Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was a leading French social theorist, combining Marxism and poststructuralism to produce a trenchant and influential critique of the era of postmodernism that has proved widely influential in discussions of contemporary consumerist society. With the growth of communications technology in the late twentieth century, specifically television and the news media, the manner in which society processed readily available information was a source of study for sociologists and cultural observers alike. Witness to the growing union between technology and information, Baudrillard and his theories reflected the prevailing uneasiness of society and its (in) ability to process what appeared on television sets. He writes of information as “an unintelligent missile which never finds its target … and therefore crashes anywhere or gets lost in space” (1995: 42). The globalization of media and information were fundamental to Baudrillard's theories, which offered a unique approach to the internalization of images and simulations. Yet, there is a rawness to Baudrillard that is unsettling for some readers. Mike Gane cautions, “Baudrillard is a cruel, theoretical extremist, and must be read accordingly. He follows the logic of his own position” (1991a: 7). Nonetheless, combining his background in early French postmodernism and sociology, Baudrillard's analyses of media and its simulation have had profound effects throughout critical circles, sociological studies, and even environmental studies.
Born in Reims, France, Baudrillard was old enough to remember the German occupation of his country. As a descendant of peasants, he was the first member of his family to attend university, where he majored in German. He became a contributor to Jean-Paul Sartre's journal, Les Temps modernes, for which he wrote a number of reviews on both European and American authors. He also translated a number of German philosophical texts during this period, before returning to university to study for a graduate degree. Having received his doctorate in sociology, Baudrillard took up a post at the University of Paris at Nanterre, which was heavily involved in the 1968 student riots. As a member of the Situationist International, an anarchist-leaning group whose critique of the growing consumer society had a Marxist theoretical basis, the young professor anticipated an overhaul of the antiquated political economy.
Coinciding with the riots was the publication of his first book, The System of Objects (2005 [ 1968]), which was essentially his doctoral thesis in modified form, greatly influenced by Roland Barthes's studies on semiotics. In this book, Baudrillard argues that the manner in which we interact with objects is a form of communication, regardless of the object's original function. In 1970, Baudrillard presented a study of human needs and desires from the perspective of the new consumerist middle class in his book The Consumer Society (Baudrillard 1998). Baudrillard's subsequent books, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981 [ 1972]) and The Mirror of Production (1975), both begin to demonstrate a radical new understanding of the sign in France, introducing the term “symbolic exchange,” or a transaction between things. Interweaving critiques of Marxism, in the first book Baudrillard reviews why the student movements failed and examines the interdependency between the sign and its political economy. In the second, the sociological and cultural critic makes his most damning statements against Marxism, arguing that the capitalist world and the Marxist world mirror each other and share the same economist values. According to Rex Butler, Baudrillard's theorizing culminates in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993 ), which examines the symbolic exchange in a number of fields, including capitalism and psychoanalysis, and marks the beginning of a period of “frantic production” (Butler 1999: 7), leading up to the publication of Fatal Strategies (1990 ). The book now most widely associated with Baudrillard was produced during this hectic theoretical time in his life. Published in 1981 and translated two years later, Simulations (in French, Simulacres et Simulation) delved into media simulation and consumerism.
In 1987, Baudrillard resigned from his teaching post at Nanterre, and an experimental period followed, during which time he contributed to his bibliography with books as well as travelogues, journal contributions, and newspaper articles. These works include America (1988 ), The Ecstasy of Communication (1988), and The Transparency of Evil (1993 ).
Fundamental to understand Baudrillard is Ferdinand de Saussure's work, Course in General Linguistics (1983), in which the sign and its signifier are a stable and reliable way to meaning. However, it was Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology (1998 ) and Dissemination (1981) that facilitated and welcomed a challenging of the old understanding of signs and signifiers. For example, the image of a tree is coupled with its word “tree” after the development of that linguistic code. Baudrillard took this “symbolic exchange” further in true postmodernist fashion. Now, artistic representations of trees present an image of arboreal foliage and a brown trunk, capturing and robbing the essence of the real. Correspondingly, the word and image of a tree have coincided with the disappearance of the physical representations of it, rendering the real useless and unnecessary in the presence of the sign. This sign has, therefore, become a simulation of the real, or simulacra. By choosing this word, Baudrillard acknowledges the difference between his choice and imitation, something which it is not; it is a substitution for the real.
