CITIES, poetics of life

Jean Baudrillard: The spectre of terrorism

(This one is for Emma.)

We have had plenty of global events in recent years, from the death of Diana to the World Cup, a well as plenty of violent and real events, from wars to genocides. But a symbolic event global in reach–an event that is not only broadcast worldwide but that threatens globalization itself-had not yet occurred. For the length of the stagnant nineties, in the words of Argentine writer Macedonio Fernandez, “events were on strike.” Well, the strike is over. Events are back at work. With the attack on the World Trade Center, we have now witnessed the ultimate event, the mother of all events, an event so pure it contains within it all the events that never took place.

All the speeches and commentaries made since September 11 betray a gigantic post-traumatic abreaction both to the event itself and to the fascination that it exerts. The moral condemnation and the sacred union against terrorism are directly proportional to the prodigious jubilation felt at having seen this global superpower destroyed, because it was this insufferable superpower that gave rise both to the violence now spreading throughout the world and to the terrorist imagination that (without our knowing it) dwells within us all.

That the entire world without exception had dreamed of this event, that nobody could help but dream the destruction of so powerful a hegemony – this fact is unacceptable to the moral conscience of the West, and yet it is a fact nonetheless, a fact that resists the emotional violence of all the rhetoric conspiring to erase it.

In the end, it was they who did it but we who wished it. If we do not take this fact into account, the vent loses all symbolic dimension; it becomes a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics that we need only repress. But we know well that such is not the case. Without our profound complicity the event would not have reverberated so forcefully, and in their strategic symbolism the terrorists knew they could count on this unconfessable complicity.

It goes well beyond the hatred that the desolate and the exploited – those who ended up on the wrong side of the new world order – feel toward the dominant global power. This malicious desire resides in the hearts of even those who've shared – in the spoils. The allergy to absolute order, to absolute power, is universal, and the two towers of the World Trade Center were, precisely because of their twin-ness, the perfect incarnation of this absolute order.

Countless disaster films have borne witness to these fantasies, and the universal appeal of the images shows just how close the fantasies always are to being acted out: the closer the entire system gets to perfection or to omnipotence, the stronger the urge to destroy it grows.

When the world has been so thoroughly monopolized, when power has been so formidably consolidated by the technocratic machine and the dogma of globalization, what means of turning the tables remains besides terrorism? In dealing all the cards to itself, the system forced the Other to change the rules of the game. And the new rules are ferocious, because the game is ferocious. Terrorism is the act that restores an irreducible singularity to the heart of a generalized system of exchange. All those singularities (species, individuals, cultures) that have been sacrificed to the interests of a global system of commerce avenge themselves by turning the tables with terrorism.

Terror against terror – this is no longer an ideological notion. We have gone well beyond ideology and politics, The energy that nourishes terror, no ideology, no cause, not even an Islamic one, can explain. The terrorists are not aiming simply 😮 transform the world. Like the heretics of previous times, they aim to radicalize the world through sacrifice, whereas the system aims to convert: it into money through force.

Terrorists, like viruses, are everywhere. There is no longer a boundary that can hem terrorism in; it is at the heart of the very culture it's fighting with, and the visible fracture (and the hatred) that pits the exploited and underdeveloped nations of the world against the West masks the dominant system's internal fractures. It is as if every means of domination secreted its own antidote. Against this almost automatic from of resistance to its power, the system can do nothing. Terrorism is the shock wave of this silent resistance.

It is a mistake, then, to characterize this as a clash of civilizations or of religions. It goes well beyond Islam and America, on which one might be tempted to concentrate in order to create the illusion of a confrontation resolvable by force. There is a fundamental antagonism at work. But it transcends the phantom of America (which is perhaps the epicenter though not the incarnation of globalization) as well as the phantom of Islam (which likewise is not the incarnation of terrorism). This is the clash of triumphant globalization at war with itself.

(Continue reading at the European Graduate School…)

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