“Things Surpass Themselves”

FR Recently you were criticised as the prototype of an ‘administrator of theoretical emptiness’ who has taken up a depoliticised position. Not long ago you yourself wrote that today every critical radicality has become useless. Why?      

I don’t mean useless, but pointless. We’ve already run through the entire cycle of critical thought. My earlier books were still thoroughly critical. But since Symbolic Exchange and Death I’ve entered into another discourse, even though this book is still critical in so far as there is in it a desire for a symbolic exchange. The hypothesis of simulation was also still critically meant in the sense that in it there was a Situationist inheritance, and it proceeded from the existence of alienation. But from then on there is no longer a desire for another order or for a subversion in the true sense. The symbolic order was transcended, and the critical perspective was left aside. The critique slipped to the side by itself, not out of any decided intention.

FR But why do you think critique is meaningless?

I think it’s meaningless in the sense of its functioning within our modern systems. We know that every critique, every opposing force, only feeds the system. At least we’ve experienced it in that way, and we’ve had this experience in praxis as well as in theory. For me it’s now a matter of transition from a perspective of the subject to that of the object, from which there is no longer any critique. The field of objects is that of seduction, of fate, of fatality or another strategy. For critique, one must preserve the standpoint of the subject with all of its strategies. And precisely these strategies seemed to me to be obsolete and exhausted. But that’s more a challenge than a fact or a definite philosophical standpoint. It seemed better to me to go beyond the field of the subject and to speak from the object, if that’s somehow possible. That’s perhaps an impossible standpoint, but we must keep it in mind and entirely leave aside the standpoint of the subject.

FR But doesn’t this continue the wish for subversion, in which you attempt to assume a standpoint that cannot be integrated into the system? Don’t you then remain critical?

Yes, of course, as soon as one is concerned with language, with discourse, one remains critically placed. One must bring this into play in the sense of an engagement. It’s an unstable or metastable critical perspective. When we have to deal with language, there is always a subject, but the endeavour consists precisely in disavowing this subject.

FR So your endeavour consists not in decentring or dissolving the subject, but in disavowing it.

Yes, one can observe this in language itself, as, for example, in humour language functions by itself through a power of increase or its own materiality. Then it functions outside the subject. That would be, for me, the standpoint of a position that is ironic and objective at the same time, and also that of the present theory. But I leave it entirely undecided whether my discourse is critical. One can interpret it critically. One never knows whether one has successfully gone beyond one’s critical shadow, but I’ve made an attempt to do that.

FR You are also not developing a theory about states of affairs in the classical sense, but your writing is more of an experimenting with or a trying out of hypotheses.

Yes, certainly. And the leitmotifs of simulation, seduction or fatal strategies should also be understood in this way. They are not concepts but rather hypotheses and metaphors that run off in spirals and not in a critical continuum or a dialectic.

FR Then are your writings meant more as a literary discourse or as games with thoughts? And to whom or to what do you want to appeal with them?

I must deny the aesthetic characterisation. It isn’t literature and it isn’t a frivolous play. I would like it to appear serious, to be a theory, but not one that reflects the objective – rather one that is a challenge to reality, to the principle of reality. It is certainly not a matter of a critical theory, but it is not for that reason a type of literature. There must be another game, with other rules, in which truth is still spoken about but in another sense. The content, to be sure, is volatilised more strongly and does not come into play so frontally as in a critique.

FR You write that traditional theories have lost their objects, and also that the attempt to find or invent truth would no longer work today. You declare: away with truth; it only complicates the game!

My theory conforms to its own object. When I speak of simulation, my discourse is simulatory; when I speak of seduction, the theory is also a seduction. Thus it comes nearer to its object. And when I speak of fatal strategies, the theory is fatal. There is no longer a standpoint of the subject, but object and subject play with one another. That is no confusion, but a fusion of points of view. Whether it succeeds or not, I don’t know.

FR Do you teach sociology in Nanterre?

Yes, unfortunately.

FR Do you understand yourself really to be a sociologist or more of a philosopher?

Oh, that’s always the critical question. I can’t actually answer it. I’m certainly not a sociologist in the strict academic sense, and I’m also not a philosopher. Today in France a restaging of philosophy is certainly being carried out.

FR By Lyotard, for example?

