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Jean Baudrillard (born July 29, 1929) is a cultural theorist, philosopher, political commentator, sociologist, and photographer. His work is frequently associated with postmodernism and post-structuralism.

LifeEdit

Baudrillard was born in Reims, France. He studied German at the Sorbonne] University in Paris] and taught German in a lycée (1958-1966). He worked as a translator and critic and continued to study philosophy and sociology. In 1966 he completed his Ph.D. thesis: 'Thèse de troisième cycle: Le Système des objets' ('Third cycle thesis: The system of objects') under the tutelage of Henri Lefebvre. From 1966 to 1972 he worked as Maître Assistant (Assistant Professor) and Maître de Conférences en Sociologie (Professor). In 1972 he finished his habilitation 'L'Autre par lui-même'. ('The Other, by oneself'.) and started teaching Sociology at the University of Paris as a professor. From 1986 to 1990 Baudrillard served as Directeur Scientifique (Scientific Director) at IRIS (Institut de Recherche et d'Information Socio-Économique) at the University of ParisSince 2001 he has been a professor of philosophy of culture and media criticism at the European Graduate School He continues to support the Institut de Recherche sur l'Innovation Sociale at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.

Introduction to workEdit

Jean Baudrillard is a social theorist best known for his analyses of modes of mediation and technological communication, although the scope of his writing spreads across more diverse subjects — from consumerism, to gender relations, to the social understanding of history through to more journalistic commentaries on AIDS, cloning], the Rushdie affair, the (first) [Gulf War and the attacks on the World Trade Center. He has affinities with post-structuralism in that his arguments consistently draw on the notion that systems of signification and meaning are only understandable in terms of their interrelation. In contrast to Foucault however, whom he is sharply critical of, Baudrillard has developed theories based, not on power and knowledge, but around the notions of seduction, simulation, and, the term with which he is most associated, hyperreality. These notions all share the common principle that signification, and therefore meaning, is self-referential (construed, following structuralist semiotics, in terms of absence — so 'dog' means 'dog' not because of what the word says but because it does not say 'cat', 'goat', 'tree' etc.). Baudrillard uses this principle to argue that in our present 'global' society, wherein technological communication has created an excessive proliferation of meaning, meaning's self-referentiality has prompted, not a McLuhan-style 'global village', but a world where meaning has been effaced and society has been reduced to an opaque mass, where the 'real' has been reduced to the self-referential signs of its existence.

Given his postulate, of the erosion of meaning via its excess, Baudrillard — against Foucault, but also against Kantian rationalism and liberal humanism — has sought to understand the world neither in terms of the subject's desire to coherently know the world nor in terms of the interpolation of power within subjectivity (in the manner of Foucault), but in terms of the object and its power to seduce (its power to stand for, or to simulate). As a result Baudrillard has, particularly in his later work, 'withdrawn' himself, in a sense, from his own writing, by way of employing a poetic and ironic dynamic in his books. In terms of Baudrillard's political standpoint, such an effort has lead him — drawing on the anthropological work of Marcel Mauss and Georges Bataille — to increasingly oppose semiotic logic, that of meaning, sign, signification, and commodity exchange, with that of the symbolic realm: that of gift exchange, potlatch (the practice of sumptuous destruction), and analyses of the principle of Evil (and what it means to invoke the principle of Evil). Latterly, in his work, this has prompted him to characterize the world in terms of a binary opposition of symbolic cultures (based upon gift exchange) and the ever-expanding 'globalized' world, based on sign and commodity exchange, a world which has no answer to symbolic logic. Hence Baudrillard, portentously, is presently of the opinion that the expansion of liberal parliamentary capitalism, and the increasing reach of financial commodification that goes with it, unwittingly sows the seeds of that which reacts against it by its failure to understand the symbolic side to social existence — indeed, controversially, he has argued that that is how best to understand the events of September 11th (see below).

The Object Value SystemEdit

Baudrillard's early work, in the books The System of Objects, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign and The Consumer Society, focused on the application of structural semiotics to the thought of Karl Marx. Baudrillard argued, drawing from Roland Barthes and Georges Bataille, that while Marxist economics and the classical economics of Adam Smith had sought to understand the consumer society in opposing ways, both accepted the nature of use value without question. They both therefore (mis)understood need in the same way: always as a genuine, asocially constituted drive for a given consumer's satisfaction. Against this Baudrillard argued that an individual necessarily, in purchasing and consuming goods, places him or herself within a system of signs; objects therefore always 'say something' about their users. He thus developed a theory of society governed by a system of sumptuous, sacrificial consumption, in which needs become 'ideologically generated' (p. 63 in For a Critique..., 1983 version). Baudrillard described this system in terms of four processes of obtaining value:

