Volume 2, Number 1 (January 2005)
Author: Jean Baudrillard
Translated by: Alison Gingeras
The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies is grateful to Taylor and Francis Books (Routledge) for permission to reprint this article from: Sylvere Lotringer and Sande Cohen. French Theory in America. New York: Routledge, 2001:59-69.
The problem is how to give up on a critical thought that is the very essence of our theoretical culture, and belongs to a history and a past life. Instead of making a determinist analysis of a deterministic society, can one finally make an indeterminate analysis of an indeterministic society, a fractal, stochastic, exponential society of critical mass and extreme phenomena – a society entirely dominated by the relationship of uncertainty?
This has nothing to do with metaphor and the abuse of “scientific” metaphors – that is to say, wondering whether it is legitimate to extend to other domains a principle of indetermination and incertitude coming from elsewhere. Rather, we should ask: What about quantum physics, fractal physics, and catastrophe theory? What about the radical principle of uncertainty in our universe, in the human universe, in the moral, social, economic and political universe? The problem is not to transfer concepts borrowed from physical, biological, or cosmological science into metaphors or science fictions, but to transfuse them literally into the core of the real world, making them suddenly appear in our real world as nonidentifiable theoretical objects, as original concepts, as strange attractors – as they simultaneously are in the cosmos and in the microcosm, which they revolutionized, but also our macrocosm, in our relative universe and in our linear history that they now are in the process of revolutionizing, of reshuffling in the same way without us being really conscious of them.
Our conventional universe made of subject and object, means and ends, true and false, good and bad – all of these regulated oppositions no longer correspond to the state of our world. The normal dimensions of our so-called real world, including the dimensions of time, space, determination, representation, and also of critical and reflexive thought, are all deceptive. The entire discursive universe around us – psychology, the social, and the mental are all deceiving: they still operate in a Euclidean dimension and at present there is almost no theoretical perspective left on this normal universe that became quantic without us being aware of it.
All these concepts coming from elsewhere – from the confines of uncertainty and the indetermination of the object, from calculus – concepts at once “scientific” and fictional, are not to be taken metaphorically, as the human sciences are eventually doing, and scientists themselves when they extrapolate their intuitions to fit the human dimension. These must be at once transferred literally and conceived in the two universes. Uncertainty, fractals, catastrophic form, the relationship of incertitude, the indetermination of subject/object are not the privilege of science; they are active throughout the social order, on the order of the events, and we cannot assign a priority between the conjectural order of science or the subjective order of morality and history. It is part of uncertainty that we cannot tell whether scientific intuitions secretly belong to a society at a given moment in history. All of this makes a simultaneous irruption and one must deplore the impotence of our thought and incurably determinist discourse confronted with this revolution of our material universe. It is up to us to entertain a radically different philosophical vision of this situation: the non metaphorical use of scientific concepts doesn’t carry with it an effect of truth because there is no longer a definition of this science just as there is no longer a definition of our real world.
Henceforth it is no longer the human that conceives the world; it is the un-human that conceives us. We can now only grasp ourselves from an omega point exterior to the human, from objects and hypotheses which play the role of strange attractors. We are no longer about discovering, but about being discovered. Critical thought has already flirted with this type of object, at the limits of the human or the inhuman – with archaic societies, for instance, questioning Western humanism. Today we must look beyond critical thought; we must look elsewhere, toward objects that are much more foreign to us – carriers of a radical incertitude upon which we can no longer impose our own perspectives.
Therefore, it is not a metaphor when theoretical thought incorporates the notion of uncertainty, antimatter, black matter, viruses, critical mass, or when it incorporates biology, micro-physics, and cosmology. Critical thought still presumes a subject that explores the world from the privileged position of the subject and language (even though, according to Jacques Lacan, it is language that thinks the subject), but mutual and simultaneous correlations are at work in every area of the same principle of uncertainty. Homologies reinforce each other without any other definition or verification than this convergence in which it is not one of truth that is involved, but of a kind of objective thought, a thought of the object in which the subject is irrelevant. We certainly shouldn’t trust the subject if we want to escape truth. We should trust the object and the filter of the object, in particular the theoretical filters of all these new objects that have cropped up from beyond our horizon.
It is the end of the anthropic principle, denial of any anthropy, and at the same time all entropy – entropy being the only banal destination, and the unique ends by inertia left to matter in the (mysterious) absence of antimatter, and to the human itself in the absence of the inhuman. Now we are going more and more rapidly toward the radical elimination of the inhuman, toward an anthropological fundamentalism whose aim is to subject everything to the jurisdiction of the human. We are moving toward a generalized homogenization and a totalitarian humanism. And this with the best intentions in the world, under the sign of the human as a single thought; under the sign of human rights extended to children, animals, to nature and to natural elements, and to all the other species; under the sign of a rehabilitation of moral and anthropological promotion; under the sign of universal ecology, spearheading the universal colonization and the final annexation of the single thought of the human. We can’t denounce emphatically enough this enterprise of planetary integration meant to exterminate the inhuman in all its aspects, everything that until now escaped humanitarian control, this domestication imposed under the sign of the law and the forced recognition of every foreign and strange reality-extreme peripeteia of human imperialism, humanism, and humanitarianism (in the end, they are all identical) by means of which we are depriving ourselves of any thinking, any thinking of the inhuman as such, because this thinking could only come from the inhuman. It is only from the point-of-view of irreducible objects that we can have a vision of ourselves. Except for a major event, a positive or negative catastrophe, except for a radical alteration of our point of view and the inversion of the present movement, it certainly looks as if nothing will oppose the banal destiny of thought and energy degrading toward their lowest forms, which seems to be our own. Our only hope lies in a criminal and inhumane kind of thought. Thought itself must participate in this convergence, become exponential, mutate, escalate in power in relation to critical thought. Thought must become a critical mass just like the system itself. No longer is it a question of making the system contradict itself, forcing it to experience a crisis as happened to critical thought (and yet we know that today it’s regenerating itself in the spiral of the crisis), but engage it through failure, collapse, and catastrophe. We must destabilize it through the instillation of a viral kind of thought. Through infiltration and injection, this viral thought will become virtual and exponential, entirely hooked on uncertainty, on the fractal, on the chaotic, on chance and microscopic gradations, that is on an inhuman thought. This thought coming from beyond, from the inhuman, is a thought that can only be conceived through the inhuman.
Thought and consciousness may already be in us a form of the inhuman, an appendix, an excrescence, a luxurious dysfunction that infringes upon the entire evolution by suddenly becoming conscious of it, falling back upon itself – transfixed by its own image? Far more than the living mass, does not the neurological development of the brain already constitute a critical threshold, a critical mass in the eyes of the species and of evolution? So why not play the game to its very end, push the process and precipitate other chain reactions, other forms – those of alterity, of an objective fate that can’t even be conceived at this point?
Two parts: one physical, one metaphysical. The world’s definitive uncertainty, its unpredictability. Thought’s final uncertainty: in what way is it an extreme and exponential phenomenon? In what way is it part of the world’s uncertainty, of the critical mass that makes the world tumble into uncertainty?
Terminal uncertainty makes exchange impossible, having no equivalence in any other language. The world has no equivalence in its totality. Actually, it is the very definition of the universe: something which has no negotiable equivalent, no exchange, no double, no representation, no mirror. A mirror would still be part of the world. There is no verification and no proof: this is the radical uncertainty of the world. Whatever happens in the world or is verified in its own domain, the globality of the world’s uncertainty, is without appeal.
Taken in its totality, the sphere of the economy – the sphere of exchange par excellence – cannot be exchanged against anything else; it is unexchangeable. There is no “meta-economical” or cosmic equivalence of the economy. Therefore, in the last analysis, the sphere of the economy is also part of definitive uncertainty. It would rather ignore it, but this fatal indetermination that echoes inside of this economical sphere, affecting the way it works by its unpredictability (variables, equations, postulates) and ultimately by its exponential drift into speculation, into the unregulated interaction of its criteria and its elements.
