ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 14, Number 1 (May 2017)


On The Debate That Didn’t Take Place

Mark McLennan

On March 17th 2015 students at the London School of Economics (‘LSE’) occupied a space within the university in opposition to on-going neo-liberalisation. This is not the first time that LSE students have occupied a space on their campus, and it inspired similar movements across London. How many times have students occupied a university since 2008 and produced a list of never-to-be-met-demands? Student occupations seem to be as ubiquitous student elections.  So, how many simulacra Occupy movements must dissipate before students around the world get together and devise some new tactics? How humiliating it must have been for occupying students to have received a provocative plate of doughnuts from director Craig Calhoun, while protesting for free education and an end to the neo-liberal academy (Occupy LSE, 2015).

The above pessimism stems from both disappointment and boredom of the failure of radical movements to devise any novel strategies of defiance. This glacial state of progressive politics is so pervasive that critical theory’s clown prince Slavoj Žižek has only suggested, for example, that the proliferation of occupy movements should be read as ‘signs from the future’ while we wait for a communism to come (Žižek, 2009). Are these movements really signs from the future? Or are they simulations of resistance designed to provide the perfect alibi for the system’s expansion? As far as protesting students are concerned, they will all sit their exams, and then face the precarious test of graduate employment. Thus there is no clear antagonistic line between the students and the powers that dominate them—only an involutive line of cynical complicity.

Here it’s necessary to reintroduce the infamous debate between academic king Michel Foucault, and agent provocateur Jean Baudrillard. Technically it’s a debate that never happened: As is well known, Baudrillard wrote a pamphlet entitled Forget Foucault (1977) and attempted to submit it to Foucault’s journal Critique (Baudrillard, 2007). To no one’s surprise, it wasn’t published and Foucault never responded. The core of Baudrillard’s polemic is that the production and critique of discourse reproduces the machinations of the economic system. Thus, according to Baudrillard, new theoretical strategies are necessary in order to challenge this system. Not much has been made regarding Baudrillard’s thoughts on critique. But the obvious question remains: was Baudrillard correct to when he encouraged us to forget Foucault? I will, argue that yes he was, insofar as we are concerned with the ability to meaningfully challenge the powers that be. But rather than supplanting Foucault’s thought for Baudrillard’s gold lamé, we might attempt to do Baudrillard the service of trying to put his thoughts to good use by moving beyond them too.

 I. An Orgy of Production

This discussion must begin with an exposition of Foucault’s thoughts on power. For Foucault, ‘power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.’(Foucault, 1978:93). Foucault has two conceptions of power: ‘the right to death’ and ‘the power over life’. ‘The right to death’ is commonly referred to as ‘juridical power’ and is the exercise of official state institutions that act upon the individual by subtraction. For example laws and their penalties, which demarcate the legal from the illegal, aiming to repress and negate that which they prohibit. It is withthe ‘right over life’, however, that Foucault sets the concept of power free from traditional conceptions of imposed coercion, allowing it to be applicable to the analysis of all social relations.

The crucial distinction between the ‘right to death’ and the ‘power over life’ is the latter’s productive capacity. Within the ‘right over life’ power takes two more forms: ‘disciplinary power’ and ‘bio-power’. ‘Disciplinary power’ is concerned with the normalisation of the individual. Found in modern institutions (the hospital, the prison etc.), power functions to discipline individuals according to relevant behavioural norms (Foucault, 1991; Foucault 2006; Foucault, 2003). Through constant repetition and surveillance these norms are internalised by the individual and expressed in their conduct, rendering the subject a ‘docile body’ compliant with the needs of modernity’s social and economic structures. This type of power punishes subjects not for the transgression of a pre-given law, but for failing to obtain a normality. Through this process, individuals are seen as a creation of disciplinary power, which is prevalent within the microstructures of society operating within the sphere of everyday life. On the other hand, ‘bio-power’ focuses on the normalisation of the population or the species as a whole. Here the well-being of the population is an object of political attention: birth rate, mortality rate, health, life expectancy and others, all become subject to government control and regulation. The coalescence of these two categories is, for Foucault, modern power’s defining attribute: the ability to direct life towards the norms required by modernity’s social and political organisation.

