Insomnia | Essays

Prophylaxis and Virulence

By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by James Benedict

This essay was originally published as part of Jean Baudrillard's "La transparence du mal: Essai sur les phénomènes extrèmes" (1990), translated into English in 1993 as "The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena".


The growing cerebrality of machines must logically be expected to occasion a technological purification of bodies. Inasmuch as bodies are less and less able to count on their own antibodies, they are more and more in need of protection from outside. An artificial sterilization of all environments must compensate for faltering internal immunological defences. And if these are indeed faltering, it is because the irreversible process often referred to as progress tends to strip the human body and mind of their systems of initiative and defence, reassigning these functions to technical artifacts. Once dispossessed of their defences, human beings become eminently vulnerable to science and technology; dispossessed of their passions, they likewise become eminently vulnerable to psychology and its attendant therapies; similarly, too, once relieved of emotions and illnesses, they become eminently vulnerable to medicine.
   Consider the "Boy in the Bubble", surrounded, in his NASA-donated tent, by an atmospheric distillate of medical knowledge, protected from any conceivable infection by an artificial immune system, "cuddled" by his mother through the glass, laughing and growing up in an extraterrestrial ambiance under the vigilant eye of science. Here we have the experimental version of the wolf-child, the "wild child" raised by wolves. The parenting in this case, however, is done by computers.
   The Boy in the Bubble is a prefigurement of the future -- of that total asepsis, that total extirpation of germs, which is the biological form of transparency. He epitomizes the kind of vacuum-sealed existence hitherto reserved for bacteria and particles in laboratories but now destined for us as, more and more, we are vacuum-pressed like records, vacuum-packed like deep-frozen foods and vacuum-enclosed for death as victims of fanatical therapeutic measures. That we think and reflect in a vacuum is demonstrated by the ubiquitousness of artificial intelligence.
   It is not absurd to suppose that the extermination of man begins with the extermination of man's germs. One has only to consider the human being himself, complete with his emotions, his passions, his laughter, his sex and his secretions, to conclude that man is nothing but a dirty little germ -- an irrational virus marring a universe of transparency. Once he has been purged, once everything has been cleaned up and all infection -- whether of a social or a bacillary kind -- has been driven out, then only the virus of sadness will remain in a mortally clean and mortally sophisticated world.
   Thought, itself a sort of network of antibodies and natural immune defences, is also highly vulnerable. It is in acute danger of being conveniently replaced by an electronic cerebrospinal bubble from which any animal or metaphysical reflex has been expunged. Even without all the technological advantages of the Boy in the Bubble, we are already living in the bubble ourselves -- already, like those characters in Bosch paintings, enclosed in a crystal sphere: a transparent envelope in which we have taken refuge and where we remain, bereft of everything yet overprotected, doomed to artificial immunity, continual transfusions and, at the slightest contact with the world outside, instant death.
   This is why we are losing our defences -- why we are all potentially immunodeficient.
   All integrated and hyperintegrated systems -- the technological system, the social system, even thought itself in artificial intelligence and its derivatives -- tend towards the extreme constituted by immunodeficiency. Seeking to eliminate all external aggression, they secrete their own internal virulence, their own malignant reversibility. When a certain saturation point is reached, such systems effect this reversal and undergo this alteration willy-nilly -- and thus tend to self-destruct. Their very transparency becomes a threat to them, and the crystal has its revenge.
   In a hyperprotected space the body loses all its defences. So sterile are operating rooms that no germ or bacterium can survive there. Yet this is the very place where mysterious, anomalous viral diseases make their appearance. The fact is that viruses proliferate as soon as they find a free space. A world purged of the old forms of infection, a world "ideal" from the clinical point of view, offers a perfect field of operations for the impalpable and implacable pathology which arises from the sterilization itself.
   This is a third-level pathology. Just as our societies are confronting a new kind of violence, born of the paradoxical fact that they are simultaneously both permissive and pacified, so too we face new illnesses, those illnesses which beset bodies overprotected by their artificial, medical and computer-generated shield. This pathology is produced not by accident, nor by anomie, but rather by anomaly. The very same thing happens with the social body, where the same causes bring about the same perverse effects, the same unforeseeable dysfunctions -- a situation comparable to the genetic disorder that occurs at the cellular level, again occasioned by overprotection, overcoding, overmanagement. The social system, just like the biological body, loses its natural defences in precise proportion to the growing sophistication of its prostheses. Moreover, this unprecedented pathology is unlikely to be effectively conjured away by medicine, because medicine is itself part of the system of overprotection, and contributes to the fanatical protective and preventive measures lavished upon the body. Just as there seems to be no political solution to the problem of terrorism, so there seems to be no biological solution at present to the problems of AIDS and cancer. Indeed, the causes are identical: anomalous symptoms generated at the most fundamental level by the system itself represent a reactive virulence designed to counter, in the first case, a political overmanagement of the social body, and in the second case, a biological overmanagement of the body tout court.
   At an early stage the evil genie of otherness takes the form of accident, breakdown, failure. Only later does the viral, epidemic form make its appearance: a virulence that ravages the entire system, and against which the system is defenceless precisely because its very integrity paradoxically engenders this alteration.