Yes, him too. I mean that all of these disciplines have already had their day. We’ve had done with them in the sixties and seventies. I can’t understand why we should turn back again. It’s not an inheritance because we didn’t do any finished work. I mean that this postmodern – I don’t know if this word means that – this conjuring up of old disciplines is nonsense. I would like to go further and more quickly beyond them, more than this ghostly preservation.

FR You spoke before about a Situationist inheritance. In what connection do you stand with Situationism?

I’ve always had the tendency to radicality, and I have that in common with the Situationists. We have not thrown away subversion, but in spite of that it’s now past. It all came to an explosion in 1968. That was an epoch; it is over, but not radicality. It’s still a leitmotif for me.

FR How can one or should one still be political today?

Today I’m no longer politically engaged. Transpolitically, perhaps, like Virilio. But we have done away with this political scenario once and for all. The ideas or passions must come from somewhere else today. I see this very well in Nanterre, in this university where everything started, for example with Cohn-Bendit. Today it’s an empty field from which nothing more will come – that we know with complete certainty. But that’s not something to despair over. We must keep this desolation in view. That’s a postulate: it is so! Academic devastation runs parallel to social and political devastation. That’s the current reality for us today. The former radicality came from the subject – it was subjective. Today it comes perhaps from the field of the object. Today one can no longer replace the subject; it has played itself out, but naturally not in everyday life. We all still subsist on a kind of banality. But perhaps this banality will also, somewhere and somehow, turn into a certain fatality. That interests me, but not the changes and strategies of the obsolete subject, be it the subject of the political or of knowledge or of history. That is naturally meant paradoxically. There is still no doctrine about it, and one still can’t verify it. One cannot foresee what comes from the object. Perhaps it has no consequences; it comes as a pure event or as a pure experience. That is not meant mystically, but something arises there whose track I am on.

FR Doesn’t that mean waiting until objects begin to act, in so far as we can no longer act politically ourselves? Doesn’t the position of expectation simply transfer from our own acting to the acting of objects, as a kind of hope that something might yet happen again?

I’m no prophet. I don’t know, I can’t know that. For this, I always choose language as a metaphor. One doesn’t know what comes from it when it can operate by itself, when the subject pulls itself back. One doesn’t know what happens then. It’s always surprising and has a deeper intensity than what happens through the subject. It’s a question as to what will happen in time. I have no hope and also no illusions. Perhaps there is in this between time, in this epoch at the end of history, or however else one expresses it, even if one cannot take this talk about the end of history or the end of politics entirely seriously, perhaps there is in this time a span in which nothing happens. But we are not discouraged about it. I would like to say one must allow dead time to live. There are such times, and we are experiencing such a time in France right now.

FR Doesn’t this retreat from the political and from critique have something to do with the fact that Mitterrand and socialism are in power in France? Doesn’t disappointment set in because utopia has taken place in reality?

Naturally. There was, at least, no spring, no leap over and beyond anything. The people didn’t get anything they were hoping for by putting the socialists in power. However, they had no great illusions, so there is also no real disappointment. What didn’t come was a coup d’éclat. That must be there, otherwise the people take no pleasure in seeing this or that played out on the political scene. On the contrary, there was only a countercoup. There was no political charm and no seduction, nothing of political energy, no people who knew how to play with the situation or would provoke something. They didn’t dare anything. Here a disappointment sets in, but it doesn’t touch the content of the political, rather the style. Nothing will fundamentally change in future years. In France, we must live with this desolation of the between time, with this false or simulated metastability in the political and theoretical field. In the United States things have taken a different turn with Reagan. There is an overdimension of banality, of simulated stability there. We don’t possess this fourth dimension; we remain in the banality of social and political devastation where even decline has no vitality. What is essential in the fact that we disappear or perish is that there is also an art of disappearing that one has or doesn’t have. At the moment we have no style.

FR You have written about the United States not only that it is the only wild society on earth, but also that the United States would be the land of the future. Therefore, doesn’t the talk of disappearing concern more than Europe or the European tradition, which disappears as an independent power in relation to the United States? In the States entirely other political ceremonies are possible. You have compared Mitterrand with Reagan, who can stage euphoria without deception and confusion, while Mitterrand cannot cope with the professionalism of show business in politics. You presumably conceive the affirmative description of this situation as a provocation?

