[-empyre-] A view from "Baudrillard and the Media"

>From William Merrin, author of:

    "Baudrillard and the Media: A Critical Introduction"

@ Polity Press, UK (Nov 2005)

As abstract here an extract from the interactive review of the book at

" Baudrillard is a much mis-represented figure in cultural theory. He's
consistently misunderstood by otherwise intelligent people who are either a)
annoyed by his Gallic provocations or b) have a vested interest in wishing
to safeguard their much more conformist assessments of contemporary life.

Merrin does a great job setting the record straight. The book is
comprehensive and stimulating and points out the various ways in which
Baudrillard's thought adds another dimension to the frequently uncritical
and culturally populist field of Media Studies.

If you want to understand in a much more sophisticated fashion than the
media could ever explain, such issues as the inability of the West to
understand properly the sensitivities of the Islamic world - this is the
book for you. "

(with his direct allow to repost it from Idc list to Empyre)

Facing Ken and Nich I think that may be they can have any interesting and
different view,


First post: 

I joined this list because a friend had passed onto me the first two
emails regarding Jean Baudrillard. I have to say that I'm disappointed
by the level of knowledge they display. I would immediately fail
undergraduates who demonstrated such a lack of knowledge of his work and
filled the space instead with such poorly thought-through invective.

The first commentator said:

'Thus beguiling, but ultimately fairly dubious, totalising and
empirically unsupportable, or at least highly reductive notions about
'simulacra' and 'simulation' were not only taken far too seriously, but
helped to produce and support cultural phenomena which were then taken
as evidence of the rightness of Baudrillard's ideas'

The simulacrum is actually a historical concept, found explicitly and
implicitly in the theological, anthropological and philosophical
literature. The western tradition repeatedly founds its primary
theologies and philosophies on the attempt to reduce the efficacy of the
image (whether the man-made image, the world as image of the divine, or
the images that constitute our interior knowledge) and to demonise its
power to assert itself as the full reality. This 'simulacrum', however,
has always challenged every truth system built upon it, whether idealist
or materialist. To give an example, empiricism serves as the basis for
science and social science yet its primary philosophers were aware of
how the images of subjective thought and sensation completely ungrounded
their attempt to turn subjectivity into objectivity. Read Lucretius on
simulacra, or Bacon on the 'idols of the mind' ('idol' = 'eidolon',
which is also translated as 'simulacra'), or Hume's scepticism, which is
better understood as a sensitivity to the ancient problem posed by the
simulacrum for the possibility of knowledge...  Empiricism, therefore,
may well 'work', but philosophically it's a simulation machine for
producing our modern concept of 'objectivity' (and don't get me started
on the ludicrousness of 'social science'...). So I'm afraid you're
trying to shoot down an idea that's pretty well accepted throughout
western history. Baudrillard, following Deleuze, Derrida, Klossowski and
Perniola merely takes up and applies this problematic to a contemporary
imagic world. If his idea of simulation should not have been taken so
seriously we should also throw out Plato, Tertullian, Descartes, Hume
etc. As for the simulacrum not being 'empirically supportable', you've
got it the wrong way round. It's empiricism that isn't empirically
supportable because of the simulacrum, not that you're likely to care
about or follow these arguments because there's no evidence here of
Baudrillard having been read let alone of any attempt to understand the
concepts he uses and their cultural and historical significance. And
then we just shoot the messenger ... Baudrillard is responsible for the
simulacra we experience today? ... Sure, just like Marx was responsible
for industrial capitalism I suppose? This entire discussion of
Baudrillard overlooks the fact that he was a critic of simulacra and
that he spent his entire career developing a radical Durkheimian
critique based upon the concept of 'symbolic exchange'. Ultimately the
only reductiveness here is the sub-standard reading of Baudrillard.
That's because it takes time and thought to work through the 50 odd
books he wrote and put them into any kind of context. It's far easier to
watch UK Gold and talk about John Inman.

And then we get a follow up comment that's worse. I thought this idea
that Baudrillard denied the physical existence of the Gulf War had
disappeared over a decade ago when his original essays appeared in
translation  ... but no. Here it is again.

To sum up this comment: Baudrillard apparently steamrollers 'over
material reality, going so far as denying the reality of the Gulf War',
whereas war 'has real consequences' and his ideas 'deny the dignity of
war's victims'. Baudrillard has no critique of power and is apolitical
and you can prove he's wrong because you can 'walk down actual streets
filled with meaty reality'.

OK, Baudrillard doesn't deny material reality exists. He repeatedly says
in fact it's the excess of reality not its loss that is the problem
today. He is not an idealist and doesn't think 'all is fiction' and that
we're all floating around in nothingness. This is a moronic reading. He
is concerned with the way in which our experience of that real is
organised, programmed and produced as part of a concern with the
semiotic processes of social control operating through our media and
through everyday life (following Debord, Marcuse etc.) and he critiques
this process from the point of view of symbolic exchange, an idea that
in its radical Durkheimian derivation serves as his critical ground and
functions as precisely that material, experiential and moral real that
you accuse him of not believing in...

