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    . . . at the height of their coherence, the redoubled signs of the code are haunted by the abyss of reversal.

    --Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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 relation 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 incommensurable: 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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. in Gane, Baudrillard Live 185). In The Spirit of Terrorism, Baudrillard's answer is yes.
  9. Part I

  10. 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. in Gane, 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 the West.
  11. 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. (Symbolic 165)

    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). Hostages

    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. ("Figures" 176)

  12. 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:[1]

    [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 represents.

  13. Part II

  14. 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, captive audience.
  15. 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 films.
  16. 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."
  17. 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 One was never in danger.[2] 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 movie? (3)

    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 industries.
  18. 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."[3] 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 boundless transmissions.
  19. 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.[4] 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)

  20. 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," something that 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 the 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 "real."
  21. Part III

  22. 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 9/11.
  23. 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 Shadow 50)

    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 terms:

    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.

  24. 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 Shadow 51). 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.[5] 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.
  25. 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.

    Part IV

  26. 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.[6] It transgresses the codification of signs and their semiotic/economic exchange (the definitive act is "not susceptible of exchange" [9]). 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).
  27. 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.
  28. 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).
  29. 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)

  30. 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.[7] 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 France Presse).
  31. 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).
  32. 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.
  33. 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.[8] 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."[9] 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" (Spirit 14).
  34. 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 excluded "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.[10]
  35. 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).
  36. Department of American Studies
    University of Canterbury

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    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 Christianity."

    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 Worth (125-26).

    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 value (44).

    10. Here I am indebted to Karen McMillan and Heather Worth (126).

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