Coulter, Gerry: Ecology And Two Deaths, 06.10.09

Consider the story of the soldier who meets Death at a crossing of the marketplace, and he believes he saw him make a menacing gesture in his direction. He rushes to the king’s palace and asks the king for his best horse in order that he might flee during the night far from Death, as far as Samarkand. Upon which the king summons Death to the palace and reproaches him for having frightened one of his best servants. „I didn’t mean to frighten him. It was just that I was surprised to see this soldier here, when we had a rendez-vous tomorrow in Samarkand.“[1]

Discussions of political ecology today are often shrouded in an apocalyptic tone. I think this is a good thing given our history as a species which has evolved along a technological trajectory. What makes us human, perhaps more than anything else, is our elaborate tool making ability. Technology has long been crucial to what humans are and today it is not only a force we use to  adapt, but one to which we must adapt.  From the first pieces of flint, to parchment scrolls, the characters of languages, libraries, atomic devices, computers, all the way down to the digitalization of genetic codes, technology has been vital to our destiny as a species. After the first piece of flint was secured to a piece of wood to make an axe (for hunting and for murder), there was no turning back. We are neither innately good nor evil and we partake generously of both. The axe and the hammer contain as much evidence of who we are as does any “Holy Book”. As we look toward the future of life on earth we can depend upon humans to do both good and evil but we cannot necessarily be depended upon to act wisely and in our long term best interest. We can however, given our history, be depended upon to attempt technological solutions to any problem. One of our destinies is to eventually merge with technology and we have been ambivalent about this for the better part of six decades. Such are some of the most basic considerations informing the background against which discussions of political ecology should take place today.

Until the middle of the twentieth century humans managed to keep the upper hand over technology (although there were troubling signs during WWI as we watched almost an entire European generation literally fed to the machineries of the first advanced technological war). Hitler was there as a mere message boy but no doubt the first experiences of industrialized death left a mark on him. By 1945, and the end of his war, we had learned how to set off a chain of nuclear events from which we could only hope to hide deep underground. We have lived now for over half a century with the knowledge that the very technology which helps make us what we are has the ability to end what we are. We could somehow manage to imagine a few ragged survivors of a nuclear catastrophe but a genetic catastrophe would, no doubt, be thoroughly devastating. The atomic bomb and artificial intelligence seem rather tame now in a time of the likelihood of genetic terrorism, and the nanotechnologies with which we will profoundly redesign every species on the planet, including our own. The most important story of the 21st century will almost certainly be our encounter, at the level of a species, with death. It will probably arrive in one of two ways.

In one of our possible futures, the one that is of great concern to contemporary political ecologists, our current path will lead us to a dreadful ecological disaster that will wipe out most life on earth. There are many scenarios which describe this possible future and it is now a widely understood possibility. Fear of such ecological collapse is probably the primary motivating force behind efforts to devise a basic ecological survival strategy for humanity given the potential harm that our economics and technologies do to our natural environment. Most ecologists considering these issues rightly understand that what is at stake is the very survival of not only human life but the technologically engaged nature of that life. No one seriously thinks that we have a future that is a non-technological one any more than we have ever had a non-technological past. What most ecologists do agree upon is that our current political, economic and technological trajectories are heading us toward an ecological crisis that will lead to a total system failure. What most ecologists do not consider, in these urgent times of ecological distress, is the disturbing irony is that such a failure may actually be our last chance from something much worse – the success of the current system.

Another future scenario, also well understood, sees us able to avoid ecological collapse by making our human and technological systems sustainable. In the most glowing of these scenarios we will wipe out most (if not all) human ‘deformities’ and the possibility of an inherited disease will become a thing of the past (were these not also the dreams of Nazi science and eugenics?). In such a future we will also enjoy the birth of children whose characteristics have been carefully selected from a menu. The socialization of such expensive progeny will be carefully planned and parenting will almost certainly become a matter of dire responsibility in a world where, it is believed, little should be left to chance. Genetic cloning would almost certainly play a smaller role here than something we already know all too well – social cloning via various agencies of socialization (parents, schooling, mainstream media). Surely, in such a world, everyone would require a wearable mini-computer complete with retinal interface to the brain (the technology is already more than a decade old). Perhaps the ‘wear-comp’ could even correct our thoughts the way word processors today correct our typing.

The person walking along a street today engaged in conversation with a minute ear piece and microphone is one technological degree from being permanently networked when all of our  gadgets are available in the wear-comp. The “I-phone” and “Blackberry” are the bridging technology to the wear-comp and the early post human years of the tribulations of the experiment that will be the Networked People. From this world only mere humans will remain among the unplugged and the last humans (as we known humans today) will be found among the poorest – the ‘unconnected’. Of course there is a lot of criticism of this unfolding future but we know well that this criticism runs just behind the pace of the technologies which are making this future part of our present. Today we occupy a planet upon which a schizophrenic ecological discourse rages – a deepening of efforts to implement sustainable ecological measures running behind the simultaneous proliferation of enterprises of ecological annihilation.

But what if all the nay-sayers are wrong? What if our current system succeeds and we do build a genuinely brave new ecologically sustainable world glittering with advanced technologies? We could then live out our lives in total security. If we can avoid an ecological catastrophe we might enter into a utopian world of protection and security even greater than that of the present inhabitants of ‘gated’ communities. Computers would then generate the models of lives which will become as predictable as the weather – a world in which evil, all negative events, disease, and uncertainty are removed. This future is only as far away as the ability of the current system to adapt itself to ecological sustainability. But even here, among the most glowing scenarios, a problem becomes apparent: Can we imagine, really, a world more full of refined and measured death for a creative and thoughtful species than a predictable, networked, techno-future? Is this what proponents of sustainable market economies and advanced technology dream of? Whether or not it is, an artificial and technologically programmable future is almost a certainty if our current system succeeds.

Like the soldier riding through the night attempting to avoid his destiny, yet racing toward it in Samarkand, our way of life seems to have a rendez-vous with death which is probably unavoidable. What remains to be seen is which one. Will we as a species succumb to a probable technologically driven ecological catastrophe? Or, does an even worse fate await us – one in which the current system succeeds? These are deeply disturbing questions and the current discourse concerning political ecology will be better for not avoiding them.

I do not seek to defuse concern or to encourage pessimism but to encourage those concerned with political ecology, in a time of great enthusiasm for sustainability, to ask themselves just what kind of future we are trying to sustain? If political ecology is to be guided, as many would like it to be, by a concern to make the present system sustainable, it must also face the dire problems our continued systemic course will place on human freedoms and creativity. Are we really willing to accept systemic preservation at any cost? If the best we can do is sustain our current systemic trajectory, then perhaps we are far better off facing the kind of system failure which depends on a devastating ecological crisis.

Until someone can devise a scenario under which we can  both change our systemic path toward being utterly domesticated by technology while, and, at the same time avoiding ecological disintegration – I will remain on the side hoping for the lesser evil – ecological collapse. In a practical sense I hope that by advocating an apocalyptic stance, and encouraging others to do so, I can play a small role at least in flushing out the deeper implications of where political ecologies are headed today. Until political ecology can come to terms with the two deaths which we as a species currently face, I cannot help but feel that we are all a little closer to Benjamin’s Angel than we like to imagine we are:

The Angel of History does not move dialectically into the future, but has his face turned towards the past.  Where a chain of events appears to us, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at this feet. The Angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and join together that which has been smashed to pieces, but a storm is blowing from paradise and irresistibly propels him into the future toward which his back is turned, while the pile of ruins before him grows skyward. What we call progress is that storm.[2]

Works cited

Endnoten    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Baudrillard 1990, p. 72
  2. Benjamin 1969, p. 119

Coulter, Gerry: After ‚Disciplined‘ Thought: Baudrillard and Poetic Resolution, 11.03.09

My impulse comes from a radical temperament which has more in common with poetry (Baudrillard, 1993:131).

