Jean Baudrillard



Jean Baudrillard has been referred to as "the high priest of postmodernism."  Baudrillard's key ideas include two that are often used in discussing postmodernism in the arts:  "simulation" and "the hyperreal." The hyperreal is "more real than real": something fake and artificial comes to be more definitive of the real than reality itself.  Examples include high fashion (which is more beautiful than beauty), the news ("sound bites" determine outcomes of political contests), and Disneyland (see below).  A "simulation" is a copy or imitation that substitutes for reality.  Again, the TV speech of a political candidate, something staged entirely to be seen on TV, is a good example.  A cynical person might say that the wedding now exists (for many people) in order for videos and photos to be made—having a "beautiful wedding" means that it looks good in the photos and videos!  Baudrillard often writes in an exaggerated or hyperbolic style (following his philosophical forefather Friedrich Nietzsche), so that it is hard to know whether he is serious or tongue-in-cheek.  (Perhaps it does not matter!)


Quotations Part 1:  From "The Precession of Simulacra," in Art After Modernism:  Rethinking Representation, Ed. Brian Wallis (New Museum 1984), 253-281.

Precession of simulacra:  the map precedes the territory.  "It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire but our own: The desert of the real itself." (p. 253)


These would be the successive phases of the image:

            —it is the reflection of a basic reality

            —it masks and perverts a basic reality

            —it masks the absence of a basic reality

            —it bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

In the first case, the image is a good appearance—the representation is of the order of sacrament.  In the second, it is an evil appearance—of the order of malefice.  In the third, it plays at being an appearance—it is of the order of sorcery.  In the fourth, it is no longer in the order of appearance at all, but of simulation. (p. 256)


When the real no longer is what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.  There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality: of secondhand truth, objectivity, and authenticity.  There is an escalation of the true, of lived experience, a resurrection of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared.  And there is a panic-stricken production of the real and the referential, above and parallel to the panic of material production: this is how simulation appears in the phase that concerns us—a strategy of the real, neo-real, and hyperreal, whose universal double is a strategy of deterrence. (p. 257)


Disneyland is a perfect model of 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 reveling 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 specifically to maintain the multitudinous affect.  The contrast with the absolute solitude of the parking lot—a veritable concentration camp—is total….Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the "real" country, all of "real" America, which is Disneyland…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 simulation. (pp. 262-2)


Go and organize a fake holdup.  Be sure to check that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no life is in danger (otherwise you risk committing an offense).  Demand ransom, and arrange it so that the operation creates the greatest commotion possible—in brief, stay close to the "truth," so as to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulation.  But you won't succeed:  the web of artificial signs will be inextricably mixed up with real elements (a police officer will really shoot on sight; a bank customer will faint and die of a heart attack; they will really turn the phony ransom over to you)—in brief, you will unwittingly find yourself immediately in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour every attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to some reality—that's exactly how the established order is, well before institutions and justice come into play….Thus all holdups, hijacks, and the like are now as it were simulation holdups, in the sense that they are inscribed in advance in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media, anticipated in their mode of presentation and possible consequences.  In brief, where they function as a set of signs dedicated exclusively to their recurrence as signs, and no longer to their "real" goal at all. (p. 267)


Quotations Part 2  From The Illusion of the End (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), Translated by Chris Turner, "Pataphysics of the Year 2000"

Right at the very heart of news, history threatens to disappear.  At the heart of hi-fi, music threatens to disappear.  At the heart of experimentation, the object of science threatens to disappear.  At the heart of pornography, sexuality threatens to disappear.  Everywhere we find the same stereophonic effect, the same effect of absolute proximity to the real, the same effect of simulation.

By definition, this vanishing point, this point short of which history existed and music existed, cannot be pinned down.  Where must stereo perfection end?  The boundaries are constantly being pushed back because it is technical obsession which redraws them.  Where must news reporting end?  One can only counter this fascination with 'real time'—the equivalent of high fidelity—with a moral objection, and there is not much point in that.  (p. 6)


Quotations Part 3

Baudrillard has also written about our society's fascination with immediate images of violence and disaster (soccer game riots, the Gulf War, the Waco shoot-out, etc.).  He says that in such cases, the spectacle is hyperreal--the depiction of violence sets the standard for the reality.  Even horrific disasters like Chernobyl or the Challenger explosion are, in Baudrillard's view, "mere holograms or simulacra."


At times, however, Baudrillard adopts a less cynical position and envisions the masses' options for ironic and antagonistic resistance to the ongoing mediated spectacle of violence.  He speaks for instance about "an original strategy" of "subtle revenge" and a "refusal of will." 

(Jean Baudrillard, "The Masses:  The Implosion of the Social in the Media," in Selected Writings (Stanford,1988), Ed. Mark Poster, pp. 207-219.)


This means that sometimes, Baudrillard downplays the ideological functions of the television industry and questions its control over the audience.  Instead he emphasizes the audience's mass self-seduction:   "The group connected to the video is also only its own terminal.  It records itself, self-regulates itself and self-manages itself electronically.  Self-ignition, self-seduction.  The group is eroticized and seduced through the immediate command that it receives from itself, self-management will thus soon be the universal work of each one, of each group, of each terminal.  Self-seduction will become the norm of every electrified particle in networks or systems.  (Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard:  From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (Stanford, California:  Stanford University Press,  1989), p. 148)


Questions for JB from CF: The question is, if this is the opposite of "Big Brother is Watching," what kind of value is there in a world in which we are all self-seducing and plugged into our own terminals?  Is this a meaningful, liberated, democratic, creative, and valuable world?  Or is it its own nightmare inversion of Big Brother?  (Notice how different this picture is from McLuhan's optimistic idea of a happily united world in the new "global village.")