  1. A functional value of an object, its instrumental purpose. (A pen writes; a fridge cools etc.) This is what Marx referred to as the 'use-value' of the commodity.
  2. An exchange value of an object, its economic value. (A pen is worth three pencils; a fridge is worth three months' salary.)
  3. A symbolic value of an object, its arbitrarily assigned and agreed value in relation to another subject. (A pen represents a graduation present or a speaker's gift; a diamond ring symbolizes a public declaration of love between two individuals.)
  4. A sign value of an object, its value in a system of objects. (A pen is part of a desk set, or a particular pen confers social status; a diamond ring has sign value in relation to other diamond rings, or the absence of a ring. The human subject is interpolated, perhaps eroded, in the 'seductive' play of objects.)

Baudrillard later went on to eventually reject Marxism outright (in The Mirror of Production and Symbolic Exchange and Death) but the opposition of the semiotic functional logic and the logic of the symbolic realm continues in his work to the present day.

Simulacra and Simulation Edit

The development of Baudrillard's work throughout the 1980s saw him move away from economically-based theories to considerations of mediation and mass communication. Although he retained an interest in Saussurean semiotics and the logic of symbolic exchange (under the influence of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss) Baudrillard increasingly turned his attention to the likes of Marshall McLuhan, developing ideas about how the nature of social relations is determined by the forms of communication that a society employs. In doing so Baudrillard actually moved beyond both Saussure's and Roland Barthes' formal semiology to consider the implications of a historically understood, and thus form-less, version of structural semiology. Most famously he argued — in the book Symbolic Exchange and Death — that Western societies have undergone a 'precession of simulacra' (the simulacrum being that 'truth which hides the fact there is none' — a term roughly comparable to the word idol). This precession, according to Baudrillard, took the form of 'orders of simulacra' from the era of the original, to the counterfeit, to the produced, mechanical copy, and through to the simulated 'third order of simulacra' whereby the copy has come to replace the original. Referring to a fable by Borges — who himself was writing under the name of Suarez Miranda — Baudrillard argued that for present day society as the simulated copy has superseded the original so the map has come to precede the territory. So it was, for example, with the first Gulf War (see below): the image of war came to precede genuine conflict.

Using this line of reasoning, Baudrillard came to characterise the present age — following on from Ludwig Feuerbach and Guy Debord — as one of 'hyperreality' where the real has come to be effaced or superseded by the signs of its existence. Such an assertion — the one for which Baudrillard has drawn most and his heaviest criticism — is typical of Baudrillard's 'fatal strategy' of attempting to push his theories of society beyond themselves, so to speak. Rather than saying, for instance, 'our hysteria surrounding paedophilia is such that we no longer really understand what childhood is anymore', Baudrillard argued (in the essay 'The Dark Continent of Childhood' in the collection Screened Out, 2002) that 'the Child no longer exists'. Similarly rather than arguing — in a similar manner to Susan Sontag in her book On Photography — that the notion of reality has been complicated by the profusion of images of it, Baudrillard came to assert: 'the real no longer exists'. In so doing Baudrillard came to characterise — in the book The Perfect Crime — his philosophical challenge as being no longer the Leibnizian question of: 'Why is there something rather than nothing', but rather: 'Why is there nothing rather than something.'

The End of History and MeaningEdit

Baudrillard's most in-depth writings on the notion of Historicity are found in the books Fatal Strategies and The Illusion of the End. It is for these writings that he received a full-chapter denunciation from the physicist Alan Sokal (along with Jean Bricmont), due to his alleged misuse of physical concepts of linear time, space and stability. His argument can be summarised as being an attempted subversion of the (now rather outdated) thesis of Francis Fukuyama that the collapse of Soviet Communism brought humanity to the 'end of History' whereby the world's global dialectical machinations had been resolved with the triumph of liberal capitalism. (Baudrillard, it should be noted, actually developed his argument some years prior to Fukuyama.) In contrast to this, Baudrillard maintained that the 'end of History', in terms of a teleogical goal, had always been an illusion brought about by modernity's will towards progress, civilization and rational unification. And this was an illusion that to all intents and purposes vanished toward the end of the 20th century, brought about by the 'speed' at which society moved, effectively 'destabilising' the linear progression of History (it is these comments, specifically, that provoked Sokal's criticism). History was, so to speak, outpaced by its own spectacular realisation. As Baudrillard himself caustically put it (from The Illusion of the End, or Selected Writings, p. 263):

The end of history is, alas, also the end of the dustbins of history. There are no longer any dustbins for disposing of old ideologies, old regimes, old values. Where are we going to throw Marxism, which actually invented the dustbins of history? (Yet there is some justice here since the very people who invented them have fallen in.) Conclusion: if there are no more dustbins of history, this is because History itself has become a dustbin. It has become its own dustbin, just as the planet itself is becoming its own dustbin.

