an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 3, March 2006, ISSN 1552-5112



Baudrillard’s Nuclear Museum and the End of Culture

Marie-Thérèse Killiam






Centre Pompidou (Beaubourg Center), Paris, France

(Piano and Rogers, architects; constructed in 1971-1977)



Beaubourg as nuclear center


The accelerating disappearance of the aesthetic canon in the world of art today, which the surrealists had celebrated and hoped for, defines, among other things, the postmodern condition. The surrealist movement that aspired to fuse dream and reality is echoed in the post-modern age with the elimination of the ultimate barrier between the real and the fake.

Baudrillard’s theory of the postmodern relies heavily on the notion of a (con)fusion between the real and the fake and a subsequent concept of  hyperreality.  His discussion of the Beaubourg Center in L’effet Beaubourg, is the best example of his postmodern philosophy as it highlights the tragic consequences of our nuclear age as reflected by this architectural monument to it.  It is interesting to note that Baudrillard, unlike other postmodern art theoreticians does not seek an escape from this vision by  looking at "classic" works of art,  as Foucault did in Las Meninas, or like Derrida who wrote at length  on Van  Gogh in La vérité dans la peinture (Truth in Painting),. Baudrillard’s tragic view of our future is closest to Michel Serres’, even though Serres’   apocalyptic view of our future does not deter him from indulging in classical art criticism, best illustrated in his Esthetiques sur Carpaccio.  Baudrillard on the other hand, does not want to share in this bourgeois "goût de l'ancien" [Pour une politique économique du signe, 38].  Whether it is an escape from, or a criticism of, contemporary art, French postmodern art theoreticians do not hide their marked distaste for it. But for Baudrillard, contemporary art, and the Beaubourg structure in particular, still serves best to represent the “characteristic” of our age and through it, we may understand its dangers as well. 

For Baudrillard, Beaubourg conveys the existential meaninglessness and the hopelessness inherent to our nuclear age. The subtitle for L'effet Beaubourg, which reads "Implosion et Dissuasion" captures Baudrillard's postmodern tragic angle. The entire pamphlet on Beaubourg revolves around this enigmatic phrase, which, as in a symphony, weaves in and out as a leitmotif throughout the entire essay.  The text is, in fact, the development of this basic tenet that Beaubourg is representative of the nuclear age in which we live. 

              Baudrillard remains close to the romantic concept of the “modern in art, as expressed by Stendhal and Baudelaire, and which is defined by the representative or the  "characteristic" aspect of a society at a given time and place. According to this concept, Beaubourg is representative of our age because its structure is implosive rather than explosive, and it projects a security that is "absolue” since it depends on the factor of  “dissuasion” (deterrence).  Baudrillard uses a metaphorically scientific language to authenticate his postmodern analysis. Baudrillard's text thus develops quite craftily a systemic metaphor, one that is sustained throughout the entire essay.  Beaubourg represents our modern world because it is modeled after a nuclear power plant.  Accordingly, Baudrillard uses the vocabulary pertaining to physics rather than art.  The matricial metaphor is announced on the first page.   Baudrillard reifies Beaubourg in a very literal way.  He underscores the center as object by calling it  "la chose" because it is and represents nothing. Much like the Eiffel Tower in the early 20th century, “la chose Beaubourg” is a monument of nothingness. "Beaubourg” he writes, “comment lui donner un nom?" [Beaubourg, 9.] By taking away its name he removes its identity as museum, and he replaces it with the polysemic word "Centre" thereby setting in place the metaphor.  The word "Centre", not only summons the adjective  "nucléaire" as in "centre/centrale nucléaire", but it also summons the concept of "center" as in "centre de culture". All these meanings are present within the nuclear metaphor as the following sentence perfectly demonstrates:


…le Centre fonctionne comme un incinérateur absorbant l’énergie culturelle et la dévorant…un peu comme le monolithe noir de 2001: convection insensée de tous les contenus venus s’y matérialiser, s’y absorber et s’y anéantir. [ibid, 9,20]


