Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008).
Terrorism As A Violent Way of Sharing Death in Baudrillardís Theory
(Department of Economics, Paris-Dauphine University)
Translated from the original French by Ali Idrissi and the author.
This is the desperate time when, to act aright, you must lay down your life (Françoise de Cézelli to the consuls of Narbonne – August 1582).1
The most obnoxious thing about the Palestinian terrorists is that they get themselves killed in their attacks. This is cheating. They pledge their death as the price to be paid. This is unacceptable. These people don’t have the courage to fight fair.2
We can be deeply delighted about frightening things (World Trade Centre), and not being satisfied with being delighted. Others prefer to claim the opposite and to enjoy without realizing.3
By examining three key Baudrillardian texts, Symbolic Exchange and Death, The Shadow of the Silent Majorities, and Fatal Strategies, this paper probes an important aspect of the originality of Baudrillard’s thought for contemporary philosophy. Specifically, I examine his characterization of Western society as one of symbolic foreclosure in which it is impossible to share death. It is this way of thinking about death (as a symbolic operator), that enables Baudrillard to understand the phenomenon of terrorism beyond easy and tearful indignation. His thought explains both the existence of terrorism and the fascination it creates.
In France, Jean Baudrillard has a very bad reputation and his writings have come to be treated like heresies. Indeed, no man is a prophet in his own country, but the reasons behind the mainstream French academic rejection of Baudrillard are deeply related to his understanding of death: Jean Baudrillard disturbs, above all because he takes death out of pure philosophical speculation, where we can intellectually allow it as a hypothesis, to bring it into a history and an experience of the world which are today ours. “One does not forgive him for turning a theory into an established fact, and to make it the content of a diagnosis on our time”.4
Baudrillard is a thinker of radical negativity and his writings not only smell of heresy, but also of death... and this is what disturbs. The profit of post modernism, as some Anglo-Saxon admirers have called him, is not only the thinker of the hyperreal and the virtual – he is also the thinker of the subversion of the system – not only soft subversion through theory and poetry, but also violent subversion through terrorism. For me, Baudrillard’s key contribution is based in his understanding that society has passed from one where death is seen as a ritual – shared between all the community members – to a one where death becomes a shame, where all negativity is foreclosed. Here death emerges only in violent and fascinating ways: terrorism, road accidents, and disasters. I will then argue that terrorists are the new performers of a ‘forbidden worship’ but one necessary to this society’s existence: the sharing of death, pacified through the ritual in the primitive society, made savage by the symbolic foreclosure in western society.
Terrorism is a fundamental modality of death sharing in our culture, and especially of violent death sharing. My aim in this paper is to try to understand terrorism as an event which has a symbolic nature. As such, I consider terrorism as a fundamental modality of death sharing in our culture – especially the sharing of violent death. Baudrillard helps us to understand that terrorism is an eminently symbolic act precisely because it is a way of sharing death.
II. The Symbolic Rule
Baudrillard follows the fundamental symbolic rule: “Man desires to live, but he also desires to be nothing, he wants what cannot be undone, he wants death for its own sake”.5 The instinct of self-conservation is not all – there is an absolutely essential ambivalence. Man also has an instinct of death, an instinct which leads him to his own loss. Why is this? Because we are not only defined by our complete identity, but we are other than ourselves, without identity. To want to die is to want to join the cycle of transformation.
When we bring up all otherness, we retreat in a fragile neurotic balance.
This fundamental ambivalence can be considered in two very different ways:
1) Death is accepted and symbolised in the ritual and its energy strengthens the primitive group (shortly I will briefly examine this first conception of death).
2) Death is repressed in the name of the self-conversation instinct and life’s positivity. This refusal, or foreclosure, has considerable direct consequences: the symbolic rule, for which everything comes from elsewhere, emerges in violent ways, since it is contained by force. The positivity which wants to ruin the negativity succeeds only in containing and repressing it. And we know that, the Freudian slip is often brought into effect in a violent way.
