Volume 6, Number 2 (July, 2009)
Baudrillard’s Gulf War: Saddam the Carpet-Seller
Dr. Ian Almond
(Department of English, Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA)
Saddam remains a rug salesman who takes the Americans for rug salesmen like himself, stronger than he but less gifted for the scam (Baudrillard, 2000:65).
Baudrillard’s belief that Arabs and Orientals have a cannier grasp of the illusions of freedom and truth-claims continues, to some extent, in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. And yet from our point of view, what Baudrillard’s book – actually a synthesis of three articles written before, during and after the (non)event – attempts to do, in contrast to Baudrillard’s previous work, is re-iterate a familiar critique of Western ontology and representation in a non-Western context. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place shows, more than any other philosophical work to date, exactly how much Islam benefits and suffers from an encounter with the postmodern. It is the postmodern Orientalist text par excellence.
Peter Osborne has correctly pointed out how, to some extent, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place is not a “straightforward application” of Baudrillard’s infinitely generating, truth-less simulations, but rather a more conventional disagreement with the way the term ‘war’ had been absurdly given to such a one-sided conflict (“Since this war was won in advance, we will never know what it would have been like had it existed”(Ibid.:61). In enacting his critique, Baudrillard addresses the 1991 Gulf War as a purely visual phenomenon, a media-event rather than a military conflict, a proliferation of signs rather than a physical assault. An almost impressionistic sequence of images and Baudrillard’s responses to them – Saddam on television, Paris demonstrations, messages from French generals – form the basis for Baudrillard’s argument that no ‘war’ has taken place, but rather a mass of information (a war, Baudrillard tells us, “when it has been turned into information, ceases to be a realistic war and becomes a virtual war, in some way symptomatic”(Ibid.:41). For all the cheap controversy of the title, Baudrillard’s points are often clever, funny (on hearing that reports from Iraq were being broadcast on the ski slopes at Courchevel, he asks: “Did the Iraqis in the sand bunkers receive the snow reports from Courchevel?” (Ibid.:77) and at times quite pertinent – his observation, for example, that Saddam, having murdered Communists, Islamists and Kurds in his own country, was subsequently forgiven and courted by Moscow, Islam and the entire Western world.
A number of disconcerting points, however, emerge concerning the place of Islam and Arabs in Baudrillard’s text, not just the way certain motifs and images operate within the larger scheme of what Baudrillard is trying to say, but also the omissions Baudrillard makes in his efforts to present his own interpretation of events. The first and probably most obvious reservation to be made on reading The Gulf War Did Not Take Place concerns the primacy of the semiotic – an all-pervading obsession with the image and its nuances, shades of meaning and implications – an infatuation with the icon which, at times, can result in observations which border on the ludicrous:
In fact, the only impressive images of missiles, rockets or satellites are those of the launch….Consider the Scuds: their strategic effectiveness is nil and their only (psychological) effect lies in the fact that Saddam succeeded in launching them (Ibid.:42).
It is difficult to imagine an Iraqi concurring with this point; although missiles may well look impressive to the people who witness their launch, they must seem even more impressive to the people they land on. This is not to embark upon some vitriolic diatribe á là Norris against the shallowness of postmodern thought, but simply to point out how any genuine consideration of an Iraqi perspective in Baudrillard’s text is almost completely absent. Indeed, it underlines how the absence of such a perspective is a necessary condition for any semantic analysis of the conflict – one can only interpret a war semantically if one is not there in the middle of it, in media media as opposed to in media res. In this sense, Said’s standard remonstration against Orientalists – that Orientalism was forever a project which produced discourse about Orientals, but never included them or allowed them to speak – finds in Baudrillard’s book a very contemporary manifestation.
One could argue that this obsession with images, this secular adoration of the icon, is precisely Baudrillard’s point (“The idea of a clean war, like that of a clean bomb or an intelligent missile…is a sure sign of madness” (Ibid.:43).One of the main targets of Baudrillard’s critique is precisely the ‘cleanliness’ of the Gulf War, the absurdity of such a proposition. The only drawback to this positive reading of Baudrillard’s approach is that, in its meditation upon the surface of the war, its omission of the uglier details, even its epistemological querying of whether the conflict actually happened at all, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place does not critique the superficiality of its subject, it replicates it. If CNN has turned the war into information (Ibid.:42), then Baudrillard’s book in many way repeats this strategy by turning the war into philosophy. Although we encounter the occasional complaint that there are “no images of the field of battle”, there is no outrage (as in Chomsky or Kellner) at the bodies not shown, the collapsed buildings not witnessed, the varied, gruesome deaths (i.e. the infamous “Turkey shoot”) not broadcast, but merely a calm and studied scepticism. It is not that Baudrillard does not care about “the fraudulence of this war” (Ibid.:58), but rather that this care seems to express itself as a philosophical concern for the ontological implications of this media non-event, not as a humanitarian concern for the lot of dead or dying Arabs.
