ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)

Only Impossible Exchange Is Possible 

Aurel Schmidt
(Basel, Switzerland)

Translated from the German by Alan N. Shapiro


I. Introduction

Impossible exchange is an impossible subject. In Jean Baudrillard's book Impossible Exchange (2001),  the matter is treated in such a way that one is better off with an associative and meditative interpretive approach than with a discursive reading. When I read the book, much of it transported me into a state of wonder, other parts I found irritating. If I speak about this book, I do so not as a theorist, but rather as someone taking a walk. Michel Montaigne said: "Je promène mon jugement" [I'm taking my judgment for a walk].

A nice walk brings movement to one's thoughts. A discourse is also a "course." What can one do with a book? One can continue it, write it on, add to its poetry. That can be a game, also an exchange. The thinking of exchange goes back to Marcel Mauss (1967). It is an exchange between gift and counter-gift. One party gives, the other takes, but he does not keep it for himself, but instead allows it to continue to circulate. In this light, the reading of Baudrillard's book is the counter-gift to the gift of his book. But the reading must, consistent with this requirement, lead immediately to a new path-clearing gift for others, in a manner of speaking, to a giving over or a giving further. This is what Marc Guillaume has called "retour-penser" [return-thinking].

It is advisable at this point to weave into the discussion an idea that will later concern us, namely that exchange, or more specifically what Baudrillard understands by exchange, is synonymous with a certain way of thinking, with a certain way of dealing with concepts and posing questions. Exchange means thinking, thinking as much as exchange, exchanging ideas, having a dialog.

II. The Deceptions of Exchange

In mechanical physics, for every pole there is a corresponding negative pole, and for every cause an effect. This keeps the whole intact. It is the same with exchange. It belongs to exchanging and thinking that for every exchange at least two players, opponents, partners are required. Only the autistic person and the madman can get along without others – that is exactly what characterizes them. The reality of two is – as opposed to that – a strong and indispensable energy.

The thought of a dual prerequisite for exchange occurs to Baudrillard at several places in his book. It is always about others as persons or the other as instance, term, counter-position, in whom we see accentuated, through the hint of "radical otherness" (altérité radicale), the absolute oppositional, uncontractual, uncapturable. The most extreme cases of otherness are death and nothingness.

Without the presence of these others or this otherness, there is no exchange. Baudrillard speaks in this context of a "bipolar relationship" that is not easy to relate to, or worse, where the system short-circuits itself and produces so much critical mass that it implodes. Every system invents for itself an "equation, exchange, value, causality and finality principle, based on regulated antagonisms." In this way, the system "guarantees the dialectical movement of the whole." In this way – and only in this way – can a "strategy of otherness" successfully have effect.

Two opposed forces stand in opposition to each other, and "the game has no end." This principle of duality exists in the sphere of the physical world and biological organization: matter and anti-matter, mind and matter, time and eternity, life and death, I and the other. In the more important area of discourse and the symbolic, of the organization of thinking, dual principles like true and false, reality and sign, sign and meaning, object and desire, are operative. This double or dual dispositive has until now been valid. But since the universe became "quantic" ("without knowing it," according to Baudrillard), the old premises are no longer valid.

What happened? The effectiveness of the dual dispositive has evaporated. The oppositions, contradictions, paradoxes have dissolved or been driven away, in any case have been absorbed. In the technological age, everything must submit to acceleration and circulation. But the virtual and synthetic substitute-equivalences are not fit for exchangeability. Things no longer correspond to their representation. If everything becomes free-flowing, then it becomes in the end also expendable. It becomes downright liquidated.

In an excursus, Baudrillard explains how in biological development the "revolution of  duality", as he says, has put an end to "indivisibility, the continuation of the same and endless subdividing." Sexuality, death, differentiation were a biological progress which led to a sharing and thus a reproduction of forms. With cloning technology, we are walking the path backwards. Sexuality has liberated itself from, on the one hand, sexual reproduction, and, on the other hand, from the function of specification and diversification. It has, in the best case, become a "leisure time activity." We have liberated ourselves sexually, now we will be freed from sexuality, as Baudrillard says with biting wit.

