Scott McLemee reviews 'Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1991-1995' by Jean Baudrillard

Published December 1, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

From the mid-'60s through the mid-'80s, Jean Baudrillard was your standard ultra-hip, post-everythingist French intellectual, publishing a series of philosophical works on Desire, Revolution, Death and the Sign. He treated the ideas of Marx, Freud and Nietzsche with much the same attitude that J.G. Ballard's characters brought to automobiles. They were sexiest when accelerated to high speeds and brought into collision. Out of the resulting conceptual wreckage, Baudrillard fashioned his theory of "the order of the simulacrum." To simplify a bit: Once, it made sense to think of signs as pointing to reality. But with the total saturation of society by the media, cybernetics and mass production, the world has turned upside down. Life is an effect -- a byproduct -- of television images, computer programs and market surveys. Society and information form an increasingly escalating feedback loop: Each "simulates" the other, until both finally "implode." All reality becomes virtual.

About a dozen years ago, Baudrillard's work started appearing in English translation with some regularity. And the timing could not have been better. The dissemination of his jargon during the late 1980s corresponded with the rise of the VCR, the home PC, the video game and the modem. In 1986, his visit to the United States (the homeland of the simulacrum) yielded a book-length essay, "America" -- which was less theoretical than his earlier work, and looked attractive on a coffee table, besides. A few years earlier, Baudrillard had realized that he was pretty much out of new ideas: "And it is most unlikely that a second burst of inspiration will alter this irreversible fact." But did that slow him down?

Evidently not. "Fragments" is his third collection of notebook jottings in the past 10 years (not counting several volumes of essays, including "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place"). To judge from the evidence of his journal, becoming an international intellectual superstar has not exactly been bad for his sex life. Plus, he wracks up a lot of frequent-flier miles. Besides writing about nameless women and his travels, Baudrillard knocks off cryptic, rather world-weary remarks about, for example, "Thelma and Louise" (he seems to have enjoyed it) and human stupidity (it annoys him).

Before turning to philosophy, Baudrillard wrote poetry; and the literary urge still visits him. "The charm of sleepless nights is the idea that tomorrow will not come," he muses. And: "In the empty space of desire, the seats are expensive/Scandals serve as democracy's Tampax, when it has its period and the hemorrhage has to be staunched." (And so on.)

A cover blurb from Ballard calls Baudrillard "the most important French thinker of the past twenty years" -- which sounds impressive, until you think of the competition. And whatever its value as social theory, Baudrillard's writing from decades past was prophetic in the cynicism of its vision of information technology. But that was then. His notebooks, at least, are indistinguishable from the noodlings of a depressed graduate student (albeit one getting laid regularly). "So far as intellectual 'work' is concerned," he writes now, "I have no idea about that any longer. What I have left is a total receptiveness in the void, where nothing is to be expected except from universal gravity." Whoa, dude. Time to get that coffee refill.

By Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca, writes regularly for Salon.

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