ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 1, Number 1 (January 2004)

This is the Fourth World War: The Der Spiegel Interview With Jean Baudrillard1

Interview Translated by Dr. Samir Gandesha
(Simon Fraser University)

Introduction by Dr. Gary Genosko
(
Canada Research Chair in Technoculture Studies, Lakehead University).
 

I.  Introduction: Have You Seen the War?2

     Maximally 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 American megamachine.

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 underway.

II.  This Is The Fourth World War: The Der Spiegel Interview with Baudrillard

Spiegel: 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?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: 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?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: 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.

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: So there is no such thing as a just war?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: The Americans have attained some unquestionable successes. Many Afghans are now able to hope for a better life.

Baudrillard: 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.  

Spiegel: The Americans would be successful only if they were able to present Bin Laden or his body on television?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: Why can’t you simply accept that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an arbitrary, irrational act of blind fanatics?

Baudrillard: 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 sense.

Spiegel: Thus, you explain terroristic delusion as the unavoidable reaction against a system which has itself become megalomaniacal?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: 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?

Baudrillard: 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. 

Spiegel: 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.

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: But why should globalization turn against itself, why should it run amok, when, after all, it promises freedom, well-being and happiness for all?

Baudrillard: 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 have shown.

Spiegel: Surely you cannot compare globalization with the bloodiest systems of the 20th century.

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: Do you hold globalization to be a form of colonialism, disguised as the widening of Western civilization?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: But don’t universal values such as freedom, democracy, and human rights also establish themselves through globalization?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: Rather than liberating humanity, globalization only in turns reifies it?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: Doesn’t the unrestricted recognition of human rights build a decisive bulwark against this alienating process?

Baudrillard: 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 advertising.

Spiegel: Therefore mystification?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: So the end of history, the absolute sway of democracy, would be a new form of world dictatorship?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: If the antagonism between globalization and terrorism in reality is irresolvable, then what purpose could the War Against Terrorism still have?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: Then in your opinion this war cannot be won?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: Bin Laden and the Islamists do indeed have a social project, an image of a rigorous, ideal community in the name of Allah.

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: 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?

Baudrillard: 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 absolute danger.

Spiegel: 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…

Baudrillard: 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 destroyed.”

Spiegel: No heaven without hell, no redemption with out perdition-isn’t your dualistic view of the world nothing more than pessimism and fatalism?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: But your knowledge of evil doesn’t lead you to combat it.

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: Why does Western culture find it so difficult to tolerate the existence of evil, why is it repressed and denied?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: While evil cannot be exorcized, misfortune can be made good, it demands a better condition.

Baudrillard: 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. 

Spiegel: Do you regret that the West has lost its belief in redemption through God?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: Could you explain it without reference to God?

Baudrillard: 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.

Spiegel: When one hears you, it is possible to conclude that you would have been a Cathar in the Middle Ages.

Baudrillard: Oh yes, I love the world of the Cathars because  I am Manichaean.

Spiegel:  … of the opinion that there is an eternal opposition between light and night, good and evil …

Baudrillard: … 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.

Spiegel: Monsieur Baudrillard, thank you for this interview.
 


Jean 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 TowersCool Memories IV, and Passwords.  He is an editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies.

Samir 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.

Gary 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.


Endnotes

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 English translation.

2  A talk delivered at Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, April 3, 2003.

 


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2003)

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