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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 3 (October, 2007).


Special Issue: Remembering Baudrillard



The Telegraph Obituary for Jean Baudrillard1

 

The Telegraph Newspaper

(London, England, UK: www.telegraph.co.uk).

 

            Jean Baudrillard, who died on Tuesday aged 77, was a leading post-modernist thinker and social theorist best known for his concept of "hyperreality" – the theory that modern man can no longer tell what reality is because he has become lost in a world of "simulacra", images and signs created and presented as "real" by the mass media; many regarded him as the most important French philosopher of the last 50 years.

            In fact Baudrillard was not the first to come up with this idea – or something like it. In the 18th century, Bishop Berkeley had theorized that all that individuals know about an object or an event is their perception of it, a perception placed in their mind by God. More than a century later Berkeley's thought experiment was summarized in limerick form by Ronald Knox: There was a young man who said "God/ Must think it exceedingly odd/ If he finds that this tree/ Continues to be/ When there's no one about in the Quad", to which the reply ran: "Dear Sir, your astonishment's odd: I am always about in the Quad/ And that's why this tree/ Will continue to be/ Since observed by Yours faithfully, God."

            Baudrillard's theory was similar except that God's place was taken by the mass media, his contention being that if we live in a Disneyesque world in which our understanding is shaped by media-driven signs, and the tools of historical intelligibility have disappeared, how can we tell what is real – if indeed there is any such thing as reality? This essentially nihilist outlook led Baudrillard to some startling conclusions, such as that encapsulated in the title of his 1991 book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. The war, he claimed, really existed only on a symbolic level since neither side could claim victory, nothing had changed politically in Iraq, and the conflict itself was largely a staged set-piece "video game" of computer effects and CNN graphics. More controversial still was his contention, in an essay entitled The Spirit of Terrorism: Requiem for the Twin Towers (2002), that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York were largely a "dark fantasy" manufactured by the media. While terrorists had committed the atrocity, he wrote, they were only putting the finishing touches to "the orgy of power, liberation, flows and calculation which the twin towers embodied". The horror of the victims in the towers, he wrote, "was inseparable from the horror of living in them". The article provoked a predictable outcry. "It takes a real demonic genius," wrote one critic, "to brush off the slaughter of thousands on the grounds that they were suffering from severe ennui brought on by boring modern architecture."

            Baudrillard had a genius for gnomic utterances such as "God exists, but I don't believe in him"; "I feel like a witness to my own absence"; and "The sad thing about artificial intelligence is that it lacks artifice, and therefore intelligence." Critics complained that his complexities amounted to pretentious gibberish and dismissed him as a charlatan – or at best an ironic postmodern joke. But others regarded him as a thinker of striking originality who did more than anyone to reflect the dislocating realities of modern consumer culture.

            Baudrillard became the subject of numerous dissertations and was one of the five or six most cited figures in the academic firmament. He also became a cult hero to neo-pop artists of the 1980s and 1990s, providing them with a new jargon to explain their work. His theory that modern reality consisted of little more than "simulacra" seemed to justify the theory that art has no purpose beyond its own promotion; in deference to the theory, artists such as Peter Halley and Alan McCollum devoted acres of canvas to works of "simulation". When Baudrillard appeared at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1987, a journalist reported that "collectors, dealers and artists turned out in droves, as for the Messiah". In the science fiction film The Matrix, which was much influenced by his theories, the hero hides illegal computer programmes in a hollowed-out copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. But amid all the fuss, Baudrillard remained calm and disengaged. "I keep a distance from the world which, for me, is not truly real," he explained, "so the happiness which I can have in it is not necessarily real."

            The grandson of peasants and the son of civil servants, Jean Baudrillard was born at Rheims, northern France, on July 29, 1929. After leaving the local secondary school, he went to Paris for a year's intensive study at the Lycée Henri IV. He studied German at the Sorbonne, after which he found work as a German teacher in lycées. At the same time he produced French translations of poetry by Berthold Brecht and plays by Peter Weiss and also wrote essays and reviews for the radical journal Les Temps Modernes.

 

© The Telegraph


Endnotes


1 This obituary was originally posted in The Telegraph on March 8, 2007: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/03/08/db0801.xml

 



© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)

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