[
printer friendly version ]

ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006)

The Melodrama of Difference (Or, The Revenge of the Colonized)1

Jean Baudrillard
(Paris, France).

Translated by James Benedict
 

So what became of otherness?

            We are engaged in an orgy of discovery, exploration and “invention” of the Other. An orgy of differences. We are procurers of encounter, pimps of interfacing and interactivity. Once we get beyond the mirror of alienation (beyond the mirror stage that was the joy of our childhood), structural differences multiply ad infinitum – in fashion, in mores, in culture. Crude otherness, hard otherness – the otherness of race, of madness, of poverty – are done with. Otherness, like everything else, has fallen under the law of the market, the law of supply and demand. It has become a rare item – hence its immensely high value on the psychological stock exchange, on the structural stock exchange. Hence too the intensity of the ubiquitous simulation of the Other. This is particularly striking in science fiction, where the chief question is always “What is the Other? Where is the Other?” Of course science fiction is merely a reflection of our everyday universe, which is in thrall to a wild speculation on – almost a black market in – otherness and difference. A veritable obsession with ecology extends from Indian reservations to house­hold pets (otherness degree zero!) – not to mention the other of “the other scene”, or the other of the unconscious (our last symbolic capital, and one we had better look after, because reserves are not limitless). Our sources of otherness are indeed running out; we have exhausted the Other as raw material. (According to Claude Gilbert, we are so desperate that we go digging through the rubble of earthquakes and catastrophes.)

            Consequently the other is all of a sudden no longer there to be extermi­nated, hated, rejected or seduced, but instead to be understood, liberated, coddled, recognized. In addition to the Rights of Man, we now also need the Rights of the Other. In a way we already have these, in the shape of a universal Right to be Different. For the orgy is also an orgy of political and psychological comprehension of the other – even to the point of resurrecting the other in places where the other is no longer to be found. Where the Other was, there has the Same come to be.

            And where there is no longer anything, there the Other must come to be. We are no longer living the drama of otherness. We are living the psychodrama of otherness, just as we are living the psychodrama of “sociality”, the psycho­drama of sexuality, the psychodrama of the body – and the melodrama of all the above, courtesy of analytic metadiscourses. Otherness has become socio­-dramatic, semio-dramatic, melodramatic.

            All we do in psychodrama – the psychodrama of contacts, of psychological tests, of interfacing – is acrobatically simulate and dramatize the absence of the other. Not only is otherness absent everywhere in this artificial drama­turgy, but the subject has also quietly become indifferent to his own subjecti­vity, to his own alienation, just as the modern political animal has become indifferent to his own political opinions. This subject becomes transparent, spectral (to borrow Marc Guillaume's word) – and hence interactive. For in interactivity the subject is the other to no one. Inasmuch as he is indifferent to himself, it is as though he had been reified alive – but without his double, without his shadow, without his other. Having paid this price, the subject becomes a candidate for all possible combinations, all possible connections.

            The interactive being is therefore born not through a new form of exchange but through the disappearance of the social, the disappearance of otherness. This being is the other after the death of the Other – not the same other at all: the other that results from the denial of the Other.

            The only interaction involved, in reality, belongs to the medium alone: to the machine become invisible. Mechanical automata still played on the differ­ence between man and machine, and on the charm of this difference – something with which today's interactive and simulating automata are no longer concerned. Man and machine have become isomorphic and indifferent to each other: neither is other to the other.

            The computer has no other. That is why the computer is not intelligent. Intelligence comes to us from the other – always. That is why computers perform so well. Champions of mental arithmetic and idiots savants are autistic – minds for which the other does not exist and which, for that very reason, are endowed with strange powers. This is the strength, too, of the integrated circuit (the power of thought-transference might also be considered in this connection). Such is the power of abstraction. Machines work more quickly because they are unlinked to any otherness. Networks connect them up to one another like an immense umbilical cord joining one intelligence and its twin. Homeostasis between one and the same: all otherness has been confiscated by the machine.

            Does otherness survive anywhere after being banished from this entire psycho-dramatic superstructure?

