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The Perfect Crime (1) July 8, 2007

Posted by elizabethwong in Art & Visuals, Current Affairs, Democracy, Human Rights, Malaysia, Miscellanous, Note2Self, Politics, Readings.

I’d not been able to write much earlier, due to a minor back injury. But for the first time in ten years or perhaps even longer, I’ve been able to have some decent discussions on Eco, Barthes and Baudrillard in the past few days with a number of people, thanks to Tian Chua’s ‘Dinner for 3’.

And it just keeps getting better.

I now regret putting aside my original presentation for the Youth4Change panel two weeks ago, which uses much of Baudrillard to analyse the media as a simulacrum, in favour of a less exciting albeit simpler format.

Beth – here is one of my favourite pieces, which gets better as it approaches the end:-

Paroxysm: The Perfect Crime
Jean Baudrillard

If not for appearances, the world would be a perfect crime, which is to say, without criminal, without victim, and without motive. Wherein the truth is forever withdrawn, and where the secret is never exposed, for want of traces. But, precisely, the crime is never perfect, because the world gives itself away through appearances, which are the traces of its inexistence, traces of the continuity of nothingness. For nothingness itself, the continuity of the link, leaves traces. It is by this that the world betrays its secret. It is by this that it lets itself be felt, all the while concealing itself behind appearances.

The artist is also always close to the perfect crime, which is: to say nothing. But he runs away from it, and his work is the trace of this criminal imperfection. The artist is, according to Michaux, the one who resists with all his might the fundamental urge to not leave traces.

As to whether language is the trace of the imperfection of the world, no story better demonstrates this than John’s. Up until the age of 16, John, ahappy and handsome youth, gifted in every sense, had never spoken. He had never uttered a single word until the day when, suddenly, at tea-time, he said: “I would like a little sugar.” His ecstatic mother cried out: “But, John, you speak! Why didn’t you ever say anything?” And John replied, “Until now, everything was perfect.”

The perfection of the crime resides in the fact that it is always already accomplished — perfectum. A sidetracking, even before it produces itself, of the world as it is. It will therefore never be discovered. There will be no final judgment to punish or absolve it. There will be no end, because things have always already taken place. Neither resolution nor absolution, but ineluctable unfolding of consequences.

Declination of the original crime (wherein one might perhaps discover its derisory form in the current declination of simulacra?). Our destiny, then, Is the perpetration of this crime, its implacable unfolding, the continuity of evil, the continuation of nothingness. We will never live its “primal scene,” but at every moment we live its prosecution and atonement. There is no end to this, and the consequences are incalculable.

Just as the first few seconds of the Big Bang are unfathomable, the few seconds of the original crime are indeterminable. Fossil crime, then; like the fossilized sounds scattered throughout the universe. And it is the energy of this crime, like the initial explosion, that will spread throughout the world, until its eventual exhaustion.

Such is the mythic vision of the original crime, that distortion of the world in the game of seduction and appearances, and of its definitive illusion. Such is the form of the secret.

So long as an illusion is not recognized as an error, its value is exactly equivalent to that of reality. But once the illusion is recognized as such, it no longer is one. It is therefore the concept of illusion itself, and this alone, that is the illusion.

The big philosophical question was: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Today, the real question is: “Why is there nothing rather than something?”

The absence of things to themselves, the fact that they don’t take place while seeming to, the fact that everything withdraws behind its own appearance and can therefore never be identical to itself — all this is the material illusion of the world. And this remains at bottom the great enigma, which plunges us into terror, and from which we protect ourselves with the form alillusion of truth.

Under penalty of terror, we must decipher the world, and thus wipe out material illusion. We will tolerate neither the vacuum, nor the secret, nor sheer appearance. And why must we decipher it, instead of letting the illusion shine as it is, in all its brilliance? Ah, well — this is also an enigma; it belongs to the enigma of why we cannot bear the enigmatic. It is of a piece with the world that we could not bear within it either illusion or pure appearance. We wouldn’t tolerate any better — if it had to exist — radical truth and transparence.

Truth wants to present itself naked; to reveal its nudity. It desperately seeks nudity, like Madonna in the film that made her famous. Moreover, Madonna is the best example of this truth-compulsion. Evocative case of someone who absolutely wants to be naked, to show herself naked, and who never quite manages. She is perpetually bridled — if not with leather or metal, then with the vulgar will to be nude, the artificial mannerism of exhibitionism. Inhibition suddenly becomes total and, on the part of the spectator, radical frigidity.

This hopeless strip-tease is that of reality itself, which literally “out-strips” itself [se <<dérobe>>], offering to the credulous eyes of voyeurs the appearance of nudity. But actually, this nudity envelops it in a second skin, which no longer has even the erotic charm of dress [la robe].

