Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: Dr. Gary Genosko1
With Baudrillard’s passing the question of his intellectual legacy was raised in very public ways around the globe. For the most part, the flurry of obituaries rehearsed all the prejudices and exaggerated interpretations that have dogged him since the 1980s, the moment when, with a few exceptions, enthusiasm bubbled into the effervescence of faddism, and hard-line opposition solidified into indigestible chunks. In this article I want to reflect on the main phases of his career, and then derive some of his core contributions to semiotic and structural studies.
Jean Baudrillard’s name became synonymous with the flowering of interest in postmodern theory that occurred in English speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, the UK and US during the 1980s. At the time one of his key theoretical concepts, “simulacrum,” was the buzzword of a wildly influential “Baudrillard Scene” (not unlike the reception of Marshall McLuhan a few decades earlier) that stretched across academic disciplines from science fiction studies to geography, animated interdisciplinary conferences, and spilled out into performance and art spaces. Not even leisure wear was immune as baseball caps emblazoned with “simulacrum” were regularly sighted in North American bohemias. Baudrillard was thought of by his critics and defenders alike to be the ringmaster of the postmodern circus of late capitalism. It was with the publication of America (1986/1988) that his reputation went global and earned him the dubious label of apolitical postmodernist. However, Baudrillard’s lively account of the rupture of the French Left’s “Union of the Left” strategy engineered by then President François Mitterrand between 1977-1984, “The Divine Left” (1985), is a truculent commentary inspired by an uninhibited reading of Karl Marx’s writing. It proves rather dramatically that Baudrillard was anything but apolitical. Still, conflations of Baudrillard’s descriptions of advanced capitalism as a consumer society of simulation with his own position abound to this day, despite the criticisms he leveled at just such a society throughout his career.
The Baudrillard of the 1980s is permanently linked with the promotional work in Canada of Arthur Kroker (1986), the editorial labors in the US of Sylvère Lotringer, and the elaborations of Fredric Jameson; let’s not forget the Australian contributions of 1984 through Baudrillard’s appearances at University of Sydney. For those who like origin stories, perhaps the place to begin is in the pages of the political theory journal Telos in the early 1970s with Mark Poster. In 1973-74 Poster reviewed (and shortly thereafter translated) Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production (1973/1975), the first English translation. Poster’s edited collection of Baudrillard’s writings, Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings (1988, revised and augmented edition in 2001), is a bestseller with the press.
By the 1990s the “scene” had shifted, but without sacrificing any intensity. The posthistorical Baudrillard of notorious theses about hyperreality (Simulations 1983), the year 2000 (The Illusion of the End, 1992/1994), and the death of the social (In The Shadow of the Silent Majorities 1978/1983) was much in evidence. The most grievous trend of interpretation that emerged was a widespread conflation of Baudrillard’s descriptions with his positions, which reached its zenith with the claims of Christopher Norris (1992) on the occasion of Baudrillard’s difficult to translate The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991/1995), whose play with tenses was difficult to put into English. Confusion reigned, despite the remarks of some of his French colleagues, such as activist-intellectual Félix Guattari, that Baudrillard was not wrong to claim that the war will not have taken place because it was a massacre that should not have happened. In 1999, a book by Baudrillard even made a cameo appearance in the film directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski, The Matrix; later, Baudrillard turned down a consultancy role on the sequels. One can only note that the use of Baudrillardiana in The Matrix, read in conjunction with his criticisms of the incorrect use of his ideas in the films, and the abundant literature this episode produced, was akin to McLuhan’s appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), a kind of pop intellectual blockbuster.
How can one account for the confusions of Baudrillard’s reception? One way, which is not an apology, is to note that Baudrillard’s fullest theoretical statements were only translated in the 1990s (Symbolic Exchange and Death [1976/1993], The System of Objects [1968/1996], and The Consumer Society [1970/1998]). This reception running in reverse suggests that a corrective to the buzz of the 1980s is long overdue and a better understanding of his intellectual contributions and development is much needed.
The fanfare of the 1980s and 90s should not obscure the fact that the first and second comings of Baudrillard were modest. I have already mentioned The Mirror of Production (1973/1975). Further, within the eclectic mix of New Leftism sponsored by the Telos collective (the same group later sponsored Charles Levin’s translation of Baudrillard’s For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972/1981), an important collection that broke the mold of Freudo-Marxism by introducing, for the purposes of critically annihilating each, semiology and Marxism.
