International Journal of Baudrillard Studies
ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005) 

From the Subject of Desire to the Object of Seduction: Image – Imagination – Imaginary1

Christoph Wulf
(Professor, Interdisciplinary Centre For Historical Anthropology, Free University of Berlin, Germany)

Translated by: Maggie Rouse
(Berlin, Germany).


The same illusion of progress occurred with the appearance of speech and then colour on screen: at each stage of this progress we moved further away from the imaginary intensity of the image. The closer we supposedly approach the real or the truth, the further we draw away from them both, since neither one nor the other exists. The closer we approach the real time of the event, the more we fall into the illusion of the virtual.2


I. Intoduction

            The ability to interpret the world around us into our inner world in the form of images and to remember these, while at the same time being able to produce aspects of the imagination in the material world is a condito humana. The Greeks called this fantasy, which the Romans translated as imagination which was translated into German by Paracelsus as the power of imagination (Einbildungskraft) and as a result of the influence of French authors is often referred to as the “imaginary” today. Tangible only when expressed in concrete terms, it is one of the most puzzling human energies present throughout the human world manifesting itself in different ways. Constantly withholding the key to its identification, fantasy makes it possible to perceive images, even if that which is depicted is not present. It defines the possibility of internal sight and planning future actions.

            If one examines Baudrillard's works looking for the energies that link his manifold areas of interest, it can be argued that common themes in many of his works involve the imagination and the imagery. This can already be seen in his works such as Kool Killer, Agonie des Realen, The Consumer Society, and Fatal Strategies which were published at a relatively early date in Germany.3 The central role of imagination and the imagery in Baudrillard's thinking becomes indisputable in The Transparency of Evil, The Illusion of the End, and The Perfect Crime.4 Rather than definitions of the imagery, we find figurations and descriptions of the articulation and effects of the imagination in his works. His work shows that not even perception is possible without imagination. Every perception is characterised by a historical and cultural context and direct access to the world of things is not possible. Baudrillard constantly reminds us, as Heidegger anticipated, that the world has become a realm of images for mankind, and new images are constantly required to reinforce this world of images. A world beyond images is not possible. Images have a mimetic relationship to other images. They allude to each other and are changed by this. An immense variety and mixture of images arise in the currents of desire but “...when the true loses it opposite energy, that of the imaginary, the outcome is simulation, the lowest degree of illusion. ...All categories give way to a kind of hyper syncretism, homeostasis and indistinction.“5 This paper traces thinking about this vitally important human capacity of imagination before and after Baudrillard. Baudrillard takes us as close as anyone to an understanding of a radical imaginary and in doing so points to aspects previously unseen by many.6

II. Imagination Before Baudrillard

            Dietmar Kamper writes that the image has the purpose of uncovering the wound from which mankind originated. He adds however that this aim is unattainable and every surrogate memory reminds us of something. Therefore every image is by nature "sexual" even if it is deeply religious. For this reason, he continues, the image can be titled the “Death of the Person” to use Roland Barthes formulation. Expressed through fear, the image plays the main role in deflecting human desire:

It takes the place of the experienced equivocation of the origin. It takes the place of the ultimate evil. It maintains the hope that the voice of the mother will continue to resound through all ambivalence. It sees the sacred become the banal. After all the second chapter in overcoming fear is reproduction. The image is intended to be lost in images and this is not possible.7


There is no escape from the world of images – images create image prisons. Dissolved in the flow of imagination, they swallow up perception, put it in a tailspin and ultimately lead to a dissolution of the senses.

            The image as technical simulation as diagnosed by Baudrillard (see next section), may be differentiated with the “image as mimetic representation” and the “image as magical presence.” Although these types of image have many things in common, such a differentiation enables different, in some cases contradictory, features to be identified.

            The image as mimetic representation

            In Plato's works, images become representations of something they are not. They represent something, express something, refer to something. According to Plato, artists and poets do not produce like God produces ideas or like craftsmen make everyday objects. They create the appearances of things, in doing this artists and poets are not restricted by the artistic representation of the objects but by the artistic representation of appearances. The aim is not the representation of ideas or the truth, but the artistic representation of phantasms. For this reason painting and mimetic poetry can in principle make appearance visible. This involves mimesis that creates images and illusions. The difference between the model and the picture becomes unimportant during this process. The aim is not similarity, rather the semblance of that which appears. Plato views art and aesthetics as one discipline. The artist or the poet is the master of this discipline. The artist or poet does not have the ability to produce, unlike philosophy, it is not subject to the need for truth which is a fundamental principle of the "Republic". This frees art and aesthetics from the demands of philosophy, its search for truth and knowledge and its striving for good and beauty. The price paid for this is the exclusion from the Republic which does not accept the incalculable character of art and poetry.

