International Journal of Baudrillard Studies
ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007)

“In The Most Complete Ambiguity”: Requiem For The Media1

Jean Baudrillard
(Paris, France)

Translated by Charles Levin
(Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada).

I. Introit

            There is no theory of the media. The "media revolution" has remained empirical and mystical, as much in the work of McLuhan as with his opponents. McLuhan has said, with his usual Canadian-Texan brutalness, that Marx, the spiritual contemporary of the steam engine and railroads, was already obsolete in his lifetime with the appearance of the telegraph.2 In his candid fashion, he is saying that Marx, in his materialist analysis of production, had virtually circumscribed productive forces as a privileged domain from which language, signs and communication in general found themselves excluded. In fact, Marx does not even provide for a genuine theory of railroads as "media", as modes of communication: they hardly enter into consideration. And he certainly established no theory of technical evolution in general, except from the point of view of production – primary, material, infrastructural production as the almost exclusive determinant of social relations. Dedicated to an intermediate ideality and a blind social practice, the "mode of communication" has had the leisure for an entire century of "making revolution" without changing the theory of the mode of production one iota in the process.

            Having admitted this much, and on condition (which is already a revolution by comparison to orthodox Marxism) that the exchange of signs is not treated as a marginal, super-structural dimension in relation to those beings whom the only "true" theory (materialist) defines as "producers of their real life" (i.e., of goods destined to satisfy their needs), it is possible to imagine two perspectives:

            1. One retains the general form of Marxist analysis (dialectical contradiction between forces and relations of production), but admits that the classical definition of productive forces is too restricted, so one expands the analysis in terms of productive forces to the whole murky field of signification and communication. This involves setting loose in all their originality the contradictions born from this theoretical and practical extension of the field of political economy. Such a hypothesis is the point of departure for Enzensberger: "Monopoly capitalism develops the consciousness shaping industry more quickly and more extensively than other sectors of production; it must at the same time fetter it. A socialist media theory has to work at this contradiction”.3 But this hypothesis does little more than signal the virtual extension of the commodity form to all the domains of social life (and tardily, at that). It recognizes the existence, here and now, of a classical communication theory, a bourgeois political economy of signs and of their production (just as there existed one of material production as early as the 18th century). It is a class-bound theoretical discipline.4 It has not been answered by any fundamental critique that could be seen as the logical extension of Marx's. Since the entire domain was relegated to the super-structure, this critique of the political economy of the sign was rendered unthinkable. Thus, at best, Enzensberger's hypothesis can do little more than try to vitiate the immense retardation of classical Marxist theory. It is only radical in the eyes of official Marxism, which is totally submerged in the dominant models, and would risk its own survival if it went even that far. The radical alternative lies elsewhere.

            2. The production of meaning, messages and signs poses a crucial problem to revolutionary theory. Instead of reinterpreting it in terms of classical forces of production – that is, instead of merely generalizing an analysis that is considered final and stamped with the seal of approval by the "spokesmen of the revolution" – the alternative is to thoroughly disrupt the latter in the light of the eruption of this new problem into the theoretical field (an approach no self-respecting Marxist would take, even under the guise of a hypothesis).

            In other words: perhaps the Marxist theory of production is irredeemably partial, and cannot be generalized. Or again: the theory of production (the dialectical chaining of contradictions linked to the development of productive forces) is strictly homogeneous with its object – material production – and is nontransferable, as a postulate or theoretical framework, to contents that were never given for it in the first place.5 The dialectical form is adequate to certain contents, those of material production: it exhausts them of meaning, but unlike an archetype, it does not exceed the definition of this object. The dialectic lies in ashes because it offered itself as a system of interpreting the separated order of material production.

            All in all, this point of view is quite logical. It accords a global coherence to Marxist analysis – an internal homogeneity that prevents certain elements from being retained and others from being excluded, according to a technique of bricolage of which the Althusserians are the most subtle artificers. On the other hand, we credit Marxism with a maximum coherence. And so we demand that this coherence be breached, for it is incapable of responding to a social process that far exceeds material production.6

II. Enzensberger: A "Socialist" Strategy

            In the absence of a theory and a positive strategy, argues Enzensberger, the Left remains disarmed. It is content to denounce mass media culture as an ideological manipulation. The Left dreams of a media takeover, sometimes as a means of nudging the revolutionary prise de conscience of the masses, sometimes as a consequence of radical change in social structures. But this is a contradictory velleity, reflecting quite straightforwardly the impossibility of integrating the media into a theory of infra- and superstructure. The media (and the entire domain of signs and communication, it should be added) remain a social mystery for the Left, according to Enzensberger, because the Left has failed to conceive of them as a new and gigantic potential of productive forces. The Left is divided between fascination and practice before this sorcery to which it also falls victim, but which it reproves morally and intellectually (here is that Left intellectual speaking through Enzensberger himself, making his auto-critique). This ambivalence only reflects the ambivalence of the media themselves, without going beyond it or reducing it.7  With a bold stroke of Marxist sociology, Enzensberger imputes this "phobia" of intellectuals and Left movements to their bourgeois or petty bourgeois origins: they defend themselves instinctively from mass culture because it snaps their cultural privilege.8 True or false, perhaps it would be more valuable to ask, with respect to this mesmerized distrust, this tactical disarray and the Left intelligentsia's refusal to get involved with the media, precisely how much are Marxist preconceptions themselves to blame? The nostalgic idealism of the infrastructure? The theoretical allergy to everything that isn't "material" production and "productive labor"? "Revolutionary" doctrine has never come to terms with the exchange of signs other than as pragmatically functional use: information, broadcasting, and propaganda. The contemporary new look of left-wing public relations, and the whole modernist party subculture, are hardly designed to transform this tendency. They demonstrate quite sufficiently how bourgeois ideology can be generated independently of "social origin."

