Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
Author: Dr. Agnieszka Zietek
The second half of the twentieth century was a period of momentous events and far-reaching changes in world politics with a significant shift in the international balance of power. It saw events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the so-called “Iron Curtain”, both of which had once defined the existing world order with its focus on the two superpowers of the day, the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union. It was a period of ‘progressive’ democratization in the former “Eastern Bloc”, and the related conflict in the Balkans. In the nineties, the United States conducted a military action in Iraq (operation “Desert Storm”), to be followed, in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001, by the so-called ” War on Terror”. In world politics, it was therefore a time of deep and meaningful changes which significantly affected the shape and function of the newly emerging world order.
These changes became the object of interest for many contemporary scholars and intellectuals trying to map out their shape and organizational qualities. The most influential and widely publicized works on the matter include the theories of American political scientists such as Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations), Francis Fukuyama (The End of History), Benjamin Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld), as well as politicians, for instance Zbigniew Brzezinski’s idea of the Grand Chessboard. These issues were also taken up by a number of sociologists, such as Zygmunt Bauman (The Concept of Globalization), Anthony Giddens (The Third Way), and Ulrich Beck (Risk Society) to name but a few.
Individual events and issues related to the creation of a new global order were also analyzed by Jean Baudrillard. An interest in contemporary politics was already evident in the earliest works of the French philosopher, both in his newspaper articles and book publications. The major topics covered by Baudrillard include the events of 1968 in France, the war waged by the United States in Vietnam, the so called Watergate scandal, changes associated with the downfall of the communist system in Eastern Europe, the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 1991, the Balkan war of the 1990s, and of course the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 and the subsequent war waged in Iraq and Afghanistan by the “anti-terrorist coalition”.
This article will attempt to determine the place of contemporary politics in Baudrillard’s deliberations as well as his position vis-à-vis the redefined balance of international power which emerged after 1989, concerning the evolution of the present-day political sphere and global politics as such. I will also analyze the extent to which Baudrillard’s contention is indeed applicable and effective in the description of the phenomena taking place in the sphere of contemporary politics, as well as attempt to identify the common threads found both in his proposal and in other present concepts participating in the discourse.
This article is comprised of three parts. The first is devoted to an analysis of Baudrillard’s position towards the transformations associated with the fall of the communist system in Eastern Europe in 1989. For Baudrillard this event marked the beginning of a new era known as the New World Order. I will begin by describing the main characteristics Baudrillard attributes to the international situation which emerged after 1989, to later compare them with arguably the best-known views and theses on the new geopolitical situation put forward by Zygmunt Bauman, Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama. The second part is a reconstruction of Baudrillard’s views on the phenomenon of terrorism, particularly from the perspective of the events of September 11, 2001. I begin with Baudrillard’s way of defining the category of history and the term strike of events used in his writings. The explanation of Baudrillard’s stance with regard to these issues is particularly important in the context of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. I place Baudrillard’s reflections in the context of a broader discussion, which involved a number of world intellectuals, including Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Lastly, the final part will attempt to summarize and highlight the particular threads in Baudrillard’s deliberations which account for the recognized originality and innovativeness of his approach.
II. The Breakthrough of 1989
Despite Baudrillard’s obvious interest in the issues in question, the problems of power and politics seem to remain the least recognized and investigated elements of his philosophy. These matters give way to Baudrillard’s theory of media and his theses about the consumer society. Existing studies on issues of politics and power tend to focus on the concept of post history or, most often, on Baudrillard’s polemics with Marx’s perception of the socio-political system. His books The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991) and The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers (2002) were both perceived as fairly controversial and clearly aimed against the foreign policy of the United States, and were widely commented on in the international press, particularly in America, where they were met with a predominantly negative reception. Indeed the situation was similar to that in 1977, when Baudrillard published Oubier Foucault, elaborating on his concept of power. The interest enjoyed by the book, like the two abovementioned publications, was mostly due to its controversial character (in this case, Baudrillard’s analysis of Foucault’s concept of power was widely criticized). Nonetheless, it is not easy to find studies that go beyond these highly particular, usually controversial publications and consider the broader context of Baudrillard’s views.
In analyzing Baudrillard’s writings we can observe his use of two key caesuras to delimit three fundamentally distinct periods of the 20th and 21st centuries. The first was marked by the systemic transformation of Central and Eastern Europe in late 1980s and 90s, and the second is the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The importance of these events, for this essay, lies in the fact that they illustrate Baudrillard’s perspective on the contemporary political system and its relationship towards the transition that took place in those years. At this point I will therefore examine how Baudrillard describes the changes of 1989 and their consequences for the international situation at the turn of the century. I will also seek to answer the question of whether his views on the subject matter were indeed so innovative.
