Jean Baudrillard (1929 – 2007), pronounced “bo-dree-YAHR” was a French philosopher, sociologist and photographer. Barthes and Bourdieu were both on his doctoral thesis committee. In the seventies, after he became a professor, he made many trips to America and Japan, fascinated with consumerism, mass communication and advertising and the effect these were having on culture and the production and consumption of meaning. Against Marx, Baudrillard argued that society is not ultimately about production, but consumption. I often mention with Nietzsche that Baudrillard is much like Nietzsche, if Nietzsche had wandered through malls, Disneyland and Vegas until he had given up hope in individual creativity and given in to nihilism. Baudrillard is known for being the most pessimistic of the major Postmodernists, and accepts that he is effectively a nihilist. He acquired a following in the late eighties and nineties.
The Wachowski siblings, who wrote the Matrix, were influenced by Baudrillard, their Matrix an attempt to fuse the Deceiving Demon of Descartes and the simulated hyperreality of Baudrillard. In one scene Neo, the protagonist, uses a book by Baudrillard to hide items on his desk. For Baudrillard, cultures seek a full closure for meaning and truth which always escapes their grasp. The meaning of the thing is never the thing itself, the sign and its significance always beyond its signification. Following Nietzsche, Baudrillard argues that we are seduced by meaning, and that all acceptance of interpretation is seduction.
While seduction is not necessarily the worst of things, in modern commercial society the seduction has become a sickly, unfulfilling hypnosis, the dull lull offered by hours of television and endless consumption of manufactured products. Baudrillard argues that we no longer live in what can be called simply reality, but rather in a simulation, a virtual reality, what he calls the Hyperreal. Our manufactured hyperreality is reality, but mass produced, much like the art of Andy Warhol in the sixties, such as his screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and tomato soup cans, which Warhol displayed in galleries on shelves as consumer goods.
The more we try to manufacture reality to complete it and enclose it, the more hyperreal it becomes, both less than and more than real, and thus unreal. Baudrillard says that pornography is hyper-sex. Similarly, fast food can be called hyper-food, television can be called hyper-experience, and advertising can be called hyper-seduction, the mass production of desire as Lyotard argues. Baudrillard calls these ‘simulacra’ (each a ‘simulacrum’ singularly), simulations or copies.
The copy is real, but it is also, in reality, a knock-off. I cannot help but think of an experience I had in LA that I can still see quite clearly many years later. I flew down to visit my friend who moved to LA for college, and on his TV I saw news coverage of the Laker Girl tryouts (Baudrillard would be amused to know that ‘Laker Girl’, is apparently in spell check!). In a gymnasium, thousands of young women, all wearing the same outfit, did a side-stepping dance, forming a horrifying conveyor-belt of the beauty-image feminists discuss, fifty feet deep and with no end to length in sight, moving past the camera as if without end. That is simulacra.
For Baudrillard, there can be no Marxist revolution, and there is no possibility of change. Even terrorism ceases to be symbolic of anything meaningful. Baudrillard notes that the Twin Towers, notoriously felled on September 11th, were a duplication, the tallest buildings in one of the most significant cities in history, standing above all as a replicated pair, a monument to replication. Baudrillard controversially argued that the First Gulf War never happened, in that the public saw little to nothing of it and the military massive bombing campaign was more of a ruse to convince itself and the public that there was a great enemy to oppose. Some critics compared this to Berkeley’s idealism, a denial of the physical reality of the event, but Baudrillard responded that, insofar as reality is a social construct, more Hegelian than Berkeleyan, our reality is determined by mass media and the method of its concealing and revealing. In contrast to the Gulf War, September 11th was for Baudrillard framed as an absolute confrontation between the West and Islam, between the hero and the villain, but this is actually globalization, unable to speak of itself, criticize itself or offer any alternative.