            The process of artistic creation therefore is aiming towards creating an inner image that the painter or poet has in front of his eyes. The plan that leads to the created work dissolves to an ever increasing extent into the image, that arises in a different medium to the imagined plan. As part of this, alterations, omissions, additions and other similar changes occur, meaning that similarity is only present to a limited degree. In most cases the models to which the pictures and sketches of the artist relate are unknown as they either never existed or are no longer existent. The image is the focus of the creative process. It contains references to models and was created in a process of transformation.

            The (mimetic) creation of representations is one of the elementary anthropological abilities and one of its central themes is the human body. In the portraits of the Renaissance and the photographs of the present, the human bodies pictured are understood to represent humans. Photographs show humans in important situations in their lives in the form of images of the body. Questions of human self-understanding are linked to such forms and other forms of representations. Without images of ourselves, i.e. representations of ourselves, we are incomprehensible to ourselves. An understanding of the image character of such representations is essential to comprehend the restrictions of what is possible in terms of human self-perception.

            From a very early stage humankind began to create images of the human body. These body images are human images just as depictions of humans are always depictions of the body. The images show the body in different ways although the human body has not changed biologically in the historic era. A history of these images is representative of a history of the human body. It is both a history of human depiction and human images. Belting puts it this way: Man is as he appears in his body. The body is itself an image, even before it is depicted in images. The picture, concludes Belting, is not what it claims to be – a reproduction of the body. In truth it is a production of an image of the body which is already conditioned by the self-depiction of the body. The triangle of man, body and image is irresolvable unless one wants to lose all three points of reference.8

            The image as magical presence

            The images that were created at a time when pictures had not yet become works of art included statuettes, masks, religious symbols and sacred images. Images where the gods are given a magical presence and play an important role among these images. These include early representations of goddesses of fertility in clay or stone from archaic cultures. The material existence of many idols, statuettes and masks of earlier times is to  prove the presence of the divine. Painted skulls and death masks play a similar role.9 Skulls were painted as early as the Neolithic era and helped the living to ritual understandings of dead ancestors. Death is the fate of the community – the creation of painted skulls and masks is an attempt to answer the terror of death – making images becomes a reaction to death. Skulls and death masks serve to transform a mortal head into an image and this presence serves to provide the presence of the dead among the living. This transformation is concluded during death rituals. The performance of these rituals enables the community of the living to reassure themselves in the face of death and also results in the skull and death mask becoming sacred.

            Even the worship of the Golden Calf as recorded in the Old Testament involves a religious symbol in which god and image merge and the presence of a god is embodied and symbolised by the calf. While Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (in which it is explicitly forbidden to make images of God and to worship such images), the people of Israel under the leadership of his older brother Aaron fulfilled their need to worship an image. Aaron represents the image-worshipping, iconophile, Moses the image-fighting, iconoclastic position; these two positions are still the fundamental positions when dealing with images. What they both have in common is a conviction about the power of images. This power, concludes Boehm, results from the ability to make present an unreachable and distant existence and to give it such a presence that can fill the whole of man's attention. The power of the image is in its semblance – it creates an equality with that which it depicts. The Golden Calf is the god (in the perspective of the ritual) – the image and its content merge to the point where they can no longer be distinguished.10

            The cult of relics in the Middle Ages required only the presence of a fragment of the body ascribed to a saint to make the saint present. "The bodies of many saints lie here" is the inscription over the collection of relics in Conques. The saints are present, they are not represented by their relics. They develop their healing power for believers at the site where the parts of their bodies are present – the relics heal the site and the participants of the rituals. The rituals help to form the link between the relic as an image representing the saint and the healing expected as a result of the ritual which would be referred to as magical in other cultural contexts.

