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.