Any sphere whether, political, aesthetic, and so on, is affected by this same equivalence, this same incompatibility, this same eccentricity. Taken in their totality, these spheres cannot be exchanged. They literally have no meaning outside of themselves. The political is the space of all tactics and exchanges; it is rotten with signs and significations, which makes no sense when seen from the outside. Nothing can justify it. The political is like a black hole: it absorbs everything that comes near it, converting it into its own substance. The political could not convert itself or think about itself in the name of a superior reality that would give it a meaning. Therefore the political is also part of definitive incertitude, which translates into the growing indecisiveness of its categories, strategies, and stakes. The exponentiality of mass politics, its mise-en-scene, and its discourse, are the endless expansion of the political sphere at the level of this uncertainty, this fundamental illusion. Uncertainty, indecisiveness, exponentiality.
The sphere of the real is no longer exchangeable against that of the sign. It becomes unstable and undecidable, exponential: everything becomes real, everything is unconditionally realized, but no longer signifies anything. All metalanguages of reality (human sciences, social sciences, etc.) develop as well in an order eccentric to the image of their centrifugal object. Metalanguages become speculative. A parallel universe grows, a virtual universe, but it has no relationship to it.
This universe is its screen, its total reverberation; and yet the screen doesn’t reflect the universe, it develops for itself. The virtual is no longer bound to become the real. Without ballast or referent, it falls under the sway of uncertainty. The virtual produces indecisiveness and itself falls prey to indecisiveness.
We could continue as such into infinity. In the sphere of the biological, not only does the mass of the living expand exponentially, but the schemes of explanation, of genetic command – which commands death – divide into infinity, translating the fact that the phenomena of life and the living cannot be exchanged, neither against any ultimate and definitive causalities, nor against any ends or telenomy. It can only be exchanged against itself or rather against nothing. This uncertainty of life contaminates the science of life, the biological, making it more and more indecisive from discovery to discovery – this has nothing to do with the temporary incapacity of science, but with its increasing proximity to the definitive incertitude that is its absolute horizon.
To summarize: The world itself is under the sign of an impossible exchange because it is free from value and equivalence. It cannot be exchanged against anything else – it can only change into itself at any moment. Ultimately it exchanges itself against nothing. After insane speculations for which the virtual economy is both the apex and the symbol, the entire edifice of value is exchangeable for nothing.
Behind the exchange value, and providing it in some way with a background, a bail, an invisible counterpart, with the antimatter of matter – behind each exchange of the same thing always looms the exchange of nothing. Could symbolic economy of the nothing exist? A sign of the nothing? Obviously potlatch, death, illness, the negative can be exchanged – even the debt of the Social Security is traded on the stock market.
The illusion of the economic order is precisely to have tried to ground a principle of economic reality on the total disregard of this fundamental uncertainty: the exchange of the nothing that lies behind all the exchanges (we should clearly distinguish from nihilism: nothing is not nothingness; it corresponds rather to Mr. Cassé’s void1 , endowed with all possible potentialities). The principle of reality only works inside a circumscribed and artificial sphere whose global singularity has been purified, foreclosing the principle of nothing and of evil.
We must pay the price of this foreclosure, this forgetting in terms of the illusion of political economy, the political, and the backlash of singularity in exile, especially in terms of the strong return of indecisiveness: the forgetting of the nothing and radical uncertainty make all value, judgment, and meaning in this world indecisive (including thought and consciousness).
This parallel, eccentric, and singular universe of the nothing no longer comes to us through signs, only through traces. Our alleged “real” universe is perpetually colliding with the universe of the nothing, just as the material universe collides with the evasive antimatter universe; just as the economic collides with the anti-economy. Hence the impossibility for economy, as for any other structure or any other existence, of being identical to itself or coherent to itself. Economy is haunted by its double, and this pushes all systems toward exponentiality, overbidding, toward a level of extreme phenomena and critical mass – pushes them toward annihilation.
Besides this strong return of the nothing that undermines the system from the inside, are there any manifestations, any breakthroughs from this parallel universe into our own? I believe that there are events that are on the order of the shock-matter/antimatter, particle/antiparticle phenomenon. This happens when a power meets its antipower, and can result in an immediate dissolution into light. May 68: not just subversion, revolution but an annihilation that produced an exceptionally luminous intensity. The melting of Communism? Krach?
The question then becomes, Why is there something rather that nothing? Otherwise stated, has there ever been an economy or organization of value that had an intrinsic value, destination or meaning? In the absolute, the answer is no. But we must address the question from the inside of the economic system itself (or from any other system), at the point where, following its own exponential logic, it burns its own postulates and becomes brutally conscious of its own illusion.
