Impossible Exchange by Jean Baudrillard


Is it thought which tips the world over in to uncertainty, or the other way around? This in itself is part of the uncertainty.

Any system invents for itself a principle of equilibrium, exchange and value, causality and purpose, which plays on fixed oppositions: good and evil, true and false, sign and referent, subject and object. This is the whole space of difference and regulation by difference which, as long as it functions, ensures the stability and dialectical movement of the whole. Up to this point, all is well. It is when this bipolar relationship breaks down, when the system short-circuits itself, that it generates its own critical mass, and veers off exponentially.

Has there ever been a ‘real’? In this chasm of uncertainty, the real, value and the law are exceptions, exceptional phenomena. Illusion is the fundamental rule.

The most structured systems cannot but be thrown out of kilter by the reversion of this Nothing which haunts them…Here and now, the whole edifice of value is exchangeable for Nothing.

If it is the forgetting and denial of the Nothing which brings about the catastrophic deregulation of systems, there is no way of warding off this process by the magical addition of some ex machina corrective – the kind of regulation we see at work in the physical, biological and economic sciences, where new hypotheses, new forces and new particles are constantly being invented to shore up the equations. If it is the Nothing whose absence is missing, it is the Nothing which must be brought (or returned) into play, with the attendant risk of internal catastrophe being constantly present.

The Nothing is the only ground – or background – against which we can apprehend existence. It’s existence’s potential of absence and nullity, but also of energy (there is an analogy here with the quantum void). In this sense, things only exist ex nihilo. Things only ever exist out of nothing.

Ex nihilo in nihilum: this is the cycle of the Nothing. It is also – against a thinking based on origins and ends, evolutions and continuity – a discontinuity – based thinking…with discontinuity as its essential form.

Cioran: if life has meaning, we are all failures.

Mental universe ? catastrophic rule: everything is there from the beginning; it is not negotiated by changes.

The fundamental uncertainty lies in this machination of the Nothing, in this parallel of the Nothing.

Russell’s argument in the Analysis of the Mind: There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that remembered ‘a wholly unreal past’.

But the Nothing is precisely not a state of things… ? Void ? antagonistic parallel universe ? for the matter in itself is a delusion, and the material universe is supported only by the missing mass, whose absence is decisive.

By elimination of the void, it is condemned to gravitational collapse; it collapses into itself.

So we are going to have to liquidate the given world. To destroy it by substituting an artificial one, built from scratch, a world for which we do not have to account to anyone. Hence this gigantic technical undertaking for eliminating the natural world in all its forms. All that is natural will be rejected from top to bottom as a consequence of this symbolic rule of the countergift and the impossible exchange.

The Virtual: it is an artificial transcription of it, a total echoing of it, but it does not reflect it.

The convergence of thought is no longer a convergence with truth, but a collusion with the object and a convergence with a set of rules in which the subject is no longer in control.

And to escape truth, you must not, whatever you do, trust the subject. You have to leave matters to the object and its strange attraction, the world and its definitive uncertainty.

To pass beyond the end – into the excess of reality, the excess of positivity, the excess of events, the excess of information – is to enter a paradoxical state, a state which can no longer be content with a rehabilitation of traditional values, a demands a thinking that is itself paradoxical: a thinking that no longer obeys a truth principle, and even accepts the impossibility of verification.

The Uncertainty Principle: The event in which it is impossible to calculate the speed of a particle and its position simultaneously.

If we cannot grasp both the genesis and the singularity of the event, the appearance of things and their meaning, then two courses are open to us: either we master meaning, anf appearances escape us; or the meaning escapes, and appearances are saved. By the very play of appearances, things are becoming further and further removed from their meaning, and resisting the violence of interpretation.

Things are the same in social physics as in the physics of nature: macroscopic phenomena still conform to a deterministic analysis, but microscopic phenomena do not behave in any such way.

The object is not what it was. In all areas it evades us. It now appears only as a fleeitng trace on computer screens. At the end of their experimenting, the most advanced sciences can only register its disappearance. Are we not faced here with an ironic revenge of the object, a strategy of deference, flouting experimental protocols and divesting the subject itself of its subject position?

But no one has ever advanced the hypothesis that things may discover us at the same time we discover them, and that there is a dual relationship in discovery.

Today they say that science no longer ‘discovers’ its object, but ‘invents’ it. We should say then, that the object, too,does more than just ‘discover’ us; it invents us purely and simply – it thinks us. It seems that we have victoriously wrenched the object from its peaceful state, from the indifference and secrecy which enshrouded it. But today, before our very eyes, the enigmatic nature of the world is rousing itself, resolved to struggle to retain its mystery. Knowledge is a duel. And this duel between subject and object brings with it the subjects’ loss of sovereignty, making the object itself the horizon of its disappearance.

Humanity bringing reason into a chaotic universe would be the bringer of disorder…which is tantamount to its desire to put an end to it.

