Every spring I teach a course I designed, called, unwieldly enough, Human Interests and the Power of Information. It is half philosophy of technology, half post-structuralist critique of contemporary media and techno-science, and half political and sociological investigation of everyday life in the siliconized world.
Every spring when I teach it, I have a different emphasis. This year I thought I was going more in the direction of the techno-science and knowledge discourses business, but after reading Baudrillard yesterday to prep for class today, I just had to write some stuff about it. This is part one.
In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard makes several pronouncements about media, the most provocative of which may be that media implode meaning and the social, and simulate sociality through the constitution of the masses. That is, instead of a social life characterized by exchange, mediated lives take place among an amorphous mass culture. I believe Baudrillard takes many cues from Marshall McLuhan throughout this phase of his work, and this particular claim can be illuminated in reference to McLuhan’s view that advertising homogenizes society (in pursuit of the goal of coordinating and maximizing consumption). A homogenized society is, for Baudrillard, not a society at all, but “the masses,” and the consumption he claims the masses do is not prompted by advertising, it is the consumption of advertising itself.
This latter is obviously true: the “brand benefit” of most consumer products, especially of mass quality, is the brand image itself. It’s what makes Levi’s Levi’s, an iPhone an iPhone. (Apple is the most valuable corporation in the world, and one of the most highly groomed, protected, and prized brands.) How this destroys meaning and the social is less clear, at least at first.
On one level, Baudrillard could be saying something like this. Since what we consume is the advertising, what we spend our social lives on is the exchange of signs “branded” by advertising. Social life among “the masses” as constituted by media, is characterized by an exchange of asyntactic messages, signs that have been branded, and the sameness of all those messages means that they cannot mean anything. None of us has anything to say, except for what our branded, consuming existences provide for us to say, which is to say, the endless repetition of media messages.
Meanwhile, and borrowing a bit from McLuhan again, as well as the history of audience research going back to Lazarsfeld in the 1920s, the brand images and advertisements themselves are adjusted for maximum impact through market research, focus groups, and so forth. There’s a continuous feedback loop from the advertiser to the target of the ads and back to the advertiser.
If one were to look at this without considering the human activity of exchanging signs, where we would be the conduits through which the signs are exchanged, rather than living creatures with the capacity to communicate (an assumption that fits rather well with Baudrillard’s notion of the destruction of meaning and sociality), then the exchange of signs takes place as follows:
This suggests that we could characterize the activities of each node in the system of linguistic exchange formed by this circuitry as follows:
Meaning - linguistic, narrative meaning - is swallowed up by the ultimate form of media, the form of advertising, which is ubiquitous. Every term in the lexicon has been unhinged from any sort of referential or representational meaning by the reshuffling of the signifier deck by advertising. We can't speak of anything - love, art, truth, iced tea, war - without speaking in the terms of advertising.
Practically everyone who reads Baudrillard claims he's being hyperbolic on these points. I'm not so sure. If language is the foundation of meaning, and if language is irrevocably and always already altered by advertising, then the basic concept we each have of love, art, etc., and the basic ways we utter love, art, etc., are in advertising language. (It's important to keep in mind Baudrillard's insistence that it's the form of advertising, not what we take to be advertising, that matters.) Advertising speaks to us about who we are (constituted consumers), and gives us the terms to address one another as who we are (constituted consumers).
Thus, the "catastrophe of meaning" which leaves the masses in a state of "stupor," of "fascination."
Not content with that, Baudrillard drops a mention of computer language into this analysis, claiming that it will liquidate advertising and displace it. (The book was published in French in 1981.) What I want to do is see what a Baudrillardian interpretation of contemporary silicon technology would look like. Now that we have mobile bodies targeted by and targeting everything at once, in what sense is advertising obsolescent?