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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 3 (October, 2007).

Special Issue: Remembering Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard and American Popular Culture1


Karina Longworth
(Film and Culture Writer and Anchor, Netscape.com)


            I've just learned that Jean Baudrillard died on Tuesday at the age of 77. Baudrillard is pretty much the only serious French theorist I can think of whose reputation survived a brief moment at the forefront of American pop culture. Eight years after the scholar flirted with total obscurity by daring to suggest that "the Gulf War did not take place," his key concepts of hyperreality and simulation were transplanted into the Matrix. Baudrillard cleverly managed his moment under the spotlight of the simulacrum, dismissing the Wachowski brothers for having "misunderstood" his work. To some extent, that's probably true, but this in itself was vintage Baudrillard: it's not just that the guy was a born negater, it's that negation was his only move. It was a character flaw that became an imperative.
            The best thing about reading Baudrillard, I think, is stumbling across the passages where he is straining to resist the lure of hyperreality. A couple of months ago I picked up The Conspiracy of Art, a collection of essays and interviews with Baudrillard edited by Sylvere Lotringer. Reading the interviews, it's clear that he had a fondness, maybe even a passion, for contemporary film. It may have been partly a guilty pleasure, partly academic interest, but he's not by any means entirely dismissive. Here's a passage about The Matrix:

After the release of the first episode, the staff of the Wachowski brothers got in touch with me, hoping to get me involved with the following ones. But this was out of the questions [laughter] ... Other films have already dealt with the growing blurring between the real and the virtual: The Truman Show, Minority Report, or even Mulholland Drive, David Lynch's masterpiece. The Matrix's chief value is that it pushes all these elements to a paroxysm. Yet it does it more crudely and in a far less complex way. Either the characters are in The Matrix, and belong to the digitized universe, or they are radically outside it–in Zion, the resistor's city. it would be interesting to show what happens at the point where these two worlds meet. The most embarrassing part of the film is that it confuses the new problem raised by simulation with its arch-classical, Platonic treatment. That is a serious flaw.


            Baudrillard's inability to completely dismiss popular culture runs through America, his diary of a coast-to-coast drive published in 1986. He never stops being critical, but no man could write so lovingly (even if semi-ironically) if his sole intention was to scold. Here he is writing about a Southern California suburb:

The only element of culture, the only mobile element: the car. No cultural centre, no centre of entertainment. A primitive society: the same motor identification, the same collective phantasy of an unfolding ritual – breakfast, movie, religious service, love and death – the whole of life as a drive-in.


            I've spent the last hour going through Baudrillard's many obituaries, and this thought from the Times Online manages the best summation:

Opposition, Baudrillard came to assert, could only now be realized in the form of singularities that could in principle never be absorbed into western cultures. Ultimately, his writing became unclassifiable, a kind of singularity itself. His own project, nihilism and hermetic language were unique, lending themselves neither to codification nor to being organized into a coherent doctrine.


© Karina Longworth


1 This remembrance originally appeared at: http://vidiocy.com/2007/03/jean-baudrillard-dead-at-77.html


© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)

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