Volume 11, Number 2 (May, 2014)
Author: Dr. Gerry Coulter
* An earlier version of this paper was presented as the Keynote Address at the Colloquium: Baudrillard and War, Stockholm, Sweden (October 11, 2013).
On the subject of war Baudrillard could be quite enlightening and he could be quite humorous. Of one after effect of the Vietnam War he said, referring to the film Apocalypse Now: “The American’s lost the war but they won the movie”(Baudrillard ( 1994: 60). In this paper I discuss various of Baudrillard’s thoughts on war leading us to the war that he, as a theorist and writer, was engaged in for most of his adult life – his war against cultural homogenization and what he referred to as “the hell of the same” ( 1993: 122).
II. The War that Did Not Take Place
When we think of Baudrillard and War, among the first things that may come to mind for you, like me, are his thoughts on the Gulf War of 1991. Prior to the First Gulf War not happening Baudrillard said it wouldn’t happen [meaning: it would not happen as we had understood war in the past] ( 1995:61-87;  1994: 62; and 1993: 207). Baudrillard knew war. He was born in 1929 – just before his 11th birthday the Nazi’s came to town as his birthplace of Rheims was occupied along with much of the North of France. Baudrillard and his grandparents escaped prior to the invasions with a few belongings on a horse-cart. He was a war refugee. Baudrillard, ever the proponent of reversibility and irony took great pleasure from the fact that it was in Rheims, five years later to the day, that the German Wehrmacht would tender it’s unconditional surrender – albeit to another, more insidious, march – Eisenhower, Marshal, and the Americans.
Why wouldn’t / didn’t the Gulf War take place? It didn’t take place because it was a preprogrammed war, more of a script than a war, fed to us as images to prove it did happen – on our TV screens. War as a synthetic object – almost, he said, an effort to see whether war was still possible (1993: 207).
That war, Baudrillard pointed out, whatever else it was, was conducted as a media spectacle. What our TV’s showed us was the unfolding of a rehearsed war-game like simulation – war as news event – with its embedded journalists (and my strongest memory of the TV in those days) the missle ’s eye-view cameras. This was the purest (then available) form of simulation – we watch as ‘the camera’ rapidly descends toward the target, as part of the missile, and then, mysteriously, magically, the camera’s image hovered above the target to show us the target exploding. Did they not think we would notice?
There was of course real violence, as when the U.S. attacked and largely destroyed Saddam’s retreating Army. Thousands died in this non-war but the real violence didn’t stand much of a chance of getting through to us in North America. It was thoroughly blurred by the electronic narrative – the simulation. ‘War processing’ said Baudrillard ( 1995), ‘war exchanged for the signs of war’ ( 1994: 62). A pre-fabricated war, a synthetic war… an orgy of simulation (Ibid). The Gulf War event was “war stripped of its passions, it violence, by its technicians, and then reclothed by them with all the artifices of electronics” ( 1995: 64). But what was this hyperealized ( 1993: 27) war really about? Baudrillard wondered if it was not really about the victory of the model which was understood by the Americans to be, more important than a victory on the ground ( 1995: 55).
A question that long burned in Baudrillard’s mind was whether or not we actually preferred the exile of the virtual (of which TV is the universal mirror) to the catastrophe of the real?) It was in t he first time he expressed this question in writing in The Gulf War Will Not Take Place (page 28).
