The subjects covered in this blog include Islam, Islamism, Slavoj Žižek, IQ tests, Chomsky, Tony Blair, Baudrillard, global warming, sociobiology, Marx, Foucault, National/International Socialism, economics, the Frankfurt School, philosophy, anti-racism, etc. - Paul Austin Murphy
Thursday, 5 November 2015
Jean Baudrillard vs. America?
Baudrillard was a well-known French philosopher and sociologist. He
died in 2007.
along with Jean-François Lyotard, more or less invented
postmodernism – or at least he provided its theoretical
underpinnings. He also said (amongst other things) that “[r]eality
itself is too obvious to be true” and that “truth does not exist”
[in Fragments: Cool Memories III].
hinted at, Baudrillard is often sold to the public as a
“postmodernist” and a lover of America. Marxist writers - such aChristopher
have been particularly critical of Baudrillard's seemingly
“pro-American” stance. Yet until he was 40
(in 1969) Baudrillard was (more or less) a revolutionary
Marxist. And it can also be seen that despite the criticism he has
got from Marxists/socialists for his “relativism”, “support of
the status quo” and “lack of political commitment”, the ghost
of Marx still haunted him. Much of what he did, essentially,
was to take some of Marx's theories and ideas in a radically
postmodernism has just been mentioned, I'll let Baudrillard himself
tell you what postmodernism actually is. He wrote:
is... a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia,
disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the
traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning,
originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the
random swirl of empty signals.”
for Baudrillard's indebtedness to Marxism, what’s non-Marxist or
postmodernist about, for example, talk of a “classless society”and
the “naturalisation of the proletariat”? There
are many other aspects of Baudrillard’s thought which are Marxist
in tone and in political objectives/hopes. For example, his critiques
of the “bourgeoisie” and “capitalist humanism”; along with
his fetishisation of "Otherness" and talk of “liberation”
Baudrillard did, then, was substitute certain Marxist variables
(i.e., theories and technical terms) and juggle them around a little.
Thus Baudrillard kept himself in the Marxist épistème and
then played his postmodernist games within it.
it may still seem strange to class Baudrillard as, well, a lapsed
Marxist. So just sample this wee diatribe against liberal
democracies to be going on with:
has never said better how much 'humanism', 'normality', 'quality of
life' were nothing but the vicissitudes of profitability.”
for Baudrillard's texts, quite frankly you often don't know what to
make of them. Is it poetry? Is it prose? Or is it philosophy? Is it
all these things?
it's philosophy, then if you take his statements literally, almost
all of them come out false, meaningless or as silly - though sexy
- generalisations. Thus none of his pronouncements can be taken
literally: we have Baudrillard's word on that. He once urged us to
“[n]ever resist a sentence you
like, in which language takes its own pleasure”.
you read Baudrillard, you get a huge sense of a French intellectual
being condescending towards America and Americans. After all, the
French are known to have a low opinion of all things American. And if
you add to that the extreme pretentiousness and outré radicalism of
French philosophy, then Baudrillard's America is one result.
to Baudrillard, America has no history. Or to use Baudrillard's own
prose: “America ducks the questions of origins.” He goes on to
say that America “cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity”.
It addition to that: “it has no past and no founding truth”.
despite the museums, the American
CivilWar, the abolition of slavery, the fight against
the British state, etc., America has no history. Or at least
according to a French intellectual America has no history. But, then
again, are you meant to take these oracular pronouncements literally?
postmodernists, post-structuralists and other philosophers (including
Judith Butler, etc.) often
talk about what they call “the real” (sometimes with a Platonic
'R'). Baudrillard is no exception to this. To put it as simply as he
doesn't put it: America is unreal. Disneyland is real.
put more meat on that claim, Baudrillard tells us that “Disneyland
exists in order to hide that it is the 'real' country, all of 'real'
America that is Disneyland”. More specifically, “Disneyland is
presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is
real”. This inversion of real for the unreal works as some kind of
"ideological blanket” to hide the monumental truth (yes,
truth) that the entirety of American life is a “simulation”
[from Simulacra and Simulation].
we have here is an “ideological representation of reality” which
pretends not to be an ideological representation of reality.
