ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 9, Number 1 (January 2012)

Klossowski’s Nietzsche and Baudrillard’s Concept of the Code

Paul O’Mahoney
(Dublin, Ireland)

Nietzsche, as far as I am concerned, is the one who has continued to be the most important, but not as a point of reference, as someone I would cite, but as a spirit (esprit), as a stimulus (impulsion), or inspiration.  For me Nietzsche is a little exceptional. …Nietzsche still has a metaphysical or anti-metaphysical influence on me.  This remains highly current and relevant. …I am always a bit of a situationist and for me Nietzsche is someone who is completely topical (Baudrillard, 2003:203).

This article suggests a link between Baudrillard’s debt to Nietzsche and his use of the term “code” in his work through the 1970s. The influence of Nietzsche permeates all of Baudrillard’s work (see especially: 1984:21; 1992:94; 1993:203; and 2004:1). It is so pervasive, in fact, that it is reasonable and prudent to assume, with any particular concept of Baudrillard’s, if not direct provenance in Nietzsche at least a relationship to his work. And so it is, I here argue, for the rather elusive concept of “the code”: it is possible to posit a general influence of Nietzsche on the concept, but I believe there is a more specific and, in a fashion, vicarious one, in Pierre Klossowski’s study of Nietzsche. By way of a lengthy detour, I suggest also the same source as an influence on the idea of impossible exchange.

In his first major published work, The System of Objects, Baudrillard rarely employs the word “code”. It appears with what seems like technical weight only in a late section dealing with status or social standing, which is called “a universal code” (Baudrillard, 1968:270-74). The only other uses are the phrase “set code of values” (Ibid.:209); the assertion that “…today objects do not respond to one another, they communicate – they have no individual presence but merely, at best, an overall coherence attained by virtue of their simplification as components of a code and the way their relationships are calculated” (Ibid.:35); a footnote referencing Lévi-Strauss and “the sign codes of archaic systems” (Ibid.:254 n. 2) and the phrase “codes of connotations” (Ibid.:269).

“Code” is especially prominent in his books of the 1970s (1970, 1972, 1973, 1976, and see 2001:45-7, 53, 60, 64, 66, 71-4, 95-6, 102) but begins to disappear in De la Séduction (1979). The time-frame would suggest a link between the phasing-out of “code” and Baudrillard’s dropping of the term “symbolic exchange”, which he found unhelpful and felt people did not understand; “symbolic exchange” metamorphoses into the concept of “seduction”, and hence is effectively dropped in the same work as that in which use of “the code” begins to decline. In Seduction (159, 166-72), there is much more about the genetic code: “good old ‘genetic code’ of politics” (Ibid.:48) than about “the code” in the sense of a system of everyday signs (used only on page 149, where it is expressly linked to the cycles of obligation, such as those reported and theorised by Mauss, which Baudrillard had formerly designated by the term “symbolic exchange”).

This latter usage suggests a link between Baudrillard’s notion of “the code” and what was called in Symbolic Exchange and Death “the semiotic” – which further reinforces the idea that symbolic exchange, or the reciprocal cycle of obligations which ground and transcend economic and political interaction, as well as underpinning (or sometimes undermining) positive law, is conceived of as subverting as well as grounding “the code”. It seems that symbolic exchange, certainly a far more important concept in Baudrillard’s work, rather determined the use of “code”; thus, the dropping of the one made almost redundant the other. I have previously argued (Mahoney, 2011), that symbolic exchange is Baudrillard’s most important concept, the key to his work as well as his most enduring philosophical idea. That a relationship between the two ideas exists is supported by William Pawlett’s assertion in his entry on “Code” in the recent dictionary of Baudrillard’s work: “The code can be challenged, Baudrillard asserts, only by symbolic exchange”. Pawlett conjectures that the eventual phasing-out of the use of the term was owed to its remaining “within the orbit of modern critical theory” (Pawlett, 2010:34).

The code, then, is a system of signification – one must stress in this respect, an explicit system – generally understood and socially endorsed. Mark Poster, in taking the code as a system in the sense of an active process, whereby ordinary signs are turned into “floating signifiers”, has flagged the difficulty associated with the term: “The composite organization of such signifiers is termed the code by Baudrillard, a concept which he never adequately defines” (Poster, 2001:4). The multiple cross-references for the term in Coulter (2007) make apparent its polysemy and consequent vagueness of definition in Baudrillard’s work, as well as the looseness with which he employed it. Further indication of the non-technical nature of its use is the fact that Baudrillard did not see fit to provide an entry under “the code” in Passwords.

