Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006)
Author: Douglas Kellner
Note: This is a significantly longer version of Kellner’s entry on Baudrillard in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Online). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard IJBS is pleased to publish it as part of the ongoing dialogue on the uses and implications of Baudrillard’s thought. Kellner is perhaps the most prolific of a generation who resist Baudrillard but are forever drawn to his work. Such is the seductive nature of the encounter with Baudrillard and contemporary thought.
Jean Baudrillard is one of the foremost intellectual figures of the present age whose work combines philosophy, social theory, and an idiosyncratic cultural metaphysics that reflects on key events of phenomena of the epoch. A sharp critic of contemporary society, culture, and thought, Baudrillard is often seen as a major guru of French postmodern theory, although he can also be read as a thinker who combines social theory and philosophy in original and provocative ways and a writer who has developed his own style and forms of writing. He is an extremely prolific author who has published over thirty books and commented on some of the most salient cultural and sociological phenomena of the contemporary era, including the erasure of the distinctions of gender, race, and class that structured modern societies in a new postmodern consumer, media, and high tech society; the mutating roles of art and aesthetics; fundamental changes in politics, culture, and human beings; and the impact of new media, information, and cybernetic technologies in the creation of a qualitatively different social order, providing fundamental mutations of human and social life.
For some years a cult figure of postmodern theory, Baudrillard moved beyond the discourse of the postmodern from the early 1980s to the present, and has developed a highly personal mode of philosophical and cultural analysis. Here I focus on the development of Baudrillard’s unique modes of thought and how he moved from social theory to postmodern theory to a provocative type of philosophical analysis 1 In retrospect, Baudrillard can be seen a theorist who has traced in original ways the life of signs and impact of technology on social life, and who has systematically criticized major modes of modern thought, while developing his own philosophical perspectives.
II. Early Writings: From the System of Objects to The Mirror of Production
Jean Baudrillard was born in the cathedral town of Reims, France in 1929. He told interviewers that his grandparents were peasants and his parents became civil servants.2 Baudrillard also claims that he was the first member of his family to pursue an advanced education which ultimately led to a rupture with his parents and cultural milieu. In 1956, he began working as a professor of secondary education in a French high school and in the early 1960s did editorial work for the French publisher Seuil. Baudrillard was initially a Germanist who published essays on literature in Les temps modernes in 1962-1963 and translated works of Peter Weiss and Bertolt Brecht into French, as well as a book on messianic revolutionary movements by Wilhelm Mühlmann. During this period, he met and studied the works of Henri Lefebvre, whose critiques of everyday life impressed him, and Roland Barthes, whose semiological analyses of contemporary society had lasting influence on his work.
In 1966, Baudrillard entered the University of Paris, Nanterre, and became Lefebvre’s assistant, while studying languages, philosophy, sociology, and other disciplines. He defended his “These de Troisiême Cycle” in sociology at Nanterre in 1966 with a dissertation on “Le système des objects,” and began teaching sociology in October of that year. Opposing French and U.S. intervention in the Algerian and Vietnamese wars, Baudrillard associated himself with the French Left in the 1960s. Nanterre was a key site of radical politics and the “March 22 movement,” associated with Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the enrageés which began in the Nanterre sociology department. Baudrillard participated in the events of May 1968 that resulted in massive student uprisings and a general strike that almost drove de Gaulle from power.
During the late 1960s, Baudrillard began publishing a series of books that would eventually make him internationally famous. Influenced by Lefebvre, Barthes, and a series of French thinkers whose influence will be discussed below, Baudrillard undertook serious work in the field of social theory, semiology, and psychoanalysis in the 1960s and published his first books: The System of Objects, The Consumer Society, and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign.3 These early publications are attempts, within the framework of critical sociology, to combine the studies of everyday life initiated by Lefebvre with a social semiology that studies the life of signs in social life. This project, influenced by Barthes, centers on the system of objects in the consumer society (the focus of his first two books), and the interface between political economy and semiotics.4 Baudrillard’s early work was one of the first to appropriate semiology to analyze how objects are encoded with a system of signs and meanings that constitute contemporary media and consumer societies. Combining semiological studies, Marxian political economy, and sociology of the consumer society, Baudrillard began his life-long task of exploring the system of objects and signs which forms our everyday life.
The early Baudrillard described the meanings invested in the objects of everyday life (e.g., the power accrued through identification with one’s automobile when driving) and the structural system through which objects were organized into a new modern society (e.g., the prestige or sign-value of a new sports car). In his first three books, Baudrillard argued that the classical Marxian critique of political economy needed to be supplemented by semiological theories of the sign which articulated the diverse meanings signified by signifiers like language organized in a system of meaning. Following Barthes and others, he argued that fashion, sports, the media, and other modes of signification also produced systems of meaning articulated by specific rules, codes, and logics (terms used somewhat interchangeably by Baudrillard which are elucidated in more detail below).
Situating his analysis of signs and everyday life in a historical framework, Baudrillard argued that the transition from the earlier stage of competitive market capitalism to the stage of monopoly capitalism required increased attention to demand management, to augmenting and steering consumption. At this historical stage, from around 1920 to the 1960s, the need to intensify demand supplemented concern with lowering production costs and with expanding production. In this era of capitalist development, economic concentration, new production techniques, and the development of new technologies, accelerated capacity for mass production and capitalist corporations focused increased attention on managing consumption and creating needs for new prestigious goods, thus producing the regime of what Baudrillard has called “sign-value.”
On Baudrillard’s analysis, advertising, packaging, display, fashion, “emancipated” sexuality, mass media and culture, and the proliferation of commodities multiplied the quantity of signs and spectacles, and produced a proliferation of “sign-value.” Henceforth commodities are not merely to be characterized by use-value and exchange value, as in Marx’s theory of the commodity, but by sign-value – the expression and mark of style, prestige, luxury, power, and so on – which becomes an increasingly important part of the commodity and consumption.
From this perspective, Baudrillard claims that commodities are bought and displayed as much for their sign-value as their use-value, and that the phenomenon of sign-value has become an essential constituent of the commodity and consumption in the consumer society. This position was influenced by Veblen’s notion of “conspicuous consumption” and display of commodities analyzed in his The Theory of the Leisure Class5 that Baudrillard argued has become extended to everyone in the consumer society. For Baudrillard, the entire society is organized around consumption and display of commodities through which individuals gain prestige, identity, and standing. In this system, the more prestigious one’s commodities (houses, cars, clothes, and so on), the higher one’s standing in the realm of sign value. Thus, just as words take on meaning according to their position in a differential system of language, so sign values take on meaning according to their place in a differential system of prestige and status.
In The Consumer Society, Baudrillard concludes by extolling “multiple forms of refusal” of social convention, conspicuous consumption, and conformist thought and behavior, all of which can be fused in a “practice of radical change”.6 Baudrillard alludes here to the expectation of “violent eruptions and sudden disintegration which will come, just as unforeseeably and as certainly May 68, to wreck this white mass” [of consumption].7 On the other hand, Baudrillard also describes a situation where alienation is so total that it cannot be surpassed because “it is the very structure of market society”.8 His argument is that in a society where everything is a commodity that can be bought and sold, alienation is total. Indeed, the term “alienation” originally signified “to sale,” and in a totally commodified society where everything is a commodity, alienation is ubiquitous. Moreover, Baudrillard posits “the end of transcendence” (a phrase borrowed from Marcuse) where individuals can neither perceive their own true needs or another way of life.9
By 1970, Baudrillard distinguished himself from Marxist theories of revolution and began postulating the possibility of revolt against the consumer society in an “unforeseeable but certain” form. In the late 1960s, Baudrillard had associated himself with a group of intellectuals around the journal Utopie which sought to overcome disciplinary boundaries and in the spirit of Guy Debord and the Situationist International to combine reflections on alternative societies, architecture, and modes of everyday life.10 Bringing together individuals on the margins of architecture, city planning, cultural criticism and social theory, Baudrillard and his associates distinguished themselves from other political and theoretical groupings and developed a discourse beyond the boundaries of established disciplines and political tendencies. This affiliation with Utopie only lasted into the early 1970s, but it may have helped produce in Baudrillard a desire to work on the margins, to stand aside from current trends and fads, and to develop his own theoretical positions.
Baudrillard thus had an ambivalent relation to classical Marxism by the early 1970s. On one hand, he carried forward the Marxian critique of commodity production which delineates and criticizes various forms of alienation, domination, and exploitation produced by capitalism. At this stage, it appeared that his critique takes place from the standard neo-Marxian vantage point which assumes that capitalism is blameworthy because it is homogenizing, controlling and dominating social life, while robbing individuals of their freedom, creativity, time and human potentialities. On the other hand, he cannot point to any revolutionary forces and in particular did not discuss the situation and potential of the working class as an agent of change in the consumer society. Indeed, Baudrillard has no theory of the subject as an active agent of social change whatsoever, thus following the structuralist and poststructuralist critique of the philosophical and practical subject categorized by Descartes, Kant, and Sartre which was long dominant in French thought. Structuralists and poststructuralists argued that subjectivity was produced by language, social institutions, and cultural forms and was not independent of its construction in these institutions and practices.
Nor does Baudrillard develop a theory of class or group revolt, or any theory of political organization, struggle, or strategy of the sort frequent in post-1960s France. Yet his work here is particularly close to the work of the Frankfurt school, especially that of Herbert Marcuse, who had already developed some of the first Marxist critiques of the consumer society.11 Like Lukàcs12 and the Frankfurt School, Baudrillard analyzes how the commodity and commodification permeate social life and come to dominate individual thought and behavior. Following the general line of critical Marxism, Baudrillard argues that the process of social homogenization, alienation, and exploitation constitutes a process of reification in commodities, technologies, and things (i.e. “objects”) come to dominate people (“subjects”) divesting them of their human qualities and capacities.
For Lukàcs, the Frankfurt School, and Baudrillard, reification – the process whereby human beings become dominated by things and become more thinglike themselves – comes to govern social life. Conditions of labor imposed submission and standardization on human life, as well as exploiting workers and alienating them from a life of freedom and self-determination. In a media and consumer society, culture and consumption also became homogenized, depriving individuals of the possibility of cultivating individuality and self-determination.