Has the real ever existed? In this ocean of uncertainty, the real, value, and law are the exceptions; they are exceptional phenomena. Illusion is the fundamental rule. The real is the mystery; economy and value are the mystery.
There’s no way of rebalancing this radical uncertainty, no possible polarity of the nothing or of something; no dialectics. It’s the same with antimatter: either invisibility or total illumination. On the other hand, a principle of equilibrium, exchange, and value is being reinvented in every restricted domain – causality, rationality, finality. These restricted systems rely on regulated oppositions. It’s the domain of values, as value never goes by itself: good and evil, true and false, riches and money, real and its representation, subject and object, effect and cause, masculine and feminine – the entire realm of difference and regulation through difference. The principle of reality relies on two poles, on a bipolar relation which, as long as it exists, guarantees the stability and the dialectical movement of the whole.
So far, so good. One enters the critical zone only when this system breaks down – the critical zone of the critical mass, the depolarized zone where polar opposition and dialectics don’t operate anymore, where confusion and short circuit, the collision of every pole, open up on an exponential drift.
Every time this short circuit, this confusion of poles happens, it creates a mass. Value, ultimate meaning become aleatory and the process exponential. When there’s no more system of equivalence between the real and the sign, everything tends toward the infinite: the real comes on its own all for itself; it hyperrealizes itself and the sign becomes total simulation, both being confused in the virtual. The same is true for good and evil: when their polarity fades away, we are led toward a total positivity or toward an unconditional negation quite different from traditional negativity and the labor of the negative. No more ethics are possible; no more ethics in general of extreme phenomena.
In order to exorcize this exponentiality, this aleatory capable of reducing this definitive uncertainty, the virtual remains – positioning a perfect double, virtual, and technological that allows for the exchange of the world against its artificial double. Finally the world can be exchanged for something, for its double – and therefore the radical uncertainty ends, although this obviously ends the world as well in some way. Thus I exist in a parallel universe, the cyberspace. At least on 250 sites I am being sighted. The Internet thinks about me. Internet sites irresistibly make me think of prehistoric or archeological sites – my fossilized double wanders along the net, or my electronic superego, the one I will never meet. This other universe has no relation with this one – it is exactly parallel to it, but they never join together. For the first time maybe since the first effraction of geometry, the universe is not unique. But is it still a world, this world, for which by definition there is no double?
Does this double really think that way? In any case he doesn’t reflect it. It presents rather its total screen and total reverberation, so that this initial world, our own, stops having any reflection, becomes like an opaque body or a dead star. The virtual then would be the final solution capable of providing a total equivalence of the world in virtual reality. Hence the absolute security of the Net as a niche where it is so easy and so fascinating to disappear. But what if this parallel universe that feeds on the disappearance of the other is meant in turn to disappear?
In other words, is the virtual universe really another world? (In this case the world is not one anymore.) Or is it, at bottom, only a fraction of this world artificially de-doubling itself? In which case this world continues to exist as it is, and all we do is give ourselves the comedy of the virtual.
Every mass is potentially exponential, and everything exponential is “critical,” opposite to critical judgment or critical thought, which precisely presumes the tension between two poles. Whenever it turns into a mass, critical mass presumes the abolition of this distance.
In the same way, uncertainty is not relative to cultural differences considered from the point of view of critical thought – restricted relativity, true on this side of the Atlantic, false on the other – always truth’s point of view, even if it is differential. What we have here instead is generalized incertitude – a sidereal point of view that relativizes the system through its escalation to the extremities, through its passage to its outer limits.
There is no longer a critical point of view, nor a moral, political, or philosophical one. Going back to our initial scheme: thought can’t be exchanged with either truth or reality. Thought becomes unexchangeable with anything. Having already surpassed a critical point of view by radically delocalizing thought toward the inhuman, going so far as to say that it is the world that thinks us, that is by totally inverting the game, what is thought at this point? Is it part, as well, of critical mass? What is thought once it has become inhuman, nonsubjective, eccentric, a thought-event, a thought-catastrophe? Does not the irruption of such a thought change the course of the world? What’s at stake is not an ideological transformation through ideas, but whether the irruption of consciousness actually interrupts the course of the world. Is consciousness a reflection or an acceleration of the world? Is it thought that creates the uncertainty of the world, or is it just its reflection? (Does not the thought of thought change the course of thought?) “Human consciousness gave bad consciousness to the universe,” says Jean Rostand2 .
