Exam highlights

Readers may have noticed that there has been little written here lately, this is because dozens of pages of papers and exams have been written instead.
Because I am just that kind of lame, I’ve posted my Media Theory final under the fold of this post (click “continue reading…” to see it). It’s not particularly entertaining but seemed to keep me interested, so if you’re feeling bored this holiday season it might be worth your time. Here’s my favorite paragraph, from the end of the Baudrillard question (Baudrillard believes that we inhabit a world composed entirely of the simulation of culture, with no real substance underneath):

Despite this massive and all consuming disconnection from reality, others and the media that define them, Baudrillard maintains that the members of the society of simulation are not in fact alienated. Instead, as previously stated, they embrace this isolation from reality as a means of escaping the responsibility of existence. Baudrillard says that the deepest desire is perhaps to give the responsibility for one’s desire to someone else, a feat accomplished by the simulated individual in their dependence on the media and reality-schema which define the simulated world (Baudrillard 125). This radical denial of reality, the strategy of resistance of the masses, is accomplished by sending back to the system its own logic. . .reflecting, like a mirror, meaning without absorbing it (Baudrillard 108). The masses thus exert, through the media, their true power, that of irony and antagonism.

Media Theory, Final Exam.
John Peters, in “The Gaps of which Communication is made” discusses the relationship different media hold to communication, as well as the varied levels of mediation they engender. His central goal quickly becomes the comparison of interpersonal communication (dialog) and broadcast messages (written, television etc.) for quality and effectiveness. Dialog, he states, allows for greater bandwidth, with more information communicated between individuals (facial, intonation, body language etc.), while the written word and other technology-based media allow for greater movement within time and space, and thus a potentially much larger audience. His final conclusion concerning the difference, however, is that both forms of communication, despite their differences, are faced with the same problem, that of the “gap” between two individuals. Peters describes this insurmountable remoteness as existing between all individuals automatically because they have no direct means of connection. The alienation inherent in the “distance between two minds” means that all messages must effectively be encoded and decoded and that in this translation process there is always a risk of misinterpretation (Peters 130). Given this, dialog and the written word (as well as all other derivative media) are forced much closer together than most thinkers imagine, with a spoken message in a conversation and an unknown webpage equally “shots in the dark” (Peters 131).

Peters’ answer as to why massive systems of social and technological communication are referred to as media would surely lie in the fact that these systems, like a conversation or letter, mediate between a sender and a receiver. Their goal is to bridge the gap. Broadcast media, though seemingly impersonal, could be argued by Peters to be akin to the base form of communication, merely emphasized in their broadness of casting to the point of absolute anonymity. His one relevant criticism is that these systems, unlike dialog or other “personal” media, do not engender the caring, commitment or companionship that he prizes as heralding truly valuable communication between individuals. Their nature as one-directional precludes this kind of meaningful contact, and thus limits them.

For Baudrillard, in contrast, communication between parties in the world we currently live in is impossible. Simulation, the hyperreality which has come to dominate culture and society, is seen as destructive of reality itself and thus of the meaning which is generally thought to underlie it. As such the concept of mediation as a whole is brought into question, how can a message be transmitted between two parties if there is no true information to pass? When reality no longer has meaning, when reference to it is impossible, media can no longer transmit valuable messages at all (there are no valuable messages). Baudrillard calls this the “implosion of the medium,” stating that mediation and media, taken literally as the mediation through and of reality, can no longer exist in a world of simulation (Baudrillard 101). Here the image and the medium, unable to refer to reality, are left in a “nebulous state”, impossible to verify and reduced to mere simulacra themselves, mere elements of the models which already govern the simulation.

For Baudrillard the Mass-Media, the social and technological systems of communication, are the root cause and aggravators of the problem of simulation. The primary motivation behind this assertion is that information and meaning, though culturally considered equivalent, are not. In fact, the relation between the two, rather than being one of correspondence, is one of violence. Here information (data) is seen as being destructive of meaning, neutralizing effective communication and signification. Baudrillard describes this effect in terms of information “exhausting itself in the act of staging communication [and] meaning” (Baudrillard 98). It can thus be understood why the mass-media, in their constant and unrelenting transmission of information (both “real” and fictional), are seen as bringing about the simulation which nullifies meaning, and, ultimately, the communication of anything meaningful.

