Volume 4, Number 3 (October, 2007).
Special Issue: Remembering Baudrillard
The Virtual World Fails to Describe the One who Described
Immomus Live Journal
The difference between
the French obituaries of Jean Baudrillard, who died last week, and the
Anglo-Saxon ones is remarkable. The Anglo ones seemed to be written by people
trapped in exactly the sort of spectral, consumerist cage that Baudrillard
described in his work, people nevertheless unaware of how well he had
understood their situation. And so we got, from Britain and America, pieces which began, over and over again, with the same two visual sound bites: 1)
That Baudrillard had said the first Gulf War "did not take place"
and, 2) That his ideas had inspired The Matrix (a film he hated and
refused to have anything to do with, by the way).
The best obituary appeared in Libération,
the paper for which he wrote many well known articles. They gave his death the
cover and several pages inside, and told us that Baudrillard was
"curiosity itself". Le Figaro told us, usefully and sensibly,
that Baudrillard "contested the very notion of a New World Order, because
it suggested the end of history and a conception of the universal in which the
figure of the other is by definition retrograde, barbaric or archaic", and
that his conception of postmodernity was of an era "marked by the erosion
of grand explanations of the world and by the hegemony of a consumerist
lifestyle". The Anglo press actually exemplified those things, offering
us no big ideas, a conception of Frenchmen as "the other", a few
anecdotes about Keanu Reeves and Madonna, some quotations which have grown
"iconic" by repetition, some hate mail, and some very peculiar and
contradictory stuff about consumerism.
What to make of the very odd article in The Scotsman entitled "Bookshop
hype owes a debt to Gallic genius of the hyper-real"? This told us that
"his ideas are probably a lot more sane than you might think" because
the policy of Waterston’s Booksellers to charge publishers £1000 to have a book
on display in the store and £10,000 to make it a featured display somehow
vindicated "crazy" Baudrillard's idea about simulacra and the
hyper-real? Some kind of claim that Baudrillard could be justified, after all,
as a slightly unconventional marketing guru seemed to be in the offing.
This was confirmed by the National Public Radio report in
which Mark Poster from the University of California at Irvine told listeners
that the French philosopher "was very interested in consumer
behaviour", and recounted Baudrillard's own consumer preference: unlike
Americans, he drank wine at lunch.
On the question of whether Baudrillard liked America, there was some confusion. The Times told us that Baudrillard was both
"a fierce critic of consumer culture" and "a tireless enthusiast
for America". For Reuters, though, Baudrillard's America
was "a high-speed travelogue seeking to lay bare the "banality"
of American culture" and his response to 9/11 "seemed to display a
lack of sympathy for the victims". Several articles quoted his statement
that America was the world's "last remaining primitive culture". For
some reports, Baudrillard thought Disneyland was "a paradise", others
reported that, for Baudrillard, "Disneyland is not a fantasy – it presents
an objective portrait of America. It tries to make you forget that the whole of
America is already infantilized".
BBC Radio 3's Nightwaves show found a British academic – Andy
Martin, reader in French Literature at Cambridge – who had actually dined,
once, one-to-one, with Baudrillard. He could remember just two things the guru
said, one about Madonna and one about surfing. Madonna had just produced this
book called "Sex" and, according to Martin, Baudrillard and Madonna
were not only at the same level of American celebrity at the time, but rumored
by some to be dating. Baudrillard said of Madonna: "Her tragedy is that
she can never get naked enough". When Martin, a keen surfer, said he
didn't like the way the word surfing was then being turned into a metaphor for
other things, like taking a computer onto the internet, Baudrillard said
"Everything that once was real has already become a metaphor". While
presenter Matthew Sweet wanted to end by calling Baudrillard "the greatest
fool of his age", Martin preferred to end on a technical note. "He is
a strong anti-foundationalist. I think the term postmodernist is already dead.
Does that help?"
It did indeed help, although the Figaro put it much more
coherently for the layman when they said "For Baudrillard we have become a
part of a universe where not only has all transcendent reference disappeared,
but in which the definition of reality itself has become problematical, as
evidenced by the predominance of virtual representations of the world over
values which foreground the notions of sense and truth."
Considering how widely Baudrillard's sound-bite about the first
Gulf War not having happened was repeated, it's surprising how little people
went into what Baudrillard had meant by that. Only Liberation went back
to the original statement: "War," said Baudrillard, "everywhere
except in the New World Order, is born from an antagonistic and destructive
relationship, a duel between two adversaries. But this war is asexual,
surgical, ‘war processing’. The enemy here is nothing but a target on a
computer screen, just as a sexual partner is nothing more than a pseudonym in a
sexy chat room on the Minitel Rose. If that's ‘sex’, well, the Gulf War can
pass for ‘war’".
Nobody pointed out that George Bush Junior seems to share Baudrillard's
disdain for the brevity and unreality of the first Gulf War, and his father's
New World Order. Bush Junior hates the "internets" and
"virtuality" as much as Baudrillard did. So convinced was he that the
first Gulf War didn't take place that he organized a second one. Far from being
a "surgical strike" in "virtual reality", his has lots of
real combat between real people on the ground, lots of torture, bloodshed and
suffering. It's still taking place today.2
2 Editor’s note: Baudrillard
understood this well when he wrote in 1981:
is no less atrocious for being only a simulacrum – the flesh suffers just the
same, and the dead and former combatants are worth the same as in other wars.
... What no longer exists is the adversity of the adversaries, the reality of
antagonistic causes, the ideological seriousness of war. And also the reality
of victory or defeat, war being a process that triumphs well beyond these
appearances (Simulacra and Simulation, 1994:37).