Jean Baudrillard was a poor philosopher and a poorer sociologist. As a writer, he was inconsistent and cracked-out – as much inclined to the output of turgid rivers of prose clotted with effluvial jargon as he was to effervescent plunges of galvanic insight. As a theorist, he was one of the principal authors of what we understand today as postmodern theory. Yet however profound and unalienable one his contributions in that regard may be, he was also given to peddling dithyrambic garbage and fashionable nihilism. Our world is darker for his departure, not in the manner of a setting sun or extinguished star, but because the chandeliered light-pollution that suffuses the horizon will never be as charming as it used to be.
Studying at the Sorbonne under renowned sociologist Henri Lefebve, Baudrillard consorted with many Gallic compeers later to become famous in their own right. Along with Felix Guattari, he organized a Maoist study group which the ChiComs gracefully declined to recognize; the house newspaper he edited folded after a couple of issues. He read widely and deeply, but Barthes, Benjamin, Bataille, and Artaud were of special significance – the last as a deeply oppositional influence. Baudrillard punched out the rest of the 60’s tussling with OAS thugs, whipping up a well-regarded thesis, and exchanging vicious recriminations with the Situationists. All in all, it was a pretty pacific decade.
His first major work, The System of Objects, appeared in 1968. Baudrillard, blending and revising Marx, Levi-Strauss, and Barthes in provocative ways, delineates the nature of consumption in modern society and militates against the so-called “philosophy of consumption” which designates consumerism a vehicle of fulfillment and personalization. Far from existing in order to satisfy human needs, the system of consumer goods – constituted, according to Baudrillard, in the form of a langue – provokes, exploits, and organizes them in order to impress a pattern of social order and foreclose the prospect of real social change. Who needs revolution when you can listen to revolutionary music in your bedroom?
Consumer Society (1970) amplifies and elaborates many of the same themes first broached in The System of Objects<.i>. Like Thorstein Veblen and Georg Simmel, Baudrillard examines consumption as more than a utility-guided transaction tout court, theorizing it instead as “a systematic act of the manipulation of signs.” From the semiotics of display-windows and psychology of consumption to the proliferation of advertisement and the philosophy of the shopping-mall, Baudrillard tackles the subject of consumer society with a rarely matched singularity of observational discernment, descriptive power, and theoretical sophistication.
The Mirror of Production (1973) is probably one of the best books about Marxism ever written. Baudrillard challenges the Marxist analytic concepts of use value and labor power as self-subsistent realities of history, declaring them “fables of political economy retold to generations of revolutionaries.” According to Baudrillard, use value is only intelligible as the horizon of exchange value and thus inextricable from the normative political economy of capitalism. Moreover, Baudrillard argues, Marx’s closely-related narrative of man qua labor power (Arbeitskraft) becoming alienated from his labor obscures the fact that characterizing man as “labor power” constitutes the gravest alienation of all. Thus, in what must surely qualify as one of the supreme ironies of world-history, Marx ends up reinscribing the central values of industrial capitalism at the very heart of what was to be its critique and counter-movement. Accordingly, Baudrillard rejects Marxism as in a certain sense the consummation of the spirit of capitalism. (Hut ab, Jean.) However, to some extent Baudrillard is merely reproducing the Oedipal logic of Western Marxism that holds from Korsch to Althusser – viz., denigrate “vulgar” Marxism as theoretically unsophisticated in order to propound some more rarefied, esoteric, or otherwise superior version in its stead.
By far Jean Baudrillard’s most famous work is his 1981 essay, Simulacra and Simulations. The ideas communicated by Simulacra and Simulations, along with the scholarly demolition of most forms of metaphysics of presence (Derrida), the withering-away of grand narratives in favor of local narratives and language games (Lyotard), and the death of the author and ascendance of writing (Barthes), may be broadly conceived as formative of our theoretical understanding of that all-too-lubricious, oft-maligned, ever-contested signifier: the postmodern.
