Volume 11, Number 2 (May, 2014)
Author: Alan N. Shapiro
Unlike other thinkers such as Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges (whose positions are highly valuable in their own right), Jean Baudrillard is not ‘against war’. Baudrillard’s position is rather that of being ‘neither for nor against’ contemporary hyper-real mediatized wars, and seeing the imperative of choosing whether one is ‘for’ or ‘against’ war as being something of a forced and imposed simulacrum. To say that one is ‘against’ a specific war, or even all wars, would be to implicitly acknowledge the ‘reality’ of war(s), which have, to the contrary, drifted increasingly into the fakeness of virtuality, simulation, and an indeterminate hyperspace. Baudrillard, in his orientation of being ‘neither for nor against’ war, finds a strong predecessor in another great writer and thinker who wrote in French: Albert Camus. In his political theory and activist engagements, Camus was an independent hybrid anarchist-liberal (the very notion of hybrid, with which one can retrospectively illuminate Camus’ politics, has only emerged as a well-known concept in recent times, in the wake of, for example, Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory). Camus was a serious thinker who – like Plato, Nietzsche, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Philip K. Dick – had deep insights into the genealogy of image-making simulacra in and of Western culture. As a major figure of twentieth century French intellectual history, Albert Camus appears now in retrospect to have been way ahead of his time in his positions on ethics, aesthetics, virtuality, and political philosophy. The intention of this essay is not to claim that Baudrillard and Camus had ‘the same position’ on war or on simulacra. It is, rather, to make an initial attempt to outline important affinities between the two thinkers, hinting at a sort of ‘alliance’ between these two intellectual figures which has not been previously articulated in the academic literature in Baudrillard or Camus studies. The essay indicates certain key starting points for substantiating the affinity/alliance, but it should also be read in the spirit of suggesting fruitful directions for future research.
The Military-Industrial Complex and the Vietnam War
The stance of opposition to a war undertaken by America’s ’military-industrial complex’ (MIC), as President Dwight D. Eisenhower termed it in his Farewell Address to the nation on January 17, 1961 after spending 8 years as President, seems to be based on the assumption of the discursive viability of projecting oneself into the imaginative space of being a sort of ‘shadow government of truth-speakers’, empowered by democracy into the democratic position of being able to make ‘better’ decisions for the body politic of democracy than those who hold institutional power in political economy and government. Most political discourse in the U.S., including the anti-war stance, seems to take for granted the idea that we should clarify ‘our politics’ by imaginatively putting ourselves ‘in the shoes’ of national strategists choosing among the policy options available.
Jean Baudrillard expands our sense of what is history because he does not operate with a strict separation between what are ‘the facts’ and what are the engaging stories that we as a culture have written and enacted about important ‘historical’ events. Much of what we know about the Holocaust, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War comes from Hollywood films about the Holocaust, the Second World War, and the Vietnam War that we have seen. In his essay on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 blockbuster Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now, Baudrillard writes that Coppola’s masterpiece is the continuation of the Vietnam War by other means. “Nothing else in the world smells like that,” says Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore – played by Robert Duvall – in the 2 hour and 33 minute film. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning… It smells like victory.”
The high-budget extravaganza was produced exactly the same way that America fought in Vietnam, says Jean Baudrillard of the film made by director Francis Ford Coppola (Baudrillard 1981: 89-91). “War becomes film,” Baudrillard writes of Coppola’s spectacularly successful cinematic creation. “Film becomes war, the two united by their shared overflowing of technology” (Ibid.: 89). There is implosion or mutual contamination between ‘film becoming Virtual Reality’ and War. Think also of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998): total immersion in the Virtual Reality of combat – an aesthetics of VR different from ‘critical distance’ – as a new kind of ‘testimonial position’ with respect to war and atrocities. In Vietnam-slash-Apocalypse Now, War is a Drug Trip and a God Trip, a psychedelic and pornographic carnival (Baudrillard 2010), a savage cannibalism practiced by the Christians, a film before the shooting and a shoot before the filming, a vast machine of excessive special effects, a ‘show of power’, a territorial lab for testing new weapons on human guinea pigs, and the sacrificial jouissance of throwing away billions of dollars – all these aspects alluded to or mentioned by Baudrillard. Coppola’s film, according to Baudrillard, is the carrying on of an undeclared, unfinished and unending War. An interminable Heart of Darkness.
Baudrillard: Neither For Nor Against
Jean Baudrillard is not ‘against war’, not even against specific wars like the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He says this explicitly in “Le masque de la guerre,” published in the Parisian daily newspaper Libération, just prior to President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ni pour ni contre. Neither for nor against. “This war is a non-event,” writes Baudrillard, “and it is absurd to take a stance on a non-event (Baudrillard 2003).” The non-events of the Iraq War and the War on Terror opposed themselves to the event of September 11th, 2001.
