Jean Baudrillard pays particular attention to signs and symbols in diverse publications and essays, reflecting upon their role in the economic, social, and political spheres, as well as the subsequent repercussions of symbols on people. Baudrillard has noticed that the symbolic system explicitly defines the fate of the individual and society. The key objective of the given article, presented as part of the ongoing research, represents the symbolic system’s structure and functioning mechanisms. From the author’s perspective, the research findings have practical value, providing clarifications regarding specific aspects of the human memory and consciousness interaction, the distinctiveness of perception and formation of beliefs, training, and retraining speed in compliance with demands of an instantly changing environment.
The goal of the research is to introduce structures for external and personal symbolic systems of individual interaction. In the framework of the scientific and practical conference “The Role of Symbolism in the Historical Stages of Social Development” held in Heidelberg (Germany), these research results particularly presented the heuristic symbolic construction model.
Summary of the research progress and results of the praxeological reflection. In the framework of studying Baudrillard’s philosophy more than 40 works by Baudrillard have been analyzed by the author (2016-2020 period), including two collections of interviews, “The Disappearance of Culture. Uncollected Interviews” and “From Hyperreality to Disappearance. Uncollected Interviews”. At the beginning of the study, the task was to systematize essential philosophical concepts and positions used by Baudrillard. He described the phenomena in sufficient detail and thoroughness. Still, from the other side, it was crucial to discover the key that ensures a comprehensive understanding and orientation in Baudrillard’s works. First, his system had to be ‘rediscovered’ since Baudrillard did not leave us any “sketches” of his concepts and detailed description of heuristic constructions or logical models. As a result of the examination, the following classification of ‘key principles’ is suggested.
- Jean Baudrillard used specific logical constructions to analyze various phenomena in his books, conventionally titled “Baudrillard’s analytical tool”. Using these constructions, Baudrillard managed to explain plenty of phenomena regarding the environment. For instance, in the essay “In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, Or, the End of the Social,” he writes: ‘The proper use of the social as one of the ways of balancing the exchanges between the individual and his environment, the social as functional ecosystem, homeostasis and superbiology of the species – no longer even a structure, but a substance…’ Secondly, in “Symbolic Exchange and Death” it is highlighted: ‘Solicitation is substituted for the ultimatum. Mandatory passivity evolves into models constructed directly from the “active responses” of the subject, his or her implication, “ludic” participation, etc., and finally toward a total, environmental model made up of incessant spontaneous responses, joyful feedback, and irradiated contact’.
To verify the specific goal of ‘environment phenomenon’ analysis Baudrillard concludes:
‘So, the final aim of my contribution is to examine the project of a new institution for the innovation of urban environments, and not to engage in some discussion on urban semiology that would require, in my opinion, to be grounded on a specific research matter. […] And, since I don’t believe in elites, my final criticism will be the logical implications of the sociological analysis of some issues concerning, directly, the environmental question’. Baudrillard’s comment in one of the interviews (“Disappearance of Culture. Uncollected Interviews”)
The quoted fragments spark the necessity to comprehend the first ‘block’ or the fundamental points for the subsequent analysis of the environment, as well as its impact on personality shaping and individual interaction with the outer world.
- ‘Rotating’ system and structures. Baudrillard chooses an unknown ‘X-phenomenon’ for analysis and discusses it, inspecting it from various points, therefore clarifying ‘areas of the unknown’. For the purpose of illustration, he wrote many works on the concept such as “masses”: in the “Shadow of the Silent Majorities”, “The Consumer Society”, “Screened out”, etc. To begin with, here is an excerpt from Baudrillard’s words from “The Masses. The Implosion of the Social in the Media”: ‘So it is enough to reverse the idea of a mass alienated by the media to evaluate how much the whole universe of the media, and perhaps the whole technical universe, is the result of a secret strategy of this mass which is claimed to be alienated, of a secret form of the refusal of will, of an in-voluntary challenge to everything which was demanded of the subject by the philosophy’.
He presents a different view of the “masses” in “In the Shadow of the Silent majorities”:
‘The whole chaotic constellation of the social revolves around that spongy referent, that opaque but equally translucent reality, that nothingness: the masses. A statistical crystal ball, the masses are ‘swirling with currents and flows’, in the image of matter and the natural elements’.
