Baudrillard's Thoughts On Media
"...what if the sign did not relate either to the object or to meaning, but to the promotion of the sign as sign? And what if information did not relate either to the event or the facts, but to the promotion of information itself as event? And more precisely today: what if television no longer related to anything except itself as message?"
-- Jean Baudrillard, Screened Out
Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), sociologist, philosopher, and the author of over thirty books, is best known for his theories of simulacra and hyperreality.
According to Baudrillard, the territory of reality no longer precedes the map of representation. Images and signs have become more "real" to us than "reality" itself. In the past, signifiers stood in a one-to-one correspondence with their referents: today they do not; they proliferate in all directions; they themselves are perceived and interpreted as "real". For example, the Main Street of Disneyland has become a more "real" representation of Main Street in our collective mind than the Main Street of towns and cities itself. The idea of New York and Paris one experiences in a Las Vegas casino has become as real or more real to people than the actual cities themselves.
"Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference [between maps and territories] that constituted the charm of abstraction," Baudrillard writes in Simulacra And Simulation. "The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control -- and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these. It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance. It is no longer anything but operational."
In the past, a "real" moment occurred when a person experienced another person's presence and speech, or observed something that was happening in the neighboorhood or across the street. Today what we experience more and more are spectacles, images, symbols, signs. To understand to what great degree we have all become dependent on circuitry and networks, try living a week without a cell phone, or PC, or TV, or DVD player, or iPod, or radio. Perhaps for many, such deprivation would be equivalent to an emotional and psychological death. The feeling of absence would hit them in a quite destabilizing way.
Consider a few plain examples of the way that symbols and signs affect our thought processes. Take the act of driving to work every morning. A woman turns on the radio in her car and hears a commercial for a new kind of home mortgage, or a pitch for general nutrition centers, or a claim about a new fast-working sleeping pill. She looks out the window and sees a billboard of a beautiful face with the message, "Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Maybelline." At work, before retrieving her emails, she glances at the headlines of an Internet portal and all at once confronts the following:
Tips for taking your baby on a plane.
Poll: Fat-cancer link not widely known.
10 easy ways to stash away cash.
Does your baby need a therapist?
See Eve Longoria's fave San Antonio spots.
After work she stops by the mall to buy a CD for her daughter, but before she enters the record store, she notices a giant poster of Mariah Carey in a micro-skirt, with a heavily painted face, legs spread out in that familiar, alluring pose. What meaning can be attached to the poster? Maybe none at all, or maybe the subliminal message that buying the CD will give you an erection, or turn you in to a similarly seductive woman. What is the connection between everything this woman has seen and heard on a single given day, and the actual experiences of her life?
Or consider a viewer's reaction, after a televised presidential debate, that such-and-such a candidate came across as genuine or honest. What does honesty mean in this context? Nothing really at all: politicians present their best face before the TV cameras, seem often to be what in fact they are not, will often tell people what they want to hear so as to derive an advantage. In this example it is not easy to distinguish simulated authenticity from genuine authenticity, to dig beneath a transparent image to find the real.
We've all seen the bumper sticker "We Support Our Troops" -- another diabolical sign that seems to express a veiled attitude. It suggests that criticizing the leaders who send young men to die in war is tantamount to not being on the side of the young men, or condemning them per se; or, if you are opposed to the Iraq war, you are opposed to the American troops, whatever "opposed" is supposed to mean in this example.
Or, still again, consider the question "Will Hillary run?" -- a favorite of pundits who think they are being clever or naughty when in fact they are being absurd and trite. The following might be said about this construction:
1) The first-person usage is itself a sign: the smallest paucity really "know" the human being that is Hillary Clinton. For everybody else she is a plastic-doll public-figure that has been constructed by the media. There is no differentiating who she really is from the meanings that the major media pour into the public plastic doll. "Is she good or bad, a liberal or a moderate? Does she have a chance to win? Does the party want/need her as the nominee in 2008?" These questions have no connection whatsoever either to truth or to the lived experience of human beings. If they are intelligible at all, it as a kind of code transmitted and legitimated by pundits and journalists, and circulated to create a constant smog in the political air.
