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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 1 (January, 2007)

Review Essay: Baudrillard's Radical Media Theory And William Merrin’s Baudrillard and the Media.1

Dr. Paul A. Taylor
(Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, United Kingdom).

I. Introduction

When time has ceased to be anything other than velocity, instantaneousness and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from the lives of all peoples; when a boxer is regarded as a nation's great man; when mass meetings attended by millions are looked upon as a triumph – then, yes, then, through all this turmoil a question still haunts us like a spectre: What for? – Whither? – And what then?2

            Unfortunately for communications and media studies, Heidegger's question does not still haunt the field like a spectre. Using a close examination of Will Merrin's Baudrillard and the Media, this paper examines Baudrillard's status as a leading radical media theorist who does address Heidegger's concerns and it censures mainstream media theory for the attitude of implausible deniability it stubbornly adopts towards his work. Merrin compensates for either the total omission or relatively scant attention paid to Baudrillard's work within the field of media and communications studies by powerfully asserting his status as the primum inter pares amongst critical interpreters of the media and its culturally-enframing effects.  He provides a sustained critique of the theoretical mindset that chooses to overlook Baudrillard and a spirited affirmation of his continued importance for understanding, despite the purportedly, excessively speculative nature of his theories, a media-scape that constantly threatens to overtake even the most radical speculation. When mainstream media theory does engage with Baudrillard's work it is typically scathing, yet it is unclear what nominally less speculative, more empirical accounts can meaningfully add to such hyperreal instances as the President of the United States carrying a plastic Thanksgiving turkey into a mess tent for his troops in Iraq – a content analysis of the vulcanized giblets?

            What makes Merrin's volume particularly welcome is the manner in which he not only provides a detailed and comprehensive account of Baudrillard's conceptual contribution to media studies but, consistently compares and contrasts it to the competing interpretations of the mainstream. The reader is thus left with a sophisticated understanding of the key intellectual departure points between radical and conventional media theory. In particular, the latter's failure to recognize Baudrillard's qualitative and Durkheimian distinction between an authentically symbolic and semiotically totalizing social order means that it is ill-suited to engage properly with the lived-in experience of the contemporary media-scape. Merrin shows how mainstream media theory tends to disingenuously side-step an essential Baudrillardian concern – the on-going enervation of culture's symbolic elements by mass media society's semiotic, commodified codes. By exclusively privileging empirically-based methodologies to the exclusion of his empirically-informed speculative thought, media theory consistently re-enacts the theoretical equivalent of looking under a street lamp for a set of keys dropped on the unlit side of the street just because that's where the best light is to be found.
 

II. From the symbolic to the sign

            The central focus of Merrin's analysis is Baudrillard's commitment to an anthropologically significant notion of symbolic exchange – Durkheim's collective effervescence – in contradistinction to the profane world of the heavily mediated, semiotically rich but symbolically poor, pre-encoded communications and events that, in practice, Baudrillard provocatively suggests constitute non-communication and non-events.  Merrin emphasizes the way in which Baudrillard's work is substantially built upon analyzing contemporary media society's attenuation of the symbolic as it is operationalized into the sign. He explains the crucial influence of Baudrillard's grounding within the Parisian College of Sociology and its focus upon anthropological illustrations of non-commodified forms of social exchange. An important strength of Merrin's book is the way in which he gives due recognition to Baudrillard's rhetorical energy without missing the underlying values of this framework. He provides the following impressive and biting summary of such forms in a style that compares well with Baudrillard's own:

...our media operates today to simulate in a safe form that lost sociality and shared meaning functioning, along with consumption, as a means of social control. For the festivals and violence of tribal society it substitutes today permanent football, the national lottery game show, morning television and its best-friend presenters, premier-plus 'event' movies, rolling news coverage, voyeuristic makeover programmes, sensationalist, tabloid-hyped soaps and the public pain, humiliation and hate figures of reality TV. The whole serves to expurgate expressive energies and social forces that might otherwise demand another, more immediate release. The hatch, match and dispatch of celebrity culture and the spectacle of a good royal funeral and sports final become essential purgatives,3 providing a simulated collective meaning for a profanized, individualized society, all instantly available without even having to leave our homes or have any social contact.4

Baudrillard and the Media is thus an extended defense of Baudrillard's simultaneously conventional interpretation yet radical application of Durkheim to the media-scape. He shows how the media theory that results is one that questions in a forthright manner the deterministically lived experience of various media forms and processes that more conventional media theory tends to treat as neutral elements whose uses and subsequent effects are open to social negotiation. The term conventional media theory risks being contentiously reductive but it is used here to refer to the well-established tendency of mainstream media theory to underplay the critical significance of the specific forms in which media are consumed. It tends to ignore or pass over Marshall McLuhan's famously succinct aphorism, the medium is the message, in preference to privileging media content and the various ways it is contested and shaped by its audiences. A detailed discussion of the reasons for the parallel monologues that result between radical and conventional media theory is the subject for further future work, but in the interim, Merrin's book represents an important contribution to at least beginning to bridge the gap.

