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Jean Baudrillard, 1929-2007: Baudrillard’s Place in American Culture

Norman Klein

While his early books were admired in the US, particularly The Mirror of Production (1973), Jean Baudrillard became a prophet among American critics and artists during the 1980s, after his essay “Precession of the Simulacrum” was translated in Semiotext(e). For decades afterward, he remained a canonical figure here. Baudrillard’s ironic jeremiads tracked the growing omnipotence of the entertainment economy—in war, “post-urban” culture, and media. Most ironic, of course, were his attacks on the isolationism of contemporary art, on its self-feeding within the larger entertainment/war economy. He even offered a backhanded compliment to the art world in saying that art can now operate as an insider, a player in the global economy, but not necessarily as a critique. He understood very clearly what I call “living inside the stomach of the dragon”—that avant-garde strategies are now central to the branding of all products, including Baudrillard himself.

Most importantly, Baudrillard offered permissions for American writers and visual artists, though frankly, they generally were not used. During the vogue for Baudrillardian quotation in the art world (1982 to perhaps 1997), his acerbic theories became a bridge for using digital illusionism in the gallery arts, and art installations that increasingly resemble consumer marketing. He also suggested, quite magnificently, that all systems of literary objectivity were now a construction—fiction posing as fact. He even playfully wrote Raymond Roussel-type tourist adventure literature about an imaginary America, in a voice that turned memoir into philosophical picaresque. Baudrillard’s writing taught me that the sign was layered, duplicitous, and that the growth of the entertainment economy was replacing dialectical forms of culture with tourism high and low.

Too frequently, Baudrillard was revered in the US as a canon—as ontological proof of God, almost a Gnostic cult. Many American scholars and critics quoted from Baudrillard as if he were the Newest Testament, quite the reverse of what he intended. He was often misunder­stood in the US as a prophet who made entertainment imperialism look exotic. I see a very different figure, though truthfully, I often wondered if he was entirely comfortable shedding the logic of his earlier arguments, tracing simulation into the nineties and afterward toward the culture of “cool.” I always admired his willingness to never act as an exception. He seemed to include himself when he said in 2001, “There is too much of too much, more is not better.”

Indeed, what did happen to the 1981 version of simulacra after the Cold War? In 1981, in Baudrillard’s Paris at least, the simulacrum might be described as a copy that did not need an original.1 By 1991, much had changed: The simulacrum was simply the original itself. It had emerged as the glowing center of all global branding. This upgraded simulacrum was by no means a cracked or crazy nocturne, not a “matrix.” It was simply the mood that sold anything.

Thus, Baudrillard is also a primary source for the historian. He clarified very powerfully how simulation evolved. Even his anxieties after 1989 reveal how the next stage adapted. Thus, to his enduring credit, he became precisely what he thought was impossible—an historical figure of commanding and ironic importance, an anti-sage, a structuralist. He leaves us to keep tracking the cruel phantom that he followed so brilliantly for so long.

Norman Klein is a cultural critic and novelist, an urban specialist, and a historian of the scripted, illusionistic environment. His most recent book is Freud in Coney Island and Other Tales. His newest database novel, The Imaginary Twentieth Century, opens at ZKM in Karlsruhe this fall, with an event upon its publication at Redcat in Los Angeles in November 2007. The Orange County Museum of Art will be the site of the first of its American exhibitions in spring 2008. Klein is a professor at the California Institute of the Arts.

Footnotes

  1. Of course, Baudrillard, in his America, considers much of the US in the eighties, particularly Southern California, as case studies for simulacra (see also Disneyland in his “Precession of Simulacrum”). So it might be fair to add that because of the changes in the US after 1989, the discourse shifted around the term simulation. One could argue that poststructuralism (Paris or LA) fits well inside the NATO economy from 1962 to 1989, that the political shoe never quite dropping in the final decades of the Cold War inspired a crisis in the sign. Thus, the era of Glastnost, Vietnam and Afghanistan—as well as the new industries, like cable, VCR’s, MTV, themed malls—left unresolved structural ironies floating, as if without consequence.
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