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Date Published: 4/19/1995
www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=67
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Radical Thought

Jean Baudrillard

The novel is a work of art not so much because of its inevitable resemblance with life but because of the insuperable differences that distinguish it from life.

- Stevenson

And so is thought! Thought is not so much prized for its inevitable convergences with truth as it is for the insuperable divergences that separate the two.

It is not true that in order to live one has to believe in one's own existence. There is no necessity to that. No matter what, our consciousness is never the echo of our own reality, of an existence set in "real time." But rather it is its echo in "delayed time," the screen of the dispersion of the subject and of its identity - only in our sleep, our unconscious, and our death are we identical to ourselves. Consciousness, which is totally different from belief, is more spontaneously the result of a challenge to reality, the result of accepting objective illusion rather than objective reality. This challenge is more vital to our survival and to that of the human species than the belief in reality and in existence, which always refers to spiritual consolations pertaining to another world. Our world is such as it is, but that does not make it more real in any respect. "The most powerful instinct of man is to be in conflict with truth, and with the real."

The belief in truth is part of the elementary forms of religious life. It is a weakness of understanding, of common-sense. At the same time, it is the last stronghold for the supporters of morality, for the apostles of the legality of the real and the rational, according to whom the reality principle cannot be questioned. Fortunately, nobody, not even those who teach it, lives according to this principle, and for a good reason: nobody really believes in the real. Nor do they believe in the evidence of real life. This would be too sad.

But the good apostles come back and ask: how can you take away the real from those who already find it hard to live and who, just like you and me, have a right to claim the real and the rational? The same insidious objection is proclaimed in the name of the Third World: How can you take away abundance when some people are starving to death? Or perhaps: How can you take away the class struggle from all the peoples that never got to enjoy their Bourgeois revolution? Or again: How can you take away the feminist and egalitarian aspirations from all the women that have never heard of women's rights? If you don't like reality, please do not make everybody else disgusted with it! This is a question of democratic morality: Do not let Billancourt despair!1 You can never let people despair.

There is a profound disdain behind these charitable intentions. This disdain first lies in the fact that reality is instituted as a sort of life-saving insurance, or as a perpetual concession, as if it were the last of human rights or the first of everyday consumer products. But, above all, by acknowledging that people place their hope in reality only, and in the visible proof of their existence, by giving them a realism reminiscent of St. Sulpice, they are depicted as naive and idiotic. This disdain, let us acknowledge it, is first imposed on themselves by these defenders of realism, who reduce their own life to an accumulation of facts and proofs, of causes and effects. After all, a well-structured resentment always stems from one's own experience.

Say: I am real, this is real, the world is real, and nobody laughs. But say: this is a simulacrum, you are only a simulacrum, this war is a simulacrum, and everybody bursts out laughing. With a condescending and yellow laughter, or perhaps a convulsive one, as if it was a childish joke or an obscene invitation. Anything which belongs to the order of simulacrum is obscene or forbidden, similar to that which belongs to sex or death. However, our belief in reality and evidence is far more obscene. Truth is what should be laughed at. One may dream of a culture where everyone bursts into laughter when someone says: this is true, this is real.

All this defines the insoluble relationship between thought and the real. A certain type of thought is an accomplice of the real. It starts with the hypothesis that there is a real reference to an idea and that there is a possible "ideation" of reality. This is no doubt a comforting perspective, one which is based on meaning and deciphering. This is also a polarity, similar to that used by ready-made dialectical and philosophical solutions. The other thought, on the contrary, is ex-centric from the real. It is an "ex-centering"2 of the real world and, consequently, it is alien to a dialectic which always plays on adversarial poles. It is even alien to critical thought which always refers to an ideal of the real. To some extent, this thought is not even a denial of the concept of reality. It is an illusion, that is to say a "game"3 played with desire (which this thought puts "into play"), just like metaphor is a "game" played with truth. This radical thought comes neither from a philosophical doubt nor from a utopian transference4 (which always supposes an ideal transformation of the real). Nor does it stem from an ideal transcendence. It is the "putting into play"5 of this world, the material and immanent illusion of this so-called "real" world - it is a non-critical, non-dialectical thought. So, this thought appears to be coming from somewhere else. In any case, there is an incompatibility between thought and the real. Between thought and the real, there is no necessary or natural transition. Not an "alternation,"6 not an alternative either: only an "alterity"7 keeps them under pressure8. Only fracture, distance and alienation safeguard the singularity of this thought, the singularity of being a singular event, similar in a sense to the singularity of the world through which it is made into an event.

