Jean A Baudrillard (1929-2007) was a French postmodern theorist who has become popular within academia. Following thinkers like Marshal McLuhan and Roland Barthes, Baudrillard asks whether we can draw a precise line between media hype and reality.
In The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (French: 1991, English: 1995) he discusses the Gulf War as a “media event.” This was controversial at the time, mostly because it seemed to trivialize so many actual human deaths. But some argue that, despite the weird title, Baudrillard doesn’t mock the tragedy. His supporters say that he merely offers an opinion as to how the tragedy fits into the larger picture of global economics, media imagery and what Berger and Luckman called the social construction of reality.”
Over the years Baudrillard developed two central concepts to describe his views: the hyperreal and simulacra. The hyperreal comes from the presence of simulacra. Simulacra are linguistic signifiers totally divorced from their original meanings. Baudrillard argues that, over time, the original meanings of signs gets distorted, or in some cases submerged, only to visibly reemerge in different historical periods. With its reemergence a sign is transformed and takes on new meanings in its new cultural setting. So at some point, the process of signification loses its original meaning and we have simulacra of what were once signs.
Baudrillard sees this process as passing through three phases: First, signs correspond to reality. Sloppy clothing, for instance, once meant that someone was poor and of lower class. Second, signs become subject to industrial production. Photography, for instance, allows the same sign to be reproduced ad infinitum. Third, signs are cut off from the original context and meanings. Sloppy clothes worn by a wealthy rock star, for instance, take on a totally new cultural connotation. And the same “look” is quickly reproduced by industrialists hoping that impressionable teens will try to emulate a pop idol. Thus sloppy clothes are suddenly desirable within certain sectors of the population where previously they had been undesirable and avoided at all costs.
However, this example only goes so far because the wealthy have dressed sloppily on purpose for various effects in other historical periods. The difference for Baudrillard is the mass marketing aspect. And the hyperreal refers not just to a reversal of previous connotations but to an abolishment of a former reality. As such, the line between real and fantasy is blurred. Culture “implodes” because any thinking person fully realizes that what they see on the TV news, for instance, is similar to a carefully scripted movie, with a carefully coordinated set. And that which signs apparently represent is, by thinking people, taken with a grain of salt.
According to Baudrillard, the so-called “respectable” media does the same thing as the vulgar, in your face tabloids. But respectable media does it far more subtly, combining fact and fantasy so smoothly that it’s nearly impossible to differentiate between the two.
The main problem with Baurdrillard’s work lies is his assumption that, at one time in the distant past, signs connoted fixed, uniform meanings. Anyone who reads history will find that different groups have always been in conflict over the meaning of signs, the biblical Golden Calf being one classic example. Also, different individuals within a given group would most likely have variously interpreted the meaning of such a sign. Also,politicians, teachers, and public speakers like the Sophists have always been mixing fact with fiction in order to appear legitimate.
- Week 5; Postmodernism (fahmidachoudhury.wordpress.com)
- French Philosopher Jean Baudrillard Reads His Poetry, Backed By All-Star Arts Band (1996) (openculture.com)
- Jean Baudrillard ~ Cool Memories V (mountainviewranchstore.wordpress.com)
- The Simulacrum (ondmnd.wordpress.com)
- Assignment 3 (incidentalphilosophy.wordpress.com)
- Philosophy with: Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations (thevaliens.com)
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Comparative Religion is the academic study of world religions to determine differences, similarities and points of equivalence.
Most scholars cite Max Müller (1823-1900), Sir E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) and Sir J. G. Frazer (1854-1941) as the most important figures in the birth of comparative religion. And some will also mention Joseph-Francois Lafitau (1681- 1746).
But this can be misleading because as far back as Xenophanes (6th century BCE) we find writers comparing different religions. Plato and Aristotle also discuss diverse worldviews. And, as S. G. F. Brandon points out, several lesser known ancient Greek and Latin writers realized the importance of discerning similarities among different religious beliefs.¹
In the 19th century scholars of comparative religion tended to believe that their work was objective. They also assumed that mankind evolved from primitive to advanced states of being. Moreover, Christian biases were often present. Ruldolf Otto (1869-1937) is often criticized in this regard.
More recently, far more subtle Christian biases can be found in the works of Mircea Eliade and C. G. Jung. Before the second Vatican Council Catholic theology studied other religions mostly to demonstrate their allegedly misguided or, worse, demonic status.
The notion of objectivity was challenged by poststructuralism in the 1960′s to 1990′s—that is, the very idea of scientific and (most forms of) absolute truth were questioned.² But this kind of thinking isn’t terribly new. It’s been present for centuries with figures like Friedrich Nietszche and Pontius Pilate.
Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” (John 18: 37-38).
Today the poststructural perspective has permeated religious studies. And a recent branch of ‘postmodern theology’ offers compelling arguments for the deconstruction of Biblical and related religious assumptions.
Meanwhile, comparative religion usually involves theory and methodology courses to grapple with issues of subjectivity and interpretation vs. objectivity and truth. And also, a sociologist might argue, to try to legitimize itself as a “scientific” enterprise, which usually increases eligibility for grants, funding, and the like.