Baudrillard further describes mass media as inherently opposed to valuable mediation and communication. He claims that if one defines communication as anything other than “the simple emission/reception of information” (his definition being “an exchange, the reciprocal space of speech and response, and thus of responsibility.”) the conclusion will inevitably be drawn that The Media, with their unidirectional transmission model, do not qualify for the title. The seeming interaction portrayed within these forums, he elaborates, are themselves merely simulated elements of the predefined transmissions inherent in the original sending, and as such do not constitute true interactivity/communication.

Simulation, according to Baudrillard, is a state in which the schema or map of something, its description, precedes its actual existence within the world. Simulation occurs when the things that compose reality cease to have any importance, when the interpretation of the world becomes more important than the world itself, which becomes meaningless. In a simulation or a simulated world, facts, reasons and rationality become unimportant in describing goings on. The model or schema of the world, instead, becomes the ultimate reality, with facts being determined at the intersections of the relevant models.

In simulation, the sign of a thing and the thing itself become equivalent. The simulation of sickness, in contrast with its representation, would entail the full experience of the symptoms, the effective coming into being of the signs of illness, despite the lack of actual cause. For Baudrillard, this leads to an absolute confusion within a simulation as to what is real and what is not because reality cannot be differentiated from the signs that sit on top of it. In fact, in a simulated situation, the signs are all that remains for the observer, whose interpretation of them leads only to the models governing him, and not to any objective reality. This is what Baudrillard calls the “liquidation of referentials” within simulation, in which the sign comes to describe nothing and in fact acts as the negation of any possible reference (Baudrillard 1988, 167).

It is within this context, where signs have no reality underneath them to which they can refer and the entire concept of reference has been reduced to a simulation itself, that Baudrillard claims simulation causes an “implosion of meaning.” By this he means that meaning, true, real content, is utterly absorbed and destroyed by the simulation because there is no way to verify the reality of any idea or thing. Just as the presence of simulated sickness removes our ability to ascertain the presence of real sickness, the presence of false and merely schematically based meaning within the world precludes our ability to know or verify the truth of anything. We are thus left with a world saturated with images, ideas and above all information, but from which no truth or meaning can be derived. All of these become empty media, filled with nothing but the analytical results of the models they employ.

An analysis of the effects this kind of simulation would have on communication, particularly the distinction between interpersonal and mass-communication described by John Peters” in “The Gaps of which Communication is Made,” reflects the isolation as well as the uncertainty already present in Baudrillard’s work. Peters, who’s paper covers several theories regarding the relative values of dialog and written word (broadcast), comes eventually to the conclusion that the distinction between the two is largely invalid and misleading, as it is based on a cultural and biological bias towards interpersonal contact. This is justified by the idea that “no distance is as great as that between two minds” (Peters 131), which interprets all communication as having to overcome the gap of interpretation between two individuals and their worldviews, regardless of the richness or directness of the communication itself.

An initial conclusion to be drawn from a comparison of Baudrillard’s simulation and Peters’ view of mediation is that the lack of meaning within the signs used to communicate (or at least used in the semblance of communication) means that all messages not only require decoding to be understood, but are in fact impossible to decode accurately. The simulated nature of both the interaction between the individuals involved (whether across a few feet or a worldwide network) and any subject they choose to discuss would leave their messages devoid of real content and ultimately undecipherable. Without any determinately real universe or content to discuss, even mind-to-mind communication would be meaningless and messageless. As such Peters’ conclusions regarding the isolation of sender and receiver seem to merely add emphasis to the barriers needed to overcome simulation.