The Final Solution of The Revenge of the Immortals

Something in us is hidden: death. But something lurks in each of our cells: the act of forgetting to die. Immortality hovers ominously over us. We speak always of the struggle of life against death, not the opposite danger. But we have to fight against the impossibility of dying. At least the let-up on the part of living beings in their struggle for death – their struggle for division, sex and otherness – they become indivisible again, self-identical, and hence immortal.

Contrary to everything we ordinarily believe, nature first created immortal beings, and it was only by winning the battle for death that we became the living beings that we are. Blindly, we dream of defeating death and achieve immortality whereas that is our most tragic destiny, a destiny inscribed in the previous life of our cells.

Not only in the viral revolt of cells, but in the present colossal undertaking , on the part of living beings themselves, to reconstruct a homogeneous, continuous universe – a continuum which in this case is artificial, in which through our technical media and machinery, through our immense system of communications and information, we are building a perfect clone, an identical double of our world, a virtual replica of the world which heralds an endless replication.

We are currently reproducing and copying the cancer cells’ pathological immortality in the individual and the species.

This is the revenge of the immortal, undifferentiated beings over moral, sexed beings. It is this we may term the final solution.

Whereas living matter has done its utmost for millions of years to wrest things out of sameness, to wrench itself out of this kind of primitive entropy and incest, we are currently, through the very progress of science, recreating the conditions for entropy and incest, and working on the disinformation of the species by cancelling out difference.

Sex: disassociation of sexual activity (with contraceptions) >>disassociation of reproduction (with artificial insemination, cloning, etc.)

Death: disassociate life from death (conserving only life, making death a useless function, something we can do without).

Individuation: through cloning; the hallucination of the turn; does reawaken our deep-rooted feelings of remorse of individuality, when long ago we had ‘fellow beings’…

In its blind will for greater knowledge, humanity is programming its own destruction with the same offhandedness, the same ferocity, as it is programming that of other species…Humanity is sacrificing itself to an experimental destiny unknown to the other species, which have hither to been left to meet their natural fates. (A not usually-explored facet of loneliness.)…The mortality of artificial species is even more rapid than that of natural species; hence along these artificial paths, the human race is perhaps rushing faster towards its end.

Nietzsche: The human species, left to itself, can only duplicate or destroy itself.

We share 98% of our genes with apes, and 90% of that with mice.

It is through the school system, the media system, the mass culture and information systems, that human beings become copies of each other.

Life is not ‘worth’ anything, not even human life. And if it is precious, it is precious not as a value, but as a form – an excessive and immoral form. Unexchangeable for any artificial race of beings, even if that race were superior to it in value and performance.

Useless Functions

Whereas thought put an end to the real in thought, the new technologies put an end to it in reality. Whereas thought works toward the un-completion of reality, the virtual works towards the completion of the real and its final solution. The denial of reality which, in the philosophical dimension, was a mental operation becomes, with the technologies of the Virtual, a surgical one.

Of the Cheshire Cat there remains only the Smile.

Of the dream there remains only a memory trace.

Of the molecule there remains only the electromagnetic trace.

Of the real there remains only virtual reality.

Of the other there remains only the spectral form.

The ‘memory of water’ saga (Benveniste) is exemplary: the absent molecules producing effects, the electromagnetic waves disassociated from their substance, no molecular message remaining. Only the medium is efficient. This is the last stage of transfiguration of the world into pure information, and hence of a general movement of our universe: high dilution of reality, the disappearance of any real source, which has now become useless.

Saudade (Portuguese): in the sense of a sorrow not for what is dead, but for what has disappeared. A mood of melancholic yearning, widely regarded as typically Portuguese. Connected with the myth of the lost king Sebastian, whose return is still awaited.

Thus art, work, religion and the body, though dead, have forgotten how to die. Since the gene presiding over their demise is masked for one reason or another, they are entering a ‘phase beyond’, an intermediate phase. Whenever the process of apoptosis is blocked, we are in a world of entities which are virtually deceased, but have not yet found the agent of their demise.

Time itself – what are we to do with what remains to us, which appears to us only in the form of ennui (literary: a feeling of being bored and having no interest in anything), that non-degradable residue?

The Impossible Exchange

And indeed, death drive or no death drive (that immortality of protozoa), we are not far from rediscovering its equivalent today in the dimension of the clone as degree Xerox of the individual and degree Zero of evolution.

…a species haunted by the imagining of its own end: escaping freedom.

The violent deconstruction of the body and thought: experiementation. Not only extreme cases (drug abuse, etc) but also behind every television and comptuer screen, every technical operation which confronts him daily, the individual is analysed in return, function by function. He is tested, experimented on, fragmented, harassed, summoned to respond : a fractal object doomed henceforth to be disseminated in the networks. And the price to be paid is a mortification of the gaze, the body, and the real world.

We talk of sexual harrassment, but it is all the social, psychological, political and mental promptings which are so many veiled forms of harrassment, persecution and behavioural servitude. (trompe-l’oeil destiny)

An End to Freedom

Pessoa: Being nothing is intoxicating, and the will is a bucket you knocked over in the yard, with a lazy flick of the foot, as you went by.

