. . . at the height of their coherence, the redoubled signs of the code
by the abyss of reversal.
--Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death
- In his article "The Baudrillardian Symbolic, 9/11, and the War of
Good and Evil," Bradley Butterfield examines Jean Baudrillard's notion
that terrorism functions according to the rule of symbolic exchange, a
notion most fully articulated in Baudrillard's The Spirit of
Terrorism, written after the attacks on the World Trade
Center in 2001. Butterfield analyzes the concept of symbolic exchange as
it emerged in Baudrillard's early works, particularly in For A
Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign and
Symbolic Exchange and Death. Butterfield
traces Baudrillard's concept of symbolic exchange to Mauss's studies of
the Kula and Potlatch with their agonistic exchange of gifts.
- Butterfield notes that Baudrillard sees death as pivotal
to the idea of symbolic exchange: in "primitive" societies, death has no
equivalent return in exchange value, but must take its place
ritualistically as part of the continual cycle of giving and receiving,
part of a "gift" economy that forms a counterpoint to political economy,
positive value, and the linear calculus of the code. As Baudrillard puts
it, "giving and receiving constitute one symbolic act (the symbolic act
par excellence), which rids death of all the indifferent negativity it
holds for us in the 'natural' order of capital" (Symbolic
166). Yet, as Butterfield notes (following Baudrillard), in contemporary
society the symbolic import of death is denied; it becomes a "natural
phenomenon," a sheer negation of life, a "bar" between the living and
dead. Acts of terrorism, however, represent a "revolt" against this
naturalization of death, and terrorist spectacle returns symbolic
distinction to death (13).
- Butterfield isolates "a common motif" in Baudrillard's
speculations, and that is the potential for a moment "where simulation
society is somehow reversed or revolutionized by the symbolic" (18). Nonetheless,
Butterfield seems highly ambivalent about whether the events of 9/11
actually brought about such a reversal. He seems to concur with
Baudrillard that 9/11 represented an "irreducible, singular, and
irrevocable challenge to each and every imagination" (18). But ultimately
he questions the efficacy of such a challenge: "What the system did in
response to 9/11, or instead of responding to it, was to re-absorb its
symbolic violence back into the never ending flow of anesthetized
simulation [...]" (25). "We live mostly," he continues, "as Ernest Becker
claimed, in denial of death, which our marketing specialists have yet to
fully package [...]. We see only TV spectacles. We do not see the real, or
know the real, but we are a culture fascinated by its simulacrum" (26).
- Butterfield's discussion suggests intriguing questions:
can a symbolic challenge be mounted effectively against a hyperreal
regime in which the multiplication of images serves to divert and
neutralize that challenge? How can symbolic exchange function to
"reverse" the logics of a system if death itself (so central to the idea
of symbolic exchange) is absorbed into the code and rendered hyperreal?
Butterfield leaves these questions unexamined, in spite of the fact
that The Spirit of Terrorism is a text that explores the very
issue of the relation between symbols and signs, images and symbolic
events. Moreover, he leaves the questions unexplored in spite of the fact
that a central theme common to Baudrillard's works is the problematic
between cultures of symbolism and cultures of simulation. As Mike Gane
points out in Baudrillard: Critical and Fatal Theory,
Baudrillard's theorization of the symbolic posits "two
irreconcilable orders"--cultures in which the symbolic mode is still
intact, and cultures in which the more "archaic" symbolic mode has been
displaced by a proliferation of signs (14). Baudrillard's
works are informed by a sense that these orders are in some sense
symbolic cultures constitute the "other" of simulation cultures, and vice
versa. The development of global media may have vitiated this situation
to some extent; nonetheless, certain cultures retain the processes of
symbolic exchange more or less intact. "Take Islam, for instance,"
observes Baudrillard, "where there are still some strong symbolic
processes, but which exact a high price" (qtd. in Gane, Baudrillard
Live 185). On the other
hand, in Western cultures, Baudrillard writes, symbolic exchange "is no
longer an organizing
principle; it no longer functions at the level of modern social
institutions" (Jean Baudrillard 119).
- Yet the irreconcilability of symbolic and simulation
cultures is only part of the picture. Baudrillard argues that the
processes of symbolic exchange--challenge, seduction, that which is the
radical other of economic exchange (Grace 18)--are in some sense basic to
all cultures. On a fundamental level, says Baudrillard, "reciprocity
never ends: every discrimination is only ever imaginary and is forever
cut across by symbolic reciprocity, for better or worse"
(Symbolic 168). While simulation may be an ascendant
process in the West, the symbolic persists; indeed, its otherness
continues to "haunt" the institutions of the West as a "prospect of their
own demise" (Jean Baudrillard 119). The value of symbolic
processes, Baudrillard argues, "consists in their being irreducible"
(qtd. in Gane, Baudrillard Live 185). Thus it may follow that
"irreducible" acts such as
acts of sacrificial violence may momentarily reverse the logics of the
system, disrupting its precarious balance. Indeed, symbolic events of a
particular intensity ("the absolute event, the 'mother' of all events"
[Spirit 4]) may transform the very relation between image
and symbolic events.
- In his speculations on America's response to the
challenge of 9/11, Butterfield fails to take these matters into
account. Moreover, Butterfield avers that the attack on the World Trade
Center "inspired Baudrillard to dress up his
old ideas about the symbolic and symbolic exchange" (5). Yet although
Symbolic Exchange and Death is Baudrillard's most
sustained and comprehensive treatment of symbolic exchange, the notion
has always informed Baudrillard's works. As Victoria Grace explains,
Baudrillard's exploration of the mechanisms of symbolic exchange provides
a "point of departure for the purpose of critique of the contemporary
world he inhabits and the ideological processes that mark it" (18).
