Insomnia | Essays

On the World in Its Profound Illusoriness

By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by Chris Turner

This essay was originally published as part of Jean Baudrillard's "Le Pacte de lucidité ou l'intelligence du Mal" (2004), translated into English in 2005 as "The Intelligence of Evil or The Lucidity Pact".

The invention of Reality, unknown to other cultures, is the work of modern western Reason, the turn to the Universal. The turn to an objective world, shorn of all hinterworlds.
   Concretizing, verifying, objectivizing, demonstrating: "objectivity" is this capture of the real that forces the world to face us, expurgating it of any secret complicity, of any illusion.
   We always imagine the Real as something face on. We think of ourselves always as facing the Real. Well, there is no face-to-face. There is no objectivity. Nor any subjectivity either: a twofold illusion.
   Since consciousness is an integral part of the world and the world is an integral part of consciousness, I think it and it thinks me.

One need only reflect that even if objects exist outside of us, we can know absolutely nothing of their objective reality. For things are given to us only through our representation. To believe that these representations and sensations are determined by external objects is a further representation.
   "The question whether things really exist outside of us and as we see them is absolutely meaningless. ... The question is almost as absurd as wondering whether blue is really blue, objectively blue" (Georg Cristoph Lichtenberg).
   This is something we definitively cannot judge. We can only represent an objective reality to ourselves, without ever prejudging its objectivity. If such objects do exist outside of us, we can know absolutely nothing of them, and there is nothing to be said about them...

The task of philosophy is to unmask this illusion of objective reality -- a trap that is, in a sense, laid for us by nature.
   "Nothing so clearly reveals the superior mind of man than his having been able to unmask nature at the precise point where it was attempting to deceive him" (Lichtenberg).
   But this is where philosophy stops -- at the definitive acknowledgement of the illusoriness of the world. That is to say, at that point, that object, that something, that nothing, of which there is nothing more to be said.

The philosophical idea is, then, simple and radical: it is the idea of a fundamental illusoriness, of the non-reality of the "objective" world.
   This representation, this superstition of an objective reality held out to us by the mirror of the commonplace imagination, is itself a part of the general illusion of the world, of which we are a part at the same time as we are its mirror.
   There is not just the illusion of a real world, there is also that of a real subject of representation -- and the two illusions, the objective and the subjective, are correlative.
   This is where the mystery lies.
   For the world does not exist in order for us to know it.
   It is not in any way predestined for knowledge. However, knowledge is itself part of the world, though precisely part of the world in its profound illusoriness, which consists in having no necessary relation to knowledge.
   This is the miracle: that a fragment of the world, human consciousness, arrogates to itself the privilege of being its mirror. But this will never produce an objective truth, since the mirror is part of the object it reflects.
   The current microsciences have taken cognizance of this definitive illusion, which is not the illusion of an objective non-truth (that would still have the prestige of reality for itself), but of the entangling of two illusions, objective and subjective, of their inextricable complicity, which properly prevents any metaphysical reflection of the world by thought.
   This is the trap nature sets for us.

The dilemma, which is that of an impossible equivalence, an impossible correlation between the object and its "objective" representation, arises from this circularity, this reversibility of a process that can no longer then be called representation.
   And it is an irresolvable one because reversibility is there from the outset. It is the fundamental rule.
   "It is impossible for a being to undergo the effect of some other without that effect being mutual. ... Every effect modifies the object that is its cause. There is no dissociation of the subject and the object -- nor any original identity -- there is only an inextricable reciprocity" (Lichtenberg).

Reversibility of the self and the world:
   "Everything happens in the world of the self. This self, within which everything unfolds, resembles in this regard the cosmos of physics, to which the self also belongs by which that cosmos appeared mentally in our representation. ... So the circle is complete" (Lichtenberg).
   A circle which is that of an infinite embedding, in which the subject cannot lay claim to a determinate position anywhere, and in which the object is not localizable as such either.
   What we have here might be said to be not so much a form of alienation as a perpetual becoming-object of the subject, a perpetual becoming-subject of the object. Once again, the world does not exist in order for us to know it or, more exactly, knowledge itself is part of the illusion of the world -- and this is not an objection, far from it: it is here, in this insoluble affinity, that the secret of thought lies.
   This is the very principle of the world that thinks us.
   The question of whether there is an objective reality does not even arise: the intelligence of the world is the intelligence of the world that thinks us.
   It is the created object which thinks us, and which sometimes thinks better than we do, and quicker than we do: which thinks us before we have thought it.
   This paradoxical essence of man, who, though an integral part of nature, still tries to see how it could be for him beyond that state of belonging, puts us in mind of what Nietzsche says in his metaphor of the mirror:
   "When we try to examine the mirror in itself we discover in the end nothing but things upon it. If we want to grasp the things we finally get hold of nothing but the mirror. -- This, in the most general terms, is the history of knowledge."

