For a Critique of the Restricted Economy of the Sign

Evan Jack
31 min readOct 3, 2021

07/12/2021

[NOTE: This is another one of the lecture transcriptions from a lecture I gave to the many I lectured on Bataille and his relations to other theorists over the spring and summer of this year]

A Few Remarks

Jean Baudrillard is an author who I hold very dearly to my heart. This is due to the fact I had a very long encounter in the summer of 2020 which was a defining moment in relation to my thought. Something that I retained from Baudrillard that I have to “replace” or rather look at a Bataillean alternative to is his theory of semiocapitalism. Now, I am writing this before I write the essay, so I may not even develop an understanding of semiocapitalism in this essay, but I hope to. Because of my fondness of Baudrillard and his theories, I will try to be as thorough as possible when I analyze them. So, let us begin.

Heterology and the Postmodern: Julian Pefanis’s Interpretation

Now, I have covered Pefanis’s interpretation of Baudrillard and Georges Bataille found in his work Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard, and Lyotard before, but let us look at it once more.

Let us first note that we will take a closer look at Baudrillard’s use of Bataille in terms of “anti-economism,” so we need not worry about that here.

Pefanis identifies that both Bataille and Baudrillard see that “modern consumption bears little resemblance to sovereign dépense, and the paradox of the consumer society is that it defers consumption via work and investment, substituting the society of the spectacle for that of the festival”.[1] Now, I want to note that Baudrillard did not deny that we live in a society of production like Bataille claims we do. Instead, Baudrillard holds that the way consumer goods have been posed in today’s society “does not mean that our society is not firstly, objectivity and decisively a society of production, an order of production, and therefore the site of an economic and political strategy. But it means that there is entangled with that order an order of consumption, which is an order of the manipulation of signs”.[2] He says that our society has a “social logic of consumption” which “is a logic not of satisfaction, but of the production and manipulation of social signifiers”.[3] Is production not therefore within Baudrillard’s conception of consumption? And if production is within Baudrillard’s understanding of consumption, does this not mean that consumer society, for Baudrillard, is a society of production and manipulation? If we are to look at consumption in the conventional sense then consumer society, for Bataille and Baudrillard alike, isn’t actually a society of consumption at all. It is evident that Baudrillard, following Bataille, holds that consumption never takes place when he says “you never consume the object in itself (in its use-value); you are always manipulating objects (in the broadest sense) as signs”.[4] Now, this would mean that the category of even productive consumption has now been excluded — homogeneity (consumer society) has excluded even the pure heterogeneity (productive consumption). And when Baudrillard says that consumption is the manipulation of signs, he means that consumption is, as he said in the latter quote, the manipulation of objects as signs (or as if they were signs?).

One can derive from Bataille, a critique of Marx’s anthropology similar to Baudrillard’s. One could derive the recognition from Bataille that Marx’s anthropology is “a vision, admittedly slightly productivized, of paleolithic society”.[5] Because of this fact, “Marx’s anthropology is an anthropology of scarcity”.[6] I say this because Marxist anthropology is predicated on needs and production. Marx and Engels write, “we must begin by stating the first premise of all human existence, and therefore of all history, the premise, namely, that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history’ … The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs”.[7] Now, production doesn’t stop there for Marx and Engels because “as soon as a need is satisfied (which implies the action of satisfying, and the acquisition of an instrument), new needs are made; and this production of new needs is the first historical act”.[8] What one has noticed is a virulent anti-productivism within Baudrillard and Bataille. It is this strain of anti-productivism that has amazed me for so long, over a year now. We will hopefully get much deeper into their shared anti-productivism later.

One must note that “[t]he act of writing is itself transgressive … in that the epistemological and linguistic foundations upon which the discrete disciplines are based are constantly put into question”.[9]

I have talked about Baudrillard a few times earlier in this book. I have even responded to his other critique of Bataille (see above). So, it is time to write this essay and then depart from Baudrillard in terms of having him as a subject, and let him join the roster of supporting theorists which are objects. This is to say, we must move on from Baudrillard after this essay but still retain some of his jargon and arguments in order to truly put forward a holocaust of words.

Firstly, Bataille does not repeat the same error as Freud. He does not have an occidental view of death. Death is not an end. Death is not finitude for Bataille. Death is contagion. Death is community. Death is excess. Death is a disease which infects life. There is life in death and death in life, and that is because there is excess in life, one may even be able to say that life “is death” in the sense that life “is” excess.

So, Baudrillard argues that “even Bataille commits the following error: ‘The desire to produce at cut prices is niggardly and human. Nature, for its part, is boundlessly prodigious, and ‘sacrifices’ in good spirits’. Why seek the security of an ideally prodigious nature, as opposed to ‘the economists’ ideally circulating nature? Luxury is no more ‘natural’ than economics. Sacrifices and sacrificial expenditure are not of the order of things”.[10] So, what is being argued here? Baudrillard is arguing that Bataille makes the error of holding nature as excessive. But, I see no issue here. I feel that Bataille is just evoking the human-nature dichotomy, and is arguing that discontinuous human beings are of production and scarcity, whereas nature is of excess. We must recognize that Baudrillard makes a few mistakes here. He incorrectly sees that Bataille is identifying nature as of security in that it is without scarcity. This is a mistake which has latent within it the perspective of the restricted economy. What I mean by this is that Baudrillard incorrectly sees that security necessarily is. The issue is that there is no such thing. Security comes from fictions. A logic of security is the logic of the restricted economy, it is the subject’s vision being covered by the veil of maya. Necessarily, nature is of risk, not security. Did Baudrillard forget the fact that those things which are not things, i.e., those sacred things which are of excess, are necessarily not of the order of security but of chance?