While Nietzsche saw all great meaning as individual creation, Baudrillard argues that genuine individuality is increasingly impossible in a self-referential mass-produced culture. Like Levi-Strauss and Mauss, as well as Bataille, Baudrillard argued that cultures are founded on exchange, and when everything exchanged is mass-produced, things are more symbolic than they are physical objects. Drinking a Pepsi can be somewhat satisfying, but it is more about the signification that it satisfies than its actual satisfaction for the individual drinking it. It signals to others that you are satisfied more than it satisfies. Culture is driven by consumption, and the hyper-consumption of unnecessary products creates a reality and life experience that is more symbolic and mythological than real and significant.
Baudrillard agrees with Lyotard that without the metanarrative of Western progress many would not know what life means, but Baudrillard argues that this has already happened, and history, insofar as it is projected into the future, is over. This does not mean nothing will happen, but that each event loses individual significance. Much like Schopenhauer, Baudrillard has no faith in individuality, but advocates passive ecstatic acceptance of the spectacle, in all of its meaningless grandeur.
Science Fiction & Postmodernism: Bladerunner, Ghost in the Shell & Beyond
Are we modern, in these times, or postmodern? Many golden ages would call themselves “modern” with their own words and phrases, as did Europeans in the 1700s and 1800s. Civilization leads to civilization, to more history, more examples, more technology, more culture, more people and more words. Many Europeans before the world wars of the 1900s praised the progress of history, hoping for more order and justice with increasing industrialization, technology and education, but after the world wars and then onward into the 1960s, 70s and 80s, some postwar French thinkers, after World War II, began to wonder, as others had in civilizations before, whether or not the story of the Enlightenment, progress and “modern times” itself is a true story with real meaning, and whether or not progress, power and golden ages lead to better rather than more of the same, or worse.
We can roughly say, without giving the final definition or word about it, that Modernism is a philosophy, a way of living and thinking, overlapping with others, that holds the progress of humanity has positive meaning, with history, civilization and technology working towards the accumulating greater good, and we can similarly say that Postmodernism is a philosophy that, in contrast to modernism, calls this positive progress into question, whether or not humanity is simply remaining the same, good and bad, or is losing itself with mechanization.
A popular illustration of Baudrillard’s hyperreality, and one acted out on camera by the semi-postmodern philosopher Zizek, is an individual drinking a can of cola to refresh themselves, but also to signal to themselves and others informed by commercials that they are refreshing themselves, making a choice as an individual to act in a provocative way which is insignificant standing beside countless others drinking near-identical cans of cola. Watching commercials, we learn that drinking a brand of cola stands out as an exciting experience of celebrities, but we also know that these cans come from a factory and almost anyone can get them. The result is the individual makes individual meaning in ways that have been arranged, enhanced and mass-produced by others, such that the most meaningful, individual experiences are neither meaningful nor individual much.
In the popular 60s science fiction series Star Trek, a naval crew backed by empire boldly go forward into space to help some and fight others, with peace achieved on earth and the plot still found in the stars. In the movie series of Star Wars a decade later, the empire is evil and ruled by the cyborg Darth Vader, and the plucky group of rebels must fight for liberation, with Luke Skywalker hoping to save his robotic father but sadly gaining his own robotic hand in the process. In both Star Trek and Star Wars, there are clear heroes and villains, and humanity uses machines, but is valued above mere mechanics.
If we compare these with the postmodern science fiction classics of Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, we find cybernetic androids and wars with no clear winners, no clear machines, and no clear heroes or villains, with the jumble of the concrete jungle rolling onward, with no sign of stopping but in a bleak future which only promises more, not good, not bad, but more. The pleasures and advertisements continue to stack outward into the ever-expanding city-scape. The central characters never learn how human they are, with questions raised going unanswered in the end, and each could be entirely android, leaving the audience in the midst of what this could mean. The contrast of the modern and postmodern visions are clearly set out in these illustrative examples of projective fiction, and it leaves us to wonder what’s next.