Baudrillard, Jean (b. 1929)

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French sociologist.

Jean Baudrillard was born in the cathedral town of Reims, France in 1929. In 1956, he began working as a professor of secondary education in a French high school (lycée) and in the early 1960s did editorial work for the French publisher Seuil. Baudrillard was initially a Germanist who published essays on literature in Les temps modernes in 1962–1963 and translated works of Peter Weiss and Bertolt Brecht into French, as well as a book on messianic revolutionary movements by Wilhelm Mühlmann. During this period, he met and studied the works of Henri Lefebvre, whose critiques of everyday life impressed him, and Roland Barthes, whose semiological analyses of contemporary society had lasting influence on his work.

In 1966, Baudrillard entered the University of Paris, Nanterre, and became Lefebvre's assistant, while studying languages, philosophy, sociology, and other disciplines. He defended his "These de Troisiême Cycle" in sociology at Nanterre in 1966 with a dissertation on Le système des objects, and began teaching sociology in October of that year. Opposing French and U.S. intervention in the Algerian and Vietnamese wars, Baudrillard associated himself with the French Left in the 1960s. Nanterre was a key site of radical politics, and the "22 March movement" associated with Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the enragés began in the Nanterre sociology department. Baudrillard said later that he participated in the events of May 1968 that resulted in massive student uprisings and a general strike that almost drove President Charles de Gaulle from power.

During the late 1960s, Baudrillard began publishing a series of books that would eventually make him world famous. Influenced by Lefebvre, Barthes, and a French avant-garde arts and theory tradition, Baudrillard undertook serious work in the field of social theory, semiology, and psychoanalysis in the 1960s and published his first book, The System of Objects in 1968, followed by a book on The Consumer Society in 1970, and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign in 1972. These early publications are attempts, within the framework of critical sociology, to combine the studies of everyday life initiated by Lefebvre with a social semiology that studies the life of signs in social life. Combining semiological studies, Marxian political economy, and sociology of the consumer society, Baudrillard began his lifelong task of exploring the system of objects and signs that forms everyday life.

While Baudrillard's first three works can be read in the framework of a neo-Marxian critique of capitalist societies, in his 1973 provocation, The Mirror of Production, Baudrillard carries out a systematic attack on classical Marxism, claiming that Marxism is but a mirror of bourgeois society, placing production at the center of life, thus naturalizing the capitalist organization of society.

Like many on the left, Baudrillard was disappointed that the French Communist Party did not support the radical 1960s movements and he also distrusted the official Marxism of theorists like Louis Althusser, whom he found dogmatic and reductive. Consequently, Baudrillard began a radical critique of Marxism, one that would be repeated by many of his contemporaries who would also take a postmodern turn. In works like Simulations (1983) and Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), Baudrillard posits a divide in history as radical as the rupture between premodern societies and modern ones. In the mode of classical social theory, he systematically develops distinctions between premodern societies organized around symbolic exchange, modern societies organized around production, and postmodern societies organized around "simulation" by which he means the cultural modes of representation that "simulate" reality, as in television, computer cyberspace, and virtual reality. Baudrillard argues that in the contemporary era, simulation, or social reproduction (information processing, communication, and knowledge industries, and so on), replaces production as the organizing form of society. Technology replaces capital for Baudrillard and semiurgy (interpreted as proliferation of images, information, and signs) supplants production. His postmodern turn is thus connected to a form of technological determinism and a rejection of political economy as a useful explanatory principle—a move that many of his critics reject.

In his later works, Baudrillard continues reflection on contemporary developments and events, although his work also takes a metaphysical turn in which he develops unique philosophical perspectives around a theory in which the object-world displaces the subject and individuals are subjected to ever more domination and control. While his work on simulation and the postmodern break from the mid-1970s into the 1980s provides a paradigmatic postmodern theory and analysis of postmodernity that has been highly influential, his later post-1980s work is arguably of more literary and philosophical than sociological interest. Baudrillard thus ultimately goes beyond social theory altogether into a novel sphere and mode of writing that provides occasional insights into contemporary social phenomena and provocative critiques of contemporary and classical philosophy and social theory, but does not really provide an adequate theory of the contemporary era.

See alsoPostmodernism; Semiotics.


Primary Sources

Baudrillard, Jean. The Mirror of Production. St. Louis, 1973.

——. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Translated by Charles Levin. St. Louis, 1981.

——. Simulations. Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. New York, 1983.

——. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant. London, 1993.

——. The System of Objects. Translated by James Benedict. London, 1996.

——. The Consumer Society. Paris, 1998.

Secondary Sources

Kellner, Douglas. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Stanford, Calif., 1989.

Douglas Kellner

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Baudrillard, Jean (b. 1929)

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