Volume 11, Number 1 (January, 2014)
Author: Dr. William Pawlett
I regard duality as the true source of all energy, without, however, passing any verdict on which of the two principles – good or evil – has primacy (Baudrillard 2003: 82).
…the reality of the world has been seduced, and this is what is so fundamentally Manichaean in my work. Like the Manichaeans I do not believe in any possibility of ‘real-izing’ the world through any rational or materialist principle (Baudrillard, 1993: 140).
This paper examines the theme of duality in Baudrillard’s thought. It explores his many references to Manichaeism, a dualist religion which emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 3rd century and was closely related to both Christianity and Buddhism. Taking seriously Baudrillard’s claims that “the world is Manichaean; in it two orders are absolutely opposed” (Baudrillard 1990b: 162) that “I wouldn’t have minded being Manichaean, heretical and Gnostic” (Baudrillard 1998: 46) and that “the dual form is indestructible” (Baudrillard 2005a: 21), this paper briefly distinguishes Baudrillard’s radical or “heretical” sense of duality from the simplistic and pejorative use of the term ‘dualism’ which refers to thinking based on ordered and hierarchical oppositions.
The paper then examines one of Baudrillard’s major themes: the principle of Evil. The term Evil is often (though not consistently) capitalised by Baudrillard when he is referring to a dual, mythic or symbolic sense of Evil. I will use the capitalised term for Evil in this sense, and the lower case to refer to the moral opposition of good and evil. Evil, in Baudrillard’s sense, emerges from duality, from within dual relations of exchange or alternation, and it is also manifest in the reversibility and volatility immanent within systems – social, moral, economic, technological. Baudrillard’s development of the theme of duality is argued to be significantly influenced by Georges Bataille’s writings on Gnosticism – a philosophical and religious movement often regarded as dualist and from which Manichaenism seems to have derived. Yet Baudrillard’s position is distinct from Bataille’s, indeed his later works develop a perspective on Evil (and on evil) which departs from both Manichaean and Bataillean positions, but is nevertheless one in which duality is central.
Dualism, in a very loosely Manichaen sense, is usually taken to mean a division of the world into two fundamental, warring or irreconcilable principles, particularly Good and Evil and Light and Darkness. The term dualism is often used pejoratively in academic language to indicate reductive thinking that does not allow for a proper sense of shades of meaning or in-betweens. However, this usage of the term ‘dualism’ is itself highly reductive in that it still assumes an opposition of terms which together are exhaustive and complete: the assumption that good and evil, light and darkness together make up a coherent totality. We will see that both Bataille’s and Baudrillard’s senses of duality specifically attack such notions of underlying unity and coherence. Indeed, Gnostic and Manichaen dualities do not posit a world divided into two principles, but ‘two worlds’: a world of spirit or light, and a lesser, corrupted world occupied by human beings. A limited, human sense of ‘spirit’ is possible and this sense is opposed to ‘flesh’. Conceptual unities and divisions, identities and differences belong to the fallen world, an illusory and tainted world dominated by matter and populated by demons. The conflict or war between spirit and matter occurs in this lower world. As the term ‘dualism’, as generally used in academic language, does not make the distinction between a ‘world divided into two’ and ‘two worlds’ – that is a single world composed of opposite but complementary principles and two worlds in antagonistic relation – I will refer to duality, rather than dualism, when referring to Bataille’s thought on sacred and profane, and Baudrillard’s thought on illusion and the principle of Evil.
Baudrillard’s attacks on any thinking in terms of identities, differences and oppositions are fundamental to his work. Symbolic exchanges erupt through oppositional terms such as life and death, signifier and signified and good and evil. Indeed Baudrillard argues that thinking in terms of oppositions banishes the symbolic relations between terms. So, the opposition of life and death banishes death as symbolic form – as social and as reversible in initiation (Baudrillard 1993a: 131-2); the opposition of subject and object banishes the object as symbolic and reversible – as a duality within the opposition of subject and object. Similarly, Baudrillard insists, the masculine/feminine opposition undermines the feminine as a symbolic, seductive and reversible energy (Baudrillard 1988: 57-9).
Baudrillard’s duality becomes even more evident in his later writing on the relationship of Good and Evil. Indeed, many of Baudrillard’s key terms, particularly his major conceptual polarities (or dualities) which are not oppositions, can be seen as dualistic in a sense that is close to, but by no means identical with, core dimensions of Gnostic and Manichaen thought. As well as Baudrillard’s notion of Evil, (“the principle of evil” (Baudrillard 1990b: 181-191)), there is the double spiral and the “spiral of worsening” and the notion of double or dual lives and also dual deaths appears in Baudrillard’s late work (2005a: 198-200). In each of these cases alternation, reversion or reversibility – forms of symbolic exchange and precisely ‘in-betweens’ – are central to Baudrillard’s understanding of duality. There is an antagonistic relation between the banal illusions produced by simulation, and the vital or primal illusion of the world (Baudrillard 1996). There is also an antagonistic relationship between nothing and the Nothing. That is, Baudrillard’s nihilism should be seen as dual; while the material world is nothing, not real but forcibly ‘realised’ by technology, there is also, for Baudrillard, the great chain of Nothing, the primal illusion that makes the illusion of reality possible (Baudrillard 2001: 8-9).
