. When a competition was announced for both a memorial and a structure to replace the Twin Towers Ando offered perhaps his most thoughtful design – his Project for Ground Zero (2003). While it was never seriously considered by the adjudication panel (who had already been affected by the fever to respond with a huge vertical edifice), Ando’s proposal is more than an old model gathering dust in an architect’s storeroom. [Images of Ando’s proposal may be found by entering: “Tadeo Ando proposal for ground zero” into most search engines].

Among Ando’s recent gifts to architecture, theory and philosophy have been his unique solution to the question of what to do with “Ground Zero” in New York. Ando offered New York and America an opportunity to use the symbolic space of Ground Zero as a public place of contemplation on America’s place in the world. Ando said about his proposal: “It is important for architecture to touch the human spirit” (Ando and Rose, 2004). Against the terrorist action and the military response to it Ando proposed that a small section of a massive [imaginary] subterranean globe occupy on the site. This project, which will never be built, would also have spoken softly against the wild and callous architecture of downtown Manhattan – precisely the kind which now stand on this spot. The surface of the imaginary sphere would be a grass covered mound (a park for quiet contemplation and reflection) not unlike ancient Japanese burial mounds.

Ando proposed a singularity – a park in the shape of the imaginary globe slightly exposed above the surface. The result would have been a grass covered mound 650 feet [165m] in diameter which reached a height of 100 feet [32m] in the center. The mound would serve as the symbolic exposed surface of the imaginary underground sphere which would, in total, represent 1/30,000th of the surface of the earth. People walking across the mound would gain the impression of walking along the surface of a large sphere. Ando saw this project as an opportunity for people to think about how we are going to live together in the future on our shared celestial home. I think Ando knew full well that his project would never win the competition and it seems clear that he simply wanted to use it as a philosophical gift to Americans in the form of an unfinished design. He also understood that simply erecting another building on the site would do nothing to respond to the need for spaces in which to contemplate how we are going to live together as diverse peoples in the age of terrorism. Along with this project he offered the Americans advice: “I think that what we need now is the courage to construct nothing more on this site” (Ando, 2002a).

As has long been the case with Ando his solution to the problem of architecture at ground zero has been unique. He seems to have never believed in universal principles being applicable to all situations given his respect for the environment, light and those who will use his buildings. Against those who sought a military response to the events of September 11, 2001 Ando wanted to provide a park, which the exposed part of his globe was to be, to remind people that New York and America are part of the world. “I want the surface to disappear and become a space – a space that stimulates thinking. If the surface does not speak too loudly, then the people will begin to think about themselves. They bring the meaning to the space” (Ando in Auping, 2002).

In an age given over to architectural unreason (city after city dominated by office towers) Ando has so far not designed a monster. Perhaps it is because Ando is an autodidact that he was able to abandon so much of architectural history (save some key insights from the best of Modernism) and to offer up such a consistent and strong series of works. The most important thing he incorporates into his architecture has been his own intellectual sensitivities to place and space. He seldom, if ever, did this any better than in his proposal for the Ground Zero site in New York.

“As an architect this is all I can do – to create a dialogue among diverse cultures, histories, and values. We can learn so much from each other and our past” (Ando in Auping, 2002).

What Ando proposed was a philosophical and psychologically necessary park for meditation. What New York got was another glass, concrete and steel tower: an architectural act of [along with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq] in response to terrorism. One World Trade Centre stands to lose a lot of money for the foreseeable future. It seems an extraordinary expense for what is to be gained from it – this the tower shares with America’s War in Iraq.

A question remains: After the Twin Towers fell the terrorists and their supporters claimed a significant victory in the global war that is globalization and resistance to it (terrorism being the most extreme and distasteful form of resistance). It seems to me that Ando’s project clearly denied the terrorists (or anyone) a claim to victory. I wish I could say the same for One, World Trade Centre.

 Dr. Gerry Coulter

Full Professor and Past Chairperson, Department of Sociology, Bishop’s University, 2600 College Street, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada.  J1M 0C8


Biography: Gerry Coulter has published over 150 scholarly and par-scholarly articles, reviews, and book chapters [many on art and architecture] over the past twenty years. He has presented his work at over 50 conferences around the world including two key-note addresses. He is the author of two books: Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert – The Poetics of Radicality (Intertheory Press, USA, 2012) and Art After The Avant-Garde: Baudrillard’s Challenge (Intertheory, 2014). He is the founding and managing editor of The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (IJBS now in its 11th year): His major reference work (456 pages): The Baudrillard Index may be accessed from the cover page of the IJBS website. Dr. Coulter’s teaching has been recognized on numerous occasions including Bishop’s University’s highest award for teaching – the William and Nancy Turner Prize. He serves on the editorial board of several North American and European Journals.

