Richard Price brings the “Lush Life” to Berlin

May 30, 2010 § 1 Comment

On a warm, sunny evening at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, American author Richard Price read from his latest book, Lush Life, a crime novel set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. From the gallery opening out to Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Gate, Price’s reading was remarkable for the vivid style of his presentation which found unintended echos in the scene behind him. Impersonating more than one character through his tone of voice, jargon and versatile lingo, the city of Berlin seemed to answer back through the glass veil.

Price became famous as a screenwriter for numerous Hollywood movies such as The Color of Money (1985), Michael Jackson’s/ Martin Scorsese’s Bad (1987), the reissue of blaxploitation classic Shaft (2000), and most recently the HBO series The Wire. Next to his screenplays he is also an acclaimed author of novels, which are marked by an “ear for dialogue”, bringing to life the multicultural, multidimensional and contradictory voices and views of inhabitants in metropolitan American cities. Asked about the role of the city in his novels, Price conceded that the city was an important character, created through the voices and stories of the people who inhabit it. The format of the crime novel is here especially suited to explore the urban interplay of languages, voices and secret stories.

In The Wire, Price and his co-authors have followed this lead and laid out a panoply of voices from Baltimore, making the city the central character of the narration in its divers episodes. Price mentioned “social realists” on city life and more poetic authors such as James Baldwin and Hubert Selby Jr. as his most admired authors at an early age. In college, the “bebop” feel for rhythm of the beat poets was a strong inspiration for his style, although he would “be asleep in three minutes” today reading through Jack Kerouac’s On the Road again.

Price’s view of working for the movie industry was highly amusing to the audience that consisted mainly of scholars and professional devotees to American literature and culture. Having to balance writing novels with commercial script writing for movies and television, Price professed no interest in literary theory or scholarship. Rather than think about what he should do, he rather wanted to “get it done”. His unpretentious and outspoken look at his own work was a welcome reminder of the separate spheres academic and popular writers still inhabit. Doing something lucrative, Price summed up, allowed him to pursue his novel writing and have greater control over his work. On the occasion of the German American Studies Association annual conference, entitled “American Economies“, the reading of Lush Life and Price’s take on artistic and commercial production delightfully challenged the tacit separation of markets and metaphysics.

define: symbolic

February 27, 2008 § 1 Comment

You say:

Symbolic Pronunciation

Do you mean?

"Symbolic." Oxford Dictionary of English. Ed. by Angus Stevenson. Third Edition. 2010. p. 1802.

Or one of the 172,000,000 other ways of defining it?

Possibly, it was Ernst Cassirer who defined man as a symbolic being, highlighting that as humans we use language and symbols to grasp reality. His monumental “Philosophy of Symbolic Forms” (appeared in three volumes 1923-1929) was an attempt to understand the function of symbols to structure social life, the passing or recurrence of time and the stability the use of symbols gave to human existence. The importance of this work is its insistence on the inner logic of the symbols themselves, the practices associated with their use, which can be totally detached from anything such as truth or reality. Cassirer is an important, and often unacknowledged, prelude to the debates about signs, semiotics and the reality-making qualities of communications media, which have defined most of twentieth century discourse on humans’ relation to their symbolic environment.

The reference to an event or an act as symbolic suspends a relation between symbol and act as logical, as necessary or utilitarian. A monk burning his body in public may not alter the conditions of his sect of being politically suppressed, but the act draws attention to such conditions so as to open a space of reconsideration. A friendly handshake between opposing political factions may symbolize an act of consensus or reconciliation, but the basis for reaching such a consensus will consist in laborious negotiations behind closed doors, heated debate and intricate maneuvering. The symbolic act of cutting a red tape does not functionally distinguish a building site of a highway from a finished highway – the road is the same before and after the cutting of the tape – but symbolically the public investment in the road is acknowledged in the act of cutting the tape, before the highway is put into public service. In all of these examples, the symbolic function of an act exceeds – and in a way universalizes – a plain social interaction.

In looking at the symbolic qualities of an act we simply suspend other modes of explanation for this act, by focusing on the self-referential qualities of symbols and their relations to other symbols. An analysis of media representations that starts with the same preference for symbols – instead of just signs – that the media exhibit, can be an analysis of power and meaning. Those who deploy the symbols are in a position of power to define in which terms, in which symbolic relations a particular question is phrased. A symbol condenses a multitude of other meanings so as to keep each individual meaning in a latent contradiction to other meanings. The symbol is thus ambivalent as to its meaning, which makes symbolic representations a welcome mode of communication for mass media. Through their latent ambivalence symbols address audiences in different ways. Each latent meaning of a symbol sustains one or another opinion, yet the symbol never fully, never completely sustains only one side of a debate. Because the media bring into circulation such ambivalent symbols, they can assume a posture of neutrality, while influencing the debate entirely through their choice of symbolic ambivalence.

This picture was printed in a newspaper with the telling caption “Violent Youth (symbolic image)”. The discussion attached to this image was certainly not dedicated to a particular incident of youth violence, but discussed more general circumstances. This picture is thus not a picture of this young man, at a particular time, shown in the act of attacking; the picture is more likely even staged for the aim of producing a picture. But the attributes of the man in association with the theme bring into play typical symbolic tensions and prejudices. As a scene shot from an action movie this image would create very different impressions, maybe of independence, masculinity, street-wiseness, etc. But as a “symbolic image” for youth violence the image is brings together an entire semantic field of attributes associated with the sociology of youth violence. The picture thus evokes a set of commonplace assumptions about the reasons for such violence and the “typicality” of its perpetrators.

The elements of the picture in a symbolic reading map an entire social existence, marked by body cult (piercings) and carelessness (beard), disguise (hoodie, cap) and open threat (fist), raw and unsophisticated violence (knife), male viciousness (look) etc. All these elements stand in an ambivalent relation to symbols which imply the exact opposite in other contexts: clean-shaven, hightech criminals in suits, who are in fictional contexts endowed with vastly more positive attributes despite the larger scope of their crimes. By bringing up  a symbolic tension between what are believed to be the most typical elements of a youthful renegade and its semantic oppositions, the image remains symbolic, not only of a violent youth, but also of the media strategy to prefer symbolic images over merely illustrative ones.

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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