ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)


Revisiting Symbolic Exchange: Baudrillard’s Aristocratic Critique

Dr. Paul O. Mahoney
(Dublin, Ireland)

Symbolic exchange remains one of the best-known and yet obscure elements of Baudrillard’s thought. It seems to be essentially left behind after L’échange Symbolique et la Mort (1976), but it is only the term that is dropped. It is not a change in Baudrillard’s understanding or any substantial refinement of his position that prompts this, but, apparently, a failure of his public to understand him: “…this category of the symbolic became unworkable,” he remarks frankly. “There was too much confusion about the term. So I dropped it” (Baudrillard in Gane, 1993:50-66). In a way, it is the ideal Baudrillardian concept: not merely because it comes from the pen of the man whose work makes this adjectival form of his name possible, but because it constitutes something of a theoretical event, a one-off attempt to develop a critical language that is afterward dropped by its creator. Its appearance is related to a specific moment, a critical intervention in a particular time and place, or a particular theoretical scene [one that had come to be dominated by Freudianism and Marxism, and characterised by the attempted syntheses of these two beasts into a kind of theoretical chimera] (Baudrillard, 1993:237-8; 2004:18-19) and one of the effects of this critique is to ensure its subsequent disappearance.

That Baudrillard’s thought on the matter is not subject to any great revision is clear from the fact that symbolic exchange metamorphoses, via the concept of seduction, into the principle of evil, without any significant departure from the meaning or application of the original term. Crucially, throughout these terminological shifts, the concept retains its relationship to Bataille’s idea of la part maudit, of which symbolic exchange is originally presented as a variant. In an important article from the same year as L’échange Symbolique…, Baudrillard emphasises the importance of Bataille’s critique of traditional political economy, while simultaneously criticising that account for its “naturalisation” of Marcel Mauss and neglect of the concept of the counter-gift.

Bataille fonde son économie générale sur l’«économie solaire» sans contrepartie, sur le don unilatéral que nous fait le soleil de son énergie: cosmogonie de la dépense, qui se déploie en une anthropologie religieuse et politique. Mais Bataille a mal lu Mauss: le don unilatéral n’existe pas. Ce n’est pas la loi de l’univers. Lui qui a si bien exploré le sacrifice humain des Aztèques aurait dû savoir comme eux que le soleil ne donne rien, il faut le nourrir continuellement de sang humain pour qu’il rayonne. Il faut défier les dieux par le sacrifice pour qu’ils répondent par la profusion. Autrement dit, la racine du sacrifice et de l’économie générale n’est jamais la pure et simple dépense, ou je ne sais quelle pulsion d’excès qui nous viendrait de la nature, mais un processus incessant de défi (Baudrillard, [1976b] 1987.

This early statement of differentiation and the decision in favour of Mauss is recalled and reiterated in a late interview; thus we are further inclined to believe that the concept of symbolic exchange as first formulated remains, without significant revision, at the core of Baudrillard’s thought (Baudrillard, 2004:39. In this amendment of Bataille (Baudrillard insisting on the impossibility of the unilateral gift and the cycle of reciprocal exchange unto potlatch) notwithstanding, we can readily recognise Bataille’s critique and his notion of the accursed share as essential reference points in the development of Baudrillard’s concept of symbolic exchange. Thus the record of how Baudrillard frames Bataille’s critique at this time, and his judgment as to its fundamental character and most important aspects, serves as a valuable indicator concerning the character and intention of his own work. In assessing Bataille’s work, Baudrillard emphasises its radical, supra-Marxist character—coming close to suggesting that it exposes Marxism as “le miroir de la production” – and importantly, stressing its “aristocratic” character. He writes:

Cette critique est une critique non marxiste, une critique aristocratique. Parce qu’elle vise l’utilité, la finalité économique comme axiome de la société capitaliste. Alors que la critique marxiste n’est qu’une critique du capital venue du fond des classes moyennes et petites-bourgeoises, à qui le marxisme a servi depuis un siècle d’idéologie latente: critique de la valeur d’échange mais exaltation de la valeur d’usage – critique donc en même temps de ce qui faisait encore la grandeur presque délirante du capital, de ce qui restait en lui de religieux sécularisé: l’investissement à tout prix, au prix même de la valeur d’usage. Le marxiste, lui, cherche un bon usage de l’économie. Il n’est donc qu’une critique restreinte, petite-bourgeoise, un pas de plus dans la banalisation de la vie vers le «bon usage» du social! Bataille, à l’inverse, balaie toute cette dialectique d’esclaves d’un point de vue aristocratique, celui du maître aux prises avec sa mort. On peut taxer cette perspective de pré- ou post-marxiste. De toute façon, le marxisme n’est que l’horizon désenchanté du capital – tout ce qui le précède ou le suit est plus radical que lui (Baudrillard, [1976b] 1987:3-5).

In this light the importance of Bataille’s work, and in particular the concept of the accursed share, can scarcely be underestimated in assessing the meaning and intention of Baudrillard’s symbolic exchange-based critiques (Baudrillard, 2003). 1 

Some confusion in this regard is perhaps inevitable, in the first instance given Baudrillard’s rather loose attitude to acknowledgement of his sources (perhaps in this if in no other respect he remained close to standard French academic practice). Bataille and Mauss, for example, make little more than brief if significant cameos in Symbolic Exchange and Death. On the other hand, to attempt to trace these lines of influence in expectation of a fuller understanding of Baudrillard’s work is of limited value, as he uses them expansively and with licence for his own specific investigations, and for that reason is anxious always to distance himself from the letter of another’s thought.2 

Thus we must always take Baudrillard on his own terms. As is the case with so many thinkers, however, his fundamental critical orientation and self-assessment is illuminated by his public evaluation of another. In this case, it is primarily to the asserted aristocratic character of Bataille’s critique we must attend in assessing the concept of symbolic exchange.

