masses


masses
  ---- by Patricia Cormack
  The issue of the masses was central to the intellectual scene in postwar Europe, especially for Marxists who looked to the proletarian masses to become self-conscious agents of revolutionary change. The apparent effectiveness of Nazi Germany in turning its population into a receptive audience (with organised rallies, radio speeches, propaganda films) made many intellectuals wonder if the masses were easily seduced by spectacle. While some held on to the hope that communication technologies would demystify the cultural and social world for the proletarian, others (especially those who emigrated to the US during the war and experienced American mass culture first hand) concluded that the homogenisation of culture in mass media would continue to degrade the taste and critical capacities of mass populations. For Baudrillard, both of these positions mistakenly understood the masses in terms of the extreme poles of complete passivity or organised agency, and ignored the interrelationship of the masses, communication systems and spectacle in contemporary life.
  Baudrillard took up this question of the masses by inspecting both the postwar social landscape (characterised, he argued, by the frenzied proliferation of mass-produced signs and images) and the conventional academic understandings of the mass audience (SSM). Specifically, he questioned the metaphysic that both assumes a simple relation between sign and signified (images and reality) and projects an essence (desire, will, identity) onto the audience. From these mistaken assumptions mass media are studied as the misrepresentation or distortion of reality and the manipulation of the desires. Academics have fallen into the trap of thinking of the mass audience the way administrators, politicians and advertisers think of it - as having desires that can be studied, measured, tapped and directed. He also reminded his readers that the masses are not someone else, but are all of us in that we all live within this circulation of signs and measurement of desire and are thus constantly socially organised and invoked as a mass.
  Media systems do not circulate or manipulate opinion or desires. They are a unidirectional mode of address and machines for the generation of spectacle. As an audience, our very fascination with spectacle creates an unconscious subversion of the media code or system (and its grounding in traditional notions of reality and persuasion). This position is foreshadowed by Baudrillard's earlier critique of Marx's theory of the commodity, which depended on the dichotomy of 'use values' and 'exchange values', and assumed both essential human needs and the alienation of these needs by the capitalist market (MP). Baudrillard inserted into Marxian theory the semiotic and anthropological notions of 'symbolic exchange' by which new meaning can cohere to objects that originate in the commodity system. He explained, for example, that while a ring is usually a part of the capitalist fashion system (and interchangeable with all other rings in the incessant circulation of signs), a wedding band (once ritualistically given) becomes a unique and irreplaceable symbol of a particular relationship and no longer a part of market logic (CPS). Contra Marx, therefore, the logic of the commodity form can be negated in its consumption. Here Baudrillard began to formulate a version of agency that does not dismantle the market system, but undermines it in its very use. Like his consumer, the mass audience will frustrate the logic of the system that calls it into existence.
  The masses are not then an empirical referent (a social class, category, group), but a shadowy figure of communication practices (a 'silent majority') and an ideological justification for political projects (SSM). Since these communication practices are premised upon simplistic notions of representation and influence, they can be absorbed or dispersed in their consumption. The constant measurement, reporting and circulation of mass responses cover over that the only thing left is the incessant movement of responses itself. These responses are not indications of cultivated thought, debate, political values or reflection on the part of the audience (as we consume as entertainment our own solicited responses). As a mass, we do not deflect back the messages projected on to us, nor do we take up the projects of History (progress, enlightenment) or the Social (rationally organised lives) handed to us, but instead enthusiastically take on the formless object position claimed for us. This passivity allows for the absorption of messages and suspension of meaning. When asked to exercise a serious and considered political will, we offer instead an endless delight in popular spectacles. When asked to express consumer preferences, we vacillate capriciously. When asked to be objects of social policy, we refuse to provide or comprehend practical information. Since this system of communication requires that we, as a mass, are at once subjects (with real wants, desires, opinion, wills) and objects (to be addressed, measured, polled, surveyed and inspected by pre-structured 'yes'/'no' interrogation), the production of confusion, hyper-conformity, circular talk, contradiction and infinite hesitation works to parody and neutralise the logic of the media system.
  In academic circles, Baudrillard's work helped initiate an approach to media studies that put aside elitist assumptions of a duped mass in need of media literacy. Media studies now include the inspection of semiotic play, audience subversion, multiple and contradictory interpretations, and general media environments. His understanding of the media-mass relation is indebted to Marshall McLuhan who argued that particular media messages are irrelevant to understanding a medium's radical effects on the organisation of social life. In fact, issues of media content act as convenient political 'problems', distracting us from the fact that media are themselves technologies of administration. The so-called problems of the masses also exist an as alibi or simulation for the projects of reason, history, culture, education and social administration. The continued insistence that the masses suffer from misled tastes, opinion and desires covers over the ideological poverty of these projects. The constant measurement of the mass covers over that it is a simulation of opinion, desire and political will. Moreover, media systems depend upon the notion of the mass audience and are undermined by the very notion they invoke.
  Passwords
   § fashion
   § media

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.

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