            Is there a physics as well as a metaphysics of the Other? Is there a dual, not just a dialectical, form of otherness? Is there still a form of the Other as destiny, and not merely as a psychological or social partner of convenience? These days everything is described in terms of difference, but otherness is not the same thing as difference. One might even say that difference is what destroys otherness. When language is broken down into a set of differences, when meaning is reduced to nothing more than differentiation, the radical otherness of language is abolished. The duel that lies at the heart of language – the duel between language and meaning, between language and the person who speaks it – is halted. And everything in language that is irreducible to mediation, articulation or meaning is eliminated – everything, that is, which causes language at its most radical level to be other than the subject (and also Other to the subject?). The existence of this level accounts for the play in language, for its appeal in its materiality, for its susceptibility to chance; and it is what makes language not just a set of trivial differences, as it is in the eyes of structural analysis, but, symbolically speaking, truly a matter of life and death.

            What, then, does it mean to say that women are the other for men, that the mad are the other for the sane, or that primitive people are the other for civilized people? One might as well go on for ever wondering who is the other for whom. Is the Master the slave's other? Yes, certainly – in terms of class and power relations. But this account is reductionistic. In reality, things are just not so simple. The way in which beings and things relate to each other is not a matter of structural difference. The symbolic order implies dual and complex forms that are not dependent on the distinction between ego and other. The Pariah is not the other to the Brahmin: rather, their destinies are different. The two are not differentiated along a single scale of values: rather, they are mutually reinforcing aspects of an immutable order, parts of a reversible cycle like the cycle of day and night. Do we say that the night is the other to the day? No. So why should we say that the masculine is the other to the feminine? For the two are undoubtedly merely reversible moments, like night and day, following upon one other and changing places with one another in an endless process of seduction. One sex is thus never the other for the other sex, except within the context of a differentialistic theory of sexuality – which is basically nothing but a utopia. For difference is itself a utopia: the idea that such pairs of terms can be split up is a dream – and the idea of subsequently reuniting them is another. (This also goes for the distinction between Good and Evil: the notion that they might be separated out from one another is pure fantasy, and it is even more utopian to think in terms of reconciling them.) Only in the distinction-based perspective of our culture is it possible to speak of the Other in connection with sex. Genuine sexuality, for its part, is “exotic” (in Segalen's meaning of the term): it resides in the radical incomparability of the sexes – otherwise seduction would never be possible, and there would be nothing but alienation of one sex by the other.

            Differences mean regulated exchange. But what is it that introduces disorder into exchange? What is it that cannot be negotiated over? What is it that has no place in the contract, or in the structural interaction of differences?

            What is founded on the impossibility of exchange?

            Wherever exchange is impossible, what we encounter is terror. Any radical otherness at all is thus the epicenter of a terror: the terror that such otherness holds, by virtue of its very existence, for the normal world. And the terror that this world exercises upon that otherness in order to annihilate it.

            Over recent centuries all forms of violent otherness have been incorporated, willingly or under threat of force, into a discourse of difference which simulta­neously implies inclusion and exclusion, recognition and discrimination. Childhood, lunacy, death, primitive societies – all have been categorized, integrated and absorbed as parts of a universal harmony. Madness, once its exclusionary status had been revoked, was caught up in the far subtler toils of psychology. The dead, as soon as they were recognized in their identity as such, were banished to outlying cemeteries – kept at such a distance that the face of death itself was lost. As for Indians, their right to exist was no sooner accorded them than they were confined to reservations. These are the vicissi­tudes of a logic of difference.

            Racism does not exist so long as the other remains Other, so long as the Stranger remains foreign. It comes into existence when the other becomes merely different – that is to say, dangerously similar. This is the moment when the inclination to keep the other at a distance comes into being.

            “We may assume”, wrote Victor Segalen, “that fundamental differences will never resolve themselves into a truly seamless and unpatched fabric; increas­ing unity, falling barriers and great reductions in real distance must of themselves compensate somewhere by means of new partitions and unantici­pated gaps.”