In a sense, Baudrillard’s work can be read as an account of a further stage of reification and social domination than that described by the Frankfurt School who described how individuals were controlled by ruling institutions and modes of thought. Baudrillard goes beyond the Frankfurt School by applying the semiological theory of the sign to describe how commodities, media, and technologies provide a universe of illusion and fantasy in which individuals become overpowered by consumer values, media ideologies and role models, and seductive technologies like computers which provide worlds of cyberspace. Eventually, Baudrillard will take his analysis of domination by signs and the system of objects to even more pessimistic conclusions where he concludes that the thematic of the “end of the individual” sketched by the Frankfurt School has reached its fruition in the total defeat of human subjectivity by the object world (see below).
Yet in some writings, Baudrillard has a somewhat more active theory of consumption than that of the Frankfurt School’s that generally portrays consumption as a passive mode of social integration. By contrast, consumption in Baudrillard’s early writings is itself a kind of labor, “an active manipulation of signs,” a way of inserting oneself within the consumer society, and working to differentiate oneself from others. Yet this active manipulation of signs is not equivalent to postulating an active human subject that could resist, redefine, or produce its own signs, thus Baudrillard fails to develop a genuine theory of agency.13
Baudrillard’s first three works can thus be read in the framework of a neo-Marxian critique of capitalist societies. One could read Baudrillard’s emphasis on consumption as a supplement to Marx’s analysis of production and his focus on culture and signs as an important supplement to classical Marxian political economy, which adds a cultural and semiological dimension to the Marxian project. But in his 1973 provocation The Mirror of Production14 , Baudrillard carries out a systematic attack on classical Marxism, claiming that Marxism is but a mirror of bourgeois society, placing production at the center of life, thus naturalizing the capitalist organization of society.
Although in the 1960s, Baudrillard participated in the tumultuous events of May 1968, and was associated with the revolutionary Left and Marxism, he broke with Marxism in the early 1970s, but remained politically radical though unaffiliated the rest of the decade. Like many on the Left, Baudrillard was disappointed that the French Communist Party did not support the radical ’60s movements and he also distrusted the official Marxism of theorists like Louis Althusser who he found dogmatic and reductive. Consequently, Baudrillard began a radical critique of Marxism, one that would be repeated by many of his contemporaries who would also take a postmodern turn.15
Baudrillard argues that Marxism, first, does not adequately illuminate premodern societies that were organized around religion, mythology, and tribal organization and not production. He also argues that Marxism does not provide a sufficiently radical critique of capitalist societies and alternative critical discourses and perspectives. At this stage, Baudrillard turns to anthropological perspectives on premodern societies for hints of more emancipatory alternatives. Yet it is important to note that this critique of Marxism was taken from the Left, arguing that Marxism did not provide a radical enough critique of, or alternative to, contemporary capitalist and communist societies organized around production. Baudrillard concluded that French communist failure to support the May 68 movements was rooted in part in a conservatism that had roots in Marxism itself. Hence, Baudrillard and others of his generation began searching for alternative critical positions.
III. Symbolic Exchange and the Postmodern Break
The Mirror of Production and his next book Symbolic Exchange and Death16 are attempts to provide ultraradical perspectives that overcome the limitations of an economistic Marxist tradition that privileges the sphere of the economic. This ultra-leftist phase of Baudrillard’s itinerary would be short-lived, however, though in Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard produces one of his most important and dramatic provocations. The text opens with a Preface that condenses his attempt to provide a significantly different approach to society and culture. Building on the French cultural theory of Georges Bataille, Marcel Mauss, and Alfred Jarry, Baudrillard champions “symbolic exchange” which resists capitalist values of utility and monetary profit for cultural values. Baudrillard argues that in Bataille’s claim that expenditure and excess is connected with sovereignty, Mauss’s descriptions of the social prestige of gift-giving in premodern society, Jarry’s theater that ridicules French culture, and Saussure’s anagrams, there is a break with the values of capitalist exchange and production, or the production of meaning in linguistic exchange. These cases of “symbolic exchange,” Baudrillard believes, break with the values of production and describe poetic exchange and creative cultural activity that provides alternatives to the capitalist values of production and exchange.
The term “symbolic exchange” was derived from Georges Bataille’s notion of a “general economy” where expenditure, waste, sacrifice, and destruction were claimed to be more fundamental to human life than economies of production and utility.17 Bataille’s model was the sun that freely expended its energy without asking anything in return. He argued that if individuals wanted to be truly sovereign (e.g., free from the imperatives of capitalism) they should pursue a “general economy” of expenditure, giving, sacrifice, and destruction to escape determination by existing imperatives of utility.
For Bataille, human beings were beings of excess with exorbitant energy, fantasies, drives, needs, and heterogeneous desire. At this point, Baudrillard presupposes the truth of Bataille’s anthropology and general economy. In a 1976 review of a volume of Bataille’s Complete Works, Baudrillard writes: “The central idea is that the economy which governs our societies results from a misappropriation of the fundamental human principle, which is a solar principle of expenditure.18 In the early 1970s, Baudrillard took over Bataille’s anthropological position and what he calls Bataille’s “aristocratic critique” of capitalism that he now claims is grounded in the crass notions of utility and savings rather than the more sublime “aristocratic” notion of excess and expenditure. Bataille and Baudrillard presuppose here a contradiction between human nature and capitalism. They maintain that humans “by nature” gain pleasure from such things as expenditure, waste, festivities, sacrifices, and so on, in which they are sovereign and free to expend the excesses of their energy (and thus to follow their “real nature”). The capitalist imperatives of labor, utility, and savings by implication are “unnatural,” and go against human nature.
Baudrillard argues that the Marxian critique of capitalism, by contrast, merely attacks exchange value while exalting use value and thus utility and instrumental rationality, thereby “seeking a good use of the economy.” For Baudrillard:
Marxism is therefore only a limited petit bourgeois critique, one more step in the banalization of life toward the ‘good use’ of the social! Bataille, to the contrary, sweeps away all this slave dialectic from an aristocratic point of view, that of the master struggling with his death. One can accuse this perspective of being pre- or post-Marxist. At any rate, Marxism is only the disenchanted horizon of capital – all that precedes or follows it is more radical than it is.19
This passage is highly revealing and marks Baudrillard’s switch to an “aristocratic critique” of political economy deeply influenced by Bataille and Nietzsche. For Bataille and Baudrillard are presenting a version of Nietzsche’s aristocratic “master morality” where “superior” individuals create their own values and their life articulates an excess, overflow, and intensification of creative and erotic energies. For some time, Baudrillard would continue to attack the bourgeoisie, capital, and political economy, but from a perspective which champions “aristocratic” expenditure and sumptuary, aesthetic and symbolic values. The dark side of his switch in theoretical and political allegiances is a valorization of sacrifice and death that informs Symbolic Exchange and Death (in which sacrifice provides a giving that subverts bourgeois values of utility and self-preservation, an idea that has led some to look for sinister implications in his writing in an era of suicide bombings and terrorism).
In his mid-1970s work Baudrillard was extricating himself from the familiar Marxian universe of production and class struggle into a quite different neo-aristocratic and metaphysical world-view. He seems to assume at this point that pre-capitalist societies were governed by forms of symbolic exchange similar to Bataille’s notion of a general economy. Influenced by Mauss’ theory of the gift and countergift, Baudrillard claimed that pre-capitalist societies were governed by laws of symbolic exchange rather than production and utility. Developing these ideas, Baudrillard sketched a fundamental dividing line in history between symbolic societies – i.e. societies fundamentally organized around premodern exchange – and productivist societies (i.e. societies organized around production and commodity exchange). He thus rejects the Marxian philosophy of history which posits the primacy of production in all societies and rejects the Marxian concept of socialism, arguing that it does not break radically enough with capitalist productivism, offering itself merely as a more efficient and equitable organization of production rather than as a completely different sort of society with a different values and forms of culture and life.
Henceforth, Baudrillard would contrast – in one way or another – his ideal of symbolic exchange to the values of production, utility, and instrumental rationality that govern capitalist (and socialist) societies. “Symbolic exchange” thus emerges as Baudrillard’s “revolutionary” alternative to the values and practices of capitalist society, and stands for a variety of heterogeneous activities in his 1970s writings. For instance, he writes:
The exchange of looks, the present which comes and goes, are like the air people breathe in and out. This is the metabolism of exchange, prodigality, festival – and also of destruction (which returns to non-value what production has erected, valorized). In this domain, value isn’t even recognized.20
He also describes his conception of symbolic exchange in The Mirror of Production where he writes: “The symbolic social relation is the uninterrupted cycle of giving and receiving, which, in primitive exchange, includes the consumption of the ‘surplus’ and deliberate anti-production”.21 The term therefore refers to symbolic or cultural activities which do not contribute to capitalist production and accumulation and which potentially constitute a “radical negation” of productivist society.
At this stage of his thought, Baudrillard stood in a French tradition of extolling “primitive” or premodern culture over the abstract rationalism and utilitarianism of modern society. Baudrillard’s defense of symbolic exchange over production and instrumental rationality thus stands in the tradition of Rousseau’s defense of the “natural savage” over modern man, Durkheim’s posing organic solidarities of premodern societies against the abstract individualism and anomie of modern ones, Bataille’s valorization of expenditure of premodern societies, or Mauss’ or Levi-Strauss’ fascination with the richness of “primitive societies” or “the savage mind”.22 After deconstructing the modern master thinkers and his own theoretical fathers (Marx, Freud, Saussure, and his French contemporaries) for missing the richness of symbolic exchange, Baudrillard continues to champion the symbolic and radical forms of thought and writing in a quest that takes him into ever more esoteric and exotic discourse.
Thus, against the organizing forms of modern thought and society, Baudrillard champions symbolic exchange as an alternative. Against modern demands to produce value and meaning, Baudrillard calls for their extermination and annihilation, providing as examples, Mauss’s gift-exchange, Saussure’s anagrams, and Freud’s concept of the death drive. In all of these instances, there is a rupture with the forms of exchange (of goods, meanings, and libidinal energies) and thus an escape from the forms of production, capitalism, rationality, and meaning. Baudrillard’s paradoxical concept of symbolic exchange can be explained as expression of a desire to liberate himself from modern positions and to seek a revolutionary position outside of modern society. Against modern values, Baudrillard advocates their annihilation and extermination.
