April 6, 2000
See pp. 355-358 and 410-415 of The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory.
The following notes discuss the writings of Jean Baudrillard as an example of a self-conscious postmodern approach. Baudrillard has become the examplar of postmodernism, beginning his analysis with Marxism and modernity, and developing what he considered a more radical approach – a society of simulations, implosions and hyperreality, where it is increasingly difficult to distinguish image from reality and where signs and simulations become or are society. Following this approach from the 1970s, Baudrillard develops the view that we are at the end of history and history may be reversing itself, so we live in a "post-orgy state of things" (Baudrillard in Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 137). This leads him to a cynical conclusion that all we can do is "reach a point where one can live with what is left. It is more a survival among the ruins than anything else" (Baudrillard in Best and Kellner, 1997, p. 117), although survival in the ruins usually means that people begin to rebuild. In spite of his conclusions, many of the ideas of Baudrillard are insightful and provide a useful way of considering the contemporary era.
Jean Baudrillard (1929 – present) was born in Rheims, France in a civil servant family. He taught German and then became a sociology professor at the University of Nanterre from the 1960s through 1987. His most famous works are The Mirror of Production (1975), Simulacres et Simulation (1981, translated into English in 1994), and the controversial The Gulf War did not take place (1995). In France, Baudrillard is a public intellectual, who makes pronouncements on current phenomena and is regarded by some as a postmodern guru – like McLuhan in the 1960s or John Raulston Saul in Canada today. Two of the articules in the handouts were written for the Paris Libération, a daily newspaper widely read throughout France by intellectuals, professionals, and people on the political left.
Many of the notes that follow come from the two books by Best and Kellner (BK).
b. Early Writings
In his early work, Baudrillard began by examining modernity, the consumer society, and Marxism in a fairly conventional manner. Like the critical theorists, he examined the development of "the new system of mass consumption bound up with the explosive proliferation of consumer goods and services" which creates a "‘new technical order’, ‘new environment’, ‘new field of everyday life’, ‘new morality’, and new form of ‘hypercivilization’" (BK, 1991, p. 112-3). The mass commodification and expansion of exchange values has vastly expanded in contemporary capitalism, so that objects, signs, and exchange value dominate society and the people in society. Like other analysts of modernity, Baudrillard takes a look back to the premodern and notes that while exchange occurred in these societies, it was symbolic exchange – gifts and reciprocity associated with various rituals, spirituality, or other forms of social obligation. These systems tended to reinforce tradition, rather than separating people from it as is the case with commodity exchange.
With capitalism, exchange value comes to dominate the exchange of goods, so that markets, quantitative calculation of exchange values, and money become the dominant form. Political economy develops as a mode of analysing this, and production and the needs of production come to dominate society. For Baudrillard, even Marxian political economy may be part of the system of rationalization and reproduction of the capitalist order. That is, Marxian political economy argues that capitalism is exploitative and inefficient in production, and in arguing for socialism and communism posits a better form of organization of production and exchange. That is, Marxism does not challenge the logic of the primacy of production in directing society and creating progress, and this is whre Baudrillard begins to develop a differerent approach.
Baudrillard begins his argument by noting that in addition to use and exchange value, there is also "sign value, whereby commodities are valued by the way that they confer prestige and signify social status and power" (BK, 1991, p. 114). While Marx argues that use values are given, and exchange value implies the existence of use value, Baudrillard notes that use values themselves are problematic, in that they are constructed through exchange value and "a rationalized system of needs and objects that integrate individuals into the capitalist social order" (BK, 1991, p. 114). In making this argument, he does not move beyond critical theorists, who made much the same type of argument.
Where Baudrillard begins to develop his ideas in a different direction is to emphasize symbols and symbolic exchange. In his writings in the early and mid 1970s, he argued for a return to symbolic exchange as a means of breaking the logic and demands of production, commodity exchange, and political economy. Symbolic exchange could be revolutionary in that it "provides a mode of activity that is more radically subversive of the values and logic of capitalism than the sort of practices advocated by Marxists which he claims are but a reflex of the ‘mirror of production’" (BK, 1991, p. 116). At this time, Baudrillard was impressed with marginal groups such as blacks, women, and gays, what sociologists have termed the new social movements, which "subvert the code of racial or sexual difference, and thus are more radical and subversive than socialists who operate within the code of political economy" (BK, 1991, p. 116). These arguments were developed in the aftermath of the 1968 events in France, where radical change initially seemed possible, but was thwarted by traditional forces, including some of the established socialist and communist parties and groupings. Out of this grew various ultraleft and new types of groups which argued for a radical break with the dominant economic and political forms.
c. Simulations, Implosion, and Hyperreality
Smart (pp. 411-12) notes how Baudrillard regards Marxist thought as part of the Enlightenment and westerm culture, part of a universalist approach that misconceives what has happened in western and other societies. In the later 1970s and during the 1980s, Baudrillard’s analysis broke with the Marxist approach and expanded on the view that symbols, signs, and simulations had become so all-encompassing, that it is not longer possible to distinguish the real and the symbol. Baudrillard thus argues that we have entered a new era that is beyond the modern, and this constitutes a break with an earlier era – much like the break between the premodern and the modern.
