There may never again be a year in Jean Baudrillard’s life quite like 1999. Baudrillard, the French philosopher, is best known for his theory that consumer society forms a kind of code that gives individuals the illusion of choice while in fact entrapping them in a vast web of simulated reality. In 1999, the movie “The Matrix,” which was based on this theory, transformed him from a cult figure into an extremely famous cult figure. But Baudrillard was ambivalent about the film—he declined an invitation to participate in the writing of its sequels—and these days he is still going about his usual French-philosopher business, scandalizing audiences with the grandiloquent sweep of his gnomic pronouncements and his post-Marxian pessimism.
Earlier this month, he gave a reading at the Tilton Gallery, on East Seventy-sixth Street, in order to promote “The Conspiracy of Art,” his new book. The audience was too big for the room—some people had to stand. A tall, Nico-esque blond woman in a shiny white raincoat leaned against the mantelpiece, next to a tall man with chest-length dreadlocks. A middle-aged woman with red-and-purple hair sat nearby. There was a brief opening act: Arto Lindsay, the onetime Lounge Lizard, whose broad forehead, seventies-style eyeglasses, and sturdy teeth seemed precariously supported by his reedy frame, played a thunderous cadenza on a pale-blue electric guitar.
Baudrillard opened his book and began to read in a careful tone. He is a small man with large facial features. He wore a brown jacket and a blue shirt. (Some years ago, he appeared on the stage of Whiskey Pete’s, near Las Vegas, wearing a gold lamé suit with mirrored lapels, and read a poem, “Motel-Suicide,” which he wrote in the nineteen-eighties. But there was no trace of the lamé Baudrillard at the Tilton Gallery.)
“ ‘The illusion of desire has been lost in the ambient pornography and contemporary art has lost the desire of illusion,’ ” he began. “ ‘After the orgies and the liberation of all desires, we have moved into the transsexual, the transparency of sex, with signs and images erasing all its secrets and ambiguity.’ ”