ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 7, Number 2 (July, 2010)

Jean Baudrillard and Western Historiography: On the “Real End” of “Real” Historical Consciousness

Sande Cohen
(Seattle, Washington, USA and Hua Hin, Thailand)


We have passed alive into the models… (Baudrillard, 1990:9).

I. Introduction

Jean Baudrillard’s writings span many disciplines, including social theory, anthropology, modern art, urbanization and philosophy. Because his style of writing freely mixed compact, dense, even oracular statements with incisive analytic deconstructions, his work has not been well received, to say the least, by practitioners of the discipline of historiography.  Michael Roth, now President of Wesleyan University, summed up the historical profession’s judgment on Baudrillard by locating the latter’s theory of history as written from the “alley” of representation, hardly the glorious “mansion” of history with room additions for “real” historians.   It is true that working historians have little interest in irony and paradox as intrinsic to social processes – as actual, material, forces – and many historians think Baudrillard’s work offensive, e.g. he wrote that  9/11 was a “suicide” for the Twin Towers, rather than a gathering of properly historical, if destructive, outcomes.  To raise suicide at least has the merit of asking for some difficult reflection as opposed to a judgment that ratifies each position that draws on “history,” e.g. treating 9/11 as an event, not an outcome.  So it is a question of both what Baudrillard has argued and how he has written – using paradox and related notions as form and content to disturb temporal conventions and to rattle our discourses on “history.” 

This essay considers some concepts of process, event and narrative that Baudrillard has offered to challenge the representative norms of Western historiography. I try to draw out concepts which are also criticisms of the rationalizations that have become almost automatic to historiographic writing, the way it construes disturbing temporal mechanisms and processes. After a brief introduction explaining why I want to connect Baudrillard’s writing to Western historiography, the next two sections discuss norms and disjunctions of Western historiography, introducing some of Baudrillard’s ideas; and two longer sections focus on Baudrillard’s specific contributions to a critique of historiography.

I argue that the writing of history is often tilted to providing stability, the recuperation of violence and mayhem. The latter are what (Balibar, 1995, 411-12) calls, today, “Africaids” – events and processes that do not “overcome” historical representation, but have some claim to do so. There are realities out of which one can make various claims to burst our rhetorics/representations, events before and different from the moment of their transformation into “afterness” for-use (for-us). Representation contains mayhem.  Paul de Man noted, acutely, this containment involves even the most thoughtful historical representation, often a confusion of temporal and logical senses of priority: cause/effect is made equal to before/after, or we “attribute to events a cause which in truth is only an effect,” which allows for containment of effects that resist narrative encoding(de Man, 1974:37).  Lyotard (1988) focused on a differend – shocks are experienced where naming could be challenged in every direction, at odds with professional historiography and its various group politics that manage the continuity of names and processes.  Niall Ferguson’s recent (2008) The Ascent of Money safely tucks contemporary financial mayhem (trillions gone in both a flash and slow process) in the bed of cyclical-naturalism, which he recodes as both a twist on fatalism and part of capitalist normalcy.  In a sense, mayhem and related ideas are what academic and popular historiography lives off of yet consistently displace. Karl Lowith (1949: 206-07) noted that historiography can “norm” mayhem by keeping to some “direction of history,” a “that” toward which progress contains regress and is quietly assumed to be both the quasi-transcendental means and the goal of time-movement. For Lowith, the West “achieved” an impasse between its application of ancient/circular (Greek-Stoic), Christian/eschatologic (futurism avant…), and modern/progressive notions (perfectibility) of change and transformation. Circular, telic and incremental senses of change are at odds with the other, even if each area of social experience yields to progress – perhaps the super-norm of containment – and its “inevitability,” or probably disappears.  An implicit problem is whether, in relation to mayhem, historiography always tends toward a recuperative discipline.

Staying within this troubled historiography, I then discuss Baudrillard’s notions of history and historicity et al. and make an evaluation of Baudrillard’s offer – a kind of existentialism versus “normal” history, but existentialism not based on subjectivity (feeling, intention, and self-interested reason) but rather on mayhem-driven social processes. Here I discuss how “history” (un)becomes/goes into the “news,” not in a Jameson/Hegelian way (the dialectic redeemed), and how notions of “end” and ending can be considered something other than literary-social responses to systematic change. Baudrillard makes a good case for the neutralization of history within present Capitalism. He asks us to consider retroversion and catastrophe not as dramatic or psychological categories, but as social relations.  Baudrillard has many important things to say about our cultural-politics, of timing and time, their dynamics and inertia. 

Before turning to Baudrillard’s texts and arguments, I specify what is intellectually important about historiography and how, in general, it treats violence, mayhem or other modes of serious trouble. I think that we can understand the value of Baudrillard’s work in historiography by making the latter explicit.

II. Historiography and Norms

Writers such as Keith Jenkins (2004: 365ff) have made compelling arguments that historical knowledge is not really about the past at all. Jenkins has argued that continuities we project between a “then” and “now” can obscure the understanding of both past and present actors and action. A “backed-up present” excuses understanding the present as such.   Such writers are provoked by Levi-Strauss’ (1966: 257) famous proposal that history leads away from itself, once one asks who and what is history-for? That history-of and history-for are consistently implicated in the other is precisely what professional historians resist.  For historians, there is near unanimity to reject any idea or practice that would shift historical representation to the status of the paradoxical, e.g. that the conjunction of capitalism and culture is actually more oxymoronic than historical. To resist paradox or allow it as only Hegelian irony is perhaps the super-norm of university based historiography. Historians do not imagine oxymoronics as a condition for the organization of concepts – that, say, perfectibility (e.g. surgical inventions) can be simultaneously destructive (e.g. of active subjectivity). Another common norm for historians: poor historiography = inappropriate continuities and discontinuities of concepts. Baudrillard would concur. As said, no group of academics in the U.S. has been more hostile to Baudrillard than historians, yet Baudrillard (1975:152-53) insisted we must not confound the present with history as mistaken identity flows from both senses of continuity and discontinuity.

There is disagreement over the very conjunction of “historical” and norms. “Historical” includes such notions as event, belatedness, accidents, retrospective necessities et al., while “norm” nods to some transcendent rule or structure. Yet historiographic norms do exist, if only as disciplinary codes.  In addition to resisting paradox, another key norm is the enigma of transformations resolved – the notion that, say, suffering in the past, suffering-for, will be incorporated and thus surpassed by reason-giving.  Reasons can be given so that the social bond as such continues.  The historiographic privilege of and to continuity is normative. Another powerful norm is that such reason fits with narrative telling, where explanation, interpretation and narration are joined so as to put an end to hanging transformations or temporal and directional ambiguity.  Here, narrative is construed as an aesthetic and cognitive unity of its own.

Synthetically considered, historiographic norms partake of and distribute a logic of equivalence – that historical representation is adequate to postulated historical forces (e.g. class warfare); that historical understanding gives a type of necessary social mediation (e.g. tolerance for Others); that temporal direction can be specified via notions of ascent and descent (emergence and fading); and that ideas of goal and purpose can be plausibly used as templates of succession (e.g. legitimation of individual and group leaders). Notions of economic “growth” such as GDP are often taken as “proof” of continuity (and rupture), the force of temporality engaged. The past is thus a zone of referents, images and concepts pulled into contemporary life, including then issues of responsibility for the shape of the future.  Norms of historiography specify engagements with past/ present/ future and referent/image/concept and are important for operations of cultural-politics. Within the university, nothing seems to budge professional historians from the dogmatism that “history” matters despite social evidence to the contrary, that in a “media-saturated culture,” even the actual reading of an historical text has achieved ironic, aporetic status (Harlan, 2003: 187).  That is to say, it is plausible that an historical text is now made for scanning, appropriation, and re-reading, not for the provision of so-called basic information, let alone norms.   