            In many works of modern art, nothing is represented outside the work of art – rather only a presence is created. Comparisons can be made between these works and the early (religious) works before the artistic era began. Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman explicitly refer to the images of sacred or numinous (for example in the Rothko chapel in Houston, in which the colours of the images leave the viewer in a diffuse state of suspension, and in which "presence and diffusion" maintain a balance in a mysterious way. Newman's pictures also confront the viewer with his/her limits and allow him/her to experience the unconscious. The way Newman understands him work, it is possible to experience the sublime here. This, infers Boehm, marks the over-burdening of the cognitive capacity by something outsize. According to Boehm, the marked failure of these outsize aspects becomes an unexpected bonus, in that Newman's picture does not want to show anything but wants to affect or cause a reaction in the viewer. It vanishes as an image the moment when it manages to do this.11

            Fantasy has a chiastic structure in which the internal and external intersect. Both Merleau-Ponty and Lacan have made reference to this structure which is so vital for the perception and production of images. A concept of vision which assumes that the objects which are identical to themselves are in opposition to the initially "empty" seeing subject is inadequate. Moreover, an integral part of seeing is something that we can only grasp by touching it with our gaze. The gaze shrouds the visible things, it touches them and mixes itself in with them. It is as if there was a pre-established harmonious relationship, as if it knew of them before getting to know them, it moves in its hectic and imperious manner. However the perceived views are not random, I do not see chaos, rather things, meaning that one cannot say if the view or the things have the upper hand in their relationship.12 It is not only when seeing but also when touching, hearing and in principle also when smelling and tasting that such a cross-over between the senses and the outside world perceived takes place.

            Human perception is not without prerequisites. On the one hand we perceive the world in an anthropomorphous way (i.e. on the basis of the physiological prerequisites present in our bodies). On the other hand our perception is affected by historic-anthropological or cultural prerequisites. After the invention and spread of writing, visual perception changed by comparison to seeing in oral cultures. Our perception processes are changing in a similarly drastic way as a result of the new media and the acceleration of images that accompanies this. As research in design psychology has shown, fantasy already has a role to play during basic perception, for example, during the complementary perception supplementation. The same applies for cultural references which give the matters perceived their sense and meaning. Seeing is always both simultaneously enabled and restricted historically and culturally. As such it is subject to change, contingent and with an undecided future.

            When looking for a bodily basis for fantasy, one comes across the following assumption from Gehlen:

[On the] …basis of vegetative life, changed by dreams or time – during childhood or contact with the sexes, especially there where the forces of emerging life become visible – there seem to be certain original fantasies among the widely varying images which sense in themselves a tendency to increase formal height, or 'electric power': but as a sign of vital identity, i.e. of an inclination towards better quality or quantity that lies in the substantia vegetans – this although the right to make such a differentiation remains questionable.13


Gehlen saw fantasy as a project of excess of stimuli. However, perhaps fantasy goes beyond excess of stimuli so that the urge to live can create images of its own satisfaction within this fantasy.14 In Gehlen's view, fantasy is linked to man's status as a "deficient creature" and his residual instinct and the hiatus between stimulus and reaction. This means it relates to needs, urges and desires for satisfaction. However fantasy is not exhausted by these desires. Human plasticity and open-mindedness are signs of the necessity of their cultural formation. Fantasy plays such a central role in this that man" can be defined as a creature of fantasy just as much as a creature of reason."15

            Fantasy resists rational categorization. Even images are only to be understood as objectifications of the elementary forces which are transitory and cannot be objectified. The three terms in common use in German could emphasise different aspects without making the differences definitive. As a preliminary idea, perhaps it is possible to establish the following differences: Fantasy refers more to the aspect of proliferation, imagination refers to the world of images and the power of imagination to the ability to suppose which creates something new. In terms of fantasy, it is possible to differentiate between four aspects which relate to different historic periods and cultural contexts.  One aspect of fantasy relates to the possible participation of man in art. Another involves the understanding of the otherness of other cultural and human worlds, which only fantasy can "recreate" so that they can be understood. A third aspect relates to the relationship between the unconscious and fantasy, in this, fantasy is the force which takes effect beyond the scope of the conscious in forming that are articulated in dreams and fantasies in the streams of desires and vital forces. A fourth aspect is related to the desire and the ability to implement desires in a counterbalancing manner. In all four concepts, the aim of fantasy is to change the world, however in a spontaneous, event-related and roving way rather than in a strategic manner.16 Adorno sums up the discourse within society on the role of fantasy in science, art and culture when he writes:

Writing an intellectual history of fantasy which would explore the very thing that positivism has forbidden would be well worth the effort. In the eighteenth century, in the thinking of Saint-Simon and in the Discours préliminaire by d'Alembert, fantasy is credited, along with art, as productive work, it has a part in the idea of freeing the productive forces, Comte, whose sociological thinking changed direction apologetically and statically was the first to become an enemy of the metaphysical and of fantasy. Its defamation or cornering in a special kingdom of division of work is a typical phenomenon in regressive bourgeois thinking but not as its avoidable mistake, but in the course of a fatality which binds instrumental reasoning as needed by society with this taboo. That fantasy, objectified, abstractly contrasted with reality, is tolerated at all is a burden to art just as it is to science, the legitimate is desperately trying to pay its debts.17


            There are also various differences of meaning between the terms imagination and power of imagination (Einbildungskraft). A look at the English history of ideas shows Locke defining imagination as the "power of the mind" and Hume as a "kind of magical faculty in the soul … which is however inexplicable by the utmost efforts of human understanding."18  Coleridge defines imagination as a human capability or capacity and differentiates between two forms. "The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify. It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead."19 According to this version, imagination is a part of the subject in which it acts and with which it emulates the world. According to Coleridge, imagination also encompasses the ability to release and destroy connections and to create new ones by doing so. Whereas the first form is conceived as being analogous with the force of nature – natura naturans which creates everything, the second form of imagination relates to the world of things which it destroys and rebuilds. Added to this, there is another, third force – fancy – a force which creates and combines things and relationships. These three aspects of the capacity of imagination affect and interact with each other. They create images, destroy them, combine their element to form new images in constant oscillating motion.

            Herder believed the power of imagination to be the connection between body and soul, for Kant and Fichte it was the bridge between reason and the senses. In Kant's famous formulation, where feelings without ideas are blind and ideas without feelings are dead, the power of imagination is recognised as being necessary for every conceptual cognition. However, cultural development has not adhered to this norm. Empty ideas and images without concept have spread. In more and more areas of society, fiction has become reality and reality has become fictitious. Under the heading "A New Power of Imagination", Vilém Flusser attempted, from a more historic perspective to differentiate between four stages of development of the power of imagination in the context of human history: First, we stepped back from the world to be able to imagine it. Then we stepped back from the imagination to be able to describe it. The we stepped back from linear written criticism to be able to analyse it. Finally we project synthetic images from the analysis thanks to this new imagination. In other words, concludes Flusser, the challenge we face is to jump from the linear level of existence into the zero dimension (into “nothing”).20

            Another concept arises in the context of the imaginary in the French discussion of this issue which adds yet another dimension of meaning. Jean-Paul Sartre defined the imaginary as the "irrealist" function of the conscious, within which the conscious creates absent objects, makes them present and by doing so creates an imaginary relationship to its objects.21 For Jacques Lacan, the imaginary belongs to a pre-linguistic bodily condition in which the individual is not yet aware of his limits and his deficiencies.22 According to this, the imaginary has its origins in the identification of the infant with the mother which is so strong it cannot imagine itself as being "different" from her. The infant's fascination is being impressed by the bodily unity of the mother. As if looking in the mirror, the mother's bodily completeness enables the child to feel its own intactness and power. However the experience of the wholeness of the mother leads to an endangering of our own "completeness" and to an experience of incompleteness and dependency on others. This experience of our own incompleteness and finite nature is also the origin of the sexual subject. According to Lacan, the imaginary and its world of images precedes the symbolic and its world of language. Cornelius Castoriadis examines this position further and defines the relationship between the two as a relationship where the imaginary has to use the symbolic, not just to “express” itself, but also it needs the symbolic to “exist at all”, to become something that is not just merely virtual. He adds that the most elaborate madness, just as the most secret and outrageous fantasy is made of “images,” however these images have another meaning and therefore have a symbolic function and in the opposite direction, symbolism requires capacity of imagination (capacité imaginaire), as it involves the capability of seeing one thing in another or seeing a thing in a different way from what it actually is. To the extent that the imaginary can be traced by to its original capability of using imagination to summon up a thing or relationship that is not present (which are not observed or were never observed), we can speak of a last or radical imaginary as the common root of current imaginary or the symbolic. It involves the elementary capacity which can not be traced back any further of calling up an image.23 This takes us into the work of Baudrillard.