Rather than dressing up "old ideas," The Spirit of Terrorism
draws upon notions either implicit or explicit in his earlier works on
terrorism--challenge, reversibility, exchange in the sacrifice--and
develops them in relation to what he sees as the definitive symbolic
event of our times.
- In addressing the question of how America (and by
extension the West) has responded to the symbolic challenge of 9/11, this
essay will examine a number of Baudrillard's works that Butterfield
does not fully consider--the texts from Baudrillard's "middle period"
that deal, in varying degrees, with the phenomenon of terrorism. These
texts include Simulacra and Simulation (originally published
in 1981); "Figures of the Transpolitical" (from Les
Stratégies fatales, 1983); In the Shadow of the
Silent Majorities (1983); and The Gulf War Did Not Take
Place (1991). In his continuing exploration of the
"irreconcilable" relation between symbolic and simulation cultures,
Baudrillard focuses in these works on the way the West constructs the
phenomenon of terrorism and the mechanisms of simulation by which
terrorism's violence is absorbed into the logic of equivalence and the
regime of commutable signs. These are key texts, I argue, for
understanding the way America responded to the events of 9/11.
They are pivotal for speculating on the degree to which
America's extensive apparatus of simulation functioned to assimilate the
symbolic challenge of terrorism. On the other hand, these works also
demonstrate Baudrillard's sustained concern with the symbolic, for they
grapple with how terrorists adopt the mechanisms of the postmodern sign
to infiltrate a regime of simulation, how they use fatal strategies (for
Baudrillard always the domain of reversion and exchange) to push the
system to a crisis point of instability.
- An examination of these pivotal texts will ultimately
lead to a consideration of Baudrillard's The Spirit of
Terrorism, for here Baudrillard's speculations illuminate most
fully the question of the West's ability to "reabsorb" the dramatic
events of 9/11 into the logic and processes of simulation.
Baudrillard has always contended that symbolic exchange (like seduction)
is an ineluctable force that persists, haunting an indifferent, hyperreal
order. Baudrillard's central question, which echoes in all his works, is
whether the specter of symbolic exchange will "materialize," whether it
can become a potent force that subverts a hyperreal order: "Can
reversibility seize control of systems? Is there going to be, at sometime
in the future, such a destabilization of all of this undertaking by
living elements, by cultures of illusions, by symbolic systems?" (qtd.
Baudrillard Live 185). In The Spirit of Terrorism,
Baudrillard's answer is yes.
- Between 1976, when he wrote Symbolic Exchange and
Death, and the early 1980s, when he began writing extensively on
terrorism, the focus of Baudrillard's thinking shifts from the realm of
the symbol to the sign. In part, says Baudrillard himself, this shift is
to be accounted for by confusions surrounding the category of the
symbolic: "there are too many misunderstandings over the term" (qtd.
Baudrillard Live 57). But the shift is presaged in
Symbolic Exchange and
Death itself--much of the work is devoted to the logics of the
sign in an emerging simulation culture. It would therefore seem that
Baudrillard's shift can be accounted for by his awareness of the
accelerated development of an economy of the sign and media saturation in
- This change in focus is suggested by Baudrillard's
treatment of terrorism in Symbolic Exchange and Death
and "Figures of the Transpolitical." In the former, the focus is
still on the symbolic dimension of the terrorist act.
The hostage has a symbolic yield a hundred times superior to that of the
automobile death, which is itself a hundred times superior to natural
death. This is because we rediscover here a time of the
sacrifice, of the ritual of execution, in the immanence of the
collectively expected death. This death, totally undeserved, therefore
totally artificial, is therefore perfect from the sacrificial point of
view, for which the officiating priest or "criminal" is expected to die
in return, according to the rules of a symbolic exchange to which we
adhere so much more profoundly than we do to the economic order.
Yet in "Figures of the Transpolitical," Baudrillard focuses on the way
terrorist scenarios are constructed in a spectacular order where
sacrificial acts have all but lost symbolic resonance.
In offering himself as a substitute for the hostages of Mogadiscio [in
1977], the Pope [Pious VI] also sought to substitute anonymous terror
with elective death, with sacrifice, similar to the Christian
model of universal atonement--but his offer was parodic without meaning
to be so, since it designates a solution and a model which are totally
unthinkable in our contemporary systems, whose incentive is precisely not
sacrifice, but extermination, not elected victims, but spectacular
anonymity. ("Figures" 172)
In the "contemporary systems" of Western culture, terrorism and
hostage-taking occur in the regime of sign value where the code of
general equivalence triumphs. If terrorism represents anything, it is
the dehumanized process of sign exchange, the interchange or exhibition
of commutable and groundless signs. Rather than having any symbolic
value, hostages "are suspended in an incalculable term of expiry" ("Figures" 170).
are obscene because they no longer represent anything (this is the very
definition of obscenity). They are in a state of exhibition pure and
simple. Pure objects [...] made to disappear before their death. Frozen in
a state of disappearance. In their own way, cryogenised.
