Thursday, December 17, 2009

Baudrillard's "Requiem for the Media"

This essay (pdf) has helped me clarify (in my own mind, at least) some the questions I've been trying to explore lately about the effects of the mediatization of everyday life via Web 2.0 applications.

In the essay Baudrillard argues against the idea that mass media can be liberated from the capitalists who control them and be used to build the socialist utopia -- the same idea that technophiles often claim for the interactive internet. The problem with the old mass media was that they were not reciprocal, and the messages in them were controlled by the powers that be who owned the means of media production. Now, with those means democratized, media can now serve revolutionary, subversive aims. Hans Enzensberger, a Marxist media theorist who stands in as Baudrillard's punching bag throughout, made the case in "Constituents of a Theory of the Media" that if we all become productive consumers of media and take advantage of the form, it can become the infrastructure for a broader democratic order. Baudrillard sardonically sums up his views this way:
The media are monopolized by the dominant classes, which divert them to their own advantage. But the structure of the media remains “fundamentally egalitarian,” and it is up to the revolutionary praxis to disengage this potentiality inscribed in the media, but perverted by the capitalist order. Let us say the word: to liberate the media, to return them to their social vocation of open communication and unlimited democratic exchange, their true socialist destiny.

Baudrillard regards the "medium as the message," but finds a much different message -- that of the reproduction of the "code." Mass media's form allows for everything to be reduced to the code, to signs or models. In this way "they fabricate noncommunication -- this is what characterizes them," as Baudrillard says. The form is the ideology; ideological notions are not in the messages the media carries, but in the way messages are carried:
ideology does not exist in some place apart, as the discourse of the dominant class, before it is channeled through the media. The same applies to the sphere of commodities: nowhere do the latter possess ontological status independently of the form they take in the operation of the exchange value system. Nor is ideology some Imaginary floating in the wake of exchange value: it is the very operation of the exchange value itself.
But in developing this idea he seems to be describing the need for what the Internet now provides.
The same goes for the media: they speak, or something is spoken there, but in such a way as to exclude any response anywhere. This is why the only revolution in this domain—indeed, the revolution everywhere: the revolution tout court—lies in restoring this possibility of response. But such a simple possibility presupposes an upheaval in the entire existing structure of the media.
Why doesn't Web 2.0 allow for the "response"?

The question is whether new online media forms -- social networks, blogs, etc. -- do anything to change the ideology built into mass media. I think the new media are merely the extension of the ideology and form of the mass media into personal relations, into more intimate spheres, so that the private is turned inside out and made vulnerable to the consumerist ideology. They turn our everyday lives into the "code" so that our practices are always signifying something in that one dimension, in that language of social practices and objects that denotes status hierarchies. Once personal relations stood in opposition to the "generality of media messages," and the opposition helped define the private/public dichotomy. Now, Web 2.0 has allowed the media to assimilate personal relations.

In the process, it denies the possibility for a "response" in the way Baudrillard is imagining, and instead turns us all into broadcasters of the personal, rendering friendship into the mode of media consumption -- we can consume it passively on a screen, with no obligation to reciprocate or uphold the responsibilities of personal connection, even though the ghost of those ideals are preserved. We can pretend we are being even better friends, since we are so much more "connected" online. But by giving us tools to automate those gestures of responsibility to the relationship, social networks, etc., prevent us from carrying out those friendship responsibilities. They become hollow, instrumentalized, too easy -- the equivalent of pressing buttons on a TV remote to make different things happen on the screen.

As Web 2.0 naturalizes itself in our everyday lives, communication becomes even harder, as the form of mass media is co-opting more and more of the occasions for speech. Baudrillard makes the point that what is broadcast on TV is ideologically irrelevant because its very form assures that "people are no longer speaking to each other." With the Web, TV's logical extension, we can give up talking to one another in favor of broadcasting at one another. This transforms the meaning of "sharing," which is depersonalized and becomes instead mediatized.