No doubt, of course, but it would not be difficult for an author to arrive at figurative use of the word “code” to designate a system of signs without adopting the term from any prior source. Still, certain precedents to Baudrillard’s are certainly discernible and can be argued, with varying degrees of precision, as influences on his usage; though these do not necessarily tie Baudrillard’s use to precise uses in these authors – for example in McLuhan, or some post-Saussurian “semiologists” – identifying such precedents is always potentially illuminating. I wish to suggest such an influence here, directly related to Baudrillard’s debt to Nietzsche. It is neglected in Pawlett’s dictionary entry, and so may shed further light on the term (see also Pawlett, 2008 which does not discuss Klossowski).

Between the appearance of Le Système des Objets in 1968 and La Société de Consommation in 1970 (where “code” first attains real prominence) a strange and remarkable book was published: Pierre Klossowski’s Nietzsche et le Cercle Vicieux is a partly-infamous, celebrated little study which traced Nietzsche’s philosophy (and its central conceptual figure of the eternal return) to its author’s pathology and obsessions. From its 1969 publication, it was hailed as a classic, and a landmark in the interpretation of Nietzsche. Michel Foucault, in a letter to Klossowski extolling the book, called it “the greatest work of philosophy I have read, with Nietzsche himself” (see “Translators Preface to the 2005 Continuum edition: vii).One of the most prominent contemporary American scholars of Nietzsche, when reviewing the English translation, wrote: “[Klossowski’s] book takes us further into the treacherous depths of Nietzsche’s thought than any other study I know”. He went further to assert of its “incomparable” character: “It may well be the most extraordinary text on Nietzsche ever composed, as well as one of the most disconcerting and disquieting…because it is a quite terrifying reading of Nietzsche. At the end of it the reader, or should I say this reader, experiences utter vertigo” (Ansell-Pearson, 1999:84-9).

There is no doubt that Baudrillard knew this text well, and it can be reasonably assumed that he read it upon its publication. He has spoken emphatically of the influence of Klossowski on his thought, explicitly linking him to Mauss and Bataille, the thinkers from whom he primarily derives his idea of symbolic exchange (which is also linked, sometimes to the point of apparent synonymy, to Bataille’s “accursed share”): “When I began to teach, I worked from three or four books – Bataille’s, The Gift by Mauss, Artaud’s The Theatre of Cruelty and Pierre Klossowski’s La Monnaie Vivante” (2004:39). We may keep Klossowski as an interpreter of Nietzsche in mind when he remarks a moment later: “Nietzsche, Bataille, Artaud – we’re always coming back to these same ones” (Ibid.:40). Baudrillard began teaching at Nanterre in October of 1966, four years before the publication of La Monnaie Vivante. If he used it extensively in his early years as a lecturer, he most likely knew Klossowski’s prior work, including the Nietzsche book published a year before. There is similarly little doubt that Klossowski’s interpretation of Nietzsche (which makes liberal use of Nachlass and even juvenilia) had a significant impact on a Baudrillard who was already a devotee of Nietzsche. The attitude toward Nietzsche’s madness implied by Baudrillard’s reference to it in The Lucidity Pact: 209 requires a reading such as Klossowski offers of “the euphoria in Turin” (see Mahoney, 2011). It is possible, too, that Klossowski’s book put Baudrillard on the path of some of the Nachlass – as is also there pointed out, some of the obscure Nietzschean passages of which Baudrillard makes use, or to which he alludes in his work, were previously quoted and discussed in Klossowski (to mention just one more, not mentioned there: the line from “The Ass Festival” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “To the gods, death is only ever a prejudice” (1976:144), makes up the final line of Klossowski’s essay “Nietzsche, Polytheism and Parody” (see endnote 2).

