Theory Fictions: Baudrillard in the Contemporary Moment

Theory Fictions: Baudrillard in the Contemporary Moment

by Dr. Douglas Kellner

In some of his later writings, Jean Baudrillard develops what he terms “theory fiction,” or what he also calls “simulation theory” and “anticipatory theory.” Such “theory” intends to simulate, grasp, and anticipate historical events, that he believes are continually outstripping all contemporary theory. The current situation, he claims, is more fantastic than the most fanciful science fiction, or theoretical projections of a futurist society. Thus, theory can only attempt to grasp the present on the run and try to anticipate the future. However, Baudrillard has had a mixed record as a social and political analyst and forecaster. As a political analyst, Baudrillard has often been off the mark. In an essay “Anorexic Ruins” published in 1989, he read the Berlin wall as a sign of a frozen history, of an anorexic history, in which nothing more can happen, marked by a “lack of events” and the end of history, taking the Berlin wall as a sign of a stasis between communism and capitalism. Shortly thereafter, rather significant events in 1989 destroyed the wall that Baudrillard took as permanent and opened up a new historical era.

The Cold War stalemate was long taken by Baudrillard as establishing a frozen history in which no significant change could take place. Already in his mid-1970s reflections, he presented the Vietnam war as an “alibi” to incorporate China, Russia, and eventually Vietnam into a more rationalized and modernized world economic and political order (Baudrillard 1983: 66f), and in his book on the Gulf war he repeats this claim (1995: 85), thus failing to see the actual political stakes and reasons for the Vietnam war, as well as the significance of the struggles between capitalist and communist blocs.

For Baudrillard, the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York also symbolized the frozen history and stasis between the two systems of capitalism and communism. On the whole, Baudrillard sees history as the unfolding of expanding technological rationality turning into its opposite, as the system incorporates ever more elements, producing an improved technological order, which then becomes irrational through its excesses, its illusions, and its generating unforeseen consequences. This mode of highly abstract analysis, however, occludes more specific historical determinants that would analyze how technological rationality is constructed and functioned and how and why it misfires. It also covers over the disorder and turmoil created by such things as the crises and restructuring of global capitalism, the rise of fundamentalism, ethnic conflict, and global terrorism which were unleashed in part as a response to a globalized rationalization of the market system and to the breakup of the bipolar world order.

Baudrillard’s reflections on the Gulf war take a similar position, seeing it as an attempt of the New World Order to further rationalize the world, arguing that the Gulf war really served to bring Islam into the New World Order (1995: 19). The first study titled “The Gulf war will not take place” was initially published a few days before the actual outbreak of military hostilities and repeats his earlier concept of “weak events” and frozen history. Baudrillard to the contrary, the Gulf war took place, but this did not deter him from publishing studies claiming during the episode that it was not “really taking place” and after the war asserting that it “did not take place.” Although I have also argued that the “Gulf war” was a media spectacle and not a genuine war (see Kellner 1992), Baudrillard does not help us to understand much about the event and does not even help us to grasp the role of the media in contemporary political spectacles. Reducing complex events like wars to categories like simulation or hyperreality illuminates the virtual and high-tech dimension to media events, but erases all their concrete determinants.

And yet Baudrillardian postmodern categories help grasp some of the dynamics of the culture of living in media and computer worlds where people seem to enjoy immersing themselves in simulated events (witness the fascination of the Gulf war in 1991, the O.J. Simpson trials during 1994-6, the Clinton sex scandals, and various other media spectacles throughout the 1990s, the September 11 terror attacks in the early days of the third millennium), and the farcial presidential administration and failed presidential reruns of Donald Trump.

In The End of the Illusion (1994), Baudrillard attacks head-on what he sees as current illusions of history, politics, and metaphysics, and gamely tries to explain away his own political misprognoses that contemporary history appeared in a frozen, glacial state, stalemated between East and West, that the system of deterrence had congealed, making sure that nothing dramatic could henceforth happen, that the Gulf war couldn’t take place, and that the end of history had occurred. Baudrillard unleashes his full bag of rhetorical tricks and philosophical analysis to attempt to maintain these hypotheses in the face of the dramatic events of 1989-1991, which he claims are in fact “weak events,” that events are still on strike, that history has indeed disappeared. He continues to argue that modernity as a historical epoch is over, with its political conflicts and upheavals, its innovations and revolutions, its autonomous and creative subject, and its myths of progress, democracy, Enlightenment, and the like. These myths, these strong ideas, are exhausted, he claims, and henceforth a postmodern era of banal eclecticism, inertial implosion, and eternal recycling of the same become defining features.

For Baudrillard by the end of the 1990s with the collapse of communism, the era of the strong ideas, of a conflicted world of revolution and universal emancipation, is over. Communism, in Baudrillard’s reading, collapsed of its own inertia, it self-destructed from within, it imploded, rather than perishing in ideological battle or military warfare. With the absorption of its dissidents into power, there is no longer a clash of strong ideas, of opposition and resistance, of critical transcendence. With the embedding of the former communist regimes into the system of the capitalist world market and liberal democracy, the West no longer has an Other to battle against, there is no longer any creative or ideological tension, no longer any global alternative to the Western world.

