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Jean Baudrillard's Impossible Exchange


Impossible Exchange
Baudrillard, Jean. Translator: Turner, Chris. London: Verso, 2001. 151p., $18.00, softcover. ISBN: 1859843492.

<1> In many ways, Jean Baudrillard has never really attracted the critical attention that he deserves; his early brilliant books, such as For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981) and The Mirror of Production (1975)remain resolutely out of print, perhaps because they do not accord with his recent high profile in the media. The hermetic obscurantism of these older texts repels a more casual reader, steeped as they are in poststructuralist theory and remote Marxist anthropology. They are also more rigorously scholarly than books such as Impossible Exchange, and therefore a less pleasurable read for the academically uninitiated. However, Baudrillard's middle phase, typified by Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993), is constantly in print, although largely due to the earlier chapters on simulation, which may appeal to those involved in careers in film or television; the overall argument that he is attempting to make regarding symbolic exchange receives far less critical attention. It is Baudrillard's "fatal" phase of theory, published almost exclusively by Verso, which has established his current notoriety.

<2> Baudrillard, referenced in J. G. Ballard's Super-Cannes (2000) and the film The Matrix (1999), has now acquired a hip cultural cachet, and this has sadly resulted in his academic marginalization; he is now too popular, uncritical, or politically quietistic, divorced from "real" social issues. But one cannot invoke the "real" to criticize Baudrillard, and logically this has resulted in strong reactions against him within the "theory machine" of the academy. But how many academics, in all honesty, have taken the trouble to respond to Baudrillard's provocations or trace the trajectory of his ideas?

<3> Impossible Exchange is exemplary "late" Baudrillard. There is a dearth of truly original ideas, largely because Baudrillard has "painted himself into a corner" with the brilliant yet Pyrrhic victories of Seduction (1990) and Fatal Strategies (1990); when one repudiates critical theory, subjectivity and dialectics, then logically the shift towards "object thinking" precludes any further theorizing. "Late" Baudrillard tends to consist of a set of footnotes or further examples to the work of twenty years ago, a constant rewriting of Seduction in an increasingly attenuated and aestheticized form. It is worth considering the physical appearance of "late" Baudrillard texts themselves -- they are printed on high quality laminated paper, have glossy chic covers (very different from the bland functionalism of the average academic text), and are rather slim volumes, curiously drawn out in page width, analogous in form to a showroom brochure. There is a paucity of academic footnotes, no critical introduction by a noted scholar (in comparison, see Charles Levin's excellent introduction to For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign). Many of the ideas are still complex, but one suspects that the intended readership of such a volume will be unfamiliar with the work of Bataille, Mauss and Nietzsche. Without knowledge of these luminaries of theory, the already enigmatic prose of Impossible Exchange would be rendered even more impenetrable, reducing the text to a set of quotable yet abstruse aphorisms. Overall, Impossible Exchange has a slick coffee table appeal; one could imagine it perching unobtrusively on the expensive glass-topped surface of a yuppie coffee table, a signifier of culture for those who Baudrillard is actively writing against. It would appear that the "new cultural intermediaries" were the ones who were the most amenable to Baudrillard's oeuvre after all, even if they do not read or understand his work.

<4> However, one could not imagine an earlier text such as The Mirror of Production posing quite so gracefully on an expensive coffee table. The edition of The Mirror of Production produced by Telos Press is an ugly book -- it possesses a garish yellow cover, is rather small and self-effacing, surmounted by a hideous cartoon of Marx affixed to a rack of production. It is a grotesque "Elephant Man" of a book. The paper is cheap and smells faintly musty -- my own personal copy was "rescued" from a decaying Dickensian second-hand bookshop, and was obviously a remaindered book as no-one had read it prior to my acquisition of it. But between its covers rests Baudrillard's most sustained and engaged critique of Marxism, feminism, anthropology, and dialectics: Perhaps Verso should turn a blind eye to the "easy money" to be gained from publishing "late" Baudrillard, and make a deliberate effort to reprint Baudrillard's neglected earlier work.