Baudrillard’s relationship to Manichaeism has been noted, briefly, by a number of commentators, though it is still not widely appreciated as a major influence on his thought. This influence is explored in detail by Smith in a paper entitled The Gnostic Baudrillard (2004). My approach differs from Smith’s in that it examines Bataille’s writings on Gnosticism as a key influence on Baudrillard’s duality. As there is nothing to suggest that Baudrillard was a practicing Gnostic or Manichaen – that he followed their religious codes – it is his theoretical or writing practice that is influenced by a version of Manichaeism, and one that seems to be more deeply influenced by Bataille’s work than by the writings of the Manichaens themselves. In exploring Baudrillard’s radical duality it becomes apparent that many of the spiritual, theosophical and transcendent dimensions of Gnosticism and Manichaeism play little or no part of Baudrillard’s thinking. Instead, there seem to be two distinct senses of duality in Baudrillard’s work: firstly, there are the polar antagonisms between the symbolic/seductive/fatal and the semiotic/simulational/virtual expressed as a “dual obligation” which we all experience. Secondly, there is a duality internal to or within the simulatory or virtual spheres which appears as defiance, alternation or reversal. This second sense of duality: internal duality or the “dual form”, takes on an increasingly prominent role in Baudrillard’s later writings and leads to a partial rejection of both Bataillean and Manichaen positions.
II. Bataille and Gnosticism
This section will examine Bataille’s main discussion of Gnosticism: ‘Base Materialism and Gnosticism’, first published in 1930 (Bataille 1985: 45-52; see also Bataille 1947). Bataille begins by taking the philosophical opposition of form and matter arguing that there is a deeper, and ideologically disguised, homogeneity between these terms because both are abstractions, are highly idealised and so function to confine or imprison human experience within a discursive system. For Bataille conceptual oppositions are inherently ideological in that they protect order and power from the ruin that would otherwise be wreaked on them by the superabundance of physical, sexual, social and bio-chemical energy he calls “the accursed share” (Bataille 1988).
Conceptual oppositions then do not capture the richness of the world; they are inherently reductive and work to control and order the world, breaking it up into hierarchical and complementary oppositions such as thinker and thought, method and truth, right and wrong, truth and error. Dualism, in the Gnostic and Manichaen sense that appeals to Bataille (and to Baudrillard), is far less reductive because alongside the system of conceptual oppositions enforced by rational thought there is something else, something unknown, a beyond. This something, or rather ‘Nothing’, is figured as another world, in contrast to, the ‘real’, measurable, knowable world. In other words, what is generally taken to be ‘real’, material and universal is strictly limited by and is ultimately dependent upon another world. From the perspective of such duality, the vast sum of identities and differences, the immense plurality of the ‘real’ world is homogeneous, yet there is also, denied by principle of homogeneity, a world of heterogeneity (see Bataille, 1985: 137-160. Bataille’s duality of the homogeneous and heterogeneous influenced Baudrillard, though it is an understanding of duality that Baudrillard moves away from in his later works. For Bataille, ‘evil’ is an aspect of the sacred world, the world of heterogeneity, that is condemned by the world of homogeneity as it becomes dominant and is able to relegate or banish heterogeneity. Bataille’s duality, with the world of heterogeneity privileged and the world of homogeneity denigrated as “flat and untenable” (Bataille 1985: 117) is clearly hierarchical, though it does allow for complex movements and relations between the two worlds. Baudrillard’s duality, by contrast, seeks to break with this religious vision of good and evil; in particular Baudrillard wants to reject Bataille’s notion of transgression and to re-think the accursed share through the notion of symbolic or impossible exchange (Baudrillard 2005: 188-9). Baudrillard’s increasing distance from Bataille is discussed below.
Gnosticism is understood by Bataille as the most radical “subversion of the ideal” in that it confronts evil, disorder and monstrosity as autonomous forces, not subject to dialectical sublation or resolution, that is, not merely as the opposite terms of good, order and normality. Rather, good and evil, sacred and profane, alternate, and religious ceremonies based on the principle of transgression allow this alternation to take place. This sense of duality had a major impact on Baudrillard’s thought and its influence is particularly visible in Mirror of Production and Symbolic Exchange and Death where Baudrillard discusses symbolic orders and practices.
Gnosticism embraces magic (the modern term ‘Abracadabra’ derives from Gnostic texts), astrology and extraordinarily complex cosmologies, yet at the same time Gnosticism incorporates and is even rooted in “Christian theology and Hellenistic metaphysics” (Bataille 1985: 46). Indeed, leading writers in the Gnostic tradition, such as Basilides, Marcion and Mani himself (AD 216-217) are recognisable as Christians in that they hold Christ to be divine: a pure and perfect spirit who shows the path out of the (illusory) ‘material’ world of misery, suffering and darkness into the Light of the true God. This true God is beyond the cosmos, radically other, alien and unknowable. Many commentators on Gnosticism understand it to be a particular form of Christianity, as a more intellectual, authentic or undiluted form of Christianity preserved in Greek and Coptic texts and unsullied by the institution of the Roman church (Gnostic Gospels 2005; see also Jonas 1979; Chadwick in Augustine 1991: 40 n.15; Stoyanov 2000).
