Insomnia | Essays

Event and Non-Event

By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by Stuart Kendall

This essay was originally published as "Le Virtuel et l'événementiel" in "Cahier de L'Herne 84: Jean Baudrillard", edited by François L'Yvonnet, 2005. This translation published as part of Semiotexte(e)'s 2007 edition of Baudrillard's "In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities".


Two images: a bronzed technocrat, leaning on his briefcase, sitting on a bench at the foot of the Twin Towers, or rather buried in the dust of the fallen towers, like the bodies recovered from the ruins of Pompeii. It was like the the signature of the event, the pathetic phantom of a world power struck by an unforeseeable catastrophe. The other figure: an artist working in his Tower studio on a sculpture of himself, of his body cut by an aircraft -- meant to rise on the plaza of the World Trade Center, like a modern St. Sebastian. He was still working on it on the morning of September 11th, swept away with his work, by the very event that it foreshadowed. Supreme consecration for a work of art, being completed by the event that destroys it.
   Two allegories from one exceptional, fulgurating event, instantly projected from monotony to the end of history. The only event worthy of the name, standing out against the non-event to which we have been condemned by the hegemony of a world order that nothing can disturb. At this stage, when every function, body, time, language, is plugged into the network, when every mind is subjected to mental perfusion, when the slightest event is taken as a threat; history itself is a threat. It will be necessary to invent a security system that forewarns the irruption of any kind of event. An entire strategy of prevention and deterrence that passes for a universal strategy.

Steven Spielberg's Minority Report offers a recent illustration. Using minds endowed with the power of premonition ("pre-cogs"), capable of identifying imminent crimes ahead of time, the police squad ("pre-crime") intercepts and neutralizes the criminal before they can act. Dead Zone is a variant: the hero, also gifted with pre-cognitive powers following a serious accident, ends up killing a policeman he identifies as a future war criminal. This is also the plot of the war in Iraq: eliminating the embryonic crime on the basis of an act that has not taken place (Saddam's use of weapons of mass destruction). The obvious question is whether the crime really would have taken place. But no one will ever know. Therefore here we are dealing with the real repression of a virtual crime.
   Extrapolating beyond war, we grasp the outline of a systematic deprogramming not only of every crime, but of everything that could upset the order of things, the policed order of the planet. Today "political" power can be summarized like this. Is is no longer animated by some positive will, it is no longer anything but the negative power of deterrence, of public health, of prophylactic, immunizing, security forces. This strategy plays not only with the future, but with past events too -- with September 11th, for example, attempting to erase the humiliation through the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. This is why this war is basically an illusion, a virtual event, a "non-event". Stripped of an objective clear goal, it simply takes the form of a conspiracy, of an exorcism. This is also why it is interminable: one can never be finished with plotting such an event. They called it preventive -- in fact it is retrospective, meant to defuse the terrorist event of September 11th, whose shadow floats over the entire strategy of planetary control. Effacing the event, effacing the enemy, effacing death: the imperative of Zero death is part of the obsession with security.
   This world order is aiming at a definitive non-event. It is in some ways the end of history, not through the fulfillment of democracy, as Fukuyama would have it, but through preventive terror, a counter-terror that precludes every possible event. A terror that power ends up exerting upon itself, under the sign of security.
   There is a ferocious irony here: an antiterrorist world system that ends up internalizing terror, inflicting terror on itself and emptying itself of all political substance -- to the point of turning against its own population. Is it a trace of the cold war and of the equilibrium of terror? But this time it is a deterrence without cold war, a terror without equilibrium. Or rather it is a universal cold war, crammed into the smallest cracks of social and political life.
   This precipitation of power into its own trap reached a dramatic extremity in the episode of the Moscow theater, where hostages and terrorists alike were commingled in the same massacre. Just as in mad cow disease, the entire herd slaughtered as a prevention -- God will recognize his own. Or as in the Stockholm Syndrome: their confusion in death makes them virtual accomplices (that the presumptive criminal should be punished in advance in Minority Report proves a posteriori that he couldn't have been innocent).
