Interview with Jean Baudrillard: Catastrophic, but Not Serious

by Dr. Robert M. Maniquis

Robert M. Maniquis 1: I wanted to begin with something very important in our cultural life – the incidental news story. Though this business of the Minitel is much more than incidental. Did you see the TV documentary on the Minitel in Strasbourg?2

Jean Baudrillard: No.

RM: You know they gave five thousand Minitels to people in Strasbourg; then someone hacked the system so well that lots of people began communicating by Minitel, arranging to meet, contacting each other and sending obscene messages. There was a big fuss about it. The ot­her day there was a little article in Le Monde calling this a kind of revolution, an invisible revolution in cybernetic communication.3 Thousands of people are sending obscene messages to one another day and night. There may be a degree of exaggeration in all this, but what we see here is a desire for expression, a desire to seize the means of communication and, at the same time, a kind of suppression in the media, a re-routing.

JB: And it took place at Strasbourg, this business?

RM: Yes.

JB: And it went very well?

RM: So it seems. People are fascinated by it.

JB: They did experiments with computers at Vélizy near Paris. Initially people were fascinated by them but after a while all the interest went out of it. People don’t know what to do with a computer. They don’t have any use for it, unless they’re bitten by the bug and start playing with it, so that after a spell of use-value comes communication-value. The mental, psychological yield is very low. In their daily lives, people aren’t in a sufficiently complex system for things like that to be necessary. What is it they’re supposed to need to process? What can they process? The substance of their daily lives is relatively simple.

RM: You mean at the message level . . .?

JB: Yes, because that’s the distortion in all this computer stuff – mistaking every private individual for a scaled-down administrative body, a miniinstitution that would need a Minitel.

RM: With lots of things to send out.

JB: That’s it. Ready to receive any message, ready to send them out, as though people spent their lives doing that. It isn’t possible, this kind of dictatorship of the message.

RM: Most messages are, in fact, very simple – of the type: ‘Do you perhaps want to go out one evening?’ or ‘I’d like you to be there.’

JB: One can accept that there’s a contact-type function, a phatic function; the idea of saying, ‘Oh, you’re there,’ ‘Yes, I’m here,’ ‘You’re actually there,’ ‘Yes, I’m here,’ ‘Hello, then,’ ‘Hello, let’s talk on the phone.’ It’s a sort of communication that merely tests out the medium.

RM: It’s a bit like CB [Citizens Band] radio.

JB: For people on the road, lorry drivers, you can very much understand the function of a speech-based connection – speaking instead of putting the radio on for some music – but with people at home, it’s a strange sort of interference in their lives. In recent years, there’s been a whole reaction against this in the name of protecting the security of one’s private sphere. The fear was that, through all this IT stuff, it was going to be possible to put you under surveillance. I don’t much believe that there’ll be a monitoring in terms of content – a checking-up on your life. But there is the idea of simply connecting yourself up and that isn’t innocuous and I’m not sure, for my part, whether there isn’t a deep resistance among people to that. Where is there a use for this? For the military, for scientists – and children, perhaps, because they use it totally for play. Beyond that, I don’t see any desire for it. Listen, we’ve never seen a thing that’s been so heavily promoted as this – in France, at any rate. People have computers pushed at them, given to them and then, one day, they’ll be imposed on them, whether they like it or not. It’s like a sort of IT sacrament.

RM: There’s also a certain stimulus to seduction in the machine itself and in the explanation users receive when they’re given the machine. People are given the impression they have a certain power over the system and even over other people. You see that in the TV documentary on the Minitel: people spending hours in front of the screen like musicians, composers, like people who broadcast to others with their creative force. Perhaps they’re forgetting that they too are in the grid, that they’re also ‘composed’, as is the case in all languages and codes.

JB: I’ve a son who has a computer. He plays with it. He’s invented programs, you see, software, but I still have the impression that . . . Oh, of course, there are always people on the other end of the message, though not always. But, all the same, it’s a kind of auto-communication; it’s yourself you’re receiving, loud and clear. If you have nothing dramatic to say to them and if the message changes nothing in their lives, the others don’t make any real reply.

RM: You say, for example, that for most people a machine like that isn’t much use, but in your books you speak a great deal about the need to have one’s say. In a system of signs, in a code, there’s nothing to be done except having the say that smashes the code.

JB: Yes.

RM: Which implies a sort of profound faith in the power of that word, in the power of the idea of speaking.

JB: Yes, and . . .

RM: And at the same time, in your thinking on the Minitel, you have a degree of reservation about the need to speak so much. I’m not saying that’s a contradiction but these are two ideas that have perhaps to be more clearly related to each other. In your books we see you thrilled by the idea that there are cracks somewhere in the system; there are places, here and there, where you can do something. This isn’t general and it isn’t total, but you can do something and, so far as you’re concerned, it’s often the idea that you can speak.

