Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Semiotic Function of Exchange in World-Economy

“The exchange of products springs up at the points where different families, tribes or communities come into contact; for at the dawn of civilization it is not private individuals but families, tribes, etc. that meet on an independent footing. Different communities find different means of production and different means of subsistence in their natural environment. Hence their modes of production and living, as well as their products, are different. It is this spontaneously developed difference which, when different communities come into contact, calls forth the mutual exchange of products and the consequent gradual conversion of those products into commodities.”

Karl Marx, Capital Vol I tr. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin, 1990), 471 – 472.

“Levi-Strauss specified that the linguistic sign is arbitrary a priori but non-arbitrary a posteriori.”

Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology tr. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 51.

Exchange is a social function that regulates the relation between individuals and groups, it occurs in all societies, though with radically different manifestation depending on the social structure which obtains in a given society. Exchange bears upon all social systems, though it is more intense and prevalent in certain instances than in others, and indeed Exchange may be fostered by certain agencies, as it may be suppressed by others. The interdependence and reciprocality of Exchange can be of an equal or unequal kind, that is, symmetrical or asymmetrical, simple or complex, and it can be enforced or unenforced, that is, bounded, determined, and structured by an edifice which dominates those parties which participate in such Exchange, and it occurs in a different form in the absence of such an edifice. Exchange promotes complex social arrangements which are emergent properties of its elemental procedures. For instance, while the performance of one Exchange may result in merely the transfer of things, participating in the transference of things as such imbues those involved with more complex social relations between and among one another, i.e. a durable social linkage or rapport, and an expectation of further Exchanges, a sociologically determinable bond. Thus simple Exchange gives rise to complex Exchange insofar as the discrete units of Exchange aggregate socially, and impact upon and inform the broader social environment in which they transpire. The distinction between systems of Exchange of an enforced and those of an unenforced kind is one of historical periodization, but not necessarily of development; indeed, it is in the nature of the analysis of the emergence of such social existence forms to question as to whether this object constitutes an advancement or a retrogression. Exchange pertains to sociological processes, mutations, which may be captured and manipulated by institutions whose function is control, whose own emergence is historically contingent. The fundamental question is to what extent the structures of association and division generated by Exchange rebound upon it, to what extent this feedback of sociality and Exchange determined the emergence of a political form capable of ensuring the domination of social life by accumulation. Or, conversely, the question might be to what extent Exchange as such is innocent in the emergence of State power and Commodity-Exchange, and thus an investigation into their real causes.

Circulation and exchange have been oftentimes sidelined as objects of social and political concern in favour of linear developmental models of modes of production which presupposes the political units they otherwise intend to explain. This has been effected by a kind of neo-theology in which only production may be analyzed, as divorced from and prioritized above exchange, and even in this, only within the methodological confines of one or another State. It is, consequently, a fundamental failing and limitation of some Political and Economic analyses to have conflated Exchange as such with Commodity-Exchange, and to have treated them as synonymous and interchangable, and to dismiss the one for reasons pertaining to the concrete existence of the other. Commodity-exchange is a restricted subset of Exchange, a homogenization which is by no means exhaustive of Exchange as such. Pierre Klossowski calls this a “simulacrum of exchange”1 insofar as the industrial economy presupposes living-labour, replete with the social reproductive labour required for its production, as an abstract and extant resource. Nomothetic so-called 'liberal' accounts of the development of the Capitalist Modes of Production and Exchange indeed rely exclusively on circulation and exchange to explain the genesis of such modes of production and exchange, and this is, of course, insufficient. With that said, it is a mistake to suppose that a polarized focus on production to the exclusion of circulation and exchange, wherein these social relations are seen as merely 'buying low and selling high,' is much better. The former misses, under the banner of comparative advantage, the substantively false character of allegedly free and equal exchange under a unitary world system of Capitalist design; the latter, in thrall to the “romanticism of productivity,”2 misses the precondition of such falsity, the social mutations provoked by manifold contact, communication, and mobility of masses, i.e. the division and association of living-labour.

“Most men, while they wish for what is noble, choose what is advantageous; now it is noble to do well by another without a view to repayment, but it is the receiving of benefits that is advantageous.”

Aristotle, Complete Works Vol II tr. Benjamin Jowett (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 1837.

