Jean Baudrillard - Paroxysm: The Perfect Crime
Translated by Suture-Self Trans-Later: Ian, Michel, Sarah, William.
Association Française d'Action Artistique, 1993
If not for appearances, the world would be a perfectcrime, which is to say, without criminal, without victim, and without motive.Wherein the truth is forever withdrawn, and where the secret is never exposed,for want of traces. But, precisely, the crime is never perfect, because theworld gives itself away through appearances, which are the traces of itsinexistence, traces of the continuity of nothingness. For nothingness itself,the continuity of the link, leaves traces. It is by this that the world betraysits secret. It is by this that it lets itself be felt, all the while concealingitself behind appearances.
The artist is also always close to the perfect crime, which is: to saynothing. But he runs away from it, and his work is the trace of this criminalimperfection. The artist is, according to Michaux, the one who resists with allhis might the fundamental urge to not leave traces.
As to whether language is the trace of the imperfection of the world, nostory better demonstrates this than John's. Up until the age of 16, John, ahappy and handsome youth, gifted in every sense, had never spoken. He had neveruttered a single word until the day when, suddenly, at tea-time, he said: "Iwould like a little sugar." His ecstatic mother cried out: "But, John, youspeak! Why didn't you ever say anything?" And John replied, "Until now,everything was perfect."
The perfection of the crime resides in the fact that it is always alreadyaccomplished -- per fectum. A sidetracking, even before it producesitself, of the world as it is. It will therefore never be discovered. There willbe no final judgment to punish or absolve it. There will be no end, becausethings have always already taken place. Neither resolution nor absolution, butineluctable unfolding of consequences.
Declination of the original crime (wherein one might perhaps discover itsderisory form in the current declination of simulacra?). Our destiny, then, isthe perpetration of this crime, its implacable unfolding, the continuity ofevil, the continuation of nothingness. We will never live its "primal scene,"but at every moment we live its prosecution and atonement. There is no end tothis, and the consequences are incalculable.
Just as the first few seconds of the Big Bang are unfathomable, the fewseconds of the original crime are indeterminable. Fossil crime, then; like thefossilized sounds scattered throughout the universe. And it is the energy ofthis crime, like the initial explosion, that will spread throughout the world,until its eventual exhaustion.
Such is the mythic vision of the original crime, that distortion of the worldin the game of seduction and appearances, and of its definitive illusion. Suchis the form of the secret.
So long as an illusion is not recognized as an error, its value is exactlyequivalent to that of reality. But once the illusion is recognized as such, itno longer is one. It is therefore the concept of illusion itself, and thisalone, that is the illusion.
The big philosophical question was: "Why is there something rather thannothing?" Today, the real question is: "Why is there nothing rather thansomething?"
The absence of things to themselves, the fact that they don't take placewhile seeming to, the fact that everything withdraws behind its own appearanceand can therefore never be identical to itself -- all this is the materialillusion of the world. And this remains at bottom the great enigma, whichplunges us into terror, and from which we protect ourselves with the formalillusion of truth.
Under penalty of terror, we must decipher the world, and thus wipe outmaterial illusion. We will tolerate neither the vacuum, nor the secret, norsheer appearance. And why must we decipher it, instead of letting the illusionshine as it is, in all its brilliance? Ah, well -- this is also an enigma; itbelongs to the enigma of why we cannot bear the enigmatic. It is of a piece withthe world that we could not bear within it either illusion or pure appearance.We wouldn't tolerate any better -- if it had to exist -- radical truth andtransparence.
Truth wants to present itself naked; to reveal its nudity. It desperatelyseeks nudity, like Madonna in the film that made her famous. Moreover, Madonnais the best example of this truth-compulsion. Evocative case of someone whoabsolutely wants to be naked, to show herself naked, and who never quitemanages. She is perpetually bridled -- if not with leather or metal, then withthe vulgar will to be nude, the artificial mannerism of exhibitionism.Inhibition suddenly becomes total and, on the part of the spectator, radicalfrigidity.
This hopeless strip-tease is that of reality itself, which literally"out-strips" itself [se <<dérobe>>], offering to thecredulous eyes of voyeurs the appearance of nudity. But actually, this nudityenvelops it in a second skin, which no longer has even the erotic charm of dress[la robe].
A prostitution of reality, which voluntarily abandons itself to hyper-realistdetail -- there isn't even a need anymore for bachelors to strip it bare --, andwhich has voluntarily renounced the optical illusion in favor of thestrip-tease.