I. Introduction

During the past twenty-five years concepts such as Truth, Meaning, and the Real (the capital letters represent universality), have been subjected to radical criticisms. Today many students of society are only comfortable with the terms truth, meaning, and the real (lower case) to represent an understanding that all knowledge exist along local and restricted horizons – as partial objects (see, for example, Baudrillard, 1994:108). Goethe understood, two centuries ago, that the self is the only criteria for truth we will ever know. Between Goethe and today stand a phalanx of „disciplined“ knowledge known as the social sciences. Leaders in the various fields who constitute the „police“ of each social science often deploy so called „scholarly journals“ to monitor and regulate discourse in their field. Sometimes, in recent years, a new term „multidisciplinarity“ has not necessarily represented a challenge to the police but merely operated as a kind of academic INTERPOL. We are able today to once again take seriously Goethe’s insight because open-access journals (such as AVINUS Magazine) work to frustrate the academic police while focusing on a very high quality of discourse. Among some of the more liberating aspects of the present is that it is now possible to turn to non-traditional approaches and methods of inquiry such as photography, film, visual culture, art, and poetry as inspirations for social thought. Few have accomplished this in terms of the poetic with the fierce commitment to radicallity than Jean Baudrillard.

In this essay I point to Baudrillard’s effort to seek a poetic, rather than empirical, resolution of the world. Specifically, I argue that such an approach opens new ways of non-disciplined thinking which are more indebted to art, literature, and poetry than to any traditional school or methodology. From Baudrillard I have learned that what is at stake is the future of radical thought as it exists beyond all politics. To enter into the poetic is to leave the world of politics behind. It is a world of theory where the very act of writing itself is a form of politics. It is not necessary that the reader of this paper has read Baudrillard although it may stimulate a greater interest in doing so. I offer my Baudrillard-inspired assessment of the place of the poetic in inquiry today to those who accept that we do indeed have much to learn from photographers, poets, and artists of all kinds.

II. Poetry As A Way Out of Voluntary Servitude

Theory is a core issue for thoughtful inquiry today. For Baudrillard „theory could even be poetry“ (1990:24). I have never known anyone who needed the poetic to live and write as much as he did. Baudrillard’s world was our world – one that frequently drifts into delirium. In a delirious world one strategy is to adopt a delirious point of view – one without homage to any principle of Truth or causality (2000:68). Baudrillard was very clear about not being a poet but he understood that poems, parables, stories, and fables (fiction) are as „real“ as anything else in this world. It was his deep respect and appreciation for these forms which allowed him to grant a poetic singularity to events and to subject them to powerful challenges which often ended in radical uncertainty (Ibid.).

Often a fable can be used to illustrate a point. I wonder if Baudrillard ever did so more poetically than in his use of „Death in Samarkand“ to illustrate the distractions that can be caused by even a single sign:

Consider the story of the soldier who meets Death at a crossing of the marketplace, and he believes he saw him make a menacing gesture in his direction. He rushes to the king’s palace and asks the king for his best horse in order that he might flee during the night far from Death, as far as Samarkand. Upon which the king summons Death to the palace and reproaches him for having frightened one of his best servants. ‚I didn’t mean to frighten him. It was just that I was surprised to see this soldier here, when we had a rendez-vous tomorrow in Samarkand‘ (1990d:72).

That one (or an entire society) can run towards one’s fate by attempting to avoid it is the kind of poetic irony that informs this kind of thinking. In Baudrillard we find references to Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees in at least nine of his books (1983; 1990c; 1993b; 1993c; 1995; 1998; 2001b; 2001c; 2005b). This fable is brought forward into our own time [Mandeville wrote it in the early 18th century] as a poetic way of understanding that corruption is vital to a society’s success – „the splendor of a society depends on its vices“ (1993b:102). This fable goes some distance in explaining America today. Baudrillard also draws on the fable of The Sorcerers Apprentice (1997b:24); Guido Ceronetti’s Incest Fable (1993b and 2001:93); and several fables from Borges: The Mirror People (1996:148); The Lottery in Babylon (1990d:150; 1996:91; 2001:93); and The Map and the Territory (1994:1; 1996:47; 2000:63). Such fables become poetic mirrors for Baudrillard about his own time. In the case of Borges‘ The Map and the Territory he says we need to turn this fable upside down:

We live as if inside Borges’s fable of the map and the territory; in this story nothing is left but pieces of the map scattered throughout the empty space of the territory. …Today there is nothing left but a map (the virtual abstraction of the territory), and on this map some fragments of the real are still floating and drifting (2000:63).

Also, at several junctures, Baudrillard cites Arthur C. Clarke’s parable The Nine Billion Names of God (1990c; 1993c; 1996; 1996b; and 1997b) to refer to our current circumstance. In it a community of Tibetan monks have been listing the many names of God for centuries. Growing tired they call in experts from IBM and the computers finish the job in a month. What the technicians did not know was the prophecy that once the nine billion names of God had been recorded the world would end. As they come down from the mountain the stars in the sky begin to disappear one by one (see Baudrillard, 2000:42). Fables such as this poetically point to the risks presented by techno-science.

Fiction (especially novels) also plays an enormous role in Baudrillard’s poetic thinking. He writes of the fiction of Western values with a poetic twist – arguing that it is not the presence of Western values that people outside of the West detest – as much as the West’s absence of values (2002b:65). Even the superpower America is reduced to a powerful fiction (1988:95, 1993:132) and he is never more poetic than in his assessment of Disneyland as a „deterrence machine for the rejuvenation of the fiction of reality“ (1994:13) because Disneyland exists to hide that all of „real“ America is Disneyland (Ibid.:12). America is his fiction about a powerful fiction – the land of „just as it is“ (1988:28) and „the last remaining primitive society“ – „the primitive society of the future“ (1988:7). Many Americans, especially the men of the Right, hated Baudrillard’s poetic and fictive America. It is interesting how they soon gave the world George W. Bush and a kind of „Baud-reality“ settled over international events. It is important also to remember that Baudrillard was not a proponent of such events, rather, he found them intolerable (1987b:107).

Baudrillard’s poetic sensibility led him to challenge us to probe the course of events and their possible meanings in non-traditional ways. This meant that an event like that which took place in New York on September 11, 2001 can be understood as peculiarly affirming of his poetic writing of the world [he posited, as an explanation of why the towers toppled, the suggestion that the twin towers may have committed suicide in response to the attacks of the suicide planes (2003:43)]. This is difficult poetry for many to accept but we should remember that its author was convinced that he lived in a time when „everything in the moral, political and philosophical spheres is heading towards the lowest common denominator“ (1998b:103). Perhaps the resonance of consternation his thought evoked was just loud enough to penetrate the nearly deafening cacophony of banal [mediated] explanations of the event.

Baudrillard’s poetic ear could discern the sounds of the „background noise of the universe“ (1996:2) and the „silent laugher of flowers, grass, plants and forest“ (2002:1). These sounds have been heard by almost no other students of society since the inception of modernity yet novelists, artists, and poets hear them everyday. Baudrillard’s writing demands of us a poetic sensibility and as this sensibility has been systematically denied by almost every stage of our education.

For the education systems of modernity it is difficult to imagine a more striking case of system failure than Baudrillard. His writings represent a system’s failure to integrate him despite the ruthless, comprehensive and compulsory regimes of education and socialization he, like each of us, face. Baudrillard is also an example of the kind of thinker who understands the irony of community and that the biggest battle any of us face, in being ourselves, is against any collective to which we belong. As a theorist he is closer to playwrights like Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter who understand that each person is fundamentally at odds with the universe. This perspective, which is at the core of his poetic way of seeing, imbued Baudrillard with a profound suspicion of the real. In a time in which Truth „no longer affords a solution“… „perhaps“, says Baudrillard, „we can aim at a poetic resolution of the world“ (2000:68).

Poetic resolution can be a strategy of resistance to systematization while leaving open the possibility of radical thought. Radical thought is best practiced as a form of academic agnosticism – the notion that it is better to have things in which not to believe, than to believe. This includes raising questions concerning, for example, what kind of future people desire when they say they wish to end terrorism. To them Baudrillard asks „what kind of state would be capable of dissuading and annihilating all terrorism in the bud…? It would have to arm itself with such terrorism and generalize terror on every level“ (1990c:22).

This kind of assertion is very close to what we often refer to as poetic justice – the reversible. It forces us to look beyond current fears to the implications of our thoughts and actions. In a world which so often disappoints the young, a poetic approach is a far more generous gift to lay at their feet than is an empirical methodology. This is also one reason why so many traditional „social scientists“ loathe Baudrillard and seek to protect their students from him.

To adopt a poetic view of the world one must renounce empiricism. A poetic approach is much closer to metaphysics than it is to pragmatic epistemologies. In our time of the proliferation of everything, how many sense, as does Baudrillard, the poetic notion that „power emerges from absence“? (1997:9)

Baudrillard’s writing takes on the poetic quality of „slimming things down and reducing stocks“ – „to escape fullness you have to create voids between spaces so that there can be collisions and short-circuits“ (1993:38). He understood that poetry exists today everywhere but in poetry. The challenge is to find poetic power – the poetic function in its primal state“ (Ibid.) elsewhere – such as in theoretical writing or in the arts, which have, arguably, had a greater influence on theory in recent years than have the empirical sciences (see Coulter, 2008). If writing is to aim at a total resolution of the world then why should this not be a poetic resolution? (1996:100) It is for this reason that the kinds of writing which are obsessed with meaning (ideological and moral), are so unconcerned with the act of writing which, for Baudrillard, involves „the poetic, ironic, allusive force of language, …the juggling with meaning“ (Ibid.:103). Baudrillard believes that art [and for him theory is an art form] ought to be concerned with illusion – otherwise all it does is mirror the world around it and therefore serves no purpose. As an art, writing is concerned with the „poetic transfiguration of the world“ (1997:140). This could be very playful as in his poetic „fate-based unrealist analysis“ of the death of Diana:

On the one hand, if we assess all that would have had not to have happened for the event not to take place, then quite clearly it could not but occur. There would have to have been no Pont de l’Alma, and hence no Battle of the Alma. There would have had to have been no Mercedes, and hence no German car company whose founder had a daughter called Mercedes. No Dodi and no Ritz, nor all the wealth of the Arab princes and the historical rivalry with the British. The British Empire itself would have had to have been wiped from history. So everything combines, a contrario and in absentia, to demonstrate the urgent necessity of this death. The event therefore, is itself unreal, since it is made up of all that should not have taken place for it not to occur. And, as a result, thanks to all those negative probabilities, it produces and incalculable effect. (Baudrillard, 2001:136-37).

This passage demonstrates Baudrillard’s more mischievous understanding of his art – the art of writing (which is at the core of the art of theory), to „confront objects with the absurdity of their function, in a poetic unreality“ (1997b:13). Here the myth of linearity is exposed by its inversion. This includes a certain poetic confrontation with the art of writing theory itself as in this exquisite passage on human experience:

Everyday experience falls like snow. Immaterial, crystalline and microscopic, it enshrouds all the features of the landscape. It absorbs sounds, the resonance of thoughts and events; the wind sweeps across it sometimes with unexpected violence and it gives off an inner light, a malign fluorescence which bathes all forms in crepuscular indistinctness. Watching time snow down, ideas snow down, watching the silence of some aurora borealis light up, giving in to the vertigo of enshrouding and whiteness (1990:59).

Or this poetic passage written on the journey home in his America:

At 30,000 feet and 600 miles per hour, I have beneath me the ice-flows of Greenland, the Indes Galantes in my earphones, Catherine Deneuve on the screen, and an old man asleep on my lap. ‚Yes, I feel all the violence of love…‘ sings the sublime voice, from one time zone to the next. The people in the plane are asleep. Speed knows nothing of the violence of love. Between one night and the next, the one we came from and the one we shall land in, there will have been only four hours of daylight. But the sublime voice, the voice of insomnia travels even more quickly. It moves through the freezing, trans-oceanic atmosphere, runs along the long lashes of the actress, along the horizon, violet where the sun is rising, as we fly along in our warm coffin of a jet, and finally fades away somewhere off the coast of Iceland (1988:24).

A key aspect of the enigmatic quality of Baudrillard’s writing then is to be found in its poetic nature – he was a theorist who does not sacrifice the art of writing to the concepts he wrote about – if he did he would have produced merely sociology and therein reduced poetic enigmas to meaning. Poetry is a synonym for fiction and the fabulous. „Theory is“, after all, „never so fine as when it takes the form of a fiction or a fable“ (2006:11). The closing down of systemic Meaning opens new poetic ones (2005:71). The expression of the poetic depends on language and the role of language (recalling Lacan) „is to stand in for meaning“ which is eternally absent (1990b:6).

Baudrillard poetically wondered if we really want to have to choose between meaning and non-meaning today. He argued that we do not want this choice because while meaning’s absence is intolerable „it would be just as intolerable to see the world assume a definitive meaning“ (2001:128). This would be the end of thought, poetry and writing – a world where we could look up solutions in a book (a Bible, a Koran, etc.,) or a computer model. The computer model is the goal of every techno-science of our time which will ultimately challenge the human to the core:

If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could be truly called „human“: some inalienable and indestructible human quality could finally be identified. Of course, there is always the risk, in this experimental adventure, that nothing will pass the test – that the human will be permanently eradicated (2000:15-16).

If Baudrillard preferred fiction to science it may well have been because fiction holds a greater power in the mind of one who’s hopes are fatal. „Night does not fall, objects secrete it at the end of day when, in their tiredness, they exile themselves into their silence“ (1990b:149).

One of the challenges faced by those inclined toward poetic resolution is to allow the poetic aspect of things to flow through him or her, just as it is the task of the painter to find the poetic light given off by objects from within (no such light is scientifically or empirically possible but all good painters and poets know it is there). For Baudrillard, the poetic sensibility also defines itself in an awareness of contradiction and reversibility – „when things contradict their very reality – this too is poetic“ (1996:59). The poetic is central to that which remains fundamentally radical in Baudrillard. Radical thought for him is a form of constant challenge – even to one’s most cherished ideas and sources. It is why he could never subject his writing to the limits of a politics.

The poetic (poems, fables, fiction, stories, parables) is for Baudrillard part of his deep appreciation of ambivalence and ambiguity (1993c:215) and is important to how he copes with the extermination of value (Ibid.:198). We do not discover anything in poetic enjoyment and this is a vital part of what makes the poetic a radical experience (Ibid.:208). The poetic involves an „insurrection of a language against its own laws“ (Ibid.:198) and it allows us to resist the „repressive interiorized space of language“ (Ibid.:234), providing the basis for the „mutual volitization of the status of the thing and discourse“ (Ibid.:235). He finds no room for poetry in psychoanalysis, in ideology, nor in morality – these are „brute forms of writing burdened with the concept“ (Ibid.:223). Poetry then is the place of the „redistribution of symbolic exchange in the very heart of words“ (Ibid.:205) and the „site of the extermination of value and the law“ (Ibid.:195).

His poetic approach allowed Baudrillard (who studied under Henri Lefebvre and Roland Barthes), eventually taking his degree and teaching sociology, to avoid the voluntary servitude that so many subject themselves to in the many non-poetic approaches to inquiry (empirical, politically motivated, techno-scientific and so on). As such he is a very important case in the development of an alternative approach to inquiry – one in which creativity and writing were powerful and central. Baudrillard’s effort to resolve the world poetically is not for everyone. For those who feel its seduction it is important to press on to assess the implications of this thought aimed at a poetic resolution of the world. Others may consider leaving this paper at this point for an immediate return to politics and/or traditional academe.

III. Hope In System Failure

From the passages cited above we see that Baudrillard managed to bring the explosive power of language to poetic resolution. To the end he remained suspicious of all efforts to perfect the world as he did efforts to explain it with certainty. On poetry he said: „the words refer to each other, creating a pure event, in the meantime they have captured a fragment of the world, even if they have no identifiable referent from which a practical instruction can be drawn“ (2005b:73). This is not a kind of thinking that is in the business of making the world more certain or more knowable:

Here, however, lies the task of philosophical thought: to go to the limit of hypotheses and processes, even if they are catastrophic. The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes. Here, beyond the discourse of truth, resides the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking. For, facing a world that is unintelligible and enigmatic, our task is clear: we must make that world even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic (2000:83).

Baudrillard was somewhat melancholic but he was no Romantic. He spent a good deal of his time writing his frustrations with his times. He was intensely frustrated by what we gave up in „cancelling our metaphysical contract and making another more perilous one with things“ (2001b:36; see also 1983b:149). His poetic strategy against consumerism, militarism, globalism, and nationalism, was to have things in which not to believe as opposed to things in which to believe. Surrounded as we are today by fundamentalists such as George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden this is not a bad strategy. For Baudrillard (and this is also part of his early departure from Marxism), the death of god is the end of transcendence.