¹ S. G. F. Brandon ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970: 202).
² Ironically, some second-rate historians still talk about historical records as if they “prove” (rather than suggest) this or that point of view.
Traditionally, the term discourse was applied to any kind of serious treatise or homily that was used for educational or pastoral purposes. A good example of the older usage of discourse can be found in Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method (1637).¹
But with the rise of postmodernism, the idea of discourse underwent something of a revolution. Instead of representing the “last word” on a given topic, discourses now became socially relative truth claims. And rather than being perceived as originating from some great authority on high, to be received by a passive audience, the new idea of discourse is far more intersubjective. That is, in the grand scheme of things, one truth claim is about as good as another.
The poststructuralist thinker Michel Foucault popularized the idea of discourse as an essentially political utterance. The key for Foucault is that discourse (as relative instead of absolute truth) always occurs within a relational matrix of social power. For Foucault, a given discourse actually creates a specific truth. This truth is relative to the network from which it emerges. In postmodernism, which includes but also extends to thinkers other than Foucault, discourses may be vocal, written or gestural.
The Foucauldian understanding of discourse also includes institutionalized practices (e.g. the school system) or even architectural statements connoting a certain truth claim about a given group or society (e.g. 1 WTC, Burj Khalifa, CN Tower, Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Taj Mahal).
In addition, Foucault maintains that different discourses may take similar forms. For instance, political and economic discourses of the 18th and 19th centuries embrace discursive styles reflecting the scientific belief in evolution.
In the 21st century, giving a discourse a scientific look and feel may enhance its social legitimacy, appeal to the masses, and therefore have real effects. This is perhaps most obvious in TV ads, where products are often endorsed by actors portraying scientists, doctors and nurses. Dressing up ads in the garb of science is one form of scientism.
Interestingly, some contend that all of science (and not just cheesy ads) is really just another kind of mythmaking. These critics argue that science is always biased at some level, has degrees of institutionalized corruption, and reflects some kind of culturally relative paradigm (way of seeing the world).
From this perspective, science is a kind of temporary fiction. Its method does generate practical and helpful results. But some argue that scientists should better recognize their limits and not make overblown truth claims based on the visible successes of the scientific method. After all, this method is, to put it simply, one that tests hypotheses. And any hypothesis is always subject to falsification—if not today, perhaps tomorrow. So technologies usually improve, as does our grasp of ourselves and the world around us.
¹ This historical introduction is derived from David Macey’s The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, 2000, pp. 100-101.
- Foucault: His Thought, His Character (review) 2012 (foucaultnews.com)
- Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling by Foucault (2013) (foucaultnews.com)
- Discourse, ideology? MA assignment (journoactivist.com)
- Poststructuralism (prmarketingcommunication.com)
- #27: Discourse on Method by Rene Descartes (1year100books.wordpress.com)
- Michel Foucault, Pierre Rivière and the Archival Imaginary (2011) (foucaultnews.wordpress.com)
- Critical Is Sexy (thoughtcatalog.com)
- Michel Foucault: Power, Discourse and 9/11 (nortonbooks.typepad.com)
- Language as the Place Where Reality Gets Constructed (intersectingspaces.wordpress.com)
- Chomsky Can’t Be Bothered to Learn C (byfat.xxx)
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) was an influential French philosopher of language born in Algeria who taught at the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.
Derrida and his followers suggest that the semiotic sense of denotation is, for the most part, chimerical and that everything is connotation.
- Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida by Giovanna Borradori (anagnori.wordpress.com)
- John Caputo and his case for Jacques Derrida’s theological significance. (prodigal.typepad.com)
- Derrida: A 2002 Documentary on the Abstract Philosopher and the Everyday Man (openculture.com)
- An Interview With Jacques Derrida (anagnori.wordpress.com)
- Heidegger, Derrida, and a Guyanese pretender (kaieteurnewsonline.com)
The DSM-IV-TR (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Version IV with Text Revisions) is the most recent manual developed by the American Psychiatric Association, one used by health professionals to classify various psychological disorders, generally referred to as mental illnesses.
The DSM-IV-TR is used around the world, along with two other manuals (The ICD-10 produced by the World Health Organization and The Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders produced by the Chinese Society of Psychiatry).
Each diagnosis is number-coded and depending on the country, may be used by hospitals, clinics and insurance companies.
Some postmodern thinkers and particularly anti-psychiatry groups say that the DSM-IV-TR, along with its counterparts, constructs (as in creates) rather than classifies mental illnesses. For those unfamiliar with this idea, it might take a while to understand just what these thinkers are saying. But in a nutshell, postmodern critiques of the DSM-IV-TR argue that certain illnesses are, in a sense, created by the way that those with social power interpret unusual behaviors. In more common parlance, these thinkers say that those who benefit from the status quo tend to label certain people who behave differently from the social rules and expectations of the day.