[...The center functions as an incinerator, absorbing cultural energy and devouring it...a little like the black monolith of 2001: nonsensical convection of all the contents that have come here to materialize, get absorbed and desintegrated]


The words "incinérateur, énergie, convection" refer exclusively to the nuclear industry while the epithets  "culturelle" and  "insensée" evoke an artistic avant-garde monument.  The two semic fields, scientific and artistic, fuse to produce  "l'effet  Beaubourg".  The matricial nuclear seme develops into this metaphoric dichotomy throughout the text, to convey Baudrillard’s idea of Beaubourg:


Un peu comme les centrales nucléaires: le vrai danger qu'elles  constituent  n'est pas  l'insécurité,  la  pollution, l'explosion mais le système de sécurité maximal qui rayonne autour  d'elles, le glacis de contrôle et de dissuasion  qui s'étend  de proche en proche, surtout le territoire,  glacis technique, écologique, économique, géopolitique.  Qu'importe le  nucléaire; la centrale est une matrice où  s'élabore  un modèle  de sécurité absolue qui va se généraliser à tout  le champ social..." [ibid, 10,11]


[A little like nuclear centers: the real danger that they pose is not insecurity, pollution, explosion but the maximum security system which shine all around, the control and deterrence glacis       which spreads around especially the territory, technical, ecological, economic, geopolitical   glacis. What does the nuclear matter; the center is a matrix where a model of absolute security is elaborated which is about to generalize to the whole social field...]


Baudrillard himself uses the words "matrice et modèle" which both work as technical and semiotic analytical tools.

The language Baudrillard uses is philosophical in its most traditional rhetorical sense with the support of a technological vocabulary in keeping with the postmodern character of the age and of its illustrative topic at hand. Thus, Baudrillard presents "axiomes" for his theory.


Il faut donc partir de cet axiome: Beaubourg est le monument de dissuasion culturelle.[Beaubourg, 23] 


A technological register short circuit all language registers, both metaphorically and literally: 


…Court-circuit gigantesque...métabolisme défunt...gelé  comme un mécanoïde de science-fiction, solide géométrique,  hydrocarbures,  raffinage, cracking, lumières strobo et  gyroscopiques, transmutation. [Ibid]


[...Gigantic short circuit...dead metabolism...frozen like a science fiction mecanoid, geometrical solid, hydrocarbons, refinery, cracking, strobe and gyroscopic lights, transmutation.]


To illustrate fully our technological progress, Beaubourg symbolizes more than a nuclear center. It is the icon of all that makes our postmodern culture possible, i.e. oil refineries and commuter trains for example. Thus, besides simulating a nuclear power plant, Beaubourg is also a simulacrum of an oil refinery complex:


Beaubourg est la masse elle même que l'édifice traîte  comme un  convertisseur, comme une chambre noire, ou,  en  termes d'input-output,  exactement comme une raffinerie  traîte  un produit pétrolier ou un flux de matière brute. [Ibid, 27]


[Beaubourg is the mass itself that the edifice treats like a converter, like a black room, or, in terms of input-output, exactly like a refinery treats a petroleum product or a flux of raw material]


Thus, with this third dimensional discourse, Baudrillard can conclude briefly on the nuclear metaphor in the third paragraph of his introduction:


...Le même modèle, toutes proportions gardées, s’élabore au Centre: fission culturelle, dissuasion politique. [Ibid, 11]


[The same model, all things considered, is elaborated at the Center: cultural fission, political deterrence.]


