The Spirit of Terrorism
By Jean Baudrillard
Subversive little Verso has published a trio of philosophical essays on the meaning of September 11. They are slight, elegant books, maybe too elegant, with stylized covers chipped from the postered walls of 1968 Paris. The manifesto format and slick design is especially well-suited to the essay by Jean Baudrillard, who emerged from the student-run barricades to become a major and severely playful figure in the pantheon of French postmodernism.
Readers are likely familiar with Baudrillard through the title and thesis of his much-discussed 1991 work The Gulf War Did Not Happen, which percolated down from pomo academia to the public as theoretical works rarely do. The book was a daring extension of the idea of the "spectacle", a fascination of which informed the Situationist mileu of Baudrillard's university days. With the rise of manufactured "events," and the total saturation of visual media, reality has lost objective truth; so much so that events no longer "happen" in any traditional sense. Baudrillard is of course aware that the bombs dropped on Baghdad definitely "happened" for Iraqis, but is concerned with how the West experiences the world through the surround lens of a saturating and manipulative media culture that packages and sells illusion as reality from dish soap to war to the welfare state.
Baudrillard revels in controversy. He is the enfant terrible of the intellectual talk shows (they still have those in France) and he loves to play the acrobat jester. His post-Marxist notion of "radicality" is all about making extreme, provocative statements for their own sake with the hope of puncturing and rupturing the lullaby illusions of late capitalism. Boiled down to its crudest, Baudrillard is the intellectual godfather of the "Question Reality" bumper sticker.
But not taking Jean Baudrillard literally is not the same as not taking him seriously. The Spirit of Terrorism is loaded with bold provocations that duck and jab in their legitimite demand to be reckoned with.
Toward the end of Terrorism, Baudrillard denies the "happening" of the attack on New York, folding it into his previous theory of the "psuedo" nature of any event fed on by media, i.e., the image always consumes the event. But The Spirit of Terrorism is a dissection of what he admits to be the most important event of our times. It is, for Baudrillard, still primarily a symbolic event, but one that has fully re-opened the wound of History. "Events are not on strike anymore," he writes. "With the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, we might even be said to have before us the absolute event, the 'mother' of all events."
What Jean Baudrillard has to say about this "mother" of all events is not for the soft-headed, the squeamish, or the flag wavers willing to volunteer their brains as cannon fodder in the "war on terror." Nor is it for traditional lefties who turn to Chomsky to make sense of 9/11 using the old categories of right, wrong, and clockwise political karma. Like his late peer Michel Foucault, Baudrillard leaves morality to the cops. "Terrorism is immoral," he writes. "The World Trade Center event, that symbolic challenge, is immoral, and it is a response to a globalization that is itself immoral. So let us ourselves be immoral; and if we want to have some understanding of all this, let us go and take a little look beyond Good and Evil."
Baudrillard looks. He sees a system (capitalist democracy) struggling to universalize itself and failing. Terrorism is for him a natural virus; it is the inevitable resistance that arises to undermine any universalilzing creed. It is borne from the host and represents both the technological mastery and lurking death wishes of the dominant order. Terrorism combines the weapons and violence of the globalizing West with the West's own destruction fantasies, as reflected in countless disaster films.
For Baudrillard, the Cold War was the third world war and the new terrorism is the fourth. Globalization is battling itself, flailing and striking its own body after a cell of terrorists punctured a single infinitesmal but symbolically perfect, massive point, thereby creating a "gigantic suction or void, a gigantic convection." This is not war as we've known it, but is "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."
The system, by which he means the "hyperefficient" universalizing West, cannot win this war. It will attempt to use traditional counterforce against the virus and only spiral deeper downward. He sees terrorism's victory not only in the current slump in the capitalist system of production, consumption, speculation and growth, but also in what he calls the "subterranean ramifications" of 9/11: the self-cannibalism of the very tools the West was using to influence the rest of the world what Joseph Nye calls "soft power" such as the promise of freedom, democracy and prosperity.
"Liberal globalization is coming about [in the form of] police state globalization," writes Baudrillard. "The whole system gathers, transfixed...then perishes. [It is] entirely disarmed."
For Baudrillard, the ultimate symbol of this perishing was not the attack on the twin towers, but their collapse. He sees the fall of the towers as symbolic of the suicide of the West, and in this produces an image and idea of disturbing poetry.
Imagine they had not collapsed...the effect would not have been the same at all. The fragility of global power would not have been so strikingly proven. Seeing them collapse themselves, as if by implosion, one had the impression that they were committing suicide...Their symbolic collapse brought about their physical collapse, not the other way around...Their nerves of steel cracked. They collapsed vertically, drained of their strength.
On one level, the towers for Baudrillard merely represented technocratic monopoly capitalism: "the embodiment of a system no longer competitive, but digital and countable." Representative of the global circuitry of both hard capital and mental conditioning, Baudrillard holds a clear contempt for these "architectural monsters," and even goes so far as to say that the horror of death the 4,000 victims experienced in the towers cannot be separated from the horror they knew living and working in them.
But as a skilled philosopher and ironic aesthete non pareil, Baudrillard also finds the towers fascinating and lovely in the way that only perfect things can be. This is a man who once wrote that the most beautiful thing in the world is flying into LAX at night, over a dense and endless grid of desert lights, and the deep symbolism of the towers requires more than a knee-jerk condemnation of power and alienation.
The essence of the towers' pull for Baudrillard is the idea of their twinness. For him, non-competitive, monopoly capitalism (and consumerist media culture) can only be expressed in the form of a dual mirror image. "The fact that there were two of them," he writes, "signifies the end of any original preference." The doubling of the towers mirrored the exponential doubling of every image and product in global capitalism, a process that kills the authenticity of the original reference. The towers were thus the perfect embodiment of the end of "specificity" in thought and culture. They were, in short, the bland Janus twins standing athwart the end of History.
Baudrillard hated the towers because the end of History means the end of serious politics and the debasement of thought, but the towers' destruction has not changed this. Rather, the process has merely been accelerated. Terrorism, writes Baudrillard, will not deliver us from anything, or sentence us to anything more than a banal if terrible rerun of more lies and violence and waste. Putting a simple yet brilliant twist on Clausewitz's dictum, he calls terrorism and the ongoing response to it merely the "continuation of the absence of politics by other means."
One can get lost in this idea, just as one can get lost in Baudrillard's universe of symbolic imagination if one isn't careful. It isn't black or white or safe or logical in this world. It's more like the one we actually live in: spectral, confused, pulsing, maddening.