In his 1970s work Baudrillard posits another divide in history as radical as the rupture between premodern symbolic societies and modern ones. In the mode of classical social theory, he systematically develops distinctions between premodern societies organized around symbolic exchange, modern societies organized around production, and postmodern societies organized around “simulation” by which he means the cultural modes of representation that “simulate” reality as in television, computer cyberspace, and virtual reality. Baudrillard’s distinction between the mode of production and utility that organized modern societies and the mode of simulation that he believes is the organizing form of postmodern societies postulates a rupture between modern and postmodern societies as great as the divide between modern and premodern ones. In theorizing the epochal postmodern rupture with modernity, Baudrillard declares the “end of political economy” and of an era in which production was the organizing form of society. Following Marx, Baudrillard argues that this modern epoch was the era of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, in which workers were exploited by capital and provided a revolutionary force of upheaval. Baudrillard, however, declared the end of political economy and thus the end of the Marxist problematic and of modernity itself:
The end of labor. The end of production. The end of political economy. The end of the signifier/signified dialectic which facilitates the accumulation of knowledge and of meaning, the linear syntagma of cumulative discourse. And at the same time, the end simultaneously of the exchange value/use value dialectic which is the only thing that makes accumulation and social production possible. The end of linear dimension of discourse. The end of the linear dimension of the commodity. The end of the classical era of the sign. The end of the era of production.23
The discourse of “the end” signifies his announcing a postmodern break or rupture in history. We are now, Baudrillard claims, in a new era of simulation in which social reproduction (information processing, communication, and knowledge industries, and so on) replaces production as the organizing form of society. In this era, labor is no longer a force of production but is itself a “one sign amongst many”.24 Labor is not primarily productive in this situation, but is a sign of one’s social position, way of life, and mode of servitude. Wages too bear no rational relation to one’s work and what one produces but to one’s place within the system.25 But, crucially, political economy is no longer the foundation, the social determinant, or even a structural “reality” in which other phenomena can be interpreted and explained.26 Instead we live in the “hyperreality” of simulations in which images, spectacles, and the play of signs replace the concepts of production and class conflict as key constituents of contemporary societies.
From now on, capital and political economy disappear from Baudrillard’s story, or return in radically new forms. Henceforth, signs and codes proliferate and produce other signs and new sign machines in ever-expanding and spiraling cycles. Technology thus replaces capital in this story and semiurgy (interpreted by Baudrillard as proliferation of images, information, and signs) replaces production. His “postmodern turn” can be read as connected to a form of technological determinism and a rejection of political economy as a useful explanatory principle – a move that many of his critics reject.27
Symbolic Exchange and Death and the succeeding studies in Simulation and Simulacra28 articulate the principle of a fundamental rupture between modern and postmodern societies and mark Baudrillard’s departure from the problematic of modern social theory. For Baudrillard, modern societies are organized around the production and consumption of commodities, while postmodern societies are organized around simulation and the play of images and signs, denoting a situation in which codes, models, and signs are the organizing forms of a new social order where simulation rules.29 In the society of simulation, identities are constructed by the appropriation of images, and codes and models determine how individuals perceive themselves and relate to other people. Economics, politics, social life, and culture are all governed by the mode of simulation, whereby codes and models determine how goods are consumed and used, politics unfold, culture is produced and consumed, and everyday life is lived.
Baudrillard’s postmodern world is also one of radical implosion, in which social classes, genders, political differences, and once autonomous realms of society and culture collapse into each other, erasing previously defined boundaries and differences. If modern societies, for classical social theory, were characterized by differentiation, for Baudrillard, postmodern societies are characterized by dedifferentiation, or implosion. In Baudrillard’s society of simulation, the realms of economics, politics, culture, sexuality, and the social all implode into each other. In this implosive mix, economics is fundamentally shaped by culture, politics, and other spheres, while art, once a sphere of potential difference and opposition, is absorbed into the economic and political, while sexuality is everywhere. In this situation, differences between individuals and groups implode in a rapidly mutating dissolution of the social and the previous boundaries and structures upon which social theory had once focused.
In addition, his postmodern universe is one of hyperreality in which entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life, as well as the codes and models that structure everyday life. The realm of the hyperreal (i.e. media simulations of reality, Disneyland and amusement parks, malls and consumer fantasylands, TV sports, and other excursions into ideal worlds) is more real than real, whereby the models, images, and codes of the hyperreal come to control thought and behavior. Yet determination itself is aleatory in a non-linear world where it is impossible to chart causal mechanisms in a situation in which individuals are confronted with an overwhelming flux of images, codes, and models, any of which may shape an individual’s thought or behavior.
In this postmodern world, individuals flee from the “desert of the real” for the ecstasies of hyperreality and the new realm of computer, media, and technological experience. In this universe, subjectivities are fragmented and lost, and a new terrain of experience appears that for Baudrillard renders previous social theories and politics obsolete and irrelevant. Tracing the vicissitudes of the subject in present-day society, Baudrillard claims that contemporary subjects are no longer afflicted with modern pathologies like hysteria or paranoia. Rather, they exist in “a state of terror which is characteristic of the schizophrenic, an over-proximity of all things, a foul promiscuity of all things which beleaguer and penetrate him, meeting with no resistance, and no halo, no aura, not even the aura of his own body protects him. In spite of himself the schizophrenic is open to everything and lives in the most extreme confusion”.30 For Baudrillard, the “ecstasy of communication” means that the subject is in close proximity to instantaneous images and information, in an overexposed and transparent world. In this situation, the subject “becomes a pure screen a pure absorption and re-absorption surface of the influent networks”.31
Thus, Baudrillard’s categories of simulation, implosion, and hyperreality combine to create an emergent postmodern condition that requires entirely new modes of theory and politics to chart and respond to the novelties of the contemporary era. His style and writing strategies are also implosive, combining material from strikingly different fields, studded with examples from the mass media and popular culture in an innovative mode of postmodern theory that effaces all disciplinary boundaries. His writing attempts to itself simulate the new conditions, capturing its novelties through inventive use of language and theory. Such radical questioning of contemporary theory and the need for new theoretical strategies are thus legitimated for Baudrillard by the radicality of changes in the current era.
For instance, Baudrillard claims that modernity operates with a mode of representation in which ideas represent reality and truth, concepts that are key postulates of modern theory. A postmodern society explodes this epistemology by creating a situation in which subjects lose contact with the real and fragment and dissolve. This situation portends the end of modern theory that operated with a subject-object dialectic in which the subject was supposed to represent and control the object. In the story of modern philosophy, the philosophic subject attempts to discern the nature of reality, to secure grounded knowledge, and to apply this knowledge to control and dominate the object (i.e. nature, other people, ideas, and so on). Baudrillard follows here the poststructuralist critique that thought and discourse could no longer be securely anchored in a priori or privileged structures of “the real.” Reacting against the mode of representation in modern theory, French thought, especially some deconstructionists (Rorty’s “strong textualists”), moved into the play of textuality, of discourse, which allegedly referred only to other texts or discourses in which “the real” or an “outside” were banished to the realm of nostalgia.
In a similar fashion, Baudrillard, a “strong simulacrist,” claims that in the media and consumer society, people are caught up in the play of images, spectacles, and simulacra, that have less and less relationship to an outside, to an external “reality,” to such an extent that the very concepts of the social, political, or even “reality” no longer seem to have any meaning. And the narcoticized and mesmerized (some of Baudrillard’s metaphors) media-saturated consciousness is in such a state of fascination with image and spectacle that the concept of meaning itself (which depends on stable boundaries, fixed structures, shared consensus) dissolves. In this alarming and novel postmodern situation, the referent, the behind and the outside, along with depth, essence, and reality all disappear, and with their disappearance, the possibility of all potential opposition vanishes as well. As simulations proliferate, they come to refer only to themselves: a carnival of mirrors reflecting images projected from other mirrors onto the omnipresent television and computer screen and the screen of consciousness, which in turn refers the image to its previous storehouse of images also produced by simulatory mirrors. Caught up in the universe of simulations, the “masses” are bathed in a media massage without messages or meaning, a mass-age where classes disappear, and politics is dead, as are the grand dreams of disalienation, liberation, and revolution.
Baudrillard claims that henceforth the masses seek spectacle and not meaning. They implode into a “silent majority,” signifying “the end of the social”.32 Baudrillard implies that social theory loses its very object as meanings, classes, and difference implode into a “black hole” of non-differentiation. Fixed distinctions between social groupings and ideologies implode and concrete face-to-face social relations recede as individuals disappear in worlds of simulation – media, computers, virtual reality itself. Social theory itself thus loses its object, the social, while radical politics loses its subject and agency.
Nonetheless, he claims, at this point in his trajectory that refusal of meaning and participation by the masses is a form of resistance. Hovering between nostalgia and nihilism, Baudrillard at once exterminates modern ideas (i.e. the subject, meaning, truth, reality, society, socialism, and emancipation) and affirms a mode of symbolic exchange which appears to manifest a nostalgic desire to return to premodern cultural forms. This desperate search for a genuinely revolutionary alternative was abandoned, however, by the early 1980s. Henceforth, he develops yet more novel perspectives on the contemporary moment, vacillating between sketching out alternative modes of thought and behavior and renouncing the quest for political and social change.
In a sense, there is a parodic inversion of historical materialism in Baudrillard. In place of Marx’s emphasis on political economy and the primacy of the economic, for Baudrillard it is the model, the superstructure, that generates the real in a situation he denominates the “end of political economy”.33 For Baudrillard, sign values predominate over use values and exchange values; the materiality of needs and commodity use-values to serve them disappear in Baudrillard’s semiological imaginary, in which signs take precedence over the real and reconstruct human life. Turning the Marxist categories against themselves, masses absorb classes, the subject of praxis is fractured, and objects come to rule human beings. Revolution is absorbed by the object of critique and technological implosion replaces the socialist revolution in producing a rupture in history. For Baudrillard, in contrast to Marx, the catastrophe of modernity and eruption of postmodernity is produced by the unfolding of technological revolution. Consequently, it can be argued, that Baudrillard replaces Marx’s hard economic and social determinism (with its emphasis on the economic dimension, class struggle, and human praxis), with a form of semiological idealism and technological determinism where signs and objects come to dominate the subject.34
Baudrillard thus concludes that the “catastrophe has happened,” that the destruction of modernity and modern theory which he noted in the mid-1970s, has been completed by the development of capitalist society itself, that modernity has disappeared and a new social situation has taken its place. Against traditional strategies of rebellion and revolution, Baudrillard begins to champion what he calls “fatal strategies” that push the values of the system to the extreme in the hopes of collapse or reversal, and eventually adopts a style of highly ironic metaphysical discourse that renounces emancipation and the discourse and hopes of progressive social transformation.