Gnosticism is widely considered to be a dualistic (though extremely nebulous) religious and philosophical system, meaning that two distinct, fundamental and autonomous principles are specified, neither of which is the cause or source of the other. In Gnosticism, and in Manichaenism, Light and Darkness, Good and Evil, Spirit and Materiality are contrasted in this way. In Gnostic thought, both Good and Evil are beyond human knowledge, they are transcendent and divine. In the ‘fallen’ material world, the time of human beings, Darkness reigns, and though each human being possesses a fragment of Light (the soul) human thought can only conceive of Good and Evil as oppositions. Yet, according to Gnostic texts those who reject the material world can glimpse a greater wisdom than is possible within conceptual or representational thought based on idealised oppositional thinking. This is a wisdom (sophia) of ‘oppositions’ flowing together, returning to and energising each other, of dynamic alternation and renewal. The notorious Gnostic text The Thunder, Perfect Intellect presents the divine or Godhead as a shattering of conceptual oppositions: “I am the first and the last/I am both respected and ignored/ I am both harlot and holy/I am wife and virgin/I am bride and groom/I am knowledge and ignorance/I am merciful and cruel/I am stupid and I am wise/I am that which people call/life and you call death/I am called Law/and lawlessness/I am both godless and/she who knows God is Great/My nature is peace,/but war comes from me/Those who are close/don’t know me/When you are near,/I’m distant/On the day you are distant,/I am close.” (Gnostic Gospels 2005: 243-250). It is worth noting that this passage rejects gendered oppositions, as do many Gnostic and Manichaen texts, and also that stylistically it is as Eastern as it is Western – or rather that it refutes such an opposition.
In orthodox or canonical Christianity darkness, evil and materiality are understood as temporary blockages, diversions or obstacles in the path of the good, and thus always subordinate to the ultimate goodness of God’s design. Evil lacks substance and being, it has no reality. This is the position explicated by Augustine in The City of God and, more dramatically, in The Confessions where Augustine vilifies the “Manichees”, a sect which had, of course, enjoyed his adherence for about nine years (Augustine 1991: 40-3, 77-89). The Christian understanding of evil is similar to that of Islam and Judaism where even Satan is ultimately a servant of God, albeit a mischievous one (see for example Job 2: 1-6). However, in the Gnostic and Manichaen views the material world, indeed the cosmos, is afflicted by an evil which is not subordinate to good; it is dominated by evil and darkness.1 For the Gnostics, the God referred to in Genesis is a lower god or demiurge that either cannot eradicate evil, or indeed is (partly) responsible for it. Yet there is a higher God, a true God of Light beyond the material world, an invisible spirit. This God is beyond human language and comprehension yet can be sensed in moments of silence or ecstasy. It is ‘God’ in this sense which is of particular interest to Bataille, for example in Inner Experience (1988).
For Bataille the “leitmotiv of Gnosticism [is] the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not simply be an absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence) and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action)” (Bataille 1985: 47). Archontes or archons are lower gods or demons, defined by Gasche (2012: 247) as “fallen angels” and are often depicted in animal form. Darkness is eventually vanquished, but not within human time; the human world as it is, is an illusion and cannot be realised, perfected, or redeemed. This apparently ontological assertion is important to both Bataille and Baudrillard. Both writers will, occasionally, refer to it; however, since their philosophies do not rely on notions of transcendence (beyond this fallen world) and divinity in the way that the Gnostics and Manichaens do, the ‘foundations’ of their thinking are not onto-theological but mythic2 . Though Bataille and Baudrillard understand Evil in different ways for both thinkers Evil must be recognised and affirmed, without Evil there can be no challenge to the social and political order, no defiance, no creative renewal and, since Good and Evil are never found in isolation, without Evil there can be no Good.
Hollier (in Botting and Wilson Eds. 1997), writing on Bataille’s materialist dualism, argues that Bataille’s distinction between sacred and profane flows from this ultimately Gnostic position. The sacred is not the opposite of the profane but that which confounds, explodes, and lays waste the ordered opposition of sacred and profane upon which the profane is based. Similarly, Evil is not the opposite of Good but that which confounds the ordered opposition of Good and Evil upon which Good is based. Bataille’s understanding of the creative and disjunctive force of evil is a major influence on Baudrillard’s principle of Evil.3 Further, this attitude of disparaging the material world as fallen and corrupt, sometimes termed anti-cosmic dualism, perhaps plays a role in Baudrillard’s critical studies of modernity, consumerism, sexuality and technology. However, in developing the notion of immanent and internal duality, Baudrillard’s position embraces ambivalence and reversal to a far greater extent than Bataille’s. Baudrillard also rejects Bataille’s materialism by presenting the world as a dual illusion, both vital and banal.
