WEDNESDAY, MARCH 07, 2007
This Death did not Take Place
RIP Jean Baudrillard, a french social analyst,photographer, philosopher and former enrage, died yesterday in Paris. As well as influencing ourselves, his essays on the commoditization of reality within post-industrial society spread their influence though-out the free market of ideas, and most famously were included in 1999's The Matrix.
Rooted in the Situationist tradition of cultural analysis and Marxian critical analysis, Baudrillard argued essentially that postmodern human society, with the proliferation of communications technology and consumerism, had become a food-processor for meaning, and where reality was simply a self-referential symbol of its own existence. He began his work with The System of Objects, concerned with the nature of use value, as opposed to Smith and Marx. To him, the market wasn't a rigid and rational means of distributing goods, but a frenzy of seductions, all geared to symbolizing the user/consumer. Like the situationists, Baudrillard that in this way the market system had been grafted onto human desire and consciousness. In choosing between one good/symbol or another, the consumer signified themselves, defined by the ideological function of what they had chosen - a simple object like a pen conferred social meaning (one could need a pen to work, or write) - and thusly the consumer becomes a sign for the meaning of the object. In this way, Baudrillard came to view consumer society as a collection of symbols and signs rather than individuals.
His key and most distinct concept was hyperreality. Like and "opaque mass" and lacking definition, modern culture had replaced god with a reflection, and replaced real meanings with simulations. The world of mass media is full of representations on tv, billboards, music - all parts of culture. Hyperreality explains the process whereby reality is consumed by simulation - the viewer of pornography inhabits a non-real world of porn, which skews the meaning of sex, until it becomes non-existant, for example. Baudrillard argued that the entire world - all of reality, had undergone this transformation, and had been completely replaced with a world of hyperreality. America, the zenith of post industrial consumer culture, to Baudrillard was "the original version of modernity" - the reflection to which all others would reference (he called his own French versions "a copy with subtitles"). This rings true, as in America it is the powerful who yearn not just for money, but for meaning, and control over it.
The true nature of the problem goes back to his version of use value - if everything is a simulation, what are our choices? He argued that it was because of this that people only desired after simulated pleasure, which by this point the world was chock full of. Just turn on the tv if you don't believe me. When we describe Cheap thrills, or lament the "fakeness" of something or other, we are using his language.
Baudrillards work made him one of the most important voices in postmodernism, using his concept of hyperreality to argue that our cultural signifyers and meanings are self-referential.
He would go on to develop these ideas into even more real and indecipherable versions of themselves, and would often be criticized on the grounds that his books read more like science fiction than philosophy.
Despite this he will be remembered as one of the first to understand the true nature of the modern cultural battle ground, where interest groups compete for capital and power, but also for reality itself. He understood that within a globilized and technological economy, that meaning and symbol were as important to power. Never before have social and cultural definitions been so fractured and maleable - wars are fought not on the basis of lies, but of manufactured versions of the truth. Fast food, endless reams of useless commodities - a portion of us will argue to their negative utility, as they occupy our definition of "waste", or "junk" - but these things proliferate in part due to the mangling of their symbolic definition. On the television, they mean "convenient" and "tasty". The social victor doesn't use the most truth, simply the more effective simulation.
What most clearly explain hyperreality to me are fictionalized televisions programs. Populated by "real" people in "real" places and situations, that 1/4 inch glass television screen is but the finest line between reality and simulation - but what side are we on? Is it us who are seeing the tv characters reflect our own behavior - laughing, telling jokes, solving simple moral problems - back at us, or is it the other way around? Think about how closely the two can be seen to resemble each other, and how closely we in our daily lifes resemble television characters written and designed to resemble ourselves.