Volume 1, Number 1 (January 2004)
the Fourth World War: The Der Spiegel Interview With Jean
Translated by Dr. Samir Gandesha
(Simon Fraser University)
by Dr. Gary Genosko
Research Chair in Technoculture Studies, Lakehead University).
Introduction: Have You Seen the War?2
amplified and multiplied across the networked screens of a
globalized world, another war against Iraq, conducted by another
Bush, invades our TV rooms and entertainment centers. Like father
like son, this war at first suggested a rerun, that television term
for repetition, replay even reenactment, that is a virtual land unto
itself where Family Feud is forever replayed; where robust
markets are regained; where generals make good – not Stormin’ Norman
Schwarzkopf (former top US commander reduced to reporting for NBC)
and Tommy Franks - but General Motors, General Dynamics, General
Electric, and the rest of the military industrial brass of the
Turn on your war
processor at almost any time of day, or stumble upon any of the
numerous ambient units in your everyday world of laundry mats,
malls, bars, airports, gyms, and there it is, like a free sample or,
better, a gift that programming appears to be. All war, all the
time, if you want it.
Have you seen
the war? Have you seen it through Tommy Franks’s media briefing
television set in Qatar, a $250,000 Hollywood sound stage designed
to deliver the forgettable one liner of the war’s early days: shock
and awe, which now seems like a blurb for an adolescent fantasy.
Have you seen the war in the poses of the “scud studs” of old - like
recently fired-MSNBC reporter Peter Garnett, whose Live from Baghdad
reports for CNN during the Gulf War were fictionalized – “made for”
- TV; or the original stud himself, Arthur Kent, who has written a
book about his lawsuit against NBC and evils of owner General
Electric – or new, up-and-coming darlings of the mediascape. Top
Guns, Scud Studs (and Studettes): these are now categories into
which reporters are slotted.
But a new
military media policy has emerged and with it, a new category has
arisen: embedded (“in bed with”) reporters. That is, those select
few, both American and foreign, covering the combat from the ranks
of coalition forces. All the psycho-demographics are covered: MTV is
embedded. So is Al-Jazeera. Proximity to the “events” and
coalition personnel is thought to ease the passage into the real by
providing a kind of contiguity, authenticity, situatedness – an
anchor in the very thing upon which one is reporting. This recalls
Baudrillard’s thesis that circulated concerning the Gulf War – the
passage from the virtual to the real was stalled in the excess of
preprogramming, scenario-heaviness, over processing of plans, and
the war itself was deferred and its place taken from it (it wasn’t
that the war did not take place but that it did not have a place).
The substitute of real time was one result; like today, reality TV
both conjures and dissuades the real with which it purports to deal.
Proximity can burn: images of dead American and British soldiers
were broadcast by Al Jazeera, and when they were picked up and
rebroadcast in the US, were considered “contraband” by the Pentagon.
By the same token, reports about US troop advances and Iraqi
soldiers surrendering, from embedded CNN journalists, resulted in
their expulsion from the country by Iraqi information officials,
frustrated by the invasiveness of CNN. The real was violently
close, too close, evidently, for anyone’s comfort zone.
You can try to
see the war through the smudged window of a screen near you, a
sticky surface to which it is easy to become glued. It was thought
that an apt symbol of the 1991 Gulf War was a sea bird coated in
oil, slowly dying on a beach. It was “what we all [were], before our
screens, before this sticky and unintelligible event.” (Baudrillard,
La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu 1991: 28) Shock and awe is
a nighttime stage setting, best viewed from a distance as scenery
through a feed from a stationary camera, with no human beings in the
frame; Iraqi mobile, irregular and guerrilla tactics cannot be so
easily brought into the crosshairs of a camera lens, and this is
what makes them so offensive for American propagandists.
It is the screen
to which we adhere, to the images and representations, tightly
controlled and scripted and packaged for domestic consumption.
Actual violence, the so-called “ugliness” of war, is deferred, or at
least edited, at all costs; immateriality by mass mediation
interrupts the passage to real materiality on the ground. Yet new
strategies are constantly evolving to get viewers closer to the
“action.” This does nothing to guarantee directness and access,
simultaneous tele-presence, for there is no straight passage via
television to the real. War reportage proliferates like reality TV
scenarios – today the White House, tomorrow a restaurant, the
queering of straights, the straightening of queers… Television is a
great war processor, with its own dissuasive formats, programs,
structures of power, editing, rhythms, signatures and framing
devices. Even this argument about the deterrence of the real by TV
virtuality has become just another story angle for self-promoting
high-brow columnists. I am as guilty as the rest. The question is
to what degree can this accommodation of the war’s hijacking by mass
mediation allow for some creative, affirmative,
counter-mobilization, an escape from this estrangement from the real
and the maternal massage with which television placates us.
