by Monica Sassatelli
Monica Sassatelli: Do you think it is possible to talk, as people increasingly do, of a European identity?
Jean Baudrillard: I think that originally Europe was an idea. The true European identity was an idea, a dream even, a utopia. Europe existed perhaps more as a circulation of ideas in the Middle Ages than today. This idea today has become true through economic, political, structural means; in this sense it is already achieved, there are no problems, it works very well. It works very well on the market side, that is, the side of globalisation, of which Europe is just a micro-model. Frankly, I do not believe much in this Europe. In considering European identity, first of all it is to be stressed that identity itself is a utopia. It is where one takes refuge when there is nothing else left to do. Until there was prestige, glory and culture there was no need to tell oneself: ‘I am this, here is my identity, I exist, I am here.’ When one truly exists because there is strength and glory, at base, there is no need for identity. Identity is a weak value, a refuge value somehow. Today it is on this that Europe is being built.
I have an example. A few years ago I was in Venice at a meeting on European cultural identity. It could be felt that the Europeans were not at all convinced, they did not know what they were, they could not identify themselves. On the contrary, for Borges, the Argentinean, Europe really existed – he knew what it was, because it was a powerful idea [idée force]. The same applied to the Eastern European countries: they could see Europe because they wanted it, desired it, whereas Western Europeans had no real European desire.
MS: One could argue that you have written a book on Europe with your essay entitled America. In it, the Other of America is consistently European, and almost never French, Italian, English: ‘we’ is European.
JB: It is contradictory actually. Europe wants at the same time to be the exception, the European exception to globalisation – France in particular – and a kind of global power, that would counterbalance the United States, rival the United States. There is thus a total ambiguity. Europe can try to reactivate its old values (we always repeat: we have history, others have no history), but I don’t really know what can be reinvented from that. However, I don’t think that the question stands in terms of identity. Americans, for instance, do not problematise their identity. They are American, that’s it.
MS: In America, Europe’s image emerges as something opposing globalisation and its peculiar characters. One would almost say that all the elements that you have described elsewhere as characterising the contemporary world – simulations, the hyperreal and so on – have come true only in America. The contrast delineates a vision of Europe that is even romantic, a romantic modernity, described without nostalgia but infinitely distant from the world of simulations and the hyperreal – a vision that I think can be found only in this text.
JB: Yes. It is easy to notice, in France for instance, how identity is always constructed against America, as a countermodel of America. There’s a confusion to underline here. America is confused with globalisation, while America is as much a victim of globalisation as any other country. The world is the locus of globalisation. In this framework, it seems that Europe – and France as a particular case – is a kind of byproduct, a derived product of globalisation. As usual, Europe follows the same path as America, but always with a serious delay in terms of modernity – always twenty or more years behind – and the American model is never attained, a model that has at least the merit of originality. The American model is the real place, or nonplace evidently, of globalisation, but it is not its subject or its agent; there is no strategy of globalisation, it develops irresistibly. However, the confusion is also at another level: not only between America and globalisation, but also between globalisation and the concept of the market. Now, that seems to me something totally different …
MS: How do you see the relationship between this Europe as an idea, as a cultural space, and institutional Europe, the European Union?
JB: I do not have much of a sense of institutions, I distrust them. With regard to Europe, I have the impression that this is a kind of substitu-tion, the creation of Europe in virtual terms. The perfect example is the Euro. Europe has not been set up as a federation, but there is a common currency, against the will of practically every country. There is a common currency, an artefact that it is hoped will lead to the creation of a political Europe. But I do not think so. Europe still does not exist, but the European currency does. Or, better, Europe exists in institutional terms at the summit, but nothing assures that there will be no ups and downs, accidents; nothing guarantees that Germany will not one day say ‘I withdraw, I take back the Mark’ …
MS: Indeed, in the European treaties there is no such possibility.
