By Patrick West
The late Jean Baudrillard was often described, not always approvingly, as ‘the high priest of postmodernism’. The philosopher and sociologist depicted a world in which political creeds were disintegrating, and with them, Enlightenment principles such as progress, democracy, authenticity, and autonomy. In a post-ideological world dominated by television, cyberspace, and multi-media, the distinction between the real and represented was collapsing into a plural, fragmented, eclectic hyperreality of cultural cannibalism. Most notoriously, in 1991, he wrote that the first Gulf War had not happened, that it was virtual war, one of image dissemination and spectacle, performed and consumed as a kind of video game.
This raised the heckles of many traditional conservatives, especially in the Anglosphere, for whom Baudrillard’s audacious rhetoric was perceived to embody much that was malign about postmodernism in particular and Continental philosophy in general: its fondness for hyperbole, its love of irony, its anti-empiricism and inability to employ ‘common sense’. Many on the Left also despaired of Baudrillard’s nihilism and blithely apocalyptic pronouncements. In declaring the end of Modernity, and the death of class politics and Marxism’s grand narrative, he appeared to propound a defeatist acceptance of high capitalism.
His acolytes, on the other hand, included neo-conservatives who admired Francis Fukuyama’s essay on the ‘End of History’ for comparable reasons: Baudrillard seemed to echo their own conviction that after 1989, we would live in an eternal present. Yet Baudrillard also found an audience among like-minded post-Marxist post-structuralists, who, reared on Derrida and Foucault, saw confirmation that our fragile reality is created by language and that there was no truth, only power.
As one critic, Douglas Kellner, wrote in 1987: ‘The whole Baudrillard affair is rapidly mutating into a new idolatry of a new master thinker, and is in danger of giving rise to a new orthodoxy’. Yet one could understand his appeal. His ‘endist’ proclamations gave him the aura of a prophet. His mysterious pronouncements and penchant for irony, eclecticism, and intellectual games had a Quixotic appeal. In many ways, Jean Baudrillard was a modern day Nietzsche: a difficult nihilist and sometimes obscure aphorist—a quintessential Romantic who declared the end of days.
Baudrillard had originally been a more orthodox Marxian in the 1960s, employing semiology and social theory to point to the oppressive and homogenising nature of capitalism. The French Communist Party’s failure to support the radicals of 1968 is said to have engendered a growing disillusionment with Marxism, yet he simultaneously dismissed the Soixante-Huiters as ‘hare-brained’. They failed, he said, to realise that capitalist repression did not involve aggression but encouraged participation. The protests became a media spectacle that merely mimicked resistance. Baudrillard expanded on his thesis that Marxism worked within the confines of capitalism in his 1973 book Le Miroir de la production (The Mirror of Production), in which he argued that Marxism’s materialism, which place capital at the centre of existence, mirrored capitalism’s ethos and thus legitimised it.
Drawing from anthropology, Baudrillard focused on the symbolic, rather than utilitarian, use of commodities, which are used and exchanged as much for their sign value as their utility, in which they come to convey power, prestige, or luxury. He had been influenced by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, and his theory of gift exchange, and how rituals of gift exchange is determined by, and determines, social status. Baudrillard also drew from Thorstein Veblen, who declared that central to capitalism was the production and conspicuous consumption, of useless goods, and that waste and excess—to signify social status or aspiration—had become a central value of commodities. Even before 1968, Baudrillard had articulated this belief that consumption, not production, defined social order, and the role of production was now further diminishing in a society in which information, rather than objects, had become commodities.
In a world increasingly dominated by the media and computers, face-to-face interaction was withering as individuals lived simulated existences. Baudrillard, who died in 2007, would have been fascinated by the ascendancy since of Facebook and Twitter. One hears frequent laments that online social media has supplanted real-life relationships, which vindicates his diagnosis, although I am not sure he would have viewed this with such pessimism. Baudrillard almost celebrated the multifariousness of capitalist postmodernity (especially in his essays on America), and his nihilism bordered on millenarianism. He certainly did not adopt a mechanical bourgeoise or stereotypical Marxist revulsion for it. As the authors of Baudrillard, A Graphic Guide, rightly point out: ‘Jean’s nihilism is not about the destruction of meaning, but of its disappearance’.
I first read this book more than ten years ago—it had been published in a different format as Baudrillard For Beginners in 1996. (Baudrillard would surely have approved of his thoughts being re-circulated in a new form today.) Like many undergraduates, I was smitten by the French philosopher’s heroic hyperbole: twentysomething imaginary intellectuals are often enamoured of philosophers who pronounce that something new and dramatic is taking place. As one gets older, I suppose we all get a little less impressionable.