- As experienced in--and constructed by--the culture of the
West, then, terrorism is no longer part of a symbolic "scene" but rather
an aspect of the "obscene": the immediate (real time), global,
spectacular world of the media. Baudrillard's middle works develop this
analysis, situating terrorism within recent mutations of the sign brought
on by a media-saturated culture in which informational events stand in
for the real, in which the "real" is structured in accordance with the
logic of sign value where all signifiers are liberated, open to infinite
multiplication, and to simulated models of meaning:
[Terrorism's] only "ripples" are precisely not an historical flow but its
story, its shock wave in the media. This story no more belongs to an
objective and informative order than terrorism does to the political
order. Both are elsewhere, in an order which is neither of meaning nor
of representation--mythical perhaps, simulacrum undoubtedly.
(In the Shadow 54)
Terrorists have adapted to a simulation culture; their acts are staged
for the media and become part of the world of self-referential signs,
part of the hyperreal condition ("simulacrum undoubtedly"). An ecstatic
form of violence, terrorism exceeds any critical or dialectical
determination, and those observing are swept up in the mise en
abyme of its staging, fascinated by the will to spectacle it
- How might we see 9/11 in terms of Baudrillard's grim
vision of terrorism in the Western regime of sign exchange and
proliferation? How can such events with their devastating and
catastrophic consequences-- psychological, social, and economic--be seen
as functioning according to the postmodern logic of sign value?
Certainly the 9/11 attacks were "choreographed" for their maximum
impact as spectacle: indeed, the twin towers attack had a precision,
orchestration, and performative aspect that took on the abstract
perfection of a simulation. In this sense the attacks were "already
inscribed in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media,
anticipated in their presentation and their possible consequences"
(Baudrillard, Simulacra 21). No doubt the terrorists behind
the attack expected that images of the disaster would be caught on
videotape and be disseminated globally. And certainly the international
coverage with repeated replays of the disaster made all of us a fearful,
- As Wheeler Dixon argues, "to satisfy us, the spectacle
must engulf us, threaten us, sweep us up from the first " (7), and the
events of 9/11 did just that. A colleague commented that the
television coverage seemed a series of simulations of "awesome special
effects" (Baudrillard says that "terrorism itself is only one immense
special effect" ["Figures" 175]). A gas station attendant told
me that watching the planes dive into the World Trade Center was "like
being at Universal Studios." Indeed, part of the horror and fear was a
haunting sense that what we saw on television was somehow unreal, a
spectral show; yet as a colossal spectacle it was more-real-than-real,
embodying, as it did, the images of countless apocalyptic disaster
- Western media coverage that followed 9/11
followed the logic of simulation, the severance of the sign from its
referent, the explosion and proliferation of signs. It reinforced the
sense of a world where signs are utterly commutable and sign exchange is
promiscuous and self-replicating--"fractal." In the days following, the
"event strike" failed to reveal a hermeneutic core (let alone revealing who was
"responsible" for the act), and its media-disseminated meanings mutated
constantly, proliferating with compulsive virulence, metonymically
merging and bleeding into one another. A plethora of signifieds emerged,
from "human interest" stories on the heroism of firefighters or of victims
calling loved ones on cell phones, to justification for the resurrection
of a virulent nationalism and a call for "Operation Infinite Justice."
- For Baudrillard, the "reality principle" of the Western
"hegemony and the spectacle" is "all of reality absorbed by the
hyperreality of the code and of simulation" (Jean Baudrillard 120).
The explosion of sign value, the delirium of communication sparked
by 9/11, functioned, on one level, to absorb the otherness of the
event into the terms and processes of the system: the code, floating
models that precede the real, the "indifference" of the simulacrum.
Broadcasting reached unprecedented levels of simulation: when bombing
began in Afghanistan, Western reporters were kept so far from the action
they had to rely on their central news bureaus to provide
information--which they then reported "live" ("Media Watch"). American
media reported that Air Force One was in danger on 9/11: with an
elaborate set of maps, diagrams, and arrows, reports detailed the
position of the presidential aircraft, returning to Washington from
Florida, when the President's security team received word of "a
threatening message received by the secret service" ("MediaWatch"). But although the
President's plane was controversially diverted, a subsequent
investigation by The Washington Post revealed that Air Force
never in danger. In short, one aspect
of the pervasive media simulation involved the White House's use of the
media as a conduit for disinformation. Bush's virtual challenges (Osama
bin Laden, "wanted, dead or alive"), and the hackneyed presidential
demands for "infinite justice" (combined with the call for a "crusade")
were so reminiscent of a bad Hollywood script that they prompted British
journalist Robert Fisk to speculate:
I am beginning to wonder whether we
have not convinced ourselves that wars--our wars--are movies. The only
Hollywood film ever made about Afghanistan was a Rambo epic in which
Sylvester Stallone taught the Afghan mujaheddin how to fight the Russian
occupation, helped to defeat Soviet troops and won the admiration of an
Afghan boy. Are the Americans, I wonder, somehow trying to actualise the
Terms were tossed around in the media like "freedom,"
"defense of liberty," and "terrorism"--not just vague in the old
Orwellian sense, but palpably without referent, in a kind of ecstatic
celebration of the death of referentiality itself. Indeed, the "war
against terror" itself has been conducted in a hyperreal mode, the Bush
administration's "sustained, comprehensive and relentless" operations
aimed at a chimera whose traces are evident on video or audiotape, the very
logic of this "war" utterly sealed off from "the desert of the real"--the sordid
material interests that might be driving it, such as the oil and defense