Another pattern to manifest wherewith Baudrillard used “rotating’ system and structures”: ‘That, too, was the ‘Beaubourg effect’! It was an affair of state when – through sacralizing the art object and the place where you commune with it – the aim was to cultivate ‘the masses’, that new ‘silent majority’, a vague, elusive entity that was beginning to appear with the first opinion polls and the books that were being written about it, such as Marshall McLuhan’s. And it was an object of political strategy when it came to putting the masses to sleep, with the alibi of culture playing the role of safety valve and, ultimately, an instrument of alienation’. The logical structures of the ‘environment’ analysis outline system-coordinate phenomena approach—external environment—whereas so-called ‘rotating constructions’ help one to research phenomena involving individuals, masses, human interaction by viewing the object of research from different perspectives.
- Catalysts are responsible for ‘drives within’ since they “motivate” a person to be who he is (usually that individuality is shaped unconsciously). Patterns of catalysts are as follows: deceit, culture, needs, motivation, art. One of the significant examples, I believe, is provided in “The System of Objects”, where Baudrillard writes: ‘Hence, through planned (dirigée) motivation we find ourselves in an era where advertising takes over the moral responsibility for all of society and replaces a puritan morality with a hedonistic morality of pure satisfaction, like a new state of nature at the heart of hyper civilization’. The ‘inner force’ or individual motivation mechanism is still the discussion point in the 21 century, even though there are a number of interdisciplinary researches conducted by scholars. However, Baudrillard managed to reveal one of the most essential principle motivation mechanisms aspects. It is the “The System of Objects” that ‘speaks’ metaphorically: “The euphoric and wily ‘motivation’ philosophers would like to persuade themselves and others that the reign of the object is still the shortest path to freedom. They offer as proof the spectacular melange of needs and satisfaction, the abundance of choice, and the festival of supply and demand whose effervescence can provide the illusion of culture’.
Besides, analyzing the various patterns of catalysts in “Consumer Society” Baudrillard explains: “Three general positions can be identified: for Marshall, needs are interdependent and rational; for Galbraith, choices are imposed by motivation (we will come back to this); for Gervasi (and others), needs are interdependent, and are the result of learning rather than of rational calculation’. Likewise, the philosopher declares: ‘…resistance to the social in all its forms has progressed even more rapidly than the social. It has merely taken other forms than the primitive and violent ones which were subsequently absorbed […] Those frontal resistances still corresponded to an equally frontal and violent period of socialization, and carne from traditional groups seeking to preserve their own culture, their original cultures’. Highlighted examples allow us to conclude, that certain aspects, ideas and issues are the catalysts for the human being – the “powerful levers” making the person ask himself “who am I?” and search for the answers afterward. Hence, I came to the idea, it is essential to have a separate category as such for these kinds of concepts.
- Signs and symbols – one of the most unique and mysterious phenomena to research. This is where Baudrillard definitely advanced in his studies, surpassing his colleagues. He studied signs and symbols from a fundamental scientific perspective. His book “Passwords” offers a broad explanation of the human symbol system. No less interesting and prominent is the essay “The Political Economy of the Sign”: ‘The arbitrariness of the sign does not reside in its non-motivation – in the commonplace that the signifier ‘table’ has no ‘natural’ vocation to signify the concept of the reality of the table (any more than Tisch in German, etc.); it is rooted in the very fact of positing an equivalence between such and such an Sr and such and such an Sd’. One more quotation depicts the aforementioned connection of the ‘symbol’ and its ‘significance’ and the way this ‘connection principle’ gets often manipulated: ‘…meteoric ritual of statistics and surveys has no real object, especially not the masses whom it is thought to express. It simply simulates an elusive object, but whose absence is nevertheless intolerable. It ‘produces’ it in the form of anticipated responses, of circular signals which seem to circumscribe its existence and to bear witness to its will. Floating signs – such are surveys – instantaneous signs, intended for manipulation, and whose conclusions can be interchanged’.