What about thought beyond this critical moment? (Critical in every sense since it puts an end to critical thought, to judgment, and inaugurates a thought of matter – thought that is simultaneously subjective and objective. He who thinks matter and who is taken by matter, a thought that reverses or inverts the course of the real (and of time?), simultaneously dismissing subject, object, or mass – the masses are neither object nor subject – is consequently an indecisive phenomena and a strange attractor.
What we must aim for is a reciprocal alteration of matter and thought. Whether it is it matter that destabilizes consciousness or consciousness that destabilizes matter and gives it in a way bad consciousness, as Rostand has suggested – we can’t decide on that. On the one hand there is a metaphysical alteration of the world by consciousness; on the other, there is a physical alteration of consciousness by the world, in the sense that consciousness thinks of itself as the mirror of the world, a critical mirror participating in its material destiny, a destiny of matter from which consciousness doesn’t detach itself absolutely and therefore misses the radical uncertainty of the world, its fundamental illusion. The universe does not know the mirror stage; or could thought be this mirror stage for the universe? One must go beyond this stage, get beyond identity (and psychology as well), this ultra-comfortable stage of the subject facing its object, in order to reach the ultimate stage of the object that thinks us, the world that thinks us. (But what is this subject who thinks this world that thinks us?) Matter’s thought is not reflexive, it is reversible. It becomes the concatenation and the reversibility of appearances. Matter’s thought is now only but one particular example in this concatenation of the world – maybe the smallest link? Both factual and phenomenal, it is part of the world. From the point of view of singularity, of the incomparable event in the world, it no longer has the privilege of the universal. In the world’s disorder, thought is irreducible to the subject’s consciousness. Thought must no longer be considered metaphysically as outside of time, but physically in the cycle of the evolution of the cosmos, as a specific attribute and destiny of the species.
We must return to the irruption of consciousness in the world as the original crime. But it is not the first crime. We are dealing with a double, original crime, even though there is a distant correlation between the two. The first one is what Michel Cassé spoke of, the inaugural event: at some point, light separates from matter and the universe becomes in some way transparent to its own light, observable. From now on everything becomes visible and observable (but there is no one to see it), with the exception of antimatter, which is rejected into darkness, rejected into definitive nonexistence, such as Lucifer in Christian theology. This irruption of light corresponds to the true murder of antimatter, whose trace is found in blood-red cosmic rays that come to us from the bottom of time. But this murdered antimatter is yet hiding, or at least that is what some believe. It is on this murder (not quite perfect, we hope) that the material universe is founded. This is the first great fracture of symmetry.
The second great fracture of symmetry, this one metaphysical, happens in the mass of the living, when consciousness in some way separates from it and inaugurates another form of transparency, not only the physical one of pure light, but also the metaphysical one of thought: reflexivity – lucidity and transparency makes it possible to analyze and know the world. By the same token it leads everything as in the first facture of symmetry. Thought disposes of the black mass into darkness, the black matter of the living and of thought. This second great cleavage one can assimilate to a murder (not perfect either).
In this double peripeteia we can see the decisive moments of the cosmos’ ascendance toward total transparency, like a rising process of rationalization, negentropy, and redemption. Against this we can see a process of loss – dilution, entropy, and the loss of differential energy through this foreclosure – beginning first with antimatter, then proceeding with the dark continent of thought and the living. Moving toward a state of hyperlucidity and hypertransparency, we distance ourselves further and further from the initial conditions, probably bringing us closer to the final conditions.
In the last stage of microphysics, “particles are what they are and at the same time are not what they are.” It is marvelous to see theoretical intuition confirmed by “science” on the most elementary and objective level. At the same time, this is all quite problematic. What does it mean that this intuition could finally be “verified” (looks as if it were verified) in whatever reality, in any physical referential? Was theory made for this, was it meant for this, to coincide with fact, or was it more likely aimed at the unverifiable, at the derealization and destabilization of the objective world? Or else, in a kind of cosmology or reversed ontology, is it not theory that ultimately destabilizes particles?