Indeed, the symbolic rule indicates that we are not fundamentally human, we are fundamentally ambivalent, without identity, and it is this absence of identity that defines us and that suddenly reappears if it is not symbolised. Thus, we can say about the symbolic what Baudrillard says about the poetic of which it is the equivalent in the language order:
The poetic, however, silences nothing, and nothing comes to haunt it. For it is always death that is repressed and silenced. The nothing, death, is overtly stated and resolved: death is apparent at last, and is at last symbolised, whereas it is only symptomatic in all other formations of discourse.6
III. Symbolic Rule Management in Primitive Rituality
The potential violence of the symbolic rule is resolved among primitive people through the ritual. The anguish of death is resolved through the symbolic and ritualized death. It is a ceremony during which young people are symbolically killed and swallowed by their dead ancestors. Thus birth and death lose their status as fatal events, as necessities and laws, in the symbolic hyper-event of initiation where we are symbolically killed and born again within the tribe. This purely artificial ceremony enables death and life to reverse and enables the group to organize the circulation between the living, the dead, nature and the animals, all the elements of the transformation cycle.
The primitive people see no absolute separation between themselves and nature; they consider theirs lives as a stage inside the transformation cycle and they do not focus particularly on this stage insofar as their current lives are merely a step in the longer cycle. Thus the primitive life is linked to a high degree of ritual forms observance in connection with others animals, men, territories. Rituality organizes this transformation cycle. This rituality is superior to the modern sociality; it is bigger and includes not only humans but also the dead, animals and nature, which all are moments in the cycle. “The Araras are Bororos, there is a cycle within which the Arara and the Bororo are involved, where there is no question of separated identity (…). They are the metamorphic forms, successive of a symbolic order that gathers all the beings”.7
For primitive people, the symbolic rule is overtly stated; it is the expression of a kind of existence where life and death are closely mixed. Death need not to emerge in a violent way, it is integrated into the collective life of the group. Through the initiation ritual, but also through the ritual sacrifice (sometimes human), and the festivities in honour of dead members of the tribe, death is shared between all the community members. The dead give their life back to nature. Without counter-gift of ritual feasting, death would have the same indifferent negativity it has in our culture. But thanks to feasting and rites, death gains status, and the group is enriched by a partner. Thus, the dead are readmitted in the group. And this energy (both the dead person's energy and that of death itself), is reabsorbed and expended by the group, instead of simply leaving the dead as a natural residue. Without this gift of status, death is not shared between all the community members, the dead is not integrated in the tribe, he becomes an ordinary dead body – waste for the scrapheap.
Thus, in primitive rituality, symbolic obligation unfolds through pacified ritual. This is not the case in modern societies.
IV. Terrorism As A Particular Modality of Violent Death
In our materialist societies, a dead body is basically waste. We dispose of dead bodies in the cemetery – the foreshadowing of all ghettos according to Baudrillard.8
In our modern societies, death is no longer ritualized by feasting. In our post-Christian culture, death is the event that we all dread, because it means the end – what we really do not want think about:
Natural death is deprived of any meaning because the group has no longer any role to play in it. It is ordinary because it is linked to the ordinary individual subject, to the ordinary family unit, and because it is no longer a collective mourning and joy. Each one buries his own dead. With the primitives, there is no ‘natural’ death: every death is social, public and collective (...). To us, the dead have just passed away and no longer have anything to exchange. The dead are residual even before dying.(...) They do not become effigies (...).This is a flat, one-dimensional death, the end of the biological journey, (...). What a banality!9
Our advanced capitalist society is characterized by a privatization of death. Death has became shameful like excretion functions. It is made contrary to the symbolic obligation which is collective. The symbolic obligation takes otherness into account. Baudrillard says in Impossible Exchange:
Each of us is the fate of the other one, there is no individual fate. If I am inseparable from the other one, from all the others that I almost became, then every fate are enslaved and no one can lay claim to own life, nor to own thought.10
The symbolic foreclosure induced by the privatization of death reduces the possibility to share something that we have all in common – death. Thus, our death becomes anonymous and solitary.
It is in this context and in contrast with this shameful and insignificant death that violent death takes on its symbolic dimension. If the demand for the most despicable media is so strong, that is because they are the most objective. They surf on death which is a collective passion. In fact, the rare events which have immediate meaning are those which bring violent death into play. The violent death (terrorism, murders, road accidents, disasters…) are ‘lived’ as opposed to the artificiality surrounding death among the old (those already removed to the old age ghetto). The old here give their lives without any counter gift from the group.
