Richard J. Lane's text on Jean Baudrillard is part of a recent series put out by the Routledge Press, designed under the general editorial direction of Robert Eaglestone (Royal Holloway, University of London), to explore the most recent and exciting ideas in intellectual development during the past century or so. To this end, figures such as Paul Ricouer, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and other influential thinkers in critical thought are highlighted in the series, planned to include more than 21 volumes in all.
Lane's text, following the pattern of the others, includes background information on Baudrillard and its significance, the key ideas and sources, and Baudrillard's continuing impact on other thinkers. As the series preface indicates, no critical thinker arises in a vacuum, so the context, influences and broader cultural environment are all important as a part of the study, something with which Baudrillard might agree,
Why is Baudrillard included in this series? This series is primary for critical thinking in a literary sense, but also develops the cultural criticism aspect of which literary theory cannot help but be a part. Baudrillard, as Lane suggests, is not only one of the more famous names in postmodernism, but practically embodies postmodernism in his own work. Key ideas and catch-phrases of Baudrillard include 'simulation', 'hyperreal', and 'implosion of meaning'. Baudrillard is very much a product of the French literary/philosophical school of the 1960s, opting eventually toward a radical reworking of both primitive cultures and post-Marxist thought that some critics see as inconsistent and confused, but definitely not to be ignored.
One of the useful features of the text is the side-bar boxes inserted at various points. For example, during the discussion on Baudrillard's development of writing strategies for postmodernism, there is brief discussion, set apart from the primary strand of the text, on Nihilism, developing further these ideas should the reader not be familiar with them, or at least not in the way with which Baudrillard would be working with ideas derived from them. Each section on a key idea spans fifteen to twenty pages, with a one-page summary concluding each, which gives a recap of the ideas (and provides a handy reference).
One of the more useful pieces in this text is also the 'two worlds' listing, which develops some of contrasting ideas in the shift from modernity to postmodernity. These include hierarchy versus anarchy, selection versus participation, signified versus signifier, and more interesting, sometimes surprising pieces. In discussing the development of culture in all its various aspects in an American context, Baudrillard shows the difference in 'city' culture as one goes from East to West - one of the paradoxes of the postmodern situation in America is that there are two primary city paradigms, New York City and Los Angeles, each of which is a perfect example of the city structure, one built up and close-knit architecturally, and the other spread out and low-rising. The cultures of the two cities are quite different, yet both are quintessentially American and both undoubtedly urban. That two different cities occupy the centre at the same time is the paradox of postmodernity.
Baudrillard has a fascination with America, which can be seen in his development and application of ideas such as the hyperreal and of simulation. The levels of simulation and hyperreality in America extend from the 'real' town square to the simulation of the town square in the shopping mall, which becomes a hyper-reality with controlled climates and selected people both as workers and shoppers; another classic example is that of Disneyland, with its carefully constructed and controlled environments, which is 'real' because it stands in contrast to the 'really real'. Media portrayals of events is also highlighted as examples of this kind of shift in thinking - the media distorts both the rhythm and the nature of the event, through selectivity and varying emphasis on actors and actions involved, and the kinds of manipulation to which media is always subject. News of real events becomes entertainment; entertainment programming becomes more fully developed and thus more real. We have more information, without more understanding, and the experience becomes more complex and involved, yet empty at the same time.
Part of Baudrillard's fascination with America is an interest in the development of technology, and the growth of the production/consumer kind of culture, where everything becomes part of a system of commodities, including language and knowledge. Indeed, Western identity is constructed of these kinds of objects, which the system also requires to be destroyed (think of the built-in redundancy or ever-increasing development of 'new and improved' products) - a dialectical performance writ large over the culture.
The concluding chapter, After Baudrillard, highlights some key areas of development in relation to other thinkers, as well as points of possible exploration for the reader. Baudrillard's ideas impact the development of aesthetic theory (from art to mere performance and entertainment). History and geography are also at issue, for the landscape of the past and of the present shifts with emphasis in different categories. Perhaps the most important development of significance to a postmodern fragmentation of the sort Baudrillard writes about is the internet, and the growth of theory from his influence is only beginning here.
As do the other volumes in this series, Clark concludes with an annotated bibliography of works by Baudrillard in English (or English translation), works on Baudrillard, and a good index.
While this series focuses intentionally upon literary theory, in fact this is only the starting point. For Baudrillard (as for others in this series) the expanse is far too broad to be drawn into such narrow guidelines, and the important and impact of the ideas extends out into the whole range of intellectual development. As intellectual endeavours of every sort depend upon language, understanding, and cultural interpretation, the thorough comprehension of how and why we know what we know is crucial.