The term “aristocratic” is of course problematic. It is appropriate, but potentially misleading. One is inclined to think of matters aristocratic, naturally, as pertaining to a particular class, and generally, to the eyes of moderns, a class that represents not an essential component of society, but a contemptible excrescence. But the point of a critique from the subject of symbolic exchange is that this dimension of human behaviour, though characteristic of the aristocratic classes in a more open way – gambling, the duel, the challenge, the abidance by rules unspoken – not only is not the preserve of such classes, but in fact permeates human interaction at every level. Symbolic exchange posits the insistence of a primary, and primal, dimension of interaction that precedes and grounds the rational and economic commerce between parties. It does not so much appeal to a primitive or primal aspect of the human experience as take its departure from this aspect. Thus perhaps the gravest mistake to make in this respect is to assume either that it represents a celebration of aristocratic character (whether in the manner of Nietzsche or in the manner of an obscurantist royalism), or a misplaced nostalgia for the passing of a certain era when distinctions, or the “pathos of distance”, were assumed. It is equally mistaken to suppose that in the appeal to the “primitive” there is either the faux-Rousseauist dream of a noble savage, or a pitch for a radical theory attractive not for its theoretical soundness but for its radicalism. One must not suppose Baudrillard to be some kind of partisan of aristocracy after the fashion of Nietzsche: but crucially, Baudrillard’s critique is aristocratic in precisely the same manner as he considered Bataille’s to be, in its form. That is not to say that his writing or thought is aristocratic in content, nor even in another formal way, accessible primarily to a restricted and highly erudite circle. It is not, for example, aristocratic in the way Nietzsche’s endlessly allusive writing can be said to be methodically and methodologically aristocratic.

The view of Baudrillard as a reactionary theoretical aristocrat of this kind is promoted by the work of Kellner, whose relatively early book engaging with Baudrillard in English, while popularising his work, passed largely negative judgement on it, reserving particular scorn in a generally balanced tome precisely for this perceived “aristocratic” bent.3 This characterisation of the work as aristocratic in spirit is correct in the sense indicated above, as Baudrillard termed Bataille’s critique; but with Kellner it is thus characterised for the wrong reasons and in support of the wrong conclusions. In framing Bataille’s work as he does above Baudrillard refers to its roots in the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave, or more accurately, its roots in the Kojèvian exposition and interpretation of this aspect of Hegel. With this in mind, perhaps the most useful reference point in assessing the nature of Baudrillard’s critique is Fukuyama’s popularisation of the Kojèvian thesis; Fukuyama offers us a perspective on the Hegelian-Kojèvian “end of history” beyond Kojève’s generation, and closer temporally and in scope to the socio-political reality the analysis of which is at the core of Baudrillard’s work.

Fukuyama’s treatment of Kojève in light of the rise of liberal democracy allows one to perceive much of the essence of Baudrillard’s critique by virtue of their differences – which, despite Baudrillard’s assertion that he found much of the scenario outlined by Fukuyama unobjectionable, are significant (Baudrillard seems to suggest that it is simply Fukuyama’s optimism that is their most significant point of division (2004:73). The title of Fukuyama’s work indicates the devotion of its greater part to the elaboration of the tension between the Kojèvian end of history, or realisation of the universal, rational and homogenous state, and the prospect of such a state reducing its citizens to malformations of humanity lacking in spirit, or the “last men” encountered by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. This objection, inherited ultimately in its form and terms from Strauss, questions whether such a state would be realisable or even desirable.4 It is based in its simplest form on the idea that, even in the event of a resolution of the fundamental political problems such as competition for limited territory or natural resources, an inextinguishable agonistic spirit, which is for Nietzsche the source of all that is of value for and in the human being, would perpetually subvert or pervert the attempts to establish a universal and homogenous state. Fukuyama, with the spiritedness of the tripartite soul of Republic behind the term, designates this irreducible competitive spirit in shorthand as Platonic thymos.5 Fukuyama makes use of two distinctions in this respect. The first is between thymos, as the basic desire for recognition or a sense of self-worth inherent in all people, which is opposed to the more commonplace “desire” which connotes, for Fukuyama, a more immediate and material object. The second distinction is between megalothymia, “the desire to be recognized as superior to other people” and isothymia, “the desire to be recognized as the equal of other people” (Fukuyama, 1992:182). With the rise of liberal democracy, thymos is somewhat tamed by the widespread satisfaction of desires, and correspondingly the “megalothymotic” impulse is supplanted by a satisfaction with isothymia. This is in accord with the decline of the traditional aristocratic class, which served as an embodiment of thymos, in liberal-democratic societies. Fukuyama puts this: “The social embodiment of megalothymia, and the social class against which modern liberalism declared war, was the traditional aristocracy. The aristocratic warrior did not create wealth, he stole it…He did not act on the basis of economic rationality, selling his labour to the highest bidder…and for all the decadence of many aristocratic societies, the core of the aristocrat’s being was related, as for Hegel’s primordial master, to his willingness to risk his life in a bloody battle” (Ibid.:184). The success of the “war” declared by modern liberalism – which in the final analysis was not itself quite the bloody battle waged unto death it might have been, even when much more than pure and mere prestige was at stake – means for Fukuyama that with the passing of the class that embodies the virtue, such as it is, the virtue itself passes into its twilight. Fukuyama emphasises the decline of megalothymia in modern life, and its replacement by a combination of two things: “The first is a blossoming of the desiring part of the soul, which manifests itself as a thoroughgoing economization of life…The second thing that remains in place of megalothymia is an all-pervasive isothymia, that is, the desire to be recognized as the equal of other people” (Ibid.:190).

