Interview with Jean Baudrillard: from popular culture to mass culture

by Dr. Roger Célestin

 Roger Célestin: Let’s begin by trying to come up with a definition. How would you define popular culture in France today and what are its most obvious manifestations? Also, a related question, since we were speaking before about America: is there a difference between what is called culture populaire in France and popular culture in America? If so, perhaps American popular culture can be used somehow to define French culture populaire.

Jean Baudrillard: Well, I don’t really know how the term popular culture is used in the United States. I have the impression that it is much broader and that it is nourished by the mixture of languages, ethnic groups, and cultures, all of which doesn’t really exist in France. In fact, we don’t really speak about popular culture in France today any more. I don’t know if it exists, but in any event the concept of it has disappeared. It’s a concept that dates from the 1960s or 1970s, and after, based on the work of Bourdieu and many others, and then progressively all of that was transformed into problems of the media, of media culture… And then, since the subject of high culture and popular culture became almost ‘too hot to handle’, people preferred the idea that everyone has access to culture today, so that popular culture was neutralised in a way, but I don’t know what it was supposed to consist of exactly, I really don’t. Regarding literature, for example, there are popular novels, pulp fiction, the kind of thing you pick up at airports, and everything else that circulates like that; perhaps there is a kind of culture of the movies, that is, as far as participation is concerned.

RC: Today?

JB: Today, yes. But frankly I’m not really sure. I don’t think we can talk about popular culture in the visual arts. Today there is an enormous process of acculturation. In fact, maybe it’s this acculturation that masks culture, if the latter still exists. We don’t know exactly where to locate the referent culture, but we are dealing with tremendous processes of acculturation, especially with competing bids, kinds of markets . . . If we can acknowledge that there was once a single popular culture, culture as singularity, today all of that has been drowned in culture in general… that is, in a kind of universality of culture; even worse, culture has been lost in a kind of internationalisation of culture, that is, technicalisation, mediatisation, etc. But popular culture was never universal, it dealt more with specificities, and I don’t know how to analyse that, if it is still possible to explore it and regain it; in any event, no one talks about popular culture any more; its discourse and metadiscourse have been done away with.

RC: You mentioned internationalisation. When you say internationalisation, do you mean the Americanisation of culture?

JB: At first, yes. That’s the official discourse. But I think that universalisation today goes beyond America, and everyone else, since in some way it’s the universalisation of exchanges, of networks that is at work, and this is beyond Americanisation, at least as it was viewed before. Obviously, America is probably a pole anyway, a very strong pole of these effects of universalisation; America is simply universal. In this sense, America is no longer the centre of the world, I think it is one element of the world. But perhaps what is strange is that in a culture that is less ‘high’, let’s say, less elitist, America, American products and so on, would be a part of French popular culture, if there were such a thing. And this seems to be consumed and distributed on a less elitist level, since elitist culture is a bit… secretly anti-American in reaction to Americanisation, to the concept of America as it has been viewed through the popularisation of culture. Of course popular culture is not vulgar culture, but from the point of view of elitist culture (as the keeper of all the criteria for passing judgement), there is, in France, a more popular consumption of movies, novels, things like that, or of television shows, and all of that is filtered through America…

RC:Whereas the opposite is perhaps true in the United States: the consuming of things French is rather

JB: …elitist, of course, yes. Yes, I think there is an exchange here, I don’t know if it’s an even exchange, but an exchange nonetheless.

RC: Let’s talk a bit more about America. Let me quote you something you wrote in America: ‘Even in dance, cinema, the novel, fiction, and architecture, there is something wild in everything specifically American, something that has not known the glossy, high-flown rhetoric and theatricality of our bourgeois cultures, that has not been kitted out in the gaudy finery of cultural distinction.’1

JB: I said that? In those terms?

RC: Yes, yes, exactly in those terms.

JB: Well, I think that that’s a bit high-flown [pomponné] myself. That doesn’t really sound too much like me…

RC: Well, I like America a lot... but does what is specifically American, its so-called wildness, lend itself more to what could be called ‘popular culture’ than in France? You were saying earlier that it doesn’t exist any more in France.