Things probably did not always happen this way. One may dream of a happy conjunction of idea and reality, in the shadow of the Enlightenment and of modernity, in the heroic ages of critical thought. But that thought, which operated against a form of illusion - superstitious, religious, or ideological - is substantially over. And even if that thought had survived its catastrophic secularization in all the political systems of the 20th century, the ideal and almost necessary relationship between concept and reality would in any case have been destroyed today. That thought disappeared under the pressure of a gigantic simulation, a technical and mental one, under the pressure of a precession of models to the benefit of an autonomy of the virtual, from now on liberated from the real, and of a simultaneous autonomy of the real that today functions for and by itself - motu propio - in a delirious perspective, infinitely self-referential. Expelled, so to speak, from its own frame, from its own principle, pushed toward its extraneity, the real has become an extreme phenomenon. So, we no longer can think of it as real. But we can think of it as "ex-orbitated," as if it was seen from another world - as an illusion then.

Let's ponder over what could be a stupefying experience: the discovery of another real world, different from ours. Ours, one day, was discovered. The objectivity of this world was discovered, just like America was discovered, more or less at the same period. But what was discovered can never be created again. That's how reality was discovered, and is still created (or the alternate version: this is how reality was created, which is still being discovered). Why wouldn't there be as many real worlds as there are imaginary ones? Why would there be only one real world? Why such a mode of exception? In reality, the notion of a real world existing among all other possible worlds is unimaginable. It is unthinkable, except perhaps as a dangerous superstition. We must stay away from that, just as critical thought once stayed away (in the name of the real!) from religious superstition. Thinkers, give it another try!

In any case, the two orders of thought are irreconcilable. They each follow their own path without blending into one another. At best, they slide on one another, like tectonic plates, and from time to time their collision or their subduction creates fault lines inside which reality is engulfed. Fatality is always at the crossing point of these two lines. Similarly, radical thought is at the violent crossing point of sense and non-sense, of truth and non-truth, of the continuation of the world and the continuation of nothingness.

In contrast to the discourse of reality and rationality, which bets on the fact that there is something (some meaning) rather than nothing, and which, in the last analysis, wants to be built on the preservative notion of an objective and decipherable world, radical thought bets on the illusion of the world. This thought wants to be illusion, restituting non-veracity to the facts, non- signification to the world, and formulating the reverse hypothesis that there may be nothing rather than something, tracking down this nothingness which runs under the apparent continuation of meaning.

The radical prediction is always that of a non-reality of the facts, of an illusion of the factual. It merely starts with the foreboding of this illusion, but never fuses with the objective state of things. Any fusion of this type would be similar to mistaking a messenger for his message, which still today consists in killing the messenger who always brings the bad news (for example, the news that all our values are null, that the real is uncertain, that certain events do not "take place"9). Any fusion of the thought (of writing, of language) with the real - a so-called "faithfulness of the real" with a thought that has made the real emerge in all of its configurations - is hallucinatory. It is moreover the result of a total misinterpretation of language, of the fact that language is an illusion in its very movement, that it carries this continuation of emptiness or nothingness at the very core of what it says, and that it is in all its materiality a deconstruction of what it signifies. Just as the photograph (the image) connotes an erasure, the death of what it represents, that which gives the photograph its intensity, what gives intensity to writing, be it the writing of a fiction or the writing of a theoretical fiction, is emptiness, an underlying nothingness, an illusion of meaning, an ironic dimension of language, which is corollary to an ironic dimension of the facts themselves, which are never what they are - in all meanings: they are never more than what they are, and they are always only what they are - a perfect amphiboly. The irony of the facts, in their miserable reality, is precisely that they are only what they are. At least, that is what they are supposed to mean: "the real is the real." But, by this very fact (so to speak), they are necessarily beyond [truth] because factual existence is impossible: nothing is totally evidentiary without becoming an enigma. Reality, in general, is too evident to be true.

