Decision and Symbolic Exchange: Laruelle and Baudrillard

In this essay, I will attempt to show there to be an important connection between François Laruelle’s concept of the decision and Jean Baudrillard’s concept of symbolic exchange. While it might seem a bit strange to juxtapose these two specific concepts, I think that they can enter into a productive relationship with one another. The decision helps to make sense of symbolic exchange and vice versa. This is due to the fact that both concepts are oriented toward understanding the very beginning of the Western philosophical tradition. The decision can be seen, from a Baudrillardian perspective, as the inception of the Code (an organized value system rooted in the principle of equivalence). And, from a Laruellian perspective, symbolic exchange can be viewed as a non-philosophical gesture that threatens the sovereignty of philosophy’s binary abstractions. However, before we can perceive this connection for what it truly is, we must, first, get familiarized with what both of these concepts entail. Let’s begin with the decision.

According to Laruelle, the decision is precisely the inceptive mechanism of philosophy itself, that is, every philosophy originates in a founding decision. The decision is scission in the Real. The idea is that philosophy always begins with a separation, division or bifurcation in the Real consisting of a particular distribution of the transcendental and the empirical. The Real is the One but becomes a “unity-of-contraries” through a philosophical topology. For example, Descartes cut up the Real into mental substances (res cogitans) and material substances (res extensa), whereas Kant divided the Real into the separate fields of phenomena and noumena. As Laruelle puts it,

“Philosophical Decision as structure involves the coupling, then the Unity, of contraries, and its function is to hallucinate the One-real and to foreclose it in this way. To philosophize is to decide on the Real and on thought, which ensues from it, i.e. to believe to be able to align them with the universal order of the Principle of Reason (the Logos), but also more generally in accordance with the “total” or unitary order of the Principle of sufficient philosophy.”
(Dictionary of Non-Philosophy, p. 117)

Philosophy is an endeavor that works toward thinking (representing) the Real by constructing certain binary oppositions which it employs as stratagems in its further attempt to reunify what it has just dyadically separated. To quote Laruelle again, “To philosophize means to decide on a strategy of positing the world.” (Dictionary of Non-Philosophy, p. 118). However, these strategies are problematic. Because they introduce the line or bar of abstraction, thereby forcing a dyadic configuration onto the One that is the Real. This line essentially cuts the Real into the transcendental and the empirical, or the real and the non-real, or the transcendent and the immanent, etc. Different philosophies provide us with different decisions and distributions, but what they all have in common is this inaugural act of abstractive laceration. This decision seeks to think the Real by doubling it via representation, which leads to the creation of a “Real” that is more real than the Real and, therefore, only places us in a state of alienation from the One that is the Real. Katerina Kolozova expresses it like this,

“Philosophy enters the scene when meaning seeks to legitimize the real upon the basis of radical detachment and indifference to it; even the reverse direction of inter-legitimization, in the last instance, consists in the same gesture: by claiming that the real is reflected by thought in its totality, one produces a reality that should act in the stead of the real (as a more perfect real than the real itself). Concurring with Laruelle, let us say that the equation established between thought and the real is the essential procedure of philosophy (i.e., its decisionism).”
(Toward a Radical Metaphysics of Socialism, p. 33)

But is there any alternative way to think? According to Laruelle, there is and this is what he designates as non-philosophical and/or unilateral. Kolozova describes it in these words, “To the unilateral thought that does not wish to pass a decision (in advance) of what the real “in general” is, the real happens as a singularity that is thereafter rendered subject to a nonrelational, nonunifying theorizing. Therefore, it is a theoria-en-heni, or a “Vision-in-One”” (Cut of the Real, p. 7). We can say non-philosophy attempts to think the Real without imposing philosophical forms on it. From this positionality of thought, the Real is an immanent One, since it has not been ruptured by the cut of abstraction. This is not to say that non-philosophy straight up rejects philosophy. Instead, non-philosophy takes philosophy and transforms it into transcendental material. Kolozova nicely explains why this is such an important maneuver, “The ‘transcendental material” at hand can be used without the obligation to follow the rules of its use dictated by a doctrine, a system of thought, or a school of thought” (Cut of the Real, p. 155). That is, non-philosophy has discovered a way to use content produced within the domain of philosophy without having to keep it locked into any fundamental decisions made about the Real. Now that we have an understanding of the decision, let’s turn our attention to symbolic exchange.

