ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)

The King Must Die: Pataphysical Exegesis of an American Presidency

Dr. James Lawler
(Department of Philosophy, SUNY at Buffalo)

I. The American Form of Liberation
I think that each of us can resist.  I don’t get the impression there could be any organised political resistance as such.  It would always be an exception, and whatever you do will always be ‘exceptional’ in that sense.  A work of art is a singularity, and all these singularities can create holes, interstices, voids et cetera, in the metastatic fullness of culture.  But I don’t see them coalescing, combining into a kind of anti-power that could invest the other (Baudrillard, 1996:2). In her article “Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida: At the limits of Thought” (2008), Sally Hart argues that Baudrillard offers two forms of practical political response to our Age of Simulation:the individual resistances described in the above passage, and “reversals” arising from the intrinsically excessive nature of the System, in such phenomena as AIDS, cancer, computer viruses, and terrorism. In this second category, Hart includes the passive resistance of the masses, the very silence of the silent majority, as a reversive strategy in the face of the System’s oppressive power. Hart writes:

In the same context of the “obesity of the system,” Baudrillard also talks of the scandalous resistance of “the masses” as a nameless, faceless no-thing-ness which increases exponentially at the same time as the social and information, these masses “refusing to be spoken of as well as to speak,” forcing the system into overdrive, as “power” is revealed as nothing but an “empty simulacrum.”

Hart is unhappy with Baudrillard’s restricted conception of the political alternatives. She argues that Jacques Derrida provides a framework for a return to mass political engagement in which the System itself can be seen to function in politically positive ways. The agency for such additional possibilities for resistance is provided by the traditional European liberal devotion to realizing universal values. Whereas for Baudrillard the rise of the “global” has put an end to the previous era of the “universal,” Derrida’s thought, Hart argues, reinvigorates the modern European project of achieving the universal values of democracy and human rights through the outreach of the global System itself:

While at this point it is hard to argue with much of what Baudrillard has to say about Europe I cannot (will not!) accept that, after Derrida, we are unable to re-think the European spirit of the universal in a re-worked ethico-political space (albeit one transformed in our techno-media age) which might enable us to utilize the potential benefits of globalization while minimising its potentially harmful effects – indeed Derrida argues democracy and human rights stand a better chance of being realised where globalization occurs.  For while Derrida recognises that a certain (European) Western capitalist, imperialist spirit (one reaching obesity in the American model it helped spawn) has indeed been destructive – leading to (World) wars, imperialism, colonization, genocides and the like – he cannot foreclose on another messianic (and most importantly) European spirit which promises not the elimination of all otherness but a new world order infinitely open to otherness.

Baudrillard might well respond along the lines of remarks he made during a conference: ( in which he replies to a question regarding the political alternative to the rule of simulation and spectacle, in essence: You are already liberated. Liberation is no longer a messianic dream. It has already happened, or is in the process of happening, thanks precisely to the System’s globalization. There is therefore no need therefore to provide the System with an alibi from the left for what it has already achieved, or is in the process of achieving.

Of course this “liberation” takes place along the lines of the System itself. It is, by comparison with “European” and traditional liberal thought, a degraded, American form of liberation. It is not the right to read Proust – nevertheless readily available on Kindle in one minute for $10 – but, more likely, the right to wear Nike running shoes going for $300. But for all the degradation, this is an historical advance for millions of people who had been living in abject poverty and under oppressive regimes and are now climbing into the brave new world.

But this perspective opens up the crucial question: what to do after the orgy? Once liberation has been achieved, then what? And if the answer is – address the inequalities that still exist in the world, because not everyone has as yet been liberated – this not only postpones the inevitable posing of the question, but fails to address the degradation of the realization of liberation itself.

In reply, it is important to recognize the potential of Baudrillard’s own “apolitical” position: individual resistances, and the dynamics of the System itself with its inherent fragility. The latter takes on new import after the economic crisis of 2008-9, and in the light of current political developments in the US, the privileged site of the System’s evolution/involution. Baudrillard helps us understand how we might take sides in the conventional political system in meaningful ways, without having to invent something new, without having to reinvigorate older utopias that only provide alibis for the System’s continuation. Thanks to Baudrillard, we are equipped with the theoretical tools for recognizing new possibilities for political action along what Hart calls “the semiotic-symbolic spiral” – i.e., the interaction of the semiotic core of the System in which “sign value” trumps all other forms of value, and symbolic exchanges that envelop and unwittingly invest it with a deeper, politically potent symbology (Hart, 2008).

II. Rule of the Mummy
Baudrillard’s political thought requires appreciating the underlying significance of the symbolic dimension of social life issuing from the haunting refrain of ancient times that “the King must die” – the archaic notion of political rule of the era of early, pre-modern societies, which Baudrillard calls the order of symbolic exchange. “Every domination must be bought back, redeemed. This was formerly done through sacrificial death (the ritual sacrifice of the king) ...” (Baudrillard [1976] 1993:42). The elevation of the Pharaoh to the exalted status of immortality was therefore a decisive break from this conception of primitive humanity, a transition to the modern view of the state. The new ruler of the hierarchical civilizations desires to live forever, and so to perpetuate his rule without break through his bloodline. And yet even the Pharaoh must die, and so his immortality takes the form of mummification in enormous pyramidal grave sites. The enormity of the break with the symbolic order is reflected in the enormity of the symbols that seek at least to simulate death, to offer compensation for the betrayal, in the consciousness of the oppressed populace. The symbolism of the death of the king is further reflected in periodic uprisings resulting in dynastic changes and historical defeats at the hands of more viable rulers–paradoxically, those better able to simulate the death of the usurping royal power.

