Jean Baudrillard: He’s “real” dead

As someone who, for the longest time, doubted the possibility of human reality, let alone authenticity, Jean Baudrillard was a voice to put order to my fragmented ideas. Of course, this is hugely ironic since Baudrillard himself would argue that my need to turn to someone else to congeal my thoughts is proof of my own inauthenticity.

Perhaps you’d expect me to be taken aback by this imaginary poststructuralist diss, but I actually find evidence of my intellectual simulacrum quite comforting. In a way, it takes the ball out of my court, and gives me the freedom to see circular patterns elsewhere – the way information is transmitted and retransmitted, incorporated and recycled.

One of my favorite examples is the angry Islamic protestor. It isn’t a coincidence that “militants” in Iraq, Palestine, and Pakistan all perform the same ritualized song and dance while burning an American flag when the TV eye’s gaze is upon them. They are communicating to us what we expect them to – what our news broadcasts replay over and over, and ultimately send back to them. They are merely playing their part in the “terrorism” script.

Another one of my favorites is the American peace rally: it’s not a lark that peace activists in 2007 don’t look dissimilar to peace activists in 1968. We all know what a demonstration is supposed to look like: we can expect to see a celebrity or two, some college professors, and a bunch of cops to arrest the unruly “radicals” who get out of line.

Those of you who have seen documentaries on the ‘60s may have heard certain songs in your heads when I mentioned peace demonstrations . . . I usually hear “Blowing in the Wind” when I envision a placid rally and Hendrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” when I envision a more riotous affair. The point is that we fall in line, even in our hour of rebellion. That is, if rebellion could truly ever exist.

And was Hugo Chavez’s waving a Noam Chomsky text during his address to the UN any different than Yasser Arafat’s addressing the same body with a pistol tucked under his belt? Weren’t the messages the same?: “Don’t tread on me.” Where have I heard that before? Speaking of guns, why do gangstas hold their glocks sideways, but gangsters hold their heat perpendicular? Like all of us, our “criminals” are sold images of themselves.

The truth is, friends, we are all imitators. This is not a sad reality; it just may be the only reality we have. However, we Americans tend to see this as a problem to be solved because we were indoctrinated with the primacy of the iconic rugged individualist. Genuflection to this cult is what capitalism demands of us (but Marx, my comrades, is a discussion for another day). There is nothing wrong with being a nation of imitators — there are plenty of good role models to go around, and our mass inauthenticity can be seen as evidence of an even more elusive American ideal than individualism, equality. In other words, we are all treading water in the sea of simulacra.

When Baudrillard died a couple of weeks ago, I wondered what his last thought was. I joked to a friend that it was probably, “Merde, death is real!” I hope it was something like: “If I fold my arms across my chest and start to mumble something, and I die mid-sentence, my death will be the ultimate simulacrum.” In “reality” it was probably: “Zut! Where did I put my Gaulloises?”

At any rate, we lost an innovative and playful – if not entirely authentic – voice.

Merci, Jean…santé!

12 responses to “Jean Baudrillard: He’s “real” dead”

  1. Rachel says:

    Scott–I just came across a notice yesterday about Baudrillard’s death, so this is timely as well as thought-provoking.

    It also reminded me of a recent obituary in the New Yorker for George W.S. Trow, famous for (among other things) an essay called “Within the Context of No-Context.” Trow argues that one effect of mass culture has been to reduce the “grids” that unify people in networks of civil-society affiliation:

    “The middle distance fell away, so the grids (from small to large) that had supported the middle distance fell into disuse and ceased to be understandable. Two grids remained. The grid of the two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life–a shimmer of national life–and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening. People did not want to measure it.”

    Baudrillard might say that the grid of 200 million is founded on simulacra. Is the grid of intimate life a simulacrum, as well?

  2. Dave says:

    I got the bug to read a little Baudrillard after my trip to Vegas a few weeks ago, followed by the publicity about his death. Is there one book of his you’d recommend as an introduction?

  3. Tim Wager says:


    I loved this, especially your speculations about B.’s last words. I think the man himself would have appreciated your playfulness here.

    Dave, according to my own schema, Baudrillard had at least 3 distinct phases to his career as a thinker. I realize that someone who really knows Baudrillard would probably object to this characterization, because B. didn’t necessarily jettison his earlier work as he went along; he just changed focus and developed different avenues. (Also, I haven’t read much of his most recent stuff, so it may be very different).

    All the same, here they are, along with a single title I’d recommend for each: a critique of Marxism, attempting to refine it (For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign); a frenetic and dark critique of mass media, by which time he’d more or less left Marxism behind (Simulacra and Simulation, adapted for the screen by the Wachowski brothers and re-titled The Matrix); and an emergence into a playfully biting cultural analysis (America). After a visit to Vegas, you would probably be best starting with America and then working your way back from there if you are still interested. The book, just like the country it’s named for, is alternately liberatingly funny and frustratingly confusing.

  4. Scotty says:

    Rachel: short answer, yes. As we are saturated by images, and reality, as an authentic experience, becomes the small white dot in the middle of an old TV screen, our entire experience is transformed into the “hyperreal.” When we kiss, we become the picture of the kiss we saw in a magazine that morning.