Hostages of the Screen
Baudrillard’s two most explicit texts about war are The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991), written just before, during, and just after the Persian Gulf War of 1991 that was initiated by President George H.W. Bush, and The Spirit of Terrorism (2002), written just after 9/11. At the very beginning of the essay “The Gulf War Will Not Take Place,” the first of the three essays that comprise The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, Baudrillard explains that non-war – which is what the military-industrial complex or the (non-)war machine has become very adept at carrying out in the age of virtuality – “is characterised by that degenerate form of war which includes hostage manipulation and negotiation (Baudrillard 1995: 24). The Eisenhower-coined term of the military-industrial complex is used by Baudrillard in his essay “No Reprieve For Sarajevo,” published in Libération, January 8, 1994. He sees the MIC as still operative yet in need of conceptual upgrading. “Hostages and blackmail,” Baudrillard continues in “The Gulf War Will Not Take Place,” “are the purest products of deterrence. The hostage has taken the place of the warrior. He has become the principal actor, the simulacral protagonist, or rather, in his pure inaction, the protagoniser (le protagonisant) of non-war” (Baurillard 1995: 24). And we, the television viewers of the non-war, are all in the situation of hostages, “all of us as information hostages on the world media stage” (Ibid.). Hostages of the screen, of the intoxication of the media, dragged and drugged into a logic of deterrence, “we are no longer in a logic of the passage from virtual to actual but in a hyperrealist logic of the deterrence of the real by the virtual” (Ibid.: 27).
Four Aspects of a Baudrillardian Theory of War
The post-structure [the successor to a sociological structure with less stability and with less of a center] of the (non-)war machine in the age of media virtuality has properties of binary/digital, simulation/modeling, viral metastasis, and complex intricate paradoxical topology. Let us consider all four of these properties as aspects of a Baudrillardian theory of war (or a theory of war in honour of Jean Baudrillard).
War as Imposed Binary Choice
First of all, the post-structure of the (non-)war machine in the age of media virtuality has the property of binary/digital. It presents itself to us through the dualistic structure of a forced binary choice, where the system obliges each of us to take a position ‘for’ or ‘against’ war, or ‘for’ or ‘against’ particular wars, as waged, for example, by the Pentagon, the EU ‘humanitarian’ forces, or the surveillance state’s War on Terror. It is this very binary logic of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that is the news media discourse, the rhetoric of politicians, and the hybrid virtual-and-real-killing of the screen and the bomb.
Today, of course, the Internet has superceded television as the prevailing universal media (although there is much convergence and combination of the two). And the Internet is much more interactive and participatory. There is much more response. There is much less of a ‘spectacle’ than there was when Guy Debord and the Situationists conceptualized their media theory in the 1960s. Yet everywhere that the ‘news media’ and the (non)-war machine still prevail, everywhere that they are still massively influential, everywhere that they still exercise their power, we are not quite liberated from the ‘speech without response’ described by the early Baudrillard. When Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator of Libya, was brutally killed by rebel forces on October 20, 2011, during the Libyan Civil War, the event, having been filmed by a cell phone, was presented to worldwide viewers by almost all of the ‘news media’ as some kind of triumph for ‘justice’, even though it was clearly a loss for democratic principles and the possible coming to light of priceless information about the decades of atrocities committed by Gaddafi’s regime during a public trial which would never take place.
The later Baudrillard develops the powerful idea that the only authentic communicative exchange that is possible today in the context of over-saturation with, of and by simulacral media pseudo-exchanges is an ‘impossible exchange’. In the chapter “Living Coin: Singularity of the Phantasm” in the book Impossible Exchange (1999), Baudrillard elaborates his idea of a generalized economy (not the same as Bataille’s principle of solar expenditure or the basing of a general economy on a solar economy): “the reinvesting of the sphere of all exchange by that which cannot possibly be exchanged” (Baudrillard 2001: 122-131, see also Baudrillard 1976). There is something of no-value at the heart of the economic order. Baudrillard provides the example of the film Indecent Proposal (1993), in which the billionaire character John Gage, played by Robert Redford, in the setting of a Las Vegas casino, purchases the sexual-amorous favours of the married woman character Diana Murphy, played by Demi Moore, for the sum of one million dollars. As Baudrillard interprets the film, Redford seeks to possess the “unexchangeable part of this woman,” that portion of herself that is outside of the exchange nexus for the simple reason that she herself does not own and therefore cannot sell what she is. Baudrillard calls this “obliterating wealth in and through the sign of wealth (Baudrillard 2001: 123-124). In the moment of their first meeting, Gage asks Murphy to bet a million dollars at the roulette table for him. She and his chips are wagered, thereby establishing the shared valuelessness – in the sense of being outside the system of value – of both the clichéd legendary sum of one million dollars and the enjoyment of and by this singular woman.
The Model Precedes the Real
In writing about the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Baudrillard notes the victory of the model which precedes ‘the real’, the triumph of ‘war processing’ (on analogy with ‘data processing’ and ‘word processing’), the predomination of virtual technologies. The post-structure of the (non-)war machine in the age of media virtuality has the property of simulation/modelling. There is the simulacrum of the disappeared “historical” referent of war, and the triumph of informational and gaming technologies.
