Volume 1, Number 2 (July 2004)Reversibility: Baudrillard’s “One Great Thought”
Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada).
- Quote :
- We will live in this world, which for us has all the disquieting strangeness of the desert and of the simulacrum, with all the veracity of living phantoms, of wandering and simulating animals that capital, that the death of capital has made of us – because the desert of cities is equal to the desert of sand – the jungle of signs is equal to that of the forest – the vertigo of simulacra is equal to that of nature – only the vertiginous seduction of a dying system remains...
My position is based on reversibility, which seems to me to be the true symbolic form. It is more an indetermination or a total instability of principles, and it is evil because it contradicts all possibility of rebuilding the world.
An early exchange in Fragments, a book length conversation between Jean Baudrillard and Francois L’Yvonnet, involves the interesting notion of an individual’s one great thought:
- Quote :
- L’Yvonnet: …You say that one only has one great thought in one’s life…
Baudrillard: You can have thousands of ideas, but a thought [une pensée] is something else! I do in fact believe that you only ever have one in your life.
L’Yvonnet: What is your thought, the one that was in you from the start?
Baudrillard: That is a good, but mistaken, question. It’s not possible to conceive the omega point from which you might look on that ultimately rather nebulous constellation that is a personal thought.
Agreed, it is indeed not possible to find an omega point in any person’s thought and it is not my purpose in this paper to attempt to do so. A great thought, and Baudrillard’s is no exception, is one which emerges over a series of years of writing and encounter with ideas. I argue that looking back on Baudrillard’s writing at seventy-five, re-reading his more than thirty books in the chronological order of their publication, that Baudrillard’s one great thought was indeed not with him from the start – it does not really begin to emerge until the late 1970s, and does not approach a fuller form until the 1980s and 1990s. Baudrillard’s one great thought, if it may be captured in a word, is reversibility. Reversibility intersects with many of his most important ideas, and it is intimately connected to his strategy of challenge.
I begin, in Section II, with an assessment of Baudrillard’s break with Marx, traditional critical theory, and his abandonment of the idea of transcendence. These were all necessary steps, so it turned out, in preparing to meet the one great thought he was to have. Section III discusses the emergence of reversibility in Baudrillard’s writing of the late 1970s as well as his single strategy of using theory as challenge. Section IV argues that Baudrillard’s thought in the 1980s finds fuller form in the testing ground of America and the books leading up to it. Section V explores Baudrillard’s challenge in the 1990s and the working though of his thought on reversibility in The Perfect Crime and Impossible Exchange. Section VI concludes that Baudrillard’s thought on reversibility is yet another aspect of the reversibility and seduction of the world in which we live. What makes Baudrillard so exceptional is the level of sensitivity he has to the presence of multiple aspects of reversibility.II. 1968-1975: The Abandonment of Transcendence.
From his earliest writing Baudrillard was concerned with the globalizing catastrophe of the West – the system that has the absolute misfortune to have “abolished elsewhere” while seeing all systems, except itself, as relative. Baudrillard’s break with Marx and traditional critical theory appears in The Mirror of Production, and his 1968 assessment of western society precipitates this break with analyses which are linked only to the productive system. The terrain is cleared for an assessment of deeper conflicts and the abandonment of transcendence:
- Quote :
- ...one could argue that nothing more is involved than an infantile disorder of the technological society, and attribute such growing pains entirely to the dysfunctionality of our present social structures – i.e. to the capitalist order of production. The long term prospect of a transcendence of the whole system would thus remain open. On the other hand, if something more is involved than the anarchic ends of a productive system determined by social exploitation, if deeper conflicts in fact play a part – highly individual conflicts, but extended onto the collective plain – then any prospect of ultimate transcendence must be abandoned forever. ...What, in short has made a civilization go wrong in this way?
In The Consumer Society
Baudrillard’s debt to both Bataille and Mauss informs an answer to this question by an analysis of how the “affluent society” can be given meaning in terms of the amount of waste it produces – a waste that signifies abundance rather than scarcity. This reversal is an analysis not of the typical production of objects in consumer society, but of the need of that society to destroy objects as its foundational principle. Consumption is merely an “intermediary stage between production and destruction”, it is a system of “forced consumption in perpetuity”, a kind of social logic that condemns us to “spectacular penury” in our own totalitarian society, the reconstituted society of empty intimacies:
- Quote :
- ...the institutional smile... intimacy where there is none... This huge system of solicitude is based on a total contradiction ... of the deep contradictions of our so called ‘affluent society’…‘functionalized’ human relations… cleansed of all real, effective harmonics, and reconstituted on the basis of the calculated vibrations of the ideal relationship… There is no transcendence anymore, no finality, no objective…
Reversibility (or seduction as we will soon come to recognize it in Baudrillard’s writing of the late 1970s), is not present in these first two books where Baudrillard sees many aspects of his society as “irreversible”. The roots of his (theory) challenge, if they are present, exist only in a rudimentary form: “...we must challenge our society’s implicit assumption that a rationality of ends and means governs the sphere of production and the technological product itself.” There are however, passages in The Consumer Society which presage important aspects of his later thought such as when he writes: “Like violence, all forms of seduction and narcissism are laid down in advance by models produced industrially by the mass media and composed of identifiable signs.
