The Power of Images (2)

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This short essay has the following components:

1. An exploration of the lineage and sources for Jean Baudrillard’s very powerful and influential notions of simulation.

2. Some comments on time and decay and history.

3. A few modest reflections on the power of images, imagescapes and image-worlds.

Let me begin by saying that one way of understanding Baudrillard is to take a careful look at Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord. I have not got the time in this piece to examine and distill this relationship, suffice to say that Debord’s notions of commodity, spectacle and social organization appear and reappear in Baudrillard and have been a significant influence on Baudrillard’s very strategic manner of writing and speaking.

Debord and the Situationists with whom Debord worked have had an important influence on French cultural theory and philosophy, and this influence is acknowledged from time to time, but not with enough depth and certainly not to the degree that is deserved.

Time slow simulating change

I will mention one crucial aspect of Debord’s approach and that centers on his assertion that time is turned into a commodity within Capitalist societies. As a commodity, time becomes consumable and in so doing becomes one of the foundations for the transformation of everyday life into spectacle.

The key point is that we not only participate in this but simultaneously become viewers of our own lives. In this sense, we cease to have a direct relationship to experience and instead are caught up in a cycle of increasing mediation and loss. Debord and his group grew to prominence during the May 68 period in France. It is not an accident that some of the most important work of the structuralists had appeared by that time, in particular, the work of Levi-Strauss, Barthes and Foucault with contiguous work by Althusser and Derrida.

The intersection of structuralism and situationism is an important part of Baudrillard’s epistemological framework. In Situationist philosophy, the word pseudo appears and reappears as a trope for what is wrong with Western societies. The English translation, however, doesn’t catch an important additional element to what Debord is saying. I quote in French and I will explain:

"Le temps pseudo-cyclique n'est en fait que le déguisement consommable n de la dimension qualitative."

Time as we measure it has the quality of the cyclical attached to it, but this is a false quality because in reality it disguises the ways in which time has become commodified, one of many different consumable items in our society.

Time is a commodity because the production process within Capitalist societies transforms time, gives it a homogeneous character and suppresses its qualitative characteristics.

Pseudo, false, suppression, the victory of commodification over quality and the overwhelming effect of capitalist modes of production on the very definitions that can be made of subjectivity, these are all fundamental to Debord and are foundational to Baudrillard. Debord creates an opposition between the natural order and pseudo nature that is dependent on his definition of time. Debord collapses all the various relations among work and leisure into pseudo time exemplifying the increasing distance and alienation that humans experience as a consequence of their transformation into commodities. Not only do the rhythms of capitalist society work against the best interests of participants, they also transform subjects into objects — the needs of production override the needs of producers with the outcome that the masses become silent witnesses to their own oppression.

This combination of Herbert Marcuse, Marx, Heidegger and the critical theorists of the 1930’s like Adorno characterize all of Debord’s work, although one major difference is the anarchist impulse in Debord and his followers.

Since Debord’s death, the anarchist movement has taken Debord as a spokesman and most of his writings are freely available on their Internet sites. Debord’s approach to writing is aphoristic and quite programmatic. Baudrillard reproduces this approach in many of his books, but most notably in America.

I have not treated Debord with the depth that he deserves, not because he was unimportant. Rather, what interests me is his core assumption that culture is in fact pseudo culture, or false culture. It is not too much of a jump to simulation, but before I deal with simulation, let me suggest that Debord viewed the silence of the masses as a sign of their resistance to Capital and that Baudrillard took up that issue in a piece that he published entitled, “In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities?

This initially creative understanding of silence as resistance was not sustained however in large part because the Situationists witnessed the failure of May 68 to generate a broad-based revolution in France. Their disappointment with the “populace? led to increasing cynicism about any form of revolt to the point where they questioned if the people would ever awake from their stupor.

The Power of Images (1)

 

Is the cinema a medium of “moving pictures”, or “moving images”?

It would be more accurate to say that a series of moving pictures produces the “effect” of the cinema and the effect of movement. This wonderful set of illusions makes it appear as if the screen upon which images emerge is able to depict reality. Yet, screens are media for depiction and unless the image is stilled 'motion' is at the heart of every second. It might clearer to say that the cinema produces projections. I will define my use of this term in another post. In the mid-1990’s, working on the same issues, I said the following:

Meaning flows in the cinema in a discontinuous way. Images are viewed in a context of noise and misinformation. Most films can hardly ever get their message across clearly and quickly. Narratives are characterized by a struggle to achieve order, which if accomplished is quickly broken by disorder. The differences between representation, enunciation and projection are barely graspable, sliding as they do over a number of different levels of comprehension and errors in understanding.  Discontinuity is the base for a lack of homogeneity. What Roland Barthes describes as the multiplicity of possible connotations for an enunciation is evidence of the infinite number of possibilities which any given set of projections generates. Constraints on the production of meaning may not pivot on hypotheses about projection. It is possible for the expression of meaning to be contradictory ad infinitum. It is equally possible for those contradictions to be produced in a context of self-reflexivity. The supposed illusion of the real in the cinema is to paraphrase Godard, the reality of the illusion. Cinematic projections are not the site of an exclusion, not the place where the viewer is kept away, so as to forget self, rather projections are always a site of contradiction and disbelief. The narrative does not conceal its arbitrary “constructs” because the arbitrary is its lure, its attraction. It is precisely because at any given moment a film can shift from the clear to the unclear, from coherence to incoherence that characters for example may die and close their eyes after death, all of this is not only illusion, but performance and play. Rather than being the product of a text designed to dupe, the viewer is part of a process of stress and strain which makes co-present, communication, breakdown, contradiction and exchange. (P. 75 of Cultures of Vision)