ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 11, Number 2 (May, 2014)


A Poetic Anthropology of War: Jean Baudrillard and the 1991 Gulf War

Samuel Strehle
(Doctoral student, Institute of Sociology at the University of Basel, Switzerland).

I. Introduction

The following text argues that Baudrillard’s analysis of the 1991 Gulf War should be read as a ‘poetic anthropology of war’, that is, a depiction of war which does not simply describe but rather creates the object it describes. My argument goes in three steps: The first part briefly recapitulates the happenings in the Gulf, their coverage in global media and Baudrillard’s controversial intervention, outlining his analysis of the ‘simulacrum of war’ as produced by the ‘war sign industry’. The second part then shifts perspective towards anthropology. It looks into Baudrillard’s notion of the ‘duel’ that underlies his analysis of the Gulf War and traces his implicit distinction between a ‘symbolic’ and a ‘reality principle’ of war. The third part departs from exactly this distinction between symbolic/real to deconstruct its epistemological status in light of what Baudrillard calls ‘radical thought’. It illustrates that only on the pataphysical level of his poetic anthropology are we allowed to see what is really at stake for Baudrillard in his analysis of war: not only the actual war out there, but also his very own war against reality.

II. The simulacrum of war and the war sign industry
In 1991, during the First Gulf War, Jean Baudrillard made himself a new group of enemies: the vast majority of leftist intellectuals who criticized the military operation against Iraq. Officially, this operation, led by the U. S. and other NATO states and mostly consisting of aerial bombardments, was undertaken to fight back the illegitimate aggression of Saddam Hussein against Kuwait, but since there was obviously oil at stake in the region, any intellectual had an easy target in demasking the Gulf War as imperialist aggression, even more so since it was pushed and led by the conservative administration of George H. W. Bush.

Yet, there was this one intellectual who seemed to live in a completely different universe, publishing a series of three highly provoking articles in the French newspaper Libération and the British Guardian: “The Gulf War will not take place” (in January 1991, right before the attacks actually started), “The Gulf War: is it really taking place?” (in February 1991, when the attack had just begun) and finally: “The Gulf war did not take place” (in March 1991, after the attacks had ‘successfully’ been completed). Baudrillard’s contra-factual intervention was immediately considered highly scandalous, cynical or, even, nonsense (cp. Norris 1992: 11–31).

Though, despite the titles of his articles, Baudrillard was not denying the physical fact of the war or the number of casualties (cp. Baudrillard 1991b: 61, 72). I suggest that we read the title with a strong emphasis on the word “war” to understand his assertion: The war in the Gulf did not take place.1  It was something other than a war which took place in the Gulf region—a “non-war” (ibid.: 24) or “the simulacrum of war” (ibid.: 25), as Baudrillard called it. He was not alone with this feeling that the Gulf War had something ‘unreal’ about it. Many observers came to similar conclusions. For example Noam Chomsky argued as follows:  “As I understand the concept ‘war’, it involves two sides in combat, say, shooting at each other. That did not happen in the Gulf” (Chomsky 1992: 51).

The common feeling that the Gulf War was a farce seemed to mainly be due to two characteristics. The first one was the unusual visual presentation of the war in the media coverage. The Gulf War was organized according to a “leitmotif of precision, of surgical, mathematical and punctual efficacy” (Baudrillard 1991b: 43), it was orchestrated along the “idea of a clean war, like that of a clean bomb or an intelligent missile” (ibid.). This ideal transposed itself into the media coverage. Like the journalists themselves, all broadcasted images were carefully selected by the military, allowing only a certain type of clean, aestheticized images to be shown. Viewers could look at beautifully arranged fireworks over Baghdad at night or at computerized animations of missile flights and crosshairs. All of this was obviously intended to evoke the impression of a high-precision and civilized war, but in fact the “insignificance of the images” (ibid.: 51) rather led to associations to a computer game.2  There seemed to be no war at all visible on those so-called war images, and it actually did not need an ‘enfant terrible’ like Baudrillard to articulate the common impression that the Gulf War was more of a well-orchestrated media event than an actual war.

However, in his three articles Baudrillard did not play out this media aspect as notoriously as one might have expected. His main argument pointed at a second and more subtle characteristic of the war. As Chomsky’s remark already suggested, a war usually consists of “two sides in combat, say, shooting at each other”, but “this did not happen in the Gulf”. According to Baudrillard, the Gulf War was a non-war mainly because of its lack of confrontation. It was “a degenerate form of war” (Baudrillard 1991b: 24) in which the enemy was not encountered but made “invisible” (ibid.: 43). In a war conducted strictly through electronically controlled distance weapons, “the two adversaries did not even confront each other face to face” (ibid.: 62).

