ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 13, Number 2 (July 2016)


Theory As Symbolic Exchange1

David McFarlane (Graduate Student, Trent University, Peterborough, Canada)

Apparently ‘acritical’ notions such as mass are turned against academe, deployed against the grain, against propriety, against banality. Eccentric and improper styles of thought and writing are vital, for Baudrillard, because the system is so adept at absorbing critique, at neutralising resistance. The capitalist system actively encourages critique while neutralising it by transforming it into sign or information form… (Pawlett, 2007:85).

In the 1970s, particularly from Symbolic Exchange and Death onward, the style of Baudrillard’s writing fundamentally changed, creating “the challenge of understanding [the] work of a thinker who was clearly in the throes of a profound intellectual transformation” (Ritzer, 1998: 1-25).2 This shift is characterized by conceptual metamorphoses (e.g., the symbolic giving way to seduction and the fatal, the social becoming the non-concept of mass) aimed at ‘restoring a symbolic violence derived from ancient anthropological rituals’ (see Lotringer et. al, 2007:7-31) directly into the practice of theory-writing.3 This ‘restoration’ emerges as the ‘radical project [which] fed directly into the pamphlets that followed: Forget Foucault (1977), and then In The Shadow of the Silent Majorities (Ibid.); with these texts Baudrillard was recasting the parameters of what theory is and how it comes to inhabit and manifest itself in the world.4 Ritzer situates this restorative against modernity, where ‘[w]hat is lost is ‘passionate play’, with passion implying total involvement and intense symbolic value’ (Ritzer, 1998:10). In Seduction, Baudrillard situates contemporary forms of gaming as resembling the immanent intensity characteristic of symbolic cultures:

In Brazil there is the Jogo de Bicho: betting, lotteries and other games have seized hold of entire sectors of the population who risk their life’s savings and status. A distraction from underdevelopment one might claim, but even in its wretched modern version, it provides an echo of cultures where ludic and sumptuary practices generated the essential forms and structures of exchange - a schema that goes very much against the grain of our own culture, most notably in its Marxist version (Baudrillard, 1990: 152-3).

Despite such exceptions, the transcendental universality of contemporary societies characterized by what Mauss called the ‘abstractions and inhumanities of our codes’ (Mauss, 1966: 64) stands in stark contrast to the total involvement of all aspects of life structuring symbolically grounded societies:

We live in a society where there is a marked distinction. . . between real and personal law, between things and persons. This distinction is fundamental; it is the very condition of part of our system of property, alienation and exchange. Yet it is foreign to the customs we have been studying. . . these customs of gift-exchange in which persons and things become indistinguishable (Ibid.: 46).

Contemporary western life, characterized by an infinitely ambiguous combinatory logic of signification is, for Baudrillard, contrasted with a ritual order of necessary, yet arbitrary, rules and acts demanding complete observance of their unfolding despite being essentially meaningless, without depth. Games and rituals rest on obligatory pacts (positive, arbitrary rules) whereas the universality of contemporary societies binds by virtue of abstract legal prohibitions (negative, ‘hidden truth’ of law), the consequences of which are themselves ambiguous (e.g., a lone highway driver can exceed speed limits without legal consequence). In other words, compulsion to observe law may be highly circumstantial whereas the observance of the ritual rule lacks the ambiguity of legal ramifications. This paper assesses what bearing divergent forms of writing and social organization have on Baudrillard’s development of an agonistic form of writing that aims to generate symbolic exchange from within the practice of writing and theorizing. It is argued that it became necessary for Baudrillard to enact an ambivalent and reversible metamorphosing in writing to overcome the impasse created by his rejection of critical theory as a mirror of the semiotic order he vied to radically oppose. Here, one must keep the perspective of disinterested analytic in abeyance and understand theory, and writing, as symbolically active rather than disinterested, indifferent speculation. The move toward an agonistic style embodies Baudrillard’s conceptual problematic within writing itself; simulation and symbolic exchange become active forms within the movement of this writing. Reversibility is central to both the aforementioned forms of theory and social organization (symbolically grounded), be it the reversal of the counter-gift in potlatch or the reversibility of forms that circulate in Baudrillard’s oeuvre. Baudrillard’s writing abolishes the formal distinction of form and content by activating the content (concepts of the symbolic, simulation, etc.) within the form (style) while moving into the murky terrain where simulation and the symbolic transpose; a deconstruction of the former terms is accomplished through the latter (i.e., irruption of the symbolic into the semiotic simulacrum and irruption of content into form) (Lane in Smith, 2010: 42-44). These are examples of the reversible, where ambivalent terms struggle against each other though remaining irreducible. The argument concerning the necessity for symbolic exchange becoming intertwined within Baudrillard’s writing style is substantiated by examining key factors in the movement from critical analytic to the latter period of his writing where the reversible form increasingly comes to the fore. The focus is broken down accordingly: A) What is theory? It ceases to be a production – and accumulation – of epistemic objects and becomes an obligatory process of struggle and challenge. Interrogated ontologically, it is a symbolically active, utopic metamorphosis not relegated to inert Being. Theory moves away from static concept creation toward agonistic processes stressing obligatory symbolic pacts, implicating those involved both intensely and absolutely. B) Elements of style in Baudrillard’s writing are chosen and analysed in relation to ambivalent reversibility. These include: i. a precedence of words over concepts, ii. adversarial springboard (i.e., polemics) as a way of activating symbolic theorizing on the model of the counter-gift and iii. ecstatic theoretical objects stressing symbolic excess as a reversible form. It is demonstrated how these play into a symbolic writing in continuous change and metamorphosis, irreducible to a string of isolated conceptual objects and concepts. In fine, theory as symbolic exchange provided Baudrillard with a style part and parcel of the vital illusion rather than remaining, in his judgement, caught in banal simulation.

