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Jean Baudrillard - Paroxysm: The End of the Millennium or the Countdown
Economy and Society 26/4. November 1997, pp. 447-455


How can we jump over our shadows when we no longer have one? How can we pass out of the century (not to speak of the millennium) if we do not make up our minds to put an end to it, engaged as we are in an indefinite work of mourning for all the incidents, ideologies and violence which have marked it? The remorse that has been expressed, and the - more or less hypocritical - commemorations and recantations give the impression that we are trying to run the events of the century back through the filter of memory, not in order to find a meaning for them - they have clearly lost that en route - but in order to whitewash them, to launder them. Laundering is the prime activity of this fin de siŠcle - the laundering of a dirty history, of dirty money, of corrupt consciousnesses, of the polluted planet - the cleansing of memory being indissolubly linked to the -hygienic - cleansing of the environment or to the - racial and ethnic - cleansing of populations. We are turning away from history 'in progress', with none of the problems it poses having been resolved, and plunging into a regressive history, in the nostalgic hope of making a politically correct one out of it. And in this retrospective, necrospective obsession, we are losing any chance of things coming to their term. This is why I advanced the idea that the Year 2000 would not take place. Quite simply because the history of this century has already come to an end, because we are reliving it interminably and because, therefore, metaphorically speaking, we shall never pass on into the future. Our millenarianism - for we are, all the same, on the eve of a millenarian dateline - is a millenarianism with no tomorrow. Whereas the coming of the Year 1000, even though it was experienced with dread, was a prelude to parousia and to the advent of the Kingdom of God, and hence the prelude to an infinite promise, the point of reckoning which stands before us is a closed, involuted one. All we have left of the millenarian dateline is the countdown to it. For this century - which can do nothing more than count the seconds separating it from its end without either being able, or really wanting, to measure up to that end - the digital clock on the Beaubourg Centre showing the countdown in millions of seconds is the perfect symbol. It illustrates the reversal of the whole of our modernity's relation to time. Time is no longer counted progressively, by addition, starting from an origin, but by subtraction, starting from the end. This is what happens with rocket launches or time bombs. And that end is no longer the symbolic endpoint of a history, but the mark of a zero sum, of a potential exhaustion. This is a perspective of entropy - by the exhausting of all possibilities - the perspective of a counting down to infinity... We are no longer in the finalistic, historical or providential vision, which was the vision of a world of progress and production. The final illusion of history, the final utopia of time no longer exists, since it is already registered there as something potentially accounted for, in digital time, just as mankind's finalities cease to exist at the point where they come to be registered in a genetic capital and solely in the biological perspective of the exploitation of the genome. When you count the seconds separating you from the end, the fact is that everything is already at an end; we are already beyond the end.

In the countdown, the time remaining is already past, and the maximal utopia of life gives way to the minimal utopia of survival. We are experiencing time and history in a kind of deep coma. This is the hysteresis of the millennium, which expresses itself in interminable crisis. It is no longer the future which lies before us, but an anorectic dimension - the impossibility of being finished and, at the same time, the impossibility of seeing beyond. Prediction, foresight being the memory of the future, it diminishes in exact proportion to the memory of the past. When everything can be seen, nothing can be foreseen any more. What is there beyond the end? Beyond the end extends virtual reality, the horizon of a programmed reality in which all our known functions - memory, emotions, sexuality, intelligence - become progressively useless. Beyond the end, in the era of the transpolitical, the trans-sexual, the transaesthetic, all our desiring machines become little spectacle machines, then quite simply bachelor machines, before dying away into the countdown of the species. The countdown is the code of the automatic disappearance of the world, and all our little humanitarian machines, by way of which we anticipate that disappearance - the Telethons1, Sidathons2 and all the rest of the Thanatons - are merely the promotional Sales Event for the misery of this fin de siŠcle. But - and this is even more paradoxical - what are we to do when nothing really comes to an end any more, that is to say, when nothing ever really takes place, since everything is already calculated, accounted for, expired and realized in advance (the simulacrum taking precedence over the real, information taking precedence over the event etc.)? Our problem is no longer: what are we to make of real events, of real violence, but what are we to make of events which do not take place? Not: what are we to do after the orgy? But: what are we to do when the orgy no longer takes place - the orgy of history, the orgy of revolution and liberation, the orgy of modernity? Little by little, as the hands of the clock move around (though, sadly, digital clocks no longer even have hands), we tell ourselves that, taking everything into account - taking everything into a 'count-down' - modernity has never happened. There has never really been any modernity, never any real progress, never any assured liberation. The linear tension of modernity and progress has been broken, the thread of history has become entangled and the last great 'historic' event - the fall of the Berlin Wall - signified more an immense repentance on the part of history which, rather than heading off towards fresh perspectives, seems rather to be splintering into scattered fragments and reactivating phases of events and conflicts we had thought long gone.

