On Jean Baudrillard

I noticed on Jahsonic’s blog the other day that the French philosopher and cultural critic Jean Baudrillard had died. His is a name that will be unfamiliar to the vast majority of people, as Baudrillard moved in the rarefied air of French postmodern circles that includes the likes of Derrida, Lyotard and Deleuze. Never heard of any of them, either? Well I don’t blame you one iota, as life is short and some of these gentlemen’s writings can nevertheless make it seem to pass very, very slowly. But I find the postmodernists fascinating because what they have to say (when people finally understand what they are saying) makes them hopping mad, or incredibly frustrated, or, occasionally even, lifelong quasi-religious devotees of their work. There’s got to be something interesting hiding within such extreme reactions, don’t you think?

Jean Baudrillard is about as provocative a theorist as you can get. He writes in an annoyingly obscure manner, makes crazy-sounding arguments and explores the kind of cultural phenomenon that other people have already said quite sensible things about, such as consumerism, gender relations, contemporary historical events and the media. By contrast Baudrillard’s propositions can have you gasping in outrage or wiping tears of incredulous laughter from your eyes. And yet he’s become a famous cult figure, an icon of sorts, and an important voice in academic thought. So, you’d think there would be something in what he says, right?

Well, I’ll let you judge for yourselves. I’m not going to give an overview of Baudrillard’s work, just talk about the concept for which he has become most well-known, and that’s what he calls ‘hyperreality’. Now, all of Baudrillard’s thinking is based on the recognition that words create a world of their own. When we think of a dog, for instance, we will all have a mental picture of a dog in our heads that will be unique for each of us, but which stands in for the word with a certain compelling reality. It’s how come we can read fiction and experience it as if it were real. Now Baudrillard’s particularly interested in the way that the mass media culture has transformed our relationship to this fantasy image domain of language. In his opinion, the fantasy is so reproduced, so mass marketed, so commodified in our culture that it’s in danger of taking over the way we perceive reality. Look at advertising, for instance. That beautiful couple in an advert who walk into a spotless lounge and sprawl about on their new sofa; do they look like anyone you’ve ever met? Does their house look like any house you’ve ever entered? Of course not! But that simply doesn’t bother us any more. We’ve grown accustomed to looking at images of a reality that doesn’t exist, exactly as if it were a reality we had around us all the time. So, the hyperreal refers to a situation where we can no longer tell whether what we are looking at is fantasy or reality, and we frankly don’t care because all that really matters is its effect on us. That couple in the advertisement don’t quite make it into the hyperreal, because if someone really pushed us, we’d agree they were fictional constructs. But they are headed in the right direction.

Now, where Baudrillard got himself into all kinds of trouble was in his dramatic statement that the (first) Gulf War was an example of the hyperreal. Or as he preferred to put it: The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Now, before we start throwing the rotten tomatoes, let’s see it from his side. Baudrillard wants to draw our attention to the way that media representation has resulted in images of war preceding genuine combat. We all think we know what a war looks like because we’ve seen enough of them on the news. But we fail to take into account the extent of the editing, the censoring, the propaganda that determines every single frame of reportage. At an even more profound level, there’s an anecdote that’s used in the introduction to Baudrillard’s book that really shows up what he means by hyperreal. It’s a moment when the news channel CNN switched to a group of reporters ‘live’ in the Gulf to ask them what was happening, only to find these same reporters watching CNN in order to find out for themselves. This is perfect hyperreal; the news becomes the source of the news, the battlefield recedes into an uncertain distance and the media circulates its easily recognisable ‘images of war’ in a never-ending chain. So, what Baudrillard means by saying the war did not take place, is that it was not fought in any way that might correspond to the images and understanding and so-called ‘reality’ of it that we distant spectators might have in our heads. What ever happened out there in the Gulf was entirely different to this concept we created and termed ‘the Gulf War’.

So, Baudrillard is not saying that people didn’t die and suffer trauma and fight heroically. He’s saying that this big old media proposition entitled ‘the Gulf War’ was the creation of a bunch of journalists and we shouldn’t forget the ‘real’ of war is an experience that our television sets and newspapers are in no way qualified to bring us. In similar fashion, Baudrillard points to ‘reality tv’ shows as guilty of the same kind of fantastic confusion, and he’s also got a fair amount to say on the subject of Disneyland that’s in the same vein. Now I think Baudrillard’s ideas are really fascinating, but I object profoundly to the way he tends to express them. He takes his arguments to a kind of hysterical excess that just invites refutation, and he doesn’t chose to be lucid about the difference between explaining an idea in his theories and acting it out. All these useful distinctions get chucked into some great melting pot of Baudrillardian cleverness and I become very schoolmarmish and want to tell him to put his ego to one side and consider the reader. But he would probably have replied, with a Gallic twinkle in his eye, that there was no fun in that. What I think is indisputable is that Baudrillard highlighted some very dangerous blind spots in our contemporary culture that threaten to do real damage to the integrity, the pragmatism and the ideology of our society, if we don’t keep dragging them, kicking and screaming, into the light. And for that reason I hope his work lives on and undergoes significant development and refinement for many years to come.