“I watch TV like
everybody else. I’m just as dumb, no question about it,” the late
activist-intellectual Félix Guattari confessed in an interview about
the Gulf War (“Did You See the War?” In Soft Subversions
1996: 139). Guattari’s point was that no matter how dumb you were,
no matter how much TV you watched, you would not have seen the war.
You haven’t seen the war, have you? A fourth one is apparently
II. This Is The
Fourth World War: The Der Spiegel Interview with Baudrillard
Monsieur Baudrillard, you have described the 9/11 attacks on New
York and Washington as the “absolute event.” You have accused the
United States, with its insufferable hegemonic superiority, for
rousing the desire for its own destruction. Now that the reign of
the Taliban has collapsed pitifully and Bin Laden is nothing more
than a hunted fugitive, don’t you have to retract everything?
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.
In the process, don’t you simply deflect attention from the fact
that there are identifiable criminals and terrorists who are
responsible for the attacks?
Of course there are those who committed these acts, but the spirit
of terrorism and panic reaches far beyond them. The Americans’ war
is focused on a visible object, which they would like to destroy.
Yet the event of September 11th, in all of its symbolism, cannot be
obliterated in this manner. The bombing of Afghanistan is a
completely inadequate, substitute action.
All the same, the United States has brought to an end a barbaric
form of oppression and, in the process, has given the Afghani people
an opportunity for a new, peaceful beginning. Or at least this is
how your colleague, Bernard-Henri Lévy, sees it.
The situation doesn’t appear to me as so unequivocal. Lévy’s
triumphalism strikes me as strange. He treats B-52 bombers as if
they were instruments of the world-spirit.
So there is no such thing as a just war?
No, there’s always too much ambivalence. Wars are often begun in the
name of justice, indeed this is almost always the official
justification. Yet, while they themselves want to be so justified
and are undertaken with the best of intentions, they normally don’t
end in the manner in which their instigators had imagined.
The Americans have attained some unquestionable successes. Many
Afghans are now able to hope for a better life.
You wait and see. Not all the Afghani women have discarded their
veils yet. Sharia is still in effect. Without a doubt, the Taliban
Regime has been smashed. However, the network of the international
terror organization, al-Qaida, still exists. And Bin Laden, dead or
alive, has, above all, disappeared. This lends him a mythical power;
he has achieved a certain supernatural quality.
The Americans would be successful only if they were able to present
Bin Laden or his body on television?
That would be a questionable spectacle, and he, himself, would
continue to play the role of martyr. Such an exhibition would not
necessarily demystify him. What is at issue is more than the control
of a territory or a population or the disbanding of a subversive
organization. The stakes have become metaphysical.
Why can’t you simply accept that the destruction of the World Trade
Center was an arbitrary, irrational act of blind fanatics?
A good question, but, even if it were a matter of addressing the
catastrophe in-itself, it would still have symbolic meaning. Its
fascination can only be explained in this way. Here something
happened that far exceeded the will of the actors. There is a
general allergy to an ultimate order, to an ultimate power, and the
Twin Towers of the World Trade Center embodied this in the fullest
Thus, you explain terroristic delusion as the unavoidable reaction
against a system which has itself become megalomaniacal?
With its totalizing claim, the system created the conditions for
this horrible retaliation. The immanent mania of globalization
generates madness, just as an unstable society produces delinquents
and psychopaths. In truth, these are only symptoms of the sickness.
Terrorism is everywhere, like a virus. It doesn’t require
Afghanistan as its home base.
You suggest that globalization and resistance to it is like the
course of an illness, even to the point of self-destruction. Is this
not what is particularly scandalous about your analysis-that it
completely leaves morality out?
In my own way, I am very much a moralist. There is a morality of
analysis, a duty of honesty. That is to say, it is immoral to close
one’s eyes to the truth, to find excuses, in order to cover up that
which is difficult to bear. We must see the thing beyond the
opposition of good and bad. I seek a confrontation with the
event as it is without equivocation. Whoever is unable to do that,
is led to a moral falsification of history.
