ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)

Potlatch Politics – Baudrillard’s Gift

Jon Baldwin
(London Metropolitan University, UK)

The engagement with Jean Baudrillard’s work will, sooner or later, result in an encounter with his notion of the gift and counter gift. The idea plays a core role in his thought. Marcel Mauss, author of the foundational essay on gift exchange, is deemed to be more radical, in the long term, than Karl Marx (Baudrillard 1993: 1). The gift is the “most proximate illustration” (Baudrillard 1981: 64) of the radical key conception of symbolic exchange. It serves as a critique of commodity relations, production, and the principle of equivalence; it is at the heart of Baudrillard’s ‘one great thought’, reversibility (Coulter 2004). Baudrillard’s gift and counter gift – potlatch – is inevitable, core to the enigma of social being, and governs our “ambivalent passions” (Baudrillard 1997: 128). I shall offer contextualization of Baudrillard’s gift by considering Georg Simmel and Georg Lukács on money and the commodity, the notion of gift exchange developed by Mauss, and the theories of religion produced by Émile Durkheim and Georges Bataille. The role of the gift in Baudrillard’s thought will be expounded upon.

The importance of exchange is given emphasis by Baudrillard in the late overview and theoretical summary, Passwords: “We are in exchange, universally. All our conceptions lead back to it at some point or other, whether it be commodity exchange or that concept of symbolic exchange which I have used a great deal and which is, in a way, its opposite” (Baudrillard 2003: 73). The problem of the commodity and the search for an other or opposite to critique the commodity and reified capitalist relations was largely Baudrillard’s theoretical spring board. This is the analysis and critique of the ontological and epistemological consequences caused by widespread commodity relations, production, and consumption. This would be the depreciation of Being and the influence upon thought of commodity relations. This can begin to be illustrated by considering Simmel and Lukács.

In his Philosophy of Money, Simmel describes the effect of the development of money and commodity relations on man as having an abstract, rationalising, quantitative, calculative effect, which leads to the preponderance of intellectual over emotional functions. Essentially when we are subject to commodity exchange, “subjectivity is destroyed and transposed into cool reserve and anonymous objectivity” (Simmel 1999: 457). Commodity exchange leads to alienation and is a mediated form of exchange. This affects social relations in a negative way. Man now produces for the market, with “totally unknown and indifferent consumers who deal with him only through the medium of money” (Simmel 1999: 335).

Lukács studied under Simmel (indeed was Simmel’s ‘favourite pupil’) and in ‘Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat’, declared that “the problem of commodities must not be considered in isolation or even regarded as the central problem in economics, but as the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects” (Lukács 1971: 83). Elaborating and expanding upon Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism whereby social relations between men assume “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Marx 1990: 165), Lukács developed the concept of reification - thingification. Man is turned into a thing, subjects become objects. In terms of commodity exchange the theory can be summarised as follows: “the subject of the exchange is just as abstract, formal and reified as its object” (Lukács 1971: 105). In Alain Badiou’s reading, what Marx regarded as the principle alienation of capitalism is “the primacy of things over existence, of commodities over life” (Badiou 2012: 20). By exchanging commodities in one-off transactions, man’s social relations become more object-like, thing-like, and abstract. As Charles Levin puts it in Heideggerian terms, this is a “nihilistic reduction of Being to exchange value” (Levin 1996: 7).

The problematic aspect here is the quantitative realm of the commodity - exchange-value. This quantitative evaluation and dimension is precisely what allows the commensurability of commodities: x amount of commodity A is equal to y amount of commodity B. But this process of abstraction reduces qualities and makes phenomena thing-like: “quantification is a reified and reifying cloak spread over the true essence of the objects” (Lukács 1971: 166). Not only does the political economy of commodity exchange impact upon market relations, it also intrudes into other aspects of life to their detriment. As Simmel suggests, “[e]xactness, precision and rigour in the economic relationships in life, which naturally affect other aspects of life as well, run parallel to the extension of monetary matters, though not exactly for the benefit of a superior style of living” (Simmel 1999: 445). Lukács takes this thesis somewhat further, “the ‘natural laws’ of capitalist production have been extended to cover every manifestation of life in society” (Lukács 1971: 92). This means that “there is an ever-increasing remoteness from the qualitative and material essence of the ‘things’ to which bureaucratic activity pertains” (Lukács 1971: 99). In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx outlines a genealogy of exchange, a picture of ‘universal venality’, an on-going colonisation of the life-world by commodity relations, a process of unabated continual reification and commodification, “when all that men have regarded as inalienable become objects of exchange…virtue, love, opinion, science, conscience, etc - where all at last enter into commerce” (Marx 1995: 36). If the market is indefinitely extended, as Marx claims of capitalism, then everything is for sale and has a price. Reification, this process of objectification, this making of things, treats the social as a thing, and treats people as things to be used and discarded.

