Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008)
Author: Paul Taylor
I. Introduction: An Obscene Unveiling
Je pense comme une fille enlève sa robe. A l’extrémité, la pensée est l’impudeur, l’obscenité même’ [I think like a girl takes off her dress. At the extreme, thought is impudence, obscenity even] (Bataille in Surya, 1987:8).
For ethnology to live, its object must die. But the latter revenges itself by dying for having been “discovered”, and defies by its death the science that wants to take hold of it. Doesn’t every science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it? Like Orpheus it always turns around too soon, and its object, like Eurydice, falls back into Hades … the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form (Baudrillard, 1983a:3-15).
Georges Bataille famously compared thought’s provocative power, and the seductive manner with which it approaches the unveiling of truth, to a girl disrobing. He went further and suggested that, in addition, thought is ultimately impudent and obscene. However, these radical qualities that lie beyond Bataille’s initial sexual simile have, in our heavily mediated times, been undermined to an unprecedented degree. The totalitarian semiotic order Baudrillard’s theory so resolutely opposed, fosters a qualitatively different form of obscenity more akin to the gyrations of a lap dancer seeking a tip, than a girl provocatively disrobing. In this context, this article consists of heavily edited and adapted extracts from my book co-authored with Jan Harris, Critical Theories of Mass Media: Then and Now (Taylor and Harris, 2008), to highlight Baudrillard’s sustained critique of a society predicated upon excessive transparency, excessive explicitness. In contrast to the best efforts of Panglossian cultural theorists, this book uses past thinkers of then such as Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Theodor Adorno, Guy Debord, and Marshal McLuhan, to argue that Baudrillard’s brand of critical theory has never been more relevant as an aid to understand the existential banality of the contemporary mediascape and the profoundly negative social consequences – now.
At the time of writing this piece, the above pictures appeared in the World’s media spotlight. They provide a startling, topical illustration of Baudrillard’s description of how “the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely”. Originally, Baudrillard was writing with reference to the fate of the Tasaday Indians in the Philippines, who, once found by anthropologists, had to be inserted deeper back into the jungle so that the very study of them would not lead to the destruction of their status as the ur-noble-savages upon which ethnology founds itself. These new photographs reflect the same mentality, they were taken with the best of intentions – to prove to cynics that these “uncontacted tribes” on the border with Peru and Brazil, did actually exist and needed to be left alone. Here we have a beautiful example of the perversely involuted logic of the simulacrum that Baudrillard explored so well. These images show a people that in order to be protected have to be submitted to an intrusive contact that fatally undermines its defining characteristic for the West – as an uncontacted tribe. One supposes that the next generation of this tribe will be worshipping a god called “Cessna”. It is difficult to conceive of a more apposite, empirical illustration of the practical usefulness of Baudrillard’s theory for understanding our hyper-explicit era and the self-defeating nature of that mode of thought inculcated in non-seductive obscenities, doomed as it is: “by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it”.
II. The Obscenity of Media Critique
We no longer partake of the drama of alienation, but are in the ecstasy of communication. And this ecstasy is obscene. Obscene is that which illuminates the gaze, the image and every representation. Obscenity is not confined to sexuality, because today there is a pornography of information and communication, a pornography of circuits and networks, of functions and objects in their legibility availability, regulation, forced signification, capacity to perform, connection, polyvalence, their free expression. It is no longer the obscenity of the hidden, the repressed, the obscure, but that of the visible, all-too-visible, the more visible than visible; it is the obscenity of that which no longer contains a secret and is entirely soluble in information and communication (Baudrillard, 1988:22).
From the discourse of labour to the discourse of sex… one finds the same ultimatum, that of pro-duction in the literal sense of the term. …To produce is to materialize by force what belongs to another order, that of the secret and of seduction. Seduction is, at all times and all places, opposed to production. Seduction removes something from the order of the visible, while production constructs everything in full view … Everything is to be produced, everything is to be legible, everything is to become real, visible, accountable… This is sex as it exists in pornography, but more generally, this is the enterprise of our culture, whose natural condition is obscene: a culture of monstration, of demonstration, of productive monstrosity (Baudrillard, 1990:34-35).
Baudrillard is frequently and perversely mis-labeled as a postmodern celebrator of new technologies. This means that a seriously under-acknowledged feature of his work is its deeply critical nature. Thus, a strong link between Baudrillard and previous critical theoretical predecessors such as Kracauer, Adorno and Lowenthal, stems from their shared focus upon the processes by which industrialized forms of physical production are transposed into the world of cultural representations. The profound consequence of this transposition is the pervasive colonization of cultural life by commodity values as the media’s revelatory gaze reaches ever further into previously veiled areas of our life-world. In the above two quotations we can see how Baudrillard uses the notion of the obscene to describe this trend towards ever greater explicitness – but his use of this term involves much more than just a simple moralistic condemnation. For Baudrillard, the ob-scene is not an ethically-loaded term for use in judgement over the morality of particular images. The prefix ob refers to the idea of hindering or being against. The ob-scene therefore expresses the collapse of distance in our social experience.
The scene traditionally viewed upon a stage necessitates a gap between the viewer and the actor (the theatre’s proscenium arch), but now that distance has imploded and there is no longer a scene or stage of action that we can view from a distance:
The task of all media and information today is to produce this real, this extra real (interviews, live coverage, movies, TV-truth, etc.). There is too much of it, we fall into obscenity and pornography. As in pornography, a kind of zoom takes us too near the real, which never existed and only ever came into view at a certain distance (Baudrillard, 1983b:84).
The media today fosters and then caters for an excessively explicit desire to see under the surface of cultural forms previously based upon social practices of seductive veiling and unveiling. Baudrillard’s obscene now dominates society to the extent that sexual pornography is but an extreme example of a wider atmosphere of social explicitness – social porn – explored in subsequent pages as the widespread cultural manifestation of excessively explicit images, not necessarily of a sexual nature (Taylor, 2007).