Be that as it may, by cultural politics I mean the norms already mentioned that are made to blend with hierarchies of attention – like the belief that a social “crisis” should spur a sense of “progress” to ward off decline. Cultural-politics, the appeal to someone’s invested judgment, is where present interests and historical rationalization meet.  The “history” of the avant-garde in America often fluctuates between such terms, making “advanced” art hierarchical in relation to, say, folk-based art, every avant-garde “crisis” serving to reinvigorate it.  It is worth asking why dominant senses of historicity are more driven by today’s business and university induced discourses used to establish public norms, like the discourses pro and con over globalization.  No doubt every university that wishes to compete and “grow” requires a more positive than negative attitude toward the historicity of globalization, its “necessity” – but are the discourses of a “better future” or assent to “big changes” warranted before one sees the “fine print” of power?  How exactly is globalization an “historic” opportunity and hence social necessity as opposed to a series of economic shocks and adventures and social dislocations?

Further, it needs to be stressed that it is an indelible mark of the present that these norms have broken down for all but professional historians and others (like curators) across the arts and humanities, namely, the small audiences for mainstream historical writing. Norms presuppose collective life, but history today really is history-for-someone. That is to say, even if there are norms, they are incommensurable: the financier who views not only his or her own experience but society through notions of stagflation and recession; the high-school teacher who works with senses of dread for the future concerning his or her students; the peasants of I-San (northeastern Thailand) who have to swallow another bitter pill that whoever runs Bangkok does not serve their interests. For these groups, there is no common referent for a norm of history.  In these instances, it is time that matters most, not “common” history. The recent work of Keith Jenkins brilliantly shows why it is time, power, interest and not history that “matters” (Jenkins, 2009: 157-58).  What could a collective sense of normative history mean in places like the U.S. where an individual can choose a history at will to satisfy or otherwise “match” personal needs and interests, let alone a place like Iraq where proliferating and differentiating senses of history have multiplied with the destruction of its political regime?

In brief, historiography is the medium in which norms come and go and disputes over goals, purposes and means are raised and contested, but nonetheless a weak medium today. Norms are highly unstable, as many critics have noticed, with less assurance that the future shaped in every here and now will have much to do with an alleged prior design.  It is arguable that present practices of techno-science and, say, social privatization indicate chaos is on the increase, and so the future – and normative relations – is arguably more opaque than ever.
III. Historiography Disjoined Through Mayhem

Nonetheless, a minimo, historiography is the membering of affirmation and negation, scattered fact and temporal process, the management of signs made memorable. High-university culture requires historiography. Remembering and forgetting are part of ‘membering’, which has a genealogy infused by art, morality, politics, memory, body-work, spirit connections, despotism, and more. In the face of heterogeneous practices and processes, membering gives synthesis, identity and even legitimate succession. Membering also withdraws identity and recognition from something else, as well. Historiography helps to “put time together” (synthesize, join) via the forms of narrative patterns, causal models, theories of outcome and the like.  Discursive historiography is the on-going flow of synthetic narratives across the disciplines – the minimally integrated stories that are told and circulated. For instance, Baudrillard (1975: 130) actively mined in this domain, writing that Capitalism is only the “inaugural modality, the infantile phase of the system of political economy,” a warning-shot about telos and current social practices, asking as to social projection about the “end” of Capital and the “rise” of alternatives (see below).  For instance, what is the evidence used by writers such as Jameson (1991) to employ the qualifier “late” capitalism? Why not call it “self-devouring” and expansive instead of “late”?  In a similar vein, hardly any progressive in the U.S. can think of the Presidency of George W. Bush outside the narrative trajectory of the triumph of the Right, which can obscure the fact that progressives abet processes of destruction as well, e.g. high-end professors whose credentials – standing on what Baudrillard called sign-exchange value – subsidize the social-psychological attraction of University arts and humanities sectors, contributing to the steady dissolve of good posts.  “Stars” are paid to attract (fewer) graduate students and (more) donors, an “historical” success or failure for universities?  Historiography as membering can serve any group concerned with “mastery.”

As said, historiography is not free of paradox – to historicize is to repair time, to resolve “time out of joint” (Kant, 1950: 77-78). But historical discourse is always itself “out of joint,” or so of its own time that to historicize is also embedded in a competition to name, to make identities that have social effect and force. According to the famous Brazilian historian Gilberto Freyre (1986: 4-5), the Portuguese were successful colonists in Brazil because they were neither European nor African, but both, with the “African influence seething beneath the European and giving a sharp relish to sexual life, to alimentation, and to religion…with the hot and oleous air of Africa mitigating the German harshness of institutions and cultural forms…”.  No historian today is comfortable with “seething,” “relish” and “oleous” as named group stereotypes, but those identity tags, primary naming, sustain much of the story Freyre tells – narration serves a larger identity, with specific identifications required for the story-told.

Thus, historiography can be considered the written use and abuse of representing the past-as-history, whose startling continuity rests precisely on specific despotic and Statist tendencies, giving identity-work in support of claimants to temporal and spatial succession. A recent glowing review of books on and by R. Niebuhr (Urquhart, 2009: 22) takes readers back to the name “vital center” of American politics, politics now to be informed by Niebuhr’s “compulsive readability,” “wisdom,” and “Christian charity.”  Even ahistorical discourse can often be the most historicist (turning the notable into the memorable) in the application of identity for the purposes of synthetic claim-making. When Warhol and Matisse are put together in art-history as “masters” of illusion, taking questions of original and copy and their distinctions to the experience of the perplexing, both are given a share in the “permanence” or super-historicity of cultural endowment. And of course no political formation is immune to abusive uses or operations on the past and the future. The memorable and the noteworthy, as Barthes (1970) put it, are historicized as they receive the resources to “last,” at least in a certain way.  For instance, Baudrillard directs us to the use/abuse of the memorable that provides cover for political deals. The Vietnam War, he tells us, is actually memorable because it signaled China’s acceptance of Capitalism. To propose that the war had little to do with American anti-communism turns China’s non-intervention on behalf of North Vietnam into an event that locates the Vietnam War within a strange context: the U.S.  “… pulled out of Vietnam but they won the war” because a billion low-cost producers and consumers were added to Capital’s overall stock and resources.  Baudrillard’s audacity was to precisely refuse being caught in the politics of declared sides, and instead, in the example above, locates the Vietnam War as an event of global capitalism, a thoroughly realistic ironism, a shift to the larger movement of debtor-creditor, where politics is rendered more ambiguous.

It may well be that historiography makes sense today not in terms of its divisions of action and practice into temporal zones that make the present a result, what follows from, but over questions as to future-claims – who and what has the right and power to secure a future, social niche by social niche.

Yet for all its provision of stability, the genealogy of Western historiography is dependent on military, economic, political and cultural mayhem, processes and events that dissolve the walls of safe and comfortable experience, in unanticipated ways.  There is both narrative despotism (identity-work) and mayhem no matter how one construes historiography from its “origin.”  Narratives installed continuity of a name (a regime, a person, a text), circulated with threats – bodily harm, social exclusion or detachment from the body of the social. Narratives of Capital, for instance, despotize by making a consumerist driven perspective the “one” that matters.  And mayhem is not “one” thing, identical to itself. It is not reducible to the “sublime” of historical experience, which has become a somewhat cozy haven and trope for violence made re-presentable. What kind of mayhem is represented when cultural consumption rationalizes, like those profitable tours in Belfast today that show visitors notable and datable places of trouble?  What about those who experience(d) Belfast as first-order violence?  To speak of historiography as a discourse concerned with mayhem and a family of related terms, is to recognize that it works, often, like the plague used by Thucydides to organize and unfold his narrative, the plague an “outside” brought to the telling of events, so that his history of Greek conflict was modulated by chance and not just an exercise in the telling of sheer fatality (Cohen, 2006). 

