Volume 1, Number 1 (January 2004)
Author: Dr. Rex Butler
Review of: Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1990.1
What is true is what is bound to take place –Hölderlin.
Cool Memories is a book written, as Baudrillard says, at the end of things, after a decisive period in his life. It is possible, he speculates, that he has already come across the most beautiful place he will ever see, that he has already met the woman whose loss will wound him most, that he has already written the one or two books for which he will most be remembered. It is, as he tells himself, “the first day of the rest of your life.”2
Cool Memories is an exploration of this “supplementary existence”, separated from the one before by a “moment of lightness, of emptiness, astonishment and relief.”3 It is about growing old as the “ever lengthening spiral which separates you from the physical and intellectual openness of your youth”, when eventually “the spiral becomes so long that all chance of return is lost”4 — the irreversibility of aging and the inevitable weakening of the mental faculties that goes with it. And, more generally, Cool Memories meditates upon the end of things in the world: the end of meaning, of history, of socialism, of critical negativity. Cool Memories wants both to reflect and to reflect upon the widespread sense of entropy at the end of the century, the feeling that things are running down, this weak and pathetic period of post-modernism as opposed to the energy and transgression of modernism.
One of the implications of Baudrillard’s argument, however — and perhaps one of the reasons behind his choice of the disconnected and aphoristic journal form, matrix of a “secret underlying event”5 — is that we have lost even the idea of our own end. As opposed to our modernist predecessors, who had a “lucid presentiment of [their own] end,”6 we seem unable to grasp the extent of the predicament we find ourselves in. One of the things coming to an end in our era, in other words, is the very idea of the end itself. But this for Baudrillard is the proof of our end. It is just this that he means by the end of history, for example: the collapse of that linear, rational, progressive vision of the world according to which such an end could be represented. The end of history would coincide precisely with the fact that there is no end to history, that more and more history is being produced all the time.
This is the point Baudrillard makes with regard to nuclear war: just as if a real nuclear war had taken place, we are henceforth unable to imagine it. We have lost our sense of the future, all prospective events having been projected back into the past, including the possibility of nuclear war itself. The catastrophe will never happen, but only because it already has: the incessant conjuring up of the imminence of our annihilation, the deterrence of reality by its simulation and playing out in advance, ensures both that the bomb will never drop (or that we could never distinguish it from all those others which have preceded it in our imagination) and that there is no need for it to drop, all the effects of that final cataclysm having already occurred. Deterrence is simply the slow release of the bomb’s original violence in homeopathic doses. The fact that we will not die by it testifies merely to the fact that we are already dead. As before, it is the fact that the bomb will not fall (or that we will not realise it) that allows Baudrillard to argue that it already has; its very idea or assumption is enough, whether it is actually used or not is, strictly speaking, immaterial:
There is no bomb which hasn’t already exploded before being technologically invented: the real is always ahead of technology and war … Everything is already nuclearised, enucleated, vaporised. The explosion has already happened, the bomb is only a metaphor. What more do you want: everything is already wiped off the map. It’s no good dreaming: the confrontation has already happened, quietly, everywhere.7
Or, as Baudrillard later puts it in the context of a review of the television docu-drama The Day After, which purportedly chronicles the after-effects of an atomic war:
Mentally for us, all this has already happened a thousand times, and the catastrophe is nothing now but a kind of cartoon strip. To project it crudely into a film is merely a diversion from the nuclearisation of daily life — or rather: the film itself is our catastrophe. It does not represent it, it does not make us dream of it, but says: the catastrophe is already there, it is already with us, since it is impossible to imagine it.8
It is in this sense that Baudrillard can say the end is like Kafka’s Messiah: “too late, always too late.”9 But too late, paradoxically, because too early; the end will never come, but only because it has already taken place, and with it any chance of us realising it. Because it has already come, it will not come (again).
Is this not a very strange logic, however, to say that the apocalypse both has come and will not come, that it has come because it will not come and will not come because it has? There is a kind of pure doubling of the world by the hypothesis of its end here: nothing has changed, history continues as usual; but this only for a completely hidden and unsuspected reason: the end of history. Baudrillard is not arguing for a simple end to history — history will not end, the bomb will not fall — but this only because it already has ended, and ended perhaps from the very beginning (for, if history is over, we can no longer tell when this end occurred). The end of history might not occur just at the end of history, but in fact produce history as its very effect.