Bataille’s understanding of Gnosticism has been regarded by some theologians as rather tenuous or distorted (see comments of Father Daniélou in Bataille 2001: 34-40). However, it is perfectly consistent with Bataille’s wider perspective on religious experience and on the history of Christianity in that it draws out the “left pole” of the sacred: the impure, malefic, contagious, violent and monstrous aspects of the sacred (discussed in Pawlett 2013). The left pole of the sacred had already been discussed by Robertson-Smith (1898) and by Durkheim (1995, orig. 1912) but in his emphasis on the left pole Bataille launches a critical assault on theology, not from the position of secular rationality, but from the position of the sacred and of the intensity of religious experience: from Bataille’s perspective theology is never religious. The wild intensity of religious experience is known only to mystics, heretics and prophets; it is not available to the concepts or discourses of theology.
III. The Principle of Evil
Fatal Strategies, originally published in 1983, is the work where Manichaeism emerges explicitly, in the context of discussions of myth and of evil. Baudrillard makes the following, rather startling, statement:
We need to reawaken the principle of Evil active in Manicheism and all the great mythologies in order to affirm, against the principle of the Good, not exactly the supremacy of Evil, but a fundamental duplicity that demands that any order exists only to be disobeyed, attacked, exceeded, and dismantled (Baudrillard 1990b: 77).
Disobedience and duplicity are quite distinct from Bataille’s notion of transgression; they are a perpetual challenge to any system or order, whereas transgression allows only a temporary suspension of order, and one that is ultimately sanctioned by the system or law to be transgressed (transgression “reconciles the law with what it forbids” (Baudrillard 1988: 81)). There is a distinct political dimension to Baudrillard’s assertion – the defiance of order, of control and hierarchy. There is also a defiance of definition, of rationality, that is an epistemological and methodological dimension. It becomes clear that, for Baudrillard, there is a symbolic relation between Good and Evil which is distinct from, and far more intense and dynamic than, the reductive moral opposition of good and evil, and the even more reductive modern binary happiness/misfortune (discussed below). The symbolic relation – a relation of exchange, reversal, metamorphosis, an unfixing of value, power and hierarchy – is fundamental to the relationship between Good and Evil. With the disappearance of symbolic orders in capitalist modernity the symbolic relation of Good and Evil is transformed and Baudrillard alters his approach accordingly. Reflecting on the trajectory of his thought in L’Autre par lui même (orig. 1987) Baudrillard states, “there is no longer any symbolic referent to the challenge of signs, and to the challenge through signs…The object itself takes the initiative of reversibility, taking the initiative to seduce and lead astray” (Baudrillard 1988: 80, emphasis in original). Indeed, “the fatal reversibility of the object” is Baudrillard’s definition of the principle of Evil (1988: 82). This re-evaluation leads to a departure from Bataille’s sense of duality. Where Bataille sees the crushing banality of the world of homogeneity, Baudrillard’s shifts away from this critical position in favour of fatal theory:
Against the banal vision (conventional and religious) of the fatal, one must set up a fatal vision of the banal. It is at the extremities of this monotony, this insignificance, this indifference of our systems, that the sequences, unfolding, and processes – which no longer proceed from cause to effect – appear; a challenge that is immanent in the very unfolding of things (Baudrillard 1988: 84-5).
The term fatal, for Baudrillard, refers to a “metamorphosis of effects”, to destined successions and reversions, to the sudden reappearance of that which had seemed to have been eliminated. But the fatal is not apocalyptic or fatalistic, it is ironic; it may be humorous (as with slips of the tongue), poetic, tragic, mythic and also political in the sudden reversals of power, status and prestige when ‘objects’ such as the poor or the masses take revenge and defy their leaders. Neither are Baudrillard’s fatal strategies a celebration of evil. Indeed, Baudrillard is scathing of those who attempt to choose evil, to do only evil. Such people will only do good, both in the sense that they posit evil as a good in choosing it, because any such ‘evil’ is no more than a fantasy based on a reductive notion of ‘good’, and finally because no act, event or outcome can ever be deduced from individual choice or causality (Baudrillard 1993b: 110; 2001: 62; 2005: 159). Indeed, if moral evil were ever established as a dominant order, the principle of Evil would rise up against it4 . For Good to be more than mere order, law, authority it requires Evil, the energy of challenge, defiance, creativity and renewal. The great religious and political revolutionaries (Jesus, Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela) are clearly ‘Evil’ from the perspective of the system of law and order they challenge, and they are punished accordingly. Hence Evil has a positive as well as a negative sense in Baudrillard’s thought (see Baudrillard 1993b: 81-88; 2005a: 159-164).
