An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard: The Code

In the latest essay in his series on Jean Baudrillard, Andrew Robinson continues his exploration of the French thinker's critique and expansion of Marx's theory of alienation with an account of Baudrillard's theory of the capitalist code.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, April 27, 2012 18:00 - 0 Comments

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Jean Baudrillard

In last week’s essay, Andrew Robinson explored Baudrillard’s critique and expansion of Marx’s theory of alienation. This exploration continues this week with an account of Baudrillard’s theory of the capitalist code. This article shows how Baudrillard connects the critique of capitalism to semiotics, producing a novel theory of semiocapitalism.

In his more recent work, the idea of capitalism is replaced by ideas of simulation or the code.  The code, also referred to at various points as ‘regulation’, ‘programming’, ‘administration’, and so on, is roughly equivalent to what is called “management” in English elite rhetoric. It refers to the modelling, reproduction and influencing of social relations across different spheres.  Baudrillard sees it as depoliticising, de-ideologising, and creating a sense of vertigo. It rests on a claim to programmatic infallibility – the ability to pre-programme reality. It is a ‘total descriptive universe’. The ‘social’ in Baudrillard also refers to the dominant system, the network of control and security which produces people as neoliberal subjects. The ‘code’ and the ‘social’ both refer to what a more colloquial language might term ‘the system’.

The basic idea of Baudrillard’s theory of the code is that life, or reality, is subordinated to or replaced by a set of categories, and objects created from these categories. The code subordinates existence to a particular system of representation. This is similar to the Situationist theory of the Spectacle, Marcuse’s theory of operationalism, and before them, Marx’s critique of idealism. It is also similar to the idea of overdevelopment, which is sometimes linked to the displacement of social problems onto technology or the survival of the system beyond its limits. All these theories identify in bourgeois power a particular propensity to reduce life to abstract categories. Baudrillard likens the code to Marxian commodities. In Marx, all commodities carry one meaning: exchange-value. For Baudrillard, this simplified, repetitive message now extends to all of social life.

The unity of the capitalist system actually occurs at the level of the code. For Baudrillard, capitalism has now completed itself. It has perfected its own reproduction. This is why social substance has disappeared from it. It no longer needs an external support for its claims. It has completed itself because it has escaped the dangerous determinacy of production, which rendered it dependent on labour. We can’t tell real needs from false needs any more.

This account of capitalism is based on an alteration of the Marxist hypothesis. For Baudrillard, capitalism functions by domination, not exploitation. Domination works quietly, smoothly, non-violently, through reabsorbing each new phenomenon into the code. It is ever-present. It functions through relegation and exclusion from categories. It is based on a tautological imperative. The reproduction of this system does not require contradictions or scarcity. It only requires the mythical operation of the economy.

Reality amounts to representation here, not because reality is represented particularly well, and not because what exists is simply a product of language or perception. Rather, today’s reality equals representation because reality is actively remodelled in the image of its representation. It is constructed from the model. The model plans or anticipates the real – it does not represent or transcend it. For example, the blueprint precedes the building, the code precedes the computer programme, the operational plan precedes the military or police operation. The model turns ideology into a self-fulfilling prophecy: people and things become what they are imagined to be. This is sometimes called precession – the model or ‘simulacrum’ precedes, or comes before, the object.

The sign in a regime of simulation becomes digital and programmatic. Language is based on models drawn from computer science. Each sign is a bit of information, a variable, which is entered into systems for tactical reasons. They are binary elements, each set at zero or one. The complexity of language is reduced to binary signals. Reality is broken down into simple elements which are recomposed into binary oppositions – from question/answer pairings to two-party electoral systems. Signification is replaced by operational models. Beneath this process is the constant simplification of language – first by advertising, then by computer science. By putting together all the bits, a system can of command and control is created. Signs treated in this way lose the complexities of reversal, repression, real-imaginary distinctions and so on. Simulation here becomes circular and self-referential. It loses every objective reference to anything outside itself. Production dissolves into the code.  Everything becomes a circulation of signifiers.

Signs become a kind of black box which exudes power in a molecular way. People are incorporated in the code by way of being quantifiable – for instance, through questions and answers in surveys. The code controls by inscribing everything in predefined terms. Messages cease to be information or communication. They are now a perpetual test which tautologically restores the code, a self-referential discourse. There’s a culturally defined set of right answers, like on quiz shows, which one must give to be recognised as part of the mass culture. Yet this ends up with a situation where the system can’t gain endorsement. It simply ‘votes for itself’ over and over, or ‘does nothing but designate itself’. Testing also happens through shop window displays, which continually test the managed projection and integration of individual consumers. The society of the code is one big, constant test.

