ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 1, Number 2 (July 2004) 

Review: “He took off his sandal, put it on his head, and walked away…”

Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York: Verso, 2003. Translated by Chris Turner.
 

Reviewed by Jon Baldwin
(Department of Communications and Culture, London Metropolitan University, England).

            Passwords1 brings together broad recapitulations of the major concepts in Jean Baudrillard’s theoretical oeuvre: namely the Object, Value, Symbolic Exchange, Seduction, the Obscene, the Transparency of Evil, the Virtual, Randomness, Chaos, the End, the Perfect Crime, Destiny, Impossible Exchange, Duality, Thought, and the Last Word. Each short chapter is devoted to one of these particular passwords. Why call them passwords? Because “they are ‘passers’ or vehicles of ideas…the expression ‘passwords’ seems to me to enable us to reapprehend things, both by crystallizing them and by situating them in an open, panoramic perspective”.2

            The book largely takes a chronological approach to its subject matter. Baudrillard’s first theoretical offering was The System Of Objects3 and it is therefore fitting that Passwords opens with a discussion of the object. Baudrillard reveals that the analysis of the object has remained the “horizon of my thinking”.4 This focus exhausted the disciplines available at the time: psychoanalysis, Marxism, and semiology – and contributed to Baudrillard’s intellectual development: “the advantage of studying the object was that it required you to move across these disciplines; it forced a cross-disciplinarity on you”.5 In the next two sections Baudrillard outlines his concern with how the object may acquire a value and attends to the issue of the exchange of objects. This, then, is a reiteration of themes detailed most prominently in The Mirror Of Production and in his magnum opus, Symbolic Exchange and Death.6 As in the case of many of the passwords, the section on symbolic exchange offers to clarify aspects of his thought. Gerry Coulter suggests that this process of clarification is the “principle task”7 of the book. Regarding the symbolic, Baudrillard is keen to distance it from Lacan and the imaginary: “It is symbolic exchange as anthropology understands it”.8 This is a radical anthropology dominated by the notions of potlatch and reversibility, informed by Marcel Mauss and Georges Bataille, and used by Baudrillard to attempt to oppose commodity exchange and critique contemporary society. However rather than see the spheres of symbolic exchange and commodity exchange as mutually exclusive, and the latter historically usurping and eradicating the former9, Baudrillard rethinks his genealogy of exchange and is now willing to believe in their coexistence and 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”.10

            A discussion of seduction follows in which Baudrillard expresses some disappointment with its reception. The notion “produced some misunderstandings with the feminists ...some have taken the view that to link women and seduction was to consign them to the realm of appearances – and hence to frivolity. This is a total misunderstanding”.11 As with most of the passwords Baudrillard is keen to offer redefinitions: “Seduction is not so much a play on desire as playing with desire”.12 In the subsequent section the obscene is redefined as “the becoming-absolutely-real of something which until then was treated metaphorically, or had a metaphorical dimension”.13 The volume continues with transparency being contrasted to secrecy, and the oxymoron “virtual reality” is defined as that which “coincides with the notion of hyperreality [and is] perfectly homogenised, digitised and operationalized”.14 Meditations on randomness, chaos, the end, and the perfect crime follow. The latter being offered as that which “destroys otherness, the other. It is the reign of the same”.15 Baudrillard’s core concern with exchange is reiterated in the sections on destiny and impossible exchange: “We are in exchange, universally. All our conceptions lead back to it at some point or other”.16 Destiny is defined as, “the principle of reversibility in action…[it] is this symbolic exchange between us and the world”.17 This restating of exchange as one of the major concepts of his thought is important, in my mind, to dissuade the banal and superficial readings of Baudrillard as simply a theorist of the image, spectacle or simulation, or as a “postmodern guru”, or as an intellectual agent provocateur, or as an ingenious science fiction writer18, or as offering only “reactionary Romanticism” and struggling to “work through” the trauma of the invention of the television set19, or worse, as “the Walt Disney of contemporary metaphysics”.20

            The issues surrounding the (im)possibility of exchange, response, and the gift (potlatch) are, according to my reading at least, at the heart of Baudrillard’s work. Be it the notion from Symbolic Exchange and Death that “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”21 and “power, of which this is always and everywhere the definition, resides in the act of giving without being given”22 or the idea that the “absolute rule of thought is: render the world as it was given to us – unintelligible – and if possible, a little more unintelligible. A little more enigmatic”.23 Or the ambitious Requiem For The Media where he suggests that the non-reciprocal one-way flow of the mass media is “what always prevents response, making all processes of exchange impossible (except in the various forms of response simulation…)”24 This latter concern is also found in Walter Benjamin – an obvious influence on Baudrillard. In Benjamin’s analysis of storytelling he argues that the growth of the unilateral flow of mass media information is detrimental to the reciprocity inherent in the oral tradition and results in the loss of “the ability to exchange experiences…every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories”.25

            If one accepts Baudrillard’s Jorge Luis Borges inspired invitation at the beginning of Passwords to “put oneself in the position of an imaginary traveller who came upon these writings as if they were a lost manuscript and, for want of supporting documents, subsequently strove to reconstitute the society they describe”26 then one must, rightly or wrongly, reconstitute a society that is, among other things, having difficulty in exchanging and responding. One discovers Baudrillard narrating a culture in which ambivalence, symbolic dialogue, potlatch, expenditure, sacrifice, death, seduction, and uncertainty are being reduced, finalised, and closed off in monologue, by production, accumulation, political economy, homogenisation, the code, the system and simulation. Georg Simmel once proposed the definition of man to be that “man is the exchanging animal”.27 Baudrillard is clearly concerned with what happens to this animal if its defining feature is eradicated or troubled. The final chapter, and indeed final few words, of Passwords expresses this and evokes a certain humanism that is at odds with the caricature of Baudrillard as a “postmodern” celebrator of the “death of man”: “in a world that wants absolutely to cleanse everything, to exterminate death and negativity [thought must] remain humanist, concerned for the human”.28