For Baudrillard, the mediascape’s promotion of fascination represents a social sphere emptied out of the more enchanted and seductive properties present in a symbol-rich non-mediated society. Mass media society is an etiolated, pervasively commodified realm of semiotic signs that are manipulated systematically by a culture industry that has at its disposal ever more sophisticated techniques:
All this belongs to the ludic realm where one encounters a cold seduction – the narcissistic spell of electronic and information systems, the cold attraction of the terminals and mediums that we have become, surrounded as we are by consoles, isolated and seduced by their manipulation … This is the modern meaning play, the “ludic” sense, connoting the suppleness and polyvalence of combinations. Understood in this sense, “play,” its very possibility, is at the basis of the metastability of systems. It has nothing to do with play as a dual or agonistic relation; it is the cold seduction that governs the spheres of information and communication. And it is in this cold seduction that the social and its representations are now wearing themselves thin (Baudrillard, 1990a:162).
Using McLuhanite notions (narcosis, hot and cold) but with distinctly more critical intent, Baudrillard suggests that a ‘choice’ between commodities that are essentially the same replaces the warm seductive properties of a culture based upon symbolic exchange.
From this radical critical perspective, mass media society of the now involves this cold seduction of semiotic codes. In contrast to the work of various cultural populists/active audience theorists, the skill with which consumers can manipulate such codes, does not provide grounds for optimism. In the light of Baudrillard’s work, much of mainstream media studies can be viewed as displacement activity that attempts to compensate for the codes’ ultimate lack of substance. In this context, Banality TV is the phrase used here to refer to a large swathe of media content derived from highly formulaic but predominantly unscripted programmes and predicated upon this implosion of social distance. Such formats as lifestyle programmes, chat Shows, and Reality TV all share a sustained ethos of revelation and explicitness but, from a critical point of view, this superficial openness belies much darker and ultimately regressive cultural implications.
III. Pre-digested Existential Banality
How is it that the pre-digested detail of banal everyday life has become the ratings phenomenon of late nineties UK primetime? (Dovey, 2000:1).
At a time when television and the media are increasingly unable to give an account of the world’s (unbearable) events, they have discovered daily life and existential banality as the most deadly event, the most violent news, the very scene of the perfect crime. And indeed it is. People are fascinated, fascinated and terrified by the indifference of the Nothing-to-say, Nothing-to-do, by the indifference of their very existence (Baudrillard, 2005a:182).
Banality TV resonates with Dovey and Baudrillard’s cogent phrases “the pre-digested detail of banal everyday life” and “existential banality”. These describe the excessively personalized and trivial approach, tone and content of entertainment programmes that have now also become standard features of news programming to the extent that factual entertainment is now used as the title of TV company departments (e.g. the UK’s Channel 4). Banality TV thus describes the cultural manifestation of McLuhan’s medium is the message and Baudrillard’s yet more radical contention that modern communications technologies actually fabricate non-communication. The dominant value they sponsor is that of tautology – that which is transmitted is privileged by virtue of the fact that transmission is society’s defining cultural feature. Baudrillard’s whole media theory is based upon this contention that media fabricate this form of non-communication – the expression of meaningful symbols becomes less important than the technically efficient transmission of signs (as emptied-out symbols). The critical quality of Baudrillard’s media theory stems from its focus upon the way in which content is subjugated to form in this manner. His work thereby counteracts the frequent tendency of more mainstream culturally populist work that frequently substitutes the mere description and categorization of the culture industry’s products for their critical interrogation and evaluation.
Kracauer used the terms Ratio and mass ornament todescribe the excessive systematization and underlying regimentation of the culture industry’s content. This creates an ersatz and pre-ordained realm of cultural experience that replaces the traditional encounters with reality. His terms prefigure Baudrillard’s later conception of hyperreality and developments such as Banality TV. For Baudrillard, the hyperreal is defined as that which is more real than the real itself, it is marked by the absence or increasing irrelevance of an original model upon which the imitation is based. A good example of this is the phenomenon of Irish theme bars. They typically exhibit semiotic levels of Irishness not found even in Ireland. An apocryphal tale tells of US tourists who, used to the explicit Irishness of bars in Boston and New York, complained that the bars they encountered in Ireland were not “Irish” enough. The (il)logical extension of the hyperreal is thus one in which Irish theme bars begin to redefine what constitutes authentic Irishness in Ireland itself. This is a clear demonstration of Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacra as that in which the model precedes any prior reality.
This crass reduction of the full ambiguity and complexity of reality and a certain quality of excessiveness contained within media representations is what Kracauer described in pre-Baudrillardian terms when he suggests that: “The desolation of Ratio is complete only when it removes its mask and hurls itself into the void of random abstractions that no longer mimic higher determinations, and when it renounces seductive consonances and desires itself even as a concept” (Kracauer, 1995:180). The previous imitation of reality is replaced by a realm of “random abstractions” exemplified by the format inflation of Banality TV programmes. Now talent shows based upon a process of eviction have evolved to include celebrities, the variations upon the theme are almost endless – celebrities compete in contexts ranging from a jungle (I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here) to various sorts of competition, in dance (Strictly Come Dancing, Dancing With the Stars), ice-skating (Strictly Ice Dancing), circus acts (Cirque de Celebrite, Celebrity Circus), weight loss (Celebrity Fit Club) etc. etc.). The predictable format becomes increasingly independent of any “higher determinations”. Culturally grounded symbolic values are replaced by the ready-made commodified categories of the culture industry in the society of ob-scenity that constitutes the hyperreal.
Kracauer’s argument that Ratio renounces “seductive consonances” is a direct forbearer of Adorno’s systemic, operationalized culture industry and reappears in Baudrillard’s notion of seduction. Prior to mass media society, sexuality was perhaps the most intimate and private of aspect of social experience. For Baudrillard, the fate that befalls sexuality in a mediated culture, is indicative of a general process of industrialized revelation that takes Kracauer’s then concept of Ratio to an exponentially new level – a now pervaded by “a pornography of circuits and networks”. In contrast to cultural populism, Baudrillard, like Adorno before him, argues that the breadth of available polysemic interpretations belies their essentially uniform nature. The range is indeed wide as he recognizes in his claim that American television constitutes “the living incarnation of the ludic” (Baudrillard, 1990a:150). However, such interpretations are of limited liberatory value because: “They are no longer objects of libidinal investment; for they are made selectively available within a range of choices – with leisure itself now appearing, relative to work, as just another channel on the screen of time …” (Ibid.:158). This argument is reminiscent of two important features of Adorno’s culture industry argument: the increasing incursion of work into the previously distinct and insulated personal leisure time; and his previously cited dismissal of supposed differences between commodities.