When death is violent and artificial, it re-enters the collective sphere and becomes again a collective issue. The artificial way in which the person dies is perceived by as a sacrifice, a ritual through which the group retrieves the control of this death. This artificiality allows the group to not only sustain the death (the dead given to nature), but also to consider it as wanted (a sign of its artificiality). This wanted artificiality allows the group to give this death a meaning and to live it like a sacrificial ritual. The group in turn receives the energy of the dead to strengthen its cohesion. Death is a gift to nature, but violent death is lived like sacrificial counter gift finally accepted by the group. This violent death takes death away from the natural order. This sacrificial counter gift of violent death is symbolic because it is artificial and used like a ritual due to its collective nature. Death is something that is to be shared and violent death is something which par excellence is to be shared. This is the reason why it fascinates us so.
Violent death brings the group itself into play and the passion of the group for itself. It transfigures and redeems the group for itself through the ritual sacrifice it allows. The symbolic function can nevertheless be carried out even if only through violent acting out. This is the only one means of preserving the collective, ritual and sacrificial characteristic of symbolic function. It is in this context that we must study terrorism in general and hostage-taking in particular:
Hostage-taking is always a matter of the same scenario. Unanimously condemned, it inspires profound terror and joy. It is also on the verge of becoming a political ritual of the first order at a time when politics is collapsing into indifference. The hostage has a symbolic yield a hundred times superior to that of the automobile death, which is itself a hundred times superior to natural death. This is because we rediscover here a time of the sacrifice, of the ritual of execution, in the immanence of the collectively expected death. This death, totally undeserved, therefore totally artificial, is therefore perfect from the sacrificial point of view.11
It is to this morbid ritual of our so called “advanced modern societies” that I now turn.
V. Terrorism As Symbolic Ritual
Why do terrorist action and hostage-taking hold such symbolic importance? Because terrorist actions have all the characteristics which fascinate in violent death – but at a higher level. Ritual is clearly defined by Baudrillard: It is a matter of sacrifice, a purely artificial action, a controlled form of violence, socially ordered, anti-natural and thus intentional, and above all collective. Terrorist actions correspond to this definition.
a) Hostage’s status
The hostage has a considerable symbolic privilege as he is an object of sacrifice. The terrorist removes the hostage from the economic order and transforms him into a fetish sacrificial substance.
The hostage (…): it is a cancelled object, abolished (…) and an absolutely different object, exceptional, at high intensity, dangerous, sublime. (…). For all these reasons, the hostage is secretly not negotiable any more. Precisely because of his absolute convertibility. (…): taken out of the exchange system, the hostage becomes exchangeable for anything. Made sacred by subtraction, the hostage becomes the fantastic equivalent of all the rest. The hostage is not far from the fetish or the talisman, (…). Thus the terrorist can never really convert the hostage, he has, in a way, extracted him too violently from the reality to be able to give it back to him. The hostage-taking is at the same time a hopeless attempt to radicalize the balance of powers and to recreate an exchange at the top, to give back to an object or an individual an invaluable value through the rapt and the disappearance and the paradoxical failure of this attempt.12
While the economic order excludes individuals from symbolic exchange by force, the terrorist brings them back by force into symbolic circulation. Indeed, in our mass system, we are all anonymous, undifferentiated and interchangeable …In brief, we are symbolically nothing, we exist for no one and no one exists for us. We are simply a small particle self centred on the management of our small capital.13 This is this banal particle that the terrorist strikes. The terrorist strikes anywhere, anytime, any one:
His blindness is the exact retort to the system’s absolute lack of differentiation. (…) In this murderous lack of differentiation of the hostage-taking, his action aims precisely the most characteristic product of the whole system: the anonymous and perfectly undifferentiated individual, the term substitutable to anything else. (…) The innocent pay the crime of being nothing, without fate, of having been dispossessed of their names by a system itself anonymous (…). It is in the fact that they are anybody that they are the predestined victims of terrorism.14
The terrorist is in the logic of election. He chooses anyone among us to make him go from the status of nothingness to the status of sacrificial substance – a fetish whose exchange is impossible. Terrorism is the propitiatory act that takes someone from the status of anybody to the status of sacred substance. In fact, the terrorist fulfils our most secret and repressed need: to get death (but also to give death, symbolically these poles are reversible).