The broad significance of these readings of the commodity is the general quantification of phenomena, the epistemological hegemony of the principle of equivalence, rationality, order, production and finality. Political economy is the market operating as a regulating mechanism: everything finds its price, its financial equivalent. “The commodity law of value is a law of equivalences” writes Baudrillard (Baudrillard 1993: 8), and equivalence is detrimental to ambivalence. This is what Baudrillard refers to as the ‘hell of the equal’. To give a measure of what has been lost in the move to a disenchanted modernity - the move, as Baudrillard paints it in broad strokes, from the symbolic to the semiotic, from ambivalence to equivalence, from the sacred to the profane - Baudrillard provides the example of man’s relation to the sun. Today, the sun functions as a ‘vacation’ commodity, as a positive sign of happiness, and as structurally opposed to ‘bad’ weather. It retains little of the collective symbolic function it held, for example, for the Aztecs and Egyptians. It “no longer has that ambivalence of a natural force – life and death, beneficent and murderous” (Baudrillard 1981: 98). We no longer retain a symbolic relationship with the sun through sacrifice for instance. That is to say, we do not give back to the sun anymore. Indeed it is now the mass of floating money as abstract value, as general equivalent, which has, in a sense, eclipsed the ambivalent sun. In the global market of speculation, “[m]oney has finally found its proper place…: the earth orbit, in which it rises and falls like an artificial sun” (Baudrillard 1989: 33). Baudrillard is clearly in mourning at this eclipse. It is a loss or reduction or reification of ambivalence, of the symbolic, and of the sacred at the hands of equivalence, the semiotic and the profane. Regarding the proposed semiotic reduction of the symbolic, we could do worse than follow Bataille here, who contrasts “the drab precision of words, to the blinding beauty of this world” (Bataille 2001: 210).

In terms of the reification of communication, Walter Benjamin might be seen to play off the rise of quantity against quality, and equivalence against ambivalence. Benjamin suggests that with the mechanical reproduction of the quantity of the art-work, “the quality of its presence is always depreciated” (Benjamin 1973: 215). The ‘aura’ of the work of art withers away; cult value is superseded by exchange value. Reification also affects story-telling. One forgets “the art of repeating stories” (Benjamin 1973: 90), one forgets reciprocity and feedback in communication. The story is now experienced as a thing, not a gift we may reciprocate. “It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences” (Benjamin 1973: 83). One is subjected to monologue, thing-like communication: “[t]he new form of communication is information…[e]very morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories” (Benjamin 1973: 88-9). In the essay Requiem for the Media, Baudrillard concurs with this general line of thinking. The media, as a thing, “speak, or something is spoken there, but in a way as to exclude any response anywhere…[the media] are what always prevents response, making all processes of exchange impossible” (Baudrillard 1981: 170). Genosko suggests that Baudrillard views communication as being reduced to ‘munication (Genosko 1994: 36). Likewise, Martin Buber can be seen to trace the effect of modernity and development of things upon communication and dialogical relationships: “the progressive increase of the It-world is clearly discernible in history” (Buber 1970: 88). There is a growth of monologue, the I-It relationship, to the detriment of ‘dialogical existence’, the I-You relationship.

Regarding communication and the commodity, the major conceptual move Baudrillard makes in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, is to propose a homology between the commodity form and sign form (Baudrillard 1981: 126). This is between Marx’s reading of the commodity, as comprising use-value and exchange-value, and Saussure’s reading of the sign, as comprising signified and signifier. It is no accident, for Baudrillard, that a coin – money - is Saussure’s exemplar for the demonstration of linguistic value. This configuration of commodity and sign, the political economy of the sign, is Baudrillard’s theoretical target insofar as it has detrimental epistemological and ontological effects. It entrenches capitalism and unilateral relations of power, hinders social relations, distorts symbolic communication, thwarts symbolic reciprocity, and eliminates ambivalence in the name of equivalence.

That which is deemed to be outside or disruptive of the configuration of commodity and sign is necessarily going to be considered important for Baudrillard. Ambivalence, for instance, is outside or interruptive of equivalence. Also what Baudrillard terms symbolic exchange “finds itself expelled from the field of value. This corresponds to the radical definition as the alternative to and transgression of value” (Baudrillard 1981: 128). The gift is considered to be the most proximate illustration of symbolic exchange (Baudrillard 1981: 64). Baudrillard’s reworking of the gift is viewed as an alternative to and transgression of the calculation and condensation of value in the commodity. Despite at the time still having to complete the ‘essential task’ of a theory of symbolic exchange (Baudrillard 1981: 129), the gift and symbolic exchange, as a radical principle, pepper the collection of essays in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign.

