Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)
Book Review: Jean Baudrillard: Against Banality
Review of William Pawlett (2007). Jean Baudrillard: Against Banality. London and New York: Routledge.
Reviewed by Victor Gazis
(Graduate Studies, Birmingham University, England, UK)
William Pawlett presents a warm and engaging introduction to Jean Baudrillard – the man, his work, and his place among contemporary theorists. Unusually, when it comes to expositions of Baudrillard’s work, there is no apparent political or personal agenda driving this publication. It also manages to avoid the limitations consistent with other often necessarily narrow, and specific, applications of Baudrillardian theories. This allows the author to present an enthusiastic account of Baudrillard's entire body of work. Chapter by chapter, Pawlett takes the reader on a journey through Baudrillard’s career and writing. In doing so he manages to thoughtfully engage with Baudrillard on multiple levels: from his sometimes neglected “grand” social theories, to those more celebrated in-depth, full-length, studies of the consumer society and terrorism.
Chapters 1 and 2 deal with some familiar territory. Chapter 1 tackles Baudrillard’s analysis of “the consumer society”, as expressed in The System of Objects (1996). The author points to both the weaknesses and strengths of this example of Baudrillard’s work, by recognising the thoroughness of Baudrillard’s descriptive approach, and his “uncharacteristic” lack of “critical force and experimentalism” (Pawlett, 2007, 7). Chapter 2 reflects upon Baudrillard’s often discussed, though, according to Pawlett, misleading “Break with Marxism” (Ibid.:28). In this chapter he discusses Baudrillard’s admiration for Marx, in terms of his analysis of the capitalist system. However, by detailing the thoughts and ideas that drove The Mirror of Production (Baudrillard, 1975), Pawlett also elaborates upon Baudrillard’s contention that Marx, traditional Marxism, and its re-working by the Frankfurt School, fail to challenge the system at a fundamental level.
In my opinion, Chapter 3 is the defining point in Pawlett’s book. This is where the author tackles Baudrillard’s crucial, but often overlooked book in terms of critical attention, Symbolic Exchange and Death (Baudrillard, 1993). Confronting the complex, though indispensable, concept of “symbolic exchange”, articulated by Baudrillard in Symbolic Exchange and Death, allows Pawlett to (Chapter 4) move smoothly into presenting Baudrillard’s “grand” analysis of the genealogy of the image, as depicted in the “Orders of Simulacra”. This, in turn, facilitates a detailed and comprehensive account of “Simulation and the End of the Social” (Pawlett, 2007, 70). Furthermore, by portraying “symbolic-exchange” as a reversal of the familiar terms allied with the economy, and other “pillars” of Western culture, Pawlett is able to (Chapter 5), provide an erudite discussion of Baudrillard’s controversial, complex, and often misunderstood concept of “seduction” and its associated concepts of “the body” and “sexuality”.
In Chapter 6 Pawlett introduces the reader to Baudrillard’s resolve to defy, challenge and provoke a response. This chapter: “Into the Fourth Order” reflects upon Baudrillard’s “Fatal Theory and Radical Thought” (Ibid.:118) and his determination of the uncertainty that lies beyond the illusion of “truth” and “reality”. Chapter 7 demonstrates the consistency of Baudrillard’s “body of work” by reflecting upon how his career-long, and recurring themes, of “symbolic-exchange” and “reversal” were, in his later work, applied to the contemporary issues of “War, Terrorism and 9/11” (Ibid.:133). This illustration of Baudrillard’s consistency continues into the final chapter of Pawlett’s book. Here, the author returns to “the consumer society” as depicted in Chapter 1, and considers its relationship with the traditional sociological concepts of “Subjectivity, Identity and Agency” (Ibid.:150).
This book is primarily aimed at the undergraduate audience and it should serve this purpose well. Without self-indulgence or complexities associated with similar secondary texts and publications, it presents a radical thinker, and his complex social theories, in a manner accessible to those without any prior knowledge of Baudrillard’s work. For this reason alone it is capable of becoming an invaluable resource for tutors and students alike. Pawlett’s book, however, is not limited to this primary audience. It also has a place as a useful “clarification tool” as it provides ample depth, sufficient detail, and a comprehensive index.
Pawlett’s focus on the difficult and sometimes ignored elements of Baudrillard’s work demonstrates the strength of a frequently misinterpreted, and even mocked, social thinker. He manages to convey the importance and impact of Baudrillard’s sociological background, the strength and depth of his knowledge of philosophy, and the value of Baudrillard’s own particular approach. Crucially, by following a steady path through Baudrillard’s writing, beginning with an elucidation of his fundamental concepts and thought-processes, Pawlett is able to communicate that Baudrillard is not a maverick, nor an eccentric, but an insightful and unswerving theorist whose ideas are as relevant now as they were when he first came to the public’s attention with his analyses of the consumer society. Also, whereas Baudrillard is often conceived of as a nihilist, determined to subvert, rather than expose or interpret, Pawlett understands him to be a shrewd, passionate and progressive thinker interested in a radical re-consideration of contemporary theory, culture and society. This exposition is assisted by the author’s neutral stance which allows him to avoid labelling or cornering Baudrillard into a particular genre: whether that is post-modern, post-structuralist or any other.
As an undergraduate sociology student with a burgeoning interest in Baudrillard, I was often frustrated by my inability to find an “entry point” into Baudrillardian theory. I had grown accustomed to the language and concepts associated with traditional sociology of modernity. Furthermore, the philosophy courses and texts recommended to me were geared, almost in their entirety, towards rationality and enlightenment thought. Therefore my introduction to notions of simulation, uncertainty and symbolic-exchange was a stimulating, though somewhat confusing, period in my university experience. So, in order to facilitate an understanding, I trawled the university library and internet resources for a clear introduction to Baudrillard. This became an exasperating experience as I found a distinct lack of essential secondary texts, and those that were available, such as Kellner’s Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond’ (1989), although they made interesting reading, appeared to reflect the thoughts and ambitions of the authors, rather than expressing Baudrillardian theory. This book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Baudrillard, from the uninitiated, to more expert followers of his work interested in a clear and concise exposition of one of the foremost social theorists of our time.
Jean Baudrillard [© 1973] (1975). The Mirror of Production. St Louis: Telos.
Jean Baudrillard [© 1979] (1990). Seduction. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Jean Baudrillard [© 1976] (1993). Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage.
Jean Baudrillard [© 1968] (1996). The System of Objects. London: Verso.
Kellner, D. (1989) Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
William Pawlett (2007). Jean Baudrillard: Against Banality. London: Routledge.