Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives

SRB Archives

This review appeared in Volume 7 (1) of the Semiotic Review of Books.

Paradox of the Sign

Rex Butler

Baudrillard and Signs: Signification Ablaze. Gary Genosko. London: Routledge. 1994. 197pp. ISBN 0-415-11256-7

As its title indicates, Gary Genosko's book is a study of the sign in the work of the French sociologist and theorist Jean Baudrillard. As such, it is a long overdue and much welcomed book. The question of the sign is the key to Baudrillard's work and not such things as his relationship to the Collège de sociologie (Pefanis 1991), Marxism (Kellner 1989) or postmodernism (Gane 1991). Or, to put it another way, the role these things play in Baudrillard's work is best understood in terms of what they allow him to say about the sign. Beneath all the various topics in the "real" that Baudrillard has traversed throughout his career - the system of objects, consumption, death, Marx, Foucault, the masses, America, the Gulf War - there has run the same fundamental investigation into the sign and systems structured by the sign.

The book is divided into four chapters. In the first, 'Bar Games', Genosko looks in great detail at Baudrillard's For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972). In that early work, Baudrillard argues that a certain exclusion or "barring" allows the possibility of value within political economy and attempts to reintroduce what is excluded from it in order to expose its underlying assumptions. More specifically, using an analogy taken from Saussurean linguistics, Baudrillard contends that, just as the referent is "barred" by the signifier, so use value is now excluded by exchange value. But at the same time, as Genosko notes, Baudrillard is not simply agitating for the return of use value. For him, use value is henceforth only an effect of exchange value (as the signified is only an effect of the signifier). In a kind of inversion often seen in Lacan, Genosko expresses it algorithmically:

As opposed to this, Baudrillard asks what is excluded to allow exchange value to account for use value in this way. What is it that allows the exchange between the two? It is this that Baudrillard and after him Genosko call the symbolic. It is symbolic exchange which allows the possibility of swapping exchange value for use value, just as it is the symbolic dimension of language which allows the passage between signifier and signified. Again, expressing it algorithmically:

Two remarks are pertinent here. The first is that the symbolic in the sense Genosko is trying to define it is what breaches the "bar" separating signifier and signified, exchange and use values. Or, more exactly, it is what at once allows this bar to be erected and what in the end allows us to cross from one side of it to the other. But the symbolic itself has no real place in these formulae of political economy, despite its representation above. It is not so much either the nominator or the denominator of those fractions, but the very space between them. As Genosko says, contrasting it (perhaps incorrectly) with the Lacanian bar that separates from signifier and signified: "The symbolic is not barred by the Lacanian bar. It does not return like the repressed, since it never had a place in the territory of the sign. Signification bars the symbolic. The latter breaks the law of the sign; it loosens the bar and tears the sign apart. The symbolic is an effractor" (11). The second thing to note about that equation above is the analogy Genosko draws between symbolic exchange (SbE) and use value (UV). He writes: "What Baudrillard 'found' in Marx was a complementary effect of a structural deduction which can only admit one unique element which does not acquire value in terms of differential relations in a system. But, like the symbolic, use value in its present conceptual form is 'never truly inscribed' in the domain of value" (14, citing Baudrillard 1972). But here a subtle distinction is to be drawn, which Genosko goes on to make. If use value is excluded from economic exchange in Marx, it nevertheless actually exists outside of it as what guarantees its possibility, as what fundamentally is being exchanged. The symbolic, on the other hand, if it is what allows the exchange between signifier and signified, exchange and use value, also does not exist outside of it, can only be seen as its ghostly effect. The symbolic is not real, but - to adopt a Lacanian terminology for a moment - Real. It at once makes possible, and is only made possible by, political economy.

