ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Richard Pope

Jean Baudrillard’s death did not take place. “Dying is pointless,” he once wrote. “You have to know how to disappear.” The New Yorker reported a reading the French sociologist gave in a New York gallery in 2005.  A man from the audience, with the recent death of Jacques Derrida in mind, mentioned obituaries and asked Baudrillard: “What would you like to be said about you? In other words, who are you?” Baudrillard replied: “What I am, I don’t know. I am the simulacrum of myself.”1

Baudrillard was a long-time admirer of the persona of Andy Warhol, and, like him, throughout his career he refused to provide personal background to his life or his views. In avoiding giving would-be critics, professional appraisers, and biographers something to latch onto in the production of elucidatory meaning, Baudrillard sought rather to render things a bit more enigmatic, becoming his “own pure simulacrum”.2 The Economist’s obituary wrote:

Behind the panache of his ideas – often bunkum, yet sometimes catching acutely the media-dominated triviality of modern life – the man was hidden. ‘No background’ he would growl, if you asked.3

All of which made for some difficulty in the task at hand: writing an obituary, an account – preferably with some appeal to reference, to a-not-just-hyper-reality – of the man’s life and work. Offered was, for the most part, just how The Economist described the hyperreal: “an image, which could be reproduced unendingly, of an object that claimed to have meaning and, in fact, had none”.4 Obituaries, such as this one, attempt to provide a horizon of meaning, realized through death, for the life of the person in question. But this semblance of meaning is only a mirage for the deeper “truth” that it is now near impossible to provide (for) such meaning. We lack the imaginary resources that could provide depth, substance, and coherence – in short, meaning. That this difficulty would present itself in his own obituary is but a confirmation of both the form and content of Baudrillard’s analysis.

The Anglo-American critique of French theory runs deep, if only in the register of repetition. The Chronicle of Higher Education opined thus: More than any other modern French “master of thought,” Baudrillard exemplified the calculated strain in French academic culture that elevates a handful of thinkers in its lucid, elegant language to superstardom precisely because they perform the dance of opaqueness best.5

The writer, Carlin Romano, even concluded in suggesting we would do better to mourn Henri Troyat, who died two days before Baudrillard. Robert Fulford, in the National Post, wrote such a hack-job – full of the inaccuracies of which Fulford accused Baudrillard6 – that Scott McLemee was justified in calling it “[a] lazy diatribe, feel[ing] like something kept in a drawer for the occasion of any French thinker’s death – with a few spots left blank, for details to be filled in per Google”.7 Much of the attacks on Baudrillard did, indeed, all too closely resemble those launched at Derrida upon his passing two years previous, and one knows something is amiss when obituaries are sent to print suggesting a person’s life is not worth remembering. In the case of someone like Auguste Pinochet, one might, to be sure, be highly critical of the person in question, though one would likely conclude on the note that despite – or precisely because of – their essential evil, they should be remembered (as negative examples). Baudrillard is remembered, but in the very process of remembering we are told not to remember. The paradox is partially deflected by suggesting that one is only remembering now because of his popularity and influence over contemporary culture (in such blockbusters as The Matrix, for instance), but that in forty or fifty years this influence will be definitively lost. That much of what occurred in the recent past will be forgotten in the future is, of course, not likely to be a peculiar fate for Baudrillard, and indeed Baudrillard would be the first to suggest that the very notion of historical remembrance has for some time now been in disrepair. Consistent with his theory, Baudrillard stood to the side in never quite taking up the mantle of his “place in history”. He understood very well that this place no longer existed in the real, instead acting aloof and noncommittal when his theories were at times appropriated by the New York art market, the academy, and the Wachowski brothers.

It is evident that such obituaries reeled from the simulacrum of their object in question. Who, or what, died (if it did not already disappear long before the event of death)? It is perhaps not surprising that most obituaries circled around Baudrillard’s take on the first Gulf War, that it would not, was not, and did not take place.  Baudrillard’s point was that the media discourse of the war to a large extent displaced and replaced the “actual” war, but his analysis, it was said, elided the deadly consequences of the war. As they did towards Baudrillard himself, the critique of Baudrillard’s analysis of the Gulf War reeled from its consequences, that the media’s efforts served as but a simulacrum of their purported object in question. The media could not and cannot, of course, admit its inability to any longer capture or reference the real. Again, Baudrillard would not have expected anything less, though, at the same time, Baudrillard would not deny he had a real life, a real wife, and two children. And he would not deny – despite all the accusations to the contrary – that many die even in the simulacrum of war. In discussing the role of generals polishing their simulated scenarios, Baudrillard wrote:

Should we applaud the fact that all these techniques of war-processing culminate in the elision of the duration and the violence of war? Only eventually, for the indefinite delay of the war is itself heavy with deadly consequences in all domains.8

