The subject as “gold standard”

From Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death. In this passage he likens the demise of the gold standard with the demise of the unitary subject, both anchored by a myth of transcendental value.

But we also discover this in the flotation of all the categories of political economy once they lose their gold-reference, labour power and social production: labour and non-labour, labour and capital, become commutable, all logic has dissolved, and we discover this in the flotation of all the categories of consciousness where the mental equivalent of the gold-standard, the subject, has been lost. There are no more authorities to which to refer, under whose jurisdiction producers could exchange their values in accordance with controlled equivalents: the end of the gold-standard. There are no more authorities to which to refer, under whose aegis a subject could exchange objects dialectically or exchange their determinations around a stable identity in accordance with definite rules: the end of the conscious subject … Today, individuals, disinvested as subjects and robbed of their fixed relations, are drifting, in relation to one another, into an incessant mode of transferential fluctuations: flows, connections, disconnections, transference/countertransference.

I have been trying to write about similar ideas recently under the rubrics of “postauthenticity” “viral selves” and “circulation for circulation’s sake.”

When you read passages like the following as being about “virality,” a clear example of pure circulation for its own sake, what he is talking about becomes clearer.

from now on, signs are exchanged against each other rather than against the real (it is not that they just happen to be exchanged against each other, they do so on condition that they are no longer exchanged against the real). The emancipation of the sign : remove this ‘archaic’ obligation to designate something and it finally becomes free, indifferent and totally indeterminate, in the structural or combinatory play which succeeds the previous rule of determinate equivalence…

The flotation of money and signs, the flotation of ‘needs’ and ends of production, the flotation of labour itself the commutability of every term is accompanied by speculation and a limitless inflation (and we really have total liberty no duties, disaffection and general disenchantment; but this remains a magic, a sort of magical obligation which keeps the sign chained up to the real, capital has freed signs from this ‘naivety’ in order to deliver them into pure circulation).

The point Baudrillard emphasizes is that without an anchoring referent for “value,” there is only an accelerating circulation of signs, which overwrites previous experiences of “freedom.” Freedom can only be understood as “free play of signifiers” and the more demanding forms of freedom that hinge on responsibility and rights become impossible to ground. You can only “inflate” the subject rather than secure its dignity.


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