Volume 12, Number 1 (January 2015)
Author: Dr. Mario Rodriguez
This article traces the trajectory of Baudrillard’s thought on simulation so as to critically compare this concept to the reigning definition of media events (Dayan and Katz, 1992). The present study begins by mapping the relevance of Baudrillard’s work to various subfields within communication, then excavates overlooked categories and under-theorized quantities related to media events within Baudrillard’s work, such as “audiences,” “masses,” the “individual” and the “social.” In conclusion, Baudrillard’s 1983 essay “The Ecstasy of Communication” (in Foster, 1983) serves as a thought-provoking counterpoint to the idea of media events in its emphasis on networked, fluid and schizophrenic communication. ‘Ecstasy’ remains an important touchstone for an alternative form of communication in a world of increasingly networked beings and hyper-mediated events where the line between consumption and surveillance is getting hazier by the day.
Beyond the resonance of buzzwords like ‘simulation’ and ‘hyperreality’ (which figured prominently in popular discussions of the film The Matrix) (Wachowski, 1999), Jean Baudrillard’s theory of simulation has important implications for media effects that go beyond critical theory. With reference to “The Ecstasy of Communication” (Baudrillard in Foster, 1983: 126-134), this paper demonstrates that Baudrillard’s concept of simulation challenges reigning conceptualizations of media events described by Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz (1992), because it draws attention to overlooked categories and under-theorized quantities, such as the notion of the social itself. In particular, in this paper we focus on how “Ecstasy” specifically critiques concepts such as “audiences,” “masses,” the “individual” and the “social.” Furthermore, how does Baudrillard’s theory relate to our understanding of consumption, and how does it critique television as an extension of the Culture Industry and surveillance?
“The Ecstasy of Communication” represents the culmination of Baudrillard’s thought by the early 1980’s. In it, he argued (in typical fashion) that, by virtue of media, the object had disappeared, and that people had become networked beings interacting with hyperreality through a series of screens that pushed ‘reality’ to the margins. This also made quantitative structures irrelevant (masses, individuals, the social) in favor of self-referential flows of symbols (“topologies”). According to Baudrillard, communication in the modern world is a cold and exhilarating experience akin to that of schizophrenia. This is what makes communication ecstatic – but Baudrillard argued this ecstasy is obscene. For clarification of the relationship between Baudrillard’s theory and media effects, it may be necessary to reference his broader work, such as Simulacra and Simulation (Baudrillard, 1997), In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities which challenged the concepts of “masses” and the “social” Baudrillard, 1983), and Fatal Strategies in which he outlined some ideas intended to push capitalism to its inevitable end (Baudrillard, 2008).
II. Background on Baudrillard
Baudrillard’s influences are broad, and this is perhaps why it is difficult to classify him or nail down his critique. However, his critique does pass through four distinct phases: the system of objects, symbolic exchange, simulation, and the ‘fractal’ stage. Baudrillard’s initial emphasis on developing a system of objects was due to influence drawn from existentialism, Debord, Lefebvre, Marcuse and the Situationists on the one hand, and from a growing interest prevalent in 1960’s-era Marxist critique of consumer society on the other (Merrin, 2005: 16). In fact, Merrin suggested that Baudrillard is the radical extension of the College of Sociology, which was founded in 1937, and included Mauss, Bataille, and Caillois. Baudrillard began by attempting to describe The System of Objects, that is, the ways in which traditional symbolic objects are transformed into a system of signs with no relation to their original. According to Merrin, this implied “a Durkheimian theme of the transformation of the symbolic into its semiotic simulacrum that dominates his early work” (Ibid.: 30).
However, in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard postulated a fundamental disjuncture between the symbolic and the semiotic (Ibid.: 30-33). This meant that what we perceive as ‘real’ is merely the semiotic. The world comes filtered through a universe of signs that remains impenetrable to traditional sociological notions of the symbolic. Modern media represent this ‘reality effect’ in a spiral of images. This disjuncture between symbolic and semiotic constitutes ‘symbolic exchange, a fundamental breakdown between signifier and sign, in which signs float free of their signifiers. But this also entails a total break between the traditional Marxist categories of use and exchange value.
Moreover, one contribution Baudrillard has to media studies is his reinterpretation and application to media of the concept of the ‘simulacra’, which can be traced in philosophy from Aristotle through Descartes, Nietzsche, Benjamin and Boorstin. First, Baudrillard introduced four orders of simulacra in Symbolic Exchange and Death which correspond to historical periods: the symbolic exchange of the feudal renaissance, the serially produced industrial commodity, contemporary commodities reproduced through a model of simulation (signs exchanged for signs), and finally the ‘fractal’ stage (loss of referent in reality). Similarly, in Simulacra & Simulation, in his opening essay “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard introduced a genealogy of simulation, or orders of simulation Ibid.: 33). However, these are complex and not relevant enough to go into at any length here. It should simply be noted that these organizational schemes signal a shift in Baudrillard’s thought toward theorizing consumer culture (and reality itself) as simulation. This was more of a post-Marxist polemic meant to critique capitalism, as we shall see. Ironically, it is the theory of the simulacrum and simulation for which Baudrillard is best remembered, terms that have come to eclipse the philosopher himself (Ibid.: 44).
