What has been lost is the glory of the event, its aura, as Benjamin would say. Over the centuries, history lived under the sign of glory, under the sign of a quite strong illusion that had played on the durability of time which one inherited from the ancestors and then passed onto descendants. This passion today would seem rather pathetic. What we are after is no longer glory but identity, no longer an illusion but, on the contrary, an accumulation of evidence — anything that can serve as a testimony to a historical existence, whereas the task once was to lose oneself in a prodigious dimension, in an “immortality” Hannah Arendt speaks about, and the transcendence of which would equal God (glory and salvation have long been the topic of discussion among people, like passion and compassion, rivals in the face of the Eternal).
The prodigious or phenomenal event which cannot be measured either in terms of its causes or its consequences and which creates its own scene, its own dramaturgy — no longer exists. Little by little, history has shrunk back into the probability of its causes, of its effects and, more recently, into the field of its present, into its effects measured in “real time”. Events will not go any further than what their anticipated sense, their programming, and their diffusion will allow. This strike of events in itself constitutes a true historical manifestation, this refusal to signify whatever there may be, or even the capacity to signify whatever comes our way. This is the true end of history, the end of the Reason or Logic of history.
Then again, it would be too nice if we could be finished with history. For it is possible that not only has history disappeared (no more negative labour, no more political reasoning, no more prestige of the event) but that we have now succeeded in nourishing its end. Things go on as if we were still constructing history, and in the process of amassing signs of the social, signs of the political, signs of progress and change, we are doing none other than feeding the end of history. Cannibalism and necrophagous, whichever you prefer, always demand newer victims, newer events to finish them off just a little bit more. Socialism is a nice example where, after the failure of historical reason which it sought or pretended to embody, the buck was passed into its hands to make-do whatever it could with this gestation of the end of history, with this diet of the end.
We have been asking ourselves ever since, ‘what could possibly come after the orgy — mourning or melancholy’? Plainly, neither this nor that, instead an incessant face-lifting of all the episodes of modern history, of its processes of liberation (of peoples, sexes, dreams, art and the unconscious — briefly, of all the constituents of the orgy of our times) under the sign of a premonition with respect to an apocalyptic end to it all.
As if in an advance escape we preferred a retrospective apocalypse and the revisioning of everything — all our societies have become revisionist, they sweetly rethink everything, they whitewash their political crimes, their scandals, they lick their wounds, they nourish their end. Celebration and commemoration themselves are nothing but the soft forms of necrophagous cannibalism, the homeopathic form of killing us softly. This is the work of the heirs whose resentment of death is unending. The museums, the jubilees, the festivals, the complete works, the lesser unedited fragments — all these testify to the fact that we are entering upon a vital era of resentment and repentance.
Exuberant and commemorative attitudes will no doubt become part of this collective flagellation. We are particularly spoiled in France, where actual rituals of mourning and condolences weigh down on our public life. All our monuments are mausoleums: the Pyramid, the Arc, the Orsay Museum, the chamber of the pharaoh, the Grand Bibliotheque — the cenotaph of culture. And this is not to mention the Revolution, a monument in and of itself, whose bicentennial created the greatest factual simulation of the end of the century.
There are two types of forgetting: either through slow or violent eradication of memory or via the advancement of spectacle, the passing of historical space into the space of advertising, the site where the media have acquired and, themselves have become, a temporal strategy of prestige. This is the way in which we have constructed ourselves in countlessly reinforced advertising images, in a memory of synthesis that serves as our primitive point of reference, as our founding myth and, above all, distances us from the real event of the Revolution.
“The Revolution is not on the agenda in France today because the great Revolution had already taken place and has served as an example for all others over the last two centuries. In all our dealings in France today, we proceed as if there were no revolution” (Louis Mermaz). It happened, it’s over and will therefore never again take place. Our complete system rests on this negative anticipation. Not only are we unable to produce new history anymore, we can no longer even ensure its symbolic reproduction. We fashion our opera in the style of the Bastille — a pathetic attempt at reinstatement where royal music is played to the people. On the other hand, no other music would be played at a scene that the cultivated visit and where, through art and other forms of pleasure, the principle is reinforced that it is the lot of the privileged to voluntarily consecrate places that others had paid for with their lives.
Could one suggest that people storm the opera and dismantle it on the symbolic date of July 14? Could one insinuate that they march around with the bloody heads of our modern ministers of culture at the tip of their pikes?
But the fact is that we no longer make history, we have been reconciled with it and protect it as if it were a masterpiece in danger. Times have changed. Today we have a “vision” of a Revolution perfectly pious in the way it alludes to human Rights — not even a nostalgic vision, instead, one that is recycled in postmodern intellectual comfort(ing) terms. A vision that allows the elimination of Saint-Just from The Dictionary of the Revolution [Dictionnaire de la Revolution]. “Overrated rhetoric” says Francois Furet, the perfect historian of the repentance of Terror and glory.
There are those who let the dead bury the dead, and then there are those who will never grow weary digging them up in order to fix them. Unsuccessful both at the level of symbolic murder and mourning, death cannot be the end of the line as they have to unearth the dead in order to impale them — this is the Carpentras complex (after Timisoara [Roumania]: the rigged televising of dead bodies), the complex of profanation.
Nothing is more favourable for this operation than the one hundredth anniversary of their death — Rimbaud, van Gogh, Nietzsche, the year 91 would have been exceptionally qualified for cheap profanatory works.