All that we believed past and finished, left behind by the inexorable march of universal progress, is not dead at all, but seems rather to be returning to strike at the heart of our ultra-sophisticated, ultra-vulnerable systems. It's a bit like the last scene of Jurassic Park in which the modern (artificially cloned) dinosaurs burst into the museum and wreak havoc on their fossilized ancestors preserved there, before being destroyed in their turn. Today, we are ourselves, as the human species, trapped in this same way between our fossils and our clones.

So, the countdown has effects in both directions: not only does it put an end to time in the future, but it also exhausts itself in the obsessional revival of the events of the past. A wrong-way-round recapitulation, which is the opposite of a living memory - fanatical memorization, commemorations, rehabilitations, cultural museification, listing of sites of memory, extolling of heritage. In fact this systematic obsession with re-living and reviving everything, this obsessional neurosis, this relentlessness of memory is equivalent to a non-occurrence of memory - equivalent to a non-occurrence of current history, of the non-occurrence of the event in the information space. This amounts to making the past itself a clone, an artificial double, and to freezing it in a sham exactitude, which will never actually do it justice. But it is because we have nothing else now but objects in which not to believe, nothing but fossilized hopes, that we are forced to go down this road: to elevate everything to the status of a museum piece, an item of heritage. Here again, time reverses: instead of things first passing through history before becoming part of the heritage, they now pass directly into the heritage. Instead of first existing, works of art now go straight into the museum. Instead of being born and dying, they are born as virtual fossils. Collective neurosis. As a result, the ozone layer that was protecting memory becomes frayed; the hole through which memories and time are leaking out into space expands, prefiguring the great migration of the void to the periphery...

Closing down, closing down! It's the end-of-century sale. Everything must go! Modernity is over (without ever having happened), the orgy is over, the party is over - the sales are starting. It's the great end-of-the-century sale. But the sales don't come after the festive seasons any longer; nowadays, the sales start first, last the whole year long and the festivals themselves are available at knock-down prices. The stocks have to be used up, time-capital has to be used up, life-capital has to be used up. Everywhere, we have the countdown; what we are living through in this symbolic end of the millennium is the prescribed term, whether it be that of the planet's resources or of AIDS, which has become the collective symptom of the prescribed term of death. It is all these things which hover over us in the shadow of the Year 2000, together with the delicious, yet terrifying enjoyment of the period of time left to us. But, ultimately, perhaps the Year 2000 will not take place? Perhaps, on the occasion of the Year 2000, we shall be granted a general amnesty?

There is no finer parable to describe this countdown than Arthur C. Clarke's story, 'the Nine Billion Names of God.' A community of Tibetan monks has been engaged from time immemorial in listing and copying out the names of God, of which there are nine billion. At the end of this, the world will end. So runs the prophecy. But the monks are tired and, in order to hasten the work, they call in the experts at IBM, who come along with their computers and finish the job in a month. It is as though the operation of the virtual dimension were to bring the history of the world to an end in an instant. Unfortunately, this also means the disappearance of the world in real time, since the promise of the end of the world associated with this exhaustive counting of the names of God is fulfilled, and, as they go back down into the valley, the technicians, who did not much believe in the prophecy, see the stars going out in the firmament, one by one.

