Insomnia | Essays

The Mirror of Terrorism

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".

And why does terrorism exist, if not as a violent form of abreaction in the social realm?
   The most striking thing about events such as those that took place at the Heysel Stadium, Brussels, in 1985, is not their violence per se but the way in which this violence was given worldwide currency by television, and in the process turned into a travesty of itself.
   "How is such barbarity possible in the late twentieth century?" This is a false question. There is no atavistic resurgence of some archaic type of violence. The violence of old was both more enthusiastic and more sacrificial than ours. Today's violence, the violence produced by our hypermodernity, is terror. A simulacrum of violence, emerging less from passion than from the screen: a violence in that nature of the image. Violence exists potentially in the emptiness of the screen, in the hole the screen opens in the mental universe. So true is this that it is advisable not to be in a public space where television is operating, considering the high probability that its very presence will precipitate a violent event. The media are always on the scene in advance of terrorist violence. This is what makes terrorism a peculiarly modern form -- far more modern than the "objective" causes to which we seek to attribute it: political, sociological or psychological approaches are simply not capable of accounting for such events.
   Another remarkable aspect of a happening like this is that it is in some way expected. We all collude in the anticipation of a fatal outcome, even if we are emotionally affected or shaken when it occurs. The Brussels police have been criticized for failing to avert the explosion of violence at the Heysel Stadium, but what no police could ever guard against is the sort of fascination, of mass appeal, exercised by the terrorist model.
   Occurrences of this kind represent a sudden crystallization of latent violence. They are not confrontations between hostile forces, not a clash between antagonistic passions, but the product of listless and indifferent forces (among them television's inert audience). The violence of football hooligans is an aggravated form of indifference, one which has such resonance only because it is based on a lethal crystallization of this kind. Fundamentally, such violence is not so much an event as the explosive form assumed by an absence of events. Or rather, the implosive form: and what implodes here is the political void (rather than the resentment of some particular group), the silence of history which has been repressed at the level of individual psychology, and the indifference and silence of everyone. We are dealing, therefore, not with irrational episodes in the life of our society, but instead with something that is completely in accord with that society's accelerating plunge into the void.
   There is another logic at work here, too, the logic of attempted role reversal: spectators (English fans, in this case) turn themselves into actors; usurping the role of the protagonists (players), under the gaze of the media, they invent their own spectacle (which -- we may as well admit it -- is somewhat more fascinating than the official one). Now is this not precisely what is expected of the modern spectator? Is he not supposed to abandon his spectatorish inertia and intervene in the spectacle himself? Surely this is the leitmotiv of the entire culture of participation? Curiously, it is in events of this kind that modern hypersociality of the participatory variety is actualized -- its own best efforts notwithstanding. Deplore it as one might, the fact is that two hundred seats smashed up at a rock concert is a sign of success. Where exactly does participation pass over into too much participation? The answer to this question -- never acknowledged in the discourse of participation -- is that "good" participation ends where signs of participation begin. Of course, things do not always work that way.
   The Romans were straightforward enough to mount spectacles of this kind, complete with wild beasts and gladiators, in the full light of day. We can put on such shows only in the wings, as it were -- accidentally, or illegally, all the while denouncing them on moral grounds. (Not that this prevents us from disseminating them worldwide as fodder for TV audiences: the few minutes of film from the Heysel Stadium were the most often broadcast images of the year.) Even the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles were transformed into a giant parade, a worldwide show which, just like the Berlin Games of 1936, took place in an atmosphere of terrorism created by power's need to show off its muscles: the worldwide spectacle of sport was thus turned into a Cold War strategy -- an utter corruption of the Olympic ideal. Once wrenched away from its basic principle, sport can be pressed into the service of any end whatsoever: as a parade of prestige or of violence, it slips (to use Roger Caillois's terminology) from play founded on competition and representation to circus-like play, play based on the pull of vertigo.
   Nor is politics immune from this trend. Behind the strategy at the Heysel Stadium, in fact, lies a kind of state terrorism. This is not manifested solely in carefully programmed actions (the CIA, Israel, Iran, etc.). For there is also a wilful pursuit of draconian policies, policies of provocation with regard to a country's own citizens, attempts to fill entire sectors of the population with despair, to drive them to the brink of suicide: all of this is part and parcel of the policies of a number of modern states. Mrs Thatcher successfully destroyed the miners by means of just such a calculated bloody-mindedness: the strikers ended up discrediting themselves in the eyes of society. She has a similar strategy towards unemployed hooligans: it is as though she turns them into commandos herself, then sends them abroad; she condemns them, of course, but their brutality remains the very same brutality that she demonstrates in the exercise of her power. Liquidation policies of this kind, more or less drastic in their application, are the stock in trade, justified by the appeal to crisis, of all modern states. They inevitably entail extreme measures of the sort mentioned, which are merely the diverted effects of a terrorism to which the State is in no way opposed.

