Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Quote of the Day/Obituary: Jean Baudrillard

"Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth."

Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), French semiologist. “Astral America,” America (1986, trans. 1988). [via]
Baudrillard said more profound things, but I liked that quote. He died this week at the age of 77.

He was known lately as an inspiration for the Wachowski brothers' movie The Matrix, which Baudrillard said misread his ideas.

Before The Matrix, he was notorious for his essay "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place", in which he argued that the first Iraq war was so mechanized and computerized that it was unlike any war before.

The London Times summed up his legacy in the sub-head of the obituary: "Postmodernist provocateur and cultural theorist who blamed consumerism for destroying reality."

Baudrillard was fascinated with America, and fancied himself a sort of postmodern Tocqueville. In an essay called "Utopia Achieved" (1986), he wrote:
Here in the U.S., culture is not that delicious panacea which we Europeans consume in a sacramental mental space and which has its own special columns in the newspapers—and in people’s minds. Culture is space, speed, cinema, technology. This culture is authentic, if anything can be said to be authentic.
I think that to Baudrillard, America was an experimental culture so obsessed with its identity -- or lack of one -- that it made one up.

Every culture has its folklore and creation myths; what makes America different? For one, we have very self-conscious witnesses to America's birth cataloging it. For another, what other culture is so pre-occupied with recreating itself through pageantry? We have the Disney World/Land miniature idealizations, Civil War re-enacters, Colonial Williamsburg, and reality TV.

On that note, Baudrillard's most interesting ideas came from his 1981 essay collection Simulacra and Simulation. In the first essay, "The Precession of Simulacra," Baudrillard invokes Jorge Luis Borges' story in which map makers create a map so detailed that it duplicates its subject exactly. This, Baudrillard wrote, is "the most beautiful allegory of simulation."

He continues:
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory -- precession of simulacra -- that engenders the territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.
Slavoj Zizek took that last bit as a title for a post-9/11 essay: "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," which was previously used by Larry Fishburne's character Morpheus in The Matrix. Zizek applies Baudrillard's ideas to the World Trade Center attacks, via The Matrix:
When the hero (played by Keanu Reeves) awakens into 'real reality,' he sees a desolate landscape littered with burnt-out ruins -- what remains of Chicago after global war. ... Was it not something of a similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to 'the desert of the real' -- for us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots of the collapsing towers could not but be reminiscent of the most breathtaking scenes in big catastophe productions.
Which is to say that the simulation preceded the real. The towers being hit by airplanes and then tumbling into rubble were not so amazing because we couldn't believe it was happening, but because we'd seen it before in movies.

[This, incidentally, is why 9/11 movies like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center appalled me: they're effectively simulations of a reality which had already been simulated in film before the fact, and then relived (re-simulated) in endlessly cycling news reels. Why on earth would we all need to see a weak dramatization of events we all lived through, a dramatization that brought us no new insights?]

Baudrillard actually wrote his own essay on 9/11, called "The Spirit of Terrorism." It wasn't as compelling as Zizek's -- Baudrillard wrote about the West's "death drive," a self-destruction fantasy that we tried to cure ourselves of with film versions of disasters. What Baudrillard gets right is the terrorist act's symbolic power, which is many times greater than its destructive power. The attacks were the first credible barrier to globalism.

Baudrillard was a part of a loose group of French critics and theorists adored by lots of left-leaning American graduate students and intellectuals, but reviled by others on all sides of the political spectrum for being annoyingly and smugly abstruse. "Every time he sees a silo he starts going into some French theory," said the Romania-born New Orleans-based writer Andrei Codrescu.

In the introduction to 1998 book called Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science, Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote:
Our goal is precisely to say that the king is naked (and the queen too). But let us be clear. We are not attacking philosophy, the humanities or the social sciences in general; on the contrary, we feel that these fields are of the utmost importance and we want to warn those who work in them (especially students) against some manifest cases of charlatanism. In particular, we want to "deconstruct" the reputation that certain texts have of being difficult because the ideas in them are so profound. In many cases we shall demonstrate that if the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing.
That was referring to Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and other, mostly French theorists, many of whom were more popular in America than in France.


The best headline comes from The Australian: "Reality Claims Gallic Provocateur".

New York Times

New York Sun



The Guardian

London Times

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Anonymous Mister Christopher said...

Sigh. Here we go again...who gets the baby?

10:09 AM  

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