3.8 / Without Price and With(out) Worth

Against Exchange

By Matthew David Rana February 1, 2012

Image: Viktor Rosdahl. A twenty-four-hour note designed for Time Currency, Current Times (2009), an e-flux time/bank project.

“Either a thing is worthless, or it is priceless.” –Jean Baudrillard, Passwords.1

The following is an excerpt from a longer essay in progress, in which I reconsider exchange-based practices in recent art from an object-oriented perspective. Although it does not represent the entire scope of my argument, this text briefly outlines the resources that I employ in my effort to set the stage for a deeper, more profound engagement with objects—particularly those that circulate within a contemporary art context. As part of a living document, this excerpt provides a meandering and schematic perspective and provisional conclusions. However, as a potential framework for thought, it offers a path towards reconsidering our relationship not just to art or the objects that occupy our everyday lives but also to those that are both more familiar and more obscure, which fall outside our usual definition of the object.

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While some proponents of socially engaged art argue for reinvigorated forms of the gift economy, institutionalized barter systems, or—as in the case of time/bank, a recent e-flux project initiated by Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle—alternative forms and networks of exchange, my argument begins from the proposition that exchange is an impossibility. I realize that this may seem like an absurd and naive polemic. After all, commodities are bought and sold, goods are bartered for services, trades are initiated, and gifts are given and received. Without a doubt, such transactions exist. But consider for a moment Jean Baudrillard’s words quoted above. At first glance, they too may seem frivolous. But upon reflection, they suggest the impossibility of exchange, not just in any economic transaction but also in any relationship at all.

In his introduction to The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Arjun Appadurai argues that objects can be thought of as having social lives.2 Shifting his focus from the forms of exchange to the things exchanged, Appadurai claims that politics, rather than factors of scarcity or use, establishes the link between exchange and value. Objects circulate not merely as use-values (their practical utility) or fetishes (their symbolic utility) but as commodity-signs regulated within different regimes of value, in which they signify differently and have different political and material stakes. As a corrective to anthropological and Eurocentric tendencies that counterpose gift economies to capitalist markets, Appadurai demonstrates how regimes of value vary according to cartographies of power, mapped according to such factors as race, class, gender, and geography. Not only does this mean that the United States dollar is spent differently in the Eurozone than it is in California—or that gaining or losing five thousand dollars is more significant for some than for others—but also that a leopard-print T-shirt will “speak” much differently whether worn in Nairobi or Tokyo, on the streets of Berlin, or inside a Santa Monica gallery. An object’s exchange value—how it comes to occupy a particular position on the map and how it comes to speak in a particular way—constitutes its social life.

Yet, while Appadurai generally limits his objects’ “lives” to their valuation within specific transactional contexts (that is, the judgments of value made by subjects in various regimes of power and privilege), Baudrillard proposes that objects possess capacities to resist the judgments of human subjects who are sure of dominating them. For him, the pursuit of human mastery is a foolhardy symptom of modernity that, in its pursuit of technological innovation and the accumulation of knowledge, seeks to demystify, measure, and quantify objects—or, in other words, to use them up. In this scenario, the object is caught between two extremes. On the one hand, it is economized and reduced to a fixed meaning; on the other hand, it is hermeneutically exhausted by a surplus of potential meanings. Both cases, Baudrillard asserts, emerge from the erroneous equivocation between the signifier and the signified.3 Indeed, for the theorist of the simulacrum, both signifier and signified are irreducible to each other and produce reality at the same level. Put differently, one cannot be measured in the other’s terms. In contrast to thinkers such as the sociologist Bruno Latour, who holds that the agency of objects consists of their effects and relations with other actors in a network, Baudrillard maintains that, although objects may refer to the logic of a society, they never act socially; instead, they demonstrate their autonomy irrationally, through ambivalence and seduction.4 Considered this way, the object always exceeds both its relations and our ability to grasp its meaning(s). Here, the “social life” of objects is intensified far beyond the threshold of the marketplace, of exchange and human control. Animated by unpredictable and mysterious forces, the object is a singularity that requires no justification other than its very existence. There are no diminishing returns, no value added.