References (and other important documents concerning Ando)

Tadeo Ando (1995). “Acceptance Speech for the Pritzker Prize”:

Tadeo Ando (2002a). “Architect’s Statement Concerning His Proposal For Ground Zero”. www.ando.groundzero/architect/ando/statement/240702

Tadeo Ando (2002b). “Interview with Architectural Record” (May):

Tadeo Ando with Charlie Rose (2004). Interview, Charlie Rose Show (January 22):

Tadeo Ando (2009). Interview With CNN’s “Talk Asia” (aired: October 30, 2009).

Michael Auping (2002). Seven Interviews With Tadeo Ando. Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth Publication.

Jean Baudrillard and jean Nouvel ([2000] 2002). The Singular Objects of Architecture. University of Minnesota Press. Translated by Robert Bononno.

Gerry Coulter (2008). “Louis I. Kahn The timeless Art of Light and Form”. Euro Art (On-line) Magazine (Summer):

William Curtis (2000). “A Conversation with Tadeo Ando”. El Croquis, No. 44+58.

Kenneth Frampton (1995). “Thoughts on Tadeo Ando” [An essay on Ando winning the Pritzker Prize]:

Alessandra Latour. (Editor). Louis I. Kahn, Writings, Lectures, Interviews, New York: Rizzoli, 1991.

Scott Rabb (2013). (“The Truth About The WTC”, Esquire Online Magazine: April 29):

Ruth Peltason and Grace Ong-Yan (2010). Architect: The Work of Pritzker Prize Laureates in Their Own Words. New York. Black Dog Press.

Pritzker Prize Committee (1995).  Biography accompanying Pritzker Prize Acceptance Speech:

Coulter, Gerry: Ecology And Two Deaths, 06.10.09

Consider the story of the soldier who meets Death at a crossing of the marketplace, and he believes he saw him make a menacing gesture in his direction. He rushes to the king’s palace and asks the king for his best horse in order that he might flee during the night far from Death, as far as Samarkand. Upon which the king summons Death to the palace and reproaches him for having frightened one of his best servants. „I didn’t mean to frighten him. It was just that I was surprised to see this soldier here, when we had a rendez-vous tomorrow in Samarkand.“[1]

Discussions of political ecology today are often shrouded in an apocalyptic tone. I think this is a good thing given our history as a species which has evolved along a technological trajectory. What makes us human, perhaps more than anything else, is our elaborate tool making ability. Technology has long been crucial to what humans are and today it is not only a force we use to  adapt, but one to which we must adapt.  From the first pieces of flint, to parchment scrolls, the characters of languages, libraries, atomic devices, computers, all the way down to the digitalization of genetic codes, technology has been vital to our destiny as a species. After the first piece of flint was secured to a piece of wood to make an axe (for hunting and for murder), there was no turning back. We are neither innately good nor evil and we partake generously of both. The axe and the hammer contain as much evidence of who we are as does any “Holy Book”. As we look toward the future of life on earth we can depend upon humans to do both good and evil but we cannot necessarily be depended upon to act wisely and in our long term best interest. We can however, given our history, be depended upon to attempt technological solutions to any problem. One of our destinies is to eventually merge with technology and we have been ambivalent about this for the better part of six decades. Such are some of the most basic considerations informing the background against which discussions of political ecology should take place today.

Until the middle of the twentieth century humans managed to keep the upper hand over technology (although there were troubling signs during WWI as we watched almost an entire European generation literally fed to the machineries of the first advanced technological war). Hitler was there as a mere message boy but no doubt the first experiences of industrialized death left a mark on him. By 1945, and the end of his war, we had learned how to set off a chain of nuclear events from which we could only hope to hide deep underground. We have lived now for over half a century with the knowledge that the very technology which helps make us what we are has the ability to end what we are. We could somehow manage to imagine a few ragged survivors of a nuclear catastrophe but a genetic catastrophe would, no doubt, be thoroughly devastating. The atomic bomb and artificial intelligence seem rather tame now in a time of the likelihood of genetic terrorism, and the nanotechnologies with which we will profoundly redesign every species on the planet, including our own. The most important story of the 21st century will almost certainly be our encounter, at the level of a species, with death. It will probably arrive in one of two ways.

In one of our possible futures, the one that is of great concern to contemporary political ecologists, our current path will lead us to a dreadful ecological disaster that will wipe out most life on earth. There are many scenarios which describe this possible future and it is now a widely understood possibility. Fear of such ecological collapse is probably the primary motivating force behind efforts to devise a basic ecological survival strategy for humanity given the potential harm that our economics and technologies do to our natural environment. Most ecologists considering these issues rightly understand that what is at stake is the very survival of not only human life but the technologically engaged nature of that life. No one seriously thinks that we have a future that is a non-technological one any more than we have ever had a non-technological past. What most ecologists do agree upon is that our current political, economic and technological trajectories are heading us toward an ecological crisis that will lead to a total system failure. What most ecologists do not consider, in these urgent times of ecological distress, is the disturbing irony is that such a failure may actually be our last chance from something much worse – the success of the current system.