            All of this, Enzensberger continues, results in a political schizophrenia of the Left. On one side; a whole (subversive) revolutionary faction abandons itself to apolitical exploration of new media (subculture, underground); on the other, militant political groups still live essentially through archaic modes of communication, refusing to "play the game," or to exploit the immense possibilities of the electronic media. Thus, he reproaches the students of May '68 for having regressed to artisanal means (referring to the hand presses of the Ecole des Beaux Arts) for spreading their slogans and for having occupied the Odeon, "steeped in tradition," instead of the ORTF.9,10

            Enzensberger attempts to develop an optimistic and offensive position. The media are monopolized by the dominant classes, which divert them to their own advantage. But the structure of the media remain “fundamentally egalitarian”, and it is up to 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.

            Clearly what we have here is an extension of the same schema assigned, since time immemorial, from Marx to Marcuse, to productive forces and technology: they are the promise of human fulfillment, but capitalism freezes or confiscates them. They are liberatory, but it is necessary to liberate them.11 The media, as we can see, do not escape this fantastic logic of inscribing the revolution inter alia onto things. To set the media back to the logic of productive forces no longer qualifies as a critical act, for it only locks them more firmly into the revolutionary metaphysic.

            As usual, this position bogs down in contradictions. Through their own (capitalist) development, the media assure that socialization is pushed to more and more advanced stages. Even though it is technically quite imaginable, there is no closed circuit television for the happy few who could afford it, "because this would go against the grain of the structure" of the medium.12 "For the first time in history, the media make possible the participation of the masses in a collective process that is social and socialized, participation in which the practical means are in the hands of the masses themselves”.13 But the "socialist movements must fight and will fight for their own wavelengths”.14 Why fight (above all for wavelengths), if the media realize themselves in socialism? If such is their structural vocation?

            The existing order, says Enzensberger following Brecht (Theory of Radio, 1932), reduces the media to a simple "medium of distribution”.15 So they must be revamped into a true medium of communication (always the same dream haunts the Marxist imaginary: strip objects of their exchange value in order to restore their use value); and this transformation, he adds, "is not technically a problem." But:

            1. It is false that in the present order the media are "purely and simply means of distribution." Once again, that is to treat them as the relay of an ideology that would find its determinations elsewhere (in the mode of material production); in other words, the media as marketing and merchandizing of the dominant ideology. It is from this perspective that the relation media producer-transmitter versus irresponsible, receptive masses is assimilated to that of capitalist versus salaried worker. But it is not as vehicles of content, but in their form and very operation, that media induce a social relation; and this is not an exploitative relation: it involves the abstraction, separation and abolition of exchange itself: The media are not coefficients, but effectors of ideology. Not only is their destiny far from revolutionary; the media are not even, somewhere else or potentially, neutral or non-ideological (the phantasm of their technical status or of their social use value). Reciprocally, 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 exchange value itself. After the Requiem for the dialectic, it is necessary to toll the Requiem of the infra- and superstructure.

            2. It follows that when Brecht and Enzensberger assert that the transformation of the media into a true medium of communication is not technically a problem ("it is nothing more," says Brecht, "than the natural consequence of their technical development"), it is necessary to understand (but, contrarily, and without playing on words) that in effect it is quite correctly not a technical problem, since media ideology functions at the level of form, at the level of the separation it establishes, which is a social division.

III. Speech Without Response

            The mass media are anti-mediatory and intransitive. They fabricate non-communication – this is what characterizes them, if one agrees to define communication as an exchange, as a reciprocal space of a speech and a response, and thus of a responsibility (not a psychological or moral responsibility, but a personal, mutual correlation in exchange. We must understand communication as something other than the simple transmission-reception of a message, whether or not the later is considered reversible through feedback. Now, the totality of the existing architecture of the media founds itself on this latter definition: they are what always prevents response, making all processes of exchange impossible (except in the various forms of response simulation, themselves integrated into the unilateral nature of the communication intact). This is the real abstraction of the media. And the system of social control and power is rooted in it.

            To understand the term response properly, we must take it in an emphatic sense, by referring to an equivalent in "primitive" societies: power belongs to the one who can give and cannot be repaid. To give, and to do it in such a way that one is unable to repay, is to disrupt the exchange to your profit and to institute a monopoly. The social process is thus thrown out of equilibrium, whereas repaying disrupts this power relationship and institutes (or reinstitutes), on the basis of an antagonistic reciprocity, the circuit of symbolic exchange. 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 impossibility presupposes an upheaval in the entire existing structure of the media.

            No other theory or strategy is possible. All vague impulses to democratize content, subvert it, restore the "transparency of the code," control the information process, contrive a reversibility of circuits, or take power over media are hopeless – unless the monopoly of speech is broken; and one cannot break the monopoly of speech if one’s goal is simply to distribute it equally to everyone. Speech must be able to exchange, give and repay itself16 as is occasionally the case with looks and smiles. It cannot simply be interrupted, congealed. stockpiled, and redistributed in some corner of the social process.17

            For the time being, we live in the era of non-response – of irresponsibility. "Minimal autonomous activity on the part of the spectator and voter”, says Enzensberger. The mass medium par excellence, and the most beautiful of them all, is the electoral system: its crowning achievement is the referendum, where the response is implied in the question itself, as in the polls. It is a speech that answers itself via the simulated detour of a response, and here as well, the absolutization of speech under the formal guise of exchange is the definition of power. Roland Barthes has made note of the same non-reciprocity in literature: "Our literature is characterized by the pitiless divorce which the literary institution maintains between the producer of the text and its user, between its owner and customer, between its author and its reader. This reader is thereby plunged into a kind of idleness – he is intransitive; he is, in short, serious: instead of functioning himself, instead of gaining access to the magic of the signifier, to the pleasure of writing, he is left with no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text: reading is nothing more than a referendum”.18

            Today, the status of the consumer defines this banishment. 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.

