Jean Baudrillard Essay

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A highly original and influential French theorist, Baudrillard is difficult to situate in relation to traditional sociology and social theory. Initially associated with postmodern and poststructuralist theory, his work combines philosophy, social theory, and an idiosyncratic cultural metaphysics that reflects on key events of phenomena of the epoch. A sharp critic of contemporary society, culture, and thought, Baudrillard is often seen as a major guru of French postmodern theory, although he can also be read as a thinker who combines theory and social and cultural criticism in original and provocative ways, and as a writer who has developed his own style and forms of writing. He was an extremely prolific author who published over 50 books and commented on some of the most salient cultural and sociological phenomena of the contemporary era, including the erasure of the distinctions of gender, race, and class that structured modern societies in a new postmodern consumer, media, and high-tech society; the mutating roles of art and aesthetics; fundamental changes in politics, culture, and human beings; and the impact of new media, information, and cybernetic technologies on the creation of a qualitatively different social order, providing fundamental mutations of human and social life.

During the late 1960s, Baudrillard began publishing a series of books that would eventually make him world famous. Influenced by Lefebvre, Barthes, and a number of other French thinkers, Baudrillard undertook serious work in the field of social theory, semiology, and psychoanalysis in the 1960s and published his first book, The System of Objects, in 1968 (1996), followed by a book on The Consumer Society in 1970 (1998), and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign in 1972 (1981). Combining semiological studies, Marxian political economy, and sociology of the consumer society, Baudrillard began his lifelong task of exploring the system of objects and signs which forms our everyday life.

The early Baudrillard described the meanings invested in the objects of everyday life (e.g., the power accrued through identification with one’s automobile when driving) and the structural system through which objects were organized into a new, modern society (e.g., the prestige or sign-value of a new sports car). Baudrillard claims that commodities are bought and displayed as much for their sign-value as their use-value, and that the phenomenon of sign-value has become an essential constituent of the commodity and consumption in the consumer society.

The discourse of ”the end” signifies his announcing a postmodern break or rupture in history. We are now, Baudrillard claims, in a new era of simulation in which social reproduction (information processing, communication, knowledge industries, and so on) replaces production as the organizing form of society. For Baudrillard, modern societies are organized around the production and consumption of commodities, while postmodern societies are organized around simulation and the play of images and signs, denoting a situation in which codes, models, and signs are the organizing forms of a new social order where simulation rules.

Baudrillard’s postmodern world is also one of radical implosion, in which social classes, genders, political differences, and once autonomous realms of society and culture collapse into each other, erasing previously defined boundaries and differences. If modern societies, for classical social theory, were characterized by differentiation, for Baudrillard postmodern societies are characterized by dedifferentiation, or implosion.

In addition, his postmodern universe is one of hyperreality in which entertainment, information, and communication technologies provide experiences more intense and involving than the scenes of banal everyday life, as well as the codes and models that structure everyday life. The realm of the hyper-real (i.e., media simulations of reality, Disneyland and amusement parks, malls and consumer fantasy-lands, TV sports, and other excursions into ideal worlds) is more real than real, whereby the models, images, and codes of the hyperreal come to control thought and behavior.

Baudrillard is an example of the ”global popular,” a thinker who has followers and readers throughout the world. Baudrillard’s influence has been largely at the margins of a diverse number of disciplines ranging from social theory to philosophy to art history, thus it is difficult to gauge his impact on the mainstream of any specific academic discipline. He now appears in retrospect as a completely idiosyncratic thinker who went his own way and developed his own mode of writing and thought that will continue to provoke contemporary and future students of critical theory.

Bibliography:

  1. Baudrillard,    (1983a)   Simulations. Semiotext(e), New York.
  2. Baudrillard, J. (1993) [1976] Symbolic Exchange and Death. Sage, London.
  3. Baudrillard, J. (2002)  The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers. Verso, London.
  4. Kellner, D. (1989) Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Polity Press and Stanford University Press, Cambridge and Palo Alto, CA.
  5. Kellner, D. (ed.) (1994) Jean Baudrillard: A Critical Reader. Blackwell, Oxford.

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