French writer Jean Baudrillard has died. I'll miss his Python-esque skits on modern life, which captured so well our twisted relationship with technology.
Baudrillard is one of those intense, slightly bonkers French theorists I used at university to bait my professors. At the time, along with Derrida, Saussure and other intimidating European intellectuals, Baudrillard seemed to represent something cruel, dangerous and sophisticated with which to attack the cuddly assumptions of our liberal humanist English tutors.
Turns out I'm actually a touch liberal and all too human myself. Much of my interest in scary French intellectuals has fallen away, revealing, painfully, that my enthusiasm was all a student pose. Yet Introducing Baudrillard -- with helpful cartoon illustrations, and his book America remain on my shelf, because the more I immerse myself in technology, the more his ideas feel like a field-manual for the modern world.
You might think this sort of thing has too solemn an air, that Baudrillard was a painful, unbearably complex thinker. Not so: I think of his work as essentially comic, a series of brilliant riffs, which effortlessly capture the essence of modern craziness. Whether comparing exercise machines to instruments of medieval warfare, claiming that the Gulf War did not take place, or riffing that the only possible response to the American desert is an urge to drive across it very fast, I feel the cadences of a great stand-up comedian at work.
I also can't help feeling that the world of technology has caught up with his biggest belly-laughs. One of Baudrillard's most impressive and paradoxical ideas is about simulation and reality. He argues that technologies like mass production and cloning effectively disrupt our ability to tell the original from the copy, leaving us in a world of mass-produced simulacra.
Some of this stuff was pillaged for the Matrix movies, where a copy of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation was prominently displayed, and it's this particular part of his schtick that I find so amusing. We do spend more and more of our time in virtual spaces, doing virtual things with virtual people. We are all drowning in email and text messages and television and DVDs and films and even virtual worlds. Can we even imagine unplugging ourselves from all this stuff and having to survive in what Baudrillard memorably called the "desert of the real"?
There is a crazed decadence about our infatuation with the chitter-chatter of virtual space when so many of the world's problems remain defiantly real: HIV, poverty, US foreign policy. Yet there are 4.4 million registered users in the online virtual world of Second Life, and over a million of them logged in within the last 60 days. Even as I speak, someone is hunched over the computer, carefully changing the appearance of their avatar in World of Warcraft to make sure their helmet and sword look cool together. And someone else is adjusting their prim hair in Second Life, to ensure that their avatar communicates the right kind of sultry urban sophistication before they go dancing in a virtual night club.
Baudrillard is great on all this stuff, and so of course fell in love with America, which leads the world in the creation of the seductive and artificial, whether in Hollywood's movies or Silicon Valley's iPods. Las Vegas was the perfect town for him: by reproducing European locations, like Paris and Venice, in the Disney world of its absurd casinos, punters are freed from the hassle of actually having to visit the old world. They can enjoy the climate-controlled pleasures of a simulation without the fear of getting mugged by some nasty French or Italian reality.
If you think the world is a sensible and thoroughly grounded place then Baudrillard's comedy routines may seem foolish or irrelevant. In the depraved carnival that I see around me (especially after two strong gin and tonics), he's spot on.