II. Theory as Total Agonistic Process

Social phenomena are not discrete; each phenomenon contains all the threads of which the social fabric is composed (Mauss, 1966:1).

Just as delusion is the pure, non-referential linkage of language, just as ceremony is the pure, non-referential linkage of gestures, rites, and costumes, so catastrophe is the pure, non-referential connection of things and events. There is no chance at work in all of this. It is rather a formal linkage of the highest necessity (Baudrillard, 2008a: 192).

Baudrillard repeatedly evoked theory as being a challenge to the world - to the objects and subjects in it - to appear and disappear (ibid.: 201; Baudrillard: 2007a: 118). To play at the level of (dis)appearances is to sidestep the depth of semiotic structure and a reliance on referents. At the level of appearances the referent (alibi) has no weight; this move simultaneously frees one of the fetters of depth in the signifier/signified distinction and also the homology of exchange/use, too. Theory reverses the precedence of causes over effects where the importance of appearances precedes the understanding of their unfolding. As with theory, the subject is challenged regarding the tenets of its being only by giving up its autonomous will as the causal nexus of its existence: " The will is something we must not consent to. It has been given to us as the illusion of an autonomous subject. Now, if there is anything worse than being subject to the law of others, it is surely being subject to one’s own law" (Baudrillard, 2008b: 12).

Perhaps paradoxically, the erosion of will and causality is not, for Baudrillard, associated with aleatory, chance happenings of the indeterminate - which is, rather, more characteristic of the ordering of semiotic, coded reality (Baudrillard, 1993a: 5)5 but rather, in this way, theory and life become implicated in an obligatory order of symbolic challenge: ‘the order of the the site of symbolic exchange. There is no more liberty, everything is locked in a sequential chain.’ (Baudrillard, 2007a: 88). As life itself, not merely will, becomes entangled with theory (Pawlett, 2007: 108-09; Baudrillard, 2007a: 82-93) this means something substantial for what theory is and thought to be. Ontologically, theory becomes questioned as to its function, its way of appearing and having effects in the world. Any epistemic function or injunction to produce knowledge – to create understanding – ceases to be the foundational mark of theory for Baudrillard; rather than producing knowledge as accumulative practice and retrospective analysis of data, the obligatory sense of the gift economy as treated by Mauss becomes raised anew and implicated in the creation of concepts. Theory cannot be taken discretely, in isolation, as Mauss stated of social phenomena understood separately. To manifest symbolic exchange within writing itself Baudrillard vied to make theory a total agonistic process akin to the total social phenomena of the potlatch that Mauss analysed where appearances (total prestations) are paramount:

...although the prestations and counter-prestations take place under a voluntary guise they are in essence strictly obligatory, and their sanction is private or open warfare. We propose to call this the system of total prestations. . . But the remarkable thing about these tribes is the spirit of rivalry and antagonism which dominates all their activities. This agonistic type of total prestation we propose to call the ‘potlatch’ (Mauss, 1966: 3-5).

Baudrillard is explicit about the importance of the counter-gift within the first pages of Symbolic Exchange and Death. The gesture of return – indelible to the process of reciprocation as mutual recognition of the parties involved (Henaff, 2009: 182-85)  – must be salvaged in its most agonistic form; the symbolic irrupts into those orders which have suppressed the counter-gift for exchange-value, cementing a unidirectional finality of exchange. In essence, what has been suppressed in contractual societies unlike those based on agonistic exchange6 is the possibility of return itself(i.e., counter-gift as a reversal of the donor’s initial gesture)as an affront to authoritative structures that unilaterally regulate social exchange functions. The semiocratic form of unilateral, linear (non-reversible) exchange simulates agonistic and polemical effrontery while recuperating attempts at delegitimizing hegemonic exchange.7 Hegarty notes that this hegemony can, for Baudrillard, ‘only be thwarted by returning the gift of death to the system that forcibly gives you life in the form of living [slow] death’(Hegarty in Smith, 2010: 86). With Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard emphatically outlines the prospect of theory having to become a reversible counter-gift that can - and must - challenge the ontological presuppositions of all existing theory:   

The principle of reversibility (the counter-gift) must be imposed against all the economistic, psychologistic and structuralist interpretations for which Mauss paved the way. . . a functional principle sovereignly outside and antagonistic to our economic ‘reality principle’. . . Everywhere a single form predominates: reversibility, cyclical reversal and annulment put an end to the linearity of time, language, economic exchange, accumulation and power. Hence the reversibility of the gift in the counter-gift, the reversibility of exchange in the sacrifice, the reversibility of time in the cycle, the reversibility of life in death, and the reversibility of every term and value of the langue in the anagram. In every domain it assumes the form of extermination and death, for it is the form of the symbolic itself. Neither mystical nor structural, the symbolic is inevitable (Baudrillard, 1993a: 1-2).

