Toward the end of his time as a German teacher Baudrillard began to transfer to sociology, eventually completing his doctoral thesis Le Système des objets (The System of Objects) under the tutelage of Henri Lefebvre. Subsequently, he began teaching the subject at the Université de Paris-X Nanterre, a politically radical institution (at the time) which would become heavily involved in the events of May 1968. At Nanterre he took up a position as Maître Assistant (Assistant Professor), then Maître de Conférences (Associate Professor), eventually becoming a professor after completing his habilitation, L'Autre par lui-même (The Other, by himself).
In 1986 he moved to IRIS (Institut de Recherche et d'Information Socio-Économique) at the Université de Paris-IX Dauphine, where he spent the latter part of his teaching career. During this time he had begun to move away from sociology as a discipline (particularly in its "classical" form), and, after ceasing to teach full time, he rarely identified himself with any particular discipline, although he remained linked to the academic world. During the 1980s and 1990s his books had gained a wide audience, and in his last years he became, to an extent, an intellectual celebrity, being published often in the French and English speaking popular press. He nonetheless continued supporting the Institut de Recherche sur l'Innovation Sociale at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and was Satrap at the Collège de Pataphysique. He also collaborated at the Canadian philosophical review Ctheory, where he was abundantly cited. He died of typhoid on March 6, 2007 at the age of 77.
His published work emerged as part of a generation of French thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan who all shared an interest in semiotics, and he is often seen as a part of the poststructuralist philosophical school. In common with many poststructuralists, his arguments consistently draw upon the notion that signification and meaning are both only understandable in terms of how particular words or "signs" interrelate. Baudrillard thought, as many post-structuralists did, that meaning is brought about through systems of signs working together. Following on from the structuralist linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, Baudrillard argued that meaning is based upon an absence (so "dog" means "dog" not because of what the word says, as such, but because of what it does not say: "cat", "goat", "tree" et cetera). In fact, he viewed meaning as near enough self-referential: objects, images of objects, words and signs are situated in a web of meaning; one object's meaning is only understandable through its relation to the meaning of other objects, in other words, one thing's prestige relates to another's mundanity.
From this starting point Baudrillard constructed broad theories of human society based upon this kind of self-referentiality. His pictures of society portray societies always searching for a sense of meaning — or a "total" understanding of the world — that remains consistently elusive. In contrast to poststructuralists such as Foucault, for whom the search for knowledge always created a relationship of power and dominance, Baudrillard developed theories in which the excessive, fruitless search for total knowledge lead almost inevitably to a kind of delusion. In Baudrillard's view, the (human) subject may try to understand the (non-human) object, but because the object can only be understood according to what it signifies (and because the process of signification immediately involves a web of other signs from which it is distinguished) this never produces the desired results. The subject, rather, becomes seduced (in the original Latin sense, seducere, to lead away) by the object. He therefore argued that, in the last analysis, a complete understanding of the minutiae of human life is impossible, and when people are seduced into thinking otherwise they become drawn toward a "simulated" version of reality, or, to use one of his neologisms, a state of "hyperreality." This is not to say that the world becomes unreal, but rather that the faster and more comprehensively societies begin to bring reality together into one supposedly coherent picture, the more insecure and unstable it looks and the more fearful societies become. Reality, in this sense, "dies out.
Accordingly, Baudrillard argued that the excess of signs and of meaning in late 20th century "global" society had caused (quite paradoxically) an effacement of reality. In this world neither liberal nor Marxist utopias are any longer believed in. We live, he argued, not in a "global village," to use Marshall McLuhan's phrase, but rather in a world that is ever more easily petrified by even the smallest event. Because the "global" world operates at the level of the exchange of signs and commodities, it becomes ever more blind to symbolic acts such as, for example, terrorism. In Baudrillard's work the symbolic realm (which he develops a perspective on through the anthropological work of Marcel Mauss and Georges Bataille) is seen as quite distinct from that of signs and signification. Signs can be exchanged like commodities; symbols, on the other hand, operate quite differently: they are exchanged, like gifts, sometimes violently as a form of potlatch. Baudrillard, particularly in his later work, saw the "global" society as without this "symbolic" element, and therefore symbolically (if not militarily) defenceless against acts such as the Rushdie Fatwa or, indeed, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States and its military establishment (see below).
