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  Terrorism As a Virus: Baudrillard's Post-2001 Significance
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Terrorism As a Virus: Baudrillard's Post-2001 Significance

Reassessments of the French philosopher

by Chris Knipp
The Gulf War was so elaborately choreographed for the media, Baudrillard asserted, that it might as well not have been fought; that the media event "trumped" the actual one.
Now that the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard is dead (though the inevitable denials of the "reality" of such an "event" have been issued), it's lamented that his image is tarnished by pop reductions—most notably the Matrix franchise he himself explicitly repudiated. But those who want to save him have tended to underplay what for me is his most important work in terms of modern politics--his analysis of the effect of September 11. Simulacra and Simulations states what in principle is Baudrillard's primary idea: we live in an age of media over-stimulation amid copies of "reality" so intense ("hyperreal") they put the "real" to shame. But this outlook led Baudrillard straight out of Disneyland and consumerism into more dangerous waters—when he used his concept of the "hyperreal" to observe that in such terms (in his book title) The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

Baudrillard took flak for the perceived callousness of such a declaration. Was such phrasing ironic, cynical, self-dramatizing, willfully shocking or just a peculiarly postmodern-French way of talking? A little of all of those: all Baudrillard pronouncements must be translated, and at the same time are untranslatable. It's even doubtful whether or not he has conclusions to offer or wants us to draw any from studying his ideas. He wants to stimulate us more than he wants to inform us—to make us think; take a fresh look at things. But this "Gulf War" book obviously took him directly into the world of American imperialism and Middle East politics, which he looked at in a typically provocative way.

What he meant about the Gulf War by that title, of course, was that it was so elaborately choreographed for the media, it might as well not have been fought; that the media event "trumped" the actual one. Incidentally, though this was not his main concern, that war was so high-tech (on the winning U.S.-run side) that it wasn't "fought" in old-fashioned terms either. Compare the film "Jarhead," which visualizes Anthony Swofford's memoir of the war: the foot soldiers—actually not that, but trained snipers, whose job is to kill without being seen—never even get to encounter enemy troops except in the form of little shrunken charred remains. And they're never even allowed to fire on enemy officers, computerized search-and-destroy systems being preferred.
"The Spirit of Terrorism"
After the explosion of the Twin Towers on 9/11/01, Baudrillard reversed himself. If Gulf War I was a non-event, 9/11, he says right away, was "the 'mother' of all events:" a return to significance after a decade or so of event-draught in which nothing important had happened.

To be sure, Baudrillard's main concern was that the September 11 terrorists had created a moment of huge symbolic significance; but he's soon led into tactical observations. Baudrillard isn't particularly adept at political analysis. He had never gotten involved in politics the way so many of his colleagues did in the Sixties. But with September 11, politics and the vision of Baudrillard's philosophy came together, because the currency of terrorism is the manipulation of symbols. Baudrillard's L'Esprit du terrorisme (The Spirit of Terrorism), published in Le Monde shortly after 9/11 and some time later as a small book, is one of the most acute analyses of the events of that day and their implications that we have. This little book—and some follow-up pieces—may ultimately be more important than the French philosopher's implied denunciations of consumer culture and information overload, which arguably are only a more sardonic and downbeat version of Marshall McLuhan and other media critics—because the coolness of Baudrillard's post-9/11 analyses still carries the shock of the new.