A prostitution of reality, which voluntarily abandons itself to hyper-realist detail — there isn’t even a need anymore for bachelors to strip it bare –, and which has voluntarily renounced the optical illusion in favor of the strip-tease.

My principal objection to reality is, moreover, its character of unconditional surrender to any hypothesis that one can make about it. That it thus discourages the most active minds through its deplorable conformism. You can subject it, with its principle –(besides, what are they doing together, if not limply copulating and engendering countless evidence?)–, to the harshest cruelties, to the most obscene provocations, to the most paradoxical insinuations: it bends over backwards for everything with an inevitable servility. Reality is a bitch. Nothing shocking there, anyway, since it was born from the fornication of stupidity with a mathematical mind — ort of sacred illusion thrown to the jackals of science?

To rediscover the trace of nothing, of the perfect crime, it is necessary to take from the reality of the world. To rediscover the configuration of the secret it is necessary to take away from the accumulation of reality. Subtract, subtract.

The same must not be added to the same, and so on, ad nauseam. The same must be ripped out from the same. Each image must take from the reality of the world; there must be, behind each image, behind each fragment of reality, something that has disappeared, to assure the continuity of nothing — without, however, succumbing to the temptation of annihilation because this disappearance must remain living, the trace of the crime must stay alive.

It is always by adding to the real, by adding the real to the real with the objective of a perfect illusion (that of the hyper-real stereotype) that one stabs at the heart of the illusion. Porno, by adding a dimension to the image of sex removes one from desire and disqualifies all seductive illusion. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the trompe-l’oeil, in stripping a dimension away from real objects, adds to their magic presence, to their illusory exactitude. Trompe-l’oeil is the ecstasy of the real object, the living illusion of evidence, that which adds to the formal charm of painting the spiritual charm of deception, the mystification of the senses. For the sublime is not enough: the subtle is also necessary, the nuance which consists in diverting the real while taking it literally.

Subtract, subtract, take away, nuance. What we have unlearned from modernity is that subtraction gives force; from absence power is born. We never cease to accumulate, to add, to make a higher bid. And if we no longer are capable of facing the symbolic mastery of absence, it is because today we are immersed in the inverse illusion, the disenchanted illusion of profusion, the modern illusion of the proliferation of screens and images.

It is all the rage to make an image that is no longer an image, in other words, exactly that which strips a dimension from the real world and inaugurates the power of illusion. Today, with all the forms of the reality show and virtual reality, they want us to enter the image, the screen, the three dimensional artifact — real-life good to go –, thus destroying any generic illusion of the image. The temporal equivalent is that of real-time, that purports at the speed of light — which is that of information — to install us in an absolute present, abolishing all illusion of past and future.

The virtual illusion is contrary to that of appearances. Nothing hides itself there, no secret, no absence. Its aim is the cloning of reality, the cloning of the real by the hyper-real, and the extermination of the real by its double.

The disappearance of cinematographic illusion. From silent film to talkies, from talkies to color, through to the modern gamut of special effects, the illusion has gone the way of performance. No more void, no more ellipse, no more silence — no more image. We are going more and more toward high-definition, toward the useless perfection of the image, which in effect no longer is one by dint of being saturated with technical artifice. The closer one approaches the definitive definition, the operational perfection of the image, the more it loses its power of illusion.

Consider the Beijing Opera. How, with the simple movement of their bodies, the old man and the young girl brought to life the expanse of the river; how, in the duel scene, two bodies moving close to each other but never touching rendered physically palpable the darkness in which the combat took place. Here, the illusion was total and intense, more of a physical than an aesthetic ecstasy, precisely because all realistic presence of night or river was removed, and the theatrical illusion depended on bodies alone. Today one would bring tons of water onto the set, and they would shoot the night duel in infrared.

The image can no longer imagine the real since it is the real. It can no longer dream reality since it is virtual reality. From screen to screen, the image has no other destiny but the image. It is as if things had swallowed their mirror, and had become transparent to themselves, entirely present to themselves, in broad daylight, in real-time, through an unmerciful transcription. Instead of being absent from themselves in the illusion and the secret, they no longer register except on thousands of screens at the horizon of which the real, but also the image properly speaking, have disappeared. Reality has been driven out of reality, and has left us in a hyper-reality empty of meaning. Perhaps only technology still relays the scattered fragments of the real? Where has the order of meaning gone?

The only suspense left is that of knowing how far the world can de-realize before succumbing to its reality deficit, or how far it can hyper-realize before succumbing to its reality surplus (that is, when the world, having become more real than the real, will fall under the blow of total simulation).

