JEAN BAUDRILLARD ; 'Outlaw' Cultural Theorist
Horrocks, Chris, The Independent (London, England)
Jean Baudrillard, the French writer of brilliantly discomfiting books such as Simulacres et Simulation (1981, translated into English as Simulacra and Simulation, 1994), in his many publications challenged and extended the fissures, contradictions, extremes and ironies in culture and society. He dies at a time when his work is perhaps at its least fashionable, but most important.
Born in the year of the Great Depression - or what he saw as the "first great crash in values" - Baudrillard devoted his work to our present, chronic collapse, which for him was more a problem of a dramatic but unnoticed transformation in our relationship to a "new global order", a world in which the cult of production - of meaning and reality more than economic wealth or consumer objects - had saturated all aspects of life. Baudrillard's version of our universe is one where codes and signs coercively produce and designate our societies and cultures as simulations that produce our versions of reality.
Jean Baudrillard's intellectual odyssey found its way through the enclosed but combative Parisian academic community of the 1960s. Myths abound from this period of Baudrillard's early tenure as an assistant and researcher in the field of sociology. It seems he flourished in this hothouse of new ideas, although, unlike many of his colleagues, he did not seek to affiliate himself with the more direct brands of revolutionary thought - neo-Marxism, Maoism, Situationism - that had swept through the universities and culminated in the events of May 1968. Instead, he worked and published in the margins, under more established figures - Roland Barthes, Henri Lefebvre, Pierre Bourdieu - while not directly associating himself with a movement or discipline.
His writings from the period demonstrate a desire to draw together the dominant strands of thought: semiology, poststructuralism and brands of psychoanalysis and anthropology. In works such as the elegantly titled Pour Une Critique de l'economie politique du signe (1972; For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, 1981), the collected essays of La Societe de consommation (1970; The Consumer Society, 1997) and Le Systeme des objets (1968; The System of Objects, 1996), he emerged as an important critic of a world of consumer objects that "quite tyrannically induce categories of people".
When I interviewed him in 1995 he said, rather melancholically, that he had no more friends in Paris, by which he meant that he had become an "intellectual outlaw" - a thinker detached from the academic establishment. Three publications in the 1970s had forged Baudrillard's reputation as a thinker beyond the limit of prevailing ideas.
The first, Le Miroir de la production (1973; The Mirror of Production, 1975), took on Karl Marx. In characteristic fashion, Baudrillard saw Marxist thought as part of the problem it sought to the-orise: Marx simply universalised or replicated bourgeois notions of the market and capitalist ideology, and effectively fetishised the idea of work. …