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Jean Baudrillard - Biography

Jean Baudrillard, Ph.D., French sociologist, cultural critic, and theorist of postmodernity, was born July 27, 1929 in the northern town of Reims. The son of civil servants and the grandson of peasant farmers, Jean Baudrillard was the first in his family to attend university. Jean Baudrillard was a university sociology teacher and a leading intellectual figure of his time. His early life was influenced by the Algerian war in the 1950s and 1960s. He taught German in a lycée before completing his doctoral thesis in sociology under the tuition of Henri Lefebvre. He then became an Assistant, September 1966 at Nanterre University of Paris X. He was associated with Roland Barthes, to whose semiotic analysis of culture his first book, The Object System (1968), is clearly indebted. He was also influenced by Marshall McLuhan, who demonstrated the importance of the mass media in any sociological overview. Influenced by the student revolt at Nanterre University in 1968, he cooperated with, Utopie, evidently influenced by anarcho-situationism, structural Marxism and media theory, in which he published a number of theoretical articles on the ambience of capitalist affluence, and the critique of technology. He became Mâitre-assistant at the University in 1970, and left the school in 1987. Jean Baudrillard taught at the European Graduate School EGS from its earliest period until his death on March 6, 2007.

Jean Baudrillard was a thinker who built on what was being thought by others and breaks through via a key reversal of logic to make a fresh analysis. He was influenced by Marcel Mauss (important to Claude Lévi-Strauss in the Durkheimian objectivity and linguistic-sociological interface) and Georges Bataille (who wrote in a surreal and erotical way), as well as Jean-Paul Sartre, Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Situationists and Surrealism. Another background influence on Jean Baudrillard is Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis, but a far more direct influence is Marxism. Jean Baudrillard's thinking has passed through three phases – actually shifts of strategy, tenor, and emphasis rather than content – comprising a path from the post-Marxist (1968-71), to the socio-linguistic (1972-77), to the techno-prophetic. In recent years he has become best known as a prophet of the implosion of meaning that attends the postmodern condition.

Jean Baudrillard's philosophy centers on the twin concepts of 'hyperreality' and 'simulation'. These terms refer to the virtual or unreal nature of contemporary culture in an age of mass communication and mass consumption. We live in a world dominated by simulated experiences and feelings, Jean Baudrillard believes, and have lost the capacity to comprehend reality as it actually exists. We experience only prepared realities – edited war footage, meaningless acts of terrorism, the destruction of cultural values and the substitution of 'referendum'. In Jean Baudrillard's words,

The very definition of the real has become: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction… The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: that is the hyperreal… which is entirely in simulation.

Jean Baudrillard follows in the tradition of sociologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss in drawing a link between sociology and semiotics; however, he went far enough outside of the normal boundaries of sociology to no longer be called a sociologist in some descriptions. Jean Baudrillard always writes in a generally 'depopulated' manner about the 'mass' (a neutral rejection of specific meaning), for to discuss social categories is to engage in the details of simulcra: Baudrillard's is a grand theory, an approach that began with the Situationist critique of Marxism. Jean Baudrillard has produced a theory of economic consumption (and therefore production and exchange) that flows from a deconstructed semiotics, rather than finding in semiotics the objective root of a sociological situation, as with the structuralists.

The two books of Jean Baudrillard's post-Marxist phase, The System of Objects and Consumer Society (published in France in 1968 and 1970), examine the psychological imperatives of consumption in an advanced capitalistic economy. The first argues that meaning, not use, is primarily transferred through consumer objects and that the individual in effect buys a group identity and a metaphysical order with each over-determined purchase. The second contends that the individual – to the extent that he matters at all – merely fulfills the needs of the productive system under the illusion that he is servicing his private wants.

Jean Baudrillard's impatience with Marx bloomed into explicit dissociation in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972) and The Mirror of Production (1973). Here Jean Baudrillard announces not only that the sign prevails over social and economic activity, but that – in an improvement over Saussure – all alleged connections between referent (the real thing), and signifier (the marker for the concept of the real thing) have been definitively ruptured, if indeed they were ever obtained. In this schema, signifiers implode to interrelate arbitrarily, in and of themselves, with no necessary correspondence to anything beyond their own chaotic but sovereign permutations.

Pressing Freudian and Saussurean categories into the service of a basically Marxist perspective, The System of Objects offers a cultural critique of the commodity in consumer society. Jean Baudrillard classifies the everyday objects of the 'new technical order' as functional, nonfunctional and metafunctional. He contrasts 'modern' and 'traditional' functional objects, subjecting home furnishing and interior design to a celebrated semiological analysis. His treatment of nonfunctional or 'marginal' objects focuses on antiques and the psychology of collecting, while the metafunctional category extends to the useless, the aberrant and even the 'schizofunctional'. Finally, Jean Baudrillard deals at length with the implications of credit and advertising for the commodification of everyday life.

Jean Baudrillard argues in his book In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (1983) that contemporary society has entered into a phase of implosion. He says that the old structures of class have vanished into what he describes as the void of the masses: 'That spongy referent, that opaque but equally translucent reality, that nothingness: the masses'. The masses no longer make themselves evident as a class (a category which has lost its force because of a proliferation of possible identities), they have been swamped by so much meaning that they have lost all meaning. They have been so continuously analyzed through statistics, opinion polls and marketing that they do not respond to enlightened political representation. They have absorbed and neutralized ideology, religion and the transcendental aspirations that accompany them. The masses have also absorbed all the old, modern categories which were once a potentially liberating force. According to Jean Baudrillard, the 'Law that is imposed on us is the law of confusion of categories. Everything is sexual. Everything is political. Everything is aesthetic. All at once… Each category is generalized to the greatest possible extent, so that it eventually loses all specificity and is reabsorbed by all other categories'.

The 'massification' of society has led to the old forms of analyzing society being abandoned. Jean Baudrillard presents a new method of analyzing society in his most famous book, America, which is written in the form of a travelogue. It provides an account of what Jean Baudrillard believes is the unreality of American culture. His method was to travel through America at speed, not allowing enough time to become bogged down by the 'depth' of American social reality. He calls this method 'pure traveling' and says that in this way the banality of American culture can display itself. The point is not to write the sociology of the car; the point is to drive. That way you learn more about this society than all academia could ever tell you. For Jean Baudrillard, America is a desert, a vast cultural void where the real and the unreal are merged so completely that distinctions between them disappear. People's whole lives are played out as if part of a film or soap opera. Despite appearances to the contrary, Jean Baudrillard is not making a moral judgment about contemporary culture, and he does not intend to condemn it. For Jean Baudrillard, the logic of good and evil is now so blurred that such an exercise is futile.

In his book The Perfect Crime (1996), Jean Baudrillard turns detective in order to investigate a crime which he hopes may yet be solved: the 'murder' of reality. To solve the crime would be to unravel the social and technological processes by which reality has quite simply vanished under the deadly glare of mediated 'real time'. However, Jean Baudrillard is not merely intending to lament the disappearance of the real, an occurrence he recently described as 'the most important event of modern history', nor even to meditate upon the paradoxes of reality and illusion, truth and its masks. The Perfect Crime is also a penetrating examination of vital aspects of the social, political and cultural life of the 'advanced democracies' in the late twentieth century. Where critics like McLuhan once exposed the alienating consequences of 'the medium', Jean Baudrillard lays bare the depredatory effects of an oppressive transparency on our social lives, of a relentless positivity on our critical faculties, and of a withering 'high definition' on our very sense of reality.

Jean Baudrillard was a Professor of Philosophy of Culture and Media Criticism at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he taught an Intensive Summer Seminar.