International Journal of Baudrillard Studies
 
ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006) 
 

Book Review: Symbolic Exchange and Beyond

Paul Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. London: Continuum Press, 2004.

Reviewed by: William Pawlett
(Sociology and Cultural Studies, University of Wolverhampton, UK).
 

            There is at present, in the English-speaking world at least, a significant upsurge of interest in the ideas of Jean Baudrillard. Many still associate Baudrillard with the 1980s and with the theoretical excesses which accompanied debates around Postmodernism. Hegarty’s work is a particularly valuable contribution to what might be termed a “new wave” of Baudrillard commentary that wrests interpretation from the problematics of Post-Marxism and Postmodernism and examines newer concepts in Baudrillard’s ever-expanding lexicon.

            Clearly structured and tightly argued, Hegarty’s study draws the reader deep into Baudrillard’s world in the space of a very few pages. The prose is crisp, informal and engaging; Hegarty does not over-simplify nor does he obfuscate and a genuine mastery of Baudrillard’s ideas is demonstrated. These are considerable achievements and not all commentaries on Baudrillard’s work have been as successful.

            Hegarty begins in high gear with an excellent overview of the emergence of the notion of symbolic exchange in Baudrillard’s early theoretical texts.  The author probes this central axiom and charts its transformations in Baudrillard’s work of the 1970s as it 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. There are many neat turns of phrase and some valuable clarifications of difficult issues, particularly the notion of symbolic violence which is prominent in Baudrillard’s most important work Symbolic Exchange and Death1 but has received insufficient attention from critics.

            Symbolic violence is the attempt to prevent symbolic exchange, and is the attempt at the unilateral gift – which is the unanswerable imposition of an unchangeable, unavoidable system – following which, revolts, dissent and demands become assimilable …the counter-gift, as the only possible revolt…does not attack the system, but recalls the process which initiated it, and therefore also the possibility of its non-being.2

            At several points in the argument Hegarty states that the notion of symbolic exchange is “based on” Georges Bataille’s principle of General Economy or is an “updating” of it. While there clearly is a marked Bataillean influence, my own view is that Hegarty focuses on it at the expense of other key influences such as Marcel Mauss (who is mentioned) and Emile Durkheim, Roger Caillois and Pierre Klossowski (who are not). But this study is not an exercise in charting influences, its purpose is to live in theory, make theory live and in this respect the book is a great success.

            There follows a very compact discussion of the concepts of simulation and hyperreality. Hegarty demonstrates wit and verve in reading Borges’ A Universal History of Infamy,3 which is cited in the opening lines of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation4, against Baudrillard himself, just as Baudrillard had urged that we read Freud against Freud, Saussure against Saussure. This is bold and ingenious stuff but I feel that these first chapters are, in places, too condensed and are occasionally hard to follow. In a discussion of commodity fetishism,5 for example, we are told that Deleuze may have the answer (p.46 n. 8) before we are quite clear what the question is.

            Chapter three “Other than Simulation” is a highly successful discussion of more recent themes in Baudrillard’s work. Hegarty is very good at linking oblique notions such as seduction, the fatal, evil, illusion and impossible exchange as re-workings of the principle of symbolic exchange appropriate to different phases and contexts of the orders of simulacra. Another significant strength is Hegarty’s ability to relate Baudrillard’s themes of simulation and virtuality to contemporary scientific knowledge practices. Hegarty goes on the attack and easily crushes the arguments made in Sokal and Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures.6 One feels that a Baudrillardian Sociology of Scientific Knowledge is a possibility for future research.

            In “Geopolitics of the Real” Hegarty discusses the themes of terrorism, war and 9/11 which are central to new critical appraisals of Baudrillard’s status in the academic world. These discussions are deft and informative with just enough of the author’s own voice in evidence. In a section entitled “Digital Media” for example, Hegarty critiques Baudrillard’s recent writings on technology, arguing that their “lack of detailed attention can suggest a straightforward conservatism, rather than counter-intuitive, polemical resistance”.7 This does seem to be the case with some recent work including some of the essays collected in Screened Out8 and it is really only knowledge of Baudrillard’s earlier work that militates against this reading.

            Perhaps the greatest strength of Hegarty’s study is a new interview with Baudrillard conducted in French by the author at Baudrillard’s apartments in Paris. Topics discussed include the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, “reality” television, recent cultural production both in literature and film, Baudrillard’s photography and, again, the influence of Bataille. The impression gained is of a genuine rapport between interviewer and interviewee, if not quite a symbolic exchange!

            This is not “An ideal introduction” to Baudrillard’s thought, as the cover blurb would have it. It is not a commentary that points the reader in the direction of Baudrillard’s own texts but one that assumes a very thorough knowledge of them. The only concession made to an audience new to Baudrillard is the final chapter which offers brief and self-contained sketches of a number of thinkers: Nietzsche, Bataille, McLuhan, Foucault, Virilio, Ballard and others. However this is a scholarly, erudite and very valuable discussion of Baudrillard’s ideas.


Endnotes

1 Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death (c. 1976). New York: Verso, 1993.

2 Paul Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. London: Continuum Press, 2004:41.

3 Jorge Luis Borges. A Universal History of Infamy. London: Penguin, 1975.

4 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c. 1981). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

5 Paul Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. London: Continuum Press, 2004:17-20.

6 A. Sokal and J. Bricmont. Intellectual Impostures. London: SAGE, 1998:137-143.

7 Paul Hegarty. Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. London: Continuum Press, 2004:131.

8 Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002.

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From:  http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol3_1/pawlett.htm

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©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)