   And that is effectively the truth of the situation: in one way or another, the populations themselves are a terrorist threat to power. And it is power itself that, through repression, involuntarily seals this complicity. The equivalence in repression shows that we are all virtually the hostages of power. By extension, one can hypothesize a coalition of every power against every population -- we have had a foretaste of it with the war in Iraq, since it has happened, with the more or less covert assent of every power, in contempt of world opinion. And if global demonstrations against the war have offered the illusion of a possible counter-power, they have certainly revealed the political insignificance of that "international community" confronted with American realpolitik.
   Henceforth, we are concerned with the exercise of power in its pure state, without bothering about sovereignty or representation, the integral reality of a negative power. As long as it draws its sovereignty from representation, as long as political reason exists, power can find its equilibrium -- in any case it can be challenged and contested. But the erasure of that sovereignty leaves power unchecked, without counterpart, wild (with savagery no longer natural, but technical). And, by a strange twist of fate, it recovers something from primitive societies, which, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss, lacked history because they knew nothing about power. What if our present global society, basking in the shadow of this integral power, was again becoming a society without history?

But this integral reality of power is also its end. A power that is only founded on prevention and the policing of events, which has no other political will than to brush specters aside, in turn becomes spectral and vulnerable. Its virtual power is total, its power to program everything in terms of software, indexes, packages, etc., but suddenly it can no longer take any chances, except at its own expense, through all kinds of internal weaknesses. At the height of its mastery, it can no longer lose face. Such is, literally, the "Hell of Power."
   Policing the event is essentially the job of information itself. Information is the most effective mechanism for the derealization of history. Just as political economy is a gigantic mechanism for the fabrication of value -- the fabrication of signs of wealth, but not of wealth itself -- thus the entire system of information is an immense machine made to produce events as signs, as values exchangeable on the universal market of ideologies, of spectacle, catastrophes, etc., in short, for the production of non-events. The abstraction of information is no different from the abstraction of the economy. And just as all commodities, thanks to the abstraction of their value, are exchangeable among themselves, so every event becomes substitutable one for another on the cultural market of information. The singularity of the event, irreducible to its coded transcription and to its mise-en-scène -- which, simply put, makes an event an event -- is lost. We enter into a realm where events no longer really happen, thanks to their production and diffusion in "real time" -- but rather lose themselves in the void of information. The information sphere is like a space that, once events have been emptied of their substance, recreates an artificial gravity and returns the events to circulation in "real time." Once divested from history, events are thrown back onto the transpolitical stage of information.
   The non-event is not where nothing happens. On the contrary, it is the domain of perpetual change, of a relentless actualization, of an incessant succession in real time, from whence this general equivalence, this indifference, this banality which characterizes the degree zero of the event.
   A perpetual climb, which is also that of growth -- or of fashion, the domain par excellence of compulsive change and of integrated obsolescence. The ascendancy of models gives rise to a culture of difference which brings an end to all historical continuity. Instead of unfolding along the thread of history, things start lining up in the void. A profusion of discourses and of images before which we are defenseless, reduced to the same impotence and to the same transfixed waiting as in the imminence of war. Never mind disinformation or intoxication. It was a naïve error of the FBI to envisage creating a Bureau of Disinformation, with the goal of exerting directed manipulation -- a perfectly useless enterprise, since disinformation results from the profusion of information itself, from its incantation, from its circular repetition, which creates a field of empty perception, a disintegrated space, like a neutron bomb does, or the bomb that absorbs all the oxygen from the surroundings. Everything is neutralized in advance, including war, through the precession of images and commentaries, but perhaps there is basically nothing to say about something that is unfolding, like this war, according to an implacable scenario, without a glimmer of incertitude over the final result.
   In the media, we see the event short-circuited by its immediate image feed-back most clearly. Information is always already there. In case of catastrophe, journalists and photojournalists are there before help arrives. If it were at all possible, they would be there before the catastrophe, better still invent or provoke the event to get it in prime time.
