Saturday, September 18, 2021

Baudrillard, "The Implosion of Meaning in the Media"

 Baudrillard, "The Implosion of Meaning in the Media"

We are in a universe where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning. Consider three hypotheses:

1.- Either information produces meaning (a negentropic factor), but doesn't succeed in compensating for the brutal loss of signification in every domain. The reinjection of message and content by means of the media is vain, since meaning is devoured and lost more rapidly than it is reinjected. In this case, appeal has to be made to a productivity at the base in order to relieve the failing media. This is the whole ideology of free speech, of the media subdivided into innumerable individual cells of transmission, indeed "anti-media" (CB radios, etc.).

2. - Or information has nothing to do with signification. It is something else, an operational model of another order, outside of meaning and the circulation of meaning properly speaking. This is the hypothesis of Shannon: a sphere of information that is purely instrumental, a technical medium implying no end purpose of meaning, and thus which must not itself be implicated in a value judgement. A kind of code, perhaps like the genetic code: it is what it is, it functions as it does; meaning is something else, corning afterwards in some way, as in Jacques Monod's Chance and Necessity. In this case, there would simply be no significant relation between the inflation of information and the deflation of meaning.

3.- Or rather the contrary: there is a rigorous and necessary correlation between the two, to the extent that information is directly destructive of meaning and signification, or neutralizes it. The loss of meaning is directly linked to the dissolving and dissuasive action of information, the media, and the mass media.
The third hypothesis is the most interesting, although it goes against the grain of all accepted opinion. Everywhere socialization is measured according to exposure through media messages. Those who are under-exposed to the media are virtually asocial or desocialized. Everywhere information is reputed to produce an accelerated circulation of meaning, a plus-value of meaning homologous to the economic plus-value which results from the accelerated rotation of capital. Information is given as creative of communication, and even if the wastage is enormous a general consensus would have it that there is in the total nonetheless a surplus of meaning, which is redistributed in all the interstices of the social fabric - just as a consensus would have it that material production, despite its dysfunctions and irrationalities, nevertheless leads to an excess of wealth and social finality. We are all accomplices in this myth. It is the alpha and omega of our modernity, without which the credibility of our social organization would collapse. Yet the fact is that it is collapsing, and for this very reason. Just where we think that information is producing meaning, it is doing the exact opposite.

Information devours its own contents; it devours communication and the social, and for two reasons:

1. Instead of causing communication, it exhausts itself in the act of staging the communication; instead of producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning. It is a gigantic process of simulation with which we are very familiar. The non-directed interview, speech, listeners who telephone in, participation at all levels, blackmail through speech - all say: "It's your concern, you are the event, etc." More and more information is invaded by this sort of phantom content, this homeopathic graft, this awakened dream of communication. It is a circular set-up in which the desire of the audience is put on stage, an anti-theater of communication, which, as we know, is never anything but the recycling "in the negative" of traditional institutions, the integrated circuit of the negative. Immense energies are deployed in order to keep this simulacre standing upright, and to avoid the brutal de-simulation which would confront us with the obvious reality of a radical loss of meaning.

It is useless to wonder if it is the loss of communication which causes this escalation in the simulacre, or if it is the simulacre which is there first, with its dissuasive finality, since it shortcircuits in advance all possibility of communication (precession of the model which puts an end to the real). It is useless to wonder which is the first term. There is none, it is a circular process - that of simulation, that of the hyperreal: a hyperreality of communication and of meaning, more real than the real. Hence the real is abolished.

Thus communication as well as the social functions as a closed circuit, as a lure - to which is attached the force of a myth. The belief and the faith in information attached to this tautological proof give the system itself, by doubling its signs, an unlocatable reality.

But this belief may be thought to be as ambiguous as the one attached to myths in archaic societies. One both believes and doesn't believe. The question is simply not posed. "I know very well, but all the same .... " A sort of inverted simulation corresponds in the masses, in each one of us, to this simulation of meaning and of communication in which this system encloses us. To the tautology of the system the masses have responded with ambivalence; to dissuasion they have responded with disaffection, and an always enigmatic belief. The myth exists, but one must guard against thinking that people believe in it. That is the trap of critical thought, which can only be exercized given the naivete and the stupidity of the masses as a presupposition.

2. Behind this exacerbated staging of communication, the mass media, with its pressure of information, carries out an irresistable destructuration of the social.

