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Published 12/04/2007 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Jean Baudrillard: Vraisemblablement Mort?

Jean Baudrillard, the renowned French philosopher, passed away in March 2007. Baudrillard was something of a maverick but in time came to be revered on both sides of the Atlantic.

On 6 March 2007, the renowned French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard is reported to have passed away. So it is said, for he claimed once to be a simulacrum of himself. Perhaps we can safely conclude that the simulacrum of Jean Baudrillard is no more.

The French cultural theorist was also something of a maverick. He developed as a young lecturer in l960s Paris, which at that time was the intellectual fulcrum of the world and, for a while, he astutely side-stepped the prevalent obsessions of his intellectual peers: neo-Marxism, Maoism, even 'situationism'. He instead attached himself wisely to such esteemed figures as Roland Barthes and Henri Lefebvre. He seemed to work as a social anthropologist, drawing together lines of thought from what was, in the France of the 1960s and 1970s, a rich and diverse field. One of the prevalent barriers then between France and the Anglo-Saxon world of thought at the time was the long gap for the most part maintained between French original publications and their English translation, often up to a decade. But Baudrillard also sensed that in the international arena something more dramatic was needed, so he deliberately mounted a carefully calculated assault on his now famous predecessor Michel Foucault, publishing Oublier Foucault in 1977, which was translated into English by 1987 as Forget Foucault. Foucault, for his part, was not pleased to read, 'Foucault is the last great dinosaur of the classical age'.

In time, Baudrillard came to be revered on both sides of the Atlantic. As Baudrillard's ideas filtered over in the 1980s, he came to sympathise with Americans who had previously felt invaded by acolytes of Derrida, 'spreading the notion of deconstruction' like peanut- butter. 'That was the gift of the French,' Baudrillard said. 'They gave Americans a language they did not need. It was like the Statue of Liberty. Nobody needs French theory.'

Baudrillard was well known for his expressed view of the first Gulf War, when he said that it actually would not take place, that it was conducted as a 'media spectacle'. He claimed it was rehearsed as a war game or simulation, played for the TV-viewing public as a simulation, as a video game in the hands of journalists who could also, for that matter, re-run the missile's eye view video and cameras. Of the second Gulf War: no comment.

Characteristically, Baudrillard liked the idea of 'disappearing', saying that without knowing how to disappear the act of dying itself was pointless. He viewed himself thus as the simulacrum of himself, and so, aged 77, did he depart, vraisemblablement. Taking another metaphysical example he said that Halloween had been and gone but that this sarcastic festival (so beloved of Americans) reflected an infernal demand for revenge by children on the adult world. Tell this to the adult revellers any Halloween night in Houston, Texas.

Baudrillard seemed to find affinity with novelists and architects in particular. JG Ballard, author of Crash and Super-Cannes, said, 'He was the most important French thinker of the last 20 years'. Earlier, Baudrillard had himself hailed Ballard's Crash as the first great novel of the universe of simulation. Baudrillard had a special interest in architecture, holding discussions with US master Peter Eisenman, and later with French architect Jean Nouvel, the latter being published in 2002.

The ICA Conference on Postmodernism (proceedings published in 1986) still revealed that amid philosophers Jean-François Lyotard, Phillippe Lacouste-Labarthe, Baudrillard was marginalised, being grouped seemingly with Umberto Eco on the one hand and Fredric Jameson on the other. Some of the first group seemed, in l985-86, to take account of the new associations and resistances that had come about by the process of 'implosion', which Baudrillard recognised. His focus then on a 'predatory, globally colonialist media circus', was considered then to be somewhat pessimistic. But today we can look back two decades and observe how well justified Baudrillard's viewpoint was.

So Baudrillard was seen, in the fetid world of hardening philosophical-sociological studies, as something of a latecomer. It was fine, in France, to be linked with Eco, but with Fredric Jameson and the Frankfurt School perhaps too much. Baudrillard's own publication, America (1981) coming after the global success of Simulacrum and Simulation, reached the same wider audiences, lifting him out of the in-fighting of the Paris circles. No one could deny the value and contemporary significance of his 2004 essay, War Porn, with its fetishistic coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison close to Baghdad. Baudrillard continued to be adversarial, and well after the grappling with Lyotard came an attack on Susan Sontag's seeming exploitation of the plight of Bosnia. Which might not, after all, be the last manifestation from Baudrillard, vraisemblablement.

Michael Spens, Editor



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