Pick up an art magazine, film journal, a piece about mass culture or fashion or the desire images of the advertising consumption machine and out pops Jean Baudrillard – professor of sociology, prophet of apocalypse, hysterical lyricist of panic, obsessive recounter of the centreless desolation of the post-modern scene and currently the hottest property on the New York intellectual circuit.
In the beginning was 1968. Baudrillard’s first essays, The System of Objects and Consumer Society, attempted to salvage Marx’s critique of capitalism from its outmoded attachment to a 19th century vocabulary of production, class, and a romanticized proletariat. Consumption not production, consumer objects as signs not physical products was to be the basis for a semiologically aware, modern neo-Marxism.
This attempt to renovate Marx didn’t last and in 1973 he published the ‘The Mirror Of Production, a sustained and radical reflection of Marxism’s ability to articulate a critique of modern capitalism. Far from the critique, though the opposite was the case – deep complicity ruled. Marxism was the hidden mirror of capitalist political economy, sharing its belief in the primacy of work and myth of human self-creation through production.
What was required, he argued, was an understanding of the history of signs. How, starting with mercantile capitalism in the Renaissance, signs had become abstract and increasingly detached from their supposed referents until now, in the late 20th century the link has vanished. There are no referents. Like the forms of money it has engendered, the signs and images of contemporary capitalism float detached and forever separate from what used to be called the real world.
In the new Semiological Order the object of political economy is replaced by the perpetual circulation, replication and maintenance of sign-forms.
Had Baudrillard stopped writing at this point or after his next book, Symbolic Exchange and Death, which pursues this floating world into a bleak post-MacLuhan fatalism, it’s possible that he wouldn’t be known outside Marxist journals, Situationsit pamphlets and Critical Theory seminar rooms.
Instead he powered through the emptiness, assumed the role of the reading-man’s Andy Warhol, and went on to write about seduction in which there appears a whole new rhetoric of demolition, inversion and provocation. In the ad-filled, media-created contemporary mindscape all is flat and thinned out; surfaces without depth. No “reality” other than appearance. What you get is what you see.
So not only in Marxism trashed but psychoanalysis, structuralism, cultural archeology and all hermeneutics, all systems that hanker for some “real” latent content behind manifest appearances. The world, in its late 20th century hi-tech capitalist incarnation, is one vast trompe-l’oeil. It has not secret or hidden meaning other than our desire for such: the enchantment of appearance sucks us in; we are seduced.
(Baudrillard does not ask who owns the means of seduction, let alone why they own them. Were he to do so, the question would sound, in this de-politicised glittering, and of course seductive play of surfaces and inversions, quaint and irrelevant.)
Once seduced we are in the post-modern world of pure floating images – hypereality – whose genesis Baudrillard has so famously and quotedly mapped in Simulacra And Simulations: first, he says, the image reflected reality, then it masked reality, then it masked the absence of reality, and now, in its final phase, the image bears no relation to any reality but has become its own simulacrum. That which is real has become that which can be simulated. Copy and original, the fake and the authentic, dress up in each other’s clothes. Everything is a simulacrum of something else. Opposites chase each other.
And nowhere is more hyper-real than America: “Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirely which is carceral).”
New York, city of oversold, value-added junk, loved Warhol’s inversion of art and trash. Maybe it sees Baudrillard’s hyped and frenetic terminalism as a true successor.
TLS October 21, 1988