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Illusion of the End – Baudrillard

May 7, 2009

Are we approaching a time of vanishing history?  Three views or hypotheses may be advanced.  One hypothesis centers upon the acceleration of modernity to a point of (like a spacecraft) escape velocity.  At this point, the realm of reality and history is left behind.  A second hypothesis opposes hypothesis one.  In this situation, history vanishes as processes slow down.  Both of these hypotheses originate in physics.  In number one, the velocity needed to separate from the mass accelerates to the necessary point of departure.  Degrees of slowness, distance, and liberation crystallize to create history.  As with gravity and objects which are held in place, in this new world individuals are released to each one’s trajectory and meaning.  People are hence, “lost in space” (2).  Meaning in history and life is lost in hyperspace and simulation.  In the second hypothesis the mass increases in density to a point (critical mass) in which history is unable to reach its escape velocity.  Deceleration of life exchanges are affected by hyperdensity in city life, commodities and messages.  In this state new events continually cancel out previous events.  Life becomes imploded and meaningless (3).  In each instance, whether hypothesis one or two there is no point of return.  In the third hypothesis, music is used to analogize the point of disappearance or a vanishing point.  Music becomes so “perfected” in attempt to reproduce it, so amplified and subjected to technological tweaking (my word) that it becomes something other than music.  If it reaches this point of “ultimate perfection”, it is only an illusion or a simulation (5).  He says that disappearance of history is like the point of no return.  Baudrillard quotes Elian Canetti at page 6,

“beyond this point, nothing is true.  It is for this reason that the petite musique of history…vanishes into the microscopics or the stereophonics of news.”

Identifying the vanishing point is critical.  Media and news as with music become a simulation “we will never again know what the social or music were before being exacerbated into their present useless perfection.”  While leaving history the social enters into a realm of simulation.  This is not new; history has always been subjected to some simulation.  Rather the new simulation is much more hyper or accelerated and more artificial than in the past.

            Are we moving linearly to a point of no return?  At this point Baudrillard seems to connect the concept of “accomplished” linear production of history to religions calling for a final judgment and last call or final goal of society (7).  He discusses the historical perspective of salvation and need or destiny to hasten the end (millenarian concepts).  Early Christians tried to hasten the imminent end through their own acts.  Similarly, terrorism may find explanations in “effort to conjure up, in its own way, the end of history”.  Similarly, as humans are “obsessed with” time and concepts of “real time” there is now the ability for instant news.  This obsession of real time cancels out delay, time flows, place of the event and frees humans of “linear time”.  News is delivered almost before it occurs.  However, in consideration of reality and real time, “real time” is even more artificial than a simple recording (9).  It is almost a “denial of time”, it becomes an immediate enjoyment of an event that has no meaning or purpose.  These events lead society to be apprehensive of the future, especially the coming year 2000. 

            This leads to questioning whether history and movement toward a new modernity may be reversed.  In the 1980s, history took a turn and began to reverse.  This coincides with the coming end of the short 20th century which Habermas writes about that ended with the Cold War.  In Euclidean history, such as in past modernity, progress and democracy were linear and moved from point A to point B in a straight line.  Now in this phase of history there emerges a non-Euclidean history that is a curvature as the curve of a sphere or the earth.  In other words, at points in time society may visualize change that is coming, but not fully see it.  This point of curvature is turbulent like waters that begin to run more rapid and turbulent as they near the coming waterfall (11).  Visualizing history as a sphere means that there is no end to history; rather it replays itself from period to period.  Just like the old tape player, this allows a rewinding of the melody for replay.  However, unlike the tape which plays the same the new play may allow for changes that may provide a method to avoid the “bankruptcy” experienced in the past history (12).  It is no longer work that serves the reproduction of capital, but capital that produces work (16).

            To take action that causes something not to take place is called “deterrence”.  Deterrence dominates our lives today.  It changes the events of life whether in war, history, reality, or even passion.  (Writer’s comment: Seemingly, this leads to changes in institutional structures such as government, and family.  An example might be online marriage formation.)  Baudrillard concludes at page 17 this process leads to a reversal of history that can destabilize individual memory, prediction, and destroy credibility.  All of this leads to an obstruction of the linear view where curvature leads to deprivation of true meanings.  Hence, society is left in a void, a “black hole”.  This is perhaps not as that of Dante, but still a void or at loss.  Baudrillard is quoted at page 20,

“…this parabolic curvature of historical space.  For the past can only be represented and reflected if it pushes us in the other direction, toward a future of some kind.  Retrospection is dependent on a proposition which enables us to refer to something as past and gone, and thus as having really taken place.  If, by some strange revolution, we set off in the opposite direction…of the past, then we can no longer represent that something to ourselves.”