Mayhem, to keep the thread, has been used to build many philosophies of history and art, as well as philosophies of culture, politics and technology.  In fact, some of the best philosophies of history take us to the extremes of social organization which, as we’ll see below, is what Baudrillard has done.  Mo-Tzu impaled courtly art over the latter’s using up of young people’s bodies to stimulate the aesthesis of a ruling group, an early version of (anti) art grafted to a (projected) bad history so as to render its history as poor direction. For Mo-Tzu, the Wan dancers were part and parcel of a despotic continuity, a “therefore” or norm of courtly life:  “…the rulers must have young people in their prime, whose eyes and ears are keen and whose arms are so strong that they can make the sounds harmonious and see to strike the bells front and back” (Cooper, 1997: 48).  Tracy Emin’s show of tampons and cigarettes on the floor of the Tate are part of Mo Tzu’s “continuities” and “therefore,” which has little to do with what things look like or what constitutes art’s own space by comparison to art’s bodily effect and social use – Emin’s display of subjective mayhem is just as comfortable to its cultural curators/audience as were the Wan dancers. (And what then is the “space” of history in the face of a trans-temporal identity of functional outcomes, here, art that satisfies, which threads the Wan dancers to Tracey Emin?).

Mayhem or disorder or trouble even made their way directly into historiography, in the form of a sense of the chaos of events, “anxiety” over the very idea of the usefulness of history.  Experience by experience, chaos, mayhem et al. announce the dissolution of code and structure; they are intrinsic to tradition, what will be destroyed or dis-membered without necessarily having been “membered” in the first place, to use Paul de Man’s phrases.  In Jean-Francois Lyotard’s terms, there have been many modernisms or codings and recodings of old and newly added traditions, preceded by postmodernisms or mayhem/chaos that dovetail with events and processes that undo continuities of social life.

For example, the pagan and Christian evaluations of history are evocative of these relations.  From Eusebius to the sixteenth century, Christian additions to historiography installed powerful continuities to their narrative history. Besides the origin-event (arrival, resurrection), Eusebius made sure Christian historiography was narrated around devils and heresies – the threatened mayhem to Christianity – a substantial tactic of dramatism, to use Kenneth Burke’s term.  By the 4th century pagans turned not to their own traditional doctrine to resist Christianity, but to practical customs and poetry to revive a sense of life; they did not invoke so much their own narrative templates, as the latter were not felt able to resist the Christian demonization of their gods. Pagans turned to practice, not story, as pagan beliefs succumbed to Christian devil stories that finally gave way to Western ghost-writing, or commerce with specters, in Derrida’s words. Where Greek/Roman historians made claims that historical representation was a “mirror of change,” causality and effect both the privileged objects and terms of analysis,   Christian historical writing, with formations such as an end to history and thus its resolution, discredited paganism (Momigliano, 1977: 107ff). In sum, new traditions are often effects of mayhem, and deeply mark historicity as it becomes historiography – the textual integration and disintegration of “what happened,” a devil’s term, if there is one.

Today, confusion abounds because historical writing has politicized itself without a clear social “charge” – genuine consensus – for relations to past and future: when did Chinese Communist Party historiography slip into “One China” (when Chiang Kai-Shek escaped?), which includes the politically false story of Taiwan’s “return”?  What drives mainland China’s denigration of Korean narratives if not contentious territorial claims?  How to explain today’s mix of right-wing tactics employed in progressive politics, as in the case of the American groups devoted to an art-history just as hierarchical as the Right, e.g. the group October, responsible for neo-canonization and for whom some artists, like Yves Klein, do not belong to art-history except as ideological obfuscation?

So as to deal with mayhem, chaos, tradition and related terms, Westerners have replaced the exemplum offered by morality, art and politics with a remarkable array of strategies, from reality TV and its “metakitsch” format, in which a financial/psychologically designed organization of a “moment” of (humiliating) truth dominates, to the toleration of tradition as melancholy, on full display in the paintings of artists such as Anselm Kiefer or in the writings of an astute critic like Avital Ronell.

Thus, every society has some close connection(s) between mayhem and philosophy of history, between chaos and reflection, events and repetitions, affirmations and negations, which extend to issues of social oblivion and obsolescence and those evaluations which make things last (in paradox). Statements and enunciations about ‘now’ and ‘then’ are time-dated practices – they event themselves – in the mediums of institution, group, financial tangles, social conventions, pictorial sensibilities and riddled by notions of “soon” and “late,” “too soon,” “too late,” “too early” that pull in many directions. Baudrillard locates current historiographic membering with “expanded reproduction” or “unlimited personal development,” which makes for a social orbiting of critical-social and political history – an incessant use and abuse of history, where functions of Capital determine more and more fragile re-syntheses.   And, as argued below, if “history,” considered as a social discourse, is now determined by interests in self-growth, self-management, and self-reproduction, terms more of consumption, the professional classes, and a middle-class society rather than a critique of society over goals, then we should have to think-through such processes as desublimation, alleged liberating differences that turn out to be the Same, or keep to the game of a larger indifference. For Baudrillard:  “…the system no longer needs universal productivity; it requires only that everyone play the game” (1975: 132). That “play” is circular, even tautological – a rejection of history? To anticipate the next section – Baudrillard will elaborate contemporary society as a proliferation of retrospective rationalizations (1981: 84ff), a delivery system of “So Be It” to experience (Nietzsche). Of course the nastier mayhem happens elsewhere, America in Iraq, the Chinese in Darfur; compared to those places, the global centers of information, education, design, politics and so on often get by on intellectual foreclosure, restricted stories of anything and everything (oxymoron:  omissions and blindness’s of knowledge increase), turning mayhem into representations for consumption.

To conclude this section: it is a truism that intense historiographic eras are rare indeed – where time and name are felt by different social groups not to cohere. An important question is how, as a discursive mode, a critical use of historical representation can compete with reproduction (e.g. bureaucratization)?   For if it is now reproduction that is set against critique, where reproduction itself has become the new dominant (paradoxical) social bond, might this be the very form and model of an anti-event?  

Finally, many commentators have noted that historiography is riven by pseudo-disputes; that it is saturated in institutional and market politics, yet continues in its seemingly age-old illusion of serving an “anyone” via the best and most appropriate synthesis of research and story. A persistent philosophical issue is what the deployment of a critical consciousness of history as tactic and strategy could mean for engagement with new socialization processes. As previously mentioned, Keith Jenkins’ (2009) recent At the Limits of History thoroughly doubts any use-value of “history.” For instance, Judith Butler (1990: 248ff) has it that a “participatory” sense of democracy is best sustained through an affirmation of marginal “heterogeneity.”  Those groups denied identity under earlier, less inclusive, democratic regimes can only enrich democracy itself if integrated. Those refused past “reciprocal recognition” are said to show that the “rational motivation or purpose of the history of democratization” has partially failed. For Butler, overcoming negation is the pivot between past failure and future improvement of democracy.  But does this mean that the “historicity” of democracy is pre-given and affirmed by inclusion of the marginal, that democratization is a more inclusive process that produces a better sense of historicity?  

IV. Baudrillard and Vicissitudes of Historiography

How does historiography matter in Baudrillard’s theories of process? What distinctive plateaus of historiography inform his writing, e.g. the factual, or notions of process and structure, or the sense of narrative? Consider his highly compacted proposition-question that modern art is constituted:

…not in its relation to the world but in its relation to the other paintings by the same artist, its meaning being thus tied down to succession and repetition…what paradoxical law, in its very movement, bends authenticity to the constraint of seriality?  (Baudrillard, 1981: 84)

In this conjunction of art, authenticity and seriality (succession, repetition) socially recognized and mediated/mediating art, an obvious question concerns the appropriate way to represent such differences, the serial and the authentic. The serial stamps itself over and over. The authentic has to be always itself.  Where do they link?  As art (object), its authenticity is the transformation of the aesthetic experience of an object joined to someone’s perception and judgment – the authentic is discursively so.  Seriality and succession are quite close, but the “ongoing” of the serial is not the same as the “after” of succession nor identical with the “again” of repetition. Much current critical-philosophy testifies to the impacted connections here.   Baudrillard has noticed something strange about art-historiography: the merging of succession and repetition on the presumption by critics that after and again refer to some “original” (structural, event-like) breakthrough of an oeuvre (discursively installed), which becomes the basis of later interpretations (or in Barthes’ terms, what is imposed as myth gets recoded over and over).  How does an artist’s work become, say, more authentic if it repeats itself (in technique, in strategy, in form, in gesture)?  Could the paradoxical law here be a matter of an involution, where art is subject to insiders, to practices of collecting, being seen in certain places, and which drives uses of discourse to insist on (discursive) authenticity as true identity,  hence simulacra-identity and, worse, a destruction of criticism?  And how might that stand with the thinning-out of the criticism of art’s value, today’s reliance on controlled, expert validation, e.g. curators in charge? For Baudrillard, art-historiography is perplexed.