            Thus, it is far from true that, as Enzensberger affirms, "for the first time in history. the media make possible a mass participation in a productive social process”; nor that "the practical means of this participation are in the hands of the masses themselves". As if owning a TV set or a camera inaugurated a new possibility of relationship and exchange. Strictly speaking, such cases are no more significant than the possession of a refrigerator or a toaster. There is no response to a functional object: its function is already there, an integrated speech to which it has already responded, leaving no room for play, or reciprocal putting in play (unless one destroys the object, or turns its function inside out).19 So the functionalized object, like all messages functionalized by the media, like the operation of a referendum, controls rupture, the emergence of meaning, and censorship. As an extreme case, authority would provide every citizen with a TV set without preoccupying itself with programming (assuming an authority that was not also obsessed by content and convinced of the ideological force of media "persuasion," and thus of the need to control the message). It is useless to fantasize about state projection of police control through TV (as Enzensberger has remarked of Orwell's 1984): TV, by virtue of its mere presence, is a social control in itself. There is no need to imagine it as a state periscope spying on everyone's private life – the situation as it stands is more efficient than that: it is the certainty that people are no longer speaking to each other, that they are definitively isolated in the face of a speech without response.

            From this perspective, McLuhan, whom Enzensberger scorns as a kind of ventriloquist, is much closer to a theory when he declares that "the medium is the message" (save that, in his total blindness to the social forms discussed here, he exalts the media and their global message with a delirious tribal optimism). The medium is the message is not a critical proposition. But in its paradoxical form, it has analytic value,20 whereas the ingenuity of Enzensberger with regard to the "structural properties, of the media" such that "no power can permit the liberation of their potentiality" turns out to be mysticism, although it wants to be revolutionary. The mystique of the socialist predestination of the media is opposite but complementary to the Orwellian myth of their terrorist manipulation by authority. Even God would approve of socialism: Christians say it all the time.

IV. Subversive Strategy and "Symbolic Action"

            It could be objected that the media did, after all, play a significant role in the events of May '68 in France, by spontaneously playing up the revolutionary movement. During at least one moment of the action, they were turned against the power structure. It is through this breach and on the possibility of this reversal that the subversive strategy of the American Yippies (e.g., Hoffman, Rubin) is founded, and on which a theory of "symbolic action" is elaborated in the world revolutionary movements: co-opt the media through their power to chain react; use their power to generalize information instantaneously. The assumption here of course is that the impact of the media is reversible, a variable in the class struggle that one must learn to appropriate. But this position should be questioned, for it is perhaps another rather large strategic illusion.

            May '68 will serve well enough as an example. Everything would lead us to believe in the subversive impact of the media during this period. Suburban radio stations and newspapers spread the student action everywhere. If the students were the detonators, the media were the resonators. Furthermore, the authorities quite openly accused the media of "playing the revolutionary game." But this sort of argument has been constructed in the absence of analysis. I would say to the contrary that the media have never discharged their responsibilities with more efficiency, and that, indeed, in their function of habitual social control, they were right on top of the action. This is because, beneath the disarray of their routine content, they preserved their form; and this form, regardless of the context, is what inexorably connects them with the system of power. By broadcasting the events in the abstract universality of public opinion, they imposed a sudden and inordinate development on the movement of events; and through this forced and anticipated extension, they deprived the original movement of its own rhythm and of its meaning. In a word: they short-circuited it.

          In the sphere of traditional politics (left- or right-wing),21 where sanctified models and a kind of canonical speech are exchanged, the media are able to transmit without distorting the meanings intended. They are homogeneous with this kind of speech, as they are with the circulation of the commodity. But transgression and subversion never get "on the air" without being subtly negated as they are: transformed into models, neutralized into signs, they are eviscerated of their meaning.22 There is no model of transgression, prototypical or serial. Hence, there is no better way to reduce it than to administer it a mortal dose of publicity. Originally, this process might have left one impressed with the possibility of "spectacular" results. In fact, it was tantamount to dismantling the movement by depriving it of its own momentum. The act of rupture was transformed into a bureaucratic model at a distance – and such, in fact, is the ordinary labor of the media.23

          All of this can be read from the derivation and distortion of the term "symbolic" itself. The action of March 22 at Nanterre was symbolic because it was transgressive: at a given time in a given place, an act of radical rupture was invented – or, to resume the analysis proposed above, a particular response was invented there, where the institutions of administrative and pedagogical power were engaged in a private oratoria and functioned precisely to interdict any answer. The fact of mass media diffusion and contagion had nothing to do with the symbolic quality of the action. However, today it is precisely this interpretation, stressing the impact of disclosure, which suffices to define symbolic action. At the extreme, the subversive act is no longer produced except as a function of its reproducibility.24 It is no longer created, it is produced directly as a model, like a gesture. The symbolic has slipped from the order of the very production of meaning to that of its reproduction, which is always the order of power. The symbolic becomes its own coefficient, pure and simple, and transgression is turned into exchange value.

            Rationalist critical thought (i.e., Benjamin, Brecht, Enzensberger) sees this as a sign of decisive progress. The media simply actualize and reinforce the "demonstrative nature of no matter which political act" (Enzensberger). This evidently conforms with the didactic conception of the revolution and further with the "dialectic of coming to consciousness," etc. This tradition has yet to renounce the bourgeois Enlightenment. It has inherited all its ideas about the democratic (here revolutionary) virtues of spreading light (broadcasting). The pedagogical illusion of this position overlooks that – in aiming its own political acts at the media, and awaiting the moment to assume the media's mantle of power – the media themselves are in deliberate pursuit of the political act, in order to depoliticize it.

            An interesting fact might be cited here as support: the contemporary eruption of tabloid trivia and natural disaster in the political sphere (which converges with Benjamin's notion of the graduation of the art object to – the political stage by virtue of its reproducibility). There is a tidal wave in Pakistan, a black title fight in the U.S.; a youth is shot by a bistro owner, etc. These sorts of events, once minor and apolitical, suddenly find themselves invested with a power of diffusion that lends them a social and "historic" aura. New forms of political action have crystallized around this conflictualization of incidents that were hitherto consigned to the social columns. There is no doubt that, to a large extent, the new meanings they have taken on are largely the doing of the media. Such faits divers are like undeliberated "symbolic actions," but they take part in the same process of political signification. Doubtless, their reception is ambiguous and mixed; and if, thanks to the media, the political re-emerges under the category of faits divers, thanks to the same media the category of faits divers has totally invaded politics. Furthermore, it has changed status with the extension of the mass media: from a parallel category (descended from almanacs and popular chronicles), it has evolved into a total system of mythological interpretation, a closed system of models of signification from which no event escapes. Mass mediatization: that is its quintessence. It is no ensemble of techniques for broadcasting messages; it is the imposition of models. McLuhan's formula is worth re-examining here: "The medium is the message" operates a transfer of meaning onto the medium itself qua technological structure. Again we are confronted with technological idealism. In fact, the essential Medium is the Model. What is mediatized is not what comes off the daily press, out of the tube, or on the radio: it is what is reinterpreted by the sign form, articulated into models, and administered by the code (just as the commodity is not what is produced industrially, but what is mediatized by the exchange value system of abstraction). At best, what can occur under the aegis of the media is a formal surpassing of the categories of faits divers and politics, and of their traditional separation, but only the better to assign them together to the same general code. It is strange that no one has tried to measure the strategic import of this forced socialization as a system of social control. Once again, the first great historical example of this was the electoral system. And it has never lacked revolutionaries (formerly among the greatest, today the least significant) who believed they could "do it" within the system. The general strike itself, this insurrectional myth of so many generations, has become a schematic reducing agent. That of May '68, to which the media significantly contributed by exporting the strike to all comers of France, was in appearance the culminating point of the crisis. In fact, it was the moment of its decompression, of its asphyxiation by extension, and of its defeat. To be sure millions of workers went on strike. But no one knew what to do with this "mediatized" strike, transmitted and received as a model of action (whether via the media or the unions). Reduced to a single meaning, it neutralized the local, transversal, spontaneous forms of action (though not all). The Grenelle accords25 hardly betrayed this tendency. They sanctioned this passage to the generality of political action, which puts an end to the singularity of revolutionary action. Today it has become (in the form of the calculated extension of the strike) the absolute weapon of the unions against wildcat strikes.

            So far the electoral system and the general strike are also media, after a fashion. Playing on extensive formal socialization, they are the subtlest and stealthiest institutions of filtration, dismantling and censorship. They are neither exceptions, nor miracles.

            The real revolutionary media during May were the walls and their speech, the silk-screen posters and the hand-painted notices, the street where speech began and was exchanged – everything that was an immediate inscription, given and returned, spoken and answered, mobile in the same space and time, reciprocal and antagonistic. The street is, in this sense, the alternative and subversive form of the mass media, since it isn't, like the latter, an objectified support for answerless messages, a transmission system at a distance. It is the code frayed space of the symbolic exchange of speech – ephemeral, mortal: a speech that is not reflected on the Platonic screen of the media. Institutionalized by reproduction, reduced to a spectacle, this speech is expiring.

            It is a strategic illusion to have any faith in the critical reversal of the media. A comparable speech can emerge only from the destruction of the media such as they are – through their deconstruction as systems of non-communication. Their liquidation does not follow from this, any more than the radical critique of discourse implies the negation of language as signifying material. But it certainly does imply the liquidation of the existing functional and technical structure of the media – of their operational form, so to speak – which in toto reflects their social form. At the limit, to be sure, it is the very concept of medium that disappears – and must disappear: speech exchanged dissolves the idea and function of the medium, and of the intermediary, as does symbolic land reciprocal exchange. It can involve a technical apparatus (sound, image, waves, energy, etc.) as well as a corporeal one (gestures, language, sexuality), but in this case, it no longer acts as a medium, as an autonomous system administered by the code. Reciprocity comes into being through the destruction of mediums per se. "People meet their neighbors for the first time while watching their apartment houses burn down."26

V. The Theoretical Model of Communication

            Let us summarize the various hypotheses:
            1. McLuhan (for memory's sake): The media make – indeed, they are – the revolution, independently of their content, by virtue of their technological structure alone. After the phonetic alphabet and the printed book comes the radio and the cinema. After radio, television. We live, here and now, in the age of instantaneous, global communication.
            2. The media are controlled by power. The imperative is to strip them of it, whether by taking the media over, or reversing them by outbidding the spectacle with subversive content. Here, the media are envisioned as pure message. Their form is never called into question (any more than it is, in fact, by McLuhan, who views the medium only in its aspect as medium).
            3. Enzensberger: the present form of the media induces a certain type of social relation (assimilative to that of the capitalist mode of production). But the media contain, by virtue of their structure and development, an immanent socialist and democratic mode of communication, an immanent rationality and universality of information. It suffices to liberate this potential.

