Volume 5, Number 1 (January, 2008)
Interview by: Philippe Petit
This interview originally appeared as Chapter Four: “Present Considerations” of Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews With Philippe Petit. New York: Verso, 1998:52-76. Translated (and subsequent endnotes, unless otherwise stated) by Chris Turner.
Philippe Petit: Does the transpolitical which you evoke mean the end of the political? Reading you, one has the sense that the political space is indefinable, that political action is something improbable. Don’t you think the Right of all Rights – namely the fundamental rights of the human person, otherwise known as human rights – could fill this gap in politics, and open up, a path to new actions? I’m thinking of the way the notion of the crime against humanity has now entered positive law under pressure from jurists and from citizens who’ve been the victims of all kinds of exactions. For example, when intellectuals protest to governments that the Hague Tribunal’s arrest warrants aren’t being carried out, aren’t they doing their duty?
Jean Baudrillard: It’s possible to see things quite differently. Far from attesting
to an advance in the international moral conscience, the very fact of the Hague Tribunal being held is the expression of the impotence of Western nations to intervene effectively on the ground, their moral and political incapacity to enforce the law: that impotence is turned into a tribunal (let us leave aside the hypothesis that such impotence is not innocent, and that it corresponds to a more or less deliberate strategy, merely coupled with guilty conscience and bad faith: the tribunal is also the expression of all that).
As for the intellectuals’ petition, it’s the mark, in its turn, of the total impotence of the Hague Tribunal to have its decisions obeyed. There again, one may doubt the real resolve to translate law into reality. Moreover, this creates a peculiar situation in which law progresses on its own account, without any real consequences, and perhaps even providing cover as it does so for an aggravation of the real situation. Ultimately,· the law is laid down merely to be transgressed – it becomes the perfect alibi for the perfect crime. The appearance of moral progress merely attests to actual impotence and, in this sense, is complicit with it. So it’s absurd to sign a petition which sanctions the complicit, and perhaps calculated, impotence of the “responsible” powers. And, indeed, there’s something ridiculous in prostituting oneself for no hope of gain, since it has become blindingly obvious that the power concerned either simply doesn’t exist or has taken the decision not to exert itself. Now, what is a power without political will?
One can say, then, that if the Western powers have fully taken on the dishonour of the situation, the intellectuals, for their part, have taken on the ridicule. In these conditions, not signing, far from being indifference or contempt, is a positive act in relation to the general collusion; from top to bottom of the scale, in accrediting and endorsing the massacre. The idea that the universal extension of law is progress is too good to be true. No other progress of consciousness has ever been detected than that of bad conscience, parallel to the progress of bad faith, the two being merged in the general rise of ressentiment, understood as the latest stage in the genealogy of morals.
Petit: In what sense does that condemn law to merely marking time? After 1945, in spite of the impact of war, jurists like René Cassin invented new juridical projects. Why shouldn’t that be possible at the end of this century?
Baudrillard: There isn’t any unilateral process of law, either. What we’re seeing is a simultaneous and contradictory recrudescence of law and denial of justice. The Hague condemns the war criminals, and the UN military conspicuously declare that they won’t arrest them. The judges carry out a search at Tiberi’s flat and the police, clearly under orders from the government, conspicuously oppose the judicial procedure.1 Not to-mention the Algerian elections (isn’t universal suffrage progress?) free elections immediately suppressed by a military coup d’etat with the assent of the “democratic” powers. How do things stand with law, then? How do things stand with an international tribunal, contested by the very forces of the highest international authority, which is already objectively complicit in ethnic cleansing on the ground, and here openly guilty of a denial of justice? Human rights, inscribed above the portals of all the democracies, are what get given to those who have landed up on the wrong side of the universal.
Petit: And French intellectuals? Would you say that they, too, have landed up on the wrong side of the universal?
Baudrillard: French intellectuals cultivate the same fiction of their universal influence as do French leaders of their global political power. The same French self-delusion and complacency. And at the domestic level, there’s the same pretension on the part of the intellectuals to influence national political decisions as our leaders have of influencing international politics. The intellectuals (those who assert themselves as such and, at the same time, as a moral conscience) are always fussing around, putting their oar in, in spite of massive historical evidence on the flagrant pointlessness of doing so, as benevolent advisers to a government which – and this is the most-grotesque-element – no longer really is one. For there to be a counselor to the Prince, there has to be a Prince. And that non-government itself seeks to interfere in world politics to influence events when it doesn’t have the means to do so and, in any case, even those who seem to decide world politics (the White House, for example) are only ever the operators, or clones, of a multinational machinery recast by Bill Gates, the banks and international speculation – all of which now function in almost total autonomy, following quasi-automatic strategies. And all this in the void: this is the last irony of history which no one seems aware of, so impatient are they all to have their role in that history. From one rung of the ladder to another, everyone imagines they are manipulating on their own account, everyone ruinously conforms to a crazy scenography in an aimless spiral (but do spirals ever have an aim?), in which all are complicit without knowing it.
Petit: In what way does this irony of history prevent us from imagining a beyond of capitalism?
Baudrillard: But who or what would take us beyond (if not the system itself)? In the old historical relation, there’s an antagonistic polarity, not a collusive one. There are oppressed and oppressors. And the oppressed don’t live in recrimination; they live in revolt. Today, everyone is locked up in their victim’s claims. So there’s no revolt any more, no antagonism, but a perverse situation, a new perverse, consensual social contract in which everyone tries to gain their recognition as a victim. Everyone becomes both victim and accomplice in this. Everyone is on both sides of the fracture – if, indeed, there is a fracture. At any rate, it’s no longer a line marking a conflict or a relation of forces but, rather, an involutive line, the line of an unhealthy complicity with the state of things.