In the modern era, the problems of industry, production, use of labour, exploitation, and accumulation dominated the organization of the economy and society. In the current period there is "a new era of simulation in which computerization, information processing, media, cybernetic control systems, and the organization of society according to simulation codes and models replace production as the organizing principle of society" (BK, 1991, p. 118). This is a passage "‘from a metallurgic into a semiurgic society’ … in which signs take on a life of their own and constitute a new social order structured by models, codes, and signs" (BK, 1991, p. 118).
Semiotics refers to the theory of signs – types, meaning, relationships among signs. A sign is any information carrying entity from language to road signs.
What Baudrillard is arguing is that the signs, simulations, and codes that characterize the current era have developed to a point that it is these that structure society and make it difficult to distinguish these signs and symbols from social reality – or the social reality becomes the signs and simulations and these structure the social world. In developing this analysis, Baudrillard develops several new concepts.
Simulation or Simulacra. Simulations are processes whereby events or situations in the past are replaced with virtual, electronic, or digitized images and signs. While a drama may simulate real life, we generally think of this as representation of some part of the social world – institutions, relationships, and interactions that idealize or characterize aspects of the social world. Television has carried this much further, so that the images simulate many different and hypothetical aspects of social life. Simulacra denote representations of the real but where the essence of the real may be missing. What Baudrillard argues is that these simulacra "are so omnipresent that it is henceforth impossible to distinguish the real from simulacra’ (BK, 1997, p. 101). That is, we live in a society of simulacra so that it no long makes sense to distinguish some underlying reality from the simulacra.
Hyperreality. This is hyperreality – "the blurring of distinctions between the real in the unreal in which the prefix ‘hyper’ signifies more real than real whereby the real is producted according to a model" (BK, 1991, p. 119). This hyperreal is the "end result of a historical simulation process in which the natural world and all its referents have been gradually replaced with technology and self-referential signs" (BK, 1997, p. 101). No longer is there an underlying reality which has an existence apart from the simulations and simulacra. Rather, what we consider to be social reality is indefinitely reproducible and extendable, with the copy indistinguishable from the original, or perhaps seeming more real than the original. Video games become more real than other forms of interaction, theme parks which are simulacra become more desirable than the originals (Las Vegas, Disneyworld), and even nature becomes better viewed through national parks and reconstructions.
Implosion. Baudrillard uses this term to refer to the process whereby the image or simulation and reality collapse on each other and become the same, so that there is no longer any distinction between the two. This is
a process of social entropy leading to a collapse of boundaries, including the implosion of meaning in the media and the implosion of media messages and the social in the masses. … The dissemination of media messages and semiurgy saturates the social field, and meaning and messages flatten each other out in a neutralized flow of information, entertainment, advertising, and politics (Best and Kellner, 1991, p. 121).
All the different parts of the social world implode, leaving no separation between formerly distinctive parts of society – politics and sports become entertainment, or the latter become the former. With the O. J. Simpson case, it was difficult to separate entertainment, legal issues, private, public, and the social reality – all imploded together to create a grand spectacle.
If Baudrillard is correct, then earlier forms of social theory may be inadequate to analyse this postmodern society. Earlier analysis focussed on signs, symbols, and meaning (Mead and symbolic interaction), fashion (Simmel), and power of the media (critical theory), but generally argued that these were means by which people communicated based on some underlying social reality. That is, there were subjects or individuals who developed a sense of self through communication, and used this interact with others, thus developing the patterns, institutions, and structures of the social world. Implicit in this form of analysis is that there is a subject and and object (Mead’s other, interaction among individuals in symbolic interaction, etc). Meaning is associated with knowledge and consciousness of others, symbols, and relationships.
Baudrillard argues that the subject-object distinction disappears in the contemporary setting so that signs and symbols do not have meaning in the conventional sense. In fact, meaning itself becomes questionable in these circumstances and he argues that there has been a destruction of meaning in the contemporary era. While there may be meaning associated with earlier forms of social reality, these are "dead meaning and frozen forms mutating into new combinations and permutations of the same" (BK, 1991, p. 127).
