The Simulacra of Baudrillard

Baudrillard Jean Baudrillard follows on in the tradition of sociologists like Claude Levi-Strauss in making a link between sociology and semiotics; however, he went far beyond the normal boundaries of sociology to be called a sociologist any more. He will always write in a general "depopulated" manner about the "mass" (a neutral rejector of specific meaning), because to discuss social categories is to engage in the details of simulacras: his is a grand theory, an approach that began with the Situationist critique of Marxism so that Baudrillard produced a theory of economic consumption (and therefore production and exchange) that flows from a deconstructed semiotics rather than to find in semiotics the objective root of a sociological situation as happened before (eg Levi-Strauss).

Divorced of actual need, the economy of production, distribution and exchange follows abstract non-objective meanings of consumerist prestige. There is no constraint on the semiotic system, and unhooked from any reality it "provides its own simulcrum" (Baudrillard, 1983b, 11, in Best, Kellner, 1997, 99). In other words, the economy follows the shifting symbolic system. Marx, remember, thought that culture follows on from key economic class interests, but the Situationists shifted the economic emphasis to consumption not production and then Baudrillard removed all hermeneutical objectivity from the analysis of this advanced capitalist system.

So Baudrillard is one of those thinkers who builds on what was being thought by others but breaks through via a key reversal of logic to make fresh analysis.

Born in Reims (1929) in a socially rising family with peasant grandparents and civil service parents, he starts with a radical influence of the the ongoing Algerian war from 1950's to 1960's.
Then there are influences of Satre, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche and the art of Surrealism. These are thinkers who turn existing Englightenment reality on its head.
His career is another obvious important development, because he was effectively thrown out of the sociological community after falling out with Foucault. In any case he moved beyond its methodology.
He started anyway teaching German in a Lycée. He formed his thought through sociology with his thesis in 1966, then became an Assistant in September 1966 at Nanterre University of Paris X.
1968 was a big year for his formation through reading Roland Barthes, then a structuralist (who would become a leading poststructuralist). This was introducing the importance of fashion to Baudrillard who published The Object System to compliment Barthes' The Fashion Sense. He was also influenced by Marshall McLuhan (who said the "Medium is the Message") which demonstrated the importance of the mass media in any sociological overview.
There was the student revolt at Nanterre University in 1968 and he published articles on the ambivalence of capitalism and criticism of technology in Utopie.
There followed the influences of Mauss (important to Levi-Strauss in the Durkheimian objectivity and linguistic-sociological interface) and Bataille (who wrote surreally and erotically).
He became Mâitre-assistant at the University in 1970.
Another background influence to social writers was Freud and pyschoanalysis, but far more direct is the Marxist debate. This requires some examination along with the very powerful influence of the Situationists.