However — and this is a foolish hypothesis, fundamentally the same as that of the transparence of evil –, it is not certain that the constellation of the secret is eclipsed by the transparence of the virtual universe, nor that the original power of illusion, its symbolic operation, is swept away by the technological operation of the world — by its technological inspection, as Heidegger would say. One can detect behind all technologies (especially the most advanced: electronic, computer, virtual, those of image and screen) a sort of absolute affectation and double-gaming — that exorbitant character of technicity that makes the world a play of appearances, a chiaroscuro of an unsolvable world, behind the objective, realistic illusion of transforming it. Is technicity finally the murderous alternative to the illusion of the world, or is it only a gigantic avatar of the same fundamental illusion, its ultimate and subtle twist, the last hypostasis? Through technicity, perhaps the world is having us on, that object that seduces us through the illusion of power that we have over it. A vertiginous hypothesis that would add up to rationality, culminating in virtual technicity, the last of the ruses of illogic – a correlate, in the inwardness of man, of this desire for illusion of which the desire for truth is, according to Nietzsche, nothing but a detour and an avatar.

The Japanese intuit a deity within every industrial object. For us, this sacred presence is reduced to a faint ironic glimmer, to a nuance of play and remoteness, but which is no less a spiritual form, behind which the Evil Genie of Technicity is silhouetted, himself ensuring that the world’s secret remains well-kept. The Mischievous Spirit watches and waits behind all artifacts, and of all our artificial products we could say what Canetti said of animals: “Behind each of them, one has the impression that someone human is hidden, sniggering at us.” This echoes Heidegger’s phrase: “If we really look at the ambiguous essence of technicity, we perceive the constellation, the stellar movement of the secret.”

It seems, through a paradoxical effect, that if the illusion of the world is stripped away, irony passes into things. It seems that technicity has taken on all the illusion that it bereft us of, and that the counterpart to this loss of illusion is the apparition of this world’s objective irony. Irony as universal form of disillusion, but also of the stratagem by which the world withdraws behind the radical illusion of technicity, as does the secret –(that of the continuation of Nothingness)– behind the banality of our technologies and images.

Irony is the only spiritual form of the modern world. It is the sole repository of the secret. But we no longer are privy to it. The ironic function of the object has supplanted the critical function of the subject. From the moment they pass through medium or image, through the trace of the sign or the market, objects exert an artificial and ironic function by their very existence. No need any longer for a critical conscience holding up to the world the mirror of its double: our modern world has swallowed its double at the same time as it has lost its shadow, and the irony of this incorporated double erupts at every instant from every fragment of our signs, of our objects, in the absurdity of their function — as the Surrealists showed: things take it upon themselves to ironically explain themselves. They disabuse themselves effortlessly of their meaning — all of this is part of their visible sequencing, all too visible, a superfluity which in itself creates a parody-effect.

The aura of our world is no longer sacred — no longer the numinous horizon of appearances — but one of absolute merchandise. Its essence is advertising. At the heart of our universe of signs is a mischievous ad-man genie of publicity, a trickster, who has integrated the buffoonery of merchandising with its staging. A brilliant scenographer (capital?) has lured the world into a phantasmagoria of which we are all the fascinated victims.

All metaphysics is swept away by this reversal of situation in which the subject is no longer master of the representation (I’ll be your mirror!), but merely a function of the world’s objective irony. In all our technologies, it is the object that refracts the subject and imposes its presence and its aleatory form. It is the power of the object that beats a path through the play of simulacra and simulation, through that very artifice that we have imposed upon it. In this there is a kind of ironic reversal: the object becomes a strange attractor. Stripped of all illusion by technicity itself, stripped of all connotation of meaning and value, ejected — i.e., disengaged from the orbit of the subject, it thus becomes pure object, a superconductor of illusion and nonsense.

At the horizon of simulation, not only has the world disappeared, but the question of its existence can no longer be asked. But this is perhaps a ruse of the world itself.

Iconoclasm in Byzantium encountered the same problem. The iconoclasts were subtle people who aspired to represent God for his greater glory, but in showing God’s image, they thereby concealed the problem of his existence. Each image was a pretext for not facing the problem of God’s existence. Behind each one, in fact, God had disappeared. He wasn’t dead, he had disappeared; that is, the problem no longer presented itself. The problem of the existence or inexistence of God had been resolved through simulation. Just as we have done with the problem of truth or with the fundamental illusion of the world: we have resolved it through technical simulation, and through the profusion of images in which there is nothing to see.

But one might think that it’s the strategy of God himself to disappear, and precisely behind images. God takes advantage of the images in order to disappear, himself obeying the impulse to not leave traces. And so the prophecy is realized: we live in a world where the highest function of the sign is to make reality disappear, and to mask at the same time this disappearance. Art does none other than this. The media today do none other than this. This is why they are consigned to the same destiny.

