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Provocations On A Provocateur and Challenger

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IJBS http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol3_1/kellnerpf.htm1 of 37 8/27/2006 8:52 AMInternational Journal of Baudrillard Studies ISSN: 1705-6411Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006) Jean Baudrillard After Modernity: Provocations On A Provocateur and Challenger1Douglas Kellner(George F. Kneller Philosophy of Education Chair, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of Californiaat Los Angeles). I. Introduction Jean Baudrillard is one of the foremost intellectual figures of the present age whose work combinesphilosophy, social theory, and an idiosyncratic cultural metaphysics that reflects on key events of phenomena ofthe epoch. A sharp critic of contemporary society, culture, and thought, Baudrillard is often seen as a major guruof French postmodern theory, although he can also be read as a thinker who combines social theory andphilosophy in original and provocative ways and a writer who has developed his own style and forms of writing.He is an extremely prolific author who has published over thirty books and commented on some of the mostsalient cultural and sociological phenomena of the contemporary era, including the erasure of the distinctions ofgender, race, and class that structured modern societies in a new postmodern consumer, media, and high techsociety; the mutating roles of art and aesthetics; fundamental changes in politics, culture, and human beings; andthe impact of new media, information, and cybernetic technologies in the creation of a qualitatively differentsocial order, providing fundamental mutations of human and social life. For some years a cult figure of postmodern theory, Baudrillard moved beyond the discourse of thepostmodern from the early 1980s to the present, and has developed a highly personal mode of philosophical andcultural analysis. Here I focus on the development of Baudrillard's unique modes of thought and how he movedfrom social theory to postmodern theory to a provocative type of philosophical analysis 2 In retrospect,Baudrillard can be seen a theorist who has traced in original ways the life of signs and impact of technology onsocial life, and who has systematically criticized major modes of modern thought, while developing his ownphilosophical perspectives.IJBS http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol3_1/kellnerpf.htm2 of 37 8/27/2006 8:52 AMII. Early Writings: From the System of Objects to The Mirror of Production Jean Baudrillard was born in the cathedral town of Reims, France in 1929. He told interviewers that hisgrandparents were peasants and his parents became civil servants.3 Baudrillard also claims that he was the firstmember of his family to pursue an advanced education which ultimately led to a rupture with his parents andcultural milieu. In 1956, he began working as a professor of secondary education in a French high school and inthe early 1960s did editorial work for the French publisher Seuil. Baudrillard was initially a Germanist whopublished essays on literature in Les temps modernes in 1962-1963 and translated works of Peter Weiss andBertolt Brecht into French, as well as a book on messianic revolutionary movements by Wilhelm Mühlmann.During this period, he met and studied the works of Henri Lefebvre, whose critiques of everyday life impressedhim, and Roland Barthes, whose semiological analyses of contemporary society had lasting influence on hiswork. In 1966, Baudrillard entered the University of Paris, Nanterre, and became Lefebvre's assistant, whilestudying languages, philosophy, sociology, and other disciplines. He defended his "These de Troisiême Cycle" insociology at Nanterre in 1966 with a dissertation on "Le système des objects," and began teaching sociology inOctober of that year. Opposing French and U.S. intervention in the Algerian and Vietnamese wars, Baudrillardassociated himself with the French Left in the 1960s. Nanterre was a key site of radical politics and the "March22 movement," associated with Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the enrageés which began in the Nanterre sociologydepartment. Baudrillard participated in the events of May 1968 that resulted in massive student uprisings and ageneral strike that almost drove de Gaulle from power. During the late 1960s, Baudrillard began publishing a series of books that would eventually make himinternationally famous. Influenced by Lefebvre, Barthes, and a series of French thinkers whose influence will bediscussed below, Baudrillard undertook serious work in the field of social theory, semiology, and psychoanalysisin the 1960s and published his first books: The System of Objects, The Consumer Society, and For a Critique ofthe Political Economy of the Sign.4 These early publications are attempts, within the framework of criticalsociology, to combine the studies of everyday life initiated by Lefebvre with a social semiology that studies thelife of signs in social life. This project, influenced by Barthes, centers on the system of objects in the consumersociety (the focus of his first two books), and the interface between political economy and semiotics.5IJBS http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol3_1/kellnerpf.htm3 of 37 8/27/2006 8:52 AMBaudrillard's early work was one of the first to appropriate semiology to analyze how objects are encoded with asystem of signs and meanings that constitute contemporary media and consumer societies. Combiningsemiological studies, Marxian political economy, and sociology of the consumer society, Baudrillard began hislife-long task of exploring the system of objects and signs which forms our everyday life. The early Baudrillard described the meanings invested in the objects of everyday life (e.g., the poweraccrued through identification with one's automobile when driving) and the structural system through whichobjects were organized into a new modern society (e.g., the prestige or sign-value of a new sports car). In his firstthree books, Baudrillard argued that the classical Marxian critique of political economy needed to besupplemented by semiological theories of the sign which articulated the diverse meanings signified by signifierslike language organized in a system of meaning. Following Barthes and others, he argued that fashion, sports, themedia, and other modes of signification also produced systems of meaning articulated by specific rules, codes,and logics (terms used somewhat interchangeably by Baudrillard which are elucidated in more detail below). Situating his


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