Take the example of Credit Lyonnais. The taxpayers are going to have to pay 180 billion francs to bail out Credit Lyonnais. In the past, it was the state which did the bailing out – which, admittedly, amounted to the same thing – but now the responsibility is clearly assigned: capital, confident in its impunity, can step forward without its mask, saying explicitly: “Capital is you! The State is you!” Moreover, the Credit Lyonnais affair is just another extension of social provision and welfare. If all cases of social need are taken care of, there’s no reason not to assist Credit Lyonnais when it’s in distress. By contrast, the unemployed and the various cases for social assistance are now given to understand that they have to look after themselves, that they have to manage their “enterprise” better. The individual is treated as a capitalist business, and the capitalist business as a citizen on welfare. The role-reversal is perfect – the social has backfired in a manner entirely to the advantage of capital.
The system has become a Moebius strip, where everyone is both victim of, and party to, the crime. If Credit Lyonnais falls, you fall. If the factory closes, you clear out! So, Credit Lyonnais is you! The company is you! This wasn’t true in the classic age of capital and exploitation, when the demarcation line between oppressed and oppressors, exploited and exploiters, was clear. The same forced complicity and collusion, and hence the same blackmail, takes place in the political sphere. “L’Etat, c’est moi! L’Etat, c’est nous!” has subtly become “L’Etat, c’est vous!”. What a democratic marvel it is, this transference of responsibility! The citizen is now a shareholder; he no longer has any interest in seeing the business go under. And consequently, Revolution, in which those at the bottom took power, has given way to Devolution, in which the government itself cedes its powers from the top down. Democratic trickery or the ruse of history? The fact is that this transfer of responsibility corresponds to a diabolic twisting of the democratic principle: it’s capital connecting back to itself like a Leyden jar, or curling into a spiral. But is it still capital? “Don’t ask what the State can do for you, ask what you can do for the State”. The perfect formula for interactivity as a strategy for calling the population to order, for transferring all problems on to those on the receiving end. Parody of the ideal of the reappropriation of one’s own destiny.
Petit: It’s also the parody of political emancipation. Is capitalism for you the cold monster Simone Weil referred to when speaking of the State?
Baudrillard: It’s a monster which is standing social liberation on its head. It’s capital now that’s emancipating itself from the workers! It’s parents who are liberating themselves from their children! End of the Oedipus complex, end of the class struggle, in whose shade everything worked so well. All the flows are being reversed. The talk was all of freedom, of emancipation, of transforming as much fatality as possible into liberty. Today, it’s evident that the great wave of liberation is simply the best way of giving the slaves back a bogus power arid freedom.
Forced interaction: the masses now intervene directly in the event through the ratings and all the other immediate feedback devices: they’ve become interactive! And in opinion polls we’re all involved statistically: forced complicity. In any case, we’ve been interactive for a long time, like it or not, through all the automatic response systems we’re enslaved to. And the interactivity we’re being offered will never – by a long chalk – be the equal of the interactivity we already suffer: the collective interpassivity which the other form merely prolongs with information and communications technologies.
This is why it’s impossible, in the interactive sphere, to raise the problem of freedom and responsibility. People are almost amazed that they have children (are children ever amazed that they have parents?). They’re amazed at being responsible for them, as at many other things. They’re amazed at having to take charge of their own lives. They haven’t the heart for it any more; they’ve no convictions. In present conditions, they’re even amazed at having a body. There’s no longer any real basis for all that. It no longer imposes itself on the imagination or on consciousness as a value, nor even on the unconscious, as a fantasy. In this context, any responsibility or appeal to responsibility is surrealistic. They might just as well be amazed at having to seek work – as they might at being relay stations for lots of meaningless networks, the involuntary actors in a general interactive comedy – the targets for demands and questions for which they are merely the automatic answering machines.
Petit: Are they amazed, at least, that they live in silent collusion with the powers
Baudrillard: Not even that, since they’re in collusion with a power which, strictly speaking, no longer even exists, which is even worse. Which is simultaneously invested and disinvested by everyone, like a revolving stage or a zero-sum variable geometry. Everyone plays along in the comedy of power (as in many others besides: the comedy of the social or of culture). But I retain the hope that there’s a double game going on here, both individual and collective. One ought to be able to prevent this situation from perpetuating itself, to disconnect it, break down the consensual sequence. But one can hardly have any illusions, either about the awareness generated or about revolt following. In a history in progress, you create an event if you anticipate, if you create more rapid conditions of development, and hence an explosive differential. In an involutive curve like ours, by attempting to speed up or correct the system you contribute to the involution. We’re trapped. We’re part of the automatic writing of the system. But there are unconscious forms of social upheaval and creeping revolt against this forced participation we’ve been speaking of. For example, there has gradually emerged recently into popular consciousness (unconsciousness) the (old, ’68) idea that consumption is a con.
Petit: The consumer has supplanted the citizen, then. Hence, as you noted in your book of 1970,2 the intense guilt which attaches to this new style of hedonistic behaviour.
Baudrillard: Even in the reptilian brain of the grass-roots consumer, it’s become clear, when faced with power’s economic ultimatum – consume, consume, or the machine will grind to a halt – that consumers have become hostages, guinea pigs. After the general mobilization of the worker, then the soldier, then the citizen in universal suffrage (vote any Way you like, but vote!), we now have the mobilization of the consumer. And, with it, new latent forms of resistance when those from whom one wishes to extort need, expenditure as a social obligation – having extorted speech, votes, sex and happiness from them – realize what, “embolic” power they have in relation to the system: quite simply to consume less – not out of conscientious objection, or even from political resolve, but as a self-defence reflex.