All this might explain why so much of Cool Memories is devoted to the proposition that our lives are made up of two different times that co-exist with each other: the first, an actual linear time in which the past passes over into the present, cause leads to effect; and the second, a virtual, fugitive time in which it is the future which determines the present, effects which lead to and allow the attribution of causes:
All life has two trajectories: the one linear and irreversible, the trajectory of ageing and dying, the other elliptical and reversible, a cycle of the same forms in a sequence which knows neither childhood, death nor the unconscious, and which leaves nothing behind. This sequence is constantly intersecting with the other, and occasionally erasing all traces of it at a stroke.10
And hence also Baudrillard’s emphasis throughout Cool Memories on the twin themes of reversibility and irreversibility, the way his work must be understood as the posing of the question of that reversibility to be found within otherwise irreversible processes (time, history, sense, meaning); that point beyond which they begin to turn upon themselves, producing the opposite effects to those intended; that reversibility indeed which makes their irreversibility possible.11
It is for this reason that Baudrillard can describe his theory as a kind of science-fiction or pataphysics, for just as in the science-fiction time-travel story he must insist on the possibility of a reversible time in which future events can affect those in the present — on a kind of predestination.12 Theory is a destiny because, when Baudrillard pushes a system to its limit, he is not describing it as it is but as it will be; he maximises it.13 When he says that history is not over because it is over, he takes two general tendencies — that more and more history seems to be being produced and that history is losing its raison d’être — and drives them to their extreme. Instead of two similar alternatives that one can choose between, we have two imperatives that are at once the same and different.14 History is not over because it is over is a maximising hypothesis.
This is why Baudrillard can bemoan the realist reduction of his theory to a literal account of the way the world is, for it fails to realise that it is also meant to be a challenge to the real, to the concept of reality, to its own reality.15 Theory does not simply follow events and describe them, but rather tries to predict events and force them. More subtly, however, it does not foretell events as though they were already out there and it merely needed to transcribe them, for that future of which it speaks would not exist before it. It intervenes in what it describes, or it prescribes rather than describes. It is in this sense that Baudrillard distinguishes his work from philosophy, which for him is always the history of philosophy (Hegel). Whereas in philosophy it is always a matter of new positions arising out of old, dialectically, in theory ideas are simply invented, assumed; it is the idea which comes first and the history or world that would justify or explain it which comes afterwards. Theory does not imitate events, but is an event itself:
Theory does not derive its legitimacy from established facts, but from future events. Its value is not in the past events it can illuminate, but in the shockwave of the events it prefigures. It does not act upon consciousness, but directly on the course of things from which it draws its energy. It therefore has to be distinguished from the academic practice of philosophy and from all that is written with an eye to the history of ideas.16
What, then, is the status of the idea that history is over because it is not over, and how are we to think it? This is the fundamental problem Cool Memories sets itself: the end of the world and how to describe it. Baudrillard speaks of a point beyond which history is no longer real, after which history is possible (and history is possible, more and more history is being produced all the time) only because it no longer exists. On the one hand, this must be understood historically: this event arises at a certain moment in history and can be explained for certain historical reasons. Baudrillard offers an account of this situation, which actually exists. But, on the other hand, none of this is true at all. With the surpassing of history, it makes no sense to speak of a particular point beyond which history is no longer real: this point can no longer be located, and the attempt to do so would be a symptom of the very condition — over-historicisation — Baudrillard is trying to diagnose. For this reason too, it would not be a matter of explaining this situation, offering some series of causes and effects which led up to it. It simply has to be assumed. And here we come to what is essentially at stake in Baudrillard’s “analysis”: like the event it seeks to capture, it wants to owe nothing to what came before it. Just as the end of the world is an event which seems to arise out of nothing, which nothing could have predicted, so Baudrillard’s analysis wants to be something completely original, purely inventive, to create something out of nothing. To say history is not over because it is over is to change completely the way we see everything; it is not a statement that works through consideration of the facts, that measures and balances conflicting opinions before deciding upon its own point of view somewhere between them. It simply is, and forces the facts to follow it. The paradox here would be that, in imitating nothing, in referring to no previous state of affairs, Baudrillard would best imitate that end of history which seems to have no explanation, which arises as a totally singular event (perhaps the only one), after which nothing will be the same.
