Baudrillard and McLuhan in the Social Media Age

Baudrillard and McLuhan in the Social Media Age

by Dr. Douglas Kellner and Dr. Steve Gennaro

In the social media age, our interminable digital identities are works of art, and we are artists. In equal parts performance, photography, film, composition, and graphic design, we write ourselves into stories to depict a virtual existence. At the same time, the “tethered togetherness” (Schroeder, 2018) of the social media age illustrates how digital selves are not a collection of monologues but communal art. Friends, followers, and online bystanders consume and authenticate our digital selves by liking, commenting, retweeting, or even simply voyeuristically viewing our art (Gennaro & Miller, 2020a).

Social media art can produce hyperreal simulations not grounded in any referent. They exist across virtual platforms that operate in the same fashion as Jean Baudrillard’s description of Disneyland as an example of simulacra in a postmodern world. Today’s social media platforms and Baudrillard’s Disneyland create “an imaginary effect concealing that reality no more exists outside than inside the bounds of the artificial perimeter” (Baudrillard, 2017, p.2). Our digital selves exist as much inside the artificial perimeters of Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok as they do in the physical world.

A pedagogy of critical media literacy sees all media as art. It places each text, object, symbol, and interaction into dialogue with the current and historical social relations of the producer, consumer, and all who voyeuristically participate as onlookers and bystanders in the virtual space without comment. Social media engages every one of us to be artists instead of droids. To actively participate in the ongoing practices of creating social media selves that not only repeatedly negotiate our social identities with friends and followers ad nauseam but also contest meaning within dominant power structures. To engage the construction of our social selves in a society of mutating media and identities, Jean Baudrillard and Marshall McLuhan emerge as guides through the thicket of social media, digital selves, and new virtual worlds that we find ourselves immersed in. Thus, we turn to the pre-eminent media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who was a significant and acknowledged influence on Jean Baudrillard.

Amused Social Media Selves

In 1967, Baudrillard wrote a review of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. He claimed that McLuhan’s dictum that the “medium is the message” is “the very formula of alienation in a technical society” (1967) and criticized McLuhan for naturalizing that alienation. At this time, he shared the neo-Marxian critique of McLuhan as a technological reductionist and determinist. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, McLuhan’s formula eventually became the guiding principle of his thought.

Baudrillard begins developing his media theory in the article “Requiem for the Media” in Toward a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972).  The title is ironic, for Baudrillard is only beginning to develop a social theory in which the media will play crucial roles in constituting a new postmodernity. Thus, Baudrillard is writing a requiem here for a Marxist theory of the media, arguing:

McLuhan has said … that for Marx, the spiritual contemporary of the steam engine and railroads, was already obsolete in his lifetime with the appearance of the telegraph. In his candid fashion, he is saying that in his materialist analysis of production, Marx had virtually circumscribed productive forces as a privileged domain from which language, signs, and communication generally found themselves excluded (CPES, p. 164).

Baudrillard’s critique of Marx here begins a radical interrogation of and eventual break with Marxism, culminating in The Mirror of Production (1973). Baudrillard begins distancing himself from Marxism in “Requiem for the Media,” and attacks Marx’s alleged economic reductionism, or “productivism,” and the alleged inability of the Marxian theory to conceptualize language, signs, and communication.

As an example of the failure of Marxian categories to provide an adequate theory of the media, Baudrillard criticizes the German activist and writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s media theory and his attempts to develop a socialist strategy for the media (1974). Baudrillard dismisses this effort as a typical Marxian attempt to liberate productive forces from the fetters of productive relations that fail to see that in their very form, the mass media of communication “are anti-mediatory and intransitive” (CPES, pp. 169-170). For Baudrillard, this is the “real abstraction of media” when looking at communication as an exchange, in that the mass media actually “fabricates noncommunication … they are what always prevents response, making all processes of exchange impossible (CPES, pp. 169-170). Take, for example, social media identity statements. Even when the artist’s impression is absent of the real, portraying only the illusion of reality- with enough community engagement, the fantasy becomes the consumed reality for both the original artist and their community of friends and followers.

Viewing social media identity statements as media (art) practice differs from exploring social media postings as objects of production for consumption. Raymond Williams (2014) states that as consumers of literature(art), we cannot separate the practice of consuming the object from the whole body of social practices the thing embodies. We must stop trying to isolate the object to analyze it and, in doing so, remove its historical and social context. Objectified media (art) produces a false sense of engagement and communication between the artist and the viewer.

