‘Many, many years ago lived an emperor, who thought so much of new clothes that he spent all his money in order to obtain them; his only ambition was to be always well dressed. He did not care for his soldiers, and the theatre did not amuse him; the only thing, in fact, he thought anything of was to drive out and show a new suit of clothes. He had a coat for every hour of the day; and as one would say of a king “He is in his cabinet,” so one could say of him, “The emperor is in his dressing-room.”
We all know how this story continues. Two swindlers arrive in the kingdom, persuading the emperor that they are great tailors. For a fabulous fee, they dress the emperor in --- nothing. Stupefied and cowed by the tailors’ reputation, no-one – not the emperor’s most trusted advisers, nor the emperor himself – has the courage to point to the king’s nakedness. No-one that is, except a little boy who, in his naïve fearlessness, cries out, but ‘The emperor has nothing on!’ The boy’s revelation is passed in whispers around the crowd until the whole crowd is echoing it.
Andersen’s is a story about prestige, which is the central real theme of Baudrillard’s For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Prestige, which cannot be reduced to political power or economic domination, even if it may presuppose them. Prestige, which is, more or less, what Baudrillard means by sign value.
Critical theorists, Baudrillard might say, have liked to put themselves in the position of Andersen’s little boy: the epistemological vanguard who will cut through the ideological veils to expose the reality beneath. The Emperor, they will say, has wasted his money.
And here is the nub of the matter: what is it, after all, that people think they are saying when they claim that the Emperor has ‘wasted’ his money?
Surely that the Emperor has swindled into ascribing an absurdly inflated exchange value to what is functionally useless.
But isn’t, after all, the little boy a little too credulous? Is he really so clever? And is Andersen right to call the emperor’s tailors ‘swindlers’? What, in the end, is the difference between them and ‘proper’ fashion designers?
To answer these questions takes us to the heart of Baudrillard’s analysis in FACPES.
The problem with the little boy theorists, from Baudrillard’s point of view, is that they don’t understand fashion – which is to say, they do not understand sign value.
The logic of fashion is the logic of sign value. It is a logic of pure differentiation, a system without any positive terms. Baudrillard’s own example is the mini-skirt. The mini-skirt becomes beautiful simply by virtue of its difference from the maxi-skirt, which, when the cycle turns again, as it inevitably must, will be deemed beautiful only because of its difference from the mini-skirt. The material features of the two types of skirt are of no significance; or rather, they are only important as the material for signification. And nakedness, nakedness would be the degree-zero of the fashion system: to wear no clothes at all could be the height of fashion, the acme of discernment, if the system deigned it to be.
This is why the Emperor has not been swindled. Why, the emperor has wasted his money, shout the little boy-critical theorists. Not so, Baudrillard would reply. Exorbitant expenditure, the conspicuous consumption of the functionally useless: these are in every culture a sign of privilege. As such, it might seem that it is impossible for the Emperor to waste his money. Conspicuous wastage, sumptuary expenditure: these are the very marks of prestige. All the Emperor can do, in fact, is convert his wealth from exchange value to sign value. The exorbitant fee he bestows upon the foreign designers is already a sign. Sign value proliferates after this act of economic exchange: the designers increase their status (their designs now appear by royal appointment), the Emperor increases his prestige, even if – no especially if – it is realized that what he has bought is functionally useless.
To make Andersen’s story more Baudrillardian we would have to change its ending. Andersen’s story concludes with the chastened emperor recognizing that the people are right; he has been swindled, but nevertheless, to save face, he continues to act as if he is wearing the finest suit of clothes. In the version of the story that Baudrillard would write, the exact opposite would occur.
We can imagine another section of the story, in which, in the days after the Emperor’s procession, people queue up at the designers’ studio to be fitted for a set of clothes like the Emperor’s. For prestige is not accorded on the basis of the views of the majority. On the contrary, in fact. As Baudrillard says:
‘beautiful, stylized, modern objects are subtly created …. In order not to be understood by the majority – at least not straight away. Their social function is first of all to be distinctive signs, to be objects which will distinguish those who distinguish them. Others will not even see them.’ (FACPES, 48)
What is left out of the little boy theorists’ accounts is sign value. They only factor in exchange value and use value.
Baudrillard’s aim in FACPES is to re-focus analysis on the essentially political character of the sign. That aim is spelled out in the title of the book, which purports to be simultaneously a politicization of semiology (which, Baudrillard said, was like bourgeois political economy prior to Marx, in that it was satisfied to analyse rather than critique signs) and semiotization of political theory (which has failed to adequately deal with signification as a political process in its own right).