History is not over because it is over: it is not fundamentally a question of conviction or persuasion, an attempt to win the reader over by means of argument, a certain organisation of evidence, unwinding in time. Rather, it is a statement that changes everything at once, that requires neither thought nor reasoning, but compels us to follow it like a secret destiny — secret because, if it is always being confirmed, if even to argue against it is only to assent to it all the more, we also cannot say exactly what it is proposing: there is no proof for it, no embodiment or image we can give it. We touch here on the distinction, crucial to Baudrillard, between words and things; on the power of words, by themselves, to change reality. Baudrillard loves those uses of language which seem to deny logic or common sense, which cannot properly be imagined or metaphorised. He calls them witticisms or traits d’esprit, and it is just their literal (imageless, unimaginable) quality he emphasises.17 Language, precisely because it has broken free of the hold of the real, can affect it, re-organise it, allow us to see it in a completely different way. Words, in following only their own order, in referring only to themselves and their own rules, are the best way we have for grasping this world, which similarly seems to obey only its own rules, to consist in the exponentialisation of its own secret order.18 The miracle of writing is that — in a word, a phrase, a sentence — it is able to “catch” a real that can no longer be imitated; by driving his logic to extremes, to the point where he becomes blind, led by his own words, the writer is able to touch a world that itself outpaces all thought. It is only when language begins to pass beyond things that it once more discovers things, that it is once more able to speak about things.
But we perhaps go too far when we say this. Baudrillard’s work cannot be purely prescriptive without falling into the very trap it is analysing. As we have tried to make clear, Baudrillard works through systems: he does not propose alternatives to them, but argues against them within their own terms. He does this because, according to his own analysis, the system works by recuperating its others: to propose a simple alternative to the system is only to prove it all the more. But this is an assumption that Baudrillard makes: it is possible that the system was not like this before he came to it, that there were in fact alternatives to it. It is not an assumption Baudrillard can think, however, because after him the system is like this; it has reached that maximised state where all alternatives are only possible because of it. But it is a contingency that haunts his work: that he goes too far in his analysis, that there is no need for that maximising hypothesis that history is only possible because of the end of history because history has not and will not reach that state where all arguments against it can only be pitched in its terms. It is possible, that is, that far from being the solution, the maximalising hypothesis constitutes the very problem it seeks to overcome. And we might put this another way: if the system of history has in fact reached that totalising state Baudrillard believes it has, it is always possible that, no matter what he says about it, it is only ever a function of this system, that that subtle play of the witticism or trait d’esprit merely repeats the logic of a system already in place. In other words, it is always possible that Baudrillard does not go far enough, that instead of putting up a real “other” to the system, he is finally only proposing a simple alternative to it, just that kind of opposition which serves to prove it all the more.
It is impossible, then, to assert the final priority of Baudrillard’s maximising hypothesis over the system it maximises. That end of history Baudrillard speaks of as making history possible is not the definitive explanation of history, coming before it and making it possible. For it is always conceivable that this goes both too far in saying that it is only open to us to argue against the system in its own terms when this is not true until after this hypothesis and not far enough in that it is only an effect of this already maximised system. But, if it is finally impossible to assert the priority of the maximising hypothesis over the system, it is also impossible to assert the priority of the system over this hypothesis. The brilliance of Baudrillard’s invention is that, if it is true that the end of history is only possible because of history, it is henceforth also thinkable that history — and even the fact that the end of history only comes about because of history— is only possible because of the end of history. He makes it undecidable whether it is history or the end of history which comes first. And in this manner he is able to expose the pure preference of our system of rationality for history over the end of history: the way it asserts that it is history which leads to or explains the end of history when it is always possible it is the other way around. Against the double-bind of the system of history (history is always seen through its other, but this other is finally only possible because of history), Baudrillard proposes an equal and opposite double-bind (history will not end, there is more and more history, but this only because history is over).
All this is to say that the maximising hypothesis is not merely prescriptive, does not simply assert its priority over what it maximises. On the contrary, it is about the limits to these systems which appear to be self-explanatory, to have no other, to be preceded by nothing. It is able to show that we can always reverse such systems, always see something prior to them that allows their all-inclusiveness, their ability to account for everything. If we have to follow the logic of these systems in order to contest them — offer ourselves a hypothesis that appears to be irrefutable, to allow no alternative — what is also opened up is the possibility that this hypothesis itself can be doubled, that there is always a certain something (nothing) excluded to allow its self-definition. The maximising hypothesis, that is to say, unleashes an absolute principle of uncertainty; and, if this uncertainty applies first of all to the hypothesis itself, it also goes for the system it doubles. Uncertainty is not bad for the maximising hypothesis, insofar as it does not seek to assert its priority over the system; but it is disasterous for the system, insofar as it must assert its priority over the maximising hypothesis.
