Insomnia | Essays

Punctual Death, Biological Death

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".


The irreversibility of biological death, its objective and punctual character, is a modern fact of science. It is specific to our culture. Every other culture says that death begins before death, that life goes on after life, and that it is impossible to distinguish life from death. Against the representation which sees in one the term of the other, we must try to see the radical indeterminacy of life and death, and the impossibility of their autonomy in the symbolic order. Death is not a due payment [échéance], it is a nuance of life; or, life is a nuance of death. But our modern idea of death is controlled by a very different system of representations: that of the machine and the function. A machine either works or it does not. Thus the biological machine is either dead or alive. The symbolic order is ignorant of this digital abstraction. And even biology acknowledges that we start dying at birth, but this remains with the category of a functional definition. It is quite another thing to say that death articulates life, is exchanged with life and is the apogee: for then it becomes absurd to make life a process which expires with death, and more absurd still to make death equivalent to a deficit and an accelerated repayment. Neither life nor death can any longer be assigned a given end: there is therefore no punctuality nor any possible definition of death.
   We are living entirely within evolutionist thought, which states that we go from life to death: this is the illusion of the subject that sustains both biology and metaphysics (biology wishes to reverse metaphysics, but merely prolongs it). But there is no longer even a subject who dies at a given moment. It is more real to say that whole parts of "ourselves" (of our bodies, our language) fall from life to death, while the living are subjected to the work of mourning. In this way, a few of the living manage to forget them gradually, as God managed to forget the drowned girl who was carried away by the stream of water in Brecht's song:

Und es geschah, dass Gott sie allmählich vergass,
zuerst das Gesicht, dann die Hände, und zuletzt das Haar...

[It happened (very slowly) that it gently slid from God's thoughts:
First her face, then her hands, and right at the end her hair.]
["The Drowned Girl" in Bertolt Brecht: Poems and Songs, ed and tr. John Willett, London: Methuen, 1990, p. 14]

The subject's identity is continually falling apart, falling into God's forgetting. But this death is not at all biological. At one pole, biochemistry, asexual protozoa are not affected by death, they divide and branch out (nor is the genetic code, for its part, ever affected by death: it is transmitted unchanged beyond individual fates). At the other, symbolic, pole, death and nothingness no longer exist, since in the symbolic, life and death are reversible.
   Only in the infinitesimal space of the individual conscious subject does death take on an irreversible meaning. Even here, death is not an event, but a myth experienced as anticipation. The subject needs a myth of its end, as of its origin, to form its identity. In reality, the subject is never there: like the face, the hands and the hair, and even before no doubt, it is always already somewhere else, trapped in a senseless distribution, an endless cycle impelled by death. This death, everywhere in life, must be conjured up and localised in a precise point of time and a precise place: the body.
   In biological death, death and the body neutralise instead of stimulating each other. The mind-body duality is biology's fundamental presupposition. In a certain sense, this duality is death itself, since it objectifies the body as residual, as a bad object which takes its revenge by dying. It is according to the mind that the body becomes the brute, objective fact, fated for sex, anguish and death. It is according to the mind, this imaginary schizz, that the body becomes the "reality" that exists only in being condemned to death.
   Therefore the mortal body is no more "real" than the immortal soul: both result simultaneously from the same abstraction, and with them the two great complementary metaphysics: the idealism of the soul (with all its moral metamorphoses) and the "materialist" idealism of the body, prolonged in biology. Biology lives on as much by the separation of mind and body as from any other Christian or Cartesian metaphysics, but it no longer declares this. The mind or soul is not mentioned any more: as an ideal principle, it has entirely passed into the moral discipline of science; into the legitimating principle of technical operations on the real and on the world; into the principles of an "objective" materialism. In the Middle Ages, those who practised the discourse of the mind or soul were closer to the "bodily signs" (Octavio Paz, Conjunctions and Disjunctions [tr. Helen Lane, New York: Arcade, 1990]) than biological science, which, techniques and axioms, has passed entirely over to the side of the "non-body".