Baudrillard templates this contemporary art-world as an “interplay of referrals, of equivalence and of controlled dissonances,” part of a larger “terrorism of value,” where a “thousand contradictory definitions of beauty and of style are possible…”.  In the actual Babel of art-historiography, the concepts just mentioned are hardly those of art’s belonging to gift and barter, which perished with the rise of capitalism. But Baudrillard’s discourse only plays off such historicity: signaled by the terms “referrals” “controlled dissonance,” and “terror.”  Thus, could it be that the alleged authenticity of some contemporary art is a function of the artist’s name via discursive reviews that are serialized through the build-up and textual rationalization that insists discursive repetition makes and becomes part of authenticity? In which case is the authentic that which repeats on and as the artist’s name (a Warhol!), an edifice that hangs on bestowing prestige, the reception of investments of desire, especially judgments with institutional clout allowed to be (mostly) removed from social dispute? (Baudrillard, 1981:188)  Baudrillard asks pertinent questions as to the processing of art and its historicity, especially as the historicity of art fluctuates between inflating some past artifacts, reductionism of the same, in all cases creating hierarchies of art.  Baudrillard, in short, noticed that judgments on art rely on a sense of historicity that has something a little disturbing about it.

Consider an example from the macro-logical level, Baudrillard’s notorious succession of the orders of simulation. From Renaissance “counterfeit” (based on illusion and appearance) to industrial “production” (where secrets and truth structured knowledge) to contemporary “simulation” (models of life more real than life), this reads as an “historical” transformation, but how is historical distinguished from “social” dislocations?  We call something a “dislocation” on presumption there is “normal” history, but what if “dislocation” is a continuous norm, now? If simulation, continuous but self-disturbed, frames “history,” how can “history” serve as the locus of reference for the understanding of, well, itself?  If the projected identity of the “it happened” turns out to be a simulation of the “it happened,” or “history” is “real” simulation, when is “history” history?  These conceptual subjects are what the discipline of history fends off, but they indicate there is a powerful existentialism  in Baudrillard’s historiography, and it pivots on taking the logic of to-historicize seriously, of going to the limits of paradoxes of historicity.

Consider more closely this existential threshold. If art “once” stood for and can still stand for “loss of finality,” the “compatibility of life and death,” which involves symbolic and material reciprocity in some way (active memory, active ritual, real presence?) between life and death, is it still art when an object is severed from reciprocity? To install art as “teachable,” a transmitted knowledge-information-aesthetic conjunction, is in many instances institutionally and financially expedient (Baudrillard, 1983: 120). Why call objects “art” when they circulate in collections that help a subject “to weave around himself a closed and invulnerable world that dissolves all obstacles to the realization of desire (perverse, of course)” (Baudrillard: 1981, 93). Baudrillard asks which bits of art-history are historical as opposed to political, financial, ideological, teachable, let alone existential (a subject who risks something by making, not representing)?  What could be existential as art-history tries to bind and thread beginnings, startings, irruptions, and originations to goals, ends, and outcomes, given that these notions are heavily narrated via a discourse that rationalizes the different, making the strange normal instead of bringing “the stranger” to us?  The historicization of art eliminates art’s participation in symbolic-reversible objective existentialism.

This existentialism is mixed by Baudrillard with the evaluative level, Baudrillard’s hostility toward “retro fascination.” One of the key instances of this is when “history” invades cinema to neutralize it, part of daily life as “pacified monotony.”   The success of “retro fascination” (e.g. who betrayed the Rosenbergs?; how did Confederates “feel” at Gettysburg?) indicates history is a lost referential, subject to a “posthumous liberalization.”  The consequence of simulation for realist historiography is that history becomes a “leukemia” where “…all content can be evoked pell-mell…all previous history is resurrected in bulk – a controlling idea no longer selects, only nostalgia endlessly accumulates,”  culturally figured forth in a film like Chinatown, without a single error, “cool, cold pleasure…functional pleasure, equational pleasure, pleasure of machination.”  “Retro fascination” includes the genre of Holocaust films insofar as such films are a “major event of cold systems…of deterrence and extermination…a kind of good aesthetic conscience of the catastrophe.”   Holocaust was televised “to capture the artificial heat of a dead event to warm the dead body of the social.”   One could hardly ask for a stronger evaluative use of criticism of contemporary society – in Foucault’s terms, a small event critical of bio-power (sitting-watching the replay of “history”). But such evaluations are also existential, since Baudrillard threads the Holocaust-represented (evaluated) to the social “triumph of entropy over all possible tropes,” which makes criticism of Holocaust-representation socially risky.  Retro-fascination is thus a present use of history set forth “…to regenerate ideals, like the fantasy of a permanence and democracy of knowledge.”   Such fantasies rely on the university to conserve what capital puts to death in real life, the university a “zone for the shelter and surveillance of a whole class of a certain age…”.

Finally, consider the areas of methodology and the critical-factual, where Baudrillard argued that transformation of an analytic term into an ideological one often relies upon historical distortion. Such distortion is very close to what historian’s call anachronism, projection of a false identity on the past and hence releasing a pseudo-debate about it in the present. Baudrillard was relentlessly critical of the poor modeling of change.  Thus, when the analytic force of the concept of labor power is said to define the atomized subject of capital, that is one thing; but when this is transferred as a universalizing model to treat earlier notions of subjective identity and labor, something goes wrong. Senses of subject-to and subjective get mangled in the other. Pre-capitalist master-slave relations are characterized by the master’s personal domination and personal obligation, which is not the same thing as capitalist labor-power. Thus, when social critics connect the contemporary salaried worker into the continuous narrated historical “truth” of an earlier identity (master-slave), we make a false continuity between (past) master-slave and (present) alienation-exploitation via labor’s reduced life through the selling of labor-power (e.g. physical hard work) which does not belong to earlier sumptuary-domestic practices (where there was often more leisure); alienation is experienced only with market-economy practices. It bears repeating: when the analytic work-up of master/slave is re-assembled as “the master’s ownership of the slave’s labor power,” and applied as a continuous chain of identity, we have an abuse of historical and critical thinking (Baudrillard, 1975: 93ff).  Is Baudrillard then sometimes a very sharp historian in dis-abusing us of false continuities?

In fine, Baudrillard’s writings make for sustained, paradoxical, historiographic interest.

V. Baudrillard’s Development of Counter-Historiography: The Force of Symbolic Challenge

“The Simulacra win out over history,” so one reads Baudrillard. That is a shocking rejoinder to all historicisms or attempts to lay-down a base of reality for history, especially its cultural-political representation, as in the presumption of, say, a perduring common sense. Baudrillard begins his construal of counter-historiography with Jacob Burckhardt’s at once “originary” or historic/classic name – the Renaissance – for it was here that the counterfeit and forgery emerged in the materiality of stucco and the theatricalization of experience, contesting everything natural and archaic, or at least their social metaphysics.  First-order simulation – signs, social power, social relations – deployed social-rhetorical tactics like analogy and the visibility of such devices as automatons and “natural theater,” used for the interrogation of appearances. Baudrillard associates this first-order simulacrum with conflict between natural and civil law, with social distinctions and practices that did not completely abolish the pre-bourgeois “real,” but still called forth some challenge to bourgeoisification (which Bahktin [Lodge, 1988: 133 ff.] modeled via the carnivalesque, and has, strangely, an echo in writers like Toynbee [1946]). First order simulacra indicate that aspects of society were not yet organized in the name of a code, or there was still some symbolic circulation, something outside the triumph of economic surplus or calculated equivalence.   One of the defining practices of societies that claim to represent themselves as historical is commitment to make the past return, to establish emotive-political connection with the past; for Baudrillard pre-Renaissance societies were  not finished with symbolic-challenge formations, practices that were

…nondialectic, ineluctable…neither means…nor an end…its only term is the immediacy of a response or of death. Everything linear, including history, has an end; challenge alone is without end since it is indefinitely reversible (Baudrillard, 1987a:56).

