The last of the great French postmodernists has gone. His ideas were often mocked, but many of them were less ridiculous than they seemby Simon Blackburn / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
In the play Travesties, Tom Stoppard’s character James Joyce asks: “What now of the Trojan war if it had been passed over by the artist’s touch? Dust. A forgotten expedition prompted by Greek merchants looking for new markets. A minor redistribution of broken pots.” Contrast what it is for us, mediated by Homer: an epic of gods and heroes, struggle, lust and glory. The point generalises. Thackeray remarked how a bald, stupid, heartless little man with a paunch became the majestic Louis XIV if put in the right shoes, robes and wig—and that then, having set up the fantasy, we had to worship the result. The mirage suits us better than the truth.
The late Jean Baudrillard pursued the same theme, with his theatrical declamation that “Le gulf war n’existe pas.” On the face of it, this is a crashing falsehood—which we must therefore read, charitably, as pointing to some other claim. That is the French style, and it is a close cousin to any use of metaphor. Those who called Mrs Thatcher the iron lady did not mean that she clanked when she walked.
Baudrillard was not concerned with the artist’s touch but with what happens when television and other media purport to take us to the field of action. The 1990 Gulf war was modelled by planners using simulations; it was won, if we call a massacre a victory, largely by pilots looking at computer screens; and it was relayed to the public by television. Most consumers of these images get no reality check; the image is all we have to go on. And the image does not come to us innocently. What happened in 1990 may, indeed, have been something more than a war: an episode in America’s cultural narcissism, a hallucinatory projection of its fears and fantasies, a Faustian pact between developed capitalism and virtual reality, a promotional video, or a simulacrum indistinguishable from Disneyland. So Baudrillard’s hyperbole had a serious point. He often provoked outrage by it, but when, for instance, he tactlessly suggested that the iconic place of Nazi atrocities as a symbol of evil makes it “logical” to ask whether they even existed, his point was not to ally himself with the David Irvings of this world, but to suggest that for many political and cultural purposes, the answer is irrelevant. As with God, it is our investment that matters, not whether it is invested in a fiction.