Thursday, April 14, 2005

critic of baudrillard

Francesco Vitucci's blog
06 December 2004

The era of simulacra: Jean Baudrillard

The first problem with Postmodernism is that it represent a great range of philosophical points of view. What we have is a broad and elusive movement of thought that is as differentiated internally as it is generalizable externally as a new philosophical development (Grassie, 1997). Central to Postmodernism is the focusing on the problems of any knowledge which is founded on anything external to an individual. According to its theorists, knowledge is broadly disseminated in its forms, but not limited in its interpretation (Lyotard 1979). As a result, the movement rapidly developed a vocabulary of anti-enlightenment rhetoric, used to argue that rationality was neither as sure or as clear as rationalists supposed, and that knowledge was inherently linked to time, place, social position and other factors from which an individual constructs their view of knowledge.
Postmodernism has an obvious distrust toward claims about truths, ethics, or beauty being rooted in anything other than individual perception and group construction. Perhaps the most striking examples of this skepticism are to be found in the works of French cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard. In his book Simulations (1983), he contends that social ‘reality’ no longer exists in the conventional sense, but has been supplanted by an endless procession of simulacra. This switch to the production and reproduction of copies for which there is no original effaces the distinction between the real and the imaginary (Featherstone, 1995, 19). To grasp this concept, one might think as an example, the case of painting and sculpture, where although there can be an original work which is the one with the highest (monetary) value, there might also exist thousand of valueless copies that once recognized as such might not ‘hurt’ or even exert an influence on the original. In contrast, in the case of cds, photos, and high distribution commodities as there is no original but only copies, they become all ‘the same’ and they are all sold for the same amount of money with the consequence that one is no more able to establish and support the categories of true/false and valuable/valueless.
From this perspective, thanks to the advent of mass media, progress in technology, and improved (marketing) communication, simulacra are seen by Baudrillard merely as tools for the imposition of a virtual reality (a reality created by simulation) upon the society. The mass media, and other forms of mass cultural production in fact generate constant re-appropriation and re-contextualization of familiar cultural symbols and images, fundamentally shifting our experience away from ‘reality’ . Accordingly, all that remains on the human level is the masses, the silent majority, which acts as a ‘black hole’ (Baudrillard, 1983(2), 9), absorbing the overproduction of energy and information from the media and cynically watching the fascinating endless play of signs (Featherstone, 1995, 19).
Hence, According to Baudrillard, the sign becomes the main value of our society and of the commodities we consume (more than use or exchange value) at the same time when luxuriousness, style, power are raised to the nth power by advertising and marketing. According to Mike Underwood (link 5), Baudrillard would reject the standard view of classic economics which describes the mechanics of consumption in terms of a rational consumer setting out to satisfy needs with the aim of maximizing utility. The era of consumption would be rather the era of ‘radical alienation’ where the logic of the market has become generalized, governing today not only the processes of work and material products, but our entire culture, sexuality, human relations, including even our fantasies and individual impulses. Everything seems to be covered by this logic in the deeper sense that everything becomes spectacle, that is to say evoked, provoked, orchestrated in images, in signs, in consumable models.
For Baudrillard then, subjects seem to be nothing more than productive forces and consumption is considered as the mere locus of capitalist domination discounting the possibility that it might be a sphere of self-activity and self-valorization. Nonetheless, commodities can have various uses. Some can be indeed defined by the system of political economy, but others can also be created by consumers. From this perspective, consumption should be revalued as a source and a means through which consumers can experiment, try, affirm and negate the different aspects of the self. Accordingly, the consumer, instead of identifying himself with the products and services he purchases, he would rather cross them in search of himself (Parmiggiani, 2001, 15). Also Featherstone is critical toward Baudrillard’s approach to consumption and states that the foundation of such critique of mass culture on the part of intellectuals like Baudrillard, is to be found in an essentially nostalgic Kulturpressimismus perspective, which has entrapped them in a myth of pre-modern stability, coherence and community (idem, 1995, 20). According to him, Baudrillard’s like critics neglect in fact both complex social differentiations and the ways in which mass-produced commodities can be customized. Goods can be in fact used to mark boundaries between groups (see also the theory of Veblen and Maffesoli) and their symbolism (employed in imagery and design) can be used by consumers to construct differentiated lifestyle models. In practice, Featherstone stress the importance of transcending the view that uniformity of consumption is dictated by production and emphasize rather the need to investigate the actual use and reception of goods in various practices (idem). Critic is also Campbell (1987) who brands the manipulation approach as sensational and without any empirical support . In his opinion, what the producers of goods and services actually manipulate are not consumers or their want, but the symbolic meanings which are attached to products. They, in effect, manipulate messages and the crucial question then becomes: how does receipt of a message lead to the creation of a want in the consumer? (Campbell, 1987, 47)