Importantly, the symbolic/challenge link cannot be defined by negation, what Baudrillard calls definition by the void (lack, absence) or what Nietzsche called passive nihilism. What participates in symbolic-challenge does not recognize the autonomy of negation; the latter insists that what is must perish in the “light” of a future goal, e.g. economic finality in the future.  Instead, symbolic-challenge is a question of finding a way of rising to the force of an event, not the finding of a technique and strategy to win or avoid a loss.

At the level of the image, first-order Renaissance simulacrum-movements made images the reflection of something deep.  Images always pertain to contests that mask and denature the profound, “…challenge, reversal and overbidding,” in the language of Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993: 36), such images a “vital illusion,” radically antithetical to our consumer images that aim for a “stun effect” (Virilio).   Social relations here such as seduction were less an economic and/or sexual investment and more the attraction and dis-attraction of appearances, with indefinite fixed goals that could be anticipated.   Money sacrificed and “eaten up” by and as social challenge was still implicated in symbolic disputes. This was certainly not the gobs of money that return pseudo-“symbolic” capital, or sign exchange-value confused with the symbolic, the latter drastically reduced to success and failure, including the increase of debt and other kinds of obligations (Baudrillard, 1981:113). (Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals the ur-text in the ascent of this reduction).  The symbolic bars the autonomy of economic exchange – Baudrillard was adamant that the symbolic is mis-categorized when located as or called value or code.  The radical ambiguity of the symbolic – “The Stoics had already expressed this with great eloquence” – stems from taking up its ever-present challenge:  “if the world is fatal, let us be more fatal than it,” an acceptance of “discharge, waste, sacrifice, prodigality, play and symbolism” (Baudrillard, 1975:42).  Importantly, the symbolic thought of as an order of existence pertains to a “principle of reversibility,” associated with an acceptance of the disorder and mayhem intrinsic to existence, disciplined in the industrial era (school, factory), and then eviscerated in our “service” driven societies because the symbolic is not “productive,” just as labor comes to have thin material relations to time.   In a sense, the symbolic is an ever recurrent selection whenever extreme challenge is called for, even unto where “death must be played against death: a radical tautology that makes the system’s own logic the ultimate weapon.”  When do people rise to the occasion of reversibility?

As with the principle of reversibility and reciprocity, the symbolic is indifferent to the autonomy of position (role, function) which follows from contractual and legally sanctioned societies. The symbolic does not join with repressive desublimation. As a social relation and process, the symbolic is neither aligned with a circle nor with cycles of repetition, but with the welcoming of reversibility, or, dangerously, an acceptance of violence when it is put to the enactment of a challenge, however fraught this is with contemporary sensibilities about going to the limits.  We are asked to compare this logic of social relations to those stories-histories in which action is not reversible but unarrestable, where past and future are predicated on loss and absence, and society receives the past-as-history so as to find itself instead of transforming itself (Baudrillard, 1975:112ff). Paradox: symbolic societies can be more dynamic and transformative even if contemporary Western regimes are in constant change.

Here too Baudrillard insists the symbolic is evoked when one embraces the “actual grace of coincidences which makes the event of a life,” and never a chain of causality.  The symbolic is made (shades of Vico) when distant yet indivisible lives co-exist, like words that mingle with parallel significations,    when relations of worldly existence are not a “parting of destinies and a strategy of otherness,” but practices in sharing destinies-differences, a refutation of any single historical-identity, which goes to even seeing causality undone, “a logic which we find deeply repellent” given our narrative equipment and subjectification. Today, history and destiny “coincide only exceptionally” because they are not linked by necessity. The West is liberated from all necessities except the consideration of its own potential non-necessity.  Now, destiny is a mechanism that separates past and future or makes them part and not meet again – as in the negative universal of the melancholic.  Hence the attraction for Baudrillard of the coincidence of pleasure or any other relation that elicits positive, unanticipated attraction.

With the momentous shift to the industrial and expanded production – modernism – symbolic-challenge goes under, is made to give way to narratives of “totality and happiness,” or simulacra  marked by notions of genesis, development and finality. Enlightened history and narrative telling both encodes and submits to an ideology, a form of representation in tandem with the form of production. For it is capitalism that is radically historical:  “Labor alone founds the world as objective and man as historical” (Baudrillard, 1975: 36). Historiography becomes “canonical” once made universal and not analytical; it is historiography that embraces “the imaginary of the sign” (fiction) and removes it from contestable interpretations (one could choose from four “master-tropes,” as Hayden White insisted), all the better to become part of “repressive simulation.” Repressive simulation is a technique put on persons and processes of all kinds (including fictive/legal entities); it encodes adopting rationalizing causes as narratively necessary to outcomes, or affirms rational destructions via the power of the negative, as Hegel taught – even creating ideologemes like “It is the People who choose, who speak, who decide,” all the better to locate the negative in nearly  uncontested sources.  Temporally considered, the socius sets itself on (within) an indefinite metonymic process (capitalization). Thus, most “classical” metanarratives since the l8th century reinforce both the irrelevance and the managed return of the past in the face of Capitalist re-making. Just as bad, the metanarratives project lack and absence on so-called primitive societies, via such categories as “abstract, linear, irreversible finality,” the temporal and spatial markers of a grotesque “self-fetishization of Western thought.”  A harsh judgment on how the West sanitizes its unjust past?  In any case, the past’s truth is placed beyond its own understanding, the past thus made subject to a politically driven ethnocentrism, crystallized in the Marxist fantasy of capital and history joined in the abolition of history.  Once a society demands that reality = what can be finalized, all prior social relations are regarded as obsolete.

As said, symbolic reciprocity is certainly Other to the rigid autonomy of positioned social functions; it does not join production and function so as to issue orders in the code of repressive desublimation, e.g. learning in a symbolic system is not predicated on the story of the defeat of ignorance or overcoming a lack, but on doing a task that is an end in itself. In that sense, a symbolic order could never be a condition for a rationalist eschatology, with the latter’s pretension of being closer than any other culture to a future universal, “closer to the end of history or truth” (Baudrillard, 1975:113).   For Baudrillard, the reign of production and private ownership based on competition and finality, as industrialization was, represents, quoted again here, that the capitalist system is merely the “inaugural modality, the infantile phase of the system of political economy” (Baudrillard, 1975: 130).  Didn’t Nietzsche tell us that we haven’t seen anything yet in relation to nihilism?

This is certainly a long-view of temporal process, not unlike Claude Levi-Strauss’ notorious speculation that the history of the world is the destruction of meaning delivered through human communication.  Indeed, as said, Baudrillard depicts the era of industrial production as the effect of a “much longer period, the operationalization of the code…division, abstraction, functional systematization and structural arrangements.” Such propositions are part and parcel of philosophy of history, however unrecognized by working historians.  The sense of history in the second order of simulation relied upon the ability to switch between truth and secrecy as disclosures of past-present, based on the antagonism between social groups, if not classes. Think of writers like Hardy who made middle-class secrets available to his readers. Historical consciousness demanded meaning from labor, often realized in one version or another of that “simplifying terrorism” called Historical Reason.  Socially obligated notions of continuity and causality and thus choice over difficult ends was intrinsic to the era of production, the (mostly) myth of making the social more transparent and transparency considered the form that showed the historical significance of things.  As Barthes once put it, the modern historical event is the name of what happened, contested to be sure, but a norm of representation in sublimation systems, like universities that need to teach goals and ends. More transparency also makes for transgression even if only figured forth as projected differences.   The avant-garde was defeated by its own ideals “in advance,” so to speak.  In sum, the junctions between a “classical” age of production and historicity can be seen in what Charles Levin called their shared ideology: “…the basic form of the ideological process… a binary reduction establishing a complementary (i.e. asymmetrical) relation between arbitrarily isolated terms, which institutionalizes a linear, non-reciprocal exchange” (Baudrillard, 1981:19).   Of course the social resolution of many contradictions never comes to completion or even coherence.  Crucial here is that Enlightenment and after historiography became, however various, devoted to the act of giving intrinsic value to arbitrary situations – a massive reduction of ambivalence and the symbolic, or where historiography was homologous with capital and thus collusive and effective in making desublimation “normal,” part of historicism.  