Even though Baudrillard’s premise is incorrect, let us continue as if it weren’t. Baudrillard says, “This error leads Bataille to confuse reproductive sexuality with erotic expenditure: ‘The excess from which reproduction springs can only be understood with the aid of the excess of death, and vice-versa.’ But reproduction as such has no excess — even if it implies the individual’s death, it is still a matter of a positive economy and a functional death — from which the species might benefit. Sacrificial death, however, is anti-productive and anti-reproductive”.[11] Baudrillard here makes the mistake of misunderstanding Bataille. Bataille doesn’t say that reproduction has excess but that it comes from excess which it then loses. The continuity of the fertilized egg turned into the discontinuity of the subject. Now, nothing is really being said by Bataille here other than continuity must have discontinuity to be recognized as continuity. And this is true. Bataille is not saying that reproduction is needed for death because death is the excess from which reproduction comes from. Bataille is not saying that reproduction is required for death but rather that for death to be ‘understood’ as it is, it must have that which it is not. Death exists in exchanges with life, no? This is just Bataille’s dualist materialism at play. Next, Baudrillard makes the error of playing into the restricted economy once more. The species doesn’t “benefit” from excess. To say the species that is homo sapien is benefitting from death, in that reproduction “comes from it,” is to say that the multiplication of alienated and discontinuous existences is a benefit, which is something I find very hard to claim. But, let us address this in a more analytical fashion. Necessarily, death here doesn’t have a teleology, it doesn’t have a function. In fact, any “benefit” that comes from it is nothing more than a byproduct of it, never intentional, just like a party doesn’t have the teleology of introducing lovers to one another… that just happens by chance… Romeo and Juliet met by chance not by fate, contrary to Shakespeare.

Baudrillard then argues, “It is true that [death] aims at continuity, as Bataille says, but not that of the species, which is only the continuity of an order of life, whereas the radical continuity in which the subject is ruined by sex and death always signifies the fabulous loss of an order. It is no more supported by the reproductive act than desire is supported by need, no more than sumptuary expenditure prolongs the satisfaction of needs: this biological functionalism is annihilated in eroticism. To look for the secret of sacrifice, sacrificial destruction, play and expenditure in the law of the species, is to reduce it all to a functionalism. There is not even a contiguity between sacrifice and the law of the species. Erotic excess and the reproductive sexual function have nothing in common. The symbolic excess of death has nothing in common with the body’s biological losses”.[12] So, Baudrillard lines out the fact that I have previously stated: death doesn’t have the continuation of the homo sapien specieis as its function. Yet, he tries to repeat the critique again, and then says something completely incorrect. Firstly, just cross-apply the argument I made above against his critical repetition. Secondly, if we consider shit, for example, as one of the “body’s biological losses” then there most definitely is a commonality present with the symbolic excess of death. Now, Baudrillard would take issue with this but the problem is that he sees the heterogeneity of these sacred things as inherent and doesn’t understand that they are not. He also forgets the fact that Bataille is not a physicalist nor a materialist proper. The real is not a biological order like Baudrilard tries to argue here, the real is the basest matter.

Baudrillard then argues that Bataille “naturalize[s] a tendency to discontinuity,” i.e., Bataille sees that the subject has within themself a will-to-live, a will-to-discontinuity.[13] Now, this isn’t wrong, Bataille does do this, but what is wrong with this? Baudrillard argues that if he has a natural definition of production (discontinuity), “a natural definition of expenditure” (continuity), “and a substantial and ontological definition of economics … [then] Bataille sets up a kind of subjective dialectic of prohibition and transgression … a kind of objective dialectic between continuity and discontinuity”.[14] Now, there are multiple arguments against this. One could argue that there is no negativity present within transgression (they would be seeing it as Blanchot and Shaviro do: the affirmation of affirmation), and therefore it doesn’t have the third law of dialectics, the negation of the negation, present, and thus is not a dialectic at all. One could then argue that it isn’t a dialectic at all because of the fact a negation of the negation never takes place never takes place, due to the fact that “transgression does not deny the taboo but transcends it and completes it”.[15] Ultimately, even if we ceded to Baudrillard that it is a dialectic, all I can seem to find in Symbolic Exchange and Death that is critical of dialectics in general is where Baudrillard says, “in order for the economy to produce itself (and this is all it ever produces), it needs this dialectical tension between scarcity and abundance”.[16] Now, the problem for Baudrillard is the fact that there is no tension because transgression is never there, it never anywhere. Because transgression is nowhere, no tension can be generated. In fact, even if there were tension generated in transgression, it would only be produced in the transgressive act, which means political economy is only present in transgression, which would mean symbolic exchange is only present in political economy, something Baudrillard would never accept.

Lastly, Baudrilalrd argues that “Repression still marks the idea of the festival, which by the same token may be accused of reactivating the prohibition and reinforcing the social order”.[17] Now, we already know that transgression never actually negates the prohibition but just hops over it, therefore never actually “doing” anything to it. But, I have already responded to this critique before in the essay A Rebuttal to the Idea That Transgression Reaffirms That Which it Transgresses (see above).