            Memory and continuity are lost in artificiality.  Events no longer have an “aura” that reveals a “glory of the event”.  Both passion over and compassion for events are no longer central in life (21).  In short, glory has been revised into or made into an illusion.  Rather, events become created center stage performance in “real time”.  Historical and political reason vanishes as events become managed and enable the promoting a way to forget the past (23).  Media and advertising are instrumental in this process of forgetting through promotion of ideas and myths.  These myths help absolve society of its past history and events.  For example, the French Revolution once stood for freedom, but is becoming something to be avoided.  The West has forgotten and distanced itself from the democratic principles while the East has with collapse of the USSR lead to an awakening of democracy (28).  History becomes recycled so that it “fits” the postmodern and serves intellectual comfort (24).  Through this process, society becomes both repentant of the past and resentful of the past.  This resentment is played against past events such as the French Revolution, the Rights of Man, and even in Art which allow for the disillusion of things (25).  Waste or excrement of society and events of the past accumulate as in a dustbin.  History is like a dustbin holding within it the past events of social times.  Like waste, history is capable of being recycled. 

            Satirically, it may be stated, “Hooray” the end of the century is at hand and “history continues to exist” (28).  History does not end, but it is continually revised and renewed.  An example is the renewal and search for freedom in Eastern Europe.  After the fall of the USSR, fresh hopes for and revival in search for freedom is accompanied by all the historical challenges.  Paradoxically, the West where freedom has been idealized, in Baudrillard’s words “has died a natural death” (29).   As the East has “unfrozen” freedom, the fluidity of the West has created complexity in freedom.  As the East resuscitates freedom rehabilitation takes place.  What transpires is not an East and West with the same beliefs and values, but rather a continuation of two separate circulations (29).  As the East changes toward freedom, the West, (the wellspring of freedom having run dry) moves away from its past (31).  Quoting Baudrillard at page 31,

“we see re-emerging here all that we are,…in a kind of ideal hallucination and return of the repressed, including the worst, corniest, most banal things in Western ‘culture’ – no boundaries.  It is, then a moment of truth for that culture, as…with the primitive cultures.”

The point is that the West awoke democracy and freedom and now puts it to sleep while the East, which put democracy and freedom to death, has now resuscitated it.  Is it the West that will next resuscitate Stalinism?  Societies learn and forget only to re-experience the forgotten in a new form (32).  He goes on to give examples of the reunion of East and West Germany, restoration of the Holy Roman Empire, forgetting about Hitler, WWII and the Cold War.

            Modernity was linked to “self-criticism” while postmodernity is linked to “repentance” Modernity led to excess in many different forms; Stalinism serves as an example of an excessive type.  Repentance leads to recycling of past forms (35).  Broad categories of excess associated with modernity include ideology, free market, profits and utopia.  The postmodernity is characterized by the unreal, the speculative, lack of production and profit.  As post USSR Eastern Europe emerges into the economy of capitalism it will move directly into the postmodern character.  Concepts about human rights and democracy will be based upon what have become western illusions of these concepts (36).  When the USSR imploded, it immediately began to grasp for democracy and liberation, what was at its disposal was the illusion of these as constructed in the West (37).  Baudrillard questions the type of exchange that will take place as the West and the East enter a transfusion like relationship in postmodernity (42).  What will the West take from the East and the East take from the West?  He seems to foresee more woe for the West in taking from the East than vice versa.  Different compulsions, objects, images, media and communication are some concerns (38).  He asks, does stability in the East lead to instability in the West?  Examples are Chernobyl incidents, depression, war, poverty.  Perhaps the irony is that the almost “witty rejoicing” comes with inversion of the East and West.  Recall sudden changes that occur, such as the implosion of the USSR (39).  He states that “evil” has been liberated from the East and now is present.  It is fluid, liquid, and transparent in form, not of the opaque type with substance that could be identified more easily.  Rather this is without substance and therefore illusory.  It may take form in terrorism, politics, biology, sexual connotations or other forms (40-1).  The hazard that accompanies this phenomenon is like the story of the lorry and the hole, one good bounce and the hole will fall from the lorry and the lorry fall in it (42).  Like blood, this transfusion between East and West may become a contaminate for the one giving blood (43).  While communism was contained, it was integral and was a known factor with a known place.  As it disintegrated, it became capable of spreading (44).  Like the broken mirror it is likened to a hologram that recreates itself in mini but complete versions in the form of arms sales, nuclear fallout and the like (50).  Consequences of this immediate self-destruction of the USSR are incalculable (45).  Many mini-empires may be the coming result of the “collapse of the great empire” (50).  Ironically, the collapse turns Marx on his head as capitalism survives (51).  Perhaps capitalism will still lead to the real communism.  