Finally, in this second-order mode of simulation, historiography was also positioned to mediate – to negotiate rival claims between social groups. The metanarrative ideals – like the liberation of humanity from want and ignorance – were shot through with notions of progress, contradiction and dialectics, history sometimes a contest over goal and outcome, history conceived as the “recurrence of a sequence of meaning.”  Whatever else historiography represented during the high phase of industrial production, it was a mode of synthetic integration, a resistance to the dispersion of events and actions, even a kind of vicarious pleasure insofar as it offered its readers the satisfactions of narrative judgment, (mostly) endowing power and success with necessity. There was little reason to challenge history as such as long as the convergence of historical writing, truth and fictional tropes was uncontested or otherwise could rely on the credibility of deferred linear time – where history “itself” was accepted as a universal, the later and the after the fulfillment of the earlier, a mode of confidence in events as such.  This is where historiography as narrative history thrived on (enthymatic) equations between sequence and meaning (Baudrillard, 1994: 15).   As said, and I think it bears repeating, much historical representation was partially defined by an opposition between secrecy and the enigmatic – it could instead offer an aura of ends that satisfied the interests of continuity and causality, including visibilities of progress, the transparency of events. This transparency was intrinsic to the “abstract, linear, irreversible finality” that made up the internal structure of historical representation, and was co-coded with the actual rupture against the symbolic and nature, carried out by the autonomization of labor.  Historical representation presided over the ascription of causal finality to the present and utopian speculations concerning the future.

In the next shift, processes more pressing like nationalism (often a reaction to industrialization) emerge in what Baudrillard calls “the end of production” (1993: 9) . This change of social threshold and experiential conditions is definitively marked:  the main processes of a third-order of succession, simulacra-change, are overdetermination by the code” (1975:20); “techno-structural rationalization” and the “corruption of all the categories” (1975:131); the hyper-real or simulacra turned to dissuasive uses (1993:62ff) (“…death sentence of every reference”);  growth in indifference (!) at every level of the social (1983:53); institutions such as the university turned to providing managers to serve the random conservation of what Capital terminates (1993:185);  the anteriority of a structural law of value or a molecular idealism that installs an “infinite divisibility of practices and responses” (1983:116); an equilibrium of terror and “regulated opposition” (1983:120); zone by zone of experience, the “unreal” lived as real, a “hallucinatory resemblance of the real with itself” (1983:142); and where  “each configuration of value is seized by the next in a higher order of simulacra” (1993:2-3), so that liberations are already new manipulations.   These descriptions are not part of dialectics.

The movement from second to third-order simulation is a shift from production to reproduction, a “gigantic operational game of question and answer…a gigantic combinatory where all values commutate and are exchanged according to their operational sign,” which is tantamount to saying that a “desublimation of productive forces” is the rule. The system relaxes and tightens, simultaneously.  Not just phenomenon like (previously marginalized) Pop art bears witness to this, but so does financial capital, freed for “instruments” of circulation that twist finance into a different repetition of mayhem.  Contemporary freedom is driven by self-expression, not by creative social transformation, e.g. today’s architecture selected by name and brand – the Guggenheim in the Middle East, using near slave-labor to build a repetition (another oxymoron?). Unfortunately, desublimation contributes to “social emotionalism,” the over-psychological investments made in the arbitrary, including art and scholarship (e.g. beautifully bound Library of Congress volumes).  As decisively as can be said, this shift is one of deterrence – the emergence of such intellectual forms as semiology and psychoanalysis indicate progress and manipulation, as sign-exchange value decimates the symbolic-existential, as bureaucratization seeps into what was “outside.” It becomes difficult for art to be allusive and critical instead of “homologous and collusive” with cultural-economy.  Art deters itself – it is at once sophisticated and induces infantile notions of ownership and “play” – as with the billionaire Eli Broad’s $50m new building at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that is essentially his private property; its gallery space features the work of Jeff Koons, whose sculptures simulate “playfulness,” thirty of them owned by Broad.  Society goes hyper-real: simulations from subjects and institutions interrogate us – only someone who does not “need” an institutional connection can ignore one (feedback multiplies) and, as Nietzsche indicated, the truth of the social now comes to “the knowledge that truth, reference, objective cause have ceased to exist” in their ordinary historical form.   This is a social regime that tests itself so as to ceaselessly “prove” itself, an “end,” of sorts, progress by reproduction that tries to eliminate noise (Americans study everything if only to deter surprises).  Social life as such becomes (paradoxically) utopic where, sector by sector, “the principle of equivalence” rules and the utopic feeds off a dismaying sameness.   A logic of simulation wins:

 …on the merest fact – the models come first, their circulation, orbital like that of the bomb, [and] constitutes the genuine magnetic field of the event. The facts no longer have a specific trajectory, they are born at the intersection of models, a single fact can be engendered by all the models at once. This anticipation, this precession, this short circuit, this confusion of the fact with its model (Baudrillard, 1983:32).

The system as such is therefore catastrophic: specific breakdowns generate the energies that bind the social to itself,  where attempts to better a problem, to set it right, often accelerate the intensity of a larger, more inclusive control and release more potential mayhem and chaos. The well-along processes in the globalization of art, dependent on only a dozen or so key terms endlessly reiterated from city to city, is surely a sign of art’s perfection of its own insignificance.  School systems like the Los Angeles Unified District sell more pizzas than books, a dream-failure for more mismanagement.

In a telling allusion to Alexandre Kojeve, the intellectuals make their own catastrophic “end” by searching for the merest signs of significance in the insignificant, making themselves nonsensical (1983b:40).  Is Cultural Studies a third-order simulation of second-order social groups or the reverse? When the celebrity Bernard-Henri Levy gleefully announces in Artforum that his rewrite of de Tocqueville on America is his way of acknowledging America as a “great fuck,” there is not much difference between intellectuals and the producers of pornography (at least amateur pornography in the 1970s showed some pleasure). Classical alienation based on exploited subjects gives way to the “giddiness of transparency,” and it becomes dangerous for the arts and humanities to acknowledge the possible “objective irony” or the “fatal reversibility” of the world – a vestige of the reversibility intrinsic to the non-domesticated symbolic (1987b:82-83).  Imagine the current Western art-world (market) if its monetary value could not be discursively established. It is precisely because there “are no objective conditions anymore” – which certainly does not legitimize subjectivity – that opens us to potentially unthinkable processes, or catastrophe without finality.  Be that as it may, modernist individuation goes archaic; the services of and for reproduction tendered by contemporary serfs are unlimited, as the discourse from Kant to Lacan on individuality is thrown into turmoil:

Only the serfs and servility remain. Now, what is a slave without a master? A person who has devoured his master and internalized him, to the point of becoming his own master. He has not killed him in order to become master (that is, Revolution), he has absorbed him while remaining a slave – indeed, more slavish than a slave, more servile than a serf: his own serf (Baudrillard, 2001:55-56).

Importantly, the subjectivity required for historical consciousness is emptied out because “everyone remains aware of the arbitrariness, the artificial character of time and history” (1994:8). As third-order simulacra become socially entwined, materially active, the subject is even reduced to self-blackmail:  “…each person substitutes himself for the other in the role of oppressor,”  a pointed offering of defiance or refusal to affirm a subjectivity whose liberation is an excuse for small power surges over others.   As said earlier, this context is catastrophic: a subject is, more paradox, alienated from its own disconnection, where individuals operate with the highest dilution of choice and the lowest intensity of action.  It is impossible to imagine a subject-of-history when difference is turned into a proliferation of identity-mania, e.g. “best-of-lists” for everything.  This is not unlike a schizoid or divided subject a la Deleuze and Guattari’s (1977) Anti-Oedipus, but it is more extreme, a subject that is “isophrenic, without shadow, other, transcendence or image…,” almost autistic.

