Baudrillard
Neo examines the front cover of Jean Baudrillard's definitive work. (Image: The Matrix)

In this occasional review series, Helen Razer dips into some historic titles that have moulded, informed and delighted her.

If you remember the 1990s of your own free will, you probably weren’t there. It was a real Schrödinger of a decade and is chiefly remembered where subpoenas are involved. Young persons of the present may adopt the large footwear styles of the era or the even larger pants. What they are unlikely to adopt is the colossally stupid conviction that the world had stopped turning.

This very sincere stupidity was first and most famously declared by Francis Fukuyama, then a US State Department staffer, whose journal article “The End of History?” mangled Hegel almost as badly as I did in a second-year philosophy exam. The work was to the US foreign policy community of 1989 much as Jordan Peterson is to the white and male internet shit-poster of the present: everything they already believed, but with footnotes.

Fukuyama’s claim, later elaborated into a popular book, was that US liberalism stood above all previous forms of social and political organisation and could not be bettered. Speculation was at an end, all philosophical promise of the past had been fulfilled and spirit had finally coincided with history. To be honest, this was fairly easy to believe if one was, like me, white, Western and fairly well-to-do. You could ignore the damage done by the accelerated program of neoliberalism, even as it devastated lives in the new Russian Federation with Stalinist speed. The End of History was a delusion we bought from high-end salesmen like Keating, Clinton and Blair.

The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard was the obverse of this End of History coin. While he did hold with an End of History view, he wasn’t all Hegelian synthesis about the whole thing. Baudrillard saw a Western era that had severed itself from the past and had achieved a state so saturated in signs that pointed to no reality whatsoever, it was choking on its own noxious exhaust. Not very upbeat.

Baudrillard may be the sort of “post-modern” and “cultural Marxist” thinker to which Jordy Peterson now refers. To be picky about it, Baudrillard was a structuralist and not a “post-modernist”, because nobody really was. He sought to describe an emerging era many in the West agreed to call “post-modernism” for no fancy reason. It just happened to follow the time many had agreed to call modernism.

Anyhow. Enough of that. Somebody with a knowledge of lobsters will cleverly debunk this explanation, so, onward. Or, backward, to the painfully remembered decade in which, I argue, Jean Baudrillard was as influential as Fukuyama, and from which he emerges as far more useful for us today.

Call him as “post-modern” or obscurantist as you like, Baudrillard, who died in 2007, sure left his signifying chain hanging around in the popular imagination. The word “hyperreality”, used to describe the consciousness which cannot distinguish the real from the simulation, is Baudrillardian, and indispensable to journalists writing Won’t Someone Think of The Children laments about selfies and the Kardashians.

The effects of war fought virtually, not only by military personnel but by TV viewers, was an understanding accelerated by Baudrillard in a series of essays in Le Monde falsely remembered as “controversial”. In the most famous of the works, “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place“, Baudrillard does not claim that the war was a myth, nor does he minimise its casualties. What he does do is speak of the war as a propagandist event in a way that a nuts-and-bolts bloke like Noam Chomsky just couldn’t. Desert Storm was not just about manufacturing consent, per Chomsky. It was more about decommissioning reality.

This might sound all snooty and French, and it did to me at the time. It seemed like hubris to claim that one was a “war correspondent” while watching the war choreography on CNN from a professor’s apartment in Paris. After the failure not only of the Collateral Murder video to end imperialism but of mine to turn away from the screen as it played, I began to think the guy had a point. War had become an extraordinary thing for us in the West. A backdrop we knew as inevitable but failed to truly understand as real.  

Baudrillard’s star turn came in the move The Matrix. In its opening scenes, his definitive work Simulacra and Simulations is in the hands of Neo. In the hands of the Wachowski sisters, it was poorly understood. This book that, per the Gulf War work, describes the death of the real — and of history — in our perception, should really have no place in a film that offers its protagonist a Red Pill and a Blue Pill option.

For Baudrillard, there was no surviving real in Western understanding. He never liked The Matrix much as an introduction to his work. But he did seem to find it worthy of a chuckle. Presumably, the same attitude he would have taken to Francis Fukuyama.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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