The work of Jean Baudrillard will continue to disturb the tranquil waters of modern sociology, says John Armitage
"He who knows how to breathe the air of my writings knows that it is an air of the heights, a robust air." So wrote German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.
Similarly, one has to be suited to the atmosphere of the writings of Jean Baudrillard, the radical French sociologist and intellectual successor to Nietzsche, who died last week. If one can "breathe his air" one can gain remarkable insights in Baudrillard's work on postmodernity and hyperreality, social and media theories and, indeed, on Nietzsche himself.
Or else, as many modern sociologists have discovered when faced with his major works such as Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), Simulacra and Simulations (1981) and, most recently, The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact (2005), there is serious danger of an apoplectic reaction.
Baudrillard is notorious for his trenchant political critiques of the writings of Michel Foucault on power and the feminist activities of the late Susan Sontag. Likewise, his development of the concepts of simulation and hyperreality and his remarks on the mass-media world of The Matrix , on technology and postmodern science have been subjected to rigorous analysis and debate. Most infamous of all, perhaps, was his observation that the Gulf War did not take place.
Yet I would argue that it was his assault on modern sociology that really hit the mark and where, in fact, he had a singular and sometimes terrifying capacity to disturb its supposedly tranquil waters. For Baudrillard, the outsider, managed to expose everything from Marxist sociology and the near-pointlessness of political engagement to the foundations of contemporary social thought. How liberally one breathes the air when encouraged by him to confront the disappointments of the postmodern social system depends upon how one responds to his sometimes-difficult works.
Postmodern sociology, as Baudrillard appreciated and lived it, was a constant deliberation undertaken through the writing of highly provocative and stylised texts that are frequently rejected tout court by the high priests of modern social theory.
Baudrillard was a seeker after all things extraordinary who questioned the utilitarian foundation of both Adam Smith's classical and Karl Marx's radical social and economic thought by concentrating on the life and nature of commodities - the object - in contemporary consumer society. Any consideration of consumption had previously been expelled by contemporary Smithian and Marxist sociology obsessed with production and accumulation.
From the understanding provided by his long, itinerant meanderings in the more or less prohibited social theory of Georges Bataille, Baudrillard learnt to observe the starting point of the economic and the object from a perspective very different from that of modern sociology.
In fact, what Baudrillard revived and expanded on was the covert history of Bataille's "notion of expenditure", a radical theory that saw as deficient the writings of Smith and Marx, those sociological grandees associated with the introduction of concepts such as use value and exchange value. However, the reality of his insights were too much for modern sociology to swallow, particularly when he argued that in the postmodern society people are increasingly exchanging visual signs with one another. Value is no longer tied to an object's use value or exchange value, but instead to its "sign value".
Baudrillard demonstrated his true strength through his argument that the machinery of conspicuous consumption continues to be affected by symbolic values. These became for him increasingly the real gauge of social values because symbolic values are fundamentally linked to pre-capitalist forms of organisation that contemporary society likes to pretend that it has transcended.
For Baudrillard, the failure of modern sociology was not necessarily its faith in its ideal type, the perfect society or even its blindness concerning symbolic exchange. Rather, its breakdown was and is its powerlessness in the face of the demise of both semiotics and the material world. In other words, each significant move in Baudrillard's writings, indeed, every stride he made away from semiotics and materialism and towards an understanding of the symbolic order was a kind of resistance to our sign-dominated contemporary society. Yet he did not automatically contest postmodern social principles. Instead, he was prepared to challenge their symbolic presence and characteristics, to set his analytical sights on the forbidden features of enchantment and seduction, brutality and abrupt reversibility that lie at the core of contemporary consumption and expenditure. In this sense, Baudrillard's postmodern sociology continues to provide a much-needed critique of semiotic society. For what had been outlawed more or less in principle up until his arrival on the modern sociological scene was the fact that the age of restricted production and accumulation was over and that the era of limitless consumption and expenditure had begun.
John Armitage teaches media and communication at Northumbria University. He is the founder and co-editor, with Ryan Bishop and Douglas Kellner, of the journal Cultural Politics .