In the Shadow of the Millennium

(Or the Suspense of the Year 2000)

Jean Baudrillard

The perfect symbol of the end of the century is (or was rather) the numerical clock at the Beaubourg (Centre Georges Pompidou) in Paris. There, the race against time was measured in millions of seconds. The Beaubourg clock illustrates the reversal of time characteristic of our contemporary modernity. Time is no longer counted from its point of origin, as a progressive succession. It is rather subtracted from the end (5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0). It is like a bomb with delayed effect. The end of time is no longer the symbolic completion of history, but the mark of a possible fatigue, of a regressive countdown. We are no longer living according to a projected vision of progress or production. The final illusion of history has disappeared since history is now encapsulated in a numerical countdown (just as the final illusion of humankind disappears when man is encapsulated in genetic computations). Counting the seconds from now to the end means that the end is near, that one has already gone beyond the end.

By the way, the clock's own fate at the Beaubourg was interesting too. It was taken down six months ago and placed in a safe where it continues to work until the end. But nobody can see it. It is as if political authorities were afraid of what could happen if we were able to see the end of this live (living) countdown (it was replaced with a billboard on the Eiffel Tower, but this one only marks down the days until the millennium, which is far less dramatic). They were perhaps afraid of a sudden millenarian panic. Who knows? It may also be that the real time of contemporary life can no longer deal with chronological time. No matter what the reason was, the clock has disappeared, and this really looks like an attempt to undercut the advent of the Year 2000, a way of recalling it and sending it back to the warehouse to ward off its potential effects. At the Beaubourg, the Year 2000 will not take place.

We're waiting for the Year 2000 and holding our breath at the same time. No matter which event we are referring to - internet, globalization, Europe, the single currency, cloning, scandals - the only important outcome at the century's end is precisely that: the end of the century. It is only thanks to the end of the century that all the other events can be held in suspense. It is the only event that can produce unpredictable effects. It is in fact a non-event, but a fateful non-event, caused by some sort of numerical magic. There is a magical expectation which is no longer that of God's Kingdom as in the Year 1000. But it is still millenarian, that is to say, beside or beyond history.

We are already in the anticipated void of the Year 2000, in its shadow, as if it were an approaching asteroid. Just as any electoral deadline freezes political life a year ahead of time, so does the shadow of the millennium which creates an empty vortex that swallows the entire century. It revises all historical requirements to the point of erasing the very marks of history (and of the 20th century). We dig in the archives. We settle old accounts. We revive memories (including the memory of the Year 2000 in anticipation, as if it had already taken place). We launder and purify to desperately try to end the century with a politically correct balance sheet. This is by and large a question of historical purification. The entire 20th century is on trial. And this is new. None of the previous centuries did that. What they did was history. What we are doing is history's trial.

In a sense, we do not believe in the Year 2000. When people talk about plans, platforms, predictions for 2005, 2010 or 2020, we do not really believe them. This is not the future, this is fiction. This is another world because, for us, the symbolic break in time creates a symbolic break in the mind. The only thing we try to imagine is how to get rid of our history which weighs so much and then start all over again. And we dream of any event that would come from outside, from another history. Such a fantasy, such a secret conjuration of the millennium could shift things around. Something is imminent, we can feel it. And it is neither political nor economic. It is about pure time, the numerical purity of time and its symbolic deadline. Even if predicted, the event is unpredictable. It is a potential accident. It is already called a real catastrophe for the programming of millions of computers worldwide. We are in the wake of an event that not only sucks up the future but already spits out the signification of current events, and, at times, regurgitates memory and history.

Behind the question of the Year 2000, the more general problem is that of the end, of what is beyond the end or, on the contrary, of the retrospective movement caused by the proximity of the end. Are we at the end of history, beyond history, or still in an endless history?