Baudrillard, having always been a close reader of Walter Benjamin (cp. Baudrillard 1976: 55–57; 1983c: 54), inscribes his critique into the framework of Benjamin’s diagnosis of a certain modern “poverty of experience” (Benjamin 1933: 732). Among other factors, Benjamin linked his analysis strongly to the impossible experience of “positional warfare” (ibid.) in the First World War, resulting in some kind of paradox: “experience has fallen in value, amid a generation which from 1914 to 1918 had to experience some of the most monstrous events in the history of the world” (ibid.: 731). Baudrillard clearly positions himself in this framework of a melancholic critique of modernity.

But there is a second reason for Baudrillard why the Gulf War was not a real war: There was no challenge in it, at least not for the superior party. Saddam Hussein’s weak army was no match as an enemy, and as highly asymmetric as it was, the Gulf War “was won in advance” (Baudrillard 1991b: 61). Like in a rigged game, neither one of the two sides was playing its proper role: “Saddam will never fight, while the Americans will fight against a fictive double on screen.” (Ibid.: 65) Correspondingly, the Americans announced a ‘zero casualties’ slogan, dreaming of a “war without victims” (ibid.: 73), primarily on their own side of course. But also the casualties on the other side—euphemized as “collateral damage”3 —were officially kept to a minimum. It was “a war stripped of its passions, its phantasms, its finery, its veils, its violence, its images” (ibid.: 64)—a “clean war, white war, programmed war” (ibid.: 56) that functioned as the “bellicose equivalent of safe sex: make war like love with a condom!” (Ibid.: 26)

It is hard to deny a certain cynicism in Baudrillard’s last comparison. Have the critics been right about him? “War is no longer what it used to be ...”, he writes (ibid.: 85) and thereby even seems to mourn the disappearance of war. We experience a “definitive crisis” (ibid.: 23) of war, he alarms his readers as if such crisis were a tragedy and not a relief. But that is only the starting point for his actual analysis, not his conclusion. What happens when war is caught in its definitive crisis? What happens with war after it is “no longer what it used to be”? The answer—opening the first level of my analysis—has nothing to do with simple nostalgia but refers to Baudrillard’s complex thinking of history and simulation.

Let us first contextualize Baudrillard’s analysis of the Gulf War within the framework of his thought. In the language of one of his most fascinating concepts, one could say that the institution of war has passed its ‘Canetti point’. Baudrillard introduced this idea as early as 1981 (cp. Baudrillard 1981: 113), although it became famous mainly through its appearance in Fatal Strategies (1983b: 32) and The Illusion of the End (1992: 1). According to Baudrillard, we have passed a certain point in history where history itself has vanished—a point, as he quotes an aphorism by philosopher Elias Canetti from 1945, that can only retroactively be experienced, where it is felt as an awkward and mysterious estrangement between humanity and reality: “A tormenting thought: as of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality; everything happening since then was supposedly not true; but we supposedly didn’t notice. Our task would now be to find that point, and as long as we didn’t have it, we would be forced to abide in our present destruction”4  (Canetti 1986: 69).

Baudrillard explains this mysterious Canetti or “vanishing point”5 by elaborating how the concept of history is a strictly modern concept, rooted in the tradition of Christianity in general and in 19th century philosophy in particular (cp. Baudrillard 1984). Today, though, we have left this philosophical paradigm. To Baudrillard we are beyond history, in a ‘post-historical’ state.6  This is not to say events do not happen anymore, but they lose their appeal as historical events. Still happening and even more so, they are deprived of their sense, their meaningful place in the master narrative of history as modern thinkers like Hegel or Marx have understood it. We live beyond the era of modernity—“after the orgy” (Baudrillard 1990b: 3). And just like in matters of sexuality, aesthetics, politics and economy, all of which have transformed into “transsexuality”, “transaesthetics”, “transpolitics” and “transeconomics” (ibid.: 10–35), also in matters of war we experience a transhistorical state of affairs. Like any other sphere, war has turned into a simulation of its own existence, becoming a simulacrum, a phantom, a ghost—an undead institution that neither lives vividly nor dies properly.

Once again, this does not mean there would be no more wars in the technical sense. The entrance into the realm of simulation does not imply the disappearance of violence and death: “Simulation does not mean there is no violence or death”, he states in an interview (Baudrillard 1985: 37, my translation). He repeats a similar argument in his writings on the Gulf War (cp. Baudrillard 1991b: 61) and also in his writings on the terrorist attacks of 9/11: “An excessive amount of violence does not suffice to reach the reality. For reality is a principle, and it is this principle we have lost.” (Baudrillard 2002a: 30)

Interestingly, it was nothing other than such an “excessive amount of violence” and death that brought Canetti to coin his cryptic wording. Written down as something similar to a diary entry in 1945 by the Jewish intellectual who had to flee from the Nazis and emigrate from Vienna to London in 1938, it was followed immediately by another entry on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9. Obviously, one may conclude, the ‘Canetti point’ does not speak about the end of war, the end of violence and mass killing, as Benjamin did not when he was contemplating the First World War. On the contrary, Canetti and Benjamin speak about the mechanical excess, the blindness and meaninglessness of those killings. In the Hiroshima bombings, machines have taken over the war.