            Racism is one such “new partition”. An abreaction to the psychodrama of difference: a response to the phantasy of – and obsession with – becoming “other.” A way out of the psychodrama of perpetual introjection and rejection of the other. So intolerable is this introjection of differences, in fact, that the other must be exorcized at all costs by making the differences materially manifest. The biological claims of racism are without foundation but, by making the racial reference clear, racism does reveal the logical temptation at the heart of every structural system: the temptation to fetishize difference. But differential systems can never achieve equilibrium: differences oscillate con­stantly between absolute highs and absolute lows. When it comes to the management of otherness and difference, the idea of a well-tempered balance is strictly utopian.

            Inasmuch as the humanist logic of difference is in some sense a universal simulation (one which culminates in the absurdity of a “right to difference”), it leads directly, for all its benevolence, to that other desperate hallucination of difference known as racism. As differences and the cult of differences continue to grow, another, unprecedented kind of violence, anomalous and inaccessible to critical rationality, grows even faster. Segalen’s “unanticipated gaps” are not simply new differences: what springs up in order to combat the total homoge­nization of the world is the Alien – monstrous metaphor for the corpse-like, viral Other: the compound form of all the varieties of otherness done to death by our system.

            This is a racism which, for lack of any biological underpinning, seizes on the very slightest variations in the order of signs; a racism which quickly takes on a viral and automatic character, and perpetuates itself while reveling in a generalized semiotics. And this racism can never be countered by any huma­nism of difference, for the simple reason that it is itself the virus of difference.

            Sermonizing on the internalization of the other and the introjection of differences can never resolve the problem of the monstrous forms of otherness, because these forms are the product, precisely, of this selfsame obsessional differentiation, this selfsame obsessional dialectic of ego and other. Herein lies the whole weakness of those “dialectical” theories of otherness which aspire to promote the proper use of difference. For if racism in its viral, immanent, current and definitive form proves anything, it is that there is no such thing as the proper use of difference.

            This is why it may also be said that the critique of racism is substantially finished – just as Marx said that the critique of religion was substantially finished. Once the vacuousness of the metaphysical account of religion had been demonstrated, religion was supposed to disappear as the conditions of a more advanced mode of production became operative. Likewise, once the vacuousness of the biological theory of races has been demonstrated, racism is supposed to disappear as the conditions of a more advanced universal inter­mixture of differences become operative. But what if religion, for example, contrary to Marx's predictions, had lost its metaphysical and transcendent form only to become an immanent force and fragment into countless ideologi­cal and practical variants under the conditions of a religious revival drawing sustenance from the progress of the very social order that was expected to eradicate even the memory of religion? For the signs of just such a turn of events are all around us today. And much the same goes for racism, which has also become an immanent, viral and everyday reality. The fact is that the “scientific” and rational critique of racism is a purely formal one, which demolishes the argument from biology but remains caught in the racist trap because it addresses a biological illusion only, and fails to deal with biology itself qua illusion. Similarly, the political and ideological critique of racism is purely formal in that .it tackles the racist obsession with difference without tackling difference itself qua illusion. It thus itself becomes an illusion of criticism, bearing on nothing, and in the end racism turns out to have survived critique by rationalism just as deftly as religion survived critique by materia­lism – which is why all such critiques are indeed substantially finished.

            There is no such thing as the proper use of difference – a fact revealed not only by racism itself but also by all anti-racist and humanitarian efforts to promote and protect differences. Humanitarian ecumenism, the ecumenism of differences, is in a cul-de-sac: the cul-de-sac of the concept of the universal itself. The most recent illustration of this, in France, was the brouhaha over the wearing of headscarves for religious reasons by North African schoolgirls. All the rational arguments mustered in this connection turned out to be nothing but hypocritical attempts to get rid of the simple fact that no solution is to be found in any moral or political theory of difference. It is difference itself that is a reversible illusion. We are the ones who brought difference to the four corners of the earth: that it should now be returned to us in unrecognizable, Islamic, fundamentalist and irreducible forms is no bad thing.

