Great thinkers of our time - Jean Baudrillard

Andrew Hussey on Jean Baudrillard

Even among those who have never read any of his books, Jean Baudrillard is celebrated for his ideas of "simulation" and "hyperreality", which he uses to describe a world in which, as he sees it, images have replaced reality to the extent that objective truth about any human experience from art to war has become an impossibility. Baudrillard is known, too, for his notorious observation that the Gulf war of 1991 "did not take place". What he meant was that laser technology and video reportage had eliminated the truth of battle - the blood, the gore, the suffering, the corpses. What we were presented with instead was a sanitised version of war, a media construct.

The statement was deliberately provocative, and met with derision in the Anglo-American world. Elsewhere, Baudrillard was received as a prophet. Today, from the film The Matrix (the makers cite him as an influence) to the arguments around the latest Gulf war, his ideas are everywhere in the culture, even if they are only partly digested or half-understood. In interviews, he is usually evasive; when asked about his life, he invariably replies with the statement: "No background."

Born in Reims in 1929 into a family of minor civil servants, whose own parents had been farmers, he was the first in his family to go to university; he eventually ended up in Paris where, despite an earlier interest in German metaphysics, he wrote a doctoral thesis arguing with and alongside Roland Barthes that the newly emergent consumer society in postwar Europe was a potential disaster. He was based then at the University of Nanterre in north Paris, scene of much agitation during the troubles of May 1968. He worked under the influence of Henri Lefebvre, a Marxist who had left the Communist Party in 1957 and committed himself thereafter to working with groups of artists and intellectuals. Lefebvre had made his reputation in 1947 with the publication of his Critique of Everyday Life, in which, taking the young Marx and the surrealists as his models, he argued that the commonplace experience of ordinary people was the main stumbling block for theoreticians of the revolutionary left. This insight was to prove a crucial influence on the early Baudrillard.

Baudrillard's collaboration with Lefebvre on the doctoral thesis also brought him temporarily under the sway of a revolutionary group called the Situationist International and its charismatic leader, Guy Debord. In 1967, Debord published The Society of the Spectacle, which prophesied the convulsions that would tear France apart in 1968 and much more. Baudrillard took from the situationists the notion that everyday life had been reduced to a series of "spectacles", non-events that, from shopping to the evening news, were somehow distanced from the real experience of the spectator. For the first time in history, Baudrillard said, human beings were no longer participants in their own lives. In an essay called "What Are You Doing After the Orgy?", he pointed out how what were considered to be the liberating forces of modernism - sexual and racial liberation, freedom of speech, the abolition of class differences - have been smoothly integrated into the "society of spectacle", where they have become the opposite of what they had originally represented. The greatest example of this is pornography, which ought to represent unbridled sexual licence, such as that dreamt of by the surrealists or the Marquis de Sade, but which, in reality, is "un-erotic, unexciting, nothing" - a symptom of the dreary and relentless commodification of time and experience that characterises our "hyperreal" media world.

Baudrillard's works were first translated into English in the late 1970s, when he was placed in the academic imagination alongside Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jacques Derrida as a prophet of what would become known as "postmodern-ism". He was, however, neither a prophet nor truly a postmodernist. Rather, he is, or was, a Marxist who had found it difficult but necessary to abandon revolutionary hopes in favour of attacking, often through irony, the shifting conditions of modern society.

His early works The System of Objects (1968) and Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) betrayed the influence of the renegade surrealist Georges Bataille and, more conventionally, Rene Descartes. Unlike his postmodernist peers, and although he writes poetry, Baudrillard is seldom concerned with textual theory. Rather, like Descartes, Baudrillard is a sophisticated materialist thinker whose primary concern is with the verification of reality, which, he says, is a metaphysical problem that in our time has spread across all forms of experience. He uses the now-famous terms "simulacra" and "simulation" to describe how reality is imitated and annihilated, especially in the language of the media, advertising and marketing. It is, above all, the disappearance or eradication of reality across these so-called communication channels that both disturbs and fascinates him, opening up the possibility of new forms of political and ethical debate.

In recent times, Baudrillard has been vilified outside France and, in particular, from within the United States as a "fellow-traveller" of Islamic terrorism. The reason for these perverse attacks was a small essay, "The Spirit of Terrorism", first published in Le Monde in the wake of 11 September 2001, which tries to provide not a rationale but an understanding of the emotional climate in which terrorism flourishes.

Again, the spectre of Guy Debord, who wrote so well about terrorism, is present. Baudrillard believes that terrorism is inevitable in a global society based on the false premise, emanating from the United States, that good can overcome or exclude evil. Such a Manichaean view, he says, is not only naive, but an open invitation to terror. The collapse of the twin towers, says Baudrillard, was not so much the result of hubris but the consequence of American bad faith about what the country is and represents in the world.

Today, Baudrillard is everywhere, even in places he never expected or wanted to be. He is often thought of as a nihilistic prophet. His energetic dedication to a variety of activities, from teaching and public lectures to political campaigns, demonstrates otherwise; only recently, he was involved in the campaign to save La Fleche d'Or, the huge nightclub and meeting place for musicians, writers and artists on the northern outskirts of Paris - a long way from his usual territory in Montparnasse, but an example of his long-standing commitment to micro-political issues. As this form of activity and his writings demonstrate, his real importance is less as a philosopher than as a cultural critic who unflinchingly understands what it means to live in the deadening, Disneyfied world of today, a world dominated by huge, impersonal multinational corporations, where history has been abolished in favour of the hypnotic allure of the perpetual present.

Jean Baudrillard Born 1929 in Reims, France. Leading French cultural critic who has theorised that reality loses meaning in a media-saturated society, leaving only "hyperreality" and "simulation". Professor of sociology at the University of Nanterre from 1966-87. Some of his more notable books are For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972), Simulacra and Simulations (1981) and America (1986)

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