Obituary – Au revoir Baudrillard: The Last of the Great French Postmodernists1
of Philosophy, Cambridge University, UK).
the play Travesties, Tom Stoppard’s character James Joyce asks: “What
now of the Trojan war if it had been passed over by the artist’s touch? Dust. A
forgotten expedition prompted by Greek merchants looking for new markets. A
minor redistribution of broken pots.” Contrast what it is for us, mediated by
Homer: an epic of gods and heroes, struggle, lust and glory. The point generalizes.
Thackeray remarked how a bald, stupid, heartless little man with a paunch
became the majestic Louis XIV if put in the right shoes, robes and wig – and
that then, having set up the fantasy, we had to worship the result. The mirage
suits us better than the truth.
The late Jean Baudrillard pursued the same theme, with his
theatrical declamation that “Le gulf war n’existe pas.” On the face of it, this
is a crashing falsehood – which we must therefore read, charitably, as pointing
to some other claim. That is the French style, and it is a close cousin to any
use of metaphor. Those who called Mrs. Thatcher the iron lady did not mean that
she clanked when she walked.
Baudrillard was not concerned with the artist’s touch but with what
happens when television and other media purport to take us to the field of
action. The 1990 Gulf war was modeled by planners using simulations; it was
won, if we call a massacre a victory, largely by pilots looking at computer
screens; and it was relayed to the public by television. Most consumers of
these images get no reality check; the image is all we have to go on. And the
image does not come to us innocently. What happened in 1990 may, indeed, have
been something more than a war: an episode in America’s cultural narcissism, a
hallucinatory projection of its fears and fantasies, a Faustian pact between
developed capitalism and virtual reality, a promotional video, or a simulacrum
indistinguishable from Disneyland. So Baudrillard’s hyperbole had a serious
point. He often provoked outrage by it, but when, for instance, he tactlessly
suggested that the iconic place of Nazi atrocities as a symbol of evil makes it
“logical” to ask whether they even existed, his point was not to ally himself
with the David Irvings of this world, but to suggest that for many political
and cultural purposes, the answer is irrelevant. As with God, it is our
investment that matters, not whether it is invested in a fiction.
Baudrillard’s ideas about simulated reality seem to have touched on
an old philosophical panic. Perhaps our senses are no better than our
televisions. Perhaps nature has varnished and spun the pictures we receive.
They too are commodities, bought in to provide sustenance. Perhaps, at the
limit, we live in a virtual reality, unable to comprehend our real position,
sentenced to a woeful life of dreams, myth, fiction and illusion. Baudrillard,
the inspiration for the Matrix films, tried to distance himself from the trite
opposition of one moment seeing through the glass darkly and then coming face
to face with reality, yet he enjoyed playing with its ingredients. I do not
think this was wise, since generalized scepticism implies that there is nothing
especially wrong about America or late capitalism or consumer society – and
would any self-respecting culture critic want to draw that conclusion?
In any event, it is not all simulacra. We are participants in a
public world, not hermits trapped in our own private cinemas. The cure for the
sceptical nightmare is action. Nobody stays sceptical while crossing the
street, or choosing dinner. Nor while dodging bombs and shells, even if they
are sent by people watching computer screens. In the hurly-burly of survival,
there is a lot that is hors texte – although this is more true for the
artisan driving nails or baking bread than for the politician (or academic)
whose work is confined to the production of signs and messages.
French postmodernism may be passing, but it had a point. Even if
engagement with the world is the cure, the respite it gives may be short-lived.
No sooner has the real moment gone than the work of memory begins, once more
selecting, massaging, suppressing and spinning. That moment is like a glimpse
of the naked king, or the politician’s one-day dash into the war zone: it may
be a glimpse of truth, but even if we are honest enough to see anything we do
not want to see, that in turn may just reinvigorate the work of disguise. That
can’t have been the real Louis XIV, or the real Iraq. And heaven forfend that
people see them like that – otherwise it might really destroy our legacy, or at
any rate the bit that counts: its representation in self-image, story and
in the Philosophy of Mind, Philosophy of Language and the Philosophy of
Psychology. His books include Lust (2004), Being Good (2001), Think
(1999), and the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (1994). He edited
the journal Mind from 1984-1990. This obituary is reprinted with his
Blackburn and Prospect Magazine