The end of transcendence and responsibility to another world beyond our own meant that transcendence became secular and the effort to make the world transparent and operational replaced it. For Baudrillard, the death of god is the root of modernities turn to techno-perfection as against earlier forms of spiritual perfection. In modernity the understanding of good and evil become split – and our efforts go into making the world better only to see it go from bad to worse (2004:105). Irony comes to the fore in modernity and thoughtful inquiry, when it turns to empiricism, loses sight of irony investing itself in system support. The attempt to perfect this world [through techno-science] will almost certainly lead to systemic collapse – Baudrillard’s fatal hope – and his fatal optimism in reversibility.

Baudrillard was disappointed but no thinker who writes does so without hope. What we get from Baudrillard is a fatal hope – an optimism about the reversibility of systems. Following the current period of the proliferation of information, security, and technology (the era of the perfect crime), Baudrillard hopes for a collapse. Baudrillard, living in extreme times, takes the problematic to a radical conclusion as we no longer have the same kind of hope in a distant future that someone living before the contemporary could more easily hold. Such is the uncertainty of our times which are invested in Baudrillard’s fatal hope of systemic collapse. For him the alternative to collapse was much worse – that the system would succeed resulting in a genuinely brave new world glittering with advanced technologies. In such a world we would live out our lives in total security where computers would generate the models of lives which would become as predictable as the weather. This would be a world in which evil, all negative events, disease, and uncertainty are removed. But this too will be a world of [distilled and slow] death for an adaptive and thoughtful species. Against such a world Baudrillard saw the poetic possibility of collapse. Thought (and writing), in this view, seeks poetic resolution to an unsatisfactory, uncertain, and ultimately (he hoped) unknowable world. The poetic function of thought and writing then is based on the belief that empiricism and the techno-rational societies it contributes to, would fail. Of course this failure can only be viewed as poetic from a Baudrillardian point of view as his was the poetics of reversion.

IV. Radical Optimism

…why not take the view that the fundamental rule is that of evil, and that any happy event throws itself into question? Is it not true optimism to consider the world a fundamentally negative event, with many happy exceptions? By contrast, does not true pessimism consist in viewing the world as fundamentally good, leaving the slightest accident, to make us despair of that vision? Such is the rule of a radical optimism, we must take evil as the basic rule, (Baudrillard, 1997:138).

Herodotus was the first we know to have considered reversibility seriously in his memory of those who were „great long ago“ but who have now „become small“ (Herodotus, 1998: Book I, v). We have called this aspect of human passage many things. Some call it poetic justice (such as the fall of great empires into small satellites of new empires); others have referred to it as the turning of the wheel of fortune. „Human happiness never remains long in the same place“ (Ibid.) For Baudrillard it is part of the most poetic thing we know – that which comes as close to justice as anything we ever experience as humans: reversibility – the poetic reversibility of one thing into another (1993c:220).

For Baudrillard reversibility is the fundamental rule (2005:41) but this does not imply a determinism in his thought – indeed, reversibility is an absolute weapon against determinism (1990c:82). Baudrillard notes that the reversibility of things, which is an ironic form today, does not entail a romantic viewpoint. Rather, it means that, for us: „a strange game is being played“ and we do not know all the rules of this game – in our time, indifference has become a strategic terrain (1993:175).

The poetic provided Baudrillard with the germ of an idea that might be his single greatest thought: reversibility. It is central to what Baudrillard calls „objective irony“ – the „strong probability, verging on a certainty, that systems will be undone by their own systematicity“ (2000:78; see also Coulter, 2004). For Baudrillard this applies to both technical and human systems (political, social, economic). The more a system advances toward its perfection, the more it is prone to deconstruct itself (Ibid.).

One of Baudrillard’s more poetic examples of this, for technical systems, is the computer virus: „the tiniest one is enough to wreck the credibility of computer systems, which is not without its funny side“ (2002b:6). This is extended by Baudrillard into his understanding of globalization and the New World Order as reversible: „the more the hegemony of the global consensus is reinforced, the greater the risk, or chances it will collapse“ (1995:86). That for Baudrillard would be the most poetic resolution of all: „all the philosophies of modernity will appear naïve when compared with the natural reversibility of the world“ (1996:10).

V. Conclusion

Philosophy would like to transform the enigma of the world into a philosophical question, but the enigma leaves no room for any question… the enigma of the world remains total (1996b:20).

The poetic plays a significant part in Baudrillard’s strategy to bring resolution, through thought and writing, to the unsatisfactory times in which he finds himself. Along with fables, countless literary and artistic references, poetry is Baudrillard’s great inspiration in his struggle against the forces of integral reality (2004:5). In his writing Baudrillard felt a radical opposition between a poetic, singular configuration, linked to the metamorphosis of forms, as against the kind of virtual reality that is prevalent today. In a poetic approach it is the forms which become – language as the passage of forms – a kind of inhabited void (2004:84). Poetic resolution – and nothing is more poetic for Baudrillard than reversibility – was a way out of the restrictions of the social sciences and political commitments to „improving“ our world until it was a technoscientific nightmare.

As we seek new approaches to inquiry we would do well to remember that we do not necessarily have to seek Meaning or Truth – but a more poetic way of living, writing and thinking. Beyond discourses of Truth, Baudrillard found his own way to make the world, which came to him as enigmatic and unintelligible – a little more enigmatic, a little more unintelligible. What he left to us was a gift far more precious than Truth – he pointed to its absence and in doing so he took us beyond the limits of established forms of inquiry. If he reminds us of Goethe it is because his approach valued Goethe’s insight. From Baudrillard we learn the poetry of accepting a world that is given to us as enigmatic and unintelligible and to push it to poetic, not empirical, resolution. If we are to avoid both of the twin nightmares of total systemic collapse and total systemic success new forms of inquiry have a lot at stake in poetic resolution of the kind Baudrillard practiced.

Baudrillard understood the power of language as few have. Writing for him was a precious „singularity“, „a resistance to real time“, „something that does not conform“, „an act of resistance“, the „invention of an antagonistic world“ rather than a „defence of a world that might have existed“ (1998b:32 ff.). Writing could never be sacrificed to politics and intellectuals should speak for themselves – not for others as it always leads to condescension (1993:79). He understood from the lived experience of his poetic perspective that theory (as poetry, fiction and fable) precedes the world. „Things appear to us only through the meaning we have given them“ (2004:91). For Baudrillard this meant seeking a poetic resolution of the world through challenge with an eye on system reversion. It kept his wisdom and writing joyful to the end despite everything. It also helped him to attain escape velocity from his contemporaries (especially Foucault) and propelled him beyond politics to a more joyous way of seeing. I offer it as one way of approaching Avinus Magazine as it takes its place on the world stage of ideas and discourse. It is the kind of thinking and writing (radical thought) that does not conform to the kind of inquiry which merely contributes to the building of an uninhabitable world. Baudrillard pointed to a poetic approach which may contribute to vastly different ways of seeing and knowing so long as we remember that truth and meaning exist only partially, along our local and restricted horizon. This is the kind of „undisciplined“ thought in which the likes of Goethe was able to participate. It is the basis of a respectful and challenging approach to the multi-vocality of human discourse and inquiry. For the first time in two centuries, the established academic police actually do have something to fear. One of the ways in which Avinus may thrive is in making their job all the more difficult.

Gerry Coulter’s essay „Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming“ appeared in the SAGE journal Games and Culture (Volume 2, Number 4, December, 2007:358-365). His recent article: „Baudrillard and Hölderlin and Poetic Resolution“, in Nebula, Volume 5, Number 4, December 2008; An essay „A Way of Proceeding: Joseph Beuys, the Epistemological Break, and Radical Thought Today“ appears in Kritikos: A Journal of Postmodern Cultural Sound, Text, and Image (May – June, 2008):; and his quarterly column for Euro Art (On-line) Magazine: „Kees van Dongen and the Power of Seduction“ (Spring 2008) is available at: Dr. Coulter’s teaching has been recognized on numerous occasions most recently by Bishop’s University’s highest award for teaching – the William and Nancy Turner Prize.