In the remaining chapters of the book, Genosko follows up this abstract analysis of the symbolic with what are essentially a series of case studies. In the second chapter, 'Simulation and Semiosis', he looks at Baudrillard's well-known essay 'The Orders of Simulacra' from Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), arguing that in the change from the first to the third - and later to the fourth - orders of simulation we can see a passage from the symbol through the icon, the Saussurean sign and up to the index. Here too, his concern is finally how, in the form of the Peircean index, sign and reality manage to exchange themselves for each other. There is a kind of movement beyond their separation, as in Saussurean linguistics, back to their being reunited in the fourth order of simulacra - a coming together that can only ultimately be guaranteed by the symbolic or its equivalent. It is not to say that the sign simply refers to the real, but that against Saussure's bracketing off of the referent, sign and reality are in some sort of indexical "contiguity" (53). Genosko writes: "Baudrillard's belief that signs evolve and produce themselves with no basic reference standard is not entirely at odds with the Peircean view [...] The production of signs by other signs is not a feature peculiar to simulation, nor does this feature warrant the claim that signs are somehow less than things. Reality is successfully produced and reproduced through signs for both Baudrillard and Peirce" (56-57).

In the third chapter, 'Varieties of Symbolic Exchange', Genosko looks at Baudrillard's work for examples of this symbolic exchange. He turns first of all to Baudrillard's valorisation of so-called "weak logic" (72), in which, like the Sophist of the Platonic dialogues, it is by the refusal to differentiate oneself from one's opponent that one wins. He then examines Baudrillard's famous analysis of Saussure's Anagrammes in Symbolic Exchange and Death, and how the disorder that Saussure discovered there but refused to credit can be turned against the order of systematic differences that makes meaning possible. Here in these anagrams there is a kind of language that leaves no remainder, in which sense cannot be separated from the words through which it is expressed. Lastly, Genosko takes up the connection between death and the symbolic, both in Symbolic Exchange and Death and in the section 'The Hostage' from Fatal Strategies (1983). In the latter, the hostage, like the symbolic itself, is at once what cannot be exchanged, priceless, and only exists insofar as he can be exchanged, is worthless. He is both what allows the possibility of negotiation between the terrorist and society and is only a function of that relationship. Lastly, Genosko looks at the question of the "poetry" of Baudrillard's own language, the way it aspires to be a discourse without remainder, to make its connections immediately outside of meaning, to work like a kind of joke or witticism. Again, it would be the symbolic through which it operates and not any outside referent.

In the fourth and final chapter, 'Empty Signs and Extravagant Objects', Genosko tries to sketch the socio-cultural background to Baudrillard's choice of America and the desert as locales for the symbolic in America (1988), and the theatrical background to Baudrillard's choices of the "crystal" and the "object" as metaphors for the symbolic in Fatal Strategies. (It is well known that at the beginning of his career Baudrillard translated a number of well-known dramatists' works from German to French, for example, Brecht and Peter Weiss). Genosko even admits the "New Age" connotations of these crystals, although he does acknowledge that Baudrillard's crystals are "cruel" (148) and do not belong to the pacifying mysticism of today's Neo-hippies. But again, crucially, if the crystal is the key to the "hieroglyphics" (150) of political economy, it is also transparent, invisible. It is that strange object - a pure space, a "bar" - which at once allows all exchange and is itself inexchangeable. It is the crystal that for Marx rendered exchange both visible and enigmatic, for behind the opacity of commodities he glimpsed the untamed quality of pure objects (150). Exchange is only possible insofar as it cannot be seen, insofar as we do not finally know what is being exchanged. The symbolic in rendering representation and exchange explicit also stops it, prevents it taking place. This is why analysis is always a form of criticism, why to speak of the symbolic as what allows exchange and exists only in exchange is also to speak of the limits to exchange and of what cannot be exchanged. Or, as Genosko says towards the beginning of his first chapter of those formulae of political economy and linguistics that he reveals to be fundamentally analogous, linked to each other through the notion of symbolic exchange: "What is ironic is that this so-called conversion table will also be used to express the limits of convertibility at the horizon of a generalised structural law of value, beyond which lies symbolic exchange" (8).

