Biography  |  Bibliography  |  Articles  |  Lectures  |  Photos  |  Videos  |  Quotes  |  Links  

Jean Baudrillard - In the Shadow of the Millennium
Translated by Francois Debrix
A l'Ombre du Millenaire ou le Suspens de l'An 2000. Paris: Sens & Tonka, April 1998


The perfect symbol of the end of the century is (or was rather) thenumerical clock at the Beaubourg (Centre Georges Pompidou) in Paris. There, therace against time was measured in millions of seconds. The Beaubourg clockillustrates the reversal of time characteristic of our contemporary modernity.Time is no longer counted from its point of origin, as a progressive succession.It is rather subtracted from the end (5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0). It is like a bomb withdelayed effect. The end of time is no longer the symbolic completion of history,but the mark of a possible fatigue, of a regressive countdown. We are no longerliving according to a projected vision of progress or production. The finalillusion of history has disappeared since history is now encapsulated in anumerical countdown (just as the final illusion of humankind disappears when manis encapsulated in genetic computations). Counting the seconds from now to theend means that the end is near, that one has already gone beyond the end.

By the way, the clock's own fate at the Beaubourg was interesting too.It was taken down six months ago and placed in a safe where it continues to workuntil the end. But nobody can see it. It is as if political authorities wereafraid of what could happen if we were able to see the end of this live (living)countdown (it was replaced with a billboard on the Eiffel Tower, but this oneonly marks down the days until the millennium, which is far less dramatic). Theywere perhaps afraid of a sudden millenarian panic. Who knows? It may also bethat the real time of contemporary life can no longer deal with chronologicaltime. No matter what the reason was, the clock has disappeared, and this reallylooks like an attempt to undercut the advent of the Year 2000, a way ofrecalling it and sending it back to the warehouse to ward off its potentialeffects. At the Beaubourg, the Year 2000 will not take place.

We're waiting for the Year 2000 and holding our breath at the sametime. No matter which event we are referring to - internet, globalization,Europe, the single currency, cloning, scandals - the only important outcome atthe century's end is precisely that: the end of the century. It is only thanksto the end of the century that all the other events can be held in suspense. Itis the only event that can produce unpredictable effects. It is in fact anon-event, but a fateful non-event, caused by some sort of numerical magic.There is a magical expectation which is no longer that of God's Kingdom as inthe Year 1000. But it is still millenarian, that is to say, beside or beyondhistory.

We are already in the anticipated void of the Year 2000, in itsshadow, as if it were an approaching asteroid. Just as any electoral deadlinefreezes political life a year ahead of time, so does the shadow of themillennium which creates an empty vortex that swallows the entire century. Itrevises all historical requirements to the point of erasing the very marks ofhistory (and of the 20th century). We dig in the archives. We settle oldaccounts. We revive memories (including the memory of the Year 2000 inanticipation, as if it had already taken place). We launder and purify todesperately try to end the century with a politically correct balance sheet.This is by and large a question of historical purification. The entire 20thcentury is on trial. And this is new. None of the previous centuries did that.What they did was history. What we are doing is history's trial.

In a sense, we do not believe in the Year 2000. When people talk aboutplans, platforms, predictions for 2005, 2010 or 2020, we do not really believethem. This is not the future, this is fiction. This is another world because,for us, the symbolic break in time creates a symbolic break in the mind. Theonly thing we try to imagine is how to get rid of our history which weighs somuch and then start all over again. And we dream of any event that would comefrom outside, from another history. Such a fantasy, such a secret conjuration ofthe millennium could shift things around. Something is imminent, we can feel it.And it is neither political nor economic. It is about pure time, the numericalpurity of time and its symbolic deadline. Even if predicted, the event isunpredictable. It is a potential accident. It is already called a realcatastrophe for the programming of millions of computers worldwide. We are inthe wake of an event that not only sucks up the future but already spits out thesignification of current events, and, at times, regurgitates memory and history.

Behind the question of the Year 2000, the more general problem is thatof the end, of what is beyond the end or, on the contrary, of the retrospectivemovement caused by the proximity of the end. Are we at the end of history,beyond history, or still in an endless history?