Heinrich, Caroline: In Search of the Child’s Innocence, 28.01.08

(translated from the German by Alan N. Shapiro)

Die Schaffung von Werten befindet sich im Spielplatz der Kinder”, schreibt Caroline Heinrich in diesem zum ersten Mal auf Englisch und exklusiv im AVINUS Magazin publizierten Essay. Die ausgewiesene Baudrillard-Expertin erklärt, warum die Unwissenheit der Kinder die ursprüngliche Quelle westlicher Wertvorstellungen ist.

Introit: Denial and Affirmation of Life

I begin with a quotation. „The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes,“[1] writes Nietzsche in Zarathustra. The child is innocent because she starts all over again from scratch. She starts from the space of emptiness that the lion has carved out. The space of emptiness is the space that has been emptied of the values of Western thought—values that the lion has corrupted. Exposed during the process of the radical destruction of these values is the fact that they signify „nothing.“ They are based on a will to nothing, a denial of life. The metamorphosis of the lion into the child thus takes place at the moment of an „implosion into No.“ This is the moment when the will that only denies must, in the final reckoning, deny itself.

The crucial point to be grasped here is this: for the invention of radically new values to occur, it is first absolutely necessary to achieve the void of values.

I want to investigate the question of why the creation of values—based as it is on the fundamental rule of the saying-yes to life—is to be found more than anywhere else on the playing field of the child. I will divide my inquiry into six parts. First, I will underscore a critical opposition: what is the difference between the premises of Western value-production and the childish creation of values? Second, I will say something about the problem of singularities. Third, I will consider whether one can detect a Nietzschean trace of the „child’s innocence“ in Jean Baudrillard’s thought. Fourth, I will demonstrate that the playing field of the child is shaped by her perception of the pataphysical refinement of the world. Fifth, I will establish why the destructive desire towards the object is unknown to the child. Finally—enlightened by this last insight—I will briefly reflect once more upon the topic of singularity.

Western Value-Production and
Childish Value-Creation

According to Nietzsche, metaphysical Western thought is based on measuring the correlation between the value of an ethical principle and the degree of its reality.[2] The assumption is that the highest ethical value would have the greatest reality. Within this worldview, „good“ is connected with truth, reality, reason, being, order, unity, causality, and so on. „Evil“ is associated with untruth, illusion, sensuality, nothingness, disorder, multiplicity, chaos, etc.

Western morality says: the good is the true, the true is the real, and the real is substantial. The Nietzschean child replies: your truth doesn’t interest me, I know nothing of substance, and I am stumped by what you call reality. Western morality says: the good is a principle on which you should act. The Nietzschean child replies: I know no principle, I know only exceptions, and my sporting game is different every time. Morality says: this is good, do this, this is good, do this. The child objects: well, that depends (es kommt darauf an).

The Singularity

„That depends“ means: a singular constellation exists at a certain moment. At that moment, the Nietzschean child makes her judgment about „good“ and „evil.“ An example: in the old order of values, pity for the suffering of others is a value in itself. In addition to limitless hypocrisy, this leads to the condemnation of those who do not suffer, those who do not wish to suffer, and those who do not place any special value on having sympathy for their inherited environment. Against this, the pity of the Nietzschean child is expressed in the following remark by Nietzsche: „I frequently feel ‚pity‘ where there is no suffering, but rather (…) a lagging behind contrasted to what might have been.“[3] The pity of the Nietzschean child grounds the perception of the denial of becoming. It recognizes that active forces get severed from the property of affirmation by reactive forces. The pity of the Nietzschean child is not necessarily related to the real suffering or not-suffering of others. It is not a „good“ value in itself, no more than an instance of destruction would be a non-value in itself.

The ‚Child’s Innocence‘ chez Baudrillard

I come now to the question of the trace of the „child’s innocence“ in Baudrillard’s thought. It shows through in his concept of the „insurrection of singularities“ against the system of generalized exchange.

In 1976, Baudrillard wrote about the architecture of the World Trade Center—the twinness of the Towers, their binary character, their doubling of monopoly capitalism. He explained that we survive in a system where there is no longer difference and where all social spheres have become interchangeable. Marx had already grasped that „the movement of capital is without measure.“[4] Baudrillard has made it clear just how without measure the movement of capital has become — so measureless that it has abolished all referentiality. Today pay and work are completely decoupled from each other. Work and leisure time are melded together in „lifestyle design.“ We will take trade unions seriously again when they start to demand the doubling of salaries and „the right to be lazy“ for anyone who wants it.

Work no longer serves production. It serves the reproduction of designed women and designed men. We are all designed not designing. And so we shall remain—until the day comes when we finally say aloud what we all have secretly been thinking for a long time: we don’t believe in productive work, nor in growth, nor in progress, nor in the state bureaucracy of Big Brother.

Politics is dead. Edmund Stoiber [Governor of Bavaria and 2002 Chancellor candidate of the German Christian Democratic Union] said it very well recently: „Our decision-making processes are no longer competitive,“[5] he complained.

Baudrillard has shown that our society is a pornographic film studio. As in porno, it shows everything. Truer than true, realer than real, hyperreal. It produces only indifference and appearance, while at the same time hating appearance and – above all – seduction.

Baudrillard has explained why this logic of indifference—in the labor force, in the operational structures, in the networks—leads to the total surveillance of individuals and to the „impounding“ of their lives.[6] He has made us see the sadness of this society—where we are no longer allowed to flip the „off“ switch; where we are no longer asked but tested; where we are not permitted to be silent (even when we have nothing to say); where we are not allowed to break the chain of communication; where we are required to know everything about ourselves; and where we are only permitted to fall in love with someone matching our „personal description.“

Baudrillard has uncovered the negative passion and self-hatred of this society. He has exposed the suffering of a society that ensures the adventure vacation while doing away with all real adventure. Declaring every catastrophe to be a security problem, we do not feel our suffering. Substituting for real feelings, our secret admiration for the counter-violence of terrorism enters the game.

Baudrillard has shown that forces truly oppositional to the system would have to strike not on the level of political difference (a demolished arena which still exists only in the images of the system’s advertisements for itself), but on the level of the system’s indifference. Like the „I Love You“ virus, which brought entire networks to their knees, and reduced this oh so perfect system to total ridiculousness. This little coquettish love virus showed how prone to breakdown systems that aspire to perfection become.

What resists a system of generalized exchange is not those forces which assert themselves in dialectical, differential, or oppositional relation to the global system, but rather those forces which cannot be integrated or liquidated by the system: singularities. Differences that participate in the global „advertising campaign“ for the universal values of freedom, democracy and human rights are granted inclusion by the system of power. Singular radical otherness does not seek inclusion.

Here I have a doubt about Baudrillard’s position. On one side, Baudrillard writes that singularities are neither positive nor negative. They do not represent an alternative. They belong to another order. They obey no value judgment. They submit to no reality principle. But on the other side, Baudrillard sees in our cultural forms of self-hatred and bad conscience a „negative passion.“ It is a form of reacting that he calls „degraded.“[7] In an article about the strike of so-called „cultural creators,“ Baudrillard speaks of a „justified revenge against the spectacle by the spectacle-people themselves.“[8] This begs the question: what would be an „unjustified revenge“? Or: in what does the justice of the justified revenge consist?

I do not take issue with Baudrillard’s statement that singularities submit to no value judgments. The problem for me is that – and as a great fan of Baudrillard’s philosophy I hesitate to say this – he stops short of connecting the insurrection of singularities to the gathering emergence of the „child’s innocence“ as prophesied by Nietzsche. Baudrillard preserves in something of a fog this real breakout possibility for radical otherness.