Transformations related to the collapse, in 1989, of the dichotomous division of global power between two opposing systems, represented by the United States and the Soviet Union, constitutes the starting point of Baudrillard’s concept of the New World Order. This “new global order” is, in his opinion, characterized by the following properties: the pursuit of universal homogenization and standardization in both socio-cultural, political and economic terms; the elimination of elements inconsistent with the mainstream ideological system; the upsetting of the former rationale that legitimizes and sanctions the existence of the western system as a form of counterweight to the communist bloc; the repudiation of the end of history proposition; and the drive towards continued globalization and further changes in the way of defining the phenomenon of violence and the categories of good and evil. Therefore, in order to duly consider the concepts proposed by Baudrillard, one needs to approach the above elements.
Baudrillard did not perceive the collapse of the communist bloc in terms of a complete liberation of the countries behind the “Iron Curtain”, that is, their becoming open to the rest of world. Rather, it was “a mark of disintegration and of a dismantling” (Baudrillard 1998:9), progressive self-destruction and annihilation, rather than a harbinger of future freedom and independence. The countries which were previously a part of the socialist bloc had entered the realm of free market economy and consumer society with all of the subsequent consequences. The main feature of the global system has become its apparent lack of ideology, the betrayal of its own principles and the Enlightenment ideals which used to characterize modern societies, a quest for universal unification, and the standardization of the generally accepted political-economic system, i.e. neo-liberal democracy and capitalism. It might be said that the aim of the global system is therefore to maintain a particular status quo, the systematic non-event, an “emptiness” of events. This is a global stagnation to facilitate the main prerogatives of the economic system, namely the continued economic development and endless winding up of the spiral of supply and demand. It is worth noting that Baudrillard opposes the standardization and compulsory participation in the universal “cornucopia”, known as the New Deal. He argues that it need not extend to all inhabitants of the globe, nor does everyone need to express interest in participating in this spectacle of abundance. He also emphasizes the need for a kind of counterbalance in the form of “irreducible evil”, i.e. a viable alternative, a possibility to choose a different lifestyle, a different system and a vision of society. He writes: “In that generalized circulation, all the objectives and values of the Enlightenment are lost, even though they were at its origin. For there was once an idea, an ideal, an imaginary of modernity, but these have all disappeared in the exacerbation of growth. It is the same with history as it is with reality” (Baudrillard 2005:126). It is therefore an expression of Baudrillard’s disappointment with these changes that instead of real freedom, it is as if modernization and democratization lead only to a distortion of the ideas of the Enlightenment, that is, harmonization and standardization under the banner of the universal freedom of consumption.
In the New World Order there is no place for “troublesome minorities”, for groups professing different value systems, for lifestyles different from the mainstream. This is the second characteristic feature of the New Global Order, an order dominated by one type of values and principles – “the values of the democratic dictatorship of human rights and the transparency of markets” (Baudrillard, 2002a:63).1
As a result of the modern world’s one-dimensionality, this world has come to incorporate any existing distinctness, individuality and minority (other worldviews, religions, values, etc.) that once stood in opposition to the dominant system (Baudrillard describes these as exceptions).2 They are all the elements of the surrounding reality which can be described as unique, original and “different”, and which, as a result of the ongoing process of globalization, are succumbing to unification and standardization. As they stood in the way of universal homogenization, most of these exceptions (be they in culture, art, language, or religion) were annexed and standardized, “formatted”. They are hardly a counterbalance to the system, nor are they a viable alternative. Still, however, they may threaten the global order, even defeat it (Baudrillard, 2002a:97-99). Terrorism is therefore one such exception. In Baudrillard’s concept it is a form of “retaliation”, a response of the exceptions incorporated into the system and an act of restoring them to existence. An act of terrorism constitutes an act of a symbolic antagonism between the excluded and the system.
Baudrillard acknowledges that the existence of the Soviet Empire was necessary to authenticate and legitimize the Western system and its guiding principles. It was a kind of counterweight, the opposition and anti-system, which duly emphasized and stressed the importance of idealized values of the Western world. Thus, the Berlin Wall was actually a form of security and justification for the system of Western liberal democracy and, as Baudrillard writes, “protected the West from the East as much as the opposite” (Baudrillard 1998: 9). Until 1989, one could speak of a specific exchange that occurred between the liberal West and the communist East, the subject of which was, on the one hand, western ideology, and, on the other, the rationalization and justification of the dichotomous division of the world and the role of liberal democracy as the guardian of the global order. With the collapse of the Eastern Bloc came a universal deconstruction, the actual collapse of the Western order, which lost its legitimacy and position as the guarantor of the global order. The breakdown of this bipolar system was the beginning of a progressive disintegration and deregulation which influenced the entire system on a global scale. This can be understood as, on the one hand, upsetting the global balance based on two opposing, mutually offsetting blocks (capitalism and communism), and, on the other, as enforced and necessary unification, and subordination to the capitalist rules of the game [Baudrillard also points out that with the rise of the single world power based on a capitalist liberal democracy, the promotion of western ideologies has become somewhat superfluous, as there no longer stands the need to incorporate the states from behind the “Iron Curtain” into its catchment area]. The destruction of both systems is therefore parallel; the collapse of the communist totalitarian order is accompanied by the disintegration of the “achieved utopia of happiness” in the Western world. “The corruption of the visible” observed on the east side of the Berlin wall has a counterpart in the form of the capitalist “corruption of the hidden, the secret, surrounded, the repressed” (Ibid.: 10). What Baudrillard refers to is a situation in which it is not only the “Eastern Bloc” that disintegrates, but it is rather accompanied by a gradual collapse of the western system. This is due to the loss of a necessary counterweight, the collapse of “the enemy” (the communist system) which sanctioned the necessity to balance these spheres of influence.