This spiraling arbitrariness between names and identity was precisely occluded in the second-order simulacrum, when history and (subjective, group) identity were at least in contest and negotiation with the other over goals and purposes. With the third-order, there are many aggressions for identity – to be saturated by it, to complete it, seen in the ubiquitous rush to perfection, e.g. today’s unlimited application of design relentlessly marketed as a kind of social finality.  With third-order simulacra, the old senses of immortality based on the belief in a soul that endures are absorbed by a prosthetic fetishism, or the reproduction of a literal self.  Aging becomes an enemy.  Being one’s own self is a coming forth of identity-claims close to the “total exploitation of oneself by oneself…”. 

Performativity is cranked to the speed of its own obliteration – just think of the usual drop-off in publication after tenure.  Indeed, subjects, as previously noted, are tested by their consumption of objects, e.g. the compact disc that “…doesn’t wear out, even if you use it,” which provokes the query “If objects no longer grow old when you touch them, you must be dead.”   It gets stranger. Historiography of the present has to deal with the social life of a historical consciousness reduced to revision and rehabilitation, evading its own post-mortem. The practices of reviewing, rewriting, and restoring – the re – are what matters, especially the maintenance of a positive balance sheet for the West, today’s projection of “democratic extreme unction by which the New World Order is heralded” (1994:12).  A sanitized past and a remorseful present precludes or forecloses on events “which have preceded us [and do not] retain their glory, character, meaning and singularity.”  Are reversible events – symbolic-challenge – possible in the midst of endless revision?

In sum, Baudrillard postulated a contemporary history-barrier, that which prevents historical consciousness from acquiring new purposes and functions to replace those of its second-order simulations:

…a storm of events of no importance, without either real actors or authorized interpreters: actio has disappeared at the same moment as auctoritas. All that remains is actualite, ‘action’ in the cinematographic sense, and ‘auction’, the selling off of the event on the overheated news market…with which interpretation can no longer keep pace (Baudrillard, 1994:15).

 Some events go the way of Princess Diana’s death, with the proliferation of unreal analysis of a private accident. The centerpiece of Western historiography, its notion of causality as adequate explanation, goes the way of dramatic obsolescence, by becoming hysterical:

…corresponding to the simultaneous erasure of origins and causes [is an] obsessive search for  origin, responsibility and reference – an attempt to exhaust phenomena back to their infinitesimal causes…the hypertrophy of historical research, the frenzy to explain everything, attribute everything, footnote everything…headlong flight from the hemorrhage of objective causality (1990:12-13).

The big subjects of modernist historiography – Progress, Differentiation – become myths of their own discourse.  The function of historiography is turned to a conjuring act – to convince readers that a sense of historical unreality can be overcome (e.g. debt as liberation and/or prison), that the multiplicity of interpretations is always prelude to a determining synthesis, the famous centerpiece/promise of historical representation.  But that strange attractor and referent, the masses, want spectacle, not history.  Isn’t this accurate insofar as contemporary American historiography evinces a powerful regression for the narratives of “founders,” of all kinds – to revive the spectacle of an “origin,” group by group, subject by subject? When motorcycle gang members in California conjure their historicity, their “origin,” isn’t a filmed image of Brando from The Wild One part of their “self-founding”?

As the notion of a subject of history becomes unworkable, so too for notions of end. The impossible paradox of speaking about an end – an end has to have “ended” so as to be able to receive a “look back” on it – makes any discourse that would tie origin to end/goal something childish. End-talk precisely requires strong notions of continuity and causality, which is not possible with artificial (but no less material) events, or with the ceaseless anticipation of effects – a society of risk avoidance and speculation – whose  management actually squelches grappling with cause and effect. What was the cause of the Enron debacle – gone in a blitz of information-noise.  So how exactly could historical representation operate in the extremes of our third-order simulations, given that subject, event, and end are not available except in their being frayed, irreparable?

As his discourse moves to the analysis of the present, Baudrillard’s gambits draw upon a wide range of terms.  He proposes three hypotheses concerning the status of the materialization of history as paradox in a society that, again, has overtaken the functions of historicism (narrative cohesion between name and date). First, without some powerful sense of that “recurrence of a sequence of meaning,” how can any event “withstand being beamed across the whole planet”?   The speed(s) of social transmission and  quickening obsolescence dissolves events. How can historical significance be given with this social physics of transmission, bringing versions of represented events together, when the media disperses what it sends?  A second hypothesis is that of a slowing of history – the force of inertia that follows from the silent majority and its “immense indifference” to what they are supposed to pay attention to vis-à-vis the public world. Interestingly, this slowdown is not from the silent majority’s lack of connecting with senses of history, but from its social multiplicity. That is to say, it is the actual hyperdensity of city, commodity, and messages which add to “the cold star of the social” – where the masses “absorb history…[and] history cannot reach escape velocity…”. Both issues of transmission and hyper-density indicate the materialization of history cannot catch up with its own model (1994: 4). Thus, consciousness of  history as such swings between accelerated effects dispersed and the slowing of their meaning: a recipe for the scattering of history, so that a critic of this cannot decide if history is now evolutive or involutive, transformative  and/or self-consuming. Here indeed is a strong version of the famous French Theory sense of the “undecidability of meaning,” and well beyond the scope of the “undecidable” as a textual issue.

Yet there is a third hypothesis.  History “as such” is more like contemporary music, which has reached its own “vanishing point.”  Provocatively, Baudrillard brings history and music together as disappearances, where history has gone with music “into the perfection of [their] materiality” via their modality of effect.  How does one judge contemporary music, or even experience its pleasure, if music is so everywhere in every way that each social group reaches its threshold of listen-ability, which mostly does not intersect with the others?  Thus, historical representation is so prolific that it is ecstatic – it disappears through uses that cannot come together.  We have a wrecking, not reckoning, of whatever is said to tie cause and effect together.  Consider any event said to be of public importance. Take Darfur – widely narrated, discussed or otherwise disseminated. Yet it is hard to find a non-specialist who can give a cogent take on its cause and effect. What presence or declared absence of political factions, ideologies, global resource politics, strategic goals, incompetence and so on could support consensus, bringing Darfur into representative historical equilibrium on anything but a temporary and partial basis?

Thus, just as the technical achievement of stereophonic sound gave music infinite places to be heard and composed, history disappears and reappears as the news, where it is subject to a thoroughly misleading synthesis and/or more fragmentation. The hyper-reality of news defeats history as representation. The news, as such, offers historical representation a momentary eternality, but for Baudrillard, its only perfection is the inclusively-misleading story. In symbolic societies perfection is/was the effect of a “ceremony” that “…retraces…[an] original event.”  But with “time out of joint” as opened by Kant, a decisive intellectual “event” that helped create the industrial era, history is at once liberating, deferring, and obsolete. History is thus neutralized, at best, its practices of contestation from the second-order of simulacra deprived of effect and impact.

The neutralization of history as a social relation is of immeasurable consequence.  The acceleration of social life (e.g. financial deformations) warps linearity, as if events are re-arranged in too many orders of connection at the same time, with no order giving necessity to the other. Keith Jenkins’ notion that only “total relativism” is “real” today seems confirmed (Jenkins,2009:13). Historiography might slow down mis-representations of the past, but can in no way offer synthetic history-of that is credible to any but narrow audiences.  This is a retroversion of history, where we encounter events which we are not even sure are events; where, for instance, the drama of the dominant-insignificant puts notions of process in limbo – eighteen months of competition to see who the American Democratic party would nominate results in the media filling itself, not in any increased critical awareness of American political history or structure.  There is no end to adding to the inventory of the oppressed, mistakes, and regrets from the past. There is both exponential instability and dull stability, or acceleration and entropy at the same time, which is to say that the social field as such is transfinite – an excess of specific group and individual ends and finalities, so both involution and disaggregation of time and history co-occur.  Concepts of destiny and necessity give way to chaos, metastasis and chance – relations more of catastrophe than not. All of this forms, as said earlier, a deterrence of history, and defaces the features of any possible destiny, stripped of all “classical” referential purposes. Deterrence means no end is at all imaginable because “history itself has become interminable” (1994:116). Signs of history grow after history (as representation) is already dead – hence it neither dies nor grows, but fosters a revisionism without end. “History is being sold off, as is the end of history.”   Thus, history becomes a “baleful curvature,” where the illusion of linearity comes to a stop and deprives history – its identity – of the end of history. As paradox multiplies – “the simulacra win out over history” – there is reversal, recurrence and turbulence of modernism’s developments, a hyperbolic curvature, a “fatal asymptote” (1994:13).  No messianic hope based on some “reality” of crisis or apocalypse can work now.  The only thinkable ends of history are orbital, both the charms and worries of nostalgia and utopia deterred through the de-finitive, the deprivation of an end. This is a victory, so to speak, of the melancholic, whose form of experience makes history an existential palindrome, doubled on itself, which is what nostalgia and utopia become once pulled back into revisionism. 

