Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Patricia Cohen1
The French critic and provocateur Jean Baudrillard, whose theories about consumer culture and the manufactured nature of reality were intensely discussed both in rarefied philosophical circles and in blockbuster movies like The Matrix, died yesterday in Paris. He was 77. Michel Delorme, director of Galilee, Mr. Baudrillard’s publisher, announced his death, which he said followed a long illness.
Mr. Baudrillard, the first in his family to attend a university, became a member of a small caste of celebrated and influential French intellectuals who achieved international fame despite the density and difficulty of their work. The author of more than 50 books and an accomplished photographer, Mr. Baudrillard ranged across different subjects, from race and gender to literature and art to 9/11. His comments often sparked controversy, as when he said in 1991 that the gulf war ”did not take place” – arguing that it was more of a media event than a war.
Mr. Baudrillard was once considered a postmodern guru, but his analyses of modern life were too original and idiosyncratic to fit any partisan or theoretical category. ”He was one of a kind,” François Busnel, the editor in chief of the monthly literary magazine Lire, said yesterday. ”He did not choose sides, he was very independent.” With a round face and big, thick glasses, Mr. Baudrillard was known for his witty aphorisms and black humor. He described the sensory flood of the modern media culture as ”the ecstasy of communication.” One of his better known theories postulates that we live in a world where simulated feelings and experiences have replaced the real thing. This seductive ”hyperreality,” where shopping malls, amusement parks and mass-produced images from the news, television shows and films dominate, is drained of authenticity and meaning. Since illusion reigns, he counseled people to give up the search for reality. “All of our values are simulated,” he told The New York Times in 2005. ”What is freedom? We have a choice between buying one car or buying another car? It’s a simulation of freedom.”
This idea was picked up by the American filmmakers Andy and Larry Wachowski, who included subtle references to Mr. Baudrillard in their Matrix trilogy. In the first movie of the series, The Matrix’ (1999), the computer hacker hero Neo opens Mr. Baudrillard’s book ”Simulacra and Simulation,” which turns out to be only a simulation of a book, hollowed out to hold computer disks. Mr. Baudrillard later told The Times that the movie references to his work ”stemmed mostly from misunderstandings.”
He was also a fierce critic of consumer culture in which people bought objects not out of genuine need but because of the status and meaning they bestowed. Born in 1929 in Reims, Mr. Baudrillard later attended university in Paris, earning a doctorate in sociology while teaching German to high school students. He published his first book, The System of Objects, in 1968. In 1986 he published a kind of travelogue called America, in which he wrote, ”America is the original version of modernity,” referring to what he considered the almost complete blurring of reality and unreality. To his French readers, he said: ”We are a copy with subtitles.”
He retired in 1987 from the University of Paris X, Nanterre, and then devoted himself to writing caustic commentaries and developing his philosophical theories. Although he shunned most media, he frequently wrote for newspapers.
The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers was published just a year after 9/11. In it, he argued that Islamic fundamentalists tried to create their own reality; the resulting media spectacle would give the impression that the West was constantly under threat of terrorist attack.
The current American invasion of Iraq is an effort to ”put the rest of the world into simulation, so all the world becomes total artifice and then we are all-powerful,” he told The Times. ”It’s a game.” Like other postmodernists with whom he was often associated (despite their differences), he was frequently criticized as obscure. ”If the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing,” Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote in their 1998 book Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. Mr. Baudrillard was not unaware of the problem. ”What I’m going to write will have less and less chance of being understood,” he said, ”but that’s my problem.”
About the Author
Patricia Cohen is from the New York Times
1 – This obituary appeared on March 7, 2007 in the New York Times. It has been reposted numerous times on the www including and reprinted by The Scotsman on March 8, 2007.