In his account of the changes of 1989, Baudrillard also argues against the thesis of the end of history. In an interview with Philippe Petit, he explained that the fall of communism was not a manifestation of the consistent development of history, the continuation line with a one-way vision of development aimed at the development of liberal democracy (see Fukuyama 1992). According to Baudrillard, the year 1989 was to be a kind of rebirth of history, a repetition of what had already happened in the West, namely the development of the overly glorified, sublimated capitalist system. It is a return to the world before the Cold War and the “Iron Curtain”, a restoration of freedom that had indeed once existed. The events of 1989 would be evidence enough to show that we cannot talk about the end of the history, but rather of its “liberalization” or “a turn of events” (Baudrillard 2002a:39). The collapse of the Soviet Bloc is not the end of history, it is a renewal, a return to the once existing contradictions, conflicts, problems and differences. It is a form of revisionism, although not in an ideological sense, but rather revisionism of history itself and its individual events. We reevaluate the achievements of modernity, consider their meaning, purpose and significance, we rebuild history, redefine its concepts. This is a “powerful deconstruction of history”, the partition of the individual, repetitive elements. The dismantling of the “Iron Curtain” was therefore not a crucial, new event, which confirmed the one-way evolutionary view of history, but rather a restoration of past events that had already taken place.
One of the features of the New World Order is also the apparent triumph of the modern principles of the Enlightenment. Universal values (freedom, democracy and human rights), introduced by the Enlightenment, create, according to Baudrillard a “democratic illusion”. As they are increasingly hailed as universal and distributed through the progressive process of globalization, they actually lose their universal character and become a means of enforcing compulsory, global standardization and counter-differentiation. This homogenization is visible in nearly all areas of life including politics, economics, human rights, communication, and culture. Indeed it is not only freedom, democracy and human rights, but also the free market, unlimited consumption, information and communications that have become the object of universal standardization and globalization. As Baudrillard notes, “All that’s different is today forced to capitulate before an undifferentiated universe” (Baudrillard 1998:11). Globalization is thus understood by Baudrillard in negative terms, as an attempt to force the free-market principles of liberal democracy, regardless of individual preferences and the abilities of individual countries, as well as advancing the global appropriation and annihilation of all forms of variety and diversity (see also Bauman 1998, Stiglitz 2003, Potter, Heat 2005).
Another consequence of the formation of the New World Order is the essence and manner of defining violence. We no longer deal with the “violence of aggression”, violence of the fittest (domination, direct violence, or oppression), as in Max Weber’s iron cage (see Weber 2010). This modern type of violence is more subtle, a “violence of deterrence, pacification, neutralization, control – the violence of quiet extermination, genetic and communicational violence” (Baudrillard 2002a: 92), which through a system of prevention and mass media leads to the eradication of all radicalism, individualism, and peculiarity. Contemporary violence is thus a quest to eliminate all conflicts, contradictions or differences that may exist within the system, rather than being “the real violence, the historical or class violence” (Baudrillard 1998:92). It should be noted that these theorems of Baudrillard’s are close to Foucault, who reveals the existence of distributed and “invisible” power, which are distinct from authority resorting to more direct measures of coercion [see Zietek (2009) for a comparative analysis of the concepts of Baudrillard and Foucault]. The concepts of violence and globalization are also associated with Baudrillard’s understanding of the notions of good and evil [the categories of good and evil have an axiological dimension in Baudrillard’s conception; they are associated with the sphere of values]. They are important for the analysis of contemporary politics, particularly the phenomenon of terrorism, for two reasons. Firstly, we should consider the forces which Baudrillard identifies with these categories. While the good is inextricably linked with the United States, the designation of the category of evil seems far less straightforward. According to Baudrillard, to identify it directly and explicitly with Islam would not be entirely accurate. It is not that Islam is an embodiment or personification of evil, but that the way it acts and functions, according to the West, is wrong. Islam is guided by resentment; it is a form of resistance and defiance. It holds the global governance in contempt. Therefore, the “poor old West” could not “joyfully and victoriously fulfil its mission of establishing world Order” (Baudrillard 1989:67). Secondly, this understanding is closely related to how the philosopher interprets events related to the attack on the World Trade Centre. If evil is rooted within the system, it becomes its permanent and inseparable element and grows along with it. As a result a terrorist attack is revealed as a product of the system, its internal antagonism, a specific auto-negation. In the New World Order good and evil develop in parallel. The increasing influence and strength of the good does not result in the simultaneous weakening and collapse of evil. With the progressive hegemony of the good, the balance between the two forces is disturbed. Thus, good and evil develop in parallel, and the power of evil grows along with the scale of the influence of the good.