That is not only a trenchant assertion. If natural reproduction becomes superfluous, then the path leads away from achieved division and separation, in other words from the dual order, back to a pre-sexual or primary unity and to a colossal homogenization of the world. Cloning means the manufacture of identical forms of self, but it especially means: to manufacture another self that is the same as me. Otherness is excluded, there are from then on no others – no otherness – worse, only identical self-sames which can no longer be exchanged against anything. The perfect subject is the subject without others.

In such a monopolized world, dual forces, resistances, contradictions, opposites fall in the end out of consideration. They become expendable, things go on without them. The one is the whole. In a second excursus, Baudrillard addresses the issue of how good has abolished evil. Just as we live in a world without antibodies, thought would also like to get by without counter-forces. We have achieved what in France is called la pensée unique. Good, however, is only thinkable – and thus exchangeable – in relation to evil as antibody.

Stated briefly: from two we have made one. The "phantasm of the principle of the one" has triumphed. The integrative intention exists in the attempt to domesticate every foreign reality. The same can, however, not be exchanged with the same, only with the radical other. We live in a uniformed, homogenized, integrated world in which antagonisms have been removed and the basis for exchange has been destroyed.

The fusioned, in other words, made identical to itself, world is the world in which confusion reigns. Everything is absorbed, everything realized, but why? With what result? "A kind of blind impulse" was at work, Baudrillard says. Decisive was the attempt to liberate oneself from the "tyranny of meaning." Now we must, after we have destroyed duality, otherness, heterogeneity, inaugurate a new opposite standpoint, a new countervailing power that can shake things up. A force that is strong and stirring, over which we admittedly have no authority, which, however, takes over the command, and which leaves us slightly shuddering at the thought that there is still something greater beyond us: arbitrariness, chance, fate. Better all of this than the absorbed, perfect reality or the Realized Utopia, this despairing emptiness to which we have given everything, and whose victim we have become. That we are not or cannot be made to be responsible, where destiny rules, allows us to exhale. Baudrillard cites as an example the accident of Princess Diana: at last powerlessness, at last destroyed hope, at last pure meaninglessness. Finally the prospect of the return of exchange with fate as the great Other, unfathomable, unreachable.

But, of course, one cannot under these circumstances speak of exchange, rather of an artificial, virtual exchange, an exchange "that rests upon nothing” (Baudrillard, 2003). Thus a substitute for exchange. An exchange that is a deception. That is little. No exchange, only consternation. Baudrillard cultivates a generous handling of terms-concepts (den Begriffen). For example, he says repeatedly that the rule of the game of exchange is called duality. Without duality there is no otherness, and everything is at stake in the game of duality. But in other places he lets it be understood that this duality is not by a long shot sufficient for exchange, because no fundamental otherness is implicit in it, because it does not go far enough. Because it can never go too far. The dual positions condition each other, position and counter-position form parts of the "system" or the "world," and there exists a "mutual attraction" between them which, in order to be radical, must first be wrested away from them. As long as that is not the case, they maintain a secret complicity and remain under the sign of a dialectical compromise. Each duality is – understood in this way – only the "transfusion or transfiguration of the given other." In order for there to be interchanges, however, there can be no mirror relationship, no mutual transformation, no dialectical compromise, no final reconciliation.

There appear neither antitheses, symmetries, asymmetries, differences nor dualities. Rather – if at all – there emerge a "fundamental duality" and a "radical otherness" which lie outside any scope. That is not so easy to grasp. Baudrillard also leaves it open, perhaps deliberately, as a method, perhaps even with a certain amusement. For example, sometimes he says that for particles there is no other, yet each particle plays with its anti-particle. It's not important. We are not dogmatists. Don't be so fixated on the exact wording and meaning of concepts-terms (Begriffe). They are gaming pieces. Play with them if you can.

