desertification. welcome to what the simulacrum really is….

illusionOn the Fringes of the Real

By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by Chris Turner

We have abolished the real world: what world is left? The apparent world perhaps?… But no! with the real world we have also abolished the apparent world!”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

If we are not to believe that truth remains truth when we lift its veil, then truth has no naked existence.

   And if we are not to believe that the real remains the real when we have dispelled its illusion, then the real has no objective reality.

What becomes of the world when freed from truth and appearances? It becomes the real universe, the universe of Integral Reality. Neither truth nor appearance, but Integral Reality.

   If, in the past, the world reached towards transcendence, and if, in the process, it fell into other hinterworlds, it has today fallen into reality.

   If there was in the past an upward transcendence, there is today a downward one. This is, in a sense, the second Fall of Man Heidegger speaks of: the fall into banality, but this time without any possible redemption.

Once the real world has been lost, at the same time as the world of appearances, says Nietzsche, the universe becomes a universe of fact, a positive universe, a universe “as is”, which no longer even has any need to be true. As factual as a ready-made.

   Duchamp’s Fountain is the emblem of our modern hyperreality, the product of a violent counter-transference of all poetic illusion on to pure reality, the object “transferred” on to itself, short-circuiting any possible metaphor.

   The world has acquired such a degree of reality that it is bearable only by a perpetual denial, with”This is not a world” — reminiscent of Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” — operating as the surrealist denial of self-evidence itself, this dual movement of the absolute, definitive obviousness of the world and the equally radical denial of that obviousness dominating the trajectory of modern art.

   And not just the trajectory of art, but of all our deep perceptions, of our entire mental apprehension of the world.

It is no longer a matter here of philosophical morality of the sort that says “the world isn’t what it ought to be”, or “the world isn’t what it was”.

   No, the world is as it is.

   Once all transcendence is conjured away, things are no longer anything but what they are and, such as they are, they are unbearable. All illusion is gone from them and they have become immediately and totally real, with no shadow and no commentary.

   And, at the same time, this insurmountable reality no longer exists. It has no grounds for existence any more, since it is no longer exchangeable for anything and has no opposite term.

   “Does reality exist? Are we in a real world?” — this is the leitmotiv of our entire present culture. But it merely expresses the fact that we can no longer bear this world, which is so prey to reality, except by way of a radical denial. And this is logical: since the world can no longer be justified in another world, it has to be justified here and now in this one by lending itself force of reality, by purging itself of any illusion. But at the same time, by the very effect of this counter-transference, the denial of the real as such grows.

   Reality, having lost its natural predators, is growing like some proliferating species. A little bit like algae or even like the human race in general.

   The Real is growing like the desert. “Welcome to the Desert of the Real.”

   Illusion, dreams, passion, madness and drugs, but also artifice and simulacrum — these were reality’s natural predators. They have all lost energy, as though struck down by some dark, incurable malady. We have, then, to find an artificial equivalent for them, since, if we do not, reality, once it has attained its critical mass, will end up destroying itself spontaneously, will implode of its own accord — which it is, in fact, currently doing, giving way to the Virtual in all its forms.

   It is in the Virtual that we have the ultimate predator and plunderer of reality, secreted by reality itself as a kind of self-destructive viral agent.

   Reality has fallen prey to Virtual Reality, the final consequence of the process begun with the abstraction of objective reality — a process that ends in Integral Reality.

   What we have in virtuality is no longer a hinterworld: the substitution of the world is total; this is the identical doubling of the world, its perfect mirroring, and the matter is settled by the pure and simple annihilation of symbolic substance. Even objective reality becomes a useless function, a kind of waste that is ever more difficult to exchange and circulate.

   We have moved, then, from objective reality to a later stage, a kind of ultra-reality that puts an end to both reality and illusion.

Integral Reality is also to be found in integral music: the sort you find in quadraphonic spaces or can “compose” on a computer. The music in which sounds have been clarified and expurgated and which, shorn of all noise and static, is, so to speak, restored to its technical perfection. The sounds of such music are no longer the play of a form, but the actualization of a programme. It is a music reduced to a pure wavelength, the final reception of which, the tangible effect on the listener, is exactly programmed too, as in a closed circuit. It is, in a sense, a virtual music, flawless and without imagination, merging into its own model, and even the enjoyment of it is virtual enjoyment. Is this still music? The question must be open to doubt, since they have actually come up with the idea of reintroducing noise into it to make it more “musical”.