The phenomenon of gift exchange was first fully elaborated upon by Marcel Mauss in his 1925 essay The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Society. This study has been declared to be “probably the greatest book in modern anthropology” (Godbout 1998: 11). Indeed anthropology, as a distinct area of study, has been argued to have “emerged from a long series of controversies” regarding the distinction between gift and commodity (Yan 1996: 6). Through the reading and generalisation of a wide range of diverse ethnographies, Mauss proposed the gift as the basis of ‘archaic’ social life. Julian Pefanis suggests that Mauss “isolated the gift as the generalised form in these societies analogously to the way that Marx isolated the commodity as the generalised form in capitalist society” (Pefanis 1991: 27). Gift exchange is typified by three obligations: the obligation to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. Social relations, moral, emotional family and communal bonds are created and sustained by the reciprocal, one might say dialogical, exchange of gifts and services. This form of exchange, in its positive dimension1, can be said to evoke a ‘family feeling’ generating devotion, love, generosity, and solidarity. This is witnessed in “countless ordinary and continuous exchanges of daily existence - exchanges of gifts, services, assistance, visits, attention, kindness - and the extraordinary and solemn exchanges of family occasions” (Bourdieu, 1994: 68).

Mauss claimed that gift exchange is ‘a total social fact’, it informs and organizes diverse social processes, and it is a ‘universal mode of culture’ (Lévi-Strauss). The revelation of gift exchange has rather immodestly been claimed to be “the socio-economic equivalent of the mass-energy equation in physics” (Lewis 1977: 220). Generalised gift exchange, once it is usurped by commodity exchange, does not play the central role in social life it once did. However, argues Berking, “gift-giving does not simply evaporate amid the egoistic interests of economically motivated individuals” (Berking 1999: 129). Berking’s Sociology of Giving suggests that as an “anti-economic principle transcending exchange-value, as recollection and revival, tradition and utopia of successful reconciliation, the gift remains alive in the modern form of the present” (Berking 1999: 117). It is this anti-economic principle that is important for Baudrillard and theorists of the gift. In contrast to the commodity and the objective exchange of quantitative value, gift exchange is argued to concern itself with the subjective exchange of qualities: “commodity exchange establishes objective quantitative relationships between the objects transacted, while gift exchange establishes personal qualitative relationships between the subjects transacting” (Gregory 1982: 41). Bloch and Parry suggest that insofar as alienation and the fetishism of commodities “derives from the separation between the product and producer, which confers on the commodity the appearance of a quasi-independent existence”, the gift would “derive from the lack of separation between persons and things, which gives it the appearance of being animated by the personality of the donor” (Bloch and Parry 1989: 11). As Baudrillard suggests, what has become lost in “the object-become-sign [is that it] no longer gathers its meaning in the concrete relationship between two people” (Baudrillard 1981: 66). In contrast to this sign-object Baudrillard suggests the wedding ring. This has its ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ in a specific social context, a pact between two lovers, it is unique, singular – it is not objectively related to other objects without losing the essence of its symbolism.

The gift relationship is contrasted by Mauss to the commodity and market relations. The demise of the social being ‘organised’ around gift exchange and broad societal loss is clear: “[i]t is our western societies who have recently made man an ‘economic animal’…For a very long time man was something different, and he has not been a machine for very long, made complicated by a calculating machine” (Mauss 1990: 76). The description of the gift becomes the prescription for the gift in Mauss’s ‘Moral Conclusions’. Mauss attempts to promote something like a return to a gift culture with gift relations: “we can and must return to archaic society and elements in it” (Mauss 1990: 69). These gift societies are favoured by Mauss because of the effect on the human being: “within these groups, individuals, even those with strong characteristics, were less sad, less serious, less miserly, and less personal than we are…they were or are more generous, more liable to give than we are” (Mauss 1990: 81). Despite Mauss’s idealism, this notion of anthropology and the gift as critique of modernity should be considered quite important. Adorno’s ‘account of capitalism’, for instance, “is hampered by the absence of any serious and sustained empirical interest in non-capitalist societies” (Jarvis 1998: 68). Adorno’s “theory of exchange”, Jarvis continues, takes no account of Mauss’s insights and “shows little developed understanding of the political economy of non-capitalist and pre-capitalist societies” (Jarvis 1998: 68).

