An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard: aleatory power and deterrence

In the latest instalment of his series on Jean Baudrillard's ideas, Andrew Robinson explores three distinct concepts: aleatory power, deterrence, and non-war, and explains why, according to Baudrillard, the Gulf War did not take place.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, June 8, 2012 0:00 - 3 Comments



‘Jean Bau­drillard Was Here’ inscribed on the front of a mil­i­tary bunker in Bnaider, Kuwait (Artist: Alia Farid)

Reality is destroyed, or subordinated to the code, in several ways. It can be generated from blueprints provided by the code (as discussed in earlier sections). It can be ‘deterred’, such that real events are not able to happen. Or it can be recuperated through aleatory mechanisms of power.

Let us start with the third possibility. The system is aleatory. This means that it operates through the management of chance. It is determined in its broad outlines, but relies on chance for its details. It rests on probabilities. Because the system determines outcomes ‘genetically’ – generating the different options through the code – only certain things are possible. The variation by chance and probability allows the system to control phenomena at an aggregate level.

An aleatory system also brings in and incorporates resistances as they occur. It assigns them a place in the code, as niche markets, questionnaire options, political parties, categories of deviance. It is a machine of total recuperation which doesn’t wait for movements to emerge before it assigns them a category – it catches them in their early stages and pre-empts them.  For instance, a new social critique might rapidly give rise to a new party or NGO which is quickly recuperated. Or it might be articulated by corporations themselves, as a new niche market.

Although this process is often effective, it also contains problems for the system, because ultimately, it means that the system is governed by chance. We are plunged into an abnormal uncertainty. In response, the system creates an excess of causality and finality. But this compounds the problem. Determined responses become hypertelic – they exceed their end. They become ends in themselves, pass the limits of their functions or use-values, and colonise the entire system. This process is also referred to as excrescence. It is similar to the proliferation of cancer cells in the body.

For Baudrillard, this arrangement depends on a particular religious ontology. An accidental world implies an infinite will and energy, to keep all determinate connections from forming. According to Baudrillard, reason seeks to break the necessary connections among things which arise within cycles of symbolic exchange and conceptions of fate. Chance – the possibility of indeterminate, mutually indifferent elements relating ‘freely’ – is an effect of this decomposition of connections. It is an idea invented in modernity, along with the idea of a formless, unbonded world. It can only exist in a world without symbolic exchange. And it depends on the continued suppression of symbolic exchange.

The idea of chance or the aleatory can be related to the elimination of symbolic exchange in various ways. Chance is actually impossible on a certain level. It is the perception we are left with after the destruction of causality. It is a world in which one wanders like a dead soul, with little chance of intense connections.

Chance, and also statistical causality, remove both responsibility and seduction (or destiny). The dual rule of chance and necessity expresses a human desire for control over the metamorphosis of things. This control destroys the initiatory or ceremonial field. It thus paradoxically destroys any sense of mastery over our destiny. The order of production exists to make the order of metamorphosis impossible – to control flow and becoming.

Simulation is also associated with a process Baudrillard terms deterrence. This term is a play on nuclear deterrence between the superpowers (before 1991), which Baudrillard saw as a telling case of deterrence in general, a simulated conflict which exists to preclude a real clash, a form of manipulation rather than destruction.

Deterrence is not so much a power relation as a mindset. It holds people in check by making them feel powerless, disappointed, neutralised – deterred. When it is strong enough, it no longer needs violent repression or war – it precludes conflict in advance. In nuclear deterrence for instance, life is reduced to survival and conflicts become pointless, as they can’t reach the ultimate stakes.

Simulation feigns reality and thereby deters or prevents reality. But this feigned reality is not entirely unreal, because it produces effects of reality – it is like a faked illness which produces real symptoms. Think for instance of punishments applied in response to acts: they’re neither an objectively real consequence, since they’re invented, nor an imagined consequence, since they actually happen. They’re a simulated consequence, an artificially created hyper-reality. According to Baudrillard, there is no true reality against which simulation can be compared. It is therefore more subversive of reality than a simple appearance or falsehood.

It controls people in a different way – through persuasion or modelling. Instead of demanding that people submit to a prior model or norm, it interpellates people as already being the model or the majority. It thereby destroys the distance between the self and the norm, making transgression more difficult. It creates a doubled self from which it is hard to extract oneself.

