jean baudrillard (1929- )
Extravagant, outrageous, controversial, and prophetic, Jean Baudrillard is synonymous with the concepts of hyperreality and simulacrum that have come to shape media theory since the early 1980s.1 Baudrillard's corpus is central to the field of media studies, particularly because the structuralism of his earliest work, Le Systeme des Objets (written in 1968, published in English in 1996 2), anticipates an analysis of media within cultural systems that moves those media away from any objective, technical determinism to instead understand their dematerialized circulation within a system of consumption.3 Baudrillard's later work further extends this project, tending to abandon earlier concerns over Marxist political economy for a new discussion of what he calls simulation, a bizarre characteristic endemic to post-industrial consumer societies so inundated by media experience that the referential logic behind media has broken down to reveal indifference, or worse, nothing at all. Even in his more recent work, Baudrillard persists in his investigation of media as the alienating cultural by-product of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In his highly controversial work, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1995)--defended by many of his supporters as a mis-translated and poorly understood text--for instance, Baudrillard applies his postulate of the simulacrum to the Gulf crisis to argue that the real event of the war was so bracketed by the "virtual television scenarios" which sought to depict it that the gruesome actuality of war was obscured, rendered ultimately obsolete.4
The extent to which Baudrillard's structuralist analysis of objects, and later, his theories regarding simulation, agrees with or detracts from the spirit of Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media (1964) remains debatable. Some scholars, notably Mike Gane and Douglas Kellner, credit Baudrillard with being a kind of "French McLuhan," and write that the McLuhanite postulates of writing as symbolic practice and the medium as the message guide Baudrillard's own concern for the preeminence of technology in post-industrial experience. But others, notably Gary Genosko, argue that Baudrillard's relation to McLuhan is "full of ambivalence" and remind us that in The Consumer Society (1970, ) Baudrillard translated McLuhan's hallmark phrase into the "differential logic" of structuralism in order to make a case that it is not actually media content that is consumed via the message, but rather what Genosko calls, "the coded semiological relations of successive and equivalent signs divorced from the real."5 Genosko's position may be the more accurate one, and it is echoed in Baudrillard's 1988 chapter, "The Masses: The Social Implosion of the Media,"6 as when he writes: "the media in general can only be imagined; they only exist on the basis of a disappearance" (209).
Baudrillard's divorce from what might be called McLuhan's "coherentist" approach to media--the belief that media has a "content" (even if that content is only other media) or that that the message need always be "about" something (Understanding Media 8-9, 13)--removes Baudrillard's theory from McLuhan's somewhat, such that we might say it is not so much that the medium is the message in Baudrillard, but that the medium exchanges a system of disparate and ambivalent signs which do not necessarily have a verifiable "content" and which, in their unreality, provoke us to similarly question the political dimensions of the medium itself. "It is not as vehicles of content . . . that media induce a social relation," Baudrillard writes in his chapter "Requiem for the Media" in 1972,7 "the media are not co-efficients, but effectors of ideology," they do not possess any "ontological status independently of the form they take in the exchange value system"(169). We might then say that though the terms of Baudrillard's probe into media are McLuhanesque, the "stakes" of his argument are "quite different."8 In his early work, Genosko argues, Baudrillard is asking whether it is possible to communicate "outside of the medium of meaning,"9 in so doing, he is challenging McLuhan's "naïve faith in technology" and revealing that the Canadian scholar's postulate was in fact more radical than its author originally intended--media does not just happen in a closed circuit loop, there are moral and political questions endemic to its circulation.10
Even Kellner notes that as early as 1967, Baudrillard wrote a review of Understanding Media which criticized McLuhan for "naturalizing" the alienation instantiated by a technological society. Kellner writes that "at this time, [Baudrillard] shared the Neo-Marxist critique of McLuhan as a technological reductionist and determinist." Notably contrary to Genosko, however, Kellner feels that McLuhan's premises still come to powerfully influence Baudrillard's later writings.11 And Baudrillard himself is inconsistent in defining his relation to McLuhan. During an interview in 1985, Baudrillard's comment that "it's becoming urgent to reformulate a theory of the media as 'agents provocateurs' of information overload" would seem to suggest that he views his own work as a move beyond any latent McLuhanian view of media as somehow morally benign. Yet the French theorist's corollary statement during that same interview: "Let's get rid of the notion that the media mystify and alienate. We've had enough of that," would seem to call for a return to McLuhan's work altogether. We might also consider Baudrillard's assertion in "The Masses: The Social Implosion of the Media," that while he respects the revolution in media analysis brought about by McLuhan's writings, he never shared McLuhan's "technological optimism" and can now "no longer interpret the forced silence of the masses" by media as being somehow politically benign (208).