In For a Critique of the Political Economy
of the Sign we find the transdisciplinary Baudrillard passing through sociology, (as he later writes “we must pass through all disciplines”). Here he deepens his exploration of objects and the system of waste into an assessment of forced social relations in cybernetic neo-capitalist society:
- Quote :
- ...making [people] participate in its multiplied survival. This is a considerable advance. But this participation only takes on its whole fantastic scope at the level of signs. It is there that the entire strategy of “neo-capitalism” is articulated in its originality: in a Semiurgy and an operational semiology, which are only the developed form of controlled participation. ...We pass... to a cybernetized society. …a total abstract communication and an immanent manipulation no longer leave any point exterior to the system. It is the end of traditional political economy, and simultaneously the commencement of the meta-political economy of a society that has become its own pure environment.
Baudrillard has, by this point, taken up what he will later call the quest for “a symbolic violence more powerful than political violence” with a focus on symbolic exchange against “the terrorism of value”. He has also brought linguistic philosophy to bear on consumer objects and has cleared the decks for a break with Marx, subjecting Marxism to a Baudrillardean reversal.
In The Mirror of Production
, the first of Baudrillard’s books to be translated into English Baudrillard indicts Marxism as an equally repressive system to the one it promises to overthrow:
- Quote :
- Historical materialism, dialectics, modes of production, labour power – through these concepts Marxist theory has sought to shatter the abstract universality of the concepts of bourgeois thought. Yet Marxism in turn universalizes them with a ‘critical’ imperialism as ferocious as the other’s. ....it is an extremely serious problem that Marxist thought retains these key concepts which depend on the metaphysics of the market in general and on modern capitalist ideology in particular. ...The concept of production is never questioned. ...starting from the moment when Marxism enters into the game of the objectivity of history, when it resigns itself to the laws of history and the dialectic, can it be anything more than a ‘perspective’?
Baudrillard’s critique of Marxism also sees it as merely another aspect of the globalizing catastrophe of the west that understands itself superior to all other ways of knowing. Positioning himself as a stranger in Western culture is an important move for Baudrillard and one that resonates throughout his later work as does perhaps the most important development of 1968-73 – his shift of focus away from production and dialectics toward the importance of the code:
- Quote :
- Productive forces as referent...lose their specific impact, and the dialectic no longer operates between productive forces and relations of production, just as the ‘dialectic’ no longer operates between the substance of signs and the signs themselves. ...Economically, this process culminates in the virtual international autonomy of finance capital, in the uncontrollable play of floating capital. Once currencies are extracted from all productive cautions, and even from reference to the gold standard, general equivalence becomes the strategic place of the manipulation. Real production is everywhere subordinated to it. This apogee of the system corresponds to the triumph of the code.
Marx cast as conservative, transcendence abandoned, analyses of production subordinated to that of the code, links drawn between linguistics and the system of consumer waste – here is a subtle thinker who in his first four books is given to intrepid and provocative analyses. The “angel of extermination” was about his work:
- Quote :
- Baudrillard’s attempt to draw an analogy between the system of objects and linguistic philosophy was not unique in the poststructuralist era, but it was arguably subtler and bolder than many such attempts. The point of his analogy was not to preserve and strengthen either Marxism or structuralism, but to dissolve them into something other than themselves, into a ‘difference’ whose terms of equivalence (linguistics, sociology, political economy) were symbolically cancelled. Instead of reproducing Marx’s critique of political economy in structuralist terms, as did Althusser, Kristeva, Goux, and many others at that time, Baudrillard dreamed up a whole new ‘critique of the critique’ in which the categories themselves were radically transformed.
Reading his work in the order of its writing to 1973 we find Baudrillard subjecting traditional critical theory to a dramatic reversal. He is developing his own kind of radicality and resistance – a resistance that includes resisting dominant forms of critical theory. While reversibility is not present as it will be in his later writings, it already exists in his approach to dominant systems and ideas, particularly: capitalism, production, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. He has clearly identified “production” as a key problem, but he is, as yet, to have the one great thought with which to seduce it.III. The Trilogy of the Late 1970s and the One Great Thought
In Symbolic Exchange and Death
identity is reversed (equated with death), ambivalence is said to await the most advanced systems, and Baudrillard offers a catastrophic strategy as his one great thought begins to appear in his writing. Faced with a system he now describes as “hyperrealist”, Baudrillard advocates a kind of reversal he calls pataphysics, a science of imaginary solutions to face a word where: “Strictly speaking, nothing remains for us to base anything on.” This takes Baudrillard beyond his abandonment of transcendence, over the next horizon to face the real and his deeper encounter with reversibility. Here he meets a series of ideas that reside at the centre of his writing into the next millennium, appearing as they eventually will, to explain the events of September 11, 2001. It is also in Symbolic Exchange and Death that Baudrillard’s challenge to the real, with the aid of the symbolic, allied to a reversal that we will soon recognize as central to seduction, become clearly articulated in his writing:
- Quote :
- ...We will never defeat the system on the plane of the real: the worst error of all our revolutionary strategies is to believe that we will put an end to the system on the plane of the real: this is their imaginary, imposed on them by the system itself, living or surviving only by always leading those who attack the system to fight amongst each other on the terrain of reality, which is always the reality of the system. ...We must therefore displace everything into the sphere of the symbolic, where challenge, reversal and overbidding are the law, so that we can respond to death only by an equal or superior death. ...If domination comes from the system’s retention of the exclusivity of the gift without counter gift – the gift of work which can only be responded to by destruction or sacrifice, if not in consumption, which is only a spiral of the system of surplus-gratification without result, therefore a spiral of surplus domination; a gift of media and messages to which, due to the monopoly of the code, nothing is allowed to retort, the gift, everywhere and at every instant, of the social, of the protection agency, security, gratification and the solicitation of the social from which nothing is any longer permitted to escape – then the only solution is to turn the principle of its power back against the system itself: the impossibility of responding or retorting. To defy the system with a gift to which it cannot respond save by its own collapse and death.