            This final chapter, “The Last Word”, also reveals Baudrillard’s reluctance to “pronounce a last word” on his work and instead evoke a continuing journey whereby his concepts have “metabolised into one another in a kind of spiral”.29 One is then inclined, or provoked/seduced, to go back to the beginning, back to the object, and begin the spiral anew. In declining to have the last word Baudrillard is refusing to conclude his work, refusing a dialectical resolution, and instead evoking and provoking enigma. On this matter Roland Barthes30 in A Lover’s Discourse (1978) is informative: “To speak last, ‘to conclude,’ is to assign a destiny to everything that has been said, is to master, to possess, to absolve, to bludgeon meaning”.31 Baudrillard is clearly refusing to accept the position of power described by Barthes, in that “the one who comes last occupies a sovereign position, held, according to an established privilege, by professors, presidents, judges, confessors…”32 Further, is there a more appropriate illustration of the relation of non-power and enigma that Baudrillard wants to evoke in refusing the final word, than the following from Barthes?

To renounce the last word (…) derives, then, from an anti-heroic morality…the last word may be replaced by an incongruous pirouette: this is what the Zen master did who, for his only answer to the solemn question ‘What is Buddha?,’ took off his sandal, put it on his head, and walked away: impeccable dissolution of the last word, mastery of non-mastery.33

Despite this, there are a few disappointments with the volume. Chief among them are Baudrillard’s reluctance to explicitly engage with his contemporaries such as Slavoj Žižek or Alain Badiou, who have also concerned themselves with the investigation of what Badiou calls a “passion for the real”.34 There is also no explicit follow up of the various disputes with Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard or Jacques Derrida. However, the admittance by Baudrillard, that “I am not sufficiently familiar”35, during a discussion and metaphorical use of Mandelbrot’s fractals, may well be taken as a response, intentional or otherwise, to Sokal and Bricmont’s criticism.36

            One other concern is the plethora of blank pages or mere title pages that feature in the book of ninety-two pages, thirty-nine are in fact blank or simply contain a section title. Attention should also be drawn to the back cover promotional blurb that Passwords “offers us twelve accessible and enjoyable entry points into Baudrillard’s thought”. There are actually sixteen. This issue, presumably the publishers concern, is however highly appropriate: perhaps only Baudrillard could leave a remainder, an excess, a gift, in a book less than two thirds full!
 


Endnotes

1Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. London and New York: Verso, 2003. This is, at least, the second broad overview offered by Baudrillard. He has previously spoken of the “considerable inflection” and development of his concepts in the essay “From the System of Objects to the Destiny of Objects” in The Ecstasy of Communication (New York, Semiotext(e), 1987:79-80).

2 Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York, Verso, 2003:xiii-xiv.

3 Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects . Editions Gallimard, 1968 Translated by James Benedict. New York: Verso, 1996.

4 Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York, Verso, 2003:3.

5 Ibid.:4.

6  Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production. Translated with an “Introduction” by Mark Poster. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973; and Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant. London: Sage, 1993.

7 Gerry Coulter. Editorial: Launching IJBS, International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 1, Number 1 January 2004 http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/edit.htm

8 Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York, Verso, 2003:15.

9 A position and binary opposition that drew a deconstruction from Jean-François Lyotard in Libidinal Economy (Minuit, 1974). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

10 Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York, Verso, 2003:17.

11 Ibid.:22-23.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.:27.

14 Ibid.:39.

15 Ibid.:63.

16 Ibid.:73.

17 Ibid.:69-70.

18 Robert Wicks. Modern French Philosophy: From Existentialism to Postmodernism. Oxford: One-World, 2003:289.

19 Peter Osborne. “Interpreting the world: September 11, cultural criticism and the intellectual Left”. Radical Philosophy 117. 2003:7.

20 Douglas Kellner. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Stanford University Press. 1989:179.

21 Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (Gallimard, 1976). New York: Sage, 1993: 43.

22 Ibid.:40.

23 Jean Baudrillard. “Radical Thought”. Parallax: Cultural Studies and Philosophy 1. 1995: 62.

24 Jean Baudrillard. “Requiem For The Media”. For A Critique Of The Political Economy Of The Sign (1972). St. Louis, Mo.: Telos, 1981:170.

25 Walter Benjamin. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov”. Illuminations. London: Fontana, 1992:83.

26 Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York, Verso, 2003:ix.

27 Georg Simmel. The Philosophy of Money (1900). Routledge: London 1990:291.

28 Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York, Verso, 2003:92.

29 Ibid.:91.

30 In an interview Baudrillard has said that ”Roland Barthes is someone to whom I felt very close, such a similarity of position that a number of things he did I might have done myself”. “Baudrillard: The Interview (Interview with Monique Arnaud and Mike Gane)”. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. Mike Gane (Ed.), London: Routledge, 1993:203.

31 Roland Barthes. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1978). London: Penguin, 1990:207-8.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.:209.

34 Alain Badiou. Le Siècle / The Century. Forthcoming, 2004.

35 Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. New York, Verso, 2003:46.

36 Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. Intellectual Impostures:  Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse Of Science. London: Profile Books, 1998.

 


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