In, short then, it may be said that where Baudrillard departs from McLuhan is in his attenuation to the alienation, irony, and antagonism encoded in media circulation as both a morally suspect and politically fraught event, indeed, a spectacle at once removed from its own referential logic. As Christopher Butler has noted, Baudrillard remains essentially loyal to the "Nitzechean assumption" that media are secretly in the service of maintaining geopolitical systems of economic power and control.12 Baudrillard is therefore able to theorize an apocryphal rupture encoded in the fabric of human existence, one that is rather more pronounced than simply noticing that the medium is the message: "The end of labor. The end of production. The end of political economy. The end of the signifier/signified dialectic which facilitates the accumulation of knowledge and of meaning," in short, "The end of the classical era of the sign" (Simulations 8).13
Like his work's ambivalent relationship to McLuhan, the extent to which Baudrillard's theories can be measured against Platonism remains similarly unresolved. In works like Simulations (1983), Baudrillard attaches a moral relevance to the sociological impact of media that would seem to parallel Plato's own similar anxiety over the fallacy of representation--the belief that mimesis is fundamentally traumatizing because it has the power to hinder man's view of reality. The tone of Simulations is apocalyptic and resistant in a manner that echoes of the Platonic fear of morally irresolute images, of simulations that have the power to conceal and deceive. Often in Baudrillard's work, it sounds as if simulacra portend a kind of uncontrollable, impending doom, an "anti-destiny"14 that threatens to enmesh humanity in a ceaseless play of signs from which no one will be able to escape. But as a modern and not a classical theorist, Baudrillard's position is of course more complex. He is not only interested in the Platonic differentiation between images and reality but in what Kellner has called their "dedifferentiation"--the collapse or implosion of images into one another that characterizes postmodern media circulation.15 So while in Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," the return to the darkness reminds the philosopher that no one can stay in the absolute knowledge of the sun for very long, in Baudrillard, we might say that the sun as a referential point of undeniable truth no longer exists, that the difference between the sun and the firelight behind the prisoners has been jumbled and confused such that each become reflections of one another, or even one in the same. In Baudrillard, the excess of information instantiated by media is so great that there is a "definitive uncertainty about reality," a "completely new species of uncertainty, which results not from the lack of information"--as the prisoners in Plato's cave lacked information--"but from [the] information itself" ("The Masses" 210).
While pure or divine knowledge is blinding but attainable in Plato's mimetic universe, in Baudrillard's theory, divine knowledge is no longer possible both because simulacra have no inherent truth and because the history which could verify such a truth, if it did exist, has been annihilated. Speaking on the subject of history in 1989, Baudrillard was quoted as saying: "We tend to forget that our reality, including the tragic events of the past, has been swallowed up by the media. That means that it is too late to verify events and to understand them historically, for what characterizes our era . . . is precisely this disappearance of the instruments of this intelligibility."16 So while a Platonic concern over the moral uncertainty of images finds root in Baudrillard's theory, his Platonism remains internally fraught; his central belief in simulation itself complicates the possibility for the kind of moral binarism established by Plato. Since simulation is inherently unreal, it absorbs Platonic binaries only to falsify them. In Baudrillard, the binary between high and low culture, between appearance and reality, even between traditional philosophy and social theory collapses such that true moral certainty is no longer actually attainable.17 "We should agree neither with those who praise the beneficial use of the media, nor with those who scream about manipulation, for the simple reason that there is no relationship between a system of meaning and a system of simulation," he wrote in 1988, "I suggest to you a vision of things which is no longer optimistic or pessimistic, but ironic and antagonistic"--not exactly Plato's posit that images are in and of themselves morally suspect ("The Masses," 209).18 Baudrillard has similarly said of his work that his approach to media is not dialectic but "proactive and reversible" because the moral poles of media cannot be synthesized into a pure whole; the positivity and negativity of media are at once "wiped out" by what he calls an "absolute positivity": "Mass media, and all that, are not vehicles for negativity. They carry a kind of neutralizing positivity. That's why some intellectuals don't trust the mass media. They want to preserve their purity," he told interviewers in 1985.19 That media fails, in Baudrillard's world view, to ever be purely good or purely bad complicates the apprehension of Platonic iconoclasm one finds in his writings.