According to Baudrillard: “The terrorist grants us more than the right to exist; he grants us the prestige to die”.15
This is a very difficult thing to understand in our culture fully obsessed with the positivity of the value of life. We do not intend to make a morbid apology of death, but we try to understand that death is something which is shared. It is shared either by a feasting ritual for primitive people or by violence, and in particular by the terrorist ritual in our culture. In fact, terrorism is a means for death to lose its indifferent negativity. Even more than death at the hands of the terrorist, what we are afraid of is to disappear alone, in the indifference as the old are forced to do. The terrorist allows, in spite of the tragic characteristic of his action, death to be shared. Terrorism allows the symbolic imperative of dying (to give and receive death instead of dying stupidly), to accomplish itself collectively, it is more important than our self-conservation instinct because it gives us what the system deprives us of: a fate. Thanks to terrorism, the symbolic obligation becomes again collective. In our culture a fate cannot be obtained through a pacified feasting ritual, because it is only though violence that our death can still be shared. The symbolic and collective dimensions of death sharing are more important than the violence that caused it.
We could say concerning terrorism what Baudrillard says about the catastrophe in Cool Memories II:
Unlike this superstition that consists in, under the cover of the human rights, expanding our responsibilities indefinitely, we strongly desire that things we are not responsible of and we do not have the right to, happen to us. Terrorism is in the same order.16
The symbolic is the acceptance that everything comes from elsewhere, the secret desire to join the transformations cycle.
b) The sacrificial death of the terrorist
Is the hostage alone to die? Answer: No, his death is shared between he and the terrorist. According to Baudrillard:
This is because we rediscover here a time of the sacrifice, of the ritual of execution, in the immanence of the collectively expected death. This death, totally undeserved, therefore totally artificial, is therefore perfect from the sacrificial point of view, for which the officiating priest or criminal is expected to die in return, according to the rules of a symbolic exchange to which we adhere so much more profoundly than we do to the economic order.17
It is indeed a sharing act and not an act of domination. The murderer exerts domination over his victims: he gives death without giving his life in return. To the contrary, the terrorist is not only a killer because he gives his life against the hostage’s life, but terrorist brings his death into play, he is ready to die and the most often he dies:
If the convertibility is impossible, in the end, the terrorist exchanges his own life against the hostages’ life. And this explains the strange complicity which finally brings them together. (…) Subtracting violently the hostage from the value circuit, the terrorist as well escapes from the negotiation circuit. They both are out of circulation, they are partners in their exception state, and then, it is set up, between both, beyond the impossible convertibility, it is a dual figure, maybe a seduction figure, the only modern figure of the shared death…”18
For Baudrillard hostage-taking is the only modern figure of the shared death and the terrorist redeems his actions through his suicide. According to symbolic exchange the desire to kill often coincides with the desire to die….” man also desires nothing”…according to the symbolic rule. Thus the real desire of the terrorist, beyond the superstructure of political and religious claims, …is the challenge of their own death. In their suicide, terrorists transform their bodies into a sacrificial substance, as the savage body in the primitive rituality. They regain something like a symbolic exchange. They carry out the perfect crime: they are in the same time the killer and the victim. Like the king in the primitive order who accepts to be devoured in the ritual by the members of the tribe, so that the power disappears in order to maintain the symbolic balance of the group, so like the king, the terrorists refuse the power, they accept to be symbolically devoured through the media by the fascinated masses.
Terrorism by the suicide it induces is an abstract Eucharist, even more abstract than the Christian Eucharist, an Eucharist through the media, the only Eucharist left. Thus the terrorists not only share their death with their hostages but also with all of us. Through the media, each one of us consumes a piece of terrorist and of his victims. This sacrifice injects a bit of symbolic energy and cohesion in our symbolically death culture.