Now that I have responded to Baudrillard’s critique of Bataille, let us move on to William Pawlett.

William Pawlett and his Work on Georges Bataille and Jean Baudrillard

Firstly, I want to actually dedicate this essay to William Pawlett due to the fact that if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have gotten into Baudrillard about exactly a year ago. So, I thank him greatly for the work he has done and recommend that you all read his book Jean Baudrillard: Against Banality which has the most lucid explanation of Baudrillard available.

On William Pawlett’s First Discussion(s) of Bataille (and Baudrillard)

Firstly, in his essay The Use-Value of Georges Bataille: Social Science, Textuality and Being-in-Excess, William Pawlett fights back against the common interpretation of Bataille as a post-structuralist.

Starting out with Derrida’s analysis of Bataille, Pawlett sees that Derrida’s method of deconstruction “becomes a method of domestication and deradicalisation” because of the fact that the “[t]ext is a restricted economy; the structures of language act as a containment, a resource whereby the base material is rendered recuperable as it is reduced to text, and a text that is usually patrolled by a rational, in-tact self”.[18]

Contra Foucault, Pawlett objects to Foucault’s reading of Bataille’s concept of eroticism as sexuality. Bataille’s concept of heterogeneity is incorrectly read by Focuault as an endorsement for “Pluralism”.[19] Continuity “is reduced to the socio-political resonance’s of the term ‘contestation’. In Foucault’s work any notion of the sacred, of collectivity and perhaps crucially of base materiality is effaced”.[20]

Pawlett sees that Habermas does a horrible misreading of Bataille when looking at concepts such as the sacred and sovereignty.

In his essay Utility and excess: the radical sociology of Bataille and Baudrillard, we get our first look at Pawlett’s comparison of Bataille and Baudrillard (the analysis of Pawlett’s essay will be fragmented across this essay).

I want to argue that Baudrillard retains that mystery about the universe. He is like Bataille in that sense. Though I have critiqued symbolic exchange before (see above), I think one could see it as a kind of general economy on the level of the symbolic in that it is opposed to the categories of the restricted economy that are use- and exchange-value. This is how Pawlett, who holds symbolic exchange to be central to Baudrillard, sees it.

But Pawlett says something we should take very seriously. He says, “[Baudrillard’s general theory expounded in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign and its accompanying understanding of symbolic exchange] is Baudrilalrd’s reading of Bataille’s notion of general economy,” this is to say, Baudrillard’s interpretation of Bataille’s general economy is expounded in “For a General Theory”.[21] We will analyze it to the highest extent we can in a moment.

Pawlett furthers Baudrillard critique of Bataille and argues “Bataille’s general economy of expenditure is criticized as still too restricted; in particular that it could not comprehend the contemporary structural law of value”.[22] But this is not true. I think we need to refer back to Shaviro’s analysis in Passion and Excess. He specifically critiques the idea that Baudrillard escapes the mirror of production and demonstrates that our society is still under the logic of production, i.e., the only category, or rather the only form, which is not a form, that could oppose our current society is expenditure which is the “opposite” of production. We will cover this later.

Forgetting The History of Sexuality, Forgetting Foucault — Forgetting Forgetting The History of Eroticism, Forgetting Forgetting Bataille

Michel Foucault had a great influence on Baudrillard, so I think it is appropriate to discuss him here.

One might find it interesting to note that Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality could most definitely have been titled as that as a reference to Georges Bataille’s The History of Eroticism. When Bataille says, “Eroticism is in any case, even to the small extent that it has a history itself, on the fringe of history,” we must take note.[23] here is within Bataille’s words a hint that eroticism doesn’t have a history at all… we mustn’t ignore the fact that “an ahistorical mode of existence” is a mode of existence where in “erotic activity is the expressive form”.[24] For Bataille, “[t]he sacred world is an ambiguous reality for modern man. Its existence is undeniable and its history can be written, but it is not a reality that can be grasped”.[25] Ultimately, what I’m trying to stress is that a historico-genealogical analysis of eroticism can not be done. I say this not just because of Bataille’s latter words but also because of what eroticism is. Eroticisim is like all of Bataille’s other concepts, that is, not a concept at all but rather a violent shock which renders the machine of concept formation destroyed — the luddites of cognition.

Eroticism, for Bataille, is not a thing that can be studied or analyzed.[26]

This is where things for Foucault become problematic. Sexuality, for Foucault, is Bataille’s eroticism. This is evident when Foucault says, “We have not in the least liberated sexuality, though we have, to be exact, carried it to its limits: the limit of consciousness, because it ultimately dictates the only possible reading of our unconscious; the limit of the law, since it seems the sole substance of universal taboos; the limit of language, since it traces that line of foam showing just how far speech may advance upon the sands of silence” [emphasis mine].[27] It seems impossible to deny that Foucault sees sexuality as Bataille’s eroticism, due to the fact he says, “sexuality is a fissure — not one which surrounds us as the basis of our isolation or individuality, but one which marks the limit within us and designates us a limit”.[28]

Thus, sexuality is not a thing which can be analyzed, due to the fact that “it is not” in the sense that it is the death of the subject. Does this not jeopardize the whole of Foucault’s work on sexuality after his A Preface to Transgression?

