An Introduction to Jean Baudrillard, Who Predicted the Simulation-Like Reality in Which We Live

Each and every morn­ing, many of us wake up and imme­di­ate­ly check on what’s hap­pen­ing in the world. Some­times these events stir emo­tions with­in us, and occa­sion­al­ly we act on those emo­tions, which raise in us a desire to affect the world our­selves. But does this entire rit­u­al involve any­thing real? While per­form­ing it we don’t expe­ri­ence the world, but only media; when we respond, we respond not with action in the world, but only with action in media. We have direct­ly inter­act­ed, to put it blunt­ly, with noth­ing more than pix­els on a screen. This con­di­tion has piti­less­ly inten­si­fied in our era of smart­phones and social media, and though philoso­pher and soci­ol­o­gist Jean Bau­drillard died three months before the intro­duc­tion of the iPhone, noth­ing about it would sur­prise him.

Assem­bled in an omi­nous, vin­tage stock footage-heavy style rem­i­nis­cent of Adam Cur­tis (he of The Cen­tu­ry of the Self and Hyper­Nor­mal­i­sa­tion), the half-hour Then & Now video essay above pro­vides an intro­duc­tion to Bau­drillard’s ideas, espe­cial­ly those that pre­dict­ed the world in which we live today, a “hyper­re­al post­mod­ern” one filled with signs ref­er­enc­ing lit­tle that actu­al­ly exists. “In the run-up to the 2008 crash,” the nar­ra­tor reminds us, “the real val­ue of mort­gages was hid­den under lay­ers of sign val­ue, under deceit­ful insur­ance poli­cies and finan­cial rat­ings based on noth­ing.” On the news, “it does­n’t mat­ter what’s real. What mat­ters is how it’s said, who says it — the per­spec­tive, whether it will be provoca­tive enough, whether it will enter­tain.” We live, in sum, in a “post­mod­ern car­ni­val” where  “things like real­i­ty TV, Dis­ney­land, and Face­book define our lives.”

Bau­drillard saw this hap­pen­ing near­ly 40 years ago: “Peo­ple no longer look at each oth­er, but there are insti­tutes for that,” he writes in Sim­u­lacra and Sim­u­la­tion. “They no longer touch each oth­er, but there is con­tac­tother­a­py. They no longer walk, but they go jog­ging, etc. Every­where one recy­cles lost fac­ul­ties, or lost bod­ies, or lost social­i­ty, or the lost taste for food.” He cred­it­ed Mar­shall McLuhan, fel­low gnom­ic observ­er of late 20th-cen­tu­ry soci­ety, with “one of the defin­ing axioms of post­mod­ern life.” When McLuhan declared that “the medi­um is the mes­sage,” says the nar­ra­tor, he saw that “what mat­tered in this new world was not what was real and mate­r­i­al, but what was rep­re­sent­ed as signs: in short, tele­vi­sion, and now the com­put­er screen, has come to dom­i­nate social life. Sign pro­duc­tion has replaced mate­r­i­al pro­duc­tion as the orga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple of polit­i­cal econ­o­my.”

What would Bau­drillard make of a pro­duc­tion like HBO’s Cher­nobyl, whose painstak­ing recon­struc­tion of his­tor­i­cal events we pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture? What made that show a spec­ta­cle, says the nar­ra­tor, was that “the depic­tion was more real than the event itself: cos­tumes, props, spe­cial effects, and the per­fect angle, the Geiger counter mapped onto the score already overde­ter­mined by signs.” And so, “in twen­ty years’ time we think of Cher­nobyl, will we think of the real event, or images con­jured by TV stu­dios?” But we need hard­ly look that far into the future. The very things our screens insist to us are hap­pen­ing in the world right now, far beyond the walls of the homes few­er and few­er of us leave these days — what do we tru­ly know of their exis­tence apart from this dig­i­tal bliz­zard of signs? If Bau­drillard were alive to hear our spec­u­la­tion about the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we live in anoth­er being’s sim­u­la­tion, he’d sure­ly point out that we’ve already cre­at­ed the sim­u­la­tion our­selves.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

French Philoso­pher Jean Bau­drillard Reads His Poet­ry, Backed By All-Star Arts Band (1996)

Hear the Writ­ing of French The­o­rists Jacques Der­ri­da, Jean Bau­drillard & Roland Barthes Sung by Poet Ken­neth Gold­smith

The Sim­u­la­tion The­o­ry Explained In Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

McLuhan Said “The Medi­um Is The Mes­sage”; Two Pieces Of Media Decode the Famous Phrase

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Roland Barthes’s Mytholo­gies and How He Used Semi­otics to Decode Pop­u­lar Cul­ture

Is Mod­ern Soci­ety Steal­ing What Makes Us Human?: A Glimpse Into Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra by The Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (3)
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  • Common Sense over Gallic nonsense says:

    “Peo­ple no longer look at each oth­er”

    They do. A lot.

    “They no longer touch each oth­er, but there is con­tac­tother­a­py”

    Peo­ple touch each oth­er a lot. Nev­er heard of con­tac­tother­a­py. Is it like Swedish mas­sage ?

    “They no longer walk, but they go jog­ging”

    Peo­ple walk a lot, and jog not very much.

  • London2020 says:

    “Com­mon sense over Gal­lic non­sense” ? Real­ly? What has it got any­thing to do with being French? The man was a Philoso­pher enti­tled to his own opin­ions and hap­pened to be French. So what? Many oth­ers , Anglo sax­ons, have expressed the same views. You don’t need to agree with them. Would you have used the same nick­name if these ideas had been expressed by a Philoso­pher of the same Nation­al­i­ty as yours?
    Xeno­pho­bic and igno­rant much?

  • atman says:

    😂😂😂…Eas­i­ly trig­gered much?

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