c) Terrorism as a collective ritual and a source of joy and jubilation
But we do not only consume the cold body of the terrorist and of his victims through the media. We also share a deep fascination and jubilation with regard to terrorism:
All the speeches and commentaries betray a gigantic abreaction to the event itself and to the fascination that it exerts. Moral condemnation and the sacred union against terrorism are equal to the prodigious jubilation engendered by witnessing this global superpower being destroyed; better, by seeing it more or less self-destroying, even committing suicide spectacularly. Though it is (this superpower) that has, through its unbearable power, engendered all that violence brewing around the world, and therefore this terrorist imagination which — unknowingly — inhabits us all. That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree — this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it. It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it. If one does not take that into account, the event lost all symbolic dimension.19
A ritual is a collective sacrifice. A sacrifice is a controlled violence, socially arranged and desired. But for a sacrifice to have a collective dimension it must be wanted not only by the cult performer (the terrorist) but also by the group. It is because it is desired by the group that the terrorist act is a symbolic act: “It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it” says Baudrillard. The twin towers collapse causes a deep joy for us. It is because terrorism is desired by all of us. It comes almost as a relief.
But why such joy? Obviously because, in this way, death can finally be shared again collectively. The fundamental otherness that defines us can touch us again. But also because the terrorist as a performer of the sacrifice is a model of a violence that every one dreams to exercise: a symbolic violence.
A considerable contribution of Baudrillard’s theory is his conception of power directly inspired by Mauss. Power is not to kill, but to let live. The master dominates because the slave does not want to risk his life to call the domination into question. The slave refuses to take the symbolic challenge of the deferred and slowly death that the master gives him and to risk immediate death caused by his rebellion.
Baudrillard is very clear in Symbolic Exchange and Death; we are all slaves without a master, because we would rather have a deferred death by consumption than revolting and taking the immediate risk of putting our life in danger in the revolution. Baudrillard tells us: “Only the surrender of this life, retaliating against a deferred death with an immediate death, constitutes a radical response, and the only possibility of abolishing power”.20 And…“The only effective reply to power is to give it back what it gives you, and this is only symbolically possible by means of death.21
The terrorists are, in fact, the last persons, in our advanced modernity who have the courage to give their life back. In the past the counter-gift was collective through revolutions. The revolutionary used to bring his own life into play and to give it back to the power. Today only the terrorist in his madness or in his fanaticism brings his life into play, but in a more tragic and desperate way: tragic because the terrorist is often alone or he belongs to a small group (the revolutionary masses have disappeared), and desperate because he is headed for a certain death. In the revolutions there were more chances to survive in spite of the death challenge. Thus the terrorist is the one who answers the challenge of the hegemonic system by a symbolically superior challenge which is his own death. The system cannot fight back except with its own collapse. So the system cannot give anything back against the sacrifice of the terrorist.
The system can only respond to this irruption of the symbolic (...) by the real, physical death of the terrorists. This, however, is its defeat, since their death was their stake, so that by bringing about their deaths the system has merely impaled itself without really responding to the challenge that was thrown to it.22
Terrorism is also the model of a symbolic violence that cannot be used by the system (the system does not commit suicide), because it can not give its own life away. The terrorist wins at the symbolic level. He has understood that the immediate death is the only answer which allows abolishing the power, since the power is the differed death. This is the power suspension that fascinates in terrorism. Power cannot answer symbolically. Because we live a slow death, we dream of a violent death. It is because we dream in the depth of our self-conservation instinct of challenging the system by bringing our life into play that the terrorist act is for us a source of such a fascination. That’s why we live this violence by proxy “It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it”. We are the believers of this cult of violent death for which the most efficient ritual is terrorism.
However, this joyful sharing remains violent as we refuse to admit this fascination and jubilation. We are all in the violent denial of this joy, we repress our joy. The system lives of this symbolic repression, but the more violently repressed this symbolic repression is, the more violent it will emerge: the crystal takes its revenge.
Terrorism is a symbolic act because it is a violent way of sharing death. In our culture of the repressed death, the sharing of death is necessary violent, and that is the only way to make death collective. Terrorism also is a symbolic act because it is both sacrificial (desired and artificial) and collective, it allows the terrorist to share with his victims (giving them a sacred status far from the indifference of the masses), and the masses through the media his sacrifice and the symbolic failure of the system.
The terrorist gives his life, the lives of his victims, the humiliation of power and the masses counter back their fascination, joy, jubilation, will as a primitive tribe celebrates the death of one of its members. This deep jubilation is repressed by the dominant system but is still very deep.
