Sunday, May 13, 2007

Toward a Postmodern Theory of Value--The Rehabilitation of Jean Baudrillard

In order to arrive at a radical reinterpretation of Baudrillard, it is not enough to unmask what is hidden behind the concept of a sign economy. It is not enough to examine the anthropology of needs and of use value. Just as Baudrillard’s project in The Mirror of Production was to unmask everything hidden behind the concepts of production, mode of production, productive forces, relations of production, etc., so our task must be to unmask everything hidden behind the concepts of sign, simulation and code. But we must also uncode the processes involved in simulacra. All of the fundamental concepts of Baudrillard’s analysis must be interpreted, starting from his own requirement of a radical transformation of Marxist transcendence of political economy, to arrive at a theory of value in the contemporary system of objects and the sign economy. A Baudrillardian theory of value would not attempt to explain the “use value” or the simple “exchange value” or prices of goods and services, but instead the inner workings of the code upon which consumers assign value to objects in the system.

Baudrillard’s analysis of the sign economy is incomplete in its treatment of value. It ends at the point where value cannot be determined individually, or from an individual’s point of view. At stake in this essay is the postmodern theory of value, and whether Baudrillard has made it hopeless for a postmodern study of exchange, a postmodern economics—a kind of Symbolic Exchange Studies—or whether his critique applies more to bourgeois “rational choice” models than theories of value.

A postmodern theory of value—situated in a postmodern simulated economy—is heavily influenced by external content. That is to say, value is not determined by individual needs and wants, but rather determined by other valued things external to the subjective desires of the individual. Where Baudrillard finds “the code” a stumbling block for theories of value, due to its dominating ability over individual needs and wants, we ought to say that it is foolishness not to push the theory further to a kind of anti-individualism which is popular elsewhere in postmodern theory—Deleuze and Gutarri, for example. A proper theory of value would be intersubjectivist in nature and anti-individualistic.

An intrinsic theory of value—which Marx, Mill, and Ricardo held—would simply not apply to the sign economy for obvious reasons. Signs do not have intrinsic worth; they are not necessarily produced by, or traced to, say, units of crystallized labor. Objects in a consumer society are signs, which principally obtain their value from other signs. In fact, we cannot speak about them as having been produced, because at best they are ‘pastiched’. We must speak about them as coded objects of desire, and how it is, then, that an economics of signs is possible. A utility theory of value will not work because, while this does explain the exchange values of signs, it is too individualistic, and it does not explain how and why signs are desired beyond a kind of productivist methodology. Lastly, a subjectivist theory of value will not hold with Baudrillard either, since it is still dependent upon the satisfaction of the individual consumer, and thus meaningless since the consumer choices are not his own. The utility and the subjectivist theories of value are the two most widely held theories today. Baudrillard excuses these as being “productivist” in their view of value. In fact, all the theories of value until Baudrillard’s are seen as mired in a kind productivist paradigm, even Marx’s.

As every encyclopedia reader knows, Marx believed in a labor theory of value.

But Marxism, Baudrillard said, is simply a mirror of “productivist” capitalism and as a “classical” mode of representation that purpose to mirror “the real”. Marxism never actually liberated itself form the productivist ideology of capitalism. This productivist ideology was a problem for the Left. Marxists have come to an “imaginary” understanding of production, labor, value, and their place in the world. The Marxian imagination speaks to what is wrong with life under capitalism—alienated labor, exploitation and so on—but provides a phantasy of a nonalienated labor, development of productive forces for human use, autonomous, worker-controlled, self-fulfilling labor, and dictatorship of the proletariat whereby workers control society and so forth. Yet the Marxian imagination is still too conservative and simply reproduces the primacy of production, which is itself a product of capitalism, and closes off what Baudrillard takes as more radical possibilities for liberation.

Baudrillard’s argument is that just as commodities were conceived by Marx as embodiments of certain quantities of abstract labor, which Marx calls “socially necessary labor time,” and just as exchange value is conceived by Marx as the embodiment of equivalents of determinate quantities of abstract labor time, so use values are determined by a logic of equivalence within the system of political economy. On this view, the socioeconomic system produces a system of objects with predefined uses which are as much a product of the system as objects themselves. Because capitalism and Marxism are rooted in the same logic of production, these systems are not able to conceptualize sign control, and thus rise only to the level of a general theory of contemporary society. For in theorizing about contemporary society, he says, it is a gigantic operation game of question and answer, and a gigantic combinatory where all values commutate and are exchanged according to their operational sign.

Modern societies are organized around the production and consumption of commodities, while postmodern societies are organized around simulation and the play of images and signs, denoting a situation in which codes, models, and signs are the organizing forms of a new social order where simulation rules. In the society of simulation, value is constructed by the appropriation of images, and codes and models determine how individuals perceive themselves and relate to other people. Economics, politics, social life, and culture are all governed by the mode of simulation, whereby codes and models determine how goods are consumed and used, politics unfold, culture is produced and consumed, and everyday life is lived. These pastiches of images are desired based on their sign value, which, paradoxically, only points to yet further signs.