In this way, through reversibility and challenge, Baudrillard has set into his approach an idea of something more powerful than the productive might of the west and he has given it a name. It appears in its most fully developed form to date in Symbolic Exchange and Death, and continues to take shape in Forget Foucault and Seduction.
In Forget Foucault
Baudrillard introduces us more fully to his thought on seduction as that which runs counter to production. Anticipating his later Manichean thought on good and evil, where good is not assumed to be the more powerful force, seduction reverses production:
- Quote :
- Seduction is stronger than production. …It is a circular and reversible process of challenge, one-upmanship, and death. ...production everywhere and always seeks to eliminate seduction in order to establish itself over the single economy of governing force relations...
Here Baudrillard furthers his approach to the social as a simulation mode, something to be rejected rather than idealized by critical thought. Together with Symbolic Exchange and Death
, Forget Foucault
makes a contribution to Baudrillard’s strategy of using theory as challenge. It is also here that Baudrillard stakes his claim to surpass Foucault. Where Foucault sought to know and understand power, Baudrillard views power as reversibility and seduction waiting to take place. This is a crucial aspect of Baudrillard’s development of a strategy (theory as challenge) in the overall emergence of what will be his one great thought.
His point of departure with Foucault, is that power, like the simulated spatial perspective of Renaissance painting, is never really there
. Power becomes a trap for Foucault similar to the way that many sociologists are trapped in their mistaking the ideology of consumption for consumption itself, or western Marxists are trapped within western Enlightenment rationality. Baudrillard describes power for Foucault as “something that functions ... distributional... it operates through relays and transmissions”. Reversing Foucault, Baudrillard understands power as “something that is exchanged” and in this process the cycle of reversibility, seduction, and challenge are at play
. Baudrillard’s reversal allows him to push past Foucault:
- Quote :
- ...what if Foucault spoke so well to us concerning power... only because power is dead? ...what if Foucault spoke to us so well of sexuality... ...only because its form, this great production of our culture, was, like that of power, in the process of disappearing? ...Seduction, however, does not partake of the real order. It never belongs to the order of force or force relations. It is precisely for this reason that seduction envelopes the whole real process of power, as well as the whole real order of production, with this never-ending reversibility and disaccumulaton – without which neither power nor production would even exist.
now becomes the focus and the title of Baudrillard’s most important book so far. In Seduction
Baudrillard returns to his critique of society from his books of 1968 and 1970 but now he is armed with reversibility as seduction and a strategy of challenge:
- Quote :
- From the discourse of labour to the discourse of sex... one finds the same ultimatum, that of pro-duction in the literal sense of the term. ...To produce is to materialize by force what belongs to another order, that of the secret and of seduction. Seduction is, at all times and all places, opposed to production. Seduction removes something from the order of the visible, while production constructs everything in full view... Everything is to be produced, everything is to be legible, everything is to become real, visible, accountable... This is sex as it exists in pornography, but more generally, this is the enterprise of our culture, whose natural condition is obscene: a culture of monstration, of demonstration, of productive monstrosity.
What is perhaps most interesting about this kind of “critical” theory, is not that it merely reverses the dominant system, but that it has no direct links to other critical perspectives then dominant. Baudrillard has become a thinker who has passed through traditional uses of critical theory and this allows him to respectfully settle things with Foucault once and for all:
- Quote :
- …in our culture the sexual has triumphed over seduction, and annexed it as a subaltern form. Our instrumental vision has inverted everything. ... Power will never do it by itself; and Foucault’s text should be criticized for reviving the illusion of power. The whole, obsessed as it is with maximizing power and sex, must be questioned as to its emptiness. ...Given its fascination with production, one must ask the question of seduction. ...Everything is seduction and nothing but seduction. They wanted us to believe that everything was production. ...Production only accumulates, without deviating from its end. It replaces all illusions with just one, its own, which becomes the reality principle.
At least four ideas central to Baudrillard’s 1980s and 1990s writing also take shape in Seduction: simulation, the screen, mass, and cloning. Those who do not read this book until its 1990 translation into English might note that these ideas appear before 1980. Perhaps most importantly for Baudrillard, production has been identified with the reality principle. He now writes the books of the 1980s that bring him to a global audience while continuing to remind the world of the power of reversibility. IV. Baudrillard’s Thought and Challenge In The 1980s
In Simulacra and Simulation
Baudrillard explores further the problem of the real – that it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary. It is “a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.” This idea, reversing as it does traditional analysis of the real, provides Baudrillard a unique take on America, five years before America:
Simulacra and Simulation
- Quote :
- Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.
is also occupied with Baudrillardean thought on meaning, an important aspect of his great thought and strategy. He says we live in a world where there is an increasing amount of information but less meaning, while finding modernity collapsing under the weight of information with catastrophic implications for meaning: “where we think that information produces meaning, the opposite occurs.” Meaning, truth, and the real are here reversed (divested of universal meaning) and restricted to local, partial objects. This world, which we inhabit like living phantoms in the desert is a place where we may not have a politics, but we do have a strategy:
- Quote :
- One must push at the insane consumption of energy in order to exterminate its concept. One must push at maximal repression in order to exterminate its concept. ...’One must push what is collapsing’, said Nietzsche. ...I am a terrorist and a nihilist in theory as the others are in weapons. Theoretical violence, not truth, is the only resource we have left us.