The sentiment behind the term Banality TV is already evident in Kracauer’s comments about the earliest cultural films that prefigured Reality TV. More critical than McLuhan’s enthusiastic embracing of the media’s mosaic quality, Kracauer is scathingly unambiguous about the banality of its cultural consequences in everyday practice:
The monotony of this hodgepodge is the just revenge for its inconsequentiality, which is heightened by the thoughtless way the individual sequences are combined into a mosaic … almost all of them avoid the most urgent human concerns, dragging the exotic into daily life rather than searching for the exotic within the quotidian … From horse breeding to carpet weaving, no out-of-the-way subject is safe from the clutches of the popular pedagogy of cultural films (Kracauer, 1995:311).
The political implications of this hodgepodge of conceptually disparate material is that all cultural issues become subject to the same passive indifference to truth content that produces at worst a supine population or, at best, a population whose very inertia becomes its only hope of assuming radical status as Baudrillard suggests somewhat mischievously with his notion of the Fatal Masses. Latter day formats like Reality TV and Docu-dramas play an ideological role in the obfuscation of this essential passivity. Whereas the conventional documentary was reflective and investigative, this new form is revelatory and observational. The superficially participatory nature of these shows merely either distracts attention from the inertness of the viewing public or offers the false promise that meaningful participation is freely available to all. The apparently most transgressive shows such as Jerry Springer actually demonstrate the paradox of conservatism for the manner in which they routinely caricature and commodify the whole notion of transgression itself. Their ritualistic and systematic formats are complete with sermonizing elements (e.g. Jerry Springer’s homily at the end of each show). Of key concern for critical theory is the fact that this ideological function has important social implications beyond the immediate sphere of entertainment.
A key criticism thus arises from Banality TV’s statusas a manifestation of the ideology of the society of the spectacle. Baudrillard argues that essentially empty, tautological and vacuous media content can still be fascinating – but in an absorbing rather than revealing sense. The fascination it generates is a dumb fascination much more akin to Marshall McLuhan’s notion of the media’s narcotic effects than Walter Benjamin’s hopes of media empowerment contained within his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. In authentically seductive and symbolically rich forms of exchange, social meaning is derived from the interplay of unpredictable interactions. Unlike the pre-encoded nature of the culture industry’s products, authentically empowering play is indeterminate and truly fascinating.
In Banality TV, by contrast, open-ended and unpredictable outcomes are expunged from culture (just as Benjamin described aura being “pumped out like water from a sinking ship”) by the combined effects of the dumb narcotic fascination of the screen and the formulaic nature of the content: “Any system that is totally complicit in its own absorption such that signs no longer make sense, will exercise a remarkable power of fascination” (Baudrillard, 1990a:77).
Banality TV exemplifies McLuhan and Baudrillard’s development of Adorno’s persistent emphasis upon the systematic, industrialized nature of mediated culture. In their analyses, such pre-digested banal becomes a symptom of the way in which media form dominates its content. Thus, both Adorno and McLuhan scathingly rejected the purported differences between commodities. Adorno argued that: “the difference between the Chrysler range and General Motors is basically illusory strikes every child with a keen interest in varieties” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1997:123) whilst McLuhan claimed that the significance of industry (whether physical or cultural) is its assembly-line nature. The actual content that comes off those assembly lines is largely irrelevant: “In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs” (McLuhan, 1995:7-8). Illustrating Adorno’s emphasis upon the rise of the general at the expense of the particular, an important aspect of Reality TV’s banality stems from the fact that in, for example, the now pervasive format of both celebrity and non-celebrity versions of programmes centred upon an elimination process, the general format tends to be more important than the characters themselves. Fascination over trivial details is then normalized through the cumulative effect of further programmes consisting of edited highlights, post-programme discussions, and extended live feeds that, in the extended coverage of Big Brother by UK cable TV channel, E4, includes the opportunity to watch people sleeping under duvets. The most common example of form dominating content, however, is evident from the regularity with which Banality TVdepends upon an unprecedentedly explicit form of cultural revelation – social pornography.
IV. Social Porn
They’re expected to deliver what I call, borrowing from film pornography, the “money shot” of the talk-show text: joy, sorrow, rage, or remorse expressed in visible, bodily terms (Grindstaff, 2002:19).
Television talk shows represent a new pornography as they turn private affairs into public displays, make spectacles of people in order to sell commercial products, showcase deviance for our amusement, and play a deceptive game under the guise of truth … Pornography generally involves turning people into objects and making public what is private. Talk shows do precisely that and present a cynical, exhaustive cataloguing of self-destructive behaviour without benefit of comprehension or context (Abt and Mustazza, 1997:21).
Abt and Mustazza’s above comparison of media content with pornography can be seen as a further updating of Debord’s interpretation of Marx’s observation that capitalism objectifies people and their social relations whilst perversely imputing social qualities to objects. For example, Banality TV bases much of its raw material upon the consumption of people’s emotional lives selected disproportionately from the stratum of society pejoratively described as “trailer-trash”. This represents a disturbing extension of capitalism’s extraction of cultural surplus value from groups previously excluded from the creation of conventional economic value. Grindstaff contrasts the process of revealing undertaken by a professional actor in which his or her veridical (true) self remains secure whilst the acted persona is paid, with that of the daytime TV participant, whose veridical self is exploited for profit and usually unpaid beyond travel expenses and a day out in a metropolitan centre: “Producers must treat emotion – their own as well as their guests – in a routine and businesslike way, as just another element of the production process” (Grindstaff, 2002:39).In Marxism, the alienation and exploitation of the worker is a basic aspect of the capitalist production process. Now, however, not only are people exploited during their hours of work, but their work has come to include their personal lives whether that takes the form of watching Banality TV or being watched by it. Whilst even the most cursory glance at present day media content confirms that much of it is objectifying and voyeuristic, Baudrillard’s media theory provides some useful critical theoretical tools with which to go beyond merely moralistic judgments to reveal some of the underlying basic political and ideological processes at work.
