THEORY RISING 4
The interview was conducted in French and translated into English by Professors Caroline Bayard and Graham Knight at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.
CTHEORY: Your relation to McLuhan is interesting, the more so since few critics have analysed it, although they have often commented on it. What is the role of the strong presence of the visual, so real in your texts, in relation to the notion of distance, or of obscenity, and in relation to irony as distance? It is clear that the visual would be necessary to separate and distance an imaginary on which sense is founded. But how does one treat the question of the differentiation of image and sound, the latter being a much more supple, fluid, floating medium than the latter?
Jean Baudrillard: I have some difficulty replying to this question because sound, the sphere of sound, the acoustic sphere, audio, is really more alien to me than the visual. It is true there is a feeling [word spoken in English] about the visual, or rather for the image and the concept itself, whereas sound is less familiar to me. I have less perception, less analytic perception, of this aspect. That is not to say that I would not make a distinction between noise and sound, but ultimately, in terms of this ambient world’s hyperreality, this noosphere, I see it much more as a visualization of the world rather than its hypersonorization.
What can I say about the difference between the two? I have the impression that cutting across the world of McLuhan – he too is very much oriented to the visual, of course, in spite of the fact that he was, I believe, a musician—there is a small problem, which is that the different sensorial, perceptual registers tend, in this media noosphere, to conflate, to fuse together into a kind of depolarization of sensory domains. We speak quite rightly today of the audio-visual; we couple them together in some sort, some kind of amalgam or “patchwork”. Perhaps I am led to view space in this way by my lesser sensitivity to the acoustic, but it seems to me that everything is summed up in a logistic which integrates all the perceptual domains in a way even more undifferentiated than before. Everything is now received in a manner that is indistinct, virtually indistinct, in fact.
The virtual is the kind of concept that is a bit cosmopolitan, if one can call it that, or postmodern, I do not know. In that respect, it is not about the gaze but the visual, it is not about the acoustic, but the audio. Besides, for McLuhan in fact, everything is ultimately reduced to the tactile. Tactility is really that register of sense which is of the order of contact, not of physical or sensual contact of course, but a sort of communication contact where, right now in fact, there is a short-circuit between receiver and sender. I mean directly in individual perception, not only in the world of the media but in our bodily way of living, there is a form of indistinction, of amalgamation, of indifferentiation where all the perceptions arrive en bloc and are reduced to a tactile ambiance. In the latter there would be a lesser differentiation of registers, a lesser singularity of the gaze, a lesser singularity of sound, of music.
So, that is all one can say. That said, within this state of affairs of course there is perhaps still a way to master the tactile world. I think that McLuhan himself thought so in every way; he thought that there really was a strategy of the tactile world, and that it is not just any one. It is not at all a question of saying that it is insignificant, but simply that it is more undifferentiated.
CTHEORY: I remember what you wrote about Westmoreland and Coppola in Simulacres, but re-reading your text some thirteen years later, I wonder whether the real question may not be somewhere else. If, quite simply, neither one (Westmoreland), nor the other (Coppola), had the last word because there is no such thing as the last word, because history continues, just as stories do and our history may be just this, a long rewriting process, prolonged ad infinitum, strewn with glosses/counter-glosses. With John Johnston, on the other hand (Mike Gane, ed., Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews), you read History as the re-actualisation of a past in which we all are accusers and defenders, as well as complicitous. Later, in Cool Memories II, you interpret it as a stoic temptation, that of a Marcus-Aurelius, neither resigned, nor hurried in his late Antiquity, waiting by the sea. Are all of those two facets a reflection of your sensitivity? Which of the three is closer to you presently?
Jean Baudrillard: I am not a historian. I do not have an historical perception of events. But I would say that I have a mystical reading of them and that history for me, would be a long narrative which I tend to mythologize. Curiously, I am going back here to an interesting hypothesis, that of an English naturalist of the 19th century, called Philip Henry Gosse, who was a paleolontologist and archeologist. He was studying fossiles found in geological sediments and his hypothesis, as he was a Christian and a reader of the Bible, was that creation had taken place ex-nihilo and the world created as such five thousand years before his time. Thus God had created at once fossiles, geological sediments, exactly as they were in the 18th century, and he had created them as simulacra, as a trompe-l’oeil in order to provide humanity – which might have been traumatized by such a brutal creation – with a history, hence a past. Therefore God would have provided human beings with a retrospective past by creating fossiles and geological sediments. And he would have created them as such, with utmost exactitude so that people may study them scientifically, although their past had thus been invented. This brings me specifically to Russell’s paradox, which suggests that the world as such, could have been created yesterday and everything in it could be interpreted as retrospective simulation. Of course, this is a paradox, but for myself I would tend to use such a paradox. This where one ends up in a real or hyper-real situation, that of the history of historical narratives, of historiography which do pose a historical question about the re-invention of past history through the historian’s discourse, a discourse which, by definition is a re-construction. In a way, that reconstruction is also necessarily artificial.