Virtual experiences with friends and followers impact one’s physical self and displace our body and social relations with what Baudrillard described as hyperreality (Baudrillard, 2017). In this way, social media culture can generate a hyperreal mechanical reproduction of the self. In an earlier era of cultural reproduction, Walter Benjamin saw the possibility that mechanical reproduction of a work of art robbed art of its specific aura of a unique cultural presence like the Mona Lisa (1934). Likewise, the digital copy of the self in virtual worlds destroys the aura of a unique individual personality as we can construct our hyperreal virtual selves as we wish and imagine in the age of social media. Indeed, our hyperreal selves may appear more accurate than our authentic everyday selves.

This counterfeited noncommunication of mass media results from the mass media’s focus on entertainment; as Adorno and Horkheimer have noted, the culture industry “remains the entertainment business. Its influence over the consumers is established by entertainment” (1997). Entertainment is a tool of amusement and is vital in forming consensus, whereby a small group maintains ideological and social control over larger groups through popular opinion and manufactured consent, even when it is not in the best interest of the individuals who consent to be governed.

When entertained, people turn off critical engagement with the media (art)they ingest. In doing so, media (art) is objectified – that is, it is ingested as an object, not a practice. As Baudrillard notes in Consumer Society (Baudrillard, 1998, p.30),

We are at the heart of consumption as the entire organization of everyday life, a total homogenization … [w]ork, leisure, nature, and culture: all these things which were once dispersed, which once generated anxiety and complexity in our real life … are now at last mixed and blended, climatized and homogenized in the same sweeping vista of perpetual shopping.

Similarly, Adorno and Horkheimer (2006) that amusement is powerlessness packaged as an escape. With the prolongation of work in capitalism, amusement is sought by those seeking an escape from the dehumanizing practices and exploitation of labor during leisure time as a period of refreshment to cope with work again. As Adorno and Horkheimer put it (1997, p.137):

All of the pleasure hardens into boredom because, if it is to remain a pleasure, it must not demand any effort … [n]o independent thinking must be expected: the product prescribes every reaction … [a]ny logical connection calling for mental effort is painstakingly avoided.

However, the escape provided in the amusement is not from the oppression of material conditions but instead from thoughts of resisting these material conditions as a concrete reality.

Consequently, on this view, the media pander to the masses, reproducing their taste, interest in spectacle and entertainment, fantasies, and way of life, producing an implosion between mass consciousness and media phantasmagoria. In this way, Baudrillard shortcircuits the manipulation theory, which sees media manipulation imposed from above, creating mass consciousness. However, he seems to share the contempt for the masses in standard manipulation theory claiming that they want nothing more than spectacle, diversion, entertainment, and escape and are incapable of, or uninterested in, producing meaning.

Amusement in the social media age fabricates communication exchanges in the instant gratification a person receives from likes, retweets, follows, and notifications. Goals and objectives are removed and replaced by the glitter of the culture industry. Tied into these shiny objects are ideologies deeply impacted by advertising, marketing, and algorithms designed to influence and shape consumer behavior. It is here that we have the marriage between advertising and amusement. As Marshall McLuhan (1951) points out in the opening lines of The Mechanical Bride, noting ours to be

the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind. The object is to get inside to manipulate, exploit, and control. Moreover, to generate heat, not light, is the intention. To keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting is the effect of many ads and much entertainment.

Amusement sells information through lifestyles represented as dominant, desirable, and expected, with promises of happiness to anyone who willingly consumes.  Baudrillard explains this perfectly with his successive phases of the image, which could also be used to describe the successive stages of social media art in constructing and presenting digital selves (2017, p.6)

it is the reflection of a profound reality;
it masks and denatures a profound reality;
it masks the absence of a profound reality;
it has no relation to any reality whatsoever:
it is its own pure simulacrum.

One additional phase could be added: it produces an object of pure amusement.

Without full awareness of the possibilities of art in an age of social media, this emptying of meaning from social media content will continue to challenge the liberatory value of art and instead reproduce what Baudrillard argues is art’s disappearance as a force of critique and liberation. To combat this, we must use critical media literacy tools to challenge amusement as a primary and desired activity for social media users. It is not enough to consume social media art as an object, we must also digest the media, critique it, and construct our own culture and selves out of the media.