Baudrillard’s major contributions to social theory may be stated as threefold: first, he developed a theory and analysis of consumer society, design and objects in his books of the late 1960s; second, his mid-1970s to early 1980s work on simulation and his notorious theses about hyperreality remain influential and central to much of today’s surveillance and cybercultural theory; third, Baudrillard’s poetical and anthropological musings inspired a quirky theory of symbolic exchange and death that still animates his thought. These three key contributions are elaborated upon in the contexts of interpretation delivered below.
III. Young Baudrillard
Long before Baudrillard became Baudrillard, he toiled in obscure lycées teaching language arts for a decade, and then emerged in the 1960s as a translator (German-French) of social anthropology, theatre (minor Bertolt Brecht and major works by Peter Weiss and some left political theory; he wrote book reviews of novels in French translation by Italo Calvino, William Styron, and Uwe Johnson, for Les Temps Modernes. He was a “Germanist” and wrote a preface to photographer René Burri’s photo essay of 1963 Les Allemands2 ; here lies a beginning of Baudrillard’s hobby of photography, as he came to tour exhibitions internationally.3
Baudrillard’s work of the late 1960s is not unusual in its engagement with critical theory. Noteworthy are essays in the journal of urban sociology Utopie (Le Ludique et le Policier et autres textes 2001) on Herbert Marcuse’s meditations on repression in an affluent consumer society; Henri Lefebvre’s sociology of the everyday through the myths of system and technique and the emerging field of media studies. His criticisms of Canadian media theorist McLuhan (1967), were prescient; though, Baudrillard’s five volumes of aphorisms Cool Memories I-V (1987/1990; 1990/1996; 1995/1997; 2000/2003; 2005/2006) borrowed “cool” from McLuhan’s concept of low definition, participatory media.
By 1966 Baudrillard had secured a position in Sociology in the Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines at Nanterre. He taught there in this University of Paris suburban campus for 20 years, then took his doctorate at the Sorbonne, and retired from teaching in 1987. However, from 1968 he was also a fixture in Georges Freidmann’s Centre d’études des communications de masse at the Ecole Practique des Hautes Etudes.
IV. Object Studies
The structuralist analyses of The System of Objects were somewhat aberrant. They did not adhere strictly to descriptions of the objective technical structures of technological objects and the rules internal to their systems. Instead, Baudrillard’s analyses turned to the everyday experience of objects, that is, shifting from technicity to culture, the essential to inessential. Using the speech – language distinction (the latter is an essential social institution, a system whose rules are subject to separate study; the former is individual and accessory, and receives its unity from language), Baudrillard rigorously explored the cultural backwash of the accessory, secondary meanings corresponding to speech, and the drift of objects toward the cultural system, away from their so-called objective, technical structuration, and the stable determinations of language.
Baudrillard pursued the inversions of the myths of functionality (a perfectly efficient world without effort), rational design and technological progress through diverse examples such as the withdrawal of gestural effort in handling objects to a system based on a minimal expenditure of energy, remote forms of control and generalized ease. Likewise, excess accessorization (gadgets) produced an empty functionality diametrically opposed to a unified technical machine, and mass produced serial objects provided opportunities for personalization by means of the proliferation of marginal differences as distinguishing features (a smart refrigerator with an Internet connection, and an ice maker, in black, or stainless steel). A lesson emerged: the greater the demand for personalization, the greater the burden of the inessential over the essential. Baudrillard did not neglect marginal objects like antiques and collectibles that, in acquiring historicalness, gain significance (signifying time and authenticity) at the expense of practical functionality. His observations about collecting cultures were, however, largely psychoanalytical in inspiration.
This psycho-social reorientation of structuralism in the accommodation of the reflux of what would be otherwise considered external to a system, allowed Baudrillard to refigure consumption as an active process, providing social rank through the code of status provided by advertising, which is itself an object to be consumed, perhaps even through its study. Objects dematerialized into signs are consumed and manipulated in their systematic differences with other signs, entailing the abolition of a lived, non-arbitrary, visceral human relationship with objects, from which these signs escape.
The analysis of how purpose becomes counter-purpose developed in The System of Objects was deepened in The Consumer Society. Shedding its structuralist shell, this book contained a more pronounced reliance upon Marxist theories of alienation and reification, heavily augmented by German film and literary sources, especially doppelgänger fantasies that demonstrate capitalist mystifications and introduce the idea of how objects take revenge in an extreme fetishism, a reversal of the subject-object pole later explored fancifully in Fatal Strategies (1983/1990). The calculus of objects that is the manipulation of signs, literally a semiurgy of consumption, is a trap and gives to all an alibi for participating in the world (I can’t go out because my favorite show is on! I can’t talk to you because I’m texting you back! ). The upshot is that mediatic mass communication replaces metabolic communion.
