ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 12, Number 1 (January 2015)

Telemorphosis Regained

Dr. Gary Genosko
(Department of Communication, University of Ontario Institute of Technology)

Today, reality massively transfuses itself into the screen in order to become disembodied. Nothing any longer separates them. The osmosis, the telemorphosis, is total” (Baudrillard, 2011: 49).

Drew Burk’s recent translation of Baudrillard’s essay “Telemorphosis” is more than a drive to completion. After all, the essay had already appeared in partial translation in 2002 in the CRTL+SPACE collection (Baudrillard c2001 in Levin et. al., 2002: 480-85) situating it in surveillance studies and renewing some readers’ interest in Baudrillard’s mid-70s remarks on the first generation of reality TV programming, which was embedded in simulation theory. Burk regains for us two new sections of the essay: the first (pp. 38-45) on Catherine Millet’s sexual adventures is a kind of comparator with the actors-contestants on Loft Story, except the question she poses for Baudrillard is whether or not sexuality survives the autobiography of her serial fucking; the second (pp. 51-2) concerns the convergence of the virtualization of the social, sexual and the real.  Burk includes another short Baudrillard essay, “Dust Breeding,” that Duchampian tranposition of everyday banality, as an introduction of sorts. There isn’t much new here, but surely that is on point.

What makes this little essay so valuable and worth republishing and translating in full is a provocation that is among the richest in Baudrillard’s oeuvre: reality TV is our total social fact. This is on the face of it a sociological outrage and bastardization of Mauss, to whom Baudrillard owes so much. Yet it makes us wonder: has television, as Baudrillard claimed, in producing a global non-event that elevates parody and banality and the farce of the social, succeeded better than any radical critique or Situationist driftwork? Where Mauss saw the convergence of all the elements of indigenous societies in gift exchange as total social fact, Baudrillard speculates it is reality TV that gets the different parts of our society working together. Yet Baudrillard never really explains why reality TV is this kind of phenomenon on par with the gift; he merely asserts that total telemorphosis is evident in reality TV. It would be easier to claim that reality TV is another thread that is woven into the total social fabric of the transmutation of reality. However, he is quite certain that reality TV is much more than a single thread. In taking his chosen route he ruthlessly exploits Mauss’ famous undertheorizing of the total social fact, which seems to be in some respect a gauntlet that Mauss threw down for all those scholars who would not dream of a lofty totalizing impulse in the shadow of the master’s great learnedness. Likewise, Baudrillard harbours a similar ambition, and doesn’t eschew the notion of a totality that is metaphorically interwoven with all of the social’s threads, although it is a dead power, in other words, a “total disillusion” that we call simulation.

Elsewhere, Baudrillard takes his readers back to an era prior to the current flood of reality programming with regard to a piece of “cinema verité” adapted to the little screen, An American Family (1973), produced by Craig Gilbert for National Educational Television and distributed by member stations of the Public Broadcasting Service in the US. This was a twelve episode serial documentary study of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California. By the mid-1970s Baudrillard had already exposed the paradoxes of “TV verité” that An American Family ushered in. The producer, Baudrillard claimed, waxed absurd: “’They [the Louds] lived as if we weren’t there’, which also meant they lived ‘as if you were there’ – a message to the 20 million or so viewers who followed the series. It is difficult to ascertain the truth of the Loud family: does it belong to the family or to TV?” (Baudrillard, 1983: 52). Neither, it turns out, for the despotic gaze of the camera has been displaced, diffused, as the many watch the few; gone are the imperatives to submit to the controlling gaze – you are the gaze, you are the event: “we are all Louds, doomed not to invasion, to pressure, to violence and to blackmail by the media and their models, but to their induction, to infiltration, to their illegible violence” (Ibid.: 55). The truth of the Loud family is for Baudrillard indecipherable, yet post-panoptic. Some readers of Baudrillard, for instance Victoria Grace, have remarked upon these comments and related them to Australian versions of reality programming such as Sylvania Waters that equally make Baudrillard’s point about the implosion of the distinct poles between viewer and viewed; even the medium itself has collapsed into its messages and as a communication process the poles of sender and receiver are henceforth untenable (Grace, 2000: 98).