Klossowski uses the word “code” often extended to “everyday code” or “the code of everyday signs” to designate the entire system of signs by which we articulate and represent, even to ourselves, our deeper impulses. Such representation is of necessity an interpretation of those impulses, and no less necessarily a false interpretation, a falsification or dilution of their meaning. On at least one occasion the “code of everyday signs” is directly and unambiguously equated with language, the use of which depends on the principle of identity and the reality principle (Klossowski, 2005:xvi). It is also called “institutional language”, which “does not allow us to designate what is authentic otherwise than as something insignificant” (Ibid.:33). It is the everyday code of signs that allows us to enter into a relationship of exteriority, to communicate with others, and to maintain what for Nietzsche is a primary illusion, that of absolute self-identity over time. It structures our consciousness and puts into words and other signs our dispositions of soul, or, indeed, of the body. “The body wants to make itself understood through the intermediary of a language of signs that is fallaciously deciphered by consciousness. Consciousness itself constitutes this code of signs that inverts, falsifies and filters what is expressed through the body” (Ibid.:20). The code of signs thus constituted is the source of illusions such as the will, and human intention: “Thus, there is no intention apart from the code of signs established by consciousness, insofar as the intention aspires to an end which is assigned to the ‘will’ by ‘consciousness’. An aim is merely an image provoked by active forces, which are experienced and codified as an intention” (Ibid.:40). By structuring consciousness, the code of signs allows one also to construct the duality of conscious and unconscious. But in point of fact: “The notions of consciousness and unconsciousness, which are derived from what is responsible or irresponsible, always presuppose the unity of the person of the ego, of the subject, a purely institutional distinction…From the outset, this unity appears as little more than a flickering memory [of impulses], maintained exclusively by the designations of the everyday code, which intervene in accordance with changing excitations, upon which they impose their own linkages in order to conceal the total discontinuity of our state” (Ibid.:30). Even the so-called ‘unconscious’, when it finds occasional expression, finds its expression in the same code of signs. Institutional language structures consciousness, invents responsibility and sustains the illusion of the ego’s integrity.

“Every living being interprets according to a code of signs, responding to variations in excited or excitable states” (Ibid.:36); the code is thus “an abbreviation of the impulsive movements of gestures in signs: no doubt the system of interpretation that offers the largest domain of error” (Ibid.:35). Error is, of course, a condition of life in Nietzsche, and the larger the domain of error (truth is the chief error or illusion by which life is made bearable), the greater is the capacity of the species and the individual, such as he is, to adapt and survive. The existence and freedom of the will, the unity of the ego, the adequacy and coherence of language, all such “vital illusions”, as Baudrillard takes over that notion from Nietzsche, are grounded in the code of everyday signs: “We are only a succession of discontinuous states in relation to the code of everyday signs, and about which the fixity of language deceives us. As long as we depend on this code, we can conceive our continuity, even though we live discontinuously” (Ibid.:32). All of man’s cherished illusions and higher aspirations – the “blanket we call understanding, culture, morality” – are grounded in the code of signs (Ibid.:31). It is both against this code the impulses are set, and through it that they emerge in distorted and diluted forms, finding expression in language and allowing the subject to constitute himself as such and continue to function.

One immediately perceives that the “code” in Klossowski, just as it does in Baudrillard, alternates between oppressiveness and its opposite; that is, it allows for expression and for interaction with other human beings, but it is similarly repressive of individual “impulses” or creative instincts, and inadequate to the expression of one’s deeper thoughts or obsessions. It is both liberating and limiting1. It is the institutional language by which we interact with others, constitute ourselves as selves and represent our dispositions of soul and bodily impulses, both to ourselves and others, via their interpretation and “abbreviation” in signs.

Klossowski’s reading of Nietzsche is undoubtedly idiosyncratic, but he provides ample textual foundation for it. That aspect of Nietzsche’s thought so emphasised by Klossowski which feeds into the idea of the “code” in opposition to the true, inexpressible impulses of soul – whereby words are inadequate for the expression of thoughts, and thoughts but the ghosts of feelings – may be indicated by the following passages, all from Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft. [All of Nietzsche’s major works are now available at the fine Nietzsche Source website:]. First, on thoughts, aphorism § 244 proposes that “One cannot even reproduce [or, report, wiedergeben] one’s thoughts entirely in words.” The famous aphorism § 179 states that: “Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier, simpler than them.” Section § 298 runs: “I caught this insight on my way and quickly took the next poor words to hand to hold it fast, so it would not fly away from me again. And now it is dead of these arid words, and hangs and shivers in them – and I know no longer, when I see them there, how I could have felt such happiness when I bagged this bird.” Also pertinent here is § 354, “On the Genius of the Species”, a long reflection which deals with “the problem of consciousness”. There, Nietzsche muses that consciousness is a herd-instinct, essential for communication, and a pale reflection of our actual feelings: our feelings in fact are each of them unique and incomparable, but by their being raised to consciousness (which properly entails their becoming expressible in language), they are falsified, generalised and rendered superficial. Consciousness thus belongs not to the properly individual life of man – which might transcend the “averageness” of the herd – but to his gregarious side, which ever ties him to the herd. It is worth reiterating that Baudrillard’s interpretation of Nietzsche does seem to owe something to Klossowski’s, and this encourages us further to discern in his use of “code” a residue of Klossowski’s novel employment of the term.

