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The virtual world of consumer spectacle fails to describe its describer - click opera
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Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 12:12 pm
The virtual world of consumer spectacle fails to describe its describer

The difference between the French obituaries of Jean Baudrillard, who died last week, and the Anglo-Saxon ones was really remarkable. The Anglo ones seemed to be written by people trapped in exactly the sort of spectral, consumerist cage that Baudrillard described in his work, people nevertheless unaware of how well he had understood their situation. And so we got, from Britain and America, pieces which began, over and over again, with the same two soundbites:

1. That Baudrillard had said the first Gulf War "did not take place".

2. That his ideas had inspired The Matrix (a film he hated and refused to have anything to do with, by the way).

The best obit was in Libération, the paper for which he wrote many of his most famous articles. They gave him the cover and several pages inside, and told us that Baudrillard was "curiosity itself".



Whereas a newspaper like Le Figaro told us, usefully and sensibly, that Baudrillard "contested the very notion of a New World Order, because it suggested the end of history and a conception of the universal in which the figure of the other is by definition retrograde, barbaric or archaic", and that his conception of postmodernity was of an era "marked by the erosion of grand explanations of the world and by the hegemony of a consumerist lifestyle", the Anglo press actually exemplified those things, offering us no big ideas, a conception of Frenchmen as "the other", a few anecdotes about Keanu Reeves and Madonna, some soundbites that had grown "iconic" by repetition, some hate mail, and some very peculiar and contradictory stuff about consumerism.

What to make of the very odd article in The Scotsman entitled "Bookshop hype owes a debt to Gallic genius of the hyper-real"? This told us that "his ideas are probably a lot more sane than you might think" because the policy of Waterstone's Booksellers to charge publishers £1000 to have a book on display in the store and £10,000 to make it a featured display somehow vindicated "crazy" Baudrillard's idea about simulacra and the hyper-real? Some kind of claim that Baudrillard could be justified, after all, as a slightly unconventional marketing guru seemed to be in the offing.

This was confirmed by the NPR report in which Mark Poster from the University of California at Irvine told public radio listeners that the French philosopher "was very interested in consumer behaviour", and recounted Baudrillard's own consumer preference: unlike Americans, he drank wine at lunch.

On the question of whether Baudrillard liked America, there was some confusion. The Times told us that Baudrillard was both "a fierce critic of consumer culture" and "a tireless enthusiast for America". For Reuters, though, Baudrillard's "America" was "a high-speed travelogue seeking to lay bare the "banality" of American culture" and his response to 9/11 "seemed to display a lack of sympathy for the victims". Several articles quoted his statement that America was the world's "last remaining primitive culture". For some reports, Baudrillard thought Disneyland was "a paradise", others reported that, for Baudrillard, "Disneyland is not a fantasy -- it presents an objective portrait of America. It tries to make you forget that the whole of America is already infantilized".

BBC Radio 3's Nightwaves show found a British academic -- Andy Martin, reader in French Literature at Cambridge -- who had actually dined, once, one-to-one, with Baudrillard. He could remember just two things the guru said, one about Madonna and one about surfing. Madonna had just produced this book called "Sex" and, according to Martin, Baudrillard and Madonna were not only at the same level of American celebrity at the time, but rumoured by some to be dating. Baudrillard said of Madonna: "Her tragedy is that she can never get naked enough".

When Martin, a keen surfer, said he didn't like the way the word surfing was then being turned into a metaphor for other things, like taking a computer onto the internet, Baudrillard said "Everything that once was real has already become a metaphor".

While presenter Matthew Sweet wanted to end by calling Baudrillard "the greatest fool of his age", Martin preferred to end on a technical note. "He is a strong anti-foundationalist. I think the term postmodernist is already dead. Does that help?"

It did indeed help, although the Figaro put it much more coherently for the layman when they said "For Baudrillard we have become a part of a universe where not only has all transcendent reference disappeared, but in which the definition of reality itself has become problematical, as evidenced by the predominance of virtual representations of the world over values which foreground the notions of sense and truth."

Considering how widely Baudrillard's soundbite about the first Gulf War not having happened was repeated, it's surprising how little people went into what Baudrillard had meant by that. Only Libé went back to the original statement.