Another future scenario, also well understood, sees us able to avoid ecological collapse by making our human and technological systems sustainable. In the most glowing of these scenarios we will wipe out most (if not all) human ‘deformities’ and the possibility of an inherited disease will become a thing of the past (were these not also the dreams of Nazi science and eugenics?). In such a future we will also enjoy the birth of children whose characteristics have been carefully selected from a menu. The socialization of such expensive progeny will be carefully planned and parenting will almost certainly become a matter of dire responsibility in a world where, it is believed, little should be left to chance. Genetic cloning would almost certainly play a smaller role here than something we already know all too well – social cloning via various agencies of socialization (parents, schooling, mainstream media). Surely, in such a world, everyone would require a wearable mini-computer complete with retinal interface to the brain (the technology is already more than a decade old). Perhaps the ‘wear-comp’ could even correct our thoughts the way word processors today correct our typing.

The person walking along a street today engaged in conversation with a minute ear piece and microphone is one technological degree from being permanently networked when all of our  gadgets are available in the wear-comp. The “I-phone” and “Blackberry” are the bridging technology to the wear-comp and the early post human years of the tribulations of the experiment that will be the Networked People. From this world only mere humans will remain among the unplugged and the last humans (as we known humans today) will be found among the poorest – the ‘unconnected’. Of course there is a lot of criticism of this unfolding future but we know well that this criticism runs just behind the pace of the technologies which are making this future part of our present. Today we occupy a planet upon which a schizophrenic ecological discourse rages – a deepening of efforts to implement sustainable ecological measures running behind the simultaneous proliferation of enterprises of ecological annihilation.

But what if all the nay-sayers are wrong? What if our current system succeeds and we do build a genuinely brave new ecologically sustainable world glittering with advanced technologies? We could then live out our lives in total security. If we can avoid an ecological catastrophe we might enter into a utopian world of protection and security even greater than that of the present inhabitants of ‘gated’ communities. Computers would then 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. This future is only as far away as the ability of the current system to adapt itself to ecological sustainability. But even here, among the most glowing scenarios, a problem becomes apparent: Can we imagine, really, a world more full of refined and measured death for a creative and thoughtful species than a predictable, networked, techno-future? Is this what proponents of sustainable market economies and advanced technology dream of? Whether or not it is, an artificial and technologically programmable future is almost a certainty if our current system succeeds.

Like the soldier riding through the night attempting to avoid his destiny, yet racing toward it in Samarkand, our way of life seems to have a rendez-vous with death which is probably unavoidable. What remains to be seen is which one. Will we as a species succumb to a probable technologically driven ecological catastrophe? Or, does an even worse fate await us – one in which the current system succeeds? These are deeply disturbing questions and the current discourse concerning political ecology will be better for not avoiding them.

I do not seek to defuse concern or to encourage pessimism but to encourage those concerned with political ecology, in a time of great enthusiasm for sustainability, to ask themselves just what kind of future we are trying to sustain? If political ecology is to be guided, as many would like it to be, by a concern to make the present system sustainable, it must also face the dire problems our continued systemic course will place on human freedoms and creativity. Are we really willing to accept systemic preservation at any cost? If the best we can do is sustain our current systemic trajectory, then perhaps we are far better off facing the kind of system failure which depends on a devastating ecological crisis.

Until someone can devise a scenario under which we can  both change our systemic path toward being utterly domesticated by technology while, and, at the same time avoiding ecological disintegration – I will remain on the side hoping for the lesser evil – ecological collapse. In a practical sense I hope that by advocating an apocalyptic stance, and encouraging others to do so, I can play a small role at least in flushing out the deeper implications of where political ecologies are headed today. Until political ecology can come to terms with the two deaths which we as a species currently face, I cannot help but feel that we are all a little closer to Benjamin’s Angel than we like to imagine we are:

The Angel of History does not move dialectically into the future, but has his face turned towards the past.  Where a chain of events appears to us, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at this feet. The Angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and join together that which has been smashed to pieces, but a storm is blowing from paradise and irresistibly propels him into the future toward which his back is turned, while the pile of ruins before him grows skyward. What we call progress is that storm.[2]

Works cited

Endnoten    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Baudrillard 1990, p. 72
  2. Benjamin 1969, p. 119

Coulter, Gerry: After ‚Disciplined‘ Thought: Baudrillard and Poetic Resolution, 11.03.09

My impulse comes from a radical temperament which has more in common with poetry (Baudrillard, 1993:131).

I. Introduction

During the past twenty-five years concepts such as Truth, Meaning, and the Real (the capital letters represent universality), have been subjected to radical criticisms. Today many students of society are only comfortable with the terms truth, meaning, and the real (lower case) to represent an understanding that all knowledge exist along local and restricted horizons – as partial objects (see, for example, Baudrillard, 1994:108). Goethe understood, two centuries ago, that the self is the only criteria for truth we will ever know. Between Goethe and today stand a phalanx of „disciplined“ knowledge known as the social sciences. Leaders in the various fields who constitute the „police“ of each social science often deploy so called „scholarly journals“ to monitor and regulate discourse in their field. Sometimes, in recent years, a new term „multidisciplinarity“ has not necessarily represented a challenge to the police but merely operated as a kind of academic INTERPOL. We are able today to once again take seriously Goethe’s insight because open-access journals (such as AVINUS Magazine) work to frustrate the academic police while focusing on a very high quality of discourse. Among some of the more liberating aspects of the present is that it is now possible to turn to non-traditional approaches and methods of inquiry such as photography, film, visual culture, art, and poetry as inspirations for social thought. Few have accomplished this in terms of the poetic with the fierce commitment to radicallity than Jean Baudrillard.