Baudrillard’s next two books, Fatal Strategies
and the less well known Evil Demon of Images
are among the most important in the development of his great thought and his strategy. In them he faces some important implications of the strategy he has been developing in relation to the dominant Christian ethos of the West and thought on Good and Evil. The Manichean Baudrillard emerges more clearly, and it is a Baudrillard that fits well into the strategy he has already been developing – a strategy that values uncertainty. Anticipating later ideas of the perfect crime, Baudrillard says we have answered the chance and uncertainty of the world with an “excess of causality and finality.” As we will learn later, the crime is never perfect, and the screens which surround us with increasing uncertainty, are the reverse of our efforts to make the world more predictable as they provide us with only an excess of information.
An important part of Baudrillard’s understanding of reversibility is to see systems playing a central role in their own demise. In Baudrillardean reversal, problems are often the result of attempts to avoid them. In the age of simulation and simulacra we have gone past traditional forms of uncertainty and now our problem is made permanent. As elsewhere in his writing this is not necessarily a cause for pessimism and Baudrillard has long found a radically uncertain and ultimately unknowable world a far more comfortable place to live than one which is predictable. Baudrillard lives, as well as do, in a world in a permanent state of reversibility, and he prefers it to a world that is accomplished. To better understand this aspect of Baudrillard’s thought in the early 1980s, we need look no further than his writing on terrorism and security:
- Quote :
- ...what kind of state would be capable of dissuading and annihilating all terrorism in the bud...? It would have to arm itself with such terrorism and generalize terror on every level. If this is the price of security, is everybody deep down dreaming of this? ...The problem of security, as we know, haunts our societies and long ago replaced the problem of liberty. ...Understood: terrorism is still a lesser evil than a police state capable of ending it. It is possible that we secretly acquiesce in this fantastic proposition. There’s no need of ‘political consciousness’ for this; it’s a secret balance of terror that makes us guess that a spasmodic eruption of violence is preferable to its rational exercise within the framework of the State, or to total prevention at the price of a total programmatic domination.
Baudrillard’s strategy of using theory as challenge takes its most developed form to date in Fatal Strategies
and it is linked both to his optimism and his Manichean understanding of Good and Evil. Baudrillard’s fatal strategy is theory. The difference he posits between a fatal and a banal theory, is that in fatal theory, the subject no longer believes himself to be more cunning than the object. Baudrillard’s reversal into object oriented theory (another central aspect of his great thought) is a further departure for him from traditional critical thought and plays a central role in his writing as well as a good deal of his photography for the next twenty years: “the object is considered more cunning, cynical, talented than the subject, for which it lies in wait.” Baudrillard is not describing a world which is determined. In this world nothing is determined but “everything is antagonistic” in a world where good will not necessarily triumph over the principle of evil. Traditional western Christian philosophies possess a certainty about the inevitable triumph of good over evil. Baudrillard, in another of his famous reversals, argues that we need to reawaken the principle of Evil:
- Quote :
- ... active in Manichaeism and all the great mythologies in order to affirm, against the principle of Good, not exactly the supremacy of Evil, but the fundamental duplicity that demands that any order exists only to be disobeyed, attacked, exceeded, and dismantled... That is the basic rule: for a group or an individual to live, it can never aim at its own good, its own interest, its own ideal. It always has to aim elsewhere, to the side, beyond, off centre, like the combatant in the Japanese martial arts. It is useless to attempt to reconcile these two principles. Duplicity is strategic and fatal.
It is not surprising a few pages later to find the object oriented Baudrillard, devoted as he is to ironic outcomes, stress that the necessity of irony, like that of pleasure, is part of the necessity of evil.
In the Evil Demon of Images
Baudrillard extends this assessment to the world of images with which we have surrounded ourselves. These images are not the sites of the “production of meaning” he argues, but rather, “sites of the disappearance of meaning and representation.” Of full blown cybernetic society, (where the movie The China Syndrome presents the events at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as they would occur three weeks after its release), Baudrillard says: “we are caught quite apart from any judgement of reality.” Images have made our world exponential as we enter into the age of video and the digital. Here the real and the imaginary become equally impossible and unsettled. This reversal leads us to:
- Quote :
- ...an inverse negative relation between the cinema and reality: it results from the loss of specificity which both have suffered. Cold collage, cool promiscuity, asexual engagement of two cold media which evolve in asymptotic line towards one another: cinema attempting to abolish itself in the absolute of reality, the real already long absorbed in cinematographic (or televised) hyperreality.
At this point we are chronologically half way between the System of Objects and Baudrillard’s most recent title: Le Pacte de Lucidité. We find, as we move into the mid 1980s, a Baudrillard who has developed a fatal strategy toward the real. We also find a Baudrillard who is comfortable with his approach even if not satisfied with the society around him. As someone who came to maturity in the 1950s and 1960s, he will never be satisfied with our transpolitical, transeconomic, transhistorical and transsexual condition and he admits that he finds it intolerable. He is however, more comfortable with his fatal strategy than those who mistake the real for the real:
- Quote :
- Western materialism works on the hypothesis that the world is brute matter, subject to aleatory and disorganized movements. Our world’s ‘primitive scene’ is that which would remain lifeless if some God did not come along to breathe soul, or sense, or energy into it. ...The idea that we achieve a few rational moments in this world of ours only at the price of perpetual effort, that we have to be constantly on guard against a lapse into nothingness – this hypothesis is functionally pessimist and desperate.