Despite its ubiquity, in the History of Sexuality, Foucault states that ‘where there is power, there is resistance’(Foucault, 1978: 95-96). He continues that within the network of power there is ‘a multiplicity of points of resistance … everywhere’(Ibid.) But because there are so many dispersed sites of resistance, there can be no ‘pure law of the revolutionary’; ‘instead there is a plurality of resistances’(Ibid.). Some are ‘possible, necessary [and] improbable’(Ibid.). While others are ‘spontaneous, savage [and] solitary.’ Within the network of power, ‘the strategic codification of these points of resistance’ can lead to ‘great radical ruptures, massive binary divisions’(Ibid.). Thus, within a network of discursive biopower, Foucault appears to be suggesting that disparate groups are able to produce alternative discourse to combat that which knowledge subjects them to. Indeed, neo-foucaultians Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri posit the productive capacity of subjects of biopower as emancipatory:

Our reading not only identifies biopolitics with the localised productive powers of life—that is, the production of affects and languages through social cooperation and the interaction of bodies and desire, the invention of new forms of the relation to the self and others, and so forth—but, also affirms biopolitics as the creation of new subjectivities that are presented at once as resistance and de-subjectification (Hardt and Negri, 2009:59).

For Hardt and Negri, the incessant biopoltical production of subjectivities may open an alternative space within hegemonic global capitalism. They claim that at issue, is not what subjects are, but what they can make themselves become. Indeed, ‘the key scene of political action today … involves the struggle over the control or autonomy of the production of subjectivity’ (Ibid.). To do so, they rely on Foucault’s notion of the dispotif, which is the social, material and cognitive formations that are active in the dissemination of knowledge, power and creation of subjects. For Foucault, ‘the dispotif thus has an eminently strategic function … [which] involves a certain manipulation of relations of force’ (Foucault, quoted in Hardt and Negri, 2009:126). Apparently for Hardt and Negri, not only can subjects create their own liberated subjectivity, but also that strategic knowledge production ‘is always open to the constitution of the common, internal … to history and life and engages in the process of revolutionising them’ (Hardt and Negr, 2009:127). They go on to argue that a multitude of novel subjects can produce a society distinct from capitalism’s empire, to that of the liberated commonwealth. So committed are Hardt and Negri to the use of production as resistance to capitalist hegemony, that the term is used a total of 2,128 times in their latest work Commonwealth (2009).

This Foucaultian resistance lends itself to the type of identity politics that dominate progressive activism of contemporary society. Commendable though their super-structural achievements may have been, this is far from a revolution. Nonetheless, a closer reading of Foucault’s improbable plurality of resistance suggests that spaces within the system may open up, and can be linked with other movements. For Foucault, the ‘strategic codification of these points’ can lead to ‘radical ruptures’(Foucault, 1978:95-96).  But still, underlying this more modest conception of resistance is the production of novel discourse, knowledge, and subjectivity. Here lies the problem: when a new subjectivity is produced, from which knowledge does it appropriate its novel characteristics? Is this novelty not merely a (re)combination of the constituent elements of previously oppressive discourse? Foucault, appears to concede this, noting that ‘we cannot jump outside the situation’, and that ‘resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power’(1997: 167; 1978: 95). Therefore, I would conclude that, subjects are locked within a network of knowledge and power, forever pre-determining the status of any attempts at liberation. Progressive commentator Jerome E. Roos, in an article entitled ‘Foucault and the Revolutionary Self-Castration of the Left’, sums this up succinctly:

Because it connects power with knowledge through discourse, and because it posits that knowledge and power are continually reproduced through both formal and informal institutions, there is ultimately no way for wilful agents to escape the choking grasp of their culture without reproducing the same forms of oppression they are trying to overcome (2011).

II. The Productive Emancipators

After elaborating a theory whereby individuals in an object centred society are dominated by a semiotic code, reproduced by acts of consumption, Baudrillard moved into a polemical phase (1975;2007;1991). Considered by many to be a break from Marxism, Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production (1975), should instead be considered a break-through for critical theory. In it, he shatters the promise of Marx’s theory, yet the phantasm of revolutionary challenge would haunt Baudrillard’s subsequent output. His patricide begins in the preface, where Baudrillard laments the fact that critical thought sustains ‘an unbridled romanticism of productivity’(1975: 18). His insight here is that because the concept of ‘production’ underpins both the current political economy and that which attempts to challenge it, such ‘a consensus is suspect’(Ibid.). Ultimately for Baudrillard, Marx only critiqued the content of production, and left intact the form of production. Thus, Marxist thought can only rearrange the contents of society’s economic infrastructure: any alternative becomes the mirror of capitalism, as it is fundamentally unable to alter a political economy based on the accumulation of objects and their network of signs. In order to radically critique the political economy, production itself must be considered.