Marx contrasted use-value and human need v. exchange-value and commodity form (in capitalism); however, Baudrillard developed another opposition: between the symbolic order and commodity exchange. You proceed from within the symbolic order (it's a postmodern thing - there is no outside); and for him Structural Marxists made the error of seeing need as standing outside the system. Instead, need becomes determined within the semiotic (language code) system.
In Marxism, then, there is true need and thus would be true production distorted by capitalism (contrast this with liberal economists who talk about this essence called "utility" - which becomes the basis for marginal utility, later "indifference" - and the means for generating value, price and consumption within capitalism). For Baudrillard, the matter of need must be discussed from within. There is no pure outside basis of need.
The second Marxist fallacy was that it focussed on the means of production. Its focus was the factory, whereas Baudrillard followed the Situationist International by getting into the media rich urban space.
Classical Marxist production is replaced by consumption and media; class struggle is replaced by cultural change; time and history is replaced by space and zones of desire; being into having (Marx) becomes having into appearing (Debord - a leading Situationist).
The Situationists realised that the old class struggle based on surplus value rising at the expense of workers' living standards was not happening. Profits rise with consumption, and legitimacy of capitalism is solved by distractions of the working class through affluent pleasure - but a pleasure exists which is image or radiance, and everything is a commodity "spectacle", and so the poor too get into a cycle of earning (if they can), consumption and debt to particpate in this fantasy ersatz world of generated need in the latest thing that keeps the capitalist world churning stuff out. For Debord spectacle operates through all the areas of larger and minute institutional life, and this spectacle pacifies and depoliticises. Passification separates people from one another and from being fully creative (one might think of the TV generation), something the Situationists demanded to be overturned. Nevertheless the media projects the commodity world into a totality of effect, and it's at totality when the spectacle happens.
The parallel is with Weber. Weber was pessimistic about the weight of the bureacratic rationale, but here the weight is from the totality of spectacles (Lefebvre, 1984). The nearest here to classical Marxism is false consciousness, but this is ideology from production, whereas here are the workings and intensity of consumption. This is the background Baudrillard inherits.
The Situationists whilst leading towards postmodernism were not postmodernists. They still believed that this was subject to analysis and therefore could be overcome. There was still a hemeneutics (deep underwritten meanings in the text) available to be extracted and see through the intense fantasy. Thieir analysis remains modernist: it retains key semiotic binary opposites, particularly reality versus appearance. They were extending Marxism into the situation where people lived or situations they might create (follows on from Satre and Lefebvre) but preserving the objective means to overturn their version of false consciousness. it is just that the urban space, not the manufacturing plant, is the place to be transformed through radical, continuous, democratic control.
The working class will realise the big illusion placed upon them in terms of these spectacles and resist by the creation of "situations" and use of technology (the latter somewhat like radical people wish to exploit the potential of the Internet today). Situations mean intensifying life and being creative as a resistance via "detourement" (which means using and destroying bourgeois media to make their point). Situationists advocated pastiche and plagiarism, and active cultural forms because capitalism wouldn't break down on its own.
Whilst in so many ways Situationism is like Baudrillard, Baudrillard went much further into postmodern flux.
Baudrillard went on to declare Debord's neo-Marxist-modernist framework a fiction; he pushed the analysis of abstraction and inversion to its ultimate consequences; he obliterated the subject and embraced the object, and crossed that threshold where opposites lose their identity, where truth ceases to exist, where politics dies with the collapse of the social, where history loses its redemptive meaning, and where reality disappears altogether. (Best, Kellner, 1997, 94)
In a way Baudrillard uses structuralism to defeat it. Whereas modernism to be continuous with postmodernism has to deny postmodernism and call it high modernism (a more advanced stage of modernism, the same advanced capitalist productive powers now international) there is a continuation between structuralism and poststructuralism. It is that both saw the pre-existence of language before categories were made to do any describing of the world. For structuralism these descriptive categories were real, so that "illusion" did have "real" as its opposite, and both are grounded; but the pre-existence of language for poststructuralism is the system of signs without grounding.
So what was once a humanist alternative to theology was now the death of meaning as atheology is the death of God. Once meaning was grounded in God. Plato stated that one knows something is true because it is mirrored in the heavenly realm. Then objectivity was located in the underpinning of God the divine. Then truth became founded in the workings of history, or the rational process of historical change, or value free rational conversation (eg Habermas today in his Theory of Communicative Action) or in the binary fundamentals of semiotics (what can be more fundamental than mathematics and especially binary oppositions - ask a contemporary computer!). What Baudrillard, and other poststructuralists, and postmodernists do, is deny the foundational nature of anything. If one speaks of binary opposites it is just a convenience, a way of talking, because this ah yes primary system cannot admit an outside. It's method is the fundamental, because everything is communication, especially a market system in economics, but it's not foundational, because it denies it, because the relative word-relationships are ever ongoing, the poststructuralists say.
