Lyotard, Baudrillard and Language Games, Oh My!

Modern society has misplaced its assurance in the metanarratives of the past. As a result, French philosopher Jean Lyotard recognizes that the modern collective is organized around ‘language games’ that are used primarily to authenticate people’s behavior. In these games a person attempts to persuade others to recognize his or her point of view as being valid. Each avowal takes on the appearance of the movement of a knight or pawn within a complicated game of chess. Jean Lyotard comprehends these games as having developed from the narrative itself, first through such things as passing along folk tales and legends and then toward the scientific language that developed over the last few hundred years. This scientific language became a game because it was dependent upon evidence used to challenge arguments raised against them. As the social order penetrated into the post-modern era, however, faith went missing somewhere in the denotative language games, to be replaced by language games that utilized more technical jargon. Truth itself is no longer the overriding component; it has been replaced by a competition to discover if the game is actually useful within the human arena. This has resulted in the knowledge essentially being held hostage by capitalist ideology to the point that it has been transformed into little more than just another commodity to be bought, sold or bartered. Lyotard associates the increase in the significance of knowledge to the permeation of computers throughout all levels of society.

While Lyotard welcomes this democratization of knowledge as a movement toward opening up choice and freedom, another famous French philosopher has viewed it in terms of a darker comment on postmodern society. Jean Baudrillard judges society as having progressed to an entirely new epoch and he relates this evolution to the ways in which language and knowledge have changed. Where Baudrillard differs substantially from Lyotard is in viewing the consequences of this revolution as creating an inescapable trap. Baudrillard considers society to be a construct that is no longer based upon the production of material goods, but rather upon the selling of signs and images that are cynically detached from the reality of the products they are meant to represent. Baudrillard views postmodern world as a market of the senses made up of a litany and never-ending exchange of reproductions he has defined as “simulacra”. These simulacra are metaphors for ideals and objects rather than the objects or ideas themselves. Baudrillard has even dared to suggest that the world’s political leaders are themselves mere simulacra, lacking any authentic power and ability to effect real lasting change for the oppressed. The reason Baudrillard gives for the impotence and powerlessness of leaders in the contemporary world is located in the existence of nuclear weapons. Since the entire world could quite literally be destroyed just by pressing a few buttons, traditional warfare has become an exercise in futility. (One look at the situation in Iraq should make it abundantly clear that Baudrillard is on to something.) Should either side in a nuclear conflict make the decision to actually undertake the unthinkable, it would take mere minutes for a retaliatory response that would instantaneously make everything that was supposedly worth fighting for obsolete. The simulacrum at work under the shadow of such a horrific threat is in selling the representation of a nuclear war.

Such is Baudrillard’s contention that reality has been co-opted by a hyperreality is that he has even written that in traditional terms the first Gulf War did not take place. Although he doesn’t deny that military engagement took place, he does argue that these confrontations were in reality a media construction of the idea of a war. The Gulf War was simply not a war in the conformist idea that history books and movies have created in the public psyche. War in the traditional sense has involved at least two military powers engaged on the battlefield face to face in a death match over territory, economics or ideology. In the Gulf Wars, however, pilots who were responsible for mass death never even came within miles of seeing their victims; those unfortunate people were and are merely inhuman computer images generated within the cockpit of the plane. Baudrillard differs substantially in seeing society as devolving into a series of symbols that is increasingly devoid of tangible connections to reality. Where Lyotard views modern society as a diverse playpen where the borders are crumbling under the weight of progress, Baudrillard sees an empty vacuum of meaningless exercises in futility. Baudrillard also rejects the metanarratives of the past, especially Marxian ones, yet for different purposes than Lyotard. While Lyotard is sure that people have misplaced their faith in such metanarratives, Baudrillard indicts the followers of Marx for reinforcing the bourgeoisie ideology that views work as the ultimate “fulfillment of human essence”.