Scott McLemee takes a look back at the postmodern thinker and intellectual playboy who inspired "The Matrix."
A few days ago, I tried the thought experiment of pretending never to have read anything by Jean Baudrillard – instead trying to form an impression based only on media coverage following his death last week. And there was a lot more of it than I might have expected. The gist being that, to begin with, he was a major postmodernist thinker. Everyone agrees about that much, usually without attempting to define the term, which is probably for the best. It also seems that he invented virtual reality, or at least predicted it. He may have had something to do with YouTube as well, though his role in that regard is more ambiguous. But the really important thing is that he inspired the "Matrix" movie franchise.
A segment on National Public Radio included a short clip from the soundtrack in which Lawrence Fishburn’s character Morpheus intones the Baudrillard catchphrase, “Welcome to the desert of the real.” The cover of Simulacra and Simulation -- in some ways his quintessential theoretical text, first published in a complete English translation by the University of Michigan in 1994 -- is shown in the first film. Furthermore, the Wachowski brothers, who wrote and directed the trilogy, made the book required reading for all the actors, including Keanu Reeves. (It is tempting to make a joke at this point, but we will all be better people for it if I don’t.)
There was more to Baudrillard than his role as Marshall McLuhan of the cyberculture. And yet I can’t really blame harried reporters for emphasizing the most blockbuster-ish dimensions of his influence. "The Matrix" was entertainment, not an educational filmstrip, and Baudrillard himself said that its take on his work “stemmed mostly from misunderstandings.” But its computer-generated imagery and narrative convolutions actually did a pretty decent job of conveying the feel, if not the argument, of Baudrillard’s work.
As he put it in an essay included in The Illusion of the End (Stanford University Press, 1994): “The acceleration of modernity, of technology, events and media, of all exchanges – economic, political, sexual – has propelled us to ‘escape velocity,’ with the result that we have flown free of the referential sphere of the real and of history.” You used to need digitalized special effects to project that notion. But I get the feeling of being “flown free of the referential sphere of the real and of history” a lot nowadays, especially while watching certain cable news programs.
Some of the coverage of Baudrillard’s death was baffled but vaguely respectful. Other commentary has been more hostile – though not always that much more deeply informed. A case in point would be an article by Canadian pundit Robert Fulford that appeared in The National Post on Saturday. A lazy diatribe, it feels like something kept in a drawer for the occasion of any French thinker’s death – with a few spots left blank, for details to be filled in per Google.
A tip-off to the generic nature of the piece is the line: “Strange as it seems, in the 1970s much of the Western world was ready to embrace him.” Here, Fulford can count on the prefab implication of a reference to that decade as a time of New Left-over radicalism and countercultural indulgence. In fact Baudrillard was little known outside France until the 1980s, and even then he had a very small audience until late in the decade. The strong mood coming from most of Baudrillard’s work is that of bitter disappointment that oppositional social movements of earlier years had been neutralized – absorbed into academic bureaucracy and consumer society, with no reason to think that they would revive.
And if we are going to play the game of periodization-by-decade, well, it is perhaps worth mentioning that “much of the Western world was ready to embrace him" only after several years of watching Ronald Reagan -- a man whose anecdotes routinely confused his roles in motion pictures with actual experiences from his own life -- in a position of great power. The distinction between reality and simulation had been worn away quite a bit, by that point. Some of Baudrillard’s crazier flights of rhetoric were starting to sound more and more like apt descriptions of the actual.
Even then, it was by no means a matter of his work persuading university professors “that novels and poems had become irrelevant as subject matter for teaching and research,” as the macro setting for culture-war boilerplate on Fulford’s computer puts it.
Enthusiasm for Baudrillard’s work initially came from artists, writers, and sundry ne’er-do-wells in the cultural underground. The post-apocalyptic tone of his sentences, the science-fictionish quality of his concepts, resonated in ways that at least some people found creatively stimulating, whether or not they grasped his theories. (True confession: While still in my teens, I started writing a novel that opened with an epigraph from one of his books, simply because it sounded cool.)
Baudrillard’s work played no role whatever in the debates of “the canon” to which Fulford alludes. But he was, in a different sense, the most literary of theorists. He translated Bertolt Brecht, among other German authors, into French. Some of his earliest writings were critical articles on the fiction of William Styron and Italo Calvino. In 1978, he published a volume of poems. And a large portion of his output clearly belongs to the literary tradition of the aphorism and the “fragment” (not an unfinished work, but a very dense and compact form of essay). These are things you notice if you actually read Baudrillard, rather than striking po-faced postures of concern about how literature should be “subject matter for teaching and research.”
