Key Theories of Jean Baudrillard

In a society dominated by production, Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) argues, the difference between use-value and exchange-value has some pertinence. Certainly, for a time, Marx was able to provide a relatively plausible explanation of the growth of capitalism using just these categories. The use-value of an object would be its utility related in Marx’s terms to the satisfaction of certain needs; exchange-value, on the other hand, would refer to the market-value of a product, or object measured by its price. The object of exchange-value is what Marx called the commodity form of the object.

Starting with a re-evaluation and critique of Marx’s economic theory of the object, especially as concerns the notion of ‘use-value’, Jean Baudrillard develops the first major phase of his work with a semiotically based theory of production and the object, one that emphasises the ‘sign-value’ of objects. In the second major phase of his work, Baudrillard argues that even the notion of the sign as a vehicle of meaning and signification is too reductive; rather, the Saussure of the anagrams, where words seem to emerge mysteriously, and almost magically, through the letters, is more in keeping with the way language works. Finally, from his writings of the mid-1970s onwards, starting with Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard has taken up the radical consequences, as he sees them, of the pervasiveness of the code in late-modern societies. The code certainly refers to computerisation, and to digitalisation, but it is also fundamental in physics, biology and other natural sciences where it enables a perfect reproduction of the object or situation; for this reason the code enables a by-passing of the real and opens up what Baudrillard has famously designated as ‘hyperreality’.

Although Baudrillard preferred to be without a background (see letter in Gane 1993: 6), it is possible to ascertain that he was born in 1929 in Reims, the same town as his intellectual mentor, Georges Bataille. He died in Paris in March 2007. While his grandparents were peasants, his own family was in transition to an urban life and jobs in the civil service. The milieu was not an intellectual one, and Baudrillard worked hard at the lyce´e to compensate for this, becoming the first of his family to do intellectual work in a serious way. Although he attempted the agregation he did not succeed, nor did he ever succeed (he has now retired) in gaining a permanent university post. Personally, Baudrillard thought of his life as one of a ‘virtual state of rupture’. In 1966, Baudrillard completed a thesis in sociology at Nanterre with Henri Lefebvre, an anti-structuralist. Later, he became associated with Roland Barthes at the E´ cole des Hautes E´ tudes, and wrote an important article on the object and sign-function in the journal, Communications, in 1969. Baudrillard’s book, Le Syste`me des objets (The Object System) (1968), echoes Barthes’s work, The Fashion System.

baudrillard-analysis-ceasefireCritique of Production and the Object

Baudrillard’s earliest writings on Calvino, and others published in Sartre’s, Les Temps modernes, together with his translations of Brecht and Weiss hardly presage the explosive critique of Marx’s theory of value that would emerge less than a decade later. Quite unlike Lefebvre, Baudrillard did not reject structuralism; he rather worked through it. This allowed him to use the notions of the ‘sign’, ‘system’ and ‘difference’ to spell out the limit of the structuralist endeavour, especially as far as the distinction between the real and imagination are concerned.

While Baudrillard’s reservations regarding Marx’s political economy are largely fuelled by a semiotic conception of the object in capitalism, he has also been crucially influenced by Mauss’s theory of the gift and Bataille’s theory of expenditure. For the latter two thinkers, no human economy can be reduced to a putative utilitarian base, with equilibrium being its normal state. By contrast, institutions such as the Kula and the potlatch show that waste in the drive for prestige was the original, non-utilitarian basis for consumption. Seen in this light, political economy’s distinction between use-value and exchangevalue is quite limited. An object also has to be understood to have a symbolic value which is irreducible to either use- or exchange-value. A gift (e.g. a wedding ring) is an object of this nature. The gift still exists – albeit in a reduced form – in capitalist societies; it is the obstacle to any easy theory of the economy as equilibrium.

But even if one were to accept the division between objects of usevalue (objects of utility and needs), and objects of exchange-value, the question arises as to where precisely the line is to be drawn between these two forms. In his books which address this issue – Le Systeme des objets (1968), Consumer Society (1970), For a Political Economy of the Sign (1972) – Baudrillard first broadens the scope of the analysis by adding the symbolic object and the sign object to the category of the object. He then argues that it is necessary to distinguish four different logics: (1) The logic of practical operations, which corresponds to use-value; (2) The logic of equivalence, which corresponds to exchange-value; (3) The logic of ambivalence, which corresponds to symbolic exchange; and (4) the logic of difference, which corresponds to sign-value. These logics may be summarised, respectively, as those of utility, the market, the gift and status. In the logic of the first category, the object becomes an instrument, in the second, a commodity, in the third, a symbol, and in the fourth, a sign (Baudrillard 1981a: 66).