In contrast to all this, from my own perspective at least, it seems that if held up against Baudrillard’s simulation, Peters’ conclusions regarding the importance of emotional connection and commitment to valuable communication also point to the possibility of communication, even within simulation, that is in some way “true.” Peters states that to rely on the institutional or technical situation of a message is to be blind to its true relevance, and that each sent and received communication must be considered on its own. Within a simulation then, the lack of technical and ontological validity of a communication as well as the schematic nature of the transmission itself, due to its inability to refer to a stable and unmediated world and dependence on models, would not completely devalue it as an interaction between individuals. It could comprise an emotional or cultural connection that is socially or personally valuable despite the difficulties of mediation. Further, even if this importance only existed within the framework defining the social context of the interaction, it remains relevant to the individuals involved and thus achieves some form of reality, even if this last is neither absolute nor verifiable.

Guy Debord and Marshall McLuhan, though both cultural theorists analyzing the nature and effects of modern media, often seem to be speaking not merely from different standpoints, but about wholly different problems: one describing the control of the masses by industrial force and the other discussing the growth of the individual through new technologies. However, this seeming incongruence reflects not a difference of subject, but rather a fundamental divergence of perspective.

Debord, in his analysis The Society of the Spectacle, expresses a view of the world in which the media we believe entertain, inform and connect us are instead dominating and controlling us, subverting our thoughts and beliefs and effectively neutralizing our individuality. For Debord the ultimate distracting force of the spectacle mesmerizes and diverts us from seeking valuable goals while simultaneously imposing its own will — the will of industry, overproduction, consumption and capital — upon us. Within this model, individuals are merely tools of the system as a whole, used to further the agenda of production and consumption. As Debord says, in the society of the spectacle “the commodity contemplates itself in a world it has created” (Debord sec. 53).

Further, Debord claims, the technologies of the spectacle, modern media and industrial product, are always technologies of isolation, alienating individuals from those around them. The economy and product of a spectacular society are similarly designed to isolate the individual from their work and production, establishing a cycle of isolation and a culture of “lonely crowds”(Debord sec.28). In the context of the spectacle, Debord claims that significant emotional connection between individuals becomes increasingly difficult, despite the potential to overcome distance with technology, because that same distance is recreated within and between individuals as “spectacular separation” (Debord sec.167). Thus when all members of a culture face a single image, the spectacle, there exists neither the potential for personal growth, nor for interpersonal relation.

In contrast to Debord’s industrial and economically oriented (and determined) view of society and media, Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, uses the metaphor of the “global village” to describe the use of technology in modern media and society. For McLuhan, media act as extensions of our senses and our bodies, allowing us to exist and communicate further and further into space and time. Eventually, this allows for greater access, feedback and interconnection between individuals on a global and decentralized scale. Through new media we are able to come closer and closer to each other, essentially sharing one body, one electronic skin. We become individuals connected through space and time, sharing experience but remaining separate. McLuhan claims that it is this potential for communication, the conditions of possibility for personal non-standardized uses that is the vital factor for understanding media and warns against focus on economic and industrial factors, which can distract from the all-important human element of media use. The global village thus represents the ultimate culmination of human potential and communication through technology, a vision of information and individuals coming together around the electric bonfire, a new tribal identity and space where learning and growing can occur.

It would seem that both interpretations, to some degree, describe the current social and technological media climate and that depending on which media are considered, one or the other will likely more cogently describe the relations engendered. For example, when considering modern television from McLuhan’s perspective it seems highly optimistic, even naïve, to accept it as bringing individuals together on anything more than a consumer-collective basis. Further, the implication that it allows greater communication of information and meaning is highly suspect as only the powerful are able to disseminate their ideas through television, and this potentially oppressive situation can hardly be interpreted as constituting shared consciousness. Alternately, Debord’s description of the spectacle as dominating and neutralizing the individual seems to describe all too well the passive and uncritical reaction society at large seems to have to its television consumption, while his portrayal of media structures as nothing more than tools in the greater industrial goal of production and consumption reflects quite naturally on a medium who’s primary source of production income comes from the marketing and branding of corporate commodities and services.

