Week 8: Discussion: Benjamin, Debord, Baudrillard: Image/Media/Spectacle/Representation/Simulacra

Brittany Coombs

external image 340x_Doodoo.flv.jpgIt seems many of us are on the same wavelength here -- like Stephanie and Zac, the most obvious point of entry into this week's readings was today's mass media behemoth that runs on constant hypermediate news about eccentric celebrities and weird lifestyles. (As I will be discussing Debord and Kellner during presentations today, I will leave Baudrillard et al. to Ariel and Kenneth in their reading reactions.) Like Stephanie, I couldn't help but think of magazines like Vogue and People and the like, which comment on frivolities with a command and frequency never before seen in human history; and like Zac, I just had to think of Charlie Sheen. ("Winning" has become a meme [Internet's the best breeding ground to date, says Kellner] because the word's now associated with someone debasing himself for the sake of being ogled.) Debord's theses are an indictment of capitalism and consumer culture. Social life used to exist, but how we produce and consume technology has separated reality from social interaction, reduced human sociality to a representation of its real former self.

Spectacular society is not spectacular (bad joke): Since nothing is authentic, our perceptions of reality are fundamentally blurred, which in turn limits our capacity to think critically about the world. Even our sense of chronology is warped, as we fuse the past and the future into one big glob of presentness that makes us feel any current situation is unchangeable and will last forever: "The spectacle is the preservation of unconsciousness within the practical change of the conditions of existence. ... All community and all critical sense are dissolved" (Thesis 25) as society heads further up what Vernor Vinge once famously called The Curve of exponential technological advancement. Kellner, building off Debord's theories with specific examples, echoes the timelessness of image-based reality, saying everything seems like a "seemingly unending cultural war."

In both production methods and usage, a lot of modern technology encourages us to isolate ourselves from others: "From the automobile to the television, all the goods selected [Debord's emphasis] by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the condition of ... 'lonely crowds'" (Thesis 28). This almost religious fetishization of commodities (especially "lonely-crowd" ones) has been our downfall. It has caused humanity togo from being to having to appearing, or from living or experiencing each other socially firsthand to wanting stuff that mediates this experience to relying on media to provide the experience to us. But I appreciated Kellner's point that spectacle itself is not something new to us: the Olympics, wars, festivals, jousting -- throughout history humans have loved spectacle. It's just that never before could spectacle shape life so thoroughly. Having "technospectacles," as Kellner calls them, is the key to modern globalization, since media is most effective when it's multimedia, a synthesis of various forms of distraction. The problem occurs these technospectcles catch on and become second nature, which hides the fact their "fatal laws" of separation and fetishism are communicating for us and "dominat[ing] our environment" (Thesis 24). We wait in lines that wrap around city blocks to see summer blockbusters or get new gadgets.

Consider the now-legendary Apple iPod commercials that have since been parodied to high heaven: featureless silhouettes dancing in their own worlds, defined only by the commodities they hold. "[A]dvertising, marketing, public relations and promotion are an essential part of commodity spectacle in the global marketplace," writes Kellner. Listening to music on an iPod is marketed as an "experience." Heck, we know it's an Apple product despite the fact the word "Apple" is neither written nor said because the Apple logo is an image we've internalized. People used to gather around radios -- now they are sequestered in headphones.

Ariel Leath

The Expectation of Reality in Reference to the Simulated [2 Comparisons]

The Caves of Lascaux & “Hamburger Dinner Theatre,” Bob’s Burgers (Episode 5)

