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Date Published: 4/20/1994
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Reversion of History

Jean Baudrillard

Somewhere in the course of the eighties of the twentieth century, history took a turn in another direction. Once it passed its apogee in time, once it reached the peak of the curve in its evolution, its solstice of history, a sliding back of events set in, an unfolding of inverted meaning. As in the case of cosmic space, historical space-time would also have a curvature. By way of the same chaotic effect in time as in space, things go faster and faster as they approach their culmination, just like the flow of water speeds up mysteriously as it approaches the waterfall. In the Euclidean space of history, the fastest route from one point to another is a straight line, the one of Progress and Democracy. This however only pertains to the linear space of the Enlightenment. In our non-Euclidean space of the end of the century, a malevolent curvature invincibly reroutes all trajectories. The phenomenon is doubtlessly linked to the sphericity of time (visible on the horizon of the end of the century just like the earth is visible on the horizon at the end of the day) or to the subtle distortion of the field of gravity. Segalen says that on an Earth become a sphere, every movement distancing us from a point also brings us closer to that same point. This is true with respect to time as well. Every noticeable movement of history brings us imperceptibly closer to its antipode, indeed to its point of departure. This is the end of linearity. Viewed from this perspective, the future no longer exists. And if there is no future, neither is there an end anymore. And yet this is not what is meant by the end of history. What we have to deal with is a paradoxical process of reversion, a reversal of effect with respect to modernity which, having reached its speculative limit and extrapolated all its virtual developments, disintegrates into its rudimentary components through a catastrophic process of recurrence and turbulence.

By means of this retroversion of history to infinity, through this hyperbolic curvature, the century eludes its own end. By way of this retrospective effect of events, we escape before our own death. Metaphorically speaking therefore, we will not even attain to the symbolic end of things, the symbolic culmination of Year 2000.

Can we avoid this retro-curvature of a history that backtracks on its footsteps and effaces its own traces; can we sidestep this fatal asymptote which in some way rolls back modernity in the way one rewinds a tapedeck? We are so accustomed to viewing all films over and over again, the fictitious ones as well as those pertaining to our lives; we have been so thoroughly contaminated by a retrospective technique that we are quite capable, under the blow of contemporary vertigo, to rethread history as one threads a film wrong side up.

Have we perhaps, propelled by the vain hope to evade our "abiding in our present destruction", as Canetti says, given ourselves up to a retrospective melancholy in order to relive and, make up for, everything; to relive for the sake of elucidating (as if the shadow of psychoanalysis is cast over all our history — as if the same events, the same circumstances were reproduced in nearly the same terms; as if the same wars broke out between the same people, and; all that had been stolen would resurge as if moved by an irrepressible fantasy so that the oeuvre itself would be perceived as the form of the unconscious, as primary process at work); are we to invoke all past events for the sake of comparison, to re-teach everything in terms of process? A delirium with process has quite recently gotten hold of us and, at the same time, a seizure or delirium with responsibility, precisely because it is becoming increasingly elusive. To remake history proper — to whitewash all the monstrosities: underlying the proliferation of scandals there is a vague (res)sentiment that history itself, too, is a scandal. A retro-process that will steer us to a delirium with/of origin, to this side of history, to a conviviality driven by instincts (animale), to the primitive niche, which is already the way things stand in the ecologic flirt with an impossible origin.

The only way to avoid this, to cut the chord tying us to this recession and obsession, is to place ourselves straightaway on an alternative temporal orbit, to leave our shadow, the shadow of the century, to take an elliptic short-cut and go beyond the end by not allowing it time to take place. This, at least, will help preserve what remains are left of history instead of subjecting it to a harrowing revision and then dispense it to those who will do an autopsy on the cadaver the way one does an autopsy on one's childhood in never-ending analysis. This would at least provide us with the possibility of retaining the memory and glory, and under the auspices of revision and rehabilitation we could begin cancelling each and all the events that have come before, forcing them to repent.

If we could circumvent this moratory of the end of the century, this retarded culmination of things which, strangely enough, resembles a labour of mourning, a misdirected or misfired (rate) labour of mourning that wants to review, re-write, restore and facelift everything in order to produce, seemingly in a paranoiac fervour (elan), a perfect book-keeping of the end of the century, a universally balanced budget, democracy everywhere, complete eradication of all conflicts and, if possible, the dismissal of all our memories of all "negative" events — if we could forego or desist this venture in bleaching, in international varnishing for which all nations of today are vying to conspire, if we could spare ourselves this democratic extreme-ity (extreme- onction) from where the New World Order speaks, we would at least be left with events that have preceded us with their glory, their character, their meaning, their uniqueness. Consequently, we are so much in a hurry to mask the worst of our deposit into our account (everyone is secretly afraid of the appalling balance we are about to carry over and offer to the Year 2000) that there remains nothing of our own history at the end of the millennium, nothing of its illumination, of its factual violence. If there is any distinct trait to the event, that which in fact comprises the event and hence has value in history, is its irreversibility, i.e., that there is something in it that always exceeds meaning and interpretation — which is exactly the opposite of what we see today: all that has happened in this century in terms of progress, of liberation, of revolution, of violence is currently under a well-meaning review process.

The question is this: is the movement of modernity reversible, and is this reversibility itself, in turn, irreversible? How far can this retrospective activity, this dream of the end of the millennium go? Isn't there a "wall of history", analogous to that of sound and speed, from which its abjuring (palinodique) movement cannot steer clear?

Originally published in French as part of Jean Baudrillard, L'Illusion de la fin: ou La greve des evenements, Galilee: Paris, 1992. Translated by Charles Dudas, York University, Canada.
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