Here’ again, an agonizing revision of the watchwords of modernity is in prospect – the watchwords of growth and welfare. It’s a revisionism, this refusal to consume, a social treason in the eyes of the dominant free-market liberalism. A new class struggle is beginning” (if the herd doesn’t want to graze, how is one to make one’s butter?)
Petit: There is perhaps a new political economy to bring about. Reversibility can also take the form of the re-founding of the economic sphere. I’m thinking of the contaminated blood affair, mad cows, asbestos…
Baudrillard: Is this still political economy? I think the two terms, the economic and the political, have mingled their determinations and, so to speak, imploded into one another. We’re in the postscript of a history or a political economy in which we’re dealing with the waste products of two centuries of capital and production, including human waste. For thirty years or more we’ve been engaged in the management of waste, in a politics and an economy of dejection – which clearly involves a certain abjection – in an interminable enterprise of recycling, cleansing and laundering, and this, once again, includes human material. And not only in its social dimension, but in the reprocessing of the genetic capital of the species. The whole system of modernity has embarked upon repentance and assumed a victim’s perspective, as though we were dealing with a historical catastrophe of the human race that already existed, had already occurred, and the recycling of that catastrophe. We’re all impersonal victims of this virtual catastrophe, this backfiring of capital and history, from which we re-emerge as its symptoms and its multiple waste products. Hence the agonizing revision of modernity in which we’re engaged, excluded from ourselves by the unconditional liberation of all our desires. In this sense, we’re in a fundamentally revisionist society.
The whole century is currently in mourning for, and repenting, all the liberations it has desired and accommodated, all the bounds it has burst – everything it was enslaved to and is now orphaned by. All the gains of modernity and liberation in recession – sex, tobacco, alcohol, speed, abortions: activities which are now clandestine, doomed to prohibition and apartheid, refused a residence permit or cloistered in reserves. A general revisionist movement and a tide now flowing the other way – for future generations, this will all doubtless form part of what they never knew (happiness or hell!) For us, at least, those things still had the time to exist. But with the precession of the prohibition, they will disappear from circulation without even having appeared. Similarly, with all the ideals of modernity, the ideals of the Enlightenment, of happiness, well-being and freedom, their technical realization amounts to a violent desublimation. All that was liberated is currently being liquidated.
Petit: Can’t one, then, liberate oneself from liberation?
Baudrillard: The paradox of liberation is that the people liberated are never the ones you think: children, slaves, women or colonial peoples. It’s always the others liberating themselves from them, getting rid of them in the name of a principle of freedom and emancipation. Hence the dramatic concern of children to ensure that parents don’t stop being parents, or at least that they do so as late as possible. Hence the collective concern to beg the State not to stop being the State, to force it to take on its role, whereas it’s constantly trying to relinquish that role – and with good reason. The State is constantly “liberating” the citizens, urging them to look after themselves – something they generally don’t want to do at all. In this sense, we’re all potential Bartlebys: “I would prefer not to” Be free! Be responsible! Take responsibility for yourself! – “I would prefer not to”. Preferring not to, rather than willing something (Philippe Lançon, Libération). Preferring not to any more. Not to run any more, or compete, or consume, and not, at any price, to be free. This is all part of the pattern of a repentance of modernity, of a subtle indifference which senses the dangers of a responsibility and an emancipation which are too good to be true. Hence the currently triumphant sentimental, familial, political and moral revisionism, which can take on the more violent aspect of a “reactionary” hatred of oneself or others, the product of the disillusionment that follows liberatory violence. This opposite tide, this “regressive” resublimation, is the contemporary form – and, so to speak, the consequence – of the repressive desublimation analysed by Marcuse. Decidedly, freedom isn’t simple, and liberation even less so.
However, as the orgy of modernity, the orgy of liberation, is clearly ambivalent, containing within it both the best and the worst, the agonizing revision of that modernity, of its ideals and its illusions, is necessarily ambivalent too. So, all the freedoms acquired are gradually being suspended or “overhauled”, market freedom: compensating for the loss of all the others. But the end of sexual liberation (in behaviour, if not de jure) can be evaluated in various ways, with some “reactionary” aspects appearing downright positive. People seem, for example, to have got over the total freedom to consume and spend. They seem to have sensed the trap in that. What we have, rather, is a new savings campaign (of retraction and disinvestment in all its forms), and it has changed meaning. Whereas once it was conservative and anti-modern in relation to the general dynamism, thrift is now the weapon of a movement of recalcitrant small savers. The consumption strike: last resistance to enforced free circulation. Since they can’t withdraw themselves from free circulation, they withdraw their money, retract a part of their needs. Massive resistance to the oiling of the wheels; instinctive regulation, revolt against forced deregulation (we are all force-fed geese; animals, by contrast, never eat too much). And if people no longer wish to consume? And if they no longer want to be “free”? This is all reactionary, politically incorrect. One can clearly see that the revision of the imperatives of modernity is ambiguous, and sometimes subtly revolutionary. The end of modernity is precisely the point at which all the effects of progress, growth and liberation become ambivalent. That’s when the Left and democracy lose the plot, and where each apparent advance (including advances in freedom and human rights) has to be assessed sub specie ambiguitatis and a contrario.
Petit: What form does that revision of modernity’s imperatives take, as you see it?
