Baudrillard Virtual reality philosopher

Jean Baudrillard (1929 - 2007), the postmodernist French philosopher and cultural theorist, examined the ways in which see and interact with the world as simulcra and simulations and hyperreality. Neo, in the film The Matrix (1999), carries a copy of Baudrillard's Simulcra and Simulations (1981), which examines technology, or more accurately its virtual outputs, in culture. More than this, he has created several concepts and theories that redefine what technology is in our lives and culture, way beyond face-to-face and print media.

His focus on the idea of ‘simulations’ is a break with the past, disassociated from reference to the reality it pretends to represent. This is illustrated in his infamous book, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991). His core idea is that the virtual world(s) we have created are now more important cognitively and culturally, than their supposed referents in the real world. More than this, he thinks the virtual has cleaved away from this assumed real world.

Hyperreality

Consumer Society (1970) rejects the Marxist (and Freudian) ideas of the free agent. The conspicuousness of consumption, he thinks, is far more complex. Malls have their perpetual springtime and perpetual shopping. Our created needs, all the possibilities of pleasure make us not producers but consumers with a huge capacity for consumption. Prophetically, he saw the real role of credit as lubricating this desire and its excesses. His critique of Marxism reaches its peak in The Mirror of Production (1973), where each of the major elements in Marxism are demolished – dialectic, modes of production and so on. Indeed, he turns Marxism on its head, as he thinks it is a justification for the system it purports to destroy. For all its machinations around labour, production and value, Marxism has no distance.

He rejects traditional Marxist descriptions and explanations of economics, with its focus on ‘production’, constructing a new era of consumerist culture, based on consumerism, communications and commodities. ‘Hyperreality’ is the new state, free from the anchors of reason and materialism. For Baudrillard, consumerist communication has its own set of codes related to the desires of the consumer and this new form of living has demoted the idea of people as producers.

In what he calls the ‘code’; floating signifiers, ads, virtual experiences and so on, we live within a system of signs. As his leftism gave way to fatalism in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), death is the only escape. But death confirms the absence of relevance of the system in which we find ourselves trapped. In Seduction (1979), he renews his broadsides against Marx, Freud and the structuralists, opting for a Nietzschean view of perspectivism. It is a blow to liberalism and Marxism. Citizens are not a community, they are consumers.

Simulcra, simulations, virtual reality

He picks up on Nietzsche’s rejection of oppositional thought, to move the debate beyond appearance and reality, subject and object, oppressors and oppressed – to a world of Simulacra and simulations (1981) – ads, TV news and soap operas. Even in the realm of divinity the battle between simulcra and iconoclasts, who confirm the power of ‘icons’, show that our concerns are in this battle of signs. Representation first reflects a reality, then masks and perverts that reality, masks the absence of that reality and finally bears no relation to reality. Disneyland, for example, is the US ‘embalmed and pacified’. 

He has been using the term ‘virtual’ for 25 years and in The Gulf War Did Not Exist (1991) he shocked traditional commentators by claiming that the war, as shown through media, was not grounded in the Gulf War but a created reality. History itself collapses through dilution, as we move beyond an ‘event’ based culture to a non-historical state.

In The Conspiracy if Art (1996) he trounces modern art, as no longer relevant and part of the very system it pretends to critique. It is the art of collusion and has no special status. Art is everywhere and nowhere, part of a consumerist nexus with its careers, commerce and tawdry fame. Worse, it has become mediocre, worse still - null. Adored by the art world after Simulacra and simulations (1981), he came back to destroy its view of itself as superior, even relevant.

Critique

Many find his philosophical position vague and ill-defined, especially the use of the word ‘real’. Baudrillard also took an odd position, which has puzzled many – that the best reaction to this all-consuming storm of simulacra and simulations is ‘silence’. This, many argue, is inappropriate, as technology can be a force for good. But Baudrillard’s challenge is to take the debate beyond good and bad. It is an existential, not moral, position.

Influence

Despite writing much of his work in the era of traditional broadcast media, his work has gathered strength, in what he calls the ‘virtual’ world. With the advent of the internet and web, along with social media, augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, his theories have gathered strength as the world he described has come to pass. The ‘virtual’ moves us further away from reality. With the advent of virtual reality as a consumer device and the movement towards virtual worlds, such as Facebook’s Metaverse, Non-Fungible Tokens and our increasing participation on online spaces, Baurdillard’s thought seem to have increased relevance.

Twenty five years later, we see this code of signs, simulations and virtual experiences, often as an end in itself. Wars are created to be filmed, now Tweeted, Facebooked and YouTubed. Wars are more virtual than ever. Never easy, always challenging, certainly original – Baudrillard, may no longer be with us but he is a philosopher for our age.

Bibliography

Baudrillard, J., 1995. The Gulf War did not take place. Indiana University Press.

Baudrillard, J., 2019. Simulacra and simulations (1981). In Crime and Media. Routledge

Baudrillard, J., 2016. The consumer society: Myths and structures. Sage.

Baudrillard, J., 1975. The mirror of production (Vol. 17). St. Louis: Telos Press.

Baudrillard, J. and Singer, B., 1990. Seduction. New World Perspectives.

Baudrillard, J., 2005. The conspiracy of art. New York


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