Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
Author: Michal Klosinski
Note: “Projekt został sfinansowany ze środków Narodowego Centrum Nauki przyznanych na podstawie decyzji numer DEC-2011/01/N/HS2/02038”
“The project was funded by the National Science Centre allocated on the basis of the decision number DEC-2011/01/N/HS2/02038”
I. Politics and Poetics
The chapter “Necrospective” in Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil contains a passage entitled “Rectification: Hip, hip, hooray! History is risen from the dead!” (1993:93). At its beginning, Baudrillard mentions the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the perspectives which would seem to bring the notion of History back to life. When writing about the countries of the Eastern Bloc, he uses the metaphors of freezing and melting; he also uses them when referring to the notion of freedom – one of the values conserved in the Soviet “refrigerator”. What is interesting in the fragment of Baudrillard’s text is the brackets enclosing the sentence which describes the impossibility of refreezing the once defrosted reserves of freedom – the reserves that were “freed” and might prove to have unpredictable results. By means of the brackets Baudrillard asks about what happens with freedom after it suddenly unlocks its reserves. His answer is very ironic and bears a sinister tension at its very core. Baudrillard implies that freedom becomes a hazardous action of unpredictable results; he suggests it should be perceived more as a menace than a blessing. He calls the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc countries great experimental polygons, a territory where freedom was once arrested and kept under high pressures. In contrast, the West depicted in this description functions as a device to conserve and store different freedoms and human rights, which gives an interesting perspective to discuss the actual “shape” and “substance” of the idea of freedom.
Baudrillard’s metaphors become especially interesting when studied on a linguistic field. On the one hand, there is an indisputable difference between the East and the West and their approach to deal with freedom. On the other, Baudrillard’s metaphors seem to synonymous with the ideas of a storeroom and a fridge, on the grounds that they are both “devices” to store things. The metaphor of the refrigerator is in fact totally exchangeable for the metaphor of a storeroom. If freezing is enclosing something into a block of ice, it does not much differ from the action of putting something into a box, container or a room of a cubical shape. But Baudrillard goes further in his metaphorical thinking; he chooses to change his discourse to biology/medicine and create another opposition that juxtaposes the natural death of freedom in the West and the murder of freedom in the East. It must be given to Baudrillard that his metaphorical chaos is paradoxically very consistent. The oppositions: conservation – dying of old age, and freezing pressure – murder, pair up and depict freedom as a living being that undergoes both reification and humanize at the same time anthropomorphize.
Why is the poetics of Baudrillard’s text so important to the analysis of his political thinking? It is an imperative to show how all those metaphors allow Baudrillard to operate at different levels of the political discourse at the same time; e.g. how the notion of freedom, just after a few linguistic tricks, starts to function as a kernel of clash between biology (different ways of dying) and technology (conservation, storage, refrigeration). In spite of showing the ambivalence of freedom, Baudrillard presents its political caricature – a resurrected/melted/reinstated notion/body, and he ironically comments that it might not look as good as we thought or expected it to look. From this procession of metaphors, freedom arises as an undead, as a political zombie – neither a living body nor a dead notion – a specter. Baudrillard’s hypothesis is not a bright one since all his metaphors bring him to the conclusion that freedom in the East imitates or repeats the one that has completely disappeared in the West, the one that melted away into a meaningless convention.
Baudrillard’s metaphors are fluid, thus in a constant flow, and none is solid enough to be taken for granted. They are all links in the chain of thoughts underlying their author’s reflection. It particularly shows in the next set of metaphors that circulates around the problem of energy: West – vacuum, East – source of frozen energy. Baudrillard metaphorically compares the release of frozen reserves of freedom to the greenhouse effect and its disastrous consequences (the melting of icebergs). The parallel of an ecological disaster links directly with a possibility of an economical one. It refers to the release of gold reserves by the Soviet Union and the eventual destabilization of the global market. It is interesting how freedom changes from metaphor to metaphor in this discourse, and how, subjected to the language of law, biology, technology, and then put in the context of economy and ecology, it changes its meaning from body/ notion to a thing in reserve, or the reserve itself.