Baudrillard: This agonizing revisionism is clearly taking a necrological form. We’ve been in a “necro” phase since the 1980s. “Necro” of socialism grappling with its own corpse and the corpse of history. Mitterrandian “necro”, with a ghost president vampirizing a decalcified society. Death throes of the grand narratives and all the ideals of modernity. A holocaust in just a few years of a whole generation of intellectual big names (Sartre, Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Debord). Countless episodes of commemorative necrophagy (’68, the French Revolution, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Van Gogh, to name but a few – not to mention the Heidegger affair and all the necroactive convulsions linked to the Holocaust and the war). We’ve seen the fall of the Wall and the end of communism, but an unresolved work of mourning, inasmuch as on this occasion we no longer have the spectre of communism haunting Europe, but the defunct spectre of communism haunting the end of history – perhaps it’ll haunt it more effectively dead than alive?
Petit: Is this what you call generalized repetition?
Baudrillard: To the universal “necro” must clearly be added the universal beatification, in vitro or in vivo, of those who remain or survive, in the spectral shade of the Pope in his persistent vegetative state. Repentance is part of this necrological, revisionist turnabout, It’s one of the essential engines of our public and political life today. The Courtier was the most remarkable figure of the aristocratic order. The Militant was the most remarkable figure of the social and revolutionary order. The Penitent is the most remarkable figure of the advanced democratic order. But don’t worry: one can be both a courtier and a penitent, a militant and a penitent, a militant and a courtier (they are the worst). Perhaps we are all penitents. Repentance has passed from the sphere of eighties Italian Leftism to the whole of the political class, arid today it has become a principle of government (including the form of forced repentance that is the hunt for corruption scandals) or, at any rate, a principle of success and prestige. One has only to look at men like E.E. or R.D., among so many others, who have in their time profited in all possible ways from collusion with the powerful (whether communist or Mitterrandian), only to take the payoff (“with bonuses”) twenty years after from the disappearance of that same power. Yet repentance, apart from showing a ressentiment towards one’s own. cause, and adding dishonesty to denial, is unjustifiable: it attests to a misconception of history and modernity itself, since it accords these things the status of unconditional revelation, only to run them down and do a negative “rewrite” on the scenario as soon as they have failed. This is to back a loser at both ends of the process, and there is an implacable bad faith of all penitents (those repenting of socialism, of modernity, of the politically correct) in wearyingly playing out their destinies as victims, fascinated by their failure and licking their own wounds to infect them, while deriving the secondary gains from the situation.
Petit: Does this repentance condemn the political class to a walk-on part?
Baudrillard: The State and political power sit atop all this in a very, very fragile position; they are, so to speak, like filigree-work upon a translucent society, like a fiction woven from multiple complicities. They allow themselves to be regenerated by all who combat them. The political class gets itself investigated and regenerated by the examining magistrates. It’s as though there were a strategy here (the government putting itself in the position of victim), but in fact there isn’t any political will at the top any longer. There’s merely an internal perversion, an internal convolution of the system, which means that one can no longer be in an oppositional position. There is, then, a dangerous pretension on the part of the government to govern when it hasn’t either the means or the will to do so any longer; but there’s an even more deceitful and dangerous pretension among those who think they can reverse or overthrow the system, for even if they have the will to do so, they do precisely the opposite of what they intended. Now, the worst thing today is the lack of lucidity. When you’re in a trap, you’re in a trap. There’s no point fighting on a terrain where the models for neutralizing opposition are strongest, where you’re up against the spiralling trap of a system that is master both of the positive and of the negative. In that. Case you mustn’t look to some internal negativity any longer. You have to look either to the achievement, by saturation and concentration – by the system’s excess of positivity – of a critical mass, and then it’s no longer the negative but the more positive-than-positive that produces the upheaval; or to singularities, perfectly anomalous objects or events, which are neither inside nor outside. It’s in this twisting of the system, in its automatic recycling by the negative, its absorption of all dysfunctions, that the essence of corruption and the baneful destiny of democracy lie.
Petit: Listening to you, that destiny seems inescapable. It’s no use asking what you think of those who are intent on refounding democratic citizenship.
Baudrillard: At the current time, democracy is a social form that’s about as ancestral as the symbolic exchange of primitive societies. And we dream of it in the same way. The political in general continues to be the waking dream of Western societies – of the exoteric societies where everything is expressed by technics. The esoteric societies, for their part (whether they are disinherited or traditional societies), long since brought politics into line with tribal arrangements. They have trapped and tamed the Western machinery of politics, law, democracy and the universal in their personal structures and relations; they have integrated linearity and history into their own cycle. We may ask ourselves whether, on a much vaster scale and by the roundabout route of rationality, it isn’t the same with our Western societies. Doesn’t the political sphere obey impulses, obligations, challenges and fantasies that have little to do with public affairs? This incorruptible truth of evil, of the irrational, shows through in the very corruption of the political, which must therefore be interpreted positively as the impossibility of Political Reason realizing itself. This is what explains why the more imperative transparency becomes, the greater the corruption. By wishing merely to take into account a politically correct human nature a fundamentally Rousseauist vision – the militants of the good democratic cause – of those who, more subtly, wish to rehabilitate the “essence” of the political – merely feed this corrupt form of the social. What is the point of setting a purpose for an enlightened dimension of the political and the social spheres, when it’s becoming increasingly obvious, most particularly in the economic sphere, that these things are caught up with much stranger purposes, if not indeed with no purpose at all? There’s a kind of savage delusion and – not to put too fine a point on it – stupidity, in stubbornly pressing on in the right direction when there is no direction, in wishing to change the form of the equation when it’s equal to zero.