Baudrillard’s position is developed further in his very late works The Intelligence of Evil, The Agony of Power and Carnival and Cannibal. Here Baudrillard examines what he understands as the disappearance of both Evil as symbolic/poetic and evil as metaphysical form, from the culture of global techno-modernity which enforces a “hegemonic culture of happiness” (Baudrillard 2005a: 139). Good is reduced to happiness and Evil is reduced to misfortune. In modernity, evil is treated as something accidental, something that can be secured, controlled and finally eliminated, for example by a culture of surveillance, insurance and risk assessment. While many instances of misfortune may be treatable, perhaps by welfare spending or international aid, Evil is something else entirely: it is, for Baudrillard, ineradicable, fated to appear and reappear especially where unexpected or where it appears to be vanquished.
It is clear that Baudrillard totally rejects the liberal humanist tradition which understands the human individual as essentially good and rational, and the Christian privative conception of Evil. Baudrillard’s conception of evil as an “original power” is in accord with Manichaeism: “evil is the first hypothesis, the first supposition. Good is merely a transposition and a substitute product: the hypostasis of evil” (Baudrillard 2005a: 141). This statement is Manichaen (rather than ‘satanic’) because it understands the material world as fallen and illusory and as incapable of becoming good, incapable of or not susceptible to meaningful or positive evolution. Baudrillard’s frequent assertions that all revolutions and all attempts at liberation end by unwittingly creating greater human servitude can be seen in this Manichaen context (Baudrillard 2001: 61).
It seems that Baudrillard postulates three stages or phases in the relationship of Good and Evil. Firstly, Good and Evil as symbolic and reversible forms; secondly, good and evil as metaphysical and dialectical oppositions; and thirdly, the disappearance of good and evil into the modern binary of happiness/misfortune. Yet, this is not a historicist position, Good and Evil as symbolic forms do not go anywhere, they are severed, smothered yet they remain, and can be awakened to take their revenge on, or through, the culture of happiness/misfortune. Indeed, Baudrillard insists, repeatedly, that Evil reappears or “transpires” through the very measures designed to eliminate it. Where good attempts to eliminate evil, evil will reappear in the measures taken by good, and as the metaphysical pairing tends to disappear in modernity, Evil reappears through the measures designed to eliminate misfortune. Some of Baudrillard’s examples here are repetitive but telling: the misuse of Western aid, humanitarianism as ideological cover for the spreading of Western values etc. (Baudrillard 1993b: 132). Financial aid and humanitarian interventions are a means by which the privileged seek to eliminate the presence of Evil, to refuse to carry its burden and to deny the symbolic circulation of Good and Evil. Put crudely, giving aid to the ‘third world’ can absolve individuals and governments of any guilt or even recognition of raising levels of poverty across the globe.
For Baudrillard “[t]hinking based on evil is not pessimistic; it is thinking based on misfortune that is pessimistic because it wants desperately to escape evil, or alternatively, to revel in it” (2005a: 143). When good seeks to totalise itself by eliminating evil, not only does it fall far short of good but evil returns in catastrophic form. Misfortune and happiness feed and complement each other; indeed Baudrillard notes that misfortune and victimhood become increasingly attractive to all as “a kind of escape route from the terroristic happiness plot” (Baudrillard 2005a: 145). Baudrillard insists:
Contrary to received opinion, misfortune is easier to manage than happiness – that is why it is the ideal solution to the problem of evil. It is misfortune that is most distinctly opposed to evil and to the principle of evil, of which it is the denial (Baudrillard 2005a: 145).
So the modern project is one of erasing evil to build the empire of the good, where everyone is supposed to be happy and if they are not it is because of some circumstance of misfortune. In this process of abstraction and simulation, anyone can claim misfortune status – including the powerful and the privileged, indeed in recent years we have seen investment bankers claim the status of victims or scapegoats for the global recession. If modernity has sought the separation of good and evil, in order to reify the good and expel evil, hypermodernity seeks the elimination or obliteration of evil, such that the distinction between good and evil disappears.
To give examples, it is through the misfortune/happiness binary that violent and tragic events are produced as instances of types of events such as ‘human rights violations’ or ‘crimes against humanity’. Not allowed to be singular events of tragedy, the awarding or conferral of the title ‘crime against humanity’ produces an event to be deplored by the media, not one to be thought about, but one to be consumed quickly. A violent event cannot, under this way of thinking, be worse than a crime against humanity, it cannot, for example be a crime against nature, or against life. Further, for Baudrillard, the current political fashion for apologies, for “the rectification of the past in terms of our humanitarian awareness” (2005a: 150) is an extension of colonial rule and global capitalist hegemony because it declares – Ok, we are sorry, get on with your mourning and then you can join the new economic order that we have defined: “we make imbeciles of the victims themselves, by confining them to their condition of victim, and by the compassion we show them we engage in a kind of false advertising for them (Baudrillard 2005a: 153).