2) The question presupposes that a) it matters whether Mrs. Clinton will run; b) that electoral outcomes have any significance in contemporary America; c) that such a species of question is important enough to keep repeating month after month, year after year.
Baudrillard would see all such examples as evidence that we are living in a fundamentally different age -- an age dominated more by appearances than by what used to be known as reality; an age of simulacra, or copies of originals that no longer exist.
Like McLuhan, he thinks that it is the technological structure of media that affects our attitudes, feelings, and thoughts, and that the view that media can serve some ultimate emancipatory end -- e.g., by being more inclusive, by offering more radical or subversive voices in the mix of programming -- is simply delusional. He even questions whether information produces meaning or whether it destroys it.
The passages below trace Baudrillard's thinking over a period of three decades. A list of important references follows.
(From "Requiem for the Media," 1972)
"...it is not as vehicles of content, but in their form and very operation, that media induce a social relation; and this is not an exploitative relation: it involves the abstraction, separation, and abolition of exchange itself. The media are not co-efficients, but effectors of ideology. Reciprocally, ideology does not exist in some place apart, as the discourse of the dominant class, before it is channeled through the media...media ideology functions at the level of form, at the level of the separation it establishes, which is a social division.
"The mass media are anti-mediatory and intransitive. They fabricate non-communication -- this is what characterizes them, if one agrees to define communication as an exchange, as a reciprocal space of a speech and a response, and thus of a responsibility (not a psychological or moral responsibility, but a personal, mutual correlation in exchange). We must understand communication as something other than the simple transmission-reception of a message, whether or not the latter is considered reversible through feedback. Now, the totality of the existing architecture of the media founds itself on this latter definition: they are what always prevents response, making all processes of exchange impossible...
"To understand the term response properly, we must take it in an emphatic sense, by referring to an equivalent in 'primitive' societies: power belongs to the one who can give and cannot be repaid. To give, and to do it in such a way that one is unable to repay, is to disrupt the exchange to your profit and to institute a monopoly. The social process is thus thrown out of equilibrium, whereas repaying disrupts this power relationship and institutes (or reinstitutes), on the basis of an antagonistic reciprocity, the circuit of symbolic exchange. The same goes for the media: they speak, or something is spoken there, but in such a way as to exclude any response anywhere. This is why the only revolution in this domain -- indeed, the revolution everywhere: the revolution tout court -- lies in restoring this possibility of response. But such a simple possibility presupposes an upheaval in the entire existing structure of the media.
"No other theory or strategy is possible. All vague impulses to democratize content, subvert it, restore the 'transparency of the code,' control the information process, contrive a reversibility of circuits, or take power over media are hopeless -- unless the monopoly of speech is broken; and one cannot break the monopoly of speech if one’s goal is simply to distribute it equally to everyone. Speech must be able to exchange, give, and repay itself as is occasionally the case with looks and smiles. It cannot simply be interrupted, congealed, stockpiled, and redistributed in some corner of the social process."
(From Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, pp. 80-83)
"Information is thought to create communication, and even if the waste is enormous, a general consensus would have it that nevertheless, as a whole, there be an excess of meaning, which is redistributed in all the interstices of the social -- just as consensus would have it that material production, despite its dysfunctions and irrationalities, opens onto an excess of wealth and social purpose. We are all complicitous in this myth. It is the alpha and omega of our modernity, without which the credibility of our social organization would collapse. Well, the fact is that it is collapsing, and for this very reason: because where we think that information produces meaning, the opposite occurs.
"Information devours its own content. It devours communication and the social. And for two reasons.
"1. Rather than creating communication, it exhausts itself in the act of staging communication. Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning. A gigantic process of simulation that is very familiar...
"It is useless to ask if it is the loss of communication that produces this escalation in the simulacrum, or whether it is the simulacrum that is there first for dissuasive ends, to short-circuit in advance any possibility of communication (precession of the model that calls an end to the real). Useless to ask which is the first term, there is none, it is a circular process -- that of simulation, that of the hyperreal. The hyperreality of communication and of meaning. More real than the real, that is how the real is abolished...