While Baudrillard carries through an analysis of hyperreality further than other theorists, and shows some of its implications, he does not appear to have developed an analysis of a way out of this era or even a means of analyzing it sociologically. That is, a sociological analysis provides a means of understanding and critiquing the social world. Baudrillard’s analysis argues that it is not really possible to do this in the conventional manner. Instead, he proposes various strategies and perspectives that people might adopt, but in postmodern fashion does not provide directives or modes of analysis.
d. Fatal Strategies.
Given that the postmodern world lacks meaning and is "where theories float in a void, unanchored in any secure harbour" (BK, 1991, p. 127) how are people to respond? Baudrillard appears to have a number of responses. At one level, he argues that this produces little hope for the future and "melancholy is the quality inherent in the mode of disappearance of meaning, in the mode of volitilisation of meaning in operational systems" (Baudrillard in BK, 1991, p. 127). Despair, sadness, and nostalgia is thus one form of response that people have in the current era, and one response is to attempt to bring back those parts of the past that have been destroyed. This may be associated with a revival or earlier forms of spirituality (new age, fundamentalism, aboriginal), or a recycling of earlier cultural forms (earlier popular music), or outmoded institutional forms (earlier models of family values). At another level, Baudrillard says that the response is a happy one, with playfulness, laughter, hallucinations, ecstacy, seduction, and giddiness, and he talks about orgy and celebration, although he also comments on what is to occur after the orgy (Smart, p. 413).
For Baudrillard, the current era is one where the ideas of progress and production have passed, and where the modern movements of liberation have taken place and the results of these may be reversed. As a result, there is (or at least appears to be) nothing new so there is "indefinite reproduction of ideals, of phantasms, or images, of dreams" (from Smart, p. 413). This failure of modernity to be unable to go further results in a replay of earlier ideas and a recycling of old ideals. While life goes on, the great ideas of progress and production have disappeared.
Baudrillard’s fatal strategies may be considered more inevitable and fatalistic, rather than fatal as deadly, although both are implied by the French (and English) words. His view is that processes have a certain inevitability to them, that things go beyond themselves in an inevitable manner. The result is that they produce a disappearance, end, or finality to the process – not a negation in the dialectic sense, but a loss or erasure of meaning. Baudrillard counterposes this to contradiction, arguing the "the universe is not dialectical: it moves toward the extremes, and not towards equilibrium; it is devoted to a radical antagonisms and not to reconciliation or to synthesis" (Selected Writings, p. 185). The example Smart gives is that of production, where there is more and more production, with faster and faster circulation of production and distribution, but producing an end of the idea of production, that we have passed beyond production. He may have in mind postindustrial society, where production and the ideals of production have been so successful, that a new stage is reached. He argues that this produces a certain banality (triviality, ordinary) here the ideal disappears and becomes so commonplace that it does not have meaning associated with it – "such is the banal destiny of all great ideals in what could be called postmodernity" (Smart, p. 413).
While Baudrillard may not offer a way out, his analysis does provide a certain apt description of contemporary trends that seem quite disparate. Unlike others, such as the critical theorists, Baudrillard does not consider this with regret, but argues that we accept this and adopt strategies in the face of this. Since Baudrillard himself does not have a grand plan to change or create progress, his writings since the early 1980s are more fragmented, ironic, and fantastical. In fact, his writings may be considered to parallel media and society and their unexpected turns, and science fiction of the cyberpunk sort (J. G. Ballard and William Gibson).
One strategy suggested by Baudrillard in Fatal Strategies (1983) is that "individuals should thus surrender to the world of objects, learning their ruses and strategies, and should give up the project of sovereignty and control" (BK, 1991, p. 129). He appears to base this strategy on two considerations. One is that there is nothing new, everything has been done, all philosophic and social theoretical issues have been addressed, and all that is left is to recycle, recombine, and play with these in new ways. A second aspect is that the subject has shown it cannot dominate the object. Progress was associated with the domination of nature and directing the natural and social world in a positive direction. But this has all imploded and become impossible in the current era where subject cannot be distinguished from object, where reality and image cannot be separated, and society takes on a new dynamic.
Baudrillard associates this new society with the victory of the object and "he proposes that we become more like things, like objects, and divest ourselves of the illusion and hubris of subjectivity. Likewise, he proposes that it is useless to change or control the world and that we should give up such subjective strategies and adopt the ‘fatal strategies’ of objects" (BK, 1991, p. 131). This may have some parallels with those who advocate a similar strategy in environmental or ecological issues, but Baudrillard takes this in a different direction. That is, he argues for taking things to their extreme and, by doing, this surpass the limits and subvert the tendencies. Even in consumption he noted that we could consume ever more, even useless and absurd types of consumption. In some sense we have done this, but it has not subverted the consumer society, but likely has entrenched it even more.
