Jean Baudrillard vs. America?
by Paul Austin Murphy (November 2015)
Jean Baudrillard was a well-known French philosopher and sociologist. He died in 2007.
Baudrillard, along with Jean-François Lyotard, more or less invented postmodernism – or at least provided its theoretical underpinnings. Baudrillard 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].
As hinted at, Baudrillard is often sold to the public as a “postmodernist” and a lover of America. Marxist writers - such a Christopher Norris, Frederic Jameson and Alex Callinicos - 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 new direction.
Since postmodernism has just been mentioned, I'll let Baudrillard himself tell you what postmodernism actually is. He wrote:
“Postmodernity 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.”
As 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” and “emancipation.”
What 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.
Again, 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:
“One has never said better how much 'humanism', 'normality', 'quality of life' were nothing but the vicissitudes of profitability.” [Simulacra and Simulation]
As for Baudrillard's texts, quite frankly, one often doesn't know what to make of them. Is it poetry? Is it prose? Or is it philosophy? Is it all these things?
If it's philosophy, then if you take his statements literally, almost all of them come out false, meaningless or 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.”
America & Americans
When 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.
According 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.” In addition to that: “it has no past and no founding truth.”
Yes, despite the museums, the American Civil War, 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?
Various postmodernists, post-structuralists and other philosophers (including Slavoj Žižek, 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.
To 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].
What 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 old 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.”
That's America's (lack of) history dealt with. What about its politics?
It should come as no surprise that this postmodernist ex-revolutionary Marxist believed that America,
“is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence.”
He goes on to say that America is an “[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.
So what did Baudrillard think about Americans?
Well, 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?
Sinful Poverty: Sinful Wealth
Baudrillard’s take on “consumerism” is also firmly set within a Marxist paradigm.
This 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.
Baudrillard 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.”
Yes, 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.”
Baudrillard 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 following words:
“... 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...”
False Consciousness & the Hyperreal
Even 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.
In 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.
And 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.”
Thus 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.
To 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.)
In 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.
In the future, Jean Baudrillard may be seen as a true successor to Marx.
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