Baudrillard on the Virtual

October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

“In the virtual, we are no longer dealing with value; we are merely dealing with a turning-into-data, a turning-into-calculations, a generalized computation in which reality-effects disappear. The virtual might be said to be truly the reality-horizon, just as we talk about the event-horizon in physics. But it is also possible to think that all this is merely a roundabout route towards an as yet indiscernible aim.”


Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso. 2003: 40-41.


Time (Part 3)

September 7, 2010 § 1 Comment

This last part of the series will be about perception in relation to time. From the reversal of time in advertising to the reflections on time displacement through media, the structuring aspect of time seems primarily geared at perception. Gilles Deleuze talked about modern cinema as a way to “crystallize time” (Cinema 2: The Time Image). In Videofilosofia, Maurizio Lazzarato (1997) contended that visual media are “condensation machines of time” which impose their own indexicality. Following Bergson, Lazzarato finds as much truth and beauty in the moving image as an aesthetic form, as former generations could find in the written word.

That media change the perception of time is not a new claim, but digital media seem to flow in both the direction of acceleration and punctualization, the latter being equal to slowing down perception to a minuscule instance. The close-up, the long-distance shot, still life,  slow-motion shots and similar optical forms have punctualized the flow of moving images. While hundreds of frames flicker by, the image remains the same and is presented to the spectator for inspection. It is literally the experience of the duration of time, which is then offered in the visual medium, independent of the narrative, aesthetic or material qualities the image will have in a sequence.

In the video by William Basinski of the 9/11 site the music and images double the impression of time passing. Especially in the 64-minute version of Disintegration Loop No. 1.1, video and audio track play against each other by contrasting two models of time. While the loop is cyclical, the passing of the smoke against the skyline dissolves linearly. Basinski created the loops while digitizing tape recordings. Surprisingly, the 20 year-old tape was gradually disintegrating as the coated plastic tape slid by the magnetic reader head. This gradual abrasion process of the material is documented in the audio loops.

“[T]he loops themselves are stunning, ethereal studies in sound so fluid that the listener scarcely registers the fact that it’s nothing but many hundreds of repetitions of a brief, simple loop that they’re hearing. I imagine that life within the womb might sound something akin to these slowly swelling, beauteous snatches of orchestral majesty and memory-haze synthesizer. The pieces are uniformly consonant, embellished with distant whalesong arpeggios and echoing percussion.” (Review by Joe Tangari, 2004)

Basinski ascribes a religious quality to these loops, which seem to develop their own reality by proceeding in time. In an interview from 2009 he describes his first experience of the time dimension and how it played out in the recording:

“I was just blown away by what had just happened and I was incredibly moved by the whole redemptive quality of what I’d just experienced, that each of these loops had disintegrated in its own way and its own time, yet the life and death of the melody was redeemed in another medium. I was a Catholic growing up, I thought, maybe there is hope after all! [laughs].”

Basinski’s music is built around the slowed down alteration of audio sequences.  Each loop can be discerned by certain vague, repetitive elements, but the gradual linear variation creates a perception of time passing as such. Against the accelerative drive of electronic music in the 90’s, his pieces foreground the perception of details and gradual change. By puncturing a linear flow and reassembling it into discrete, cyclical units, Basinski reverses the drive of time to devour its own echo in the moment of passing. Time passing is presented on a golden tablet.

“All we can expect of time is its reversability”, said Jean Baudrillard in Cool Memories 1980-1985 (p.23). Linear and cyclical time do not necessarily relate to each other. But in digital media, both time dimensions play out simultaneously, which might explain our stupefaction with coming to terms with immediacy, where our brain is trained to reflect on perception only in retrospect. The beginning of reversal starts from the instances between each unit, from the void of silence.


Time (Part 2)

August 26, 2010 § 1 Comment


c/o Arcypanjin "Headspin" (1998)




-…., .., .1.., 1…, 19.., 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2…, 3…, -…. .



The logic of time is metrical. Its memory is asymmetrical, its meaning polymorphous. The mind’s eye is set on reference points, memories of distinct moments, interpretations and reinterpretations, and until the emergence of brain science the workings of the mind were source of much mysticism about the self, God or truth. We are talking about synapses now. But the metaphor we exchange in the name of knowledge is just another construct for what we can not know beyond personal experience.