We might say, then, that there is always a certain economy in Baudrillard’s writing. On the one hand, there is that tendency towards the maximalist hypothesis as pure prescription, pure annunciation. These statements offer a total explanation of the way things are, which is entirely original and imitates nothing. Like the joke or wit in general, they operate not through reason or persuasion, but take effect all at once, compel either immediate assent or denial. It is therefore an imageless thought, because it is not told about objects and is not even contained within the words that express it, except insofar as they testify to a higher rule (as a pun holds within it two simultaneous and opposed meanings). On the other hand, however, there always remains a certain necessity for description and enunciation, a place and time in which Baudrillard’s discourse can take place, some particular object or words which embody it. If we say that it is only by becoming incomparable that writing is able to describe a world that is also incomparable, we must also say that writing could only become like this by imitating a world which already exists (which for its part could not be known as such before its imitation by writing). If it is their mutual incomparability that allows the world and its writing to be compared, it is also their comparison that allows their mutual incomparability.
We see all this when we go back to the statement that history will not end because it has already ended. The point Baudrillard is making here is that the end comes about because we cannot think this end. There can be no reflecting upon this moment when history ends because precisely one of the effects of this loss is that we are no longer conscious of it. And yet, of course, Baudrillard can think this. For the end to be possible — even that end where there is no end — there must always be some moment after it, from which it can be thought. This is the irony of Cool Memories, why that end of which it speaks will never come about, why that first day of the rest of your life will always be tomorrow or the day after.19 It cannot assert a simple finality — even that finality of the end of finality — coming at the end of things, for the very possibility of enunciating this would always defer it. The end — even that end of the impossibility of the end — cannot operate as the definitive explanation of the system, as though it came unambiguously before it or after it. Insofar as it is either one of these, it would only be possible because of the system, could only lead to a further extension of the system. Rather, it is the very simultaneity of the end and its impossibility that Baudrillard speaks about, perhaps reflecting the very logic of time itself (for to speak of history is always to speak of time): it is impossible to pass from one moment to the next, we can never reach the end, but this only because we have already passed from one moment to the next, because each moment is the end (that infinite power of divisibility Zeno initiates, proving motion impossible, is possible only after the object has reached its target; he is able to prove the impossibility of the object getting from A to B only by assuming that it is already at B).
All this, undoubtedly, is a very different context in which to see Baudrillard. We do not seek to understand his work within that tradition of social critique along the lines of Adorno, Benjamin, Lukacs and Marcuse, but rather as an exploration of this doubling logic of maximalism. If it always operates within a certain economy of writing, a necessary time and place of enunciation, we also want to emphasise how Baudrillard breaks with this. In any argument, it is always possible to establish a position that cannot be argued against, which all conflicting opinions serve merely to confirm. Against this, we need to be able to invent a hypothesis that can double our opponent: not to refute tem (there is no refuting them) but to demonstrate that all they are saying is possible only for another, entirely unexpected, reason. We do not so much argue against them as oppose one irrefutable hypothesis against another. We do not dispute their interpretation of the existing evidence or adduce additional evidence, but at once interpret the existing evidence in an absolutely irreconcilable fashion and open up an absolutely new field of facts. And Baudrillard’s work both uses this maximalist strategy and is about this maximalist strategy.
This is perhaps the real story of the “advance” of knowledge. It proceeds neither by the slow, gradual accumulation of evidence nor by simple discontinuities. Rather, it moves by a series of hypotheses that at once complete the logic of the system before, are a perfect description of it, and go beyond it, show that it arises only as an effect of a wider problematic. The great systems of thought never refute those that come before, never actually prove them wrong. This is because they are unable to, because no great system of thought can ever be discussed in any but its own terms. What each successive thinker must do is somehow double that previous system of thought, show that it is what it is for reasons that completely go beyond it. They consider the previous system only in its own terms, and say that it is necessarily so, but reveal that this necessity comes about only for reasons that completely go against the system’s proclaimed intentions. The genius of Baudrillard (and of all great thinkers) is that he is able to invent these doubling hypotheses about systems which appear to have nothing left to say about them. Each system of thought is always the last possible system, a total explanation of the world, in a sense the end of thought; but each is also the doubling of a previous system that was like this; each system speaks of what was excluded from the one before to give it that all-inclusive explanatory power — and, in speaking of this, in hoping itself to become all-encompassing, it makes it possible for another to speak of what it excludes, for another to double it.