The multipolar perspective – in place of meaning, belief, certainty, truth (which stay within a unipolar perspective) –disseminates in this way a radical uncertainty. This uncertainty is fundamental. It is the prerequisite for exchange and thinking. It was eliminated in the attempt to realize, totalize and homogenize the world. Now the time has come, through the "shaking up of the order of things" and the "re-establishment of a secret rule of the game" to construct a new situation, in which exchange can become possible again.

This can be attained through an "immoral leap." Baudrillard alludes to an "indeterminist analysis" that wants no certainty, but on the contrary aspires to uncertainty and, at the same time, makes an attempt to "escape from critical thinking." Critical, dialectical, reflexive, and even provocative thought are still ritually embedded in the ineffectual dispositive of duality and difference.

Critical thinking is simply a so-called "reversal of thinking" whereby such a reversal is still subject to the law of reciprocity and reversibility, and behaves in a complicitous way. True reversal of thinking must consequently insist on an absolutely opposed, not exploitable thinking that undertakes a giant leap out of the vicious circle of critique, dialectic, duality, and difference.

It might be that the rehabilitation of discontinuity, dissociation, deregulation, indifference, "irrevocable divergence," the invoking of illusion and the imaginary, allows entry to extreme and conflictual phenomena, and corresponds to the principle of surprise, disturbance, paradox, outbidding – a veritable potlatch (Baudrillard, 1996). Everything else is propitiation or utopia.

III. Uncertainty and Uncertainty Principle

For his reflections, Baudrillard gladly makes reference to quantum theory. Exchange and thinking are subject to an uncertainty: that which corresponds to indeterminacy and indistinguishability in quantum theory. In awareness of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, I will be cautious in this demonstrative use (1998). But there are some terms which have become part of general knowledge. If nothing is certain, then there can be no "linear sequence," no logic in events, rather, everything plummets "into a turbulence that the mastery of things makes impossible." Baudrillard cannot be speaking of bringing reason into a chaotic universe, on the contrary what he has in mind is an increase in disorder that will enable the forces of disturbance, dynamics, movement, creativity to develop. That is indeed an assertion that has more to do with thermodynamics. But in thermodynamics a first apprehension of undecidable, unmastered processes in the physical world and a sacrifice of an assured thinking can be seen.

Nothing therefore is certain. Nothing is as it is or appears to be, not due to a relativism that tries to compensate and homogenize – in other words, to equalize not to exchange – everything, but rather due to a fundamental uncertainty principle that Werner Heisenberg defined in physics. In other words: it is impossible to ascertain at the same time the location and momentum of a particle, that is to say, it depends uniquely and solely on the observing situation. Surreal results are the consequence. The uncertainty principle, which refers to the microstructures of matter, corresponds to Baudrillard's radical uncertainty in the domain of information and discourse.1 Baudrillard says: "One cannot at the same time apprehend life and its final cause."

The same indeterminacy also affects the relationship between myself and others, between subject and object, object and representation, idea and reality, language and meaning, furthermore the relationship between terrorist and hostage as well as agent and voyeur. We speak in this case of Interfaces and mean - with Baudrillard - an "impersonal destiny" to which we are connected in a "murderous interactivity."

We stand here however also at a mental divide, a line of demarcation of life, "on one side of which I exist as me, whereas, on the other side, I begin, at the same time, to exist as an other." There is no individual destiny, each one is the destiny of the other. One can say that the world and the other think me or us. I think you, you think me. I am at first present as a "virtual dead," "whereas, on the other side, I begin, at the same time, to exist as an other" and to assume something of a "multiple predestination."

In this indistinguishability between myself and the other it would be difficult not to think of the experiment of Schrödinger's cat. In this exemplary experimental design of Erwin Schrödinger and in the mathematical and probabilistic basic assumptions of quantum theory, the kitten, who is placed inside a hermetically sealed box, is, after radiation bombardment, half dead and half alive. Here too reason is suspended, and we can draw the conclusion that we – me as well as you – are all in a much wider open frame than we thought. Half me and half you.