How to jump over the shadow of the millennium? How to jump over one'sshadow (particularly when it is gone; similar to Peter Schlemihl's hero, we'vesold it to the devil)? How to go through the century when we are caught in anindefinite work of mourning, in the mourning of the events, the ideologies, theviolent situations which marked this century? How to surpass the century whennone of its problems have been solved? Apologies, trials, memorial services givethe impression that we are trying to rewind (repasser) the film of the20th century, that we are straining (repasser) all past events throughthe filter of memory, not to give them meaning (which they have lost in thecourse of time), but to launder them. Laundering (cleansing) is the primordialactivity of the century's end: dirty history, dirty money, corruptedconsciences, polluted planet. Laundering as in the hygienic purifying of thebody, but also as in the ethnic and racial cleansing of populations. We arejumping into the abyss of a regressing history, falling for the nostalgia of arevised and resubmitted past, and, in so doing, we are losing the imagination ofthe future. That's why several years ago I came up with the notion that the Year2000 would not take place. It would not take place simply because this century'shistory has already ended and we are in the process of constantly reliving it.Metaphorically speaking, we'll never be in the future. Our millenarianism has notomorrow. The millenarian spirit of the Year 1000 was experienced as an immensefear. But at least it foreshadowed a parousia and the advent of God's kingdom.Today, our prospects are grim and uncertain. What is left of millenarianexpectations is a reverse countdown.

[Let me open a parenthesis to talk about the question of predictionand its failure. As you know, I had announced that "the Gulf War did not takeplace." Contrary to traditional prophets who always predict that something willhappen, I had announced that something would not happen. I am the opposite typeof prophet. In any case, prophecies are always wrong. What the prophets announcenever takes place. So, when I say that something will not take place, it willthen take place. The Gulf War did take place. And the Year 2000 will in alllikelihood take place too. But a prophecy does not talk about reality, just as apromise is never intended to be kept. The prophecy calls for the end; it talksabout what is beyond the end. It incants the advent of the end at the verymoment that things take place (dans le deroulement meme des choses)].

In a countdown, the time that's left until the end has already beencounted. So, we are living time and history in a sort of past-comatose state.This causes an endless crisis. It's no longer the future that is ahead of us,but the impossibility to end it all and to see beyond the end. As the memory ofthe future, prediction vanishes in exactly the same amount as past memory does.When everything can be seen, nothing else can be foreseen 1.

What's beyond the end? Well, beyond the end, there is virtual reality,that is to say, the horizon of a programmed reality in which all ourphysiological and social functions (memory, affect, intelligence, sexuality,work) gradually become useless. Beyond the end, in the era of thetranspolitical, the transaesthetic, or the transsexual, all our desiringmachines first become tiny mechanisms of spectacle, and finally turn intocelibate machines which exhaust all their capabilities in an empty vortex, as inDuchamp's work. The countdown is the code for the automatic disappearance of theworld. What's left to be done when everything is already calculated, subtracted,realized in advance? Our problem is no longer what to do with real events, withreal violence, but what to do with events that did not take place, that neverhad the time to take place? No longer the question: what are you doing after theorgy, the orgy of history, of freedom, of modernity? But rather: what are youdoing when the orgy no longer takes place? In fact, one has to wonder ifmodernity itself even took place. Was there ever such a thing as progress, asthe advent of freedom? The linear progression of modernity and technologicalinnovation is broken. The long thread of history has become an inextricableknot. And the last big "historical" event, the collapse of the Berlin wall,simply marked history's great repentance. Instead of moving toward newprospects, history is bursting into distant splinters which are but thereactivation of events that we thought had occurred a long time ago.