One common form of this simulation is achieved in our modern democratic times that require regular exposure of the rulers to the masses by a kind of mummification of the living ruler, by the substitution for ordinary living persons of those lifeless dummies or mannequins of power that we call politicians – with their stilted impersonations of rulership and uncanny resemblance to each other. Their deadness of aspect and language sets the rulers apart from the common people, justifying, in the symbolic logic of the “pataphysical,” their very right to rule. To justify the right to rule, the ruler must set himself apart from ordinary life to such an extent that he (or she) already resembles the hallowed, or reviled, effigy he is destined to become after death. The king must die, yes: in truth, he is already dead.

Baudrillard defines the pataphysical solution as follows:

The simulation must go further than the system. Death must be played against death – a radical tautology that makes the system’s own logic the ultimate weapon. The only strategy against the hyperrealist system is some form of pataphysics, “a science of imaginary solutions;” that is, a science-fiction of the system’s reversal at the extreme limit of simulation, a reversible simulation in a hyper-logic of death and destruction (Ibid.:4-5).

Rather than belonging to a “metaphysical” order of transcendence, as in the mythology of classical modern political philosophy, political power is actually maintained only “pataphysically,” by simultaneously simulating and denying transcendence. Political power rests on the transcendence of the ruler over the ruled. In the archaic community of primitive times, adhering to the order of symbolic exchange, such separation of the ruler from the community could only be provisional. The ruler, the leader, the king who stands out from the archaic community and departs from those interchanges without remainder that constitute the symbolic order, must finally be sacrificed, or sacrifice himself. The pharaoh, who would deny this order by his own immortality, nevertheless still “pataphysically” acknowledges it by a lifelong devotion to the preparation of his tomb that his usurpation symbolically requires. A twisted form of symbolic justice thus continues cryptically to invest those social formations that would constitute themselves in opposition to the primordial order of symbolic exchange.

Separation of ruler and ruled becomes entrenched in modern societies by the apparent or theoretical dissolution of the community itself into a mass of separate individualities. The modern abstraction of subject and object, subject and subject, regarded as the natural state of things, logically (metaphysically) requires a transcendent political State to regulate the otherwise inevitable war of all against all that such abstract subjectivity initiates – as Hobbes has argued. If Baudrillard is right, however, the logic of separation does not propagate upward from a supposedly natural subject engaged in satisfying needs by a life devoted to the production of value, but rather propagates downward from a political power that seeks to perpetuate itself, that refuses to die, and must prolong its life by the death of the community itself – i.e., by its division into separate and antagonistic individualities.

But this fragmentation can never be finished as long as life continues. The community never really dies, despite the efforts of power to destroy it. It survives 1) in the silent resistance of the masses to the increasingly desperate exhortations of power that attempt to persuade them of its reality, and 2) in the ritual exchanges that continue to constitute its inner life. But if the community can never truly die, the pataphysical destiny of the State must be to perish.

Thus, even in our times, power persists only by a cryptic simulation of the death of the king, if only through the deadening imitation of the mummy that stands so often for statecraft. But the masses, i.e., the community reduced to the form of separate interchangeable individuals who group or grope together, form an increasingly resistant body, increasingly immunized against the magic of old illusions of power. The problem for contemporary power is therefore one of breathing life into a semblance of power in historical decline. This is achieved in part by the alternation of leadership between conservative and liberal, left and right, i.e., pataphysically speaking, by the sacrifice of the ruler that is ritually simulated through an electoral oscillation between political parties. For a time this game of death and resurrection succeeds in fascinating the masses, until the charge arising from the different poles of power, the electricity of positive and negative polarities, becomes absorbed by the inert body of the masses that political rule inevitably produces.

Baudrillard describes the situation of politics in the context of the student uprisings in France in May, 1968:

Power is being lost, power has been lost. All around us there are nothing but dummies of power, but the mechanical illusion of power still rules the social order, behind which grows the absent, illegible, terror of control, the terror of a definitive code, of which we are the minuscule terminals. Attacking representation no longer has much meaning either. One senses quite clearly, for the same reason, that all student conflicts (as is the case, more broadly, on the level of global society) around the representation, the delegation of power are no longer anything but phantom vicissitudes that yet still manage, out of despair, to occupy the forefront of the stage (Baudrillard [1981] 1994:

Rather than accepting their necessary demise, the rulers cling to a power that has become reified, cut off from any fruitful relation to the life of the society. The political machine persists no matter who gets elected, no matter who fulfills the role of representative of the people, in the increasingly empty contests between left and right by which “political activity” applies CPR to the body politic.  Why then doesn’t the entire charade of power disintegrate like a mummy that has been exposed to the air? It is because there is something else that is going on, something far more terrifying than Hobbes’ Leviathan – “the terror of the definitive code, of which we are the minuscule terminals.” What he calls “the Code” is Baudrillard’s diagnosis of the underlying source of our contemporary world, with its multiple simulations – of power, of economy, of desire, of knowledge.