Alternately, a consideration of the Internet and World Wide Web, which span the globe and allow any user to simultaneously act as creator and disseminator, finds a comfortable place for itself within the global village of McLuhan. It’s possibilities for interpersonal as well as intercultural connection and democracy of voice give it a powerful sense of being a true extension of the individuals that compose it into space (or at least the virtual space of the technology), while the new communities that develop within its servers directly reflect its neo-tribal and interconnecting nature. Here Debord’s interpretation of the medium — presumably that the network is still commercially controlled and the content ultimately reflects the values instilled by the spectacle — is still valuable and important for understanding the functioning and significance of the Internet, but lacks explanation of the massively interactive and original content of the web, and fails to conceptualize the potential it holds for future development.

For Marshall McLuhan the media technologies that we have developed and which surround us are extensions of our bodies and our senses. They allow us to grow and expand our control and perception of the world, mediating between our minds and those things that our bodies would not normally be able to manipulate. In this sense television allows us to see over long distances, extending vision, while the written word allows us to speak (or at least impart the content of speech, thought) over long distances and times, extending our minds. McLuhan posits that the natural limitations of our corporal and perceptive selves irritate our senses and motivate us to develop extensions to compensate for this native lack. Proverbially this relation can be illustrated using the ape who, unable to reach a tasty fruit, uses a stick to knock it down. However, when applied to complex media such as radio and television, and later the worldwide Internet, the implications of self extension (notably that of the thinking sense, rather than just the physical body) become far more compelling.

One of the effects of these extensions vital to understanding the impact of media upon us is what McLuhan calls autoamputation. This describes the tendency of bodily or sensorial extensions to effectively numb the relevant sense, outside of the extension, when implemented. Thus, for example, to effectively watch television without distraction, the viewer must numb their sensitivity to visual stimulus outside of the cathode-ray tube. Further, elements of one’s corporal body, depending on the level and immersion in the extension at hand (legs when driving, body when playing video games) can be temporarily amputated due to extension. In a similar vein, McLuhan notes that extension causes a recalibration in the relative importance of each sense in daily life (the written culture becomes more visual etc.)

In terms of authenticity and communication, McLuhan believes that the mediation of extension comes necessarily from within the individual extended in such a way that the media are equivalent to the individuals themselves. Thus, given that the actual identities of the relevant parties are able to move through the extensions and into the world, any mediated transmissions or communications are no less authentic than those directly relayed in person. For McLuhan, the extended sense or organ seems no less valid than the original, with the difference between lips and microphone seeming no more important than that between microphone and loudspeaker. For McLuhan electric media allow for greater and greater communication across distances, time and ultimately minds.

Guy Debord, in heavy contrast with the beliefs of McLuhan, describes modern media not in terms of individuals extended towards each other in space and time, but instead in terms of industrial motivations, control and distraction. The concepts of the spectacle, and the “society of the spectacle” which it brings about, are the key elements in the framework used by Debord to describe the effects of modern media. Here production and consumption are seen as dominating forces that use the spectacle – the conglomeration of distracting, falsely entertaining and dispiriting media – to control the will and actions of the masses. Media are thus interpreted to be nothing more than vehicles for ideology, not “a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Debord sec.4).

Within this context of manipulative and distracting images, Debord claims, vision becomes the primary sense because it is “the most mystifyable,” and thus the most useful for those in control. Within the spectacle representation begins to subsume all else within its images. Elements of life become not lived but represented, the signs of self and work dominating over their realities. In spectacular society, the appearance of success, happiness and being become the goals, rather than their actual acquisition. Here the images of the media replace the physical world, presenting themselves as real and tangible.

The implications of this spectacular illusion of reality on our notions of authenticity and communication seem to be nothing short of devastating. Within the spectacle our perceptions fall under the complete control of those creating the images, and thus those in power. We no longer have any reason to believe that any seemingly obvious fact is more true than that which is counter-intuitive, especially if we cannot see one or both of them. Debord says that within the spectacle, the ideologies and messages are presented so as to be indisputable, inaccessible and obvious, effectively stating “that which appears is good, that which is good appears”(Debord 12). Our senses, then, can no longer be trusted within the spectacle.