Virulence takes hold of a body, a network or other system when that system rejects all its negative components and resolves itself into a combinatorial system of simple elements. It is because a circuit or a network has thus become a virtual being, a non-body, that viruses can run riot within it; hence too the much greater vulnerability of "immaterial" machines as compared with traditional mechanical devices. Virtual and viral go hand in hand. It is because the body itself has become a non-body, a virtual machine, that viruses are taking it over.
   It is logical that AIDS (and cancer) should have become the prototypes of our modern pathology, as of all lethal viral onslaughts. Saddling the body with replacement parts and abandoning it to genetic whims inevitably dislocates its systems of defence. A fractal body whose external functions are fated to multiply is, by the same token, fated to suffer internal proliferation at the cellular level. Metastasis occurs -- and internal and biological metastases are paralleled by the external metastases constituted by prostheses, networks and ramiform systems.
   Under the reign of the virus you are destroyed by your own antibodies. This is the leukaemia of an organism devouring its own defences, precisely because all threat, all adversity, has disappeared. Total prophylaxis is lethal. This is what medicine has failed to grasp: it treats cancer or AIDS as if they were conventional illnesses, when in fact they are illnesses generated by the very success of prophylaxis and medicine, illnesses bred of the disappearance of illnesses, of the elimination of pathogenic forms. We are confronted by a third-level pathology, one that is inaccessible to the pharmacopoeia of an earlier period (characterized by visible causes and mechanically produced effects). Suddenly all afflictions seem to originate in immunodeficiency -- rather as all violence now seems to have its roots in terrorism. The onslaught of viruses and their strategies have in a sense taken over the work of the unconscious.
   Just as human beings, conceived of as digital machines, have become the preferred field of operations of viral illnesses, so have software networks become the preferred field of operations of electronic viruses. Here too there is no effective prevention or cure: metastasis affects entire networks, and desymbolized machine languages offer no more resistance to viral infection than do desymbolized bodies. The familiar breakdowns and mechanical accidents of earlier times responded to good old-fashioned reparative medicine, but for these sudden weakenings, sudden anomalies, sudden "stabs in the back" by antibodies, we have no remedy. We knew how to cure illnesses of forms; against pathologies of formulas we are without defences. Having everywhere sacrificed the natural balance of forms in favour of an artificial concordance between code and formula, we have unleashed the threat of a far graver disorder, of a destabilization without precedent. Having turned the body and language into artificial systems in thrall to artificial intelligence, we have abandoned them not only to artificial stupidity but also to all the viral aberrations generated by this irreversible artificiality.
   Viral attack is the pathology of the closed circuit, of the integrated circuit, of promiscuity and of the chain reaction -- in a broad and metaphorical sense, a pathology of incest. He who lives by the same shall die by the same. The absence of otherness secretes another, intangible otherness: the absolute other of the virus.
   That AIDS should have struck homosexuals and drug-users first is a reflection of the incestuousness of groups which function as closed circuits. We had known for a long time that haemophilia was linked to consanguine marriages and predominantly endogamous social systems. Even the strange sickness that affected cypress trees for so long turned out to be a sort of virus attributable to a lessening of the temperature difference between winter and summer -- to promiscuity, so to speak, of the seasons. The spectre of the Same had struck again. In every compulsion to resemblance, every extradition of difference, in all contiguity of things and their own image, all conflation of beings and their own code, lies the threat of an incestuous virulence, a diabolical otherness boding the breakdown of all this humming machinery. This is the reappearance of the principle of Evil in a new guise. No morality or guilt is implied, however: the principle of Evil is simply synonymous with the principle of reversal, with the turns of fate. In systems undergoing total positivization -- and hence desymbolization -- evil is equivalent, in all its forms, to the fundamental rule of reversibility.