III. Terror Wars
In recent years when one thinks of Baudrillard and war it is quite probable that his “Spirit of Terrorism” comes to mind. Later a book, it appeared first as an article in Le Monde on November 2, 2001. Here we learned that we were all involved, directly and indirectly, in what Baudrillard called “the Fourth World War” [which includes a kind of “new Cold War” with the perpetual deterrence of an invisible enemy (2003: 82)]. For Baudrillard World Wars I and II were closer to “classic wars” (2002: 64;  1993: 98; and 1993: 75). WWIII was the Cold War ( 1995: 23), and WWIV is the ongoing war of Westernization / globalization to spread itself into every pocket of existence on earth (2002: 63; 2003: 11 ff.). Each of these war’s, he believed, had taken us closer to a kind of world order: WWI set off the end of the old colonialist era. WWII ended Nazism. WWIII (which also did not happen) dissolved into an equilibrium of terror / deterrence called mutual assured destruction. WWIV takes us closest to a virtually accomplished world order where Westernization [it is much more than Americanization] is confronted by antagonistic forces, diffused in the very heart of the global as in the 9/11 attacks [where the terrorists had everything we had to offer (money and our banking system, technology, education – all the West has to offer and they slammed it into the twin towers)]. The fourth World War is a fractal war where the cells [singularities (2003: 12 ff.) revolt – a conflict, said Baudrillard, and as we are coming to understand better with each passing year, of unfathomable proportions. He also noted that if it were Islam that were achieving the kind of global hegemony that the West is, there would be terrorism against Islam – for it is the globe that resists globalization (2002:26).
IV. The Hell of the Same
This takes us to what I call “Baudrillard’s War”. While he is not a proponent of terror and murder – he saw enough of both as a child – Baudrillard at least understands the motivations of those who lash out at the West because since he was very young he has been involved in a war against sameness and homogenization (be it under a 1000 year Reich, Westernization, Americanization, or any of its other manifestations). Baudrillard’s war is a war with monoculture and the computer and media networks that both support and enable it. He felt, and did not like, the encroachment of cloning – not merely biological cloning but social and societal cloning as the West attempted to create clones of itself elsewhere ( 2001: 37; 2000: 24 ff.). Irony, always on Baudrillard’s side, has made both kinds of cloning increasingly difficult in recent years (Coulter, 2001). ‘Baudrillard’s war’ was against the standardization of human life ‘the hell of the same’ he called it ( 1993: 122). If we were to shape a large part of his thought into an anti-war slogan it might well be: “he who lives by the same dies by the same” (2003b: 63).
He wrote against the kind of society that deprives people of the possibility to determine themselves as an individual. And it is precisely in “networks” that “every individual loses his/her sovereignty” (2005: 94). This included his long standing opposition to the negative impacts of orienting our entire society [and expecting others to follow us], towards the object (the consumer item). By focusing on the object we are surrendering (and we know it to be a bad exchange) — human subjectivity. “The reign of the same” Baudrillard wrote: “is the perfect crime” (2003b: 63).
While commercializing everything, the West has, in Baudrillard’s words, “aestheticized” the entire world, by which he meant – we have transformed the world into images (2005: 52) – a semiological reorganization that awoke one morning, to find itself under attack – in a very carefully planned and executed event now known as “9/11”, timed to capture the attention of the world’s image machines for as much of the day [and ensuing days] as possible. As he put in his article “War Porn” [a short piece on the American troop’s mistreatment of captives at Abu Ghraib prison] – those who seek to live by the image, also die by it (Baudrillard, 2005).
To specify somewhat, Baudrillard was most at war with was something called ‘the social’ [the terrorism of the social ( 1983: 50)] and any form of regimentation or systematization ( 1993: 170 ff.). Baudrillard was anti-system because at the core of his thought rested the concept of reversibility – the belief that all systems, through their every day functioning, eventually lead to their own demise ( 1990: 14 ff.). As far as something like “social integration” was concerned, in France he saw advertisers as having largely taken on this role. Social integration, he wrote – is the “ambiance of produced by advertising” ( 1998: 171). As far as social consensus was concerned he wrote: it is “the devastating virus of our modern times” ( 1996: 51). What many sociological observers have tended to see as a good thing – socialization – Baudrillard felt that it was more “the enforced approval of others” ( 1998: 171) and its success was the internalization of agencies of social control ( 1996: 176). What he most detested, I suppose, what he was most at war with, was how our social system has increasingly, since his younger days, become integrated and total” ( 1998: 158). Socialism being a slightly worse alternative than capitalism simply because it was more integrated and totalizing.