The transition from the political into what is staged and into simulation as such is entirely banal. The question is whether this happens with a real dimension of modernity, whether it is luxuriously staged or not, otherwise it is petty or affected. What oppresses us is just this affectation in contrast to the United States. There, things take their course entirely of themselves, even when they’re simulated. We get this affectation from our petit bourgeois tradition.

FR Isn’t that a very French tendency toward the luxurious? You like to refer to the baroque, where politics occurred as theatre, as staging. In German critical theory – I’m thinking, for example, of Walter Benjamin – fascism was criticised precisely for having aestheticised politics. Isn’t that the same thing you demand when you conceive of politics as ritual, as ceremony or as spectacle? Isn’t there hidden in this a tendency towards the monumental, which one can also notice in the United States?

Perhaps it’s different there because everything, politics, sexuality and so on, enters into the way of life, is secularised. There is no transcendent religion any more, also no transcendent sexuality; everything is treated with this genius of empiricism. As soon as one has cleansed it of everything transcendent or subjective, then everything works with a certain humoristic genius.

FR Would this ironic moment be missing, then, in fascism?

Yes, certainly. But in the United States there is no danger at all of fascism. There is a strange peculiarity with Reagan. Everything is sucked up by publicity staging, and then there is no more opposition. There is nothing in front of him and nothing against him any more. With Reagan and the United States it is like an advertising gimmick. The same thing occurs in the relationship of the United States to the rest of the world. Perhaps America no longer has a monopoly of power as it did in the fifties, but it has become a model and thus no longer has any ideological contrary, any opposition. It has a publicity success, whose symbol was the rise in the value of the dollar, which is not at all understandable. That is a special effect of American power, which is no longer objective, not of weapons, of products, but a power that corresponds to Reagan. That is the full play of simulation. The Americans can play this because they are completely radical in the line of modernity. We have never experienced this modernity, and we are not in this radical modernity today.

FR But simulation also turns into reality. I’m not only thinking about the possible effects of arms production but also about events like the military occupation of Grenada, which was also a staged political action, or about the relationship to Nicaragua. How can such an action, which has thoroughly bloody consequences, be articulated in the conceptuality of simulation?

Simulation does not mean there is no violence or death. In the United States there is much violence and great political passions, but that does not result in any concept of history, into which they have not entered at all, just as we have not at all entered into modernity. These are different worlds, between which there is no transition.

FR What distinguishes modernity for you?

For the United States it was the geographical, the transatlantic break with the older world, such that they consequently live in a realised utopia. From the beginning they have experienced freedom and equality as taking place, and in this sense they have been modern from the beginning. Not, therefore, that they are more technologically advanced; rather it is a matter of the principle of utopia: the United States is the utopian world. Everything that we dreamt forth here, everything unrealisable, irreal or ideal, has realised itself there, at least in spirit. Then, to be sure, one is concerned with the paradoxical situation of what to do with a realised utopia. One must not only produce it but also administer it. However, the principle is different in Europe and gives them such an immense advantage, not only technically but also mentally.

FR Would America also be for you the land of posthistory? I believe Kojève talked about the United States and Japan as societies in which history had already disappeared.

We can speak of posthistory because we find ourselves in history. Perhaps historical ideals are perishing today without ever actually being realised. But the Americans do not suffer from the end of history or the end of the political because they’ve never acted from this perspective. Perhaps they suffer today from having become a world model, in the face of which nothing is real any more. That is their crisis, while our crisis is that of impossible ideals, of dreams and phantasms. We have cultivated ideality; they have simply materialised all concepts and dreams, and they occupy themselves pragmatically with their administration. That’s no postmodernity, that’s radical modernity. Modernity – postmodernity, history – posthistory are for us already old problems. We have simply not radically experienced modernity. In principle, I don’t know what it means to talk about the postmodern. Whether things take another course, a radical or fatal course, is more interesting than making such a patchwork with old values, which we understand as the distinguishing feature of the postmodern. But I don’t have any definite view about it. Postmodern is simply a word. Perhaps the word postmodern is something postmodern and otherwise nothing.