Baudrillard writes in “The Gulf War: Is It Really Taking Place?”: “The victory of the model is more important than victory on the ground. Military success consecrates the triumph of arms, but the programming success consecrates the defeat of time. War-processing, the transparency of the model in the unfolding of the war, the strategy of relentless execution of a program” (Baudrillard 1995: 55-56). In that non-war that ‘did not take place’, there was the emergence of an abstract, electronic, speculative, informatic space. “Just as wealth is no longer measured by the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital, so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract, electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves” (Ibid.: 56).
In addition to careful management of images and information content, the true devastation of war is kept at bay from our perceptions by simulation technologies ranging from the televisual screen to the military ‘smart weapons’ deployed from altitudes of tens of thousands of feet. During months of preparation for the ‘war’, viewers experience endless military experts paraded across their screen, endlessly analyzing scenarios before they happen. The pilot in his simulator cockpit, or the gunner in his high-tech tank, is surrounded by a virtual environment and motion-dependent images which are the same whether he is in a war game training exercise or a ‘real engagement’.
A Non-Euclidean Spacetime
The post-structure of the (non-)war machine in the age of media virtuality has the property of complex intricate paradoxical topology. There is the “non-Euclidean” spacetime of multiple refracting waves in an enigmatic hyperspace beyond any classical geometry. In “The Gulf War: Is It Really Taking Place?,” Baudrillard (1995: 49-50) writes:
At a certain speed, the speed of information, things lose their sense…
War implodes in real time, history implodes in real time, all communication and all signification implode in real time…
The space of the event has become a hyperspace with multiple refractivity, and that the space of war has become definitively non-Euclidean.
To understand the complex non-Euclidean informational space of non-war, we need a new mathematics, a new unconventional metric space. In mathematics, a metric space is a set where a specific concept of distance between elements of the set is defined and implemented. Three-dimensional Euclidean space – a way of thinking about space that belongs to the Western metaphysical ‘construction of reality’ as it was originated by the Ancient Greek thinkers – corresponds to our ‘intuitive understanding’ of space.
1991 Persian Gulf War
Shortly before 7 PM on the evening of January 16, 1991 (January 17, early AM, in the Gulf), Network nightly news viewers were informed that heavy bombing of strategic targets inside Iraq had been initiated. At 9 PM, President George H.W. Bush enthusiastically told the viewing audience that “the liberation of Kuwait has begun.” Pentagon spokespersons explained that massive pinpoint strikes by high-tech planes against carefully selected military sites and command headquarters had caught the Iraqis entirely off guard. Reports of great success came in. The nation rejoiced. It was our grand celebration. We feted our triumph in the Cold War. The glamorous high-tech weapons, developed and paid for over years, could finally be used in the real thing, and the Soviets were nowhere in sight. We were back. After the wrenching stalemate of Vietnam, we could finally start again. The enemy was an inert physical installation, a blip on a radar screen to be methodically darkened.
The Fourth Order of Simulacra
The post-structure of the (non-)war machine in the age of media virtuality has the property of viral metastasis. There is the news media becoming part of the terror. There are the surveillance policies of the state becoming part of the terror. In the essay “After the Orgy” in the book The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard writes of the “epidemic of simulation,” a networked mode of fractal or viral dispersal. Updating his famous theses of “the three orders of simulacra” (in Symbolic Exchange and Death) and “the precession of simulacra” (in Simulacra and Simulation), he seeks to introduce “a new particle into the microphysics of simulacra (Baudrillard 1993: 5):
The first of these stages had a natural referent, and value developed on the basis of a natural use of the world. The second was founded on a general equivalence, and value developed by reference to a logic of the commodity. The third is governed by a code, and value develops here by reference to a set of models. At the fourth, the fractal (or viral, or radiant) stage of value, there is no point of reference at all, and value radiates in all directions…(Ibid.: 5, 7).
This is the fractal or viral stage of fourth-order simulacra. In Baudrillard’s post-simulation epistème or “epidemic of simulation,” value – if that term is still appropriate – radiates in all directions in a cancerous metastasis. There is “no relationship between cause and effect, merely viral relationships between one effect and another” (Ibid.: 108). All spheres of society pass into their free-floating, excessive, and ecstatic form.
September 11, 2001
In “The Spirit of Terrorism,” the first essay of the book The Spirit of Terrorism (2002), Baudrillard writes of the event of September 11, 2001:
The more concentrated the system becomes globally, ultimately forming one single network, the more it becomes vulnerable at a single point (already a single little Filipino hacker had managed, from the the dark recesses of his portable computer, to launch the ‘I love you’ virus, which circled the globe devastating entire networks)…
Terrorism, like viruses, is everywhere. There is a global perfusion of terrorism, which accompanies any system of domination as though it were its shadow, ready to activate itself anywhere, like a double agent. We can no longer draw a demarcation line around it. It is at the very heart of this culture which combats it… Terrorism is the shock wave of this silent reversion (2002: 8-9, 10, 11).
After each terrorist attack, there is a feeling in the air of panic and confusion in the news media as the police and Federal Investigators identify and catch the perpetrators, and the information society scrambles to find out ‘who did it’.