For Baudrillard, what Beaubourg shares mainly with the nuclear center is its function of deterrence. The nuclear age, as represented by Beaubourg, has irradiated all levels of social life as a space of deterrence, which makes Beaubourg a “characteristic” monument of post modernity:


Cet espace de dissuasion...est aujourd'hui, virtuellement, celui de tous les rapports sociaux...  Beaubourg  est...Un monument génial de notre modernité...le reflet le plus exact,  jusqu'en  ses contradictions. De l’état de choses actuel. [Ibid, 13, 14]


[This space of deterrence.... is today virtually that of all social rapports...Beaubourg is a brilliant monument of our modernity.... the more exact reflection, down to its contradictions of the state of things today.]


Space, as the essential element of all and any discussion on art, is what Baudrillard shares with Michel Serres and Roland Barthes in their discussion of art and of the Eiffel Tower.

Serres, in his Esthétiques sur Carpaccio, uses space as the semiotic basis of his art analyzes. Similarly, Baudrillard uses space ("cet espace de dissuasion"), as the main signifier of art, as it provides its essential aesthetic and ontological dimension. Baudrillard’s empty space signifies the death of art and culture, as    "...travail de deuil culturel..."[23]  [work of cultural mourning]. Beaubourg as container of a cultural void is the monument of this death.  It is the "monument ou un anti-monument équivalent de l’inanité phallique de la Tour Eiffel de nos temps."[15] [Monument or anti-monument equivalent to the phallic inanity of the Eiffel Tower of our times.] Although Baudrillard does not explicitly refer to Barthes here, his text definitely echoes Barthes's text on the Eiffel Tower in which Barthes had seen "a kind of zero degree of the monument."  [7] Whereas Beaubourg pretends to shelter some kind of a museum inside; the Tower has never been anything but the delineation of an empty void:


…It participates in no rite, in no cult, not even in Art; you cannot visit the Tower as a museum [ibid, 5]


Yet, the Tower was “characteristic” of its age and Barthes also used a similar technological vocabulary to underline this modern symbol of the age by way of its pseudo scientific uses: "aerodynamic measurements, studies of the resistance of substances, physiology of the climber radio electric research problems of telecommunications, meteorological observations etc." [Ibid, 6]

But a technological and functional Eiffel Tower summoned no terror in Barthes or anyone else because the scientific optimism of the late nineteenth century, which it symbolizes, was meant to reach new heights through it. Its height and its real use as belvedere were significant of this symbolism:


...The symbol of Paris, of modernity, of communication, of science or of the nineteenth century rocket, stem, derrick, phallus, lightning rod or insect, confronting the itinerary of our dreams...[Eiffel Tower, 4]     


The space of the Eiffel Tower is one of dreams, the concrete embodiment of our subconscious and of its “désir d’angélisme.”

Thus, in Barthes, there is none of the apocalyptic imagery of Baudrillard’s nuclear plant and its possible aftermath as envisioned by Michel Serres.  The latter imagined masses of corpses buried underneath the Eiffel Tower in his book entitled Statues. Barthes' tower is the electrical tower of the nineteenth century while Serres’ tower has already replaced it with nuclear power. Similarly, Barthes' Parisian tower has the characteristics of the nineteenth century poet, Victor Hugo's Parisian Cathedral.  Its spirituality resides in its mythological height whose:


mythic  function  is  to join, as the poet  says,  base  and summit,    or again, earth and heaven [ibid, 4]


For Serres, however, the tower shares with the Cathedral its catacomb underneath, the cemetery of ashes that serves as its foundation.  The vertical elan toward the Heaven and scientific progress of the modernist architecture and the vision of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century are superseded by the downward élan toward Hell and scientific destruction of  the post modernist architecture and the vision of the middle and late twentieth century.


Beaubourg as museum    


Given this vision, it is difficult to remember that Baudrillard is, after all, writing about the space of a museum, unlike the empty Eiffel Tower.

Indeed, Beaubourg does shelter classic works of art (not unlike Roissy’s futuristic design which leads after all, to conventional planes, Baudrillard notes) with the result that the inner space of art implodes within as in a nuclear center, resulting in death.  Baudrillard demonstrates this cultural death by developing the same bi-semic metaphor of science and art:  scientific nouns are modified by esthetic adjectives like: "molécules culturelles[18],  "production culturelle" [18], "laboratoire  de  fiction" [21], "flux humain" [28].