The Consumer Society has many themes, but throughout it the influence of anthropology began to loom large over Baudrillard’s thought. His turn to so-called primitive societies of the gift, which were truly affluent, whose temporality was the rhythm of collective activity before time became money, and whose unity was not asepticized into cold, clinical communication, provided the groundwork for his theory of symbolic exchange. By contrast, consumer societies are characterized by a massive prophylactic deployment of signs that simultaneously conjure up, and away, the real so desperately evoked by all media (Baudrillard has much to contribute to our understanding of “reality TV,” all the way from An American Family in the 1970s to French Loft Story of the new millennium). In Baudrillard’s work, his theory of symbolic exchange emerged from his theory of consumer society.
What makes The Consumer Society notable is the ironic inversion of terms guiding its analyses. For Baudrillard, every social system exhausts itself in its own reproduction or lives only for its negative effects: the real goal of social budgeting is failure, not economic redistribution; affluence cannot exist without its nuisances, like environmental degradation – affluence’s meaning is thus waste. Defects are every system’s fulfillment. Here we sense strongly what Baudrillard will later conceptualize in terms of the need to advance extreme hypotheses against positivist and critical theories: to respond in kind to the enigma of the world. More than any other reader of Baudrillard, Mike Gane (2000) has developed this tendency the most deeply.
In The Consumer Society, Baudrillard launched an ingenious argument regarding needs. Just as meaning in structural analysis is an effect of interdependent signs, specific objects are not produced in relation to definite needs. Taken individually, needs have no identity, because no term in an interdependent system has an identity in isolation. Moreover, since needs cannot be pinned down (needs and objects that satisfy then cannot be lined-up) and lack objective specificity, they are always linked to lack – to what they are not.
Enjoyment in consumption is, for Baudrillard, impossible; the same is claimed about self-fulfillment and the liberation of individual needs. One of the greatest ironies and a cogent definition of consumption, Baudrillard claimed, was that industrial production of differences that allegedly allow individuals to be themselves, to have their own style and personality, simultaneously erase singular differences between persons for the sake of replacing them with signs of difference, more and more subtly and minutely defined, in conformity with abstract, artificial models. The consequence is that to be yourself under the terms of consumer society is to be what you are not (that is, they are embedded in a structural theory of value).
In consumer societies socialization takes place through institutions of mental training like credit, and this is simply a form, argued Baudrillard, of social control. Baudrillard was fascinated by the constraints of consumer society such as the incessant recycling of signs, fashion flavours of the month, combinatorial possibilities of which are predetermined by abstract models to which consumers conform as they live the myth of individuation.
For Baudrillard, consumer society is a kind of quiz show culture in which knowledge is displayed as if in response to a timed question, a perfect analogy to making a selection and purchasing it. Cultural knowledge as a consumer good may be gained through trivia games and middle-brow mass market magazines, equipping each with an identity kit full of prestige elements exchangeable for social status. For example, Baudrillard understood beauty and eroticism as forms of semiotic capital, as signs that may be turned to one’s advantage. Health, too, is a prestige item displayed through fitness. Indeed, when everything is sexualized, sexuality is no longer transgressively explosive but tamed in being integrated into the production of marginal differences. Here, then, social control takes place by linking emancipation with repression: Baudrillard dubbed this combination of gratification and repression “dual solicitude.”
VI. Semiology and Marxism
For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972/1981) contained several important theses. Baudrillard exposed the ideological dimension of use value, repository of the true idealism in Marxism, exposing it as an abstraction that was hidden under the cloak of immediacy and particularity and, despite Marx, already infused with equivalence. Baudrillard learned a great deal about the pitfalls of theorizing symbolic exchange from this critique of Marxist myth-making. He also showed that Roman Jakobson’s poetic model of communication was perfused with metaphysical presumptions as a result of the terror of the code that privileges the sender over receiver and keeps them in a holding pattern, enforcing the univocity, unilaterality, and legibility of messages, and excluding ambivalence, a principle more virulent than mere poetic ambiguity. Further, semiology was guilty of domesticating signs by the imposition of binaries and arbitrariness, reviving motivation to solve quandaries such as the status of the referent it has itself created in its quest for purity (a system that is psychical and without referents).
Baudrillard’s most important demonstrations were the homology between the sign and commodity forms (exchange value is to signifier as use value is to signified) and the limited convertibility between logics of value (use value, exchange value, sign exchange value, and symbolic exchange). Whereas use value, exchange value and sign value converge in two-sided object forms integrated into a functional syntax and controlled by a code determining their circulation, the latter – symbolic exchange – emerged as the heterogeneous other of homogeneous political economy and semiology, subversive of both theories of value. Baudrillard’s sense of the symbolic is not to be confused with other symbolics in Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, Baudrillard’s symbolic is opposed to semiology.
