Tuesday 13 March 2007

Symbolic Exchange and Death: A Farewell to Baudrillard

A more up to date, and to my mind more accurate reflection on Baudrillard can be found at this later article I wrote here

Jean Baudrillard died a week ago today. As someone who was nominally a sociologist and has been feted as one of the fashionable French big hitters, something would be amiss if AVPS didn’t comment on his passing.

Unsurprisingly most obituaries have tended to focus on the pronouncements he’s famous for, such as his declaration that the Gulf War didn’t take place, or that we live in a situation where we can no longer speak of the real. Baudrillard may have deliberately been courting controversy, but there were theoretical underpinnings to these apparent absurdities. He argued that because the production and circulation of signs had reached such a tempo that signs themselves are self-replicating and are effectively a (hyper)reality unto themselves. In this world it is meaningless to speak of the true and the false: all there is are simulacra and simulations. As Marxists make the distinction between appearance and essence, the visible and the hidden; we would argue Baudrillard’s social theory is but one of many approaches that take the appearance of things as they are. That is society only appears as an immense collection of simulations; signs only appear to self-replicate. Marxists also note that appearances have an affectivity all of their own, but maintain that their disembodied life can be explained with recourse to the far from hyperreal processes of capital accumulation and commodity circulation.

It may come as a surprise that Baudrillard began his career as something of a Marxist. His early works, The System of Objects, The Consumer Society, and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign bring together elements of Marx (alienation/commodity fetishism), psychoanalysis and semiology in an attempt to generate a materialist theory of the symbolic order, sign production and consumption in advanced capitalist societies. He initially did this by attempting to supplement Marx’s concepts of use value and exchange value with that of sign value, which is to say whereas commodities have functions (they fulfil a need) and can be exchanged for money, they possess a logic of symbolic exchange peculiar to a couple, or a unique group of people; and a sign exchange value people wear as a sign to others and which may be exchanged for other signs. This was the basis of his (essentially romantic) critique of consumption: symbolic exchange was imminent in each commodity. In other words the potential for bearers of commodities to enter into mutually beneficial relationships of gift exchange and social obligation without profit or alienation was smothered by the compulsion of economic and sign exchange imposed by the market.

Fair enough. But then Baudrillard began to take a step away from this critique by critiquing the category of use value. He argues that Marx “privileged” use value over exchange value, claiming that commodity exchange (capitalism) prevented production for use. By positioning his critique on this terrain, Marx falls for bourgeois ideology. That is use value, the myth of function, is as much an alibi of commodity production as the most sophisticated marketing campaign. In other words, use value is a sign like any other - it does the dirty work of capital by acting as an agent of abstraction, reducing the qualities of meaning to a particular referent and offering it up as something easily exchangeable. The circulation of signs semiotically performs the reduction of all to exchange value, thus in all essentials exchange and sign value are one and the same.

Marx and Marxism therefore do not so much as offer a critique of political economy as mirror its assumptions. For the early Baudrillard symbolic exchange offers the only truly radical position. Furthermore just as capitalism seeks to universalise commodity exchange and wage labour, so Marxism universalises its categories. The concepts Marx generated in his analysis of capital are historical and only really appropriate to the analysis of capital – to project them backwards into history can distort the investigation of pre-capitalist civilisations, justify metaphysical assumptions about their worth, and serve the interests of capital by suppressing the history of societies organised around the principle of symbolic exchange.

The problem with Baudrillard is that his critique of Marx was set against a straw man. Marx did not privilege use value over exchange value, rather he pointed out that in capitalism use value is incidental; in the sense that commodities are but means by which more capital is accumulated (of course capitalism cannot be blind to use value, a commodity has to do what it says on the tin or no one will buy it) . But take a copy of Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production for example – whether one reads it, allows it to gather dust, or uses it to get a fire going, capital doesn’t care as long as it was exchanged for money.

On the “critical imperialism” of Marxist categories, Marx and Marxists are well aware of the historicity of our categories: for example when we speak of imperialism today, we know that it is a different phenomena to that exhibited by ancient Rome. When we speak of labour, we know labour in hunter-gatherer bands is fundamentally different from today’s wage labour. It is true there have been a tendency among some Marxists, including Marx himself at times, to read pre-capitalist societies in terms of capitalism just waiting in the historical wings to break asunder their particular relations of production, but this trend has been decisively critiqued from within Marxism by Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. The final issue is with the standpoint of symbolic exchange adopted by Baudrillard: if we base our critique of capitalism on the view that commodity exchange falls short of symbolic exchange, we’re essentially offering an ethical critique, of measuring capitalism against a romantic ideal. Baudrillard’s position therefore can be used to justify political strategies that aim to restore a symbolic dimension to commodity exchange, such as fair trade or environmentally friendly consumption. In the moment he denounces Marxism for providing capital with an alibi, his radical alternative succeeds only in prettifying it.

It seems Baudrillard quickly realised he was on a hiding to nothing and gave up on his critique of political economy of the sign and spent the remainder of his career describing the contours of a reality that no longer existed because of its subsumption by the sign. In this world opposition can only be limited to a refusal to participate or, somewhat paradoxically, by pursuing a ‘fatal strategy’, where one consciously/unconsciously shows the absurdity of things by moving them to extremes. Hence we have the simulacrum of Jean Baudrillard, showing up the absurdity of himself and the system that made him through claims that mad cow disease was the vengeance extracted from humans by long suffering bovines, or writing ill-formed travelogues (America, Cool Memories) and having them passed off as profound meditations.

At least there is one thing we can be sure of. Baudrillard really is nothing more than a sign now.


Seán said...

This is an excellent post. It has given me a bit more clarity in relation to Baudrillard and his theories. Having tried to read him in the past, I've found him nebulous and obscure.


Welcome to the thirty club too :)

Anonymous said...

I think if you're going to study Baudrillard in depth it's best to read him chronologically. Through his early works the themes he later became famous for are gradually introduced. This is particularly pronounced in Toward a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign where at the beginning he starts off as something of a Marxist, and by the end he's gone the whole post-Marxist hog.

There's some good commentaries oin his work. Baudrillard for Beginners/Introducing Baudrillard is quite good as are the couple of sympathetic books by Mike Gane.