The tendency today is not to regress, but to go back to the those moments which preceded that history, as if it were taking us backward, a process which allows questions as cruel as: “Did the Holocaust actually take place, did gas chambers really exist?” One question, latent within our contemporary imagination, is its incapacity really to understand history, to capture its responsibility, its finality and therefore to ask such a query which is absurd, but which constitutes the ultimate test about a past event. Did it actually take place? What proof do we have about it?
Of course we have a multitude of objective, real proofs, but what does one do with historical reality in a system which itself has become virtual?
As for history, well I cannot situate it within a realistic framework, nor can I integrate it within a moral, or even political reference system. There may be a philosophical moral of history, but I do not know what my position would be on that score. It would have to be one of undecidability about what history is. As history today enters into the same domain of indeterminate, undefined interpretations or into the principle of indeterminacy. And this not only applies to the past, but also to the future as well as to the present. At the moment, we live in a sort of uninterrupted time, especially as we move towards the crystallisation of time in each instant, as we keep losing our sense of any objective reference. I do not want to defend history, I only observe a series of problems.
CTHEORY: I might be tempted to say that your simultaneously ironic and perspicacious scrutiny of the social and political effects of simulation has been your gift to the end of this century. What made such a scrutiny vulnerable, for some, has not been the epistemological fallibility upon which it grounded itself (as that could be as a demonstration of humility coming from the end of an empire, assuming such is the case with the western world), but rather, it has been your refusal to recognize that CNN, the Murdochs and Maxwells of this world, dead or alive, do exert a remarkable control over the images which our eyes look at day after day, whatever those media empires’ powerlessness to resolve even our most insignificant problems be. Yes this did puzzle a number of us. While I do recognize that our referents have been transformed by these images’ interaction, I have enormous difficulty to admit that reference itself could have sunk below the horizon of our collective anomie. Bodies are killed, entire cities, or small towns and communities disappear, between Sarajevo and southern Iraq. No one denies the simulation effect which our information networks rely upon, but it is your denial of reality, of personal experience initiated by those simulations which disturbs me. Had you been in Bagdad in February 1991, or in Sarajevo these past two years, might you not have hesitated before casting reference into the dustbin of history?
Jean Baudrillard: Yes, I would not be irresponsible enough to claim an extra-territorial position. When I speak, I do so from a given place. I do have roots. Obviously, all radicals do. I have mine, but those are not ideological references.
Sarajevo, since you are talking about it, reminds me of a media incident, precisely. Bernard-Henri Levy went there to do a TV programme during one of the worst bombings and he interviewed a woman, a librarian, who spoke to him and said: “I wish Baudrillard were here to see what transparency really is.” Well, she was doing me a great honour, remembering what I have written about the transparency of evil, the trans-apparition of evil, specifically in a universe which pretends to be a New World Order whence evil, at least theoretically, has been eliminated. She felt this was a further illustration of what I have written about the transparency of evil. Let us talk about this. Such a perspective may arouse a certain misunderstanding. One finds oneself within the virtuality of goodness, of positivity, whereas, on the contrary, within such a system evil transpires everywhere. And that is the trans-apparition of evil. Evil is not that through which one sees, but that which sees through everything, which goes through, transpires through Good, as well. And at that specific time, one notices a perverse conversion of all positive effects, of all political constructions which finally, through some perverse and magical effect, become evil. So that, ultimately, all of those events taking place in Central Europe, the liberation of these countries, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Sarajevo, are a terrifying demonstration of this catastrophic, recurrent scheme wherein evil takes place. And I do not understand evil as suffering, as pain. I define it, rather, as negativity, as the diabolical nature of things when they are reversed into their opposite, so that they never reach their finality, nor even go beyond it and thus become, at that specific time, monstrous. A good part of monstrosity, in our banality, is just that: all phenomena become extreme. Because of the media, our scientific means, our knowhow, progress all take an uncontrollable, inhuman dimension. Evil, for me is just that form.
I do not interpret it on the level of experienced pain, in which case I have nothing to say, any more than anybody else, except from a moral viewpoint, but I do not want to consider that. I interpret it not by bracketing it off, but by relativizing it. And I can only write while doing this in my own life. But I do not want to be more specific. There is a logic about writing, about thought, about philosophizing, yes, a stoic logic in that sense. One cannot add pathos, a subjective dimension, nor a collective sense of things to the vision one may have of the world, as well as of nature. Although, of course, when I say this I am quite aware that such a position is provocative, paradoxical and ultimately unacceptable. I do understand people’s anger against such a position. And it is also true that of all this does not leave me indifferent. One can participate physically and morally in collective grief and since we are talking about this, I also believe that it is a Stoic’s duty, if there is one, not to sublimate, not to abstract, not to distance oneself, but to say: such is the rule of the game and this is how I play it. To maintain this ultimate ironic possibility may be the essence of grief, the obsession of grief, the therapeutic obsession to dispose of evil, but those may not constitute the last word of history. I cannot say much more about it although I do recognize that such a position exposes itself to very serious charges.
