David Teh on Fri, 9 Nov 2001 21:45:53 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Baudrillard & the Political Economy of Death II

*S11 and the Political Economy of Death* [continued]


Death and the Other Fight Back

It is important to note that what returns here is not the 'death of the
other', but our own Death, our own Dead, thrust ineffably before us. This
means the actual stench of mortality for New Yorkers; to the rest of us,
the simulated (that is, real) imagery of Death where it is simply not
supposed to appear, unchoreographed.  We note that power instantaneously
deploys the rhetorical armoury of survival and immortality – as the
President heads for his space-pod, these two are consolidated in the
person of the resurgent Nation state and its 'bouncing back' economy.  
Symbolically and theatrically, power appears to pass the reins from the
American Economy to the Great Nation.  This was an unauthorised
'manipulation and administration' of death.  What was even worse, it was
perpetrated by the Other.  It is difficult to say which is worse – the
effacement of the separation between life and death, or that the power to
mediate at this limit was so effortlessly usurped by the Other.  Were we
able to stay within the limits of Baudrillard's discourse, we might fairly
say that the attacks of S11 were the actions of the Savage, showing no
respect for the law separating life from death. (However, 'In whatever
field of 'reality', every separate term for which the other is its
imaginary is haunted by the latter as its own death.')

Baudrillard asserts rather unequivocally that the Imaginary is, for us,
the Real, insofar as these two are the hinged faces of a reversible coin:
a binary structure of inter-reliance between the imaginary and the real:
'our discourse of reality is in fact the discourse of the imaginary'
(p131), another simulacrum that is true.  The justification of this claim,
part of Baudrillard's wider post-structuralist critique of psychoanalysis,
is complicated and may be left aside for the present purposes – it will
suffice to note that for him, the key to this dual identity is the power
of the (social) symbolic 'act of exchange', a 'social relation which puts
an end to the real, which resolved the real,

… puts an end to the opposition between the real and the imaginary.'

If we apply this post-Lacanian postulation, and briefly pursue its
implications in the present scenario, a remarkable analog emerges, which I
would argue justifies our trust in this model.  For in the case of the
suicide terrorist, do we not see precisely this collapse – a symbolic
exchange (of his life for that of his victims) collapses the opposition
between the real and the imaginary?  How else can we explain the peculiar
suspension of belief – characterised by the phrase: 'it’s just like a
Hollywood movie' – of those first 18 minutes, those first few hours?

The key to this is the word 'like', since of course the point of this
statement – 'x is like Hollywood' – is precisely that 'x is not
Hollywood'; which is to say likeness, or identity, is not identicality,
since for x to be like y, x must be different to y.  It has been observed
often enough how the logic of the screen permeates and pervades the social
'real' in America.  Reality TV was only a late footnote to this
transformation and mediation of all social experience.  The incredulity of
newsreaders and eye-witnesses would suggest then that the (real) social
response was not 'I can’t believe it's Real' but 'I can’t believe it's not
Imaginary (ie, not Hollywood)'.  That is to say, the viewer can't believe
that what they are seeing is not the product of the American imaginary,
that fabricated on the screen.  If screen-mediated mass-culture can fairly
be thought of as America’s Imaginary, then here was a crucial moment of
disruption, an interruption of the flow of the (commodified) Imaginary, a
punctuation of its production by the Real.

Such a disruption cannot fail to be a challenge to power established on
the controlled distribution of death: not only does it inflict a disorder
on 'rational' society, but beyond this, no one can be sure whether 'the
death-drive, primed by the accident or catastrophe, may be unleashed … and
turn against the political order.'(p161)  Maintainting the assumption of
Death's ubiquity in a later text [1], Baudrillard adduces the notion of a
'slow release', whereby the 'bomb's original violence' is ordinarily
administered in 'homeopathic doses so as to ward off 'the catastrophe
[that] will never happen, but only because it already has.'

Commentators did not know instinctively how to 'mediate' this event –
pausing, stammering, even apologizing(!) – for lacking the language to
domesticate the imagery for the screenic hearth, lacking, for once, the
means to render the Real as Imaginary.  This is basically an industrial
intervention – for this brief hiatus, all (ac)counting stopped.  Work
stopped.  Mediation returned in X hours; advertising returned in X days;
trading resumed in X days.  Economically, though the wider impact
continues, this was but a momentary disruption, the $300 billion
'stimulus' injection, a petty fine.  Strictly speaking, the price exacted
economically by the actual attack was negligible, and the on-going
response (recession, the acceleration of a 'global economic downturn'
already anticipated) is a response to the social, and not the economic,
damage; which explains the obvious framing of the official response: the
imperative to restore a 'confidence lost', since business and consumer
confidence is far more 'material' than production itself (which these have
structurally replaced).  Indeed, this might be the shred of understanding
we sought in the 'unfathomable' act, for all this demonstrates clearly the
wholesale instability and unsustainability of an economy so reliant on the
tenuous, tremulous social.

At any rate, the confusion wrought between the real and the imaginary on
S11 resounded not in the economic, but in the symbolic, whence it
originated.  Even efforts to orchestrate a symbolic defiance (the mayor of
New York's incredible call for Manhattanites to 'return to work'), the
general mobilisation of the consumer ('keep spending' – consumption
revealed here as the production of production), are consumated only in
economic terms.  The patriotic incitement to exchange, to work, with the
proviso that to sell one's shares is an act of treason.  We all saw how
the financial institutions answered this charge.

In the political economy of death, S11 stands as a radical and triumphant
challenge.  Whether it shall stand as an unanswerable one remains to be
seen.  One suspects it might: it was a gift of death to which noone will
dare to respond, because the fact is that noone wants, or wants to give, a
greater death.  Someone certainly delivered this massive gift of death,
and someone will doubtless 'pay' for it, but we have little cause to
believe that these two will be the same.  In the political economy of
death, the individual (and his or her 'identity') is always insignificant.  
And just as no reprisal could possibly answer this 'gift', so also there
is no act by which the terrorists could better it.  Any further attack
could only distract and detract from the victorious perfection of S11.  
So the warnings of Al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith (probably dead
by now), to stay grounded, are disingenuous and strategic – as he says
himself, 'The news is what you see, not what you hear.'

How could one possibly make the point made there any better than it has
been made?  The most potent weapon they wield is not murder, but mortality
which, for its 'point' to be made, we must return to the skies to
apprehend.  This talk of 'making a point' directs us once again to the
true meaning of what has been done: S11 was above all an act of
communication, and the very broadest sort of attack – a social attack. A
Crime Against Society, it marked a triumphant, if momentary, return of
Death, its return to communication and to the social, after long decades
of progressively harsher excommunication.

When we say that Death returns, it is also the return of the Other, the
triumphant arrival of a minority to a momentary victory.  The dead, having
been systematically exscribed fom the social group and its various
exchanges of meaning (symbolic exchange, gifts, language, commodities),
loudly proclaim the end of their silence and their exile, their
re-introduction into group (social) exchange.  The return of Death– of
Death as Other – is thus a certain incitement to discourse (Foucault), it
is also to make the Dead speak.  The political economy of death is thus a
discourse – above all, a social discourse, not primarily economic or
material (nor linguistic), but first and foremost a social exchange.  The
proper exchange of all bodies, blood and bones, the exchange of social
meaning, between one another and between groups.  If, as the
anthropologist might insist, one's existence inside or outside a group is
primarily determined by one’s death being related to others (and to their
deaths), then S11 marks the institution of a social exchange, and thus a
political economy, of Death.

david teh

[1] Jean Baudrillard, 'Cool Memories', trans. Turner, London, Verso,

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