JB: Yes, you can speak. There remains a sort of absolute need – well, a need or desire – to speak, even if you’ve nothing to say. I think that’s where we are now – at the point of expressing yourself when you’ve nothing to say. What had interested me in graffiti was precisely that. If you take the first generation of graffiti, it was: ‘I’m so-and-so. I live in New York. I exist.’ OK, that’s all. It isn’t even a communication, it’s really the minimal message, it’s ‘I’m here.’

In fact, in the latest things, the latest ones I’ve seen – you know these well, they’re all over – in the graffiti that are purely graphic, this kind of angular, syncopated writing that no longer says anything at all – that doesn’t even say, ‘I’m so-and-so, I exist’ but simply that there’s graffiti going on – it’s still a form of expression. So this is saying, at the same time, ‘I exist since I’m speaking, I’m doing graffiti, but I’ve no meaning, I’ve no name, I’ve nothing to say, I don’t want to say anything or mean anything, but I’m doing graffiti all the same.’ This is all that remains of a drive for expression when you’ve nothing to say.

So there is actually something there, I think, and at the same time it has an intensity to it; it has all the more intensity for the fact that it has no meaning. At a certain point you can really isolate a sort of thing like that, which is, indeed, addressed to no one. Perhaps that’s the difference between a graffiti thing and a thing to do with the telephone network, the Minitel network. I talked about an insurrection by signs, and that has to be distinguished from a network that creates expression. In that latter case, there’s no priority accorded to expression after all, even an expression that has no meaning, which is really to accord priority to saying: ‘Despite all your networks, I exist somewhere.’

But a network isn’t a territory. Graffiti occupies a wall. It grabs a territory for itself, even if it says nothing. Whereas in the other case, people aren’t on their territory, they’re in a marked-off area, you see, and there they’re made to speak but it’s clear that it’s the network that makes them speak. It’s because they’ve been given a Minitel that they’re going to start speaking. But is that speech? I’d make a distinction all the same. There’s one kind of speech which, as I see it, has to do with what we were saying – with causing a breakdown; making a break or opening a breach – and another which is pure and simple conformity to the code.

Having said that, you can play within the code, but the essential thing is that you’re connected and connected within the norms of the system itself. This is perhaps a little bit of a partial view, because we can’t be all that clear what might happen in five years’ time; other events may occur. In the current state of things, it’s more a capture of words. You tell yourself, people don’t participate politically, they don’t do anything, they don’t take any risks, but, all the same, they must want to speak. So there you set up a system for them for capturing empty words; but in one case the empty speech is powerful because it’s empty, you see, and in the other it’s empty speech and has no other power than that. It can’t register itself elsewhere, so it maintains the illusion of communication. It’s perhaps for that reason that children use it so well; they have no pretensions to meaning, they don’t seek out the meaning of things, the key thing for them is to scribble away, to be doing something. So a thing like that’s brilliant for children, and there’s really nothing to be said about that. But as for the social use of this, that’s another matter.

RM: When you spoke at UCLA in 1983 you made a connection between children and the masses. It’s the sort of analogy that might easily be taken as a joke but I suppose you meant it seriously. You said that in the masses there is, in fact, a certain childlike desire for the rejection of meaning and a defensive attraction towards what intellectuals often call hogwash. Do the masses really wallow in hogwash for self-protection?

JB: Yes, listen, that strategy is a logical one; this all seems very reasonable to me. If people are confronted with meaning and ideal values, then they can inevitably gauge their own mediocrity. Really, what else do you expect them to do? They’re consigned to their stupidity, their mediocrity. Why would they get into all those things and make themselves look foolish? There’s no reason to submit themselves to the decrees of the intellectually privileged, of those who hold power; that would be completely masochistic. Why do you expect people today to respond to political appeals and express a real opinion, when they know that real opinion will have no influence anyway? It’ll be of no value.

So, one way or another, they evade the difficulty. It isn’t even a rejection, it’s a challenge: ‘No, you won’t fool us!’ The psychology of the people is founded on some extremely simple things but, despite that, they’re not stupid things. Popular psychology is to say: ‘I won’t be had,’ ‘You won’t fool me,’ ‘You didn’t fool me.’ People may think it’s a pretty shabby way of behaving, but it isn’t. I think we can manage to understand it. We’d have to see if there aren’t behaviours of this kind today that are expressive all the same.

I was, in fact, talking about the silence of the masses and I still think that’s actually a rather fundamental phenomenon, but today in France (we see in the political field) you also have astonishing kinds of events. Recently there was a sort of government censorship of free radio stations. So a number of free radio stations were temporarily banned and one of these, called Énergie, called on people to demonstrate to defend their free radio station. Astonishingly, fifty thousand people took to the streets for Énergie, without any political aim. They were simply happy to be in the street and see themselves as a sort of people, a sort of population, even though it’s just a media audience, so it’s something abstract and its members don’t actually see each other. Suddenly, in that way what’s just an audience becomes a people in the street, whereas the job of the media is to transform the people into an audience. In this case, you found an audience turned into a people and it was quite astonishing. It was an event that had no consequences; when it was over, it was over. It was, in the end, a kind of advertising for free radio stations, but it was still a way of expressing oneself in identity terms: we’re here, we’re the music. In days gone by, people went out on the streets as an act of rebellion, saying, ‘We are the Workers, we are History, etc.’ Here, it’s not that at all, but ‘We’re music, we’re really happy to see ourselves in the streets – Wow, what a lot of us there are, that’s fantastic!’ The event is purely circumscribed like that. But it’s an event all the same, it’s something.

