David Teh on Fri, 9 Nov 2001 21:09:52 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Baudrillard & the Political Economy of Death I

dear <nettime>

thanks to Brian for his Baudrillard translation - i thought this would be
an appropriate time to post my writings on S11, (written in early October)
which pursue the logic of Death elaborated in 'L'Echange Symbolique et la
Mort' (1976). i've split it into 2 parts.


*S11 and the Political Economy of Death*

'The ease of dying: such would be the danger watching over us … that, in
any life, shields us from death …'
 [Maurice Blanchot, 'The Ease of Dying' in 'l’Amitié', 1971]

The Political Economy of Death: on the famous Terrorism of September 11

Today, the War is once again mediated, like past wars – death and the dead
have been edited out.  The Gulf War was rated PG – parental guidance was
recommended, but only for the sake of shoring up the infrastructure of
suspicion, fear and hatred, which, like charity, begin

at home.  If its 100 000 dead had not been so meticulously exiled from the
screen, the Gulf War would have been rated X.  As it turned out, it was
more or less suitable for a General Audience.  Sanitised by the screen and
its graphical science, the viewing public was treated to everything – the
strategic maps, the reconnaissance imagery, the target zone and
highlighted target, before and after – right up to the moment of impact,
the fiery consummation, the climactic explosion.  But Death was nowhere to
be seen.  The Death card was held close to the chest.

This time things are different: this time we started with the explosion,
and this time the Death card was turned up first, and once played, it
demanded to be exchanged and made to circulate.  The immediate source of
this death was America’s Eastern seaboard, even though the market (or
theatre?) of death was opening much wider, even globally.

What distinguishes this global event from the last is the very immediacy
(that is, the unmediated nature) of the opening/overture, confirming as it
did both the reality of television and the tele-visuality of the real.  
Not only was the western audience finally able to identify with victims of
disaster, of this destruction so graphic, disseminated in such a blanket –
even more important is the mediation itself: the domestic technology of
imaging the disaster ensured that the image of Death was understood
perfectly everywhere, even if it was not 'believed'.  The arrogance of the
operation's timings confirms this.  A thousand fascinated cameras made
certain there would be a rupture in the screenic fabric of the public
sphere, in the first hours, before the media corps had been properly
mobilised.  Little breaches, like bodies hurling themselves from the WTC
towers, an important glimpse into the theatre of Death, like Medusa’s

Once aroused, the economy and exchange of Death could not be stopped. But
even now that the long program of reprisals has begun and we have returned
to the simulated war (war the whole family can enjoy) – even now that
Death has been exiled once again, its secretion and exchange metred as
carefully as capital or power – still the symbolic economy of Death cannot
be fully controlled.

Death Awakens

''One cannot treat the gift … without treating [its] relation to economy,
even to the money economy.  But is not the gift … also that which
interrupts economy? That which, in suspending economic calculation, no
longer gives rise to exchange? That which opens the circle so as to defy

reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure…? … It must not circulate, it
must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted.''

In the wake of tragedy, confusion reigns, if only briefly.  The
institution of a new world order plunges all into uncertainty, as the
arrogant disregard for life brings everywhere a regard for Death.  What is
certain, however, is that the acts of September 11 have resuscitated a
political economy of Death.

It must be remembered that, like all political economy, what this
describes is not some firm, material order or knowledge.  Rather, what it
describes is social relations and power relations.  Political economy
offers neither truth nor certainty about how any 'object' is – it only
charts the changing relations between subjects.  Contrary to popular
belief, political economy has never explored purely economic relations –
this the great insight of Marx: that the relations that were the object of
political economy, including those that could be described in economic
terms, expressed first and foremost social relations.

Political economy, then, is a history which chronicles how one subject
relates to another.  A political economy of death, therefore, charts how
one's death relates to the other, and to the death of the other.  Some
have argued that the trajectory of 'civilization', and its attendant
notion of 'progress', is a historic program of the radical exclusion and
extradition from society of the Dead, of Death, and of other types of

Allow us to pursue this proposition for a moment: If the extradition of
Death from our cities and minds describes our civilization, then on
September 11, Death came home to roost.  On that day, Death returned from
exile, it returned to 'currency', in social exchange.  (But this was not
just any Death, and nor was it just another home-coming.  It was not the
routine Death which most of us know, and from which we think we flee,
day-in and day-out.  This quotidian death also haunts us, scares us and
defies us; despite our best efforts to shut it out, ignore it and
extradite it, even from its exile it haunts us.  But S11's was no
ordinary, everyday death.  The Death which took to the streets of
Manhattan was not the loss of life, but the radical waste of life –
needless death, wanton death, wasteful death.  Excessive death, luxuriant
and abundant death, porno death, death in stereo.)  Death's desublimated
return from exile will be the psychic return, metred, return as the
'danger', the 'ease of dying' which must return to the everyday in order
for this act to be properly successful terrorism.  We must return to the
skies to know how easily we might have died, how easily we might now die,
how easily we might ever die.  We must return to the skies to recall how
safe we are, which is to feel how very unsafe we are, and always were.  
Only thus will we discover the full extent of the terror.  Airliners – the
Potential Energy of Death.