With his semiotic writings on the object, Baudrillard, now following Saussure and the structuralists, endeavours to show that no object exists in isolation from others. Instead their differential, or relational, aspect becomes crucial in understanding them. In addition, while there is a utilitarian aspect to many objects, what is essential to them is their capacity to signify a status. In this regard, even denial can be a kind of luxury – as when ‘good taste’ demands that a room not be overly cluttered with objects. To be emphasised here, is that objects are not simply consumed in a consumer society; they are produced less to satisfy a need than to signify a status, and this is only possible because of the differential relationship between objects. Hence, in a thorough-going consumer society, objects become signs, and the realm of necessity is left far behind – if it ever really existed.


Baudrillard’s aim, then, is to render the very idea of needs, or utility, problematic. Needs, he suggests, can only be sustained by an ideologically based anthropology of the subject. Often this takes a psychologistic (needs as a function of human nature), or a culturalist form (needs as a function of society). Once the work of Veblen (on conspicuous consumption), Bataille and Mauss is considered, and different social and cultural formations are brought into the equation, the notion that irreducible primary needs govern human activities becomes a myth. Subject and object are not joined, Baudrillard points out, on the basis of the eternal qualities of the subject, but – following Le´vi-Strauss – are joined through the unconscious structure of social relations. In sum, human beings do not search for happiness; they do not search to realise equality; consumption does not homogenise it – differentiates through the sign system. Life-style and values – not economic need – is the basis of social life.

An important outcome of Baudrillard’s analysis of consumption in terms of signs is that it undermines the validity of the distinction – used by Galbraith and the Frankfurt School alike – between true and false, artificial and real, needs. What must be avoided, says Baudrillard, is a critique of consumerism and the notion of homo economicus at the cost of a renewed moralism. In elaborating on this, Baudrillard sets out an idea at the end of his analysis of consumer society which will serve as a touch stone for all of his subsequent work. It is that in the discourse of consumption, there is an anti-discourse: the exalted discourse of abundance is everywhere duplicated by a critique of consumer society – even to the point where advertising often intentionally parodies advertising. Everything ‘anti-’, says Baudrillard, can be recuperated; this is what consigns Marx to another, by-gone era. The society of consumption is also the society of the denunciation of consumption.

On a number of occasions in his early writings, Baudrillard uses the term, ‘code’ when referring to the system of signs. While this term may have been there as a synonym for system, or language (Saussure’s langue), in his most important work of the mid-1970s – Symbolic Exchange and Death – the notion of ‘code’ assumes an importance that it would be hard to overestimate. Not that Baudrillard (unlike Eco) spends much time in defining the nature and subtleties of the notion of code. Indeed, we can note in passing that he rarely defines his key terms in anything like an exhaustive fashion, the sense largely being derived from the context, and from the view that Baudrillard accepts the developments in semiotics and other fields as given. Here, though, we can say that the meaning of ‘code’ is quite straightforward: the code is the binary code of computer technology; it is the DNA code in biology, or the digital code in television and in sound recording, as it is the code in information technology. The era of the code in fact supersedes the era of the sign. None of this is spelled out, but is clearly implied by the context. Central to Baudrillard’s concerns is the connection between code and reproduction – reproduction which is itself ‘original’. The code entails that the object produced – tissue in biology, for example – is not a copy in the accepted sense of the term, where the copy is the copy of an original, natural object. Rather, the difference between copy and original is now redundant. How redundant? This is a key question. Baudrillard tends to say entirely redundant; but this is also in keeping with his belief that the only way to keep the social system from imploding is to take up an extreme theoretical position. Many would argue, however, that the code has not yet, and will not, assume the hegemonic proportions Baudrillard sketches out. That the code is of extreme importance, however, cannot be denied. Virtual reality, global communications, the hologram and art are just some of the areas in addition to those enumerated above where it is exemplified.

Simulacra and Simulation

In an era when the natural object is no longer credible (structuralism having been the first modern movement to challenge the credibility of the natural object), the code has raised simulation to an unprecedented importance in social life. Simulation and models are the exemplars of pure reproduction. Because the code enables reality – as it was understood in the age of production – to be bypassed, a curious potential emerges; Baudrillard calls it ‘reversibility’. Reversibility entails that all finalities disappear; nothing is outside the system, which becomes a tautology. This is seen most starkly with simulation and simulacra.