Abu Ghraib Torture and Prisoner Abuse
This is how the English-language Wikipedia article on “Abu Ghraib Torture and Prisoner Abuse” begins:
During the War in Iraq, human rights violations, committed from late 2003 to early 2004, in the form of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, including torture, reports of rape, sodomy, and homicide of prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib prison (currently known as the Baghdad Central Prison) came to public attention beginning in early 2004 with Department of Defense announcements. These acts were committed by military police personnel of the United States Army together with those of additional US governmental agencies.1
On May 19, 2004, Jean Baudrillard published the essay “Pornographie de la guerre” in the Parisian daily newspaper Libération. (published as “War Porn” in English) The philosopher, sociologist, and media theorist writes:
World Trade Center: shock treatment of power, humiliation inflicted on power, but from outside. With the images of the Baghdad prisons, it is worse, it is the humiliation, symbolic and completely fatal, which the world power inflicts on itself – the Americans in this particular case – the shock treatment of shame and bad conscience. This is what binds together the two events (Baudrillard 2004).
To keep the hyper-reality of cyberwar going, the ghost-people must continue to exercise a certain ‘minimal’ function in the real. To lend the game its requisite weight or support, they must furnish a necessary dose of reality-effect through the chalking up of their disappearance. A certain number of victims of torture, rape, and murder are required to provide data (‘fresh meat’) to keep the electronic killing game going, especially if they can be photographed, and then the images sent out on the universal image-viewing network. Baudrillard continues in “War Porn”:
This is where the truth of these images lies; this is what they are full of: the excessiveness of a power designating itself as abject and pornographic. Truth but not veracity: it does not help to know whether the images are true or false… There is no longer the need for ‘embedded’ journalists because soldiers themselves are immersed in the image – thanks to digital technology, the images are definitively integrated into the war. They don¹t represent it anymore; they involve neither distance, nor perception, nor judgment…(Ibid.).
Media images in general – in advertising, for example – signify the excess of wealth that we as citizens of the West have the prerogative of partaking in. The abject and disgusting images of the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse atrocity are the dark underside of media culture.
Beyond the epistemology of true and false, the digital technology image has inscribed within itself the tautological reasoning of the self-fulfilling prophecy, inheriting from advertising and the classical era of consumer culture the mastery of the art of rendering things true by saying that they are. For Baudrillard, all images in contemporary culture tend towards the pornographic. The visual culture of stylized images is obscene and pornographic at every level – from hard-core porno to ‘music television’, from swimsuit magazines to commonplace TV commercials.
Albert Camus: Thinker of the Simulacrum of War
Regarding the Algerian War between France and the independence movement in Algeria that took place (or perhaps ‘took place’) between 1954 and 1962 (sort of France’s version or equivalent of America’s Vietnam War, and an important ‘decolonization’ war), we read in various canonical accounts of Baudrillard’s life, for example, in Mike Gane’s “Introduction” to Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, that “Baudrillard was politically radicalized under the influence of Sartre and the opposition to the Algerian War at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s” (Gane 1993: 2).2 But if we read what Baudrillard writes about the Algerian War near the end of “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” then we might start to reconsider if, in retrospect, Baudrillard’s mature position about war, and about the Algerian War, might not correspond more (rather than corresponding to the position of Jean-Paul Sartre) to the controversial refusal to take sides in the Algerian War back in the mid-to-late 1950s of the novelist, essayist and playwright Albert Camus:
This was how it happened in the Vietnam war: the day when China was neutralised, when the ‘wild’ Vietnam with its forces of liberation and revolt was replaced by a truly bureaucratic and military organization capable of ensuring the continuation of Order, the Vietnam war stopped immediately – but ten years were necessary for the political domestication to take place (whether it took place under communism or democracy is of no importance). Same thing with the Algerian war: its end, which was believed to be impossible, took place of its own accord, not by virtue of De Gaulle’s sagacity, but from the moment the maquis with their revolutionary potential were finally liquidated and an Algerian army and a bureaucracy, which had been set up in Tunisia without ever engaging in combat, were in a position to ensure the continuation of power and the exercise of order (Baudrillard 1995: 85-86).
One of the most significant chapters of 20th century French intellectual history was the dispute between Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus which took place in 1952. Sartre and Camus had been personal and intellectual friends since they met in June 1943 when Camus came to Paris from his native Algeria. Camus was a pied noir, a Frenchman born to French settlers living in Algeria. They met in person for the first time at the première theatre performance of Sartre’s play The Flies. Both thinkers had been associated with the philosophy of existentialism. Both had written novels and plays as well as philosophical works. Both had been active in the French resistance. Camus wrote a very appreciative and sympathetic review of Sartre’s novel Nausea when it was first published in 1938. Sartre likewise wrote a very appreciative and sympathethic review of Camus’ novel The Stranger and his philosophical work The Myth of Sisyphus when they were both first published in 1942.