On William Pawlett’s Doctoral Thesis: Thinking Excess: The Radical Sociology of Bataille and Baudrillard

In 1999, William Pawlett wrote his doctoral thesis which was titled Thinking Excess: The Radical Sociology of Bataille and Baudrillard.

Before I say anything more about Pawlett, I do want to say that there is definitely a privileging of Baudrillard in his work, that is, Pawlett still suggests that Baudrillard could be seen as “going beyond” Bataille. But, what I say to this is that any conception of Baudrillard that goes “beyond” Bataille would have to be a Baudrillard read through Bataille, and therefore he would never really go beyond Bataille.

I will not go over this thesis to really any extent at all, because the point of this essay is to show where Baudrillard and Bataille agreed, not where they differed. But, I think it is important to note the former remark about Pawlett’s “privileging” of Baudrillard.

On William Pawlett’s Book on Bataille and Baudrillard: Violence, Society and Radical Theory: Bataille, Baudrillard and Contemporary Society

Pawlett’s 2013 book Violence, Society and Radical Theory: Bataille, Baudrillard and Contemporary Society is very clearly either a revision, or extension of his 1999 thesis.

Pawlett repeats a notion which we have spoke of before and are going to look at much later: the notion that in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard “appeared to be working towards … a General (economic) theory of the relations and antagonisms existing between use value, economic exchange value, sign exchange value, on the one hand, and symbolic exchange as ‘anti-value’ on the other”.[29] We will certainly go over this later. Pawlett does note that Baudrillard actually treats symbolic exchange and general economy as “co-terminous” (though he incorrect cites where he does this, as he does this in Symbolic Exchange and Death not The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena).[30] What Pawlett is referencing is the very last paragraph of Baudrillard’s essay on Bataille titled “Death in Bataille” found in Symbolic Exchange and Death. Here Baudrillard says, “something remains in Bataille’s excessive and luxuriant vision of death that removes it from psychoanalysis and its individual psychical domain. This something provides the opportunity to disturb every economy, shattering not only the objective mirror of political economy, but also the inverse psychical mirror of repression, the unconscious and libidinal economy”.[31] This something is general economy. It is his general economic view of death. Just like symbolic exchange, general economy shatters all mirrors, e.g., the mirror of production, power, repression, etc. and escapes the economic in terms of both political economy and libidinal economy. General economy is irreducible to these latter two forms of restricted economy.

Pawlett notes, “Both Bataille and Baudrillard theorise consumer capitalist societies as systems which expand exponentially, absorbing dissent, resistance and alternatives. Such systems may appear unassailable, yet in their chronic over-accumulation and failure to expend, sacrifice, or even share wealth equitably, there lies a fatal vulnerability. Growth cannot be unlimited; wealth must also be expended because the expenditure of wealth is what gives societies (and individuals) their most intense experiences, their richest meanings, their ‘marrow’”.[32] Thus, Baudrillard can’t be said to disagree with Bataille’s characterization of restricted economy.

A Virulent Rejection of Production and the Sick Love of Death: The Anti-Productivism of Georges Bataille and Jean Baudrillard and Death

The interpretation of Jean Baudrillard which influenced me the most was Andrew Robinson’s anti-capitalist interpretation of Baudrillard. Robinson notes, “According to Baudrillard, capitalism rests on an obsession with the abolition of death. Capitalism tries to abolish death through accumulation”.[33] Things such as “[t]he idea of progress, and linear time, comes from the accumulation of time, and of stockpiles of the past. The idea of truth comes from the accumulation of scientific knowledge,” this is evidence for the fact that “[a]ccumulation also spreads to other fields”.[34] Baudrillard clearly states the former notion of capitalism being predicated on a run from death when he says, “We renounce dying and accumulate instead of losing ourselves,” and “the obsession with death and the will to abolish death through accumulation [has] become the fundamental motor of the rationality of political economy”.[35] Scarcity comes from the rejection of death, and therefore the rejection of excess, because the conventional conception of death is “the absolute scarcity of time that is death”.[36] Thus, production, which is the starting point of the will to abolish death, is what rejects death, and gives rise to capitalism. In this way, production is integral to capitalism, and any exclusion of the dead that might be present in capitalism. But this isn’t unique to capitalism, Baudrillard notes, “communism in this instance is in solidarity with political economy [and capitalism], since in accordance with the same fantastic schema of an eternal accumulation of productive forces, communism too aims for the abolition of death”.[37] Thus, capitalism and communism both suffer from the problem of production.