JB: Absolutely. But you never know, because it is clear that it is the doing of what is called the European technocracy. Now I don’t want to be populist, but it is clear that the peoples, as they say, basically are not European. Even in France the referendum on Europe was practically fifty–fifty, and today it would probably fail. It is a completely schizophrenic situation, something that exists in a kind of hyperspace, hyperreality.
MS: As you write in America, universality is one of the characters of European culture (and French culture in particular). However, it is precisely universality, having crystallised within nations, that hinders the federation of Europe. It is the history of nations and their cultures that causes contemporary difficulties in finding, as you wrote, a ‘European dynamism’ [élan européen]. Could you develop this? Do you think this is as true today as when you wrote America in the eighties?
JB: Yes, in a way. I have always seen three levels: the nation, between originary particularities [singularités originelles] and the universal dimension. Nations have been produced on a reduction of singularities: it was necessary to reduce all differences in order to make, for instance, France. Originary particularities have been reduced to an abstraction, the nation. And nations are also contemporary with the abstract idea of universality, the idea of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. All this was born at the same time; therefore the universal has been created in some sense by Europe, not the feudal Europe of singularities, but the Europe of Enlightenment, humanist Europe, Europe of national bourgeoisie.
Now, as an idea the universal is opposed to that of the global. Universal values can resist the global. But today they only exist in a ghost-like manner, if I can say so, like human rights. It is clear that today the socalled universal values succumb to this other thing that is the global. The global destroys the universal as an idea and destroys all particularities, at a global level, not only European. It is a double task of reduction. The question then is: should we fight for the universal against the global, or for the particularities? I have the impression that the universal is annulled, and today the real fight is between the global – a kind of abstract global power – and all the particularities that revive, but in an uncontrolled state, sometimes even as racism, nationalism – religious, ethnic, linguistic – that globalisation will provoke more and more. Between the two, universal values, including national values as they existed in the golden age of nationalism, abate. Europe will be, at the same time, the place of a transnational pseudo-federation, and increasingly of greater reparticularisation, that is, of a dispersion, a kind of diffraction. Perhaps there will be no more nations. There will be great regions, some rich and some poor, of course. That is, the contrary of harmonisation: greater and greater discrimination. My outlook is not rosy.
MS: However, European institutions appeal more and more to common cultural elements to promote the creation, or the awakening, of a European consciousness.
JB: Yes, it is so, but I do not know how it will develop. To unify a conscience is to create an identity; identity is the unification of a conscience. If we take America, there has never been unification. There is a great autonomy of the states, even individuals have a great autonomy towards institutions, and that happens in an uncontrolled way. It is maybe harder, but it is like that, and develops a far greater energy than this kind of grass-roots democratisation that we try to make in Europe.
Moreover, the question is in terms of culture – now, today, what is culture if not the substitute for a political identity not to be found? As political energy, political reality dissociates and cannot be found; culture substitutes for it. Culture becomes a kind of plasma that everybody can access democratically and share. Now I do not think that real culture is something democratic that can be shared in whatever way, in the multimedia for instance. That is hyperculture, that will clearly be the place, the abstract space–time of a utopia in which, through culture, the political can be reached, whereas in reality culture replaces absent politics. Therefore, that will not lead to politics. There will be a kind of cultural multidimension, as there is a financial dimension, an economic dimen-sion; there will be a market of culture as there is a market of shares, of the stock exchange.
MS: Recently, the European Union introduced various symbolic measures, choosing for instance a flag and an anthem. These are means that at the national level seem to have lost some of their importance. Also, in this case America seems to be an exception: in America the flag is everywhere. You have also pointed out that the American flag has become a kind of corporate logo, more than a symbol. Could we say something similar for the European flag?
JB: Yes. An enterprise needs advertisement, a logo, labels. Everything happens at the level of signs, as in a kind of magic, as if signs make the thing exist. This is part of a kind of intoxication, of commercial manipulation. It is not a spontaneous outburst. No, it is really like a business, and also Europe is now managed like a business, with managers, in Brussels.