Don Slater gave the clearest assessment of Baudrillard’s theory of simulation in his description of the evolution of consumer culture (Slater, 1999: 146-47). In the mode of simulation, consumption of signs replaces consumption of goods. Unlike the gift, which represents a social relation between people, the object-as-sign implies a relationship between signs. Meaning is only interpreted in relationship to other signs. Difference is systematized in terms of a code, and thus people themselves come to be interpreted in terms of a semiotic code:
Baudrillard documents the way in which modern objects, divorced from their traditional contexts (for example custom, family, religion) are freed to be organized through a code of modern functionality: through signifiers like streamlining they signify domestic modernity. For Baudrillard, semiotics, the rigorous restriction of accounts of meaning to the internal structure of sign systems, is not just a methodology; it is rather a description of consumer society, of an extreme point in the development of the commodity at which objects are given an entirely new and perverse ontological status, a point at which both objects and social practices – society – can be reduced without residue to ‘the Code (Ibid.: 147).
A more contemporary example might include social networking sites like Facebook, where people categorize themselves for others and collect friends as icons. While Koch and Elmore (2006: 156-75) reiterate that Baudrillard broke with Marxism in the late 1960’s, they suggest that this break was not in fact total, but that Baudrillard remained concerned with how production and consumption establish the social order. Similarly, they distinguish a “before and after” period in his work, suggesting transitions through theorizing a system of objects, symbolic exchange, and simulation. Lastly they identified another radical shift, in Baudrillard’s thought in 1987, entering its so-called ‘fractal stage.’ This ‘fractal stage’ implies a greater emphasis in manufacturing on the fetish aspect of commodities described by Marx, but to such an extent that it obliterates use and exchange-value completely. Objects in the system become valuable only in relation to one another, that is, in terms of a network of values. This concept of a network is pivotal in later Baudrillard. Under circumstances of simulation, the central organizing principle of consumption is ‘code’ which gives rise to simulacra in the form of mass produced objects. This code forms the “teleological principle” of postmodern society. Symbolic exchange between ‘code’ and object was predicated on space, however, space no longer impedes the production of objects in the fractal stage: the entire semiotic network of capitalist consumer culture is represented in every mass produced commodity holographically.
Again, this goes beyond use and exchange value: commodities derive value only in relation to the network of objects, and there is no longer any demarcation between the object itself and the system: consumption of the commodity is equivalent to consumption of the system. In passing from simulation to the fractal stage of value, objects are beyond representation, and they become a pure fetish divorced from the material. Indeed, Koch and Elmore conclude that the “fetish increases the circulation of capital in an economy where use value has largely been satisfied,” thereby absorbing excess cash (Ibid.: 571). Baudrillard introduced this final stage in “Ecstasy,” and the notion of a network is important to critiquing how both consumers and commodities operate in a postmodern economy.
III. Relationship to McLuhan and the Frankfurt School
Baudrillard’s thought has evolved from the system of objects, through symbolic exchange and simulation, and into the ‘fractal stage.’ To situate his work in relation to Media Events, it is valuable to first understand his relationship to canonic texts in media research, in particular Marshall McLuhan and the Frankfurt School, because this allows us to understand his methodology. Genosko described the influence of McLuhan’s work in the 1960’s on Baudrillard’s work in the 80’s, primarily regarding notions of a return to orality and tribal culture through new media technologies, and the concepts of reversibility and implosion, which are rhetorical techniques that Baudrillard borrowed from McLuhan (Genosko, 1999). Genosko’s account emphasized the exchange between McLuhan and French post-modern circles, for example, parallels between McLuhan and Barthes, and McLuhan in the context of Derrida and the poststructuralists (Ibid.: 20-27). Genosoko also argued that McLuhan’s description of historical phases (oral, literate, electronic) influenced Baudrillard’s historical model for phases of simulation (Ibid.: 99-117).
In fact, McLuhan’s influence on Baudrillard is evinced through more than just his conceptualization of historical epochs. Meyrowitz described McLuhan’s rejection of text-based analysis and refusal to write in a traditional academic fashion (Meyrowitz, 2003: 191-212). Instead, McLuhan favored “probes” rather than scientific claims, declaration versus persuasion, and absolutist claims, as well as a dizzying interdisciplinary synthesis. Stylistically, Baudrillard may owe a debt to McLuhan, for he shares these polemical attributes. Baudrillard has also adopted the rhetorical mode of the fragment, a German philosophical tradition that includes Dialectic of Enlightenment (Peters, 2003: 58-73) and the notion of “immanent reversal,” a “perverse form of Frankfurt reasoning” (Kellner, 2008: 91).