A critique based on symbolic exchange would have to reject this thesis outright. Firstly, against Fukuyama, this split in thymotic desire should not be considered as two conflicting dimensions of the desire for recognition, or even as dimensions separable either analytically or according to a subjective choice or orientation. Rather, isothymia must be considered as a platform for the expression of megalothymia. Recognition of equality is merely preliminary to the work of establishing one’s superiority; conversely, it does not take any psychological acumen to observe that a person’s feelings of others having failed to recognise even their equality can foster any manner of megalothymotic desire. This putative ascent of isothymia in liberal democratic societies might well be held in Fukuyama’s scheme as a positive development: megalothymia is seen as a potentially dangerous element of the soul, which pits the individual against his fellow human beings competitively and puts him frequently at odds with his society. In this respect the term would seem not the preserve of those who possess some greatness of soul, or the spirited element of the man defined by Aristotle’s megalopsychia – which term it inevitably calls to mind – but rather something closer to those other potentially subversive traits more characteristic of average men (philotimia, the love of honour, or a certain kind of spirited erōs that endangers the life of the polis – the Straussian influence is again apparent in these respects – or even Hobbes’ vainglory, a connection Fukuyama explicitly makes). But, the first thing one can say in this respect is that the flourishing of the desiring-appetitive, or what one might call following Fukuyama’s quasi-Platonic terms the “epithymotic”, part of the soul, can hardly be said to do away with the impulse or desire to appear superior to others, or to lead the average individual (and neither the blossoming of this part of the soul nor the increasing economisation of life need be denied here – though one could fruitfully query which is cause and which effect) to be content with being seen as the equal of others. Doesn’t the conspicuous consumption that characterises thoroughly economised life in a developed nation reflect precisely this fact? This is part of the reason, indeed, that Baudrillard finds Marxist anthropology and political economy inadequate, a mirror of production, and sees fit to carry this critical engagement to the level of the political economy of the sign. Isn’t sign-value the symptom of the persistence and imperishable nature of megalothymia? Yet this is only the surface of the matter; it is from the perspective of symbolic exchange that one finds most fault with Fukuyama’s reading. As mentioned, from this perspective the distinction drawn between isothymia and megalothymia is unviable: the most one could say is that liberal democracy, insofar as it guarantees some degree of isothymotic privilege for all citizens, simply fosters refined types of megalothymia against that background, perhaps far removed indeed from the old aristocratic expression of the desire in war or duels, or the risking of one’s life for pure prestige, but no less real for that – and in that sense, also “aristocratic” in spirit. In fact one could most likely not even say this much for liberal democracy, for it does not even promise, much less guarantee, true isonomia for its citizens, and the result is that the isothymotic desire of the individual is shaped and directed not generally, but in relation to specific circles or social groups, between which no relation or recognition of equality may exist.   

That is why symbolic exchange, and the broader sense in which Baudrillard uses the term “aristocratic” in his characterisation of Bataille, is crucial. The position of a non-economic desire that grounds our rational discourse, commerce and economy, is the core of this critique of traditional political economy, based on the opposition of symbolic exchange or seduction to the universe of production. Baudrillard neither waxes nostalgic nor urges a return to aristocratic values. Rather he emphasises the endurance of aristocratic forms, in various guises and at every level of social interaction, disrupting any model of a strictly rational economy of production and consumption. While the old aristocratic class may be taken to embody megalothymia, by virtue of a tendency to risk everything for pure prestige, it by no means monopolises the desire for superiority.6 One might indeed read Fukuyama’s phrase “the rise and fall of thymos” the way many have chosen to view the notion of an end of history, that is, as the end merely of the ultimate romance of history, or even the temporary impossibility of that romance (one could say, essentially, in Baudrillard’s terms the advent of the transpolitical era). Analogously, the “fall” of thymos would be the passage, not from megalothymia as a common phenomenon to a pervasive isothymia, but from the romance of megalothymotic desire, connected to the concept of one’s honour, to a proliferated and vulgar megalothymia. Viewed in this way, the decline in megalothymia, coeval with the decline of the aristocratic class, is not a decline in the existence but in the quality and transparency of the phenomenon – in essence, its democratisation. What Fukuyama’s analysis further neglects is the fact that the economisation of life, a feature of the bourgeois revolution and modern liberalism’s acceptably successful “war” against the aristocratic class, corresponds to or causes some fundamental shifts in the focus of megalothymotic desire, corresponding to shifts in the force or focus of social recognition. Examples of the shift in admiration or accordance of honour are from the aristocrat to the self-made man, the man of leisure to the entrepreneur or inventor, from flesh-and-bone “well born” to success well earned. If the economisation of life were total and sufficient, or satiation of the epithymotic part of the soul sufficient rather than simply necessary for the happiness of most men, this would not be the case. In fact, against the background of this thoroughgoing economisation, one sees not the taming or decline of thymos but its redirection. Behind the basic commerce between individuals, and binding it, there still emerges the desire for recognition, the rules of symbolic exchange, or the element of seduction that inhabits all communication; the non-economic core of human commerce persists in every sphere of life. Baudrillard’s commitment to this idea, against the traditional economic theory of man and society, is emphatic:

And indeed, isn’t everything always decided at the level of a symbolic exchange – that is to say, at a level that goes far beyond the rational commerce of things or bodies as we practise it today? In fact, paradoxical as it may seem, I would be quite willing to believe that there has never been any economy in the rational scientific sense in which we understand it, that symbolic exchange has always been at the radical base of things, and that it is on that level that things are decided (Baudrillard, 2004:17).

