former Professor of Media Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.
Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), French sociologist, cultural critic, and theorist of postmodernity, was born in the northern town of Reims on the 27th of July 1929. The son of civil servants and the grandson of peasant farmers, he was the first in his family to attend university—eventually becoming a teacher of sociology at the Université de Paris X Nanterre and a leading intellectual figure of his time. Much of his early life and work was influenced by the French occupation of Algeria and the ensuing struggle for independence in the 1950s and 60s.
Before completing his doctoral thesis in sociology under the direction of Henri Lefebvre, Baudrillard taught German at several lycées in Paris and outside the city. Upon the successful completion of his dissertation in September 1966, he took a position in Nanterre—first as Maître Assistant (Assistant Professor), then Maître de Conférences (Associate Professor)—eventually becoming a professor after completing his habilitation with L’Autre par lui-même (The Other by Himself). He was associated with Roland Barthes, to whom his first book, a semiotic analysis of culture—Le système des objets (The System of Objects), 1968—is clearly indebted. In it, he “offers a cultural critique of the commodity in consumer society. Baudrillard classifies the everyday objects of the ‘new technical order’ as functional, nonfunctional and metafunctional. He contrasts ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ functional objects, subjecting home furnishing and interior design to a celebrated semiological analysis. His treatment of nonfunctional or ‘marginal’ objects focuses on antiques and the psychology of collecting, while the metafunctional category extends to the useless, the aberrant and even the ‘schizofunctional.’ Finally, Baudrillard deals at length with the implications of credit and advertising for the commodification of everyday life.” And what this system does is to transfer—exchange— meaning itself through the continual circulation of objects; thus, it is not just that use-value no longer matters but that what is exchanged is no longer the surplus of production but consumption itself—where the consumer (there are no longer even individuals) not only maintains the illusion of their personal meanings through this exchange but the illusion of use-value itself.
Another major intellectual influence to Jean Baudrillard was Marshall McLuhan, who demonstrated the importance of the mass media in any sociological overview. In 1968, inspired by the student revolt at Nanterre University, he collaborated with the ultra-leftist collective Utopie and published a number of theoretical articles on the ambience of capitalist affluence and the critique of technology in their eponymous journal which was helmed by Hubert Tonka. Other influences include Marcel Mauss, Georges Bataille, as well as Jean-Paul Sartre, Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Situationists, and Surrealism. Less overt, but certainly a significant background influence on his thought, was Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, while a far more obvious influence on his overall thought was Marxism.
However, Baudrillard’s eventual—perhaps inevitable—break with Marx came in 1972 with Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe (For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign) and Le Miroir de la production (The Mirror of Production) in 1973. Rifting with—and stretching the line between Saussure’s signifier and signified—Baudrillard announced the rupture between the sign and its referent; where there is not only no necessary correspondence between the sign and an object in the world, but more radically that the sign takes precedence over reality, that the sign itself is reality. Thus, a deconstructed semiotics, rather than finding in semiotics the objective root of a sociological situation, as with the structuralists.
Baudrillard’s disenchantment with sociology, or more specifically the discipline of sociology, is most apparent in À l’ombre des majorités silencieuses (In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, 1982), where he argues that sociology is not analyzing society as much as writing ‘society’ itself into being so as to justify its own existence. For, the old structures of class have vanished into what he describes as the void of the masses: “that spongy referent, that opaque but equally translucent reality, that nothingness: the masses.” The masses no longer make themselves evident as a class (a category which has lost its force because of a proliferation of possible identities), as they have been swamped by so much meaning they have lost all meaning. They have been so continuously analyzed through statistics, opinion polls and marketing that they do not respond to enlightened political representation. And their revenge, as it were, was to have absorbed all the old, modern categories that were once a potentially liberating force. By being everything that you want them to be, the masses have seduced the very notion of society itself into nothingness: for when, “everything is sexual … everything is political … everything is aesthetic … all at once … each category is generalized to the greatest possible extent, so that it eventually loses all specificity and is reabsorbed by all other categories.”