JB: Yes. Yes, because, here, there is nothing left in its natural, crude state. I’m not saying either that in America… well, it’s kind of a European fantasy to project this sort of wildness onto America, but we need to get it back somehow, don’t we? And I did find it in America, it’s true even in the most recent products. For example, even in merchandising there was something crude and wild that, in a certain way, preserved this ‘culture’, if it can be called that, this kind of circulation; yet it preserved a kind of . . . prestige value, yes, that’s it, a kind of elitism. I don’t know if we can say that one is bourgeois and the other isn’t, because these, too, are terms that have disappeared… To speak of bourgeois culture today, and of the bourgeoisie in general no longer makes much sense. I think things are taking shape differently. It seemed to me that there was even, in American cultural manifestations, a kind of excessiveness; this may not be savage or wild in the sense of ‘primitive’, of ‘primitive culture’. I did speak of America in terms of a primitive society, which did not in fact please my American critics at all. But what I meant by primitive society was a kind of… crude society, something that had not been developed over generations, etc., and that came especially from something that we didn’t have here, or if we did, it was a very long time ago: the effect of mixing, of… the promiscuity of all things and a mixture of cultures, immigrant cultures that we…

RC: Precisely; one – especially a foreigner who returns to France periodically – gets the impression that recently there has been a much greater presence of a French population of non-European origins – North Africans, West Africans…

JB: Yes, yes.

RC: What is the contribution of this population to what could still be called popular culture in France?

JB: There isn’t any…

RC:You said that in the United States

JB: …Yes, in the US, but because there are expressions, that come from blacks, Hispanics, etc. In the first place, they speak their language. Hispanics, for example, speak their language; immigrants here speak French among themselves, there is no Arab culture, that is, no Muslim culture, that has developed independently. It’s not at all the same here. I don’t believe there is any basic culture that they imported or that they revived… No, they have really been dispossessed. They are not integrated in the same way, at least I don’t think so. There is no popular culture that derives from there. Of course there are groups… in music, perhaps in dance, but I’m not much of an expert on all that, no doubt in terms of music, some groups, some theatrical companies among the younger generations… the most recent generation, the one that was born here. But precisely, the generation that was born here is extremely, is entirely assimilated. And that is the only generation. There are large groups, Portuguese, Italians, but they never developed their own culture, they never transferred their culture or created other things. No, whether it is a virtue or a fault, France has great powers of assimilation, at least in this sense, because obviously from an economic point of view it’s something else entirely…

RC: So mixing is more difficult, and we see less a manifestation of mixing…

JB: …Yes, yes, but that in fact is the flaw in all of French culture. One is accepted – there have been many, many elements that have come from outside, in painting for example – but still, one is only accepted when one enters the French cultural zone, when one is assimilated. There is a force that perhaps comes from tradition, I don’t really know, but we [the French] are not very receptive to heterogeneity. It has to be transformed, metabolised into French culture.

RC: Perhaps it is this characteristic, this virtue or flaw in French culture of incorporating that, precisely, doesn’t allow for…

JB: Of course.

RC:a culture that could be termed ‘popular’.

JB: Yes, there’s that too. It’s true, one could think that our popular culture is experienced like an exogenous culture, that is, like something that is, well, a vestige, a trace . . . because we started to reduce it considerably already in the eighteenth century. When we consider centralisation, French Jacobinism, cultural Jacobinism, we see that the operation of assimilation, of reduction has been going on for over two centuries. Education has contributed a lot to this… So the question that perhaps should be asked today has to do with the resurgence and reaction of provincial cultures: Catalan, Basque, Breton cultures, etc. At one time, there was a kind of escape from all that, but it doesn’t seem to have taken on a really autonomous dimension. But there are outbursts like that, linguistic for example, especially Occitan: it took on a lot of importance in the Southeast, but it didn’t become a culture because it doesn’t have the kind of autonomy that Catalan has in Spain, or Basque, no…

RC: I get the feeling that, for you, the specificities are what can create popular culture, or cultures, and in France it is very difficult for these specificities to affirm themselves and so, if mixing is more difficult…

JB: Yes.

RC:then popular culture is weaker, in a sense.

JB: Yes, it is weaker. And even when Bourdieu was working on the subject, even until then, there was still something at stake, that is, there was still a kind of . . . not exactly a conflict, but a tension between them, or there was perhaps the possibility of a kind of osmosis between them… But now, no, everything of that has been circulated, mediatised, entered in the circuit of a culture that is no longer either bourgeois or elitist. So the poles have been short-circuited in a way and we are now dealing with a kind of cultural generality, which is something else . . . it is not pejorative, but still, in relation to fundamental specificities, yes, there has still been a tremendous loss.

RC: When you say ‘circulated and mediatised’, this has also been the very prominent role of the French government, so in culture . . .

