Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Trevor Norris 1
Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was at once a confounding and playful thinker, who achieved remarkable originality and insightfulness in his interdisciplinary amalgam of sociology, culture studies, media theory, political economy, semiotics and psychoanalysis, all of which contribute to a profound meditation on the character of our “hyper” capitalist age. A long-time leading figure in French intellectual circles, Baudrillard participated in the attempt to provide a new theoretical framework for the Left which would challenge many of the structuralist and modernist tenets of classical Marxist political economy and social theory. Perhaps the most important philosophical movement this century has been the postmodernism and post-structuralism which in part emerged from this project. With its roots in Nietzsche and Heidegger and the linguistics of Saussure, and grounded in the deconstruction of metaphysics and the “linguistic turn” towards considering the character of discourse and communication, postmodernism has radically and permanently altered the landscape of Western philosophy.
Born in 1929 in Reims, France, Baudrillard studied sociology under Henri Lefebvre, and taught during several tumultuous decades at Nanterre, beginning shortly before the student uprising of May 1968. That same year saw the publication of his first book, The System of Objects, a study of the meaning derived from consumption as the process by which human social relations become mediated by objects. Baudrillard sought to provide an understanding of the new “hyper” form of advanced capitalism and technology which emerged through the virtual and simulated character of contemporary experience. His account of the “implosion of meaning” entailed by the proliferation of signs and the reduction of the sign to the status of commodity points toward the simultaneous experience of the loss of reality and the encounter with hyperreality.
In The Consumer Society Baudrillard outlines how consumers buy into the “code” of signs rather than the meaning of the object itself. His analysis of the process by which the sign ceases pointing towards an object or signified which lies behind it, but rather to other signs which together constitute a cohesive yet chaotic “code”, culminates in the “murder of reality”. The rupture is so complete, the absence so resounding, and the code so “totalitarian” that Baudrillard speaks of the combined “violence of the image” and “implosion of meaning”. Politics, religion, education, any human undertaking is swept up and absorbed by this process and ultimately neutralized; any liberating activity becomes complicit in the reproduction of its opposite. “The code is totalitarian; no one escapes it: our individual flights do not negate the fact that each day we participate in its collective elaboration”.2
More recently, Baudrillard’s preoccupation with the simulated and his radical questioning of what remains of the “real” led him to such provocative statements as “the gulf war did not take place”3 and “the collapse of the towers of the World Trade Center is unimaginable, but that is not enough to make it a real event”.4 Jean Baudrillard’s radical questioning of the character of signs, symbols and simulation in our postmodern age points towards the necessity to reconsider the role of contemporary educational practices as a possible site of resistance to the “code”. Is education invariably complicit in the “murder of the real”?
About the Author
Trevor Norris is from the Ontario Institute of Secondary Education, University of Toronto, Canada.
1 – This article was originally posted in the Encyclopaedia of Informal Education: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/baudrillard.html
2 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects. Translated by James Benedict, London and New York: Verso, 1996:22.
3 – Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press; 1995.
4 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Spirit of Terrorism”, Le Monde, 2 November 2001.