RM: A sort of ambulant graffiti.

JB: Yes, a sort of ambulant graffiti. It’s the first time we saw the appearance on that scale of the hidden side of the media – namely the side of the receivers. Normally, they don’t exist, you never see them. People go and survey them with little focus groups, etc., but in this case they were out in the street, making no claims for themselves, neither transgressive nor violent. It’s quite astonishing, you see, this affirmation of the most minimal of identities, but at least, ‘Right, well, what am I in life? I’m a listener to Énergie and that’s important to me.’ So, there you are, it’s a thing.

RM: I’d like to ask you a question about a certain ambiguity I see in your writings on the status of the unconscious. From time to time, it seems like a certain force that has to be referred to, while at others it seems – how shall I put it? – as something that’s already been grasped, exploited and finished with. Do you see what I mean?

JB: Yes, of course.

RM: It isn’t always clear.

JB: You know, I’ve never fully clarified this business of the unconscious either. I haven’t, myself, confronted the question of psychoanalysis directly. For a long time I was inside it. I’ve also used it a lot, of course, but ultimately used it. I can’t say I’ve really gone into all its ins and outs. Indeed, I didn’t see that as a useful thing to do.

So the unconscious, like a lot of things, like primitive societies, was a lever for change. Let’s say that, for me, now, it’s less interesting. Or let’s say that the unconscious, as established by psychoanalysis, the unconscious of repression, where what should be said, what it should be possible to say, isn’t said – no, I’ve no wish to talk about that any more. In the end, I don’t like the idea of this bar of repression any more, because, ultimately, it always implies a potential liberation. It’s no accident that the unconscious has been turned into a sort of revolutionary subject, it’s always caught up in the same system – alienation and all that. In the end, that presupposes a symbolic order, a break, a repression and, despite that, a promise of…

RM: It presupposes reference too?

JB: Well, yes. There necessarily is a very, very strong frame of reference. At the point of writing Symbolic Exchange and Death [1976], there’s still a sort of symbolic nostalgia which has a very marked orientation and can, in some cases, also use the notion of unconscious. Whereas after On Seduction [1979], there’s really a break with that. Seduction’s over, there’s no symbolic order any more. There’s even a sort of irony towards any kind of symbolic order whatever. But language is treacherous, as you know. You always have to try to use the force of discourse more or less.

Today, discourse is very much bound up in the structures of the unconscious, but today I think that’s a simplistic solution. We have to look elsewhere than in this sort of thwarted desire, this play of desire. In short, as I see it, as you know, desire has to do with the subject and what I’ve tried to do is to go over to the side of the object, so to go and look at what may seduce, what may challenge. I try to speak about another ‘genius’ that would lie in the object, not in a subject hidden from itself. The ‘genius’ of the subject is an unconscious entity, you see, so that’s still the desire thing.

I wanted to get out of all that business. I don’t know why because it’s given us some very fine things, though perhaps people live their lives like that because they’ve had the theory of the unconscious and all that inculcated in them. If you like, we’ve gone from the unconscious as a strong myth – though this may itself be a fantasy, but a very strong fantasy of reversal and subversion – to a culture of the unconscious – in other words, where everybody today has to know that their unconscious is structured like a language and so on. But all that’s part of a highly sophisticated culture, you see. It doesn’t really yield anything of value. So, given that, it’s better to drop it.

RM: But it’s hard, nonetheless, to drop the idea of the unconscious. There’s a certain nostalgia for the unconscious. It seems to be one of those indispensable ideas, in fact, one of those essential levers for finding a base, a frame of reference.

JB: Yes, of course. I believe it’s one of the finest mechanisms that’s been found and then, as usual, you can’t say that it’s neither true nor false. In a sense it was true. There was quite an extraordinary truth-effect with the unconscious, as there was with Marx and the productive forces and all that. And yet, somehow, in my opinion, it’s a sort of simulacrum today. There’s a sort of simulated horizon where you can decipher everything, interpret everything thanks to the unconscious and, as a result, it becomes a stereotype and you have to go beyond signs. It’s a pitiless process. It’s always the same, as it were. You can’t just cling to something; after a while, it becomes a truth, it produces truth-effects and hence total simulation-effects. That’s quite clear.

