An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard: Symbolic Exchange

Jean Baudrillard is one of the most lauded theorists of poststructuralism, yet is widely regarded as a cynic and fatalist. In a major 14-part series, Andrew Robinson reinterprets Baudrillard as anti-capitalist theorist of alienation and resistance. This week's introduction presents Baudrillard's account of symbolic exchange as a crucial dimension of non-alienated life.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, February 17, 2012 10:59 - 0 Comments

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The French sociologist and critical theorist Jean Baudrillard is widely regarded as one of the leading theorists of ‘postmodernism’, despite his own rejection of the label. Yet in many ways, his work is better viewed as a kind of anarcho-nihilism, rooted in a radical critique of capitalism. Like many theorists of his generation, he was deeply influenced by Situationism, and its deepening of the Marxist critique of alienation. His early work exudes radicalism of a broadly similar vein. His later work becomes increasingly pessimistic, but without losing radicalism at the level of critique. His early work fits easily into the model of Marxism and critical theory. His later work is rather harder to locate or interpret. He is sometimes referred to as a ‘fatal’ theorist who sends theory beyond its limits.

Baudrillard’s points of interest to activists are mostly in his analysis of alienation, termed “simulation” in his more recent works. It is often difficult to extract these points because of the difficulty of his work. He writes in a suggestive, provocative style often lacking supporting evidence or argument. He is basically presenting his own way of seeing, challenging the reader to make sense of the world through a particular frame. Baudrillard’s work is sometimes seen as taking a stance of an object among objects, barely participating in the world which it recounts. Of course, most of the people who read Baudrillard are academics – and a lot of them aren’t very interested in using his work for radical ends. So he often gets spun as an apolitical, ironic, purely cultural theorist. He has also influenced postmodernist art genres such as Simulationism.

I’ve divided Baudrillard’s theories up into three broad areas: symbolic exchange, simulation, and resistance. Symbolic exchange is Baudrillard’s view of the un-alienated dimension of human life which is missing today. Simulation is his view of capitalist alienation. His theories relating to resistance – seduction, the masses, terrorism, and so on – suggest how he sees alienation being overcome, or collapsing.

First of all, a bit of context should be filled in. Baudrillard comes out of the structuralist school of theory, the same school as Roland Barthes. He sees the world as a field of manipulable signs. He relates this theory to the functioning of capitalism. The function of the sign, restricting references to one meaning only, is complicit in capitalism as a way of encouraging abstraction, reduction and exclusion. Contrary to popular opinion, he doesn’t suggest that reality doesn’t exist. Rather, he thinks it can’t be contained in a regime of signs. Reality is impossible to represent. He therefore thinks we’re losing touch with reality, or with a reality-effect, an experience of reality. He also thinks we’re caught in a regime of manufactured scarcity. Needs are manipulated by social dynamics so as to become insatiable.

Symbolic exchange and initiation

Symbolic exchange – the aspect of life which is missing today according to Baudrillard – is central to his entire theory. If simulation is the exchange of signs with signs, symbolic exchange is the exchange of signs with the real. Baudrillard treats the symbolic as an “outside” to representation, the code, value, production, the law, master-signification, and the unconscious – hence as radically other to most of the familiar institutions and roles of capitalist/statist systems. Baudrillard’s idea of symbolic exchange is loosely based on Marcel Mauss’s analysis of gifts in indigenous social life, though he takes it in a different direction from Mauss, using it to analyse what is missing in today’s capitalist societies.

There were, according to Baudrillard, societies without the social. They existed without the kind of representational systems which create the appearance of social life in modernity. Instead, they were based on networks of symbolic ties.

They were outside production because their social forms were instead based on excess, expenditure and the symbolic. Excess exists instead of surplus or accumulation. Nothing is taken from nature without being returned. They were neither societies of scarcity, nor did they limit their “production” to avoid a “surplus”. They were simply outside the logic of production.

