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Remembering Jean Baudrillard
by Dr. Gerry Coulter
2009-07-26 09:46:31
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“A friend has died. The death of a friend finds its own justification a posteriori: it makes the world less liveable, and therefore renders his absence from this world less painful. It alters the world in such a way that he would no longer have his place in it. Others outlive themselves into a world which is no longer theirs. Some know how to slip away at the apposite moment. Their death is a stroke of cleverness: it makes the world more enigmatic, more difficult to understand than it was when they were alive – which is the true task of thought” (Baudrillard, Cool Memories IV, New York: Verso, 2003:65).

Jean Baudrillard (d. 2007) was born 80 years ago this week on July 27th. He became one of the more thought provoking and challenging philosophers of our time for his writings concerning the real, virtuality, and simulation. He began his challenge with The System of Objects in 1968 and for the next 39 years contributed a flow of over 45 books containing radical insights and provocations.  In Simulacra and Simulation (1983) he argued that with the collapse of poles of meaning (“an implosion of meaning”) we had entered an era of unprecedented simulation. With grand narratives and truth claims undermined, one narrative is now as good as the next and uncertainty reigns. This is at the core of our intolerable condition in the contemporary but he did observe that it would be every bit as intolerable if the world were to assume a definitive meaning (as it does in the minds of fundamentalists).

He will be best remembered I think for his inconvenient explorations of popular truths and the counter explanations he provided. His explanation of the events of September 11, 2001 was that those who hate the West do not attack it because of what we have taken from them as is commonly understood in the dominant literature on colonialism.  For Baudrillard, they attack us because we humiliate them in the globalization of our own culture without allowing other cultures to give back on equal terms. The curse and “symbolic” weakness of our culture is that acceptance of the counter gift is impossible. Terrorism may be absurd and ultimately useless, but it is the judgment and penalty on a society which has long forgotten the key rules of symbolic exchange (at the core of which is reversibility including the power of many singularities to bring down the something as seemingly unstoppable as globalization). It is this kind of challenge to taken for granted assumptions that makes Baudrillard’s thought so interesting to radical thinkers and so infuriating to the fundamentalist. For Baudrillard the weak position was that of the believer and against Marxist, Islamic, Christian, and market fundamentalisms, he sought out his space as a non-believer.

Baudrillard did not attempt to simplify the world or to add meaning to it in his writing. Instead he sought to take a world which he found enigmatic and to make it even more so. As such, he was very much a poet at heart. He understood as well as any philosopher in history that we have always been in a distant relationship with a real which is ultimately unknowable. For him the real always hides behind the veil of appearances. Why then write over forty books on contemporary society?  Because to write, in such a way as to challenge the reality industry, including the university, was for him the joyful outcome of thought. Taking writing and thinking to extremes is not a pessimistic strategy but a happy one for Baudrillard. Few writers of our time covered such a vast array of topics and with his joy, passion, and enthusiasm. Those who appreciated his writing often found it to contain many delicious insights.

Baudrillard stood firm against the absolute realization of the human being as a programme, what he calls “a strategy for wretches” and a form of self exploitation to which “one would never submit if imposed by someone else.”  Perfection is our attempted crime in his view and an important part of his challenge in recent years was aimed at efforts which bury human relations in images, codes, and simulated reality. Baudrillard always sacrificed system for strategy while keeping theory as a challenge. Among his nicknames was the “angel of extermination”. He was often misunderstood but he was, in the main, simply a thinker who demanded that we think for ourselves. When we do not we are merely cogs in the wheels of a system. Baudrillard was a very strong chapter in the history of book of those who refuse to believe (in gods, politics, or systems of any kind). He certainly provided an excellent example of independent thought.

In his later years he became a friend as I founded the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, an ironic enterprise if there ever was one given his dislike of cyberspace. For those who would like to read his work and wonder where they might begin I highly recommend his wonderful America (1988, Verso Press, London and New York) which is, in its own way, a course in “Baudrillard-101”. For those who wish to remember him on his 80th birthday I also recommend an anthology of remembrances to him available here.

“...perhaps we may see this as a kind of adventure, a heroic test: to take the artificialization of living beings as far as possible in order to see, finally, what part of human nature survives the greatest ordeal. If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could be truly called ‘human’: some inalienable and indestructible human quality could finally be identified. Of course, there is always the risk, in this experimental adventure, that nothing will pass the test – that the human will be permanently eradicated” (Baudrillard, The Vital Illusion, New York Columbia University Press, 2000:15-16).

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