Having said that, this isn’t exactly a judgement on psychoanalysis as an institution. That exists and is subject to the same constraints as other institutions. The unconscious was perhaps something stronger than psychoanalysis itself. I don’t know how to put this, but no strong concept like that can govern thinking for long. Subtly, but inevitably, it turns against itself and becomes simulation; it’s substantivated. At a pinch, we can keep the unconscious as a qualifier. I employ a lot of qualifiers like that – the obscene, the fatal and, all right, you can add the unconscious. These are more of the order of qualifiers than concepts. This light-touch usage can be all right, but if you start putting capital letters on them, you see, and producing hypersophisticated theories about the unconscious… You have to look at what psychoanalysis has become today in France. It’s a highly intricate, sophisticated mechanism but, at the same time, quite useless.

RM: Minutely detailed.

JB: Yes, absolutely. When a thing like that’s invented, it has terrific power, but I can’t understand how people don’t see how things change, how they become corrupted in their hands like that, how they become mere ‘keys’ – like the ‘keys’ to the unconscious. This has fallen more or less to the level books of dream interpretation were at before Freud, and of course that was seen as stupid. It’s quite possible that all this machinery of the unconscious has been liquidated, has fallen away like a number of things, and that we have to try to probe and go beyond that.

When all’s said and done, there is perhaps a possible use of all these things still, including political economy, including the unconscious and loads of things like that – why not? – but an ironic, paradoxical use. I can’t see any other use today. Perhaps we’re in a rather postmodern culture, which can have a second-level use of things, but certainly with entirely ironic effects. It’s too much to ask that there should be a system of interpretation that works all the time. It isn’t possible, do you see? I can’t understand intellectuals or psychoanalysts not having an almost animal reflex when they encounter a machine that’s too good, too effective, too operational…

RM: You put me in mind of those French people who use the expression ‘Are you trendy?’ [‘Est-ce que tu es branché?’] You can feel the irony in it…

JB: Yes, of course.

RM:because they know that people have to be ‘trendy’ and, at the same time, they laugh at the idea of having to be.

JB: We’re in a culture that’s a bit like that today. Television recently organised a party – you see, it’s the media that even organise parties these days – a TV programme on ‘image’, and so the girl making the programme organised an ‘image’ party in a big disused hotel in New York and so there were three to four hundred people ‘with an image’ there. With the ‘image’, you can do anything; you can play on any sort of sign, but the crucial thing is to have an image, a sort of singular appearance but one that isn’t really a fashion, nor really a mode of communication. You have to have your label, your image, your ‘look’. You take care over it, but there’s no great claim being made. There’s no claim to be transcribing an identity or a genuine qualitative difference. It’s a game. Everything was a game, in fact, in that party. It was funny because all these people walked by one another, but without hardly seeing each other. ‘Image’ isn’t even made to attract the other’s gaze. There’s no seduction in it. It isn’t trying to be transgressive or seductive. You appear, you create a particular image for yourself, but you don’t really expect any recognition. That produces a strange sort of society, do you see? There’s a real chill to it.

RM: It can even send a chill up your spine.

JB: Yes, it’s cold, but it isn’t a state of absurdity or despair. They aren’t unhappy. But they’re all there, each with their image, in their particular niche or bubble, do you see?

RM: Do you think it’s defensive? Or do you see that the way you do the childlike masses in consumer society?

JB: What I want to say is that there isn’t any real fantasy going on in that either, any more than there is perhaps for the media audience. You don’t express yourself through wild things like that or in ‘image’. You can wear swastikas, chains, safety pins – it doesn’t convey anything. Psychoanalysts who rolled up and said, ‘Look at this, this and this,’ would be wasting their time. They wouldn’t have grasped the fact that this expresses a situation in which people no longer even believe in signs as a real difference but are playing at difference. You’re doing this partly ironically, so it’s not about unhappiness. Since you’re being ironic, there is, in fact, an effect of distance or play to what you do. It can’t be said that it’s particularly jubilant either. There’s no enthusiasm, it isn’t a movement with some sort of goal, such as to stand out from the crowd or to stand for something different. It doesn’t stand for anything at all. It doesn’t even claim an identity, it plays at identity.

Today, in a system like ours, where we no longer have an identity, there isn’t even any point in thinking of extending yourself in some greater cause, because the whole of our job is to manage to exist in terms of identity. This isn’t funny as a condition. It’s almost a matter of desperation, asserting your identity, whether as a homosexual, a lorry driver or whatever. Everyone today’s in search of their identity. So your ‘image’ is a bit like going further in the same direction. That is to say, since we’re in a system of searching for identity – and that without hope or illusions – right, let’s play identity; but we don’t believe in it.

RM: And, needless to say, there’s no unconscious in that. Though it’s cold, I find a certain pleasure in pondering a game like this, without any unconscious, without all the endless prattle of our media-style pop psychology.