            We are only interested in Enzensberger's hypothesis (enlightened Marxist) and that of the radical American Left (leftists of the spectacle). The practice of the official Left, Marxist or otherwise, which is confounded with that of the bourgeoisie, will be left out of account here. We have analyzed these positions as strategic illusions. The cause of this failure is that both share with the dominant ideology the implicit reference to the same communication theory. This theory is accepted practically everywhere, strengthened by received evidence and a (highly scientific) formalization by one discipline, the semio-linguistics of communication, supported on one side by structural linguistics, by information theory on the other, swallowed whole by the universities and by mass culture in general (the mass mediators are its connoisseurs). The entire conceptual infrastructure of this theory is ideologically connected with dominant practice, as was and still is that of classical political economy. It is the equivalent of this political economy in the field of communications. And I think that if revolutionary practice has bogged down in this strategic illusion vis-a-vis the media, it is because critical analyses have been superficial and fallen short of radically identifying the ideological matrix that communication theory embraces.

            Formalized most notably by Roman Jakobsen, its underlying unity is based on the following sequence:


            The message itself is structured by the code and determined by the context. A specific function corresponds to each of these "concepts": " the referential, poetic, phatic, etc.27 Each communication process is thus vectorized into a single meaning, from the transmitter to the receiver: the latter can become transmitter in its turn, and the same schema is reproduced. Thus communication can always be reduced to the simple unity in which the two polar terms are mutually exclusive. This structure is given as objective and scientific, since it follows the methodological rule of decomposing its object into simple elements. In fact, it is satisfied with an empirical given, an abstraction from lived experience and reality: that is, the ideological categories that express a certain type of social relation, namely, in which one speaks and the other doesn't, where one has the choice of the code, and the other only liberty to acquiesce or abstain. This structure is based on the same arbitrariness as that of signification (ie., the arbitrariness of the sign): two terms are artificially isolated and artificially reunited by an objectified content called a message. There is neither reciprocal relation nor simultaneous mutual presence of the two terms,28 since each determines itself in its relation to the message or code, the "intermedium" that maintains both in a respective situation (it is the code that holds both in "respect"), at a distance from one another, a distance that seals the full and autonomized "value" of the message (in fact, its exchange value). This "scientific" construction is rooted in a simulation model of communication. It excludes, from its inception, the reciprocity and antagonism of interlocutors, and the ambivalence of their exchange. What really circulates is information, a semantic content that is assumed to be legible and univocal. The agency of the code guarantees this univocality, and by the same token the respective positions of encoder and decoder. So far so good: the formula has a formal coherence that assures it as the only possible schema of communication. But as soon as one posits ambivalent relations, it all collapses. There is no code for ambivalence; and without a code, no more encoder, no more decoder: the extras flee the stage. Even a message becomes impossible, since it would, after all, have to be defined as "emitted" and "received." It is as if the entire formalization exists only to avert this catastrophe. And therein resides its "scientific" status. What it underpins, in fact, is the terrorism of the code. In this guiding schema, the code becomes the only agency that speaks, that exchanges itself and reproduces through the dissociation of the two terms and the univocality (or equivocality, or multivocality – it hardly matters: through the non-ambivalence) of the message. (Likewise, in the process of economic exchange, it is no longer people who exchange; the system of exchange value reproduces itself through them). So, this basic communication formula succeeds in giving us, as a reduced model, a perfect epitome of social exchange such as it is – such as, at any rate, the abstraction of the code, the forced rationality and terrorism of separation regulate it. So much for scientific objectivity.

            The schema of separation and closure already operates, as we have noted, at the level of the sign, in linguistic theory. Each sign is divided into. a signifier and a signified, which are mutually appointed, but held in "respective" position: and from the depths of its arbitrary isolation, each sign "communicates" with all the others through a code called a language. Even here, a scientific injunction is invoked against the immanent possibility of the terms exchanging amongst each other symbolically, beyond the signifier-signified distinction – in poetic language, far example. In the latter, as in symbolic exchange, the terms respond to each other beyond the code. It is this response that we have marked out during the entire essay as ultimately deconstructive of all cades, of all control and power, which always base themselves an the separation of terms and their abstract articulation.

            Thus the theory of signification serves as a nuclear model far communication theory and the arbitrariness of the sign (that theoretical schema far the repression of meaning) takes an its political and ideological scape in the arbitrariness of the theoretical schema of communication and information. As we have seen, all of this is echoed, not only in the dominant social practice (characterized by the virtual monopoly of the transmission pole and the irresponsibility of the receiving pole, the discrimination between the terms of the exchange and the diktat of the code), but also, in all the velleities of revolutionary media practice. For example, it is clear that those who aim to subvert media content only reinforce the autonomy of the message as a separated notion, and thus the abstract bipolarity of the term(inal)s of communication.