Directly connected to this mechanical excess of violence is the fact that beyond the Canetti point, the notion of ‘event’ in the strong sense is abandoned. Formerly, in the framework of history, the event was something like a quintessence of the historical process, a focal point in which social structures could break open and a new order, a new logic could emerge. Those eventful openings are nothing less than the driving forces in the progress of history, as Marx had stated: “Revolutions are the locomotives of history” (Marx 1850: 113). Without them, the trains stand still or even roll back down the hill.

Baudrillard himself was pulled by such a locomotive once in his life—in May 1968. One cannot underrate the impact this political event had on Baudrillard who experienced it first hand at the University of Paris-Nanterre, right “at the center of the ‘events’”, as he remembers in an interview in which he also elaborated his own involvement in the revolt: “We participated […] we went to the barricades” (Baudrillard 1997: 16). Albeit he officially broke with traditional Marxism and Critical Theory in The Mirror of Production (1973), even in his latest writings and interviews the “spirit of May” (Baudrillard 1997: 16) is palpable at several levels, most visibly whenever he elaborates his notion of ‘event’ (see Baudrillard 1984–85: 115 or 2003 for example).

Compared to this highly charged notion of the event, the Gulf War can easily be regarded as quite the opposite: a “non-event” (Baudrillard 1991b: 24). Instead of representing an opening, the Gulf War reveals itself to be a ‘closed circuit war’ that reels off mechanically like a boring TV script. And just like in any boring TV script, the flatness of the plot has to be compensated by special effects. In the instance of the Gulf War, TV viewers were indeed delivered quite a spectacle, being able to watch a bombing in real time from the viewpoint of a camera placed in the tip of a missile as it went down straight into a building. Journalists were placed at the front lines to report live and directly from the battle field, side by side with the attacking soldiers—a real time ego shooter version of war coverage.

The triviality of the script, only superficially compensated by special effects and the weak suspense of real time coverage, reveals the exact logic of simulation that Baudrillard had described earlier in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) and “The Precession of Simulacra” (1978). The physics of war is preceded by an abstract model of war that structures and organizes the actual happenings. There is no underlying reality of war that is referred to by those media images; instead the images are the actual operation mode of war. Once having entered the transhistorical era of simulation, war becomes all about the production of signs of war. The war machine is essentially a war sign machine. All the beautifully aestheticized images of the Gulf War function as a “mirror” in which this “narcissistic” (Hammond 2009: 122 ff.) non-war can reflect itself in order to assure its own reality. “The war […] watches itself in a mirror: am I pretty enough, am I operational enough, am I spectacular enough, am I sophisticated enough to make an entry onto the historical stage?” (Baudrillard 1991b: 31 ff.).

The military display of war signs is an attempt to rescue the reality principle of war, something like an alibi for the absent real. Hence, the simulacrum of war must over-exaggerate what it does not possess in reality, which means it has to go hyperrealistic, that is: to become “more real than real”, as Baudrillard defines the term in Fatal Strategies (1983b: 29). The technical efficiency of the war and the brilliance of its coverage have to over-compensate for its inner void, and even the physical killings can be regarded as a part of this hyperrealist simulation of war signs—since also death, and especially death, is a war sign.7 

In conclusion, being a non-war and a non-event does not exclude war actions. The war and the non-war can happen simultaneously, creating an “undecidability” (Baudrillard 1991b: 36) about which of both sides is given more weight: “The war and the non-war take place at the same time” (ibid.: 49 f.). Hence it is not the physical absence of reality that caused the impression of reality loss on behalf of the Gulf War viewers. Baudrillard does not argue on a technical level, although he states that the technical aspects of the war simulacrum—screen mediated killings, real time coverage, missile cameras etc.—are correlated to this loss (ibid.: 43; cp. Baudrillard 1991a). Nevertheless, what is really at stake in the reality loss is not the presence or absence of physical actions.

III. Symbolic exchange and war: a symbolic vs. a reality principle of war
Why then, one might ask, has the war actually passed its vanishing point? Which essential ‘war feature’ has been lost on the supposed flight through the Canetti zone, if not its killings and devastations? When Baudrillard claims that “reality is a principle, and it is this principle we have lost” (Baudrillard 2002a: 30), what was the ‘reality principle’ of war? The difficulty of this question reveals itself when we reflect that for Baudrillard, the intrinsic principle of war is the “duel” (Baudrillard 1991: 54). The duel, though, does not belong to the order of reality. According to Baudrillard, it belongs to the order of “symbolic exchange” (ibid.: 55)—an order he radically opposes to that of reality.8  This opens the second level of my analysis.