Though the more brutal violence of hand-to-hand combat – or even opponents on the same general field of battle (the Gulf War, Baudrillard notes, was full of phantom battles) – has disappeared, “deadly consequences” resulting from this very logic of deterrence have not. Here was a “war” where the armies rarely met, something the media even helped ensure. In the “climax” – if we can speak of such a thing here – of the war the US military (mis)informed the media that they would be making an assault from the sea. Watching CNN, Saddam Hussein placed his troops accordingly, while the US rolled its tanks through the desert in a “surprise” attack from the rear. People died, of course, but the event of war itself was displaced, and finally lost. As he puts it in his more recent Cool Memories V:

War is impossible, and yet it takes place. But the fact that it takes place in no way detracts from its impossibility. The system is absurd and yet it functions. But the fact that it functions in no way detracts from its absurdity. The fact that the real exists in no way detracts from its unreality.9

Baudrillard was simply far better attuned to the multiple paradoxes in which we are contemporaneously enmeshed.  While there are real wars, the nature of this reality has been put into play, both on the battlefield and in our ability to apprehend such situations. It is, in short, increasingly difficult to give war substance and meaning, to make sense in and out of it.

It should be emphasized that US military power has a clear interest in maintaining such simulated reportage. In the Gulf War the media relied on US military briefings, while in the Iraq war correspondents reported from US Central Command in Doha, Qatar, some 700 miles from the battlefield, or from “embedded” positions within military units.  As Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi television learned on April 8, 2003, when their Baghdad offices were destroyed, anyone that sought to independently gather information became a target. Since the US was at that moment making its push into Baghdad, the timing of the attacks on these media outlets was in all probability not fortuitous: it would seem that they did not want their actions broadcast. An Al Jazeera correspondent, Tariq Ayoub, was killed in the attacks. Given that journalists tend to stick together (in a manner not unlike the “bands of brothers” of the military itself), this presented somewhat of a problem for US military media management. As it happened, the very next day US tanks rolled into one of Baghdad’s central squares, and Saddam’s statue was toppled in an obviously staged media “event” that provided the most memorable images of the war. The message? Stray from simulation (in trying to capture unstaged images), and die. But keep on the path, and you shall be bountifully provided with the imagery your audiences desire.

In his essay on the Gulf War Baudrillard provided an image, or rather recontextualized an image already floating about, for our condition in this situation: that of “blind sea bird stranded on a beach in the Gulf, which will remain the symbol-image of what we all are in front of our screens, in front of that sticky and unintelligible event”.10 We do not typically experience our situation as one of simulation: “Everyone tends to take their environment, whatever it may be, for reality. And the more artificial it is, the more it transforms the belief in reality into a natural tendency.”11 Americans, moreover, enjoy a certain comfort due to the peculiar horizon of what, for them (as for us all, to the extent “we are all Americans”), is reality. We have a certain investment, that is, in maintaining whatever it is we have. Baudrillard wrote:

Seen from America and by American intellectuals (Susan Sontag), the denial of reality in European cultures, and particularly in French theory, is merely ‘metaphysical’ pique at no longer being master of that reality, and the – at once arrogant and ironic – manifestation of that powerlessness. And this is no doubt true. But the converse is also true: is not the bias towards reality among Americans, their ‘affirmative thinking’, the naïve and ideological expression of the fact that they have, by their power, a monopoly of reality?12

Baudrillard’s thesis on war and simulation cannot be affirmed. Likewise, his death must be given meaning. The preference would be to give it meaning through the very critique of his thesis on war and simulation, and critique his analysis of the disappearance of referentiality through his supposedly definitive, referential death. The title of the Chronicle article, which critiques his notion of the simulacrum, states: “The Death of Jean Baudrillard Did Happen”. This says more than it wants to. It suggests, anxiously, that the referentiality of Baudrillard’s death is definitive: “rest assured, dear readers, he is dead”, and thus his analysis of the disappearance of referentiality is without merit. But is his death so definitive? Surely his simulacrum, long in “existence”, will continue to float about (as it does here). Baudrillard, moreover, long noted the disappearance of death from our cultures (and how his own death would be “pointless”). Death no longer provides a horizon to our lives, rendering our lives meaningful in the here-and-now. It is instead forgotten, obliviated from memory, and as such the very possibility of living in a historical moment disappears. If Baudrillard died on March 6, 2007, there cannot be much meaning in that, and so, to that very extent, his critique of war and simulation holds. His death rather calls for an interrogation of his simulacrum, not to settle accounts or to pay off the debt, but to multiply avenues of thought and critique. In trying to affirm reality, these obituaries soon find themselves tangled in simulation. Unsure as to how to proceed with regards to the man and the theory, they follow, as McLemee noted, the model, the copy without original. In a back-handed way, then, they do finally pay their respects to the dead – as Baudrillard gives one last ironic wink.

