Jean Baudrillard was a French sociologist, philosopher and political commentator born in 1929. In his youth, he moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonne, becoming the first in his family to attend university. At the Sorbonne, he studied German language and literature. Baudrillard transferred to sociology and completed his doctoral thesis on The System of Objects.
He taught sociology at the University de Paris-X-Nantree, where the French student protests first exploded in May 1968. In 1970, Baudrillard took the first of his many international trips. His experiences and views of the capitalistic economic system in the United States featured prominently in his later works.
In 1986, Baudrillard began teaching at the Institut de Recherche et d'Information Socio-Économique, at the Univeristy of Paris-Dauphine. Though he later stopped teaching and stopped identifying himself with the field sociology, he was always linked to the world of academics.
Baudrillard wrote a host of books and articles, many of which were widely discussed and translated into many languages. His more prominent works include: The System of Objects; The Mirror of Production; Seduction; Simulacara and Stimulation; America; The Ecstasy of Communication; The Gulf War Did Not Take Place; The Perfect Crime; The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers; and The Agony of Power.
Baudrillard's theories and ideas were imaginative, playful and stimulating. Many critics viewed him as a sensation-seeker and termed his ideas outlandish. He sometimes dressed in eccentric outfits when speaking in public, and was known for his sharp comebacks to his detractors.
Some of his work went beyond the study of metaphysics, which is generally concerned with questions such as "what is there," and instead focused on pataphysics, which can be defined as the "science of imaginary solutions".
His philosophies are generally considered post-modern and post-structural. Post-modernists believe that there are no objective truths. Instead, all realities are social constructs that will change over time and place. Realities are generally plural and relative, dependent on the interests of the parties involved.
Baudrillard's works introduced many interesting ideas. Baudrillard presented a point of reality that he termed hyperreality. The "information superhighway" has been used to demonstrate Baudrillard's idea. The Internet is a virtual world. Businesses set up virtual "sites" and people make virtual friendships via chat and other modes of communication. In the age of high-tech, the virtual world has become our hyperreality. Since the modern world is dominated by simulated experiences, people have lost the capacity to comprehend reality.
Baudrillard maintains that there are four ways for an object to obtain value. The first value is a functional value. The paper serves the function of providing a place to write. The exchange value is the economic value of the paper. A blank sheet of paper is worth the salary earned by one day's work.
The third value is the symbolic value; paper may be symbolically valuable if it features a poem written by a loved one. An object may also have a sign value. This value may add no other functional benefit, but this particular paper may signify prestige or wealth because of an added watermark. Baudrillard discussed the difference between sign and symbolic value in many of his works.
Baudrillard attracted widespread attention for his political commentary surrounding the first Gulf War and his insistence that the war never took place. Baudrillard claimed that the war was merely a media spectacle. In reality, according to Baudrillard, Saddam Hussein was not fighting the allied forces; he was merely protecting his own power. This fight was portrayed through the video cameras and embedded journalists as a military war. In short, Baudrillard contended that the actual war never took place, but that a simulation of war was depicted to millions of viewers.
Many of Baudrillard's ideas were considered eccentric, including his thesis that the power of the female sex lies in seduction, that music such as that composed by Mozart was not intended to be heard through a digital or electronic system of reproduction, and that the human body has become an extension of the television or computer screen. Another odd concept was his adoration of American society, which led him to term America a utopia.