Reality As "The Perfect Crime"

In The Perfect Crime (Verso, 2002), Jean Baudrillard observes the following:

"Were it not for appearances, the world would be a perfect crime, that is, without a criminal, without a victim, and without a motive. And the truth would forever have withdrawn from it and its secret would never be revealed, for want of any clues [traces] being left behind. But the fact is that the crime is never perfect, for the world betrays itself by appearances, which are the clues to its non-existence, the traces of the continuity of the nothing. For nothingness itself -- the continuity of the nothing -- leaves traces. It is by this that the world betrays its secret. That is the way it allows itself to be sensed, while at the same time hiding away behind appearances...our destiny is the accomplishment of this crime, its inexorable unfolding, the continuity of the evil, the continuation of the nothing. We shall never experience the primal scene, but at every moment we experience its prolongation and its expiation. There is no end to this and the consequences are incalculable."

The perfect crime, you'll recall, is one committed with such skill that there is no evidence left behind. All there is is a crime scene. Investigators conclude before long that their case is insoluble.

Metaphors aid our understanding to the extent they are vivid, and "the perfect crime" is as vivid a reference for the whole known cosmos as any that might be imagined. The frustration that comes from not being able to solve a murder is roughly equivalent to the frustration of wanting to know why anything exists (matter, reason, consciousness) and realizing the answer will forever remain elusive.

In the perfect crime police are unable to find the perpetrator; in the brief span which is our life we are unable to locate a God with sense-content -- someone we could arrest and send down to the station, as it were.

In the perfect crime the questions "why?" and "how?" dog investigators. Why would someone kill another human being? How did the person pull it off so smoothly? The same questions can be made metaphysical: why did God create the universe (if indeed "He" did), and how did He fashion everything (our crime scene) so magnificently?

In the perfect crime investigators have no leads. They are left only to guess about the timeline, about motive. The same is largely true of our physicists and cosmologists. They are left only with high guesses about when the universe was created (it might have been 20 billion years ago, might have been 18.795 billion years ago: who knows?), and they are as clueless as anyone as to motive.

The metaphor breaks down, of course, as most metaphors do. Our knowledge of the natural world and of ourselves, however miniscule, is considerably vaster than the knowledge the detective has in a perfect crime. We may not know why we exist or what fate, if any, awaits us upon death, but we have some insight into human nature, some understanding of the constituents of reality. As Pascal once observed, the forces of nature can destroy us with a mere puff of wind, but it is we who know we're being destroyed; the forces of nature know nothing of the kind. So there's a sublimity even to our helplessness. Further, the creation, in all its infinite complexity, can hardly be reduced to the stature of mere scandal, whereas the perfect crime is only just that.

Toying with the metaphysical implications of the metaphor is only a tangential aim for Baudrillard in The Perfect Crime: what he is chiefly concerned with is the "murder of reality," the way that social and technological processes -- particularly media processes -- have substituted a world of representations (simulacra) for the real. Baudrillard has been quoted as saying that the disappearance of the real is "the most important event of modern history." (This disappearance itself, he suggests, might be considered a perfect crime.) As he sees it, we have done away with difference and otherness, with critical reflection and transcendence, and replaced it with a world of homogenized "positivity," of endless consumerism, of "virtual" reality and transparency.

Another article will have to be devoted to these larger insights of his. Here the focus is on his use of "perfect crime" as metaphor. Three issues present themselves:

1. Baudrillard says that were it not for "appearances" the world would be a perfect crime, but one "without criminal, without victim, and without motive." The judgment is atheistic and, from both an aesthetic and dramatic point of view, less captivating than the notion of a perfect crime with a perpetrator. The God-as-perpetrator motif keeps the story alive, keeps everyone perpetually wondering about how the last chapter and epilogue will turn out. It leaves the tension in the question "why?". It is also intriguing to think that the perpetrator in this case will also be the judge of "His" sorry victims. "I gave you the perfect crime," He may well tell us, "so to what imaginative purposes did you put it?" (Might God look kindlier upon the Inspector Clouseaus -- i.e. the philosophers -- of his crime scene than those who too easily habituated themselves to it?)

2. Baudrillard doesn't explain why a crime such as this, perfect or not, could have been committed in such a way that would allow certain philosophers to understand it. "The traces of the continuity of nothingness," he says, are the clues that mar an otherwise perfect crime. But maybe the crime was committed to be solved -- not a thousand years into the future, maybe not a million years into the future, but someday. And maybe our Perpetrator has a good deal of the court jester in him, and went about his business in a way that was as amusing as it was clever. "Catch me if you can!" might have been his disposition. "I'll create the game in such a way that you'll be infinitely curious."