With regard to simulation, Baudrillard defines three kinds: that of the counterfeit dominant in the classical era of the Renaissance, that of production in the industrial era, and, finally, simulation of the present era governed by the code. With the counterfeited object, the difference between the real, or ‘natural’ object is made apparent; in industrial production, the difference between the object and the labour process is made evident; in the era of simulation, not the production, but the reproduction of objects becomes crucial. And, as we have seen, the principle of reproduction is contained in the code. With regard to reproduction, it is clear that labour power, or the worker, is also reproduced. Reproduction, therefore, includes what would have been both sides of the equation in the era of industrialism. Now, the origin of things is not an original thing, or being, but formulae, coded signals, and numbers. Given that the origin in reproduction is the principle of generation, and not the object generated, complete reversibility is possible: the last ‘original’ produced can be perfectly reproduced. The difference between the real and its representation is erased, and the age of simulacra emerges. In its extreme form, therefore, even death can be integrated into the system: or rather, the principle of reversibility implies that death does not really happen.

If, as Foucault’s work sought to demonstrate, power no longer has a substantive content – is no longer something possessed and centralised – the continued operation of the institutions of centralised power would become a simulation of a certain form of power relations. In short the claim that power has a content becomes a pretence. Generalised simulation thus accompanies the death of all essentialisms.

Socially speaking, Baudrillard notes that the era of the code begins to penetrate the whole of the social fabric. One of the symptoms of this is that opposites begin to collapse and ‘everything becomes undecidable’: the beautiful and the ugly in fashion, the left and the right in politics, the true and the false in the media, the useful and the useless at the level of objects, nature and culture – all these become interchangeable in the era of reproduction and simulation.

Baudrillard thus shows how the system is potentially a closed system which risks imploding. Hyperreality effaces the difference between the real and the imaginary. The question to be answered is that of how a political intervention which does not get recuperated by the system is possible. Baudrillard suggests a path with his elaboration of ‘seduction’ and ‘fatal strategies’. In both cases, he argues that it is necessary to give primacy to the object over the subject, fatal theory determined by the object over banal, critical theory determined by the subject. The point is to move to extremes in order to counteract the system’s equilibrium. Ecstasy, fascination, risk and vertigo before the object which seduces, takes precedence over the sober reflexivity of banal theory. Banal theory is always tautological: the beginning always equals the end; with fatal (= death and destiny), there is no ‘end’ in any representational or teleological sense. Seduction, then, is fatal in the sense that the subject is dominated by the unpredictable object – the object of fascination. The masses who, due to their lack of reflexivity and conformity, were the despair of revolutionary intellectuals now become the model to be followed. For they have always given precedence to ecstasy and fascination, and thus to the object; the masses thus converge towards the potential extremities of the system. In speaking of the masses’ relationship to the image, Baudrillard writes: ‘There is in this conformity a force of seduction in the literal sense of the word, a force of diversion, distortion, capture and ironic fascination. There is a kind of fatal strategy of conformity’ (Baudrillard 1981b 15).

Forget Baudrillard? 

A great deal of Baudrillard’s writing has raised heated debate – no more so than when he wrote articles in the French daily, Libe´ration, claiming that the 1991 Gulf War did not take place, and then, in 2001, after an article in Le Monde on the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, where he referred to the ‘spirit of terrorism’. Baudrillard was accused of denying material facts, in relation to the first Gulf War, and in justifying terrorism in the second article. Of course, Baudrillard was in both instances misunderstood, if one spent time unpicking the crux of the arguments. But perhaps this is no longer the point.

What is more to the point in relation to Baudrillard’s work is that his publications from the mid-1990s onward (The Perfect Crime (1996 [1995]), Impossible Exchange (2000 [1999]), Screened Out (2000 [1997])), lack the rigorous theorising of the works of the 1980s, linked as these were to key works in Marxism, structuralism and semiotics. These works constituted, in light of real developments in technology, particularly digitalisation and cybernetics, a genuine engagement with history, unlike the ironical and nihilist position Baudrillard has adopted over recent years. Of course, Baudrillard’s supporters are quick to point out that there is a strategy here; for Baudrillard was cool (despite his birth date) and anything but naı¨ve. There is, then, the fatal strategy of the object, an object that outplays the subject; the strategy of seduction, which poses itself as a foil to the society of the spectacle; the strategy of pataphysics (from Alfred Jarry) as a science of imaginary solutions which, in the contemporary world, would entirely supersede metaphysics (see Baudrillard 2002). Pataphysics is the only way theory can outfox a virtual reality of simulation, where radical and (under normal circumstances) unanticipated reversals occur with increasing frequency.