The aesthetic death that implodes within Beaubourg is symbolically simulated by the physical death that may implode Beaubourg structurally, because of its precarious construction:


Masse critique, masse implosive.  Au-delà de 30 000, elle risque de faire "plier" la structure...[ibid, 34]


[Critical mass, implosive mass. Beyond 30,000, it is likely to make the structure fold...]


In this respect also, Beaubourg is representative of our nuclear implosive age because it disseminates panic  "quelque chose qui tient de la panique et d'un monde panique." [38] The panic is driven by this fear of implosion by SATURATION  (in capital letters in text) [39], which, Baudrillard tells us, is today's mode of disappearance for everything, including political power, ideologies, and even cities and its monuments. Our inability to understand other systems but those relying on expansion, explosion, and liberation, understandably increases our fear. The hyperbolic character of the implosive CHARACTER of our world (as Baudrillard emphasizes by capitalizing the word) finds its hyperbolic metaphor in the cosmic image of star implosion:


Les  systèmes stellaires ne cessent pas non  plus  d'exister une fois dissipée leur énergie de rayonnement: ils implosent selon  un  processus d'abord lent, puis ils  deviennent  des systèmes involutifs... [ibid, 45]


Baudrillard thus doesn't hesitate to have recourse to any linguistic codes and registers of language he needs in order to expand and explain a metaphor which itself illustrates a multi-dimensional symbol. Beaubourg is a pre-textual metaphor for the age we live in and which Beaubourg symbolically contains within itself. It is this implosive characteristic of this age which is Baudrillard's focus, and which he develops under every rubric pertaining to our postmodern world.  The semic fields of the sciences  (math, physics, economics, astronomy) contribute metaphysically to Baudrillard's demonstration in his rhetorical use. They are more important in the end than the object Beaubourg itself [9]. The end of the book shows the impact of Beaubourg as symbol, when Baudrillard leaves Beaubourg   to discuss the ramifications of implosion and deterrence on another socio-political and economic front in May ‘68 in France and Italy. Beaubourg is a postmodern space, as revealed in the clashing of codes and in the confusion  (implosion) that results between the inside and the outside, the signifying and the signifier of form and content:


Un  ordre  de  simulacres antérieurs  (celui  de  sens) connaît même plus la distinction du signifiant et du  signifié, ni du contenant et du contenu... [ibid, 20] 


As Kristeva writes in Soleil Noir:


Par la polyvalence des signes et des symboles qui  destabilise  la  nomination et accumulent autour  d'un  signe  une pluralité de conotations, offre une chance au sujet  d'imaginer  le  non-sens, ou le vrai sens, de  la  chose.  [Soleil noir, 109]        


Instead, like Disneyland, Beaubourg functions as a center of hyper-reality, that produces a simulacrum instead of generating meaning.

It is because of its "meaningless" operation  ("insensée") that Beaubourg successfully kills and buries culture, whereas Dubuffet’s counter-cultural stand for example, Baudrillard tells us, "ne fait comme on sait, que la ressusciter" [27]  Beaubourg's implosive destruction lies in its simulacrum and fetishization of culture and in its self-conscious stance as sign of post modernity. As a consequence, Baudrillard describes Beaubourg as an "hyper-marché de la culture." [29] The Beaubourg visitor is no longer a museumgoer but the consumer of a hyper-culture, while the objets d'art they become "stocks d'objets."  A mass culture, i.e. culture as merchandise is what Beaubourg offers the masses of people who rush in not to see but to touch ("leur regard n'est qu'un aspect de la manipulation tactile.”)[38]