With a medium such as this we exchange the metaphors that make experience appear reasonable. But only against the background of what has been preserved from the incessant flow of impressions, thoughts and reinterpretation can we translate a schema from chaos. This medium, just as many others preceding it, solves a time dilemma, which Niklas Luhmann characterized in a different context as a struggle between an event and a development. While the event can be isolated as a discrete instance in the present, our perception/observation of it as such an instance is necessarily established in retrospect. The present eludes us, all the time. Skeltzer’s argument on the why and how of blogging reflects this dilemma and the 90-something commentators prove that she is not alone in acknowledging that “We’ve got a lot to see before we go.” Now is merely an instance in a long development.

Physical Logout


After the multiplication of channels on television and radio, the growth and fall of printed periodicals, the sphere of network media now makes so many sources of information available, that choice is involved in every bit of attention we dedicate to the various offers on the digital and global media marketplace. This choice is not necessarily rational but follows the same subliminal logic of advertising and consumerism. Consumption is calculated in the currency of attention. An audience of choice is regarded as progressive, the audience of centralized broadcasting is waning. We are called upon as individuals to decide but the logic which imposes the choice is not driven by any actor in particular. The choice to become audience is structural operator of the networked media sphere. 

From this perspective, individual media production of content only increases the demand for choice, even more so because the retrospect rationalization of decisions helps to continue a form of interaction which resembles that of everyday interaction. In her fabulous book Living Room Wars, Ien Ang warns against this current development, which started with the postulation of an active audience in reception studies. The “active audience,” she writes, is “but a mythical discursive figure quintessentially attached to the postmodernization of the capitalist cultural industries” (p.11). Two developments overlap here: the proliferation of zillions of media channels created by media corporations and the rise of personalized network media used to manage, maintain and develop an incessant flow of communication centered around individuals. The network medium alternately attracts them as producer and audience at the same time.

“What is occurring in practice worldwide … is the increasing colonization of the times and spaces of people’s everyday lives for the purposes of media audiencehood.” (Ang, p.15)



The “colonization of time” by media can not simply be attributed to the technical possibilities of the medium itself. If we locate agency in a medium, we forget that it was created after all by a cooperative effort of humans. But the agency of these humans relies in turn to a large part on technology. Time is measured in metrical order, but its effects and meanings are polymorphous. While exposing ourselves to the various offers to understand the present, this present further eludes us. If we ignored the present by retracting from realtime media, will this present still be the same?

Take a classic in art history like Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism. Written in 1951, the book deals with the early modern revolution of Scholastic thought in the 12th century and its effect on European (mostly French) church architecture. Beyond an academic interest in the subject matter, the book, its author and the Scholastic endeavor of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas or Pierre Abelard, teach a lesson on the changing dimensions of time.

Although the book is rather short, and I am not familiar with scholasticism, I retained a basic idea about the scholastics’ attempt to formulate systems of thought, which could explain the godly order in a symmetrical and balanced scheme, submitting each (deviant) case to the logic of symmetry. Their summae , e.g. the Summa Theologica (Aquinas), tried to explain the godly order, but by formulating them in systematic terms, the scholastic thinkers were the first to replace a mythical concept of the world with a description cast in the deductive logic of statements and argument.

For Panofsky, this period of thought has become like a second present. The major books and authors of the period, the churches he has visited and the architectural details he relates to scholastic thought are, at least in the writing of his text, his immediate present, (re)produced as word on the page. Even without in-depth knowledge of the period, we sense the humorous familiarity he has established with his material, as can be seen in a statement like this.

“The doctrines of ‘classic’ High Scholasticism either stiffened into school traditions, or were subjected to vulgarization in popular treatises such as the Somme-le-Roy (1279) and the Tesoretto by Brunetto Latini, or were elaborated and subtilized to the limits of human capacity (not without reason does the greatest representative of this period, Duns Scotus, who died in 1308, bear the agnomen [byname] Doctor Subtilis)” (p.10).

