Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Julian Baggini
This obituary appeared in The Guardian on March 7, 2007.
Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher who told us that everything is mere simulacrum, is dead. But his ideas have a life of their own.
News of the death of Jean Baudrillard provokes mischievous and possibly disrespectful thoughts about how he would have reported his own passing. “It never happened” would be the obvious choice. For those of us who didn’t know him personally, the “death of Baudrillard” is an entirely media event, one which we only observe through the filter of news, the internet and television. To believe otherwise is to fail to recognize the nature of our “hyperreal” society, in which we are no longer able to distinguish between reality itself and its simulation.
Some readers who have learned to dismiss anything that has the vague whiff of postmodernism about it will probably be snorting at the absurdity of all this. But it actually makes quite a bit of sense to me. Not complete sense, but then that’s probably because, like almost everyone whose training in philosophy took place in a British university, I’ve never seriously studied Baudrillard. That sort of stuff isn’t considered bona fide by most of our team, which is why a group of Cambridge academics tried to stop their university awarding Jacques Derrida an honorary degree in 1992.
It’s certainly true that France is a philosophically foreign country: they do things differently there. You could say they adopt a different style, but that would be to imply that Anglo-American philosophy has any style at all, when most of its arid writing is actually the literary equivalent to Alan Partridge’s sports-causal fashion collection. What our breed of philosophy has is a method, and with it supposed rigour.
The French, in contrast, have, if anything, too much style. The grand rhetorical sweep of many of Baudrillard’s pronouncements – the Gulf war never happened; history has become its own dustbin; the west, in a sense, wanted 9/11 – sound to our commonsensical ears like absurd exaggerations.
Yet, if you get past the hyperbolic flourishes, thinkers like Baudrillard are actually saying things that have more resonance and relevance to contemporary society than the majority of what is written by more sober Brits and Americans. That’s why, although shunned by philosophers, the likes of Baudrillard have been taken up by other social sciences and humanities.
The recurring theme of Baudrillard’s work is that we live in a world in which representation and simulation have come to dominate over what was once thought of as reality, to the extent that our reality now often is our simulation of it. That’s why it is now not only possible to be “famous for being famous”, but it’s what many young people actively have as an ambition. Because of thinkers like Baudrillard, we have come to think better and deeper about such issues, which is why we should be more prepared to forgive him for his many excesses.
There is some irony in the fact that many of those quickest to dismiss Baudrillard don’t actually have any knowledge of his philosophy at all, but only secondhand representations of it. Perhaps the oft-derided Baudrillard got the last laugh, after all.
About the Author
Julian Baggini is from The Guardian Newspaper, UK.