This approach to History is what marks out Baudrillard's affinities with the postmodern philosophy of Jean-Francois Lyotard: the idea that society — and Western society in particular — has 'dropped out' of the grand narratives of History (for example the coming of Communism or the triumph of civilized modern society). But Baudrillard has supplemented this argument by contending that, although this 'dropping out' may have taken place, the global world (which in Baudrillard's writing is sharply distinct from a universal humanity) is, in accordance with its spectacular understanding of itself, condemned to 'play out' this illusory ending in a hyper-teleological way — acting out the end of the end of the end, ad infinitum. Thus Baudrillard argues that — in a manner similar to Giorgio Agamben's book Means without Ends — Western society is subject to the political restriction of means that are justified by ends that do not exist.

On the Gulf WarEdit

Much of Baudrillard's notoriety as an academic and political comentator comes from his deliberately provocative claim in 1991 that the first Gulf War'did not take place.' His argument — which sparked heavy criticism from the likes of Chris Norris (see below) who perceived, in Baudrillard, a denial of empirical events — described the war as the inverse of the Clausewitzian formula: not 'the continuation of politics by other means', but 'the continuation of the absence of politics by other means.' According to Baudrillard, Saddam Hussein was not fighting the Allied Forces, but using the lives of his troops as a form of sacrifice to preserve his power (p. 72 in the 2004 edition); and neither were the Allied Forces fighting Saddam, they were merely dropping 10,000 tonnes of bombs a day as if to prove to themselves there was an enemy to fight (p. 61). So too were the Western media complicit, presenting the war in 'real time' and recycling images of war to propagate the notion that the two enemies were in actual conflict. But, Baudrillard followed, this was not the case: Saddam did not use what military capacity he had (his air force); nor was his power eventually weakened (as he managed to put down the insurgency against him after the war ended). And so, Baudrillard concluded, little politically changed in Iraq: the enemy was not defeated, the victors were not victorious. Ergo, there was no war: the Gulf War did not take place.

Much of the repute that Baudrillard found as a result of the book (which previously was printed in article form in the British newspaper The Guardian and the French paper Libération) was based upon the criticism that the war was not as ineffectual as Baudrillard portrayed it: people died, the political map was altered, and Saddam's regime was harmed. Some criticisms (Norris included) go so far as to accuse Baudrillard of a form of 'instant revisionism'; a denial of the physical occurrence of the conflict (part of his denial of reality in general). He has in consequence been at the receiving end of accusations of lazy amoralism, all-encompassing cynical scepticism or Berkelian idealism. More sympathetic commentators (such as William Merrin, in his book Baudrillard and the Media) have argued however that Baudrillard was and still is more concerned with the techno-political dominance of the West, and globalization, and what it means for the present possibility of war. Merrin, for instance, has averred that Baudrillard did not deny that something took place, but merely denied that that something was a war; rather it was 'an atrocity masquerading as a war.' Merrin's book in fact viewed the accusations of amorality as redundant and based upon misreading; Baudrillard's own position, it held, was in fact more nuanced. To put it in Baudrillard's own words (p. 71-72):

Saddam liquidates the communists, Moscow flirts even more with him; he gases the Kurds, it is not held against him; he eliminates the religious cadres, the whole of Islam makes peace with him.... Even ... the 100,000 dead will only have been the final decoy that Saddam will have sacrificed, the blood money paid in forfeit according to a calculated equivalence, in order to conserve his power. What is worse is that these dead still serve as an alibi for those who do not want to have been excited for nothing: at least these dead will prove this war was indeed a war and not a shameful and pointless hoax....

On the 9/11 attacksEdit

In contrast to the 'non-event' of the Gulf War, Baudrillard, in his essay The Spirit of Terrorism characterised the attacks on the World Trade Centre as the 'absolute event.' He sought to understand them in terms of an (ab)reaction to the techno-political expansion of globalization, rather than in terms of a religious or civilization-based conflict. He termed the event and its consequences as follows (p. 11 in the 2002 version):

This is not a clash of civilisations or religions, and it reaches far beyond Islam and America, on which efforts are being made to focus the conflict in order to create the delusion of a visible confrontation and a solution based upon force. There is indeed a fundamental antagonism here, but one that points past the spectre of America (which is perhaps the epicentre, but in no sense the sole embodiment, of globalisation) and the spectre of Islam (which is not the embodiment of terrorism either) to triumphant globalisation battling against itself.

