symbolic exchange

  ---- by Mike Gane
  The concept of symbolic exchange is perhaps the most central of Baudrillard's terms and yet the most allusive. At bottom it is very simply a term derived from anthropological studies of the gift and gift exchange in so-called primitive societies. In classic anthropological studies, especially those of Marcel Mauss, gift exchange is not gratuitous and marginal, but obligatory and central to social life. Symbolic exchange is a broadening out of the terrain of obligatory exchanges of the same kind: from simple exchanges in conversation to sacred sacrifices, and the exchanges between the living and the dead (SED). These exchanges are not based on use values, and as such they stand in marked contrast to market exchanges mediated by money values. Baudrillard constantly reminds readers that the terms themselves are provisional since both 'symbolic' and 'exchange' give rise to misunderstandings if the anthropological background is not appreciated - 'the term is rather deceptive' (BL, 106). But what interests Baudrillard is the fact that gifts are obligatory, they are a form of empowerment through debt, and the counter-gift cancels this power and any accumulation. This counter-gift is conceived by Baudrillard as a kind of reversibility which annuls power, a reversibility that is founded on the fundamental dualism of the world. Through his writings it is clear that there is a feature of this way of analysing phenomena - the possibility of a gift which cannot be returned, a fundamental form of power. But this irreversibility is threatened by 'the violent resurgence of duality' (LP, 185). This is connected with Baudrillard's important idea of 'impossible exchange' derived from the idea of the 'accursed share' from the other key writer in this domain, Georges Bataille (PW, 74). That which cannot be exchanged forms a singularity and cannot be absorbed into the system. But with great subtlety Baudrillard in his later writings charts the accursed shares that can be put back into circulation 'like the devil who, having bought man's shadow, recycles it' (PW, 75).
  Essentially,theconceptofsymbolicexchangeisthebasisofBaudrillard's critical thinking of contemporary societies, and in this sense is comparable to Marx's notion of communism. In his critique of Marx, Baudrillard holds that Marx's notion was not fundamental enough, and that it was trapped within the framework it sought to escape - it was a 'mirror of production' (MP). Symbolic exchange therefore is a strategic concept, conceived as providing the platform for a more radical critique of modern capitalist societies than developed by Marxists. Baudrillard often notes that modern societies are based on a different kind of exchange, commodity exchange, and modern cultures are similarly structured in a different way - on semiotic, modular structures - reflecting the way structural value (not symbolic exchange) permeates beyond the economy. Yet in charting these phenomena it is clear that symbolic exchange continues to haunt modern societies, and indeed Baudrillard suggests that it does continue to be the fundamental formation, 'has always been at the radical base of things' (PW, 17). The difference with other societies is that previously symbolic exchange has been institutionalised in effective ritual practices and reflected in poetic mythology. At this point it seems clear that Baudrillard is based in an anthropological framework, and the terms he uses are quite different from those developed in sociology which seems trapped, like Marxism, in the semiotic order, in the 'real'.
  The idea of the symbolic in this sense appeared clearly in Baudrillard's essays from around 1970, and in one essay 'For a General Theory' (CPS) he outlined a research programme that involved a critique of the concept of use value, an extension of theory to the circulation of signs and the development of the theory of symbolic exchange. The subsequent studies provide, then, first a critique of Marxism (MP), a theory of symbolic exchange (SED) and then studies on death, fate, seduction, evil, impossible exchange and so forth. On the other hand these studies are complemented by further studies on simulacra, fashion, the body, jokes, terrorism and contemporary politics and culture. Studies of the symbolic order thus lie alongside those of the semiotic order and are used as a basis for critique. But they go further than critique since on numerous occasions Baudrillard refers to forms of mastery in the symbolic order, an attempt to develop 'fatal theory'. This enigmatic proposition seems to refer to mastery not of laws, but of the rules of the symbolic order. It might seem that the fundamental rule is the obligation to return the gift, but there seem to be more primordial ones relating to who we are, since in the apparent world of the symbolic everything is challenged and seduced. It is a rule, for example, that 'one cannot seduce others, if one has not oneself been seduced' (S, 81). And these rules are related to Baudrillard's basic hypotheses which outline the nature of the symbolic order itself. The first is 'the hypothesis of the radical illusoriness of the world . . . the impossibility of exchanging the world for any ultimate truth or purpose' (LP, 32); the second is 'the world is given to us' (LP, 33). These propositions are a kind of metaphysical reflection on the anthropological studies of Mauss and Bataille and form the frame for inferred rules such as 'things exist because challenged, and because summoned to respond to that challenge' (S, 91).
  The underlying fundamental principle is that of the world's dualistic nature. It is this which all symbolic cultures recognise and master. In order to grasp it, Baudrillard maintains, it is essential to get beyond the (Christian) notion of the law in order to appreciate the more primordial notion of the rule. Symbolic exchange itself rests within the context of that which cannot be exchanged, the basic singularities, for example destiny (PW). Yet it is clear that conceived in this sense exchange is, as Baudrillard suggested, a misleading term - the gifts are not exactly exchanged but given and received, and in turn given and returned. This ritual is rulegoverned in many respects, for example when and what to give, when and what to return. Undertaking gift giving and receiving is thus a ritual governed by rules and obligations to be mastered by everyone entering the symbolic order.
   § death
   § destiny
   § duality
   § evil
   § fatal
   § gift
   § reversibility
   § seduction
   § singularity

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.

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