Faced with this fundamental unknowability that is the masses, all analysis becomes futile. Thus, instead of the traditional approach of slowing down with careful attention to minutiae, Baudrillard attempts to think—to perhaps even write—a tale of the masses at a fast pace in his 1986 text Amérique (America). Adopting the genre and form of a travelogue, the text travels through America at high speed, not allowing enough time to become bogged down by the ‘depth’ of American social reality. This is “pure traveling:” where the point is not to write a sociology of the car, or even America; the point is to drive. In this way, one learns more about this society than all academia could ever reveal. Since America is a desert, a vast cultural void where the real and the unreal are merged so completely that distinctions between them disappear, and people’s whole lives are played out as if part of a film or soap opera, by approaching a screen as a screen—instead of trying to find what lies behind—and by making oneself a screen, ‘America,’ whatever that might even mean, might just display, and expose, itself. To be sure, Baudrillard is not making a moral judgment about contemporary culture; despite appearances to the contrary he does not intend to condemn it. For, we should try not to forget that “the moral law can do nothing against the rules of the game and the order of evil, which takes its revenge come what may. Everything turns around. And the virtual completion of the world, the perfect crime, the fantastic attempt to bring into being an integral world—that phantasm of total information paradoxically allows us to glimpse an even more fundamental form: that of its radical incompletion.”
And perhaps, since the law cannot do anything against this phantasm, Baudrillard throws away the proverbial badge and “turns detective” in his 1995 text, Le Crime parfait (The Perfect Crime), where he “investigate[s] a crime which he hopes may yet be solved: the ‘murder’ of reality. To solve the crime would be to unravel the social and technological processes by which reality has quite simply vanished under the deadly glare of mediated ‘real time.’ But Baudrillard is not merely intending to lament the disappearance of the real, an occurrence he … described as ‘the most important event of modern history,’ nor even to meditate upon the paradoxes of reality and illusion, truth and its masks. The Perfect Crime is also … a penetrating examination of vital aspects of the social, political and cultural life of the ‘advanced democracies’ in the (very) late twentieth century. Where critics like McLuhan once exposed the alienating consequences of ‘the medium,’ Baudrillard lays bare the depredatory effects of an oppressive transparency on our social lives, of a relentless positivity on our critical faculties, and of a withering ‘high definition’ on our very sense of reality.”
Throughout his œuvre, Jean Baudrillard’s thought hinges—or perhaps even hovers—around the twin notions of ‘hyperreality’ and ‘simulation’: attempts to respond to the virtuality of contemporary culture in an age of mass communication and mass consumption. In a world dominated by simulated experiences and feelings, we experience prepared realities in edited war footage, meaningless acts of terrorism, the destruction of cultural values and the substitution of ‘referendum.’ In Baudrillard’s words, “the very definition of the real has become: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction.… The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: that is the hyperreal… which is entirely in simulation.” Here, one could possibly conceive of Baudrillard’s work as having passed through three phases—shifts of strategy, tenor, and emphasis rather than content—from the post-Marxist (1968–71), to the socio-linguistic (1972–77), to the techno-prophetic. He has become best known as a prophet of the implosion of meaning that attends the postmodern condition.
However, such categories run the risk of, not only over-simplification, but of going against the very spirit of Baudrillard’s thought. One should not forget that Jean Baudrillard is a thinker who not only builds on the thoughts of others, but creates a break-through, a rupture, not by generating an analysis (nothing so banal) nor theory (even worse), but by seducing the discourse, notion, idea, itself. For “everywhere one seeks to produce meaning, to make the world signify, to render it visible. We are not, however, in danger of lacking meaning; quite the contrary, we are gorged with meaning and it is killing us.” Thus, instead of making meaning where there is none, which would be the futile attempt to combat power with power, influence through influence, Baudrillard reminds us that it is seduction that potentially disrupts: “every discourse is threatened with this sudden reversibility, absorbed into its own signs without a trace of meaning.”And it is “seduction and femininity [that are] ineluctable as the reverse side of sex, meaning, and power … for seduction continues to haunt them from without, and from deep within its forsaken state, threatening them with collapse.”
Jean Baudrillard taught at The European Graduate School / EGS from its earliest period until his death on March 6, 2007. Even though he has left us, his teachings remain—and his spirit lives—always with us.