Jean Baudrillard: Reality, Hyperreality, and Asymmetry

Written by: Joshua Lax.

How can post-modern theory be brought into the discussion of International Relations?  I will begin by discussing Jean Baudrillard and his notions of reality, hyperreality, and asymmetry.  In later posts I will discuss the works of other post-modern theorists such as Francois Lyotard and his notion of the meta-narrative, Richard Rorty on discourse, Jaques Derrida on language, and Michel Foucault on power.

Jean Baudrillard’s most famous text, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, presents a compelling argument about the Western psyche regarding foreign wars.  He is famous for arguing that we should not take for granted whatever reality is presented to us.  He identifies a distinction reality and hyperreality (simulation) that ought be considered.[1]  In the wake of the increasing use of drone warfare, this critique is extremely relevantHis argument is relatively simple:  From the Western perspective, having witnessed much in the way of strategic models, media coverage, and military simulations prior to the invasion, the actual war was virtually impossible to distinguish.[2]  Specifically, grainy videos, infrared images and the like, however, this footage was indistinguishable from the demonstrations and simulations shown prior to the attacks.[3]  So while this war certainly happened for the Iraqis on the ground, experiencing these attacks first-hand, for the Western observer it could barely be considered distinct from the simulations shown prior.  Further, he argues that for all that the Western observers knew, the war could have been completely simulated, done simply with props and actors.  This is reminiscent of the movie Wag the Dog.[4]  Wag the Dog was a black comedy about a Washington PR consultant who convinces a sitting president to ‘fake’ a war just days before an election to garner public support.  This is a blurring between what Baudrillard considers the real and the hyperreal. 

In response to Baudrillard, James Der Derian (another post-modern theorist) poses the question: “Was this a just war, or just a game?”[5]  This question, while relevant to the Gulf War, has become evermore relevant with the increasing use of drone warfare.  Children play video games where they control fighter jets and combat helicopters in a strikingly similar fashion to how drones are controlled.  For a soldier sitting in a stateside base, daily missions are reminiscent of that game play.  As a result of being completely removed from the theater of the combat, with their lives wholly out of risk, it is arguably impossible for these soldiers to have a true feeling of war.  It is obviously preferable to having soldiers out of harms way, but then the question becomes “Is this really war?”  Baudrillard would place this in between the real and hyperreal.  In a way it is concrete and real, while at the same time also a simulation.  Looking at graphics on a screen is hardy war, at least in the classic sense.  The notion of just war comes into play here.  Some would say that in this asymmetrical battle, where one side can only receive monetary damage (the downing of costly combat machinery) and the other side can receive physical damage, war could not be just.

The notion of the real and hyperreal can be included within the Realist mode of thought in International Relations.  Specifically, viewing world affairs as a zero-sum game in which when one party benefits another experiences a detriment.  This continual condition of the distinction between reality and hyperreality can be a beneficial tool for Realists.  A desensitizing of the public to acts of war allows for more flexibility of action and an greater ability to garner public support.

The question becomes how does this circumstance affect the way we, as a society, understand war?  In a way we are inherently desensitized to acts of war when we are far removed from the theater of combat.  In the current engagement with Syria it does not feel like war.  It is simply action going on in a far and distant place.  Especially when the casualties are nothing but drones, the West has little to loose.  While money and resources may be depleted, blood (on the West’s side) will not be shed.  This establishes an inherent asymmetry in international affairs, between those who can afford to use machines and those who cannot.  Those who cannot, risk the lives of their citizens in war.

This is my opinion, what is yours?

[1] Debrix, 54.

[2] ibid, 57.

[3] ibid, 60.

[4] ibid, 57.

[5] ibid, 60.


Debrix, F. (2009). Critical Theorists and International Relations: Jean Baudrillard. (J. Edkins, & N. Vaughan-Williams, Eds.) London: Routledge.

2 thoughts on “Jean Baudrillard: Reality, Hyperreality, and Asymmetry

  1. Interesting article, Josh. While much of this article is certainly worthy of discussion, I would like to mention just one point which, to me, is particularly poignant; the notion of ‘asymmetrical battle’. I feel as though it is worth discussion the possibility that there can no such thing as a symmetrical battle, at least by the standards you have set out within this article.

    If one were to extrapolate the present argument (where the United States does not loose anything but machines, while the ‘other side’ suffers physical loss, leading to a perceived injustice) to all armed conflicts throughout history, I believe one would be hard pressed to find an example of a truly just war. This is for two distinct reasons.

    First, and forgive me for citing wikipedia in lieu of a more academic source, I would like to take a look at Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, specifically the Melian Dialogue (The contents of which can be sufficiently gleaned from this page in my opinion From my own, admittedly cursory reading of this work, I have cannot help but come to the conclusion that within the field of International Relations, specifically with regards to international conflicts, ‘might makes right’ (I would note that this argument STRONGLY precludes acts of genocide, which SPECIFICALLY targets civilians). Those combatants who fall prey to the superior American technology, similar to the Melians who were crushed by the superior Athenian force, are aware of the opposing sides military strength. Those who knowingly engage against a more powerful opponent, essentially do so at their own risk, and should be aware of the consequences of doing so.

    A second reason which I believe ought to be considered when discussion the notion of a just or unjust war, would be the mindset of the combatants. Can one consider a war to be just, or symmetrical, if one side holds the belief that upon their death, they will be sent to a divine afterlife, full of outer-worldly pleasures? Regardless of the absurdity of such beliefs, an individual engaging in combat they believe to be for a greater cause than perhaps national defense, or strategic interests, might be said to have ‘less-to-lose’ than their opponents. In that sense, is there ever such thing as a symmetrical military conflict?

    Just my opinion!

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