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“Really” Remembering Baudrillard

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The Death of Jean Baudrillard Did Not Take Place
By G. Christopher Williams

While it is a seemingly bleak and dismal prospect to be the man who may be best known for declaring the “death of the real”, I suppose that some positive spin can be placed on the fact that Jean Baudrillard apparently was able to outlive “the real” by at least a few years.

The news of Baudrillard’s death reached me on the morning of 7 March as such news often does in academia—through the grapevines that emerge when prominent critics, scholars or literary artists die and the public at large takes little notice. A philosophy professor at my university had passed on a link to a New York Times obituary to a number of folks, mostly specialists in contemporary philosophy but also, like myself, a specialist in 20th century literature.

As always, I was a little saddened—both by Baudrillard’s passing but also by the fact that his obituary came to my attention in this obscure, word-of-mouth fashion while the whole country had been fascinated by the death of Anna Nicole Smith just weeks before. Yet something seems quite appropriate in the public’s absence of awareness of Baudrillard’s death in the wake of all the press surrounding Smith’s death; Baudrillard’s own critique of media centered on absence and especially the absence generated by the white noise of mass media.

Baudrillard began his scholarly life as a fairly traditional Marxist critic railing against the prevailing consumer culture in such works as The System of Objects (1968) and The Consumer Society (1970). But his later work, generally cultural critique focusing on mass media and pop culture, was what would make him notable—notorious, perhaps—within both academic and even mainstream culture. Books like America (1986) and The Illusion of the End (1992) offered fascinating observations on the pop culture iconography that has come to dominate late 20th century culture.

Simulacra and Simulations (1981) most clearly defines Baudrillard’s concerns. There he defines the term hyperreal to describe how mass media consumers view reality. Simulations of reality, he argued, have become “more real than the real” to such consumers as they regard the significance of the sign (that which represents a real thing—a form of simulation) more crucial to life than the reality it formerly signified. In essence, Baudrillard suggests that the copies of reality have overtaken reality and replaced them. Famously he described the simulated world of Disney’s Magic Kingdom and how it disguises and parallels the absence of the real in the equally simulated landscape of American culture:

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.

Baudrillard’s frequently maligned book, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, is a particular study of just such an effect of spectacle trumping direct experience of the world. While critics (who seem to have never gotten past the title of the text) curse Baudrillard’s inhumanity in claiming that a war never happened, these literalists fail to see the more chilling metaphor that the book suggests. While the media has often been acknowledged as having helped end the Vietnam War by bringing its horrors into our living room, making “direct” experience of the carnage a cause for political action, our interest in the Gulf War and the Iraq war was directed toward the spectacle of tracers and explosions lighting up the sky of Baghdad rather than the human lives lost. Baudrillard argues the media strips human dignity from what an audience vicariously experiences; we become fixated on the noise, not the signal.

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