---- by William Pawlett
  The object is possibly the most important notion in Baudrillard's oeuvre (RC). He writes of 'an obsession with the object . . . the magic of the object' (F, 3). His Passwords (2003b [2000c]) begins with 'The Object': ' wanted to break with the problematic of the subject. The question of the object represented the alternative . . . and it has remained the horizon of my thinking' ([i]PW, 3). Thinking the object links Baudrillard's early studies of consumer goods, his thought on the object in symbolic exchange, his theme of the revenge of the object and the object's seduction, and his later provocations concerning 'impossible exchange'.
  Baudrillard's early work explored the system of objects that comprised the postwar consumer societies of Western Europe and North America. He emphasised the proliferation of consumer objects whose meaning or purpose extended far beyond their use value. As consumer objects demand the investment of time, money and desire, enabling consumers to 'personalise' their lifestyles by signifying distinctive status positions, the system of consumer objects operates on the symbolic as well as economic/ semiotic level, forming a system of moral constraint and obligation. The advertising industry presents new objects and gadgets as 'gifts' to the consumer, indebting them to the system by conferring a myriad of choices. The consumer system is likened to a 'festival' - a celebratory ritual of buying and selling where consumer objects become tokens of (simulatory) salvation and 'enforced happiness'.
  During the early 1970s Baudrillard developed the contrast between semiotic or simulational orders of object-signs ('dead' objects) and the object within symbolic exchange ('living' objects). Drawing on the anthropology of Mauss (1966), Baudrillard refuses to reduce symbolically exchanged objects to the signification of social power or position. Where Marxist and structuralist thinkers understand gift exchange as a cultural process which obfuscates the underlying economic reality of power, Baudrillard explores spiritual and symbolic dimensions of symbolically exchanged objects (objects given, received and passed on cyclically (SED)). Such objects are ambivalent and volatile; they may fuse the sentiments of giver and receiver in ways neither can anticipate, explain or control, in ways which cannot be inferred from established belief systems. The object in symbolic exchange has 'a life of its own' (PW, 3); it is able to pass through the binary conceptual oppositions that, since the Renaissance, have structured 'reality'. Taking the life/death opposition as an example, the 'pact' forged between parties in the symbolic exchange of objects is not halted by (biological) death. Indeed the death of the giver tends to increase the symbolic potency of the given object, provoking a metamorphosis in, rather than the termination of, symbolic relations.
  Baudrillard examines (CPS, SED) the object abstracted from the cycles of symbolic exchange; the object becomes residual and 'real', it becomes sign or signifier to be traded in accordance with the terms and values set by the code. This applies both to linguistic object-signs (words and concepts) and to material objects or things. The code assigns value to all object-signs in terms of 'sign exchange value', that is as signs of fashion or prestige, underwritten by the illusory opposition between sign exchange value and (fictive) use value. However, Baudrillard (S, FS) depicts the object as escaping, eluding and defying the code's logics of value. Objects proliferate 'indefinitely, increasing their potential, outbidding themselves in an ascension to the limit' (FS, 25), such that 'there is no longer a system of objects' (EC, 11). Indeed for Baudrillard a definitive limit or point of no return is crossed. Objects become 'ecstatic', viral and reversible without the assistance of the subject as agent of symbolic exchange: 'the object itself takes the initiative of reversibility, taking the initiative to seduce and lead astray' (EC, 80). This is the revenge of the object, the object has a destiny beyond the code, beyond the meanings and definitions imposed on it by economics, politics or science: 'the destiny of signs is to be torn from their destination, deviated, displaced, diverted, recuperated, seduced' (EC, 80). Objects elude the regimes of control erected by subjects, becoming 'pure' or 'fatal'. Language itself becomes a fatal object; its materiality or literalness prevents or suddenly shatters the development of coded, referential meanings which dissolve in wit, poetry, slips of the tongue, nonsense and aphorism.
  Baudrillard does not claim that the subject is dead, or that it has been eliminated from his analysis: 'When I speak of the object and its fatal strategies, I'm speaking also of people and their inhuman strategies' (FS, 222). The 'subject' for Baudrillard has had the banal illusion of identity, agency, subjectivity thrust upon it, and the object, he warns, should not be seen as 'supersubject' (VI, 79). Rather there is a duel or dual relation at work, a (hyper-)reality of subject positions using, buying and selling objects, and another game, register or symbolic dimension: 'above all the subject has the passion to be object, to become object' (EC, 93). The masses or 'mass object' (defined as 'us, you, everybody' (SSM, 65)) are Baudrillard's major example of the 'subject' of modern knowledge taking revenge, becoming refractory, impenetrable, 'crystalline' object. Unintelligible to sociological and political analysis, the masses disappear into silence, hyper-conformity or 'voluntary servitude', the better to obscure their fundamental 'absence' from the system of control.
  With Baudrillard's putative 'fourth order', that of virtuality and integral reality, there are further transformations in his theorisation of the object. Virtuality is not an order of simulacra as such, but the 'final solution' to the problem of the simulacra. Baudrillard writes, 'initially, the real object becomes sign: this is the stage of simulation. But in a subsequent stage the sign becomes an object again, but not now a real object: an object much further removed from the real than the sign itself . . . a fetish . . . a double abstraction' (IEx, 129). With 'radical fetishism' reality becomes total; everything is 'real' and visible - dreams, fantasies, desires, illusions such that 'reality' even as myth loses its meaning and distinctiveness. This is the 'becoming-object of the sign' (LP, 71), reality becomes integral, crushingly banal, 'nondescript' and 'unexchangeable': the worthless selfevidence of 'reality' TV, Internet pornography, real-time news footage of 'non-events'. Yet, Baudrillard insists, there is always the potential for a 'blow-back' or revenge of symbolic forms from within the virtual sphere; these gravitate around 'singular objects' and take place through catastrophic chain reactions, major examples being Chernobyl, the Berlin Wall and the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
   § ambivalence
   § code
   § gift
   § masses
   § seduction
   § virtual

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.


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