The philosopher clown

Jean Baudrillard, the high priest of post-modernism, meets Marina Benjamin at the Ritz, and tells her that news has destroyed reality and that history is running backwards
July 19, 1997

I em nouthing," Jean Baudrillard informed me, throwing his hands into the air in emphatic accompaniment. Thousands would disagree. Currently France's most successful intellectual export, this retired sociologist turned philosopher causes a stir wherever he goes. Last year, tickets to hear him expound his philosophy of disappearance at the Institute of Contemporary Arts were like gold dust. Hundreds of fans queued in vain for returns, and one distraught young man threatened to kill himself if he was not let in. A few weeks ago, after a whirlwind tour of Brazil, Baudrillard returned to the ICA to kick off its "Big Thinkers" talks which sold out in four hours flat.

Baudrillard's ideas, delivered under the cloak of fashionable pessimism are vast, and often absurd, generalisations about the human predicament. In 1991, he declared that the Gulf war did not take place; in 1995 he announced that history was running backwards and last year he accused mankind of murdering reality.

All these charges stem from a single hypothesis that seeks to explain the present fin de si?cle. According to Baudrillard, the chief culprit behind this vanishing process is news. Instantaneous and omnipresent, news documents events as they occur, annihilating time, denying delay and blocking any sense that events occurred elsewhere. Because it is relayed, replayed, freeze-framed and debated, news exhausts events of their content before that content has an opportunity to manifest itself. Pre-empted thus of their natural consequences, events disappear into the void before they can be forgotten. We cannot draw lessons from them. They signify nothing. All we have are their "simulacra" and a "synthetic memory." This was the fate of the Gulf war.

Such speedy displacement of events by their media clones has had the disturbing effect of accelerating history beyond the point of no return, so that in Einsteinian fashion it now runs backwards. Linear progress has given way to parabolic retreat. Instead of approaching the year 2000, we are receding from it, seeking refuge from a much feared imminent end in a world stuffed with fossils.

In Baudrillard's lexicon, the term fossil has critical significance. Just as clones substitute for events, fossils substitute for history. They encompass every means by which we are determined to resurrect the past-our obsession with museums and relics, mania for origins, and preoccupation with heritage and commemoration. As a result of our passion for fossils, we are "running the events of the century through the filter of memory, laundering dirty history, like dirty money." The implication is that recycling, rather than ensuring us of a future, is guilty of dismantling it. Our millenarianism lacks a tomorrow.

At the ICA, Baudrillard drove his message home by recalling the final scene from the blockbuster Jurassic Park when the genetically engineered dinosaurs wreck the museum containing the remains of their ancestors. "We too," he said, "are trapped between our fossils and our clones." And between them, they have displaced reality, made it disappear.

Fresh from his talk, Baudrillard sits with me at the Ritz. We are having tea and the experience is rather like that of leaving a cinema pursued by a disconcerting sense that the film you have just seen is continuing. The tea-room might have waltzed directly out of his talk. It is a consummate simulation of Edwardian Englishness, rendered transparent by the fact that it is thronged with tourists being baptised into our ways via a pot of Earl Grey. There is even an element of fossilisation at play: as soon as you eat a cake, another reappears to take its place.

Having recovered from the chagrin of being forced to participate in the pantomime by being made to wear a tie, Baudrillard, ever wayward, orders a glass of wine and settles down to enjoy the unreality. "I feel like a film extra," he says, adding, "this place is not so much hyper-real as surreal." Suddenly it occurs to me that the declaration "I am nothing" was not to be accounted for by modesty, but by its opposite. For here is a man who actually aspires to invisibility, to absence. He would rather see than be. Like God. So I ask the God question. "God exists, but I don't believe in him," is the reply. He continues: "Reality may or may not exist, but I think it is extraordinarily presumptuous to say that things exist just because I do."

Where are the powers of light? Where should we look for hope? In response to my pleas, Baudrillard confesses that he feels nostalgic for the real and that he would like to see history stage a comeback. Indeed, he had entertained hopes of just that in 1989 when the Berlin wall crumbled, but at the moment of its death gasp, eastern Europe reached for the television cameras. The iron curtain was drawn to reveal an insatiable appetite for simulation; a terrible Gorgon image that resolved itself at Timisoara in Romania with the faking of corpses for television.

Without hope and without a future, I wondered whether Baudrillard thought we still had a destiny. "I am not a prophet," he said, throwing his hands into the air in emphatic accompaniment.