My principal objection to reality is, moreover, its character ofunconditional surrender to any hypothesis that one can make about it. That itthus discourages the most active minds through its deplorable conformism. Youcan subject it, with its principle --(besides, what are they doing together, ifnot limply copulating and engendering countless evidence?)--, to the harshestcruelties, to the most obscene provocations, to the most paradoxicalinsinuations: it bends over backwards for everything with an inevitableservility. Reality is a bitch. Nothing shocking there, anyway, since it was bornfrom the fornication of stupidity with a mathematical mind -- ort of sacredillusion thrown to the jackals of science?
To rediscover the trace of nothing, of the perfect crime, it is necessary totake from the reality of the world. To rediscover the configuration of thesecret it is necessary to take away from the accumulation of reality. Subtract,subtract.
The same must not be added to the same, and so on, ad nauseam. The same mustbe ripped out from the same. Each image must take from the reality of the world;there must be, behind each image, behind each fragment of reality, somethingthat has disappeared, to assure the continuity of nothing -- without,however, succumbing to the temptation of annihilation because this disappearancemust remain living, the trace of the crime must stay alive.
It is always by adding to the real, by adding the real to the real with theobjective of a perfect illusion (that of the hyper-real stereotype) that onestabs at the heart of the illusion. Porno, by adding a dimension to the image ofsex removes one from desire and disqualifies all seductive illusion. At theopposite end of the spectrum, the trompe-l'oeil, in stripping a dimension awayfrom real objects, adds to their magic presence, to their illusory exactitude.Trompe-l'oeil is the ecstasy of the real object, the living illusion ofevidence, that which adds to the formal charm of painting the spiritual charm ofdeception, the mystification of the senses. For the sublime is not enough: thesubtle is also necessary, the nuance which consists in diverting the real whiletaking it literally.
Subtract, subtract, take away, nuance. What we have unlearned from modernityis that subtraction gives force; from absence power is born. We never cease toaccumulate, to add, to make a higher bid. And if we no longer are capable offacing the symbolic mastery of absence, it is because today we are immersed inthe inverse illusion, the disenchanted illusion of profusion, the modernillusion of the proliferation of screens and images.
It is all the rage to make an image that is no longer an image, in otherwords, exactly that which strips a dimension from the real world and inauguratesthe power of illusion. Today, with all the forms of the reality show and virtualreality, they want us to enter the image, the screen, the three dimensionalartifact -- real-life good to go --, thus destroying any generic illusion of theimage. The temporal equivalent is that of real-time, that purports at the speedof light -- which is that of information -- to install us in an absolutepresent, abolishing all illusion of past and future.
The virtual illusion is contrary to that of appearances. Nothing hides itselfthere, no secret, no absence. Its aim is the cloning of reality, the cloning ofthe real by the hyper-real, and the extermination of the real by its double.
The disappearance of cinematographic illusion. From silent film to talkies,from talkies to color, through to the modern gamut of special effects, theillusion has gone the way of performance. No more void, no more ellipse, no moresilence -- no more image. We are going more and more toward high-definition,toward the useless perfection of the image, which in effect no longer is one bydint of being saturated with technical artifice. The closer one approaches thedefinitive definition, the operational perfection of the image, the more itloses its power of illusion.
Consider the Beijing Opera. How, with the simple movement of their bodies,the old man and the young girl brought to life the expanse of the river; how, inthe duel scene, two bodies moving close to each other but never touchingrendered physically palpable the darkness in which the combat took place. Here,the illusion was total and intense, more of a physical than an aestheticecstasy, precisely because all realistic presence of night or river was removed,and the theatrical illusion depended on bodies alone. Today one would bring tonsof water onto the set, and they would shoot the night duel in infrared.
The image can no longer imagine the real since it is the real. It canno longer dream reality since it is virtual reality. From screen to screen, theimage has no other destiny but the image. It is as if things had swallowed theirmirror, and had become transparent to themselves, entirely present tothemselves, in broad daylight, in real-time, through an unmercifultranscription. Instead of being absent from themselves in the illusion and thesecret, they no longer register except on thousands of screens at the horizon ofwhich the real, but also the image properly speaking, have disappeared. Realityhas been driven out of reality, and has left us in a hyper-reality empty ofmeaning. Perhaps only technology still relays the scattered fragments of thereal? Where has the order of meaning gone?
The only suspense left is that of knowing how far the world can de-realizebefore succumbing to its reality deficit, or how far it can hyper-realize beforesuccumbing to its reality surplus (that is, when the world, having become morereal than the real, will fall under the blow of total simulation).