<5> Baudrillard opens his new book with a succinct description of his concept of "impossible exchange": "the uncertainty of the world lies in the fact that it has no equivalent anywhere; it cannot be exchanged for anything. The uncertainty of thought lies in the fact that it cannot be exchanged either for truth or reality" (Baudrillard 2001, 3). With no equivalent, nothing can be verified; there is no mirror in which to reflect the "truth" of a concept. Therefore reality is illusory, but systems of thought hypertrophy with an increase in their illusory nature, due to their capacity to absorb anything. The result is a radical uncertainty, with politics, science, and aesthetics proving to be impossible to objectively verify, only making sense within their own limited frame of reference. Once all options have been explored, the "metalanguages of reality" shift over into eccentricity. Baudrillard contends, through an adaptation of Mauss, that all systems regulate themselves through dual, agonistic movements (e.g. the equilibrium of good and evil). With the loss of this internal dynamic, systems of apprehending the world accelerate out of control, due to an inability to acknowledge impossible exchange; every attempt to impress meaning upon the world is confronted with this "impossible exchange barrier," and the corollary of this is the desperate proliferation of thought. We try to abjure Nothing with further hypotheses and discoveries, but the Nothing persists alongside Something. Our crime is in attempting to consume this Nothing with an all-devouring reality principle, which is dangerous. One could extend this metaphor to culture studies, with its constant recycling and rehabilitation of famous theorists; the culture studies machine cannot be allowed to run down, since it would disclose the Nothing it cannot be exchanged with. Baudrillard points out: "the real divested of the anti-real becomes hyperreal, more real than real, and vanishes into simulation" (Baudrillard 2001, 12). Simulation is an attempt to extinguish this symbolic debt that we cannot respond to, our response to impossible exchange being a vast social processing- in the surrogate artificial world of postmodernity that we put in its place, everything can be exchanged. We see a substitution by a "truer" double, but this prophylactic system is also haunted by uncertainty. The irony of this mass-domestication of an anterior reality is that the human can only be defined against the inhuman -- at the completion of this substitution process, the surrogate world collapses upon itself. For example, consider Fredric Jameson's attempt to resurrect the dialectic of labour and capital -- the possibility of dialectical transcendence evaporates under the flow of knowledge, capital, and information channelled through virtual markets. This is the radical uncertainty that haunts contemporary Marxist theorists, the insuperable difficulty of impossible exchange.

<6> The solution for Baudrillard is "object thought," an acknowledgement that the world and the subject think each other into being reciprocally. The reciprocal play of subject and object means we cannot say "who thinks whom," and so uncertainty is object thought's guiding principle. These ideas are explored through an interesting reading of Luke Rhinehart's novel The Dice Man (1999). Immortality (cloning and cryogenics) functions as a bulwark against impossible exchange and object thought. Baudrillard sees these processes as the revenge of an undifferentiated immortal tissue against mortal sexed beings -- in this fashion, we can be freed from sex and death. This constitutes a perverse "final solution," where we as a species are being wiped like a floppy disk, recreating suitable conditions for more primitive practices of incest and entropy. The unwitting destruction created by science entails a shift from evolution to involution.

<7> This phenomenon can also be observed in the sexual revolution, where reproduction was removed from sex, ultimately resulting in the liberation from sex itself. Through the clone, humanity also dispenses with natural selection and, in turn, the possibility of death; involution is a vast survival strategy, involving a descent into the subhuman. However, this places humanism under threat, since humanity cannot be defined genetically -- humanity can only be authentically defined against the inhuman, but the distinction between these categories is being effaced. The new humanism of "human rights," seeks to reintroduce order into this proliferating disorder -- Baudrillard says, "everywhere we see the desire to annex nature, animals, other races and cultures, to a universal jurisdiction" (Baudrillard 2001, 36). Baudrillard points out that other cultures do not make this aggressive distinction between the human and inhuman, and the irony is that we have invented this distinction and are now abolishing it [1 ]. Humanity is not exchangeable with clones, but instead of a moral critique of this process, we should preserve the "secret rules of life." Naturally Baudrillard does not disclose the nature of these rules.