III. Historical Rise of the Pepsi Challenge
The terror of the Code is found in the contemporary realization of a System based on a rational logic without intrinsic direction or purpose and so capable of infinite variation, as evident in the sequences of 1s and 0s of the machine language of the cybernetic code, which is refracted on the biological level in the sequences of simple chemical formulae that constitute the genetic code. What is more terrifying than the notion that any one of my cells can asexually propagate a perfect duplicate of myself? What reality do I then have in this scientific schema of infinite duplication of my existence? I am nothing but a replicable terminal of a program that can replace me completely, should I make a misstep in its eyes, i.e., deviate from the requirements of the Code. But if this vision of a “clone army” of myself is still largely impractical on the plane of biology, it takes on operational significance in the multiple avatars that incarnate its logic: in the scientific, educational, cultural, media, commercial, and informational programming by which individuals are constituted as terminals of a System that seeks to reproduce itself by multiple means, with the political being only one of its numerous tentacles. If we still cling to the political, it is in the hope that, in the science-fiction of the political imagination, i.e., in the spirit of the pataphysical, it can become an instance of reversibility, its deadliness turned to good use in the murder of the eminence grise of the System, the Code itself.

To fully comprehend the nature of the terrorism of the Code, it is necessary to back up historically to the origins of modernity, and there discern a dynamic, a destiny, that has only now reached its full perfection. In contrast to Derrida’s deconstructionism, Baudrillard offers a “grand narrative” of modern Western history, with three main stages or successive social orders: the first, the order of use value, the second, the order of exchange value, and the third, contemporary order of sign value, i.e., the Age of Simulation in which we find ourselves today. The rise of the second order means the death of the first, but not its entire elimination. The “principles” on which earlier orders are based continue to operate in the succeeding order. The values of the past, the rational values of utility and exchange that defined early stages of modernity, did not simply disappear even as they have been superseded by the System’s inherent abandonment of previous value systems as the final, complete form of modernity itself. From this sublated persistence of the principles of former stages of modernity arises various illusions that a return to those “universal values of Western civilization” can provide a basis for radical change.

The modern world emerged with the abstraction of use value, i.e., the isolation of individuals and things, subjects and objects, from the circular interchange that characterized the pre-modern order of symbolic exchange. An objective thing, capable of being separately analyzed by a knowing subject, and reduced to its basic building blocks in a scientific scheme of thought – ultimately a generative code – is itself an abstraction. Its concept consists in the isolation of a certain range of perception from everything else, i.e., in the separation of a distinctive foreground from the indistinct background that underlies all real perception. Thus an act of intellectual uprooting or dissection, violating the wholeness of perception, is constitutive of the thing or object.
In historical terms, the era that paradigmatically embodied this delimitation of value was, culturally speaking, that of the Renaissance. In economic terms, it was the era of merchant capital, which consists in the exchange of surplus goods – i.e., the isolation of certain “things” from the totality of social life, and their exchange for

1. Rembrandt. Self Portrait (1660).

purposes of individual aggrandizement and enrichment of possessive, accumulating subjects. The art of the Renaissance gives us the realism of separate individuals existing in three-dimensional space, as we see paradigmatically in the paintings of Rembrandt.  In scientific terms, this was the time of Galileo, founder of the principle of inertia – the law of causality according to which nothing changes itself, but remains in stasis until something else moves it. The apparent stasis of the symbolic order, eternally revolving on itself without advancement, is thus regarded as disruptable by the application of an outside force, and in the interest of the enhancement of separate individuals.

The era of exchange value, that of capitalism proper, deepens the abstraction, as production itself, and not just surplus goods, becomes subject to exchange, and things are replaced by their exchange value, by money. If a thing, regarded as a means of satisfying the need of a separate individual, is already an abstraction along with the abstraction of need itself, the representation of its economic value in monetary terms is doubly so, an abstraction of an abstraction. This superabstraction is realized in the replication of the things themselves, which lose their individuality in the process of industrial reduplication where they are constituted as embodiments of an abstract design. Unlike the best of bees, Marx argues, even the worst architect rises above the level of the mere animal, instituting his human essence as he “raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality” (Marx, 1867). The system not only produces endless copies of the same object; it produces a virtual clone army of the producers themselves, workers who of necessity become duplicates of one another. I.e., it creates the masses. The critical theory of this era, that of Marx, exposes the injustices inherent in a system that reduces the worker to a minimum of subsistence in order to extract a maximum of surplus value. But the roots of such injustice, the separation of the productive individual from the order of symbolic exchange, are not questioned by this critique. Indeed, this critique can be seen as instrumental in the metamorphosis of the system to its neo-capitalist, contemporary phase.

The current phase of this dynamic of abstraction, its most complete form, is the Age of Simulation. It is the order of pure sign value, the rule of the signifier over the signified, in which the abstraction that began the process stands forth in its perfected unreality. This is the meaning of the Code. It is a logical system that is infinitely variable, that is capable of incorporating all aspects of life, but goes nowhere, and has no substance. It is the ultimate origin of the clone army of modern society, or, with their liberation, the clone parties, the clone orgies, of contemporary life.

Money now, in its leading phase, no longer exchanges for the production of things, of utilities, to increase its value, but engages in a self-referential narcissism in which production no longer directly matters as money exchanges with other money in dizzying feats of financial acrobatics, all sanctioned by the logical deductions of the Code. Indeed computer programs have come to rule these higher altitudes of economic life largely to the exclusion of human supervision. In The Mirror of Production, published in 1973 shortly after President Nixon took the US off the gold standard in 1971, Baudrillard writes of this final phase of the development of modern rationality:

Economically, this process culminates in the virtual international autonomy of finance capital, in the uncontrollable play of floating capital. Once currencies are extracted from all productive cautions, and even from all reference to the gold standard, general equivalence becomes the strategic place of the manipulation. Real production is everywhere subordinated to it. This apogee of the system corresponds to the triumph of the code (Baudrillard [1973] 1975: 129).

