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General Equivalence

“A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere.”

– Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age

“General equivalence” is a term Jean Baudrillard employed in one of his last works to describe the void of a non-catalytic media milieu.

Baudrillard believed the electronic media exert a neutralizing and inertia-producing effect on society; that they are destructive both of sociality and of meaning; and that their power lies in the fact that they can unload their fabrications every day without ever having to fear a commensurate, countervailing response – the sort of response that strikes at the level of form, at the medium itself rather than more narrowly at its fleeting and forgettable contents.

Later in his career he argued that the world had been turned into a place of empty transparency and visibility, and that what was once known to be real ceased to exist. As he saw it, life had become de-realized, tele-visualized. Whereas many celebrated the triumph of the Western neoliberal model at the end of the last century, Baudrillard lamented that the most such a world could offer was a "banalized, technized, upholstered way of life, carefully shielded from self-questioning." [1]

Something profound has changed in the last half-century, he thought. Something both ontological and teleological. It is not just another paradigm shift that results from the arrival of a new medium, as was seen in the transition from print-based culture to tele-visual culture: it is more serious than that. The change we are witnessing rends right to the marrow of our sense of time and place, history and meaning, individual existence and human destiny.

One symptom of this change is the non-occurrence of historically meaningful social events. “We are passing into a realm where events no longer truly take place,” Baudrillard wrote, “by dint of their very production and dissemination in ‘real time’ – where they become lost in the void of news and information...The non-event is not when nothing happens. It is, rather, the realm of perpetual change, of a ceaseless updating, of an incessant succession in real time, which produces this general equivalence, this indifference, this banality that characterizes the zero degree of the event.” [2]

A state of general equivalence is characterized by the following:

1) The mutability of surface phenomena, but the immutability of the system that produces and governs it. Surface phenomena would include the quotidian output of media imagery and montages, cultural fads and fashions, the coming and going of actors on the political stage. “System” refers to the market economy, the broadcast machinery, technologies of information, and the military apparatus.

2) Undifferentiation. Our global culture creates a profusion of every imaginable kind, not just of goods and services but also of ideas and information. But within this culture no single idea can break away from all others, become singular and superior, gather momentum and ultimately call the entire system into question. No thought, idea, or ideology can escape the rubberstamp of “content” anymore. There is a kind of straitjacketing that occurs whereby all human endeavors are ultimately neutralized, siloed, contained. Everything is absorbed by this culture, just about everyone becomes a peddler and a brand, and at day’s end everything comes to look and feel the same. In short, undifferentiated.

3) Non-catalysis. In the past, the flow of information triggered civic and social responses. Thought and action, news and policy-making, opinion and the inclination to respond went together. They had not yet been decoupled. In the past, the pen was mightier than the sword, and poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Today matters are rather different. What we have, Baudrillard tells us, is a brutal excess of information that has no equivalent in the real event. An acceleration has occurred in the production of information and news and advertising, accompanied by a deceleration of initiative and impetus. Ours is a culture “where everything merely follows everything else and cancels it out, to the point of re-creating total immobilism: the impression, amid the whirl of current events, that nothing changes.”

This general equivalence leaves people feeling empty and dissatisfied, because “there is in us an immense desire for events. And an immense disappointment, as all the contents of the information media are desperately inferior to the power of the broadcasting machinery.” What is wanted is a “maximal event, a ‘fateful’ event – which repairs the immense banalization of life by the information machine.”

A Way Out?

By the end of his life Baudrillard believed the system was seeking completion, which is to say, total domination: a world grounded in money and sign exchange, free of every form of critical consciousness and contestation, and marked by the metastasis of ever-evolving virtual technologies.

Gone from this “completed” world, or “integral reality” as Baudrillard described it, is the human subject of old, the subject “that is an agency of will, freedom and representation, the subject of power, knowledge and history.” In fact, he thought a final solution was very much in the cards – the end of the human species as a culmination of digital and virtual life.

What, if anything, challenges this system? For Baudrillard it is the “real event”: an event counter-offensive in nature, unassimilable, irreconcilable, something that resists “mediatization” and creates energy and momentum. “Only events set free from news and information (and us with them) create a fantastic longing,” he wrote. “These alone are ‘real,’ since there is nothing to explain them and the imagination welcomes them with open arms.”

The other challenge comes within the system itself. Something happens – an accident or convulsion or simple unforeseen event – that pushes back against finality, that leaves despots chagrined at the end of the day.

"Into any system as its peak, at its point of perfection," Baudrillard wrote, “[an event] reintroduces internal negativity and death. It is a form of the turning of power against itself, as if, alongside the ingredients of its power, every system secretly nourished an evil spirit that would ensure that system were overturned."


Notes

1. Jean Baudrillard, “The Pyres of Autumn,” New Left Review, January-February 2006.

2. This and other quotes in the article can be found in Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil or The Lucidity Pact (Oxford: Berg, 2005), pp. 122, 127, 134. The Kierkegaard quote at the top can be found in Chris Turner’s introduction to the volume.

(October 27, 2019)


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