The tension between Camus and Sartre came about mainly for political reasons. For several years in the early 1950s, Sartre became a ‘fellow traveler’ of the French Communist Party. As the Cold War intensified and much of the world polarized between the Western and Eastern Blocs, Sartre sided more and more with the Soviet Union. He made rather convoluted intellectual defenses of the alleged “total freedom of criticism,” alleged free speech, and alleged freedom of citizens to travel in the U.S.S.R. Only after the Soviet military intervention in Hungary in November 1956, crushing with tanks a nationwide uprising of students and workers against the totalitarian system, did Sartre bring to an end a period of about four-and-a-half years of active support for the Communists. Camus was always a staunch critic of the Soviet Union and was horrified by totalitarianism. In November 1946, he published Neither Victims nor Executioners in serialized form in the Parisian daily newspaper Combat:
Terror is legitimized only if we assent to the principle: ‘the end justifies the means’. And this principle in turn may be accepted only if the effectiveness of an action is posed as an absolute end, as in nihilistic ideologies (anything goes, success is the only thing worth talking about), or in those philosophies which make history an absolute end (Hegel, followed by Marx: the end being a classless society, everything is good that leads to it) (Aronson 2004: 89).
At times Camus tended to side with the U.S.A., but he often criticized the enforced ‘you must choose a side’ logic of the Cold War, and he often criticized the work system of Fordist-Taylorist-oligopolistic capitalism (for example, in the last chapter of The Rebel). In his politics, Camus was a hybrid of an anarchist and a liberal. He was looking for a ‘third way’ in politics. Ronald Aronson, Professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University, writes:
But even as he spelled out his anti-Communism, Camus rejected in advance the Cold War. These same articles attacked the growing East-West confrontation, and condemned the atmosphere of terror caused by the new war “now being prepared by all nations.” Camus sought a self-consciously utopian goal, “a world in which murder is not legitimate.” The nonviolent orientation pitting him against Communism now led him to explore alternatives to war (Ibid.: 89-90).
The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt
The quarrel between Sartre and Camus occurred in 1952, following the appearance of Camus’ book The Rebel, which was published in 1951. In May 1952, Les Temps modernes, the intellectual and political journal of which Sartre was the director, published a scathing and dismissive review of The Rebel by the young existentialist and Marxist thinker Francis Jeanson, an associate of Sartre’s who had previously written and published negatively about Camus’ system of thought. In August 1952, a reply to Jeanson by Camus appeared in Les Temps modernes. This was followed, in the same issue of the journal, by comments by both Sartre and Jeanson.<3 The polemics on both sides were fierce. The crux of the disagreement was the respective positions of the respective intellectuals with respect to Marxist-style revolutions. This very public controversy marked the end of the deep friendship between Sartre and Camus, and the two men would never speak again. On January 4, 1960, while traveling from a village in the Vaucluse to Paris, Camus was killed in a car crash.
The Rebel (L’homme révolté in French – better translated as Man in Revolt) was critical of the prevailing idea on the Left that the end of ‘revolutionary justice’ justifies the means of violence and/or murderous state power. It was about the question of the political and institutional justification of murder in modern society. Against the dominant ideologies of corporate capitalism and self-righteous leftism, Camus the hybrid anarchist-liberal explicates the principles of how to fight and live, and of how to say both no and yes to the existing established order of society, of the authentic rebel. Camus writes:
What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion. A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying ‘no’? He means, for example, that ‘this has been going on too long,’ ‘up to this point yes, beyond it no,’ ‘you are going too far,’ or, again, ‘there is a limit beyond which you shall not go’ (Camus 1956: 13).
This is an articulation of Camus’ very important idea of having “a sense of limits.” In his masterful 2004 book on the Sartre-Camus friendship and breakup, Ronald Aronson writes:
Fifty years later it [The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt] still remains one of the most original and probing efforts to understand how the great modern impulse to freedom produced totalitarian societies…
[Camus] stressed that morality must remain at the center of politics, and was unremitting in his advocacy of free speech, democratic institutions, and civil rights in any movement for social justice…
Against the tendency of revolutionary philosophy to act as if we can know and settle everything, a philosophy of revolt “would be a philosophy of limits, of calculated ignorance, and of risk.” …
While rejecting what revolutions have become in the 20th century, these ideas certainly remain leftist at their core… Camus’ vision of self-limiting revolt is a prescient articulation of a post-Marxist and postmodern radical politics (Aronson 2004: 123-124, 266).
In the section of The Rebel called “Creation and Revolution” (at the end of Part Four, “Rebellion and Art”), Albert Camus sounds a lot like the Jean Baudrillard of The Mirror of Production (1975) (Marx’s views on work and play were not radical enough…) when he says: “Capitalist society and revolutionary society are one and the same thing to the extent that they submit themselves to the same means – industrial production… The society based on production is only productive, not creative (Camus 1956:272-273.” And Camus also sounds a lot like the young Karl Marx of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscript of 1844 when he says: “Work, entirely subordinated to production, has ceased to be creative. Industrial society will open the way to a new civilization only by restoring to the worker the dignity of a creator (Camus: 1956: 273, Marx: 1976).”
Albert Camus and the Algerian War
Jean Baudrillard was born on July 27, 1929 in Reims, in the Champagne-Ardenne region of northeast France, near the Belgian border. Albert Camus was born on November 7, 1913 in Mondovi, Algeria, nowadays called Dréan, a small coastal town in the El Taref province, near the Tunisian border. Although he was highly critical of French colonial rule in Algeria, Camus found that he could not support the side of the revolutionaries during the Algerian War in the 1950s.