That individuals must produce knowledge, objects, or history to satisfy their ‘needs’ is a metaphor created by capital in order to naturalise itself. Indeed, this idea is for Baudrillard ‘a fable of political economy retold to generations of revolutionaries infected even in their political radicalism by the conceptual viruses of this same political economy’(Baudrillard, 1975:22). He insists that any authentic needs (use-value) are the ‘horizon of exchange value’, potentially non-existent, but even at best inaccessible. He goes on to argue that use-value or externalities are ‘only concepts produced and projected into a generic dimension by the development of the very system of exchange value’(Ibid.,30). Thus there is no objective referent to which radical critique can ground itself. Therefore, the concepts that Marxism deploys are predetermined by the existent political economy. Looking back to Foucaultian resistance, and its reliance on production, Baudrillard’s analysis is applicable as well. So, in relation to Foucault’s resistance, or Hardt and Negri’s liberated subject, the conception of an authentic or liberated subjectivity is the most internalized expression of domination because it encloses the individual in the system’s logic of production. The total domination of capital culminates in the Foucaultian evidence of individuals as producers of their own novel subjectivity.

Based on the above, novel subjectivity or productive resistance cannot exist. As Baudrillard makes clear, these transcendental concepts are generated by the system of generalised exchange. Productivity must no longer be considered a neutral enterprise, which can be redeployed for liberatory ends. For example, Foucault’s system of knowledge power does not only create the subject through the production of knowledge, it relies on the very conception that production is a ‘fundamental human potential’(Baudrillard, 1975:30). Indeed, Baudrillard might even say something like:

More deeply than the fiction of an individual creating their own identity, the system is rooted in the identification of the individual with their ability to produce knowledge and therefore ‘transform society according to human(ist) ends’(Ibid., 31).

For Baudrillard, individuals are thus ‘metaphysically over-determined as a producer’ continuously acting in accordance within the rules of the political economy. It is here that, like Marxists, Foucaultian’s ‘assist the cunning’ of the system that dominates them: Convinced that they are dominated by knowledge-power, they fail to consider the ‘more radical hypothesis’ that all counter-knowledge, at the level of form, is the same thing. Novel subjectivity is novel domination. Differentiating subjectivities fails to challenge the real determinant of domination: production. Risably, Foucault’s theory attempts to resist global capital ‘by using as an analytic instrument the most subtle ideological phantasm that capital has ever elaborated’(Ibid.:33). Having analysed Baudrillard’s criticism of critical theory, it is now possible to look at his direct challenge to Foucault.

III. The Order of Things

In 1977’s Forget Foucault, Baudrillard argues that Foucault’s ‘theoretical production, like material production loses its determinacy and begins to turn around on itself, slipping en abyme towards a reality that cannot be found’(Baudrillard, 2007:44). That is, like Marxism, Foucault’s theory lacks an objective referent, and is unable to challenge the system it describes. Worse still, it is another ‘mirror of production.’ For Baudrillard, ‘the original sense of “production” is not in fact that of material manufacture rather, it means to render visible, to cause to appear and be made to reappear’(Ibid.,37). Sarcastically Baudrillard says, ‘Let everything be produced, be read, become real, visible, and marked with the sign of effectiveness’(Ibid.). So, ‘let everything be transcribed into force relations, into conceptual systems or into calculable energy; let everything be said, gathered, indexed and registered: this is how sex appears in pornography, but this is more generally the project of our whole culture, whose natural condition is “obscenity”’(Ibid. 1).  Baudrillard is arguing that the effect of Foucault’s obscene project is to contribute to the increasing simulation of the world, rendering it all too knowable. Simulation, for Baudrillard involves the systematic production of signs that come to constitute what we conceive of as ‘reality.’ This process displaces the real, by putting ‘the illusion of death of the world to death’, and replacing it with ‘an absolutely real world’(Baudrillard, 1996:16). Foucault himself might best exemplify the banality of an all-too-real phenomenon: As a result of his ubiquity in virtually every university syllabus, his range of thought has been reduced to a set of slogans and catchwords so omnipresent that close readings of his work are rare. According to Baudrillard, because they are productive, Foucault’s descriptions of power and knowledge are ‘currently obliterating the traces of our existence, spiriting away the evidence for our sensible world’(Ibid.,22). As Foucault produces discourse on power and his disciples argue for the creation of new ‘authentic’ (realer than real) identities, knowledge and subjectivities, the world is pushed further towards a fractal stage of liquidated referentials. This is a trans-theoretical epoch, where capital is intermingled with its other. Negation becomes affirmation through the integration of novelty.

