Jean Baudrillard

Philosophy and Literature 14 (1990): 234-38.

Denis Dutton

The editor who anthologizes the work of a single author typically feels compelled in an introduction to explain why the book’s contents are so splendid and worthy of our every attention. In just this respect, Mark Poster’s entree to his anthology, Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (Stanford University Press, $32.50 cloth, $10.95 paper), is a refreshingly honest exception. Poster presents what is probably as clear and intelligent an exposition of Baudrillard’s ideas as you’ll find anywhere. But despite his obvious sympathy with Baudrillard, he is willing to add that the writing “is open to several criticisms.” Baudrillard ignores contrary evidence for his claims, which are expressed in a style characterized by Poster as “hyperbolic and declarative, often lacking in sustained, systematic analysis when it is appropriate” Baudrillard extrapolates from limited areas of experience, such as television images, “as if nothing else in society mattered.” Poster regrets that Baudrillard “fails to define his major terms,” and that he “totalizes” his claims without qualification or limitation.

Jean Baudrillard

To this list of charges I would add only that, when it isn’t unintelligible, almost everything Baudrillard says is either trite or somehow — vaguely or baldly — false. We are not allowed long to forget that Baudrillard is a sociology professor. Poster believes that “Baudrillard’s work is invaluable in beginning to comprehend the impact of new communication forms on society.” I’d advise anyone seeking to understand the broad implications of computer and video technologies for information and entertainment to search elsewhere, but if you want to know which way the wind is blowing in “theory,” this is the place. The selections in this book begin in 1968, when Baudrillard was still some kind of a Marxist, and continue through “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media” (1985). This last piece proposes the familiar notion that we are imprisoned in a world of media simulations, video phantasms, and that we cannot come to know the real not because we are ignorant but because we are overinformed: “we will never in the future be able to separate reality from its statistical, simulative projection in the media.” This isn’t an uncertainty we’ve experienced in the past, but a brand new kind of uncertainty brought about by an excess of information.

So much for the trite part about video simulations replacing reality and media/ information overload. The false part comes when Baudrillard talks about the public reaction to this. The response of “the masses” (he still fancies bits of Marxist parlance) to the media is silence — people get even with public opinion polls, television, advertising, and so forth by plunging themselves into a state of stupor. Like McLuhan, Baudrillard doesn’t want to call this sort of thing good or bad; unlike McLuhan, he gives very few examples of the phenomena he purports to describe. There are no examples whatsoever of how public silence, passivity, and alienation serve as “strategies” to counter and undermine the oppression of the media. And how could he give an example of this? To be sure, there is an abundance of stupified people out there sitting in front of television screens; but to portray their stupefaction as a form of calculated revenge on the media is frivolous without even being interesting.

Just as frivolous, but at least more amusing, is Baudrillard’s travel adventure though America (Verso, $24.95). I’ve met young people who at their first encounter with Europe will gush that it was “just like a movie.” Naive, yes, though it’s a perfectly natural reaction if you’ve never seen Europe except in movies; eventually the feeling wears off. I do hope Baudrillard will continue to visit the States, as I’m sure he’ll outgrow his sense that in America “cinema is true because it is the whole of space, the whole way of life that are cinematic . . . life is cinema. . . . The American city seems to have stepped right out of the movies.” A week’s visit with relatives — anybody’s relatives — in Des Moines, sleeping on a sofa bed, might have cured such delusions, but he seems to have spent most of his time either on the freeways or in such “paradisiacal” haunts as Santa Barbara.

Most European accounts of America adopt an angle, and besides the mandatory clichés about Disneyland and American hyperreality, Baudrillard’s theme is the untamed primitivism of the place. Old Europe is gray with thought, bent under the weight of history. But there’s a savage animalism about these Americans. Of the Black and Puerto Rican women of New York, he remarks that “black, the pigmentation of the dark races, is like a natural make-up that is set off by the artificial kind to produce a beauty which is not sexual, but sublime and animal.”

Like most Europeans, he’s much impressed by the desert, and in fact some of his genuinely best writing describes Death Valley. But theory demands more than mere landscape narratives: “for us the whole of America is a desert. Culture exists there in a wild state: it sacrifices all intellect, all aesthetics in a process of literal transcription into the real.” Indeed, that is why “searching for works of art or sophisticated entertainment here has always seemed tiresome and out of place to me.” Not that there aren’t things to admire: “This is a world that has shown genius in its irrepressible development of equality, banality, and indifference.” Baudrillard is excited to see his theories confirmed in America by “the disappearance of history and the real in the televisual.”

Between “Tupanga Canyon” and “Willshire Boulevard,” our doughty traveler visits the Getty Museum, which predictably follows “American logic, the pure baroque logic of Disneyland.” It is a place “where old paintings look new, bleached and gleaming, cleansed of all patina and craquelure, with an artificial lustre.” Okay about the patina, but how did those conservators get rid of the craquelure? Did they paint in the cracks? Does Professor B. have any idea what he’s talking about? (The Getty ought to consider issuing sepia-toned spectacles to people who think old paintings ought to look as grimy as the Sistine ceiling used to be.) Anyway, it doesn’t make any difference to Baudrillard as far as America is concerned, since there is “no culture here, no cultural discourses. No ministries, no commissions, no subsidies, no promotion.”

Some writers in their manner and stance intentionally provoke challenge and criticism from their readers. Others just invite you to think. Baudrillard’s hyperprose demands only that you grunt wide-eyed or bewildered assent. He yearns to have intellectual influence, but must fend off any serious analysis of his own writing, remaining free to leap from one bombastic assertion to the next, no matter how brazen. Your place is simply to buy his books, adopt his jargon, and drop his name wherever possible.

Closing Baudrillard’s French generalizations about America, I recalled a Czech generalization about France. In an interview appended to the Penguin edition of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera remarks that for centuries France “was the center of the world and nowadays it is suffering from the lack of great historic events. This is why it revels in radical ideologic postures. It is the lyrical, neurotic expectation of some great deed of its own which however is not coming, and never will come.”


Copyright © 1990 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.