Baudrillard on 9-11: American Derangement Syndrome and the Ideology of Resentment

I recently got a book by Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion Terror and the Future of Reason. (Hat tip: Lawrence Barnes)

It’s hard to judge the entire argument and I’ll probably blog on it later (my initial sense is that he reduces religion to its theocratic and dogmatic variants). But his treatment of the liberal response to Islamism is excellent, and in it he quotes Jean Baudrillard, one of France’s most “brilliant” sociologists. The passage is worth quoting here since it embodies so much of what is wrong with French — and by extensiion, European, and by further extension, progressive, anti-Americanism — a staggering and spectacular insight into American Derangement Syndrome.

Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism
Le Monde, November 2, 2001
(I have adjusted the translation according to my reading of the French original.)

That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree, — this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it.

In the end, they did it, but we wanted it.

Got to give him credit for honesty. For those innocent Americans who are not familiar with French discourse, allow me to unpack this remarkable piece of prose. Part of what Baudrillard is trying to say is that when any nation or culture becomes as powerful as the USA, they provoke a resentment so deep that others wish to see it destroyed. On one level, this is true. Even as some people around the world shed tears, somewhere deep inside was a thrill at seeing the mighty brought low. And this is a deep-seated instinct in humans, as Helmut Schoek has argued so persuasively in his book, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior. But it is, as he explains, a zero-sum emotion with a terrible cost.

He is aware that such sentiments are “unacceptable for the Western moral conscience” (Schoek argues that Western economic development is based on a partial renunciation of envy), but he defends himself. This is not a base reaction. Baudrillard deals not with emotions we can control, but with “facts” — and the key “fact” is that “everyone without exception… must dream of the destruction…” Not one to take responsibility for his base emotions, Baudrillard wants to claim that his feelings are a) universally shared, and b) an entirely predictable response to American hegemony.

If one does not take that into account, the event loses all symbolic dimension to become a pure accident, an act purely arbitrary, the murderous fantasy of a few fanatics, who would need only to be suppressed. But we know very well that this is not so. Thus all those delirious, counter-phobic exorcisms: because evil is there, everywhere as an obscure object of desire. Without this deep complicity, the event would not have had such repercussions, and without doubt, terrorists know that in their symbolic strategy they can count on this unavowable complicity.

Now that we’ve established the objectivity of these emotions, we begin to understand how they give meaning to this deed, how it transforms it from a mere marginal, extremist act, into one of symbolic power. The complicity of which he speaks is the intense emotional sympathy that people like Baudrillard and others who share his profound resentment of American hegemony feel. The terrorists know they can count on this “unavowable complicity.”

Of course, Baudrillard, being brave and honest, a Nietzschean superman, can avow the unavowable. (Later in the essay, he calls on us to go “beyond Good and Evil.”) It doesn’t matter so much that the sentiments here expressed are precisely what Nietzsche viewed with greatest contempt — ressentiment. Apparently Nietzsche was entirely correct in using the French term to designate this particular sickness of the soul.

It is worth noting here that the reference to the terrorists knowing they can count on this complicity recoups a remarkable chronological relationship between 9-11 and the delirious hate-fest directed against both the USA and Israel at Durban which had just finished four days earlier on September 7, 2001. This UN sponsored event, intended to inaugurate the 21st century with a world-wide conference dedicated to eliminating racism around the world, turned into its opposite, a non-stop, grotesquely unhinged assault on the USA and Israel, a platform for every kind of hatred as long as it was directed against white “racism,” at once passing over in silence the live racism of Arab slave trade of black Africans, and offering these same active racists a feast of hatred aimed at their enemies. As the Israeli representative noted in his speech to the conference:

But here today, something greater even than peace in the Middle East is being sacrificed – the highest values of humanity. Racism, in all its forms, is one of the most widespread and pernicious evils, depriving millions of hope and fundamental rights. It might have been hoped that this first Conference of the 21st century would have taken up the challenge of, if not eradicating racism, at least disarming it: But instead humanity is being sacrificed to a political agenda. Barely a decade after the UN repealed the infamous ‘Zionism is Racism’ resolution, which Secretary-General Kofi Annan described, with characteristic understatement, as a “low point” in the history of the United Nations, a group of states for whom the terms ‘racism’, ‘discrimination’, and even ‘human rights’ simply do not appear in their domestic lexicon, have hijacked this Conference and plunged us to even greater depths.