In a sense, this leads onto the second, related point of how the insubstantiality / insignificance of Islam and Arabs conveniently facilitates Baudrillard’s own ontology of the hyperreal. As we have already seen, the peripherality of the Islamic world and Western thought’s equally peripheral consideration of it – whether it is the invisibility of Camus’ Arabs in L’Etranger, the Judaeo-Christian sidelining of Islam in Derrida’s thought’s on world religions or the complete transparency of Tunisia in Foucault’s writings – has been a standard feature in most Western responses to the East. This brute fact of the West’s ontological non-recognition of the Islamic world – together with all the subsequent connotations of Occidental truth/fact/reality versus Oriental dream/fantasy/unreality – relocates Baudrillard’s insistence on the non-occurrence of the bombing of Iraq, for all his good intentions, in a thoroughly Orientalist context:
The first days of the lightning attack, dominated by this technological mystification, will remain one of the finest bluffs, one of the finest collective mirages of contemporary History…We are all accomplices in these phantasmagoria, it must be said, as we are in any publicity campaign (Ibid.:64).
“Bluff”, “mirage”, “phantasmagoria”: only a war in the unreal Orient, one feels tempted to say, could acquire such a series of fictitious adjectives. Only a text written by a non-Arab thinker, for a non-Arab audience, could carry such a title; it is difficult to imagine whether Baudrillard could ever have written a book called 9/11 Did Not Take Place or The Second World War Never Happened. However cynical and well-intentioned Baudrillard’s text may be in its mockery of the Western media’s complete imagization of the war, one inevitable side-effect of such a gesture is that familiar Orientalist refrain – that of the East as a dream, a mirage, an illusion. In this sense, Baudrillard’s “empty” fantasy war runs into the same problems as Foucault’s “mad” Iranians and Nietzsche’s “manly”, despotic Mohammedans – what happens when, consciously or no, Western critiques of modernity invoke Orientalist/ imperialist dualisms in their very attempt at self-criticism? Should such side-effects be overlooked, forgiven, even read ironically? Or should they rather be diagnosed as unavoidable symptoms, genuinely problematic moments which occur whenever European critiques of modernity attempt to move outside their Western frameworks and use their terms in unfamiliar, non-Western contexts?
For all its Islamic stereotypes and Oriental clichés, the most positive gesture towards Islam in Baudrillard’s text lies in his straightforward recognition of the “Enlightenment Fundamentalist” (Ibid.:80), an acknowledgment which, whilst omitting to exempt Islam from the charge of fundamentalism, sees standard “rational” objections to it as groundless, dogmatic and equally dangerous:
We do not practise hard, fundamentalist traditionalism, we practise soft, subtle and shameful democratic traditionalism by consensus. However, consensual traditionalism (that of the Enlightenment, the Rights of Man, the Left in power, the repentant intellectual and sentimental humanism) is every bit as fierce as that of any tribal religion or primitive society (Ibid.:79)
If Islam is an honest, open, unashamed fundamentalism, the beliefs one could almost redefine here as ‘Western traditionalism’ are more hypocritical, forever pretending to be something they are not, forever claiming their opposites (superstition, religion, tribalism) to be radically different from themselves. This denial of the Enlightenment’s universal exclusiveness and moral/ ontological superiority over the superstitions and tribalisms it tries to denounce is a gesture we have seen in all the thinkers examined in this book – an unconscious sympathy with Islam as an unjustly defamed primitivism, an impatience with modernity’s self-denial and two hundred year old ignorance of what it really is. In fact, Baudrillard goes on to suggest that the Western traditionalist is more willing to commit acts of violence than his Islamic counterpart: “…it is always the Enlightenment fundamentalist who oppresses and destroys the other, who can only defy it symbolically” (Ibid.:80). The West’s insistence on reifying the reality around it – on imposing signs and images onto everything it meets – leads to it paranoically losing touch with that reality, inflating the slightest symbolic gestures (such as Rushdie’s fatwa) into imaginary threats, “sustaining a disproportionate terror in complete misrecognition of the difference between symbolic challenge and technical aggression” (Ibid.). Even though the West is physically (militarily, economically) stronger than the East, its fear makes it weaker…an insecurity which, for Baudrillard, renders Occidental fundamentalisms much more worrying than their Oriental counterparts.