The question “from where do you speak, how do you know?” is silenced by the response, “but it is from your position that I speak”. Everything appears to come from and return to the people. The doubled self is portrayed and displayed in forms such as CCTV images, without a gap between representation and what is represented.

This same doubling happens across different spheres – the model is truer than the true, fashion is more beautiful than the beautiful, hyperreality is more real than the real, and so on.  The effect of excess comes from the lack of depth (of the imaginary, but also perhaps of relations and of context).

Doubles are inherently fascinating.  They’re very different from the seduction of effective images and illusions, such as trompe l’oeil (a type of art which can be mistaken for a real object). The double allows a kind of manipulation or blackmail in which the system takes hostage a part of the self – affect, desire, a secret – and uses it for control.

Baudrillard thinks we are stalked by our doubles, like in the film The Student of Prague.  Yet doubles are also insufficient. People don’t like being ‘verified’ and predicted in advance. People prefer ideas of destiny to random probability. Deterrence is a barrier between ourselves and our drive for the symbolic.

Deterrence also has an effect of deterring thought, of ‘mental deterrence’. It discourages people from thinking critically, hence feeding unreality. Disempowerment feeds into this deterrence of thought, as do the media, and the promotion of superficial sociality.

At the same time, the system also creates a kind of generalised social lockdown or universal security system. This ‘lockup and control system’ is designed to prevent any real event from happening. This system, based on norms, replaces older systems of violence, war and law, creating a social desert around itself. It tries to pre-plan everything, to leave nothing to contingencies or chance. It tries to make everything manageable through statistics and predetermined responses. The system tries to prevent accidental death through systematic, organised death.

For Baudrillard, this is the culmination of years of civilising process and socialisation. It is the culmination of the evolution of the dominant system. The failure of progressive teleologies has occurred because powers to lock-down and control have increased faster than powers to emancipate. The result is a kind of generalised nihilism. Deterrence induces general mobilisation, pacification and dissuasion – a death or incorporation of active energies.

The state dreams of dissuading and annihilating all terrorism pre-emptively, through a generalised terror on every level. This is the price of the security of which people now dream, as Baudrillard already observed in 1983 – eighteen years before the state’s dream was realised. Overt and selective repression transmutes over time into generalised preventive repression. For instance, the police according to Baudrillard do not reduce violence – they simply take it over from crime and and become even more dangerous.

The code deters every real process by means of its operational double. For instance, it prevents real revolutions by means of simulated revolutions, real wars by means of simulated wars, and so on. This leaves no space for the real to unfold of its own accord or for events to happen.

Baudrillard thinks prisons and death are being replaced by a more subtle regime of control based on therapy, reform and normalisation. The right and left are now represented mainly by the split between direct repression and indirect pacification. Baudrillard sees these options corresponding to the early, violent phase of capitalism, with its emphasis on conscious psychology and responsibility, and its more advanced, ‘neo-capitalist’ form, which draws on psychoanalysis and offers tolerance and reform.

A therapeutic model of society, promoted by advertisers, politicians and modern experts, actually covers up real conflicts and contradictions. It seeks to solve social problems by re-injecting simulations such as controlled smiles and regulated communication.

He also refers to a regime of social control through security and safety, blackmailing people into conformity with the threat of their own death. He sees this as surrounding people with a sarcophagus to prevent them from dying – a kind of living death.

Deterrence functions by an anxiety to act because action brings about massive destruction. Nuclear states can’t go to war because of mutually assured destruction. Workers won’t strike because the entire economy would be shut down. Small powers which get nuclear weapons actually buy into their own deterrence. Memory of the Holocaust is neutralised by its constant repetition on television.

While this shuts down resistance, it also makes the system’s power unusable. Power becomes frozen and self-deterred. It creates a ‘protective zone’ of ‘maximum security’ which radiates through the territory held by the system. It is a kind of ‘glacis’, a zone where any assailant is constantly under fire from the system’s defenders.

In a simulated world, events are prevented because no social logic or story can be deployed according to its own logic. A social force risks annihilation if it tries this. This leads to an evacuation of any historical stake from society. We are now living through the death pangs of strong referentials, including of the sense of being in the march of history or in hope/at risk of a pending revolution.

It might actually be better to think of it as incapacitation rather than deterrence. People become unable or afraid to act because the capacity to fight and win has been taken away. This means that everything is neutralised, and reinscribed in the system. This ‘absolute model of security’ is according to Baudrillard elaborated from nuclear war. The nuclear battle station is the point from which the model of deterrence radiates out through social life.