IV. From Pataphysics to Metaphysics and the Triumph of the Object
Baudrillard’s thought from the mid-1970s to the present revolves in its own theoretical orbit and provides a set of challenging to theories in a variety of disciplines. During the 1980s, Baudrillard’s major works of the 1970s were translated into many languages and new books of the 1980s were in turn translated into English and other major languages in short order. Consequently, he became world-renowned as one of the master thinkers of postmodernity, one of the major avatars of the postmodern turn. Baudrillard became something of an academic celebrity, traveling around the world promoting his work and winning a significant following, though more outside of the field of academic theory than within his own discipline of sociology.
At the same time that his work was becoming extremely popular, Baudrillard’s own writing became increasingly difficult and obscure. In 1979, Baudrillard published Seduction,35 a challenging text that represented a major shift in his thought. The book marks a turning away from the more sociological discourse of his earlier works to a more philosophical and literary discourse. Whereas in Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard sketched out ultra-revolutionary perspectives as a radical alternative, taking symbolic exchange as his ideal, he now takes seduction as his alternative to production and communicative interaction. Seduction, however, does not undermine, subvert, or transform existing social relations or institutions, but is a soft alternative, a play with appearances, and a game with feminism, a provocation that provoked a sharp critical response.36 Baudrillard’s concept of seduction is idiosyncratic and involves games with signs which oppose seduction as an aristocratic “order of sign and ritual” to the bourgeois ideal of production, while advocating artifice, appearance, play, and challenge against the deadly serious labor of production. Baudrillard interprets seduction primarily as a ritual and game with its own rules, charms, snares, and lures. His writing can be read at this point into a neo-aristocratic aestheticism dedicated to stylized modes of thought and writing, which present a set of categories – reversibility, the challenge, the duel, – that move Baudrillard’s thought toward a form of aristocratic aestheticism and metaphysics.37
Baudrillard’s proliferating metaphysical speculations are evident in Fatal Strategies,38 another turning point in his itinerary. This text presented a bizarre metaphysical scenario concerning the triumph of objects over subjects within the “obscene” proliferation of an object world so completely out of control that it surpasses all attempts to understand, conceptualize and control it. His scenario concerns the proliferation and growing supremacy of objects over subjects and the eventual triumph of the object. In a discussion of “Ecstasy and Inertia,” Baudrillard discusses how objects and events in contemporary society are continually surpassing themselves, growing and expanding in power. The “ecstasy” of objects is their proliferation and expansion to the Nth degree, to the superlative; ecstasy as going outside of or beyond oneself: the beautiful as more beautiful than beautiful in fashion, the real more real than the real in television, sex more sexual than sex in pornography. Ecstasy is thus the form of obscenity (fully explicit, nothing hidden) and of the hyperreality described by Baudrillard earlier taken to another level, redoubled and intensified. His vision of contemporary society exhibits a careening of growth and excrescence (croissance et excroissance), expanding and excreting ever more goods, services, information, messages or demands – surpassing all rational ends and boundaries in a spiral of uncontrolled growth and replication.
Yet growth, acceleration, and proliferation have reached such extremes, Baudrillard suggests, that the ecstasy of excrescence is accompanied by inertia. For as the society is saturated to the limit, it implodes and winds down into entropy. This process presents a catastrophe for the subject, for not only does the acceleration and proliferation of the object world intensify the aleatory dimension of chance and non-determinacy, but the objects themselves take over in a “cool” catastrophe for the exhausted subject, whose fascination with the play of objects turns to apathy, stupefaction, and an entropic inertia.
In retrospect, the growing power of the world of objects over the subject has been Baudrillard’s theme from the beginning, thus pointing to an underlying continuity in his project. In his early writings, he explored the ways that commodities were fascinating individuals in the consumer society and the ways that the world of goods was assuming new and more value through the agency of sign value and the code – which were part of the world of things, the system of objects. His polemics against Marxism were fuelled by the belief that sign value and the code were more fundamental than such traditional elements of political economy as exchange value, use value, production and so on in constituting contemporary society. Then, reflections on the media entered the forefront of his thought: the TV object was at the center of the home in Baudrillard’s earlier thinking and the media, simulations, hyperreality, and implosion eventually came to obliterate distinctions between private and public, inside and outside, media and reality. Henceforth, everything was public, transparent, ec-static and hyperreal in the object world that was gaining in fascination and seductiveness as the years went by.
And so ultimately the subject, the darling of modern philosophy, is defeated in Baudrillard’s metaphysical scenario and the object triumphs, a stunning end to the dialectic of subject and object which had been the framework of modern philosophy. The object is thus the subject’s fatality and Baudrillard’s “fatal strategies” project an obscure call to submit to the strategies and ruses of objects. In “banal strategies,” “the subject believes itself to always be more clever than the object, whereas in the other [fatal strategies] the object is always supposed to be more shrewd, more cynical, more brilliant than the subject”.39 Previously, in banal strategies, the subject believed itself to be more masterful and sovereign than the object. A fatal strategy, by contrast, recognizes the supremacy of the object and therefore takes the side of the object and surrenders to its strategies, ruses and rules.
In Fatal Strategies and succeeding writings, Baudrillard seems to be taking theory into the realm of metaphysics, but it is a specific type of metaphysics deeply inspired by the pataphysics developed by Alfred Jarry. For Jarry:
…pataphysics is the science of the realm beyond metaphysics…. It will study the laws which govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, it will describe a universe which one can see – must see perhaps – instead of the traditional one…40
Like the universe in Jarry’s Ubu Roi, The Gestures and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, and other literary texts – as well as in Jarry’s more theoretical explications of pataphysics, Baudrillard’s may be read as a totally absurd universe where objects rule in mysterious ways, and people and events are governed by absurd and ultimately unknowable interconnections and predestination (playwright Eugene Ionesco is another good source of entry to this universe). Like Jarry’s pataphysics, Baudrillard’s universe is ruled by surprise, reversal, hallucination, blasphemy, obscenity, and a desire to shock and outrage.
Thus, in view of the growing supremacy of the object, Baudrillard wants us to abandon the subject and to side with the object. Pataphysics aside, it seems that Baudrillard is trying to end the philosophy of subjectivity that has controlled French thought since Descartes by going over completely to the other side. Descartes’ malin genie, his evil genius, was a ruse of the subject that tried to seduce him into accepting what was not clear and distinct, but over which he was ultimately able to prevail. Baudrillard’s “evil genius” is the object itself which is much more malign than the merely epistemological deceptions of the subject faced by Descartes and which constitutes a fatal destiny that demands the end of the philosophy of subjectivity. Henceforth, for Baudrillard, we live in the era of the reign of the object. In Baudrillard’s words:
There is a reversal of the process. There is semiology, Marxism, psychoanalysis, all of which I work with as everybody does, if I may say so, although in a somewhat contrary way. I reconstruct the object by using different techniques of interpretation, and at the same time these interpretations are put on trial, it to take the logics which have been set in motion around the object, and to push them to the limit of their functioning and resolving them.41
V. Into The 1990s: From Immanent Reversal to Impossible Exchange
In the 1980s, Baudrillard posited an “immanent reversal,” a flip-flop or reversed direction of meaning and effects, in which things turn into their opposite. Thus, according to Baudrillard, the society of production was passing over to simulation and seduction; the panoptic and repressive power theorized by Foucault was turning into a cynical and seductive power of the media and information society; the liberation championed in the 1960s was become a form of voluntary servitude; sovereignty had passed from the side of the subject to the object; and revolution and emancipation had turned into their opposites, snaring one more and more in the logic of the system, thus trapping individuals in an order of simulation and virtuality. Baudrillard’s concept of “immanent reversal” thus provides a perverse form of Horkheimer and Adorno’s “dialectic of Enlightenment”42 where everything becomes its opposite. For Adorno and Horkheimer, within the transformations of organized and hi-tech capitalism, modes of Enlightenment become domination, culture becomes culture industry, democracy becomes a form of mass manipulation, and science and technology form a crucial part of an apparatus of social domination.
Baudrillard follows this concept of reversal and his paradoxical and nihilistic metaphysical vision into the 1990s where his thought becomes ever more hermetic, fragmentary, and difficult. During the decade, Baudrillard continued playing the role of academic and media superstar, traveling around the world lecturing and performing in intellectual events. Some of his experiences are captured in his collections of aphorisms, Cool Memories; Cool Memories II, 1985-1990; Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1990-1995; and Cool Memories IV, 1995-2000.43 These texts combine reflections on his travels and experiences with development of his ideas and perceptions. Baudrillard’s fragmentary diaries often provide revealing insights into his personal life and psychology, as well as capturing experiences and scenes that generate or embody some of his ideas.44
Retiring from the University of Nanterre in 1987, Baudrillard has subsequently functioned as an independent intellectual, dedicating himself to caustic reflections on our contemporary moment and philosophical ruminations that cultivate his distinct and always evolving theory. From June 1987 through May 1997, he published reflections on events and phenomena of the day in the Paris newspaper Liberation, a series of writings collected in Screened Out)45 and providing access to a laboratory for ideas later elaborated in his books.
