Jean Baudrillard’s Radical
(Ontario Institute of
Secondary Education, University of Toronto, Canada)
(1929-2007) was at once a confounding and playful thinker, who achieved
remarkable originality and insightfulness in his interdisciplinary amalgam of
sociology, culture studies, media theory, political economy, semiotics and psychoanalysis,
all of which contribute to a profound meditation on the character of our
“hyper” capitalist age. A long-time leading figure in French intellectual
circles, Baudrillard participated in the attempt to provide a new theoretical
framework for the Left which would challenge many of the structuralist and
modernist tenets of classical Marxist political economy and social theory.
Perhaps the most important philosophical movement this century has been the
postmodernism and post-structuralism which in part emerged from this project.
With its roots in Nietzsche and Heidegger and the linguistics of Saussure, and
grounded in the deconstruction of metaphysics and the “linguistic turn” towards
considering the character of discourse and communication, postmodernism has
radically and permanently altered the landscape of Western philosophy.
Born in 1929 in Reims,
France, Baudrillard studied sociology under Henri Lefebvre, and taught during
several tumultuous decades at Nanterre, beginning shortly before the student
uprising of May 1968. That same year saw the publication of his first book, The
System of Objects, a study of the meaning derived from consumption as the
process by which human social relations become mediated by objects. Baudrillard
sought to provide an understanding of the new “hyper” form of advanced
capitalism and technology which emerged through the virtual and simulated
character of contemporary experience. His account of the “implosion of meaning”
entailed by the proliferation of signs and the reduction of the sign to the
status of commodity points toward the simultaneous experience of the loss of
reality and the encounter with hyperreality.
In The Consumer
Society Baudrillard outlines how consumers buy into the “code” of signs
rather than the meaning of the object itself. His analysis of the process by
which the sign ceases pointing towards an object or signified which lies behind
it, but rather to other signs which together constitute a cohesive yet chaotic
“code”, culminates in the “murder of reality”. The rupture is so complete, the
absence so resounding, and the code so “totalitarian” that Baudrillard speaks
of the combined “violence of the image” and “implosion of meaning”. Politics,
religion, education, any human undertaking is swept up and absorbed by this
process and ultimately neutralized; any liberating activity becomes complicit
in the reproduction of its opposite. “The code is totalitarian; no one escapes
it: our individual flights do not negate the fact that each day we participate in
its collective elaboration”.2
Baudrillard’s preoccupation with the simulated and his radical questioning of
what remains of the “real” led him to such provocative statements as “the gulf
war did not take place”3
and “the collapse of the towers of the World Trade Center is unimaginable, but
that is not enough to make it a real event”.4
Jean Baudrillard’s radical questioning of the character of signs, symbols and
simulation in our postmodern age points towards the necessity to reconsider the
role of contemporary educational practices as a possible site of resistance to
the “code”. Is education invariably complicit in the “murder of the real”?
© Trevor Norris
2 Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects.
Translated by James Benedict, London and New York: Verso, 1996:22.
Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Bloomington &
Indianapolis, Indiana University Press; 1995.
4 Jean Baudrillard. “The Spirit of Terrorism”, Le
Monde, 2 November 2001.