So to the Marxian claims for the primacy of production and the mode of production, Baudrillard counters a concept of the “mode of signification,” which he claims is now prior to and more determinant than the mode of production and its laws, logic, and exigencies. In other words he claims that semiotic control takes place through the proliferation and dissemination of signs. Signification now operates according to its own logic and laws, and absorbed everything back into its system. No behavior can refer back to a particular use value or meaning for an individual, because all meaning and use value are prescribed in advance and circumscribed by the code. Consequently, the sign no longer designates anything at all. It approaches its true structural limit which is to refer only back to other signs. Consumers are only in the market for signs because the dominating superstructure which is constantly influencing them. All reality then becomes the place of semiurgical manipulation, of a structural simulation. Following the general line of critical Marxism, Baudrillard argues that the process of social homogenization, alienation, and exploitation constitutes a process of reification in commodities, technologies, and things (i.e., “objects”) come to dominate people (“subjects”) divesting them of their human qualities and capacities.

But something interesting has happened on the way to hyperreality. Baudrillard’s value theory became not only unfriendly towards any meaningful system of exchange, but it also became myopic in its diagnosis of objects and subjects. It would appear there is no non-question-begging answer to the question of value, since sign value is determined by the manipulation of the code—a code which distorts needs and therefore the value of signs. The code, however, would contain the answer to a genealogical investigation as to the “proper” value of signs. The code of symbolic exchanges, however, is not a genealogical project for Baudrillard. It is assumed that any investigation would be fruitless. Such a genealogy of value, however, would ultimately rest on productivist premises, tracing the accumulation of images to a “real” time when those images signified something “real”. That is not to say it would reveal a labor theory of value. A pastiche of signs, if the code was investigated, would reveal a pastiche of values accumulated by means of a subjectivist theory of value.

It would appear that Baudrillard is unable to articulate standpoints from which one can criticize capitalist society or present oppositional consumer politics—since in his view all consumption serves simply to integrate individuals into the system of needs and objects. Perhaps this is exactly where we ought to be. We are stuck in a kind of “ecstasy of communication” which means that we are in close proximity to instantaneous images and information, in an overexposed and transparent world. In other words, an individual in a postmodern world becomes merely an entity influenced by media, technological experience, and the hyperreal. But Baudrillard’s Saussurean semiotics stops at the level of the signs as commodity but does not apply to the individual, or the human subject who is in the market for signs. We ought to treat the individual as a sign, himself in the market for more signs. This is needed for two reasons:

1) Signs achieve their value by reflecting other signs. Human subjects in the simulacra market likewise achieve their ideas about values by other human subjects in the marketplace. That is to say, signs get their ideas about sign values from other signs.

2) The recursivity of sign play allows for genealogical investigations into the nature of sign value, or if that is not possible, allows the meaningful assignation of sign value in a kind of collective process.

This is all the more reason to favor a subjectivist theory of value. Even if we do not follow an investigation of the coded structure of our needs, we may still posit that our needs are based on subjective premises. Because we assume that “subjective” does not refer to the traditional rational choice model of the homo economicus (the rational man in a marketplace), we can say that, though values are ultimately assigned from the simulated marketplace, the individual is coterminous in this process. The individual is demanding something that his society is demanding of him. It is not the human subject in question, but rather to the media superstructure, which is assigning this value. This is only to say that value is circular, but not meaningless. This has also become an epistemological problem where it is not known to use whether needs come from the subject desiring or from the subject influencing.

In a sense, Baudrillard's work can be read as an account of a further stage of reification and social domination where individuals are controlled by ruling institutions and modes of thought. However, like a functionalist theory of language, value has been assigned to signs by a kind of external process. The content of the code is not individualistic—it is external. The code is achieved by layers of signs and ideologies, yet this active manipulation of signs is not equivalent to postulating an active human subject that could resist, redefine, or produce its own signs. It is also not equivalent to saying that the simulation marketplace is not collectively determining sign values, and thus Baudrillard fails to develop a genuine theory of agency. If we assume that the individual has imbibed this code, however, we ought to say that it is intersubjective nature and that it is anti-individualistic. Our postmodern theory of value would then stand in opposition to the petit bourgeois economics assuming individuals’ rational choices. While objects with sign value might refer only back to themselves, this sign value is assigned by the social subject. That is, it is assigned by the social bond. In that sense, it is inter-subjective.

For Marx, usefulness is a social construct, but for reasons different from Baudrillard. Use-value means that a thing is not intrinsically useful in itself. The only indication that a thing is “useful” is the fact that it is actually being used by somebody. It is socially contingent; it’s a matter of ever-shifting human needs and desires. For a sign to have value, it similarly requires a system of objects. It requires other signs to make it valuable. And it requires another system of signs for which it is valued by.

If Baudrillard is rehabilitated in this way, then he has given us a new theory of value, and a new theory of signification—both which resemble the Saussurean system of signs in reverse. It is almost anti-representational in nature. The theory of simulation holds that the ordering of the basic elements of signs, usually considered in terms of signified preceding the signifier, is now, in the postmodern society, reversed, such that the signifier, the image, the symbol, icon, and index, precedes the signified, the real basis of the sign. We live in a world where any concept of the real has been eroded. This, however, is not as problematic as it seems. This formulation of postmodernism, under a “strong” reading of Baudrillard, would still not entail the disintegration of the Saussurean concept of the sign. But without an intersubjective theory of value, we live in a world completely divorced from the real and containing only infinitely recursive simulacra.

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