- Another aspect of the system's propensity to assimilate
the "real" of the terrorist violence is suggested by the way the events
of 9/11 were subject to dematerialization in a vertiginous and
ecstatic flow of information. The "hostages" (if they could be called
that) became part of an "obscene delirium of communication" (Baudrillard,
"Ecstasy" 132) as they made cellphone calls to their loved ones, left
messages on answer phones, and (on Flight 93, which plummeted to the
ground) transmitted their intention to overcome the hijackers. CNN
reporter Barbara Olson, who was on Flight 77, which crashed into the
Pentagon, was herself going to Los Angeles to appear on a television show
(Wolcott 68). In the media frenzy that followed, these "hostages"
attained (posthumously) "a state of exhibition pure and simple," an
exhibition that fueled fascination and panic, as well as the discourse of
cultural war and the brutality and barbarity of the "enemy." The passengers on these doomed flights
vanished into an implosive black hole without remainder--not even their
bodies left behind to mark their death or provide the basis for what
Derrida calls "the work of the remainder": the process of symbolic
exchange that enables mourning to occur (30). Like the Baudrillardian
hostage, the passengers on the fated flights of 9/11 were "frozen
in a state of disappearance [...] in their own way cryogenized"
(Baudrillard, "Figures" 176) at the zero degree of meaning. What was most
uncanny and frightening was the "unrepresentability" of their deaths, the
way in which they exemplified the quintessential condition of
Baudrillard's postmodern hostage, existing only as signs in potentially
- Yet, as Baudrillard points out, the modality of the
hyperreal is always "fluctuating in indeterminacy" (Jean Baudrillard
120). Terrorism's "messages" to the dominant system cannot be
entirely consumed in a flurry of signs, or assimilated in awesome
spectacle. What was so chilling about the events of 9/11 was that
they mirrored, in some palpable way, the "blindness" of an anonymous
society that is ours. If the hostages could be said to "represent"
anything, it is the degree to which power in the contemporary period is
decentered and anonymous, the degree to which power in postmodernity
becomes a simulacrum constructed on the basis of signs. As Baudrillard
puts it, "through the death of no matter whom, [terrorism]
executes the sentence of anonymity which is already ours, that of the
anonymous system, the anonymous power, the anonymous terror of our real
lives" ("Figures" 171). Part of terrorism's destabilizing potential lies
in the fact that it provides a condensed image or distorting mirror of
social and political processes. It
draws upon and perpetuates a haunting "everyday fear" occasioned by
anonymous power. In the space of the transpolitical, according to
Baudrillard, "we are all hostages" ("Figures" 170). Novelist Don DeLillo,
one of our foremost writers on terrorism, concurs; in his novel Mao
II, a character puts the unspecifiable yet always-present
potential of terrorism chillingly:
Yes, I travel. Which means there is no moment on certain days when I'm
not thinking terror. They have us in their power. In boarding areas I
never sit near windows in case of flying glass. I carry a Swedish
passport so that's okay unless you believe that terrorists killed the
prime minister. Then maybe it's not so good. And I use codes in my
address book for names and addresses of writers because how can you tell
if the name of a certain writer is dangerous to carry, some dissident,
some Jew or blasphemer. (41)
- Another factor which makes contemporary
terrorism's threat resistant to absorption by the system is an aspect of
its adaptive character: the extent to which terrorism inhabits the very
floating models and replicable scenarios that are characteristic of a
hyperreal order. Baudrillard, as we have seen, contends that terrorist
acts, disseminated in the global media and acting according to the logic
of the sign, become fractal--rather than being governed by a code, they
have no point of reference at all. With the autonomy of the signifier
and the accelerated momentum of sign value, terrorism operates by
"contiguity, fascination, and panic [...] a chain reaction by contagion"
(Baudrillard, In the Shadow 51). Terrorism is "virulent,"
enters the global mediascapes and becomes self-replicating. The image
takes the event as "hostage" in part by "multiplying the event into
infinity" (Baudrillard, "L'Esprit" 17), producing an endless repetition of
same. How else to describe the events that occurred in New Zealand and
Australia in the wake of 9/11 when the anthrax scare was sweeping
the United States? Both these countries experienced uncontrollable
replication of "scenes" of anthrax attacks: day after day, televised
images appeared of workers dressed in protective garments and masks
(exactly as in the U.S.), evacuating post offices, entering areas
suspected of containing anthrax dust, although no "real" anthrax dust was
discovered. By collapsing the distinction between the real and the copy,
these contagious simulational scenarios (like something out of Don
DeLillo's White Noise) ironically conferred the status of
authenticity on life in New Zealand --this little country, too, was on
the receiving end of the global terrorist threat; we were significant
enough to be targeted; we had our own scenes of anthrax terror--we were
- Baudrillard's texts from this middle period tell us that
to view terrorism as a media event, "a group of signs dedicated
exclusively to their recurrence as signs" (Simulacra 21), is not to say that media-disseminated
"hyperreal" events do not have "real" effects. Nor does it suggest that
the system can unproblematically absorb terrorism's violence, with its
symbolic message, back into mediatized indifference. Postmodern
terrorism occurs in the context of what James Der Derian calls "a global
information economy boosting sign power" (80). Such "sign power" includes
strategic efforts on the part of corporations to simulate profitability
(here the Enron debacle is instructive); it also entails an economy in
which money itself is an object of circulation that has only a screen-and-networked existence rather than a "material" one. Such an economy is
particularly vulnerable to forms of terrorism which insert themselves
into the economy of the sign, and indeed there were enormous consequences
in the wake of 9/11: the sudden decline of an already shaky
international economy, the immediate, worldwide decline in the value of