This parable depicts our modern situation well: we have called in the IBM technicians and they have triggered the code of the world's automatic disappearance. As a result of the intervention of all the digital, computing and virtual-reality technologies, we are already beyond reality; things have already passed beyond their own ends. They cannot, therefore, come to an end any longer, and they sink into the interminable (interminable history, interminable politics, interminable crisis).

This is the fulfilment of Canetti's vision that, 'as of a certain point, history was no longer real. Without noticing it, all mankind suddenly left reality; everything happening since then was supposedly not true; but we supposedly didn't notice... As long as we didn't [find]... that point, we would be forced to abide in our present destruction.'

And, in effect, we persevere, on the pretext of an increasingly sophisticated technology, in the interminable deconstruction of a world and of a history unable now to secrete anything at the end of which it can abolish itself. Everything is free to go on infinitely. We no longer have the means to end processes. They unfold without us now, beyond reality, so to speak, in an endless speculation, an exponential acceleration. But, as a result, they do so in an indifference which is also exponential. Endless is also desireless, tension-less, passsionless, without any real happenings. An anorectic history, no longer fuelled by real incidents, and wearing itself out in the countdown. Exactly the opposite of the end of history, then: the impossibility of finishing with history. If history can no longer reach its end, then it is no longer properly speaking a history. We have lost history and have also, as a result, lost the end of history. We are labouring under the illusion of the end, under the posthumous illusion of the end. And this is serious, for the end signifies that something has really taken place. Whereas we, at the height of reality - and with information at its height - no longer know whether anything has taken place or not.

Perhaps the end of history, if we can actually conceive such a thing, is merely ironic? Perhaps it is merely an effect of the ruse of history, which consists in having concealed its end from us, in having ended without our noticing it. So that the end of history is merely being fuelled, whereas we believe we are continuing to make it. We are still awaiting its end whereas that end has, in fact, already taken place. History's ruse was to make us believe in its end, when it has, in fact, already set off back in the opposite direction.

Whether we speak of the end of history, the end of the political or the end of the social, what we are clearly dealing with here is the end of the scene of the political, the end of the scene of the social, the end of the scene of history. In other words, in all these spheres, we are speaking of the advent of a specific era of obscenity. Obscenity may be characterized as the endless, unbridled proliferation of the social, of the political, of information, of the economic, of the aesthetic, not to mention, of course, the sexual. Obesity is another of the figures of obscenity. As endless, unbridled proliferation, as the saturation of a limitless space, obesity may stand as a universal metaphor for our systems of information, communication, production and memory. Obesity and obscenity are the contrapuntal figure of all our systems, which have been seized by something of an Ubuesque distension. All our structures, as they undergo cooling, end up swelling like red giants which absorb everything in their expansion. Thus the social sphere, as it expands, absorbs all the political sphere on its way. But the political sphere itself, power, is obese and obscene, whilst at the same time becoming increasingly transparent: the more it distends, the more it virtually ceases to exist. When everything is political, that is the end of politics as destiny; it is the beginning of politics as culture and the immediate poverty of that cultural politics. It is the same with the economic or the sexual spheres: as they dilate, all structures infiltrate and submerge all the others. Such are the extreme phenomena: those which occur beyond the end (extreme = ex terminis). They indicate that we have passed from growth to excrescence, from movement and change to stasis, ek-stasis and metastasis. They countersign the end with excess, with hypertrophy, with proliferation, with chain reaction, with an overstepping of the mark. Not with lack, but with precisely the opposite.

Ecstasy of the social: the masses. The more social than social.

Ecstasy of the body: obesity. The fatter than fat.

Ecstasy of information: simulation. Truer than true.

Ecstasy of time: real time, instantaneity. More present than the present.

Ecstasy of the real: the hyperreal. More real than the real.

Ecstasy of sex: porn. More sexual than the sexual.

Ecstasy of violence: terror. More violent than the violent.

etc.

All this, by a kind of potentiation, a kind of raising to the second power, of pushing to the limit, describes a state of unconditional realization, of total positivity (every negative sign raised to the second power produces a positive), from which all non-occurrence, all utopia, all death, all negativity has been expunged. Hence also a state of the extermination, the cleansing of the negative, which is a corollary to all the other forms of purification or cleansing. Thus, freedom has been obliterated, liquidated by liberation; truth has given way to verification; the community has been liquidated and absorbed by communication; form gives way to information and performance. Everywhere we see a paradoxical logic which puts an end to an idea by its very realization, its excessiveness. And in this way history itself comes to an end, finds itself obliterated by the instantaneity and omnipresence of the event.