Baudrillard does not dismiss Mauss tout court but rather, by performing the function he attributes to radical theory as potlatch, turns ‘Mauss against Mauss’: forcing theory to maximal hypothetical (ecstatic) extremes and materializing a radicalized Mauss to contest normalized readings of the gift. The radicalized hypothesis is one form of agonistic process that returns the gift of theory at its limits, of thinking through a concept to its end, to its logical conclusion, instead of simply critiquing it from a position of feigned neutrality, exteriority and moral authority.8 The radicalization of hypotheses as outlined in Symbolic Exchange and Death’s introduction takes on specific instantiations (see below) and is pushed beyond the limited domain of adversarial polemic (Foucault as prime example), extending ‘theoretical violence’ to the world itself as realm of illusion. This is precisely how Baudrillard turns the limited gesture of polemic into a total agonistic process involving globalized cultural processes. Albeit ‘more aggressively than Mauss would have liked’ (Hegarty in Smith, 2010: 85), Baudrillard remains faithful to the agonism inherent in the gift by being more faithful to its logic than his predecessor.

Moving beyond epistemology, Baudrillard opens the ontological question - if only implicitly -  to not only rethink the parameters of a simulated real but going beyond this to the symbolic itself as radical (non)foundation of reality, i.e., as utopia: “Western thought cannot bear, and has at bottom never been able to bear, a void of signification, a non-place and a non-value. It requires a topography and an economics” (Baudrillard, 1993a: 234).This void is the irruption of symbolic reversibility, via the counter-gift, into the simulacrum of (semiotic) reality. Whereas capital, value, exchange and the subject rely on the respective alibis of monetary value, truth, reason and will, the symbolic order confuses or confounds these dependable referents, creating an opening, or gap, when breaking down reliable structures of relating to and understanding an environment. In writing and theory this means confusing the dependable structures of understanding what theory is, what it does, and thus how it should appear and behave; neither relegated to academic practice nor writing, theory - as symbolic operator - manifests as (radical) thought:

Thought has become an extremely rare commodity, prohibited and prohibitive, which has to be cultivated in secret places following esoteric rule. . . Everything must take place in secret. We shall take the view that the official thought market is universally corrupt and implicated in the prohibition of thought by the dominant clerisy. Every intervention by critical, enlightened and right-thinking intellectuals, all of them politically correct even when they do not know it, will be considered vacuous and shameful (Baudrillard, 2008b: 106).

This thought-void is a paradoxical excess, its absence - or rather non-sense - of order creates panic within the simulacrum of reality: "The absolute rule is to give back more than you were given. Never less, always more. The absolute rule of thought is to give back the world as it was given to us - unintelligible. And, if possible, to render it a little more unintelligible" (Ibid.).

It is not the gift as such but rather the counter-gift that is always in excess, related to fecundity as a principle of vitality in the anthropological context (Sahlins, 1974: 167). Given that Baudrillard scurrilously attacked use-value as a simulacrum - extractions from a fecund Nature - his notion of the vital illusion becomes intelligible: an excessive vitality, wholly artificial and lacking any natural referent as alibi of value: “Whether in poetic language, in the gestures of seduction, in ritual or gaming, symbolic forms are ‘vectors of a vital illusion’ (Pawlett, 2010: 100; Baudrillard, 2000: 29). The vital illusion emerges out of theory as radical thought, as symbolic counter-gift. One might approach the vital illusion contra simulation: "This gigantic enterprise of disillusionment - of, literally, putting the illusion of the world to death, to leave an absolutely real world in its stead - is what is properly meant by simulation" (Baudrillard, 2008b: 17).

Illusion is a gift in excess of reality’s sense or the structured and structuring ways of indexing and regulating knowledge, affects, images, and writing (Baudrillard, 1990: 34-35). Ontologically, this ruptures the reified, foundational Being of philosophy proper; transcendental structures are not refuted but sidestepped for a ‘ceremony of the world’ (Baudrillard, 2008a: 203-17), reinstating appearances and their unfolding as precedent over the truth of Being hidden beneath the surfaces of phenomena. Writing à propos of seduction, Baudrillard states: "The only thing truly at stake is mastery of the strategy of appearances, against the force of being and reality. There is no need to play being against being, or truth against truth ; why become stuck undermining foundations, when a light manipulation of appearances will do" (Baudrillard, 1990: 10).

Following the Situationist search for an ‘insurrectional style’ (Debord, 1995: 144) contra ‘whatever has been turned into an official verity’ (Ibid.: 145), Baudrillard states that radical thought’s reversals9 against entrenched, institutional thinking accomplishes ‘a détournement10 of being’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 93). Baudrillard tends toward conflict and contentious moments (situations?) of appearing and disappearing; rather than proving, a priori,the existence of the symbolic, it is performed as theoretical effect, not demonstrable cause. Theory operates not as explanation, necessarily, but as polemical disputation, contestation, and agonistic provocation of thought.

Instead of analysing theoretical discourse and an objective language consciously divorced from (conceptual) content, Baudrillard went further by enacting concepts - particularly that of the gift as symbolic ambivalence - within the process of writing to develop ‘a form of theorising that would be performative rather than descriptive, analytic or (in its various senses) critical’ (Wernick in Smith, 2010: 70). This agonistic theoretical practice is not unlike that of Ranciere’s conception of theory: an emphasis on (dis)appearing, often articulated in Ranciere’s texts as (in)visibility, sidesteps having to locate or argue about a guaranteed substrate (ontological foundation) of truth determining social relations. Ranciere: "I always try to think in terms of horizontal distributions, combinations between systems of possibilities, not in terms of surface and substrate. Where one searches for the hidden beneath the apparent, a position of mastery is established. I have tried to conceive of a topography that does not presuppose this position of mastery" (Ranciere: 2004: 49). 

