On The Passing Of Jean Baudrillard

"So, my friend, after the example of the Phoenicians, you charted your course by the stars?" "No," said Menippus, "it was among the stars themselves I journeyed."

-- Quoted in Baudrillard's The Perfect Crime (1996)

Jean Baudrillard (pronounced bow-dree-are), Germanist by training, philosopher, sociologist, cultural critic, photographer, and the inspiration for the Matrix Trilogy, died March 6, 2007 in Paris. He was 77.

To the lay public he is best known for his ideas of simulacra and hyperreality -- the view that images and spectacles have superseded reality in a world governed by electronic media technology, particularly TV and film, and now the Internet. A full decade before the creation of the World Wide Web, and long before anyone had ever heard of, Google, YouTube or Facebook, he was writing about the implosion of meaning in media, and explaining how humanity had already entered "the desert of the real."

For Baudrillard, "real life" can no longer be readily distinguished from the look and feel of Disneyland and Times Square, from the atmosphere of a shopping plaza, or from the scenes of a television program. What was once known as reality has simply disappeared. The contemporary world of entertainment, of screen-mediated spectacles, of advertisements and signs is more alluring than reality -- “more real than real.” As he never tired of saying, it is not reality that has disappeared into illusion; it is illusion that has disappeared into integral reality.

This integral reality -- this virtual reality -- both pours out and absorbs messages all the time. It subsumes and narcotizes the masses, destroys sociality, and effaces all forms of otherness. It creates a fundamentally different human being and social environment.

If this sounds like so much heavy theoretical breathing, simply take a look around you. The heart of social life over the ages has been the public square, a space in which people cultivated the arts of friendship and conversation and nourished a civic sensibility. Today cities and towns have largely been shorn of this public function. Daily life as we know it has become transactional and consumptive -- more a prolonged stroll through an outsized mall than an afternoon in a cafe arguing about ideas. More and more of our life is mediated by electronic gadgetry: cell phones, laptops, DVD players, iPods, BlackBerries, video games, digital cameras, big-screen TVs.

A friend is not necessarily someone with whom you sympathize in the flesh; he or she might only be an addition to your MySpace page, or a stranger to whom you send an instant message or email. Whereas once you approached a member of the opposite sex and asked for a date, now you conceive of yourself as merchandise and write a personal ad. The question "What happened last night?" is more likely to refer to an episode of a "reality" TV show than it is to something that happened in one's own neighborhood. Anything and everything has been commodified -- be it a package of processed food, a politician, a smile and a pose, love and companionship, or the wisdom-of-the-month topping the New York Times bestsellers' list.

Like Marshall McLuhan, Baudrillard preferred simply to observe the social landscape rather than mete out value judgments. Value judgments are highly ambiguous, and tend usually to come down too strongly on one side of a complex issue. Though Baudrillard could be considered a moral opponent of this new world of ours, he tried often to sidestep normative questions; often he would feign enthusiasm and say that developments such as they are are mostly positive.

He understood, nevertheless, that from the standpoint of meaning, contemporary culture as a whole is profoundly disappointing. It exalts money and thus desacralizes life; it prefers the frivolity of entertainment to the play of the mind; it creates artificial wants and needs; it treats politics as a burlesque. Since the advent of television, our collective attention span has dwindled, and life now seems a lot more ephemeral than it once did. "Ours is a culture of premature ejaculation," Baudrillard once quipped.

Social life now exists in a kind of void: culture is unmoored from its axiological past, no longer having a clue what it is supposed to stand for; political leaders and parties are unaccountable to their constituencies; and nihilism exists through an elaborate system of simulation, no longer wearing the "dark, Wagnerian, Spenglerian fuliginous colors of the end of the century." In the past, there was still a subject to confront the world, to tell it that God was dead, that truth no longer existed, and that life was being pervaded by the darkness of nothingness. The world trembled before the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. But no more. Now there is no longer a societal cynosure; people have been scattered about, dispersed and distracted; everyone lives in, by, and through the TV-computer screen. More and more, in order to feel alive, people have to perform their lives online: witness the indescribable growth of video on-demand, witness the YouTube phenomenon...