VI. The Cybernetic Illusion

            Sensible of the non-reciprocity of the existing process, Enzensberger believes that the situation can be mitigated by insisting that the same revolution intervene at the level of the media that once disoriented the exact sciences and the epistemological subject-object relation, which has been engaged in continuous "dialectical" interreaction ever since. The media would have to take into account all the consequences of inter-reaction, whose effect is to breach monopoly and permit everyone's integration in an open process. "The programs of the consciousness industry must subsume into themselves their own results, the reactions and the corrections that they call forth… They are therefore to be thought of not as means of consumption but as means of their awn production.29 Now this seductive perspective leaves the separated agency of the code and their message intact while it attempts, instead, to. break dawn the discrimination of the two poles of communication toward a more supple structure of role exchange and feedback ("reversibility of circuits"). “In its present form, equipment like television or film does not serve communication but prevents it. It allows no reciprocal action between transmitter and receiver; technically speaking, it reduces feedback to the lowest point compatible with the system".30 Again, we fail to get beyond the categories of receiver and transmitter, whatever may be the effort to mobilize them through switching. Reversibility has nothing to do with reciprocity. Doubtless it is for this deeper reason that cybernetic systems today understand perfectly well how to put this complex regulation and feedback to work without affecting the abstraction of the process as a whole or allowing any real "responsibility" in exchange. This is indeed the system's surest line of defense, since it thus integrates the contingency of any such response in advance.

            As Enzensberger has demonstrated in his critique of the Orwellian myth, it no longer makes sense to conceive a megasystem of centralized control (a monitoring system for the telephone network would have to exceed it n times in size and complexity; hence, it is practically excluded). But it is a little naive to assume that the fact of media extension thus eliminates censorship. Even over the long haul, the impracticality of police megasystems simply means that present systems will integrate these otherwise useless metasystems of control by means of feedback and autoregulation. They know how to introduce what negates them as supplementary variables. Their very operation is censorship: megasystems are hardly required. Hence they do not cease to be totalitarian: in a way, they realize the ideal one might refer to as decentralized totalitarianism.

            On a more practical level, the media are quite aware of how to set up formal “reversibility" of circuits (letters to the editor, phone-in programs, polls, etc.), without conceding any response or abandoning in any way the discrimination of roles31. This is the social and political form of feedback. Thus, Enzensberger’s “dialecticization” of communication is oddly related to cybernetic regulation. Ultimately, he is the victim, though in a more subtle fashion, of the ideological model we have been discussing.

            From the same perspective, Enzensberger would break down the unilateral character of communication, which translates simultaneously into the monopoly of specialists and professionals and that of the class enemy over the media, by 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. Here is a sort of critical reversal of the ideological concept of manipulation. But again, because this "revolution" at bottom conserves the category of transmitter, which it is content to generalize as separated, transforming everyone into his own transmitter, it fails to place the mass media system in check. We know the results of such phenomena as mass ownership of walkie-talkies, or everyone making their own cinema: a kind of personalized amateurism, the equivalent of Sunday tinkering on the periphery of the system.32

            Of course, this isn't at all what Enzensberger has in mind. He is thinking of a press edited, distributed and worked by its own readers (as is the underground press, in part), of video systems at the disposal of political groups, and so on.

            This would be the only way to unfreeze a blocked situation: "In the socialist movements the dialectic of discipline and spontaneity, centralism and decentralization, authoritarian leadership and anti-authoritarian disintegration has long ago reached a deadlock. Network-like communications models built on the principle of reversibility of circuits might give new indications of how to overcome this situation".33 Thus it is a question of reconstituting a dialectical practice. But can the problem continue to be posed in dialectical terms? Isn't it the dialectic itself which has reached the moment of deadlock?

            The examples Enzensberger gives are interesting precisely in that they go beyond a "dialectic" of transmitter and receiver. In effect, an  immediate communication process is rediscovered, one not filtered through bureaucratic models – an original form of exchange, in fact, because there are neither transmitters) not receivers, but only people responding to each other. The problem of spontaneity and organization is not overcome dialectically here: its terms are transgressed.

            There is the essential difference: the other hypotheses allow the dichotomized categories to subsist. In the first case (media on the private scale), transmitter and receiver are simply reunited in a single individual: manipulation is, after a fashion, interiorized."34 In the other case (the "dialectic of circuits"), transmitter and receiver are simultaneously on both sides: manipulation becomes reciprocal (hermaphroditic grouping). The system can play these two variations as easily as it can the classic bureaucratic model. It can play on all their possible combinations. The only essential is that these two ideological categories be safe, and with them the fundamental structure of the political economy of communication.

            To repeat, in the symbolic exchange relation, there is a simultaneous response. There is no transmitter or receiver on both sides of a message: nor, for that matter, is there any longer any "message," any corpus of information to decode univocally under the aegis of a code. The symbolic consists precisely in breaching the, univocality of the "message," in restoring the ambivalence of meaning and in demolishing in the same stroke the agency of the code.

            All of this should be helpful in assessing Umberto Eco's hypothesis.35 To summarize his position: changing the contents of the message serves no purpose; it is necessary to modify the reading codes, to impose other interpretive codes. The receiver (who in fact isn't really one) intervenes here at the most essential level – he opposes his own code to that of the transmitter, he invents a true response by escaping the trap of controlled communication. But what does this "subversive" reading actually amount to? Is it still a reading, that is, a deciphering, a disengaging of a univocal meaning? And what is this code that opposes? Is it a unique minicode (an ideolect, but thus without interest)? Or is it yet another controlling schema of interpretation, rising from the ashes of the previous one? Whatever the case, it is only a question of textual variation. One example can illustrate Eco's perspective: the graffiti reversal of advertising after May '68. Graffiti is transgressive, not because it substitutes another content, another discourse, but simply because it responds, there, on the spot, and breaches the fundamental role of non-response enunciated by all the media. Does it oppose one code to another? I don't think so: it simply smashes the code. It doesn't lend itself to deciphering as a text rivaling commercial discourse; it presents itself as a transgression. So, for example, the witticism, which is a transgressive reversal of discourse, does not act on the basis of another code as such; it works through the instantaneous deconstruction of the dominant discursive code. It volatilizes the category of the code, and that of the message.