The tendencies and even ‘rituals’ highlighted help to comprehend the initial ‘inconceivable power’ of a sign that may even affect one’s perceptions, judgments, choices—and what is even more important, such changes or behavioral shifts usually take place unconsciously. The works of Jean Baudrillard were crucial for the scientific breakthrough of the symbolic system. The interpretation of the symbolic system consists of 16 units, which are represented in the Baudrillard essay “Fragments”. It is significant that Baudrillard closely approached the symbol system concept, which was thoroughly analyzed by soviet Academician Grigory Popov (his main research interests were human memory and its mechanisms). In his research in 1940-1941, Popov came to the conclusion that the symbolic system determines and even controls the fate of humans. Usually, a person does not even distinguish between the existence of a symbolic system and its mechanisms (mostly are unaware of that fact). The symbolic system defines the thoughts of a person, words, unconscious drives, and actions. Secondly, as Popov mentioned, the symbolic system is shaped unconsciously in the process of one’s life. To compare the implementation of the concept and to see its consequences, it is relevant to refer to “Passwords” by Baudrillard, since he described the process by means of which people become “slaves” of the influence of the symbolic system.
Analyzing that mysterious symbolic power shaping one’s fate, it is essential to reflect upon the philosophical category of the symbol analysis. The works of Baudrillard providing numerous symbolic functions and mechanisms manifestations encourage the goal to consider a ‘symbol’ as a psychological category. According to Hungarian depth psychologist and scholar Lipot Szondi’s concept of fate analysis, human destiny is determined by stimuli (the ‘stimuli’ nature is an inner impulse system, that was the object of the study of Szondi, one of his most significant contributions). On the other perspective, based on the paradigm of Baudrillard and Popov, a symbolic system determines human destiny.
These concepts—‘symbolic system’ or ‘stimuli’ impact an individual’s life choices and fate—do not contradict each other, since the symbolic system ‘triggers’ human impulses. In other words, the nature of human motives is a symbolic system. How does that work? It is necessary to mention Popov’s concept, which reveals specific mechanisms for encrypting information. Knowing those mechanisms, as well as rules and principles of human memory functioning, one is capable to ’invent’ a new symbol. And that would not be just a ‘product of imagination’ but the real symbol archiving specific knowledge or sophisticated idea. Thus, the first aspect is that by applying that knowledge, we may create new symbols just like one would ‘code’ or ‘archive’ special data into symbols.
Another aspect distinguishes the concept of the symbol decoding trajectory. It is a great tool for anthropological, historical, visual sociology studies. The diverse works of Baudrillard make it possible to comprehend the symbol unpacking trajectory which multi-vector and diverse. The same symbol may have a different decoding extraction trajectory in different people. This principle indicates the system of interpretations of the same symbol by two people may vary. For one person, for instance, a representation of the ‘sun’ as a symbol maybe even sacral, whereas for another it is merely a sign of a source of light. Both interpretations exist simultaneously (though we are reflecting at the same symbol). Yet, different perspectives on the same subject arise in the course of history, the disagreements appear between people due to the fact their interpretations reflect various approaches in giving meaning and qualitative analysis of the symbol. Logically, this is consistent with the causes of conflicts in society.
One more peculiar question to analyze is ‘how do these different judgments or interpretations of the same symbols interact with one another?’ Why does an individual choose a certain symbolic interpretation way he has not invented himself but ready to protect that interpretation as the only true one? These questions are extraordinarily tricky ones…
According to the works of academician Gregory Popov the trajectory of a symbol decoding depends on the quality of a particular individual’s world-view, his or her attitude and mindset. The symbol ‘unfolds’, ‘unarchives’ specific information (or reveals its significance, as Baudrillard would say) into an ‘empty space’ in one’s world-view (it is perceived as a new idea or special situation). The best analogy to provide would be a function of a computer machine, imagine that a symbol is extracted from RAR-archive into free space on a hard disk. If there is no free space on the disk, the archive will not be extractable.
The same goes for “extracting” the symbol’s meaning or a subjective judgment regarding its significance. If the worldview is “full and has no place”, as if there is nothing unfamiliar for a person, since she already knows “literally everything” (in one’s opinion); the symbolic meaningful essence will not be unpacked. Such a person is incapable of accepting new information, incapable of assuming that he or she does not know something.