Baudrillard developed the ‘duel principle’ since his early dealing with Marcel Mauss and George Bataille, with the ethnology of the gift in pre-modern societies and the potlatch ritual of the North West American Kwakiutl Indians. In opposition to modern economic exchange, the symbolic exchange of gifts in those societies is not economic at all. It is about social relations, not about exchanging goods and making a bargain. The act of giving is perceived to create a deep social bonding, but—and this is most important for Baudrillard—it is also perceived as a “challenge”, as Marcel Mauss (1923/1924: 40) has put it.

Especially in the case of the potlatch, this challenge goes along with personal rivalry. The gift is thrown “at the feet of the other, under the gaze of the other“, writes Baudrillard (1972: 65) in accordance with Mauss (1923/1924: 21). Still, even when thrown, it retains a share of its previous personal owner around itself. The “gift is a medium of relation and distance; it is always love and aggression” (Baudrillard 1972: 65). Bataille, whose influence on Baudrillard cannot be emphasized enough,9  further intensifies this ambivalence by extending it to the ritual of human sacrifice: The act of sacrificing establishes a certain bond, an “intimacy of executioners and victims” (Bataille 1949: 51 f.), similar to the intimate bond between master and slave in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind or the one between employer and employee, as Baudrillard supplements those narrations in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976: 38–49).

In his book Seduction (1979), however, Baudrillard leaves the bloody setting of sacrifice, killing and slavery that fascinated him hitherto. Now he transposes his notion of symbolic exchange into the realm of aesthetics and erotic relationships. Also “seduction”, the tricky interplay between a desiring subject and its desired object, is a relationship that goes along with subtle forms of rivalry and exchange, challenge and risk. On matters of seduction, there could even emerge an actual gentlemen’s duel as it commonly happens in swashbuckler movies.10

Although Baudrillard’s use of the term “duel” is rather metaphorical, playing with the double meaning of “duel” and “dual” (both “le duel” in French, cp. Baudrillard 1979: 42), it does in fact include all the notions that are characteristic of a gentlemen’s duel: It is based on a duality of two opponents challenging each other, it is an agonistic yet playful or “ludic” (ibid.: 157–178) confrontation between two combatants, and it is guided by a strict ritual form or even a “passion for rules” (ibid.: 131–153), even though it may never become an empty form—there must always be something profoundly at stake in it.11  And just like a proper gentlemen’s duel, any strong duality is based on symmetry, equality and recognition between the parties. No duel can be fought in a satisfying way under asymmetrical conditions.

One could complete Baudrillard’s more abstract elaborations on the duel principle by saying that the actual duel represents the artistic form an aggressive relationship can take when it gets ‘cultivated’ in a courtly society. The duel is the art of fighting, and wherever a fight—or war—occurs, Baudrillard would surely favor this highly ritualized form over any other. In Seduction, he explicitly affirms “Sun-Tseu’s Art of War” and “the oriental martial arts” (ibid.: 114); in his Gulf War articles, however, he seems to be more fond of General Clausewitz. Indeed, the Prussian chief theorist of war still had a good sense for the dualistic, artistic dimension of warfare. In his essay On War (1832), Clausewitz outlines the art of war as if it were a duel between two nations in general and two commanders in particular. “War”, he elaborates, “is nothing but a duel on a larger scale.“ (Clausewitz 1832: 75) Like in any proper duel, there is respect and recognition between the enemies despite all hostility. The enemy is to be defeated without mercy, but he is also recognized as a worthy opponent. It is exactly this instance of a worthy enemy and therefore of alterity, that Baudrillard misses in the Gulf War:  “Ultimately, the undecidability of the war is grounded in the disappearance of alterity, of primitive hostility, and of the enemy. [...] For the Americans, the enemy does not exist as such. Nothing personal. Your war is of no interest to me, your resistance is of no interest to me. I will destroy you when I am ready” (Baudrillard 1991b: 36, 54).

When Baudrillard notes the vanishing of war, he thus seems to equal this vanishing with that of its ‘symbolic’ dimension in the sense of Mauss and Bataille. Deprived of this dimension, war is no longer “the continuation of policy with other means”, as Clausewitz (1832: 69) famously coined it. Instead it becomes quite the opposite: an “absence of politics pursued by other means” (Baudrillard 1991b: 30).

The introduction of the duel principle makes Baudrillard look like a nostalgic, if not conservative or even reactionary philosopher. Did he seriously dream of better, more honorable, more old fashioned wars? He may himself have feared this possible perception, as he tries to assure his readers that his critique should not be mistaken for praise of older wars. Rather he wants it to be seen as an attempt to unmask a false rhetoric, a false “pathos” of war: “the point is not to rehabilitate other wars, but rather that the recourse to the same pathos is all the more odious when there is no longer even the alibi of a war” (Ibid.: 76). Still, one cannot easily shake off the impression of nostalgia lying in Baudrillard’s argument. Is not he the one of all theorists who constantly mourns the ‘disappearance of the real’ in the era of simulation, the loss of what he calls the ‘reality principle’ and its supposition through ‘signs’?