JB: You can’t read the unconscious into that. Indeed, it’s pretty difficult even to detect in it the problem that’s on the agenda today – the history of sexuality. Is sexuality diminishing? Sexuality’s no longer such a glorious register as it once was. The history of sexual liberation – that all belongs to the past. Admittedly, if you envisage a highly sexualised value system of the nineteenth- or twentieth-century type and all that, then there’s necessarily the unconscious, Oedipus and so on. It all formed a relatively coherent system, but we’re certainly dealing with a less highly sexualised system today – hence less unconscious too, more ironic, more floating. We’re dealing with less identifiable, ‘lower definition’ individuals, if I can put it that way. It’s a bit like the media, a bit like what McLuhan said about TV; it isn’t a strong image, it’s a lower-intensity, lowerdefinition image. We’re dealing with lower-definition individuals today, but they don’t necessarily suffer as a result.

If you’re not high-definition, that’s to say, having an ego, a superego and an unconscious, you no longer have those structures of the strong kind, where you have repression and fantasies. You have a much more lightweight thing, a ‘soft’ individuality. And, in that case, I don’t see why there’d be a need to read that in strong terms, in terms of an unconscious. Look at the way people go through psychoanalysis these days. Most times, it’s done discreetly; they go along, but they don’t quite know why. They’re not trying to be cured either. You go into analysis because that’s part of the image too. There’s a psychoanalytic ‘look’, you see, just as there’s a socialist ‘look’ or a sexual ‘look’. Among those people, that generation, they definitely play out their sexuality as ‘look’ or image, as drive [pulsion].

Retrospectively, it’s reasonable to ask oneself whether all this history of sexuality business hasn’t always been a bit less serious than the way it’s been theorised by our great thinkers. At any rate, if it was perhaps really serious, it isn’t any more. It has passed through an ironising phase. I’d see that more as something paradoxical. Sexuality itself has really collapsed into irony. This is what I was saying when I was writing about Foucault [Forget Foucault; first French edition 1977] and his history of sexuality. He was suddenly according a seriousness to all that, whereas it no longer had any; and with political power, too, he suddenly has to substantivate something that’s already changed – and did so long ago – into something much more lightweight in nature.

RM: But in all that I, personally, feel a curious mix of nostalgia and contempt for the frame of reference – for something one refers to at the same time as one abandons it. This irony you speak of isn’t the irony or ambiguity that rescues the aesthetic form as a vestige of ontological or social form, that balances up contradictory elements in a simulacrum of resolution. Nor is it a dialectical process. Isn’t it, quite simply, a game on the surface of things, a way of saying goodbye to all that, to all ‘sensiblerie’ – to any idea that it means something to play the game of the symbolic, the real and signification?

JB: Yes, and there everything hinges on the idea of reversibility. Things have a way of turning around, of reversing themselves. The world thwarts our subjective undertakings – and even our irony. The world eludes us, things elude us; everything withdraws, folds back into itself, slips away just as you think you’re apprehending it. All great undertakings fail in their encounter with the world, as though it were a sort of elusive reality, a reality that’s already elsewhere when you arrive. This is even true of the so-called exact sciences today. The object is elusive, the object withdraws, slips away, flees, escapes. As I see it, there is an irony, a paradox and an objective irony in this elusiveness, if I can put it that way. That’s what interests me – and, of course, the reflections of that. Even so, one somehow has a sense of this. I can’t say one has it in an unconscious way – in the Freudian sense of course – but one has it somewhere. After the great Golden Age of subjective ambition, of grand ideologies and all that, I believe we’re collectively aware now of this sort of irony, this sort of thing. And this saves us from despair, because otherwise we’d be in complete despair. We’re both in a state of melancholy, which is the work of mourning for all the subjective ambitions, for power, for knowledge, and aware of this something else.

The fact that the world is ironic can also relate to seduction. By that I mean that the world is seduced in advance; there’s a seduction that’s always there beforehand. You can’t see things head on. You can’t analyse them. You won’t be able to – that’s over. And, given that state of affairs, you have to come to terms with the ironic status of the world and things. And if you do that, you do at least escape despair. This isn’t to find a solution – I don’t give a damn about that – but it means, all the same, that things are different. We’re no longer in the position of the despairing subject; the position now can be a floating, ironical, paradoxical one that isn’t a form of passivity. It definitely isn’t that – passivity – but it’s a different way of relating to the world. I don’t believe in the relationship with the world that people are currently trying to invent – interaction, interface, accelerated communication, always being hip and in-the-loop. I don’t believe in that. I believe much more in an ironic equilibrium between subject and object, and between things.

RM: If reversibility is key to the ironic play of signs, do you believe people who know how to play the game, those who are ‘in the loop’, don’t give a damn about the dominant post-war – nuclear – imaginary? They don’t ascribe too much reality to that strategic game. In fact the whole of its reality, its entire political and social force, lies merely in its imaginary structure.

JB: Do you mean, they don’t care about it at all?