Besides, it is simply untrue to say that Baudrillard’s reception among American academics was one of uncritical adulation. If there was a protracted lag between the appearance of his first books in the 1960s and the dawn of interest in his work among scholars here in the 1980s, that was not simply a matter of the delay in translation. For one thing, it was hard to know what to make of Baudrillard, and a lot of the initial reception was quite skeptical.
In the mid-1960s, he became a professor of sociology at the University of Paris at Nanterre , but the relationship of his work to the canon of social theory (let alone empirical research) is quite oblique. It’s also difficult to fit him into the history of philosophy as a discipline. Some of his work sounds like Marxist cultural theory, such as the material recently translated in Utopia Deferred: Writings for ‘Utopie’ 1967-1978 -- a collection distributed by MIT Press, a publisher known, not so coincidentally, for its books on avant-garde art. Still, there is plenty in Baudrillard’s work to irritate any Marxist (he grew profoundly cynical about the idea of social change, let alone socialism). And he delighted in baiting feminists with statements equating femininity with appearance, falsehood, and seduction.
Baudrillard was, in short, a provocateur. After a while that was all he was – or so it seemed to me, anyway. The rage of indignant editorialists notwithstanding, a lot of the response to Baudrillardisme amounted to treating him as a stimulating but dubious thinker: not so much a theorist as a prose-poet. A balanced and well-informed critical assessment of his work comes from Douglas Kellner, a professor of philosophy at UCLA, who wrote Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (Stanford University Press, 1989), the first critical book on him in English. Kellner has provided me with the manuscript of a forthcoming essay on Baudrillard, which I quote here with permission.
“So far,” he writes, “no Baudrillardian school has emerged. His influence has been largely at the margins of a diverse number of disciplines ranging from social theory to philosophy to art history, thus it is difficult to gauge his impact on the mainstream of philosophy, or any specific academic discipline.”
At this point I’d interject that his questionable position within the disciplinary matrix (so to speak) tends to reinforce Baudrillard’s status as a minor literary figure, rather than an academic superstar. Kellner goes on to note that Baudrillard “ultimately goes beyond conventional philosophy and theory altogether into a new sphere and mode of writing that provides occasionally biting insights into contemporary social phenomena and provocative critiques of contemporary and classical thought. Yet he now appears in retrospect as a completely idiosyncratic thinker who went his own way....”
Not that Baudrillard exactly suffered for going his own way, however. A self-portrait of the postmodern intellectual as global jet-setter emerges in the five volumes of his notebook jottings published under the title “Cool Memories.” You get the sense that he spent a lot of time catching planes to far-flung speaking engagements – not to mention seeing various unnamed women out the door, once they had been given a practicum in the theories worked out in his book De la Séduction.
Many of the writings that appeared during the last two decades of his life simply recycled ideas from his early work. But celebrity is a full-time job.
One offer he did turn down was the chance to do a cameo in one of the Matrix sequels. (Instead, it was Cornel West who did his star turn onscreen as gnomic philosophical figure.) Still the appearance of "Simulacra and Seduction" in the first film greatly increased the book’s distribution, if not comprehension of its themes.
According to Mike Kehoe, the sales manager for the University of Michigan Press, which published the English translation, sales doubled in the year following “The Matrix.” The book had often been assigned in university courses. But those sales, too, jumped following the release of the film.
Rather than indulging my own halfbaked quasi-Baudrillardan speculations about how his theories of media metaphysics were reabsorbed by the culture industry, I decided to bring the week’s musings to a close by finding out more about how the book itself ended up on screen.
“It wasn’t the usual sort of product placement,” LeAnn Fields, a senior executive editor for the press, told me by phone. “That is, we didn’t pay them. It was the other way around. The movie makers contacted us for permission. But they reserved the right to redesign the cover for it when it appeared onscreen.”
The familiar Michigan edition is a paperback with bergundy letters on a mostly white cover. “But in the film,” said Fields, “it become a dark green hardcover book. We were quite surprised by that, but I guess it’s understandable since it serves as a prop and a plot device, as much as anything.” (If memory serves, some kind of cyber-gizmo is concealed in it by Keanu Reeves.)
I asked Fields if the press had considered bringing out a special version of the book, simulating its simulation in a deluxe hardback edition. “No,” she said with a laugh, “I don’t think we ever considered that. Maybe we should have, though.”
Recommended Reading: Mark Poster's edition of Baudrillard's Selected Writings, originally published by Stanford University Press in 1988, is now available as a PDF document. The single best short overview of Baudrillard's work is Douglas Kellner's entry on him for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. There is an International Journal of Baudrillard Studies that publishes both commentary on his work and translations of some of his shorter recent writings.
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