Thus information dissolves meaning and the social into a sort of nebulous state leading not at all to a surfeit of innovation but to the very contrary, to total entropy. 1

Thus the media do not bring about socialization, but just the opposite: the implosion of the social in the masses. And this is only the macroscopic extension of the implosion of meaning at the microscopic level of the sign. The latter is to be analyzed starting from McLuhan's formula the medium is the message, the consequences of which are far from being exhausted.

Its meaning is that all the contents of meaning are absorbed in the dominant form of the medium. The medium alone makes the event -and does this whatever the contents, whether conformist or subversive. A serious problem for all counter-information, pirate radios, antimedia, etc. But there is something even more serious, which McLuhan himself did not make clear. For beyond this neutralization of all content, one could still hope to manipulate the medium in its form, and to transform the real by utilizing the impact of the medium as form. With all content nullified, perhaps there is still a revolutionary and subversive use-value of the medium as such. Yet - and this is where McLuhan's formula at its extreme limit leads -there is not only the implosion of the message in the medium; in the same movement there is the implosion of the medium itself in the real, the implosion of the medium and the real in a sort of nebulous hyperreality where even the definition and the distinct action of the medium are no longer distinguishable.

Even the "traditional status" of the media themselves, characteristic of our modernity, is put into question. McLuhan's formula, the medium is the message, which is the key formula of the era of simulation (the medium is the message - the sender is the receiver - the circularity of all poles - the end of panoptic and perspectival space -such is the alpha and omega of our modernity), this very formula must be envisaged at its limit, where, after all contents and messages have been volatilized in the medium, it is the medium itself which is volatilized as such. At bottom, it is still the message which lends credibility to the medium, and which gives to the medium its distinct and determined status as intermediary of communication. Without a message, the medium also falls into that indefinite state characteristic of all our great systems of judgement and value. A single model, whose efficacy is immediacy, simultaneously generates the message, the medium, and the "real."

In short, the medium is the message signifies not only the end of the message, but also the end of the medium. There are no longer media in the literal sense of the term (I am talking above all about the electronic mass media) - that is to say, a power mediating between one reality and another, between one state of the real and another - neither in content nor in form. Strictly speaking, this is what implosion signifies: the absorption of one pole into another, the short-circuit between poles of every differential system of meaning, the effacement of terms and of distinct oppositions, and thus that of the medium and the real. Hence the impossibility of any mediation, of any dialectical intervention between the two or from one to the other, circularity of all media effects. Hence the impossibility of a sense (meaning), in the literal sense of a unilateral vector which leads from one pole to another. This critical - but original - situation must be thought through to the very end; it is the only one we are left with. It is useless to dream of a revolution through content or through form, since the medium and the real are now in a single nebulous state whose truth is undecipherable.

The fact of this implosion of contents, of absorption of meaning, of the evanescence of the medium itself, of the re-absorption of the whole dialectic of communication in a total circularity of the model, of the implosion of the social in the masses, can appear catastrophic and hopeless. But it is only so in regard to the idealism that dominates our whole vision of information. We all live by a fanatical idealism of meaning and communication, by an idealism of communication through meaning, and, in this perspective, it is very much a catastrophe of meaning which lies in wait for us.

But it must be seen that the term "catastrophe" has this "catastrophic" meaning of the end and annihilation only in a linear vision of accumulation and productive finality that the system imposes on us. Etymologically, the term only signifies the curvature, the winding down to the bottom of a cycle leading to what can be called the "horizon of the event," to the horizon of meaning, beyond which we cannot go. Beyond it, nothing takes place that has meaning for us -but it suffices to exceed this ultimatum of meaning in order that catastrophe itself no longer appear as the last, nihilistic day of reckoning, such as it functions in our current collective fantasy.

Beyond meaning, there is fascination, which results from the neutralization and implosion of meaning. Beyond the horizon of the social, there are the masses, which result from the neutralization and implosion of the social.

The essential thing today is to evaluate this double challenge - the defiance of meaning by the masses and their silence (which is not at all a passive resistance) - and the defiance of meaning which comes from the media and its fascination. In regard to this challenge all the marginal and alternative attempts to resuscitate meaning are secondary.