RM: Yes, everyone knows – as a good citizen – that you haven’t got to give a damn about it. At the same time, sound common sense tells us that we have to give a damn about it. If you take it too seriously, you fall into despair. You’ve spoken about the potentially despairing subject and if you don’t take nuclear seriously, if you take an ironic stance to it, you aren’t using a – conscious or unconscious – defence, but you’re joining the dominant language game. You find yourself communicating with ‘the nuclear’. Do you understand what I mean?

It’s difficult to explain everything by a traditional system of signs and reflections of meaning, but ‘the nuclear’ is a system of signs entirely suited to a large part of our social and intellectual discourse. Or you can look at it the other way round and say that our contemporary discourses are entirely suited to the imaginary of the nuclear. So the signs in the various discourses are reversible, as you say, but the discourses, the jargons of the military and the fashionable ‘image’ people are reversible too.

JB: Yes, yes, yes, that’s it. If you’re in a system of signs like that, I deeply believe you have to keep in mind that the signs are all reversible. Unlike reality, the sign is a thing that’s reversible; so there’s a reversibility of signs and, ultimately, that’s our good fortune. You take the nuclear seriously and positively, and people will tell you, ‘Nuclear weapons will end up being used because they exist!’ No, that’s not true, because that’s not how it is, but at that moment I believe more in the reversibility of signs than in the release of forces (though I don’t actually know which forces). Or even, in the case of nuclear… I don’t know. The ecologists, the antinuclear forces, campaigning against nuclear, you see, the forces of liberation, of autonomy – I don’t believe in those things. They have no power.

The nuclear in itself is much more powerful than that. In the end, we also have to think and hope that happily there’s a reversibility hidden within signs; but when you say that, it doesn’t work. People need to believe that either we engage in struggle or we’re heading for catastrophe – it’s inevitable and so it’s a destiny, though an unhappy destiny of course; or, alternatively, we have to struggle because humanity is said to be good and we have to re-establish the goodness of things, which is also absolutely unconscionable naïvety. We never spot that there’s a destiny of signs, but a happy destiny because it’s reversible, never inevitable. But it’s very difficult to get people to understand that.

RM: You say people don’t accept that, but in a sense they do, because they respond to the nuclear with their own manipulation of signs.

JB: They sense it, yes.

RM: Or we can say that they play well – as well as the strategists? As an idea, they’ll never accept it, but what do ideas matter? We know very well that that’s a domain that’s not advancing in the slightest. But it’s true that, in their behaviour, people invent things that are in phase with that feeling, with the idea that, ultimately, it has to be perhaps that we can play with that. That’s why I like a country like Italy so much, since ultimately they’re in an absolutely catastrophic, confused situation: terrorism, the mafia, no state, no institutions. And there’s something like a sort of joyous credibility, a sort of completely reversible use of things, a sort of irony in action. I find that to be truly a culture of derision, of irony. You might say it’s frivolous, but that seems to me to be one of the future solutions that’s being invented in a state of total incoherence. Of course, there’s no idea behind it, no consciousness behind it, but all the same you can see…

RM: That can also be a lethal irony too…

JB: Ah, yes, it can produce terrorism too, lots of things – but I’m not looking for a pious or peaceful solution. It isn’t that, it’s something else. Of course, this irony’s quite lethal. But at least, if I can put it this way, it gets us out of the kind of absurd optimism–pessimism dilemma. I’m sick of that, because that’s the response I always get – accusations of pessimism. This is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. You know very well that the situation is catastrophic from the standpoint of meaning, from the standpoint of ideas, from the standpoint of goals. It’s catastrophic and there’s no point denying it, but at the same time, it isn’t pessimistic. There’s actually a saying along those lines, which I can’t quite remember. It’s something like: ‘The situation is catastrophic but it isn’t serious.’4

RM: It’s a situation that invites the use of other people’s deaths as a political sign, as material for manufacturing images. I’m thinking of the Italian train the terrorists blew up a few weeks ago [24 December 1984] in a tunnel in the Apennines. There were twenty-four dead. After the explosion, any number of organisations called the press to claim responsibility. There was competition to see who could appropriate the corpses as images of their political strength.

JB: Ah, yes, yes, yes. That’s something impossible, fantastical.

RM: At a pinch, it’s more important to create the belief that you could kill people like that than really killing them. The terrorist understands the system of nuclear terrorism very well. In other words, that it takes very few material events to unleash this play of signs of power.

JB: Yes, yes, a very little dose of events . . . incredible, yes. And, at a pinch, it’s true that it really matters little who the guys were who actually put the bomb on the train; it’s anybody and it could be nobody. It purely and simply expresses the fact that a society needs a phantasmagoria like that at a given point, a terrorist thing, etc., that has no political antecedents and no political goal either, but simply expresses the fact that, all in all, it’s better, all the same, that something completely accidental and absurd happens, something entirely senseless. It’s like graffiti, you know.