Baudrillard’s sense of theory as symbolic exchange can be understood as a method and practice ceasing to be grounded in a reliable metaphysics of the subject (rational, calculating, atomistic, contractually bound, having inalienable rights) and object (source of use, exchange and sign value), passively manipulated as mirror of the subject’s productive labours and desires. Gane outlines the opposing metaphysics of contemporary society, taking for granted - via a ‘democratic ideology’ of consumption - the subject stripped of symbolic ambivalence:

What is significant in gift exchange is not a ‘norm of reciprocity’, but the production of fundamentally ambiguous relations. . . It is a transitive action. Yet this transitivity was broken, and the gift was transformed, by reification, into a consumption of signs. . . [objects] have broken away from the determinations of the transparency of prestation and relations in ambivalence. In other words the symbolic-exchange relation (in which the gift is never consumed, but always seeks to be returned), has in modern society been caught, frozen and ruptured. In its place we see, he [Baudrillard] says, the rise of the new metaphysics of the subject, the object, and the need of the one for the other as one of consumability (Gane, 1991: 82-83).

The subject as theoretical wellspring of (objective) action serves as alibi for social practice. Theory and practice are, homologously, framed as dialectically negotiated. Confounding dialectic rather than inverting or redistributing its terms (Ibid.: 151), Baudrillard opts for agonistic process, bypassing (telic) progress.11 Rather than alibi of societal norms and ideals, theory does not provide a metaphysical ground but an abgrund against which social reality is called into question. As the ‘phallic fortress’ of masculine identity is said to be a frantic, ‘obsessional simulation’ erected to ward off ambivalence (Ibid.: 148-51), the seduction of the feminine reveals the fragility of masculine depth just as theory reveals the void upon which reality is simulated. The simulated polarity of terms is revealed, rather than dialectically (op)posed, in an ambivalent process of reversion and metamorphosis, not of fusion but irreducible antagonism (Ibid.: 168). The void of theory is not a homogenous force, equivocating all it encounters (like the neutralizing mass), for it returns the structural polarities of simulation (pretense of difference) back to an ambivalent situation of the reversion cycle. This theoretical move drops the presupposed configuration of the subject and object of subjective (banal) theory:

...this ‘theoretical terrorism’ – fatal theory – is not thought of as wilful or unilateral but, on the model of gift giving, as a duel. . . The fate and fatality in question are those of the system, as one of general exchange, simulation and metastatic proliferation in every direction, and of the system considered as ‘object’: an object that has wholly vanquished (its) subjects, and incorporated them as relays and as agent-supports. Fatal as opposed to banal strategy (any strategy of the subject; politics as project or calculus) takes the side of the object (Wernick in Smith, 2010: 71).

Baudrillard aimed at revitalizing theory as depthless, vital illusion, made possible through a radicalization of the counter-gift process, infusing theoretical practice with the gift-cycle. Moving beyond his critical period, Baudrillard formulated a tenable theoretical trajectory - if only as paradoxical, precarious utopos12 – and his writing fundamentally changed although continuing to carry a spirit (ironically) faithful to his critical, Marxist roots (Gane, 1991: 78-79). This required drastic stylistic shifts encompassing polemical, agonistic and aesthetic forms13 that sit uncomfortably within the purview of critical discourse: “What counts is no longer only clarity and rigour of critical conceptualization, but on the contrary the effectiveness of poetic affinities in the very texture of theory itself” (Ibid.: 194). To reiterate, ontological rather than epistemic concerns drove Baudrillard’s reconfiguration of theoretical practice. This ontology is of surface over depth, of effects over causes, akin to Hume and Nietzsche.14 Epistemic categories (e.g., definition, identity) are secondary to the aesthetic surface of appearances.

III. Words in Passing

This section tackles exemplary stylistic attributes of Baudrillard’s writing selected for their connection to the aforementioned ontologico-aesthetic shift. Style becomes integral to the total agonistic process argued for here, irreducible to idiosyncrasy. Stylistic peculiarities buttress Baudrillard’s argument, manifesting as a form of challenge performed via concepts pervading his writings. Selected here are specific attributes, quite revealing and pertinent to his polemical tendencies. Firstly, excerpts from the retrospective Passwords serve to frame a crucial reversal concerning words and ideas operating in Baudrillard’s theoretical investigations. This reveals Baudrillard’s sense of metamorphoses in language that cannot be disentangled from the conceptual and, further, tied to the discussion of appearance versus depth: words circulate on the surface of things while concepts and ideas are necessarily caught in the (critical) problematic of epistemology and truth (e.g., the sr/sd division, latent and manifest content, etc.). The pre-conceptual immediacy of words - to borrowed from Baudrillard - move quicker than concepts: words rush by the mediated and dialectical play of meanings negotiated in interpretations of speech, writing and thought. This helps situate his stylistic moves that play with and play up the circulation of meaningless - yet affectively charged - qualities of language in its unfolding. Secondly, this section addresses the adversarial spirit in connection to the emergence of ecstatic theoretical objects: with polemics come ecstatic theoretical analyses - reliant on an object of attack to form an ecstatic reading - further serving to bolster stylistic flourishes and extreme theorizing. This focus reveals style as no mere epiphenomenon of Baudrillard’s work, crucial to the very movement of his arguments and the integration of the symbolic into theory. Abandoning theory as strictly epistemic pursuit and knowledge production requires stylistic tendencies that confound the image of theory as neutral articulation of rational constructs, revealing rhetorical artifice as crucial to agonistic theory. Concerning words, Baudrillard offers a personal yet theoretical commentary in the introduction of Passwords (Mots de passe): "... For words are bearers and generators of ideas - perhaps even more than the reverse. As weavers of spells and magic, not only do they transmit those ideas and things, but they themselves metaphorize and metabolize into one another by a kind of spiral evolution. It is in this way that they are ‘passers’ or vehicles of ideas" (Baudrillard, 2003: ix).       

