The Vital Illusion
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Aren't we actually sick of sex, of difference, of emancipation, of culture? With this provocative taunt, the indomitable sociologist Jean Baudrillard challenges us to face up to our deadly, technologically empowered renunciation of mortality and subjectivity as he grapples with the complex issues that define our postmillennial world. What does the advent and proliferation of cloning mean for our sense of ourselves as human beings? What does the turn of the millennium say about our relation to time and history? What does the instantaneous, virtual realm of cyberspace do to reality? In The Vital Illusion―as always―Baudrillard leads his readers to some surprising conclusions.
Baudrillard considers how human cloning―as well as the "cloning" of ideas and social identities―heralds an end to sex and death and the divagations of living by instituting a realm of the Same, beyond the struggles of individuation. In this day and age when everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, and genetically and neurologically managed, humanity shows itself unable to brave its own diversity, preferring instead to regress to the pathological eternity of self-replicating cells. By reverting to our viral origins as sexless immortal beings, we are, ironically, fulfilling a death wish, putting an end to our own species as we know it.
Next, Baudrillard explores the "nonevent" that was and is the turn of the millennium. He provocatively puts forward the thesis that the arrival of the year 2000 could never take place because we could neither resolve nor leave behind our history, nor could we stop counting down toward our future. For Baudrillard, the millennial clock reading to the millionth of a second on its way to zero is the perfect symbol of our time: history decays rather than progresses. In closing, Baudrillard examines what he calls "the murder of the real" by the virtual. In a world of copies and clones in which everything can be made present in an instant by technology, we can no longer even speak of reality. Beyond Nietzsche's symbolic murder of God, our virtual world free of referents is in the process of exterminating reality, leaving no trace: "The corps(e) of the Real―if there is any―has not been recovered, is nowhere to be found."
Peppered with Baudrillard's signature counterintuitive moves, prophetic visions, and dark humor, The Vital Illusion exposes the contradictions that guide our contemporary culture and rule our lives.
cells make their appearance. The resulting entity is no longer a copy of either one of the pair that engendered it; rather, it is a new and singular combination. There is a shift from pure and simple reproduction to procreation: the first two will die for the first time, and the third for the first time will be born. We reach the stage of beings that are sexed, differentiated, and mortal. The earlier order of the virus—of immortal beings—is perpetuated, but henceforward this world of deathless
discovery of the subject. More—it is actually a sort of invention of the subject by the invented object. Knowledge, defined conventionally, always proceeds in the same direction, from the subject to the object. But today processes of reversion are emerging everywhere—in areas from anthropology to viral pathology. It is as if we had torn the object from its opaque and inoffensive stillness, from its indifference, from the deep secret where it was asleep. Today the object wakes up and reacts,
Psychoanalysis (ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan [New York: Norton, ]); orig. publ. as Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre XI: “Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse” [Editions du Seuil, ], pp. ff). To argue, as Baudrillard does, that the symbolic function itself may be doomed to disappear, implies the loss of the “loss” that this symbolic function instantiates in the subject as delineated by Lacan. There is no communication possible under these terms;
immunized—immortalized—through transparency, disincarnation, and prophylactic disinfection. Life becomes sheer survival when it is reduced to the lowest common denominator, to the genome, the genetic inheritance—where it is the perpetual movement of the DNA codes that drives life, and where the distinctive marks of the human fade before the metonymic eternity of cells. The worst of it is that living beings engendered by their own genetic formulae doubtless will not survive this process of
the millennium even they were already dealing with the virtual reality of the Apocalypse. In the countdown, the time remaining is already past, and the maximal utopia of life gives way to the minimal utopia of survival. We are experiencing time and history in a kind of deep coma. This is the hysteresis of the millennium, which expresses itself in interminable crisis. It is no longer the future that lies before us, but an anorectic dimension—the impossibility of anything’s being over and, at the