It is this ironic transfiguration through language which constitutes the event of language. And it is on a restitution of this fundamental illusion of the world and language that thought must work, without however taking language in its literality, where the messenger is mistaken for the message, and thus already sacrificed.

The two modes of thought present radically opposed projects: one hopes to reveal the objective reality of this world but wants to be a distinct thought; the other seeks to restore an illusion, of which it is an integral part. One seeks a total gravitation, a concentric effect of meaning. The other seeks to be anti-gravitational and to reach an "ex-centering" of reality, a global attraction of the void toward the periphery (Jarry).

The requirement of this thought is double and contradictory. It does not consist in analyzing the world to extract from it an improbable truth. It does not adapt itself dialectically to the facts and abstract from them some logical construction. It is much more subtle than that, and more perverse as well. This thought consists in putting into place a form, a matrix of illusion and disillusion, a strange attracting force, so that a seduced reality will be able to spontaneously feed on it. This thought will also be implacably self-fulfilling (you just have, from time to time, to displace the "object"10 a bit). Indeed, reality only asks to be submitted to hypotheses, so that it can fulfill11 all of them: this is reality's own trick and vengeance. A theoretical ideal would be to put into place some theses so that they could be denied by reality and so that reality would have no choice but to oppose them violently and thus unmask them. For reality is an illusion, and any thought must first try to unmask it. For this purpose, reality itself must remain masked and must shape itself as a decoy, without even thinking or caring about its own truth. Reality must place its pride in never being an instrument of analysis, or a critical instrument, because it is the world that must proceed to its own analysis. It is the world, not reality, that must be revealed not as a truth, but as an illusion.

We must trap reality, we must go faster than reality. The idea too must go faster than its own shadow. But if the idea goes too fast, even its shadow faints: no longer having the faintest idea...12 Words go faster than signification. But if they go too fast, everything turns into sheer madness: an ellipse of meaning may even cause one to lose one's taste for the sign. What can we exchange this work, this shadow, this intellectual economy and patience for? What can we sell it to the devil for? It is hard to tell. In fact, we are the orphans of a reality that came too late and which is only, like truth, an "official report" in "delayed time."

The ultimate prize13 is when an idea disappears as an idea to become a thing among other things. That's where it finds its completion. Having become con-substantial with the surrounding world, the idea no longer has to appear as an idea and no longer has to be supported as such. A vanishing of the idea through a silent dissemination, and of course an antinomy of any intellectual celebration. An idea is never destined to burst open but on the contrary to fade away in the world, in the trans-appearance the idea gives to the world, and in the trans-appearance of the world as it was expressed by the idea. A book is finished only when its object has vanished. Its substance must not leave any marks. It is as if it were a perfect crime. Whatever its object, writing must allow illusion to radiate and turn it into an elusive enigma: unable to be received by the specialists and the Realpolitikers of the concept. The objective of writing is to alter its object, to seduce it, to make it disappear from its own vision. Writing aims at a total resolution, a poetic resolution as Saussure would have it, a resolution marked by a rigorous dispersion in the name of God.

If the thought enunciates an object as a truth, it is only as a challenge to this object's own self-fulfillment. The trouble14 with reality (reality's ennui) is that it goes head-on toward the hypotheses that negate it. And then reality surrenders to the first warnings, and bends to conceptual violence. Its distinguishing sign is that of voluntary serfdom. Reality's a bitch!15 Contrary to what is said (the real is what resists, that on which all hypotheses come to crash), reality is not very strong, or at least less and less so. Rather, reality appears to be ready to operate a disorderly withdrawal. Full walls of reality crumble - just like the collapse of Buzatti's "Baliverna," where the smallest crack triggers a total chain reaction. We can find the decomposed ruins everywhere - just as in Borges' "Map and Territory." Not only does reality resist those who still criticize it, but it also abandons those who defend it. Maybe it is a way for reality to get its revenge from those who claim to believe in it for the sole purpose of eventually transforming it: sending back its supporters to their own desires. Finally, reality is perhaps more like a "femme fatale" than a "bitch."16

More subtly, reality also gets its revenge from those who challenge it by, paradoxically, proving that they are right. Whenever any risky idea, any cynical or critical hypothesis proves to be right, it in fact turns out to be a dirty trick. You are fooled and disarmed. Your arguments are lamentably confirmed by a reality without scruples.

So, you may posit the idea of a simulacrum, and yet, secretly, not believe in it, hoping that the real will avenge itself. The theory is then not necessarily convinced of its own validity. Unfortunately, only those who are reality fanatics react negatively. Reality does not seem to be willing to deny itself, far from it: all simulacra wander freely. Reality today is nothing more than the apocalypse of simulation. Consequently, the reality supporters (who defend reality as if it was a moral value or a virtue) play, so to speak, the part of those who once were called the fanatics of the Apocalypse.

The idea of simulacrum was a conceptual weapon against reality, but it has been stolen. Not that it has been pillaged, vulgarized, or has become common-place17 (which is true but has no consequence), but because simulacra have been absorbed by reality which has swallowed them and which, from now on, is clad with all the rhetoric of simulation. And to cap it all, simulacra have become reality! Today, simulacra guarantee the continuation of the real. The simulacrum now hides, not the truth, but the fact that there is none, that is to say, the continuation of Nothingness.

This is the very paradox of any thought that reveals the falsehood of the real: when reality steals your concept and realizes (fulfills) it, and by the same token flies away from any criticism. Events, deprived of any direction, steal any possible meaning.18 They adapt to the most fantastic hypotheses like natural species and viruses adapt to the most hostile environments. They show an extraordinary mimetic capacity. There has been a reversal here too: it is no longer theories that have to adapt to events, but events that adapt to theories. In any case, they mystify us because a theory that realizes itself 19 is no longer a theory. A realized hypothesis is no longer a hypothesis. It is terrifying to see a hypothesis be realized like this. It is terrifying to suddenly see the idea coincide with reality. This is the agony of the concept. The epiphany of the real is the twilight of the concept.

We have lost the advance that ideas had on the world, that distance that makes an idea stay an idea. Thought must anticipate, be exceptional, and in the margin - the projected shadow of the future events. Yet, today, we are lagging behind the events. They may sometimes give the impression that they regress, that they are not what they should be. In fact, they have passed over us for a long time. The simulated disorder of things has gone faster than us. The effect of reality has disappeared behind the acceleration of things - an anamorphosis of speed. What happens to the heterogeneity of thought in a world that has been converted to the craziest hypotheses and to an artificial delirium? In their accelerated occurrence, the events have in a sense swallowed their own interpretation. Things have been cleansed of their own meaning. And consequently, they are like black holes and can no longer reflect. They are what they are, never too late for their occurrence, but always beyond their meaning. What is late rather is the interpretation of things. Interpretation is then merely a retro figure for an unpredictable event.

What to do then? What is there to do when suddenly everything fits the ironic, critical, alternative, and catastrophic model that you suggested (everything fits the model you gave beyond any hopes you had because, in a sense, you never believed it could go that far, otherwise you would never have been able to create it)? Well!... It's heaven! We are beyond doomsday, in the realm of immortality. All there is to do is survive. For, then, at this point, the irony, the challenge, the anticipation, and the evil are terminated, just as hope inexorably dies in front of the gates of hell. In fact, hell starts here. Hell as an inferno characterized by the unconditional realization of all ideas: an inferno of reality. We then understand (see Adorno) that concepts prefer to commit suicide rather than come to that point.

Something else has been stolen from us: indifference. The power of indifference, which is the quality of the mind, as opposed to the play of differences, which is the characteristic of the world. But indifference has been taken away from us by a world that has become indifferent. Similarly, the eccentricity of thinking has been taken away by an eccentric world. When things and events refer to one another and to their non-differentiated concept, the equivalence of the world joins and erases the indifference of thinking. Boredom emerges. No more confrontations, no more stakes. Just a parting of dead waters.

How beautiful indifference was in a world that was not indifferent! In a world that was different, convulsive and contradictory, with stakes and passions. Back then, the indifference of the mind could turn into a stake or a passion, in total opposition to the world. It could anticipate the indifferent future of the world and turn this indifference into an event. Today, it is difficult to be more apathetic and more indifferent than the facts themselves. The world in which we operate today is apathetic, indifferent to its own life, without passion, and deadly boring. There is no point in being dispassionate in a world without passions. Being dis-invested in a world without investment makes no sense. That's how we have become orphans.

Our point is not to defend radical thought. Any idea that can be defended is presumed guilty. Any idea that does not sustain its own defense deserves to perish. But we have to fight against charges of unreality, lack of responsibility, nihilism, and despair. Radical thought is never depressing. This would be a complete misunderstanding. A moralizing and ideological critique, obsessed by meaning and content, obsessed by a political finality of discourse, never takes into account writing, the act of writing, the poetic, ironic, and allusive form of language, the play with meaning. This critique does not see that the resolution of meaning is right here, in the form itself, in the formal materiality of an expression. As for meaning, it is always unfortunate. Analysis is by its very definition unfortunate since it is born out of a critical disillusion. But language on the contrary is fortunate (happy), even when it designates a world with no illusion, with no hope. This would in fact be here the very definition of radical thought: an intelligence without hope, but a fortunate and happy form. Critics, always being unfortunate (unhappy) in their nature, choose the realm of ideas as their battle field. They do not see that if discourse always tends to produce meaning, language and writing on the contrary are always a matter of illusion. Language and writing are the living illusion of meaning, the resolution of the misfortune of meaning operated through the good fortune of language. This is the only political or transpolitical act that a writer can accomplish.

Everyone has ideas, even more than they need. What matters is the poetic singularity of analysis. Only this witz, this spirituality of language, can justify writing. Not a miserable critical objectivity of ideas. There will never be a solution to the contradiction of ideas, except inside language itself, in the energy and fortune (happiness) of language. So the loneliness and sadness in Edward Hopper's paintings are transfigured by the timeless quality of light, a light which comes from some place else and gives to the whole picture a totally non-figurative meaning, an intensity which renders loneliness unreal. Hopper says: "I do not paint sadness or loneliness; I only seek to paint light on this wall."

In any case, it is better to have a despairing analysis in a happy language than an optimistic analysis in despairingly boring and demoralizingly plain language. Which is too often the case. The formal boredom that is secreted by an idealist thought on values, or by a goal-oriented20 thought on culture, is the secret sign of despair for this thought - not despair with the world, but despair toward its own discourse. This is where the real depressing thought emerges. It emerges with those people who only talk about a transcendence21 or a transformation of the world, while they are totally unable to transfigure their own language.

Radical thought is in no way different from radical usage of language. This thought is therefore alien to any resolution of the world which would take the direction22 of an objective reality and of its deciphering. Radical thought does not decipher. It anathematizes and "anagramatizes" concepts and ideas, exactly what poetic language does with words. Through its reversible chaining, it simultaneously gives an account of meaning and of its fundamental illusion. Language gives an account of the very illusion of language as a definite23 stratagem and through that notes the illusion of the world as an infinite trap, as a seduction of the mind, as a stealing away of all mental capacities. While being a transporter of meaning, language is at the same time a supra-conductor of illusion and of the absence of meaning24. Language is only signification's unintentional accomplice. By its very force, it calls for the spiritual imagination of sounds and rhythms, for the dispersion of meaning in the event of language, similar to the role of the muscles in dance, similar to the role of reproduction in erotic games.

Such a passion for the artificial, a passion for illusion, is the same thing as the seductive joy (jouissance25) to undo a too perfect constellation of meaning. It is also a joy (jouissance) to render transparent the imposture of the world, that is to say the enigmatic function of the world, and its mystification which supposedly is its secret. Doing this while perhaps rendering its imposture transparent: deceiving rather than validating meaning.26 This passion "wins"27 in the free and spiritual usage of language, in the spiritual game of writing. And it only disappears when language is used for a limited finality, its most common usage perhaps, that of communication. No matter what, if language wants to "speak the language" of illusion, it must become a seduction. As for "speaking the language" of the real, it would not know how to do it (properly speaking) because language is never real. Whenever it appears to be able to designate things, it actually does so by following unreal, elliptic, and ironic paths. Objectivity and truth are metaphoric in language. Too bad for the apodicticians or the apodidacticians! This is how language is, even unconsciously, the carrier of radical thought, because it always starts from itself, as a trait d'esprit vis-a-vis the world, as an ellipse and a source of pleasure. Even the confusion of languages in the Tower of Babel, a powerful mechanism of illusion for the human race, a source of non-communication and an end to the possibility of a universal language, will have appeared, finally, not as a divine punishment but as a gift from God.

