sociology + the end of the social

sociology + the end of the social
  ---- by Barry Smart
  Jean Baudrillard's writings disrupt disciplinary order and defy conventional discursive designation. Nowhere is this more evident than in respect of his remarks on sociology and the concept of 'the social' (Smart, 1993). Situating Baudrillard is problematic: determining precisely what his narratives represent and where his deliberately provocative reflections belong are matters to which he was asked to respond in several interviews conducted over the course of his career. What emerged in most instances is that he considered himself not to be a sociologist. For example, asked whether he was a philosopher, sociologist, writer or poet, he replied that he was 'neither a philosopher nor a sociologist' and that his work was 'getting more literary' (BL, 43). In response to a description of his work as 'anti-sociology', Baudrillard responded that he was 'neither a sociologist nor an anti-sociologist', that while he began in sociology in the 1960s he left it for 'semiology, psychoanalysis, Marxism' and sought to develop a critique of both the discipline and its concept of the social:
  It is postulated within sociology that there is a society, that there is a 'social' which is evident, and that you need do no more than conduct quantitative studies, statistical research, etc. Well, effectively, that is not the case. In that sense, yes, I want to go past working in sociology. (BL, 81)
  Baudrillard's critical distance from sociology was reaffirmed in another interview conducted by Sylvère Lotringer in 1984-5 in the course of which he described himself as 'a metaphysician, perhaps a moralist, but certainly not a sociologist' and added that the 'only "sociological" work I can claim is my effort to put an end to the social, to the concept of the social' (FF, 85).
  What emerges from Baudrillard's enigmatic remarks on sociology is a very limited understanding of the discipline and one that is not representative of the breadth of sociological approaches or the diversity of sociological analyses which do not employ quantitative methods or engage in forms of statistical research. But if we take Baudrillard at his word, it is to his observations on 'the end of the social' that analytic consideration needs to be directed to gain a clearer understanding of his 'sociology' and his view of the fate of the discipline's subject matter (SSM).
  Baudrillard's late twentieth-century comments on sociology and the social take place in a specific historical context, one marked by the development of a neo-liberal, consumer-oriented, capitalism deploying 'postindustrial' information and communication technologies which have significantly transformed social life, cultural forms and practices, economic production and the world of work, as well the domain of politics (Smart, 1992, 1993). The view of the world that emerges from Baudrillard's narrative prioritises the impact of developments in communications media, in particular the way in which the increasing centrality of communication networks and information technology has led to the emergence of a new order of simulacra. Baudrillard distinguishes between four orders of simulacra denoting different relationships between simulacra and 'the real': (1) 'the counterfeit of the real' exemplified by the production of the copy as equivalent to the original in the period from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution; (2) the mass production of series of exact replicas or mass objects associated with the Industrial Revolution; (3) 'the disappearance of the referent' as the relationship between images, subjects and events is totally transformed as the world is constituted in and through models, codes and digitality; and (4) a fractal or viral order where in the absence of reference points culture and politics are characterised by uncertainty and non-equivalence (SED, SS, EDI, TE).
  The media and the 'masses' are represented by Baudrillard as 'one single process' constitutive of a new age, a new era - '
ass(age) is the message' (SSM, 64) - one which is considered to precipitate the end of the social. For Baudrillard the extension of electronic communications and information media has transformed our experiences, dissolved meaning and signification in the 'space of simulation', undermined traditional forms of political strategy and while outwardly seeming to be producing 'more of the social' is in practice considered to be neutralising 'social relations and the social itself', in effect 'burying the social beneath a simulation of the social' (SSM, 80).
  The social is not timeless or universal - in Baudrillard's view there have been 'societies without the social'. In outlining his argument on the social he suggests that 'its definition is empty . . . [that it] no longer analyses anything, no longer designates anything' (SSM, 80). In developing his thoughts on the fate of the social Baudrillard distinguishes between three possibilities, notably (1) the social has never existed; (2) it exists, is everywhere, 'invests everything' (SSM, 84); and (3) it did exist but 'does not exist anymore' (SSM, 91). In a series of comments on each of these possibilities Baudrillard notes that the whole idea of the social is disintegrating, breaking down, as it is reabsorbed into 'an economy of extravagance and excess' (SSM, 91), transfigured and hyper-realised in its 'very simulation' (SSM, 94).
  The dissolution of the social in its simulation is articulated with the demise of the political, the erosion of its specificity which follows, for Baudrillard, from the absence of anything to represent, the disappearance of such clearly delineated social referents as 'a people, a class, a proletariat, objective conditions' (SSM, 47) and its replacement by a media-constituted referent the 'silent majority' of public opinion whose mode of existence is not social but statistical. Baudrillard argues that politics now operates with an imaginary referent, the masses, which emerges through the survey rather than social expression, that 'there is no longer any social signified to give force to a political signifier' (SSM, 47).
  As Baudrillard's narratives developed they moved further and further way from the terrain of sociology and political economy; indeed they ran in opposition to the goal intrinsic to modern sociology of cultivating informed individuals capable of rationally shaping their lives. As they did so, Baudrillard's analyses attracted increasing media attention, leading him to acquire the mantle of celebrity cultural polemicist.
   § masses
   § media
   § simulation

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.

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