Baudrillard reformulates the conventional understanding of seduction and its normal sense of romance in order to illustrate the ubiquitous and pervasive cultural effects within the mediascape. In place of its romantic connotations, Baudrillard uses seduction as a technical term to refer to the energy involved in social exchanges that have an essentially symbolic and ambiguous nature. For example, historically, there has been a cultural tradition of men pursuing women via a series of games, gifts, and general flirtation that has been met with varying degrees of success depending upon the reciprocity of the woman being so seduced. The outcome was either inherently unpredictable, or, highly predictable but still distinctly different to the culture industry’s emphasis upon short-term consumption and physical stimulation. For example, in the medieval social practice of courtly love, much emotional energy was devoted to highly impractical, inevitably unrequited relationships – a young, financially weak man would typically desire a woman well beyond his own social class. An important element of the courtly love aesthetic was the way in which the complex mix of frustrated emotional energy generated by the non-consummation of this desire was frequently sublimated into various forms of artistic expression – the love songs of the spurned suitor etc.
By stark contrast, the culture industry is predicated upon a radically different form of systematically exploited frustration. Instead of maintaining an artistically productive distance from the object of their desires, consumers appetites are stimulated by constant and ready access. Rather than sublimating desire into symbolic expression, the culture industry repressively de-sublimates. Consumption does not provide fulfilment but rather constantly deferred satisfaction – the seductive tensions of symbolic desire are replaced with the profitability of recyclable sensations designed to aid the ready circulation of yet more commodities. The traditional notion of seduction as a mode of interaction between the sexes may be anachronistic in the light of contemporary gender politics, but Baudrillard’s deliberate use of such an anachronism serves to emphasize a greater, much wider anachronism in the heavily-mediated society of today – the scarcity of these ambiguous modes of interaction. Unlike symbolic cultures permeated by seductive processes, the mediascape creates a further development of the culture industry – a semiotic culture based upon the immediate satisfaction of consumer desires through the consumption of signs rather than symbols. A highly operational and functional mode of explicit revealing now dominates the mediated perspective.
V. Food Porn – The Raw and the Cooked
… these shows tend to emphasize a compelling mixture of what Levi-Strauss called, to distinguish the external facticity of nature from the social significances of culture, the raw and the cooked. Reality TV lurches between actual situations and events of startling horror, intense danger, morbid conduct, desperate need, or bizarre coincidence (the raw) and cover stories that reduce such evidence to truism or platitudes (the cooked) … Reality TV aspires to non-friction. It reduces potential subversion and excess to a comestible glaze (Nichols, 1994:45).
Whislt the above discussion may appear largely theoretical and abstract, practical illustrations of it are evident throughout today’s mediascape. This creates social porn‘s atmosphere of ubiquitous explicitness. Pornography’s money shot can thus be seen as merely a literal, physical climax of the mediascape’s more generally sublimated need to unveil the innermost workings of the camera’s target – whether that proves to be a person’s body or psyche. The rise of social porn can be most readily witnessed in the ever more bizarre format conflation and mainstreaming of Reality TV programmes about the innately explicit Adult movie industry (Porn: A Family Business, My Bare Lady, Porn Valley, Porn Week etc.). More significantly, however, and building upon the previously cited expressions of capitalist culture’s digestive enzymes, it is also evident in areas as nominally benign as food preparation. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss used the terms “the raw” and “the cooked” to describe the difference between the naturally existing world and that of human culture. The notion is that the act of cooking represents a symbolic transition from nature to human culture and to this extent, food preparation occupies a privileged symbolic role within society. The recent rise in popularity of TV shows based upon food preparation (and the closely related phenomenon of celebrity chefs) thus provides an interesting example of Baudrillard’s distinction between aura-lacking semiotics and culturally-grounded symbolism and his theory’s critique of a widespread process of cultural de-symbolization.
Empirical evidence of the theoretical concept of social porn is provided by the practical market-based experience of Greg Rowland Semiotics, a company who successfully combined the rise of pornographic imagery with the presentation of the convenience food Pot Noodle
as a guilty, private, pseudo-onanistic activity. In their own words: “Greg Rowland Semiotics was asked to make Pot Noodle a more iconic brand. By looking at the codes of the brand, sector and product offer we devised a surprising positioning statement for Pot Noodle: ‘Food Porn.’ This directly inspired the legendary ‘Slag of All Snacks’ communications that raised sales by 29 percent when on air”. Empirical evidence of this close affinity between commodity culture and pornography is further provided by Barbara Nitke, a stills photographer from the pornography industry employed by the US Food Network to work in a TV genre she labels gastroporn. For Nitke, both pornography and gastroporn share both an idealization and degradation of essential human activities: “You watch porn saying, ‘Yes I could do that’” explained Nitke. “You dream that you’re there, but you know you couldn’t. The guy you’re watching on the screen, his sex life is effortless. He didn’t have to negotiate, entertain her, take her out to dinner. He walked in with the pizza. She was waiting and eager and hot for him” (Nitke, 2005:57). Nitke’s account illustrates how social porn‘s images are hyper-realistic in terms of visual detail but deeply unrealistic in the sense that they are completely lacking in any more meaningful social context (the full political consequences of which are addressed in the next chapter). It is this simultaneous explicitness of depiction but lack of any symbolic content grounded in an authentically specific social context that makes social porn the most recent manifestation of the culture industry’s constant attempts to profit by abstracting from the particular to the general.