Indeed, as Vladimir Putin has been attempting to resurrect the Old Soviet Union with his invasions of Crimea and Ukraine, and as a war rages between Israel and Palestine, with further wars in the Middle East threatening to explode, it is not clear whether new political configurations will emerge or not. History, as always, is unpredictable, and new phenomena can always appear that might bring about a new world order – or disorder and chaos.

Baudrillard celebrated the coming of the new millennium with a collection of essays on cloning, the end of history, and the disappearance of the real The Vital Illusion (2000). For Baudrillard (2000), cloning is connected to the fantasy of immortality, of defeating the life-cycle. Thus, its no surprise that cryogenics -– the freezing of dead human beings in the hope they might be regenerated in the future through medical advances — is a booming global industry. Likewise, in a digital era, Baudrillard claims that history has come to an end and reality has been killed by virtualization, as the human species prepares itself for a virtual existence.

In The Vital Illusion Baudrillard  reversed his complaint that the contemporary era was one of weak events, that no major historical occurrences had happened, and that therefore life and thought were becoming increasingly boring.  Indeed, shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Baudrillard wrote a paper “L’esprit du terrorisme” published November 2, 2001, in Le Monde. He argued that the assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon constituted a “strong event,” that the attacks were “the ultimate event, the mother of all events, the pure event uniting within itself all the events that have never taken place.” The “event strike,” Baudrillard declared, was over and since this time he has continued to focus intensely on the dynamics and happenings of contemporary history.

Hence, Baudrillard’s thought has been reignited by 9/11 and the subsequent Terror War which demonstrate the continuing relevance of some of his key categories and that have produced some of his most provocative recent work. In the 9/11 attacks and subsequent Terror War, difference and conflict have erupted upon the global stage and heterogeneous forces that global capitalism appears unable to absorb and assimilate have emerged that have produced what appears to be an era of intense conflict. Ideological apologists of globalization such as Thomas Friedman have been forced to acknowledge that globalization has its dark sides and produces conflict as well as networking, interrelations, and progress. It remains to be seen, of course, how the current Terror War and intensified global conflicts will be resolved.

In any case, Baudrillard had long written on terrorism and was focusing reflection on globalization when the 9/11 attacks occurred. He quickly responded with the Le Monde article, soon after translated and expanded into one of the more challenging and controversial books on the terror spectacle, The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers (2002a). For Baudrillard, the 9/11 attacks represent a new kind of terrorism, exhibiting a “form of action which plays the game, and lays hold of the rules of the game, solely with the aim of disrupting it. …they have taken over all the weapons of the dominant power”.  That is, the terrorists in Baudrillard’s reading used airplanes, computer networks, and the media associated with Western societies to produce a spectacle of terror. The attacks evoked a global specter of terror that the very system of globalization and Western capitalism and culture were under assault by “the spirit of terrorism” and potential terrorist attacks anytime and anywhere.

For Baudrillard, “the speeches and commentaries made since September 11 betray a gigantic post-traumatic abreaction both to the event itself and to the fascination that it exerts. The moral condemnation and the sacred union against terrorism are directly proportional to the prodigious jubilation felt at having seen this global superpower destroyed.”

Baudrillard perceived that the terrorists hope that the system will overreact in response to the multiple challenges of terrorism:

“It is the terrorist model to bring about an excess of reality, and have the system collapse beneath that excess”.

The Bush administration (2000-2008) responded with an excess of unilateral militarism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has made a “war against terror” the fundament of its domestic and foreign policy, and infamously declared that “you are with us or against us,” in effect saying that anyone who did not support Bush’s “war on terror” was aiding and abetting “the enemy” and terrorism itself. For many of us, the Bush administration did what Baudrillard said the terrorists would want them to do, in terms of overreaction to the 9/11 attacks that would melt the initial sympathy for the US and that would win recruits for the terrorists reacting against the excess violence and aggression of the US response. Immediately after 9/11, the French paper Le Monde headlined a commentary “Nous sommes tous les Americains,” but after the rancorous debate over Bush’s Iraq intervention, the US found itself alienated from longtime allies, facing a proliferation of new enemies, and engaged in what the Bush administration described as a new era of “war on terror,” with no end in sight.

In Baudrillard’s view, the 9/11 attacks represented “the clash of triumphant globalization at war with itself” and unfolded a “fourth world war”: “The first put an end to European supremacy and to the era of colonialism; the second put an end to Nazism; and the third to Communism. Each one brought us progressively closer to the single world order of today, which is now nearing its end, everywhere opposed, everywhere grappling with hostile forces. This is a war of fractal complexity, waged worldwide against rebellious singularities that, in the manner of antibodies, mount a resistance in every cell.”

