The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers by Jean Baudrillaud

“If you understand, things are just as they are. If you do not understand, things are just as they are . . .”
— Zen saying

After 9/11, before the pundits, the prophets and the poets (e.g., Amiri Baraka) regrouped, no one knew how to deal with the catastrophe other than in very real, human terms. People needed medical assistance, needed to be saved or evacuated; relative calm needed to be restored to New York and the country. Even humor and its attendant cynicism was speechless. Jon Stewart, arguably one of the funniest men around and host of The Daily Show, began his post-9/11 show with the statement: “There is no other way really to start this show than to ask you at home the question that we’ve asked the audience here tonight and that we’ve asked everybody that we know here in New York since September 11th, and that is, ‘Are you okay?’ We pray that you are and that your family is.” The Onion, by its own right one of the funniest papers around, simply ran a headline reading “Holy Fucking Shit!!!” Theory was no exception to this brief hiatus in life as we knew it, this crack in the perceived real, this moment of disbelief.

Jean Baudrillard, self-proclaimed “whore of theory”, responded relatively quickly to the tragedy with a short, dense article (“L’esprit du terrorisme”) in Le Monde, which was quickly reprinted in a number of other publications, including Harper’s. The English translation is “The Spirit of Terrorism”. Late last year it was packaged with another essay entitled “Requiem for the Twin Towers”, both translated by long-term Baudrillard translator Chris Turner, and released by Verso. The Spirit of Terrorism uses Baudrillard’s framework of simulation (the hyperreal) and symbolic exchange to frame, define, and locate the 9/11 event and terrorism within the context of the development of Western Culture. It is a bleak piece of writing that does not offer much hope.

Baudrillard’s concepts of simulation and the hyperreal (which he derived in part from writers like Borges) can be demonstrated by his now infamous statement that the Gulf War did not happen. What he meant was that the meaning (read: reality) of the Gulf War was created by Western media before the war happened, and the war had thus already been produced and packaged as a media event. It had already happened, and in this sense did not happen. The second major theme to Baudrillard’s work is that of symbolic exchange, which he derives primarily from Marcel Mauss’ theory of potlatch, or the “ineluctable demand” made by the exchange. In the case of 9/11, he argues that:

To a system whose excess of power creates an unsolvable challenge, terrorists answer with a definitive act which cannot be part of the exchange circuit. An initial shock provoking incalculable consequences.

Western society has created a game in which the rules of exchange have become “ferocious”. The energy expended in the terrorist attack resulted in a symbolism that demands a counter-reaction impossibly greater than the original energy expended, e.g., airport security and an erasure of civil rights. An even better example of this is how the mailing of a few anthrax-infected letters turned the postal system on its head. Terrorists are using our own systems against us, and inherent in our systems is paranoia.

Terrorism, to Baudrillard, is inherent in the system of power that forces itself on the world. Power has within it the desire to undermine or destroy power, or stated differently, “Good and Evil rise simultaneously.” Terrorism, which he calls the fourth World War (the Third being the Cold War), is a revolt of singularities which are pervasive within the system of globalization, a fractal war with no real epicenter. Terrorists are viral. They replicate within, are nourished by, and are disseminated by the host.

By using our own terms — the terrorists of today are rich, operate under analogous religious systems (the similarities to right-wing Christian fundamentalists are evident), and use media imagery to their advantage — the terrorists are able to create a rupturing of our own systems.

I have no argument with Baudrillard’s exegesis, up to a point. It’s when he begins discussing the “reality” of the 9/11 event that I have problems. Reality is one of Baudrillard’s main concerns, but a reality that remains very much an image of the mind. When he makes the claim that “the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center is unimaginable, but that is not enough to make it a real event. If it seems so, it is because reality has absorbed the energy of fiction, and become fiction itself”, I draw back and pinch myself.

Baudrillard himself admits, early in “The Spirit of Terrorism,” that the Twin Towers attack ended “an events strike,” a phrase adopted from Argentine writer Macedonio Fernandez, which had held precedent throughout the ’90s. “Well, the strike is off,” says Baudrillard, and he goes on to state that the attack is the “absolute event. Not only are all history and power plays disrupted, but so are the conditions of analysis“. It is this crack in the conditions of analysis that have, for a brief moment, allowed reality to enter.

There is a well-worn Zen tale of the novitiate who asked the teacher what reality is, only to receive a staff to the side of the head. “The collapse of the towers of the World Trade Center is unimaginable, but that is not enough to make it a real event. For reality is a principle, and this principle is lost.” I hear the stick coming.

The poet Robert Hass stated that in these cynical times an act of genuine human compassion is a revolutionary act. I agree. Reality happened in the moment of disbelief when the planes hit the towers. Reality was happening in the stark suffering, the unselfish heroics, the dust, the mangled metal and flesh. Baudrillard is right when he says 9/11 was the “mother of all events.” It is the one event in recent time that slapped us upside the head. Reality emerged from a crack in theory, and refused to be wholly stuffed back in.