The French intellectual Jean Baudrillard (b. 1929) is widely acclaimed as one of the master visionary thinkers of postmodernism and post-structuralism. He was trained as a sociologist, and his early critique was influenced by a certain style of radicalism that appeared in France after 1968, which included critical challenge to the disciplines, methods, theories, styles, and discourses of the academic intellectual establishment. After the late 1960s Baudrillard's social theory witnessed major paradigm shifts. The theory of consumption that he began to articulate in the 1970s fore-saw the development of consumer society, with its dual focus first on the visual culture (material objects) and, later, on the virtual (electronic and cyberspace) culture.
Baudrillard's fashion-relevant theorizing dates from his earlier writing: it forms part of his broader analysis of objects in consumer society. This scheme postulated a transition from "dress," in which sartorial meaning (of differentiation and distinction) resided in natural signs, through "fashion," in which meaning resided in oppositional (structuralist) signs, to "post-fashion," in which signs are freed from the link to referents and to meaning (poststructuralist). Baudrillard's early work is divided into three phases: (a) the reworking of Marxist social theory, as evident in The System of Objects (1968), The Consumer Society (1970), and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972) and with an emphasis on the "sign"; (b) a critique of Marxism, as seen in The Mirror of Production (1975) and Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), where Baudrillard substitutes symbolic exchange for utilitarian exchange as an explanation of consumerism; (c) a break with Marxism, as manifest in Seduction (1979), Simulations (1983), Fatal Strategies (1983), and The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena (1993), which substitutes the carnival-esque principle (celebration, pleasure, excess, and waste) for the utility principle.
Initially, Baudrillard argued that when products move from the realm of function (reflecting use value and exchange value) to the realm of signification (reflecting sign value), they become carriers of social meaning. Specifically, they become "objects." Baudrillard's notion of sign value is based on an analogy between a system of objects (commodity) and a system of sign (language). He applied Ferdinand de Saussure's structural linguistics to the study of fashion, media, ideologies, and images. If consumption is a communication system (messages and images), commodities are no longer defined by their use but by what they signify—not individually but as "set" in a total configuration. The meaning of signs, according to de Saus-sure, is made up of two elements: signifiers (sound images), which index the signifieds (referent). Saussurian structural linguistics is based on two principles: a metaphysics of depth and a metaphysics of surface. The metaphysics of depth assumes that meaning links a signifier with an underlying signified. The metaphysics of surface implies that signs do not have inherent meaning but rather gain their meaning through their relation to other signs.
Using a linguistic (semiotic) analogy to analyze commodities, Baudrillard developed a genealogy of sign structures consisting of three orders. The first order, founded on imitation, presupposes a dualism where appearances mask reality. In the second order, founded on production, appearances create an illusion of reality. In the third order, founded on simulation, appearances invent reality.
No longer concerned with the real, images are reproduced from a model, and it is this lack of a reference point that threatens the distinction between true and false. There are parallels between Baudrillard's historical theory of sign structures and historical theorizing of European sartorial signification. The order of imitation corresponds to the premodern stage, the order of production corresponds to the modern stage, and the order of simulation corresponds to the postmodern stage.
Premodern stage. Throughout European fashion history the scarcity of resources symbolized rank in dress. Costly materials were owned and displayed by the privileged classes. Technological and social developments from the fourteenth century onward challenged the rigid hierarchy of feudal society. This challenge triggered the legislation of sumptuary laws that attempted to regulate clothing practices along status lines by defining precisely the type and quality of fabrics allowed to each class. Since styles were not sanctioned by law, toward the end of the fourteenth century clothes began to take on new forms. This tendency set in motion a process of differentiation (along the lines of Georg Simmel's "trickle-down theory" of fashion), whereby the aristocracy could distinguish itself by the speed with which it adopted new styles.
