impossible exchange

  ---- by Rex Butler
  In his mid-to-late-career Impossible Exchange (2001a [1999b]), Baudrillard theorises the term 'impossible exchange' (IEx). Although it is privileged for the first time there, the term originally occurs in the books Fatal Strategies (2008a [1983]) and Cool Memories II (1996b [1990b]), and it later becomes one of Baudrillard's 'passwords' (PW). Indeed, although the term takes on a specific meaning and serves a particular purpose in Baudrillard's later work, we can trace a genealogy of it in Baudrillard's earlier writings. In its most general sense, it arises as a variation of symbolic exchange, a concept that, as Baudrillard has admitted and as numerous commentators have pointed out, comes out of a reading of the anthropologists Marcel Mauss and Emile Durkheim and their elaboration of a form of sumptuary, non-economic exchange that occurs in tribal societies. In symbolic exchange, objects are exchanged for each other beyond any use value or even exchange value and without any ulterior end in mind. As Baudrillard explains in Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993a [1976]), his most detailed attempt to articulate the notion, it is a 'circulation of gifts and countergifts as intense as the circulation of precious goods and women' (SED, 131). It is an exchange that is not 'reciprocal' in terms of any foreseeable quid pro quo, or even 'symbolic' in the sense of implying some legal or cultural indebtedness. Rather, Baudrillard's symbolic exchange is a freely given exchange of something for nothing that begins and ends without leaving traces, but for all that creates a more profound connection between the two parties than ordinary economic relationship.
  We can see examples of this 'symbolic exchange' throughout Baudrillard's work. Indeed, Baudrillard's point is that symbolic exchange is everywhere, insofar as economic exchange itself would not be possible without it. Even though it is not named or theorised as such, we see it in such moments as the exchange between the unique object and the rest of the collection in The System of Objects (1996a [1968]) or the relationship between 'free' and labour time in The Consumer Society (1998a [1970]). But, after this, symbolic exchange is visible and specifically elaborated in Baudrillard's work. We might just give here two examples that are relevant to the notion of 'impossible exchange' that Baudrillard subsequently develops. In For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981 [1972]), Baudrillard speaks of the way that in an art auction there is no relationship between the work of art and the money that is paid for it. The work of art does not have a use value or even properly an exchange value, and the money that is paid for it is understood to be lost or consumed in advance. As Baudrillard writes: 'There is no longer an equivalence, but an aristocratic parity established between money, which has become a sumptuary material through the loss of its economic exchange value, and the canvas, which has become a sign of prestige' (CPS, 117). In Fatal Strategies (2008a [1983]), Baudrillard makes a similar point with regard to the relationship between the hostage and the terrorist. When a hostage is taken by a terrorist out of the general circulation of a society, they do not somehow become representative of the sins and faults of that society. Rather, they become a radical exception that bears no relationship to society and that cannot easily be returned to it. In this sense, there can be no possible rational calculation to the terrorists' actions; their political demands cannot be exchanged for anything. But it is exactly in this way that the terrorist act mirrors the radical inexchangeabilty of society, in which every contingency is taken into account and at once everyone and no one is responsible for everything. Without actually making the hostage equivalent to anything, an impossible exchange nevertheless takes place between the hostage and the fact that all of us are in a way taken hostage by society. Again, as Baudrillard writes: 'One must conceive of terrorism as . . . experimentally staging an impossible exchange, and thereby verifying at its limit a banal situation, our own, that of the historical loss of the scene of exchange, the rule(s) of exchange, and the social contract' (FS, 72-3).
  Impossible Exchange (2001a [1999a]) in fact begins with a description of a certain radical inexchangeability that characterises our current situation. What Baudrillard means by this is that our contemporary, self-referential systems of simulation have no external point of reference and can be judged only in their own terms. Or, more precisely, because these systems have no external point of reference they can no longer be judged at all. They can continue to expand, increase in size or become more efficient, but only in their own terms. And Baudrillard's point is that everything is like this today; all systems attempt to account for all of reality: 'The other spheres [apart from economics] - politics, law and aesthetics - are characterised by this same non-equivalence . . . and cannot be exchanged for anything' (IEx, 4). And it is not a matter of somehow calling a halt to this process of extrapolation or exponentialisation, of seeking to impose some outside standard of judgement. There is nothing that can be held against these systems of simulation that is not revealed to be already part of them, indeed possible from the beginning only because of them. And yet, as Baudrillard emphasises, it is just when all uncertainty disappears that it also reappears, because it is at the very moment when domination is total that, because there is nothing outside of it, it cannot be realised, has no objective effect (IEx). It is at this point that stakes re-enter the game, that a kind of exchange - at the same time impossible - is shown to be necessary. There is, in Baudrillard's complex terminology, a 'Nothing' (IEx, 7) that the system must exchange itself with, insofar as it does not exist unless there is something outside of it, some place from where it can be named or thought. This interrelationship between something and the nothing from where it is remarked must be understood in the light of Baudrillard's comments about the beginning of the world as a certain splitting of 'nothing' from itself (PC), and perhaps even Hegel's understanding of the relationship between Being and Nothing in Book I of his Logic. This impossible but necessary exchange can be seen, according to Baudrillard, in the 'poetic transfer' between something and nothing that occurs in photography, living money, the event and thought itself (IEx).
   § art
   § gift
   § photography
   § terrorism

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.

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