CTHEORY: The question which most easily to mind in line with what Caroline was asking you relates to what I would call the morning after. To offer one’s eye may well be seductive, overlooking the physical discomfort of the initial moment, but what happens the next day when one finds oneself blind in one eye? Is not the choice obvious between the suffering of seduction and eternal infirmity? Bodies do obliterate other losses.
Jean Baudrillard: Stories do not have a day after; they are made to be used up. There too, if you take things literally that becomes unacceptable. Ultimately, right, one is in the realm of cruelty, in a certain sense. And what now could happen the next day if not vengeance? In every respect sacrifice has no final end in that sense. It has no day after, in the sense that it has no end since it reproduces itself. Each extends it. In every way, we know well enough that it is a little game, like money that one wins or loses in a game. Money won in a game does not leave the game. It must be burnt up, consumed like that, in the game. And it seems to be the same thing in a system of gift-giving, of sacrifice, where there is no day after, no point at which one would settle accounts. No point at which one would say: “So, I have been robbed. I am the loser. I have been sacrificed and I must avenge myself.” No, one keeps on playing. One can perhaps reply to your question, “what happens the day after?”, by saying that at that point one rips out the other eye, and solves the problem!
CTHEORY: How is the concept of strategy used? It is implicit that it connotes a form of subjectivity, and yet it is used in such a way that subjectivity is undermined, or placed in a context where it is made volatile or fragile. Moreover, strategy being originally a military metaphor, to what extent does it retain today martial connotations which complicate its sense even more?
Jean Baudrillard: Yes, there I agree with you. The term strategy represents an opportunity because it is apt. It is a nice term. It has form, it speaks to the imaginary. It has a form of mastery and, at the same time, it is deployed within space. But it no longer means anything great in my opinion, because, for there to be a strategy, there has to be a subject of the strategy, someone who has a will, a representation of the outcome. There has to be a finality. If the strategy has to become logistically chancy, it is no longer a strategy properly speaking. Thus, one can still use this term in a metaphorical sense perhaps, but it has certainly lost its military reference, and perhaps even its reference to a finality.
When I use it in the expression “fatal strategies”, it is clear that it no longer has any finality in itself. It is a type of fatal process, a process in which there is certainly no more subject, no more subjectivity. Fatal strategy for me is a strategy of the object. Which means nothing, to be sure! How could an object have a strategy? It would be absurd. But all the same, I like to apply things that are paradoxical. I also speak of objective illusion. Illusion, if it is contrary to a truth principle, cannot be based on objectivity. But I like to bring these two terms together all the same to create a clash between them. Thus fatal strategy is, effectively, an expression which describes a process, a reversibility that is in the order of things, and this is, at the moment, truly delirious, fatal. We are all inside it, but we are nevertheless a vectorial element of the thing, though not in the sense of subjects. At this point it has to be said that this supposes such relativity in the subject-object relation that it is that which becomes fatal.
We witness the loss of subjectivity on the one hand, and the intervention of the object itself in the game in a fatal, decisive and determinant way. And the fact that it is no longer the subject that possesses things when, properly speaking, there is only a strategy of the subject, the fact of speaking of the strategy of objects is a paradox, a kind of metaphorical transfer of things. But, as discourse itself is so grounded in subjectivity in this sense, we do not have an objective discourse available in the sense I intend it, which has nothing to do with scientificity, but which would be the discourse of the object. Well, we do not have it. What we have is the event itself, the flow of the world itself, and there is there, if not a strategy, at least a rule of the game. Regardless, I think that there is a rule. But I am not the one who is going to say that. It is truly unreadable; it is a secret. But somewhere there is a logic in the unfolding of things, even if it is a crazy logic. Let us call it strategy. Why not! It is, all the same, the way that the discourse of sense tries to describe non-sense. But clearly, one will always remain between the two. There will not be any objectivity there in the scientific sense of the term. That is not possible.
CTHEORY: It seems clear at this point that a younger generation of philosophers, such as Luc Ferry, Alain Renaut, of social critics, such as Michel Maffesoli, or even of less young ones, such as Alain Touraine (Retour de l’acteur, 1988, trans. The Return of the Actor, 1990; Edgar Morin, Pour un nouveau commencement, 1991), have focused on the return of this same subject. Certainly not in the same terms as their humanist predecessors, or their foundationalist ones, but upon the subject nevertheless, let us leave it undefined for the moment… I found it quite striking that in your Cool Memories (1987), you began to sketch some of his/her defining features (“What has been exuberantly demolished is being reconstructed sadly”). Except that, in this particular case, sadness is yours only and the authors mentioned above do not appear to share your grief. Are you interpreting their efforts as a self-delusional journey? Or alternatively, are you interpreting them as a curious ecological process and a re-cycling temptation for the end of a century: a bit of postmodernity, a sprinkle of liberalism, a dab of Kantian ethics with, at the end, a solid dose of optimism while facing the grief of the rest of the world? Maffesoli and Ferry are notably more optimistic than their elders, Morin and Touraine are more prudent. What is your position upon this so-called return of the subject?