   This speculation culminates in the initiative taken by the Pentagon for an "Event Exchange," a stock-exchange for attacks and catastrophes. You bet on an event's probable occurrence against those who don't believe in it. This speculative market works like the markets for soybeans or sugar. One could just as easily speculate on the number of AIDS victims in Africa or the likelihood of an earthquake along the San Andreas fault (the Pentagon's initiative comes from the fact that they credit free market speculation with a capacity for foresight far superior to that of the secret services). Of course, it's only a short step to insider trading: betting on an event before provoking it is still the best bet (they say that Bin Laden did this by speculating on TWA before September 11th). It's like taking out life insurance for your wife before killing her.
   There is a great difference between events that take place (or took place) in historical times and events that take place in the real time of information. To the pure management of the flows and the markets under the sign of planetary deregulation corresponds the "global" event, or rather the globalized non-event: the World Cup, Y2K, the death of Diana, The Matrix, etc. Whether these events were fabricated or not, they were orchestrated by the silent epidemic of information networks. Fake events.
   François de Bernard sees the war in Iraq as a pure tracing of cinematographic theory and practice. What we witness, tetanized in our seats, is not "like a film", it is indeed a film, with a script, a scenario that has been implemented without diversion. The casting, the technical and financial means, have been meticulously programmed: it is the business of professionals. Including control of dissemination and of the channels of distribution. Finally, the operational war becomes a gigantic special effect, cinema becomes the paradigm of war, and we imagine the "real" war as if it was only a mirror of its filmic being.
   The virtuality of the war is therefore not a metaphor. It is the literal passage from reality into fiction, or rather the immediate metamorphosis of the real into fiction. The real is just the asymptotic horizon of the virtual. In this tale, incidentally, it is not only the reality of the real that is at stake, the reality of cinema is as well. It's a little like Disneyland: in relation to the universal Disneyfication of ordinary life, the amusement parks are merely an alibi, which masks in a certain way the fact that the entire context of life has been Disneyfied. The same thing for cinema: what is produced today is only the visible allegory of the filmic form that is gripped by everything, by political and social life, the countryside, war, etc. -- the completely scripted form of life. It is also undoubtedly for this reason that cinema disappeared: because it has passed into reality. A lethal transfusion wherein each loses its specificity. If one considers history like a film, which it has become despite us, then the truth of information consists in postsynchronization, the dubbing and the subtitling of the film of history.
   In the former West Germany they are creating an amusement park where the décor and the ambiance of the now defunct East will be restored and staged (Ost-algia as a form of nostalgia). An entire society thus memorialized live (it hasn't completely disappeared). The simulacra only manages to telescope the present, but to give the impression that the "Real" will soon take place in "real time," without even passing through the present or through history. Suddenly, for us this becomes an object of nostalgia, and we see a desire for history, for rehabilitation -- for memorials blossom everywhere, as if, while suffering through it, we force ourselves to feed the same ending of history.
   History, too, operates beyond its own end. There was a definition of the historical event, the Revolution was its model, and concepts of events and of history truly date from there. History could analyze itself as a strong point in a continuous unfolding, its discontinuity itself being part of the dialectic of the whole.
   With the ascendance of the world order, exclusive of all ideology, and exclusively concerned with the circulation of flows and networks, history is no longer the same in any way. In this generalized circulation, all the objectives and values of the Enlightenment are lost, though they started it. There was an idea, an ideal, an imagination of modernity, but it disappeared in the exacerbation of growth.
   So in reality as in history. There once was a reality principle. Then the principle disappeared, and reality, liberated from its principle, runs on through inertia. It develops in an exponential manner, becomes integral reality, which no longer possesses either a principle or an end, but which contents itself with realizing integrally every possibility. It has devoured its own utopia, it operates beyond its own end.

But the end of history is not the last word on history. Since, against the background of perpetual non-events, another type of event emerges. Ruptures, unexpected events, events that are unclassifiable in terms of history, outside the logic of history -- events that are generated against their own image, against their own simulacrum. Events that break the fastidious linkage of the news in the media, but which for all that are not the reappearance of history, nor the reappearance of a real irrupting at the heart of the virtual (as has been said of September 11th). They are not events in history, but beyond history, beyond the end of history. They are events in the system that ends history. They are the convulsion within history. And suddenly they appear to be inspired by some Evil power -- no longer carriers of a constructive disorder, but of an absolute disorder. Indecipherable in their singularity, they are the excessiveness of a system which is itself indecipherable in its extension and forward flight.