The first concept that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of the work of Jean Baudrillard is that of simulation. However, this is unfortunate. While it is most certainly true that simulation played a huge role in his thinking, it is symbolic exchange (and its many variations) that is his main contribution to theory. Symbolic exchange is essential to understand because of its relations, in the words of William Pawlett, “to social power and economic production, its relationship to death, its role as act of subversion and, above all, its continuing impact upon everyday life here and now” (Jean Baudrillard: Against Banality, pp. 47–48). But what is meant by this term? It’s a very tricky word to pin down — this was no accident on Baudrillard’s part. Let’s begin with his most well-known definition of it: “The symbolic is neither a concept, an agency, a category, nor a ‘structure’, but an act of exchange and a social relation which puts an end to the real, which resolves the real, and, at the same time, puts an end to the opposition between the real and the imaginary” (Symbolic Exchange and Death, p. 133). The symbolic is an action (an act of exchange) and a form of exchange (an act of exchange). The symbolic is a social relation. It is a way that people relate to each other and to their society. The symbolic makes the real and the imaginary (the non-real) be able to exchange with one another; it allows them to socially interact. In the symbolic, the real and the imaginary are reversible, that is, they can give to and receive from each other. In other words, the symbolic is a space in which the real and the imaginary can stand in a relation of mutual influence. What’s important about this, according to Baudrillard, is that symbolic exchange is a mechanism capable of undermining the power of philosophical binaries as well as the capitalist system of value these decisions give rise to.

If the symbolic is an act of exchange and a social relation understood in terms of reversibility and ambivalence, then the semiotic (and its contemporary incarnation as the consumer Code) seeks to suppress this act of exchange and social relation by doing away with reversibility and ambivalence. Baudrillard associates value, irreversibility, unilaterality and equivalence with the Code and capitalism in general, whereas he associates the gift, reversibility and ambivalence with symbolic exchange. He writes, “The symbolic is not a value (i.e., not positive, autonomisable, measurable or codifiable). It is the ambivalence (positive and negative) of personal exchange — and as such it is radically opposed to all values” (For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, p. 127). What the Code/capitalism necessitates at all costs is our irreversibility, our inability to really give the countergift of ambivalence (confusion, challenge, aporia, puzzlement, perplexity) back to it. The Code wants to unilaterally flow “into” us and thereby control, i.e., overcode, every aspect of our existence. The symbolic gesture is that which makes the exclusive and separated terms in our binary oppositions inclusive — in the symbolic, binary oppositions fade away because the opposed terms are no longer ontologically severed. Baudrillard says, “The symbolic is what puts an end to this disjunctive code and to separated terms. It is the u-topia that puts an end to the topologies of the soul and the body, man and nature, the real and the non-real, birth and death. In the symbolic operation, the two terms lose their reality” (Symbolic Exchange and Death, p. 133). This is precisely what makes symbolic exchange a non-philosophical act.

Was there an original decision? Was there an inceptive cut in the Real? In Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard convincingly argued that there was, indeed, such a thing. For him, the very first decision occurred when human beings began to draw a line between the living and the dead, between humans alive and humans deceased. It is upon this decisive line separating life from death that our alienation from the Real sediments, expands and varies, since this line of abstraction is what eventually gave rise to the capitalist system of exchange value. But what caused this decision to happen? According to Baudrillard, there came a point in human history at which the human corpse started to take on a taboo and disturbing presence. Once people sought to “extradite” the dead into cemeteries that were on the outskirts of the town or village, the distinction between the living and the dead developed into an absolute separation of two metaphysical realms.

“There is an irreversible evolution from savage societies to our own: little by little, the dead cease to exist. They are thrown out of the group’s symbolic circulation. They are no longer beings with a full role to play, worthy partners in exchange, and we make this obvious by exiling them further and further away from the group of the living. In the domestic intimacy of the cemetery, the first grouping remains in the heart of the village or town, becoming the first ghetto, prefiguring every future ghetto, but are thrown further and further from the centre towards the periphery, finally having nowhere to go at all, as in the new town or the contemporary metropolis, where there are no longer any provisions for the dead, either in mental or in physical space. Even madmen, delinquents and misfits can find a welcome in the new towns, that is, in the rationality of a modern society. Only the death-function cannot be programmed and localised. Strictly speaking, we no longer know what to do with them, since, today, it is not normal to be dead, and this is new. To be dead is an unthinkable anomaly; nothing else is as offensive as this. Death is a delinquency, and an incurable deviancy. The dead are no longer inflicted on any place or space­ time, they can find no resting place; they are thrown into a radical utopia. They are no longer even packed in and shut up, but obliterated.”

