[iDC] Some thoughts on Jean Baudrillard

Gere, Charlie c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk
Mon Mar 12 13:39:23 EDT 2007

One of the more depressing aspects of teaching cultural studies is the
degree to which it becomes increasingly self-referential. Theory is used
to teach students how to analyse media products and advertising. The
choice of which such products and advertising are chosen to be analysed
rests almost entirely on the degree to which they seem fit for such
analysis. The same students then go and work in advertising and media,
producing exactly the kind of products that can be, and in fact are
designed to be analysed using the same theoretical techniques they
themselves learnt as students. This produces a kind of closed circuit in
which media and advertising seems increasingly designed to be analysed. 

Much advertising, films such as The Matrix or virtual environments such
as Second Life seem almost to come with instructions about how they
should be analysed, like some oven-ready pre-prepared meal, complete
with serving suggestion. This is one of the reasons why I think much of
the discussion about Second Life is often somewhat pointless. Second
Life isn't really a virtual environment and it's not really a viable
means to make meaningful communities or cultures. It is, rather, a
little machine that can produce its own auto-referential discourse and
legitimise certain kinds of theoretical thinking. What it can tell you
about life or allow you to experience beyond what it has been programmed
to reveal, I am not sure. As they say in computing 'garbage in, garbage

I fear that Jean Baudrillard, who died a few days ago, must take some of
the blame for this. I think he was often brilliant, never less than
highly provocative and frequently misunderstood. But his gnomic,
oracular style, and his deadpan pronouncements on contemporary phenomena
meant that people often failed to see the joke and to treat his
pronouncements far more seriously than they should have been or than he
must have intended. Thus beguiling, but ultimately fairly dubious,
totalising and empirically unsupportable, or at least highly reductive
notions about 'simulacra' and 'simulation' were not only taken far too
seriously, but helped to produce and support cultural phenomena which
were then taken as evidence of the rightness of Baudrillard's ideas. 

On the day of Baudrillard's death, an English comic actor called John
Inman also died. Inman was most famous for being in an absolutely
atrocious English sitcom called 'Are You Being Served' in the 1970s and
80s, which was surprisingly popular abroad. It was set in a department
store and featured a number of stereotyped characters, including a
stuffy ex-Army Colonel shopwalker, a sexually-frustrated older woman, a
dolly bird, a randy young man and so on. Inman's character, Mr
Humphreys, was a very camp and clearly very gay menswear assistant. His
catchphrase, spoken with sibilant glee, was 'I'm Free', ostensibly to
indicate his ability to serve a customer, but clearly an encoded
reference to male gay sexuality at a time when such things were barely
discussed let alone represented on television.

Even towards the end of the programme's run Inman's character was being
strongly criticised by gay activists for its stereotypical effeminacy,
and the programme is now almost unwatchable. Yet, thinking about the
respective deaths of Inman and Baudrillard, I wondered whether Inman's
gay character didn't have a lot more interesting things to say about
simulation and simulacra. For all the now-unacceptable stereotyping of
Inman's character he did also manage to suggest the complex ways in
which his character lived in relation to the contradictory demands of
our embodied, lives, our sexuality and our being with others.

Charlie Gere 
Reader in New Media Research
Director of Research
Institute for Cultural Research 
Lancaster University Lancaster LA1 4YL UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1524 594446
E-mail: c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk

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