"War," said Baudrillard, "everywhere except in the New World Order, is born from an antagonistic and destructive relationship, a duel between two adversaries. But this war is asexual, surgical, "war processing". The enemy here is nothing but a target on a computer screen, just as a sexual partner is nothing more than a pseudonym in a sexy chatroom on the Minitel Rose. If that's "sex", well, the Gulf War can pass for "war"."

Nobody pointed out -- so I'll do it here -- that George Bush Junior seems to share Baudrillard's disdain for the brevity and unreality of the first Gulf War, and his father's New World Order. Bush Jnr hates the "internets" and panty-waisted "virtuality" as much as Baudrillard did. So convinced was he that the first Gulf War didn't take place that he organized a second one. Far from being a "surgical strike" in "virtual reality", his has lots of real combat between real people on the ground, lots of torture, bloodshed and suffering. It's still taking place today.

64CommentReplyShare

bikerbar
bikerbar
bikerbar
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 12:33 pm (UTC)

To say Baudrillard famously said the Gulf War did not take place is or that his ideas inspired The Matrix is to belittle his theories and place in contemporary thought. Ultimately they didn't like Baudrillard because he could see they live in Disneyland. No one likes a mirror held up too closely ... oh wait is that Lacan's theory ,, uh


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 01:16 pm (UTC)

It's tempting to see Baudrillard as a man too caught up in the headlines and hype of his time -- virtual reality, simulation, the New World Order; a kind of phrase-maker who could be called upon to comment on news events as they happened. I think he was aware of this himself, and tried to stay a couple of steps ahead by pushing his pronouncements just a little further into paradox and provocation than most would have dared. But he was always ahead of the headlines, if not the poets of media. He really picks up themes from Borges, McLuhan and Ballard and applies them to the events of the last 30 years.

The fact that some of his insights can still shock and perplex shows that they aren't as self-evident as they might seem. For instance, yesterday I was surprised to find how resistant some are to the idea that the Muslim world is postmodern. Baudrillard called 9/11 "the ultimate event, the mother of all events" and said that, now, there was no longer any need for the media to virtualise events, as in the first Gulf war, since the war's participants had thoroughly internalised the rules of simulation. Whoever the current War of Terror is against, by that definition, is certainly playing by the rules of postmodernism.


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eustaceplimsoll
Eustace Plimsoll
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 02:05 pm (UTC)

Crikey Momus! Are you some kind of postmodern fundamentalist? You must be, because for you to apply the name 'postmodern' to the Muslim world (and Muslims) is to implicitly say that you possess better conceptual equipment than the subjects you classify: subjects who hold an entirely different view of themselves and the world! This is as arrogant and hierarchical as Victorian anthropology. You must be closer to the truth than Muslims, I take it?

Poor benighted Muslims! We need to get some postmodern missionaries in among the devils, what!

I'm off to buy some flowers from Columbia Road. I look forward to reading your response when I return.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 01:26 pm (UTC)
"Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."

Interesting, that Disneyland America is 'infantilized', while, on the surface, there is a subtle plea for missing innocence in Baudrillard's work. We've come too far, this is where we are now. What does meaning mean? If hyperreal is stimulation without origin, are we just describing planes of existential stasis again? But critics of Baudrillard make the mistake of seeing him as an attempt to define truth about the world, rather than an assessment of how truth works. (Doorknob: Simply impassible. Alice: You mean impossible? Doorknob: No, impassible.) You offer cuteness as cure, yet also wrote an anti-children song 'His Majesty..' - is it not worth distinguishing two childhoods? Childhood the mouth, the greed and unreserved self-interest, and Childhood the innocence, the dreamer and explorer. For the sake of argument, I'm just wondering one actually needs the other? Isn’t cuteness a converse way of being 'food for the mouth', isn't the dreamer simply dreaming of a place beyond his greed, the explorer looking new places to stake an amount of self-interest? Disney seem(ed) to be a representation of both poles at once, at least the folk culture it sold back to the folk! (White Rabbit: Hello, goodbye! I'm late! I'm late! March Hare: How about a nice cup of tea? Jean Baudrillard: Do you have Sprite Zero? I'm studying the sign value of product placements at the moment.)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 01:36 pm (UTC)
Re: "Oh no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."