   In the New World Order, there are no longer any revolutions, only convulsions. As in a machine that has perfected itself, in a system too-well integrated, there are no more crises, only malfunctions, flaws, lapses, aneurysms. Meanwhile, the event is something other than an accident. It is a symptom, an episodic malfunction, an anomaly in the technical (or natural) order, that can eventually be prevented: today's whole politics of risk and foresight. The event itself is counter-offensive and comes from a strange source: in every system at its apex, at its point of perfection, it reintroduces internal negativity and death. It is a modality of the reversal of power against itself as if, along with the elements of its power, every system secretly sustained an evil genie that would keep watch over its reversal. It is in this sense that, distinct from accidents, we cannot anticipate it, and it does not figure in any risk analysis.
   Marx's analysis of revolution and of the specter of communism offers several analogies with the current situation. It also makes the proletariat the historical agent of the end of capital -- its evil genie in some ways, since capital foments the internal virus of its own destruction with the rise of the proletariat. Meanwhile there is a radical difference between the specter of communism and that of terrorism. Since the genius of capital was the way it successfully turned the ferment of disintegration that it carries within itself into a visible enemy, an adversary of class, and too changed this historical movement into a dynamic of reintegration toward a more advanced stage of capital beyond the exploitation of the market.
   Terrorism intervenes at a higher level of radicality: it is not a subject of history, it is an elusive enemy. Class struggle generated historical events, but terrorism generates another type of event. World power (which is no longer exactly that of capital) is caught in some kind of internal confrontation. It is no longer challenged by the specter of communism but by its own specter. The end of revolutions (and of history in general) is therefore not at all a victory for world power. Rather it seals its fate.
   History -- this was our strong hypothesis; maximal intensity. The intensity of change is minimal -- in it everything follows and cancels itself out, to the point of recreating the equivalent of a total immobility: the impression, in the whirlwind of the present, that nothing actually changes.
   Beyond the critical threshold that we have long since surpassed, generalized exchange -- that of flux, networks, of universal communication -- meets its own denial. It is no longer a simple crisis of growth, but a catastrophe, a brutal involution, perceptible today in what one could call "the overall decline of the reality ratio" (similarly, the profusion of information corresponds to an overall decline of knowledge). Zero degree of value in total equivalence.
   Globalization believe it would succeed through the neutralization of all the conflicts toward a faultless order -- but it is an order created by default. Everything turns into a zero sum equation. Gone is the dialectic, the little game of thesis and antithesis subsumed into a synthesis. From now on oppositions reciprocally cancel one another, leveling every conflict. But this neutralization, in its turn, is never final. The extremes rise in power as dialectical resolution disappears.
   No more history in progress, no more master plan, no more regulation through crisis. No more rational community, nor dialectic of conflicts, but a division between extremes.
   The universal crushed by global power and the logic of history effaced by dizzying change, there remains -- face to face -- only a virtual omnipotence and those who oppose it absolutely. Thus the antagonism of global power and terrorism -- the current confrontation between American hegemony and Islamist terrorism being only the visible vicissitude of this duel between an integral reality of power and the integral refusal of this same power.
   No reconciliation possible. There is never an armistice between antagonistic forces, nor possibility of an integral order. Never an armistice in thought either, which resists fiercely. Nor an armistice of events in this sense. At most, events go on strike for a while, then suddenly bounce back. This is reassuring in some way: if the Empire of the Good cannot be broken, at least it is destined for perpetual failure.

We must retain the event's radical definition and its impact on the imagination. It is characterized, in a paradoxical way, in terms of the uncanny. It is the irruption of something improbable and impossible as well as disquietingly familiar: it appears at once with complete obviousness, as if predestined, as if it could not fail to place. There is something there that seems to have come from elsewhere, something fatal, that nothing can stop.
   It is for this reason, at once complex and contradictory, that it mobilizes the imagination with such compelling force. It shatters the continuity of things and, at the same time, it enters the real with stupefying ease.