Besides his rhetorical strategies, Baudrillard also applied McLuhan’s major principles, particularly hot and cool media, and “the medium is the message” which comes to define his networked theory of the ‘fractal’ commodity fetish: “But the message that the objects deliver through it is already extremely simplified, and it is always the same: their exchange value. Thus at bottom the message already no longer exists; it is the medium that imposes itself in its pure circulation. This is what I call (potentially) ecstasy” (Baudrillard in Foster, 1983: 131). In terms of his later theory of networked commodities, Baudrillard pushed McLuhanist technological determinism to an extreme, affecting a critique on postmodern capitalism and consumption. Indeed, the originality of Baudrillard’s critique of media “lies in its McLuhanist emphasis on form above content” (Genosko, 1999: 154), of a sympathy with the symbolic and demonstration of the social transformation of the symbolic into the semiotic.
Baudrillard’s position evinces a complex lineage through Durkheim, Marxism, semiotics and McLuhan “that sees media power lying in form: in its destruction of the symbolic and its replacement with a semiotic simulation that functions not only as a mode of communication but also as a mode of social control and integration” (Ibid.: 24). The privileging of forms of media as the source of social power is at base not so much technologically deterministic. Rather, it is the critique of the semiotic system itself represented by media, which destroyed symbolic forms of engagement in the traditional sense of Durkheim. In this way Baudrillard’s work also represents a natural extension of Frankfurt school-style surveillance into postmodernism.
New strategies of criticism have repositioned the audience in the past few decades, including political-economic analysis, poststructuralist film theory, feminist criticism, cultural studies and postmodernism (Allor, 2004: 543-53). Prominent among postmodern analyses is Baudrillard’s concept of simulation that has “led to a radical rewriting of the media/audience relationship.” First, simulation described a collapse of the individual into the social, just as reality and simulation become interchangeable. ‘Mass’ is a term in postmodernism that denies the possibility of collective representation, and yet, paradoxically, allows theorists to speak about individual psychology. This is because the circulation of signs has come to define economic relations, and thus, the identities of audiences as abstract aggregates. The only way for audiences to fight back is through the ‘fatal strategy’ of ‘hyperconformist’ participation in recycling of signs into the system. This has implications for the critique of ‘masses’ as it applies to TV audiences: “The television audience becomes…the ideal specification of the mass. Outside any social connection or personal embodiment, it becomes the perfect metaphor for a model of media power that echoes the totalizing vision of the Frankfurt School’s critique” (Ibid.: 550-51).
In a nightmarish interpretation of the meaning of consumer society evincing the influence of Debord’s Society of Spectacle ( 1995), Baudrillard became fascinated with 1960’s Marxist critique of consumer society, the increasing penetration of technology into individual lives, and the concomitant increase in control, restraint and alienation (Genosko, 1999: 16). Baudrillard fused a semiotic analysis of consumer culture with this Marxist critique, and, following in the footsteps of Barthes, Veblen and Marcuse, interpreted consumption as a system of meaning and communication that took the form of a social hierarchy, but: “Instead of a realm of individual freedom and expression, [consumer society] represents, [Baudrillard] argues, our training into a totalitarian semiotic code and its ‘total organization of everyday life’” (Ibid.: 24). In his interpretation of the relevance of Baudrillard’s work to audience research, Merrin was much more critical of audience research than Allor. Active audience theories “valorize” behavior that is frankly not relevant to understanding the overall structural imposition that media present on people’s lives. Pleasurable use of media and ‘personalization’ are more evidence of “our precoded production and integration in a system of social control”1 .
Therefore, simulation levels a critique at consumer culture extending Frankfurt School warnings about the pervasiveness of Culture Industry into the modern world of advertising and psychographics. Specifically what distinguishes this critique from other postmodern methods is the emphasis on the semiotic element. Koch and Elmore identified this streak in Baudrillard’s work as early as the ‘orders of simulacra’ (described in Simulacra & Simulation) in which “Baudrillard identifies the logic of simulation as a system of control, a system whose goal is to build the perfect, docile society, in which its hegemony, through the ordering of all signs, is indestructible” (Koch and Elmore, 2006: 560). Furthermore, as they explain, consumption of symbolic goods becomes a way to absorb excess production, and thus dupe workers into continued participation in the circulation of signs, a process in which advertisers are complicit, reminiscent of Horkheimer and Adorno. The “self-referencing ‘truths’” of simulation offer no escape from participation in the code, much as the “winking” irony of Culture Industry invited ironic participation (Horkheimer and Adorn, 2002). In this respect, simulation “is very seductive…It is not clear that people would really want more time with their families and a less repressive political climate if it meant that they had to abandon their cell phones and salad-shooters” (Koch and elmore, 2006: 572).