Jean Baudrillard: In Maffesoli’s case, you are dealing with a very specific subject, since the latter is inscribing his position within a form of tribality. To me it looks like a tribal resurgence in which the subject has become the expression of a specificity, of a singularity. One observes a tribality and a singularity conjoined, in a way. For myself, I am inclined to think that such tendencies are not residual, but represent an elaboration upon or around vestigial elements which may well be alive, which function as the scattered fragments of a totality, a globality capable, in spite of everything to organize the world and the subject as the convenor of that world. This subject had created a form of philosophy, of the “becoming-subject” of the world. We do not need to invoke Hegel here, but all the same, his texts signalled a certain power, specifically a conceptual power, and as everyone knows it does not exist today. My view is that what you are describing today is a form of reparation, that we all are involved in such reparations today, in the S.O.S. subject, or in the S.O.S. subjectivity [The term S.O.S has recently been used in the context of social and political activism, e.g., S.O.S. Racisme, an organisation founded by Harlem Desir concerned with combatting racism against non-European immigrants has mobilized considerable attention -transl]. Such a subject, moreover, does not appear to be a divided one, a really alienated one drawing all of its energies from its alienation, but, rather a reconstituted one, a re-synthesized one within which you cannot discern this pull, this divisiveness with all the consequences they entail upon symbolic and imaginary levels. Such a subject is the standard figure, robot of a reconstituted subject trying to re-coup its residual vestiges, or whatever is left of them. It could be an ecological subject, and then one would witness the ecology of the subject, the saving of the subject, since it is quite evident that it has been threatened by a very simple evidence and symptom: the disappearance of its object. If it did not die purely and simply, this subject as well as that which it pretended to objectify, to master, now presently escapes it just as its position of power, of mastery, escapes it too. That subject is not even supposed to know, to be able to believe in anything, it cannot even believe in itself. And among those who reactivate this subject, who turn it into an actor, even those people know that it has lost its integrity as a subject, its conviction to adhere to its own effort to change the world. It does not believe in it anymore; it pretends to, it is a form of strategy, a posthumous strategy. That subject is a survivor and one witnesses the survival of the subject or the revival of the subject. Of course it is all about subjectivity, as it is in the interest of all those disciplines right now, sociology, psychology, philosophy to save their subject. Then it might be the case that, given the disappearance of this active subject and its passive counterpart, one presently witnesses the effects of a subject which attempts to reconstitute around itself the elements of a willpower, of a vision of the world. I really do not believe this. But this being said, there might be an effect of re-innovation, of renovation after a long period of philosophical, or may be structuralist destructuring of the subject. It is not mine, but that does not matter. It may also be possible that we are observing a pendulum effect, the weighing scales tilting one way since in the history of ideas one could witness an internal phenomenon, a reactional one, vis-a-vis the history of the world. Because in fact it appears that the subject is only a vanishing point at the moment, to such an extent that it may have reached its fading point and what you are describing may only be a resurgence in the philosophical world. I certainly do not look upon it as a credible phenomenon, not for myself in any case.
CTHEORY: Sometime in France, after the socialist victory of 1980, light-years in a way, I noticed a very healthy reaction on your part, on that of Lyotard as well (The Intellectual’s Grave), when you both stressed that intellectuals should not speak in anyone’s name, except in their own. But such were the times in the early eighties when the Left finally had access to power there. It is also clear that you did express such discomfort in your interview with Shevtsova (Gane, 79). Nevertheless, some fourteen years later, British and American intellectuals, such as Tony Judt and Susan Sontag have enunciated interesting reminders to French intellectuals. They did so without any moralizing intent, but firmly. Since you were mentioned let us talk about the latter. Sontag, in particular, enunciated discomfort about the French intelligentsia on the line of fire if you wish, in Sarajevo where she produced the first act of Waiting for Godot. This otherness which she invoked was a humble, physical choice, a presence which did not force itself, did not operate in a grandiloquent manner, a-la Glucksmann so to say (he descended upon the burning city for a few hours, just to explain while quoting you, that wars are made, won, or lost on TV). Sontag, with her defiance, is determined to return to that city, to produce this play with actors who want to live, to survive, to play, even if they occasionally need to lie down on the floor as they are too tired, too hungry or too ragged. “Because I want to finish that play, I had to be there with them” says she. In 1993, it probably is a desperate choice, a form of refusal against the worn-out pragmatism of Vance and Owen, an act deprived of any illusions about our collective cowardice and yet essential to remind a blind Europe it should minimally come out of its anomia if it wants Bosnia to survive.