In terms of Marx and anthropology as critique, Maurice Bloch suggests that Marx and Engels asked two things of anthropology. “First they looked to it for some confirmation that general principles of history which they saw at work in capitalism had always been operative” (Bloch 1991: 15). This is a historical use of anthropology and was part of a general history and theory of society to explain the coming to be of capitalism. “Secondly, they looked to anthropology to supply them with examples of contrastive, even opposite, systems of institutions to those of nineteenth-century capitalism” (Bloch 1991: 15). This alternative ‘rhetorical’ use of anthropology seeks to show that the institutions of capitalism are historically specific and therefore changeable. There is a problem however with this dual task asked of anthropology: “In the first case one is trying to stress the unity of human history, in the other, one is trying to show the diversity and discontinuity of human history” (Bloch 1991: 16). Bloch argues that these two uses of anthropology got “disastrously mixed up in the work of the founders” (Bloch 1991: 20) and that their “knowledge of primitive society was quite insufficient as a basis for modern anthropology” (Bloch 1991: 172). Marxist anthropology remains still to come, “something to be created” suggests Bloch (1991: 172). As Baudrillard’s The Mirror of Production proposes, Marxism looks at history through the rear view mirror of production. It wants much from anthropology, it wants radical difference from capitalism - yet some continuity. It wants not too much difference as to be able to retain and even make universal and natural notions of use-value and the economy (in the subsequent ‘good’ management of the economy, ‘good’ control of production, ‘good’ management of workers, and arguably the ‘good’ use of people as things). Given this remit, we may well be waiting indefinitely for a Marxist anthropology proper.

One can condense gift-theory and summarise the distinction (whilst being suspicious of the stark contrast) between gift and commodity as follows: gift relations are face-to-face, are two-party, deal with concrete others, deal with present others, deal with qualities, are unmediated, are typical of family and community relations, are subjective, and deal with the ‘warm circle’ of reciprocity. Commodity relations are not face-to-face, go through third-parties, deal with abstract others, deal with absent others, deal with quantities, are mediated, are destructive of family and community relations, are objective, and deal with one-off transactions with‘cold’ strangers. This is one broad sense that Baudrillard appears to be evoking in using the gift to challenge the commodity (and the subject2 of reified relations). However, importantly, Baudrillard departs from this tradition, as will become fully evident, in his fundamental insistence on the counter-gift.

Following Mauss’s insistence on the obligation to give, receive, and reciprocate, Gouldner suggests that ‘[c]ontrary to some cultural relativists, it can be hypothesised that a norm of reciprocity is universal’ (Gouldner 1996: 59). Baudrillard would concur: the essence of gift and counter-gift is “continuous unlimited reciprocity” (Baudrillard 1975: 79). This crucial stress on reciprocity, whether it has positive or negative implications, is where Baudrillard produces a radicalised version of Mauss: he ups the ante and he returns a theory of the gift to the theorist of the gift. This will go against the grain of readings of the gift as in any simple sense ‘generous’. It challenges traditional and contemporary economic-anthropological readings of the gift, and contests the Christian humanist ideology of the gift. Baudrillard will argue for the centrality of the counter-gift, the centrality of the escalation of potlatch reversibility: “The gift is our myth, the idealist myth correlative to our materialist myth, and we bury the primitives under both myths at the same time. The primitive symbolic process knows nothing of the gratuity of the gift, it knows only the challenge and the reversibility of exchanges” (Baudrillard 1993: 48-9). This continuous reciprocity is, as shall be argued, what keeps the exchanger in the social, in the symbolic and the sacred: it is what subordinates profane production to sacrifice and consumption. This reciprocity and reversibility, this insistence on the counter-gift is what is largely what is meant when Baudrillard evokes his notion of symbolic exchange.

It might be appropriate now to begin to consider the question: what is (or was) symbolic exchange? Writing a theory of symbolic exchange, if the term is to perform and be other to equivalence, is never going to be entirely satisfactory. There is frequent complaint that Baudrillard does not define this key conception; however it seems to me that this is not the result of willful obscurantism. It is a phenomena “whose virtuality of meaning is so subversive of the sign, [that it] cannot for this very reason, be named except by allusion, by infraction” (Baudrillard 1981: 161). To produce the sign ‘symbolic exchange’ would be (as Baudrillard suggests of Lyotard’s notion of a figural transgression of the discursive) to subject symbolic exchange to a ‘double articulation’ “whereby the linguistic order again finds a means to establish itself in the interpretation of what escapes it” (Baudrillard 1993: 239). As Genosko states, “one wonders whether it is possible to signify what one means by the symbolic” (Genosko, 1994: xx). This is because according “to his own criteria, Baudrillard cannot say very much about the symbolic without engaging the mechanisms of value” (Genosko, 1994: 89). Baudrillard defines the symbolic by what it is not - “neither a concept, an agency, a category, nor a ‘structure’” (Baudrillard 1993: 133). To think of symbolic exchange we are to be guided by those ‘allusions’ and ‘refractions’ made by Baudrillard in the context of discussing symbolic exchange. We should also be alert to the conflation of a series of concepts placed in parenthesis following Baudrillard’s use of ‘symbolic’ “(gift and counter-gift, reciprocity and reversal, expenditure and sacrifice)” (Baudrillard 1993: 35). Further the symbolic is “an act of exchange and a social relation” (Baudrillard 1993: 133).