IV. Reformulations of the Audience
Allor noted that simulation has “led to a radical rewriting of the media/audience relationship.” More specifically, he suggested two areas in which Baudrillard’s theory of simulation has had the greatest impact: 1) Research on television audiences and critiquing the ‘masses,’ and, 2) analysis of new cinematic and televisual forms, including pastiche, genre blending and self-reference as new forms of communication. The legacy of these in the Internet age is clearly culture-jamming and YouTube “mashups.” Allor described a purely textual interpretation of Miami Vice and Pepsi commercials, free from the constraints of ideology, and the paradox that postmodernism is “more exclusively textual than post-structuralism.” Again, however, Merrin argued that such readings are superficial because they “valorize behaviour that is of limited significance in comparison to the effects of the form and structure and operation of the media.” In fact, Merrin argued Baudrillard’s rejection of media place him in diametric opposition to the large body of work on electronic communities. Baudrillard’s work is best viewed as opposing notions of an active audience based in the work of Stuart Hall, and critiquing the ultimate fate of Hall’s work in theories of an active audience (Merrin, 2005: 22-25). Contrary to Allor, Merrin argued Baudrillard has no relationship to reception and nothing methodological to say about it.
Baudrillard’s critique of the concept of ‘masses’, however, has profound implications for critiquing the way that contemporary social scientists theorize TV audiences in particular. From the perspective of Baudrillard, the individuals in the ‘mass’ have nothing to distinguish one from another, and thus, the whole concept of ‘masses’ is implosive (Baudrillard, 1983: 6-9). Ironically, this means that there can no longer be any such thing as alienation. Furthermore, there is no sense in attempting to educate the masses because, by definition, they refuse to be taught en masse. The strategy of implosion marks a resonance with McLuhan, but also, it is this implosive energy of the overall absence of difference that leads Baudrillard to resort to a cosmological metaphor:
Rather, the masses function as a gigantic black hole which inexorably inflects, bends and distorts all energy and light radiation approaching it: an implosive sphere, in which the curvature of space accelerates, in which al dimensions curve back on themselves and ‘involve’ to the point of annihilation, leaving in their stead only a sphere of potential engulfment (Ibid.: 9).
Baudrillard’s critique of the ‘masses’ is valuable in two ways. First, it challenges the social scientific concept of ‘masses’ as a self-fulfilling prophecy (Watzlawick, 1984: 95-116). that is, a statement that makes a prediction leading to actions that bring about that prediction. Klaus Krippendorff has similarly commented on this tendency among social scientists to over-determine ‘the public’ in constructing public opinion (Krippendorf, 2005: 129-149). Second, Baudrillard’s indictment of the concept of ‘masses’ ricochets, calling into question the whole notion of a ‘social’ to begin with. For Baudrillard, the social vanishes with the audience. This is on a parallel (though less pragmatic) track with Bruno Latour’s description of Actor-Network Theory (ANT), in which he suggested that Durkheimian notions of the ‘social’ have unfairly predominated sociology for the past century. Instead, Latour recommends a return to a more grounded approach to sociology inspired by Gabriel Tarde (Latour, 2005). Baudrillard is similarly skeptical of the ‘social’ as defined by modern sociology, but his recommendation is the radical toppling of the semiotic system by embracing such concepts as a form of simulation, evincing in the process reliance on the polemical strategies of fatality, and (with reference to the Frankfurt School) reversal:
What might also make us wonder is this going beyond the social, the irruption of the more social than social – the mass; this is a social that has absorbed all the inverse energies of the antisocial, of inertia, resistance and silence. Here the logic of the social reaches its limit – the point where it inverts in its finalities and reaches its point of inertia and extermination, but at the same time approaches ecstasy. Masses are the ecstasy of the social, the ecstatic form of the social, the mirror where it is reflected in all its immanence (Baudrillard, 2008).
Slater, however, disagreed with Baudrillard’s simulation as methodology. His synopsis of Baudrillard’s simulation was insightful: social bonds come to be constituted not in a symbolic gift that represents a connection between people, but as signs in a semiotic system (Slater, 1999: 46-7). Just as exchange-value used to equalize commodities, now sign-value (their existence in relationship to a system of signs) establishes their value. The commodity is liberated as a pure sign that floats free of its referent (the actual object or product). The basis for legitimization of the signifier (image) becomes the signified, not the referent which is external to the semiotic code. Human identities are constructed through exchange of sign-values. Modeling of cybernetic systems rather than crude movement of raw materials dominates production, and domination is achieved through the sign. This is simulation. The social disappears under simulation, as opinion polls and homogenized consumer culture eclipse civil society. The only resistance is intensified consumption, giving rise to the ‘black hole’ of ‘silent majorities.’