Bin Laden clearly had planned 9-11 well before Durban, but as he recently commented, he could have called it off. Instead, not only did Durban not discourage him (which it might have had it raised the hue and cry about Muslim racism), it almost surely led him to believe that the world would cheer him. And, as Baudrillard reveals her less than a month later, Bin Laden was not wrong.

This goes much further than hatred for the dominant global power from the disinherited and the exploited, those who fell on the wrong side of global order. That malignant desire is in the very heart of those who share (this order’s) benefits. An allergy to all definitive order, to all definitive power is happily universal, and the two towers of the World Trade Center embodied perfectly, in their very double-ness (literally twin-ness), this definitive order.

In case you haven’t caught on, Baudrillard loves this “malignant” resentment. For him it is the spirit of anarchy that is “happily universal.”

No need for a death wish or desire for self-destruction, not even for perverse effects. It is very logically, and inexorably, that the rise to power of power exacerbates a will to destroy it. And power is complicit with its own destruction. When the two towers collapsed, one could feel that they answered the suicide of the kamikazes [sic] by their own suicide. It has been said: “God cannot declare war on Itself”. Well, It can. The West, in its God-like position (of divine power, and absolute moral legitimacy) becomes suicidal, and declares war on itself.

The epigrammatic French of “No need for…” seems to mean “[We have] no need [to posit] a death wish or desire for self-destruction” in order to understand this reaction. The reaction is logical, inexorable.

Again, we return to Baudrillard’s attempt to disguise his base emotions in logic, objectivity, inexorability. No need? But what if, whatever its source, however powerful its pull, this reaction is self-destructive, it does reflects a death wish, it is, however “understandable,” profoundly perverse? From the perspective of people who find liberation of both themselves and their fellow citizens in their pruning back of envy and resentment, however limited our success, Baudrillard’s indulgence in this emotion seems like an act of profound self-destruction. Especially given the circumstances. It is precisely this resentment which will destroy the Europeans, which makes them vulnerable to demopaths and the Eurabian future in store for them. It is, in part, what brought down Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

There is another interesting element in this paragraph of suicidal denial. “The West,” he tells us in his characteristic tone of certainty, “in its God-like position (of divine power, and absolute moral legitimacy) becomes suicidal, and declares war on itself.” Actually, the whole point of the West’s success, intellectual as well as moral, comes from its willingness to be more modest about its claims and hence tolerant about dissent, and more self-critical about its behavior. If there are God-like claims to divine agency and absolute moral legitimacy, it comes from the Muslim terrorists, whose ideology apparently holds little interest for Baudrillard. His statement, shorn of its willful ignorance and projection should read: “It has been said, ‘Europe cannot declare war on itself.’ Well, it can. The Europeans, in their radical bad faith and envy (of American hegemony, and relative but clear moral legitimacy) becomes suicidal, and declares war on itself.”

I skip some of the text to focus on his analysis of American hegemony.

When the situation is thus monopolized by global power, when one deals with this formidable condensation of all functions through technocratic machinery and absolute ideological hegemony (pensée unique), what other way is there, than a terrorist reversal (literally, transfer) of the situation? It is the system itself that has created the objective conditions for this brutal distortion. By taking all the cards to itself, it forces the Other to change the rules of the game. And the new rules are ferocious, because the stakes are ferocious. To a system whose excess of power creates an unsolvable challenge, terrorists respond by a definitive act that is also unanswerable. Terrorism is an act that reintroduces an irreducible singularity in a generalized exchange system. Any singularity (whether species, individual or culture), which has paid with its death for the setting up of a global circuit dominated by a single power, is avenged today by this terrorist situational transfer.

