Jean Baudrillard: 1929-2007

William Merrin

"We are no longer the actors of the real but the double agents of the virtual." - Baudrillard, Fragments: Cool Memories III

Early in the Wachowski brother's 1999 cult film, The Matrix, Keanu Reeves' character "Neo" retrieves some computer discs hidden in a book. As we watch, the book's title is clearly visible. Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation is in The Matrix.

The appearance isn't accidental. Not only was the choice of book specified in the script, the Wachowskis gave the lead actors their own copies to read as preparation and sections of dialogue are directly taken from it. Somehow, therefore, Baudrillard had become identified as the key reference point for a film whose theme - the virtual reality computer simulation of our entire reality - placed it at the cutting edge of popular cultural explorations of new media.

This paper aims to explain how Baudrillard came to occupy this position. We will begin with an introduction to his critical position and his theory of media, then explore his critique of new media and consider the tensions and problems of this critique, and conclude with a defence of Baudrillard's critical project and methodology.

Jean Baudrillard was born in Reims in 1929. He taught language in provincial lycees before moving into sociology, completing a thesis with Henri Lefebvre at Nanterre University of Paris X in 1966 where he lectured in sociology and from where he retired in 1987 to concentrate upon his writing and public lecturing.

His early publications on literary theory and in the pro-Situationist journal Utopie were followed by a series of books - The System of Objects (1968), The Consumer Society (1970) and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972) - in which he developed an original critique of the "sign" system of post-war consumer and media society. In its rejection of Marxism and its contemporary relevance, his 1973 book, The Mirror of Production, developed his critical position and his analysis of the sign, paving the way in 1976 for his major work, Symbolic Exchange and Death.

After 1976, in addition to foregrounding his critique of the media in his book, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (1978), he began to rework his critical project in texts such as Forget Foucault (1977) and Seduction (1979), escalating both his analysis and critique of western society in key books of the 1980s and early 1990s, such as Fatal Strategies (1983), The Transparency of Evil (1990) and The Illusion of the End (1992). From the early 1990s, Baudrillard's work has placed an increasing emphasis upon new media, developing an important critique of virtuality in books such as The Perfect Crime (1995), The Impossible Exchange (1999) and The Vital Illusion (2000).

Other publications by Baudrillard include five volumes of his Cool Memories journals, several books of interviews, a dialogue, reflections on his career and history, essay collections, books on cinema, his experience of America and photography, a collection of his own photographic work, and famous, controversial reflections on major political events, such as the 1991 Gulf War and 9/11. His more recent books, such as 2002's Power Inferno and 2004's The Intelligence of Evil, Or the Lucidity Pact, extend these ideas, analysing the global trends and politics of the post-9/11 world. All this has cemented Baudrillard's recognition as one of the most important and challenging contemporary thinkers.

Baudrillard first came to prominence in the English-speaking world in the early 1980s in Australia, Canada and America and, later, Britain; being identified as a leading thinker in the new movement of postmodernism. With his contemporary subject matter, original style and extreme theorization of phenomena, Baudrillard was quickly proclaimed "the high priest of postmodernism", despite his own rejection of the concept.

Kroker's sympathetic Marxist-postmodernist reading of Baudrillard provoked a left backlash against the movement and against Baudrillard, especially by Kellner, Norris and Callinicos. For them, Baudrillard's work was reactionary, in its rejection of Marxism; nihilistic, in its rejection of truth and falsity; and charlatanistic, in its style and method. Though flawed, this reading proved popular, especially for critics predisposed to hostility and authors of textbooks looking for an easy take on a complex author.

More positive readings attempted to counter-act this interpretation. The most important was Mike Gane's 1991 defence, which challenged Kellner's errors, refuted the simplistic association of Baudrillard with postmodernism, and offered a fuller contextualisation - emphasising in particular his debt to the Durkheimian tradition. As the postmodern controversy waned, the 1990s saw the emergence of a growing number of more serious and critically informed articles and books on Baudrillard.

Over the same period, Baudrillard's ideas gradually penetrated and reshaped a range of disciplines, including sociology, cultural studies, visual culture, design studies, geography, photography, film studies, art theory and history, social and cultural history, philosophy and architecture, and cultural politics, as well as media and communication studies and cyberculture, such that, today, his work is intellectually unavoidable. His work is now globally disseminated and discussed and, from January 2004, the online International Journal of Baudrillard Studies was launched to reflect this interest.

Despite this literature, Baudrillard remains a controversial figure; his provocative analyses, methodological strategies and remorseless critical position still attracting considerable academic hostility. For his critics, his popular cultural take-up and elevation to uber-cool icon has only reinforced their suspicions of his superficiality and postmodern spell.

Much of the criticism significantly mistakes Baudrillard's project. Far from being the nihilistic reactionary celebrating the excesses of postmodernity, as his critics paint him, we actually find in his work a sustained, career-long, critical project, founded upon a defence of "symbolic" modes of life, experience and relations against the western "semiotic" order and world.

It is this distinction of symbolic and semiotic that underpins his analysis of the media and thus it is here that we must begin if we are to understand his critique of new media forms.


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