Today 1% of the population of the United States controls 40% of the wealth. This egregious inequality, this obesity of the System involving the blatant violation of the humanistic values of European Enlightenment, hides the deeper truth, which is a matter of simple mathematics, that 60% of the American financial capital sloshing around in cyberspace is the property of the bottom 99%, mostly in the form of retirement funds. The dialectical opposition of capital and labour is in this way absorbed and negated in a global system that defeats all traditional revolutionary politics.

2. Andy Warhol. Campbell’s Soup Can (1964)

It is not obvious that we are dealing with a supreme abstraction. The abstractness of the modern order, with its fatality of evolution toward a pinnacle of nothingness, is evident only by contrast to the pre-modern order of symbolic exchange. Our contemporary abstractness comes to define the very meaning of reality in our times. What is more real, for us, than a thing – by contrast to all ideals and fantasies of the imagination? Similarly, the doubly abstract status of exchange value, as the representation or simulacrum of things, does not qualify money as unreal. On the contrary, as the power over things, the indispensable means of acquiring them and thus of satisfying our desires, these signs and symbols of things and activities appear more real than the real. We are launched into the modern realm of the hyper-real, aptly signified by Andy Warhol’s Coke bottles and Campbell’s Soup cans (Baudrillard [1981] 1994).

It is important to note that for Baudrillard we are not living in a “post-modern” society calling for “post-modern” forms of thinking. The contemporary order often called post-modern is the logical outcome of classical modern rationality. It is thoroughly rational, indeed hyper-rational, to its core. What is lost in the contemporary era is the Enlightenment confidence that rationality can bring liberation from ancient oppressions. Such confidence in reason has been lost because rationality has in fact triumphed, but with a pataphysical twist: Humanity has been liberated, the orgy has already occurred, and all that this liberation has given us is the Pepsi Challenge! As Jake Sully says in the film Avatar, the modern world has nothing to offer the people living in the order of symbolic exchange: “They’re not gonna give up their home. They’re not gonna make a deal. For what?  A light beer and blue jeans?”

Over and against the symbolic order of primitive times, the contemporary reign of the Code appears as the quintessence of abstraction. But as the genetic source of our “reality,” it precedes even the real. Baudrillard calls this rule of the signifier over the signified the precession of simulacra. Baudrillard begins Simulacra and Simulation, whose first chapter is entitled, “The Precession of Simulacra,” with the following citation from the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, rewritten in the spirit of the pataphysical inversion.

The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true (Baudrillard, mirthful reference to non-existent passage, Book of Ecclesiastes in [1981] 1994).

Surrounded as we are with the simulacra that we take for reality, for truth, we must make an effort to recognize the Biblical truth of this simulated world that confronts us in the hyperreal form of Coke versus Pepsi: Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity. What is left to us, then, if we are looking for an alternative to the contemporary order, is not some deeper objective truth – for such objectivity is itself an imaginary effect of the Code – but self-conscious recourse to the imagination itself. The critical political economy of infrastructural truths, applicable to the previous era, only masks the fact that our current order has no truth. Political economy in its most revolutionary projections won’t save us. Metaphysics won’t save us. Only Pataphysics, the “science of imaginary solutions,” is capable of doing that.

The expansion of our anomalous order to all aspects of life is necessary to conceal its historical strangeness in relation to humanity’s first 100,000 or 1,000,000 years. In political terms, we see the fine art of saying nothing raised to unprecedented levels. In the economic realm, massive amounts of money are squandered on advertising campaigns aimed at fascinating the public with such pseudo-events as the Pepsi Challenge. Events themselves, anything worthy of being called an event, have largely disappeared. Events have gone on strike, since people, absorbed in their spectacles, have stopped doing so. The era of worker uprisings against impoverishment have produced obvious economic improvement. It has led to the overthrow of the previous order. But what emerged was only a simulation of the utopia of socialism. A one-dimensional System flush with funds for the production of signs in the form of brand names has, at least until recently, been readily able to recycle its unhinged surpluses in the form of mass entertainment, human rights, social security, and cooptation. In this way we are all liberated, or, as in the upwardly mobile transformations of the Indian and Chinese peasantry, on the way to becoming so.

IV. The Model of the Kennedy Assassination
The dynamics of separation that was entrenched in the modern era has its own inherent logic, its destiny, its fate. We are now living in a time of the demise of the State, and political wisdom consists in being aware of this situation. We are becoming aware that the political order is a subsidiary of the Code, one that is finally dispensable without any serious alteration of the System itself, which becomes, in the prophetic words of Engels that we must understand with the ironic twist of the pataphysical, “the administration of things” (Engles,1901): We have all become liberated, or are in the process of becoming liberated, thanks to our happy servitude under the global empire of the Code.

And so the political, which pretends to be the monopoly of legitimate power, today inevitably falls into disrepute. Consequently, we see why the symbolic power of the idea that the king must die increasingly grips the consciousness of the masses as an inescapable outcome of the erection of political power in modern society. The silent masses increasingly refuse to listen to their political “representatives” – i.e., to those contemporary kings who must pretend to be the indispensable servants of the people. In the order of symbolic response to this massive disrepute, the rhetoric of political dummies must become increasingly hysterical if they are to capture the attention of the masses increasingly prone to turn their backs on them. The right demagogically plays on this idea, as it denounces the alleged hypertrophy of the State. The truth is that it is the Code that has become omnipotent, and so everything has become political in the broader sense of the cryptic administration of things and activities, while politics itself, in its restricted meaning, has been increasingly emptied of its distinctive force.

