Insomnia | Essays

Parallel Universes

By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by Chris Turner


The totalization of the world, this coming of an Integral Reality, leaves behind it all kinds of useless functions: the body, sex, reproduction, language, death. All this is useless from the viewpoint of the networks, of cloning and of Artificial Intelligence. Thought, work and the real, voided of their essence by their substitutes, become relics or useless oddities.

Death itself ceases to be an event, a specific, individual destiny. Diluted in the clone or in a kind of mental coma, it disappears on the biological horizon of the machine body.
   But perhaps it then becomes an inalienable singularity that assumes its full force as symbolic stake, as challenge, as pure form of reversibility?
   Perhaps all these functions, at the same time as they disappear on the horizon of the real, are doomed to perpetuate themselves as parallel universes, as autonomous singularities, entirely dissociated from the dominant universe?

This way life can become a kind of parallel universe, something strange that happens to us while we are doing other things.
   And the ego itself, freed from its identity, can strike out along the parallel paths of becoming.
   Words, freed from their meanings, move on another orbit, that of language in the pure state.
   In this way, starting out from what is expelled by the real, all sorts of silent circulations form -- dual lives, absent events, transverse dimensions.

Existential Divide

Birth as watershed, as demarcation line between two universes, the ego and the non-ego, the only potentiality that has been embodied being the ego.
   But this differentiation is not as decisive as one thinks, as all the possibilities set aside at birth continue to run parallel to the ego, to the only potentiality realized, and from time to time make a foray into its lifeline.
   It is these excluded alternatives that make up alterity and thereby one of the forms of becoming -- linked to the possibility of crossing the line in the other direction, of going across that demarcation line towards the other, towards all the others -- to become the other.
   Whereas the ego of identity is content to pursue its history inside this lifeline, the play of destiny implies the crossing of this "existential divide".
   Such are the two parallel dimensions of any existence: that of its history and its visible unfolding, and that of its becoming, a transfusion of forms towards these parallel universes, a devolution, an anamorphosis of the will.

Double life entails the notion of double death.
   In one of these two lives you may already be dead, doubtless without knowing it. Sometimes it is the dead element that pulls the living along. In faces even, often one part is alive and the other already dead.
   A double life entitles you to two deaths -- and why not two amorous passions at the same time? So long as they remain parallel, all is well. It is when their paths cross that the danger arises. You may from time to time desert your life -- one of the two -- and take refuge in the other. The one in which you exist, the other in which you don't.

Where this living death doesn't exist, life takes its place. Just as the person who loses his shadow becomes the shadow of himself.
   ( "The shadow of himself" -- that would be a fine title. With the subtitle: "Memoirs of a double life".)

All identity problems run up against this parallax of death -- this parallel axis of death. And this is never anything other than the day of reckoning contemporaneous with our existence, lived simultaneously -- which does not, therefore, await us at the end of life, but accompanies us faithfully and implacably in it.
   But this is merely one particular case in the distribution of life and death.
   One is dead in one's lifetime itself; multiple deaths accompany us, ghosts that are not necessarily hostile, and yet others, not dead enough, not dead long enough to make a corpse.
   So in The Piano (by Jane Campion), Ada -- or at least one of the two Adas -- remained at the bottom of the ocean, bound to the piano that had sunk, and the other got free and resurfaced into a past -- or later -- life.

At any rate, we have all already been dead before living, and we came out of it alive. We were dead before and we shall be dead again after.
   We do lots of wondering about the time after our death, but, paradoxically, none about the time before our birth.
   Death and life can reverse themselves from this standpoint. And this implies another presence of death to life, because it -- not simply an indeterminate nothingness, but a determinate, personal death -- was there before and it does not cease to exist and to make itself felt with birth.
   It is not merely hanging over the future like a sword of Damocles, it is also our prior destiny -- there is something like a precession of death, which combines with the anticipation of the end in the very unfolding of our lives.

This connects up with the genetic process of apoptosis, in which the two opposing processes of life and death begin at the same time. In which death is not the gradual exhaustion of life: they are autonomous processes -- complicit in a way, parallel and indissociable.
   Hence the absurdity of wishing, as all our current technologies do, to eradicate death in favour of life alone.

Along these same lines of thinking, Lichtenberg made an amusing suggestion: he imagined a world in which human beings would be born in old age and would get younger and younger until they became children again -- these latter continuing to get younger until they were put in bottles where, after returning to the embryonic state, they would lose their lives. "Girls of fifty to sixty would find particular pleasure in raising their now tiny mothers in bottles..."

Time Divide

One can imagine also a temporal dividing line with time flowing off to either side of it, in accordance with a contradictory double arrow, like the waters separated by the Continental Divide that are in the end reunited in the same oceanic cycle.
   According to Ilya Prigogine, we intuitively sense the irreversibility of physical phenomena and time's arrow is irreversible. But we may hypothesize a reversible process at the very heart of time, a dual arrow of thought (according to some scientists, the elementary physical laws are reversible; that is to say, their mathematical expression is unchanged if the temporal variable is reversed). How can we reconcile this reversibility with the irreversibility we observe on the basis of the commonplace intuition we have of time?