These kinds of conceptual and historically based critiques of the DSM-IV-TR and of psychiatry, in general, tend to draw on the work of thinkers like Michel Foucault, Thomas Szaz, R. D. Laing, Ram Dass, David Lukoff, Stanislav Grof, L. Ron Hubbard (the founder of Scientology) and others.
Other critiques focus not so much on the issue of the DSM-IV-TR’s analytical validity but on the possibility of negligence by incompetent practitioners.
Debates also exist about the relation between psychiatric classification, on the one hand, and cultural, political and economic realities on the other hand, the most visible example being the link between pharmaceutical companies and the discipline of psychiatry, and a less visible example being political in-fighting among psychiatrists.
While some readily dismiss the DSM-IV-TR as a kind of 21st-century witch hunter’s manual, we’d do well to remember that psychiatry (along with its diagnostic tools) is a developing science.¹ And human beings do live in a social and largely organizational world, and those who differ dramatically often do suffer, and in violent cases, cause others to suffer (or die).
The fact that psychiatry is a developing science is often overlooked or negatively construed by its more forceful critics, while embraced by its supporters. Regardless of one’s philosophical position on this point, sociologists will rightly note that the DSM-IV-TR still enjoys a high degree of societal legitimacy and legal power.
To this Ofer Zur, Ph.D. adds:
The DSM is a political not a scientific document. It pathologizes women, children, and minorities. It defines existentially normal behaviors as mental illnesses. It is a money making endeavor for psychiatry and other mental health professionals. It ‘dares’ to define what is normal and what is abnormal and who should be free or detained against their will…[one may find] a detailed critical article about the DSM at http://www.zurinstitute.com/dsmcritique.html » See in context
¹ As I write this a new DSM V is currently being forged, among much debate and controversy. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DSM-5
The emic-etic debate originates from the work of linguist Kenneth L. Pike. It’s sometimes called the insider-outsider problem. The emic-etic debate has far-reaching implications for the social sciences.
In anthropology, the emic model refers to an indigenous people’s understanding of their own cultural representations, whereas the etic model is an outsider’s perspective of those indigenous cultural representations.
These categories have been roundly critiqued. Emic models are often said to have been discovered by an outside researcher but current trends question the neutrality of external observers. So formalized statements made by external observers are seen as exogenous constructions, making any supposed emic theory about a people’s beliefs unavoidably etic.
The idea that theories developed within the humanities and social sciences are social constructions instead of uncovered, formerly hidden truths leads to the area of poststructuralism and postmodernism.
Other questions arise that are seldom addressed by social scientists. For instance, we cannot be certain that each member of an indigenous community believes in their group’s cultural representations, or if each member believes in the same way. Could some be pretending to believe for material security or social expedience?
And concerning religious officials, might some secretly doubt but feign certainty not just for the previous reasons but also, perhaps, for fear of being wrong and offending a deity?
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Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French social and historical thinker best known for his contribution to (what has been called) poststructuralism.
Foucault was a homosexual and experienced some friction over this. Succumbing to AIDS, his cultural and intellectual legacy is considerable.
Some argue that Foucault’s view is too bleak, placing undue emphasis on social power as the sole force which creates socially relative discourses and discursive practices. There isn’t too much room for “love and compassion” as a driving social force in Foucault’s analyses, although he does address this and related ideas from the perspective of deconstruction.
He read voraciously. Legend has it that each day he would return home from the library carrying a stack of books that he’d pour over that very night.
Foucault’s major works are Madness and Civilization (1961), The Birth of the Clinic (1963), The Order of Things (1966), Discipline and Punish (1975) and History of Sexuality (1976).
His later views about the creative power of discourse are perhaps best summed up in a series of interviews, published the book Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (1980). And as Shaheryar Ali suggests, he had a profound influence on what was to become the ‘New Historicism’ » See in context
Foucault’s ideas are too numerous and comlicated to cover in a short entry. But searching within this site, using any of the following keywords will help to demonstrate the depth and breadth of his thought: Archaeology, Athleticism, Bourdieu (Pierre), Counter-Discourse, Deviance, Discourse, DSM-IV-TR, False Consciousness, Hegel (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich), History, Hobbes (Thomas), Illness, Language, Madness, Marx (Karl), Meme, Myth, Postmodernism, Sign, Szasz (Thomas)
On the World Wide Web:
- Michel Foucault: Free Lectures on Truth, Discourse & The Self (downes.ca)
- Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Volume I: Re-reading its Reproduction (2012) (foucaultnews.wordpress.com)
- Foucault’s 1968 (2012) (foucaultnews.wordpress.com)
- False Consciousness (earthpages.wordpress.com)
- Revisiting Michel Foucault and His Contributions to Social Theory (2010) (stanfordgirlusa.wordpress.com)
- Foucault and Familial Power (2012) (foucaultnews.wordpress.com)
- The Identity Game: Michel Foucault’s Discourse-Mediated Identity as an Effective Tool for Achieving a Narrative-Based Ethic (2011) (foucaultnews.wordpress.com)
- Magnus Opium’s Note on the Madness and Metaphysics Debate (magnusopium.wordpress.com)