stocks (a trillion or so dollars vanished in this way), the
domino-like collapse of airline industries, and the rush on the part of
governments in the United States, Switzerland, New Zealand, and Australia
to prop them up. New York lost close to 100,000 jobs in the aftermath of
- In a postindustrial epoch when the "mode of
information" is dominant, commandeering the mode of information--that is,
creating a spectacular act which produces media spasms on a global
scale--can be extraordinarily effective. As Slavoj Zizek notes, the
shattering impact of the attacks can only be accounted for by the fact
that "the two WTC towers stood for the center of virtual capitalism, of
financial speculations disconnected from the sphere of material
production" (3). Virtual capitalism--the world of global speculation and
investment--is precisely the space in which a mediatized, spectacular, and
hyperreal attack can be devastating, can constitute a "deconstruction"
(or strategic reversal) of the system by pitting a hyperreal act against a
hyperreal system. As Baudrillard observes,
a hyperreal, imperceptible sociality, no longer
operating by law and repression, but by the infiltration of models, no
longer by violence, but by deterrence/persuasion--to that terrorism
responds by an equally hyperreal act, caught up from the outset in
concentric waves of media and of fascination [...] (In the
Terrorism engenders fascination, fear, and terror in a form that is
utterly anonymous and contiguous, an "an arbitrary and hazardous
abstraction" (Baudrillard, In the Shadow 51). A character in
Mao II explains the dynamics of terrorism in exactly these
It's confusing when they [terrorists] kill the innocent. But this is
precisely the language of being noticed, the only language the West
understands. The way they determine how we see them. The way they
dominate the rush of endless streaming images. (157-58)
This is precisely Baudrillard's point: in a society of ubiquitous
hyperreality, the primary goal of the terrorist is media spectacle, "the
only language the West understands." Simultaneously brutal, repugnant,
and fascinating, the terrorist's repertoire--kidnappings, hijackings, and
assassinations--convey their message by becoming part of the "obscene
delirium" of televisual flows, informational anxiety, and technological
catastrophe of media spectacle.
- Baudrillard's texts in this middle period, then, help us
understand postmodern terrorism (and 9/11) in the highly
ambivalent regime of image and spectacle. While image and spectacle
function to absorb the alterity of terrorism, terrorism has adapted
adroitly to the logic of sign exchange and sign value. If a culture of
simulation denies the symbolic import of death, it can never eradicate
it. Indeed, in all these texts the idea of reversal and death is never
far away. Contemporary terrorism usurps the mechanisms of simulation in
order to inhabit the system from the inside; like a viral organism, it
multiplies from within, pushing the very logic of the system to a point
of extremity, inserting reversibility into the causal order, and bringing
about a reversion of the system's own power. Terrorism "aims at the
white magic of the social encircling us, that of information, of
simulation, of deterrence, of anonymous and random control, in order to
precipitate its death by accentuating it" (Baudrillard, In the
Terrorism is a form of "fatal strategy," and (as Baudrillard explains)
"the order of the fatal is the site of symbolic exchange. There is no
more liberty, everything is locked in a sequential chain" (qtd. in Gane,
Baudrillard Live 108). Even the hostage, "frozen in a state of
disappearance" (Baudrillard, "Figures" 176), becomes something of a
nonnegotiable, inexchangeable object that casts a shadow over economic
and semiotic exchange, insinuating the symbolic back into the flow of
commutable signs. Ultimately,
symbolic exchange is fundamentally irrevocable and singular; the "gift "
must be returned; symbolic obligation remains unbreachable by the
dominant exchange and irreducible to the law of the code.
- Inspired by the events of 9/11, this is precisely
the theme Baudrillard develops in The Spirit of Terrorism. In
the parrying between symbolic and simulation cultures, here the symbolic
clearly gains the upper hand.
- Rather than compelling Baudrillard to "dress up old ideas of
symbolic exchange" (as Butterfield would have it), 9/11 provoked
him to bring his ideas of symbolic exchange, always
implicit in his writings on terrorism and its "fatal strategies," to bear
on what he considers to be the first global symbolic event. The momentous
nature of the attack on the World Trade Center also compelled him to
develop his views on the relation between simulation and symbolic
exchange. In The Spirit of Terrorism, Baudrillard argues that
in a world utterly saturated with images, our primary experience of the
disaster was as "image-event." The image takes the event "hostage"; it
"consumes the event," and in that sense "absorbs the event and offers it
for consumption" (27). We cannot say that the World Trade Center attacks
signaled a resurrection of the real, for our very reality principle has
been lost, has become intermingled with the fictional, has all but been
absorbed in the recursive processes of simulation. The image precedes
the real, yet in the terrorist attacks the "frisson of the
real" was superadded as an excess, an echo, "like an additional fiction,
a fiction surpassing fiction" (29). Baudrillard seems to suggest that
the "absolute event" of 9/11 produced a breach between the real
(however entwined in the fantastic and surreal) and media event, between
event and medium. Such a breach constitutes a dismantling of the formal
correlation of signifier and signified, a radical dismembering of the
mechanisms of the code. It
transgresses the codification of signs and their semiotic/economic
exchange (the definitive act is "not susceptible of exchange" ). The
symbolic suddenly breaks through and subverts the indifference of
simulation. The attack on the World Trade Center thus constituted a
condensed site of symbolic power that "radicalized the relation of the
image to reality" (27). The event breached the bar between life and
death, between semiologic and the symbolic, constituting a singularity
"at one and the same time the dazzling micro-model of a kernel of real
violence with the maximum possible echo--hence the purist form of
spectacle--and a sacrificial model mounting the purest symbolic form of
defiance to the historical political order" (30).