But Slater is critical of Baudrillard’s theory of simulation because it is, like the Culture Industry before it, and like so many other theories of postmodernism, too ‘totalistic’ to be of practical value. Indeed, Baudrillard’s strain of postmodernism is particularly total, squeezing out even the possibility of reality through the theory of simulation and the code. Even the Frankfurt School left room to relate capitalist alienation to the realities of the system that engendered it, argued Slater. Simulation is thus ill equipped to describe the postmodern social structure and positions of social groups. Other works do a lot more to engage practical realities of the regulation of urban space under postmodern and neoliberal conditions that make social outliers “vanish into thin air,” the work of Zukin on landscapes in global markets, for example (Zukin, 1991), or Mike Davis’ (1990) description of Los Angeles. Postmodernism furthermore links identity too closely with consumption habits, tending to structurally exclude other possibilities for groups who are assumed to have a coherent identity, such as females, blacks and Jews. Slater merely makes the observation that simulation is in some respects dangerous in that it essentializes identities as already having been finalized by a society that has moved into a realm of signification. Finally, simulation freezes society, and does not allow for the study of newly evolving social groups, such as the new bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie, which find a place in the work of Mike Featherstone who builds off Bourdieu’s work on style and substance (Featherstone, 1991).
V. Relationship to Film Theory
Mulvey’s classic 1975 “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” became the cornerstone text in feminist film theory (Loshitzky in Katz et. al., 2003: 248-59). Mulvey appropriated terms from Freudian psychoanalysis to critique the structure of modern cinema as fundamentally presenting a masculine gaze by virtue of its technical execution and narrative structure. Baudrillard also responds to psychoanalytic readings of film that, like Mulvey’s work, have drawn inspiration from the Lacanian paradigm of psychoanalysis since the 1970’s. For example, Baudrillard punned that “today the scene and mirror no longer exist; instead, there is a screen and network. In place of the reflexive transcendence of mirror and scene, there is a nonreflecting surface, an immanent surface where operations unfold – the smooth operational surface of communication” (Baudrillard in Foster, 1983: 126-27). Again, this is a play on the concepts of mirror stage and the Other that figure prominently in Lacan’s work. In simulation, as noted, there is no ‘Other’ because individuals only find themselves to be a part of the aggregate. As part of the silent majorities, individuals in the ‘mass’ have nothing to distinguish one from another. This is what gives the term ‘masses’ its implosive energy in the Baudrillardian sense and which leads to the end of alienation. Because of simulation, and by virtue of interactions with screens which are confused with reality, the individual can no longer undergo develop as an individual. Furthermore, as a consumer, he is but one sign in a network of commodities.
However, Baudrillard’s critique of cinema has more concrete implications. First, in a tip of the hat to Culture Industry, Baudrillard suggested that modern remakes are so technically perfect that they eclipse the original, exemplified by the 1974 neo-noir Chinatown which was more perfect than any ‘noir’ film of the 1950’s could have ever been (Baudrillard in Docherty 1993). By virtue of its technical proficiency, the remake obliterates its original, and in this way the new film becomes a simulacrum, a copy without original. This can work for real events, too: Baudrillard criticized Spielberg’s 1993 Schindler’s List and NBC’s 1978 dramatization Holocaust for semiotically exterminating the real Holocaust (Merrin, 2005: 66).
It is not only events and movies that are semiotically eclipsed through contemporary film but the reality of actual actors themselves. In the 1993 movie Jurassic Park, computer animation ushered in an era of “livingdead” cinema that resurrects the past (mirroring the genetic technology used in the film) but in a way that is, as the director Spielberg himself stated, supposed to be “real” (Cholodenko, 2005). The dinosaurs in the movie are more real than real, and the presence of humans side by side with animated dinosaurs only emphasizes the failed reality of the actual actors (as if they were poor special effects). Furthermore, moviemakers think they can contain the medium of animation (like the films protagonists think they can control genetic technology) but animation ends up trumping cinema and subsuming it as a medium. Film becomes a subset of animation. This is similar to the conjecture that modern movie editing is becoming more like painting with light, and that in fact digital special effects are subsuming filmmaking as a category (Prince, 2007: 29-37). All film is rendered animation; all reality is virtual. Thus, Baudrillard’s description of evil and fatal logics can be used to understand the phenomenon of digital animation. Contemporary digital special effects surpass and subsume the medium of cinema itself. Digital animation is cold and lifeless, in that it follows a fatal logic by which it destroys not only cinema but the perceived reality of human actors and ultimately itself. This explains why recent blockbusters like The Watchmen(Snyder, 2009) accused of being “soulless,” a fizzled box office failure. Baudrillard’s philosophy is therefore a powerful theoretical tool for critiquing contemporary movies and digital animation.