The breakdown of mots de passe is easily passed over in routine usage; in the memorization of alpha-numerical combinations for email, Wi-Fi hotspots, etc., a nuanced sense of this word is overlooked. Mots de pass: words of passing and in passing, passing away from having died off (out of fashion, ‘out of touch’). An exchange and death of words concerns a disappearing act in language: exchange is implicated with a death which is not always human but rather, in this case, of the body of the signifier itself metamorphosed into other words and meanings: "Words are extremely important to me. That they have a life of their own and, hence, are mortal is evident to anyone who does not claim to possess a definitive form of thought, with ambitions to edify. And this is my own case. There is in the temporality of words an almost poetic play of death and rebirth: successive metaphorizations mean that an idea becomes more - and something other - than itself: a ‘form of thought’" (Ibid.).

Baudrillard’s word play helps contextualize the significance of words in this retrospective set of conceptual snapshots: each password circulating throughout Baudrillard’s oeuvre is given a brief musing. Rather than feigning access to the illuminated secret of Baudrillard’s work, the playful preface offers a hint that the elusive character of words - in passing - will not easily let things be revealed as they are, but only in continuous, elusive shifting. Smith offers the following observation applicable to Baudrillard’s aforementioned text and The Baudrillard Dictionary,from which these respective introductory remarks are culled: “The traditional idea of a dictionary is that it ‘defines’ and ‘fixes’ the meaning and usage of words. However, Baudrillard’s poststructuralist philosophy is both founded and styled on the undoing of that very idea (Smith, 2010: 3).

‘Styled on the undoing’ of reliable constructs, writing cannot be stripped of the murky difficulties posed by words. Baudrillard’s keen awareness of the word must be emphasized, repeating -in language - the recurring thematic of the object-enigma: the object ‘will have been the ‘password’ par excellence’ (Baudrillard, 2003: 3). If the object has, he continues, ‘remained the horizon of my thinking’ (Ibid.), it is also the horizon of writing at the level of the word which obstinately resists the writer’s attempt to domesticate it. Baudrillard’s writing can be conceived as an attempt to become more object than the word itself, turning the text as a whole into a ‘form of thought’ that morphs the obstinacy of words into obstinate concepts that resist understanding at the level of the idea: "We think we advance by way of ideas - that is doubtless the fantasy of every theorist, every philosopher - but it is also words themselves which generate or regenerate ideas, which act as ‘shifters’. At those moments, ideas intersect, intermingle at the level of the word. And the word then serves as an operator - but a non-technical one - in a catalysis in which language itself is in play. Which makes it at least as important a stake in the game as ideas" (Ibid.: x).

Early on, words became an explicit thematic for Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death emphasized the poetical movement of words as activating the fatal declension of the name of God (Baudrillard, 2003: 10) in poetic figuration, words circulate without the anchorage of (hidden) meaning, beyond the structure of the sign as signifier/signified division. Here circulation is that of the gift-cycle, a continuity without recourse to the finality of value, dissolving rather than ossifying sense:  The poetic is the restitution of symbolic exchange in the very heart of words. Where words, in the discourse of signification, finalized by meaning, do not respond to each other, do not speak to each other. . . in the poetic, on the contrary, once the authority of meaning has been broken, all the constitutive elements enter into exchange with, and start to respond to, each other (Ibid.:205). We could say, following Bataille, that the discontinuity (discursivity) of the name is abolished in the radical continuity of the poem. The ecstasy of death (Ibid.: 210).

To incorporate poeticized (symbolic) forms in theoretical analysis rather than staying at arm’s-length - i.e., becoming part of the movement of writing rather than remaining the object analysed - Baudrillard reduplicated the enigma of the object (word, concept) within the movement of his analysis, seeking active (metamorphosing) rather than passive (analysed) objects. This is exemplified with the anti-concept mass (Gane, 1991: 129-42); most relevant is the style of argument, divorced from and anathema to critical discourse proper. The following exemplifies such poetic extremity: "The social void is scattered with interstitial object[s] and crystalline clusters which spin around and coalesce in a cerebral chiaroscuro. So is the mass, an in vacuo aggregation of individual particles, refuse of the social and media impulses: an opaque nebula whose growing density absorbs all the surrounding energy and light rays, to collapse finally under its own weight. A black hole which engulfs the social" (Baudrillard, 2007b: 36-7).

Metaphorizing and metabolizing the social (word/concept) into or by the mass (as password, anti-concept) accomplishes for Baudrillard a rekindling of the reversible form of symbolic exchange in writing. This requires enigmatic objects to reinstate reversibility, confounding the simulation of value as a unilateral, unidirectional accumulative process. The effects of such analysis returns the social (concept) into an (mass-)object, far more wily and unruly than the expert - authoritative, condescending or conceited - would admit. Taken this way, Baudrillard’s staunch extremism is more modest than the sociologists he distances himself from (Gane, 1991: 202; Baudrillard, 2007a:95). This modesty is only paradoxical at first glance: one can argue much from the position of the symbolic for it requires no recourse to the epistemology of the expert who always has recourse to empirical data, to authority embodied in tradition (Gane, 1991: 131). The symbolic, on the other hand, is total agonistic ostentation rather than an appeal to historical or professional wherewithal.