JB: Of course… no doubt there is a very strong superstructure here and… well, culture did nothing more than follow politics, economics, everything that in a way has been centralised, unified. Of course there have been some attempts at autonomy, but in fact they have come from the Government… yet again. In any event, it works from the top down, so it amounts to the same thing. It’s really deceptive because there is a chance that one day we will come back to popular culture, but it will have come from… it will not have come from its own base, it will have come from above, so to speak.

RC: Let’s talk a bit about mass culture. When one says popular culture is one also saying mass culture, or is mass culture just a more modern way of saying popular culture?

JB: No, I think they are completely different from one another. No, popular culture meant, precisely, limited cultures, that is, cultures whose sphere, whose dimensions were limited, though intense. Whereas mass culture is a totally diffuse culture. Obviously this culture touches ‘the people’, what one calls ‘the people’, but what does that mean today? And mass culture is not filtered through what still existed in popular culture, a kind of… symbolic, let’s say, relation, closer… well, a relation of proximity. Mass culture is a culture of promiscuity, not one of proximity, it’s somewhat different. No, the two are really opposites, I believe. Mass culture is not bourgeois culture, which had a relation to popular culture when popular culture still existed; between the two – bourgeois culture and popular culture – there was still a relation, whereas mass culture in reality has englobed everything.

RC: So for you it is more accurate to speak of mass culture rather than of popular culture?

JB: Certainly, yes.

RC: Let me quote something to you again from one of your works, the small essay ‘L’effet Beaubourg’ that appeared in Simulacre et simulation. In the context of an interview about popular culture, can you comment on that? ‘It is thus the masses who assume the role of catastrophic agent in this structure of catastrophe, it is the masses themselves who put an end to mass culture.2

JB: Yes, well, that is to say, obviously the masses actually consume themselves… I don’t know if that’s in order to take pleasure in this consumption, in order to come to an end… perhaps the masses have nothing other than the spectacle of themselves… well, the masses are really a kind of spectacular identity, where there is demand, consumption… and they consume themselves as a mass. So I did an analysis of Beaubourg already as a kind of cyclotron where the masses came, came to copulate with themselves in fact through the medium of cultural artefacts. But in the end it was mostly the fact of everyone’s being there together, potentially, virtually, everyone was there and so, in reality, that consumption is no longer exactly a consumption of culture. One says mass culture in the sense that one can still find cultural artefacts… massive artefacts, etc. But from the point of view of an interaction, of reception, the masses in fact receive only themselves, they are not exactly a cultural subject so, in fact, yes, I think that they not only bring mass culture to an end, but also, perhaps, all processes, even political ones. I think in fact that they absorb and metabolise, but they diffract so many things that one can no longer identify them in terms of… it would be interesting to see if there even exists a history of mass culture; I’m not so sure… it’s not obvious that there has been an evolution, with a history… but there is a kind of quantitative progress, that can be measured…

RC: Technological also.

JB: Yes, technological, of course. Yes, in fact mass culture is absolutely linked to technology, whether media technology or other types of technology… and there, the masses play their own game, exploiting all of these technologies very, very well. Obviously, statistically, we’re not necessarily talking about millions of individuals; today it’s the functioning of the medium itself. McLuhan phrased it well. The masses… the medium is in fact the message, but the medium is also the masses, the true medium is the masses… And in my opinion, in this sense, the media, what one calls the media, that is, television, etc., are instruments. One says mass media is meant to manipulate the masses, but in my opinion it’s the masses who manipulate the media. Finally, the masses as a medium rule over all these media indiscriminately… Yet at the same time they do not create a form of culture that could… well, I don’t know, that could become a kind of symbolic capital. The masses don’t have capital, they don’t have a finality. They function, but they only function, it’s a kind of indefinite reproduction, but not the reproduction of culture as Bourdieu described it… and denounced it.

RC: I get the impression that when you speak of the phenomenon of the masses that it is very dynamic, that there is a great deal of force, but there is not, as we say in English, a self- consciousness…

JB: No…

RC:or that the masses can’t see themselves…

JB: No, there is no self-consciousness, I don’t think so. The masses are not a subject. They are not an object either, well, let’s say they are a strange object. They are impossible to grasp sociologically… since they are neither object nor subject, it is a kind of bizarre magnet, a strange object around which everything circulates, and inside of which everything circulates and nothing becomes a point of reference, nor of finality either. They’re a kind of… in fact I don’t know what… a convector of everything, everything comes to be diffracted and then becomes parcelled, everything is consumed, but in a literal sense, that is, it’s consumption.

