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Baudrillard, Globalization and Terrorism, by Douglas Kellner

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Baudrillard, Globalization and Terrorism: Some Comments on Recent Adventures of the Image and Spectacle on the Occasion of Baudrillard’s 75th Birthday

Dr. Douglas Kellner
(George F. Kneller Philosophy of Education Chair, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California at Los Angeles)

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Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent Terror War, Jean Baudrillard has written a series of reflections on the contemporary moment that have evoked the excitement and controversy of his earlier work. For many years, Baudrillard had complained that the contemporary era has been one of “weak events,” that the energies of history seemed to be depleted, and that politics has become increasingly banal and boring. He claimed in an essay “Anorexic Ruins,” published in 1989, that the Berlin wall was a sign of a frozen history, of an anorexic history, in which nothing more can happen, marked by a “lack of events” and the end of history, taking the Berlin wall as a sign of a stasis between communism and capitalism. Likewise, at one time, Baudrillard read the New York Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as symbols of the stasis of global capitalism and a frozen history in which the two superpowers develop a system of binary regulation.

Seit den Terroranschlägen vom 11. September und dem nachfolgenden Krieg gegen den Terror hat Jean Baudrillard eine Reihe von Überlegungen zur Gegenwart niedergeschrieben, die dieselbe Aufregung und Kontroverse hervorgerufen haben wie seine früheren Arbeiten. Jahrelang hatte Baudrillard beklagt, dass die heutige Zeit eine Ära der „schwachen Ereignisse” sei, dass die Energie der Geschichte erschöpt scheine, und dass Politik immer banaler und langweiliger geworden sei. In Anorexic Ruins, einem 1989 veröffentlichten Essay, behauptete er, die Berliner Mauer sei das Symbol für eine erstarrte, eine anorexische Geschichte, geprägt durch einen „Mangel an Ereignissen”, in der nichts mehr geschehen kann. In der Berliner Mauer sah er das Zeichen fur eine Stagnation zwischen Kommunismus und Kapitalismus. Auch nach dem Mauerfall und dem Zusammenbruch des Kommunismus beharrte Baudrillard weiterhin darauf, dass unsere Ära eine der “schwachen Ereignisse” sei, in der sich nichts Wesentliches verändert habe.

After the fall of the Berlin wall and collapse of Communism, Baudrillard continued to insist that ours was an era of “weak events” in which nothing significant had changed. Yet the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington seemed to be major events that elicited wide-ranging responses and produced significant changes, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and an attempt by the Bush administration to use 9/11 to push through rightwing extremist measures in the US and to achieve a new era of American military hegemony and empire, a drama still unfolding and perhaps full of future surprises.

Shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Baudrillard wrote a paper “L’esprit du terrorisme” in Le Monde. He argued that the assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon constituted a “strong event,” that the attacks were “the ultimate event, the mother of all events, the pure event uniting within itself all the events that have never taken place.”  The “event strike,” Baudrillard declared, was over and since this time he has continued to focus intensely on the dynamics and happenings of contemporary history. In this paper, I argue that Baudrillard’s thought has been reignited by 9/11 and the subsequent Terror War which demonstrate the continuing relevance of some of his key categories and that have produced some of his most provocative recent work.

Die Terroranschläge vom 11. September 2001 auf New York und Washington waren offensichtlich jedoch schwerwiegende Ereignisse, die zu weitreichenden Reaktionen und bedeutsamen Veränderungen führten, darunter zu Kriegen in Afghanistan und im Irak und einem Versuch der Bush-Regierung, die Vorfälle zur Durchsetzung rechtsextremer Maßnahmen in den USA zu nutzen und zu einer neuen Ära militärischer Hegemonie des amerikanischen Imperiums zu gelangen, ein Drama, das nicht abgeschlossen ist und für die Zukunft vielleicht noch viele Überraschungen bereithält.

Baudrillard had long written on terrorism and was focusing reflection on globalization when the 9/11 attacks occurred. He quickly responded with the Le Monde article, soon after translated and expanded into one of the more challenging and controversial books on the terror spectacle, The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers. For Baudrillard, the 9/11 attacks represent a new kind of terrorism, exhibiting a “form of action which plays the game, and lays hold of the rules of the game, solely with the aim of disrupting it. …they have taken over all the weapons of the dominant power”.  That is, the terrorists in Baudrillard’s reading used airplanes, computer networks, and the media associated with Western societies to produce a spectacle of terror. The attacks evoked a global specter of terror that the very system of globalization and Western capitalism and culture were under assault by “the spirit of terrorism” and potential terrorist attacks anytime and anywhere.