However, if the virtual and symbolic, along with an accompanying digital techno-culture, are totally dominant, then this ‘reality’, as Baudrillard showed in the 1970s, is governed by the code – or by codes. As such, the world would become the height of predictability, not the reverse. Chance would have no role to play here. In short, it is precisely because the world (social and cultural reality) is not as Baudrillard says it is that crises of theory, crises of predictive science can occur. A world of pure appearances would be easy to manage. The truth, though, is that such a media world does not exist – even in imagination (even in pataphysics).


Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers From Structuralism To Post-Humanismm Second Edition  John Lechte Routledge 2008

Baudrillard, Jean (1981a), For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin, St Louis: Telos Press.
—— (1981b), The Evil Demon of Images, trans. Paul Patton and Paul Foss, Sydney: Power Institute.
—— (2002), Pataphysique, Paris: Sens et Tonka.
Gane, Mike, ed. (1993), Baudrillard Live. Selected Interviews, London and New York: Routledge.

Baudrillard’s Major Writings
(2005a) Cool Memories 5, 2000–2004, Paris: Galile´e.
(2005b [2004]) The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, trans. Chris Turner, Oxford and New York: Berg.
(2005c [1996]) The Conspiracy of Art: manifestos Interviews, Essays, trans. Ames Hodges, New York: Semiotext(e).
(2005d [1968]) The System of Objects, trans. James Benedict, London and New York: Verso.
(2004) Mots de passe, Paris: Librairie ge´ne´rale franc¸aise.
(2003a) The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, trans. Chris Turner, London and New York: Verso.
(2003b) Mass, Identity, Architectural Writings of Jean Baudrillard, ed., Francesco Proto, Chichester, Eng.: Wiley Academy.
(2003c [2000]) Passwords, trans. Chris Turner, London and New York: Verso.
(2002a) Pataphysique, Paris: Sens et Tonka.
(2002b [1997]) Screened Out, trans. Chris Turner, London and New York: Verso.
(2001a) Uncollected Baudrillard, ed. Gary Genosko, London and Thousand Oaks: Sage.
(2001b) SelectedWritings (2nd edition), ed. Mark Poster, Cambridge: Polity Press.
(2001c [1999]) Impossible Exchange, trans. Chris Turner, London and New York: Verso.
(2000a) Vital Illusion, ed. Julia Witner, New York: Columbia University Press.
(2000b) Cool memories 4, 1995–2000, Paris: Galie´e.
(1998 [1970]) The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, Thousand Oaks: Sage.
(1996a [1995]) Perfect Crime, trans. Chris Turner, London and New York: Verso.
(1996b [1990]) Cool Memories 2 1987–1990, trans. Chris Turner, Durham: Duke University Press.
(1994 [1981]) Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Glaser, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
(1993a) Baudrillard Live. Selected Interviews, ed. Mike Gane, London and New York: Routledge.
(1992b [1990]) The Transparence of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. John J. St. John, Baddeley: Routledge.
(1993 [1976]) Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Ian Grant, London: Sage.
(1990a [1987]) Cool Memories 1 trans. Chris Turner, London: Verso.
(1990b [1983]) Fatal Strategies. Crystal Revenge, trans. Philip Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski, New York: Semiotext(e); London: Pluto.
(1990c [1979]) Seduction, trans. Brian Singer, London: Macmillan; New York: Saint Martins.
(1989 [1986]) America, trans. Chris Turner, London and New York: Routledge.
(1987 [1977]) Forget Foucault, New York: Semiotext(e).
(1981a[1972]) For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin, St Louis: Telos Press.
(1981b) The Evil Demon of Images, trans. Paul Patton and Paul Foss, Sydney: The Power Institute.
(1975 [1973]) The Mirror of Production, trans. Mark Poster, St Louis: Telos Press.

Further Reading
Gane, Mike, ed. (2000), Jean Baudrillard, London and New York: Routledge.
Hegarty, Paul (2004), Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory, London and New York: Continuum.
Lane, Richard (2000), Jean Baudrillard, London and New York: Routledge.


Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Postmodernism, Sociology

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