As a young man, Camus was sent by the Algiers-based daily newspaper Alger républicain to the northern region of Kabylie, which includes all or part of 9 Algerian provinces, to write journalistic accounts of conditions of poverty in the area. The result was a series of articles, “Misère de la Kabylie,” which are reprinted in the 1958 book Chroniques algériennes: 1939-1958 (Actuelles III), (Camus 2013).
In May 1945, Camus wrote a series of articles for the Parisian daily newspaper Combat (an important voice of the French Resistance during the Second World War of which Camus was editor-in-chief) about crisis, famine, justice, political malaise, and the ideas of the political party “Les Amis du Manifeste” in Algeria. These articles were also reprinted in the 1958 Éditions Gallimard book publication Chroniques algériennes. They first appeared in May 1945, at the time of the “Sétif massacre” (May 8th), when French military and police are said by historians to have killed as many as tens of thousands of Arabs in retaliation for attacks on French settlers by militant pro-independence demonstrators that killed about 100 French. Camus wrote sympathetically about “Les Amis du Manifeste,” the new political party which wanted citizenship rights for Algerian Arabs.
From July 1955 to February 1956, Camus wrote a series of articles for the Parisian weekly (and, at times, daily) news magazine/newspaper L’Express, advocating a “civilian truce” (trêve pour les civils) at a time of increased hostilities between Arabs and French in Algeria. These articles are also reprinted in Chroniques algériennes. On January 22, 1956, Camus was the main speaker at a meeting of twelve hundred people in Algiers, an audience equally divided beween Algerians and French, putting forward the program of the proposed civilian truce. An angry crowd of right-wing pied noirs gathered outside the meeting hall, shouting “Camus to the gallows.” In the “Appeal for a Civilian Truce in Algeria” (the text that accompanied this speech), Camus says:
What do we want? Simply to get the Arab movement and the French authorities, without having to make contact or to commit themselves to anything else, to declare simultaneously that for the duration of the fighting the civilian population will on every occasion be respected and protected… No cause justifies the death of the innocent… However black it may seem, the future of Algeria is not yet altogether sealed. If each individual, Arab or French, made an effort to think over his adversary’s motives, at least the basis of a fruitful discussion would be clear. But if the two Algerian populations, each accusing the other of having begun the quarrel, were to hurl themselves against each other in a sort of xenophobic madness, then any chance for understanding would be drowned in blood (Camus 1960: 134-135).
Faced with potential violence by the angry pied noir right-wing militants gathered outside the Cercle du Progrès meeting hall, the listeners to Camus’ speech quickly dispersed. Camus, of course, could subsequently do nothing to stop the escalation and intensification of the Algerian War. According to the Wikipedia article on the Algerian War, estimates of the number of civilians killed during the conflict range from 350,000 to 1.5 million people.4
Albert Memmi, an Arabic-speaking Jewish philosopher born in Tunisia, and the author of the book The Colonizer and The Colonized, developed the term “the colonizer of good will” to explain the political position of a thinker like Camus with respect to the major ‘decolonization’ war which occurred in Algeria (Memmi 1991). According to Memmi, “when the Arab Algerians started to demand their political freedom, [Camus] did not see that this was a national demand. He misunderstood the Algerian national fact (Rey 2006 : 108 ; citation from Albert Memmi, 1986). The “colonizer of good will,” although leftist and liberal in his politics, cannot truly support the struggle of the colonized because their cause threatens the continued existence of his own community [according to Memmi]. Memmi’s ‘revolutionary’ perspective on Camus’ discourse and actions surrounding Algeria has typified how many ‘leftist’ or ‘postcolonial’ commentators have thought about Camus’ position on the Algerian War (see for example O’Brian, 1970; Said, 1993). But it is not a correct or fruitful interpretation. In the contemporary post-2001 context of the simulacral ‘War on Terror’, and Baudrillard’s brilliant and cogent commentary on it, it is possible to make a new reading of Camus as a thinker of the simulacrum of war.
War is presented to us as a Manichean choice, as the battle of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. You must choose. Camus refused to choose. He was on the same wavelength as the first principle of a Baudrillardian theory of war.
Four aspects of a Baudrillardian theory of war. The post-structure of the (non-)war machine in the age of media virtuality has properties of binary/digital, simulation/modeling, viral metastasis, and complex intricate paradoxical topology. Camus was certainly on the same wavelength as two of these four ‘Baudrillardian’ principles: the binary/digital logic of the imposed binary choice, the simulacrum of a referendum. And the complex intricate paradoxical topology – Camus was the philosopher par excellence of the absurd.
Camus in Stockholm
In 1957, Albert Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. On December 11, 1957, the day after receiving and accepting the prize, Camus met with students at Stockholm University. Among the group was an Algerian student who confronted Camus with a set of tough critical questions about Algeria. After responding that he had always worked for “a just Algeria, where the two peoples should live in peace and equality,” Camus continued with this comment:
I have always condemned terror. I must also condemn a terrorism that is carried out blindly, in the streets of Algiers for example, and may one day strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice (Camus 1965: 1882; I have used the translation found in Aronson 2004: 211).