   Bergson experienced the event of the First World War in that way. Before it broke it appeared at once probable and impossible (the analogy with the suspense over the war in Iraq is complete). And he felt at once a feeling of stupefaction for the ease with which so momentous an eventuality could pass from the abstract to the concrete, from the virtual to the real. The same paradox can be found in the mix of jubilation and terror that marked, in a more or less unspoken way, the event of September 11th. This was the feeling that seized us before the occurrence of something that came to be without having been possible.
   Usually, things should first be possible, and then only manifest themselves. This is the logical and chronological order. But then, precisely, they are no longer events in the strongest sense of this word. Such is the case with the war in Iraq: utterly expected, programmed, anticipated, prescribed and modeled, it had exhausted all of its possibilities before even having taken place. It will have been so possible that it no longer needed to have taken place. There is nothing event-like about it. Nothing about it betrays the exaltation and the experience of dread experienced in the radical event of September 11th, which resembles the feeling of the sublime that Kant talks about. The non-event of the war only leaves us with a feeling of mystification and nausea.
   Here something like a metaphysics of the event should be introduced, again following Bergson's cues. He was asked it it was possible that a great work would appear, he replied: no, it is not possible, it is not yet possible, it will become possible once it has appeared. "When a talented person or a genius appears, creates a work -- he makes it real, and thereby makes it retrospectively, retroactively possible." Transposed onto the event, this means first that it has taken place, ex nihilo in some way, unforeseen, and then only can one conceive of it as possible. Such is the temporal paradox, the inverted temporality that designates the event as such. Usually we conceive of an ascendant line which goes from the impossible to the possible, then to the real. What designates the true event is precisely that the real and the possible happen simultaneously and that the possibility of imagining it is immediate. But this belongs in the order of the living event, of a living temporality, of a depth of time that no longer exists at all in real time. Real time is the violence done to time, violence done to the event. With the instantaneity of the virtual and the precession of models, the entire depth of the field of duration, of origin, and of the end that is taken away from us -- it is the loss of a perpetually deferred time in favor of an immediate and irremediable time.
   It suffices to concentrate entirely on an immediate reality, while accentuating the simultaneity of all the networks and all the points of the globe, to reduce time to its smallest basic element: the moment -- no longer even a "present" moment since it incarnates the absolute reality of time in its total abstraction -- prevails against the irruption of every event and against the eventuality of death.
   Such is "real time," that of communication, of information, and of perpetual interaction: the most beautiful space for the deterrence of time and events.
   On the screen of real time, with a simple digital manipulation, every possibility is realized virtually, which brings an end to their possibility. Via electronics and cybernetics, every desire, every game of identity and every potential interactivity is programmed and self-programmed. That everything should be realized from the outset forbids the emergence of some singular event. Such is the violence of real time, which is also that of information.
   Real Time dematerializes the future as well as the past, dematerializes historic time, pulverizes real events: the Holocaust, Y2K, that never took place, that will not have taken place. It even pulverizes current events in the news, which are only instantaneous image-feedback. The news drapes itself in the illusion of the present, of presence -- it is the illusion of the live in the media, as well as the horizon of the disappearance of real events.
   Hence the dilemma that every image we receive provokes, uncertainty over the truth of events, from the moment that the news is involved. In as much as they are at once part and perpetrator of the phenomenal unfolding, the news creates the event. The event of the news substitutes itself for news of the event.
   The historic time of the event, the psychological time of the affect, the subjective time of judgment and will, the objective time of reality, are all put in question simultaneously by real time.
   There used to be a subject of history, a subject of knowledge, a subject of power, but all this has disappeared in the cancellation of distance, of the pathos of distance, by real time, in the integral realization of the world through information.
   Before the event, it is too early for something to be possible. After the event, it is too late for it. It is also too late for representation, and nothing can really account for this. September 11th, for example, is there first -- only then is it recaptured by its possibility and by its causes, by all of the speeches that attempt to explain it. But the representation of the event is also as impossible as was foreseeing it before it took place. Thus the CIA experts had access to all of the information about the eventuality of an attack, but they simply did not believe it. It exceeded the imagination. Such an event always exceeds it. It exceeds all the possible causes (perhaps even the causes, as in Italo Svevo, are only misunderstandings that prevent the world from being what it is?).