IV. For a Thinking of Non-Thinking.

To bring his thinking into association with quantum theory is an overture that Baudrillard himself has made, to explain the breach in thinking, that a breach in thinking occurs via exchange. Another comparison – to continue walking the path – could be made with Zen Buddhism, which would be proper, since Zen Buddhism also proceeds from the impossibility of any kind of proposition and from uncertainty, paradox, and an impossible to close openness. To relate Zen Buddhism to Baudrillard is a playful attempt that might succeed or not. It complies with the rules of exchange of thinking, where one tries out hypotheses that one can also take back, and refuses to erect eternal truths.

Zen Buddhism is not a religion, on the contrary an instruction for a practice and governance of life that is less prone to errors of thought and action than others. It emerged from the meeting between Buddhism and Taoism, and developed around the year 1000 in China and around the year 1600 in Japan. It belongs to the great philosophies of the world.

Its point of departure rests on the assumption that human beings are labouring under a delusion, that they are caught in a contradiction that derives from linear and mechanistic – and, as the case may be, logical, critical, differential – thinking. Reason does not help in the solving of the questions that appear, only a stroke of liberation leads there.

A situation of dilemma can thereby be the best prerequisite to getting a clear head for a thinking of non-thinking. He who searches for an intellectual solution can pack his things up and go home. Only if the path leads through a crisis and a system breach takes place, an explosion and a breakdown of thinking, is there a prospect of a turnabout.

This dilemma, this crisis, corresponds for Baudrillard to radical uncertainty as a condition for thought. That is a first parallel. We find ourselves here, by the way, in the best of company. Martin Heidegger pointed out that the "most difficult task" of philosophy consists of forcing one's own Dasein "into a fertile questionability," instead of wanting to "mutually assign truths” (Heidegger, 1992). And one can gather from the "Letter on Humanism" that failed thought is not a misfortune (Heidegger ,1999). For Baudrillard, this means that radical uncertainty is not a "negative fatality."

In order to break out from the thinking of differentiation, Baudrillard would have said, from social, critical, dialectical, provocative thinking, that would be a second parallel, the Zen Master, in the traditional Zen Buddhist setting, gives the student shrewd thinking tasks, known as koan, that should instruct him to abdicate the use of the intellect, and, in a kind of shortcut, to penetrate directly to the roots of the problem. No problem solution is aimed at, but rather, the attainment of a state of "enlightenment" or insight, known as satori, that liberates human beings from the entrapments of false thought.

Zen Buddhism is recorded in numerous classical works. Among these are the two famous koan collections: the Blue Cliff Record (Chinese: Biyán Lù, Japanese: Hekiganroku) and the Gateless Gate (Mandarin: Wumenguan, Japanese: Mumonkan). Both of these appeared around the year 1000, for a few years now they have both been available in several editions in English and German.

In the Blue Cliff Record (Grimstone, 2005) there is a koan that goes like this: The Roshi (Chinese: Laoshi, teacher, master) challenges the student: "Show me the thing that is called mind." He who searches for an answer is already fixated on the word "mind" and has submitted to the conventions of thinking. The instruction of the teacher consists in holding up a writing utensil or any artefact and saying: "that is it." The "mind" has nothing to do with mind, but the answer, of course, is also not one, and scarcely helps. It is a conscious mystification. It would be exactly the same if someone - for example Master Jean Baudrillard - posed the challenge:  "Show me exchange." Or: "Show me the symbolic meaning of truth." No chance there. Without a thunderstorm of thinking, without an audacious leap into the void, there is no going further. If one reads sentences in Baudrillard like: "Everything that exists proceeds to not exist." Or: "Thinking pines for non-intelligent matter or animals who neither speak nor think." It appears here as if we were dealing with classical koan examples. One must chew them over for a long time – or meditate. Every other sentence in the book is, if one reads it precisely, a koan, and unleashes a whirlwind of questions. That is the productive, methodical side of it.