In 2004, the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies was launched.
Baudrillard came to this conclusion by criticising Marx's concept of "use value." Baudrillard thought that both Marx's and Adam Smith's economic thought accepted the idea of genuine needs relating to genuine uses too easily and too simply. He argued, drawing from Georges Bataille, that needs are constructed, rather than innate. Whereas Marx believed that uses genuinely laid beneath capitalism's "commodity fetishism," Baudrillard thought that all purchases, because they always signify something socially, have their fetishistic side. Objects always, drawing from Roland Barthes, "say something" about their users. And this was, for him, why consumption was and remains more important than production: because the "ideological genesis of needs precedes the production of goods to meet those needs.
He wrote that there are four ways of an object obtaining value. The four value-making processes are as follows:
Baudrillard's earlier books were attempts to argue that the first two of these values are not simply associated, but are disrupted by the third and, particularly, the fourth. Later, Baudrillard rejected Marxism totally (The Mirror of Production and Symbolic Exchange and Death). But the focus on the difference between sign value (which relates to commodity exchange) and symbolic value (which relates to Maussian gift exchange) remained in his work up until his death. Indeed it came to play a more and more important role, particularly in his writings on world events.
Within a society subject to and ruled by fast-paced electronic communication and global information networks the collapse of this façade was always going to be, he thought, inevitable. Employing a quasi-scientific vocabulary which attracted the ire of the physicist Alan Sokal, Baudrillard wrote that the speed society moved at had destabilized the linearity of history: "we have the particle accelerator that has smashed the referential orbit of things once and for all.
In making this argument Baudrillard found some affinity with the postmodern philosophy of Jean-Francois Lyotard, who famously argued that in the late Twentieth Century there was no longer any room for "metanarratives." (The triumph of a coming communism being one such metanarrative.) But, in addition to simply lamenting this collapse of history, Baudrillard also went beyond Lyotard and attempted to analyse how the idea of forward progress was being employed in spite of the notion's declining validity. Baudrillard argued that although genuine belief in a universal endpoint of history, wherein all conflicts would find their resolution, had been deemed redundant, universality was still a notion utilised in world politics as an excuse for actions. Universal values which, according to him, no one any longer believed universal were and are still rhetorically employed to justify otherwise unjustifiable choices. The means, he wrote, are there even though the ends are no longer believed in, and are employed in order to hide the present's harsh realities (or, as he would have put it, unrealities). "In the Enlightenment, universalization was viewed as unlimited growth and forward progress. Today, by contrast, universalization is expressed as a forward escape.
Much of the repute that Baudrillard found as a result of the book — originally a series of articles in the British newspaper The Guardian and the French newspaper Libération/Libération in three parts: During the American military and rhetorical buildup as "The Gulf War Will not take Place"; during military action as "The Gulf War is not Taking Place", and after action was over, "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place" — was based on his critique that the Gulf War was not ineffectual, as Baudrillard portrayed it: People died, the political map was altered, and Saddam Hussein's regime was harmed. Some critics accuse Baudrillard of instant revisionism; a denial of the physical action of the conflict (part of his denial of reality, in general). Consequently, Baudrillard was accused of lazy amoralism, encompassing cynical scepticism, and Berkelian idealism. Sympathetic commentators (such as William Merrin, in his book Baudrillard and the Media) have argued that Baudrillard was more concerned with the West's technological and political dominance and the globalization of its commercial interests, and what it means for the present possibility of war. Merrin has asserted that Baudrillard did not deny that something happened, but merely questioned that that something was a war; rather it was "an atrocity masquerading as a war". Merrin's book viewed the accusations of amorality as redundant and based upon misreading; Baudrillard's own position was more nuanced. In Baudrillard's own words (p. 71-72):
Saddam liquidates the communists, Moscow flirts even more with him; he gases the Kurds, it is not held against him; he eliminates the religious cadres, the whole of Islam makes peace with him ... Even ... the 100,000 dead will only have been the final decoy that Saddam will have sacrificed, the blood money paid in forfeit according to a calculated equivalence, in order to conserve his power. What is worse is that these dead still serve as an alibi for those who do not want to have been excited for nothing: at least these dead will prove this war was indeed a war and not a shameful and pointless hoax ...