Wallerstein writes that what characterizes World-Economy, as distinct from disperate world-empires, is its synthesis of outward-looking or globally oriented economic decision making and inward-looking or locally oriented political command and control. World-empires are characterized by a fixed semiotic and a low degree of symbolic exchange, whereas world-economy is characterized by mixed semiotics with a high degree of symbolic exchange. World-economy is “a spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and cultural units, one that represents an integrated zone of activity and institutions which obey certain systemic rules.”3 The world-economy and its constituent elements are premised upon and dependent upon acceleration and exchange; the chief difference between a system of Commodity-Exchange and ulterior systems of Exchange is the intervention of an agency capable of acquiring control over Living Labour, roughly within a given bounded territory, and thus enforcing Signification upon them within that territory; in prior systems of Exchange the circulation of products and signs was not mediated by a material edifice capable of determining their manifestation, whereas in Commodity-Exchange it is. In fact in Commodity-Exchange there are necessarily several such edifices or organs in competition with one another, composing together a World-System, in which different systems of value intersect. Braudel writes that “the pre-conditions of any form of capitalism have to do with circulation; indeed at first sight one might think them to be exclusively determined by this single factor.”4 The caveat of 'at first sight' is meant to suggest that there are other factors which are less visible on the gloss, but which are no less important, and indeed these two factors are the intervention of State power, on the one hand, and production, on the other. Guattari suggest that “whatever belongs to the realm of law tends to be modeled on the State”5 whereas “whatever to the realm of desire on the pursuit of profit,”6 with the former being akin to that of domestic non-reciprocal exchange and the fixing of Signification, and the latter being premised on heterogenous value systems, i.e. different sociological masses and different interpretations of Desire. Braudel writes that a “market economy”7 is to be distinguished from “capitalism”8 by the function and relative transcendence of the State; he argues that whereas China “there could be no capitalism, except within certain clearly-defined groups, backed by the state, supervised by the state and always more or less at its mercy,”9 Japan of the Ashikaga period of the fourteenth century and thereafter, by way of contrast, was characterized by “economic and social forces independent of the state”10 and “the comparative absence of state authority.”11 Thus he argues that “in a kind of anarchy not unlike that of the European Middle Ages, everything developed simultaneously in the diversified arena of Japan as the country gradually formed itself over the centuries: a central government, feudal lords, towns, peasantry, an artisan class, the merchants.”12 Whereas in China “the bureaucracy lay across the top of Chinese society as a single, virtually unbreachable stratum,”13 Braudel argues that Japan's rapid industrial development in the period following the isolation of 1638 to 1868 was, at least in part, attributable to “a long-standing merchant capitalism which it had patiently built by its own efforts.”14

Ultimately both Industrial Production and Commodity-Exchange are constituted by the Social-Subjective manipulations and control of State powers, irrespective of to whatever extent the Commodity-Exchange that they engender escapes the specific borders which they specify; were there not borders, Exchange would not takes the same form that it does under Commodity-Exchange. The State determines commodification insofar as it determines, to an either very large or absolute extent, the division and association of Living-Labour within a bounded and delimited territory, and thus the correspondence between Signified and Signifier. That said, left to its own devices, States would not necessarily engage in either Industrial Production nor Commodity-Exchange were it not for the intervention and development of their merchant classes, who constitute sociologically and geographically the point of contact between a bounded and delimited State, with its control over Living-Labour, its fixings of value, Signification, and strata, and its exterior. This exterior is two-fold: on the one hand there are similar organisms, whose heterogeneous value-systems may be as mixed and artificial as any other - 'Deutschland ist Hamlet!' - and on the other hand there is the marginal, submarginal, and beyond, whose unfixed Signification and non-Signifying semiologies are no longer truly outside, but rather merely in between, underneath, overlaid, preserved in degraded and immiserated form.

“Modern industry is grounded in a kind of trade that is mediated by the symbol of inert currency, thus neutralizing the nature of the objects exchanged, i.e., it hinges on the simulacrum of that trade – a simulacrum contained in the workforce resources themselves, and thus in a kind of living currency, which, though not openly declared as such, already exists.

Pierre Klossowski, Living Currency tr. Jordan Levinson (New York: Anti-Concept, 2012), 29.