Because nothing, not even painting, wants anymore exactly to be looked at, but only to be visually absorbed and circulated without leaving traces –tracing in a way, under cover of the colors of simulation, the simplified aesthetic form of impossible exchange –, it is difficult today to recapture appearances. Such that the language that would best account for this would be a language in which there is nothing to say, which would be the equivalent of a painting in which there is nothing to see. The equivalent of pure object, of an object that is not an object.

But an object that is not an object is precisely not nothing. It’s an object that doesn’t let up obsessing you with its immanence, its empty and immaterial presence. The whole problem is, at the confines of nothingness, to materialize this nothingness — at the confines of emptiness, to trace the after-image of emptiness — at the confines of indifference, to play according to the mysterious rules of indifference.

The world is like a book. The secret of a book is always inscribed on a single page. The rest is nothing but gloss and repetition. The ultimate finesse is to make this page disappear once the book is complete. Hence no one will guess what it is about (always the perfect crime). Yet this page remains dispersed within the book, between the lines; the body remains dispersed throughout its scattered limbs, and one ought to be able to reconstitute it without the secret being lifted. This anagrammatic dispersion of things is essential to their symbolic absence, to the force of their illusion.

Identification of the world is futile. One must seize upon things in their sleep, or in a totally other contingency where they are absent from themselves. Like in Kawabata’s The Sleeping Beauties, where the old men spend the night beside the sleeping bodies of these women, mad with desire, but without touching them, and depart before they awake. They too are stretched out next to an object that is not one, and whose total indifference, in sleep, sharpens the erotic sense. But most enigmatic in Kawabata’s story, and which creates this marvelous irony, is that nothing finally, right through to the end of the tale, allows one to know whether the women are really sleeping or whether they aren’t slyly getting off, from the depths of their simulated sleep, from their seduction and from their own deferred desire.

Those not sensitized to the illusion of amorous feeling, to the degree of irreality and play, of malice and ironic spirituality in the language of love, are not in effect even capable of loving. True intelligence is none other than this intuition of the universal illusion, even in the passion of love – above all in the passion of love –, without this passion, however, being distorted in its natural movement.

Even our face we are incapable of identifying, since its symmetry is distorted by the mirror.

What significance do we give to the fact that the Creator fashioned men such that they cannot contemplate their own face? Upon seeing it, would we go mad? Has man evolved into a form in which his face remains invisible? Perhaps the dragonfly or the praying mantis recognize the appearance of their head? Is their face so symmetrical that the mirror inversion is without importance, or are the others of their species so identical that the problem of singularity of features never presents itself?

Meanwhile for us, our face, that which is our most personal, exists only for others. We do not exist but for others. We-ourselves are definitively hidden from we-ourselves, unidentifiable, not only in the secret of our heart, but in the secret of our face. In return, we know the true face of the other, we possess the secret of the other. The Other is the one whose secret we possess, and who possesses our secret.

To contemplate our face would be madness, since we would no longer have a secret for ourselves, and would therefore be wiped out by transparence.

The mirror does not give me my true appearance. I only know myself in reflection, such as inside me I will never be. But it is like this for every object, that only comes to us definitively altered, including upon the screen of our brain. All things thus offer themselves without hope of being anything other than the illusion of themselves. And it’s good this way.

Luckily the objects that appear to us have always already disappeared. Happily nothing appears to us in real time, any more than the stars in the night sky. If the speed of light were infinite, all the stars in the universe would be here at once — in real time — and the vault of the sky would be of an unbearable incandescence. No more night — perpetual day. Happily nothing takes place in real time, otherwise we would be subjected, through information, to the light of all events, and the present would be of an unbearable incandescence. Happily we live in the mode of a vital illusion, in the mode of an absence, of an irreality, a non-immediacy of things. Happily all things, the world and others, come to us definitively altered. Happily nothing is instantaneous, nor simultaneous, nor contemporaneous. Happily reality doesn’t take place. Thankfully the crime is never perfect.

Jean Baudrillard

This text was first published in the context of the “Study for the Secret” meetings, June 9-11, 1993 at the Venice Biennale and appears in AFAA(Association Française d’Action Artistique) 1993, pp. 5-12.

Translated by Suture-Self Trans-Later: Ian, Michel, Sarah, William, April 1995.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Perfect Crime.” “Study for the Secret” meetings, June 9-11, 1993 at the Venice Biennale and appears in AFAA (Association Française d’Action Artistique) 1993, pp. 5-12.


1. claire the cat - July 12, 2007

i like the last sentence there. hmmm… 🙂

by the way, the title of your paper is so clever.

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