“The Matrix,” ; a French Philosopher, and the Events of September 11
You can see Matrix Reloaded, an English newspaper critic named Jonathan Romney recently suggested, "or choose to spend your time reading Baudrillard and Nietzsche instead."
If you're a fan of the concepts behind the Wachowski brothers' Matrix film series, "reading Baudrillard" could literally mean going back to the source. Adam Gopnik has recently written humorously in The New Yorker that the only reason why Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher, hasn't written something about Matrix is that "he is thinking of suing for a screen credit." It was Baudrillard, as Gopnik points out, who "popularized the view that reality itself has become a simulation." And in a way Matrix is nothing more than a fantasy concocted to illustrate and further popularize that Baudrillardian viewpoint.
But let's move -- with Baudrillard -- from the metaphor of Matrix to the "reality" of terrorism and Al-Qa'ida.
Very shortly after 9/11 Baudrillard published an essay in Le Monde called "The Spirit of Terrorism" which is one of the boldest analyses of what 9/11 meant and means. Let's look at this essay.
According to Baudrillard, the fall of the Twin Towers was not only the first symbolic event of worldwide scope in a long time. It was an event of cosmic proportions, a "mother of all events that comprises all previous ones". September 11 is an event that upturns the game of history and power, blocks globalization, and alters the basic rules of analysis by which history is discussed.
The terrorist acts of that day, Baudrillard says, were events the world had already long dreamed of, and, in dreaming of them, had desired.
That's right -- we all dreamed of seeing great symbols of American wealth and power come crashing down. We wanted that, and in wanting it, were complicit in the events. Why? Because when power becomes monotonous and centralized to the extent it has now, everyone, naturally -- and "happily," in Baudrillard's view -- subconsciously wants it to come down. (This doesn't mean, he adds, that we have no sympathy for the victims.)
The more centralized power is, moreover, the weaker it is, the more vulnerable to attack. The Twin Towers are also a stunning symbol of this frailty.
Our complicity was matched even by the complicity of the buildings themselves, which the terrorists had not known would fall, and which in falling committed a symbolic suicide.
The disquieting (but in a sense obvious) first corollary is that "Terrorism," as Baudrillard writes, "like the virus, is everywhere." It is in us; and the terrorists are among us.
The weapon of the terrorists is the event, but the event would mean nothing without the complicity of the media. The media becomes a weapon. The TV box becomes one. The terrorists of 9/11 turned ordinary harmless objects, box cutters, airplanes, buildings, into horrible weapons of mass destruction; they even turned daily life into one of their weapons by residing among us in the suburbs and pursuing dull ordinary lives with their families, thus making, by association, everyone in the future a suspect.
Moving from the events of 9/11, Baudrillard relates them to world history. The twentieth century was the century of world wars, and now in the twenty-first century we have a new and larger world war.
Each of the great wars, Baudrillard claims, sought to end some power inimical to the private will. World War I ended the dominance of Europe and its colonialism. World War II ended Nazism. World War III has already happened: it was the Cold War, and what it ended was Communism.
And now we have a new war, World War IV, which is the war against the next inimical stage, globalization, the stage of supra-national power. Globalization, like the hegemony of absolute power represented by the USA today, is something that people instinctively do not want. ("The world itself," Baudrillard writes in the essay, " is against globalization.") And this has nothing to do with any particular ideology or religion, and those who're opposed aren't any one group. It is only by chance that opposition has been concentrated in Islam. It is really a non-partisan struggle, against hegemony, against world domination.
Baudrillard sees what is happening partly as a war of good and evil, but with good and evil on both sides. This is because good (which liberal democracy represents) and evil (which terrorism represents) are inseparable. As one grows stronger, so does the other. While western liberal ideas are admirable (good), their dominance has awakened universal subconscious resentment (evil), a resentment more clearly concentrated currently in the world of Islam.
Indeed the world dominance of liberal democracy is itself also evil: it is clearly a logical impossibility: absolute power cannot be democratic, and liberal democracy in the form of neo-liberalism (though Baudrillard doesn't use that term) is now only a carrier (to use the terms of a "virus") of globalization. The movement toward dominance by pan-national forces that globalization represents also means, as many of us think, a move toward universal slavery. And hence a hatred of it is necessarily destined to become universal.