There is a deeper implication here that conflates with Baudrillard’s criticism of media events. In Baudrillard’s hyperbolic world of simulation, even seemingly spontaneous media events are no longer truly unexpected, but rather form part of a larger set of possible, allowed events that are essentially pre-scripted. They are more aptly contingencies, and therefore media events are designed to happen (Merrin, 2005: 67-72). To illustrate this, Baudrillard compared strategies of nuclear deterrence in the 1970’s and 1980’s popular cinema. He argued that popular cinema is actually a part of deterrence because it is a form of simulacral programming. The China Syndrome was his example, a film about a nuclear reactor meltdown that anticipated Three Mile Island and normalized the real event that occurred in March of that same year (Bridges, 1979). This was similar to his incorporation of advertising and TV as a component of deterrence, a refusal to distinguish between military forms of control and civilian infrastructure reminiscent of culture industry2 .
VI. Critique of Media Events
Discussion of film criticism is an excellent way to segue into Baudrillard’s critique of media events. As noted, Baudrillard conceived of media events more as a kind of routine catastrophe with pre-established protocols. For example, Baudrillard claimed that hijacking is no longer a real event because media has routinized its coverage (Simulacra & Simulation). Furthermore, cinema helps to normalize catastrophe within a system of deterrence, such as the example of The China Syndrome3 .
At core, however, Baudrillard’s understanding of media events is an oppositional one that stands diametrically opposed to Dayan and Katz’s reigning theory of media events. Ironically, this antagonism may be attributed to Baudrillard’s development of what is essentially a parallel but polar opposite legacy of Durkheim’s thought (Merrin, 2005: 11-16). Baudrillard’s early influences lay in the College of Sociology, which was founded in 1937 by Mauss, Bataille, and Caillois, who were themselves influenced by Durkheim. Baudrillard’s notion of the ‘social’ implied symbolic relations between people that frequently took the form of a gift and that were inherently sacred in a Durkheimian tradition. Thus, the College attempted to move beyond cool academic detachment and cultivate an understanding of the sacred as “communication with Being itself and emphasis on its essential violent, excessive and confrontational elements” (Ibid.: 14). As Baudrillard’s thought got permuted through the likes of McLuhan and Debord, he gradually developed a completely different definition of media and communication grounded in a fusion of Marxism and semiotics, but nevertheless one that was, at core, communication based on violence, confrontation, and original Durkheimian descriptions of the symbolic.
Therefore, Baudrillard provocatively disregarded emerging theories of media events, and their emphasis on liveness, embeddedness, analysis of speech acts and application of encoding and decoding. The main thrust of Baudrillard’s criticism is that modern media events pale in comparison to symbolic premodern ritual – they repress too much confrontation, violence, sexuality, sacrifice and debauchery (Ibid.: 73-80). There is no possibility for transgression. Furthermore, true ritual requires an acknowledgement not only of euphoria, but terror: terror is an aspect of the sacred that has been sanitized from media events (Ibid.: 77). Though Baudrillard did not respond directly to Dayan and Katz, Merrin suggests that Baudrillard’s work stands in opposition precisely because Dayan and Katz’s descriptions of media events are sanitized and functionalist, limiting the role of simulacral processes in media. Dayan and Katz reference media fictionalization of ceremony, media intervention, and simulacral aspects of media events, but these are in the final analysis dismissed as distracting. Despite emphasis on live event, there is no analysis of semiotic news event, implosion, or real-time coverage.
To their credit, Dayan and Katz openly acknowledge the limitations on their study, establishing the boundary of media events to the exclusion of great “news events,” such as Three Mile Island or the Kennedy assassination. They are more concerned with ceremony that plays out on an historic scale, that is unquestionably hegemonic, and that electrifies very large audiences (Dayan and Katz, 1992: 8-9). Second, by virtue of a three-fold syntactic, semantic and pragmatic approach to media events, Dayan and Katz must acknowledge the complex negotiations that are entailed even with preplanned ‘events’:
These events are preplanned, announced and advertised in advance. Viewers – and, indeed, broadcasters – had only a few days notice of the exact time of Sadat’s arrival in Jerusalem (Cohen, 1978); Irish television advertised the Pope’s visit to Ireland a few weeks in advance (Sorohan, 1979); the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were heralded for more than four years. Important for our purpose is that advance notice gives time for anticipation and preparation o the part of both broadcasters and audiences. There is an active period of looking forward, abetted by the promotional activity of the broadcasters (Ibid.: 7).