The rendering of bodies as exchangeable goods is not a recent phenomenon, but what is recent, at least at Anthropological scale, is the manner in which this rendering has been integrated into the function of the State, the cohesion of which is inextricable from libidinal investment. The habitual emphasis of use-value in simplistic modes of production accounts forgets or elides that a system of total and complete use-value is totally and completely amenable to and realized in a despotic state, in which all functions are use functions, where the utility is the valorization of the Despot and the bureaucratic preservation of frozen time. Use-value can be reactionary depending upon the particular context in which it features; value is negotiated, yes, but it is negotiated within a specific Social-Subjective sphere, namely, the bounded and delimited territory in which Living-Labour is controlled and Signification is fixed, and thus use-value can just as easily be at the service of an association of free and equal producers among themselves as it can a despotic armature whose sole aim is to regulate, and more often than not impede, both unruly masses and signification. So it will not do to simply valorize use-value above exchange value, the use values of a particular society may be reactionary; and yet the Exchange-Value of Commodity-Exchange value is reactionary itself insofar as it treats the alienated Living-Labour that it encounters on the world-market as merely an abstract and saleable commodity, whose price may be favorably negotiated. There are, therefore, reactionary forms of Use-Value, and emancipatory forms of Use-Value, just as there are reactionary and emancipatory forms of Exchange-Value; each form of value, is, in part, politically determined, and it is this political composition which is good or bad, and not the relative proportion of Use-Values and Exchange-Values in a given system. It is State powers which make armaments of its use values and exploitations as its exchange values, and these are reflected in the multiple Sign systems which encounter one another in their historical development.

How then to square the circle that Commodity-Exchange is not possible without the intervention of a hegemonic assemblage capable of compelling Labour and fixing Signification, and a merchant class whose interests are in every way opposed to the natural inclinations of such assemblages? It is precisely in Deleuze and Guattari's formulations of relative deterritorializations and relative reterritorializations that we can perceive the historical relation between the merchant classes and the State; they rely on one another in torsion or contradiction, participating in the same system with the aims or intentions of gaining the upper hand on the other, the merchant class competes with the bureaucracy but only within the countours of an established Social-Subjective compact which threatens neither the interests of the owners of the means of production and exchange nor the Imperial organism and dominant signification; an isomorphy with respect to a capitalist axiomatic, a compact between bureaucrats and merchants which appears in superficially distinct forms in this or that society. The merchants deterritorialize and the bureaucrats reterritorialize, and the system in which they mutually participate is the mutual subjugation and alienation of Living-Labour and the circulation of the commodities that Living-Labour produces. This torsion of interest between territorializing castes and deterritorializing classes Wallerstein calls “a very special relationship between economic producers and the holders of political power.”15 That is, if the bureaucratic interests win out, endless accumulation ceases to be a priority and a world-economy becomes merely a multiplicity of distinct world-empires in relatively infrequent, oftentimes hostile, contact with one another. On the other hand, he writes, the merchant classes “need a multiplicity of states, so that they can gain the advantages of working with states but also can circumvent states hostile to their interests in favor of states friendly to their interests.”16 Thus, the merchant classes are ultimately parasitical upon, and oftentimes parasitoid to, the world-empires which they interconnect, their interests oftentimes imperil the interests of one or another imperial assemblage, while they nevertheless rely upon and are beholden to nation-states as such.

Peter Blau argues that “reciprocated benefactions create social bonds among peers, whereas unreciprocated ones produce differentiation of status.”17 In other words, reciprocality characterizes lateral and autonomous Exchange, whereas non-reciprocality characterizes vertical and heteronomous Exchange; the former, lateral or autonomous Exchange, pertains to inter-group and intra-group cohesion, “to establish bonds of friendship,”18 whereas the latter, vertical or heteronomous Exchange, pertains to ruling covenants, relations of domination and power, “to establish subordination over others.”19 There are, moreover, two competing historical interests for control over so-called 'noble,' non-reciprocal, exchange, who are both bound up with forms of territorialization and the interests of control over a given space: the bureaucrat and the aristocrat, the functionaries of the despot and the lineal chiefs. The interests of the merchants are more ably served by a functionary class than they are by a dissociated series of powerful clans, and so they aid and contribute to the endeavor to transform one into the other, while simultaneously opposing the interests of both. The bourgeoisie deterritorializes the feudal in order that it might enter into a relationship of deterritorialization and reterritorialization with the bureaucracy of a unified imperial assemblage, whose function is not beholden to the whim and caprice of this or that petty warlord. Similarly, there are two competing interests for control over what is viewed to be advantageous: on the one hand the bourgeoisie, who believes what is advantageous is the endless accumulation of capital, and the proletariat, on the other, who believe that what is advantageous is the supersession and transcendence of this endless accumulation. The form of reciprocal exchange bequeathed to it by the emergent bourgeoisie need not be understood to be culminate, in other words, and the alternative to a despotic armature which dominates society need not be merely a return to clan-based lineage structures, peripheral langour and aristocratic stagnation. 

