Jean Baudrillard's Weaknesses

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University, Spring 2005

Cyberspace & Critical Theory

At first glance, it certainly seems hard to make a case for the importance of Baudrillard, who has many obvious weaknesses. After all, Mark Poster, his editor and popularizer, candidly points out that

Baudrillard's writing is open to several criticisms. He fails to defibne key terms, such as the code; his writing style is hyperbolic and declaritive, often lacking sustained, systematic analysis when it is appropriate; he totalizes his insights, refusing to qualify or delinmit his claims. He writes about particular experiences, television images, as if nothing else in society mattered, extrapolating a bleak view of the world from that limited base. He ignores contradictory evidence. [7]

Furthermore, as I have pointed out elsewhere, Jean Baudrillard, who presents himself as a follower of Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan, seems both fascinated and appalled by what he mistakenly sees as the all-pervading effects of digital encoding, though his examples suggest that he is often confused about which media actually employ it. The strengths and weaknesses of Baudrillard's approach appear in his remarks on the digitization of knowledge and information. Baudrillard correctly perceives that movement from the tactile to the digital is the primary fact about the new information technology, but then he misconceives -- or rather only partially perceives -- the implications of his point. According to him, digitality involves binary opposition: "Digitality is with us. It is that which haunts all the messages, all the signs of our societies. The most concrete form you see it in is that of the test, of the question/answer, of the stimulus/response" (Simulations, 115). Baudrillard most clearly posits this equivalence, which he mistakenly takes to be axiomatic, in his statement that "the true generating formula, that which englobes all the others, and which is somehow the stabilized form of the code, is that of binarity, of digitality" (145). From this he concludes that the primary fact about digitality is its connection to "cybernetic control . . . the new operational configuration," since "digitalization is its metaphysical principle (the God of Leibnitz), and DNA its prophet" (103).

True, at the most basic level of machine code and at the far higher one of program languages, the digitization, which constitutes a fundamental of electronic computing, does involve binarity. But from this fact one cannot so naively extrapolate, as Baudrillard does, a complete thought-world or episteme. Baudrillard, of course, may well have it partially right: he might have perceived one key connection between the stimulus/response model and digitality. The fact of hypertext and networked computing, however, demonstrates quite clearly that digitality does not necessarily lock one into either a linear world or one of binary oppositions.

Unlike Derrida, who emphasizes the role of the book, writing, and writing technology, Baudrillard never considers verbal text, whose absence glaringly runs through his argument and reconstitutes it in ways that he obviously did not expect. Part of Baudrillard's theoretical difficulty derives from the fact that he bypasses digitized verbal text and moves directly from the fact of digital encoding of information in two directions: (1) to his stimulus/response, either/or model, and (2) to other non-alphanumeric (or non-writing) media, such as photography, radio, and television.

Nonetheless, despite these flaws, Baudrillard is important. His notions of simulation and simulacra, which have to be seen in the context of Postmodernism, provide useful approaches to the general effects of media, especially digital media, and the theoretical and practical implications of Virtual Reality (VR).


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulation and Simulacra.

McGowan, John. "Postmodernism" in The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. 585-87.

Poster, Mark. "Introduction." Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988. 1-9.

Website Overview Theory Jean Baudrillard

Last modified 7 March 2005