In the end, we can say that Baudrillard concludes The Gulf War Did Not Take Place with a gesture that, perhaps, most definitively separates himself and Foucault from the kind of attitudes towards Islam found in Derrida and Nietzsche: juxtaposed against the Nouvel Ordre Mondial, Baudrillard emphasises the radical, uncompromising, unconvertible Otherness of Islam. Unlike Nietzsche, who saw in Moorish Spain a species of culture “more closely related to us at bottom” (Nietzsche, 1990: Section 60), the Nietzsche who glimpsed in Islam a Semitic version of the jasagende affirmation of life he himself espoused, Baudrillard makes no visible attempt at kinship with the alien faith; unlike Derrida, who at times is certainly able to formulate Islam in terms of a fellow monotheism, a biblocentric sister faith, a “People of the Book” alongside Christianity and Judaism, Baudrillard finds it necessary to assert Islam’s “irreducible and dangerous alterity and symbolic challenge” (Baudrillard, 2000:86). Standing at the forked path of the Other and the Same, Baudrillard takes the Foucauldian option of clinical, non-partisan, pseudo-anthropological observation intermingled with tacit sympathy, rather than any explicit expression of solidarity in the manner of Nietzsche’s “Peace and friendship with Islam! War to the knife with Rome!”:
The crucial stake, the decisive stake in this whole affair is the consensual reduction of Islam to the global order. Not to destroy but to domesticate it, by whatever means: modernisation, even military, politicisation, nationalism, democracy, the Rights of Man, anything at all to electrocute the resistances and the symbolic challenge that Islam represents for the entire West…All that is singular and irreducible must be reduced and absorbed. This is the law of democracy and the New World Order. In this sense, the Iran-Iraq war was a successful first phase: Iraq served to liquidate the most radical form of anti-Western challenge, even though it never defeated it (Ibid.:85-86).
Although it is not difficult to discern an underlying Mitgefuhl for Islam (one which will become more explicitly stated in Baudrillard’s later writings on the Twin Towers), the tone of the passage still affects the neutral observer of a contest between two opposing, unequal forces. What is most striking about Baudrillard’s concluding thoughts is the almost complete absence of any characteristics or qualities Islam might have, other than that of pure disruption. Defined in terms of what it is not (‘Islam is that which does not fit the New World Order’), the central quality of the faith becomes its anarchic energy, its wild potential to subvert, its unpredictable alterity. The strength of Islam is what comes through most clearly in this passage, even if the strength is the strength of the fanatic, of the mentally unstable. When Baudrillard speaks elsewhere of the “virulent and ungraspable instability of the Arabs and of Islam, whose defence is that of the hysteric in all his versatility” (Ibid.:36), we realise that his approval of Islam’s resistance to the New World Order is more mischievous than Nietzschean. Even in correctly ascertaining some of the real, underlying reasons for the Gulf War, Baudrillard cannot reinforce his assertions without resorting to age-old metaphors of irrational Arabs and hysterical mullahs. Once again, we have a critique which paradoxically challenges modernity whilst making explicit use of its vocabulary.
