[iDC] Some thoughts on Jean Baudrillard

Gere, Charlie c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk
Tue Mar 13 11:38:37 EDT 2007

I am so pleased that, as William Merrin put it, the simulacrum is an
idea 'that's pretty well accepted throughout western history'. As such
it is surely unique, but I am glad (and relieved) that there is finally
something that we all can agree on. 

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

-----Original Message-----
From: idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net
[mailto:idc-bounces at mailman.thing.net] On Behalf Of Merrin W.
Sent: 13 March 2007 12:59
To: iDC
Subject: RE: [iDC] Some thoughts on Jean Baudrillard

I joined this list because a friend had passed onto me the first two
emails regarding Jean Baudrillard. I have to say that I'm disappointed
by the level of knowledge they display. I would immediately fail
undergraduates who demonstrated such a lack of knowledge of his work and
filled the space instead with such poorly thought-through invective. 

The first commentator said:

'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' 

The simulacrum is actually a historical concept, found explicitly and
implicitly in the theological, anthropological and philosophical
literature. The western tradition repeatedly founds its primary
theologies and philosophies on the attempt to reduce the efficacy of the
image (whether the man-made image, the world as image of the divine, or
the images that constitute our interior knowledge) and to demonise its
power to assert itself as the full reality. This 'simulacrum', however,
has always challenged every truth system built upon it, whether idealist
or materialist. To give an example, empiricism serves as the basis for
science and social science yet its primary philosophers were aware of
how the images of subjective thought and sensation completely ungrounded
their attempt to turn subjectivity into objectivity. Read Lucretius on
simulacra, or Bacon on the 'idols of the mind' ('idol' = 'eidolon',
which is also translated as 'simulacra'), or Hume's scepticism, which is
better understood as a sensitivity to the ancient problem posed by the
simulacrum for the possibility of knowledge...  Empiricism, therefore,
may well 'work', but philosophically it's a simulation machine for
producing our modern concept of 'objectivity' (and don't get me started
on the ludicrousness of 'social science'...). So I'm afraid you're
trying to shoot down an idea that's pretty well accepted throughout
western history. Baudrillard, following Deleuze, Derrida, Klossowski and
Perniola merely takes up and applies this problematic to a contemporary
imagic world. If his idea of simulation should not have been taken so
seriously we should also throw out Plato, Tertullian, Descartes, Hume
etc. As for the simulacrum not being 'empirically supportable', you've
got it the wrong way round. It's empiricism that isn't empirically
supportable because of the simulacrum, not that you're likely to care
about or follow these arguments because there's no evidence here of
Baudrillard having been read let alone of any attempt to understand the
concepts he uses and their cultural and historical significance. And
then we just shoot the messenger ... Baudrillard is responsible for the
simulacra we experience today? ... Sure, just like Marx was responsible
for industrial capitalism I suppose? This entire discussion of
Baudrillard overlooks the fact that he was a critic of simulacra and
that he spent his entire career developing a radical Durkheimian
critique based upon the concept of 'symbolic exchange'. Ultimately the
only reductiveness here is the sub-standard reading of Baudrillard.
That's because it takes time and thought to work through the 50 odd
books he wrote and put them into any kind of context. It's far easier to
watch UK Gold and talk about John Inman.

And then we get a follow up comment that's worse. I thought this idea
that Baudrillard denied the physical existence of the Gulf War had
disappeared over a decade ago when his original essays appeared in
translation  ... but no. Here it is again.

To sum up this comment: Baudrillard apparently steamrollers 'over
material reality, going so far as denying the reality of the Gulf War',
whereas war 'has real consequences' and his ideas 'deny the dignity of
war's victims'. Baudrillard has no critique of power and is apolitical
and you can prove he's wrong because you can 'walk down actual streets
filled with meaty reality'.

OK, Baudrillard doesn't deny material reality exists. He repeatedly says
in fact it's the excess of reality not its loss that is the problem
today. He is not an idealist and doesn't think 'all is fiction' and that
we're all floating around in nothingness. This is a moronic reading. He
is concerned with the way in which our experience of that real is
organised, programmed and produced as part of a concern with the
semiotic processes of social control operating through our media and
through everyday life (following Debord, Marcuse etc.) and he critiques
this process from the point of view of symbolic exchange, an idea that
in its radical Durkheimian derivation serves as his critical ground and
functions as precisely that material, experiential and moral real that
you accuse him of not believing in...

As to the Gulf War, the simulation of war was not primarily that of its
media representation (as a video game experience). It's true that in the
west we consumed only a mediated simulacrum without any of the
experiential reality of the war but he critiques this so he can hardly
be claimed to be promoting it or arguing that that's all that was going
on. More importantly he offered a critique of the material process of
war - of a war conducted as a war-game, following its own plan so
successfully that the enemy were not even allowed to take part (being
massacred by the overwhelming allied military force - yes he recognises
this), producing a war that wasn't a war but a massacre; a victory that
wasn't a victory as it left Saddam in power and a defeat that wasn't a
defeat as the US military engaged in repeated air-strikes and another
war over a decade later. That's why a war 'didn't happen'. Interestingly
this is a more moral position than those who opposed 'the war' as they
consecrated it historically by accepting its status. Baudrillard refused
the west this satisfaction, forcing us to question the war dead as
slaughtered human beings. And Baudrillard does have a theory of power
(of the western semiotic system and its operation, set out throughout
his work)and he isn't apolitical (how can you reach such a stupid
conclusion given how much he has written about politics and political
events!). In fact he sees three modes of resistance to the west - the
internal rediscovery of the symbolic mode of relations, the external
resistance of symbolic cultures (such as Iranian islam) against the west
and the internal processes of reversion that the western system falls
victim to. For God's sake, please at least deal with his work before you
leap in and attack it. I'd recommend my own book 'Baudrillard and the
media' as a way into the arguments above. I know that smacks of academic
self-publicity but I do deal with all the errors made here.

William Merrin
Dept of Media and Communication Studies
University of Wales, Swansea  

iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity
iDC at mailman.thing.net

List Archive:

iDC Photo Stream:

iDC -- mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity
(distributedcreativity.org) iDC at mailman.thing.net

List Archive:

iDC Photo Stream:

More information about the iDC mailing list