08 March 2007

jean baudrillard : 1929 – 2007

Jean Baudrillard, the remarkably influential French cultural theorist who argued, among other things over the course of his 50 books, that we live in an age of hyperreality where the real has been effaced by simulations of the "real," died on Tuesday, 6 March, after a long illness, at the age of 77.

I first ran into his ideas back in the early eighties, and simply couldn't shake them. They ended up infecting radically my speculative-fiction anti-trilogy, Tonguing the Zeitgeist, Time Famine, and Freaknest, as well as my recent novel Girl Imagined by Chance. Engaging with his imagination had the same effect on me as engaging with Barthes's and Derrida's. It was impossible not to feel, in some deep-structure way, that you'd left the Garden for good.

Here are a few excerpts from the Time Online coverage:

His interests ranged from anthropology to modern literature, film, art and photography, and he adopted many different styles of writing, from essay to poetry, from monograph to aphorism. Though not always clearly understood, his writing was influential across a broad range of disciplines that included literature, sociology, culture and media, and philosophy.

He was also an important influence on artists and writers — the novelist J. G. Ballard held that he was the most important French thinker of the past 20 years.

Jean Baudrillard was born in 1929 in Rheims, where he attended the lycée. His education was interrupted when, in the crucial year of preparation for entry into higher education, he abandoned his studies and, in his own words, “ran away” à la Rimbaud. He eventually returned to education, however, and spent ten years teaching German in provincial lycées.

In the 1960s he became a leading translator of German literary and philosophical works into French, while at the same time undertaking studies in sociology and preparing a thesis — influenced by the ideas of Henri Lefebvre and Roland Barthes — which would allow him to take up a university position.

This he did at Nanterre in 1966, at a time when left-leaning intellectuals were being increasingly radicalised in the wave of anti-bourgeois agitation that characterised the 1960s. His major publications begin from 1968. He continued to teach and to research in Paris until his withdrawal from academia in 1987. Thereafter he spent much time travelling and lecturing throughout the world and developing his talent as a photographer — his work was shown in several exhibitions.

Baudrillard’s career as a social theorist began with two substantial studies of affluent, modern society: The System of Objects (1968) and The Consumer Society (1970). These were followed by For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972), where sociology, semiology and Marxist economic theory were combined. At the high point of the influence of Marxism in France Baudrillard thus contributed, against the more orthodox styles of Marxism, a recognition that a profound shift had taken place with the development of consumerism. His two studies of consumerism charted the emergence of a society dominated not by commodities as such, but by objects now consumed more and more for their image, or as he called it, their “sign-value”.

This transition to a system characterised by what he called “saturation” and “obesity," among other categories of his invention, made analyses based on scarcity, need, function and proletarian revolt redundant. It was soon clear to him that Marxism, like socialism, was part of the system it sought to overcome.

What distinguished Baudrillard’s response therefore was his search for a way of analysing modern societies that still remained radical.

Wikipedia offers a good overview of his life and work here.


Anonymous said...

Earlier this evening I read a piece at The Guardian about Gabriel García Márquez, who has recently been honored, on his eightieth birthday, by the president of Columbia for his contributions to literature and to the world ("Your transcendent literary work, your exemplary life and efforts for a more just society, allow us to say with conviction you are the teacher of teachers."). Moving from this celebratory article to the death of Baudrillard was jarring: this is a great loss for the world of philosophy indeed, akin to the deaths of, as you say, Barthes and Derrida. Although admittedly I have not read but a tiny fraction of his oeuvre, his theories on simulacra/simulation have been very influential to me. Let us hope that the afterlife is more "real" for Mr. Baudrillard than this insidious one has been.

Thanks for posting this.


Carol Novack said...

Just for contrast, here's another take on Baudrillard. I'm not espousing, just posting.

Wednesday » March 14 » 2007

A French intellectual--in the worst sense of the term
Jean Baudrillard could make any subject more obscure just by briefly visiting it

Robert Fulford
National Post

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Jean Baudrillard, who died on Tuesday in Paris at the age of 77, was a French intellectual in the most sinister meaning of that term.