Plekhanov writes in Art and Social Life that, after the revolutions of 1848, the emergent bourgeoisie, who had not considered the proletariat capable of independent machination, came to be “infinitely more cognisant of the import of the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat”20 and that this exercised a degenerative influence on their art. The French realists, he suggests, “lost the faculty for calm scientific investigation of social phenomenon,”21 insofar as they “fail[ed] to realise that the actions, inclinations, tastes and habits of mind of social man cannot be adequately explained by physiology or pathology, since they are determined by social relationships.”22 Thus, whereas Russian realism depicted the causal system by which individual inclinations are determined, the “great whole,”23 French realism, by way of contrast, “had landed in a blind alley and had nothing left but to relate once more the love affair of the first chance wine-merchant and the first chance grocery woman,”24 which became “uninteresting, boring, even revolting.”25 Falling back on an earlier romanticism, which, as Plekhanov explains, had rebelled against the social mores, conventions, and styles of the emergent bourgeois, but not its social system, the so-called realists became mired in a profoundly unrealistic pursuit, that of valorizing the most elemental individual relationships which had given rise to their social system of organization, i.e. fascination, novelty, presentation and surface. The extent to which they emphasized these elemental individual relations betrayed their real intent, to defend, rather than challenge, the social system of the emergent bourgeoisie. Thus it is wholly legitimate for the early socialists, and Marx himself, to have been wary of any undue fixation and fetishization of the individual relationships of Commodity-Exchange, given their function was to obscure the social system that gave rise to such elemental, and partial, social relations.

The State in its historical emergence and development determines and fixes signification in the last instance, but in the modern period it is given to renting the construction and enforcement of meaning out to the highest bidder. Ambiguity of meaning, semantic indeterminacy, is a political good, but whereas the construction of meaning ought to be pursued in societies as a scientific endeavor, it is all too often a cheap State auction, and this is the very business of sophistry. The bureaucrat is an economic sophist, whose function in the modern period is to mediate and reterritorialize the exploitation of Living-Labour by the owners of the means of production and exchange, it adjudicates meaning, but with an oftentimes seething indifference to truth and rationality. Thibault calls this “a slide from the correctly differential and analogue conception of the system of pure values to one which projects categories from the dominant mode of economic and social production onto the system.”26

“It is not a matter of a script that engenders all semiotic organization, but of the appearance – datable in history – of writing machines as a basic tool for the great despotic empires.”

Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York: Penguin, 1984), 75.

Guattari writes that “linguists have been over-hasty in assimilating Hjemslev's distinction between expression and content with Saussure's distinction between the signifier and what is signified.”27 He argues rather that whereas Hjemslev's distinction presumes no Signifying Semiotic, Saussure's does, and thus they are not merely describing the same systems using different terms; Hjelmslev's distinction allows for “semiotics which are, precisely, not based on the bi-polarity of the signified and the signifier,”28 whereas Saussure's does not. Thus Guattari distinguishes “semiotically formed substances”29 and “non-semiotic encodings,”30 and suggests that the superiority of Hjemselv's linguistic analytic is in its capacity to interpret, and produce, the latter. The manifest effect upon the collective unconscious of a Signifying Semiotic is paramount here “not because it relates back to an archytpal written language, but because it manifests the premanence of a despotic significance which, though arising out of particular historical conditions, can none the less continue to develop and extend its effects into other conditions.”31 It is the State which fixes Signification, which “by a tremendous retroactive effort. . . seems to make all semiotics originate from the signifier.”32

“Flows must be credited and given meaning, which is a process Deleuze and Guattari refer to as coding. Codes are not simply applied to flows; rather, they reciprocally determine one another: no flow can be understood without its code. Codes operate through signs or signifying chains (chaines signifantes), via inscription or recording, although these signs do not represent or signify; they merely 'fix' the flows. . . Codes ensure that flows coagulate within a particular social configuration or form. The specific forms these codings take define different historical systems of ownership and power.”

Nigel Dodd, The Social Life of Money (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 229-230.

Guattari writes that “all stratifications of power produce and impose signification,”33

Gary Genosko writes that, for Guattari, linguistic arbitrariness, the divorce or separation of Sign from resemblance, is “a political form of the reproduction of established power through officially sanctioned expression/content packets (a lesson repeatedly drummed into one's head about accepting the dominant codes and adapting to them).”34

Guattari is explicit, “writing machines are essentially linked to the setting-up of State power machines.”35

“The dialectic of signifier and signified gives rise to stratified semiotic forms.”

Paul Thibault, Re-reading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life (London: Routledge, 1997), 194.