"Our sentimentality towards animals is a sure sign of the disdain in which we hold them." Baudrillard


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 02:25 pm (UTC)

I wasn't aware that he had died recently. I have read Les Fleur de Mal--well, parts of it--and it's not bad.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 02:42 pm (UTC)

Baudelaire didn't happen, either! Although lying beside a prostitute's bartered body was a 'corpse beside another corpse', so maybe there's a running theme to Baudrillard. When civilisations offer each other only tokens of exchange value, 'globalisation battling against itself' will be like a sour night with a syphilitic whore.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 02:38 pm (UTC)

Baudrillard didn't seem to be anti-consumerist when it came to cigarettes.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 04:02 pm (UTC)

It's really rather silly to say that consistent anti-consumerists would have to consume nothing!


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squidb0i
squidb0i
ENDIF
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 05:08 pm (UTC)

I have to disagree with your dismissive summary of the NPR interview:
It may not have been particularly deep, but was still a decent piece.

But yes, predictably the MSM glossed over his ideas and life.
What else would they do? He opened the curtain behind which they hide.
'Pay no attention to that man! I am the great and powerful OZ!'


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 05:55 pm (UTC)

I liked the NPR piece, but it just happened to fit into my narrative the way it did because the line about consumerism stood out and worked with the previous paragraph. Also, there was no real engagement there with the ideas, I thought -- probably, as you say, because "he opened the curtain behind which they hide".


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reflejos
reflejos
erasmo spicker
Mon, Mar. 12th, 2007 02:40 pm (UTC)
a poet of the surface of things (fascinating but also terrifying for what they conceal)

As he gazes at the contemporary scene, Baudrillard notices the same cultural symptoms that Ballard does—affectlessness, apparently meaningless circulation, the sense of impending catastrophe. It is no wonder that Ballard celebrates Baudrillard’s brilliant reading of American culture in America (1986). But whereas Baudrillard celebrates—even if ironically—the "marvelously affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts" on American roads (America 5), or America’s orgiastic and ecstatic indifference as a "radical modernity" attained (96-97), for Ballard there remains the project of exposing the real (unconscious) desire beneath the debauch of fiction. Baudrillard the hyperrealist is at his best consciously a poet of the surface of things. In this he is a postmodernist par excellence, and this is, it seems to me, why Ballard, for whom such surfaces are equally fascinating but also terrifying for what they conceal, is so ambivalent toward him. It is surely this ambivalence that causes Ballard to attack, in his "Response to the Invitation to Respond" to Baudrillard’s essays, not Baudrillard, but postmodernism itself.


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rroland
rroland
rroland
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 06:59 pm (UTC)

how can we have a reference to the village idiot and this genius in the same paragraph? you're trying to start something ;). i purchased a book in Berkeley, 'After the Orgy' by Dominic Pettman, there are extensive quotes from Baudrillard, the book concerns libidinal millenarianism, hence the title a quote from Baudrillard, the Orgy meaning Postmodernism. I think of Jean as our modern day Hermes, cavorting between the world and the hyper-world, Pan, goat in the machine (to borrow a phrase from Dominic Pettman). In Baudrillard's book 'Screened Out', one of his points are that we have become an identity of the screen, we are in a hurry, too much so that we can only classify someone through the flatness of a screen...kinda like livejournal! If you want to get into Baudrillards work, I recommend 'Fragments: Conversations w/ Francois L'Yvonnet'.


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nicepimmelkarl
.
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 10:36 pm (UTC)

orgy. funny word, innit?


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 07:13 pm (UTC)
Religious Sci-Fi

Re: The Matrix and quasi-Buddhist or Gnostic meanings. No God, just fate. Free oneself from illusion. A peaceful existence is disembodied. Unfortunately "when Neo escapes the Matrix he is not in Nirvana or heaven. He is in a scorched earth." This seems to be more in tune with the Christian idea of a fallen paradise. We imagine that without the hyper-real, without illusion and dazzle, there is only scorched earth. The question is - where do you get the baseline, this scorched earth 'truth', from? The hyper-real is not an extension to the real, but an integral aspect of it. Any pastoral or perfected Eden was probably, in itself, your primal call for hyper-real. We were never free from desire, for we desire even at the organic level, sexual before sex arrived. Disneyland and heaven, porn and the cathedral, far from opposites. The real(s) co-exist, and probably always have done. How they co-exist is beyond the soundbite.. the hyper-real gives us the real 'plus our own reaction to it' perhaps.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 07:41 pm (UTC)