The code, meanwhile, is simply functional and tautological. It is what it is. It does what it does. It functions, but it doesn’t have, or need, a purpose. There is no “why” to the system. It is a closed circuit, a ‘lure’, without the force of myth or symbolic exchange. Or its “why” is simply the demand for the social, or the demand that the social function like a business. Social discourse correspondingly becomes tautological across many spheres: celebrities who are famous because they are famous, people who (socially) are what they buy the accessories to appear as, and so on.

This leads to the disappearance of the aspects of language and social relations discussed by semiotics, structuralism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. Baudrillard repeatedly emphasises the disappearance of such formerly important phenomena as metaphor and metonymy, fantasy, the imaginary, production, use-value, the signified, and psychoanalytic repression. The loss of use-values, signifieds, determinations, and ‘objective’ references is ultimately to the advantage of the code. Another effect is the loss of temporal depth. The universe seen before the camera (or CCTV) is ‘without secrets’. The camera substitutes for depth: for time, affect, space, language. The world becomes experienced as an eternal present. The drift towards operational abstraction also leads to a loss of depth and intensity. Things lose their expressive meaning.

The code is fundamentally disjunctive. It works by splitting, marking and barring – establishing conceptual separations between unequally valued terms. It operates mainly through separations and segmentations. It divides everything up into different categories, often binary yes-no categories. This leads to a system of inscription which domesticates transversal processes. In other words, it makes the diversity and processual nature of reality into an image of distinct categories, separate from each other. Our ‘reality principle’ or ‘effect of the real’ is really an effect of these disjunctions. The disjunctions in turn are only possible because of the repression of the symbolic dimension.

Social control has changed.  It used to function by the end:  it claimed to provide something. Now it functions by prediction and programming, and by constant mutations to absorb new coded elements. Elements are treated as totally commutable, taking on meaning from their structural variation in the code. Power is now defined by the code.

People are enclosed in signs. Cities are cut up into zones. Codes inscribe all acts and instants of everyday life in particular spaces and times. The city is now dominated by the circulation of the monopoly of the code. These patterns absorb or invent reality. They absorb it by reconstructing it in decodable form. Or they invent and anticipate it in advance, providing forms for it to adopt. They create a more flexible version of behaviourist conditioning, calculating specific ‘stimulus thresholds’ and forms of reinforcement. The code tries to bring everything inside it, including whatever was repressed before – the unconscious, revolution, and so on. Theories also become exchangeable, at the expense of losing their affective strength.

Although the code functions by segmentation, the difference between self and other is beginning to collapse. The code is simply operational. It doesn’t have an intense connection to any particular point in the segmentations. So the emotional energy invested in the segmentations is disappearing.  The gap between representation and represented is closed, because the represented is generated by the representation. Yet this does not provide an intense experience. It provides a generalised simulation.  The experience of intensity becomes residual, appearing in sites which haven’t quite been coded yet. This molecularity is very different from the molecularity theorised by Deleuze. It is a molecularity of control, an arborescent molecularity. Indeed, much of Baudrillard reads like he is describing an evil twin of Deleuze.

The social is taken by Baudrillard to be disappearing.  The social is destroyed by what produces it (media, information) and by what it produces (the masses). Originally a way of dealing with residues (excluded groups, poverty), it has now excluded everyone as a residue and rendered itself a residue. Formerly, it was a way to expend surpluses so as to avoid a moment of potlatch, and hence to preserve artificial scarcity and the system of equivalence.

It might be useful to think of the code as a kind of applied idealism. Models are first created, then applied to reality. Reality ends up conforming to the model. There is not, however, a perfect fit. We will see below that humanity resists being reduced to the code.

According to Baudrillard, at the productive stage, the system still referred to something outside itself – to its origins, to use-value and so on. This opened it up to internal contradictions and the idea of revolution, which referred to the system’s goal beyond the system. When the system encloses all of reality in the code, and stops referring to anything outside it, these ways of thinking are lost. The system becomes an indeterminate machine which simply operates.

Or at least this is how it appears. Baudrillard thinks that the code is often a myth. It rarely gets a grip on anything real, and it produces its own effects in a circular way. Statistics, for instance, can always be interpreted in different ways. People are not committed to the responses they give or the votes they cast. The pollster tautologically produces the answers given. Yet the system treats the code as the only reality. As a result, social substance vanishes from the system.

Unfortunately, this does not lead to a situation where the system comes up against an intractable reality. This is because the system injects the code into the whole range of social practices and relationships. In other words, they spread a simulated social reality on top of and within social reality. The two become indistinguishable and intertwined, to the point where social reality ceases to exist outside the code. For example, human resource management practices break down worker solidarity, reshaping the workplace on the model of the code. Simulated concern for neighbours, in the form of calling the council, replaces real concern.

