political economy of the sign

political economy of the sign
  ---- by Richard G. Smith
  A collection of eleven the matically relatedes says, Fora Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981 [1972]) is Baudrillard's third book (the second to be fully translated from French to English). The collection represents both a clarification and extension of the argument from his first two books theorising the dominance of the 'code' in consumption-oriented western societies-(SO, SC),andaprecursortothespecificargumentsofhisnexttwo books, namely a radical critique of use value (MP) and a theory of symbolic exchange (SED). In addition, the book is also an explicit theoretical explanation (as are MP and SED) of the 'double spiral', a metaphor Baudrillard was to employ in 1987 (EC) to highlight his struggle against signification in the name of symbolic exchange: 'signs must burn' (CPS, 163).
  When Baudrillard's first (SO) and second (SC) books are read in conjunction with his third book (CPS), it is evident that, taken together, they constitute a critical fusion of Marx's theory of value and Saussure's description of the linguistic sign to detail the transition to the 'political economy of the sign' (that is, the 'code'). What is more, it is Baudrillard's theoretical demonstration of the homologous relation of the commoditysign form that serves as the foundation and rationale for not only his analysis of the sign form and description of the political economy of the sign (the field of general political economy), but also for his parallel development of a theory of symbolic exchange (CPS, MP, SED), a form of exchange outside of the field of value, as its critique.
  For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981 [1972]) contains a critique of Louis Althusser's conceptualisation of ideology as an infra-superstructural relation, 'as a sort of cultural surf frothing on the beachhead of the economy' (CPS, 144). That is because with an understanding of the sign form comes a realisation that ideology is 'that very form that traverses both the production of signs and material production' (CPS, 144). Thus structural Marxism (or any thought that is predicated on an 'artificial distinction between the economic and the ideological' (CPS, 144)) does not unravel ideology as form, only as content. In other words, after the dominance of Althusser's approach in France in the 1960s, Baudrillard placed the articulation of culture and economy from the roots of the commodity-sign form on the theoretical agenda. In short, Baudrillard inaugurates a new type of analysis:
  Today consumption . . . defines precisely the stage where the commodity is immediately produced as a sign, as sign value, and where signs (culture) are produced as commodities. But this whole area of study is still occupied, 'critically' or otherwise, by specialists of production (economy, infrastructure), or ideology specialists (signs, culture), or even by a kind of seamless dialectician of the totality. The partitioning of the object domain obscures even the simplest realities. If any progress is to be made at this point, 'research' - especially Marxist research - must come to terms with the fact that nothing produced or exchanged today (objects, services, bodies, sex, culture, knowledge, etc.) can be decoded exclusively as a sign, nor solely measured as a commodity. (CPS, 147-8)
  In short, Marxists such as David Harvey (1989: 287) with their faith in, and need for, the reality of 'use value' are quite incorrect when they reference For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981 [1972]) to assert that Baudrillard's position is no more than a simple inversion of signs over commodities, 'that Marx's analysis of commodity production is outdated because capitalism is now predominantly concerned with the production of signs, images, and sign systems rather than with commodities themselves'. Indeed, it is clear that Baudrillard's argument is quite different: 'the logic of the commodity and of political economy is at the very heart of the sign' and 'the structure of the sign is at the very heart of the commodity form' (CPS, 146). In other words, in late capitalism the commodity has fused with sign (commodity-sign), a manoeuvre that has the consequence of liquidating all kinds of Marxist 'truths' from use value to alienation (MP).
  For Baudrillard, 'we have to be more logical than Marx himself' (CPS, 131) to understand that ideology is present in the internal logic of the political economy of the sign - in the relations between use and exchange value and between signified and signifier - with use value and the signified serving as the capitalist system's ideological guarantee. In other words, to realise that use value is nothing but the horizon of exchange value in the commodity-form, and the signified is only the satellite or 'alibi' of the signifier in the sign-form. Thus it is not the case that use value and the signified are guarantors of reality, they are simulacra:
  If the system of use value is produced by the system of exchange value as its own ideology - if use value has no autonomy, if it is only the satellite and alibi of exchange value, though systematically combining with it in the framework of political economy - then it is no longer possible to posit use value as an alternative to exchange value. Nor, therefore, is it possible to posit the 'restitution' of use value, at the end of political economy, under the sign of the 'liberation of needs' and the 'administration of things' as a revolutionary perspective. (CPS, 139)
  Thus it is by reading Marx through Saussure that Baudrillard understands use value and signified as nothing but 'mirages' and this consequently leads him - drawing on authors such as Bataille and Mauss - to posit symbolic exchange as a critique of the political economy of the sign - precisely because such exchange stands outside of the field of value and the commodity-sign. In other words, through a theoretical understanding of the sign-form as 'beyond use value' (CPS, 130) and the signified, Baudrillard concludes that 'To break the circuit of exchange value, it is necessary to restore exchange itself - not value (not even use value)' (CPS, 212), which logically means that it is the framework of 'political economy which is opposed, as a whole, to symbolic exchange' (CPS, 125).
   § code
   § death
   § double spiral
   § gift
   § sign

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.

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