Upon the initial publication of his response in French newspapers and its immediate translation into English and other languages, Baudrillard himself was accused of justifying terrorism when he stated in “The Spirit of terrorism”: “Because it was this insufferable superpower [i.e. the US] that gave rise both to the violence now spreading throughout the world and to the terrorist imagination that (without our knowing it) dwells within us all. That the entire world without exception had dreamed of this event, that nobody could help but dream of the destruction of so powerful a Hegemon —-this fact is unacceptable to the moral conscience of the West. And yet it’s a fact nevertheless, a fact that resists the emotional violence of all the rhetoric conspiring to cover it up. In the end, it was they who did it, but we who wished it (Baudrillard 2002a).”

Baudrillard defended himself from accusations that such reflections constituted a virulent anti-Americanism or legitimation of terrorism, claiming: “I do not praise murderous attacks — that would be idiotic.  Terrorism is not a contemporary form of revolution against oppression and capitalism. No ideology, no struggle for an objective, not even Islamic fundamentalism, can explain it. …I have glorified nothing, accused nobody, justified nothing. One should not confuse the messenger with his message. I have endeavored to analyze the process through which the unbounded expansion of globalization creates the conditions for its own destruction” (Baudrillard 2002a)

Indeed, Baudrillard has also produced some provocative reflections on globalization. In “The Violence of the Global,” he distinguishes between the global and the universal, linking globalization with technology, the market, tourism, and information contrasted to identification of the universal with “human rights, liberty, culture, and democracy.” While “globalization appears to be irreversible […] universalization is likely to be on its way out.” Elsewhere, Baudrillard writes: “…the idea of freedom, a new and recent idea, is already fading from the minds and mores, and liberal globalization is coming about in precisely the opposite form — a police-state globalization, a total control, a terror based on “’law-and-order’ measures. Deregulation ends up in a maximum of constraints and restrictions, akin to those of a fundamentalist society (Baudrillard 2002b).

Most theorists, including myself, see globalization as a matrix of market economy, democracy, technology, migration and tourism, and the worldwide circulation of ideas and culture. Baudrillard, curiously, takes the position of those in the anti-globalization movement who condemn globalization as the opposite of democracy and human rights. For Baudrillard, globalization is fundamentally a process of homogenization and standardization that crushes “the singular” and heterogeneity. This position, however, fails to note the contradictions that globalization simultaneously produces homogenization and hybridization and difference, and that the anti-corporate globalization movement is fighting for social justice, democratization, and increased rights, factors that Baudrillard links with a dying universalization. In fact, the struggle for rights and justice is an important part of globalization and Baudrillard’s presenting of human rights, democratization, and justice as part of an obsolete universalization being erased by globalization is theoretically and politically problematical.

Before 9/11, in Baudrillard’s musings of the past two decades, the global postmodern condition has been one of absorbing otherness, of erasing difference, of assimilating and imploding all oppositional or negative forces into a viral positivity and virtuality. That is, Baudrillard saw globalization and technological development producing standardization and virtualization that was erasing individuality, social struggle, critique and reality itself as more and more people became absorbed in the hyper and virtual realities of media and cyberspace and virtue culture. In his view, the positive and the virtual radiate throughout every interstice of society and culture, irradiating into nullity any negativity, opposition, or difference. It is also an era in which reality itself has disappeared, constituting the “perfect crime” which is the subject of a book of that title (1996) and elaborated in The Vital Illusion (2000).

Baudrillard presents himself here as a detective searching for the perpetrator of the “perfect crime,” the murder of reality, “the most important event of modern history.” His recurrent theme in his later writing is the destruction and disappearance of the real in the realm of information and simulacra, and the subsequent reign of illusion and appearance. In a Nietzschean mode, he suggests that henceforth truth and reality are illusions, that illusions reign, and that therefore we should respect illusion and appearance and give up the illusory quest for truth and reality. Certainly, the reign of Donald Trump and a slew of political liars throughout the world has confirmed Baudrillard’s warning that truth and reality are disappearing in a new order of simulation and hyperreality, although the Revenge of the Real often force societies to Get Real! and Wake Up! Whether the rest of the 21st century is one of increasing Illusion, Error, and Catastrophe, or the human species wakes up and addresses the dangers of social, economic, political, and ecological crisis is a challenges facing the human species and which will determine our fate.

Writings of Jean Baudrillard
Simulations. 1983. New York: Semiotext(e).
The Illusion of the End. 1994. Oxford: Polity Press.
The Gulf War Never Happened. 1995. Oxford: Polity Press.
The Vital Illusion.  2000, New York: Columbia University Press.
Impossible Exchange. 2001. London: Verso.
The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers. 2002a. London: Verso.
Screened Out. 2002b. London: Verso.
“This is the Fourth World War,” an interview with Der Speigel. 2002c; see the translation at
“La violence du Mondial,” in Power Inferno (Paris: Galilee, 2002c), pp. 63-83; translated into English at

Further Reading
Kellner, Douglas (1992) The Persian Gulf TV War. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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