After looking at the substance of freedom from various perspectives, Baudrillard almost instantly returns in his metaphors to biology by comparing the effects of unloosening freedom to the destabilization of metabolism. Baudrillard’s political discourse is so dynamic because the author uses poetics to breach its boundaries. It is particularly vivid in case of the notion of freedom, which he is trying to deconstruct with the “jargons” of different disciplines (biology, technology, law, economy, ecology).
At the core of Baudrillard’s reflection about freedom lies a strong conviction that the West has turned it into a simulacrum, that it has become a virtual value which no longer takes part in any form of transcendence or a real exchange. Moreover, Baudrillard radicalizes his previous thinking when weaving his metaphor of the sources of freedom to show that the Western reserves have dried out, and the East still possesses viable resources possible to be exploited. What he fears most is that, by becoming a rare resource, freedom in the East will eventually lose its value due to a series of speculative exchanges. This process seems unavoidable, but Baudrillard’s metaphors indicate that there is a serious problem with freedom as a resource because it cannot be effectively used; it melts away, it is a zombie – it decomposes, and on the top of that, its abundance might prove fatal to the metabolism of Western societies. In fact, Baudrillard hides this phenomenon under his metaphors; it is overly simple: values in the West have become so obvious that they no longer manifest themselves in the actual actions of an individual. Values have become a part of some kind of doxa, and because they are guaranteed by laws and governments, they might as well not exist at all – they function as simulacra. On the other hand, these repressed values in the East have gradually become ideas worth a revolution, or ideas worth fighting for, which demands action and disobedience to any kind of oppression.
But why would Baudrillard hide this idea under so many metaphors? It is possible that his political judgment might have not been clarified when he was writing the book (The Transparency of Evil was printed in 1990). The events of 1989 were both surprising and new at that time. On the other hand, as was said before, the chain of metaphors allowed Baudrillard to establish a rhetorical connection between different discourses and let them all function as kernels of bio-politics, techno-politics, law-politics, pleasure-politics and others. Just as in Blumenberg, metaphors allow Baudrillard to maximize the descriptive and theoretical strength of his reflections and make it possible for his discourse to reach the core of the politics of freedom. One of the questions coming from the heart of his metaphors could be: why would there be a threat of flooding the West with the Eastern reserves of freedom? How can freedom flood anyone? From the Eastern point of view, it was the West that flooded the former communist bloc with its laws, freedoms and market goods. In other words, what happened was the opposite, the reserves were never released, they were more like the zombie in the links of Baudrillard’s metaphorical chain, rather than the great flood. If freedom has ever been any resource or idea in the East, it has soon become a proper monument of past revolutions, useless as the working class that won the battle with Communism but lost the war with the liberal economy. The best example is the Polish NSZZ “Solidarity” trade union; it started as a strong revolutionary force against the communist oppression and, after just twenty years of transformation, became a storage for revolutionary veterans without any significant political power. It would seem that Baudrillard prophesied the true nature of the processes in the East, which sought to trade freedom for the convenience and comfort of living. The freedom that Baudrillard writes about is thus just another myth, and as such it is best seen in the metaphors the author seeks and uses to show its structure. The true politics of his discourse can be best seen in his poetics.
But are Baudrillard’s metaphors truly his own creations? If everything starts from the refrigerator, freezing and a murder, it is safe to assume that his comparison is strictly connected to the image of the Cold War and should be read as a political analysis of its aftermath. Baudrillard writes about a kind of an enclosure that was at hand, an enclosure of the 20th century, its conflicts and revolutions, and because of that his metaphorical system, both reflect and try to solve the political paradoxes which occur after the “cold” war. Hot and cold are not only notions that bring together media and politics. These terms apply to many systems of thought because the metaphors built upon them originally present the problem of scale, measure and degree of whatever is represented (All of these are in fact McLuhan’s offspring). Moreover, they appear in the postmodern media and politics to indicate either escalation or calming down of different events, thus it could be said that these notions constitute true tools of power and manipulation. Baudrillard is not just simply using them; he abuses hot and cold metaphors to expose the power at work.