Deterrence is directed against a range of phenomena such as complexity, finality, contradiction, accident, rupture, chance, and transversality. Yet paradoxically, events continue to happen ‘at ground level’, below the level of data-control. Misfortunes and personal crises multiply. The social becomes organised like a disaster-movie script, with constant struggles to survive, states of exception, discourses of risk-avoidance and risk-management – a situation of everyday precarity. The function of deterrence is not to prevent this permanent crisis. It is rather to prevent it from having system-level effects.

Phenomena such as the Gulf War, Watergate, and other political/media events are treated by Baudrillard as instances of deterrence. They are based on a simulation of a situation where the old stakes still matter, keeping old antagonisms and lost phenomena artificially alive as simulacra. They thus exude ‘operational negativity’ – preventing the emergence of real antagonisms.

Non-war in the Gulf

The theory of deterrence is exemplified in Baudrillard’s analysis of what happened in 1991, when according to him, the Gulf War ‘did not take place’. What took place, instead, was a ‘non-war’. This is a type of conflict specific to the third order of simulation.

A non-war is a simulated war. It reproduces exactly the elements of a real war, down to its destruction, death, propaganda, and so on. But it is not a situation which arises between adversaries, which is a real, unpredictable event. A true war is a strategic conflict over an absent centre of power which no-one can occupy. Both sides believe in a cause; the outcome is unpredictable. This is why a non-war is not a true war.

Real power, according to Baudrillard, is a strategy, a relation of force, and a stake. It is subject to death and the symbolic. On the other hand, power exercised to conceal its own absence is no longer subject to death and the symbolic. It can persist indefinitely, as an object of consumer demand.

For Baudrillard, war is pointless and impossible to wage in the nuclear era. There is no proportion between means (total annihilation) and ends (strategic objectives). Hence, the ‘scene’ of war – the scenario of total conflict to the death, or of adversity over stakes between combatants – will never again take place. War becomes ‘impossible to exchange’; it escapes symbolic exchange. The distillation of war in everyday fear prevents the final apocalyptic clash. Arguably, non-war is to war as hyperreality is to reality.

A non-war is a simulation in the sense of derivation from a prior model. Western powers fight non-wars based on models, and go to war based on models. The non-war, at least on the western side, is an operational unfolding of models and signs already planned in advance. The symbolic dimension, the exchange with the enemy, the reversibility of actions, are absent.

This is why, for Baudrillard, it is not a war, even though all the other characteristics of war are very much present. He emphasises repeatedly that non-war is still as deadly as war ever was. What it has lost is ‘the adversity of the adversaries’, the ‘ideological seriousness’ of a war between two counterposed possibilities, the reality of victory or defeat as systemic changes.

For Baudrillard, western non-wars are now simulations in that there isn’t really a fight to the death between two adversaries. Rather, the purpose of western power, and usually of both adversaries, is to prevent the liquidation of the system’s deterrence. This requires the destruction of symbolic exchange, and hence of ‘pre-capitalist’ societies and groups.

Non-war is missing the symbolic dimension a true war might have – the possibility of reversibility, or conflictual dialogue with an enemy so to speak. Contact between America and Iraq did not happen during the Gulf War. America can only imagine an adversary in their own image. They are invulnerable to symbolic violence, due to their pragmatism and masochism.

America has been caught in a spiral of unconditional repression by the aspiration to be a global police force. They try to humiliate by defeating the enemy impersonally – “nothing personal” – and avoid seeing or meeting the adversary. They seek to show the infallibility of their machine, displaying signs of relentlessness. They seek to avoid any reaction or living impulse.

In electronic war, the enemy no longer exists – there is only refractory data to be neutralised and brought into the consensus. Non-war entails non-recognition of the enemy as such, with precision and abstract operations displacing direct conflict. On the American side, it is like safe sex – war with a condom on. But on the other hand, America cannot imagine the other and therefore seeks to annihilate whatever cannot be converted to the American way of life.

Meanwhile, the TV audience are also deterred, and experience voyeurism and repentance over the fate of hostages. They consent to be gently terrorised, but never lose their underlying indifference. Yet even this minimal participation is enough to rescue war and politics, for now.