3. Postmodernist thinkers like Baudrillard don't give enough credit to the transcendent powers of the human mind. They are surely right to say that our contemporary world mocks transcendence, and that our media landscape has been configured to leave people bemused and benumbed in the ever-tyrannical now. But they fail to see that the human mind is able to look far and wide into the nature of things and to offer up a critique. This capacity itself is not nothing. There is still something great about just being able to speak the truth. Bertrand Russell understood this point well. In "A Free Man's Worship" he writes,

A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother.

And Camus understood it, too:

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor...Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.
(The Myth of Sisyphus)

The perfect crime is broached in Baudrillard's Fragments: Conversations With Francois L'Yvonnet (Routledge, 2004). The following Q/A segment appears on pages 44-47 of that work:

FL: We can wager that the real doesn't exist, a wager in the Pascalian sense. We can connect the idea that the real doesn't exist with the idea of the perfect crime.

JB: Put in these terms -- 'the real does not exist' -- then it may seem ludicrous. There is a reality effect. We can come at this by way of simulation. This is the path I chose, asking myself, ultimately, whether the real wasn't itself a simulation effect. But what was merely an effect has become a principle, a jurisdictional authority on the basis of which everything is judged and rejected. The real has become a perfect alibi.

FL: It's the key to the perfect crime.

JB: Yes indeed. This was all put in place gradually. The idea of objective reality, for example. Against that idea, we find in philosophy -- in Kant, for example -- a serious demarcation.

FL: The unknowability of 'noumenal' reality, of the thing as it's presumed to be in itself, not as it appears.

JB: You can't conceive the objectiveness of things! This goes for qualities: what is objective blueness? There's no blue in itself; sense is beyond our grasp. We'll never know anything more about it. We have only our representations. If we've rid ourselves of the ambiguity of the world in creating an objective reality, then we've also rid ourselves of it by creating a subjective reality. Indeed, the two things go together: the real is also made up of this possibility of the subject representing itself as such. It's the interplay between the two that assures things of their 'reality'. The trap is present as much in the idea of the objective reality of the world as in that of subjective reality, in the deepening of the subject itself as representational being. In foregrounding transcendental givens, for example, as Kant does. These are the epistemological stakes of the whole of our modernity.

This illusion of objective reality has today reached a further stage, which we might address in terms of integral reality. What we have here, in fact, is a total hyper-reality, which no longer even has room for subjective reality, for representation. This is our new world -- computerized, digital, virtual, etc. This integral reality exists at an elementary physical level, since it's the reality of particles, of segments; it's the analytic reality of things, in which there's no longer even the possibility for a subject of recovering a representational whole. We're beyond representation, or have fallen back short of it. At any rate, we're outside it. Objective reality was of the order of representation, being connected with the impossibility of acceding to the object itself (the Kantian 'thing in itself' or Lacan's 'real'). Here, we're in a world that does without representation. The system itself provides an effective, efficient, definitive critique of it. And in so doing, it liquidates any critique of representation one might make in the name of something other than reality -- in the name of illusion, for example.

The perfect crime is the murder of reality, but it is, even more, the murder of illusion...

You can tell yourself there's something radical about this virtual world: being outside representation, being beyond representation, and hence destroying certain philosophical categories I myself have criticized. The situation is very embarrassing. It's difficult to denounce a universe that has rid itself of the subject, salvation and transcendence. What can you do in a universe without transcendence, other than partake of this kind of dynamic immediacy, of effectuation of the world in digital terms?...Goal-directed development is no longer an option, in rational terms, and we shan't be able to cling on to some goal other than that one, which no longer is a goal anyway. The world of speculation is exemplary in this regard: no concern for any goal whatever. If some day a crash occurs, what will remain? Perhaps debris -- and not fragments. This is the case already. We're in a world of debris, of waste. Nuclear pollution is merely a tiny intimation of the problem...

It's a world in which things are stuck together, the world of the short-circuit between anything and its representation -- an immersion in the visual. And indeed every image is absorbed by the world's becoming image. This is perhaps the gravest danger. There's a kind of diabolical metabolism of the system that has integrated every critical, ironic or contradictory dimension, fractalizing everything. Everything's on-line, and there's no opposing an on-line event.