I'm back from a brief and largely sleepless paternity leave, and I've got some catching up to do. First, there's the most important world event of the past week: the death of Jean Baudrillard, yet another French post-structuralist philosopher with a short life span. Among those who've come to spit on poor Baudrillard's grave is Robert Fulford, who eulogized the philosopher by remarking, "He could make any subject more obscure just by briefly visiting it." Fulford dusts off the old complaints about post-structuralist French thinkers, adding his own flourish of a martial metaphor. He accuses Baudrillard of being a member of the "platoon" of "postmodernists, post-structuralists, post-Marxists and full-time professional obscurantists," whose thoughts were weapons of war. Fulford notes with a shudder, "by the early 1990s their thoughts had penetrated Western Canada, where you could hear professors talking the ugly and mostly incomprehensible language of critical theory while students struggled pathetically to keep up."
Actually, Baudrillard was perhaps the most easily summarized of all of the French post-structuralists. The notion of hyperreality was his trademark idea--he really only had one good idea in his career--and it's a lot easier to understand than, say, the concept of irony. Baudrillard gave solace to young academics in over their heads by allowing them to declare whatever cultural phenomenon they were studying didn't really exist, so it was OK if they had nothing original or insightful to say about it. Even Baudrillard's most famous adherents, Andy and Larry Wachowski, oversimplified his concept of hyperreality. After a screening of The Matrix Baudrillard sighed and said references to his work “stemmed mostly from misunderstandings.”
Baudrillard started his career as an orthodox Marxist and ended up a loose cannon provocateur. In The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers he declared, "It is we who have wanted it. . . . Terrorism is immoral, and it responds to a globalization that is itself immoral." He comes dangerously close to the pernicious idea that the people throwing themselves out of the burning towers somehow deserved their fate. Furthermore, objections to the "immorality" of globalization are disingenuous coming from Baudrillard, an international intellectual and academic star, for "Jean Baudrillard" is also a product of globalization.
However, Baudrillard will be remembered for giving us terms to better describe the world around us, most famously, and usefully, the term "simulacra." Like Walter Benjamin, Baudrillard was interested in the impact of reproductive technologies on Western culture, and like Benjamin, he was more sanguine than most European philosopher. Baudrillard had a thing for the United States, proclaiming, "America is the original version of modernity," giving a twist to Hegel's dictum that modernity measures itself by its own standards by showing how America's idealism is a heady blend of reality and unreality. As for the French, one of the original architects of modernity, he shrugged, “We are a copy with subtitles.”
For all of his flashy post-modernisms, Baudrillard subscribed to the idea, dating back to Socrates, that received, uncritical opinion and the values based upon them were insubstantial and unreal without rigorous, and irritating, questioning. In 2005, at the height of the Bush administration's democracy crusade, he told the New York Times, "All of our values are simulated. What is freedom? We have a choice between buying one car or buying another car? It’s a simulation of freedom." This explains the hostility of critics like Fulford, cursing the philosophers who dare to question our most cherished illusions.