According to Baudrillard, the means to confront such a world must lie outside the realm of discourse. “It is useless to dream of revolution through content,” he wrote in Simulacra and Simulation, “useless to dream of a revelation through form [i.e., through the media].” All the old narratives about life -- political, moral, philosophical -- no longer have purchase in a universe that is spiraling ever faster toward a new ontological destination; one that will feature human cloning, advanced genetic engineering, the further computerization of selves, and god-knows-what-else.

The intellectual's responsibility, he said, is to disobey all the old rules of discourse. The aim should be to try to get out ahead of events, "to seduce the world with an indifference that is at least equal to the world's." If all of culture has become nothing more than a vast glittering surface, then earnest thinkers should make their own prose the slickest, most diabolical surface imaginable. They should see emptiness and raise it a chip. "Theoretical violence, not truth," Baudrillard noted, "is the only resource left us."

But this notion is problematic, for in a post-axiological and largely asocial and apathetic world, the acts of the gifted provocateur quickly lose steam:

" would be beautiful to be a nihilist, if there were still a radicality -- as it would be nice to be a terrorist, if death, including that of the terrorist, still had meaning...Death no longer has a stage, neither phantasmatic nor political, on which to represent itself, to play itself out, either a ceremonial or a violent one. And that is the victory of the other nihilism, of the other terrorism, that of the system. (Simulacra, p.164)

It is here that Baudrillard's reading of 9/11/01 comes most clearly into focus. The hijackers who drove their planes into the World Trade Center sought first and foremost to confront this system of images and interpretive models with a blast of reality. Events throughout the nineties had gone on strike, as one writer noted at the time. The West was busy celebrating the "end of history" and the virtues of the free market. It was the aim of the 9/11 terrorists to put events back to work, so to speak, to create a precarious and unsure climate -- one in which, however fleetingly, the rule of empire might seem in jeopardy. And it was the aim of American punditry to annihilate the terrorists' achievement, to read the event back into the code of our own interpretive models. It was only too tempting for us to see 9/11 as a manifestation of the clash of civilizations, "on which one might be tempted to concentrate in order to create the illusion of a confrontation resolvable by force." (See "The Spirit of Terrorism")

Baudrillard was not lauding or condoning the 9/11 attacks so much as explaining the terrible allergy that all of us -- not just French, not just Arabs, but Americans too -- have to omnipotence. In a world thoroughly dominated by one superpower, one culture and economy, what becomes of the Other, of those with radically different histories, customs, identities? They begin slowly to rebel, as cells rebel when they are invaded by pathogens. As the global system grows more hegemonic and imperial, so too does the desire to confront and destroy it: "if Islam were dominating the world," Baudrillard wrote, "terrorism would rise up against Islam. The globe itself is resistant to globalization."

Baudrillard As Thinker

Those who do not know Baudrillard firsthand often tag him as a "postmodernist" and lump him with other well-known French theorists, such as Foucault, Lyotard and Derrida. This is a gross error. For one thing, Baudrillard rarely spoke of himself as a postmodernist. One can peruse his books after Simulacra, right up through Passwords (2003), and not find so much as a single mention of "postmodernism." On occasion he would refer to himself as a pataphysician, a metaphysician, a man of the Enlightenment, and even a disciple of the Cathars. Sometimes he would acknowledge his intellectual debt to the Surrealists and Situationists, to thinkers such as Lichtenberg, Breton, Adorno, Benjamin, Barthes, Debord, McLuhan. But nary a word about postmodernity.

Moreover, he first made a name for himself in France, somewhat scandalously, by attacking Foucault. In Forget Foucault he said that in the act of condemning the tradition of rationalism for imposing its categories and presuppositions on the order of things, the Parisian philosopher was imposing his own narrative. Baudrillard claimed that Foucault's theory of power was wholly inadequate at a time when electronic media were miniaturizing and decentralizing the world, when power might even be said to be disappearing into the smog of simulacra.