In “Debbie Does Salad”, Kaufman describes the close fit between the filming techniques used in pornography and TV cooking, pointing out how the filming of Giada, a female cook in a tight-fitting top, highlights the natural affinity between the two genres: “this kind of caressing camera going over the food, back and forth and up and down. One of the things that makes it extremely porny is the repetition. You’ll see the peach, and the camera going over those peaches again, then Giada, then the peach, then Giada, then the peach. And so this is very similar to how porn works” (Kaufman, 2005). Together in the Food Network studio, Kaufman relates how he and Nitke, watched Tyler Florence, “a handsome, sensitive hunk” interact with a female gastroporn partner:
a desperate housewife stared at sturdy young Tyler. Could his arroz con pollo quench her flaming desire? The camera zeroed in as Tyler expertly spread raw chicken breast across a cutting board. ‘That is the quintessential pussy shot,’ Nitke said. ‘The colour of it, the texture of it, the camera lingering lovingly over it.’ Tyler gingerly rolled the glistening lips of chicken breast into a thick phallus, which he doused with raw egg’. ‘I feel a lot of love right now,’ Tyler told his transfixed acolyte. ‘This is a sexy dish’. … ‘This is the pizza man’, declared Nitke. ‘There’s the helpless woman who can’t do it for herself. In walks the cute young guy who rescues her’ (Kaufman, 2005:57).
Here, Nitke is vividly describing the collapsing of distance in Baudrillard’s obscene and of which early critical thinkers could only trace the early stages. In Levi-Strauss’s anthropological terms of the raw and the uncooked, gastroporn perfectly represents Banality TV‘s reversal of the “cooked” into the “raw” achieved through the removal of the barriers (Baudrillard’s scene/stage) that create symbolic cultural meaning through seductive interactions. By providing such close visual detail, the camera: “returns us to the innocence of the beasts. Here, we may watch fornication with no sense of the profane, may witness the creation of a feast with no regret that it will never be ours to taste …” (Kaufman, 2005:60). There appears to be little difference in the filming techniques used in both sexual pornography and gastroporn because both genres share a technologically-savvy responsiveness to the “greedy eyes” grammar innate to the camera’s optical unconscious.
The negative cultural consequences of this loss of traditional auratic experience adds an important corrective to Benjamin’s optimism. Social porn represents the previously encountered notions of the pseudo-event and the society of the spectacle at their most symbolically deficient and tautological. Cultural populists/active audience theorists fail to see how what is apparently raw material for viewers is in fact the “pre-digested banal detail of everyday life” to cite Dovey. Critical theorists, by contrast, focus upon the negative aspects of this pre-digested quality and their critique is cogently captured by Kaufman’s summary of the underlying ideological problem with pornography whether it be of the food or sexual variety: “… the big lie is ‘taste life’, have a real experience, when in fact this is the most unreal experience … ‘Taste life’ as though by watching it you’re going to actually have some sort of authentic, lifelike [experience] – not even lifelike – life itself is here, as opposed to this outrageous simulacrum that’s being presented as such” (Kaufman in Gladstone, 2005). The key political implication of this situation is its resonance with Nichols’s conceptualization of the ideological reduction of Reality TV. Voyeuristic fascination reinforces the status quo: “The raw, the savage, the taboo and untamed require recuperation. We flirt with disgust, abhorrence, nausea, and excess seeking homeopathic cures for these very states. Reality TV provides a curative for disease through the (repetitive, tiresome) tale it tells” (Nichols, 1994:46). The culture industry’s harmful effects are not to be found in tired debates about the relative merits of high versus low culture, they reside in the effect of industrialized repetition on the human psyche and culture whether it be at the micro-level of the camera’s panning movement whether it be human sex organs or raw chicken breast, or the more macro-level repetition of Banality TV formats and their ever more invasive cultural presence.
Dovey argues that there is a widespread media-sponsored degradation of the public sphere caused by our uncritical retreat/immersion into the graphically explicit. Pornographic movies, are obviously an extreme example of this general tendency but the frequently ludicrous nature of its skimpy plots and acting at least maintain a critical distance of amused cynicism in the viewer that may actually be less apparent in social porn: The ironic distances negotiated by our suspension of disbelief in the clearly fictional porn fantasy are here foreshortened through the grammar of subjective identification created by the video text. The radical suggestion here is that at least in conventional pornography the viewer willingly suspends his/her belief, whereas the cultural danger of Banality TV is that their apparently naturalistic forms tend to suppress our critical awareness of the removal of the stage itself. Just as people are increasingly distanced from the seductive properties of a non-mediated reality, TV provides its own ersatz and enervated version: “As people cook less and less, they ogle cooking shows more and more … Unlike home cooking, TV cooking builds to an unending succession of physical ecstasies, never a pile of dirty dishes” (Kaufman, 2005:56). A lifestyle unobtainable in the reality of a commodity culture is presented as consumable in the image-only form of Reality TV – a neat, almost literal, trope for Adorno’s previously cited quip that the culture industry requires the diner to be satisfied with the menu.
VI. Sensation and sociality: Big Brother and Loft Story
Bending over a pool of water, Narcissus quenches his thirst. His image is no longer “other”; it is a surface that absorbs and seduces him, which he can approach but never pass beyond. For there is no beyond, just as there is no reflexive distance between him and his image. The mirror of water is not a surface of reflection, but of absorption (Baudrillard, 1990a:67).
Baudrillard examined Banality TV in relation to France’s version of Big Brother – Loft Story. His analysis further illuminates both the contemporary fate of Benjamin’s conception of distraction and McLuhan’s allusion to the narcotic effects of screen culture. Rather than seeing the rise of Reality TV as evidence of the rude health of contemporary cultural life (the cultural populism model), Baudrillard sees it in terms of a “synthetic conviviality and Telegenically modified sociability” (Baudrillard, 2005a:181). that has become so prominent only because there is so little left of any authentic social interaction. The repetitive qualities already discussed in relation to the homogeneity of the culture industry’s products and its close alignment with pornographic camera techniques (whether pointed at people or food) are, according to Baudrillard, an essential part of the deep underlying social processes of which Reality TV is but a cultural reflection. Banality TV thus partakes of a general social ethos of excessive revelation that Baudrillard approaches in a similar manner to Kracauer. For example, a comparison of the following quotations provides a striking example of the continuity in themes between these then and now theorists compare the following two excerpts. The first is from Kracauer’s essay Georg Simmel originally published in 1920-21:
The more profound our experience of things is, the less it can be subsumed to its full extent under abstract concepts. Initially clothed in the image, it shines forth brightly; we should shroud it in order to possess it nude. What is most secret needs the veil of a metaphor so that it can be completely exposed (Kracauer, 1995:236).
