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Between Difference and Singularity:
An open discussion with Jean Baudrillard
June 2002


[following Baudrillard's reading of his text, "The Global and the Universal"]

Schirmacher: This is the bad news. What is the good news? Many of your questions have to do with "is there anything positive?"

Baudrillard: It's very optimistic.

Schirmacher: He uses the Heidegger defense, "I don't want to criticize, only to describe!"

Audience: I liked your comment about the Ministry of Culture as being a kind of joke. I think the situation is very well typified by the fact that the Ministry of Culture is required to subsidize cultural production. However, cultural production in its best forms can be stockpiled, it's not perishable, it doesn't have to be consumed at once. At a certain point you say it's simply illogical to say that we won't be saturated by cultural products. My point is, I think that cultural products can be stockpiled without perishing. What is the difference between cultural products and market products?

Baudrillard: It would be a fantasy to cryogenize culture, in order to resurrect it in a hundred years, like Disney in his cryogenic grave. Why not do the same with human beings? They are about to become consumer goods, too, and maybe if we freeze human beings maybe there's a chance in a century they can be resurrected as "real" human beings… Now, why do you try to save culture? As an anthropological reality it generates itself and it perishes by itself. It is a singularity, it has its birth and death, you don't need to attempt to save it. It has its own way. For me it's useless to attempt to artificially perpetuate a system, because culture became a system of values, it's no more an organic, symbolic organization of sociality, now it's a system of market values, but of aesthetic values, not so much economic values. As a system of aesthetic values it is a very antinomic proposition, because culture perishes from this mixture of the symbolic and of values. The symbolic order of culture is not value, value is an economic structure. With infiltration or contamination of signs by an aesthetic circulation, and the rise of cultural goods as aesthetic goods, that's the beginning of the end.

Schirmacher: Exactly because you stockpile it, it's not culture. Culture should die. That's its honor. It's an anthropological event and should not be preserved for eternity, even if it sometimes happens.

Baudrillard: I'm only pessimistic, but you are a murderer. [laughter and applause]

Audience: Isn't differance the key to culture?

Baudrillard: No, we are in a culture of difference, of culture as difference, a multicultural organization. Culture as singularity is more than difference. Difference can be easily organized into a system which generates structure and meaning. Culture as such has no finality, no meaning, it's a symbolic act and in this sense it's beyond differences which are only oppositional structures. Singularity is a symbolic acting, a collective acting. Primitive societies and cultures are not different, they're very singular, it's not the same. Today, all cultures of the world are in multicultural ensembles as differences, together as the megaculture of difference, which is very opposed to the original singularity of culture.

Schirmacher: They are more like different brands.

Baudrillard: They can be juxtaposed and collected altogether in a museum.

Audience: Do you think it's time that artists use their strengths for something else than making objects? Is there something an artist can do better than just contributing to the art market?

Baudrillard: An extension of art action today, in a very general sense, is performance. Maybe art is everywhere at this point, and as such it's possible to make art of everything. I'm afraid that's a pure extension of the readymade. As a game traditional art has a rule, it has to invent a scene other than reality. It must not work so much in the real world, to transform it in political, social, therapeutic ways, that's not art, art has a stronger, more radical definition for me. Today, it's a fact, art is an interacting, multi-directional activity, but that's a very degenerated art.

Schirmacher: What do you mean by radical?

Baudrillard: Radical would be the separation apart from any meaning, any finality, any causality. Art would be a thing itself, nothing but a singularity, and as such it cannot be anything in the real world. The art world would be anything else, it should be incompatible with reality. Traditional art was integrated in the symbolic order of the culture, but it was a radical illusion. In old times there wasn't reality. Now this illusion is lost, and art has lost its privileged position inside this symbolic order. Now we have to do with reality, and unfortunately contemporary art has fallen into the trap of reality, it becomes real, and soon it will be hyperreal in accordance with our surroundings. I would say rather than evolution it is an involution.

Ulfers: I agree with your notion with the singularity of culture, I'm wondering though if you are, I don't think you are, talking about a closed system here, because in order to have singularity you need to have, just for the sake of comparison, a relation to otherness. That otherness is not to be confused with globalism or globalization, but we need some way to be capable of differentiating yourself from another in order to be single.

Baudrillard: I agree that the singularity has paradoxically to do with alterity. It's a paradigm which is highly opposed to "identity/difference", which is our paradigm, I would say. Singularity and alterity is a double game, I agree.

Ulfers: But that's not to be confused with what you have defined as globalization, or multiculturalism.

