The postmodern age is defined by the disintegration of symbolic efficacy, a condition characterized by the weakening of social norms, the withering of social bonds, and the inability of human beings to undertake and complete social mandates, such as large-scale political projects. While many have attributed the breakdown of belief in collective structures and institutions, as well as in the actions that create and maintain them, to the collapse of state socialism, Jean Baudrillard in Symbolic Exchange and Death instead probes the transformations on the level of the symbolic that have given rise to the unprecedented social reality of the affluent society. In this work, Baudrillard thinks through with thorough-going rigor the defining features of post-industrial society and produces not only an important work of post-structuralist theory but also an indispensable contribution to Christian theology.
Here are some of the main insights of this work:
1. Power consists not of the capacity to put another to death, but rather of the privilege of allowing the other to live (40). What the master denies the slave is not the right to live, but rather the right to die. Marx, in Baudrillard’s view, had it backwards. What the master “confiscates” from the slave is his death, while retaining exclusively for himself the right to risk his life: “Whoever works has not been put to death, he is refused this honour” (39). For the irrefutable mark of the superiority of the master is his readiness to give up his life to die a glorious and heroic death. Labor is accordingly revealed as the enslavement to a “non-deferred death,” whereby the reality of domination is secured by the denial of exchange: “If, through labour, the exploited attempts to give his life to the exploiter, the latter wards off this restitution by means of wages” (41). Domination hinges on this basic asymmetrical relation, in which the master guards the unilateral nature of the gift of death – in other words, he refuses by means of the wage the death that the slave might give him by ceasing to labor and by attempting to become himself a master.
2. The breakdown of symbolic efficacy is bound up with the loss of immortality as a social and cultural value. The problem for us is that the “dead cease to exist,” that is to say, we have “thrown” them out of “symbolic circulation” (126). The liquidation of tradition consists of the “obliteration” of the dead, so that they no longer exert any influence on our day-to-day doings. G. K. Chesterton once defined tradition as the “extension of the franchise” to “our ancestors,” in order to prevent the despotism of the “small and arrogant oligarchy” of those whose sole claim to rule rests on the mere fact that they happen to be alive and breathing (Orthodoxy). But today, “it is not normal to be dead, and this is new.” Our society has become a tyranny of the living, in which dead are banished from the symbolic positions they held in previous societies as objects of reverence, scorn, admiration, fear, emulation, and dread. Indeed, it is our symbolic exchange with the dead that produces distinct human types, as it is the limitation of death that solidifies one into a character. The cult of limitless choice in late democratic capitalism on the other hand stifles the emergence of distinct types, producing instead the hesitant and unsettled personality that is always anxious to withhold himself for the sake of keeping all his options open. The aim of a society that is sealed up in its present can only be a pacified and repressive “socialisation,” and cannot raise its concerns beyond the short-term survivals of its distractions.
3. The pleasure of poetry arises from the fact that poetry recreates the form of symbolic gift-exchange enjoyed by primitive societies. Whereas our economic system is based on endless accumulation and thus on endless waste, in a good poem, every meaning is “consumed in a rigorous reciprocity” and every word finds its “corresponding term” (200). Baudrillard argues that poetry is not merely the commemoration of the god or hero, but the very return of the god or hero to his death, and thus constitutes the playing out of his death, which is reenacted in the ritual of sacrifice. For we moderns are “naïve” to believe that “savages” tremble in superstitious fear of their gods. Rather, their rites enact their “ambivalence” toward their deities, “perhaps they only ever roused them in order to put them to death” (209).
Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. London: Sage, 1993.
G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/130/pg130.html.