One important context of Baudrillard’s symbolic – certainly as this ‘social relation’ is concerned - as Gane (1991) and Merrin (1999) have persuasively indicated, is Durkheim. The rituals and symbolism of religion, for Durkheim, should be thought of as social not spiritual: “this reality – which mythologies have represented in so many different forms but which is the objective, universal, and eternal cause of those sui generis sensations that make up the religious experience – is society” (Durkheim 2001: 313). Put simply “the idea of society is the soul of religion” (Durkheim 2001: 314). This is the etymological sense of religion as religare, re-ligature, re-bounding, re-connecting, re-bonding. If religion is social then it is a bringing of the social (back) together. Today we find ourselves in a position where “the old ancient gods grow old or die, and others are not yet born” (Durkheim 2001: 322). This necessarily has a detrimental effect on the social bond: as Daniel Bell has it “[t]o say, then, that ‘God is dead’ is, in effect, to say that the social bonds have snapped and that society is dead” (in O’Neill 1988: 495). One can suggest that Baudrillard, like Bell and Frederic Jameson, “resort to a Durkheimian lament over the dissolution of the social bond” (O’Neill 1988: 498). Both thinkers “are inclined to call for a renewal of religious symbolism to restore the social bond against postmodern values” (O’Neill 1988: 493).

If one posits the gift as embodying the social bond, as contagious of the sacred – in the same way as the “secondary sacred” or the notion of an “individual totem” (Durkheim 2001: 319) - then the gift needs to be reciprocated in order to remain in the sacred sphere. Stopping the reciprocity of the gift is stopping the social bond. Finally notes Durkheim, “nearly all great social institutions are born of religion”, however, “[o]nly one form of social activity has not yet been explicitly linked to religion: namely, economic activity” (Durkheim 2001: 314). His nephew Mauss will attempt to respond to this challenge but the perceived autonomy of the economic and the difficulty of linking the economic and the social makes the social critique of economic activity, its hegemony, its epistemological influence, and effects (reification, alienation, the economic definition of man and his motivations, market solutions to social issues, and so on) all the more necessary.

Bataille is further an important context in which Baudrillard’s gift must be considered. In his Theory of Religion, Bataille, like Durkheim, stresses something of existence which has demised or is threatened: “Man is the being that has lost, and even rejected, that which he obscurely is, a vague intimacy”, the essence of religion then, is “the search for lost intimacy” (Bataille 1992: 57). This is a notion that like Baudrillard’s symbolic exchange escapes simple description and reveals the limits of identity thinking:

Intimacy cannot be expressed discursively. The swelling to the bursting point, the malice that breaks out with clenched teeth and weeps; the sinking feeling that doesn't know where it comes from or what it's about; the fear that sings its head off in the dark; the white-eyed pallor, the sweet sadness, the rage and the vomiting...are so many evasions. What is intimate, in the strong sense, is what has the passion of an absence of individuality, the imperceptible sonority of a river, the empty limpidity of the sky: this is still a negative definition, from which the essential is missing (Bataille 1992: 50-51).

Although Baudrillard will challenge Bataille on several issues (the drive towards the sacred need not the apology Bataille gives it; his concept of expenditure is too much the inverse of the economic; Bataille has missed the crucial notion of the reciprocity of the gift) he concludes that in Bataille, “the sacred imperative is flawless in its mythic assertion” (Baudrillard 1987: 138). It can be suggested that a notion of intimacy – ‘the passion of an absence of individuality’ - the intensity of immanent existence and the connectedness and intimate social bond is present in the process of gift and counter-gift that Baudrillard evokes. In thinking of Durkheim and Bataille on the social as the religious, we might note that for Wernick, religion should be considered the “missing transcendental” in Baudrillard (Wernick 1992: 69).

The gift, as other to profane exchange and objective evaluation, is therefore repressed and marginalised by political economy. In our culture of production and equivalence, Baudrillard writes that “[o]nly what is not exchanged as values, that is, sex, death, madness and violence, is fascinating, and for this reason is universally repressed” (Baudrillard 1993: 175). These are precisely the phenomenon that interest Bataille: “laughter - tears - sexual excitation - poetic emotion - the sentiment of the sacred - ecstasy” (Bataille 2001: 160). Bataille’s broad, necessarily incomplete, project of the The Accursed Share is made explicit in the introduction to the second volume on eroticism: it is “a general critique of the ideas that subordinate men’s activities to ends other than the useless consumption of their resources” (Bataille 1993: 14). Eroticism “cannot serve any purpose” (Bataille 1993: 16); in sexual passion “we behave in a contrary fashion [to behavior aimed at growth]: we expend our forces without counting, and we lose substantial amounts of energy without restraint and without gain” (Bataille 1993: 177). Bataille’s work places on the one hand the consumption of resources for duration, for the benefit of a lasting reality, for further production of things, for value, and for preservation. On the other hand is the symbolic world of unconditional consumption for the moment, and sacrifice, the antithesis of production.