There is a kind of suicidal attitude in this compulsive effort on the part of the cultural and intellectual elite to exalt thinkers who had only contempt for them and who were the living examples of their denunciation: Celine, Artaud, Bataille, Nietzsche. Taking the form of an instinctual fault or failure which Nietzsche had already diagnosed a hundred years ago, this suicidal attitude provides the characteristics of a species that is eventually doomed due to its inability to judge what is good for it. If the left were a species and if culture obeyed the laws of natural selection, it should have disappeared a long time ago. Instead, the left flirts with that which negates it, dying of the total contradiction between its critical faculty and its presence in power as it made culture into a mode of government. All this already comprises the forms of repentance.
Only terrorists have yet to repent. The intellectuals have paved the way for them — the Sartrians and others, since the fifties, have supplied us with the avant-garde of repentance. Today, the whole century repents, the repentance of class (or of race) everywhere rises above the pride and conscience of class. This is the sign under which the century has been intellectualized, an intellectualization today as if it had already embourgeois-d [s’est embourgeoise] a century. Furthermore, the term “intellectual” will disappear one day just like “bourgeois” did, and no longer is any ridicule in store for it, save for the person who actually uses the term.
This self-dissolving, typical of the West as it is of the East, can be seen in the degradation of the structures of power and representation (in other words, the more the political sphere is intellectualized, the more it secretly negates its will to govern or rule and this premonition about itself is the source of all corruption), and also in the numerous strategies aimed at the re- enchantment of values, cultures, difference[s]. We expend all its energy in the resistance to our own end, in which we have neither jouissance nor vertigo. It would probably be better to have a gigantic eve of August 4th, a big night of human rights where all humankind would surrender itself just like the aristocrats formerly renounced their rights — a relinquishing act in excess. What could possibly befall us in this pull towards a harkening back to our culture?
It seems that we are summoned to conduct an infinite retrospective of all that has gone before. What is true of politics and morals, also seems to apply to art as well. All movement in painting has withdrawn from the future and is now displaced towards the past. Art today is engaged in reappropriating works of either recent or of the more distant past, even contemporary works. This is what Russell Connor calls the kidnapping or rapture of modern art. Similar to loose threads that come undone from threadbare weft [woof], this is a kind of irony that could only result from the disillusionment of things, a fossilized irony. The twinkling of any eye that places the nude of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe [Dining on the grass] in front of Cezanne’s Joueurs aux cartes [Cardplayers], much like the head-dressing of a monkey in an admiral’s hat, is none other than the irony of advertising that swamps the world of art today. This is the irony of repentance and of resentment vis-a-vis one’s own culture. Repentance and resentment, no doubt, comprise the final state of the history of art since they encompass, according to Nietzsche, the ultimate state in the genealogy of morals. This is a parody, or rather a palinode [recantation] of art and the history of art (an episode that reflects on a very brief history) — a parody of culture performed on itself in a vengeance typical of radical disillusionment. It’s as if history constructed its own bins and began seeking its redemption foraging among the debris.
Alas! The end of history is also the end of the bins of history. Or perhaps the creation of even more bins to bury old ideologies, old regimes, old values. Where are we going to toss Marxism which actually invented the bins of history? (By the way, there seems to be a justice here since those who had invented the bins were the ones who fell into them.) Conclusion: if there are no more bins of history, it is because History itself has become a bin. It has become its own bin, similar to the planet which is currently in the process of becoming one big bin.
Once ice freezes, all excrement moves to the surface. Once the dialectic freezes, all the sacred excrement of the dialectic is made visible. When the future thaws out, and even the present by now, one can observe the resurfacing of all the excrement of the past.
The problem is that of diminution. This does not only apply to physical substances, including atomic particles, but also to defunct ideologies, completed utopias, dead concepts, fossilized ideas that continue to pollute our mental space. These historical and intellectual waste products give rise to more serious concern than industrial waste. Who will do us the favour of cleaning out all the sedimentation of secular idiocy? According to history, this live waste, this languishing monster keeps dilating even after its death, like the bodies of Ionesco [Romanian president after Ceaucescu] — and how can one escape from that?
The environmental imperative states that all waste must be recycled otherwise it will just circulate indefinitely like satellites revolving around the Earth as they themselves turn into cosmic waste. History in a way prefigures this dilemma: either burst open the undegradable waste of great empires, of great narratives, of great systems given to decay under their gigantic proportions or simply recycle all waste in a synthetic form of sundry history, similarly to what we are producing today under the sign of Democracy and Human Rights which always amounted to a full-scale muddled reprocessing of all the residues of history — residues of brutal grinding over which ethnic, linguistic, federal and ideological phantoms of bygone societies still hover. Amnesia, anamnesis, anachronic revival of all kinds of characters of the past — royalty, feudality — have these ever really disappeared? Even democracy, this proliferating form, this smallest common denominator of all our liberal societies, this planetary democracy of Human Rights is to freedom what Disneyland is to the imaginary [fancy]. What it offers with regard to the modern need for freedom is very similar to the attributes required for the recycling of paper.
In reality, there is no insolvable problem for waste. The problem is resolved via the postmodern invention of recycling and the incinerator. From the ashes of the Great Incinerators of history, one resurrects the Phoenix of postmodernity! One has to take into account that all that was non- degradable, non-extinguishable is recycled today. And why? Because there is no final solution. We cannot escape the worst, to comprehend that History will not have an end because all of its components — the Church, communism, democracy, ethnic groups, conflicts, ideologies — continue on an indefinite course of recycling. What is truly incredible is that as much as we had thought to have gone beyond history, none of it has really been surpassed, none of it has disappeared — they are all there ready to resurface, all the archaic, anachronic forms quite intact and atemporal like the virus in the furthest recesses of the body. In an attempt to rescue itself from cyclic time, all that history has managed to accomplish was to relapse into the order of recyclables.
Originally published in French as part of Jean Baudrillard, L’Illusion de la fin: ou La greve des evenements, Galilee: Paris, 1992. Translated by Charles Dudas, York University, Canada.