Still, there is an ambiguity in this very virulence. AIDS serves to justify a new prohibition on sex -- no longer a moral prohibition but a functional one, one not directed at sex per se but merely at its unhindered circulation. The current is to be interrupted, the flow stopped. But this runs counter to all commandments of modernity, according to which sex, money and information must circulate freely. Everything is supposed to be fluid, everything should accelerate inexorably. The placing of strictures upon sexuality on grounds of viral risk seems as absurd as halting foreign-exchange dealings because they foster speculation or wild fluctuations in the value of the dollar. Unthinkable! And yet, all of a sudden, there it is: no more sex. Is there a contradiction in the system here?
   Could it be that this suspension has a paradoxical aim, one bound up with the equally paradoxical aim of sexual liberation? We are acquainted with that spontaneous self-regulation of systems whereby they themselves produce accidents or slowdowns in order to survive. No society can live without in a sense opposing its own value system: it has to have such a system, yet it must at the same time define itself in contradistinction to it. At present we live according to at least two principles: that of sexual liberation and that of communication and information. And everything suggests that the species itself, via the threat of AIDS, is generating an antidote to its principle of sexual liberation; that by means of cancer, which is a breakdown of the genetic code, it is setting up a resistance to the all-powerful principle of cybernetic control; and that the viral onslaught in general signals its sabotaging of the universal principle of communication.
   What if all this betokened a refusal of the obligatory flows of sperm, sex and words, a refusal of forced communication, programmed information and sexual promiscuity? What if it heralded a vital resistance to the spread of flows, circuits and networks -- at the cost, it is true, of a new and lethal pathology, but one, nevertheless, that would protect us from something even worse? If so, then AIDS and cancer would be the price we are paying for our own system: an attempt to cure its banal virulence by recourse to a fatal form. Nobody can predict the effectiveness of such an exorcism, but the question has to be asked: What is cancer a resistance to, what even worse eventuality is it saving us from? (Could it be the total hegemony of genetic coding?) What is AIDS a resistance to, what even worse eventuality is it saving us from? (Could it be a sexual epidemic, a sort of total promiscuity?) The same goes for drugs: all melodramatics aside, what exactly do they protect us from, from what even worse scourge do they offer us an avenue of escape? (Could it be the brutalizing effects of rationality, normative socialization and universal conditioning?) As for terrorism, does not its secondary, reactive violence shield us from an epidemic of consensus, from an ever-increasing political leukaemia and degeneration and from the imperceptible transparency of the State? All things are ambiguous and reversible. After all, it is neurosis that offers human beings their most effective protection against madness. AIDS may thus be seen not as a divine punishment, but as quite the opposite -- as a defensive abreaction on the part of the species against the danger of a total promiscuity, a total loss of identity through the proliferation and speed-up of networks.

