Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jean Baudrillard does not exist

One of France’s leading thinkers is dead. On 6 March, Jean Baudrillard died in Paris aged 77 after a long illness. Baudrillard was most associated with ideas of postmodernism and simulacra. His work achieved cult status and crossed boundaries of philosophy, social theory, and cultural metaphysics. Baudrillard once wrote “death is pointless…you have to know how to disappear”.

Before Baudrillard disappeared, he wore many hats. He was a thinker, academic, philosopher, sociologist, theorist, social critic, author, photographer, commentator, and semiotician. His ideas have resonated throughout the four decades of his public life. He is most associated with the argument that mass media and modern consumerist society had built up a complex structure of symbols and simulated experience which made it almost impossible to comprehend reality as it actually exists. Baudrillard described it as the virtual absorbing the real.

But Baudrillard had a concrete reality of his own as he proved in the prolific writing of more than 50 books. His theories about consumer culture and the manufactured nature of reality were intensely discussed in philosophical circles and even made their way into the popular culture of films such as “The Matrix”. In that film, Keanu Reeves' character "Neo" retrieves some computer discs hidden in a book. The title of the book becomes clearly visible. It is Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation.

In this book and others, Baudrillard defined four orders of simulation. In the first order signs reflect reality; in the second they mask reality; in the third they mask the absence of reality; and in the fourth the signs lose all relation to reality and become simulacra. This last order is hyperreality, a condition in which reality has been replaced by simulacra, a self-referential “Mobius strip” reality. Or, as Baudrillard put it, illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible.

The US with its Disneylands, Starbucks and Cheers bars was the archetypal environment of hyperreality. But he also described the country as "the only remaining primitive society" in his 1988 book "America" written in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville. Baudrillard then attracted controversy for his 1991 thesis called “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”. While this argument may seem like an obvious denial of empirical events that Baudrillard was well aware of, he said the First Gulf War was conducted as a media spectacle which was enacted for the public as a simulation. Baudrillard had a very valid point and in truth nothing much changed as a result of that war in Iraq or elsewhere (other that the return to power of a Kuwaiti elite) but his ideas did not go over well in the US already suspicious of his apparent anti-Americanism.

Baudrillard also invited US wrath for his post 9/11 musings. In an essay titled "The Spirit of Terrorism" published in Le Monde in November 2001, he wrote that the terrorist attacks were the consequence of a "terrorist imagination" bred by an "insufferable superpower," the US. "In the end," he concluded, "it was they who did it, but we who wished it." His critics condemned his justification of destruction but he replied, "one should not confuse the messenger with his message."

This particular messenger was born in the cathedral town of Reims in 1929 into what he claimed was a “peasant family”. Baudrillard studied German at the Sorbonne and obtained a doctorate in sociology. His first job was in a lycée (high school) where he taught German for eight years. In 1966 he completed his PhD and began teaching in the University Paris X-Nanterre. His doctoral thesis was turned into a book called The System of Objects (1968) and he followed it up with The Consumer Society (1970) and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972). These books reflected his fascination with the signs and symbols of a commodity-driven world. Influenced by Roland Barthes, Baudrillard argued that fashion, sports, the media, and other modes of signification also produced systems of meaning articulated by specific rules, codes, and logics.

In the 1980s, Baudrillard changed tack and joined the Institut de Recherche sur l'Innovation Sociale where he rose to become scientific director. In this era he also became synonymous with the new idea of Postmodernism. He was soon proclaimed "the high priest of postmodernism" despite his own rejection of the concept. The force of his idea began to give him a major reputation in academic circles and he travelled the world discussing his ideas. Baudrillard moved beyond the postmodernist argument from the early 1980s to develop his own idiosyncratic mode of philosophical and cultural analysis.

Throughout this time, Baudrillard was an icon of the French left. The left-wing daily Liberation carried a full front page photograph of Baudrillard on the day after his death and covered the story over three pages inside. His university Paris X Nanterre was a hotbed of the 1968 student uprising and Baudrillard claimed to participate in these tumultuous events. He became associated with revolutionary Marxism until he broke with it in the early 1970s. He remained politically radical though unaffiliated to any party.

But Baudrillard was first and foremost a sociologist. His forte was the analysis of contemporary society, specifically the myths and structures of the consumer society. He had a prescient view of consumption as a "social language", something which tends to increase individual desires rather than satisfy them. Mayana Slobodian wrote that Baudrillard suffered from the same “problem” as Marshall McLuhan: “the ability to construct one-liners so powerful as to eclipse his entire point”.

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