Indisputably one of the most important French thinkers of the 20th century, Jean Baudrillard is the radical theorist who has influentially argued through the years that simulations and simulacra (representations of the real) have substituted and perverted reality, that Disneyland and the United States are one and the same, and that the Gulf War never really occurred, that it was the fabricated product of a hyperreal media spectacle.
As a pioneer of the field of postmodern theory, Baudrillard’s complex theories of contemporary society can be daunting material to readers unfamiliar with the socio-historical roots of Marxist and post-Marxist thought, or those unfamiliar with Ivory Tower jargon. However, Passwords is an accessible retrospective of Baudrillard’s most important concepts, developed over decades, that characterize and critique the social trends that catalyze the machinery of production, consumption, and symbolism.
Passwords is also a reflexive and philosophical maze: It is structured around its very title, offering meditational vignettes framed in one of sixteen key terms. These terms include object, value, symbolic exchange, the virtual, chaos, destiny, and thought (among others). The book is anything but a glossary; each concept consecutively builds into the next, subtly implying and explicitly invoking the following and previous terms in a labyrinth of ideas that comprise a chain of referents that, by the end of the book, refer us back to its very beginning. From the outset, Baudrillard explains that the title means to reflect that words not only transmit ideas but that they “themselves metaphorize and metabolize into one another by a kind of spiral evolution. It is in this way that they are ‘passers’ or vehicles of ideas.”
The chain of passwords begins with a basic component of Baudrillard’s thought: the object. A term he re-conceptualised in the context of Marxist thought during 1960s capitalism, Baudrillard states that he has always been interested in the relationships established by objects — commodities — and the ways that they subvert the real world by privileging consumption and profit above all else. Thus in the context of gross capitalism, these objects break away from the traditional Marxist notion of use value and instead engage in a symbolic play with one another. The object thus simultaneously designates the real world but also its absence.
Value, which follows object, builds on Baudrillard’s project to re-think the object in relation to Marx’s dialectical notions of use value and exchange value. Anthropology serves as his main inspiration to think beyond the use and exchange value dialectic: “Anthropology gives us access to societies and cultures in which the notion of value as we understand it [in Western societies] is virtually nonexistent, in which things are never exchanged directly for one another, but always through the mediating agency of a transcendence, an abstraction.”
Baudrillard’s term “symbolic exchange,” influenced by Marcel Mauss’ anthropological work on gift exchange, differs from exchange value as we are not solely dealing with the object’s use, price tag, or potential for exchange. Exchange occurs instead along lines of social status, and is thus exchanged as sign. (We might think of it this way: two identical wool sweaters have the same use value and ostensibly have the same exchange value until the label GAP is affixed to one of them. We are now dealing with symbolic value and symbolic exchange as that label now transforms the sweaters into objects of unequal value whose difference is social status.)
In this manner, each concept discursively builds into and upon the next. Built into the concepts are descriptions of the very form of Passwords. For example, he writes that “We are today in what I would call a ‘Moebius-strip’ system. If we were in a face-to-face, confrontational system, strategies could be clear, based on a linearity of causes and effects. But we are in a completely random universe in which causes and effects are piled one upon the other according to this Moebius-strip model, and no one can know where the effects of the effects will end.” Like the Moebius-strip paradigm, the concepts at the heart of the book invoke, reflect, subvert, and play with one another, sometimes compelling the careful reader to read the book backwards so that she or he might then begin reading forwards again.
At times, his statements can be daunting, especially given the socio-political agency that simulacra and hyperreal media have harnessed in the era of globalization. On the topic of the virtual, Baudrillard writes, “The virtual now is what takes the place of the real; it is the final solution of the real in so far as it both accomplishes the world in its definitive reality and makes its dissolution. At this point, it is the virtual which thinks us: no need now for a subject of thought, a subject of action; everything happens by technological mediation.”
Towards the end of the book, he offers a final notion of exchange which he calls “impossible exchange.” This term conveys something that cannot be exchanged for anything else. Two examples of the impossible exchange are destiny and the world since there is and can be no equivalent of either. When readers reach “the last word,” Baudrillard’s final term, he resists the very concept of a linear ending, favoring instead the geometrical figure of the spiral since “We have not taken a single step closer to some possible end-goal. We have merely gone through a number of paradigms that have no end other than in the moment of their metamorphosis.”
We are thus taken back to the introductory metaphor of words as “passers” of ideas. The impossible closure of “the end” of the book, which flings readers back to its beginning, allows for that spiral of meanings to kick start itself again, and on the second and subsequent readings readers presumably catalyze the eternal metamorphosis of the concepts within their own minds. Readers hopefully realize here how influenced culture is by global capital, yet how empowering the mirrored halls of Baudrillard’s Passwords can be.