Baudrillard and Incompleteness

April 13, 2021

This has provoked some thoughts:

Deleuze and Derrida attempt to draw opposite metaphysical consequences from the metalogical incompleteness results: an immanent system that literally includes even pure nonsense, or an always-unfinished tracing of the undecidable limits of systematicity?

— gil, a finite mode (@gdmorejon) April 20, 2021

The “metalogical incompleteness result” is a reference to Gödel’s theorem, which states that any sufficiently expressive formal system is either inconsistent or incomplete. While the significance of this result for philosophical semantics (which typically concerns informal systems) is hardly unambiguous, and has often been disputed, it is certainly suggestive in the logical tension it establishes between completeness and consistency. At the very least it warns us to be careful to separate matters of inconsistency from those of undecidability, and it is along this axis that the comparison between Deleuze and Derrida is being made.

If the classical ambition of a philosophical system free from both inconsistency and incompleteness is hopeless, as Gödel’s theorem hints, then the positions attributed to Deleuze and Derrida represent different choices as to which bug to reinterpret as a feature. For Deleuze, whose commitment to radical immanence forces him to reject undecidability as a residue of transcendence, it is inconsistency we must learn to live with. (I’m not entirely convinced this is a fair gloss of Deleuze’s position, but even if not it is a useful caricature.) For Derrida, the lesson to be drawn is that since consistency is a condition of meaningfulness, incompleteness should be understood not as a deficiency of a system but as a desiderata, itself a positive condition of meaningfulness. Since an incomplete system is unable to fix the truth-conditions of all its statements, all systems of meaning will be inherently unstable and self-transcending, constantly absorbing old undecidabilities at the expense of producing new ones in an always-unfinished dynamic process.

These two responses concern systems of meaning in the abstract. This has got me thinking about how this disjunction could be applied to Baudrillard, a thinker with similar concerns but whose primary concern is to analyse the particular meaning-systems we encounter in the present. On the general question, Baudrillard’s position is not dissimilar to that attributed to Derrida: concepts like “ambivalence” and “radical alterity” play the role of the undecidable in Baudrillard’s corpus, and are frequently presented as required by or symptomatic of true communication. But on the concrete historical question, he wants to say that communication has in some important sense been rendered impossible. As I read him in light of Gödel’s disjunction, the key element of Baudrillard’s analysis is the assertion that there are features of the symbolic economy of the present which actively impose completeness and thereby produce inconsistency, undercutting meaningfulness.

To impose completeness is to exclude undecidability, or, put differently, to constrain available signs to only those which are already fully decidable (i.e. are pre-equipped with fully determined meanings, or rules of exchange). In particular, “available” here means something like available for public communication (hence Baudrillard’s focus on the media, the polls, culture, and so on), and in this case the idea of imposed decidability is not unique.1 Decidable signs are things like brands and sitcom characters: transparent and readable, the totality of their meaning lies on their surface, occupying a publicly determinate position on the semiotic grid and digestable in a glance. Characters in Greek myths have undecidable contents—their motives are amorphous, their roles mutable. Questions like “Is Zeus benevolent?” don’t have clear or even meaningful answers. David Lynch drains decidability from the world of his films by recontextualising everyday objects and happenings in ways that disrupt their expected meanings. What seems to me to be unique in Baudrillard is the attempt to describe the functional logic of a mechanism which imposes decidability as a universal constraint, laying all depths on the surface to create a world which has always been interpreted in advance, as flat and undemanding as a fully-immersive sitcom.

The argument is deceptively simple, but has several steps:

I. The historically distinctive feature of our present symbolic economy is that, like all other sites of production, it is organised on the principle of commodity production and distribution. Phrases like “the marketplace of ideas” accurately refer to objective states of the system.

II. The characteristic feature of a commodity economy is that goods are exchanged under an abstract equivalence, i.e. all are implicitly placed on a single scale of value. In the material economy, everything has a price. In the symbolic economy, signs exchange exclusively with each other (rather than against something particular outside the system of signs—a referent). Just as there is no priceless object in the material economy, so there is no non-fungible sign in the symbolic economy. Anti-styles like punk are value equivalent to positive styles, and so circulate on the catwalk alongside them. Lifetyle aesthetics achieve equivalence and so trade freely—one day can be #wholesome and the next #kinky, it is irrelevant which is which since their significations carry equivalent values and so are reversible.

III. Since signs receive their content through their differential relations (through the rules determining what they can exchange against), the requirement that these relations be transparent and exhaustive is equivalent to completeness—the requirement that all goods have a determinate price in the material economy is paralleled in the symbolic economy by the requirement that all signs have a (publicly) determinate meaning. The exclusion of the priceless object is mirrored by the exclusion of the undecidable sign.2

What’s missing from this story is an account of the causal mechanism through which this imposition of completeness (as semiotic fungibility) introduces a general failure of consistency. This seems to mark the limits of the analogy between informal and formal systems. In a formal system, the existence of undecidable statements is established by diagonalisation. But in an informal system the presence of a kind of minimal incompleteness is trivial—it is straightforward to construct liar paradox type sentences, and informal systems have pragmatics sophisticated enough to write them off as special cases without risk of implosion. Baudrillard’s claim of a total loss of meaning is suggestive of something far more all-pervasive.

