R.I.P. Jean Baudrillard

by Kevin Jon Heller

Jean Baudrillard, the great postmodern philosopher who once described the U.S. as “the only remaining primitive society,” died yesterday at age 77. Here is a snippet of his obituary in the New York Times:

The author of more than 50 books and an accomplished photographer, Mr. Baudrillard ranged across different subjects, from race and gender to literature and art to 9/11. His comments often sparked controversy, as when he said in 1991 that the gulf war “did not take place” — arguing that it was more of a media event than a war.


One of his better known theories postulates that we live in a world where simulated feelings and experiences have replaced the real thing. This seductive “hyperreality,” where shopping malls, amusement parks and mass-produced images from the news, television shows and films dominate, is drained of authenticity and meaning. Since illusion reigns, he counseled people to give up the search for reality.

“All of our values are simulated,” he told The New York Times in 2005. “What is freedom? We have a choice between buying one car or buying another car? It’s a simulation of freedom.”

This idea was picked up by the American filmmakers Andy and Larry Wachowski, who included subtle references to Mr. Baudrillard in their “Matrix” trilogy. In the first movie of the series, “The Matrix” (1999), the computer hacker hero Neo opens Mr. Baudrillard’s book “Simulacra and Simulation,” which turns out to be only a simulation of a book, hollowed out to hold computer disks. Mr. Baudrillard later told The Times that the movie references to his work “stemmed mostly from misunderstandings.”

He was also a fierce critic of consumer culture in which people bought objects not out of genuine need but because of the status and meaning they bestowed.


“The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers” was published just a year after 9/11. In it, he argued that Islamic fundamentalists tried to create their own reality; the resulting media spectacle would give the impression that the West was constantly under threat of terrorist attack.

The current American invasion of Iraq is an effort to “put the rest of the world into simulation, so all the world becomes total artifice and then we are all-powerful,” he told The Times. “It’s a game.”

It’s not a bad obituary — certainly better than the shameful one the Times published when Derrida died, which was entitled “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74.” That obituary, which said far more about the intellectual ability of the Times editors than about Derrida, led to a letter of objection signed by more than 5,400 intellectuals. (I hope that some enterprising literary theorist will eventually write a book on the politics of obituaries; it would be a fascinating project.)

I was a huge fan of Baudrillard’s when I was a grad student in literature at Duke in the early 1990s, during the heyday of postmodernism and poststructuralism (and Duke basketball). My personal favorite was always his analysis of Disneyland in “Simulacra and Simulations”:

Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: pirates, the frontier, future world, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But, what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious revelling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks. You park outside, queue up inside, and are totally abandoned at the exit. In this imaginary world the only phantasmagoria is in the inherent warmth and affection of the crowd, and in that sufficiently excessive number of gadgets used there to specifically maintain the multitudinous affect…

The objective profile of the United States, then, may be traced throughout Disneyland, even down to the morphology of individuals and the crowd. All its values are exalted here, in miniature and comic-strip form. Embalmed and pacified. Whence the possibility of an ideological analysis of Disneyland: digest of the American way of life, panegyric to American values, idealized transposition of a contradictory reality. To be sure. But this conceals something else, and that “ideological” blanket exactly serves to cover over a third-order simulation: Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology), but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.

The Disneyland imaginary is neither true nor false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real. Whence the debility, the infantile degeneration of this imaginary. It’s meant to be an infantile world, in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the “real” world, and to conceal the fact that real childishness is everywhere, particularly among those adults who go there to act the child in order to foster illusions of their real childishness.

I met Baudrillard once, and it was an encounter I’ll never forget. I was presenting an analysis of his work — the precise topic now eludes me — in a seminar taught by Fredric Jameson, for whom I worked as a research assistant. I rarely get nervous speaking, particularly when it’s a subject I know well and enjoy. So I was looking forward to the presentation — until I walked into the room and saw Baudrillard himself sitting in the front row. Fred had conveniently neglected to tell me that he was in town and would be coming to class. And I’m sure it was just a coincidence that he scheduled my talk for that particular day. Fortunately, Baudrillard was wonderfully gracious about my presentation, which I’m sure reinforced all of his stereotypes and criticisms of Americans.

Rest in peace, Jean Baudrillard. In a world of simulation, you were truly an original.


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