A very delicate question, for example, is whether, in contrast to the „negative passion“ of our cultural self-hatred, one can comprehend terrorism as a „positive passion.“ Baudrillard’s commentary on the singular Event of September 11, 2001 suggests that viewpoint. In other words, one can infer—or make the supposition—that Baudrillard links the term „degraded“ to passivity and „not degraded“ to activity. In its open violence, 9/11 would be „activity.“ In its destructive abreaction to the system, 9/11 would nonetheless be a „positive passion.“ To a system that requires one to accept everything, to which one cannot give anything back, to which one cannot talk back, 9/11 would not be a degraded reply. It would not be a „degraded form of the impossible counter-gift,“ but on the contrary would have to be understood as a „successful symbolic exception.“

Why successful? Because to confront a system that excludes death with the dead victim means in fact to humiliate that system. The system, for its part, has no effective answer to this death. Only the Twin Towers themselves knew the appropriate and commensurate symbolic response. Successful? Because the terrorist singularity revenges „all those singular cultures that have paid for the inauguration of the world’s only superpower with their own disappearance.“[9]

I doubt, however, that the Native Americans Big Foot [tribal chief of the more than 200 Miniconjou Lakota Sioux who were massacred in 1890 by the U.S. Seventh Cavalry] and Buddy Lamont [an Oglala Lakota killed by U.S. government forces during the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee] would have agreed to this form of revenge. „Agreed or not,“ Baudrillard would perhaps now think, „what is at stake here is a fundamental rule.“ „Of course!“ I think back. But that is precisely the problem. Baudrillard writes that, at a certain point, „the fundamental rule always wins.“ A unidirectional gift can only be answered with a „violent abreaction“ (strike, terrorism, etc.).[10] But is it not the case that Baudrillard wants, above all, to show that revenge – as a symbolic form of reversibility—confirms this fundamental rule? That he wants to make clear that neither society nor the world can bear a principle of unity?

I do not believe that the only important thing to decide is if something is a singular exception. It is not sufficient to say that singularities are decisive regardless of whether they embody our best or our worst. It is not enough to correlate the valuation of a „degraded“ or „not degraded“ form of reacting with the criterion of passive or active. I think that the valuation of singularities must take as its point of departure the meaning of the illusionary act of a Nietzschean child.

Of course, from the standpoint of the „good system,“ singularities are „evil.“ They are so radically other that they do not allow themselves be integrated into the „system of good.“ The system tries nonetheless every time to do exactly that: to integrate them, to assimilate them. „Recognition of difference“ is perhaps the most hypocritical way of achieving the elimination of the radical other. The other is „understood,“ even when she does not at all want to be understood. As far as the system is concerned, her story should be narrated as a digestible romance of identity and difference, rendered useful as an advertisement for cultural difference. Baudrillard writes about this „risibility of our altruistic ‚understanding‘.“ „For ‚We respect the fact that you are different‘ read: ‚You people who are underdeveloped would do well to hang on to this distinction because it is all you have left‘. The signs of folklore and poverty are excellent markers of difference.“[11] And futher: „nothing could be more contemptuous—or contemptible.“ The radical other is allowed to be our difference, but not to give us anything. Above all, she must not irritate us by being a non-understandable other. Consider the category of „misappropriated development aid,“ which designates the circumstance of the specified purpose of the aid getting lost. In a Mexican slum, a development aid worker broke out in tears because donated plastic container toilets, intended for the improvement of hygiene, were used by the inhabitants for chicken breeding.

The observation that, from the standpoint of the „good system,“ singularities are „evil,“ can be reverse-formulated. The „evil“ singularities are an illusionary „good,“ an obscene „good.“ They oppose themselves to a completely degenerated system. A multiplicity of singularities defends itself against the principle of unity. One can cheer the chicken breeding of the slum residents as a re-enchanting tear in the system.

But there are also less enchanting tears. Baudrillard writes: „It is intolerable for the ‚free‘ world that in a certain territory [Afghanistan], ‚democratic‘ freedoms—music, television, or even the face of wome—can be forbidden. That a country can do the exact opposite of what normally goes by the name of civilization.“[12] But is it only intolerable for those who still believe in the decaying delusional idea of universal values?

I find it intolerable that music is forbidden to be heard. I find it intolerable that the face must veil itself. But the taboo in a certain territory [France] on wearing a head scarf exemplifies the vanishing into neutrality of every value in the West, the dissolving of all the West’s values into nonpartisan nothingness. The argument for the French law is that the Muslim head scarf is a „political sign.“ Translation: the unpolitical and the neutral are the „good signs.“

Baudrillard would cite them both as insurrectional singularities against the global system. But for me there is a critical difference between the „détournement“ [diverting] of the plastic container toilets for chicken breeding practiced by the Mexican slum residents and the Taliban’s prohibition of music and faces. In the Mexican chicken breeding, I see a singularity that defends singularity in itself. In the other kind of „exception“ to global capitalist-consumerist culture, this is not the case. And it is the Nietzschean child who is at play here. Zarathustra’s First Discourse. Metamorphosis of the Third Kind. The Lion into the Child. First Contact with the Foundational Property of the Will to Power. It is the nurturing of this will that legitimates the judgment that is – at last and for the first time – able to discriminate between the denial of life and the affirmation of life. „Yes, a sacred Yes is needed, my brothers, for the sport of creation.“[13]

Why does Nietzsche choose the figure of the child? The child takes up her ground against the Old Man of Hegel who has reconciled himself with the dried-up „concrete“ of life. Hegel’s Old Man – for whom all is already said and done – À l’Ouest rien de nouveau? – is content [man muss zufrieden sein] with „this here“ reality that he has dubbed to be good and reasonable. From which he has excluded everything „unreasonable“: chance, sensuality, possibilities. Hegel writes: „In ordinary life one calls even the most dwarfed and ephemeral existence by accident a reality. But even our most common feelings confirm that a contingent existence does not merit the emphatic name of the real. Contingency is an existence that has no greater value than something that is merely possible, that might as well not be as be.“[14] The accidental— because it is merely something possible—has, for Hegel, no value. It has no „reality“ value and thus no „moral“ value. And so it goes!

For the child—in her „first motion,“ in her impossibility of being hard-wired to experiences—accident and possibility have value. Her world is the aleatory world of objects. Her reality is saturated through and through by that which—according to what Hegel thinks—does not deserve the name of the real. The world of Hegel’s Old Man is a metaphysical reality. The child’s world is post-metaphysical or pataphysical.

Pataphysics: Photography and the Child

The world in photography is the world of the child. Baudrillard writes: „The joy of taking photographs is an objective delight. Whoever has not experienced the objective rapture of the image one morning in town or desert will never in any way understand the pataphysical refinement of the world.“[15] The child understands this pataphysical refinement. Pataphysics is the condition for what Nietzsche calls the beginning of the creation of new values—the brave new world where saying yes to life will really count for the first time.

Baudrillard has reflected brilliantly on photography. How is it, he asks, that the photo—which does not exist in advance—is able to document anything? The photo is illusionary. The objects thereby illuminated at the same time announce their own disappearance. What is depicted exists no longer in this way. The photo is illusionary in its „discreet charm of a previous life.“[16] It is artificial because it seizes in interruptions the uninterrupted course of events. It freeze-frames an unrepeatable moment. It is a clipping, the snapshot of a clipping. It is unique, singular, incomparable. About its meaning it remains silent. It has no meaning. It has no reference. It has no measure. Like the world, the photo lacks nothing. Like the world, it gets along fine without us. It is what it is. Or, in reverse, the world—back-transmitting through technology and photography—is everything that metaphysical Western thought does not want to think. The world is „evil“: illusionary, unreal, meaningless, disordered, singular…

Baudrillard’s reflections on photography are themselves „evil.“ „Against the philosophy of the subject and the contemplating gaze,“ they are an „anti-philosophy of the object.“[17] In the photographic act, the subject disappears. She instead occupies the „unseen site of representation.“[18] The subject must mentally empty herself like a film negative. In her body posture, the photographer must snuggle up to the „posture of objects.“ In relation to the judgment of metaphysical philosophy—for which it is the subject who thinks the world—the relative values of subject and object get reversed. Baudrillard grasps that photography only has „sense“ at all when the „fundamental rule“ is observed: „It is the object which sees us, the object which dreams us.“[19]

„Every press on the shutter-release,“ writes Baudrillard, „which puts an end to the real presence of the object, also causes me to disappear as subject, and it’s in this reciprocal disappearance that a transfusion between the two occurs.“[20] Every press on the shutter-release sends one tumbling through the looking-glass into the „inverse“ world of the child. The child’s world is an „evil“ world. For the child, there is, in any case, no „real presence of objects.“ She knows no reality principle—“for illusion isn’t the opposite of reality.“ She is always absent from herself as subject. In the „reciprocal disappearance“[21] of „real“ object and „real“ subject, it is the child who stands fundamentally in this relationship of transfusion.

The child possesses no concept of time, duration, interval, or continuity. She lives first of all in „space.“ The world shows itself to the child in the same way that it presents itself in the photo: „discontinuous and punctual.“[22] Without orientation in time, the child lives in a transfusioning space. It is a „space“ like that which opens for the photographer in the moment of pressing the shutter-release. Continuous time—along with the subject—disappears.