Perhaps some headway can be made on this by returning to the relationship between consistency and meaningfulness. It’s a theorem of classical propositional logic that you can prove anything from a contradiction, so from a proof theoretic point of view the introduction of even the smallest inconsistency reduces a system to trivialism. But in the case of informal systems, it is perhaps more illuminating to think about how semantic inconsistencies interact with pragmatic functions, or speech acts. In particular, inconsistency undermines the ability of a language to communicate differences—so if we are talking in a language in which both “there is milk in the fridge” and “there is not milk in the fridge” are held to be true, then if I say “there is milk in the fridge” I will fail to communicate anything at all. So in the informal context the question to ask is perhaps: what kind of speech acts are undermined by the exclusion of undecidability?

Shifting the register from semantics/sign content to speech acts/simulacra efficacy is consistent with many of Baudrillard’s own modes of analysis, and I believe provides a powerful lens for interpreting them (Gogan, 2017). What, after all, is the point of the emphasis he places on the exchange of signs (and their political economy) if not to provide the parallel generalisation of linguistic pragmatics that semiotics provides for linguistic semantics? Another example is the shift from signs to simulacra. Unlike a sign, a simulacrum—whose paradigm example is an image—is more like a sentence, a complex aggregate of (perhaps) multiple signs that performs a function, which is to say has some kind of causal profile.

What I want to say is that a simulacra is to a sign as a judgement is to a concept, or a sentence is to a term. Just as Kant placed primary focus on judgements because they are the smallest cognitive unit one can take responsibility for, and as Wittgenstein placed focused on sentences because they are the smallest linguistic unit with which one can play a move in a language-game, so I think Baudrillard moves focus to simulacra because they are the smallest unit in a system of meanings with which one can make an exchange. Insofar as signs receive determinate content, they do so in virtue of the roles they play in exchanges.

Informally, a concept is to some extent undecidable if the system (the total web of inferential relations between judgements) fails to fully specify its conditions of application. Similarly, a sign is undecidable if its rules of exchange are not fully specified, not fully explicit—it is this property which Baudrillard thinks is been eradicated in the present milieu, in which all signs are accompanied by fully explicit and exhaustive conditions of exchange. What kind of speech acts might this undermine? Clearly Baudrillard is not saying that we can no longer to communicate with each other about whether there’s milk in the fridge—as mentioned earlier, we are concerned with speech acts (more generally: sign exchanges) made in public space. As it happens, Baudrillard gives a very clear answer to this question: what is undermined is risky acts—exchanges which carry some stakes.

If all signs are fungible according to explicit exchange conditions, then those signs are unable to function as a carrier signal for a public challenge. It is as with the case of the two super-computers playing draughts against one another: both easily calculate all possible games and anticipate one another other’s moves—in the end there is nothing to play for, because all possibilities have been predicted and exhausted in advance. The stakes of the game are eliminated in the transparency of its space of play; all that remains is to go through the predetermined motions. In a complete symbolic order all exchanges—all moves—are always pre-anticipated in advance. As I understand it, this is the essence of Baudrillard’s conception of simulation.

Without digging too much further into that, the final point I’ll make is that from here it’s a short distance to the implosion of meaning. The two steps are: i. meaning is a coordination problem, and ii. solving coordination problems depends on being able send risky signals to one another. To undermine risky speech acts is to undermine credibility signalling,3 and this has rational significance for 2nd-order reasoning: reasoning about other people’s reasoning. In a complete symbolic economy, it is impossible to distinguish recognitive signals from strategic signals4—or, in Baudrillard’s terms, a challenge made in the order of simulation from one made in the order of the real. We default to simulation, because the real is dangerous and simulation is cheap, without stakes. To accept a challenge in the real order is to take on a genuine risk—to do so one must be confident that the ante will be reciprocated.5


  1. Gogan, B. (2017). Jean Baudrillard: The Rhetoric of Symbolic Exchange. Southern Illinois University Press.


  1. When Mark Fisher complains of the anachronistic quality of 21st Century culture, for instance, this can be interpreted as bemoaning a kind of phoney decidability placed over signs of the past, which, "serenely liberated from the pressures of historical becoming, can now be periodically buffed up by new technology." Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life. See also The Technical Mediation of Public Memory

  2. An undecidable (or perhaps semi-decidable) sign is what Baudrillard calls a symbol, in the strict sense. There’s an interesting parallel between this and a comment made by Jung (which, sadly, I can no longer find), in which he says that a symbol loses its function as a symbol the moment it becomes recognisable as a symbol. So for example, according to this idea the Eucharist necessarily loses its symbolic function the moment it becomes possible to distinguish between its literal and allegorical meanings. This is perhaps just another way of stating that the symbol’s function is unconscious—in this sense, its symbolic meaning is necessarily a latent meaning (and therefore never fully determinate), one which can never be made explicit without destroying it. 

  3. See also Mutual Recognition and Costly Signalling

  4. I’ve developed this point further in In the Place of Conversation

  5. The dependency of trust on challenge is worked out something like this: to give another a priceless object (a non-fungible value) is to challenge them to give a priceless object in return (cf. Mauss’ theory of gift and counter-gift). This exchange has nothing to do with economic equivalence—whose whole point is to bracket or annihilate lingering obligations—but is a game in which one move must be answered with another. The pact is established through the continual circulation of the obligation to respond, challenge and counter-challenge, gift and counter-gift—its force of necessity contained in the ever-present challenge to play one more move in the game. 

Baudrillard and Incompleteness - April 13, 2021 - Divine Curation