The second major critique of Baudrillard to come out of his obituaries is his stance on the “mother of all events”, the terrorist attacks against the US on September 11, 2001. This is a different line of critique, since Baudrillard is not implying that it was primarily a media non-event. In The Spirit of Terrorism he instead suggests that the terrorist attacks were a sort of response to the decades of such non-events, putting an end to the “strike” of events. Terrorism finds its support not only in the humiliated poor but in our (“our” referring to the privileged) own submission to an omnipotent technological order. Baudrillard suggests that “[t]he fundamental rule of symbolic obligation stipulates that the basis of any form of domination is the total absence of any counterpart, of any return”,13 and that those in the developing world are so dominated, being given everything without any possibility of return. The “West”, in the position of Master, gives but does not get back; this is the violence (or “virulence”) of the Good. The masses of the “Western” world feel similarly, as if everything were given to us by a “technological mechanism of generalized exchange and common gratification” (“Violence”). We, too, are “bound by a non-repayable debt”.14 Baudrillard writes:

Terrorism depends not only on the obvious despair of the humiliated, but on the invisible despair of globalization’s beneficiaries. It depends on our subjugation to the technology integral to our daily lives, and to the crushing effects of virtual reality. We are in thrall to networks and programmes, and this dependence defines our species, homo sapiens gone global. This feeling of invisible despair – our own despair – is irreversible because it is the result of the total fulfillment of our desires.15

As he notes, “[t]his situation can last for a while because it is the very basis of exchange in this economic order. Still, there always comes a time when the fundamental rule [of symbolic obligation] resurfaces and a negative return inevitably responds”.16 This interminable giving presents a challenge to the world, to which some kind of response becomes inevitable. Baudrillard suggests that this return or reversion can take the shape of either violence, as in terrorism, or impotent surrender, more typical of Western modernities; impotent surrender includes self-hatred, remorse, and, one might think from his earlier writings on the masses, silence.

Many of the obituaries printed some variance of the following quote: “It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it… Without this deep complicity, the event would not have had such repercussions”.17 Baudrillard indexes all the disaster movies that have as part of their narratives an attack on the US, and often the World Trade Center itself. Elsewhere Baudrillard notes that “if the cohesion of our societies was in the past maintained by the ‘imaginary’ of progress, it is maintained today by the ‘imaginary’ of catastrophe”.18 Slavoj Zizek alludes to Baudrillard’s argument in noting the “libidinal investment” we had in the attack: “That is the rationale of the often-mentioned association of the attacks with Hollywood disaster movies: the unthinkable which happened was the object of fantasy, so that, in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and that was the biggest surprise”.19 It is the “biggest surprise” because we do not expect to actually receive, directly, what we fantasize about, and when we are confronted with the core of our fantasy we can only experience it as traumatic. Simply put, our fantasy of terrorism was supposed to remain just that. (The “we” I am repeatedly using is that of a strange sort of “collectivity”: the atomized masses, of which we are all part of some of the time, and none of us all the time. The use of this shifter is intended to affect the shock of recognition, to the extent that is possible given the sort of collectivity indexed.) Though the obituaries implicitly suggested otherwise, Baudrillard was not saying that on September 11, 2001, the US got what it deserved, merely that we cannot simply pretend as though we did not ourselves fantasize the “destruction of a power hegemonic to that degree”.20

We can certainly try to rewrite the past – that is the very dynamism, after all, of hyperreality – but we can just as well resist this tendency in indexing our having fantasized “9/11” before it actually happened:

1. Die Hard III

In this scene, from Die Hard: With a Vengeance (Die Hard III), the Wall Street subway station has just been bombed. Covered in dust, panic-stricken executives run about in images that can now but recall those from lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. Other executives take a spectatorial position to what is occurring beneath them:

2. Die Hard III

Centred in the action of the bomb blast the film cuts to an office that overlooks the scene with its nameless executives – who never become protagonists in the diegesis – and back to the action. A few seconds later we rejoin these executives, whom are now even eating popcorn in taking in this scene from behind the office window. One asks how many fire trucks can be counted, to which another says “you guys, you guys”, suggesting that their questioning is getting in the way of proper spectatorship. Die Hard not only partakes of the fantasy of terrorism, it does so in a reflexive manner. These executives, behind their window, clearly stand in for us, behind the screen.  In front of these images we, like these executives, feign a blasé attitude (“it’s nothing we haven’t seen before”), while attentively absorbing them – along with popcorn. Part of the humour of Die Hard: with a Vengeance is the way it exaggerates the nonchalance New Yorkers have to threats of terrorism, but this indifference – and so the reflexivity of this film – was only made possible through the interminable media discourse about terrorism. Behind our blasé attitude, this film suggests, lies enjoyment (and, perhaps, the reason for seeing this film). When someone like Baudrillard confronts us with our own enjoyment, we feign shock and horror. It is almost a law: those that come closest to articulating – and so potentially dissolving – the kernel of our enjoyment are the most vilified. Baudrillard, however, simply makes more explicit that around which Hollywood has built countless narratives. Later in the film the arch-terrorist, impersonating a city engineer, comes to survey the damage, and remarks: “Holy toledo! Somebody had fun”. Indexing his own enjoyment, he is also, as the previous scene with the executives makes clear, indexing our own. (The police officer with whom he converses himself references the first attack on the World Trade Center: “You were probably at the World Trade’s. You know what that mess was”.) Though the US administration might not ponder to any degree the enjoyment of terrorism, they do appreciate Hollywood’s story-telling abilities, routinely consulting them on likely terrorist targets and practices. But what they are ultimately consulting, of course, is our enjoyment as intuited by various Hollywood functionaries.

Despite the extremely few deaths attributed to terrorism, at times in the 1980s, Joseba Zulaika notes, “over 80 per cent of Americans regarded terrorism as an “extreme” danger. In April of 1986, a national survey showed that terrorism was “the number one concern” for Americans”.21 Feeding this fire and/or being fed from it, from 1989 to 1992, four years in which not a single person died from terrorism in the US, 1322 new book titles with the subject “terrorism” emerged.22 One could say, as Zulaika does, that in producing the discourse of terrorism Americans effectively called it into being. One would want to know why, however, the discourse was in the first place produced. If one is inclined to answer that it was produced because it was a very effective way to keep audiences captive long enough to sell them to advertisers, one would still want to know why it exerted such power of fascination for these audiences. I would suggest that Baudrillard allows for such an understanding in his discernment of the challenge opened by America, and the American production of this discourse is perhaps a kind of realization of the challenge it had placed to the rest of the world. America fantasized its own destruction, because it had set up the challenge, the “dare” (as so many American kids say and play every Saturday night). It was only waiting to see who would answer – and, in its millenarian spirit, when. It is probably not a stretch to say that the US, and the rest of the Western world, shares a kind of global popular culture – shaped first by the challenge, then by the mass media (though the challenge is to some extent only articulated through the mass media) – with the terrorists of September 11, 2001. Baudrillard does not suggest, however, that having shared such fantasies entails that we should now feel guilty. In Cool Memories V he writes that simply because we shared a kind of collective unconscious with the terrorists, “it is ridiculous to condemn the ‘collusion’ of the Unconscious with any political act whatever, and hence to submit it to a moral judgement”. To suggest otherwise, he continues, is to “dream of a politically correct Unconscious”.23

Baudrillard once wrote that America “is the only remaining primitive society”24 , which drew some attention at the time, and likewise had some obituaries crying foul. For the most part these critics were not aware that such a designation is, for Baudrillard, generally a form of flattery, if it does indeed become here more problematical. Primitive societies are for Baudrillard of the order of symbolic exchange and reversibility, of the pact and the challenge rather than the contract. To some extent he sees this in America:

If you approach this society with the nuances of moral, aesthetic, or critical judgement, you will miss its originality, which comes precisely from its defying judgement and pulling off a prodigious confusion of effects.  To side-step that confusion and excess is simply to evade the challenge it throws down to you… as with dream elements, you must accept the way they follow one another, even if it seems unintelligible… The distinctions that are made elsewhere have little meaning here.25

In a way America has no concern for values enshrined and elaborated upon in European cultures, instead operating in a kind of primitive, ritualistic society, epitomized through driving culture and the rules of the road. At the same time, however, the pornographic obscenity of American culture ensures the elision of any secret, any play beyond the materialized object.

America is a culture of paradox: on the one hand, its affirmative thinking renders it as far from the reversible play of seduction and the challenge as possible, while, on the other, its “defying judgement” indexes a society enjoying its lack of referentiality. American culture seems most obviously concerned with securing reality (and hegemony), while on the other it basks in the implosion of (its) power. This is perhaps a definition for utopia, and Baudrillard accordingly takes up America’s primitive challenge, attempting to render its meaninglessness not through moral, aesthetic, or critical judgement, but through accepting and working through its perennial claim of achieved utopia. Its endless concern to “vindicate itself”26 as such a utopia opens up a senseless challenge – that mistakes itself for reality – to which Baudrillard responds through his “radical thought”. In short, Baudrillard takes up America’s challenge through a form of intellectual terrorism, one which should be rigorously differentiated, of course, from the suicidal act.

