By Nicholas Allanach
Karl Marx claimed, “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.” I understand this quote to mean; previously significant struggles eventually end in ruin to then be replaced by a ludicrous and empty spectacle. Internationally renowned (and equally ridiculed) sociologist and philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, recently argued in a presentation titled, “The Parallax of Evil: Hegemony and Domination” delivered at The New School, that traditional forms of domination (i.e. real struggle) have been replaced by hegemony (i.e. parody or farce). Of course, to properly understand Baudrillard’s argument one must first unpack his unique and non-traditional understanding of hegemony.
According to Baudrillard, “hegemony [actually] brings domination to an end [and does so through a capitalist system of] total exchange.” In this sense, hegemony becomes “the ultimate stage of domination” since it replaces all traditional modes of revolt with an utter ambivalence. In other words; customary domination (or, the “master vs. slave” dialectic) is no more and makes revolt an impossibility. Baudrillard sees hegemony as proliferated through “all networks” to subsequently make people “ambivalent” and subject to an “involuntary complicity with the world order.” But how does this happen? Moreover, how does Baudrillard’s argument account for the political conflicts and struggles currently being waged? Are destitute Muslim youth rioting in France, or, workers protesting the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Argentina ambivalent?
To answer the first question, ambivalence is a social result of “power turning against itself.” Such “cannibalization” can only occur when power “moves beyond its own limits.” Respectfully, we observe a “liquidization of value…representation...and [even] reality” itself. Thus, once a sphere of power (i.e. politics, entertainment, business, etc.) moves beyond its own limit (such as capital) it, subsequently, becomes “liquidized” and transfused throughout all other spheres of power, making everything it touches banal, ineffectual, and simulated. Examples of this occurrence (i.e. “operational whitewash”) can be seen within the multiple spaces in which the lines that formerly defined power begin to blur. For instance, politics becomes entertainment, war is sport, and everything is aestheticized. In other words, domination is replaced by a parody of hegemony as well as the “ambivalence [seen] in each of us [which serves as] a mirror to a greater global antagonism.”
The far-reaching and overly ambivalent “passive majority” that absorbs and is, subsequently, absorbed by images, is a direct result of this total hegemonic order; however, animosity still exists and is most effectively illustrated by “the spirit of terrorism.” Baudrillard admits “The stakes are getting higher”as we find ourselves trapped in an unfortunate “double or nothing” game. Baudrillard asserts any “opposition to global hegemony can only be unpredictable –total revolt is a response to total order.” Of course, Baudrillard is unable to offer any solution to this all encompassing and problematic impasse; (of course, as he jokingly responds to a later question –“I am not a therapist”) however, he does criticize “the dream of democracy [as being] without hope.” Certainly, such a gloomy outlook may displease us; however, it is, in many respects, more realistic than pessimistic. After all, it would be foolish to assume “opening the door for democracy in the Middle East”, is really about people’s rights and not about “opening the door” for a greater free-trade zone for capitalist ambitions.
To recognize “the stakes” of this “double or nothing game” we must understand what Baudrillard means when boldly asserting the “conflict between Islam and the West is only an appearance.” In other words, there is a greater and more fundamental conflict occurring that is not about a war on terror, but is about the war being carried out inside each ambivalent and/or hostile individual on the planet. We are all at war. This war is between two extremely powerful and contradictory poles. One side is represented by the western logic of empire, which is sealed, locked, and seeks to remake the world in the guise of its own image. This logic is inherent to the totalizing system of hegemonic capital and can only exchange money and empty simulated signs to gain greater forms of control. The alternative side to this conflict is a non-western system of symbolic exchange which is genuine, durable, and indestructible since it represents the traditional “foundations” of belief, culture, and society itself. However, this western logic of capital is irresistible, intoxicating, and ultimately seeks to “unveil the symbolic defenses” of the Other so as to more aggressively achieve absolute hegemony.
It is difficult to say what side will ultimately win this conflict or even whether one can begin considering what such a victory might look like. We can only be sure of one thing, the answer to this difficult question will be found in the capacity for violence in the world system itself. What limits will each side of power overstep (through violence) to achieve its goal? Baudrillard sees the “intelligence of evil” as a “reversion” of the totalizing order of hegemonic capitalism. Once again—as is the case with hegemony—“evil” is not to be understood in a customary dialectical sense; but instead, as Baudrillard claims, a “reversion to the dominating totality of hegemony.”
Jean Baudrillard is an incredibly prolific and complex social theorist, his work is often difficult to accept (or for that matter, even understand); however, I often question whether one’s aversion to his philosophy is based more on fear than ignorance? After all, one is a fool if they cannot accept the competing forces in our social landscape: on one side, we see the intoxication of capitalism with all of its empty signs and, on the other, the root of traditionalism and belief itself. Hopwever, one is only afraid if they are unable to accept the real war. In this sense, history does, as Marx observed, “repeat itself”; first, as “the tragedy” of the struggle and then as “the farce”, or appearance, we ambivalently accept and then foolishly ignore.