As compelling as these insights are, Baudrillard nonetheless has a somewhat limited conception of objects grounded in their commodity (and virtual) form. Although he claims that the signifier and the signified both produce reality, his assertion that the real has been replaced by hyperreality (in which images, for example, are experienced as being somehow more real than reality itself) does not sufficiently account for the possibility of the interaction between the two realms. One simply cancels the other. But even if we were to accept this, what of the friction that takes place during the process?

One contemporary thinker has developed a significantly expanded understanding of objects that not only foregrounds the ongoing friction between the real and unreal but also addresses the discord within objects themselves. Drawing on the work of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, the philosopher Graham Harman’s fourfold metaphysics envisions a universe populated exclusively by objects. Against what he calls “the philosophy of access,” which privileges humanity’s relation with the world, Harman proposes a philosophy in which object-to-object relations take place on the same plane as those between subjects and objects. In his view, the way that a human relates to cotton is qualitatively no different than the way that fire does: both objects reduce cotton to the sensual qualities they are capable of apprehending, respectively.5 Consequently, neither human nor fire can access the cotton in its totality. Indeed, the same can be said for the cotton itself, which is internally torn between its specific mode of being and the sensual manifestations that emanate from it. Just as we cannot claim exhaustive access to a stone, neither can the stone have exhaustive access to us through our acts of kicking, throwing, or carving. And although a stone can be thought to encounter us in the same moment that we encounter it, both stone and human withdraw into a reality that can never find its equivalent in sense experience and which can only be apprehended obliquely. “The only way to do justice to objects,” Harman contends, “is to consider that their reality is free of all relation, deeper than all reciprocity.”6

As the basis for a speculative metaphysics, Harman’s rethinking of the subject/object distinction implies a fundamental ontological shift. According to this view, humans occupy the same existential register as cumulus clouds, oak trees, iPhones, and Minotaurs. The point, however, is not that things as diverse as one’s great-grandmother, a Boeing 747, and the dragon Smaug are all equally real but that all are equally objects. The implications are far-reaching. For, as Harman puts it, “this does not entail a projection of human properties onto the non-human world, but rather the reverse…instead of placing souls into sand and stones, we find something sandy or stony in the human soul.”7

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Taken together, these three thinkers can provide the framework for a radical reorganization of thought, as we stand at the edge of profound shifts in the global economy and ecology. In terms of the stated goals of much exchange-based art and social practice, this is not about intersubjectivity or about making the world more sustainable, more equitable, or less alienated. Nor is this about “restoring” the economy to its supposedly premodern form as an extension of social relations, in an attempt to counteract the violence of late capitalism. Rather, being composed of equal parts political economy, nihilism, and metaphysics, this is about singularity.

In relation to contemporary art, this should not be misunderstood as a vulgar argument for a return to craft or sculpture—or a way of saying that artists should not be compensated for their work since what they do is essentially worthless. Neither ought an expanded notion of the object lead to the conclusion that everything from rivers to mythological creatures and paintings are simply forms of private property or fungible assets. As the global debt crisis unfolds, a growing interest in attaching wealth to tangible objects has emerged: art objects increasingly represent stable investments, while a return to the gold standard is preached by “ninety-nine percenters” and Republican party candidates alike. Yet nothing could be further from the point. Instead, an object-oriented approach deals precisely with what escapes quantification. The movement it proposes resonates with the uncertainty and ambivalence of a network of hidden forces that cannot be expressed in terms of a word, a sign, or a shake of hands. Because, if things, considered in their broadest sense, can be simultaneously without price and without worth, then their agency must depend on the secret remainders that we can neither estimate nor judge. Exceeding the calculations of profit and loss, of reciprocity and fairness, objects can never be mastered, owned, or grasped, even as they change hands.

 

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NOTES:

1. Jean Baudrillard, Passwords, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2003), 10.

2. Arjun Appadurai, ed., “Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

3. Jean Baudrillard, “Toward a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign,” trans. Carl R. Lovitt and Denise Klopsch, in SubStance 5, no. 15 (1976) “Socio-Criticism”: 115.

4. Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities…Or the End of the Social and Other Essays, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and John Johnston, 68 (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983).

5. In the case of humans, this might be through its texture whereas in the case of fire, it is through flammability.

6. Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (Winchester: Zero Books, 2010), 47.

7. Harman, 46.

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