Media events in the sense of Dayan and Katz may be preplanned and thus to a degree routine, but they are also spectacular and unprecedented. If they are preplanned, then there is still leeway for error in that planning at a human-scale, at the level of negotiation, and this is something that Baudrillard denies entirely. Therefore we see the two approaches are diametrically opposed.
What’s wrong with this picture? The problem that arises in Baudrillard’s thinking (and Merrin’s critique) is the lack of grounding in reality. For example, Merrin claimed:
The system remains haunted by the possible failure of this simulation and by the violence the symbolic demand might unleash. David Fincher’s film Fight Club (Fincher, 1999) provides one fanciful depiction of a rejection of an Ikea lifestyle and a turn to the symbolic – to physical violence and personal risk – to rediscover the meaning lost in the participants’ lives. But more generally we can see the same processes operating in public criminality and violence and in the periodic festivals of urban rioting…Thus, for Baudrillard, a counter-gift is always possible to a system which tries to replace, ignore or drown out with images and messages and consumer technologies that which is inevitable (Merrin, 2005: 27).
First, this statement does not accurately reflect the outrage fueling recent riots in the developing world, which have less to do with the return of a repressed symbolic mode of communication and everything to do with basic human needs, such as providing affordable food and ending police brutality. Second, Merrin’s concluding suggestion that public responses to media events pale in comparison to what they used to be in symbolic rituals is not always true. There are many examples of media events that have produced a charged response on the part of television audiences, from the O.J. Simpson murder trial to 9/11, and the Aftermath of the Rodney King trial. Baudrillard’s criticism of media events as simulation introduces an important challenge to the reigning model by Dayan and Katz at the level of the image, reminiscent of the Franfurt School’s warnings of Culture Industry. Couldry attempted to reconcile simulation with the Neo-functionalist category of ritual, to develop a broader theory of media ritual. Couldry tried to understand, for example, common elements of fan encounters with media figures, and to devise a set of locations for ethnographic analysis of media content production. His work represents a thought-provoking hybridization of these two divergent branches of media sociology (Couldry, 2004).
VII. What does ‘Ecstasy’ say about media events?
We have seen how Baudrillard’s simulacra and simulation impact a variety of schools of media thought. Baudrillard borrowed rhetorical strategies from the Frankfurt School and McLuhan. Similarly, his theories of simulation and the simulacra extend the McLuhanist concept of the medium as message into the postmodern age, and update the Frankfurt School’s concept of Culture Industry. Baudrillard has arguably had a lasting affect on audience reception research, in terms of defining the TV audience, but also critiquing concepts such as the ‘masses’ and, by virtue of this, the fundamental utility of the social itself. While scholars such as Slater and Merrin might object to this, arguing against Baudrillard’s relevance to (or interest in) reception, Handelman has suggested Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra and simulation might actually offer more insight into para-social interaction (Handelman in Katz, et. al., 2003: 137-57). Baudrillard’s impact has also registered in film theory, where remakes eclipse their originals, and also in terms of media events. Merrin argued that Baudrillard existed on a parallel Durkheimian track to Dayan and Katz, and that he represented a more radical notion of the ‘social’ grounded in confrontation and violence, hence the ‘symbolic’. But this is lost in the transition from the symbolic economy to an economy of signs.
Baudrillard’s brief essay “The Ecstasy of Communication” sketches his theory of the fractal stage of simulation. It is worthwhile for the field of media and communications to embrace (canonize?) this essay because it includes three key ideas related to our discussion of Baudrillard’s work thus far that are applicable to media events. In the essay, Baudrillard also makes very keen observations about the nature of postmodern communication that can be verified in everyday experience. The key ideas are: 1) humans as networked beings, 2) topologies of semiotic flow, and 3) postmodern communication as cold, ecstatic but also schizophrenic.
Baudrillard valued face-to-face interactions as being an integral part of the social, where his conception of the social could be traced back to a more radical reading of Durkheim and the necessity of a symbolic gift to constitute human relationships. Thus, there is nostalgia for the symbolic within Baudrillard’s semiotic critique of simulation. Baudrillard conceived of humans as networked beings interacting with hyperreality through screens (and thus the Lacanian pun). Baudrillard saw modern communications technologies bleeding the human attributes out of communication. Communication becomes more an ‘I’m there/you’re there’ twitter, devoid of substance, merely a reminder of the existence of another person. People’s interactions with reality are filtered through some sort of interface (screens) as they become ‘satellitized’ into hermetically sealed suburban dwellings. One example of this was the Japanese car that talks back to you, in which both machine and human are enmeshed in a network of communication that is constituted by a kind of mutual testing reminiscent of deterrence (Baudrillard in Foster, 1983: 127). This networked attribute of the isolated individual underscores his lack of symbolic relationships with others, and instead his relationship as a consumer to a system of sign-value. This is a ‘fractal’ network of sign-value that reiterates the meaning of the system at every point. Furthermore, as Merrin points out, Baudrillard’s critique was aimed at the quality of human communication, which suffers with electronic forms. E-communication may close distances and time, but the quality suffers: phone filters any input other than voice, and text-based chat eliminates even more. Quality is sacrificed for instantaneity, making the enhanced ‘communication’ more a tactic of avoidance. Referring for a moment to Martin Buber, Baudrillard’s critique would seem to suggest a general effect of electronic communication to transform I-Thou relationships into I-It, or even just It-It relationships (Buber, 1970).