Baudrillard thus created oppositions just to work by (in the text which moved him beyond the Marxists and Situationists: Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976). He devised production versus gift exchange, simulation versus symbol, fashion cycles versus reversibility, the body in a sign system versus the body in a symbolic order, linear accumulative time contrasted with death in the eternal return, accumulative prose contrasted with sacrificial poetry.
The biggest opposition generated is perhaps the rich poetry of the symbolic order (the quality side of these oppositions) against the rationality of the sign. This rationality is that depressing process outlined by Weber about rationalisation, bureacratisation, and the lack of enchantment. This process was about Western Truth, being the science of society (goodbye tradition, charisma, hello bureaucracy, hello Power). This Baudrillard overturns in a full attack the opposition so generated in the Weberian/ secularisation project between superstitions exposed and real knowledge being uncovered.
The important point was this: capitalists and socialists were fighting on the same ground, both seeking to expose the Truth, the Rational. Baudrillard sees them as inhabiting the same fictional claim of rationality here and superstition there. It's a foundational error. Instead it's all factional (my word) as there cannot be a fiction-fact dichotomy, another important opposite that is exposed as useful talk.
All the objective progressives, so like the capitalist rationalists, follow the poverty of the sign in its reductionism and Baudrillard departs from them. Theirs is cultural disenchantment. The masses know to keep away from these progressives/ socialists who prefer their ways of abstaining from oppression.
One thinks today of working people who ignore politics and social involvement, who say to the middle class socialists, "Sod off, we're going down the pub," or who watch trash TV with trash food because they couldn't care less about the engagement that they are supposed to show to these progressive forces.
There is a parallel here with those modernist theologians who demythologise to get to the essential of Christianity (say) and those who wish to remythologise (even though and especially realising that this is created myth). These demythologising theologians wanted to peel to the kernel of truth but kept peeling the onion, so it is better to remythologise and re-enchant in order to have at least the onion. Of course this onion is the appearance of an onion, but then everything is appearance. Baudrillard is like the latter in his areas of the interface between his connections with sociology and use of semiotics.
Obviously the "spectacle" of Situationism goes. For Baudrillard there isn't the real space where this can take place. This is because for there to be an illusion taking place, there needs to be a real - and there isn't (in fact there isn't an isn't real either - an important point).
There is no real to be recaptured beyond the illusion - it is all illusion, and with no real to be opposite, no illusion either (illusion only is definable by the existence of the real). So there is a kind of implosion within this semiotics so there is a radical ending of opposites.
Now the problem is that people go on speaking as if there is a real, or an illusion, or opposites. So when something is spoken about that seems real it is a "simulacra", that is a fake of the real that isn't there (and, talking of "an illusion" is the same again too). There's no value that's recoverable and real, no anchor point/s: it is just simulated value, and therefore in a flux without anchor. This is hyperreality: appearance, simulacra too, and being in flux simulacra can come and go, because signs (in semiotics) mutate constantly.
Whilst for Baudrillard the symbolic order used to create balance and dialectical debate, in advanced societies this constraint has gone so that we get terrorism as ecstatic violence, pornography the ecstatic form of sex... and the state is the ecstatic form of society too (it's all the equivalent of making a point not by better argument with another for a rational outcome but by shouting louder). This is an escalation, a fatal spiral, and it is its own protection from miseleading reality.
Fatalism was an influence from Satre. For Baudrillard it's about extremes. The real becomes hyperreal, movement becomes speed, ugliness becomes monstrous, truth becomes simulation, the social becomes the hyperconformity which is a form of resistance (for example against those socialists, against any politics, against involvement), and sex becomes pornography (which Derek Jarman's film Jubilee said is "better than the real thing", in Baudrillard fashion).
Sexuality as a concept is interesting because feminists have themselves indulged in the sexual objectification of the feminine, which they claim is the tool of male power. For primitive societies, however, there is no women's sexuality but rather sex is an outcome of reciprocity, or the deal done in creating marriage alliances (an interest of Levi-Strauss in producing his functionalist view of binary opposites). So to create something called "sexuality" is to create a simulcrum. To go on about this as feminists do is to participate in the rationalisation of sex, an instrument of power-reason. Psychoanalysis and feminism are thus participating in this male power in order to produce an opposing sign. Sex becomes a means to demand equality, and has become a huge obsession in itself of demands. Instead, says Baudrillard, women should lay off all these demands and return to sexual ambivalence, of a greater passion within games of seduction.
