Insomnia | Essays

Whatever Happened to Evil?

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".


Terrorism in all its forms is the transpolitical mirror of evil. For the real problem, the only problem, is: where did Evil go? And the answer is: everywhere -- because the anamorphosis of modern forms of Evil knows no bounds. In a society which seeks -- by prophylactic measures, by annihilating its own natural referents, by whitewashing violence, by exterminating all germs and all of the accursed share, by performing cosmetic surgery on the negative -- to concern itself solely with quantified management and with the discourse of the Good, in a society where it is no longer possible to speak Evil, Evil has metamorphosed into all the viral and terroristic forms that obsess us.

The force of anathema and the power of speaking Evil are no longer ours. But they have resurfaced elsewhere -- witness Ayatollah Khomeini in the matter of Salman Rushdie. Quite apart from performing a tour de force whereby the West has been obliged to hold this particular hostage itself, whereby Rushdie has in a way been obliged to hold himself entirely hostage, the Ayatollah has offered spectacular proof of how it is possible to overturn all existing power relations through the symbolic force of an utterance.

Confronting the entire world, his tally utterly negative in the distribution of political, military and economic forces, the Ayatollah had but one weapon at his disposal, yet that weapon, though it had no material reality, came close to being the absolute weapon: the principle of Evil. The negation of all Western values -- of progress, rationality, political ethics, democracy, and so on. By rejecting the universal consensus on all these Good Things, Khomeini became the recipient of the energy of Evil, the Satanic energy of the rejected, the glamour of the accursed share. He alone now holds the tribunal because he alone has upheld against all comers the Machiavellian principle of Evil, because he alone is ready to speak Evil and exorcize Evil, because he alone allows himself to incarnate that principle on the basis of terror. His motivations are unintelligible to us. On the other hand, we cannot fail to recognize the superiority that his posture assures him over a West where the possibility of evoking Evil does not exist and every last trace of negativity is smothered by the virtual consensus that prevails. Our political authorities themselves are but mere shadows of their declared functions. For power exists solely by virtue of its symbolic ability to designate the Other, the Enemy, what is at stake, what threatens us, what is Evil. Today this ability has been lost, and, correspondingly, there exists no opposition able or willing to designate power as Evil. We have become very weak in terms of Satanic, ironic, polemical and antagonistic energy; our societies have become fanatically soft -- or softly fanatical. By hunting down all of the accursed share in ourselves and allowing only positive values free rein, we have made ourselves dramatically vulnerable to even the mildest of viral attacks, including that of the Ayatollah -- who, for one, is not suffering from immunodeficiency. What is more, we end up treating Khomeini, in the name of the rights of man, as "Absolute Evil" (Mitterrand) -- in other words, we respond to his imprecation in its own terms, something which runs counter to the rules of enlightened discourse. (Do we now ever describe a mad person as "mad"? As a matter of fact, we are so terrified of Evil, so greedy for euphemisms to denote the Other, misfortune, or other irreducibles, that we no longer even refer to a cripple as such.) Little wonder, then, that someone capable of speaking the language of Evil literally, even triumphantly, should have precipitated such an attack of weak knees among Western cultures (all the petitions of the intellectuals notwithstanding). The fact is that legality, good conscience and even reason itself end up collaborating with the curse. They have no choice but to call down all the resources of anathema, but by that very fact they fall into the trap of the principle of Evil, which is contagious in its essence. So who won? The Ayatollah, unquestionably. Of course we still have the power to destroy him, but on the symbolic level he is the victor, and symbolic power is always superior to the power of arms and money. This is, in a way, the revenge of the Other World. The Third World has never been able to throw down a real challenge to the West. As for the USSR, which for several decades incarnated Evil for the West, it is obviously in the process of quietly lining up on the side of Good, on the side of an extremely moderate way of managing things. (By a marvellous irony the USSR has even put itself forward as mediator between the West and the Satan of Teheran, having defended Western values for five years in Afghanistan without anyone quite realizing it.)