The themes of the critique of categories of political economy and the symbolic found their application in Baudrillard’s reading of certain strains of Marxism in The Mirror of Production. The fatal malady of capitalism is its inability to reproduce itself symbolically, the relations of which it instead simulates; the failure of historical materialism was that it could not escape the categories of political economy, holding up an insufficiently analyzed productivity and labour as the mirrors of all social activity. In other words, Marxism is haunted by these concepts and remains trapped in the logic of representing what it sought to radically critique. As an alternative, Baudrillard proffered symbolic exchange: an incessant agonistic cycle perfused with ambivalence. Baudrillard borrowed from Georges Bataille’s general anti-productivist economy of expenditure and Marcel Mauss’ analysis of potlatch ceremonies involving the reckless destruction of wealth in the establishment of rank, within the triad of obligations: giving-receiving-repaying. Baudrillard may be productively read as a gift theorist.
Simulation is the other of symbolic exchange. Simulacra and Simulation (1981/1994) and Simulations (1983) contain Baudrillard’s best known theory of the order of simulacra, summarized here:
|1. natural||counterfeit||corrupt symbol||automaton|
|3. structural||simulation||two-sided psychical||android|
The first order of the counterfeit, the stucco angel, and theatrical automaton, emerges in the Renaissance with the emancipation of otherwise closed, endogamous and cruel social relations and the surety of motivated signification and static social rank (caste). The second order of production arises with the Industrial Revolution and production, perfect for worker robots, and serial signs of sameness (iconic simulacra) subject to the market forces of fledgling capitalism. The third order is post-industrial in which mechanical reproduction is transcended, conceived strictly in terms of reproducibility such that representation itself is commodified, with the exclusion of the referent in the rise of the linguistic sign that came to dominate semiological thought, and dichotomaniacal structuralism, a breeding ground for androids who live by the “anterior finality” of the code from which life emanates (operational DNA). In The Transparency of Evil (1990/1993) Baudrillard added a fourth level involving aleatory dispersion by infection, contiguity, and viral metonymy of theories of value, giving rise to the absorption of virtual media technologies (prostheses) by human beings without shadows, a topic explored in The Illusion of the End (1992/1994). This image of the shadowless man, borrowed from German literature and cinema, expresses the idea that progress may carry on without an idea (in the absence of or indifference to) guiding it.
The third order is by far the most influential. It contains several important, related concepts. By simulation Baudrillard means that it is no longer possible to distinguish between, for instance, signs and their objects, questions and answers, and doubles and originals, because the terms in each of these pairs are equivalent to one another. He often expresses this by claiming one of a pair has absorbed the other. The inability to interrogate difference creates confusion. The entire edifice of representation, implying a logic in which images are yoked to a pre-imaged foundation, falters. The so-called postmodern scene is the ruin of representation.
The idea that a question can invent, anticipate, absorb and regurgitate an answer not only neutralizes interrogation and dialogics, sender and receiver, origin and end alike, but suggests a more general principle: the accomplishment of social control by anticipation. Baudrillard uses the term “anterior finality” to explain that finality is already there, beforehand, determined by the combinatorial possibilities of the code (figured as social and genetic and digital). The code generates messages and signals that are totally preprogrammed for front-end control. This is an influential idea in surveillance literature that William Bogard (1996) has developed: control occurs in advance in the sense that an event is accounted for before it happens, a violation is already committed before its detection, a fact is truer than what it is about, a profile is greater than the person subjugated to it. Baudrillard has taken the semiological principle that all value issues from the code and turned it into a nightmarish principle in which everything appears to be written in advance (hence the precession of simulacra), all signals are suspended in matrices embedded in codes. Symbolic exchange is Baudrillard’s answer to whether or not there remains any hope of opposition.
VIII. Symbolic Exchange
The two pillars of Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976/1993) are named in its title. Baudrillard’s radical anthropology attempts to recover death and use it as a symbolic counter-gift that it forces modern institutions, unilaterally giving the gifts of work as a slow death, social security, and maternal ambiance of consumption, to receive and respond to in kind with their own deaths. Summoning the code or the system to receive the counter-gift, makes it strange to itself, having been drawn into the symbolic field in which exchange is a circuit of giving, receiving, responding in kind and with interest; if the field of dispersion of the code and simulation is the digital, the 0/1 binary, the field of the symbolic is ambivalence, agonism, circuits of obligatory giving-receiving and returning with interest. The failure to receive the counter-gift and repay in kind is loss of face – spirit, wealth, health, rank and power.