What Zen Buddhism as well as Baudrillard express is the fact that the world, and thinking, cannot be exchanged against any truth and any reality. Whence remains a radical uncertainty, which I have obviously discovered to be the nucleus of Baudrillard's book. Whence the indication of the uselessness of thinking in Baudrillard; whence his refusal of the "tyranny of meaning," an action with which Zen Buddhism is in agreement, where thinking is superseded through a non-thinking, which is something else than not thinking.

How is it then possible to make any kind of assertion at all? A Zen Buddhist aphorism seems to come into play: "As soon as you pronounce something, it is no longer true." Every assertion is, like Baudrillard's exchange, impossible. Whether meaning or non-meaning: "If you meet the Buddha, kill him." That is Zen Mind. No differentiations, no meaning, no truth. Don't accept it.

There is in Zen Buddhism only an emptiness or indeterminacy or suchness (Sanskrit: tathata, thusness, nonduality) as the prerequisite for all manifestations of the world, which corresponds to fundamental uncertainty in Baudrillard's thinking, which in turn can be brought into association with the uncertainty principle of quantum theory, and assembled into a triad.

V. Conclusion

It is time to break out of the loop of concepts, of thinking, of the dialectic, in other words, to attain satori, through a joyful leap in the air (einen Luftsprung) – a quantum leap – that leads to a new spiritual state. If the concepts are fluctuating, if thinking is useless, then one can still engage in exchange: in the exchange with the radical other. But this opposing, absolute other is unfathomable and unlocatable. It is impossible, and it cannot be had, cannot be reached. The paradoxes do not allow themselves to be cleared up – or only at the price of a false, fatal homogenization of the world. Whoever tries to close the openness, destroys the basis of thought. That was the path that Pascal pursued when he heard the silence of endless spaces, and looked to belief as shelter from the temptation of thinking.

For Jean Baudrillard, the path leads in the opposite direction. Impossible, deferred  exchange – that is radical uncertainty. As long as it remains so, so long can it retain and cancel its productive effectiveness as disturbance, hypothesis, energy, potential. The realized idea is lost, Baudrillard says. Exactly the same goes for exchange. In the end, only impossible exchange is possible. Henceforth the best thing to do will be to assimilate, to alter, to play with, and, in this way, to carry on, in other words, to add to the poetry of Baudrillard's concepts and assertions in their sidereal and enigmatic properties. That would be a worthy form, to engage oneself in an exchange with them, and in this way to rehabilitate exchange.

Aurel Schmidt was, for 40 years, editor of the Culture section (Basler Magazin) of the newspaper Basler Zeitung, responsible for the areas of art, philosophy, and travel. He has written and published several books, including Von Raum zu Raum. Versuch über das Reisen (Berlin: Merve, 1998); and Lederstrumpf in der Schweiz. James Fenimore Cooper und die Idee der Demokratie in Europa und Amerika (Frauenfeld: Huber, 2002). This essay originally appeared in German in Peter Gente, Barbara Könches and Peter Weibel [Editors] (2005). Philosophie und Kunst Jean Baudrillard: Eine Hommage zu seinem 75. Geburtstag.  Berlin: Merve Verlag.


Jean Baudrillard (2001). Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard (2003). Passwords. New York: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard (1996). "Radical Thought," in The Perfect Crime. New York: Verso.

A. V. Grimstone (2005). Two Zen Classics: The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Records (translated with commentaries by Katsuki Sekida), Boston: Shambhala.

Martin Heidegger (1992). Gesamtausgabe, Volume 29/30. Frankfurt: Klostermann.

Martin Heidegger (1999). "Letter on Humanism," in Basic Writings. London: Routledge.

Marcel Mauss (1967). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: W.W. Norton.

Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (1998). Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers' Abuse of Science. London: Profile Books.


1 Incertitude and relation d'incertitude are French terms for the uncertainty principle. My thanks to Markus Sedlaczek, the German translator of Impossible Exchange.


© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2008)

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