What Baudrillard has put forward is nothing more than a rejection of restricted economy in that death is excess. What the will to abolish death is predicated on is the fundamental rejection of the unilateral gift of the Sun. “Death, especially when violent or sudden, becomes an excess that ruins the carefully managed restricted economies of utility and accumulation”.[38]

On the Death Drive

For Baudrillard, “the psychoanalytic vision of death remains an insufficient vision: the pulsions are constrained by repetition, its perspective bears on a final equilibrium within the inorganic continuum, eliminating differences and intensities following an involution towards the lowest point; an entropy of death, pulsional conservativism, equilibrium in the absence of Nirvana”.[39] The death drive’s view of death as finitude keeps it trapped within political economy. It still holds that occidental view of death which both Bataille and Baudrillard reject. In fact, Baudrillard notes that “[i]nstead of establishing death as the regulator of tensions and an equilibrium function, as the economy of the pulsion, Bataille introduces it in the opposite sense, as the paroxysm of exchanges, superabundance and excess. Death as excess, always already there, proves that life is only defective when death has taken it hostage, that life only exists in bursts and in exchanges with death, if it is not condemned to the discontinuity of value and therefore to absolute deficit”.[40]

Bataille’s Anti-Economism

For Baudrillard, Bataille’s “vision of death” is death “as a principle of excess and an anti-economy”.[41] It is the anti-economy of Bataille which I want to look at for a moment.

Baudrillard sees that “death is its [political economy’s] blindspot, the absence haunting all its calculations”.[42] It is in this way that death is the unstable ground which political economy stands upon but doesn’t recognize. Death, the general economy, is like symbolic exchange in that it haunts political economy, just like symbolic exchange haunts the code. Death must be unrecognized, because “the absence of death alone permits the exchange of values and the play of equivalences”.[43] The way death is kept unrecognized is by burying it; “Political economy is an economy of death, because it economises on death and buries it under its discourse”.[44]

Death, like nonknowledge, threatens to collapse that which stands upon it. As Baudrillard says, “An infinitesimal injection of death would immediately create such excess and ambivalence that the play of value would completely collapse”.[45] This is why Bataille’s solar economics is actually able to deal with our contemporary structural law of value which Baudrillard’s describes: it is nothing more than the general economic perspective, that is, the recognition of excess, the recognition of death, that discovery of death which political economy has buried, which will cause this structural law of value, which will cause the code, to be annihilated. Thus, it is because of the fact that Bataille’s solar economy (of excess) is an anti-economy (of death) that Bataille is able to deal with contemporary semiocapitalism.

Baudrillard and Bataille’s Anti-Productivism

Baudrillard and Bataille really do have a virulent anti-productivism in that both repudiate the rejection of death present within contemporary (semio-)capitalism.

Within Baudrillard, the anti-productivism comes from the rejection of Marx found in The Mirror of Production. It comes from not wanting to fall into ‘the mirror of production’. The mirror of production is what Baudrillard holds Marx is stuck within because Marx’s theory of ‘species being’ is stuck within the view that humans are homo faber, and that it is within human nature to produce. He doesn’t want to fall into this mirror because it repeats capitalism’s reduction of the human being to the worker, to the producer. Douglas Kellner holds that Baudrillard rejected the “Marxian universe of production and class struggle” in favor of symbolic exchange which is “similar to Bataille’s notion of general economy”.[46] Baudrillard “rejects the Marxian philosophy of history which posits the primacy of production in all societies, and rejects the Marxian concept of socialism, arguing that it does not break radically enough with capitalist productivism, but offers itself as a more efficient and equitable organization of production rather than as a completely different sort of society with a different logic, values and life activities”.[47] Kellner also notes that Baudrillard “presupposes the truth of Bataille’s anthropology and general economy … [as well as] valorizes ‘a discharge with a pure waste, a symbolic discharge in Bataille’s sense”.[48] This is the anti-productivism of Baudrillard, but with Bataille things are different.

Bataille rejects production out of a sick love for expenditure. In fact, one could argue, and Land sure does, that Bataille doesn’t even recognize that production exists, which just attests to how much he distanced himself from restricted economy.

For a General Economic Theory of Semio-Capitalism

Baudrillard sets out the different forms of value, their respective logics and principles, and then the logic and principle of symbolic exchange which is completely outside the field of value.

For Baudrillard, there is use-value, exchange-value, sign-value, and symbolic exchange.

Use-value has a “functional” logic; exchange-value has an “economic” logic; sign-value has a “differential” logic; and symbolic exchange has its own logic which doesn’t have an adjective in front of it.[49]

The principle of use-value is “utility”; the principle of exchange-value is “equivalence”; the principle of sign-value is “difference”; the principle of symbolic exchange is “ambivalence”.[50]

There are twelve forms of value conversion (though three are the conversion of value into its transgression):

Use Value (UV)

  1. UV — EcEV
  2. UV — SgEV
  3. UV — SbE

Economic Exchange Value (EcEV)

  1. EcEV — UV
  2. EcEV — SgEV
  3. EcEV — SbE

Sign Exchange Value (SgEV)

  1. SgEV — UV
  2. SgEV — EcEV
  3. SgEV — SbE

Symbolic Exchange (SbE)

  1. SbE — UV
  2. SbE — EcEV
  3. SbE — SgEV”.[51]

Baudrillard then explains what each of these conversions are. I will re-explain them in more Bataillean terms.