In this essay I point to Baudrillard’s effort to seek a poetic, rather than empirical, resolution of the world. Specifically, I argue that such an approach opens new ways of non-disciplined thinking which are more indebted to art, literature, and poetry than to any traditional school or methodology. From Baudrillard I have learned that what is at stake is the future of radical thought as it exists beyond all politics. To enter into the poetic is to leave the world of politics behind. It is a world of theory where the very act of writing itself is a form of politics. It is not necessary that the reader of this paper has read Baudrillard although it may stimulate a greater interest in doing so. I offer my Baudrillard-inspired assessment of the place of the poetic in inquiry today to those who accept that we do indeed have much to learn from photographers, poets, and artists of all kinds.

II. Poetry As A Way Out of Voluntary Servitude

Theory is a core issue for thoughtful inquiry today. For Baudrillard „theory could even be poetry“ (1990:24). I have never known anyone who needed the poetic to live and write as much as he did. Baudrillard’s world was our world – one that frequently drifts into delirium. In a delirious world one strategy is to adopt a delirious point of view – one without homage to any principle of Truth or causality (2000:68). Baudrillard was very clear about not being a poet but he understood that poems, parables, stories, and fables (fiction) are as „real“ as anything else in this world. It was his deep respect and appreciation for these forms which allowed him to grant a poetic singularity to events and to subject them to powerful challenges which often ended in radical uncertainty (Ibid.).

Often a fable can be used to illustrate a point. I wonder if Baudrillard ever did so more poetically than in his use of „Death in Samarkand“ to illustrate the distractions that can be caused by even a single sign:

Consider the story of the soldier who meets Death at a crossing of the marketplace, and he believes he saw him make a menacing gesture in his direction. He rushes to the king’s palace and asks the king for his best horse in order that he might flee during the night far from Death, as far as Samarkand. Upon which the king summons Death to the palace and reproaches him for having frightened one of his best servants. ‚I didn’t mean to frighten him. It was just that I was surprised to see this soldier here, when we had a rendez-vous tomorrow in Samarkand‘ (1990d:72).

That one (or an entire society) can run towards one’s fate by attempting to avoid it is the kind of poetic irony that informs this kind of thinking. In Baudrillard we find references to Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees in at least nine of his books (1983; 1990c; 1993b; 1993c; 1995; 1998; 2001b; 2001c; 2005b). This fable is brought forward into our own time [Mandeville wrote it in the early 18th century] as a poetic way of understanding that corruption is vital to a society’s success – „the splendor of a society depends on its vices“ (1993b:102). This fable goes some distance in explaining America today. Baudrillard also draws on the fable of The Sorcerers Apprentice (1997b:24); Guido Ceronetti’s Incest Fable (1993b and 2001:93); and several fables from Borges: The Mirror People (1996:148); The Lottery in Babylon (1990d:150; 1996:91; 2001:93); and The Map and the Territory (1994:1; 1996:47; 2000:63). Such fables become poetic mirrors for Baudrillard about his own time. In the case of Borges‘ The Map and the Territory he says we need to turn this fable upside down:

We live as if inside Borges’s fable of the map and the territory; in this story nothing is left but pieces of the map scattered throughout the empty space of the territory. …Today there is nothing left but a map (the virtual abstraction of the territory), and on this map some fragments of the real are still floating and drifting (2000:63).

Also, at several junctures, Baudrillard cites Arthur C. Clarke’s parable The Nine Billion Names of God (1990c; 1993c; 1996; 1996b; and 1997b) to refer to our current circumstance. In it a community of Tibetan monks have been listing the many names of God for centuries. Growing tired they call in experts from IBM and the computers finish the job in a month. What the technicians did not know was the prophecy that once the nine billion names of God had been recorded the world would end. As they come down from the mountain the stars in the sky begin to disappear one by one (see Baudrillard, 2000:42). Fables such as this poetically point to the risks presented by techno-science.

Fiction (especially novels) also plays an enormous role in Baudrillard’s poetic thinking. He writes of the fiction of Western values with a poetic twist – arguing that it is not the presence of Western values that people outside of the West detest – as much as the West’s absence of values (2002b:65). Even the superpower America is reduced to a powerful fiction (1988:95, 1993:132) and he is never more poetic than in his assessment of Disneyland as a „deterrence machine for the rejuvenation of the fiction of reality“ (1994:13) because Disneyland exists to hide that all of „real“ America is Disneyland (Ibid.:12). America is his fiction about a powerful fiction – the land of „just as it is“ (1988:28) and „the last remaining primitive society“ – „the primitive society of the future“ (1988:7). Many Americans, especially the men of the Right, hated Baudrillard’s poetic and fictive America. It is interesting how they soon gave the world George W. Bush and a kind of „Baud-reality“ settled over international events. It is important also to remember that Baudrillard was not a proponent of such events, rather, he found them intolerable (1987b:107).