III. Baudrillard’s Contribution

We are going to end up looking for imagination in places further and further from power – from any form of power whatever – (and definitely far removed from cultural power, which has become the most conventional and professional form their is). Among the excluded, the immigrants, the homeless. But that will really take a lot of imagination because they, who no longer even have an image, are themselves the by-products of a whole society’s loss of imagination, of the loss of any social imagination. And this is indeed the point. We shall soon see it is no use trying to locate the imagination somewhere. Quite simply, because there no longer is any. The day this becomes patently obvious, the vague collective disappointment hanging over us today will become a massive sickening feeling.24

            For a long time Jean Baudrillard was perceived as a "cult author" whose analyses and feelings had a lasting influence on the way of life of a whole generation of young authors. Today, he is an established author whose assessments of the current era can scarcely be ignored. At first, Baudrillard appeared, especially to those influenced by the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, as an outsider whose thoughts and views were most easily dismissed by labelling them as having too little scientific basis. It is Baudrillard's courage in taking unusual standpoints that attracted and continues to attract much interest from those who are looking for an understanding of our time. As in his early career, Baudrillard is still an author unwilling to compromise, who formulates his thoughts, hypotheses and views without offering conventional scientific reasoning for them, who sees developments, describes tendencies and overemphasises that which he regards as being characteristic. He is not an author of criticism, who – as Adorno correctly observed – unwillingly affirms the object of criticism, he is beyond the scope of conventional scientific analysis. Baudrillard diagnoses new developments, creates new scenarios and sees relations, the legitimacy of which remains controversial. He formulates points of view and meanings that require the reader to accept their fundamental terms in order to be able to follow them and it is difficult to avoid being drawn into his ideas. There are not many other authors who divide their readers into those for and against as Baudrillard does. The radical nature of his thinking and models tends to polarise opinions but it is very important to a contemporary discussion of imagination.

            Building on the Agony of the Real, Baudrillard develops his understanding of the erosion of the difference between reality and the signs of reality.25 Reality is replaced by signs of reality. This results in a duplication which creates the hyperreal which can no longer be separated from the real and the imaginary. The hyperreal creates simulation; it questions the possibility of differentiating between "true" and "false" and "real" and "imaginary"; it points to the erosion of the distinction, of the lack of reference of images and signs, to the loss of equivalence, representation and the sign as a value. Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that the real America is itself a Disneyland. According to Baudrillard, the imaginary of Disneyland is neither right nor wrong, it is a machine of dissuasion, a stage to reanimate the fiction of the real. Thus the debility of this imaginary, its infantile degeneration. He describes this as an attempt to conceal that the real infantility is ubiquitous and that even the adults play children here to allow their real infantility to appear illusory.26 In a similar way, the Watergate scandal is interpreted as the simulation of a scandal with the aim of creating morality. The logic of simulation has nothing to do with the logic of facts. Simulation destroys differences and causes an implosion of reason. Attempts to stop the erosion of the real, its disintegration into images and signs and the continuing immaterialisation of mankind are futile.

The real does not efface itself in favour of the imaginary; it effaces itself in favour of the more real than the real: the hyperreal.  The truer than true: this is simulation.  Presence does not efface itself before emptiness, but before a redoubling of presence... Nor does empty space before the full, but before repletion and saturation... Movement does not disappear as much into immobility as into speed and acceleration – into the more mobile than movement, so to speak, which pushes it to the limit while stripping it of sense. Sexuality does not fade into sublimation, repression and morality, but fades much more surely into the more sexual than sex: porn, the hypersexuality contemporaneous with the hyperreal.  More generally things visible do not come to an end in obscurity and silence – instead they fade into the more visible than visible: obscenity.27