He was intoxicated by hastily concocted theories and drunk on incomprehensible explanations of world affairs. He could make any subject more obscure just by briefly visiting it. Many of his readers eventually discovered that his work, some 50 books in all, usually wasn't about what it claimed to be about. His real concern was always Baudrillard and the passionate drama of his daydreams.

His way of thinking involved intense snobbery on his part and great tolerance on the reader's. To the public and his students he said, in effect: "You poor fools are deluded by all your ideals, your dreams, your accomplishments. You think that's reality? It's a fraud, all of it. I know better."

Strange as it seems, in the 1970s much of the Western world was ready to embrace him. He and Jacques Derrida were among the most prominent members of the platoon of French imperialist intellectuals who landed on the shores of North America and conquered a whole continent.

They set up base camps on elite college campuses and soon began enlisting local recruits for their army of postmodernists, post-structuralists, post-Marxists and full-time professional obscurantists. They became an all-consuming vogue. Soon it was impossible to get through Yale without encountering them, and by the early 1990s their thoughts had penetrated Western Canada, where you could hear professors talking the ugly and mostly incomprehensible language of critical theory while students struggled pathetically to keep up. In some circles, those who didn't imitate the French stars were considered eccentric.

Academics, building their careers, learned from the French that novels and poems had become irrelevant as subject matter for teaching and research. They existed largely as illustrations of theories imported from Paris.

Baudrillard himself revived a relatively obscure word, simulacrum, and placed it at the centre of his thinking. The world we consider real is merely a simulacrum of reality, he argued. For example, "All America is Disneyland," a vast nation rendered entirely inauthentic by advertising, information technology, and other instruments of the devil.

In the 19th century, Thomas Carlyle used simulacrum, something that consists only of appearance and possesses no substance, to describe someone as an ambitious charlatan, "merely a simulacrum." Carlyle urged his readers to avoid simulacra "and return to fact."

But fact was just what the world no longer makes available, Baudrillard argued. Representation and simulation have taken the place of what we used to call reality. We live instead with media-generated fictions. In 1991, in his essay, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, he argued that in essence the war was a TV show and a symbolic gesture. The real conflict took place in the media of the West and didn't matter outside that electronic arena.

He saw 9/11 as in essence an exchange of symbolic power and morality. To him it was a reaction against globalization in trade. "Terrorism is immoral," he wrote. "It responds to a globalization that is itself immoral."

The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers, published a year after 9/11, exhibited an extreme case of a self-induced intellectual high. "The horror for the 4,000 victims of dying in those towers was inseparable from the horror of living in them,"

he said. He also declared, without much explanation, that somehow "we [in the West] wished for it."

Intellectuals love to write the obituaries of trends and art forms -- literary critics often say the novel is dead, art critics declare painting finished. Baudrillard, as if involved in a competitive sport, produced more cultural eulogies than anyone in his weight class. He mourned, early, the spirit of May, 1968 (his generation's golden moment) and at various times he told us that politics was dead, also economics, also liberty and psychoanalysis. Sex, too. As for revolution, Baudrillard hated the bicentennial celebrations of France's revolution. He said the sole purpose of the celebrations was to assert that France was no longer a country where rebellion was acceptable. Now it was just another part of the consumer society, which he spent his life deploring.

As much as any thinker of his time, Jean Baudrillard was willing to drive an idea off the cliff of reason and fall with it into the river below -- and all just to prove he could do it. He was a comedian of ideas, an intellectual who deserved a place in show business. Given him his due:He pulled it off.


© National Post 2007

Copyright © 2007 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.

Lance Olsen said...

Ah, unnuanced journalists. Can't live with them, can't live . . . um, with them.

I find myself slightly amused, though, to note that Fulford's email address at the bottom of the article apparently places him at a university--you know, one of those "elite college campuses" he spends a good deal of his articlette loathing in a reductionistic act of reverse snobbery.

I was just listening to NPR a few days ago. This media theorist was talking about how we have exited the age of journalism that asks questions while at least trying (and usually failing) to present a semi-balanced view, and entered the age of journalism-as-editorial, journalism-as-answer, from Lou Dobbs to Nancy Grace and Glenn Beck, where unsubstantiated opinions and white-hot rhetoric pass as facts.