- Such dramatic and sacrificial violence constituted a
challenge to the West's denial of death's symbolic capacity for
reversion. Yet Butterfield tells us, "Americans are not
primitives--we do not value death symbolically, but rather only as a
subtraction from life" (12). But the fact that Americans deny the
symbolic dimension of death was ultimately of little importance on
9/11. For it was as if both individuals and systems, independent
of intention or agency, at some profound level responded to the specter
of death and reversibility. Indeed, the event was a challenge to the
"real" of the Western world. The World Trade Center attacks made the
vulnerability of an overly extended system suddenly palpable; its
functional logic (which precludes reversion) was suddenly breached:
"the whole system of the real and power [la puissance] gathers,
transfixed; rallies briefly; then perishes by its own hyperefficiency"
(Baudrillard, Spirit 18). The Twin Towers collapsed (a stunning
image of violent and
catastrophic implosion), the regime of signification (floating currency,
floating signifiers) was thrown into chaos, the market plunged, jobs were
lost, corporations become insolvent.
- But what possible "answer" could America give to the
symbolic challenge? Butterfield argues that Baudrillard's logic of gift
and countergift would imply that the greatest possible symbolic honor
would be the forgiveness of debt. The idea that the U.S. might forgive
its debtors, says Butterfield, constitutes the "utopian moment" in
Baudrillard's thinking, but "Baudrillard will not speak his utopia" (25).
On this point, however, it is again useful to think of the relation of
the symbolic cultures to the orders of simulation found in the West that
informs Baudrillard's thinking. It may be that Baudrillard "will not
speak" on the matter because he realizes that the very notion of
forgiveness assumes values based in older notions of symbolic
obligation. As Baudrillard commented in an interview, "today [in the
West] forgiveness has turned into tolerance, the democratic virtue par
excellence, a sort of ecology that shields all the differences, a sort of
psychological demagogy" (qtd. in Gane, Baudrillard Live 195).
- Baudrillard seems to suggest that the West is unable to
suffer the weight of symbolic obligation precisely because this would
challenge the West's very being--capitalism totalizing itself "as a code
producing all the world as exchangeable within an identical order"
(McMillan and Worth 127). And herein lies the conundrum the West
confronts: any response which recognized symbolic obligation would be
undertaken at the risk of the West's becoming something other than it is,
at the risk of bringing about its own "death":
At odds with itself, it can only plunge further into its own logic of
relations of force, but it cannot operate on the terrain of the symbolic
challenge and death--a thing of which it no longer has any idea, since it
has erased it from its own culture. (Baudrillard, Spirit 15)
- The United States's answer to symbolic challenge is
precisely to "plunge further into its own logic of relations of force,"
the logic of sign value and a global regime of monolithic indifference:
"All that is singular and irreducible must be absorbed. This is the law
of democracy and the new world order" (Gulf War 86). Among
other things, the "war on terror" represents a frantic attempt to mend
the breach in the code, to absorb the singular and irreducible symbolic
challenge 9/11 into the order of simulation. The Bush
administration targets Saddam Hussein, the fake terrorist enemy; it
stages "Gulf War 2: The Sequel," a repetition compulsion that exhibits
all of the will to spectacle of the first Gulf War. Reporting of this
war extended the logic of simulation with "embedded reporters"--a new
breed of journalists largely indistinguishable in speech or dress from
the troops with whom they travel, surrendering their independence to be
ferried around in military vehicles, to be part of the larger "cast" of
executive producer Donald Rumsfeld's show of shows. Coverage of the war
included scene after scene of "embeds," wearing fatigues and goggles,
sitting on tanks, talking by satellite to anchors in the U.S.--all
scripted, all staged, the satellite technology that enabled this instant
communication an integral part of its hyperreal production. Of the first
Gulf War Baudrillard wrote, "it is a sign that the space of the event has
become a hyperspace with multiple refractivity, and that the space of
war has become definitely non-Euclidean" (Gulf War 50).
"Gulf War 2" featured endless images of embeds inhabiting a
non-Euclidean space devoid of all landmarks. When camera crews
encountered recognizable landmarks of any potential strategic importance,
stock footage or tight shots of helmeted talking heads in a tank's
interior were substituted; viewers were advised that live exterior
tracking shots would resume when there was nothing distinctive about the
terrain. Jokes circulated during the siege of Baghdad acknowledging the
simulational character of the war: "Why didn't American troops get to
Baghdad quicker? Because CNN kept having to re-shoot the scenes" (Agence
- Like the first Gulf War, the attack on Iraq functioned
to rescue the idea of war, the status of war, its meaning, its future
(the superiority of American might and its ability to identify and quash
the terrorist enemy as opposed to negotiation with other countries within
the U.N.). Like the first Gulf War, it does this in the hyperreal mode,
proffering "the deontology of a pure electronic war without hitches"
(Gulf War 34). Not only did the Iraqi regime collapse
within a matter of days, but the U.S. won the nostalgia-evoking scenes of
real war and real liberation it wanted. As one journalist put it, such
scenes resembled "Paris after 1945 with an Arab cast. An old man beating
a poster of Saddam Hussein with a shoe in deliberate insult. The statue
of the Iraqi president with a noose around its neck and an American flag
over its head like an executioner's hood, the crowd below gathering to
tug it from its pedestal" (Maddox). If this was not enough, Bush appeared
in Top Gun-uniform aboard an aircraft carrier to declare
victory. In its
consistent and strategic embrace of the logic of simulation, Gulf War 2
was grounded in the "disappearance of alterity, of primitive hostility,
and the enemy" (Gulf War 36).