Discussing true communication, rather than the mere indoctrination performed by the images of the spectacle, Debord claims that even among individuals real understanding is difficult to impossible. Internal distance or “spectacular separation” is described as precluding communication within the spectacular society. Each person deals only with the spectacle and its images and thus when interaction with others does occur, it is always through the veil of ideology already in place, through which no true contact can occur.

The cultural theory of Guy Debord’s, which highlights the use of the spectacle by industrial and commercial powers to maintain their desired social order and ideologies, posits that within a spectacular society, all communication, interaction and contact occurs in reference to the spectacle. The domination of the entire social sphere by the ideology of production here means that social relations as a whole become mediated by the manipulative images of the spectacle, isolating and alienating the members of such a society from each other and from themselves.

Debord claims that the alienating technology which constitutes the spectacle (television, film etc.) isolates individuals not merely as audience, but as members of culture and society as well. In production, creation and existence, the individual views the world from the perspective of appearances, comparing their surroundings with the images of the spectacle. This visual comparison dislocates the individual from their environment, no longer interacting with their fate and surroundings, they have become spectators in their very lives. Their production activity becomes separated from the product created, their relationships from those related to and their thoughts from themselves. Interaction with and domination by the spectacle forces the individual to look only at the images chosen for him by those in power, leaving him incapable of looking either to others, or into himself.

This alienation, of course, is not merely destructive but also serves a purpose for those who propagate it, the maintenance of the culture of overproduction and consumption. Debord claims that it is the spectacle, focused on appearance and the ultimate commodity itself, which serves to create within man the constant desire for greater possessions, which in turn generates the need for greater production. It is further posited that those in power use the alienation between individuals engendered in the spectacle, called “spectacular separation” to retain their control and maintain complacency within the population (Debord 167). Thus through the spectacle revolt and resistance are quashed before they can develop fully, the ideology of consumption solidly upheld, without force, by the dominated masses themselves.

With a theory that is in many ways similar to that of Debord, Jean Baudrillard also attests to a lack of individual understanding and a willingness on the part of the members of society to immerse themselves within false realities, isolating themselves from their fellows and environment. His interpretation, however, does not put the individual in the position of the abused and exploited nor that of the manipulated and manufactured. Instead it is posited that the individual has in fact made the choice to isolate themselves from reality and those around them. This is seen to constitute a unique strategy of the individual toward the ultimate goal of freedom from reality, rather than a forced alienation from that which they truly seek.

Baudrillard’s theory is based on the idea of simulation, positing that the mass of self-consuming information presented to society by modern media has effectively destroyed all meaning in the world, and thus any meaningful reality within our lives. Within simulation the individual thus becomes alienated from the objective reality of the universe, instead depending on models or schema to determine what is “true” and how to act. Similarly, communication with others, when there is no reality of which to speak, or through which messages could be verified, becomes a risky venture at best, and at worst impossible.

Further, Baudrillard characterizes the technological mass-media that saturate the culture of simulation as inherently opposed to communication because their unidirectionality does not allow the interaction necessary for what he considers valuable exchange. The seeming responses existing within these media (viewer participation etc), are assumed to be inherent within the original sending, and in fact not constitutive on any valid interaction.

Despite this massive and all consuming disconnection from reality, others and the media that define them, Baudrillard maintains that the members of the society of simulation are not in fact alienated. Instead, as previously stated, they embrace this isolation from reality as a means of escaping the responsibility of existence. Baudrillard says that “the deepest desire is perhaps to give the responsibility for one’s desire to someone else,” a feat accomplished by the simulated individual in their dependence on the media and reality-schema which define the simulated world (Baudrillard 125). This radical denial of reality, the strategy of resistance of the masses, is accomplished by “sending back to the system its own logic. . .reflecting, like a mirror, meaning without absorbing it” (Baudrillard 108). The masses thus exert, through the media, their true power, that of irony and antagonism.

The effects of this conflict, Baudrillard says, are circular. The masses effect the media to distort reality just as the media induce the need for greater and greater distortions. The final outlook, from Baudrillard’s perspective is not good: “There is no alternative to it, no logical resolution. Only a logical exacerbation and a catastrophic resolution” (Baudrillard 106).

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