The child lives in a space of the in-between, a space between sender and receiver—outside of spoken language and its sense. She is agile in her way of living the transfusion-relation to the world. She is in contact with the „objects“ of the world—which she does not read as signs, but rather perceives as symptoms. Intuition is her umbilical cord to the world.

The child gets on well with those objects that are „strange to themselves,“ in the region of their blurredness and trembling. She enjoys the excitement of „watching the grass grow“ and can feel what „is in the air.“ She is in touch with the pataphysical refinement of the world.

Baudrillard tells the story of the African artist [Michael Richards] who was commissioned to make a sculpture for the front plaza of the World Trade Center. The finished sculpture portrayed the artist himself drilled through by planes. He was killed in his studio on September 11, 2001 along with his sculpture.

Baudrillard speaks of an „amazing intuitive presentiment“—and understands this to be an especially delicate area of intuition.[23] The French thinker was taken to task in the U.S. media for having dared to open such a line of inquiry during the February 19, 2002 roundtable discussion at New York University [broadcast on France Culture on February 23, 2002].[24]

Commentators in the American press were so irritated by Baudrillard’s remarks linking the sculpture and the Event of which it was a precognition because they adjudicate the truthfulness or falsehood of a philosopher’s statements utilizing the measuring rod of metaphysical truth. For them, precognition can only be thought as something that „has to happen.“ Any „precog“ claim is automatically suspect because it implies stopping the future dead in its tracks, putting an end to the future’s openness, and transforming life into destiny.

But precognition can be thought in another—post-metaphysical—way. In the moment in which something analogous to the pressing of the shutter-release or the „punctum of photography“[25] brings about the graduation from the playing level of the intentional subject, the continuity of time is also halted. The reversibility of intentionality is accompanied by a reversibility of time. The player who has reached the game-level of intuition now faces the challenge of objectively backwards-running time. This mode of time, however, does not concern the future reality of the subject. On the contrary, it allows a notifying object to appear to one of its possible pasts. Intuitive inspiration or the sudden coming-to-me of a thought evidence the fact that, as Baudrillard writes, „decisions and thoughts secretly come from elsewhere.“[26] It is not about foresight, but rather about what I propose to call back-sight.

The term „foresight“ correlates with the chronological time of the intentional subject. This temporality, however (precisely at the moment of the coming-to-me of the thought from elsewhere), is absent from itself. The term „backsight“ indicates that in a singular instant the possible past of an object is grasped in a certain constellation. Whether or not an Event then transpires remains dependent upon an equally singular uncertain constellation.

The hypothesis is the following: there is backwards-running temporality—but its existence documents, explains, proves, and determines nothing. „Backsight“—because it makes known a possible having-become of things—is therefore not a presentiment that, once it comes true, can be explained as a metaphysical truth. It is much more a pataphysical truth, a truth with which „nothing“ is to be gotten.

Figure of the future creation of new values, the (Nietzschean) child dispenses with the concept of continuous time. She lives in a space of the notifying object, and in intimate contact with objects. She is permanently active in a world of backsight. It is an intuitive and delicate Existenz. Living entirely in space, the child is confronted with backwards-running time. She comes face-to-face with the potentiality of a second future, or a multiple promise of things. Back to the Future. Minority Report.

Through the photo, the world shows itself as back-transmitting, as nothing. Nothing—from the standpoint of the metaphysical reality principle, that is. It is a fascinating nothing: the „disorder of a null world,“[27] the „emptiness of a null value“ possessing a „magical self-evidence,“[28] as Baudrillard writes. The magical enchantment of seduction.

The Child Knows No Destructive
Desire Towards the Object

For the child there are no null worlds—because she knows nothing of metaphysics. Fascination through nothingness becomes fascination pure and simple. It is a small yet decisive difference. The world in the photo is an empty enchantress. For the child, the world is an overflowing enchantress. Whereas the world in the photo is a puzzling nothing, the child actually touches and feels this nothing. Whereas the world in the photo is silent, the world for the child is eloquently silent. Whereas the world in the photo is absent from itself, the child lives in the real effects of this absence (or the appearance of the „new real“). Whereas the defiance of the world in the photo resides in the world’s seductive energy, the defiance of the pact of lucidity between world and child resides in the world’s promise.

Baudrillard says that the „only profound desire“ is the desire for the (sexual) object, for that which does not need me, which can quite happily exist without me. The desire „for this alien perfection“ is at the same time the desire „to smash this alien perfection or to undress it.“[29] The child, however, lives in freedom with respect to this desire — because she is herself alien, a strange attractor. She knows no desire for radical otherness because it lives within her. For the child in the space of the notifying object, what lives in things is above all a promise. She knows no fundamental desire to destroy creatures and things which for her are swarming with possibilities. Stated in a different terminology, the child is a hostage-taker who does not kill her hostages before they have revealed the location of the buried treasure.

Whereas the world in the photo is absent, for the child the world is absently present. The „yes“ of the child—the „yes to the sport of creation“—is a response to the challenge issued by the world. It is the possibility of making something absent present. The child in all of her actions is this small picnoleptic for whom the world and the gaze do not take place. If the photograph, through the pressing on the shutter-release, takes leave of the world and detaches itself from itself, then it succeeds, as Baudrillard writes, „to capture something of this dissimilarity and this singularity“ so that „something changes insofar as the ‚real‘ world and, indeed, the reality principle itself, are concerned.“[30] And it is exactly this that the child at play „thinks.“ In her sport, the child gives something singular back. Each act of the child is a tear (ein Riss) in the reality principle.

Picture the following: a running child knocks over the hat that a beggar has laid out on the street asking for money. The day before, this same child had pressed a franc into the hand of a schoolmate’s rich father.

Considered from the viewpoint of the reality principle, the child is living „in the false.“ Only in reverse order would her actions have had any sense, would they have been reasonable. From the viewpoint of the reality principle, she is living an illusion. The child’s games have no place in the Western classification of ethical realities. For Western metaphysics, „illusionary acts“ are useless. They are „nothing.“ But from the viewpoint of the child, things are different. There is a tear in the reality principle. Maybe the child pressed a franc into the hand of the rich father because she liked his hands. Maybe, for the child, the rich father was in need of receiving a gift from someone. Maybe the child sensed that the beggar had cut himself off from doing something that he could better do. Maybe the child was reacting to some symptom of the father’s perchance impending bankruptcy. The possibilities are endless.

It is not important to determine which of these possibilities is true. It is not about seeing in the child’s games a principle that one can apply (like making the rich richer and the poor poorer!). What matters is to grasp that the child—who is without principles—“believes“ in her game. She believes in her illusionary act—an act answerable to nothing. Her sport takes off from a perception of the world that is answerable to nothing. The child always exists in a singular instant and in relation to a punctual (Roland Barthes) order of things. It is to this arrangement that she playfully—and just as instantaneously—responds. Like the world „in its ability to defy all resemblance,“[31] she acknowledges the notifying object. The child, in her illusionary act, brings to realization a possibility of absence (like the African artist working on his sculpture). Immersed in her world of „back-sighting,“ the „belief“ of the child at play consists of altering an absent constellation.

On the basis of and through the illusion, the child creatively and inventively decrees her own order of things. The Nietzschean fundamental rule of the saying-yes to life as creative will is no longer about „the secret exigency to be seen, desired and thought by the object and the world,“[32] but rather to metamorphose, defer and reverse object and world. The child’s mode of existence—seismograph of the pataphysical refinement of the world—does not allow her momentary, singular act(s) to be recuperated by the general order. Creative power based on an „illusionary act“ (paradoxically) wants no recognition as power.

Conclusion: Singularity Redux

Let me return to what I said at the beginning. Morality says: this is good, do this, this is good, do this. The Nietzschean child objects: that all depends. The creation of new values of the saying-yes to life does not always mean preservation and never destruction.[33] The component of destructive energy in the illusionary act of the Nietzschean child directs itself against those powers which persist in so punctiliously abiding by the reality principle. The negative passion will raise itself against the ruling power that one-sidedly only gives, and that knows how to receive only through its expert co-opting of the singularity of creative power.