The second is from Baudrillard’s 2001 essay “Dust Breeding” in which he uses the example of Catherine Millet – the author of the best-selling autobiographical account of a large number of compulsively anonymous sexual couplings – The Sexual Life of Catherine M – as a contemporary example of the culture industry’s inability to grasp the paradox that the true nature of social reality is to be found in its shrouding. The more one seeks to reveal it in an excessively explicit and systematic fashion the further away it becomes:
Think like a woman taking off her dress,” said Bataille. Yes, but the naiveté of all the Catherine Millets is to think that they are taking of their dress to get undressed, to be naked and therefore reach the naked truth, the truth of sex or of the world. If one does take off one’s dress, it is to appear: not to appear naked like truth (and who can believe that truth remains truth when its veil is removed?) but to be born to the realm of appearances, to seduction which is the contrary. This modern and disenchanted view is a total misunderstanding if it considers the body to be an object waiting only to be undressed … Especially since all cultures of the mask, the veil and ornaments say precisely the contrary: they say that the body is a metaphor and that the true objects of desire and pleasure are the signs and marks that tear it from its nudity, naturalness and “truth,” from the integral reality of its physical being. In all places, seduction is what tears things from their truth (including their sexual truth). And if thought takes off its dress, it is not to reveal itself naked, it is not to unveil the secret of what had been hidden until then, it is to make the body appear as definitively enigmatic, definitively secret, as a pure object whose secret will never be lifted and has no need to be lifted (Baudrillard, 2005a:186).
Millet’s quest for sexual fulfilment via mechanistic couplings represents a physical manifestation of the culture industry’s repetitions (at a micro-level, the repetitive tracking action of the camera in the Food Network) in which higher meaning is lost. We see here an indication of the cultural consequences of the over-exposure of reality by the mechanically produced image that Benjamin began to explore optimistically as the decline of aura and which Kracauer more critically conceived of as an image-idea that drives away the idea and threatens by explicitly revealing what was formerly the traditional artistic interpretation of a reality permeated by cognition.
The conceptual continuities between then and now continue further as Baudrillard also builds directly upon the comparison Benjamin makes in the Work of Art Essay between the cameraman and the surgeon. Reality TV becomes an enforcedly claustrophobic attempt (think of the tightly controlled and contained sets and compounds in which Big Brother, Loft Story and similar programmes function) to verify the notion of society, when society is by its very nature a nebulous concept more likely to be destroyed than better understood by such a mode of testing. Catherine Millet’s sexual exploits are of a similarly misguided nature. According to Baudrillard in the case of both Millet and the camera: “we are in the process of dissecting – vivisecting under the scalpel of the camera … Catherine Millet … another kind of ‘vivi-sex-ion’ where all the imaginary of sexuality is swept away, leaving only a protocol in the form of a limitless verification of sexual functioning, a mechanism that no longer has anything sexual about it” (Ibid:184). Baudrillard provides a succinctly updated version of critical theorists’ objection to the culture industry and its manufactured manipulation of aura. It bears repeating that it is not a question of “high” versus “low” culture, it is a question of objecting to the semiotic extirpation of symbolic depth and ambiguity. The critical rejection of active audience theories is based upon a rejection of their claims to being active in any meaningful sense, constituted as they are by interactions with pre-digested categories of the banal.
VII. Social Porn’s Political impact – Explicitness without understanding
The transpolitical is the transparency and obscenity of all structures in a destructured universe, the transparency and obscenity of change in a de-historicized universe, the transparency and obscenity of information in a universe emptied of event (Baudrillard, 1990b:25).
We are all quite familiar with this immense process of simulation. Non-directive interviews, call-in shows, all-out participation – the extortion of speech: “it concerns you, you are the majority, you are what is happening.” And the probing of opinions, hearts, minds, and the unconscious to show how much “it” speaks. The news has been invaded by this phantom content, this homeopathic transplant, this waking dream of communication … A circular construction where one presents the audience with what it wants, an integrated circuit of perpetual solicitation. The immense energies spent in maintaining this simulacrum at arm’s length, to avoid the brutal dissimulation that would occur should the reality of a radical loss of meaning become too evident (Baudrillard, 1990a:163).
The first of Baudrillard’s above quotations, encapsulates the argument consistently pursued in this book that previously non-commercial forms of communication are now saturated with a commodified aesthetic. This state of affairs fatally undermines Benjamin’s declared hope, at the end of his “Work of Art” essay, that new technologies of reproduction could create a radical politicization of aesthetics. In the second quotation, Baudrillard summarizes the tautological circularity of a media system that encourages active audiences only to better disguise the underlying meaninglessness of that activity. Taken together, these concepts provide a contemporary perspective upon Benjamin’s notion that with the decline of aura comes a loosening of traditional ties to space and time. Meaningful, substantive political discourse becomes increasingly difficult in a mediascape premised upon an aesthetic in which, because of this loosening, the de-contextualized, freely-floating image dominates and pervasively undermines the rational. Contemporary media are no closer now than they were then to confronting the heart of Kracauer’s previously cited “urgent human concerns”. Increasingly, the superficially realist/naturalist portrayal of the everyday presented in explicit visual detail in both Banality TV and nominally more serious news programmes (included under Nichols’s term discourse of sobriety) are indistinguishable. It produces an ideological representation of reality that distracts (in a diametrically opposed sense to that proposed by Benjamin) from the key issues of power, freedom, liberated consciousness etc., that critical theory concerns itself with.