- Indeed, the recent war on Iraq seems the final phase of
pulling back the symbolic challenge of 9/11 into a
non-Euclidian, hyperreal media space, and into simulational, replicable
scenarios. Like the first Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition's attack on
Iraq has proved to be a "celibate machine" (Gulf War
36), generating a series of models, codes, and scenarios. Iraq is a testing
ground, a kind of blank slate or model by which to generate scenarios
that might be deployed to effect regime change in "rogue" states such as
Syria, Iran, and North Korea, countries which form Bush's "axis of evil."
Finally, in hyperreal mode, this "deontology of war," death itself--and,
by extension, its potential for singularity and sacrificial
violence--becomes subject to the code. In a press briefing, U.S. war
commander General Tommy Franks asserted that American forces had genetic material that could be used to identify Saddam and check whether
attempts to kill him had succeeded. "He's either dead or he's running a
lot," Franks said. "He'll simply be alive until I can confirm he's dead"
(Reuters). In this semiotic regime of the code, people "die the only
death the system authorizes" (Symbolic 177); the code
(controlled by the Americans) bestows the power to differentiate between
life and death, to confer death, and to produce death.
- Such examples suggest not only America's (and the West's)
inability to grapple with symbolic obligation, but its concerted effort
to absorb the threat of the Other by generating a seamless simulational
and hyperreal world. Yet symbolic cultures such as Islam have a
particularly potent weapon. As Victoria Grace notes, they have the power
to "infect the west with that which it does not understand and cannot
encompass: the symbolic power of culture that destabilizes any pretense
to the universal and the coded instantiations of the real" (96). The
West's claim to a universal code is thus troubled and unsettled by the
aftereffects of calamitous and seismic symbolic violence. Moreover, the
destabilizing "infection" of symbolic power is integrally related to
Baudrillard's notion of the "transparency of evil" with its concept of
the "accursed share" (Transparency 82)--the evil which
Western society attempts to expel in order to maintain its operational
positivity. There is a perverse paradox in America's denial of the Other,
including its denial of the evil and the alterity of death. If the West
has barred the negative in the pursuit of the positive, the negative
inevitably transpires, inexorably returns to haunt its comfortable
positivity. As Baudrillard observes,
"the price we pay for the 'reality' of this life, to live it as positive
value, is the ever present phantasm of death" (Symbolic
133). In this dichotomous logic (death barred from life), death is
constructed as irreversible, and therefore haunts life as an as
ever-present and ever-threatening "ghostly presence." In the death-denying contemporary West, it is
precisely the ever-present specter of death that characterizes the
"politics of everyday fear," the general sense of disaster that is woven
into the fabric of daily life, part of the haunting, nameless dread of
terrorism, that which inevitably transpires as a result of a relentless
devotion to positivity, "the triumph of Good all along the line"
- The United States's War on Terror--including the
attack on Iraq and the threats against other "rogue states"--is an aspect
of what Gary Genosko refers to as "simulated reciprocity" (xxi-xxii), a
bogus, simulacral response to a unique and binding symbolic challenge.
Yet 9/11 was itself an aspect of the "transpolitical mirror of
evil" (Baudrillard, Transparency 81) in which the barred and
"negative" reappeared in a symbolic form so overwhelming that it
continues to haunt the positivist order of America and the West. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a redounding consequence
of the global injunction to positive value and the denial of the
symbolic potential of death--an injunction that precisely left the West vulnerable to the fatal strategies of sacrificial
violence and sacrificial death, strategies it cannot meet or answer on their own terms.
- Contrary to Bradley Butterfield's argument, then, it is
not a question of Americans being moderns or primitives, of Americans
living in the denial of death, or even of Americans living in a
never-ending flow of anesthetized simulation. For one of Baudrillard's
key points in The Spirit of Terrorism is that it is
precisely the fundamental, constitutive antagonism of global capitalism
that ultimately confounds America's hegemony of the positive, as well as
the mechanisms of simulation that produce and buttress it. For
Baudrillard, this "fundamental antagonism [...] points past the spectre of
America [...] and the spectre of Islam, to triumphant globalization
battling against itself" (Spirit 11). What is excluded
from this global system transpires in redoubled measure; that which the
system finds intolerable, and that which is fatal to it--evil, death,
reversibility--inexorably haunts the system in all its hyperextended
perfection: "at the height of their coherence, the redoubled signs of
the code are haunted by the abyss of reversal" (Jean Baudrillard
123). On 11 September 2001, this became dramatically apparent.
In the "unforgettable incandescence of the images," evil and death
reasserted themselves, and the virtual consensus of globalism was
suddenly engulfed by a void. Symbolic violence created a breakthrough,
an effraction that shook the West's self-certainty to the core,
leaving it haunted with the specter of that which "dismantles the
beautiful order of irreversibility, of the finality of things" (qtd. in
Gane, Baudrillard Live 57).
Department of American Studies
University of Canterbury
COPYRIGHT (c) 2003 Leonard Wilcox. READERS MAY USE
PORTIONS OF THIS WORK IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE FAIR USE PROVISIONS OF U.S.
COPYRIGHT LAW. IN ADDITION, SUBSCRIBERS AND MEMBERS OF SUBSCRIBED
USE THE ENTIRE WORK FOR ANY INTERNAL NONCOMMERCIAL PURPOSE BUT, OTHER THAN
ONE COPY SENT BY EMAIL, PRINT OR FAX TO ONE PERSON AT ANOTHER LOCATION FOR
THAT INDIVIDUAL'S PERSONAL USE, DISTRIBUTION OF THIS ARTICLE OUTSIDE OF A
SUBSCRIBED INSTITUTION WITHOUT EXPRESS WRITTEN PERMISSION FROM EITHER THE
AUTHOR OR THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS IS EXPRESSLY FORBIDDEN.
