Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Only Impossible Exchange Is Possible, by Aurel Schmidt (translated by Alan N. Shapiro)

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Aurel Schmidt:

(translated from the German by Alan N. Shapiro)

Impossible exchange is an impossible subject. In Jean Baudrillard’s book Impossible Exchange (2001),  the matter is treated in such a way that one is better off with an associative and meditative interpretive approach than with a discursive reading. When I read the book, much of it transported me into a state of wonder, other parts I found irritating. If I speak about this book, I do so not as a theorist, but rather as someone taking a walk. Michel Montaigne said: “Je promène mon jugement” [I’m taking my judgment for a walk].

A nice walk brings movement to one’s thoughts. A discourse is also a “course.” What can one do with a book? One can continue it, write it on, add to its poetry. That can be a game, also an exchange. The thinking of exchange goes back to Marcel Mauss. It is an exchange between gift and counter-gift. One party gives, the other takes, but he does not keep it for himself, but instead allows it to continue to circulate. In this light, the reading of Baudrillard’s book is the counter-gift to the gift of his book. But the reading must, consistent with this requirement, lead immediately to a new path-clearing gift for others, in a manner of speaking, to a giving over or a giving further. This is what Marc Guillaume has called “retour-penser” [return-thinking].

It is advisable at this point to weave into the discussion an idea that will later concern us, namely that exchange, or more specifically what Baudrillard understands by exchange, is synonymous with a certain way of thinking, with a certain way of dealing with concepts and posing questions. Exchange means thinking, thinking as much as exchange, exchanging ideas, having a dialog.

In mechanical physics, for every pole there is a corresponding negative pole, and for every cause an effect. This keeps the whole intact. It is the same with exchange. It belongs to exchanging and thinking that for every exchange at least two players, opponents, partners are required. Only the autistic person and the madman can get along without others – that is exactly what characterizes them. The reality of two is – as opposed to that – a strong and indispensable energy.

The thought of a dual prerequisite for exchange occurs to Baudrillard at several places in his book. It is always about others as persons or the other as instance, term, counter-position, in whom we see accentuated, through the hint of “radical otherness” (altérité radicale), the absolute oppositional, uncontractual, uncapturable. The most extreme cases of otherness are death and nothingness.

Without the presence of these others or this otherness, there is no exchange. Baudrillard speaks in this context of a “bipolar relationship” that is not easy to relate to, or worse, where the system short-circuits itself and produces so much critical mass that it implodes. Every system invents for itself an “equation, exchange, value, causality and finality principle, based on regulated antagonisms.” In this way, the system “guarantees the dialectical movement of the whole.” In this way – and only in this way – can a “strategy of otherness” successfully have effect.

Two opposed forces stand in opposition to each other, and “the game has no end.” This principle of duality exists in the sphere of the physical world and biological organization: matter and anti-matter, mind and matter, time and eternity, life and death, I and the other. In the more important area of discourse and the symbolic, of the organization of thinking, dual principles like true and false, reality and sign, sign and meaning, object and desire, are operative. This double or dual dispositive has until now been valid. But since the universe became “quantic” (“without knowing it,” according to Baudrillard), the old premises are no longer valid.

What happened? The effectiveness of the dual dispositive has evaporated. The oppositions, contradictions, paradoxes have dissolved or been driven away, in any case have been absorbed. In the technological age, everything must submit to acceleration and circulation. But the virtual and synthetic substitute-equivalences are not fit for exchangeability. Things no longer correspond to their representation. If everything becomes free-flowing, then it becomes in the end also expendable. It becomes downright liquidated.

In an excursus, Baudrillard explains how in biological development the “revolution of  duality”, as he says, has put an end to “indivisibility, the continuation of the same and endless subdividing.” Sexuality, death, differentiation were a biological progress which led to a sharing and thus a reproduction of forms. With cloning technology, we are walking the path backwards. Sexuality has liberated itself from, on the one hand, sexual reproduction, and, on the other hand, from the function of specification and diversification. It has, in the best case, become a “leisure time activity.” We have liberated ourselves sexually, now we will be freed from sexuality, as Baudrillard says with biting wit.

That is not only a trenchant assertion. If natural reproduction becomes superfluous, then the path leads away from achieved division and separation, in other words from the dual order, back to a pre-sexual or primary unity and to a colossal homogenization of the world. Cloning means the manufacture of identical forms of self, but it especially means: to manufacture another self that is the same as me. Otherness is excluded, there are from then on no others – no otherness – worse, only identical self-sames which can no longer be exchanged against anything. The perfect subject is the subject without others.

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