Nevertheless, the analysis of Baudrillard remains intensely pessimistic. He develops in fact the so called concept of technological determinism to point out the fact that nowadays masses became passive and that they consume the media for the sole purpose of being entertained (idem, 1983(2)). Consider, as an example, the centrality of advertising as culture in our society and how our daily lives are saturated with the products of the culture industries: television in the living room, the CD player in the bedroom, the radio in the car, the walkman in the library, etc. In this situation, (what Baudrillard refers to as hyperreality) there is no possibility of distinguishing a signifier for its signified, a sign from its referent. It no longer makes sense to ask to what extent the representation conforms to or distorts the reality, since there are only signs and images, only the hyperreal (Underwood, link 5). To use one of Baudrillard’s best examples: Disneyland is the real America (1993). This statement indicates that the very notion of reality has disappeared and that images have become more real than any other reality: accordingly, if Disneyland would be the real America, that it would mean that Disneyland has become more real than the real America itself (which is now hyperreal). In other words, everything becomes a spectacle carefully orchestrated by the media even though Baudrillard do not propose a simple ‘manipulation theory’ of the media. Both masses and media would in fact be responsible for their reciprocal ‘dumbing down’: the illusion that the media are used by those ‘in power’ to manipulate, seduce and alienate the masses is a wrong interpretation. It is rather the opposite: it is the masses who manipulate those in power through the media (idem). Underwood introduces this aspect with great effectiveness:
Soap opera villains need bodyguards in real life, that TV lawyers receive letters asking for advice, that real flowers are sent to TV funerals when a soap star dies, that advertising campaigns themselves become the subject of news stories, the British Prime Minister has a walk-on role in a Russian soap, he is asked to voice his opinion on the ‘imprisonment’ of a character in the soap Coronation Street. It doesn’t take much reflection to see the force of Baudrillard’s argument. (…) That is a fiction taken for the real, but where is the real on TV? Are Tv shows like Oprah Winfrey’s showing us real people in front of a real audience or are we seeing people simulating actors acting the real? How ‘real’ a President was the former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan? (Underwood, link 5).
To some extent, Baudrillard’s work takes its cue from Guy Debord and the Situationists who were the first to elaborate and to apply the so called concept of spectacle to postmodern society. Basically, this movement was against work and for complete ‘divertissement’ which they backed up by stating that under capitalism, the creativity of most people had become diverted and stifling and that society had been divided into actors and spectators, producers and consumers. On the escort of this thesis they pursued a different kind of revolution, i.e. they wanted imagination to seize power and poetry and art to be made by all. Guy Debord emerged as the most important figure of the movement and in 1967 in his publication ‘The society of the spectacle’ he presented the most elaborate expositions of Situationist theory. In this publication, he argues that capitalism had turned all relationships transactional and that life had been reduced to a ‘spectacle’: in many ways he merely reworked Marx’s view of alienation, but what he added to Marx was the recognition that in order to ensure continued economic growth, capitalism has created ‘pseudo-needs’ to increase consumption. Modern capitalist society would be thus a consumer society, or better, a society of ‘spectacular’ commodity consumption: people are treated like passive objects and the result would be an appalling contrast between cultural poverty and economic wealth, between what is and what could be (Marshall, 1992).
Though Debord is often compared to Baudrillard it is important to understand that Debord clung to the conviction that people could see through capitalist illusions to the underlying reality and that through radical practice the passivity of the people could be overcome (Underwood, link 5). In sharp contrast with Baudrillard`s theories, there was at least a way out in this philosophy: that was the reinvention of everyday life here and now. In place of petrified life, Situationists sought the derive and the detournement and by doing so they wished to act as catalysts within the revolutionary process .
In place of the society of the spectacle, the Situationists proposed a communistic society bereft of money, commodity production, wage labor, classes, private property and the State. Pseudo-needs would be replaced by real desires, and the economy of profit becomes one of pleasure. The division of labor and the antagonism between world and play would be overcome. It would be a society founded on the love of free play, characterized by the refusal to be led, to make sacrifices, and to perform roles. Above all, they insisted that every individual should actively and consciously participate in the reconstruction of every moment of life. They called themselves Situationists precisely because they believed that all individuals should construct the situations of their lives and release their own potential and obtain their own pleasure (Marshall, 1992, 552).