The computer-generated image is like this too, a digital image which is entirely fabricated, has no real referent and from which, by contrast with analogue images, the negative itself has disappeared — not just the film negative, but the negative moment that lies at the heart of the image, that absence that causes the image to resonate. The technical fine-tuning here is perfect. There is no room for fuzziness, tremor or chance. Is this still an image?

Going further on these lines, we come to the very principle of Integral Man, reworked by genetics with an eye to perfection. With every accidental feature excised, all physiological or emotional pathology removed. Because what genetic manipulation is aiming at is not an original formula of the human, but the most conformable, most efficient formula (“serial morphing”).

   We get a foretaste of this in Stephen Spielberg’s Minority Report, in which the crime is prevented — and the sentence handed down — before it has even taken place and without our ever knowing whether it would have happened. Nipped in the bud in its very imagining, in accordance with the universal precautionary principle.

   Yet the film is anachronistic, as it still involves policing, whereas future crime prevention will be genetic, intragenic: the “criminal gene” will be surgically removed at birth — or even before — by a kind of prophylactic sterilization (which will very quickly have to become quite widespread since, from the police standpoint, which is that of power, we are all potential criminals).

   This manipulation tells us precisely what the future human will be. He will be a corrected, rectified human. He will be from the outset what he should have been ideally. He will never, therefore, become what he is. He won’t even be alienated any longer, since he will be modified preexistentially, for better or for worse.

   There isn’t even any danger of his encountering his own otherness, since he will, from the outset, have been devoured by his own model.

All this is based on a universal process of eradication of evil.

   Evil, which was once a metaphysical or moral principle, is today pursued materially right down into the genes (and also in the “Axis of Evil”). It has become an objective reality and hence objectively eliminable. We are going to be able to excise it at the root, and with it, increasingly, all dreams, utopias, illusions and fantasies — all these things being, by the same general process, wrested from the possible to be put back into the real.

This absolute reality is also that of money when it passes from the relative abstraction of exchange-value to the purely speculative stage of the virtual economy. Marx in his day argued that the movement of exchange-value was more real than mere use-value, but, in our situation, where capital flows are unrelated to commodity exchange, money becomes an even stranger hyperreality: it becomes absolute money; it attains the Integral Reality of calculus. Being no longer the equivalent of anything, it becomes the object of a universal passion. The hieroglyph of the commodity has become the integral fetishism of money.

Last but not least comes that surgical operation on language, whereby, in its digital version, its entire symbolic dimension is eliminated, that is to say, whereby everything that makes it much more than merely what it signifies is removed… All there is in it of absence and emptiness, but also of literalness, is eliminated, just like the negative in the computer-generated image — all that stands opposed to an exclusive clarification. Such is the Integral Reality of language: it now signifies only what it signifies.

Time itself, lived time, no longer has time to take place. The historical time of events, the psychological time of affects and passion, the subjective time of judgement and will, are all simultaneously called into question by virtual time, which is called, no doubt derisively, “real time”.

It is, in fact, no accident if space-time is called “real”. Temps réel, Echtzeit: this is “authentic” time, non-deferred time, the time of an instantaneous presence that is no longer even the present moment in relation to a past or a future, but a point of convergence, and at the same time of cancellation, of all the other dimensions. An Integral Reality of time that is now concerned with nothing but its own operation: time-processing (like “word-processing”, “war-processing”, etc.)

   With this notion of “real time”, all dimensions have contracted to a single focal point, to a fractal form of time. The differential of time having disappeared, it is the integral function that wins out: the immediate total presence of a thing to itself, which signifies that reality is henceforth the privilege of that which is identical with itself. All that is absent from itself, all that differs from itself, is not truly real.

   This whole business is, of course, pure fantasy.

   Nothing and no one is absolutely present to itself, herself or himself (or, a fortiori, to others). So nothing and no one is truly real and real time does not exist.

   We do not even perceive the sun in real time, since the speed of light is relative. And so it is with everything.

   In this sense, reality is inconceivable. Integral Reality is a utopia. And yet this is what, by a gigantic artifice, is being imposed upon us.