The introduction of Passwords paints a playful image of words and concepts:
Because words pass, then; because they pass away, metamorphose, become ‘passers’ or vehicles of ideas along unforeseen channels not calculated in advance, the expression ‘passwords’ seems to me to enable us to re-apprehend things, both by crystallizing them and by situating them in an open, panoramic perspective (Baudrillard, 2003: vi).

A subtle theme emerges: ‘vehicles’, ‘unforeseen channels’ (detours?), and a ‘panoramic perspective’ are suggestive of travel,  of landscape in motion becoming (photographically?) crystallized. Recall Baudrillard’s statement concerning the revenge of the crystal: when words or ideas crystallize an opportunity of reversal and deception emerges, a fatal game of being taken in by their seductive qualities (Baudrillard, 2008a: 144). The enigma takes its revenge as extreme transparency reverses into total opacity, as obdurate and dumb refusal (e.g., the silent majorities). The human is not exempt from the object position: ‘[t]he object: “I am referring to all of us and to our social and political order” (Baudrillard in Gane, 1991: 174). Baudrillard becomes object under the scrutiny of analysis, is infinitely cunning. And if an ironic form of the object’s revenge is in language as potent as elsewhere, irony as ‘an endemic reaction against “final vocabularies” ’ (Rorty, 2007: 244) must confound the transparency of any password revealing a reliable image of Baudrillard, his own ironic humour (secretly?) pervading his text.

IV. Adversarial Springboard and Ecstatic Extremities

Another reversible form concerns theoretical rigour become rigor mortis, accomplished by dint of extreme, logical rigour itself. In Baudrillard's writing this assumes the general formula ‘more x than x’ (e.g., becoming more Foucauldian than Foucault in the polemical text Forget Foucault, or more real than real in the hyperreal of simulation) (Woodward, in Smith 2010: 66-68). Some argue Baudrillard’s most effective execution of ecstatic theory requires adversaries, tantamount to theoretical potlatch: " Baudrillard’s invocation of the logic of the gift was like a mantra. He hadn’t yet found a way of using his analyses performatively. It was the pamphlets that allows him to make this quantum leap. They made him realize that he could use reversal as a polemical strategy, escalating a system to the extreme limit until it tumbled according to its own logic. . . his pamphlets [Forget Foucault, In The Shadows of the Silent Majorities] also revealed that he was at his most incisive intellectually when engaged in this kind of challenge" (Lotringer, et. al., 2007: 15-16).

In fine, Baudrillard’s method is to push his opponents’ systems to their logical conclusion, revealing a weakness, a blind spot, when brought to the maximal (hypothetical) point of application. The pursuit of the ecstatic allows for Baudrillard to theorize in an aesthetically charged fashion rather than remaining locked in an academic exercise of formal rebuke or rejoinder.15 The ecstatic is not external to the movement of Baudrillard’s writing style which embodies and performs extremity as integral to agonistic theoretical practice, what might be called an ‘ecstatic aesthetic’. The extreme aesthetic16 reveals in Baudrillard’s work a complicated encounter with semiotics, a contentious situation concerning the difficulties of writing in the name - or, more aptly, anathema - of the symbolic, inescapably (re)semiotized in the gesture of writing (Gane, 1991: 92). The ecstatic is complicated by Baudrillard’s admission that theory is simulacral rather than strictly a symbolic challenge (Baudrillard, 2007a:122); the symbolic has been dubbed a term of simulation when rendered conceptually (Baudrillard, 1993a: 5). One must consider the symbolic ‘transpiring’ through simulation akin to the way Baudrillard has claimed there has only ever been symbolic exchange, the simulation of the economy (equivalent exchange) being only a guise obscuring the secret operation of the symbolic. Regarding The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard states: “We should speak, rather, of the transpiring, the ‘showing-through’ [transpiration] of Evil which, whatever we do, ‘shows through’ or transpires through everything that strives to ward it off” (2003: 36-7).

Hegarty documents evil as transpiration, causing the symbolic to show through the operations of simulation: "Baudrillard is in fact using Evil as a deconstructive term, one that restores duality, and through confrontation, the duel. At the same time, Evil is fundamentally caught up with simulated versions of goodness that are actually the thing that is bad" (Hegarty, 2010: 63).

What might provisionally be called Baudrillard’s aesthetic must be understood in this deconstructive sense, contra aesthetic regimes of simulated oppositions routinely transgressed (Hegarty, 2010: 6) as in the case of fashion as ecstatic form: ‘[w]hen everything is aesthetic, nothing is beautiful or ugly any more, and art itself disappears’ (Baudrillard, 1993b: 9). Baudrillard’s ecstatic does not salvage a simulated order (e.g., fashion as consumption of ambiguous values) but rather reveals fragilities. High fashion functions as a referent for widespread consumption of ‘in’ styles (‘[w]hat fashion shows preserve is ‘the alibi of beauty’) (see Coulter, 2013). Despite pretenses of radicality, the fashion world remains a referent for the right ‘look’, doomed once a style is ‘out’.  Baudrillard’s ecstatic is not complicit here, for ‘fashion is only a simulation of the innocence of becoming’ (Baudrillard, 1993a: 99). ‘The fashion cycle’ (annual return, retro pastiche) has nothing to do with the reversible cycle of the gift that abolishes referents of fashion, which fashion retains despite pretentions to the contrary. It may be haphazard to label Baudrillard’s stylistic extremities an ‘aesthetic’, for he often disparaged aestheticism as a simulated, ‘ethnocentric rewriting’ of potlatch (Ibid.: 90) and the spirit of symbolic exchange. Such an ‘ecstatic aesthetic’ pushes the aesthetic toward the symbolic, however provisional, for its limit remains that of writing itself caught in the inevitable play of the semiotic simulacrum. An ecstatic aesthetic must be reversible, turning aesthetic (value) into its opposite.