  1. UV — EcEV: Production. “[T]he production of exchange-value, of the commodity form”.[52] Homogeneity.
  2. UV — SgEV: Productive Consumption. “[T]he production of signs” by way of “conspicuous consumption”.[53] Pure Heterogeneity.
  3. UV — SbE: Unproductive Consumption. So, this is interesting. Baudrillard uses the example of “the festival,” which is nothing more than the general economy.[54] Impure Heterogeneity.
  4. EcEV — UV: Restricted Economic Conception of Consumption, as the negation of the useful commodity, the useful consumer good. “[T]he reconversion of exchange value into use value”.[55] Homogeneity. Baudrillard even notes that 4 and 1 configure “the two moments of the cycle of classical (and Marxist) political economy,” which is the restricted economy “proper”.[56]
  5. EcEV — SgEV: The Conception of Consumption Found Within the Restricted Economy of the Sign. “[T]he act of spending as production of sign value,” “the ascension of the commodity form into the sign form, the transfiguration of the economic into sign systems”.[57] Pure Heterogeneity.
  6. EcEV — SbE: Unproductive Consumption. “[T]he transgression of [the economic],” of 2 and 5, just like 3 is the transgression of 1 and 4.[58] Impure Heterogeneity.
  7. SgEV — UV: Production. The production of signs as use-values, that is to say, “[s]igns, like commodities, are at once use value and exchange value”.[59] Homogeneity
  8. SgEV — EcEV: Productive Consumption. “[T]he reconversion of cultural privilege, of the monopoly of signs, etc., into economic privilege” by way of productive consumption that is to say sign-value produces the exchange-value of the object, which has taken on the sign-form instead of the commodity-form, via sign-consumption.[60] n other words, the sign takes on the commodity form, that is, the sign starts to circulate, be exchanged, etc. like a commodity would. Pure Heterogeneity.
  9. SgEV — SbE: Unproductive Consumption. “The deconstruction and transgression of the sign form toward symbolic exchange”.[61] Impure Heterogeneity. Baudrillard does make the note that symbolic exchange is outside value altogether. Symbolic exchange is the transgression of value.
  10. SbE — UV: Production. The destruction of symbolic exchange by way of the production of value. Homogeneity.
  11. SbE — EcEV: Production. The destruction of symbolic exchange by way of the production of value. Homogeneity.
  12. SbE — SgEV: Production. The destruction of symbolic exchange by way of the production of value. Homogeneity.

He then argues that “(EcEV/UV)=(Sr/Sd)\SbE” (‘Sr’ stands for signifier and ‘Sd’ stands for signified), which is to say that the reductional relation between exchange-value and use-value which is the commodity is analogous to the reductional relation between signifier and signified which is the sign.[62] But symbolic exchange is solely foreign to the field of value.

But what could totally be done is the replacement of symbolic exchange with general economy. And this is where a Bataillean theory of semiocapitalism can be constructed. This is to say, Baudrillard’s inscription of semiocapitalism can, for the most part, be used by Batailleans. All that must be done is the replacement of symbolic exchange with general economy. Though, one may even argue that symbolic exchange is general economy due to the fact that both are “the festival”. But, of course, within general economy there is no reciprocal exchange, only unilateral exchange.

We are to introduce general economy (GE) into the conversion table, replacing symbolic exchange (SbE).

It is in their book Passion and Excess that Steven Shaviro says something we must home in on.

In Passion and Excess, Steven Shaviro argues that ‘semiocapitalism’ (written alternatively as ‘semio-capitalism’), capitalism which follows a semiotic logic of simulation, “does not (as [Baudrillard] claims) supersede the more traditional logic of production that Marx saw as the primary feature of classical capitalism”.[63] It is this later fact which allows us to recognize that our contemporary semiocapitalism*[64] is still restricted economy, and still follows Bataille’s theories. But, why is what Shaviro said a fact? Shaviro explains, “Real commodity production and hyperreal simulation are alike forms under which heterogeneity is rendered ‘present’ and active,” which is to say, “[real commodity production and hyperreal simulation] are deployed in turn as strategies for averting catastrophic expenditure and reducing social life to universal necessity and servility. That is to say, in both of these modes of capitalism,” “classical capitalism” and semiocapitalism, “capitalism rationalizes society and nature by assigning them a head”.[65]

What Shaviro means by “hyperreal simulation” is not only the simulacrum of the real which is the hyperreal, but also, in contrast to real commodity production, he means hyperreal sign production.

In his intriguing work The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, Franco Bifo Berardi speaks of “[t]he shift from the industrial form of production to the semiotic form of production” which entailed “the shift from physical labor to cognitive labor”.[66] Semiocapitalism is still a system of labor and production, it is still a system of negativity, in the Hegelian sense. Even though Bifo says, “[the obligation to produce useful things present in classical/industrial capitalism is no longer present] in the sphere of semio-capital,” this doesn’t mean much.[67] I say it doesn’t mean much because of the fact that, within semiocapitalism, there is the presence of “[the] production of useful semiotic goods” but, like Bifo says, this begs the question “how can semiotic labor be valued, when its products are immaterial?”.[68]

We can already answer this question by referencing the conversion SgEV — UV. Signs are like commodities, as long as the sign signifies, that is, as long as there is a signified, the sign has a use-value. It is this latter fact that the signified, signification itself, is what allows for the sign to take on a use-value that helps us in constructing a Bataillean theory of semiotics (see the essay on this below), but before we do that, we must finish with semio-capitalism, Bifo, and Baudrillard.

It must be noted that Shaviro is correct about semiocapitalism. It is still a system of production, it is still restricted economy. As Bifo says, “There are no longer material things, but signs; no longer the production of things which are tangible visible materials, but the production of something that is essentially semiotic”.[69] In semiocapitalism, “the process of production becomes semiotic … Baudrillard was the first thinker who understood this”.[70]

Semiocapitalism still retains the issue of classical or industrial capitalism: the issue of overproduction.

