In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jean Baudrillard

  • Introduction
  • Deepening and Expanding of Challenges after 1976
  • Spaces and Appearances
  • Last Works
  • Collected Interviews and Dictionary
  • Additional Writings That Engage His Ideas: Mainly in Journal Articles and Book Chapters
  • Biography and Intellectual Constellations
  • Journals, Associations, and Websites

Literary and Critical Theory Jean Baudrillard
Victoria Grace
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0124


Is it even possible to shape the work of Jean Baudrillard into a bibliographic format as though his contribution can be introduced and categorized according to a prescribed format designed toward search engine results? Almost certainly not, and yet it is overwhelmingly the case that the work of radical thought represented in his corpus of work is of such importance at the current time that it must be attempted. Even a contortion that cannot respond to the spirit of his work is worth the attempt if it encourages reading his work, thinking about his analyses, and being moved by the undeniable challenge his writings present. A transdisciplinary thinker, Jean Baudrillard could be described as a philosopher, critical theorist, and sociologist—and at the same time none of these. At different times in his life, he would label himself a pataphysician, situationist, even “abreactionary.” Photography also played a role in his later years. But most importantly, Baudrillard’s writings generate a profound and unparalleled insight into the fundamental dynamics of the current world. The reader is challenged to consider how everything, from the production of the social, immersion in processes of consumption, in the creation and use of systems of communication, to sciences, technologies, art, politics, and media, relies on a radical denial. This denial involves a structural exclusion of that which is not of the order of the “economic.” Crucially, this exclusion casts the “real” as a simulation, in different ways since the early Industrial Revolution. Casting reality as any form of enduring existence whereby exchange becomes “economic” has led inexorably and ironically to the disappearance of the real as play of appearances with no fixity or permanence of “things.” This disappearance, which has become hegemonic since World War II, marks an ex-termination of sorts. Now, the hegemon has just about run its course to a point where this structural logic can, ironically, only reproduce itself ad infinitum. Unlike “critical theory,” Baudrillard does not critique through an oppositional deconstructive move, and then propose an ontological or deontological alternative as how things “really are” or “should be.” The world, he insists, cannot be intelligible in such terms. To pursue his inquiry, Baudrillard developed a number of core concepts. The following will refer to these, provide an overview of the work of many scholars on Baudrillard’s massive contribution, and navigate a path through the various receptions and misconceptions of his work.

Baudrillard’s Form of Thought: Early Works

These early works of Baudrillard provide the theoretical groundwork that sustains his later work. His first major work, The System of Objects, was derived from Baudrillard’s doctoral thesis. It concludes with a gesture toward a definition of consumption whereby “to become an object of consumption, an object must first become a sign.” The beginning of a theory of consumption is extended in his next work, The Consumer Society. Baudrillard develops a critique of Marxist theory in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, in which a parallel between the problematics of that which is uncritically deemed “economic” in Marx and the structural logic of the sign as a signifying process is drawn. Rather than hinging on the exploitation of labor, differently from Marx, Baudrillard’s analysis of value points to an ideological investment in the very notion of value. Value, he argues, parallels that of meaning in the dominant praxis of the signifying process. Elaborating the relationship between use value and exchange value in the Marxist critique (taken from classical economics) and the signified and signifier in the structuralist Saussurian system of semiology, he further develops this analysis. Both are functional within an ideological process, with their mutual reliance on a binary system of equivalences. The commodity form has the structure of the sign at its core. The object of consumption, functioning as sign, serves to create and augment social distinctions. Its ideology as an egalitarian and democratizing market masks a reliance on a drastic structural inequality definitional of its foundational possibility, whether at the level of individual consumers or at the level of “developed” and “developing” world disparities. His 1973 publication, The Mirror of Production, marks the height of Baudrillard’s critique of Marxist theory, showing the ideological nature of “production” as it is assumed by Marx, and introducing a discussion of the term “symbolic exchange” that will become a signature of his entire corpus of work to follow. This section introduces the works of Jean Baudrillard. With few exceptions, all of his books were written in French, then translated into numerous languages, including English.

  • Baudrillard, Jean. The Mirror of Production. Translated by Mark Poster. St. Louis, MO: Telos Press, 1975.

    First published 1973 as Le miroir de la production (Paris: Editions Galilée). Baudrillard deconstructs “production,” arguing it is the “mirror” of consumption. By introducing “symbolic exchange,” Baudrillard’s critique of Marxism reaches its zenith here; far from targeting the imperative of articulating a theory of political economy that would be revolutionary, the force of Baudrillard’s argument is that Marxist theory retains the very conceptual basis that political economy assumes, and can only fail. Note: the translation’s accuracy in places has been disputed.

  • Baudrillard, Jean. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Translated by Charles Levin. St. Louis MO: Telos Press, 1981.

    First published 1972 as Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe (Paris: Editions Gallimard). Also published in English in 2019 by Verso. Baudrillard clarifies the connection between his critique of consumer society and the Marxist critique of political economy, arguing that the features the latter relies on to develop its critique are implicated in the very structural logic that sustains it. Baudrillard extends these observations to a critique of the political economy of the prevailing signifying process, which, he argues, reveals a parallel structure embodying the same structural conundrums and assumptions.

  • Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. Translated by James Benedict. London: Verso, 1996.

    First published 1968 as Le système des objets (Paris: Editions Gallimard).This first work maps out the status of the object in consumer society, with the “system of objects” analyzed as a system of signs. The functionality of this “socio-ideological” system in which objects are exchanged for their signifying value within a network of signs is contrasted to the preindustrial object. Even objects appearing to exist outside this premodeled and functional sign system are, he argues, imbricated within its purview.

  • Baudrillard, Jean. The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. Translated by Chris Turner. London: SAGE, 1998.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781526401502

    First published 1970 as La société de consommation (Paris: Editions Denoël). Baudrillard moves his analysis of consumption toward a theoretical exposition of the mythical nature of the narrative that naturalizes the full-blown development of a consumer society. In an “autopsy of homo oeconomicus,” the narrative that individuals have “needs” and that it is their “natural” drive to satisfy these needs is critically scrutinized, bringing the ideological nature of this discourse to light. Mass media, sex, and leisure are sites of illustration.

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