Two further points of contact between Klossowski’s volume and Baudrillard’s work are worth pointing up, even if we do not here pursue them to a definite conclusion. First, it is interesting to note that Klossowski also introduces in this book his concept of the simulacrum, which is directly related to the pathological or instinctive content of our feelings and thoughts which fail to find expression in the code of everyday signs. It would be a profitable exercise, if difficult and conjectural, to trace the precise influence of Klossowski’s use of the term on Baudrillard’s2]. A relationship can be supposed on the basis of Baudrillard’s invocation of Klossowski’s name (Baudrillard, 1990:9), listing his idea of the simulacrum—along with sovereignty in Bataille and cruelty in Artaud — as an example of a “paradoxical heresy”. We can perhaps leave it at the link drawn between the code and the simulacrum or phantasm in Smith’s introduction, which should contain enough food for thought for the interested student of Baudrillard:

Phantasme (‘phantasm’) and simulacrum (‘simulacrum’) are perhaps the most important terms in Klossowski’s vocabulary. The former comes from the Greek phantasia (appearance, imagination), and was taken up in a more technical sense in psychoanalytic theory; the latter comes from the Latin simulare (to copy, represent, feign), and during the late Roman empire referred to the statues of the gods that lined the entrance to a city. In Klossowski, the term ‘phantasm’ refers to an obsessional image produced instinctively from the life of the impulses. ‘My true themes’, writes Klossowski of himself, ‘are dictated by one or more obsessional (or ‘obsidianal’) instincts that seek to express themselves.’ A ‘simulacrum’, by contrast, is a willed reproduction of a phantasm (in a literary, pictorial, or plastic form) that simulates this invisible agitation of the soul. ‘The simulacrum, in its imitative sense, is the actualization of something in itself incommunicable and nonrepresentable: the phantasm in its obsessional constraint.’ If Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle is primarily an interpretation of Nietzsche’s physiognomy, it is because it attempts to identify the impulses or powers that exercised their constraint on Nietzsche (notably those associated with his valetudinary states), the phantasms they produced (notably the phantasm of the Eternal Return that Nietzsche experienced at Sils-Maria in August 1881), and the various simulacra Nietzsche created to express them…Simulacra stand in a complex relationship to what Klossowski, in his later works, calls a stereotype (‘stereotype’). On the one hand, the invention of simulacra always presupposes a set of prior stereotypes – what he here calls ‘the code of everyday signs’ – that express the gregarious aspect of a lived experience in a form schematized by the habitual usages of feeling and thought. In this sense, the code of everyday signs, by making them intelligible, necessarily inverts and falsifies the singularity of the soul’s intensive movements: ‘How can one give an account of an irreducible depth of sensibility except by acts that betray?’ On the other hand, Klossowski also speaks of a ‘science of stereotypes’ in which the stereotype, by being ‘accentuated’ to the point of excess, can itself bring about a critique of its own gregarious interpretation of the phantasm: ‘Practised advisedly, the institutional stereotypes (of syntax) provoke the presence of what they circumscribe; their circumlocutions conceal the incongruity of the phantasm but at the same time trace the outline of its opaque physiognomy’ 3

We may briefly add the reflection that in Baudrillard, symbolic exchange, though it represents a definitely social rather than individual set of regulations, institutions and obligations, yet refers to practices that are also in a crucial way “incommunicable and nonrepresentable”. This is not so much because language is inadequate to the articulation of these unspoken and unwritten rules (though that may occasionally be the case), but because their articulation destroys their efficacy; they depend for their function on remaining unarticulated – they represent “the rules of the game”, but one of the first rules of the game of obligations (as a reading of Mauss confirms adequately) is that one does not make explicit the rules. So expression of the rules (their admittance to or their expression in the ordinary language of the “code of everyday signs”) kills them in a way analogous to the way in which ordinary words “kill” the feelings or impulses the individual wishes to express, or the “birds” of insight one briefly captures.