By exposing the symbolic failure of the system, the terrorist allows death to circulate symbolically once again. He reproduces the sacrificial equilibrium, because death takes a meaning only by exchange: give and give back. This is this symbolic exchange which allows for the collective life of the group. We have repressed death so much that, contrary to the primitive people who used to exchange it pacifically through rituals and the accepted sacrifice of their leader, we exchange it through the violence of terrorism which answers the violence of the power which refuses the symbolic exchange. Repressed by force, the necessary symbolic exchange comes back by force.
Terrorism is, according to Baudrillard, a fundamental figure of the subversion of the system. That is what the events of the 9/11 recall for a lot of Baudrillard’s commentators who wanted to forget the young Baudrillard (still primitivist), on whom depends a precise understanding of his theory of terrorism. My point is similar to that made by Gary Genosko23 according to whom Baudrillard has never given up his theory about terrorism as a way of symbolic exchange, but has rather put them into reserve and updated them after 9/11. I will go further and agree with Marc Guillaume for whom there is only one Baudrillard: there is not a Marxist Baudrillard and a Baudrillard as a thinker of primitivism, and still a pataphysicist Baudrillard:
There is no way to decompose this work in part, for example distinguishing a text block devoted to objects and consumption society, another to communication, another to seduction or the impossibility of exchange…There are certainly different themes, but the writing always centres around the same questions. It is a lot more than a red thread, it is really the same obsession which haunts all these themes.24
Maximilien Nayaradou holds a Ph.D in Economics from the University of Paris (Dauphine) and a Masters in Philosophy from the University of Paris 1 – Pantheon (Sorbonne).
1 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV (1995-2000. New York: Verso, 2003:118.
4 F. Gaillard. « Le Pacte de (fausse indifférence) ou le philosophe-photographe », L’Herne Baudrillard, Paris: (Cahiers de l’Herne n°84), 2005:213. (Translated by the author).
5 Jean Baudrillard. L’Echange symbolique et la mort, Gallimard, 1976:264; and Symbolic Exchange and Death, Sage, 1993:172.
6 Ibid.:328 (French version), 228 (English version).
7 Jean Baudrillard and M Guillaume. Figures de l’altérité, Paris : Descartes et Cie, 1994:96. (Translated by the author).
8 See Jean Baudrillard, L’Echange symbolique et la mort, « L’extradition des morts », Gallimard, 1976:193-196; and Symbolic Exchange and Death, Sage, 1993 “The Extradition of the Dead”:125-127.
9 Ibid.:251 (French version); 164 (English version).
10 Jean Baudrillard, L’Echange impossible, Paris: Editions Galilée 1999:107-108. (Translated by the author).
11 Jean Baudrillard, L’Echange symbolique et la mort, 1976:252; and Symbolic Exchange and Death, London : Sage, 1993:165.
12 Jean Baudrillard, Les Strategies Fatales, Paris: Editions Grasset, 1983:83-84. (Translated by the author).
13 Jean Baudrillard, Le crime parfait, Paris: Galilée, 1995:112. (Translated by the author).
14 Jean Baudrillard, A l’Ombre des majorités silencieuses…ou la fin du social, Paris:Denoël/Gonthier, 1982:60- 61. (Translated by the author).
15 Jean Baudrillard, La Transparence du mal, Paris : Editions Galilée, 1990:85. (Translated by the author).
16 Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories 1 et 2, Le Livre de Poche, 1993:250. (Translated by the author).
17 Jean Baudrillard, L’Echange symbolique et la mort, Paris: Gallimard, 1976:252 ; Symbolic Exchange and Death, Sage, 1993:165.
18 Jean Baudrillard, Les Strategies fatales, Le livre de poche, 1994:54.
20 Jean Baudrillard, L’Echange symbolique et la mort, Paris: Gallimard, 1976:69; Symbolic Exchange and Death, London: Sage, 1993:40.
21 Ibid.:73 (French version); 43 (English version).
22 Ibid.:64 (French version); 37 (English version).
24 Marc Guillaume, «Cool Thinking», Paris: Cahiers de l’Herne n°84 : Baudrillard, L’Herne, 2005 :47.