Just look at all the battles everywhere on corrupt fronts: in the electoral system, where people are led to fight for equivalent castes; in the employment field, where everyone has to fight to find a place in a system of exploitation, a relatively favoured spot in a labour market which simultaneously serves the government as a black-mailing technique. Everywhere we’re trapped in false problems, false alternatives, false issues, in which we lose out come what may.
Petit: So here we are, under democratic house arrest! All right. But what intrigues me is that your lack of political hope is accompanied by a thinking on violence in the style of Sorel, a thinking which is, to say the least, pessimistic. On this question, you’re quite close to Yves Michaud, though you don’t in fact come to the same conclusions.3 I can’t manage to dispel a certain ambiguity where your conception of violence is concerned. One can’t tell whether you see it as a rudimentary, archaic instrument of action, as Michaud does, or whether you maintain a certain fascination for it. Once again, you sometimes put me in mind of Cioran, a rightwing intellectual if ever there was one, who regarded democracy as a regime which prohibited anger and revolution. So, when you state that our society leaves no room for “real violence”, is this said with regret or satisfaction?
Baudrillard: It’s a diagnosis. Our society has expelled violence (at the same time as it has expelled evil, illness, negativity and death – I don’t mean it has eliminated them, but it has expelled them from its system of values). All forms of wildcat, spontaneous violence, historical and political, have been stifled or neutralized. Just as all forms of concrete freedom are being absorbed into the only freedom which remains, the freedom of the market and of market values, and the assumption of these into globalism, so all forms of violence are reduced and muzzled to the exclusive advantage of the terrorist and police-style violence of the new world order. The system has the monopoly of violence: a monopoly of the extermination of any singularity, any negativity, of death itself, and of real violence in the virtual violence of generalized pacification, fundamentalist [intégriste] violence (the only violence, that of the system, not that of terrorists, which remains small-scale and blind).
Against this, new forms of violence are arising; or, rather, new forms of anonymous, anomalous virulence – a reactive, reactional vehemence against the dominant thrust of society, against any dominant system – which is no longer a historical violence of liberation, but a violence from the confines of a sacrificed destiny, from the confines of a sacrificed symbolic order, from the confines of the perfect crime or, in other words, of total integration (the integrism of the system) and even of the democratic aspects of the system (enforced liberation, enforced interactivity in all its forms) – that is to say, the absence of destiny. This new violence is no longer directed against the absence of freedom and against oppression, but against the absence of destiny and the democratic leukaemia of all our cells.
Petit: An absence like that ,exhibited by H.B., the hostage-taker at the Neuilly
Infants’ school, in 1995. In a book which – sadly – passed unnoticed, Alain Brossat Wrote of him:
What the public will hot forgive the “monster” is his directly exhibiting … what is basically at stake in the crisis: not the economy, but living beings, not objects, but human relations, not car sales figures, but whether or not the life-world is fit to live in …4
Baudrillard: He’s right, because that violence on the part of H.B. or Florence Rey5 is no longer a political violence with a determinate objective (political violence has been absorbed and transformed into transpolitical energy for the benefit of the system). It’s a violence cut off from its object and turning back against that object itself – against the political and the social. It’s no longer anarchistic or revolutionary, it’s worse because its objective is no longer to set the system to rights or to transform the world by violently and historically. bringing something new into being; it takes the system itself as its object, aiming at systematic destabilization. It’s not interested in the system’s internal contradictions; it targets the very principle of the social and the political. It spontaneously takes a viral, temperamental form. It’s an esoteric form which is its own justification, an exclusive violence which is merely the correlative of a system of exclusion. It answers the systematic exclusion our society practices by even more exclusion, cutting itself off from the social world by indifference or hatred. For it may be aggravated or apathetic: it may take the form of an active terrorism or that of the inertia and irrepressible conformism of the masses.
No longer having ,either object or objective, it willfully (like all forms of virus arid virulence) confuses the murderer and the victim, in an immense Stockholm syndrome, precisely reflecting in this the system itself and its “perfect crime” – that is to say, its current ideal operation in which we are all simultaneously victims, murderers and accomplices (this is the truth of consensus, interactivity, and everything cycling back on itself). Taking a lofty, otherworldly view of the whole process – the process of the system and that of the violence which opposes it while reflecting its characteristic features (exclusion, autarky, anomaly, virulence) – one might conclude that it’s an immense suicidal process, suicide being the perfect crime, inasmuch as in that act murderer and victim are one.
In the history of humanity, then, the various lethal forms of violence are coming increasingly to resemble one another, as the terms are mingled and the roles merged (a confusion opened up irreversibly by the nuclear and by all the forms of complicity in pollution and death) to the point of wiping out, in the logical functioning of the system, any demarcation line between accomplice and victim (as any demarcation line between subject and object is being wiped out in philosophy and the sciences), and giving the image of a collective suicide, in which the attribution of responsibility becomes entirely secondary.
Petit: But the threshold you speak of at which we break with this can, it seems, have only a clandestine existence. How are we to go on living in your world, our world, without being compromised?
Baudrillard: The only exception is singularity. Singularity is the singularity of that anomalous violence I’m referring to, the singularity which stands opposed to real violence, to the violence of any reality principle. For the basic violence, the basic deception, is the violence of the reality principle. Now, the system produces more and more reality, more and more of the social, more and more politics, more and more sex, more and more information, etc. That is its own peculiar violence. But at the same time, and in the same process, it paradoxically produces more and more singularity (of beings, of unidentified, refractory, excluded forces, which have no need of it to exist and are definitively exiled from the system). The example of the social sphere is fantastic. One day soon, that sphere will be fully realized, and the only people remaining will be the “excluded”. In a perfectly conformist sociality, only anomalous individuals and desocialized categories will be left, and they won’t even have any relationship, dialectical or otherwise, with the social institutions. This is what’s happening today at an increasingly rapid rate.