Baudrillard’s retirement from a sociology faculty seems to have liberated his philosophical impulses and in addition to his diary collections and occasional forays into engagement of issues of the day, Baudrillard has turned out a series of increasingly philosophical and densely theoretical texts. During the 1990s, Baudrillard’s works include The Transparency of Evil, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, The Illusion of the End , The Perfect Crime, and Impossible Exchange.46 These texts continue his excursions into the metaphysics of the object and defeat of the subject and ironical engagement with contemporary history and politics. Bringing together reflections that develop his ideas and/or comment on contemporary events, these works continue to postulate a break within history in the space of a postmodern coupure, though Baudrillard himself usually distances himself from other versions of postmodern theory.47
The post-1990 texts continue the fragmentary style and use of short essays, aphorisms, stories, and aperçus that Baudrillard began deploying in the 1980s and often repeat some of the same ideas and stories. While the books develop the quasi-metaphysical perspectives of the 1980s, they also generate some new ideas and positions. While ranging from entertaining to outrageous, these writings can be read as a combination of cultivation of original theoretical perspectives along with continual commentary on current social conditions, accompanied by a running dialogue with Marxism, poststructuralist theory, and other forms of contemporary thought. Yet after his fierce and focused polemics of the 1970s against competing models of thought, Baudrillard’s dialogue with theory now consists mostly of occasional asides and recycling of previous ideas, a retro-theory that perhaps ironically illustrates Baudrillard’s theses about the decline of theory and politics in the contemporary moment.
In The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard described a situation in which previously separate domains of the economy, art, politics, and sexuality, collapsed into each other. He claims that art, for instance, has penetrated all spheres of existence, whereby the dreams of the artistic avant-garde for art to inform life has been realized. Yet, in Baudrillard’s vision, with the realization of art in everyday life, art itself as a separate and transcendent phenomenon has disappeared.
Baudrillard calls this situation “transaesthetics” which he relates to similar phenomena of “transpolitics,” “transsexuality,” and “transeconomics,” in which everything becomes political, sexual, and economic, so that these domains, like art, lose their specificity, their boundaries, and their distinctness. The result is a confused condition where there are no more criteria of value, of judgement, or of taste, and the function of the normative thus collapses in a morass of indifference and inertia. And so, although Baudrillard sees art proliferating everywhere, and writes in The Transparency of Evil that “talk about Art is increasing even more rapidly”,48 the power of art – of art as adventure, art as negation of reality, art as redeeming illusion, art as another dimension and so on – has disappeared. Art is everywhere but there “are no more fundamental rules” to differentiate art from other objects and “no more criteria of judgement or of pleasure”.49 For Baudrillard, contemporary individuals are indifferent toward taste and manifest only distaste: “tastes are determinate no longer”.50
And yet as a proliferation of images, of form, of line, of color, of design, art is more fundamental then ever to the contemporary social order: “our society has given rise to a general aestheticization: all forms of culture – not excluding anti-cultural ones – are promoted and all models of representation and anti-representation are taken on board”.51 Thus Baudrillard concludes that: “It is often said that the West’s great undertaking is the commercialization of the whole world, the hitching of the fate of everything to the fate of the commodity. That great undertaking will turn out rather to have been the aestheticization of the whole world – its cosmopolitan spectacularization, its transformation into images, its semiological organization”.52
In the postmodern media and consumer society, everything becomes an image, a sign, a spectacle, a transaesthetic object – just as everything also becomes trans-economic, trans-political, and trans-sexual. This “materialization of aesthetics” is accompanied by a desperate attempt to simulate art, to replicate and mix previous artistic forms and styles, and to produce ever more images and artistic objects. But this “dizzying eclecticism” of forms and pleasures produces a situation in which art is no longer art in classical or modernist senses but is merely image, artifact, object, simulation, or commodity (Baudrillard is aware of increasingly exorbitant prices for art works, but takes this as evidence that art has become something else in the orbital hyperspace of value, an ecstasy of skyrocketing values in “a kind of space opera”.53
Examples of the paradoxical and ironic style of Baudrillard’s philosophical musings abound in The Perfect Crime. Baudrillard claims that the negation of a transcendent reality in the current media and technological society is a “perfect crime” which involves the “destruction of the real.” In a world of appearance, image, and illusion, Baudrillard suggests, reality disappears although its traces continue to nourish an illusion of the real. Driven toward virtualization in a hi-tech society, all the imperfections of human life and the world are eliminated in virtual reality, but this is the elimination of reality itself, the Perfect Crime. This “post-critical” and “catastrophic” state of affairs render our previous conceptual world irrelevant, Baudrillard suggests, urging criticism to turn ironic and transform the demise of the real into an art form.
Obviously, Baudrillard has entered a world of thought far from academic philosophy, one that puts in question traditional modes of thought and discourse. His search for new philosophical perspectives has won him a loyal global audience, but also criticism for his excessive irony, word play, and intellectual games. Yet his work stands as a provocation to traditional and contemporary philosophy that challenges thinkers to address old philosophical problems like truth and reality in new ways in the contemporary world.
Indeed, Baudrillard produced an attempt at a philosophical chef d’oeuvre in his Impossible Exchange. In three parts containing a series of short essays, Baudrillard first develops his concept of an “impossible exchange” between concepts and the world, theory and reality, and subject and object. In his most elaborate attempt at philosophical thought, Baudrillard attacks philosophical attempts to capture reality, arguing for an incommensurability between concepts and their objects, systems of thought and the world. For Baudrillard, the latter always elude capture by the former, thus philosophy is an “impossible exchange” in which it is impossible to grasp the truth of the world, to attain certainty, to establish a foundation for philosophy, and or produce a defensible philosophical system.
In retrospect, Baudrillard’s philosophical play with the subject/object distinction, his abandonment of the subject, and going over to the side of the object is a key aspect of his thought. He identifies this dichotomy with the duality of good and evil in which the cultivation of the subject and its domination of the object is taken as the good within Western thought, while the sovereignty and side of the object is interwoven with the principle of evil. Baudrillard’s thought is radically dualistic and he takes the side of the pole within a series of dichotomies of Western thought that has generally been derided as inferior, such as siding with appearance against reality, illusion over truth, evil over good, and woman over man. In The Perfect Crime, Baudrillard has declared that reality has been destroyed and henceforth that we live in a world of mere appearance, a situation that Baudrillard affirms and positively valorizes. In this universe, certainty and truth are impossible and Baudrillard takes the side of illusion, arguing in Impossible Exchange that: “Illusion is the fundamental rule”.54
Baudrillard also argues that the world is without meaning and that affirming meaninglessness is liberating: “If we could accept this meaninglessness of the world, then we could play with forms, appearances and our impulses, without worrying about their ultimate destination… As Cioran says, we are not failures until we believe life has a meaning – and from that point on we are failures, because it hasn’t”.55 Most controversially, Baudrillard also identifies with the principle of evil defined as that which is opposed to and against the good. There is an admittedly Manichean and Gnostic dimension to Baudrillard’s thought, as well as deep cynicism and nihilism.56 Deconstruction, however, takes apart the subject/object dichotomy indicating the impossibly of taking the side of subject or object, or of good and evil as both are interconnected with each other and there can be no pure object without subject and vice versa, an argument Adorno has made.57 Baudrillard’s thought is intrinsically dualistic and not dialectical. His thought is self-avowedly agonistic with the duel presented in tandem with his dualism, taking on and attacking rival theories and positions. Contradictions do not bother Baudrillard, for indeed he affirms them. It is thus tricky to argue with Baudrillard on strictly philosophical grounds and one needs to grasp his mode of writing, his notion of theory fictions, and to engage their saliency and effects.
VI. Theory Fictions: Baudrillard in the Contemporary Moment
Baudrillard develops what he terms “theory fiction,” or what he also calls “simulation theory” and “anticipatory theory.” Such “theory” intends to simulate, grasp, and anticipate historical events, that he believes are continually outstripping all contemporary theory. The current situation, he claims, is more fantastic than the most fanciful science fiction, or theoretical projections of a futurist society. Thus, theory can only attempt to grasp the present on the run and try to anticipate the future. However, Baudrillard has had a particularly poor record as a social and political analyst and forecaster. As a political analyst, Baudrillard has often been superficial and off the mark. In a essay “Anorexic Ruins” published in 1989, he read the Berlin wall as a sign of a frozen history, of an anorexic history, in which nothing more can happen, marked by a “lack of events” and the end of history, taking the Berlin wall as a sign of a stasis between communism and capitalism. Shortly thereafter, rather significant events destroyed the wall that Baudrillard took as permanent and opened up a new historical era.
The Cold War stalemate was long taken by Baudrillard as establishing a frozen history in which no significant change could take place. Already in his mid-1970s reflections, he presented the Vietnam war as an “alibi” to incorporate China, Russia, and eventually Vietnam into a more rationalized and modernized world economic and political order,58 and in his book on the Gulf war he repeats this claim,59 thus failing to see the actual political stakes and reasons for the Vietnam war, as well as the significance of the struggles between capitalist and communist blocs.60
For Baudrillard, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York also symbolized the frozen history and stasis between the two systems of capitalism and communism. On the whole, Baudrillard sees history as the unfolding of expanding technological rationality turning into its opposite, as the system incorporates ever more elements, producing an improved technological order, which then becomes irrational through its excesses, its illusions, and its generating unforeseen consequences. This mode of highly abstract analysis, however, occludes more specific historical determinants that would analyze how technological rationality is constructed and functioned and how and why it misfires. It also covers over the disorder and turmoil created by such things as the crises and restructuring of global capitalism, the rise of fundamentalism, ethnic conflict, and global terrorism which were unleashed in part as a response to a globalized rationalization of the market system and to the breakup of the bipolar world order.