Upon entering the caves of Lascaux, assuming one has not been completely ignorant or asleep for its introduction; one is knowledgeable of its true nature: a replica of an original. The real cave, the one the visitor is allowed to gaze upon through a small peep-hole, is too sensitive to human existence to be viewed. The importance of the cave drawings inside, though, is so great that an exact replica was built to allow visitors to experience the grandeur and scale of the drawings.I’ve been to the cave(s), I’ve done the tour, and I’ve been wholly impressed by the (replica’s) contents. The original, though, a taunting 500 meters away, allowed a disclaimer to be present in my head the entire time: this isn’t real.
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Who was I kidding, right? It is real; I was standing in it, gazing upon replicas of drawings that were exact. Who was I to judge the real-ness of the new version, or to rest on the real-ness of the cave I had seen in textbooks and viewed through a peep-hole? Baudrillard uses this example and makes the claim “…the duplication suffices to render both artificial.” I had trouble stomaching this at first (but the cave is real!), and sought help from a friend. I read the relevant passages to him and, in response, he led me to this: Bob's Burgers Episode 5
Bob’s Burgers is a new animated comedy. I hadn’t heard of it, but this clip helped me through my struggle. What is evident in the show: there is a play (a purely and knowingly simulated event happening in a controlled reality with a beginning and an end) and a robbery (a real event, uncontrolled, unplanned, happening in the same plane of existence as eating breakfast, taking a shower, etc.). The timing of the robbery, coupled with the unfortunate terrible-ness of the play, leads the restaurant-goers to believe that both events are part of the controlled reality, the “play-world.” The bottom line, when it comes to simulated realities, is that there is some level of buy-in one has to allow him or herself. Most people, upon realizing that the 7-foot-tall Mickey Mouse hugging you is just Joe Schmo in a smelly suit, have an undeniable awareness of reality as opposed to surreality. The buy-in happens when there is a different expectation, a time when one is aware that the confines surrounding the moment are constructed by what he or she knows about the moment.
The robbery example works wonders for me. The crowd is expecting a play, so when an unexpected element (the robber) enters the scene, it is merely a wonderful plot twist; a comic relief in a terrible melodrama. The catch: Bob, the owner, shouts repeatedly, “This isn’t part of the show! This is real!,” which is the same disclaimer that peekinginto the “real” cave allows, as if the real cave peep-show is whispering “Here, this is what you’re missing, this is real.” The cave visitor, however, has paid money to be educated and impressed – not let down – which is why the replica cave is a success. There is an expectation of awe.

Disney World & Art Museums: What You Leave at the Gates

Walking into Disney and walking into an art museum (assuming you have done either, or both) is a similar experience. You are asked, by the gods of spectacle, to leave your worries behind and “get lost” in a world of images. Disney, for sane adults is as follows – you enter a bubble of magic and wonder but, as a mature human, keep in mind that outside the bubble there are still bills to be paid, medications to take, plants to be watered, or whatever. To truly lose oneself in Disney would be difficult and unhealthy, because life does go on after the vacation. This is what Disney strives to cover. And this is why it is hard for me to “get” Disney.
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The experience can rarely be enjoyed if one is constantly thinking “I hope the guy in the Goofy costume hugging my 4 year old daughter isn’t a creep,” or imagining the elaborate underground tunnel system in which the characters commute as to keep the magic alive. Baudrillard explains this example slightly differently, and with his explanation I am still struggling. I keep coming back to the idea of a buy-in, the wholly admission of one self’s mind and spirit to the magic of the Magic Kingdom. In this vein, I am reminded of an experience I had in an art museum, which, to be honest, are much more magical than Disney to me.
I had the good fortune to take a brief study abroad trip to Vienna, Austria in undergrad. We we
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re going to gaze upon the art of my favorite artists: Schiele, Kokoschka, and Klimt. On the docket was a museum that touted the “largest collection of Schiele sketches in the world” – my absolute favorites of his art. I waited until the last hour of the time spent at the museum to enter the basement of sketches, only to see a sign on the wall that said something to the order of: “The drawings you are to see are not the real objects, they are exact replicas. The real drawings are too sensitive to light and have been moved to a dark room in the b
asement of this museum to further preserve them.” In short, I was crushed. I had already seen replicas, in text books, online…I wanted to see the paper thatSchiele had touched, the wrinkles that he created… this small paragraph, this black and white text, ruined the spectacle of the art museum for me. What had been created: an environment of discovery where I could completely lose myself, had turned into nothing more than a living text book in all its sterility and 2-D simplicity.
I digress. Big time. I think the buy-in aspect deserves a bit more discussion, because I find that essential to truly “agreeing” with what Baudrillard has to say. The modes of replication are evolving and expanding, and before too long we will have all new expectations for every layer of reality. There may even be a time when the buy-in happens subconsciously, by means outside of our own minds.


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"What the English call ‘comfort’ is something inexhaustible and illimitable. [Others can discover to you that what you take to be] comfort at any stage is discomfort, and these discoveries never come to an end. Hence the need for greater comfort does not exactly arise within you directly; it is suggested to you by those who hope to make a profit from its creation."

(Hegel, Philosophy of Right)

"The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images" (Debord's fourth thesis). As many of us, especially us 506ers, know it is not so much about Turing's tape, bits, ones or zeros, but the table of instructions that governs their manipulation. The rules, algorithms, and procedures, are tethered to bits to make meaning. Baudrillard, the kind of high priest of postmodernism, recognizes that in a similar way cultural signs are all about value and not about the mediation of any lofty 'Reality' and is filling in the mytho-religio-tribal holes that Marx glossed over with his historical materialism in order to illuminate modern society. Baudrillard divides social value systems into four categories: functional, exchange, symbolic, and sign. While Marx was strongly emphatic about exchange value and extolled instrumental reason (i.e., the use of the economy), according to Baudrillard, he failed to account for the last two values that disrupt and determine exchange value.