The sacrificer declares: 'Intimately, I belong to the sovereign world of gods and myths, to the world of violent and uncalculated generosity, just as my wife belongs to my desires. I withdraw you, victim, from the world in which you were and could only be reduced to the condition of a thing, having a meaning that was foreign to your intimate nature. I call you back to the intimacy of the divine world, of the profound immanence of all that is (Bataille 1992: 44).

In terms of the gift, to forgo reciprocity, to retain a gift given, to profit from it, is to return to the profane world of things. Therefore to remove this possibility “what is given cannot be an object of preservation for the receiver: the gift of an offering makes it pass precisely into the world of abrupt consumption” (Bataille 1992: 49). Baudrillard’s interjection here would be to stress the reciprocation of the offering. This is what is significant about the antagonistic form of gift exchange, potlatch. For Baudrillard this is “exonerated from the idea of value, [it is] a type of circulation which includes prodigality and the squandering of things, but must never stop. Exchange must never have an end; it must always increase in intensity, possibly continuing until death” (Baudrillard 2003: 16). Potlatch and symbolic exchange are not economic exchange: they are not motivated by interest or equivalence. Potlatch and symbolic exchange disavowals, marginalizes, and ‘wastes’ the economic: it is ignorant “of calculation and [equivalent] exchange” (Baudrillard 1993: 37). With the phenomena of potlatch, reciprocity and reversal, expenditure and sacrifice, not only is economic value irrelevant, but the process is enhancing to the human being. To simplify: the appeal to, and of, Baudrillard’s symbolic and the gift/counter-gift, appears to be the appeal to the sacred instance; to intimacy; immanence; effervescence; to ambivalent passions; to the enigma, music and poetry of the day; the dangerous intoxication, laughter and festival of the night; the “profound proximity” (Bataille 2001: 127), where social man “is capable of more” (Durkheim 2001: 311). This stands in contrast to the superficial banality, subordination and simulation of the present; the crushing inane boredom of the profane; the reduction of the sovereign subject to the slave of preservation and utility; the reduction of the quality of existence to the quantity of labour-time; the reduction of play and seduction to that long grey soporific tea-time of afternoon muzak and evening reality television - “that potlatch of vacuousness” (Baudrillard 2006 :30).

“[A]nything that cannot be exchanged or symbolically shared,” Baudrillard writes, “would break the reciprocity and institute power” (Baudrillard 1975: 79). The very definition of power is “the act of giving without being given” (Baudrillard 1993: 40). To escape the world of things, to escape production, to escape unilateral relations of power as so defined by Baudrillard, one should be like the ‘primitives’ and play potlatch on a geopolitical scale. This would be one sense of a potlatch politics. One must evoke the symbolic, must seduce and provoke the unlimited reciprocity of the gift and counter-gift by issuing a challenge by gift. Hence this notion is of strategic and critical value. We find these notions of reversibility, reciprocity, and counter-gift throughout Baudrillard’s oeuvre. The system is to be challenged within the realm of the symbolic. The system suppresses the symbolic and is itself built upon the denial of the symbolic: one must “therefore displace everything into the sphere of the symbolic, where challenge, reversal and overbidding are the law” (Baudrillard 1993: 36). One must “deny the system with a gift to which it cannot respond save by its own collapse and death. Nothing, not even the system, can avoid the symbolic obligation, and it is in this trap that the only chance of a catastrophe for capital remains” (Baudrillard 1993: 36-7). The fact that this strategic sentiment - “Defy the system by a gift to which it cannot respond except by its own death and its own collapse” (Baudrillard 2002: 17) - is repeated virtually word for word twenty-five years later (in relation to terrorism) reveals the prevalence and consistency of this aspect of Baudrillard. Hence “the only effective reply to [capitalist] power is to give it back what it gives you, and this is only symbolically possible by means of death” (Baudrillard 1993: 43). This is also the ‘spirit of terrorism’ which is the spirit of the gift: “Terrorism is the act that restores an irreducible singularity to the heart of a system of generalized exchange” (Baudrillard 2002: 9). The death of the worker, the death of the terrorist, the gift of death - as an act of potlatch, as a challenge, as a duel, as a sacrificial obligation - cannot be successfully reciprocated by the system except by the very return death (suicide) of the system. This, at least, is how Baudrillard reads the hypothesis of the terrorist (Baudrillard 2002: 17). The unilateral gift from the terrorist attempts to over-power the powerful, attempts to win the potlatch, attempts to win ‘face’, and attempts to win the contest of honour. “It is that power which humiliated you, so it too must be humiliated” (Baudrillard 2002: 26). A pyrrhic victory, some might say, but nevertheless an immediate symbolic victory, “a victory over all power, however powerful its authority may be” (Baudrillard 1993: 38).

