Friday, March 09, 2007


My trip to Missoula, Montana, was memorable for a number of reasons. Taking place in May of 1989, it occurred just a matter of weeks before the massacre in Tiananmen Square in the People’s Republic of China, a pivotal – if, in the Chinese instance, abortive – event in the global collapse of “actually existing” Stalinist states that would result over the next two years in the fall of the Berlin Wall & implosion of the Soviet Socialist Republics. Indeed, I was already scheduled to spend part of that summer in what was then Leningrad.

I had also just started working – less than four weeks on the job – in the computer industry and had had to negotiate permission to take this week in the Rockies, plus the later time abroad (there were stops along the way in both Finland & Germany), when I first signed my contract with ComputerLand. I had just left my tenure as the executive editor of The Socialist Review (SR) – I remained on the editorial collective for an additional three years – and was making a conscious decision to go into the computer industry, sensing that technology had the potential to change the terms of many social debates of the late ‘80s.

But what makes my trip to Missoula most memorable, well beyond the stunning mountain setting of the University of Montana, very possibly the most beautiful campus in the United States, with osprey hunting fish in the river that runs through it, were my meetings with two people. One was Jean Baudrillard, whom I’d been asked to debate by the organizers of a conference focused around the work of the French philosopher.

The second was with the painter Mel Laubach, a one-time roommate of mine in San Francisco. Mel & I had put together a collective household in a seven-bedroom Victorian – total rent for the entire building was $350 – in 1975, a group that lasted with some rolling changes until the fall of 1977 when a leaky roof & recalcitrant landlord led to a rent strike & eventual eviction. Mel had been a student at the San Francisco Art Institute when I first met him, working mostly with abstracts in oil – imagine Franz Kline with paints as thick as some of Jess’ portraits of Robert Duncan – but graduated and had moved to New York City, seeking the proverbial great gallery deal & fame & fortune. I’d lost touch with him entirely until one day, when I had gotten my first East Coast reading tour ever, Charles Bernstein picked me up at the Newark airport and we were driving back into Manhattan. As we pulled through the Holland Tunnel and came to the first red light, one of the passersby in the crosswalk was Mel. We actually blocked traffic – it wasn’t going anywhere very fast anyway – for a couple of minutes as I got his contact information & told him about the reading.

Not only was Mel living in New York, but he had become the super of his building on the Lower East Side. As I was to learn that same weekend, one of the tenants in that building was Hannah Weiner. Talk about weird coincidences. I met with Mel several more times in New York – one of our old housemates actually succeeded him as that building’s super – the last time when he was working at an outdoor & camping equipment chain, thinking about going back to grad school. But when I got back to the city again, he was gone and I had no way of knowing where.

So I was floored when, as I was walking through the lobby of the Performing Arts Center in Missoula, about to deliver my talk, I ran into Mel again. He had settled in Missoula and was getting his MFA in painting there. He had not even realized that I was speaking there that night, and had never heard of Baudrillard. He’d simply heard that there was going to be a debate with a weird French philosopher and that it ought to be pretty funny. In Missoula, that was reason enough to head out of the house.

I spent a good portion of the next day with Mel. Indeed, a screw in the frame of my glasses had fallen out & disappeared the night before as I was addressing the audience of some 600 people & Mel knew which mall had a good optician who quickly repaired them – a good thing as I had a reading that night with jazz musician Eugene Chadbourne, complete with his electric rake.

I lost touch with Mel again after that & it was only a couple of months ago, after I’d googled him, looking to see if there were any jpegs of recent paintings available on the web, that I discovered that he’d been killed in 2004 in an auto accident in Missoula. And it was only after I’d emailed his widow – he’d been single when I’d seen him last – that I discovered that she was the sister of one of my co-workers from the California Institute of Integral Studies, where I’d been the director of development for several years before taking over the editorship at Socialist Review. I still have a painting of Mel’s from his Art Institute days just ten feet from where I’m typing right now.

Baudrillard was another matter. I’d read the books, of course, and had originally been interested in him as a provocative protégé of Henri Lefebvre, but had never met the person. In 1989, his star in the world of celebrity academics was at its peak & responding to him on the same stage was, in some fashion, a big deal. For me, it was an opportunity to present in a different context than any I’d had previously, tho my work at SR had put me into some pretty interesting spots, and during that period I was very much involved with working out what I felt were that mostly amnesiac premises of what in those days constituted post-modernism. Amnesiac because nobody, at least other than Jurgen Habermas, was prepared to address the problems of modernity from which the post-modern presumably sprang. Baudrillard presented a terrific opportunity to address this question and the draft of his talk that I’d been given by conference co-chair William Chaloupka – “Transpolitics, Transexuality, Transaesthetics,” maybe 90 percent of the version he eventually published in Jean Baudrillard: The Disappearance of Art and Politics – made it self-evident that I shouldn’t pass up this opportunity.

Shorter than I’d expected but perfectly affable, Baudrillard had the star routine down solid. He hadn’t flown directly into Missoula, but had landed either in the LA or Las Vegas & rented a car, seeking to drive north through the desert that he loved so much about America – I always thought that he was the one person besides Nabokov who really saw that landscape as sensuous. Unfortunately, the rental car died along the route, perhaps in Utah, and some poor grad student had had to be dispatched to fetch the stranded philosopher. The rental car was just left on the side of the road, with Baudrillard saying succinctly, “Oh, I’m sure the university will take care of that.” He’d also arrived entirely without cash – a trick I’ve seen one or two other celebrity academics pull – so that grad students were perpetually having to buy everything for him. And he was not without his appetites.

I think I surprised him in our session together. If you read his talk – and especially in the back & forth session that followed our presentations – it was clear that he expected me to represent the aesthetic in some relatively pure form, lyric poetry perhaps. But that wasn’t me and certainly what I wasn’t doing. My own piece, when I published it in that same volume¹, was entitled “What Do Cyborgs Want? (Paris, Suburb of the Twentieth Century),” playing of course off of the title of the famous Donna Haraway essay, “Cyborg Manifesto,” that had first appeared in the pages of SR a couple of years earlier.

Jean Baudrillard: The Disappearance of Art and Politics has been out of print for some time & a search of the web suggests that there are no used copies to be had at all. I’ll post my piece from the conference tomorrow if all goes well. (See alternate accounts of this conference by Thomas Dumm and Bill Borneman.)


¹ The book's subtitle was a play on my “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World,” which Chaloupka and his co-editor William Stearns republished in that volume as well.

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