But if the terrorist act takes place as a form of compulsion or
fate, as you claim, is it not then at the same time exculpated?
There is no longer a morally responsible subject.
It is clear to me that the conceptual nature of my analysis is
doubled-edged. Words can be turned against me. However, 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.
But why should globalization turn against itself, why should it run
amok, when, after all, it promises freedom, well-being and happiness
That is the utopian view, the advertisement more or less. Yet there
is altogether no positive system. In general all the positive
historical utopias are extremely murderous, as fascism and communism
Surely you cannot compare globalization with the bloodiest systems
of the 20th century.
It is based, as colonialism was earlier, on immense violence. It
creates more victims than beneficiaries, even when the majority of
the Western world profits from it. Naturally the United States, in
principle, could liberate every country just as it has liberated
Afghanistan. But what kind of peculiar liberation would that be?
Those so fortunate would know how to defend themselves even with
terror if necessary.
Do you hold globalization to be a form of colonialism, disguised as
the widening of Western civilization?
It is pitched as the endpoint of the Enlightenment, the solution to
all contradictions. In reality, it transforms everything into a
negotiable, quantifiable exchange value. This process is extremely
violent, for it cashes out in the idea of unity as the ideal state,
in which everything that is unique, every singularity, including
other cultures and finally every non-monetary value would be
incorporated. See, on this point, I am the humanist and moralist.
But don’t universal values such as freedom, democracy, and human
rights also establish themselves through globalization?
One must differentiate radically between the global and the
universal. The universal values, as the Enlightenment defined them,
constitute a transcendental ideal. They confront the subject with
its own freedom, which is a permanent task and responsibility, not
simply a right. This is completely absent in the global, which is an
operational system of total trade and exchange.
Rather than liberating humanity, globalization only in turns reifies
It pretends to liberate people, only to deregulate them. The
elimination of all rules, more precisely, the reduction of all rules
to laws of the market is the opposite of freedom-namely, its
illusion. Such out-dated and aristocratic values such as dignity,
honesty, challenge and sacrifice no longer count for anything.
Doesn’t the unrestricted recognition of human rights build a
decisive bulwark against this alienating process?
I think that human rights have already been integrated into the
process of globalization and therefore function as an alibi. They
belong to a juridical and moral superstructure; in short, they are
Is it not a paradox that the West uses as a weapon against
dissenters the following motto: Either you share our values or…? A
democracy asserted with threats and blackmail only sabotages itself.
It no longer represents the autonomous decision for freedom, but
rather becomes a global imperative. This is, in effect, a perversion
of Kant’s categorical imperative, which implies freely chosen
consent to its command.
So the end of history, the absolute sway of democracy, would be a
new form of world dictatorship?
Yes, and it is completely inconceivable that there would be no
violent counter-reaction against it. Terrorism emerges when no other
form of resistance seems possible. The system takes as objectively
terrorist whatever is set against it. The values of the West are
ambivalent, at a definite point in time they could have a positive
effect and accelerate progress, at another, however, they drive
themselves to such extremes that they falsify themselves and
ultimately turn against their own purpose.
If the antagonism between globalization and terrorism in reality is
irresolvable, then what purpose could the War Against Terrorism
US President Bush aspires to return to trusted ground by
rediscovering the balance between friend and foe. The Americans are
prosecuting this war as if they were defending themselves against a
wolf pack. But this doesn’t work against viruses that have already
been in us for a long time. There is no longer a front, no
demarcation line, the enemy sits in the heart of the culture that
fights it. That is, if you like, the fourth world war: no longer
between peoples, states, systems and ideologies, but, rather, of the
human species against itself.
Then in your opinion this war cannot be won?
No one can say how it will all turn out. What hangs in the balance
is the survival of humanity, it is not about the victory of one
side. Terrorism has no political project, it has no finality; though
it is seen as real, it is absurd.
Bin Laden and the Islamists do indeed have a social project, an
image of a rigorous, ideal community in the name of Allah.
Perhaps, but it is not religiosity that drives them to terrorism.
All the Islam experts emphasize this. The assassins of September
11th made no demands. Fundamentalism is a symptomatic form of
rejection, refusal; its adherents didn’t want to accomplish anything
concrete, they simply rise up wildly against that which they
perceive as a threat to their own identity.
Yet this doesn’t change the fact that in the course of history
cultural evolution takes place. Doesn’t the global expansion of
Western culture demonstrate the power of its appeal?