A second issue worth looking at is Baudrillard’s development of the idea of “impossible exchange”. We have already seen that the volume of essays to which the notion gives the title contains some discussion of Klossowski (Baudrillard, 1999: 122-31, 132-3), but it is La Monnaie Vivante that is more prominent. However, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle would also seem to be lurking in the background. The title essay of the volume (Ibid.: 3-25) speaks of the inexchangeable nature of different spheres – the political, the aesthetic, the legal and ultimately the world itself; that which cannot be exchanged has no value because it has no equivalent, which alone confers value. “There is no possible equivalence between thought and the world” (Ibid.:24); on this proposition is based Baudrillard’s rejection of the traditional model of critical thought (Ibid.:17), which “sees itself as holding up a mirror to the world” (Ibid.:23), and his turn to “radical thought” conceived of as a challenge to the real. This is in part, indeed, why Baudrillard proposes that in impossible exchange lies “the true formula of contemporary nihilism” (Ibid.:7). By this word alone, we are already in the province of Nietzsche (who is invoked in a slightly different context a few lines after). Nihilism indeed: “If the universe does not have a double, since nothing exists outside it, then the mere attempt to make such a point exist is tantamount to a desire to put an end to it” (Ibid.:25). Without a supposed equivalence between thought and the world, or between the sphere of the real and the sphere of signs (Ibid.:5), critical thought rather falls into disrepair. “Any system invents for itself a principle of equilibrium, exchange and value, causality and purpose, which plays on fixed oppositions: good and evil, true and false, sign and referent, subject and object. This is the whole space of difference and regulation by difference which, as long as it functions, ensures the stability and dialectical movement of the whole” (Ibid.:5-6). It is when these “inventions” come to seem untenable or no longer fit for purpose that a particular sphere or system reaches a crisis point, and is confronted with the fact of impossible exchange: “…it is this exiled, foreclosed uncertainty which haunts systems and generates the illusion of the economic, the political, and so on. It is the failure to understand this which leads systems into incoherence, hypertrophy and, in some sense, leads them to destroy themselves” (Ibid.:6). Put this way, we should recognise impossible exchange as an extension of the principle of symbolic exchange, which was similarly said to “haunt” systems (one of which, perhaps the principle of example of which, is “the code”) and modern social institutions (Baudrillard, 1976:1).

That we are in the realm of symbolic exchange is clear from the invocation of Bataille’s “accursed share”, which term, along with (as we have seen) “seduction”, and elsewhere “the principle of evil”, is one of the synonyms for symbolic exchange. Baudrillard writes: “Behind the exchange of value and, in a sense, serving as an invisible counterpart to it…behind the exchange of Something, we have, then, always, the exchange of Nothing. Death, illusion, absence, the negative, evil, the accursed share are everywhere, running beneath the surface of all things” (Baudrillard, 1999: 7). Put another way: “…has there ever been any ‘economy’, in the sense of an organization of value that is stably coherent and has a universal purpose and meaning? In absolute terms, the answer is no” (Ibid.:6; see also Baudrillard, 1998: 44). Baudrillard is even more explicit on this point in Passwords: “I would be quite willing to believe that there has never been any economy in the rational scientific sense in which we understand it, that symbolic exchange has always been at the radical base of things, and that it is on that level that things are decided” (2003:17). So, we see again that symbolic exchange lies at the heart of the notion of “impossible exchange”.

Systems are not exchangeable one for another or for anything else, any “double” of themselves or equivalent. Examples of the impossibility of exchange, we have seen, are provided by the economic sphere, the political sphere, the aesthetic, the legal, the realm of critical thought, and the world itself. But what is the first and most fundamental inexchangeable unit? It is the self, the individual. Another essay in Baudrillard’s collection reflects on “the impossible exchange of one’s own life” (Baudrillard, 1999: 45-50). One’s destiny, or the individual “soul”, is in fact the model of impossible exchange, and it is partly in the fundamentally inexchangeable nature of the self that is grounded the impossibility of communication of its deepest stirrings within the “code”.
What has this to do with Klossowski? It was in his study of Nietzsche that Klossowski came to propose, in precisely the terms of its impossibility of exchange, the uniqueness of the individual soul – its “unexchangeable depth”. Klossowski’s point is that the soul, with all of its affects and impulses, is utterly inexchangeable, or that its fundamental experiences are not translatable into ordinary language. Thus the fundamentally inexchangeable thing is the self, the soul, and it is this insurmountable barrier between selves or souls that is at bottom responsible for other failures of equivalence or forms of inexchangeability. Again a look at Smith’s introduction helpfully points us in this direction:

Klossowski almost always uses [the term fond] in the context of the expression le fond inéchangeable (‘the unexchangeable depth’) or le fond unintelligible (‘the unintelligible depth’), which refers to the ‘obstinate singularity’ of the human soul that is by nature non-communicable… Klossowski’s use of the term ‘soul’ (âme) is in part derived from the theological literature of the mystics, for whom the unexchangeable depth of the soul was irreducible and uncreated; it eludes the exercise of the created intellect, and can be grasped only negatively. If there is an apophaticism in Klossowski, however, it is related exclusively to the immanent movements of the soul’s intensive affects, and not to the transcendence of God (Translator’s Preface: x).

