Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

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Baudrillard’s Second Life, by René Capovin

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Baudrillard’s Second Life, by René Capovin

translated from the Italian by Alan N. Shapiro

(this is the draft of a translation that still needs some polishing)

The Reality of Virtual Reality

Fashion in the modern sense, according to E. Esposito, presupposes the becoming-autonomous of interaction, and is linked, in particular, to the communications of the mass media. In a society differentiated by functions, in fact, there is no one class or group that can impose its own “taste.” Everyone must conform their own taste to the information of all others, providing “the orientations to discriminate what is acceptable and what is not … obtaining primarily the information from the mass media.”

In this sense, fashion, considered as a strategy of selection of arbitrary yet shared contents, must take as its point of departure that which everyone knows, from “public opinion,” to the constitution of which the mass media contribute in a decisive manner. In effect, systems theory brings back the transition to modernism, beyond imposing itself from a differentiation oriented to functions, to the diffusion of the press, and with this, to a communication that is decoupled from the interactive forms implicated by orality. Baudrillard recognizes in the appearance of the mass media (newspapers, cinema, radio, television, advertising) one of the central elements of the structural discontinuity that modernism signals. The reality of the mass media is the first field on which our exploration of the exits in dissolution of simulation will concentrate.

The mass media are at Baudrillard’s center of attention starting from his earliest works. It could not have been otherwise: an analysis centered on the process of “codification” of the material dimension (objects, economic, artistic, and intellectual production) could not have done otherwise than recognize in the media a specific factor of this generalized conversion of “objects” in “value-sign.” In this way, if it is true that the code that operates such a translation comes initially to be identified as the semiotic form, an understandable result is the institution of a very strong nexus between such a codification and the mass media.

In effect, the simulacra, in their different configurations, stage an insurrection in relation to the intervention of a specific technology: the simulacra of the first order of those of pre-modern artistic (re-)production, the Renaissance and the baroque, those of the second order are the effect of the imposition of industrial production; those of the third, in other words, those which characterize the most intense phase of modernism, result from the ascendency of digital technologies. In the light of this consideration, we have to pay attention to, in so far as Baudrillard asserts regarding the logic of consumer society, then re-described as the logic of the society of simulation, he bases himself on a corresponding theory regarding the mass media, as contemporaneous agents of simulation. Such a theory is put forward in one of the most incisive texts of Baudrillard, included in the collection For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Let us, therefore, make a jump into the critical pre-history of Baudrillard, keeping in mind that the theory now synthesized will not undergo, in its reconstructive part, substantial modifications; to change will be the consequences drawn from such circumstances, as we will see passing to the examination of some texts belonging to the second phase of his production.

Requiem for the Media

The horizon of Baudrillard’s reflection is still here that of his long saying goodbye to Marxism. Such a statement, it is to be asserted, occludes the analysis of mass communication, and for this reason comes to be recognized as a coherent but “local” theory. As a consequence, it comes to be rejected the transfers of the Marxian system to social spheres other than the economy, an attempt characteristic of the Althusserians, to elaborate a true and own theory of the mass media, still at the empirical and mystical stage (in McLuhan and his critics).

The central thesis of the article can be thus broken up into the following components:

- the means of mass communication prevent every mediation, they are “intransitive”: in this way, if we define communication as an “exchange”, as a reciprocal space of question and response, the current media are those which render communication impossible, being founded as they are on unilateralism.

- the impossibility of a “response” comes to be qualified in the following terms: what is impossible is a response that is not pre-determined by the question, the true and proper injunction of which either can correspond with a “yes/no” (listen/don’t listen, look/don’t look), or exploiting the air time constituted by readers’ letters, the telephone interventions of the listeners, opinion polls;

- Therefore a critical re-use of the media is impossible, since it continues to presuppose the essential, in other words the separateness of the instances of (codifying) transmission and (decodifying) reception, united and at the same time kept at a distance from the code from which one selects the particular message.

- Enzensberger, in particular, comes up against this specific “cybernetic illusion” as soon as he thinks himself capable of breaking the assymetry that founds the ideology of communication, pointing to an exchange of roles and counter-reactions;

Such an attempt does nothing other than develop a tendency, internal to those cybernetic systems of which the media are nothing more than a regional environment, to give space to this counter-reaction, stimulating the response of the receiver and guaranteeing to him in this way a meta-stable equilibrium.

- The same thesis of Eco, according to whom it would be necessary to activate codes of an autonomous (and, therefore, critical, reading), does nothing other than recognize the existence of that structural grid of communication: such a re-reading of the code of the broadcaster, according to Baudrillard, can be successful only if it becomes a “transgression”, in other words a rupture of the dominant code.

- Only an opposition that attacks the dominant form has a strategic character: “the symbolic consists precisely in the fact of breaking this univocalness of the ‘message’, in the restoring of the ambivalence of meaning, in the liquidating at the same time (? – in pari tempo) of the instance of the code.

Such arguments allow to individuate a series of elements that will enter to become part in a stable way of the Baudrillardian conception of the mass media. The modifications that interest him, in fact, leverage the permanency of at least three elements: priority according to a formal analysis; identification of structural linguistics and theory of communication; engagement with and overturning of McLuhan’s theory. The three elements, to look closely at them, “comprise a system”: the analysis individuates the form of the mass media in the model-basis of the theory of communication (sender-message-receiver sequence); such a model is nothing other than the theoretical frame within which the principles of structural linguistics have been translated, in the sense that the use of the term “semiotics”, on the part of the French author, presupposes the grafting of the Saussurian of “system” within this specific communications model. In the end, this model is the logical nucleus of McLuhan’s analysis.

The media, in fact, institute themselves as ideological operators not already because of the contents for which they are the vehicles, but because of their mode of operating: “the media constitute a social relationship that is not one of exploitation, but rather of abstraction, of separation, of the abolition of exchange.” As seen repeatedly in the first part of this work, in fact, ideology is not to be understood as an entity elaborated by the dominant class successively inoculated by mediatic way: ideology exists in the form itself of the media. The appropriation of McLuhan’s formula “medium is the message” comes to be understood in the light of this attitude of radical critique of the media, recognized as an instance of making people passive: this is where the Canadian scholar saw the liberatory possibilities, summed up “icasticamente” (?) in the noted image of the “global village”, his French counter-figure (the label of “French McLuhan” has been used by two of the most noted Baudrillard interpreters) recognized a process of manipulation, obtained (and this is the most significant point) through participation. The site of response, in which Enzensberger and Eco see the space for a possible counter-strategy, is the point on which cybernetic power rests: whatever may be the content of the response, the simple giving itself of an event that allows the continuation of the communicative process converts itself into an act of consensus in relation to the power of the sender. The response, in other words, does not configure itself as a “symbolic action” not because it is in its contents pre-determined by the choice of the code carried out by the sender, but because it is delineated as an absolute instance, in other words sciolta (?) by every social constraint with its own other. From this the straining of the formula of McLuhan, rewritten “Medium is the massage”: such a modification sends back, as we shall see in the next chapter when examining directly the directly political relapses of these arguments, to the control via solicitation and care of the citizen, who becomes the “mass man” precisely in order to share with every other citizen the media-induced state of passivity and de-responsibility.

In the background of this picture, flickers the utopian mirage, moreover characteristic of Baudrillard’s thought of the years during which the text under consideration was written, of an immediate subversion that interests the communicative model in its complexity, entirety (?) We will not linger too long (? – soffermeremo) on such an aspect, jumping rather to a second one, fundamentally borrowed from a theory of McLuhan’s: the opposition between hot and cold media.

Against the Cold, the Deep Freeze

The institution of a relationship between individual technologies of communication and corresponding modalities of the perception of space and time induced on an individual and social level constitutes the point of departure of the research conducted by the Canadian author. The different means of communication differentiate themselves from each other with respect to a fundamental parameter, that of the relative degree of participation requested of the user. In this way, the media defined as extensions of psychic and sensorial capacities, the “hot” media are those which extend only one human sense, bringing it to the point of “high definition” (for example, photography and radio), “cold” are those which (for example, telephone and television), extend at the same time a number of sensorial capacities, retaining however a “low definition” of the same. It is precisely this “lightness,” from the point of view of the quantity of carried information, demands of the receiver a great effort to complete the message, something that does not necessitate in the case of the “full” messages of the “hot” media, towards which the destinated remains in a state of substantial passivity. This is therefore how the cold media are (inclusive, enclosing – includenti) because they demand active participation on the part of the user, favoring in this way the liberatory implosion of alienated equilibrium which was compulsory in the “Gutenberg Galaxy,” dominated, precisely, by the excluding and atomizing logic of the hot media.

Baudrillard greets this distinction, but inverts its sign: the cold media request the active participation of the destinated, but this does not have as an effect a retribalization of the world, promoted by the reconfiguration of inter-individual relationships operated by the “technologies of proximity.”

The intimacy of the “global village” positions itself exactly at the antipodes with respect to the frozen sociality that dominates the era of simulation, illuminated with the sinister analytical neon that accompanies pages which are justifiably famous of Symbolic Exchange and Death. As one will recall, the binary code came to be considered as the material of construction of the reality of the simulacra of the third order: the body, for example, comes to be reduced to its formula of genetic construction, and similarly to all “objects” threatens the possibility of an indefinite reproduction of them assured by the code – that binary code which is in the center of that which Baudrillard calls (without however showing any sign of adhesion (?) to it, the “cybernetic revolution.” Such a discourse finds in politics an environment of privileged application: the defining formula of contemporary politics is rendered possible by the declination of the binary ur-opposition, 0/1, according to the model left/right (the ‘advanced democratic’ systems stabilize themselves on the form of bipartisan alternation. [...] Alternation is the non plus ultra of a perfected competitive relationship between the two parties). Such a model comes to be operationalized by the thick informational (? – informativa) network that crosses them, dismembering it and recomposing it according to the logic of communicative flows, the political body. According to Baudrillard, it is here that the formula of McLuhan has a meaning, in that public opinion which is simultaneously medium and message: “the opinion polls which inform are the incessant imposition of the medium as message. As such they are of the same sort as the TV and the electronic media, which we have seen as being also themselves a perpetual game of question/answer, an instrument of perpetual polling. (polling as the simulation of surveillance – ANS)

What comes to be emphasized is that the opinion polls are vectors of simulation not because they influence in an objective manner on public opinion (something which cannot be demonstrated, if not by means of yet further opinion polls), but because they institute a short-circuit in which the opinion of public opinion no longer has an autonomous consistency. Public opinion is a statistical flux, and it is only a piece of data, a given, moreover unfathomable in its objective “truth,” on which comes to be calibrated the accomplished (? – compiuta) elaboration by the twinned political formation that dominates our Western societies. The conclusion is that the political sphere loses its own specificity by contagion, infection on the part of the game of the news media and the polls, which reduce political action to a continuous production of “replies.”

At a certain point, however, the judgment of Baudrillard changes on a fundamental point.

Silence of the Masses and Transcendental Silence

If simulation bases itself on the equilibrium between question and response, it will be able to be attacked only by breaking apart this symmetry. There is a path for doing this, the French author realizes at a certain point: non-response. This idea matures after his ideas about the form of the mass media and on its political consequences were already articulated in various occasions, beyond the two which I have just tried to synthesize. Baudrillard notes:

Regarding the silence of the masses with relation to the media, one understands, the media as producers of the silence of the masses – has given to this silence a pejorative, negative sense. Successively I have inverted the hypothesis. But it has seems that things may be more complicated than this, that the hypthesis of manipulation, of mystification, of alienation, may be too conventional. It was necessary to search for another hypothesis. Thus, in In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, I proposed that silence might be a power, that it might be a subterfuge, that it might be a replicant subterfuge by the masses across the refusal, that silence might be a strategy. It is not only passivity. It is precisely a way to put an end to the regime of meaning, to interrupt the great systems of political and informational  manipulation.

I will concentrate here on the form of this throwing-away of the model-basis of communication. We will see in the next chapter the exact meaning of this hyper-conformism of the masses: it is enough to anticipate that we are faced with, have to do with a conscious political strategy, but with a sort of “wild” reaction of the social body, a sort of epilepsy with which the masses make jump the cool order of simulation  through a move of “being even colder.” Here, only criticism, posing itself on the “second level,” reads a “strategy” in the habitual sense of the term, when that which is at work, at the “first level,” is however of those strategies that Baudrillard baptizes as fatal.

But let me stay with the communicative form of this silence. The only thing that the political system of simulation does not support – this is Baudrillard’s thesis – is silence. The thing becomes easily comprehensible if we recall the conceptual apparatus of Luhmann. In such a perspective, the “reality” of the mass media consists, above all, in the communicative operations that unfold within their interior and which traverse them. Such an assertion comes to be however specified in the following sense: “a communication realizes itself only with someone who sees, feels, reads – and understands enough so that a following communication can be generated.” Now, communication does not take place only if it does not come to be followed by another communication that expresses the infinite variety of possible receptions on the part of the spectator, the listener, the reader. What form has, however, such a non-communication? Must we think of a form of mass misunderstanding? Of a generalized refusal to respond to the solicitations, requests? Nothing like that at all. Each response, even non-response, is never silent: the negating oneself to the opinion poll surveyor in turn is however a communication that can be re-elaborated, in such a way as to be calculable as a potentially significant element if many react in the same way; in this way, to respond in an insincere way is a strategy that the statisticians discount and try to limit, for example, with questions of verification. If one accepts dialog, this is the deducible, inferable (? – inferibile) thesis of Baudrillard’s reasoning, we remain within the model of communication.

In reality, no solution can come from the recipient, once she has been isolated as an autonomous instance: at this point, communication is already within a safe zone, immunized from the arbitrary remains or fanciful, unrealistic (? – velleitarie) desertions. Only the “masses,” in reality, can be silent, and that because (and this is the decisive point) the mass itself is a statistical construction, an effect of the polls. The masses are not a “substance,” the last link of a degenerative process that, starting from the “community,” would be temporally certified on the dramas (anomie, alienation, etc.) of the “society” to exhaust its own regressive thrust into this cool ecstasy. The masses do not exist if not in the opinion polls, and for such a reason they do not succeed to make it speak in a clear and determined manner. They do not succeed, in other words, to give an adequate representation of them: the elusive “substance” of the masses coincides with the continous flux of statistical images which try to individuate them, but which provoke the volatilization of this ultra-flexible “reality” capable of taking on any form (and which, precisely because of this, does not have any form).

The silence of the masses, therefore, is not a collective choice to negate itself as an indicating instance, but the effect of the application of these technologies. This reasoning, as we have seen, presents non-causal assonance with the reflections of Jean-François Lyotard, engaged in the 1980s in a true and genuine dialogue from a distance with N. Luhmann precisely on the subject of the limits of the system and about the possibility of thinking an outside to it.

The Perfect Crime

The radical illusion – of which Baudrillard’s theory is a part – consists in showing how (1) there is not, in effect, nothing else besides objective and reproducible reality, yet (2) each hypothetical opposition would be nothing other than the evocation of an imaginary retro instance, and which however (3) this simulationist process finds a limit in its own producing itself and in the act that nominates it and distances it.

There is nothing else beyond this continuous expansion of reality, no authentic negativity that can limit it. Simulation, more than superceding reality, is the model of its indefinite reproduction (“the perfect crime consists in an unconditional realization of the world through all of its data [...] the extermination of reality along with its double.”) On the other side – and this is the side not seen by those who regard Baudrillard as an apocalyptist, in other words the majority of readers – this process, in order to be fulfilled, must drive away appearances and render itself fully objective. In order for this to occur, however, it is necessary that such a completion, fulfillment (? – compimento) be recognized, attested to, witnessed to: for this, precisely in the moment in which this process comes to be individuated, it comes to be also limited, from the moment that, if the crime can truly be perfect, one would not speak of the murder of reality on the part of the mechanisms of re-production of the same. The act that recognizes the process (trial – ?) of realization of reality shows also its internal limit, coinciding with the impossibilty of a completion of it, and, at the same time, of the recognition of its realization.

Up to now, we have thought an incomplete reality, shot through with negativity; we have thought what was lacking in reality. Today, we have to think a reality which lacks nothing, individuals who potentially lack nothing and therefore can no longer dream of a dialectical sublation. Or rather, the dialectic has indeed fulfilled itself, but ironically, one might say, not at all by taking in the negative, as in the dream of critical thought, but in a total, irrevocable positivity. [...] One has to be even more positive than the positive to take in both the total positivity of the world and the illusion of that pure positivity.

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