In what sense precisely does one find a proliferation of aristocratic forms? The fundamental feature of symbolic exchange in this respect is that it is a matter of rules, the rules that make up the game and which, unlike laws, are inviolable. One must know the rules to play the game, and follow them for the game to continue. Unlike the transgressions of a law, in which cases the law may not only remain in place but retain its force, when one breaks the rules the game is ruined. To break a law may be criminal; to break a rule is simply vulgar. The perfect example of a generalised social rule is perhaps the “total social fact” of gift-exchange in Mauss’s study. One is under the obligation to give, receive and reciprocate gifts. The perpetuated cycle of exchange ensures continued social cohesion (Mauss, 1990). This obligation is not something that one is strictly subject to under law, however. And while one may flout a law and still be subject to it, the rule functions only so long as sufficient persons subscribe to it. The cycle or circle defined by the rule is fundamentally aristocratic in its form. The rule must not only be followed, but must be followed without being made explicit. The clichéd mark of classic aristocracy is the knowledge of the rules (of “good society”), which one must not need explained on pain of appearing vulgar: if one must ask, one doesn’t belong. But the observation of the silent rule is characteristic of every circle, and indeed of society itself conceived as a whole. In every walk of life there are the unwritten rules, which must not be made explicit in order to function, and which allow the official rules their force and function. That is why the analysis of symbolic exchange adopts a point of view legitimately described as aristocratic: because life really is a matter of, in a phrase, La règle du jeu.

The model of the restricted, formally aristocratic sphere, a frequent subject of Baudrillard’s critical attention as well as of the scorn of ordinary souls, is the art world. The art world is aristocratic in its form, before one ever considers the sums of money at stake. It is the lack of an external standard in the art world that makes it comprehensively aristocratic, and in its way an obscene and ecstatic sphere; there is no external aesthetic standard to determine what is artistically accomplished (for example, one can imagine a moment in the development of the visual arts when perspective and verisimilitude – all that post-renaissance rot, to paraphrase Baudrillard’s infamous quip – served as a mark of high art; such a mark of distinction would be discernible to anyone outside of the world of the production or patronage of art, and on that basis anyone could with relative competence judge a piece’s worth, in aesthetic or monetary terms). There is no standard of measurement today for the assessment either of the aesthetic or monetary value of an artwork that is external to the art world and transparent to those outside of its circles. What determines the desirability of an individual piece may be simply that it is desired, or works by the same artist are in vogue or have fetched certain prices at previous auctions, raising the bar of starting bids for other works. And while an analogous “interest” can determine movements on the stock market, for example, the art world functions in the absence of any nominal corresponding “gold standard” which might conceivably regulate it. Baudrillard writes: “There are no more fundamental rules, no more criteria of judgment or of pleasure. In the aesthetic realm of today there is no longer any God to recognize his own. Or, to use a different metaphor, there is no gold standard of aesthetic judgment or pleasure. The situation resembles that of a currency which may not be exchanged: it can only float, its only reference itself, impossible to convert into real value or wealth”. This self-referential, self-perpetuating, aristocratic form is in many ways the destiny of the artwork and the art world after the developments of modern art:

The art world presents a curious aspect. It is as though art and artistic inspiration had entered a kind of stasis – as though everything which had developed magnificently over the several centuries had suddenly been immobilised, paralysed by its own image and its own riches. Behind the whole convulsive movement of modern art lies a kind of inertia, something that can no longer transcend itself and has therefore turned in upon itself, merely repeating itself at a faster and faster rate (1993b:11-17).

The art world moves purely according its own rules, in a manner self-regulated, para-nomian and unabashedly aristocratic. The accelerating inertia, or inertial acceleration, to echo one of Baudrillard’s paradoxical formulations (1994:161), that characterises this world is the consequence and symptom of this absence of standards. The indifference to what lies outside the circle, an insular sphere in which value is created without external referent, is distinctly aristocratic in form; but the art world is not the site of the rise of a “new aristocracy”, despite the massive wealth it attracts. It is a model case of the proliferation of the form or spirit traditionally distinctive of aristocracy, or of the paradoxical democratisation of aristocracy Baudrillard had already, in his essay “The Art Auction”, taken it to exemplify (Baudrillard, 1981:112-22). In an admirable summary of this essay and the place of its claims in Baudrillard’s thought considered over time, Rex Butler remarks that this analysis manages to demonstrate the dual and superficially paradoxical nature of symbolic exchange; one must understand that “…if symbolic exchange subverts use and exchange values, it is what makes them possible as well” (Butler, 1999:81). [This remark bears comparison with Mike Gane in the introduction to Symbolic Exchange and Death: “It is a mistake…to think that Symbolic Exchange and Death is simply about the “ideological process” of the reduction  of the symbolic by the semiotic. It is also about the irruption of the symbolic within the semiotic” (1993:xii)].

When one speaks of the rule not subject to the “rule of law”, as one must in assessing the spectacle of the art world, one is already in the domain of symbolic exchange – that of the unnamed, unspoken, unwritten and absolute rule. Every sphere of human activity, desire and productivity has such rules, on which its proper functioning depends, often in contradistinction to or in contravention of the explicit organisational rules or laws – only the most obvious and scarcely the most interesting illustration of this principle is a certain kind of “work-to-rule” industrial action. A nice illustration of the principle, naturally it does not exhaust it. It is always the same, for there is always a game: toujours, la règle du jeu