The questions I would like to ask you are the following: first, the realist abjection you were mentioning in The Illusion of the End, rather than an insistence upon actual interventions, may well be the acceptance of an inevitability which does not cost us anything and leaves us prostrated as couch potatoes in front of our screens. Then if people as Sontag were not doing what they’re doing, who would do it? How do you define the role of individuals, be it water-engineers, intellectuals, pall-bearers, writers or surgeons in those micro-spaces which presently constellate our planet?
Jean Baudrillard: I would like to agree with you. I would love it if there were the simple possibility to finish off this pain. Because if, when one does what Sontag does, it is with no illusion whatsoever, beyond any objective, independently from any goal, any result, to save, to save what? Whatever it is, a form of conscience, pride, a sort of: “I do it in spite of everything”, then I can see that. And it is a heroic act, in the sense that heroism has always been without illusions. Real heroes, are always in that sense tragic. They do not exactly foresee the result of their actions. But that is the same thing, one cannot be heroic alone, in that sense I am almost collectivistic. To me, an act does not have meaning by itself, except in an absurd context. Maybe suicide does, maybe in fact what we are looking at here is a form of suicide. I am not sure. But for a choice such as Sontag’s to be meaningful, even if it is without illusion, it has to have repercussions upon other consciences, and especially within the conscience of those to whom it is destined, such as the people from Bosnia, or the others.
And this is where the clockwork breaks down, because the absorption of all this, by the resonance of the sounding board on which it falls, as it is completely perturbed, falsified, mediatised, this anticipated absorption, through the precession of whatever you do, that is what distresses me. I understand one doing it anyway, to save one’s own illusions, the illusion of one’s will. But is it meaningful to do it? If there is no intellectual world operating as a sounding board, one which would be in solidarity with such an act and which would be capable of extracting a meaning from it, why do it? If one cannot create repercussions, reverberations for such an act to bring it back within history, so that it *were an event*, then there is no point in doing it. In that sense I would be extremely, not opportunistic, but realistic, it is realpolitik I would invoke and suggest that if one does this, chooses to do this, it has to be an event. Not that it should be important, but it should create a rupture within the information continuum. Did it, or did it not, create a rupture? Everything hinges upon this. Otherwise it is hard to assess it as a rupture. Of course, one may entertain the idea that if everyone does one’s bit, all of this will produce a primitive accumulation of courage, actions and will ultimately produce an event. But today I do not believe it. Now we are, as Paul Virilio has put it, living in real time, and real time means fatality. Actions have no antecedent, even when they refer to other revolutionary periods, they do not have any finality, even in a long term context, as no one knows where this is coming from and it all happens within real time. And such a real time manages to set it all up in a state of total ephemerality. Susan Sontag’s act is limited. It cannot operate incognito, it is automatically mediatised, that is for sure. This in itself does not represent a radical objection, but it points out a tendency. Information is not what it used to be a long time ago. In the past, something would take place, then one would know it had taken place, then others would hear about it. Now, one knows everything before it has even taken place, and incidentally, it does not even have the time to take place. Mediatisation is a precession, you could call it the precession of simulacra within time. One is in a world where, in order to respond to a reality, to the importance of things, one needs to be far ahead, in an extreme way, one would need to precede the precession itself, to anticipate those simulacra, otherwise the clockwork, the system will be present before we are there. The simulacra will be ahead of us everywhere.
This was the situation of the Prague student and his double. His double was always there before him. Whenever he would go and meet someone for a duel for instance, the other had come before him, his adversary had been killed. So there was no reason for him to exist. We now live in such a system. Can one move forward? In a global situation, one is hostage, complicitous even with such a situation. Such is the effect of the Stockholm syndrome: within such events, victims and executioners become in some way complicitous. It is monstrous, but real. Between the hostage and hostage-takers a form of complicity establishes itself.
In order to be able to have a bearing upon that immediate event, which is already devoid of its meaning, one would need to be far ahead of the game, in a state of extraordinary anticipation. One can try to do so, through one’s intellect, or one’s writing, although today it is remarkably harder to do so in practical terms. Sontag’s gesture, and this is not a value judgment, or a judgment on her courage, because there was a real virtue in doing what she did, but virtues are something else. Strategically, if one uses that word, then there, I would be more cynical. There is division of labour that should be respected. Even if there are any intellectuals left – and I am not sure I am one of them, even if I appear to share in such a life, appear to share a specific discourse – I do not share in that complicity of intellectuals who perceive themselves as responsible for *something*, as privileged with a sort of conscience-radicalness used to be the privilege of intellectuals and now it has been moved on to another space. Subjects such as Susan Sontag cannot intervene anymore, even symbolically, but once again this is nota prognosis or diagnosis.
CTHEORY: Would it be possible to say that the hyperreal is a state where there is too much reality and not enough ideology? Have we become ideological paupers? Not in the sense that we still believe in it, in fact rather the opposite, in the sense that it used to be our alibi, our excuse on the terrain of subjective irony, something in fact in which not to believe. Interestingly, it has even become difficult to be cynical these days!
Jean Baudrillard: Yes, it is true, since in every respect nobody believes in it any longer. And there lies the problem, when nobody believes in it any more. And not only in relation to ideology, but to indifference as well. Indifference was a fantastic quality, something almost stoical. It was very good to be indifferent in a world which was not, where there were differences, conflicts. So this kind of indifference, of a strategy of indifference, created a privileged situation. But in a world that has become completely indifferent what would it serve? It would be necessary to become different again in order to differentiate oneself from a world which has, objectively, become indifferent. That history is very pernicious.
It is the same thing for art with its power of illusion. What does this become in a world which itself ends up being totally illusory, even random? It becomes very difficult to find a form of intervention like that. So ideology… yes, the world is now so totally ideologized where everything passes through the narrative of ideology that it no longer serves any purpose to have any. Out of that follows the situation, the transcendence if you like, of ideology which actually, in fact, no longer exists.
I had an experience with simulation and the simulacrum. Nowadays I have had enough of it – 20 years of it, or almost, is enough! Something interesting happened to me recently on this subject, in relation to Japan. There was an erudite Japanese who had come to interview me and I asked him why for a number of years he had been translating my books I had not received any word of it. I had been translated there several times before, and I had been told at that time “Ah, simulation and the simulacrum! In Japan you are an important spokesman.” So I asked him why I no longer heard about readers’ reactions and he told me, “But it is very simple, very simple you know. Simulation and the simulacrum have been realized. You were quite right: the world has become yours… and so we no longer have any need of you. You have disappeared. You have been volatilized in reality, or in the realization of hyperreality. It is over. In terms of theory, we no longer need you, and there is no longer a need to defend your theories.” That is the paradox of utopia made real; it clearly makes every utopian dimension perfectly useless.
So I do not know if that answers your question, but ideology seems to me now to be so old a word that in some respects I do not even like to talk about it. In short, if it were true what Marx said, that it is the effect of a reaction of the superstructure on the infrastructure, a mode that reflects the conflictual relation of superstructure and infrastructure… but clearly one can no longer give it a fundamental interpretation today except to produce a referential discourse which itself no longer has the effect of a real clash in the reality of the infrastructure, but is the legacy of a conceptual discourse that is already archaic/ancient. It becomes a kind of ideological zombie of itself, an artefact of itself. But then, without knowing it because everybody eventually takes up the language of ideology, everybody ideologizes things, it becomes our anchor.
As for me, I believe deeply that no one truly believes in it any longer at all. But it will always be there, and that is still the role, unfortunately, of the intellectual class, the political-intellectual class, which maintains the fiction of ideological discourse. Everyone pretends all the same to consume it since otherwise there would be panic. But at a profound level all this has no more credibility. This is what makes everything suddenly collapse, some day or other. It is a collapse that takes place because for a long time there is no longer been any credible basis to the thing at all. We have always wondered why, in the East, everything happened so fast, without, apparently, any possible foreshadowing of the collapse. Well, it is simply that everything had been completely devitalized for a long time, and the discourse was no longer anything more than a parody of itself. Eventually, a reality that is only a parody of itself will cave in without resistance. There is not even any need to give it a push. Moreover, this new type of event is interesting, arising effectively out of indifference and no longer out of a will to action but out of a long inertia which has sapped the system. And then sooner or later, it implodes.
CTHEORY: Given the allusions to the Manichean nature of your strategy, irony is a rather isolated term here. It functions well with parody, but the latter hardly appears in your texts. Why not? Is it because the contradiction between then is already contained within irony?
Jean Baudrillard: You say parody does not appear very much? Though I like the term well enough, parody is still perhaps a little too theatrical, too specular, in spite of everything. The parodic still has a certain power. It is true that I use the term irony a lot more, and what is more, I do not use it in the subjective sense any more. It is no longer subjective or romantic irony, nor humour in that sense. Rather it is a form of irony that is pataphysical, but objective. Before, it was subjective irony. It was to some extent connected to critique, to a critical, romantic, negative point of view, to a form of disillusion. The new irony seems to me rather to be an excess of positivity, of reality. And that is why I call it pataphysical because pataphysics, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu is precisely that. It is the too full, the too much of itself, it is an absolute, total over-awareness, positivity without fault. Ubu’s big gut will clearly explode one day. And that is metaphysical irony, the irony of our world, and it is related to a kind of protuberance and excrescence of the system. It is no longer ridiculous in the classic theatrical sense, it is pataphysical. Ubu swallowed his own superego.