America played the Gulf War as a game of deterrence. They refused to bargain. Saddam, in contrast, played it as a symbolic game of ruses, bargains, trickery and disguise. As a result, both missed their target. They fought in two different times and spaces. The enemy was foreclosed. There was not enough communication for deterrence or war to be effective.

Non-wars are not, however, directed primarily at rival nation-states. They are primarily waged to domesticate or liquidate grassroots movements and symbolic challenges which restore the dimensions of the real and the event which the system fears. Non-war is waged to absorb and reduce what is singular and irreducible. The Gulf War, Baudrillard suggests, was aimed at the Islamic world. The French colonial war in Algeria was aimed at the revolutionary movement. The Vietnam War was aimed at guerilla revolt.

Baudrillard’s reading of Vietnam (which could equally apply to Iraq and Afghanistan) is that the real goal was to make the enemy predictable. This is why the American defeat did not destroy American global power. Each war ended as the revolutionary impulse was tamed or bureaucratised. Non-wars are usually won or lost by which regime comes under threat from its own population first. Sometimes, they are lost because an accident, an event, or a loss of power to the other, breaks the machine of war and its appearance of infallibility – as in Somalia.

[Part Nine will be published next week. Click here for other essays in this series.]



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Jun 15, 2012 13:00

A fascinating perspective and lucid description. The development of nuclear deterrent truly was a paradigm shifting process, as evidenced by the conspicuous absence of direct conflict between nuclear powers after Hiroshima, standing in stark contrast to the regularity of mêlées hitherto. Superseding the tenuous web of treaties upon which peace was contingent prior, MAD became a manifestly more robust mode of peace for those powers. Unfortunately, it exacted the toll from the remainder of the world rendered buffer zone, economic and mlitary- wherein wars are fought either by proxy or by ‘concession’. This begs the question- if ‘real war’ is ever to occur again, a perhaps inescapable contingency given the permeance of the aleatory in all matters of Man- how can it not be an Endgame?

Jun 15, 2012 18:06

I think the aleatory process as Baudrillard conceives it is meant to prevent any explosive event from ever occurring again. Yes, if a world war happened, it might well go nuclear with disastrous effects. But I think that for Baudrillard, the system is micro-managed through the coding process, which covers every imaginable eventuality. So Baudrillard would be quite critical of the view that nuclear war is likely or inevitable. He’d take this view as maintaining that there are still real political stakes – when according to him, there aren’t such stakes any more.

Whether Baudrillard is right about this – I’m not sure. I think Baudrillard often exaggerates the extent to which the code is able to manage every eventuality. You’re right of course, nuclear war seems to have displaced superpower / great-power conflict into indirect proxy-wars and localised interventions – though these can also be both devastating on a human scale, and in danger of escalation (as with the Cuban Missile Crisis). You’re right that the aleatory nature of these confrontations should sooner or later produce an explosion. This is less noticeable since the collapse of the USSR, but arguably, the US-Iran conflict for example has wider stakes, as Iran is supporting industrial development in the global South, and has the indirect support of China. America, NATO and the EU are involved in (mainly soft-power) conflicts in the former Soviet sphere of influence, trying to draw countries/areas like Ukraine, Kosovo, Moldova and Georgia into the western bloc.

There’s a big debate in International Relations (IR) at the moment about whether a big war is coming in the near future. The last World War happened in a downturn phase similar to ours, with similar nationalistic and racist dynamics at work. America is widely considered in some fields of IR as a declining power – it has overwhelming conventional military superiority but declining economic power. China is considered a major rising power, along possibly with others of the BRIC group (Brazil, Russia, India). There’s a lot of debate over whether China is a “revisionist” power which would like to reconstruct the world order. At present I’d say that China aspires to a redistribution of global power and a multipolar world, but currently feels disempowered, and so mainly pursues “hedging” strategies. However, China will keep growing and America will keep declining – and new technological developments could change the field of war entirely.