We might as well replace “not without reason” with “not without irony” to see the expert speaking on behalf of a forgotten period, translated into the present as raw material of an argument. What would such an argument look like if the present were its subject matter? The argument would be overrun by the immediate presence of unstable and necessarily unfinished developments. While a picture of a period rests on the stocks of available documents, the present still sorts out the hierarchies between what will be preserved for posterity and what is obliterated. Panofsky establishes a form of knowledge quite unavailable for us now because he can limit the stock of available documents and establish expertise on a limited number of sources.


We have found numerous ways to discredit and question such authority. With knowledge available at a fingertip, the boundaries of expertise and amateurism falter and collapse. The experience of connected and distributed intelligence is an effect of the network medium and the storage and linking infrastructure which keeps it running. And so changes our relation to the time invested in the procurement of this knowledge, in the preservation efforts of librarians and chroniclers. The interactive screen imprints the feeling that everything was already there before we looked for it. It actualizes what is genuinely new to an observer as something that is always already passed into cybernetic memory.

Jean Baudrillard might have been wrong with many observations. But only because his perspective came to resemble the vertige of everyday media exposure to quickly before it could assert itself from the vantage point of the past. His description of the cybernetic experience folds self-referentiality of the process into his own argument.

“Cela s’appelle la cybernétique : commander à l’image, au texte, au corps, de l’intérieur en quelque sorte, de la matrice, en jouant avec le code ou les modalités génétiques. C’est d’ailleurs ce phantasme de performance idéale du texte ou de l’image, cette possibilité de corriger sans fin qui provoquent chez le “créateur” ce vertige d’interactivité avec son propre objet, en même temps que le vertige anxieux de n’être pas allé jusqu’aux limités technologiques de ses possibilités. En fait, c’est la machine (virtuelle) qui vous parle, c’est elle qui vous pense.” From: “Ecran Total”, Libération May 6 1996, p.8 (via EGS)

“This is called cybernetics: controlling the image, the text, the body from within, as it were, from its matrix, by playing with its code or the genetic details. It is this phantasm of the ideal performance of the text or image, the possibility of correcting endlessly, which produce in the ‘creative artist’ this vertige of interactivity with his own object, alongside the anxious vertige at not having reached the technological limits of its possibilities. In effect, it is the machine (virtual) which talks you, it is the machine which thinks you.” (Italics my translation. Rest taken from Screened Out. Translated by Chris Tucker. Verso: 2002, p.178. via Google Books)

Because these technological possibilities exist, they are used. Because something like a tag, a link, or a search algorithm were programmed, they are employed. The reverse logic of producing before reviewing abolishes those time constraints typically found in conditions of scarcity. From the moment of the object’s self-identification as object, the subject is left with the choice of different objects as general schema of decision making. This reversal of object and subject finds an application in William Merrin’s argument on the modification of time dimensions as the primary source of reversal between image and imprint in visual media (prime-time vs. real-time). What applies to the image, applies to all digitally preserved and retrospectively actualized content found online. Produced with the intention to preserve experience for posterity, it forgoes its own temporality only to reappear as past trace in the present. And the elliptic structure of this essay reflects the structure of its subject matter much more than the author could have fathomed in the beginning of writing it.

Curiosity-driven research: Does it exclude a market?

November 29, 2009 § Leave a comment

Max Weber in Kyoto, Doshisha University Library (女田図, 361.23||W-34, 閉架(B1F))

Dear reader,

who entered “Durkheim Science as a vacation” in an unknown search engine: Your query has been redirected: My article on the subject quotes Weber, Max – not Durkheim, Émile. Because the former is the author of a great essay on the subject of “Science as a Vocation” – a sort of death drive for recognition. The irony of Weber is that as soon as you are recognized as a substantial contributor to science, you will be most likely … retired.

From the viewpoint of many scholars in Germany it is understandable that students now protest against the implementation of the Bologna reforms. Cramming knowledge of centuries into a couple of semesters leaves little space for personal development or even … curiosity. But going on strike, c’mon, is it really going to revive 1968? We have deadlines, too.