This kind of acceleration by inertia, of the 'racing', the exponentiality of extreme phenomena, produces a new kind of event: strange, altered, random and chaotic events which Historical Reason no longer recognizes as its own. Even if, by analogy with past events, we think we recognize them, they no longer have the same meaning. For the reason that the same incidents (wars, ethnic conflicts, nationalisms, the building of Europe) do not have the same meaning depending on whether they arise as part of a history in the making or as part of history being unmade. Now, we are in a history which is being unmade - this is why they appear ghostly to us.

But is a history being unmade still a history?

Not only have we lost utopia as an ideal end, but historical time itself in its continuity and its unfolding. Something like a short-circuit has occurred, a supercooling of the temporal dimension - effects preceding causes, ends preceding origins - and these have led to this paradox of achieved utopia. Now, achieved utopia puts an end to the utopian dimension. It creates an impossible situation, in the sense that it exhausts the possibilities. From this point on, the problem in hand is not one of changing how life is lived, which was the maximal utopia, but one of survival, which is a kind of minimal utopia.

So today, with the loss of utopias and ideologies, we lack objects of belief. But even more, perhaps, we lack objects in which not to believe. For it is vital - doubtless even more vital than to believe - to have things in which not to believe. Ironic objects, so to speak, detached perspectives, ideas in which one can believe and not believe, totally freely. Ideologies performed this ambiguous function pretty well. All this is now under severe threat, vanishing progressively into extreme reality and extreme operationality.

Other things are emerging: retrospective utopias, the revival of all earlier or archaic forms in the course of what is, in a sense, a retrospective or necrospective history. For the disappearance of avant-gardes, those emblems of modernity, has not also brought about the disappearance of the rearguards. Indeed, the opposite is true. In this process of general retroversion (has history perhaps gone down with a retrovirus?), the rearguards find themselves once again in pole position.

We are familiar with the parodic, palinodic event, the event Marx analysed when he depicted Napoleon III as a grotesque stand-in for Napoleon I. In this second event - a debased avatar of the original - a form of dilution, of historical entropy set in. History presented itself as though it were advancing and continuing, whereas it was actually being undone. The current period offers numerous examples of this debased, extenuated form of the primary events of modernity. Ghost-events, Gespensterereignisse - cloned events, farcical events, phantom events - a little bit like phantom limbs, those phantom extremities which hurt even when they are no longer there. Spectrality - of communism in particular.

Events which are more or less ephemeral because they no longer have any resolution except in the media (in the sense in which we speak of the resolution of an image); they have no political resolution. We have, in a sense, a history which is no longer in the making, but remains at the virtual acting-out stage, and retains a spectral air of dŽja-vu. Sarajevo is a fine example of this unreal history, in which all the participants have impotent walk-on parts. It is no longer even an event, but the symbol of an impotence specific to history. Everywhere, virtuality - that of the media hyperspace and the hyperspace of discourses - develops in a way diametrically opposed to what one might call, if it still existed, the real movement of history.

In the past, the virtual had actuality as its end, its destination. Today, it is the function of the virtual to proscribe the real. In the absence of real history, virtual history is here, and provides the sanction, in the guise of information, for the definitive absence of that real history. Hence the absence of responsibility - both individual and collective - for the consequences, since we are already, by virtue of information, beyond the event, which has not taken place.

We might speak here of a kind of 'event strike', to use Macedonio Fernandez's expression. What does this mean? That the work of history has ceased to function. That the work of mourning is beginning. That the information system is taking over the baton from History and starting to produce the event in the same way that Capital is starting to produce Work, so that labour no longer has any significance of its own, just as the event produced by information has no historical meaning of its own.