This other dimension of time isn't another directional arrow in the opposite direction. It isn't a regression (as in most science fiction novels), but a reversion. And if we may designate the usual dimension of time with an arrow, then the other would, rather, be a deviation, a clinamen, an opposite declination.

Ultimately, the Big Bang and the Big Crunch are born at the same time. The one does not come at the end of the other (any more than death comes at the end of life) or succeed the other in a cosmic cycle. They occur simultaneously and unfold in parallel, but in opposite directions.
   It is as though time were squinting -- a metalepsis that leads it to mistake the effect for the cause, and causes things to unfold in the other direction or, better, in both directions at once, like that famous wind that blows in all directions.

There is no more linearity, end or irreversibility than there is an indefinite linear function. In the order of chaos all systems and all functions convulse, bend back and fold in on themselves in accordance with a logic that excludes any evolutionary theory (and the theory of time's arrow, just like the theory of entropy, is an evolutionary theory).
   Thus, what is merely a hypothesis where physics is concerned is a striking metaphor for our own lives and history: on our scale, too, things turn around at every moment, there is involution at the same time as there is evolution. Things are not first there and then gradually exhausted; they vanish as they appear.

To the phantasm of an integral universe of information and communication there stands secretly opposed the desire for a universe made up entirely of elective affinities and unforeseeable coincidences.
   The universe of chance, luck and play.
   In which nothing happens accidentally, but things happen rather by an internal necessity, or by happy or unhappy convergence.
   Nothing is left to statistical probability here; all is left to the open possibility that they event may occur. Now, everything wants to occur and it is we who stand in the way of this infinite possibility.

All these events are potentially there. The potentiality in question is that of things yearning to appear and it has an echo within us. It is from this that the certainty comes that something must happen. And the event is made up of all those which, simultaneously, did not take place. For nothing of what did not take place disappears entirely. Absent events continue to exist as part of a parallel history and at times re-emerge suddenly in a manner unintelligible to us. The actual present is made up of this ever-living inactuality.

John updike, in Toward the End of Time:

"Perhaps": the world is like the little fork in reality when a quantum measurement is made. Each time that we measure either the position or momentum of an elementary particle, the other specific becomes, by Heisenberg's indeterminacy principle, unknowable. The "wave function" of the particle collapses. Our universe is the one containing our observation. But, some cosmic theorists aver, the system -- containing the particle, the measuring apparatus, and the observer -- continues to exist in its other possible states, in parallel universes that have branched from this moment of measurement. The theory is called that of "many worlds." ... From the same verifiable quantum formulations arises the possibility that our universe, born from nothing, was instantly boosted, by the gravity-reversing properties of a "false" vacuum, into an expansion so monstrous that the universe's real limits lie many times beyond the matter of which we can gather evidence with our farthest-seeing telescopes.

The hypothesis of parallel events and lifelines throws into question the conception of linear, progressive history.
   At any moment, the linear existence of the individual may be crossed by these lines of force from elsewhere. When these parallel lines never meet, it is a bad sign (but we do not live in a Euclidean geometry).
   When nothing happens to interrupt the thread of history, then it can be regarded as dead, since it is unfolding in accordance with an identical model.

We may mention here the concept of "uchronia" introduced in the nineteenth century by the philosopher Renouvier, echoing the notion of utopia, but in the opposite direction.
   Utopia relates to an imaginary future: "What might happen ideally if..." Uchronia plays on this same standpoint, but with regard to the past: "What might have happened if..." Bringing the variables around past events into play, what other event would we have ended up with? What other retrospectively possible sequence of events? (Take Cleopatra's nose, or the multiple random elements in the death of Diana or the unexpected arrival of Blücher on the battlefield at Waterloo...)
   There is, thus, a whole uchronic "imaginary", which we may regard as entirely futile if we take a realist view of things, but which assumes its full force if we retain the hypothesis of the potential force of absent events.

Today, utopia is at an end and uchronia with it. All these things have been absorbed into the only possible universe, that of real time and an inexorable present-ness.
   At the same time as it gave rise to the utopian dimension, modernity gave rise to the opposite dimension of objective -- technological, scientific, economic -- reality, which relentlessly proceeds on its course to the exclusion of any imaginary order.
   And if they were both able for a long while to lead contradictory, but collusive, existences, they have both been absorbed today into the operation of the Virtual.
   In digital calculation, fiction can no longer resurface; as for the real, our good old real, which gloried in its image and its reference to the world -- that disappeared long ago.
   The possible itself is no longer possible.
   What happens happens and that's all there is to it.
   It is the end of history, then, in its linear continuity and the end of the event in its radical discontinuity.
   All that remains is the blatant self-evidence of actuality, of the actual performance, which, by that fact, becomes once again a total fiction and hallucination.