FR In Germany the concept of posthistory evokes great rejection, on the one hand, by those who still understand themselves to be critical intellectuals, and on the other hand it’s taken up by people who believe they can use it to seize upon a social state of affairs. In Germany, the concept of posthistory was also used by theorists of a conservative derivation, for example by Spengler, Gehlen or Sedlmayr. What is this word actually supposed to say, since it also speaks about the end of history, about the social or the political?

Actually it’s only a way of speaking. Nothing comes to an end there. I prefer to interpret it differently: things surpass themselves; they do not come to an end in the sense of something existing and then no longer existing. That would be a realistic perspective, which isn’t valid, because one could yet verify an end. But this isn’t the case. Perhaps there was a history or a political principle, but they’ve become sick and tired of themselves. The space has become so full and things surpass themselves as in a hypertelic perspective. They have no meaning at all, not because they’ve lost their meaning, but because they have too much meaning. That means too much for all, and then they don’t have any meaning any more. It is thus an intensification into emptiness or what I interpret as an ecstasy, but no condition of ending or running down. Then one sees things somewhat differently. The leitmotifs of the talk about the postmodern or posthistory suffer from too great a realism in their concepts.

FR Lyotard staged a big exhibit in Paris, and in this connection spoke about a new sensibility that we would have to develop. Do you also see in the rapid development of information technologies and representational worlds the necessity to change our perceptive capability?

Yes, that’s an attempt to see things positively or perspectivally. It’s a venture and in this sense it’s good, but we don’t know if it’s philosophically good. Whether information is an intensified volatilisation of things, whether it’s no answer to a question or brings too many answers with it and no questioning – that’s a better standpoint. Then it has no consequences. One cannot interpret it as progress, not even as technological progress. The volatilisation of the old would then be more of a kind of balance, a retrospective science or technology. Perhaps that’s in the sense of the postmodern, that we can panoramically condense everything with information technologies and have it all in front of us. That isn’t any prospect towards a future, but the condensation of a tremendously old world. At this time, we don’t know beyond this whether or not that means something else. Naturally, many things will change in the perception of things, but it isn’t certain we would have more power to interpret things. We don’t attain any interpretive power through informatics.

FR But wouldn’t you bring your talk about the disappearance of meaning through the surfeit of information into connection with the philosophical concept of nihilism, with Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, for example, who gave somewhat the same diagnosis without having experienced the thrust of technology?

I hope that my standpoint isn’t wistful or passive. There’s always the objection that I’m so pessimistic, nihilistic or apocalyptic. I don’t feel it’s optimistic or pessimistic. Rather it’s a question of driving logic into an overlogic, and then seeing what comes of it. People who always seek to conjure up opposing values or older values really are pessimistic; they are the really passive nihilists, as Nietzsche says. The system itself is

nihilistic. We can say that in the sense that it affects itself nihilistically. But that’s the situation in which we are naturally included. But when we take the process further, that’s no longer nihilism. The entire hope, in so far as there is any any more, would be the leap beyond it, but in the same direction because we don’t possess any counterdirection. Thus, we could take a chance.

FR There is a book that in Germany at least has become a bestseller and was written by an American computer scientist – Hofstadter. The book is called Gödel, Escher, Bach and the great thesis of this book is that every system, in so far as it relates to itself – as in the Gödelian theorem – destroys itself or surpasses itself. Doesn’t this  resemble your strategy, where you very often describe simulation in terms of self-reference, consequently, when something is identical to itself or more real than real? The strategy of bringing selfreferentiality into ‘machines’, of not frontally or externally attacking it, would perhaps still be the only possible subversive activity.

 Yes, that would be something like a malin génie, an evil, demonic spirit. When one goes at everything from the side or proceeds from a seduction of things, then everything is different.

FR Odo Marquard, a German philosopher who comes more from the conservative corner, advanced the thesis that science and the life-world produced by it have entered the way to the fictive. That can at least be compared with what you have designated as simulation. The function science had earlier, namely to be the institution of antifiction, to stage the real, accrues to art as the modern antipode to science. Would you be able to agree with this thesis?