For Baudrillard, indeed, the terrorist act was and is not the only possible response to globalization. Against commodity value, that which treats everything as series of equivalences, Baudrillard turned to anthropology’s discernment of cultures where “things are never exchanged directly one for another”.27  “It was a question”, he wrote, “of attempting to strip the object – but not just the object – of its status as commodity, to restore to it an immediacy, a brute reality which would not have a price put on it”.28 At this point one would no longer be in the realm of the contract, but that of the pact, a “dual, collusive relation”, wherein “the terms are reversible”.29 He suggests that “[i]t is perhaps utopian to claim to pass beyond value, but it is an operative utopia, an attempt to conceive a more radical functioning of things”,30 and one, we might note, that did not necessarily partake of acts of terrorism. He suggests that we have perhaps “always” been “in a dual morality”: “There might be said to be a moral sphere, that of commodity exchange, and an immoral sphere, that of play or gaming, where all that counts is the event of the game itself and the advent of shared rules”,31 as in seduction and gambling. We might live in a fully simulated world, of copies without originals, but nonetheless Baudrillard writes: “symbolic exchange has always been at the radical base of things, and… it is on that level that things are decided… Perhaps we are still in an immense potlatch”.32 Baudrillard claims he is not nostalgic for it, which is perhaps believable to the extent that we are, still, in such potlatch, however much we try to dis-acknowledge it. He does write that we cannot acknowledge it since “without the rituals, without the myths, we no longer have the means to do so”.33 Terrorism attempts to revive such means, but so does, Baudrillard elsewhere suggests, the odd seduction, the life-or-death gamble, and the work of theory. There is, in short, room for hope.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, audiences heard that the motive for the terrorist acts was religious fundamentalism, a “perverted” branch of Islam that calls for jihad against any and all infidels. It is assumed “they” have a deep hatred of American and ‘Western’ “freedoms”. On one hand we are terrified by the sedimentation of meaning accrued through the long-serving Orientalist lens on the cultures of Islam: there is simply too much meaning, and we, along with today’s mass media, are incapable of performing digestion. Baudrillard writes that here “all distinctive marks will become anathema, suspect of masking or even, quite simply, signifying something, and hence potentially terroristic”.34 But perhaps, on the other hand, we (and the media) are ultimately terrified from the realization that there is no meaning to the suicide act itself, that it is but the simple, and stupid, assertion of singularity in the de-sphericized world of global consumption. In this sense I partially disagree with more traditional Leftist accounts of the “complexity” of the conditions that led to September 11. While I would not deny that one can (and in fact should) draw all sorts of historical and political links amongst the actors, none of these links provides any effective meaning to the suicide mission itself. Hollywood’s rendering of flight United 93, in the film of the same name, is perhaps correct in depicting the terrorists as constantly reciting prayers to Allah, but even as such it seems to confirm Zizek’s point that the terrorists only resolved the more fundamental deadlock of their belief in the suicidal act proper.35 Like most believers, religious or otherwise, they were not unquestionably assured as to the intricacies of their faith, but on the contrary acted in “fundamentalist” ways in order to resolve lingering doubt. News analyses and documentaries seem to take a certain relish, for instance, in reporting that suicide bombers believe they are but a bomb blast away from seventy-two virgins, but it is rather highly probable that Muslim fundamentalists do not unfailingly believe this – with the suicide mission itself undertaken as a way of shoring up and confirming this aspect of their belief, among others.

From one angle “Islamic fundamentalism” is fundamentally meaningless, as, indeed, are all “leaps of faith”; it is only after the “leap” that the believer can, a posteriori, begin rationalizing his/her belief. The terrorist act, moreover, is a second leap that doubles the meaningless of the original leap of faith. From another angle, that of its situation in its economic and political context, “Islamic fundamentalism” is perhaps deeply meaningful, pointing towards a myriad of injustices in a world-system predicated on the exploitation of the environment and whole nations of people. Meaning here is also terrifying. But the context of Islamic fundamentalism is not discussed in the media. What is “reported” is a strain of religion which believes in the virgins, hates democracy, and wants women to wear veils, and that is willing to sacrifice the self – the foundation of liberal humanist Western societies – to accomplish its goals. In short, the media is forever circling around the fundamental meaninglessness of the suicide act proper, while eliding the genuine injustices that move millions of people to take up oppositional stances to “Western” capitalist hegemony. To accusations that he was somehow legitimating terrorism Baudrillard responded, in a Der Spiegel interview republished in this journal:

I do not praise murderous attacks — that would be idiotic. Terrorism is not a contemporary form of revolution against oppression and capitalism. No ideology, no struggle for an objective, not even Islamic fundamentalism, can explain it. …I have glorified nothing, accused nobody, justified nothing. One should not confuse the messenger with his message. I have endeavored to analyze the process through which the unbounded expansion of globalization creates the conditions for its own destruction.36

The attacks were a challenge, to America, to be sure, but also to the attempt at meaning. It is, as the Right righteously insists, foolish to suggest that the attacks were some sort of response to global injustice, as if some sort of meaningful economy was already existent in which the attacks were easily inscribed. But it is also wrong, and for the same reasons, to – again Righteously – suggest that the attacks were directed against our “freedoms” and “way of life”. The suicidal acts were meaningless on two fronts: one, in the simulacra of mass media punditry and 24/7 “real time” coverage; two, in the desperate assertion (and revenge) of singularity in and against the de-sphericized processes of “globalization”. Since globalization is inseparable from the media, the second dimension of meaninglessness cuts to the heart of the first. And that was the point.