            The guilt we feel in this connection assumes gigantic proportions. Not long ago the organization Medecins Sans Frontieres became aware that the medical supplies it had been distributing in Afghanistan were being resold rather than used directly by their recipients. This precipitated a crisis of conscience for the programme's organizers. Should donations be discontinued, or should this immoral and irregular commerce be tolerated out of respect for ”cultural differences”? After much soul-searching it was decided to sacrifice Western values on the altar of difference, and continue to underwrite the black market in medicines. Humanisme oblige.

             Another charming illustration of the confusion besetting our humani­tarians concerns X, posted to the Sudan to study “the communications needs of Sudanese peoples.” Seemingly, the Sudanese did not know how to communi­cate. But they were certainly hungry, and needed to learn how to grow sorghum. Sending agronomists being too expensive a prospect, the decision had been taken to teach by videocassette. The time had come for the Sudanese to join the communications revolution: sorghum via audio and video. No hook-up, no eat. It was not long before towns and villages were crammed with VCRs. A little longer, and the local mafia created a lucrative market for itself in pornographic videotapes which held a distinctly greater interest for the populace than educational cassettes on sorghum cultivation. Porno-Sorgho­ Video: The Same Struggle!

            The risibility of our altruistic “understanding” is rivaled only by the profound contempt it is designed to conceal. For “We respect the fact that you are different” read: “You people who are underdeveloped would do well to hang on to this distinction because it is all you have left.” (The signs of folklore and poverty are excellent markers of difference.) Nothing could be more contemptuous – or more contemptible – than this attitude, which exemplifies the most radical form of incomprehension that exists. It has nothing to do, however, with what Segalen calls “eternal incomprehensibility”. Rather, it is a product of eternal stupidity – of that stupidity which endures for ever in its essential arrogance, feeding on the differentness of other people.

            Other cultures, meanwhile, have never laid claim to universality. Nor did they ever claim to be different – until difference was forcibly injected into them as part of a sort of cultural opium war. They live on the basis of their own singularity, their own exceptionality, on the irreducibility of their own rites and values. They find no comfort in the lethal illusion that all differences can be reconciled – an illusion that for them spells only annihilation.

            To master the universal symbols of otherness and difference is to master the world. Those who conceptualize difference are anthropologically superior – naturally, because it is they who invented anthropology. And they have all the rights, because rights, too, are their invention. Those who do not conceptualize difference, who do not play the game of difference, must be exterminated. The Indians of America, when the Spanish landed, are a case in point. They understood nothing about difference; they inhabited radical otherness. (The Spaniards were not different in their eyes: they were simply gods, and that was that.) This is the reason for the fury with which the Spaniards set about destroying these peoples, a fury for which there was no religious justification, nor economic justification, nor any other kind of justification, except for the fact that the Indians were guilty of an absolute crime: their failure to under­stand difference. When they found themselves obliged to become part of an otherness no longer radical, but negotiable under the aegis of the universal concept, they preferred mass self-immolation-whence the fervour with which they, for their part, allowed themselves to die: a counterpart to the Spaniards' mad urge to kill. The Indians' strange collusion in their own extermination represented their only way of keeping the secret of otherness.

            Cortes, the Jesuits, the missionaries and, later on, the anthropologists – even Tzvetan Todorov himself in his Conquest of America – all came down on the side of negotiable otherness. (Las Casas is the sole exception: towards the end of his life he suggested that the Conquest be purely and simply abandoned, and that the Indians be put back in the hands of their own destiny.) All these enlightened souls believe in a proper use of difference. The radical Other is intolerable: he cannot be exterminated, but he cannot be accepted either, so the negotiable other, the other of difference, has to be promoted. This is where a subtler form of extermination begins – a form involving all the humanist virtues of modernity.

