and sociologist who blurred the boundaries between reality and simulation1
Unlimited, UK: http://www.guardian.co.uk).
at home in Paris (2001).
Baudrillard's death did not take place. "Dying is pointless," he once
wrote. "You have to know how to disappear." The New Yorker reported a
reading the French sociologist gave in a New York gallery in 2005. A man from
the audience, with the recent death of Jacques Derrida in mind, mentioned
obituaries and asked Baudrillard: "What would you like to be said about
you? In other words, who are you?" Baudrillard replied: "What I am, I
don't know. I am the simulacrum of myself."
simulacrum departed at the age of 77, attracted widespread notoriety for
predicting that the first Gulf war, of 1991, would not take place. During the
war, he said it was not really taking place. After its conclusion, he
announced, imperturbably, that it had not taken place. This prompted some to
characterize him as yet another continental philosopher who reveled in a
disreputable contempt for truth and reality.
Baudrillard was pointing out that the war was conducted as a media spectacle.
Rehearsed as a war-game or simulation, it was then enacted for the viewing
public as a simulation: as a news event, with its paraphernalia of embedded
journalists and missile's-eye-view video cameras, it was a videogame. The real
violence was thoroughly overwritten by electronic narrative: by simulation.
had been Baudrillard's name for the defining problem of the age since the
1970s, when he wrote that the Marxian problem of class struggle had been
replaced, in the "post-industrial" era, with the problem of
simulation. He thus anticipated, by a decade or two, later arguments about the
nature of "virtual reality". Pop culture paid tribute to
Baudrillard's prescience in Andy and Larry Wachowski's 1999 film The Matrix,
about a near-future earth where human society is a simulation designed by
malign machines to keep us enslaved. Hacker hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) hides his
contraband software in a hollowed-out copy of one of the philosopher's books,
and rebel chief Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) quotes Baudrillard's most famous
formula: "Welcome to the desert of the real."
was invited to collaborate on the sequels, but declined. He later protested
wryly that The Matrix had got him wrong: "The most embarrassing
part of the film is that the new problem posed by simulation is confused with
its classical, Platonic treatment ... The Matrix is surely the kind of film
about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce."
was born in the cathedral town of Reims in north-eastern France. His grandparents were peasants and his parents became civil servants. He was the
first of his family to go to university, studying German at the Sorbonne in Paris, and he later said that this led to a break with his family and cultural milieu. In 1956
he began teaching German at a French lycée, and in the early 1960s published
essays on literature for the journal Les Temps Modernes, as well as
translating works of Bertolt Brecht and Peter Weiss.
1966, Baudrillard joined the University of Nanterre, a small, fiercely radical
institution that was to become notable as the incubator of the Mouvement du
22 Mars and its subsequent role in the évènements of May 1968.
(Baudrillard later said he "participated" in the student revolts.)
That same year, his first book, The System of Objects, was published.
With the sociologist Henri Lefebvre and the cultural critic Roland Barthes as
his intellectual mentors, he gave sharp, ironic readings of interior-design
materials, gadgets, washing powder and other everyday phenomena.
subsequent works, including The Consumer Society (1970), The Mirror
of Production (1973), and Forget Foucault (1977), Baudrillard
developed arguments about the increasing power of the "object" over
the "subject" in modern society, and the way in which protest and
resistance were increasingly absorbed and turned into fuel by the symbolic
"system" of capitalism. During this period, he also wrote for the
1981 volume Simulacra and Simulation (the book that later appeared in The
Matrix) gained a wide audience, and Baudrillard soon found himself a
globetrotting academic superstar, discoursing on his themes of
"seduction" (the term that escapes the binary opposition of
"production" and "destruction") and "hyper-reality"
(the simulated realm that is "more real than the real"). In 1986 he
moved from Nanterre, which had, he lamented, become "normalized", to
the university of Paris-IX Dauphine.
characterized the 1990s, with its wishful illusions about the "end of history",
as a "stagnant" period in which events were on strike. Eventually the
strike was broken by the attacks on the US of September 11 2001. Baudrillard
called it "the ultimate event, the mother of all events". "It is
the terrorist model," he wrote, "to bring about an excess of reality,
and have the system collapse beneath that excess."
for Baudrillard, there was no longer any need for the media to virtualize
events, as in the first Gulf war, since the war's participants had thoroughly
internalized the rules of simulation. His 2004 essay, “War Porn”, observed how
the photographs from Abu Ghraib enacted scenes of fetishistic pornography,
concluding: "It is really America that has electrocuted itself." Baudrillard
took to calling his works "theory fictions": because the present is
always more fantastical than the most lurid science fiction, "theory"
must compete with it on an imaginative level. So Baudrillard offered himself as
an extrapolator, a canary in the cultural coalmine. "My work is paradoxical,"
he explained. "It's surrealist like fiction." He found a sympathetic
soul in the novelist J.G. Ballard, who called him "the most important
French thinker of the last 20 years". (In 1974, Baudrillard had hailed
Ballard's Crash as "the first great novel of the universe of
once wore a gold lamé suit with mirrored lapels while reading his poetry in a Las Vegas bar. If he didn't take himself particularly seriously, his critics complained
that he didn't take anything else seriously either. A recurring charge was that
it was politically and morally irresponsible, at the very least, to speak of
the "unreality" of modern war, because to do so was to ignore the
realities of killing and suffering. Baudrillard's response, in his 2004 book
The Lucidity Pact, or The Intelligence of Evil, was laconic: "The
reality-fundamentalists equip themselves with a form of magical thinking that
confuses message and messenger: if you speak of the simulacrum, then you are a
simulator; if you speak of the virtuality of war, then you are in league with
it and have no regard for the hundreds of thousands of dead ... it is not we,
the messengers of the simulacrum, who have plunged things into this discredit,
it is the system itself that has fomented this uncertainty that affects
sceptical British interviewer called Baudrillard a "philosopher
clown", a description to which he probably would not have objected,
instead taking it as an invitation to think about the social function of
clowns. As he once argued: "It is the task of radical thought, since the
world is given to us in unintelligibility, to make it more unintelligible, more
enigmatic, more fabulous." He was an aphorist. "Contemporary art is
contemporary only with itself," he growled; or: "Our sentimentality
towards animals is a sure sign of the disdain in which we hold them."
who is survived by his wife Marine, had once written a playful account of his
personal evolution, from "pataphysician" (a scientist of imaginary
solutions) at 20, to "viral" at 60. When I saw him in 2000, he was 70
years old. What was he now? He chuckled. "Well, let's see, at 70, I would
say that I am ... transfini. Beyond the end. It was my fateful strategy to go
beyond the concept, so as to see what happens beyond." Now, perhaps, he
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