One of the most under covered and unmentioned postmodern philosophers in America is Jean Baudrillard. This is generally for good reason – to most people he looked like a ‘crazy’ for claiming that the Gulf War actually never occurred. However, Baudrillard’s philosophy is a treasure trove of information that, unlike many postmodern critiques of society, holds quite a bit of truth. I have been reading through some of his works (America, Simulacra and Simulation) and I’m waiting on another to arrive (Simulations). I plan on writing an in depth explanation, analysis, and critique of Baudrillard at some point in the future, but for now I would rather point out some rather interesting points.
Baudrillard claims that there is no such thing as reality in the modern world – at least, reality cannot be known – because everything is a simulation. Anytime we approach a subject our ideas of that subject have been shaped by previous media stimuli. An example of this is (that he uses) is: can you really visit New York City without first having visited multiple New York Cities through media simulation? A person that has watched various movies about New York City is going to have a completely different experience of the city from someone who has never heard of the place and was just dropped in.
Another example is: assume you become best friends with a person of the same sex. Now, how do you know you are really best friends? What do you use as a measuring stick against this friendship? Chances are you are using the media’s idea of what friendship is. If you are two guys then, according to most media outlets, you go to sports games together, drink together, and get in trouble together. This is what causes two men to be best friends. Alternatively, if you share your secrets with the man, cry with him, talk about deep things with him, then others might accuse you of being a homosexual. Why the accusation? Simple; it has been fed to us through the media.
Baudrillard takes the idea of media influence to an extreme, which I think is often times an appropriate critique. For instance, would anyone be willing to grind up a coffee bean and drink it knowing full well that it had been eaten, digested, and pooped out by an animal…and that the coffee bean was picked form the feces? No one would ever dare to do this as a sign of sophistication – much less pay upwards of $100 for a cup of this stuff – unless television, magazines, and various other media outlets told these people such an action was elite.
This is the danger in looking through magazines for “fashion” advice, or watching “reality” shows with a blank mind – such actions inevitably affect who we are because they are meant to bring us into the simulation (Baudrillard would argue that these media outlets perform this way because they are part of the simulacrum, but this is where I begin to walk away from Baudrillard). Just because some New York stylist says adorning a certain style of clothing is fashionable does not necessarily mean it is fashionable. Instead, in order to survive and make money, the stylist has to put something up – so the costume is designed, put on a model, placed in television and magazines and passed off as the latest style.
The problem with this is that it leads to a highly superficial culture. The turning of a page, the flick of a remote control, or the next billboard dictates what is moral, fashionable, acceptable, intelligent, worthwhile, and so on. There is no comparison – if a girl sees The Hills (which completely blurs the line between “reality” and “simulation” by its very style, thus falling right into Baudrillard’s theory) and sees that this is how chic L.A. girls live the life, then she must compare her own reality to the “reality” that she sees on television.
Baudrillard looks at all of this and argues that in response to recognizing this superficiality caused by simulacra, people have turned to “hyper-reality.” This is most akin to biking, climbing a mountain, turning to religion, etc. All of these, argues Baudrillard, are still just part of the simulation – we only turn to these things because we have been conditioned to do so.
Baudrillard is right and wrong on the conditioning aspect. Humans have been conditioned (even prior to their existence) to seek out the real, to find something that isn’t superficial. However, they have not been conditioned by society, but instead by a loving God that created them to seek Him out.
If Baudrillard were a Christian, he would see how Romans 1 helps to partially validate his theory. It states:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them… Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:19, 22-25)
Paul states quite clearly that all humans at some point related to the truth of this world, but instead chose a lie. In other words, all humans had contact with truth, but chose to create a false world out of evil desires.
Baudrillard teaches that humans are completely encompassed in the simulacrum – there is no escape, humans are always deceived, end of story. The Bible, however, teaches that humans are deceived, have lied to themselves, but that there is hope through Christ and the transforming of their minds (Romans 12:2 is a solution to the problems of the mind presented in chapters 1-8).
It makes no sense for Christians to partake in the things that seek to replace the reality God has given us. The glory of God is the ultimate reality for humans. When humans begin to live their lives in sync with God’s plan, they begin to experience true reality. When they live outside of God’s plan, they buy more into the simulation they have established. Why then are Christians partaking in the false world?
Though we can never escape the culture and will always buy into the lie in some fashion (after all, we all sin), we must constantly be seeking to remove ourselves from the ‘simulation’ of the present culture. Don’t buy into the superficial world produced by a fallen human system, seeking to replace the reality that God has offered. It is okay to watch television, read magazines, and the like so long as we do not let such things influence us and suck us into the simulacrum it presents. When we spend countless hours on video games (such as World of Warcraft, which has the sole intention of creating a completely false world and can consume people’s lives through addiction), reading magazines, watching television, or even shopping (which buys into the materialism we have been presented), then we are not living a Christ-centered life; we are trading the truth of God for a lie.
I hope to have a more in depth analysis of Baudrillard at some point this year, but it will take some time. He’s not the easiest philosopher to read.