THIS ARTICLE AND OTHER CONTENTS OF THIS ISSUE ARE
AVAILABLE FREE OF CHARGE UNTIL RELEASE OF THE NEXT ISSUE. A
TEXT-ONLY ARCHIVE OF THE JOURNAL IS ALSO AVAILABLE FREE OF CHARGE.
FOR FULL HYPERTEXT ACCESS TO BACK ISSUES, SEARCH UTILITIES, AND OTHER
VALUABLE FEATURES, YOU OR YOUR INSTITUTION MAY SUBSCRIBE TO
PROJECT MUSE, THE
ON-LINE JOURNALS PROJECT OF THE
JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS.
1. For this formulation, I am indebted
to Victoria Grace (25). I would like to thank her for
providing me with galley proofs of Karen McMillan and Heather Worth's
article "In Dreams: Baudrillard, Derrida, and September 11."
2. See Bennetts 82 and White.
3. See for example, Ann Coulter,
"This is War" in which, responding to Barbara Olson's death, she
famously wrote about "those responsible" for the terrorist act: "We
should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to
4. See Genosko (98).
5. Here I am indebted to Genosko's
discussion of the hostage (98). According to Genosko,
Baudrillard's reading of the hostage "has always been in the service
of the symbolic [...] " (100).
6. Here I am indebted to McMillan and
7. I'd like to thank my colleague Kevin Glynn for pointing this out to me, and for lengthy
discussions on the simulational aspects of the attack on Iraq.
8. I'd like to thank Victoria Grace
for conversations and emails in which she pointed out to me the
importance of Baudrillard's notion of the "transparency of evil" and
its relation to the Baudrillardian symbolic.
9. I am indebted to Victoria Grace's
discussion of the consequences of the West's devotion to positive
10. Here I am indebted to Karen
McMillan and Heather Worth (126).
Agence France Press (AFP). "War Rising Above the Pain." The
Press [Christchurch, New Zealand] 8 Apr. 2003: B1.
Baudrillard, Jean. "The Ecstasy of Communication." The
Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster.
Port Townsend: Bay, 1983. 126-33.
---. "Figures of the Transpolitical." Revenge of the Crystal:
Selected Writings on the Modern Object and its Destiny,
1968-1983. Ed. and trans. Paul Foss and Julian Pefanis. London:
Pluto, 1990. 161-98.
---. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Trans. Paul Patton. Sydney: Power, 1995.
---. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. Trans. Paul
Foss, John Johnston, and Paul Patton. New York: Semiotext, 1983.
---. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster.
Trans. Charles Levin. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988.
---. "L'Esprit Du Terrorisme." Trans. Donovan Hohn. Harper's
Magazine Feb. 2002: 13-18.
---. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser.
Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.
---. The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin
Towers. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2002.
---. Symbolic Exchange and Death. 1976. Trans. Iain Hamilton
Grant. London: Sage, 1993.
---. The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme
Phenomenon. London: Verso, 1993.
Bennetts, Leslie. "One Nation, One Mind?" Vanity Fair
Dec. 2001: 82-88.
Butterfield, Bradley. "The Baudrillardian Symbolic, 9/11, and the War of Good and Evil." Postmodern Culture 13.1
(2002): 27 pars. Sept. 2002 <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/postmodern_culture/v013/13.1butterfield.html>.
Coulter, Ann. "This is War." National Review Online 13
Sept. 2001 <www.nationalreview.com/coulter/coulter091301.shtml>.
DeLillo, Don. Mao II. New York: Viking, 1991.
Der Derian, James. Antidiplomacy: Spies, Terror, Speed, and
War. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
Derrida, Jacques. "No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven
missiles, seven missives)." Diacritics 14 (Summer 1984):
Dixon, Wheeler Winston. The Transparency of Spectacle: Meditations
on the Moving Image. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1998.
Fisk, Robert. "Lost in the Rhetorical Fog of War." The
Independent. 9 Oct. 2000: 3.
Gane, Mike. Baudrillard: Critical and Fatal Theory. New
York: Routledge, 1991.
---, ed. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. New York:
Genosko, Gary. Baudrillard and Signs: Signification Ablaze.
New York: Routledge, 1994.
Grace, Victoria. Baudrillard's Challenge: A Feminist
Reading. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Maddox, Bronwen. "Will the U.S. Stop at Iraq? Victory in Baghdad Offers
Vision of Easy Regime Change." The Times [London] 11 Apr.
"Media Watch." Radio New Zealand. 25 Nov. 2001.
McMillan, Karen, and Heather Worth. "In Dreams: Baudrillard, Derrida and
September 11." Eds. Victoria Grace, Heather Worth, and Simmons, Laurence.
Baudrillard West of the Dateline. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 2003. 116-37.
Reuters. "Where is Saddam"? The Press [Christchurch, New
Zealand] 15 Apr. 2003: B1.
White, Jerry. "White House Lied about Threat to Air Force One." World
Socialist Web Site 28 Sept. 2001 <http://www.wsws.org/articles/2001/sep2001/bush-s28.shtml>
Wolcott, James. "Over, Under, Sideways, Down." Vanity Fair December 2001: 64-74.
Zizek, Slavoj. "Welcome to the Desert of the Real." Reconstructions:
Reflections on Humanity and Media after Tragedy. 15 Sept. 2001. <