            Communication becomes communication for communication's sake. The scenery and its reference points are destroyed, and the screen and inter-connectivity take their place. There is no transcendence or depth any more, they have been replaced by what Baudrillard believed to be the immanent surface of operations unfolding, the smooth and functional surface of communication.28 The imaging of the world is helped to progress by the abstraction, acceleration, miniaturisation, ubiquity, destruction of time and space and the commercial character of images and electronic encephalisation. Images of the everyday world are transmitted by orbiting satellites. The satellisation of the real is inescapable and results in a tendency to transpose body and actions in electronic commands. The private sphere is disappearing along with the public sphere. According to Baudrillard, obscenity begins precisely when there is no more spectacle, no more scene, when all becomes transparence and immediate visibility, when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication.29 Sexuality becomes obscene in a way that is all too visual. It is the obscenity of a world which completely becomes information and no longer hides any secrets. Baudrillard defined obscenity as a condition where all secrets, spaces and scenes abolished in a single dimension of information.30 It is not only the sexual but also cold communication which degenerates into obscenity. The absolute immediacy of things, the overexposure caused by the transparency of the world encourages this development. The sexual becomes a mere ritual of transparency.31 The sexual has the task of hiding the what is left of reality and by doing so takes on something of this incorporeal passion. The bodies become immaterial in the imaging – they become transparent. Baudrillard believed that the obscenity of our culture resides in the confusion of desire and its equivalent materialized in the image; not only for sexual desire, but in the desire for knowledge and its equivalent in “information,” the desire for fantasy and its equivalent materialized in the Disneylands of the world, the desire for space and its equivalent programmed into vacation itineraries, the desire for play and its equivalent programmed into private telematics.32 It is this promiscuity and the ubiquity of images, the viral contamination of things by images. This is compounded by an insurrection of the signs which accelerate and transcend the images, which become independent and intermix with each other.33

            The rituals of transparency provide clarity, control and hygiene, they imply the eradication of germs and the battle against bacteria and viruses. Its aim is a human being that is immune to the outside world, who only wants to resemble himself and who is not aware of any distracting external influences and who meets ubiquitous reproductions of himself.  According to Baudrillard, similarity no longer relates to others, more it refers to the unlimited similarity of the individual with himself when it is reduced to its constituent elements. The meaning of difference changes along with this. According to Baudrillard, it no longer exists between two subjects rather it refers to the unlimited differentiation within the same subject, fatality finds itself in a drunken state, splitting into the identical, in the "narcissistic" belief in its own signature and its own formula. He described this as being alienated from oneself, from one's multiple clones, from all these little isomorphic “I”s.34   Fatality encompasses the relationship of the internally split, individual resembling itself for whom the sexual and social horizon of others no longer exists. It also determines the relationship of mankind to the world of objects. Today, the Sphinx no longer asks man the question: "What is human?" rather it is man who asks the Sphinx "what is non-human?" Do we still encounter the non-human and if so, how does it react towards us? However, the Sphinx, i.e. the world of objects, yields few answers. A few times it breaks the rules of silence and gives secret answers to the conundrum of what the non-human might be. Baudrillard studied the world of signs, simulacra and simulation – the world of symbolic exchange – for a long time in which death was the position from where the reversal of all distinctions and oppositions started. Later, however, it was the world of objects of appearance and seduction that interested him more and more. This involved a double spiral, which Baudrillard saw as turning to the world of signs, simulacra and simulation in an all encompassing manner and exists in the irreversibility of all signs and in the shadows of availability and death and that these alternate in the paradigms in the course of the spiral, without giving up their antagonistic positions. On the one side –  political economy, production, the code, the system, simulation – on the other – potlatch, expenditure, sacrifice, death, female, seduction" and finally the fatalist.35

            There is no place for symbolic references in seduction any more, no object that has vanished and no desire.

The imaginary was the alibi of the real, a world dominated by the reality principle. Today, it is the real that has become the alibi of the model, in a world controlled by the principle of simulation.  And, paradoxically, it is the real that has become our true utopia – but a utopia that is no longer in the realm of the possible, that can only be dreamt of as one would dream of a lost object.36