Baudrillard’s poetic sensibility led him to challenge us to probe the course of events and their possible meanings in non-traditional ways. This meant that an event like that which took place in New York on September 11, 2001 can be understood as peculiarly affirming of his poetic writing of the world [he posited, as an explanation of why the towers toppled, the suggestion that the twin towers may have committed suicide in response to the attacks of the suicide planes (2003:43)]. This is difficult poetry for many to accept but we should remember that its author was convinced that he lived in a time when „everything in the moral, political and philosophical spheres is heading towards the lowest common denominator“ (1998b:103). Perhaps the resonance of consternation his thought evoked was just loud enough to penetrate the nearly deafening cacophony of banal [mediated] explanations of the event.

Baudrillard’s poetic ear could discern the sounds of the „background noise of the universe“ (1996:2) and the „silent laugher of flowers, grass, plants and forest“ (2002:1). These sounds have been heard by almost no other students of society since the inception of modernity yet novelists, artists, and poets hear them everyday. Baudrillard’s writing demands of us a poetic sensibility and as this sensibility has been systematically denied by almost every stage of our education.

For the education systems of modernity it is difficult to imagine a more striking case of system failure than Baudrillard. His writings represent a system’s failure to integrate him despite the ruthless, comprehensive and compulsory regimes of education and socialization he, like each of us, face. Baudrillard is also an example of the kind of thinker who understands the irony of community and that the biggest battle any of us face, in being ourselves, is against any collective to which we belong. As a theorist he is closer to playwrights like Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter who understand that each person is fundamentally at odds with the universe. This perspective, which is at the core of his poetic way of seeing, imbued Baudrillard with a profound suspicion of the real. In a time in which Truth „no longer affords a solution“… „perhaps“, says Baudrillard, „we can aim at a poetic resolution of the world“ (2000:68).

Poetic resolution can be a strategy of resistance to systematization while leaving open the possibility of radical thought. Radical thought is best practiced as a form of academic agnosticism – the notion that it is better to have things in which not to believe, than to believe. This includes raising questions concerning, for example, what kind of future people desire when they say they wish to end terrorism. To them Baudrillard asks „what kind of state would be capable of dissuading and annihilating all terrorism in the bud…? It would have to arm itself with such terrorism and generalize terror on every level“ (1990c:22).

This kind of assertion is very close to what we often refer to as poetic justice – the reversible. It forces us to look beyond current fears to the implications of our thoughts and actions. In a world which so often disappoints the young, a poetic approach is a far more generous gift to lay at their feet than is an empirical methodology. This is also one reason why so many traditional „social scientists“ loathe Baudrillard and seek to protect their students from him.

To adopt a poetic view of the world one must renounce empiricism. A poetic approach is much closer to metaphysics than it is to pragmatic epistemologies. In our time of the proliferation of everything, how many sense, as does Baudrillard, the poetic notion that „power emerges from absence“? (1997:9)

Baudrillard’s writing takes on the poetic quality of „slimming things down and reducing stocks“ – „to escape fullness you have to create voids between spaces so that there can be collisions and short-circuits“ (1993:38). He understood that poetry exists today everywhere but in poetry. The challenge is to find poetic power – the poetic function in its primal state“ (Ibid.) elsewhere – such as in theoretical writing or in the arts, which have, arguably, had a greater influence on theory in recent years than have the empirical sciences (see Coulter, 2008). If writing is to aim at a total resolution of the world then why should this not be a poetic resolution? (1996:100) It is for this reason that the kinds of writing which are obsessed with meaning (ideological and moral), are so unconcerned with the act of writing which, for Baudrillard, involves „the poetic, ironic, allusive force of language, …the juggling with meaning“ (Ibid.:103). Baudrillard believes that art [and for him theory is an art form] ought to be concerned with illusion – otherwise all it does is mirror the world around it and therefore serves no purpose. As an art, writing is concerned with the „poetic transfiguration of the world“ (1997:140). This could be very playful as in his poetic „fate-based unrealist analysis“ of the death of Diana:

On the one hand, if we assess all that would have had not to have happened for the event not to take place, then quite clearly it could not but occur. There would have to have been no Pont de l’Alma, and hence no Battle of the Alma. There would have had to have been no Mercedes, and hence no German car company whose founder had a daughter called Mercedes. No Dodi and no Ritz, nor all the wealth of the Arab princes and the historical rivalry with the British. The British Empire itself would have had to have been wiped from history. So everything combines, a contrario and in absentia, to demonstrate the urgent necessity of this death. The event therefore, is itself unreal, since it is made up of all that should not have taken place for it not to occur. And, as a result, thanks to all those negative probabilities, it produces and incalculable effect. (Baudrillard, 2001:136-37).