The pleasure of the few is happiness for the many

Already Friedrich Nietzsche lamented the state of the German university back in 1872 (Über die Zukunft unserer Bildungsanstalten). In a conversation of a student and a philosopher-teacher, the student recalls:

“you used to say that no one would long for education if he knew how unbelievably small the number of truly educated people is and can be. And even this small number of truly educated is not really possible without the mass of others, who, against their nature, and determined only by a promising deception, get engaged in education.”

A double analogy at best. Many (the mass) adhere to an ideal of universal education. But for Nietzsche only a few (the truly educated) can attain that ideal. The mass follows an ideal brought down to a “national-economic” formula: “more knowledge and education, thus more production and in the end – more happiness.” If that is the rationale of education, personal development in a more liberal scheme will procure less happiness and less production. Dear reader, the path to less happiness will start with the right terms. And while some are quarreling with the terms, others are operating with factors.

Market accountability – where German and American universities differ

Nathan Rosenberg, professor emeritus of economics at Stanford, gave a lecture at the WZB in Berlin on the structural disparity of German and American universities. His basic assumption was that American higher education was “not a system” but rather an association of individual institutions. His three main points were: 1) research is heavily market oriented 2) graduate students are actively involved and recognized in research and 3) universities are a lot more “responsive” to demands from outside. He was bewildered by the ratio of students per professor in Germany and could not imagine how personal development of individual young researchers was possible under such conditions. A tacit voice from the audience replied: “It isn’t.” But above all he was making the claim that competition among universities for faculty, resources  and students was the driving force behind innovation. American universities are after all “economic institutions” who can manage their day-to-day affairs only on the basis of their interests from accumulated assets.

Stanford University, ⓒ A. Mager

A fellow doctoral student from the USC Annenberg School of Communication commented on a presentation he had seen on an eye-tracking software in Winterthur during a conference on Journalism Research in the Public Interest. The presenter was Sebastian Feuß from the University of Leipzig.  While Feuss presented his findings on the behavior of young people and their online reading/viewing habits in the interest of pure science, my fellow from the USC commented: “If I had that kind of equipment, I’d be a millionaire.” I wouldn’t doubt him. Descending into market orientation – whatever your market may be – is not a bad way to keep your research aligned with public interest. If you want to know a secret about the business world, it will be simple: “Keep the deadline!” Happiness galore.

For more articles which met deadlines, consider reading these:

Against Simulation: The Early Works of Jean Baudrillard

July 28, 2009 § 1 Comment


Becoming an author is a really hard job. Publishing a book is even harder. Even today. Not until you can become ignorant of your own text and read it over and over again, the true character of the text will emerge. My thesis on Baudrillard’s early works is now available (in German) featuring in-depth explorations of the Marxist and Semiotic treatises, McLuhans heritage, and Baudrillard in the context of Durkheim’s distinction of profane and sacred practices and Weber’s disenchantment of the modern world.

Chapters feature:

  • Baudrillard in Media and Cultural Criticism: Against Simulation
  • From Symbolic to Semiotic Cultures: Collective Representations – Rationality of Literacy and Individualization
  • Alienation and Symbolic Exchange: Barthes’ Modern Myths – The Objects and Consumer Society – Need for Difference – Symbolic Exchange
  • The Test of the Mass Media and Telematic Subjects: Parole sans réponse and Implosion – The Screen and Telematic Subjects
  • Symbolic Exchange in (online) social networks

Graphic concept and typo composition by Katharina Berndt ( Editor: Jakob F. Dittmar. Available from University Press of Technical University Berlin, Kiepert, or or as a free download of the complete pdf from the publisher.


Theory – 学説 – Theory

The cover image was taken on the streets of Ginza, Tokyo. I wish it was a montage but actually it was all there. “Longchamp” of “Paris” next to a Barbra Streisand-looking girl featuring fashion by “Theory”. What struck me most is the combination of such disparate elements as pure signs. Maybe it takes a long way to Japan to discover this self-referentiality of the sign and the image. The cultural difference aside, it teaches a lesson in Baudrillardian thinking. And maybe theory is not so far away from fashion anyway.

