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Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007)

Philippe Le Pers reports after the death of the ‘photographer’ philosopher.

On Tuesday March 6th last, Jean Baudrillard passed away in Paris after a lingering disease, at the age of 77.

Baudrillard was born on July 27th 1929 in Reims, into a family of peasants, and he studied German language and literature at the Sorbonne. He taught German at several lycées and translated texts from Bertholt Brecht, Peter Weiss and Marx before he became a lecturer at the University of Nanterre in 1972.

Le Système des Objets (‘The System of Objects’ 1968) straight away showed Baudrillard’s critical attitude towards the consumer society. He described how objects are degraded to ‘functional elements’ of a whole that is supposed to generate a certain atmosphere. In La Société de Consommation (‘The Consumer Society’ 1970) Baudrillard made clear how objects have become a means to fashion personality; and in Pour une Critique de l’économie Politique du Signe (‘For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign’ 1972) he used structuralism to demonstrate how the differences between objects allow them to become signs of our social status. Le Miroir de la Production (‘The Mirror of Production’ 1973) showed that ultimately Baudrillard did not think from a left-wing/Marxist point of view. Though he continued to consider capitalism a monstrous enterprise he refuted the idea of the socialist alternative as still modernistic and never hesitated to attack the French left-wing establishment in a merciless way. Only in L’échange Symbolique ou la Mort (‘Symbolic Exchange and Death’ 1976) did it become clear from which perspective Baudrillard regarded the world: he feared that modernity would erode the dimension of the ‘symbolic’ which is typical of primitive societies. Objects with a symbolic value (eg a gift) have a meaning that the individual cannot control. According to Baudrillard this is the only ‘real’ or important kind of value, and in this sense, it is possible to claim that he may be considered a ‘photographer’ (which he also was in a literal sense), who registers rather than creates value.

Baudrillard also questioned the modern ideal of individual freedom, which has led us to life ‘after the orgy’, where everything is allowed but nothing is interesting anymore. Instead, he propagates ‘seduction’ (see: De la Séduction 1979). A dynamics of ‘being seduced’ precedes every kind of production. This means that the project of modernity [total freedom] can never succeed. Though man and object may lose their shadow, ‘Evil’, ie, everything that resists any kind of integration, always shines through (cf La Transparence du Mal, ‘The Transparency of Evil’ 1990). By writing more and more in an aphoristic and cryptic way, Baudrillard intended to contribute to the resistance. But in doing so he dissociated himself from academic sociology and philosophy. In spite of growing international recognition, his position became rather isolated. When due to increasing bureaucracy the University of Nanterre was no longer able to guarantee him a decent post, he decided to leave, and he moved to the research centre of Dauphine (1986).

Meanwhile, Baudrillard also fulminated against every avatar of scientism and objectivism. This explains his famous theory of simulation and simulacra (cf. Simulacres et Simulation 1981). He did not so much denounce the fact that we are landed (due eg to the media) in a world of mere appearance. Rather, inspired by Nietzsche, he aimed to transcend the opposition between appearance and reality, and thus pleaded for a ‘pataphysics’ (a theory of imaginary solutions). Virtual reality and the information industry present themselves as faithful copies of a real world. Thereby they maintain the illusion of an objective reality, and thus enforce the disenchantment of the world. This explains why Baudrillard, accused by Sokal and Bricmont of being an intellectual fraud, confirmed that he was “an impostor,” having no intention whatsoever to attain objective truth. This anti-scientism explains at least one of the meanings of his notorious claim that “The Gulf War did not take place” in La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu Lieu (1991). But Baudrillard did not only emphasize the mediatisation of the first Gulf War; this pseudo-event also showed the loss from wars that are a ‘symbolic’ confrontation between enemies: Islam and the West remain total strangers to each other, and this proves the failure of modern universalism.

The article ‘Le Complot de l’Art’ (‘The Art Plot’ 1996) also caused quite a stir. Though Baudrillard always gained much sympathy in artistic circles thanks to his eccentric style and his metaphorics, he argued that contemporary art testifies to a conspiracy between artists and consumers, who try to persuade each other that superficial creations have a real meaning.

Current affairs never ceased to inspire Baudrillard. To him 9/11 was an event with an inconceivable symbolic force which could be interpreted as the revenge of illusion. The West was confronted with acts of self-sacrifice incomprehensible from a modern point of view. It could only respond by installing a kind of terrorist control itself, recalling how the process of globalisation itself has a kind of terrorist character, which the attacks were themselves a reaction to.

Thus Baudrillard continued to be the prophet of the unpredictable and the chronicler of virtual history. He traced the impact and the dangers of the ideals of the Enlightenment, and reminded us of dimensions of life that are endangered by oblivion. Although the philosophical implications of his thinking often remain unelaborated, his work is still able to inspire us to diagnose our contemporary culture. Jean Baudrillard may have passed on, but as he himself once said: “Dying means nothing, you must be able to disappear.” But he has not disappeared. His shade is still haunting our time.

© Dr Philippe Le Pers 2007

Philippe Le Pers wrote his Masters thesis on Baudrillard and met Baudrillard twice in his apartment in Paris.

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