Both Guattari and Karatani provide a genealogy and exposure of the processes by which dominant Signification came to be structured in the way that it is, presenting itself as natural and without origin. For both, the emergence of vernacular literature is inextricably bound up with the emergence of the nation-state. Karatani calls these processes, collectively, the “inversion of semiotic constellation which makes transcription possible.”36 By this he means the process by which Signification emerges and becomes the dominant reference point from which all systems and enunciations are interpreted, which invents an interiority corresponding to the exteriority of the Nation-State and “transforms our mode of perception.”37 Karatani is, in other words, articulating a political ontology of the Sign, the history of “a political failure, whose origins had been forgotten, and which had come to function as that which erased politics.”38 He locates this failure, in Japan's case, in the 1890s, the third decade of the Meiji period, but notes that this semiotic inversion merely presents in an accelerated form the same processes which had occurred elsewhere over a longer period of time.

Language is to speech as the State is to exchange; homogeneity's relationship with heterogeneity as manifest in different social functions. For Saussure linguistics is the study of a system of signification, whereas for Hjemslev and Charles Sanders Peirce, linguistics is the study of a concrete existence of expressive and social interrelations, into which such a system of signfication was historically interposed; such a system, in other words, constitutes an object of analysis for Hjemslev and Pierce, whereas it is analysis as such in Saussure's framework. As Paul Thibault writes, “this 'suppression' is, of course, a consequence of the methodological decision to privilege the system of pure values, or langue.”39 Saussurean linguistics fails to interrogate its own conditions of existence and methodological precepts, its irreducible expectation and presupposition of the signification system, rendering this system opaque as an object of analysis in and of itself, obscuring its historical contingency. Saussure's linguistics is fundamentally linguistics from the standpoint of, and determined by, Commodity-Exchange and its particular historical conditons, i.e. world-economy and the capitalist modes of production and exchange. Thibault argues that Saussure “unconsciously projected the categories of the dominant mode of economic production onto the social organization of langue.”40

Semiology is the study of the system of the distinctions between, and historical interaction of, divergent semiotics; whereas semiotics as a form of analysis itself has no means of expressing the multiplicity of concrete social semiotics. Barthes writes that “a system is arbitrary when its signs are founded not by convention, but by unilateral decision,”41 but it is in fact the opposite; signification by convention, or immanent exchange communication, is arbitrary, insofar as the analogical relation between two or more relata would be determined by the spontaneous social innovation of speech; whereas unilaterally determined signification is non-arbitrary but rather intentional, oriented towards a priori ends which signification is meant to achieve.

“Value bears a close relation to the notion of the language (as opposed to speech); its effect is to depsychologize linguistics and to bring it closer to economics; it is therefore central to structural linguistics.” 

Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology tr. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 54.

“Language is the domain of articulations, and the meaning is above all a cutting-out of shapes.”

Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology tr. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 57.

1 Pierre Klossowski, Living Currency tr. Jordan Levinson (New York: Anti-Concept, 2012), 29.

2 Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production tr. Mark Poster (St. Louis: Telos, 1975), 17.

3 Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 17.

4 Fernand Braudel, Civilization & Capitalism 15th-18th Century Vol II: The Wheels of Commerce tr. Siân Reynolds (London: Collins, 1983), 582.

5 Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York: Penguin, 1984), 246.

6 Ibid.

7 Fernand Braudel, Civilization & Capitalism 15th-18th Century Vol II: The Wheels of Commerce tr. Siân Reynolds (London: Collins, 1983), 589.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid, 590.

13 Ibid, 595.

14 Ibid, 593.

15 Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 24.

16 Immanuel Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 24.

17 Peter Blau, Exchange and Power in Social Life (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1964), 8.

18 Ibid, 89.

19 Ibid.

20 G. V. Plekhanov, Unadressed Letters: Art and Social Life (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing, 1957), 183.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Paul Thibault, Re-reading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life (London: Routledge, 1997), 201.

27 Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York: Penguin, 1984), 74.

28 Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York: Penguin, 1984), 74.

29 Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York: Penguin, 1984), 74.

30 Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York: Penguin, 1984), 74.

31 Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York: Penguin, 1984), 75.

32 Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York: Penguin, 1984), 75.

33 Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York: Penguin, 1984), 168.

34 Gary Genosko, “Guattari's Contribution to the Theory of Semiocapitalism” in The Guattari Effect ed. Eric Alliez and Andrew Goffey (London: Continuum, 2011), 120.

35 Felix Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics (New York: Penguin, 1984), 75.

36 Kojin Karatani, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature tr. Brett de Bary (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 61.

37 Kojin Karatani, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature tr. Brett de Bary (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 27.

38 Kojin Karatani, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature tr. Brett de Bary (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 188.

39 Paul Thibault, Re-reading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life (London: Routledge, 1997), 188.

40 Paul Thibault, Re-reading Saussure: The Dynamics of Signs in Social Life (London: Routledge, 1997), 202.

41 Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology tr. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 51.

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