Baudrillard defined the various reasons why the West can't win the "War on Terror"—notably its fear of death, and the fact that the only way to beat terrorists is the one thing it can't do, which is to ignore them.
Baudrillard turned out to have gotten Bin Laden down cold; to have defined the various reasons why the West can't win the "War on Terror"—notably its fear of death, and the fact that the only way to beat terrorists is the one thing it can't do, which is to ignore them. Of course it's not very Baudrillardian, I think, to put any of his writings to practical use or to draw conclusions from them. His style was to prod us with Gallic koans, paradoxes like "Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the 'real' country, all of 'real' America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral" (Simulacra and Simulations). And his way of looking at the first Gulf War has the limitation that it relies on western media, rather than al-Jazeera, whose "hyperreality" is generally bloodier and more "real." But what Baudrillard has to say about terrorism is not mere sophistry or media analysis, and profits by a keen sense of the power of desperation and the disadvantages of globalization, notably its side product of disenfranchised and discontented masses. In a way Baudrillard's analysis of September 11 in The Spirit of Terrorism is both disturbing and annoying, because of its seeming neutrality and coldness (he had to explain later that he was not defending terrorism, that that would be stupid; that he was only describing, not advocating). But this same chill and apolitical stance are like a breath of fresh air in the face of so much finger wagging and passion. He really does make us think and see things in a clear new light.
"War on Terror"
Every time the phrase "War on Terror" is seriously used, we're swept back out into the "desert of the real," the hyperreality of non-events created for propaganda purposes, to manipulate the public through generating an endless state of fear. Fighting terror is a non-starter, if it is seen as making war, taking prisoners, torturing them, locking them up and throwing away the key. Doing such things is not really fighting terror at all, but responding to it in exactly the way that most satisfies the terrorists themselves—with state terror—and (as Baudrillard pointed out in his "War Porn" essay on Abu Ghraib) in the way that Americans most humiliate themselves by humiliating others. Obviously the seeds of terror are most successfully grown in Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and other such compounds and in the larger "carceral" realities of Gaza and the West Bank and the overstuffed elitism of Saudi Arabia's non-functioning society, each of these being places and conditions nurtured by western and especially U.S. policy. And the same could and does multiply in the many other cream-off-the-top economic booms in former third world countries that feed the first world through outsourcing, or the creation of new higher levels of minimum-wage, gentrified slave labor.

What's lacking in Baudrillard's discussion of 9/11, which he extended in Requiem for the Twin Towers, and a further extension, The Violence of the Global, is a practical analysis of the specific details. He remains aloof from politics, or he might have gone to more of an effort to point out how futile and obvious were the Bush administration's unilateral attacks on Afghanistan and then Iraq. His focus had already shifted, it appears, from hypertrophied consumerism to globalization before the Al Qaeda attacks, and he seized upon 9/11 as proof of how the globalization process leads to internal vulnerability and fractionalization. Maybe it's not so clear as he would have us think just how all these economic and political forces are going to sort themselves out. Baudrillard disregards the fact that there are, depending on your politics which is which, "good" and "bad" globalizations that are working simultaneously. His generally apolitical outlook prevents him from observing such nuances. Seeing globalization in commercial media terms made him think it was nothing but homogenization and exploitation. There are obviously strong counter forces using global means such as the Internet to do grassroots organizing for positive change, but that seems to have eluded him.

Baudrillard's metaphor of a virus, however, is very much to the point. It's obvious that there are hundreds if not thousands of Al Qaedas, and that you can't squash the movement by means of individual attacks any more than you can stop a swarm of locusts with a fly swatter. This leads him early in The Spirit of Terrorism to an apocalyptic vision of a suicidal global empire (from the translation of Chris Turner):
Terrorism, like viruses, is everywhere. There is a global profusion of terrorism, which accompanies any system of domination as though it were its shadow, ready to activate itself anywhere, like a double agent. We can no longer draw a demarcation line around it. It is at the very heart of this culture which combats it, and the visible fracture (and the hatred) that pits the exploited and the underdeveloped globally against the Western world secretly connects with the fracture internal to the dominant system. That system can face down any visible antagonism. But against the other kind, which is viral in structure—as though every machinery of domination secreted its own counterapparatus, the agent of its own disappearance—against that form of almost automatic reversion of its own power, the system can do nothing. And terrorism is the shock wave of this silent reversion.*
Along with this powerful idea is the sense he explores that the greater the power the greater the paranoia; and that when an enemy is invisible it comes to seem internalized. Like the far more political and specific analyst Chalmers Johnson in his recent Blowback Trilogy, Baudrillard's provocative essays on 9/11 and its aftermath depict a western empire that may be teetering on the brink of self-destruction.
©Chris Knipp 2007. Chris Knipp, of San Francisco, writes about movies, politics and art on his blogsite.

See especially: Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism. London/New York, Verso (2002), pp. 10-11.

Copyright © 2007 The Baltimore Chronicle. All rights reserved.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on July 3, 2007.

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