            The persuasive force and detail with which Merrin positions Baudrillard as part of a radical Durkheimian tradition provides a powerful corrective to the canards that seem to have contributed to his lack of mainstream status, for example, the indecent haste with which Baudrillard is all too often dismissed as postmodern (with all the associations of moral relativism this implies) and the unfounded notion that he is a nihilist, when in fact his reliance upon basic Durkheimian notions serve to make him an astringent critic of postmodernity's “waning of affect”. Merrin describes cogently and ironically the manner in which “predisposed critics” tend to approach Baudrillard's work (and by extension radical theory more generally):

To employ a Baudrillardian metaphor, whereas the negative approach begins with such a predictable hostility that the analysis itself need not have happened – and sometimes can be considered not to have happened – more productive readings allow the event of his thought to occur.5

            Merrin not only undermines typically lazy characterizations of Baudrillard but also provides ample evidence of the richness of his images and language and some of the suggestive oxymorons that set him provocatively apart from his more literally-minded detractors. Just one example is Merrin's citation of Baudrillard's scathing description of mobile phone users and “the mobile confinement of the network”6 they suffer from. My own particular favourite is Baudrillard's critique of the solipsism of the American “joggers sleepwalking in the mist like shadows that have escaped from Plato's Cave ... to carry on running by a sort of lymphatic flagellation till sacrificial exhaustion is reached".7

            Merrin convincingly argues that rather than any inherent intellectual weakness in his work, Baudrillard's lack of mainstream status with in media and communications theory is due to the rigid predispositions of less imaginative theorists who simply fail to understand his non-conventional perspective. More than this, to the extent that Baudrillard's theory has weaknesses, they are not adequately explained away by accusations of excessive speculation and insufficient empirical grounding.8 Rather, in practice, Baudrillard's theory has had to face the problem of his speculations being overtaken by the sur-reality and ever more bizarre manifestations of the media-scape he has consistently sought to confront. His reputation for excessively speculative, non-empirical theorizing is ironic in this context since his approach is so much more demonstrably suited to the simulacral “structure of feeling” (to adapt Raymond Williams's phrase) that now dominates society. Given the media-scape's ever more sophisticated developments of Boorstin's concept of the pseudo-event, his work is suitably replete with examples of the actual lived experience of the hyperreal. His strategy of “speculating to death” is perhaps less provocative than it seems. Methodologically, it is in fact better suited to help us understand the true nature of media effects than are the nominally more neutral, but ultimately inadequate categories of self-styled empirical social sciences.
 

III. Mediated Alienation

            Merrin details throughout his account Baudrillard's consistent emphasis upon, and further development of, McLuhan's “the medium is the message” as “the very formula of alienation in a technological society".9 This contributes to our understanding of the parallel nature of the competing monologues of radical and conventional media theory. Baudrillard's inherently critical notion of the non-event contrasts fundamentally with the uncritical methodological seriousness with which less radical theory approaches media events. For Baudrillard, the non-event leaves us with nothing to do but “stare fascinated and dumbfounded” at the empty banality of the real,10 whilst for most media theory it is a place to conduct empirical fieldwork. This is where Baudrillard's radical theory comes into its own as it provides a systematic and implicitly normative framework with which to make sense of mediated situations and environments that more conventional theory stubbornly refuses to pass critical judgment upon. An example of this alienation that dare not speak its name is the following exchange recorded without critical comment by Couldry at Granada TV Studios in which a mother and daughter are talking of their visit to the set of Coronation Street:

Mother: ... I wish I could have met a star (...) Or if I'd have gone round a studio.

 

Daughter: It'd be nice if somebody came up the Street and wandered around, one an hour, one an hour, a different one every hour.

 

Mother: Oh, it would've been lovely.

 

Daughter: Just to see different people, probably not to talk to them, just to see them, walking up the Street, or around wherever we've been, yeah.

