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Baudrillard, Jean (1929–)


Jean Baudrillard was born in the cathedral town of Reims, France. His grandparents were peasants, his parents became civil servants, and he was the first member of his family to pursue an advanced education. In 1956, he began working as a professor of secondary education in a French high school (Lyceé) and in the early 1960s did editorial work for the French publisher Seuil. Trained as a Germanist, Baudrillard translated German literary worksincluding Bertolt Brecht and Peter Weissalthough he turned to the study of sociology and for some decades was a sociology professor at Nanterre.

Baudrillard became renowned for his theorizations of developments in contemporary society, including the trajectories of the consumer society, media and technology, cyberspace and the information society, and biotechnology. He claimed that cumulatively these forces had produced a postmodern rupture with modern culture and society. Whereas modern societies for Baudrillard were organized around production and political economy, postmodern societies were organized around technology and generated new forms of culture, experience, and subjectivities.

Baudrillard's work is extremely hard to categorize because he combines social theory, cultural and political commentary, philosophy, and literary stylistics in his work, crossing boundaries between academic disciplines and fields. Yet in an interview in Forgetting Foucault (1987, p. 84) he confessed: "Well, let's be frank here. If I ever dabbled in anything in my theoretical infancy, it was philosophy more than sociology. I don't think at all in those terms. My point of view is completely metaphysical. If anything, I'm a metaphysician, perhaps a moralist, but certainly not a sociologist. The only 'sociological' work I can claim is my effort to put an end to the social, to the concept of the social."

Indeed, beginning in the 1980s, more philosophical themes emerged in his work, although in a highly ironical and paradoxical form. Baudrillard's proliferating metaphysical speculations are evident in Fatal Strategies (1990), which can be seen as a turning to a sort of idiosyncratic philosophical musings. This text presented a bizarre metaphysical scenario concerning the triumph of objects over subjects within the obscene proliferation of an object world so completely out of control that it surpasses all attempts to understand, conceptualize, and control it. His scenario concerns the proliferation and growing supremacy of objects over subjects and the eventual triumph of the object.

For Baudrillard, the subjectthe darling of modern philosophyis defeated in his metaphysical scenario and the object triumphs, a stunning end to the dialectic of subject and object that had been the framework of modern philosophy. In Fatal Strategies and succeeding writings, Baudrillard seems to be taking theory into the realm of metaphysics, but it is a specific type of metaphysics deeply inspired by the pataphysics developed by Alfred Jarry in "What is Pataphysics" as "the science of the realm beyond metaphysics. It will study the laws which govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, it will describe a universe which one can seemust see perhapsinstead of the traditional one. " (1963, p. 131ff.)

Like the universe in Jarry's play Ubu Roi, The Gestures and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, and other literary texts, Baudrillard's is a totally absurd universe where objects rule in mysterious ways, and people and events are governed by absurd and ultimately unknowable interconnections and predestination. (The French playwright Eugene Ionesco is another good source of entry to this universe.) Like Jarry's pataphysics, Baudrillard's universe is ruled by surprise, reversal, hallucination, blasphemy, obscenity, and a desire to shock and outrage.

Thus, in view of the growing supremacy of the object, Baudrillard recommends abandoning the subject and siding with the object. Pataphysics aside, it seems that Baudrillard is trying to end the philosophy of subjectivity that has controlled French thought since Descartes by going over to the other side. Descartes's malin genie, his evil genius, was a ruse of the subject that tried to seduce him into accepting what was not clear and distinct, but over which he was ultimately able to prevail. Baudrillard's "evil genius" is the object itself that is much more malign than the merely epistemological deceptions of the subject faced by Descartes and which constitutes a "fatal destiny" that demands the end of the philosophy of subjectivity. Henceforth, for Baudrillard, people live in the era of the reign of the object.

Examples of the paradoxical and ironic style of Baudrillard's philosophical musings abound in The Perfect Crime (1996). Baudrillard claims that the negation of a higher and transcendent reality in the current media and technological society is a "perfect crime" that involves the destruction of the real. In a world of appearance, image, and illusion, Baudrillard suggests, reality disappears although its traces continue to nourish an illusion of the real. Driven toward virtualization in a high-tech society, all the imperfections of human life and the world are eliminated in virtual reality, but this is the elimination of reality itself, the Perfect Crime. This "post-critical" and "catastrophic" state of affairs render our previous conceptual world irrelevant, Baudrillard suggests, urging criticism to turn ironic and transform the demise of the real into an art form.

Baudrillard has entered a world of thought far from academic philosophy, one that puts in question traditional modes of thought and discourse. His search for new philosophical perspectives has won him a loyal global audience, but also criticism for his excessive irony, word play, and philosophical games. Yet his work stands as a provocation to traditional and contemporary philosophy that challenges thinkers to address old philosophical problems such as truth and reality in new ways in the contemporary world.

See also Structuralism and Post-structuralism.


Jarry, Alfred. The Ubu Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1969.

Jarry, Alfred. "What Is Pataphysics?" Evergreen Review 4 (13)(1963): 131151.

works by baudrillard

Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Forgetting Foucault. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987.

Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990.

Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage, 1993.

The Perfect Crime. London: Verso, 1996.

works on baudrillard

Genosko, Gary. Baudrillard and Signs. London: Routledge, 1994.

Kellner, Douglas, ed. Jean Baudrillard: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994.

Kellner, Douglas. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Cambridge and Palo Alto: Polity Press and Stanford University Press, 1989.

Douglas Kellner (2005)

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Baudrillard, Jean

Jean Baudrillard, 1929–2007, French social theorist and cultural critic. Trained as a sociologist, he taught at the Univ. of Paris X, Nanterre, from 1966 to 1987 and was a prolific writer. Influenced by Marxism, Roland Barthes, Thorstein Veblen, Marshall McLuhan, and others, he began as a critic of the consumer society, arguing in such works as The System of Objects (1968, tr. 1996), The Mirror of Production (1973), and Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976, tr. 1993) that the individual acquires meaning though objects, which are valued for their symbolic cultural significance (rather than their usefulness or monetary worth) and the world is marked the implosion of economics, politics, art, sexuality, and spheres of life, causing them to intermingle and interrelate in a confused, uncontrolled manner. Baudrillard subsequently developed a theory of media-saturated, late-capitalist technological consumer societies that saw them as characterized by simulation and hyperreality, in which the "real world" has been supplanted by artificially intensified substitutions for it and individuals are overwhelmed by the power of hyperreal objects. These ideas were developed in such works as Simulation and Simulacra (1981, tr. 1994), and Fatal Strategies (1983, tr. 1990). His later works reject critique in favor of a more aphoristic—at times, oracular—philosophical approach that is often intentionally provocative in its discussion of how appearance and illusion replace reality and truth in contemporary society. Thus The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991, tr. 1995) argues that the Persian Gulf War was more a media spectacle than a genuine war and in The Perfect Crime (1995, tr. 1996) he plays detective and investigates the "murder" of reality.

See selected writings ed. by M. Poster (2d ed. 2001); studies by D. Kellner (1989, 1990) and as ed. (1994), B. Turner (1993), N. Zurbrugg, ed. (1997), R. Butler (1999), and P. Hegarty (2004).

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