The left rages against the deception of political gamesmanship, the sleight-of-hand between the two hands of the parties of Capital. But, in the interests of the Revolution, the left wants to postpone the death of the State to a later time, wishing to preserve power so as to be able eventually to seize it. The critical theory of the left is the sort of truth that hides the fact that there is none. It perpetuates the mystification that distinctive political power still operates.

But perhaps it still does. In his work of 1981, Simulacra and Simulations, Baudrillard meditates on the significance of the Kennedy assassination:

Everything is metamorphosed into its opposite to perpetuate itself in its expurgated form. All the powers, all the institutions speak of themselves through denial, in order to attempt, by simulating death, to escape their real death throes. Power can stage its own murder to rediscover a glimmer of existence and legitimacy. Such was the case with some American presidents: the Kennedys were murdered because they still had a political dimension. The others, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, only had the right to phantom attempts, to simulated murders. But this aura of an artificial menace was still necessary to conceal that they were no longer anything but the mannequins of power. Formerly, the king (also the god) had to die, therein lay his power. Today, he is miserably forced to feign death, in order to preserve the blessing of power. But it is lost (Baudrillard [1981] 1994).

The Kennedy brothers, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., rose to positions of power, official or unofficial, in the wake of the paralysis of the era of the fifties with its terroristic persecutions of left-wing alternatives, and its model of stability and prosperity for white Protestants through the automobile and two-car garages in the suburbs. In breaking through the imposed paralysis, by infusing the imagination of the people with exalted ideals of freedom and justice, they gave authentic substance to political leadership. But the King has to die. Whatever might have been the case for the Kennedy brothers, Reverend King himself recognized and accepted this fate.

After the Kennedys were assassinated, American presidents have had to simulate assassination, or some form of living death, to prove their credentials for embodying the American presidency. Kennedy was a real President, and so, in the imaginary realm of pataphysical solutions, he was really assassinated. I.e., he was real enough as a political figure to merit being really assassinated. Ford and Johnson were the objects of failed assassinations, surviving which, they could also claim to be real Presidents. Thus for them, their assassination was simulated, as, consequently, were their political achievements. Eerily, Jimmy Carter was the object of a thwarted assassination plot involving Raymond Lee Harvey, a ghostly echo of Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of John Kennedy.  

Ronald Reagan, a consummate actor, was the subject of a failed assassination attempt, and therefore he also qualified to be President. Clinton, like Nixon, was subjected to the process of Constitutional assassination during impeachment trials. Nixon was forced from office for degrading political values. In the second time around for the scenario of assassination by Congress, what was previously high tragedy in the case of Nixon took the form of low farce. Under the Constitutional charge of infamy, whether for high crime or for misdemeanour, Clinton’s crime was to violate the moral values of hypocritical Republican Puritanism. On the pataphysical plane where the linear sequence of time loses its plausibility, Bush senior retroactively justified the first war against Iraq, in 1991, as retribution for an alleged assassination plot against him by Saddam Hussein in 1993. Bush Jr., completed the circle in the second Iraq war, avenging the assassination attempt against his father by Saddam Hussein, and thereby claiming something of its symbolic aura. The destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, could therefore mystically (pataphysically) be laid at the doorstep of the would-be assassin of the President’s father – all other connections, in the mundane realm of ordinary physics, of the Iraqi President to the terrorists of 2001 being matters of tedious debate.

If the aura of assassination can be inherited, the king no longer has to die in person, no longer even has to feign assassination, but can claim the right to rule in perpetuity. “The king is dead; long live the king.” This is the slogan that installs perpetual power under the sign of a doubly fictitious death. The second millennium therefore inaugurates a new era of American power, one in which the king no longer has even to pretend to die. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States under the regime of Bush II sets aside the rule of power that held sway during the Cold War, the rule according to which effective power is achieved through a binary process, a shifting of power between seeming opponents. This is the parallel on the international level of standard binary politics on the national level. Political stability in the contemporary era of simulation is achieved through the duality of left and right, of Democrats and Republicans and their parallels in other “advanced” countries, rather than through the imposition of a unitary authority. On the international plane, this duality of world powers achieved deterrence, paralyzing initiatives from below through a deadening rule from above in the name of security.

The year 2000 saw the jettisoning of this binary sleight-of-hand, with the overt establishment of a New World Order under the hegemony of the United States. This was the time of the Bush-Schwarzenegger era, combining egregious electoral fraud with the pinnacle of Hollywood super-hero muscularity. In 2005, two years before his death in 2007, Baudrillard wrote that “By electing Schwarzenegger (or in Bush’s rigged election in 2000), in this bewildering parody of all systems of representation, America took revenge for the distain [by Europeans] of which it is the object. In this way, it proved its imaginary power because no one can equal it in its headlong course into the democratic masquerade, into the nihilist enterprise of liquidating value and a more total simulation than even in the areas of finance and weapons” (Baudrillard, 2010:64).