Evidently there is a paradox in this inextricable conjunction of the masses and the media: is it the media that neutralizes meaning and that produces the "unformed" (or informed) mass, or is it the mass that victoriously resists the media by diverting or absorbing all the messages which it produces without responding to them? Some time ago, in "Requiem for the Media," I analyzed (and condemned) the media as the institution of an irreversible model of communication without response. But today? This absence of response can be understood as a counter-strategy of the masses themselves in their encounter with power, and no longer at all as a strategy of 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 done to meaning and in the fascination that results? Is it the media which induce fascination in the masses, or is it the masses which divert the media into spectacle? Mogadishu Stammheim: the media are made the vehicle of the moral condemnation of terrorism and of the exploitation of fear for political ends, but, simultaneously, in the most total ambiguity, they propagate the brutal fascination of the terrorist act. They are themselves terrorists, to the extent to which they work through fascination (d. Umberto Eco on this eternal moral dilemma: how not to speak of terrorism, how to find a good use for the media? There is none ). The media carry meaning and non-sense; they manipulate in every sense simultaneously. The process cannot be controlled, for the media convey the simulation internal to the system and the simulation destructive of the system according to a logic that is aboslutely Moebian and circular - and this is exactly what it is like. There is no alternative to it, no logical resolution. Only a logical exacerbation and a catastrophic resolution.

With one qualification. We are face to face with this system, in a double situation, an insoluble "double bind" exactly like children face to face with the adult universe. They are simultaneously summoned to behave like autonomous subjects, responsible, free, and conscious, and as submissive objects, inert, obedient, and conforming. The child resists on all levels, and to a contradictory demand he also responds with a double strategy. To the demand to be an object, he opposes all the practices of disobedience, revolt, emancipation; in short, a total claim to subjecthood. To the demand to be a subject, he opposes just as stubbornly and efficaciously with an object's resistance, that is to say, in exactly the opposite manner: infantilism, hyperconformism, a total dependence, passivity, idiocy. Neither of the two strategies has more objective value than the other. The resistance-as-subject is today unilaterally valorized and held as positive - just as in the political sphere only the practices of liberation, emancipation, expression, and constitution as a political subject are taken to be valuable and subversive. But this is to ignore the equal or perhaps even superior impact, of all the practices-as-object - the renunciation of the position of subject and of meaning - exactly the practices of the masses - which we bury and forget under the contemptuous terms of alienation and passivity. The liberating practices respond to one of the aspects of the system, to the constant ultimatum to make of ourselves pure objects, but they don't respond at all to the other demand, which is to constitute ourselves as subjects, to liberate ourselves, to express ourselves at any price, to vote, produce, decide, speak, participate, play the game - a form of blackmail ultimatum just as serious as the other, probably even more serious today. To a system whose argument is oppression and repression, the strategic resistance is the liberating claim ofsubjecthood. But this reflects rather the system's previous phase, and even if we are still confronted with it, it is no longer the strategic terrain: the system's current argument is the maximization of the word and the maximal production of meaning. Thus the strategic resistance is that of a refusal of meaning and a refusal of the word - or of the hyperconformist simulation of the very mechanisms of the system, which is a form of refusal and of non-reception.

This is the resistance of the masses: it is equivalent to sending back to the system its own logic by doubling it, to reflecting, like a mirror, meaning without absorbing it. This strategy (if one can still speak of strategy) prevails today, because it was ushered in by that phase of the system.

A mistake concerning strategy is a serious matter. All the movements which only bet on liberation, emancipation, the resurrection of the subject of history, of the group, of speech as a raising of consciousness, indeed of a "seizure of the unconscious" of subjects and of the masses, do not see that they are acting in accordance with the system, whose imperative today is the overproduction and regeneration of meaning and speech.

1. Here we have discussed information only in the social register of communication. But it would be fascinating to consider the hypothesis within the framework of the cybernetic theory of communication. There also, the fundamental thesis would have it that information would be synonymous with negentropy, the resistance to entropy, and an excess of meaning and of organization. But it would be fitting to pose the opposite hypothesis: INFORMATION = ENTROPY. For example: the information or knowledge about a system or an event that can be obtained is already a form of neutralization and of entropy of this system. (This applies to the sciences in general and to the human and social sciences in particular.) The information in which an event is reflected or through which it is diffused is already a degraded form of the event. One would not hesitate to analyze the intervention of the media in May 1968 in this sense. The extension given to the student action permitted the general strike, but the latter was precisely a black box which neutralized the original virulence of the movement. The very amplification was a mortal trap and not a positive extension. Distrust the universalization of struggles through information. Distrust campaigns of solidarity at every level, this solidarity that is both electronic and worldwide. Every strategy of the universalization of differences is an entropic strategy of the system.

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