09 March 2007

Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007)

Jean Baudrillard departed this world on Tuesday.

He was perhaps the least uninteresting of the poststructuralists. Although his claim that the Gulf War "did not happen" was widely mocked, there was something thought-provoking (though less profound than he pretended, and probably false as applied by him) in the idea that modern wars could become virtual, and that it might become more difficult to determine who had won.

I doubt that whoever replaces him in the firmament of intellectual stars will be better rather than worse. B-H Lévy is a bit interesting, but does his stuff really constitute philosophy?

No, for the future of celebrity philosophers we must probably look to the mind-numbing banality of someone like Slavoj Zizek (hat tip to Mr Anonymous).

Very occasionally I find a Guardian online comment interesting, even if I don't agree with everything it says. I quite liked this one, on a Baudrillard eulogy, from RameshN (mildly edited):

The only empty symbol on display here is the discipline of philosophy. Notice the merry-go-round of descriptors : Baudrillard was most often described as a 'philosopher'. How does Footman describe him? As a 'cultural theorist' and then, as 'thinker'.

People may have heard of the 'Sokal Hoax', where a hilarious article full of pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo was published in the journal 'Social Text' as a worthy contribution to the quantum mechanics of social relativism! Sokal later co-authored a book on the intellectual pretensions of numerous philosophers/ cultural theorists/ nonspecific thinkers, who peppered their work with ludicrous scientific appropriations.

The reason I mention this is that while many branches of philosophy do coexist very well with modern science, the burgeoning scientific flavour of modern living has marginalised the humanities into a perceived corner of irrelevance.

Moreover, most people in the media have overwhelmingly come from the arts streams at school, and know bugger-all science. Hence, a literature graduate, whom in the past might be thought to know a little about the complexities of human behaviour, finds that all their years of study has reaped very little insight into the human condition, as opposed to, say, study in the biological sciences.

This has led to two phenomena. Firstly, the wholesale appropriation of pseudoscientific and quasi-technological jargon by many humanists, including Baudrillard. This jargon is not there to illuminate so much as confer a spurious sense of legitimacy, or more often, a semblance of profundity in what is, in reality, a banal but true insight. Secondly, the dissemination of this cranky but lapidary postmodern prose has had the willing accomplices of the scientifically-challenged media. Can one expect literary op-ed writers to distinguish between high-quality thought and its simulcram which filches scientific expressions as its sartorial fig-leaf?

What Baudrillard has written about surface and reality in an audiovisual environment is no different to what I was reading in the scientific and technological press in the late 1980s. Even 'Wired' magazine had many writers which had the same insights as Baudrillard et al, except the prose in the pop-science journals was far more accessible.