Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Jean Baudrillard and the place of the modern intellectual

It’s ironic, really, that Baudrillard – doubtless like Chomsky when he finally pops off – is most likely destined to be remembered more for his commentary on 9/11 and The War Against Terror than his contributions to academia. It all fits rather neatly into his object value system – the symbolic value placed on his work by a world (unsurprisingly) uninterested in the niceties of postmodernist poststructural semiotics is, it would seem, that of critic of America. Even though his perceived criticism of the US actually existed largely only in the minds of a misunderstanding readership.

The BBC’s item reporting his death yesterday notes that “He gained notoriety for his 1991 book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place and again a decade later for describing the 9/11 attacks as a ‘dark fantasy’.” The New York Times, meanwhile, feels that it has to introduce him as, effectively, the guy who inspired The Matrix.

Now I don’t doubt for a second that this sort of thing has to go on, and has gone on for decades to explain to an unfamiliar public just why some recently-deceased academic is somehow more interesting/important than any number of other anonymous, tweed-jacketed research types, surrounded by musty books in deserted libraries. But I’m pretty certain that Pierre Bourdieu was not so glibly summed up when he popped off five years ago.

Possibly it’s just my own misplaced perception, but I had a similar thought when Conrad Russell died a couple of years back, and was introduced in the Guardian’s obituary not as probably the most influential historian of the post-war period for the massive impact of his revisionist work on the English Civil War, but as “the great-grandson of Lord John Russell and son of Bertrand Russell”. Please note also that in Russell’s Wikipedia page, the section on his (relatively short) political career is considerably longer than that on his infinitely more important career as an historian.

There was a similar dumbing down when Edward Said died, added to by the convenience of his death occurring in the early months of the Iraq war, a conflict in which his theories of western perceptions of the Middle East were all too relevant. In other words, it seems to be an increasing trend in the last few years to either dumb down the contributions of intellectuals to an easy to understand soundbyte, or to focus on just one small, often faintly controversial aspect of their lives.

At the risk of being in very poor taste in predicting obituaries for the a few of the increasingly small number of other surviving important European intellectuals (at least, some of those who spring immediately to mind), Hobsbawm (like Christopher Hill before him) was doomed to have a sensationalist obit from the moment he joined the communist party. Likewise, Umberto Eco‘s contributions to semiotics were always going to take second place in any overviews of his career ever since he penned The Name of the Rose. Jurgen Habermas has been critical of the Iraq war, and supportive of the idea of an EU constitution (not necessarily the one currently on the table, though) – will his easier to understand forays into politics overtake his more complex theoretical works in the obituaries?

Of course, obituaries hardly matter with such people, as their work will live on long after the short summaries of their lives are sent off for recycling. Indeed, half the time I wouldn’t be surprised if most people’s reactions on hearing they have died (assuming they’ve ever heard of them) would be along the lines of “oh, I didn’t realise he was still alive” (much my thoughts last month when I heard that Frankie Laine, Maurice Papon, Lord Jellicoe and Arthur Schlesinger Jr had died).

And there is, of course, also no way that you’re ever going to get a full-page “idiot’s guide to poststructural semiotics” in tribute to a leading intellectual – partially because few journalists would be capable of knocking one out, but mostly because 99.99% of the population aren’t in the slightest bit interested.

But even so, I can’t help feeling that in recent years there has been a renewed shift towards the kind of hostile anti-intellectualism which, in Britain at least, we always used to keep under the surface – even if largely by trying to pretend that our intellectuals didn’t really exist. And that’s even before you take in the hard to shake feeling that there simply aren’t that many great thinkers around these days…

(For a better overview of Baudrillard’s life and works, head – as so often – to the International Herald Tribune or – in French – Le Figaro.)