Baudrillard: Yes because we can oppose this paradigm of the totality of globalization, where all differences can be integrated, but as differences, not as singularities. One of the strategies of this new order of the world is to transform singularities into differences. As differences they are able to be integrated into the global. As singularities they cannot. It's an immense attempt of this global world to reduce and annihilate all singularities in order to be integrated into an undifferentiated world. This world of differences, this culture of differences is an alibi for a culture of indifferentiation.

Audience: Regarding the stockpiling of culture, where is the room for the artist to have resistance? Do we go underground, like the rat? True culture, like evil, cannot truly be suppressed.

Baudrillard: Of course, you may, or can, or must, but you must create your underground, because now thereÕs no more underground, no more avant-garde, no more marginality. You can create your personal underground, your own black hole, your own singularity. The bad fate is that everyone can do that, but it will never create a collective symbolic order, it will be an exceptional, special creation, and today we can see that. Creative initiative maybe as a subjective act is very original but it doesn't create a symbolic movement. That's the problem.

Schirmacher: How do you see subjectivity coming to being? Is it possible still to have an authentic form of subjectivity?

Baudrillard: Why not, but today it would be a perversion. We are in a virtually positive, immanent world, where all is implicated in functional operations, and so on. This arrangement doesn't need a subject anymore, on the contrary, it must destroy subjectivity, and we can see that in this shifting from the subject to the individual. Today we speak always of the individual, the rights of the individual and so on. The individual is not the subject, the subject is over. The individual has no originality, it is a particular molecular fragment of an ensemble, and when you are in this system you are not a subject anymore, you can be individual as an abstract configuration, but you are a pure operation, deducted from the functioning of a system. You are a by-product of the system as individual, instead of a subject with thoughts that generate actions. As a subject you were divided and alienated, of course, a subject is alienated, it is another subject. It effaces the other subjects. The individual has no other, everyone is individual. The other individual is not an other, it has no otherness, no alterity. We try to save subjectivity through intersubjectivity, interaction, but I don't believe in this escape.

Schirmacher: You would agree that in the future there could be another Baudrillard, as a by-product.

Baudrillard: As a clone. I am already a simulacrum of myself. You are not dealing with the real Baudrillard, I have sent a clone.

Audience: You said that the crisis is going to be intensified by globalization, but you are not pessimistic. What are the reasons for not being pessimistic?

Baudrillard: It's not because I described or analyzed a state of things this way, the order of things is nihilistic, it's the place for the exchange of nothing. I describe it but I take a distance from it. The form in the discourse, it's not only an analytic discourse, the theoretical discourse also is a form which is never pessimistic or optimistic, it's just a form. The salvation is in the form, not the content, even when you say even the most pessimistic things. The content maybe pessimistic or nihilistic, but the form, if it succeeds, is never either one, it is a transfiguration of the content. You do that in the writing. It's always a challenge between content and form, and that's the difference between a rational, discursive discourse and a theoretical approach. I, for my part, say the most nihilistic things, yes, but the resolution of this pessimistic content is in a very glorious form. Then the writing is not an innocent act, it is a transmutation of the content. That's why language is something very singular, it is always more than what it signifies and you must take into account this transfiguration of language. It's always a challenge, you can describe the most apocalyptic system, but you can do it in a way that is not at all apocalyptic. The form can retain the singularity at the same time that it says something which is not singular but describes a non-singularity. It's always a duel.

Schirmacher: This kind of answers two questions I have here, concerning "What happens in a simulated world where we have freedom from radical uncertainty, is there still a need for questions? After the orgy do we still need to ask questions? What kind of questions would these be?" You say that the content is not important, but the form can help you, you use the form of questioning.

Baudrillard: You take the example of the orgy, "What are you doing after the orgy?" That is a question. There is no answer. The seduction, the paradox, the challenge is in the question itself. But we presuppose that the orgy is over, we are at the end, or beyond the orgy, the orgy as a model of total liberation and integration. After that, there is no more a question of freedom, liberation, and so on, That's all achieved, we are all liberated, liberated of needs, of language, of sex, but what is new after that? Maybe it needs no answer to this question. The orgy was an acting-out of all finalities, it was a model of the liberation of all things, it is a vanishing point. As a vanishing point it is very interesting, because after that we don't know what we are, but it's not very dangerous, to not know what we will and what we want and so on were the categories of Enlightenment and modern man. We are beyond that and maybe it's a chance. We are free from freedom, free from liberation, That's over. Maybe now there's another chance, not for a new servitude..but maybe, maybe unknown models of servitude. We cannot have a radical moral judgment about these alternatives.

Schirmacher: So it's not that we are, as one question has here, "just changing one set of truths for another."