Symbolic exchange is fundamental to the nature of ‘society’ in such groups. People in indigenous groups are not simply born, biologically. They become part of society through initiation. This is a process marked by exchanges and rituals. Forms of marking, such as tattoos, turn people and the world into material for symbolic exchange. They then enter into an uninterrupted, ongoing process of exchange. According to Baudrillard, initiation is a second birth, into a symbolic order. It breaks the Oedipal nexus of natural birth. The whole body can be used in exchange. Initiation, torture, tattooing, as well as sexuality were used to perform symbolic exchange.

The idea of seduction (more on this later) is closely linked to symbolic exchange. Seduction is a type of initiation. Those who ‘seduce’ someone become the second, initiatory parents. Initiation is a pure ‘event without precedent’ which is the beginning of a destiny. Destiny is taken to escape history, causality, determination and genesis, at least on the level of experience. It is something which ‘happens without your having anything to do with it’ – in other words, it is experienced as extra-subjective.

Symbolic exchange allows people and objects to enter a realm of destiny, where things aren’t arbitrary. Destiny is distinct from chance, probability and the aleatory – which are central aspects of modernity. The chance happening, such as birth, does not create an event. A true event only occurs via a second birth or death. Only through true events do we attain intensity. Crucially, symbolic exchange establishes a relationship between signs and reality. It allows signs to “mean”.

Reality is here conceived as subjective, experiential, and expressive. In one passage in The Consumer Society, Baudrillard identifies the symbolic with a childlike emotional response to a new object or gadget. Such a response is intense, ignorant of fashion, and disregarding of others’ demands for particular meanings. It is the opposite of how consumer society works. The introduction of combinations of elements, rules of the game and so on is seen as eliminating such libidinal investment of objects. Passion is replaced by indifferent fascination or curiosity. He also suggests there was initially an absence of reproducibility in indigenous society, to the point where the existence of two identical books is bewildering.

Symbolic exchange also gives us a singularity or uniqueness. Symbolic exchange gives objects an individuality which rips them out of sign-, use- and exchange-value. Each object becomes unique, ambivalent and reciprocal or reversible with other objects. Initiation is based on the possibility for any system or category to overflow into others – to escape its path-dependency and jump tracks. It also removes the separation, and therefore the meaning, of things. This removal of separation causes an intense enjoyment. Indeed, Baudrillard sees this reversibility or ambivalence as the sole source of enjoyment. (Enjoyment should here be seen, as in Lacanian theory, as distinct from ‘pleasure’). Humour is a remnant of this kind of reversible enjoyment.

There is also no bar between subject and object in symbolic exchange. The subject does not attempt to master the object, but rather, accepts being analysed by it in turn – a relation of reversibility. Similarly, humans and animals are part of an interchangeable cycle. Genders are reversible (it is modernity which strictly establishes gender binaries). According to Baudrillard, we should respect the inhuman. Cultures dismissed as fatalist actually find their law from the inhuman. Symbolic exchange also destroys the other cherished separations of modernity. Sexuality, for instance, does not exist outside modernity. Sex is simply part of a cycle of exchanges.

Initiation is fundamentally a group, rather than a privatised or massified, phenomenon. It is a passage through the cycle of life and death, through a symbolic event in which one is reborn as a social being and hence enters the field of symbolic exchange. It summons away the splitting of life and death, and therefore fatality towards life. In the symbolic order, life is to be exchanged and returned, eventually returned to death. As a group event, it also separates a particular group from the whole of humanity. The specificity of a symbolic society also depends on a boundary against other groups, a “them and us”. This process is also not individualised, as in Oedipal psychology, but occurs through a collective movement of exchanges.

Symbolic exchange is based on the pact, challenge or alliance, which are consciously artificial and initiatory. It is based on ritual defiance and obligation, rather than liberty; metamorphosis, rather than the accumulation of energy.

Although it grounds an experience of things as meaningful, symbolic exchange is not heavy with meaning and truth. For Baudrillard, the most intense human experiences don’t come from bodies or from the natural. They come from artificial systems. Rituals produce ecstatic connections based on esoteric rules. They have no meaning. They instead introduce people into initiatory cycles or appearance and disappearance. Baudrillard argues that symbolic ritual is esoteric, whereas Christian ideas of love are exoteric. Symbolic exchange occurs as a light, superficial play of signs without meaning. This contrasts with later systems of emotional investment heavy with meaning. Rules are necessary to symbolic exchange, but are something people simply invent, with ‘the intensity and simplicity of child’s play’.