The Canadian postmodernist, Arthur Kroker, adopts a more useful fatal strategy. He argues that we can change the new technologies by becoming part of them, getting to know them better, and turning them in a more human direction. But this seems somewhat alien to Baudrillard, since he does not emphasize the humanistic view.
Best and Kellner note that Fatal Strategies is original, but bizarre, and an approach that Baudrillard appears to have abandoned.
e. Readings from Baudrillard
These articles are reprints from the electronic journal C-Theory (www.ctheory.com), edited by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker in Montreal. This is a journal of postmodern theory, with discussion of media related issues.
In these writings, Baudrillard does not carry out a comprehensive or reasoned form of analysis. Rather, these are journalistic articles, attempting to create impressions by giving examples of events and situations that characterize the postmodern world. Baudrillard attempts to be humorous and ironic, with short ideas where he tries to impress readers by example rather than rational argument. The first two articles are translations from the French newspaper Libération, and the third from one of Baudrillard’s books.
i. Disneyworld Company http://www.ctheory.com/e25-disneyworld_comp.html
Baudrillard considers society to be a spectacle, and argues that things have reached a point where it is difficult to separate the spectacle and social reality – the two are so intertwined through each constructing the other that they are inseparable. Further, to separate these implies that society has some underlying characteristics (human nature, will, solidarity?), and the spectacle is guided by forces such as profits, technological imperatives, or attempts to manipulate the public. The analysis of Baudrillard points to the difficulty of making such assumptions or conclusions, and that the contemporary era is characterized by society itself becoming spectacle or simulation.
In this context, Baudrillard has a fascination with the Disney corporation and its products. These are spectacles, where Disneyland, Disneyworld, and Eurodisney create a virtual reality, but in which "reality becomes a spectacle … where the real becomes a theme park" (3rd ¶). Visitors to Disney quickly realize how they are managed and processed in the name of entertainment and having a good time. The virtual reality of these theme parks becomes a standard for entertainment and a good life, at least in the eyes of some.
Smurfland (1st ¶). Irony of unemployed steel workers becoming the workers of leisure time and when Smurfland failed, they again became unemployed. He might have compared this with Flint, Michigan, where the decline of the auto industry in that city led to mass unemployment and poverty there. The leaders of the city proposed to redevelop the city’s economy by establishing an automobile theme park in the city – i.e. to recover prosperity not by reestablishing the real industry, but by developing the simulation of the industry. Of course, that failed and Flint has only slowly recovered, if at all. Perhaps it has reestablished itself as image though, through the six year old shooting a classmate and by sending its basketball products to Michigan State to capture the NCAA basketball championship.
Disney Pornography (2nd ¶). Fantasy of Disney taking over 42nd street, Times Square region in New York – street with sex shops, porn movies, prostitution, and general sleaziness – and developing this spectacle into a "legitimate" form. In fact, while this is fantastical, this area has been redeveloped as spectacle, although not by Disney.
Gulf War (2nd ¶). Baudrillard has written extensively about the virtual nature of the Gulf War, how it was produced as much for the media and North American audiences and images, as for its actual geopolitical effects. Here Schwarzkopf is reported to have celebrated the end of a virtual war in a theme park that celebrates virtuality.
Real as blood transfusion for the "reality show," the spectacle (3rd ¶). These spectacles feast on the real, but the latter imitate the spectacle, and become the spectacle.
In the 4th ¶, Baudrillard notes that Disney was frozen in liquid nitrogen, presumably hoping to emerge in a different era where things had progressed. In another of his writing, Baudrillard notes that Disney may be surprised if he wakes up in the 15th century, or some other time. In the meantime, people have become extras in the Disney virtual reality.
Also note the reference to the genome project. Baudrillard often uses language or ideas from natural science, often changing their meaning. But here he refers to the resequencing and recombinations of the human gene that are proving possible through genetic engineering. If applied to seeds and human bodies, where does the real end and the virtual begin?
1st ¶ refers to the Benetton advertisements that used photographs and images of heroin addicts, AIDS patients, and victims of torture. But his arguments on the influence of fashion on body styles, clothing, and adornments note that "the virtual take over the real as it appears, and then replicates it without any modification."