He was nothing if not a poet of ideas -- a thinker suspicious of fixed ways of seeing things, someone who could frequently change his mind as well as his tactics. He first wrote off McLuhan's idea about the medium being the message, only years later to proclaim that the formulation was "absolutely brilliant." He was intrigued with America as a hollow utopia and affluent desert -- a society, unlike Europe, wholly unobsessed about meaning and transcendence -- but at the same time wrote after 9/11 that the whole world had "dreamed the destruction of so powerful a hegemon." Often he lamented that art is everywhere today except in art, that the whole art marketplace is corrupt, and yet he relished the empty contributions of that great aesthetic cipher, Andy Warhol. He read Nietzsche in German, but unlike many of his contemporaries, never considered Nietzsche to be a guiding light. He was a world traveller, he was urbane, but he confessed to hating culture.

He had the gift of being able to see ahead (the first installment of The Matrix was released 18 years after the publication of Simulacra), and he was at his best when delivering his pronouncements and prognostications with clownish humor. Here is how he describes the future of humanity in The Vital Illusion:

...death...must be erased. Death must be included only as virtual reality, as an option or changeable setting in the living being's operating system. This is reprogramming that proceeds along the lines of the virtualization of sex, the 'cybersex' that waits for us in the future..All these useless functions -- sex, thought, death -- will be redesigned, redesignated as leisure activities. And human beings, henceforth useless, might themselves be preserved as a kind of ontological 'attraction'...In future modes of civilization, from which death will have been eliminated, clones of the future may well pay for the luxury of dying and become mortal once again in simulation: cyberdeath. (2000, p.11-12)

Baudrillard As Stylist

The problem with moralistic and ideological critique, Baudrillard wrote, is that it is obsessed with meaning and content, with political finality. It doesn't see that form -- the whole sound and appearance of language, the ironic and poetic force of words -- has as much to do with meaning as content itself.

In Baudrillard form and content were fused. His theorizing was a kind of art object, whose function always was to stimulate and seduce. His writing was poetic and imaginative, sprinkled liberally with metaphors, and walled off from the concerns and disputes of colleagues.

One loved it or reviled it. One understood it or drew a blank. One was determined to decode the occasionally opaque language and get to the bottom of his meaning, or one wrote him off hastily as a bluffeur.

There are too few minds like Baudrillard's anymore, able to peer into the abyss and yet continue thinking and theorizing as fearlessly as before; too few who are unbeholden, either to institutions or to men; few who can remain detached from society without ceasing to be fascinated by it, and speak up for humanity without succumbing to sentimentality and homiletics.

The world has lost one of its last-remaining humanists -- someone who helped us better understand the nihilism of our age and the simulated nature of social life. If ever there was an original without a copy, it was Baudrillard. And if ever the world needed an autonomous voice to combat the homogeneity of so much thinking and expression, it is today.

Further Reading

International Journal of Baudrillard Studies.

Baudrillard: Selected Writings (pdf only).

Welcome to the World of Jean Baudrillard.

Baudrillard Quotes.

Baudrillard's Blender (political life via television)

Books By Jean Baudrillard

The System of Objects. London: Verso, 1968.

The Consumer Society. Paris: Gallimard, 1970.

The Mirror of Production. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973.

For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973.

Simulacra and Simulation. New York: Semiotext(e) 1981, Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press (1994).

In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

America. London: Verso, 1988.

Cool Memories. London: Verso, 1990.

Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990.

Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage, 1993.

The Transparency of Evil. London: Verso, 1993.

The Illusion of the End. Oxford: Polity Press, 1994.

The Gulf War Never Happened. Oxford: Polity Press, 1995.

Cool Memories II. Oxford: Polity Press, 1996.

The Perfect Crime. London and New York: Verso Books, 1996.

Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1990-1995. London and New York: Verso Books, 1997.

The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Impossible Exchange. London: Verso, 2001.

The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers. London: Verso, 2002.

Screened Out. London: Verso, 2002.

Passwords. New York: Verso, 2003.

The Conspiracy of Art. New York: Semiotext(e), 2005.