The spirit of the gift, potlatch, and reversibility guide much of Baudrillard’s thinking on issues such as theory, the media and the Gulf War. In terms of theory, thought should not be equivalent to or complicit with reality, but a counter-gift, one must give back in the spirit of potlatch. It might be significant to consider the mid to late 1970’s study group comprising of Baudrillard, Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari and others. Here Baudrillard’s ‘position paper’ and polemic “was so aggressive and his critique of his French contemporaries so extreme that after heated debate the group disbanded” (Kellner 1989: 132). In broader terms of philosophical quarrels and theoretical debates as gift-exchange writ large Bourdieu might be apt: “nothing more resembles the struggles for honour among the Kabyle than intellectual struggles. In many of those struggles, the apparent stake (to be right, to triumph through reason) hides the stakes of the point of honour” (Bourdieu 1994: 75). Here the rational is subordinated to passion, honour and intellectual ‘face’.

In terms of the media, Baudrillard revises his condemnation of the power of the media as an irreversible form of communication “without a response” (Baudrillard 1994: 84) and now interprets the “silence of the masses” not as passivity or alienation but as a “counter strategy” (Baudrillard 1994: 84). This is an original response in the form of defiance and snubbing the unilateral ‘gift’ of the mass media. The Gulf War, in terms of a geopolitical exchange, was also not a reciprocal contest but unilateral and calculated. In On War, Clausewitz suggests that “War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale” (in McAleer 1994: 107). Greenberg writes that “A study of the duel is a study of gifts” (Greenberg 1998: 53), indeed “a bullet is a gift” (Greenberg 1998: 74). The Gulf War, as was self-evident, was simply not a contest (let alone an honourable duel). It was a one-sided, profit driven, brute face of ‘democracy’, made-for-TV exhibition of power with no response, featuring the unilateral gift of the smart bomb to Iraq.

From Symbolic Exchange and Death onwards, other examples and illustrative epithets for the irruption of the symbolic, reversibility, and counter-gift are formulated and developed. There is the unanticipated otherness which cannot immediately be exchanged with an aspect of the same; the heterogeneous, negativity and evil in the face of the homogeneous, the positive and the good; the singularity “that it is not exchangeable” (Baudrillard 2003: 73); the event - defined as having no equivalent; the impossibility of exchange; and from Bataille, a version of the ‘accursed share’. The broad position in Baudrillard then, is one of distinction between the symbolic and semiological, between the gift and the commodity. We are always dealing, it seems, in Baudrillard with two antagonistic principles: “On the one hand: political economy, production, the code, the system, simulation. On the other hand: potlatch, expenditure, sacrifice, death, the feminine, seduction” (Baudrillard 1988: 79). The analysis and relationship of these antagonistic principles, Charles Levin suggests, is precisely the attraction of Baudrillard as ‘social philosopher’: his appeal “lies in his capacity to relate the formalized abstractions of the civilised habitus to the mysteries of social being” (Levin 1996: 81). Under the aegis of simulation, Baudrillard details the extension, development, abstract systematisation, autonomy, structural determinism, homogeneity, and fulfillment of that which is governed by the principle of equivalence and the semiological. All this is to the detriment of that which is governed by the symbolic. As well as this, he charts what he sees as the inevitable return gift, interruption, disruption, intimacy, passion, haunting, antagonism, and “indestructible logic of symbolic exchange” (Baudrillard 1993: 127).

Like Nietzsche’s foregrounding of the dynamic between Dionysus and Apollo, the antagonism and dual between the irruption and passion of the symbolic against the principle of equivalence [even in the form of what some might consider ‘progressive’ such as the principle of equality in ‘human rights’, ‘democracy’, ‘law’, etc.], is the wager Baudrillard’s work demands. We must venture that “what haunts the system is the symbolic demand” (Baudrillard 1975: 147). Our bets should be cast with the gift as “inevitable”, our very fate (Baudrillard 1997: 128). “[D]eath does not gnaw at those who gamble” writes Bataille (Bataille 2001: 254).

The major move that happens following Symbolic Exchange and Death (arguably in response to Lyotard’s critique3 is the clarification and displacing of symbolic exchange as a non-reified region and time – as “a ‘natural’, outside the simulation process” (Levin 1996: 94) – to instead, being an always already possible irruption, an interruption [though it may well still have been the dominant mode of a ‘primitive’ culture (Baldwin 2008)]. Symbolic exchange is no longer opposed to “but interlaces, the play of signs” (Levin 1996: 94). As William Pawlett suggests, symbolic exchange “shifts from being a way of thinking about a place of community or space of communication to a moment or point of irruption, revolt and defiance” (Pawlett 2006).