Baudrillard has a good explanation of what that means: "broadcasting the events in the abstract universality of public opinion." The events he's talking about are thee student uprisings of May 1968, but it applies equally to the material of our private lives. The end result of the process is the same: the material is deprived "of its own rhythm and of its meaning" and is "short-circuited," "neutralized into signs." Hence, a "mortal dose of publicity" is the best way to quash a fomenting revolution. It appears as a parody of itself in the media, becomes a sign, a pose, a posture.

Thus mere interactivity is insufficient. Baudrillard dismisses the idea of "proposing, as a revolutionary solution, that everyone become a manipulator, in the sense of active operator, producer, etc., in brief, move from receiver status to that of producer-transmitter." Such a "critical reversal of the
ideological concept of manipulation" still "conserves the category of transmitter,
which it is content to generalize as separated, transforming everyone into his own transmitter." The consequence, Baudrillard predicted, would be "a kind of personalized amateurism, the equivalent of Sunday tinkering on the periphery of the system." Some would probably dismiss the blogosphere as precisely that. But that misses the point, I think, and is blinkered snobbishness. Blogging and so on are forms of immaterial labor that complement the mass media rather than competing or subverting them. The distinction between amateur and professional in the field of media is becoming nonoperational. An amateur discourse that could disrupt the flow of mass media spectacle, stand apart from it and call it into question, is no longer possible -- it's just reality TV, or "lo-fi" music, or "remix" culture, all of which are tolerated and assimilated as genres. Mass media has become decentralized, but the ideology inherent in its form transcends the need for a central bureau of conspirators guaranteeing its efficacy. Instead, mass media, as Baudrillard concludes in a characteristic understatement, "realize the ideal one might refer to as decentralized totalitarianism." We are all now contributing to sustain their form, the ideological "promise" of mass media.

What is that promise? The reduction of communication to flattened sign exchange. "The absolutization of speech under the formal guise of exchange is the definition of power," he declares. He's thinking of the referendum as the purest expression of this reduction -- it translates, I think, into the way social networks now permit us to signal "I like it" with a click, encouraging the notion that registering naked approval and nothing more should be the horizon for communicative action. Isn't that really all that matters? Others in the network are gesturing away, seeking approval, as are we ourselves; shouldn't we merely exchange that appreciation as straightforwardly possible, so as to not to clutter the field and obscure the approval-seeking performances, the feints at identity?

Sign exchange at the homogenized level is the province of the consumer:
The generalized order of consumption is nothing other than that sphere where it is no longer permitted to give, to reimburse, or to exchange, but only to take and to make use of (appropriation, individualized use value). In this case,
consumption goods also constitute a mass medium: they answer to the general state of affairs we have described. Their specific function is of little import: the consumption of products and messages is the abstract social relation that they establish, the ban raised against all forms of response and reciprocity.
In other words, an exchange of "look at me" communication gestures, or of online broadcasts, do not constitute reciprocity; that's just consumerism conducting itself as a communication system through us, with our serving as the labor to sustain it (the quasi-voluntary "immaterial labor" so-called post-Fordist firms have learned to exploit). We get to feel produced within the system as a person with an identity that can grow and respond in accordance with the objects and consumer practices the code systematizes and whose meaning we help shape. All communication is reduced to consumerism, which can be defines as leveraging the social code to enhance our personal brand.


  1. Hi Rob,

    I came across this blog post for a class I'm teaching on the "History of New Media." Two comments: 1) Have you read the short essay on the piece written by (I think) Noah Waldrip-Fruin in the New Media Reader? 2) Have you looked into any of the history surrounding the events Baudrilliard is discussing, specifically the events in France on May 1968? Might give you some more clues, might not. Thanks for taking the time to comment, it's an interesting (and under-considered) piece!

  2. Great post! I've got ten minutes before a class I'm leading, so I'll have to leave this response as simply of the "naked approval" ilk...