All the above mentioned convictions, however, were alien to Baudrillard’s thought. From his point of view, the era of consumption is also the era of radical alienation and distinctions between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ as well as ‘authentic’ and ‘false’ needs become meaningless. It seems like mass capitalism and media have entered into an alliance in order to dumb down masses without leaving them the room for an objective and free vision of the world. On the one hand, this pessimistic view of society contrasts with Baudrillard’s statement that it is the masses who manipulate those in power through the media (1983) and confirms, on the other hand, his verbosity (common also to other postmodern thinkers) and ambiguity in exposing his theories. In The consumer society (1998) in fact, Baudrillard presents once again a picture of society thoroughly imbued with mass media output that masses are caught up in the play of images and spectacles which assume at least as much as importance as any reality supposedly external to those images . Once again then, the myth of hyperreality seems to creep into his theories and to negate masses the possibility to be critically active.
The lived, unique, eventful character of the world is neutralized and replaced by the infinite play of media which signify one another and refer to one another, to the point where they become the reciprocal content of one another – and that is the totalitarian ‘message’ of a consumer society (idem, 1998, 189).
On Baudrillard’s escort, also Eco seems to argue against the speed and the confusion of images that can arise from the scrambling effect of multi-channel choice on TV, as an example. According to him: “Switching channels reflects the brevity and speed of other visual forms. Like flicking through a magazine, or driving past a billboard. This means that ‘our’ TV evenings no longer tell us stories, it is all a trailer!” (Eco quoted in McRobbie, 1994). Other authors like Fredric Jameson (1991) however, anticipating what I will explain later about consumption behaviors, identifies in all the media events a subtle convergence of commodities and their own images (or using his words, of things and concept), though not from a pessimistic perspective as that of Baudrillard. It seems like the contents of the media itself have now become commodities, which are then flung out on some wider version of the market with which they become affiliated until the two things are indistinguishable. Put it simple, as also Underwood argued, one really wonders when reality ends and where fiction begins:
In the gradual disappearance of the physical market, of course, and the tendential identification of the commodity with its image (or brand name or logo), another, more intimate, symbiosis between the market and the media is effectuated, in which boundaries are washed over (in ways profoundly characteristic of the postmodern) and an indifferentiation of levels gradually takes the place of an older separation between thing and concept (or indeed, economics and culture, base and superstructure). (…) Today the products are, as it were, diffused throughout the space and time of the entertainment (or even news) segments, as part of that content, so that in a few well-publicized cases (most notably the series Dynasty) it is sometimes not clear when the narrative segment has ended and the commercial has begun (since the same actors appear in the commercial segment as well) (Jameson, idem, 275).
For these authors then, the pervasive circulation of serial images, computer-generated models, and media events seem to have established the predominance of an originary production. As a consequence, the simulacrum emerging from marginal spaces of aesthetic or speculative areas has become the standard form in which our experience are recorded, evaluated and exchanged (Durham, 1998). A similar approach had been already presented by Walter Benjamin on the occasion of the discussion about the demise of the auratic work of art: as a matter of fact, techniques of mechanical reproduction have gradually absorbed the original work (particularly in the cases of photography and film, where reproduction emerged for the first time as clearly inseparable from the production of the original). Baudrillard, however, argues that the extraordinary hegemony of originary reproduction has now extended its influence over every aspect of everyday life in the latter part of the 20th century. The simulacrum appears then as an instance of a dominant code that unabashedly submits reality itself to the rigors of its repetitions.
Tabloids, television, shopping malls, theme parks, video games and computer-generated simulations: all attest to the increasing domination of everyday experience by mass-produced simulacra, which effectively undercut in advance any notion of an original referent that would precede its reproduction. It is thus no longer merely for the work of art, but for the whole field of contemporary social practice and production that, in Baudrillard’s view, the notions of ‘original’ and ‘originality’ have ceased to bear the weight of any epistemic, political, or aesthetic authority. To speak of the ‘original’ bottle of Coca Cola is in this sense no less absurd than to speak of the ‘original’ of a photograph, since both are copies from the very moment of their origin. (Durham, 1998, 52).
Nevertheless this negative approach to simulacra should not be seen as the only viable opposition to the positive interpretation of Postmodernism. There are other thinkers who while criticizing Postmodernism as a whole seem also to ponder about the possibility of an extended interpretation of the simulacra. Durham (idem) who criticizes Baudrillard’s ‘post-apocalyptic’ vision of postmodernity offers, at the same time, a new perspective on the issue:
In Baudrillard’s post-apocalyptic vision of postmodernity, the serial images and virtual realities generated by the media and information technologies of all sorts have become the sole arbiters of the ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ of everyday experience, to the point that the spectator or consumer appears only as the vestigial support for the ‘simulation model’ that he or she seems destined to repeat. (…) This is Baudrillard’s grim version of that now-familiar postmodern topos, ‘the death of the subject’: the spectating subject appears as a mere monitor or terminal, as the screen on which all these codes and images intersect (idem, 1998, 21).