Beyond the Wall of Time (our asymptotic end), we only find brokenlines that break in all directions. That's what globalization is. Withglobalization, all [human/social] 2functions are expanded in a void. They are spread out on a planetary scale whichbecomes a more and more speculative virtual space. This is the fate of extremephenomena which unfold beyond their own end (literally, ex-treme,ex-terminis, beyond the end). They are no longer about growth(croissance), but outgrowth (excroissance). No longer movement,but exponential power (montee en puissance). No longer change, but apassage through the limit. Thus, we encounter a paradoxical logic according towhich an idea ends with its own excess, its own realization. History, forexample, ends with information and the creation of the instantaneous event. Theincreased speed of modernity, of technical development, and of all formerlylinear structures creates a turbulent shift and a circular reversion of thingswhich explains that, today, nothing is irreversible. The retrospective curvingof historical space, which in a sense resembles the recurrence of physical andcosmological space, is perhaps the big discovery of the end of the millennium.It corresponds to the figure of a curved line which goes back through each ofits previous stages. Retrograding to past events at all costs is an old fantasy.Science fiction has repeatedly used the theme. For example, diving back into thepast to change the course of events was the idea of the movie 12 Monkeys:to freeze the past to see what would have happened without it; to suspend timeand see what would take place next; to recreate the world even before theemergence of the human race to see what it would be like without us or, evenbeyond humankind, to get a feel for what things could look like once we are alllong gone; finally, to reinvent an origin, but only as a simulation, withdefinite limits. The more the future escapes us, the more the quest for a returnto origins, for a return to the primal scene (as an individual being or as ahuman collective) becomes our obsession. As a consequence, we try to collectevidence: the evidence of time past, of human evolution. We need to findmaterial traces of all that was on earth before us today, not so much to reliveit or rekindle past eras, but to prove that time has existed (before it finallydisappeared), that space has existed too (before speed erased it). In short, weneed to gather the evidence of all transcendental data, like space or time,which we thought inherently belonged to the human race. Interestingly, it is thehuman race itself which today successfully manages to create a perfectinstantaneousness, often called real time. Irresistibly increasing its power,the human race manages to abolish the human perception of both time and space.The loss of transcendental data, that is to say, the incapacity to organize theworld according to our sense perceptions and human functions, is without measure(incalculable).

There is, then, a recapitulation in reverse which stands as thecomplete opposite of a living memory. It is about commemoration, rehabilitation,cultural "museumification" (museification), an inventorying of thoseplaces where memory is rekindled, and the apotheosis of heritage. This idea ofreliving and recreating everything is a "therapeutic" obsession. It causes a"not-here" (non-lieu) of memory, just as informational space causes a "not-here"of the event. This corresponds to the transfer of the past into real time, whichis made possible by undercutting time's normal process. Thus, instead of firsttaking place and then becoming part of history and memory, the events now becomepart of a heritage first. In another domain, works of art go straight into themuseum even before they have a chance to exist as artistic creations. Instead ofbeing created and then, perhaps, disappearing, they always already are virtualfossils. All the things that we thought were dead, over and done with, buriedunder the immoveable weight of universal progress are making a comeback. This isreminiscent of the last scene of Jurassic Park where the modernDNA-cloned dinosaurs suddenly emerge in the museum where their fossilizedancestors are exhibited. They destroy everything before being exterminated too.This is a bit like the current situation of the human species. We too are stuckbetween our clones and our fossils.

The end of the century is in a sense where we put our history on sale{3]. Modernity is over, the orgy is over, the party is over: everything must go!In the past, the big sales happened before the major holidays. Today, sales areall year round. Even the party is on sale. We must run out of all the supplies,run out of time-savings (capital-temps), run out of life-savings (capital-vie).The countdown is everywhere. In the domain of ecology, there is a countdown forour planetary resources. With the AIDS epidemic, there is the countdown ofdeath. And all this is taking place in the shadow of the Year 2000. But thenagain, none of this may actually take place. Or maybe it is that, this time,there will be a general amnesty for everyone and everything.

