Engaging Baudrillard – Papers from Swansea
What Is A Sovereign Object? Baudrillard and the Inexchangeable
Dr. David Teh
(Adjunct Research Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Art and Politics, College of Fine Arts, Sydney, Australia).
This paper focuses on a notion of radical alterity in Baudrillard’s theories of the object. Having earlier studied commodity and sign exchange, Baudrillard later became interested in objects that thwarted, resisted or collapsed systems of value – indifferent and inexchangeable objects which, like “the crystal” or the absolute commodity, either fell out of exchange, or brought it to a standstill. Modernity is of course familiar with these limits of exchangeability: it places its sacra there (e.g. life, the individual, the body). But Baudrillard’s “inexchangeable” implies an even more rarefied set of objects. It demands that we rethink the economic status of human life, its “value”, and the theory of alienation that denies it. To this end, I identify Baudrillard’s inexchangeable in some key figures of the political present (hostages, terrorists, war criminals, or asylum seeker) bodies in states of exception (Agamben), which cannot be disposed of through exchange. With reference to some key thinkers less often associated with Baudrillard (Heidegger and Agamben), I argue that inexchangeability designates a kind of “sovereign” object-hood (after Bataille), whose basis is neither phenomenological, nor biopolitical, but rather economic.
II. Baudrillard’s Theory of the Object
The ceaseless task confronting modern thought, as Foucault once put it, is to articulate the unthought surroundings of the thing thought: “The modern cogito does not reduce the whole being of things to thought without ramifying the being of thought right down to the inert network of what does not think”.1 Thus Heidegger, visiting the work of art, extends the franchise of “being” to the inanimate:
What in truth is the thing…? … Our aim is to know the thing-being of the thing, … its thingly character. … The unpretentious thing evades thought most stubbornly. Or can it be that the self-refusal of the mere thing, (this strange and uncommunicative feature), this self-contained, irreducible spontaneity, belongs precisely to the essence of the thing?2
Perhaps “getting” the thingness of the thing, by letting it be, will require a feat of what Bataille calls unknowing, a recognition of a kind of sovereignty of the object, or even some effacement of the subject by this “self-contained” and “uncommunicative” thing.
Heidegger’s and Baudrillard’s attention to the art work point to an intersection of their respective programs: to theorise the object in light of the sign; to unshackle it from utility; and to think it in terms other than subject-centred ones. Baudrillard’s approach marks a critical divergence from dominant theories of the subject, put forward in such diversity by his contemporaries. While the subject was being made to yield its secrets by the wave of French psycho-Marxism after Lacan, Baudrillard was busy making the object speak – “to discover what [it] has to tell us …”3 – and later showing how, by its silence, its disappearance (or transparency) and its immobility, it kept its secrets. It may be in this sustained defiance of the subject that Baudrillard’s great distinction as a thinker ultimately lies.
What interests me is the object’s possible independence from the subject. Indeed, the trajectory of the object across Baudrillard’s oeuvre charts a displacement of the subject, of its command over objects; a sovereign object would not owe its being to any subject, but would exist in its own right, and in this sense could be taken as an exemplary form
of the Real.4
What capacity does the object have for mustering powers or “value” on its own behalf, that is, other than by being used, owned and exchanged? On one hand, we know that some magical objects (totems, icons, and other sacra) could be excused from exchange. On the other, we have several figures of the inexchangeable right at the heart of global capitalism: inanimate things like the priceless work of art (the “absolute commodity”); but also animate things like the homines sacri of Giorgio Agamben (hostage, terrorist, war criminal, or asylum seeker) which, try as we might, we cannot dispose of through exchange.
Baudrillard’s object presents a rare handle with which to grasp the movement of his oeuvre. Like Saussure’s hypogram (or theme-word), the object is a kind of signature, a persistent allusion, a re-writing – a kind of doubling or reiteration. “The hypogram,” writes Saussure, is about “emphasizing a name, a word, making a point of repeating its syllables, … giving it a second, contrived being, ….” And so would I contrive a “general” being of the object, as opposed to the commodity form – a double, which exceeds the (restricted) object-forms of economic discourse, like symbolic exchange exceeds that discourse. I am proposing a homology, after Bataille’s model of restricted and general, involving symbolic exchange (as general economics) and Baudrillard’s theory of the object (as a general theory of the object). This is therefore something of a test: Bataille’s logic of the general will be brought alongside the more traditional Marxist narratives rehearsed in Baudrillard’s earlier work.