That today, therefore, the real falls on the side of art? In this sense, I don’t think much about art as art, as concept or as transcendence. If one has the hypothesis that everything no longer takes place in the field of production or transcendence, but in an immanence that has no outside, then there is no reason why art would not also have lost its own transcendence. It already staged this loss 150 years ago, this game with the disappearance of art. It was a very beautiful game, but today it is played out, and art is suspended in a counterconsciousness to itself, or in a bad conscience over itself. It doesn’t know what it wants to do with itself any more. It can’t accept transcendence, and it revolutionises itself in mere convulsions. But no alternatives  from this. Today art is identical to all other processes. It functions like fashion or like entropic processes. I no longer see in it any brilliance or any counterforce in the real sense. Certainly there are still artists, better and worse, one can still cultivate a taste, but there’s no longer any real ground for aesthetic judgement. I simply can’t decree whether something is good or not any more. In itself there’s no art any more than morality. It’s the same simulation or immorality, or the same intensification. When transcendence intensifies, it becomes immanence. Art has played the game of intensification and transcendence; it has played out its own loss – and now it’s over!

FR Since the time of European modernity, art was the institution of the production of appearance and illusion, also of the spectacle, which you have introduced as certain anti-Cartesian categories against modernity’s intention of Enlightenment, whose rationality always understood itself as disillusioning and shoved illusion off onto art. Avant-garde art has offered resistance against this arrogation and has therefore turned against itself. Doesn’t your position still remain within an aesthetic perspective when you attempt to interpret the world as spectacle?

Yes, that could be, but not as an aesthetic interpretation. That’s an old category. Perhaps things will collapse, no longer as aesthetic, but more brutally, for the aesthetic is still a mediating category, and the things that appear today as aesthetic appear as a simulation of the aesthetic, as an aesthetic of simulation. There is this, still. But no greater event than this can come from the realm of art.

FR Indeed, since romanticism, the great hope was to shift into the realm of art and aesthetics in order to develop other paradigms than those of rationality.

Naturally, the power of illusion always exists. I also insist that would be the fundamental power of illusion. But today’s art has nothing to do with this power any more. It has become real or realistic, even when it’s abstract or playfully postmodern. Art doesn’t concern itself with its own representation, with its fashionable staging, with the incursion of illusion any more. No one really plays with illusion any more, including in the Nietzschean sense of the word. This power of illusion is lost. What it can arise from again today are objects, things, events. Pure events no longer possess the enormous heritage of art. I would sooner bet on a radical non-culture than on a new revolution in culture or art, because we already have too much history behind us. But perhaps this view comes from the heritage of Situationism. I always have something against culture as culture, against art as art, against philosophy as philosophy. Even when I talk about the collapse of the object, this is not about the object as object, otherwise there would again be a subject of something. Today’s art has made itself into the subject of the game of art, and it doesn’t want to end – it doesn’t want to end itself.

FR For this reason do you talk about fatality and not about beauty, which fascinates, in your concept of seduction?

Yes, fatality or irony go beyond the aesthetic. In reality we’ve been concerned for a long time with a system that is beyond good and evil, beyond beautiful and ugly. And we still try to develop new categories of the old interpretation instead of playing in the radical field of the system itself. Here nothing at all aesthetic takes place.

FR Bohrer, who for some time edited the magazine Merkur, maintains that in modernity art has discovered the principle of evil for itself. In Fatal Strategies you have likewise made the case for a principle of evil. Would you place yourself, then, in the tradition of dark writers, which constitutes a continuum of modern discourse from de Sade to Nietzsche?

Perhaps there is such a tradition, from which I do not directly exclude myself. I have, for example, read a lot of Nietzsche. But that’s not a reference in the sense of the history of ideas – rather, it’s at most a connection of referencelessness. The principle of evil can be brought into modernity only paradoxically, for taken seriously it is only nonsense. It has nothing to do with a principle: rather, it’s a metaphor for a twisting of things, for a perversion of things. This is how we must act today, because, in their current course, things turn so positively towards information that we must not take upon ourselves any subversion or opposing force, but rather a twisting or seduction of things. That would be a principle of evil, even if the word principle is false, but it’s already a tie with an untimely tradition. Fortunately there has always been a heresy in every society, a certain dissonance, only in ours there isn’t any, so there isn’t any to be rediscovered. But not in the sense of a historical contradiction or a dialectic, rather as a position that’s radical in the Manichaean sense.