Those who have difficulty taking Baudrillard seriously may have had the misfortune of making their first read of his work America without having understood the development of his approach over the previous eighteen years. America can be read as a serious study by a person who has developed a very serious strategy to deal with simulation, radical uncertainty, simulacra, cyberneticized society, and the problem of the real. Without an understanding of Baudrillard’s previous work from 1968 onwards, America reads like the theory dream of someone who just may be driving though the desert with an open bottle of whisky. America
is a testing ground for some of the ideas and the one great thought Baudrillard has been encountering for a number of years. Here he finds the country neither a dream nor a reality but a hyperreality, a utopia which has behaved since its founding as if it were an already achieved utopia facing the problem of its own duration and permanence. Baudrillard’s America
is an enactment of his fatal strategy of challenge to the real (America) to reveal itself as illusion. Reversing direction from the usual kind of European analysis of America, he refuses to approach the country with moral or critical judgements he says for fear of missing its originality and the violence of its contrasts:
- Quote :
- ...the absence of discrimination between positive and negative effects, the telescoping of races, technologies, and models, the waltz of simulacra and images here is such that, as with dream elements, you must accept the way they follow one another, even if it seems unintelligible; you must come to see this whirl of things and events as an irresistible, fundamental datum. ...The distinctions that are made elsewhere have little meaning here. It would be misguided to focus on aspects of an American civility that is often in fact far superior to our own in our land of ‘high culture’ and then to point out that in other respects the Americans are barbarians.
Many of the insights in America are striking and seem all the more penetrating with the passage of time. Seldom is he more prescient in his writing on America than in this passage, where he confronts America with a powerful kind of reversibility it will soon face:
- Quote :
- The US, like everyone else, now has to face up to a soft world order, a soft situation. Power has become impotent. But if America is now no longer the monopolistic centre of world power, this is not because it has lost power, but simply because there is no centre anymore.
The Ecstasy of Communication
is another important book from this period in Baudrillard’s writing when he is developing a strategy for writing about contemporary society. Elaborating upon established themes he says we:
- Quote :
- …no longer partake of the drama of alienation, but are in the ecstasy of communication. And this ecstasy is obscene. Obscene is that which illuminates the gaze, the image and every representation. Obscenity is not confined to sexuality, because today there is a pornography of information and communication, a pornography of circuits and networks, of functions and objects in their legibility, availability, regulation, forced signification, capacity to perform, connection, polyvalence, their free expression. It is no longer the obscenity of the hidden, the repressed, the obscure, but that of the visible, all-too-visible, the more visible than visible; it is the obscenity of that which no longer contains a secret and is entirely soluble in information and communication.
In our contemporary situation, Baudrillard believes everything to be exposed to transparency and that: “transcendence has drawn its last breath and we can now look to seduction and challenge, not for answers, but for a strategy, “the fundamental rule.” Thus Baudrillard restates his argument from earlier in the decade that:
- Quote :
- …for critical theory one must therefore substitute a fatal theory. ...This is no longer the irony of the subject faced with an objective order, but the objective irony of things caught in their own devices – no longer the historical workings of the negative, but the workings of reduplication and the rising stakes...
By 1987 Baudrillard has not only a clearly articulated strategy, he has begun to test it out to his own satisfaction. Theory in his view is not to be used to reflect the real as in Enlightenment thought, but rather, as an expression of reversibility, as challenge. If the world is not compatible with the concept of the real which we impose upon it, then:
- Quote :
- ...the function of theory is certainly not to reconcile it, but on the contrary, to seduce, to wrest things from their condition, to force them into an over-existence which is incompatible with that of the real. ...If it no longer aspires to a discourse of truth, theory must assume the form of a world from which truth has withdrawn. And thus it becomes its very object. ...What theory can do is to defy the world to be more: more objective, more ironic, more seductive, more real and unreal.
Baudrillard’s writing to the end of the 1980s reveals no single omega point for his one great thought. Rather, it is a series of ideas, around core concepts of exchange, reversibility, seduction and challenge, that emerge in his writing over a prolonged period of time. Baudrillard cannot be said to be the master of reversibility, for reversibility is the master of the universe. He does master the ability to constantly bring it to our attention, as he has done since the late 1970s, losing no force in the 1990s.V. Baudrillard’s Challenge to the 1990s.
The 1990s was a decade that Baudrillard simply wanted to cancel. All the same, in this decade he wrote six books which brought his one great thought and fatal strategy to bear on a plethora of contemporary events and issues. He also did a book length interview with Philip Petit and released his second and third Cool Memories. Baudrillard may have “settled in” somewhat, but his writing did not lose momentum in the 1990s, especially if we keep an eye to reversibility and challenge as these continue to develop in his work throughout the decade.
The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena
is a thoroughly interesting read full of flashes of Baudrillardean brilliance. Transparency is concerned with the deepening illusion of security and control in the age of transeconomic orbital money, weapons, and transpolitics. Capital has now, in ways not foreseeable by Marx, transpoliticized itself by “launch[ing] into an orbit beyond the relations of production and political contradictions, to make itself autonomous in a free-floating, ecstatic and haphazard form, and thus totalize the world in its own image.” Transparency abounds with discussions of growths and metastasis. Growth for the sake of growth, without reference to causes or goals means that our society has fallen into a kind of saturation of functional accumulation which Baudrillard sees as a toxic form of reversibility: “There is no better analogy here than the metastatic process in cancer: a loss of the body’s organic ground rules such that a given group of cells is able to deploy its incoercible and murderous vitality, to defy genetic programming and to proliferate endlessly.”
