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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 3, Number 2 (July 2006)

Book Review: Symbolic Exchange As A Form Of Communication

William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005.

Reviewed by William Pawlett
(Sociology and Cultural Studies, University of Wolverhampton, United Kingdom).
 

            William Merrin has produced an erudite and important study.  It is the first to explore in detail Baudrillard’s relationship to both the Media as technological form, and to the discipline of Media Studies where Baudrillard’s work is known, but not always well understood.  It is an impressive study in many respects.  Written with admirable wit and gusto, there are many enjoyable turns of phrase and some memorable neologisms.  Merrin wears his erudition lightly: discussions ranging over Philosophy, Theology, Sociology and Political theory as well as the Media and Communications theory are informative and precise, never unwieldy or distracting.

            The book is well structured.  A clear and coherent thesis is raised: that Baudrillard is not (and never has been) a postmodernist nihilist, and that in contrast he offers a “radical Durkheimian critique” of the commodification and “semioticization” of everyday life brought about, in part, by the development of electronic media.  Early chapters are theoretical in emphasis exploring the meanings of symbolic exchange and simulacra, and a useful comparison of Baudrillard’s ideas to those of McLuhan is included.  Later chapters feature applications of these theoretical ideas to specific issues including: media coverage of recent wars and the notion of the “non-event”, the relationship of Baudrillard’s ideas to cinema particularly The Matrix, and Baudrillard’s experiments with photography.

            The early theoretical chapters are very rich and set the terms of Merrin’s latter applications of Baudrillard’s thought.  Merrin is particularly strong on the historical and intellectual contexts of Baudrillard’s key ideas.  The notion of symbolic exchange is traced to Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), through Mauss’ The Gift (1924-5) and a number of less well-known influences including Roger Caillois, Pierre Klossowski and Michel Leiris. Merrin’s focus is on symbolic exchange as a form of communication: immediate, intense and convulsive, in contrast to the profane, banal sense of communications associated with signs and electronic technologies.  The disciplines of media and communications studies badly need the philosophically informed and detailed reading Merrin provides.  He continues in the path established by Mike Gane by puncturing the simplistic critiques of Baudrillard by Kellner and Norris, which have exercised an undeserved hegemony over the reception of Baudrillard’s ideas amongst English speakers.

            However Merrin’s reading of Baudrillard is not without problems. I felt that the author reduced the notion of symbolic exchange to a principle of communication in order to contrast it with other approaches to communication.  This is a laudable strategy, leading to well-made criticisms of pluralist, reception and audience-centred research in media studies.  Yet when Merrin argues that “Baudrillard himself appeals to the real as a critical force against the simulacrum”,1 he limits discussion of aspects of symbolic exchange: annulment, ambivalence, poetic sacrifice and the volatilisation of meaning, and which cannot, straightforwardly be termed “real”, “full” or “good” communication.  Merrin acknowledges that Baudrillard presents a “critique of the ‘real’ as a semiotic category”2, yet insists that “Baudrillard’s absolute distinction of symbolic and semiotic ties him to a simplistic opposition to the realm of appearances”.3  I would disagree.  As early as 1968 with The System of Objects Baudrillard’s preference for primary colours, and the materials wood and stone over pastel shades, plastic and glass is already a preference for one mode of appearance over another.  The early emphasis on symbolic forms such as gestures (Le gestuel) and ceremony are clearly modes of appearance – the social or ritual appearance of symbolic relations.  Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976) defines symbolic exchange as “an act” and the material of symbolic exchanges as “semiurgic”.4

            At key points in his second chapter Merrin seems to use the terms simulacra and simulation as if they are interchangeable, so symbolic exchange is described as both Simulacral and as “an authentic mode of simulation”.5  However there are benefits in demarcating these terms.  Both refer to image(s) but simulation is distinct in Baudrillard’s vocabulary as it is used to theorise contemporary, post-industrial societies where images are generated from pre-existing, preconceived models and codes.  Simulacrum – meaning “a material image”6 is used to refer to the general condition or principle of representation and is applied across many cultures and historical periods. Thus, many features of symbolic cultures, feudal and industrial societies are simulacral but not, strictly, simulatory.  It could be argued that the notion of symbolic exchange itself is only a contemporary simulation projected backward onto the past and based on a “model” derived from a variety of discredited anthropological sources.  Indeed I think Merrin leans toward this view, (as did Lyotard)7 however a much fuller consideration of the many different properties and dimensions of symbolic exchange, some of which are listed above, is required in order to make this argument convincing.

            I searched hard for problems in the theoretical chapters because I think the later chapters applying Baudrillard’s ideas are superb.  Merrin’s reading of the media’s coverage of the Gulf and Afghan wars is an exemplary application of Baudrillard’s ideas of the simulation, dissuasion and the “non-event”.  His commentary on the relationship between Baudrillard’s notion of the Virtual and the vision of virtuality expressed in The Matrix and its sequels is stimulating and challenging, lively and precise.  In a reversal worthy of Baudrillard himself Merrin asks:

[I]f we identify so completely with the shade-adorned, VR-enhanced, Kung-Fu programmed and hyper-armed video-game characters, with their technology, and with the film itself and its effects, do we not thereby lose the right to side with Neo in defence of the ‘100% pure, old-fashioned, home-grown human’?  Shouldn’t we be rooting for the machines?8

 

There is also an excellent chapter on Baudrillard’s photography and significant contributions to a more developed understanding of the methodology of Baudrillard’s texts of the 1990’s and 2000’s.  Criticisms notwithstanding, Merrin is one of the wittiest and most readable of Baudrillard’s discussants and his achievements here are very considerable.  This text is already on my students’ essential reading list!


Endnotes

1 William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005:30.

2 Ibid.:31.

3 Ibid.:38.

4 Jean Baudrillard. Symblolic Exchange and Death (c 1976). New York : Verso, 1993 :133, 181.

5 William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005 :38.

6 See Oxford English Dictionary.

7 Jean-Francois Lyotard. Libidinal Economy (c 1974) London: Athlone, 1993.

8  William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005:123.

 


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)

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