As we suggest, this study of the sign in Baudrillard marks a new phase in the reception of his work, away from those commentators who look at it in the context of other theorists and social movements and, thankfully, away from the "wild", irrational analyses of someone like Kroker (1986, 1989). The satisfying aspect about looking at the sign in Baudrillard is that this is to take him up in his own terms: the sign and systems organised by the sign are the one consistent subject that runs throughout all of his work. For all its puns and playfulnesses of language, therefore, Genosko's is a sober and responsible book: it understands that, as with all objects of study, it is Baudrillard's own work at least in part which sets the parameters within which it must be read. To speak of Baudrillard in terms of Marxism, for example, as Kellner does, when Baudrillard says that Marxism is no longer a viable social alternative, is merely to beg the question. One either agrees with Kellner or not, but his analysis does not actually engage with Baudrillard's work in terms which it would recognise. And perhaps the other feature worthy of note in Genosko's book is the way in which he tries to restore the question of referentiality to it. In his shift from what he calls Saussurean "Euro-semiology" (51) to Peircean pragmatism, there is more than a simple cultural chauvinism at stake. For Genosko, it is Peircean semiotics which is better able to grapple with the ambiguous but nevertheless important role of the referent in Baudrillard. Baudrillard finally does not do away with all notion of the real, but rather asks the question of how the sign is able to refer to the real, what relationship those systems he examines have to the real. In other words, quite correctly, Genosko sees Baudrillard not as doing away with the real by means of the simulacrum, but asking what of the real remains when all is simulacrum, how to defend the real against the attempt of all systems (including his own) to speak for it.

And in his efforts to put the question of referentiality back on the agenda in studies of Baudrillard, Genosko provides us with a detailed history of the issue of the referent in theories of semiotics and linguistics throughout the twentieth century. Throughout all four chapters there are scattered brief summaries of the work of such analysts of language as Benveniste, Greimas, Hjelmslev, Jakobson, Peirce and Saussure and its reconceptualisation in the hands of such contemporary theorists as Barthes, Eco, Deleuze and Guattari, Kristeva and Lacan. One could variously assess the accuracy of Genosko's accounts of these figures and specifically of the status of the referent in their work, but this would really be to miss the point of his argument. He is not so much claiming that Baudrillard is directly influenced by these thinkers as trying to set up a broad intellectual context in which it makes sense to pose the question of the relationship of the sign to the referent in his work.

But perhaps, indeed, Genosko could have dispensed with this vast armature of erudition and made his argument simpler. For he is right, Baudrillard does not engage with the question of the sign in any complex sense; he never takes up (even in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign) the issue of the sign as such. Rather, for him it is always a matter of the sign in context. It is not so much signs as systems of rationality structured by the sign that are his real interest. And, more specifically, it is the basic paradox of the sign going all the way to Plato's dialogue Cratylus that he repeats over and over again in his work. That is, the greatness of Baudrillard's work lies not in the depth of his analysis of the sign, as with those other thinkers Genosko cites, but in his profound inventiveness in troping the same basic paradox of the sign in different ways, the wonderful and multifarious examples he is able to give of its workings. What is this paradox of the sign in Plato? Let us go back to Plato's Cratylus where Plato's spokesman, Socrates, and Cratylus are talking:

Socrates: Let us suppose the existence of two objects. One of them shall be Cratylus and the other the image of Cratylus, and we will suppose, further, that some god makes not only a representation such as a painter would make of your outward form and colour; but also creates an inward organisation like yours, having the same warmth and softness, and into this infuses motion and soul and mind, such as you have, and in a word copies all your qualities, and places themby you in another form. Would you say that this was Cratylus and the image of Cratylus or that there were two Cratyluses.

Cratylus: I should say that there were two Cratyluses (Plato 1875: 257)

Plato's point here is that when the copy resembles the original too closely it no longer resembles it at all or, to put this the other way around, that the copy only resembles the original by being different from it. It is this essential insight that Baudrillard repeats throughout his work, taking it both as his object of analysis and as a tool to use against those systems he opposes. For instance, let us look again at his essay 'The Orders of Simulacra', which Genosko treats of in his second chapter. Here we would say that Baudrillard does not at all erect a complex discourse on different sign-functions (symbol, icon, sign, index), as Genosko alleges, but precisely plays out the various consequences of that Platonic paradox of representation.