Postmodern disconnected connectivity

In the Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard noted how the “TV Object” was becoming the center of the household and was serving an essential “proof function” that the owner was a genuine member of the consumer society (CPRES, pp. 53ff). For Baudrillard, the accelerating role of the media in contemporary society is equivalent to THE FALL in the postmodern society of simulations from the modern production universe. Modernity for Baudrillard is thus the era of production characterized by the rise of industrial capitalism and the hegemony of the bourgeoisie. At the same time, postmodern society is an era of simulation dominated by signs, codes, and models.  Modernity is thus centered on the production of things -­commodities and products — while postmodernity is characterized by radical semiurgy, by a proliferation of signs.

Furthermore, following McLuhan, Baudrillard interprets modernity as a process of the explosion of commodification, mechanization, technology, and market relations. At the same time, postmodern society is the site of an implosion of all boundaries, regions, and distinctions between high and low culture, appearance, and reality, and just about every other binary opposition maintained by traditional philosophy and social theory. Furthermore, while modernity could be characterized as a process of increasing differentiation of spheres of life (Max Weber as interpreted by Habermas 1988), postmodernity could be construed as a process of de-differentiation and attendant implosion.

We see here how Baudrillard (2017) out-McLuhans McLuhan interprets television and all other media simply as technological forms, as machines that produce primarily technological effects in which content, messages, or social uses are deemed irrelevant and unimportant. We also see how, like McLuhan, he anthropomorphizes the media (“the television is watching you”), a form of technological mysticism (or, to be nastier, mystification) as extreme as McLuhan. Like McLuhan, Baudrillard also globalizes media effects making the media demiurge of a new type of society and a new type of experience.

In the social media age, social media platforms’ role in producing social media art and disseminating the available interpretations of the art is disproportionate and antithetical to democracy. Our relative lack of access to the production and dissemination of ideas creates a situation where we are removed from the information production process. As hegemony suggests, we are willing participants in this process. Media exist within societies, not separate or outside the structures of social policy, cultural practices, or power relations they enforce. As a result, media (art)representations reflect and influence society by showing what the world is like and where we fit into it. Media (art) also shows us the limits and potential of our technologies to access media stories. Critical media literacy offers us an entry point for change. All texts and symbols (art) are polysemic and can have multiple meanings, so it is not a static system. Opportunities exist for oppositional social media (art), radical storytelling, and transformative education.

Our engagement with social media art is a disconnected connectivity, which mirrors what Baudrillard describes as the realm of simulation (Baudrillard, 2017). There needs to be more connection between the frontend experiences of the social media user from the backend economics of the social media platform. For example, the user’s frontend experience is a barrage of text, images, icons, symbols, videos, and emojis that have been hallowed out from the backend discourse, history, and social context of the social media platforms the user is playing on. Social media engagement frontends as harmless social connectivity. However, embedded in our social posts is a backend of the economics of our social media platforms, discourses rooted in a capitalist history that cannot be separated from Imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, misogyny, and violence. The liberatory potential of art in the age of social media requires front-end experiences by users that paint pictures that critique the back-end politics of surveillance capitalism.

However, we might contrast McLuhan’s ecumenical Catholicism here with Baudrillard’s somewhat puritanical Protestantism. McLuhan fantasized about a new type of global community and even a new universal (media) consciousness and experience through disseminating a global media system, the global village. McLuhan (1964) also believed that the media could overcome alienation produced by the abstract rationality of book culture, which was replaced by a new synaesthesia and harmonizing of the mind and body, the senses, and technologies. Baudrillard (2017), by contrast, sees the media as external demigods, or idols of the mind — to continue the Protestant metaphor –, which seduces and fascinates the subject and enters subjectivity to produce a reified consciousness and privatized and fragmented lifestyle (Sartre’s seriality).  Thus, while McLuhan ascribes a generally benign social destiny to the media, for Baudrillard, the function of TV and mass media is to prevent response, to isolate and privatize individuals, and to trap them into a universe of simulacra where it is impossible to distinguish between the spectacle and the real, and where individuals come to prefer sensation over “reality” (which both loses interest for the masses and its privileged status in philosophy and social theory).

The mass media are thus instruments for Baudrillard of a “cold seduction” whose narcissistic charm consists of a manipulative self-seduction in which we enjoy the play of lights, shadows, dots, and events in our mind as we change channels or media and plug into the variety of networks — media, computer, information — that surround us and that allow us to become modulators and controllers of an overwhelming panoply of sights, sounds, news, and events. In this sense, media have a chilling effect (which is why Baudrillard (1967) allows McLuhan’s “cool” to become downright “cold”) which freezes individuals into functioning as terminals of media and communication networks who become involved as part and parcel of the very apparatus of communication. The subject, then, becomes transformed into an object as part of a nexus of information and communication networks.

In addition, the spectacles of the consumer society and the dramas of the public sphere are also being replaced by media events that replace public life and scenes with a screen that shows us everything instantaneously and without scruple or hesitation: “Obscenity begins precisely when there is no more spectacle, no more scene when all becomes transparency and immediate visibility when everything is exposed to the harsh and inexorable light of information and communication” (p. 130). The ecstasy of communication: everything is explicit, ecstatic (out of or beyond itself), and obscene in its transparency, detail, and visibility: “It is no longer the traditional obscenity of what is hidden, repressed, forbidden or obscure; on the contrary, it is the obscenity of the visible, of the all-too-visible, of the more-visible-than-visible. It is the obscenity of what no longer has any secret, of what dissolves completely in information and communication” (p. 131).

In the ecstasy of communication, everything becomes transparent, and there are no more secrets, scenes, privacy, depth, or hidden meaning. Instead, a promiscuity of information and communication unfolds. The media circulate and disseminate a teeming network of extraordinary, seductive, and fascinating sights and sounds to be played on one’s screen and terminal. With the disappearance of exciting scenes (in the home, in the public sphere), passion evaporates in personal and social relations. However, a new fascination emerges (“the scene excites us, the obscene fascinates us”) with the very universe of media and communication.  In this universe, we enter a new form of subjectivity, becoming saturated with information, images, events, and ecstasies.  Without defense or distance, we become “a pure screen, a switching center for all the networks of influence” (p. 133). In the media society, the era of interiority, subjectivity, meaning, privacy, and inner life is over; a new era of obscenity, fascination, vertigo, instantaneity, transparency, and overexposure begins: Welcome to Baudrillard’s postmodern world!

The liberatory value of art (media) in the age of social media

Baudrillard uses a model of the media as a black hole of signs and information which absorb all contents into cybernetic noise, which no longer communicates meaningful messages in the process of implosion, where all content implodes into form. We thus see how Baudrillard eventually adopts McLuhan’s media theory as his own, claiming that:

The medium is the message signifies not only the end of the message but also the end of the medium.  There are no longer media in the literal sense of the term … that is to say, a power mediating between one reality and another, between one state of the real and another in content nor in form.  This is what implosion signifies: the absorption of one pole into another, the short-circuit between poles of every differential system of meaning, the effacement of terms and distinct oppositions, and thus that of the medium and the real (1983, pp. 102-103).

As Baudrillard argues, “It is useless to dream of a revolution through content or form since the medium and the real are now in a nebulous state whose truth is undecipherable” (1983, pp. 102-103). In effect, Baudrillard suggests that developing a radical media theory is impossible because there are no “media” in the sense of institutions and cultural machines mediating between dominant political and economic powers and the population below. Baudrillard suggests that the media intensify massification by producing mass audiences and massification of ideas and experiences.  On the other hand, he claims that the masses absorb all media content, neutralize, or even resist, meaning and demand and obtain more spectacle and entertainment, thus further eroding the boundary between media and “the real.”  In this sense, the media implode into the masses to the extent that it is unknowable what effects they have on the masses and how they process the media.

Our engagement with social media art is a disconnected connectivity, which mirrors what Baudrillard describes as the realm of simulation (Baudrillard, 2017). There needs to be more connection between the frontend experiences of the social media user from the backend economics of the social media platform. For example, the user’s frontend experience is a barrage of text, images, icons, symbols, videos, and emojis that have been hallowed out from the backend discourse, history, and social context of the social media platforms the user is playing on. Social media engagement frontends as harmless social connectivity. However, embedded in our social posts is a backend of the economics of our social media platforms, discourses rooted in a capitalist history that cannot be separated from Imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, misogyny, and violence. The liberatory potential of art in the age of social media requires front-end experiences by users that paint pictures that critique the back-end politics of surveillance capitalism.