As the social sphere is completed, with the discourse on “the social” playing its part, it expels everyone from the game (the homeless, the unemployed, vagrants, etc., and all the desocialized categories one after the other). In the end, the only people left in die social sphere will be sociologists and social workers, all those for whom the “social” their stock in trade, and they will be left grappling with their object, which, though fully realized; has now become virtual. Retrospectively, it will be seen that the social sphere was only ever invented as a place to park the have-nots, and that today they’re even being gradually expelled from there, like the Indians being driven off their reservations, thus allowing the better-off classes to occupy the social sphere as a second home. A strange contradictory movement, this, in which there’s a growing mismatch between an idealistic, voluntaristic, expert discourse, in which everything’s getting better and better by pressing on regardless with imaginary solutions, and the real (if I dare use the term) state of affairs, in which everything’s getting inexorably worse. The most disturbing thing is that the two are developing contradictorily and in, parallel, with the same irresistible dynamism.
Flourishing social provision and galloping exclusion. Educational progress and mental, retardation. Perhaps there isn’t even a contradiction or distortion here, merely a twist in the, same phenomena? This distortion can be seen everywhere: one day the construction of Europe will finally be completed, and there will really be no countries left to be part of it; it will in fact be constructed by successive exclusions and extraditions. It might even be the case, in the end, that when globalism has fully taken shape, and the cycle of information is perfectly integrated, there won’t be anyone left on the networks any more. This is the perfect rule – the one where there are only exceptions. The perfect crime: the one in which there are only victims and accomplices, but no murderers (our present condition). The perfect social sphere: the one in which everyone is among “the excluded”. Perfect communication (the ecstasy of communication): when no one speaks to anyone any more.
Petit: Would you accept the idea that, for want of any real physical violence, there is in you an interpretative violence?
Baudrillard: Yes, there’s a violence of interpretation, and it’s positive: it’s the very singularity of the analysis. One has to do violence to the facts and the evidence. Systematically to venture the opposite hypothesis to the one accredited by governments and the media, or even by enlightened criticism. For critical thought is extremely fragile in the face of this state of affairs. In any case, it’s reality that has to be held in check. The real is what one must not consent to. That reality imposes itself as a principle. Now, the world as it is is not a principle, and has no principle. It simply comes to us, and we come to it. Reality, for its part, has a basis, causes and effects, a rationality – that, indeed, is what makes it a coherent illusion. You can even reproduce it experimentally, if need be. This is what is being undertaken on a grand scale in the name of virtuality, of virtual reality. For the principle of virtuality is a logical extension of the reality principle.
But there can be no question of being parked in that reality, or of taking the real for the real. No question of giving it a status of legitimacy or legality. Or, rather, let’s leave it its legal status and go over into illegality. Let’s never forget that the real is merely a simulation, a model for regulating and ordering the radical becoming, the radical illusion, of the world and its appearances; for reducing any internal singularity – of events, beings or things – to the common denominator of reality. And if analysis can serve some purpose, it’s to resurrect this internal singularity, to put back into play all that has been modeled and remodeled by the reality of the facts. It can serve to recover that “idiotie transcendantale” Clement Rosset speaks of, the fateful singularity of the real, instead of this banal idiosyncretism we’re locked into.
Petit: In The Perfect Crime6 you keep on saying that technology can’t have any good final purpose, and you stress that there can be no question of reducing the
Radical illusoriness of the world. At the same time, you say that there’s a ruse of the world just as there’s a ruse of history, and that rationality and perfection in. general might be said merely to be carrying out its irrational decree. You both denounce the trend towards identification we were speaking of earlier and, at the same time, you wish to save not something of this world, but something of the radical illusion of the world. I’d like to go into this further. I can see that it involves a kind of irony, a sort of roundabout approach, a way of not giving in to the crime of reality, to the disappearance of the world as such as a result of its being identified, highly defined; but, since you employ the expression “the ruse of the world”, how do you live this out, experience it?
Baudrillard: I think that ruse, irony, illusion, denial, reversibility, duplicity and radicality aren’t simply passions or attributes of the subject or of consciousness. I think these qualities have passed into things; they are to some extent object passions, arid the world plays with us as much as we play with it. It even has the advantage of playing a double game no doubt, since the objective irony of a world without desire is far superior to our desire and our subjective irony. This is not about alienation or some metaphysical fatality, but a game and a duel. The point is not to set a recriminative thinking (which alienation based thinking always is) against the world’s ‘criminal’ indifference towards us. There are two ways of viewing our condition or our destiny. We can either experience the world, including our modern world of technologies and images (for everything I’m saying about the world here relates not to the world as a mental and philosophical abstraction, but to our current world of events), in terms of alienation, of expropriation, of loss of determination and as a negative fatality, including the fatality of history as a failed adventure – that is the conventional critical analysis. Or we can take the view that there is a double game going on: on the one hand, we play at mastering the world through our technologies (and over a much longer period through language, the intellect and many other things), but on the other hand we might, without knowing it, be partners in another game (though I don’t know what the stakes in that game might be). At any rate, we would not be in control of it . There is something like a secret reversion, a showing-through of the illusion of the world in the very techniques we use to transform it, which take on an ironic connotation as a result. The irony of technology: its alleged reality, its palpably high-level performance, much too dazzling to be true, might be said to be the veil of a duplicity that eludes us, a duplicity we might ourselves involuntarily be acting out. Our very language, our essential and most primitive technology, is the place where the definitive ambivalence of the world rebounds on us. So, in all technologies and images, and also in appearances, we don’t know whether the object or the world isn’t just toying with us. Just as, with thought, we don’t know if we’re thinking the world or if the world is thinking us. That is the secret of the illusion.