For Baudrillard, “the speeches and commentaries made since September 11 betray a gigantic post-traumatic abreaction both to the event itself and to the fascination that it exerts. The moral condemnation and the sacred union against terrorism are directly proportional to the prodigious jubilation felt at having seen this global superpower destroyed”. Baudrillard perceived that the terrorists hope that the system will overreact in response to the multiple challenges of terrorism: “It is the terrorist model to bring about an excess of reality, and have the system collapse beneath that excess”.  The Bush administration, of course, responded with an excess of unilateral militarism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has made a “war against terror” the fundament of its domestic and foreign policy, and infamously declared that “you are with us or against us,” in effect saying that anyone who did not support Bush’s “war on terror” was aiding and abetting “the enemy” and terrorism itself. For many of us, the Bush administration did what Baudrillard said the terrorists would want them to do, in terms of overreaction to the 9/11 attacks that would melt the initial sympathy for the US and that would win recruits for the terrorists reacting against the excess violence and aggression of the US response. Immediately after 9/11, Le Monde headlined a commentary “Nous sommes tous les Americains,” but after the rancorous debate over Bush’s Iraq intervention, the US found itself alienated from longtime allies, facing a proliferation of new enemies, and engaged in what the Bush administration described as a new era of “war on terror,” with no end in sight.

In Baudrillard’s view, the 9/11 attacks represented “the clash of triumphant globalization at war with itself” and unfolded a “fourth world war”: “The first put an end to European supremacy and to the era of colonialism; the second put an end to Nazism; and the third to Communism. Each one brought us progressively closer to the single world order of today, which is now nearing its end, everywhere opposed, everywhere grappling with hostile forces. This is a war of fractal complexity, waged worldwide against rebellious singularities that, in the manner of antibodies, mount a resistance in every cell”.

Upon the initial publication of his response in French newspapers and its immediate translation into English and other languages, Baudrillard himself was accused of justifying terrorism when he stated in the article in Le Monde: Because it was this insufferable superpower [i.e. the US] that gave rise both to the violence now spreading throughout the world and to the terrorist imagination that (without our knowing it) dwells within us all. That the entire world without exception had dreamed of this event, that nobody could help but dream of the destruction of so powerful a Hegemon – this fact is unacceptable to the moral conscience of the West. And yet it’s a fact nevertheless, a fact that resists the emotional violence of all the rhetoric conspiring to cover it up. In the end, it was they who did it, but we who wished it. Baudrillard defended himself from accusations that such reflections constituted a virulent anti-Americanism or legitimation of terrorism, claiming:

I do not praise murderous attacks – that would be idiotic.  Terrorism is not a contemporary form of revolution against oppression and capitalism. No ideology, no struggle for an objective, not even Islamic fundamentalism, can explain it. …I have glorified nothing, accused nobody, justified nothing. One should not confuse the messenger with his message. I have endeavored to analyze the process through which the unbounded expansion of globalization creates the conditions for its own destruction.

Indeed, Baudrillard has also produced some provocative reflections on globalization. In “The Violence of the Global,” he distinguishes between the global and the universal, linking globalization with technology, the market, tourism, and information contrasted to identification of the universal with “human rights, liberty, culture, and democracy”. While “globalization appears to be irreversible…. universalization is likely to be on its way out.” Elsewhere, Baudrillard writes: “…the idea of freedom, a new and recent idea, is already fading from the minds and mores, and liberal globalization is coming about in precisely the opposite form – a police-state globalization, a total control, a terror based on “’law-and-order’ measures. Deregulation ends up in a maximum of constraints and restrictions, akin to those of a fundamentalist society”.

Most theorists, including myself, see globalization as a matrix of market economy, democracy, technology, migration and tourism, and the worldwide circulation of ideas and culture. Baudrillard, curiously, takes the position of those in the anti-globalization movement who condemn globalization as the opposite of democracy and human rights. For Baudrillard, globalization is fundamentally a process of homogenization and standardization that crushes “the singular” and heterogeneity. This position, however, fails to note the contradictions that globalization simultaneously produces homogenization and hybridization and difference, and that the anti-corporate globalization movement is fighting for social justice, democratization, and increased rights, factors that Baudrillard links with a dying universalization. In fact, the struggle for rights and justice is an important part of globalization and Baudrillard’s presenting of human rights, democratization, and justice as part of an obsolete universalization being erased by globalization is theoretically and politically problematical.

Before 9/11, in Baudrillard’s musings of the past two decades, the global postmodern condition has been one of absorbing otherness, of erasing difference, of assimilating and imploding all oppositional or negative forces into a viral positivity and virtuality. That is, Baudrillard saw globalization and technological development producing standardization and virtualization that was erasing individuality, social struggle, critique and reality itself as more and more people became absorbed in the hyper and virtual realities of media and cyberspace. In his view, the positive and the virtual radiate throughout every interstice of society and culture, irradiating into nullity any negativity, opposition, or difference. It is also an era in which reality itself has disappeared, constituting the “perfect crime” which is the subject of a book of that title (1996) and elaborated in The Vital Illusion (2000). Baudrillard presents himself here as a detective searching for the perpetrator of the “perfect crime,” the murder of reality, “the most important event of modern history.” His recurrent theme is the destruction and disappearance of the real in the realm of information and simulacra, and the subsequent reign of illusion and appearance. In a Nietzschean mode, he suggests that henceforth truth and reality are illusions, that illusions reign, and that therefore we should respect illusion and appearance and give up the illusory quest for truth and reality.

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