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9 thoughts on “On Jean Baudrillard

  1. Thanks, Litlove, I really enjoyed your description of hyper-realism. Also, your contention re his “hysterical excess.”

    Coincidentally, I recently read a wonderful essay in Slate.com on Georg Christoph Lichtenberg that included this section on maintaining a sense of proportion:

    “Finally, it is his detailed and unflinching awareness that astonishes the reader. Scattered through his scores of “­Waste-Books” and manuscript notebooks, Lichtenberg’s innumerable observations, nutshells each, add up to a single demonstration of his guiding principle: that there is such a thing as “the right distance,” a sense of proportion. He is the thinker against hysteria, the mind whose ­good-humored determination to avoid throwing a tantrum provides us with a persuasive argument that the tantrum might be the motive power of political insanity. His clarity and concision set a standard for expository prose, at whatever length, in the whole of his language and, by extension, in all languages.”

    If interested, the whole piece is here, and it’s all good:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2160969/

  2. I’ve gotten annoyed at the way anytime Baudrillard’s death gets mentioned in the media, there’s a reference to how his ideas inspired The Matrix — as though that’s the most significant thing he did. Thank you for not mentioning The Matrix! This is a great overview of hyperreality — thanks.

  3. Litlove, I wish you’d been my lecturer when I studied postmodernism and post-structuralism at university, that was a great summary!

  4. Ombudsman – I adore that quote and will now go and follow up on the piece itself. I couldn’t agree more re: tantrums in thinking! Dorothy – it was the simplest thing in the world to avoid mentioning The Matrix as I’ve never seen it. I know! I must be the only person on the planet! Missv – well thank you so much. I wish you’d been my student too!

  5. Thanks again litlov. I wondered if you might after seeing he had died. Can you do the same for the other thinkers you mention in the coming weeks. It strikes me that this guy knew what he was talking about, because he exploited what he saw as exploiting us to his own ends. He uses the extreme to grab attention, which is exactly what the media does. Programmes like Big Brother are all about getting a potentially disruptive mix together in the hope they will perform. The recent racism issue must have fulfilled their wildest dreams. Jean Baudrillard uses this love of the extreme to gain media attention for ideas which put more moderately might be passed over. For all the reaction he created he clearly got a reaction. The same could be true of his obscurantist side. There is a faction that seem to be drawn to the esoteric as if it gives them a related kudos, a sort of one-upmanship, or its just pure pretension. Now he needs the moderate clarifiers like yourself to help the likes of me out. I have seen only seen fragments of the Matrix films while passing by the tv from time to time. Is this a post-modern way of fim-watching I wonder. I never studied these -isms, before my time I guess, but if I had I would have liked you to teach me too.

  6. Great analysis of Baudrillard. I think his notion of the hyperreal is hugely important, since so much of cultural and political thought is based on such projections. We needed Baudrillard there to try to destabilize those images.

  7. Bookboxed – that’s a brilliant analysis of Baudrillard’s strategy. The excessive soundbite is what attracts attention, and certainly what fuels the rat-trap programmes like Big Brother. And as far as I am concerned you are a fully paid up member of Litlove’s literary salon. Bikeprof – I didn’t do the political side justice at all, but you are spot on. Hyperreal projections are exactly what drives most political endeavour (call me cynical if you like), and the more we dig into them, the better.

  8. It is interesting to read this, Litlove. Recently I was discussing with a friend the perceptions of reality which we gain from the media. Baudrillard did not enter the converstion because neither of us knew about him. I will rectify this. Points which were discussed revolved around propaganda and its effect on politics. The perceptions which enabled Europe to tear itself apart in 1914-19, the effect a concerted media campaign had on the perception of the Jews in Germany, the way Bin Laden was in Afghanistan, the Twin Tower terrorists were Saudi and yet Iraq was invaded in a way which seemed entirely logical. I think we also discussed how Israel is now doing to Palestinians what was done, in Germany, to the Jews, yet somehow, this time, Israel is in the right.
    Propagandists instinctively know what Baudrillard was talking about and, to use a modern term, reality checks should be done every time a newspaper is read.

  9. Pingback: Jean Baudrillard died today « Jahsonic

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