1 Jan 2003

Jean Baudrillard

Sociologist and Philosopher

A famous social philosopher and "hyperrealist," he is a leading critic of the postmodern culture, the economy of communication, and the media system.

Jean Baudrillard, notorious French sociologist, cultural critic, and theorist of postmodernity, was born in 1929 in Reims.

Baudrillard was the first in his family to attend university, is an ex-university sociology teacher, and a leading intellectual figure of his time. He completed his doctoral thesis in sociology under the tuition of Henri Lefebvre. He was associated with Roland Barthes, and he was also influenced by Marshall McLuhan who demonstrated the importance of the mass media in any sociological overview.

The foundation of Baudrillard's philosophy is the criticism of traditional, critical scientific thinking, replacing reality with the illusion of truth. We live in an illusion, the radical illusion, where things are exactly what they seem to be. The illusion is the immediate experience one has through the five senses, a subjective experience tainted by feelings and without rationalizations.

He is a thinker who builds on what was being thought by others and breaks through via a key reversal of logic to make fresh analysis.

His thinking has passed through three phases – actually shifts of strategy, tenor, and emphasis rather than content – comprising a path from the post-Marxist (1968-'71), to the socio-linguistic (1972-'77), to the techno – prophetic. In recent years he has become best known as prophet of the implosion of meaning that attends the postmodern condition.

Baudrillard's philosophy centers on the twin concepts of "hyperreality" and "simulation." These terms refer to the virtual or unreal nature of contemporary culture in an age of mass communication and mass consumption. We live in a world dominated by simulated experience and feelings, Baudrillard believes, and have lost the capacity to comprehend reality as it really exists. We only experience prepared realities – edited war footage, meaningless acts of terrorism, the destruction of cultural values and the substitution of "referendum."

In his own words:
"The very definition of the real has become: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction. . . The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: that is the hyperreal… which is entirely in simulation."

Baudrillard argues in his book In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (1983) that contemporary society has entered into a phase of implosion. The masses no longer make themselves evident as a class (a category which has lost its force because of a proliferation of possible identities), they have been swamped by so much meaning that they have lost all meaning. They have absorbed and neutralized ideology, religion and the transcendental aspirations that accompany them. The masses have also absorbed all the old, modern categories which were once a potentially liberating force. According to Baudrillard the "Law that is imposed on us is the law of confusion of categories. Everything is sexual. Everything is political. Everything is aesthetic. All at once… Each category is generalized to the greatest possible extent, so that it eventually loses all specificity and is reabsorbed by all other categories."

In his book, The Perfect Crime (1996), Baudrillard turns detective in order to investigate a crime which he hopes may yet be solved: the "murder" of reality. To solve the crime would be to unravel the social and technological processes by which reality has quite simply vanished under the deadly glare of media "real time."

But Baudrillard is not merely intending to lament the disappearance of the real, an occurrence he recently described as "the most important event of modern history," nor even to meditate upon the paradoxes of reality and illusion, truth and its masks. The Perfect Crime is also a penetrating examination of vital aspects of the social, political and cultural life of the "advanced democracies" in the late twentieth century. Where critics like McLuhan once exposed the alienating consequences of "the medium," Baudrillard lays bare the depredatory effects of an oppressive transparency on our social lives, of a relentless positivity on our critical faculties, and of a withering 'high definition' on our very sense of reality.

Source: www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard.html