A Critique of Baudrillard

Yousuf Dhamee

In The Precession of Simulacra Jean Baudrillard attempts to disentangle the phenomenon that the Post-Structuralist movement simultaneously identified, decried and helped popularize: the disappearance of the real. In examining the cultural climate of the West following 1970 Baudrillard finds a world where representation through a surplus of images has obscured all former notions of truth. The annihilation of the real has become a manifestation of Marx's nightmare of the commodity fetish. He portrays the United States, in particular, as a grim militaristic state controlled by the media's manipulation of images. Baudrillard finds himself disempowered by the endlessly proliferating images which confound the real. His position becomes that of the male hysteric , due in part to the fact that intellect and reason cannot make sense of the post-modern "world of hallucinations" where image, reality, and surface representation blur into each other. Baudrillard in a sense writes himself out of his own text. In a world without truth the theorist/the semiotician/the intellectual (indeed the university itself) becomes irrelevant, if not totally impotent.

The idea of the loss of meaning is inherent in the concept of the simulacrum . Here the idea of an accurate copy becomes to a certain extent passť. Baudrillard states that we are removed from the binary which sets up copy and original; there are only copies of copies. In fact he takes the notion farther: the simulacra exists as a copy which has no original. According to Baudrillard the "imitation" can, in fact, precede the original. This results in a world without depth, a place where reality is only an endless interplay of surfaces. Simulations are produced in order to hide the fact that there is no original, no real. Baudrillard's intent is not to expose the falseness of the simulated real, but to lament the passing of the actual real. He seems to find the depthless world of images oppressive. He writes of the "murderous power of images," "the mirror of madness, and "the blackmail of the truth." His emotionally charged prose reflects a hysteria that derives from powerlessness. The loss of reference points, which results from the death of originality, contributes to the confusion that marks the modern world. As Baudrillard points out, the charm of a simulation lies in being able to distinguish copy from original. "Because it is difference that constitutes the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real." The loss of distinction between the two leads to the loss of truth.

Baudrillard, who holds a romanticized view of the real, seems nostalgic for a time when meaning existed. "By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials." This statement appears problematic because he never can quite prove that meaning has ever existed and therefore appears to rewrite history in order to make others believe in depth. For example, in his discussion of the Iconoclasts he assumes that the smashers of images were working under his own set of cultural assumptions. "If they could have believed that these images only obfuscated or masked the Platonic Idea of God, there would have been no reason to destroy them . . . But their metaphysical despair came from the idea that the image didn't conceal anything at all , and that these images were in essence not images, but perfect simulacra . . . " Baudrillard, like a flawed Freudian, can be seen projecting his own beliefs onto the people he studies. By refusing to allow the Iconoclasts their own truth, he falls victim to the same cultural prejudices he decries in others. At this point Baudrillard resembles the ethnologists he so roundly criticizes.

Even if truth's existence is taken for granted (in a bygone era) Baudrillard does not conclusively show how meaning could be empowering. Part of his problem with the simulacra stems from an intellectual background heavily steeped in Marxism. Marxists place a great deal of importance on the process of production. Simulation can be seen as stripping production of its meaning. When production becomes unreal its ultimate object, "the product" is stripped of value. This reality would in turn strip Marxism of its relevance, a fundamental problem for many Post-Structuralists, who like Baudrillard have important ties with the Left. What exactly does it mean to be a Post-Structuralist and a Marxist? The liquidation of truth makes political resistance seem somewhat futille. Baudrillard, significantly fails to offer a means of fighting the collapse of reason, and in his writings the theorist is relegated to the role of commentator: Baudrillard is only able to announce that the apocalypse has begun.

Critical Theory