However -- and this is a foolish hypothesis, fundamentally the same as thatof the transparence of evil --, it is not certain that the constellation of thesecret is eclipsed by the transparence of the virtual universe, nor that theoriginal power of illusion, its symbolic operation, is swept away by thetechnological operation of the world -- by its technological inspection, asHeidegger would say. One can detect behind all technologies (especially the mostadvanced: electronic, computer, virtual, those of image and screen) a sort ofabsolute affectation and double-gaming -- that exorbitant character oftechnicity that makes the world a play of appearances, a chiaroscuro of anunsolvable world, behind the objective, realistic illusion of transforming it.Is technicity finally the murderous alternative to the illusion of the world, oris it only a gigantic avatar of the same fundamental illusion, its ultimate andsubtle twist, the last hypostasis? Through technicity, perhaps the world ishaving us on, that object that seduces us through the illusion of power thatwe have over it. A vertiginous hypothesis that would add up to rationality,culminating in virtual technicity, the last of the ruses of illogic -- acorrelate, in the inwardness of man, of this desire for illusion of which thedesire for truth is, according to Nietzsche, nothing but a detour and an avatar.
The Japanese intuit a deity within every industrial object. For us, thissacred presence is reduced to a faint ironic glimmer, to a nuance of play andremoteness, but which is no less a spiritual form, behind which the Evil Genieof Technicity is silhouetted, himself ensuring that the world's secret remainswell-kept. The Mischievous Spirit watches and waits behind all artifacts, and ofall our artificial products we could say what Canetti said of animals: "Behindeach of them, one has the impression that someone human is hidden, sniggering atus." This echoes Heidegger's phrase: "If we really look at the ambiguous essenceof technicity, we perceive the constellation, the stellar movement of thesecret."
It seems, through a paradoxical effect, that if the illusion of the world isstripped away, irony passes into things. It seems that technicity has taken onall the illusion that it bereft us of, and that the counterpart to this loss ofillusion is the apparition of this world's objective irony. Irony as universalform of disillusion, but also of the stratagem by which the world withdrawsbehind the radical illusion of technicity, as does the secret --(that of thecontinuation of Nothingness)-- behind the banality of our technologies andimages.
Irony is the only spiritual form of the modern world. It is the solerepository of the secret. But we no longer are privy to it. The ironic functionof the object has supplanted the critical function of the subject. From themoment they pass through medium or image, through the trace of the sign or themarket, objects exert an artificial and ironic function by their very existence.No need any longer for a critical conscience holding up to the world the mirrorof its double: our modern world has swallowed its double at the same time as ithas lost its shadow, and the irony of this incorporated double erupts at everyinstant from every fragment of our signs, of our objects, in the absurdity oftheir function -- as the Surrealists showed: things take it upon themselves toironically explain themselves. They disabuse themselves effortlessly of theirmeaning -- all of this is part of their visible sequencing, all too visible, asuperfluity which in itself creates a parody-effect.
The aura of our world is no longer sacred -- no longer the numinous horizonof appearances -- but one of absolute merchandise. Its essence isadvertising. At the heart of our universe of signs is a mischievous ad-man genieof publicity, a trickster, who has integrated the buffoonery of merchandisingwith its staging. A brilliant scenographer (capital?) has lured the world into aphantasmagoria of which we are all the fascinated victims.
All metaphysics is swept away by this reversal of situation in which thesubject is no longer master of the representation (I'll be your mirror!), butmerely a function of the world's objective irony. In all our technologies, it isthe object that refracts the subject and imposes its presence and its aleatoryform. It is the power of the object that beats a path through the play ofsimulacra and simulation, through that very artifice that we have imposed uponit. In this there is a kind of ironic reversal: the object becomes a strangeattractor. Stripped of all illusion by technicity itself, stripped of allconnotation of meaning and value, ejected -- i.e., disengaged from the orbit ofthe subject, it thus becomes pure object, a superconductor of illusion andnonsense.
At the horizon of simulation, not only has the world disappeared, but thequestion of its existence can no longer be asked. But this is perhaps a ruse ofthe world itself.
Iconoclasm in Byzantium encountered the same problem. The iconoclasts weresubtle people who aspired to represent God for his greater glory, but in showingGod's image, they thereby concealed the problem of his existence. Each image wasa pretext for not facing the problem of God's existence. Behind each one, infact, God had disappeared. He wasn't dead, he had disappeared; that is, theproblem no longer presented itself. The problem of the existence or inexistenceof God had been resolved through simulation. Just as we have done with theproblem of truth or with the fundamental illusion of the world: we have resolvedit through technical simulation, and through the profusion of images in whichthere is nothing to see.
But one might think that it's the strategy of God himself to disappear, andprecisely behind images. God takes advantage of the images in order todisappear, himself obeying the impulse to not leave traces. And so the prophecyis realized: we live in a world where the highest function of the sign is tomake reality disappear, and to mask at the same time this disappearance. Artdoes none other than this. The media today do none other than this. This is whythey are consigned to the same destiny.