Second, quantitative structures become irrelevant in postmodern communication, according to Baudrillard. Architectures and institutions fall by the wayside in the path of enormous flows of advertising, culture, commodities and text. These are new topologies of communication, semiotic flows. The ‘masses’ constitute an exemplar as a non-alienated ‘black hole’ – as a pure abstraction, and therefore as a passé concept. The predetermined media event is another. Of course, this is again Baudrillard’s hyperbole. However, it is hyperbole with a point, and that is to compel media theorists of reception and power to focus on new textural structures of a semiotic language for human communication, a language which Baudrillard maintained was one of social control and a pure extension of Culture Industry-style surveillance.
Third, modern communication is cold and ecstatic, but also schizophrenic. With the boundaries down between old institutions and new fluid topologies of semiotic flow, between the individual and the social itself, between individual commodity and network, the very boundaries of the human body itself come crashing down – exterior and interior worlds collide. Simulation seeks to expose all aspects of reality in mediated form. This pornography of reality is “obscene” because it is more real than real (Baudrillard in Foster, 1983: 131. (It is also interesting to observe in terms of recent trends toward DTV, HDTV and reality TV) This communication is ecstatic because it is the pure medium itself, bringing McLuhan’s adage full-circle; it is cold because it involves only purely clinical, technological representations of reality. But with all of these boundaries down, the postmodern form of communication is a din of too many voices, akin to the experience of the schizophrenic:
No more hysteria, no more projective paranoia, properly speaking, but this state of terror proper to the schizophrenic: too great a proximity of everything, the unclean promiscuity of everything which touches, invests and penetrates without resistance, with no halo of private protection, not even his own body, to protect him anymore…He can no longer produce the limits of his own being, can no longer play nor stage himself, can no longer produce himself as a mirror. He is now only a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence (Ibid.: 132-33).
TV is without “halo” in the sense of Dayan and Katz; the image is a demon of layered signs without bottom. The postmodern man becomes an all-consuming interface. Baudrillard’s exemplar is the public cell-phone user, who actually appears to be schizophrenic, “a living insult to the passers by” (Merrin, 2005: 23).
For these three reasons Baudrillard’s “Ecstasy” remains a relevant commentary on postmodern communication, and, as Merrin pointed out, the legacy of a Durkheimian nostalgia for the symbolic which may have been lost and that is at least undervalued by contemporary theories of communication. The global veil between consumption and surveillance is rapidly disintegrating in the wake of revelations regarding NSA surveillance; Baudrillard’s work on simulation and simulacra offers a lasting reminder of a mode of communication that was once human but has disappeared or is going under.
About the Author
Mario Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. He completed his Ph.D. (2011) at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation was a study of the Facebook privacy of college seniors approaching the job market. Mario is author of “Sign Story: Shifting Discourse on Signage in Progressive Grocer Magazine , or the Supermarket in Late Capitalism” in Fast Capitalism (2009: Volume 5, Number 2); “Introduction: Economies of Knowledge,” Barbie Zelizer (2011) Making the University Matter: Shaping Inquiry in Culture, Communication & Media Studies, London: Routledge. He is also the author of “Horror-Ritual: Horror Movie Villains as Collective Representations, Uncanny Metaphors & Ritual Transgressors” in Colloquy (2009, Volume 18, December 8).
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1 – Writing in the early 1980’s, Baudrillard used nuclear deterrence as an example to describe how the synergistic effects of semiotic zero-sum games engendered “the perfection of the best system of control that has ever existed.” Furthermore, this meant that even peaceful, civilian installations, such as nuclear power stations, radiated a kind of deterrence: “Pacification does not distinguish between the civil and the military: everywhere where irreversible apparatuses of control are elaborated, everywhere where the notion of security becomes omnipotent, everywhere where the norm replaces the old arsenal of laws and violence (including war), it is the system of deterrence that grows” (Baudrillard, 1997: 33). He similarly likened billboards and TV screens to CCTV.
2 – See endnote 1 (above).
3 – But also, take the more recent example of September 11th and disaster films like The Towering Inferno (1974), and the common claim among Americans that on the day events were somehow “unreal.” This does not prove Baudrillard’s case, however, it suggests some difficulty framing the location of the borderline between media and reality.