In the work in which Baudrillard first extensively develops the concept, he announces symbolic exchange as something which tends to haunt modern social institutions and forms, a haunting imposed by the ascent of the semiotic and experienced by it as such. There is a formal similarity suggested by these terms with the classic repression-neurosis model of psychoanalysis, a similarity which is striking but deceptive. The difference between these models, one can say, is that the rule of symbolic exchange is not repressed on pain of subjective dissolution, nor is it subject to a systematic méconnaissance, but is rather silenced as part of its function. It is known without being acknowledged, not in the mode of the unconscious but in the manner of a tacit agreement. The unspoken character or the repression of symbolic exchange does not mean its subjective disavowal, but its common, complicit disavowal, something which allows it to function. One can always put a name on what everyone knows, but sometimes that is to violate the rule of the game. Most interesting in respect of this appearance of similarity between symbolic exchange and the psychoanalytic model is perhaps the frequently overlooked points of contact between Baudrillard and the thought of Žižek. All of Žižek’s work tends to gravitate around the central problem of the tension between the public Law and its obscene underside, or the unwritten rules on which the proper functioning of the official Law depends. The Law here tolerates and even silently incites its low-level transgression, and this supplementary, “obscene” dimension of the law serves a regulative function. The underside to the public Law is experienced and manifested in various forms of jouissance; ultimately, this hidden supplement is, in Žižek’s terms, the late-Lacanian superego. Lacan in the latter stages of his career reformulates Freud’s agency of prohibition as something experienced by the subject as an exhortation to jouissance – this command or injunction (jouis!) paradoxically acts itself as a prohibitive or inhibitive agency. What is especially peculiar about this vision of the superego is that it functions not simply as the subjective reflection of public censure, moral or legal, but acts in the absence, breakdown or relaxation of that censure equally well. Where there is no law, the enjoinder to jouissance experienced by the subject becomes doubly inhibitive; because jouissance is experienced as a transgression, it requires a law to oppose or it is deprived of its operational space. The result is that, against the famous formula of Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, as Žižek puts it: “if there is no God – the Name-of-the-Father as an instance of the Law / Prohibition – everything is forbidden”; he thus characterises the tension between Law and superego: “How do we account for this paradox that the absence of Law universalises Prohibition? There is only one possible explanation: enjoyment itself, which we experience as “transgression”, is in its innermost status something imposed, ordered – when we enjoy, we never do it “spontaneously”, we always follow a certain injunction. The psychoanalytic name for this obscene injunction, for this obscene call, “Enjoy”, is superego” (Žižek, 2002:9).7 By ordering jouissance, superego acts precisely as a barrier to free and uninhibited enjoyment; hence Žižek gives the “most elementary definition” of superego as: “the superego is a law ‘run amok’ in so far as it prohibits what it formally permits” (Žižek, 1996:66).8 One could recast this, in order to capture the essence of the superego, as an agency which inhibits what it formally commands. Žižek’s superego shares with Baudrillard’s symbolic exchange its status as an unwritten supplement to public edicts that allows the latter to function.

This superego prohibition is magnified with the rise of the modern, liberated, “permissive” society, where the power of traditionally authoritative institutions has waned considerably. With the decline of traditional loci of legal and particularly moral authority, former sources of permission and proscription, the superego “run amok” emerges in the form of the command to enjoy. The opportunity to transgress becomes the imperative to transgress, or more correctly, to indulge in behaviour previously considered as transgression – an imperative, indeed, as though to decline transgression were to deny progress. For Baudrillard, the trap of liberation is its movement from a demand in the form of a petition to demands in the form of injunctions: the demand and the push for liberation becomes the demand that everyone be liberated, that is, behave in a “liberated” fashion and adopt “liberated” attitudes. As he characterized this shift:

Increasingly, all seduction, all manner of enticement – which is always a highly ritualized process – is effaced behind a naturalized sexual imperative, behind the immediate and imperative realization of desire. Our center of gravity has been displaced towards a libidinal economy concerned with only the naturalization of desire, a desire dedicated to drives, or to a machine-like functioning, but above all, to the imaginary of repression and liberation. Henceforth one no longer says: ‘You have a soul and it must be saved’, but: ‘You have a sex, and you must put it to good use’. ‘You have an unconscious, and you must let the id speak’. ‘You have a libido and you must expend it’ … (Baudrillard, 1990:38; 1987b:28).

One could consider this imperative as the ancestor of what Baudrillard calls the contemporary eleventh commandment: “Be happy and give all the signs of contentment!” (2004:106). One is reminded of the last man’s happy declaration: “Wir haben das Glück erfunden.”

The terms employed here can leave us in no doubt that behind the enjoinder to liberate oneself and behave in a liberated manner lies in part the popularisation of psychoanalytic discourse. A society that demands liberation – sexual, libidinal, moral – is one devoted to the talking cure on a grand scale: repression is unhealthy and regressive, liberation is progress. It has a surface logic, naturally, but suffers from a lamentable lack of subtlety. Lacan was well aware that, due to the cultural impact of Freud, he himself was dealing with patients or ‘analysands’ who were themselves educated, cultured individuals, amateur analysts even, familiar with the work of Freud, often anxious to discuss their already self-diagnosed neuroses. It is not for nothing that Baudrillard characterised psychoanalysis as a simulation machine, and suggested its destiny in the modern world was radical ob-scenity (see Baudrillard, 1993:84-6 n. 5; and also 1981:8, 57-9).