Now it gets interesting, because here we see most clearly Baudrillard’s sleight of hand. America unquestionably dominates the global scene in an absolute fashion: it monopolizes power, takes all the cards for themselves. This is important, since were it not so, the resentment would not be objective, but subjective, and therefore, those who feel it might be held responsible for it.

Now granted, since the “thiry years’ war” of 1914-45 and the rise of America to a position of global dominance, France has suffered from a loss of prestige that it once had. But America’s dominion bears little resemblance to the kind of truly suffocating and contemptuous hegemony that France (and England, and the rest of the European imperial powers of the 19th, a fortiori earlier imperial powers including Islam) had exercised when they dominated the globe. And yet, in order for his ressentiment to operate symbolically, it must be unquestionable, “objective”ly true that American hegemony leaves no room for anything else. It must be absolute in order to deserve the hatred it inspires.

But American hegemony is the least monopolistic, the least forceful of all the cultural hegemonies known world-wide… hegemony lite. And the French in particular, have been the recipient of the most generous (and historically unprecedented expressions of America’s lack of imperialist instincts, having twice been saved by American forces and twice given back its independence, the second time with a great deal of foreign aid and a seat on the UN Security Council with veto-power. As Walter R. Meade notes:

This phenomenon [of anti-americanism] persists despite the fact that few countries benefited more from the American security umbrella in the twentieth century.

France has done very well in the world where America exercises hegemony. They have pursued, often at the expense of the USA, their own way diplomatically, economically, culturally. They have prospered as never before, and had a stable and durable republic as never before. In other words, if there is a people who should not be resentful of American, but rather grateful, it is the French. And yet, among the vast array of anti-American forces taking shape so ominously around the world, they are among the leaders of the pack, with this passage from Baudrillard as a flag flying on the prow of that ship.

So what are the “objective conditions” of her resentment at this hegemony? As far as I can make out, the hegemonic force that suffocates French society, especially among the elites, allowing — at least where the USA is concerned — a “pensée unique”, is resentment that the Americans occupy a place that should be France’s, a sentiment they share (unwittingly?) with the Arabs. When stripped of its intellectual gloss, what we here witness is the deep frustration of the French — and the Europeans — that, by rules that allow them to win, they cannot. No matter how hard they try, by the rules of meritocracy and voluntarism that dominate so much of modern societies choices — what movies you go to, what products you buy, who generates successful innovations — they come in a painful second to the US. Could this be why Europeans find it so easy to explain Palestinian hatred of the Israelis as “intolerable despair” and “hopelessness.” They experience the same “identification” with the “intolerable” helplessness of losing competition to the Americans that the Palestinians feel in their efforts to win their zero-sum competition with the Israelis.

The “absolute” hegemony of the US actually resembles more the feeling of despair that overcomes an athlete when he realizes that some other athlete will consistently beat him. [The Euro and the EU -- and Eurabia -- were supposed to allow Europeans to compete successfully with the US. But no, things are not working out as they wished.] Does that mean you blow up the stadium, or cheer when someone else does it? This is not “objective grounds” for hatred. This is the height of subjectivity, and height of base motives. But Baudrillard can’t stop himself, and it must be someone else’s fault. Into the spell of words he plunges.

Terror against terror — there is no more ideology behind all that. We are now far from ideology and politics. No ideology, no cause, not even an Islamic cause, can account for the energy which feeds terror. This energy does not aim anymore to change the world, it aims (as any heresy in its time) to radicalize it through sacrifice, while the system aims to realize (the world) through force.

Say what? There is plenty of ideology at work here. But never mind. The energy is, indeed, emotional. It is not, however, a force of nature, a juggernaut that will wipe everything out in its path. And, having studied many heresies, I do not recognize his sweeping generalization — or even his invocation of this base resentment as characteristic of “any heresy in its time.” Garbing his emotions in grandiose disguises — a radical, self-sacrificing heresy, an energy that drives world history, Baudrillard has managed an ideological coup. Now the “system” by which America has achieved its unique hegemony becomes the symbolic expression of “force”, and the violent reaction it inspires, the epitome of liberating resistance. But it’s just the contrary: American (Western liberal) hegemony comes above all from “voluntarism“, and the resistance comes from the very forces that produce the most suffocating, force-driven, self-impoverishing hegemonic societies — envy, theocracy, patriarchy, honor.