Baudrillard and Symbolic Exchange

January 6, 2008 § 8 Comments

The concept of symbolic exchange is crucial and foundational for most of Jean Baudrillard’s theorizing on mass society, media society and can help to understand the often contradictory and whimsical way in which he presents his critique. If you have reached this page looking  for the quick and dirty definition of symbolic exchange, you will be disappointed. Because if you are trying to understand the concept, you already have made the first step in reducing the number of possible meanings. Most basically, symbolic exchange is a form of exchange that maintains and organizes social relations and hierarchies. The difference to other forms of exchange is that the value of an exchanged object does not value the act of exchanging it. Symbolic exchanges are not aimed at establishing equivalence (equal value) between two exchanged tokens, as in the exchange of money for goods or services. The easiest example of a symbolic exchange is “doing someone a favor.” Often based on an already established relation, the favor is not calculated in monetary terms but is part of a series of acts which maintain and keep up a relation. The difference to monetary exchanges is marked by the strong rejection of any form of payment for such “favors.”

Pre-modern Symbolic Exchange and Production

For Baudrillard the importance of symbolic exchange is its pre-capitalist dimension. Symbolic exchange rejects (or does not know) the profit-oriented calculation of investments and returns, which Max Weber had defined as the characteristic feature of Western capitalism (see his chapter on the Spirit of Capitalism, or the “Vorbemerkung zu den gesammelten Aufsätzen zur Religionssoziologie“). In Baudrillard’s work, the book “Symbolic Exchange and Death” (fr. 1976; engl. 1993) marks a crucial turning point. The title refers to the perception of time in so-called primitive cultures, which relies on a cyclical model instead of a linear one. Life and death are not separate, but are coextensive forms of presence. In regular, ritual festivities, the living “animate” the deceased, make them part of their present so that both the living and the dead inhabit the same space. This exceptional time of the ritual is also a period where the regular activities of daily life are suspended, were riches are wasted (potlatch, expenditure, consumption in the sense of ‘destruction’) and are not invested. The more one wastes during such a ritual, the higher one’s social standing is within the group. The ability to waste, to give all that one has in a symbolic act, marks an individuals social rank and is a source of recognition. Georges Bataille drew attention to this anti-economic model of society, which he viewed as a way to critique capitalism. Douglas Kellner has summarized that

Bataille and Baudrillard presuppose here a contradiction between human nature and capitalism. They maintain that humans „by nature“ gain pleasure from such things as expenditure, waste, festivities, sacrifices, and suchlike, in which they are sovereign, and are free to expend their energy excess and thus follow their „real nature.” (Jean Baudrillard, 1989: 42)

What Baudrillard finds interesting in such forms of negating exchange, which destroys value instead of creating profit, is the critical perspective it allows for his analysis of capitalism. With the linear, profit-oriented thinking of capitalism, the category of death suddenly becomes the opposite of life, just as waste (ie. consumption) becomes the opposite of production. This thesis is already prepared in his book “The Mirror of Production” (fr. 1973; engl. 1975) where he underlines in a crucial passage (Chapter 2: “Marxist Anthropology and the Domination of Nature”) how early capitalism regards the excavation of raw materials from nature as the initial value creation of its enterprise.

Raw nature is the non-value of production, because the resource it provides (ore, lumber, coal) does not have a price in and of itself. With the excavation of raw materials from nature, capitalism also produces “nature” as a sign, which is antithetical to itself. Were capitalism is organization, dirt and conflict, nature becomes Eden, pure and wild. Only by itself from nature in such a way, does modern production (and culture) create /nature/ as a sign. With linear thinking (cmp. Hegel’s teleology of history) the world becomes divided into opposing pairs (life/death; value/non-value; object/subject; consumption/production; reality/non-reality) gradually replacing the pre-modern notion of complementary parts forming the world as a cosmological unity. The title “Symbolic Exchange and Death” effectively summarizes that capitalist society has annulled its Other, it has destroyed all alternatives, by making death not the component part of life but its opposite. Capitalism has annulled death, and thus has annulled all alternatives to itself, all opposites to itself. The book marks a turning point because Baudrillard only begins to talk about simulation and hyper-reality as founding concepts of capitalism after a long reflection on the creation of value in capitalism in his early works.

