Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Death of Jean Baudrillard Will Not Take Place

Jean Baudrillard passed away this week, or, as many wags - not least himself - would put it, his simulacrum did. Baudrillard was a brilliant, if sometimes fatuous and wayward thinker whose infamy in the English-speaking world owed mainly to an over-literal reading - or, as in many cases, no reading at all - of one of his most famous texts The Gulf War Will Not Take Place. This famously posited that the First Gulf War, being an event that had already been enacted in the Western media and to be consumed through the media alone, would not take place. Note that Baudrillard did not say 'will not exist', and part of the failure of some Anglophone literalists to detect morality implicit in his text was due to its ignorance of Jean Giraudoux's war satire, The Trojan War Will Not Take Place, from which it drew its title. While Baudrillard's lofty anti-ideologising fed into a lot of the post-political posturing of postmodern thought, in this work, and in many others that continued until his death, he was far from being amoral. If anything it was a critique of Western complacency and apathy rather than an endorsement of it. Those that pointed out that the casualties in Iraq were real were not telling Baudrillard anything he didn't know.

Baudrillard is also famous for The Matrix, that silly, pretentious mishmash of post-modern thought and shopworn spiritualism, in which a hollowed-out copy of his book Simulacra and Simulations concealed clandestine software. I remember Gilbert Adair remarking in a review of the film at the time that 'I'm quite willing to suspend disbelief to imagine that Keanu has read a book, but Simulacra and Simulations? Puhleaase...' But much of Baudrillard's disciples were à la carte theorists, lifting what they pleased and discarding anything that was either more difficult or troubling.

Like most critical theory Baudrillard's work was despised by many of those who followed in the line of both Anglo-Saxon empiricism and French duality. And yes, there were times when he overreached himself, like many of his peers, in making statements about science that were either beyond his ken or just plain wrong. But he also introduced, with Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and others an important element of imagination into philosophical thinking (and philosophy has never been as empirical or rigorous as many Anglo-Saxon pedants claim) and opened it up once again to a broad political and cultural field. He was also a talented photographer and his photo/text books about his travels in America are stimulating meditations on travel, disorientation and everyday life.

Some of his best work came, as with Beckett, in short texts published in the years before his death, such as The Spirit of Terrorism, his response to 9/11, and a later post-tsunami piece In Search of Absolute Evil. Apologies for those links being in French but they should be found easily enough in English elsewhere on the web. I would take the likes of Baudrillard, Derrida, and Bourdieu any day above the younger nouveaux philosophes such as the self-righteous pedant Bernard-Henri Lévy or former leftists André Gluckmann and Alain Finkielkraut, both of whom have morphed into pre-election cheerleaders for Nicolas Sarkozy.