Camus’ ‘infamous’ comment – made while in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature at the height of the Algerian War – about choosing his mother before justice was an amazingly interesting and adroit intertextual reference to a famous anecdote told by Jean-Paul Sartre in his classic October 29, 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”:
I will mention the case of one of my students, who sought me out under the following circumstances: his father had broken off with his mother and, moreover, was inclined to be a ‘collaborator’. His older brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940, and this young man, with primitive but noble feelings, wanted to avenge him. Her mother, living alone with him and deeply hurt by the partial betrayal of his father and the death of her oldest son, found her only comfort in him. At the time, the young man had the choice of going to England to join the Free French Forces – which would mean abandoning his mother – or remain by her side to help her go on with her life…(Sartre 2007: 30-31).
Sartre told the young man, his student, that he would have to choose, that he was condemned to choose, that he was ‘condemned to be free’, that this was the situation of existence, and that Sartre could not help him to make the choice.
In seeking me out, he knew what my answer would be, and there was only one answer I could give him: “You are free, so choose; in other words, invent. No general code of ethics call tell you what you ought to do; there are no signs in this world (Ibid.: 31).
By saying that he would choose his mother over justice, Camus was saying, in effect, and contra Sartre, that one can choose to not to be forced to choose between apparently mutually exclusive alternatives. Sartrean ethics seems to imply that one must choose either A or B. Camus’ position seems to be closer to that of a ‘deconstructionist psychoanalysis’. “I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.” Sometimes ‘I’ choose justice. Sometimes ‘I’ choose my mother. ‘I’ creatively navigate back and forth between the two. It depends upon the circumstances of the moment and ‘I’ seek a balance.5 Through the exercise of creativity – the human capacity that will make us most human, according to Camus – one ‘takes matters into one’s own hands’ and reclaims a genuine decision coming from oneself, saying simultaneously ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to both sides of what appears to be the enforced choice imposed on ‘me’ by ‘fate’ itself.
Camus in Uppsala
On December 14, 1957, three days after his encounter with the skeptical Algerian student at Stockholm University, Camus gave a lecture at Uppsala University, Sweden called “Create Dangerously.” In the transcript of this lecture, Camus writes about the virtualization of the economic sphere:
“For about a century we have been living in a society that is not even the society of money (gold can arouse carnal passions) but that of the abstract symbols of money (Camus 1960: 134).”
Compare this with what Jean Baudrillard writes in “Living Coin: Singularity of the Phantasm” in Impossible Exchange about money as the media of the universalization of meaninglessness:
“Money then becomes the universal transcription of a world bereft of meaning. This fetish money, around which global speculation revolves – far above and beyond the reproduction of capital – has nothing to do with wealth or the production of wealth. It expresses the breakdown of meaning, the impossibility of exchanging the world for its meaning…(Baudrillard 2001: 127-128).
What Baudrillard writes in these pages about the “the meaninglessness of the world” and the “demand for meaning” [in the “miracle of money”] echoes the most brilliant passages of The Myth of Sisyphus and provides a crucial bridge between the philosophy of absurdism and the literary sociology of the simulacra of modern culture.
Then Camus writes in “Create Dangerously” about semiotics and society:
“The society of merchants can be defined as a society in which things disappear in favor of signs. When a ruling class measures its fortunes, not by the acre of land or the ingot of gold, but by the number of figures corresponding ideally to a certain number of exchange operations, it thereby condemns itself to setting a certain kind of humbug at the center of its experience and its universe (Camus 1960: 253-254).”
Then come comments by Camus anticipating Reality TV and The Truman Show:
“What is there more real, for instance, in our universe than a man’s life, and how can we hope to preserve it better than in a realistic film? But under what conditions is such a film possible? Under purely imaginary conditions. We should have to presuppose, in fact, an ideal camera focused on the man day and night and constantly registering his every move. The very projection of such a film would last a lifetime and could be seen only by an audience of people willing to waste their lives in watching someone else’s life in great detail (Camus 1960: 258-259).”
Compare Jean Baudrillard writing in Simulacra and Simulations about the 1973 Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) Reality TV show “An American Family,” featuring the Loud family and the separation and subsequent divorce of Bill and Pat Loud:
“This family came apart during the shooting: a crisis flaired up, the Louds went their separate ways, etc. Whence that insoluble controversy: was TV responsible? What would have happened if TV hadn’t been there… The producer’s trump card was to say: ‘They lived as if we weren’t there.’ An absurd, paradoxical formula – neither true nor false: but utopian. The ‘as if we weren’t there’ is equivalent to ‘as if you were there’ (Baudrillard 1983: 49-50).”
During his lifetime, two of Jean Baudrillard’s deepest commitments were to seduction and to aesthetics. The ‘hyperreality’ of modern culture seeks to efface the difference between ‘reality’ and its representation. Simulation endeavors to eradicate the aesthetic dimension. Seduction is that which encompasses, precedes, and exceeds simulation. Seduction is the difference between ‘reality’ and its representation, or between the ‘original’ and the ‘copy’ – that difference which simulation seeks to suppress in its attempt to represent or institute ‘reality’. Albert Camus was also very concerned with seduction, for example in the section in The Myth of Sisyphus on the literary figure of Don Juan. In “Create Dangerously,” Camus reflects deeply on the work of the artist, on rebellion and ambiguity in art, and on creativity. The primary responsibility of the artist is not to take political stances: it is to create.