Modern stage. The technological developments that characterized industrial capitalism (among them, the invention of the sewing machine and wash-proof dyes), popularized fashion by reducing the price of materials. Mass production of clothes increased homogeneity of style and decreased their indexical function. The industrial revolution created the city and the mass society, improved mobility, and multiplied social roles. A new order was created in which work (achieved status) rather than lineage (ascribed status) determined social positioning. Uniforms were introduced to the workplace to denote rank, as dress no longer reflected rank order (but instead defined time of day, activities, occasions, or gender). As a result, a subtle expert system of status differentiation through appearance between the aristocracy and "new money" evolved. This system coded the minutiae of appearance and attributed symbolic meanings that reflected a person's character or social standing. It also anchored certain sartorial practices to moral values (for example, the notion of noblesse oblige).
Postmodern stage. Postmodernism denotes a radical break with the dominant culture and aesthetics. In architecture it represented plurality of forms, fragmentation of styles, and diffuse boundaries. It has substituted disunity, subjectivity, and ambiguity for the modernist unity, absolutism, and certainty. In the sciences it stands for a "crisis in representation." This challenge to the "correspondence theory of truth" resulted in totalizing theories of universal claims giving way to a plurality of "narrative truths" that reflect, instead, the conventions of discourse (for example, rules of grammar that construct gender, metaphors and expressions encode cultural assumptions and worldview, notions of what makes a "good" story). The postmodern cultural shift has left its mark on the fashion world through its rejection of tradition, relaxation of norms, emphasis on individual diversity, and variability of styles.
Baudrillard characterized postmodern fashion by a shift from the modern order of production (functionality and utility) to the aristocratic order of seduction. Seduction derives pleasure from excess (sumptuary useless consumption of surplus, such as is displayed by celebrities). Baudrillard posits seduction as a system that marks the end of the structuralist principle of opposition as a basis for meaning. His notion of seduction is that of a libido that is enigmatic and enchanted. It is not a passion for desire but a passion for games and ritual. Seduction takes place on the level of appearance, surface, and signs and negates the seriousness of reality, meaning, morality, and truth.
Analysis. Analysis of the three stages of sartorial representation in terms of Baudrillard's signification relations produces Figure 1. In the order of imitation that characterized the premodern stage, clothes refer unequivocally to status. They signify the natural order of things without ambiguity. The order of production characterized the modern stage, where mass-produced clothes ceased to be indexical of status. It became important to establish whether people were what they claimed to be or rather were just pretending. In the orders of imitation and production, the signifier indexes an underlying meaning, either inherent or constructed. In contrast, the order of simulation refers to the principle of the postmodern dress that is indifferent to any traditional social order and is completely self-referential, that is, fashion for its own sake. For Baudrillard, the effacing of real history as a referent leaves us nothing but empty signs and marks the end of signification itself. In sum, as simulation substitutes for production, it replaces the linear order with a cyclical order and frees the signifier from its link to the signified. Thus, fashion as a form of pleasure takes the place of fashion as a form of communication.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Mirror of Production. Translated by Mark Poster. St. Louis, Mo.: Telos Press, 1975.
——. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Translated by Charles Levin. St. Louis, Mo.: Telos Press, 1981.
——. Simulations. Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchman. New York: Semiotext (e), 1983.
——. Fatal Strategies. Translated by Philip Beitchman and W. G. J. Niesluchowski. New York: Semiotext (e), 1990.
——. Seduction. Translated by Brian Singer. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
——. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1993.
——. The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. Translated by James Benedict. London and New York: Verso, 1993.
——. The System of Objects. Translated by James Benedict. New York: Verso, 1996.
——. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1998.
Works about Jean Baudrillard
Gane, Mike, ed. Jean Baudrillard. 4 vols. Sage Masters of Modern Social Thought. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 2000.
Kellner, Douglas. "Baudrillard, Semiurgy and Death." Theory, Culture, and Society 4, no. 1 (1987): 125–146.
——. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989.
Kellner, Douglas, ed. Baudrillard: A Critical Reader. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1989.
Poster, Mark, ed. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.
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 works—including Bertolt Brecht and Peter Weiss—although 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 subject—the darling of modern philosophy—is 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 see—must see perhaps—instead 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): 131–151.
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.
Douglas Kellner (2005)