RC: Let me come back to your expression ‘they [the masses] come to copulate with themselves’. This brings to mind technology and what we call in the US interactive media. Do you see here the future of the masses, that is, the coupling of the masses and technology…

JB: Yes, yes…

RC: Do you see a kind of alienation here?

JB: It’s not even the future, it’s the present, this kind of interactivity, interface, etc. People want to see a kind of progress in this development, where one would try to reintegrate, to try to bring about participation once again, since one conceives the masses as something inert, something on the other side, that should precisely be turned into a subject, a true subject. This is the problem faced by politics, that of managing to reactivate the masses, and so one does it by means of interactivity. But I really don’t have many illusions in that regard. I don’t believe in it in the sense that it would be the beginning of another dimension… where there would be truly something that the masses could bring that would revolutionise… Interactivity obviously is a later stage in relation to isolated culture… but I don’t think that it really functions well. Is there really ‘interaction’ between man and machine in the case of the most modern, most sophisticated of instruments? I’m not sure that, in this game between man and machine, there is a real exchange in terms of… how can I put it?… a real exchange where there is actually a kind of face-to-face dialogue, where there is a response, a challenge, a veritable game with rules. It’s a system of communication that is in fact very circular, and in this circularity – which is possibly almost tautological – interaction only gives the illusion that there is an actual exchange, when in fact everyone is merely a kind of network terminal, and it’s the network itself that’s functioning.

Well, that’s my opinion; that is, I don’t have many illusions about interactivity in the long run. I would go even further: interactivity is, in my opinion, something that to a large extent eliminated specificities. When the theatre becomes interactive, that is, when it seeks to become interactive, the stage disappears. When one attempts to make a kind of actor out of the audience, or in the case of hands-on museums, for example, what had been the viewer loses his or her specific role, a role that had not been passive to begin with. I believe that the stage, that is, the break between the stage and the seats where the audience is, is necessary for there to be true dramatic action on the one hand and a place where the viewers have their own separate role entirely on the other. If the break, the line, the stage, is abolished, then we are dealing with a kind of… circularity, of… conversion of one and the other, but in which each in fact loses his role, or his own, specific pole. I myself see in this a kind of illusion, almost a kind of cultural entropy.

RC: I want to ask you one or two more small questions and that will be all. Again in your essay ‘L’effet Beaubourg’, you say that ‘Beaubourg could have or should have disappeared the day after the inauguration, dismantled and kidnapped by the crowd, which would have been the only possible response to the absurd challenge of the transparency and democracy of culture . . .’3

JB: Yes, yes…

RC: ‘– each person taking away a fetishised bolt of this culture.’4 Is there a possible analogy between these ‘Beaubourg bolts’ that the crowd could have or should have carried off and the little pieces of the Acropolis that tourists take away with them? What is the difference between these two instances?

JB: In terms of fetish objects, well, if we don’t take into account the quality of the object, where it comes from, its history and all, I think that it is an entirely fetishistic kind of appropriation of things. No, in my opinion, there’s no difference, it’s the same thing. The idea is that, for the people, the masses, culture must be appropriated in its most substantial form; there must be something to devour, there is a kind of cannibalism at work. Has this disappeared in nobler, more sublime culture? I don’t know, but there is a kind of mass cynicism, mass irony in a way here: you give us culture, you offer culture to us, and what can we do with it? We don’t really have the practical means, the intellectual means to manage it, etc. So we take it, appropriate it in its almost material form; and this can be analysed as a form of revenge, of defiance, almost of cultural vengeance because what one doesn’t want to know is that people don’t need a consciousness, that is, the masses don’t need political consciousness or cultural consciousness in order to have a cultural reaction. And one effect of this defence, of automatic defence in relation to something that escapes you and that one wants to impose on you nevertheless, is that people are made vaguely conscious of their inferiority. And they take revenge at that point; they carry off bolts… well, metaphorically, but they could take anything. The Beaubourg library is always prey to looting, there isn’t one book whose pages haven’t been torn out, and everything that could be taken has been taken. What remains… I don’t know if it’s cultural sediment…

There are protected areas, the museum and all of that, which could be elsewhere; it’s something that comes from tradition. And in the really public interactive areas, there’s great confusion… Yes, it’s looting that always reminds one a little of devastation, even if people come there to see – they have been told that there are things to see – but they come in hordes (and I don’t mean that pejoratively), it’s their ‘thing’. We are on the good side of culture, they are not, but since we still want to draw them in, they have their particular reaction and it’s the one we’ve seen. One can insult it, scorn it, but I certainly wouldn’t be the one to do so. If there is a popular culture in this case, it’s a kind of anticulture, and it must be analysed as such.