Behind the immateriality of the technologies of virtual reality, of the digital and the screen, there lies a hidden injunction, an imperative McLuhan had already identified in the TV and media image: that of a heightened participation, of an interactive investment that may reach dizzying proportions, that may go as far as the “ecstatic” involvement we see everywhere in the cyberworld.

   Immersion, immanence and immediacy — these are the characteristics of the Virtual.

   There is no gaze any longer, no scene, no imaginary, no illusion even, no longer any exteriority or spectacle: the operational fetish has absorbed all exteriority, reclaimed all interiority, absorbed time itself in the operation of real time.

   In this way we come closer to a world that is integrally realized, that is effectuated and identified as such, but not closer to the world as it is, which is something quite different.

   For the world-as-it-is is of the order of appearances, if not indeed of integral illusion, since there is no possible representation of it.

Two hypotheses on this fatal strategy of the trans-digitization of the world into pure information, of cloning of the real by Virtual Reality, of substitution of a technical, artificial universe for the “natural” world.

The first is the hypothesis of the radical illusoriness of the world — that is to say, of the impossibility of exchanging the world for any ultimate truth or purpose.

   Such as it is, the world is without causal explanation or possible representation (any mirror whatever would still be part of the world).

   Now, that for which there is neither a meaning nor a definite reason is an illusion.

   The world therefore has all the characteristics of a thorough-going illusion.

   For us, however, whatever its metaphysical beauty, this illusion is unbearable. Hence the need to produce all the possible forms of a simulacrum of meaning, of transcendence — things which all mask this original illusoriness and protect us from it.

   Thus the simulacrum is not that which hides the truth, but that which hides the absence of truth.

   It is in this perspective that the invention of reality has its place.

   In the shadow of reality, of this causal and rational simulation model, the exchange of the world becomes possible, since it is defined by objective laws.

Second hypothesis: the world is given to us. Now, in accordance with the symbolic rule, when something is given to us, we must be able to give it back.

   In the past, we could give thanks in one way or another to God or some other agency; we could respond to the gift with a sacrifice.

   But now that all transcendence has disappeared we no longer have anyone to whom to give thanks. And if we can give nothing in exchange for this world, it is unacceptable.

   It is for this reason that we find ourselves having to liquidate the natural world and substitute an artificial one for it — a world built from scratch and for which we will be accountable to no one.

   Hence the gigantic undertaking of eliminating the natural world in all its forms. All that is natural will be denied in the more or less long term by virtue of this enforced substitution. The Virtual appears here as the final solution to the impossible exchange of the world.

   But in itself this does not settle the matter, as we shall never escape this new debt, contracted in this instance with ourselves. How are we to absolve ourselves of this technical world and this artificial omnipotence?

   Here again, for want of being able to exchange this world (for what?), we need to destroy or deny it. Which explains, at the same time as we progress in building up this artificial universe, the immense negative counter-transference against this Integral Reality we have forged for ourselves.

   A deep-seated denial that is present everywhere today. So that we do not know which will win out in the end, this irresistible technical undertaking or the violent reaction against it.

   At all events, the undertaking is never complete.

   We are never done with making good the void of truth.

   Hence the flight forward into ever more simulacra.

   Hence the invention of an increasingly artificial reality such that there is no longer anything standing over against it or any ideal alternative to it, no longer any mirror or negative.

   With the very latest Virtual Reality we are entering a final phase of this enterprise of simulation, which ends this time in an artificial technical production of the world from which all trace of illusion has disappeared.

   A world so real, hyperreal, operational and programmed that it no longer has any need to be true. Or rather it is true, absolutely true, in the sense that nothing any longer stands opposed to it.

   We have here the absurdity of a total truth from which falsehood is lacking — that of absolute good from which evil is lacking, of the positive from which the negative is lacking.

   If the invention of reality is the substitute for the absence of truth, then, when the self-evidence of this “real” world becomes generally problematic, does this not mean that we are closer to the absence of truth — that is to say, to the world as it is?

   We are certainly further and further removed from the solution, but nearer and nearer to the problem.

   For the world is not real. It became real, but it is in the process of ceasing to be so. But it is not virtual either — though it is on the way to becoming so.

It is against this world become entirely operational, objective and without alternative that the denial of reality, the disavowal of reality, develops.