 

Mother: Yeah, it would've been lovely.

 

Daughter: Just to see one.11

Whilst the above printed version of this exchange loses some of the humorous bathos achieved when read to students in an authentic Northern English accent to illustrate Metropolitan romanticization of the provincial working class, it nevertheless serves to underline the type of basic, normative judgment conventional media theory is either loathe or unable to make. Whereas Couldry defends the auratic status of media sites of production worthy of “pilgrimage” and “witnessing”, for Baudrillard:

The depth of our involvement and its uncertain object and reality signals only the extent of our prior separation and distance from our proximate experiences and relationships, our empathetic response indicating only our simulacral ‘participation’ in the world and corresponding ‘indifference’ towards any actual symbolic experience.12

             Merrin neatly explains how Baudrillard's speculative methodology fits with his theory of the non-event and in opposition to such above examples of superficially empirical evidence hoisting itself with its own petard, he asks the much more critical question (in both senses of the word) “what causes something not to take place".13 Merrin's critique of Kellner's approach to the media event, that it is ideologically unable to pursue any more radical questioning of media "event-ness", can be applied to media theory more generally. As a result mainstream media theory is predictably conservative. Under the guise of a committed political critique it provides a legitimating eulogy for the mega-spectacle by accepting its occurrence, failing to heed Debord's warning that "when analyzing the spectacle one speaks ... the language of the spectacular itself".14 Put another way, Merrin's account of Baudrillard's radical media theory problematizes conventional media theory because, by comparison, it shows how it chooses to privilege the examination of social forms over the particular media forms that make those social forms possible in the first place.
 

IV. The Inimical Applicability of Baudrillard's theory – Gulf War Media Coverage

            Baudrillard's analysis of the Gulf War conflicts perhaps represents the strongest individual example of both the unjustified nature of the label of postmodern nihilist applied to Baudrillard, and the insightfulness of Merrin's defense of the true significance of his interpretation. He shows with great acuity the way in which Baudrillard's speculations upon the hyperreallity of the Gulf conflicts are in fact perfectly suited to explain the actual grounded impact of the hyper-operationalism of the Allied military techniques. Thus, Merrin describes how "critical" debates during the first Gulf conflict centered upon such issues as limited access to the action of  the US military's pool system and the alleged censorship of journalists, yet left unexamined much bigger questions such as why the media privileged for Western TV screens images of oil-polluted birds over dead Iraqi soldiers and the fact that in 1998 CNN was advertising for the expected war as if part of its next season's television schedules.15

            In the face of mainstream timidity to such excesses as Abu Ghraib, Baudrillard continues to doggedly describe the profound social harm caused by the disintegration of the symbolic and its systematic replacement with its etiolated semiotic substitute. A much underrated feature of Baudrillard's work is the underlying poignancy of his descriptions of how unpredictable social processes become supplanted by pre-encoded models. The Gulf conflicts provide a particularly tragic illustration  Here we see how the historical unpredictability of war is replaced by, at a macro, geo-political level, by a result we know in advance, and at a micro-level of engagement with the enemy, a confrontation that is so heavily mediated that it produced:

…the most horrifying [non-]images of unilaterality as, over seventy miles of trenches, front-line Iraqi soldiers were bulldozed and buried alive. Already dead in advance before the American forces they were not worth engaging, only burying.16

Whilst Baudrillard was derided at the time for his mis-placed chutzpah in announcing prior to Gulf War I that The Gulf War Will Not Take Place, Merrin persuasively shows how the West's cultural artefacts may have belatedly proved him right after all. For example, the post Gulf War 1 movie Three Kings, whilst nominally about troops in the Gulf consists of a convoluted gold robbery theme, “supplying the necessary heroism and individuality lacking in its real operation. In contrast to those made-for-TV movies rushed into the schedules, Russell [the director] realized that the Gulf War film could not take place”.17

            Merrin's interpretation of the Ozymandias-resonant incident in which US troops draped the Stars and Stripes over the face of a large Saddam statue and then took the leading role in pulling the statue down is an exceptionally good demonstration of the manner with which, suitably applied, Baudrillard's media theory reaches the parts of the media-scape other theories simply cannot:

With Saddam's disappearance, all that was left was a non-event produced and framed for our consumption as the definitive and predictable sign of the regime's end. The self-liberation of the Iraqis could not be accomplished: when it became clear that they could not quickly pull the statue down the American military stepped in to finish the job. The Iraqis did not understand the primacy of the western audience, the time constraints of  even of rolling news, and the networks' fear of a drifting audience and their need to deliver that “Kennedy” moment (“where were you?” ... “watching television”). So the Iraqis were excluded from this act, in an implosion of media and military with the event that neutralized and short-circuited the people's efforts, replacing them with that demanded, semiotic image of the statue's fall. Believing that they were the centre and meaning of the act, the Iraqis did not see that they were only the extras, providing local colour and a guarantee of authenticity and legitimacy for the western audience for whom the event really occurred.18

            Using an impressive number of examples like this, Merrin forcefully communicates the misleading significance afforded to pseudo-events by the media and the profound consequences this has had upon political discourse in the West. In this issue of IJBS my own analysis of the Abu Ghraib furor focuses upon the paradox of a zeitgeist characterized by explicitness without understanding and in keeping with his book's general analytical quality Merrin provides a succinct summary of the implicitly moral content that suffuses Baudrillard's perspective. Countering the mis-placed claims of Baudrillard's detractors that he is a nihilist, Merrin repeatedly demonstrates that it is the frequently sloppy nature of their thinking that leads such critics to confuse his theorization of the postmodern mediated condition with a facile endorsement of it. In fact, the accusation carries significantly more justification when traveling in the opposite direction. Baudrillard is actually one of the few theorists who equips us to deal with the moral implications of a First World couch potato relationship to war that provides a depressingly functional definition of the term passive aggressive and which, once again, mainstream media theory avoids considering. Thus it is the apparently amoral Baudrillard who conveys the poignant inhumanity of a situation in which TV viewers of the first Gulf conflict were primed to identify with a night sight/missile's eye view of the destruction of Iraq. The death of fellow human beings was reduced to a digitally neon version of Candid Camera so that:

In [this] hyperrealization of experience and simultaneous distancing from the symbolic reality of its effects, nowhere does Baudrillard's comment, the more closely the real is pursued the greater does the real absence from the world grow" find more horrific support.19


V. The Saving Power of Photography

            Perhaps the most intellectually original part of Merrin's book is the final chapter in which he uses the notion of "the saving power" of technology from Heidegger's famous essay "The Question Concerning Technology" to discuss Baudrillard's longstanding and active interest in photography . In this section, Merrin once again exhibits an ability, demonstrated throughout the rest of the book, to avoid uncritical hagiography in favour of a sympathetically balanced interpretation. Hence, he does not shy away from criticizing the problems Baudrillard's privileging of the symbolic has in “defending its own ground and valorization” and how perilously close his dismissal in The Consumer Society of the hippy movement as “the sentimental resurrection” of the “human” brings him to a charge of tu quoque.20 In addition, Merrin gives an illuminating analysis of the subtle changes that Baudrillard has made to his notion of the symbolic as his oeuvre has developed to the point that cyberspace and the virtual have come to be viewed by Baudrillard as a potential boon rather than threat:

…in his new reformulation of the symbolic, critique of virtual technologies, and extension of the 'double game' of symbolic and semiotic to the operations of technology. Now, Baudrillard argues, the latter may constitute a path to the symbolic and not just the means of its extermination.21 

I have a long held intellectual interest in this line of argument because this sort of “saving power”, last minute optimism seems to be a common feature of even the most otherwise unadulteratedly pessimistic analyzes of technology's effects – with the result that pessimism is rarely given its analytical due.22 One of the reasons Baudrillard's work has always appealed to me is the way he has always seemed to avoid succumbing to such unfounded optimism, but Merrin's interpretation raises interesting new questions in this regard. It also suggests some common theoretical ground between Zizek and Baudrillard, the former offering a similarly optimistic interpretation of cyberspace's impact upon the symbolic and the real.

Zizek provides an interesting take on cyberspace that complements both Baudrillard's conceptualization of the hyperreal as more real than the real itself and the related notion that simulation differs from mere dissimulation in that it actually contains elements of the real.23 For Zizek, the pervasiveness of the media may create the conditions for the unprecedented technological instantiation of symbolic identification because:

The most concise definition of symbolic identification is that it consists in assuming a mask which is more real and binding than the true face beneath it (in accordance with Lacan's notion that human feigning is the feigning of feigning itself: in imaginary deception, I simply present a false image of myself, while in symbolic deception, I present a true image and count on it being taken for a lie ...In other words, VR confronts us, in the most radical way imaginable with the old enigma of transposed/displaced emotions.24