Jean Baudrillard was given to over-statement, his argument that the first Gulf War did not take place being the most outrageous example. It was not a ‘real war’, he maintained, but a war of deterrence, and Saddam Hussein had previously been an accomplice to US foreign policy in the Middle East. But just because belligerent states switch allegiances, it does not make the fighting any less real. One might as well argue that fighting between Germany and the USSR between 1941 and 1945—which claimed 30 million lives—was not a real war, because the two states had previously worked in concert.
‘There was rarely direct conflict, and its outcome was predictable’, paraphrase the authors of Baudrillard. ‘The methods and technologies of each side were not opposed by but radically different, resulting in a pre-programmed act of policing in response to a Third World dictator who fought like it was still World War II’ [p118]. A similar point could be made about the Italian invasion of Abyssinia when a modern European power bombed and gassed a pre-modern African nation whose military was armed with rifles from the 19th century, or, literally, bows and arrows.
‘It was a virtual war of information, electronics and images’ [p119]. Yet did not the cinema news reel and propaganda film play a central role in the Second World War? Was not the Vietnam War also played out on television sets back home in the USA? ‘The enemy was not challenged or annihilated. Saddam was left in place to ensure USA interests were intact’ [p119]. A comparable settlement was made with Germany in 1918. And as far as warfare being a ‘spectacle’, in July 1861, in the first major encounter of the American Civil War, many of Washington’s elite came to watch the First Battle of Bull Run, where they held picnics. The first Gulf War may not have been ‘declared’ but neither have any wars been officially declared since 1945.
There is an element of amnesia in Baudrillard’s polemics, particularly on the disappearance of face-to-face contact and its importance. Those who decry the technology that spawned the Facebook ‘Friend’ forget that a comparable technological innovation 150 years ago, the postal service, also allowed strangers to become friends with people they never had met and never would (over a 12-year period, Peter Tchaikovsky shared his most intimate details with Nadezhda von Meck, an eccentric widow, and they agreed never to meet). Before the internet, Facebook ‘Friends’ were called pen-pals.
Some of Baudrillard’s prognostications look a bit flimsy today. In his 1989 essay ‘Anorexic Ruins’, he maintained that the Berlin Wall represented a statis between East and West, capitalism and communism, in which nothing more could happen. When it did fall, he pronounced that the West had no longer had an other to define itself against; there are many neoconservatives and ostensible ‘liberals’ today who hold certain views on Islam and who would disagree. Horrocks and Jevtic remind us that Baudrillard predicted ‘Because the economy is simulated, there will never be financial collapse’. [p116] The orthodox Left charged him with underestimating the resilience of materialism and capricious nature of capitalism, an accusation that events in the global economy since 2008 seem to support. Indeed, there was an element of aristocratic romantic primitivism in Baudrillard’s work. He naively believed there was no scarcity in primitive society [p80] and that we were obsessed with needlessly accumulating goods, which goes to show how a great deal of postmodernism owes a debt to plain anti-modernism.
Postmodernism as a philosophical endeavour is rather passe today, perhaps because history did not end in 1989. It certainly did not in September 2001. It may not be as voguish as it was in the 1980s and 1990s, but the social condition of postmodernity remains pervasive (though not quite as deep as its apologists or detractors have always maintained). This perhaps explains why the work of Philip K Dick, with his upside-down and inside-out imaginary worlds, is more popular than ever.
Many of Baudrillard’s nihilist observations still resonate. He had written that terrorism at the turn of the millennium had become a spectacle, and that terrorists did not even have realistic or coherent goals, which accurately sums up the events of 9/11. Baudrillard observed the hyperreal nature of ‘reality television’, in which the presence of cameras meant those being filmed consequently do not act in a real way. The changing complexion of graffiti revealed the disappearance of meaning and authority. Graffiti used to say, ‘I exist, my name is so and so. I live in New York’. Today’s scrawly, barely legible ‘tags’ say: ‘I exist but I have no name and nothing to say’ [p152].
Baudrillard, A Graphic Guide is a commendable work, if a little too deferential. The authors do note, however, the irony alluded to by Douglas Kellner, in that Baudrillard, who did not believe in authenticity or autonomy, came to be revered as an authority himself. When giving a reading in New York in 2005, Baudrillard was asked by an audience member ‘Who are you?’ He replied: ‘What I am, I don’t know. I am the simulacrum of myself’. Despite this, in the end, he came to resemble the eponymous character from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), who pleaded with his followers to think for themselves and be different, only to be met with the devotional response, in unison: ‘Yes, we are all different!’.
Written under a Creative Commons License, with edits: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0/
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