There is no better allegory for this fatal countdown than ArthurClarke's novel Nine Billion Names of God. A community of Tibetan monks isin charge of detailing and copying down all the names given to God. There arenine billion names. According to the prophecy, at the end of the countdown, oncethe last name is written down, the world comes to an end. But the monks aregetting tired and, to go faster, they turn to IBM experts who come to the rescuewith a bunch of computers. The work is done in three months. It is as if worldhistory were to end in a few seconds thanks to a virtual intervention.Unfortunately, this also marks the disappearance of the world in real time. Theprophecy of the end of the world which corresponds to the exhaustion of all ofGod's names becomes true. On their way down from the mountain, the IBMtechnicians (who previously did not believe a word of the story) can see all thestars in the sky disappear one by one.

Once again, this is a nice allegory for our contemporary situation. Wecalled in some technicians from IBM and they plugged in the code for theautomatic destruction of the world. Because of the intervention of numerical,cybernetic, and virtual technologies, we are already beyond reality, and thingsare already beyond their destruction. They can no longer end, and they fall intothe abyss of the endless (endless history, endless politics, endless economiccrisis).

This is nothing more than the realization of Canetti's vision.According to Canetti, "beyond a specific point in time, history lost itsreality. Without realizing it, the entire human race abandoned reality. Whattook place from then on could no longer be true, but there would be no way ofrealizing it... Short of being able to return to that specific point in time, wewould have no choice but to continue to work hard at destroying the present."

Indeed, we are spending our energies endlessly deconstructing theworld, undoing a history which can no longer produce its own end (or come to anend). An increasingly advanced technology helps us perform our task. Everythingcan be extended ad infinitum. We can no longer stop the process. Thisextension takes place without us, without reality in a sense, in an endlessspeculative quest, as an exponential acceleration. This work takes place withoutany real event, without any real accident. It is simply an endless recyclingwork. Again, it is no longer the "end of history," but the inability to end it.We have lost history and its end as well. Possessing the end is the mostprecious thing to have. It is the end, and only the end, which tells us thatsomething indeed happened. On the contrary, we are at the apogee of information.Buried in the depth of the media, we can no longer tell if something is takingplace or not.

But perhaps the end of history is simply one of history's many tricks. Maybe it ended a long time ago, but we did not realize it, as Canetti suggests. History is perhaps trying to make us believe in its end whereas it has already gone back in the other direction (dans l'autre sens).

The acceleration of extreme phenomena, along with this endlessrecycling work, creates recurring situations which can no longer be accessed bymeans of reason (Raison historique). Recurring situations such as wars,ethnic conflicts, nationalist and religious uprisings always emerge. We couldcall them ghost-events 4. Evenwhen we think that we can recognize them by means of a comparison with previousevents, they no longer mean the same thing. The same accidents(peripeties) do not necessarily have the same significations depending onwhether they occur in the ascending or the descending phase of history,depending on whether they are part of a history in the making or a history inthe unmaking. Today, we are in the middle of a defective history, a historywhich undoes itself (se defait). That's why these events are ghosts.

We know the analysis that Marx gave of Napoleon III, the "smaller" Napoleon, as a grotesque duplicate of the first Napoleon. He is like a parody, a degraded incident compared with the original. History uses this technique of the duplicate to go forward whereas in fact it is going backward. History reproducing itself becomes farce 5. And we could add: Farce reproducing itself becomes history 6. The current period offers multiple examples of this degraded and exhausted duplication of the first events of modernity. As such, the current era could indeed be called "postmodern." It is "postmodern" in the sense that its condition is that of a simulation or spectrality of events whose only stage is the news media. The postmodern events are like secondary products. They are the events of a history which can no longer renew itself, an unreal history, in which actors are nothing more than extras. The war in Bosnia gave us a dramatic example of such a condition. It was no longer an event. It was rather the symbol of history's own impotence. It was a stasis, a "strike of events," as Macedonio Fernandez put it. What does the metaphor of the "strike of events" mean? It means that history's workforce has been forced out of work. But it also means that a work of mourning begins, and often that the work of the news media takes over. The media have to take over and make the event, just as capital takes over to produce labor. This is a paradoxical reversal of all our classical perspectives. According to this new configuration, when labor is the product of capital, the very act of working loses its meaning (and the chance it may have had to upset capital's order). Similarly, the event produced by the media no longer has any historical significance. It no longer conveys any form of political resolution. The only resolution that is left is the visual resolution of the media. The event becomes virtual. Everywhere, virtuality (the mediatic hyper-space with its multiple interfaces) eradicates what we could call, if it still meant anything at all, the real movement of history.

