Reviews

Passwords by Jean Baudrillard

Rahul Gairola

The concepts at the heart of Baudrillard's 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.


Passwords

Publisher: Verso
Length: 92
Price: $20 US
Author: Jean Baudrillard
UK publication date: 2003-10
Amazon

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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image