Death must be regained through ritual and wrestled away from agencies of Thantos (coroners, funeral parlors, priests). Baudrillard appropriates from anthropological sources symbolically significant practices that he adapts to his own ends, underlining that death is not biological but initiatic, a rite involving a reciprocal-antagonistic exchange between the living and the dead. Baudrillard extends this analysis to the desocialization and ghettoization of the dead in the West (where it is not normal to be dead but rather chronically alive) and tries to lift the social control over death that separates it from life because it is from this separation that all subsequent alienations arise.
It is incorrect to claim that Baudrillard was promoting simulation. Rather, Baudrillard elaborated new forms of symbolic resistance beyond death by emphasizing the potlatch-like behaviours of the masses in “The Beaubourg Effect” (1977/1982) and In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (1978/1983). Baudrillard’s conception of the mass represents a critique of efforts to represent the masses as a source of potential energy in sociology and political theory. But under the terms of third order simulation, representation is impossible. There is no more real social substance for a discipline like sociology to represent, except through simulation. Rather, the mass is unreachable, indifferent, opaque, resistant to all entreaties and communications, which are absorbed and disappear. Every attempt in the dark rooms of social science to get the masses to appear by bathing them in an informational emulsion of statistics and surveys merely, for Baudrillard, volatilizes them further. For this reason Baudrillard entertained the hypothesis that the social no longer exists because social contracts and relations between state and civil society, public and private institutions and citizens, individuals and groups, have given way to mere points of contact and information exchange between terminals. In the order of simulation, general connectivity rules the day and in this new kind of post-perspectival space there has been a complete loss of critical distance that would allow for a distinction between a real and its models. And this entails the transfiguration of the real into the simulacral.
Through an anti-productivist conception of agonistic, senseless, seduction in Seduction (1979/1990), Baudrillard explored consequences of reversing the accumulative and positive dimensions of production. Seduction was not exactly in its own right a power at all, neither negative nor oppositional, but a weak process that removed and annulled – signs and meanings from interpretive systems, accountability from systems of legitimation. Seduction works by undermining and diverting, setting reversibility against irreversibility. Seduction resists interpretation. It can be shared, but its exchange is symbolic and involves ritual and obligatory dimensions which ensure that there is no clear distinction possible between seducer and seduced for there is no difference between victory and defeat.
In addition to turning symbolic reversibility and cancellation against Michel Foucault in Forget Foucault (1977/1987), Baudrillard sought symbolic yields in The Transparency of Evil from an inexchangeable hostage form, and the power to designate Evil, to reintroduce this accursed share into the artificially positive paradise of a society that can no longer tolerate negativity. The Vital Illusion (2000) reveals traces of the need for a symbolic principle by another name by taking refuge in singularity (as in Paroxysm [1997/1998]: an eccentric, antagonistic, self-destructing, anomalous figure, irreducible to individuality) in a world of cloning, by valorizing imperfection (vernacular language resists universal digitization), and the beautiful frailty of never being fully present to ourselves. These antidotes to nihilism are perhaps best expressed in the idea that the murder of the real, the perfect crime – simulation of the world – of The Perfect Crime, is never perfect. Respite is found in a passionate appreciation of the world’s illusoriness.
The circle of symbolic exchange threatened to collapse in The Impossible Exchange (1999/2001), since now exchange is impossible, the general equivalent displaced, otherness become incomparable, and the condition of thought stuck in a paradoxical inability to confirm itself against any principle in the reigning speculative disorder. Yet in this disorder Baudrillard valorizes singularity as an absolute particular lacking self-being and hence that which has no equivalent. Dialoguing with Jean Nouvel in The Singular Objects of Architecture (2002), Baudrillard deploys singularity – unrepresentable, untranslatable, exhausted in itself – as an antidote to simulation that bears a virulent power against hyperreality. Like the symbolic, singularity is immanent to globalized exchanges and is an “integral monstrosity” that may be regained or perhaps glimpsed in the anti-globalization movement’s “antagonistic and irreducible” demonstrations, as he wrote in Screened Out (2002).
IX. September 11th, 2001
Baudrillard’s controversial response to the events of September 11th in The Spirit of Terrorism (2001/02) rehearsed his theory of symbolic exchange: the suicide planes that embedded themselves in the twin towers of the Word Trade Center were symbolic forces of disorder issuing counter-gifts of mass death against a system whose ideal is “zero death,” as Baudrillard put it, and which tries to neutralize the symbolic stakes of reversibility and challenge. In the 1970s Baudrillard used the twin towers of the World Trade Center as emblems of the binary matrix of digitality, the “divine form of simulation,” in which competition and referentiality were eclipsed by correlation and replication: The twin towers are signs of closure and redoubling, not of a system that can still surpass itself with original edifices. The twinness of the towers remain for Baudrillard the “perfect embodiment” of today’s world order. But there is no longer at the macro level two superpowers mirroring one another’s irrationality. Binary regulation at this level is over in the triumph of global capitalism. Back in 1976, Baudrillard wrote of the dissuasive hedge against collapse provided by two superpowers. And it is precisely this question of collapse that has animated Baudrillard’s theorization of the events of 9/11. Importantly, it is collapse or crumbling by itself that is the key challenge to understanding the spirit of symbolic exchange in Baudrillard’s account.