Baudrillard’s reflections on the Gulf war take a similar position, seeing it as an attempt of the New World Order to further rationalize the world, arguing that the Gulf war really served to bring Islam into the New World Order.61 The first study entitled “The Gulf war will not take place” was initially published a few days before the actual outbreak of military hostilities and repeats his earlier concept of “weak events” and frozen history. Baudrillard to the contrary, the Gulf war took place, but this did not deter him from publishing studies claiming during the episode that it was not “really taking place” and after the war asserting that it “did not take place.” Although I have also argued that the “Gulf war” was a media spectacle and not a genuine war, Baudrillard does not help us to understand much about the event and does not even help us to grasp the role of the media in contemporary political spectacles. Reducing complex events like wars to categories like simulation or hyperreality illuminates the virtual and high-tech dimension to media events, but erases all their concrete determinants. And yet Baudrillardian postmodern categories help grasp some of the dynamics of the culture of living in media and computer worlds where people seem to enjoy immersing themselves in simulated events (witness the fascination of the Gulf war in 1991, the O.J. Simpson trials during 1994-6, the Clinton sex scandals, and various other media spectacles throughout the 1990s, and the September 11 terror attacks in the early days of the third millennium).62
In The Illusion of the End, Baudrillard attacks head-on what he sees as current illusions of history, politics, and metaphysics, and gamely tries to explain away his own political misprognoses that contemporary history appeared in a frozen, glacial state, stalemated between East and West, that the system of deterrence had congealed, making sure that nothing dramatic could henceforth happen, that the Gulf war couldn’t take place, and that the end of history had occurred. Baudrillard unleashes his full bag of rhetorical tricks and philosophical analysis to attempt to maintain these hypotheses in the face of the dramatic events of 1989-1991, which he claims are in fact “weak events,” that events are still on strike, that history has indeed disappeared.63 He continues to argue that modernity as a historical epoch is over, with its political conflicts and upheavals, its innovations and revolutions, its autonomous and creative subject, and its myths of progress, democracy, Enlightenment, and the like. These myths, these strong ideas, are exhausted, he claims, and henceforth a postmodern era of banal eclecticism, inertial implosion, and eternal recycling of the same become defining features.
For Baudrillard by the end of the 1990s with the collapse of communism, the era of the strong ideas, of a conflicted world of revolution and universal emancipation, is over. Communism, in Baudrillard’s reading, collapsed of its own inertia, it self-destructed from within, it imploded, rather than perishing in ideological battle or military warfare. With the absorption of its dissidents into power, there is no longer a clash of strong ideas, of opposition and resistance, of critical transcendence. With the embedding of the former communist regimes into the system of the capitalist world market and liberal democracy, the West no longer has an Other to battle against, there is no longer any creative or ideological tension, no longer any global alternative to the Western world.
Baudrillard celebrated the coming of the new millennium with a recycling of some his old ideas on cloning, the end of history, and the disappearance of the real in a series of lectures collected as The Vital Illusion. For Baudrillard, cloning is connected to the fantasy of immortality, to defeating the life-cycle. Thus, its no surprise that cryogenics – the freezing of dead human beings in the hope they might be regenerated in the future through medical advances – is a booming global industry. Likewise, in a digital era, Baudrillard claims that history has come to an end and reality has been killed by virtualization, as the human species prepares itself for a virtual existence.
The Vital Illusion is one of Baudrillard’s most derivative and unoriginal works and shows the stasis that infected his thought by the year 2000.64 Baudrillard had earlier made fun of the speculations on the coming millennium, argued in the 1990s that the new millennium had already happened, and once it did occur Baudrillard had nothing of particular interest to say about its emergence. For years, Baudrillard had complained that the contemporary era was one of weak events, that no major historical occurrences had happened, and that therefore life and thought were becoming increasingly boring.
Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Baudrillard wrote a paper “L’esprit du terrorisme” published November 2, 2001, in Le Monde. He argued that the assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon constituted a “strong event,” that the attacks were “the ultimate event, the mother of all events, the pure event uniting within itself all the events that have never taken place.” The “event strike,” Baudrillard declared, was over and since this time he has continued to focus intensely on the dynamics and happenings of contemporary history.
Baudrillard’s thought has been reignited by 9/11 and the subsequent Terror War which demonstrate the continuing relevance of some of his key categories and that have produced some of his most provocative recent work. Baudrillard had long written on terrorism and was focusing reflection on globalization when the 9/11 attacks occurred. He quickly responded with the Le Monde article, soon after translated and expanded into one of the more challenging and controversial books on the terror spectacle, The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers.65 For Baudrillard, the 9/11 attacks represent a new kind of terrorism, exhibiting a “form of action which plays the game, and lays hold of the rules of the game, solely with the aim of disrupting it. …they have taken over all the weapons of the dominant power”. That is, the terrorists in Baudrillard’s reading used airplanes, computer networks, and the media associated with Western societies to produce a spectacle of terror. The attacks evoked a global spectre of terror that the very system of globalization and Western capitalism and culture were under assault by “the spirit of terrorism” and potential terrorist attacks anytime and anywhere.
For Baudrillard, “the speeches and commentaries made since September 11 betray a gigantic post-traumatic abreaction both to the event itself and to the fascination that it exerts. The moral condemnation and the sacred union against terrorism are directly proportional to the prodigious jubilation felt at having seen this global superpower destroyed.” Baudrillard perceived that the terrorists hope that the system will overreact in response to the multiple challenges of terrorism: “It is the terrorist model to bring about an excess of reality, and have the system collapse beneath that excess”. The Bush administration, of course, responded with an excess of unilateral militarism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has made a “war against terror” the fundament of its domestic and foreign policy, and infamously declared that “you are with us or against us,” in effect saying that anyone who did not support Bush’s “war on terror” was aiding and abetting “the enemy” and terrorism itself. For many of us, the Bush administration did what Baudrillard said the terrorists would want them to do, in terms of overreaction to the 9/11 attacks that would melt the initial sympathy for the US and that would win recruits for the terrorists reacting against the excess violence and aggression of the US response. Immediately after 9/11, the French paper Le Monde headlined a commentary “Nous sommes tous les Americains,” but after the rancorous debate over Bush’s Iraq intervention, the US found itself alienated from longtime allies, facing a proliferation of new enemies, and engaged in what the Bush administration described as a new era of “war on terror,” with no end in sight.66
In Baudrillard’s view, the 9/11 attacks represented “the clash of triumphant globalization at war with itself” and unfolded a “fourth world war”: “The first put an end to European supremacy and to the era of colonialism; the second put an end to Nazism; and the third to Communism. Each one brought us progressively closer to the single world order of today, which is now nearing its end, everywhere opposed, everywhere grappling with hostile forces. This is a war of fractal complexity, waged worldwide against rebellious singularities that, in the manner of antibodies, mount a resistance in every cell.
Upon the initial publication of his response in French newspapers and its immediate translation into English and other languages, Baudrillard himself was accused of justifying terrorism when he stated in the article in Le Monde: “Because it was this insufferable superpower [i.e. the US] that gave rise both to the violence now spreading throughout the world and to the terrorist imagination that (without our knowing it) dwells within us all. That the entire world without exception had dreamed of this event, that nobody could help but dream of the destruction of so powerful a Hegemon – this fact is unacceptable to the moral conscience of the West. And yet it’s a fact nevertheless, a fact that resists the emotional violence of all the rhetoric conspiring to cover it up. In the end, it was they who did it, but we who wished it”.67
Baudrillard defended himself from accusations that such reflections constituted a virulent anti-Americanism or legitimation of terrorism, claiming: “I do not praise murderous attacks – that would be idiotic. Terrorism is not a contemporary form of revolution against oppression and capitalism. No ideology, no struggle for an objective, not even Islamic fundamentalism, can explain it. …I have glorified nothing, accused nobody, justified nothing. One should not confuse the messenger with his message. I have endeavored to analyze the process through which the unbounded expansion of globalization creates the conditions for its own destruction”.68
Indeed, Baudrillard has also produced some provocative reflections on globalization. In “The Violence of the Global,” he distinguishes between the global and the universal, linking globalization with technology, the market, tourism, and information contrasted to identification of the universal with “human rights, liberty, culture, and democracy”.69 While “globalization appears to be irreversible, …. universalization is likely to be on its way out.” Elsewhere, Baudrillard writes: “…the idea of freedom, a new and recent idea, is already fading from the minds and mores, and liberal globalization is coming about in precisely the opposite form – a police-state globalization, a total control, a terror based on “’law-and-order’ measures. Deregulation ends up in a maximum of constraints and restrictions, akin to those of a fundamentalist society”.70
Many theorists, including myself, see globalization as a matrix of market economy, democracy, technology, migration and tourism, and the worldwide circulation of ideas and culture. Baudrillard, curiously, takes the position of those in the anti-globalization movement who condemn globalization as the opposite of democracy and human rights. For Baudrillard, globalization is fundamentally a process of homogenization and standardization that crushes “the singular” and heterogeneity. This position, however, fails to note the contradictions that globalization simultaneously produces homogenization and hybridization and difference, and that the anti-corporate globalization movement is fighting for social justice, democratization, and increased rights, factors that Baudrillard links with a dying universalization. In fact, the struggle for rights and justice is an important part of globalization and Baudrillard’s presenting of human rights, democratization, and justice as part of an obsolete universalization being erased by globalization is theoretically and politically problematical.71
Before 9/11, in Baudrillard’s musings of the past two decades, the global postmodern condition has been one of absorbing otherness, of erasing difference, of assimilating and imploding all oppositional or negative forces into a viral positivity and virtuality. That is, Baudrillard saw globalization and technological development producing standardization and virtualization that was erasing individuality, social struggle, critique and reality itself as more and more people became absorbed in the hyper and virtual realities of media and cyberspace. In his view, the positive and the virtual radiate throughout every interstice of society and culture, irradiating into nullity any negativity, opposition, or difference. It is also an era in which reality itself has disappeared, constituting the “perfect crime” which is the subject of a book of that title and elaborated in The Vital Illusion. Baudrillard presents himself here as a detective searching for the perpetrator of the “perfect crime,” the murder of reality, “the most important event of modern history.” His recurrent theme is the destruction and disappearance of the real in the realm of information and simulacra, and the subsequent reign of illusion and appearance. In a Nietzschean mode, he suggests that henceforth truth and reality are illusions, that illusions reign, and that therefore we should respect illusion and appearance and give up the illusory quest for truth and reality.
Yet in the 9/11 attacks and subsequent Terror War, difference and conflict have erupted upon the global stage and heterogeneous forces that global capitalism appears unable to absorb and assimilate have emerged that have produced what appears to be an era of intense conflict. Ideological apologists of globalization such as Thomas Friedman have been forced to acknowledge that globalization has its dark sides and produces conflict as well as networking, interrelations, and progress. It remains to be seen, of course, how the current Terror War and intensified global conflicts will unfold.