A more critical examination of the West’s unhealthy relationship to the mediated image is needed to uncover the true nature of the malevolence lying behind such heavily-mediated events (both carefully pre-planned and spontaneous) as the 9/11 event and the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Marshall McLuhan offers the myth of Narcissus as a defining metaphor for the West’s problematic relationship to the screen (McLuhan, 1995). Influenced by McLuhan, Baudrillard suggests that the ultimate reasons for the failure of military intelligence which led to 9/11, and continued Western military failures in Iraq may lie in Western society’s myopic relationship to its own excessively mediated culture than any actual power held by its perceived enemies. The image-sponsored strike against understanding described in previous pages has manifested itself in a geo-political context in which the image-idea does indeed seem to have driven out the idea as Kracauer predicted. Governmental opposition against international terrorism has thus led to the irrationality of a declaration of war on an abstract noun (terror). Despite being societies of the spectacle, Western governments have nevertheless struggled struggle to compete with the malevolently keen media savvy of Osama bin Laden and the tragic media-event of 9/11, or even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran who, in April 2007, was able to stage for the world’s cameras the voluntary release of 15 captured British sailors whilst images of Guantanamo Bay continue to poison relations with the Islamic world. Thus, there are profound and generally under-acknowledged political consequences that result when the obscene becomes the mis-en-scene.
VIII. Monica Lewinsky and Current Affairs
The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than the more thankless effort to discipline the viewer). Pornographic films are thus only the potentiation of films in general, which ask us to stare at the world as though it were a naked body (Jameson, 1991:1).
In Banality TV, the concept of ordinariness does the same type of ideological work (albeit less dramatically) that body-based sentiment does in pornography. In both cases, the reality of the immediate is given precedence over contemplative thought: “The genre … is a kind of machine for producing ordinariness, where ordinariness is associated with emotion (the body) and expertness with reason (the mind), the former a signifier of the private world of personal relations, the latter a signifier of the larger universe of social relations” (Grindstaff, 2002:21). Such is the democratic nature of the ubiquitous celebrity engendered by banality TV, that sophisticated interpretive skills become devalued. The predominantly conversationally-based and personalized content of daytime TV stands squarely in opposition to abstract thought whilst its provocative content finds itself naturally aligned with the innately accommodating grammar of TV: “they orchestrate emotional encounters on television in order to capitalize on the visual immediacy of the medium” (Ibid.:59).
The net result of all the various processes encountered in the previous pages is the creation of self-referential realm of “news” that has more to do with the internal needs of the media than it relates to the dispassionate reporting of events that could be more squarely located within the realm of “serious” news. The possibility of meaningful political or even single-issue activism is severely hindered by a format who’s raison d’être is sensationalism and excessive dependence upon images. The fact that Banality TV’s format mitigates against serious debate of abstract issues is hardly surprising given its obvious purpose as an entertainment vehicle and its subsequent structural dependence upon the decontextualized and overtly dramatic. What is much more distressing is the extent to which the meaning of current affairs has seamlessly merged with the sexual connotation of that term. Nominally serious and entertainment-based formats are now increasingly indistinguishable with TV becoming:
a machine for making the money shot. How else to explain the incessant news coverage of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky? Not since the coverage of John Wanye Bobbitt have I heard so much public discussion about a man’s penis. There were moments when the biggest difference between Larry King Live and Jerry Springer was the fact that all the guests on King’s show were white men with perfect teeth (Ibid.:250).
It is critical media theory’s consistent re-emphasis of McLuhan’s medium is the message that illuminates the ironical situation of explicit subject matter obfuscating politically-informed critical thought due to Jameson’s above contention that film promotes a pornographic attitude to the world around us.
McGrath’s description of the ideological work carried out by naturalist TV drama of the 1970s is still remarkably pertinent to today’s mediascape and its blurring of banality TV and politics:
Naturalism contains everything within a closed system of relationships. Every statement is mediated through the situation of the character speaking. Mediated to the point of triviality … In terms of presenting a picture of society, it can only reveal a small cluster of subjective consciousness, rarely anything more … it encapsulates the status quo, ossifies dynamics of society into a moment of perception, crystallizes the realities of existence into a paradigm, but excludes what it refers to (in Dovey, 2000).
McGrath’s statement is an important one for the succinct way it summarizes some of our book’s key themes. In particular, it points to McLuhan’s account of the unconscious, narcotic infiltration of the medium’s effects as it presents its content to the audience (his image of the burglar stealing under the nose of the watchdog of the mind) and Baudrillard’s emphasis upon an overwhelming absorption and fascination engendered by the screen. McGrath summarizes the paradoxical phenomenon of explicitness without understanding – the media’s frame circumscribes social experience into a closed self-contained system and as it does so, excludes the very thing it represents. The cultural forms created by this process have profound political implications of a type that cultural populism is innately unsuited to reveal. It is too wedded to understanding media content from within its own closed system and terms rather than, as critical theory does, questioning the desirability and justification for the very system itself.
Baudrillard’s work provides one of the most forceful recent expressions of this medium is the message sentiment: “It is not as vehicles of content, but in their very form and very operation, that media induce a social relation; … The media are not coefficients, but effectors of ideology … The mass media are anti-mediatory and intransitive. They fabricate non-communication” (Baudrillard, 1972:169). With the advent of more sophisticated media than were available for Benjamin’s analysis, we can see the further evolution of his notion of distraction and Jameson’s description of “rapt, mindless fascination”. The result for Baudrillard is “… an abyss of language, an abyss of linguistic seduction, a radically different operation that absorbs rather than produces meaning. The sarcophagus of linguistics was tightly sealed, and fell upon the shroud of the signifier” (Baudrillard, 1990a:57). Baudrillard described Reality TV in a manner that resonates with Adorno and Kracauer’s assessment of the culture industry, as well as succinctly describing the atmosphere of a contemporary mediascape in which banality TV and sober discourse have merged to produce: “a mirror of platitudes … life that has already been rigged by all the dominant models”. (Baudrillard, 2005b:181).
IX. Conclusion: Porn and Prudes: Picasso’s Guernica
All mass culture is adaptation….The pre-digested quality of the product prevails, justifies itself and establishes itself all the more firmly in so far as it constantly refers to those who cannot digest anything not already pre-digested. It is baby food…based upon the infantile compulsion towards the repetition of needs it created in the first place (Adorno, 1991:67).
