JEAN BAUDRILLARD has proven to be an important influence on postmodern theorists and artists, making his presence felt from Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism to the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix. Like Jameson, Baudrillard paints a rather bleak picture of our current postmodern condition, arguing that we have lost contact with the "real" in various ways, that we have nothing left but a continuing fascination with its disappearance. His vision is highly dystopic. In Baudrillard's version of postmodernity, there is hardly any space for opposition or resistance because of the supreme hegemony of the controlling system: "Everywhere, always, the system is too strong: hegemonic" ("On Nihilism" 163).. Baudrillard's vision, then, is one of supreme nihilism and melancholia: "Melancholia is the inherent quality of the mode of the disappearance of meaning.... And we are all melancholic" ("On Nihilism" 162). The problem is that "The system is itself also nihilistic, in the sense that it has the power to pour everything, including what denies it, into indifference" ("On Nihilism" 163). When reading Baudrillard on postmodernity, one sometimes gets the sense that we have already lost, that Baudrillard is merely pointing out the various ways that consumer society and the simulacrumhave won in their colonization of all "reality." (On the "simulacrum," see the next module on simulation.)
Baudrillard points to a number of factors contributing to humanity's death knell within the postmodern present, including:
1) the loss of history. As Baudrillard puts it in "History: A Retro Scenario," "History is our lost referential, that is to say our myth." He goes on to say that "The great event of this period, the great trauma, is this decline of strong referentials, these death pangs of the real and of the rational that open onto an age of simulation" (43).
2) mediatization. The fact that movies and television (the media) keep turning to history and to various "retro" recreations of the past is merely a symptom (a reaction-formation, Freud would say) for the loss of history. Indeed, such media works continue the process of forgetting history; as Baudrillard writes of the NBC miniseries Holocaust, "One no longer makes the Jews pass through the crematorium or the gas chamber, but through the sound track and image track, through the universal screen and the microprocessor. Forgetting, annihilation, finally achieves its aesthetic dimension in this way—it is achieved in retro, finally elevated here to a mass level" ("Holocaust" 49). Television, film, and the internet separate us from the real even as they seek to reproduce it more fully or faithfully: "The hyperreality of communication and of meaning. More real than real, that is how the real is abolished" ("The Implosion of Meaning in the Media" 81).
3) the proliferation of kitsch: Our culture, according to Baudrillard, has been inundated by trashy, kitsch, mass-market products, which contribute to our society of simulation and consumerism: "This proliferation of kitsch, which is produced by industrial reproduction and the vulgarization at the level of objects of distinctive signs taken from all registers (the bygone, the 'neo', the exotic, the folksy, the futuristic) and from a disordered excess of 'ready-made' signs, has its basis, like 'mass culture', in the sociological reality of the consumer society" (Consumer Society 110)
4) consumer society. A culture of consumption has so much taken over our ways of thinking that all reality is filtered through the logic of exchange value and advertising. As Baudrillard writes, "Our society thinks itself and speaks itself as a consumer society. As much as it consumes anything, it consumes itself as consumer society, as idea. Advertising is the triumphal paean to that idea" (Consumer Society 193).
5) the "cool smile". Like Jameson, Baudrillard argues that the parodic, self-conscious, self-reflexive elements of pop-cultural forms only aid in their capitalist complicity: "This false distance is present everywhere: in spy films, in Godard, in modern advertising, which uses it continually as a cultural allusion. It is not really clear in the end whether this 'cool' smile is the smile of humour or that of commercial complicity. This is also the case with pop, and its smile ultimately encapsulates all its ambiguity: it is not the smile of critical distance, but the smile of collusion" (Consumer Society 121). For comparison, see the Jameson module on pastiche and the Hutcheon module on parody.
6) simulacra and simulation. Above all else, Baudrillard keeps returning to his concepts, simulacra and simulation, to explain how our models for the real have taken over the place of the real in postmodern society. See the next module.
ACCORDING TO BAUDRILLARD, what has happened in postmodern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and maps that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the model, which now precedes and determines the real world: "The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory" ("The Precession of Simulacra" 1). According to Baudrillard, when it comes to postmodern simulation and simulacra, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” ("The Precession of Simulacra" 2). Baudrillard is not merely suggesting that postmodern culture is artificial, because the concept of artificiality still requires some sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. His point, rather, is that we have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice. To clarify his point, he argues that there are three "orders of simulacra": 1) in the first order of simulacra, which he associates with the pre-modern period, the image is a clear counterfeit of the real; the image is recognized as just an illusion, a place marker for the real; 2) in the second order of simulacra, which Baudrillard associates with the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, the distinctions between the image and the representation begin to break down because of mass production and the proliferation of copies. Such production misrepresents and masks an underlying reality by imitating it so well, thus threatening to replace it (e.g. in photography or ideology); however, there is still a belief that, through critique or effective political action, one can still access the hidden fact of the real; 3) in the third order of simulacra, which is associated with the postmodern age, we are confronted with a precession of simulacra; that is, the representationprecedes and determines the real. There is no longer any distinction between reality and its representation; there is only the simulacrum.
Baudrillard points to a number of phenomena to explain this loss of distinctions between "reality" and the simulacrum:1) Media culture. Contemporary media (television, film, magazines, billboards, the Internet) are concerned not just with relaying information or stories but with interpreting our most private selves for us, making us approach each other and the world through the lens of these media images. We therefore no longer acquire goods because of real needs but because of desires that are increasingly defined by commercials and commercialized images, which keep us at one step removed from the reality of our bodies or of the world around us.
3) Multinational capitalism. As the things we use are increasingly the product of complex industrial processes, we lose touch with the underlying reality of the goods we consume. Not even national identity functions in a world of multinational corporations. According to Baudrillard, it is capital that now defines our identities. We thus continue to lose touch with the material fact of the laborer, who is increasingly invisible to a consumer oriented towards retail outlets or the even more impersonal Internet. A common example of this is the fact that most consumers do not know how the products they consume are related to real-life things. How many people could identify the actual plant from which is derived the coffee bean? Starbucks, by contrast, increasingly defines our urban realities. (On multinational capitalism, see Marxism: Modules: Jameson: Late Capitalism.)
4) Urbanization. As we continue to develop available geographical locations, we lose touch with any sense of the natural world. Even natural spaces are now understood as “protected,” which is to say that they are defined in contradistinction to an urban “reality,” often with signs to point out just how “real” they are. Increasingly, we expect the sign (behold nature!) to precede access to nature.
5) Language and Ideology. Baudrillard illustrates how in such subtle ways language keeps us from accessing “reality.” The earlier understanding of ideology was that it hid the truth, that it represented a “false consciousness,” as Marxists phrase it, keeping us from seeing the real workings of the state, of economic forces, or of the dominant groups in power. (This understanding of ideology corresponds to Baudrillard's second order of simulacra.) Postmodernism, on the other hand, understands ideology as the support for our very perception of reality. There is no outside of ideology, according to this view, at least no outside that can be articulated in language. Because we are so reliant on language to structure our perceptions, any representation of reality is always alwaysconstructed by simulacra.
already ideological, always already constructed by simulacra.