This passage demonstrates Baudrillard’s more mischievous understanding of his art – the art of writing (which is at the core of the art of theory), to „confront objects with the absurdity of their function, in a poetic unreality“ (1997b:13). Here the myth of linearity is exposed by its inversion. This includes a certain poetic confrontation with the art of writing theory itself as in this exquisite passage on human experience:

Everyday experience falls like snow. Immaterial, crystalline and microscopic, it enshrouds all the features of the landscape. It absorbs sounds, the resonance of thoughts and events; the wind sweeps across it sometimes with unexpected violence and it gives off an inner light, a malign fluorescence which bathes all forms in crepuscular indistinctness. Watching time snow down, ideas snow down, watching the silence of some aurora borealis light up, giving in to the vertigo of enshrouding and whiteness (1990:59).

Or this poetic passage written on the journey home in his America:

At 30,000 feet and 600 miles per hour, I have beneath me the ice-flows of Greenland, the Indes Galantes in my earphones, Catherine Deneuve on the screen, and an old man asleep on my lap. ‚Yes, I feel all the violence of love…‘ sings the sublime voice, from one time zone to the next. The people in the plane are asleep. Speed knows nothing of the violence of love. Between one night and the next, the one we came from and the one we shall land in, there will have been only four hours of daylight. But the sublime voice, the voice of insomnia travels even more quickly. It moves through the freezing, trans-oceanic atmosphere, runs along the long lashes of the actress, along the horizon, violet where the sun is rising, as we fly along in our warm coffin of a jet, and finally fades away somewhere off the coast of Iceland (1988:24).

A key aspect of the enigmatic quality of Baudrillard’s writing then is to be found in its poetic nature – he was a theorist who does not sacrifice the art of writing to the concepts he wrote about – if he did he would have produced merely sociology and therein reduced poetic enigmas to meaning. Poetry is a synonym for fiction and the fabulous. „Theory is“, after all, „never so fine as when it takes the form of a fiction or a fable“ (2006:11). The closing down of systemic Meaning opens new poetic ones (2005:71). The expression of the poetic depends on language and the role of language (recalling Lacan) „is to stand in for meaning“ which is eternally absent (1990b:6).

Baudrillard poetically wondered if we really want to have to choose between meaning and non-meaning today. He argued that we do not want this choice because while meaning’s absence is intolerable „it would be just as intolerable to see the world assume a definitive meaning“ (2001:128). This would be the end of thought, poetry and writing – a world where we could look up solutions in a book (a Bible, a Koran, etc.,) or a computer model. The computer model is the goal of every techno-science of our time which will ultimately challenge the human to the core:

If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could be truly called „human“: some inalienable and indestructible human quality could finally be identified. Of course, there is always the risk, in this experimental adventure, that nothing will pass the test – that the human will be permanently eradicated (2000:15-16).

If Baudrillard preferred fiction to science it may well have been because fiction holds a greater power in the mind of one who’s hopes are fatal. „Night does not fall, objects secrete it at the end of day when, in their tiredness, they exile themselves into their silence“ (1990b:149).

One of the challenges faced by those inclined toward poetic resolution is to allow the poetic aspect of things to flow through him or her, just as it is the task of the painter to find the poetic light given off by objects from within (no such light is scientifically or empirically possible but all good painters and poets know it is there). For Baudrillard, the poetic sensibility also defines itself in an awareness of contradiction and reversibility – „when things contradict their very reality – this too is poetic“ (1996:59). The poetic is central to that which remains fundamentally radical in Baudrillard. Radical thought for him is a form of constant challenge – even to one’s most cherished ideas and sources. It is why he could never subject his writing to the limits of a politics.

The poetic (poems, fables, fiction, stories, parables) is for Baudrillard part of his deep appreciation of ambivalence and ambiguity (1993c:215) and is important to how he copes with the extermination of value (Ibid.:198). We do not discover anything in poetic enjoyment and this is a vital part of what makes the poetic a radical experience (Ibid.:208). The poetic involves an „insurrection of a language against its own laws“ (Ibid.:198) and it allows us to resist the „repressive interiorized space of language“ (Ibid.:234), providing the basis for the „mutual volitization of the status of the thing and discourse“ (Ibid.:235). He finds no room for poetry in psychoanalysis, in ideology, nor in morality – these are „brute forms of writing burdened with the concept“ (Ibid.:223). Poetry then is the place of the „redistribution of symbolic exchange in the very heart of words“ (Ibid.:205) and the „site of the extermination of value and the law“ (Ibid.:195).

His poetic approach allowed Baudrillard (who studied under Henri Lefebvre and Roland Barthes), eventually taking his degree and teaching sociology, to avoid the voluntary servitude that so many subject themselves to in the many non-poetic approaches to inquiry (empirical, politically motivated, techno-scientific and so on). As such he is a very important case in the development of an alternative approach to inquiry – one in which creativity and writing were powerful and central. Baudrillard’s effort to resolve the world poetically is not for everyone. For those who feel its seduction it is important to press on to assess the implications of this thought aimed at a poetic resolution of the world. Others may consider leaving this paper at this point for an immediate return to politics and/or traditional academe.