Whether on the Hot Network, E! Entertainment Television, or CBS, the splanchnic response, not the lucubrations of the intellect but the primal gut reaction – that’s what hauls in the ratings. When the new president of CNN/US, Jonathan Klein, took over last November, he introduced himself to the troops with what has become the perennial “it’s about the story-telling speech. As Van Gorden Sauter preached in the 1980s, news needs the emo[tive], and executives now understand that the emo[tive] comes from the gut, the gut makes the wow, and the wow makes the money. It’s not the content that matters – food, sex, or news – so much as the autonomic form (Kaufman, 2005:59).
Kaufman argues that the media disproportionately assumes an excessively emotive approach. This is the basis of social porn and its ubiquitous and pervasive presence. It is built upon a society-wide over-dependence upon the camera-generated imagery of the society of the spectacle that now has exceeded the theoretical expectations of then. To the extent that cultural studies as a discipline sought to politicize culture in a fashion akin to Benjamin’s hopes in his Essay for the politicisation of aesthetics (to counter the Nazi aestheticization of politics) it has failed because capitalism is extremely adept at bringing all cultural forms down to the common political denominator of the commodity form. The historical perspective of the Frankfurt School’s critical theorists only allowed them to see the early stages of a social trend in which the hungry eyes of the camera merely locate food for the equally hungry maw of the culture industry – quite literally as we have seen in our discussion of Food Network TV. Social porn is thus a combination of:
1.The innate “greedy eyes” property of the camera, and
2.The complex intertwining of the camera’s innate voyeurism with wider commodity values.
With the advent of social porn and Banality TV: “The historical world becomes reduced to a set of simulations … The webs of signification we build and in which we act pass into fields of simulation that absorb us but exclude our action. Referentiality dissolves in the non-being and nothingness of TV” (Nichols, 1994:46). Pre-inscribed and carefully manipulated emotional affect is made to effect what was previously still protected from commercial values by a generally accepted discourse of sobriety that traditionally protected the “serious” parts of our culture.
The media now serves as a barrier that prevents us from traumatic encounters with the realities of human existence – replacing them with the manufactured Realities of Banality TV in which our encounters with human deprivation are continuously deferred and filtered by the use of spectacle for grounding emo-driven sensations. Eagleton cites Adorno’s remark that: “There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one should go hungry any more” (Eagleton, 2003:174) and pointing out that in the Judeo-Christian tradition the term anawim refers to the wretched beloved of God he argues: “The dispossessed are a living sign of the truth that the only enduring power is one anchored in an acknowledgement of failure. Any power which fails to recognise this fact will be enfeebled in a different sense, fearfully defending itself against the victims of its own arrogance” (Ibid.:176). It is the anawim that are systematically excluded in a society of the spectacle grounded in sensation rather than sensitivity and it is the failure of our mediated culture to acknowledge failure that lies behind the West’s fear that, as Boorstin put it and 9/11 so tragically demonstrated, our images will come back to haunt us.
Even in Benjamin’s optimistic interpretation of the camera’s new mode of distraction, he is aware of its dangers – that the rise of the semiotic over the symbolic. As previously cited, in the final lines of the epilogue to his essay, he cogently describes a then and now scenario that has resonance with the central argument of this book [Taylor and Harris, 2008] and its claim that then theorists identified the negative trends we can see more clearly nowwith the advent of Banality TV: “Humankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the highest order” (Epilogue, 1935). In his 2001 essay Dust Breeding, Baudrillard cites Benjamin’s lines in full demonstrating the critical continuities in this book’s choice of theorists from then and now (Baudrillard, 2005a:184). Baudrillard’s radical theory of the implosion of communication is opposedto Benjamin’s seminal account of the significance of reproductive media technologies, where he rejoices in their explosively revolutionary nature – “Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second” – to the point that “in the midst of far-flung ruins and debris” he enjoins us to “calmly and adventurously go travelling” (Benjamin, Section XIII). Like Baudrillard, we reserve the right to put on our intellectual hard-hats and point out that we still need to find a better home than either a cave or the ruins and debris of a culture not dominated by the spectacle.
Despite the pessimistic nature of critical interpretations of today’s mass media society there is still hope to be found in Adorno’s assertion that the culture industry is “pornographic but prudish whist true art is ascetic but unashamed” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1997:140). This goes directly to the theme of the obscene. A culture based upon mechanically reproduced explicitness is prepared to exhibit and unveil everything at a surface level (the pornographic) but needs to censor the ambiguous and the seductive (it has a prudish attitude to high art and idealistic concepts autonomous from commercial values). On Feb 5th, 2003 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York there was an emblematic demonstration of critical theory’s continued relevance to today’s mediascape. The U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, spoke at a press conference as part of a concerted diplomatic effort by the U.S. and U.K. to obtain U.N. backing for an invasion of Iraq. In the hall where the press conference took place normally hangs a large tapestry upon which is reproduced Pablo Picasso’s famous anti-war painting – Guernica.
For the press conference, the tapestry was covered by a blue curtain veiling the evocative scenes depicted in Picasso’s artwork. Benjamin hoped to see the greater politicization of aesthetics, but events at the U.N. that day illustrated how the aesthetic manipulation of politics merely continues apace in previously unforeseen ways. Two competing arguments were put forward to explain this veiling. One was that a plain blue backing was much more suitable as a neutral background for the TV cameras. To the extent that this book is unashamedly pessimistic, critical media theory can point to this effective censoring of Picasso’s message not by heavy-handed authoritarianism, but by the no less effective removal of a powerful political aura due to the media’s technical requirements and innate grammar. The other reason suggested for the veiling was that US diplomats requested the action to avoid the incongruity of discussing an impending military action under this powerful anti-war symbol. If this was the actual reason, critical theory offers optimism and hope to the extent that, in the midst of media-sponsored obscenity, politicians can still be made to feel shame.
About the Author
Paul Taylor is from the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, United Kingdom.
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