Everything is at the same time untouchable and non-existent, and that is the irony of non-existence, of in-significance. It is more radical than the Other. The Other was still, and that, moreover, is what gave it beauty and charm, complicity in the object, whereas irony now pertains to events themselves. The events in the East, where all of a sudden, at a time when one could have believed in the fall of capital, we witness the fall of communism. And that seems to be an ironic event to me, perfectly unforeseeable, and nevertheless dependent on a fantastic logic. It is that irony, rather, that I would insist on now. But it is difficult to thematize because it no longer lends itself to laughter, nor even to a smile really! Perhaps there is an object somewhere that smiles, but we do not know it.
CTHEORY: There are times when you almost speak as an Albigiensis.
Jean Baudrillard: An Albigiensis, yes a Manichean. Certainly Manichean in The Transparency of Evil.
CTHEORY: There is a paradox which captures my attention in all this. On the one hand I hear a certain Albigiensianism, which sooner or later is read as a form of prophetic interpretation, it could be Jeremiah in the old Testament, or even Job on his garbage heap, in other occasions you almost sound as Ecclesiates. The paradox, for me, hinges around the fact that while I know you feel a perfect repulsion for moralistic rigorism, is it possible to behave as a prophet, especially as accurately as you have sometimes turned out to do without being also a rigorous moralist?
Jean Baudrillard: rigorous… yes, to an extent that is a quality, although rigourism is a flaw, rigour, an extreme rigour is a strength. I would be in favour of extreme rigour. Radicalism is also a form of rigour as well. A rigourous logic seems to be necessary. Pity, mercy towards reality are not exactly my choice. I would rather go in the opposite direction. And, in a way, that is true, this could be perceived as a prophetic moralism. Prophetic… well, I am not sure, I guess one can extrapolate. I, in a way, love to extrapolate, take an idea to its utmost limit, to its extreme. Is this being prophetic? Sometimes, it happens to be right, but not necessarily. I do remember that someone had tried to make a inventory of all the inane comments I had made, well maybe not inane, but at least illusory and they had found quite a few. It was a newspaper which had done this, I think it was the Globe-Hebdo, or some such publication. In a way, it provided me with some publicity for things which had indeed taken place. But I had not uttered those prophecies out of a moralistic sense, although I am not sure whether I am devoid of it, I might have inherited some from my ancestors, who were peasants. So that my rigour would be of such a kind. It might come from a sense of repulsion, rather than moralism. Indeed I may be moral in the sense that everything I describe, I do from a sort of distance, cynicism, objectivity, from a paradoxical stance also. I do entertain deep repulsions, simultaneously with some attractions. Of course morals are being sustained by resentments and repulsions. And I must confess that I do feel an objective repulsion towards a number of things. In order to describe something you need to be nasty, to be propelled by the energy of repulsion. The Beaubourg architecture, the Beaubourg aesthetics aroused that in me and I described them with a degree of loathsomeness. But ultimately, when one ends up giving the object its monstrous dimension, its scale, or scope strikes you. And in order to find them or to express them, you need to absorb this object and identify with it as well as reject it, violently even. Writing also comes from that locus. It is an acting-out, as we were saying yesterday. Morals also reprove, reject, forbid although I am not certain that the analogy holds the same primitive reference, that the primitive scene would be the same.
CTHEORY: If you had to describe yourself, today, in a quick shot, would you describe yourself as The Accidental Tourist of the end of this century: little luggage, few illusions and gifted with that psychic stoicism the end of a millenium leaves us with at dawn?
Jean Baudrillard: Tourist… well that is not very positive. I guess a form of speculation, a capacity for crossing, traversing yes. A tourist goes through, demonstrates a certain transversality, no doubt, goes to the end of things, or around them. If going around an object or looking at it from multiple viewpoints, defines the tourist, yes that is true. But there is also the fact that tourists avoid, let off, abandon a number of belongings and I did strive to do that. Why? because I probably was the happy owner of valuable gear and I tried to get rid of it. I tried not to refer to all of the history of ideas, philosophy even, to all of that richness I admired the most. Somewhere they are still close to me, but I did try not to make references to them, I chose to forsake them, to abandon objects, that is true. Did I try to create a power vacuum? I do not know whether the term tourist has that meaning, but it invokes a comparable mobility, the absence of primitive, or secondary accumulations, that is me. I tried to avoid accumulations, rather than lean towards expanding. I am not a gambler, not a spendthrift, but one needs to be able to sacrifice in order to re-create a vacuum, and not the other way around, that is clear.
CTHEORY: I was thinking about The Accidental Tourist, when asking you this question, as in Cool Memories you delineate beautiful meanders around the subject of exile, which you describe as a wonderful and comfortable structure, marked by unreality and the end of the world. Have you been looking for those as fragments to be reached outside of a France filled with greyness and chagrined undecisiveness?