Petit: Couldn’t it be said that you’re a weaver of illusions?
Baudrillard: Yes, if illusion is understood, not as simulacrum or unreality, but as something which drives a breach into a world that is too known, too deja-vu, too conventional, too real. The singular, original illusion, the illusion born of the slip, the breakdown, the disruption, the tiniest gap in things. The illusion that colludes with the void, and with the dizzying effect of teetering on the brink remaining sensitive to initial conditions, to effects of turbulence; but also keeping a sensitivity to final conditions, a hypersensitivity to final conditions – that is to say, to predestination and the “fatal”, the only way of preserving a passion for the event – for the object and for the event as destiny, not as objective fact.
Petit: Doesn’t this recovering or teasing-out of appearances and forms go together in you with a desire to disappear? You say: “There’s no point dying, you have to learn how to disappear”. Taking the precise example of information and news, you condemn information because you believe it is total, and leads nowhere except to consensus. Can’t one learn to use information?
Baudrillard: I don’t look for the good or bad use of information. I try to see how that sphere of information condemns itself, contradicts its own principles, destroys itself by a fateful mechanism. It destroys the event, then it destroys itself as event. It’s an immense zero-sum circuit.
Petit: I come back to news and information. I was watching a documentary on the history of Rwanda yesterday in the “Mercredis de l’histoire” slot.7 We know that over the last ten years there have been more and more documentaries on geopolitical matters, and that these have made for a revival of something like a genuine debate on current conflicts. Thanks to these approaches, the force field that a map represents is relatively, more accessible to us than it was not so long ago. In seeking to reconfirm the fateful mechanism of information and the news system, don’t you leave the reader without any possibility of understanding what’s going on in the world a bit better?
Baudrillard: What’s going on in the world today is, sadly, globalized, and the principle of the globalization of information runs against the universal principle of solidarity. It does so because information exhausts itself within itself, and absorbs its own ends. Television says nothing but I’m an image, everything’s image. The Internet and computers say nothing but: I’m information, everything is information. It’s the sign making itself sign, the medium doing its own advertising. The message is immaterial [indifférent]: this is the zero degree, the pure form of communication. All this assumes current political significance, for it is on the basis message, content, meaning and value that the universal is built. Globalization is built on the basis of the supremacy of the medium and the neutralization of the message. “La pensée unique”8 is “media” –thinking: the market, the Internet, the information superhighways – uninterrupted circulation. Global integration is achieved on the basis of nullity, of the lowest definition of the message (of meaning, of ideas, of ideology). It’s the medium which says least, signifies least; it’s the medium which is coextensive with insignificance, with the banality of the operational world. Thus, the media and information broke the “neither true nor false” barrier long ago, since everything in them depends on instant credibility, with passage into the media itself cancelling the index of reference and truth. This lack of discrimination between the true and the false moves out from there to invade all registers: the aesthetic register of the artwork, the historical register of objectivity, of memory, the political register of opinion, and even the scientific register of proof (the undecidability of an experiment like Jacques Benveniste’s on the memory of water).9
If there’s no longer either true or false, lying becomes impossible and, with it, all the artifices of perversion and seduction. We are – like it or not – in the position of agnostics, where it’s not a question of believing or not believing, since everything is in the making-believe, and is wholly consumed in this credibility effect. Opinion polls and advertising are neither true nor false, just as fashion is neither beautiful nor ugly. Truth-effects, beauty-effects, etc., have slipped their moorings and become statistical, random.
In fractal space (but equally today in historical space), things are no longer one-, two- or three-dimensional; they float in an interstitial dimension. You launch a news item. So long as it has not been denied, it is plausible. Barring accidents, it will never be denied in real time. Even if it is denied later, it will never again be absolutely false, since it has once enjoyed credibility. Unlike truth, credibility cannot be refuted, since it is virtual. We are in a kind of fractal truth: just as a fractal
object no longer has one or two dimensions, but 1·2 or 2·3 dimensions, so an event is no longer true or false, but oscillates between 1·2 and 2·3 octaves of truth. The space between the true and the false is no longer a relational space, but a space of random distribution.
Petit: Where is this fractal truth leading us?
Baudrillard: This shift of dimensions leads to a shift in responsibility. Responsibility is not dead: it has become viral. Truth is not dead: it has become viral and elusive – disease itself has become viral. Even sexuality, which floats today in a strange interstitial dimension that is neither masculine nor feminine, but somewhere between the two: 1·2-1·7. There’s no sexual definition any longer; hence no longer, strictly speaking, any sexual difference. The uncertainty principle is at the very heart of sexual life, as it is at the heart of all value systems.
Free now of their polar opposites, everyone can ratchet up their own powers and multiply their effects. The true becomes truer than true. The false becomes falser than false. Even the neither-true-nor-false – the zero degree, insignificance – can be raised to the higher power in a kind of Dutch auction of nullity, a sort of raising of banality to the power x, as can be verified every day in art, political discourse, the exacerbation of kitsch and nonsense, the logical non-differentiation between opposing value-terms being reflected in our own indifference, our emotional, psychological, political indifference – an indifference intensified by being caught up in its own game, culminating in a kind of fever of indifference – an indifference that has become a kind of collective virus, a kind of fanatical behaviour which can lead to violent effects such as are usually the effects of passion, so true is it that insignificance can become aggravated, that the nothing can get carried away with itself and that things can intensity in the void; this might even be said to be what drives our banality.