This speculative abyss deeps yet again if we move from the mirror to the total screen of Virtual Reality.
   This time it is not nature that lays the trap of objective reality for us, but the digital universe which sets us the trap of a hyperobjectivity, of an integral calculus in which the very play of mirror and its objects is abolished -- the last avatar of philosophical idealism. At the same time, it puts an irrevocable end to that hyperobjectivity, since the principle of representation itself disappears beneath the calculation and digital generation of operations. As a result, all that remains is to occupy that non-place, that pre-eminent empty space of representation that is the screen.

All this follows a kind of dizzying whirl, as though this growing abstraction, this rise of an integral hyperreality, were itself a response to a hypersensitivity to certain final conditions.
   But what final conditions?

Reality will have only been a fleeting solution then.
   Indeed, it merely succeeded others, such as the religious illusion in all its forms. This truth, this rationality, this objective reality -- which we took in exchange for religious values, imagining that we had moved definitively beyond them -- is only the disenchanted heir to those same religious values. It does not seem ever genuinely to have gained the upper hand, as it happens, nor does it appear that the transcendent solution is entirely past and gone or that God is dead, even though we now deal only with his metastases.
   Perhaps that solution was merely eclipsed and it is emerging from its eclipse in reaction to this very intensification of reality, to the weight of an ever more real, ever more secular world in which there is no possibility of redemption.
   Reality too is a hinterworld and a substitutive illusion, and in fact we live in this "real" world as in a hinterworld. It is merely that we have succeeded in negotiating it in a way that does without heaven and hell (though not without debt and guilt, for which we are now answerable to ourselves).
   Have we gained or lost on the deal? There is no answer.
   We have exchanged one illusion for another, and it turns out that the material, objective illusion, the illusion of reality, is as fragile as the illusion of God and no longer protects us, once the euphoria of science and the Enlightenment is past, from the fundamental illusion of the world and its absence of truth.
   In fact, this secular, desacralized reality has slowly become a useless function, the fiction of which we are desperately attempting to rescue (as once we attempted to rescue the existence of God), but which, deep down, we do not know how to rid ourselves of.

This is where the last phase of the enterprise comes in.
   Given reality's powerlessness to bridge the gap that separates us from the world and the insoluble enigma it presents for us, we have had to move to a further stage -- that of the Virtual, Virtual Reality, the highest stage of simulation, the stage of a final solution by the volatilization of the world's substance into an immaterial realm and a set of strategic calculations.
   God, who once was present, but also absent, from all things, now circulates in the arterial networks of computers.
   The play of transcendence is over, the paradoxical play of presence and absence. What remains is the integral form of reality, of which we are all operators.

What was still merely a relative idealism gives way to an absolute idealism, that of the new computer technologies, in which the fragile balance of subject and object is swept away and total abstraction takes its place.
   This is the very end of the illusion of the object and hence of philosophy which defined itself, after all, by this point beyond which it had nothing more to say.
   Henceforth the question no longer arises, since there isn't even any subject to pose it now. The very position of the subject is eclipsed in this integral functioning.

We are, in fact, in pure pataphysics, pataphysics being, on the one hand, the science of imaginary solutions and, on the other, the only known attempt to move to Integral Metaphysics, the metaphysics in which the phenomenal world is treated definitively as an illusion.
   Now, this is precisely what we are up against with the XXX phase of reality that we have arrived at...
   Objective reality corresponded to an horizon for metaphysics.
   Integral Reality corresponds to the pataphysical sphere.
   There is no more marvellous embodiment of Integral Reality than Ubu. Ubu is the very symbol of this plethoric reality and, at the same time, the only response to this Integral Reality, the only solution that is truly imaginary in its fierce irony, its grotesque fullness. The great spiral belly of Pa Ubu is the profile of our world and its umbilical entombment.
   We are not yet done with pataphysics, that science which "symbolically attributes to their lineaments the properties of objects, described in their potentiality" (Alfred Jarry).

But the die is not cast, since, though the real is growing as a result of a breaking of the symbolic pact between beings and things, that break gives rise, in its turn, to a tenacious resistance, the rejection of an objective world, a separate world. Deep down, no one desires this objective face-to-face relation, even in the privileged role of subject.
   What binds us to the real is a contract of reality. That is to say, a formal awareness of the rights and duties attaching to reality. But what we long for is a complicity and dual relation with beings and things -- a pact, not a contract. Hence the temptation to condemn this contract -- along with the social contract that ensues from it.
   Against the moral contract that binds us to reality we must set a pact of intelligence and lucidity.

Having said this, on the verge of this dramatic changeover, we may still ask the question:
   Is the end of history still a historical fact?
   Is the disappearance of reality still a real fact?
   No, it is an accomplished fact and, in the face of accomplished facts, it is not objectivity, but defiance that is in order. We must defy reality as we must defy any accomplished fact.