An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard: from production to reproduction

In this week's column, political theorist Andrew Robinson examines the importance of reproduction in Jean Baudrillard's theory of capitalism.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, May 4, 2012 0:00 - 0 Comments

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Workers at a Nike factory on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, assemble shoes, Oct, 2000 (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Last week, theorist Andrew Robinson explained Baudrillard’s theory of the code. In this follow-up piece, he examines the importance of reproduction in Baudrillard’s theory of capitalism, explaining why, according to Baudrillard, work is now an ideological cover for the system’s self-reproduction.

Baudrillard rejects the view that capitalism today is aimed at producing something, or satisfying some need or desire, outside itself. Instead, he argues that the system is today a pure system of reproduction.

Increasingly, the system puts aside most of its product to simply reproduce itself – through functions such as education, health and research. Much of this investment is actually just patching up the effects of the system’s own dysfunctions – health treatments for system-created ailments, responses to stress, compensatory coping mechanisms such as drinking, cleanups of pollution, petrol use to reach out-of-town amenities, police and military spending and so on. Yet it is made to seem like a rising standard of living.

With most of the budget going to keeping the system functioning, the population is left once more at a minimal level of survival. National statistics and the like become ‘accounting illusions’, which serve as a kind of magic or bewitchment. The immeasurable is left out, damage and obsolescence are either ignored or treated as gains, and so on. Each item produced is sacralised by being produced. In fact, production has become a system of useless waste.

The regime of the code leads to the end of production. This is because production is definitive of the second stage of simulation. In the third stage, the equivalential and measurable values of the second stage of simulation disappear. Production maintains all the features of the second stage, but as an artificially simulated imitation of it. Use-value no longer exists as a referent of exchange-value. Similarly, the imagined good substance of the social no longer exists, as the basis of real social relations.

Signs, instead of goods, now become equivalent. The code does not offer signifieds in which to invest. Instead, it offers the equivalence of all signifiers, thereby deterring them from signifying anything. The system of interpreting signifiers overgrows its referents. It develops with no relation to whatever it signifies.

The system is based on reproduction because it exists primarily to produce sign-value. In a system of signs, everything is exchangeable – anything can in principle be a sign of anything else. This has the effect of suppressing the symbolic. Life is emptied of emotion and intensity. It becomes an endless exercise in book-keeping. People still dream of competing, learning and so on, but their heart isn’t in it. Language is now without contradictions, because its intensities are purely superficial. Politics and economics are fused, because both become simply expressions of the code.

Today, all labour tends to fall under the figure of service labour. Baudrillard sees this as a kind of servitude or ‘infeudation’ to the system. Such servitude persists whether it is productive or not. What is important to the system is that each person be subordinated. The distinction between factories and society disappears in this phase. Labour is now ritualised. It doesn’t matter if it produces anything. It reproduces itself as a set of signs. Value, too, becomes simply a sign. Labour is primarily now a marked term, marking workers as a subordinate class. It even becomes a consumer good, something to be distributed.

Or rather, it becomes ideological. Institutions such as factories and prisons continue to exist so as to conceal the death of the real basis of the distinctions they incarnate. They persist as arbitrary classifications of people into categories. Wages cease to be proportionate or equivalent to anything. They become a kind of recognition as citizen of capitalist society, and slide towards the idea of an obligation to consume.

Production is now less important than the production of relationships. Relationships are now produced and consumed. People are attached to a productivity ego or image, rather than actually producing. Consumption produces signs of production. Life is simulated based on models, or ‘alibis’, drawn from earlier periods. All the old apparatuses of productivism have survived the collapse of their rationale.

This critique has political importance. According to Baudrillard, the left tends to help sustain the system by upholding the credibility of the categories which used to be real, but have become ideological: reality, production and so on. He leaves open the possibility that Marxism is largely accurate as a discussion of the second order of simulacra. However, he sees its categories as mystifying when applied to the code. It various phenomena as real, which pretend to be real, but which are not.

In everyday life, the effects of the replacement of production by reproduction include a constant labour to simply uphold a particular ideological arrangement of signs. Workers simply reinforce the imaginary ideology of work, police nourish the ideology of repression, prisons the ideology of punishment, and so on.

Politicians are no longer anything more than mannequins of power, of the code. They come to resemble the powerless chiefs of Clastrean theory. Even unemployed people may be forced to re-perform work-like actions with no purpose. The implication here is that these mechanisms lack the power to really repress an upsurge on the symbolic plane. This helps explain why, for instance, police are so easily outclassed by surprise events such as the August revolt.