It is likely not a coincidence that Lacan’s reformulation of the superego as the command to enjoy occurs after the events of May 1968, which Lacan himself characterised as above all a hysterical rebellion, a provocation the ultimate goal of which was to test whether there was still a government to respond to such provocation, or to test and seek confirmation of the continued existence and function of a Master’s discourse. The fact that as an event it burned itself out almost, when considered in light of the demands it made, without trace, encourages its interpretation as a hysterical gesture, a response to the decline of the Master’s discourse or of “symbolic efficacy”, or the perceived absence of a sujet supposé savoir – the obscene fact of such an absence being unbearable, one is compelled to revolt if only to compel power in turn to assume its place and role. Baudrillard in retrospect would characterise the whole period that has May 1968 as the highpoint of its wave and its stand-in as the “orgy”: the orgy of liberation in every sphere, something which, fuelled by what looks in retrospect like the touching innocence of the soixante-huitards, has the inadvertently calamitous effect of purging the effects of secrecy and seduction and precipitating the reign of ob-scenity (Baudrillard, 1993b:3-13).

Baudrillard gives us a no less mischievous reading of 1968; the fact that the revolting parties led with obsolete appeals to use-value and productiveness made it more emphatically a revolt not of one section of a society against another but of a society against itself and the spectacle of its increasing inertia, and its citizens’ becoming personally replaceable and undifferentiated.

The first shockwaves of [the] transition from production to pure and simple reproduction took place in May 1968. They struck the universities first, and the faculty of human sciences first of all, because that was where it became most evident (even without a clear “political” consciousness) that we were no longer productive, only reproductive (and that lecturers, science and culture were themselves only relays in the general reproduction of the system). All this was experienced as total futility, irresponsibility (“What are sociologists for?”), as a relegation, and provoked the student movement of 1968 (rather than the absence of prospects, since there are always plenty of prospects in reproduction – it was rather the places, the spaces where something actually happens that had ceased to exist) (Baudrillard, 1993:29).

The revolt against obsolescence takes the form of a curiously outmoded, almost quaint appeal, to the security of use-value and of a grounded society not yet delivered into self-referential reproduction. That it coincides with the orgy of liberation is not surprising; the demand for liberation, emancipation, itself becomes an endlessly generated discourse, and fittingly enough infiltrates the faculties of the human sciences, where it finds its home and mausoleum, succumbing to the very ironic and diabolical reproduction of the same thing against which it had railed. Liberation, of course, like paradise, or life, is boring:

Is there such a thing as the right to desire, a right to the unconscious, or a right to pleasure? The idea is absurd. This is what makes the sexual liberation movement ridiculous when it talks about rights…Why not demand the ‘right’ to be a man or a woman? Or, for that matter, a Leo, an Aquarius or a Cancer? But what would it mean to be a man or a woman if it were a right? What makes life exciting is the fact that you have been placed on one side or the other of the sexual divide, and you must take it from there. Those are the rules of the game, and it makes no sense to break them. No one can stop me from claiming the right to move my knight in a straight line on the chessboard, but where does it get me? Rights in such matters are idiotic (Baudrillard, 1993b:86).

The demand for liberation tends to oppose itself to and orient itself against and ultimately in accordance with the law. The critique from the perspective of symbolic exchange or seduction announces that the law is underwritten by the unwritten, at which level it is easily bypassed or quietly opposed, not merely transgressed. The supplement to the law is the rule of the game.

Ordinarily, we live within the realm of the Law, even when fantasizing its abolition. Beyond the law we see only its transgression or the lifting of a prohibition. For the discourse of law and interdiction determines the inverse discourse of transgression and liberation. However, it is not the absence of the law that is opposed to the law, but the Rule (Baudrillard, 1981:131).

The realm of the law itself depends on the “law” of symbolic exchange, that which both subverts and makes possible rational discourse – the law of the Rule underpins the rule of Law. Without this certain distance assumed toward the edicts of the Law, it cannot function: what is most fatal to the law tends to be, not the individual who scorns or disobeys it, but the one who too zealously adheres to and upholds it, who follows it “to the letter”. Again Baudrillard is close to Žižek in his insistence on this point. Discussing his personal experiences of the Communist Party Central Committee in ex-Yugoslavia Žižek remarks: “What shocked me was the extent to which not only the top party nomenclatura didn’t take their own official ideology seriously, but to what extent those who took it seriously were perceived as a threat” (Žižek and Daly, 2003:35). Adherence to the letter of the law subverts its efficacy, and begets its anathema: this precisely is the principle of evil, or its “transparition” (la transparence du mal). Baudrillard suggests that this frequently observable phenomenon points to a universal reality:

Does not [the] secret disobedience of a group to its own principles, this profound immorality and duplicity, reflect a universal order? We need to reawaken the principle of Evil active in Manicheism and all the great mythologies in order to affirm, against the principle of Good, not exactly the supremacy of Evil, but the fundamental duplicity that demands that any order exists only to be disobeyed, attacked, exceeded and dismantled (Baudrillard, 1990b:77).

The transgression of the Law to uphold it, or the rules of the game that provide for its function, exemplifies the transparition of evil. The observance of the rule, while absolute, must remain silent, or secret; and as secrecy is conflated with evil in a society that lauds open-handedness, that society must attempt to purge all that is secretive (one must not in this respect confuse privacy with secrecy: privacy is respected, while secrecy, secretiveness, is suspect and resented). But the good, that which has attempted to purge itself of secrecy, nevertheless never goes without its double – the system generates its own excess – or never appears without the apparition and transparition of evil. The transparition of evil is another form of the return of the accursed share. As with the incited transgression of the Law of which Žižek speaks, Baudrillard suggests the same function is served by corruption: “The fact remains that, in the same way as Nietzsche spoke of the vital illusion of appearances, we might speak of a vital function of corruption in society. But, since the principle of corruption is illegitimate, it cannot be made official, and hence can operate only in secret” (Baudrillard, 2003:35). 

