Jean Baudrillard was probably one of the contemporary French postmodern philosophers and sociologists whose ideas were most accessible (relatively speaking) and well-received in the United States. This was my first time reading Baudrillard first-hand, and some of the ideas were surprising. This book is from the Verso Radical Thinkers imprint, which always has me expecting politically revolutionary ideas, or overt Marxism, neither of which Baudrillard embraces. In fact, he explicitly identifies himself as a post-Marxist.
I sometimes have a problem with shorter pieces (not just in philosophy), and this book can at times seem to be a mile wide and only an inch deep. In only two-hundred pages, there are twenty-two chapters, although there are a few general ideas that he keeps hammering home: he is infatuated with scientific and especially medical metaphors, and continually uses them in trying to diagnose the postmodern society; AIDS, cancer, and computer viruses pop up over and over again throughout the essays. He argues that instead of destroying organisms, these things just change the way they function - AIDS inhibits sexual behavior, cancer is rooted in regular cellular division except that it has gone radically metastatic, et cetera. He also sees all areas of discourse which have previously been separated from one another as bleeding into one another indiscriminately: the aesthetic is now trans-aesthetic, the economic is now trans-economic, any formerly balkanized category can apply to anything else.
I mentioned Baudrillard's post-Marxism earlier. In fact, he might even describe himself as post-political, since he seems to think that even politics itself has come to an end. Applying his idea of simulacra and simulation to the political sphere, he says "But what can we do? This is the state of simulation, a state in which we are obliged to replay all scenarios precisely because they have taken place already, whether actually or potentially. The state of utopia realized, of all utopias realized, wherein paradoxically we must continue to live as though they had not been. But since they have, and since we can no longer, therefore, nourish the hope of realizing them, we can only `hyper-realize' them through interminable simulation" (p. 4). This almost reads like a conservative kind of cynicism or nihilism, which sort of caught me off guard.
Some of the observations struck me as bizarre and wrong-headed, like what he has to say about AIDS. "AIDS is not the reflection not so much of an excess of sex or sexual pleasure as of sex's decompensation through its general spread into all areas of life, its venting through all the trivial variants of sexual incantation. The real loss of immunity concerns sex as a whole, with the disappearance of sexual difference and hence of sexuality per se. It is in this diffraction of the sexual reality principle, at the fractal, micrological and non-human level, that the essential confusion of the epidemic takes hold" (p. 9). I'm sorry, but this is simply false. The virus responsible for causing AIDS knows nothing about the "sexuality reality principle," and even saying something like this sounds silly.
Sweeping statements like the one on AIDS occasionally stud and inevitably mar the power of any critical philosophy Baudrillard has to offer, if he wants to offer one at all. It makes for wonderfully audacious and exciting theory, but shoddy philosophy. Maybe Baudrillard wouldn't draw such a definitive line between the two, but I think with the former, metaphorical or analogical thought can help push theory along into unknown realms and aid in understanding things in different ways. Philosophy, being more closely related to logic, has to be more careful. And Baudrillard is working analogically here: saying that X resembles A in some sense and Y resembles A in another sense, therefore X is Y. This opens up new vistas of understanding, but when presented as philosophy can do just as much to obscure as it can to clarify.
These quibbles aside, this is probably one of the better introductions to Baudrillard's large output. You don't have to be overly familiar with all of his work to walk away from the essays feeling that you've learned something about him. And for those just getting their feet wet, this isn't full of the obfuscatory prose we're familiar with from other continental philosophy "Of Grammatology" or "Difference and Repetition," and for that we can all be grateful.