The way terrorism works is that it opposes force with sacrifice. And sacrifice is above all death. Terrorism is the force of death. The ruling forces in the world, the western liberal democratic hegemony, "have erased death from consideration," Baudrillard writes, while the terrorists use death as their primary weapon. Hence Osama's remark after 9/11, which the essay quotes: "Our men want to die as much as the Americans want to live."
Their weakness, their Achilles heel, aside from the fact that terrorism cannot be the object of a real "war" because it is everywhere, like a virus, is that Americans do not want to make personal sacrifices. Osama was right: they do not want to die. Finally, Baudrillard ends with a flurry of Matrix-like thinking: the violence of 9/11, he says, isn't real. It's symbolic, and it unifies the two primary twentieth century "magics," "the white magic of cinema" and "the black magic of terrorism."
More than that, the events not only are symbolic rather than real; they are symbolic but without meaning.
And this is another reason why there is no adequate response to them.
This is the most chilling, and important, of Baudrillard's points: terrorism has no adequate response.
What can we learn from Baudrillard's analysis? A number of things. It may appear that he is truly and wholly in the world of Matrix, in a world of sci fi fantasies, computer games, and verbal models. In a sense he is. He's also in the hermetically sealed ivory tower of a French philosopher. But to dismiss him for those reasons would be wrong.
First of all Baudrillard has a lot to teach us about terrorism. We must understand that "the war on terrorism" is not a reality and cannot be. There may be a vast process by which the US might seek to diffuse the existing antagonisms that motivate anti-American terrorism, but in achieving that goal nothing short of dismantling American power will really do the trick, so this is not really anything that the US is going to be doing any time soon. It may happen, in the fullness of time, but it will not be brought about by American forces or in accordance with the American will, except in the sense that the seeds of our downfall are always within us.
It is also essential to realize that "the war on terrorism" is a war we cannot win also in the same sense that the US could not win in Vietnam: because bombing, invading, killing, and occupying only creates more and more Osamas, willing to die, as we are not.
All that Baudrillard says about the way terrorism operates is chilling but true. It is within and among us. It does use harmless things, our transport systems, our computers, our banks, our freedoms and our mundane lives, against us. It causes us to multiply its strengths artificially by imagining any acts to be from the same source (the anthrax scare, for example, attributed to Al-Qa'ida, but of domestic origin).
We must recognize the frailty of American power, especially at its center but also everywhere, and the increasing indefensibility, in the world of a US without alliances, of America's wars. We failed in Vietnam. We failed in Bosnia. We are failing in Afghanistan. We will fail in Iraq. Each new, increasingly unilateral, hubristic action brings us closer to the brink by increasing the vulnerability of centralized power and arousing further antagonism.
But the second stage of Baudrillard's argument is the more important one because so few go on to see the connection with globalization. The connection is simple. Just as we internalized terrorism because we have imagined the downfall of the great power that surrounds us (or rises in New York and Washington), we have internalized, and are only gradually realizing, the commodifying forces that are gradually taking over the world, initiated by the US but, as Baudrillard says, by no means only there. "The world itself rises against globalization." This connection has to be made, and it's important to realize that eventually anti-Americanism -- always meaning opposition to the government, and not to the people of the US -- is going to be everywhere, a universal impulse communicated by worldwide media, even as globalizing forces unify media ownership.
Footnote: Jean Baudrillard's The Spirit of Terorism is now available in pamphlet form in English. A rough translation of the original French essay can be found online (click on "baudriterror"). A discussion of Baudrillard and The Matrix by Jim Rovira appears in Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005) of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. This is referenced in a partial list of Baudrillard on the Web.
June 17, 2003; some corrections since.
Further information about Baudrillard and links can be found at the website "LearnStuff". This site was recommended to me by Erin Williams Dec. 10, 2012.
A writer using the name Frans Camilleri paid me the compliment of plagiarizing this essay four months later in "The Times of Malta."
Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.
This story was published on July 12, 2003.