And what about Mexican chicken breeding in plastic container toilets? The slum residents revenge the contemptuous gift insofar as they divert the gift away from its purpose. They metamorphose and reinvent it. They „make their own deal“ and reverse the gastronomical sequence: first the chickens, then the shit. Like the Nietzschean child, the Mexican slum residents are a singularity defending itself.

Those who forbid music and faces are not a self-defending singularity. They interdict the languages that are the most cryptic for them. They associate the visible with forbidden truth. They ban the „faces of seduction“ into invisibility. The Taliban are like the priest classes about whose „extreme fear of sensuality“ Nietzsche wrote, crediting them with the „[conditional] insight that it is in that domain of experience where the dominant order in its totality is threatened in the worst way.“[34] Those who prohibit music and faces inhibit the appearance of the child—whose connection with the world is based on sensual contact.

If one endeavors, with Baudrillard, to confront a thought that tries to reverse the total social order with the singular Event of September 11, 2001, one must recognize that the attackers not only destroyed the symbol of the indifference and unidirectional giving of „the world’s only superpower,“ but that they also destroyed two „unique,“ „singular,“ very beautiful skyscrapers. One must at the same time see—in this „insurrection of singularity,“ in the most apparent form of revenge, in the symbolic gift of death—the attempt to make an example of the „power over death.“ An act of statuary intimidation of those who cannot exchange their death (and who are therefore despised), of those whose death was not allowed, and of those about whose singularity was never asked.

The Nietzschean child knows no principle. Yet her fundamental rule shows through. I think that a „post-Baudrillardian“ valuation of the forms of symbolic reversibility—as in revenge or the „return match“—must be sustained by this possibility of showing through.


Translator’s Note
On pp.70-75 of the Verso Press edition of The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays (translated from the French by Chris Turner), Jean Baudrillard engages with the theses on the Event of September 11, 2001 of the young and extremely promising German philosopher Caroline Heinrich. Heinrich has thus far published two books in German, one of them being the major work Grundriß zu einer Philosophie der Opfer der Geschichte—“Philosophy of History from the Standpoint of the Victims“ (Vienna: Passagen Verlag, 2004). The German online-magazine AVINUS Magazin now begins the publication in English of Dr. Heinrich’s works. We start with the paper that Heinrich gave at the July 2004 conference on „Baudrillard and the Arts“ held at Peter Weibel’s „Center for Art and Media Technology“ in Karlsruhe, Germany.

This essay was published in German as „Auf der Suche nach der ‚Unschuld des Kindes’“, in: Philosophie und Kunst Jean Baudrillard: Eine Hommage zu seinem 75. Geburtstag (edited by Gente, Peter, Könches, Barbara and Weibel, Peter), Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2005.

Zum Autor

Caroline Heinrich, geboren 1972, hat Philosophie studiert und lebt in Mainz. Sie hat sich in ihren Studien intensiv mit den Theorien Baudrillards auseinandergesetzt. Ihre Monographie Grundriss zu einer Philosophie der Opfer der Geschichte (Wien 2004) gilt als Standardwerk der Philosophie der Opfer.

Endnoten    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Nietzsche, Friedrich: Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One (translated with an Introduction by R.J. Hollingdale, originally published in German in 1883-5), London: Penguin Books, 1969; p.55.
  2. Nietzsche, Friedrich: “Nachgelassene Fragmente 1887-9”, in: Sämtliche Werke: kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden (KSA) (edited by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari), 13:281.
  3. Nietzsche, Friedrich: “Nachgelassene Fragmente 1884-5”, in: KSA, 11:17. translation Alan N. Shapiro.
  4. Marx, Karl: Das Kapital 1. Berlin: Dietz, 1966; p.159. translation ANS.
  5. ARD: “Tagesschau” [German Channel One Evening News]; July 8, 2004.
  6. Baudrillard, Jean: L’Échange symbolique et la mort (”Symbolic Exchange and Death”). Paris: Gallimard, 1976.
  7. Baudrillard, Jean: “Der Terror und die Gegengabe” (”Terror and the Counter-Gift”), in: Le Monde diplomatique, supplement to TAZ (German leftist daily newspaper); November 15, 2002; p.56.
  8. Baudrillard, Jean: “Kultur ist überflüssig” (”Culture is Superfluous”), in: Frankfurter Rundschau (German liberal daily newspaper); July 26, 2003.
  9. Baudrillard, Jean: “Der Terror und die Gegengabe.”
  10. Baudrillard, Jean: “Der Terror und die Gegengabe.”
  11. Baudrillard, Jean: The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena (translated by James Benedict, originally published in French in 1990), London: Verso, 1993; p.132.
  12. Baudrillard, Jean: “Der Terror und die Gegengabe.”
  13. Nietzsche, Friedrich: Thus Spoke Zarathustra; p.55.
  14. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich: Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften 1. Werke. Volume 8 (edited by Eva Moldenhauer and Karl Markus Michel), Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986; p.48. translation ANS.
  15. Baudrillard, Jean: “For Illusion Isn’t The Opposite of Reality”, in: Fotografien, Photographies, Photographs, 1985-1998 (edited by Peter Weibel, translation from the French uncredited), Graz: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999; p.129.
  16. Baudrillard, Jean: “For Illusion Isn’t The Opposite of Reality”; p.134.
  17. Baudrillard, Jean: “For Illusion Isn’t The Opposite of Reality”; p.132.
  18. Baudrillard, Jean: “For Illusion Isn’t The Opposite of Reality”; p.133.
  19. Baudrillard, Jean: “For Illusion Isn’t The Opposite of Reality”; p.142.
  20. Baudrillard, Jean: “It is the Object Which Thinks Us…”, in: Fotografien, Photographies, Photographs, 1985-1998 (edited by Peter Weibel, translation from the French uncredited), Graz: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 1999; pp.147-8.
  21. Baudrillard, Jean: “It is the Object Which Thinks Us…”; p.147.
  22. Baudrillard, Jean: “For Illusion Isn’t The Opposite of Reality”; p.133 (translation from the French modified by ANS).
  23. Baudrillard, Jean: “Requiem für die Twin Towers”, in: Gente, Peter, Paris, Heidi and Weinmann, Martin (eds.): Short Cuts: Jean Baudrillard. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003; p.108.
  24. Chris Turner’s Verso Press English translation of “Requiem for the Twin Towers” (in: The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays) does not include Baudrillard’s recounting and analysis of the African artist sculpture story. The published English text was translated from a typescript version that Jean Baudrillard faxed directly from Paris to his superb English translator. The version of “Requiem pour les Twin Towers” that includes the African artist sculpture story was a rewritten text that appeared later in French in the book Power Inferno (Paris: Galilée: 2002). Thanks to Chris Turner for explaining this to me. The German Suhrkamp-published text to which Caroline Heinrich refers was translated from the French Power Inferno version. The passage was also discussed at the February 19, 2003 debate at the “Maison des cultures du monde” in Paris entitled “Pourquoi la guerre?” at which Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and the journalist Alain Gresh were the principal participants. Baudrillard comments further on Michael Richards’ sculpture on p.117 of The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact (translated by Chris Turner, originally published in French in 2004), New York: Berg, 2005, where the towering thinker also discusses a second artwork that bit the dust under the collapsed towers: the bronze technocrat by J. Seward Johnson.
  25. Barthes, Roland: Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (translated by Richard Howard, originally published in French in 1980), New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
  26. Baudrillard, Jean: “It is the Object Which Thinks Us…”; (I am at present unable to find the page number of this quotation — ANS).
  27. Baudrillard, Jean: “For Illusion Isn’t The Opposite of Reality”; p.135 (translation from the French modified by ANS).
  28. Baudrillard, Jean: “For Illusion Isn’t The Opposite of Reality”; p.136.
  29. Baudrillard, Jean: “For Illusion Isn’t The Opposite of Reality”; p.132 (translation from the French modified by ANS).
  30. Baudrillard, Jean: “It is the Object Which Thinks Us…”; p.133.
  31. Baudrillard, Jean: “It is the Object Which Thinks Us…”; p.138.
  32. Baudrillard, Jean: “It is the Object Which Thinks Us…”; p.145.
  33. Therefore a principle of absolute nonviolence would be rejected.
  34. Nietzsche, Friedrich: “Nachgelassene Fragmente 1887-9”, in: KSA, 13:384. translation ANS.