Even if a political Europe was created, if it had its own identity, different from America, the fact would remain that at the financial and commercial level Europe does not exist in itself, finance will always be international. It is a long while since finance recognised Europe. Europe is only a very small part of it. Even if a political, identitarian Europe existed, economy would function globally. Therefore this political Europe would not even be autonomous, maybe not even in cultural terms. Whatever you do, you have to deal with powers that are internationalised, that have not waited for the idea of Europe to internationalise – they are so from birth. Capital is international, not European. Today we speak of a global economy, of global networks, and countries look for any kind of protectionist measure to recreate a kind of artificial autonomy. It is very interesting, and ambiguous.
MS: In America, you also describe European specificity, by comparison to the United States, in terms of taste.1 Could a ‘community of taste’ have a role in the formation of European identity?
JB: I don’t know. Taste belongs to the realm of sensation, of aesthetics. Could it have a role for Europe? Does a community of taste exist? I am a bit doubtful, because taste is so subjective. But I have the impression that many aspects of taste have today become a matter of fashion, which is transnational, internationalised. Also taste is at risk, but maybe it is true that taste resists better. There are things that resist better. Language for instance, I think language resists. And taste as well, but one has to specify what is meant by it: taste in the sense of custom resists well, even if Brussels is trying to destroy French cheese! Aesthetic taste has become collective, therefore it is a difficult question. In America the problem of taste almost does not exist any more – one does not ask if there is or there isn’t taste. It is a term that is not part of modern culture. Taste and colours – nowadays they seem to me more and more planned, but this is banal. An authentic right to taste and colour should be invented…
MS: Identity is not an important issue only for European institutions. Many authors, and you among them, have underlined the contemporary obsession with identity. Do you think that this obsession may be linked to culture’s becoming a kind of stock of empty symbols, as you maintain for instance in Symbolic Exchange and Death?
JB: Yes, maybe. Inasmuch as there has been an attempt at juxtaposing all cultures, let them communicate – culture today is communication – according to me this is a total degradation of culture. It is difficult to define culture, but in what we may call the anthropological sense it is something singular. Culture is a singularity. It is like languages: every language has its own universe, its symbolic universe that is incomparable, nonexchangeable.But the culture with which we deal today is like inventing a universal abstract language – and it is being invented already, it is the artificial languages, numeric languages – then culture is really becoming a kind of lowest common denominator. It is reduced to its simple elements, then recomposed. It is a synthesised product. It is as such, as synthesised product, that it becomes universal.
There has been a beautiful moment of culture, not only singular but universal culture; actually, it is between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries again. Here we find exchange, cultures bump into each other, and considering also the irruption of primitive cultures, it is a very interesting moment. But today, with globalisation, all differences are annulled, or else it is a game of differences, but there is no longer a real clash, an alterity of cultures. Now, cultures are rivals, they should not be reconciled, it is not possible to reconcile cultures, it is not possible to reconcile languages. They are really incompatible, and sometimes antagonist, rivalries. Exchange need not be impossible. There can be relations, but only if each culture preserves its own specificity. I can understand that people fight for their culture, to defend their language. I understand it, even for currency. In fact, I do not understand why people do not fight more for currency, because symbolically (not in economic terms, but symbolic) it is very important.
Now, inside Europe, conceived of as distinguished from globalisation, the attempt is to create this kind of common platform, in which everyone will be forced to accept common legislation: it is this that creates more and more resistance. The more this process advances, the stronger resistance becomes. Then the problem of identity is increasingly central. But there can’t be identity without alterity; if there is no other, there is no self. Today one does not know where the other is, because with globalisation there is no other. I have the impression that we are leading to an impasse. It is impossible to forecast what will happen, but it is possible to see that there are zones of resistance.