Baudrillard's early development was heavily influenced by his readings of the Frankfurt School of German Marxist social analysis. Read and studied when Baudrillard was a student of German and a translator, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno helped to bring the sociological element to Baudrillard's theories (Rojek & Turner 1993). Horkheimer's and Adorno's writings warned of the blindfold that is the media and its deception and contribution to resignation. But where Adorno, specifically, foresaw a Marxist conflict between the owners and the producers on the factory line, Baudrillard saw a de-evolution, defining a new form of resignation. Baudrillard would rely heavily on semiotics to express this new indifference, further integrating the semiotics of Barthes. Furthermore, while the French poststructuralists were, in general, heavily influenced by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche and his God-killing proclamations, Baudrillard's writing style was particularly strongly influenced by that of Nietzsche. Returning to simulacra, Baudrillard wonders in “The precession of images,” an essay from Simulations, “But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to signs which attest his existence?” (1983: 11). It is the reduction of holiness to signs and icons that detracts from the grandiosity of the referent. Thus Baudrillard rejects the “murderous capacity of images, murderers of the real, murderers of their own model” (11). Consequently, if the divine can be simulated and reduced to signs, then “the whole system becomes weightless” (11).
Baudrillard's simulacra are also applied to consumerism and cultural studies. With the first, he criticizes how images in the media tell the public what to want, what to “need” in their everyday lives. The newest apparel that flashes in a television advertisement suggests that one must own the newest colors or prints in order to be a productive member of society. The subliminal popcorn images during a movie make the audience salivate for a quick trip to the snack counter, controlling the primitive instinct of hunger. Sexuality is no longer under a man's control when the images of women are everywhere, making the real unnecessary. Advertising, media, and television have made and taken over the desires and needs of the viewer. Without a model of the real, the distance between the original and its simulacra grows, and society enters the hyperreal, according to Baudrillard (2).
For cultural studies, Baudrillard parallels the theories of Michel Foucault and Edward Said. As a critic of the West and its imperialism, Baudrillard criticizes the work of Western ethnologists and anthropologists who swarm the globe, searching and labeling any new-found “species” of Man. He writes of a primitive tribe that, when discovered in 1971, quickly dissipated into simulacrum: “For ethnology to live, its object must die” (14). As the tribe is cordoned off and once again isolated, it becomes a simulation for all tribes that existed before modern times; it becomes a catapult to create a simulation of the past. The presence of that tribe must then be transcribed into Western terms via ethnology and anthropology. It is in this process that the simulation takes over the real, according to Baudrillard. Every subsequent encounter with the tribe will be for study or for touristic purposes - it is no longer the original, but now a tainted simulation. For example, when a tourist visits Mexico, indigenous sun-dancers climb up a pole and dangle from a rope as they twirl upside down 60 feet above the ground. The tourist happily snaps pictures of this supposedly authentic ritual witnessed while on vacation, never knowing the truth - that the authentic ritual was only performed during equinoxes and under the supervision of priests and emperors, and not for tourists’ bidding and dollars. The subsequent image is a mere simulation of the ritual, the real having died out soon after European conquest as Christianity rolled through the Americas. Culturally, simulacra aim to paint a portrait of what significance a culture has globally. This is true in Disneyland, as Baudrillard claims, in its counterfeit microcosm of America as it offers various representations of people (pirate), animals (mice), and lands (Tomorrowland), and other “imaginary stations” (26). And how appropriate that this simulacra-land is based in the city that embodies the hyperreal: Los Angeles, home to the American film industry.
With the expansion of technology, Baudrillard also saw simulacra in world events in the early 1990s. In the controversial publication The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1995), he challenged the Western media and its portrayal of the conflict. As the United States and its allies bombarded the Iraqi capital, the world crowded around the television set to witness for the first time an infrared display of green with bright flashes for missiles. War had become a video game, an image of an image that distanced viewers from the real damage and distress. Despite the obvious facts and figures that supported the large area of damage, Baudrillard argues that the virtual experience of war placed the real so far from the viewer that it might as well not have taken place for that viewer. He writes of the media's role: “We are all hostages of media intoxication, induced to believe in the war just as we were once led to believe in the revolution in Romania, and confined to the simulacrum of war as though confined to quarters” (25).
Public recognition of the simulacra and longing for the real in its original form only further increase the distance between the real and its image. Nostalgia simply emphasizes the distance between the copy and the long-gone original, further destroying the real as the simulacrum travels back in memory. With the power of the image, Baudrillard argues that the global media and its proliferation of images perpetuate this “symbolic exchange,” leaving the viewer without a rooting notion to stabilize their association between image and the real. As the former kills the latter, the societal consequences reverberate through gender, political and military conflict, and morality, offering the real tree as a sacrifice on the altar of the imagined, painted tree.
SEE ALSO: Adorno, Theodor; Barthes, Roland; Critical Theory/Frankfurt School; Derrida, Jacques; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Postmodernism; Saussure, Ferdinand de; Simulation/Simulacra
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