<8> In this initial section, Baudrillard then launches into one of his familiar broadsides on humanism, and how its contemporary manifestation occludes sovereignty in favour of identity. The energies liberated by humanism are channelled into a sterile affirmation ("I am a woman," etc.). But when things are liberated, they pass into extreme forms and exhaustion, culminating in a new kind of imprisonment. Baudrillard rejects the emancipated plural forms of subjectivity, in favour of the dual relationship of challenge. In Rhinehart's novel, the dice is aligned with liberation, and ultimately individual desires. Instead of the infinite possibility of chance, Baudrillard prefers the constrained form of Destiny, linked to the submission to rules in gaming. "Luck" is a refuge for those disappointed with democracy, and this is a poor compensation for the vertiginous compliance to the closed dual forms of seduction, the play of weak signs. In gaming, freedom is lived as an illusion, not a reality. Baudrillard explains: "democracy is…based on equality before the law, but that is never as radical as equality before the rule" (Baudrillard 2001, 65-66). These ideas, first introduced in Seduction, constitute the apogee of Baudrillard's academic career. Few have engaged with them seriously, but then to allow a seduction to take place, the reader has to prepare to be seduced in the first place.

<9> In section two, Baudrillard points out that there is no more destiny, no "eternal return," only substitution and plural identities. Instead of metamorphosis we get metastasis, not the eternal return, but the return of the infinitely small (the fractal). The mistake of humanism is to ground life in individual destinies, but Baudrillard points out that we have different phases of existence, since our lives bifurcate at each critical juncture. Through this approach, Baudrillard can define life as fundamentally a dual relation. To fix relations in one form, such as sexuality, is to prohibit this destiny, and also involves the suppression of the other, the other destinies already avoided. If all destinies are linked, we have little say in which path we choose; it is the world/object that thinks us. Gaming involves a dual relationship between the world and the individual, where luck is abolished; in this way, the world and the gambler collude. This involves an abrogation of our personal responsibility, the naïve belief that we exclusively think the world. The loss of this agonistic relation manifests itself in our world through the dominance of Good over Evil; Baudrillard desires a return to the antagonistic balance where one does not dominate the other. Good and Evil are entwined in a relationship where one is complicit in the operation of the other, since Evil urges Good into charitable excess (the occlusion of the gift), and the cancerous expansion of Good precipitates the most extreme acts of Evil. Good and Evil are reversible, since the homeopathic injection of Good releases more Evil, hence the importance of maintaining an antagonistic equilibrium. Ultimately, it is impossible for us to choose between the two. Evil is comparable to the Nothing that we want to extinguish, the uncertainty of Nothing that haunts Something, not oppositional but asymmetrical terms that cannot be exchanged for one another. In order to define Evil, Evil was grafted onto misfortune, since misfortune has a material, tangible existence that can be morally responded to. You can "do good" against misfortune. In this fashion, Good is materialized against misfortune, whereas true Evil is too nebulous, associated as it is with uncertainty and illusion. Clearly Baudrillard is describing here the sanctimonious humanism of contemporary Western political regimes. However, the reverse is also true, since you cannot do Evil for its own sake. The Marquis de Sade was misguided in his beliefs, since he only succeeded in spreading misfortune, not Evil. Baudrillard explains: "if the world were not the inextricable manifestation of two opposing principles, we would not be caught between relative certainties and a radical uncertainty. We would have only absolute certainties" (Baudrillard 2001, 100). Without this duel of asymmetrical terms, we fall into an impoverished humanistic difference. Good and Evil have a reciprocal attraction -- make them equivalent, and this attraction is lost. The "final solution" of a unified reality plunges the world into this unattractive situation. Similarly, the asymmetric attraction of man and woman is lost once sexual relations are homogenized [2 ]. But this loss of challenge via homogenization releases greater uncertainty; black markets are required to process this virulent new "accursed share." The gated community can be considered to be such a market, functioning as a kind of "testing ground" for a "nostalgia for extremes" (Baudrillard 2001, 49). In this way, a privileged cultural elite may savour "risk," while the majority of people are condemned to boredom. All that embodies danger may be conveniently resurrected for the occasional pleasure of the affluent, hence extreme sports, flirtations with downtown minority enclaves, and cultural holidays in the Third World.

