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Did Baudrillard Exist?

The papers report the death of a French philosopher called Jean Baudrillard. He is said to have written an entire book entitled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. After the attack on the Twin Towers, he is supposed to have denied the reality of that, too. The horror of the victims in the collapsing towers, according to Baudrillard, “is inseparable from the horror of living in them.” It is claimed that this once-obscure teacher of high-school German was catapulted to fame by a Ph.D. thesis that analyzed consumerism as a form of pornography. His was the face that launched a thousand Ph.D.’s (not to mention such films as The Matrix). As one of the leading figures in “cultural theory,” he is rumored to have been greeted as a “messiah” by the New York art world when he appeared at the Whitney Museum in 1987. Though it was part of his legend to loathe all forms of culture, he was believed to share his apartment with 50 television sets and pictures of America, the “hyperpower” that embodied “hyperreality.”

How real, though, was this “Baudrillard,” and what reason do we have to believe that he actually existed outside the realm of “theory?” According to the reductio ad absurdum of structuralism, semiotics, postmodernism, and all the other ideological products of the intellectual fashion industry in Paris, even if “Baudrillard” had not existed it would have been necessary to invent him. The inevitable disappointment that followed the “events” of May 1968 required an explanation, and “Baudrillard” provided a suitably grand one: in the absence of total revolution, everything was a non-event, an illusion, a simulacrum. French intellectuals could continue to pretend that the world outside Paris did not count, and the rest of the world could continue to revere “Baudrillard” as a virtual philosopher—an emperor of the intellectuals who gloried in his intellectual nakedness.

The truth was, however, the reverse of the fairy tale: “Baudrillard” was a suit of clothes with no emperor inside—or rather, an academic gown with no professor inside. Since the 1960′s, Paris has ceased to be the seat of learning to which students of philosophy flocked since the days of Abelard and Heloïse. Instead, Paris has become an intellectual theme park—an academic Disneyland. “Baudrillard” was less real than Mickey Mouse. The philosopher of the hyperreal was himself mere hype.


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