“Everything,” writes Baudrillard, “which sets out to exchange itself for something runs up, in the end, against the Impossible Exchange Barrier. The most concerted, most subtle attempts to make the world meaningful in value terms, to endow it with meaning, come to grief on this insuperable obstacle” (Baudrillard, 1999: 6). Does this not describe one of the central tragedies – but also comedies – of the human condition? Is it not precisely the fact that we can never exchange our experiences for those of another that condemns us to a fundamental enclosure within ourselves, and thwarts our attempts to impose meaning on the world? The traditional “problem of other minds” is, in this sense, perhaps another name for an aspect of the problem of impossible exchange.

It was the “unexchangeable depth” of the soul which ultimately eluded the code of everyday signs, spectacularly so in the case of Nietzsche. “For it is gregariousness that presupposes exchange, the communicable, language: being equivalent to something else, namely, to anything that contributes to the conservation of the species, to the endurance of the herd, but also to the endurance of the signs of the species in the individual” (Klossowski: 60). But what is exchanged, what can be made equivalent (what, to take up Baudrillard’s terms, can enter into the domain of or a relation of value) is never the fundamental impulses of the soul. Thus Klossowski wonders: “Is everything that is singular, incommunicable and unexchangeable (that is, everything that is excluded from what we call the norm) not only condemned to muteness, but also condemned to disappear, or at least to remain ‘unconscious’?” (Ibid.). It would appear so. The eternal return, Nietzsche’s both Nietzsche’s most fantastic phantasm and simulacrum, is the mark of his singular profundity: “Now since it was a question of a high tonality of soul, Nietzsche maintained that its thought attested to his own singularity: the unintelligible depth remained the criterion of the unexchangeable” (Ibid.:72). The unexchangeable itself also remains the criterion of uniqueness: “The obsession with authenticity, namely, with his unexchangeable and irreducible depth, and all his efforts to attain it – this is what constituted Nietzsche’s primary and ultimate preoccupation. Hence his feeling of not having been born yet” (Ibid.:140). Though the possibility remains of recognition of others of similar character or spirit – compare the “unexchangeable (non-communicable) character of certain ways of living, thinking and feeling” (Ibid.:127) with the restricted “everyday codes” evolved by certain individuals (Ibid.:5) – it is the singular and unexchangeable character of an existence that defines it. Discussing the “fecund” individuals which Nietzsche hopes to bring forth, and which alone would justify the existence of the species, Klossowski reminds that “this overabundance [of the fecund individual soul] is something unexchangeable and hence without price” (Ibid.:153).

A reader of Baudrillard should recognise in such attention to the “unexhangeable” affinities with the idea of “impossible exchange” that suggest a definite influence. Baudrillard is much more explicit on this common form of disruption of the general circuit of exchange in his entry on impossible exchange in Passwords. There, destiny – a term which in Baudrillard always has very strong Nietzschean overtones – is said to be one form, and we may presume the fundamental form, of impossible exchange. There is either commodity exchange or:

…that concept of symbolic exchange which I’ve used a great deal and which is, in a way, its opposite. The fact remains that exchange, in fact, grounds our morality, as does the idea that everything cab be exchanged, that the only thing that exists is what can assume value, and hence pass from one to another. Destiny comes close to the notion of impossible exchange, at least in the absolute. Destiny cannot be exchanged for anything. It is something which, at a particular moment, is of such singularity that it is not exchangeable against any rationality whatever. So, the radical dimension of destiny might be said to be that of impossible exchange…(Baudrillard, 2003:73).