How to jump over the shadow of the millennium? How to jump over one's shadow (particularly when it is gone; similar to Peter Schlemihl's hero, we've sold it to the devil)? How to go through the century when we are caught in an indefinite work of mourning, in the mourning of the events, the ideologies, the violent situations which marked this century? How to surpass the century when none of its problems have been solved? Apologies, trials, memorial services give the impression that we are trying to rewind (repasser) the film of the 20th century, that we are straining (repasser) all past events through the filter of memory, not to give them meaning (which they have lost in the course of time), but to launder them. Laundering (cleansing) is the primordial activity of the century's end: dirty history, dirty money, corrupted consciences, polluted planet. Laundering as in the hygienic purifying of the body, but also as in the ethnic and racial cleansing of populations. We are jumping into the abyss of a regressing history, falling for the nostalgia of a revised and resubmitted past, and, in so doing, we are losing the imagination of the future. That's why several years ago I came up with the notion that the Year 2000 would not take place. It would not take place simply because this century's history has already ended and we are in the process of constantly reliving it. Metaphorically speaking, we'll never be in the future. Our millenarianism has no tomorrow. The millenarian spirit of the Year 1000 was experienced as an immense fear. But at least it foreshadowed a parousia and the advent of God's kingdom. Today, our prospects are grim and uncertain. What is left of millenarian expectations is a reverse countdown.

[Let me open a parenthesis to talk about the question of prediction and its failure. As you know, I had announced that "the Gulf War did not take place." Contrary to traditional prophets who always predict that something will happen, I had announced that something would not happen. I am the opposite type of prophet. In any case, prophecies are always wrong. What the prophets announce never takes place. So, when I say that something will not take place, it will then take place. The Gulf War did take place. And the Year 2000 will in all likelihood take place too. But a prophecy does not talk about reality, just as a promise is never intended to be kept. The prophecy calls for the end; it talks about what is beyond the end. It incants the advent of the end at the very moment that things take place (dans le deroulement meme des choses)].

In a countdown, the time that's left until the end has already been counted. So, we are living time and history in a sort of past-comatose state. This causes an endless crisis. It's no longer the future that is ahead of us, but the impossibility to end it all and to see beyond the end. As the memory of the future, prediction vanishes in exactly the same amount as past memory does. When everything can be seen, nothing else can be foreseen 1.

What's beyond the end? Well, beyond the end, there is virtual reality, that is to say, the horizon of a programmed reality in which all our physiological and social functions (memory, affect, intelligence, sexuality, work) gradually become useless. Beyond the end, in the era of the transpolitical, the transaesthetic, or the transsexual, all our desiring machines first become tiny mechanisms of spectacle, and finally turn into celibate machines which exhaust all their capabilities in an empty vortex, as in Duchamp's work. The countdown is the code for the automatic disappearance of the world. What's left to be done when everything is already calculated, subtracted, realized in advance? Our problem is no longer what to do with real events, with real violence, but what to do with events that did not take place, that never had the time to take place? No longer the question: what are you doing after the orgy, the orgy of history, of freedom, of modernity? But rather: what are you doing when the orgy no longer takes place? In fact, one has to wonder if modernity itself even took place. Was there ever such a thing as progress, as the advent of freedom? The linear progression of modernity and technological innovation is broken. The long thread of history has become an inextricable knot. And the last big "historical" event, the collapse of the Berlin wall, simply marked history's great repentance. Instead of moving toward new prospects, history is bursting into distant splinters which are but the reactivation of events that we thought had occurred a long time ago.