- Popov compares the ‘mindset speed’ to the rate at which symbols are getting ‘packed and unpacked’, in other words, the time period required by a person to realize or unveil the initially coded essence of the symbol, its pure meaning. At the same time, according to Popov, it is also the rate or speed at which a personal symbolic system is reprogrammed. What is definitely remarkable, in research presented in the “Symbolic Exchange and Death” Jean Baudrillard (it is unlikely that he was acquainted with Popov’s works) explains the same principle by means of different metaphors and analogies: ‘Can we invent simulacra of an even higher logical (or illogical) order, beyond the current third order, beyond determination and indetermination? If so, would they still be simulations? Perhaps only death, the reversibility of death, is of a higher order than the code. The only symbolic disorder can breach the code. Any system approaching perfect operationality is approaching its own death. When the system declares ‘A is A’, or ‘two and two make four’, it simultaneously arrives at the point of complete power and total ridicule – in other words, of probable immediate subversion’. Baudrillard concludes that one is not only capable of introducing some new symbolic ‘coded meanings’. The philosopher manifests the practical application and significant role of that knowledge since it is that specific tool that shapes worldviews, minds, lifestyles, perspectives, desires, needs, and even fate.
- One more aspect to be analyzed is the interaction system of all four above-described elements—environment; ‘rotating’ system principles; catalysts; signs and symbols. In fact, these four components do not exist separately. Unlike being apart, the four elements are in constant dynamic interaction with one another: thus, the environment shapes one’s catalysts; motivations and needs (the catalyst patterns) affect one’s world-views and the way one perceives and interacts with the outer world, decoding the signs and symbols one meets even subconsciously. To demonstrate that ‘interaction system’ principle, it is great to recall the conclusion of Baudrillard introduced in his “The Political Economy of the Sign”: ‘The rationality of the sign is rooted in its exclusion and annihilation of all symbolic ambivalence on behalf of a fixed and equational structure. The sign is discriminant: it structures itself through exclusion. Once crystallized on this exclusive structure, the sign aligns its fixed field, resigns the differential, and assigns Sr and Sd each its sphere of systemic control. Thus, the sign proffers itself as lull value: positive, rational, exchangeable value. All virtualities of meaning are shorn in the cut of structure’. One of the most crucial aspects of the symbolic interaction system is its ‘value shaping’ aspect—the value mechanism that is also known to be remarkable in one’s decision-making, as a tool for orientation for the vision of life or picture of a decent future for an individual.
No less important in mentioned reflections is the concept of academician G. Popov’s, who outlined: ‘The symbolic system is ‘hidden’ in one’s perception; it represents a system of interaction between an individual and the external environment. In other words, the way the symbolic system interacts is identical to the system of interaction of all its elements’. To recall shortly, the elements are: environment; ‘rotating’ system principles; catalysts; signs and symbols
Figure 1. A heuristic model of the symbolic system
In Figure #1 a schematic heuristic model presents the way these 4 elements of the Symbolic System interact with each other. Metaphorically it is reasonable to think of a symbolic system as an ‘invisible crown’ hanging somewhere above the head, certainly, the person is unaware of that ‘crown’. His or her views are challenged by the world, as Popov would have said ‘his consciousness issues’.
Right at the bottom of the heuristic model, there is a ‘screen’, the so-called limit of consciousness (Popov’s terminology). Through this screen, reality tends to reach the consciousness of a human. I believe, to demonstrate this principle logic it is imperative to look into “The Political Economy of the Sign”: ‘…But this (symbolic) exchange is foreclosed and abolished by the sign in its simultaneous institution of (1) a separation, a distinctive structure; and (2) a positive relation, a sort of structural copulation between the two terms, which clearly only eternalizes their separation’. Highlighting the elements of the Symbolic System, as well as comprehending their special features and dynamic characteristics it is essential to add certain details. Since there are various objects one meets being conscious, still there is a number of phenomena that he\she does not understand or realize (so-called ‘X’ – unknown phenomenon). Baudrillard starts to analyze these ‘X’-phenomena applying certain tools – they were mentioned above as a ‘‘rotating’ system principles (please, pay attention to the block ‘Systems # 2’). People are also driven by specific catalysts (deception, culture, impulses, art), these inner drives are represented by the block ‘Systems #3’ in the heuristic model Figure 1. By the way, in the terminology of depth psychology, ‘Systems # 3’ are the generators of human inferiority.
Signs, symbols, and symbolic systems – block ‘System # 4’ (Figure 1). Revealing the nature of components of each system (or structures) Baudrillard has contributed several works to the narrative of each of them.