The ecstatic plays into reversibility, in going along with a theory rather than externally critiquing it. Activating the blind spot of theory requires internal escalation, not unlike the potlatch process of giving more in response to the gesture of an adversary; Baudrillard couples an escalated concept or situation (e.g., the masses situated in the implosive space of Beaubourg) with peculiar stylistic choices. Rather than meticulously gathering evidence to properly refute a competing theorist, Baudrillard blows the very propositions of theory out of rational proportion. Logic reverses into its opposite, revealing a madness internal to the operations of reason that triggers ‘the immanent potential for subversion and metamorphosis’  already at work within a given system (Pettman, 2008: 12) Baudrillard demonstrates that the object’s revenge occurs within theory itself: propositions turn against the theorist assumed to wield control over her own concepts, as ‘the object mocks the laws we attach to it’ (Baudrillard, 2008a: 27). Theorists failing to acknowledge ‘objective irony’ (see below) are trapped in a simulation of truth, for truth cannot be otherwise. To pursue the ecstatic, intertwined with the movement of adversarial challenge, Baudrillard’s writing ‘embrace[d] a superlative language’ making of escalated concepts ‘powerful enigmas [that] can be thrown against the hyperreal [simulation] as a kind of intellectual terrorism’ (Gane, 1991: 66). What Pettman says of challenge applies to theoretical production: ‘Baudrillard goes on to develop the ecstatic challenge of the ‘counter-gift’ to the restricted economy’ (Pettman, 2008: 11-12); to the restricted economy of theory - proprietary, institutionalized - the gestures of agonistic theory (as counter-gift) are directed:  

Indeed, this is the only genuine function of the intellect: to embrace contradictions, to exercise irony, to take the opposite tack, to exploit rifts and reversibility - even to fly in the face of the lawful and the factual. If the intellectuals of today seem to have run out of things to say, this is because they have failed to assume this ironic function, confining themselves within the limits of their moral, political or philosophical consciousness despite the fact that the rules have changed, that all irony, all radical criticism now belongs exclusively to the haphazard, the viral, the catastrophic - to accidental or system-led reversals (Baudrillard, 1993b: 39-40).

Excess and the ecstatic are not principles of natural fecundity but rather artificial process, of theoretical extremity (the objective irony of fruit that, ripened to the tumescent limit, bursts and rots before being picked, like the chemically treated watermelons of China’s Jiangsu province in 2011). The reversible, ecstatic form irrupts into the proprietary (‘restricted’) space of established theory, contesting validity and authority by infecting concepts, tearing them away from their (use) value. Whereas transgressions presuppose a utility to be extracted or fulfilled (needs, desires) on the model of metaphysical nature, whose boon is to be systematically plundered, symbolic irruption returns the artifice of the counter-gift to the system instead of  extracting value; like the symbolic ritual or ceremonial form, the counter-gift of agonistic theory reinstates the cycle, not linear accumulation and expansion. This is an involuted process:

The secret is to oppose to the order of the real an absolutely imaginary realm, completely ineffectual at the level of reality, but whose implosive energy absorbs everything real and all the violence of real power which founders there. Such a model is no longer of the order of transgression: repression and trans­gression are of the old order of the law, of the order of a real system of expansion. In such a system, all that comes into contradiction with it, including the violence of its opposite, only makes its expansion accelerate (Baudrillard, 1982).

The symbolic stands opposed to transgression which breaches obligatory pacts, replacing them with utilitarian, metaphysical (naturalized) ends. Transgression concerns the subject (moral, intentional, psychological, sociological, economic) unlike the object-centric theory of Baudrillard which abandons psychologistic models of subjectivity. Pawlett: " By contrast objectivity and subjectivity, the prerequisites of rational thought, are for Baudrillard twin illusions of equal banality. Though they might seem self-evident, the situation is never certain. We experience great pleasure, Baudrillard asserts, in denying or suspending reality, and the world and human consciousness live in a state of complicity, reciprocity and ‘entangling’ which prevents a final resolution" (in Smith, 2010: 101).

The symbolic, artificial, refutes the natural order. Law and its transgression are built upon the simulacral referent of nature, source of wealth and freedom (Gane, 1991: 101-103) Symbolic theory replaced truth with ostentation and prestation: the vital illusion of the world replaces the extraction of truth (value, episteme) from Nature (e.g., the search for origins, biological and genetic grounding of identity).
The ecstatic is a metamorphosis of reversibility, appearing elsewhere as ambivalence (e.g., in the sr/sd relation), the symbolic irrupting into the order of law, and objective irony (reversible form of language in poetics). Ecstatic theory opposes banal theory in the fashion of Berardi’s distinction between ancient and modern cynicism (Beradi, 2012: 161-62); the former gathers force by virtue of a necessary divergence from truth and reality. Modern cynicism, loaded with contemptuous words, never questions the ontology of politics - nor of reality itself - and cannot break from representation and identity. It assumes the truth and grounding principles of the systems it critiques while criticizing those who occupy the structural space of its simulation. This soft cynicism is what Baudrillard’s ecstatic theoretical writing - with its emphasis on metamorhposes and becoming - renders problematic. 

David McFarlane is a graduate of Trent University's Theory, Culture and Politics. Interdisciplinary M.A. program (2015). His current research interests include the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Speculative Realism, Christian Bök's Xenotext and other works tackling the intersection of aesthetics, technology and theory. He dedicates this article to Eulalia, born 2nd of May, 2016.  