The year 2008 saw the chickens of this era come home to roost. The liquidation of the law of exchange value on the level of high finance produced the collapse of American financial power, once centered in the dual figuration of the Twin Towers in New York City. Before foreign terrorists contributed their part to the destruction of this symbolic monument of financial power, it was the United States itself, under the regime of Bush II, that cast aside all respect for time-honored political, economic, and military rules of the game of power, the rules that continued to reflect the over-arching symbolic law that the king must die. The result was not a negation from the outside, but an inevitable “abreaction” of the system to itself – self-destruction from within. The hegemony of Western power, centered in the US, produces its own self-negation when it reaches the point of complete monopoly and perfect parody: “Whence both a vital, visceral resistance to generalized exchange, to total equivalence and connection, to vast prostitution and vertiginous attraction to this technological fair, this spectacular masquerade, this nullity” (Ibid.:70).

The present moment, as the US enters the election of 2012, is the outcome of purposeless reproduction and acceleration on all levels, “the exponential strategy that pushes capital beyond its own limits, into a whirlwind of exchanges where capital loses its very essence which is the essence of the market – and self-destructs in an unbridled circulation that brings the very concept of exchange to an end” (Ibid.:43). The collapse of the Twin Towers 2001 was a pataphysical portent of this end. Baudrillard’s greatest mistake was take the destruction of the Twin Towers to be a manifestation of resistance to imperial power, and not to see how this destruction of 2001 perfectly served the symbolic meaning of the break in the year 2000 with the old order of simulated sacrifice. (Baudrillard, 2001: The obliteration of the Twin Towers symbolically represents the self-imposed end, the internally produced reversal, of the entire era of the binary Code, with its mirror surfaces reflecting only itself. It is the revelation of the truth of its twenty-first century destiny, i.e., its essential nullity.

The 9/11/01 destruction is the symbolic realization of a triple liquidation, which Baudrillard acutely explains and foretells.  The new millennium starts with the election of 2000, with the “resigned, embarrassed complicity in the rigged workings of the political system and its polls....From there the system works exponentially:

not starting from value, but from the liquidation of value;

not through representation, but through the liquidation of representation;

not from reality, but from the liquidation of reality (Baudrillard, 2010:49).

The scene is thereby cleared for something radically new.

V. The Obama Singularity
What is occurring in American politics right now is the “event” of the singularity of the Obamas, both husband and wife. This event is the outcome of all that went before it, but especially since the turn of the millennium. “The definition of an event is not to be unpredictable,” Baudrillard writes, “but to be predestined. It is an irrepressible

3. The New Yorker Cover (July 21, 2008)

movement: at one moment, it comes out, and we see the resurgence of everything that was plotted by the Good” (Ibid.:113). The Good, the right side, the epitome of all the pieties of Western civilization inevitably secretes its own Evil. Terrorism, yes, but emerging from within the Good itself, not from the outside.

The New Yorker’s “terrorist Obama cover” (July 21, 2008) speaks ironically of the radical nature of the Obama political project. We are provided with an inspired image that combines the rhetorics of the left and the right, which mutually destroy each other, while suggesting the “singularity” of an unprecedented Event in American politics. Baudrillard’s allowance for singular resistances, together with his acknowledgement of the authenticity of the Kennedy presidency, here takes on new, more potent political meaning when the singularity in question happens to occupy the most important political position in the global system. We must be ready to recognize the “agony of power” that inevitably subverts itself. Against historical revolutions operating through the labour of the negative, Baudrillard writes, “Power itself, from the inside, secretes an antagonistic power that materializes in one way or another...” (Ibid.:94).

The singularity of Barack Obama’s election in 2008 is demonstrated by the fact that he was not the choice of the Democratic Party establishment. Hillary Clinton was. This election was fundamentally the rejection of the preceding Bush era, with its monarchical rule passing from father to son in contempt of any symbolism of the king’s obligation at least to feign some sort of death. It is therefore unlikely, according to the insistence of a pataphysical logic, that inevitable resistance to such unabashed power would take the form of the installation of an alternative Clinton dynasty. It was the form of the modern monarchy, not the contents in terms of personalities, of left or right, that was at stake in 2008.

Obama’s eloquence in campaign speeches elevated the banal performances of traditional political contests to levels of poetry and of challenge to the imagination that recalled high points of America’s political past. He is the wild card who has so far managed to avoid political defeat, and by continuing to survive despite the intensity of the opposition he is facing, opens up historic possibilities for the American and global system. Not the least of these is the end of those simulated (staged for dramatic political effect), but destructive and expensive, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by implication an end to warfare generally as a means of feeding a System that until recently was sustained by the massive production and consumption of waste. “The Obama doctrine” of “leadership from behind” was illustrated during the Arab Spring generally, but most clearly in the Libyan uprising. It has been a long time since American presidents have displayed such humility, while nevertheless providing effective leadership.

The politics of engaged withdrawal, the death of American uni-polar politics in multi-polar negotiated agreements, is dictated by the implosion of the System itself. In the light of the financial crisis of 2008-9, it is evident that the System can no longer function as it has in the past. The System is imploding because it can no longer draw on the seemingly limitless resources that once made it possible. The Rest of the world is now participating in the same game of accumulation pioneered by the West, and so is preventing the excessive super-accumulation that once enabled the core of the System to proliferate and appease would-be resistance with its largesse.

The election of 2008 coincided with the collapse of the carnival of unbridled financial speculation that could no longer be concealed by the time-worn parade of political acrobatics. The result was a shock, not of reality hitting home, but a shock of unreality, of nullity. The heads of the nations of the world, and first of all of the West, discovered the truth of their simulations of political power. They discovered not just their powerlessness before the world System, but the fatal destiny of that powerlessness. The System, accelerated beyond all limitation, was not going to tide them over indefinitely in mindless comfort.

