Impermissible Exchange

Rich Skeleton 1The door refused to open. It said, “Five cents, please.” –Philip K. Dick (1969)

For some, Jean Baudrillard writes in postmodern twaddle. I recommend reading him first as heady science fiction that suddenly rewards that suspension of disbelief. After all, even a scientist in the age of agribusiness R&D, freighted with the humiliation of the end of curiosity-driven science, must retain a morsel of self-respect.

While Karl Marx illuminates the capitalist machinery in–as Francis Wheen pointed out–the surrealist digressions of Tristam Shandy, a favorite novel, and István Mészáros in commodization’s epistemological costs, I find Baudrillard’s enigmatic aphorisms debone some of the metaphysical gobbledygook even modernity’s opposition accepts.

Don’t get me wrong, some Baudrillard is outright bullshit. His quantum physics envy is the hiding place of every pseudoscientific quack with an exit through the gift shop. I once walked out of a rapt Bay Area screening, wallet intact, for that cheap scam.

There is too Baudrillard’s limp appeal to repressing the grand narrative of class conflict on the basis of the economy’s shift from the industrial to information and “the end of objective conditions.”

Yeah, about that.

It isn’t just the return of the repressed that refutes Baudrillard down to his mitochondria. Here in the West in Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders for the better, in Brexit or Trump’s election for the worse, or just this week in the streets of Hamburg, all atop neoliberalism’s still balladeering skeleton. We can reject that take on Baudrillard’s own grounds too.

From his “Impossible Exchange,” the first essay of a collection of the same name, we learn something about the expedient gap capitalism imposes between reality and truth. Something Ludwig Wittgenstein tried teaching Alan Turing. Useful things, even technologies and mathematical formalisms holding up the world, can be contingent and even untrue.

Today capitalism–the reality in which we are all embedded to varying degrees and in a variety of roles–extracts planetary wealth at a pace as if we lived on nearly two Earths. That is, its neoclassical assumptions of infinite resources, even its green updates, are categorically false. Not only for the lost generations to come, but even now. And yet capitalist power to impose that lie–by force or economic compulsion–is as real as the soil and atmosphere it destroys.

Baudrillard contends we’ve traded one god for another and the exchange can’t be squared away. Indeed, the switcheroo causes the contradiction its very origins ostensibly addressed:

It is only since God died that the destiny of the world has become our responsibility. Since it can now no longer be justified in another world, it has be justified here and now. The equivalent of the Kingdom of God–that is to say, the immanence of an entirely positive world (not the transcendence of an ideal world)–has to be brought about by technical means.

And to create such an equivalent is, from the theological viewpoint, a total heresy. It is a diabolic temptation to wish for the Reign of Good, since to do so is to prepare the way for absolute Evil. If Good has a monopoly of this world, then the other will be the monopoly of Evil. We shall not escape the reversal of values, and the world will become the field of the metastases of the death of God.

There is another slight problem:

The world is given to us. Now, what is given we have to be able to give back. In the past we could give thanks for the gift, or respond to it by sacrifice. Now we have no one to give thanks to. And if we can no longer give anything in exchange for the world, it is unacceptable.

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 counter-gift and impossible exchange.

Even if God were man-made, He or She represented contingencies we could not channel. Now as capitalists, living gods, turning workers into AI, we are destroyers of worlds we rewrite in between the lines of a tawdry palimpsest:

Perhaps it is simply an outgrowth of this world, playfully duplicating itself, in which case this world continues to exist as it is, and we are merely play-acting the Virtual? In the same way as, with the religious ‘ulterior worlds’, we were play-acting immanence, operational power, play-acting la pensée unique and the automatic writing of the world. In other words, here again, a system doomed to fail, a phantasmagoria without the power to ward off the uncertainty and deregulation which ensued from the impossible exchange.

The system failure is uglier than mere myopia. We celebrate the apocalypse as an act of Polanyian liberation.

For one, capitalism’s efforts to commercialize photosynthesis, as Cargill’s Gregory Page put it, isn’t just a matter of skimming off what’s free. It’s about expropriating Earth’s regenerative powers. The death of the bees, colony collapse, for another, turns from collateral tragedy to a business plan. An ecosystem service offered largely free by the “competition,” dirty nature, can now be acquired and repackaged as just another market commodity.

For Baudrillard, such a promethean impulse, saving all with the wealth to qualify as human, is the ultimate in death drive:

Has not humanity, with its inborn consciousness, its ambiguity, its symbolic order and its power of illusion, ended up altering the universe, affecting or infecting it with its own uncertainty? Has it not ended up contaminating the world (of which it is, nevertheless, an integral part) with its non-being, its way of not-being-in-the-world?…

Rather than humanity bringing reason into a chaotic universe, it would be the bringer of disorder, by its act of knowledge, of thought, which constitutes an extraordinary coup de force establishing a point (even a simulated one) outside the universe from which to see and reflect (on) the universe. If the universe is what does not have a double, since nothing exists outside it, then the mere attempt to make such a point exist is tantamount to a desire to put an end to it.

There is an element of Gaia’s Revenge here, with shades of Nassim Taleb’s essentialist stochasticity, to which we must object as demoralized Malthusianism.

At the same time, we need recognize that however broad the present scope of anthropogenic effect, there remain vast webs of energy and information exchange, pathogens among them, that are at best tangential to humanity and often entirely beyond our command and control.

These may not act in conscious opposition to our metaphysical projection, but if they are to continue to exist in their cycles of millions-of-years, with agendas on entirely different scales in time and scope, then they may act accordingly, if we must use, ironically, such an anthropomorphism:

Object-thought, though become inhuman, is the form of thinking which actually comes to terms with impossible exchange. It no longer attempts to interpret the world, nor to exchange it for ideas; it has opted for uncertainty, which becomes its rule. It becomes the thinking of the world thinking us. In so doing, it changes the course of the world. For though there is no possible equivalence between thought and the world, there does occur, beyond any critical point of view, a reciprocal alteration between matter and thought.

So the situation is reversed: if, once, the subject constituted an event in the world of the object, today the object constitutes an event in the universe of the subject. If the sudden emergence of consciousness constituted an event in the course of the world, today the world constitutes an event in the course of consciousness, in so far as it now forms part of its material destiny, part of the destiny of matter, and hence of its radical uncertainty.

As is his misanthropic wont, Baudrillard confounds humanity and the capitalists running the show. Many millions around the world object to what–whatever nice shave, pressed suit, or greenwashed philanthropy this polite company presents–is a death cult of ecosystemic, and if it wins galactic, proportions.

All of a sudden the dictatorship of the proletariat, budding out from between the ribs of neoliberalism, becomes a strategic option more a matter of self-preservation than automatonic cruelty.

 

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