As soon as I think I’m getting the hang of these dense texts on media-studies, Debord and Baudrillard come along to throw down the gauntlet. Let’s see how I do…
I thought that this week I’d use the WebCT prompt for inspiration: What is it about the modern electronic media that so disturbs Debord and Baudrillard?
To start, I found the works of both writers dense and confusing. Debord especially proved enigmatic because of his densely pack paragraphs, resulting in the experience of either grasping a great deal of information in one sentence, or nothing at all. It feels as though he’s either saying a great deal in an enigmatic way, or his work is all surface, pretending to more depth than exists. This last option would actually reflect his own sense of the spectacle and the postmodern sense that everything is surface. Furthermore, his fragmentary style (divided into numbered points or thoughts–almost like super-intellectual tweets) reflects the fragmentation in postmodern society.
Enough about Debord’s confusing form. The more important matter is what he is saying, and if I am reading him at all correctly, he is actually saying a great deal (despite the sense of spectacle in his work). Perhaps one of the central problems he has with electronic media is its existence as spectacle and commodity, alienating and consumed by individuals without sustaining or allowing free discourse.
For Baudrillard the disturbing element in electronic media is its non-reciprocal nature. Profoundly, he states, “for the time being, we live in the era of non-response–of irresponsibility” (p 281). In connecting the word “irresponsibility” with its root–“response”–Baudrillard alerts us to the extensive implications of a non-responsive society. If a non-responsive media drives and pervades society, then irresponsibility abounds: passivity, apathy, unwillingness or inability to contribute or participate, and perhaps the unwillingness or inability to own one’s actions (or the actions of society). Electronic media invades the senses with content, but does not allow the receiver to do the same, freeing them from action and responsibility. This freedom is all surface; the media in fact presents a kind of tyranny or dictatorship, as Debord might say (when I find the page number where he references tyranny/dictatorship I will add it!). Mass media, or the spectacle, holds the power and exerts it upon the consumers/receivers.
The inability to respond not only displaces power (passing the power to the spectacle and those in control of it), but also results in extreme individualization. When a person cannot respond, a person is excluded from dialogue or from the discussion that is by nature a group activity. Debord explains that “The spectacle’s function in society is the concrete manufacture of alienation” (23). Again, there are a great many things going on in this one sentence, but a way of reading it is in terms of “receivers” consuming mass-media individually without being able to reciprocate in a grander dialogue. I watch a T.V. program and internalize it; but I cannot create and broadcast a program in response that goes back to the transmitter and spreads to all the other receivers to watched the first broadcast. The spectacle, or mass-media, supplies information to all, but to all as individuals.
Now the above is a general synthesis of some of Debord’s and Baudrillard’s problems with modern media as I see it. Since I really struggled with these readings, I realize that I could be way off mark. I will add, however, that I think Baudrillard at least might see some positivity in contemporary electronic media in terms of freeing the “transmitter/receiver” binary from its one-way flow. Youtube, for example, allows for video responses to posted videos, with no one video holding a monopoly over the others. Some may be more popular based upon art or entertainment value, but there is an equal opportunity for communication on the site. Blogs also represent the freeing of the one-way binary. They are immensely fluid allowing bloggers to freely transmit and respond through post, commentary, and hyperlinks between blogs.
Now some ending thoughts on détournement:
Opposite of détournement? (term might be “recuperation”):
Finally, I’ve been pondering détournement, and it made me think of this old cult-TV show that Christy and I are really into called Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). On the show, a dude and his two robot pals are sent to space and forced to watch terrible movies; each episode consists of the characters watching a movie and riffing on it the entire way through in order to make it actually funny/entertaining (rather than painfully awful; thought often that’s still there a bit). I was wondering whether that show exhibits a degree of détournement, so I did a quick Google search and found a message board that actually got into the idea bit. In reply to another poster, this person wrote the following (italics are the words of the poster she is responding to):
“MST3K really wasn’t just about talking back to a movie.”
Huh? That’s ALL it was ever about. Everything else was just fluff they used to pass it off as a tv series for the straights. The goal has always been talking back to a movie. Anyone who sees anything deeper in MST than talking back to a movie needs to repeat to themselves it’s just a show they should really just relax.
Aaaaactually, *dusts off thesis* appropriating and recontextualizing pre-existing footage into a fictional diegesis wherein it’s deployed as torture cum comedy is first class pop styled postmodernism, some of the first of that oeuvre but following a long line from Esfir Shub through Guy-Ernest Debord. I prefer Space Ghost, which debuted a few years later, for its more indirect detournement and play with dimensionality as marker of realism, but ymmv.
“Talking back to a movie” is in itself a pretty empowered and fraught concept… at least if you’re a film scholar, copyfighter or culture jammer.
Whether or not the above response is actually a legitimate, intelligent response or just layers of pretentious nonsense, it sure made me happy. MST3K is a fantastic show, and I think very well might have a bit of the “détournement” about it. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite MST3K shorts, a 1950s instructional film called A Date with Your Family:
Fare thee well!