This excessive death, like any sacrifice, consists in the laying of a
challenge, and the placement of a gift into social (symbolic) exchange. I
will be called callous for referring to this horror – an act so very
ungenerous – as a 'gift'.  Yet would we not be restricting ourselves here
to the narrowest sense of the gift, to that specific understanding
(perhaps a Western one) of the gift of generosity?  The anthropologists
remind us of another sort of gift – the Potlatch, what Bataille called the
'gift of rivalry' – given not in generosity but in arrogance.  The events
of S11 surely constitute an arrogant assertion of rivalry, therefore a
sort of gift – and not just any gift, but a gift both absolute and pure,
that is, an unreturnable or unanswerable gift. Which is to say an
impossible gift: even if, as Derrida says (following Heidegger), one
cannot die for ('in the place of') the other , yet one can still give to
the other their own death.  It will be further objected that these killers
gave nothing, that all they did was take life; and perhaps taking life is
not giving at all.  But does not the suicide terrorist also give his own
life, in giving himself his death? Some of us will say that he has given
nothing, that what he gave he forfeited first.  Forfeited, perhaps.  But
was it therefore worthless? Is the life of he who perpetrated this vile
injustice 'worthless'?  Of course, the terrorist's death and those of his
victims are properly incomparable; the exchange is not fair; there is no
'common measure', no equivalence.  Only the terrorist's monstrous

But in the absence of equivalence are we tempted to reduce the value of
his life to zero?  This reduction, while understandable, would be
hypocritical and immoral, and – what's much worse – would prevent us from
gaining the only thing we might collectively take from this dreadful gift,
a scrap of understanding or a meaning.  How dare I profess to 'make sense'
of this 'meaningless' violence?  What is at stake here is precisely the
sovereignty of the terrorist and his act. For Bataille, wholesome
sovereignty arises only from that 'sacred' and 'poetic' performance which
restricts itself to a useless or 'impotent beauty' – 'Sacrifice,
consequently, is a sovereign, autonomous manner of being only to the
extent that it is uninformed by meaningful discourse.' Our challenge,
then, is a challenge to this sovereign sacrifice, the challenge of

The act was atrocious but not meaningless; it was unreasonable but not
insane; it was neither sensible nor sensitive, but nor was it senseless;
as Bataille remarks of the Potlatch, such a gift 'would be senseless if it
did not take on the meaning of an acquisition.  Hence giving must become
acquiring a power.  Gift-giving has the virtue of a surpassing of the
subject who gives, but in exchange for the object given, the subject
appropriates the surpassing: he regards his virtue, that which he had the
capacity for, as an asset, as a power that he now possesses.  He enriches
himself with a contempt for riches…'[2] Even if the terrorist only gives
his death to himself, his all-round contempt for that which is valued
suggests something of this surpassing and this enrichment and indicates
both a sense and a meaning.  Both of these last attach only to
communications – that is, human and social acts – just as the Potlatch,
which must be conspicuous or 'ostentatious' is a public and eminently
social 'giving'.  But to refuse to interpret the terrorist's violence, to
deny it meaning, to empty his act of content, is also tantamount to
stripping his act, his life (and death) of any value.  And to value his
life at zero is to deny him his humanity.

Crimes Against Society

Before he boarded the flight in his collared shirt and trousers, with his
carry-on baggage and personal effects, we very readily took his humanity
for granted.  But if we granted him this so happily as he boarded the
flight, how could he come to be any less human when he wreaks his crime?  
Of course, we have no opportunity, in the interim, to retract our offer;
and this human who crashes the flight is the same human who boarded it.

We have suggested already that this act of terrorism was primarily a
social act, rather than an economic or politico-military one.  The
important thing here would be to distinguish, if possible, between a Crime
Against Humanity and a Crime Against Society.  The former, in the
multilateral Western sense championed by the UN, may be reserved for the
moment for the highest order of atrocity: essentially for genocide and

The Act of S11, striking as it did at the very heart of American
multiculturalism (that is, the corporate multiculturalism of the
managerial class), clearly does not qualify for the former; and while the
destruction was massive, the targeting was really far too particular and
controlled to constitute 'mass destruction' in the vein of Hiroshima.  
Disrespectful of life it certainly was; but not exactly 'indiscriminate',
not quite.  The target of this attack was certainly not the species.  It
was the socius, and a particular socius at that.