III. Hope In System Failure

From the passages cited above we see that Baudrillard managed to bring the explosive power of language to poetic resolution. To the end he remained suspicious of all efforts to perfect the world as he did efforts to explain it with certainty. On poetry he said: „the words refer to each other, creating a pure event, in the meantime they have captured a fragment of the world, even if they have no identifiable referent from which a practical instruction can be drawn“ (2005b:73). This is not a kind of thinking that is in the business of making the world more certain or more knowable:

Here, however, lies the task of philosophical thought: to go to the limit of hypotheses and processes, even if they are catastrophic. The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes. Here, beyond the discourse of truth, resides the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking. For, facing a world that is unintelligible and enigmatic, our task is clear: we must make that world even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic (2000:83).

Baudrillard was somewhat melancholic but he was no Romantic. He spent a good deal of his time writing his frustrations with his times. He was intensely frustrated by what we gave up in „cancelling our metaphysical contract and making another more perilous one with things“ (2001b:36; see also 1983b:149). His poetic strategy against consumerism, militarism, globalism, and nationalism, was to have things in which not to believe as opposed to things in which to believe. Surrounded as we are today by fundamentalists such as George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden this is not a bad strategy. For Baudrillard (and this is also part of his early departure from Marxism), the death of god is the end of transcendence.

The end of transcendence and responsibility to another world beyond our own meant that transcendence became secular and the effort to make the world transparent and operational replaced it. For Baudrillard, the death of god is the root of modernities turn to techno-perfection as against earlier forms of spiritual perfection. In modernity the understanding of good and evil become split – and our efforts go into making the world better only to see it go from bad to worse (2004:105). Irony comes to the fore in modernity and thoughtful inquiry, when it turns to empiricism, loses sight of irony investing itself in system support. The attempt to perfect this world [through techno-science] will almost certainly lead to systemic collapse – Baudrillard’s fatal hope – and his fatal optimism in reversibility.

Baudrillard was disappointed but no thinker who writes does so without hope. What we get from Baudrillard is a fatal hope – an optimism about the reversibility of systems. Following the current period of the proliferation of information, security, and technology (the era of the perfect crime), Baudrillard hopes for a collapse. Baudrillard, living in extreme times, takes the problematic to a radical conclusion as we no longer have the same kind of hope in a distant future that someone living before the contemporary could more easily hold. Such is the uncertainty of our times which are invested in Baudrillard’s fatal hope of systemic collapse. For him the alternative to collapse was much worse – that the system would succeed resulting in a genuinely brave new world glittering with advanced technologies. In such a world we would live out our lives in total security where computers would generate the models of lives which would become as predictable as the weather. This would be 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. Against such a world Baudrillard saw the poetic possibility of collapse. Thought (and writing), in this view, seeks poetic resolution to an unsatisfactory, uncertain, and ultimately (he hoped) unknowable world. The poetic function of thought and writing then is based on the belief that empiricism and the techno-rational societies it contributes to, would fail. Of course this failure can only be viewed as poetic from a Baudrillardian point of view as his was the poetics of reversion.

IV. Radical Optimism

…why not take the view that the fundamental rule is that of evil, and that any happy event throws itself into question? Is it not true optimism to consider the world a fundamentally negative event, with many happy exceptions? By contrast, does not true pessimism consist in viewing the world as fundamentally good, leaving the slightest accident, to make us despair of that vision? Such is the rule of a radical optimism, we must take evil as the basic rule, (Baudrillard, 1997:138).

Herodotus was the first we know to have considered reversibility seriously in his memory of those who were „great long ago“ but who have now „become small“ (Herodotus, 1998: Book I, v). We have called this aspect of human passage many things. Some call it poetic justice (such as the fall of great empires into small satellites of new empires); others have referred to it as the turning of the wheel of fortune. „Human happiness never remains long in the same place“ (Ibid.) For Baudrillard it is part of the most poetic thing we know – that which comes as close to justice as anything we ever experience as humans: reversibility – the poetic reversibility of one thing into another (1993c:220).

For Baudrillard reversibility is the fundamental rule (2005:41) but this does not imply a determinism in his thought – indeed, reversibility is an absolute weapon against determinism (1990c:82). Baudrillard notes that the reversibility of things, which is an ironic form today, does not entail a romantic viewpoint. Rather, it means that, for us: „a strange game is being played“ and we do not know all the rules of this game – in our time, indifference has become a strategic terrain (1993:175).

The poetic provided Baudrillard with the germ of an idea that might be his single greatest thought: reversibility. It is central to what Baudrillard calls „objective irony“ – the „strong probability, verging on a certainty, that systems will be undone by their own systematicity“ (2000:78; see also Coulter, 2004). For Baudrillard this applies to both technical and human systems (political, social, economic). The more a system advances toward its perfection, the more it is prone to deconstruct itself (Ibid.).

