I’ve been away from the OAC for a while, but those of you who may have read my blog posts or have communicated with me in the past may well know that last year my thinking was rather infected by Deleuze and Guattari. Well, now there’s a new infection from which I’m suffering: Baudrillard, in particular his work on ‘The Political Economy of the Sign.’ This work has thrown up a few questions, or problems, for me and I was hoping to open up a couple of points to wider discussion in order to clarify the usability of this theory.
So, Baudrillard critiques the Marxian distinction between exchange-value and use-value; in particular, he rejects the idea that use-value is somehow within the object or is some kind of value to be liberated in order to liberate the alienated masses. Instead, use-value is to be seen as the rationalization of exchange-value, its justification by reference to the utility principle - or the ‘myth of functionality’ which would assign each object one functional role. So far so good.
Following this two further notions or ‘logics’ are added to the logic of exchange and utility, that of the sign and symbol. It is difficult to pin down exactly what Baudrillard means by symbol, but it appears to be that which makes reference to a singular, and identifiable, relationship or event. They are subjective in that they are incomparable, singular and act as an index – the wedding ring is symbolic for it indexes a specific network between a specific number of actants and indexes only this (as elucidated in The System of Objects). From this it follows that ‘there is no symbolic value, only symbolic exchange’, for symbolic objects are not comparable within an entire system of differentiation, they are produced of exchange between actants.
Sign logic, or sign exchange value, operates in a somewhat similar manner to Marxian exchange-value. Sign-value is acts by the association of one sign to another through an entire system of differentiation and prestige; brands are a good example of this – their value is not produced from their functionality (use-value), nor simply the logic of exchange-value (why would one pay more for the same pair of sunglasses with Prada on the side if rational actor theory worked here?), the value of the sign is an abstraction, one which makes reference to an entire constellation of differentiation and prestige, of fame and hierarchy. Signs are opaque, that is to say they do not act as indexes as with symbols; they refer to one another, much as the signifier always makes reference to other signifiers, no reciprocity is possible other than between signs – a brand communicates with other brands. The concern of sign-logic is that of form, rather than content (analogue, digital, plasma, HD, etc.). The sign makes reference to what Baudrillard refers to, following from Deleuze and Guattari, as ‘a code’, an entire system of differentiation and exclusion which acts upon form, ordering and abstracting contents in order that they may be comparable and homogenous, much like the money commodity acts to homogenize exchange-value. As sign-value makes no recourse to the symbolic, to the actuality of events and relationships, but instead only communicates through the code, it is opaque and takes arbitrary points of reference (what is to be termed by Baudrillard ‘hyper-reality’).
Now, Baudrillard considers that this operation of signs, this abstraction is to be considered as political as the division of labor - a dispositif for the maintenance and execution of power. Considering the rejection of use-value as that which is to be liberated in order to free the alienated worker, the means of avoiding this abstractive and hierarchizing logic of sign-value, exchange-value and use-value is to be located in symbolic exchange. Of course symbolic exchange is a well developed are of anthropological enquiry and Baudrillard himself makes use of much of the ethnography on the topic. While there are always elements of sign logic at work, the named and ranked Kula Vaygu’a that constitute a structure of differentiation and prestige by reference to an abstract code, symbolic exchange ensures that the symbolic remains the prominent logic within a society. Actants within the Kula remain associated to a specific number of exchange partners the objects of Kula index these relationships and any sign-value produced is produced of such symbolic movement – thus the symbolic, and its transparency, remains predominant.
So, here’s the issue; I went back to Deleuze and Guattari to follow how Baudrillard arrives at these ideas. In ‘On Several Regimes of Signs’, Deleuze and Guattari make reference to ‘presignifying semiotics’, where “the sign owes its degree of relative deterritorialization not to a perpetual referral to other signs but rather to a confrontation between the territorialities and compared segments from which each sign is extracted”. The Kula Vaygu’a operate in such a manner, through perpetual reference to compared segments, territories and actors.
The problem is this: does pre on presignifying demonstrate an evolutionism? By stating that symbolic exchange operates in this manner, does it necessary mean stating that the society is ‘less developed’ as there is not the same abstraction which operates in societies dominated by sign logic? Deleuze and Guattari, and Baudrillard, are very careful to say they are not proposing an evolutionary schema, nor even doing history; they also state that all these ‘logics’ are found in varying degrees everywhere but that at some may be more active. The same is said for the varying ‘regimes of signs’. So, is this usable without falling into the trap of evolutionism?