Jean Baudrillard’s Smug Simulacrum of America

i) Introduction: Baudrillard’s Postmodernism and Marxism
ii) Baudrillard on America & Americans
iii) Baudrillard on Disneyland
iv) Sinful Wealth: Sinful Poverty
v) False Consciousness and Hyperreality
vi) Conclusion

i) Introduction: Baudrillard’s Postmodernism and Marxism

Is this book, the Marxist Douglas Kellner (who’s been strongly influenced — just like Baudrillard — by the Frankfurt School) castigates Baudrillard for straying — too far? — from Marxism.

Jean Baudrillard was a well-known French philosopher and sociologist. He died in 2007.

Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard more or less invented what came to be called postmodernism — or at least they provided its theoretical underpinnings.

As a taster, Baudrillard once said (amongst other things) that “[r]eality itself is too obvious to be true” and that “truth does not exist”.

Baudrillard is often sold to the public (specifically by the those on the radical Left) as a lover of all things American. For example, Marxist writers — such a Christopher Norris, Frederic Jameson and the Socialist Workers Party’s Alex Callinicos — have been particularly critical of Baudrillard’s seemingly “pro-American” stance. Yet until he was 40 (in 1969) Baudrillard was a revolutionary Marxist. It can also be seen that despite the criticism he’s got from Marxists 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 (or even many) Marxist theories and ideas in a new — sometimes radically new — directions.

Since postmodernism has just been mentioned, I’ll let Baudrillard himself tell you what he believed it to be. 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 (let alone anti-Marxist) 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 terms of his political objectives and hopes. For example, his critiques of the “bourgeoisie” and “capitalist humanism”; along with his fetishization of “Otherness” (or “alterity”) 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 (as it were) Marxist épistème — if only to play his postmodernist games within it.

Again, it may still seem strange to class Baudrillard as, well, a lapsed Marxist. In that case, simply sample Baudrillard’s small diatribe (in his book Simulacra and Simulation) 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.”

In very broad terms, the main problem with Baudrillard’s “neo-Marxism” (a term some of his fans/supporters have used) is that he refused to essentialise the working class. That is, he didn’t see the working class as some kind of platonic entity with determinate necessary and sufficient conditions; as defined (or simply assumed), of course, by Marxists. Baudrillard wrote:

“ [The Marxist] says: ‘the mass of the workers.’ But the mass is never that of the workers, nor any other social subject or object… The mass is without attribute, predicate, quality, reference. This is its definition. It has no sociological ‘reality’. It has nothing to do with any real population, body or specific social aggregate.”

This, clearly, would work against the Revolution. And it was that which annoyed those scripturally-pure Marxists. This isn’t to argue that Marxists never update Marxism — they do. (Lenin and Gramsci are perfect examples of this.) However, all such updatings are usually — or always — deemed to be faithful to Marx himself.

As for Baudrillard’s actual prose. Quite frankly, I often don’t know what to make of it. Is it poetry? Prose? Philosophy? Or is it all these things?

If you take Baudrillard’s statements literally, then almost all of them come out false, meaningless or as simply gross — though often sexy — generalizations. Thus none of his pronouncements can be taken literally. Indeed we have Baudrillard’s word on that. For example, he once urged his readers to “[n]ever resist a sentence you like, in which language takes its own pleasure”.

(See note at the end for more information on Baudrillard’s debt to Marx and Marxism.)

ii) Baudrillard on America & Americans

When you read Baudrillard you get a huge sense of an upper-middle-class French academic and intellectual being condescending towards America and Americans. After all, many French people (specifically those on the Left) are believed by many 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 Constitution, slavery and its abolition, the fight against the British state, the activism of communists (dating back to the 19th century), the civil rights movement, landing on the moon, (yes) Hollywood, etc., America has no history. Or at least according to a French academic, America has no history. But, then again, are we meant to take these oracular pronouncements literally?

iii) Baudrillard on Disneyland

Various postmodernists, poststructuralists, and other “radical” philosophers (including Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler, etc.) often talk about what they call “the Real” (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 the Real for the Unreal works as some kind of “ideological blanket” to hide the monumental radical truth (yes, truth) that the entirety of American life is a “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 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, Baudrillard basically resurrected two classic Marxist memes: false consciousness (or “manufactured consent”, as Noam 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 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 a “[a]norexic culture” and “a culture of disgust, of expulsion, of anthropoemia, of rejection”. A land of “obesity, saturation, overabundance”… Now feel that smug hatred underneath the Marxist fairytale that Baudrillard actually embraced America and all things American. And now imagine Baudrillard saying all that about any other country (say, an Asian or African country).