Baudrillard’s view of the international political system which emerged after 1989 is not an isolated one. It would seem worthwhile, therefore, to confront Baudrillard’s contention with the other propositions presented in the media and political science. For the purposes of this discussion, I have selected three theorems that are the most widely known and popular: Fukuyama’s idea of the end of history, Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of globalization, and Samuel Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilizations (as well as his four paradigms describing the situation after 1989).
A comparative analysis of these concepts with the proposition of Baudrillard leads to three main conclusions. Firstly, Baudrillard’s concept should not be treated as the equivalent of Fukuyama’s end of history, and not only because, as already mentioned, Baudrillard disassociated himself from it (see Baudrillard 1998:8). According to Baudrillard, the end of history does not mean the “nonoccurrence” of any new circumstances, but rather its appropriation and distortion by the media. No event can therefore fully take place and “materialize” any more, as it will immediately be taken over by the global system of information and communication. In doing so, it is deprived of its individuality and uniqueness, and therefore devoid of substance and depth. It is also processed, commented on and evaluated before it has had a chance to fully occur. There cannot be any independent event, unaffected by the global information network and taking place independently of the impact of mass media. [A common feature of Baudrillard’s and Fukuyama’s concepts is the fact that they both draw attention to the rapid development and spread of the free-market system based on the principles of neo-liberal economy, in which a particular importance is attributed to the sphere of production and consumption]. It is worth noting that despite having adopted opposite stances with respect to history, both Baudrillard and Fukuyama emphasize the role of technology and the exchange of information in the development of civilization. However, while for Baudrillard it constitutes one of the major determinants of contemporary society, and one he perceives negatively, Fukuyama sees information and technology as one of the determinants of social progress, which lead to the development of the free-market and liberal democracy.
Secondly, Baudrillard also draws attention to Fukuyama’s thesis: that it is impossible to affect the power of a global system and to disturb or overcome its dominance.3 There can be no force or event that would constitute an alternative to the system, that would escape its jurisdiction, exist beyond the scope of its influence. All events are always perceived as components of the system, they are appropriated and assimilated. There is a permanent lack of an ability to perform activities directed against the system, which can break the stagnation and undermine its unwavering position. In this respect, Baudrillard’s point of view is somewhat consistent with Huntington’s theses and his conception of the world united in “euphoria and harmony” (Huntington 1996:31). This particular paradigm is naturally in line with the thesis of the end of history, the promise of global governance and peace under the auspices of the United Nations. However, in Huntington’s opinion, this concept offers little chance of actual realization. We are dealing with the emergence of both new conflicts (for instance on ethnic or religious grounds) and the formation of new international alliances, new lines of division, be it on a global or local scale. But while Huntington doubts the feasibility of this project, Baudrillard goes much further, showing that in fact it has already been realized.
Finally, one can read Baudrillard’s proposition as a seemingly contradictory combination of the concept of globalization presented by Bauman and the first paradigm (“euphoria and harmony”) described by Huntington. With the fall of the Berlin Wall came what Bauman describes as a “new awareness”. After the collapse of the communist bloc, therefore, we have to deal with a specific defragmentation of the world, a loss of control over the global system which has become unpredictable, ambiguous and variable. This new reality becomes something unknown, an alien world, which cannot be particularized, systematized or defined and which proves almost impossible to control. When he talks about the emergence of a new way of organizing reality, Bauman means the “absence of centre, of a controlling desk, of a board of directors, of a managerial office” (Bauman 1998). It is therefore a kind of “global disorder”, but (what importantly distinguishes Bauman’s thesis from that of Baudrillard) one that does not have a single dominant leader who would set out the main scope and direction of transformation. Although we seem to be dealing with a totally uniform, homogenous system of control over a “unified” world, these pretenses call to mind Bauman’s chaos, global disorder, and complete disorganization. This would be consistent with Baudrillard’s exceptions, which are marginalized by the system and materialize in acts of terror.
III. September 11, 2001
The terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, 2001, was an event that shocked the world’s public opinion. For the first time in history, the United States was attacked on its own territory, in a completely unexpected and spectacular way. This has been commonly perceived as a “border” event, something that exceeded all previous ideas of what a terrorist attack meant, as well as known and available methods for their interpretation. This event shook the previously unassailable position of the United States, changed our perception of reality from something familiar, reliable, and stable to one utterly unpredictable, chaotic, and uncertain.