   It is necessary therefore to pass through the non-event of information to detect what resists it. To find in some way what Pierre Klossowski would have called the "living currency" of the event. Making a literal analysis, against all the commentaries and mises-en-scène that would only neutralize it. Only events liberated from information (and us with them) create great yearning. Only these are "real," because nothing can explain them, and our entire imagination is ready to greet them.

We feel an immense desire for events. And an immense deception, because the contents of information are desperately inferior to the power we have of disseminating that information. This disproportion creates a kind of craving that makes us jump on any incident, crystallize any catastrophe. And the pathetic contagion that grips the crowds on this or that occasion (Diana, the World Cup) has no other cause. This is not a question of voyeurism or of release. It is a spontaneous reaction to an immoral situation: the excess of information creates an immoral situation in that it has no equivalent in the real event. We automatically desire a maximal event, a "fatal" event -- which compensates for this immense banalization of life by information. We dream of excessive events that deliver us from this tyranny of meaning and from the constraint of causes. We live at once in the terror of the excess of signification and in that of total insignificance. And in this banal context of social and personal life, these excessive events are the equivalent of the excess of the signifier in language according to Claude Lévi-Strauss: something that would cast them as a symbolic function.
   The desire for an event, the desire for a non-event: the two drives are simultaneous and also equally powerful. Hence the mixture of jubilation and terror, of secret exultation and remorse. Exaltation linked less to death than to the unforeseeable that we are so fond of. All the justifications precisely mask that obscure desire for the event, for the disruption of the order of things, whatever they are. A perfectly sacrilegious desire for the irruption of Evil, the restitution of the secret rule that, in the form of a totally unjustified event (natural disasters are also like this) restores the balance of the forces of Good and Evil.
   All of our moral protests are equal to the immoral fascination exerted over us by the automatic reversibility of Evil.
   It is said that Diana was a victim of the "society of the spectacle," and we were passive voyeurs at her death. But a much more complex dramaturgy is involved, a collective scenario in which Diana herself was not innocent (in terms of exhibitionism), but in which the masses played an immediate role, in a true reality show of the public and private life of Lady Di, with the media as interface. The paparazzi were only carriers, with the media, of this murderous interaction, and behind them, all of us, whose desire informs the media -- we who are the masses and the medium, the network and the conducting electricity. There are no more actors or spectators, everyone is immersed in the same reality, in the same revolving responsibility, in the same destiny, which is only the completion of a collective desire. Here again, we are not far from the Stockholm Syndrome: we are hostages of information, but we secretly acquiesce to our captivity.
   At the same time we violently desire the event, any event, provided that it be exceptional, and just as passionately we want nothing to happen, that things should be in order and stay in order, at the cost even of losing interest in existence, itself unbearable -- hence the sudden convulsions and the contradictory affects that follow: jubilation and terror. Hence also the two types of analysis: one which responds to the extreme singularity of the event, and the other whose function is to make it banal, an orthodox thought and a paradoxical thought. Between the two, there is no longer any place for plain critical thought.
   Whether we like it or not, the situation has become radical. And if we think that this radicalization is evil -- the fault being basically the disappearance of all mediation to the benefit of the only confrontation between the two extremes -- then we must acknowledge this situation and confront the problem of evil.
   There is no reason to bet on one or the other. We feel simultaneous attraction and repulsion for the event and for the non-event. Just as, according to Hannah Arendt, we are confronted, in every action, with the unexpected and the irreversible. But irreversibility today being the movement of the virtual power over the world, of total mastery and of the technological "arraigning", in Heidegger's language, of the tyranny of prevention and of an absolute technical security, only the unexpected remains for us, the chance of the event. And just as Mallarmé said that a throw of the dice would never abolish chance -- which is to say that there would never be a final throw of the die that, through its automatic perfection, would put an end to chance -- so one can hope that virtual programming will never abolish events. The point of technical perfection and of absolute prevention such that the fatal event will have disappeared will never be reached. There will always be a chance for the uncanniness of the event, against the disquieting monotony of the world order.

There is a beautiful metaphor in a video by an artist who pointed his camera at the tip of Manhattan during the entire month of September 2001. He intended to record the fact that nothing happened, to record the non-event. And banality exploded before his camera with the Twin Towers!