The twin WTC towers, that incarnate the hegemony of US empire and monopoly, collapsed, that is, self-destructed. Baudrillard’s choice language for describing collapse by itself is suicide. His impression was that the towers collapsed as if committing suicide. For it seemed to Baudrillard “as if” – hedging his bets – the twin towers themselves completed the event by collapsing. In his theory of death, suicide was a superior kind of subversion in the politics of symbolic exchange circa the mid-1970s. What made suicide subversive and, in reverse, made all subversion suicidal, was that it escaped the monopolistic control over death exercised by contemporary societies of simulation through their sanctioned institutions (which prohibit suicide and either try to exclude symbolic relations or simulate them).
For the West, thinks Baudrillard, symbolic and sacrificial death are difficult to grasp and are distorted in being given a value, by “calculating” their exchange value (against the afterlife; against state support for families through individual heroic martyrdom, etc.). Terrorism challenges the sole superpower with a gift to which it cannot respond except by the collapse of its emblematic buildings. The Spirit of Terrorism was written twenty-five years after Symbolic Exchange and Death, but is perfectly consistent with the theory contained therein. And the two works stand as bookends of Baudrillard’s intellectual trajectory.
X. Semiotic and Structural Studies
I want to restrict my selection of Baudrillard’s contributions to semiotic and structural studies by limiting the field of eligibility to specific critical work on core concepts and models. The three key examples upon which I will elaborate are all drawn from the period of 1968-1976 during which time Baudrillard was working his way out of semiology and structuralism.
The first contribution is multiplex and involves a variety of applications and manipulations of key structural linguistic principles to social and political phenomena under the broad rubric of consumer society. Baudrillard’s playful deployment of the langue/parole distinction so that the unity giving and receiving distinction, that is, the essential social institution and the accessory relation, and the internal/external distinction of that which changes the rules and that which does not, are weakened in an active backwash of parole, a reflux of the inessential, if you like. I have already mentioned examples of this play with structure: the relations between apprehending objects at the level of langue, technical objective structural evolution, and at the level of parole, which is at the level of everyday use and does not simply put the object’s technical pertinence into operation. Rather, cultural uses disturb the abstract uniformity and homogeneity of the technical system. The cultural backwash of the inessential challenges the object’s essential functionality by means of a surge of excess (accessorization and personalization toward dysfunctionality). For Baudrillard, the technical system lacked the stability of langue and therefore could be overridden.
I have also noted in passing how Baudrillard developed a critique of needs based on the analogy between objects/signifiers and needs/signifieds, with the consequences that needs are effects of the negatively defined interrelationships of objects understood as a system of signs, breaking the possibility of a one-to-one relationship between objects and needs. Indeed, in Baudrillard’s view one does not really consume objects but rather one actively and endlessly manipulates (reducing human projects to managing object-signs) objects become signs in their immateriality, that is, their difference.
Baudrillard is not simply acknowledging that changes in the system emanate from social uses of parole. This would make his backwash theory well suited to mainstream structuralism. He asserts, rather, that the surge of the inessential pushes the evolution of the technical object towards the inversion of functionality in counter- and dys-functionality. The viral reading of parole’s influence on langue’s evolution in the domain of objects is an attempt at undoing structuralism from the inside through a haunting devolution.
The second intervention involves a return to the very structure of the sign itself as it had been developed within linguistic semiology. Baudrillard analyzed the twofold characters of the commodity and sign forms within a unified field of value in which they were shown to be equivalent: exchange value over use value equals signifier over signified. Baudrillard’s forced semiologization of needs, as I mentioned earlier, simply tells us that the equation of use value and signified (contents) entails the inability to keep use value apart from exchange value. In other words, the alleged transparency of use value in the satisfaction of individual needs is integrated into a relational logic wherein value appears. Value appears in the commodity-to-commodity relations, which embody abstract human labour – the “crystals of social substance,” Marx wrote. But the social character of human labour that produced the commodity gets away from the producer and appears as an objective property such that commodities famously “come alive” in as much social relations between producers (social character of labour) turns into relations among things. Likewise, according to Baudrillard, in the political economy of the sign, expressed in the structural homology of commodity and sign form, christened as an object-form, Marx and Saussure are joined at the hip through a single theory of value to which all the terms are made to submit: at the heart of the sign is commodity logic, and at the heart of the commodity is the sign’s structure.