Though, as I already have alluded, such an interpretation would mean a severe misinterpretation of Baudrillard’s thinking that would also block any chance of penetrating its deeper levels. Admittedly, he himself opened the doors to such an interpretation when he wrote in one of his most famous and most cited writings, “The Precession of Simulacra”, that once there had been a time when the image was “the reflection of a profound reality” (Baudrillard 1978: 6). Nevertheless, he made it quite clear in almost all other writings that this “profound reality” is produced by culture and therefore not “profound” at all.12  Reality is the product of an “effect of the real” (Baudrillard 1976: 133), he states in Symbolic Exchange and Death, implicitly citing a term that Roland Barthes (1968) has coined before in the context of literature.

For Baudrillard, this ‘reality effect’ is caused by a certain semiotic operation in which a culture separates two sides of things that were united before. Reality is based on an act of “separation” or “disjunction between two terms” (Baudrillard 1976: 133). Within this operation, one side always functions as the “imaginary”—that is: the negative, inferior, the ‘accursed share’—while the other one functions as the “real”—that is: the dominant, positive, officially recognized instance. “The effect of the real is only ever therefore the structural effect of the disjunction between two terms, and our famous reality principle, with its normative and repressive implications, is only a generalisation of this disjunctive code to all levels. The reality of nature, its ‘objectivity’ and its ‘materiality’, derives solely from the separation of man and nature [...]. The reality principle is never anything other than the imaginary of the other term. In the man/nature partition, nature (objective, material) is only the imaginary of man thus conceptualised. In the sexual bipartition masculine/feminine, an arbitrary and structural distinction on which the sexual reality (and repression) principle is based, ‘woman’ thus defined is only ever man’s imaginary” (Ibid.).

Reality, one has to conclude, is based not only on a culturally induced operation of semiotic separation, but even more on a kind of semiotic violence, of domination, repression and exclusion. Today, this reality principle—just like history being a genuinely modern invention that “corresponded to a certain stage of the law of value” (ibid: 2) — is abandoned. Instead of clear disjunctions, the blurry chaos of simulation has taken over: “Today the whole system is swamped by indeterminacy and every reality is absorbed by the hyperreality of the code and simulation. The principle of simulation governs us now, rather than the outdated reality principle.” (Ibid.)

But even—and especially—in the era of simulation, the production of the real has not stopped. On the contrary, the more difficult the production of reality becomes, the more it is forced. Hyperreality is the exact mode in which this intensified production of the real is conducted after the real has passed its vanishing point—producing a hyperbolic real that is even “more real than real”, over-compensating for the loss of distinctions. Therefore, the simulation regime is accompanied by an attempt to eliminate any remaining trace of ambiguity. Hyperreality is a reality completely deprived of contamination, radically cleansed of its opposite term. “Operational whitewash”, Baudrillard calls this cultural tendency in The Transparency of Evil (1990: 44–50). French sociologist Bruno Latour, although not a particular friend of Baudrillard’s approach (cp. Latour 2004: 228), made a similar observation one year later in the field of culture and technique by recognizing a “work of purification” (Latour 1991: 11) that goes along with the self-image—albeit not so much with the real practices—of the modern era. Both for Latour and Baudrillard, this work of purification contradicts itself, causing unintended, irrational, paradoxical counter-effects. For Baudrillard, the intensified attempt to produce reality leads to the exact opposite: “It is the excess of reality that makes us stop believing in it. [...] The real is suffocated by its own accumulation.” (2004: 19) Or, to say it in the words of Bataille: There is no escape from the accursed share.

The clean, aestheticized images of the Gulf War simulacrum can be regarded as just one example of this “operational whitewash”. And also here, the effect is paradoxical. The more the sign industry produces its images of a clean, whitewashed war, the less we can believe in them. War sign production is a circulus vitiosus, a vicious circle: They produce, we don’t believe, they produce more, we believe less, and so forth. This could well be the paradox of cultural production in general—and its driving force.

IV. Radical Thought as Weapon: Baudrillard’s Poetic Anthropology of War

As I have shown, reality for Baudrillard is an oppressive code and not a substantial, ‘profound’ entity. Hence, his analysis of the Gulf War having lost its substance cannot by any chance mean to mourn this reality loss. This becomes even more obvious considering the fact that ‘reality production’ is the main business of exactly that war sign industry Baudrillard is criticizing so vividly. At the same time, though, he strictly denies seeking to “rehabilitate older wars”. But how then shall we interpret his odd return to Clausewitz in particular and, more generally, the introduction of the duel principle and symbolic exchange into his analysis? This question opens up the third level of my argument.