In review, by practicing the symbolic system interpretation method, it is relevant to complete the ‘human-environment’ interaction system picture and its logic. If one is well aware of the basic assumptions, the fundamental symbolic systems available in their diversity in the world, as well as the human inferiority generators, one is also familiar with the key of the world’s Symbolic interaction system, supporting an individual to decode the wisdom of historical objectivity.
The interaction system is a projection of a symbolic system causing plenty of questions, challenging academics, and researchers to find new approaches and ways to find the historical truth. In fact, a symbolic system is a key parameter for understanding the interactions of various world institutions, systems, and formations as a social, political, or even economic phenomenon. However, it should be never forgotten, that ‘Herein lies the principle of Evil, not in some mystical agency or transcendence, but as concealment of the symbolic order, the abduction, rape, concealment and ironic corruption of the symbolic order. It is in this way that the object is translucent to the principle of Evil: as opposed to the subject, it is a bad conductor of the symbolic order, yet a good conductor of the fatal, that is, of pure objectivity, sovereign and irreconcilable, immanent and enigmatic’ as explained Jean Baudrillard in “Fatal Strategies”. The ‘immanent and enigmatic’ nature of symbol is also followed by an entire archive of data one should ‘decode’. Definitely, that sets new objectives for some further research. Since a person is unaware of either the symbolic system or the mechanisms of his or her motives, since he cannot control the mechanisms, his fate becomes fatal and predetermined, as argued by Hungarian scholar Lipot Szondi. For every person, the Symbolic systems function in an automatic unconscious mode. The person just unconsciously realizes he needs something. Nevertheless, he seldom realizes the nature of those ‘needs’ and usually never thinks of that. This ‘truth of life’ is vividly demonstrated by Baudrillard in “The Political Economy of Science”: ‘It is necessary to grasp that what produces the commodity system in its general form is the concept of need itself, as constitutive of the very structure of the individual; that is, the historical concept of social beings who, in the rupture of symbolic exchange, autonomize themselves and rationalize their desire, their relation to others and to objects, in terms of needs, utility, satisfaction and use-value’. This excerpt depicts the ‘reasoning abyss’ between the rational core of the person and his ‘irrational’ unknown drives. Thus, researching the symbolic system nature encourages building the bridge which connects two edges of the abyss.
- Popov in his work “Memory and the Problem of Personal Development”, attempted to resolve the challenge of ‘analyzing the symbolic bridge’ function. The academician came to the conclusion, that a symbolic system of a human could be constructed artificially and that it can “dismantled” but not eliminated. “A human being cannot exist without a symbolic system. The symbol system has a function of replacing one symbol with another, which makes it possible to make changes. However, it is not possible to exclude the existence of a symbol system as such. The replacement of symbols should be subjected to the principles of an individual efficiency”.
Overall, the value of Popov’s scientific discovery is that symbolic system replacement will alter a person’s motives, which leads to changes in one’s behavior patterns, actions, and results. The reason why people cannot explain their own actions or life choices from time to time is that because they do not recognize which symbolic system unconsciously drives them to action. Jean Baudrillard speculates about the principle outlined in the “The Mirror of Production”: ‘The ‘discharge” of human power Marx speaks of is not a discharge with a pure waste, a symbolic discharge in Bataille’s sense (pulsating, libidinal): it is still an economic, productive, finalized discharge precisely because, in its mating with the other, it begets a productive force called the earth (or matter). It is a useful discharge, an investment, not a gratuitous and festive energizing of the body’s powers, a game with death, or the acting out of a desire. Moreover, this ‘discharge of the body’ does not, as in play (sexual or otherwise), have its response in other bodies, its echo in a nature that plays and discharges in exchange. It does not establish a symbolic exchange. What man gives of his body in labor is never given or lost or rendered by nature in a reciprocal way. Labor only aims to “make” nature “yield.” This discharge is thus immediately an investment of value, a putting into value opposed to all symbolic putting into play as in the gift or the discharge’.
