chapter  5
12 Pages

Jean Baudrillard

ByFRANÇOIS DEBRIX

Jean Baudrillard’s thought is terrifying for many scholars of politics who wish to explore it or apply it to their work. No critical theorist in the last fifty years has been as uncompromising about the critical thought process that has to accompany any analysis of political reality as Baudrillard. Yet, as unaccommodating as his writings appear to be, Baudrillard’s theoretical investigations are also some of the most open and free-rolling that one can find in contemporary theory. Baudrillard’s works are invitations never to accept what is given or, rather, never to take for granted whatever reality is presented to us, observers of the global political scene. Baudrillard insists on initiating pathways of thinking that place the possibility of a challenge, or défi, at the high point of any critical endeavour. Truth, reality, and facts as they are imposed by meaning and representation systems must be challenged, sometimes by way of representational terror, or by unleashing the excessive energy of that which the system seeks to control in the first place. Thus, Baudrillard’s writings thrill and bore, please and upset, liberate and

frighten, no doubt because they incessantly waver between reality and irony, senseless action and brilliant illusion, mobilization and indifference, transformative possibility and stark fatalism, and intellectual assurance and radical uncertainty. To some, Baudrillard is a threat to safe thinking. He is the postmodern ‘intellectual impostor’ who mobilizes words or sentences ‘devoid of meaning’ (Sokal and Bricmont 1998: 142). Worse yet, he is the kind of thinker who celebrates ‘moral and political nihilism’ (Norris 1992: 194). To others, Baudrillard has to be championed as the ‘most intransigent’ of the French theorists (Hegarty 2004: 1). His writing is a ‘theoretical feast: an explosive moment of modernity in which the rationalist eschatology of the times is first revealed, and then subverted’ (Kroker 1992: 56). Among most theorists, however, puzzlement and indecision prevail. Most of the time, whether they admit it or not, social and political thinkers do not quite know what to make of his words and ideas. As Zygmunt Bauman recognizes, ‘the universe Baudrillard’s vocabulary sustains is set in a different domain of experience,… [one that] does not communicate with the realm of sociologically processed perceptions’ (Bauman 1993: 23).