---- by Paul Hegarty
  Marcel Mauss's The Gift (1966) is a central influence on Baudrillard. In this book, Mauss outlines the many ways in which exchange can be based on gift-giving rather than profit extraction. His conclusion, that the residual gift economy within capitalism could be reinvigorated, is not one shared by Baudrillard's or Mauss's key mediators for Theory: Bataille and Lévi-Strauss. Nonetheless, the gift offers Baudrillard the basis for an alternative to sterilised, hyper-capitalised society, if only temporarily and more aggressively than Mauss would have liked.
  There are two key forms of gift-giving in The Gift, the kula, where gifts are in continual circulation rather than being swapped directly. In this form, gift-giving structures not only individual Melanesian societies, but also how they interact as a wider social group. From the kula we get the idea that exchange does not have to involve commodities, least of all the commodity of money, and that a system of exchange can be permanent rather than momentary (as in the exchange of a money commodity for a different commodity) and not result in accumulation. Even more central to theorists is the potlatch, typified in societies original to the northwest of North America. Here the exchange is one of escalation, as one leader offers objects, slaves, a banquet, or indeed anything, to a rival leader. The latter is obliged to accept, then to return the gift through exceeding the gifts given him in the previous exchange. Leaders could also destroy their own property (often ceded them only to be immediately exchanged, rather than actually owned by them). Relations between peoples and structures within them are defined through these periodic exchanges. So, for all Mauss's optimism, what he also highlights is the aggressive nature of gift-giving, identified as the 'counter-gift', and it is this aspect, as mediated by Bataille, that Baudrillard picks up on.
  Bataille took the potlatch as the inspiration for his model of a universe based on waste, destruction and death, where the counter-gift becomes the initial principle (that is, the counter-gift and its possibility are there from the start in the very first gift). The gift in Bataille is only ever violent, erotic, wasteful - and it creates a situation where any involved in the exchange lose their identity - not in communion, but in absence. The universe itself gives destructively, or demands destruction in return for its gifts (for example, human sacrifice to make sure the sun rises). Baudrillard comments that Bataille has '"naturalised" Mauss', but that this is a properly vital move, as it is 'in a metaphysical spiral so prodigious that the reproach is not really one' (Baudrillard, 1991a: 137). Both Bataille and Baudrillard focus on the counter-gift, but do not fully lose the utopian character of Mauss's argument, maintaining that some sort of gift can still offer disruption of capitalism, if not a resolution of its problems - this would be too useful for either writer. For both, the unanswerable gift is the strongest possible force, and Baudrillard proposes very different ways in which this works: the first is in the form of labour established by capitalism, the second is death as resistance, and ultimately this occurs in the form of violent terrorism.
  In Symbolic Exchange and Death (1993a [1976]), Baudrillard argues that capitalism inflicts a symbolic violence on us all, reducing all humans to the status of things, in 'offering' us work - the prospect of work must be accepted, as must consumerism. This largely unanswerable gift can be met only by suicide - the capitalist society that brings us into simulation can only be thwarted by returning the gift of death to the system that forcibly gives you life in the form of living death. As well as the literal version of this, the key counter-gift being offered by those who presumably have become aware of the simulatedness of their existence is that of the challenge [défi]. The challenge is that the system comes to recognise the possibility of the reversal of its gift.
  The ultimate statement of this challenge - or impossible exchange - is to be found in Baudrillard's controversial reading of the attack on the World Trade Center (9/11). In The Spirit of Terrorism (2003c [2002]) and also Power Inferno (Baudrillard, 2002), he argues that the towers crumbled under the weight of the gift of death presented by the planes - become missiles - and their pilots. The choice of object is perfect as the towers encapsulate simulation (SA, SED). The media impact of the event (and most 'events' are non-events for Baudrillard) is a heightened reality in, paradoxically, a simulation so strong it is no longer caught within the orbit of the world we imagine to be real (but is totally simulated): 'a death which is far more than real: a death which is symbolic and sacrificial' (ST, 17). Ultimately the potlatch concludes not with a return gift, but a concession of defeat in the towers mirroring the suicide of the pilots (ST). Subsequent attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq were clumsy attempts to return the gift, but are merely utilitarian and aimless. The gift, in the form of the counter-gift, is the restoration, however briefly, however violently, of symbolic exchange.
   § architecture
   § death
   § terrorism

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.

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