The production of war signs is linked to the issue of war not only in matters of content, but also in matters of form. Content-wise, war is just one of many fields in which reality signs are produced; regarding its form, however, it is the pure logic of war itself that works in this industry. The production of reality for Baudrillard is a kind of warfare itself: Not only is it a monologue of power, a “speech without response”, as he states in Requiem for the Media (1971: 172); even more, the “terrorism of the code” (ibid.: 179) is a war-like attack on our senses.

We, the viewers, are targets of a bombardment of signs and images. “Semiocracy”, Baudrillard (1976: 78) calls this terror in his writing on the New York Graffiti scene: we live under a dictatorship of signs (against which the Graffiti raise their anti-semiotic counterforce). The war sign industry is just one of many subdivisions of a society-wide ‘reality sign industry’ that floods our lives with all kinds of spectacular products and information.“We are all hostages of media intoxication, induced to believe in the war just as we were once led to believe in the revolution in Romania, and confined to the simulacrum of war as though confined to quarters. We are already all strategic hostages in situ; our site is the screen on which we are virtually bombarded day by day” (Baudrillard 1991b: 25).

Finally now, this is where Baudrillard’s genuine theoretical intervention takes place. Like the Graffiti writers, Baudrillard attempts to fight back against the terrorism of the code and its work of purification—somehow continuing Graffiti writing by other means. Baudrillard is leading his own war, his own counter-guerilla warfare against the reality principle. What are his spray cans? Which are the walls on which he puts his ‘mark on society’? It is the holy walls of theoretical discourse that Baudrillard defaces with a low tech weapon called “theoretical terrorism”, as he called it once (Baudrillard 1983a: 91, my translation)—a thinking made to oppose, to challenge the hegemony of reality.

The idea of ‘theoretical terrorism’ is strongly linked to his concept of “reversibility”13 —a key term in Baudrillard’s thinking. The term may be characterized by two main aspects: At first, it refers to the reciprocity of gift exchange in which there is no closure of exchange but an endless changing and challenging of sides. In this regard, it is a name for the symbolic fluidity of power.14  At second, it refers to a principle of changing a situation by radically reversing its viewing angle—“poetic transference of the situation”, as Baudrillard calls it in Impossible Exchange (1999: 85).

Being a rather “phantastic principle” (Zapf 2010: 145, my translation), the concept of reversibility is linked with the most powerful and yet most clandestine subtext in Baudrillard’s oeuvre: ’Pataphysics. The idea behind this absurd science of “imaginary solutions” is as simple as it is mysterious: It is an attempt to create a different reality through imagination.15  Pataphysicians fight reality through the use of imaginary forces, through creating illusion and deceit.

It is easily overlooked how central this pataphysical approach has been for Baudrillard; even his most serious book, Symbolic Exchange and Death, is surprisingly full of pataphysical statements, especially in the dense, programmatic introductory pages: “The only strategy against the hyperrealist system is some form of pataphysics, ‘a science of imaginary solutions’; that is, a science-fiction of the system’s reversal against itself at the extreme limit of simulation, a reversible simulation in a hyperlogic of death and destruction” (Baudrillard 1976: 4 f.).

How can “science-fiction” shatter the system of reality? Baudrillard explains his strategy later in The Perfect Crime (1995), especially in the section on “Radical Thought”, and in Impossible Exchange (1999). Ideas, he claims, can create their own reality, since thinking is a performative act that builds its own ‘parallel world’: “Thought […] does not seek to penetrate some mystery of the world, nor to discover its hidden aspect—it is that hidden aspect. It does not discover that the world has a double life—it is that double life, that parallel life” (Baudrillard 1999: 149). In the performative “act of thinking” (ibid.: 115), reality is not so much depicted but challenged. The purpose of theory for Baudrillard is the exact opposite of what we normally would expect: It should not recognize and analyze reality, instead it must deny and contradict its hegemony. It has to create illusion and establish a power of seduction that makes one lose the path of reality. The “value of thought”, claims Baudrillard (1995: 94), “lies not so much in its inevitable convergences with truth as in the immeasurable divergences which separate it from truth.”

Only in awareness of those abstract ’Pataphysics can we distill any sense out of some of the oddest remarks in Baudrillard’s oeuvre, for example his “delirious self-criticism” from Cool Memories where he accuses himself of “having surreptitiously mixed my phantasies in with reality” and of “having systematically opposed the most obvious and well-founded notions” (Baudrillard 1987: 38). He even complains about readers taking his theories for actual facts and reading them in a “realist version”: “Simulacra are today accepted everywhere in their realist version: simulacra exist, simulation exists. It is the intellectual and fashionable version of this vulgarization which is the worst: all is sign, signs have abolished reality, etc.” (Ibid.: 227).