One of the primary challenges of the liberatory potential of media (art) in the social media age is to differentiate doxa from episteme from our mediated experiences. In Ancient Greece, doxa referred to knowledge acquired through accepting popular opinion, whereas episteme described a more profound knowledge gained from reasoning and scientific thinking (Szaif, 2007, pp. 253-272). This is challenging since our quest for learning has been evicted from our leisure actions. In its place, the amusement has replaced knowledge and now dominates all digital human interactions. It is no coincidence that the modern English word “school” originates in the Ancient Greek word for leisure, schola. In Ancient Greece, schola referred to a set of experiences geared towards learning that would better an individual and their virtue, thereby leading to an improvement for the common good and the individual’s happiness. As Plato demonstrates, quoting Socrates (Book VII, 2000), “do not use compulsion, but let early education be a sort of amusement; you will then be better able to find out the natural bent.”  Schola in Ancient Greece was more than just the pursuit of pleasure. It was tied to pursuing knowledge, which was essential to happiness. As Aristotle noted: “[h]appiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue or both, is more often found with those who are highly cultivated in their minds and their character and have only a moderate share of external goods than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities. (Aristotle, 1908, Book 7). However, schooling today is a form of mediated amusement, and leisure is more closely tied to amusement as entertainment than learning.

Reclaiming schola is a priority to reclaiming art (media), agency, and activism. With a critical pedagogy of media literacy, the over-inundation of consumer images in the Googlburg Galaxy becomes a map that can be navigated by looking at ideologies to decide which ones are organic, naturally given to a structure, and which are arbitrary, unnaturally willed by individuals. Counterpublics arise, and negotiation as contestation emerges. As Gramsci notes (1971), organic ideologies can organize human masses and create the terrain where people move, acquire consciousness of their position, and struggle to overcome oppression. In contrast, arbitrary ideologies only create individual movements, atomizing counterpublics by focusing on self-improvement, self-advancement, and myths such as the American dream in the Global North. The polemics of arbitrary ideologies limit the potential for positive social change, allowing only the commodification and hallowed representation of activism.

A critical pedagogy of media literacy also requires teaching the ability to read and critique the text of one’s own and other cultures, including political and media discourses, social media, television programming, popular music, advertising, and other cultural forms. It also includes a critical awareness of institutions that may use their structural power to assault tolerance or promote profit for corporations over the dignity of human life or the life of our planet. A critical media literacy pedagogy must train individuals for citizenship, teaching about politics and governance while cultivating a tolerance that affirms equity and justice as core principles for all. The very nature of education in the Googleburg Galaxy requires this transformation to activate a generation of change-makers and reclaim civil society. Critical media literacy allows citizens engaging in rational critical discourse to see themselves as part of a larger community, both as participants in a virtual community of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, chat room debaters, and Instagram posters (even in disagreement) but also as a part of a larger global community of human beings.

This does not mean that critical media equals consensus and agreement. It is precisely the opposite. Critical media literacy is about dialoguing across multiple points of view. It is about recognizing that the morning newspaper has a story to sell, an editorial bias, a host of advertisers to maintain solid relationships with, and a readership to, please. As a result of this network of intersecting priorities, whom the paper hires to write the stories, how the story gets told, and of course, which types of stories get told are heavily produced within a vacuum of bias. This does not even account for the individual biases of the writer themselves if they have an emotional investment in the topic, if they had a bad day when they wrote the story, if they have an affinity for (or hatred of) the person or persons they are writing about, or if they just broke up with their partner, lost a loved one, or have decided that they no longer want to keep their current job. Social media then are no different here from more traditional forms of media, except that the speed at which we receive information and updates are lighting fast (and sent directly to us on our mobile devices no matter where we are or what we are doing, so our guard is often down when we engage with the media itself) and that we receive these updates or news stories from friends and followers. Therefore, there is a built-in or inherent level of trust in the storyteller.

When we examine social media platforms using the critical skills of media literacy, we recognize that each of these mediums (and all mediums of popular culture and their produced texts) can be seen in a positive light in that they are good because there is a role for the audience to play. The same applies to social media news, even if the headlines are one-liners and sensationalized. Here, each reader can like, comment, share, subscribe, or retweet the news story with their commentary attached to it to help contextualize or further problematize the news story and/or news coverage. At the same time, social media news is also problematic and offers some incongruence that needs to be critiqued. Through this lens, social media news is dangerous when there is no connection between representation and the real lives the information purports to represent. To overcome this distance between the representation suggested (either implicitly or explicitly) as normal and the real lives of the individuals represented (or not represented), misrepresentations must be turned into spaces for resistance.

It is not enough to consume information as knowledge. We must also digest the media, critique it, and construct our viewpoints to share in critical dialogue. In the case of social media news, for example, this requires us to share and reply with critical commentary. In everyday life, we construct our viewpoints to share in critical dialogue. When we examine social media platforms using the essential skills of media literacy, we recognize that social media art still offers liberatory potential since there is a role for the audience to play, even if social media platforms present us with objects of amusement that hide the process of marginalization and inequity.


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