Where something escapes the code’s modelling, it is ‘managed’, reinscribed, assigned a meaning. If this sounds like it leads to a reality which is somehow lacking in reality as people usually think of it, this would not be a criticism of Baudrillard – rather, he sees this management of reality of producing exactly such a loss of reality-effect for people living within it. The elite today are those who can control the code, or the process of signification. It is also possible to appear as elite by deploying signs of elite status. Class is a product of discriminatory signs.

The code is different from previous forms of capitalism because of the loss of privileged points of power. The function of God, or the master-signifier, is now diffused throughout language, as attachment to language in general. Instead of an overarching law or sovereignty, there is a micropower operating through operational functions, as ‘metatechnique’. Power is spread throughout the entire social field. It is cybernetic and aleatory, immanent and smooth. It hides itself behind transparency, behind the falsely transparent operation of things. In the same way, different social apparatuses or substructures lose their autonomy. Power is separated from any particular instance or site. It simply circulates, as something which cannot be located.

The master-signifier has disappeared, not to create the liberty of the subject, but to allow the matrix of the code to take its place. We also receive a phantom subject, another “you”, from the code. It is through this narcissistic subject that people become manageable. It creates a kind of narcissism focused on the double of the self, based on branching, contact and feedback. The responsible subject here disappears, as each person becomes simply an absorbent screen, a site for networks of influence, and a terminal of the code. People are confronted with the verification of behaviour, not with their own will or that of the other. Meaning is undermined by the absence of a self-other binary. Social control is now anonymous, diffuse, and almost random.

The body is no longer repressed but ‘desexualised’, in the sense of being denied intensity. This is how sexual liberation and women’s liberation have been contained. The body starts out as radically ambivalent, and as material for symbolic exchange. But it is divided up into categories, in ways which destroy its difference. The body comes to appear as a full, smooth thing, akin to a robot or mannequin. This thing is then desired almost as a second skin. It is reappropriated as something to be managed in line with the code. A ‘tertiary narcissism’ is then attached to this invented body. This ‘liberated’ body internalises the law which once censored it from outside. Repression functions to prevent symbolic exchange. This is a new, subtle form of repression and alienation which is everywhere today. Baudrillard sees it as becoming a ‘maternal’ model of control. It is not possible to stand directly against it, as it is against an external law. It is too good at manipulating us.

The code is the reign of representational language. Baudrillard argues that the arbitrariness of language (an idea he gets from Saussure) does not arise in the internal structure of signs. Rather, it arises in the imposition of the sign as value – the treatment of different phenomena as equivalent. Behind this arbitrariness of the sign is power, the strategic manipulation of reality. Representational language does not permit ambivalence. It works by means of distinctions. It is therefore part of a repressing agency. Meaning is always also silencing.

Each part of language is subordinated to the code of language, and treated as equivalent to it. Similarly, each part of the body is made subordinate to the idea of the subject. The space of representation is reformulated as a kind of unforgetting memory, ‘which forgets nothing, and belongs to no-one’. Yet the completion of this process in the code leads to the death of representation. Nothing is represented because no referent outside the code is recognised.

The effects of this situation on our perceptions should not be underestimated. The power of the code operates on a very deep level. Even things which are experienced as pre-conceptual and pre-cognitive are often actually organised by coded perceptions. Hence, people’s sense of reality comes to refer to the system. When people think they are reality-checking, they are usually checking against the logic of the system. The signifier designates itself under the cover of the signified.

This form of social power creates a reality which seems at once total and apocalyptic. The code generates at once the message, the medium and the real. The resultant closed system blocks our thoughts, making implosion seem catastrophic. It is a kind of ‘ultimatum of meaning’, blackmailing people with the loss of meaning if they go outside the system. Since nothing outside the system is thinkable, the possibility or existence of anything outside the system comes to seem chaotic and threatening.  Baudrillard does not believe in the argument made by some critics that capitalism is now hedonistic, tolerant and reflexive. There is really only a veneer of tolerance, beneath which there is a programmatic discipline.

Although the code is the fulfilment of capitalist control, it is also the beginning of its unravelling. The code is seen as the completion (and possibly also the negation) of the law of value, as a simple, compulsive, terroristic reproduction of a system with no external goal. In the current stage, the system begins to unravel, as the separations that ground it fall apart. As a system approaches perfection, it also approaches its own downfall. This is because the system becomes tautological – at once claiming total truth and referring to nothing outside itself. It is through this tautological status that the system retains control, in spite of only partly retaining anyone’s commitment.

[Part Six will be published next week. Click here for other essays in this series.]

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