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Baudrillard obit and mailbag

Posted by Joshua Glenn  March 7, 2007 04:00 PM

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It's impossible to sum up Baudrillard's thought in a single phrase, but there is one point that he makes, in various ways and over the course of many writings, that particularly "resonates with me," for lack of a less fuzzy phrase at the moment.

Remember, Baudrillard was very much a post-1960s intellectual. He was acutely aware that the dualisms (e.g., real vs. fake, original vs. copy) that had excited and outraged modernist thinkers, writers, and artists were old news now -- despite the efforts of journalists and second-rate philosophers to keep fighting the same battles forever. The particular point he makes that has stuck with me is this: The fake, the copy, the inauthentic, all these phenomena that were reviled in the authenticity-mongering 1960s, are actually preferable to what the real (itself a suspect concept) makes possible: the simulation, the cloned duplicate, the digitized and multiplied, the "hyperreal." I've always found that a very liberating notion.

Need examples? Somewhere in, I think, the 1983 Semiotext(e) booklet "Simulations," Baudrillard writes that the fake version of a living human (i.e., an early 20th-century-style robot; think of "Lost in Space") is "charming," whereas a simulated human being (think of the "replicants" in "Blade Runner") is scary. In a less sci-fi mode, in the 1990 book "Cool Memories II" (published in the US in 1996), Baudrillard describes the compact disc as "terrifying," because -- unlike the human, all-too-human music stored on it -- it never wears out. The vinyl LP, by contrast, with its skips and scratches, is charming. (But he predicted that "In time, they will no doubt reintroduce acoustic interference ... to provide an illusion of life and wear.")

A charming 'second-order simulacrum'

Like Philip K. Dick -- a sci-fi writer popular among French theorists of Baudrillard's generation -- he'd ask us to cherish the invented, the faked, the copied and cobbled-together, because these pathetic, charming phenomena are human. No wonder Baudrillard didn't think much of "The Matrix," whose content asks us to wring our hands over the same old real vs. fake, original vs. copy pseudo-problem, and whose visual style -- those much-praised, ultra-realistic special effects -- is itself a hymn of praise to the inhuman simulation.

I'm sure I'm making a hash of Baudrillard, in this hurried blog post, but I didn't want to spend a week carefully preparing an obituary when I know exactly what it is that I like so much about his theorizing! Anyway, moving on. Earlier today, I asked readers to respond to the death of Baudrillard. Here are a few of the first responses:

This is terrible. So now we enter the post-Baudrillard era. Why does the Times have to bring 'The Matrix' (and Alan Sokal) into it? How trivializing. -- Scott H.
Way too apocalyptic and generally over the top, but never failed to make me think. -- Louise L.
Too bad! And too bad that the US media and liberal war-hawks will force us to remember B. as merely the ultra-French philosopher who supposedly claimed that 9/11 never happened. That's what hurts the most. -- Clare J.

More from Brainiac: R.I.P., Baudrillard | Baudrillard and 'The Matrix' | Baudrillard obit and mailbag | More Baudrillard obits | Baudrillard and 9/11 | Re: Baudrillard and 9/11 |

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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