For Baudrillard, the conferring or giving of human rights, a ‘gift’ that cannot easily be refused because of the hegemony of good, is a form of violence, closely related to potlatch. Human rights are conferred as access to ordered, hierarchised exchange, to exchange within a system of power. Yet in their symbolic violence the unilateral giving of rights removes or takes away the power of symbolic exchange, an exchange where power is questioned, not enshrined, and where there is a potential for a kind of commonality or at least a common field of engagement. With the loss of symbolic exchange much is lost – perhaps land, ritual, sacred language, and what is conferred is a system of rights which the powerful do not need and the powerless cannot exercise. This is the violence of the ‘good’, the “Empire” or “axis of good” (Baudrillard 2010: 88 & 111). Further, Baudrillard suggests that the powerless sense or implicitly understand the snares, humiliations and loss of symbolic defences that await them if they try to play by the rules imposed upon them by liberal humanitarian discourse (Baudrillard 1983). The riposte that ‘It’s all very well for a wealthy, white, male intellectual to say such things’, a charge made against Baudrillard frequently in the 1980s, is only valid if it can be shown that liberal humanitarian and economic interventions have brought wealth and prosperity to the poor, excluded and marginal around the world. Even by strictly economic measures this seems not to be the case (Klein 2007; see also Walters 2012: 101-105).
To summarise, there is no dialectical tension or energy between happiness and misfortune, they are binary; they form a code which banishes the metaphysical energy of good and evil. Neither good nor evil can irrupt as transformative, defiant or revolutionary, yet the integral drive to totalise happiness through consumerism and sexual liberation – the terroristic happiness plot – itself suffers the backlash of symbolic forms which now appear as Evil. This is the internal duality of the dual form: Baudrillard’s dual form is not transcendent or other-worldly, it is immanent and intra-genic, locked within this world and its systems and values. Baudrillard’s sense of duality here differs significantly from that of Bataille where homogeneity is the object of critique and heterogeneity is understood, primarily, as an exteriority.
Baudrillard’s re-examination of Nietzsche’s position on the ‘death of God’ is an aspect of his writing that is of increasing interest given current debates on the ‘post-secular’ turn. God, for Baudrillard, exists only in the challenge posed by the heretic, in the challenge or volatility of symbolic exchange. Moreover, God does not seek the separation of Good and Evil, indeed “God himself is in league with the principle of evil:
Would God have fallen into this strategy, unworthy of him, of reconciling man with his own image, at the end of a Last Judgement that would bring him indefinitely closer to his ideal goal. Fortunately not: God’s strategy is such that he maintains man in suspense, hostile to his image, elevating Evil to the power of a principle and marvellously sensitive to any seduction that turns him away from his goal (Baudrillard 1990b: 72).
But which God? Jehovah? The Gnostic and Manichaen demiurge? The alien, radically other God? Baudrillard provides few clues on this question. The ‘death of God’ – that is the death of the God of Theology as the organising or grounding principle of social, cultural and intellectual life – does not, for Baudrillard, lead to a radical freedom, nor to an unleashing of evil in the sense that everything is now permitted. Rather, the death of God leads to a new, crushing “total responsibility” for the material world. In this new world there is no place for God or for the Devil, for Good or for Evil.
Individuals, such as they are, become exactly what they are. Without transcendence and without image, they carry on their lives like a useless function in the eyes of another world, irrelevant even in their own eyes … they have sacrificed their lives to their functional existences (Baudrillard 2005a: 149).
The loss of the symbolic dualities of Good and Evil has a de-vitalising effect on humanity and on modern life. In hypermodernity we have the emergence of a saccharine, self-serving and hypocritical sense of the ‘good’, such as that promoted by politicians in their posturing as ‘international peace-keepers’ and by business corporations – such as the health and fitness industries – in their increasingly intrusive advertising campaigns. Happiness and well-being discourse has little connection to good as moral or dialectical form. The cultural demand is that we “show all the signs of happiness” at all times which, Baudrillard notes, is a demand that is much closer to immorality than to morality.
IV. Baudrillard’s Manichaeism
We find ourselves, then, between good and evil, in an irresolvable antagonism in which – at the risk of being Manichaen, and contradicting the whole of our humanism – there is no possible reconciliation (Baudrillard 2003: 29).
That Baudrillard professes a certain Manichaenism cannot be doubted, but how influential is Manichaeism to the overall shape of his thought? Isn’t Manichaeism simply one reference point for Baudrillard and less important than other better known influences such as pataphysics, Marxism, structuralism and situationism for example? In a sense the answer must be yes, however a surprising number of Baudrillard’s themes and arguments can be seen as closely related to Manichaen principles, as Smith (2004) has argued. These include: Baudrillard’s extensive studies of Evil in his later work, his long-standing emphasis on illusion, his frequent references to the importance of the secret, and his writing on radical otherness. Baudrillard writes of the evil demon of images, and the evil demon of language, suggesting than representation is illusory, diabolic and also dual: both banal and fatal. Illusion is closely related to Evil in Baudrillard’s lexicon: Evil is part of the vital illusion that cannot be eliminated or subordinated to Good. Or, perhaps more accurately, Evil becomes evil insofar as it concerns that which good has tried and failed to eliminate. It is worth clarifying further: Good and Evil as symbolic, mythic or poetic forms do not seek to eliminate each other, only in being abstracted and opposed do they become the moral categories of good and evil. As moral categories good seeks to obliterate evil, yet evil will always seem to have the upper-hand because it gains the force and élan of that which ought not to exist but does, and which returns to shock and scandalise the order of the good. As modernity dismantles symbolic exchanges, denies duality and attempts, ever more aggressively, to eliminate evil, Evil becomes “a hide-out for the symbolic order” (Baudrillard 1990b: 182) and anything that is symbolically exchanged is perceived as a threat to the system (Baudrillard 1993a; 188 n. 7).