Baudrillard insists there is no need for discussions of “self-destructiveness” and “suicidal impulses.” I beg to differ. Only by confronting and renouncing this debasing envy and the distorting lens it focuses on everything — a phenomenon to which Baudrillard’s own essay bears eloquent testimony — is there any hope that Europe can save itself. Baudrillard seems to think himself a successor to Nietzsche — bold enough to look the painful truths right in the eye and speak them aloud. But when I read this convoluted and self-deceiving indulgence in the very resentment Nietzsche despised, I’m filled above all with the sickening sense of witnessing someone who should — were he sufficiently aware — be experiencing Sartre’s “nausea”. Indeed, if anything, Baudrillard has taken Sartre’s place as both a brilliant useful idiot and a patron saint of “bad faith.”

As long as he avoids the freedom to chose to which, as Sartre claims, he is doomed, and indulges in the bad faith to deny that he (and “everyone else”) has that freedom, he (and everyone else he so inspires) is doomed. As the scripture he probably has no time for would advise him: “choose life.”

Read the whole piece by Baudrillard, or even the book. If Europe becomes a Muslim continent in the course of the 21st century, Baudrillard has written its epitaph.

38 Responses to Baudrillard on 9-11: American Derangement Syndrome and the Ideology of Resentment

  1. quantuum says:

    Consistently the smartest blog around these days and rising on my google home page. Some brilliant pieces.

  2. Robert Schwartz says:

    Baudrillard, never heard of the dude. I suppose he is the flavor of the month in Lit Departments everywhere.

  3. Antidhimmi says:

    RL your analysis is truly frightening. French and by implication European envy and resentment at American “hegemony” (a phrase that appears regularly in elite US university courses) is strong enough to bring the entire civilization down even if it causes pain to those who embrace it. I’m reminded of the Russian peasant analogue for schadenfreude. “I experience my greated joy at the death of my neighbors cow.” That same cow may provide milk for his family as well. But what the hell. The joy experienced at your neighbors downfall provides sufficient nourishment- at least in the short run.

  4. RL says:

    you’re absolutely right. that, as far as i can make out, is what’s at work here.

    one of the things that has struck me most in the past 6 years, is how important it is for people to believe that they are moral. they’ll commit suicide just for the sake of posing (and i do mean posing) as the most moral group around. the schadenfreude that europeans feel in dumping on america the cowboy and israel the racist colonial, is staggeringly self-destructive… and yet, they just can’t stop. apparently it feels too good.

    moralists anonymous anyone?

  5. Cynic says:

    From your post I get the impression that the French suffer from the same disease manifested in Muslim culture of offense at anything that outdoes them in whatever field, and an envy or jealousy of the ‘other’s’ accomplishments.
    As the Muslims hold the ‘infidel’ world in contempt for being descendents of apes and pigs so the French have held America in contempt as being of an inferior culture.

    Those types will never thank one for a kindness or respect shown.

  6. RL says:

    i’ve talked about this at an earlier post based on a quote from Harkabi on Arab attitudes towards Israel in which he quotes Charles de Gaulle saying, “France is not herself except when she is in the front rank… France cannot be France without her grandeur…” it derives primarily from the zero-sum nature of honor-shame culture: your success diminishes me; in order for me to prosper, you must fail. hence, the russian peasant’s joy at the death of his neighbor’s cow.

    these types will never thank one for a kindness as long as things go well. when does pharaoh listen? when it really hurts.

    the question is not when they’ll wake up, but how late (too late?) and how they’ll react. our job, as i see it, is to encourage them to wake up asap and to develop intelligent and humane responses rather than waiting till it’s too late and going bonkers with fascism.

    what’s so astounding about the french intelligentsia right now is that they will grovel in self-criticism before the arabs and muslims, who have distinctly hostile and vindictive attitudes towards them, but refuse the slightest self-criticism when it comes to ways they may have behaved badly towards america and israel. a lethal combo of pride and cowardice?