In concluding, two final points need to be made concerning Baudrillard’s use of Islam as a final bastion of resistance against an increasingly unilateral world order – the first concerns the place of Islam in the end of the West, the second concerns Islam and Baudrillard’s theories of ecstasy and excess. At the end of Chapter One, we saw how the apocalyptic overtones associated with Islam in Borges’ story drew on a long medieval tradition, one which interpreted the coming of the Moors as a precursor to the Day of Judgement. The Turks were unconvertible, Luther wrote in 1542, they were a sign of the end of the Age (Southern, 1965:105). Equally, Arabs are also described as “unconvertible” in Baudrillard’s book (Baudrillard, 2000:37); like Luther’s Turks, they are hopelessly beyond redemption, utterly incapable of being re-integrated into the Protestant-capitalist world order. Part of the attraction of the Islamist for Baudrillard throughout The Gulf War Did Not Take Place is this ideological obstinacy of the Muslim, the dialogue-proof impenetrability of their dogma. That their advent signifies in some way the imminent self-destruction of the West is a point which Baudrillard goes on to make ten years later, in an essay on the events of September 11th, “Hypothèses sur le terrorisme”. In this piece Baudrillard quotes the remarkable letter of Philippe Muray, “Dear Jihadists” in which the writer re-inscribes the terrorism of Islamic extremists within a darker, Occidental destiny as a symptom of Western decay (“We made you, you jihadists and terrorists, and you will end up prisoners of our resemblance…You cannot kill us, because we are already dead” (Baudrillard, 2002:42-43). The mood of Islam as a pseudo-divine judgement upon the morally/intellectually bankrupt West is already introduced – what Baudrillard goes on to suggest is not simply that Islamism is a symptom of the decline of the West, but also that its manifestation has become a tool of Occidental suicide:
When Western culture sees all its values extinguished one by one, it spins inwardly towards the worst. For us, our death is an extinction, an annihilation, it is not a symbolic exchange – that is our misfortune…The singularity, in killing itself, suicides the other with the same blow – one could say that acts of terrorism have literally ‘suicided’ the West (Ibid.:43).
For Luther, ultimately, the Turks had no value in themselves, no intrinsic worth, no potential for salvation. Their principal significance was semiotic – the value of a signpost, warning of the end ahead. Baudrillard’s “unconvertible” Arabs and “irreducible” Islamists, one can’t help feeling, perform a similar ontological function. Their disruption, extremism, radical incompatibility are all symptoms of the end of what Fanon called “the European game”; their utter alterity announces, perhaps not apocalyptically, the philosophical (if not economic or military) collapse of Western hegemony. Nevertheless, for all Baudrillard’s lip-service to the “irreducible” otherness of Islam, the supposedly uncontrollable alterity of its followers does become re-inscribed into the destiny of the West; by re-describing the extremities of Islam as the “suicide” of the West, Baudrillard repeats Luther’s gesture in a much deeper sense – not simply by linking Islam with some form of end-of-millennium eschatology, but also by turning Islam into a peripheral consequence of the West, a side-effect of the Occident, an a posteriori hiccup of modernity.
Zygmunt Bauman has described Baudrillard as a philosopher who “patches up the identity of his world out of absences alone” (Bauman, 1992:149). What is most surprising about the use Baudrillard makes of Islam in his inimitable critique of modernity is how radically empty Islam becomes – how, in a sense, the semantic emptiness of Islam comes to reflect the much graver moral and ontological emptiness of the West. One is reminded of Baudrillard’s own thoughts on the ecstatic excess of the object, how the qualities of entities gyrate ever faster until they lose all meaning: “Reality itself founders in hyperrealism…it becomes reality for its own sake, the fetishism of the lost object: no longer the object of representation, but the ecstasy of denial and of its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal” (Baudrillard in Poster, 2001:144-145). In witnessing the gradual progression of representations of Islam and Arabs in Baudrillard’s work – feudal Orientals, cunning Arabs, empty wars, endlessly energetic Islamists, culminating in an Islam which is nothing more than an incompatibility to the West, a photographic negative of the Occident – one wonders whether Islam itself has not undergone a kind of ecstasy (literally ex-stasis), an ecstatic self-emptying of identity, a vertiginous transformation into hyper-Islam, just as Baudrillard’s reality has spun itself dizzily into the hyperreal. For all the positive advantages which Baudrillard’s encounter with Islam may offer to the Muslim critic – a decentering and cultural re-finitizing of modernity’s truth claims, an awareness of the equally fierce fundamentalisms of the secular Enlightenment, not to mention a classic exposition of the media’s transformation of war into pure semiotica – this semantic hollowing-out of Islam may well be the inevitable consequence of any sustained meeting between Islam and the postmodern.
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This selection is from Ian Almond. The New Orientalists. I. B. Taurus, 2007:162-175. Ian is also the author of Two Faith's One Banner: When Muslims Marched With Christians Across Europe's Battlegrounds. Harvard University Press, 2009.
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Jean Baudrillard (2000). The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Translated by Paul Patton. Sydney: Power Institute.
Jean Baudrillard (2002). Power Inferno. Paris, Gallimard.
Zygmunt Bauman (1992). Intimations of Postmodernity. London: Routledge.
Friederich Nietzsche (1990). The Antichrist. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin. Paris: Gallimard (my translation).
Mark Poster (2001). Jean Baudrillard. Selected Writings. Stanford University Press.
R.W. Southern. Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages. Harvard University Press, 1965.