    Dave: The Perfect Crime is sort of his Dark Side of the Moon, and America is like his White Album, but I’m really partial to The Spirit of Terrorism. It’s like his Darkness on the Edge of Town. It can be a little clunky in places, but it creeps up on you and stays with you longer than you might expect it to. Considering your Vegas trip, you may want to start with one of the first two. I would recommend a quick google search to acquaint yourself with some of his key concepts if you’re not familiar with them. But for a smart guy like you, I’m sure you’ll get it lickety split!

  5. Dave says:

    Thanks for the recommendations. Sounds like maybe America, although I was intrigued by Simulacra and Simulation after reading some blurbs on it recently.

    Does Baudrillard really use the authentic/inauthentic binary? Does he engage Heidegger’s critique of it? (Sounds like he’d be in a position to, but maybe the Marxism held him back.)

  6. Tim Wager says:

    It’s been a while since I read my Baudrillard, but I don’t recall his engaging the authentic/inauthentic binary or even really addressing Heidegger at all. For B., the authentic would always already be inaccessible and therefore not bothering with. B. claims that simulation precedes reality, hovers in front of it, occludes it, so any notion of authenticity we have is wholly a simulacra. I don’t think he’d really even say that simulation is inauthentic, either, but that because everything we know or have access to is simulation, the inauthentic exists on an equivalent plane with the authentic and is therefore indistinguishable from it. Everything becomes surface that only hints at depth. (Where The Matrix goes seriously off B.’s path is in its argument that there is a real into which we can free ourselves.)

    In America, B. uses the American desert as a recurring metaphor for postmodern surface. You could start with S&S, if you’re more inclined to begin with the pure theory. America could be called an illustration of S&S‘s theories, using the US as its text, but is probably more rightly a development of the theory, prompted by B.’s travels in America. It’s just a much more entertaining read than S&S, imho, and I think the earlier book is more understandable once you’ve read the later one. Also, in that you’re from New Mexico and have spent time in Salt Lake City, I think you’d enjoy his descriptions of some of the places you already know (or think you know).

  7. Tim Wager says:

    Weird, for some reason Scotty’s comment didn’t show up for me until after I replied to Dave just now. As I said earlier, I haven’t read the more recent stuff that Scott mentions here. B. may address the authentic/inauthentic binary more directly in it. I love Darkness on the Edge of Town, though, so maybe I need to pick up The Spirit of Terrorism. Try getting on a plane and pulling that out of your carry-on.

  8. LP says:

    I haven’t read Baudrillard, but Scotty’s referencing of chavez’s and arafat’s actions reminded me of one of my favorite political moments: Khrushchev banging the lectern with his shoe.

  9. lisa t. says:

    Loved this post. Don’t love Baudrillard. Too dismally postmodern/ poststructuralist.

    I’ve been doing some academic exploration of the human condition, recurring situations, and the universals that we “recognize” in eachother vs. whether there is only the perception of recurrence and/or recognition. I think I know what B. would say…and it seems like with your “kiss” example, I know what you might say too, Scotty. And yet…

    This takes me back to Dave’s More ludicrous than thou post and the ensuing comments. If we’re all just part of the “grid” that Trow-via-Rachel points out, what’s the f-ing point??
    The point is that there is no point?
    The fact that I think you’re pretty great is really meaningless or masked?
    Are there or are there not things we “recognize” in each other– and are those things “real” or only “hyperreal”?

    My brain feels like it’s breathing after reading the greatwhatsit. Thank you.

    On a related note, and for more brain-breathing, have some fun with the postmodern essay generator. (This link also provides possible names for your band, if you’re looking.)

  10. Ruben Mancillas says:

    This post, and Dave’s ” Respecting believers”, got me to thinking about the routine on an old Steve Martin album.

    “What if you died and went to…heaven?

    If there were clouds and angels with wings?

    Wouldn’t you feel stupid?

    In college they said this was all bullshit”

    Great post Scott, but my sense of French poststructuralist rigor is crying out for a complete band specific album/book list. You pulled a fast one by mixing and matching like that. Does Jean have a Please Please Me , Wish You Were Here , or Nebraska hiding in his oeuvre?

  11. Scotty says:

    Lisa, be not dismayed. Think of Baudrillard’s brand of postmodernism as similar to the knowledge that the sun will one day expand and engulf the earth before contracting and becoming a white dwarf: the stuff is interesting and important to ponder, but as information goes, it is inconsequential.

    Perhaps you’d be comforted by the man’s own words: I ask of Americans only that they be Americans. I do not ask them to be intelligent, sensible, original. I ask them only to populate a space incommensurate with my own…this is the only country which gives you the opportunity to be so brutally naive: things, faces, skies, and deserts are expected to be simply what they are. This is the land of ‘just as it is.’

    We believe that the sun will engulf the earth, so it will. This doesn’t change our behavior, or make us see the sun as a force of evil. It is just the sun, that thing that makes nice days nice.

  12. lisa t. says:

    thanks, scotty. you comfort me. this logic is something like, “since we’re not dead yet, let’s go to the beach!”

    it is a nice day today.