So let’s turn now to Baudrillard’s critique of Marx, the grandfather of all those little boys in the crowd.
Baudrillard is concerned to do three things here:
So Baudrillard identifies four distinct logics:
1. A functional logic of use value
2. An economic logic of exchange value
3. A logic of sign value
4. A logic of symbolic exchange
Let’s turn first of all to Baudrillard’s critique of use value. To do that, we must reconstruct Marx’s account of use value and exchange value from Baudrillard’s point of view.
Baudrillard cites Capital Volume 1:
‘So far as (a commodity) is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point of view that these properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon that man, by his industry, changes the form of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way to make them useful to him.
The mystical character of commodities does not originate, therefore, in their use value.’ (qtd FCPES 140)
Exchange value presupposes use value, but there is no essential relation between the exchange value assigned to an object and its particular function. To be necromantically transtormed into a commodity, it is only necessary that the object have a use value of some kind. As Marx says, ‘It suffices that before it is a commodity – in other words, the vehicle (support) of exchange value – the article satisfy a given social need by possessing the corresponding useful property. That is all.’ (qtd FCPES 130)
Use value is totally contingent upon the particular qualities of the object. ‘Lard is valued as lard, cotton is cotton: they cannot be substituted for each other, nor thus “exchanged”.’ (qtd FCPES 130) Exchange value, on the other hand, is abstract and general. It is assigned – and can only be assigned – on the basis of a general system of equivalence.
So Marx’s story is predicated upon the idea of a primordial use value which commodification subsequently distorts. Use value comes first. Only later does exchange value arrive to do its mystificatory work.
Baudrillard, naturally, thinks that this logic is not so much an analysis of the system as its alibi. In failing to identity that it is the system itself which produces needs, that what the system does is make objects useful.
It is important to distinguish Baudrillard’ s position from the standard sociological story, which at times it may superficially resemble. Baudrillard himself is at pains to differentiate what he is saying from such ‘culturalist platitudes’ as ‘man is the product of society’. (FCPES, 86) This culturalism still maintains that there are primordial needs, common to all humanity, which are simply treated differently by each culture. A fixed repertoire of human needs is given different social expression.
There are no such ‘needs’, Baudrillard insists. Summoning Bataille, Baudrillard dismisses the ‘bio-anthropological postulate’ of ‘primary needs’. Primary needs, it is assumed, are orientated towards survival and concern food, drink, shelter, sexuality etc. It is only ‘beyond this threshold’, Baudrillard says, that ‘man’ becomes ‘properly “social” for the economist: i.e. vulnerable to alienation, manipulation, mystification. On one side of the imaginary line, the economic subject is prey to the social and the cultural; on the other, he is an autonomous, inalienable essence.’ (FCPES, 80)
In fact, there is no ‘vital anthropological minimum’. In all societies, Baudrillard says, it is the ‘pre-dedication of luxury that negatively determines the level of survival’. (FCPES, 80) The production of the surplus – the ‘divine or sacrificial share’ in theistic societies; ‘economic profit’ in capitalism – fixes and regulates what will count as the ‘vital minimum’. ‘The Siane of New Guinea, enriched through contact with Europeans, squandered everything without ceasing to live below the ‘vital minimum’. It is impossible to isolate an abstract, ‘natural’ stage of poverty or to determine absolutely ‘what men need to survive.’’ (FCPES, 81)
And just as there is no delimitable base level for consumption, so the ‘threshold of obligatory consumption can be set well above the strictly necessary.’ (FCPES 81) In our society, ‘no-one is free to live on roots and water.’ (FCPES 81) ‘The vital minimum today, the minimum of imposed consumption, is the standard package. Beneath this level, you are an outcast. Is loss of status – or social non-existence – any less upsetting than hunger?’ (FCPES 81)
This critique of modern ‘economic rationality’ is a rehearsal of themes familiar from Bataille. Yet it is important to recognize that Baudrillard goes all the way with it. Human survival is not the unnegotiable bottom line beyond which the system cannot go and upon which the system must base all its calculations. It is perfectly possible to imagine a situation, Baudrillard says, in which ‘there will be no survival at all: the newborn will be liquidated (like prisoners of war, before a new constellation of productive forces made slavery profitable).’ (FCPES 81) In other words, we only survive because the system allows us to. There is no pre-existent human need which is subsequently socialized. Indeed, there are only any human ‘needs’ – and human beings at all - because the system requires them. In this sense, ‘we are all survivors.’