Symbolic change is based on reversibility. Its structure is based on reciprocal exchange between peers rather than a master-signifier or ruling father-figure. It is thus ‘an autonomous principle of social organisation’ – a horizontal principle, compatible with autonomous groups. Baudrillard is here deeply critical of the Lacanian view on which he has otherwise drawn so extensively. He does not believe that social life requires a master-signifier. According to Baudrillard, indigenous groups have access to the symbolic without passing through the mediation of the master-signifier. They instead ground the symbolic in the cycle of reversible exchanges. Real communication is reciprocal – it invites a response, and a stance of responsiveness or responsibility for the other.

This reverses or undermines the linearity of time on which capitalism is grounded. It establishes time as cyclical instead of linear. This reversal is connected to the idea of destiny. If time runs in both directions – forward and backward – it is in a sense reversible. Modern culture only sees time moving forward.

Baudrillard argues that the modern unconscious is arranged around the ideas of killing, devouring and possessing. The indigenous unconscious is instead arranged around the ideas of giving, returning and exchanging, which organise collective processes of exchange. These ideas assume a reversible, cyclical logic. Indigenous systems are also based on kinship and direct needs. The transition to consumer society occurs through the invention of artificial needs, akin to Barthes’s second-order significations.

Despite its group-defining function, symbolic exchange is also defined in terms of the overcoming of separations, segmentations and boundaries. Symbolic exchange is a regulated play of signs and appearances, including ceremonies of metamorphosis. It doesn’t accumulate profits or meanings. It doesn’t alienate people from each other or the world. For Baudrillard, the symbolic also puts an end to all the other bars and splits. It puts an end to the ‘effect of the real’, the experience of real disjunctions based on categories.

Symbolic exchange also refuses any separation of life and death. Life given over to death, or death given meaning for the living, are forms of symbolic exchange. It also does not know the nature-culture split, since the territory is different from the modern idea of nature. The relationship to the dead exists instead of alienation. In the west, people are alienated by internalising an abstract agency. The relation to the dead and with shadows or doubles instead occurs through a concrete connection, a ‘non-alienated duel-relation’. Death, seen in this way, is a kind of social openness, an undoing which breaks down social separations – perhaps even a form of reproduction prior to sexuality. This is similar to Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque.

In this process, parts of the body and of language are made autonomous, as separate agencies. This process overcomes the splits and separations which characterise modern thought. It multiplies one being into many others just as alive as the first. This is a process beyond the economic. The fusion of phenomena beyond the boundaries of categories creates a field of festivity, loss, and eroticism, instead of a field of general equivalence. It is also beyond science, because it involves contaminations and exchanges across categories. Life and death are exchangeable, rather than mutually exclusive. Meaning is mortal, but images, and seduction by images, are immortal.

Ceremonies function as a kind of violence against meaning and against linear time. This is what makes them seductive. Ceremonies have a slowing effect, drawn from their connection to destiny. They are counterposed to spectacle and spectatorship. They are immanent to the experiences of participants, and work through power rather than pleasure. Baudrillard sees ceremony as operating at an extra-subjective level, creating zones of intensity which are not those of the ego.

Rather than survival and existence, ceremony and destiny focus on appearance and disappearance, and metamorphosis. This is the field which is seductive, which creates the ‘scene’ of fantasy. It is not, Baudrillard argues, a transgression. The reversibility of indigenous cultures is dissimilar from the repression-liberation dynamic of repressive cultures. Things are reversed, not to overturn, but to cyclically return. The initiation governs our relationship to violence. Therefore, violence has become a ‘problem’ today, something that can’t be conceptualised. It is also a situation where collective rituals produce signs – rather than signs producing culture.

For Baudrillard, symbolic exchange is fundamental to human psychology and existence. All differences are ultimately exchangeable. Reversibility or reciprocity never ends. Every discrimination, every creation of an unmarked term or a privilege, is imaginary. The term which is subordinated returns in greater force. Whereas the code (see below) is linear and repetitive, the symbolic is cyclical and reciprocal.