Seen this way, Foucault’s conception of power is capital’s alibi as it does not challenge the system; rather, it advances it. For Baudrillard, capital is ‘the one entity to which our entire system [of simulation] is tethered’(Coulter, 2010:1). Indeed, in his early work, Baudrillard analysed the ways in which capitalism began to reorganise the overdeveloped world into a society of consumption, through the emancipation of signs. In the ‘first order of simulacra’, sixteenth and seventeenth century bourgeois culture dismantled the ‘fixed ranks and restricted exchanges of the feudal order’ (Pawlett, 2007:165). This introduced a novel ‘competition at the level of signs’ within society. Here, the meaning of signs was not tied to a single referent such as birth, and identity and subjectivity were no longer concrete. Then, with the dawn of the serial production of objects, capital enabled a transition into the ‘second order of simulacra.’ Here, a general equivalent of signs is born within market relations, and the serial reproduction of objects. This extinguishes an original sign referent and with it any symbolic obligation. Thus, subjectivity and power is represented through institutions and practices such as labour—Foucault’s disciplinary society. But, this second-order is transient, because ‘serial production gives way to generation through models …’(Baudrillard, 1993:56). The serial reproduction of objects, for Baudrillard, quickly enables that which is produced, to begin to be conceived ‘according to their reproducibility’ as a cybernetic code (Ibid.). This immediately enables the third order of simulacra to emerge, wherein ‘everything changes with the device of simulation’(Baudrillard, 1983:21). Consider this third order ‘the work of reality in the age of its technological over-producibility’(Benjamin, 2008:53).

In the ‘third order of simulacra’, society is governed by a ‘structural law of value’ whereby an operative semiotic code and a set of simulacral models dominate subjects. It is precisely this code that infects society at the molecular level, as a kind of capitalist determined DNA. Operating at this infinitesimal level, through the exchange of signs, capital is exchanged at an accelerated speed, flowing throughout all discourse, and reproducing its social relations by way of models. Baudrillard is clear about this: ‘simulacra do not consist only the play of signs, they involve social relations and social power’(Baudrillard, 1993:52). In this third order, the system speeds towards a ‘perfected’ degree of control through ‘prediction, simulation, programmed anticipation and indeterminate mutation’(Ibid.,60).  Here, the production of anything—be it objects or subjectivity—becomes integrated into the system. Crucially, for Baudrillard, ‘the fundamental law of this society is not the law of exploitation, but the code of normality’(Ibid., 29). This system creates participatory subjects who actively exchange the signs gifted by the system of sign exchange. Importantly, the system is indifferent to the content of these models. As such, models of negativity and resistance can be exchanged freely, without negative consequence. This is analogous, albeit at a higher level of abstraction, to the equally dour Theodor Adorno’s thoughts on 1960’s protest music—where ‘attempts to outfit [consumption] with a new function remain equally superficial’(Adorno, 2014; Adorno, n.d.). In Baudrillard’s simulated society, identity is formed through the amalgamation and play of signs, which are given by the system. And so, the subject created by the system cannot liberate itself from the system, because they are of the system. Thus, by producing a theory of resistance to power that advocates more production, Foucault and his Dylan-esque disciples unwittingly replicate this form of contemporary capitalism, further accelerating the system of simulation. Novel subjectivity, is a novel model of consumption. Baudrillard notes:

This compulsion toward liquidity, flow, and an accelerated circulation of what is psychic, sexual, or pertaining to the body is the exact replica of the force which rules market value: capital must circulate; gravity and any fixed point must disappear; the chain of investments and reinvestments must never stop; value must radiate endlessly in every direction (2007:39-40).

