The Basics of Baudrillard

LEGO bricks form one small arena in which culture is expressed. Nonetheless, it is often possible to understand larger cultural issues through focusing on one small element of that culture.

LEGO offers an example that can help understand a subtle and difficult cultural critique of society offered by Jean Baudrillard (19292007), an influential French philosopher whose works contribute to postmodern understandings of the world and our place in it. One element of postmodern theory is the claim that the world is linguistically constructed and that an objective reality may not exist independently of our ability to perceive it. Instead, our conceptual frameworks—the way that we think about the world—organize our perceptions of the world around us, creating reality as we perceive it.

Baudrillard elaborated on this theme with his concept of the simulacrum, the copy without an original. Baudrillard’s work, in particular his book Simulacra and Simulation,3 largely concerns semiotics, the study of signs (anything which represents other ideas or objects). He wrote extensively on media and images, focusing on the relationship between images and the things they represent. Baudrillard believed that the sign as a representation of a meaningful, external reality was breaking down as a result of the prevalence of media images and the effect of these media images on culture at large. In Simulacra and Simulation, he argues that the relationship of signs to reality proceeded through four historical stages of the image: “it is the reflection of a profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.”4

Baudrillard’s four stages are a model of the way the world works. It is often difficult to make the complexity of the world around us fit into categories meant to help us simplify and understand that complexity. LEGO bricks may not fit perfectly into Baudrillard’s stages, but they can help us understand the four parts of his critique.

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