This is the final sense in which symbolic exchange represents a radical and formally aristocratic critique. The rules of the game are not explicit, and cannot be made so. As with the aristocratic circle, to be ignorant of the rules is unimaginable; to flout them is vulgar; to ask what they are a sign of poor breeding. The unwritten rules, or the element of seduction that grounds everyday discourse, ceases to function as seduction or symbolic exchange if made explicit:

…even in our daily existences, carried on under the sway of the economy, of considerations of psychology and energy, another kind of relationship, which is at the same time arbitrary and random, is in play, and establishes a form of convention that is both lower-order, imperceptible, unconscious and higher-order, charged with complicity. There’s a dimension of play, including in those areas where everything seems to function according to laws. There’s a secret rule. You can’t lay it bare. You can’t stage its operation. You can’t play both the law and the rule at the same time (Baudrillard, 1998:44).

This secret rule is the principle of symbolic exchange – both lower and higher-order, imperceptible and “charged with complicity”, that which both disrupts or subverts and grounds commerce and value. This fundamental dimension is unconscious not by dint of its misrecognition or repression – how could what is charged with complicity be truly repressed? – but in the sense that one is not acutely conscious of or burdened by its observance. In this respect, symbolic exchange can be said to resemble the Witz, that other vehicle for the subversion of meaning and for social cohesion, which loses its charm, power and meaning if it must be explained. Like the Witz, it requires complicity and immediate comprehension to perform its function.

It is this dimension of human interaction – fundamental, aristocratic, irreducible – that Baudrillard’s work explored relentlessly. It is a critique of singular force and with a simple elegance, the core of which is symbolic exchange. Despite the fact that it is commonly ignored in mainstream philosophy, the elaboration of this concept in a radical critique has much to offer to debates not only in contemporary theory but in classical philosophy also. Part of the paradox of Baudrillard’s work, naturally, is that it sought to speak of that which must remain unspoken to serve its purpose and preserve its vitality. Devoting such space to writing about the unwritten, and developing over time the importance of the unspoken rules, the implicit and complicit rules of the game, it is little wonder Baudrillard allowed the concept to consume itself or precipitate its own disappearance. Symbolic exchange was Baudrillard’s most beautiful thought. Why should the beautiful not be also ephemeral? One finds in philosophy much that is profound, provocative, challenging or absurd, but rarely the beautiful; or rarely, at least, a thought the beauty of which survives its communication. Baudrillard’s analysis was also formidable. It was, of course, often hopelessly, surely wilfully, abstruse – but then, to explain oneself can be such a vulgar business. It is perhaps his single thought, refined and revisited over time, without being rejected in essence.9

To think, so Heidegger proposed, is to confine oneself to a single thought, following and refining it until it one day becomes a star in the world’s sky. Baudrillard, whose faith in the power or persuasive force of thought does not approach Heidegger’s, would probably say that one rather comes upon a thought as though discovering a star and subsequently thinks it until it is extinguished. The thought in Baudrillard is not so immediately communicable; it does not transfer from one mind or one mouth to another without being subject to a certain entropy: nevertheless, the thought of symbolic exchange, even burning lowly, is a suitable legacy.

Paul O. Mahoney recently completed a Ph.D. in philosophy at University College Dublin, focusing on the idea of postmodernity and Baudrillard's concept of hyperreality.



Jean Baudrillard [1972] (1981). For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign.  St. Louis, MO: Telos.

Jean Baudrillard [1976b] (1987). [Quand Bataille attaquait le principe métaphysique de l’économie” La Quinzaine Littéraire, 234, June:4-5; available at] “When Bataille attacked the Metaphysical Principle of Economy” Canadian Journal of Political and Social Theory 3, 11:57-62.

Jean Baudrillard (1987b). Forget Foucault [© 1977], Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e).

Jean Baudrillard [1979] (1990). Seduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Jean Baudrillard (1990b). Fatal Strategies. London: Pluto Press.

Jean Baudrillard [1976] (1993). [L’échange Symbolique et la Mort] Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage.

Jean Baudrillard [1990] (1993b). “Transaesthetics” in The Transparency of Evil . London: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard [1981] (1994). “On Nihilism” in Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jean Baudrillard (1998). Paroxysm: Conversations with Philippe Petit. New York: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard (2003). Passwords. London: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard (2004). Fragments: Conversations with François L’Yvonnet.  London and New York: Routledge.

Rex Butler (1999). Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real, London: Sage.

Albert Camus (1963). The Rebel. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Francis Fukuyama (1992). The End of History and the Last Man, London: Penguin.

Mike Gane (Editor) (1993). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993.

Douglas Kellner (1989). Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Marcel Mauss (1990). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge.

Slavoj Žižek (1996). The Metastases of Enjoyment. London and New York: Verso.

Slavoj Žižek (2002). For they know not what they do. London and New York: Verso.

Slavoj Žižek and Glyn Daly (2003). Conversations with Žižek, London: Polity.


1 Compare the frank admissions in Passwords [the entry “The Object”: “For me, the object will have been the ‘password’ par excellence. I chose that angle from the beginning, because I wanted to break with the problematic of the subject. The question of the object represented the alternative to that problematic, and has remained the horizon of my thinking…it has its origins perhaps in that ‘accursed share’ Bataille speaks of, which will never be resolved or redeemed. There is no Redemption of the object. Somewhere there is a ‘remainder’, which the subject cannot lay hold of…”. (2003:3, 5).