The idea that this is so, that this is the way thought develops, has arisen perhaps since Hegel, as the result of a thought that wants to see itself as coming after Hegel. It is a thought that attempts to work outside of the dialectic, outside of that dialectical double-bind which says that, if the system is only possible because of its other, this other is finally only possible because of the system. Hegel’s phenomenology was a system that was able to remake everything in its image, that was able to see the history of the world in terms of the dialectical model it proposed. It was one of the first systems consciously to put forward the idea that it offered an explanation for everything, that it was the last possible thought of the world. The problem for a thought coming after Hegel, therefore, would be how to argue against a system in which otherness is its very project, is only possible because of the system or leads to a further development of the system. The solution was the invention of a criticism that worked by maximalisation: not the refuting of Hegel, but the posing of the question of what was excluded by him to allow his omniscience, what the limits were to a system which had no limits. It saw in Hegel the first thinker who actually worked by doubling (the dialectic was understood as a kind of doubling), but who himself could be doubled. Or, better, Hegel is perhaps the last thinker of evidence, the dialectic, but in the efforts to overcome him he became, as he must, maximalist himself — and this is true of all thinkers maximalism takes up.
We would say that it was that group of thinkers called post-structuralist which first thought this question of maximalism (including the paradox that, after them, all thinkers are thinkers of maximalism). If there is anything in common to the various post-structuralist theorists, we would say that it is a concern with these doubling hypotheses, sign of their attempt to think beyond Hegel. We might think here of Derrida and his project of deconstructing presence when for him there is no otherwise to presence, when, to paraphrase him, there is only the experience of presence and the presence of experience. We might think of Lyotard and his attempt to speak against capital when for him capital has no limit, to institute a certain justice when there is no ultimate standard by which to judge. We might think of Deleuze and Foucault for whom there is no outside to power or reterritorialisation, for whom all obvious resistance or opposition to power simply returns to its circuits, leads to its further extension. We might think of Irigaray and her attempt to think the feminine when there is no outside to masculine logic, when all attempts to speak of woman’s desire would fall back into the masculine system of representation. In each, there is a certain maximalism: it is not a matter of proposing a simple alternative to the system they contest, but rather of pushing it to its limit. It is at this point, they speculate, that the system would turn against itself, that a certain outside to the system would open up. In each, there is a certain doubling hypothesis, which at once explains why the system they oppose is in place — and, indeed, why it is the only possible one — and why it is finally impossible (impossible because it is precisely staked on being all-inclusive, self-evident, and can only be guaranteed by a principle lying outside of it). That is to say, their work is at once a pure description and a pure prescription: there is différance, there is the sublime or the unpresentable, there is difference or resistance, there is woman.
And throughout Baudrillard there is this working not through simple alternatives, as though there is some otherwise to the system, but through that otherwise produced by thinking that there are no alternatives to the system (that otherwise which allows the system to become not otherwise, that otherwise which is the result of the system not being otherwise). In Forget Foucault, for example, as against Foucault’s own conjectural uncertainty, the provisional nature of his conclusions, Baudrillard says: no, Foucault is absolutely correct. His work is the final and definitive account of the concepts of sexuality and power. In In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, as against the intangibility of the social, the nebulousness of its concept (which Baudrillard himself acknowledges), Baudrillard says: no, there is always more and more social, there is only the social. In Seduction, as against the historical relativity of the position of woman, the way that the traditional imbalance between the sexes seems to be being redressed, Baudrillard says: no, there never has been and never will be any such thing as a feminine power, women will always be excluded from the social. In each case, Baudrillard maximises the system, makes whatever is implicit in it actual. But it is just at this point that a new principle is discovered, which is completely contrary to that first, that a limit is found to these systems which have no limit. Foucault is absolutely right with regard to the ubiquity of power and sexuality, but only because he is absolutely wrong, because power and sexuality are nowhere, nothing. There is more and more social, the social will never end, but this only because of the end of the social, because the social never existed. There is only a masculine principle, female desire can never be liberated or even represented, but this only because of a feminine principle; this would be the very principle of the feminine itself. It is precisely through thinking the not otherwise to these systems that a certain otherwise is produced or discovered to lie at their heart.