In the first order of simulation, signs break free of "reciprocal obligation" (Baudrillard 1983: 84) and exchange themselves no longer directly but through the medium of a third. Signs do not attempt to become equivalent to the real or to pass themselves off as real, but rather play on their very difference from the real. Hence the two distinctive Baroque forms of stucco and the automaton. Just as stucco admits its artificiality (when we move around the room, the illusion is dispelled), so too the automaton is not the equivalent of man but his metaphor. It is the automaton's difference from man that affects us, that allows us to see its unexpected affinity to him. In the second order of simulation, there is a gradual loss of that difference between the sign and the real that characterised the first order. It is the time of the Industrial Revolution, the mass production of objects, in which we can no longer tell the difference between the original and the copy. As Baudrillard says: "The relationship between [the objects of a series] is no longer that of an original to its counterfeit - neither analogy nor reflection - but equivalence, indifference" (Baudrillard 1983: 97). But it is only in the third order, through which we are living now, that we have simulation properly speaking. Here the system attempts to imitate not so much the real as the very difference between the system and the real that allows their equivalence. This is what Baudrillard calls "deterrence" (Baudrillard 1983: 44): the induction of a certain effect of the real only all the better to do away with it. Characteristic of this third order of simulacra is the individual "personnalisation" of consumables in our more advanced stage of mass production, inflected, like genetic DNA, "by minute and aleatory differences" (Baudrillard 1983: 105) - but differences that are not the true differences of the first order of simulacra, but only simulated, fabricated.

Of course, all of this is very hurried, but hopefully it is some way of showing that what is at stake in Baudrillard is not so much a complex account of semiotics as a dazzlingly creative allegory of the Platonic paradox of the sign. And the "symbolic" and all of its equivalents - waste, death, the masses, the fatal object - are tropes for the fact that, pushed too far, the resemblance between the sign and its referent, the system and the world, begins to produce the opposite effect from that intended. The two no longer resemble each other at all. There is always a certain limit to the attempt of any system to model the world, and this limit is the "real". It is not that we can say what this "real" is, but it is that principle which ensures the reversal and reversion of all systems. These are some of the rich possibilities opened up by Genosko's book, which in taking up the question of the sign initiates a new stage in Baudrillard studies. The next book that demands to be written would be not so much a study of the sign in terms of Baudrillard as a study of Baudrillard in terms of the sign. For we never have the sign as such in him, but a sign already in the world, a world already shaped by the sign.


Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. Simulations. New York: Colombia University.

Gane, Mike. 1991. Baudrillard: From Critical to Fatal Theory. London: Routledge

Kellner, Douglas. 1989. Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Post-Modernism and Beyond. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kroker, Arthur and Cook, David. 1986. The Post-Modern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Esthetics. Montreal: New World Perspectives.

Kroker, Arthur, Kroker, Marilouise and Cook, David. 1989. Panic Encyclopaedia. Montreal: NewWorld Perspectives.

Pefanis, Julian. 1991. Heterology and the Post-Modern: Bataille, Baudrillard and Lyotard. Durham: Duke University Press.

Plato. 1875. Dialogues of Plato, Vol. II. London: Clarendon Press.

Rex Butler is a Lecturer at the Department of Art History, University of Queensland, Australia. He has written a book on contemporary Australian art, An Uncertain Smile (Sydney: Artspace), and edited an anthology of writings, What is Appropriation? (Melbourne: World Art Books). He has contributed an essay to a forthcoming collection, The Art of Theory: Baudrillard in the '90s, edited by Nicholas Zurbrugg (London: Sage Press). He is currently preparing a manuscript for consideration by Sage Press, Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real.

Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives