What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
— Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr Walter Kaufmann.
The ‘Death of God’ is, of course, a logical contradiction. That’s what gives it its glamour, its daring; the shock of the paradox. Nietzsche, whose use of the phrase gave it currency, milks it — bleeds it, I should say — for melodramatic imagery. In Nietzsche we are God’s blood-drenched murderers, like Inuit hunters hacking away inside the corpse of the great whale they’ve harpooned. Baudrillard embraces the concept in a cooler, more nonchalant style, because for the post-modern theorist, the death of God is merely a cliché, and like all clichés etiolated and bloodless.
What interests Baudrillard is how the concept dies, and the consequences for the human mind, which without its ‘divine referent’ must drift without anchor on relativistic oceans. He asks us to consider ‘the iconoclasts’ — whether Christian, Jewish or Moslem he doesn’t say — and ascribes a new motive for their fury against the image.
Had they been able to believe that images only occulted or masked the Platonic idea of God, there would have been no reason to destroy them. One can live with the idea of a distorted truth. But their metaphysical despair came from the idea that the images concealed nothing at all, and that in fact they were not images, such as the original model would have made them, but actually perfect simulacra forever radiant with their own fascination. But this death of the divine referential has to be exorcised at all cost.
Baudrillard’s iconoclasts understand that a God that can be reduced to symbols is already dead. Whereas for Nietzsche it was Enlightenment rationalism and empiricism that ‘killed’ God, for Baudrillard the mere existence of religions is enough. He gives us a sentence dazzling in its anti-clerical hatred.
It is through the death of God that religions emerge.
Without its ‘divine referential’, ‘the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.’
We should be clear that Baudrillard is speaking here not only of the emptiness of religions; for him ‘the murderous capacity of images’ eventually puts at stake our access to reality itself, calling in question ‘the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the real’. The map, in his metaphor, destroys the territory; not because it is inaccurate, but precisely because of its accuracy:
“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none.”
And so we arrive at the fourth order of simulation, which is no longer of the order of appearances at all — hyperreality.
There is a shamanic glee to Baudrillard’s provocations. His incandescent style, his rhetorical mastery, and particularly his love of paradox can obscure transitions which are worthy of examination. Is to read Baudrillard closely to misread Baudrillard? Perhaps. The death of God is a paradox, since any definition of God must, a priori, include the property of immortality. To say that ‘God is dead’ assumes not that God doesn’t exist but that God has existed and no longer does. Death-of-God theology is therefore incompatible with atheism.
And with theism, too, unless you worship a strange kind of God, one who is mortal. Death-of-God philosophers from William Blake to Hegel to Altizer to Paul Tillich and so on are not atheists, and for the most part they are not claiming that God has died. They mean that belief in God has died; that the connection with God has been lost, specifically in Western society.
Nietzsche, on the other hand, believed that the Enlightenment released us from the necessity or even the possibility of believing in God, and Baudrillard takes the Nietzschean assumption as axiomatic. He also follows Nietzsche, I would say, in requiring to be read as much as a creative artist as a theorist; as a rhetorician, rather than a logician. Inspired by the German’s romantic archetype of the philosopher, post-war theorists like Baudrillard, Foucault and even McLuhan developed a hybrid form, part argument, part incantation. Transitions are subliminally introduced in this style. The artist-philosopher, obsessed with articulating his vision — and staying ahead of the objections of the reader or listener — doesn’t concern himself with technicalities like logic or the meanings of words. The paradox, short-circuiting the faculty of reason, is paramount in this form.
In philosophy, as in science, logical contradiction is a problem, not a decoration. For the post-modern social theorist, however, paradox is the game. In Baudrillard the paradox is the vehicle of liturgy, the cadence marking the end of each verse of the psalm.
Baudrillard must assume the death of God because his project is to conjure a world devoid of divinity, or of anything beyond the material. Such an anthropogenic reality can not be called false, since, according to him, it displaces reality itself. The escaper from Plato’s cave goes outside and finds nothing but a desert, a waste land, leaving him no choice but to return meekly to his chained companions. And as ‘the only guarantor of truth’, God — in fact, of any absolute value — must die in order to reach this state of absolute relativism. Without the death of God, Baudrillard’s futurology would lose the historical inevitability he covets from Marx.
So his iconoclasts destroy religious icons not out of fidelity to an ineffable Godhead beyond time and space, but out of fear that the God they worship is in fact mortal. At first glance, a strange motive to impose on Sunni Moslems and Calvinist Christians over a thousand year span… But let’s grant the speculation that iconoclasm and fanaticism in general might conceal a fear gnawing at the faithful that the belief they kill or destroy is false. It’s suggestion worth entertaining: that religious (or political) violence is an exorcism of doubt.
If figuration kills God, then the priest class destroys itself by reducing God to signifiers. The divine identity has been lost under a mountain of simulacra. We no longer know what God is. So far so reasonable. Does that mean we no longer know what reality is? Baudrillard presents the death of truth as absolute truth; a new orthodoxy. ‘Henceforth’, as Baudrillard says, ‘it is the map that engenders the territory.’
Simulation theory is, in the context of this theology, Baudrillard’s transhumanism. Reality itself is anthropogenic. This is the world the technological superman creates, the limitless fields of simulacra he spreads beneath our feet.
But there exists, in deference to the dialectic, an alternative synthesis proceeding from the death of God. Not only the transhumanism of Nietzsche, with its unstated concomitant the apotheosis of government, grew from the corpse, but also its converse: the anatheism of Hegel and Tillich.
It is through the death of God that religions emerge. It is through the death of religion that God emerges.
You will of course wander thirsting for a while — many years, perhaps — through Baudrillard’s simulated desert of the real. But the desert does not go on forever.
The ‘death of God’ — the crisis of belief in the anthropomorphic religions — is necessary to clear the way for the reconceptualisation of ‘God above the God of theism’. Not theism; not atheism, but anatheism, the ‘return to God after God’. The maps showing the way out of the desert have been waiting to be discovered, whether Tillich’s ‘ground of all being’, Hegel’s Absolute Consciousness, or Spinoza’s ontological monism; Hoyle’s or Zeno’s intelligent universe: a return to Herakleitos and Buddha, and indeed ‘the Platonic idea of God’.
It is through the death of God that God emerges.
That’s what the iconoclasts say to me.