Information, for example, is truer than true, it’s true in real time; that’s why it is fundamentally uncertain. In that uncertainty, which is the product of an excess of positivity, the only vital reaction is rejection. As a result of the excess of information, the excess of moralizing, the excess of rationalization of the world, only evil is certain; good is never certain. Only the false is certain; the true is never certain. In the ambiguity of values, it’s always the false that wins out. It’s our only recourse against undecidability, against the disappearance of truth-criteria. When, for example, criteria of aesthetic distinction disappear (as in the appreciation of current art), everything shifts on to the question of authenticity or falsehood. Authenticity, the signature of a work, wins out over its value; everything becomes centred on the expert appraisal and, naturally, this superstitious pursuit of authenticity becomes the basis of market value, the basis of an unlimited speculation. The laws of the market totter at the same time as the criteria of aesthetic value. When we speak of authenticity, the false has virtually won out. When we speak of morality (of the “truth” of products, etc.), immorality has virtually won out. When we speak of human rights, etc….
Petit: Destabilization doesn’t necessarily mean renunciation. The denunciation of the belief in the possibility of a “final solution” of all human problems has – as P-A Taguieff suggests in Les Fins de l’anti-racisme – also been a constant of our political culture since Herzen.
Baudrillard: This infiltration, this contamination of all values, is universal. Even in the historical field, objectivity can be contaminated by a kind of virus which today makes it possible to express doubt over the reality of the gas chambers. Even when it is violently denied, this doubt impacts upon minds, which is something previously unthinkable. Computer viruses prefigure a virtual destabilization of all information, just as other viruses prefigure a destabilization of sexual life. The destabilization of political life: in the absence of criteria of choice and opinion, imaginations (or, rather, the probability screens which stand in for political imagination) are captivated by opinion poll figures. Economic destabilization: the unreal economy of speculation overlays and debases real economies by substituting for them an exacerbated simulation – the simulation of capital flows. Here again, this virtual economy is neither true nor false; there is nothing to set against it. It is by denial of its own rules, its own purposes, that it becomes invulnerable, dissuasive of the real economy, and perfectly autonomous. But it isn’t invulnerable to the viruses it engenders as a consequence of its very autarky, its “trans-economic” immunity: it is becoming autoimmune and, consequently, prey to a different pathology.
One makes every effort to protect oneself from this triumph of undecidability, which ushers in the transparence of falsehood, just as the permeability of good and evil ushers in the transparence of evil by resuscitating by all available means the paradigm of the authenticity of the fact, the evidence, the origin, the reference. If what is at stake in thought disappears, it becomes crucial to fall back upon objectivity, upon a paternity suit. Hence the compulsive pursuit of veracity, verification, documentation, clarification and objective rehabilitation which grips every field, quite dearly as a result of thought’s weakness in confronting that undecidability in any other way than through a history. Sadly, even history plays us false, even history today is party to the uncertainty. Uncertainty brings with it a mad race, a pursuit-race, between means of detection and means of falsification, between viruses and protective measures (in art, in credit cards, in computing, in the protection of ideas, but also in sex, where we are all now liable to AIDS testing – an expansion of the general test of authenticity). This is our new original sin, which is exactly the opposite of the other, the knowledge of good and evil. That was, ultimately, a blessing from heaven which made us human. The curse which is upon us lies in the impossibility of distinguishing between good and evil, true and false. Adam and Eve had fallen into the moral anxiety of distinction; we have fallen into the immoral panic of indistinction, of the confusion of all criteria. Of the contamination of good by evil, and vice versa. And the virus is the symptom of this. Our entry into the age of the virus through our inability to distinguish between values is equivalent to the expulsion of our ancestors from the earthly paradise for the opposite reason of knowledge of good and evil.
And, given that loss of immunity, all the lethal infections are lying in wait for us, all the sins from the primal scene are resurfacing, all the viruses dormant in our cells are reawakened as the crisis takes hold! Our impotence in the face of the dispersion of values, their fractal dissemination, is much worse than the ancient moral responsibility which weighed on our consciences.
1 – The reference is to the investigation of the dealings of Jean Tiberi, the Gaullist mayor of Paris, and particularly to the circumstances in which his son acquired the tenancy of a flat in the rue Censier. On the details of this “affair” and its apparent judicial “burying” when Jacques Toubon became Garde des Sceauz, see Libération of 20 June 1996, first edition (headline “Abracadabra, l’affaire Tiberi n’est plus là”).
2 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society. London: SAGE, 1998.
3 – Yves Michaud. La violence apprivoisée. Paris: Hachette, 1996.
4 – Alain Brossat. Fêtes sauvages de la démocratie. Paris: Austral, 1996.
5 – Florence Rey was the young woman who, having until that point been a quiet and unremarkable student suddenly – and, it seemed, quite inexplicably – embarked on a murderous jaunt across Paris.
6 – New York: Verso, 1996.
7 – A weekly political documentary on the Franco-German television station Arte.
8 – Single track thinking.
9 – Translator’s note: For Baudrillard’s references to Benveniste and the “memory of water” affair see The Illusion of the End, Cambridge: Polity, 1994:30-31.
Editor’s note: The memory of water affair is also discussed in Cool Memories II. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996:12; Cool Memories III. New York: Verso, 1997:94 and 137; and Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:42.