The American election of 2008 demonstrated the possibility of breaking with the System and its Code, which is manifestly in the process of devouring itself. Its sign turns out not to be Promethean, but Ouroborean. Baudrillard applies this contrast to the difference between the Promethean stage of American capitalism epitomized by Empire State Building, and the post-capitalist era symbolized by the Twin Towers, “which mirrored each other in their self-referentiality” (Ibid.:92). Ouroborus is the snake that devours itself, eating itself from its tail back to its head. The outcome of this process can only be “nullity,” and so, in the inexorable unfolding of pataphysical logic, the Towers, the dual fortresses of contemporary rule, must collapse.

Political campaigns can be matters of poetry. Governance must be a matter of prose. The complex American system of divided branches of government makes it difficult to realize ambitious electoral programs without substantive support on the part of the population. It was not for want of trying that Obama’s political program was inevitably diffused through the prism of the U.S. system of governance. Initially, it was a substantive conservative minority in his own party that posed a serious obstacle to the original outlines of his centerpiece legislation on health care reform. We are reminded of the assassination of Shakespeare’s Caesar by his friend Brutus: Et tu, Brute? Later, with the strengthening of the right in the 2010 elections, government has all but come to a standstill. During the first three years of constitutional thwarting of his call for change, Obama’s prosaic reply to followers whose hopes he once kindled: the American system is “messy.” And he usually adds, with a short civics lesson on the American Constitution, that’s the way it should be.

The American Constitution, we can say with the aid of pataphysical exegesis, was created in the conviction that the king must die. Arising out of the symbolical assassination of the British monarchy, it hedges in its quasi-monarch, the President, with numerous obstacles and opponents, with Senators and Representatives, judges and juries, trials for impeachment whether for high crimes or for misdemeanors, terms of office, and other tribulations for the ruler. It is a machinery for the taming and trying of power.

VI. The Choice: Hot or Cool?
Baudrillard too appears to opt for the prose of evolution against the poetry of revolution. There is no need to look to utopian alternatives of the past in order to bring about meaningful, radical transformation. All that is needed are the powerful options that he discerned: 1) the self-implosion of the System itself – which is occurring through its own excesses as evidenced in the on-going financial crisis – and 2) well-placed individuals (singularities) equipped with the intelligence (the cool) for preventing catastrophe and for managing its resolution with minimal damage to the ordinary lives of citizens, including the citizens of the Rest of the world who are demanding the human rights of equality and freedom to participate in the imagined benefits proffered by the centers of the global System.

But such evolution is inherently revolutionary. Intelligent management of the crisis means an end to the System itself, since when the System is reinvested with rational values (those of economy, of ecology, etc.) it is no longer the System, but something else entirely. Perhaps it is no longer a System at all. Instead of participating in a System that pretends to be something, when its truth is that it is nothing, we are moving into an age in which we must become comfortable with being ruled by nothing identifiable in general terms. Disappointment with the politics of Obama, with his alleged refusal to push through radical reforms, rests on a failure to see that it is precisely such disappointment with the power of the State that is presently required. This used to be called the withering away of the State. It is ironic that it is the left that is complaining about this, while the right pretends that the power of the State is greater than ever.

The Derridean political agenda described by Dr. Hart reinforces the rejection of Obama by the traditional left on grounds that Obama fails to counter the radicalism of the right with an opposing radicalism of the left. In the spirit of Baudrillard, Obama recognizes that such radicalism is no longer radical, but is a device for prolonging a status quo that thrives on the drama of oppositional poles. The critique of the left in particular provides the System with the alibi it needs to prop up the illusion that it is based on some kind of reality. Even an evil reality, that of exploitation and injustice, is better than the truth, that there no longer is anything real behind its mesmerizing facade. Money no longer increases by producing needed goods or by exploiting workers; it short-circuits all references to underlying realities, whether of utility or of exchange. The System no longer produces anything real, including surplus value. It simply seeks to reproduce itself through the pure fascination with and consumption of powerful but meaningless signs of its presence. Baudrillard inverts the fable in which the emperor is seen to have no clothes. The terrifying truth is that there are only clothes, whose multiple designs are governed by the permutations of an impersonal Code. There is no emperor. There is only fashion.  

Baudrillard’s theory of the historical stages of modernity illuminates current political strategies of Republicans and Democrats. Thus the Republicans, and conservatives generally, appeal to the values and logic of the order of exchange value, harkening back to the stage of classic capitalism. The Democrats return to even more fundamental values of use value, rooted in Enlightenment reason and universal humanism.

The current US Republican presidential campaign can be understood as a desperate attempt to energize the masses sated with a political rhetoric to which they have become largely immune. This frenzy, seeking to push the traditional ideology of the market (individual freedom, reduction of taxes and government) into overdrive, nevertheless operates along the lines of the System. Can more of the same, if it is much more of the same, any longer be seductive? Is not Obama’s “cool” in the face of the crisis of the System more in tune with the cool of the masses themselves, more seductive, and so more likely to find a responsive chord when the choice is finally presented: hot (on the right or the left) or cool (the Obama “middle”)?

The implementation of the conservative/Republican agenda, which would deny government the initiative that is needed for a liberal/Democratic reorientation in the direction of utility, is only an alibi for the preservation of the order of simulation, the rule of finance capital where money reproduces itself in any way it can – i.e., the global order as the playground of investors and their admen. The success of the right in limiting the visible hand of the State would ensure the continuation of such reckless play, and consequently assure catastrophe. And then it may no longer be possible to pick up the pieces.

