The Agony of Power by Jean Baudrillard
Reviewed by John David Ebert
The Agony of Power is another posthumous text by Jean Baudrillard, to be published by Semiotexte in October. If you’ve never read Baudrillard but were always curious what the fuss was all about, this would be a good place to start, since the book is only 100 pages and reads swiftly. It is also Baudrillard at his finest.
In a way, the book reads like a compressed overview of all of Baudrillard’s main themes: the substancelessness of global society; the dominance of signs and simulacra; the end of history; terrorism; absolute Evil, in short, all the great themes of the past two decades of his books can be found here.
Baudrillard insists in this book that the true aim of globalization is actually the complete liquidation of values, either by consensus or force. The West, furthermore, demands that everyone else play the same game and liquidate their own values, as well. We create a desire in these other cultures to enter history through giving them access to the global market, implementing international institutions, causing national conflicts, and so on, but the problem is that other cultures have not yet even realized the stage of “history” and “reality” that the West has left behind with its descent into ultra-reality. There are pockets and patches, indeed, as he puts it, “alveoli” of reality scattered all over the globe, but it remains to be seen whether the fact of other cultures not yet having attained the stage of rational thinking and “history” is a positive thing or not.
For Baudrillard, absolute Evil today comes from an excess of Good, of technologcial development, of totalitarian morality, of the desire to do Good without opposition. The attempt to force the world into a globalized and integrated society merely has the opposite effect of generating an ideological “Axis of Evil” in the form of terrorism. But there can be no axis of Evil, Baudrillard insists, because evil does not have a direction; only Good–i.e. the global dominance of the free market, etc.–can have a forward, linear direction. Evil is more of a parallax, or a deviance, so it cannot even be opposed to the Good. Only Good can have an axis, a direction, so the “axis of evil” is something that is projected upon the Evil in order to justify the Good as ideology. When you fight Evil militarily with a frontal attack, you can only miss it.
We have broken out of history to enter an age not of historical events but of another kind of event altogether, the unpredictable event, without continuity or reference. Things do not happen, these days, for inward historical necessities but for totally random reasons, i.e. terrorism, accidents, etc. Everything that had been characteristic of the historical epoch has now become fake, Baudrillard says, and the world is besieged by ghost events or fake-events. These “rogue events” are typified by 9/11, the ultimate non-linear event in which the poverty of the means of the terrorists produced such gigantic, asymmetric effects. This new world space of the rogue event is a new topology: Baudrillard points out how the old strategy of bombing a horizontal landscape by planes vertically dropping bombs from above is here displaced to vertical buildings being assaulted by horizontal planes, indicating that a new world space that is non-Euclidean in nature has configured the flow of these topologically bizarre and acentered events. These rogue events are not political in nature but rather symbolic.
The more this forced integration by hegemonic society increases, the more these rogue events, or singularities, will strike back against it: people, such as Iran or Palestine, will exclude themselves from the world order before they are excluded. We will see more and more people exiling themselves from this forced community and striking back at it through terrorism.
We have, in short, entered into the age of the despair of having everything. “If lack and servitude characterized earlier societies, opulence and free markets characterize our society, which has entered its terminal phase and is ready for intensive care.”
Human beings in this world order have been rendered obsolete by the perfection of our machines. “The world no longer needs us,” he says. Human beings have become the weak link in the chain of technological progress, for we have managed to surpass ourselves with our own machines. The choice seems to lie between either our disappearing or our being “humanengineerized”
The kidnapping of human intelligence at the hands of artificial intelligence took place when the government refused MacArthur the use of the Atomic bomb during the Korean wars as it plugged data into its computers in order to calculate what the outcome might be and the data came back negative. The end result, ever since, has been the capturing of human intelligence by artificial intelligence. The human has become dangerously obsolete in the new scale and size of this society of perfection and efficiency of machinery.
Baudrillard casts a skeptical eye at technology in this book, as he has elsewhere. Artificial intelligence, he says, has neither intelligence nor consciousness, and human biological engineering is merely the result of the human being’s shame at his fundamental incompleteness.
Semiotexte has done a fine job here of putting out this little gem with an affordable 12.95 pricetag. Trust me, it’s worth reading. You won’t regret it.
The book’s Amazon page can be found here: