An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard: a new system of meaning

In the latest instalment of his series on Jean Baudrillard, political theorist Andrew Robinson explores the implications of the French thinker's theories of 'the code' and 'reproduction' for meaning and communication.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, May 18, 2012 11:13 - 3 Comments



Reality TV: “creating the illusion of watching things as they would be with no cameras there.”

Previously articles on Baudrillard have explored the capitalist code and reproduction. This week we explore the implications of these theories for meaning and communication, explaining why, for Baudrillard, everyday meaning is completely penetrated by capitalism. We also explore why, in spite of this penetration, capitalist power is not complete.

Public opinion is one of the new realities which results from the code. It does not exist separately from the specific options provided by pollsters. Often, responses involve guessing what is expected or assumed by those asking the questions. Baudrillard thinks this is a fatal problem with surveys and questions. Respondents always respond the way they think the questioner wants. The process of questioning is therefore entirely circular. The questioner gets out what they put in. (This response to the questioner is also taken to undermine psychoanalysis). Often, public opinion also generates events rather than reflecting them. It becomes yet another model.

Social relations are reorganised in terms of binary codes, such as question/answer and stimulus/response pairings. In cases such as data mining, even individuals can be mapped as sets of digital information. The whole of social reality becomes subject to a regime of ‘descriptive transparency’. Baudrillard sees this process as an infinite division of social reality – the application of a series of binary oppositions. The reading of texts becomes a perpetual test, like a question-answer test. Dialogue between text and reader disappears. Instead, textual choices locate the reader at a point in the code. This creates a densely monological relation. The system makes a naked demand to which no response is possible.

Similarly, objects become tests. The object no longer exists to serve a use. It is a sign which locates the consumer at a particular point in the code. People learn to respond to and decode the code in its own terms, as a series of either-or options. The system tries to induce constant active participation in this process, seeking a joyous, spontaneous feedback. Television, for instance, requires viewers to constantly complete an image they have only partially processed. The system also seeks a kind of permanent mobilisation: people are still fixed in place, whether in factories, consumption sites, prisons, schools, or retraining. This process is a mirror of the code’s attempts to imagine everything as having a place. Rather than a system of production, the system becomes a reading strip, filled with signs to be coded and decoded. Everyone is turned into a terminal for the system.

The system does not appear to be totally controlling, because it is binary. For Baudrillard, this binary system is a way of introducing tactical flexibility into a monopoly system. It is not a genuinely competitive system, but rather, a system of counting or doubling (two identical alternatives). The World Trade Centre is seen as a symbol of the system’s omnipotence, and of its practices of doubling.

This system of testing and questioning alters the construction of meaning. There is now a new regime of truth – not of the mirror or the panoptical gaze, but a ‘manipulative truth’ of a code which interrogates via tests, remembers one’s preferences, or genetically determines things in advance. It is a regime of collective voyeurism – the public spying on itself. It leads to a new kind of uncertainty arising from an excess of information of indeterminate meaning.

For Baudrillard, this regime is a kind of formal participation which is often portrayed as full participation. It is not full participation because there is practically no way of saying “no” to the system. It effectively induces a kind of psychological participation. This participation is now replacing repression as the main form of control. Our intelligence and ability to communicate are reduced theoretically to the ability to provide contrasting or appropriate responses to increasing varieties of stimuli.

This leads, for instance, to a crisis of electoral representation. The so-called representatives control the process of opinion-formation so well, they no longer represent something outside themselves. They become unrepresentative for this reason. Opinion surveys and television represent nothing. They illogically project the new order – the order of statistics, operationalism and simulation – onto a traditional value-system of representation and free will. The two orders are actually incommensurable.  But the illusion of their compatibility moralises the regime of simulation. It creates a moral philosophy of information.

Baudrillard sees this new regime of truth as a regime of doubling. The world is catalogued and analysed, turned into models, then artificially resurrected from the models made of it. This creates a doubled world which is at once artificial and strangely similar to the original. It short-circuits and then duplicates reality through signs. This leads to a world in which the ‘real’, the ‘event’, and real antagonism are prevented in advance.

Baudrillard takes as examples the replacement of people touching each other with touch therapy, of localised food-production with artificially-produced ‘natural’ foods, of walking as a part of life with jogging as a fitness regimen. In another passage, Baudrillard discusses reality TV (and one might add, spaces under CCTV surveillance), as creating the illusion of watching things as they would be with no cameras there. He discusses the routinising of strikes in a similar way. And he talks of therapeutic methods as the functional isolation of the social.

In another essay, he speaks of today’s films as seeming a little too good, too perfect, missing the blemishes and the ‘imaginary’ of the phenomena they imitate. It is as if they are perfected of their processual origins, of the marks of history. They no longer have meaning or aesthetics strictly speaking. For instance, today’s action and sci-fi films increasingly approximate to sequences of special effects. They often lack the charm of their technologically simpler predecessors. But they approximate ever more closely to a perfect simulation of reality. For Baudrillard this is a symptom of social changes, of the replacement of reference by simulation.

It means that television and film are now socially ineffectual. They are image, not imaginary. The action takes place ‘on the screens and nowhere else’. Even when events are real, as in humanitarian crises, the viewer can’t really imagine them. They are consigned to a special, televisual location. And this ‘cool’, deintensified location increasingly spreads to news and politics along with fiction.

The message is lost in the medium, the medium in the real, and the medium and real alike in the hyperreal. The distinct effects of the media are now indiscernible from the wider context. There are no remaining ‘media’ in the sense of mediations which communicate between distinct realities. Such a ‘dialectic’ of communication is replaced by the circularity of the model. Television – and computers – lack irony and artifice. They lack symbolic exchange.

Cinema, in contrast, was once an ‘image’ in an older sense. But it is being contaminated. Films increasingly exist only through a persistent commentary and reinterpretation. It becomes harder to reach the film itself, rather than texts referring to texts. This in turn makes them dysfunctional. They are a means of manipulation in all directions at once (they carry police press releases but also activist press releases as fact). They both simulate within the system and carry the simulation which destroys it. They condemn terrorism but also spread its effects. Events now have no existence beyond the screen which deflects them.

Baudrillard discusses porn in these terms: as sex without sexuality, without sensuality or pleasure, or something more sexual than sex, performing the brute descriptive fact of sex without any real investment, as combinations of encoded possibilities. It functions to neutralise sex, and to spread an energy of neutralisation. It is not contrasted with ‘good sex’ somewhere else. Rather, it seems to suggest that sex does not depend on the existence of pleasurable sex or sexual desire. Sex still functions without desire.

The dream of cloning goes even further, pursuing the emergence of humans from the genetic code, without a sexuality linked to death. Perhaps it would even reproduce a particular identity infinitely, without any difference appearing. The android is another example here: too perfect to be true, like humanity stripped of its blemishes and its processual origins.

There are other examples. Faces stripped of masks. Skin treated as a complete cover without orifices. In mapping, there is a lack of unexplored spaces where imaginary sites can be placed. In other fields, things are cloned or reproduced as distinct segments or modules (such as academic modules or specific skills), with the possibility of reconstructing the whole from any of the interchangeable parts. This is the end both of autonomous parts and of the meaning of the whole. The clone, like the reproduced work of art for Benjamin, loses its aura. It may even become akin to a cancer cell, proliferating without regard for its context.

In various fields, the fading of meaning, the neutralisation through overexposure of the signs associated with pleasure and enjoyment, occurs. This process is itself seductive – there is a pleasure in the process of overexposure itself. Things only have lightness through their secrecy or absence. When everything is present and visible, it becomes a brute material fact, like a rotting body, or like sex in a porn video.

The pure image is the end of the imaginary. By destroying the distance between the thing and its image, it stops the functioning of Lacanian/Freudian fantasy mechanisms. For Baudrillard, like Lacan and Freud, there cannot be an imaginary or real except at a certain distance from the object. The overexposure of objects through simulation brings about the end of the imaginary. Pure images, transparent to each other, shatter if brought into relations, yet contact and penetrate each other all too easily.

The imaginary relies on what is known in psychoanalysis as the scene, a site which is invested with unconscious energy, which is repeated in fantasy and trauma, and (in Lacan) imagined to be the site where the absent cause of desire exists. In order for such a scene to be imagined, there need to be gaps and incomplete spaces where it can be imagined to be. Overexposure and ‘obscenity’ (the absolute proximity of the thing seen) thus destroys the scene.  It is replaced by a ‘screen’, or a surface without depth.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis, the imaginary functions because of its relationship to the Real, which is not a representable secret. Forcing the revelation of the secret leads to its loss, like the goose that laid the golden eggs. It creates an experience of unbearable obscenity or excessive reality. When there are no secrets left, there is no longer a site to invest with the Real, and construct an imaginary around. Forcing the subject to reveal its secret necessarily fails, because the secret is really a connection outside the self, a relation.

Without the imaginary, there are no breaks between things.  The separations which create difference and intensity are struck with inertia. One is then opened to the undivided multiplication of each phenomenon to excess. Hypervisibility, the loss of secrets and illusions, leads to a kind of indifference: ‘heaven becomes indifferent to the earth’. The simulation or generation of reality from models destroys the social role of the imaginary.

A universal market of signs, models and values leaves no space for the imaginary. It becomes impossible to simulate things in the old way: a fake crime is treated as a real crime, and so on. The imaginary disappears because of the lack of a vanishing point where intensities can be invested. Because the system has reached its limits and is saturated, something else takes its place in the imaginary. Intense energies displace themselves from the system, back into the field of symbolic exchange.

[Part Eight will be published next week. Click here for other essays in this series.]



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Aug 12, 2012 11:59

This series on Baudrillard is fantastic! Thank you so much for these clear and concise summaries of his thought, I am genuinely enjoying it and feeling rather reinvigorated.

Aug 13, 2012 16:02

Agreed — fantastic work.

On Jean Baudrillard: A new system of meaning - Michael Larsson
Jun 5, 2013 12:03

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