III. The Procession of Objects
In Baudrillard’s earlier, more sociological efforts,the thing-ness of mass-produced objects is downplayed. They are read instead. Baudrillard consigns the merchandise of late capital to a communicative role, a servile labour of signification on behalf of the subject. These are the “legible” objects of the series, “the carriers of indexed social significations, of a social and cultural hierarchy…, they constitute a code”,5 a quasi-linguistic system. This is why the commodity and the sign share such an affinity. Indeed, this conjunction is the foundation of Baudrillard’s political economy of the sign, and underlies his enduring prejudice against functionalist discourses of communication.
But from this “rhetorical” form, Baudrillard’s object moves towards indifference. He later sets out to rescue the object from this double bind, to relieve it of its signifying functions, charting how it extricates itself from regimes of legibility. With this later, “fatal” object he calls “the crystal”, the place of the subject – the purchase that one can have upon it – changes markedly. It adopts an indifference, becoming a silent and immobile agent of vengeance, an evil protagonist, without desires, in the face of which the desiring subject is powerless, or disappears.
There are several ways to read this story, whereby the object excuses itself from the economic realm by shedding its legibility. Does the object’s becoming-general herald a return to primitive exchange? If it regains some autonomy, should it be understood as getting its revenge (“le cristal se venge”)? Or does the movement indicate something else, some long-suppressed excess which short-circuits value? Could it be that economy and capital were shot through with this “sacrificial dynamic” all along?6
IV. The Sovereign Object is not the Gift
This indifferent object suggests another: the gift. With no content of its own, its form is arbitrary. It attests not to itself, but to a social relation. Perhaps then the object only returns to a prior state of indifference, such as that exemplified by the kula or the potlatch. The Gift certainly serves as a starting point for Baudrillard’s general object, and is perhaps a good indicator of the object’s capacities for sovereignty. But while the kula represents a radical opposition to profane commerce (gimwali), it is in the end still bound by an exchange-logic that subordinates the thing to the finalité of a social structure. In view of the asocial socius of the mass, Baudrillard wishes to posit the object outside of this sphere – the general object appears either to fall out of exchange, or to bring it to a standstill.
I would like to distinguish between the sovereign object and the Gift. Though they share many characteristics – their challenging and excessive qualities, their exceptional status with respect to commerce – the sovereign object is proper to modern, capitalist society; whereas the Gift is an interface between economic and social exchange, tempering the former with the demands of the latter. A society where the economic has all but obliterated the social poses a different challenge: for its reality to prevail, the social is forced to put an end to exchange. The sovereign object is a response to this escalation. Whereas the gift played a polyvalent role, with multiple values, the sovereign object strives for non-value.
V. The Survival of the Gift
Nevertheless, the gift has survived. For the primitives, surplus had no quantitative value; it was a sign of excess itself. And today’s commodity objects, says Baudrillard, do not escape this rule of superfluousness. In the consumer society the plethora of objects continuously attests to it, “in their uselessness, their futility, …, and the non-functionality”, of trinkets, gadgets, accessories.7 Here, Baudrillard parts ways with Mauss, insisting that this excess even proliferates, as our modern-day fungibles “multiply and differentiate themselves” around us: the gigantism of sports-utility vehicles, confined to the city-limits; the whole suburban architecture of competitive expenditure, everyday “gifts of rivalry”. The consumer society: “powerfully reactivate[s] this function of objects as “displays of antagonism” … [that] something of these primitive practices still haunts contemporary objects and always makes their presence vehement, powerfully expressive, never neutral:
the mechanism of social prestation … must be recognized in our choice, our accumulation, our manipulation and our consumption of objects. This mechanism of prestige is at the very basis of the system of values…8
Yet the symbolic intensity of the object is partly suppressed in Baudrillard’s first accounts of consumer capitalism’s spectacle of abundance. In Consumer Society he imagines in the department stores a vestige of the potlatch, mimicking “that inexhaustible and spectacular prodigality [of] the feast”.9 … “a … prodigious fecundity, … where … we find the fervid hope that there should be not enough, but too much – and too much for everyone: … And this metonymic, repetitive discourse of the commodity, becomes once again, through a great collective metaphor … – the image of the gift, …” So some spectre of the gift haunts the commodity world. But the latter, in its abundance, yields a residue of its own, the extreme form of commodity (the fetish), so prized as to be priceless, which suspends value and exchange. This absolute object is what Baudrillard calls the “crystal”.