If there is now such a cultural and intellectual entity as a scene of historical consciousness, it is represented for only a simulated “anyone.” In this, historical representation is eerily like the art market. Like art, historical consciousness has been pulled into the edginess of speculation and inflation, which at once rivets spectators (for a few minutes) and adds to the larger apathy toward objective becoming.  China is Rising, the West in decline!, or hyperbolic inertia. The technical term used by Baudrillard for this, again, is catastrophe: historical representation is not the mediation of mediations, as it can only swerve toward repulsing threats to its own practices – expelled are dangerous ideas and discourses, especially among professional historians who retreat to their sanctuary, their “discipline.”  Structurally, historical consciousness shrivels as it is drawn to financial and managerial Capitalism: events are instantaneously forgotten or bundled in a memory hole because there is no powerful sense of alternative future(s) to reflect the past. What is catastrophic is that we could not even “use” history to disturb society, thus historical consciousness becomes a genuinely radical anti-event, a pure simulacrum of itself.  We can now, strangely, reiterate that events are on strike, which echoes A. Kojeve’s infamous notion that intellectuals go on holiday when faced with a consumption driven society.  Deprived of any aura or sense-effect that might inaugurate some notion of breakthrough, events are shuttled to issues of identity and legitimation, e.g. novels that come with lots of footnotes to guarantee or give proof of their research, which in fact ruins the glory of literary illusion. In any case, no prodigious event is allowed to create its own effect.  What would we say in America if the Vietnamese insisted that the “American War” was not over, so that Americans could not commemorate its end, where we could not clean up time, as “heirs” of history who continue to ruin even the deceased in our representations?  Thus, relentless commemoration of the tiniest thing goes hand in hand with rehabilitation:

We build an opera house at the Bastille. A laughable rehabilitation…the elite…pleasure the places where others died. …Might one suggest to the people that they storm the opera house and tear it down on the symbolic date of 14 July? Might one suggest that they parade the bloody heads of our modern cultural governors on the end of pikestaffs? (Baudrillard: 1994:23).

The triumph of the anti-event or the neutralization of history is clearly displayed in the fact that the French national dictionary removed references to Saint-Just, that extremist of the Revolution.  The present can thus be partially defined as that location where the past is repented for and  desecrated through sanitization.

Thus, “the end of history is, alas, also the end of the dustbins of history” (1994:24).  Or, perhaps more appropriately, history is itself a dustbin – its own. Defunct ideologies, bygone utopias, dead concepts, fossilized ideas pollute our mental space. Now comes the “…sedimentation of centuries of stupidity,” which is to say, a “heteroclite history” full of living, anachronistic revivals. Churches, communism, ethnicities and ideologies are indefinitely recyclable, tracing the arc from ancient notions of cyclic time to our governance of a tamed past and equally controlled future – with the only danger that of a chaos that could happen.  If the making of history was once something that was capitalized (the famous capital H of history), it was because historic value was contradictory and conflictual, which for a time modulated public discourse by putting critical distance on goals and purposes; now that capitalism offers expurgated versions of itself, history can only be speculative and unreal, the life of that which is undead (but not alive), its rewriting a “cosmetic surgery” made political – often the elimination of too many ugly spots.  Radically, Baudrillard shows us the way to think history as objective irony – like the outrageous fact that communism died the way Marx predicted for capitalism.

We are left with historical consciousness domesticated to the point that it offers only management of what complements catastrophe, what Baudrillard called the form of a new Western moral predation. He cites a Parisian rooftop buffet at the Arche de la Defense with its photo-exhibition of poverty next to sumptuous food – “when we have finished sucking out the destiny of others, we shall have to invent one for ourselves.”  Given that Westerners do not want to experience the existential-ambiguity of the symbolic (life as challenge), historical repentance becomes expedient, carried out by progressives and conservatives alike,  a simulation of the  “comeback of the defeated,” in a society that has even run out of its supply of emptiness (1994:68-71).  I should like to emphasize that when Baudrillard comes to understand the present, the time of his writing, he is quite clear that the illusions of the second-order organization of simulacra no longer work.  History, via the media and the schools, all exceptions noted, now occurs in a manufactured catastrophe that takes the place of any natural and unforeseeable catastrophe; ours is pre-programmed, deliberate and experimental, based on the need to attract consumers.  The great anti-question of our own time is “does a market exist for…”?

While everyday brings threats from the past (Noah’s ark is in Iran, Jesus had sex – and enjoyed it!), we stage these returns and recyclings to evade an uncertain end or fate. What Lyotard (1984: 23ff) and other writers called the incredulity of the metanarratives is, for Baudrillard, the system-wide illusion of a will to pretend to be historical, stripped of risk, a premise more out of the Genealogy of Morals than any other “source.”  In other words, use and abuse of history happens all the time, and happens in such ways as to neutralize a breakout of the symbolic-existential, that which challenges simulations of history. How else to explain that world-wide profusion of public remorse where relics and secrets are made to show their all, their everything – the visible dead, to be replaced next week by….

VI. Conclusion

The metahistorical (pace Hayden White) message of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of History (1888) was that nihilism is selected so as to protect oneself from selecting; the selection of nihilism is an avoidance of risk, conflict, and especially transformation. Baudrillard’s writings in this area suggest not only the normalization of what Arthur Danto once called history = accepted present folklore, but the institutionalization of an actual and unethical nihilistic irresponsibility toward ancestors and those to come. This is seen in our therapeutic overzealousness that excludes even mourning for the past if such mourning interferes with present functions. Those with especially large and acute financial and institutional stakes in the management of representation do not themselves write (curate, etc.) as if their life depended on it – we simulate the importance of culture and history. It is a career. Any danger to the arts and humanities that is carried by historical representation is foreclosed, even as we liberate fossils from construction sites, because “…everything discovered is wiped out” (Baudrillard, 1994:73).  Is it really unknown in our social-cultural systems that the sheer postulate of “historical rights” (e.g. a better democracy) now pales in the face of  “all we want is the copyright,” continuous with the death of the symbolic or, more difficult to conceive, the emergence of a new social type that has to be indifferent to history, who operates through the injunction that to adapt = to survive?

It is quite clear that Baudrillard actively interprets such phenomena as mass society, obesity, terror, pornography, fashion et al. as more than historical, as part of, again, an “objective irony of the world,” where second-order history can now be compared to an accumulative pseudo-memory for unburdened consumption (1987b: 83, 103). We should call then Jean Baudrillard’s writings on history those of a philosopher-critic who refuses to let history – as representation, as synthesis of practices and forces – “free” from its perplexities, its objective torments. Yes, objective: no one is detached from the collective movements and processes outlined above.  Baudrillard’s many writings about history and past are notable in a refusal to legitimize left, right and center uses of formal terms like “progress,”  “subject,” and agency.  Historians may narrate from secure(d) institutions, but Baudrillard took the time to conceive “history” as entirely historical, paradox intended. 

Sande Cohen is author of Historical Culture (University of California Press, 1986); Academia and the Luster of Capital (University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Passive Nihilism (St. Martins, 1998); and History Out of Joint (Johns Hopkins, 2006). He is co-editor with (R. Rutsky) of Consumption in an Age of Information (Berg, 2005), and (with Sylvere Lotringer) French Theory in America  (Routledge, 2001). He has written numerous essays and is completing a book entitled The Work of Art and Culture in an Age of Stupidity, the web preview of which is at


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