The Vital Illusion

Excerpts from The Vital Illusion, by Jean Baudrillard

Prediction, the memory of the future, diminishes in exact proportion to the memory of the past. When there is overall transparence, when everything can be seen, nothing can be foreseen anymore.

What is there beyond the end? Beyond the end extends virtual reality, the horizon of a programmed reality in which all our functions—memory, emotions, sexuality, intelligence—become progressively useless. Beyond the end, in the era of the transpolitical, the transsexual, the transaesthetic, all our desiring machines become little spectacle machines, then quite simply bachelor machines.

It’s a bit like the last scene of Jurassic Park, in which the modern (artificially cloned) dinosaurs burst into the museum & wreak havoc on their fossilized ancestors preserved there, before being destroyed in their turn. Today we are caught as a species in a similar impasse, trapped between our fossils & our clones.

Ecstasy of the social: the masses, social media. More social than the social.
Ecstasy of the body: obesity. Fatter than fat.
Ecstasy of information: simulation: Truer than true.
Ecstasy of time: real time, instantaneity. More present than presence.
Ecstasy of the real: hyperreality. More real than the real.
Ecstasy of sex: pornography. More sexual than sex.
Ecstasy of violence: terror. More violent than violence.

All this describes, by a kind of potentiation, a raising to the second power, a pushing to the limit, a state of unconditional realization, of total passivity (every negative sign raised to the second power produces a positive), from which all utopia, all death, & all negativity have been expunged. A state of ex-termination, cleansing of the negative, as corollary to all other actual forms of purification & discrimination. Thus, freedom has been obliterated, liquidated & absorbed by communication; form gives way to information & performance. Everywhere we see a paradoxical logic: the idea is destroyed by its own realization, by its own excess.

In the end, perhaps we have to frame all these problems in terms other than the obsolete ones of alienation & the fatal destiny of the subject. And it is precisely the Ubuesque side of this technological outgrowth, of this proliferating obscenity & obesity, of this unbridled virtuality, which induces us to do so. Our situation is wholly a pataphysical one—that is to day, everything around us has passed beyond its own limits, has moved beyond the laws of physics & metaphysics. Now, pataphysics is ironic, and the hypothesis that suggests itself here is that, at the same time that things have reached a state of paroxysm, they have also reached a state of parody.
Might we advance the hypothesis—beyond the heroic stage, beyond the critical stage—of an ironic stage of technology, an ironic stage of history, an ironic stage of value? This would at least free us from the Heideggerian vision of technology as the effectuation & final stage of metaphysics; it would free us from all retrospective nostalgia for being, & we would have, instead, a gigantic, objectively ironic vision of the entire scientific & technological process that would not be too far removed from the radical snobbery, the post-historical Japanese snobbery Kojeve spoke of.

An ironic reversal of technology, similar to the irony of the media sphere. The common illusion about the media is that they are used by those in power to manipulate, seduce, & alienate the masses. A naive interpretation. The more subtle interpretation, the ironic one, is just the opposite. Through the media, it is the masses who manipulate those in power (or those who believe  themselves to be). It is when the political powers think they have the masses where they want them that the masses impose their clandestine strategy of neutralization, of destabilization of a power that has become paraplegic. Ultimately undecidable; yet both hypotheses are valid, for any interpretation of media is reversible. It is precisely in this reversibility that objective irony lies.
Let us put the same hypothesis regarding the object of science–of the most sophisticated of the current sciences. Though the most subtle procedures we deploy to capture it, isn’t the scientific object itself playing with us, presenting itself as an object & mocking our objective pretension to analyze it? Scientists are not far from admitting this point today, & this irony of the object is the very form of a radical illusion of the world–an illusion no longer physical (illusion of the senses) or metaphysical (illusion of the mind) but pataphysical, in the sense Jarry originally gave the word when we spoke of pataphysics as “the science of imaginary solutions.”

In the Critique of Political Economy, Marx writes: “Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.”

In this light, reality itself becomes problematic. Like an obsequious servant, it obeys an hypothesis, verifying them all in turn, even when they contradict each other. Reality does not care about the knowledge we are distilling from our observation & analysis of its behavior. Indifferent to every truth, reality becomes a sort of sphinx, enigmatic in its hyperconformity, simulating itself as a virtuality or reality show. Reality becomes hyperreality—paroxysm & parody all at once. It supports all sorts of interpretations because it no longer makes sense, because it no longer wants to be interpreted. But this unintelligibility is not mystical or romantic: it is ironic. Irony is the last sign that comes from the secret core of the object, the modern allegory of the reversibility of all things.

It is a self-annihilating system; systems undone by themselves. Like the imploding star. Microcosmis awareness; just as media is a microcosm of experience itself, its noumenon. The object exists only in its own subject.

I won’t transform the object into a supersubject. But it would seem that something has escaped us. Definitively. This is not because our science & technologies are not advanced enough; on the contrary. The closer we come, through experimentation, to the object, the more it steals away from us & finally becomes undecidable. And do not ask where it has gone. Simply put, the object is what escapes the subject—more we cannot say.
That, if there is any, is the secret of the universe. As a metaphor, I would say that at the core of every human being & every thing there is such a fundamentally inaccessible secret. That is the vital illusion of which Nietzsche spoke, the glass wall of truth & illusion.

Of course, it is a matter of tragic optimism, as it is expressed in the famous line of Holderlin: “But where danger is, grows the saving power also.” And here we might quote, as a counterpart, this very mysterious sentence by Heidegger: “When we look into the ambiguous essence of technology, we behold the constellation, the stellar course of the mystery of life.”