<10> Section three is the least interesting chapter of Impossible Exchange, since it lacks the continuity of earlier chapters. In this section, Baudrillard contends that artificial intelligence is a solution to the problem of thought, through allowing computers to become an outgrowth of the human. This can be observed in the capacity of computers to suffer from viruses. Artificial intelligence could be a salutary development, since the burden of thought would pass over to computers, allowing a "radical uselessness" of thought to emerge. Baudrillard remarks, "this totalization of the world…makes room for the singularity of thought, the singularity of the event, the singularity of language, the singularity of the object and the image" (Baudrillard 2001, 121). Resurrecting the link between fetishism and simulation from For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard develops his theory, seeing the fetish as an entity crystallized into an object beyond value, possessing an unexchangeable singularity. This object, aligned with Evil, is a thing of desire for us, an outlet for the irruption of Evil. Through the mass media, we see the inscription of the non-event -- the event is filtered through the media and passes into meaning. Under the pressure of this process, we seek to escape the tyranny of causality, dreaming of a parallel world of predestination. In this way we are complicit in the death of Princess Diana, through our desire for the event, this object of singularity. In turn, the mass hysteria surrounding Diana's death is the consequence of a fascination with the reversibility of Evil. In a similar fashion, Baudrillard wants to separate photography from meaning, reintroduce a dialogue with an absent other. In the taking of a photograph, the "real" object disappears, involving a simultaneous disappearance of the subject. The real is dispersed by the image, the photograph is made to signify, and the potency of the image is lost. The ideal situation would be one in which the image is separated from the real in a dual relation, as opposed to one cancelling out the other [3 ].

<11> But one should be wary of "late" Baudrillard. As previously noted, any of the seductive insights presented in Impossible Exchange would probably be lost on the coterie of yuppie "sign fetishists" who constitute Baudrillard's core readership. In J. G. Ballard's novel Running Wild (1997), the Maxted's bookshelves contain a profusion of volumes on critical theory, famous names now co-opted by the consumer society. Ballard describes, "an A-Z of once modish names from Althusser and Barthes to Husserl and Perls" (Ballard 1997, 35). Theorists such as Althusser and Barthes have long since been assimilated by the academy, and are utilized by advertizing executives and hip filmmakers. It would be appropriate that the "late" Baudrillard should now be added to the Maxted's shelf of neutralized theory. Perhaps it is a mixed blessing that Baudrillard's earlier works remain out of print, since it keeps his work out of the well-manicured hands of those who do not have a serious academic interest in his work.

Liam McNamara


[1 ] The relation between the inhuman and human in certain precapitalist societies is conceived of as a matter of symbolic exchange between the two terms, therefore neither may be established as a discrete unit superior to the other. Humanism establishes a distinction that valorizes the category of the human. This lack of ethnographic detail, increasingly lacking in Baudrillard's later work, will annoy social theorists that are committed to empiricist means of evaluating society; Baudrillard would argue that ethnography is only a form of simulation anyway. Baudrillard's alternative is a pataphysical ethnography, contrasting an imaginary precapitalist society to our notion of "real" social systems and processes. In this way, theory may be produced that short-circuits the discourses of the real, and all social hypotheses are granted an equal validity, collapsing any compensatory survival strategies erected by postmodern society. [^]

[2 ] See Jean Baudrillard, "Transpolitics, Transsexuality, Transaesthetics" (1992) for more on this process. [^]

[3 ] Douglas Kellner identifies this kind of theorizing as part of Baudrillard's "metaphysical imaginary," complaining of his indifference to the "real." But for Baudrillard, photography should not involve a process where the photo reflects the real, but instead must engage in an antagonistic duel, each asymmetrical partner thinking the other. See Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond, p.153-186. [^]

Works Cited

Ballard, J. G.. Running Wild. London: Flamingo, 1997.

---. Super-Cannes. London: Flamingo, 2000.

Baudrillard, Jean. Fatal Strategies. London: Pluto, 1990.

---. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis: Telos, 1981.

---. The Mirror of Production. St. Louis: Telos, 1975.

---. Seduction. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1990.

---. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage, 1993.

---. "Transpolitics, Transsexuality, Transaesthetics." Jean Baudrillard -- The
Disappearance of Art and Politics
. Ed. William Stearns and William Chaloupka. New York: St. Martin's, 1992. 9-26.

Kellner, Douglas. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Cambridge: Polity, 1989.

Rhinehart, Luke. The Dice Man. London: HarperCollins, 1999.

Wachowski Brothers, dir. The Matrix. Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures/Groucho II Film Partnership. 1999.