This event had far reaching repercussions and greatly influenced the world’s public opinion, as well as caused many scientific, sociological and economic commentaries. It had a wide range of repercussions in a number of interpretations offered by leading intellectuals and began a long debate about the sources and causes of terrorist attacks and the condition of global governance. It also revitalized a somewhat “sleepy” area of scientific discourse concerning the explanatory function of modern philosophy, i.e. its ability to reflect and explain current events taking place throughout social and political space. The events in New York contributed to a reactivation of philosophical discourse in its role as a commentary on current events and the changing reality. Explanatory attempts have been undertaken by authors, such as Jean Baudrillard (in his provocative Spirit of Terrorism. Requiem for the Twin Towers), Benjamin Barber (Empire of fear. War, Terrorism and Democracy), Paul Virilio (Ground Zero) and Slavoj Žižek, who analyzed the events in New York in the spirit of Lacanian psychoanalysis (Welcome to the Desert of the Real), as well as Samuel Huntington (analysis of events based on the thesis of the clash of civilizations), Francis Fukuyama, John Gray, Michael Walzer, Bernard-Henri Levy and others (see Bernard-Henri Levy 2006). This group was then joined by authors generally representing opposing views – Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. They presented their opinions about the terrorist attacks in interviews, which were published as the book Philosophy in a Time of Terror, edited by Giovanna Borradori (see Zietek 2009).
An attempt to account for all opinions voiced in this discussion could easily comprise a stand-alone publication, so I will therefore confine myself to discussing only the most recognized authors. Thus, I will present the views of Baudrillard, Derrida, and Habermas, who, in my opinion, represent the complementary points of view on September 11, 2001. [Interesting interpretations of the event have also been offered by Virilio and Zizek which focus mainly on modern media and means of communication].
In his vivisection of the events of September 11, 2001, Baudrillard identifies four main interpretations: first, as a breaking of the strike of events, and subsequently a challenge to Fukuyama’s thesis of the end of history and Huntington’s clash of civilizations; second, as a symbolic act; third, as a prefigurative event; and fourth – as what he terms the Fourth World War (Baudrillard 2002b).
The first interpretation refers to Baudrillard’s idea of the strike of events. According to Baudrillard, before September 11 we could observe the non-event period interrupted by the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. The cause of this strike of events we find in the attempts of global forces and authorities intending to take control of events both locally and globally, while being implemented under the banner of worldwide order and security. This action was perceived by Baudrillard as a kind of autoaggression of power [government actions seemingly aimed at its opponents, but in fact targeted itself and the dominant political system, neo-liberal democracy], which, seeking to maintain the global order, prevented any events that would in any way interfere with this order. The only possible end of history will not therefore, in Baudrillard’s opinion, be brought about by the global triumph of democracy (as Fukuyama would see it), but as a result of that autoaggression of power.
In describing September 11 as “the only true event” which interrupted the non-event period, Baudrillard emphasizes how the thesis of the end of history is not true for two main reasons. On the one hand, the terrorist attacks on New York broke the monopoly of political and media power to control all events, as well as proved that some actions still remained possible within the confines of the management of the global system. On the other hand, September 11 became a border event, substantially breaking the mentioned strike of events. Moreover, considering the reasons for the events of September 11, 2001, Baudrillard points out that their source was not located in areas of marginalization, which are removed from the system and excluded from the global order. The genesis of this aggression against the symbolic towers can be found within a system itself, where the excess of information, imagery, and simulacra deprived of any actual representation had reached a point beyond where only an implosion of the system is possible. Baudrillard writes: “This goes much further than hatred for the dominant global power from the disinherited and the exploited, those who fell on the wrong side of global order. That malignant desire is in the very heart of those who share (this order’s) benefits” (Baudrillard 2002b:6).
The New Deal creates a counterweight for itself, one that has been missing since the homogenization of the world order in 1989. This is much like in the case of the parallel categories of good and evil, counterweight and opposition to the system increases with the rise of its power. Consolidation of control and domination are constantly accompanied by the increasing power of its opponents and their desire to destroy it. The Western world, “declares war on itself,” commits suicide, claims Baudrillard. The more global, homogeneous and undifferentiated the world order becomes, the more noticeable the effects of measures taken against it. The “monopoly of global power” and its scope are therefore responsible for the strength and extent of the counter-system. Consequently, the world order automatically generates its own opposite, which in this case is manifested in the form of terrorism. The attacks on the World Trade Centre were therefore, according to Baudrillard, not a matter of ideology, politics or religion. Their goal was never any higher idea or a particular understanding of social justice. Terrorism in itself is a form of exemplification of the auto-destructive power of the system; its reverse, the necessary effect and result of the pursuit of universal standardization and homogenization. Like a virus, it penetrates the system, permeating through every level and area of functioning. Thus, Baudrillard explicitly rejects the claim that terrorism is a supposed clash of civilizations, a conflict between Western civilization and the Islamic world, representing different value systems and ways of social and political functioning.