The saving power here resides in the fact that, rather than effacing the symbolic, the virtual forces us to live within it even more directly. Similarly, just as Heidegger originally saw technology's saving power stemming from the existential crisis it forces us to confront, with various caveats this is a notion that Baudrillard updates. The photograph becomes for him a possible vessel of ironic reversibility through which to comprehend better the ultimate lived-in implications of a culture dominated by the mediated image:

Either we think of technology as the exterminator of Being, the exterminator of the secret, of seduction and appearances, or we imagine that technology, by way of ironic reversibility, might be an immense detour toward the radical illusion of the world.25

Zizek appears to be thinking along similar lines when he hypothesizes that our connection to the “real world” may actually be reaffirmed by our ever more sophisticated technological mediation and all-inclusive digitalization of cultural content to the point that:

This prospect of a perfect symbolic accountancy also augurs a new type of catastrophe in which a sudden disturbance in the digital network ... erases the computerized 'big Other', leaving the external 'real reality' intact ... Perhaps radical virtualization - the fact that the whole of reality will soon be 'digitalized', transcribed, redoubled in the 'big Other' of cyberspace - will somehow redeem 'real life', opening it up to a new perception...26

            An important aspect of photography's purported “saving power” is the potential Baudrillard appears to find in his later work in the “sheer fascination” it facilitates. Thus, Baudrillard's project mirrors Benjamin's Work of Art Essay in so far as they both account for a decline in traditional aura and find hope in the distraction/fascination created by new media technologies. My personal preference is for the “early” Baudrillard and the sentiment behind his observation that: “Any system that is totally complicit in its own absorption such that signs no longer make sense, will exercise a remarkable power of fascination.”27 What makes Merrin's book such an exemplary delineation of Baudrillard's thought is that it does full justice to both the depth of the theoretical exploration Baudrillard has undertaken in order to find optimistic faith in this “remarkable power” and the profound intellectual gains to be gained from such an exploration. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not, it should at least be recognized that mainstream theory could learn much from the path Baudrillard has taken. Unfortunately, it tends to continue to be hamstrung by the blithe, uncritical optimism with which it focuses exclusively upon the shining semiotic surfaces of the media-scape, seemingly oblivious to the cavernous, symbolic darkness beneath. Merrin successfully reminds us to be grateful that Baudrillard has spent his career potholing for the benefit of those who remain unafraid of the dark.


Endnotes

1 William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. London: Polity Press, 2005.

2 Martin Heidegger cited in William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. London: Polity, 2005: 63.

3 Zizek takes this notion rather literally with his concept of the chocolate laxative – the cultural entity that contains the agent of its own containment in Slavoj Zizek Homo Sacer as the object of the Discourse of the University http://www.lacan.com/hsacer.htm

4 William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. London: Polity, 2005: 26-27

5 Ibid:6.

6 Jean Baudrillard Cool Memories 1990: 103 cited in William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. London: Polity, 2005: 24

7 Jean Baudrillard. America. London: Verso, 1988: 31 and 39

8 Couldry, for example, criticizes Baudrillard for being excessively speculative to the point of producing a “negative ‘theology’ of the media ... and it is not ‘theology’ we need”. Nick Couldry. Media Rituals: A Critical Approach. London: Routledge, 2003:18.

9 William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. London: Polity, 2005: 50

10 Ibid:53.

11 Nick Couldry. The Place of Media Power. London: Routledge, 2000:97.

12 William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. London: Polity, 2005:59.

13 Ibid:67.

14 Ibid:75.

15 Ibid:91.

16 Ibid:88.

17 Ibid:89.

18 Ibid:88.

19 Ibid:92.

20 Ibid:134.

21 Ibid:137.

22 For a fuller discussion of the role of pessimism in theories of technological change see Paul A. Taylor and Jan Ll. Harris. Digital Matters: theory and culture of the matrix. London: Routledge, 2005.

23 For more on this distinction see Jean Baudrillard. Simulations and Simulacra. (1981). Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press, 1991 and a large excerpt at:
http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-simulacra-and-simulations.html

24 For more on this distinction see Jean Baudrillard. Simulations and Simulacra. (1981). Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor University of Michigan Press, 1991 and a large excerpt at: http://www.egs.edu/faculty/zizek/zizek-the-cyberspace-real.html

25 William Merrin. Baudrillard and the Media. London: Polity, 2005:138

26 Slavoj Zizek. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997:164

27 Jean Baudrillard. Seduction. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1979:77.


 


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