Insomnia | Essays

My Death is Everywhere, my Death Dreams

By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant

This essay was originally published as part of Jean Baudrillard's "L'échange symbolique et la mort" (1976), translated into English in 1993 as "Symbolic Exchange and Death".


Pursued and censured everywhere, death springs up everywhere again. No longer as apocalyptic folklore, such as might have haunted the living imagination in certain epochs; but voided precisely of any imaginary substance, it passes into the most banal reality, and for us takes on the mask of the very principle of rationality that dominates our lives. Death is when everything functions and serves something else, it is the absolute, signing, cybernetic functionality of the urban environment as in Jacques Tati's film Play-Time. Man is absolutely indexed on his function, as in Kafka: the age of the civil servant is the age of a culture of death. This is the phantasm of total programming, increased predictability and accuracy, finality not only in material things, but in fulfilling desires. In a word, death is confused with the law of value -- and strangely with the structural law of value by which everything is arrested as a coded difference in a universal nexus of relations. This is the true face of ultra-modern death, made up of the faultless, objective, ultra-rapid connection of all the terms in a system. Our true necropolises are no longer the cemeteries, hospitals, wars, hecatombs; death is no longer where we think it is, it is no longer biological, psychological, metaphysical, it is no longer even murder: our societies' true necropolises are the computer banks or the foyers, blank spaces from which all human noise has been expunged, glass coffins where the world's sterilised memories are frozen. Only the dead remember everything in something like an immediate eternity of knowledge, a quintessence of the world that today we dream of burying in the form of microfilm and archives, making the entire world into an archive in order that it be discovered by some future civilisation. The cryogenic freezing of all knowledge so that it can be resurrected; knowledge passes into immortality as sign-value. Against our dream of losing and forgetting everything, we set up an opposing great wall of relations, connections and information, a dense and inextricable artificial memory, and we bury ourselves alive in the fossilised hope of one day being rediscovered.
   Computers are the transistorised death to which we submit in the hope of survival. Museums are already there to survive all civilisations, in order to bear testimony. But to what? It is of little importance. The mere fact that they exist testifies that we are in a culture which no longer possesses any meaning for itself and which can now only dream of having meaning for someone else from a later time. Thus everything becomes an environment of death as soon as it is no longer a sign that can be transistorised in a gigantic whole, just as money reaches the point of no return when it is nothing more than a system of writing.
   Basically, political economy is only constructed (at the cost of untold sacrifices) or designed so as to be recognised as immortal by a future civilisation, or as an instance of truth. As for religion, this is unimaginable other than in the Last Judgement, where God recognises his own. But the Last Judgement is there already, realised: it is the definitive spectacle of our crystallised death. The spectacle is, it must be said, grandiose. From the hieroglyphic schemes of the Defense Department or the World Trade Center to the great informational schemes of the media, from siderurgical complexes to grand political apparatuses, from the megapolises with their senseless control of the slightest and most everyday acts: humanity, as Benjamin says, has everywhere become an object of contemplation to itself.

Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. ("The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", in Illuminations [tr. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt, London: Jonathan Cape, 1970], p. 244)

For Benjamin, this was the very form of fascism, that is to say, a certain exacerbated form of ideology, an aesthetic perversion of politics, pushing the acceptance of a culture of death to the point of jubilation. And it is true that today the whole system of political economy has become the finality without end and the aesthetic vertigo of productivity to us, and this is only the contrasting vertigo of death. This is exactly why art is dead: at the point of saturation and sophistication, all this jubilation has passed into the spectacle of complexity itself, and all aesthetic fascination has been monopolised by the system as it grows into its own double (what else would it do with its gigantic towers, its satellites, its giant computers, if not double itself as signs?). We are all victims of production become spectacle, of the aesthetic enjoyment [jouissance], of delirious production and reproduction, and we are not about to turn our backs on it, for in every spectacle there is the immanence of the catastrophe. Today, we have made the vertigo of politics that Benjamin denounces in fascism, its perverse aesthetic enjoyment, into the experience of production at the level of the general system. We produce the experience of a de-politicised, de-ideologised vertigo of the rational administration of things, of endlessly exploding finalities. Death is immanent to political economy, which is why the latter sees itself as immortal. The revolution too fixes its sights on an immortal objective, in the name of which it demands the suspension of death, in the interests of accumulation. But immortality is always the monotonous immortality of a social paradise. The revolution will never rediscover death unless it demands it immediately. Its impasse is to be hooked on the end of political economy as a progressive expiry, whereas the demand for the end of political economy is posed right now, in the demand for immediate life and death. In any case, death and enjoyment, highly prized and priced, will have to be paid for throughout political economy, and will emerge as insoluble problems on the "day after" the revolution. The revolution only opens the way to the problem of death, without the least chance of resolving it. In fact, there is no "day after", only days for the administration of things. Death itself demands to be experienced immediately, in total blindness and total ambivalence. But is it revolutionary? If political economy is the most rigorous attempt to put an end to death, it is clear that only death can put an end to political economy.