We should take very seriously the linking of commodity exchange with ordinary morality, recalling the metamorphosis of symbolic exchange into “the principle of evil”. Earlier in the volume Baudrillard had written, apropos of “value”: “Perhaps we are always in a dual morality…There might be said to be a moral sphere, that of commodity exchange, and an immoral sphere, that of play or gaming, where all that counts is the event of the game itself and the advent of shared rules. Sharing rules is something quite different from referring to a common general equivalent…” (Ibid.:11). The entry concerning impossible exchange repeats the claim that “systems are haunted by this limit, this barrier of impossible exchange” (Ibid.:76), and again quotes refers to Nietzsche on the notion of debt (Ibid.:75; incidentally, the reference is to On the Genealogy of Morals II.: 21-23). As if to emphasise the relation and foreshadow his discussion, the prior entry on “Destiny” asserts: “Destiny is this symbolic exchange between us and the world, which thinks us and which we think, where this collision and collusion take place, this telescoping of, and complicity between, things” (Baudrillard, 2003:69-70). Klossowski had similarly pointed up this idea of a morality based on value equivalence that is transgressed by that which is unexchangeable or which obeys its own rules of exchange, such as the pact or wager (even explicitly using the phrase “laws of production” in this respect). It is the case with “every industrial morality”, writes Klossowski, that its “laws of production create a bad conscience within anyone who lives within the unexchangeable,” because it “can tolerate no culture or sphere of life that is not in some manner integrated into or subjected to general productivity” (Klossowski, 2005:127). Ordinary or “industrial” moralities are part of the institutional language of the code. The singular depth of the soul is what cannot be exchanged, thus cannot enter into a relationship of equivalence or fully participate in the moralities of value; thus it is what exceeds or eludes the code; by not entering into the relationship of value and equivalence, it does not acquire definite meaning. Without being “codified” in the code of everyday signs, it does not signify. To return to a passage quoted in part earlier, we may now appreciate its meaning more fully: “In effect, our depth is unexchangeable because it does not signify anything. Because of this unexchangability, we cover ourselves with the blanket we call understanding culture, morality – all of which are based on the code of everyday signs. Beneath this cover, there would only be this nothingness, or this depth, or this Chaos, or any other unnameable thing that Nietzsche might dare to utter” (Ibid.:31-2). Beneath that cover, or behind it, however, persists the nothingness that, in Baudrillard’s scheme, is managed through symbolic exchange, is put into play rather than exchanged: “…behind the exchange of Something, we have, then, always, the exchange of Nothing. Death, illusion, absence, the negative, evil, the accursed share are everywhere, running beneath the surface of all things”. The fundamental form of this “Nothing” that subverts the law of value and general equivalence (and the “laws of production” of ordinary morality) is the nothingness or chaos of the person’s “unexchangeable depth”.

This brings us back once again to the notion of the code. The self is itself one of the terms in the code of everyday signs, the one on which identity and any notion of continuity depends. Without this sign, no others would be possible, as language could not be used coherently. It is when a particular thought, reflecting a particularly strong intensity of soul or “tonality,” fails to refer back to myself, as all thoughts normally do, that the inadequacy of the code is exposed, and the very idea of my coherence is threatened. If the thought thus refers to itself, and not to myself, it seems not to belong to me and to exclude me at precisely the moment of greatest intensity of soul. This is central to Klossowski’s interpretation of Nietzsche: indeed it is the “circle” that represents or constitutes the figure of the eternal return that acts in such an exclusionary fashion in Nietzsche’s thought (Klossowski, 2005: 49-51). We could say in this respect: the code, the code of everyday signs, ordinarily shelters us from the fact of impossible exchange – the impossible exchange even of thought for language, or the impossibility of an equivalence between the experience of thought and its expression in language – but eventually everyone runs up against that barrier of impossible exchange and perceives, however dimly and briefly, the inadequacy of the code. Klossowski writes: “By what measure can we say that the agent is ‘conscious’ of remaining silent, of not speaking, of acting or not acting, of deciding or remaining undecided? Only in terms of a more or less unequal exchange between the impulses and the signs of the everyday code” (Klossowski, 2005:29). Impossible exchange being rooted in, and in a sense an extension of, the concept of symbolic exchange, marks it as related to the notion of the code. Both Baudrillard’s use of the “code” and his later development of the concept of impossible exchange, in a period when “code” has effectively been dropped from his theoretical vocabulary, seem traceable in part to the influence of Klossowski. That that influence should be exerted through a study of Nietzsche makes it all the more likely and more significant. The link between Klossowski and Baudrillard remains, for the most part, unexplored territory, but it is to be hoped the present essay may contribute to a reassessment of the relation. Klossowski, we noted above, was listed with Mauss, Bataille and Artaud in a discussion of Baudrillard’s significant and lasting influences. The books one teaches from are the books also that guide one’s thought. In the same series of interviews, Baudrillard had remarked that as far as possible he tended to cover up his theoretical ‘filiations’ – from researchers and readers and perhaps, we may surmise, even from himself (Baudrillard, 2004:40). The paucity of references to Klossowski belie his lasting influence on Baudrillard’s oeuvre; to have pointed up some possible and important ‘filiations’ between them has, we hope, served two ends: first, to draw the attention of scholars of Baudrillard’s work to this influence; and second, to once more reaffirm, or confirm, the abiding and decisive importance to that work of Nietzsche.


Keith Ansell-Pearson (1999). “Review of Nietzsche and the Vicious CircleJournal of Nietzsche Studies, Number 18, (Fall): 84-9.

Jean Baudrillard (1968). Le Système des Objets. Paris: Gallimard.

Jean Baudrillard (1970. The Consumer Society. London: Sage, 1998.