According to the second interpretation, the attacks in New York became a symbolic event (see Bourdieu 1978). Naturally, the act of a terrorist attack and the destruction of the World Trade Centre can hardly be treated as an instance of purely symbolic violence (it was also direct and physical violence), but certainly the object of the attack did indeed have a symbolic character as it represented the dominance of Western (European and American) culture and its way of life. According to Baudrillard, the attack on the Twin Towers was not an ordinary global event. This event was absolute, a “mother event”, a phenomenon of such unprecedented scale and a message so strong, that it managed to grasp the attention of the entire world. This “pure event” was unlike any other we had witnessed in previous decades. And while the nineties had brought along a particular strike of events, that strike was suspended on September 11, 2001. The attack on the World Trade Centre, a symbol of the international economic system, was a direct attack on the global system and it “questioned the very process of globalization” (Baudrillard 2002b:3). It is not just the fact that the attack was launched in the very heart of a world superpower, on its own territory, without any warning and in a very inconceivable and unpredictable way. An important effect of terrorism in relation to the system, as pointed out by Baudrillard, is its deep, overall recession. In the aftermath of the terrorist acts comes the revision and collapse of the Western order, across the entire spectrum of its dimensions. This decomposition is not only political, economic or social. It affects all key values of the Western world and its actual ideology. Terrorism strikes against the central ideas, which have so far constituted the basis of Western civilization (the ideas of freedom and democracy, human rights, etc.), transforming them into their very opposite. The result is a real re(de)construction of “liberal globalization”, which is forced to use its available means of constraint and restriction to the maximum. The liberal state is therefore on its way to becoming its very opposite: a “police-state globalization, a total control, a terror based on ‘law-and-order’ measures” (Ibid.:32). [For example, the significant post 9-11 measures of control and prevention that affected U.S. citizens]. Therefore, Baudrillard perceives contemporary terrorism as a result of a universal unification involving the compulsory introduction of the one propagated world order. It is an act of opposition due to a lack of choice in individual paths of development and a lack of alternative ways of functioning.
Baudrillard describes September 11 as a prefigurative event. Accordingly terrorist activity precedes and exceeds all hitherto existing models and plans.4 It is unpredictable, unimaginable and unthinkable. Before it happens, we cannot predict it in any way, imagine, or even think about it. It is a situation that cannot be represented. It is impossible to analyze it through any available terms or categories. The attack on the World Trade Center is an incident that defines, creates and describes itself, but not through the prism of any past events. It is in fact a completely new, unique one, which has no pattern of interpretation or historical references. This event is outside any familiar ways of description or analysis. One cannot compare it to any other, earlier event, rather it is beyond anything that happened or could be interpreted beforehand.
The brutal and unexpected decomposition of the system that took place on September 11, 2001, is also, according to Baudrillard, connected to the idea of the Fourth World War [a concept also employed by Benjamin Barber and Bernard-Henri Levy also among others]. The first two world wars, are understood by him in the traditional manner: the first ended a period of colonialism and domination of Europe; the other marked the dusk of Nazism. The designation of the third world war is used to refer to the “cold war” waged between two opposing blocs, which eventually led to the collapse of communism. Nowadays, we have to deal with the Fourth World War, which is at the same time the only one that deserves this definition. It is an idea of global war carried out within the system, which means “triumphant globalization battling against itself” (Baudrillard 2002b:11). It is the already mentioned battle of all exceptions, peculiarities and differences distributed within a homogeneous order. In Baudrillard’s terms, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center were not the result of a struggle between two opposing, antagonistic ideologies, but were illustrative of the ongoing Fourth World War taking place now within the global system itself.
Baudrillard’s deconstruction of the events of September 11, 2001, should be placed in a broader context against the proposals of other commentators. This will allow one to demonstrate the specificity of Baudrillard’s comments as well as their innovativeness in this field. The confrontation of Baudrillard’s ideas with other contemporary intellectuals, especially Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (see Borradori 2003), lead to four conclusions pertaining to the reception of the events of September 11, 2001.
Firstly, the understanding of terrorism as a form of activation of the differences formerly assimilated by the system, as postulated by Baudrillard, clearly refers to Derrida’s concept of autoimmune crisis. For Derrida, September 11, 2001, was a manifestation of the autoimmune crisis of the system, its opposition against itself, the activation of internal threats and dangers. This self-destruction takes two distinct forms: of the direct attacks in the United States carried out by immigrants trained in that very territory, what could be termed a double suicide. Indeed what we are dealing with here is not only the actual suicide of the hijackers, but also a form of metaphorical suicide of the system, which results in the self-destruction and disorder of the immune-defense response. It is therefore a kind of internal terrorism, which, as Derrida notes: “installs or recalls an interior threat, at home (…) and recalls that the enemy is also always lodged on the inside of the system it violates and terrorizes” (in Borradori 2003:188). In Baudrillard and Derrida’s concepts, the risk of terrorism originates from within the system. It is not something external but a permanent element of the reality in which we operate. It is worth noting that most researchers perceive the attack on the World Trade Centre as the result of an intensive process of globalization and its negative side effects. The idea was not to promote and disseminate the principles of democracy (as the ‘best form of government’) or the concept of human rights and civil liberties, but rather to strengthen the hegemonic position of the United States, the free market economy, and modern consumer culture. From this perspective, Baudrillard’s deliberations can hardly be described as groundbreaking or something fundamentally different from other opinions presented on this matter. Indeed, they can be said to be quite similar to positions taken by other commentators.