Two fine points are in order. The first is that the structural homology of commodity and sign is in the service of a more radical distinction between the unified field of value and that of the inexchangeable field of non-value, that is, symbolic exchange. Secondly, in terms of consumption, the fetishism of commodities reveals the transformation of living relationships – the erasure of subjects – into an objective structural logic that works independently of them. It is not that Baudrillard fetishes the structural theory of value, but rather finds it to be perfectly fetishistic. Further, within the terms of the structural homology, exchange value and signifier (forms) have strategic value (privilege) and use value and signified have tactical value, which is to say that the latter are effects (they lack autonomy and do not constitute an “elsewhere”) of the former’s oppositive structuration – use value is a social relation and the signified is produced by the play of signifiers. Any attempt to use “contents” for a critique of “forms” is to engage in “idealism and transcendental humanism” that fails to see that simulation has completely absorbed the “real.”
And the vaunted arbitrariness of the signifier-signified relation of mutuality is read by Baudrillard as a feature of “discretion,” a rational, “directive and reductive” ordering that frames and thus excludes ambivalence (“all virtualities of meaning” 1981: 149-50) for the sake of admitting under the watchful eye of the code’s permissible combinatorial possibilities, equivalent and polyvalent signifier-signified relations.
The third follows closely upon the second. Baudrillard derived his theory of simulation from the consequences of the linguistic sign’s shipwreck from referentiality and the loss of obligation towards a real world/referent. The exclusion of the referent from the psychical signifier-signified relation within the terms of the linguistic theory of value marks the loss of an ontological ground that sealed the relationship between signification and simulation – referentiality henceforth was at best beyond the sign’s reach and becomes an alibi the sign gives itself. The “history” of this simulation begins for Baudrillard with counterfeiting the necessity of a referential relation. The theoretical implication is that simulation absorbs the referential relation between sign and object/real in surpassing representation. This surpassing takes place because representation rested upon referentiality. In simulation, then, there is no means to uphold the sign/object distinction because they have become equivalent. Simulation is not so much fakery as the short-circuiting (implosion) of sign and object – among other – poles. The enfeebling of reference ushers in an anxious theatre of appearances best seen, in Baudrillard’s writing, in his discussion of sociology’s increasingly desperate efforts to reach the social, whose eclipse in simulation is the very thing it cannot quite understand. The terms of socio-semiotics are in this way rewritten. Attention is henceforth focused on the implosions of society, politics, art, sex, etc.
Baudrillard saw in the modeling of communication by those such as Roman Jakobson in his famous “Closing Statement” (1960) evidence of the collapse of the poles of sender and receiver and the rise of communication without the “co” in the era of simulation. In this spirit he advanced a telling critique of the Phatic function as a “simulation pact” based on “tele-phasis” or “contact for contact’s sake” – texting, email, chat, etc. Abundant and vapid, tele-phasis marks the implosion of communication. Baudrillard describes the Phatic function’s hypertrophy in the cold universe of information systems. The Phatic function may, as he put it, “analytically restore” what is missing in communication, far, far removed from genuine, imperfect interpersonal exchange.
There are several interesting points to be noted. The idea of a communication model presents for Baudrillard an alibi for the absence of genuine communication; hence, models are simulations and Jakobson’s was the last pretense that communication took place and could be modeled, that is, represented. So, communication is placed in the general field of dispersion of what Baudrillard dubs the code (blending the worst of genetic-computer-semiotic definitions, and giving it a “matrix-feel” of pre-programmable, unglossable, signals). The generative potentiality of the code is interpreted by Baudrillard as a key to the third order of simulation. The code’s priority is read as an anterior finality that pre-exists and exhausts most specific and creative uses; for the most part only modulated differences generated from models are possible.
About the Author
Gary Genosko has written extensively on Jean Baudrillard. His first book, Baudrillard and Signs (Routledge, 1994), mapped the critique of the theory of value across different registers; McLuhan and Baudrillard: The Masters of Implosion (Routledge, 1999) explored the crossings of enthusiasm and nihilism within contemporary media theory, and The Uncollected Baudrillard (Sage, 2001) brought together for the first time in English translation Baudrillard’s writings from early in his career, as well as extensive selections from his political commentaries. In addition, Genosko has published related articles on Baudrillard and surveillance, simulation between butter and margarine, the form of death in symbolic exchange, and Baudrillard’s reception and translation. He is an a member of the editorial board of IJBS.