 2 “With regard to Bataille and the others, you have to have a secret filiation, which has a kind of silent efficacy to it. Researchers always try to find the tracks you’ve striven to cover up. There is, as a result, a perpetual misunderstanding” (2004: 40). Among these others Baudrillard mentions especially Nietzsche, Mauss, Artaud, Klossokowsi, Rimbaud, Hölderlin and Jarry; his classical philosophical heritage, as he admits (Ibid.: 2), is rather shaky. He has succeeded in this cover-up, not quite so much as to extinguish all traces and make of his borrowing a perfect crime, but still to the degree where he forgets his own roots, which exist, as he says of Nietzsche, not as reference points strictly speaking but more as “visceral memories”. “To go deeply into this you’d have to make the effort to retrace your own footsteps. But since I’ve done all I can to obliterate them, it becomes difficult even for me to exhume them” (Ibid.:11); compare the suggestion of the same sort of memory, this time of the root described in Sartre’s La Nausée, influencing his interest in the object, at (Ibid.:3). His work evinces a deep distrust of the principles of authority, perhaps exemplified in his having the temerity to invent a line attributed absurdly to Ecclesiastes as an epigraph, an act which essentially parodied the practice of prefacing an essay with an epigraph.

3 In his negative appraisal of Baudrillard’s thought, Kellner reiterates this “aristocratic” bent a number of times, particularly in chapter six, “The Metaphysical Imaginary” where he accuses him of sexism and racism. See for example: 183, where he writes of a selected passage: “Baudrillard lets it all hang out – shamelessly, unrepentantly, good Nietzschean aristocrat to the core. No compassion for the suffering or willingness to engage in dialogue with feminism: aristocratic disdain to the nth degree.” Kellner’s summary evaluation toward the end of the work runs: “This is what I believe Baudrillard’s project comes down to ultimately: capitulation to the hegemony of the Right and a secret complicity with aristocratic conservatism” (215).

4 For Leo Strauss’s invocation of Nietzsche’s figure, see letter to Kojève of August 22, 1948 (reprinted in Strauss, On Tyranny, University of Chicago Press, 1961: 231): “If I had more time than I have, I could state more fully, and presumably more clearly, why I am not convinced that the End State as you describe it, can be either the rational or the merely-factual satisfaction of human beings. For the sake of simplicity I refer today to Nietzsche’s ‘last men’”. Also Allan Bloom’s remark (with particular reference to Kojève’s note on Japan (see endnote 5 below), in his introduction to the English translation of Kojève, on Nietzsche’s image as objection to the account: “After reading Kojève’s footnotes one wonders whether the citizen of the universal homogenous state is not identical to Nietzsche’s Last Man, and whether Hegel’s historicism does not by an inevitable dialectic force us to a more somber and more radical historicism which rejects reason.” Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the “Phenomenology of Spirit”, assembled by Raymond Queneau, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980:xii. For the original Nietzschean figure of “der letzte Mensch” see Also Sprach Zarathustra, Prologue, § 5

5 The linking of the desire for recognition to Platonic thymos, and the suggestion that this is an irreducible component of human nature (in Fukuyama’s text, no less than “the engine of history”), is further demonstration of the influence exerted by Strauss on the work, doubtless through the intermediary of Bloom. Thymos plays a central role in Strauss’s influential reading of Republic in The City and Man, and the reader of Bloom’s translation of the dialogue is advised to carefully study its occurrences and role in the dynamic of the dialogue. In this respect see also Leo Strauss on Plato’s Symposium, University of Chicago Press, 2001, where one finds the following phrase (which, occurring as it does after a change of tape during a recorded lecture, hangs isolated like one of the fragments of which Baudrillard is so fond): “All that we call interesting in human beings is in the sphere of thumos” (244).

In regard to the subject of this article it is worth noting that the homogenisation of life in the post-historical world state must connect us to Baudrillard’s notion of the perfect crime – the verification of the world, the extermination of its illusion, and the purging of all secrecy, of the “principle of evil” or the “accursed share”. The assertion of the insistence of thymos is not far in its meaning from that of the insistence of evil, or indeed from Baudrillard’s remarks on the ‘necessity of evil’ (2004:104): “…we go on dreaming of perfect happiness, while sensing the potential boredom of paradise”. It is perhaps little wonder that Japan and its culture long held a fascinating aspect for Baudrillard, where Kojève discovered that post-historical man was not condemned to animality: he could, at the very least, retain his humanity by remaining a snob (Baudrillard makes reference to Kojève’s famous “note” in the essay “D for Double Life” (1976:159-162).

6 One might remember that it was not only the risk in “bloody battle” that characterised the aristocrat, but the risk in leisure also, in the pursuit of gambling: today, it seems everybody, no matter whether rich or poor, how refined or vulgar, seems to partake of the pleasures of this exemplar of the accursed share: what Baudrillard describes as the ecstasy of this immoral management of money, a kind of detached jouissance with limited attention to profit, an activity directed at gaming for gaming’s sake.

7 Compare Albert Camus on Nietzsche: “…with Nietzsche, rebellion ends in asceticism. A profounder logic replaces the “if nothing is true, everything is permitted” of Karamazov by “if nothing is true, nothing is permitted…” (Camus, 1971:63).

8 On Lacan’s development of the concept of superego as obscene call to enjoyment Žižek has said:

In his first seminars from the early 1950s, Lacan elaborates the thesis that superego is a Law (an injunction) in so far as it is experienced by the subject as traumatic, meaningless – as something that cannot be integrated in his symbolic universe; it is only in the 1970s, however, in the last years of his teaching, that Lacan provides the ground for this resistance of the superego to being integrated in the Symbolic: the ultimate trauma that resists symbolization is that of enjoyment, so the superego remains a foreign body that cannot be integrated into the subject’s horizon of meaning precisely in so far as it commands enjoyment (Žižek, 2002:274 n. 12).

9 For Baudrillard’s idea that one has a single thought in one’s life see (2004:2-3). For a paper arguing that this thought is, in Baudrillard’s case, reversibility, see Gerry Coulter. “Reversibility: Baudrillard’s ‘One Great Thought’”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 1, Number 2 (July, 2004):


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