Jean Beaudrillard – “In the Most Complete Ambiguity”: Requiem For The Media

Beaudrillard starts by stating that there is no theory of the media. As McLuhan and Enzensberger pointed out, Marxist theory do not suffice for a theory of the media because its dialectics can only be used to describe material production and not the production of meaning. Baudrillard explains that Enzenbergers’ advice that the political Left should overcome their fear or dislike of media and use it so that not only the dominant classes use it to their own advantage, will not work because media are effectors of ideology, they create it. Commenting on both Brecht and Enzensberger, he adds that “media ideology functions at the level of form”, which is a form that forms social separation.

Baudrillard explains about the mass media, that they are in fact not really communicating because they are not reciprocal. This non-response, or irresponsibility, is for example seen in the referendum in which the voters can only answer a given question, which thus already contained the answer in a way. Consumption of goods and media items does not offer the consumer power to respond because it only reinforces the power of the medium.

Looking at the protests of may ’68, Baudrillard explains that the media did not have a subversive impact during the events. By giving an objective image of what happened, making it abstract, the images lose their political meaning. On the other hand, canonical speech of the traditional politics do not get changed to a more abstract form when transmitted and so their political meanings do not get changed or powerless. Another example are formerly apolitical events, such as natural disasters and tabloid trivia that got political status because the news started to broadcast them under the “ fait divers” category.

A strategy to overcome this one-way and thus political quality of the media is to make something else into a medium which is what happened with the streets during the May ’68 protests, which became the space to communicate reciprocally through posters and notices.

Baudrillard notices that there is a problem with the transmitter-message-receiver model of communication. It is very univocal as it depends on the code that the message is embedded in which leaves no room for ambivalent relations.

However, there is also a problem with new media that promise to overcome the one-way quality of mass media. Media that offer to constantly reverse the transmitter and receiver mode still relate to their very nonreciprocal qualities. Enzensberger thus argued for a system in which everyone would be transmitter and receiver at the same time, or actually taking these away so that everybody is responding to everyone at the same time. Because there are no transmitters or receivers, there is no longer any messages or codes. An example of this breaking down of codes is the graffiti in reaction to advertising after May ’68.

Question: Do you see examples of the cybternetic illusion in new media, i.e. communication media that promise to be reciprocal through making everyone senders and receivers? And then what other types of new media break through this fake promise by getting rid of this transmitter-receiver model and its dependency on the code, making everyone respondents?


~ by lharmsen on February 15, 2009.

2 Responses to “Jean Beaudrillard – “In the Most Complete Ambiguity”: Requiem For The Media”

  1. The problem of cybernetic illusion springs up whenever the camps representing utopian and dystopian implications of new media encounter. Whereas the former ones imply the fiasco of top-down mediation (think H. Rheingold for instance), the latter ones continue to stress that media control hasn’t vanished in cognitive consumerism society (these are the ones implying googalisation, panopticism, CCTV, ownership politics, etc.). However, there is a threat to get entrapped in this transmitter-receiver conundrum.

    While I do not think that the question of power relations can be avoided, as media always have the point of departure, I believe, there is a demand for transposing the interaction with the media beyond the notion of receiver. The way we deal with media today is quite different from conventional reception: they are not received the way Communion is being received in a church on a Sunday morning, neither they are received the way a radio transmitter receives radio waves. What Baudrillard refers to as the necessity ‘to modify reading codes’, is already taking place.

    In 1974 Ted Nelson pointed out that ‘we live in media, as fish live in water’. To paraphrase, adhering to the binary transmitter/receiver, which is being insinuated by the emphasis on the content of the message, would be like asking who triggers the waves – the fish or the water – when in fact the movement is the most captivating one. I am perfectly aware of the fact that these musings might be affected by the fact that I was reading Deleuze, Guattari, Braidotti and Haraway in one day, however, I do believe in media theory which conceptualises this encounter. Karin has an apt term for this discourse – media engager. Since our engagement with media has changed profoundly, considering this word makes a lot of sense.

  2. “we live in media as fish live in water” i do believe McLuhan said it first (environmental thesis) …
    I understand your desire to transcend binary and find in new media the collapse of sender/receiver – and you are certainly right, the question of power relations can not be avoided!

    What came to mind when reading this article though is Paul Virilio – an interesting read (not too long either)
    Speed and Information:Cyberspace Alarm

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