Beyond the Wall of Time (our asymptotic end), we only find broken lines that break in all directions. That's what globalization is. With globalization, all [human/social] 2 functions are expanded in a void. They are spread out on a planetary scale which becomes a more and more speculative virtual space. This is the fate of extreme phenomena which unfold beyond their own end (literally, ex-treme, ex-terminis, beyond the end). They are no longer about growth (croissance), but outgrowth (excroissance). No longer movement, but exponential power (montee en puissance). No longer change, but a passage through the limit. Thus, we encounter a paradoxical logic according to which an idea ends with its own excess, its own realization. History, for example, ends with information and the creation of the instantaneous event. The increased speed of modernity, of technical development, and of all formerly linear structures creates a turbulent shift and a circular reversion of things which explains that, today, nothing is irreversible. The retrospective curving of historical space, which in a sense resembles the recurrence of physical and cosmological space, is perhaps the big discovery of the end of the millennium. It corresponds to the figure of a curved line which goes back through each of its previous stages. Retrograding to past events at all costs is an old fantasy. Science fiction has repeatedly used the theme. For example, diving back into the past to change the course of events was the idea of the movie 12 Monkeys: to freeze the past to see what would have happened without it; to suspend time and see what would take place next; to recreate the world even before the emergence of the human race to see what it would be like without us or, even beyond humankind, to get a feel for what things could look like once we are all long gone; finally, to reinvent an origin, but only as a simulation, with definite limits. The more the future escapes us, the more the quest for a return to origins, for a return to the primal scene (as an individual being or as a human collective) becomes our obsession. As a consequence, we try to collect evidence: the evidence of time past, of human evolution. We need to find material traces of all that was on earth before us today, not so much to relive it or rekindle past eras, but to prove that time has existed (before it finally disappeared), that space has existed too (before speed erased it). In short, we need to gather the evidence of all transcendental data, like space or time, which we thought inherently belonged to the human race. Interestingly, it is the human race itself which today successfully manages to create a perfect instantaneousness, often called real time. Irresistibly increasing its power, the human race manages to abolish the human perception of both time and space. The loss of transcendental data, that is to say, the incapacity to organize the world according to our sense perceptions and human functions, is without measure (incalculable).

There is, then, a recapitulation in reverse which stands as the complete opposite of a living memory. It is about commemoration, rehabilitation, cultural "museumification" (museification), an inventorying of those places where memory is rekindled, and the apotheosis of heritage. This idea of reliving and recreating everything is a "therapeutic" obsession. It causes a "not-here" (non-lieu) of memory, just as informational space causes a "not-here" of the event. This corresponds to the transfer of the past into real time, which is made possible by undercutting time's normal process. Thus, instead of first taking place and then becoming part of history and memory, the events now become part of a heritage first. In another domain, works of art go straight into the museum even before they have a chance to exist as artistic creations. Instead of being created and then, perhaps, disappearing, they always already are virtual fossils. All the things that we thought were dead, over and done with, buried under the immoveable weight of universal progress are making a comeback. This is reminiscent of the last scene of Jurassic Park where the modern DNA-cloned dinosaurs suddenly emerge in the museum where their fossilized ancestors are exhibited. They destroy everything before being exterminated too. This is a bit like the current situation of the human species. We too are stuck between our clones and our fossils.

The end of the century is in a sense where we put our history on sale {3]. Modernity is over, the orgy is over, the party is over: everything must go! In the past, the big sales happened before the major holidays. Today, sales are all year round. Even the party is on sale. We must run out of all the supplies, run out of time-savings (capital-temps), run out of life-savings (capital-vie). The countdown is everywhere. In the domain of ecology, there is a countdown for our planetary resources. With the AIDS epidemic, there is the countdown of death. And all this is taking place in the shadow of the Year 2000. But then again, none of this may actually take place. Or maybe it is that, this time, there will be a general amnesty for everyone and everything.

There is no better allegory for this fatal countdown than Arthur Clarke's novel Nine Billion Names of God. A community of Tibetan monks is in charge of detailing and copying down all the names given to God. There are nine billion names. According to the prophecy, at the end of the countdown, once the last name is written down, the world comes to an end. But the monks are getting tired and, to go faster, they turn to IBM experts who come to the rescue with a bunch of computers. The work is done in three months. It is as if world history were to end in a few seconds thanks to a virtual intervention. Unfortunately, this also marks the disappearance of the world in real time. The prophecy of the end of the world which corresponds to the exhaustion of all of God's names becomes true. On their way down from the mountain, the IBM technicians (who previously did not believe a word of the story) can see all the stars in the sky disappear one by one.