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 quasi-racist condescension of Americans knew no bounds. (Be sure that he wasn’t talking about American blacks or recent immigrants.) This stuff reads like the Der Stürmer (the Nazi tabloid) of the postmodern age. Indeed this man thought that Americans can’t even “analyze or conceptualize”. So does all this effectively mean that Baudrillard believed that all — white - Americans (at least non-leftwing ones) were essentially subhuman?

iv) 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 believed 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 to Chomsky’s monthly books.

Baudrillard even had 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 leftwingers and Marxists criticized America for creating — and then allowing — poverty and inequality. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, the very same people criticized the very same country for its “consumerism” and “decadence”. Now this wasn’t a case of Marxists and other leftwingers having a problem with the fact that such consumerism lived alongside poverty. No; it was consumerism itself that the New Left had a problem with.

Baudrillard himself is part of a Marxist “anti-consumerist” tradition that goes all the way back to (amongst other things) the Frankfurt School (whose members looked down on jazz, cinema, magazines, light entertainment, etc.) and its “culture industry”. (The meme of a culture industry was taken over by Noam Chomsky, who particularly hates sport and soap operas — see here). Then there was Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (written in 1964). So although Marcuse wasn’t as pretentious as Baudrillard, he might well have written Baudrillard’s following words:

“[L]ife 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…”

v) False Consciousness & Hyperreality

Even Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality 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 Marxist distinction between “appearance and reality”. 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, according to Baudrillard, the Gulf War of 1990/1 was also a product. It was a “simulation”.“Hyperreal”. The Gulf War simply “did not take place”.

Then 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.

vi) Conclusion

To sum up. The central claim in this piece isn’t that Baudrillard was an 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 all his philosophical work.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Baudrillard came to believe that Marxism had become rigid and lifeless — as it had. Thus, despite still using Marxist theories and even Marxist technical terms, he set off in his own direction. It can’t really be said if he was attempting to rejuvenate Marxism or to simply leave it well behind. Whatever the case might have been, it’s clear that countless Marxist intellectuals found the move from Marxism to postmodernism (as well as to structuralism and poststructuralism) very easy and indeed natural. Jacques Derrida (who explicitly returned to Marx in his final years — see here) and Jean-François Lyotard, for example, kept most of the political goals and hopes which they had when they were Marxists; though they went about achieving them in very different ways.

In the future, then, Jean Baudrillard may well be seen as a successor to Marx. Though I doubt that (pure) Marxists themselves will ever believe that.

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Note:

Jean Baudrillard participated in the “events” of May 1968. In the late 1960s he was also associated with the “radical Left” journal Utopie.

In The Consumer Society, Jean Baudrillard wrote (some 30 years after 1968) about the “multiple forms of refusal” of social convention and demanded a “practice of radical change”. In addition, he prophesied about the “violent eruptions and sudden disintegration which will come, just as unforeseeably and as certainly May 68, to wreck this white mass [of consumption]”. In an even more explicitly Marxist manner, Baudrillard claimed that alienation “is the very structure of market society”.

Technically, Baudrillard developed a “Marxian critique” of “commodity production” and its attendant “exploitation”, “alienation” and “domination”. He also claimed that capitalism denied people their “potential”, “freedom” and “creativity”.

Despite all that from 1998, Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production of 1973 is an attack on classical Marxism. Here he trumped Marxists by claiming that Marxism itself is a mirror of bourgeois society. Basically, he believed that Marxism wasn’t radical enough. (This is a classic example of the radical oneupmanship often found in French academic life and it dates back to the 1960s — or even well before that decade.) Baudrillard was also critical — as were many other Leftists — of the French Communist Party of the time. It too wasn’t radical enough. So Baudrillard (at least at certain points) was claiming that he was more Radical than thou.

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