Symbolic Exchange & Death by Jean Baudrillard

Written By A.R. Arthur

A.R. Arthur (formerly A.R. Salandy) is a Black Mixed-race poet & writer who has spent most of his life in Kuwait jostling between the UK & America. He is the EIC of Fahmidan Journal/Publishing & Co, Reviews Editor at Full House Literary & Poetry Editor at Chestnut Review. Twitter/Instagram: @ararthurwriter

Symbolic Exchange & Death is a masterful presentation of postmodern theoretic developments centered on a core dying away of traditional society for new and unexpected simulations and patched together realities in this, the jaded hyper-reality of postmodernity.

Baudrillard is no stranger to complex prose and theoretic musings that often befuddle the reader, but this, what many consider to be his magnum opus, is one that gives new life to the notion of symbolic exchange. Defined as “a form of exchange that maintains and organizes social relations and hierarchies.” The inherent difference to other forms of exchange is simply that the value of any exchanged object does not value the act of exchanging it. Baudrillard uses “the Gift” as an example to affirm this definition. Monetary value loses significance and instead, it is the acts that maintain the relationship that matter. For example, doing someone a favor. Although there is no inherent monetary value in the favor, it is a symbolic exchange, or gesture, if you will, nonetheless.

Traditional, or “pre-modern” symbolic exchange rejects the capitalist notions of value and monetary returns on investments. Whereby time is seen as cyclical instead of linear. Death is not seen in the finality which we ascribe to it today. Rather death, is just part of the process of societal growth and its continuation. “Life and death are coextensive forms of presence” and not separate. The living give life to the dead through a symbolic reanimation that sees the dead venerated, revered, and most importantly remembered—whether this be through ritualistic processes or through the act of ancestor worship. This traditional presentation can still be seen in some cultures and societies today but has largely been forgotten due to late-stage capitalism and its emphasis on economic productivity over an inherent value to humanity. Both in life as in death.

Baudrillard contrasts this now largely forgotten tradition with the postmodern where an abrupt delineation has arisen. A hard distinction can be seen between the inherently human desire to celebrate the dead through symbolic acts in contrast to capitalism where no profit, or gain can be benefitted from through such cultural practices. In this sense, the dead stop being useful once they are no longer productive in the system of capitalism. Capitalism has effectively destroyed its “other” by making death an opposite to life, rather than merely a component. This dichotomy renders the dead worthless. According to Baudrillard, this is antithetical to human nature.

Tinges of Semiology, the study of signs and language, dot this critical analysis of postmodern society where the reader must contend with the consistently changing and contrasting meanings that are symptomatic of hyper-reality and the simulative nature of postmodernity at large.

Hyper-reality is defined as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.” This hyper-reality renders human endeavors mere replications of some far-off construct loss to the ravages of time. This ties in directly to Baudrillard’s emphasis on simulacra or simulations in society. Defined as “something that replaces reality with its representation,” we are heavily influenced by the depth and scope of such simulations.

One example that extends throughout human history is through the act of bartering and trading. Salt and other spices were often used as a means of payment. This then became gold, silver and other precious metals and stones. Then, with the advent of centralized money, this was replaced by paper notes and coinage. This was then followed by credit and debit cards and then digital forms of payment that are constantly in-flux. This example serves a dual-fold purpose. Firstly, to affirm Baudrillard’s ruminations on the ever rapidly changing nature of the postmodern world and secondly, to affirm that the concept of death has experienced the very same process. This distortion of death is not a gradual change that has been enacted by humanity but instead, has been furthered and contorted by capitalism and its global dominance, ultimately serving its demands through our own passivity.

In summary, Symbolic Exchange & Death is a complex rendering of a world where death has lost meaning, and the dead become forgotten the second their hearts stop beating. Baudrillard’s words present a stark contrast between our current linear model of time with that of the cyclically driven “pre-modern.” Productivity has come to be valued more than life, living, and remembrance and Baudrillard intends for us to challenge this. This posits the question: Is death really ever an ending if all our processes, thoughts, beliefs and actions are merely simulations in this hyper-real world?

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