Baudrillard sees this as radical difference between our value-oriented capitalist society and the gift-oriented potlatch society belonging to so-called “primitives”. In his classic anthropological work entitled The Gift, Marcel Mauss described how gift economies, especially those of the Pacific Northwest, had a completely different social organization than that of modern capitalism — potlatch defies the fundamental principles of political economy. One of the striking differences that resonated with Baudrillard was how the “primitives” included the dead in their “economic” activities, i.e., symbolic exchanges. In giving a gift (sacrifice) to one’s deceased ancestors, one comes to expect a counter-gift from them in the form of certain blessings. In this symbolic sense, the dead are just as Real as the living are. Symbolic exchange preserves an overarching and concrete immanence (the One) which incorporates both the living and the dead. It is only in the expulsion of the dead into an entirely different realm (underworld, afterlife, heaven, nonexistence, etc.) that we cross the metaphysical line of abstraction and enact the first decision. In this way, the symbolic act creates a space of immanence and difference — the dead are different from the living but they still exist on the same plane of reality, that is, they are still here, which means that the distinction between the here (the real) and the there (the imaginary) is, metaphysically speaking, erased. As Baudrillard put it,

“In the symbolic universe, life and death are exchanged. And, since there are no separate terms but, rather, reversibility, the idea of value is cast into question, requiring as it does distinctly opposed terms between which a dialectic can then be established. Now, there is no dialectic in the symbolic. Where life and death are concerned, there is in our system of values no reversibility: what is positive is on the side of life, what is negative is on the side of death; death is the end of life, its opposite, whereas in the symbolic universe the terms are, strictly speaking, exchanged.”
(Passwords, p. 15)

If decisionism ultimately leads to alienation insofar as it is the condition of the abstraction we call exchange value, and if all decisions are rooted in the first one that separates life from death, then it is through symbolic exchange, which is always capable of undermining decisions, that we are able to combat the capitalist system that relegates us to a life without life — estrangement. As Kolozova says,

“Estrangement is seen as the material fact of alienation of the worker from his or her work: it is a process that does not belong to him or her. Hence, there is absence of a sense of familiarity. Not belonging to what one is most engaged to, the impossibility to claim this process as one’s own labor (insofar it is waged) causes a sense of radical estrangement that is experienced as suffering of the body and soul.”
(Toward of Radical Metaphysics of Socialism, p. 10)

Oddly enough, for Baudrillard, death is potentially the most meaningful thing for us, but not in the Heideggerian sense, not in the sense that a resolute confrontation with the possibility of death truly individualizes Dasein. Baudrillard argued that death is the utmost threat to the capitalist system and this system is essentially predicated on an alienated-binary concept of death. Death is always potentially revolutionary for Baudrillard. Now, he’s not advocating actual suicide and/or murder. Instead, he thinks it’s in truly being ready to die, to “retire” from the life that capitalism hurls upon us, that capital faces its own death. In fact, in giving back the consumer life the system gave to us, we make of our very deaths (our dying from the system) a symbolic dynamite. This being-ready-to-die is a gift that capital is obligated to respond to with the counter-gift of freedom — an entirely different and non-capitalist way of life in which people are liberated from the tyranny and estrangement of the wage order. This act of symbolic exchange is the ultimate subversive act because the only response the system can counter with is its own collapse and the collapse of the fundamental decision of philosophical thinking. Death is the non-philosophical liberation from abstraction. Thus, death is the negation of capital. “To defy the system with a gift to which it cannot respond save by its own collapse and death. Nothing, not even the system, can avoid the symbolic obligation, and it is in this trap that the only chance of catastrophe for the capital remains” (Symbolic Exchange and Death, p. 37).

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. 1981. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Charles Levin (trans.). New York: Telos Press Publishing

Baudrillard, Jean. 1993. Symbolic Exchange and Death, Iain Hamilton Grant (trans.). London: Sage Publications

Baudrillard, Jean. 2003. Passwords, Chris Turner (trans.). London: Verso

Kolozova, Katerina. 2014. Cut of the Real: Subjectivity in Poststructuralist Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press

Kolozova, Katerina. 2015. Toward a Radical Metaphysics of Socialism: Marx and Laruelle. Brooklyn, New York: Punctum Books

Laruelle, François. 2013. Dictionary of Non-Philosophy, Taylor Adkins (trans.). Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing

Pawlett, William. 2007. Jean Baudrillard: Against Banality. NewYork: Routledge

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