The high degree to which AIDS, terrorism, crack cocaine or computer viruses mobilize the popular imagination should tell us that they are more than anecdotal occurrences in an irrational world. The fact is that they contain within them the whole logic of our system: these events are merely the spectacular expression of that system. They all hew to the same agenda of virulence and radiation, an agenda whose very power over the imagination is of a viral character: a single terrorist act obliges a reconsideration of politics as a whole in the light of terrorism's claims; an outbreak of AIDS, even a statistically insignificant one, forces us to view the whole spectrum of disease in the light of the immunodeficiency thesis; and the mildest of computer viruses, whether it vitiates the Pentagon's memory banks or merely erases a shower of on-line Christmas messages, has the potential to destabilize all data contained in information systems.
   Whence the special status of such extreme phenomena -- and of catastrophe in general, understood as an anomalous turn of events. The secret order of catastrophe resides in the affinity between all these processes, as in their homology with the system as a whole. Order within disorder: all extreme phenomena are consistent both with respect to each other and with respect to the whole that they constitute. This means that it is useless to appeal to some supposed rationality of the system against the system's outgrowths. The vanity of seeking to abolish these extreme phenomena is absolute. Moreover, they are destined to become more extreme still as our systems grow more sophisticated. And this is in fact a good thing -- for they are the leading edge of therapy here. In these transparent, homeostatic or homeofluid systems there is no longer any such thing as a strategy of Good against Evil, there is only the pitting of Evil against Evil -- a strategy of last resort. Indeed, we really have no choice in the matter: we simply watch as the lesser evil -- homeopathic virulence -- deploys its forces. AIDS, crack and computer viruses are merely outcroppings of the catastrophe; nine-tenths of it remain buried in the virtual. The full-blown, the absolute catastrophe would be a true omnipresence of all networks, a total transparency of all data -- something from which, for now, computer viruses preserve us. Thanks to them, we shall not be going straight to the culminating point of the development of information and communications, which is to say: death. These viruses are both the first sign of this lethal transparency and its alarm signal. One is put in mind of a fluid travelling at increasing speed, forming eddies and anomalous countercurrents which arrest or dissipate its flow. Chaos imposes a limit upon what would otherwise hurtle into an absolute void. The secret disorder of extreme phenomena, then, plays a prophylactic role by opposing its chaos to any escalation of order and transparency to their extremes. But these phenomena notwithstanding, we are already witness to the beginning of the end of a certain way of thinking. Similarly, in the case of sexual liberation, we are already witness to the beginning of the end of a certain type of gratification. If total sexual promiscuity were ever achieved, however, sex itself would self-destruct in the resulting asexual flood. Much the same may be said of economic exchange. Financial speculation, as turbulence, makes the boundless extension of real transactions impossible. By precipitating an instantaneous circulation of value -- by, as it were, electrocuting the economic model -- it also short-circuits the catastrophe of a free and universal commutability -- such a total liberation being the true catastrophic tendency of value.
   In the face of the threats of a total weightlessness, an unbearable lightness of being, a universal promiscuity and a linearity of processes liable to plunge us into the void, the sudden whirlpools that we dub catastrophes are really the thing that saves us from catastrophe. Anomalies and aberrations of this kind re-create zones of gravity and density that counter dispersion. It may be hazarded that this is how our societies secrete their own peculiar version of an accursed share, much after the fashion of those tribal peoples who used to dispose of their surplus population by means of an oceanic suicide: the homeopathic suicide of a few serving to maintain the homeostatic balance of the group.
   So the actual catastrophe may turn out to be a carefully modulated strategy of our species -- or, more precisely, our viruses, our extreme phenomena, which are most definitively real, albeit localized, may be what allow us to preserve the energy of that virtual catastrophe which is the motor of all our processes, whether economic or political, artistic or historical.

To epidemic, contagion, chain reactions and proliferation we owe at once the worst and the best. The worst is metastasis in cancer, fanaticism in politics, virulence in the biological sphere and rumour in the sphere of information. Fundamentally, though, all these also partake of the best, for the process of chain reaction is an immoral process, beyond good and evil, and hence reversible. It must be said, moreover, that we greet both worst and best with the same fascination.
   That it should be possible for certain processes -- economic, political, linguistic, cultural, sexual, even theoretical and scientific -- to set aside the limitations of meaning and proceed by immediate contagion, according to the laws of the pure reciprocal immanencies of things among themselves rather than the laws of their transcendence or their referentiality -- that this is possible poses an enigma to reason while offering a marvellous alternative to the imagination.
   One has but to consider the phenomenon of fashion, which has never been satisfactorily explained. Fashion is the despair of sociology and aesthetics: a prodigious contagion of forms in which chain reactions struggle for supremacy over the logic of distinctions. The pleasure of fashion is undeniably cultural in origin, but does it not stem even more clearly from a flaring, unmediated consensus generated by the interplay of signs? Moreover, fashions fade away like epidemics once they have ravaged the imagination, once the virus has run its course. The price to be paid in terms of waste is always exorbitant, yet everyone consents. The marvellous in our societies resides in this ultra-rapid circulation of signs at a surface level (as opposed to the ultra-slow circulation of meanings). We love being contaminated by this process, and not having to think about it. This is a viral onslaught as noxious as the plague, yet no moral sociology, no philosophical reason, will ever extirpate it. Fashion is an irreducible phenomenon because it partakes of a crazy, viral, mediationless form of communication which operates so fast for the sole reason that it never passes via the mediation of meaning.
   Anything that bypasses mediation is a source of pleasure. In seduction there is a movement from the one to the other which does not pass via the same. (In cloning, it is the opposite: the movement is from the same to the same without passage via the other; and cloning holds great fascination for us.) In metamorphosis, the shift is from one form to another without passing via meaning. In poetry, from one sign to another without passing via the reference. The collapsing of distances, of intervening spaces, always produces a kind of intoxication. What does speed itself mean to us if not the fact of going from one place to another without traversing time, from one moment to another without passing via duration and movement? Speed is marvellous: time alone is wearisome.