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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.