We can see two beautiful examples of this logic of maximalism in Cool Memories, both as a method and as a “problematic” within the history of thought. In the first, Baudrillard is speaking of stereo, a certain limit to stereo:
Where does the stereo effect begin, the point where the hi-fi becomes so uselessly sophisticated that the music is lost in the obsession for its fidelity? Where is the point where the social becomes so uselessly sophisticated that it itself goes into stereo and loses itself in the obsession for security? Today, the obsession with this technicity, this veracity, takes us away from music completely. It creates a false destiny for music as it creates a false destiny for the social — to see its fulfilment simply as a matter of perfect execution.20
Baudrillard is saying here that there exists a point in the development of stereo beyond which the increasing sophistication of reproduction, instead of improving the quality of the music, actually lessens it. But what could he mean by this? By any possible definition of musical quality, the standard is getting better. Baudrillard’s critics would be right in accusing him of a certain nostalgia: that quality he mourns as being lost to stereo never actually existed in the first place. But it is just this tautology, this self-definition — the fact that the only criterion of musical quality with regard to stereo is stereo itself— that Baudrillard is contesting here. It is not so much some actual quality he is arguing is lost — in that case, his critics would be right — but a kind of virtuality, excluded by every possible definition of it. It exists only within language, the power of language to speak of a point as real beyond any possible verification of it. It is language that is the limit to the real, that is able to propose a limit to systems that have no limit in the real and that are even the very definition of what is real (today, it is stereo which defines the reality, the fidelity, of music). It is language, which has no image, no way of being represented, that is at once the limit to all systems of representation and what ensures that everything can be represented.
Baudrillard in this example — and throughout all of his work — is playing on the paradox that when two things resemble each other too closely they no longer resemble each other at all. As the reproduction of music — stereo — draws nearer and nearer to the original, the relationship between them becomes increasingly tenuous: it becomes harder to say which is the original and which the copy, or, indeed, to see any connection between them at all. This is the limit to representation that Baudrillard is speaking of: the fact that something in the original will always resist reproduction or that the original and the copy can only resemble each other insofar as they are different. This rule is the basis of maximalism: it implies that there is always a limit to any system explaining the world, always a difference between any system and the world. But, if in one way this is a description of something real, as though we could actually hear the difference between the original and the copy when they come too close, in another way it is a pure prescription. In no sense could we ever hear this difference: it is just what in the original cannot be represented. And yet we speak of the difference between the original and the copy as though we could say how it is that the original is greater than the copy, how it is that something goes missing in its reproduction. This again is the divided logic of maximalist statements: on the one hand, they speak of the limits to systems that apparently have no limits, of what is excluded from stereo, for example, to ensure that only stereo is the definition of stereo. And yet, on the other hand — and here Baudrillard’s critics are right, there is a nostalgia in Baudrillard’s work, but it is a necessary nostalgia — they must repeat the same logic themselves, must claim to be able to speak of what is excluded by that other system, must attempt to become more all-inclusive than that system it criticises for attempting to become too all-inclusive. The paradox of maximalising hypotheses is that, in order to speak against all attempts to speak for the unrepresentable, they must themselves speak for this unrepresentable; they must attempt to represent the unrepresentable.
The second important example Baudrillard gives in Cool Memories concerns Walter Benjamin and his observation that there are, in fact, two types of fascism: fascism strictly speaking and anti-fascism. Every great thought is of the order of the lapsus. When Benjamin pronounces this terrifying sentence: ‘Fascism is made up of two things: fascism properly so-called and anti-fascism’, is not this thought sliding, letting itself slide beyond truth, into the fundamental ambiguity of discourse, an ambiguity far greater than any political or ideological explanation, and which alone explains why there has never been any plausible explanation of fascism, whilst anti-fascism is self-explanatory?
