Baudrillard is very typical of French post-modern theorists who see reality as an endless oscillation between the self and the other. The upshot of that belief is that reality disappears in the hall of mirrors and, ultimately, nothing is knowable. Baudrillard says as much in his introduction: “Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference, between one and the other, that constituted the charm of abstraction.” Baudrillard simply accepts this oscillation as QED, as so obvious that there’s no need to justify it, and moves on from there. Since nothing can be determined, he can never be wrong, so his argumentation degenerates into a series of pronouncements which can never be proven or disproved. While some of his pronouncements might contain a grain of truth, others show a shocking lack of proportion as when he equates the Viet Nam War with Apocalypse Now. Ultimately, I find Baudrillard intellectually bankrupt. He seems uninterested in anything he’s talking about except as it provides grist for his particular mill.
His language turns into a celebration of indeterminacy. He is so hard to read because clarity is not his goal. In his section on history, he quotes Orwell’s statement from 1984 that “War is Peace” as an example that proves his point. But for Orwell, that statement had resonance in the world of 1984 only because language had become so debased by collective oligarchy that it was impossible to distinguish between war and peace. Baudrillard celebrates what Orwell feared.
The problem is that there is a middle term between the self and the other that the French would prefer not to recognize, i.e., the world. All this harkens back to a major disagreement in European philosophy between the French Rationalists and the English Empiricists. The French Rationalist tradition was established by Descartes, who said, famously, “Cogito ergo sum,” I think, therefore, I am, which effectively subordinates being to thinking. Baudrillard, for whom thinking eclipses being entirely, is a direct descendant of Descartes. If I could quote my own bon mot, I once wrote: “Ever since Descartes subordinated being to thinking, the French have been trying to make the world disappear. The problem is they think they’ve succeeded.”
The English Empiricists, on the other hand, started with the world and moved out from there. The Empiricist tradition seeks to define understanding, hence Orwell’s radical ideas about the importance of precise language as an instrument for knowing. The French Rationalists reject understanding as a goal, hence Baudrillard’s total misrepresentation of Orwell.
Baudrillard’s popularity came at a time when post-modernist literary theory was in the ascendancy in American universities. Initially, it was called Deconstructionism. The high mandarin of Deconstructionism was Paul de Man at Yale. De Man taught, like Baudrillard, that history is unknowable. Then it turned out that de Man had some history that he would have preferred remain unknown, namely, his having been a Nazi collaborator in his native Belgium when he was a young man, and having published a number of venomously anti-Semitic articles. As a result, Deconstructionism lost a little of its luster.
Around this time, I was teaching at Tufts. The English department there had twenty-five part-time lecturers, of which I was one, and only one junior faculty, tenure track, assistant professor. He had been at Yale and had been a student of Paul de Man. The part-time lecturers all had Ph.Ds. from prestigious universities, and, at one point, the department took pity on us for the unconscionable exploitation to which they subjected us, and allowed us to host some symposia to burnish our academic credentials. I jumped at the chance and gave a presentation on Orwell. I spoke at some length on Orwell’s ideas about precise language being necessary to understand the world and to resist the encroachments of reactionary forces and detailed the reactionary and anti-democratic forces leading to the debasement of language. At the end of my presentation, the Yalie, who had been leaning the back of his chair against the wall in the back of the room, intoned, “Clarity is a rearguard action,” and ostentatiously left the room. I knew at that moment that I had no future in academia.
Ironically, the best students of Baudrillard turn out to be Karl Rove and the Republican party who are adept at exploiting the ambiguity between truth and representation, as Stephen Colbert adroitly points out. Remember Karl Rove’s sneering at journalists for being “members of the reality-based community.” We feel outraged by Republican cynicism because we retain the conviction that there is some truth to be known. Baudrillard would disagree.