Once again, this is a nice allegory for our contemporary situation. We called in some technicians from IBM and they plugged in the code for the automatic destruction of the world. Because of the intervention of numerical, cybernetic, and virtual technologies, we are already beyond reality, and things are already beyond their destruction. They can no longer end, and they fall into the abyss of the endless (endless history, endless politics, endless economic crisis).

This is nothing more than the realization of Canetti's vision. According to Canetti, "beyond a specific point in time, history lost its reality. Without realizing it, the entire human race abandoned reality. What took place from then on could no longer be true, but there would be no way of realizing it... Short of being able to return to that specific point in time, we would have no choice but to continue to work hard at destroying the present."

Indeed, we are spending our energies endlessly deconstructing the world, undoing a history which can no longer produce its own end (or come to an end). An increasingly advanced technology helps us perform our task. Everything can be extended ad infinitum. We can no longer stop the process. This extension takes place without us, without reality in a sense, in an endless speculative quest, as an exponential acceleration. This work takes place without any real event, without any real accident. It is simply an endless recycling work. Again, it is no longer the "end of history," but the inability to end it. We have lost history and its end as well. Possessing the end is the most precious thing to have. It is the end, and only the end, which tells us that something indeed happened. On the contrary, we are at the apogee of information. Buried in the depth of the media, we can no longer tell if something is taking place or not.

But perhaps the end of history is simply one of history's many tricks. Maybe it ended a long time ago, but we did not realize it, as Canetti suggests. History is perhaps trying to make us believe in its end whereas it has already gone back in the other direction (dans l'autre sens).

The acceleration of extreme phenomena, along with this endless recycling work, creates recurring situations which can no longer be accessed by means of reason (Raison historique). Recurring situations such as wars, ethnic conflicts, nationalist and religious uprisings always emerge. We could call them ghost-events 4. Even when we think that we can recognize them by means of a comparison with previous events, they no longer mean the same thing. The same accidents (peripeties) do not necessarily have the same significations depending on whether they occur in the ascending or the descending phase of history, depending on whether they are part of a history in the making or a history in the unmaking. Today, we are in the middle of a defective history, a history which undoes itself (se defait). That's why these events are ghosts.

We know the analysis that Marx gave of Napoleon III, the "smaller" Napoleon, as a grotesque duplicate of the first Napoleon. He is like a parody, a degraded incident compared with the original. History uses this technique of the duplicate to go forward whereas in fact it is going backward. History reproducing itself becomes farce 5. And we could add: Farce reproducing itself becomes history 6. The current period offers multiple examples of this degraded and exhausted duplication of the first events of modernity. As such, the current era could indeed be called "postmodern." It is "postmodern" in the sense that its condition is that of a simulation or spectrality of events whose only stage is the news media. The postmodern events are like secondary products. They are the events of a history which can no longer renew itself, an unreal history, in which actors are nothing more than extras. The war in Bosnia gave us a dramatic example of such a condition. It was no longer an event. It was rather the symbol of history's own impotence. It was a stasis, a "strike of events," as Macedonio Fernandez put it. What does the metaphor of the "strike of events" mean? It means that history's workforce has been forced out of work. But it also means that a work of mourning begins, and often that the work of the news media takes over. The media have to take over and make the event, just as capital takes over to produce labor. This is a paradoxical reversal of all our classical perspectives. According to this new configuration, when labor is the product of capital, the very act of working loses its meaning (and the chance it may have had to upset capital's order). Similarly, the event produced by the media no longer has any historical significance. It no longer conveys any form of political resolution. The only resolution that is left is the visual resolution of the media. The event becomes virtual. Everywhere, virtuality (the mediatic hyper-space with its multiple interfaces) eradicates what we could call, if it still meant anything at all, the real movement of history.