The objects themselves take the initiative and are the seducers. Their fate and not the desire of the subjects has become the focus. In the course of this development the objects have transcended their boundaries and can no longer be regarded within the framework of a critical theory. According to Baudrillard, instead of this, there is a need for a fatal theory which is not transcendent, but immanent. He believed our banality was immanent in the manner in which the indifference of the effects is their own cause and that banality had again become something great – the fatality of the modern world and a fatal vision of the banal was required to counteract the banal (conventional and religious) visions of the fatal.37 The term "fatality" does not refer to something fatalistic or Apocalyptic. It refers to processes of change which can no longer be explained in terms of the order of cause and effect, which are neither deterministic nor aleatory, but which are subject to a chain of higher necessities, which drive matters to a point of no return – into a spiral that does not lead to their production, rather their disappearance. Everything that links together outside of the subject, i.e. on the side of disappearance, is fatal.38  

            To some extent these thoughts seem to touch on those of Heidegger and Adorno, however the differences soon become apparent. They are gaining in plausibility as a possible scenario for current and future development patterns when they are viewed within the scope of Baudrillard's theory of seduction. According to this, seduction never involves exact symbols but empty, nebulous, arbitrary and unpredictable symbols.

Modern unreality no longer implies the imaginary, it engages more reference, more truth, more exactitude – it consists in having everything pass into the absolute evidence of the real. ...Absolute repression: by giving you a little too much one takes away everything.39


            Seduction is not about a process of exchange but a duel-like moment and all of the superficiality that accompanies it. Seduction causes things to take on a condition of pure appearance and to be consumed in this condition. Seduction according to Baudrillard is only that which puts the appearance of secrecy into circulation and motion.40  It does not target desire but appearance and disappearance. It uses the subtle delight that beings and things feel when they themselves remain secret in their sign whereas the truth uses the obscene force which coerces the sign to reveal everything.41 Seduction targets the transgression of mankind and things, not their production. It is not uncommonly the place where the spheres of making things appear and disappear meet. Seduction encompasses a game in which performance, withdrawal, camouflage and pretence all have a part. Whereas the thinking of Baudrillard which relates to one side of the double spiral and which can be grouped together using terms such as simulation, obscenity and transparency have been received in Germany (albeit not without controversy), the thinking relating to the other side of the double helix which focuses on terms such as seduction, fractality and fatality has not been as widely understood. Few have dared to confront its radical nature which requires us to take a new view of the relationship between subject and object and a re-evaluation of their relationship.  

            Baudrillard has not spoken directly of a “radical imaginary.” However, in his multi-faceted work, he points to what we might refer to as the radical imaginary as few others have managed. In the course of doing so, he discovered interactions that few before him have understood:

Unlike the discourse of the real which gambles on the fact of there being something rather than nothing, and aspires to be founded on the guarantee of an objective and decipherable world, radical thought, for its part, wagers on the illusion of the world. It aspires to the status of illusion, restoring the non-veracity of facts, the non-signification of the world, proposing the opposite hypothesis that there is nothing rather than something, and going in pursuit of that nothing which runs beneath the apparent continuity of meaning.42


For Baudrillard, in our increasingly simulated environments we are moving further away from the imaginary  into the lowest degree of illusion.

Christoph Wulf is Professor of General and Comparative Educational Science and a member of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Historical Anthropology at the Free University Berlin. He is also a member of the Graduate School “Staging the Body” and of the Interdisciplinary Research Centre “Cultures of the Performative” at the Free University Berlin.  Recent writings include: Anthropology of Education, Münster 2002; Traité d’anthropologie historique: Philosophies, Histoires, Cultures, Paris 2002; Corpo, cosmo, cultura. Encyclopaedia antropologica, Milano 2002; Anthropologie. Geschichte, Kultur, Philosophie, Reinbek 2004; Bildung im Ritual, Wiesbaden 2004; Penser les pratiques sociales comme rituels, Paris 2004; Mimésis. Culture, Art, Société, Paris 2005 (with Gebauer; English translation, Berkeley 1995); Ikonologie des Performativen, München 2005; Zur Genese des Sozialen: Mimesis, Performativität, Ritual, Bielefeld 2005.



1 This paper was presented at the Baudrillard and the Arts: A Tribute to His 75th Birthday. A Symposium at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, in July 16-18, 2004. See:

2 Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (c 1991). Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1995:49.

3 Kool Killer (1978) is a collection of articles by Baudrillard that has also not been translated into English. See also Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society. (c 1970, Paris: Editions Denoel). London: SAGE, 1998;   and Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies: Crystal Revenge. (c 1983, Paris: Editions Grasset), New York: Semiotexte, 1990. More conclusive evidence for this hypothesis can be found in Seduction (c 1979, Paris: Editions Galilee). Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1990; America (c 1986, Paris: Editions Grasset) New York: Verso, 1988; and The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (c 1991, Paris: Editions Galiliee) Bloomington Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 1995.