            Media is a powerful force that portrays what will be history.  News and media make the incredible and uncertain both credible and certain, at least in a virtual sense.  Images and history therefore are manipulated by news polls and become virtuality via the television.  Examples include the filming and faking of the dead in Romania and the Gulf War.  TV mystifies the viewer and blackmails through violence and death.  In the past, the “fake” was called either play or romance.  Today fake is virtual via the “digital” transmission and the television.  Virtuality becomes real without question.  Information managed in this form may become catastrophic (56).  The television provides a strategic and empty space of representation into which society is both politically and socially pulled.  Pressures exerted call for responses in the form of image-function, blackmail-function, and deterrence-function which society readily swallows as if an aphrodisiac (57).

            Much of this manipulation is not viciously directed; rather the desire is to add credibility to the information and events covered by media.  In other words, the manipulation is only meant to bolster the truth.  Unfortunately, this often backfires and leads to decredibilization which leads to “invalidation of facts” and distortion of history (58).  As a result, the horizon of the sphere of history often harbors less meaning for society.  Society has become demystified (60).

            The illusions of life today may be reflected in the Gulf War, which was a simulation of “an instantaneous atomic war without the atom” (62).  In this war, the media was directly involved in promoting public opinion.  Just as the technologies of the military and soldiers were instrumental in the war, the media also fought it worldwide by shaping opinion through the shaped battlefield of the mind and conscious.  Nevertheless, why was it actually fought?  Troy had its Helen (65).  What was the Gulf War’s Helen, its simulacrum?  What did the illusion cover up?        

            Much of today’s agenda is to manage coming events and catastrophe.  Much of this catastrophe arises in the exploitation of the East by the West or the North exploiting the labor and raw goods of the South.  As quoted on page 67, “We are consumers of the ever delightful spectacle of poverty and catastrophe, and the moving spectacle of our own efforts to alleviate it.”

            This effort though is only a ruse to manage production and create conditions for reproduction in a market that is headed for catastrophe.  What will happen when the “Great Crash” actually can no longer be headed off through catastrophe management (67, 69)?  Marxist drive for profits exemplifies the extreme poverty reproduced as only a symbol that fuels the moral and sentimental equilibrium of the West.  We thrive on this capability.  Much of the world’s poverty is a result of Western power to profit (67).  The West feeds itself on exploitation, just as an addict feeds on drugs “Our whole culture lives off this catastrophic cannibalism, relayed in cynical mode by news media, our humanitarian aid” (68).  This is likened to economic aid that serves to strengthen the exploited sufficiently to allow them to survive so they may be exploited for a longer duration.  In essence, this is reduced to managed exploitation.  It is like exploitation of banana groves, coffee beans and the like.  These foreign exploits are managed through management of catastrophes on foreign shores that keep the West involved in the regions being exploited.  When catastrophe is waning, it must be artificially produced so exploitation may continue (68).  Artificial catastrophe may be manufactured.  This form is imminent and foreseeable.  It is pre-programmed catastrophe.  This is truly managed catastrophe.  We are presently at this age.  What comes next is less predictable or perhaps will be unpredictable.  It is deliberate and experimental catastrophe (71).  What will happen if the foreign catastrophe is limited and the catastrophe is produced at home?  What happens when the “Great Crash” comes?  Human search for certainty and control will lead to uncertain destiny (71).

            In our search for future structure, humans have created an artificial form of fossil or relic.  We “fetishize” fossils and relics.  They allow us to “hallucinate” about our origins (75).  When we locate them, we put them away in storage and create an artificial copy as a substitute.  This creation is similar and artificial; a simulacra.  Ironically, the substitute copy decays and disappears more quickly than the original artifact (75).  This is a backward motion.  As with the introduction of the reversal of history, this is a reversal also.  It is like a tadpole that in its forward morphemic maturity it suffers an involution to an earlier form in sexual reproduction (76).  What might this foreshadow about cloning of humans and the conventional role of sex throughout history?