As to the Gulf War, the simulation of war was not primarily that of its
media representation (as a video game experience). It's true that in the
west we consumed only a mediated simulacrum without any of the
experiential reality of the war but he critiques this so he can hardly
be claimed to be promoting it or arguing that that's all that was going
on. More importantly he offered a critique of the material process of
war - of a war conducted as a war-game, following its own plan so
successfully that the enemy were not even allowed to take part (being
massacred by the overwhelming allied military force - yes he recognises
this), producing a war that wasn't a war but a massacre; a victory that
wasn't a victory as it left Saddam in power and a defeat that wasn't a
defeat as the US military engaged in repeated air-strikes and another
war over a decade later. That's why a war 'didn't happen'. Interestingly
this is a more moral position than those who opposed 'the war' as they
consecrated it historically by accepting its status. Baudrillard refused
the west this satisfaction, forcing us to question the war dead as
slaughtered human beings. And Baudrillard does have a theory of power
(of the western semiotic system and its operation, set out throughout
his work)and he isn't apolitical (how can you reach such a stupid
conclusion given how much he has written about politics and political
events!). In fact he sees three modes of resistance to the west - the
internal rediscovery of the symbolic mode of relations, the external
resistance of symbolic cultures (such as Iranian islam) against the west
and the internal processes of reversion that the western system falls
victim to. For God's sake, please at least deal with his work before you
leap in and attack it. I'd recommend my own book 'Baudrillard and the
media' as a way into the arguments above. I know that smacks of academic
self-publicity but I do deal with all the errors made here.

William Merrin
Dept of Media and Communication Studies
University of Wales, Swansea

Last post (same day) :

I¹m still stunned by some of this discussion. I honestly thought that with
the general availability of Baudrillard¹s work in translation these days
that a better understanding of his work might exist. Again and again the
same comments keep appearing ­Baudrillard offered no hope, he had no
programme for change, he saw no possibility of change, he ignored
power/politics/the poor etc. so what do you expect? All we can do is smile
at him and shrug ?
In fact Baudrillard¹s career is best understood as an attempt to develop
both an escalating analysis of the operation of the western semiotic system
and the forms of social control that produce and govern us today and a
similarly escalating analysis of those symbolic forms that he argues shadow
the system, irrupt within it or through it or arise from external sources ­
his names for these changed but included the symbolic, symbolic exchange,
seduction, reversal, the fatal, evil, the singularity etc. Baudrillard never
gives up hope (in fact that might be a better critique of his work ­ his
tendency always to find that glimmer?), and he pursued his hope of something
fighting the semiotic in the form of his work (in his own theoretical
methodology ­ in his writing and its different strategies), in the content
of his work (in his analysis of forms such as the masses, processes such as
terrorism, and events such as the Gulf War or western globalisation etc.) as
well as in practices he favoured (such as photography). He wasn¹t a Marxist
and his rejection of the ?gold standard¹, referential real of the
proletariat and their revolution means that a lot of critics didn¹t see what
he was doing but he looked for and continually found modes and processes of
reversal. A lot of the reason why many people miss this in him is because
they don¹t realise it¹s there because they¹re too busy focusing upon the
first part of his analysis ­ of simulation. Too few people have paid
attention to the symbolic, its meaning in his work, its critical function
and its practical efficacy. Just focusing on simulation means you mistake
him for an apolitical, nihilistic celebrant. Marx described capitalism but
it didn't make him a capitalist. Baudrillard may describe simulation ...
I also saw the earlier post which involved a critique of Baudrillard¹s book
'America'. It¹s not that important a book in his oeuvre but I do wonder if
we¹ve been reading the same book. All that stuff about  ?Baudrillard in
reality gives vent to the deep hostility he feels towards the common people.
They simply do not exist in his book¹ etc. is hornswoggle. The entire
critique advanced in the post is a typical product of its time ­ a petty and
prett smug assault on what Baudrillard represents to the writer and their
own feelings about his claimed postmodernism and European and intellectual
status etc. rather than what he wrote in that book.The book itself bears
little relation to what's being said about it. Just go to the chapter ?The
End of US Power?¹ and you¹ll find a major discussion (see especially p.
112-13 of the verso translation) of the disenfranchisement of the poor with
the turn to new right political and economic policies in the early 1980s.
His critique of this systematic withdrawal of interest from entire sections
of society is superb (?entire swathes of the population are falling into
oblivion, being totally abandoned?¹) and his description of the process as
an ?ex-communication¹ is spot on ­ reworking a religious concept in the
light of what it means in a communications-based society to develop a
powerful Durkheimian critique of the desocialisation of the poor and the
withdrawal of even that simulation of participation he saw consumerism as
offering when he wrote about it in ?The Mirror of Production¹. Baudrillard
didn¹t see the common people?? Nah, people don¹t see Baudrillard.
On the day of his funeral, I'll defend him against all-comers.
William Merrin
Dept of Media and Communication Stuides
University of Wales, Swansea

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