  7. igout says:

    #5. RL, “posing”? Is there a ray of hope here? That we’re really dealing with cynical hypocrites who aren’t asleep at all and, when push comes to shove, will cut the bs? It’s one thing for the damnés de la terre to indulge their ‘murderous fantasies’ in the native quarter; it’s quite another when they’re kicking down the front doors in your lilly-pc arondissment.

  8. RL says:

    posing… interesting. to whom? to themselves? i’ve known people so good as self-presentation that they even fool themselves.

    one of the things about moral posing is that it doesn’t work if you know you’re a hypocrite. you need to believe your performance. if that means being stupid, well, it seems like a small price to pay for the thrill of posturing on stage as the moral vanguard of the world.

    of course that makes you a useful idiot and compliant sacrificial victim to people whose morality is rock-bottom and can easily manipulate you with their “victim narratives.”

    maybe that’s why they prefer the company of the morally depraved like hamas. it’s more amenable to their pretensions than those who compete with or outstrip them). somehow, the idea that the israelis are a more moral society than france or england seems far more ludicrous to the french and english intellectuals than the idea that it’s a racist apartheid society. what’s the consequence of such thinking? they can swallow the palestinian victim narrative hook line and sinker.

    where does that leave the palestinians, israelis, europeans, global community? up shit creek and as far as i can make out, the only paddle i see right now is the blogosphere. come to think of it, that’s a great name for a blog.

  9. There is no hope for the “posers” because their poses have become essential butresses to their self-esteem; if they give up the pose, they only have despair at their own emptiness. This is the problem for Narcissists who incorporate their political ideology as an essential component of their self-representation.
    On another note, I am impressed you were able to wade thorugh the neck-deep BS masquerading as the heights of intellectual brilliance which assuredly Baudrillard believes he represents. When I try to read such nonsense, MEGO. I believe it was Orwell who pointed out that “some ideas are so foolish only an intellectual can believe them.”

  10. Pablo says:

    Simulacre et Simulations is not that bad, and inspired the all time great movie The Matrix

  11. RL says:

    response to ShrinkWrapped. i agree with you about the narcissistic posing, but i think that these poses occur most readily under conditions where their costs are disguised and their rewards are immediate. (isn’t therapy about recognizing the hidden costs of denial and repression?) but i do think that at times when the costs become more evident, there is a crisis and the poseur is confronted with two choices: 1) acknowledge the pose, acknowledge the people who have suffered from your posing, and get real; or 2) continue the pose, scapegoat those whom you have been inflicting, and commit suicide.

    as far as i can make out the keys to choosing option no. 1 are:

    1) whether others do so — courage, like cowardice, is infectious. (note that the first time the egyptians criticize pharaoh is after the plague of hail, when those who feared the plague cd, beforehand, vote with their feet and get themselves and their cattle inside… in essence a public plebiscite).

    2) how clear and attractive the (admittedly painful) paths to self-criticism and self-awareness are for the leaders of this hopefully collective move.

    it’s our job, as i see it, to lay down some of the signposts of that path in preparation for the time europe begins to awaken from the sleep that Bruce Bawer just began to notice.

    as for reading that stuff, as a medievalist i cut my teeth on some pretty obscure french historians (Alphonse Dupront especially). this kind of oracular style is well suited to french pretensions to soar above the mundane details like an eagle. and sometimes, as with people like Jules Michelet and Georges Duby, it can be quite insightful. they were, to my mind, like Rorschachs… so obscure you could project almost any meaning on them. but in this case, Baudrillard is actually quite transparent. i think his own favorite throwaway insult applies well to him here: pathetically transparent. the sad thing is, this stuff resonates with so many.

  12. [...] afat was viewed as “an anti-colonial, liberation leader.” The US was seen as a global imperial powe [...]

  13. [...] t This Post Karridine at Brain-Surgery with Spoons has put a podcast of a section of my fisking of Baudrillard [...]

