---- by John Lechte
  Marx developed a political economy based on a productivist and materialist metaphysic. He argued that the world of work and labour power were the key elements in understanding the 'fetishism' of the commodity form in bourgeois society. Baudrillard criticises Marx's materialism in the very name of political economy - a political economy of the sign, where the superstructure, against Marx, comes to claim its rights. For, in relation to production, 'nothing is produced, strictly speaking: everything is deduced' (SED, 9). Furthermore, the idea of universal needs, upon which Marx's theory is centred, is, says Baudrillard (CPS), ideological, not real. The same goes for the idea of scarcity in classical economics: it, too, is ideological.
  The celebration of Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of the sign as the difference between the signifier and the signified will give Baudrillard's critique of all realisms its impetus, even if, ultimately, Saussure's linguistic theory also comes to bear the brunt of this critique.
  Famously, Saussure, against the tradition of historical linguistics which had privileged a historical, or diachronic, theory of linguistic meaning, emphasises a synchronic and differential approach to meaning that defined the sign as being composed of the relationship between a signifier and a signified - a relationship that is arbitrary. In other words, there is no essential link between a given signifier and its signified (for example, between the word, 'tree' and the object designated). Furthermore, a synchronic approach to meaning implies that it is the relationship between signifiers, and not their intrinsic status, which is at issue. Relationships, and therefore difference as the code, govern the make-up of the Saussurian sign, not essential qualities that would be meaningful even in the event of the sign's complete isolation.
  For Saussure, a signifier and a signified can never exist separately but only inextricably together. There is no signifier without its signified. And it is the signified that Baudrillard comes to view as problematic in his theory of the sign, where, ultimately, a sign becomes a simulacrum which means that it bears no relation whatever to reality (SS).
  Saussurian linguistics also gave rise to semiotics (the theory of signs and significations) and the wide-ranging movement of structuralism in the social sciences. Thus during the 1960s all the talk in the circles that mattered centred on the importance of the differential nature of the sign. Such was the influence of this tendency in France and subsequently in the US and elsewhere that those thinkers experienced in traditions such as phenomenology or existentialism had to stand up and be counted. Merleau-Ponty made significant concessions to structuralism, while Sartre remained the same. Baudrillard, who wrote some of his most influential works in the late 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s (SO, CS, CPS, MP, SED), sought to think through it rather than take up the cudgels for structuralism. And nothing was more important to this rethinking than a reworking of the nature and significance of the sign.
  If Baudrillard was able to unsettle Marxist theory by concentrating on the impossibility of ever proving that there existed essential needs to be satisfied - a point which had flow-on effects for the productivist metaphysic (if needs could not be proven, then neither could be proven the objective nature of production and labour power) - Baudrillard's target in Saussurian linguistics and semiotics was the apparently unshakable reality of the signified. Even Lacan in psychoanalysis had to resort to a theory of the 'points de capiton' (anchor points) in order to prevent the signifier from floating out of the frame of rationality and meaning altogether.
  Being beholden to the signified, and not just the signifier, was the weak link in the Saussurian theory of the sign. How does Baudrillard, for his part, proceed here? And how does his conception of the sign tie in with political economy? Part of the story is based on the transformation of use value into exchange value and exchange value into sign value. The latter remains in touch with political economy because it performs a political task - something the Saussurian notion of the sign bypassed altogether. Thus Baudrillard writes, 'Through objects, each individual and each group searches out his-her place in an order . . . Through objects a stratified society speaks' (CPS, 38). Ultimately, there are no objects if we mean by this elements of an external reality. There are only signs; but these are signs which mark out, as we can see, power relations in society; they cannot be exchanged for reality (IEx). While there is no essential external reality reflected in the sign, this does not mean that the sign is politically innocent. Thus the consumption of objects must be defined, 'not only structurally as a system of exchange and of signs, but strategically as a mechanism of power' (CPS, 85). Through signs, politics plays itself out. Baudrillard thus continues to give a veiled salute to Marx.
  Politics, however, is not symbolic. In a schema that illuminates the structure of Baudrillard's theory, the symbolic assumes the role of ambivalence: it does not participate in any essential link to reality, but neither is it constituted through difference, as is sign value. What is truly symbolic endures, unlike the fashion object which is entirely ephemeral and subject to the difference constitutive of sign value. The sign excludes the symbolic, banishes it from the centre of social and political life in the interest of maintaining the system of consumption and exchange itself (the basis of power relations). The equivalence of the sign value erases the ambivalence of the symbol (CPS).
  Although the sign (as a system or code of differences) challenges naive realism, it is in Saussure's, then Benventiste's, version based in a metaphysic which privileges the signified-referent. Semiology, as the analysis of difference in the sign system, was not the answer and must also be transcended. For the arbitrary relation between signifier and signified is never experienced as such in a given social context, but rather as a moment of power where the two elements appear as resolutely fixed. In the end, it is a matter of restoring the symbolic, which is outside the code, to a position of pre-eminence. This, above all, Baudrillard seeks to reveal in going beyond semiology in his analysis of the sign. In other words, 'only total revolution, theoretical and practical, can restore the symbolic in the demise of the sign and of value. Even signs must burn' (CPS, 163).
   § fashion
   § production
   § semiotics

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.

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