In The Thirst for Annihilation, Nick Land makes a striking critique of capitalism which relates to our current discussion. Land recognizes that “Bataille interprets all natural and cultural development upon the earth to be side-effects of the evolution of death, because it is only in death that life becomes an echo of the sun, realizing its inevitable destiny, which is pure loss”.[71] This is to say, the nature/culture dichotomy is subject to that which precedes it: the Sun. The Sun is not natural nor cultural, thus accusations of naturalism and humanism in Bataille’s solar economics are predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Sun. Having an understanding of culture as an effect of the Sun, that is, as a solar ray, “founds a materialist theory of culture”.[72] Thus, “[c]ulture is immediately [solar] economic .. because it is the haunt of literary possibilities that constantly threaten to transform energy expended in its inscription into an unredeemed negative at the level of production. Poetry, Bataille asserts, is a ‘holocaust of words’”.[73] This means that “culture can never express or represent (serve) capital production” without it “abasing itself before the philistinism of the bourgeoisie, whose ‘culture’ has no characteristics beyond those of abject restraint, and self-denigration,” which is to say, without it ceasing to be itself, without it becoming anti-culture.[74] Land therefore concludes, “Capital is precisely and exhaustively the definitive anti-culture. Capitalism, then, is (the projection of) the most extreme possible refusal of expenditure”.[75] Land then notes the fact that “Bataille accept[ed] Weber’s conclusion concerning the relationship between the evolution of capital accumulation and the development of Protestantism,” that is, the development of the Protestant work ethic.[76] Now, many argue that the Protestant work ethic is no longer present in contemporary semiocapitalism, but I disagree. Now, I will first note that in more secular areas such as western Europe, the protestant work ethic may not be present, but even then I doubt this. Secondly, I say that the protestant work ethic isn’t dead because I live through it every day. I live in the city of Birmingham which is in the state of Alabama. I live in a very conservative state, a very Republican (in the sense of the United States of America’s electoral politics) state. My father, who is more Christian (in the Protestant sense) than any other person I have met, constantly re-emphasizes that I will amount to nothing if I do not do hard work. He ridicules me whenever I am “lazy”. For example, if I sleep in on a summer day, with no school or any obligations for the day, I am a “sluggard” who is “lazy” and “pitiful” to him. Now, I do not note the latter remarks of father in a negative sense because I know that he only says these things out of love. What I mean by this is that my father just wants me to live in accordance with the Christian faith because he truly has faith in God, he isn’t trying to lead me astray. But, back to the main subject of discussion. In “the deep South” (the southeastern United States), the rise of Trump, right populism, and American nationalism have all engendered the Protestant work ethic with an anti-communist twist. For these more Trumpian Republicans, Democrats, (deomcratic) “socialists”, and communists are all lazy people who refuse to work and climb the ladder of our supposed meritocratic capitalism. If someone is poor, the Trumpian Republican will say they are poor not because they haven’t worked but because they haven’t worked hard enough. I have lived through the rise of Trump, until Biden won the 2020 election Trump was my political reality since 2015. What has been engendered in his rise is the Protestant work ethic and a weird strain of anti-communism. Thus, because of the Protestant work ethic and the anti-culture that capitalism has present in it, “[b]ourgeois society is thus the first civilization to totally exclude expenditure in principle … [and it] is this constitutive principle of bourgeois economy that leads inevitably to chronic overproduction crisis, and its symptomatic redundancies of labour and capital”.[77] Now, Land does not argue that “capital production ‘invents’ the crisis which comes to be named ‘market saturation’,” rather, he argues that “capital production is the systematic repudiation of overproduction as a problem”.[78] What is this problem of overproduction though?

Bifo explains, “Marx speaks of an overproduction crisis: if you produce too much of a certain good, people cannot buy all those things, and the goods will remain in the stores, unsold. So, the capitalist begins firing workers, because he does not need any more production, and this worsens the situation. This is the overproduction crisis in the framework of industrial capitalism. What is the overproduction crisis when we enter the phase of semio-capital?”.[79]

For Bifo, the overproduction crisis of semiocapitalism “lies in the relation between the amount of semiotic goods produced by cognitive labor and the amount of time that is disposed of”.[80] “[S]emoitic overproduction” took place and takes place when “[t]he attention market went into overload,” when it goes into overload.[81] In classical capitalism there is real commodity production, but in semiocapitalism there is hyperreal semio-production.

Our contemporary semiocapitalism is nothing more than another form of restricted economy.

Bibliography

Bataille, Georges. Eroticism. Translated by Mary Dalwood. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2012.

— — — . The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Volume II: The History of Eroticism, Volume III: Sovereignty. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, NY: Zone Books, 1991.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Death in Bataille.” Bataille: A Critical Reader. Edited by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998.

— — — . For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Translated by Charles Levin. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2019. PDF

— — — . Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2017. PDF.

— — — . The Consumer Society: Myths and Structure. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2017. PDF.

Berardi, Franco Bifo. The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012.

Foucault, Michel. “A Preface to Transgression.” Bataille: A Critical Reader. Edited by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998.

Kellner, Douglas. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Land, Nick. The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism (an Essay in Atheistic Religion). London, UK: Routledge, 1992.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy. Edited by Lewis S. Feuer. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1989.