            An alternative account of the extermination is that the Indians had to be exterminated not because they were not Christians but because they were more Christian than the Christians themselves. Their cruelty and their human sacrifices were intolerable to the Spaniards not because the excited pity or moral indignation but because the cruelty bore witness to the authority of their gods and the strength of their beliefs. This force of conviction among the Indians made the Spaniards ashamed of how little religion they themselves had. It made a mockery of a Western culture which, behind its flimsy facade of faith, had no gods except god and commerce. The Indians, with their implacable religiousness, made Western culture ashamed of its profanation of its own values. Their fanaticism was intolerable because it was an implicit condemnation and demystification of Western culture in its own eyes (the same role is being played today by Islam). This crime could not be expiated, and in itself sufficiently justified the extermination of its perpetrators.

            It is by no means clear that the other exists for everyone. Does the other exist for the Savage or the Primitive? Some relationships are asymmetrical: the one may be the other for the other without this implying that the other is the other for the one. I may be other for him although he is not the other for me.

            The Alakaluf of Tierra del Fuego were wiped out without ever having sought to understand the Whites, without ever even speaking to them or negotiating with them. They called themselves “Men” – and there were no others. In their eyes the Whites were not even different: they were unintelligible. They evinced no surprise at the newcomers’ vast wealth and amazing technology. Despite three centuries of contact, the Alakaluf adopted not a single Western technique, continuing, for instance, to row around in skiffs. The Whites might oppress and slaughter them, but it was for all the world as if they did not exist. The Alakaluf were to be annihilated without conceding anything of their otherness. They would never be assimilated – indeed, they would never even reach the stage of difference. They would perish without ever allowing the Whites the privilege of recognizing them as different. The Alakaluf were simply irrecuperable. For the Whites, nevertheless, they were others” – beings that were different yet still human, or at least human enough to be evangelized, exploited, and killed.

            As a sovereign people the Alakaluf called themselves “Men”. Then the Whites applied to them the name that they had originally applied to the Whites: “Foreigners”. They eventually came to refer to themselves as “for­eigners” in their own language. In later times they called themselves “Alakaluf” – the only word that they still pronounced in front of Whites, meaning “Give, give”. They thus ended up with a designation connoting the mendacity to which they had been reduced. First, then, they were themselves, then strangers to themselves, and finally absent from themselves: three names reflecting three stages of their extermination. Naturally their murder is to be attributed to those who possess the universalizing vision, those who manipu­late otherness for their own profit. In their singularity, which could not even conceive of the Other, the Alakaluf were inevitably vanquished. But who can say that the elimination of this singularity will not turn out, in the long run, to be fatal for the Whites too? Who can say that radical foreignness will not have its revenge – that, though effectively conjured away by colonial humanism, it will not return in the form of a virus in the bloodstream of the Whites, dooming them to disappear themselves one day in much the same way as the Alakaluf.

            Everything is subservient to the system, yet at the same time escapes its control. Those groups around the world who adopt the Western lifestyle never really identify with it, and indeed are secretly contemptuous of it. They remain excentric with respect to this value system. Their way of assimilating, of often being more fanatical in their observance of Western manners than Westerners themselves, has an obviously parodic, aping quality: they are engaged in a sort of bricolage with the broken bits and pieces of the Enlightenment, of “progress”. Even when they negotiate or ally themselves with the West, they continue to believe that their own way is fundamentally the right one. Perhaps, like the Alakaluf, these groups will disappear without ever having taken the Whites seriously. (For our part we take them very seriously indeed, whether our aim is to assimilate them or destroy them: they are even fast becoming the crucial – negative – reference point of our whole value system.)

            The Whites will perhaps themselves disappear one day without ever having understood that their whiteness is merely the result of the promiscuity and confusion of all races and cultures, just as the whiteness of white light is simply the resolution of the melodrama of all colours. And just as colours become comparable amongst themselves only when they are measured against a universal scale of wavelengths, so cultures become comparable only when they are set against a structural scale of differences. But there is a double standard here, for it is only for Western culture that other cultures are different. For those other cultures themselves, Whites are not even different – they are non-existent, phantoms from another world. Outward conversion to Western ways invariably conceals inward scoffing at Western hegemony. One is put in mind of those Dogons who made up dreams to humour their psychoanalysts and then offered these dreams to the analysts as gifts. Once we despised other cultures; now we respect them. They do not respect our culture, however; they feel nothing but an immense condescension for it. We may have won the right by conquest to exploit and subjugate these cultures, but they have offered themselves the luxury of mystifying us.