VI. Phases of the Crystal
Baudrillard charts the object’s dematerializations – from thing to commodity, to sign, to mere information – an analysis deriving, of course, from Marx’s “commodity fetishism”, but departing from it as well: Baudrillard is more interested in the turning point where exchange becomes dominated by signs, where production yields to “reproduction”. The commodity logic does not co-opt sign exchange, he claims. Rather, a sign logic co-opts all commodity exchange and “at last objects come to have a status just as ephemeral as that of words or images”.10 What then becomes of the object’s material being?
The object’s materiality ends up being a residue, an inexchangeable remainder. Its dematerialization is accompanied by a crystallization, a defiant rematerialization. No matter how liquidated it becomes under the market, the object reveals an accursed share in the crystal – a dimension which guards and guarantees its object-hood – a residue with which the object, floating in the solution of general equivalence, falls out of solution and becomes heterogeneous to it. This precipitation comes about by some interruption of the field of values. It may denote a saturation of positivity (an excess of value), or a non-value – either way, a failure of value.
What is this crystal, and how does it take its “revenge”? It’s no coincidence that it is this word Marx uses when he personifies the commodity in the first chapters of Capital.11 The word’s implications are the same, up to a point, for both theorists: its power to transfix, scintillate, fascinate; seductive despite its lifelessness, in its transparency; an emptied-out form, devoid of body. But the resemblance ends here. Whereas for Marx, the crystal forms out of a “necessity” in “the course of exchange” – the object’s need to express its commensurability, its exchange value – for Baudrillard the crystal begins precisely where necessity and exchange end, when the object transcends exchange value, and utility, and becomes inexchangeable.
Baudrillard’s crystal is that aspect of an object that refuses to surrender to commensurability, that resists overcoding by the commodity. It spells immobility – physical, economic, social and semiotic. It is a model of refraction and reference leading nowhere, just a play of signification where nothing (no value) remains to be signified other than the subject himself, disappearing in his fascination. As the commodity moves towards its absolute reification as immaterial value, so materializes the crystal, an immanent critique of commodity and the general equivalence for which it strives. The crystal is a sort of spectacular form of the object. Just as Debord’s Spectacle describes an actual realm of social relations crystallized, so too does the crystal – though empty and transparent – actually exist, a flashpoint for symbolic intensities.
At stake here is precisely the question of the Real, the destiny of an object which would reassert its solidity, even as things become, in late capital’s speculative era, more and more gaseous, more ecstatic, more “orbital”. I’d try to avoid the psychoanalytic term de/sublimation, even though the becoming-acceptable that it implies might correspond with a becoming-legible on the part of the object, where acceptability, in accordance with a moral order or “reality principle”, would be pitted against a principle of evil residing in illegibility. Rather more apposite are the older meanings of sublimation, in the physical sciences, in which we note a telling terminological instability, in fact a reversibility that is both physical and semantic: “the process of changing physical state from the solid to the gaseous phase, or vice versa, without passing through the liquid phase.” De/sublimation would thus denote an ambivalence, a hinge between the object’s solid and gaseous phases – for Baudrillard, the indifferent crystal and the vaporised information-object respectively – a pair which by-passes the third state (liquidity) which would be precisely that of general equivalence. This little deconstructive metaphor of transubstantiation could be a fruitful avenue for a critique of General Equivalence in informational capitalism.