McLaverty-Robinson, Andy. “Jean Baudrillard: The Rise of Capitalism & the Exclusion of Death.” Ceasefire Magazine, April 5, 2012. https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-baudrillard-2/.

Pawlett, William. “The Use-Value of Georges Bataille: Social Science, Textuality and Being-in-Excess.” Parallax 3, no. 1 (1997): 167–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/13534645.1997.9522382.

— — — . “Utility and excess: the radical sociology of Bataille and Baudrillard.” Economy and Society 26, no. 1 (1997): 92–125. https://doi.org/10.1080/03085149700000006.

— — — . Violence, Society and Radical Theory: Bataille, Baudrillard and Contemporary Society. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2013.

Pefanis, Julian. Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard, and Lyotard. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991.

Shaviro, Steven. Passion and Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary Theory. Tallahassee, FL: The Florida State University Press, 1990.

References

[1]: Julian Pefanis, Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard, and Lyotard (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 18.

[2–4]: Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structure, (Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2017), PDF.

[5]: Julian Pefanis, Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard, and Lyotard (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 50.

[6]: Ibid., 51.

[7–8]: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Lewis S. Feuer, (New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1989), 249.

[9]: Julian Pefanis, Heterology and the Postmodern: Bataille, Baudrillard, and Lyotard (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), 43.

[10]: Jean Baudrillard, “Death in Bataille,” Bataille: A Critical Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998), 142.

[11]: Ibid., 142–143.

[12–14]: Ibid., 143.

[15]: Georges Bataille, Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2012), 63.

[16]: Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamliton Grant, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA, SAGE Publications Ltd, 2017), PDF.

[17]: Jean Baudrillard, “Death in Bataille,” Bataille: A Critical Reader, ed. Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998), 145.

[18–20]: William Pawlett, “The Use-Value of Georges Bataille: Social Science, Textuality and Being-in-Excess,” Parallax 3, no. 1 (1997): pp. 167–173, https://doi.org/10.1080/13534645.1997.9522382, 169.

[21]: William Pawlett, “Utility and excess: the radical sociology of Bataille and Baudrillard,” Economy and Society 26, no. 1 (1997): pp. 92–125, https://doi.org/10.1080/03085149700000006, 108.

[22]: Ibid., 109.

[23]: Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: An Essay on General Economy, Volume II: The History of Eroticisim, Volume III: Sovereignty, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, NY: Zone Books, 1991), 189.

[24]: Ibid., 189–190.

[25]: Georges Bataille, Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2012), 182.

[26]: Ibid., 152–154.

[27]: Michel Foucault, “A Preface to Transgression,” Bataille: A Critical Reader, ed. by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1998), 24.

[28]: Ibid., 25.

[29]: William Pawlett, Violence, Society and Radical Theory: Bataille, Baudrillard and Contemporary Society (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2013), 67–68.

[30]: Ibid., 99.

[31]: Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamliton Grant, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA, SAGE Publications Ltd, 2017), PDF.

[32]: William Pawlett, Violence, Society and Radical Theory: Bataille, Baudrillard and Contemporary Society (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2013), 106.

[33–34]: Andy McLaverty-Robinson, “Jean Baudrillard: The Rise of Capitalism & the Exclusion of Death,” Ceasefire Magazine, April 5, 2012, https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-baudrillard-2/.

[35–37]: Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamliton Grant, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA, SAGE Publications Ltd, 2017), PDF.

[38]: William Pawlett, “Utility and excess: the radical sociology of Bataille and Baudrillard,” Economy and Society 26, no. 1 (1997): pp. 92–125, https://doi.org/10.1080/03085149700000006, 109.

[39–45]: Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamliton Grant, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA, SAGE Publications Ltd, 2017), PDF.

[46–47]: Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989), 44.

[48]: Ibid., 42–45.

[49–62]: Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2019), PDF.

[63]: Steven Shaviro, Passion and Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary Theory (Tallahassee, FL: The Florida State University Press, 1990), 58.

[64]: *(Due to our fundamental disagreements with Deleuze, Guattari, and Lyotard about desire, we cannot view contemporary capitalism as they do, that is, as deterritorialization and reterritorialization, and as libidinal economy. Rather, we agree much more with theorists such as Jean Baudrillard and Franco Bifo Berardi (we agree much more with Berardi when he is taking from Baudrillard than when he is taking from the schizoanalysis of Deleuze and Guattari) in their characterization of contemporary capitalism as semio-capitalism.)

[65]: Steven Shaviro, Passion and Excess: Blanchot, Bataille, and Literary Theory (Tallahassee, FL: The Florida State University Press, 1990), 58.

[66]: Franco Bifo Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012), 74.

[67]: Ibid., 23.

[68]: Ibid., 75.

[69]: Ibid., 86.

[70]: Ibid., 87.

[71–75]: Nick Land, The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism (an Essay in Atheistic Religion) (London, UK: Routledge, 1992), 56.

[76]: Ibid., 51–52.

[77–78]: Ibid., 52.

[79]: Franco Bifo Berardi, The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2012), 97–98.

[80]: Ibid., 98.

[81]: Ibid., 114.

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Evan Jack

How sweet terror is, not a single line, or a ray of morning sunlight fails to contain the sweetness of anguish. - Georges Bataille