Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Tim Footman
This commentary originally appeared in the Guardian Unlimited on March 7, 2007.
Let’s get the jokes over and done with first. As his obituary in the Guardian puts it, the death of Jean Baudrillard did not take place. Was it Baudrillard who died, or his simulacrum? Has he hyper-really gone? Oh, the drolleries will be flying round the philosophy chat rooms today. Nevertheless, within the boundaries of “reality” set by journalistic procedure, the cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard died yesterday in Paris, at the age of 77. Along with other big hitters of theoretical-isms, such as Derrida and Barthes, he had come in for some antagonism in recent years, not least from those in the neoconservative camp, for apparently reducing a succession of historical events to a morally relativist, value-free zone. Most notoriously, he argued that the (first) Gulf war did not take place, that it was simply a succession of symbolic gestures conducted by each side, and that it only achieved the identity of a military campaign because it was labeled as such by politicians and the media.
But, in many ways, Baudrillard got it right. He is the thinker most associated with the notion of the simulacrum: essentially that modern society creates representations and copies that are more “real” than the original. Reality TV is an obvious example: something marketed on the basis of its authenticity becomes more intense and absorbing and important (hyperreal) than the authentic life we see around us. People prefer it to reality. It becomes their reality. Chantelle (a simulacrum of Paris Hilton, whose existence is another grey area) is their friend, a situation that becomes feasible because they were complicit in her creation.
The post-9/11 world provides many more validations of Baudrillard’s theories, not least the spectral bogeyman himself, Osama bin Laden, a man whose continued existence is pretty much irrelevant. As long as his simulacrum, a combination of blurry photos and wonky videos, exists within the media universe, he does his job, both for his supporters and his opponents, as hero and/or villain. Even al-Qaeda itself only “exists” as a loose notion of shared values, rather than a cohesive organization. It comes into being because individuals and groups act in its name; and because we (via our political representatives and the media) also attribute those actions to it. The representation is bigger and brighter than the reality, although looking for the links between the two may be futile – as Baudrillard himself put it, “There is no more hope for meaning.”
Not to be outdone, George Bush appeared in Iraq in November 2003, bearing a Thanksgiving turkey. The turkey was intended to represent the peace and prosperity that the coalition forces had brought to Iraq, thus offering a perfect simulacrum – a hyperreal symbol for something that doesn’t exist. And just to add to the postmodern fun, it wasn’t even a real turkey.
About the Author
Tim Footman is an editor and writer from Bangkok, Thailand