MAD worked mainly between America and the USSR / Russia, because of the huge nuclear arsenals of both. MAD would not work between America and China, because the Chinese nuclear arsenal is small and probably can’t hit America. Most of the smaller nuclear powers (Iran, North Korea, India, China, Pakistan, Israel) rely on a strategy of undecidability – nobody knows how many nukes they have, where the nukes are, under what circumstances they’d be used, who they can or would hit, or in several cases, if they even have nukes at all. It’s not so much mutually assured destruction as an incalculable aleatory possibility of destruction – potential opponents are “deterred” by the improbable possibility of a nuclear strike, quite possibly aimed at third parties. e.g. North Korea might have nukes which a US first strike might not take out – since nobody knows where they are; they can’t hit America, but they might be fired at Tokyo or Seoul or Beijing, which might then be blamed on America… they might not, but it isn’t worth the risk for America. Hence, it’s quite possible that America could end up in a nuclear war with a small nuclear power, or two small powers with one another – and that such a war would lead to a localised Hiroshima or Chernobyl situation, but not to global armageddon. But it’s also unlikely, in the age of risk-management and risk-aversion, that such a huge risk would be taken.

America has also revived the SDI / Star Wars programme, which could in theory render MAD obsolete. If America had SDI protection, in principle it could wage nuclear or non-nuclear war without facing obliteration itself – particularly against smaller nuclear powers such as China. However, America has so far avoided using nukes in localised wars – what was stopping them nuking Baghdad, Belgrade, Tora-Bora, or Managua? I wonder if, by the time America is certain enough of victory to go to war, it no longer needs nukes to tip the balance.

I think Baudrillard’s suggestion is that wars / conflicts today would be waged through fatigue, demoralisation, deception, outbidding, dirty tricks. We’d see things like America blocking China’s oil supplies, or vice-versa; China selling all its American dollars, causing an economic crisis; each side backing armed opposition groups opposed to the other; denial of access to global markets, freezing of bank accounts, travel bans, each side blaming the other for airliners crashing or spyplanes being shot down – very like the Cold War, or like the sanctions regime against Iraq. Maybe there’d be disciplinary military action like the bombing of Yugoslavia, directed against China or Russia. What we wouldn’t see is an all-out conflict between the two adversaries – because that might lead to nuclear annihilation. It wouldn’t be a “war” in Baudrillard’s sense, in the same way Iraq wasn’t – because the population will not be mobilised behind it, the survival of America will never be at stake, and precautions will be taken to avoid large numbers of military casualties on the American side. We saw with Vietnam that if America had to fight a “real” war, it wouldn’t be able to sustain it domestically. China’s main strategy against America, by the way, seems to be wide-spectrum asymmetrical warfare, with a lot of use of cyberwar, submarines and disruption tactics such as shooting down satellites.

Another suggestion of Baudrillard’s is that the “revisionist” force of a power such as China will be curbed by its being brought into neoliberalism. To develop the power to counter America, China (and BRIC) are neoliberalising their economies. But this means they too will be “deterred” – they will lose the social force to wage war, as reality slips away from them. This is similar in some ways to the liberal IR hypothesis that China is being “enmeshed” in the global economy, creating interests or norms which predispose it against war or revisionism – though Baudrillard sees it more in ideological and morale terms, as a loss of power to the capitalist code. Acquiring more nuclear weapons will contribute to this process, as China will be drawn into MAD, and into the non-proliferation regime. I think Baudrillard would probably take the view that China’s rise will be managed, that another big war or even a big non-war won’t happen, because the code will prevent it.

TBH I’m really not sure whether another global war is likely or not. You’re right that if it happens it could easily be an endgame. I suspect we’re facing an endgame in 50 years or so anyway, due to climate change and dwindling oil supplies. The current system has reached its limits and can’t keep going forever, however much it uses social lockdown to postpone the inevitable. According to Sing Chew’s study of civilisational collapse, a period of systemic centralisation is usually followed by a period of contraction and diffusion, as the system exhausts its resource base. I think global capitalism may be entering such a period of civilisational decline. The challenge is to find ways for humanity and the planet to survive this decline. I have the feeling capitalism would rather bring about armageddon than collapse quietly. But if the oil lines to power the war machine are cut off, and the peripheries become unmanageable, it might not have much of a say in the matter.

Jul 26, 2012 12:25

These articles from Andrew Robinson are simply fantastic, and one of the best things on the whole site — usually, there is nothing worse than articles written ABOUT Baudrillard — who would bother? Just read Baudriallard himself; really, I avoid all such critiques. But Robinson is the excellent exception — he is pretty much the only writer I would bother with, writing about Baudrillard.

Ceasefire — feature more of Andrew Robinson please.

Thanks to Mr. Robinson and Ceasefire for some very enjoyable thoughts and insights.

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