Jean Baudrillard (1929 to 2007) argued that material reality was disappearing and being replaced by a system of signs, leading to a social world which had no objective material reality at all, but rather one that was being continually produced by an endless series of signifiers.
In this new social reality all objects became manufactured commodities, devoid of any original meanings or material ‘use-value’ they once had.
Baudrillard’s early works were published in the late 1960s and early 1970s and he drew on the post-structuralist thinking which was influential at that time. Initially he focused on developing a critique of consumer culture, but into the 1980s and 1990s he started to develop his better known ideas about there being no underlying reality other than hyperreality.
Baudrillard is usually classified in social theory text books as both a post-Marxist and a postmodern thinker.
A postmodern critique of Marxism
Baudrillard developed a criticism of Marx’s analysis of capitalism and especially his concept of use-value (a concept which was fundamental to Marx’s theories of alienation and exploitation, see FAQs below for an explanation).
The ‘use-value’ of an object derives from that object’s material qualities. For example a coat’s use value is that it keeps you warm and dry, and a car’s use value is that it transports you to places in relative speed and comfort.
For much of modernity the meaning of objects lay in their use-value, a coat meant something that kept you warm, a car meant something which was faster than a horse and more comfortable than a bus.
However, this changes in age of postmodernity when the production of signs, not physical commodities increasingly becomes the key factor of social life the symbolic value of objects becomes more important than the the use value of objects as a source of shared meaning.
For example the meaning of a coat lies not in the coat’s utility but in the branding of that coat, in the labels attached to it, in whatever signs marketers have decided to attach to it.
In postmodernity the material reality of the underlying objects is obliterated by this system of signs, what is important is the symbolic value of objects. What matters about an object is what it tells us about the person using that object, not its use-value
Baudrillard rejected Marxism, because in Marxism the value of an object can be explained by the labour power than went into making it, but in postmodernity the value of an object lies in the symbolic meaning of that object, in what signs are projected onto it, which marketers can just make up as they go along, value is no longer to do with simply material production.
Contemporary capitalism is much more irrational and uncontrollable than Marx imagined and it operates according to its own possibly unknowable logics and is certainly beyond control by a unified ruling class.
Baudrillard rejects class based analysis of society. Baudrillard believes that the system of signs is autonomous from social class and is running away from human control into directionless change.
No underlying reality
Today there is no ‘reality’ based in use-values that can be distinguished from ‘fictional’ exchange-values.
He rejects the Marxist distinction between the truth that the ruling classes control material reality and exploit the working classes and the fiction they create through ideological control.
The media no longer produced propaganda for a ruling class, because that is based on the distinction between reality and fiction.
In postmodernity, everything is just on the surface, everything visible and on display, there is no underlying reality or truth to be discovered.
All that exist are surfaces and there is no substance beneath them.
A postmodern analysis can thus only examine this system of signs and follow how they transform without trying to find a deeper truth behind these transformations.
The reality we receive is so mediated by signs and symbols, it is pointless to unpick it for the real meaning.
Baudrillard suggested that the media was the key institution in postmodern society because the media is where signs and symbols circulate, and there are a bewildering array of signs and symbols and their meanings change in an unpredictable way.
Signs and symbols in the media do not refer the objects they purportedly refer to. Instead, real objects no longer exist and in fact create the objects they supposedly merely reflect. (This is what Baudrillard refers to as simulcra: signs and symbols that create reality).
Instead of images reflecting reality, images now create reality. This is the condition of hyperreality.
Postmodern culture consists of a reality created purely by unstable and shifting symbols and signs. Especially in the media.
In postmodernity we have the ‘death of the real‘ – all we have is an unstoppable and never ending reality-creating symbols in a media dominated world, Systems of signs and symbols have taken on a life of their own.
This is a post-modern take on alienation: symbols, which were originally made by humans, have taken on a life of their own and come to dominate and control the people who made them.
This situation was never intended and is not controlled by anyone.
Baudrillard argued that Disneyland was an expression of hyprreality – a theme park full of simulcra which clearly had no hidden underlying meanings other than the cartoon characters and buildings therein.
Disneyland had a social function, it was presented to America as fictional in order to convince people that the ‘real’ America was ‘real’ – whereas in fact Disneyland is the real America and America is Disneyland, in fact they are one and the same, both part of hyperreality.
Disneyland does not exist to cover up the exploitative nature of American capitalism like marxists would claim, it hides nothing, because in postmodernity there is nothing to hide.
Under conditions of hyperreality information and meaning are both clear and incoherent at the same time.
There is no hidden depth to images, their information is immediately apparent, thus is the obscenity of communication.
However information is also unclear because there is so much information that it all ceases to make sense, so many channels and images create a state of meaning-chaos.
This overwhelming blizzard of information creates a sense of vertigo and ecstasy in the minds of audiences. There is so much meaning and information available that nothing makes sense anymore!
The Gulf War Never Happened
One of Baudrillard’s most famous (some might say outrageous) observations was that the Gulf War never happened, referring to the first Gulf War in the 1990s.
What he meant by this was that the reality of the war on the ground was so mediated by the time reports of it hit the media that representations of it were more like a film or a video game that the representations of the event turned it into something completely different.
The signs and symbols, or simulcra as Baudrillard calls them, claimed to represent reality but in fact they created it.
Evaluations of Baudrillard
Some of Baudrillard’s criticisms of classical Marxism are certainly valid:
- His idea that value no longer derives purely from the material use-value of products is certainly valid, Symbolic value which is applied through marketing certainly plays a major role in postmodern society.
- His idea that the maelstrom of signs and symbols in the media have something of a chaotic life of their own and that this system of meaning is not controlled by a distinct ruling class should maybe be taken seriously, especially in the age of YouTube creators.
- His theory is also inherently critical of metanarratives, especially Marxism, which offers us the possibility of emancipation from the idea of truth.
- He also recognised that audiences were not passive dupes which were controlled through the media. Rather he believed that information just flowed through them with very little effect!
Criticisms of Baudrillard
He takes the idea of simulcra and hyperreality too far. By stating that the Gulf War never happened he is ignoring the actual reality on the ground for the people who suffered through it.
It is one thing pointing out that media representations are far removed from some representations of reality (especially war) but another to say that they create that reality. To be blunt, the families of the people who died or were injured in that war may have different views to Baudrillard.
He also ignores the fact that with the cost of living crisis and climate crisis it would seem that underlying material reality really does matter. Global warming and inflation have very real impacts on people’s lives.
This material has been written mainly for A-level sociology students studying the Theory and Methods aspect of the AQA specification. Baudrillard is usually classified as one of the main postmodern thinkers within A-level sociology although the level of depth above may be quite advanced for some students.
Baudrillard’s work on hyperreality is also relevant to the media module. He is the main guy who believes there is no reality other than media created reality in postmodern society.
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Jean Baudrillard image: By http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Ayaleila – cropped from ., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10482055