Forms are not liberated; only forced are liberated.

Not, what is a slave without a master? A person who has devoured his master and internalised him, to the point of becoming his own master. The final stage of servility is a regression to the point of sacrifice, except that no one does him the honour of sacrifice, and out of despair, is forced to sacrifice himself to himself and his own will.

It is, in fact, a highly relative freedom, this freedom to become responsible, as a subject, for the objective conditions of one’s own life. As long as I am subject to objective conditions, I am still an object, I am not wholly free – I have to be freed from that freedom itself. As this is possible only in play, in that more subtle freedom of play, the arbitrary rules of which paradoxically free me, whereas in reality I am kept in chains by my own will.

The Dice Man

Rhinehart’s Dice Man: Chance is the most ancient divinity of the world, and behold, I come to deliver all things from their bondage under purpose…The mind is bondage to Purpose and Will, but I shall free it to Divine Accident and Prankishness…What if [the sense of self] represents a psychological appendix: a useless anachronistic pain in the side? – or, like the mastodon’s huge tusks: a heavy, useless and ultimately self-destructive burden? What if the sense of being someone represents an evolutionary error as disastrous to the further development of a more complex creature as was the shell for snails and turtles?

The Flow of Change, The Cycle of Becoming

Nietzsche: The mutual antagonism of passions, the duality, trinity, plurality of ‘souls in a single breast’: very unhealthy inner ruin; destructive; betraying and intensifying an inner conflict and anarchism, unless one passion eventually becomes master…The most interesting people belong in this category, the chameleons; they are not in contradiction with themselves…but they have no development – their various states lie side by side, even if they are separated up to seven times. They chance, but do not become.

The Divide at Destiny

Nabokov: There are always at least two occasions when two persons, unwittingly, almost met. Each time destiny seems to have prepared this meeting with the greatest care, attending first to one possibility, then another, ordering the tiniest detail and leaving nothing to chance. But each time some tiny, unattended eventuality intervenes to prevent the coming together, and the two lives diverge once again at a greater rate…But destiny is much to persistent to allow itself to be put off by a failure. It arrives at its ends, by such subtle machinations that not even a click is heard when at last the two persons are brought together.

Just as the virtual dead man that I am continues on his way on the other side, carries on with his existence which runs just beneath the surface of mine, birth is that dividing line where on the other side I exist as myself, but on the other I begin, at the same moment, to exist as the other.

In that meeting, you do not choose; you are chosen. And it is in being chosen, being elected in this way, that the greatest pleasure lies – not in the option you take for your own life.

And just because you fall in love with someone, that doesn’t mean that they will respond automatically to your desire: an automatic wish fulfilment of that kind would be hellish. Yet we feel that everyone somehow dreams of such a fateful conjunction – if not, perhaps, of being the person right underneath the tile [that is about to fall off the roof]. Though even there may be exhilaration in feeling favoured by ill fortune.

Dual, Single and Antagonistic Principles

Ceronetti: concrete salvation takes the form of an accelerated destruction. It is not Evil, but Good which is manifestly at the controls of the suicide engine.

Disassociated Society, Parallel Society

black market of employment, economy, sex, weapons…thought.

Poetic Transference

Relieved of value, things are free to circulate without passing through excahnge and the abstraction of exchange. Words and language are free to correspond without passing through meaning. Just as sexuality, freed from reproduction, becomes free to display itself in the erotic, without a concern for ends and means.

Living Coin: Singularity of the Phantasm

What one is, one does not have; and what one does not have, one cannot sell.

Genuine rape is not forcibly ‘enjoying’ someone, but forcing someone to have pleasure.

What is art? The perfect simulacrum, the simultaneity of the thing and the sign. Art is made from the impossible exchange of the signifier and the signified, and therefore from the impossibility of representation as such, which is made up of dead signs and empty promises.

Money: the universal circulation of the Nothing. A disembodied sign, like a fetish object, which has nothing with the sexual act or pleasure.

Real Event, Fated Event: Singularity of the Event

All of us: we whose desires shape the media; we who are the medium, the network and the conducting current. There are no longer either actors or spectators; all are immersed in the same reality, in the same revolving responsibility, in a single impersonal destiny which is merely the fulfilment of a collective desire.

Shadowing the World

Yet thought is destined for the world; they are destined for each other. Thought is, in fact, the world’s éminence grise, the shadow which accompanies it and, in following it, provides it with a secret destination.

The object of theory is to arrive at an account of the system which follows out its internal logic to its end, without adding anything, yet which, at the same time, totally inverts that system, revealing its hidden non-meaning, the Nothing which haunts it, that absence at the heart of the system, that shadow running alongside it.

3 Theorems:

1. The world was given to us as something enigmatic and unintelligible, and the task of thought is to make it, if possible, even more enigmatic and unintelligible.

2. since the world is evolving towards a frenzied state of affairs, we have to take a frenzied view of it.

3. the player must never be bigger than the game itself, not the theorist bigger than the theory, nor theory bigger than the world itself.

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