VII. Concluding Reflections
Baudrillard has never been as influential in France as in the English-speaking world and elsewhere. He is an example of the “global popular,” a thinker who has followers and readers throughout the world, though, so far, no Baudrillardian school has emerged.72 Baudrillard’s influence has been largely at the margins of a diverse number of disciplines ranging from social theory to philosophy to art history, thus it is difficult to gauge his impact on the mainstream of any specific academic discipline. He is perhaps most important as part of the postmodern turn against modern society and its academic disciplines. Baudrillard’s work cuts across the disciplines and promotes cross-disciplinary thought. He challenges standard wisdom and puts in question received dogma and methods. While his early work on the consumer society, the political economy of the sign, simulation and simulacra, and the implosion of phenomena previously separated can be deployed within critical philosophy and social theory, much of his post-1980s work quite self-consciously goes beyond the classical tradition and in most interviews of the past decade Baudrillard distances himself from critical philosophy and social theory, claiming that the energy of critique has dissipated.
Baudrillard thus emerges in retrospect as a transdisciplinary theorist of the end of modernity who produces sign-posts to the new era of postmodernity and is an important, albeit hardly trustworthy, guide to the new era. In my view, Baudrillard exaggerates the break between the modern and the postmodern, takes future possibilities as existing realities, and provides a futuristic perspective on the present, much like the tradition of dystopic science fiction, ranging from Huxley to cyberpunk.73 Indeed, I prefer to read Baudrillard’s post-1970s work as science fiction that anticipates the future by exaggerating present tendencies, and thus provides early warnings about what might happen if present trends continue.74 It is not an accident that Baudrillard is an aficionado of science fiction, who has himself influenced a large number of contemporary science fiction writers and filmmakers of the contemporary era, including The Matrix where his work is cited.75
However, in view of his exaggeration of the alleged break with modernity, discerning whether Baudrillard’s last two decades of work is best read as science fiction or theory, is undecidable. Baudrillard obviously wants to have it both ways76 with social theorists thinking that he provides salient perspectives on contemporary social realities, that Baudrillard reveals what is really happening, that he tells it like it is. And yet more cynical anti-sociologists are encouraged to enjoy Baudrillard’s fictions, his experimental discourse, his games, and play. Likewise, he sometimes encourages cultural metaphysicians to read his work as serious reflections on the realities of our time, while winking a pataphysical aside at those skeptical of such undertakings. And Baudrillard’s philosophical writings provoke philosophers to defend their positions against his and to rethink certain tradition questions in the light of contemporary realities.
Thus, it is undecidable whether Baudrillard is best read as science fiction and pataphysics, or as philosophy, social theory, and cultural metaphysics, and whether his post-1970s work should be read under the sign of truth or fiction. In retrospect, Baudrillard’s early critical explorations of the system of objects and consumer society contain some of his most important contributions to contemporary social theory. His mid-1970s analysis of a dramatic mutation occurring within contemporary societies and rise of a new mode of simulation, which sketched out the effects of media and information on society as a whole, is also original and important. But at this stage of his work, Baudrillard falls prey to a technological determinism and semiological idealism which posits an autonomous technology and play of signs generating a society of simulation which creates a postmodern break and the proliferation of signs, spectacles, and simulacra.77 Baudrillard erases autonomous and differentiated spheres of the economy, polity, society, and culture posited by classical social theory in favor of an implosive theory that also crosses disciplinary boundaries, thus dissolving philosophy and social theory into a broader form of social diagnosis and philosophical play.
In the final analysis, Baudrillard is perhaps more useful as a provocateur who challenges and puts in question the tradition of classical philosophy and social theory than as someone who provides concepts and methods that can be applied in philosophical, social or cultural analysis. He claims that the object of classical social theory – modernity – has been surpassed by a new postmodernity and that therefore alternative theoretical strategies, modes of writing, and forms of theory are necessary. While his work on simulation and the postmodern break from the mid-1970s into the 1980s provides a paradigmatic postmodern theory and analysis of postmodernity that has been highly influential, and that despite its exaggerations continues to be of use in interpreting present social trends, his later work is arguably more literary and philosophical than sociological. Baudrillard thus ultimately goes beyond social theory altogether into a new sphere and mode of writing that provides insights into contemporary social phenomena and provocative critiques of contemporary and classical philosophy and social theory, but does not provide an adequate theory of the present age and philosophy for our time.78
About the Author:
Douglas Kellner is George F. Kneller Philosophy of Education Chair in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. His recent books include: 9/11 and Terror War: The Dangers of the Bush Legacy (Lanham, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003); Media Spectacle (New York: Routledge, 2003); and Grand Theft 2000: Media Spectacle and a Stolen Election (Lanham, MD.: Roman and Littlefield, 2001). His earlier books include The Postmodern Turn (New York: Guilford, 1997) and Jean Baudrillard: A Critical Reader (London: Blackwell, 1994).
1 – This is a significantly longer version of Kellner’s entry on Baudrillard in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Online). http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard IJBS is pleased to publish it as part of the ongoing dialogue on the uses and implications of Baudrillard’s thought. Kellner is perhaps the most prolific of a generation who resist Baudrillard but are forever drawn to his work. Such is the seductive nature of the encounter with Baudrillard and contemporary thought.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a dynamic reference work and is a publishing project of the Metaphysics Research Lab at the Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI) at Stanford University. Interesting insights may be gained into how this project functions by contrasting Kellner’s present text with the shorter version published by the enclyclopedia (Ed.).
2 – For critical commentary that helped with the revision of this entry, I am grateful to Edward N. Zalta and Uri Nodelman.
3 – Mike Gane (Ed). Baudrillard Live. Selected Interviews. London: Routledge. 1993:19.
4 – See Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968), London: Verso, 1996; The Consumer Society (c1970), Sage Publications, 1998; and For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (c 1973), St. Louis, Telos Press, 1981. A detailed online bibliography of Baudrillard’s work may be found at http://www.egs.edu/faculty/jeanbaudrillard.html (link no longer active 2019).
5 – Semiology refers to studies of language and culture as a system of signs inaugurated by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure; on Baudrillard and semiology, see Gary Genosko, Baudrillard and Signs. Signification Ablaze. London: Routledge, 1994. See also: Henri Lefebvre Everyday Life in the Modern World (c 1968) New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1971; and Critique of Everyday Life (c 1947), London: Verso, 1991.
6 – Thorstein Veblen. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Editions, 1994.
7 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c1970), Sage Publications, 1998:183.
8 – Ibid.:196.
9 – Ibid.:190.
10 – Ibid.
11 – Guy Debord and a group of associates who formed a “Situationist International” called for the construction of situations, through which they meant alternative and oppositional modes of culture, behavior, and politics. They were extremely influential in the 1960s, influencing the May 1968 rebellions in France and diverse forms of cultural revolution throughout the world. They are experiencing an aftermath in many Internet sites devoted to their work and various cultural projects that replicate it (see, for example, http://www.nothingness.org/SI/). On Debord and the Situationist International, see Steven Best and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. London and New York: MacMillan and Guilford Press, 1991 and Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, “Debord and the Postmodern Turn: New Stages of the Spectacle,” Substance 90 (1999):129-156.
12 – Douglas Kellner. Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity. Cambridge, U.K. and Baltimore, Md.: Polity Press and John Hopkins University Press, 1989.
13 – Georg Lukàcs. Realism in Our Time: Literature in the Class Struggle. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
14 – Baudrillard does however acknowledge that individuals are not passive (see for example: The Consumer Society (c. 1970), London: Sage, 1998:74). Neither is Baudrillard a passive being as he enacts a philosophy of challenge and constant revolt in the face of a system he says wants everyone to be an insignificant terminal (Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage, 1993:14 ff). Baudrillard prefers an object oriented philosophy to repeating the alienating theories of agency offered by political economy (Ed.).
15 – Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production (c 1973) St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975.
16 – Steven Best and Douglas Kellner. Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations. London and New York: MacMillan and Guilford Press, 1991 and The Postmodern Turn. New York: Guilford Press, 1997.
17 – Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (c 1976). London: Sage, 1993.
18 – Georges Bataille. The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy. New York: Zone Books, 1991.
19 – See Jean Baudrillard. “When Bataille Attacked the Metaphysical Principle of Economy.” In Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker (Eds.), Ideology and Power in the Age of Lenin in Ruins. CultureTexts. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1991.
20 – Ibid.
21 – Jean Baudrillard. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (c1973). St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981.
22 – Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production (c 1973) St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975:143.
23 – Baudrillard does refer to Rousseau as “naïve and sentimental”. See Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production (c. 1973), St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975:58 (Ed).
24 – Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (c 1976). London: Sage, 1993:8.
25 – Ibid.:10.
26 – Ibid.:19 ff.
27 – Ibid.:31 ff.
28 – Douglas Kellner. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Cambridge and Palo Alto: Polity Press and Stanford University Press, 1989 and Douglas Kellner (Ed). Jean Baudrillard. A Critical Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994.
29 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.
30 – Baudrillard writes:
“To dissimulate is to feign not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But the matter is more complicated, since to simulate is not simply to feign: “Someone who feigns an illness can simply go to bed and pretend he is ill. Someone who simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms” (Littré). Thus, feigning or dissimulating leaves the reality principle intact: the difference is always clear, it is only masked; whereas simulation threatens the difference between “true” and “false”, between “real” and “imaginary”. Since the simulator produces “true” symptoms, is he or she ill or not? The simulator cannot be treated objectively either as ill, or as not ill”. (Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.1994:3).
31 – Jean Baudrillard. America. London: Verso, 1988: 27.
32 – Ibid.:27.
33 – Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.
34 – Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage, 1993.
35 – For Baudrillard’s critique of semiological idealism see Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (C. 1972). St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981:188. Baudrillard also calls our attention to the problems of Marxian idealism and dialectical materialism’s “dialectical idealism of productive forces” . See Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981:130-132., and Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975:37 ff. (Ed.).
36 – Jean Baudrillard. Seduction (c 1979). Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1990.
37 – On Baudrillard and feminism see Keith Goshorn, “Valorizing ‘the Feminine’ while Rejecting feminism? – Baudrillard’s Feminist Provocations” in Douglas Kellner Jean Baudrillard. A Critical Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994: 257-291 and Victoria Grace, Baudrillard’s Challenge: A Feminist Reading. London: Routledge, 2000.
38 – It is also possible to read Baudrillard as a peasant among “aristocratic” intellectuals (Ed.).
39 – Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies (c 1983). New York: Semiotext(e), 1990.
40 – Ibid.:259-260.