There are several figures of the sovereign object that we should note, to be elaborated further at another time: 1) The first avatars of this indifference emerge in the System of Objects – and while both emerge from the field of values attached to material things, both are also referents of the person. At the nth degree of Functionality, the uselessness of the gadget; at the nth degree of Automation, the perverse Autonomy of the robot. Technological progress, Baudrillard warns, is “continually pushing objects into a dangerous abstractness”.12 There are echoes here of that “supreme danger” which Heidegger attributed to technology, whereby it seems to man, … “as though [he] everywhere and always encounters only himself”.13
Many of his later sovereign objects are frozen – the photographic object, the crystal, the hostage, the absolute commodity with its “aura of frozen intangibility” (Agamben14). All tend towards inexchangeability.15 These objects wield a radical alterity; yet they are not vital, but fatal. “The absolute object is … worthless, … it escapes objective alienation in that it has made itself more of an object than the object – this gives it a fatal quality”.16 We are not speaking of fate as in death, but fate as in fate – i.e. chance. This fatal signifies all that is reversible, irrational, and indifferent to human beings. Fatality thus also describes the system’s intuition of its own demise, of its tenuousness, its mortality – the total instability liable to be exposed at any minute – and it is exactly this fatality that Baudrillard associates with the global.17 (This fatality is exemplified by the Hostage, of which more in a moment.
2) A later figure of the sovereign object would be the absolute commodity drawn from Charles Baudelaire, via Agamben, who writes that the poet had found a way “to go beyond” use value and exchange value and “abolish the commodity [by pressing] its contradictions to the limit…, it is through the estrangement that makes it unattainable, … that the falsehood of the commodity is changed into truth”.18 While he approved of the attributes of modern commodities, Baudelaire nonetheless wanted “to withdraw them from the tyranny of the economic”.19 So why resist alienation when, in the commodity itself, pushed to its limits, lies nothing less than its abolition, and the restoration of the object “to its own truth”? The absolute commodity, unattainable and inexchangeable, may even restore the thing to the thing-in-itself, the thing sought by Heidegger (to whom Agamben’s text is dedicated). This logic of the more x than x would restore the object to a kind of absolute alterity. The work of art is exemplary for Agamben too: in its “poetic transfiguration” lies the most radical abolition of the commodity, where fetishization is pushed to its limits.20
Baudrillard also endorses this embrace of the artwork cum commodity, “potentiating” what is “new, unexpected in the commodity”, such as its “indifference to utility and value,”21 its “shock, strangeness, surprise, disquietude, liquidity”, the “inhumanity of exchange-value is exponentially multiplied in a kind of ecstatic but ironic orgasm …, the work of art [that] becomes one with fashion, advertising, … that bewilders in its venality, mobility … – is a pure object of marvelous commutability”.22
Rather than deny the law of equivalence, the absolute commodity exacerbates it, suspending the laws of Value, utility and reference. Hence Baudrillard’s attention to the gratuitous extremes of commodity exchange and consumer culture, in the art auction, fashion and so on. At the point of a maximal investment, a saturation of value – at the point of consecration to a pure usefulness (in the gadget), to a pure exchangeability (in the artwork) – an object becomes a fetish and, like the absolute commodity, inexchangeable. The more telling moment in the life of an object is when it stops moving, falls out of circulation, becomes frozen or indifferent.
The sovereignty of the sovereign object is not political, but ontological. Whatever sovereignty the object regathers here would have to be distinguished from that liberal, juridical sovereignty proper to the western political subject. Instead, as Bataille’s sovereign writing is oriented towards unknowledge, so is the sovereign object oriented towards unvalue.