Why not also say its superiority? Cultures are like languages. Each
is incommensurable, a self-contained work of art for itself. There
is no hierarchy of languages. One cannot measure them against
universal standards. It is theoretically possible for a language to
assert itself globally, however, such reduction would constitute an
For all intents and purposes, you refuse the idea of moral progress.
The unique, which you defend, is in itself not a value at all. It
can be good or evil, selfless or criminal…
Yes, singularity can assume all forms, including the vicious or
terroristic. It remains all the same an artwork. For the rest, I
don’t believe that there are predominantly good or evil
cultures-there are, of course, disastrous diversions, but it is not
possible to separate the one from the other. Evil does not retreat
in proportion to the advance of the good. Therefore the concept of
progress is, outside of the rationality of the natural sciences, in
fact, problematic. Montaigne said: “If the evil in men were
eliminated, then the fundamental condition of life would be
No heaven without hell, no redemption with out perdition-isn’t your
dualistic view of the world nothing more than pessimism and
Fatalism offers an unpalatable interpretation of the world, for it
leads to resignation. I don’t resign myself, I want clarity, a lucid
consciousness. When we know the rules of the game, then we can
change them. In this respect, I am a man of the Enlightenment.
But your knowledge of evil doesn’t lead you to combat it.
No, for me that is senseless. Good and evil are irresolvably bound
up with one another, this is fatal in the original sense: an
integral part of our fate, our destiny.
Why does Western culture find it so difficult to tolerate the
existence of evil, why is it repressed and denied?
Evil was interpreted as misfortune, for misfortune can be combated:
poverty, injustice, oppression and so on. This is the humanitarian
view of things, the pathetic and sentimental vision, the permanent
empathy with the wretched. Evil is the world as it is and as it has
been. Misfortune is the world as it never should have been. The
transformation of evil into misfortune is the most lucrative
industry of the twentieth century.
While evil cannot be exorcized, misfortune can be made good, it
demands a better condition.
Misfortune is a mine whose ore is inexhaustible. Evil, in contrast,
can’t be subdued by any form of rationality. This is the illusion of
the West: because technological perfection seems within reach, one
believes by extension in the possibility of realizing moral
perfection, in an future free of contingencies in the best of all
possible worlds. Everything should be redeemed-which is what
comprises the contemporary ideal of our democracy. Everything will
be genetically manipulated in order to attain the biological and
democratic perfection of the human species.
Do you regret that the West has lost its belief in redemption
You know, in reality one would have to turn the whole debate on its
head. The exciting question is not why there is evil. First there is
evil, without question. Why is there good? This is the real miracle.
Could you explain it without reference to God?
In the eighteenth century, Rousseau and others tried, but not very
convincingly. The best and simplest hypothesis is, in effect, to
postulate God. God is like democracy: the least corrupt and
therefore the best of all possible solutions.
When one hears you, it is possible to conclude that you would have
been a Cathar in the Middle Ages.
Oh yes, I love the world of the Cathars because I am Manichaean.
… of the opinion that there is an eternal opposition between light
and night, good and evil …
… yes, the Cathars held the material world to be evil and bad,
created by demons. At the same time, they put their faith in God,
the holy and the possibility of perfection. This is a much more
radical view than that which sees in evil only the gradually
diminishing auxiliaries of the good.
Monsieur Baudrillard, thank you for this interview.
Baudrillard is among the
most important theorists of our time. He has been employing theory
to challenge the real for many years. His recent books include
The Vital Illusion, The Spirit of Terrorism, Requiem For The
Twin Towers, Cool Memories IV, and Passwords. He
is an editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies.
Gandesha is an Assistant
Professor of Humanities at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.
Canada. He is currently working on a book length project on T.W.
Adorno’s critique of Martin Heidegger. He is also working on a
project on the role of academic journals in the constitution of the
North American public sphere.
Genosko is Canada
Research Chair in Technoculture Studies and Associate Professor of
Sociology, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. His
recent work concerns Baudrillard, surveillance, and the prospects of
symbolic exchange for anti-surveillance struggles. He is an editor
of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies.
1 This interview originally
appeared in Der Spiegel, Number 3, 2002. The International
Journal of Baudrillard Studies thanks Der Spiegel and the New
York Times Syndicate for permission to reprint this interview in
2 A talk delivered at Lakehead
University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, April 3, 2003.