An interesting arc in Baudrillard’s strategy reappears in Transparency
and is not fully worked out until The Perfect Crime in 1996. This is the idea that the crime is never perfect, and, as it appears in Transparency
, that our society, such as it is, could be worse and soon may be. This extends his idea that systems play a central role in their downfall, (just as the computer virus relies on the operation of the computer’s systemic logic to defeat it). Baudrillard further develops the notion that our solutions to problems, our attempts to perfect the world, such as contemporary medicine, are but a step on the way to worse viruses developing:
- Quote :
- ...the question has to be asked: What is cancer a resistance to, what even worse eventuality is it saving us from? (Could it be the total hegemony of genetic coding?) What is AIDS a resistance to, what even worse eventuality is it saving us from? (...a sexual epidemic, a sort of promiscuity?) ... drugs... from what even worse scourge do they offer us an avenue of escape? (...the brutalizing effects of rationality, normative socialization, and universal conditioning?) ... terrorism... does not its secondary, reactive violence shield us from an epidemic of consensus, from an ever increasing political leukemia and degeneration and from the imperceptible transparency of the state?
This is a fundamental articulation of Baudrillard’s thought on reversibility and seduction, and is vital to the continued strategy of challenge as it develops in the books of the next fourteen years, based as it is on a deep mistrust of centralized systems. Combined with this is a belief that these systems (which always purport to do good), are highly susceptible to the evil’s they face as singularities of culture (that may be defined by the globalizing system as evil or terroristic, on the grounds that they oppose or attempt to stand outside of the system). This leads Baudrillard to a tripartite analysis of globalization where the goals of global business expose the myth of the universal (human rights) opening up a clear antagonism between the global and the singular.
Baudrillard presents us with a hypothesis reversing any notion that globalization will be smooth and euphoric. His hypothesis of the transparency of evil includes a view that “Islam will never become Western” and that “foreignness is eternal”. Just as all those cultural singularities will never merge into one global monoculture, people remain radically other to each other. This does not mean that we are obliged to act in a racist manner, it simply means that:
- Quote :
- ...what we deem fatal in seduction is the Other’s sovereign otherness with respect to us. The otherness which erupts into our life, with stunning clarity, in the shape of a gesture, a face, a form, a word, a prophetic dream, a witticism, an object, a woman, or a desert. ...The Other is what allows me not to repeat myself for ever.
Multiculturalism is doomed to this reversal as it is being other to each other that saves us from globalization’s “hell of the same”. This, linked as it is to Baudrillard’s understanding of systems as leading to their own downfall, is a vital aspect of the development of his thought in the 1990s. It is also something which has been developing in his writing for at least a decade and finds expression in 1983 in his belief that the state capable of ending terrorism is a far greater concern than terrorism itself. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place
was an opportunity too good for Baudrillard to miss in further thinking through his strategy for challenging simulation and modelling. As a war that was determined in advance by computer modelling, (and indeed television clips of smart missiles hitting their targets were prepared in advance of the war for the media by the military), the first Gulf War revealed the extent of simulation to the point where Baudrillard asks if questions of truth, freedom, liberty and reality can even be posed? He writes:
- Quote :
- It is as though there was a virus infecting this war right from the beginning which emptied it of all credibility. ...They never saw each other: when the Americans finally appeared behind their curtain of bombs the Iraqis had already disappeared behind their curtain of smoke. This is why we could advance the hypothesis that the war would not take place. And now that it is over, we can realize at last that it did not take place. We cannot even say the Americans defeated Saddam: he defaulted on them, he de-escalated and they were not able to escalate sufficiently to destroy him.
Where the Gulf War impacts most on Baudrillard’s strategy is in its virtuality and the deeper violence against singularity that it represents – America attempting to bring the world into its form of government and media. Baudrillard sees this kind of Americanization as a transpolitical development towards aligning the globe, especially Islam, with the American democratic lowest common denominator:
- Quote :
- ...the New World Order will be both consensual and televisual. That is indeed why the targeted bombings carefully avoided the Iraqi television antennae...The crucial stake, the decisive stake in this whole affair is the consensual reduction of Islam to the global order.
The Illusion of the End
further elaborates Baudrillard’s strategy. Rejecting increasingly popular (in academic circles) notions of the end of history, Baudrillard looks beyond the dustbin to find history in the recycling bin:
- Quote :
- History will not come to an end – since the leftovers, all the leftovers – the Church, communism, ethnic groups, conflicts, ideologies – are indefinitely recyclable. ...History has only wrenched itself from cyclical time to fall into the order of the recyclable.
This development, along side of the digitalization and virtualization of media, make it all the more impossible to separate truth from fiction. He points to the “massacre” in Romania (Timisoara), faked for international media audiences, as the most glaring example and concludes: “If you take one-thousandth of what you see on the TV news to heart, you’re done for!” As part of his strategy to challenge the real to expose itself as illusion, and his effort to point out that systems lead to their own demise, Baudrillard notes that television has not given us more information, but rather, has produced “distance, skepticism and unconditional apathy”. The world made into its double, into images, puts the imagination to sleep and leads to “total disillusionment”. Rather than making the world more knowable in its reality, television (and all media) “render reality dissuasive” and produce, despite all efforts to the contrary, mass cynicism.
