[iDC] Baudrillard and Debord

Merrin W. W.Merrin at swansea.ac.uk
Thu Mar 15 09:37:32 EDT 2007

So 'Baudrillard's work was essentially a collection of bitter lesser
footnotes to Debord'?


Yet more lunacy! It's another one of those undergraduate claims that's
widely accepted and seems to hold true ... as long as you don't think
too much about it ...


Luckily another commentator has already demonstrated the different
theoretical project Baudrillard developed and the path of his work as he
moved from a semiotic critique of consumerism to a reconsideration of
the system of value that underpins generalised political economy and its
semiotic reality principle ... and that's before we get to the rest of
his work and the different paths it takes and subjects it tackles ...
Clearly Baudrillard was so much more than his apparent debt to Debord
suggests. Even if you could reduce Baudrillard to such a simplistic
formulation it's interesting to see how with his later pessimistic
comments on the integrated spectacle Debord in 'Comments on the Society
of the Spectacle' becomes a poor shadow of Baudrillard who does it all
so much better...


The claim also seems to suggest Debord was such an original thinker when
actually he was a wonderful plagiarist: the most interesting parts of
his work are those that rewrite (and often don't even rewrite) Hegel,
Marx and Lukacs. More importantly we could question whether Baudrillard
really was so in thrall to Debord. Baudrillard's first major discussion
of media simulation in 'Mass Media Culture' in 'The Consumer Society' is
explicitly based upon Boorstin's 'The Image' and Debord isn't even
mentioned, so the importance of the concept of the spectacle for
Baudrillard could be questioned. Boorstin's work was more obviously
influential upon his theory of simulation and Debord widely lifted that
too in 'Society of the Spectacle'. However, whilst all Debord does with
Boorstin is directly employ him whilst critiquing him within his Marxist
perspective, Baudrillard takes Boorstin's ideas on pseudo-events and
pseudo-reality as a starting point, combines them with McLuhan and
Barthes and historical debates on the simulacrum and radicalises them to
develop an original social and media theory.


We could also reconsider Baudrillard's debt to and position within the
avant-garde. Instead of seeing him as coming out of Situationism you
could make a better case for the influence of Dadaism (Johannes Baader -
'Superdada' - wrote in 1920 that World War One didn't exist and that it
was 'a newspaper war' ...) although the strongest influence is
undoubtedly Alfred Jarry. Whilst Baudrillard took elements of
Situationism (along with McLuhan, Barthes, Marcuse etc.) for his
description of the contemporary world, Jarry's life, provocations,
writings and method all infused Baudrillard's critical position and
theoretical methodology so he is a far more influential figure on
Baudrillard than Debord.  


But to finish with this argument once and for all we only have to look
at the radical Durkheim tradition, running through Mauss and Hubert,
Durkheim, Bataille, Caillois and the College of Sociology etc. Their
ideas of the festival, sacrifice, the gift etc. are explicitly
reconceptualised by Baudrillard under the rubric of 'symbolic exchange'
as the basis for his entire critical position. He also develops their
critique of political economy (see Mauss's attack on 'homo economicus')
and their historical critique of the loss of this 'sacred' mode of
relations and meaning, employing Barthes, McLuhan, Debord, etc. to
describe and lay out the contours of the contemporary semiotic system
that continues this historical destruction and indeed expands it beyond
anything Bataille or Caillois etc. ever conceived of. Interestingly
Lefebvre's critique of everyday life takes up the idea of the
'festival'; Situationism came out of the Lettrist movement with their
journal 'potlatch', named after Mauss's study of the gift; Debord writes
in SoS about reversible time (echoing Caillois' 'Man and the Sacred' on
the festival) and Raoul Vaneigem writes in 'the Revolution of Everyday
Life' about sacrifice and gifts etc. It's remarkable how much the ideas
of radical Durkheimianism infused Situationism and western marxism. But
they took these ideas only to deploy them as a tool in their Marxism -
Vaneigem seeing the gift etc. as a means of reconfiguring relations in a
post-revolutionary world. Thus all the radical and violent energy of
these ideas was reduced by their incorporation into Marxism, being made
to work for the great revolutionary project. From this perspective we
can see Baudrillard as the true heir of radical Durkheimianism,
extending and reviving it for the contemporary age and we can see
Situationism and Debord as reactionary plagiarists of another, earlier
theory whose power and force they didn't understand ...


Debord? A footnote to Baudrillard.


William Merrin

Dept of media and Communications

University of Wales, Swansea


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