So, if one accepts Baudrillard’s semiotic analysis, then it is worth reversing Foucault’s infamous remark against Marx from The Order of Things. That is, Foucaultism exists in twentieth-century thought like a fish in water; it’s unable to breathe anywhere else (Foucault, 1966:262).

IV. Beyond Baudrillard

Given Foucault and his disciple’s inability to theorise resistance, Baudrillard was correct to suggest that he be forgotten, at least insofar as ‘critical’ theory is concerned. But where does this leave us with Baudrillard then? Benjamin Noys—in an article re-visting Forget Foucault entitled ‘Forget Neoliberalism?  Baudrillard, Foucault, and the Fate of Political Critique’—contends that, in light of the recent financial crisis, ‘Baudrillard’s work functions as a seismograph of the tendencies of financialisation’ that ‘questions the necessary re-composition of a “negative dialectic” of proletarian self-abolishing’(Noys, 2012). This ‘indicates a necessity of reworking of critique that is not so much attentive to the accelerative dynamics of financialisation, but to the inertia that Baudrillard explored as its necessary corollary.’ On the other hand, Jonathan Fardy argues that Forget Foucault ‘is a covert call to Marx; a Marx for us today after the murder of the real and the collapse of critique’ (Fardy, 2012:187). Not much else is written on Forget Foucault, and so the task of ‘reworking critique’ or attempting a Baudrillardian-Marxism synthesis as Noys and Fardy suggest remains open. Based on the considerations above, however, it should be clear that a ‘reworked critique’ is not the way forward. Instead we might attempt to go beyond Baudrillard, as he did with Marx and then Foucault. Here we should try to push past the ‘mysterious point where [Baudrillard] stops and finds nothing more to say’ (Baudrillard, 2007:74).

Often overlooked in discussions of Baudrillard is his proclamation that now, power is dead. Here he out-Nietzsche’s Foucault:

This secret of power’s lack of existence that the great politicians shared also belongs to the great bankers, who know that money is nothing, that money does not exist; and it also belonged to the great theologians and the inquisitors who knew that God does not exist, that God is dead (Baudrillard, 2007:74).

As a result, Baudrillard is able to argue that power is now ‘impossible to locate because of dissemination’ and is ‘dissolved by reversal, cancellation, or made hyperreal through simulations.’ For Baudrillard then, power in contemporary society appears only in simulated form. So, power is ‘volatised through signs of dead power, which proliferate and fascinate’ in their hyperreal dissemination ‘in an obscene and parodic mode, of all the forms of power already seen—exactly like sex in pornography’(Baudrillard, 2007:61). An obvious example here is the Abu Ghraib photo scandal. But what about inane daytime courtroom simulations like Judge Rinder? Or the NSA’s Orwellian twitter account that reminds us that, ‘every move they make, every step they take. We’ll be watching our foreign adversaries’ (National Security Agency, 2015). Because these and other simulations have decentered power so radically, power merely ‘floats through the [contemporary] scene’ and ‘it is impossible to chart its trajectories, structures, relations and effects’ (Kellner,1994:143). In effect, power is everywhere, nowhere and nothing to resist or defy. So now what?

Baudrillard suggests that ‘power is something that is exchanged’ (Baudrillard, 2007: 52). That is, ‘power is executed according to a reversible cycle of seduction, challenge and ruse’(Ibid.). Therefore there are no all-powerful institutions or one-sided structures. For this unilateral conception of power, which must be resisted or taken back etc., is merely a hallucination of power imposed by the system of production. Instead, there is only a continuous cycle of seductive relations. For Baudrillard, seduction ‘is that which is everywhere and always opposed to production; seduction withdraws something from the visible order …’(Ibid., 37). This challenge of seduction exists behind simulations of power: ‘it is a circular and reversible process of challenge, one-upmanship, and death’(Ibid.,55). And so for Baudrillard, as a result of the death of traditional conceptions of power, ‘what we need to analyse is the intrication of the process of seduction with the process of production and power and the irruption of a minimum of reversibility in every irreversible process’ (Ibid. 55). I think it’s here that one might begin to take Baudrillard’s thought and turn it against itself.

