Baudrillard's Real and Brechtian Interruption
February 2, 2021
The symbolic is neither a concept, an agency, a category, nor a ‘structure’, but an act of symbolic exchange and a social relation which puts an end to the real, which resolves the real, and, at the same time, puts an end to the opposition between the real and the imaginary. (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 133)
This passage is quoted pretty often in the secondary literature, no doubt because it’s the closest Baudrillard ever seems to get to offering anything like a ‘definition’ of symbolic exchange. That said, it is still somewhat baffling. How can an act which is a social relation put an end to the real?
I think that what Baudrillard is getting at here is something very similar to the Brechtian notion of ‘interruption’. Brecht emphasised that the ‘real’ of European realist theatre is primarily a technical effect, the product of a staging apparatus whose function is to separate the narrative space of the performance from the observational space of the audience.
In European theatre the audience does not stand in social relation to the characters, which is to say they do not recognise them as social actors within their narrative space, but as creatures under observation in some other world (in contrast to, for example, Chinese opera). It is only once displaced to an Archimedean point outside narrative space that the audience are able to perceive it as an imaginary distinguished from the real world it portrays, and thereby to judge its value on the accuracy of its representation.
An interruption undermines the separation between the participatory space of the narrative and the Archimedean observational space of the audience. (A separation or fourth wall which is primarily a normative partition—a line across which no obligations travel.) A character makes eye-contact with the audience; addresses them directly as if they shared social space. This act produces a social relation between audience and character where previously there was only an object relation: they now mutually recognise one another as sharing the same space of social participation.
But this is to undermine the real as effect, which was predicated on the separation. The representation relation between imaginary and its referent is only graspable from a position outside it. Once the audience is plunged inside the social space of the imaginary the real is no longer available as a referent, but only as the horizon of a social world which is no longer distinguishable as imaginary.
The arbitrariness of the sign begins when, instead of bonding two persons in an inescapable reciprocity, the signifier starts to refer to the disenchanted world of the signified, the common denominator of the real world, towards which no-one any longer has the least obligation. (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 50)
If the comparison with Brecht is right, then the baseline realism of our times (natural world as referent of scientific theory, use-value as finality of exchange-value, etc) is the product of a technical operation of narrative displacement. The sign is arbitrary not because it refers, but because it no longer refers to an obligation—that is, it no longer mediates a social relation. But this is just to say that signs now pretend to represent a world to those who float about outside it, rather than communicate between those inhabiting it.
If symbolic exchange destroys the real, then it does so by sucking us back inside it. (Why else would it be seductive, fatal?)
- Baudrillard, J. (1993). Symbolic Exchange and Death (I. H. Grant, Tran.). Sage Publications.