This is not a clash of civilisations or religions, and it reaches far beyond Islam and America, on which efforts are being made to focus the conflict in order to create the delusion of a visible confrontation and a solution based upon force. There is indeed a fundamental antagonism here, but one that points past the spectre of America (which is perhaps the epicentre, but in no sense the sole embodiment, of globalisation) and the spectre of Islam (which is not the embodiment of terrorism either) to triumphant globalisation battling against itself.
Baudrillard thus placed the attacks — as accords with his theory of society — in context as a symbolic reaction to the continued expansion of a world based solely upon commodity exchange. This stance was criticised on two counts. Richard Wolin (in The Seduction of Unreason) forcefully accused Baudrillard and Slavoj Zizek, of all but celebrating the terrorist attacks, essentially claiming that the United States of America received what it deserved. Zizek, however, countered that accusation to Wolin's analysis as a form of intellectual barbarism in the journal Critical Inquiry, saying that Wolin fails to see the difference between fantasising about an event and stating that one is deserving of that event. Merrin (in Baudrillard and the Media) argued that Baudrillard's position affords the terrorists a type of moral superiority. In the journal Economy and Society, Merrin further noted that Baudrillard gives the symbolic facets of society unfair privilege above semiotic concerns. Second, authors questioned whether the attacks were unavoidable. Bruno Latour, in Critical Inquiry argued that Baudrillard believed that their destruction was forced by the society that created them, alluding the Towers were "brought down by their own weight". In Latour's view, this was because Baudrillard conceived only of society in terms of a symbolic and semiotic dualism.
However only one of the two major confrontational books on Baudrillard's thought — Christopher Norris's Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War (ISBN 0-87023-817-5) — seeks to reject his media theory and position on "the real" out of hand. The other — Douglas Kellner's Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (ISBN 0-8047-1757-5) — seeks rather to analyse Baudrillard's relation to postmodernism (a concept with which Baudrillard has had a continued, if uneasy and rarely explicit relationship) and to present a Marxist counter. Regarding the former, William Merrin (as discussed above) has published more than one denunciation of Norris's position. The latter Baudrillard himself characterised as reductive (in Nicholas Zurbrugg's Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact).
Willam Merrin's work has presented a more sympathetic account, which attempts to "place Baudrillard in opposition to himself." Thereby Merrin has argued that Baudrillard's position on semiotic analysis of meaning denies himself his own position on symbolic exchange. Merrin thus alludes to the common criticism of post-structuralist work (a criticism not dissimilar in either Baudrillard, Foucault or Deleuze) that emphasising interrelation as the basis for subjectivity denies the human agency from which social structures necessarily arise. (Alain Badiou and Michel de Certeau have made this point generally, and Barry Sandywell has argued as much in Baudrillard's specific case).
Finally, Mark Poster, Baudrillard's main editor and one of a number of present day academics who argue for his contemporary relevance, has remarked (p. 8 of Poster's 2nd ed. of Selected Writings):
Nonetheless Poster is keen to refute the most extreme of Baudrillard's critics, the likes of Alan Sokal and Norris who see him as a purveyor of a form of reality-denying irrationalism (ibid p. 7):