Baudrillard was deterministic with regards to the march of the orders of simulacra. And according to him, the world will shortly plunge into the fourth order, that fractal stage, whereby no meaning is possible and no governing law ensures any consistency. But, is this not an irreversible process? The orders of simulacra are no more than an excessive accumulation of images, no different from progress, growth, production and value. And so, following Baudrillard, should we inject ‘the slightest dose of reversibility’ into the simulacral machinery, like any system that approaches total perfection ‘everything collapses at once’ (Baudrillard, 2007:55). In order to seduce Baudrillard then, we might attempt some ‘theoretical violence—speculation to [his] death,’ and our only method will be the radicalization of his hypotheses (Baudrillard, 1993:5).

What if, at the time of writing, Baudrillard’s conceptions of simulation appear so convincing, precisely because they too are dead? Perhaps now, his writing is a mirror of the simulation that it attempts to describe. For example, one can argue that by writing an anti-production polemic, Baudrillard nonetheless produced a novel discourse. In doing so, Baudrilard like Foucault ends up replicating the structures of capital that he intends to decry. And it should go without saying, that by reviving this debate I too have produced a novel essay, which can be dismissed for the same reasons—a simulation of theory. However, Baudrillard’s insight that it is the form of production that needs to be rethought proves decisive. Where possible, I have attempted to rework passages of Baudrillard in order to render them applicable in a new context. Here his previous theory becomes a seductive place of challenge, strategy and conflict. And by openly declaring the process of re-appropriation, production is undermined as it is underpinned by the romantic conception of an author laboring to create novel literary property. This strategy, analogous to detournement reverses how capital has remade theory into a version of itself, creating a constantly seductive rouse of ideas, disrupting the system from within.

The above (attempted) Baudrillardian provocation is a fatal strategy that does not criticise theory. Rather it demonstrates that Baudrillard was correct in suggesting that Marx and Foucault were unable to think beyond capital, and ended up reproducing its mechanisms in their texts. But what if Baudrillard has committed the same mistake? As we have seen, the orders of simulation are tethered to capital. Crucially, Baudrillard’s steady progression of orders requires a faith in the market to accumulate and allow for continued unrestrained consumption. In light of continuing recessions, stagflation, and the decline of wages, the fourth order now seems unlikely. By positing a fourth order, Baudrillard’s theory appears to be so fascinated with capital, that it naively or unconsciously, believes in the claims it attempts to challenge. And as a result, by anticipating a fourth order, Baudrillard’s theory unwittingly provides a distraction as our current economic disasters wreak havoc.

So, what to make of Simulation in the 21st Century? First, we might ask if the system itself is resisting Baudrillard’s hypothesised unrestrained metastasis.  For example, in light of escalating economic inequality, are certain signs not being re-subordinated from their emancipation? Certainly, the growing importance of protecting brand-value seems to suggest that the system is attempting to secure the meaning of certain signs via legal interventions such as the trademark. In addition, as a result of the growing economic inequality, the masses are being pushed out of the upper echelons of consumption and limiting their access to certain signs. It’s as if in the consumer society, no one has thought to think about the implications of growing semiotic inequality. No doubt this is an example of the structural law of value ensuring the continuity of pre-established social hierarchies. But should economic inequality continue to increase, signs may become more stable than Baudrillard had initially theorised. Edged out of certain spheres of consumption, might the silent masses awake from their indifferent slumber (Baudrillard, 1983)?

Again, the difficulty of critique versus challenge will present itself again. And it is here that (hypo)critical theory must become fatal. Post-transpolitical thought must exploit power by finding sites whereby ‘a gentle push in the right place is enough to bring it crashing down’ (Baudrillard, 1993: 4). Parenthetically, an example of this currently might be online film and music piracy, whereby hyper-consumption threatens to be the end of copyright law. The challenge for the masses will be to find more of these sites, and to attempt to outbid them to the point of death.  And as for the simulated campus protests, their task may be to occupy their university abstractly. To go about their elite education, attaining the so-called prestigious jobs they decry, only to become like a computer virus—internal virulence instigating malignant reversibility (Baudrillard, 2002). In this way, a virtual strategy becomes real.


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