The Obama Democrats, and social democrats generally, call for a renewed focus on utility, on useful labour, on getting society back to work –  not just any kind of work, but work that achieves rational objectives, such as infrastructure regeneration, modernizing energy systems, improving transportation and communication, aiding innovation and improving educational and scientific systems. They refer back even more distantly to the foundational era of modernity in the Renaissance, governed by the principle of utility and purposeful goals. But common sense recognizes that due regard must be also paid to the gods of exchange value in the form of budgetary restraint. Why then should the harmonising of the two sides be such an elusive goal?

The answer is that the middle position, the reconciliation of sides and their respective values, is a mortal danger to the System itself. The monopoly of power of the Code, at this time of neo-capitalism, has only been possible through a binary process, i.e., by splitting the political field into a duopoly of parties and heads of parties (Baudrillard [1976] 1993:68). Single party systems are inherently stable because they drain the political field of that minimal electrical current between representatives and represented that engages the populace. Conscious centrism, then, seeking reconciliation between the opposing parties, implicitly undermines the continuation of the power elite who rule through sleight of hand, through the endless apparent transfer of power between left to right.


VII. The First Term is that of the Sacrifice

4. Marc Chargal. Painting of his parents

Baudrillard goes back even further in order to discern the radical implications of this choice. Before the modern world came into being, there was another order, that of symbolic exchange, epitomized by the potlatch, in which prestige is acquired by giving wealth away rather than accumulating it, by the festive sacrifice of wealth rather than its endless stockpiling. The American avatar of the potlatch is the Thanksgiving Dinner and the Backyard Barbecue. Thus the “principle” of symbolic exchange continues to permeate our world in many of the relationships of everyday life, resulting in “the semiotic-symbolic spiral” mentioned by Hart, a kind of tango between the various levels of abstraction produced by modernity, and an underlying, overlooked, but ever-present realm of personal interchanges. Chagall’s imagery of the life of his native village of Vitebesk, where an Order of Symbolic Exchange had persisted into the twentieth century, provides an evocative counterpoint to the dark foreboding seriousness of Rembrandt’s solitary individuals.

As cool, rational politics takes on the task of steering our societies through the death of the Age of Simulation, let us not suppose that we can return to an earlier time of rational utility, a sort of renaissance of the Renaissance, however much its principle needs to be revitalized. We need to recognize that the utopian thinking that had motivated leftist politics in the past does not require a reengineering of society, but rather an understanding that utopia, in the model of symbolic exchange, has been with us all along in those personal relations with one another in which we continue to perform the sacred rites of the potlatch. An enlightened politics inspired by Baudrillard is thus one that recognizes, with the right, the limitations of all political engineering, and yet in manages, with the left, the inevitable contraction of the System. Only this centrist operation averts the catastrophe, and so maintains and fosters the social space of authentic communication, i.e., the principle of symbolic exchange, that continues to operate in a fragmentary way in everyday life. Through the refusals on the part of singular individuals, disconnecting from the System of simulated relationships, the Order of Symbolic Exchange has a chance to gradually reconstitute itself on a global level.

There is a deeper poetry to the prose of conventional American politics. In the inverted symbolic order appropriate to the death of the State at the end of the Age of Simulation, i.e., in the ironic inversion of pataphysical justice, the sacrifice of the king must come before the assumption of power. Thus, in the two-term sequence of the American Presidency, it is the first term of office that must be the sacrificial one. Obama must convince the American people that he understands – with Caesar, with Lincoln, with the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. – that the king must die. He must show with his even temper in the face of numerous lashings, tattered, torn, and humbled, that he accepts the necessity, the truth, of this deserved destiny for all who, for the sake of the people, have the audacity to take up the reins of power.

And then the people, the masses in their passive resistance to the simulacrum of power that pretends to rule them, will make their judgment: He has suffered enough. He has paid his dues. He has gone through the gauntlet, with dignity, patience, and persistence. It is time therefore to entrust him with real power.

We are at a turning point in our history, but most of us are prevented from seeing this truth of our time because we continue to use the theoretical lenses of the past. It is a cool, historically situated Baudrillard, not a hot, deconstructive Derrida, who gives us the optics for recognising how we can responsibly participate in this transition.

James Lawler is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is working a book on Hegel. This will be the fourth volume of his history of modern philosophy. The first volume, Matter and Spirit: The Battle of Metaphysics in Modern Western Philosophy before Kant, was published by University of Rochester Press in 2006. The second volume, on Kant’s early philosophy, The Intelligible World: Metaphysical Revolution in the Genesis of Kant's Theory of Morality, will be published soon by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. In 2010, Dr. Lawler published The God Tube: Uncovering the Hidden Spiritual Message in Pop Culture (Open Court). This is a popular presentation of the philosophies of Plato, Kant, and Hegel through the medium of contemporary popular culture.



Jean Baudrillard [1973] 1975). The Mirror of Production. St. Louis, MO.: Telos Press.

Jean Baudrillard [1976] 1993. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage.  

Jean Baudrillard ([1981] 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser [Also available at:]

Jean Baudrillard (1996). The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard (2001). “The Spirit of Terrorism.” Le Monde (November) 2 :

Jean Baudrillard (2010). The Agony of Power. (Los Angles: Semiotexte).

Frederick Engels (1901). Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

Sally Hart (2008). “Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Derrida: At the limits of Thought”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 5,  Number 1 (January):

Karl Marx (1867). Capital. (Volume 1):

© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2012)

[Main Page]   [Contents]   [Editorial Board]   [Submissions]