Admitting that some things may have no meaning is difficult for the intellectual, of course. I am reminded of the moment in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style, when he is trying to come to terms with the “meaning” of the punk appropriation of the swastika. What, after all, could that mean? He comes to the conclusion that there is, in fact, no meaning to be had:

The signifier (swastika) had been willfully detached from the concept (Nazism) it conventionally signified, and although it had been re-positioned (as ‘Berlin’) within an alternative subcultural context, its primary value and appeal derived precisely from its lack of meaning: from its potential for deceit. It was exploited as an empty effect… The key to punk style remains elusive. Instead of arriving at the point where we can begin to make sense of the style, we have reached the very place where meaning itself evaporates.37

This seemingly most meaningful symbol – in the words of Stuart Hall, “that sign which, above all other signs, ought to be fixed”38 – turns out to repel meaning. (Punks were more often than not anti-racists.) One would think that this conclusion would give Hebdige some semiotic pause, enough even to reconsider changing the title of his book. Instead, at this very point, he begins exploring the theoretical developments of the Tel Quel brand of semiotics that emphasize the polysemic nature of any given term. At the moment he marks the fundamental nothingness and stupidity of the punk use of the swastika, he immediately goes on to emphasize its excessive and potentially “infinite range of meanings”.39 He is right, of course, to reject the standard semiotic method of finding a determined or symptomatic meaning behind overt signifiers, but I am uneasy about immediately moving on to emphasize the “productivity” of language.40 Such incessant productivity is, after all, the condition of post-industrial postmodern capitalism, and it is not at all clear that the punk appropriation of the swastika can be within this so easily subsumed: it may have more to do with a sort of expression of the very demise of any horizon of meaning than of the “pomo” productivity of language. The endless performativity of “communicative capitalism”41 – as in branding – does, of course, hollow out meaning, but in the very process of doing so it believes itself full of it. In wearing the swastika, by contrast, punks were not engaged in anything like branding. Hebdige concludes Subculture by noting how we, as academics, are condemned to “speak excessively about reality”,42 but this only seems to indicate that the productivity of language rests more with the academic than the object in question. It is the same with terrorism. Academics, politicians, and media pundits produce an endless whirligig – a performative productivity – of discourse about it, but the terrorist act, like the punk use of the swastika, is fundamentally meaningless. Rather than partake in this productivity (which is only ultimately in the service of Capital, not least in the production of books to be plugged on talk shows), or, at the least, rather than justify one’s (perhaps inevitable) contributions to such productivity, one should rather mark the place where meaning implodes as causative force. This is not meant to advocate resignation. Concerned academics should, again, continue to draw links between what occurred on September 11, 2001 and its global politico-economic context; there is truthful meaning there (unlike that of the Orientalist discourse). But this truth is ineffectual if it is not supplemented with an apprehension of the meaninglessness of the terrorist act proper; a rigorous separation must be maintained.

Baudrillard recently wrote of Jorge Luis Borges conjecture that Hitler was on a suicidal mission, that, in wanting to be defeated, he “collaborated blindly with the inevitable armies that [would] annihilate him”. It is the same today, for “global, comfortable, imperial civilization”: “[i]n the central solitude of those very people who profit by it, it is unlivable. And all are secretly won over to the forces that will destroy it”.43 In “Pornography of War”, written in response to the revelation and media dissemination of the photographs of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, Baudrillard suggested that while the terrorist attacks of September 11 inflicted a humiliation on the US from the outside, here we were confronted with the US exacting such humiliation on itself: “These scenes are the illustration of a power that, having reached its extreme point, no longer knows what to do with itself, of a power now aimless and purposeless since it has no plausible enemy and acts with total impunity”.44 “All it can do now”, he continues, “is inflict gratuitous humiliation… And it can only humiliate itself in the process, demean and deny itself in a kind of perverse relentlessness”.45