FR Is how one should relate to modernity a meaningful question for you? Lyotard, for example, criticises trans-avant-gardism,1 as in the Italian painters and the German Wilden, because they relate themselves to the tradition unreflectively.

The modern and modernity are not categories for me. For example, when I talk about the radical modernity of the United States, it is not a matter of fact, but of fiction. For me there is no real progress, only a leap into fiction. The categories ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’ are too referential. For me, the play of fiction is also essential in theory. Basically, it’s all the same to me how one relates to the modern or can come to terms with modernity.

FR So you also wouldn’t defend the project of the modern, as Habermas demands in Germany?

No, those are obsolete insights. It once made sense, but now, as Canetti says, we have already crossed this line. All rhetoric or dialectic concerning it, as if one had to make a decision about it, seems to me to be over.

FR At the beginning you talked about the fact that one also has to accept the condition of desolation in politics. Now, in France there was the Greenpeace affair. It was obvious, at least as far as I could follow it in Germany, that French intellectuals have largely remained completely silent about it. To what do you attribute this speechlessness, which is indeed also an effect of depoliticisation? Power seems to be able to make everything immune to criticism.

Yes, there was a kind of implicit or silent compromise between the intellectuals and the politicians, because the socialists have also absorbed and pocketed the will to speak. The intellectuals don’t feel the need to say anything any more. Perhaps at this time there is stagnation in the intellectual field, but above all the will to speak has entirely disappeared.

FR Glucksmann, for example, affirms the politics of rearmament, but the role of criticism and engagement seems to be missing.

Yes, Glucksmann takes up the last position, perhaps to stand up for human rights, but it remains a position of reaction that sets itself against an opponent. It transpires with energy and courage, but those are old virtues. If today one no longer wants to take up a reactionary position, then there are no others, no correct ones any more. Silence is not necessarily negative, just like the silence of the masses. One must interpret it rather as suspense. The ambiguity of political power is presently so great that the intellectuals remain silent – which might also mean that today it no longer makes sense to understand oneself as an intellectual and to speak from this position. It is as nonsensical as it is arrogant. Of course, there is much to be said about Greenpeace, especially about the role of the media more than that of the secret service, which only did its job. The complicity of the media with political power was nevertheless really frightful. They didn’t play their modern role, as in Watergate, for example. At present it’s a wretched situation in France. But one can only interpret an event like Greenpeace as a symptom, and we’re tired of merely counting off symptoms. That doesn’t make sense. It was people’s secret pleasure that everything is headed for a catastrophe. There was such a play of Schadenfreude over politics, which is perhaps not yet at an end. We don’t have any illusions about the political intelligence of the socialists. No one was surprised. It was the chance for a political uproar, but it didn’t happen.

FR Is that also a symptom of the fact that political power, the stage of power, merely revolves around itself and doesn’t interest anyone any more?

Certainly this as well. What in principle takes place in this scene are not really events. They are events that draw no consequences behind them. It’s amazing how it happens today. Before, governments would have fallen immediately because of it. That doesn’t happen any more today because the scene is empty and desolate. No  one makes anything of it, and political power has no confidence in itself, in its decisions, and the people have no confidence in the rulers. Everything runs in an empty circulation; everything works, but there’s no engagement.

FR How could one still be engaged?

Subjectively I can’t say, but I believe the others can’t either. The scenario corresponds to the hypothesis of indifference. Events are merely simulated, or they aren’t events any more, because everything takes place against a background of indifference. They are events of indifference. They don’t mean anything any more because they don’t spring from differences or power relations, but from apathy. An event like the one in the Brussels stadium would be very easy to interpret as such. It’s still only a matter of upheavals against a background of indifference. If one wants to interpret everything as a play of difference, then one is mistaken. Indifference is otherwise not nothing; it isn’t an emptiness, but a power. However, we can’t yet interpret today what will come of it. We still don’t have an interpretation for that.

Translated by Gary E. Aylesworth



  1. For example, see ‘Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?’, in J.-F. Lyotard (1984), The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 71–82. [Editors]

© ‘Jean Baudrillard’, in F. Rötzer (ed.) (1995), Conversations with French Philosophers, New Jersey: Humanities Press, pp. 17–29.

“Things Surpass Themselves” is published here by kind permission of Florian Rötzer.


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