What is most important, in attempting to understand this particular
atrocity, is to preserve the 'humanity' of the terrorist perpetrators.
Labelling it 'incomprehensible' – or labelling it a Crime Against Humanity
– is either unpardonable laziness or deliberate misinformation, and in
either case an irresponsible obfuscation.  The Crime Against Humanity
implies a certain otherness, it implies that the perpetrator is to some
extent Inhuman.  We tar these attackers with the same brush used for the
mad, the animal, the alien, etc when we place them in the category of the
Inhuman.  In doing so we are fooling ourselves.

Baudrillard reminds us of the deeper logic of this binary, discriminatory

'the progress of Humanity and Culture are simply the chain of
discriminations with which to brand 'Others' with inhumanity, and
therefore with nullity.  For the savages who call themselves 'men', the
others are something else.  For us, by contrast, under the sign of the
Human as a universal concept, others are nothing…'[3]

All talk of crime against this Humanity might thus be read as an attempt
to make the Other (who for once is something to us, is 'in our face', so
to speak) go away quietly, literally become nothing to us.  This response
is routinely deployed by all institutions for which the criminalisation of
the Other is a means of preparing the ground for a retribution without
limits.  The current criminalisation of the 'Inhuman' perpetrators and
Osama Bin Laden is no exception – justice begins with the nihilisation of
the Other.

But this broadly imposed absolute alterity always sounds a death knell for
understanding.  Such is the irrationality of the category of Otherness
that its science tends to obscure its meaning even further. Thus Clastres,
exposing the Western ethnologist’s conceit in equating the accident of
Western governance not just with a social organisation 'lacking' in
primitive society, but with 'political power' itself, the 'only
authentically human group existence.' The ethnologist's scientific
strategy shares something here with those of our 'war against terrorism'
(Al Qaeda, that Other-without-a-state, are by implication less than human,
even without their technological backwardness), those of other
conquistadors and confessors to crusades, the British doctrine of terra
nullius, not to mention the United Nations's own crusading for Human
Rights.  In every instance, the other is subjugated and this subjugation
is sanctioned by the State, always on the grounds of some inexplicit
sub-humanity, which faithfully looks, in this light, tantamount to an
excommunication from the society of god.

A 'murderous shadow', perhaps Blanchot’s 'ease of dying', ends up
pervading the social, of the 'rejected and forgotten dead who, as is quite
normal, never accept being nothing in the eyes of the living.'(p142)  The
post-Foucauldian model of exclusion thus ends, appropriately enough for B.
as well, in an internalisation, an involution, a re-inscription: 'Death is
ultimately nothing more than than the social line of demarcation
separating the 'dead' from the 'living': therefore, it affects both
equally.' (p127)  Of course, in both the material and spiritual dimensions
of capitalist life and culture (such as they are), Death is everywhere and
immanent.  It is spiritual, material and cultural – but above all, social.  
And therefore, Death is not really an Other, not a static, universal
principle but a continual negotiation; not a foreign state, but rather an
internal and immanent factor in the constitution of the socius.  So the
exile was never geographic, but is itself social, an excommunication.

This is a critical distinction: Death is ultimately not the state of
not-living, but a 'social line of demarcation'.  That is, it is the
(social) distinction itself which constitutes Death, which lend it its
meaning and power, as well as its ingenuity and resilience in the face of
strategies of objectification (such as exile, repression, immortality,
etc, in short: law).  The separation of life from death (with its origins
in the most primitive religion), keeping them apart, is nothing other than
the administration of the group's relation to its dead, and is portrayed
as prima facie a fundamental principle of social control: the priest
mediates between the living and the dead, and thus 'power is established
on Deaths borders' (p130).

By aligning the West's Other with the West's Dead, as twin spectres in
exile, haunting its Unconscious in tandem, Baudrillard articulates a more
or less generalisable principle of exclusion, the structural occlusion of
Capital's other – and the dummie-Other of Capitalist political economy
(marxism), is no less susceptible to this almost reverent program of
excluding the radical other.  So the Dead other, like the Inhuman Other,
are never far away.  On S11, they returned: Western capitalism was paid a
visit by its Dead and its Other.



[1] Jacques Derrida, 'Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money', (trans. Kamuf),

University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992; p7.
[2] Georges Bataille, 'The Accursed Share, vol. I, Consumption', (trans.

Hurley), Zone Books, New York, 1988; pp65-66.
[3] Jean Baudrillard, 'Symbolic Exchange and Death', (trans. Grant),
Sage, London, 1993; p125. (simple page ref's are for this text.)

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