Whatever hypothesis you propose about it, fascism poses more problems than anti-fascism. From the very start, it is more interesting than — and itself encompasses — anti-fascism. This is what Benjamin’s statement is saying. And it should not be made to say what it is not saying. Though it surely will be.21
Benjamin (and after him Baudrillard) is speaking here of the possibility that anti-fascism, instead of effectively opposing fascism, actually makes it worse. It might be that fascism would not exist in its current lethality (and perhaps not at all) until after anti-fascism. This is the problem of maximalism we spoke of before: that the maximalist hypothesis, instead of responding to a situation that already exists, in fact creates it. Benjamin, that is to say, perhaps without knowing it, is taking up this question of maximalist doubling. It is fascism today which “englobes” anti-fascism. It is not that there is no anti-fascism — indeed, there is only anti-fascism — but this only because of fascism. Fascism might exist today only in the a contrario form of anti-fascism. It is “terrifying” to think this, as Baudrillard says. At first it seems like merely a clever play on words, an effect of language — but, as we have tried to make clear, language has the power to affect reality, and even to make it undecidable whether it is inventing what it speaks of or describing what already exists. The real issue here, however, as Baudrillard acknowledges, is that at least since Benjamin thought has been grappling with the question of maximalism, those undemonstrable yet irrefutable hypotheses like fascism which double the world. The difficulty of fighting fascism, in this sense, is precisely that we have to assume it in order to speak against it, that we have to become in a way more fascist than fascism itself. If fascism doubles the world, offers a total explanation for everything, including anti-fascism — it is perhaps for this reason that it is fascist — then it can only be countered by a statement that doubles it in turn, which shows that fascism, and even the fact that anti-fascism is only possible because of fascism, must be explained from a totally different perspective, that fascism is only one of two. What is fascinating about fascism, finally — and perhaps why every attempt to speak against it can only repeat it — is that every attempt to name that doubling hypothesis, what is excluded by fascism to allow it, can only reproduce that initial fascist gesture of trying to explain the world. We must attempt to name what cannot be named but what everything wants to stand in for. However, as we say, if we always have to do this, if it is always in the name of something that we must oppose fascism, in another way what it is that doubles, that limit to fascism, is excluded by being named; rather, it doubles what names it; it is a kind of nothing always excluded to ensure that it is always something that is excluded. And it is only a thought that can take this into account, that can take this absolute limit into account, and the limits to thinking this, that is not fascist, that is truly able to “oppose” fascism.
We spoke earlier of a certain context which we felt to be appropriate to Baudrillard: one not so much of Marxist sociology as of post-structuralist “philosophy”. And this is undoubtedly true. But in another way, precisely because each of these post-structuralist thinkers is involved in this game of maximalism, attempts to account for everything, there can be no way of comparing them at all. Each of their systems is as singular as the proper name of its author; each is about those great proper names which developed maximal hypotheses of their own — Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, etc. And yet, of course, in this each would be exactly the same; each would be absolutely alike in its incommensurability. What remains to be done, then, bearing these limits in mind, is to see how this doubling works specifically in Baudrillard, to see how — it is this we have tried to do briefly with Cool Memories — it particularly arises as a “theme” in Baudrillard’s work. Baudrillard has always said that he only ever had one strategy, that of reversal. It is what we have meant by the maximalist hypothesis here. But, if there has only ever been one strategy, it has always been completely different in each system against which it was used. The brilliance of Baudrillard is that he has in each case been able to find a hypothesis that is at once a pure doubling and a pure description of the system, both the invention of a virtuality that is only implicit within it and the most faithful re-tracing of its logic, adding nothing. This is what the maximalist hypothesis is in the end: the adding of nothing. As Baudrillard says in one of the wittiest one-liners in the book: “Powdered water: just add water to get water.”22
About the Author:
Dr. Rex Butler is from the University of Queensland, Brisbane
1 – This review originally appeared in Hermes 7, University of Sydney Union, University of Sydney, 1991.
2 – Cool Memories, 1.
3 – Ibid., 231.
4 – Ibid., 157.
5 – Ibid., 192.
6 –Ibid., 149.
7 – Ibid., 55-6.
8 – Ibid., 136.
9 –Ibid., 91.
10 – Ibid., 22.
11 –Ibid., 9, 23, 101, 193.
12 – Ibid., 23.
13 – Ibid., 27.
14 – Baudrillard writes: “The stroke of wit also despairs of language, but from that despair it always derives a brilliant solution, drawing a line between two diametrically opposed poles. A diabolical simplification; everything is in the ellipsis. There is no crueller trick you can play on reality than to idealise it just as it is. It never recovers from that (whereas it can easily cope with being denounced)” (Ibid., 175).
15 – Ibid., 227.
16 – Ibid., 215.
17 – Ibid., 82, 151.
18 – Ibid., 29.
19 – Ibid., 4.
20 –Ibid., 82-3.
21 – Ibid., 205.
22 –Ibid., 69.