              It is not surprising therefore that Baudrillard should describe the museum as a bank in Pour une politique economique du signe. Thus, Beaubourg stands as the central bank of art today. Baudrillard applies to Beaubourg his theories on the economy of the sign, and on the fetishism of value in the capitalist market. "C'est  l'artefact  qui  est objet de  dessin."  Baudrillard had written about the madness of the art auction before it scandalously exploded in the '80s with the $50 million sale of a Van Gogh painting. According to Baudrillard, the political economy of the sign is the ultimate form of class domination:


Les classes dominantes ont toujours-ou bien assuré d'emblée leur domination sur les valeurs/signes (sociétés archaïques et traditionelles) ou bien tenté (l'ordre bourgeois capitaliste) de dépasser, de transcender, de consacrer leur privilège économique en privilège des signes, parce que ce stade ultérieur représente le stade accompli de la domination.  Cette logique, qui vient relayer la logique de classe et ne se définit plus par la propriété des moyens de production, mais par le contrôle du procès de signification...nous la trouvons tout entière...dans la vente aux enchères de l'oeuvre d'art." [Pour une politique, 133]


The ruling classes have always made sure of their domination over values/signs (archaic and traditional societies) or they attempted (the capitalist bourgeois order) to consecrate their economic privilege into a privilege of signs, because this ulterior stage represents the realized stage of domination. This logic, which continues the logic of class and is no longer defined by the property of means of production, but by the control of the process of meaning...we find it entirely the auction of the work of art.


Aristocratic elitism is evident in the desire for the work of art, which Baudrillard refers to as its  "pedigree" found in the signature.  The psychological fetishism is also projected onto the work of art.  Umberto Eco who is most known for his analysis of this process of fetishization of works of art, wrote that art becomes  "fetishized"-that is, ceases to be appreciated for what it is or can be and comes to be coveted instead, for  what  it represents,  for  the prestige it is supposed  to  convey.  [Open Work, 197]

              For Adorno, the fetishism of art takes place when the product of  "nobler origin" becomes popularized. This notion confirms the postmodern idea that the popular classes sacralize the sign of wealth, class and power through the work of art. Eco also understood that:


Unable and willing to apprehend either good or bad music analytically, he (the average man) accepts it as it is, as something that it is good to consume because the law of the market has decreed it to be so, thus relieving him of any need to express his own judgement." [Open Work, 195]


For Baudrillard however, the object is but a pretext for the social desire that is the driving force behind the object itself:


Ce n'est jamais le "fétishisme de l'objet" qui soutient l'échange  dans son principe, mais le principe social  de  l'échange  qui soutient la valeur fétichisée de  l'objet  [Pour une politique..., 137]


It is never the “fetishism of the object” which supports the exchange in its principle, but the social principle of the exchange which supports the fetishized value of the object.


Baudrillard's theory summons Rene Girard's theory of the mimetic desire, in that the value attributed to a person  (or to an object, in Baudrillard's case) is never intrinsic to the person (object) but is instead, dependent on its “aristocratic” value, the accrued value or desirability of an object or person, according to the "value" of its acquirer. Baudrillard also echoes Bourdieu when he points out the significance of snobbery and elitism  (prestige/distinction) in our capitalist society in relation to art:     


Le prestige hante partout nos sociétés industrielles, dont la culture  (bourgeoise)  n'est jamais que  le  fantôme  de valeurs  aristocratiques.  Partout se reproduit  collectivement, au-delà de la valeur économique et à partir d'elle, la magie du code, la magie d'une communauté élective et  sélective , sondée par la même règle du jeu et les mêmes systèmes de signes." [Pour une politique... 138]


Prestige haunts our industrial societies everywhere, because their (bourgeois) culture is never anything but the phantom of aristocratic values. We find reproduced everywhere the magic of the code, the magic of a community that is elective and selective, ruled by the same rule and the same systems of signs.