Instead of this “realist version”, Baudrillard suggests that even his most prominent terms can be regarded as pataphysical attempts to seduce his readers through fictitious ideas, for example when he admits to having “put forward the idea of simulacrum, without really believing in it, even hoping that the real will refute it” (Baudrillard 1995: 101). Apparently he understands his thinking to be something like a playful simulacrum itself, for also theory can precede—and thereby seduce—reality: “The theoretical ideal would be to set in place propositions in such a way that they could be disconfirmed by reality, in such a way that reality could only oppose them violently, and thereby unmask itself. For reality is an illusion, and all thought must seek first of all to unmask it. To do that, it must itself advance behind a mask and constitute itself as a decoy, without regard for its own truth. [...] Reality must be caught in the trap, we must move quicker than reality” (ibid.: 99).

In this sense, Baudrillard’s writing is “theory-fiction” (Baudrillard 1991c: 202) rather than theory, as he borrows a term from Jean-François Lyotard (1979: 92 f., cp. Blask, 2002: 133).  Like all ’Pataphysics, this notion of “theory-fiction” may be traced back to the surrealists and their “poetic anthropology”, as Dietmar Kamper (1981, my translation) has called it. Such an anthropology is “poetic” because it refers to the art of writing, but also because it touches the original notion of “poiesis”, meaning to create something. ‘Poetic anthropology’ does not seek to describe a reality that lies out there, instead it aims to autopoietically produce the subject it writes about through its own act of description.

Theory for Baudrillard is a “paradoxical political intervention” (Zapf 2010: 241, my translation). Thinking itself has to become the ambiguous kind of “singularity” (Baudrillard 1995: 96) and “event” (ibid.: 104) that is eliminated from almost any other sphere of the system: “Cipher, do not decipher. Work over the illusion. Create illusion to create an event. Make enigmatic what is clear, render unintelligible what is only too intelligible, make the event itself unreadable. Accentuate the false transparency of the world to spread a terroristic confusion about it, or the germs or viruses of a radical illusion—in other words, a radical disillusioning of the real.” (Ibid.: 104).

Maybe this is the most unique aspect of Baudrillard’s thinking altogether. He is a thinker who tries to think the world different from what it actually is. He sees himself as something like a smuggler or drug dealer, pushing forbidden items on a “black market in thought” (Baudrillard 1999: 104), promoting “a clandestine trade in ideas, of all inadmissible ideas, of unassailable ideas, as the liquor trade had to be promoted in the 1930s” (Baudrillard 1995: 104 f.).

If Baudrillard is the drug dealer of sociology, what does this imply for his analysis of war and his reference to the principles of symbolic exchange and the duel form? If we want to believe Baudrillard that he is not interested in rehabilitating older wars, we should read his reference systematically rather than historically16 —there might have never been any historical war as glamorous and honorable as portrayed by Clausewitz anyway. Hence, the introduction of symbolic exchange and the duel principle into the analysis of war might be more like a strategy to introduce a different view of things into the common perception of war. It delivers the necessary contrast against which the aestheticized, whitewashed reality of the war can be scrutinized and deconstructed as not the only possible reality of war. Only in the light of its radical other can the reality of war be denaturalized and revealed as a self-display of power and hegemony.

In this regard, Baudrillard has always remained a critical thinker who seeks to intervene into reality instead of just observing it. To the same degree he is neither a cynic nor a fatalist, that is—a resigned thinker. On the contrary, in an interview on the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center he even aligns himself with the ideas of the Enlightenment: “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” (Baudrillard 2002b). There is one major difference, though, between Baudrillard and the classical Enlightenment: He wishes for “clarity” and lucidity, he wants to “know the rules of the game”, but he does not seek the truth; he wants to “change” the rules of the game by diverting the game from its truth.

It does not seem to matter so much to Baudrillard if his instance of contrast—symbolic exchange and the duel principle—is more fictitious or real, illusionary or true; most possibly it has something of both sides, being undecidable like a simulacrum in the strongest sense. When Baudrillard writes about the Gulf War, he creates an odd mixture of lucid observations on the one hand and theoretical seductions on the other. If there could ever be something like ‘war studies’ in the spirit of Baudrillard, they would have to dare not to eliminate this undecidability, otherwise they would lose the spirit.

What matters the most for Baudrillard is the effort to break open the uniform process of reality production and shatter its seeming self-evidence into pieces. Theory according to Baudrillard is an attempt to reverse our view of the world—shifting our perspective by introducing something new and unsettling into the order of things. What seemed natural before, now starts to look artificial; what presented itself as a glorious triumph suddenly appears stale; what was evident becomes shady. Baudrillard’s theories are like evil ghosts: They haunt reality by staging its excluded other—no matter if this other really exists or if it has to be feigned.

Samuel Strehle, M.A., is a teaching assistant at the Institute of Sociology at the University of Basel, Switzerland. In 2012 he published a book on Jean Baudrillard (“Zur Aktualität von Jean Baudrillard. Einleitung in sein Werk”). Currently he is working on his doctoral dissertation on sociology of images and the social imaginary. His research interests range from general social and cultural theory, cultural anthropology, visual culture and art theory to consumer culture, Critical and French Theory and psychoanalysis.


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1. The title, by the way, echoes an article by Maurice Merleau-Ponty from 1945 on the psychological devastations of the Second World War: “La guerre a eu lieu” (in English: “The war has taken place”). To my knowledge, Holger Zapf was the first one to discover this connection (see Zapf 2010: 119).

2. See also Virilio 1991 or Bolz 1992 on this. Baudrillard himself discusses Virilio’s rather apocalyptic position critically (cp. Baudrillard 1991b: 47–50); a comparison between the two approaches can be found in Gane 2000: 77–87.

3. On the genealogy of the term “collateral damage”—it seems to have been established in the Vietnam War—see Perice 2007.

4. On “Baudrillard’s Uses of Elias Canetti” in general and the quoted passage in particular, see Mahoney 2014.

5. The term “vanishing point” seems to be semantically synonymous to the point Canetti describes; yet it is used more often in the context of art and images (cp. Baudrillard 1979: 63), since its double meaning also refers to the principle of central perspective in classical painting.

6. Baudrillard does not use the significant “posthistoire” very often, but its significate is all the more present, especially in the notion that Arnold Gehlen (cp. 1961: 323) has given the term, referring to a common feeling of the ‘history of ideas’ (“Ideengeschichte”) having ended, leading to what Baudrillard later calls the “reversal of history” (Baudrillard 1992: 10–13). For characterizations of Baudrillard as a thinker of the posthistoire see Welsch 1986, Jung 1991, Kramer 1998.

7. This strongly resembles an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series titled “A Taste of Armageddon” (season 1, episode 23), portraying two planets leading a long term war for 500 years—performed through an apparatus that simulates all attacks electronically. Even here though, the war simulacrum does not contradict real killings: Whenever one side wins an attack simulation, the other side really has to kill the corresponding number of victims by sending them into a “disintegration chamber”. The charade is ended by Captain Kirk who boldly destroys the apparatus, following his own argument that it made the war “neat and painless” and therefore corrupted the urge to make peace. In Kirk’s own words, he re-injects “the real thing” into the simulation of war. On the episode, see also Alan N. Shapiro’s lucid analysis in Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance (2004: 82–88).

8. On the concept of “symbolic exchange” see Baudrillard 1972 and 1976 as well as Grace 2000: 26–29, Pawlett 2007: 47–69 and Baldwin 2008: 339–342; in the context of the Gulf War see Weisenbacher 2005; on symbolic exchange and television also Merrin 1999.

9. On Bataille’s influence on Baudrillard see Gane 1991: 37 f., Pefanis 1991, Pawlett 1997 and Baldwin 2008.

10. On the social history of the duel form, whose strict codification is linked to the courtly societies of early modern Europe, although the popularity of the duel reached its high time mainly in the 18th and 19th centuries, see Frevert 1995.

11. On the “duel relation” in Baudrillard see 1979: 76 ff.; 1999: 90–102, 2000: 79–82, 2004: 185–189. On philosophical backgrounds see also Pawlett 2014.

12. Among others, see Pawlett 2007: 71 supporting this reading: “Baudrillard’s usage of the terms ‘reality’, sign, illusion and simulation are often very badly misunderstood. He does not argue that signs have replaced reality, since ‘reality’ for Baudrillard was only ever generated through signs”. On Baudrillard’s notion of the “real” see also Butler 1999: 17–19.

13. The term “reversibility” is introduced mainly in Symbolic Exchange and Death (cp. 1976: 1–5 and further) and Seduction (1979: 2 and further), although content-wise it is already present earlier whenever Baudrillard refers to gift exchange and dialogical communication. The most systematic account on the concept of reversibility is given shortly in Passwords (2000: 15–18); see also Butler 1999, Coulter 2004 and 2012, Baldwin 2008.

14. I am not able to fully elaborate these points here; a more detailed account of this—and some other points I can only touch lightly—may be found in Strehle 2012.

15. Baudrillard wrote one of his very first texts on ’Pataphysics (Baudrillard 1952); it was published in 2001 for the first time in the Bulletin of the Collège de ’Pataphysique which also promoted Baudrillard as “Satrape Transcendantal” in the same year. The members’ list of the Collège includes illustrious names such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, M. C. Escher, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Eugène Ionesco, Georges Perec, Dario Fo, Umberto Eco or, last but not least, the Marx Brothers. On the Collège, founded in 1948 and mainly influenced by the writings of Alfred Jarry, see Ferentschik 2006; on Baudrillard’s relation to ’Pataphysics see Genosko 1992, Teh 2006, Nechvatal 2007 and Zapf 2010: 141–146, 228–243.

16. On such a reading of Baudrillard in regard to his notion of symbolic exchange, see Grace 2000: 26.