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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 3 (October, 2007).

Special Issue: Remembering Baudrillard

All that is solid melts into air1

Shelley Walia

(Staff Writer, The Hindu Magazine)


            A post-aesthetic sensibility fascinated by the excesses of late capitalism, a mind that clearly viewed the alienating contemporary architecture in the U.S. and the disparity between the rich and the poor, a cultural critic who regarded the altered relationship between the individual and the new technology as the blemish on civilization. Such was the intellectual stature of Jean Baudrillard. Born in 1929 in Reims into a peasant family, Jean Baudrillard, a provocative French philosopher, taught sociology at the University of Nanterre for over 20 years after completing his research under the able supervision of Henri Lefebvre. He was also influenced by the works of Marshall McLuhan and Roland Barthes, by Nietzsche and Bataille, as is visible in his diverse interest in various intellectual discourses including structural Marxism and media theory.

            The leading post-modernist thinker, a confirmed enemy of meaning and interpretation in the traditional sense of the terms, died aged 77 at his home in Paris a few days ago. More than any other critic, it was Baudrillard who struck the apocalyptic tone in prudently identifying the political stakes involved in the gestation of the New World Order. The perspective anticipated the current scenario of amazing technological advancement and of the dangers of living more in the virtual world than in the real one.

            Of the most controversial writing today, his original and brilliant views on almost all aspects of life, matched by his stylistic virtuosity, destroy pre-conceived notions of approaching the question of reality. As in his other works such as In the Shadows of the Silent Majorities, Simulations and Simulacra, Fatal Strategies, and Cool Memories, Baudrillard followed a certain active and methodical disorientation that reaffirmed the necessity for a rigorous and generative review of the contemporary scene from the perspective of his twin concepts of "hyper-reality" and "simulation".

            Within our culture of the hyper-real, lives are constituted by images and symbols, which have no reference to any concrete object or individual identity. In his book, The Perfect Crime (1996), Baudrillard like an expert detective tried to solve the "murder" of reality by disentangling the social and technological procedures by which reality has virtually disappeared under the defiant stare of the media. For instance, having a country breakfast on Oxford Street is the distant imitation of a lost and often already counterfeit reality, which Baudrillard calls "gigantic simulacrum" or an "age of simulacra and simulacrum, in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgment to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since every thing is already dead and risen in advance". This liberates us from the tiresome myth of originality or individuality. Baudrillard declared war against such a tyranny where human lives are shaped by “symbols functioning without reference to tangible objects, individual identities, or biological needs, all of which have in every important sense ceased to exit”. Scientific discovery, industrial upheavals, demographic transformations, urban expansion, mass movements, and all that results from the ever-expanding capitalist world market are processes of socio-economic modernisation. Such developments may appear solid but within the "dialectic of modernisation and modernism" they "melt into air".

            Writing about the Gulf War in a provocative book, The Gulf War Did not Take Place, Baudrillard applies the same view to the TV war that the world witnessed in 1991. We enter with him into the twilight zone of "virtual reality", a space that is all too familiar in the context of postmodernist media development. Here the copy is accepted to be the original. Increasingly removed from experience, over-dependent on representation of reality that comes to us through the television, we seem more and more willing to put our trust in intermediaries who represent the world.

            But does this not go against the fact that the war was fought and more high explosive used on a single day than in entire World War II. Thousands died of war and hunger and still Baudrillard maintains that the war did not take place! In his essays he makes a case for a “Baudrillard simulacrum, a hyper-real scenario in which events lose their identity and signifiers fade into one another”. Baudrillard regards the war as indeed a farce enacted through a war of images where the events were “devoured in advance by the parasite virus, the retro-virus of history”. Both opponents dupe the TV viewer. Therefore the war could not take place, and most certainly it did not. Virtual and relentless in its unfolding, it only foreclosed the enemy under an electronic sky.

            In his recent book The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers, Baudrillard saw a huge elation at the damage to the global superpower symbolized in the collapse of the Twin Towers. For one can easily see the superpowers stirring up violence all around the world, and thereby committing, what Jean Baudrillard writes, “suicide in a blaze of glory”. Any power that becomes hegemonic foments deep-seated desires of its extermination. Do we not all dream of killing our dominant and oppressive father, an anti-Oedipus trait that looks down upon any “definitive order” or “definitive power”. Most logically then, Baudrillard goes on to reason that `the increase in the power of power heightens the will to destroy it'. It was the system itself, which created the objective conditions for this brutal retaliation. By seizing all the “cards for itself, it forced the Other to change the rules”. It is nothing but “terror against terror”. While terrorists had committed the atrocity, he wrote: "It is we who have wanted it. Terrorism is immoral, and it responds to a globalization that is itself immoral."

            We will miss this intellectual terrorist, who has not only interpreted for us our world of sign systems, media and information in a most radical manner, but has drawn the attention of the contemporary cultural critic to the new social and cultural phenomena of our times. With him no more, it almost seems that history has come to an end, an idea that he argued for vehemently, especially in a world where all events had become inconsequential as well as bereft of any depth. He will indeed be remembered long for his outrageous asides and iconoclastic views on the post-modern condition.

© The Hindu Magazine


1 This obituary originally appeared in The Hindu Magazine on April 8, 2007: http://www.hindu.com/mag/2007/04/08/stories/2007040800100400.htm


© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)

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