Secondly, a certain similarity between the concepts of Baudrillard and Derrida is also visible in the identification of the event as unique and indeterminate. Derrida speaks of the need to place it within the existing discourse, to name it and thus “tame” the event, while Baudrillard talks of a prefigurative event that defies interpretation, one that remains unnamed and lies outside the scope of events and models known before. Attributing this designation to an event so unique and unprecedented would be, in Derrida’s opinion, inadequate, inaccurate, and misrepresentative of its specificity and magnitude. The problems of definition lead to a situation where, as Derrida states: “we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to use to name in any other way this <<thing>> that has just happened” (in Borradori 2003:86). Thus, we have to deal with an event not yet named, undefined and unrecognized, going beyond the existing discourse on terrorism. In an attempt to “tame”, name and understand the situation which happened “outside language”, it is the intentional semantic designation of the date “September eleventh”. The procedure of constructing and assigning identity, placing the event in the realm of language, involves, on the one hand, the creation of the symbolic designation “9/11”, “09.11” and, on the other, the constant repetition of this phrase, which in effect assumes the character of a familiar and predictable ritual. According to Derrida’s concept of the privilege of writing over speech, the unconventional form of inscription, different from that used for other events, is also an element constitutive of the event. This “great event” is thus accompanied by an attempt to contain it within the recognizable and operative discourse, defined by Derrida as the Anglo-American idiom created by international laws and institutions as well as the capitalist system of values and modes of communication: the media and empowered technology.
One can also indicate certain similarities between Baudrillard’s and Habermas’s proposals pertaining to the sources of terrorism. Baudrillard’s concept (though the author does not write about it directly), like Habermas’s argument, is based on questioning the process of universalizing the modern, Western way of life and its reception as the only possible approach to the contemporary world. From this perspective, terrorism can be understood as a “side” effect of the eradication from global culture and politics everything that is perceived as non-contemporary, different, traditional, not falling within the scope of the accepted and recognized trends of modernization. It is a manifestation of denial aimed against the imposed, conceptual way of life pursued by modern Western societies, a form of defense against the intensity of globalization, an enforced “universal” set of principles and values. Habermas points to two main causes of terrorism: communicative disorders in the intercultural dimension and the negative effects of economic globalization. By analyzing fundamentalism and terrorism from the communicative perspective, Habermas points out that they are the result of a serious disturbance in the communication process, which in turn spawns a self-propelling wave of mutual violence. The lack (in the case of cultures, nations and religious systems) of the possibility to come into direct contact (as in the case of individuals), results in a progressing crisis of understanding, loss of confidence and ultimately a complete breakdown of communication. Misunderstanding, alienation, existing stereotypes, and the limited role of international law (which is usually limited to conducting “formal meetings”), greatly hinder the possibility of reaching a consensus, while at the same time opening the way to acts of aggression and violence (see also Habermas 1985).5
Finally, it is also noteworthy to mention the intriguing, vivid, and therefore quite original language of Baudrillard’s writings (using such categories as: pathogenic viruses, the strike of events, prefigurative event, non-event), which certainly distinguishes it from the other presented approaches. In this case, it is not the thesis itself, but its presentation that accounts for Baudrillard’s original contribution to the discussion of the events of September 11, 2001.
Issues related to the transformation of contemporary global politics were of interest to Baudrillard, even in his earliest writings. While creating his vision of the modern political system, Baudrillard refers to and recalls existing traditions and theories of political science. His deliberations rely on both the threads of thought from classics such as Nietzsche, Weber, Foucault, and Bourdieu, as well as contemporary political scientists and publicists, such as Fukuyama, Huntington and Bauman. In addition to the rather obvious and clear references, indicated by Baudrillard himself (Foucault, Fukuyama), we can trace several not so straightforward inspirations, such as Zygmunt Bauman, Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas.
Baudrillard is critical of the existing theories of power, considers them to be inadequate to the state of modern politics and unable to describe the changes occurring therein. This indicates that today’s power defies any attempt at description and interpretation, and can hardly be discussed in any of the well established ways used in the past. Its condition cannot therefore be described by Foucault’s concept of power, the theory of power-knowledge relationship, or even the assertion of the absolute domination of one system, known as the end of history.
