Double Suicide and the West

A French philosopher cuts quick and deep into September 11.

The Spirit of Terrorism

By Jean Baudrillard

Verso, 2002

52 pages

Subversive little Verso has published a trio of philosophical essays on the
meaning of September 11. They are slight, elegant books, maybe too elegant,
with stylized covers chipped from the postered walls of 1968 Paris. The manifesto
format and slick design are especially well-suited to the essay by Jean Baudrillard,
who emerged from the student-run barricades to become a major and severely playful
figure in the pantheon of French postmodernism.

Readers are likely familiar with Baudrillard through the title and thesis of
his much-discussed 1991 work The Gulf War Did Not Happen, which percolated
down from pomo academia to the public as theoretical works rarely do. The book
was a daring extension of the idea of the “spectacle,” a fascination of which
informed the Situationist mileu of Baudrillard’s university days. With the rise
of manufactured “events,” and the total saturation of visual media, reality
has lost objective truth; so much so that events no longer “happen” in any traditional
sense. Baudrillard is of course aware that the bombs dropped on Baghdad definitely
“happened” for Iraqis, but is concerned with how the West experiences the world
through the surround lens of a saturating and manipulative media culture that
packages and sells illusion as reality – from dish soap to war to the welfare

Baudrillard revels in controversy. He is the enfant terrible of the intellectual
talk shows (they still have those in France) and he loves to play the acrobat
jester. His post-Marxist notion of “radicality” is all about making extreme,
provocative statements for their own sake with the hope of puncturing and rupturing
the lullaby illusions of late capitalism. Boiled down to its crudest, Baudrillard
is the intellectual godfather of the “Question Reality” bumper sticker.

But not taking Jean Baudrillard literally is not the same as not taking him
seriously. The Spirit of Terrorism is loaded with bold provocations that
duck and jab in their legitimite demand to be reckoned with.

Toward the end of Terrorism, Baudrillard denies the “happening” of the
attack on New York, folding it into his previous theory of the “psuedo” nature
of any event fed on by media, i.e., the image always consumes the event. But
The Spirit of Terrorism is a dissection of what he admits to be the most
important event of our times. It is, for Baudrillard, still primarily a symbolic
event, but one that has fully re-opened the wound of History. “Events are not
on strike anymore,” he writes. “With the attack on the World Trade Center in
New York, we might even be said to have before us the absolute event, the ‘mother’
of all events.”

What Jean Baudrillard has to say about this “mother” of all events is not for
the soft-headed, the squeamish or the flag wavers willing to volunteer their
brains as cannon fodder in the “war on terror.” Nor is it for traditional lefties
who turn to Chomsky to make sense of 9/11 using the old categories of right,
wrong and clockwise political karma. Like his late peer Michel Foucault, Baudrillard
leaves morality to the cops. “Terrorism is immoral,” he writes. “The World Trade
Center event, that symbolic challenge, is immoral, and it is a response to a
globalization that is itself immoral. So let us ourselves be immoral; and if
we want to have some understanding of all this, let us go and take a little
look beyond Good and Evil.”

Baudrillard looks. He sees a system (capitalist de-mo-cracy) struggling to universalize
itself – and failing. Terrorism is for him a natural virus; it is the inevitable
resistance that arises to undermine any universalizing creed. It is borne from
the host and represents both the technological mastery and lurking death wishes
of the dominant order. Terrorism combines the weapons and violence of the globalizing
West with the West’s own destruction fantasies, as reflected in countless disaster

For Baudrillard, the Cold War was the third world war and the new terrorism
is the fourth. Globalization is battling itself, flailing and striking its own
body after a cell of terrorists punctured a single infinitesmal – but symbolically
perfect, massive – point, thereby creating a “gigantic suction or void, a gigantic
convection.” This is not war as we’ve known it, but is “a confrontation so impossible
to pin down that the idea of war has to be rescued from time to time by spectacular
set-pieces, such as the Gulf War or the war in Afghanistan.”

The system, by which he means the “hyperefficient” universalizing West, cannot
win this war. It will attempt to use traditional counterforce against the virus
and only spiral deeper downward. He sees terrorism’s victory not only in the
current slump in the capitalist system of production, consumption, speculation
and growth, but also in what he calls the “subterranean ramifications” of 9/11:
the self-cannibalism of the very tools the West was using to influence the rest
of the world – what Joseph Nye calls “soft power” – such as the promise of freedom,
democracy and prosperity.

“Liberal globalization is coming about [in the form of] police state globalization,”
writes Baudrillard. “The whole system gathers, transfixed ... then perishes.
[It is] entirely disarmed.”

For Baudrillard, the ultimate symbol of this perishing was not the attack on
the twin towers, but their collapse. He sees the fall of the towers as symbolic
of the suicide of the West, and in this produces an image and idea of disturbing

Imagine they had not collapsed ... the effect would not have been the same
at all. The fragility of global power would not have been so strikingly proven.
Seeing them collapse themselves, as if by implosion, one had the impression
that they were committing suicide ... Their symbolic collapse brought about
their physical collapse, not the other way around ... Their nerves of steel
cracked. They collapsed vertically, drained of their strength.

For Baudrillard, on one level the towers merely represented technocratic monopoly
capitalism: “the embodiment of a system no longer competitive, but digital and
countable.” Representative of the global circuitry of both hard capital and
mental conditioning, Baudrillard holds a clear contempt for these “architectural
monsters,” and even goes so faras to say that the horror of death the 4,000
victims experienced in the towers cannot be separated from the horror they knew
living and working in them.

But as a skilled philosopher and ironic aesthete non pareil, Baudrillard also
finds the towers fascinating and lovely in the way that only perfect things
can be. This is a man who once wrote that the most beautiful thing in the world
is flying into LAX at night, over a dense and endless grid of desert lights,
and the deep symbolism of the towers requires more than a knee-jerk condemnation
of power and alienation.

The essence of the towers’ pull for Baudrillard is the idea of their twinness.
For him, non-competitive, monopoly capitalism (and consumerist media culture)
can only be expressed in the form of a mirror image. “The fact that there were
two of them,” he writes, “signifies the end of any original reference.” The
doubling of the towers mirrored the exponential multiplying of every image and
product in global capitalism, a process that kills the authenticity of the original
reference. The towers were thus the perfect embodiment of the end of “specificity”
in thought and culture. They were, in short, the bland Janus twins standing
athwart the end of History.

Baudrillard hated the towers because the end of History means the end of serious
politics and the debasement of thought, but the towers’ destruction has not
changed this. Rather, the process has merely been accelerated. Terrorism, writes
Baudrillard, will not deliver us from anything, or sentence us to anything more
than a banal if terrible rerun of more lies and violence and waste. Putting
a simple yet brilliant twist on Clausewitz’s dictum, he calls terrorism and
the ongoing response to it merely the “continuation of the absence of politics
by other means.”

One can get lost in this idea, just as one can get lost in Baudrillard’s universe
of symbolic imagination if one isn’t careful. It isn’t black or white or safe
or logical in this world. It’s more like the one we actually live in: spectral,
confused, pulsing, maddening.

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