See Ceronetti and his astrological reverse:
The personal horoscope is only worth the pleasure it gives us, however insignificant we are, of being inextricably connected… to huge phenomena, to the passage of planets in the sun and perceiving ourselves as subjects and fragments of a history beyond the famelic limit of a legal identity.3
And what if it were human acts and thoughts that provoked the fall of meteorites, the dissolution of planets, black holes, comets? What if it was the French Revolution that had forced Neptune from his hiding? Does not man, in his innate ambiguity, infuse his reversible symbolic order, and end up by altering the universe, affecting or infecting it with this uncertainty that is his own? In short, do uncertainty and aleatory belong to that order, objective, of the universe or to that of the subjective, of man? Consciousness would not only have projected itself onto the world (furthermore it is perfectly identical to itself, and both man and his consciousness are a part of it as well) but would be contaminated by its non being, having contaminated the world through its own way of not being in the world?
This begs multiple questions with regard to the objectivity of knowledge (not only that of classical knowledge, but also for quantum and stochastic knowledge). It is not only man, the subject of knowledge, who corrupts objects through his own intervention, but man who has dealings with a universe that he himself has corrupted and destabilized. Assuming that there are objective laws of the universe, it is man who made these laws impossible to be formulated or implemented. Man wouldn’t be the one embodying reason in a chaotic universe; to the contrary, man would embody disorder through a contagious mental static capable of demoralizing particles themselves. His act of knowledge and consciousness constitutes an unprecedented coup: identifying a point (even simulated) outside of the universe from which to look at and think about the universe. If the universe has no double, nothing existing beyond it, the mere attempt to assign a point outside of itself expresses a will to put an end to the universe. Or at least to make the universe go through the mirror stage, just like any human being, and therefore to confuse it definitively with its identity.
According to Dirac “We must revise our ideas on causality.” Causality only applies to a system that remains undisturbed. Once disturbed, a measured system is no longer causal. The chain of causality is broken by measure because measure brings about all uncontrollable disturbance, as in all forms of interaction with the fragile, quantum landscape. Measure shatters determinism in order to introduce a fundamental, stochastic element. Before measure, the system had a variety of states at its disposal. Measure only realized one of those. Measure is the act by which the range of the possible to the real is being reduced. Every state of the system disappears except for one, the state that is realized.4
Dirac’s sentence, though, hints that were it not disturbed the universe would be causal without measure. The universe would be real without the presence of man. This seems to be a rather beautiful and fantastic hypothesis (mildly disturbed by the fact that it is precisely man who created measure, instituting the only real world); a bit of contradiction amongst scientists. This still begs the same question: Is not this man who carries disturbance through his intervention, through a measure (that he believes is objective), himself being a probabilist, and doesn’t he render the world probabilist in his own likeness? (Until now we were imagining the contrary: man bringing and imposing meaning and causality to a disordered universe.) In any case, whether the principle of incertitude is objective, cosmic, or bound to mankind, it remains total.
About the Author:
Jean Baudrillard is among the most important theorists of our time. He has been employing theory to challenge the real for many years. His recent books include Le Pacte de Lucidité, The Vital Illusion, The Spirit of Terrorism, Requiem For The Twin Towers, Cool Memories IV, and Passwords. He is an editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies.
Alison M. Gingeras (translator) is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Musee National d’ art moderne, Centre Pompidou in Paris, France. She is a regular contributor to Artforum, Parkett, and Tate Magazine. Her study of artist¹s public persona, “The Birth of Crass” has just been published in the exhibition catalogue Monument to Now. She also served as co-curator of the Monument to Now Exhibition in Athens, Greece as part of the official Cultural Program of the Summer Olympics 2004.
1 – Michel Cassé is an astrophysicist at Commissariat à l’ Énergie Atomique (ECA) The Institute of Astrophysics in Paris specializing in stellar physics and supernovas in particular (Ed).
2 – Jean Rostand (Biologist and Philosopher, 1894-1977) authored: Can Man Be Modified: Predictions of Our Biological Future. New York: Basic Books, 1959 (Ed).
3 – Guido Ceronetti. Italian poet, born in Turin in 1927 (Ed).
4 – Paul Dirac won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933 (Ed).