One of Baudrillard’s more poetic examples of this, for technical systems, is the computer virus: „the tiniest one is enough to wreck the credibility of computer systems, which is not without its funny side“ (2002b:6). This is extended by Baudrillard into his understanding of globalization and the New World Order as reversible: „the more the hegemony of the global consensus is reinforced, the greater the risk, or chances it will collapse“ (1995:86). That for Baudrillard would be the most poetic resolution of all: „all the philosophies of modernity will appear naïve when compared with the natural reversibility of the world“ (1996:10).

V. Conclusion

Philosophy would like to transform the enigma of the world into a philosophical question, but the enigma leaves no room for any question… the enigma of the world remains total (1996b:20).

The poetic plays a significant part in Baudrillard’s strategy to bring resolution, through thought and writing, to the unsatisfactory times in which he finds himself. Along with fables, countless literary and artistic references, poetry is Baudrillard’s great inspiration in his struggle against the forces of integral reality (2004:5). In his writing Baudrillard felt a radical opposition between a poetic, singular configuration, linked to the metamorphosis of forms, as against the kind of virtual reality that is prevalent today. In a poetic approach it is the forms which become – language as the passage of forms – a kind of inhabited void (2004:84). Poetic resolution – and nothing is more poetic for Baudrillard than reversibility – was a way out of the restrictions of the social sciences and political commitments to „improving“ our world until it was a technoscientific nightmare.

As we seek new approaches to inquiry we would do well to remember that we do not necessarily have to seek Meaning or Truth – but a more poetic way of living, writing and thinking. Beyond discourses of Truth, Baudrillard found his own way to make the world, which came to him as enigmatic and unintelligible – a little more enigmatic, a little more unintelligible. What he left to us was a gift far more precious than Truth – he pointed to its absence and in doing so he took us beyond the limits of established forms of inquiry. If he reminds us of Goethe it is because his approach valued Goethe’s insight. From Baudrillard we learn the poetry of accepting a world that is given to us as enigmatic and unintelligible and to push it to poetic, not empirical, resolution. If we are to avoid both of the twin nightmares of total systemic collapse and total systemic success new forms of inquiry have a lot at stake in poetic resolution of the kind Baudrillard practiced.

Baudrillard understood the power of language as few have. Writing for him was a precious „singularity“, „a resistance to real time“, „something that does not conform“, „an act of resistance“, the „invention of an antagonistic world“ rather than a „defence of a world that might have existed“ (1998b:32 ff.). Writing could never be sacrificed to politics and intellectuals should speak for themselves – not for others as it always leads to condescension (1993:79). He understood from the lived experience of his poetic perspective that theory (as poetry, fiction and fable) precedes the world. „Things appear to us only through the meaning we have given them“ (2004:91). For Baudrillard this meant seeking a poetic resolution of the world through challenge with an eye on system reversion. It kept his wisdom and writing joyful to the end despite everything. It also helped him to attain escape velocity from his contemporaries (especially Foucault) and propelled him beyond politics to a more joyous way of seeing. I offer it as one way of approaching Avinus Magazine as it takes its place on the world stage of ideas and discourse. It is the kind of thinking and writing (radical thought) that does not conform to the kind of inquiry which merely contributes to the building of an uninhabitable world. Baudrillard pointed to a poetic approach which may contribute to vastly different ways of seeing and knowing so long as we remember that truth and meaning exist only partially, along our local and restricted horizon. This is the kind of „undisciplined“ thought in which the likes of Goethe was able to participate. It is the basis of a respectful and challenging approach to the multi-vocality of human discourse and inquiry. For the first time in two centuries, the established academic police actually do have something to fear. One of the ways in which Avinus may thrive is in making their job all the more difficult.

Gerry Coulter’s essay „Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming“ appeared in the SAGE journal Games and Culture (Volume 2, Number 4, December, 2007:358-365). His recent article: „Baudrillard and Hölderlin and Poetic Resolution“, in Nebula, Volume 5, Number 4, December 2008; 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):; and his quarterly column for Euro Art (On-line) Magazine: „Kees van Dongen and the Power of Seduction“ (Spring 2008) is available at: 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.


Coulter, Gerry: In the Shadow of Post-Democratic Capitalism – A Fascination for China, 26.11.08


I. Introduction

The relationship between the art of China and Western Art Museums has changed noticeably over the past decade. Previously we could expect Chinese artworks to appear primarily in historical, archaeological, anthropological or textile museums but not in major art museums (many of which still do not own an important Chinese art work). Many significant Western art museums have tended to avoid Chinese art specifically and Asian art generally. This is because Chinese art has remained outside of the definition of “art” (which in Western museums has been focused on oil paint and not the use of ink on paper, or ink and colour on silk or bamboo).

In the past five years, through a series of traveling shows, and a re-envisioning of existing holdings, our exposure to Chinese art in Western museums has increased. In the next section I examine how these shows are broadening the scope of what is on view in the West. In the third section I examine the global cultural context of these shows given China’s entry into a unique historical position – the potential bearer of post-democratic capitalism to the New World Order.