Manichaeism is not referred to, explicitly, in Baudrillard’s early studies on the object, sign and consumer systems. However, the early essay ‘Pataphysics’ (orig. 1952) evokes the fundamental power of illusion as something far more radical and challenging to order, power, and control than any ‘reality’ – such as nature, sex or violence: “The façade is there and nothing behind it” Baudrillard asserts (2005b: 214). The world is illusion, yet this illusion is dual: there is the symbolic play of appearance and disappearance, vital illusion on the one hand, and on the other the world of “forced materialisation”, hyperreality and simulation – “the lowest form of illusion” (Baudrillard 1998:3). The world of banal illusion is produced through: “concretizing, verifying, objectizing, demonstrating: ‘objectivity’ is this capture of the real that forces the world to face us, expurgating it of any secret complicity” (2005a: 39). The real expurgated of complicity is no longer real, but hyperreal. Complicity is very important here and seems not to be a theme derived directly from Manichaeism. Rather, Baudrillard’s emphasis on complicity seems to be an extension of the principle of symbolic exchange into fatal theory: complicity is a form of duality and reversibility. In fatal theory, reversibility becomes an internal duality, an internal ‘nothing’ present within yet challenging or defying all of the ‘somethings’ of the world of value.
The themes of duality and reversibility take on an ever wider scope in Baudrillard’s writing: “Since consciousness is an integral part of the World and the World is an integral part of consciousness, I think it and it thinks me” (Baudrillard 2005a: 39). It is worth asking what Baudrillard means by ‘the world’. Human beings live in a state of complicity with the world, not one of mastery. If reality has a history, a temporality and can be understood in terms of causes and effects, ‘the world’ cannot. Having no history or genealogy, the world “was born at a stroke” (1995: 57). This primal, poetic, radical or even “objective” illusion is benevolent, in a sense, because “[i]llusion, being pre-eminently the art of appearing, of emerging from nothing, protects us from being. And being also pre-eminently the art of disappearing, it protects us from death” (ibid.). Here Baudrillard’s anti-materialism again becomes evident, a theme that emerged clearly with Symbolic Exchange and Death in 1976. Subject and object, good and evil, something and nothing, life and death are inseparable and reversible or dual. The object discovers the subject, just as the subject discovers the object; for example, viruses learn about the human immunological system at the same time as the human immunological system learns about viruses.
Baudrillard’s assertion that the world is fundamentally illusory is of course an unverifiable one, as he readily admits (2005a: 47) but the existence of reality, causality and objectivity are all ultimately unverifiable too. However, Baudrillard is not content to note an impasse or stalemate. Rather, he suggests that it is because the world as illusion is unverifiable and also “unbearable” that the great drive towards control through simulation and virtuality – integral reality – occurs. Baudrillard’s anti-materialism should not be dismissed as idealism. Idealism posits the ultimate compatibility of the categories of the mind with the material world; Baudrillard challenges any such notion of compatibility, reconcilability or resolution. Instead, he approaches the world as enmeshed within a dual, complicitous and reversible relationship with the subject, the subject constantly becoming-object and the object becoming-subject, indeed, “above all the subject has the passion to be object, to become object” (Baudrillard 1988: 93, emphasis in original).
Baudrillard also links his principle of Evil to the theme of radical otherness or singularity:
The sovereign hypothesis, the hypothesis of evil, is that man is not good by nature, not because he might be said to be bad, but because he is perfect as he is … [e]very stage of life, every moment of life, every animal or plant species, is perfect in itself. Every character, in its singular imperfection, in its matchless finitude, in incomparable” (Baudrillard 2005a: 140).
So, an apparently provocative and irresponsible remark “evil is perfect when left to itself” (ibid.) is, on closer analysis, almost a humanistic celebration of imperfection. Or rather, Baudrillard’s position on radical otherness suggests an ethics of singularity not dissimilar to that espoused by Levinas and Derrida (see Critchley 1992). The transcendent and divine radical otherness of the Gnostics and Manichaens becomes, in Baudrillard’s hands, radically immanent with the human becoming divine: divine in the sense of having an intelligence of Evil. The notion of complicity is crucial here, rather than seeking to exile evil through the imputation of objective causes (of misfortune) an “intelligence of evil begins with the hypothesis that our ills come to us from an evil genius that is our own. Let us be worthy of our perversity … let us measure up to our tragic involvement in what happens to us” (Baudrillard 2005a: 152-3).