  14. [...] sting a self-doubt that is little more than a transparent jealousy of others self-belief. Bingo. There can be [...]

  15. [...] much of the European anger over Guantanamo, Iraq, Iran, outsourcing torture, etc., namely ressentiment of the most [...]

  16. [...] relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism and the dimensions of France’s “politics of resentment [...]

  17. [...] ombing and the death-cult deeds it inspires. In this sense, he is like a mini (very mini) Baudrillard, thrille [...]

  18. [...] n of moral Schadenfreude (the pleasure in being able to point the finger at Israel), the politics of resentment [...]

  19. [...] to 9-11 on the theme, “you Yanks deserved what you deserve,” that recalls the open Schadenfreude of Ba [...]

  20. [...] ampagne doesn’t elaborate on (although he aludes to it above), is anti-Americanism. This resentment of the [...]

  21. claude says:

    it is always hard to be able, first to trasnlate correctly one meaning in one language to another language, second understand correctly what baudrillard means. In fact, I think he plays volontarily with different ‘sentiments’ and ‘ressentiment’. I really think that baudrillard way of thinking is not possible to be just analyzed and bring to a precise result. He always played with the ‘bad’ and the ‘good’, and was volontarily ‘tangent’ in its thinking. Baudrillard was really “par delà le bien et le mal”, that is the reason why its meaning is so cryptic, and can’t be so easily summarize. I think you had to me more careful. Baudrillard dealed a lot with terrorism in its book before the 911 event, and this event was just for him a demonstration of its thoughts : hypereality, evil as reverse/shade of the ‘good’, as product of the good, and so on…

    this little comment was “naturally” coming from France. I hope i could express well.

  22. [...] 12; that it takes one’s breath away. The only way to understand it is in terms of a profound resentment of t [...]

  23. [...] expectations of their own society’s “obedient” civil servants, perhaps indulging resentment of American [...]

  24. [...] “positive-sum” cognitive egocentrism and petty moral Schadenfreude, and its consequent politics of resentment, Europe may well be committing suicide. Not coincidentally, the core of this idea — the [...]

  25. [...] is another fine illustrations of the kind of politics of resentment that have produced an “American Derangement Syndrome” that, along with its mate, Israel Derangement Syndrome, drive so much self-destructive [...]

  26. [...] on them. I guess if the thirst to “bring down the great Satan” overrides even the most formidable intelligences, it wouldn’t have too hard a time with the likes of Cesar [...]

  27. [...] is breathtakingly naive. The walls between Europe and the USA (walls built with bricks of resentment), should indeed come down. Of course that will take a little self-criticism on the part of the [...]

  28. [...] the European problem is deeply rooted in resentment; and the cooperative/concessive strategy fraught with [...]

  29. [...] states)? Because the US is the most powerful force in the world today, and that inspires both deep resentment and deep hatred. The “help” the US provides merely rubs salt in the wound. In the [...]

  30. [...] war is written, this exchange will have a capital place in the narrative, right alongside the ideology of resentment expressed by Baudrillard. « Peacock Rhinos: On the nature of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in the early 21st century [...]

  31. [...] person (or entity) that cannot spot malevolent hypocrisy is a suicidal fool. What a pathetic epitaph. « Barry Rubin on the Corruption of the Information Professionals [...]

  32. emt jobs says:

    [...] Baudrillard on 9-11: American Derangement Syndrome and the Ideology of Resentment | Augean Stables [...]

  33. [...]  (what will we say this year, the eleventh after the fact? What is left to say?). Not to get all French theorist over here, but: We Loved It, in the way we love the events, whether joyful milestones or tragic [...]

  34. [...] on Jihadi monsters, like French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, who only days after 9-11 wrote, “they did it, we wanted it.as” In their gnawing Israel derangement, they encourage a discourse of hatred against Jews that [...]

  35. […] tej konferencji Bin Laden uderzył 11 września 2001 r., czerpał z olbrzymiej rezerwy anty-amerykanizmu i anty-syjonizmu wśród zachodnich niewiernych. On i inni dżihadyści znaleźli […]

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