At this point, we enter the domain of the transpolitical or the transhistorical. It is a domain where events no longer take place in reality because of their own production and deployment in 'real time.' They can simply be captured transpolitically. As transpolitical events, they are lost in a vacuum of information. The informational domain is a space where, after all the events have been emptied of their substance, an artificial gravity is restored, and the events are sent back into orbit where they can be seen in real time. Or, to put it differently, after losing their historical vitality, the events can now be rebroadcast on the transpolitical stage of the news media. It is the same thing as what happens in making a movie. If history is a movie (which indeed it has become through its immediate retro-projection), the 'truth' in the news media is nothing more than the post-synchronizing, the dubbing, and the sub-titling of the film.

We could also talk about the transeconomic domain. It would be thedomain which emerges after classical economics is lost in the empty vortex ofstock exchange vacillations (just as history is lost in the vortex ofinformation). Virtual and speculative economic transactions mark the end of anyform of political economy. Traders and Golden Boys 7 nolonger have anything to do with the logic of production, the market, capitalistprofit. Something else is at stake: 'real-time' economics, the instantaneousfluidity of capital, the orbital dance of money. Circulating around itself at anincreasingly fast speed, money becomes a strangely magnetic agent. As anuncontrollable chain reaction, it transcends real economics and goes throughreality from one end to the other similar to the nuclear reactor in over-driveof China Syndrome which was able to go through the globe from end to end.

In A Critique of Political Economy, Marx states that "mankind only poses problems that it can solve... We notice that a problem arises when the material conditions of its solution already exist or, at least, when they are about to exist." But it is not like this anymore. Our jump into the virtual world unsettles all the material conditions that Marx was talking about, and deprives historical conditions of any dialectical solution. In a sense, the virtual is history's final solution and the end result of real conflicts. Today, this means that humankind (or those who think on its behalf) only comes up with problems when they have already been solved. They have been virtually surpassed, or the system has displaced them by absorbing their occurrence. But wasn't it already like this in Marx's time? The emergence of the notions of class and struggle, the birth of a historical conscience: aren't these indicative of the moment when humankind ceased to be violent and irreducible? This is reminiscent of Foucault and his analysis of power. When he starts to analyze power, isn't it already the sign that power no longer has any political meaning, that it has lost its object? When ethnology looks at primitive societies, it means that they have already disappeared. Analysis itself is part of the process of disappearance.

Critical consciousness, and perhaps thought in general, are likeKafka's messiah: they always arrive too late, after the fact, at dusk, like theOwl of Minerva. Critical consciousness is nothing more than a retrospectiveprophecy, reminiscent of Plato's figurines and their shadows on the back wall (a wall of events) in the cave (here, history's own cave). As Apollinaire used tosay, when people talk about time, it means that it has already vanished. Historydoes not serve second courses. Only analysis does.

Is there room, then, for another thought, a paradoxical thought,which, unlike what Marx said, would only pose insolvable questions, definitelyinsolvable problems? Is there a thought whose material conditions of resolutionare not already present, and will never be? Who would re-problematize all thealready discovered solutions and, in so doing, would keep the world in anenigmatic suspense? Nobody knows. Isn't the risky destiny of thought to finallybecome the victim of its own prophecy, just as history's fate is to fall for itsown trap?

Notes

1. "Quand tout devient visible, rien n'est plus previsble."

2. Translator's inserts.

3. "Le solde de notre histoire." "Solde" is both sale and balance sheet.

4. In English in original French text.

5. In English in original French text.

6. In English in original French text.

7. In English in original French text.

Baudrillard, Jean. "In the Shadow of the Millennium." A l'Ombre du Millenaire ou le Suspens de l'An 2000. Paris: Sens & Tonka, April 1998. Available: http://www.simulation.dk/articles/a61.html