Interview With Jean Baudrillard

OON: If death is the ne plus ultra of alienation (from self; from mind; from body), what state lies beyond the borders of alienation?

JB: I can only speak hypothetically about such a position. Our experience is alien to the extent that there is something of a paradox in even supposing a state beyond its borders. It is like having a map of the universe—already a highly reified metaphor, more than a map—and asking what one’s finger points at when it points outside. There’s nothing there. But one can change one’s strategy from within to some extent, as I’ve discussed in terms of radical otherness or Lacan’s alterity. That is, if traditional Marxist notions of alienation are couched in the tired currency of labor and production, our contemporary state of alienation is that of the soul, of one’s value being determined not by production but a desire in which every citizen is asked to participate. Our contemporary citizen is not alienated from their production by diverting the fruits of their labor to someone else, but alienated from their very desires, thoughts and actions by a totalizing exchange of ideas dominated by the paradigm of the consumer. One can speak of an alterity of desire—a paradigm defined outside the tired, tacitly accepted regime, but one comes up short when attempting to posit a framework of desire beyond available, known desires.

OON: Shortly after the events of 9/11, you rather (in)famously wrote: “We are even facing, with the World Trade Center & New York hits, the absolute event, the “mother” of events, the pure event which is the essence of all the events that never happened.” Has any other event—or non-event—since occurred to change your thinking on this subject?

JB: I am working on a piece about the re-election of President Barack Obama in the context of the first and third presidential debates, as they relate to continued military strikes in Gaza—these theatrical events (in English, you’ll notice that military phrases like “the eastern theater of strategic operations”—metaphors of military as theater—have dropped off in inverse proportion to their theatricality) I contrast with the projects undertaken by the internet vigilante group Anonymous, which has been criticized as pure theater by major media outlets, citing that all major operations they have undertaken have either been dropped, falsified, or judged as largely ineffectual. In truth, the fragile network of would-be activists who see themselves in a tantalizingly rhizomatic community that demands neither face-to-face displays of abandoned notions like authenticity or trust, nor commitment beyond occasional threats, posturing, and a couple hours of coding—this network points to a “happening” far more deep than the debates and re-election, even if they are also forms of simulation. For instance, anyone remotely aware of politics in the United States is aware of the game of the debate—the stories of a patronizing politician descending on a pale, moist baby and kissing its forehead before listening to and fixing the problems of its parent: these stories are tired clichés, played to exhaustion on the expensively inexpensive sets of variety shows. No one with even the slightest awareness believes the rhetoric, but all participate in the game on a physical scale, as their adrenaline surges and recedes with the staged vitriol of the opposing candidate, the triumphant, spondaic conclusions of their own heroic team. It is a game played out in the body, even if the mind does not care, as opposed to the Anonymous missions that at least the participants believe put them in danger. Of course, this all largely points to the currencies and theatricalities of danger in an increasingly post-physical world, which I am still working out to some extent. Now I’m somewhat off-topic, though. I suppose I’ll answer your question by saying that the “mother” of events that never happened is whatever event has faded least from the popular imagination as really having mattered.

OON: Vis-à-vis your conception of the epoch, what is the relationship between rewriting and revision?

JB: You are a writer, I believe? People rarely ask about my approach to the procedural aspects of writing, even if there is a satisfying, ouroboric quality to such an inquiry. Still, the relationship between rewriting and revision is not something I have considered in the context of the epoch. I could say something general, that rewriting is something of an illusion: the wholesale, illusory remaking of something that is truly something different: either a group of many revisions, or another piece that benefits from the term “rewriting” even if it is only “rewritten” in name. I don’t know. I think Jacques [Derrida] would have something to say about this.

OON: In the years following your passing, has there arisen an Internet meme which especially illustrates spectacle’s unique capabilities and / or capacities?

JB: Memes in general are tidy, microcosmic examples of what I call second-order simulacra. The stakes of their existence are low, because they do not themselves guide desire, and have little cultural capital. However, as prominent symbolic objects they at least have some weight in social exchange. So, to return to the mission and notion of Anonymous, a vigilante group which serves primarily it’s own fantasies of generalized justice and personal danger, the meme of the Guy Fawkes mask is of interest to me, particularly because it has caught itself in a system that generally disregards and mutilates all things that the system comes in contact with; the Internet has destroyed the human body by bending human posture to cope with its morphology rather than their own; by substituting pre-digital fantasies of emotional connection in sex with grotesque “shock” sights that fantasize and make real the destruction of the body to appease an economy of the digital—not the post-human but the re-ordered, the disintegrated human. However, the rhizomatic network of desires associated with Anonymous is itself an Internet creation, and as such, its symbols (and other similar symbols, like LOLCATS and Cool Dog) are iterated in patterns substantially different than imagery and ideas drawn from face-to-face or even traditional print or voice interaction.

Thus—partly because the Anonymous group itself is ageless, and devours the production and desires for recognition of anyone, from a 12-year-old with a passing knowledge of Python, to the middle-aged, seasoned “hacker”—the meme of the Fawkes mask regenerates itself anew each time it appears onscreen as a fresh spectacle: intended to fill a single viewer with the theatrics of nobility and courage, who by watching believes it is participating in a potentially limitless crowd of such viewers.

OON: You once described Situationist International as a “dead star.” What other stars exert their magnetism in that firmament? Or: how much of the night sky is filled with obsolete cosmologies and space travelers such as yourself?

JB: You ask this hoping that I will say that I am also a dead star, maybe? But I am not: I am maybe a star, but I am not dead in the same way: I am maybe an invisible star, or maybe I am a dead star but the world is still in my light—the news has not reached the earth yet that I am dead. That is, my theories have become so accepted that they are irrelevant: I go to speak and people nod their heads before I can finish my sentences. I am a known quantity. But Situationism, it was admirable but maybe not even a star—it was a meteor that lit up before it destroyed itself. I might say that philosophy or critical theory itself is something of a dead star—the generation of tools of increasing complexity and specificity, with decreasing power to put them into use.

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Jean Baudrillard is a French post-modern philosopher and sociologist most noted for his influential Simulacra and Simulation, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, and America, a panoramic look at the American cultural landscape of the 1980’s. His theories have been appropriated and applied by a broad range of thinkers and artists, making him one of the more well known and misunderstood contemporary cultural critics.

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