I would not deny it. But what if, extrapolating and building on his own arguments from “The Spirit of Terrorism”, torturing the “Iraqi Other” – delusionally linked, for most Americans, with Al Qaeda – was a response, in the realm of the pact and symbolic exchange, to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001? If so, this is not simply a matter of the US “electrocuting itself”,46 but also the Other, in a kind of potlatch of humiliation opened up by America itself and responded to in the spectacle that was and is “9/11”. These photos are meant to be seen, and unlike other examples of torture, are signed: “I did this”, says Lyndee England with her stupid grin, “I’m making them pay”. Sent to their colleagues and friends these photos suggest a personalization of the challenge, and one gets the sense – in a wired world – that they were taken with the knowledge that others beyond the originally intended recipients would see them. In this way they England is also saying: “I did this to you (– how will you respond?)” The torturers give themselves the task of “making it personal”, in a sense desperately trying to give body and tangible form to the whole history of European and American humiliation of the Middle East, just as did the terrorists of September 11, 2001. I would contend Baudrillard even says this himself:

And what is it, in fact, that we want to make these men confess? What secret are we trying to force out of them?  We quite simply want them to tell us how it is – and in the name of what – that they are unafraid of death.47

What made them do what they did on “9/11”? What makes their Palestinian `brethren’ do the same? (Never mind, of course, that the poor Iraqi threatened with electrocution had nothing to do with it, since for racist American prison guards they are all “linked”).48

Zizek suggests that rather than being another expression for voyeurism, the “scopic drive” is originally the drive to make oneself part of a scene offered up to the gaze of the Other.49 We do not begin as observers passively recording a reality in front of us, but are first and foremost embedded within a tableau observed by the gaze. Paradoxically, then, one in some manner produces the gaze through the scopic drive, in the activity of exposing oneself. American torturers realized this in including themselves within their “abject tableaux”, as Baudrillard put it.50 In the phenomenon of having one’s existence recorded by webcams, TV confessionals, and/or reality TV shows, the true horror is of not being observed. It is almost as if people only feel as though they exist in being so recorded, in producing and being offered up to the gaze; one almost hysterically grounds one’s existence in such iterative recordings.51 In the case of the Abu Ghraib photographs, American torturers confirm their existence in the same moment that they humiliate those tortured. In having their photos taken alongside their victims these Americans produce the Other, here ever more rendered as the technological apparatus through which these images flow. Is this not the truth of YouTube confessionals, Flickr accounts, and weblogs? Increasingly anxious that anyone is listening or watching, that there is any sort of collectivity in which one is embedded, one uploads a veritable flow of diarrheic images and words to not only ensure that someone is watching, but that – as a result – the Other, Society, is there. The pictures from Abu Ghraib partake of this logic, while engaging in the realm of challenge and the collusive relation.

In the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed to masterminding a nearly endless series of terrorist plots, Zizek notes that while the interrogation techniques used against Mohammed render any possible criminal trial impossible (given that no court would admit evidence garnered through such practices), Mohammed himself prefers it this way in his “desire to be treated as an enemy rather than a criminal”.52 One “defense” of American imprisonment practices has been that those detained are those that “escaped the bombings”, that is, those that are lucky enough to have survived their “legitimate” targeting. This sort of argument effectively puts them into the position of the “living dead”,53 justifying then any kind of treatment to the extent that they are, in any case, “lucky to be alive”. Both sides here find themselves operating in a “gray zone of legality”,54 that, I am arguing, is of the challenge and the pact. Globalization continues its course, to be sure, but what we are witnessing is a parallel resurgence and revenge of singularity, if (only) in a downward spiral of humiliation. Zizek suggests that these forms of torture have a long-standing tradition in American culture, such as in initiation rituals, “hazings”, and the like; at Abu Ghraib, he writes, “the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture”.55 This argument clearly aligns itself with Baudrillard’s suggestion that the most “ferocious image” of the series is that of the hooded prisoner threatened with electrocution, easily “reversed” “into a Ku Klux Klan member, crucified by his own kind”.56 In these photos the Iraqi prisoners are initiated into long-standing American primitivism, almost as if the prison guards were saying: “So, you really want to take up the challenge? Here you go.” The paradox is manifest, in a kind of Hegelian coincidence of opposites: American torturers affirm the reality of their hegemony – and the hegemony of their reality – through an image-based technological order, while asserting their primitivism. We are faced at once with an archaic potlatch of humiliation and the desperate attempt to affirm one’s existence in a technological environment.

One would hope this is not what has become of symbolic exchange and the pact. But one must also resist the temptation to return to liberalism and its mauvaise foi, its ultimately patronizing “respecting of differences”. As Baudrillard writes:

The Other should be a glorious, not a pitiful Other, an object of admiration not of commiseration, the object of a challenge, not that interactive, democratic Other which is not even really your equal. The Other exists more intensely in the dual relation, in rivalry and challenge, than in interaction, conviviality and cosy multiculturalism.57

[H]atred of militarism makes our work so much more satisfying that it was in those days of cultural studies. Now we really are political… In fact, we on the left can embrace the identity of a victim in ways we could barely imagine under identity politics. Given the assault on the academy, we are all victims now.58

Instead of presuming some sort of moral depth in assuming the position of victim, we can resist such simple semblances of meaning, and instead render and realize meaninglessness – of America, of war, of terror, and of Baudrillard – itself, while holding out the hope that this is not all that has become of symbolic exchange.

