Thursday, March 08, 2007

Reports of Baudrillard's death are somewhat exaggerated

Did Jean Baudrillard exist? Did he have an objective, tangible reality? Or was he just a figment of our imagination, a mere media contrivance? If that’s the case, is he really "dead"? These are just some of the intriguing questions posed by reports of the death of the French post-modernist thinker and social theorist. Baudrillard was best known for his concept of "hyperreality" - the theory that we can no longer tell what reality is because we have become lost in a world of "simulacra", images and signs created and presented as "real" by the mass media. This viewpoint led Baudrillard into some irrational, if not downright reactionary, assertions. These are encapsulated in his 1991 book, The Gulf War Did Not Happen. In it, he claims that the war existed only a symbolic level and the conflict itself was largely a staged set-piece "video game" of computer effects and CNN graphics. Although he acknowledged that terrorists had attacked the Twin Towers in September 2001, he described the assault as largely a "dark fantasy" manufactured by the media. The terrorists, he wrote, were only putting the finishing touches to "the orgy of power, liberation, flows and calculation which the twin towers embodied". The horror of the victims in the towers, he added, "was inseparable from the horror of living in them". One critic wrote: "It takes a real demonic genius to brush off the slaughter of thousands on the grounds that they were suffering from severe ennui brought on by boring modern architecture."

In The Mirror of Production (1973), Baudrillard had renounced his early Marxism. He suggested that Marx's theory of workers becoming alienated from the means of production was rooted in the tenets of 19th-century capitalism and was irrelevant in today’s world. His switch undoubtedly reflected the disillusionment many French intellectuals felt with the dogmas of Stalinism, which dominated the country’s left movements. In political practice, the Stalinists of the French Communist Party had restricted the 1968 revolutionary General Strike movement to limp demands for a general election. This cynical manoeuvre allowed the French bourgeoisie led by De Gaulle to cling to power where their overthrow seemed the easier option. Baudrillard’s sweeping rejection of Marx was not just about economics, however. What Baudrillard also did was to repudiate the materialist dialectical philosophical standpoint. Here, objective reality exists independently of consciousness, is in constant movement and change, can be cognised in thought and altered through practice. It wasn’t long before Baudrillard’s philosophical somersault won him cult status in some quarters, especially among contemporary artists. His views seemed to suggest that they were right in thinking that art has no purpose beyond its own promotion.

The rise of the information economy, the overwhelming presence of image and a world market based on increasingly sophisticated forms of specialisation are, at a superficial level, a vindication of the post-modern view. The emphasis on identity, plurality and, above all, consumerism, taken together seem to blur the difference between image and reality. The global corporations understand this too and their marketing often creates a fictitious world where, as the adman says, you can be what you want to be. Baudrillard and his fellow French post-modern thinkers like Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Lyotard, have undoubtedly helped in sharpening our understanding of this new world disorder. Baudrillard’s views are represented in hugely popular films like The Matrix and The Truman Show, for example. Ultimately, however, the post-modern view leaves us trapped within the status quo. While criticising aspects of contemporary capitalism, it lacks the confidence and belief that it is possible to transform reality for the better. Baudrillard once remarked, "I keep a distance from the world which, for me, is not truly real". For the countless millions struggling against poverty, hunger, disease, war, climate change and authoritarianism, the world is all too real. Baudrillard may have rejected Marx, but it is to the 19th century German we turn to for the last word. In criticising the limitations of the thinker Feuerbach he wrote: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it."

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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