            This, then, is the key to the problem: by trying to preserve (even as one "dialectically transcends" them) any separated instances of the structural communication grid, one obviates the possibility of fundamental change, and condemns oneself to fragile manipulatory practices that would be dangerous to adopt as a "revolutionary strategy." What is strategic in this sense is only what radically checkmates the dominant form.

VII. Postscript

            There is a paradox in the inextricable conjunction of the masses and the media: do the media neutralize meaning and produce uninformed [informe] or informed [informée] masses, or is it the masses who victoriously resist the media by directing or absorbing all the messages that the media produce without responding to them? Sometime ago, in “Requiem for the Media”, I analyzed and condemned the media as an institution of an irreversible model of communication without a response. But today? This absence of a response can no longer be understood at all as a strategy of power, but as a counterstrategy of the masses themselves when they encounter power. What then?

            Are the mass media on the side of power in the manipulation of the masses, or are they on the side of the masses in the liquidation of meaning, in the violence perpetrated on meaning, and in fascination? Is it the media that induce fascination in the masses, or is it the masses who direct the media into the spectacle? Mogadishu-Stammheim: the media make themselves into the vehicle of the moral condemnation of terrorism and of the exploitation of fear for political ends, but simultaneously, in the most complete ambiguity, they propagate the brutal charm of the terrorist act, they are themselves terrorists, insofar as they themselves march to the tune of seduction (cf. Umberto Eco on this external moral dilemma: how can one not speak of terrorism, how can one find a good use for the media – there is none). The media carry meaning and counter-meaning, they manipulate in all directions at once, nothing can control this process, they are the vehicle for the simulation internal to the system and the simulation that destroys the system, according to an absolute Möbian and circular logic – and it is exactly like this. There is no alternative to this, no logical resolution. Only a logical exacerbation and a catastrophic resolution.


1 This work originally appeared as “Requiem for the Media”, Chapter Nine of Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (Gallimard: Paris, 1972). St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981. The “Postscript” is from Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (1981). Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:84.

The remaining endnotes are from the original text.

2 Marshall McLuhan. War and Peace in the Global Village. New York: Bantam Books, 1968:5.

3 Hans Magnus Enzensberger. "Constituents of a Theory of the Media". The Consciousness Industry. New York: The Seabury Press, 1974:96-128.

4 This political economy of the sign is structural linguistics. (Together with semiology, to be sure, and all its derivatives, of which communication theory will be discussed below). It is apparent that within the general ideological framework, structural linguistics is the contemporary master discipline, inspiring anthropology, the human sciences, etc., just as, in its time, did political economy, whose postulates profoundly informed all of psychology, sociology and the "moral and political" sciences.

5 In this case, the expression "consciousness industry" which Enzensberger uses to characterize the existing media is a dangerous metaphor. Unfortunately, it underlies his entire analytic hypothesis. which is to extend the Marxist analysis of the capitalist mode of production to the media, to the point of discovering a structural analogy between the following relations:

dominant class / dominated class
producer-entrepreneur / consumer transmitter
broadcaster / receiver


6 In fact, Marxist analysis can be questioned at two very different levels of radicality: either as a system for interpreting the separated order of material production, or else as that of the separated order of production (in general). In the first case, the hypothesis of the non-relevance of the dialectic outside its field of "origin" must be logically pushed further: if "dialectical" contradictions between the productive forces and the relations of production largely vanish in the field of language, signs and ideology, perhaps they were never really operative in the field of material production either, since a certain capitalist development of productive forces has been able to absorb – not all conflict, to be sure – but revolutionary antagonisms at the level of social relations. Wherein lies the validity of these concepts, then, aside from a purely conceptual coherence? In the second case, the concept of production must be interrogated at its very root (and not in its diverse, contents), along with the separated form which it establishes and the representational and rationalizing schema it imposes. Undoubtedly it is here, at the extreme, that the real work needs to be done. [See Baudrillard's Mirror of Production, translated by Mark Poster (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975). – Trans.]

7 Hans Magnus Enzensberger. "Constituents of a Theory of the Media". The Consciousness Industry. New York: The Seabury Press, 1974:96.

8 This genre of reductive determinism may be found in the work of Bourdieu and in the phraseology of the Communist Party. It is theoretically worthless. It turns the mechanism of democratization into a revolutionary value per se. That intellectuals' may find mass culture repugnant hardly suffices to make it a revolutionary alternative. Aristocrats used to make sour faces at bourgeois culture, but no one ever said the latter was anything more than a' class culture.

9 Most of the above references are to Hans Magnus Enzensberger. "Constituents of a Theory of the Media". The Consciousness Industry. New York: The Seabury Press, 1974:102-103.

10 French radio-TV headquarters. The ORTF is a highly centralized state-run monopoly.

11 Thus we find authority, the state, and other institutions either devoid or full up with revolutionary content, depending on whether they are still in the grip of capital or the people have taken them over. Their form is rarely questioned.

