Times Higher Education Supplement (London) March 16th 2007, p.14.

Gone, but still breathing new life into his field.

The work of Jean Baudrillard will continue to disturb the tranquil
waters of modern sociology, says John Armitage.

"He who knows how to breathe the air of my writings knows that it is
an air of the heights, a robust air". So wrote German philosopher
Friedrich Nietzsche.

Similarly, one has to be suited to the atmosphere of the writings of
Jean Baudrillard, the radical French sociologist and intellectual
successor to Nietzsche, who died last week. If one can "breathe his
air", one can gain remarkable insights in Baudrillard's work on
postmodernity and hyperreality, social and media theories and, indeed,
on Nietzsche himself.

Or else, as many modern sociologists have discovered when faced with
his major works such as Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), Simulacra
and Simulations (1981) and, most recently, The Intelligence of Evil
Or The Lucidity Pact (2005), there is serious danger of an apoplectic

Baudrillard is notorious for his trenchant political critiques of the
writings of Michel Foucault on power and the feminist activities of
the late Susan Sontag. Likewise, his development of the concepts of
simulation and hyperreality and his remarks on the mass media world of
The Matrix, on technology and postmodern science have been subjected
to rigorous analysis and debate. Most infamous of all, perhaps, was
his observation that the Persian Gulf War did not take place.

Yet I would argue that it was his assault on modern sociology that
really hits the mark and where, in fact, he had a singular and
sometimes terrifying capacity to disturb its supposedly tranquil
waters. For Baudrillard, the outsider, managed to expose everything
from Marxist sociology and the near-pointlessness of political
engagement to the foundations of contemporary social thought. How
liberally one breathes the air when encouraged by him to confront the
disappointments of the postmodern social system, depends upon how
one responds to his sometimes-difficult works. Postmodern sociology,
as Baudrillard appreciated and lived it, was a constant deliberation
undertaken through the writing of highly provocative and stylised
texts that are frequently rejected tout-court by the high priests of
modern social theory.

Baudrillard was a seeker after all things extraordinary who questioned
the utilitarian foundation of both Adam Smith's classical and Karl
Marx's radical social and economic thought by concentrating on
the life and nature of commodities - the object - in contemporary
consumer society. Any consideration of consumption had previously
been expelled by contemporary Smithian and Marxist sociology obsessed
with production and accumulation. From the understanding provided by
his long, itinerant meanderings in the more or less prohibited social
theory of Georges Bataille, Baudrillard learnt to observe the starting
point of the economic and the object from a perspective very different
from that of modern sociology.

In fact, what Baudrillard revived and expanded on was the covert
history of Bataille's "notion of expenditure", a radical theory that
saw as deficient the writings of Smith and Marx, those sociological
grandees associated with the introduction of concepts such as use
value and exchange value. However, the reality of his insights were
too much for modern sociology to swallow, particularly when he argued
that in the postmodern society people are increasingly exchanging
visual signs with one another. Value is no longer tied to an object's
use value or exchange value, but instead to its sign value.

Baudrillard demonstrated his true strength through his argument that
the machinery of conspicuous consumption continues to be affected by
symbolic values. These became for him increasingly the real gauge of
social values because symbolic values are fundamentally linked to
pre-capitalist forms of organisation that contemporary society likes
to pretend that it has transcended.

For Baudrillard, the failure of modern sociology was not necessarily
its faith in its ideal type, the perfect society or even its blindness
concerning symbolic exchange. Rather, its breakdown was and is
its powerlessness in the face of the demise of both semiotics
and the material world. In other words, each significant move in
Baudrillard's writings, indeed, every stride he made away from
semiotics and materialism and towards an understanding of the symbolic
order was a kind of resistance to our sign-dominated contemporary
society. Yet he did not automatically contest postmodern social
principles. Instead, he was prepared to challenge their symbolic
presence and characteristics, to set his analytical sights on the
forbidden features of enchantment and seduction, brutality and abrupt
reversibility that lie at the core of contemporary consumption and
expenditure. In this sense, Baudrillard's postmodern sociology
continues to provide a much-needed critique of semiotic society.
For what had been outlawed more or less in principle up until his
arrival on the modern sociological scene was the fact that the age of
restricted production and accumulation was over and that the era of
limitless consumption and expenditure had begun.

John Armitage teaches media and communication at Northumbria
University. He is the founder and co-editor, with Ryan Bishop and
Douglas Kellner, of the journal Cultural Politics.

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