Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Robert Fulford
This obituary appeared in Canada’s National Post newspaper on Saturday, March 10, 2007
Jean Baudrillard, who died on Tuesday in Paris at the age of 77, was a French intellectual in the most sinister meaning of that term. He was intoxicated by hastily concocted theories and drunk on incomprehensible explanations of world affairs. He could make any subject more obscure just by briefly visiting it. Many of his readers eventually discovered that his work, some 50 books in all, usually wasn’t about what it claimed to be about. His real concern was always Baudrillard and the passionate drama of his daydreams.
His way of thinking involved intense snobbery on his part and great tolerance on the reader’s. To the public and his students he said, in effect: “You poor fools are deluded by all your ideals, your dreams, your accomplishments. You think that’s reality? It’s a fraud, all of it. I know better.”
Strange as it seems, in the 1970s much of the Western world was ready to embrace him. He and Jacques Derrida were among the most prominent members of the platoon of French imperialist intellectuals who landed on the shores of North America and conquered a whole continent. They set up base camps on elite college campuses and soon began enlisting local recruits for their army of postmodernists, post-structuralists, post-Marxists and full-time professional obscurantists. They became an all-consuming vogue. Soon it was impossible to get through Yale without encountering them, and by the early 1990s their thoughts had penetrated Western Canada, where you could hear professors talking the ugly and mostly incomprehensible language of critical theory while students struggled pathetically to keep up. In some circles, those who didn’t imitate the French stars were considered eccentric.
Academics, building their careers, learned from the French that novels and poems had become irrelevant as subject matter for teaching and research. They existed largely as illustrations of theories imported from Paris. Baudrillard himself revived a relatively obscure word, simulacrum, and placed it at the centre of his thinking. The world we consider real is merely a simulacrum of reality, he argued. For example, “All America is Disneyland,” a vast nation rendered entirely inauthentic by advertising, information technology, and other instruments of the devil.
In the 19th century, Thomas Carlyle used simulacrum, something that consists only of appearance and possesses no substance, to describe someone as an ambitious charlatan, “merely a simulacrum.” Carlyle urged his readers to avoid simulacra “and return to fact.” But fact was just what the world no longer makes available, Baudrillard argued. Representation and simulation have taken the place of what we used to call reality. We live instead with media-generated fictions. In 1991, in his essay, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, he argued that in essence the war was a TV show and a symbolic gesture. The real conflict took place in the media of the West and didn’t matter outside that electronic arena.
He saw 9/11 as in essence an exchange of symbolic power and morality. To him it was a reaction against globalization in trade. “Terrorism is immoral,” he wrote. “It responds to a globalization that is itself immoral.” The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers, published a year after 9/11, exhibited an extreme case of a self-induced intellectual high. “The horror for the 4,000 victims of dying in those towers was inseparable from the horror of living in them,” he said. He also declared, without much explanation, that somehow “we [in the West] wished for it.”
Intellectuals love to write the obituaries of trends and art forms – literary critics often say the novel is dead, art critics declare painting finished. Baudrillard, as if involved in a competitive sport, produced more cultural eulogies than anyone in his weight class. He mourned, early, the spirit of May, 1968 (his generation’s golden moment) and at various times he told us that politics was dead, also economics, also liberty and psychoanalysis. Sex, too. As for revolution, Baudrillard hated the bicentennial celebrations of France’s revolution. He said the sole purpose of the celebrations was to assert that France was no longer a country where rebellion was acceptable. Now it was just another part of the consumer society, which he spent his life deploring.
As much as any thinker of his time, Jean Baudrillard was willing to drive an idea off the cliff of reason and fall with it into the river below – and all just to prove he could do it. He was a comedian of ideas, an intellectual who deserved a place in show business. Given him his due: He pulled it off.
About the Author
Robert Fulford is Senior Fellow, Massey College, University of Toronto, Canada.