Baudrillard examines the relationship between these value systems in his theory of simulacra and simulation. Mass media does not mediate reality nor does it distort reality, rather the images and signs it produces as 'mediation' are real. What a sign represents, even in its most abstract form, gets lost in the phenomenological sublimity of reader/actor/viewer. This is why Baudrillard asserts that: "the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth--it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true." Baudrillard is after the phenomena of the epoch, namely the modern and postmodern, and while the simulacra/simulation theory is often associated with hi-tech modern society it can be traced to the most primitive of ancient cultures who worshiped totems, idols, Ancient Greek philosophy, and has been practiced in the catholic religion for a millenium under the doctrine of transubstantiation. I think Merrin is appropriate here:

Looking at this history of images and their reception it becomes apparent that images have always been seen as efficacious -- as having the power not merely to represent reality but also to present themselves as what they represent, in assuming for us the force of the real. This is a power long recognised in the founding theologies and philosophies of the west, especially in Judeo-Christianity and Platonism which each saw this physical world as an illusion, a mere image or copy of a higher divine reality, and which each opposed this illusory image's power to attract and divert the minds of men from that reality. Each also attacked human made images in this world as compounding this error, hence Christianity's assault upon the "eidolon" -- the "idol" or "simulacrum" (see Barasch, 1992; Candea, 1987a, 1987b; Ries, 1987; Freedberg, 1989) -- and Plato's attack upon images, and upon the "simulacrum" in particular as an image that simulates fidelity to the divine form to deceive us as to its reality (see Plato, 1955: 359-77; 1986: 26-27, 66-68). Such deception could only be evil hence the western demonisation of the image…(Merrin)

As the media coverage of the Ballon Boy indicates, the spectacle is often irrational. Baudrillard might say that it does not matter to anybody what happens to the balloon or the boy's deranged father, what matters is the events coverage. Bizarre, violent, sublime, extraordinary events happen all of the time but they aren't considered 'real' in the sense that what is covered is 'real.' Toddler's meet tragic demises every day and sometimes in large demises, however, when one falls down a well entire nations are glued to televisions. Because we have assumed a level of expertise in mass media, we actaccordingly to the mediated ideologies, in this case, that the possibility of a kid in a balloon is important. This kind of irrationality is actually a type of Dionysian rationality that finds its end in the sublimity of the spectacle. Might this kind of thinking revert to the kind of barbarism you see in Mad Max movies? Hedonistic rationality doesn't really

"The Matrix plays with the simulacrum as a plot device but domesticates it again beneath a higher and true reality: not once does Neo consider whether this 'real world' he is shown might not be just another level of virtual reality -- perhaps this 'reality' is one created for the machines by another intelligence to keep the machines themselves in happy slavery?" (Merrin) Zizek articulates this well:

Pavlov's Simulacra

Could we be missing the mark while we debate about the relationship between reality and representation? Could it be that certain signs (input) just trigger neuronal firing sequences that evoke a certain memories that prompt actions (output) that are either rational/effectual or not according to a telos? If a nude figure arouses the production of sex hormones and someone adds a particular logo to an image of a nude figure, the logo works like Pavlov's bell. In an infinitely mutable world of open-ended sign systems, the bell can be anything and the food replaced by anything, even another bell. What of the world of simulacra as it pertains to The power of scent marketing in texts such as the Steak-cented billboard?

Stephanie Stroud

With the onset of new mediums for disseminating information and producing art, I have no difficulty at all accepting that the meaning of art and reality have changed - and continue to change. And I certainly have no issue accepting that "the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life." To select one especially low hanging fruit, we have the fashion industry that tells society what colors, fabrics, cuts… and body shapes are in style. Women, traditionally "the object of the gaze", are the dominant audience for magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair. Haute Couture, to some degree, does construct an elite class that functions as the highest standard for beauty and luxury. Flip through an issue of Vogue and read a few of its articles and you will gain an appreciation for the lifestyle they are touting - complete with sections on "beauty & health", "[what] people are talking about", "fashion & features" and more. As Kellner says, "The media are a profound and often misperceived source of cultural pedagogy: They contribute to educating us how to behave and what to think, feel, believe, fear, and desire -- and what not to."

In an attempt to challenge the fashion industry and produce positive change, All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, has began campaigning to break the mold for beauty. Yes, the fashion industry has been challenged by hippies and the likes, but I believe All Walks Beyond the Catwalks is pertinent to our conversation because 1) it relies upon new media to awaken audiences and 2) it does not reject Haute Couture, but rather challenges Haute Couture to change. Essentially, All Walks Beyond the Catwalk is attempting to use social media, film and photography - all relatively new forms of reproductive media - to redefine beauty. In the clip below, Caryn Franklin discusses the importance of an active audience: "designers… image makers… editors… the consumer… we all have a role to play." Ultimately, it seems that there is no audience to this spectacle it all, but rather everyone is an active participant in the spectacle, playing a different role in the construction of beauty.

Plan B: click here to view the clip.

Zachary Allard

There is no doubt that we live in the society of the spectacle, surrounded by a hyper-reality that continually folds in upon itself. In an era when most communication and media is mediated and electronic while simultaneously being utterly manipulable, it is hard to argue with Debord’s idea of the “Society of the Spectacle” or Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal. However, I would disagree with both of their assumptions that is somehow a particularly “modern” or limited to, “societies where modern conditions of production prevail” as Debord insists. This is a fallacious assumption with a romantic/myopic view of some primitive past when the spectacle and hyperreal did not dominate.

It seems to me that the notion of the spectacle has been integral to the human experience since before history. Debord defines spectacle thusly, “The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification. As a part of society it is specifically the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness.” Yes, this is remarkably obvious in our modern society with our obsessions with disasters, cable news, television, Charlie Sheen, etc. However, the Romans had gladiators and the Aztecs had human sacrifices on top of Ziggurats. Spectacle, it seems, is part and parcel of the human experience. While it may be exacerbated by our modern technologies, to limit it to our time and society is just as fallacious as ignoring it all together.

Baudrillard has the same problem with his concept of the hyperreal. Yes, people are saturated everyday with images of violence and perfections and advertising and ideals that carve out a “hyperreal” place in everyday life. But, this is no different than the images of Caesar on every coin in Rome or (even more hyperreal) his deification. To think that the head of state of the most advanced and greatest empire the world had ever seen declared himself to be a god is almost unfathomable. Yet, this is a beautiful example of the hyperreal. Caesar synthesized religious principles, superstitions, hubris, and his actual life into a bizarre, hyperreal spectacle. Sure, there are now, “hundreds of Japanese fans enacting a Matrix performance by dressing up like Neo, Trinity and Agent Smith and expressing their love for the movie,” but few respected men declare themselves to be god. Of course, simulacra like The Matrix have become inextricable from whatever “exists.” But, a respected world leader once declared himself god. It has always been thus!

Rituals, spectacle, the hyperreal dominate human culture across time and geography. A beautiful example of spectacle/hyperreality across cultures...

Erin Coleman

Like others in the class, I found the Debord and Kellner readings the most thought-provoking this week. Spectacle has been around as long as human history, but for both of these theorists, the ascendance of capitalism is the key to its pervasion in the modern world. According to Debord, the society of the spectacle represents the domination of the economy over social life. The emphasis on globalization and its inseparability from both capitalism and, thus, spectacle, was especially fascinating for me. While it is impossible to deny the economic basis for our increasingly globalized world, it seems that a dismissal of the other societal, cultural, and linguistic elements of globalization is equally misleading. Of course, for Debord and Kellner, these other aspects of society are subsumed by economics, but I’m not sure I entirely agree. Or perhaps, I don’t want to agree because I find their neo-Marxist view of the world troubling.
Kellner’s concept of the “infotainment society” is, of course, familiar to any discerning person who has ever watched the evening news (or rather, the 24-hour news), surfed the web, or visited a shopping mall. The concept is not revolutionary, but the frankness of the discussion and its implications for contemporary society are cause for alarm. In “Media Culture and the Triumph of the Spectacle,” Keller asserts that, “Food too is becoming a spectacle in the consumer society with presentation as important in the better restaurants as taste and substance.” Food serves as the ultimate example of the capitalist spectacle because, unlike entertainment, or even politics, its need is biological, fundamental to human survival. I am a self-proclaimed foodie, a helpless follower of Top Chef, and an eager patron of (admittedly) over-priced urban restaurants. And yet, isn’t there something a bit unsettling about this commodification of food, given the ongoing prevalence of malnutrition, starvation, and famine in the modern world? Of course. The Food Network and the phenomenon of the celebrity chef could not exist outside of capitalist society, since much of the world continues to live deprived of food in its most basic form. Does this make America’s obsession with food immoral or misguided? The answer is complicated, with plenty of room for debate on either side.
Regardless of your take on its larger implications, here’s one example of food spectacle at its finest at Chicago’s world-renowned Alinea:

Finally, “Debard and the Postmodern Turn: New Stages of the Spectacle,” the joint article from Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, served as a helpful summation of the readings as a whole, incorporating Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal with Debord’s notion of the spectacle. In reading this article, with its discussion of the triumph of the simulacra over the “real world,” I couldn’t help but think of the all-too-obvious, hackneyed example of Facebook. Social networking has utterly transformed contemporary social relationships, and none more than Mark Zuckerberg’s creation. But do these virtual relationships translate into “real life?” I would love to hear Baudrillard’s interpretation. Slate's recurring feature of Barkack Obama's Facebook page is likewise an interesting object of discussion in the context of spectacle, simulacra, and the hyperreal:

Joshua Weaver
Benjamin discusses the representation of reality in, among many media, film. The idiosyncratic and mundane gestures and movements of the human body are brought to life through the eyes of the camera: “The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.” The motion picture camera is one of myriad mechanics used in the process of providing mediated cues in television and film, creating a reality on screen that emphasizes the mundane humanistic attributes that we take for granted off screen. Interesting in light of Benjamin’s article and a propos to next week’s discussion, Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality, ostensibly discounts the existence of a true reality, one in which we may differentiate the idiosyncratic reality of film from that around us.

Debord also touches on the depiction of a reality through image (or “spectacle”): “Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behavior. (18)” He continues, contending that the “spectacle reconstitutes itself.” Thus, it seems that a media of spectacle does more than merely replicate the tangible reality to which we are accustomed. Through heightened, mediated and, in instances, premeditated cues, the spectacle itself constructs a new reality through reappropriation and hyperawareness. When I personally contemplate postmodernism and hyperreality, I turn to the world of make-believe. Baudrillard famously uses Disney Land to depict the simulation of a perfect reality. And, while all that constitutes Disney Land is ostensibly “unreal”, does it not constitute its own reality (or pseudoreality)? Even the “hyperreality” of film and television enlightens our senses of our “tangible” reality, allowing us to yet again move our line of demarcation between “real” and “fake”. More importantly, if reality was so concrete, why is it so malleable through the escapism of art, entertainment and fantasy?

Suz S

"The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." – Debord

“The whole cycle of production, distribution, and consumption, Baudrillard claims, is transformed into a semiotic system of abstract signifiers with no relation to an objective world. In the imaginary world of sign value, one consumes power or prestige through driving a certain type of car or wearing designer clothes.” – Best & Kellner

Advertisements, celebrity-centered magazines, television and internet provide for images to transmit messages in a way that makes them seem more “real” than real life. I recently looked through TED’s ads worth spreading and found this ad that caught my attention simply based on the name, as it sounded like something out of Baz Luhrmann

Target Kaleidoscopic Fashion Spectacular

So the background is that Target rented out 155 rooms on the south side of the Standard Hotel in NYC six months ago and put together a fashion spectacle. What I find so interesting about this is its distribution medium – it only really “works” on YouTube--as well as the feeling of grandeur. Viewers can barely even see the clothes that are part of the sign value, but the context, scale, and sophistication seem more in line with a traditional “high fashion” line. Instead, it’s performance, art, spectacle, and advertisement in a way that shows the blurring of these worlds, but a world that still tries to mold things into categories. Instead of a division between high art and low art, there’s just novelist Walter Kirn’s quote that “The market is the only critic that matters.” It just seems like the spectacle IS becoming more real than reality—all current events have this obsession with visuality, as in, if it’s not on YouTube or tweeted about in a timely matter, has it “happened” as a social exchange of meaning?

This led me to consider the idea that maybe there is no differentiation between advertising--"the spectacle of the image"--and visual culture. Not in a solely commercial sense, but also in the sense of cultural or social capital that Bourdieu has discussed. There is almost always a producer behind any instance of visual culture, whether a movie, propaganda poster, television parade or artist's graffiti and there is almost always a message, whether overt product placement or promotion of the glory of the state. To me, the line is beginning to blur as to what is overtly an advertisement--don't all images hope for a response from the viewer? It almost makes the differentiation seems obsolete. It makes me wonder whether the reproducibility of new kinds of cultural products--movies, television, photographs allows for a rapid "massification" of desire and aspirations in a way that original works couldn't.