Also, the distinction between the elite – the technocrats, those who are in power, who invent this abstract generality, who manage things – and the others should be considered. There really is an increasing gap. It is known that the leaders of all countries will want to be integrated in Europe. At some point all of Africa will want to join in Europe. It is fantastic – but totally idiotic. This is the project of an elite, not in a qualitative sense, let’s say of a minority that manages things, that has all the means to make them happen. Therefore there will be Europe, but it will be a kind of pseudo-political event; in reality, deeply, politically, nothing will happen. I even think that compared with the idea of Europe that emerged in the fifties this concretisation is more of a scattering.
MS: Is it possible to relate your thesis that signs have become empty, without a referent, to the idea of a different balance between power and symbolic exchange? In other words, if institutions today give less, as they give only signs, images, does this give the individual a chance to be less in debt?
JB: It is an interesting question. Is it possible to think of being less in debt? Maybe. But it has to be said that a sign in general is not ‘less’! It is not less than a thing, as if a sign weighed less than a thing, was more volatile. No, today in a society like ours the sign is everything, as it substitutes the real, the referent. Therefore signs, like information and all immaterial things that we are given, are more important than the redistribution of material goods. I do not know whether this dematerialisation lightens the debt. It is possible to consider it starting from incredulity. It is true that there are signs, but are we bound to believe in them? It is not certain at all. And if you do not believe, you somehow also refuse the obligation to be bound by whatever debt. Therefore in that sense there is a kind of lightness, of volatility towards all that comes from authorities – media, political. There is a kind of fluctuating irresponsibility that is everywhere, it is true.
MS: In other words, on the one side one cannot escape from signs because they are everywhere, but on the other they do not impose an interpretation.
Yes. And moreover signs come from everywhere and nowhere. There is no longer an origin, a source. In symbolic exchange there is always a properly dual relationship, therefore there is real responsibility, debt, obligation. Whereas now there is a kind of mediasphere, hypersphere, from which things come and with which one does not feel in a dual relationship. It would be impossible anyway, as there is no alterity. We have therefore to deal with a strange hyperreality. Maybe this is one of the causes of collective depression, because it is very difficult not knowing to whom one should answer. Not knowing of what to answer and to whom, and therefore suddenly not being identifiable any more. When there is oppression, when somebody is oppressing us, we know what we have to deal with; we can fight. When someone gives something, when there is a giving power, we know to whom we are indebted. Before, there was religion, there was God for this, it was perfect, one could give thanks to God. Today, no, there is no one to thank. Therefore the situation is disequilibrated.
One can recall the European question here. Brussels is such an abstract place, it is not to Brussels that one is going to feel in debt. No one will feel a relation of reciprocity, of obligation, of responsibility towards Brussels. It is a curious deconnection [déconnection]: something works like this, in orbit, but nothing changes here. It is a strange situation.
MS: Often, also in this interview, you have framed the question of the relationship with institutions, with globalisation, with the ‘mediasphere’, with the excess of signs, in terms of resistance. What, then, is the connection between resistance and distance, emptiness? If we take seriously the remark that today signs come to us empty of content, of meaning, is it possible to see in this very emptiness an occasion for resistance? Is it possible to find in the medium as such, as empty of content, a prompt for resistance?
JB: Yes, it is true. I think that actually the lack of meaning, to be insignificant or non-significant is ambivalent. It can be very negative, a real loss – the lost object – or on the contrary can be the base for a strategy. It is true that the system with the pre-eminence of the medium creates such a situation, that can then maybe be exploited, maintaining the idea that meaning is lost. I think for instance of political language. It is a language that has no meaning, beyond meaning, but which works with the immateriality of language, with pure language. You can turn its absurdity against it. There has been the idea of turning the medium against itself, of making of it an excessive use for instance, a delirious use. This strategy has been used by Americans in the sixties, the seventies. To fight against the media on the grounds of the media, to exceed them, to go further with the same logic.
I’m thinking of photography, because it is what has interested me more. One can see in it an altogether different idea of technique, of technique as medium precisely. In photography, in the photographic act, what is interesting is that even the object disappears, along with the subject. Technique functions as a medium of disappearance, but also as the art of disappearance. So in this case it is not negative at all, on the contrary. Technique puts an end to the unilateral mastery of the subject over the world. Technique, which should work for our hegemony on the world, on objects, works in reverse in that the object appears through the technique. It is the object that in some sense uses technique, clandestinely, secretly, ambiguously, in order to appear, to exist. Then, I would be cautious, but one could restate the question of technique in these terms.
