My ongoing understanding of Jean Baudrillard
The beginning of my attempts to make sense of Jean Baudrillard’s writings so that I may eventually explore how they relate to my journey into Second Life.
Whilst Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan were inspired by movies and television, Jean Baudrillard (who was influenced by McLuhan) described those using the computer as being lost in their own terminals. Cynthia Freeland describes this as “[….] a ‘terminal’ philosophy embracing millennial disillusionment.” (C. Freeland 2001:130).
Jean Baudrillard was born in Reims, France in 1929 at the beginning of what was termed ’The Great Depression” in America – an economic crisis that also affected Europe. He was the first of his working-class family to go to University, the Sorbonne, where he studied German language and literature before working as a teacher (from 1960 until 1966) alongside publishing literature reviews and translations of German authors. Whilst teaching German he began studying sociology, publishing his doctoral thesis in 1968, and went on to teach sociology at the University of Paris X Nanterre, where he eventually became a professor before moving to teach at the Universite de Paris-IX Dauphine in 1986, from which point he began to move away from sociology as a discipline although retaining his links with the academic world. In 1970 Baudrillard began making trips to the United States and also to Japan (where he was given his first camera in 1981). He became an intellectual celebrity, writing books and attending conferences. He appears to have had many intellectual influences from a variety of disciplines, including Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Roland Barthes and Marshall McLuhan. I’m not going to go into further detail here but summary information on Baudrillard’s life and ideas can be found here on the website of the European Graduate School, Switzerland, where he taught from its early beginnings in 1994 to his death in March 2007
Baudrillard is said to have been influenced by the concept of pataphysics, introduced to him through a philosophy professor, whilst at high school. This concept is a literary trope invented by the French writer and playwright Alfred Jarry in the book Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, where Jarry plays around with conventional concepts and interpretations of reality and the ‘neo-science of imaginary solutions’ expounded by his characters. “From pataphysics Baudrillard learned to mock science, write cryptically and allusively and seek politically inutility” (G. Genosko, p. 150 in R.G. Smith (Ed) 2010). Well that certainly provides an explanation for my difficulty in understanding Baudrillard’s concepts.
His essay Simulacra and Simulation was written in 1981 – the year he was given his first camera. Simulation is one of his key concepts. Its Latin root means ‘to copy’ but the word itself has come to have slightly different meanings/ connotations all of which are present In Bauadrillard’s usage of the word. In modern English it came to have the connotation of falseness and pretence and has now come to mean creating an analogue or mathematical model of something, “ … in order to study how it operates via artificially or abstractly producing its effects. With the advent of ‘realistic’ media …… it has also come to refer to an audio-visual experience that artfully mimics but otherwise has no connection with the reality it presents as in a flight simulator used in pilot training….” (Wernick, A in R.G. Smith 2010:1980). This kind of experience may both heighten the senses and be more real than real – i.e. hyper-real. I began to think here about the artist Matt Collishaw’s recent virtual reality Exhibition Thresholds (2017) where he created a digitally reconstructed room to re-stage the 1839 Exhibition where William Henry Talbot Fox first presented his photographic prints to the public.
What Baudrillard was pointing towards was the idea of a copy which is not only indistinguishable from the original but such that the distinction between the two disappears. A simulacrum (a term borrowed from Plato) is a simulated representation which has no original, so bears no relation to any reality and is a means of concealing the absence of a reality.
To begin with Baudrillard provided three orders of simulacra (J. Baudrillard 1981:121)
- An individual artefact – e.g. handmade copy of a painting –naturalist, founded on the imager, imitation and counterfeit. Would this apply to the art of Bonsai?
- A mechanically produced copy such as a photograph or sound-recording where all copies are identical to each other – founded on energy force, its materialization by the machine and in the whole system of production
- Production of a mechanically reproducible copy which has no original outside the composite process of its studio production – founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game. This could fit with Second Life, perhaps also Matt Collishaw’s work, although ….
In 1987, Baudrillard also conceptualised a fourth stage
4. ‘The fractal stage’ – the mechanically reproducible product is not a unique series but an infinite array of possibilities generated by models.
Daniel Chandler (2007:81) translates the four stages/phases of the image as:-
- 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 simulacrum
I can’t find a description of what Baudrillard considers to be the Real – yet everything he writes appears to be based on that notion. Daniel Chandler recognizes this criticism, “the semiotic stance which problematizes reality and emphasizes mediation and convention is sometimes criticised as extreme ‘cultural relativism’ by realists – such critics often object to an apparent sidelining of referential concerns such as ‘accuracy’ (ibid)
I do agree with Chandler that we certainly experience much of our world through the media of television, films and newspapers etc. Actually we used to experience the world outside our immediate environment through the Church, village gossip and ‘news’ from strangers who were passing through, I’m thinking, but I’m imagining that it might have been less contradictory. In the present we are bombarded daily with competing versions of ‘truth’, accusations of fake news etc and I don’t, at this stage, want to dive into a more expanded exploration of Baudrillard’s concepts, although I have researched some counter- viewpoints. In the meantime I’m going to rest with Chandler’s view that, “Semiotics helps us to not take representations for granted as reflections of reality, enabling us to take them apart and consider whose realities they represent” (ibid 2007:82).
Baudrillard, J (1994) Simulcra and Simulation. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press
Chandler, D (2007) Semiotics: the Basics (2nd Edition) Abingdon: Routledge
Freeland, C (2001 ) Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction Oxford,. Oxford University Press
Smith, R.G. (Ed) (2010) The Baudrillard Dictionary: Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press