---- by William Pawlett
  The concept of the code (le code, la grille) is an important term in Baudrillard's early work. It is used in two related senses: firstly, to understand and critique consumer capitalism, suggesting that it is a system of control that functions by conferring illusory 'freedoms'; and secondly, to deconstruct modern critical theories - particularly Marxism, feminism and psychoanalysis. Such theories, Baudrillard argues, cannot challenge the capitalist system because they are structured, at a fundamental level, by the code; their arguments are easily assimilated because they do not question the system's 'logics of value' - the interlocking network of use values, economic exchange values and sign exchange values that constitute the code (CPS, 123). The code can be challenged, Baudrillard asserts, only by symbolic exchange, by the 'counter-gift' of anti-value (SED, 40). The notion of 'the code' is notably absent from Baudrillard's later work; DNA 'code' is discussed at length (TE, 120) but the concept of the code seems to have been rejected because it remained within the orbit of modern critical theory. Nevertheless, many of the themes discussed through the concept of the code reappear in Baudrillard's later arguments concerning 'integral reality'.
  Baudrillard's notion of the code suggests that we, as consumers, live within a far more complete form of social control than anything conceived under the rubric of ideological analysis. The code is a system of 'manipulation', 'neutralisation' and assimilation which 'aims towards absolute social control' (UD, 98). Though this is never achieved, the code constitutes 'the fundamental, decisive form of social control - more so even than acquiescence to ideological norms' (CPS, 68). This is because the code operates, fundamentally, at a preconscious level. For Baudrillard, 'the code itself is nothing other than a genetic, generative cell' (SED, 58). The term code is used interchangeably with 'the structural law of value', that is as a feature of the third order of simulacra dominated by simulation (SED, 50). The code then is the grid or 'generative core' from which social signification is produced or simulated. The medium of the code is the abstracted sign; torn from symbolic relations, drained of all ambivalence and intensity, the sign becomes a 'dead' unit of information. The code can assimilate any meaning, idea, emotion or critical gesture by reproducing it as an abstract sign or code position within an ever-expanding field of options and possibilities. All signs are, at the fundamental level of the medium, equivalent or commutable; abstract signs enable a 'universal equivalence' through the 'de-sign-ating' of everything as a term within the code. Marginal or simulatory differences are injected into the code, feeding consumption and sustaining the illusions of choice and diversity.
  It is a mistake to think of the notion of the code as exclusively semiotic. As simulation becomes prevalent, conceptual oppositions are simplified into binary code, zeros and ones are no longer meaningful oppositions but, for Baudrillard, merely tactical modulations. The code absorbs the first and second orders of simulacra (in which signs work referentially and dialectically) with a system of signs that refer only to preconceived simulation models. With the third order 'the code's signals . . . become illegible', units or 'bits' of information replace signification (SED, 57). Indeed, the code is 'the end of signification'; social control by ideology, characteristic of the second order, is supplemented by 'social control by means of prediction, simulation, programmed anticipation and indeterminate mutation, all governed . . . by the code' (SED, 60). For example, any radical potential of Marxist, feminist or 'green' politics is defused by the code; they are designated as coded 'lifestyle' positions, feeding consumption and so presenting no fundamental challenge to the system. The code maintains a system of social relations through the 'obligatory registration of individuals on the scale of status' (CPS, 68) and functions covertly 'to better prime the aspiration toward the higher level' (CPS, 60) enforcing the competitive individualism of the system of consumption. The code simulates choice, difference and liberation, pacifying the deep divisions in consumer society by allowing the privileged term of binary oppositions to switch tactically or 'float', for example by simulating equality between terms (male/female, black/white, adult/child), so containing critical opposition. The code is 'indifferent' and 'aleatory'; it controls through tolerance, solicitation and incorporation.
  The code encompasses far more than consumption; it includes the construction of knowledge and information through the conversion of thought into coded information flows. With the advent of DNA and genetic sciences, the code, according to Baudrillard, absorbs life itself, eliminating it as symbolic form and reproducing it as code (SED). The notion of DNA, Baudrillard suggests, was made possible by modernity as it is a social system dedicated to control. By providing a virtual map or code of life the concept of DNA reduces life to a copy or clone, destroying its 'destiny' and enabling the elimination of certain 'undesirable' traits such as 'criminality' before a person is born (LP, 29). For Baudrillard the code, in all its forms, must be defied:
  [Y]ou can't fight the code with political economy, nor with 'revolution' . . . can we fight DNA? . . . perhaps death and death alone, the reversibility of death, belongs to a higher order than the code. Only symbolic disorder can bring about an interruption in the code. (SED, 3-4)
  For Baudrillard only suicidal death, hurled against the system as 'countergift' and so countering the simulatory gifts of liberation conferred by the consumer society, can defy the code. This argument is further explored in Baudrillard's work on the 9/11 attacks (ST).
  The term code largely disappears from Baudrillard's writings after Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993a [1976]). Is the code still operational in the 'fourth order', the 'fractal stage' of 'haphazard proliferation' (TE)? Baudrillard is clear that the previous phases continue to function alongside the fourth order, indeed they function even better. The concept of the code might be dead but it functions more effectively than ever, expanding, becoming virtual, producing 'integral reality': the complete and final replacement for the world as symbolic form.
   § ambivalence
   § double spiral
   § simulation
   § virtual

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.


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