As soon as it becomes impossible for states to attack and destroy one another, they turn almost automatically against their own people, their own territories; a sort of civil war or internecine conflict begins between the State and its natural referent. Is it not in fact the fate of every sign, every signifying and representative agency, to abolish its natural referent?
   Certainly this is the inevitable outcome in the political realm, a fact of which both represented and representatives are perfectly -- albeit obscurely -- aware. We are all Machiavellians without knowing it, by virtue of our obscure consciousness of the fact that representation is no more than a dialectical fiction concealing a duel to the death between the two parties involved, and that it mobilizes a will to power and a will to destroy the other which may end up with the destruction of the self through voluntary servitude: all power is composed of the Hegemony of the Prince and the Holocaust of the People.
   Neither a represented people nor a legitimate sovereign is now the issue. That political configuration has given way to a contest in which there is no longer any question of a social contract: a transpolitical contest between an agency orientated towards totalitarian self-reference on the one hand, and sardonic or refractory, agnostic and infantile masses on the other (the masses which no longer speak, though they chat). This is the hypochondriacal condition of the body devouring its own organs. Powers -- States -- have set about destroying their own cities, their own landscapes, their own substance and, indeed, themselves with a fury that can be compared only to the fury they once directed towards the destruction of their enemies.

In the absence of an original political strategy (which is indeed perhaps no longer possible), and in view of the impossibility of a rational management of the social realm, the State becomes desocialized. It no longer works on the basis of political will, but instead on the basis of intimidation, dissuasion, simulation, provocation or spectacular solicitation. It invents a politics of disaffection and indifference. This is the transpolitical reality behind all official policies: a cynical bias towards the elimination of the social. Soccer hooligans are merely the most extreme manifestation of this transpolitical conjuncture: they carry participation to its tragic limit, while at the same time daring the State to respond with violence, to liquidate them. In this respect they are no different from terrorists. The reason why such tactics fascinate us, quite apart from moral considerations, is that they constitute a paroxystically up-to-the-minute model, a mirror-image of our own disappearance qua political society -- a disappearance that "political" pseudo-events strive so desperately to camouflage.
   Another recent episode forms a pendant to the events of the Heysel Stadium: in September 1987, in Madrid, a Real Madrid-Naples European Cup match took place at night in a completely empty stadium, without a single spectator, as a consequence of disciplinary action taken by the International Federation in response to the excesses of the Madrid supporters at an earlier game. Thousands of fans besieged the stadium, but no one got in. The match was relayed in its entirety via television.
   A ban of this kind could never do away with the chauvinistic passions surrounding soccer, but it does perfectly exemplify the terroristic hyperrealism of our world, a world where a "real" event occurs in a vacuum, stripped of its context and visible only from afar, televisually. Here we have a sort of surgically accurate prefigurement of the events of our future: events so minimal that they might well not need take place at all -- along with their maximal enlargement on screens. No one will have directly experienced the actual course of such happenings, but everyone will have received an image of them. A pure event, in other words, devoid of any reference in nature, and readily susceptible to replacement by synthetic images.
   This phantom football match should obviously be seen in conjunction with the Heysel Stadium game, when the real event, football, was once again eclipsed -- on this occasion by a much more dramatic form of violence. There is always the danger that this kind of transition may occur, that spectators may cease to be spectators and slip into the role of victims or murderers, that sport may cease to be sport and be transformed into terrorism: that is why the public must simply be eliminated, to ensure that the only event occurring is strictly televisual in nature. Every real referent must disappear so that the event may become acceptable on television's mental screen.
   Political events themselves likewise unfold, in a sense, in an empty stadium (the empty form of representation) whence any real public has been expelled because of potentially too lively passions, and whence nothing emerges now save a television retranscription (CRT images, statistics, poll results...). Politics still works, even captivates us, but subtly everything begins to operate as though some International Political Federation had suspended the public for an indeterminate period and expelled it from all stadiums to ensure the objective conduct of the match. Such is our present transpolitical arena: a transparent form of public space from which all the actors have been withdrawn -- and a pure form of the event from which all passion has been removed.