Baudrillard thus placed the attacks — in a manner befitting his theoretical approach to society — firmly in the context of a symbolic reaction to the continued expansion of a world based solely upon commodity exchange. This approach has led him to be criticised on two counts. Firstly, Richard Wolin (in the book The Seduction of Unreason) forcefully accused Baudrillard, along with Slavoj Zizek, of all but celebrating the attacks, and in essence claiming the U.S. got what it deserved. Zizek, however, has countered this accusation, referring (in the journal Critical Inquiry) to Wolin's analysis as a form of 'intellectual barbarism,' flatly stating that Wolin fails to see the difference between fantasising about an event, and deserving that event. Merrin (again in Baudrillard and the Media) nonetheless has argued that such a position as Baudrillard's does afford the terrorists a certain position — indeed Merrin (in the journal Economy and Society) has pointed to the weakness of Baudrillard's argument being that he gives the symbolic facets of society unfair privilege over and above semiotic concerns. This leads to the second criticism of Baudrillard's position on 9/11 (made by Bruno Latour, again in Critical Inquiry): that Baudrillard's 9/11 was ineluctable. Because Baudrillard only conceives of society in terms of a symbolic/semiotic dualism, he alludes to the towers being, as it were, 'brought down by their own weight' — forced into destruction by the society that created them.

Critiques of BaudrillardEdit

Baudrillard's writing, and his uncompromising positions, have led to criticism the force of which can only be compared to, in contemporary social scholarship, Jacques Lacan. Only one of the two major confrontational book-length critiques — Christopher Norris's Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (ISBN 0-87023-817-5) — however seeks to reject his media theory and position on 'the real' out of hand. The other — Douglas Kellner's Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (ISBN 0-8047-1757-5) — seeks rather to analyse Baudrillard's relation to postmodernism (a concept with which Baudrillard has had a continued, if uneasy and rarely explicit relationship) and to present a Marxist counter. Regarding the former, William Merrin (as discussed above) has published more than one denunciation of Norris's position. The latter Baudrillard himself has characterised as reductive (in Nicholas Zurbrugg's Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artifact).

Willam Merrin's work has presented a more sympathetic critique, which attempts to 'place Baudrillard in opposition to himself.' Thereby Merrin has argued that Baudrillard's position on semiotic analysis of meaning denies himself his own position on symbolic exchange. Merrin thus alludes to the common criticism of post-structuralist work (a criticism not dissimilar in either Baudrillard, Foucault or Deleuze) that emphasising interrelation as the basis for subjectivity denies the human agency from which social structures necessarily arise. (Alain Badiou and Michel de Certeau have made this point generally, and Barry Sandywell has argued as much in Baudrillard's specific case).

Finally Mark Poster, Baudrillard's main editor and one of a number of present day academics who argue for his contemporary relevance, has remarked (p. 8 of Poster's 2nd ed. of Selected Writings):

Baudrillard's writing up to the mid-1980s is open to several criticisms. He fails to define key terms, such as the code; his writing style is hyperbolic and declarative, often lacking sustained, systematic analysis when it is appropriate; he totalizes his insights, refusing to qualify or delimit his claims. He writes about particular experiences, television images, as if nothing else in society mattered, extrapolating a bleak view of the world from that limited base. He ignores contradictory evidence such as the many benefits afforded by the new media....

Nonetheless Poster is keen to refute the most extreme of Baudrillard's critics, the likes of Alan Sokal and Norris who see him as a purveyor of a form of reality-denying irrationalism (ibid p. 7):

Baudrillard is not disputing the trivial issue that reason remains operative in some actions, that if I want to arrive at the next block, for example, I can assume a Newtonian universe (common sense), plan a course of action (to walk straight for X meters, carry out the action, and finally fulfil my goal by arriving at the point in question). What is in doubt is that this sort of thinking enables a historically informed grasp of the present in general. According to Baudrillard, it does not. The concurrent spread of the hyperreal through the media and the collapse of liberal and Marxist politics as the master narratives, deprives the rational subject of its privileged access to truth. In an important sense individuals are no longer citizens, eager to maximise their civil rights, nor proletarians, anticipating the onset of communism. They are rather consumers, and hence the prey of objects as defined by the code.

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