41 – Alfred Jarry. “What is Pataphysics?”, Evergreen Review 13: 1963: 131. Pataphysics, according to Jarry, is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.
42 – Jean Baudrillard. (Interview with Le Journal des Psychologues (1991), in Mike Gane (Ed). Baudrillard Live : Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:172.
43 – Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment (c 1947). Stanford University Press, 2002.
44 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories: 1980-1985 (c 1987). Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1990; Cool Memories II: 1987-1990 (c 1990). Translated by Chris Turner. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996; Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1990-1995. (c 1995). Translated by Emily Agar. New York: Verso, 1997; Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000 (c 2000) Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 2002. Note: Cool Memories V: 2000-2005 will appear in English translation in late 2005.
45 – While often repetitive, his “cool memory” books provide direct access to the man and his ideas, as well as validating him as a global intellectual superstar who travels around the earth and whose every diary notation is worthy of publication and attention.
46 – Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out (c 2000)New York: Verso, 2002.
47 – Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c 1990). London: Verso, 1993; The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (c. 1991) Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995; The Illusion of the End (c 1992). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994; The Perfect Crime (c. 1995). New York: Verso, 1996; and Impossible Exchange (c. 1999). London: Sage, 2001.
48 – To those who would deny that Baudrillard is a postmodern theorist and has nothing to do with the discourse of the postmodern (e.g. Gane 1991 and 1993), one might note that Baudrillard uses the concept of the postmodern in his books of the 1990s (Baudrillard 1994b: 23, 27, 31, 34, 36, 107, passim; and Baudrillard 1996a: 36, 70 passim). The Perfect Crime (Baudrillard 1996b) does not use the discourse of the postmodern per se, but makes ample use of his classic categories of simulation, hyperreality, and implosion to elucidate a new virtual order opposed to the previous order of reality, the murder of which is “the perfect crime” (see 16, 83, 125, 128, passim). And in the conference “Jean Baudrillard und die Kunst: Eine Hommage zu seinem 75. Geburtstag,” Baudrillard mentioned several times that radical transformations in art and culture were linked to fundamental “anthropological changes in the human being,” ruptures that the term “postmodern” has been generally used to signify.
Editor’s note: We have an interesting case here of two contradictory but correct hypotheses: Kellner is correct that Baudrillard seems to identify himself as a postmodernist. Likewise, Gane is correct in his demonstration that Baudrillard is not a postmodernist. That Baudrillard’s position on postmodernism is contradictory only reinforces the postmodern nature of postmodernity. Baudrillard has maintained a certain latitude in dealing with the concept into the late 1990s:
…Everything that’s reemerging today under the emblem of postmodernism has been there since the 1920’s. … After the progressive movement of modernity we have the recessive movement (Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998:109).
49 – Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c 1990). London: Verso, 1993:14.
50 – Ibid.
51 – Ibid.:72.
52 – Ibid.:16.
54 – Ibid.:19.
55 – Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange (c. 1999). London: Sage, 2001:6.
56 – Ibid.:128.
57 – While many commentators have remarked on Baudrillard’s obvious Manicheanism and nihilism, Jonathan Smith argues that skepticism is also a key aspect of Baudrillard’s thought; see “The Gnostic Baudrillard: A philosophy of terrorism Seeking Pure Appearance”. I would agree that Baudrillard’s thought contains a curious mixture of Manicheanism and Gnosticism that identifies with the principle of evil mixed with an ironic skepticism. The result of this mixture is a unique form of cynicism and nihilism which plays with philosophical and other categories, debunks standard philosophical theorizing and offers provocative alternatives. Yet Smith seems to miss the dimension of play and irony in Baudrillard’s work, as well as his valorization of writing and the symbolic, in which writing and not forms of thought or philosophy are privileged as (see, for example, the section on “Poetic transference” in Impossible Exchange (2001:111 ff.). Smith’s claim that “pure appearance” is the key affirmative concept of Baudrillard’s thought is also problematic. Baudrillard may be seen valorizing a whole set of categories delineating the accursed and despised poles of fundamental dichotomies such as appearance, illusion, meaninglessness, and evil).
Editor’s note: On nihilism Baudrillard has written:
If being a nihilist is carrying, to the unbearable limit of hegemonic systems, this radical trait of derision and of violence, this challenge that the system is summoned to answer through its own death, then I am a terrorist and a nihilist in theory as the others are in weapons. Theoretical violence, not truth, is the only resource we have left us. But such a sentiment is utopian. Because it would be beautiful to be a nihilist, if there still were a radicality, and it would be nice to be a terrorist, if death, including that of the terrorist, still had meaning. …to this active nihilism of radicality, the system opposes its own, the nihilism of neutralization. The system itself is also nihilistic, in the sense that it has the power to pour everything, including what denies it, into indifference (Simulacra and Simulation (c. 1981), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:163).
58 – See Jacques Derrida, On Grammatology (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1976) and T.W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London, Routledge, 1973).
59 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983:66 ff.
60 – Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (c. 1991) Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995:85.
61 – For my own views on the collapse of Communism, see Douglas Kellner, “The End of Orthodox Marxism,” in Marxism in the Postmodern Age, edited by Jack Amarglio, et al. New York, Guilford Press: 1995: 33-41 and “The Obsolescence of Marxism?,” in Whither Marxism?, edited by Bernd Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg. London and New York: Routledge, 1995:3-30.
Editor’s note: It could also be said that Baudrillard simply has a different understanding of the actual politics (and transpolitics) of the struggle between the capitalist and communist blocs. For example:
Atomic war, like the Trojan war, will not take place. The risk of nuclear annihilation only serves as a pretext, through the sophistication of weapons… for installing a universal security system, a universal lockup and control system whose deterrent effect is not at all aimed at an atomic clash… but, rather, at the much greater probability of any real event, of anything, that would be an event in the general system and upset its balance. The balance of terror is the terror of balance. …and thanks to Damocles’ nuclear sword, is the perfection of the best system of control that has ever existed. And the progressive satellization of the whole planet through this hyper model of security (Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation, (c. 1981), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:33).
…we have to understand what this break-up of the Red-Army and the selling-off of its nuclear forces will mean. It amounts to their dispersal over the whole of the globe. Once the reference point of its intended usage is gone, weaponry, like the atom, becomes viral and interstitial. …the dispersal of atomic weapons will have the effect of enslaving the other nations to the same system of deterrence, the same consensual equilibrium (Jean Baudrillard. The Illusion of the End (c. 1992), Stanford University Press, 1994:50).
62 – Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (c. 1991) Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995:19.
63 – For systematic studies of recent media spectacle see Douglas Kellner Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge, 2003 and on the September 11 terror spectacle, see Douglas Kellner From September 11 to Terror War: The Dangers of the Bush Legacy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.
64 – Baudrillard acknowledges in a later writing that the fall of the Berlin wall “signified something closer to an enormous repentance on the part of history” (The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000: 39. His Political writings of the period are collected in Screened Out, (New York: Verso, 2002).
65 – Editor’s note: The Vital Illusion was never intended to be an “original” publication. It is the text of the three part Welleck Lectures given at the University of California (Irvine) in May 1999. In this lecture Baudrillard condensed much of his thought of the late 1990s. Another lecture from the mid 1990s in which he does this is: “The Murder of the Real (or The Perfect Crime)”. A talk recorded at Emery University, Atlanta Georgia, November 14, 1996): http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/gallery/radio-idt/speakers/baud.html (link no longer active 2019)
66 – Jean Baudrillard. The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers. London: Verso, 2002.
67 – Initially, Bush spoke of a “war against terrorism” and then began expanding the concept to a “war on terror,” an obviously infinite project with no conceivable end.
68 – Jean Baudrillard, cited in Mark Goldblatt, “ French Toast. America wanted Sept. 11.” National Review Online (December 13, 2001: 8) http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-goldblatt121301.shtml (link no longer active 2019). Goldblatt here reproduces the anti-French discourse of the right that was prevalent at the time.
71 – Jean Baudrillard. The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers. London: Verso, 2002:32.
72 – In other words, I see democratization, rights, and justice as part of a highly contradictory and contested globalization. See Douglas Kellner, “Theorizing Globalization,” Sociological Theory, Volume 20, Number 3, November 2002: 285-305.
73 – The inauguration in 2004 of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, however, indicates that there is a global coterie of Baudrillard scholars producing continued publications and reflections on his work.
74 – Douglas Kellner. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Cambridge and Palo Alto: Polity Press and Stanford University Press, 1989.
75 – Douglas Kellner. Media Culture. Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Postmodern. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
76 – Baudrillard distanced himself from the film and its vision of virtual reality in an interview translated into English as “The Matrix Decoded: Le Nouvel Observateur Interview With Jean Baudrillard”.
77 – Editor’s note: Does this explain why some theorists can be viewed as wanting it both ways with Baudrillard?
78 – Editor’s note: It is here, as in his distain for popular sociological concepts such as “agency” that Baudrillard’s thought is most pre-modern. He is consistently deeply respectful of Ancient and of aboriginal traditions which contradict Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophy concerning the will and freedom. It is here perhaps that Baudrillard’s greatest challenge to contemporary philosophy takes place and where courage must be summoned to follow him. Baudrillard thus may be understood as living and practicing a kind of philosophy that contemporary sociology and philosophy would rather remain a part of history. Is it here that he represents the return of Evil to thought?
79 – Editor’s note: Indeed, if he did he would not be Baudrillard and he would have to abandon his strategy of theory as challenge. It is clear in his writings that a unified theory of our age and a philosophy for our time are neither possible nor useful:
When you push the systems to the extreme you see that there is nothing more to say. So there is destabilization. Maybe there is a certain provocation. But among all those disciplines that one traverses or ironizes or whatever, no one of them is privileged. That goes for myself too. I don’t have any doctrines to defend. I have one strategy, that’s all. …I’m no longer part of modernity, not in the sense where modernity implies a kind of critical distance of judgement and argumentation. There is a sense of positive and negative, a kind of dialectic in modernity. My way of reflecting on things is not dialectic. Rather it’s provocative, reversible, it’s a way of raising things to their ‘N’th power, rather than a way of dialectizing them (Jean Baudrillard. Interview with S. Mele and M. Titmarsh, (c. 1984), in Mike Gane, Baudrillard Live, London: Sage, 1993:82).