Jean Baudrillard: Exile, yes of course. I am quite aware that I operate from a prejudiced position against nationalism, from one which is anti-nationalist, or even anti-cultural. Somewhere within me there is a distancing away from what is closer to the bone, for that which is closer to one’s own culture, one’s country, family is that from which one cannot escape. Such a promiscuousness I perceive as dangerous and therefore I have always tried to distance myself from it, sometimes with some partiality about what is the closest to me. And yet, I do value intimacy, roots, ancestry. It is maybe because I have those roots within me that I can afford to become the perfect cosmopolitan since I know I will always have that form, that substance which solidity confers upon oneself and that I will never lose those elements. Therefore I never look upon the world as a lost object and I can afford to loose sight of it, especially that which is closer to me, territory or country. That is true as far as France is concerned, where I have always had an anti-cultural prejudice, clearly I have never forgiven culture, it contains too many unacceptable elements and the world becomes increasingly unacceptable because it “culturalizes” itself at full-speed. Everything has now turned into culture and it has even become very difficult to go beyond one’s own culture since one finds it everywhere. There will even be a moment when one will not be able find any deserts. Deserts are a metaphor for disappearing objects, evanescence beyond culture. Now they have become increasingly culturalized they are virtually impossible to find.
Patagonia has become a new frontier, absence as much as the locus of absence, have become extremely difficult to access. The real danger, that is true is to end up wallowing in an obsessional negativity vis a vis the others’ culture and the rest of the world. And it is true that I have developed my own biased distance, but I think it is better that way, rather than the other way around.
CTHEORY: In the interviews you have given, from Paris to Australia via California, you often speak of the cinema, of the plastic arts, architecture, painting. What place do the other four senses occupy in your life – taste, smell, touch, hearing?
Jean Baudrillard: Ah, we have almost come back to the opening question! How shall I put it? I have not had any musical culture, or acculturation to music, practically none. These are things which later on, in adulthood, you definitely miss. As for painting, the situation was a little bit autodidactic, but ultimately there I know where this is all coming from. Cinema much more because I really was a bit of a cinema fan at a certain point in my life, while I am much less so today because I no longer happen to find myself there and no longer see what it is any more, that is true. And then lastly architecture? Yes, that much more so because of friends in architecture, because of a milieu I knew well, though not through any initial intervention on my part. And so, then, I have finished up with photography which was and still is exactly a register which is completely intimate and profound for me. Not a profoundness of substance, but perhaps on the surface, though very intense all the same. I have not practised it for very long, perhaps a dozen years, which makes photography as intense for me as writing, though in a completely different way. Yet perhaps it has given me pleasures, even more intense than writing.
Is it a relationship with an image, and can you call it an image? It is perhaps for me something else. It is more magical than the real thing. It is the object that, right from the start, has deeply intrigued and obsessed me. I began with the object, after that perhaps the Object with a capital letter, or even the metaphysical object which can be anything one wishes, then perhaps the object as radical otherness, like radical exoticism. For me, the photographic image is a little bit like that, and that is different from cinema. I am not the only one to think that the photographic image is superior to the cinematic image because cinema, in relation to photography, is a loss in terms of illusion, the power of illusion. Of course, it is a progression, an objective one if you like, but like all progress it can very well be precisely, objectively, a loss. Cinema itself, right inside its practice, has lost the force of illusion. It has lost it through colour, by all the improvements that have been made which have, in fact, always seems highly problematic to me. So the photographic image restores a sort of absolute moment. What Barthes says about it is very nice, though perhaps too nice. I have not really thought about it. It is a raw element, evidently, and I try to keep it that way, harsh, and to practise it harshly, a dimension I recognize quite willingly. For the other senses, even art and painting, I have never been involved in them except at a remove, and rather episodically. I have never really addressed things from that point of view, although sometimes I have found myself involved in these spaces in spite of myself, with New York artists and the simulationists. And that was an extremely ambiguous adventure. I found myself taken in there like a referent, a referential hostage. I was badly treated. One minute I found myself praised to the skies, and then cut down maliciously. Fine, none of that was my doing. It was an unwitting destiny.
Choice, desire, investments, these would be in the area of the image, effectively, in the domain of the image, and more precisely in that of photography. I cannot really explain why; it is where I have found a sort of, not of alternative but of a total alternation with writing. Not to have anything but writing makes you really an intellectual, even if you do not like it all the same. Writing is, nonetheless, related more to discourse while photography can be done with a total singularity that is external, alien. Of course there is still a danger there that people end up identifying you as a photographer anyway, and then you find yourself co-opted once again. But for the moment, things are still O.K.!
The French version of this interview was published in Research in Semiotic Inquiry/Recherches semiotiques, Volume 16, No. 1-2, Spring 1996.
This interview was originally published by CTheory on March 8th, 1995.