Baudrillard – virtual reality philosopher
Neo, in The Matrix, carries a copy of Baudrillard's Simulcra and Simulations, that's Jean Baudrillard the French philosopher, who examines technology, or more accurately its virtual outputs, in culture. More than this, he has created several concepts and theories that redefine what technology is in our lives and culture, beyond face-to-face and print media. His focus on the idea of ‘simulations’ is a break with the past, disassociated from reference to the reality it pretends to represent. This is illustrated in his infamous book, ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place’. His core idea is that the virtual world(s) we have created are now more important cognitively and culturally, that their supposed referents in the real world. More than this, he thinks the virtual has cleaved away from this assumed real world. He took an even more controversial position on 9/11, seeing it as a defining event is a clash between two globalisised perspectives.
He rejects traditional Marxist descriptions and explanations of economics, with its focus on ‘production’, constructing a new era of consumerist culture, based on consumerism, communications and commodities. ‘Hyperreality’ is the new state, free from the anchors of reason and materialism. For Baudrillard, consumerist communication has it’s own set of codes related to the desires of the consumer. This new form of living has demoted the idea of people as producers.
‘Consumer Society (1970) rejects the Marxist (and Freudian) ideas of the free agent. The conspicuousness of consumption, he thinks, is far more complex. Malls have their perpetual springtime and perpetual shopping. Our created needs, all the possibilities of pleasure make us not producers but consumers with a huge capacity for consumption. Prophetically, he saw the real role of credit as lubricating this desire and its excesses. His critique of Marxism reaches its peak in The Mirror of Production (1973), where each of the major elements in Marxism are demolished – dialectic, modes of production and so on. Indeed, he turns Marxism on its head, as he thinks it is a justification for the system it purports to destroy. For all its machinations around labour, production and value, Marxism has no distance.
In what he calls the ‘code’, floating signifiers, ads, virtual experiences and so on, we live within a system of signs. As his leftism gave way to fatalism in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), death is the only escape. But death confirms the absence of relevance of the system in which we fund ourselves trapped. In On Seduction (1979), he renews his broadsides against Marx, Freud and the structuralists, opting for a Nietzschean view of perspectivism. It is a blow to glib liberalism and Marxism. Citizens are not a community, they are consumers.
Simulcra, simulations, virtual reality
He picks up on Nietzsche’s rejection of oppositional thought, to move the debate beyond appearance and reality, subject and object, oppressors and oppressed – to a world of Simulacra and simulations (1981) – ads, TV news and soap operas. Even in the realm of divinity the battle between sumulcra and iconoclasts, who conformed the power of ‘icons’ shows that our concerns are in this battle of signs. Representation first reflects a reality, then masks and perverts that reality, masks the absence of that reality and finally bears no relation to reality. This is pure Nietzshe. There is a brilliant passage in this book on Disneyland. You will never see that place in the same light after reading this critique of the US ‘embalmed and pacified’.
Yet despite writing all of this in the era of traditional broadcast media, his work has gathered strength as, what he calls the ‘virtual’ world, has grown to immense proportions. With the advent of the internet and web, along with social media, augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, his theories have gathered strength as the world he has described has come to be. The ‘virtual’ moves us further away from and exists outside of reality. Clay Shirky quantified the astonishing amount of time we as a species have spent passively watching TV but makes a distinction between this and active, creative participation in online activity. I’m not sure that Baudrillard fully grasps these differentials.
In any case, he has been using the term ‘virtual’ for 25 years and in The Gulf War Did Not Exist (1991) he shocked traditional commentators by claiming that the war, as shown through media, was not grounded in the Gulf War but a created reality. History itself collapses through dilution, as we move beyond an ‘event’ based culture to a non-historical state.
Twenty five years later, we see this code of signs, simulations and virtual experiences, often as an end in itself. ISIS are more virtual than real, with real acts being epiphenomena, beheadings fodder for social media, murder as media. Brexit was a virtual battle, an internal party dispute played out but disengaged from reality. Trump plays the Baudrillard game perfectly, recognising that these signs need not be grounded in reality. His soundbites and Tweets are virtual, in a self-contained world of cage fighting with other media messages. These are virtual bombardments that promote ideas, with historical events and fixed viewpoints playing a minor role. Wars are created to be filmed, now Tweeted, Facebooked and YouTubed. Wars are virtual.
But Baudrillard took an odd position, which has puzzled many – that the best reaction to this all-consuming storm of simulacra and simulations is ‘silence’. This, many argue, is inappropriate, as technology can be a force for good. But Baudrillard’s challenge is to take the debate beyond good and bad. It is an existential, not moral, position.
In The Conspiracy if Art (1996) he trounces modern art, as no longer relevant and part of the very system it pretends to critique. It is the art of collusion and has no special status. Art is everywhere and nowhere, part of a consumerist nexus with its careers, commerce and tawdry fame. Worse, it has become mediocre, worse still - null. Adored by the art world after Simulacra and simulations, he came back to destroy its view of itself as superior, even relevant.
It is difficult to grasp Baudrillard’s key concepts and constructions without abandoning traditional oppositional modes of thought and fixed Marxist, Freudian, Liberal, Historicist and Structuralist narratives, but this is the only way to understand his theories. Like Wittgenstein, he pushes us to the limit of language and thought. He also sees himself and his own theories as being part of the virtual simulations. I warn you now, these are not bedtime reading texts. They take time, reflection and persistence – not such a bad thing in the era of instant, virtual gratification, his target. Never easy, always challenging, certainly original – Baudrillard is a philosopher for our age.