VII. The Exceptional Object (Beyond Alienation)
Since Descartes at least, Western thought has grappled with the division of the person into subject and object. It’s a paradox for the liberal humanist tradition – including Marxism – which cannot countenance the idea of a human as object, to find Locke’s subject “split between that which owns and that which is owned”; as John Frow puts it, a “self-possessing subject [that] is both the foundation of all other property rights, and the prototype of those things that cannot be alienated in the market”.23 But if the system of ownership rests upon ownership of that which cannot be owned, then (says Frow) “the system of property rights in the liberal state is paradoxically founded on the withdrawal of its founding moment from that system…”24 The subject is thus an exception to the rule which founds the rule. This paradoxical formulation is strikingly similar – even identical – to another: Agamben’s schema of sovereignty. For Agamben,
… the most proper characteristic of the exception is that what is excluded in it is not, … absolutely without relation to the rule. On the contrary, what is excluded in the exception maintains itself in relation to the rule in the form of the rule’s suspension … The exception does not subtract itself from the rule; rather, the rule, suspending itself, gives rise to the exception and, maintaining itself in relation to the exception, first constitutes itself as a rule.25
The sovereign exception is exemplified by Agamben’s homo sacer, the slave who can be killed by anyone but cannot be sacrificed, a “life that, excepting itself … from the real context of both profane and religious life, is defined solely by having entered into an intimate symbiosis with death without, nevertheless, belonging to the world of the deceased”.26 What Agamben describes is a kind of suspended animation, at once beyond, and central to, the laws governing bodies. This “bare” life has an “eminently political character” and is intimately connected with the foundations of sovereign power.27 The relevance for our “self-possessing subject” is inescapable – the body exempted from exchange thereby achieves a sort of independence, an exceptional status shared by a community’s most wretched and most exalted figures. It is this dual exclusion which Agamben names sovereignty. And this provides a bridge between liberal personhood and the kind of sovereignty that resides in the absolute objects of late capitalist culture. What if the sovereign object occupies the same paradoxical position – suspending the laws of exchange, but also, thereby, founding them? From this perspective, the body is a sovereign object – but its sovereignty derives as much from its object-hood as from its subjecthood. This might also explain the threat – and the hysteria with which it’s met – of today’s exceptional, sovereign bodies, like the hostage, the terrorist, the asylum-seeker.
Michel Foucault. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
. New York: Random House (Vintage re-issue edition), 1970:324.
2 Martin Heidegger. “The Origin of the Work of Art”. In Basic Writings, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977:151-161.
3 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies: Revenge of the Crystal. Sydney: Power Institute, 1990:19.
As in Baudrillard’s work, the real here does not refer to the Lacanian category distinct from the symbolic and the imaginary, but rather to an anti-Platonic notion of a symbolic able to collapse the imaginary with the material.
Jean Baudrillard. For a critique of the political economy of the sign. St. Louis: Telos, 1972:37.
6 Jean Baudrillard. ‘When Bataille Attacked the Metaphysical Principle of Economy Bataille Reader:193.
7 Jean Baudrillard. For a critique of the political economy of the sign. St. Louis: Telos, 1972:32.
9 Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c 1970). London: SAGE, 1998:26, 42-45.
10 Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:155.
11 … that “born leveler and cynic”. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume1. Chicago: Kerr, 1906 (edition of 1919); see Part I: Commodities and Money, esp. Chapter 2: Exchange.
12 Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects. p111. On this tension, see Manuel de Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. New York: Zone Books, 1991: especially 176-178.
13 Martin Heidegger. “The Question Concerning Technology”, in Basic Writings, San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977:308.
14 Giorgio Agamben. Stanzas. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1993:42.
15 See Gary Genosko, Baudrillard and Signs: Signification Ablaze. New York: Routledge, 1994:97-100.
16 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. Revenge of the Crystal. Sydney: Power Institute, 1990:116.
17 Jean Baudrillard. “The Global and the Universal” in Victoria Graceet. al. (Editors). Baudrillard West of the Dateline. Palmerston, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 2003. See also Jean Baudrillard. The Spirit of Terrorism. New York: Verso, 2002; and The Violence of the Global, CTheory.net (initially published as ‘La Violence du Mondial’, in Jean Baudrillard, Power Inferno, Galilée, Paris, 2002; pp63-83.) <http://www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=385#_edn1>
18 Giorgio Agamben. Stanzas. 49.
21 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies: Revenge of the Crystal. Sydney: Power Institute, 1990:117.
23 John Frow. Time and Commodity Culture. Oxford University Press, 1997:161.
25 Giorgio Agamben. Homo Sacer. Stanford University Press, 1998:17-18. Agamben follows Giambattista Vico here.
27 Ibid.:99-100. Marc Augé’s reflections on the sovereignty of bodies might in fact provide a fruitful comparison to a Bataillean or Baudrillardian theory of the sovereign object: the passivity/massivity of the monarch’s body in West African tribes would correspond with the silent mass of the crystal; the symbolic doubling in the body of the Ekala, a slave body-double (in which man in doubled by a commodity) with the substitutability of the Hau for objects, or the doubling of the kula-gimwali system. Marc Augé, Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. New York: Verso, 1995.