Oh dear, have these students applied for their Edinburgh Festival Fringe revue slot yet? They'll be the toast of 1983.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 07:38 pm (UTC)
Shinjuku: The Dessert of the Real

The man seems to have manufactured an entire intellectual career on a rather simple aversion to technological mediation - a clever and articulate neophobe. The real became hyperreal when the ape spoke, became more hyperreal when stoned neolithic shamans pasted their minds onto the walls of caves, became even more hyperreal when the Summarians began binding time with cuneifrom. The "real" has been a desert since we were ejected from monkey Eden. Standing outside Shinjuku station in the glaring memetic froth, the air thick with data and hot as an iBook: surely this must be the pulsing, pixelated nexus of Baudrillardian evil? Alas, it is the dessert of the real: it is what comes after. And it is perfectly natural.

Aistan


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 07:43 pm (UTC)
Re: Shinjuku: The Dessert of the Real

I'm inclined to agree with you, and that's why I'm also rather suspicious of Ballard and even McLuhan too. They're all conservatives who turn suspicion into insight. But they're also poets who show us our world from an angle those of us more enamoured of it might never have suspected. Their alienation -- and their talent for phrases, and for self-dramatization -- gives them purchase.


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peacelovgranola
-
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 08:26 pm (UTC)

Very interesting to see how ol' Jean was discussed by two different points of view. I was also thinking of Baudrillard over at my place lately.

Something else that I'd be curious to hear more about is the brouhaha over Baudrillard's book "Forget Foucault." I've been trying to figure out what the big problem was: is it simply Baudrillard was more interested in "desire" and Foucault "power?" Surely, in the spirit of Postmodernism, there's room for endless positions and paradoxes galore. Here's to the incommensurable!

p.s. Along with what Momus is pointing out, i think a lot of people also miss how hilarious Baudrillard was, too. (Even I don't discuss it much in my short obit). But as a friend of mine said to me last night re: Baudrillard, "Rarely does a French theorist make my laugh out loud."


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cescapist
cescapist
Brian O'blivion
Mon, Mar. 12th, 2007 02:55 am (UTC)

What I find interesting about his work is that it's genuinely amusing, serious, but amusing.

For example, in one essay (the exact name escapes me now) he mentions self-corruption. That it's better to slowly erode one's own ideals, to self-corrupt than to be subject to uncontrolled external corruption of what you subsume into your personal ideals.

However, as the read you can't help but see a smiling old man at his desk laughing to himself about all the great arguments this is going to create among readers. I think Baudrilard knew that, like "blog" posts, it's not so much the article that is interesting but more the discussion and responses to it -- internal and external.


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gigant0r
gigant0r
gigant0r
Sun, Mar. 11th, 2007 09:10 pm (UTC)
daringly questioning your brazen assumptions

does W really hate the innernets? there's no lack of supporting words for the man on there, assuming he knows where to look. maybe he has the daily forum activity at LGF printed up for him every morning and he reads it while he's waiting for the shower water to get hot and he's air punching at the mirror and saying in some sort of stadium PA voice that he's the new KING...OF...THE...WOOOORRRRLLLDDDDD and then makes the crowd going wild noise and then showers using Pert Plus because it's a shampoo + conditioner in one and he's a busy man
oh shit i defined him by his consumerism AM I IN THE MATRIX? MSG ME (5 MIN TIMER)


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freesurfboards
freesurfboards
freesurfboards
Mon, Mar. 12th, 2007 02:48 am (UTC)

Thank you for introducing this to me.


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supercommon
supercommon
Mon, Mar. 12th, 2007 04:58 am (UTC)

I haven't read anything by Baudrillard, but I'd like to. Where should I start?


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lobsterbelle
lobsterbelle
-
Mon, Mar. 12th, 2007 05:58 am (UTC)

He looks so much like John Howard. I can't get over that.


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