Communication Jean Baudrillard
by
William Pawlett
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0197

Introduction

Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) was a prolific writer, the author of over thirty major works, and he influenced many academic disciplines including communication studies, sociology, political theory, media and cultural studies, art and photography, and design and architecture. His writing strategy was one of radical critique, escalation, and provocation and he reveled in poetic reversal, irony, and antagonistic hypotheses. After early experimental writing, Baudrillard engaged with sociological theory, influenced by his colleague Henri Lefebrve (1901–1991). Yet, Baudrillard quickly broke with Lefebvre’s position, rejecting his argument for the emancipatory potential of technology, and turned to a wider-ranging critique of the dominant theoretical positions of the time: Marxism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, and cybernetic communications theory. Baudrillard, influenced by Marcel Mauss (1872–1950) and Georges Bataille (1897–1962), expounded a “radical utopia” in the notion of “symbolic exchange” to counter these theories. Symbolic exchange concerns the reciprocal circulation of gifts, goods, meanings, and affects such that accumulation and possession become impossible or are annulled. For Baudrillard, symbolic exchange constitutes a fundamental challenge to economic thinking, attacking economic rationality at the level of meaning, signification and the form of communication—all of which are based on accumulation and possession—where critical theory merely critiques particular ideological contents, structures, or positions. He then explored variations on the theme of symbolic exchange with a more metaphysical writing style, developing the themes of seduction, fatal strategies, and the transparency of evil. Baudrillard traveled very widely and published a series of works documenting his experiences. His later writing was concerned with the themes of duality, disappearance, and the impact of technology.

Key Works

For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (Baudrillard 1981) is a major theoretical work that clarifies Baudrillard’s relationship to semiotics and his understanding of symbolic exchange as an irreducible ambivalence annulling the reality of signs. America (Baudrillard 1988) and Cool Memories (Baudrillard 1990a) are aphoristic and fragmentary in style, and both works suggest that Baudrillard’s life was intimately interwoven with his philosophy. In Fatal Strategies (Baudrillard 1990b) and Seduction (Baudrillard 1990c), Baudrillard seeks new theoretical figures to challenge the principles of production, accumulation, and technological realization. The effects of seduction and fatal strategies are manifest within the orders of simulacra, rather than occupying a putative “outside” as was the case with ambivalence and symbolic exchange. Symbolic Exchange and Death (Baudrillard 1993) is widely considered to be Baudrillard’s most important work, as it greatly expands his conceptualization of simulation and of symbolic exchange. With Simulacra and Simulation (Baudrillard 1994), Baudrillard seems to jettison symbolic exchange as a concept and instead explores reversals, failures, and implosions generated by simulation. Baudrillard’s final major theoretical work, The Intelligence of Evil (Baudrillard 2005), develops the notions of “integral reality,” virtuality, and disappearance.

  • Baudrillard, J. 1981. For a critique of the political economy of the sign. Translated by Charles Levin. New York: Telos.

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    This is a complex work and is very wide-ranging as it consists of previously published journal articles supplemented by new material. For a Critique expands the Marxist notions of ideology and alienation to the limit point where they break down; Baudrillard theorizes the entire system of human needs, use values, functionality, concrete social labor, and technical abstraction as inherently ideological and alienating. Also see Engagement with Social Semiotics and Critique of Marxism.

  • Baudrillard, J. 1988. America. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso.

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    One of Baudrillard’s most commercially successful works, this study is full of poetic reflections on the beauty and tragicomedy of America. Baudrillard’s concerns range from the geological and meteorological to the political and sexual realms. Baudrillard writes of America as the essence of modernity and of simulation, as a society without history or origin (the bloody foundations being disavowed), which presents the image of a hyperrealized utopia. Also see Fatal Strategies, Evil, and the Fourth Order.

  • Baudrillard, J. 1990a. Cool memories. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso.

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    This was the first of what became a five-volume series of reflections, aphorisms, and travel diaries of journeys across North America, Brazil, Italy, and Japan. At times startlingly personal and autobiographical, this volume is witty and poignant and also provides fascinating insights into the early development of many of Baudrillard’s main arguments and notions such as disappearance and the failures of political and technological power. Also see Fatal Strategies, Evil, and the Fourth Order.

  • Baudrillard, J. 1990b. Fatal strategies. Translated by P. Beitchman, and W. G. J. Niesluchowski. New York: Semiotext(e)/Pluto.

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    This work introduces a new trend within simulation, consisting of an exceeding of limits, ends, and purposes as objects proliferate, redouble and, in a term of increasing importance, begin to disappear. Objects, ideas, and principles, Baudrillard contends, are disappearing into their excessive signification and promotion; they are exhausted by their forced oversignification. A major example is pornography: a grotesque oversignification of sexual acts having the effect of rendering sexuality elusive and uncertain. Also see Fatal Strategies, Evil, and the Fourth Order.

  • Baudrillard, J. 1990c. Seduction. Translated by Brian Singer. New York: St. Martins.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-20638-4E-mail Citation »

    In this controversial work, Baudrillard continues to challenge the principle of production, now through a new notion of seduction. For Baudrillard, seduction is not reducible to sexuality or the idea of sexual “conquest” but is rather an alternative principle of appearance, artifice, and superficiality that opposes meaning, depth, and the metaphysics of truth and interpretation. This work attracted a great deal of criticism, as well as some qualified support, from feminist writers. Also see Symbolic Exchange: A Radical Utopia.

  • Baudrillard, J. 1993. Symbolic exchange and death. Translated by Iain Hamilton-Grant. London: SAGE.

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    In this wide-ranging work, Baudrillard argues that the symbolic exchange of life and death is prevented or blocked by modernity through the medico-technological management of death. However, the reintroduction of “free” death into this rationalized system, through the “counter-gift” of suicidal or sacrificial acts, undermines modernity by attacking its ultimate foundation: the separation of life and death and the “sequestration of death” by power. Also see Symbolic Exchange: A Radical Utopia.

  • Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press.

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    One of Baudrillard’s most influential works, this collection of essays includes “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard’s most detailed examination of the effects of simulation on contemporary life. It also includes “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media,” which expands Baudrillard’s critique of the nature of media and communications arguing that the proliferation of information prevents communication, rather than enhancing it, and creates conditions of unresolvable uncertainty. Also see The Challenge of Simulation.

  • Baudrillard, J. 2005. The intelligence of evil, or the lucidity pact. Translated by Chris Turner. Oxford: Berg.

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    Baudrillard develops the notion of “integral reality” as that which, through technological means, eclipses or aims to surpass both “reality” (including reality’s simulational form hyperreality) and illusion. In contrast, illusion is a vital force in that it limits the proliferation of reality and hyperreality and, also, that in certain forms it can reverse, undo, or annul power structures as they are built on the attempt to establish “reality” through signification. Also see Technology and Disappearance.

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