The reactions of fascination, attraction and worldwide repulsion unleashed by the Rushdie death sentence are reminiscent of the depressurization of an aircraft cabin that occurs when the plane's fuselage is breached or cracked. (Even when such an event is accidental, it resembles a terrorist act.) Everything is sucked violently out into the void as a result of the variation in pressure between inside and out. All that is needed is for a small rift or hole to be made in the ultra-thin envelope that separates two worlds. Terrorism, the taking of hostages, is par excellence an act that punches just such a hole in a universe (ours) that is both artificial and artificially protected. Islam as a whole -- Islam as it is, not the Islam of the Middle Ages: the Islam that has to be evaluated in strategic terms, not moral or religious ones -- is in the process of creating a vacuum around the Western system (including the countries of Eastern Europe) and from time to time puncturing this system with a single act or utterance, so that all our values are suddenly engulfed by the void. Islam exerts no revolutionary pressure upon the Western universe, nor is there any prospect of its converting or conquering the West: it is content to destabilize it by means of viral attacks of this kind, in the name of a principle of Evil against which we are defenceless and on the basis of the virtual catastrophe constituted by the difference in pressure between the two worlds, on the basis of the perpetual threat to a protected universe (ours), of a brutal depressurization of the atmosphere (the values) that we breathe. The fact is that a good deal of oxygen has already escaped from our Western world through all kinds of fissures and interstices. We would be well advised, therefore, to keep our oxygen masks on.

The Ayatollah's strategy is a remarkably modern one, whatever people might prefer to think. Far more modern than our own, in fact, because it consists in subtly injecting archaic elements into a modern context: a fatwa, a death sentence, an imprecation -- no matter what. If only our Western universe were solid, all this would be meaningless. In the event, however, our whole system is swallowed up, and serves as a sound box -- as a superconductor for the virus. What does this mean? Here again we see the revenge of the Other World: we have visited so many germs and sicknesses, so many epidemics and ideologies, upon the rest of the world, which was utterly defenceless against them, that our present defencelessness against a vile, archaic microorganism seems to be a truly ironic twist of fate.

Even the hostages themselves become a seat of infection. In his recent book Le Métier d'otage [Profession: Hostage], Alain Bosquet has shown how the hostage, as a tiny portion of the Western world sucked out into the void, cannot and does not ever want to return home; this is certainly in part attributable to the victim's loss of self-esteem, but it is also because his own people, his own country and his own fellow-citizens are diminished collectively by their forced passivity and their ordinary cowardice -- and also by the act of negotiating itself, which is both degrading per se and ultimately useless. Beyond the question of negotiation, every hostage-taking bears witness to the unavoidable spinelessness of entire societies with respect to even the most insignificant of their members. This indifference on the part of the community is echoed by each individual's indifference towards that community: this is how we operate in the West -- badly -- and such is the political impoverishment pitilessly illuminated by the strategy of taking hostages. The destabilization of a single individual effectively destabilizes a whole system. This is why released hostages can never forgive their compatriots for making heroes out of them. (Such "heroes" are, in any case, immediately hustled out of the public's view.)

We cannot read the Ayatollah's thoughts, nor can we see into the hearts of Muslims. What we can do, however, is reject the feeble notion that everything can be laid at the door of religious fanaticism. I very much fear, however, that we are ill armed to counter the symbolic violence of the Ayatollah's challenge: at this very moment we are striving to expunge the Terror from our memory of the French Revolution, as we prepare to mount a commemoration which, like the consensus, resembles nothing so much as an inflatable structure. How can we ever confront this new violence if we prefer to eradicate even the violence of our history?

We can no longer speak Evil.

All we can do is discourse on the rights of man -- a discourse which is pious, weak, useless and hypocritical, its supposed value deriving from the Enlightenment belief in a natural attraction of the Good, from an idealized view of human relationships (whereas Evil can manifestly be dealt with only by means of Evil).