To fully understand what is at stake for Baudrillard’s thought here we must return to his assessment of the inseparability of good and evil developed as it is as a central part of his strategy of challenge. This allows him to understand so-called efforts to produce good through the expulsion of evil as a terroristic dream. This takes Baudrillard into an assessment of his own strategy, as it has been evolving for twenty-five years, in which he is clear about what we must do:
- Quote :
- In this very way, we enter, beyond history, upon pure fiction, upon the illusion of the world. The illusion of our history opens on to the greatly more radical illusion of the world. Now we have closed the eyelids of the Revolution, closed our eyes on the Revolution, now we have broken down the Wall of shame, now that the lips of protest are closed (with the sugar of history which melts on the tongue), now Europe – and memories – are no longer haunted by the spectre of communism, not even by that of power, now the aristocratic illusion of the origin and the democratic illusion of the end are increasingly receding, we no longer have the choice of advancing, of preserving in the present destruction, or of retreating – but only of facing up to this radical illusion.
It is important to keep passages like this in mind when we hear Baudrillard accused of intellectual irresponsibility. His great thought concerning reversibility and seduction, and the strategy he has developed, is very much a form of resistance albeit one not recognizable by traditional criteria. What is being resisted is a world that cannot be characterized in the terms we formerly used, such as dialectics, or with strategies such as dialectical materialism, which Baudrillard has long since shown are part of the problem of the globalization of Western ideology. The world that Baudrillard has watched unfold on the screens around him, in all its layers of simulation, is one in which he can see no political application of his strategy but one in which he is clear about its strategic value for challenge and a kind of intellectual resistance (reversibility) that each of us must commit to on our own:
The Perfect Crime
- Quote :
- I think that each of us can resist. But it would be difficult for such resistance to become political. I don’t get the impression there could be any organized political resistance as such. It would always be an exception, and whatever you do will always be ‘exceptional’ in that sense. A work of art is a singularity, and all these singularities can create holes, interstices, voids et. cetera, in the metastatic fullness of culture. But I don’t see them coalescing, combining into a kind of anti-power that could invest the other.
continues a three decades long project of strategy formation around his thought on reversibility and seduction and using theory as a challenge to the real to expose itself as illusion. It furthers Baudrillard’s indictment of western culture and allows him to develop a question that places his long developing strategy squarely at odds with the entire philosophical tradition of the west: “The great philosophical question used to be: ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Today, the real question is: ‘Why is there nothing rather than something.’” In terms of Baudrillard’s one great thought and his strategy for dealing with the concept of the real, The Perfect Crime is the book where three decades of thought and writing come together in such a way as to clarify the object of Baudrillard’s disaffection. Fundamental themes of earlier books are recapitulated such as the notion that the technologies we use to bind our society together have driven the reality out of reality. Other newer ideas are stressed and grafted onto the established strategy. In particular, he speaks of the radical illusion as “the original crime” by which the world is “alter-ed from the beginning”. The world of our reality of matter, is for Baudrillard half a reality, as it was siphoned off from antimatter at the time of the formation of the universe. Again, contemporary science is called upon to point to the illusory nature of the world and the cosmos. But this illusion is necessary, it is what prevents our world from being knowable and predictable. The one thing worse, for Baudrillard, than the radical illusion of the world, would be to find the world rendered knowable. This idea finds expression in Impossible Exchange four years later, but it is clearly developed in Baudrillard’s mind as an important adjunct to his strategy as he writes the Perfect Crime (and if Baudrillard has written an anti-manifesto, this is it):
Baudrillard sees the perfect crime as our doomed attempt to render the world (which is fundamentally a world of illusion) knowable
- Quote :
- Does the world have to have meaning, then? That is the real problem. If we could accept this meaninglessness of the world, then we could play with forms, appearances and our impulses, without worrying about their ultimate destination. If there were not this demand for the world to have meaning, there would be no reason to find a general equivalent for it in money. ...Do we absolutely have to choose between meaning and non-meaning? But the point is precisely that we do not want to. The absence of meaning is no doubt intolerable, but it would be just as intolerable to see the world assume a definitive meaning.
in computer models and information, by the “cloning of reality” and the “extermination of the real [the original illusion] by its double.” Here is a good deal of Baudrillard’s entire strategic development over twenty years rendered into one sentence: “On the further slope looms the perfect crime: the destruction of all illusion, saturated by absolute reality.”
Looking back to the books of 1968 through 1973, from the vantage point of the books of the 1980s and 1990s, we can see that the one great thought Baudrillard then lacked, (although he was asking the kinds of questions that would take him beyond traditional critical theory), was his thought on reversibility and seduction. He also lacked a strategy (theory as challenge), especially aimed at theories of the real: “...reality asks nothing other than to submit itself to hypotheses. And it confirms them all. That, indeed, is its ruse and its vengeance.”
In the development of his thought on reversibility and his strategy, Baudrillard has maintained places for otherness, the enemy, the object, negativity, evil, illusion, the secret, and destiny while challenging at every turn utopian ideologies of communication, conviviality, positivity, the clone, fixed identity, the subject, the hyperreal, the virtual, and transparency. In short, he has waged a thirty year war of reversal on the perfect crime. There is no divergence from this in Impossible Exchange
- Quote :
- Everything starts from impossible exchange. The uncertainty of the world lies in the fact that it has no equivalent anywhere; it cannot be exchanged for anything. The uncertainty of thought lies in the fact that it cannot be exchanged either for truth or for reality. Is it thought which tips the world over into uncertainty, or the other way round? This in itself is part of the uncertainty. ...There is not enough room for both the world and for its double. So there can be no verifying the world. This is, indeed, why ‘reality’ is an imposture. Everything which sets out to exchange itself for something, runs up, in the end, against the Impossible Exchange Barrier. The most concerted, most subtle attempts to make the world meaningful in value terms, to endow it with meaning, come to grief on this impossible obstacle... the whole edifice of value is exchangeable for Nothing.