            This culminates in example of waste.  Like ecology, society is also a residue.  Much of the things humans create quickly become waste just like the simulacra.  As this occurs the world itself becomes waste or at least a waste bin.  This is similar to the dustbins of history, which held transformed illusions, and virtual images of the present (79).  Waste of the past was in the form of ruins and artifacts.  Waste of the present is residue of overproduction and construction which translate to “waste from the out-set”, or waste produced “as waste” in the form of missiles and break neck investments (79).  The same goes for people.  An example may be the “boat people” or perhaps the “homeless war vet” or even “convicts” if we consider management of labor.  These become the “liberated unfortunate” (80).  When things begin to disappear, society begins to speak of “rights” and balance (80-2).  In addressing these matters, humans begin to experiment.  Just as humankind has experimented with nature, ecology and animals, it also experiments on itself.  This self-experimentation leads to self-destruction, like the vision of the “human guinea pig”.  This perpetuates a “death drive” that is played out as a “sacrifice of the species” by experiment (83, 84).  In so doing, humankind seeks a simulation of itself and to exceed the expectation of “natural selection”.  No other specie does this.  This arrogance will lead to change in, and perhaps disappearance of humans in natural form if not completely (84).  This is a self-serving biogenetic evolution that will result in the same type of involution that was experienced by the USSR, a reversal effect (84, 85).  An example of the type of managed self-experiment is the Biosphere 2 project.  False experimentation is like false imagery.  Similarly, Biosphere 2 is likened to the illusion and artificiality of Disneyland (87).  Ironically, humankind’s attempts to achieve survival through artificial means and experimentation, the seeking of an artificial paradise, are the road to disappearance.  As life sustained on a “drip-feed” is in actuality not life, but rather a prolonged, sustained state of death (88). 

            In past ages, humans considered themselves immortal when they were not.  Now humans do not believe they are immortal, but without knowing so, without wishing for it, and without believing it humans are becoming immortal (99).  This is a worse fate than death.  In the past death meant recollection, memory, celebration, ritual, or even distinction.  Some even sought death as a means of immortality.  Experimentation and technology has led to “clonal and metastatic” de facto eternity previously associated with inhuman characteristics (99).

          Experiments such as Biosphere 2 are holdover of the Middle Age search for immortality and resurrection.  Success in these endeavors lead to resuscitation.  Nevertheless, with resuscitation come all the old desire, want, fear, neurosis, virus, and handicap experienced before.  Today the search is realized in Biosphere 2.  Biosphere 2 promises a new life that is expurgated, disinfected, immunized immortalized, transparent, in short a prophylaxis and realization of paradise on earth (89).  This process leads to “immortality of the species in real time”.  This is not an immortality of the soul, but of the physical to be able to continue reproducing itself.  Humans want a millenarian paradise on earth and immediately.  This is a place of no death, no end, just a perpetual renewal of life (90).  This is not to say there is no individual death, but no death of humankind.  In this pursuit, science has changed its focus upon the end to a focus upon the beginning “the illusion of the end has been supplanted by the illusion of the cause. (90)” 

            Unbelief and belief both focus upon the “subject” believer (93).  Belief need not exist if the “object” truly exists.  Credibility on the other hand arises from the “object”.  Belief is image of the relation of subject to object.  Credibility is relation between object and code.  Credibility coincides with the concept of immortality.  In the past, it was belief, and the connection it had with the subject that directed human existence.  Today in light of Biosphere 2 type experimentation, immortality becomes a credible “biologic process of code”.  Immortality can no longer be subjected to philosophical criticism once it becomes credible.  In other words, “perpetuation and realization” (Nietzsche’s principles) of “a humanity searching for its own condition, humanity, and capacities” has come to be tested.  The “veils of the human condition” have been lifted.  Ironically, Nietzsche falls short in his theory.  Rather the world falls short and folds in on itself and the result is “a transfiguration of the human race into the ‘subhuman’ and disappearance of human species characteristics (94, 95).  An irruption of the human into the inhuman occurs, such as the “sexed into the unsexed” whereby a reduction takes place and humans are reduced to the lowest common denominator (96).  For instance, the Enlightenment arose upon consideration of ‘man’s qualities’, virtues, natural gifts, the right of freedom and its exercise.  Humanism today places its concern on the “immortality” of the individual and the species.  Therefore, the current focus places the experiment for immortality before the importance of the individual subject (human kind) to enjoy freedom and purpose of life.  An example is that the genome takes center stage to overall humanity.  If genetics and biology are central to humanity then humans may as well begin calling themselves “apes” or “mice” since genetic similarity is approximate.  Rather, Baudrillard argues it is humanity, freedom, transcendence, and purpose that should be center stage (97).  Will the current experiment in immortality lead to “no soul, no conscious, and no unconscious?