Baudrillard says that the real has become the alibi of the model. In other words, the appearance of reality is used to cover up the fact that the model actually precedes it. The realities we see are like faraway stars which are already gone, but which we still see because of the delay caused by the travelling of light. Things are stopped before their end, and maintained indefinitely in the form of an apparition. People can point to an object and insist that it’s real, which in fact covers up the fact that its blueprint preceded it, and its meaning is primarily a sign-value.

The circularity of the system occurs because both production and consumption are planned, in line with the code. Circular space replaces panoptical and perspectival space. Growth in particular is circular, generating energy which it absorbs to sustain itself. Production falls into a system of orchestrated social relations. Workers are deprived of representation by mechanics of classification and discrimination.

According to Baudrillard, the lack of determinate references is the reason why money is now open to unfettered inflation and speculation. This speculation ‘edges closer every moment to catastrophe’, the loss of meaning of money itself. The speculative activities which caused the current financial crisis are an effect of the absence of any reference.

The social today is no more than work. And work is simply the reproduction of the social, which no longer believes in itself. The social has lost its imaginary, its myth and its stake. It is in a state of decay, perhaps already dead, and obscene to the view.

The reduction of all phenomena to exchangeable sources of sign-value is not without its costs. Because anything can be a source of value, radical antagonism is lost. It has to be artificially restimulated through events such as the Gulf War or condemnations of foreign regimes, or through the simulation of negativity and critique.

The invention of false adversaries can be seen in the various media-induced moral panics, the pathetic “terrorist” non-plots invented by the state, the mass militancy the police pretend to have forestalled by repression.

But this simply entwines the system with its inversion, making the system and its opposite interchangeable. The establishment of any residue of reality on which to establish power only speeds up the play of signs. The referents are combined in a kind of Moebius strip, perpetuating the simulated versions of past realities. Power is exercised to conceal its own absence.

This situation also leads to a crisis of modernity. Modernity is based on two myths: that material production creates social wealth, and that information produces meaning. In both cases, the accumulation of quantity leads to quality. For Baudrillard, these myths – and the society based on them – is collapsing. The reason it is collapsing is that there is an excess of information and of commodities. Meaning is not being produced. Instead it is disappearing.

The code also naturalises itself. It presents itself as already present in nature (for instance, as DNA). It creates scientific discourses based on the desire to objectify the world. They seek to deconstruct and then reconstruct the world, via its smallest units. (For instance, it seeks to identify active chemicals in plants and animals, extract them, and reproduce them as medicines). Baudrillard’s critique of this kind of science is that it abstracts from history, reproduction and death. It instead views humanity as deducible from an abstract matrix.

Corresponding scientific practices, such as psychoactive drugs, alter the body from the inside, without passing by way of representation or perception. Such science is also vulnerable, because it reproduces or simulates what it studies, causing its reality to disappear. The segmentary bar is strong in the case of animals, which in Baudrillard’s terms, have been confined to a separate, ‘racially inferior’ world. Animals are particularly problematic for the code because they do not speak – they cannot be brought into the generalised communication of the system.

Baudrillard analyses animal experiments as an attempt to kill uncertainty, which is associated symbolically with animals, and which stands for symbolic exchange. Animals stand-in for humans, who are also test-subjects in the form of the system’s constant questionnaires.

Modern abuse of animals follows closely the patterns of manipulation of humans. For instance, attempts to condition chickens out of the pecking-order, for instance, are parallel to attacks on human symbolic exchange, and produce a similar confusion and instability among chickens. Once again, the segmentation between two categories (this time, humans and animals) is less stable than it seems. It ultimately speaks of the debasement of humanity along with the excluded animals, of an unexpected reciprocity through which symbolic exchange crosses the boundary.

Refusing to animals the symbolic and the unconscious enables them to take revenge in this way. Each advancement in science simply pushes back the limits of representation and will, expanding the field of simulation.

This creates the illusion of a world which is unified under a single principle. This single principle is The Code, which today is identical to power. It attempts to establish total control over all of social life. This single system reproduces itself indefinitely. It reduces reality to constant repetition of the same system.  It creates an appearance of an outside which is actually illusory. For instance, nature is reproduced or simulated in conservation.

The system invents new discourses to make sure that nothing escapes its claims to total meaning. Subsystems such as psychology, sociology and psychoanalysis are invented, because people cannot be reduced to rational functioning. Yet these domains exist today only to restore people to rational functioning. They begin as the revenge of the excluded: the ‘mad’ bring us to psychology and subvert Reason; prisoners’ psychology is analysed when they can no longer simply be confined. But they finish as the annexation of the excluded to rational functioning, to the order of representation.

The more the representation expands, the more is simulated and the more meaning is lost. And after such changes, difference can then be used as a slogan by the system, since difference is afterwards contained in the system’s annexes.

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

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