Ciphering, not deciphering. Operating illusions. Being illusion28 to be event. Turning into an enigma what is clear. Making unintelligible what is far too intelligible. Rendering unreadable the event itself. Working all the events to make them unintelligible. Accentuating the fake transparency of the world to spread a terroristic confusion, to spread the germs or viruses of a radical illusion, that is to say operating a radical disillusion of the real. A viral and deleterious thought, which corrupts meaning, and is the accomplice of an erotic perception of reality's trouble.

Erasing in oneself any remaining trace of the intellectual plot. Stealing the "reality file" to erase its conclusions. But, in fact, it is reality itself which foments its own contradiction, its own denial, its own loss through our lack of reality. Hence, the internal feeling that all this affair - the world, thought, and language - has emerged from some place else and could disappear as if by magic. The world does not seek to have more existence, nor does it seek to persist in its existence. On the contrary, it is looking for the most spiritual way to escape reality. Through thought, the world is looking for what could lead to its own loss.

The absolute rule, that of symbolic exchange, is to return what you received. Never less, but always more. The absolute rule of thought is to return the world as we received it: unintelligible. And if it is possible, to return it a little bit more unintelligible. A little bit more enigmatic.


Notes
1. "Billancourt," a French automobile production plant renowned for its repeated strikes, is here Baudrillard's metaphor for the "proletariat".

2. Excentration is the term used in French.

3. The term used in French is jeu. Jeu means either game, play or mechanism.

4. Transfert utopique is the term used in French.

5. The term mise en jeu (putting into play) renders the idea of play/game. But it may also signify the beginning of a process, game, activity (for example, the biginning of a soccer game or a card game). It may also connote that which is at stake (en jeu).

6. Alternance in French.

7. "Alterity," of alterite in French, reiterates the notion of "radical otherness" already expressed by Jean Baudrillard in another work. See Marc Guillaume & Jean Baudrillard, L'Alterite Radicale (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), still not published in English.

8. Sous Tension in French.

9. Ont lieu in French means either "taking place" (in the sense of happening) or "taking its place" (in the sense of ocupying a place, a specific locus).

10. The term used by Baudrillard is objectif which means either

objective, goal/aim or lens (as in a photographic device). To leave the term objectif undecided in this translation the word "object", unsatisfactory as it is, seemed appropriate. 11. The term used in French is verifier: to fulfill, to check or to prove.

12. The pun is better rendered in French. "Shadow" (ombre in French) appears in the common saying: ne plus avoir l'ombre d'une idee, no longer haveing the slightest idea about anything, but literally meaning "no longer having the shadow of an idea."

13. Le fin du fin signifies that which is highest among the already high, the top of the top. Yet the term fin also means the end (so, "the end of the end" perhaps too...).

14. Ennui means trouble but also conveys the notion of "boredom".

15. La realite est une chienne in French.

16. A very shaky translation of: "la realite est peut-etre plutot une sphinge qu'une chienne."

17. The term used in French, lieu commun, gives the idea of place (literally, a common place), but also signifies "banality".

18. Baudrillard here plays on the term sens which, in French, means "direction" or "meaning" (it can also mean "sense"). Teh terms "direction" and "meaning" are interchangable in this sentence and can be conbined any way the reader prefers.

19. Or "fulfills itself."

20. Voluntariste in French.

21. Depassement.

22. or the meaning.

23. definitif.

24. non-sens

25. joie

26. imposteur, et non composteur de sens.

27. L'emporte in French means either "winning" or "carrying away with oneself." La passion l'emporte can thus signify the success of this passion over meaning or the fact that this passion has grabbed meaning and takes it away with itself.

28. Faire illusion is also a French expression which means "conveying unfulfilled hopes or promises,"


This is a translation of Jean Baudrillard's La Pensee Radicale, published in the fall of 1994 in French by Sens & Tonka, eds., Collection Morsure, Paris, 1994.

Francois Debrix is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Theory and International Relations at Purdue University.

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