One last thing must be mentioned: if Baudrillard’s poetics is to be treated as a tool of his political discourse, it is his choice of metaphor against the powers of metonymy. Just at the beginning of The Transparency of Evil, he clearly states that the possibility of utilizing metaphors in different domains is diminishing. Baudrillard believes that this process has a viral structure, and it strives for annihilation of differences and boundaries between discourses to disable one discourse to be a metaphor of another one. What replaced the old metaphorical universe is the total and all-powerful metonymy. It substitutes every term and every notion for anything, leading to a crisis of difference and the game of differences which constituted metaphors. Baudrillard creates a specific political poetics and utilizes the system in his discourse to put his own writing in opposition to the powerful discourse of metonymy, which allows one to substitute any term or notion for another, without losing anything in the process. That is precisely why his reflection about freedom utilizes so many metaphors from different domains of knowledge. All his metaphors call for the structural play of differences to happen and fuel his anti-metonymy thought.
II. Trans-politics and the metaphor of fractal
In the chapter entitled “The mirror of terrorism” (Ibid.:75), Baudrillard writes about the notion of transpolitics, which is a strategy relying on desocialization by utilizing simulation, prevention, provocation, speculation etc. The ultimate goal of transpolitics is to destroy the society by destabilizing it with the mechanisms of disaffection and indifference. By doing so, it no longer governs the society as its predecessors (like bio-politics). Its purpose is to s(t)imulate masses to experience apathy and depression. But transpolitics would not be possible if there were no means to execute it. When Baudrillard writes that classical politics is no longer possible, he argues for the possibility of the rational governing of the society. Transpolitics is an answer to a crisis of the functional tools of the government and to the proliferation of the social drive towards the general comfort, which is always with the damage for political interest. Because Baudrillard entitled his book The Transparency of Evil, it is important to relate trans-politics to the notion of trans-parency. Transparency means something clear, something one can see through, and something that does not obstruct the light that passes through. If these are the main features of transparent objects, than the trans-politics is a paradox. The prefix “trans-” does not have a clear meaning when connected with “politics”, because it signifies that something happens “over” or through something else. Trans-politics in this meaning becomes a multifunctional metaphor that Baudrillard uses to describe actions hidden under official politics as well as the whole set of processes at work to remove the referent from the space of the social event. Baudrillard’s notion of transpolitics describes the speculative play of signs stripped of their referents. In fact, it is transpolitics which does the stripping and follows the same pattern as trans-economy and trans-sexuality. By introducing the prefix “trans-” to these notions, Baudrillard changes their political destination and makes them become totally virtual systems unable to reestablish any connection with the real. As an example of transpolitics in the East, one could choose the catastrophe of the Polish presidential airplane in Russia in 2010. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and President Kaczyński had a disagreement about the trip to Russia and organized competitive visits. The already transpolitical struggle ended up in a catastrophe and the death of Poland’s President. Some interpretations of this event stated that the tragedy was in fact an assassination involving the use of “artificial” fog or a new type of magnetic weaponry. These speculations heated the already hot atmosphere, and amidst the grief and anger, religious and political signs converged and lost their respective referents: 1) the cross lost its basic Catholic meaning and became a symbol of one of the grieving and fighting parties; 2) the political visit of the Polish delegation to commemorate the Katyń forest massacre was called the repetition of the World War II event. Transpolitics caused both the cross (symbol of martyrdom) and the annual commemoration (ritual and symbolic visit to the graves) loss their respective dimension and their referents to become speculative signs used only to terrorize the society. The greatest paradox was that the terrorist attack has never been even taken into consideration (terror had to be distributed by the government). Moreover, the main conflict around the readings of the black box records and the possibility of both their falsification and misinterpretation, followed by dozens of media simulations, was purely virtual. From Baudrillard’s and Virillio’s (2007) points of view, Russia would be the one defending its right to the catastrophe (established after the Czarnobyl event), while Poland fou
ght to establish one of its first transpolitical catastrophes in the 21st century. And it must be remembered that both terror and catastrophe are the symptoms of transpolitics at work in the East.