What has been lost however, might be the myths and rituals needed to facilitate such symbolic irruption, challenge and defiance. Bataille writes that “[o]f course archaic man did not continually participate in the contagious violence of intimacy, but if he was removed from it, the rituals always kept the power to bring him back to it at the proper time” (Bataille 1992: 74). Those rituals are distant to us now, those myths too that resonate with the symbolic are whisperings, rumours, and enigmatic secrets:

We may choose to regard this symbolic exchange as something we have lost, to interest ourselves in potlatch in primitive societies and treat it anthropologically, taking the view that, so far as we are concerned, we are totally in market societies, in societies governed by value…But is this so certain? Perhaps we are still in an immense potlatch. We delimit areas in which kinds of economic, anatomical and sexual relations seem to come together, but the fundamental form, the radical form, is still that of challenge, of one-upmanship, of potlatch - and hence of the negation, the sacrifice of value. So we might be said to be living still in a sacrificial mode, without wishing to acknowledge it. Without being able to either because, without the rituals, without the myths, we no longer have the means to do so (Baudrillard 2003: 18).

For Baudrillard, the ‘absolute rule of thought’ is to: “render the world as it was given to us - unintelligible - and if possible, a little more unintelligible. A little more enigmatic” (Baudrillard 1995: 62). With the notion of the return gift in mind we might conclude thus: Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways – the point is to ex-change it.

Jon Baldwin




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1. Baldwin (2009) explores the negative dimension of the gift. This includes the possibilities of constrictive family and community bonds, the inescapable bond and obligation to reciprocate, and the metaphysics of presence insofar as ‘face to face’ gift relations are frequently taken for granted as being fully enabling. On the other hand commodity exchange is perceived as being exclusively disabling.

2. It would be an oversight and miss the very point to think of gift exchange as featuring two individual, self-interested, game-theory influenced, rational choice making subjects abstracted from an always already social context and concrete relationship. To certain degrees, gift exchange features or facilitates a Durkheimian ‘collective effervescence’ or the sense of the intimacy that Bataille regales us with. Gifts are profoundly social, “presented in the event of births, marriages, deaths, exhumations, peace treaties and misdemeanours, and incidents too numerous to be recorded” (Lévi-Strauss 1996: 18). To abstract the subject from these occasions, to imbue them with choice and reflection upon their exchange relationship, is not what would be in line with the spirit of Baudrillard’s gift.

3. Lyotard’s critique is of what Pefanis calls “early Baudrillard” (Pefanis 1991: 61), the late 60s to early 70. The reading that Lyotard produces in Libidinal Economy is significant because as Pefanis argues, “it is one of the few places in contemporary French literature where Baudrillard’s thought is examined in any detail” (Pefanis 1991: 99). Lyotard summarizes Baudrillard’s position as being one of “political economy or equivalence versus symbolic exchange or ambivalence” (Lyotard 1993: 135). Despite feeling “synchronised and co-polarised” (Lyotard 1993: 104) with much of Baudrillard’s orientation and attack on Marx, Lyotard posits three distinct criticisms at Baudrillard. Lyotard doubts that the gift, as he sees Baudrillard utilising it, can be what Baudrillard claims, and be considered outside equivalence, outside sign-value: “[t]he category of the gift is a theatrical idea, it belongs to semiology, it presupposes a subject” (Lyotard 1993: 122). Further, “[i]t is in the theory of signs that donatory exchange (or the gift…) may be represented as the attribution or devolution of an object charged with affects to someone who at the beginning of the cycle didn’t have it” (Lyotard 1993: 122). The gift then, for Lyotard, involves the subject and is semiological. Second, there is an allegation of Baudrillard being a Romantic, a modern Chateaubriand (‘One inhabits, with a full heart, an empty world’) or Rousseau, in inventing the romance of societies of the gift, producing the Noble Savage and a ‘myth of primitivism’: “the problematic of the gift …belongs in its entirety to Western racism and imperialism - that is ethnology’s good savage, slightly libidinalized” (Lyotard 1993: 106). Finally, Baudrillard falls into the trap of critical theory: “This trap consists quite simply in responding to the demand of the vanquished theory, and this demand is: put something in my place” (Lyotard 1993: 105). By offering an alternative to reification, alienation, political economy, commodity exchange, equivalence, and so forth, Lyotard suggests Baudrillard posits “phantasy of a non-alienated region” (Lyotard 1993: 107-8). This is a “critique made possible by the position of an uncritiqued, set up as the site from which the critic speaks” (Lyotard 1993: 135). This is the familiar critique made of theories of reification. Symbolic exchange, the gift and ambivalence function, for Lyotard, as positions of an uncritiqued, non-alienated, non-reified sphere from which Baudrillard bases and founds his critique. By emphasising that the symbolic is not a binary opposite from a non-alienated region but rather a singular irruption, Baudrillard can be seen to address these concerns (or even misunderstandings: “I took my distance (perhaps too quickly) from Bataille” Lyotard  reveals (1991: 55). Baudrillard’s retort to Lyotard’s (as well as Deleuze’s) libidinal economics is that “in the guise of libidinal deregulation [they] were simply ratifying the future state of things.” (Baudrillard 2007: 124)



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