This is where Baudrillard comes near to the erotic thoughts of Bataille. For Baudrillard, women are the best seducers, not men. Seduction reverses power and undermines it, but does not acquire it. It becomes a kind of reciprocal exchange of challenges which may result in sex, defiance or even death, the death being the final point of the never ending spiral involved.
The subject seduces. The object gets seduced. However, the object can reciprocally turn the tables. The object (say woman) can seduce back. This dialogue back and forward, of dodgy, shifting, challenging, escalating answers as further challenges that don't close the issue, create the reciprocal appearances that remove meaning, including unto death (and one thinks of those people who always answer with another question).
This is an escalation in appearances (one might think of the Princess of Wales who seduced the media with a series of "challenges" both enticing the media and rejecting the media until, when dead, she was pure appearance and was saintly; she seduced best of all, one might conclude).
It follows that this leads on to a strategy regarding power in general (although life is eroticised, fantasised, fatal). Whilst there is exploitation and the exploited, seduction is a reciprocal process of exchange (compare with Levi-Strauss again!) and challenge between the object of exploitation and the subject exploiting, where this binary opposition model is thus brought to an end: that is there is no exploiter and exploited left.
In terms of power the capitalists who are under the illusions of power are happy with the illusions! The seduction back though is results in hyperconformity in this material world. Hyperconformity is the ultimate resistance.
One might compare this with the inhabitabitants of the asylum whose best mode of resistance to the doctors with power is to conform in extremist. If the doctor tells a joke, they laugh very loudly and very long (Goffman, 1991, on total institutions).
In fact seduction replaces consumption in this power play: a vulgar psychology of desire is at work (we are not consumers, we are eroticised seducers in the political-economy). There is oppression through affluence so seduction recycles resistance into fashion (one might think of sub-cultures against mainstream society which simply end up dressing differently and go on doing their own thing).
No wonder then that in this game of exchanged and dead meanings there is a meltdown of boundaries in culture, as stimulated by mass media. There is repressive toleration! All the defining oppositions in culture go except Baudrillard's own use of the sign, so it is the symbolic (meanings) that is all messed up and intermingling while the sign retains difference for the sake of talking (we call it style over substance, yet we are able linguistically to continue to speak of the sign "style" on the one hand and the sign "substance" on the other, while symbolically that distinction has gone).
Now Baudrillard likes to discuss America because, whereas Europeans talk about history and destiny (as signs), America is a kind of expressed fiction (May, 1996, 207). There is appearance without metaphor, and so a kind of utopia is realised. The "superficial" is the "real", and Disneyland is America and America is Disneyland.
And then there was the Gulf War, which was an unreal war: that it would not happen, and had not happened (an "invasion" happened): it was a simulation of war and victory, followed by a simulation of negotiations in the Arab-Israeli conflict (one remembers that it was presented to the media like an entertaining computer game).
As some sort of conclusion one wonders if Baudrillard is happy or gloomy. Maybe he is happygloomy or gloomyhappy. The Baudrillard project is a Weberian like pessimism in that there can be no revolution - the object (of revolution) has defeated the subject which wanted to transform that object as well as defeating the oppressing subject. It is unclear who, in this, exercises power at all when the symbol system is such a flux. Its a symbolic jungle. Plurality and diversity are so extreme and without comparison that there is no basis of choice but choice abundant. It is the weight of the flux that traps all, where freedom is conforming at the extreme. One might conclude it's a paradox of happiness.
If one tries to get beyond simulacra, to expose and preserve the object, then the object gets destroyed. It's like the scientific or indeed social scientific experiment where the act of observing affects the outcome of that object. Capturing reality destroys it, so the simulacra is all there is. It's where we all are, with no beyond and no behind.


So what is to oppose Baudrillard himself? Like Marx the theory covers itself. He rejects sociological research as indulging in simulacra, but perhaps it is for sociological research to reject Baudrillard's system. Sociology cannot surely become a branch of novel writing (has Social Anthropology become nearly this?). If oppression hurts, and some have it more than others, then hyperconformity is not the only option. But then hyperconformity does not operate if there is difference, and Western society has a lot of differences.

Sexuality becomes an issue because, women say, the hurt is given through signs and symbols of power. Is pain only because something gets objectified first in the symbol system?

Like a lot of these presentations, Baudrillard's view has a lot of insight into the contemporary world (see May, 1996, 210), just like Marxism did without having to accept the whole lot, or indeed even become a revolutionary. A lot of Baudrillard's groundwork was done by the Situationists, and many would want to look at them and Baudrillard together critically (see Best, Kellner, 1997, 109) as being another critical angle on the flux of technological human society and its organisation. Baudrillard's theories are perhaps simulacra themselves.

Adrian Worsfold - er, well I think I understand it.


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