The 20th century saw several amazing advances in philosophy, particularly in the realm of how we view the many objects and symbols that surround our daily existence. Many such advances came from great European thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and the several major theorists of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, who each began to critique the developing global power structure that rose from the ashes of World War II. While many of these thinkers did much to explain the problems plaguing the so-called “postmodern world,” none succeeded at convincing the mainstream to question the very foundation of reality more so than Jean Baudrillard.
Baudrillard (pronounced: bo-dree-AR) was a major figure in French philosophical thought from the mid-20th century up to his death in 2007. Unlike other theorists in Europe, who tended to focus on very specific aspects of sociological and philosophical thought, Baudrillard managed to synthesize many of their ideas into his own postmodernist style and philosophical outlook.
Best known for his seminal work Simulacra and Simulation, which went on to almost single-handedly influence the concept of the blockbuster film The Matrix, Baudrillard lectured and wrote on several topics over the course of his long and prolific career. During his early period as a student of Roland Barthes, Baudrillard made brilliant advances in post-structuralist and Marxist theory. His middle and late period reflected the culmination of Baudrillard’s thought in several key texts such as Simulacra and Simulation, as well as his more recent work, A Perfect Crime.
The Essential Works and Ideas of Jean Baudrillard
In 1968, Baudrillard published his doctoral thesis, The System of Objects, which was written under the guidance of Henri Lefebvre, Pierre Bourdieu and Roland Barthes. Drawing from each of these great thinkers, with particular emphasis on the theories of Barthes, Baudrillard embarked upon a study of how signs are often used to confuse the true value of objects in contemporary commercial culture.
In The System of Objects, Baudrillard is concerned that the signs and symbols we absorb everyday in our contemporary, postmodern world instill a false sense of value in objects that might otherwise be worth far less. An example of this might be the consumer’s choice to purchase a ballpoint pen from the drugstore or from Montblanc. A Montblanc pen functions in mostly the same way as a generic store bought pen, but the symbolic prestige of owning a Montblanc pen (instilled by long-term marketing and advertising) often convinces consumers to purchase their product, even at 1000 times the cost of a functional store-bought ballpoint pen.
Baudrillard’s post-structuralist critique of objects and signs continued to evolve over the next decade, reaching its zenith in 1981 with the publication of his magnum opus Simulacra and Simulation. Instead of focusing on the the relationship between the reality of objects and the signs that attempt to represent (or obfuscate) them, in Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard tackles the dichotomy between reality and virtual reality, and how the line between the two in consumer culture are often quite blurred – if not completely indistinguishable.
Looking ahead to the advent of the online gaming and the World Wide Web, Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation is concerned with how many of us will become so surrounded by artificial signs (i.e. simulacra) and go about so many artificial routines (i.e. simulations) that the boundary between the real and the artificial will dissolve completely. Perhaps the most famous example of this is laid out in the science fiction film The Matrix, wherein humanity is unknowingly locked into a simulated world, controlled and manufactured by forces they have no awareness of.
Later in his career, Baudrillard began to apply his own theories, in coordination with those of others, to uncover and critique the questionable tendencies of contemporary media-driven society. Baudrillard’s well-regarded 1996 work, The Perfect Crime, successfully attempts to investigate and prove the “murder” of the previously existing order of reality by forces that wish to replace it with their own dubious interpretations of reality. The crime is considered “perfect” in the sense that it is impossible to discern who is responsible for the so-called murder of reality, as well as answers to “how” and “why” the crime was committed in the first place.
Baudrillard has several theories surrounding the death of reality and the pervasiveness of a dubiously constructed “virtual” existence. The disregard for the order of reality as it existed prior to the unchecked rise of contemporary media was especially important to Baudrillard and his contemporaries. As Baudrillard states in The Perfect Crime: “Were it not for appearances, the world would be a perfect crime, that is, without a criminal, without a victim, and without a motive. And the truth would forever have withdrawn from it and its secret would never be revealed, for want of any clues [traces] being left behind.” Or in other words, all of us are responsible in someway for the “murder” of reality, simply because of our lack of motivation to question the false realities being set up for us from outside our own sphere of perception, forcing the truth to forever remain hidden from view.
Now, more than ever, having a clear introduction to the basic tenets of Baudrillard’s system of thought is important when striving to enhance our capabilities for critical thought in the postmodern, “virtual” reality in which we exist. Unlike many thinkers of his generation, much of Baudrillard’s work and theories evolve with the times, while still remaining tempered by the seminal theories he had developed and expanded upon over his career.
With The Matrix, Baudrillard’s ideas were translated into a medium that went on to attract the attention of audiences around the world. The film, mirroring Baudrillard’s own vision of the world, is dark and totalitarian – autonomous individuals no longer have the power or mental capacity to distinguish reality from that which is constructed for them by unknown forces. Therefore, coming to the works of Baudrillard with an open mind is key to gaining the tools and knowledge necessary to question the various realities that come “ready-made” for us, and work together to resurrect the basic realities we all share.