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.
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