The territory of the group is the site of a complete cycle of exchanges, such as cycles of wealth distribution, exchange of partners, and ritual exchanges – an indefinite cycle. Only once the territory is lost do people develop an unconscious instead. It is a homeplace, an ecological site to which the organism is densely connected. It is the site of exchanges between the organism and the ecosystem – an ecologically non-alienated site. This view is posited as a critique of ideas of liberation of desire and of deterritorialisation. For Baudrillard, a return to territory is instead what people secretly desire.

The accursed share is the secret of symbolic exchange. This is a fragment of one’s own life which is given away, thereby entering cycles of giving, receiving and returning. According to Baudrillard, the accursed share cannot be breached or recuperated by the dominant order. It remains irreducible to it, and fatal to it. This, for Baudrillard, is the key to bringing down the system.

Secrets are also central to symbolic exchange. Secrets do not conceal something specific, but rather, stand in the place which would show there is nothing to reveal. Secrets are seductive. They are very different from repressed content, which can be interpreted. Indigenous groups tend to confuse signifier and signified to the advantage of the signified content. In contrast, consumer society confuses them to the advantage of the signifier. Culture is fundamentally connected to initiation, secrets and symbolic exchange. Hence the loss of culture today.

Symbolic exchange is, perhaps, connected to the diffusion of power. It makes concentrated power impossible, because every act of power can be returned reciprocally. Power is abolished by the ‘counter-gift’, by the reversibility of symbolic exchange. This argument is reminiscent of Clastres’ analysis of the defence of diffuse power among the Guarani. The possibility of immediate retaliation, and the fearlessness of each group in defending its autonomy from every attack, prevent concentrated power-formations such as states from embedding themselves in Guarani life.

Baudrillard believes that western society has lost the initiatory or symbolic dimension. Discussing historical objects such as mummies, Baudrillard argues that modern culture destroys them by transplanting them from a symbolic to a scientific order. The violence towards secrets is a necessary effect of this transition. The present relates to the past by killing it and then trying to revive it through simulation.

Yet symbolic exchange continues to haunt the society which killed it. Signs were formed initially as expressions of the ceremonial level of existence. This is why they are often subversive today. They don’t function by economic exchange. Rather, they draw up pacts of alliance. In Baudrillard’s work, the pact is counterposed to the contract as a model of social relations.

Baudrillard largely endorses a Lacanian model of the basic nature of human desire. He sees everything ultimately coming down to the subject’s relation to its own lack. Symbolic exchange is based on this fundamental relation, minus the Lacanian insistence on a master-signifier. However, Baudrillard is also post-Lacanian, in that he insists that the symbolic, imaginary and real are all dead in contemporary capitalism. The Oedipal construction of desire has stopped working. The present, ‘simulated’ world is the culmination of a long reduction and elimination of the symbolic dimension.

Symbolic exchange also appears in sects, communities and small groups. The ‘self-management’ of salvation through the ‘symbolic exaltation’ of the group undermines the abstract universality of the code and of religion. Baudrillard here refers to images of death in the Middle Ages, which were celebratory and joyous. In discourses such as religion and medicine, individualisation allows for new practices. It destroys the power of symbolic exchange. Symbolic exchange is also not limited to humans. Animals also engage in symbolic exchange.

The closest parallel in discussions of activism is Abby Peterson’s use of the idea of the bund or neo-sect. Peterson argues that activist groups are integrated by a type of communion of affective experience derived from particular events or struggles. This is how they are able to operate without formal organisations, master-signifiers and strict group norms. In Baudrillard’s terms, we might say that people are initiated into activism through particular experiences. They then inherit a meaning, a destiny, which separates them from the mainstream.

On the whole, however, capitalism leads to an experience of life without symbolic exchange. For Baudrillard, the loss of symbolic exchange is by no means a matter of a positive, progressive development. Rather, the loss of symbolic exchange has created a kind of primordial trauma in modern humans. We yearn for our lost continuity and interconnectedness.

[Part two of the series will be published next week.]

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