For Baudrillard then, theory precedes the world because there is nothing that can be said of the world that is not framed by our approach to it. Without an exchange with theory, the world does not exist. The real is always a challenge to theory and our only strategy can be to use theory to challenge the real
. Otherwise we are left attempting to duplicate a world that cannot be exchanged for theory. Thus, Baudrillard’s great idea and strategy, expressed to 1999 means that we can only:
VI. “Pushing” His Way Into the Next Millennium
- Quote :
- ...arrive at an account of the system which follows out its internal logic to its end, without adding anything, yet which, at the same time, totally inverts that system, revealing its hidden non-meaning, the Nothing which haunts it, that absence at the heart of the system, that shadow running alongside it. ...recogniz[ing] that there is nothing to be said of the world, that there is nothing that this world can be exchanged for, while at the same time showing that this world cannot be as it is without this exchange with theory.
And so, early one September morning it finally took place, the “mother of all events” as four groups of young men hijacked airplanes and rammed two of them into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York and another into the Pentagon in Washington. It was an event that Baudrillard’s great thought, working its way through his writing for almost three decades, was waiting to explain as if the event had been anticipated. He had first written about the WTC in 1976 and again in 1996. Watching the second of the twin towers collapse I could not help but feeling the world lurch towards Baudrillard. This is not to say that the world of virtuality, cloning, the 500 channel universe, and mass disaffection, had not already taken us in his direction, but we may have forgotten that it was Baudrillard like no other who made us aware of these – incorporated as they were into his one great thought. In his explanation of the events of September 11, 2001, Baudrillard relies upon many aspects of his long obsession with reversibility:
- Quote :
- Only an analysis that emphasizes the logic of symbolic obligation can make sense of this confrontation between the global and the singular. To understand the hatred of the rest of the world against the West, perspectives must be reversed. The hatred of non-Western people is not based on the fact that the West stole everything from them and never gave anything back. Rather, it is based on the fact that they received everything, but were never allowed to give anything back. This hatred is not caused by dispossession or exploitation, but rather by humiliation. And this is precisely the kind of hatred that explains the September 11 terrorist attacks. These were acts of humiliation responding to another humiliation. The worst that can happen to global power is not to be attacked or destroyed, but to suffer a humiliation. Global power was humiliated on September 11 because the terrorists inflicted something the global system cannot give back. Military reprisals were only means of physical response. But, on September 11, global power was symbolically defeated. War is a response to an aggression, but not to a symbolic challenge. A symbolic challenge is accepted and removed when the other is humiliated in return (but this cannot work when the other is crushed by bombs or locked behind bars in Guantanamo). The fundamental rule of symbolic obligation stipulates that the basis of any form of domination is the total absence of any counterpart, of any return.
Over the past thirty-six years Baudrillard’s thought on reversibility and seduction have merged with a strategy of using theory as a challenge to the real. Without trying to impose a unity on his work, we can see this idea and strategy emerge in his diverse writings gradually over a period of almost three decades. Despite Baudrillard’s increasingly fragmentary writing style, this aspect of his work points to a consistency of thought which we may be confident that we have not seen the end of as we turn to his most recent writing.
Baudrillard, like anyone, had one great thought. It arrived as a result of an encounter with objects and consumer society and a departure from traditional critical theory. He remains, at seventy-five, a most interesting singularity: “still bursting with life and totally unreal”, and an outstanding example of radicality. While no player can be greater than the game, surely it is fair to say that as far as Baudrillard is concerned, contemporary theory is in his debt. He has, it seems, presented theory with a gift it cannot return, except by its own collapse and death:
- Quote :
- It is a process of pushing a system or a concept or an argument to the extreme points where one pushes them over... Yes it’s all a type of artifice using irony and humour. ...it is a fatal strategy. When you push the systems to the extreme you see that there is nothing more to say. So there is destabilization. Maybe there is a certain provocation. But among all those disciplines that one traverses or ironizes or whatever, no one of them is privileged. That goes for myself too. I don’t have any doctrines to defend. I have one strategy, that’s all.
Baudrillard remains provocative and his writing continues to work out his thought on reversibility and seduction, constantly raising things to their “Nth power”, still challenging the real to expose itself as illusion. In the end, we cannot be surprised to find that reversibility has been and continues to be Baudrillard’s “one great thought”. As he has pointed out on numerous occasions, reversibility and seduction are the way of the world and it is precisely this which modernity forgets.
Baudrillard seeks to reverse our attention towards other possibilities:
- Quote :
- There is something in the fact that reversibility proceeds to a superior irony. That theme is very strong in all mythologies, in any case, and that has nothing to do with modernity. We are in systems which do not any more play on reversibility, on metamorphosis. And which have installed themselves, on the contrary, in the irreversibility of time, of production, and things like that. What interests me is indeed something like a fatal strategy behind it somewhere, which dismantles the beautiful order of irreversibility, of the finality of things
Like everything else in the world, Baudrillard’s one great thought was destined to reappear as simulation (as writing). What makes this particular simulation so appealing and so interesting (to answer a question once posed by Nick Zurbrugg) is the enormous sensitivity it displays to reversibility no matter how deeply buried under systems devoted to irreversibility.