He railed against the bloatedness of so many of our present-day systems ( 1993: 32). He sought to harm systems not through direct confrontation – a battle you cannot win – but by symbolic challenge ( 1993: 36 ff.). He understood the system of consumerism as new system of social values ( 1998:82;  1981: 200) full of contradictions upon which it, as a system, thrived ( 1993: 32). “Western totalitarianism – is what he called consumerism”. Later he called it Western fundamentalism. The Western system created the conditions for the brutal retaliation of September 11, 2001, because of its totalizing nature: “by seizing all the cards for itself, it forced the Other to change the rules” (2003:9).
Ours, he said, is a system which is “structurally incapable of liberating human relations except as productive forces” ( 1975: 144). So, even when it produces a devastating critique of itself such as Marxism – what are we really left with but another form of productive system! The mirror of that which is its critical object (Coulter, 2012). Baudrillard disliked the ways in which we are obligated to pretty much “live in collusion with the system” (2002: 2). This did not of course mean that he felt we cannot revolt against its consequences. His books were that revolt, against the terrorism of the social that sets upon us at birth and follows us into the grave. This was Baudrillard’s war. As with the Fourth World War – have you taken sides?
About the Author
Gerry Coulter is the founding editor of IJBS. He is author of numerous articles and books on jean Baudrillard. His most recent book is: Art After The Avant-Garde: Baudrillard’s Challenge (Intertheory USA). Gerry’s teaching has been acknowledged on several occasions including his university’s highest award: The William and Nancy Turner Prize.
[Where two dates appear the first is for the original year of publication in French, the second is the year of the English translation].
Jean Baudrillard ( 1996). The System of Objects, (1968), New York, Verso. Translated by James Benedict.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1998). The Consumer Society, London: Sage. Translator unknown.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1981). For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press. Translated by Charles Levin.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1975). The Mirror of Production. St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press. Translated by Mark Poster.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1993). Symbolic Exchange and Death, London: Sage Publications. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1983). In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. New York: Semiotext(e). Translated by Paul Foss, John Johnston and Paul Patton.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1994). Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1990. Revenge of the Crystal. New York: Semiotext(e).
Jean Baudrillard ( 1993). The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. New York: Verso. Translated by James Benedict.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1996). Cool Memories II: 1987-1990. Duke University Press.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1995). The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Bloomington, University of Indiana Press. Translated by Paul Patton.
Jean Baudrillard ( 1994). The Illusion of the End, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. Translated by Chris Turner.
Jean Baudrillard (1993). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews (1982-1993). Edited by Mike Gane, London: Routledge.
Jean Baudrillard ( 2001). Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso. Translated by Chris Turner.
Jean Baudrillard (2000). The Vital Illusion (The 1999 Wellek Lectures at the University of California at Irvine). New York: Columbia University Press. Edited by Julia Witwer.
Jean Baudrillard (2002). Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000. New York: Verso. Translated by Chris Turner.
Jean Baudrillard (2003). The Spirit of Terrorism. 2nd Edition, New York: Verso. Translated by Chris Turner.
Jean Baudrillard (2003b). Passwords. New York: Verso. Translated by Chris Turner.
Jean Baudrillard (2005). The Conspiracy of Art. New York: Semiotext(e) / MIT. Edited by Sylvere Lotringer.
Jean Baudrillard (2005). “War Porn”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (Volume 2, Number 1).
Translated by Paul Taylor.
Gerry Coulter (2011). “The Impossible Clone” in Noema Lab (July 30): http://www.noemalab.org/sections/ideas/ideas)_articles/coulter_impossible_clone.html
Coulter, Gerry (2012). Jean Baudrillard: From the Ocean to the Desert — The Poetics of Radicality (Chapter 7: “The Place of Marx in Contemporary Thought”). Skyland, North Carolina: Intertheory Press.