Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Carlin Romano
This obituary was originally posted in The Chronicle of Higher Education and subsequently reprinted in the Australian on April 4, 2007: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,21499039-12332,00.html (link no longer active 2019).
The death at 77 of French thinker Jean Baudrillard, best known for the flamboyant title of his 1991 screed, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, and the salute to his doubts about reality in The Matrix (1999), did take place on March 6. No one spent an instant wondering if it might be one of the eccentric thinker’s simulacra shimmering in a world of faded authenticity. Newspapers, no fans of mere appearance, provided blunt takes on the man.
Libération, founded by the realer-than-real Jean-Paul Sartre, ran a full front-page photograph and covered Baudrillard’s death across three inside pages. Le Figaro expressed its view of his less than rigorous work by calling Baudrillard “a sociologist by training and a philosopher by vocation”. The words that festooned French and English-language reports – celebrated, provocative, controversial – were not accompanied by convincing, persuasive, groundbreaking or other words a thinker might prefer.
Born in Reims in 1929 to a family of civil servants one generation removed from peasantry, Baudrillard ran away from school, a la Charles Rimbaud, in his teens. He later studied German in Paris and began a 10-year career as a Lycée teacher of German in the provinces, translating into French German writers such as Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht and Peter Weiss. Only at 37 did Baudrillard earn his Sorbonne doctorate in sociology, under the tutelage of Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes and Pierre Bourdieu. He then started teaching at the University of Paris at Nanterre, from which he retired in 1987 to concentrate on his whirlwind postmodernist bad boy career and his photography.
When Baudrillard wanted to be understood, he tilted to the simplistic and outrageous. His greatest act of intellectual decadence came after 9/11. In The Spirit of Terrorism, he wrote: “It is we who have wanted it … Terrorism is immoral and it responds to a globalization that is itself immoral.” Baudrillard asserted that “the horror for the 4000 victims of dying in those towers was inseparable from the horror of living in them”. He observed that “we can say that they did it, but we wished for it”. As always, Baudrillard whacked the US, the country from which the self-declared enemy of modern consumerism, its corruption of reality into oppressive hyper-reality, accepted innumerable free trips, honorariums, lecture invitations, visiting appointments and publishing contracts. The US is the superpower that “by its unbearable power, has fomented all this violence that is endemic throughout the world, and hence that (unwittingly) terroristic imagination that dwells in all of us”.
Other notable Baudrillardian insights in that miserable book? The action of the terrorists “does not seek the impersonal elimination of the other”. What happened at the World Trade Centre “was not enough to make it a real event”. And the capper, re the twin towers: “It was, in fact, their symbolic collapse that brought about their physical collapse, not the other way around.” Many critics quote these lines because of their distinct moral stench. But Baudrillard’s blithe idiocies ran throughout his work: “To jog is not to run but to make one’s body run … Jogging strives to exhaust and destroy the body” (The Transparency of Evil); “The masses are no longer social” (Fragments); “Ours is a culture of premature ejaculation” (Forget Foucault).
Baudrillard stalked fame by making outrageous declarations he knew to be false. In Fragments and other collections of interviews, he brayed egotistically about his brilliance while admitting he made up quotations in his scholarly work. Authors of the Baudrillard obituaries, similar to the writers of encyclopedia articles on him, found it easier to list subjects he’d written about (Marxism, the “ecstasy of communication”, symbolic exchange, seduction) or the usual suspects list of influences (Friedrich Nietzsche, Marcel Mauss, Guy Debord, Georges Bataille) than to articulate what he claimed about them. As London’s The Times politely put it, his writing was “not always clearly understood”, his “nihilism and hermetic language were unique, lending themselves neither to codification nor to being organized into a coherent doctrine”. London’s The Daily Telegraph less politely noted: “Critics complained that his complexities amounted to pretentious gibberish and dismissed him as a charlatan or at best an ironic postmodern joke.”
Indeed, few could make heads or tails of Baudrillard’s prose, typically a hodgepodge of undefined abstractions. They could only regurgitate labels – postmodernist, post-postmodernist, situationist, post-situationist – because his sentences often didn’t make sense. More than any other modern French “master of thought”, Baudrillard exemplified the calculated strain in French academic culture that elevates a handful of thinkers in its lucid, elegant language to superstardom precisely because they perform the dance of opaqueness best.
All veteran humanities people know the reasons: intentionally obscure French philosophy is an established performance art; there’s money to be made, appointments to be secured, prestige to be garnered. Just as rich, white American pop-music executives grasp that giving a tyro singer one name automatically wins teenage fans, operators in the master of thought biz know that positioning a properly hieratic obscurantist correctly can lead scholarly publishers to issue any dreck the thinker produces. Once a French thinker hits the mark, of course, no one dares shut them up or suggests such plebeian activities as editing or rewriting.
Baudrillard, though, may be the screw-up who endangered the brand. His published writings were so bad and his publicity-hound manner so obvious that the image of incomprehensibility and clownishness attached itself to the respectful profile drawn by his advocates and they couldn’t rub it off. Physicists Alan D. Sokal and Jean Bricmont, in their stinging book, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (Picador, 1998), devoted a whole chapter to Baudrillard. Quoting him at length, the authors accused Baudrillard of making references to scientific terms “with total disregard for their meaning”, offering “unwarranted philosophical claims”, putting forward “no argument whatsoever” for the idea that science arrived at hypotheses “contrary to its own logic”, repeatedly producing sentences “devoid of meaning” and descending into “a gradual crescendo of nonsense”.
Even one of Baudrillard’s shepherds in the US, historian Mark Poster of the University of California, Irvine, sounds like a man with an embarrassing franchise in the second edition of his Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (Polity, 2001). In his writings until the mid-1980s, Poster observes, Baudrillard “fails to define his major terms … 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 … He ignores contradictory evidence.” Imagine such comments on a submitted doctoral dissertation. And the scholarly world published every Baudrillard hiccup?
Another French writer died two days before the sainted postmodernist master. Henri Troyat (born Lev Aslanovitch Tarassov), the 95-year-old Russian expatriate who won the Prix Goncourt at age 27 and produced 105 books, finally ground to a halt. No school of disingenuous acolytes will tend Troyat’s flame. Troyat didn’t need any. Every sentence he wrote delivered clear information or judgment. French departments don’t teach graduate seminars in Troyat’s work. Yet in his biographies of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev, Flaubert, Verlaine, Zola, Balzac and more, the immigrant who came to France at age nine and religiously measured his sentences against Flaubert’s grappled more with issues that arise when imaginative intelligence confronts the world than the “philosopher by vocation” did.
No one will read Baudrillard in 50 years, once those who made money off his antics fade. As in show business, so in academe. No fraud survives his enablers. Troyat, by contrast, will endure as long as his subjects. The same Le Figaro that tweaked Baudrillard opined of Troyat’s death, “the favourite writer of the French is dead”.
If Baudrillard had pulled off the trick of commenting on his own demise, would he have accused himself of suicide, mirroring his repulsive suggestion that the twin towers and their doomed inhabitants committed suicide in a reciprocal gesture to the 9/11 hijackers? Not likely. That would have required the spirit of criticism, which he lacked.
About the Author
Carlin Romano is from the Philosophy Department, University of Pennsylvania