   If the world is to be taken en bloc, then it is at that point we reject it en bloc. There is no other solution. This is a rejection similar to the biological rejection of a foreign body.

   It is by a kind of instinct, a kind of vital reaction, that we rebel against this immersion in a completed world, in the “Kingdom of Heaven”, in which real life is sacrificed to the hyperrealization of all its possibilities, to its optimum performance, in much the way the species is sacrificed today to its genetic perfection.

   Our negative abreaction is the product of our hypersensitivity to the ideal conditions of life provided for us.

This perfect reality, to which we sacrifice all illusion the way that all hope is left behind on the threshold of Hell, is quite obviously a phantom reality.

   We are pained by it precisely as we would be by a phantom limb:

   Yet, as Ahab says in Moby Dick: “And if I still feel the smart of my crushed leg, though it be now so long dissolved; then, why mayst not thou, carpenter, feel the fiery pains of hell for ever, and without a body?”

   There is nothing metaphorical about this sacrifice. It is, rather, of the order of a surgical operation, which, moreover, becomes something of a source of pleasure for itself: “Humankind, which once in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure” [Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Reproducibility -Tr].

   One of the possibilities is, in fact, self-destruction — an exceptional one in that it is a defiance of all the others.

A twofold illusion: that of an objective reality of the world, that of a subjective reality of the subject — which are refracted in the same mirror and merged in the same founding movement of our metaphysics.

   The world, for its part, isn’t objective at all and may be said, rather, to take the form of a “strange attractor”.

   But because the seduction of the world and of appearances is dangerous, we prefer to exchange it for its operational simulacrum, its artificial truth and its automatic writing. However, that very protection is perilous since everything we use to defend ourselves against this vital illusion, our entire defence strategy, functions as a veritable character armour and itself becomes unbearable.

In the end, it is the strangeness of the world that is fundamental and it is that strangeness which resists the status of objective reality.

   Similarly, it is our strangeness to ourselves that is fundamental and resists the status of subject.

   It is not a matter of resisting alienation, but of resisting the very status of subject.

In all these forms of disavowal, nay-saying and denial, what is at work is not a dialectic of negativity or the “work of the negative”. It is no longer a question of a thought critical of reality, but of a subversion of reality in its principle, in its very self-evidence. The greater the positivity, the more violent is the — possibly silent — denial. We are all dissidents of reality today, clandestine dissidents most of the time.

   If thought cannot be exchanged for reality, then the immediate denial of reality becomes the only reality-based thinking. But this denial does not lead to hope, as Adorno would have it: “Hope, as it emerges from reality by struggling against it to deny it, is the only manifestation of lucidity.” Whether for good or for ill, this is not true.

   Hope, if we were still to have it, would be hope for intelligence of — for insight into — good. Now, what we have left is intelligence of evil, that is to say, intelligence not of a critical reality, but of a reality that has become unreal by dint of positivity, that has become speculative by dint of simulation.

   Because it is there to counter a void, the whole enterprise of simulation and information, this aggravation of the real and of knowledge of the real, merely gives rise to an ever-greater uncertainty. Its very profusion and relentlessness simply spreads panic.

   And that uncertainty is irredeemable, as it is made up of all the possible solutions.

Are we irremediably the captives of this transference of the real into a total positivity and of the equally massive counter-transference that tends towards its pure and simple denial?

   Whereas everything is driving us towards this totalization of the real, we must, rather, wrest the world from its reality principle. For it is this confusion that conceals from us the world as it is, that is to say, at bottom, the world as singularity.

   Italo Svevo: “The search for causes is an immense misunderstanding, a deep-rooted superstition that prevents things, events from occurring as they are.”

   The real is of the order of generality; the world is of the order of singularity. That is to say, of an absolute difference, a radical difference, something more different than difference — at the farthest possible remove from this confusion of the world with its double.

Something definitively resists us, something other than truth or reality.

   Something resists all our efforts to confine the world to a sequence of causes and effects.

   There is an elsewhere of reality (most cultures do not even have the concept). Something from before the so-called “real” world, something irreducible, linked to primal illusion and to the impossibility of giving the world as it is any kind of ultimate meaning whatever.

“Wishing, knowing and feeling are inextricably intertwined. But there is perhaps a way of moving through the world other than by following the thread of the real.”

Robert Musil