Baudrillard writes that transpolitics and other notions with the prefix “trans-“ have a viral structure. The viral metaphor in his discourse has a strong connection with the metaphor of fractal. In fact, these notions seem to be used as synonyms in The Transparency of Evil, where the author systematizes three stages of value and introduces the fourth stage called fractal/viral/radiant (Baudrillard, 1993: )5. In Passwords Baudrillard writes that he does not know Mandelbrot’s thesis very well thus it is safe to assume that he uses the most common definition of fractal and Mandelbrot’s set just for their metaphorical value.
But before Baudrillard finally gets to his point; he already utilizes the language of physics to compare his discernment of the three stages of value to the distinction of different particles in physics. This metaphor allows him to transplant the notion of a fractal coined by Benoît B. Mandelbrot in 1975, with all the complicated processes surrounding it, to his own study of values. The original dialogue between Derrida and Borradori happened one month after the events of 9/11, it is safe to assume that Baudrillard did not know this text before the date of its final publication and that both thinkers did not relate to each other on this topic. What seems intriguing is the fact that both of them develop original critical approaches to the same event which sometimes overlap and sometimes go their separate ways but still both utilize the symbol/symbolic to deal with the matter at hand.
Furthermore, Baudrillard is able to build the radiant/fractal/viral stage of value in opposition to the previous stages (natural: use-value, commodity: exchange-value, structural: sign-value) because every link in this chain of metaphors holds a specific dynamic connotation: 1) virus spreads, it is contagious, it undergoes constant mutation; 2) fractal multiplies in a mathematical sequence, where any structure consists of its perfect reflections, for example: snowflakes; 3) radiance/radiation implies constant emission of particles. These metaphors and their internal dynamics allow Baudrillard to describe the fourth stage of value – the one where value has lost all its reference and is able to disperse freely into every possible direction. This model governs contemporary culture, and Baudrillard chooses to deconstruct it along with the culture by inscribing his own fractals into categories such as politics, economy, sexuality – simply, by adding a sinister prefix “trans-”. In spite of this incorporation of virality /fractality /radiance into his own discourse, Baudrillard does not surrender to this model by choosing its main poetic principle – the metonymy. On the contrary, the further metaphorization of his writing serves the purpose of immunizing it to the invasion of homogeneity. Transpolitics as a fractal, viral or radiant structure holds a set of features which allows it to infect all discourses and disciplines of knowledge and manifest itself in the smallest piece of every system of meaning, as well as to affect all its surroundings with a destructive aura. Baudrillard gives examples of the political shift that can be described with the use of the trans-notions:
When everything is political, nothing is political any more, the word itself is meaningless. When everything is sexual, nothing is sexual any more, and sex loses its determinants. When everything is aesthetic, nothing is beautiful or ugly any more, and art itself disappears (1993:9).
The disappearance of distinction and difference is a political problem in Baudrillard’s discourse. In fact, it is the discourse which suffers from universality of its own notions that tend to erase the interdiscursive boundaries in order to serve the law of metonymy. It is worth noting that in the chain of three metaphors of radial/fractal and viral, the fractal one has a neutral meaning, the radial one is ambivalent, and the viral one bears a strong negative connotation. This allows Baudrillard to utilize three similar notions as flexible metaphors of the fourth stage of value, which can either depict it in a natural, ambivalent or negative manner. Also, by linking the three notions, he is able to change the value of one with the value of another, for example: the fractal one absorbs some of the viral negativity and its ability to spread and radiate. This poetical process serves to isolate the meaning of each notion and facilitates the constant flow of differences between them – it works against substitution, against metonymy. This textual-political strategy can be seen in The Spirit of Terrorism where Baudrillard writes:
A fractal war of cells, all singularities, revolting in the form of antibodies. A confrontation so impossible to pin down that the idea of war has to be rescued from time to time by spectacular set-pieces, such as the Gulf War or the war in Afghanistan (2002:12).