Baudrillard: We are changing our system of values, changing all our identities, our partners, our illusions, and so on. We are obliged to change, but changing is something other than becoming, they are different things. We are in a "changing" time, where it is the moral law of all individuals, but changing is not becoming. We can change everything, we can change ourselves, but in this time we don't become anything. It was an opposition put forth by Nietzsche, he spoke about the era of chameleons. We are in a chameleonesque era, able to change but not able to become. This is our challenge. By an excess of potential changing, any possibility is there, but becoming is not a choice, becoming someone is another fatal strategy. For Nietzsche it would be the sovereign hypothesis. He speaks of four hypotheses. The first one would be inertia, motionless, and so on. The second would be changing, the third one would be history, and the last one is the sovereign one, it is becoming. We are far away from becoming as a symbolic metamorphosis, as the symbolic return of things.

Ulfers: The sovereignty consists in being free of some teleological perspective, becoming a sovereign consists in coming into being and passing away.

Baudrillard: In a sense, radical changing is also free from any finality, but it's simply a metastasis, it's not a metamorphosis, not becoming. Sovereignty has no finality, and changing doesn't either. Between the two we have a world with finality, meaning and so on. On either side we have changing and becoming, both have no finality but are radical opposites.

Schirmacher: Some specific questions. Does film possess the possibility to become an event, an ereignis, as a pure image can become an event?”

Baudrillard: I cannot say. I don't have enough experience with cinema. I enjoy it purely as a spectator, and I maintain this position as a stranger, which I would not sacrifice. Of course, nothing is excluded from singularity. It's a question of complexity - with the pure image in photography, we can have a determined frame for analysis, from what we subtracted: the noise, the meaning, the motion. If we go to the moving image I don't know what happens exactly. For me it's too complex to be analyzed as pure. Of course a pure image is a fantasy. Cinema has prestige as a progress from photography - in our rational consideration, there is a progress which is supposed to lead to a sophistication, a perfection. I think the contrary, every progress in this area is at the same time a danger. It's always a risk of degeneration. That is not nostalgic, I don't consider the pure image as a lost object. We must judge any complexification at the same time as a plus and as a minus.

Schirmacher: Would that also apply to another question: "Do you see the internet as a manifestation of singularity." You say on the one hand it's not complexity as such, you have to judge by looking closely at what happens on the internet. Are there not singularities, people setting up their own space…

Baudrillard: At this point I'm sure there is no singularity on the internet. That's not because I don't use the internet, I'm technically, physically not able to use it, but that's not a doctrine, my refusal is not ideological. What constitutes singularity is exactly not this immanence, this overall possibility of play with identity, with communication. This is precisely the contrary of a singularity. It's rather an artistic activity. That's not a pejorative. In this virtual secluded world, there is no alterity at all, no dual relation. There is inter-individual interaction, there is interaction with oneself, but no alterity, no challenge in this sense, but it can be a place for infinite complexity, yes.

Schirmacher: You are the best example. I think there are eight hundred websites concerning you, and all of them are very different, they all say "My Baudrillard"…

Baudrillard: It's not a compliment, I am a hostage on the internet.

Schirmacher: We have many questions on the topic of seduction. "In your model of seduction, why is vengeance necessary when the pact is broken?"

Baudrillard: First I don't have a model of seduction, it's a form, a dual relation, not a model. Of course it's a pact, not a contract. When you break the pact, one form of challengevand reversibility is revenge. Revenge is a vital acting-out. It preserves the status of the other, maybe in a violent form, in a murder for example. A murder can be a very dualistic act, a pact which allows us to see that there is a deeper complicity in revenge than in indifference. Indifference is a very despisal of the other. That's our reaction, today, the most frequent reaction to all negative happening is an indifferent response, not revenge.

Schirmacher: Finally, here is an interesting hypothetical situation. "What if the United States, in an enormous celebration, destroyed the Statue of Liberty itself, before terrorists had the chance? Would this be a sufficient counter-gift to Sept. 11, by reclaiming the "privilege of death"?"

Baudrillard: That's a good idea…

Schirmacher: "…if so, what ground, if any, would terrorism have left, once the destruction of the exceptional has lost its power as a singular event?"

Baudrillard: I would very much like to see the Statue of Liberty destroyed. It would not be an event because it would not be the first event, it would be a clone event of the Twin Towers…too bad, too bad. It would not be the end of terrorism just because there would be nothing more to destroy with planes, terrorism has multiple forms of appearances. We are now fantastically obsessed with this figure of the Twin Towers, it's impermissible to imagine other forms of terrorism which would be not so spectacular. It's a very exceptional event, a very exceptional acting-out, but maybe it's still spectacular, in the sense that it's a global event and a symptom of globalization. Maybe there are more viral, more underground forms of terrorism than this one. This one opened an era of a new type of violence, a violence of the third type. There will be more subtle modes of terrorism and I doubt if Pentagon strategists have any idea of that.