Works by Baudrillard
(1978/1983) À l’ombre des majorité silencieuses/In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, trans. P. Foss, J. Johnston, P. Patton.
(1986/1988) Amérique/America, trans. C. Turner.
(1987/1988) L’Autre par lui-même: Habilitation/The Ecstasy of Communication, trans. B. Schutze and C. Schutze.
(1993) Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews (ed. M. Gane).
(1987/1990) Cool Memories 1980-1985, trans. C. Turner.
(1990/1996) Cool Memories II: 1987-1990, trans. C. Turner.
(1995/1997) Cool Memories III: 1990-1995, trans. E. Agar.
(2000/2003) Cool Memories IV: 1995-2000, trans. C. Turner.
(2005/2006) Cool Memories V: 2000-2004, trans. C. Turner.
(1995/1996) Le Crime parfait/The Perfect Crime, trans. C. Turner.
(1979/1990) De la séduction/Seduction, trans. B. Singer.
(1976/1993) L’Échange symbolique et mort/Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. I. H. Grant
(1997/2002) Écran total/Screened Out, trans. C. Turner.
(1977/1982) L’Effet Beaubourg: Implosion et dissuasion/The Beaubourg Effect: Implosion and Deterrence, trans. R. Krauss and A. Michelson.
(2001/2002) L’Esprit du terrorisme/The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. C. Turner.
(1999/2000) Fotografiafien/Photographies 1985-1998.
(1985) La Gauche Divine.
(1991/1995) La Guerre du golfe n’a pas eu lieu/The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. P. Patton.
(1992/1994) L’Illusion de la fin/The Illusion of the End, trans. C. Turner.
(1988/2001) Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, ed. M. Poster.
(2001/2006) Le Ludique et le policier et autres textes paru dans Utopie 1967-1978/Utopia Deferred, trans. S. Kendall.
(1973/1975) Le Miroir de la production/The Mirror of Production, trans. M. Poster.
(1977/1987) Oublier Foucault/Forget Foucault, trans. N. Dufresne.
(1997/1999) Le Paroxyste indifférent/Paroxysm: Interviews, trans. C. Turner.
(1972/1981) Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe/For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. C. Levin.
(1990) Revenge of the Crystal: Selected Writings, ed. And trans. P. Foss and J. Pefanis.
(1981/1994) Simulacres et simulations/Simulacra and Simulation, trans. S. F. Glaser.
(1983) Simulations, trans. P. Foss, P. Patton and P. Beitchman.
(1970/1998) La Société de consommation/The Consumer Society, trans, C. Turner.
(1983/1990) Les Stratégies fatales/Fatal Strategies, trans. P. Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski.
(1968/1996) Le Système des objets/The System of Objects, trans. J. Benedict.
(1990/1993) La Transparence du Mal/The Transparency of Evil, trans. J. Benedict.
(2001) The Uncollected Baudrillard, ed. G. Genosko.
(2000) The Vital Illusion, ed. J. Witwer.
(2000/2002) with J. Nouvel, Les Objets singuliers: Architecture et
philosophie/The Singular Objects of Architecture, trans. R. Bononno.
Bogard, William. (1996) The Simulation of Surveillance: Hypercontrol in Telematic Societies.
Gane, Mike. (1991) Baudrillard: Critical and Fatal Theory.
Gane, Mike. 1991) Baudrillard’s Bestiary: Baudrillard and Culture.
(2000) Jean Baudrillard: In Radical Uncertainty.
Genosko, Gary. (1994) Baudrillard and Signs.
Genosko, Gary. (1999) McLuhan and Baudrillard: The Masters of Implosion.
Grace, Victoria. (2000) Baudrillard’s Challenge: A Feminist Reading.
Grace, Victoria and Worth, H., Simmons, L. (eds.) (2003) Baudrillard: West of the Dateline.
Horrocks, Christopher. (1999) Baudrillard and the Millennium.
Jakobson, Roman (1960) “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style in Language.
Kellner, Douglas. (1989) Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond.
Kellner, Douglas (ed.) (1994) Baudrillard: A Critical Reader.
Kroker, Arthur and Cook, David. (1986) The Postmodern Scene.
Norris, Christopher. (1992) Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War.
1 – This paper originally appeared as a guest column in Simiotix: A Global Information Bulletin (Issue 9), May 2007: http://www.semioticon.com/semiotix/semiotix9/sem-9-02.html
2 – Gary Genosko. The Uncollected Baudrillard, 2001.
3 – Jean Baudrillard. Photographies, 1985-1998 (1999/2000).