In one tiny sentence the fractal is linked with cells, singularities, revolt and antibodies in order to destabilize the notion of war, to build up the metaphorical pressure which will be used to turn the war upside down. This discursive strategy is poetically-political since Baudrillard uses it to dissimulate the myths of two highly mediated conflicts. Also, the neutral fractal is used as an adjective describing war and as such becomes the main part of the metaphorical chain built of biological terms. This metaphor serves a couple of purposes: 1) it shifts the conflict into the body itself, showing that the actual war has a counter-balance in every living organism; 2) it dismantles the notion of war by making it a general rule of being at the microscopic level; 3) it proposes an alternative interpretation of war as a spectacle which functions only to remember about the confrontation itself; 4) at the beginning, it equalizes the two conflicts, but it does so only to show that the macro scale is merely a surfaced show that hides the micro scale. In all those transformations the fractal metaphor changes from neutral to negative, it also starts to function as a quantifier. The fractalization of war follows the same pattern as the one described by trans-economy or trans-sexuality. The conclusion is: if war is everywhere, there is no war. If Baudrillard is correct, the textual-political power of the fractal metaphor lies in its inner ability to negate every process/notion or idea by disseminating it into every possible process at every possible level of meaning/structure etc.
III. The viral-fractal and the auto-immune
The viral-fractal metaphor, which Baudrillard develops in The Spirit of Terrorism, seems to open a dialogue with Derrida’s notion of auto-immunity, which he uses in his Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides (Derrida, 2004:85) to interpret the terrorist attack of September 11th 2001 (In both Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil and in the Derrida’s Autoimmunity the same notion is being used in a similar manner). Suffice it to say, both philosophers begin their texts with ideas so close and similar that one would doubt that they were written separately. Baudrillard starts with attributing the symbolic dimension to this (9/11) world-scale major-event and writes that: “The West in the position of God (divine omnipotence and absolute moral legitimacy), has become suicidal and declared war on itself” (Baudrillard, 2002:7), while Derrida asks about the real and symbolic dimension of the suicide in the sole title of his dialogue with Giovanna Borradori. Later in his text, Derrida introduces the notion of auto-immunity
into his political analysis:
As we know, an autoimmunitary process is that strange behavior where a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, “itself” works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its “own” immunity (Derrida, 2004:94).
In fact, when applied to the reflection about suicide bombings, this autoimmunity metaphor will allow Derrida to say the exact same thing that Baudrillard wrote in The Spirit of Terrorism that it was none other than the superpower who compromised its own safety and brewed its own poison:
Immigrated, trained, prepared for their act in the United States by the United States, these hijackers incorporate, so to speak, two suicides in one: their own (and one will remain forever defenseless in the face of a suicidal, autoimmunitary aggression – and that is what terrorizes most) but also the suicide of those who welcomed, armed, and trained them (Ibid.:95).
The suicide links the analysis done by Baudrillard and Derrida because they both attach great significance to the political outcome of an act against oneself. While Baudrillard is pointing out that the suicide was purely symbolic because it played out the difference between the value of life and death, Derrida is focusing on the system of global security, which weakened itself, because the terrorist attack was in fact an action from the inside. Also, Derrida sees the traumatism after 9/11 in the iterability of this event, while Baudrillard seems to concentrate on the impossibility of the exchange which was established when the terrorist presented the modern society with the gift/potlach of death.
Further, Baudrillard continues the trans-political analysis he started in The Transparency of Evil and compares terrorism to viruses: “Terrorism, like viruses, is everywhere” (Baudrillard, 1993:10). Apart from the actual meaning, the sentence says that the viral-fractal metaphor in Baudrillard’s discourse functions as an opposition to the power of metonymy. In this context, the problem from which Derrida starts analyzing the 9/11 events seems very interesting:
The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this metonymy [M.K.] – a name, a number – points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize, that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about (Derrida, 23004:86).
What is clear at this point is the function of metonymy as a poetic-politic strategy. For Derrida, it hides the proper name, or could even be a symptom of disability to call this event (or any event) by its proper name. Both philosophers share the same thought and seem to say that what is at stake in this political strategy is the destabilization of our cognition, either by systematically producing a certain impression about an event (Derrida) or destroying discursive boundaries, infecting the system (Baudrillard).
Also, for both thinkers the destruction of boundaries is strictly connected with the process and the notion of mondialisation, which Baudrillard and Derrida use in its double meaning – it can signify the world war, and it is the French counterpart of the English term globalization. From the political standpoint, they agree on the danger of spreading of the “absolute evil”, which is best seen in the constant need of national security and fear of the other.