Language and the Symbolic

Besides the economic dimension of symbolic exchange, Baudrillard also includes a linguistic-cultural dimension in his concept of simulation, “the radical negation of the sign as value” as he terms it in his famous essay “The Precession of Simulacra” (Simulacra and Simulation, 1994: 6). In an idiosyncratic equation between the value of production and the value of the sign as meaning, Baudrillard picks up debates in French semiotics of the 1960s and 70s which reflected Roland Barthes’ semiology, or the structure of signs and their meaning. At some point, Baudrillard rejects the semioticians’ obsession with the meaning of signs, and the entire idea of finding a mechanism or theory which could, with mathematical precision, explain the formation of meaning as such.

Where Barthes keeps up a distinction between denotation (literal meaning) and connotation (associative meaning) of signs, Baudrillard poses that “denotation is never anything but the most beautiful and the most subtle of connotations” (Pour une Critique de l’Economie Politique du Signe, 1972: 192; engl. 1981). Baudrillard thus draws attention to the arbitrariness of defining one meaning of a sign as its essence, while relegating all other meanings to the realm of secondary associations. This definition of a core meaning is in itself a social convention, the result of power relations between editors, academics and publishers. In fact, the illusion of anything as definite as a core meaning of a sign covers up the constant process of negotiation over meanings. The social life of signs is marked by a constant ambivalence, which according to Baudrillard, makes it impossible to fix meanings. The symbolic dimension of a sign is here especially interesting because it plays at the knowledge of a particular meaning, yet negates the value of this meaning. In the symbolic act, the literal meaning is converted into something completely different, which is admittedly open to debate. The symbolic is thus subversive of the sense of the value of signs as meaning (See also my article “define: symbolic“).  This dimension of signs to escape definite meanings in social interaction prepares Baudrillards insistence on the power of simulation in the mass media.

In summary, symbolic exchange is a crucial and complicated critical concept for understanding the early and middle works of Baudrillard. It includes a theory of modernity, of production, of value and capitalism, which in turn is derived from an idiosyncratic blend of French post-war semiotics with a Marxist analysis of society. Of central importance is the distinction (whether actual or rhetorical) between pre-modern societies and capitalism, between cyclical and linear models of time, between production and consumption and above all, value as a common category of production (exchange value) and language (as sign value or meaning). Baudrillard thus fuses an economic theory with a theory of language to arrive at a theory of the mass media as key historical actors of the proliferation of simulacra.

*** Coda on Resources for Research ***

The best resource on this whole subject is Mike Gane’s book “Jean Baudrillard. Critical and Fatal Theory” (Routledge, 1991), on which I relied for much of my research. Based on Gane but more focused on the role of mass media in Baudrillard’s theorizing of society is William Merrin’s “Baudrillard and the Media” (Polity Press, 2005) and William Pawlett’s “Jean Baudrillard. Against Banality” (2007). For a reference guide to the scattered occurrence of individual terms and concepts, the index compiled by Gerry Coulter in 2007 provides an excellent resource. Here you will find the many meanings of symbolic exchange in all of Baudrillard’s writings (p. 126/7). The Journal of Baudrillard Studies continues and expands the critical work on Baudrillard’s theories in the present. My own book on the role of symbolic exchange in Baudrillard’s early works was published in 2009. See the entry for more details or download the book (in German).

*** PS ***

“What are you doing after the Orgy” was an essay by Baudrillard, published in Artforum in Oct. 1983. It plays through a number of ways in which the media constitute reality as spectacle of exposure. The term “obscenity” is used frequently by Baudrillard, which brings together an obvious moral judgement on such exposures, but also a pun on the “ob-scene”, the non-scene which the media create for their own spectacles. The analogy is basically that the media use preconceived models (decors, settings, plots and narratives) to create the scenes in which certain signs (images, discourses, sounds) are presented – most often detached from the contexts in which these signs were recorded or “lived”.

The Italian miracle is the miracle of the scene.

The American miracle is the miracle of the obscene.

Luxury of the senses against the deserts of insignificance. (p.46)

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