Much later, ruminating on the French Channel M6 reality-show Loft Story, Baudrillard emphasizes that at the heart of reality TV is an uninteresting, non-original event, whose power is to generate the fascination, first, of audiences, and second, of critics. Baudrillard underlines, however, that this nullity and banality is powerful, even if it only allows for a differential viewing experience: the viewer is always slightly less idiotic than the reality TV program on the screen. The question that holds Baudrillard’s attention concerns the “experimental niches” of reality TV situations - apartments, islands, and other micro-situations. Are these enclosures, little theatres, cut-off and isolated in some manner, or do they jump their experimental status as “universal metaphors” of the osmosis, what he calls the “telemorphosis” of the world: “nothing any longer separates” the screen and the world. Telemorphosis of the real traps everyone. We are all extras on the next call for contestants; we are on both sides of the screen, playing our parts, ready for sudden notoriety for no good reason. We are all Trumans! For Baudrillard reality TV announces the end of merit: there is no need to earn 15 minutes of fame.

According to Jeffrey Ruoff in his study of An American Family, in addition to factors relating to program conception and filmmaking, editing mitigated “reality”: “... the producers discovered that watching footage shot in real time was strangely unlike real life” (Ruoff, 2002: 40). It was, in a word, boring. But boredom was also an existing aesthetic inherited from Andy Warhol. Moreover, it was also fuzzy, as one editor David Hanser recalls the experience of viewing hours of film of Loud son Lance and then seeing him in person: “Reality began to get blurred.” Here is a sense of the vertigo of implosion à la Baudrillard, and a fall into a fuzzy, speculative universe. Ruoff does not work out the implications of this boredom in relation to what TV critics, for instance, point out about reality programs such as Big Brother: the boring factor as legitimation. But for Baudrillard there is no such evidence, no such recourse to proof: there is only an accelerating “banalization of the world” that reality TV brings to a crescendo: reality is uploaded to the screen. “Running gags” between reality and the screen no longer work and are relegated to the cheapest form of comedy.   

Ruoff is incisive: An American Family simply lacked “historical context.” This grounding didn’t, he explains, survive the proposal stage: “Craig Gilbert did not make the series he described in his NET proposal,” which was full of references to the mediascape of this family’s life as well as familial histories. In the end what won out was “the drama of the Louds’separation.” The absence of historical context (“reality”) was made a topic in its own right: in the end, “Gilbert was satisfied to portray a family not directly connected to the issues of the day in order to claim that Americans were alienated from politics and active citizenship” (Ibid.: 23). “Reality” was chased from the stage for the sake of the serialized drama of separation and divorce; “reality” was easier to bear when its absence could become a symptom of disenfranchisement. This was not exactly telemorphosis proper, but a prepatory state when representation was still a stake.  

Baudrillard has roughed-in the trajectory of reality television from the 70s to the early 00s.  His is not an exhaustive accounting, but a landmarking.  For him reality TV is a privileged funnel for the telemorphosis of the real, and this means television is his choice medium for such a transfusional absorption.  However, after telemorphosis, is it still possibe to speak of the screen?  Indeed, is any reality TV program worth mentioning by name? What are the differences between them, anyway, except the early and mature ones that he dwells on? Perhaps we should pose to Baudrillard the question that Derrida posed of Mauss: Baudrillard’s discourse on Loft Story in a way arrests the process of telemorphosis by preventing it from escaping the confines of the program.  The gift cannot make itself present, and for Derrida Mauss speaks of everything but the gift (Derrida, 1992: 24). The gift’s condition is that of Being: disclosure and concealment. And as far as Derrida is concerned, Mauss qualifies ‘total’ as something other than itself, making the perception of the whole impossible. How does this apply to Baudrillard? The process of telemorphosis stalls if the medium into which reality is transfused is still identifiable and describable after the process is well-advanced. We must be able to radically forget the screen, its features, frames, and textures. We can no longer see beyond the screen in full telemorphosis.  We cannot compare the little to the big screen; cathode ray to flat screen; neither can we find where precisely the screen begins and ends. And in the end the program must evaporate as a stable point of reference. So, too, must reality TV as a distinct genre. There is only a telemorphosed reality without television: full telereality: “Today, the screen is no longer the television screen; it is the screen of reality itself” (Baudrillard, 2011: 49-50). And it is this insight that Burk’s full translation helps us to reckon with at the end of media theory. 

References

Jean Baudrillard (1983). Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e).

Jean Baudrillard (c2001) “Telemorphosis.” Translated by trans. Sarah Clift in Thomas Y. Levin, Ursala Frohne, Peter Weibel (Editors, 2002). CTRL + [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press: 480-85.

Jean Baudrillard (2011). Telemorphosis. Translated by Drew Burk. Minneapolis: Univocal.

Jacques Derrida (1992). Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money.  University of Chicago Press.

Jeffrey Ruoff (2002). An American Life: A Televised Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Victoria Grace (2000). Baudrillard’s Challenge: A Feminist Reading, London and New York: Routledge.