MS: One could remark at this point, banally if you like, that you still need to presuppose the existence of something, of a subject, that orients technique towards the better or worse result …
JB: Yes. But there is a point in which the autonomy of the medium, the fact that it is the medium that acts, is important. Certainly there is always the subject. We can take as an example the computer: all the operations are programmed by a subject, somewhere they have been thought of by a subject. But at a certain point in the technical act the subject itself gets lost, loses its identity, its mastery. Something happens that it is no longer in the mastery of the subject.
MS: Coming back to symbols and images: you have often referred to the concept of the aestheticisation of everyday life. It seems to me that such a concept, as it is commonly described, amounts to a kind of anaesthetisation, obfuscation of the senses, which hinders the reaction to stimulations.
In fact the way in which aestheticisation is described seems rather anaesthetising. But, otherwise what is aestheticisation? The aesthetic is ambiguous today, as is economy. This general aestheticisation is a levelling, a neutralisation. Whereas if you take aestheticisation in the strong sense, then there is distance, there is an aesthetic judgement. There is pleasure also – this is what is being threatened. Is it possible to find it again? Yes, I hope so, but today the risk is to fall back into aesthetic models, and therefore into an aesthetics that is no longer about subjective taste, subjective judgement, but about models. Hence distance is lost, and only a play of model and countermodel is left. One is really dealing with a kind of cultural cloning, of aesthetic cloning too. Today this extension of culture implies a kind of general extension of aesthetic banality. It is part of political correctness, so to speak. Enterprises give themselves a wealth of signs, identification marks, promote culture. The great risk today is this type of aestheticisation. They say: all becomes market, economy, value, all becomes commodity, aesthetics included. I would say instead that the main risk is, on the contrary, that all today’s commodities are aestheticised: it is a kind of cultural aesthetic legitimacy, and that is the real globalisation.
All this does not offer many possibilities for rediscovering a dimension of distance, a dimension that would really create another scenario. As long as there was the real – if we can say so – there was the imaginary as well, as there was the possibility of aesthetic distance and of aesthetic sublimation. In the hyperreal it is much more difficult because the real swallows the imaginary as well. In the hyperreal everything is actualised, therefore distance is more difficult to find. Is it possible to oppose this new violence, invisible, imperceptible, to contest it, question it by recreating a violence of the traditional type in some way? Is a defence in the name of ancient values possible? Can resistance come from humanistic values, the values of the Enlightenment, or else should something more radical be invented? I would be for the more radical way.
Then resistance would not be precisely aesthetic. When I say rediscovering particularity, it is no longer in the aesthetic realm. When I talk of photography in this sense, an image that would really be an image, it is no longer on the aesthetic plane, nor on the moral plane. It is about objects, or situations that would be beyond good and evil, but also beyond beautiful and ugly, transaesthetic, that overtake the system from above, going further somehow, but considering objective conditions, rather than trying to rediscover a defensive strategy reactivating aesthetic values.
MS: But if we recuperate the etymological sense of aesthetic, therefore sense, sensation, could this notion bring a dimension of resistance, resistance precisely to the anaesthetised state brought about by the surplus of stimulations?
Re-sensitise things, give them a sensitive side again. We are not talking of art at this point, it is really the level of sensations. Yes, maybe I agree, on the idea of reinventing a body, sensations, sentiments. To reinvent sensation as passion somehow, aisthesis, the aesthetic of the sensible, and not of the sensational!
- Baudrillard (1988), America, London: Verso, pp. 74–105.
Original publication: Sassatelli, M. (2002). An Interview with Jean Baudrillard. European Journal of Social Theory, 5(4), 521–530. https://doi.org/10.1177/136843102760514045