What is more, even this Good qua ideal value is invariably deployed in a self-defensive, austerity-loving, negative and reactive mode. All the talk is of the minimizing of Evil, the prevention of violence: nothing but security. This is the condescending and depressive power of good intentions, a power that can dream of nothing except rectitude in the world, that refuses even to consider a bending of Evil, or an intelligence of Evil.

There can be a "right" to speech only if speech is defined as the "free" expression of an individual. Where speech is conceived of as a form implying reciprocity, collusion, antagonism or seduction, the notion of right can have no possible meaning.

Is there such a thing as a right to desire, a right to the unconscious, or a right to pleasure? The idea is absurd. This is what makes the sexual liberation movement ridiculous when it talks about rights, and what makes our "commemoration" of the Revolution ridiculous when the rights of man are evoked.

The "right to live" is an idea that sets all pious souls atremble, but when this idea evolves into the right to die, the absurdity of the whole business becomes obvious. For, after all, dying (and living too) is a destiny, a fate -- be it happy or unhappy -- and certainly not a right.

Why not demand the "right" to be a man or a woman? Or, for that matter, a Leo, an Aquarius or a Cancer? But what would it mean to be a man or a woman if it were a right? What makes life exciting is the fact that you have been placed on one side or the other of the sexual divide, and you must take it from there. Those are the rules of the game, and it makes no sense to break them. No one can stop me from claiming the right to move my knight in a straight line on the chessboard, but where does it get me? Rights in such matters are idiotic.

The right to work: yes, we have reached that point, thanks to a savage irony. The right to unemployment! The right to strike! No one can even see the surreal humour of such things anymore. Occasionally, though, a certain black humour does burst out here, as when an American condemned to death claims the right to be executed despite the efforts of umpteen human-rights organizations to obtain a stay of execution. This is where things get interesting. The list of rights turns out to include not a few bizarre varieties: the Israelis, for example, claim as a sort of right the fact that there are criminals among their number -- whereas from time immemorial, Jews were only victims. Now at last they can enjoy the officially endorsed luxury of criminality!

There can be no doubt either that the USSR, with Chernobyl, the Armenian earthquake and the foundering of a nuclear submarine, has take a giant step towards an extension of the rights of man (indeed, beyond the accords of Helsinki or elsewhere), for the Soviets have clearly laid claim to the right to catastrophe. It is indeed your most fundamental and essential right -- your right to accidents, to crime, to error, to Evil, to the worst as well as to the best -- which, far more than your right to happiness, makes you a human being worthy of the name.

In the sphere of rights the irresistible trend is towards a situation where, if something can be taken for granted, all rights are otiose, whereas if a right must be demanded, it means that the battle is already lost; thus the very call for rights to water, air and space indicates that all these things are already on the way out. Similarly the evocation of a right to reply signals the absence of any dialogue, and so on.

The rights of the individual lose their meaning as soon as the individual is no longer an alienated being, deprived of his own being, a stranger to himself, as has long been the case in societies of exploitation and scarcity. In his postmodern avatar, however, the individual is a self-referential and self-operating unit. Under such circumstances the human-rights system becomes totally inadequate and illusory: the flexible, mobile individual of variable geometric form is no longer a subject with rights but has become, rather, a tactician and promoter of his own existence whose point of reference is not some agency of law but merely the efficiency of his own functioning or performance.

Yet it is precisely now that the rights of man are acquiring a worldwide resonance. They constitute the only ideology that is currently available -- which is as much to say that human rights are the zero point of ideology, the sole outstanding balance of history. Human rights and ecology are the two teats of the consensus. The current world charter is that of the New Political Ecology.

Ought we to view this apotheosis of human rights as the irresistible rise of stupidity, as a masterpiece which, though imperilled, is liable to light up the coming fin de siècle in the full glare of the consensus?