Man is not reproduced as man: he is simply regenerated as a survivor (a surviving productive force). If he eats, drinks, lives somewhere, reproduces himself, it is because the system requires his self-production in order to reproduce itself: it needs men. If it could function with slaves, there would be no ‘free’ workers. If it could function with asexual mechanical robots, there would be no sexual reproduction. If the system could function without feeding its workers, there would be no bread. (FCPES, 86)
The needs that are generative, those needs that are occluded and mystified by commodification, are not human needs, but the inhuman needs of the system itself. In the process of commodification, its needs, the system’s needs, are mistaken for – taken for – the needs of human individuals. Again, let us pause here, so that we don’t mistake what Baudrillard is saying for a form of humanist sociology. The opposition between the inhumanity of the system and human beings is the illusion, the ideological veil, generated by the system itself. There are no primitive humans whose needs are manipulated by an inhuman system; there is only an inhuman system of which human beings, with all their alleged needs, are the product.
Let us be clear then. Human needs are produced by the system, and insofar as we need something or we use it, we are complicit with the system’s logic. Take Baudrillard’s analysis of media, for example. Baudrillard rejects Enzensberger’s utopian claim that media are for the first time enabling the masses to participate in a ‘productive social process’. Not at all, says Baudrillard. Or rather: OK, so media now enable us to join in – and this is of course even true in 2003 than it was in 1973 - but this ‘participation’ – a term which Baudrillard invariably uses ironically – is only the following of the logic of the system through to its limit. Baudrillard is scathing:
As if owning a TV set or a camera inaugurated a new possibility of relationship and exchange. Strictly speaking, such cases are no more significant than the purchase of a refrigerator or a toaster. There is no response to a functional object: its function is already there, an integrated speech to which it has already responded, leaving no room for play, or reciprocal putting in play. (FCPES 171)
The proliferation of reality TV shows which include an interactive, referendum component – ‘You decide’ – reinforces Baudrillard’s point. People are increasingly involved in such shows, to the degree that they are integral components of them, but such ‘interactivity’ is really only allows you to answer the system in its own terms. To vote on Big Brother is to ‘use’ the show in exactly the same way as putting bread in a toaster is using it.
Here, implicitly, we see Baudrillard’s opposition between the logic of the system as such – which includes use value, exchange value and sign value – to the logic of symbolic exchange.
Symbolic exchange is what constitutes the system’s radical outside. And the work of the system consists in ‘the semiological reduction of the symbolic.’
What, then, does Baudrillard mean by symbolic exchange?
In essence, he is drawing upon Mauss’s concept of the gift. The gift, for Baudrillard, is an act of personal communication which is radically ambivalent. Ambivalent in that it combines affection and aggression. Ambivalent in that it is both positive and negative at the same time, and necessarily so. Constituitively ambivalent in that the gift has no equivalent: it cannot be exchanged for anything of equal value. Nothing could substitute for it.
As Baudrillard explains:
In symbolic exchange, of which is the gift is our most proximate illustration, the object is not an object; it is inseparable from the concrete relation in which it is exchanged, the transferential pact that it seals between two persons: it is thus not independent as such. It has, properly speaking, neither use value nor economic exchange value. The object given has symbolic exchange value. This is the paradox of the gift: it is on the one hand, relatively arbitrary: it matters little what object is involved. Provided it is given, it can fully signify this relation. On the other hand, once it has been given – and because of this – it is this object and not another. The gift is unique, specified by the people exchanging and the unique moment of the exchange. It is arbitrary, and yet absolutely singular. (FCPES 64)
So then, to differentiate exchange from the values of the system, let us compare the logic of the gift to the system’s logic.
Use value. Logic of functionality. Function prescribes a determinate use for and of an object, and ascribes value to it on this basis. The gift has no use, or is not valued because of its use.
Economic exchange value. Logic of the market. Exchange values the object according to a medium of equivalence (money). As regards the gift, however: there is no amount of money that can substitute for it.
Sign value. Logic of status. Sign value is ascribed both indifferently and differentially . It is a matter of indifference what the actual qualities of the object are; the level of sign value is determined purely differentially, in terms of the object’s difference from other objects. The gift, on the other hand, is singular: its value emerges from the unique, unrepeatable situation.
Sign value encastes to encode: the capitalist system (though not exclusively the capitalist system) freezes out the possibility of response and of singularity. To overcome the sign is simultaneously to overcome the needs it articulates and generates.