About the Author
Richard Pope is from York University, Toronto, Canada.

1 – Steven Poole. “Obituary: Jean Baudrillard”.  The Guardian.  March 7 2007.

2 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994:6.

3 – “Obituary: Jean Baudrillard”.  The Economist.  March 15 2007.


5 – Carlin Romano. “Opinion: The Death of Jean Baudrillard Did Happen”, The Chronicle of Higher Education.  March 14, 2007.

6 – Robert Fulford. “A French Intellectual – in the worst sense of the term”.  National Post.  Saturday March 10, 2007. (link no longer active 2019). Fulford states that Baudrillard was popular in the 1970s, which is at least a decade off; he did not become so until the late 1980s.  Secondly, Fulford puts words into Baudrillard’s mouth.  Third, he mistakenly thinks Baudrillard did not explain what he meant by our having wished for the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Fourth, he uses the metaphor of “French theorists as conquering army” to such an excessive extent that it becomes he who is determined to bang the reader over the head – if not with French theory, then his inelegant command of the English language.

7 – Scott McLemee. “Remember Baudrillard”, Inside Higher Education.  March 14, 2007.

8 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Gulf War did Not Take Place”, in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, 2nd ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001: 238.

9 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V.  Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006: 25.

10 – Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War did Not Take Place. in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, 2nd ed. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001: 236.

11 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006: 43.


13 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Violence of the Global,”  May 20, 2003.


15 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Despair of Having Everything,” Net-time.


17 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Spirit of Terrorism,” Le Monde. November 2, 2001.

18 – Jean Baudrillard. “World Debt and Parallel Universe”, in Screened Out. London and New York: Verso, 2002: 137.

19 – Slavoj Zizek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real.  London and New York: Verso, 2002: 16.

20 – Jean Baudrillard. “The Spirit of Terrorism,” Le Monde. November 2, 2001.

21 – Joseba Zulaika. “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecies of Counterterrorism”. Radical History Review 85, (2003).


23 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006.

24 – Jean Baudrillard. America.  London and New York: Verso, 1988: 7



27 – Jean Baudrillard. Passwords.  London and New York: Verso, 2003: 9.




31 – Ibid.


33Ibid: 18.

34 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006:89.

35 – Slavoj Zizek. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London and New York: Verso, 2002: 72.

36 – Jean Baudrillard. “This is the Fourth World War: The Der Spiegel Interview with Jean Baudrillard,” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies Volume 1, Number 1, (January 2004). The emphasis is mine.

37 – Dick Hebdige. Subculture: The Meaning of Style.  London; New York: Routledge, 1979: 117.

38 – Stuart Hall. “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular'” In Cultural Resistance Reader Edited by Stephen Duncombe.  London and New York: Verso, 2002: 190.

39 – Dick Hebdige. Subculture: The Meaning of Style.  London; New York: Routledge, 1979: 117.

40Ibid.: 119.

41 – Jodi Dean.  “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics,” Cultural Politics.  Volume 1, Number 1 (2005).

42 – Dick Hebdige. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London; New York: Routledge, 1979: 140.

43 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006:60.

44 – Jean Baudrillard. “Pornography of War”.  Cultural Politics. Volume 1, Number 1 (March 2005): 23-4.




48 – As US agencies have known for a long time, torture is ineffective.  And they would surely have known that paying the Northern Alliance per head would give them a plethora of useless prisoners.  The US nonetheless claims it is getting good information from these subjects.  And yet, despite the immense criticism directed towards American treatment of prisoners, such that it would be in their best interests to charge as many of the detainees at Guantanamo as possible, only two people have been so charged.  This entails, then, that there is some other reason for their imprisonment and torture: humiliating the Other.

49 – Slavoj Zizek. “Foreword to the Second Edition”, in For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor.  London and New York: Verso (2002): xxxii.

50 – Jean Baudrillard. “Pornography of War”.  Cultural Politics. Volume 1, Number 1 (March 2005):25.

51 – Slavoj Zizek. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London and New York: Verso (1999): 361.

52 – Slavoj Zizek. “Knight of the Living Dead”. New York Times.  March 24, 2007.

53 – Ibid.


55 – Slavoj Zizek. “Between the Two Deaths: The Culture of Torture”.

56 – Jean Baudrillard. “Pornography of War”.  Cultural Politics. Volume 1, Number 1 (March 2005):25.

57 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories V. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006:80.

58 – Jean Baudrillard. “No Pity for Sarajevo” in Screened Out.  London and New York: Verso: 47-8.