Born on July 29, 1929, in Reims in the north of France to civil servant parents who were, as he once told an interviewer, "not even petit bourgeois,"20 Baudrillard was somewhat late in entering the academy of French intellectuals dissatisfied with their nation's colonial involvement in Algeria and Indochina. Unlike his contemporary, Michel Foucault, who was already Chair of Philosophy at the University of Clermont-Ferrand by May of 1962, Baudrillard did not come from the kind of privileged background considered requisite for entrance into the French academy. He did not attend the prestigious &Eacturecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) after high school; he failed his agrégation exam in the late 1950s;21 and up until he commenced graduate work in sociology at the University of Paris X (Nanterre) in 1966, he had been working as a high school German teacher and doing editorial work on the side for the French publisher Seuil.22 But while his route into the French university system was indirect, it was bolstered both by his work as a translator of German social anthropology and political theory, and by the general intellectual dissatisfaction at the time with Jean Paul Sartre's existential/humanist Marxism, a dissatisfaction spearheaded by academics like Louis Althusser, who felt that the humanist trend in Marxist thought ignored the ubiquity of ideology and failed to tangibly address lived social problems like the war in Vietnam, and, more locally, the student riots in Paris over monopolized state control of French media outlets by the Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (ORTF).23 For Althusser, the humanist Marxist act of simply recognizing ideology as a governing principle of social existence was not enough to concretely address the social ills of workers alienated by their capitalist production. So, too, for Baudrillard, merely recognizing the ubiquity of media and its replication in a system of signs along a Marxist historical continuum of production was not enough to help us explain media's ideological grip over our lived reality as commodified user/producers in a hyper-mediated, post-industrial era. It is in his engagement with classical Marxism in his early works that Baudrillard might again be said to break with, or at least revise, a Platonist fear of mimesis. For Baudrillard, media are never merely morally suspect; they are also always politically implicated.
Around 1963, Baudrillard met Henri Lefebvre and Roland Barthes, the former a structural Marxist sociologist who would become a key mentor during Baudrillard's time at Nanterre and the latter a cultural theorist famous for his anthropological approach to modern French life. Both would come to influence Baudrillard's 1966 master's thesis in sociology, "Le système des objets" in which the theorist attempted to apply the matrix of Saussurean semiotics to contemporary media and consumer culture in order to analyze the ways in which everyday consumptive objects operate via a significatory logic. Rather similar to Barthes' project of tracking the meaning of cultural "givens" in Mythologies (1957), Baudrillard's earliest work in "Le systÂme des objets" also tended to resemble the post-World War I critique of mass culture forged by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, sociologists of the Frankfurt School who argued that standardization in cultural output like jazz music was commodifying the artistic expression of the medium.24
Following the defense of his graduate work, Baudrillard received a teaching position at Nanterre which he would keep for the next two decades until his pop icon status in the field of postmodern theory prompted him to leave his position in 1987 and write more impressionistic and less argument-driven texts.25 In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baudrillard began to expand his ideas concerning the significatory logic of consumer culture into three full-length monographs: The System of Objects (1996 ), The Consumer Society (1998 ), and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981 ). The first was heavily influenced by structural linguistics, but in The Consumer Society, Baudrillard began to move away from a structuralist model in order to more directly address Marxist notions of reification and alienation in his work.26 In this work, Baudrillard analyzes the way in which consumer societies are characterized by a "prophylactic deployment of signs" that conjure up but do not fulfill "the real so desperately evoked by all media." (Here, a good example might be the phenomenon of reality television, which portends to present "our reality" to us, but which is in actuality an empty representation entirely governed by its medium of articulation, the recording camera.27) In For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, meanwhile, Baudrillard attempts to account for the post-World War II phenomena of transglobal, monopolized industries and the breakdown of the competitive market structure as defined by traditional Marxism.28 Already literate in the gift exchange theories of Marcel Mauss (see below), Baudrillard uses this work to posit that media prevent and exclude any public response to them; in effect, media are "gifts" (meant ironically) which one is prevented from "repaying" (that is, responding to). Because of the "non-reciprocity" inherent in media exchange, media consumers are forced to be passive, to consume without question (171). It is clear in this work that Baudrillard is responding negatively to the student occupation of the ORTF in May, 1968, when dissatisfaction with De Gaulle's regime reached its highest point in France. Though subversive "contents" were "broadcast" over radio airwaves by the students, Baudrillard writes in a footnote, the "entire technical and functional structure" of the ORTF "reflects its monopolistic use of speech" and cannot be escaped or subverted, no matter what seemingly "radical" content was transmitted from its offices (170, n. 16).