Thus Baudrillard is effectively giving new life to ancient Marxist
dogmas. That is, this American ideology is “concealing the fact
that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality
principle”. Yes, he's resurrected two classic Marxist tropes:
“false consciousness” (or “manufactured consent”, as Chomsky
puts it) and ideology as “class rule”.
America's (lack of) history dealt with. What about its politics?
should come as no surprise that this postmodernist ex-revolutionary
Marxist believed that America
a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference,
puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological
futility and aimless violence”.
goes on to say that America is a “[a]norexic culture” and “a
culture of disgust, of expulsion, of anthropoemia, of rejection”. A
land of “obesity, saturation, overabundance”. Feel that smug
hatred underneath the fairytale that Baudrillard actually embraced
America and all things American.
what did Baudrillard think about Americans?
apparently “Americans may have no identity, but they do have
wonderful teeth”. As you can see, Baudrillard's racist
condescension of Americans knew no bounds. (Be sure, he wasn't
talking about American blacks or recent immigrants.) This stuff reads
like the Der Stürmer of the postmodern age. I mean this man
thought that Americans can't even “analyse or conceptualize”. So
does all this effectively mean that Baudrillard believed that all
white Americans were essentially subhuman?
Poverty: Sinful Wealth
take on “consumerism” is also firmly set within a Marxist
time, instead of “capitalist ideology” integrating classes (which
should otherwise be at war with each other), consumerism does
that trick instead. Baudrillard believes that to be the case
primarily because all classes (from the proletariat to the
upper-class) consume pretty much the same things: from Rihanna
to microwaves to chat shows.
even has the audacity to say that the US is a “country... without
hope”. Apparently America is without hope because “its garbage is
clean, its trade lubricated, its traffic pacified”.
once upon a time Leftists criticised America for creating - and then
allowing - poverty and inequality. Then, in the 1950s and 60s, the
very same Leftists criticised the very same country for its
“consumerism” and “decadence”.
himself is part of a tradition which goes all the way back to,
amongst other things, Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional
Man (written in 1964). So although Marcuse wasn't as poetic and
pretentious as Baudrillard, he might well have written Baudrillard's
life is so liquid, the signs and messages are so liquid, the bodies
and the cars are so fluid, the hair so blond, and the soft
technologies so luxuriant...”
Consciousness & the Hyperreal
Baudrillard’s notion of the “hyperreal” can be seen as a
Marxist construct. Or at least it must have fed off a particularly
Marxist way of looking at things.
this instance, instead of the “false consciousness” of the
working class being a phenomenon of, well, consciousness; this
time false consciousness is found in “what we take to be reality”.
This is the ancient philosophical - and then Marxist - distinction
between “reality and appearance”. So with Baudrillard’s
“hyperreality” we have nothing but “simulations” which people
(the working class again?) take to be reality.
because capitalism is essentially about selling products, everything
becomes (or must become) a product – even reality itself. Thus the
Gulf War of 1990/1,
according Baudrillard, was also a product. It was a “simulation”.
“Hyperreal”. The Gulf War simply “did not take place”.
the “capitalist Media” gets to work on reality and in so doing it
turns reality into hyperreality. A system of “sign-values” which
are variously “aesthetisised” for our consumption and enjoyment –
even the killings and bombings of the Gulf War.
sum up. The central claim in this piece isn't that Baudrillard was a
outright Marxist or even a kind of Marxist. It's simply to
argue that he was profoundly influenced by Marxism and that this
influence can be seen in his philosophical work. Thus Baudrillard
fell into the snare of Marxism as so many others have done. (Marx
himself fell into the snare of Hegel.)
the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baudrillard must have come to believe
that Marxism had atrophied – as it had. Thus, despite still using
Marxist theories and even Marxist technical terms, he set off in his
own direction. I can't say if he was attempting to rejuvenate Marxism
or to simply leave it well behind. Whatever the case may be, it's
clear that countless Marxist intellectuals found the move from
Marxism to postmodernism (as well as to structuralism and
post-structuralism) very easy and indeed natural. Baudrillard,
Derrida and Lyotard, for example, kept the same political goals and
hopes they had when they were Marxists; though they went about
achieving them in very different ways.
the future, Jean Baudrillard may be seen as a true successor to Marx.