It is intellectually, politically and academically important to consider the intersections between the works of Albert Camus and Jean Baudrillard, two of the most significant thinkers of the 20th century. Although some scholars choose to focus on Baudrillard as the creator of a unique system of thought that should not be brought into connection with any other system of thought, that is not my position. There is value in relating Baudrillard to other major thinkers. Baudrillard was a thinker of the simulacrum. So was Camus. Camus was a thinker of the absurd. So was Baudrillard. However, there clearly are major differences between Camus and Baudrillard in their perspectives in general. Although they both start with a perception that the world is meaningless, Camus becomes principally a thinker of ‘the subject’, of the possibilities of the human subject as artist, creator, rebel, resistance fighter, human rights activist, champion of life, etc. Baudrillard – in true deconstructionist fashion – was a skeptic with regards to the ‘I’ of ‘the subject’. Yet his critique of ‘the subject’ gave way to an affirmation of the potentialities of ‘objects’. He broke with almost all of existing radical and liberal political philosophies in seeking out resistance to and reversibility of the established social and technological order through ‘objects’. ‘Resistance’ is one of the deep shared commitments of these two great planetary thinkers.
About the Author
Alan N. Shapiro is senior lecturer at the Offenbach Art and Design University in Germany. He teaches “computer programming for artists and designers” and media/cultural theory. He is the author of the books Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance and Software of the Future. His research areas include the hybridity of physical and virtual realities in design and architecture, the information and surveillance society as depicted in TV shows like The Prisoner, the intensification of object-orientation and poetic expressivity in emerging programming languages, and the relevance of thinkers like Baudrillard, Camus, Habermas, Bateson, and Virilio for living the”hypermodern” condition.
Ronald Aronson (2004). Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Albert Camus (1956). The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt (translated by Anthony Bower), New York: Vintage International.
Albert Camus (1958). Chroniques algériennes: 1939-1958 (Actuelles III), Paris : Gallimard, English : Algerian Chronicles (translated by Arthur Goldhammer) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).
Albert Camus (1960). Resistance, Rebellion and Death (translated by Justin O’Brien), New York: Vintage International.
Albert Camus (1965). Essais, Paris: Gallimard.
Jean Baudrillard (1981). “Apocalypse now,” in Simulacres et Simulation, Paris: Galilée.
Jean Baudrillard (1983). Simulations (translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman), New York: Semiotext(e).
Jean Baudrillard (1993). The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena (translated by James Benedict), London: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard, “No Reprieve For Sarajevo,” Libération, January 8, 1994. Translated by Patrice Riemens.
Jean Baudrillard (1995). The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (translated by Paul Patton), Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Jean Baudrillard (2001). Impossible Exchange (translated by Chris Turner), London: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2003). The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (translated by Chris Turner), London: Verson.
Jean Baudrillard, “Pornographie de la guerre,” Libération, May 19, 2004. Translated by Paul A. Taylor as “War Porn”: http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol2_1/taylor.htm.
Jean Baudrillard (2010). Carnival and Cannibal: or the Play of Global Antagonisms (translated by Chris Turner), Kolkata, India: Seagull Books.
Jean Baudrillard, “Le masque de la guerre,” Libération, March 10, 2003. See:
http://www.egs.edu/faculty/jean-baudrillard/articles/le-masque-de-la-guerre. Translated by Alex Barder: http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=494.
Jean Baudrillard, “When Bataille Attacked the Metaphysical Principle of Economy” (translated by Stuart Kendall): http://www.scapegoatjournal.org/docs/05/SG_Excess_044-049_F_Baudrillard.pdf.
Mike Gane (1993). “Introduction,” in Mike Gane (ed.), Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, London: Routledge.
Albert Memmi (1991). The Colonizer and The Colonized (translated by Howard Greenfeld), Boston: Beacon Press.
Albert Memmi (1986). “Camus et la politique,” in Colloque de Nanterre (L’Harmattan).
Conor Cruise O’Brien (1970). Camus, London: Fontana.
Pierre-Louis Rey (2006). Camus: L’homme révolté, Paris : Gallimard.
Edward Said (1993). Culture and Imperialism, London: Vintage.
Jean-Paul Sartre (2007). Existentialism is a Humanism, including A Commentary on ‘The Stranger’ (translated by Carol Macomber), New Haven: Yale University Press.
1 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Ghraib_torture_and_prisoner_abuse.
2 – See also “Jean Baudrillard,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard: “Opposing French and U.S. intervention in the Algerian and Vietnamese wars, Baudrillard associated himself with the French Left in the 1960s.”
3 – See the excellent book by Ronald Aronson, Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel That Ended It (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).
4 – See, for example, the three articles published by Sartre in Libération in July 1954.
5 – See the articles about L’homme révolté published by Francis Jeanson, Camus, and Sartre in Les Temps modernes in May and August 1952.