[iDC] Some thoughts on Jean Baudrillard

Jeffrey Skoller jasko at berkeley.edu
Tue Mar 13 11:58:31 EDT 2007

Hi Trebor;

Thanks for inviting me to write a response to Baudrillard's passing: 
Truth is, I haven't thought much about him or his work for years or 
my past love/hate relationship to his writing. I think I stopped 
reading him after his coffee table book America came out, which 
seemed so beside the point of what was occurring in America as to be 
useless. He sure was a provocateur on first encounter, but then it 
all seemed to slide into cynicism too easily. His articulations of 
the simulacrum were ultimately moralistic and it was his theory of it 
that made it impossible to imagine much political or aesthetic agency 
(as opposed, for instance, to the Deleuzian simulacrum which is all 
about transformation and possibility). His arguments about the 
impossibility of critique--since it is always complicit with what it 
is critiquing--were complex arguments to be sure; but the ease with 
which it all could be reduced to fit the if-you-can't-beat'em-join'em 
ethos of the too hip for politics generation made his work stand for 
the worst side of postmodernist thought: "If it's all a simulation 
why bother to change it?"  Baudrillard's "murder of the real," 
similarly was too sad--no more mystery or "thought from the outside." 
He seemed to turn Benjamin's utopian "Jeitzeit" into the deadtime of 
the now: no crimes, no resistance, no hope.

My first encounter with Baudrillard's writing was in the Reaganist 
1980s and it seemed to explain a lot about what was happening in the 
first world--how a Hollywood actor like Ronald Reagan could be 
elected president, how Star Wars went from being merely the title of 
a fascist movie to an actual weapons program--in ways that my earnest 
political modernism just couldn't. But there was still the Sandinista 
revolution in Nicaragua as a counter-image of resistance to bolster 
my belief that the last vestiges of a 60s authentic counter-culture 
that I had been weaned on could still succeed.  The illegal 
Iran-contra war put an end to that, and the American people loved 
Reagan even more! It all made Baudrillard's "desert of the real" seem 
even more accurate. Repressive tolerance gave way to the consumer 
sublime: Baudrillard had really flipped it around, the modernist 
futurism of pure immanence gave way to the depressing eternal newness 
of corporate consumerism. A cynical and ironic stance toward 
everything made more sense than my own mourning over the loss of the 
authentic spirit of revolution. His complicated and elusive writings 
were filled with the cynicism of post-68 leftwing melancholia. Sadly, 
it was hard not to find myself thinking Baudrillard was always 
depressingly right.

At the same time, many were trying to figure out what a socially 
engaged, activist media could be out there in the desert of the final 
consolidation of  corporate media in America, and Baudrillard's work 
was of little help. But people resisted the swoon of his hopeless 
admonitions. In the art world I remember the huge "Anti-Baudrillard" 
Show in NY in the late 80s, Tim Rollins held a Nuremberg-like rally 
against him at some conference at NYU--crowds cheering Tim's 
evocation of Emersonian idealism as Baudrillard slumped in his chair. 
There also was political and cultural resistance everywhere: The 
tremendous experiments of an emerging media activism belied the sense 
of impossibility that the media could be used for developing active 
social and political awareness locally and internationally: ACT-UP, 
public access TV (we were running Sandinista-made TV on public access 
stations), low power radio, neighborhood cinemas, 
anti-gentrification, the incredible work the was coming out of the 
developing countries. And today there still is--the endless IDC 
discussions of the political possibilities of "Second Life" 

Still when I think about it now, Baudrillard at his most provocative 
articulated something about the ways media culture trains us to 
accept everything, and embrace nothing that was right and seems more 
right everyday. Who else could have imagined the last decade, where 
the American people finally gave up their outrage at the Bush coup 
and the lies, killing, and global destruction in their name? Both 
Baudrillard and Ronald Reagan, that other great prophet of the 1980s, 
certainly agreed on one thing when they exclaimed from the depths of 

In solidarity, Jeffrey

Jeffrey Skoller
Film Studies Program,
7408 Dwinelle Hall #2670,
University of California Berkeley
Berkeley CA 94720-2670
(510)642-2600 office
(510)642-8881 fax
jasko at berkeley.edu
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