            Immortality relates to need for “identity”, completion, saturation, repletion, and perfection (101).  Immortality and continuation relates to resources available for disposal.  To call upon “all resources” is to recognize that there is no longer anything left at command.  It is like losing one’s shadow.  It is like using the last bullet or the last tool in the toolbox.  What is left?  Resources that remain, yet to be called upon are reserves and are similarly like a shadow the “last vestige” not yet fully seen or known but still existing and comforting.  Today’s humanity is called upon to use all resources at its disposal.  In all walks of life and as perhaps accelerated by digital capacities there is an exhaustion of the tape, which must simply be rewound and played again.  Even so, humans use only about one-third of the genes in the body.  Two-thirds of the genes are dormant and like reserves lay in wait, like fallow ground.  Is this waste, or comforting reserve, like the shadow?  If a reserve, then it is like language that is the use of image to signify (102).  On the other hand, digital capacities and computers call for the maximized use of signs and digital language.  Does this create a mystification of the horizon of the sphere?  This may be likened to history, which has used all its resources.  It must only reverse itself and repeat itself, looking for change and alternatives.  (Writer comment: Does Disneyworld or the marketing of the previous Red Army provide an illusion by which society may reevaluate the history of humanity and adjust a new beginning?)  As with history, if the social approaches this horizon and has used all its resources must it too rewind, reverse and replay?  The irony of this search for resources is much like the vivid portrait Baudrillard takes from Cannetti as he contrasts and compares the “rising sun” in all of its full brightness and glory as depicted in the Japanese flag as against the “rising mushroom” in all its full brightness and glory and destruction and later dismal darkness and fall-out as it rises and then descends upon Hiroshima.  Humanity needs an umbrella, a safety device that is ready and in reserve, a small tool kit to retrieve just in case it needs it in an emergency.  Humanity needs a point of last resort.  When the last tool is used, the truth about human substance is realized.  Humanity like climbing Annapurna ends.  There remains nothing left to jump over, not even one’s own shadow (105).  Humanity has become transparent and therefore has no shadow left.

            Post-modern individualism evokes liberalization (107).  Liberty and liberation are distinct.  Liberty is limited and transcendent in symbolic space of the subject who is confronted with destiny.  Liberation is in potentially unlimited space, pushing everything including individuals forward to the limit of potential, to the breaking point and inability to respond.  The liberal individual is not equated to the free subject.  The opposition of liberty and liberation is found in liberalization, which dilutes liberty.  Alienation disappears because all are self-identical.  Each no longer differs from him/her self (108).  This indifference may be expressed in time, space, politics, and sexually.  Absence of division leads to suppression of otherness.  What once was otherness and difference becomes “same” and “indifference”.  Boredom results and leads to what Baudrillard calls “identity syndrome” in which humans crave “otherness” (109).  Like Frankenstein who craved a mate of his own kind yet there was none, this becomes a maddening search.

            What comes after the end?  Non-linear, non-Euclidian space tends to hide the end (110).  Cause and effect are distorted in this scenario and lead to mystery, disorder, or chaotic order.  Exponentially either instability or stability may occur.  Baudrillard says both occur (112).  Exponential instability leads to uncontrollable effects and end.  Exponential stability leads to the point of beginning.  Baudrillard claims society has already entered the retroactive stage of history (115).  The “Big Crumb” he claims is what approaches, not an end but a reversal and reforming.  Metastasis resurfaces history and attempts to give it a new face in an attempt to rehabilitate the past.  Disneyworld is a precursor to this attempt to restructure using its illusion of future world, gothic villages, and magical country life (118).  Disneyworld is only one example of paving the way to the future; others include the Gulf War and the end of the USSR as sources for points of beginning.  Alas, the end circles about us as a satellite.  Like the “empty space of news” it is about us history like information circles about society looking for a place to land and identify, yet unable.  What is left of the dream for a real utopia has been subsumed and covered in illusion and fiction.       


Baudrillard, Jean. 1995 [1992]. The Illusion of the End. Translated by Chris Turner (1994).  Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

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