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1. This paper is a revised, shorted version of chapter three in the Masters thesis The Agony of Writing Or Ambivalent Reversal in Baudrillard's Stylistic Metamorphoses submitted to the faculty of Theory, Culture and Politics at Trent University, defended 14 January 2015.

2. See Gary Genosko. Baudrillard and Signs: Signification Ablaze. London: Routledge, 1994. Genosko suggests that a hypothetical distinction between an early/late period of Baudrillard’s writing should focus on contributions to the journals Utopie (active from ’67-’78) and Traverses, which began publication in 1975. This is not inconsistent with the claim that with Symbolic Exchange and Death onward the writing radically departs from strict, critical scholarship. Smith argues the double spiral of Baudrillard’s work precludes any clear division of periods. Agonistic tendency is present earlier on but this paper focuses on the latter period. See Richard G. Smith. The Baudrillard Dictionary. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010: 57-59. 

3. ‘To want to specify the term ‘mass’ is a mistake - it is to provide meaning for that which has none’, Jean Baudrillard. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. Translated  by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Andrew Berardini. New York: Semiotext(e), 2007: 37.  He further claimed his only sociological project to be an ‘effort to put an end to the social, to the concept of the social.’, Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault. Translated by Nicole Dufresne. New York: Semiotext(e), 2007: 85.

4. This ‘restoration’ is not a nostalgic simulation of the cultural practices of Aborigines. Rather, Baudrillard aimed to transfigure theory itself into a symbolic process.

5. Determinism and indeterminacy are said to be annulled by the form of death - a manifestation of reversibility - which deconstructs not the opposition as such but the very stability of their being made opposable. Symbolic exchange can be understood as this form of death haunting systems of stable, regulated terms.

6. >‘The primitive analogue of social contract is not the State, but the gift...The gift is the primitive way of achieving the peace that in civil society is secured by the state.’, Marshall Sahlins. Stone Age Economics. London: Tavistock, 1974: 169.

7. ‘Just as the despot internalizes the nomadic war-machine, capitalist society never stops internalizing a revolutionary war-machine’, Gilles Deleuze. Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974. New York: Semiotext(e), 2004: 261. Baudrillard’s sense of semio-capitalism is aligned with Delueze’s claim that capitalism appropriates the strategies and practices of revolutionaries, turning them against rebellion.

8. See Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production. Translated by Mark Poster. St Louis: Telos, 1975. In Mirror, Baudrillard situates Marxism within the mirror phase of capital: Marxism is bound to capital as its shadowy critique. The central concepts of alienation, surplus value, use and labour are to be rethought rather than ‘liberated’ from capital’s functioning. Marxist moral critique here undergoes a radicalization of its premises. This explains Baudrillard’s move away from production as the central problematic of his writing.

9. See McKenzie Wark. The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International. London: Verso, 2011: 40-41. Contra all private property, the Situationist practice of détournement is close kin to Baudrillard’s practice of reversing propositions (e.g., Foucault’s) against theories. Like Baudrillard’s emphasis on fragmentary or improper thought, the situationist ‘method’ ‘restores all the subversive qualities to past critical judgements that have congealed into respectable truths’ and further, ‘[d]étournement dissolves the rituals of knowledge in an active remembering that calls collective being into existence’ . This echoes Baudrillard’s own agonistic process evoking the totality of life in its symbolic tendencies, or rather, inevitabilities.

10. See Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman. “A User's Guide to Détournement”. In The Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition. Translated by Ken Knabb. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006. This Situationist term is akin to seduction: ‘The French word détournement means deflection, diversion, rerouting, distortion, misuse, misappropriation, hijacking, or otherwise turning something aside from its normal course or purpose.’

11. The end of dialectic is also the end of ‘ends’, thus Baudrillard’s emphasis on extermination, i.e., ex-terminus, the abolishing of ends or finalities. This goes hand in hand with the return of cycles, of reversibility radically opposed to accumulative, historical processes with teleological finality.

12. Utopia is paradoxically empty (a void, non-place) yet full (not needing to be filled, not the space of alienation). It is exterior to the real because it lacks a principle of accumulation (value) and representation (not in the imaginary). It poses problems for the semiotic order because it does not exist under the division of the sign, nor under the division of the homological structure of use/exchange. Utopia reverses the finality of an accumulative, simulacral real, an emptiness which dissolves the regimes of value. See Mike Gane, op. cit., 114-115.

13. One should distinguish the aesthetic properties of Baudrillard’s style from combinatory aesthetics, critiqued in his early period as consumable differences (fashionable commodities). His is not an arbitrary intermingling of whims. An aesthetic discipline is evident; Mike Gane, op. cit., 31, emphasizes that Baudrillard’s work follows a poetical discipline that cannot be conflated with post-modernism as ambiguous, arbitrary play of signs.

14. See William Pawlett and Andrew Wernick in Richard G. Smith, op. cit., 49-51, 70-72, for some elaboration of Nietzsche’s influence on Baudrillard’s conception of fatal theory. Hume, to the best of my knowledge, remains absent in works by and about Baudrillard.

15. Baudrillard offends academic practices he equates with feigned sensitivity. He uses terms such as ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ to distance his writing from that of academic anthropology. See William Pawlett. Against Banality. London: Routledge, 2007: 35, 50. 

16. This extremist aesthetic is succinctly articulated in the prefatory maxim of The Transparency of Evil (1993): Better to die from extremes than starting from the extremities.