Natural Death in Baudrillard

Essay, 2012
7 Pages, Grade: 2:1


According to Baudrillard, the contemporary ‘value system’ is based on binary oppositions. The most vital of those are good and evil, man and machine and crucially important life and death. In our society, death is increasingly separated from life in stark contrast to what is still to be found in the ‘primitive cultures’. Without being able to explain the alternative system – symbolic exchange – in its complexity, it is important to note its contrasting idea of “a circular form, a circuit, reversibility” (Baudrillard, 2003: 16ff). In a symbolic system associated but not limited to ‘primitives’, death is not negativity, not endpoint but rather charged with symbolic meaning as part of a constant exchange procedure, always part of life. For us, death is ‘abnormal’ and we are constantly striving to extinguish it, make it ‘extraterritorial’ (Baudrillard, 1993: 126, 182) (e.g. in hospitals, out-of-town cemeteries, palliative clinics). In the following paragraphs, the essay will suggest a reading of Baudrillard’s contrasting notion of ‘natural death’ that he claims to be ‘everyone’s right and duty’. In the first part, we give a close reading of Baudrillard’s notion of natural death - without a primarily critical reflection. What will be suggested is that progress creates both the possibility for a natural, i.e. designed, death and its imperative. The critical reflection of part two will try to qualify Baudrillard’s statements with a general critique of his ironic style and advance arguments with regards to content: How is it possible to close of individuality? Is it really a right for ‘everyone’? Before this critical account can be appreciated, however, the notion of ‘natural death’ shall be explained in the following.

For Baudrillard, the story of contemporary death starts in the sixteenth century, where it has been turned into an irreversible, ‘economic phenomenon’. In the order of capitalist political economy, the principle of ‘accumulation’ (Baudrillard, 1993: 146) has “become the fundamental motor” (ibid.: 146). Turning life into a parcel of capital (ibid.: 162/175; Baudrillard, 1998) introduces the distinction between “life as accumulation” and “death as due payment” (ibid.: 147). Through this initial binary, life is ‘linearised’, starting with birth and ending with death. To be of value and utility, one has to survive. This survival, however, is not equal to life as Baudrillard (1994: 87) explains in ‘Illusion of the End’: “It is only by paying the price of a failure to live, a failure to take pleasure, a failure to die that man is assured of survival.” Survival might therefore be characterised as a ‘living-on’, a mere existing, a ‘slow death’ (Baudrillard, 1993: 40) rather than a joyous life. In Baudrillard’s terms, the symbolic meaning in both forms is extinguished when death and life are separated and linearised.

Although closed off in this capitalist political economy of ‘survival-as-value’, ‘naturalised death’ gains relevance (Baudrillard, 1993: 154). Natural death – referring to biological death – is death buried under a “simulacrum of life […] where signs have become nothing but designs, entertaining the illusion of a natural reason” (ibid.: 181). The ‘naturalness’ of this death is not constituted through being part of the ‘order of things’; the cause of death is only attributed to an unidentifiable ‘nature’, but refers to its “systematic degeneration” – a death by design (ibid.: 176).

Rather than nature, it is technological progress that brings about this turn from the symbolic death of ‘primitive cultures’. From a perspective that perceives of death as a different, but exchangeable phenomenon, it becomes a negative, irreversible object to be extinguished, naturalised, by science (Baudrillard, 1993: 158). As Baudrillard (ibid.: 162) puts it: “The only good death is a death that has been defeated and subjected to the law: this is the ideal of natural death.” Death and life are made equivalent under the law of value in this way. Death becomes an option (Baudrillard, 2011: 101). Science strives for the “progressive control of life and death” (Baudrillard, 1993: 172) in a “neurotic control of the subject” (ibid.: 176; Baudrillard, 2003: 62). In Baudrillard’s later writings (2003: 68; 2011: 37ff; 1994: 91), this seems to find a culmination in cloning that generates the possibility of immortal humankind in a (genetic) code. Whether this progress assumed as a preface for natural death really exists will be debated below in the critical part. Accepting the idea at this point, Baudrillard goes on arguing that natural death does not bring either conclusion or end. Dying a natural death, merely means passing from “one form to another” without finality (Baudrillard, 1993: 97). Death is in this way equalised and closed off by an unusual notion of nature. This death, however, is not part of a symbolic order. Although seemingly being on par with life – naturalised, neutralised or equalised – it is not exchangeable. The equivalence is only a ‘simulacrum’ without symbolic meaning.

It might be the last characteristic of ‘natural death’ that Baudrillard had in mind comparing it to the working logic of the political economy. Perpetuation beyond an end – even as part of the end, included in the notion of death – might be seen as a crucial attribute of the capitalist political economy. Baudrillard implies this in his notion of immortality (Baudrillard, 1993: 186):


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Natural Death in Baudrillard
London School of Economics
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ISBN (eBook)
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444 KB
Death, Symbolic Exchange
Quote paper
Johannes Lenhard (Author), 2012, Natural Death in Baudrillard, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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