PRINT Summer 1993


Jean Baudrillard's Transparency of Evil

JEAN BAUDRILLARD STARTED OUT in the ’60s on the track of our biggest symptom—the attempt to render psychoanalytic and Marxist discourse compatible, in denial of what has always been their outright conflict. That attempt explains why Marxism’s disappearance from Eastern Europe has produced no haunting effects of its own, but makes its ghost appearance within psychoanalysis. The growing dispossession of psychoanalysis is the most alarming side effect of the dislocation of Marxism. Take a closer look at cultural studies: Marxists who can no longer be Marxists work the psychic margins and interiors of culture via the assumption of a shared inheritance that is not quite their own but that they have new-and-improved. Meantime, everyone, journalists included, is out to simulate—decontextualize and desubstantialize—Freudian theory.

Baudrillard always catches the objects or opinions out there in a net of near misses cast between death and simulation. Throughout his scattered oeuvre he addresses and redresses the Other, whose vanishing is part of the performance of his speech acts. We are immortal because the other is the first to go. But that’s why we’re suicidal, why we can’t survive our immortality. Or in other words, that’s why the Other (it’s an internal and eternal affair) is the goner who is at the same time immortal.

The Transparency of Evil reads our mass-media Sensurround of sameness and oneness between the lines of defense cast around the AIDS crisis. The Other has been given the double barrel of technologization and group psychologization. That’s a crisis: no Other, no future. What’s left “is the Alien—monstrous metaphor for the corpse-like, viral Other: the compound form of all the varieties of otherness done to death by our system.”

In a culture of simulation and surveillance the gauge of the “profound melancholy” that afflicts even computers no longer measures full or empty. “The dangers threatening the human species are thus less risks of default (exhaustion of natural resources . . .) than risks of excess: runaway energy flows, chain reactions, or frenzied autonomous developments.” But the excess and exhaustion together belong to one narcissistic war economy in which total mobilization must cover for scarcity or lack. And, indeed, viral excess depends on our having already “exhausted the Other as raw materials.” The Other is behind us, as exhaust, and now the “right to be different” protects or projects new “interactive beings” who are the hallucinatory effects of the denial of the Other. (I’m from California and I too have walked with a hologram.) But the fake or friendly Other really likes being different, like everyone he likes . . . to be like.

The perfection or eradication of the double or Other scores its uncanniest effect when man, who is nothing but a big virus, finds himself among the negative elements or impurities that antibodies attack. That’s why every move to attain virtual immortality resets the viral mortality timer for the earliest deadline. Baudrillard’s negative-theological reading of AIDS (as the only illness or the lack of illnesses) backs his update of the death drive and also gives a new inside view of uncanniness or homelessness. “Viral hospitality” describes the radical reduction of all relationality to the two defense fronts on which there’s the risk of “backlash” either as the “voracious positivity” of one’s own cells or as “the prospect of being disowned” by one’s own “unemployed” antibodies.

Homosexuals and drug users have been targeted because the “specter of the Same” knows where the incestuous heart of group protection (projection!) lives. But—same difference—we’re all at risk. We are all of us, humans and machines alike, one body tuning in the live transmissions of media technology, drugs, AIDS. Baudrillard’s argument so far lines up (by implication and exclusion) with the psychoanalytic viewmaster, through which the structures of perversion, psychosis, and group psychology overlap. But now Baudrillard goes ahead (no problem!) and adds an analogy with neurosis. “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.” Then he throws in the context of evolution, where he makes a mistake related to his notion of the celibacy of machines. We are the genitals of our machines, which are undergoing future evolutionary development for us. That in several billion years the solar system will certainly cease to exist already changes everything. But the conditions of exile from the solar system will mean that our terrestrial and corporeal selves will not be along for the ride into the future (and toward the Other) on our machines (which will be us).

More symptom than mistake is Baudrillard’s view of AIDS as “saving us from . . . sexual epidemic, a sort of total promiscuity.” (It’s time to out J. B. Surprise! He’s straight.) If you look at his text it’s clear we’re not talking some greater epidemic lying in the future but already right now a crisis in the relationship with our own bodies. I asked myself: could the narcissistic blowout and outer-body experience Baudrillard keeps invoking already be the “orgy” he says we are “after”? That means that throughout The Transparency of Evil we’ve been riding out nonstop something like the libidinal upsurge that interrupts mourning and, for the longer haul, drives the manic alteration of and alternation with melancholia.

Quick to fill out missing-persons reports on history and philosophy, Baudrillard must nevertheless ask “how can something live if it has disappeared.” But then he does a double take and reports, as though in real time, that with the latest renewals back east in Europe “History Is Risen from the Dead.” In the realignment and reintegration of legacies that the dislocation of Marxism has set in circulation, Baudrillard observes the happy-facedness of everyone else’s perfunctory mourning: “We are busy, in accordance with an oddly enthusiastic mourning process, smoothing out the salient events of the century, whitewashing the century.” At this point the session ends. The metabolism or style Baudrillard diagnoses in the “massive deconstruction of History which has assumed almost viral and epidemic proportions” is the one running The Transparency of Evil: “A transparently clear reverse run through all the signs of modernity, but in speeded-up motion and at second hand (a postmodern remake, almost, of our original version of modernity).”

This projection onto Eastern Europe of the manic metabolism inside “Transparency” gives us an inside-out view of the “velocity and ferocity of what is dead.” There’s a hunger that doesn’t digest but perpetually swallows and just as rapidly eliminates, intact and undisclosed, objects of consumption transformed into contents of a mummy’s tomb. “We live theoretically well beyond our own events: whence our deep melancholy.” Whence the unstoppable mania of this text’s virulent attack on the body of opinion. Without metabolism or reading, “Transparency” grows and destroys itself vertically or virally on fast-food-forward. But this is at the same time a literally conservative project or projection. I’m reminded of the empty automatism Baudrillard thought he had uncovered in Michel Foucault (who, after all, had his own problems) and which he publicized in a manic feast of liberation as the call to forget the name that was thus doubly monumentalized.

Laurence Rickels is professor of German and Film Studies at the University of California. Santa Barbara. His most recent book is entitled The Case of California.



Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. James Benedict (London/New York: Verso), 174 pages.