Terrorism is graffiti too, whether of the Right or Left. Anyway, what are Rightist strategies? To spread chaos in Italy. But there’s so much chaos already. It’s senseless. To destabilise Italian society? Italian society has found the solution: it’s unstable, it has no stability, so no political ambition of that kind can succeed. That’s the reason why even the Red Brigades came to grief. They went as far as they could with this, but it’s finished, even that’s over and done with, but that won’t prevent terrorist events like this one. Indeed, at that point, a natural catastrophe is a terrorist event of the same type and that’s all there is to it.

RM: Even the Red Brigades were perhaps a bit overtaken by events, since they were the only ones . . .

JB: Yes, they said they weren’t responsible. They were outflanked!

RM: Yes, they were lost in the crowd…

JB: No, but it’s magnificent, do you see? Actually, everyone’s going to claim responsibility – ‘It’s me, it’s me!’ – simply, there again, to find an identity. It’s a comical situation. It’s comical because, so far as the media are concerned, there isn’t the slightest attempt to elucidate these things. Each time, the same things are said. That’s terrifying. You think to yourself, this isn’t possible. Perhaps we also have to come to terms with that and say, ‘OK, so there’s no progress,’ but tell ourselves that, deep down, that’s perhaps yet another form of nostalgia – giving something a meaning all the same by saying: ‘It’s not what you think. I’ll tell you what it means.’

RM: But I believe that what annoys the media – and people generally – in these events is the fact that death has lost any possibility of being sacrificial.

JB: Yes, yes, certainly.

RM: This terrorist act that makes political assassination look like accidental death isn’t exactly like the random choice of a scapegoat. The terrorist offers us a taste of a sacrificial interpretation and, at the same time, withholds it from us. It’s at least the victims throwing out a challenge to the idea of the sacrificial or to a society, which causes society, the media and all the official institutions to respond with the idea of the sacrificial. The cry goes up: ‘All these people who’ve been sacrificed.’ So there is a meaning in this; the sacrificial dimension gives meaning.

And yet, when you look for the meaning in it, it’s clear there’s none at all. Do you understand what I mean? What annoys us about terrorists is that they hurl this meaningless death in our faces. And in that regard, I think, there’s something that parallels the idea of the nuclear, in which there’s no meaning either. There again, even official society tells us we have a system that has no sense and each time there’s a response to that with nonsense, the official voice replies: ‘No, it isn’t possible that it should be nonsensical. There has to be meaning.’ Or are they telling us there’s sense in nonsense? It’s enough to drive us a bit crazy or force us into the arms of the ‘image’ crowd.

JB: Yes, there’s something extremely complicated going on there, though I believe people have a great capacity to cope with non-meaning. We’ve already seen Italian society’s ability actually to organise itself in meaninglessness, while there’s an Italian state that would like to give meaning to Italian society and can’t manage to. The Italian Communist Party, which is the state – it’s the only organised force – would like to give it meaning, but in reality if it managed to, it would simply be smashing the unofficial structures. In other words, there are people who manage very well to organise their lives, their daily existences in political meaninglessness, in the meaninglessness of crisis, as the currency just drifts. That has no effect; people can get by very well. They even derive a kind of energy from it, almost a kind of… not joy… but not sorrow either, whereas when you try to tell them, ‘Right, it’s time to begin to rationalise your energies!’ that leads to disaster – for example, in the Italian regions. There’s an Italian tradition in the provinces. They have great autonomy. This works very well at the cultural level and when the state tried to regionalise a country that had in reality never been nationalised and to create artificially demarcated regions, they totally wrecked the unofficial, traditional structures of the regions that did exist. But no, they had to have things rational. So there’s a strange old battle there between the society and the state.

In reality, Italy proves that the state isn’t necessary. It’s crazy, you understand, for the state… it’s a real scandal not to accept that. So, it’s going to fight society to show that a state is necessary all the same. Even if it doesn’t exist, it still has to be proved that the state’s necessary. Italy is that battle; it’s quite thrilling. Personally, I quite like Italy for that, whereas here there’s a sort of absolute recognition that the state is needed. We suffer as a result because, in reality, the state doesn’t exist here either. Our political class is… what? It’s nothing, but there’s a sort of consensus on the necessity of the state, on institutions, their rationality and all that. So we’re very sad because we despair at this kind of insignificance of the political sphere. Whereas a society that opts to exist spontaneously, in a rather wildcat sort of way like that, confusedly, but with its own rules, very much exists, it stands a chance, it can find new energies in that. Whereas, so long as it cleaves always to the obstacle of the state, of institutions, you could virtually go mad today, particularly over the conflicts in our socialism which was the final acid test; in short, they’re going to find, you’ll see, a real politics that will reconcile state and civil society.

RM: No, but this is the idea of the state overriding the idea of socialism.

JB: Absolutely, that’s certain. But with socialism as its alibi, which in a way is worse. But when you say that, you always get the same thing: ‘You’re right-wing!’ It’s incredible, but what the hell? It’s true that it’s worse.