The notion of the intelligence of Evil signals a partial rejection of Manichaeism:
Above all, we must not confuse the idea of evil with some kind of objective existence of evil. That has no more meaning than an objective existence of the Real; it is merely the moral and metaphysical illusion of Manichaeism that it is possible to will evil, to do evil, or, alternatively, to denounce and combat it (Baudrillard 2005a: 159)
Rather, Evil appears in the diverting and reversal of things, objects, people, events which good believes that it has mastered. Moral evil as malign force or essence is always a “phantasmic projection” where the other is construed as the source or cause of evil. In Baudrillard’s intelligence of evil, “it is evil that is intelligent…in the sense that it is implied automatically in every one of our acts” (2005a: 160). All acts, thought, talk are dual in this sense. Evil has no independent reality; it is a moment in metamorphosis or becoming.
In speaking of the world as a fundamental illusion, Baudrillard’s position can be seen as Manichaen or Gnostic, but it can also be seen as Pataphysical. Commenting on contemporary technology and culture, Baudrillard asserts “We are, in fact, in pure pataphysics … the only known attempt to move to integral metaphysics, the metaphysics in which the phenomenal world is treated definitively as an illusion” (Baudrillard 2005a: 45). It is not Manichaeism as a philosophical position, still less as a religious system, that interests Baudrillard; it is Manichaeism as a heresy, as a shadow or nothing that mainstream religion and society cannot quite eliminate. Radical duality cannot be eliminated, not because its simplicity is appealing, but because it seeks an alternative position, a position beyond conceptual polarities, sensing that conceptual polarities – binary, dialectical, simulatory, integral – are narrow and confining, and are subservient to the notion of ‘reality’. It is the powerful sense that Evil is more than the opposite of Good that cannot be eliminated and that re-appears in many heresies through the ages, from Mani to the Cathars and Bogomils (see Stoyanov 2000), and to Bataille and Baudrillard.
To speak evil is to say that in every process of domination and conflict is forged a secret complicity, and in every process of consensus and balance, a secret antagonism (Baudrillard 2005a: 163).
There is no bar or effective dividing line between Good and Evil. They cannot be defined in isolation, they cannot be separated and the project of eliminating evil to universalise good can bring only disastrous consequences. When good seeks to totalise itself by eliminating evil, not only does it fall short of good, but evil returns in catastrophic form.
Good and Evil as symbolic forms are not two halves of a totality, they are not merely different; they are intimately related and they alternate or metamorphose without ever achieving unification or synthesis – like day and night. Where modernity sought the separation of good and evil, to expel evil and accumulate good, in contemporary Western societies the moral opposition of good and evil is, increasingly, transformed into the binary happiness/misfortune. The concept of misfortune eliminates the notion of evil, yet duality reappears fracturing happiness, making it unbearable, diverting happiness and misfortune into despair – the despair of having everything and nothing.
Baudrillard challenges those who wish to separate evil from good in order to celebrate evil, just as he challenges those who wish to separate evil from good to celebrate good. However, Baudrillard says very little about Good as symbolic form. Can Good be a symbolic form? Baudrillard does suggest that the loss of Good is as “baneful” and dangerous as the loss of Evil (Baudrillard 2005a: 139). However, it seems that, for Baudrillard, Good as symbolic form always tends towards control, order and totalisation, hence it must always be challenged by Evil to prevent it from hardening into tyranny.
At the most general level, Baudrillard works with an assumption, inspired by Manichaeism, that the world as human beings encounter it, is given to disorder and to such an extent that it cannot be managed, rationalised or controlled in any ultimate sense. All attempts to impose control will come to grief; they may achieve temporary successes but will always, ultimately, fail. At this meta-theoretical level Baudrillard seeks to challenge the prejudice towards seeing the world, the object, reality, society as unified, as unitary and as having a single origin, cause, direction and end (Baudrillard 2003: 81). It is the challenge of heresy – the heresy of refusing to make evil subordinate to good – that interests Baudrillard; challenge and defiance are symbolic relations: dual, fatal and reversible.
About the Author
Dr. William Pawlettis from the department of Sociology and Cultural Studies, University of Wolverhampton, UK.
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1 – Yet, as Brakke (2010:62) points out, Gnosticism is not a dualism strictly speaking because “[u]ltimately, there is only one Invisible Spirit, and everything that exists has its origin in it”.
2 – Myth must be understood here as greater than the sum parts of ‘reality’, rather than as a disguised, distorted or ‘manageable’ version of ‘reality’.
3 – Bataille was fascinated by a further move: God is not the absence that is the opposite of presence (of matter, of things) but that which confounds the ordered opposition of presence and absence which presence generates and enforces. ‘God’ is the impossible experience of being taken beyond limits: of morality, of knowledge, of sanity, of life. Baudrillard showed no interest, so far as I am aware, in this negative (a)theology.
4 – This seems to be Baudrillard’s suggestion concerning the story, apparently told by Leo Scheer, of a Jewish woman who, while being held captive by the Nazis, was forced to dance for their amusement. Her dance was so enchanting that she was able to seize a firearm from her captors and kill several of them before she was shot down (Baudrillard 1990a). In this example, Nazism as a system of moral evil is challenged by a woman reduced to the status of object, yet who uses that object status to defy or reverse the power structure, if only momentarily.