4 See Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil: Essays On Extreme Phenomena.  (c 1990, Paris: Editions Galilee) London: Verso, 1993; The Illusion of the End.  (c 1992, Paris: Editions Galilee). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994; and The Perfect Crime (c 1995, Paris: Editions Galilee) New York: Verso, 1996.

5 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm (c1997). New York: Verso, 1998:3.

6 Given the profound nature of the changes we have undergone in contemporary society, perhaps many things Baudrillard sees were not “visible” in previous times (Ed).

7 Dietmar Kamper. Wunsch. In: Christoph Wulf (Ed.): Vom Menschen. Handbuch Historische Anthropologie, Weinheim and Basel, 1997:592 (Translation: mine).

8 Hans Belting. Bild-Anthropologie. Entwürfe einer Bildwissenschaft: München, 2001:89.

9 Ibid.:143-188.

10 Gottfried Boehm. Die Bilderfrage In Was ist ein Bild?. (Edited by Gottfried Boehm) Munich, 1994:330.

11 Ibid.:343.

12 Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Das Sichtbare und das Unsichtbare. München, 1994:175.

13 Arnold Gehlen. Der Mensch. Seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt. Frankfurt: Gesamtausgabe Bd. 3, 1993:383. (Translation: mine).

14 Johannes Flügge. Die Entfaltung der Anschauungskraft. Heidelberg, 1963:93.

15 Arnold Gehlen. Der Mensch. Seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt. Frankfurt: Gesamtausgabe Bd. 3, 1993:374. (Translation: mine).

16 Wolfgang Iser. Das Fiktive und das Imaginäre. Perspektiven Literarischer Anthropologie, Frankfurt, 1991:293.

17 Theodor Adorno. Der Positivismusstreit in der deutschen Soziologie. Neuwied u.a. 3, 1971:62 ff. (Translation: mine).

18 David Hume. A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). In L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch (Eds.), Oxford University Press, 1975:24.

19 Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Biographia Literaria I (Collected Works, Volume 7). James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Eds.), 1983:304.

20 Vilém Flusser. Eine neue Einbildungskraft. In: Volker Bohn (Ed.): Bildlichkeit: Frankfurt, 1999:125 ff.

21 Jean-Paul Sartre. Das Imaginäre. Phänomenologische Psychologie der Einbildungskraft. Reinbek, 1971.

22 Jacques Lacan. Das Spiegelstadium als Bildner der Ichfunktion. In: ders.: Schriften I, Weinheim u.a., 1986.

23 Cornelius Castoriadis. Gesellschaft als imaginäre Institution. Entwurf einer politischen Philosophie, Frankfurt, 1984:218.

24 Jean Baudrillard. “TV Fantasies“ Liberation (June 3, 1996). In Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:190.

25 Published in German as: Jean Baudrillard. Agonie des Realen is a collection of articles by Baudrillard published only in German by Merve Publishing, 1978.

26 Ibid.:25 ff.

27 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies (c 1983). New York: Semiotext(e) 1990:11.

28 Jean Baudrillard. Das Andere selbst. Vienna, 1987:10ff.

29 Ibid.:18.

30 Ibid.:20.

31 Jean Baudrillard. Die Fatalen Strategien, München 1985. Published in English as Fatal Strategies: Crystal Revenge. (c 1983, Paris: Editions Grasset), New York: Semiotexte, 1990.

32 Jean Baudrillard. Amerika. Matthes and Seitz. Munich, 1987:29.

33 Jean Baudrillard. Kool Killer oder der Aufstand der Zeichen. Berlin, 1978.

34 Jean Baudrillard. Das Andere selbst. Vienna, 1987:33 ff.

35 Ibid.:62 ff.

36 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). Ann Arbour, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994:123.

37 Jean Baudrillard. Das Andere selbst. Vienna, 1987:66 ff.

38 Ibid.:69.

39 Jean Baudrillard. Seduction (c 1979). Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1990:30.

40 Ibid.:51.

41 Ibid.:53.

42 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). New York: Verso, 1996:97-98.




©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)