What Baudrillard announces in Simulacra and Simulations is that an epochal shift in the relationship between reality and representation has taken place: in nuce, our representations no longer refer to reality in any meaningful or ultimate way. He uses the word simulacrum to designate a representation that has no real referent. Likewise, he borrows the term simulation from psychoanalytic discourse to designate a new mode of behavior characterized by the instantiation of arbitrary roles as opposed to the organic interplay of personality and circumstance. Instead of our representations being the product of our reality, analogous to a map being determined by a territory, Baudrillard argues that it is now our reality which is the product of our representations; the map precedes and determines the territory. Everything, even our very lives, is now generated, improvised, and appraised according to “models without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” The hyperreal world of our mediatized culture has become more real than the erstwhile real world, which we witness in turn as a dim reflection of the hyperreal. Throughout Baudrillard delivers his account of the hyperreal in a style not so much an elegy of purloined authenticity as an encomium of the new order.
America (1986) presents Baudrillard’s kaleidoscopic vision of America interspersed with his own shambolic escapades as he drives across it. Written in a mode more reminiscent of Humbert Humbert than De Tocqueville, it is an exasperating, pompous, impossible book. I love it beyond reason. However, America has little or nothing to do with its continental namesake, which the antic Frenchman seizes as the overrich instantiation of fantasies incubated in other times in other countries. The superabundant “power museum” of America Baudrillard purports to discover is ultimately a creature of his own making. This book is one long mirror-stage posing as a monograph.
The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991) is often misinterpreted as suggesting the Gulf War did not take place. The real thesis of the book – somewhat vulgarized – is something like this: the traditional conception of war as a face-to-face antagonism of commensurate forces which decides a conflict is bankrupt and anachronistic. The Gulf War was not so much a contest of forces as it was a symbolic exchange of massacres mediated through technology so sophisticated and impersonal as to constitute a really novel form of killing people. The trappings and mythology of “War” were invoked by both sides for their own political purposes without such a thing ever really taking place.
Perhaps nothing better throws Baudrillard’s legacy into relief than his enduring feud with Susan Sontag, who qua paradigm of the high-culture-besotted, politically-engaged public intellectual represents in many ways Baudrillard’s leftist antitype. In Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), she pointedly – and, to my mind, devastatingly – criticizes that brand of facile theory which offers world-historical conclusions about the nature of contemporary reality based on the feverish glimpses of a few luftmenschen. To paint our world as a hyperreal phantasmagoria divorced from subsistent reality – a world, by the way, where two million people died of malaria last year and someone was paid to put a bullet through Anna Politkavskaya’s forehead – seems not only inaccurate but obscene.
In Ecce Homo Nietzsche wrote about a certain talent of his for penetrating our higher sentiments and discovering what bubbling wellsprings of darker effluences lie beneath them. Baudrillard had a similar knack for discerning the machinations of the simulacral and revealing the illegitimate touchstones of thought. His virtue was in recognizing the false stars around which our discourse was constellated. However, as Aristotle was well-aware, every virtue becomes pathological past a certain point. Jean Baudrillard obliterated that point. In his later years he morphed into a parody of himself, a provocateur on the model of Warhol or Gorgias whose shtick consisted of uttering neat paradoxes and witty denials of reality. In a sense, he never really got over Artaud, whose Theater of Cruelty Baudrillard conceived as a doomed attempt to “escape representation.” Artaud must have been Baudrillard’s ghostly nemesis inasmuch as the latter spent the majority of his life inveighing against all transcendent realities which allow an escape from representation into that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns: the Signified, the Real, the End, War, Use Value, etc. Yet who is the real escapist here? Isn’t there an escape into the imbricate infinity of representation no less than an escape from representation onto solid ground?
Freud, as many misguided people insist with aplomb, has been “debunked.” What they fail to realize is that Freud’s legacy was not so much a canon of empirical assertions to be adjudged true or false so much as a set of interpretations for grasping the vast and varied texture of human experience. In point of fact, few interpretations have met with deeper, wider-ranging, or more sustained success than Freud’s. Likewise, perhaps the most charitable future reception of Baudrillard’s theory of the hyperreal will excuse its half-baked aroma and emphasize instead to what extent he articulated an impressionistic diagnosis of certain vertiginous moments of postmodernity – the pathos of the hyperreal if not the ontology. Like Freud and Plato, Baudrillard is part of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to understand ourselves. And in the end we must not only live these misprisions but also be them.