At one point in his text Derrida comes close to the metaphor of fractal:
Things were still of the order of the gigantic: visible and enormous! What size, what height! There has been worse since. Nanotechnologies of all sorts are so much more powerful and invisible, uncontrollable, capable of creeping in everywhere. They are the micrological rivals of microbes and bacteria (Derrida, 2004:102).
The strong division between micro and macro is what links the discourse of Derrida and Baudrillard. They are both seeking a solution to the world that has gone beyond the scale of a simple vision and human sight, the world where evil lurks at the depths of every living organism in the form of a virus or a suicidal auto-immune system. The purpose of these political-biological metaphors is to depict the historio-sophical shift between the time of visible evil and the time of evil disseminated in the smallest pieces of each structure. This fellowship of political metaphors is also a mark of the discursive need for a language able to describe the political structure beyond its primary subject, at the level of this subject’s cellular constitution. Auto-immunity, the viral, the fractal seem to be effective tools indispensable in progressing into a new stage of critical theory. Douglas Kellner writes that “Unfortunately Critical Theory has never developed adequate dialectical perspectives on science and technology” (1989, 213). I believe it would be thought-provoking to see how the science and technology seems to be deconstructed within the language of metaphors utilized by Derrida and Baudrillard in their late works. One could say that if the political analysis has to rely on quantum-physics and microbiology, the humanistic discourse must search for a microscope that could reach deeper and deeper into the abyss of primal structures to deconstruct them at their basic level. That would be the conclusion of going into the micro-scale, but – following Baudrillard’s metaphor of the fractal – if the smallest part is a mirror image of the whole system, it is possible to deconstruct the politics as a fractal at any level, just by analyzing its myths and poetic structures. Baudrillard utilizes the fractal in his discourse. It could also be said that Derrida’s différance is a kind of a fractal, and because of that, the fractal itself cannot be simply utilized and should be understood as a principle that reflects both micro and macro, that transcends any structure and makes divisions impossible. In this meaning, micro and macro cease to exist, because there is no longer any possibility of discerning the structural density. It would seem that Baudrillard found a devastating tool that searches for the principle to govern the contemporary stage of value. Moreover, if the fractal is truly a part of trans-political strategy, it is very important to read its founding along with Derrida’s concept of autoimmunity, for there cannot be one without another.
IV. Freedom, the Fractal and the East
If freedom undergoes fractalization, it no longer serves its purpose as an idea, transgression etc. The East is suffering from the effects of this process in the same way that Franco Berardi wrote about in his Precarious Rhapsody:
What used to be the autonomy and the political power of the workforce has become the total dependence of cognitive labor on the capitalist organization of the global network, because time has been fragmented and made flexible in a fractal recombinant way (Beradi, 2009).
It would seem that the metaphor of a fractal, Baudrillard introduces to the humanistic studies, serves its purpose as a very flexible tool that can be used to deconstruct the relationship between capitalist corporations and the cognitariat (intellectual workforce). Berardi successfully utilizes its power when describing the reification of cognitive worker, who is turned into a fractal/cell and is managed by the company he works for in the same way one can manage data in the Internet. The political power of Baudrillard’s poetic discoveries lies in the possibility of their re-contextualization, just like in Berardi, who coins new and revolutionary notions such as “fractalization of labour” or “fractal recombination”. These ideas turn into a snowball, growing exponentially with additional uses and abuses. Fractalized freedom in the East, in the form of an individual time, becomes what Baudrillard feared most – something that can be traded for money, for survival, for a moment of illusive comfort that the cognitariat exhausts itself to achieve. His metaphors do what other ones cannot do – they constantly evolve and infect discourses and ideas to eventually auto-immunize the humanistic thinking against trans-political oppression.
About the Author
Michael Klosinski completed his M.A. in the Department of Philology at The University of Silesia where he is currently working on his Ph.D. In 2011 he participated in the seminars of The Paris Program in Critical Theory led by Samuel Weber. He currently heads up a project of granted research on Baudrillard, Theory, and Literature. Part of this research has taken him to Canada for a series of workshops on Baudrillard led by Gary Genosko. He is currently translating some of Genosko’s works into Polish.
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