"2. Behind this exacerbated mise-en-scene of communication, the mass media, the pressure of information pursues an irresistible destructuration of the social.
"Thus information dissolves meaning and dissolves the social, in a sort of nebulous state dedicated not to a surplus of innovation, but, on the contrary, to total entropy...
"Only the medium can make an event -- whatever the contents, whether they are conformist or subversive. A serious problem for all counterinformation, pirate radios, antimedia, etc. But there is something even more serious, which McLuhan himself did not see. Because beyond this neutralization of all content, one could still expect to manipulate the medium in its form and to transform the real by using the impact of the medium as form. If all the content is wiped out, there is perhaps still a subversive, revolutionary use value of the medium as such. That is -- and this is where McLuhan's formula leads, pushed to its limit -- there is not only an implosion of the message in the medium, there is, in the same movement, the implosion of the medium itself in the real, the implosion of the medium and of the real in a sort of hyperreal nebula, in which even the definition and distinct notion of the medium can no longer be determined...
"Evidently, there is a paradox in this inextricable conjunction of the masses and the media: do the media neutralize meaning and produce unformed or informed masses, or is it the masses who victoriously resist the media by directing or absorbing all the messages that the media produce without responding to them?...
"Are the mass media on the side of power in the manipulation of the masses, or are they on the side of the masses in the liquidation of meaning, in the violence perpetrated on meaning, and in fascination? Is it the media that induce fascination in the masses, or is it the masses who direct the media into the spectacle?...The media carry meaning and countermeaning, they manipulate in all directions at once, nothing can control this process, they are the vehicle for the simulation internal to the system and the simulation that destroys the system, according to an absolutely Mobian and circular logic -- and it is exactly like this. There is no alternative to this, no logical resolution."
(From Screened Out, Verso 2002, pp.188-189)
"...what if the sign did not relate either to the object or to meaning, but to the promotion of the sign as sign? And what if information did not relate either to the event or the facts, but to the promotion of information itself as event? And more precisely today: what if television no longer related to anything except itself as message? This is where McLuhan's formulation can be seen to be absolutely brilliant: the medium has swallowed the message and it is this, the multi-medium, which is proliferating in all directions. And we are, indeed, seeing terrestrial and cable channels and services proliferating while actual programme content is disappearing and melting away -- the TV viewer's almost involuntary channel-hopping here echoing television's own obsession with its own channels.
"But this is not where the true corruption lies. The secret vice, already pointed out by Umberto Eco, lies in the way the media become self-referring and speak only among themselves. The multimedium is becoming the intermedium. This already problematic situation is aggravated when it is a single hypermedium -- television -- eyeing itself. All the more so as this tele-centrism is combined with a very severe implicit moral and political judgement: it implies that the masses basically neither need nor desire meaning or information -- that all they ask for is signs and images. Television provides them with these in great quantities, returning to the real world, with utter -- though well camouflaged -- contempt, in the form of 'reality shows' or vox-pops -- that is to say, in the form of universal self-commentary and mocked-up scenarios, where both the questions and the answers are 'fixed'."
Key Baudrillard Texts On Media:
For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973).
Simulations (Semiotexte, 1983)
Simulacra And Simulation (Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994), trans. Sheila Faria Glaser.
The Perfect Crime (New York: Verso, 1996).
Screened Out (New York: Verso, 2002).
More About Baudrillard:
Baudrillard: A New McLuhan? (By Douglas Kellner)
A Few Articles & Quotes:
The "Ecstasy" of Jean Baudrillard (By Richard Vine). A beautifully written, highly critical essay which offers a good summary of Baudrillard's thinking. The piece, however, is completely one-sided -- more an excoriation exercise than a disinterested consideration of Baudrillard's strengths and weaknesses. One would never know, reading Vine, that Baudrillard is one of the world's most influential media theorists -- the heir of Marshall McLuhan in the eyes of many.
Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond (Stanford University Press, 1990)