The symbolic exchange is a very powerful invisible system that affects an individual’s perception since the symbolic system shapes the world-view and subsequent actions of a person. It can be automatically shaped in the course of life or it can be controlled. Every person’s symbol system is formed from the moment they are born and influenced by an external symbol system. An idea of a child who is born into a Christian family immediately links to the crucifix as a symbol, which becomes the central controller of his/her philosophical perception system. The choice of that symbol was not conscious by a child, as it was born in a particular environment and it might have become an important part of life (a cross as a necklace, at home, in church etc.) In one of the interviews with Aude Lancelin (“From Hyperreality to Disappearance”) Baudrillard noted that: ‘The radical illusion of the world is a problem faced by all great cultures, which they have solved through art and symbolization. What we have invented, in order to support this suffering, is a simulated real, which henceforth supplants the real and is its final solution, a virtual universe from which everything dangerous and negative has been expelled’.
A vivid but concise demonstration—far away from academia but relevant—tattoos in the form of a crucifix is widespread in the Russian criminal tradition. The tattoo system in any criminal tradition is a literal symbolic system. One may see an entire symbolic system of a given tradition on the body of a criminal. The number of Thus, by means of tattoos, a map of the symbol system on a person’s body emerges, which remains with him for life.
One more peculiar function of the symbolic system relates to the way one subconsciously wishes to be educated. Gregory Popov believed that symbolic knowledge performs the function of outlining the perfect education program for a person. However, that knowledge is not sufficient to provide a perfect idea of personal education. It is always necessary to ensure that symbols are decoded and coded correctly, thus ensuring the right information is provided at the right time. Academician G. Popov also stated: “A different person requires a different system is, that is, that correct methodology choice meets that target”. Popov adds: “Each symbol must verify a range of expressed implementations corresponding to the level of mechanisms used by the human being”. This means that the methodology is to cover the specific aspects and thus effect:
- the level of ‘ego’ (thinking);
- the level of the psyche (flexibility);
- the level of the biology (healthy training approach);
- at the level of body mechanics (physical movements).
Overall, the core of the methodology has to be universal in order to extrapolate this system to life, to convert it into a specific lifestyle. If a mistake is made in shaping the methodology, the system of human skills and knowledge will collapse and he won’t be able to operate his symbolic system. The realization of the principle uncovered by Popov is vividly expressed by Baudrillard in “The Political Economy of the Sign”: ‘Once symbolic exchange is broken, this same material is abstracted into utility value, commercial value, statutory value. The symbolic is transformed into the instrumental, either commodity or sign. Anyone of the various codes may be specifically involved, but they are all joined in the single form of political economy which is opposed, as a whole, to symbolic exchange’. This is the re-transformation symbolic idea that per se demonstrates the human reasoning is also sharped by symbols. The image and “title” ensure the communication link to a certain block of information. For instance, if we say ‘car’ or visualize a car — a certain block of information is unpacked into our consciousness. Another example: an eagle is a bird, but it could be also a symbol, as in the case of Norman tradition, which is included as a symbol in many coats of arms.
The symbolic system is a central fundamental subject in Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy. Besides, it is essential to mention the judgment of Baudrillard in “The Political Economy of the Sign”: ‘Precisely speaking, there is no symbolic ‘value’, there is only symbolic ‘exchange’, which defines itself precisely as something distinct from, and beyond value and code. All forms of value (object, commodity or sign) must be negated in order to inaugurate symbolic exchange. This is the radical rupture of the field of value’. Academician G. Popov also believed that the symbolic system is a source point for human life and activity, shaping all forms of an individual’s values and mindset.
To sum up, the external symbolic system could be compared with that very disappearing reality, wrapped or archived or coded in symbols, as written by Baudrillard in numerous texts. Since a person is surrounded by a world of phantoms and simulations, his symbolic system is filled with fragmented, contradictory elements and simulated (artificial) symbols. This generates a conflict of opinions in the human mind. The reason for irrational human behavior may also include the impact of an unfamiliar symbol system, thus, the external symbol system takes precedence over the personal symbol system. For the sake of metaphorical and analytical challenges—a human fate depends entirely on his or her symbolic system. Therefore, to achieve the expected lifestyle and results, apart from decent methodology and education one also requires reprogramming of his or her individual symbolic system. The tools for constructing the symbolic system are the doctrine, amalgam, ‘neuropsychogram-tool’ developed by G. Popov. Ultimately, I would also point out that it is worth searching for alternative and effective symbolic systems in history, criminal traditions, and European mysticism, which I plan to present in the future articles.
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