Jean Baudrillard (1972). For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press, 1981.

Jean Baudrillard (1973). The Mirror of Production. St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press, 1975.

Jean Baudrillard (1976). Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage, 1993.

Jean Baudrillard (1984). “Revenge of the Crystal: An Interview With Guy Bellavance”. In Revenge of the Crystal: Selected Writings on the Modern Object and its Destiny, 1968-1983. Translated by Paul Foss and Julian Pefanis. Sydney: Power Institute, 1990:15-34.

Jean Baudrillard (1990). Cool Memories, 1980-1985. New York: Verso, 1990

Jean Baudrillard (1992). The Illusion of the End. Stanford University Press.

Jean Baudrillard (1993). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews (1982-1993). Edited by Mike Gane,  London: Routledge.

Jean Baudrillard (1998). Paroxysm. New York: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard (2001). The Uncollected Baudrillard. Edited by Gary Genosko. London: SAGE.

Jean Baudrillard (2003). Passwords. New York: Verso.

Jean Baudrillard (2004). Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge.

Gerry Coulter (2007). ‘Never Travel On An Aeroplane With God’: The Baudrillard Index – An Obscene Project. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (On The Internet) (2007):

Pierre Klossowski ([1969] 2005). Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle. (Translated by Daniel W. Smith ), London: Continuum.

Paul Mahoney (2011). “Sourcing the Unsourced: Tracing Baudrillard’s References to Nietzsche”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Volume 8, Number 1:

William Pawlett (2008). “Hate/Code”. Kritikos Volume 5 (September – October):

William Pawlett (2010). “Code” in The Baudrillard Dictionary. Edited by Richard G. Smith. Edinburgh University Press.

Mark Poster (2001). “Introduction” in Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. London: Polity Press.


1. One might compare this aspect of the “code of everyday signs” with the symbolic order in Lacan: initiation into the symbolic order via language is the precondition of self-consciousness and subjectivity, and it allows the individual to constitute itself as such, as an entity separate from those upon which it depended in its infancy. On the other hand, initiation into the symbolic order is also initiation into rules and prohibitions, repression and the law. This baptism, or “symbolic castration”, is necessary for liberation and expression, but ultimately is also limiting. Klossowski’s reading of Nietzsche also presents an interesting link in this respect with Kristeva’s notion of the “semiotic” as a kind of somatically-based residue from the period before initiation into the symbolic order, which insists despite the repression of infantile jouissance that attends this initiation (particularly in light of the uses of the term “semiotic” in Klossowski).

2. Pawlett also wrote the entry on “Simulacra and Simulacrum” in The Baudrillard Dictionary: 196-8, and there cites Klossowski and Nietzsche as influences on Baudrillard’s use. He mentions only Klossowski’s La Monnaie Vivante (1970), however, as an influence on a later discussion of the simulacrum in Impossible Exchange (122-6) omitting reference to the previous year’s Nietzsche book. Klossowski receives a single, brief mention in relation to the simulacrum in Pawlett’s Jean Baudrillard: Against Banality (New York: Routledge, 2007): 70. It also makes brief reference (113) to Klossowski’s earlier Nietzsche interpretation in Un Si Funeste Désir (Paris: Gallimard 1994[1963]), a collection of writings which begins with a commentary on The Gay Science (“On Some Fundamental Themes of Nietzsche’s Gaya Scienza”) and closes with the well-known essay “Nietzsche, Polytheism and Parody”, but Pawlett again neglects the more famous book, which is briefly referred to only on p. 125 in relation to the interpretation of the eternal return. The collection has been published as Such a Deathly Desire, trans. R. Ford (SUNY Press, 2007). Ford’s translation of “Nietzsche, Polytheism and Parody” previously appeared in Bulletin de la Société Américaine de Philosophie de Langue Français, Vol. 14 No. 2 (Fall 2004): 82-119

3. A link is suggested between Klossowski’s Nietzsche and Baudrillard’s use of “simulacrum” in William Merrin, Baudrillard and the Media: A Critical Introduction (Polity Press, 2005): 36, 161 n. 6, but while helpful in highlighting the connection, it doesn’t develop or explore it in depth. For further reading on Klossowski’s vision of the idea, see Klossowski’s “Of the Simulacrum in Georges Bataille’s Communication” in On Bataille: Critical Essays Ed. L.A. Boldt-Irons (SUNY Press, 1995): 147-56. “Simulacrum” is Klossowski’s translation of the German Trugbild (lit. “fraud-image”), which could equally be translated “phantasm” or “illusion”.

© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2012)

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