Because nothing, not even painting, wants anymore exactly to be looked at,but only to be visually absorbed and circulated without leaving traces --tracing in a way, under cover of the colors of simulation, the simplifiedaesthetic form of impossible exchange --, it is difficult today to recaptureappearances. Such that the language that would best account for this would be alanguage in which there is nothing to say, which would be the equivalent of apainting in which there is nothing to see. The equivalent of pure object, of anobject that is not an object.
But an object that is not an object is precisely not nothing. It's an objectthat doesn't let up obsessing you with its immanence, its empty and immaterialpresence. The whole problem is, at the confines of nothingness, to materializethis nothingness -- at the confines of emptiness, to trace the after-image ofemptiness -- at the confines of indifference, to play according to themysterious rules of indifference.
The world is like a book. The secret of a book is always inscribed on asingle page. The rest is nothing but gloss and repetition. The ultimate finesseis to make this page disappear once the book is complete. Hence no one willguess what it is about (always the perfect crime). Yet this page remainsdispersed within the book, between the lines; the body remains dispersedthroughout its scattered limbs, and one ought to be able to reconstitute itwithout the secret being lifted. This anagrammatic dispersion of things isessential to their symbolic absence, to the force of their illusion.
Identification of the world is futile. One must seize upon things in theirsleep, or in a totally other contingency where they are absent from themselves.Like in Kawabata's The Sleeping Beauties, where the old men spend thenight beside the sleeping bodies of these women, mad with desire, but withouttouching them, and depart before they awake. They too are stretched out next toan object that is not one, and whose total indifference, in sleep, sharpens theerotic sense. But most enigmatic in Kawabata's story, and which creates thismarvelous irony, is that nothing finally, right through to the end of the tale,allows one to know whether the women are really sleeping or whether they aren'tslyly getting off, from the depths of their simulated sleep, from theirseduction and from their own deferred desire.
Those not sensitized to the illusion of amorous feeling, to the degree ofirreality and play, of malice and ironic spirituality in the language of love,are not in effect even capable of loving. True intelligence is none other thanthis intuition of the universal illusion, even in the passion of love -- aboveall in the passion of love --, without this passion, however, being distorted inits natural movement.
Even our face we are incapable of identifying, since its symmetry isdistorted by the mirror.
What significance do we give to the fact that the Creator fashioned men suchthat they cannot contemplate their own face? Upon seeing it, would we go mad?Has man evolved into a form in which his face remains invisible? Perhaps thedragonfly or the praying mantis recognize the appearance of their head? Is theirface so symmetrical that the mirror inversion is without importance, or are theothers of their species so identical that the problem of singularity of featuresnever presents itself?
Meanwhile for us, our face, that which is our most personal, exists only forothers. We do not exist but for others. We-ourselves are definitively hiddenfrom we-ourselves, unidentifiable, not only in the secret of our heart, but inthe secret of our face. In return, we know the true face of the other, wepossess the secret of the other. The Other is the one whose secret we possess,and who possesses our secret.
To contemplate our face would be madness, since we would no longer have asecret for ourselves, and would therefore be wiped out by transparence.
The mirror does not give me my true appearance. I only know myself inreflection, such as inside me I will never be. But it is like this for everyobject, that only comes to us definitively altered, including upon the screen ofour brain. All things thus offer themselves without hope of being anything otherthan the illusion of themselves. And it's good this way.
Luckily the objects that appear to us have always already disappeared.Happily nothing appears to us in real time, any more than the stars in the nightsky. If the speed of light were infinite, all the stars in the universe would behere at once -- in real time -- and the vault of the sky would be of anunbearable incandescence. No more night -- perpetual day. Happily nothing takesplace in real time, otherwise we would be subjected, through information, to thelight of all events, and the present would be of an unbearable incandescence.Happily we live in the mode of a vital illusion, in the mode of an absence, ofan irreality, a non-immediacy of things. Happily all things, the world andothers, come to us definitively altered. Happily nothing is instantaneous, norsimultaneous, nor contemporaneous. Happily reality doesn't take place.Thankfully the crime is never perfect.
This text was first published in the context of the "Study for the Secret"meetings, June 9-11, 1993 at the Venice Biennale and appears in AFAA(Association Française d'Action Artistique) 1993, pp. 5-12.
Translated by Suture-Self Trans-Later: Ian, Michel, Sarah, William,April 1995.
Baudrillard, Jean. "The Perfect Crime." "Study for the Secret" meetings, June 9-11, 1993 at the Venice Biennale and appears in AFAA (Association Française d'Action Artistique) 1993, pp. 5-12. Available: http://www.simulation.dk/articles/perfect_crime.htm