This is the point where we enter the transhistorical or the transpolitical, that is to say, the sphere where events do not really take place precisely because they are produced and broadcast 'in real time', where they have no meaning because they can have all possible meanings. We have, therefore, to grasp them now not politically, but transpolitically, that is to say, at the point where they become lost in the void of information. The sphere of information is like a space where, after emptying events of their meaning, an artificial gravity is created for them; where, after deep-freezing them politically and historically, they are re-staged transpolitically, in real - that is to say, perfectly virtual - time. We might speak in the same way of the transeconomic sphere, that is to say, the sphere where classical economics gets lost in the void of speculation, just as History gets lost in the void of information.

But, in the end, perhaps we have to pose all these problems in terms other than the hackneyed ones of alienation and the unhappy fate of the subject. And there is precisely the Ubuesque side of this technological excrescence, of this proliferating obscenity and obesity, of this unbridled virtuality and virality which invites us to do so. Our situation is a wholly pataphysical one, that is to say, everything around us has passed beyond its own limits, has moved beyond the laws of physics and metaphysics. Now, pataphysics is ironic, and the hypothesis which suggests itself here is that, at the same time as things have reached a state of paroxysm, they have also reached a state of parody.

Might we advance the hypothesis - beyond the heroic stage, beyond the critical stage - of an ironic stage of technology, an ironic stage of history, an ironic stage of value? This would at last free us from the Heideggerian vision of technology as the effectuation and final stage of metaphysics; it would free us from all retrospective nostalgia for being, and we would have, rather, a gigantic objectively ironic 'take' on all this scientific and technological process which would not be far removed from the radical snobbery, the post-historical, Japanese snobbery KojŠve spoke of.

An ironic reversal of technology, similar to the irony of the media sphere. The naive illusion about the media is that they are used by those in power to manipulate, seduce and alienate the masses. A vulgar interpretation. The more subtle version, the ironic version is precisely the opposite. It is that, through the media, it is the masses who manipulate those in power (or those who see themselves in those terms). It is precisely at the point where the political power thinks it has them where it wants them that the masses impose their clandestine strategy of neutralization, of destabilization of a power that has become paraplegic. At the very least, let us agree that matters are undecidable here; that both hypotheses are valid; and that, at any event, any interpretation regarding the media is reversible. It is precisely in this reversibility that the objective irony lies.

Let us advance the same hypothesis with regard to the object of science - of the most sophisticated of current sciences. Through the most subtle procedures we deploy to pin it down, isn't the scientific object itself toying with us, presenting itself as an object and mocking our objective pretension to analyse it? Scientists are not far from admitting such a thing today, and this irony of the object is the very form of a radical illusoriness of the world, an illusoriness which is no longer physical (of the senses) or metaphysical (of the mind or consciousness), but pataphysical, to use the term Jarry applied to the 'science of imaginary solutions.'

Let us extend the hypothesis to all our technologies, to the technical universe in general, which is becoming the ironic instrument of a world which we believe we transform and dominate whereas in fact it is it - the object - which imposes and asserts itself through all the interposed technologies, which we merely operate. Such is, here again, the form of the illusion. Not the illusion of error (we are not in error about technology - there is no sense perpetually reviving that unfounded accusation), but the illusion of a game - it is simply that we do not know the rules.

The ironic hypothesis - that of a transcendental or technical irony - being by definition unverifiable, let us content ourselves with the undecidable, with the mere possibility of that hypothesis, which is in itself more subtle and exciting than all the others. We are faced in the end with two irreconcilable hypotheses: that of the perfect crime or, in other words, of the extermination by technology and virtuality of all reality - and equally of the illusion of the world - or that of the ironic play of technology, of an ironic destiny of all science and all knowledge by which the world - and the illusion of the world - are perpetuated. Let us content ourselves with these two irreconcilable and simultaneously 'true' perspectives. There is nothing that allows us to decide between them. 'The world is everything which is the case,' as Wittgenstein says.

Notes

1. The French equivalent of 'Children in Need.'

2. TV event for World Aids Day.

Baudrillard, Jean. "The End of the Millennium or the Countdown." Economy and Society 26/4. November 1997, pp. 447-455. Available: http://www.uta.edu/english/apt/collab/texts/millennium.html