The Death of Jean Baudrillard Did Not Take Place

by G. Christopher Williams

29 March 2007

The controversial French philosopher's legacy has been tarnished by reductionist readings of his work, generated precisely by the tendencies of the mass media he sought to illuminate.
New York (1997) photo by
Jean Baudrillard from International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 

Welcome to the desert of the real.
—Morpheus, The Matrix

It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself. [. . .]
The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.
—Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

While it is a seemingly bleak and dismal prospect to be the man who may be best known for declaring the “death of the real”, I suppose that some positive spin can be placed on the fact that Jean Baudrillard apparently was able to outlive “the real” by at least a few years. 

cover art

The Illusion of the End

Jean Baudrillard

(Stanford University Press)

cover art

Simulacra and Simulation

Jean Baudrillard

(University of Michigan Press)

cover art

The Gulf War Did Not Take Place

Jean Baudrillard

(Power Publications)

The news of Baudrillard’s death reached me on the morning of 7 March as such news often does in academia—through the grapevines that emerge when prominent critics, scholars or literary artists die and the public at large takes little notice. A philosophy professor at my university had passed on a link to a New York Times obituary to a number of folks, mostly specialists in contemporary philosophy but also, like myself, a specialist in 20th century literature.

As always, I was a little saddened—both by Baudrillard’s passing but also by the fact that his obituary came to my attention in this obscure, word-of-mouth fashion while the whole country had been fascinated by the death of Anna Nicole Smith just weeks before. Yet something seems quite appropriate in the public’s absence of awareness of Baudrillard’s death in the wake of all the press surrounding Smith’s death; Baudrillard’s own critique of media centered on absence and especially the absence generated by the white noise of mass media.

Baudrillard began his scholarly life as a fairly traditional Marxist critic railing against the prevailing consumer culture in such works as The System of Objects (1968) and The Consumer Society (1970). But his later work, generally cultural critique focusing on mass media and pop culture, was what would make him notable—notorious, perhaps—within both academic and even mainstream culture. Books like America (1986) and The Illusion of the End (1992) offered fascinating observations on the pop culture iconography that has come to dominate late 20th century culture.

Simulacra and Simulations (1981) most clearly defines Baudrillard’s concerns. There he defines the term hyperreal to describe how mass media consumers view reality. Simulations of reality, he argued, have become “more real than the real” to such consumers as they regard the significance of the sign (that which represents a real thing—a form of simulation) more crucial to life than the reality it formerly signified. In essence, Baudrillard suggests that the copies of reality have overtaken reality and replaced them. Famously he described the simulated world of Disney’s Magic Kingdom and how it disguises and parallels the absence of the real in the equally simulated landscape of American culture:

Disneyland 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). 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. It 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.

Baudrillard’s frequently maligned book, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, is a particular study of just such an effect of spectacle trumping direct experience of the world. While critics (who seem to have never gotten past the title of the text) curse Baudrillard’s inhumanity in claiming that a war never happened, these literalists fail to see the more chilling metaphor that the book suggests. While the media has often been acknowledged as having helped end the Vietnam War by bringing its horrors into our living room, making “direct” experience of the carnage a cause for political action, our interest in the Gulf War and the Iraq war was directed toward the spectacle of tracers and explosions lighting up the sky of Baghdad rather than the human lives lost. Baudrillard argues the media strips human dignity from what an audience vicariously experiences; we become fixated on the noise, not the signal.

Reductionist readings of Baudrillard’s work, though, have had an effect on his intellectual legacy. Likewise, his own rise to a degree of celebrity has had deleterious effects on more “serious” scholars’ views of his work. While The Matrix would make his words famous in the mouth of Morpheus (in the aforementioned quotes in the epigraphs to this essay) and even feature an ironically hollowed-out copy of Simulacra and Simulation in one of the film’s scenes (seemingly the Wachowski brothers’ efforts to pay homage and acknowledge the theory that informed some of their film’s ideas), this pop-culture media spectacle served to diminish Baudrillard’s reputation by making his theory more pop—more spectacle than substance.

As I looked over the obituary notice in The Times, I cringed a bit at phrases like “once considered to be a postmodern guru”. Likewise, some oddly dismissive phrasing emerged in Slate’s memorializing, which noted that Baudrillard was “long a favorite of graduate students.”  (“Le Browser: Saluting Jean Baudrillard” by By Michael Agger 14 March 2007)  But such dismissals are appropriate to Baudrillard’s own vision of the way that the media speaks of absence through simulation of ideas. When considering his uniqueness, I have often found myself wondering if Baudrillard’s work isn’t simply a kind of revisioning of previous media critics, most especially Marshall McLuhan. Baudrillard’s simulations seem notably similar to McLuhan’s own observations that in mass-media culture “the medium has become the message”. Should Baudrillard himself should be dismissed as a simulation of McLuhan?

It might be amusing and ironic to dismiss Baudrillard as a cheap imitation, but it would be inaccurate. While McLuhan seemed to revel in this transformation of the signs of culture into the dominant of cultural experience, such evaluations are much more opaque in Baudrillard. Again, I often find myself wondering if he intends, as McLuhan seemed to, to desire us to revel and embrace the brave new world order of simulation or if his stories and examples of the simulacra were intended to be cautionary tales about the dangerous seduction of media images.

If it remains hard to grasp what Baudrillard’s final conclusions were on the hyperreal spaces he investigated, it may have been his intention to prevent us from drawing such an evaluative conclusion. He may have held no agenda to drive or deride the simulation. Instead, he merely observed a media phenomena, and left the reader to discover its import. In that sense his value as a scholar may be his ability to distance himself and simply present data for our consideration.

For me, though, what Baudrillard fundamentally did was—for lack of a less obvious phrase—make pop matter. If this “real” of popular culture has become the real of the everyday American, then mining the shiny and salacious surfaces of American media becomes more fascinating and eerily relevant. Baudrillard’s ambivalent tone is especially suited to this website; I am especially fond of the notion that the title PopMatters does not necessarily dictate whether pop “mattering” is a positive or negative thing. Instead, in studying media and its messages (real, hyperreal, or otherwise), we must consider the validity and invalidity of, as Baudrillard put it, “these ‘imaginary stations’ which feed reality.”

I will miss the man who put the real to death and brought the hyperreal to life. As much as I’d like to say there will never be another like him, I must stay true to the nature of simulacra and suggest only that there will be another and another and another and another and another…


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