In his capstone chapter in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, "Requiem for the Media," Baudrillard challenges McLuhan's understanding of media as positive translators capable of rendering the entire globe into a "single consciousness" joined in "learning and knowing" (Understanding Media 58, 61). McLuhan, Baudrillard writes, "exalts the media and their global message with a delirious tribal optimism" (172) that envisions the media as a "pure message" (177). In so doing, he fails to recognize that the media are devoid of content and therefore cannot (as the student rioters might have argued) be manipulated by whoever has them under their control. In "Requiem," Baudrillard might be said to position himself as being more radical than the radicals: the media are not controlled by anyone, he argues, they themselves do control, always. "At the extreme," Baudrillard writes, "the subversive act is no longer produced except as a function of its reproducibility" (174). Baudrillard's position harkens back to the Althusserian concept that there is no outside ideology (see above) and pre-figures postmodernist debates concerning the power of media to shape popular consciousness. In "Requiem," media are not neutral, are not inherently ideological, and are not even revolutionary (169); transgression in fact never "gets on the air" without being subtly negated and "neutralized into signs," signs which eviscerate the Left's subversive aspirations the moment they are voiced on the airways (173). In this view, the medium is not the message as much as the medium is the model (175), while TV is a "social control in itself" (172), transmitting ideology in a one-sided exchange which humanity is bound to passively absorb. The only way out--and it is a fast-diminishing option, Baudrillard argues--is the "immediate" (that is, both "instantaneous" and "not mediated") speech of street exchange, which unlike mass media can be "given and returned, spoken and answered, mobile in the same space and time, reciprocal and antagonistic" (176).
In early writings like For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, a structuralist model has already become imperfect and too limiting to Baudrillard's theory because its system of binaries, arbitrariness and pure referents fails to realize what is for him a characteristic aspect of post-industrial sign exchange: ambivalence, a theoretical proposition more unstable than the mere ambiguity of the gap between the signifier and signified.29 Through his critique of the "immense retardation of classical Marxist theory" (165) in "Requiem," Baudrillard attempts to establish a theory of media that will somehow acknowledge what he feels original Marxist discourse surrounding media production has left out: that the political dimension encoded in an exchange of commodities trades not only what the commodities are used for (use value) and how much they cost (exchange value), but also the social status of what it means to own them in the first place--their "sign value." For Baudrillard, the traditional Marxist understanding of commodity exchange disregards the fact that consumers themselves are encoded by a "hyperreal" language of desire that prefigures their commodity fetishism and the actual commodity's existence as a tangible good. Sounding vaguely like Althusser, Baudrillard writes that while 1960s French intellectuals credit Marxism with "a maximum coherence," the theory is in fact "incapable of responding to a social process that far exceeds material production" ("Requiem" 166)--that is, the ability of monopolized media industries to use advertising to generate popular demand for commodities before those commodities have even been produced.