RC: The masses or mass culture become anticulture?

JB: I mention anticulture because, at its height, bourgeois culture developed a powerful anticulture in the form of Dadaism, for example, all those principles of the destruction of bourgeois culture were there. But they were simply integrated by bourgeois culture. On the other hand, with the masses, these principles remained very active, that is, they are obviously practised straightforwardly, without discourse, without feedback, precisely without any consciousness. But that’s where anticulture exists and not at all among ironic, sophisticated intellectuals. Obviously it’s in its crude state and that is really unyielding to interpretation, to cultural reinterpreting in noble terms. It’s not arm wrestling, it’s not a matter of the one getting the better of the other, but this fundamental resistance to acculturation in universal terms remains for me a force, a primitive, wild, even terrorist energy in relation to culture as it exists.

RC: Is that completely new?

JB: No, no, of course not. Still, it must have developed from the moment the objective became to integrate everyone. When people simply had their peasant culture, in their own territory, there were no short-circuits, there was no telescoping of the two, so these processes didn’t appear, there was no anticulture, it was simply unheard of, out of the game. But now everyone is made to play, now that everyone is in the game, there are kinds of refractory games.

RC: One last question about museums. I think you are speaking of a different generation of museums, and that Beaubourg was already very different from the traditional museum. Is there something that has already moved beyond Beaubourg or is it once again simply the masses?

JB: Oh, yes, in terms of museums, that is, in terms of the politics of the museum, of course things moved beyond Beaubourg a long time ago, since now museification is a really universal process, almost a kind of anthropological process because people want to turn everything into a museum. Here’s a bizarre anecdote, a funny thing that happened at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Marseilles not long ago. There was an exhibit, the title was ‘Everything that I stole from you’, and the artist was exhibiting stolen objects, and he stated where they were stolen, from whom, etc.; it was an exhibit of theft. So obviously it was museified. It was a ready-made. Rather than a bottle-rack, it was theft that was on display, as social action. And so something that was alive was museified… Today’s museum has no more boundaries, and we know that there are entire communities that have been anthropologically museified, as patrimony. The museum has now become patrimony, the idea of the museum can no longer really be circumscribed. On the other hand, the museum as institution has become so powerful that practically all of culture passes through it. Everything is museified beforehand. So Beaubourg, in relation to that, was perhaps a starting point, but the idea was still to centralise everything, to create a kind of magnet. Beaubourg is still visible. Regardless of what you do with it or in it, it’s still the visible museum. But now, today, the museum is both all-powerful and invisible, it’s taken over everything. Everything today can be potentially, virtually an object, everything can become a museum artefact in one way or another. So the Marseilles episode was funny because an artist who recognised an object that had been stolen from him, a television I think, wanted to take it back. And the guard said, ‘No, no, no, don’t touch that. That’s artistic property.’ Theft, that’s social property, but you have no right to touch artistic property.

RC: Yes, that’s true. The guard who said ‘No, no, no’ becomes an official protector of culture.

JB: Of course. And it went even further because the person whose object was stolen came back with friends and with the press to officially take back his object with the law on his side, and the museum director was categorically opposed to this and he said, ‘I’m going to call the police.’ And the other replied, ‘Go ahead, call them.’ And the police came and what was funny was that there were police officers in an exhibit there in which there were already fake cops, simulacra, so that when the real ones came, they looked like readymades, too. In the end, they arrested the museum director and the artist as receivers of stolen goods, and kept them for a day at the police station. It was a real scandal.

RC: When was that?

JB: About three weeks or a month ago. That was funny.

RC: The museum today is everywhere and that guy wanted to get back his wallet, or his television, his real object.

JB: Yes, what he was doing was reintroducing the real, that is, the idea of real law, real theft in what was theft reinterpreted by art, by culture today, an object equal to any other, an aesthetic object.

Translated by Alyson Waters

Notes

  1. Baudrillard, J. (1988), America, London: Verso, p. 100.
  2. Baudrillard, J. (1994), Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p. 66.
  3. Baudrillard, J. (1994), Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p. 70.
  4. Baudrillard, J. (1994), Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p. 70.

Original publication: ‘Interview with Jean Baudrillard: from popular culture to mass culture’, Sites: The Journal of Twentieth-Century/Contemporary French Studies/Revue d’études français, 1: 1, 1997, pp. 5–15.

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