In Distinction,  Bourdieu  demonstrated  the   relationship between  class  and  the so-called  aesthetic  experience.  Indeed, society's (re)production and practice of elitism is shown in  the gain and loss of prestige of some specific works of art  throughout time. Bourdieu shows how the recognition of a work of art as "good” art depends on its aristocratic and therefore limited reception and vice-versa. Roland Barthes would have attributed the demise of these styles of art to their  "embourgeoisement".  Baudrillard understood this same phenomenon, and interpreted the movements of counterculture, like Dubuffet's, as the desirable stage of the work of art in an elitist culture. Bourdieu proves that good taste is nothing more than liking the right art at the right time, i.e., when the right people like it. Wrong timing will result in showing what Kant called the "goût barbare" c'est a dire le goût  populaire." [L'amour de l'art, 163] 

              Bourdieu's optimistic view resides in this republican faith in education even, if the ultimate function of education serves the social elite. Indeed, it would be difficult to brush away as just simply sarcastic his quote of an optimistic Leibniz:  "L'éducation  peut  tout: elle fait  danser  les  ours" [ibid, 112] For Bourdieu, then, Beaubourg serves its purpose as educational museum for the people, given its popularity and popular appeal. For Baudrillard, however, popular culture entails its death.

  We can see how the Voltairian Baudrillard differs in this fundamental point of view from Bourdieu's Panglossian optimism. In fact, Bourdieu does find social value in visiting museums, unlike Baudrillard who sees in the death of culture as symbolized by the implosive quality of Beaubourg, an understandable evolution of society.  The death of culture does not result from the awareness of the elitism of culture by a democratic society but more by an out of control self-destructive society. 

              Baudrillard was right to see Beaubourg as the “characteristic” monument to and of our age in that it is recognized as the central space of popular culture today. Beaubourg receives thousands of people each day. Parisians use it more and more as a center for their cultural activities and social encounters. It thus resembles more and more the Cathedral as a “maison du peuple”. It is centrally located in Paris, not far from the other sacred Cathedral and it also scandalously exhibits its skeleton outside. Finally, it gathers inside all classes and esthetics.

              The disappearance of discrimination in art tastes, and the awareness and collapse of "distinction" in Art has not opened and liberated a world of possibilities for Baudrillard as it has, for Bourdieu and to some extent, for Umberto Eco, who optimistically wrote that Art was not dead, but had simply evolved into other forms.  Baudrillard, on the other hand, sees in the mid and mass culture, the end of culture, even of civilization altogether.

 Baudrillard has a similar apocalyptic vision of the future of our society as Michel Serres because he believes that the dynamic of change as evolution and progress has changed for the first time in our history. For Baudrillard, Beaubourg is a metaphor of this change: like the earth/star, it shows a reverse dynamic, from the explosive revolution of countercultural movements to the implosive evolution of a cultural void. It may be that the Eiffel Tower, this elaborate and solid mass of nothingness was already a sign of the future infatuation with appearances, the fake, technology and cultural emptiness. It certainly was a monument devoted to mass culture in the spirit of Disneyland but the "désir d'angélisme" and optimism which its vertical movement and its openness implied, died a century later if we believe Baudrillard, in the paranoiac reality of a world closed on itself and for which Beaubourg is still, the best representative.






Barthes, Roland  The Eiffel Tower  New York: Wang,

Baudrillard, Jean  L'effet Beaubourg Paris: Galilee, 1977

                   Pour une politique economique du signe  Paris:

Bourdieu, Pierre/Darbel, Alain  L'amour de l'art  Paris:  Minuit,


Derrida, Jacques  The Truth in Painting Chicago: The University           

                                      of Chicago Press, 1987

                                      Memoirs of the Blind  Chicago: The University

                                      of Chicago Press, 1993

Eco, Umberto              The Open Work  Cambridge: Harvard University

                                      Press, 1989

Kristeva, Julia Soleil noir  Paris: Gallimard, 1987

Serres, Michel  Esthetiques sur Carpaccio  Paris: Herman, 1975                                  

                           Statues  Paris: Flammarion, 1989




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 3, March 2006, ISSN 1552-5112