            The strangest feeling one is left with after reading Bruce Chatwin's Songlines is a lingering perplexity about the reality of the “lines” themselves: do these poetic and musical itineraries, these songs, this “dreamtime”, really exist or not? In all these accounts there is a hint of mystification; a kind of mythic optical illusion seems to be operating. It is as though the Aboriginals were fobbing us off. While unveiling the profoundest and most authentic of truths (the Austral myth at its most mysterious), they also play up the most modern and hypothet­ical of considerations: the irresolvability of any narrative, absolute doubt as to the origins. For us to believe these fabulous things, we need to feel that they themselves believe them. But these Aboriginals seem to take a mischievous pleasure in being allusive and evasive. They give a few clues, but never tell us the rules of the game, and one cannot help getting the impression that they are improvising, pandering to our phantasies, but withholding any reassurance that what they are telling us is true. This is doubtless their way of keeping their secrets while at the same time poking fun at us – for in the end we are the only people who want to believe these tales.

            The Aboriginals' secret resides not in what they omit to say, however, but entirely within the thread, within the indecipherable filigree of the narrative; we are confronted by an ironic form here, by a mythology of appearances. And in the manipulation of this form the Aboriginals are far more adept than we are. We Whites are liable to remain mystified for a good while yet.

            The simulation of Western values is universal once one gets beyond the boundaries of our culture. Is it not true, though, that in our heart of hearts we ourselves, who are neither Alakaluf nor Aboriginal, neither Dogon nor Arab, fail signally to take our own values seriously? Do we not embrace them with the same affectation and inner unconcern – and are we not ourselves equally unimpressed by all our shows of force, all our technological and ideological pretensions? Nevertheless, it will be a long time before the utopian abstraction of our universal vision of differences is demolished in our own eyes, whereas all other cultures have already given their own response – namely, universal indifference.

            It is not even remotely a matter of rehabilitating the Aboriginals, or finding them a place in the chorus of human rights, for their revenge lies elsewhere. It lies in their power to destabilize Western rule. It lies in their phantom presence, their viral, spectral presence in the synapses of our brains, in the circuitry of our rocket ship, as “Alien;” in the way in which the Whites have caught the virus of origins, of Indianness, of Aboriginality, of Patagonicity. We murdered all this, but now it infects our blood, into which it has been inexorably transfused and infiltrated. The revenge of the colonized is in no sense the reappropriation by Indians or Aboriginals of their lands, privileges or autonomy: that is our victory. Rather, that revenge may be seen in the way in which the Whites have been mysteriously made aware of the disarray of their own culture, the way in which they have been overwhelmed by an ancestral torpor and are now succumbing little by little to the grip of “dreamtime”. This reversal is a worldwide phenomenon. It is now becoming clear that everything we once thought dead and buried, everything we thought left behind for ever by the ineluctable march of universal progress, is not dead at all, but on the contrary likely to return – not as some archaic or nostalgic vestige (all our indefatigable museumification notwithstanding), but with a vehemence and a virulence that are modern in every sense – and to reach the very heart of our ultra­-sophisticated but ultra-vulnerable systems, which it will easily convulse from within without mounting a frontal attack. Such is the destiny of radical otherness – a destiny that no homily of reconciliation and no apologia for difference is going to alter.

Jean Baudrillard once said to an interviewer: “You can always fight the global in the name of the universal.  I prefer the direct confrontation between globalization and all the antagonistic singularities.  To maintain the humanist meditations at all costs is to put an obstacle in the way of that confrontation in its radicality”.2

 


Endnotes

1 This essay, among the most thought provoking of Baudrillard’s writing on difference, otherness, and the  West, was originally published in The Transparency of Evil: Essays On Extreme Phenomena (c 1990). Translated by James Benedict. New York: Verso, 1993:124-138. See: http://www.Versobooks.com/index.shtml

2 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm: Interviews With Philippe Petit (c 1997). Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1998:23.

 


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)

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