By the mid 1970s, Baudrillard was increasingly coming to question the Marxist foundations of his philosophy, particularly the notion that history can or should be defined solely along the lines of production, use value, and commodity exchange. Influenced by Marcel Mauss' theory of reciprocal gift exchange30 and Georges Bataille's concept of a "general economy,"31 Baudrillard began to forge another new work: The Mirror of Production (1975 ). Though a shift in Baudrillard's conception of economic history here may seem tangential to a discussion of his impact on media theory, this change in his theoretical framework is actually crucial to understanding what would later become his most enduring philosophical postulates: the ideas of simulacrum and hyperreality, defined in his groundbreaking work Simulations (1983) as the governing principles behind media(ted) existence. Because Baudrillard freed himself early on in his writings from the ideological grip of a classical social theoretical model that defines premodern societies as being organized around symbolic exchange and modern societies as being organized around production, he is able to make a case for a third, postmodern society organized by "simulation," that is, a society governed wholly by media apparatuses like television, computers, and amusement parks. These apparatuses "simulate" rather than simply signify reality32 and in so doing, move the media consumer farther and farther away from the referent to which said apparatus (now no longer) refers.
Simulacra can being loosely understood here as an endless repetition of images meant to "stand in" for signs of reality, a kind of amplified significatory process which becomes more and more pronounced as mediated experience evolves and the breakdown between reality and representation advances. This endless play of images and signs upon the viewer/consumer murders its referential object, but it is a play which, because the viewer can never completely distinguish it, she can neither completely resist. In its repetitive allure, the play of simulacra creates a hyperreal situation, an "always already reproduced" scenario without a fixed historical referent. In Simulations, Baudrillard categorizes the breakdown of the image into simulation via four successive phases: the image first reflects a basic reality; then masks or perverts that basic reality; then masks the absence of a basic reality; and finally, the image bears no relation to any reality whatever, it is its own pure simulacrum (11). Baudrillard gives the example of the "ethnographic discovery" of the native Tasaday nation in the Philippines in 1971. The very moment the Tasaday are "discovered" by ethnographers and the image of their "discovery" is replicated by the media, the virgin anonymity that made them "discoverable" in the first place is annihilated. Inevitably, the more the media generates the myth of discovery, the more the reality of that discovery is destroyed. A second, oft-cited example in Simulations is Baudrillard's analysis of the meaning and cultural function of Disneyland, a totally simulated world that, in its quest to saturate us in "Americanness," actually ends up betraying the profound unreality of the Los Angeles metropolis surrounding the amusement park. "Disneyland," he writes, "is there to conceal the fact that it is the 'real' country, all of 'real America', which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral)" (25). By 1983, Baudrillard's theory of the media had already taken him well beyond the arena of referential mimesis. Media is "is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle" (Simulations 25).
Though many critique the pessimistic tone of Baudrillard's work as nihilistic and apocalyptic, as offering "no way out" from the deterioration of reality made inevitable by simulacra,33 it is important to remember how much Baudrillard's earliest philosophies are influenced by his dissatisfaction with the student revolutionary movements in Paris in 1968 to actually revolutionize anything. In an interview in 1991, Baudrillard said that during his generation, all energy came from rupture "whereas today, it is completely different . . . even with the students there was a great feeling of complicity about everything . . . and the university became a foreign and tiresome environment . . . afterwards things became dead; they had become funereal, even Nanterre."34 Despite his own misgivings, Baudrillard's elucidation of the power of media to trope upon itself via simulational modes that eviscerate reality as they copy it endlessly is a foundational discovery for media scholarship, and one that continues to influence work in the field.
Figure 1: Entrance to the original Disneyland amusement park in Anaheim, CA, circa 1950s. Baudrillard writes: "In this imaginary world the only phantasmagoria is in the inherent warmth and affection of the crowd, and in that sufficiently excessive number of gadgets used there to specifically maintain the multitudinous effect. The constrast with the absolute solitude of the parking lot--a veritable concentration camp--is total." (Simulations 23-4) From imaginaryworld.com/ dtour01.html.
Figure 2: Plaque at the entrance to Disneyland. From answers.com/
Figure 3: Aerial photograph of Disneyland and its surrounding metropolis. Baudrillard writes: "Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation." (Simulations 25) From www.usc.edu/isd/ archives/la/disneyland/