According to Durham then, simulacra should be observed from two main perspectives: the first conceives of the simulacrum as the copy of the copy which produces in turn an effect of identity without being grounded in an original. This notion of the simulacrum is already found in Plato, who distinguishes between the good copy or icon (which inwardly participates in the Idea) and the false copy or simulacrum (which repeats only the external appearance of the icon without itself participating in the Idea that founds it). This notion of the simulacrum can also be traced back to antiquity, perhaps most strikingly to the attacks of pagan simulacra by Tertullian and Augustine. For these Fathers of the Church, the simulacrum is not merely the copy of a copy that has ceased to resemble its original. It is also the mask of an evil simulator, a diabolical actor who, by repeating a familiar image, assumes another`s identity as the mask of its malign intentions (idem, 1998).
The second perspective implies, on the contrary, a positive interpretation of the simulacrum seen as an occasion for euphoria: through the simulacrum, we discover ourselves as actors, and our very identities appear as joyful masquerade and performance. In other words:
The first sees the simulacrum as a merely factitious or empty representation, while the second sees it as the expression of metamorphic ‘power of the false’. The first interprets repetition in terms of its distance from a founding identity, whereas the second sees it as the return of difference (idem, 1998, 15).
The centrality of the image, its availability and its reproducibility thanks to the technological improvements of the 20th century (think about photography, cinema and Internet, for example) have allowed mass media to play a central (and also positive) role in the processes of identity creation and self-representation. Images become the central focus because from the daily interaction with them one can deepen the knowledge of reality without the fear of being overwhelmed by saturation.
Images push their way into the fabric of our social lives. They enter into how we look and what we earn, and they are still with us when we worry about bills, housing and bringing up children. They compete for attention through shock tactics, reassurance, sex and mystery, and by inviting viewers to participate in series of visual puzzles. Billboard advertising showing an image without a code impose themselves, infuriatingly, on the most recalcitrant passer-by (McRobbie, 1994, 18).
Accordingly, audiences or viewers, lookers or users are no more simple-minded multitudes, but rather active and conscious counterparts. The more the interconnections between audiences and media representations become intricate, the more the former division between ‘reality’ and ‘virtuality’ seems to fade in a kind of renewed, interactive and collaborative form:
Baudrillard’s pessimistic thesis is that the media appear to extend themselves generously to their audience in a gesture designed to demonstrate democratic embrace while in fact merely extending the sphere of their influence and control. A less pessimistic postmodernist account might instead emphasize not just the flow of images and texts as they circulate through the new economy of the sign but also the flow of active agents, whose role in the production and distribution of the image is not as robotic as Baudrillard would suggest. Such an account would also require much more analysis of the occupational culture and experience of media workers employed in this postmodern de-regulated sector, as well as of their audiences. (…) The problems with the old model of the moral panic are as follows. First it assumed a clear distinction between the world of the media and the world of social reality. But in one simple sense the media are as much a part of social reality as any other component can be. We do not exist in social unreality while we watch television or read the newspaper, nor are we transported back to reality when we turn the TV off to wash the dishes or discard the paper and go to bed. Indeed perhaps there is no pure social reality outside the world of representation. Reality is relayed to us through the world of language, communication and imagery. Social meanings are inevitably representations and selections (idem, 1994, 216-217).
This approach seems to be backed up also by other thinkers’ theories such as those of Marshall MacLuhan who arguing that the ‘the medium is the message’ (1967) agrees on the ability of mass broadcasting to create visual symbols and mass action as a liberating force in human affairs. According to this ‘technological utopianism’ associated with postmodernism, digital communication would make the fragmentation of modern society a positive feature, since individuals can seek out those artistic, cultural and community experiences which they regard as being correct for themselves. In other words, the individual becomes able to form its identity and to structure the ‘truth’ from fragments while gaining, at the same time, the independence to organize his own environment. On this escort, McRobbie (1994) seems to recall somehow the concepts explained by MacLuhan when she states that ‘real life means talking about what was on TV last night’ . Also other authors like Lyotard (1979), debating about the possibly positive outcomes of mass media and in particular about computerization of society, states that bringing people knowledge in the form of information, it will produce more liberty for the entire social system.

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