Compared to the other mentioned concepts, however, he does go a step further. Not only does he employ original language, but also weaves reflections on politics into his concept of the simulation, which includes the dominance of modern media, a unified culture and mass consumption. These three areas intertwine to form a New World Disorder, one that will annex any occurrence of diversity or incompatibility. Attempts to preserve one’s own, independent identity are swiftly neutralized and incorporated into the homogeneous system. Baudrillard believes, however, that the differences absorbed by the global system are only seemingly neutralized. They still retain their anti-systematic potential and are able to interrupt a string of non-events, as was indeed the case with the attacks on the World Trade Centre. Thus, this vision of power and politics is complementary with the whole of Baudrillard’s concept and it is its integral part.
On the other hand, certain inconsistencies can also be found in Baudrillard’s analysis. He talks about the fictitiousness of power, a situation in which it has become a sham, a collection of improvised moves, symbolic gestures and behaviors, a form of seduction, reminiscent of a political spectacle rather than of what we have come to expect from actual power. It does not have any actual impingement, but has rather lost its social representation and become a parody of itself. Baudrillard suggests that authority as such does not exist, i.e. it no longer has any causative power, but, if we analyze the concept of simulation, it seems that Baudrillard speaks of the existence of a new dimension of power – the power of simulation. It is therefore a situation in which not only is there no power whatsoever, but its previous form has simply been replaced by the rule of global over-production and consumption, and the power of simulation.
About the Author
Agnieszka Ziętek is a lecturer at the Maria Curie Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland. Her doctoral dissertation was entitled: “Jean Baudrillard’s vision of contemporary world: politics, media and society”. The main research interest is social research methodology, cultural studies, sociology of politics, social communication and gender studies. Agnieska is a member of the Polish Cultural Studies Association, the Polish Association of Social Communication and Political Critique (in Lublin). She is author the first book in Poland about Baudrillard’s philosophy as well as many articles about Baudrillard’s thought and issues from the field of political philosophy, cultural studies and feminism.
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Agnieszka Ziętek (2009), Filozofia wobec 9/11. Jacques Derrida i Jurgen Habermas o terroryzmie, [Philosophy and 9/11. Jacques Derrida i Jurgen Habermas about terrorism] [in:] “Kultura i Historia” [Culture and History], no. 16
1 – Baudrillard considers this argument through the example of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and the struggle between Muslim Albanians and Orthodox Serbs. Baudrillard accounts for the inaction on the part of the international destabilization forces which failed to protect the Muslim population against the intensifying attacks by the Serbs, by referring to the fact that they represent a different denomination, and thus, a different system of values, they were perceived as “other”, a group not compatible with the socio-cultural unity of the dominant group. Although in 1995, following the most extensive ethnic cleansing since World War II, NATO forces finally began bombardment of Serbian positions, but this action was only a pretence. Baudrillard notes that we are not really fighting for a so-called multicultural Europe. In reality, we represent a homogeneous, non-diverse culture, a Western world completely devoid of values, and the main losers of this war are the values that dare oppose this world.
2 -A category related to the exceptions is the Other, characterized by Baudrillard as an opposition to the dominant system. The Other is contrasted with homogeneity, while at the same time being perceived as hostile and a threat to security. The Other is the foreign element in the system, the unknown and incomprehensible, the uncontained in the generally recognized and acceptable framework of the global universe. The Other is not a part of the generally accepted “single thought” and is therefore marginalized, excluded from the official discourse. The Other is an alien, and “just as evil, he exceeds our imagination.” He is everything that does not fit into the generally accepted scheme, all that is still non-unified, all that escapes the totalizing power. This category is often used in the works of philosophers and sociologists of this period, such as in the considerations of Bauman (1993), Foucault (2006), Derrida (1998), and Levinas (1980).
3 -The question of whether the abovementioned exceptions are capable of stopping this dominance remains unresolved. Baudrillard himself does not offer a straightforward answer. To a certain extent, the situation was changed by the events of September 11, 2001, which constituted a “rebellion” of the distinctness previously absorbed by the system, an exemplification of the potential inherent in it (see Baudrillard, 2002).
4 -A situation opposite to the one described here is the Gulf War, where what we are faced with is in fact a precession of the model in relation to the event:, a computer simulation of war precedes the actual event that takes place in accordance with an identifiable and predefined pattern, and as such is treated by Baudrillard as a “non-event”.
5 -On the other hand, partial responsibility for terrorist activities also rests with an unequal level of economic development and a predatory capitalist system, characterized by absolute free market principles. These include, among other elements, the unequal and unjust redistribution of the benefits and profits related to the processes of modernization, as well as promoting democratic principles solely in the context of economic gain. The result of such activities is, in the opinion of Habermas, social stratification on a global scale as well as the division of the world’s population into winners, beneficiaries, and losers. In this perspective, it is therefore necessary to change the mentality of the Western world, to abandon expansionary economic policies in favor of sustainable development and extensive support for less developed countries unable to bear the weight of changes taking place today. Habermas goes as far as to call for a form of politicization in economic activities, arguing that: “Without the political taming of an unbounded capitalism, the devastating stratification of world society will remain intractable” (in Borradori 2003:36).