In the next three paragraphs, Baudrillard argues that reality (the social world) has been cloned and transformed into performance (from Goffman?). That is, the social world has moved beyond the creation of spectacle (the original Disneyland) to a situation where we are "no longer alienated and passive spectators but interactive participants … [in a] huge ‘reality show.’" Unlike Weber or critical theorists, who consider organizations and media to be separated from people, thus creating alienation, in this new world we are not alienated beause we become part of this new reality – although as interactive extras. That is, to be alienated implies a separate and essential form of human nature and well-defined human subject. Baudrillard does not agree that there is such a subject, so that we are neither actors or spectators in the earlier sense. He argues that Disney has won. At one level, he considers this to be obscene, but at another, this is the way things are, and is the postmodern condition and not really reversible.
The last ¶ notes how time has imploded or been collapsed in these circumstances, so that there is no sense of different eras or different times – "all the places and all the periods in a single atemporal virtuality." In addition to theme parks doing this, the juxtaposition of images in the media and the mixing of times, places, and images through the internet confuses time and space and makes it more difficult to remember or imagine real time.
ii. Global Debt and Parallel Universe http://www.ctheory.com/e31-global_debt.html
1st ¶ continues the discussion of time – in this case a counting down of time to the millenium – the end of history? The other clock in Times Square reports the mounting debt. Both of these relate to Baudrillard’s fatal strategies – moving to the extreme amounts to a disappearance of the phenomenon.
One example is information – data about the world around us. In an earlier era, by amassing data we may have been able to develop understanding and knowledge of the world around us. But as the amount of information increases until there is information overload, in essence this is a disappearance of information. Note p. 2 of this article where Baudrillard comments on information – "a small dose of information reduces ignorance, a massive dose of artificial intelligence can only reinforce the belief that our natural intelligence is deficient. The worst thing that can happen to an individual is to know too much and, thus, to fall beyond knowledge."
Another example is pornography and sexuality. "Sexuality does not vanish in sublimation, repression and morality. It vanishes more effectively in what is more sexual than sex: pornography. The hypersexual is the contemporary of the hyperreal." (Selected Writings, p. 188). Baudrillard argues that this is a
Dead point: the neutral point where every system crosses the subtle limits of reversibility, contradiction, and reevalutation, in order to be completely absorbed into noncontradiction, in desparate self-contemplation, and in ecstacy … (Selected Writings, p. 190).
This is where meaning is erased, since there are not referents and the process no longer has any function or use value.
The disappearance of references (2nd and 3rd ¶) is a new phenomenon according to Baudrillard. The numbers are so large (or small) as to be meaningless, and the speed with which things accelerate and circulate cannot be comprehended or absorbed. The debt acquires its own dynamic, but creates a new social reality. That is, the debt becomes a means of uniting people into a common destiny. Whether this is really a new form is not clear, since political economists have argued for the necessity of debt and noted how the economic system creates a similar fate for all. For example, if the stock market collapses, as in the 1930s, then that creates mass poverty. The situation today could be much worse – so that threat leads to a perpetuation of the debt.
In the 1st ¶ Baudrillard argues that the billboard becomes a spectacle with no real meaning, so that the exaggerated numbers that presumably represent the negative phenomenon of debt, become an advertisement, a triumph of capitalism, an advertising campaign for American dominance. While Baudrillard talks about disappearance and catastrophe, this is only partially real – the jet may crash, but debt continues to grow.
The result is parallel worlds of debt, information, communication – each with their own dynamic. In this sense, Baudrillard comes close to structural analysis, noting that these structures and forces have their own dynamic and effects. At the same time, he tries to avoid the conclusions of this form of analysis by arguing that these are fatal strategies that are separated from our social world (although affecting and uniting it) and best left on their own. In the last two ¶s he argues that creating a more "rational" or inclusive world would not be desirable. For Baudrillard this is a dangerous utopia, although it is not clear what the dangers are. He arguest that it is better to leave these alone, that these are human creations that must be allowed to carry on their own dynamic. In the conclusion he notes that progress once created solidarity, but not it is the threat of catastrophy than does this. Some have interpreted this as resignation on the part of Baudrillard, to make the best of the postmodern condition in which society has placed itself.
Reversion of History http://www.ctheory.com/a-reversion_of_history.html
The first ¶ again notes the disappearance in the limit, as history reaches its end it disintegrates. The result is a reversal and disintegration. In this article, Baudrillard raises a number of questions concerning the recycling of history, the reversibility of modernity and progress, and the emphasis on past problems. On the second page, he notes that we may be able to emphasize the positive features, creating positive memories, in the current period.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1988. Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Baudrillard, Jean. 1999. Revenge of the Crystal. London: Pluto Press.
Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, New York, The Guilford Press, 1991.
Best, Steven and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn, New York, The Guilford Press, 1997.
Rosenau, Pauline Marie, Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads and Intrusions, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1992.
Last edited on April 6, 2000.
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