12 Hans Magnus Enzensberger. "Constituents of a Theory of the Media". The Consciousness Industry. New York: The Seabury Press, 1974: 105, 108.

13 Ibid:97.

14 Ibid:107.

15 Ibid:97-98.

16 It is not a question of "dialogue," which is only the functional adjustment of two abstract speeches without response, where the "interlocutors" are never mutually present, but only their stylized discourses.

17 The occupation of the ORTF changed nothing in itself, even if subversive "contents" were "broadcast." If only those involved had scuttled the 0RTF as such, for its entire technical and functional structure reflects the monopolistic use of speech.

18 Roland Barthes. S/Z . New York: Hill and Wang, 1974:4.

19 Multi-functionality evidently changes nothing on this score. Multi-functionality, multi-disciplinarity – polyvalence in all its forms – are just the system's response to its own obsession with centrality and standardization (uni-equivalence). It is the system's reaction to its own pathology glossing over the underlying logic.

20 Enzensberger (pp. 118-119) interprets it this way: "The medium is message" is a bourgeois proposition. It signifies that the bourgeoisie has nothing left to say. Having no further message to transmit, it plays the card of medium for medium’s sake – If the bourgeoisie has nothing left to say, "socialism" would do better to keep quiet.

21 This left – right distinction is just about meaningless from the point of view of the media. We should give credit where credit is due and grant them the honor of having contributed largely to its elimination. The distinction is interconnected with an order characterized by the transcendence of politics, and has nothing to do with what has announced itself in all sorts of forms as the transversality of politics. But let us not mistake ourselves, here: the media only help to liquidate this transcendence of politics in order to substitute their own transcendence, abstracted from the mass media form, which is thoroughly integrated and no longer even offers a conflictive structure (left - right). Mass media transcendence is thus reductive of the traditional transcendence of politics, but it is even more reductive of the new transversality of politics.

22 This form of so-called "disclosure" or "propagation" can be analyzed readily in the fields of science or art. Generalized reproducibility obliterates the processes of work and meaning so as to leave nothing but modelized contents (cf. Raoul Ergmann, "Le miroir en miettes," Diogene, no. 68, 1969; Baudouin Jurdant, "La vulgarization scientifique," Communications, no. 14).

23 It should be pointed out that this labor is always accompanied by one of selection and reinterpretation at the level of the membership group (Lazarsfeld's two-step flow of communication). This accounts for the highly relative impact of media contents, and the many kinds of resistance they provoke. (However we should ask ourselves whether these resistances are not aimed at the abstraction of the medium itself, rather than its contents: Lazarsfeld's double articulation would lead us to this conclusion, since the second articulation belongs to the network of personal relations, opposed to the generality of media messages.) Still. this "second" reading, where the membership group opposes its own code to the transmitter's (cf. my discussion of Umberto Eco's thesis towards the end of this article) certainly doesn't neutralize or "reduce" the dominant ideological contents of the media in the same way as it does the critical or subversive contents. To the extent that the dominant ideological contents (cultural models, value systems, imposed without alternative or response; bureaucratic contents) are homogeneous with the general form of the mass media (non-reciprocity, irresponsibility), and are integrated with this form in reduplicating it, they are, so to speak, over determined, and have greater impact. They "go over" better than subversive contents. But this is not the essence of the problem. It is more important to recognize that the form of transgression never "comes off' more or less well on the media: it is radically denied by the mass media form .

24 Thus, for Walter Benjamin, the reproduced work becomes more and more the work "designed" for reproducibility. In this way, according to him, the work of art graduates from ritual to politics. "Exhibition value" revolutionizes the work of art and its functions. Walter Benjamin. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Re­production," Illuminations. New York: Schocken, 1968.

25 The Grenelle accords were worked out between Georges Seguy of the CGT and Georges Pompidou during the May '68 general strike. Although the monetary concessions involved were fairly broad, they missed the point, and were massively rejected by workers. – Trans.

26 Jerry Rubin. Do it. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1970:234.

27 See Roman Jakobsen, "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics," in T. A. Sebeok (Editor), Style in Language. Cambridge, Massachusetts: M.I.T. Press. 1960:350-77.

28 The two terms are so faintly present to each other that it has proven necessary to create a "contact" category to reconstitute the totality theoretically!

29 Hans Magnus Enzensberger. "Constituents of a Theory of the Media". The Consciousness Industry. New York: The Seabury Press, 1974:119, 127

30 Ibid.:97.

31 Once again Enzensberger, who analyses and denounces these control circuits, nevertheless links up with idealism: "Naturally [!] such tendencies go against the gram of the structure, and the new productive forces not only permit, but indeed demand. [!] their reversal." (Ibid.:108.) Feedback and interaction are the very logic of cybernetics", Underestimating the ability of the system to integrate its own revolutionary innovations is as delusory as underestimating the capacity of capitalism to develop the productive forces.

32 Evoking the possibility of an open free press, Enzensberger points to the monopoly and their exorbitant rental rates. But if everyone had his own Xerox – or even his own wavelength – the problem would remain. The real monopoly is never of technical means, but of speech.

33 Hans Magnus Enzensberger. "Constituents of a Theory of the Media". The Consciousness Industry. New York: The Seabury Press, 1974:110.

34 This is why the individual amateur cameraman remains within the separated abstraction of mass communication: through this internal dissociation of the two agencies (instances), the entire code and all of the dominant models sweep in, and seize his activity from behind.

35 Umberto Eco. La Struttura Assente. Milan: Bompiani, 1968.




©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)