RM: That reminds me of how, during the French Revolution, they abolished the obligation to give children saints’ names. Then people in some regions began to call themselves any old name: ‘Salsify’, ‘Beetroot’, ‘Grape’, ‘Sunflower’. That continued for a time, then the authorities said, ‘That’s not possible,’ and they decided to go back to the saints.

JB: Ah, they gave themselves names like that?

RM: Yes. Some poured into the breach in the official language and, free-spiritedly, eccentrically, called themselves what they wanted. They were perhaps manifesting the same desire you speak of in our graffiti obsessives. They also remind me of the Strasbourg people on the hacked Minitel calling themselves ‘Wild Tigress’ or ‘Dawn Smile’. It wasn’t enough to overthrow the ancien régime, they had to burst through the grid of language – through what a Baudrillardian sans-culotte would have called the dominant code. The state renamed the days and the months in the revolutionary calendar and created a new pantheon of saints, but the idea of chaos reigning with people re-baptising themselves was a bit too much – calling yourself ‘Beetroot’ is completely insane! It was nonsense. So the government went back to the old system of saints’ names to reestablish the order of names. Names aren’t free – like your Italian provinces.

JB: Ah, yes. As soon as you leave the people alone like that, they do just anything.


Appendix

(From Le Monde, Friday, 4 January 1985, p. 23)

What a programme! We’re changing our ways, our civilisation. It’s going on quietly everywhere, right beside where you are. Adventure today isn’t the Paris–Dakar rally or a photo-safari in Kenya. Adventure – the great game – is Minitel.

In Strasbourg, thousands of people spend their days and nights sending each other messages on the electronic Gretel system. It’s wild. Both sexes, all milieus, all ages are busy chatting each other up. A unique experiment. Unique in the world for the moment…

Yet in the beginning there was nothing particularly exciting. The Minitel? One of those new instruments of communication that aren’t much fun. A little TV screen with a keyboard like a typewriter. You type and the message comes up on the screen. You can consult the phone book, use some services, check your bank account, play games, etc.

In Strasbourg 5,000 Minitels have been distributed free of charge. The experiment is being conducted by the regional daily Les Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace, which is wanting to try out an electronic newssheet embellished with a few extra services. That didn’t arouse much enthusiasm but suddenly people are typing away all over the city. Strange messages are being exchanged, signed by ‘Wild Tigress’, ‘Moonstroke’, ‘Dawn Smile’ and the like. What is going on?

What is going on is that somebody has hacked the system invented by Michel Landaret, the boss of Gretel. By the time anyone realised, everyone was using it. Marianne Lamour, special correspondent, and Eddy Cherki, a sociologist at the CNRS (he has been working on computer communications for several years), have carried out a study in Strasbourg over a number of months, finding themselves suddenly immersed in ‘a science-fiction world, in the twenty-first century, on another planet’.

There’s ‘Ulysses’, a university lecturer, married with three children, who spends several hours a day on his Minitel, and ‘Heart of Gold’, a semi-skilled worker, who has met a partner for life in ‘Daisy’. There’s ‘Diana the huntress’, married people, divorcees, widows, people aged thirty, fifty-seven, seventeen. Homosexuals, adolescents, cleaning ladies. With anonymity comes freedom; people contact others they would never dare approach in the street. They encounter worlds in which they wouldn’t normally mix. There’s fun on Minitel – and fantasy.

People talk about themselves and try to pick others up. It’s a redoubtable dream machine. Diabolical too…

We know when it began but we don’t know when it will finish. A real high-risk game… Marianne Lamour and Eddy Cherki haven’t dwelt on the risks. They have seized on, experienced and made palpable this sort of transformation of social frameworks, values and mentalities – the ‘invisible revolution’ side of things. There are 500,000 Minitels in France for the moment. The plan is to have three million by 1986.

Translated by Chris Turner

 Notes

  1. The French original carried the contextual subtitle, ‘Le Faubourg St. Antoine, le 10 janvier 1985’. The interviewer makes some play of the district’s revolutionary associations, Baudrillard’s involvement in May 1968, and more recent forms of ‘revolution’ during the course of the interview.
  2. Minitel was a Videotex service operated by the French postal and telecommunications authority PTT over telephone lines in France between 1978 (initially in a pilot area in Brittany) and 2012. Users were able to search the telephone directory, make travel reservations and check stock market prices. They also had individual mailboxes, which enabled them to communicate instantaneously in a way since made possible on a global scale by the Internet.
  3. See Appendix to this interview.
  4. The line is from an apocryphal telegram exchange during World War I: to the Germans’ report on front-line conditions – ‘The situation here is serious, but not catastrophic’ – the Austrians responded: ‘The situation here is catastrophic, but not serious.’

Original publication: Robert M. Maniquis. Original publication: ‘Une conversation avec Jean Baudrillard: le Faubourg St. Antoine, le 10 janvier 1985’, UCLA French Studies, 2–3, 1984–5, pp. 1–22.

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