At this point, we enter the domain of the transpolitical or the transhistorical. It is a domain where events no longer take place in reality because of their own production and deployment in 'real time.' They can simply be captured transpolitically. As transpolitical events, they are lost in a vacuum of information. The informational domain is a space where, after all the events have been emptied of their substance, an artificial gravity is restored, and the events are sent back into orbit where they can be seen in real time. Or, to put it differently, after losing their historical vitality, the events can now be rebroadcast on the transpolitical stage of the news media. It is the same thing as what happens in making a movie. If history is a movie (which indeed it has become through its immediate retro-projection), the 'truth' in the news media is nothing more than the post-synchronizing, the dubbing, and the sub-titling of the film.

We could also talk about the transeconomic domain. It would be the domain which emerges after classical economics is lost in the empty vortex of stock exchange vacillations (just as history is lost in the vortex of information). Virtual and speculative economic transactions mark the end of any form of political economy. Traders and Golden Boys 7 no longer have anything to do with the logic of production, the market, capitalist profit. Something else is at stake: 'real-time' economics, the instantaneous fluidity of capital, the orbital dance of money. Circulating around itself at an increasingly fast speed, money becomes a strangely magnetic agent. As an uncontrollable chain reaction, it transcends real economics and goes through reality from one end to the other similar to the nuclear reactor in over-drive of China Syndrome which was able to go through the globe from end to end.

In A Critique of Political Economy of Political Economy, Marx states that "mankind only poses problems that it can solve... We notice that a problem arises when the material conditions of its solution already exist or, at least, when they are about to exist." But it is not like this anymore. Our jump into the virtual world unsettles all the material conditions that Marx was talking about, and deprives historical conditions of any dialectical solution. In a sense, the virtual is history's final solution and the end result of real conflicts. Today, this means that humankind (or those who think on its behalf) only comes up with problems when they have already been solved. They have been virtually surpassed, or the system has displaced them by absorbing their occurrence. But wasn't it already like this in Marx's time? The emergence of the notions of class and struggle, the birth of a historical conscience: aren't these indicative of the moment when humankind ceased to be violent and irreducible? This is reminiscent of Foucault and his analysis of power. When he starts to analyze power, isn't it already the sign that power no longer has any political meaning, that it has lost its object? When ethnology looks at primitive societies, it means that they have already disappeared. Analysis itself is part of the process of disappearance.

Critical consciousness, and perhaps thought in general, are like Kafka's messiah: they always arrive too late, after the fact, at dusk, like the Owl of Minerva. Critical consciousness is nothing more than a retrospective prophecy, reminiscent of Plato's figurines and their shadows on the back wall ( a wall of events) in the cave (here, history's own cave). As Apollinaire used to say, when people talk about time, it means that it has already vanished. History does not serve second courses. Only analysis does.

Is there room, then, for another thought, a paradoxical thought, which, unlike what Marx said, would only pose insolvable questions, definitely insolvable problems? Is there a thought whose material conditions of resolution are not already present, and will never be? Who would re-problematize all the already discovered solutions and, in so doing, would keep the world in an enigmatic suspense? Nobody knows. Isn't the risky destiny of thought to finally become the victim of its own prophecy, just as history's fate is to fall for its own trap?


Notes

1. "Quand tout devient visible, rien n'est plus previsble."

2. Translator's inserts.

3. "Le solde de notre histoire." "Solde" is both sale and balance sheet.

4. In English in original French text.

5. In English in original French text.

6. In English in original French text.

7. In English in original French text.


Jean Baudrillard. A l'Ombre du Millenaire ou le Suspens de l'An 2000 (Paris: Sens & Tonka, April 1998). Translated in Miami, September 1998.

Translated by Francois Debrix. Francois Debrix is an assistant professor in International Relations at Florida International University, Miami, Florida.